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Soup of This Day #153: Leavin’ Home, Out On The Road

March 19, 2012

Keirin at Tachikawa Velodrome
The start of a Keirin race at Tachikawa Velodrome in Tokyo. The winner gets his weight in fruit – Photo: Furmanj, 2007. Furmanj has no affiliation with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

When I was younger I picked fruit to help pay my way in the world. Mostly I worked with apples and some stonefruit, like peaches and nectarines, and it was fairly mundane stuff – You picked the fruit and transported it back to packing sheds, where it was cleaned and sorted for shipping. There was an element of skill though – It’s hard to tell if fruit is just right simply by looking at it and taking a bite is generally frowned upon.

Your best move with apples was to make a judgement based upon the colour of the fruit – For red apples you wanted the right amount of red, indicating that the fruit was ripe and that the sugar content was just so.

This was a serious business – I once had an orchardist insist on using my sunglasses for an hour just so that he could determine if I could adjudge colour correctly while picking. And that was before I’d even started working for him.

Later I worked for his neighbour, who I’ll call John, and I got a sense of why this was all so critical. John operated a shop out of his packing shed – He got a few drop-in clients but mostly we were out of the way and surrounded by other orchards that had roadside stalls so John needed an angle and he had 1 that at 1st glance seemed a little strange.

John brought in tour groups of overseas visitors.

I thought this was bizarre. We’re talking run-of-the-mill fruit here – Nothing spectacular I figured. I mean, apples ain’t no truffles.

It turns out however that they are pretty special if you don’t have much exposure to them. These tourists were almost exclusively Japanese and for them a trip to an orchard was an experience worth having. 1 of their guides explained to me that for some of her clients an orchard was something hidden behind barbed wire – An apple was an expensive luxury. Other fruit too were coveted, sometimes to lengths that seemed ridiculous to me at the time.

Shoppers for instance would brazenly attempt to steal fruit, sometimes loading up handbags with plums that were going for $1 a kilo – They had more than enough money to cover the purchase but it wasn’t about the cost, more about the availability – Simply, the fruit was seen as so out-of-reach that they had to take the opportunity to stock up. Any opportunity.

Another time John took a group out amongst the carefully tended rows of apple trees. Before entering the orchard proper he cautioned them on taking fruit from the trees – The fruit had been sprayed with chemicals and wasn’t quite ready to be picked yet. You could get sick he told them, please just leave the fruit on the trees.

They did. Sort of.

When we went through later we found 1 apple hanging off a low branch. It had clearly been eaten by a human – All that remained was the core. It was still attached to the tree by the stem though so we couldn’t say that they hadn’t listened.

I tell this story not to mock – Mostly I’m relaying it because it highlights for me that culturally there are differences. They’re not necessarily good or bad but they’re there and that makes sense – Tokyo is 8,600km to the north of Perth, where I picked fruit. It’s a climate and geography that is very unlike what we have in Australia. Things are bound to be lost in translation.

I started writing this post while waiting in an airport terminal. It was 5:30am and I had a day trip to Albany, 408km to the south of Perth. I got to thinking about fruit and distance, partly because I don’t travel often and partly because the airport lounge was selling apples at prices that get you thinking.

Albany is a large regional centre and is Western Australia’s 1st white settlement of note, thanks largely to it having the only natural deep water harbour in these parts. It’s not Perth and that’s fine – It doesn’t need to be and I like that it has a vibe of it’s own. For all that the culture isn’t so off base for a suburban Western Australian. If I’d been from further out, say Sydney, then the rifts would start to widen appreciatively though.

For instance Albany is pronounced Owl-ban-ee. Not All-bun-ee as they say it in the eastern parts of Australia and seemingly throughout most of the rest of the world. For mine, each to their own.

While we’re on the subject, out here in the West we call a football match between local antagonists a Derby. Nothing unusual about that except that we pronounce that as Durr-bee not Dar-bee as everyone else does. We have a town in Western Australia called Durr-bee so we say Durr-bee and we mean Durr-bee. If you want a Dar-bee then maybe go to the city of Dar-bee. It’s in England.

Back to the flight down and it was 1 hour on a 50 seat Fokker F50 turboprop aircraft. I’d flown on these a bit when in Carnarvon – They’re not too large that you get no sense of flight and they’re not so small that you’re wondering at the odds of a successful trip. On this 1 I snagged a window seat and spent the hour staring at the parcel of country I’d grown up in.

It was across this journey that I started to think about distance seriously. In a sporting context.

Mostly I was thinking about Rugby. Specifically the Super Rugby competition. I don’t have comparisons to hand but I think the Super Rugby comp involves longer road trips than any other sporting challenge in the world outside of international matches. The distances are in fact so great that they’re not really road trips – Unless you count the bus ride from the airport as the bulk of the journey.

Super Rugby is run by SANZAR – South African, New Zealand and Australian Rugby – and it features 15 teams, 5 from each of it’s member nations. Each team plays 16 games a season, 8 against those in their home country, 4 at home against teams from the other 2 countries and 4 away against teams from the other 2 countries. It’s on the latter that the frequent flyer miles pile up. It’s bad enough for the Western Force, Western Australia’s team – Their nearest local opponent is 2,700km away on the east coast of Australia (Melbourne Rebels).

Even that distance pales when compared to the journey to New Zealand in the east and South Africa in the west.

Spare a thought though for the New Zealanders going to South Africa or the Saffers visiting the Kiwis. The Chiefs, who play out of Hamilton on New Zealand’s North Island are the most easterly team from Perth. The Cheetahs, out of Bloemfontein in South Africa are the most westerly. The distance between the 2 is roughly 11,900km if you fly direct and dip towards the South Pole. If you went the other way via Buenos Aires it would be a mammoth 17,800km.

This latter route isn’t that far out of the reckoning – It’s long been mooted that an Argentinean team or 2 will join the competition. If that happens then the longest journey will become the 12,600km or so between Perth and the Argentinean capital – That trip is via the South Pole so it’s long but there are penguins.

Obviously the penguins are more with the flight in spirit than physically cruising alongside.

Of course that’s only if you charter a direct flight there. At present there is a commercial service between the 2 cities with 1 stop-over.

In Dubai.

The total distance of that sojourn is 22,600km with a whopping 30+ hours in the air. It is via Emirates though and conveniently they are the chief sponsor of the Force so the lads should get great service and frequent upgrades.

No penguins though.

Suddenly Albany seems practically next door to Perth and I haven’t yet looked at the 2 other international additions that have been suggested for Super Rugby- The US and Japan.

Which brings us back to that cultural gulf between Perth and Tokyo. The polarisation is there in sport too – In 1949 the cycling event of Keirin was established in Japan. It features a stream of track racers queuing behind a pace vehicle, often a motorised bike of sorts. This pace vehicle steadily increases speed until peeling off the track with 600 – 800m to go, launching the stream of riders on a mad sprint to the line at speeds approaching 70kmph.

The event and the culture around it, largely driven by betting (Around $15 billion US per annum is wagered) but with some ritualistic aspects to it, is big in Japan. To get into the game you have to attend the official Japanese Keirin School, where you obtain the necessary qualifications to participate in professional ranks. It’s a structured and organised life as you can see in this short film:

It’s human horse racing.

Japan doesn’t have a monopoly on the Kierin though – It’s an Olympic event and the governing body of international cycling, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), includes it as part of it’s World Champs. The current 2 titleholders of the latter are Shane Perkins and Anna Meares. They’re both Australians.

I guess sport can sometimes transcend distance, culture and fruit prices.

Leavin’ Home, Out On The Road

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