Monday, December 28, 2009

Merry Christmas and beating on Boxing day!

Merry Christmas from abroad once more!

Arrival back in England safely, without any more snowy mishaps blocking the road. The bus took the train back, went right into the train box and rumbled on into the night, under the sea, and back onto the road, this time on the left!



And I planned it right this time, (had to wait quite a bit for the tube train) got off at Marylebone, checked the schedule for the High Wycombe stop on the National train, and rushed and bought a Cornish Pasty before jumping on for the final stop.

Christmas Eve started off at noon with the annual local pub crawl...





Then a quick visit back home to eat a delicious homemade fish pie before heading out again into Wycombe for live music and a taxi ride home... (Fish, prawns and potatoes simmered in a cream sauce with spinach and baked under a layer of mashed potatoes... yum! Btw, ever hear of Jamie Oliver?)



Christmas day was really nice, nothing out of the ordinary (except for the snow! Which I heard was quite unusual for this part of England). Woke up to a houseful of Gaspers, followed a by plenty of food and drink- organic pork from Wales plus all kinds of trimmings, roasted vegies, green beans, red cabbage, what else all I don't remember, but what I do remember is the dessert, which was a bunch of fresh berries, raisins, dried cranberries, soaked in amaretto and poured over with heavy cream, then topped by a dollop of clotted cream... and I thought that was it but I didn't realize that later we were going to have yet another meal- this time more characterized by appetizers and crunchy fried things, melted camembert, Welsh beer, and champagne... Then we got into teams and played a quiz game orchestrated by Phil's mom. (My team got second place by 1 and a half points... So much for having the Yank on your team guys!)

The best present was the Horsey Hoppers game, that Zoe got for her brothers. Quite a success, we cleared out the kitchen and took turns racing across the floor- I need to post some photos!

What else... Oh, right! the next day we went beating! In England it's called Boxing Day, from when the servants were given this day off after spending Christmas Day catering for their employers and then were sent off with boxes of leftovers...

So, what is beating you may ask? Well, this is how it goes.



The gamekeeper raises pheasants and fowl to release them into the wild for subsequent hunting. On the day of the hunt the hunters prepare themselves with guns and camoflauge clothing, and position in the field in strategic locations. Today the hunters are young lads who usually work as beaters during the year, and the beaters are an assorted bunch of volunteers, including this American girl!



Ok so, the beaters spread out surrounding an area where the fowl like to hide, usually in the underbrush and trees. We then follow directions from Andy the gamekeeper as we advance, slowly and steadily through the woods, whacking flags made from feed bags and making lots of noise. (We also spend a lot of time waiting around as everyone else gets into position.)





Andy's dogs are advancing with us, most of them well trained and at attention, minus one, by the name of Tucker, whose name we hear constantly- "Tucker!" "Tucker!" because he doesn't stay behind us and keeps going running off... Tucker is actually Zoe's dog, so in his defense, he's not really trained as a hunting dog. As we reach the end and the birds lose their cover, they start to fly up into the air. Then there is lots of shooting and pellets raining down from the sky, and, as well, birds, falling down, from the sky.

The dogs at this point are running around like crazy, and they rush off and grab birds that have fallen and bring them back.

We went out four times, going back to the barn for tea and cookies (and a nip of brandy) halfway through. It was cold and brisk out, snow on the ground and romping up and down the rolling hills of Wycombe, good fun!

I conked out after that, felled by some combination of cold weather and traveling... All in all, a really nice weekend back in England. Looking forward to seeing Avatar in 3D tonight and homemade potato leek soup!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thanks to the most snow in Holland for many many years, trains haven't been running, so I've been spending my time in Utrecht- really not a bad place to be!



I can walk to the main part of town from Sita's house. There are picturesque canals, and a huge tower, and lots of cute shops.

Her house is also really comfortable, and I've been eating WAAAAY too much!



On Sunday Sita threw out the suggestion of having a snowball fight instead of a capoeira roda... Imagine 20 or so capoeiristas running around in the plaza under the Domtower, snow flying, (and falling from the sky!) and everybody out of breath from laughing and having snow in their face. And of course we had to play a little capoeira in all the winter coats and scarves!



Then it began, the food fest. First off, hot chocolate with rum to warm up again. Then walking over to a local pub for a tapas appetizer and Christmas ale.



Next stop was next door, a sister store to the restaurant where Richard works in Amsterdam. There were multiple little dishes filled with Indonesian delectables- each one different and more delicious than the last. Walking home was beautiful that night, it was bright as day due to the reflection of the streetlamps off the snow, and it had stopped snowing...





Last night I went to the Monday night capoeira class, but it was really small, because people couldn't get to town with the trains not running and all. It was fun anyways, meeting new capoeiristas is always a good time!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

and more snow...

Big fat snowflakes are falling from the sky, fascinating! Wind is blowing snow off the neighboring roofs in whoofs of blurry white.

Flights have been grounded and Eurostar trains were stuck in the Chunnel Tunnel yesterday.

And we're not going to the Hague today to see the windmills. We'll stay in town and avoid the highways. Even local trains and buses are not running today.

Yesterday we went to the Van Gogh museum, went through the Heineken experience and the red light district, ate Chinese food and met up with Amr for a hot chocolate.

The Van Gogh museum was really interesting- he wrote a lot of letters to his family throughout his lifetime, and exerpts were displayed next to the paintings, which made them make so much more sense. It revealed more of his character and personality and the background behind each iconic painting. It made me want to buy a book of his letters and read them all- biographical information is so interesting to me as I face the challenge of choosing the next step along my life's path.

The Heineken experience was also more interesting than I thought, it was huge and interactive, complete with a tasting and chance to pour your own drink! I think it did taste better here than it does in the states. At any rate, it was a good look at the history of a successful international enterprise- more biographical information!

And meeting up with Amr was a pleasant surprise- he moved out to Amsterdam over a year ago... after Chinese for dinner he took us on a tour of the infamous red light district... The oldest profession. Later we met up with some of his friends at a cozy bar and drank hot chocolate spiked with Stroh... Went home to bed early (just 2am) after a long day of walking in the cold.

This morning we woke up to a light snowfall which gradually thickened, and is still going. It's nice here inside though-

Soon we'll go out to buy chocolate sprinkles and walk around Utrecht.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Snowing!!!

And I'm free!

A lonely traveler once again, stepping in and out of people's lives like bread into a fondue pot.

It was snowing on the day I left Paris, and OuiFM sang me a song in french about how "it's not goodbye, when you're coming back!"



Chocolat, le chat noir, wanted to go out onto the balcony and came back in all snowy white.

The bus ride took 11 hours- I forgot why I never take day bus trips longer than 4 or 5 hours... I think the reasoning this time was that I wanted to see the scenery... I was remembering the 24 hour bus trip from Fortaleza to Salvador in Brasil, where the scenery was breathtakingly beautiful and I felt that I was witness to some kind of endless panoramic IMAX vista through the windows of the bus.



This time I thought of the Chronicles of Narnia, I thought of Dersu Usala and Napolean and his army... It was snowing and blowing the whole way through, and we went about 10 miles an hour the entire time.

Sita met me at the bus station and whisked me away to Indonesian dinner followed by a Spanish bar in the basements along the canals in Utrecht. There was live music played by live volunteers from the audience, people who brought in their own instruments, who danced and sang until all hours of the night.



We ate smoked slices of meat from a cow's leg held suspended above the table, it was soooo good!



And to wrap it up we had turkish pizza wraps at a little cafe close to the house. Home to bed at 4 in the morning...

I feel comfortable in Sita's house, as if I've been here before. As if I've already climbed the steep stairway many times and looked out the bathroom window. The open stairwell with no guard rail is oddly familiar, as is the warm yellow of the knotty pine wooden floorboards in the living room.



Tomorrow we plan to storm Amsterdam, hitting up various museums and attractions as listed in the "Holland Pass, size XL"! (I finally got smart and decided to buy a discount pass, trying to save some euros here!")

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On the road again!

Well...

Here I am, on the road again. Sitting in my usual spot in the internet cafe. This time the ambient language is French...

Some observations:
You don't have to scoop your dog's poop on the sidewalk in France. Watch your step though!
J'ai frois! The cold is like another entity here, nudging with persistence into your fingers and toes.
French keyboards are all screwy: a is where q should be, w and z are switched, m is where ; should be and you have to press shift to get numbers or you end up with "Iùll be there qt &è:"à in the ,orning" My normal speed of -( words per minute is waaaay waaay down.
Baguettes really are better here!
Everybody drinks wine at lunch. In cute little tiny wine glasses, out of really cool ceramic pitchers.

I've spent the past day or so reorganizing my trip due to the interesting turn of events in which I find out that I have been laid off from my safe, steady, secure (albeit claustrophobic) job and have been SET FREE! in Europe! Wow! It's almost like a book, this story, my life. What excuse do I have now NOT to take advantage of the situation and continue forth on this European Adventure? Of course, pending friends to stay with, and the always entertaining process of booking future travel in the middle of the holiday season in a foreign language...

So it's worked out like this, for all those who are interested: I've cancelled the return flight and can reschedule it (for a nominal fee, of course) for some later date but I have to keep the same airports, so at some point I still have to fly to LAX from CDG (Paris). (I could also just give up that ticket and get a new one- from ANYWHERE in the world! The possibilities are endless.) I just don't have the date planned quite yet...

I'm going to Amsterdam on Thursday, where I will stay with Sita in Utrecht for about a week. Then I return to England for Christmas to spend it with Phil and the Gasper clan... (I said I'd be back, didn't I? How did I know?!) And then off to Ireland to see Emma Jane again, and then back to Paris for the return flight, mid-Jan sometime... All rights reserved, all plans subject to change.

Special thanks to CB Paris... especially OuiFM! My official french tour guide and partner in crime. And to Serali, for letting me stay at his house while he goes gallivanting off to ski in the Swiss Alps... And to Chocolat, le chat noir, who meows with high intensity all night long to let you know he exists...

Backing up:

Being in England was like a dream, finally being there...



In the fabled land of The Secret Garden and A Little Princess... The Smiths, the Cure, and everybody speaking with that fabluously sexy English accent! Driving on the left! (I got to drive!)



It was especially difficult to remember not to hit anything with the left side of the car... (Thanks Phil!) Went to Great Missendon to see the Roald Dahl museum but it was closed on Monday- I really hope they will be open when I go back! In the village where I stayed, the houses had names instead of numbers.





Ate bangers and mash.



We went to the pub and ate pies and drank ale.



Wandered to the next pub and drank more. Went to see the Wycombe Wanderers football game- did not get beat up!



It rained tons! Went to the Sherlock Holmes museum on Baker Street and Alice in Wonderland's house in Oxford. I perfected my English accent. Went to Harrod's...



And went to the Tower of London, went ice skating and continued my education in world art and history at various museums.



It has not snowed.

And here in Paris... Le Tour Eiffel, Le Champs Elysees, Le Louvre, Montmartre. And today, after internet, Le Musee D'Orsay. Then more capoeira. Last night I went to Pimpolho's class, where everyone tried to buy with me in the roda like it was my birthday- awesome! It felt really good to get active again.



And the food! I ate crepes! Fondue! Foie gras! Pain au chocolat! Tartes de pommes! Baguettes with salami and butter, mmmmm! Chocolate filled breakfast cereal! Lebanese sandwiches! J'ai faim!





D'accord, I will leave you now and continue in the future- you know, it really feels so good to be back traveling again with that semi-insecure feeling of not knowing the exact path I will be following, but just knowing that I have time...

A six week trip is about right. Two weeks is just too much of a whirlwind, not enough time to actually BE somewhere. Although there are always those brief moments of sadness, loneliness and insecurity when I don't know where I am going or why. It's usually when I am waiting for something, late for something, or don't know what I am going to do next. (Or if I've been laid off!) And if I am hungry or cold, it's even worse. Those are the times I paranoidedly think it would be better to be home, on a steady, readily-understandable-to-the-outside-observer schedule, on a path to a comfortable future... (That's when I feel sorry for myself and start to cry...) Then I have to remember to stand up for my choices and remind myself that nobody really lives an easy, predictable life, it just looks that way.

So, voila! Welcome to my life!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The gods say, when you really want to do something, just do it. You have to go with your heart.

Winter brings changes...

I cut bangs.

Funny how such an seemingly simple decision can be so monumental.
It took so long to make. Only when I decided not to cut off 10 inches to donate to the kids with cancer could I make the appointment. (Sorry kids.) Then I gave the lady at the shop a hard time when I didn't immediately like the looks of it. Not a really hard time, I just made a sad face. Then she helped me out the best she could- she straightened it with a flat iron, blew dry the rest of it, added more layers, and then curled it all up like a movie star. It looked beautiful! I am so lucky to have such beautiful hair. Maybe that's the lesson in all this. Appreciate what you have and make the most of it. Take risks.

While she was cutting, I asked her how she decided to open a beauty salon. She told me she had always wanted one, and went to beauty school for it. When she was 16, she started cutting hair out of her parents' house. She started making more money than her father did. And now, she's been the owner of Rozina's for 10 years.

She told me, "The gods say, when you really want to do something, just do it. You have to go with your heart."

Like cutting bangs, or opening your own beauty salon.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

1st october

The weather is changing here.

It's October first and as if on cue, the air seems drier, stretched thinner. The light is wavering between the heavy thickness of summer humidity but leaning towards the ether it becomes towards Christmas.

It's the little changes we have to savor in Los Angeles.

There's an autumn smell in the air, and the sun beats warm on my back.

I wonder what it'd be like to live in a place that actually gets cold.

Last year at this time I was packing, (at least mentally) ecstatic and rolling in golden waves of success, freshly graduated and looking forwards to the (one of many) trip of a lifetime!

Packing packing packing. Want to be packing. Want to be planning.
This year it's different.
I wonder what opportunities tomorrow will bring. Summer was grand. It's time to continue forward.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

30 september

It's my birthday!

It's the day that always made me hold my breath just a little bit, in expectation of what goodies lay in wait...
A day for surprises, friends, family, birthday cake and everybody singing for you!
It's the ultimate in ego-satisfying self-gratification, excusable and unashamed!

September 30th- the day I made my mom a mother, the day I waited for all year, and it was always over so quick.

It's a day of fall colors, of school beginning, it feels as much a part of my identity as my name...

And it's today!

It doesn't matter what I did, or what I'm doing... What matter is where I am and where I'm going... Does that make sense? What I mean is, I worked today, and I'm fulfilling obligations I made in accordance with my plans and beliefs, which means I am not necessarily engaging in a hedonistic release of all responsibility, just because today is my birthday. Which is to say, I am completely happy with the choices I've made, and the obligations I've chosen to saddle myself with, and to be able to perform them all on my birthday is a delicious honor. I am so lucky to have these options, to have the freedom to work, to live, and to spend EVERY day as if it were my birthday...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Anacapa Island and... Inspiration Point!

So, I went on a camping trip last weekend-
It was one of those memorable times, when you meet people and have experiences that make you wish you never had to return to reality.
(Although, awesomely, reality really ISN"T so bad these days!!!)
But this was a trip that like a dream, settles in your memory like fine dust, tainting everything you do with a veil of giddy remembrances.
So what do I remember?
The boat out of Oxnard delayed 5 hours before we even left the dock... and subsequently getting to know my fellow campers over a pitcher before noon!
and then Laura falling in when we were loading the boat...
Climbing up the 150 stairs and quarter of a mile hike to the campground with two cases of 2.5 gallons of water and a cooler full of Tecate- (and some food)... Multiple times!
Accompanying my tent-mates as they carried out a midnight plan of water balloon ambushing complete with home made "3-man launching device."
Waking up at 5am to see the sunrise.
Waking up the next morning at 5am to squawking sea gulls tearing apart the trash bags and spreading trash all over the campsite!
Jumping off the cliff into the ICE-COLD FREEZING water. Woo hoo! Go adrenalin!
Never having to take a shower! Washing faces in melted ice cooler water! Squeezing into a clammy wetsuit! Spam for breakfast!

Dancing down the trail from Inspiration Point carrying my AWESOME little ipod player and rocking out to the best in classic funky 70's rock... (Plug: iMainGo- I LOVE it! This little thing definitely proved it's worth this weekend- it held up to the dance party ALLNITELONG!!!)

And- most inspiring of all- after turning my ipod to a most romantic and beautiful love song by Barry White (You're my first, my last, my everything)... looking up from the beautiful sunset to see Ben proposing to his girlfriend on one knee, ring in hand... Unbelievable to have been a part of such a special moment...

The rest of the weekend was just a blur- there were sea lions coming up to sniff our boat- we paddled through caves and even rode a mini-wave through the point (although nothing as exciting as the story Julian kept telling about how he was riding waves on the kayak LAST year ;-p

And then returning home, layered with dirt and salt...

Not having to fully unpack or put stuff away immediately- PRICELESS!!!!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

the moon again

the moon is full, it shines on the pacific ocean like a pathway to the santa monica pier as i drive from the palisades back home.

it steals my eyes from the road.

my body already feels light, muscles worn out and aching, because i've pushed them further than they wanted to go. but they feel happy now, whipped into shape and standing in line. tired and ready for dinner!

at home i'm packing and preparing for a camping and kayaking trip to the channel islands.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

summer in the city

mmmmmm...

summer is bringing breezes that cool the heat of my skin, and brighten the skies with moonlight that hurts my eyes. the clouds are mesmerizing. such an unbelievable beauty that floats right above the mundane disappointment of a tuesday night spent too late at work. it makes me so glad to be alive, summer does. it stretches my heart with aching, quiet angst. it makes me feel like i am in silence, even as i cross a busy intersection, alive with bright red and green traffic lights, headlights, and cars on agenda, quickly rushing by. i want to stop to enjoy it, to fully FEEL it. i want to stretch my imagination, my creativity, to include the beauty of this moment, to wrap it and deliver it, transformed somehow, into someone else's possibility.

the warmth of the night makes me feel as if it will never grow too late.
i can feel the branches, the leaves of the trees, stretching to enjoy the air.
fragrance wafts through the air- cut grass, flowers, garlic, asphalt.

sleep weighs my eyelids down in the afternoon. i use all my skills to maintain appearances of coherence, but when i turn to a friend, my defenses come down and a sentence comes out backwards.

and at night i revel in my free time.

i am amassing a library of books i will read. i dug out some old japanese modern lit from earl jackson's class in good old santa cruz. i ordered a book on the history of the indus river. i will finally read shantaram. i eat leftovers from my mother's kitchen, and i cook cold japanese noodles and eat them with tofu and salad.

i am going to dream of my future tonight.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Japan, continued, and more thoughts on reintegration

The rest of my trip went fairly uneventfully.

Went back to Tokyo, back to the Khaosan Annex Hostel across the bridge from the Asakusa Metro station.

I walked an awful lot across the bridge, in one direction, determined in the face of crisp morning fresh-after-a-rain air that once I crossed the bridge I would enter the train station and determine smoothly where I would be going, unhesitatingly descending the stairs to the tracks, in the right place for the right train, for once. Need I say there were problems? For all the organization in Japan, the Tokyo Metro is a confusing ball of yarn. It presents a neat and intricate puzzle for those of us who had come fresh from China and had been soothed by the plethora of signage in Western languages and the overwhelming politeness of the Japanese people. It was like the wink and nudge of an inside joke, as if to say, haha you foreigners! We have tried our utmost to extend our hospitality to those of you who are not from here, but there is certain inalienable information integral to Japan which just cannot be easily extricated and delivered (smug smile). Add that to the fact that somehow, amidst a seemingly large percentage of the population who do speak English, almost none of the people working at the side of the turnstiles did. This made for an unusually exciting and anxious feeling as I neared the train station, feeling my heart beat a little faster as I anticipated the future kerflummoxing of my plans for the day. I'll spare the details and avoid going into the hows and the whys of how this smart, well-traveled and experienced young girl was confused by such a thing. Just take my word for it, and enjoy the experience.

I mean, it wasn't like I was always totally lost. I always found my way, and reveled in the vindication when I finally arrived. This is what traveling is all about! Addressing the vast unknown and emerging victorious!

On the way to the hostel, again walking over that bridge, I invariably felt exhausted. My feet felt as if they would fall off. My boots were wonderful, but even they complained after the long days spent wandering around Tokyo.
-Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where you can take an elevator to the 45th floor and see Mount Fuji (maybe, on a good day)!
-Omotesando, Shibuya, and Harajuku! (Shopping galore, and $7 cups of coffee!)
-Nikko (oh boy was that a glorious exercise in train travel and transfers!)
-Kamakura (beautiful)

I'll put some pictures up when I get around to it.

I met my cousin and her husband.



They live in Shibuya, and we walked around the neighborhood a bit, took pictures and went shopping. I picked up some totally cute fashion finds, for low low prices, believe it or not. Japan does not HAVE to be expensive! They took me out to the most delicious tonkatsu lunch I have EVER had, hands down.



I went on day trips out to Nikko and Kamakura- both of which were really cool and totally worth leaving the hectic city of Tokyo for. Except I got totally lost on the trains to Nikko and got there after all the temples were closed... It was ok though- really nice to walk around in the twilight after all the tourists had gone home.

Kamakura reminded me of Kyoto, only with the ocean. Lots of walking and beautiful temples and scenery. I love that stuff. Very philosophical, although no philosopher's path per se.

I was constantly wishing and hoping and sending warm thoughts out to the cherry trees, but blossom-time did not fully explode while I was there. A couple of trees must have heard me though, because I saw some tree in bloom, lone harbingers of the clouds of pink and white that must be so beautiful right about now...

It was ok though, because I arrived home bang on time for the wisteria above the walkway to my door to be in full blast. And they smell so good!

Now I've been home for a couple of weeks- and I'm having a really hard time adjusting.
All this in spite of the beautiful surroundings of where I live- not just the wisteria overhead but the azaleas, the beautiful sunlight, the smell of the beach in the warm spring air- all of which reminds me that I happen to be LUCKY enough to LIVE in one of the most beautiful places on earth- and STILL I feel like someone's got hot coals under my feet, like I need to get up and go, pack that backpack and leave, book a ticket, collect my belongings and don't look back.

It's culture shock, some people say.

I think I didn't give myself enough downtime before starting the job search and all- it's been overwhelming. I just want to pack my backpack and leave town! I keep looking up flight info for various places. But it's no use running. So, I'm in the midst of comparing job offers and interviewing, and going out with old friends and trying to get to sleep before 3am! night owl by nature- it'll take starting work to get me back on schedule. I hope. Discipline at bed time has never been a strong suite.

Need I say that it took me a while to even get back into the spirit of things enough to continue writing here? Something happened, and for a brief moment there, I was drawn into a deep world of traveler angst, and I swirled around in a pool of dismay.

My simple daily schedule of wake-up-and-go-somewhere-really-cool-in-some-far-off-corner-of-the-world is gone, to be replaced by a room filled with tons of stuff to be organized, trashed or neatly put away, and there this looming prospect of having to start a long-awaited and promising career. Such expectations are bound to be intimidating.

I log onto facebook at hourly intervals and chat at midnight with my friends who are in different time zones. I chat at noon with people who are staying up too late. I wish I could be always living on the edge, at the boundary, somewhere in-between the here-and-now. I still think it's possible. But maybe that's why I'm in this limbo, this hazy foggy half-world where I'm never quite awake.

I take it that the fact of being inspired to write is a good sign.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Back

Back...
Back in the US.
Back to my old room, my old friends, my old life.
Thoroughly confused.
So much has changed! And yet it all looks so much the same.
Jet lag was rough.
Now I'm getting into the "soul-lag".

Old life, old patterns resurface and bob around, but find that they are swat down by reflexes quicker than conscious thought.
It's rather amusing to watch, because it's all new.
At the same time, I am stalled...
Don't want to get back on track.
I liked the track I was on- I never knew what was going to come up in the next town.
Now it's a new track.
Get used to it Akemi.

Monday, March 23, 2009

In retrospect

I am passing time in broad steps. The last few days have catapulted and somersaulted, assailing each other in attempt to reach me. I am trying, I am trying to stay away from them, but they still they reach out and grab me. Sounds have become muffled, my movements are irrelevant.

I will be leaving for the airport in half an hour.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Kyoto was awesome

Ah, the joys of hostel life!
Kyoto actually worked out really well.
The other 6 in the room with me turned out to be quite decent, so I had some company as I trekked around Kyoto for three days. It's nice to make friends on the road.
And Kyoto was wonderful and beautiful. Peaceful, picturesque and charming. Breathtaking even. And WARM! Able to walk around with short sleeves for the first time in a month. I had been feeling quite proud of my Californian self being able to tolerate the 0 degree weather in Beijing until the Canadian I was hanging out with told me that it was 30 below in Edmonton at the moment... 30 below celcius!
The hostel was in an ideal location. Smack in the middle of town, within walking distance to a few train stations, restaurants, Gion and some temples.
Plug: bAK pAK Gion Hostel, booked via hostelbookers.com.

So after being spoiled at my aunt's house in Osaka, I was ready to tackle the trains and trekking the trails in Kyoto. It's not as small as Nara, so what looked like a decent walking distance on the map frequently ended up being pretty far... But the exercise was good to burn off those huge meals I was eating!

The temple complexes were beautiful- many had extensive grounds and beautiful gardens. You could spend all day at one.

The bamboo groves were enchanting... Hearing the wind through the leaves, seeing the light filtering down greenly... It didn't really matter where you walked, every road had something interesting. Omoshiroi.

Philosopher's Path- leading you down beside a small creek in a quaint neighborhood, kind of reminded me of the Venice canal area in LA, but even cuter. The neighborhoods here are all so tiny- roads barely fit the cars that drive down them, the train crossings looked like toy train tracks! And the trains were always so colorful. My favorite was the green velvet seats in the Keihan Line. I would always fall asleep navigating my way home, on the heated seats.

The best was yesterday afternoon's mission- getting from the Philosopher's Path to Fushimi-Inari Ji before dusk... Walking through endless neighborhoods, passing other shrines along the way that were also totally cool- but having to pass them by because we were on a mission... Including Nazen-ji shrine, which was the breathtaking one- first glimsped through the pine trees at a distance- enormous wooden building like a silhouette at first- materializing into a fantastic scale that dwarfed the trees around it, hazy in the cooling afternoon air, which was UNSEASONABLY WARM!!!!

It gets even better. We hop on a train and make it to Fushimi-Inari as the sky is darkening- but the lanterns leading up were lit, so we kept going. This shrine is known for the thousands and thousands of torii gates that were constructed into tunnel-like pathways that traverse for miles up and around the mountain, and also by foxes. It was unbelievable. Especially at night... It got dark, and there were very few adventurous souls out hiking up through the torii gates at this time. Every so often there would be a break in the tunnel and there would be a cluster of shrines. Lit up by lanterns and streetlights, it was dramatic and mysterious. The dominating color was bright orange, the color of the torii gate. You could buy little gates and add them to the collections on various shrines. You could buy big gates too- there were tons and tons. At what we thought was the top, we sat down to rest, and were joined by a couple of badgers. Magical! Chilled up there with them for a few minutes, and then attempted to find the way down. Went another way, just to see more, realized we were going the wrong way when we ended up walking down a path with absolutely no lights, but it was lined by a musical little stream... Wow... Upon backtracking we realized that we hadn't reached the top, and were in fact nowhere near the top... Looking up from certain points you could see the lanterns highlighting the characteristic orange color high above our heads. These torii gates were truly a formidable monument.

Hiked back down just in time to reach the hostel before 9:00pm, to pick up my bags from storage, grab a quick bite from the 24 hours supermarket Fresco next door, and head out for the bus station for my 23:10 bus. Which was really not bad- utterly unremarkable in fact. Sat in seat 1A, in a ladies only row, and once I figured out how to recline the chair I was able to pass out on my inflatable neck pillow (Lifesaver, that one!). Recliner seats aren't all that comfortable, but I'd take it any day over stinky feet blanket beds. The road was nice too, no airborne moments!

7 hours later, I woke up at Tokyo Station and subwayed it back to Khaosan Asakusa Annex Hostel, where I'll be staying for the next 5 nights. The girl at check-in told me I should stay another week, because the cherry blossoms will be in full bloom by then. Right now they are just starting, a few trees here and there blossoming. I'm tempted, I'm very very tempted.

For now, I will take things as they come. Heading out to the musuem in Ueno park again... Had attempted it when I first arrived in Tokyo, but I was truly disoriented at that time. Had to recoup from China- it took me a couple of days! Feeling much better now and ready for anything.

Peace out gang, until later.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Nara and last day in Osaka

Osaka has been great. I didn:t know what to expect from meeting my relatives, but was thoroughly happily surprised.

My mom:s cousin has been spoiling me rotten- baths every night, breakfast every morning, dinner every evening. Delicious every time! Classic Japanese food. In contrast to the food in China, I recognize many of the flavors here. It comes from my grandmother, faithfully serving up traditional Japanese food at all important occasions. So while I was truly surprised at many of the Chinese flavours, here in Japan it:s like coming home. Not to mention all the delicious street foods- today I had fresh mochi made in front of my eyes! And 7-11 sells all kinds of sushi fast food- nothing at all like the nasty old hot dogs and weird sandwiches they have in the US.

Last night I met my two little baby cousins, aged 2 and 5. Nina and Aina- two adorable little tornados! During the course of the evening they took every cushion off the couches, tormented the kitty, opened and closed all the doors in the house, rolled around on the floor, rode on the toy tractor and threw the wooden balls from the toy rollercoaster all over the floor. Then we had dessert and they drew pictures. Their parents were great- their mom, Aki, showed me pictures of Aina in her cheerleading outfit, and of the cutest Girl:s Day bento lunch she made with food that looked like the Girl:s Day hina dolls. Their father threw them up in the air as they screamed. It was great, being a part of this little family! My mom:s cousin had made a sushi dinner, with chirashi sushi rice topped with baby squid, and uni on the side. There was vegetable tempura, and for dessert, inside out mochi and green tea ice cream. A beautiful family moment.

Another cool thing- I learned how to spell my name! My grandmother had it written on the back of a picture, and my cousin wrote it again for me. Then I looked it up online and found that the meaning really is something like the ocean at dawn. She said it was a difficult character even for her to write.

Today I went to Nara. Took the train. Love the train. It puts me right to sleep, with the comfy heated seats and rhythmic motion.

Saw a bunch of cool temples- Toddai-ji, the biggest wooden structure in the world, with a huge Buddha inside. Nara National Museum had a bunch of Buddhas and Boddhisatvas inside, demonstrated the path of Buddhism from India through China and finally to Japan, merging and finding a place next to Shintoism. Kaisuga Taisha was a big temple complex located at the base of a hill, in the middle of a forest. By the time I wandered over there it was getting dark, so the crowds of people had gone home, and it was just me and a bunch of greedy deer. They get used to getting deer cookies which are sold everywhere. So the deer come nosing up to you, scaring the children, looking for treats. But it was really nice to be there quite alone. The paths were lined with stone lanterns and Shinto gateways. This was the traditional peaceful, restful Japan that I wanted to see. I wandered around until it got too dark to see, plus it was cold and I was hungry.

Tomorrow I:m leaving this sanctuary and heading out for Kyoto. It:s all hostels from here on out, plus one night on an overnight bus. Gotta have at least one overnight bus experience in Japan to compare with India and China, right? It almost doesn:t seem fair!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Thoughts

Yeah, the trip has really changed me- introspectively, philosophically. I:m in the final stretch now, and I never could have predicted the point to which I:ve come! It took me a couple of months to leave my previous state of mind. Now I have been wrenched into another reality. Actually, another way to say it would be that I have gotten to know my self better. I look at the model of job, marriage, children, house, etc and feel like it is an ideal dream, something I more-than-half-but-not-quite-whole-heartedly aspired to but didn:t really know how to get started getting. Is it really for me? I still want security and a family, but in my style. And I can:t limit myself to waiting or hoping.
I think this marks another stage of growing up. I don:t think there:s a particular age at which people learn this- I just came to this stage later. And with much introspection. I:ve always been a late bloomer! I mean, what:s so innovative about realizing that you are unique, and that no one else is going to live life the way you do? And then taking that idea and running with it, not worrying about the way other people have lived their lives, or being sideswiped by your own expectations of how you think you should live yours. Basically, there are more things I want out of life, and I know they aren:t going to happen unless I make it happen.
Do I prefer loneliness and a path less traveled than a stable, settled family life? I:m not too into the loneliness part, but I don:t want to `settle`. I don:t think I am going to settle down in any conventional way, and now I have to figure out how I will do it.
For now I:m planning to come back to LA (I may still decide to prolong the return- not sure yet) and start working (of course). First bill comes due in May. (Unless I postpone it, which is possible).
Here:s to the world, and how small it is, and the possiblities that travel opens up, here:s to the future! Here:s to life!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Modern day roots

You know you:re somewhere special when your favorite place to be is the bathroom, and not for any of the wrong reasons. Did I mention the heated toilet seats?

I:m being treated like a queen here in Osaka, it:s no joke. For the second night in a row, my aunty knocked on the door to tell me the bath was ready- internal sensors that pipe in more hot water when it starts to cool down...

Overall, I:ve had really great experiences meeting people on the road. People have been kind and hospitable, have invited me into their homes with no reservations, shared food, stories and had many a laugh. All this despite language barriers, age and cultural differences.

And now, meeting my relatives for the first time has just been unbelievable. And to get along with them so well.

They are my mother:s cousins. They took me all around Osaka today- I was the one who ended up falling asleep in the bus on the way from the castle to Namba shopping district, and again on the train on the way home. They were so gracious, so patient.

We went to the aquarium and looked at the fishes. Whale sharks and manta rays. Sea otters, penguins and jellyfish. There was a huge ferris wheel. The manta ray was pretty cool. He had another fish stuck to him. Swimming in a constant vortex, around and around. Why do the sun fish look so - unfinished? Like a glob of playdoh smushed up. And they look at you like they want to say something, blinking their eyes. They are the heaviest known bony fish in the world. They have an average adult weight of 1,000 kg.

Namba shopping district was awesome- I:ll be going back there tomorrow to check out the clothes in, ahem, greater detail. The girls here are all wearing a similar fashion- a short loose dress over tights or thigh high socks, and knee high boots. I already have the dress part...

We had famous Okinawa food for dinner- Okinoyomi. Special to the Osaka region. They bring this delicious potato mash up and it fries up in front of you on the table like in teppanyaki but way more casual. Also some smoked oyster with noodles thing and an eggy pancake with arugula and octopus to dip in ponzu sauce. Wow! Dessert was azuki bean cake and corn tea. I can:t wait for tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Are there haunted houses in heaven or am I in Amsterdam? I mean Japan?!

Japan is unreal, surreal, and everything in between.

I have returned to the motherland, to the homeland, to a land of mythical proportions. Maybe it`s always this way when you finally go to a country you are supposedly `from` and yet have never been to.
I have had expectations formed in my head about Japan as long as I can remember... What I really never considered was actually being here...
So it was totally unreal to land and actually be here... Can I repeat that yet again?! I can`t believe I`m really here!!!
In fact, it`s taken a few days to really get into it- it took me longer than I thought it would. I was in complete disbelief for the first few days, floating around in a weird kind of limbo. Beijing was just cold and weird for the last week, all alone after three weeks of constant company. In contrast, Japan was easy- convenient and very non-scary... But still new and different. And I had to make a bunch of decisions about my schedule for the next week- I wanted to have a plan to get to see and do everything I wanted before D-Day...

(And by the way, I ended up extending the trip. I will be back on the 24th instead of the 18th. Just a few more days but... I wouldn`t put it past myself to extend it even more. The temptation is too great- I know that once I get back to LA it will be hard to leave. I just want to stay gone... In my dreamy, surreal, traveler fantasyland...)

Anyways, I need to stop saying xie xie, and get used to saying arigato gozaimashita!
Sayonara, not zai jian!
No more bu yao! Nobody`s tried to sell me anything yet!
The toilet seats are heated!
Many people speak English, and they seem more concerned than annoyed when you ask them frantic questions about whether or not this is the right train stop.

So, let me back up and tell you the story of when I first arrived. (No, it`s not that interesting, but let me just tell you anyway!)

I checked into the Khaosan Asakusa Annex hostel, where I slept in the 8 bed female dorm room. It was clean, warm and cozy (with those amazing heated toilet seats!)
Got online and discovered that Gary and Jane were staying in a hotel near by, and we made plans that night to meet up for dinner. It was really nice to see them again and reminisce about the good old days- over a lovely Indian meal with some really nice red wine! They walked me back to the hostel and I bid them adieu for the billionth time...

The next day I met up with a friend of a friend, who had another friend in town from the US as well, so we all walked around Asakusa- visited a shrine, saw a ninja comedy show, and ate deep fried mochi.

Then we went to Tokyo Bay, where we encountered the BEST haunted house experience I`ve ever had- Talk about surreal! This experience now rates as one of my most favorite moments of all time. Not much really scares me, but this time, I ran out screaming!

So, it`s in the mall, this haunted house, and Dee Jae, the guy who lives in Tokyo, was like, you guys should go into this haunted house. And we were like, naw, whatever, we`ve been in haunted houses before. We`d rather save our $$ for sushi. But he was like, well, have you seen any Japanese horror movies? And I thought to myself- good point. Japanese people have really scary ghosts.

Basically, you are sent into the haunted house with a red flashlight and a mission. It`s very small, really. You have to find a table inside, put the card on it, clap three times and bow. That will stop the ghost from persecuting you. It seemed simple enough, but what a concept! We went in together, me and Jasmine, holding our red flashlight. The door swings shut behind us and all you can see is a shabby looking interior of a shack, with the occasional disembodied head or busted Japanese lantern. It was really hard to see anything, and nothing was really happening. I didn`t want to swing the light around too much in fear of seeing something I didn`t want to see, so we`re basically just walking quickly through it. Then the noises started and boxes started shaking. Then it would get quiet again... Then we would walk quickly by whatever it was, and then jump out of our skin as people popped out from behind something else. It got a little mazelike and we had to push past dead bodies hanging from nooses... Once we tried to go back, and a head popped out and said `No!` Man, we clapped so hard when we saw the table with the cards on it, and the ghosts were running up behind us, saying `Arigato! Arigato!` and we ran the heck outta there! It was awesome! Man, the psychology behind it was genius- what an adrenaline rush- tons better than a roller coaster! I don`t think writing about it here really did it any justice- it`s something you just have to experience- thank you Dee Jae!

Later that night we went to an all you can eat/ all you can drink for 90 minutes spot, and I got home quite happy. The next day I spent time at the train station planning the rest of the trip... Which brings me to the next surreal but also most awesome and wonderful Japanese experience.

Two of my friends, Jackamo and Osei, from capoeira, had been called on to work in Japan for a few weeks. I was excited that I would be there at the same time, so I resolved to meet up with them. First of all, Jack tells me they`re at Huis Ten Bosch at an amusement park in the very southern part of Japan... looking it up online was not helpful, because all I find is information in Japanese or Dutch... Dutch?! Yes, Huis Ten Bosch turned out to be a spot-on replica of Amsterdam in Japan- What!!!??? Yeah, they`ve got tulips and windmills, cobblestones, and CHEESE!!!

And of course, the Dream Circus. Jack and Osei were performing with the Kenyan Fire Limbo troupe- yes, ladies and gentlemen, Fire Limbo! Our versatile CBLA capoeiristas are capable of anything, and I have the videos to prove it! (Coming soon, I promise). Again, it was awesome! There was Mitch the clown, there was Tyler, a ten year old juggling virtuoso, there was a woman who came out with like twenty trained cats, trained CATS!!! There was a family who did the tightrope act, and people balancing on poles meters high in the air which in turn were balanced by a man holding the pole on his chin... There was so much. I got to meet the performers and hang with them offstage- lovely people. I even got a bear hug from Funtik the Russian bear- Boris had me posing for all kinds of pictures- me and Funtik! Wow!

Thank you SO MUCH to Winny and Kiyomi and the entire circus crew for being so warm and welcoming. I felt like I made a bunch of new friends, even though I was only there for a few days. It was doubly (triply-quadrupely!) great to see some old friends, good people whom I`ve known for such a long time- it really picked up my spirits and reminded me of how much I do love my life back in the states, and how special my friends are to me... And to all my friends I`ve met along the way, you are all in my life because you are special, and because we found a common bond- life is great in that way. We are all a conglomeration of the love we spread around- and what goes around comes around. I can`t wait to host my new friends when you come to visit! I love you all! sniff sniff- I get so sentimental sometimes!

Anyways, back to the story... breakfast! It had been so long since I had cereal- man, was it good! A huge breakfast buffet in the mornings- Western and Eastern, eggs, sausage, fruit and yogurt, and on the other side was fish, miso soup, rice porridge and pickles! I ate it all, it was so good.

So after seeing the show yesterday, we chilled out for bit, practicing floreios on the mats, teaching the circus kids how to do au sem mao- then we headed for town, in search of the shoe stores and carousel sushi- both of which we found. It was me, Jackamo, Osei and David (unicycler extraordinaire)- we took the train one stop into the town of Haiki. A really nice man helped us with directions, and it turned out he was a janitor at Huis Ten Bosch- super nice guy, with really good English skills. The walk towards the shoe place was peaceful and scenic. It was dusk, and the moon was almost full, starting to shine bright in the twilight. We tried to take pictures to capture the moment. Jackamo noted that taking pictures of the moon can never do it justice. We encountered a shrine along the way- watched a taxi driver stop the car with his passenger inside get out to pay homage- he did the same clapping three times and bowing thing that I was supposed to do inside the haunted house- interesting... Walking over a bridge, we saw a crane walking elegantly across the shallows- such a beautiful Japanese image.

Then... we went shopping!!! Thank god the boys I was with were also into trying on clothes, because I was like a loose cannon in there- `Mac House`- Japanese styles at fairly reasonable prices, at sizes that fit, and I finally bought some new trousers! I mean jeans! I can`t tell you how good it felt to put on some different clothes the next day, after 2 months of the same. I was jumping for joy.

I jumped around even more when we found the carousel sushi place- the only down side was they didn`t have sake, but with $1 plates, who could argue?! They had Sapporo on draft and all was good with the world. In fact, I believe they went back again tonight, while I have moved on to Osaka. I boarded the train this morning, loaded down with a couple more kilos granted by me NEW CLOTHES! Headed off to meet my Grandma`s niece, relatives I have never met. Happy and apprehensive.

Before leaving today I had a chance to catch the MC Escher 3D movie- hyper-surreal, as I see Japan is master of...

And on to Osaka. My mom`s cousin met me in the train station- I don`t know how she recognized me but I was so happy to see her! She was so nice... This story just keeps getting better and better. I didn`t know what to expect, meeting a relative I had never met before, in a country I had never been, which I was supposed to be from but don`t even speak the language. Well, we got along just fine. Her English is fine, perfect for basic communication. We took the train back to the Ashiya station, and she showed me how to get home on my own (where to catch the taxi) and we hopped in her car and zoomed off. We were greeted by George the jumping barking dog, and the meowing cat. (I think that cat might have been hungry enough to walk a tightrope for a meal!) She prepared a wonderful delicious meal of meat loaf, rice, beef stew, and brocolli and crab salad, follwed by azuki bean cake for dessert. And green tea. I was so happy and full. She showed me pictures of my sister and cousins when they came to visit years ago, and even brought out the ones of herself at 22 when she went to the states- my mom was there, my dad and my uncle! All so young- they looked like they could have been friends of mine, in authentic 50s outfits. So then, (this story is about to get better yet...) she shows me the bathroom, where there is a hot bath prepared... Oh my god- I will have to install a Japanese bathroom in my castle one day (when I get a castle ;-) Wow... Next to the bathtub is the shower area, which is bathed in warm air blasting from the ceiling. But the bathtub, the bathtub! It`s like 4 feet deep, and filled with sudsy water kept at a constant 45 degrees- temperature monitored and controlled! What luxury, what heaven!

And to top it all off, there is a laptop in my room and I can sit here typing happily away for hours and hours, free from net bars, free from fees, free from chain smoking Chinese gamers- man I told you, Japan is UNREAL! I finally feel comfortable again, my astral is rising (that`s a Portuguese term) and my faith and wonder in the world is once again, renewed.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

China, zai jian!

Last day in China.
What a TRIP!
Didn't think it would end up like this- China was just like every Chinatown I've ever been to, and yet NOTHING like what I expected.
I've seen more scenic mountains than I can remember. I've been pushed and shoved but got back up again. I drank memorable mushroom tea, and ate the ma-laa spice. I learned to say "I love you" and "I don't want it!" and used both terms liberally! China has succeeded in challenging my every conception of what I thought was normal. I wonder how it has changed me. I'll let you know. ;-)

In the meantime, please enjoy this sample menu:

The Shiitake Mushroom Flower Rubber Cooks the Lean Meat
Sheet Iron Eggplant Ammunition Pouch
Fish with Acid Cabbage
Green Beans Fry the Salt Fish Pig Neck Meat
Speculation Black Goat
The Clear Fighting Cock Willow Tree Explodes the Pine Mushroom
Lightly Fries Does Fragrant
Granulated Substance Nest Hyacinth Bean Silk
Hot Donkey in Pot
Intestines in Pot

Monday, March 2, 2009

Back in action

So this morning I woke up all quiet and lazy.
No place to go, no one to meet.
It was nice, in the yellow room with the rainbow drapes.

I did laundry, then spent all morning in the foreign language bookstore, copying stuff out of the Japan Lonely Planet. (Foreign language- because in China, English IS a foreign language! Haha.) Noticed that on the map in the back someone had gone in and written a lowercase "t" over the uppercase "T" in Taiwan. National pride goes deep, I tell ya.

The first thing I did when I left the house (ok, hotel) was to go to that little Kodak photo shop and DOWNLOAD MY PHOTOS TO DVD!!!! It took two DVDs and 60 yuan to transfer everything- I've just about filled up the 8 gig memory card. Whew- so glad I was given this second chance NOT to be stupid.

I continued down the street on the way to the bookstore.

Was hungry, so I poked my head into this little shop that looked like it had some bowls of yogurt and muffins in the display case. Couldn't properly identify any of the bowls of stuff- it LOOKED like yogurt, and it LOOKED like it might be tasty, but most- no, I'll say pretty much EVERY taste expectation here in China has been cruelly undermined by something like salty pickle when you were expecting sweet bean, or nice big chuncks of deep fried sweet and sour pork FAT intstead of pork MEAT... (On a side note, the funniest one was the bread sandwich- yeah, it looked like there might have been meat inside, but it was just more bread! Hilarious.) There was one time in the Shanghai subway when I actually bought something that ended up being exactly what I had secretly hoped it might be.

Well anyways, I was standing there contemplating this yogurt-looking stuff, and I noticed a beautiful sound- it was coming from behind the counter- it wasn't a stereo, it was the shopkeeper, and she was singing... Like the voice of an angel, it brought tears to my eyes. It was unreal. The word "singing" is too brash a word for the sweet texture of sound that poured from her.

And she was so gracious- I was just standing there, dumbfoundedly staring at her. She smiled at me, and I told her she sounded beautiful (Language barrier be damned! But she understood me). She held herself with pride and compassion, and helped me choose something to eat. It is actually pretty rare that people have been helpful in choosing food at a restaurant, so I really felt like I was in a dream. I sat down and ate, and she kept singing, occasionally interupted by the telephone or an oblivious customer. The yogurt was strange, it had a taste kind of like old socks, but the muffin was good. I sat there mesmerized.

I was reading up on Beijing today, and it mentioned how internet access is increasingly more and more rare. There are people employed by the government to scour websites for anti-government propaganda. About 10% of all websites available online are restricted access from inside China. In addition, these net bars SUCK!!! They are not for normal people to come and check their email or update their blogs. I am sitting next to crazed young Chinese chain smokers playing online computer games for hours. It is unbelievably disgusting- the heaters are on high, it's too warm and the air is hazy from cigarette smoke. The guy next to me lights up his cigaratte and I may just as well be smoking too. Ugh. I may not be back here too much more before I leave- hopefully Japan is better. Please everybody! Boycott cigarettes! Don't allow your body to be controlled by nasty selfish perpetuators of self-pity, disease and scum. Ugh! Disgusting! I can't wait until the rest of the world catches up to the idea of forbidding indoor smoking like the US, India and England- not sure where else it is banned. I suppose China still has a ways to go. The big thing on the news these days is discussions regarding setting up a Chinese food safety comission. First things first.
Peace. I'm out before I suffocate.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

MIA

Yes, I have been missing. Sorry!!! I'm fine, everything is fine. Internet cafes have been scarce/nonexistent/really far from our hotel. I have had limited access via Sunny's (our intrepid tour leader-guide) computer, but I can't monopolize it and spend hours as I generally do when I write these notes. And, I've just been lazy, enjoying spending time with my new bunch of friends- (MORE rice wine!).

Onwards! Back to the blog! (The security guard at the hostel where I'm staying was nice enough to walk with me to this net bar- I never would have found it otherwise. But now I know, and I'll be able to come back and update regularly, at least until I leave for Japan on Friday.)

Let's see... The last I wrote was in Wulishan, sitting in a dark and smoky "net bar" with a bunch of Chinese gamers as they whiled away the hours as it rained outside.
That night we ate at a restaurant where they had various cut up animal pieces inside a giant display cooler- there was poultry and pig, beef and some other interesting pieces- one was a bear, it's claw and fur still on. There were live frogs and other squirmy fishy food.

The next day we went on another hike through more scenic and rainy mountains of which China has a plethora. I've seen so many scenic mountains- and rightly so- these rainy mountains were the very ones that inspired the Chinese landscape paintings that inspired this very trip to China for me!

Anyways, Shanghai was a blur- but one of the highlights was visiting Instrutor Gueirrero's (Cordao de Ouro) capoeira class, and coming with him the next day to help out with a performance at a kidnergarten! 150 little Chinese kids- they loved it! Oh, and the BEST FOOD EVER- the night after the class we ate Chinese Muslim food and ordered so much food 13 hungry capoeiristas couldn't finish it- kebabs, cucumber salad, and so many other dishes it was all a blur... And after the performance, the best Brazilian barbecue I've ever had- and I spent 7 months in Brasil- and it wasn't a result of not having any other type of food except for Chinese for a month previous. THE FOOD WAS DELICIOUS!!! Rodizio-style- the meat kept coming out of the kitchen! Guarana, feijao e arroz, batata frita, pao de queijo fresh out of the oven, doce de aborbora e doce de leite... The all-you-can-eat salad bar was splendid- and so was the service, amazingly enough, an anomaly in China. And the price? 88 yuan- divide that by 6.8. About 13 USD. Damn straight, one of the best meals ever.

Then what... Xi'an and the terracotta warriors.

Speaking of service- Sunny had told us that Xi'an was not generally known for customer service. Against his advice we ate at DeFang's house of Delicious Superior Dumplings in Xi'an- how could you go wrong with a title like that? Well, the dumplings weren't bad, per se. They were ok. Just ok. It was the service that made it worse- asking for us to pay a couple of seconds after we received our warm beers, then clearing our plates before we were finished eating. That on top of the sound of meowing cats coming from the kitchen. I suppose that indicated that were no rats. Hopefully. We saw lots of rats in Wulishan.

Anyways! The terracotta warriers were everything they said they would be. Interesting, and worth the trip, but not as awe-inspiring as the Taj Mahal. Not much can top the Taj Mahal. There was an introductory video shown on a very old surround-screen style theater. Innovative, I'm sure, for a film made in 70's or 80's China. I'm sure it was very informative, but it was all in Chinese. We had fun turning around to see the events unfold in front of as well as behind us. We had a local guide who waved a flag around that we had to follow. She was very enthusiastic with her explanations about the history- we just weren't used to following a flag.
Other than that, Xi'an didn't have much. It was cold. The Muslim quarters had some pretty good street food- fried balls of persimmon dough stuffed with sweet sesame seeds, pancakes stuffed with an egg and fried, other pancakes stuffed with spicy noodles and meat with onion, and roasted chestnuts. Mostly very greasy and dripping with oil. I'm actually almost used to the oil by now. Doesn't really phase me. I just eat it. There's not much of an option as far as healthy food out here. The Swedish girls had started to opt out of many of the group dinners that we had in Chinese restaurants. They just didn't like the food, the heads on the fishes, the random live animals swimming about in tanks in the front, the bear claws or the dead rats on the floor- most of the time they ended up at McDonalds or KFC. Yeah, China is a world away...

Next stop- Beijing. Wow- I've caught up! Almost. It's cold here! We were so excited to see snow on the ground in front of the hotel, throwing snowballs at each other! Frozen fingers, leg warmers and wool socks and hat are par for the day.
Day one: Summer Palace. Quite nice- a summer resort for the emperors. The lake was frozen over and there was snow everywhere. Lots of bridges to islands with pagodas on them. We walked around for 4 hours. On the way home we went to the Olympic Center, and saw the Birdsnest and the Water Cube up close and personal. The Birdsnest was quite imposing, in a shockingly uninspiring way. It looked quite... UGLY! I guess on TV, with lighting and swooping angles, the imagination fills in the details and doesn't acknowlege how a building of such stature could fail to be at least- nice looking?! In person it looks unfinished, as if someone forgot to file down the edges, or give it a nice polish. The lines are not clean, and don't seem to make sense. I suppose it's a feat of architecture that it can remain standing, and it will certainly maintain a name for itself in history. But wow! The other buildings are really nice, actually. The water cube is also incredibly tacky, but with the blue luminescent glow at sunset, becomes a sort of larger than life amusement-park style kind of building. I became quite emotional actually, staring at it from behind the fence, imagining the Olympic athletes entering the building for the first time, all nervous excitement and anticipation. I remember that feeling from my old days of competition. I savor those moments and wish I could experience them all over again, knowing what I know now. I love competition! I didn't acknowlege that part of myself fully back then- now, I'm ready for it. Bring it!
So we bought tickets and went inside- 30 yuan just to go inside. Worth it! Got to stare at the competition pool, the dive pool, the warmup pool. All empty, shimmering glasslike surface of blue water. With an exciting echo that one hears in a swimming hall or gymnasium. It's a shame actually. I would have wished to see it full of clamouring little kids and old ladies taking swimming lessons and water aerobics. It seemed like a crystalline monument to unattainable perfection, a place to revere the athletes that passed through during the Olympics and all they worked for- which is great! But these athletes had to start somewhere, and these buildings have the potential to inable society a step up towards health and vitality. Physical activity should be accessible to everyone... Actually, I really don't know what China plans to do with these facilities. For all I know there are swimming lessons on Fridays only, or every other Monday... There's still a lot about China that really confuses me.

So let's see- the next day we went off to climb the Great Wall! One of the best highlights of the tour- 10 kilometers over a remote section of the wall, over rugged stretches of broken bricks, across snowy side-paths, trailed by incessant souvenier-sellers... Beautiful! We finished by taking a "flying fox", hooked up to a wire and sailing out over a resevoir of clear green water. What a great day. Pictures will speak for me when I get a chance to add them.

Of course we had a tour of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden city. We saw General Mao's picture hanging up in front of the square, with the eyes painted to look like they are following you. The Forbidden City came out great in the photographs, but walking through it took forever. Endless courtyards upon courtyards. Our guide regaled us with stories of emperors, conquests, concubines and eunuchs.

Following that, we paid a visit to one of the social projects that Intrepid supports. It's a school for mentally disabled adults. They fed us lunch, then put on a performance. It was one of the best things I've seen or done this entire trip- India and Dubai included. They sang Jingle Bells, and made us all stand up and join in. They had so much enthusiasm! Fully putting their hearts into their performance, singing off key and clapping off beat, all with the utmost conviction. There was the dance with the masks, a girl and a boy huge painted face masks, doing a very strange modern sort of interpretive dance to music box music. Excellent. There were other singing performances. There was the dance of the cute girl and the silly donkey. But above all, I liked the bullfight- OMG it was the BEST! I wish I had it on film, I would watch it over and over, any time I had any doubts. About anything. It uplifted my spirits and made me cry at the same time.
Then we went inside and they gave us a calligraphy lesson. It was great. We learned how to write the Chinese characters for happiness, and I love you.
And we finished up by playing a round of kick the flying feathered hackey sack-type thing. Excellent all around! The best time ever!

For our last dinner together, we went out for Beijing Duck. The funny thing was, it was probably the best Chinese dinner we had so far, and yet the duck wasn't even that great. It was everything else. Fried pork, the eggplant/potato/pepper dish, the egg and tomato dish, um, I don't remember what else- oh, the fried banana fritters dipped in melted candy coating... The duck was ok. The beer was warm. The wine was quite good- Chinese wine, Great Wall label!

There was quite a terrible moment of awfulness a couple of days ago, when I thought I lost my camera. We had gone out to a club- (Banana Babyface) where I was taking photos and getting told not to take pictures- and that was the last I saw of the camera for the next two days. Sunny took me to the police station to file a report, (thank you Sunny) it took two hours and we were dead tired- and we tried calling the club to see if they found it- they couldn't help us. I was retracing my steps over and over in my mind, wishing I hadn't brought the camera out to the club, I was ruing the fact that I hadn't backed up any of my photos- and I was feeling SO STUPID! 8 gigs of photos from the entire trip. Well, THANK GOD! luck was with me. As Sunny was wrapping up business with the hotel staff, they simply handed him the camera. A security guard had found it and turned it it. Wow. I was overjoyed and grateful- life was right again- and I found a caribiner and have pinned that camera to me and will never let it go. And I will be backing it up later today. Ah... so happy.

And with that, so ends the story of Sunny's Intrepid Tour group. Nobody hurt, sick (majorly ;-)) or otherwise put out. We made lifelong friends and shared unforgettable moments. I was unsure at first about the wiseness of my decision to take a tour together with a bunch of strangers through a country I wasn't sure I wanted to be in anymore, at the end of a trip I was tired of taking, but in the end it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. This is one of the wonderful things about traveling. (I reiterate, I know!) Meeting other people and learning new ways to look at life. Changing and growing, adapting, learning and becoming different people. This is the life I want to lead. I am so thankful that I am able to DO and BE all these things.

I leave for Japan on Friday- still have 5 more days in Beijing. I can't believe it's March already! It seems like I looked away for just a moment, and all these things happened and time passed- I'll be home in less than a month! And I still have another country to experience- Life just keeps getting better, I swear.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Back to the mainland

So, I have joined up with the Intrepid group and I am back on the mainland, and back in Yangshuo.

Here are a few thoughts, as I quickly jot them down in the lobby of a hotel.

BTW, I was drooling over those new little small computers they have now, the Fujitsu M1010, the HP mini, the Acer something... I would love to have a) constant internet access, as there are many places with free wifi but not so many places with a free computer, much less a computer that has Skype! b) a place to store my files and bookmarks, c) a place to write whenever I want- I type so much faster than I write, I'm just spoiled I guess. I could just carry the old analog journal with me :-P

Introspection-
Hong Kong was great. It was so nice to have a place where I could recoup and recover from the culture shock of mainland China- which I didn't believe would affect me as much as it did. Even now, back in mainland, I feel it. I'm glad I've had the experience already, so that I can take a theoretical step back and talk myself out of the sort of dejection and weariness I feel at not being understood, nor being able to understand, either my language or theirs... Including being taken for a whimiscal trustee of tons of money that I just don't mind spending at the slightest provocation or accident. Perhaps some of that comes from being in Yangshuo, which has been so overrun by foreign tourists that reality is a little twisted. Since the Chinese people don't understand (nor how could they be expected to) much of the random mix of foreign culture that ends up here, they interpret foreign behavior to their advantage. So unscrupulous vendors end up with this smiling, confident attitude- have you heard of the adage "Act as if"? For example- act as if you will win this race, act as if you already have the job, etc, when you are entering a stressful situation. So these shop vendors act as if you will be buying their product, as if you will be buying loads of their product, and at ridiculously high prices, and not even noticing that there is a rip in the seam, and the pieces are not all intact. The fruit may be bruised, and how did he manage to weigh the laundry without putting it on the scale? Anyways, I am not complaining. I just told him to put it on the scale! This has happened to me everywhere there are buyers and sellers. Fortunately, every so often there is someone who understands the value of their work, who does not try to rip you off, and shopping becomes a very pleasant exchange of money for an object of worth.
In those other situations however, I have found myself a bit buggered. (I learned a new word from my Australian roomie.) Tensions may run a little high, and I notice that I am mounting a defense between myself and an unfamiliar "other". It's happened when I was traveling alone, and with friends, and even now. It's happened when I'm with all Chinese people, and also when I'm the only American amongst a bunch of westerners of other types. It's even happened when I'm with a bunch of Americans. The issue is not always buying and selling. I've developed the following way to deal with it- it's to notice the defense, then intentionally drop it. I use my words and actions to demonstrate that I do not mean a defense, that I intend to extend my humanity towards understanding the "other". And usually, it works. This, folks, must be what they call civilization! Being civil towards one another during moments of misunderstanding.

Anyways, what helped was the glittering glitz and glamour on the streets of Hong Kong. The familiar hustle and bustle of many people of many cultures walking about under neon lights, dodging cabs, in front of glamorous storefront displays. Tiffany's, Louis Vitton, Giorgio Armani. It reminded me of New York. There was still quite a Chinese presence in Hong Kong, there were still many Chinese stores and Chinese babies, old men on bicycles and storefronts filled with hanging meats and roots and herbs. But this all seemed quite normal to me, and I felt very at home. I could speak English to just about anybody, including bus drivers and servers at restaurants. The best part was staying with a friend of a friend, who became a friend. She had a lot of insight into many areas of life and the world in general that I am interested in, and we talked nonstop for the entire time. One of the best parts of traveling are the people you meet along the way.

I also had a nice time visiting the Capoeira Brasil Hong Kong group. Professor Chumbinho and his students welcomed me- we had a roda in his beautiful new studio in Kowloon.

I could have stayed longer, however, I was due to meet with the Intrepid Travels group on Sunday evening. The hotel was very nice, much nicer than any hotels I had chosen for myself along the way. I was really getting used to roughing it. This hotel, in Hong Kong, had toothbrushes and cups in the bathroom, a TV and disposable slippers. And hence began the trip...

With the change in travel arrangements- that is, I don't make any travel arrangements because they are all taken care of by our fearless leader Sunny- I finally can feel that the trip is coming to an end, there is a light at the end of the tunnel! I have about 5 weeks left of the entire trip! 2 1/2 weeks left of this tour, 1 more week in Beijing, and 13 days in Japan. The only caveat is if I like Japan so much I decide to stay a week or so longer. And provided I find lodging that is affordable... We will see, we will see. I would like to see the Cherry Blossom Festival- it all depends on the weather. And if global warming continues as it has been, I may be able to see it with no change to the itinerary. But since I'm all the way out here already... I'm really looking forward to Japan. But that's a side note.

What makes the mainland so different from Hong Kong? There is a subtle change- maybe not so subtle at the same time- I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe it's the they look at you when you enter a store, when you walk down the street. You feel slightly off, like you are not doing something quite right, even though you are doing it the same way you always do. Things look normal, but on closer examination, things are quite different. Supermarkets look similar, with rows of items for sale, etc, but once you are in line, people cut to the front of the line, and nobody blinks an eye. Sometimes there are store monitors in place to keep the order, but not always. This happens in bathrooms, on airplanes, anywhere people queue up. Mothers squat their children on the sidewalk to do their business, in broad daylight and in front of passing traffic. People burp, spit, cough, and hack up a lung, right out in front of everyone. Then they stare at YOU! But the staring here is really nothing compared to India. I should feel used to it now, right? But no... Motor scooters motor by with two to three, sometimes four passengers- they could be families, or two businessmen in suits. There was even a guy out working the fields in his suit. Talk about another day at the office. A guy on a bike rode by with a dog strapped to the back. Not a live dog. Yeah so, it's different here...! And that's what traveling is all about!

Yangshuo is still a really fun place to rock climb. I did the same routes I did the first time, and this time got some better pics! And definitely felt stronger. Met a girl who climbs in Beijing, we made plans to meet up and climb in a few weeks.
We did a bike ride around the surrounding countryside today, into some backwoodsy trails and bumpy roads. Very picturesque and a fun workout as well.
We hiked 800 steps up Moon Hill, with some great views. Love to sweat it out and beat everyone else to the top!
Dinner tonight was uninspiring. It can be hard to order food when trying to satisfy several different appetites. Chinese food can really be delicious when you get over the fear factor theme...

The town has several night clubs, and they all blast their music out the front doors, I suppose in advertisement of good times to be had inside. Walking by, you can see black lights and disco balls, illumnating... empty dance floors, save for one or two Chinese dudes with spiky hairdos, bopping their heads. Sometimes they bop their heads outside in front and try to get you to go inside. Each club is so loud that walking down the street is a cacophony. It's usually either Chinese pop or Snoop from a few years back. This town is dead though- a dearth of travelers due to poor economy, I suppose, in combination with winter season here. It doesn't stop foreign tourists from drinking heavily in some bars though- a few members of our group were up 'til 4am last night...

So our crew is made up of some English folk, a couple of Australians, two Swedish girls, Sunny, our tour leader who is Chinese from Harbin (north of Beijing), and me, the sole American representative. So far so good. We all get along, and it's nice not having to do all the planning.

Language- getting easier. It felt impossible to remember at the beginning, but now I find that I actually do know some stuff... I feel that I am getting into the swing of the country, understanding it more. It's a big place, and I felt a little lost at first. I still miss India, but I appreciate being here- being here for so long is forcing me to face the many different facets of China. What a great experience. I am looking forward to going north. Tomorrow we fly to the east coast, to a city called Xiamen in the Fujian province.
Looking forward to writing more, looking forward to Japan, looking forward to LIFE!

Zai jian - Bye bye!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Hong Kong...









Hong Kong has been great!
What a nice place to come to after the trials and tribulations of southern China. Not to say that it had been anything less than a wonderful addition to the large collection of adventures I've been having, but daily travel, a new language barrier, crazy food experiences and bone-chilling cold had wrapped themselves up into a many layered case of culture shock.
Hong Kong- warm weather and sun, delicious food on every corner (actually, it's still quite different here, but I've been accustomed now...) and meeting new friends.
I've been staying here with a friend of a friend, a fellow female-Asian (Shanghainese) capoeirista- she relocated to Hong Kong last year from New York, and will be getting her yoga teacher certification in Thailand next month before moving back to the states. It's been so nice to be here- she has demonstrated what I'm learning is a very Chinese or perhaps just Asian- wonderfully warm and generous hospitality.



I sleep on the futon in the living room which overlooks the ocean, we're on the 23rd floor.
Last night I spent some time with the Capoeira Brasil Hong Kong group, led by Professor Chumbinho of Australia. He lives at the studio with his girlfriend Bale, who incidently, also teaches ballet! I led the warm-up, then Chumbinho took over, then there was a roda. Good times! Everyone was very welcoming.





This morning Jessica made pancakes before we went to Lantau to see the world's largest outdoor seated Buddha. It's 85 feet high.
We met up with Peter, another Chinese-American-now-living-and-working-in-Hong-Kong, and Mona, his friend from New Jersey who is going on a backpacking tour of southeast Asia next week.


We took a swinging cable car up over the mountains to visit this little man-made village- I say man-made because it is not really home to any indigenous minority groups. It was built solely to sell tchokes and trinkets to the hordes of tourists that flood Hong Kong and are looking for some culture amidst all the high-end shopping. Not to mention the outlet stores that hit you right before you get there. There is a monastery there, which is still functioning.



We went on the Wisdom Walk, which winds it's way around a figure eight path under towering wood panels upon which is written the heart sutra. Then we ate fish ball siu mai and sweet tofu soup before going back down in the cable car.
Then we all got massages...
And then we went for sushi...
Ah, this is the life man, now I am ready for bed!