A Delayed Recount of my life-changing spring travels

March 31, 2014

It is currently the tail end of my two-month-long spring break, and I have just returned (April 1, after a 16-hour delay) from China.

Finishing the First Semester

The end of my first semester went as smoothly as I could have hoped. My reading students, while not so stellar on their chapter reading quizzes, studied hard for their final exams and did fairly well. My writing students wrote humorous essays on their ideal future lives. On the last days we took class pictures and said farewell, see you around!

My Transformative Two-Month Travels

I have just returned from an epic spring journey to the Kansai area of Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China. The first leg of my trip was a visit to Osaka, where I planned to meet with as many friends from my time as a student as possible. After a very busy first five days, plans were foiled when I suddenly became very sick, the mild stress cold I’d caught in Tokyo combined with physical exertion with winter cold and finally some sort of stomach virus. I was feverish and bedridden for my last three nights in Japan, only recovering right before my trip to Indonesia. I’d lost weight from eating very little, but the worst was over. The next night I was zooming through Banda Aceh on the back of Karl Orozco’s motor scooter through crazy Indonesian traffic.

Indonesia (Banda Aceh, Yogyakarta) – two weeks

            Arriving in Indonesia was shocking for a handful of reasons. The contrast with pristine and orderly Japan was immediately astounding, starting with a confusing Medan airport experience in which I met sleeping attendants and somehow accidentally bypassed customs. After staring at a ceiling and being under the covers for the past few days, in Aceh I was suddenly surrounded by summer heat and radically new sights, sensations, sounds. I was greeted by a whole reunion of fellows: Karl, Anabel, Amelea, Xenna, Lissette (who flew in the same day), and Tino, whom I met for the first time. Charlotte would also stop by Aceh for a few nights. This trip to Aceh was a transformative time, as more than ever in my life I was constantly pushed out of my comfort zone. I was immediately greeted by unfamiliar Bahasa, street food, spicy dishes, squat toilets, bucket flushes and showers. Constantly surrounded by the contagious energy, enthusiasm, and vitality of my amazing and hilarious co-fellows, I slowly shed the self-suppressing instincts I’d cultivated in Japan and began to embrace and seek these new experiences that would previously have given me pause. The exhilarated apprehension on my first motorbike ride turned into exhilarated love for it. On Valentine’s Day we went to and participated in a coffee shop poetry reading, during which I quietly wrote and passionately performed a three-minute poem in front of countless Indonesian strangers, surprising and moving my friends. One day I cut my hair short for the first time in my life, and Karl and the others cheered for the “New Cassie”. The wonderful memories and friends we made made leaving Aceh difficult. The Indonesia trip ended with a few days in Yogyakarta with Julie, who was an excellent hostess. Highlights were visiting Borobudur and watching a UGM performance of Javanese dance, the Ramayana, right near Prambanan. I decided that two weeks in Indonesia was not enough, and decided to try and go back before my fellowship ends.

 

Shansi Fellows Unite!!

Shansi Fellows Unite!!

before the haircut...

before the haircut…

after!

after!

Philippines (Manila, Baguio, Iloilo, Manila) – 3 weeks

I spent three weeks in the Philippines with family, including my mother and two aunts who had flown in from New York and Ontario, Canada. It was a challenging adjustment from going out and exploring with friends all the time to relaxing in the house most of the time, but it was wonderful to see all my relatives again. After eating street food for two weeks I felt strange eating in nice restaurants again. Each night was a feast with at least ten relatives and as many different dishes. It’s not a trip back home to the Philippines unless you’ve gained ten pounds. This time around I was more active in studying Ilonggo, the dialect my family speaks in Iloilo. I spent my last day with an aunt in an upper-class shopping area, and then at night with a cousin I walked through and got scammed by a horse cab driver in dirt-poor, garbage-filled Old Manila. It was astounding to experience those two drastically different sides of Manila in a day. I’ve begun to consider spending at least a consecutive year of my life in the Philippines sometime after Shansi.

with a TON of Lola Naty's pancit palabok.

with a TON of Lola Naty’s pancit palabok.

with some lovely Filipino art at the BenCab museum in Baguio.
with some lovely Filipino art at the BenCab museum in Baguio.

World Heritage Site, Miag-ao, Iloilo.

World Heritage Site, Miag-ao, Iloilo.

family!

family!

last day with my Mom <3

last day with my Mom ❤

China (Beijing, Taigu, Xian, Beijing) – 2 weeks

My first visit to China was another jarring and incredible experience. I stayed with Alessandra in Beijing, then visited the Taigu Fellows, took a solo trip to see the terracotta soldiers in Xian, and ended the trip back in Beijing. My first two days were spent apprehensively adjusting to people’s normal interactions (directness and a lot of yelling that contrast with Japanese indirectness, politeness, and quiet) and getting tricked once again by a tricycle driver who okay’ed one price before the ride and asked for double at the end. I soon became accustomed to the street spitting and babies pooping and peeing in the streets. It took a bit, but I also learned to be more direct in ignoring or turning down people hoping to sell me things, and also got used to pushing forward rather than waiting for non-existent lines to form. While I loved spending time with Fellows in busy Beijing and laidback Taigu, where I sat in on four of the five Fellows’ classes, I appreciated my solo time in which I could quietly observe society as it moved and worked around me. I also enjoyed practicing the Mandarin I’d learned at Oberlin, though it took time to get comfortable.

Lama Temple - Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Beijing.

Lama Temple – Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Beijing.

Oh hi, Mao. I see you.

Oh hi, Mao. I see you.

Visiting the friends in Taigu!

Visiting the friends in Taigu!

Drum Tower in Xian.

Drum Tower in Xian.

Springtime at the Great Wall.

Springtime at the Great Wall.

A Delayed Homecoming

I had the worst and best possible ending to my travels when my Pakistan International Airlines flight from Beijing to Tokyo was delayed by 16 hours due to equipment malfunction. I spent over 24 hours with people of all ages from China, Pakistan, Japan, London, and South Africa. Many of the Pakistani travelers were eye doctors and surgeons on their way to a conference in Tokyo. Together we waited without updates for four hours in the airport, were bussed to a hotel for supposedly the rest of the night and paired with strangers in rooms, were suddenly with ten minutes of warning returned to the airport for a 3AM flight, and were pushed through security again, this time with new friends. While I may have been stressed out about this roadblock in the past, I had a wonderful time and treated it as a surprise end to my adventures. I saw good people find humor in an undesirable situation, and witnessed and experienced friendships formed among strangers. I have only been with Shansi for a little over one semester now, but I feel I have grown and changed so much in that time. I am so grateful for these opportunities to travel, and feel confident and excited about going into the world and building even more new connections.

 

Don't see that every time you fly.

Don’t see that every time you fly.

Everyone waiting around and asking for updates.

Everyone waiting around and asking for updates.

Should've eaten this on the plane, ate it in Beijing instead.

Should’ve eaten this on the plane, ate it in Beijing instead.

Free dinner and conversation with new friends.

Free dinner and conversation with new friends.

See ya later.

See ya later.

Two new friends who watched over me as we went through this ordeal. Both are Chinese men living in Japan.

Two new friends who watched over me as we went through this ordeal. Both are Chinese men living in Japan.

The lot of us waiting, again, for our flight back to Tokyo.

The lot of us waiting, again, for our flight back to Tokyo.

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夏の旅の終わり: The end of summer travels (for now)

So remember that time I wished my emotions could take a break? Well, immediately afterwards my body decided that it needed a break too and totally shut down on me for a few days, starting as soon as we arrived at our friend’s place in Yokohama. That was a lovely reunion. I spent two days mostly in bed nose-blowing up a storm, but got better just in time to spend a night and day in beautiful 箱根 Hakone. Because it’s quite far from Yokohama, we didn’t do much the first day but rest, but we did stay at this nice, very old ryokan at the foot of the mountains along a very narrow, winding road and next to a stream. While it had Western beds, it also had a segment of the room with tatami floors, a low table and zaisu (low chair with no legs), as well as snacks , a hot water kettle, and tea.

our room

our room

the Japanese section of our room, complete with two types of tea and jelly snacks

the Japanese section of our room, complete with two types of tea and jelly snacks

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fancy nabe (hotpot) dinner!

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wearing a yukata to dinner! It was lovely except for when I accidentally dipped the sleeve in sauce while reaching for food in the nabe hotpot…

pensively (tiredly) looking outside before our breakfast arrived.

pensively (tiredly) looking outside before our breakfast arrived.

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the next day’s breakfast!

There were also two indoor public baths downstairs, which became private after 10pm. It was beautiful, but the water was so hot! I got out only after a few minutes to avoid getting dizzy. I’d have to go more often to get used to it.

Cue Flashback: I still remember vividly the first time I went to a public bath when I studied in Osaka during high school. It took all of my willpower to prevent a mini anxiety attack about stripping down in front of other people, including the one other American ryugakusei exchange student.

For those who aren’t aware of the custom: Before taking a bath in Japan, one is supposed to wash up with shampoo and soap, usually while sitting on a small stool. In public baths there are rows of stools and mirrors with showerheads, shampoo, and bodywash. The first time I tried cleaning myself with the showerhead, I was scolded gently by Noriko-san, a woman in my group who remains my friend today, for spraying water around and behind me. So I would not be a meiwaku (nuisance) to others, I became more conscious of bathers around me and more deliberate with the direction of the shower head.

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In the summer, Hakone is filled with blooming ajisai (hydrangea bushes).

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Pirate ship! We got to ride a red one later as part of a “course” that included this pirate ship ride, a “ropeway” ride up the mountain, a cable car ride down the mountain, and a train back to the station..

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Towards the top of Mt. Hakone near Owakudani Station, where it smells strongly of sulfur. Stores in Owakudani produce famous “black eggs”, which are boiled in volcanic waters and are said to increase longevity.

After Hakone, Ken and I returned to Yokohama for a few nights, the last during which we tried to have a nice bar-be-que on our friend Josh’s balcony (4th floor with no elevator..) only to be poured on as soon as they finally got the flame going.

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You did good, Josh! Took forever to light that tiny grill too!

Despite being unable to finish grilling, Josh saved the night by whipping up some delicious dishes in a frenzy, followed by card games conducted mostly in Japanese for our Japanese friend. I had fun teaching everyone the game BS and learning the rules of Poker. Unsurprisingly, Ken has the best Poker face! Surprisingly, he was also the best of us by far… I, on the other hand, managed to win Crazy Eights about five times total. One of my prouder achievements. 🙂

Everything was delicious. Items you wouldn't grill in the US: tako (octopus), ika (squid), and some others.

Everything was delicious. Items you wouldn’t grill in the US: tako (octopus), ika (squid), and some others.

After Yokohama, we stayed in Ueno for a few nights…

The panda in our hotel lobby! Ueno is famous for its park and zoo.

The panda in our hotel lobby! Ueno is famous for its park and zoo.

bunnies!

bunnies in the local bakery.

custard-filled Panda bread!

custard-filled Panda bread!

more animal goodies!

more animal goodies!

the ones on the right are ADORABLE. hedgehogs??

the ones on the right are ADORABLE. hedgehogs??

our last konbini (convenience store) breakfast/lunch together...

our last konbini (convenience store) breakfast/lunch together…

Okinawa's "shikuasa" juice and mushipan (fluffy, steamed bread) with the shape of Hokkaido.

Okinawa’s “shikuasa” juice and mushipan (fluffy, steamed bread) with the shape of Hokkaido.

Hokkaido!

Hokkaido!

Warrior gods in the Tokyo National Museum.

Warrior gods in the Tokyo National Museum.

a mask and me.

a mask and me.

The knowledgeable Ohno-san drew us in the park!

The knowledgeable Ohno-san drew us in the park!

We only asked for a "semi-color" portrait, but he went out and produced this! It took so long Ken almost missed his train... But it was worth it!

We only asked for a “semi-color” portrait, but he went out and produced this! It took so long Ken almost missed his train… But it was worth it!

Ken has returned home to Australia, and I’ve moved into my new apartment. For the first time in my life, it’s time to start living on my own!

無事に着いた!(I’ve arrived safely :D)

Hello everyone! This is my first post regarding my experiences in Asia as a Shansi Fellow to Obirin University in Japan. I don’t actually start teaching until September, but I’m spending the rest of the summer visiting old friends I made while I studied at Kansai Gaidai in 2011 (the year of the earthquake and tsunami).

Although the night before departure I hardly slept at all (because I saved all my packing for the last day possible), I had a nice flight on Japan Airlines from JFK to Narita Airport in Tokyo. Normally I’d fly on probably Northwest or something (even though I don’t like it), but this time Shansi paid for my ticket, and their travel agent Howard from ChinaSmith booked a JAL flight. It was great! The service as expected was excellent and the food was amazing. They even gave all the passengers a little container of vanilla Haagen Dazs after our dinner, for which I ordered a yummy pork dish. It took a few minutes of confused, futile digging with my plastic spoon to realize there was a tiny, harder spoon attached to the underneath of the ice cream lid. If I wanted I could’ve even had a beer, but I opted not to since I was stuck between the window and a middle-aged Japanese couple who had steel bladders and spent most of the flight sleeping. (I needed to pee more often than I didn’t.)

Except for the being unable to pee part,  another nice part about the flight was that I watched a lot of Japanese movies and TV, which kind of got me into Japanese-mode after a year of not having an intensive class. If you haven’t seen it, the movie “Water Boys” (which I first saw in middle or high school) is one of the funniest, silliest movies I’ve ever seen. It was hard not to laugh too loudly on the quiet flight.

An exciting moment was when 7/10 of my way into the flight I tried to recline my seat for the first time and it shot backwards suddenly and wouldn’t go back up. It was okay for a while, but once it was time for landing a stewardess told me in Japanese that I needed to relocate for safety purposes. While apologizing profusely, she told me my two options: an empty seat toward the back of the plane, or an empty seat in Premium Class. I wondered if it was a trick question.

The last 10 minutes of the flight were the most comfortable I’ve ever spent on a plane, though I felt so out of place that I did nothing but sit there and stare at all the legroom I had.

Anyway, arrived in Narita, picked up my new set of purple suitcases and was met at the airport by my kareshi Ken-chan, whom I haven’t seen in 11 months. 🙂

It’s 梅雨 (“tsuyu”, “rainy season”) in Japan now, so it’s very hot and humid. This means I’ll likely be staying inside as much as possible.

We spent the first few nights in Shibuya, though for one day we reunited with our Japanese friend Nao from Kansai Gaidai and visited Yokohama. While there we went to the top of “Landmark Tower” (creative name, right?) on apparently one of the world’s fastest elevators, which at one point climbed up to a speed of 750m/minute. We reached the 69th floor in 40 seconds.  The view was spectacular. Despite spending a total of a year and 4 months in Japan (1 year in 2011, 4 months in HS), I’d never spent much time in the Kanto area, so I’d never had the chance to visit Yokohama. Its place by the water reminded me of Kobe in the Kansai area, with which I’m more familiar. I’ll definitely be going back because Ken and I plan to stay with a friend there. It’s also much more peaceful and laid back than the general Tokyo area, which I prefer.

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A view of Yokohama from the top of Landmark Tower

親子丼+そばセット Oyakodon & Soba set for lunch

親子丼+そばセット Oyakodon & Soba set for lunch

Currently we are staying with current Japan Fellow Lissette in her apartment by Obirin Daigaku (J.F. Oberlin University) where I will teach for the next two years. It’s a pretty nice apartment, spacious for one person, though it is quite old and the outside is the color of Pepto Bismol. Last night we went out to Kappa Zushi with her and Matt. Often in 2011 we ate at Kappa Zushi with Gaidai friends, so it was pretty nostalgic. At Kappa Zushi the sushi goes around on a conveyor belt and you pick up any plate you want. You can even order your own sushi using a touchscreen menu next to your table. Your dishes arrive straight to you on a little “shinkansen” (“bullet train”). It’s very cute 😀

Anyway for these next two days hope to get a little more acquainted with Fuchinobe and Machida, and maybe we’ll go to Enoshima. Then we fly to KIX (Kansai International Airport) where we’ll visit friends for two weeks!

Jetlag keeps waking me up earlier than I’d wish to so I’m gonna rest for a bit now, but I’ll try to write more later. 🙂

Jaa ne~ (See you later!)