Chapter Seven

Another day, another early morning nudge from his father. The day began just as any other with Joma setting up his small skiff with spear fishing gear. Upon reaching his quota, he would make his way to one of the large storage boats, drop off his catchment, before again going about his business.

As he began to push his boat into the surf the chief called out, “Joma, you’re with me today”.

Joma stood at the shore stunned; it was not often he was called to work one of the storage boats with his father. On the rare occasion he would fill-in when the seasoned fishermen were unwell. It didn’t take him long to realise the events of the last few days had precipitated his call-up, in particular conversations with his mother and Mariusz had circulated their way back to his father.

Work on the larger boats differed. The crew were on the look out for smaller boats of the fleet bringing in fish or news about conditions, which could be relayed to others. In addition, the larger boats were fitted with nets to capture baitfish. During quieter periods, the men would cast a line for deeper dwelling fish that the spear fisherman were not capable of catching.

It was mid-morning when Joma grabbed a rod and found a quiet spot on the boat. Not long after, the chief made himself comfortable alongside of him.

“The sea is calm today, she can turn quickly though. Have I told you about the time Manny and I were nearly lost at sea?” his father asked while casting his line. Joma rolled his eyes, “Yes father, many times. The seas were quiet when you set sail but soon a storm rolled in. Your boat was overturned and you were forced to swim for more than an hour back to shore,” Joma replied obediently. “Ahh, so you do listen to me!” his father chuckled.

“Joma, what you overheard the other day…” the boy cut in before the chief could finish, “It’s OK father, forget it,” Joma said swifty.

“It’s not safe to leave son. Not alone,” the chief spoke seriously.

“I must find my own path,” the boy said as something tugged on his line.

“What makes you think your path is out there?” replied the chief looking out at the vastness of the seas.

By now Joma was grappling with his rod, using his hips to draw in the fish. “What makes you think it is here?” Joma managed to say between efforts. “Ahh, darn it!” Joma grunted as the tension went out of his line.

“Where a man lives does not make for a fulfilling life, Joma, it is what is inside. Remember, wherever you go, you always take yourself,” his father said sagely while calmly hauling in a large fish.


Chapter Six

Tonight they would be having raw fish. While not a staple, the dish was a delicacy shared with guests, which tonight would be Joma’s grandparents.

Over the years Joma had learnt that the best served raw fish came down to two things – good fish and masterful preparation. There was no question about fish quality. The seas around the island were teeming with fish thanks to a healthy ecosystem fostered by an aware community. His mother’s prowess with a knife took care of the other part of the equation.

Originally, Joma couldn’t fathom that the angle of a cut could dictate flavour, though recognised a distinct difference between the fish he prepared versus the experienced hand of his mother. He continued to chip away at the art, enjoying the challenge, but was still years away from reaching the calibre of his mother.

“I saw Mariusz at the markets today,” his mother said as she placed a small fillet onto a dish. “Oh yeah,” Joma replied nonchalantly. “He mentioned you had asked him about crafting a boat for long journeys,” she said with a grin. Joma let out a sigh, “The old man doesn’t keep much to himself does he?” he asked rhetorically. “Maybe it’s time for me to grow up and leave the village,” Joma postulated while tentatively sizing up a fish.

“Don’t be silly Joma, you’ve barely been out of the harbour. Besides where would you go and what would you do?” she questioned as one would talk to a child who had ambitions to travel to the moon. “Hopefully I learn along the way,” Joma responded in a sombre tone.

His mother fumbled and dropped a piece of fish upon realising her son was serious about this journey.

Chapter Five

The weekend provides the fisherman a chance to rest from their early morning travels out to sea. Most catch up with family and friends and the close-knit nature of the community, every weekend has a festival-like atmosphere.

Joma could often be found at the boat yard with Mariusz, the old boat builder. Mariusz is one of the village elders though remains in excellent health. His entire life, just like his forefathers, has been spent building boats and his hard, sinewy body reflects this. His skin is burnt orange and deep wrinkles form creases around his ever-smiling face.Mariusz had told Joma about his own upbringing too many times to count. This morning he felt it necessary to tell the young man once again, in case he had forgotten.

When Mariusz was about the age of Joma, he didn’t want to become a boat builder, in fact he hated the idea of spending his life at the boat yard. But he persisted. With time he grew fond of the work as his skills improved. Nowadays, rarely does a day pass where he doesn’t work on a boat.

Eventually the old man finished his life story, throwing in a few details that err on fiction rather than fact, like the time he built a boat a day for one hundred days. Joma, finally sensing an opening, quickly asked the old man, “Out of curiosity, what kind of adjustments would need to be made to the average boat to make it capable of longer journey’s on bigger seas?”

“Ahh, good question my lad! A number of changes would need to take place. For one, the sail fabric would need to be thicker and at least triple-stitched. I would add additional storage for food and supplies and place a greater emphasis on creating a finely balanced boat to make it as efficient as possible. There are of course many other things to consider, but do you know the most important detail?” the old man asked glancing up from his work. Joma shook his head. “You must know what you’re searching for,” said the old man with a knowing wink.

Chapter Four

She found him at the cliff top overlooking the rocky outcrops. The area was always devoid of people as the waters were treacherous and the land unusable for farming. She would often find him here.

She sat down quietly beside him. Looking out at the ocean she said, “Your mother told me what happened,” Joma huffed as if to say ‘Of course’. “The chief is well-meaning, you know that Joma. What he said shouldn’t be taken literally. He is proud of you and only wants you to be the best person you can be,” she said seriously.

Joma was fiddling with a smooth rock, rotating it around in his palm. “I know,” he said finally, “It’s just that, I don’t know if I even want to be chief. I don’t know what I want to be at all in fact,” he said while further examining the stone.

The girl laughed lightly, “You think you’re the only one who is lost Joma? Join the club,” she said as she took the stone from Joma and began turning it over in her hand just as he had. “The thing is, when you get stuck in your mind and shut everyone out and push everyone away, you’re wasting precious time and resources. If you don’t know what you want, you have to look. The people around you want to help. Use your time wisely to explore your mind and surroundings rather than brooding,” she said with a passionate tremor in her voice.

The girl, Maria, and Joma had been friends since as long as the two could remember. Their families were close too. Very rarely did they spend a day without seeing each other. Maria shuffled closer, allowing her head to rest on his shoulder. Joma sat there awkwardly. “You’re a funny one,” she teased as she took his arm and put it around herself. Joma laughed nervously.

The two sat there as the sun went down and a reddish hue filled the cloudless sky.

Chapter Three

Joma made his way to his room. He would sleep this bad mood away. The room was small, consisting of a low bed made of a soft and pliable wood covered in rushes. He did not have many possessions. A small wooden desk and stool stood in one corner while an array of fishing gear, rods and spears, were neatly arranged in another.

Despite every effort to keep flies out of the home, their presence was inevitable. Joma lay down and shut his eyes. Sleep was not forthcoming thanks to a courageous fly. Joma made attempts to capture and destroy the pesky insect, swatting around aggressively, but it was to no avail. Recognising sleep wasn’t an option, he began to turn thoughts over in his head.

In many ways, he realised, he was in the wrong. It was frustrating his father didn’t back his abilities, though he overreacted and allowed these negative emotions to snowball and ruin the entire day. Furthermore, there was no need to push his mother away like he did. She had only offered love and comfort.

Despite the recognition, Joma didn’t know how to remedy the situation. He sulked and brooded regularly despite these self-talks. He sat up and pledged he would be in a good mood for the rest of the day.

He made his way to the kitchen but slowed his pace. He could overhear the conversation between his mother and father. “I know you’re well intentioned Fernando but you need to be more lenient with Joma. You know he tries his best. If you keep this up you’ll push him away,” his mother said while pouring tea for the two. A cold brew was their daily afternoon ritual. The tea was a unique blend of fruity and earthy flavours and was very popular among villagers. “I only push him because he has great potential. He has everything he needs to become great. We have provided him with the finest education and equipment. He must do better if he is to be chief one day,” he replied then guzzled the tea. It was typical to drink slowly but the chief was the exception, quickly drinking the golden liquid.

“What do you mean ‘if’? He is your natural successor,” she said with a look of concern on her face. Joma’s head dropped and he backed away from the doorway. His mother noticing the movement in the corner of her eye gasped. “Joma…” her voice trailed off as Joma ran out the door.

Chapter Two

“You know what your father is like Joma. You mustn’t let small things ruin your day” his Mother spoke softly and kindly. Joma huffed a response. The two were preparing the freshly caught fish; scaling, gutting then cutting them into fillets. This job was typically reserved for females, but Joma enjoyed the process despite the Chief’s desire that he  spend his time honing the male-dominated duties of the village like fishing. His father’s requests had eroded over time though. Besides, it was early afternoon and the Chief would sleep for the next few hours.

To his mother, preparing a fish was a craft and the knife her paintbrush. She would do the task swiftly and with precision, and was easily one of the best in her village.

“How did you go fishing today?” she asked tentatively. “Good” Joma snorted. He was in no mood for small talk or any talk for that matter. “What have you planned for the rest of the day?” his mother asked; she wasn’t giving up on the conversation that easily. “Nothing” Joma replied sullenly. The one-word answer was a hallmark of his bad moods. “Oh come here son” his mother said as she moved to give him a consolatory hug. “No ma, you’re covered in fish” Joma said backing away with arms extended acting as a hug barrier. He stormed out of the room leaving his mother to finish the remaining fish. I hate hugs, he thought.

He sat by the edge of the hut tying knots. The best fishermen would meet three times a year for knot tying competitions. There were events for the fastest knot and the most intricate. Although competent, Joma was far from the best. He put in countless hours and was quick in practice by faltered at the competitions. “You must use your whole body son, not just the fingers” the chief had sat down beside him. His father, was of course the best at tying knots in the village. He took the rope of Joma and demonstrated what he meant, “Like this” he said.

Without a word Joma stood up and walked away.

Chapter One

He was woken by a nudge and grunt from his father. He rolled out of bed wiping the sleep from his eyes. It was still dark out but already the warmth and humidity of the day could be felt. He made his way to the kitchen where a simple breakfast of coffee, salted milkfish and small bread rolls lay waiting at the table, prepared by his mother.

The two quickly finished their meal and made their way to the boats. Some others had already arrived and were preparing the skiffs for the morning ahead.

“We are in for a good day chief” exclaimed Manolo, who was one of his father’s best men. “I hope you’re right Manny, the last few weeks have been lean. I am getting sick of all these milkfish!” the chief replied jovially.

Preparing the boats was a subconscious task by now. They were checked for any damage and adequately equipped with supplies such as rope. “Joma, have you checked the main sail?” his father asked sternly. “Yes pa, all good” he replied anxiously, knowing that a mistake would quickly be identified.

The chief sauntered over to the main sail and began assessing its integrity. “Good” the chief said to himself. Joma bristled with frustration. Did his own father have no faith in his ability to perform a simple check?

They set off for the morning. Joma let the negativity resulting from the event earlier in the day brew. He responded brusquely to all comers until he was left to his own devices.

The mornings catch was good as Manolo had predicted and the men returned in a jolly mood. The chief was smiling and patting the backs of his men when he signalled to Joma that it was time to go home.

“You were rude today Joma. Why are you upset? Don’t tell me it was because I checked the sail” his father looked straight ahead as he talked. “I told you I had checked it yet. Is my word not good enough?” Joma replied with a small quiver in his voice. “You have made mistakes before my son. There is nothing wrong with double-checking. You should not allow something small like this ruin your day” his father volleyed back.

Joma did not say another word and went back to brooding.

The Finale

Thank you all for reading ‘The China Saga’. My original intent was to not only cover my time in China but also to present the lessons I learned along the way in a story-like manner. The end product is not what I had in mind given the lack of flow and direction, but I’m still happy with my efforts and have gathered plenty of nuggets about strength as well as the writing and editing process. It has forced me to rethink how I can combine storytelling and reality in a more cohesive fashion.

Although still in progress, I thought I would provide you with a brief summary of what I have learned so far in China. For one, the importance of mental strength shines through. If one can be strong in the mind than the body is capable of many things. Athletes of the highest calibre and achievement would attest to success being 90% mental application. Having said that, when it comes to athletic pursuits or any endeavour for that matter, how many of us dedicate 90% of our time training our minds?

It may sound counter-intuitive, but another thing I have collected thus far is the value in being holistic in your approach. While adopting a narrow focus may prove useful for some, a broad scope is likely to reap long-term success. Imagine taking the best systems from different fields and combining them into one. A simple example being field athletes like football players, who incorporate principles of weight training to create more robust physiques while adopting techniques used by sprinters to improve speed and agility.

I could go on and on with this summary though would rather you got on with your day. I’ll wrap things up by saying this – include others in your journey. If you think disconnecting from the world will fast track your progress, freeing you from distractions, you are wrong. For one, your path will be tedious and lonely. You’ll have no one to share your trials and triumphs with. No one to lean on in times of need. No one to ask questions when you don’t know where to go next. As Homo Sapiens we are social creatures. This is one of the key things that has allowed us to hold a place in history that no other animal has. If we forgo the social aspect we lose interdependency, our true strength. Don’t push people away, draw them in. Learn from them and support them.

Before I start getting to gushy, I’ll sign things off here. What’s next for The Strength Scout? I would like to give combining a narrative approach with practical applications another go and will spend the next few days planning on how to do so. If not, I’ll experiment with other avenues to impart what I learn into an easy and enjoyable read.

Oh, and if you have any feedback or suggestions, I would love to hear them.

If The Mind Is Willing…

The young Shifu wanted to test the fortitude of the newcomers. Friday’s mountain hike surpassed the previous week’s efforts in both intensity and duration with the student’s arriving back at the academy some two hours later than usual.

Walking up the mountain, the conventional route involved hundreds of stairs. Although challenging, the path offered brief plateaus and therefore periods of respite from the incline. Today, however, wasn’t a conventional day.

The Shifu began to lead the student’s up the road the buses take to the mountaintop. A seasoned student groaned as she realised what was happening. The gradient was far more acute than the steps ranging from steep to steeper.

As they trudged up the mountain, grunts and whimpers became more common. There appeared to be no end in sight. Throughout, Andrew asked himself one simple question, “Am I capable of taking one more step?”

The answer was always “yes”. One more step wouldn’t break him.

With this thought coursing through his mind, although ‘sweating like a bush pig’, as his Dad would say, he made it to the top without a break. As the hike continued across and back down the mountain and finally to its conclusion he realised the underrated value of a strong mind. Arguably he felt stronger and more capable at the end of the walk than the start. Like a diesel engine, he could have kept chugging along.

As the famous Chinese general Sun Tzu said, “If the mind is willing, the flesh could go on and on without many things”.

You’re Allowed To Not Like Things

Andrew sat on the makeshift bench and reflected on enjoyment. He compared two days; one compromising of Chinese kickboxing, grappling and acrobatics while the other was centred on forms. Forms practice can be thought of like learning a dance. The sequence has practical applications but is practiced independently.

Andrew gravitated towards the first day. Was it because the techniques came naturally to him? Perhaps, but for the most part the movements were foreign. He struggled with grappling but loved the concept behind using leverage and sudden movements to get the opponent to the ground.

Forms practice he found tedious. He knew it would help his coordination and had his mind working on a different level, but the enjoyment simply wasn’t there. He couldn’t see the practical application of the movements.

It’s OK to not to like things, he gathered, even where it may yield a benefit. As long as you’ve trialed the activity for a period of time, not simply a one-off session, than you’re free to say, “Hey, I gave it a go and it wasn’t for me”.

Of course, Andrew wasn’t afforded this freedom at the academy. However, he could still manipulate the sessions dedicated to forms. While he would still practice the sequences, he also added in aspects of basic training.  He covered kicks, punches and combinations to fill in the time, improving competency in these areas.

Experiment. Give it time. Make a decision. Back that decision.