Gleaming and foreign
Japan was through the looking glass for me. The jet lag was accountable for some of the otherworldliness at first, but even after 10 days -- the length of our stay -- the people and culture were a mass of contradictory signals.
Gleaming is the first word that comes to mind when I think of the bus ride from the airport to Yokohama, where we stayed with my husband's cousins. Gleaming bus, gleaming seats, gleaming highway. Shiny, too: The signs with brightly lit Kanji characters were bewildering and beautiful on the quiet and fast ride in. That the signs were no doubt ads for boring, everyday items did not matter; they were fascinating because the images accompanying them made no sense. Nothing did.
For the same reason, we spent hours in a department store looking at gadgets and gizmos that were impossible to figure out. I realized it was the equivalent to spending half a day at K-Mart, but every object was a source of wonder and curiosity. Like, what the hell do they do with this and how come we don't have anything like this in America?
The affection (we were told later) that many Japanese have for Roman letters, regardless of someone's ability to read English, led to ridiculous juxtapositions: The elderly woman leaving a temple with a T-shirt that said "This puppy is bitch" (next to an image of a small dog). The big menacing looking young man on the metro whose demeanor led everyone to stay away. Stitched in gold on the back of his black leather jacket: "Chatty Cathy Gang." The bakery with a gorgeous window display of delectables, with pages from American newspapers artfully hung as a backdrop. Lovely, unless you could read English, in which case you would see a multilayered cake and cookies and bonbons every color of the rainbow beautifully arranged in front of "Mystery Killer Strikes Again" and "Scores Dead After Plane Crash." (For more on this strange fetish for Roman letters, read engrish.com.)
Also foreign was the food, in that fish and mayonnaise were in and on everything. Everything. One day we found a a pizza shop far away from his family's house so they would not see us ducking in to eat something non-Japanese. Once seated, we pointed to the picture of the pizza that seemed to have pepperoni and onions on it. Only what we thought were onions were rounds of raw squid, with fish flakes and mayonnaise spread generously under the layer of cheese.
The one thing that was familiar to me: The Japanese practice is to decline a gift three times before accepting, or so we were told. That sounded odd to me until I realized it seemed sort of familiar because it is sort of U.S. Southern ("Oh, really, I couldn't. Really, no. Really? You mean it? OK, thank you!")
Arigatou gozaimasu, Japan.
Next time, I am bringing my own toilet paper
In 1989, my family took a summer trip to China. Historians among us will recognize that date: Tiennamen Square happened that summer, and I missed it by a mere couple of weeks. At that time, foreign visitors had to be part of a sanctioned group - no going out on your own. Ours was the second to last group let into the country before they closed their borders. The group behind us had all their cameras and film confiscated at Customs before leaving the country. We got lucky. We came home with all our equipment, and some very interesting photos of the civil unrest as it was beginning.
I remember Beijing as a city of paradox. Areas we drove past but were certainly not allowed to actually visit, of profound filth and poverty, next to stunning high-rise towers and hotels. I had been around enough of the USA to know this was not unique to Beijing, but even then at the ripe old age of 20, I could feel the falsehood of the glitz and glamour. It felt like a ruse, and once we settled into our hotel, that was exactly what we discovered it to be.
The lobby was elegant, with staff darting this way and that, offering to help. Our room looked like something you might find in Manhattan at the Plaza; luxurious and massive with beautiful art on the walls and a stellar view. The ruse was discovered when we went to use the bathroom; it wasn't finished yet. The toilet had no water, and the shower had no head. The management apologized and moved us promptly into another room. My dad and I, intrigued by this sense of facade, decided to explore a little of the hotel and found only about a quarter of it was actually finished. The rest was still scaffolding, bare beams and open space. We got a sense of "don't mind that man behind the curtain".
I remember clearly the crowds. Even living in Los Angeles or my frequent visits to New York had not adequately prepared me for the sheer number of people trying to share space with each other. Americans have the luxury of "personal space", but that does not exist in a place like China. We were bumped, shoved, stepped on, spat next to nearly everywhere we went in the city. There appeared to be no shame in spitting, coughing, sneezing, or smoking in the face of others. I marveled at the little toddlers walking through these massive crowds with their parents, holding a hand, bare tush hanging out for all to see; evidently, Pampers doesn't have a stronghold in China. Parents would hold their tots up over a fountain if they needed to pee. I didn't want to know what happened when the child needed to poop!
All these things I suppose one could become accustomed to over time. It was the public bathrooms that I struggled with most. With over a billion people living in a country, I suppose efficiency was more important than personal comfort or hygiene. Most of the public bathrooms consisted of troughs. Literally, long holes in the ground. If one was lucky, there was water running down the trough to move things long, but that was not always the case. It wasn't so horrible when I was wearing a skirt or sundress, but the days I chose pants or shorts were miserable.
Imagine, then, my delight when we got to the airport. It was a regional one as we were visiting another town in China, and this place had more western facilities. I never was so delighted to see a toilet in my life! If I hadn't had a plane to catch, I might have just sat there, enjoying the privacy. My delight ended, however, when I pulled at the toilet paper. It refused to rip. It merely stretched on and on.
Do you remember decorating with crepe paper? That stretchy, rough paper streamers are made out of and one uses at parties? For the rest of our trip, which was a full 5 weeks, this was what we had to contend with; crepe paper for cleaning up nature's calls.
That trip was nearly 30 years ago. I have never been crazy about the idea of returning to China - once in a lifetime may just be plenty for this westerner. But lesson learned; should I ever go back, dresses or skirts only, and bring a suitcase full of Charmin!
Why Not Both?
I'm not sure which of two places in Italy that I traveled to is exactly the most distant from my home, so I'll take the one that may be more flattering to me: San Fruttuoso.
It's a very small place near Portofino, just east of Genoa and can only be reached by sea or on foot. We went on a boat, and came back the same way.
I'd never heard of it before spending the day there, but it was easily as wonderful a day as I've spent anywhere. I may have known of the name of the place before seeing it, but all I remember was a pleasant boat ride that took half an hour or so before we slowed down and went ashore.
San Fruttuoso is mostly an old, by European standards, church that might even still be in use. We were able to go inside and light candles on the alter, so I presume they still hold services there, but I didn't ask. It was a humble, but beautiful, church, and gave me that same peaceful feeling that I get in most churches.
Just outside the church, up a small hill, there was a gun placement left over from WWII. I was struck, repeatedly, by all the signs of that war all over Italy. We escaped all that on this side of the Atlantic, but nearly everywhere I looked I could see its scars in everything from cut down and removed railing for metal, to concrete patches such as this one in otherwise ideal places that were scored and battered by the placement of large guns.
There is also, just in front of the church and some ways beneath the surface of the sea a barely visible statue of Christ. I don't know why it's down there, but this underwater statue is quite popular and, maybe, serves fishermen or those who perished on the water.
After a quiet hour or two of laising about beach playing cards with my then-wife and her uncle, we ordered lunch from a waiter type person who was on the beach. There was no restaurant or kitchen visible, but from the second storey of a two storey structure at the rear of the beach, a rope soon lowered our order to the waiter's hands and we were served an excellent meal.
Not that it's possible, as far as I know, to have anything except a wonderful meal in Italy (for the record, I had gnocchi con pesto because, after all, I *was* in Liguria).
The other place that may have been farther away was Courmayeur where we spent the night at a hotel owned by a friend of my wife and where I got a T-shirt that had only 1224 printed on the front. It was yellow and sort of matched the gold earrings I got for my ex from Tiffany. I was thrilled by just putting it on my credit card and seeing it come up on the bill the next month.
Journey to Jerusalem
"If take one more step, it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been." --Sam Gamgee to Frodo Baggins, Lord of the Rings.
This is definitely the sentiment I felt when I took a trip to Israel-Palestine in the winter of 2014, though this symbolic "one more step" happened when my Air France plane flew past Grecian airspace--the place furthest from home I had been up to that point, for a choir tour in college. I remember pulling out my phone in the Tel-Aviv airport and looking at the little blue dot that approximated my position on Google Maps and thinking, "Huh. I guess I'm here. Quite the thing, isn't it?"
My group stayed at a pilgrim house called St. George's college, located in the Muslim portion of Jerusalem, less than a mile from the gates of the Old City. The Old City is divided into 4 parts (whether officially or unofficially, I can't recall): Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian, and those partitions extend far outside the walls. Our guide was Iyad, a wonderful Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem who called everyone his Cousin (which we quickly learned was not *strictly* true. I mention his specific heritage because it was a very rare combination that gave him the ability to travel to both Palestinian and Jewish territories with relative ease. If he had been a Palestinian from any other place, he (and by extension, his tour groups), would only have been able to travel to Palestinian territories. Such is Arabic life in Israel under Partition.
When you stepped into the Old City, it was like stepping back in time 100s of years, especially in the Muslim quarter, which didn't have nearly as much civic infrastructure support--or money from rich westerners--flowing through it as did the Jewish area near the Wailing Wall. But I loved that aspect of it; you really felt like you were in another part of the world, one completely unlike your own. Iyad took us around the stalls selling everything from cheap souvenirs, to actual Persian rugs, to stalls selling piles of fresh bread seasoned with za'atar.
I could fill countless pages with the things I experienced and learned on that trip: stories of the extreme poverty most Palestinians in the West Bank lived in that should by all rights be truly called apartheid; the fondness in Jerusalem for Western Christmas iconography (we saw several holy sites and chapels overtaken by blow-up Santas, tinsel-covered Christmas trees and creches with white blond Baby Jesuses); and that if you ordered a pizza called Quattro Carne from the joint near our lodgings, you will get a pie, divided into fours, with each meat on one of the 4 quarters.
But I'll touch on just one: before we moved to St. Georges, we stayed at a former convent in Nazareth that was just around the corner from a mosque--not so unusual, as mosques are pretty prevalent in this part of the world. And so, the first morning we were there, we were awoken in the morning by the call to prayer. Nazareth isn't the biggest town, and so this sudden bursting into song out of the morning silence was as otherworldly as it was beautiful. I lay in my bed with the window open and just listened to this ancient practice unfold as it had for centuries. The Jewish and Islamic people are so similar--and yet so divided--in their Abrahamic monotheism, and I was struck by the calling out, the yearning to praise and be unified with God. I'd heard a similar yearning in the Jewish prayers I've had the honor to hear on occasion over the years.
The call concluded and my morning continued, but those prayers stuck with me for most of the day. A people so oppressed, and yet they continue to hope that their God will one day lift them up and have something better for them.
White Man in China
In the early 1980’s, the Chinese government begins allowing foreign tourists to enter the closed country and visit certain cities by taking a government run tour. I am in Hong Kong signed up for the one-day excursion to visit the southern city of Shenzhen, a few hours train ride away. When our group arrives, we are greeted by guides and uniformed solders. We board a bus and they tell us the rules, one in particular; we are never to leave the tour and head out on our own.
After visiting an elementary school and the “typical” Chinese family home, a dirt floor house complete with TV and kitchen appliances, our tour bus drops us at the Shenzhen central market area. We are allowed to walk around a two-block area. Today Shenzhen is a gleaming megacity stuffed with high-rise buildings and all the hallmarks of a world-class metropolis. When I visit, there are few shops and little to buy.
Soon, Chinese people begin surrounding me. They move closer until I am at the center of a dozen people of all ages, taller than any of them. Some are frowning, others are smiling, and still others, mostly children, reach out to touch me. I smile and laugh a little because this seems like a cliché –I am the first in-person westerner seen by these Chinese people. They are touching my arms and skin and I chuckle and touch them back, and it continues as new people join the circle. Finally, the guides send us back to the bus.
When we are in our seats, the guides begin an angry lecture. They are furious that a young Australian couple has left the group and cannot be found. The tour is being cut short and we are heading to the station. After waiting awhile, they line us up on the platform as soldiers with rifles parade the Australians in front of us. We will be allowed to return to Hong Kong shortly. But the Australians must be punished for disobeying the instructions and subverting Chinese culture. Their punishment will be to spend the night on the train platform before returning to Hong Kong in the morning. I wish I could stay with them since I know they will learn more about China that we have.
In the summer of 2003, Amy and I were winding up a year of living/backpacking in Europe and a bit of Turkey/Asia. I called it slow-motion touristing. We weren't living in one spot, but nor were were we rushing from place to place.
When we were on our way back toward the U.S., we were leaving from Berlin and flying out of London... and somehow that seemed an opportunity to go through Bosnia and Croatia. Sarajevo was beautiful and pockmarked from the war, which was over but not over enough. But it was the city of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina that was like something out of a surrealist movie.
Mostar is inland, between Sarajevo and the Adriatic, on a beautiful river of a blue green color that seems out a fairy tale. The city was made of stone, and it too had the look of Medieval castles and fortresses. It is famous for a 15th century bridge that was destroyed during the war, and was in the process of being rebuilt.
It was August and hot as Arizona, and the stone roads and buildings soaked up the sun and radiated the heat at you in all directions. We were weighed down by 30-lb backpacks, and had precious little "summer" clothes, since our journey had begun in September the year before. Soon I would but my pants off into shorts.
One of the first things I remember stumbling into was one of those over-sized chess boards, where people would have to push around the pieces on a board the size of a small patio. The pieces stood about knee-high. Everything around it was still war-scarred. There were shelling craters in the streets, holes in the buildings, whole sides of buildings gone.
We met a young man, Bosnian Muslim, who offered to show us around and we bought him dinner for his trouble. He'd been sent away by his family during the war, and they'd only returned in the last few years. He showed us his house, and around the old city. And you could easily imagine how it had been a popular tourist stop -- the magical stone buildings and bridges and roads slinking up and down the canyon with the river below. But we were nearly the only tourists there. It was a shocking show of destruction, of disregard for history and beauty, the likes of which I'd never imagined when reading about the war in the newspaper back in Los Angeles.
From West LA to Western VA
The farthest place I’ve traveled from home not in distance but in culture would have to be the American South. I was in a relationship for several years with a woman who grew up in rural southwestern Virginia.
Getting to her home County required a full six-hour drive from where we lived in Washington, DC. And I say County, because that’s what it was known as. There were no cities in it and hardly any towns. The County—the largest in area and smallest in population in Virginia—had what could be described as loose “neighborhoods” or geographical regions that wouldn’t show up on a map, but were roughly understood by the people who lived there.
“Down by the lake,” “near the highway,” and “over by the speedway,” all indicated various parts of the County. (I never actually saw the speedway. I believe it had been gone for decades, but it was used as a geographical reference nonetheless.)
My girlfriend at the time had actually been born in Colorado, and moved back with her parents to the County at the age of five. Even though her father’s family had owned land there for generations, she was considered by the locals to be an outsider. When we would run into people she had grown up with – it was hard not to run into people she knew – they usually gave this look of bewilderment when they heard she was living in DC. I can only imagine what they thought of her Jewish boyfriend from LA. True to form for the South though, everyone was always supremely polite.
I had spent plenty of time in my life driving through the “flyover states” and seeing the one-street towns flanked by a church on one side and a bank on the other, but until I started visiting the County for holidays and for long weekends, I had never actually spent any significant time in the places where you ask yourself: “what do the people who live here do with all their time?”
I still can’t answer that question with any certainty, but I did notice that they spend a good amount of it driving the 40 miles it takes to get from one place to another in the County, and there’s a lot of time spent tending to things like cars, homes, farms, or even ponds seem to require attention.
But I think what made the most striking contrast between there and where I’m from was not the size or density or landscape, but the fact that I come from a city that’s growing and this was a place that was contracting. Driving around, there were three empty store fronts for every one in use, mills and factories were shuttered, tractors would lay rusting on the side of the road like a photo out of a Cracker Barrel calendar.
Having only lived in large, growing cities, seeing the changes and the stagnation that overtook the County over the years I visited, made me realize what a blessing it is to be from a place where people want to be. I curse LA’s traffic and rising rents and general crowdedness, but they certainly beat the alternative.