Jimmy’s Dillemma

On my last night in the Cameron Highlands, I caught the gaze of a familiar pair of heavy-lidded green eyes. They peered at me beneath a familiar head of wavy brown hair. They belonged to an Italian face that echoed faintly in my memory.

As it turned out I’d met this fellow briefly in Kuala Lumpur. As it turned out he was hitchhiking North to Pinang same as me. So we arranged to go together. It was on that rough journey that Disio transformed from hostel random to great friend. We would cement that friendship on a motorbike road-trip all around Pinang. And we would enjoy an intercontinental reunion almost two years later.

I remember vividly the moment Disio made a lasting impression on me. We were hunched over the cross bar in the back of a pickup truck driving up the sharp, steep, switchback roads leading out of the highlands. Our view was panoramic; an ever-changing ocean of dense green swells fading out into mist. From our kingly perch we could see the texture of the Earth itself curving toward the horizon.

Cool wind whipped our hair; into our lungs it poured, and out poured our convictions. We bonded over the mad stylings of Jack Kerouac. We both regarded ‘On The Road’ as a lifestyle manual.

You see, Disio was no tourist. He was no flash-packer. In his blood pumped a devotion of the rarest breed of traveler. His soul thirsted for all the world had to offer. His time traveling was indefinite. He declared a willingness and intent to stay on the road as long as he possibly could.

Disio’s nomadic nature reflected mine. His passion for adventure paralleled my own. In him I saw my own defiance of custom; of society and self. I recognized in him a fearless drive to forsake caution in pursuit of adventure.

Disio and I shared a fundamental purpose. We were two pupils of the world enduring the rough displeaures of its curriculum in order to extract the rich value of its lessons.

So we descended from our cool, lofty retreat in the highlands into the simmering flat-lands below. The sun changed from a gentle-warm to a brutal-sultry in the span of minutes.

But we hitched at a decent pace, making our way, switching from the pickup to a flatbed truck. It brought us to the city of Ipoh. Then there, in that tangle of irrational streets, was the crux of our journey. Slogging through a bustling city in the heat of tropic noon is an uncomfortable effort.

Hitchhiking is a game of chance, so you want to position yourself to maximize odds. That becomes difficult in a foreign city with confusing streets, and without a plan to navigate them. With nothing to do about it, we humped our packs and voyaged into the belly of the beast. After traversing the municipality, we collapsed under a tin roof for a bite of lunch.

Somewhat recovered, we hiked to the best spot we could guess, and fished for rides. That’s when Jimmy rolled up.

I’d met Jimmy many times before. Last I remember him he gave me a ride from Port Douglas to Cairns back in Australia. No, it wasn’t the same Jimmy. It was that familiar expression of human who wakes up at 30 a complete success, yet finds something vaguely lacking. Jimmy’s is the styling of a decorous young man enacting his cultural story.

Jimmy is a decent man. Well-dressed and clean-cut., he is hard-working and professional. Here we were, four dirtbag hitchhikers, piled into his immaculate car, experiencing a narcotic bliss just huffing the air-conditioning. And there was Jimmy, regarding us kindly.

Jimmy holds a respectable job at a large tech company. He lives comfortably in the suburbs of Pinang, commuting across the bridge each morning to work. Jimmy was well-spoken. He and I discussed politics and religion, the multicultural atmosphere of Malaysia, and the vastly different lifestyle of his and mine. Jimmy is, in short, a good man, a good citizen; a heartening human being making his way through life.

Jimmy picked us up because he fantasizes about the freedom our lifestyle accords. There is a common allure to Disio’s and my freedom. It is a freedom denied to Jimmy by the obligations of debt and modernity. Jimmy, and the anonymous throng to which he belongs, has been duped by a society that urges consumption in order to reap quality from life. The sinister nature of which is that by the time they snap out of the material high, they’re stuck in debt.

My heart goes out to Jimmy; and all the Jimmys of the world. In fact it is for all the Jimmys that I rebel against that status quo. It is for the Jimmy’s that I travel. It was only by the inscrutable and minute sways of chance, and by fortunes I was born into, that I was blessed the opportunity for the boundless travel I enjoy. This I know.

How close I came to spending the best years of my life earning a corporate position; buying a nice car; affording a comfortable apartment. How close I came to waking up each morning feeling flighty, unsatisfied, but anchored by debt and responsibility. How close I came to investing emotional fulfillment in objects. Jimmy’s and my life parallel far closer than it would seem, and his plight deepens the well of my gratitude for my ability to travel.

It would be easy, and despicable, to label Jimmy a loser. Many could look Jimmy right in the eye and blame him for his choices. They’d egregiously neglect the influence of culture, and of advertising, that shapes the views of young minds before they have any chance of considering the options.

People that cast aspersions operate from the paradigm that humans hold an automatic empowerment independent of environmental factors. To them failure indicates a weakness of will. These critics would ignore the tragic circumstances that imprison multitudes.

I don’t see Jimmy as a loser, or weak, or pathetic. I feel a compassion for him because I understand the incubator in which his shackles grew. That we are individuals who must navigate our lives, who must take responsibility for our choices, is true.

But taking that individualism so far as to ignore the influence of environment is no longer excusable. Modern society is one in which corporations pour billions of dollars into creating content directed at rearranging the priorities of children. Those children then carry those manufactured priorities for decades.

At 30 years old, Jimmy wonders why his station is so dearth of fulfillment. He made life choices, same as we all do, based on the prescription of his culture. Unfortunately culture is poisoned by capitalistic incentive. Big business hijacks basic human wants and needs, distorts reality through the lens of culture, and ties them to its products. I see Jimmy as an unconscious victim of this method.

The tragedy is that by the time the illusion clears, victims have often chained themselves to debt. It’s too late. They have to remain and slave away the best years of their life.

All this I commiserated with Jimmy. I validated his struggle, empathized with his trouble. But then I told him that my nomadic lifestyle is not an automatic route to happiness. It is abrasive, tumultuous, and routinely tears up roots of family, friends, and community. Not for everyone.

The exposure to the hollow ends of materialism has harbored in me a revulsion of consumer culture. Out of that disgust I’ve grown the belief that a world less hypnotized by commercial Sirens is one of greater individual well-being, as well as societal sustainability.

Thank you for reading.


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