My Eight Month Coma 1

Last week I travelled back in time to Tokyo.  You’re probably thinking that makes no sense because everyone knows that Tokyo is actually 13 hours in the future (from NYC).  Nevertheless, that’s what it felt like.  Or maybe I’ve just been in a really long coma.  Yes, some things had changed (many many friends were missing) but I could easily explain that away – they were off traveling.  What I’m trying to say is that even though its been 8 months since I left Japan, it felt like I woke up from a long sleep and I was right back where I started from.  My 100 words of Japanese returned and came flowing out of my mouth upon arrival at the airport limousine bus counter in Narita airport.  Directions to taxi drivers were a cinch, the staff at the American club welcomed me with open arms and a few shopkeepers in Azabu Juban were friendlier than they would have been to a total American stranger.  I had hoped that my time away would have given me perspective and that returning would give me the closure I really wanted and needed; the figurative final stamp in my passport sending me on my way.  I was too emotional when I left to really process the departure.  This, unfortunately didn’t happen.  There was no perspective, no closure.  I found myself pretending that I still actually lived there.  Looking back on those very very brief 5 nights/4 days, I’d say that I didn’t do anything any differently than I would have if I still lived there (with a few exceptions that I’ll get to later).  I went to the fundraiser of my children’s school, ate ramen (2x), had a foot massage (or 2) went to the supermarket, the American club, had sushi in Tsukiji, went to a shrine sale, took trains, spent the night in a ryokan, saw a fire festival and had a girls night out.  So, you’re starting to get the point, right?  What I did in that short period of time was not a vacation itinerary – it was my plain old vanilla life – or the life I used to lead.  Which was anything but vanilla.  Hence the lack of closure.  But i’ve returned home happy to know that even though I’ve been gone for 8 months my friendships lived on.  We picked right back up where we left off – if anything, I appreciate them more.  And, those exceptions I mentioned earlier… well, lets just say I was fortunate to have an opportunity I won’t ever forget.  I spent those five nights and four days happily ensconced in the MacArthur Suite at the US Ambassador’s residence.  Kisses to John and Susie Roos.  Maybe next time, the coma won’t have to be so long…

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There’s Snow Place Like Niseko 1

Bucket list item #7 – Ski the famed powdered runs of Niseko – the sister city of St. Moritz.

Since our arrival in Japan in 2008, after leaving our little ski house in the Catskill mountains, we’d heard of the famed Niseko ski resort in Hokkaido.  But with Nagano a train ride away and the thought of the flight and the 2+ hour bus ride after the flight, Niseko just seemed like a place that people went to who lived outside of Japan.  Why go to all the hassle when you can just jump on a train at Tokyo Station and in a short amount of time ski the Japanese Alps – it was good enough for the Olympics – it was good enough for me.

So several times each winter we happily skied in Hakuba – but there was always something missing.  Hakuba is a place that lives in the past.  If you set the clock back to the 80’s, you can easily see yourself hanging out in the lodge wearing a purple Head ski jacket, chewbaca furry after ski boots and rocking a brand new perm.

But not much has changed since those bubble days – not a lot of new construction or new carpet for that matter. Not so Niseko.

Niseko is brand spanking new (except for maybe the Hilton).  I walked the streets and looked at one more fabulous building then the next.  Our condo was beyond gorgeous and totally cool.  Not even this era – maybe even a little of the ski chalet of the future.  And after living in a society for four years as a complete outsider, it suddenly felt very much like home.  How strange to actually be in Japan, using yen to purchase things and only speak English all day long.  Everyone I came  in contact with from the physical therapist to the bar tender to the waitress and the ski rental guy spoke my mother tongue.  Communicating in the same language –  brilliant!

There were actual fireplaces – of course they were in architectural glass boxes  – no wood burning fires here (except outside of one bar in a big metal drum).  The apres ski options were plentiful – bars and restaurants abound.  I had a beautiful lunch slope side at the Vale Bar and Grill with 14 of my closest friends, dined at Abu Cha 2, a funky itzakaya walking distance to the chairlift – and spent a magical evening inside The Barn – a French fusion restaurant lit beautifully from within watching the snow fall out the enormous glass wall.

I only skied two out of the four days for various reasons too boring to write about so I certainly wasn’t all over the multi-area mountain, but the famed powered runs were just so-so.  There was a ton of powder in the trees – after the first run through those, I made sure where not to return, but on the main slopes themselves, not too much.  But I heard people speaking about the not-so-great conditions.  To be honest, after skiing for 40 years mainly on the east coast of America, I’m not much of a powder fan.  Give me ice and a few rocks and I’m golden.

Tom and I were thrilled to check this big item off our bucket list and to do it with 50+ friends was even better.  For those five days we felt like we owned Niseko and it had been there waiting for us this whole time.

The Calm in the Storm 2

On March 14th, Annie’s 12th birthday and 3 days after the Great East Japan Earthquake, I woke the kids at 5:30 a.m. and we left our apartment for Narita Airport.  Our plan was to get on the morning flight to Bali, a week before our planned spring break vacation.  We didn’t have tickets for the 14th but with the aftershocks constantly rolling underneath us, the unknown nuclear reactor situation and the closing of the kid’s schools, Tom and I thought it best I take the kids and leave.  It took a lot of time and yen to get on the flight but with tickets in hand we ran to security to make it on the 11am flight.  Standing in line at immigration, there was a very large aftershock – so big that everyone left the line and ran for cover.  If you’ve ever been in Narita’s immigration room, you’ll know there really is no such thing. So after we got Sophie out from under the huge piece of glass hanging from the ceiling, we waited for it to stop and continued to the gate.  We boarded the flight a few moments before its scheduled departure. Usually I hate to fly and have to take a few pills to relax in my seat.  This trip, I thanked god when the wheels left the ground and for the first time in two decades, the turbulence didn’t bother me.  We landed in Denpasar seven hours later, tired and relieved, yet sad to have left Tom behind.  The taxi drove for over an hour through crowded streets, where motor scooters outnumbered cars ten to one.  The ride was one we had never taken and the stimuli blew by us at 80 kilometers per hour.  We were glued to the windows taking it all in.  After days of worrying and stress, the new surroundings were a huge relief, something to take our minds off what we had just been through.  We arrived at our hotel in Ubud, dirty and hungry, and the warm welcoming people who took our bags and led us to a table outside by the jungle were like a vision.  We ordered huge amounts of food and ate it all – they were even there with a cake and a candle for Annie – a birthday she will never forget.  The relief we felt that we were safe in Bali was palpable and I’m pretty sure none of us had a problem falling asleep that night.  We spent ten days at that hotel, taking full advantage of everything Ubud had to offer – white water rafting, bike rides through rice paddies, yoga, monkey forests, nighttime rides on elephants, laying around by the pool, massages, authentic Balinese food, shopping, playing cards and numerous games of Bananagrams – cocktail hour under the thatched roof bar – smoothies made from fresh tropical fruits. We fed our minds, bodies and souls and we talked a lot about what happened and our lives back in Tokyo.  We worried about Tom and talked to him often.  We went over tons of What If scenarios and facebooked our friends to see what they were feeling and learn of their plans for the future.  This vacation was like no other and will forever be melded with the earthquake.  I am so grateful that we were able to go and I’m truly thankful to all of the wonderful people in Bali who cared for us – hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to one day return under better circumstances.  Namaste.

Bhutan: Beyond Words 4

Usually when I return from a trip, the first thing I do is sit down and write about it.  The words pretty much write themselves and all I do is type as fast as they emerge.  This time was different.  I was completely out of my comfort zone, traveling with 9 other women who I was tangentially acquainted with.  The opportunity to spend a week in Bhutan presented itself last March and I knew it might not come again.  One of those now or never scenarios.  And without thinking it completely through I said yes and made my bank transfer and then for the most part forgot about it for six months.  And then the trip was two weeks away.  I nervously packed according to the directions our tour guide emailed:

  • insect repellent, hand cream, sun cream, lip salve, soluble aspirin, antiseptic cream, anti-histamine cream, anti-diarrhoea pills, a preparation for the relief of sunburn, and any medication you take regularly, or might need to take for a periodically recurring condition, such as asthma.

Since I am a big fan of medicine I used his suggestions and added some of my own ideas: a weeks supply of cipro, steroid cream, xanax, ambien, motrin, ex-lax, bonine, zovirax, zyrtec, tums, Emergen-C, kawakawa ointment, tucks take alongs, Imodium AD, and Sudafed.  And I had to leave some things out as I was packing carefully due to the 20kg suitcase limit.  Turns out, I’m glad I packed most of it.  Bhutan is the sort of country where you just never know what you are going to need and if you do need it, you better have brought it with you.

As I’m typing, I’m still nervous that I won’t be able to aptly describe my week. Bhutan is like no other place I’ve been and each of the nine other well travelled expat friends I went with would no doubt say the same thing.

We flew from Bangkok on an early Sunday morning on the country’s only airline; Druk Air (Drug is a dragon and the airplane has one painted on it’s tail).  It was a three and a half hour journey including the stop in Badogra, India where the plane refuels and checks the weather in Bhutan to make sure they’ll be able to see the runway.  The small landing strip in Bhutan is the only area in the country flat enough and long enough to land an airplane in.  And if the pilot can’t visually see it, they won’t land the plane.  The twenty minutes from Badogra to Paro, Bhutan are filled with magical sights.  Kangchenjunga,  a snow-capped jagged mountain ridge, the third tallest in the world quickly appears amidst the clouds and then moments later you drop thousands of feet and you are surrounded by every shade of green imaginable dotted with white farmhouses.  And without seeing much of anything else, the plane touches down and you are in another world.  The picture below is the airport terminal.  You can see what I mean by “another world”.

The Airport Terminal

Once through immigration and customs, we met our guides for the week, Sangay and Kinlay.  Sangay was one of the owners of the agency and was in his late 40’s.  Kinlay was 24 with a huge grin.  Both were wearing the traditional Bhutanese menswear, a Gho, which looks like a kimono but it is worn to the knee with dress socks and shoes.  Once we were underway, they pulled their arms out of their sleeves and wrapped them around their wastes like an obi belt.  This is the casual way to wear the Gho.  Our first stop was Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan.  The drive took about 1.5 hours, most of which I slept through.  On top of two xanax for the plane ride, I also popped a dramamine for the bus ride.  It was amazing I was even standing up right.  We arrived at our hotel high up on the mountain and it overlooked the river and the entire city.  It was lunchtime.  I was hungry and I had low expectations. I heard a lot about the bad food in Bhutan – all chili peppers and cheese,  morning noon and night.  Surprisingly we found a buffet laden with delicious food.  There was the traditional chili pepper and cheese dish, ema datsi (as in datsi spicy!) but there was also delicious rice and daal, chicken curry, red curry, nan, cucumber salad – all delicious.  After lunch, we checked into our rooms – I would be rooming with Linda, one of the few girls I knew relatively well, for the rest of the trip.  The room was small and institutional (think hot water heater above the bath tub) but the view was gorgeous and it had a tiny terrace with two seats.  We settled in and then our group set off for town and the Sunday market.

The Market was divided into two sections by a covered bridge.  A farmers market on one side and a traditional craft market on the other.  Some went to the food first and others the crafts.  My first purchase was a prayer horn they use in the temples – a quintessential Bhutanese souvenir – I’m pretty sure my friend Efrot has about 6 of them from her trip to Bhutan.  I also found the cutest pair of Bhutanese baby shoes, which I would see, in a bigger size on the men in the festival a few days later.  I can envision them on the floor in my living room with my other strange shoes I’ve collected in Japan.   I also bought some ancient looking pendants that look like mandalas that I’ll give as Christmas and birthday gifts, and some small containers of saffron for Libby, Katherine and Mona.  After the crafts, I walked over to the food area and took some photos of rice, peppers and some strange pancakes. I would have liked to buy some of the jarred peppers but I was at the beginning of the trip and concerned about the 20 kilo baggage limitation.  I was already thinking about what I was going to have to take out of my suitcase and leave in Bhutan.  After shopping, we walked to the archery field (archery is the national sport) and watched a competition in play.  The bows were made of carbon and were extremely high tech.  They looked out of place in the surroundings, held in the hands of the men in formal Gho.  The target looked miles away – hard to see from where I stood, and I was amazed at how they were able to hit it.  While there, a middle school cricket match taking place at the neighboring stadium ended and trucks filled with screaming kids holding trophies screeched by us.  We walked up to the town square and walked around the plaza going in and out of the various shops.  I bought a prayer wheel that when spun in a clockwise direction sends multiple prayers to all sentient beings.  When we were finished shopping, we walked to a photo studio where two monks were waiting for us.  They were there to reveal the art of mandala making.  They sat on the floor with a wooden board between them that had a fairly intricate design penciled on it.  Next to the board sat pots of colored limestone sand.  We sat and watched for about an hour as they turned a plain piece of wood into the beginnings of a masterpiece using only their fingertips.  We drank tea, ate crackers and burned incense and talked about mandalas and their meaning in Buddhism and then we left.  The monks would finish the mandala many hours later and we would return the next morning to destroy it – signifying the impermanence of life. Back on the bus, we returned to the hotel to freshen up and have cocktails in the lobby.  Dinner was buffet style in the hotel – really delicious – Indian with a twist.  The dogs bark incessantly.  The first of many sleepless nights.

Our first breakfast in Bhutan I am introduced to the combination of daal and eggs.  After a sleepless night from the howling, fighting dogs, we made our way back to the photo studio to see how the monks did.  You could see the masterpiece as you entered the room and it was truly incredible.  A temporary work of art.  We spent another 20 minutes or so discussing the reasons behind the creation of the mandala and the destruction of it and then we banded together, pinkies up, and made a big mess.  Next up was a visit to an artist compound.  Room after room of young art students carving wood masks, painting clay sculptures,embroidering embroidery. Each room had the year of study listed at the top and it was fun to see their progression from first year to fourth. I bought Bhutanese boots and a table runner made by the art students.  Drove to an animal reserve (“zoos” are illegal in Bhutan) to see the strange Takin; cow head, goat body.  Along the way, Montana and I waved to everyone we saw – we always got waves back and sometimes “I love you’s”.  A guard in a tower even returned our waves.  Ate a buffet lunch (a theme is emerging) at a restaurant in town named Plum, tried not to think of the bugs I saw in the bathroom. Tried the red hot dried chilis that we see drying on the roof tops everywhere – hot but oh so good.  After lunch, it was a ½ hour drive along a mountain road with huge vistas and steep drops, scattered with the colorful prayer flags you see everywhere in this country.  I’m beginning to believe they are there to remind you to pray that you make it to your destination safely. Saw a golden Buddha painting on a rock face and a room sized prayer wheel that turned by water running down the mountain.  Arrived at the base of a forest and started our first hike of the trip.  For those of you who know me, you can probably sense my anxiety.  At 45, hiking has never been my thing, I’m not a gym nut and the thought of hiking up a mountain at high altitude was worrying but it wasn’t like I didn’t read the itinerary.  I knew there would be many hikes ahead.  We passed a group of red robed monks playing a game that looked like bocci although they were playing it with big rocks.  The hike was mostly uphill and high, high – breathless and last, I was always last – had to stop many times.  Montana and Kinlay stayed behind with me.  The views were breathtaking.  Maybe that was my problem.  At the top of the hill, was Cherie Monastery.  The place has an amazing history – too much to go into in a blog.  The head monk was super friendly and took loads of photos with us.  Afterwards, he gave us his email and asked if we would send him the photos.  Bhutan in a nutshell.  Monks with internet access.  Sangay continues to tell us stories about the meaning of everything we see and the themes are emerging.  Everything in moderation. Anger, jealousy and pride are not bad things, just weaknesses and as long as they don’t get out of control – they are a part of life.  We were told that the best offering to Buddha is simply water as it is abundant and the giver feels nothing when giving it (as opposed to money).  The hike down was a lot more fun than the hike up.  Back to the hotel for a shower and out for dinner in town to Bhutan Kitchen – a typical Bhutanese restaurant where we sat on the floor and drank Arra, the traditional spirit distilled from wheat.  Tasted like rubbing alcohol.  The food was just ok.  I was really tired and worried about how my body will feel the next day.  Before bed, I closed the window and shut out the dogs – but its warm in the room.  Woke up the next morning to screams and shouts in the village arena.  Even though it was 7am, there was a cricket match being played.  I came down to the lobby to find two Bhutanese men openly hugging each other and sharing a newspaper.  Men hug here and it’s not an issue.  I like that.

Things I learned in the last 24 hours:  In Bhutan, when they work on the roads, they also close them for several hours  with a road block.  Minimum daily wage in Bhutan is $4.00 a day.  That is more than an Indian worker can make in India, which brings migrant workers to Bhutan.  Prayer wheels turn by water generated power.  Everyone speaks English – it is the language they use in their schools.  Control your mind and your body will follow.  Marijuana grows like a weed everywhere and they call it pig food because they feed it to the pigs.

We drive three hours from Thimphu (at 3050 meters) to Punakha (1500 meters) on a long and winding road – basically the road has a hairpin turn every 8 seconds.  It is a long long long way down the mountain.  The forest yields many things: wild chestnuts, mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns.  We make a roadside pit stop for roasted corn and passion fruit.  At our highest point (3050 meters) we stop at a shrine covered with prayer flags.  We have brought our own to add and the group gets into action weaving it through the trees and over bushes.  Our guide Kinlay climbed a tree with dress shoes, Julie got on the driver’s shoulders to reach a tall branch.  The “Restaurant Cum Bar” signs are funny.  And we arrive at one for lunch.  Another buffet, new chilis, diet cokes and sprites.  After lunch we hike along a narrow path through wheat and rice fields at harvest time.  Women and children with sickles hack away at the crops.  Birds eat what falls to the ground and fly away when visitors approach.  Huts are constructed of dried wheat.  Cows linger.  Phallic symbols dripping with fluid keep away evil spirits.  Baby monks as I like to call them, are adorable in their little red robes and croc sandals.  They enter the monasteries at 5, leaving their parents behind.  But even though they are monks, they are still children. We take photos of them with our iphones and they ask to look at them.  They know how to scroll through.  Amazing.   I saw one give a big subway blow into the faucet.  Boys will be… monks.  In the monastery, we came upon a room filled with small monks praying, ancient scrolls in their hands, bowing their heads.  They peek at us out of the corner of their eyes.  Walking back through the fields we come across a group of dirty happy children who reach out to kiss our hands.  The little girl has a razor blade in her mouth.  She’s holding her smaller brother on her hip.  Back in the bus, a carload of mommies call home to check in on their 30 children: homework, swimming, volleyball, cheerleading, love yous, miss yous, ask daddy, chat, chat, chat.  Another hike is on the afternoon agenda – eight of the ladies go, Montana and I go for a beer.  We arrive at our next hotel to find a long and narrow Bhutanese building by the riverside.  A wooden hut sits outside by the water where we plant ourselves and order Fosters.  The other girls arrive later and join us for another beer.  A speedboat pulls up at our hotel and men get off the boat.  They are staying at the same hotel and invite us to share their bonfire and meet for a drink before dinner. We agree.  There are a group of them, here to scope out and plan for the next Uma five star resort.  Architects and landscape architects, designers, the manager of the current hotel in Paro, and the owner.  Most are here from Bali and Singapore.  After drinks, we leave them and go inside for our dinner.  Sangay and Kinlay have made a special chili dish for us to eat that they made from things they bought earlier on the roadside.  Recipe:  chilis, onions, ginger, tomatoes – an amazingly fresh and spicy addition to the food.   After dinner we go outside and join the bonfire crowd. On top of the fire, there is a huge pile of “pig food” and the wafting smells are bringing back memories from college in the 1980’s.  The men bring out a bed sheet and hold it over the fire and lift it up and down like a parachute sending smoke signals up to the sky.  The men dance by the fire and sing Bhutanese songs.  After a little while we feel the effects and Stephanie turns to Sakiko (an adorable Japanese woman with long black kinky hair) and says: “get your Janis Joplin ass up and get me some reeses peanut butter cups”.  Lying in bed, my room sort of spins for a few minutes but then thankfully, blissfully, I fall fast asleep.

Everyday begins with Bonine.  Today’s morning event is another hike.  We start on one side of a wire bridge and walk through brush and over streams to get to the start of the actual hike up to Khamsum Yueling, a temple built on a hilltop as a symbol of universal peace.  The 4th king’s wife (mother of the 5th king) built it for her son to help his juju.  Supposedly he doesn’t have the best numbers. The rice harvest has not yet begun and the fields are alive in massive color.  In this temple we finally encounter the torma – colorful statues made from butter and sugar that are used in worship.  They look like something straight out of cake boss.  Hilary, Montana and Julie get picked up at the river’s edge by the men from last night in the speedboat and the rest of us have to trudge back up the roads as they have closed down for the morning (the road block mentioned earlier) and the bus can not return to pick us up.  When we make it back to the bus, we drive to the  zdong (a cross between a temple and a fortress) and we wait at the bridge for the boat girls to arrive.  We cover ourselves, Kinlay puts on an extra shawl and we enter the punakha dzong – a fortress and monastery where all five kings have been coronated. Inside there are huge buddhas, the King’s throne, lots of monks.  Off to lunch; a picnic by the riverside.  Lunch was prepared by the owner of yesterday’s restaurant cum bar and brought to the river where a picnic table had been laid out with a checkered cloth.  Cabbage dumplings called momo, red rice, sweet and sour pork, green beans with garlic and ginger and roadside apples for dessert.  Lovely lunch surrounded by teenagers in their school uniforms, eating and studying with friends.  The three hour treacherous bus ride back to Thimphu begins.  We pray.  During the drive, we experience a significant drop in temperature from  80 degrees to 60 degrees and we go from tropical surroundings to mountainous ones.

We arrive back to Thimphu and check into the Taj – a 5 star hotel and a major improvement over the places we have stayed to date.  Upon our arrival, we are treated to: hot wet towels, white silk scarves, a blessing ceremony by a monk, and ginger tea.  The ceremony consists of a chanting prayer and a gift of yellow string to be worn for three days around the neck or wrist and then tied to a tree.  Our room is India inspired and beautiful.  Quick run to the ceremonial drum shop in town where the woman proceeded to rip us off – then mad dash back to the hotel for massages.  Get out the aches and pains.  Drinks and dinner with a group of Bhutanese woman that Sangay has arranged for us to meet.  His wife and daughter are among them as well as a woman who works at a NPO, a 13 year old who studied in Jackson Hole Wyoming, her mother who works for a charity that helps Bhutanese nuns and a high school principal.  Took a group photo in the lobby and then went down to the cavernous restaurant for a fabulous Indian buffet.  The place was empty except for the 15 women.  We spoke about Bhutan, women’s issues, teenagers, studying in the US, Gross National Happiness and encounters with the King.  I learned about marijuana day where the kids clear out the fields to get rid of it and trick or treating for meat, butter and rice after the harvest is over.  We gave gifts of candy and tote bags of the Tokyo tower.  We all bought the photo book done by one of the women’s husbands.  Early to bed – we needed to get as much sleep as possible for tomorrow we sleep in tents!

The next morning we reluctantly checked out of the Taj – last real toilet for a while. I steal a role of toilet paper and stash it in my backpack.  During the ride to the campsite, Sangay tells us how back in the day, his father was the 2nd king’s personal cell phone.  He was a very fast foot messenger and he would run 340 kilometers in three nights.  He was able to describe to the king in full detail what life was like in the surrounding towns.  Amazing.  After an hour of driving in the bus, we pulled over to find four 4wd jeeps waiting for us.  We left most of our stuff on the bus and moved our overnight bags into the jeeps. We drove another ½ hour up the dirt and rocky road and climbed into the countryside.  We drove through fields of pig food until we came to a tiny town where a festival was underway.  Small children and small monks ran up to our cars.  Some of the boys were holding toy guns – even the monks!  We were ushered into an open square where a huge wall hanging is unfurled, depicting Buddha with butter sculptures in front.  The townspeople were all dressed in formal wear sitting and standing wherever there was room around the square.  On one side there was a band which consisted of the drums and brass horns we all bought.  Dancers in colorful costumes twirled in front of us, telling a story with their movements.  A town elder that earned a masters at the New School in NY (bizarre) welcomed us and brought us over to the special tented area for honored guests.  His helpers served us tea and crackers.  We all look worried about the tea – and he sensed it and told us not to worry that it was boiled but we were still unsure.  We have only a hole in the ground as a bathroom for the next 14 hours.  The crackers taste like licking an ashtray if that’s possible.  Hilary raises her cup and says “to giardia”.  We laugh and drink. We have no choice.

There were a ridiculous amount of kids with fake guns running around.  Putting them in their mouth, shooting other kids with them.  I was soon to find out there were yellow plastic beebees in them as one of the kids was shooting me in the back from the stands.  The mother smacked him.

After sitting and talking to the town elder and watching about an hour of the dances, we left to take a break.  We walked down the hill to find 5 sleeping tents and 2 bathroom tents set up and a beautiful table and chairs perched on a cliff set out for lunch.  The backdrop was a towering mountain range and dark skies with big clouds.  The lunch was a delicious buffet of red rice, chilis, beef and broccoli, momo, mixed vegetables, tea and coffee.

After lunch, we walked back to the festival to watch the black hat dance.  Stunning costumes and pointy hats twirled in the darkening sky.  Two of the men dressed as jokers came over to us with a large phallis and started taunting us with it (in a non-threatening manner). It was pretty funny.  They pulled poor Sakiko out of the crowd and gave her the worst of it.  Done with the dances, it was hike time.  We started up the hill and I was overwhelmed with the smell of pig food. This country is infused with it – it grows everywhere and smells fantastic.  The sky was really getting dark and we pushed on – we didn’t want to get wet and then have to sit inside a tent in the cold.  We made it back with just a small drizzle and found Montana in the food tent with Sangay.  They were making a mandala out of rice and beans.  While we cleaned up the mandala (separating each grain of rice and putting each bean back into its bag) Sangay read our Bhutanese horoscopes from his 2010 book.  My year, 1965 – the year of the snake had the following to say:  Wood was my element, Monday is my best day, Thursday my worst.  I should take risks this year and my fortune and health are very good.  Supposedly those of us born in 1965 are supporting of others but this year we need a confidence boost.  Sitting in the tent with Sangay, separating the wheat from the chaff, listening to the lilt in his voice as he told our fortune, I was at peace.  Until a cow came down the path and bumped into our tent, pulling the stakes up on our side, folding it in.  He actually got stuck in the lines outside.  A good life lesson.  You might think that all is well and peace reigns and then a cow comes and knocks it all down.  The festival horns continued to blow while we sat together in the tent drinking beer and listening to our fortunes.

Thought for the day:  Buddhists believe that cremation after death creates space for someone new.  I like that belief.

When the mandala was cleaned up and every rice grain and bean returned to its bag, we were taken on a walk around the village.  We were interested in going into some of the farmhouses and Sangay had arranged it for us.  It was his wife’s village and he had a personal relationship with many of the people who lived there.  The first house we entered had a steep ladder we had to climb as the cows lived on the first floor.  The house was over 300 years old although they were only given electricity 8 years prior.  I was pretty sure the new addition of ten women to the already packed house (there must have been ten of them already) would make the floor cave in.  It was pretty rickety.  We entered the house into a small dark room that served as the kitchen.  No refrigeration – all the food sat out on shelves.  I don’t remember seeing any running water either.  We moved into the living area of the house that was small and at its center was a small wood burning stove, which provided the heat.  Several generations were in town for the festival – we met the matriarch of the family, her maiden sister (who at first they told us was a nun and then they self-corrected and said she had just never married).  Her sons and their wives and one grandchild.  The house was very very basic.  The walls were smoke filled and had many posters hanging to decorate the space.  The various kings were everywhere.  Old calendars, advertisements, spelling charts – basically anything bright that would help make the house more cheerful.  One home had a personal shrine built into it, right next to the snakes drying on the line.  After the visit, we went back to the main courtyard where the festival was taking place because we noticed Montana and Stephanie were doing the traditional dances with the townsmen.  We all were asked to join and soon we were laughing and dancing and they were singing and it was so festival-like.  They kept on going and going and going.  After several times around, I’d had enough and snuck away and then not too much later they all made it back to the campsite.  Dinner is moved into Sangay’s father-in-law’s farmhouse due to a juicy selection of bugs in the food tent.  The dinner begins with a drinking ceremony in front of the bonfire.  Is this really happening?  Just seems too damn perfect a day. We are served white and red wine with an Indian version of trex mix.  Absolutely delish.  And then Kinlay brings out fresh popped popcorn that is divine. We move into the 250 year old farmhouse and the table is set inside the largest room in the house – very rustic kitchen, very rustic dining area.  The kitchen has several workers chopping and mixing while sitting on the floor. The dining room is long and narrow with beams and a dirt floor – the “windows” are open carved spaces and there are tarps hanging on the walls.  The dinner was very good – fresh chili, broccoli, beef, momo, lentils, mushroom soup, chicken and peppers, roasted local potatoes and carrots.  We drank wine and sang songs from the seventies.  The teenage girls eeking out of us.  After dinner, we took the treacherous ladder back downstairs, having been made more treacherous from the wine and moved back to the bonfire.  The craziness continued. The singing got louder and we were a little worried about the townspeople.  It wasn’t often they had a group of westerners camping out in their town. Maybe we would be the last?  But every time we tried to quiet down, some funny thing would be said and we would burst out laughing. At the end of the evening, Sangay told a personal ghost story and then it started to rain.  We hurried for one last toilet break in the toilet tent and then tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags. I fell asleep quickly and I was warm and happy until around 3am when we were all awakened by a bell and cymbal ceremony that went on and on and on – every time there would be a break in the music we would think it would be over and then it would start back up – you could hear the laughter go down the line of tents.  And of course we weren’t the only ones that woke up with the noise – the DOGS freaked out! There was barking and growling and howling and fighting. When things settled down, we were able to fall back to sleep but were then woken back up at 6:15 by the men.  They came around with umbrellas, hot coffee, hot tea and bowls of warm water to wash with.  Now that is service.  The rain was still teeming down but the time had come to brave the elements and to go into the “bathroom”.

Breakfast was served in the farm house – porridge with fresh walnuts and honey, egg omelets, toast (real toast not from a toaster but from a grill), jams and jellies, sausage and apple juice and coffee.  Breakfast over, we quickly packed, the tents were broken down and they packed the 4wd jeeps and we headed out of town and down the farm roads.  We were very concerned that the dirt roads combined with the serious rainfall would make our trip back down hazardous and we were right.  It was probably the scariest ride of my life. Our car kept skidding in the wet mud and came precariously close to the edge of the cliff several times.  Linda and I were in the car together and she even came up with an abort plan.  If we go over the side, then I’ll…

When we finally arrived back at the paved road, our bus was waiting for us to take us to Paro and the Uma hotel, the last of our hotels and the best.

The Uma sits discreetly tucked into the side of a mountain outside of the town of Paro.  Jorge, the manager of the Uma, whom we had met in Punakha, welcomed us.  We were given cold wet towels and chai tea while we checked in.  This is the first time we have our own rooms.  We are given 1.5 hours to unpack, shower, change and relax before we start the rest of our day.  Buffet lunch in town – surprised?  Amazing roasted potatoes.  After lunch, we visit the National Museum – an old fort, it has the coolest architecture for a museum.  The contents were medium interesting – the stamps were fun.  Bhutan has issued stamps to recognize many global events including Lady Di’s giving birth to Prince William. Surreal.  Since it was originally a fortress, it was pretty tricky getting out of there – and I had to pee the entire time.  After I got through the maze and found the exit, I ended up using the brochure as t.p.  I had run out (my supply I stole from the hotel was gone) and there was none to be found.  Happily I found out later that Linda used a brochure too.  It might be cheaper if the museum invested in a few more roles of toilet paper – brochures are expensive!  After hearing Efrot rave about the hot stone bath she took when she came to Bhutan, we asked Sangay to take us to an authentic one and authentic it was.  We drove out to a farm house in the ride paddies.  We walked past sleeping dogs and mooing cows to find an old woman tending a fire with large stones.  We were shown into an adjacent room with 6 wooden trough-like bathtubs.  Each was filled with warm water and eucalyptus leaves (eucalyptus along with marijuana grows like weeds in this country).  When the stones turned red hot, the lady used giant tongs to pull them from the fire and place them in each tub.  There was a piece of wood separating you from the stones so you wouldn’t burn.  The room was hot and steamy and smelled like wood burning menthol. We took turns soaking in the tubs while she continued to bring hot stones.  After the bath, we were invited up into the main farmhouse for butter tea.  Butter tea tastes like what it sounds like.  Melted butter.  Except it’s not good.  The taste is very rich, salty and not my favorite.  She served us puffed rice and some hard grain.  I couldn’t chew and had to politely spit it back into my hand – then I hid it in my full teacup.  It was then time for our last real shopping opportunity in Paro. It was quite dark when we finished up and we drove back to the hotel for drinks and dinner – group photos.  We so appreciated the hospitality after a day of camping in the rain and several days of 3 star hotels.  I ate Yak carpaccio for the first time and it was delicious.  We have an 8am start tomorrow – our last full day and our biggest hike yet.  We are going to Taktsang – the Tiger’s nest – one of the most sacred sites for Buddhists in the world.  I’m a little nervous.

Breakfast at the Uma is a real treat.  A beautiful buffet first (fresh fruits and pastries, meusli, cheese, breads) and then you order breakfast.  The restaurant is round and surrounds a wood burning fire and the views are lovely.  I had ricotta pancakes and fresh lime juice (it was sweet) and I coffee’d up for the trek ahead.  It was October 9th, Tom’s 45th birthday and I got to talk to him before we headed out.  We drove to the start of the hike and our six horses were waiting for us (4 decided to hike up instead of ride).  We mounted the horses and one pack horse bolted and took off – it was a little scary until Sangay assured us they had only put a saddle on it two days ago.  We slowly moved up the path and passed a sign that said “ignorance is the #1 cause of death”.  Another saying I believe in.  Although I was nervous about the horses (we had no reins, which means no control) there really was no other option for me as I wasn’t going to make it by hiking alone.  Looking up at the temple perched on a sheer cliff I wasn’t sure I would make it at all.  The rock face had a huge split in it and it wasn’t obvious by looking at it, how you actually made it across to the temple.  We moved slowly up the mountain, the horses not thrilled with their day job.  The hikers soon left us in the dust, finding steep short cuts to avoid us.  The horse path was narrow and steep, with very sharp cliffs and drop offs.  It was not a peaceful journey especially since there was a horse shouter (opposite of whisperer) walking the entire way.  All he would do is yell at the horses and hit them with branches.  I kept telling him to stop doing it but he didn’t listen.  He was ruining my moment.

As it was, it took over an hour to get to the tea and coffee rest stop.  It was about ¾ up the first mountain with an amazing view of the temple.  They provided sugary ritz crackers and drinks, a bathroom, rattan chairs and tables and a massage hut.  How civilized.  Looking up at the temple, I could see we still had a very long way to go.  There were a few vendors with blankets on the trail at the pit stop and this is where I bought tom’s cowbells and the skeleton bracelets.  We re-mounted the horses and made our way back to the steep trail – there were definitely moments when I thought I’d go over the side.  Sangay taught us the Bhutanese words for careful, turn, go, but in the end, the horses did what they wanted to do.  At the top of the first mountain, we dismounted and said goodbye to our horses.  The rest of the journey would be on foot.  And from there, the path was revealed.  We would have to walk down many steps to a bridge that crossed the waterfall and then up many steps to get to the actual temple.  And then, we would have to do it all over again to go back.  It was fun going down, meeting the travelers from all over the world that were coming up.  But every step down I kept thinking that it would soon become a step back up.  The views were staggering and breathtaking – every minute of the climb.  When we crossed the bridge, the spray of the waterfall covered us and we walked up the final steps to the temple.  We were grateful to be allowed inside as it was only opened to the public three years ago.  When we entered the inner chamber, a monk sat on the window sill with the prayer books in front of him chanting quietly to himself.  He gave us holy water that we put on our heads.  Sangay brought us a yellow string necklace with the vajra that Buddha holds in his hand.  We all quickly put it on.  We walked to the top of the temple to look back at what we had accomplished and how far we had come.  The tea stop looked so far down it was incredible.  I wasn’t about to relax because I knew what was coming next.  I started the hike down first – anxious that I would be so slow that I would make the group wait.  My strategy was to book it on the easy part – not stopping for photos and then for the way up, find the maximum amount of steps I could do at one time before I needed a break and then do it in that increment.  The number was 77 steps.  I would walk up 77 steps then rest to put my heart back in my chest and then walk another 77 steps.  At the summit, our guides had prepared a buffet lunch!!!  There was a makeshift buffet table from two straw baskets and a wood plank that had fresh chilis (surprise!) rice, chicken, broccoli, mixed vegetables – a real feast.  We sat on a tarp on the ground in the warm sun, sweat drying on our skin.  It was the last hike of the trip and it was almost over and I did it.  Walking down took a long time, over an hour and my knees were not happy.  I spent most of the time avoiding the cow patties of which there were a lot.  I was so happy the hard part was behind me, I practically skipped down the mountain. The hour bus ride back to the hotel was filled with happy stories and chocolate.  At the hotel, I made a mad dash for my massage appointment – couldn’t have been planned better – thank you Julie.  The masseuse removed most of my muscle aches and pains.  Had strong ginger tea afterwards with Hilary and Linda sitting in front of the wood burning fire.  Hilary had arranged for our last meal to be outside in the hotel courtyard with a bonfire next to it.  The table was set for 13, the ten of us and our 3 guests (Sangay, Kinlay and Denchu our fearless driver).  It was chilly but the heaters surrounding us, the blankets on our laps and the bonfire kept us warm.  The dinner was another feast with smoked river trout, yak, potatoes and chilis, unknown meatballs, vegetable curry, samosas, momo, chicken soup and a buckwheat crumble with ginger ice cream for dessert.  When dinner was over, we continued to sit by the fire, reluctant for the night and the adventure to end.

A 9:50 departure from the hotel meant plenty of time in the morning to do what we wanted – some took a walk on the grounds, others worked out – some slept late and packed (me) and then we all met downstairs for breakfast at 8:30.  I had a delicious grainy toast with prosciutto, wild mushrooms and a perfectly poached egg.  For a vacation I was told would have bad food, I must say, its been all about the food.  I walked outside to find a tree to tie my yellow string on – it had been three days since we had been given them – time to leave them behind.  A teary goodbye at the hotel with our guides – money gifts were given to them, white silk scarves to us.  We boarded the bus one last time to drive the 15 minutes to the airport – we were quite the sight – 10 women, weighed down with more kilos than we were allowed – not to mention 6 bhutanese ceremonial drums packaged in cardboard with huge red handles sticking out of them.  Somehow we managed to check all our bags through to Narita – would they all arrive in one piece?  But they didn’t charge us any extra fees (we smiled like Sangay told us to).  After security there was still a last minute shopping op with the few ngultrum I had left that would very soon become worthless pieces of paper.  Who does Bhutanese FX?  Flight was 50 minutes to Dhaka – the capital of Bangladesh before we went on to Bangkok.

It’s hard to sum up our eight days in Bhutan.

Was it like any other vacation?

No, for many reasons.  10 women on a trip is a powerful force – we had 30 children between us, and myriad experiences.  We each brought something different to the proverbial table.  But that wasn’t the only reason this vacation was different.

A lot is said about Bhutan and it’s Shangri La qualities and its gross national happiness and I believed it would be hard to live up to its reputation.

But it did –

In so many ways – from the purely physical beauty of the land to the smiling happy people to the Buddhist culture woven through their daily life to the hot and spicy food and the obvious pride of their citizens.

Bhutan seeped into me – in my eyes, my nose, my ears, my legs, my feet, my skin.

I took it all in and I brought it back with me to Japan.

This blog entry is dedicated to Len and Marianne Jardine – two of my biggest blog readers who passed away this month, three weeks and three days apart.  I will miss you both.

Back in the Blog 1

dsc03189Apologies for the two week lag in creating a new entry.  I can blame it on being busy but it was really the opposite.  Not much was going on to blog about.  Last week I started my first online course for my masters via Skype which was a very very interesting experience.  There are eight students and one professor and everyone sits in their own space wherever that may be and logs on to a skype conference.  You can’t see anyone, but you can hear them breathing.  Actually, during a part of the class that we had to do a writing exercise, I muted my computer so it would be quiet and after I wrote my piece I was reading it out loud to myself (or at least I thought it was just myself).  Turns out when you hit mute on your computer, you only mute the other people!  I got a little Skype message from one my classmates telling me he heard everything I was reading to myself.  That was a little embarrassing and will never happen again.  If you are wondering what this crazy picture to the left of the blog is, well, I have to say, I’m not so sure myself.  The girls and I were at Tokyo Hands shopping and while I was looking for something, the girls decided to try out some of the zany Japanese products.  Sophie put it on (while it was deflated) and started using the hand pump until she came running to find me and told me she couldn’t breath and would I find a way to remove it from her neck.  This past weekend, we went with a group from the Tokyo American Club to the Sapporo Snow Festival.  You might remember that Tom and I took the boys to this the last time we were in Tokyo.  There are some funny photos from that trip – us with the 30 Japanese fisherman on the weekend tour.  This time it was a bit different.  However, the snow festival was a bit disappointing.  The American Club goes a week early trying to beat the crowds and the prices and usually the sculptures are almost entirely completed.  But this year it was far from being finished.  Another by-product of the bad economy?  Who knows.  We did however get asked to help work on a sculpture which was fun.  Tom immediately found the chain saw.  What a surprise.  There was a world competition ski jump going on at the old olympic site and we were able to see a jump or two before they shut it down for high wind.  The jumpers were staying at the same hotel so it was fun to see them walking around in their ski team uniforms (especially the Polish Ski Team – Tom wanted that jacket so bad).  We had an action packed weekend that included an indoor water park, a Genghis Khan BBQ at the Asahi Beer Hall, a visit to the Sapporo Olympic Museum, lunch in Ramen Alley, a visit to the Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival and Skiing at Kokusai Mountain (all in 72 hours)!  Today was Setsubon, the festival that celebrates the end of winter and the beginning of spring.  I’m sure that it doesn’t seem possible in New York, Wisconsin or Exeter, New Hampshire, but today was a beautiful sunny 50 degrees and it felt just like spring was on it’s way.  Sophie is off with her school for a 4 day ski trip to Nagano.  Tokyo International School has some serious field trips… sayonara.