Monday, July 07, 2008

Reflecting on Travel: Aboyne

It's been a while since I reflected back on my travel experience, but I'm having one of those heady days of remembrance, part of living in Melbourne maybe that is just like getting back with an old lover only to realise that the two of you had changed, which is where most people abort on what should be (and I use should my most hated word in this case as an attack on stupidity) a given. Yes heading into that stage when you remember just what it is you loved in the first place which only comes in Melbourne from rain, city lights, going from North to South on a bicycle and eating whatever you damn well feel like (and yet still not having to put up with foodstuffs that still have eyes and fingernails).
But when I got back to Aus, I thought about changing this blog back to 'stupid thoughts of a stupid guy' because Musha Shugyo is the Japanese term for in effect the samurai version of 'walkabout' I also toyed with renaming my blog each country to whatever the local equivalent was but decided against it.
But I did want my travel to not be easy, not be overly hard but only informative. And that it was, and not surprisingly not what I expected.
And I covered a lot of that already. But what of the 'warrior's pilgrimage' I was supposedly on, despite being armed only by my wallet.
Maybe its a sad story, maybe its a positive story I don't know.
Let's begin it though where it really began in Japan - it began by me picking up my bag in a baggage carousel and being confused. Osaka airport is a strange one in that you get out and wander through a labrynthine complex until you eventually board a train which takes you somewhere else.
It was late in the evening, 9pm, late enough for you to be fucked totally in Europe but I didn't know that at the time nor was it relevant. This is Japan, I walked up to information to find out how to get out of the airport and were to go, in my wallet I had some yen and a piece of cardboard called a 'lady card' which was a work colleagues stamp card for staying at a capsule hotel. The lady at the info desk called the hotel and wrote down directions for me at which point I relaxed and realised 'this is Japan' where customer convenience is 24 hours a day. My brain started getting into gear and i just started asking random people questions for the opportunity to speak Japanese.
The important thing there was that I made the leap from flight into fight mode at least mentally, I just got about travelling, getting used to life on the road as it is now in this day and age, relatively convenient and safe and somewhat expensive.
And things cruised bu, I didn't have any real warrior revelations until I left Osaka and Shikoku to go to Nagoya. Nagoya I hadn't been to in 7 years, and what I saw when I got there I wasn't quite prepared was exactly the same.
Ten years of zero economic growth really means something, and for Japan it was just an overconsumed version of the 90's. Even melbourne when I returned after 9 months had changed, like the sudden burst of exchange services in the CBD that now almost outnumber its 7-elevens.
And here I settled down and got curious about what was going on, reading Dogs and Demons, Straitjacket Society, Shutting out the sun. And furthermore actually talking to people in Japan about what I was reading, and finding out what the social commentators were saying was frustratingly true - the Japanese know precisely their own predicament, the danger they are in and simply will not act, cannot imagine unifying to bring about real change.
But this was the nation of Samurai? of Bushido? the warrior code. This had perhaps the single greatest individual, or contrarian in history - Miyamoto Musashi, one of those people who changed my life completely.
So here in my garbledness I get to my first major revelation. Japan is predominated in social commentary and its education and beauracratic systems by 'nihonjinron' the study of japaneseness, that asserts that the Japanese are unique as a people but relatively generic and homogenous on an individual level. Another way of putting it is Japan is different from everywhere else in the world because its people are all the same.
Something I reject outright, I believe the Japanese are individuals that are susceptible to the same very human follies as everywhere else. The only thing different in Japan is by circumstance of history different follies have won out.
And I reject it because Japanese history is studded with remarkable individuals as celebrated as much if not more than other cultures. Like the contrasting personalities of the 3 political giants Nobunaga, Toyotomi, and Tokugawa. Or Murasaki the courtesian that invented fiction writing in the tales of prince genji. Or Miyamoto Musashi, the filthy ragtag ronin who discovered an invinsible philosophical approach to swords.
That lead me to my first insight into the fallibility of past vs present. In history the individual rules, we think of 'founding fathers' brilliant men like Jefferson, Franklin, Washington. We think of exceptional leaders like Gandhi and Lincoln as our common ancestry. But these are crackpot exceptions.
The warrior elite, the political elite are not likely to be the ancestors of any people or person. No a culture isn't defined by its martial past, I can see why we try to glamorise these glamorous exceptions, but lets face it the majority of any peoples are always going to be the serfs. The banal, average and mediocre. No matter what field i'm not having a dig at farmers, but as Twain said of God's creation 'To make man was a fine thing, but to then create sheep was a tautology'
Most of mankind is made to follow, often mindlessly. I don't think this is the ideal, I certainly don't think this is the best way to approach your life. Simply a statement of fact, most people do as they are told.
This was a revelation for me, because it just gave me that much more leverage for myself to believe in myself. Conformity on probability is no definite measure of success, its a definite means to never be heard of or remembered. That if you want to change the world, you do have to a relentless wave of people telling you how to behave.
It does drive one to lose confidence in almost all social institutions.
So then I farted about in japan for a while and didn't learn much more. It was pretty easy for me to get along there, with minimum preparation, plans or even goals, I felt envigorated and enraged at a once proud a fierce people made proud of being docile and irrelevant. But hey that's nationalism just be proud.
Going to China seeking relief from nationalism though is different, China and me don't mix at all. China is a country where speaking your mind, regardless of social contract has very real consequences. I hated China, in China though you realise that there is a need for people to take responsibility for their own predicament and make the sacrifices to avail themselves of a better future. Unfortunately many Chinese think they are getting it, they are really optimistic about all this economic development and the olympics, encouraged by their oppressors foreign and domestic alike to believe that choice is about choosing different coffees at starbucks, not choosing your own future.
I was afraid in China, the whole country got on my nerves and gnawed away at me, I tried to write my blog in a notebook, and get out and enjoy the freezing cold and snow. It was an interesting place, but if anything China convinced me of Jefferson's approach to democracy, that the right of revolution is fundamental to making it work, particularly as you watch the leaders of supposed democracies bow and scrape and kiss the arse of leaders of one of the most brutal regimes of one of the most impoverished nations on earth to protect the interests of businesses that subscribe to a theory that damn's the Chinese economic model yet now seeks to reward its irresponsibility with kickbacks and irresponsible investment.
In other words, China convinced me that bad things are happening in the world, and you have to fight them, China made me wanna pick fights whilst at the same time I cowered and tried to not make eye contact with any government officials. If you want to see a country of serf's go to China, where the feudal lords are still in Charge, Japan is where the serfs rule the serfs.
Then Thailand, where I was struck by crippling loniliness, at the same time that I indulged in the relief that I was alone. I would stay in my hotel till midday, not wanting to go anywhere or see anything, sick of Asia in general and having to fight the sort of depression that only affects your ability to do, not devour your mind.
Here the battle was all just in getting myself outside, then it was easy, to just wander around eat strange food and try to avoid took took drivers recommending 'lucky buddha's' and 'factory sales' for this the Thai people have earned my re-respect for the Japanese. Japanese people may secretly glamorize whitey, but they have the self respect to treat them like nothing special and never bow and scrape to them (of course the Japanese bow but this is a rigorous impersonal formal code that doesn't indicate whether they respect you or not, it merely 'shows' respect).
Here I realised that I wasn't tough at all, but a rich, pudding arse white guy. and this was generally my experience in asia.
In Bombay/Mumbai I got sick, go hospitalised and was fine. I could have died if I hadn't swallowed my pride and natural curiosity to see whether I would just get better by myself. Fortunately I got things in motion when I needed to, and by a matter of hours was still treatable for my chronic dehydration. Here was where I came to terms with the fact that I was truly travelling to have both good and bad experiences, in other words to have experiences whereby I learnt. I was learning that the world was not so dangerous as we make it out to be. One of the bravest things you can do to empower yourself is trust people.
In turkey I trusted a guy who lead me into a bar where I was shaken down for all the cash I had on me. I was an idiot, I'd been warned of the scam several times. To describe how I fell for it is difficult on two accounts, I don't want to say 'I fucked up without sounding stupid' and also its just hard to describe. I played along just to be polite, I didn't want to offend the guy. If there was anything brilliant about it, it was that he somehow perfectly exploited my social programming, I simply couldn't run away because it was impolite.
So I lost that battle, and came out realising that I didn't want to stop trusting strangers. As I said to my councillor those years back 'I trust people because you have to' not trusting is the road to serfdom, how many warrior epics end with a backstabbing? I don't know I don't really read them.
In Italy I bought a bicycle. That pretty much says it all for the rest of Europe. Backpacking is a test, alone for months, stinking, having nothing to eat, having no money and being treated with contempt by wealthy Europeans. Add a bicycle and suddenly, you are getting lost, not having accomodation on a regulare basis, getting rained on, getting stuck, doing makeshift repairs, finding places to lock up your bike, lugging saddlebags up narrow staircases, getting hailed on, trying to find stores that stock parts, getting snowed on, having to navigate cities you've never been to because you can't use public transport, getting hit by lightning and so fourth suddenly makes travelling an ordeal.
But it is worth it, because I got to see some things one never sees, and has to be seen to be appreciated. Fuck go for a cycle in Melbourne and you will see things you never knew were there. Here I transoformed both physically and mentally over the course of 2 months.
In Rome a was a soft fat tourist fresh from getting their own way in Southeast Asia. By the time I got to my sisters place in Valencia I was a perpetually tired piece of beef jerkey who was not going to take shit from anyone and would sleep on a bed of pine needles.
After I saw my sister, that's really when the Musha Shugyo stage ended for me, it was all easy from there, people knew who I was, I had money, I found accomodation easily, I was looked after. I slowly strolled through America back home.
Am I warrior? No, definitely not. I didn't come across swordsman on my travels and fight them to the death to see who was truly invincible under the sun. Is anybody a warrior? no. For all the posturing that is out there, business people, military recruits and the cast of 'Gladiators' all fail in one way or another.
Hopefully 'Gladiators' does not need explaining. Military personal are definitely soldiers, but perhaps not warriors anymore, maybe the Viet Kong or something is but not the state based institutions we who read blogs know. Largely because they don't own themselves, a soldier that gets dishonarably discharged for not going to Iraq is probably more of a warrior than one on the frontlines. Because a soldier follows orders, they don't philosophise, most importantly they don't do what they do because of philosophy.
People in business aren't warriors because they have surrended too much of themselves to the customer already. I really hate french approach to customer service by the way. But when you won't even have a warriors haircut because you need douchebag customers to base their decision on your appearance moreso than what you deliver, when you stick to ancient institutions like 9 to 5 without reevaluating the need for them, you are not a warrior. You may be effective I give you that, but plain and simple you are not in it for you. You are not living to a code and ethos of your own choosing. That is my convenient definition for what a warrior is.
Lastly Musashi, and why he is a warrior. He is a warrior because he set out to learn about himself, test himself and define himself through combat. And if ever anybody used Douglas Adam's Aboyn tactic:

ABOYNE (vb.) To beat an expert at a game of skill by playing so appallingly that none of his clever tactics or strategies are of any use to him. – from the meaning of Liff

It was musashi who beat a master swordsman in combat by turning up late and bashing his head in with an oar. That is someone who truly is a warrior.

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