Monday, July 15, 2013

Detroit, Michigan: Modern Ghost Town

A hooker was arguing with the hotel manager over the hourly rate for a room as I walked into the dingy office.  She was tall and her high heels made her look even taller.  Her body spilled out of her cut off jeans and a tank top that was much too small.  Out in the parking lot, a fat and balding white guy nervously tapped the steering wheel on his van as he waited for her.  If you took a hundred random police descriptions of child molesters and their vehicles, this guy and his and his van probably would have matched at least ninety of them.  He gave me the creeps.  There was something different about the girl though.  She wasn’t the typical meth head that comes to mind when the word prostitute is said.  She had dark ebony skin and a body that would have made most models jealous.  As she turned to leave, we locked eyes and she stared at me with a seductive glare.  I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the best option a beautiful girl like her had, turning tricks with Hester the molester and his conversion van in a hotel room that you rent by the hour.  Fifteen minutes into my trip to Detroit and I was beginning to see what a desperate place it is.

I threw my stuff into the hotel room, grabbed my folding bike and hit the road.  As a rule of thumb, I don’t bike through rough areas after dark, especially areas this rough.  It was 11:00pm and I hadn’t eaten since noon.  My stomach forced me to make an exception.

As I stopped for a light, I pulled alongside another hooker, short skirt, tube top and stiletto heels.  This one was different from the girl in the hotel office.  Her face was covered with open scores and the few rotten teeth she still had were aching to fall from her mouth.  She had a twitchy energy that only comes from crystal.  She was your garden variety meth addict.  She glanced at me and broke into a sob.  The humane part of me longed to ask her what was wrong but I knew better.  There was something in the way she cried.  It was the sob of a bad actress who had landed the part with credentials unrelated to acting.  The light changed and I pedaled on.  I heard the clip-clop of her heals behind and wondered if I had misjudged her.  I looked back to see if she was ok but I was already gone in her mind.  Her head moved rapidly side to side looking for someone else to buy her story or her body. 

Up ahead, dark silhouettes darted back and forth across the poorly lit road.  I knew I had to get some food quick and get the hell back to the hotel.

Back at my hotel room, I was surprised by how clean it was. Don’t get me wrong, it was a shit hole, but it wasn't the slum I had expected. People often ask me why I stay in the worst hotel I can find. Those who don’t ask just assume it’s because I’m cheap. The truth is that I prefer them. Nice hotels are made for comfort. Their goal is to make you feel like you’re at home with their sleep number beds, mini-bars and cable-on-demand. If I wanted to feel at home I would have stayed at home. When I go somewhere new, I want to experience the place and a cheap hotel is the best way to do just that. I want to feel the heartbeat of the city reverberating through the walls. But there in my run-down hotel room the pulse of Detroit was so strong I began to wonder if perhaps I could have felt it in a Marriott or a Hilton. I'm sure it would have penetrated those walls too. So I put in some earplugs to drown out the sound of nefarious activities that occur in a hotel that rents by the hour and went to sleep.

In the morning, I hopped on the bike and rode and rode and rode some more. In all, I biked just over 50 miles in Detroit. between riding, I talked to people and climbed through abandoned houses and buildings. Parts of Detroit were a modern ghost town of unbelievable magnitude, vacant house after vacant house. I had huge streets all to myself with only the occasional car going by. There was an eery emptiness even in the heart of the city. I tried to imagine what it was like when the streets were full, the houses occupied and the factories working. I was grateful I wasn't in Detroit at that time. It would have just been another big city like Chicago, or New York. I was happy to see the post-apocalypse version of Detroit.

Detroit Statistics courtesy of The Wall Street Journal
  • Detroit's population fell more than 26% from 2000 and 2012 and totals about 700,000 – down from almost two million in 1950.
  • An estimated 40,000 structures or land parcels sit vacant or empty.
  • Some 36% of Detroiters lived bellow the poverty level between 2007 and 2011.
  • In 2012, Detroit had the highest crime rate for a city with more than 200,000 residents.

The Detroit Train Depot was a massive gutted and abandoned building.  From Miles away, you can see straight through the skeleton of a building.

The Heidelberg Project.  An area in Detroit where the vacant buildings have been reclaimed by art.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Honolulu, Hawaii: Death in Paradise

In the last five days, I had spent 34 hours in the passenger seat of an airliner, crossed 19 time zones, ridden my folding bike in North America, The Middle East, Asia and now Polynesia. Other than being kidnapped in Bangkok, everything had gone according to plan. Unfortunately, I was beginning to realize that my plan had holes. My goal was to travel completely around the world in one week and see and do as much as humanly possible. I quickly fell in love with traveling and found eating and sleeping to be a drag. Hotels became a place to take a shower and nothing more.  If I ate anything, it was an aircraft meal or something from a roadside stand. I decided to travel Eastbound around the world, that way I could leave each night, catch a little sleep on the plane, and arrive at a new destination each morning. Sleeping on an airplane is easier said than done and I spent more of my time reading than sleeping.  By the time I got to Hawaii, I was half dead.  I was sleep deprived, starved and delirious from jumping time zones like a kid playing hopscotch.

I'd had big plans in Hawaii. I wanted to take a small single engine plane over to the Island of Molokai. Most people don't know this, but there is still an active leper colony that exists on the Island. It's only accessible by airplane or a long winding donkey trail from the cliffs above. The second thing on my list was to hike the Stairway to Heaven, a dangerous trail that has been closed for years.  To get to it, you have to get past a security guard and jump a barbed wire fence. The trail is nearly vertical in some areas and takes you to one of the island's peaks and the most amazing view imaginable. The last thing I wanted to do in Hawaii was to ride my folding bike on the West Shore of Oahu, an area nearly free from tourism and as close to the real Hawaii and one can get. Known as a local's only area of the island, I knew that I would be unwelcome there solely based on my pasty skin.

Stairway to Heaven

I'd been looking forward to this part of the trip for months and I had a busy schedule ahead of me, so it was with foggy bewilderment that I found myself biking around Chinatown at eight in the morning. I'd had huge plans but the most I could muster was to hop on the bike and ride and now I'd ended up in one of the worst parts of the island! Chinatown is a dingy part of Honolulu filled with drugs, poverty and homelessness. At that moment, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn't going to make it around the world unless I ate and slept. I had to scrap my plans for the island Paradise.

A Spam Musubi and two Spam Rolls

After riding my folding bike to the local car rental agency, I filled by belly with a local delicacy of spam sushi and drove to one of the most pristine beaches in the world and slept. I awoke many hours later with just enough time to take a short bike ride along the beach, shower and catch a flight to Denver. As I boarded the plane, I couldn't help but feel that my stop in Hawaii had been a failure. The point of my adventure was to see the world from my folding bike but my bike had spent most of that day in the trunk of a rental car. The rest of the way home, I felt depressed about the way my trip had finished.

A Place to Sleep

After Denver, I caught a flight to Florida completing my round the world trip in exactly seven days but it wasn't until weeks later that I realized my day in Hawaii wasn't a failure. During that week, I had taken the folding bike with me on airplanes, cars, trains, a bus, a boat, and even a tuk-tuk. On the trip, I'd proven that you can take a folding bike anywhere and ride it but perhaps the best thing about a folding bike is that you can take it anywhere and not ride it. I was able to fit it into the trunk of a compact rental car that wasn't even designed to fit a full size suit case and forget about it. The magic of a folding bike is that it gives you the flexibility to do whatever you want. It was a refreshingly new way to travel that gave me unbelievable options. So, as strange as it sounds, perhaps the best part of the folding bike is that you don't have to ride it.