Pelagic ruminations on a birthday at sea
It’s my first birthday at sea and it arrives in “Blood Alley,” somewhere about 1240 W and 340 S, off Wenzhou as I write this. It was called Blood Alley in the 1955 so named anti-communist propaganda movie starring John Wayne as an American merchant mariner there reading Chinese refugees from Mao Zedong’s China down to Hong Kong through a blockade of communist gunboats. Lauren Bacall is also in the movie as love interest and, typical of the genre, real Chinese persons serve primarily as extras, except for James Hong who has a face that was seemingly born to play nasty communist officers.
Today, March 23, 2013, the seas are moderate and a dirty gray green that extends to a gray horizon beyond which lies Okinawa. The rail of my balcony drips from the cold rain, the temperature continues the damp chill we have brought with us since Hiroshima, and it is altogether not a day that inspires my anniversary. If yesterday’s visit to Shanghai with its characteristically robust commercial atmosphere and vigorous physical growth contrasted with my creaking bones and aching muscles, the endless sea mocks my paltry longevity by announcing that it was here long, long before me and will be long after.
But, hey, any birthday is happier than no birthday at all. And who am I to gainsay the event when the English lady a few doors down revealed at a lecture a few days ago that she had served in RAF intelligence from 1940 to 1944, leaving only when she “became with child.” She remarked at that event that she had often seen General Eisenhower, Allied supreme Commander, and Kay Summersby, his driver, getting into Eisenhower’s staff car. I brought up the subject again to her when I met her recently in the companion way for our cabins and she stopped to wish me a good morning. I asked if she could keep a secret, and when she reminded me that she had been in RAF intelligence, I told her today is my birthday, upon which she gave me a motherly kiss on my cheek. I calculate that she must be at least 89 and, having enlisted in the year of my birth around age 19 or 20. She is on the ship for the entire 107-World Cruise voyage.
The other reason I should not diminish this anniversary is that this ship abounds with people of my generation and earlier (if that’s possible).
At the lecture referenced above the featured lecturer happened to be the radio operator attached to Eisenhower’s staff who as a young sergeant was tasked with sending the message to the world of the surrender of Germany in World War II. He recollection with acuity of his time in Ike’s coterie and the events around the close of the war in Europe. He allowed as he was approaching his 89th birthday. Maybe I have another birthday at sea in me.
And so there is an existential sense that I am sailing not only in oceans and seas, but also of time and memory that will soon be known only as history to the coming generation. Is this not what travel is about: forming that nexus between time and place that gives a unique mnemonic window into our own existence? Yes, the sea is a memento mori, but it is also the source of all life (although the only evidence of it save for one shark and two dolphin was in the fishmarket in Inchon). The traveler’s itinerary is therefore one of affirmation, of motion not just of time, but also of location.
In these waters I am sailing in the wakes of the Dutch traders who opened Nagasaki to commerce in the 17th Century, of Jesuits that saw the prospects of souls and sales in Asia, of British gunboats blasting open Chinese Treaty ports and finding no moral discomfort trying to hook half an continent on opium.
On the Bund in Shanghai the other day I was approached by four “countryside” Chinese (tu = “hick” or rustic person) who were more agog at the city’s soaring postmodern buildings than I. Their faces were dark, their skin rough and windburned, their features those of minorities, not Han. They were first attracted by my new white Nikon J1 camera; the two men sat on one side of me, but the women stood by, clearly jiaohua (shy) when the men wanted me to photograph them to show how my camera worked. They didn’t know a word of English, but I somehow understood when they asked where I was from in thick dialect. Wo shi Meiguoren, I said, and you would think Brad and Angelina just offered to adopt them. Could I have been the first American they ever encountered?
There was something refreshing about the encounter with these countryside people. Just in the short span of decades in which I have been visiting China and Shanghai the extent of modernization has been astounding. Elsewhere I have written my first sensation of being on the streets of Beijing years ago one the sounds of the street were the whirring of bicycle chains and the tinkling of bicycle bells; whereas today it is the blaring automobile horns and more of BMW, Mercedes and Land Rover engines that drown most everything else out. In Shanghai the corporate pissing contest of “my building looks down on your building” continues apace, and the human scale of the city I first encountered now fades into a few scattered interstices saved only by some fortune of residual commercial value. And so these rusticated hicks, to see the big city with far more are than I were a reminder that, although further afield of the trodden tourist routes, there remains some indigenous China yet to be experienced.
Unfortunately, my severe language limitations prevented me from communication beyond the most simple and confused questions and answers. Most of it was punctuated with my responses of “Kan bu dong” (Don’t understand). But even that gap is in some sense more tantalizing than an exchange in fluid English with a Shanghainese, and retains a sense of “foreign” travel against the invasive international corporate branding of globalization.
Earlier on this voyage I myself gave a lecture as part of the series are developed on keeping journals in which I emphasized that perhaps the fundamental reason for maintaining a travel journal, or any record of one’s thoughts and observations on a day, is as an aid to memoir. Indeed, there is some neurological opinion that such a process might serve to forestall forms of dementia that can rob us of memory and, as we must know, there is such a close association between memory and identity – – if we can’t remember how we got to be who we are, we can’t know who we are – – that placing what we can of our observations in some recorded fashion is something like mnemonic-ly “backing up our personal hard drives.” This might well have been something humans might have attempted to do from the outset of self-consciousness, beginning with (before writing) chant, song, and story and, if we include fable, the need or desire to embellish or diminish the reality of memory.
Birthday at sea is a special experience. All that is missing is the presence of those I love; but even in that I take some pleasure in the Asian yin/yang notion that we cannot fully appreciate happiness without the experience of sorrow, and in a moment of Oriental orientation my family and good friends are “present” in their very absence. Surely, they are composing eagerly awaited emails of best wishes as I write these lines.
I will take leave of this ship at Hong Kong, a place that after so many visits and habitations, and of friends and associates, seems almost like a second home to me. I will remain for a month or so to write and scheme. But then I will, following the verses of A.E. Housman (following R.L. Stevenson) be as . . .
Home is the sailor, home from sea:
Her far-borne canvas furled
The ship pours shining on the quay
The plunder of the world.
But my “plunder” will be of a richer kind . . .
© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.23.2013)