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.

Shanghai: Ni Hao WOW! 1

48 hours to “do” Shanghai.  It was an aggressive plan.  But it’s all we had.  It’s not like I’m a spontaneous person to begin with; I do love planning and organizing a trip down to the last minute but usually there is wiggle room – a back up suggestion in case something doesn’t work out.  2 days doesn’t leave any wiggle room.  It was a short flight from Haneda to Hongqiao, about 2 hours and 15 minutes and when we mowed our way through customs, I started to frantically search out our tour guide.  The hotel assured me she’d be waiting to whisk us off to our first destination: lunch.  But it was China, and well, there was no one waiting.  People shouted at us from the various counters:  “you want taxi?” “what hotel?” “where you go?” “where you GO PEOPLE?” After a few nasty looks and a snippy response from me they moved on to other freshly minted tourists.  Next came the tricky part.  You just never know if your iphone is going to work when you travel to a new country in Asia.  And if it does work, what freaking number do you dial?  It’s not like I bring a list of country codes with me.  I scrambled through all my printed emails trying to find a valid number for the hotel.  Miraculously I found one, Tom punched in the numbers and someone answered at the Westin Bund.  After a few minutes of speaking very clearly and fairly loud, the hotel reported back that the tour guide and driver were at the other terminal and would pick us up in about 20 minutes (make a mental note of that 20 minutes, it comes in to the story later on).  Tom hung up and said not to worry, they were at the other terminal and would be here shortly.  20 minutes later, Linda appeared breathless and apologetic, begging us not to say a word to the hotel or complain in any way as it would be disastrous for her.  Admittedly, I’d spent the past 20 minutes thinking of all the bad things I was going to say about this tour guide to the hotel concierge but when she actually arrived begging me not to I assured her that I wouldn’t say anything.  “So, I’m sure the concierge told you where we want to go today,” I asked Linda as we were driving out of the airport.  I had custom tailored the afternoon with the concierge over the past few days.  “No, he said nothing about it.” Hmmm… the concierge told her nothing about it.  OK.  Thankfully I had all my printed emails which I usually bring with me for proof when people fuck up so I whipped them out and handed them over.  “It’s all there.  You can read through it.”  Our first stop was Ding Tai Fung in Xin Tian Di.  A dumpling shop that in 1993 the New York Times rated it one of the top ten restaurants in the world.  And it’s a dumpling shop.  But it’s heaven at the end of your chopsticks.  We learned the proper way to eat soup dumplings, flip them over, bite a hole and let the soup ooze out on to your spoon.  Plop the dumpling in your mouth and slurp up the soup.  Amazing.  And as the dumplings cooled, we were biting holes and slurping right from the dumpling in one fell swoop.  We became dumpling experts.  I don’t think the bill was more than $100 for five of us and we left feeling like stuffed dumplings ourselves.  Xin Tian Di is part of what was once considered the French Concession.  It has been restored and gentrified but it’s a cool combination of east meets west.  I had to keep reminding myself that we were in China.  It could have been in downtown NYC.  We had time to walk up and down the main strip and then Linda had us back in the car to get to the next stop on the Shanghai Express; Taikang Road Art Center.  This colony of artists twists and turns with galleries and studios in narrow, pedestrian only alleys, ripe with the day’s laundry strung up over your head.  We peeked into as many as we could with Linda pulling us forward as though we were running a marathon.  I so wanted to stay and wander, get lost in those alleys.  But we had to keep moving.  The last place on our list for the day was the fabric market, better known as The South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market.  This place is not for the reticent.  It’s truly overwhelming.  Four floors of various sized booths with fabric and materials, samples of clothes, people trying to get you into their booths.  It’s not as bad as the silk market in Beijing but at least there, the items are already made.  The only choice you make is your size and your price.  Not so here.  Our destination was a suit maker for Tom.  We followed Linda through the market in search of a reputable seamstress her colleague had mentioned.  I was gray on the whole thing but tagged along behind.  She brought us to one of the bigger booths that actually had clients being measured.  Definitely a good sign.  Tom jumped right in, looked through books of pages torn right out of GQ and Esquire and found the style of suit he liked.  Next, he paged through book upon book of suit fabric choosing three that he liked.  He wanted three but weren’t sure what they would charge him. He asked for cuffs and real buttons on the sleeves.  They measured him and quoted him 700 yuan per suit (about $100).  We knew you are supposed to bargain, but seriously, how could we?  We explained our time constraint.  It was 4pm on Friday afternoon and the suits would need to be delivered to the Westin hotel by 10am Sunday morning.  Sure, no problem.  The clerk followed us to the handy ATM machine in the building where we turned over the 2100 yuan and told them we’d see them Sunday.  A leap of faith but not a huge one.  It was time to get back in the car and make our way to the hotel to check in.  The Westin was an excellent choice as it is literally three blocks from the Bund which reminded me of La Croisette in Cannes.  Ok, maybe it’s been a long time since I’ve been in Cannes but again, I had to ask myself, was I in Communist China?  Friday night we had reservations at M on the Bund, a five minute walk from the hotel.  The view from our table was stellar.  Here is a photo we took from the deck: If you’ve been to Hong Kong, you might think it’s very similar.  I would agree.  I love cities that are split in two with a river running through it.  If only NYC had paid more attention to Jersey City.  That’s another blog.  After dinner we cruised along the Bund – lots of people taking photos of Sophie and Annie.  That was strange but there really weren’t a lot of foreigners.  We walked down to Nanjing road and became part of the sea of people until the heat, the smell and the sweat got to us.  We quickly turned and walked back to the hotel.  In Shanghai, it’s important to look both ways before crossing.  Red lights are a suggestion and most two wheeled vehicles (scooters included) blow right through them.  Tom did his best impression of traffic cop the entire time we were there.  One woman even ran over his foot with her scooter.  She was not intimidated by him in the least.  Saturday morning came quickly and we were meeting our friend D’anna who relocated from Tokyo to Shanghai a year before for breakfast in the hotel lobby.  We chatted non-stop over breakfast, bringing each other up to speed with our lives.  We were off to the Expo for the day and she suggested we make a brief stop at the Underground.  Intrigued, we gladly followed her lead which introduced us to Mr. Ju (probably the wrong spelling) D’anna’s driver.  Her husband’s company doesn’t let them drive in China.  Must be the red light thing.  The underground is literally underground (it connects to the subway) and is a huge market that is a combination of knock offs and custom made clothing shops.  D’anna (or Shanghai Tai Tai as the sales girls liked to call her) knew her way around that place like it was her kid’s elementary school.  She brought us to her watch guy, her luggage guy, her ski jacket guy… and proceeded to negotiate like Henry Kissinger.  My girls were in awe.  An hour later we had a good-sized pile of treasures in our new duffle bag and we were off to the Expo.  Mr. Ju dropped us off and we said goodbye to D’anna.  The World Expo.  A once in a five year opportunity.  In China no less.  I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  I read the articles about the 5 hour lines, the public peeing in those lines, the heat, the crowds.  I knew what to expect and we went anyway.  My plan was to look around, go into the American pavilion (I heard you could cut the lines with a passport), visit some of the themed pavilions, have lunch at the french restaurant, buy a few souvenirs and then leave.  Not one of those things happened.  Well, we looked around.  That was about it.  And we took some photos but after awhile the girls were in such a foul mood it wasn’t worth taking pictures.  It was hot (about 92) muggy and the second largest crowd to date (that would be 520,000 people).  We didn’t even see the US pavilion let alone go inside.  We wandered aimlessly, walking around the 5 hour lines, staring at the people in them.  Who would stand in line for 5 hours for a 10 minute presentation?  And what if you picked the wrong one!  After three hours of spinning our wheels we left.  We had an idea to return to the area we had lunch in yesterday but we couldn’t remember the name in Chinese and when we dialed the hotel phone number (redialed it actually from Tom’s iphone) it said the number was out of service.  We had no choice but to return to base and get more info.  We dropped our bag and grabbed the name of a restaurant near by.  It was past 2 and we were starving.  The woman at the door asked if we had a reservation.  We told her no, but the Westin sent us.  She said they didn’t have any western food.  We said, no the Westin.  She said no, she didn’t have any western food.  We gave up and got in the elevator.  Surprisingly on the 4th floor of the building there was a gorgeous empty (why did we need a reservation?) restaurant with people waiting to serve us.  We had another fantastic chinese lunch and wondered how we would ever be able to eat dinner at 7:30.  Back at the hotel, the girls rested in their room, Tom watched TV and I snuck out for a massage at the hotel spa.  Somehow we managed to make our 7:30 at Jean Georges.  I was still incredibly full but it was Jean Georges and I was excited to eat his food.  Again the place was gorgeous, the view amazing but the food was just ma ma hu hu (i learned this is the way to say so so).  The next morning, our last before flying out at 2pm, we were planning on visiting Yu Yuan Garden but Sophie woke up not feeling well – what is the equivalent to Delhi Belly in Shanghai?  Anyway, we spent the morning in bed.  The suits were delivered at 9:50 a.m. and they looked like suits!  The airport arranged for a car service back to the airport.  As we approached the terminal, I mentioned the airline we were on which he completely ignored.  He pulled over the first chance he got and opened the door.  Looking around I didn’t see any specific airlines, only a departure door which we entered and looked for our flight.  It was strictly domestic Chinese flights.  The nice lady at the counter told us we were at the wrong terminal and that the free shuttle bus was downstairs and to the right.  The bus was packed – standing room only and it stunk.  I couldn’t actually say what it was that it smelled like but probably just too many hot bodies in an unventilated area.  After the first ten minutes I started to worry that we were on the wrong bus.  What airport had two terminals ten minutes apart?  And then I remembered the piece of information from the beginning of this long and winded story – the terminals were literally 20 minutes apart.  I was seething thinking of the many bad things I was going to say to the concierge about the terrible service but of course once we arrived, I forgot all about it and checked my bags and went through immigration.  Shanghai; been there done that.

A Time To Say Goodbye Reply

It’s June. The first month of summer.  The month of my birthday.  It’s the time of year when school work and obligations come to an end and summer camp and freedom begins.  A time I used to highlight in bright yellow and count the days until May ended.  But it’s June in Tokyo and that means saying goodbye.  And goodbye.  And goodbye.  The expat life certainly has it’s perks but you pay for them in June when firms re-shuffle their employee rosters and many of your friends get sent somewhere else.  And you spend a good deal of time saying goodbye.  I have a friend who can’t count how many Sayonara parties she’s been to since she moved to Tokyo – it could very well be in the hundreds.  Ok, she has lived here for 18 years but come on.  She’s had to say goodbye to people she cared about (otherwise she wouldn’t be on the guest list) HUNDREDS of times.  It leaves a mark.  And this year, I have the added “pleasure” of saying goodbye to my oldest child as he graduates from high school.  I know I am one of many around the world who are experiencing this very normal rite of passage but on top of all the other separations, its making it difficult to drive in the car and listen to the radio.  Any song has the potential to spark impromptu tears. Mata ne – until we meet again…

You’re Still The One 3

In my high school yearbook (Lawrence High School, Class of 1983) under goals it says “To be the president of something” and “To be married successfully”.  So far, i’m one for two.  Tom and I left the kids in Tokyo and spent an exquisite week in Amanpulo, an Aman resort on the small island of Palawan in the Philippines to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary.  20 years is big time.  When you strip away the drama of living, the babies, the homework, the finances, the jobs, the jealousy, the homes – all the noise of your everyday life you are lucky if you still find your best friend that you agreed to spend the rest of your life with all those years ago.  I haven’t had many opportunities to spend time with Tom in a vacuum.  We’ve had a lot going on since we met.  But this past week, in one of the most magnificent places in the world, we had just that.  Just the two of us, a white sand beach, a turquoise ocean and not much else.  We talked, we told stories, we laughed, we held hands.  We found out that the core is still intact.  We’re still having fun, and he’s still the one.

Okinawa: Japanese Paradise or The Land of Barbed Wire? Reply

The weekend began with the aquarium debate.  Would we or should we drive a round trip total of 4 -5 hours to see the world’s 2nd largest aquarium?  I was torn.  How do you visit a place and not go to it’s #1 tourist attraction?  Tom was on the opposite side of the equation.  How do you spend 5 out of a possible 48 hours of a weekend away in a car?  He won.  We didn’t see any sharks or whales behind glass although when we came out of the baggage claim we did find a man inside a large fish tank cleaning the glass.  This was the closest we came to an aquarium.  We landed in Okinawa on a Friday evening, following Tom and Hayden who had left Tokyo on Thursday afternoon with their baseball team to take part in “Spring Fling” a 5 school baseball tournament held yearly at Camp Foster.  As I boarded the plane and changed my FB status to alert the media to our imminent departure for Okinawa, a good friend wrote a little message warning me of the sea snakes.  What sea snakes?  I typed frantically back into my iphone.  It was at that moment that the nice stewardess reminded me to turn off all cell phones as we were about to take off.  I spent the next two hours wondering what they were.  I didn’t have to wait long to find out.  When I turned the phone back on in the gate, I had a long description of sea snakes and even a link to wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_snakes).  Turns out they are pretty lethal buggers and they are all over Okinawa.  Putting that out of my mind for the moment, Tom and I began the quest to find our rental car.  The idea of Hertz Gold service is non-existent in Japan.  Walking up to a garage and finding your name on an electronic billboard and the keys in your car – HA!  Not happening in Okinawa.  Each rental car company has a small flag posted outside the airport and you have to go one by one reading the signs (most of which are in Japanese) to find the small ma and pa shop you happened to rent from.  You stand in front of the flag and wait until someone drives by and decides you are their customer and they pick you up on their bus and drive you fifteen minutes away to their small shop.  They speak no English; your Japanese is ridiculously bad.  You sign sign sign and nod your head.  Once in the car, I showed the name of our hotel to the clerk and he used the Japanese navigation to enter the address.  He had to come back out again to show us how to make the navigation begin.  He must have thought we were so stupid!  Couldn’t we just read the Kanji for Start?  Somehow, Tom managed to interpret the road signs and direct me where to turn.  We called one of the coaches and found that the boys had just begun a night game as we got in the car and so somehow we managed to find our way to Camp Foster.  Thinking back on it, there had to be some divine intervention guiding our car.  We arrived somewhere into the second inning, saw the boys play (and lose) and enjoyed Taco Bell under the lights.  Fast food on the military bases is a treat.  Japan is littered with McDonalds but that’s about it.  The game ended rather quickly and we got back into the car to drive to our hotel to check in.  Within two minutes of starting the car, Tom managed to delete the hotel from the navi and we were in the dark so to speak.  After several u-turns, much frustration and a few laughs, we found our hotel.  Pulling up to the Tokyo Dai-Ichi Grand Mer Resort it was obvious that it was not so grand and the Mer part was way in the distance if you could see past all the concrete.  However, there were actually four beds in the room which was unbelievable.  I had requested extra beds for the girls but you just never know what you’re going to get.  We left the girls in PJ’s watching a movie and Tom and I went in search of the advertised Sheesha Lounge.  What we found was a sign in front of the bar that said it was closed for a private party and we were invited to have our drinks in the rooftop lounge.  We followed the sign, through the kitchen to a dirty concrete roof with a few outdoor plastic tables and chairs.  I was in need of a cocktail and at that point I didn’t care.  Within a half hour, they said the private party was over and we could enter the lounge.  It was a funny sort of place.  The walls were covered in Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts.  There was an electronic dart board, signs that read “We Welcome The Military” and there was lots of smoke.  Just not from any hookah.  Actually I never even saw a hookah (real or otherwise) which just made the place even more authentic.  In Japan, Western-like establishments are named for all sorts of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with the actual place.  On the bar was a large glass jar filled with a light brown liquid and yes, you guessed it, sea snakes.  The unique beverage is called Kubasake  (snake sake) and can be enjoyed almost everywhere you go.  You can even take home a glass container yourself for a mere $600.  Tom was actually considering the small jar for $300.  It would have made quite the mantle piece.  The patrons were mostly military and the servers native Okinawans.  They look different than mainland Japanese – more like islanders.  Loaded with maps and tourist pamphlets Tom and I came up with a plan to incorporate two baseball games, some beach time, history and some shopping into the remaining 36 hours.  The next morning we were at the breakfast buffet by 7:30 am, with beach towels and sun screen filling our plates with fish, miso soup and rice.  Let’s just say what Americans eat for breakfast and what Japanese eat for breakfast are “different”.  We were staying in Central Okinawa which is where all the U.S. bases are located.  In Okinawa there are approximately 27,000 personnel, including 15,000 Marines, contingents from the Navy, Army and Air Force, and their 22,000 family members and you see them everywhere.  It’s pretty strange to go from Tokyo where foreigners are a small minority to Okinawa where you see Americans with short hair cuts everywhere.  Here are a few of the names of the bases:  Camp Shields, Camp Lester, Camp Foster, Camp Kinser, Camp Schwab and of course the all important Futenma Air Force Base (the current battle royale between Obama and Hatoyama).  Not to mention the barbed wire.  The central area of Okinawa is covered in it.  Every wall, building, golf course in site.  All protected.  I have heard Okinawa is beautiful – i’m thinking its in the Northern part of the island – close to the Aquarium we decided not to visit.  After getting in an hour or so of beach time (no sea snakes were spotted although we were only allowed to swim in a very small area that had netting), we entered the base and watched the first game of the day.  ASIJ won their first game of the tournament 17-0 and it was also their first win since they were first invited to Okinawa three years before.  By the time the game was over, it was 85 degrees, and we were frying in the stands.  We left the boys to have lunch in the food court with their teammates and we went in search of a fun place for lunch.  We found it at Seaside Jet City Burgers.  A shack a block from the beach that had delicious burgers and an even better atmosphere.  Were we really in Japan?  It didn’t feel like it.  Driving by the beach, listening to AFN (Armed Forces Network) on the radio, reading signs in English it was surreal.  After lunch we even went shopping in stores that had our sizes!!!  We returned to the base ready to watch the second game in the double header and found that Thomas had visited the base barber and was sporting a new mohawk.  The afternoon game went something like the morning competition and our boys were triumphant again, this time beating Seoul 17-4.  Dusk fell at the moment of victory and the speakers around the base rang out taps announcing colors.  The coach for Camp Foster yelled “Colors” and everyone turned and faced the flag.  This is the time that the flag is lowered for the night.  I was told that no matter where you are on a base  during colors you must stop and face the flag.  Even vehicles must stop.  It was a proud moment.  The moms and dads of the players from the host base threw a bbq that night inviting all teams, parents and coaches for dinner.  The buffet line was overflowing with good old American food – things you couldn’t find within a thousand miles of Tokyo.  Waldorf salad, creamed corn, pasta salad, baked beans, cupcakes, cookies, coleslaw, real hot dogs, RC cola, root beer floats, american beef hamburgers…the list went on and on.   We ate more than we should have and said good night to the boys and made our way back to the hotel.  It was a long day, the girls watched more baseball than you can ask of 11 and 12 year old girls so when we walked into the lobby and saw tables set up for manicures and pottery painting (at 9:30 pm) the girls pulled up chairs and had a ball.  We checked out first thing in the morning, skipped the breakfast in the hotel and set out to find something decent.  Tom spotted a billboard advertising The Rose Garden for Sunday Brunch and magically fifteen minutes into our drive we happened upon it.  It was the most amazing breakfast we have had since we moved to Japan.  Steak and eggs, eggs benedict, french toast, crispy bacon, huge portions.  The works.  We ate and ate and ate.  Fat and happy, we left and made our way to the capital of Okinawa, Naha in search of the “historical” part of our trip.  Tom and I wanted to visit the last headquarters of the Japanese Naval Forces during the battle of Okinawa in World War II.  In the final days of World War II a Japanese Naval Admiral and 4000 of his men committed suicide rather than surrender to the advancing US Forces. Descending the stairs of this cave thirty meters down into the bowels of the earth is a haunting experience. The girls refused to get out the car.  They couldn’t understand why we wanted to go in the first place.  The last stop on our 48 hour journey was Kokusai Dori, a shopping street born immediately after the end of World War II.  It started with people selling out of tents and has morphed into a “miracle mile” of cafes, boutiques, surplus from the military bases, loads of glass jars of kubasake, various sizes of sanshin (the ukelele of Okinawa) sugar cane, every time of spice, tea, fruit, vegetables, fish (fresh, dried and fried).  The street was alive with people.  We didn’t know where to look first.  Tom even made a new friend. After a great day, we made our way back to the rental car shop (this time it really was divine inspiration that helped us find it), handed in the keys, boarded the bus and caught the afternoon flight home.  The boys had arrived before us and we ended the day at our favorite Mexican restaurant, La Jolla where you can usually find us eating dinner on Sunday nights.  Was this only 48 hours?  Seems impossible!

A Great Day To Be An American 1

Team USA with Ex-Prime Minister Taro Aso and US Ambassador John Roos

The day began with gale force winds at 4am, waking myself and my family.  As I burrowed my way into Tom’s chest, fearful that the windows of my 18th floor apartment would blow in, I questioned the gods who once again would keep my in-laws from watching their grandsons play a football game together in Japan.  In October, 2009, they flew to Tokyo to watch them play only to have the game cancelled due to swine flu.  Another opportunity presented itself when the All-Stars from the Kanto Plains Football League were invited to take on the U-19 Japanese Football team in a friendship match strangely named the Camillia Bowl.  Back they flew to Tokyo, this time bringing Tom’s sister Nancy as well.  The day before the game was sunny and 70 degrees and the boys had their final practice at the Atsugi Naval Facility.  The team was comprised of all-star players from the American School in Japan,  Zama, Kinnick and Yokosuka (the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force facilities based around Tokyo).  The boys had practiced only four Saturdays prior to taking on the Japanese.  At 5am, the winds died down and the sun came out.  The game would be played after all.  The stadium was in Kawasaki, about 1/2 hour outside of Tokyo.  The boys left earlier by train and we followed later in a mini-bus, rented for the occasion.  We got there a bit early and were able to take over the stands at the 50 yard line.  We brought our family flag with us, the one that was flown at the capital building in Providence Rhode Island and we hung it with pride in front of the stands.  Exactly at 2pm, the anthems of both countries were sung.  Afterwards, the ex Prime Minister of Japan Taro Aso, the US Ambassador of Japan, John Roos, and Admiral Kevin Donegan from Yokosuka came onto the field for the coin toss.  Thomas was the head captain and joined the dignitaries on the field.  Japan won the toss and elected to receive.  After the end of the first drive, Japan failed to score and it was Team USA’s ball.  Hayden stepped onto the field as the starting QB and it felt as thought I stepped onto the field with him.  He bent down behind the center, called the cadence and my heart beat wildly.   Things were moving in slow motion.  The ball snapped and it was in Hayden’s hands and then time sped up. It wasn’t long before we had scored the first touchdown and then the points began to rack up on the US side.  In the first quarter Hayden threw the ball to his big brother Thomas for a touchdown.  The US fans were screaming; many of which had Jardine on the back of their sweatshirts.  Deep into the third quarter the Ambassador came down out of the VIP booth and we got to chat about the game and the boys and how well they were doing.  He asked if maybe they could tone it down a bit – it was getting a bit uncomfortable in the booth!  And then the prime minister handed down a box of frosted Costco donuts for the Jardine boys.  We sat in the stadium surrounded by the parents of the players, the moms and dads who were in the armed services, proudly wearing their son’s team jerseys, screaming every time they made a great play.  When the game ended, it was 61 -0 and Thomas went onto the field to accept the team trophy from the Prime Minister.  Thankfully he remembered to bow when receiving it.  And Hayden was on the field too, accepting the award for Best Offensive Player of the game.  We packed up our blankets, sweatshirts and empty beer cans and ran onto the field for photos with the boys.  Thomas was asked for his first autograph!  Midway through the game, my mother in-law whispered to me that it was the most important game of her life (and as a coach’s wife, she’s seen her fair share of games).  It was a great day to be an American and an even better day to be a Jardine.

Naked Festival 2

If you read in your daily newspaper that somewhere in a small town about an hour from where you lived, grown men and babies would come together in a mud pit from 1-3pm on a Tuesday afternoon in February to worship the soil for the upcoming planting season, would you say you were too busy to go?  Would the PTA meeting take precedent?  Taking the dog to the vet?  I think not.  I blocked out the day on my calendar and set about finding a friend to come with me.  I wanted to go, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to a “Naked” festival without proper back up.  But everyone was busy.  And probably not as intrigued as I was.  No problem, I would pack a few snacks, bring my new Nikon and go it alone.  But then Libby called, back from the states the night before and she said she had a million excuses not to go but that I should pick her up at 11.  The drive was easy and as we approached the main part of town, we kept our eyes peeled for naked men.  We didn’t really have the exact location and were hoping for some local input.  We heard fireworks going off at the shrine so we knew we were close but eventually Libby had to go into the Koban (police station) to get directions.  She was back in a flash with a map and sure enough, we came to the parking lot next to the mud pit where a few hundred people were surrounding it.  We made our way to the front and claimed our spots.  Looking around, we quickly realized we were the only foreign women in the crowd.  Thank god for the back up.  The crowds continued to grow, surrounding the olympic sized swimming pool mud pit.  A few minutes before 1pm, the school children arrived in their matching yellow hats.  They crawled through the legs of the spectators making their way to the front which later on would provide for some excellent entertainment.  At exactly 1pm, more fireworks went off at the shrine above us, and the procession began.  Men dressed solely in a white loin cloth (fundoshi) and white tabi (the split toe socks) with a pink or red bandana around their heads, brought forth small children, from infants to toddlers, to be “baptized” in the mud.  Each baby reacted differently to the face painting.  Some slept right through it.  Some wailed, kicking their arms and feet, desperate to be out of the arms of the strange men and away from the laughing crowds.  The men ranged in age from early adulthood to grandfather, some skinny and pale, others bronze and buff.  The procession continued as the men would come and go, getting new babies to paint.  Most of the men had difficulty holding the children and at times looked close to dropping them.  A few of the men were seasoned professionals, quietly whispering in the ears of their charges, and delicately painting kanji characters on their foreheads.  These well behaved children would be shown around to the crowd, the men proud of their ability to keep the babies happy.  On the way out of the mud pit, babies in tow, the men would walk close to the school children in the crowds and kick the mud off their feet and on to the happy faces of the children.  It became a game, who could kick the most mud and which kid in the crowd would be covered in it.  The baby pageant went on for an hour and when the point came when you had just about had enough of screaming babies, the fireworks went off signaling the end of the first part of the festival.  The noise level of the crowd increased.  They knew what was coming next.  The men came running down the path and jumped into the mud pit.  They broke off into four “teams” and the smallest of each team climbed onto the shoulders of the largest.  The four sets of chicken fighters came to the inner circle and started the match.  Within a few seconds they were all in the mud, throwing it at each other, wrestling in the dark water and basically having the most fun they’ve had all year.  After ten minutes in the cold wet mud, the men would run out and come into the crowds, painting the faces of the people lining the crowds with the wet earth.  The school children ended up with most of it but the adults were not off limits.  Pretty soon the crowds started to look like participants.  The pure white loin cloths and tabi socks were now black, the men covered in thick mud, ran back through the crowds and up to the shrine on the hill where a bonfire awaited them.  They drank hot sake and ate bean filled pastries to get back their strength.  This run to the mud pit, chicken fight dance and bonfire ceremony continued for the rest of the hour.  Libby and I followed them up to the shrine on their second go round and were painted by several of the men.  Once our faces had mud, the crowds of photographers turned to us and started clicking away.  As the only non-Japanese spectators, we quickly became a good photo op.  Up at the bonfire, the men shared their sake with us and were happy to pose for a few close ups, flexing their bi-ceps and showing off their mud covered bodies.  By 3pm, Libby and I were back in the car, our faces covered in mud, our camera disks full of great photos.  After buying onigiri and tea in the 7-11 and cleaning up in the bathroom, we spent the rest of the ride home wondering if we had just witnessed the origin of the Japanese obsession with cleanliness.

Superbowl Monday? 2

Last year’s Superbowl was forgotten like an item on a to do list only to be remembered a day later with a gasp and regret.  This year, I wanted to make sure I was a part of the festivities.  My friend Libby and I signed up for the Superbowl Breakfast at the Tokyo American Club and arrived around 7:45 am to find a male dominated (90-10 ratio) suit wearing sweaty banquet room with multiple flat screen TVs and a breakfast buffet.  The coverage was loud and in Japanese and we started to doubt our decision to attend.  However, a TAC employee got on the microphone and in an even louder voice told the crowd that magically, after the coin toss, the coverage would switch to English.  We relaxed.  There were long tables set up with screens on either side so that you sat across from someone at the table but they were looking behind your head at their TV and you were looking behind them at your TV.  It was an awkward set-up.  The game began and the play by play was in English however the names of the players were spelled out in katakana which looked pretty funny.  When it was time for the first commercial, we were hit with the bad news.  We would not be a part of the viewing audience.  The coverage switched back to Japanese and we got to watch the players milling around the sidelines waiting for the commercials to end.  Very very disappointing.  But thankfully the game was so exciting that it made up for the loss of entertainment.  At half-time three raffle prizes were called out – I was the “lucky” winner of a corporate apartment for two nights and 2 tickets to the cotton club.  The breakfast was whisked away and in its place at 10am were hot dogs, chips and salsa and mini rueben sandwiches.  Since I had just flown in the night before from New York and the jet lag was just kicking in, I was thrilled with the multiple categories of food being served.  I don’t think Libby felt the same way.  When the game ended, the men were quick to exit, to make it back to work before lunch time.  Libby and I went to the card room to play bridge.  It was the first superbowl where i made it to the end without a short nap, or falling asleep completely.  Of course that had something to do with  the lack of alcohol and the time the game was played.  It wasn’t the best way to see the game, but I was glad I was a part of it this year.

Keeping The Gods Happy 2

It was a crisp Saturday in January when Tom and I joined a few other expatriates on a miles long journey through Yanaka, an old section of Tokyo.  Temple book in hand and coins in our pockets we walked to each of the seven temples to pray and make offerings.  There was Hotei, the fat and happy god of abundance and good health.  Jurojin, the god of longevity.  Fukurokuju, the god of happiness, wealth and longevity ( three for the price of one; we spent some extra time here).  Bishamonten, the god of warriors (we weren’t quite sure what we were praying for here, but he was part of the seven so we went along with it).  Benzaiten, the goddess of knowledge, art and beauty.  Writing this now, I have to admit I didn’t realize he was a she.  They kind of all looked the same.  Daikokuten, the god of weath, commerce and trade.  We noticed an especially large crowd at this temple.  People were really praying hard.  And then lastly, Ebisu, which I thought was the name of the subway stop after my house but happens to be the god of fishers and merchants.  I initially thought we would go as a family (well, at least a mini version of our family) but Sophie and Annie spent the prior 48 hours BEGGING not to go.  They explained in great detail how the two things they hated the most were temples and walking.  Good thing I acquiesced.  There was not much more to it than that.  But after the three hour journey, I was completely out of spare change, my temple book had seven new stamps and Tom had a sun burn.  We marveled at the fact that we could spend most of the day on a long walk without our kids, almost without interruption (we did receive a cell phone call from Annie but it was at the tail end of the trip) and enjoy ourselves.  It was a great start to the New Year and who knows, it might just have brought us some extra added luck!

New Zealand…sweet as. 1

Important facts about New Zealand: It was the last land mass to be inhabited by humans.  The first settlers were called Maori and they arrived approximately 800 A.D. from various parts of Polynesia.  They named the country Aotearoa which translates to ‘The Land of The Long White Cloud’ which in my opinion was a perfect name as I never once saw a day without long white clouds.  The maori are still a big part of the country today and their traditions are woven throughout the country and culture.  The first European explorers came in 1642 but it was in 1769 when Captain James Cook arrived and “re-discovered” and mapped the islands.  It is apx the size of Great Britian yet has a diverse landscape including rainforest, glaciers, fiords, lakes, rivers, oceans, volcano, mountains… All activities revolve around the outdoors and throw in some type of thrilling twist or turn.  If you can dream up a way to scare the pants off of someone, rest assured it already exists in New Zealand.  Human Population apx 4.5 million.  Cow population apx 4.5 million.  Sheep apx 45 million.  The country is split into two islands (north and south) the north has about 3.5 million people, the south about a million.  The north is warmer than the south and the south island is about a 2 hour flight to Antarctica.  It leads the world in time zones as it is 12 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.  The country’s national icon is the Kiwi bird which is the strangest looking bird you’ve ever seen.  It has no arms or wings and it has a ridiculously long pointy beak.  The national sports are rugby and cricket.  Due to their location in the southern hemisphere their summer is during December – February and their winter is June – August.  However, it is not unlikely to experience four seasons in one day and if you ask a Kiwi what the weather will be like the next day, you’ll most likely here Fine.  They call flip flops jandals, a Bro is short for brother but used by men to address other men, the Bush means a forest, Choice means cool, sweet as means cool, no problem.  I fell in love with the country and the people of New Zealand.  Each person we had the opportunity to meet was relaxed, unworried, unrushed and quite knowledgeable about their country on a whole and the role they played in our journey.  I can understand why New Zealand was the last country to be discovered and still today, not many people travel there.  It is FAR from everywhere, except Australia.  And this is a good thing.  It was summer vacation in NZ and Christmas and there were very few times when we saw a crowd.  We were constantly asked where we were from because I think they are just so happy that people come so far to visit their home.  We felt welcomed and taken care of every day of our two week adventure.

Our vacation began in Coromandel which is on the North Island a few hours drive from Auckland.  This is an area where kiwis go on holiday.  It is known for its misty rainforests and pristine beaches, the perfect place to relax and unwind.  Our side by side tree houses were perched high up in the mountain surrounded by bush.  We started out the first day with a guided tour through flora and fauna with a stop at a natural hot sand beach.  Tom was worried that the kids would be bored and annoyed, but our guide Doug (Kiwi Dundee) made every leaf interesting, every tree exciting, every joke he told funny and every scary dark abandoned gold mine, even scarier.  It was pure magic.  After our introduction to the bush, we drove to the Auckland area for a tree top adventure.  About a half hour outside the “big” city, we arrived in a forest of very tall trees that had varying degrees of obstacle courses woven through the tree tops.  We were schooled in carabiners and safety ropes and after a ten minute how to, we were left on our own to scale trees ridiculously high.  There were pulleys and zip lines, steps, hops and jumps, spider webs and tree surfing.  It was mostly fun but sometimes scary.  The kids had a blast.  We spent the night in Auckland and had a beautiful dinner on the harbor in Auckland, the city of sails.  The following day we set off in our mini-van (our home away from home for the next two weeks) and drove to Waitomo which is known for caving adventures and glow worms. Our guides Chris, Elliot and Jimmy quickly explained the ins and outs of abseiling (which basically means to rope down).  We abseiled down a crack in the earth 330 feet to a roaring rapid cave filled with large boulders.  Once down, we walked through the cave (from the light into the dark) with our head lamps climbing up over and through large boulders, looking at glow worms that lit up the top of the cave.  At one point we stopped and our guides “played” with eel in the running river.  The eel actually played back.  At the end of our journey, we climbed a ladder 10 stories high to exit the cave (that part was not mentioned in the guide book).  It was a fabulous adventure.  From Waitomo we drove to Rotorua where we spent three days inhaling sulfur fumes.  Rotorua is steeped in Moari tradition and is practically one big volcanic town.  Wherever you go, things are erupting.  We saw a geyser go off, walked among really foul smelling sulfur pools and took a helicopter (my first!) to White Island, New Zealand’s only active marine volcano.  It took about 1/2 hour to fly out to the island and then you land on it.  The island is uninhabited and looks like something out of The Land of the Lost.  There are so many things erupting and spitting and steaming, they give you gas masks so you can breath.  Our guide told us the last time the volcano fully erupted was in 2000 so if things started to get active we should run for higher ground (not like that would help any).  It was really creepy walking around the island.  There used to be a small mining village on the island but it was wiped out during an eruption and you can see the remnants of the mining operation.  I was relieved when we got back on the helicopter but it was a unique experience.  We couldn’t imagine letting people visit something like that back in the U.S.  Too much liability.  Actually that statement applied to pretty much everything we did while in New Zealand.  While in Rotorua, Annie bungy jumped holding onto Thomas Jr. (she is 10) and we learned to fly (well, not really but we were blown into the air by a jet engine.)  We also fed farm animals, watched sheep sheering, experienced Maori culture and ate a traditional Hangi meal and rode the gondola and luge.  On Christmas morning after a champagne breakfast we went to the airport to fly to Christchurch.  There were about 10 people at the airport.  And no security.  And you could bring on all the wine you bought.  It was like the good old days.  An hour and half later the turbo prop plane landed in Christchurch.  After popping open christmas crackers and eating one of the worst meals of our trip we fell into bed, preparing for the next day’s adventure; swimming with Hector Dolphins.  Hector Dolphins are rare and only exist in New Zealand.  They are small and very playful.  Our boat trip took us about 30 minutes into the ocean, in a protective cove and when we spotted the dolphins, we hopped off the boat and let them swim around us.  We weren’t allowed to touch them or hang on, we just floated in our wetsuits and they swam around us.  It was a lovely, spontaneous activity.  They actually wanted to come and investigate us rather than the other way around.  Our guide told us it was our job to entertain them otherwise they would get bored and move on.  Too funny!  We left Christchurch the following day for a 4.5 hour train journey from the east coast of the south island to the west coast.  The train passes through rain forest and the southern alps and had an open air car attached on the front end.  It is billed as one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world and it lived up to it.  Tom Sr spent most of the ride in the outdoor car, i had my side of the train to myself and the four kids shut the curtains as the glare was interfering with their watching dvds on their computer.

We arrived in Greymouth and got in our car and drove down to Franz Josef Glacier.  The town was small and reminded us of Windham, NY.  Basically the reason you were there was to climb the glacier which we did the next day.  Geared up with special coats, boots and crampons we started the long journey up the glacier.  The walk from the parking lot to the actual ice took about 45 minutes over large and small rocks.  When we finally arrived, it looked much taller and scarier than it appeared when we first started walking.  Our group was led by our guide Steve, a total bro with dreadlocks and a large ice pick.  He carefully made the journey up the glacier “safer” because I never really felt safe but it was an adventure that I am glad I had.  The kids thought it was a lot of work to climb a lot of ice but Tom and I loved it.  The next day we left Franz Josef and drove 6 hours down the south island to our final destination Queenstown.  The drive took us through the rainforest, up mountains, around curves, through valleys bypassing sheep, goats, cows, and reindeer.  We passed Fox Glacier and saw lakes so blue they looked fake.  Tom and I got out every chance we could to take photos and ooh and aah at the scenery.  The kids all stayed in the car.  They couldn’t believe we wanted to make a 6 hour drive even longer.  The resort we were booked into was called Millbrook and it was surrounded by the most beautiful golf course and snow covered mountains.  We had our own three bedroom house that had lavendar bushes growing everywhere.  The kids and i got in the habit of pulling off the leaves and rubbing them on our hands.  The smell was incredible.  Over the course of the next four days in queenstown, the three guys bungy jumped at AJ Hacket’s original Kawarau bridge, the family scared ourselves to death on the shotover jet boat, we took the gondola and raced each other on the luge, ate fergburgers (the best ever), played golf, ate lunch at amisfield winery, shopped, brought in the new year and spent new years day on the coach watching the college football bowl games on ESPN.  We loved New Zealand.  You should go. It’s sweet as…