How strange it is to be anything at all.
- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Jeff Mangum
The storks come and they go, awkwardly maneuvering their disproportionate body parts until they reach their companions in the acacia trees overhead. Back home, the crows gang up too but even they look more appealing than these African counterparts. It’s just all so foreign here in Kenya. Perhaps it’s the twenty-eight hour disconnect from home or the low flow showers. Perhaps its this traffic - it’s been ten minutes since we’ve moved.
My eyes feel heavy, but I’m busy awing over the enormity of the pseudo-pterodactyls to fall asleep. I’m also Wangu's only company in the idle car. In the backseat, Brent had found a comfortable position in that nook between the seat and the door, and he's gone.
"The Chinese are fixing dis roads, it’ll be betta by next year…maybe," Wangu says, the Swahili accent making her even more dignified. It’s amazing what willpower does to a person.
The truck ahead of us vomits out its fumes. A macabre sign that we’re finally moving. We pass the roundabout where the root of the problem seems to be to see a lone police officer clotting the traffic flow with his misguided hand signals. He coughs with each truck that passes by. “De Chinese will take dis parts out,” Wangu says with a hint of spite in her voice.
The road gradually changes from asphalt to dirt. The trees are hungrier here, and in place of the storks, shirtless men reside under the starved branches. The entire landscape is a musty brown bar the red Coca-cola ads. At roadside, women piggyback babies while using bare hands to cook maize. I can’t recall seeing a maize field (or any vegetation at that) for nearly fifty miles.
Delving deeper into the middle, I realize that the city is laid out like a unicellular organism - a wealthy, endoplasmic metropolis surrounding its accumulation of waste. Only a single line of factories or a shanty railroad separates burbs from slums, and once inside, there’s very little space to escape the nausea. An overwhelming mustiness stagnates throughout the air as if all the bad of the city perpetually leaks into it. At some point, the road had disappeared and replaced with a landfill of effluent, rocks and gravel instead, and among the contamination, thousands of Africans sell donated clothes and electronics. I see a blue sweater in there somewhere.
"So this is Mukuru," I say.
"Dis is Mukuru," Wangu echoes.
Twenty minutes later, we park our car and introduce ourselves to a group of colorfully adorned women. At one point, I assume they radiated much more than they do now, but rape and unwanted pregnancies can do a lot to a person - it must be stressful to think no one but you is going to truly remember your memories. But when Brent emerges from the car with his Karate gi on, the women suddenly become elated. On a small patch of concrete behind the centre, he teaches them self-defense, and while most of them exuberantly mirror Brent’s maneuvers in the air, a few of the women laugh and prance around with the occasional sexual advance. Wangu tells me later that glue is the most abused substance in Mukuru.
Afterwards, several of the women take my hand and guide us through the barred gate, past the spectators, into the city. It’s strange, but Mukuru exhibits a different aura behind a car window. With the ground beneath my feet, the abodes feel more vibrant, more energetic. The people come and they go, shouting mzungu (white person) at Brent and I as we pass by their African favelas. Barefooted children run up and ask me to take pictures of them before running away, their toy cars - a plastic bottle with four bottle caps attached to it - trailing behind them. Despite everything, people still smile, and it’s hard to accept the initial discomfort anymore.
Electricity doesn’t run, nor the water, but the people still do. As the sun takes its daily route down the horizon, everything except the primary colors of the denizens seem to muddle together. When we depart back into the city, a mob around a police station prevents us from moving beyond a crawl, and Wangu advises (or rather demands) us to roll up the windows. We find out later that a child had vengefully been killed for stealing. A cyclone of dust is kicked up as we force our car through the masses, and as we drive on, the dust eventually devours everything until all I see is the faint silhouette of the crowd struggling together like a single organism.
Twenty-three years older, and I still can’t place myself anywhere.
I had successfully escaped Tokyo - its garish demeanor and unearthly rhythm – and traveled north to rearrange my jumbled sense of humanity. Within Hokkaido’s staggering spaciousness and evaporating mountain peaks, a small town in Otaru tempted me to stay with its old-world simplicity. Quaint reconstructions of English architecture triumphantly overshadowed the land, but to the dismay of westernization, a small fish market defiantly survived between the foreign structures. In this confined space, a culture of fishermen thrived.
Despite my attempts at camouflage, my attire and age distinguished me from the denizens. In this town, I was the lone ranger of a generation too young or too old; even so, the various vendors enjoyed my new face and unintended cluelessness regarding seafood. Per their recommendations, I made my way to a local sushiya. Inside, I was immediately greeted by the golden glow of a wood interior and a vibrant array of fresh fish. After a few seconds, the chef emerged from the back.
To my surprise he was a young man in his mid-20s. As he molded my sushi with amazing grace, we stumbled through a conversation until I finally asked him about his age. He smiled. “I decided to stay,” he responded. Apparently, most of his peers had moved to the city after high school, while he had an obligation to carry on the family business. Yet, in his self-possessed manner, he seemed perfectly content, and the elegance of his craft showed he cared. We returned to small talk as I savored each alluring bite.
When I stood up to leave, he wished me luck on the rest of my trip. I unconsciously nodded, whether to comfort him or myself. With a final farewell, I left him and the sushiya that would one day be his. As I rounded the corner, the ocean suddenly splayed out before me - I had reached the end of the market. I thought of turning back, but gazing into the nothingness past the horizon, I lost myself again.
Fighting costs all of us dearly, too dearly, in physicality and mentality. It’s unfortunate that dedication has such an innate sacrificial element to it.
Bryce, Tizoc, and Jordan get to sleep in that day because they all fight that night, but the rest of us stagger into the lobby unmotivated and groggy (Note: Jordan and Tizoc were moved to fight earlier than expected). The apathy built up from the week before to a sudden punishing daily routine hit us hard. And it was only day two, really. The van drives us through Elm Street, we train for three hours, and we take a lunch break.
A small restaurant juts out from the back of the gym into an unkempt field. Our van driver waits for us at a table, where he pre-ordered a local meal for meal consisting of fish and vegetables. Despite the somewhat rough and unappetizing appearance, the fish crumbles in my mouth, meaty and tender. After eating a culture’s food in the native land, it always surprises me how unhealthy American counterparts are. But as much as I enjoyed the food, my teammates prefer to stop by a more American joint on the way back to the gym. Bryce, Tizoc, and Jordan stroll in for afternoon training, and practice some last minute moves. If I learned anything from competition though, it’s that 60% of technique leaves once you enter the ring.
For the rest of the day, we meander through Bangkok’s sights to calm our nerve before the fight. Large super-malls filled with counterfeit luxury items tower over the impoverished streets, and inside, I buy a Gucci belt for my dad and a few graphic shirts. Bryce buys a fake Tiffany’s bracelet for his girlfriend Amber. He talks about other girls a lot, but its obvious he loves her.
Our van driver picks us up from the lobby around six, and we hastily chow down on a light meal before heading to the stadium. “I was once the champion of this stadium,” our driver tells us in broken English. It’s the first words he spoken this whole trip.
Inside, strangely enough, the ratio of foreigners to natives is around 1 to 1, which makes one wonder about the popularity of the national sport. The foreigners generally have some sort of escort with them (female or transvestite), while in the back, old Thai men exchange some form of gambling sheet. There’s a familiar smell of menthol in the atmosphere seeping out of the back room. Attached to this familiarity is another change of plans – Bryce’s fight is rescheduled to next week in a bigger stadium.
We prepare Jordan and Tizoc in the back, but are immediately interrupted when a greasy announcer and his cameraman rushes into the back room, blinding us with their lights. They want interviews for some obscure, most likely illegitimate blog. Tizoc, as expected, declines the offer, but Jordan and his natural love of the spotlight accept wholeheartedly. I decide to ignore them and work with Tizoc instead, who stands in the corner, blankly staring through the wall.
Tizoc rushes in very much like a bull, lost in the rush of adrenaline and the fear of the fight. The poise he exhibited in training disappears. Tizoc throws a few overhands that catch his opponent, a stocky Thai fighter with a bulged forehead, but his opponent jabs, snapping Tizoc’s head back. He comes to his senses a bit, stepping back, and assesses the situation. Jake, Mike, and I quietly sit ringside while Bryce and sensei shout from the corner. Jordan is somewhere, preparing for his fight.
Then suddenly, within the unsettling tension, Tizoc connects, and again, and again. The opponent’s arms limp to the side, wobbling, held up by the tension of the red ropes behind him, and the referee steps in. I’m up, screaming from the back of my throat without realizing it. Under the confusion, Tizoc violently jumps onto the ring ropes, which helplessly snaps under his weight. It takes nearly twenty minutes to repair.
Tizoc strides out of the ring, silently strutting to where the rest of the team invites his dignity. Foreigners and their girlfriends snap photos faking kisses and molding bodies into extravagant fighting poses. He’s an instant hero. As the energy depletes, Tizoc settles in with a sigh, wishing Jordan good luck.
Jordan enters the ring, naturally, poised, but possessed with the confidence from the interview. His opponent (as generally the case) has a significantly smaller build, but the Neanderthal visage displays raised scars from his battles. It’s always terrifying looking into the ring at Jordan. While he never affects me much in training, there’s always a sociopathic fearlessness in his eyes. The human center of the brain suddenly turns off, it seems, and in the moment all ability to understand emotion disappears. It’s almost too natural for him.
What’s more, it almost always ends the same way. Jordan’s fists aimlessly attack every vulnerable point in the opponent’s body until they break down into a motionless bag of bones. Perhaps I expended my excitement on Tizoc, but I can’t rouse myself up as much after Jordan’s dominant performance. I walk to ringside where the wooden eyes of the beaten opponent glares back at me. The foreigners rush to take photographs with the winner, posing with fists up. All these photographs are carbon copies of each other. The Thai gets taken out on a stretcher, but no one else notices.
That night, Bryce and Jordan manage to sneak alcohol into the rooms. We all quietly make our way to the roof, where we look over Thailand’s naturalism. Eventually the familiar feeling of alcohol kicks in, and the city below blends together with the night sky until everything becomes another memory, an experience, a story.