The Most Confusing Country in the World…. Ever!

Before he became Roman Emperor, the young Marcus Aurelius famously stopped off at Esztergom (left) on the bend of the Danube, set up camp with his army and scribbled down what was to become the immortal Meditations, his great work of Stoical philosophy. He was the great Existential Vacationer of his time. Although he had a retinue of slaves instead of a backpack and a kind of leather kilt instead of Quiksilver beach shorts and spoke Latin, the principle was effectively the same.
The Meditations can be summed up thus: “Life is tough. So stop whingeing and just get on with it.” Of course Marcus Aurelius didn’t have my gift for snappily encapsulating entire philosophies in a brilliantly-turned sound bite. If he had, who knows what kind of success he might have gone on to? Perhaps his stint as Caesar might have merely served as a platform for greater things. And imagine if the internet had existed then. His blog might have been almost as deep as mine!

In the mystical traditions of the great religions, contradiction is crucial. By meditating on the inherent paradoxes which underlie our existence, we become closer to the essential unity which lies beneath, just beyond the grasp of mere minds, that ineffable essence which rationality and logic forever fail to grasp. A bit like that annoying itchy bit in the small of your back which you just can’t scratch, no matter how you twist your arms*.
As my old Zen teacher at the Kwan Um school in Singapore once said, “When you breathe in, think Wo shi se ma? (What am I)? When You breath out, think Wo bu zhi dao (I don’t know). Eventually you will be filled with a great doubt. And with great doubt comes great enlightenment.”**
Wittgenstein said in his immortal Tractatus that “About which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.” However, if we seek out the contradictory, the paradoxical, the stuff that simply does not make sense, perhaps – just perhaps – out of the corner of our mind’s third eye, we may catch a fleeting glimpse of The Truth.

That is why I am in Hungary.

Hungary is riddled with contradictions. It is a veritable epistemological swiss-cheese of paradox, wrapped in the Vine Leaves of Enigma, lightly sprinkled with the Salt of Doubt and baked in the Oven of Mystery at gas mark four for an hour and a half, turning halfway through to ensure even cooking. Even writing that sentence made me feel “Hungary” – which just goes to show how accurate a description it must be***.

Consider the language, for example. It is, famously, the weirdest in Europe. English has more in common with Urdu than it does with Hungarian.
And what about the “Mosque Church” in the town of Pécs?**** Is it a mosque or a church? (Actually is used to be a church then it was destroyed by Turks and a mosque was built from the pieces and then after 150 years it was captured by Christians and used as a church again.)

Then there is the nightlife. Why would anyone form a Billy Idol Tribute band? Only in Hungary (in a bar called The Old Man’s Music Pub). The most famous club in Budapest is called Zöld Pardon. But is it a disco or a swimming pool? The mystery deepens. All I know is that I had very wet legs by the end of the evening.

And then there was the mystery of the Chicken that Looks Like a Yeti. While visiting the bird park on Margit Island, my charming tour guide, Eszter from Esztergom, promised to show me an “animal that looks like a Yeti.” And there it was. Scarily similar, despite its superficial poultry-esque appearance. It really did look almost exactly like a Yeti. And yet we are nowhere near the Himalayas. Something is deeply strange here.

And don’t even get me started on the shopping malls. I almost got into serious trouble in one shop…

So this, it seems, is the latest place to find some form of insight into our true underlying natures. By embracing confusion, we may find clarity. By diving headfirst into chaos, we may see a new kind of sense. By drinking enough beer, we may finally lose our pernicious sense of “identity” and become one with the Cosmos. I definitely lost mine for a while. Was I me? Perhaps I was Elton John? Who knows…?

* This, as any school child knows, is why the Yogis of India first practiced their contortions. They had no idea that their innovation would ultimately lead to an entire industry catering to spoiled yuppies wired on latté and brain dead from watching too many episodes of Sex and the City. Ironic, no?

** I prefer to combine this technique with multiple glasses of beer – I find the doubt, and therefore the subsequent insight, much greater.

*** It’s amazing how much mileage I get out of various versions of this joke.

**** Small city in southern Hungary. Not a gym.

Hungary (like the Wolf)

Now I know how Saint Francis of Assisi felt*. Something is beginning to happen.
Of course, if you’ve backpacked as much as I have, something good is bound to come of it. All those late-night drunken hostel conversations about which is the best type of MP3 player; all those hard treks around foreign cities looking for a Burger King; all those haggling sessions, knocking a precious few rupees off the price of a bootleg Lord of the Rings DVD from poverty-stricken street-hawkers – all of these things must eventually lead to a greater spiritual connection with the world. I knew this in theory. But now the benefits are becoming truly clear.

Greetings from Hungary, part of the next European leg of my navel-gazing odyssey into the unknown regions of philosophical backpacker belly-button fluff. The historic city of Budapest (and I think adherents of the “word-DNA”** theory would agree that the words “Buda” and “Pest” are no coincidence) is witness to my latest revelation. A kind of gift from the Universe. “But what could it be?” I hear you cry. Read on…
It first began to happen in England, when ducklings appeared from nowhere and called out to me. “Give us bread!” their annoying squeaks seemed to be saying. Sure enough, when I fetched some Sainsbury’s wholemeal multigrain sliced loaf from the pantry, they wolfed it down, eating from my hand.
This tameness from wild animals would be surprising enough, but I thought little of it. Perhaps they had simply become tame because my mother had been feeding them every day since they were born. Or perhaps there was something deeper going on.
The next inkling I had was in the beautiful Southern Austrian province of Carinthia, where as if by magic, yet more animals were strangely drawn to me.
There was the dog, which kept asking to have a stick thrown into the Austrian mountain stream, and wouldn’t stop, going back again and again. Then there were the baby hedgehogs who miraculously appeared and frolicked (well, okay, crawled around – allow me some poetic license here) on the lawn.
And then there were the kittens, who decided to communicate with me by tapping out Morse code with their claws on my neck.
Finally, in Hungary, where I was greeted by a charming tour guide (thank you for the clubbing/wading combo, Eszther), a deer approached me to beg for a leafy twig. My suspicions were finally confirmed.

Yes, there is no doubting it. I have gained the magical ability to communicate with animals. Just like Dr Doolittle (ironically enough, as I am currently an unemployed scientist).

What’s the moral of the story? Never give up. Never stop. Keep travelling until it hurts, until your brain cannot stand it any more, until your mind is crying out “please get a f**king job and a normal life, for Christ’s sake”, until the rootlessness and disorientation and meaninglessness of just going from place to place pointing your camera at stuff is becoming so intense that you no longer know who you are and have lost your sense of time, place and physical scale and have clearly become unemployable in the real world. Only then will you receive the gifts due to you. What are they? Only time will tell…

* …as the flames rose to his Roman nose and his iPod started to melt…
**Word DNA is the technique pioneered by fellow traveller Wayne Chen – see previous Philippine posting and http://www.circusoflife.com