Dancing With the Bear
An On-line Book by Liam Guilar
Presented by the Idaho State Univ. Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Text and photographs © 1999 Liam Guilar and used by permission (see permission notes).
PUTTING MY YELLOW Mountain bat on my shoulder I carried it through the doors of Brisbane International Airport. My eldest son struggled with my kit bag, determined to be part of this adventure. Mark was waiting with Trevor, who'd given him a lift to the airport, beside a pile of bags and another bat. Then the men at the JAL desk, who were polite and friendly and helpful, took my boat and it was whisked away to become a piece of baggage. See you in Moscow said Trevor, and rushed off to go to work.
We loitered over airport coffee, which was foul, and good-byes, which were no better, and then taking a deep breath entered the labyrinth and became pieces of baggage ourselves.
In Cairns airport, our first stop, the announcer's Japanese reminded me that I would be spending the next five and a half weeks swimming through foreign languages, few, if any, which I spoke. I was consciously hoarding little signs like these, trying to convince myself we really were on our way. After all the years of waiting, I was shocked at my own lack of anticipation or excitement. I felt exactly like a parcel, or how I imagine a parcel to feel.
It all seemed unreal, or perhaps too real; as though I'd expected some sense of the unusual, some heightened feeling, a tingling in the mind or the imagination. But it was all flat and terribly banal. The plane droned and bumped along, the clouds passed beneath, the video screen kept us up to date with details of the flight; 889km\h, 10,670 metres (35,000 ft) external temperature enough to turn you into freeze dried meals in the batting of a frost encrusted eyelid. A little white aeroplane dragging a fuzzy red line departs a green PNG heading north. It was as banal as picking sprouts. It is easy to forget that travel itself does not inspire awe; only travel at the expense of personal effort. The hardest thing we had to do was decide if we wanted red or white wine with our meal.
The plane ride was everything a plane ride should be. We twitched and trembled and droned along. The food was plentiful and good, given an added piquancy by our belief that in Moscow we would be facing food shortages and limited and unappealing menus. The stewardesses were attentive and smiled beautifully.
I had packed my bag with a stack of books, hoping to avoid spending hours regretting all the things I would like to have said before I'd left but Mark and I started talking about books we'd read. For some reason Yaeger put in an appearance, my memory suddenly shuttling backwards and forwards between the flight and the South Fork of the Salmon, where Jerry had told me of Yaeger and introduced me to the idea of "Pushing the Envelope." Yaeger and the space race would stay with us for the rest of the journey, the ultimate one out yak jockey, the greatest kayaker never to paddle a boat.
We had traveled 1,773 kilometres in our little technological marvel with a lack of physical suffering which those early Victorian explorers would have considered sinful. What was the point of going on an expedition if not to suffer? How could you return to civilisation and say: Well, we walked across Africa, found the source of the Nile took some pictures and came home. It wouldn't do at all. One had to suffer. After staggering across the arid scrubland, savaged by wild animals, poisoned by vicious bugs and blinded by the bite of the binga binga fly, one must collapse gratefully into the first puddle of stagnant water to quench ones burning thirst, seeing, (despite being blinded etc) the bloated carcass of a maggot ridden beef bobbing in the pool.
Later, having been forced to mate with the elderly rancid queen of the local tribe and her sixty two syphilitic servants, you could return home and write your memoirs for all those armchair travelers who wouldn't know the nympopo in oohlabalongaland to the squidgy in Kensington if they fell in it. God forbid your journey should be as professional and as effortless as those colonial scoundrels Lewis and Clarke who managed to cross an entire continent with the minimum amount of fuss loss or anguish. You have to eat your boots, or your companions, or not make it back at all, otherwise you'd end up like poor old Amundsen.
Having solved the problem of the Northwest passage, he says "Ve Vill to the South Pole Go" and off he goes and skis there and back with less fuss than your average family skiing holiday to the Alps. Returning home he finds he's a villain because he didn't get lost, lose half his team or lie down in a tent and write long tearful diary entries when he was ten miles from food and safety. NO. Suffering is what expeditions are obviously about. Ask Ranulph Fiennes. He wore the same pair of underpants for many weeks while dragging a sledge across the ice. If there isn't any suffering, how can you distinguish an expedition from a holiday. The truth is you can't.
For we are the heirs to the gentlemen adventurers, we are the "explorers" who insulate themselves from the land they travel through, in cultural and technological capsules, who are really nothing more than tourists. When I was an adolescent I remember how people would preserve a distinction between the traveler and the tourist. It is a piece of semantic egotism. We are all visitors. Columbus discovering a land people had lived in for centuries, or Speke finding a lake people had been washing and pissing in since the dawn of time; nothing more than gentlemen on holiday.
I decided to get involved in some serious suffering training, so refilling my glass with red wine I settled down to watch the in-flight entertainment.
First on the screen was the Japanese news. The presenters all looked like Asian versions of Australian newscasters, who I suspect all look like clones of American ones. They had the same hairstyles, the same clothes, even the same earnest body language. The news itself was bizarre; familiar in its rhythms and images yet incomprehensible. My favourite part was the Japanese base ball. I didn't need to be able to speak Japanese to know one coach wasn't happy, he threw his hat on the ground, stamped his foot and stalked along the edge of the field. The players, presumably on the other team, were ecstatic. They raced around hugging and grinning in the mud with joyful abandon. I wondered if body language would be as easy to read in Russia. I was to learn it wouldn't be.
There was also an item on Moscow. Hoards of Russians enthusiastically eat American ice cream in what I would later recognise as the Arbat. The camera got in close as they experienced the true heaven of having to choose from 32 different flavours. We agreed this was far more entertaining than the usual news from Moscow and made a welcome change to the grim prophesies of starvation we had been dealing with.
This was followed by some programs devoted to Japanese technology. One showed the production of film and cameras without the involvement of human workers. The other a new way of reprocessing plastic food trays (which are apparently a big problem in Japan). In the latter program there were humans. The worker, who looked like he had dressed for the operating theatre, seemed to spend his time moving plastic bags full of plastic trays from one stack to another.
I couldn't help wonder what kind of day that man could have. What kind of conversation could he have with his wife when he returned home and she greeted him with his saki and the Japanese equivalent of "How was your day dear?" Did he spend his day wanting to be somewhere else, wishing it were evening, wishing it were the weekend, wishing he was someone else anywhere else but where he was? Like the people I used to work with in Woolies, who spent their weeks making plans for the weekend, ignoring the dreadful repetition of their lives, where each day was a mirror image of the other. Or had he achieved some kind of Zen mastery of his own boredom and treated his work as a form of prayer and meditation.
I don't want to live like that. I want to enjoy each minute of my life. I want to pack it to overflowing with ideas and sounds and sights and things done and doing. I'd spent so long planning for this trip, I knew it would soon be over, soon be a memory.
Ah, a genuine twinge of suffering, the training must be working. I was beginning to have my suspicions about the in-flight program.
I suspect that somewhere there is a man or woman whose job it is to plan this entertainment, just as somewhere in the world there must be people who design build and repair letterboxes. (What a job. Can you imagine it? Can you imagine explaining it to a Martian?) Perhaps there are even people who do research on passenger boredom, writing erudite Ph.D's on the subject. I began to wonder if the juxtaposition of items was entirely random or whether or not it was an extremely subtle form of puzzle that needed to be deciphered.
What came next was a program about golf.
Now I have nothing against Golf; if you enjoy it, do it. What I don't understand is how something so purposeless as hitting a small ball into a hole can attract so many people, or why the people who do it can earn so much money. What socially useful function does it serve? What skills does it foster which can advance civilisation as we know it? How could you explain it to a Martian. "I made 800,000 dollars hitting a little ball around a park while poor Fred Fandoogleberry stacks millions of plastic trays and dies of brain death, earning less money in his life than I can earn in a week."
This golf program followed a small group of friendly smiling people in a round with their local friendly smiling professional. They missed the green and, smiling, apologized for not using the club he had recommended. They missed the hole and, still smiling, allowed him to wrap his arms around them, wiggling their bums in synchronised ecstasy as he swung their arms up and down.
The man in front of me was gleefully showing his companion a magazine with photos of naked women in it. It seemed an odd magazine to have available on a flight. But I couldn't work out which sight was more disturbing.
There are people in the world who think that Kayakers are strange. I wonder if they play golf? Perhaps they make letter boxes for a living.
We arrived in Narita on time, and queued in the best of airport traditions to get shore passes. Outside, in the humid night, we made two simple mistakes that revealed our inexperience. The first was to step back, politely, to allow an elderly Japanese couple to get on the bus. The rest of the queue accepted the invitation and piled on in front of us. We were left to crouch in the stairwell.
We were also naive enough to marvel at the way the Japanese packed themselves into the bus. On the short, cramped bus ride to the hotel we seemed to be passing through a set for a science fiction film about a futuristic urban nightmare. The lights were smudged by the fog and everything seemed to rear upwards to distant, vague neon signs. As we arrived at the hotel a car was leaving. The porter bowed so low that he went past the ninety degree mark and held it there, blood rushing to his head until the car had disappeared. It would have been ironic anywhere else.
The hotel, while neat and clean, and well stocked with free combs and soap and towels and everything else except free food, was grey and ugly. From the outside it looked as though it had been built out of lego blocks by someone who was not only colour blind but who put ease of construction before grace or style. Out of the window of our room there was a vast field of shaggy trees, but after admiring their greenery for a while I peered round the corner and saw another ugly lego building. The hotel was full of English grannies on some sort of Granny convention and New Zealand students who were loud and foul mouthed. In their own ways they both reminded me of home.
We braved breakfast, fearing Russian food shortages more than the prices in the hotel. We eat enough, then calculated the cost in dollars and went back for more. The room was filled with people eating with a common air of studious determination. In our case it was due to the effort we were making to fill up before Moscow and do justice to the bill; in everyone else to the demands of eating with chopsticks.
We checked out, after writing postcards, which seemed innocuous enough at the time, and headed to the airport in the company of some Americans who were talking about last night's karry oakey (Annie's sister?) and an Australian girl called Knneeekol
Getting into Tokyo airport is a complicated business. I couldn't see myself putting my bat on my shoulder and just walking in. The bus was stopped at the entrance and the white gloved officials politely checked tickets and passports. Then we were in the airport, a genuine international airport; crowded, vast, confused, with people milling in bright knots. While Mark struggled with a telephone system specifically designed to be simple to operate and therefore impossible to fathom unless you posses a Ph.D in computer electronics or the kind of mind that finishes the Times crossword in less than five minutes, I wandered around the halls. There were flustered families, with dad going into a spin because the tickets weren't in the pocket he put them in last week, and tour groups yelling at perpetually smiling guides, and of course, the inevitable skiers.
The highlight of our wait in the airport was seeing our boats being loaded. At least they were on the way.
On the plane we sat beside a Japanese academic off to a conference in Moscow. He was mildly scared. He'd heard about diseases and food shortages, and was a little worried about travelling there alone. When we asked him if he spoke any Russian he said "Only Samurai Russian". We were intrigued by this phrase, which he explained was his own way of saying he knew "survival Russian". He had a dictionary, a few words, infinite patience and the desire to communicate. With this, he claimed, he would survive. He was to prove to be perfectly right. Mark and I were to become experts in Samurai Russian, and devotees of its cult.
While I struggled with our companion's English we were joined by the purser. She had only recently heard that Moscow was in the grip of an epidemic of a variety of unpleasant diseases. None of her crew had been inoculated. As she had an enforced stop over in the city for a week she was unhappy. We made soothing noises, having been injected against all the diseases we should encounter and some that might try and sneak up on us unnoticed.
When we had checked in we had been told that there were no more window seats, but we were occupying the seats by the door, which were good for leg room and allowed us to see out over the wing. Unfortunately all we saw was the coast of Japan. We flew across continental Russia and all we saw was cloud. After hours of this cloud, we were descending to the green fields below. Brown and muddy, drab colours in the overcast sky. The planes parked by the terminal looked seedy in the drizzle. Welcome home to Europe. Rain and dirt and dinginess.
End of Chapter
3 . . .
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