The 2011 of ToraPuro
At the turn of the year, recaps abound, and there’s no doubt in my mind that whatever topic I choose, there will be someone else on the web who has done it better. However, there is one topic I know best, and that’s me. So, here I am to reflect on how 2011 has gone for me. Get a drink.
For me, 2011 opened – twice – in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My global voyage as a member of Peace Boat was coming into its final leg, and as we crossed the date line, the reset of the clock meant we celebrated twice. It would be nice to think that I got a year which was an hour longer than most, but then on January 10, I experienced – or rather, failed to experience – my first-ever non-existent day, as an entire day was erased to make up for the extra hours we had accumulated over the trip so far.
Our final interim stop on the Boat was Papeete, Tahiti, where most of the gang I had travelled with for the last three months took a ferry from the main island to a smaller, Jurassic Park-style scenario, then a bus to the far side, and set up camp on the edge of the water for a final night on land before the trip came to an end. After cracking open coconuts and sleeping with crabs, we had a day of snorkelling around the reefs of colourful seaweed and tropical fish in paradise before taking the bus back.
The bus ride back gave me another life experience. A few years prior, I had been stung by the giant Japanese hornet, the Suzumebachi. As well as intense pain and the melting of part of my leg, I had also been informed that a second sting would react with the antibodies which had now been created in my system, and unless treated immediately, kill me. Anaphylactic shock from this kills about 40 people a year in Japan. I had spent the next few years keeping a very deliberate, and sometimes panicked, distance from bees and wasps of all varieties, not wanting to tempt fate. So it was with a sinking feeling that on the rickety windowless bus back to the ferry off the island, I leant back and felt a sharp sting in my right shoulder. Leaning forward again, a local black wasp crawled out from behind me and escaped between the gaping windowframes. Knowing nothing about Tahitian wasps and their effect on my condition, but knowing that the 30-odd minute trek back to the ferry, combined with the ferry trip of about the same length back to anything resembling medical attention was well beyond the window allowed to avoid death, I could do nothing but sit back and impotently wait to find out if my heart would stop.
As it turned out, it didn’t.
Armed with my recent non-death, and the apparent information that non-specific toxins seemed not to trigger it, I had a strange mix of happy and sad as we departed our final port of the trip and headed back to Japan against one of the most beautiful sunsets in history.
Arrival back in Japan was delayed only slightly by the stormy seas just outside it – the same stormy seas which had sent the entire population of the ship to the toilets on the way out, but which most people now stood strongly against, marching confidently up and down the alternating walls and floors of the corridors, exhibiting our well-developed sea legs after our voyage.
In fact, life back on land, back as a normal, took some time to adjust to. After the intensity of the time on the ship, suddenly not spending, literally, all day every day with exactly the same people, not having the sardinishly-packed routine of daily life to chase after, not having dazed breakfasts on the sun deck and pre-bed walks under the stars, not rocking gently side to side and not making plans of any sort, left me disoriented. I’d forgotten, as had many of us, I believe, how normal life was supposed to work, and longed for the life I had had up to this point, like a chain smoker going cold turkey. This got me in a fair bit of trouble with people who had ben eagerly awaiting my return, who found their excitement at reunion not quite reciprocated.
And then as the anniversary of one month back on land approached, we were once again rocking on our feet as Japan was hit by its largest earthquake ever (and one of the five biggest anywhere, ever). The earth ripping apart off Miyagi Prefecture was felt about 400 km south in Tokyo, as I was ushered out of an imminently-collapsing restaurant into an alleyway lined by giant glass skyscrapers and electric wires, which somehow twisted and rippled far beyond what their base materials should allow, and didn’t kill us all. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case further north, where the devastation caused by the tag-team of earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused widespread death and despair. It was a situation none of us further south knew of at the time, being too preoccupied with our own local situation of widespread loss of transport and a communication blackout. It wasn’t until I was shuffling down the roads with the throngs of others, slowly marching towards home as in some post-apocalyptic film, that a crowd around a store drew me in to reveal a television pushed up against the glass showing live footage of the occurrences further north, I took refuge in a local bar with my friend and watched the live TV broadcasts and updates, feeling each subsequent shake and wondering what was going to happen next, and also where I could get some food, as shops had been cleared out and gas stops had left kitchens out of operation.
As the situation escalated, those cleared-out shops became an unreal sight. Tokyo is normally a paragon of convenience, and dimly-lit empty shelves is something nobody ever imagined they would see. The usual garish neons of the city had been reduced to half-lit glows in the darkness as power conservation became a real thing, and panicking hoarders meant that not only was there no food left anywhere in the city, there was no petrol to refuel the delivery trucks.
Every TV station had constant 24-hour coverage of updates of further quakes and aftershocks, emergency measures, children lost in shelters trying to find their families, and as the days went by, more and more information about the escalating nuclear concern at Fukushima. The phones were put back into action, and warnings were sent constantly of quakes, a minute or two before they hit.
My plans to conduct a pilgrimage around a holy trail in part of Japan were put on the shelf, my visa not renewed, and I left back to New Zealand in mid-March, much to the relief of my mother.
I then spent the longest amount of time I had spent back in my own country for the last five years – about 3 months. My parents had moved to a city different to the one I grew up in, and it was a measure of how much more I had seen now that the city which I had once considered quite a large, happening place seemed amazingly similar to a non-entity. The town centre was devoid of human presence, and what I did see felt like the epitome of low-key. But I liked it. The casual pace, the wide open spaces absent of people, the friendly chat being initiated by complete strangers was all very pleasant, and made me happy that this was my home.
I managed to get a job in local orchards picking kiwifruit, so for just over a month, every day it didn’t rain I was out under the vines, straining my back and building up insane shoulders for very little pay. I also got to eat a million kiwifruit myself. I enjoyed it, and it was nice to reconnect with my parents and grandfather (and briefly, my sister), but felt it wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing right now. So in the end of June, I packed back up and headed off to England.
My father is from England, and half of my family lives there. A half I don’t know particularly well, having never lived there myself. I was looking forward to getting to know them, and the land where my father grew up, and the immediate closeness of Europe in all its densely-packed variety was exciting. I also had several friends here in London whom I had not seen in many years, and who provided me with couches to sleep on until I found my feet.
After moving country twice, on the heels of a volunteer world trip, taken while I was studying, I was well aware that the first thing I needed was a form of income. So, in true travelling procrastinator style, about a week after arriving in London, I headed off to Spain. An old Uni friend who was living in London had organised our trip to Pamplona for the annual Running of the Bulls. We attended the city-wide festival for about a week, spending nights in a tent far too cold at night, and far too warm by first thing in the morning.
Machismo forced us into competing in the run in the first day it was held, which turned out to be possibly the scariest thing I have ever done. And also, once finished, the most exhilarating. We managed to push our way through the mad press of the crowds, almost the entire length of the course to the arena at the end, narrowly dodging speeding horns and crushing hooves along the way, and, as it turned out, entirely independently as we got separated about 30 seconds into the run. The lingering worry, and hope that my friend had not in fact died at some point was blown out of the back of my mind when I saw him again, leaving pure adrenaline and a desire to go again. Luckily, countered by my common sense kicking me in the face and vetoing it.
The bullfight that night was, however, a crushing low point, as the bull was simply tortured for entertainment for twenty minutes before having its bloody carcass dragged around the stadium to the hoots and hollers of the packed-out stands. It was quite reminiscent of the footage of the behaviour of Americans on hearing of Bin Laden’s death earlier that year, which had disgusted me at the time.
Pamplona was a party town for the next few nights, and we had a great time before heading back to London, where I picked up my jobhunt in earnest. However, come the end of August I still had no job, and headed off to Paris for the Rock en Seine music festival and a reunion with a couple of friends from my time in Japan. Paris was a beautiful city, and I had ample time to enjoy the cafes and streets, as well as the Catacombs and the Louvre after the few days of music (where the best act had to be Foo Fighters – they know how to put on a show). This trip to Paris marked my return to the couchsurfing world, which I had been absent from for the last couple of years, and I met some wonderful locals.
Back in London, I continued to struggle with the jobhunt. The job which it seemed I would be getting evaporated as the company it was for hit by the financial crisis, and thinks were looking dire. As I struggled away, a gang member was shot in the north of the city, which blew up and turned into the excuse for the little thieves of the city to loot and pillage it as much as they could. Watching the kids, some from admittedly impoverished backgrounds, but almost all doing it just for a laugh, destroy the homes and livelihoods of their neighbours who had worked hard to get to where they were, and blame the whole thing on the police and The Man instead of admitting any personal responsibility wrought me with rage and gave me further thought to just abandon my London jobhunt and leave the damn place.
After four months of desperately plugging away looking for anything I could find, I was just about ready to give up on England and head back out with my savings depleted, when I finally managed to land a job – working as a Japanese-speaking paralegal, no less. So in October, I finally managed to put that Law degree I had earned five years ago to use, along with my newly-acquired language skills.
My first real pay wasn’t to come for another month or two, so for the rest of the year, it was mostly treading water. I had managed to get my savings down to a barely manageable level, but with the promise of being able to start topping it back up again, I was able to hang on. And sometime in the end of November, I finally began to feel like I was really in London. The walk across London Bridge to work every day, with Tower Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Gherkin all in my view – and back again with them all lit up each night. The big red double-decker buses swinging past the giant lions in Trafalgar Square. The incredibly self-aware “Bohemian” market areas of Camden and Brick Lane. The giant museums and art galleries. The glitzy lights (although on a different level to those of Tokyo) of Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, and the whole West End. The decidedly British Chinatown. In December, I celebrated my birthday with a few old friends for the first time in many years, and a few new ones. I went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera in Her Majesty’s Theatre. I stopped laughing at the name “Cockfosters”.
And as the year drew to a close, I headed out to my Uncle’s place, out in the countryside near the Welsh border, for Christmas. A whole side of the family I hardly knew, and some cousins I had never once met. A few days with them, relaxing and eating far too much by the fire, and trying to connect with this whole side of my background. Then it was back to London for a few hours, before catching a bus (eventually, after one failed attempt due to a forgotten passport and long waits on standby for an open seat) to Paris once again to welcome in the New Year with friends and cheap wine.
It’s been an interesting year, but despite the amount of external movement, I feel like internally I haven’t moved very much at all. I feel like I haven’t progressed as much as I would have liked in any of the directions I would have liked, and in fact am no longer sure what those directions are. Now that I have finally made my move to London for a legal job – a move which has been about five years in the making – I am not sure it’s the plan I want after all. In fact, I’m not sure it’s even the right country. There are many nice things to say about this place, but many points with which I disagree, as well. Envisioning the future career path has also left me quite cold, and there are a couple of other options which I may have to consider more seriously.
My New Year’s Resolutions at the start of 2011 were to 1. Move to England and try my best there; and 2. Become able to hold a conversation in Spanish. Although I have succeeded in one of those, the second has not really gone anywhere. I felt quite special with the way I managed to meet drunken understandings with strangers in Pamplona, but I still could not say I have a conversational ability, or even really close to one outside very specific conversation threads.
I will need to roll that one over to this new year, but with an upgrade. I will become A Spanish Speaker by the end of 2012. I also this year will decide what I want to be doing, and where I want to be doing it. And one more thing which has been in the back of my mind for a while now, I will get a basic hold on how to do simple animations in order to create some short films.
So, as another year turns to memories and a new one starts out fresh, here’s hoping it carries as much excitement as the last, and hopefully gives the opportunities for me, and all of you, to do whatever it is we want to do.
Happy New Year!