Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Smell of Rice in August

[Preface: I recently wrote this about a trip I took in August 2013 for a Japanese tourism contest, but I got carried away and eventually turned it into something that didn't really fit with the contest's description, so I couldn't use it. But, I put some time and effort into this and it is about a very special, very memorable day in my life, so I figured I'd put it up somewhere, and somewhere is here.]

Do you know what rice paddies smell like in August? Yeah, I didn’t either. In fact, everyone I have asked since I discovered it didn’t really know what I was talking about. Maybe it is just my imagination; maybe I just fabricated the smell and attached it to this memory. Regardless, it’s a beautiful smell. It is the smell of earth and water, growth and late summer. It is the smell of Kyushu. It is the smell of Kumamoto and Kagoshima. It is the fragrance that will always and forever be attached to August 2013 in my memory.

I really understand those people who claim that the journey is the reward, not the destination. The destination in this case was pretty disappointing. I spent a week in Kagoshima City farming through a program called WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). WWOOF is a pretty cool organization where you can contact farms around the world and work for them for some amount of time in exchange for a place to stay, food to eat and education in the realm of organic farming. My destination was a small farm that provided fresh produce for their partner cafes. Although my focus was farming, I unfortunately spent a lot of the time washing dishes in the cafes. It wasn’t all boring though. Sakurajima, Kagoshima’s highlight volcano, had an enormous eruption while I was there, turning a bright sunny day into late evening with plumes of smoke and ash covering the city and my ice cream cone, which I stupidly decided to eat outside. It made international news, but the only effect it had on the local populous was making them a little more disgruntled that they had even more ash than usual to brush off their cars and patios. While the slightly disappointing aspect of the destination contributes to why the journey was so much better, even if I had had a fantastic time there, the journey would still have taken the cake on this trip.

The drive down to Kagoshima was okay, but real thrill of the trip was the drive home. I had no time schedule to stick to, a full tank of gas and a smart phone to guide to me anywhere I pleased (yet, many of the most memorable moments were lucky finds and the smart phone only helped me get out of jams when I made wrong turns). I took off in the morning, leaving an ash-covered city in my rearview window, following a road that hugged the seashore a little more closely than I was comfortable with. 

A sucker for locally produced goods, I stopped first at a roadside seller of the local mochi treat, Jumbo Mochi, a warm rice cake on a stick, covered in a sticky sauce.  With a warm treat in my belly, I continued on, racing a train on one side and waves on the other.

My first destination was Ryumontaki, a waterfall only about an hour drive away, hidden under the expressway and around a few tight corners. I reached it eventually and was so glad I did. It was summer vacation, but early enough in the day that the local kids hadn’t come out to play, or maybe they actually heeded the signs warning against swimming. I followed a gentle river to the bottom of the biggest waterfall I’d seen in Japan yet, and I love waterfalls, so I’ve seen a lot. The water gushed out from an alcove of giant rocks, forming a deep and enticing pool. Did I mention it was hot? I mean, really hot. It was easily 100F (38C) and more humid than any human should have to withstand and the air-conditioner in my little car didn’t work. With sweat dripping down my face just sitting in my car, relaxing next to a raging waterfall felt like heaven on Earth. Being alone, I heeded the warning signs and only went so far as to climb barefoot around the rocks and dip my feet into the cool, clear water; I wouldn’t want to be pulled into the depths with no one around to call to for help.

After my refreshing half-dip, I followed a map to a path that I assumed would take me to the top of the waterfall, so I could gain a new perspective of the height and grandeur of the scene.  Instead it led me through a forest filled with mosquitoes that sucked more of my blood than when I donated to the Red Cross a few years back. Spider webs crossed the path to the extent that if I was in any other country, I would think the path had been abandoned for months, but summer on Kyushu just has so many spiders that the webs are endless. The top of the path was confusing and overgrown. I could hear the waterfall clearly, but it remained hidden and out of reach. It was too hot for this, so I headed back down, hopped rocks back over the river and took my car up the mountain where other signs promised more waterfalls.

I never made it to the top of Ryumontaki, but what came next made up for it.  I think it’s important to note here that while I am an adventurous person, I can be shy and hesitant if I don’t know what I’m getting myself into. Well, that was the case at this part of the story, but if this trip was important for any reason, it was helping me grow brave and even more adventurous (although, this trip was important for me in many more ways).  

The next waterfall I found was an underwhelming falls created by a man-made dam. It was still nice to walk down a lightly wooded, lightly mosquito-ed path. I was getting hungry. I’m not much of a foodie, so much not-so that when traveling by myself I sometimes forget to eat all together. On the way to this second waterfall though, while driving down a small, gravel road, I saw a hand-painted sign of kanji that I couldn’t make out, but I figured was advertising a restaurant. I paid it no mind and went on. After leaving the waterfall, I headed out back towards a big road to take me on my way, but I passed another one of the same sign. I took it as an omen that I should go there, so I went with my gut.  

I almost left the moment I arrived. There was a gravel parking lot big enough for three cars and I was lucky to get one, as someone was leaving when I pulled up. But it was just a house. A house with no matching sign. I was confused. I eventually found a door on the side that I thought might pass as a door to a restaurant. In Japanese countryside-restaurant fashion, opening the door I felt like I was walking into someone’s home.  I mean, I pretty much was. Many of the restaurants out there are attached to the owners’ living quarters. The food was probably prepared in their everyday-use kitchen. The seating area was rustic with a historical feel, fitting to the old-time Japanese atmosphere; sliding, aged, wooden doors, low tables, pillows to sit on and a garden to look at on the other side of the window. The musty air was cooled by dusty electric fans. The other customers were about as old as the house and clearly long-time friends of the ancient man who brought my tea and took my order: the daily special.

So many kinds of food were placed before me that I couldn’t fit them all in the same picture. I don’t know if you can tell the difference between high-quality steamed white rice and lower quality steamed white rice, but I definitely couldn’t until I tasted this rice. I didn’t know rice could be so delicious. (I could also have just been starving, but I choose to believe it really was the quality.) Every side dish I was served was vegetarian and all ingredients were grown in the region and prepared with love and care by the grandma slaving away in the kitchen. Goya, potato salad, boiled pumpkin, miso soup, things that I didn’t even know existed but loved every bit of.

The old man started chatting me up with the normal small talk that I grew so accustomed to being a foreigner living in Japan. Where are you from? Why are you in Japan, Kagoshima? How the heck did you end up in our little shop in the middle of nowhere? They were the same questions I often got, although this time almost incomprehensible in his old-man Kagoshima dialect and he was so surprised and excited to have someone new and exciting in his humble restaurant that I answered with equal pleasure and enthusiasm in equally incomprehensible Nagasaki dialect. I was thrilled to be in their little corner of the world and I wanted to make sure they knew how happy I was to have found their secret and delicious hideaway.

Leaving my new favorite restaurant, (although I will probably never return to it), I quickly got lost. I didn’t mind though. Speeding down those country roads with a full belly, an excellent mix cd playing, the smell of growing rice wafting into my car through the open windows and the sun shining on my face made me appreciate my life more than any single moment in my life until that point, nor have I achieved such nirvana again. It was perfect. My life was perfect. I was complete.

Hours of driving through nature, winding roads cutting through nothing but cedar tree forests and fragrant rice fields. I stopped to buy a Japanese pear from a roadside stand despite not really having room for it in my tummy. “My life is perfect,” was the only thought that passed through my head for hours.

I was driving in the general direction of my home-away-from-home just over the Kagoshima border in the mountains of Kumamoto, but was free to stop when I wanted. So I did. I spotted a sign while on the road approaching the Satsuma area pointing the way to Kannondaki, yet another waterfall. How could I pass that up? Again, a few wrong turns later I ended up in this park. It had a river running through it and a few mini waterfalls along the path. But the waterfall behind the Kannon (Buddhist goddess of mercy) statue was beautiful and perfect. Some college kids were swimming in the pool,  their clothes still on, leading me to believe they were also serial subscribers to spontaneity. The bottom of the waterfall was nice and relaxing, but I finally had the opportunity to go to the top. I walked up winding, unkempt staircases until I reached the apex.

Living in Japan, my Japanese friends always talked about “power spots,” but I didn’t really believe you could draw energy from nature in real-life, but oh, how wrong I was. Standing on these rocks, the top of vertical tunnels shaped by thousands of years of rushing water, I have never felt so alive, yet so at peace. I was alone and my thoughts quickly left me, leaving me stuck in a state of awe at nature’s beauty, power and magnificence. Had I slipped, I would’ve plummeted meters down into a crevice, crushed by tons of rushing water. It was an amazing and scary feeling to be standing there in the presence of such dominating power. I’m not really sure how long I stayed there absorbing nature’s energy.  Again, complete, unadulterated happiness.

My trip that day ended in Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto, probably my favorite place on Kyushu. Before this trip I’d spent countless hours rafting down the Kumagawa River with my raft guide friends who have a relaxed and fun culture all their own and were so kind to share with me. My drive between the Kannondaki and Hitoyoshi was cooler, literally, as I weaved up mountain roads. There was the smell of rain in the air as the sun lowered in the sky. The rice fields, still emitting their scent, were fewer and far between, but the shade of the trees brought me gently back down to Earth from the clouds of elation on which I was still sitting. I had other CDs in my car, but this one mix cd played through again and again and again, the songs becoming as distinct of a part of this trip as the smell of the rice, so I could never listen to a song on it again without being taken back to this day when everything in my life was perfect. I hope one day I can have this feeling again. If I know Kyushu at all, I’m sure it has more hidden treasures that hopefully I will be able to find someday and maybe, just maybe, I can experience a day as wonderful, fulfilling and enlightening as this day in August 2013.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Bike Saga Continued: The Return of Cecelia

I got a call at school the other day, in one of the brief moments I was sitting at my desk. It was the main police station, they found my bike!

When I arrived there, I walked up to the main desk and all I had to say was "Watashi no jitensha..."  (So, my bike...) and they said "Akasu-san desuka?" (Are you Ms.Akcasu?) and a lady in the back jumped up.

I had to fill out more papers (no mistakes this time, phew), sign two papers for each working brake of my bike (so, one for the left hand brake, one for the right), and then I had to get fingerprinted. Every individual finger, four fingers together and my palm. Apparently, they looked for prints on the bike in order to possibly catch the thief.

About 45 minutes in, I got to ride Cecelia away and I took her to the park. No damage except the sticker of Omuranchan's face was scratched off.  Apparently the thief didn't like Omuranchan looking at him.

Whether all of the paperwork and signings and fingerprintings and crime scene investigation was necessary and added to their efficiency of finding my bike, I can't be sure- because it still seems a bit overkill. Regardless, they did a great job finding my bike and I'm grateful that missing bikes can be so high-up on their priority list- as the city (and country) lacks more dangerous crimes. In America, I don't think the police of most cities would concern themselves with something so trivial.

Also, I have some thoughts on the thief. The bike was found behind a hospital just a couple blocks from the station. I actually had to pass by the hospital on my way. I have three ideas about this guy:
1. He really needed to go to the hospital, but for some reason couldn't call one of the FREE ambulances.
2. He's actually a nice guy and felt bad about stealing my bike, so he dropped it off near the station, but didn't want to go through all of the paperwork of turning in a "lost item"- yes, there's plenty of forms for that as well.
3. He's not the smartest thief and didn't realize how close to the police station he left my registered bike.

The End.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Bike Saga -

I didn't study on my usual study days this week so I headed to McDonald's for a study session before a birthday party. I study at McDonald's because it's one of two places (the other being Starbucks) that I can sit and study for few hours, without having naps or internet to distract me. 

So anyway, I rode my bike to Mac (the Japanese abbreviation) and when I went to park my bike I bumped in to one of my old students. "How are you?" - "... 'How are you'...?... I'm-fine-thank-you-and-you"- "Oh, I'm good, thanks. I'll study now." - "Oh! Do you remember my name?!" - "...No! I'm sorry. Tell me again." There was some more conversation in there too, but the point is, somewhere in that timeframe, I managed to forget to take my key out of my bike lock. 

Normally, it's not a big deal if I forget to take my key out. This is Omura, the place where I had my dropped wallet returned to me not once, but twice, with nothing missing. Granted bike theft is about the extent Omura's crime (this came from the police officer's own mouth), McDonald's, Aeon (a shopping center) and the bike parking lot in front of the station, are often prime targets for the bikeless wandering "hoodlum" kids that have somewhere to go and only their feet to take them.  Or maybe his friends all have bikes and he didn't feel like running along side of them (I see this a lot). The stolen bikes are usually just tossed aside somewhere else in the city.  

I should have seen the foreshadowing a few weeks ago when I walked out of the community center to find a junior high school boy just sitting on my bike talking to his friends. He wasn't planning on stealing it, or even riding it, but it was a pretty awkward situation. 

Back to the story, I walk out of Mac a couple hours later, to find my bike gone. Well, shoot. It was pretty late, so I'd just have to report it in the morning. Which I did. 

I walked into the nearby koban (mini-police station) and told them what happened. I registered my bike when I bought it, a measure taken so that in case it did get stolen, there would be official record of it. It's also a way for cops to check and make sure people aren't stealing bikes at night. I once took my bike from the station and an officer cross referenced my name and registration just to make sure it was mine. 

I knew this process would take a long time, so I left two and half hours before I had to catch a bus out of town. I didn't think it would actually take that long though. And so the saga begins. 

First both of the working officers come out from the back office and start taking down my information. Name, address, job place, etc. Then I explained the what, when and where of the incident. Notes were taken and then they got out the official documents.  We went over my personal info again, and then I described my bike. Every detail. Not just the maker, name, and color, but also the color of the basket, the style of gears, how many gears, "where is the name of the bike written?" "what's that part of the bike called, anyway?" and the position of the Omuran-chan stickers I stuck to it. The other officer in the mean time was typing all of this into the computer. He clearly did not know the alphabet keyboard very well because typing "Cecelia" (the name of the bike) took about 4 tries. Oh wait, that was supposed to be in capital letters, let me do it again, CECELIA.  Then because my bike is teal, there was some fuss about whether they should circle blue or green on the form. 

Then it was my turn to fill out my name, address and job on the official form. Thank goodness I can write it myself, but too bad I messed up my job title because then he had to redo that paper, staple it to the old version and I had to fingerprint it to verify that I was present when this new form was filled out. I made a mistake on the next one as well, but this time I just fingerprinted the mistake instead. I have an inkan (name stamp, which you can usually use for mistakes), but since it's in katakana (the writing format used for foreign words/names), they called the main station who told them they can't accept that- only kanji inkans.  This is also when I learned that police officers have a special pouch in their vests for inkan cases. 

Forty minutes, three forms, and 4 calls to the main station to verify different things (whether to write my name in English or katakana, etc) later, it's time to go check out the "crime scene." 

They police officers are really nice guys and asked me questions about my life in Japan and where I'm from, the usual. They seemed pretty excited to be driving the first police car I've ever ridden in.  I sat in the back seat where I was surprised to find no seat belts. I thought this was strange. Granted, it's only law for the front seat, but not even having them in the backseat? in a police car? Odd. 

When we got to Mac, it was crowded, so they did a common move here of just stopping, not in a parking space. When I got out of the car, my back lightly bumped the side view mirror of this other car, that apparently had someone in it. When I say lightly bumped, I mean, it was so light I barely felt it. 

While I was showing one officer where my bike had been and he was measuring distances (it seemed pretty arbitrarily), the man in the car started telling the second officer that I hit his mirror with the police car's door.  When the second officer came over, he asked me about it and I essentially said, "The police car has sliding doors, it would be physically impossible for me to hit that man's mirror." The guy in the car was being aggressive and rude to the police officers, clearly just being a ****.  I could tell they were just trying to appease him and were on my side. He eventually just left, but because it was an "accident," the traffic accident team had to come and take more seemingly arbitrary measurements and pictures, even though the guy was gone. There were more official forms too, but they didn't involve me in this new incident any further, since it was a bunch of bullsh*t to begin with, except taking a picture of my back where it touched the mirror. 

Finally, it was all done. Instead of taking me back to the koban though, they offered to drive me to the airport, from where my bus was leaving. A free ride to airport, sweet. On the way there, while waiting at a red light, three of my 6th grade boys walked by. When they saw me in the back of the van, they waved, but then realized I was in the back of a police car and their jaws dropped, eyes widened and they looked panicked. The officer rolled down his window and told them I wasn't in trouble and all three of them clutched their hearts and I could seem them sigh with relief. It was very cute. I can't wait to go to school on Tuesday and find all of my students talking about it and all of my teachers asking me about it. At least maybe I can get word of my missing bike out and increase my chances of recovery!

I'm not going to say I'm glad my bike was stolen, but I am kind of glad that I had this wacky experience. I'll definitely be remembering this one. 

(I am indefinitely borrowing by friend's extra bike, so I am still mobile.) 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Khumbi Ride

Warning: This will be long

I've pondered upon the best way to approach writing about my trip to Africa and my mind always comes back to the khumbis.  The what?! The debilitated,  cramped, time-consuming public transportation of Swaziland.  I remarked to Mia at one point, that we should calculate the percentage of my trip spent in one of these mini-buses. While we never got around to it, rest assured, it was a significant portion. Don't get me wrong, I loved riding in khumbis.

Swaziland is not big.  It's half of the size of Kyushu, four times the size of Nagasaki prefecture, and not even 1.5 times the size of Los Angeles county- remember this is an entire country. I didn't have the chance to venture into the southern half, but I saw my fair share of the north through the windows of khumbis.

Public transportation in Swaziland is like none I've experienced before and I actually didn't really get it when it was first explained to me (and I'm still no expert). There are a few options, but I'll start out with the most straightforward.

The bus rank. In Mia's hut, I saw an indiscernible picture drawn by her 6-year old brother, Nsika, that said "bus rank." I assumed the words were as non-sensible as the drawing. In hindsight though, it was actually a pretty good drawing and labeled correctly.  Depending on where you are the bus rank can be a very intimidating mad-house or a quite parking lot with some ladies selling goods.  It's just a bus stop, pretty much.  Khumbis are 16-seat, privately-owned (but for public use) minibuses. Each has a set origin and destination, often painted onto the van. You find the khumbi going to (or at least in the direction of) your desired location and grab a seat. Here's the sticky part, the khumbi doesn't leave until it's full. If you're the first person on, you could be waiting for a long time. My first trip, we spent longer waiting to leave, than it took to get to where we were going; 48 minutes for a 20ish minute ride.

So, I said it doesn't leave until it's full, and I meant full. Every seat filled and usually every nook and cranny crammed with stuff. I saw jugs shoved under seats, eggs, live chickens, huge bags of maize meal, children. Children are no exception. If they don't take up a seat, they ride for free, so babies and kids sit on laps or stand between seats.  Don't even ask about seat belts...

Apparently, you're supposed to get a ticket on the khumbi. I don't think we got one the first 4 or 5 rides, but no mind, we still paid and we made it. Every khumbi has a driver and a "conductor," a guy that takes the money, (gives tickets) and tells people where to sit. I was really proud of myself when Mia and I were separated on one of my last khumbi rides and I paid for myself.  It's cheap, by the way. Less than two bucks for a 40+ minute ride.  (If you're on the side of the road and a khumbi going in your direction has already let someone off so has some extra seats is going by, you can wave them down and jump in from there, as well. )

The doors don't always close, the windows don't always open, but don't worry, the music will always be pumping. Almost every khumbi had a new stereo and the drivers just blasted their favorite tunes throughout the Swazi countryside.  This is the closest I'll get to a good time to mention that many of the khumbi have a name- like a ship has a name. Some of them were pretty funny, like "Cup of Dreams."

So why did I like khumbi so much? Other than seeing the Swazi countryside, I saw the country people-side. There were so many interactions in, on, or around the khumbi that made it so memorable. What I learned on khumbis:

Swaziland has diverse, beautiful scenery: When I left the airport in Johannesburg, I saw what I pretty much expected of African terrain: flat and grassy. But the closer we got to Swaziland I saw a whole different world. Vast rolling hills, tall trees, lush vegetation. Granted it was rainy season so there was a lot of new growth. Later on in the trip, I saw the flat fields of maize and sugar cane. Apparently in the south, the terrain is even more different.

Swazis are friendly: Probably the story I've told the most thus far, occurred at my first bus rank. I'd been with Mia for maybe 45 minutes and we are standing in line for a specific khumbi and Mia starts chatting away in siSwati with this make (pronounced ma-ge, means "mother" or "woman old enough to be a mother"). I thought it was so weird that Mia happened to know this lady, even though we were no where near her community. They were laughing and joking. "Must be old friends," I thought. Nope, just some lady standing in the same line?! I was shocked at the time, but over the next week I realized that it really is just how the Swazis are: super friendly (and talkative). Everyone I met in Mia's community made me feel like one of the family instantly. It was weird and so different from Japan. In Japan everyone is very polite, and I realized that this can make them seem cold and standoffish.

People watch out for each other: Okay, this was neither in Swaziland nor on a khumbi, but it's related. As we crossed the border to Mozambique, we were a little worried about getting to the bus rank from the border gate, but we were taken under the wing by this nice Swazi woman. The trick to getting to the bus rank is to catch a ride on the back of a pick-up that makes trips back and forth from the gate to the rank. The back of this specific pick-up was run by one tough 13 year old boy, who was trying to charge us for 3 people, the third being our big bag full of camping stuff. So this woman got in this huge argument, just for us. Other passengers piped in in our favor as well, but in the end we still had to pay.
Again in Moz, but this time it was a khumbi, heading back to the border from Maputo- our big red camping bag was again the star of the story. This time, it was in the back of the khumbi, no problem except that the driver and conductor were talking about it, wondering whose it was, but only speaking in Portuguese! We had no clue! So this nice passenger, decided to ask us in English, just in case. What a pal! Things like this happened all the time. Anywhere from a simple translation like that to guiding me to a more direct khumbi and then helping me carry all of our stuff from one khumbi to another while Mia was out doing something else.

You can eat on the go: While it wasn't as bad as Maputo, there was quite a bit of trash on the ground around Swaziland, which made me sad.  A lot of the litter, however, was maize cobs and mango peels, which is not so bad. It seemed that in every community you could find someone selling grilled maize and mangos (I think it's mango season). Unlike in Japan, eating on the go is fine here. Once you're done with the maize, just chuck the cob out the window of the khumbi. This was really hard for me to do that, especially on the right side, I was scared it would hit another car. Everyone else, including Mia, were seasoned pros.
Another favorite story involves eating maize in a khumbi. We were sitting in the back row and there was a big gogo (grandmother) between Mia and me. I was just picking at some leftover maize I had and the gogo saw it and asked me if it was maize. I took that as, "Can I have a couple kernels?" so I offered some. She readily accepted and took a few. A couple minutes later, she mentions the maize again, but this time, she takes the cob, breaks it in half and hands one half back to me, keeping the other for herself. I really didn't mind, it was just funny. We proceeded to throw the cobs out the window.

Swazis like their picture taken: Maybe it's because not many people have cameras, but so many Swazi people asked me to take their pictures. It was nice for me because I got some pictures of everyday people, but I still don't understand their logic, they're never going to see the photos. Another odd part of this is that when they want their photo taken, they yell out "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" Again, counter intuitive.

Personal space is not a concept: I'm sure you've seen pictures or videos of Tokyo trains in the morning during rush hour, packed like sardines.  Swaziland has this too on buses and sometimes khumbis. Especially in Mozambique, where we didn't ride any khumbis within Maputo (thank goodness). There, we saw khumbis packed until butts are hanging out of windows. The buses  got pretty crowded too. We got on one early in the morning near the start of the line so it wasn't very full. By the time we got to our destination, an hour later, every seat was filled and every inch of aisle space was packed with people. Getting out was not easy, especially with a big backpack and that darn camping bag. I had to carry my backpack over the heads of seated passengers or it wasn't going to make it out with me!

TIA: This Is Africa. TIA is an acronym often used by volunteers. My biggest TIA moment was riding in a bus on the way to Hlane Royal National Park. We were just riding along looking out the window when all of the sudden there were 8 giraffe just hanging out on the side of the road. Wild giraffe! Hanging out on the side of the road! I was beyond excited. Moments later we also saw some impala and vultures!
Speaking of animals, I saw a ton. At Hlane, I went on 3 game drives (2 sunrise, 1 sunset). We saw rhinos, giraffe, impala, nyala, crocodiles, vultures, other big birds, warthogs, elephants (I got really close to some), hippos, a monitor lizard and some beautiful small birds. There is a lion section at Hlane as well, but unfortunately we didn't see any. The night we arrived they saw some lions feeding, but we'd opted not to do the sunset drive because lions are usually seen in the morning (oops!). The next two days however, the lions were nowhere to be seen. We saw their footprints and their leftover food, but no lions. It's especially hard during the rainy season because the grass is tall, there's plenty of watering holes and it's really hot (around 40C!) so the lions just lay around in the shade. Mia and I spent the daytime doing the same thing as the animals, just sitting by the watering hole watching as animals came and went. It was SO cool.
Another TIA moment happened at night when we were in the fenced off camping area, just roasting some marshmallows, when we heard a lion roar! It was awesome, but also terrifying because in the dark we could also make out forms of animals running INSIDE the camping area. Could it be that unimaginable situation like Jurassic Park when the predators get loose and cause havoc?  Were we doomed to be lion food? When we heard the safari truck fire up and head out into the wild, it didn't help. "No! They're INSIDE!" we said to each other.  We were pretty scared, especially because the lights of the truck showed the silhouette of an animal crouching near our tent, so we couldn't even take refuge. We sought out the help of our neighbors who were in the buildings so hadn't heard a thing, but they came with us back to our site, with a flashlight, probably thinking we were crazy. We realized that there were, indeed, animals next to our tent, but only impala- no lions. Mia and I are positive they were chased away from where ever they had been by a lion. I don't think lions can actually get out of their area though.

It's a small world: It's amazing that one second I was thinking "Man, this is a different world," then the next I ran into someone from Oxy. That's right. After lugging our stuff and that damn camping bag all over Swaziland and Mozambique, we were finally headed to our last stop before we got to ditch the bag. We got off a khumbi and hitched a ride on the back of a pick-up, but then had a 2+ kilometer walk ahead of us, down a straight, boring road. A car pulled over and this nice young couple, who happened to be going to the same hostel (there really wasn't anything else down the road), offered to give us lift. Turns out the woman is an '03 Oxy grad who worked there until '09, before she moved to South Africa. She was just in Swaziland for the holidays. Since she was there until '09, that means we were on campus together for 3 years! But wait, it gets weirder. Her roommate of 4 years (that alone is rare), visited her the year before and they went to the same hostel for new years as Mia and I were on our way to! Crazy!

My two weeks in Swaziland, Mozambique and Zambia were amazing. This is just a
sample of my experiences and stories, but if I try to write them all down, you may never see it.  I recorded pretty much every waking moment in a journal, so as never to forget my experience.

It's hard to portray how I felt being there. It made me feel happy and sad, surprised and impressed, worried but hopeful. Just like every place, Swaziland has it's problems, probably more than it's fair share. While I know the volunteers can't solve these problems for the country on a whole, I was really impressed and amazed at the difference that Mia alone was making in her community on a personal level. I could tell that many many people's lives were changed by her being there.

Sorry it took so long to post this. I hope you enjoyed it. Don't forget to check out my photos:
Maputo, Mozambique
Omuran-chan is a doll of the mascot of my town. I took her around Africa and not only showed her to kids there, I took pictures of her to show to my students. Seeing Omuran-chan in the photos really engaged my students more. They loved it! But were a little upset that I ended up trading her for a bag in Zambia on my last day. But hey, now she lives in Africa!

Friday, December 7, 2012


To my displeasure, winter has arrived. In my opinion there are only 4 good things about winter:
1. mikan- clementines, which are much more delicious here
2. kotatsu- the coffee table with a heating element under it
3. snowboarding
4. nabe

What's nabe? It's often translated as "hot pot." Basically, you cut up a bunch of vegetables (napa cabbage, green onions, carrots, daikon radish, etc), get some meat (pork, meatballs, rolled cabbage, etc), maybe some dumplings and noodles, and some nabe soup you bought at the store. Then throw all of these things in a pot and cook it. But it's not just any pot. It's a pot that is heated on a portable gas stove, which is sitting atop your kotatsu. Then you sit around the table with your friends cooking, eating and having a good time. It's the life.

There are all kinds of soups you can get:
よせ鍋 yosenabe - the general soup
キムチ kimuchee - kimchee
みそ miso - fermented soy (?)
ごま goma - sesame
豚骨らめん tonkotsu ramen
ちゃんぽん champon - champon is a seafood based ramen-like soup that is a Nagasaki specialty
and more...

nabe literally translates to "pot." My pot is special because it's split down the middle, so you can cook two different flavored soups at once. It's novel, really. When I tell people about it, they get really excited. Pots come in all different sizes from personal sized ones to ones that can serve up to 8 or 9 people.

I've already had 2 "nabe parties" and I can't wait to have more.


Last March I started taking karate lessons with two other female ALTs in my city. Our teacher is a really cool old man who is fluent in English and works on the US naval base. He's been all over the world and has many neat stories. He grew up in Okinawa where he started studying karate around junior high school. He's since achieved his 6th degree black belt in karate and his 4th degree in another Okinawan marital art called kobudo.

In the 1400s there were several forms of martial arts being practiced, but when King Sho Shin took control of the Ryukyu Kingdom, he banned weapons.  Kobudo uses household, farming and other tools as weapons. Think of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, those are the weapons used in kobudo. With weapons being banned, new forms of martial arts arouse, empty handed ones. (Karate or 空手(空: open 手: hand)).

Eventually three main forms of karate emerged: Naha-te, Shuri-te and Tomari-te. Each has it's own kata (choreographed pattern movements). From these modern karate was developed.

There are many styles of modern karate, each focuses on different kata and techniques. Further, mainland karate varies from Ryukyu karate. The dojo I practice under, 真券 shinken  ("true fist") is based in Okinawa and stems from Naha-te.

One main rule of karate, but especially Okinawan karate, is that in the real world, you only ever fight if it's in defense of youself or a loved one. Step one: Avoid fighting. Step 2: If you have to fight, end it quickly. Mainland karate usually calls for more hits, but in Ryukyu karate you want to finish your opponent in one hit, even if it's just a block or counter-attack. Pretty cool.

In October we passed our level 3 test, so we received our brown belts. Within the next year, we need to pass level 2 and level 1 so we can try for our 1st degree black belt. So far we haven't done much actual fighting, mostly kihon (basics- punching, kicking, etc) and kata.  We will have to fight for the black belt though, literally.

In our karate training we are also learning many easy but painfully effective self-defense moves. I personally think these moves are way cooler than regular karate. With just a small movement you can break a hold and have your opponent on the ground. It's cool.

Last August we started kobudo, the martial art that uses weapons. We are using only bo, but we've seen the other weapons in action and boy, do they look deadly!

Sorry, it's a picture of a picture. But don't I look mean?!
What I'm really trying to say is: you probably don't want to mess with me ;)


Every month seems to get busier and busier, sorry to have been out of the loop. Let's take it back a  couple months to my trip to Okinawa. I've made it a doozy.

Okinawa is pretty much Japan's Hawaii. It has the reputation of having beautiful beaches and a rich, unique culture. You probably know the name from the WWII Battle of Okinawa (sometimes referred to as "The Typhoon of Steel"). This fight, was not only the last major battle, but also resulted in the most casualties, nearing 200,000 in military and civilian deaths.

After the war, the US signed a treaty with Japan basically saying that Japan isn't allowed to have a military (only a self-defense force), but the US will protect them. This resulted in over 36,000 US military and civilian personnel being stationed all over Japan, known as the USFJ, United States Forces Japan (2009 figures). US bases really are scattered all over the country, we even have a US Naval base in nearby Sasebo City. However, about 70% of all USFJ bases are located in Okinawa.  While the post-war Okinawan community seems to tolerate the military, their presence is not necessarily desired, in fact many people want them out completely.

The woes of the locals regarding the military aren't completely unwarranted. Many of the air force bases are located very close to residential neighborhoods, but also the US military doesn't have that clean of a rap sheet either, when interacting with locals. (For example:

But anyway, back to my vacation. Well... not yet.
Okinawa, once called the Ryukyu Islands, wasn't actually even part of Japan until 1609 when it was invaded by a Japanese from the mainland. Being so far away however, they were pretty independent until they were officially made part of Japan after the Meiji Restoration, in 1879. Coming in so late in the game, Okinawa has it's own "dialect" which is actually more or less a completely different language and nearly incomprehensible to Japanese speakers. Mainland Japanese is taking over though, with Okinawan only spoken by the elderly and in traditional songs and performances. (I had no problem communicating).  Okinawan music and dance is also much different than that of the mainland, having more influence from China and other Asian cultures. These other cultures can also be seen in the unique architecture of traditional buildings.

Okay, now you know where I went, let's talk about what I did.

Last year I wanted to hold on to the last wisps of summer with all I had, so I yearned for an early autumn trip down to the still warm islands. However, I didn't want to go alone, so I ended up not going at all. After that I made the resolution that I was going to Okinawa with or without a friend the next year, so without even bother discussing it with my friends, I went ahead and bought my tickets. I was eventually joined by my good friend Steve.

The most sacred spot
The most southern spot
Day 1: We arrived around 11 and immediately hopped on some rental scooters and scooted our way around the southern region of the main island, Okinawa. We saw some cool things, such as the most sacred spot in Okinawa and the most southern spot. Those were cool and all, but the best part was scooting around the beautiful coastline with the warm sun on my back. Although it was my first time on a scooter, I didn't have much problem getting used it, but then we went over two very long, very elevated, very crowed bridges with kind of strong wind and it was quite scary. It wasn't dangerous, just scary, especially because I wasn't expecting it.

Pig's foot

That night we ate some Okinawan specialties like pig foot, pig ear (in peanut sauce) and some seaweed stuff. The pig foot was not good, the peanut sauce on the pig ear made it very edible, only the texture was a little strange.

Day 2: The next day we took a ferry off the main island to an island called Zamami. It's a small island with about 3,000 people and consists mostly of hotel and restaurant owners, but every thing was almost run down. Our room was a single standing "building" that reminded me of those "Pods," portable storage containers- barely enough room for our fold out beds and the bathrooms a port-o-potty and a port-o-shower. It was still fun though.

After arriving we rented some bicycles and cycled our way to some beaches, then up some mountains (oops). The scenery was impeccable. The water was a little cold, but little fish would come and swim up right next to us! Later we ended up renting some snorkels and masks and swam amongst some corral. Let me tell you, I don't know if I've done anything so cool, and it got better. We not only saw a sea turtle, but we got to swim right next to him! It was SO COOL. But again, it gets better, just wait.
That night, we had arranged to do a "mystery tour" with our hotel owner. The Mama-san came along too and brought their daughter who was visiting for the weekend from San Fransisco. The first stop was a spot to view fireflies, we didn't see many though. Mystery number two was at the port. Armed with flashlights and nets we were instructed to shine the light into the shallow water to attract plankton. The plankton would attract these little fish, which were supposed to catch. I followed the directions and found that I was surprisingly good at catching this fast little suckers. So I caught one and I was just excited for catching it. I thought that was that. Then they brought out the container of soy sauce and ginger. What?! Somehow I'd missed the part where we told we were going to eat the fish. I put the still live fish in the soy sauce and it kept flopping around until, crunch! I chewed him to death!  In Japanese it's called 踊り食い odorigui (踊り means dancing and 食い is eat). So I ate the still dancing fish. Pretty wild right?  It tasted bad, very very fishy.  The next mystery was just a couple feet away in another shallow part of the port. Here we used the nets to stir up some bioluminescent plankton, but I didn't eat these guys.  Next up was another dock were we caught two fish (again, everyone was so impressed by my net skills), one rare one that looked like a leaf and another that had a long nose.  Second to last was the hermit crab lair. There were about a hundred hermit crabs walking around a giant pile of shells. We played with them a bit and then saw one change shells, which apparently isn't seen too often. (Steve later found this article The last mystery was the most spectacular. We drove up to the top of a a big hill and laid down on a helipad and gazed at the stars. I saw the milky way!

Day 3: The next morning we headed out for another fantastic day. With a blue sky, a wet suit and snorkel gear we first swam with some sea turtles, no big deal. Just kidding, it was a big deal! We followed around this big daddy turtle for awhile and then a little guy came over too. It was AWESOME! Our guide (for this sea kayaking/ snorkel tour we were doing) took a lot of pictures of us.
Me and a sea turtle

Next we kayaked to one of the uninhabited islands between two bigger islands and snorkeled in the corral reef.  Our guide pointed out many cool creatures like a very fragile sea star and a very poisonous sea snake. The guide grabbed the sea snake by the head and tail and we got to touch it! It felt like a normal snake. Then when it was released, it swam right towards me! I guess it wasn't in the mood for any oodoriigui though. (Get it? My name is Japanese is pronounced oodorii, which sounds like the previous odori, but the vowels are longer. So I said he wasn't in the mood to eat any Audreys. Ha!) Other than the snake, I didn't get to touch any of the fish because they were too fast, but I did try.

We kayaked to another island, did some more snorkeling, wandered around while the guide cooked us some Okinawan spaghetti on the beach and went out again. The sun was warm, the water was refreshing and I spent the day chasing animals. Doesn't get much better!

That night we were turned down at a couple restaurants because they were too full. We eventually found ourselves at this place that was definitely not one of the hip joints (out of the 5 other restaurants on the island). It was run by an old man, who couldn't provide half the things on the menu, but the menu was a little odd itself:

Notice the top line: "spit" and the second from the bottom "an oil painting"
 Day 4: The next day we headed off back to mainland Okinawa. The ferry first stopped at a neighboring island, Aka-jima. There's a cute story about two dogs, Marilyn and Shiro. Marilyn lived on Zamami, where we were, but Shiro lived on Aki-jima. The two dogs were in love, after meeting when Shiro was brought to Zamami on a routine visit. But it was love at first sight and legend has it that Shiro swam back and forth between the islands to see his beloved Marilyn. Cute right? There is a statue of each on their respective islands.

Back in Naha, we headed out Kokusaidori (International Street) to see a parade and the execution of the world's biggest tug-of-war. We saw some of the parade, ate some Mexican food, saw the GIANT rope, but got too bored of the waiting through hours of ceremony and preparation to watch the actual tugging, we wouldn't be able to see much anyway.

This event is a battle between two ends of town that dates back to the 17th century. I assume the rope wasn't as big back then, because they didn't the fleet of cranes needed to carry all 40 tons of it. Apparently, about 20,000 people participate and everyone gets to hold a smaller branch rope and pulls on that as men call directions from atop the rope itself.  It was cool, but not as cool as I was hoping.

Day 5: This was a big day too. We rented a car and drove up to the northern end of the island to the world famous aquarium. It was pretty awesome and I got to hold more sea cucumbers (which if I didn't mention above, I really like sea cucumbers (not eating them though, even though it's one of Omura's specialties).  There was a humungous tank with huge fish and a shark. Really neat.

(On the way up to the aquarium we stopped at an A&W Burger for the most disappointing meal of the trip. But I think we hyped it up more in our heads than it warranted.)

Next we went to the Nago Pineapple Park, which is indeed a tourist trap. It pretty funny though. We rode a magnetically controlled golf cart through a "botanical garden" as a tape told us facts like "pineapple comes from the words 'pine' and 'apple'." It was enlightening. I think we ate our admission fee in free pineapple samples though. We ate until our tongue burned and our stomachs ached.  With full bellies, we were immune to the next tour of the gift shop where they offered everything from pineapple cake to pineapple wine to pineapple soap. The best (or worst...?) part of the park was the song that you heard constantly from the second you stepped out of your car until hours after you left, since you can't get it out of your head.  I tried to find a good video so you could hear the song, but no luck. I'll sing it to you next time I see you.

One goal of ours for our trip was to find a mongoose v. habu (very poisonous snake) fight, that apparently used to be a thing. We playfully thought maybe there was an underground fighting ring we could somehow gain access too. While that didn't happen we did find a place that advertised fights, but since it has long been banned, was just a video. We didn't actually see it, so it's hard to say what it actually was.

One very amusing moment for us was passing a sign board for the entrance of a college, but behind it was only a playground. This is funny because in Japan students work really hard to get in to college, but once they are there, they can relax and take it easy.

Day 6: Our last day on the islands. We took the car up to the Shuri Castle. This palace was burned down, rebuilt and renovated countless times, but it was still pretty cool. We watched a video of a renovation and it seemed pretty hard work; I can't imagine having to build, paint and decorate that place without modern technology.

Finally, we stocked up on souvenirs and hit the road back to Omura. It was a fun filled trip.