I just finished reading

I just finished reading One Man Caravan, by Robert Edison Fulton, Jr., the grandson of the Fulton credited with inventing the steamboat, and a pretty big go-getter himself. In 1932, after graduating Harvard and spending a year stuying architecture at Vienna, Fulton brags at a dinner party that he’s going to spend a year riding around the world on a motorcycle. Unluckily (or luckily) for him, he is swiftly presented with an offer of a customized two-cylinder Douglas motorcycle. Fulton helps design the bike — automobile tires, a case for a movie camera and 4,000 feet of 35mm film, a pistol stashed under the crankcase — and spends the next eighteen months riding through the Near East, India, China, and Japan (and then home the long way around.)

Fulton is gloriously naive and fearless: he blunders into the midst of the most fiercely-protected demilitarized zone on the Khyber pass when he’s mistaken for a dispatch rider with his sun helmet, but is then put up in fine style at the British officer’s mess, complete with mahogany tables and cut crystal at the extremity of mountain desolation. After he’s knocked out by a fifteen-foot fall from an uncompleted desert bridge, Bedouin locals help him replace his lost motor oil with yagh: mustard oil. Just in time, he realizes that the tribe’s copious tears of farewell are due to the clouds of genuine mustard gas pouring out his tailpipe (he rides into the wind for the next couple of days.)

The book is well-written, funny, and Fulton is an incredible hipster: just look at the photo below. It’s very reminiscent of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which had been written fifty years before, but makes many similar observations in much the same tone. An excerpt from Fulton’s book below, then the Twain quote it reminded me of:

“…[T]here is one Chinese custom for which I hold a strong brief. It is the little matter of measuring distances.
The local yardstick is the “li.” Anything with a name as short as that would certainly give the appearance of
being concise and definite. But somehow the unfortunate li, according to our standards, is the farthest
thing from definite. In fact to this day, after traveling nearly two thousand miles in the interior of China, the
most I know about a li is that thirty of them put end to end constitute a notable day’s going. Perhaps its
closest equivalent is the Arab method of measure. There the question “how far” is apt to elicit an answer anywhere
between “Oh, twelve cigarettes!” and “Three cups of coffee!”

But the Chinese method possesses one distinct advantage over all others. It does not deal in distances but rather
in “going-conditions.” Thus often the answer to “how far” between two given points will vary according to the end
from which it is asked. For example, the distance from Kaifeng to Tungkwan might be two hundred li, while
from Tungkwan to Kaifeng measures only a hundred and fifty. The reason? Simple enough. It’s down-hill coming back.
While other systems worry about the footage from point to point the Chinese worries only about the footing.”

…and here’s the quote from Mark Twain:

Chapter 50

“WE descended from Mount Tabor, crossed a deep ravine, followed a hilly, rocky road to Nazareth — distant two hours. All distances in the East are measured by hours, not miles. A good horse will walk three miles an hour over nearly any kind of a road; therefore, an hour, here, always stands for three miles. This method of computation is bothersome and annoying; and until one gets thoroughly accustomed to it, it carries no intelligence to his mind until he has stopped and translated the pagan hours into christian miles, just as people do with the spoken words of a foreign language they are acquainted with, but not familiarly enough to catch the meaning in a moment. Distances traveled by human feet are also estimated by hours and minutes, though I do not know what the base of the calculation is. In Constantinople you ask, “How far is it to the Consulate?” and they answer, “About ten minutes.” “How far is it to the Lloyds’ Agency?” “Quarter of an hour.” “How far is it to the lower bridge?” “Four minutes.” I can not be positive about it, but I think that there, when a man orders a pair of pantaloons, he says he wants them a quarter of a minute in the legs and nine seconds around the waist.”

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