Stranger in a Strange Land
Jiu Jitsu Con, Part 2
The breakfast area, filled earlier this week with elderly Japanese tourists, hamburger-shouldered muscle jiu jitsu athletes, and the occasionally baffled plaid-wearing regular tourist, had mostly cleared out to make way for the last crowd of people competing on the last day of Jiu Jitsu Con—teenagers on their Tiktoks and parents on their Instagrams.
I had just finished my hotel breakfast of overcooked eggs, instant sausage and bitter potatoes. I got into the elevator and an older couple got in with me. The man was wearing plaid and jeans, so I assumed that they would take no notice of my school’s sweatshirt, which had JUDO and JIU JITSU prominently featured on the front.
They pressed the elevator button to the sixth floor for me.
“So, did you compete yesterday?”
Yesterday. Yesterday. The question, in past tense. He had correctly surmised that I wasn’t just a 14 year old orange belt and that he knew the competition schedule.
“Yeah, I did. I lost though.”
“Well,” he said as the elevator reached the fourth floor, “It’s the losses that teach you the most.”
As I alluded to in the first part of this series, Vegas has been an emotional journey. What I learned the most about my jiu jitsu is that it suffers quite a bit under pressure, and that I have a lot to work on technique-wise. What I learned the most about myself was that I need to re-tool certain parts of my learning and skill development so that I can work better together with my teammates, and also with my coaches, to help me create an experience in jiu jitsu that is joyful.
Sometimes before a competition I feel an urgent need to reflect and correct on my life. It’s as if my body subconsciously feels that I’m reaching an impending doom, and that I need to get my affairs in order before I live a death on the mats. This experience was different, in the sense that I felt extremely calm going into matches, but that I emerged from the competition feeling huge shifts in my energy and focus. Feeling unsettled. Perhaps, that is what has been missing from the competition experience for me. It’s a shift, a slight adjustment in the inches of one’s journey, that results in a completely new pathway being opened up and explored.
In moments when I experience solitude, when I’m drawn out of my normal routines and stretched to the limit, phrases come to me randomly, endlessly.
“Stranger in a strange land” is the one that emerged this week. It rooted itself in the back of my head, took a firm grasp on my thoughts, and made itself cozy with tea.
You’re a stranger in a strange land, I would tell myself, as I watched several jiu jitsu celebrities brush paths with me in hotel lobbies, staircases and bleachers.
A stranger in a stranger land, as I sat in my hotel room trying to eat a rehydrated, vegan curry meal made for people on camping trips (and not jiu jitsu athletes trying to recover from a 12 hour day of standing, shouting, stretching, sitting, and sleeping on convention hall concrete).
A stranger in the strangest land, as I had climbed into a Lyft, as I’ve done hundreds of times before in a jiu jitsu commute, only to have my driver express surprise that I was traveling alone.
After four days and three nights in Vegas, I have learned nothing about the geography, people, or attractions here. I have not gambled with money (though I have gambled with my ego and pride, with the winnings going to the house). I have not strolled the Strip, photographed the Fountains of Bellagio that I vaguely remember as a ten-year-old. I have not paid money for half-naked men or contorting acrobatists.
But so far as I have traveled as a stranger in a strange land, today, I find myself back to a place with which I’m familiar.
That landscape which I have walked and lived in my entire life: the inner landscape.
A place ravaged by near-catastrophic events, nourished by love and affection, and endowed with intellect and rational thinking. A place where stories grow on trees, where laughter sprints through the grass, and sadness takes its rest in a cave. There are no Fountains of Bellagio, but there are plenty of rivers taking me down the paths that I know, and yet do not know, at the same time. I may be a stranger in a strange land, but here, I am always home.