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Paris to Tokyo on a Dollar and a Prayer

Hitchhiking in 1955

Joe Di Bona




ISBN 978-1-934936-58-0


Paperback-144 pages- $15.00



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Joe Di Bona was already an army veteran in post-WWII America, he had completed college and worked in industry two years, and, yet he remains unfulfilled. He quit his job and traveled to France to study Chinese in one of France’s Grand Ecoles. This caused him to hunger for some great sacred unknown and the urge takes him to the great spiritual centers in India and Japan. This great journey produces in him a lifelong spiritual transformation. Travel with him down this path of discovery and you, too, may glimpse nirvana.



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          This memoir, written in 2010, recounts 1955, when I traveled from France to Tokyo and then to San Francisco, looking for something that was never very clear, even in my own mind. I began writing this memoir as a record of what I did and where I went, but that was never the important part of what I was trying to do. The plain fact is that I wanted to relive the life I had lived when I was 20.  This is a record of how we mold ourselves through contact with extraordinary people who have qualities that most people lack.  There are individuals who sustain an aura, the mere contact with which can change us forever.  The men and women of ineffable spiritual force whom I encountered back in 1955 changed me forever.  While it is difficult for me, even now, to understand what happened when I was in my twenties, I know that I will never escape the impact those persons and events had on my life. In this memoir, I offer places on a map and names of cities, some of which have changed over the years and others that I cannot recall.  They serve only as markers in a travel log, as a general guide, and as a reflection of the trip.  The names of people I met or towns I passed through are occasionally only approximates. As I began writing I was impressed with how much I was enjoying the memories, which just seemed to flood back to me in rapid sequence as I typed.  I was reliving those days as fully as I did so long ago, but, this time, without the anxieties or concerns I felt back then.

          As I wrote, I confided to a friend that at points I just could not remember what happened next.  She said, “Well, why don’t you look up your 1955 notes and read them.”  I had indeed at the time kept occasional notes of my travels, but they were fragmentary and I feared they might lead me away from the main ideas I wanted to bring out.  So I was reluctant to open the old, tattered journals that contained my original notes.  However, when I did begin to read them, I quickly found them useful.  They even recalled some things that I had completely forgotten.  One such example involved the Punjabi spinning songs, translated for me as we sat together with a group, spinning by candlelight, in Sevagram, India.  Each day some of the older women sang the songs they recalled of their childhood.  I had completely forgotten these happy moments of songs and tales, and I was happy to find the songs in my notes and include them in this book.

          So, what came out and what you are now about to read is an amalgam of memory, notes, and a desire to find meaning in what happened so long ago.  What surprises me, even now, is how these strange travels came about in the first place.  Remember that before my journey I knew nothing about the places I was to visit.  Nor did I have any goal in mind.  Someone told me to go to India or to Japan, and that was all the encouragement I needed.  After all, I had worked for the Ford Motor Company for a couple of years after college, and, even though I was not unhappy, on my own I had decided I wanted to find my own life.  So with that rather unformed idea in mind, I was off to Paris to study Chinese and learn about whatever life offered.  Back then I was sure that when I was in my 80s I would not be able to do what I could do in my 20s, or so I thought.  But to tell you the truth, at 83 years of age, I am still looking for adventure, not exactly as I did at 23, but life is still as exhilarating as ever.  I only mention this to encourage others of any age to do what they wish, ignoring seeming social, physical, or financial blocks.  You will never regret breaking the bonds of convention and conformity, although doing so is not as easy today as it was then.  I have often encouraged my students at Duke University, who are dissatisfied with the academic routine or have a failed romance or suffer family pressures or fret over future career choices, to break away and seek their own lives, wherever those lives may be.  Invariably, they are fearful of consequences.

“But how will we live?” they ask.  And, alas, they are disappointed when I cannot tell them.  They want answers and I have none to give that they can understand.  Nevertheless, I am hopeful that this book will provide a few readers with the magic word that will wrest them from the world that is not theirs and show them the possibility of personal liberation.

           I cannot refrain from adding a word on how much generosity I encountered in 1955. Again and again, I was helped by people in Europe, from France to Greece to Serbia and everywhere else. They did not know me, but made wherever I went possible.  Today I would not dare try to hitchhike--as I and my companion, Dorothy, did then in 1955.  In that post WWII time, America was regarded as a wonderful champion of liberty and prosperity and justice and faith.  Today, that is no longer the case.  Everywhere Americans travel today; there are terrorists and other dangerous people who think nothing of harming visitors.  When I have spoken to my students, urging them to go off on their own, they remind me of the daily kidnappings, rapes, and murders that plague the world of innocent travelers. The students’ estimate of our contemporary world is more current than mine, but, instead of looking at the way America has lost its leadership, they cannot imagine a world that was essentially happier and more peaceful than today.  And perhaps that is the message of this book: to remind us that the world has not always been as treacherous as today.  And, indeed, if this book is a record of peace and harmony in the past, it may be possible to see hope for the future.

          If the world has changed so radically in the past half century, I have to acknowledge my great fortune to have had such an experience.  I often wonder if others will find the generosity I encountered. They well may ask, “How can people be so giving?  It must be a fraudulent hope you are expressing.  Aren’t you making this all up?”  They question the carefree unconcern that is so rare today.  They even question the existence of altruism and their own readiness to trust their own goodness.  What they know from the newspapers are the extravagant earnings some individuals in finance received in 2009.  David Tepper got $4 billion (not million, but billion).  John Paulson made $2.3 billion.  The top 25 managers received a total of $25.3 billion.  What are students to make of this?  They do not think how society may benefit from this bonanza.  They think, instead, “How can I get mine?”  That greed was completely alien to the heroes of this memoir and, I daresay, to most sane men and women around the world.

          So, what is the essence of what I am trying to say?  I stress the spiritual life that I found in India and Japan.  I argue that we can never be satisfied with the mere accumulation of money or goods.  There is a realm of reality that pervades all lives, past and present and future, that will not only endure but also will bring us great satisfaction, joy, and fulfillment.  In this book, you will meet some of these saintly manifestations that you may have thought are no longer even possible to imagine.  Here they are for you.  I am not a particularly religious person and have never had any use for organized religion, but what I found in Sivananda; Ramakrishna; The Mother in the Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry; Gandhi’s Sevagram; Bhave’s selfless work; or my personal mentor, the Reverand Ogata-san in Kyoto, is impossible to define.  All these together have made a formidable and lasting impact on my own mental and spiritual make up.  After all these years, I still see and hear the words they whispered into my ear again and again.  So maybe that is what I am getting at.  If I have failed in my rationale for bringing out a memoir such as this, perhaps you will tell me if I am on the mark or not.