Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in Ecuador .................... makes me smile

This is my first Christmas in Ecuador.   I made a poor decision to go to Loja, town of 150,000 people just north of Vilcabamba by 40 kilometers, on Friday before the holiday on Sunday.   It is just as bad as in the states.  People, people, people were everywhere.   And I swear before I try and hail another taxi in Loja, I will wear a turtleneck, dark sunglasses and 5 inch heels.   It's worth it just to get a ride.  Oh, to be 25 years old again.  

I didn't quite get the reindeer on the left but check out the moose on the right!

It turns out Christmas shopping isn't much different than in the states.   Many toys to be had, many people to walk around.

There were a lot of vendors like this using baby carriages to sell gift wrap and bags
There was just as much "rushing home with their treasures" as I remember in the states.   I didn't notice anyone fighting anyone over any electronics, though.   Maybe because there is not a Wal-Mart here?

Nativity scene in a store window.
There were nativity scenes, snow men and Christmas trees.   It is a bit of a disconnect to hear "Let it Snow" and to see snowmen in a place on earth where a lot of people have never seen snow in their life.   There is snow in Ecuador but it is on the highest peaks of the country and a lot of them are actively volcanic.

Snowmen depicted in a store window display.
There were pre-Christmas sales.   I was able to get a sweet deal on a washing machine since I am moving where I have no access.   Yes, I'm a spoiled American.   I can't stand the thought of sending out my dirty underwear and I don't want to wash jeans by hand. 

I can never convey the sense of a crowd.   I guess I need a fish-eye lens.
There were Santa costumes in a lot of clothing stores.   I am certain that Santa won't look this clean by the time he gets all the way from the North Pole (which I had the opportunity to visit in September) to the Southern Hemisphere.   I wouldn't want to be Mrs. Santa with that laundry.

Shop girls were dressed in Santa costumes.
 There were few of the "name brand" toys I was accustomed to seeing in the United States.   Anything and everything imported to Ecuador is subject to a 40% customs.   This may be why we have "Nicoles" instead of "Barbies" here.   She is just as pretty and has the same ridiculously impossible figure to attain as Barbie.

I didn't find a Barbie but there were some "knock-offs" called Nicole.
This was a really cute tree using cartoon fairies and, of course, corporately sponsored.

This was a "fairy" tree perhaps combining "When you wish upon a star"
with Christmas.
 Even though I am not a religious person, I still believe in angels:

A real life angel dressed in a Santa suit.

Feliz Navidad y un próspero Año Nuevo.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An ode to a bathroom.........makes me smile

I've had a lot of fun with the bathroom at my apartment in Vilcabamba.   If you recall, The walls go up about 7 feet and then the bougainvillea, which grows from the ground and through the floor, takes over for about 18 inches and then a plexiglass top above that.   I will be moving in less than two weeks and I'm getting a little misty eyed at the thought.

My beautiful bathroom.

I've grown quite fond of the little bathroom.  The experiences were crazy.  I've encountered a scorpion in the sink and had a bird strafe me from the ceiling.  I get a lot of needed exercise sweeping the leaves and washing the bird poo from the floor.  And did I ever mention the arachnoids who rapel in the shower at amazing speeds?  Again, a lot of exercise.  And that is as long as I don't knock myself out slamming myself against the walls to get out of the way.    No reading material needed.   I get plenty of entertainment watching red ants scouting out the next way to terrorize me.  Besides, a magazine would get soaked. 

Do I want this to end??

My new little buddy.  Until he went swimming.  In the toilet.   Forcefully.

WHY, YES!!!   YES, I DO!!!

I look FORWARD to not having to run through the rain in the middle of the night when nature calls and then having the insult on injury of finding rainsoaked toilet paper.

I look FORWARD to having a dry rug after a deluge.   Did I mention it is the rainy season here?

I HATE scorpions.   I'm not particularly fond of rapelling arachnoids, either.

I LOVE nature.   I HATE divebombing birds.   Especially when I'm naked.

Bird poo on my bathroom floor is absurd.

Looking straight up from the throne.

I am so happy I will have an overhang eave to shelter me to and from the new bathroom.  Oh, it is still Ecuadorian style since I will have to go outside to enter the bathroom, bedroom and the kitchen/living area but the chances of getting soaked in the process and having to change clothes in the middle of the night and dry my hair is slim.

Trees should be in yards.   Trees should be in parks.   Trees look very good on mountains. Trees can even grow in Brooklyn.   But I hope I never have a tree growing in my bathroom again.   That is the good news.   The bad news is my new bathroom has an electric showerhead.  Yes.  An electric showerhead.   It's always something.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Highlights of my trip ....... make me smile

Safest place

Most everywhere I went was safe. Going to the elevator of the subway in NYC at 3 am dragging 2 suitcases, wearing a backpack and carrying a purse? No problem. In Valdez, finding out few people lock their doors and noting a lot of people leave their cars running with keys in the ignition? Commonplace. Seeing a sleeping man with his packages in the train station in Osaka Japan? Even a policeman was gently moving his possessions so they wouldn't get stepped on while trying not to disturb
China can be dangerous for the trusting and naive. But don't worry. They only want your money. If you come here and buy multiple items from one store, do NOT trust their figures. Add everything up yourself. Even when they used calculators I found a lot of "errors" being made.

Friendliest place

Valdez Alaska. No contest.


Most beautiful place

Alaska followed by Japanese gardens in Nara and gardens around Temple of Heaven. Just my opinion since beauty is so subjective. Keystone Canyon was eye-melting The single engine flight over the glacier was unforgettable.

Biggest fear

Nagoya train station. I arrived alone at rush hour and started looking for someone who could tell me where the silver clock was where I was to meet my kids. No one understood what I was asking. One lady thought she understood and showed me her watch.

When my kids found me, i was cowering at the wall. Nagoya station is bigger than even Tokyo station as it is centrally located and there are several large stations in Tokyo.

Moment when I realized this was a soul searching trip as well as a pleasure vacation.

Meeting Carolyn in NYC it was special to meet someone I'd not met before but felt I knew through the Internet. How many more people would I get to know and care about before I headed back to south America?

I don't take friendships lightly as i had so few when i was working due to time constraints. Being virtual friends is one thing. Being real friends is so much more.


Happiest moments

Seeing my daughter's face in Anchorage and my son and daughter-in- law's faces in Nagoya


Biggest delight

The two Japanese children on the Shanghai Ferry

Biggest annoyance

The two Japanese children on the Shanghai Ferry


Biggest surprise

Finding out how western friendly and inexpensive Beijing and especially Shanghai were. My observations concluded that many westerners have made the same type of move to China that I made to Ecuador. I came close to skipping China because I thought it would be harder than Japan.


Best food

Other than some amazing food cooked at home by my kids (pineapple soup!!!) that would be China.


Worst food

China. I can go the rest of my life without seeing duck head, intestines and cooked chicken feet on my menu


Most embarrassing moment

Realizing I had been sitting on my daughter's boyfriend's mother's glasses at the beauty shop when she couldn't find them

Craziest moment

Too many

The moment when i realized the friendly couple in Beijing only wanted my money

The lady in Osaka who would not allow me to ride the subway because she thought I was making a mistake.

A night of drinking Jack Daniels straight up singing karaoke as the only English speaker amongst some Japanese and Chinese co-conspirators.

Most boring moment (days)

This would be the days spent at immigration in Quito


Most solemn and poignant moment

Telling my new German friend how horrible I feel being an American and viewing such horrific pictures of the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima
and her answer of "I'm German" We can only go forward from here All we can do with the past is learn from it. As my German friend said, it is counter-productive to feel shame for something that can't be changed.

As much fun as I've had, I want to go home to Ecuador. I miss my dogs. I hope they remember me.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Nearly getting Shanghai'd in Beijing......made me smile

Let me make it perfectly clear that I do not believe these things happen to me because the "blog gods" want to give me something to write about. I believe I have a lethal combination of naivety and friendly nature that can get me in serious trouble. It nearly did today. I have no clue how I have managed to live as many years as I have.

I was watching the crowd at Tien'am Square today when I was approached by a male and female chinese couple. The woman did most of the talking and behaved in a very business like manner. The man was a bit tentative and shy and the lady said he was learning English and wanted to practice on a foreigner (me). After chatting for a few minutes, the lady wanted to know if I'd like to go get some coffee or tea as I seemed cold (I was). Why of course i did!!! New Chinese friends!!! (exactly my thoughts...)

As we headed off in the direction of the teahouse, the man engaged me in conversation. I thought it odd he wanted to talk about and actually knew about politics in America. He even knew about Rick Perry, the Tea Party and the religious right. When I said I was from Texas, he said "Southwest US, correct?" Maybe he's an avid news junkie, I thought. And very smart. I like smart men.

We arrived at the teahouse, even passing some enroute. Maybe they know the owner? I was delighted with the arrangement as it was a small room with the tea ceremony I had become familiar with in Xi'an and the visit to the teahouse yesterday with the tour.

The man and woman wanted me to sit between them and the girl employed at the establishment came in to pour the first cup for all. At that time there was very little from the man since the woman was doing all the talking. After about 40 minutes the girl came in with the bill and like a real idiot I said I'd pay for the tea since I had such a good time.

The bill was over 1000 yuan. That's about $175 in US dollars. I looked at the girl, then the woman and finally the man. I could see the slightest smile coming from the man. I finally told them I couldn't pay and I didn't know why the bill was so large. I had only had a few cups. I drank tea all afternoon at the Xi'an teahouse and they wouldn't allow me to pay anything. The woman said "You asked for a different kind of tea and she prepared an entire pot". By this time I knew that they use the same tea leaves 3 times so I knew there was a problem with that statement.

They told me if I didn't have the cash, I could always pay with a credit card. It started dawning on me that these people only wanted to be friends with my money. Not me. I pulled out 70 yuan (about $11 US) and held it out to the girl and told her that was all I had and I did not bring any credit cards with me (a lie). There were glances among the three of me as I stood up to leave. When they again insisted I had to pay the bill I started yelling and called them thieves at which time they backed off and I was out the door.

I didn't stop to turn around until I was at least two blocks away when I stopped and looked back to see if they were following. I was clear and had lived another day to do something else completely stupid. When I returned to my hotel and told the manager, he was horrified I even went with them and that I was lucky they didn't put anything in my tea.

Tonight I went to the Peking Opera. It was amazing and I enjoyed it even more than I expected because it was so funny. Afterwards, as I walked to the street to flag down a taxi, there was a hail of flim flam artists yelling "Rolex watches" "Designer purses!". After them came the rickshaws. I have learned that the rickshaws are good for short little rides but if you need serious transportation, it is best to get a taxi. Taxis are regulated and the rickshaws are not.

As I was leaning into the window of the taxi, not only was the taxi driver trying to wave my card off indicating he couldn't read it but a rickshaw driver I had waved off 3 times was tapping me on the shoulder once more trying to tell me I had a bad cab. I turned to the rickshaw guy and started yelling at him that I was going to call the police and jumped in the taxi and emphatically pointed to the bottom of the card where the address was clearly written in Chinese. He drove me to the hotel without a problem.

I have had an epiphany today. I am sorry if I disturb the sensibilities of my more religious friends and relatives of which I have many but the meek will not inherit the world. Old, crazy, bitchy, pissed off American women will.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Trains............make me smile

"People. People who need people are the luckiest people in the world." ..... some cheesy song sung by La Streisand in the 60s.

If those lyrics fill your heart with longing, you have definitely not spent a lot of time in a Chinese train station immediately after train arrival in Beijing. I gave up trying to convey a picture of the humanity crowded in a winding queue waiting for a taxi. I believe an estimate of 1500 is not too out of line and may be quite conservative. It was enough to take the breath from this basically small town lady from Texas. It was nearly an hour before I was able to lay claim to my own steel horse carriage (best Bonjovi metaphor EVER!)
to find some sanity.

I read once that the reason most of the world outside of the United States has such awesome train systems is because after WWII most countries lay in ruins. They did not have enough capital to invest in the coming market for air travel as did the US. Whether a part of the Allies or the Axis, what little money that existed was used to repair their existing infrastructure. The US had a decent train system but it was allowed to decay in favor of air travel and interstate highways to accommodate the growing ownership of private vehicles. Approximately 65 years later, you can get from Tokyo to Nagoya in the time it takes to get from north Dallas to the airport by car. Traffic in the area where I lived was one of several reasons I jumped for joy when I found out it would be possible to retire. It is the reason given by a certain pitcher to leave the Texas Rangers (RIP World Series 2011) about a year ago.

Trains are fun. I rode the incredible Shenkansen in Japan, which is the bullet train, quite a few times. At one time I was standing on a platform waiting at a smaller station when two expresses not stopping there crossed in both directions. The vibrations were amazing and yet when you are on board it is amazingly smooth. The seats lay back and it is absolutely possible to sleep through your stop. I found out through personal experience when I made a trip up north to Shizuoka to see Mt Fuji and slept through my Kyoto stop on the way back, waking up in Osaka. Ironically I had missed it before from Tokyo to Nagoya a week before because I fell asleep then as well.

While in the Shizuoka area I took a train to a small town where I had read about a steam engine train. I got to the small town, which was rather risky since I spoke no Japanese and there were very few English speakers. I was able to get there with the help of a fellow passenger who noticed I was traveling alone and approached me in a very shy and hesitant way typical of so many Japanese. I was eventually able to ride the steam engine train and was serenaded by the non-english speaking conductor with a rendition of "I've been working on the railroad" on the harmonica. I'm really living right these days!

The overnight trains I took from Shanghai to Xian and from Xian to Beijing should not be construed as glamorous Orient Express trains. They were transportation. With interesting sleeping companions. The carpet is dirty. Babies cry and run up and down the corridors. Smoking is allowed in train connection hallways. And they have a lot of squatty toilets that I may or may not have mentioned (that may be because I so far have been unable find anything about them that can make me smile. Maybe one day....). I could have flown for not much more when you also consider the cost of the babysitters who make sure you get to the right place and in the right coach. Sometimes it's about the journey and experience, though. I loved every minute of it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Shopping...........makes me smile....a lot

Someone needs to shoot me before I spend my children's entire inheritance.

When I first started out on my trip I had one smallish suitcase (just a little too big for carry on), a small bag, a backpack and a purse. I have been known to take three bags on a week long cruise and I wanted to travel "light". When I got to Texas my sister-in-law presented me with some heirloom quilts that had been in tatters and she had completely made by my grandmother and one made by my children's father's grandmother. I needed a bigger suitcase which I switched out with my sister-in-law for another that matched the one I had. Both were purchased at a rummage sale and had duct tape in key areas so that I might still be able to call them suitcases and not, say, weird skateboards.

While in Alaska I bought 3 pair of jeans as the prices for same are quite expensive in Ecuador and my new slimmer body isn't quit slim enough for more local clothes so when I had a layover in Dallas on October 1st, I passed a few clothes and shoes off to Pam, my good friend in Texas so I could travel "lightly".

I was going to have to travel on to New York and through half of Japan before I could get back down to one smallish suitcase that I could manage with a backpack. I left one with my son that I hope he has a chance to burn.

When I got to Kyoto I was feeling the pain of too much weight on my back from the backpack so I wound up biting the bullet and purchasing a cool bright red suitcase with FOUR wheels and bigger to accommodate my new purchases of a kimono, new camera lens, and various souvenirs from Japan. Hopefully the bright red will keep me from accusing a stranger of stealing my bag now since the other two were suitcase black. The hostel in Kyoto was the proud new owner of a duct laden suitcase.

All went well until I was unable to get train tickets to Beijing for Friday night because apparently the Chinese like to get out of town for the weekend just like everyone else in the world. Xian has some amazing attractions but I had already seen them on my unexpected extra day. This left mainly shopping and walking around activities.

I believe there are few things in this world cuter than an adorable Asian face or two popping up in front of you with "May we help you?" followed with a few seconds of giggles. Especially when you saw them out of the corner of your eye whispering and looking your way. They're right up there with kittens they are so incredibly cute. You know what they are doing when you realize you have not seen a western face for a day and a half so you oblige and try on a few pair of shoes so they can have a chance to practice their English. Voila! A new pair of shoes to make room for.

After the fun little tea party I happened onto I got interested in tea. Score!! I now have not one tea set but two. Add that to the amazing bowl I found the first day here that is hand-painted. Oh yes, the beautiful scarves at the department store and the gorgeous chopsticks set someone reading this will eventually get and the cute Minnie Mouse backpack I found for my cousin's little girl.

I'm on my way back to the department store to buy another bag. Don't judge. I haven't been to Beijing yet.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Getting lost in China....crying.....eventually....made me smile

When I arrived at my hotel in Xian, I was met shortly after check in by Jillie. Jillie was not unfamiliar to me as the good reviews of her customer service talents coupled with the exceptional price of the room were primary factors for my booking with her employer.

Jillie told me of the variety of tours available through the hotel, speaking in clear, beautiful English. Of course I was very interested in the terra cotta soldiers but also listed was a Tang Dynasty musical with accompanying dumpling dinner. Dumplings with a Chinese musical rooted in history. That would be a win win for me. I decided it best to go to the dinner musical on that night rather than make such a horrifically busy day.

At around 4 pm, I returned to the hotel to clean up and change into the best clothes I brought and the sandal heels reserved just for such occasion. The dumplings started being served at 6:30 so I didn't want to be late.

At 5:45 I excitedly asked the desk clerk to please call for a taxi so I could get to the show on time. That's when the night started going wrong. The girl explained to me they only call for taxis if the hotel guests are headed to the airport and in any other case, the guests were responsible for their own call. I was stunned. Number one, I don't speak Chinese. Number two, I don't have a cell phone that works in China if i could speak Chinese. Number three, I don't have a phone number for a taxi. Number four, the hotel is on a side street with very little traffic. I walked several blocks down to the main thoroughfare and easily flagged down a taxi. But I must have gotten the only taxi in all of Xian, China, who was unfamiliar with this, as Jillie put it, "very famous" show. (I would later find out this was not true)

Before the taxi took off on our search for the venue, someone else got in the back seat and started talking to the driver. As I said, I do not speak Chinese but I'm very good with hand gestures. I pounded my chest a few times exclaiming "ME! I made the "X" sign I learned in Japan which means "NO" and stopped just short of implementing the good old stand by used in the states since that might not fly in a communist country. The driver passed the paper I had given him to the lady in the back seat in an apparent attempt to see if she had knowledge of the whereabouts of this "very famous" show. She did not but tagged along anyway and got out a mile later. After about 20 minutes of touring Xian, the driver stopped and 2 young men got in for a "ride". While I was in the passenger seat and the 2 guys were in the back seat, the taxi driver disappeared and was gone for at least 10 minutes. I spotted him going from person to person and store to store trying to find out the location of the "very famous" show. By this time I'm plotting what i believed would make the best blog post yet. These things just seem to fall in my lap.

At around 6:40 pm, we pulled in front of a garishly lit theater with the appropriate name. The driver would not take the full fare so I felt a little better about his integrity even though he seemed to be in a habit of taking on double passengers.

I bounced into the theater with visions of delicious Chinese dumplings dancing in my head and happy to be seeing a full scale Chinese musical production for the first time. After showing the manager my brochure which stated the agreed price of 260 yuan and arguing with his price of 500 as Jillie said would happen, he then accepted my price and seated me in the dining room to wait for the dumplings. As I had come in, I saw a number of people head into the theater and I asked the manager if I was going to miss anything. He simply said he had no dumplings in the theater After going at it for a few minutes wondering why I was seated alone in the dining area while others were in the theatre, I realized something was terribly wrong. I told him I understood this to be a dinner AND a show and I wanted my money back for which he obliged.

After leaving the theater I set out to flag down a taxi to return to the hotel Tragically, I was told to get out of 2 different taxis (I'm not the only one good with hand gestures) as I did not have the address in Chinese. I was horrified and desperately headed down the street searching for someone bilingual. I found a clothing store for young people and thought surely there must be someone there but this was not Shanghai and my luck was not the best this night. I was able to get a young clerk to understand to call my hotel as it was my intention to ask the desk clerk to tell the boy the address so he could write it in Chinese. The desk clerk was borderline bilingual so I asked for Jillie to call me back and it became resolved. I was back at the hotel, unable to have dinner at the hotel restaurant since the menu was strictly in Chinese, and made do with a dinner of potato chips, cola and strawberry filled Oreos (a travesty!!!) from a convenience store next door. Most importantly I have survived and didn't get swallowed up by the Chinese beast. One day closer to seeing my dogs yet again.

I spent the next day in the company of a wonderful couple from London of Indian descent who really have me thinking of another exotic location for my next adventure. They had been to the same show the night before and raved so much that I decided to give it another chance if our tour director would go in and intercede if there was a problem as there was the night before. I have developed a very healthy respect for language barriers when the alphabet I am so familiar with is not being used.

We pulled in front of a large beautiful building and I assumed it was the hotel for the couple I spent the day with. It was not. It was my show. Different building. The taxi had left me at the wrong theater the night before. The manager of the theater from the night before must have thought I was crazy. If so...good call.

The dumplings were amazing. The show was outstanding. The service was impeccable with our waiter even covering up for my faux pas when I couldn't quite handle the slippery little piece of cantaloupe with my chopsticks and it landed on the floor.

As I was leaving I was clutching the card the tour director for that day had given me to make sure I could get back to the hotel. A man with the theater told me the taxis were very busy and he would have a car in 10 minutes that could get me to my hotel for 30 yuan which is about $5. I was hesitant but willing after looking outside at all the people waiting. A small car backed out of a driveway and I obediently entered the passenger side. After we arrived back at the hotel and I was handing the driver the fare he turned so that I could see his full face. He was wearing theater make up!! He had been one of the performers I had just watched!! I was thrilled and told him how wonderful the show had been!!!! I was pretty sure he wasn't bilingual from his silence on the drive but he smiled and said thank you.

Is my vacation Eat, Pray, Love or something in which Chevy Chase would have been involved? I've felt a bit of both.

China ( part 5 October 29).....makes me smile

After securing my ticket for the overnight train to Xian, I scoured the map to see what I could find to do and be back to check out of the hotel in 4 hours. Score!! Shanghai Zoo!! They have these cute black and white bears In China and no visit is complete without seeing one.

Buying a ticket for the trains and subways is amazingly easy in Shanghai. Getting some much younger person to give up their seat for a decrepit old woman with the gray showing, is not. From what I've experienced, this just is not part of the Asian culture. At one time I was sitting and my son was standing on a train. The young man sitting beside me voluntarily surrendered his seat so Zach could sit with me. Renegade Asian? No. American. There are a lot of things wrong with the western world. That's not one of them.

The Pandas were, of course, adorable. So were the hordes of Chinese children who screamed at every movement. There is an animal called Lesser Panda which isn't in the bear family at all but is a raccoon. They aren't as majestic as the Panda but had beautiful coloring just the same.

I saw a sign pointing in one direction that said pets and thought maybe it was a place where pets could be left upon entering the zoo. What did I find? A whole section of the zoo with fully bred dogs on cages with country originated, breed, and purpose!! There were just many people viewing them as the chimpanzee. As a dog lover, you can imagine my horror. That would be like putting my brother in a cage. On second thought...... I was rather pleased that the sign in front of the Pomeranians said their purpose was as guard dogs. At least that part was right.

Later that evening I hailed a taxi to go to the Shanghai Railway. There was some controversy with my bags. Apparently the train ticket did not include bringing my bags because I went no further without giving them the equivalency of $24 more. One of the men there, who spoke no English, was running ahead with my backpack and suitcase and actually stayed with me for the hour and a half until the train came I was grateful since none of the instructions were in English. He got me to my cabin and I tried to tip him which he refused. But he didn't leave. He pointed to his watch and kept saying time. Finally it occurred to me he was wanting more money than I was offering. He was worth it but you can see from the picture he slept on the job.

There were 2 upper berths and two lower berths in the room and as the train left Shanghai, I found myself alone. That is, until two more stops. I was hoping I wouldn't be sharing with some with a crying baby or a child who wanted to run up and down the corridor. The door finally opened. There before me was a lone Chinese man. Named Dong. Only me. ONLY me. At least I can say I slept with a Chinese man on my vacation.

Monday, October 24, 2011

China (part four October 25)....makes smile

I spent the day exploring The Bund, the French Concession and People's Square. And shopping. And eating both food and my words. I observed a child of around 4 years of age openly peeing in a heavily toutisted spot with the apparent approval of several adults around her. There is a sign 20 feet away pointing to a public toilet. It makes those very clean standards of the Japanese look even better. My two small dogs will hold it until they get to an appropriate spot. I miss my dogs.....

In most areas of Shanghai, it is sleek, shiny and the sight of blonde headed people is common. I was told by a young European man today that there is an estimated one million westerners from the US, Canada and Europe living in Shanghai. A student from South Africa told me the sleek and shiny starts and ends in Shanghai as there was a new face applied to the city for the Shanghai Expo in recent years She assured me Xian and Beijing will be a different world. It has become clear that what has made Shanghai so much easier than Japan is the Japanese authenticity. You visit Japan on their terms.

At one point today, I spotted an alleyway where there seemed to be a lot of activity. There was a lot of fresh food being prepared. I am talking about meat. One man had chickens crowded in a cage while he was busily plucking feathers off a recently departed There was a steaming bowl of hot water in the vicinity. I so hope the man was kinder than I first suspected. I am not a vegetarian but I don't believe in unnecessary cruelty to living creatures and I'm not naive about the modern farming techniques in the US. Another vendor was selling live fish in small, shallow plastic tubs. There were a lot of vegetables I was not able to identify but then again, I haven't identified most vegetables I find in Ecuador yet either.

Have I mentioned traffic? In Shanghai, as in Japan, there is not a lot of regard for pedestrians. In fact, in Shanghai frequently motorbikes and scooters will run on the sidewalks to avoid traffic and will actually honk if you are blocking their way. May I go out on a limb and say I believe American drivers, with the exception of the DWI problem, are the best in the world? At the very least, the world I've seen. I believe if America had the mass transportation system ive witnessed in other countries, the DWI problem would lessen as well.

Have I mentioned smoking? I forgot about how unpleasant it was when someone gets on an elevator with a lit cigarette. No smile.

There is no coffee in the room. Conversation this morning when I called the desk:

Me: "What time does the coffee shop next door open this morning?"
Little voice: "Maybe at 8."
Me: "Is there another coffee shop open earlier?"
Little voice: "Maybe they are open at 9 or 10?"
Me: "No, is there one I can walk to now?"
Little voice: "Maybe at 8 o'clock,"

You were wrong Benjamin Franklin. Early to bed and early to rise is a curse.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

China (part 3 October 24).....makes me smile

Pssst......someone's been lying about China being this godless, hard-core country where children do their bathroom business in public and people spit on the ground. Of course, I'm only in Shanghai. About 10 days ago I was so discouraged about Japan I was close to changing my ticket and going home. I miss my dogs dreadfully and, as I wrote before, I absolutely felt like I was on another planet. Japan is beautiful, safe, culturally intact country with an extremely rich history and I both loved it and feared it. To be perfectly fair, I can't even imagine a lone Japanese coming to a western country without a bilingual tour guide. It would be an even scarier reality than the one I found myself in. Shanghai is a different story.

At immigration there was very understandable English not only from officials but from the taxi drivers as well. After a lot of hugs with Lin and Hayake as well as Naoka it was time to part company.

The ride from the ferry terminal caught glimpses of new and old. The skyscrapers are so sleek and modernistic, older buildings so captivating with beautiful old scrollwork. Every building had a Chinese and English name on it. Shanghai is huge and I felt we had gone a great distance when we came to my hotel. Taxi fare? $30 yuan. Or around $6.

I couldn't wait to shed my bags and explore after the bellhop helped me to my room, I took off on my Chinese adventure. Wouldn't you know I find a Mexican Food restaurant not more than 2 blocks away with a mix of Asian and western faces. "Margarita, please". "We have regular, mango, strawberry, raspberry, banana, and passion fruit.". Huge smile.

I slept in a regular bed for the first time since I left Alaska last night. I love doing as the locals do and even in NYC I slept on a very thin mattress on a Taiwanese native's floor. I have to admit I awoke feeling much better and rested this morning. Or did that have something to do with the masseuse who came to my room about 7 last night? Even bigger smile.

I'm off for coffee and a metro ride to the oldest part of Shanghai called the Bund district. If I'm lucky with my time I'll try to get a ticket to the acrobat show tonight. Biggest smile.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

China (part two October 23rd) ..... makes me smile

I love listening to speakers of other languages chat with one another. Yesterday, I was listening to 3 Chinese chatting with one another and noted a difference in patterns and tones from Japanese. To my ears, the Japanese speak in much more sing song fashion, very much like flittering little birds. Chinese speakers seem to speak with a lot more authority. More attitude it seemed to my Texas ears. They were still nice, however. "Good morning" from one of my Chinese roommates very early this morning. Smile.

Naoka was sick yesterday morning from the rolling seas and asked if it bothered me. I started to launch into a litany of ailments I don't have when I realized I better dial back. A simple no would be best.

Last night there was karaoke in the lounge. One of my fellow sailors had a bottle of Jack Daniels and he was eager to share. I'm a real lightweight when it comes to the "hard" stuff so I nodded weakly when he filled a shot glass in front of me. There were no mixers unless I wanted stir in some Japanese tea so straight up it was. Needless to say Jack and I became good friends and I sang karaoke for the first time ever. :-). Everyone else seemed to be such wonderful singers. Even purple hair who said he knew the singer of one of the songs he sang.

The ferry really was the best decision for travel to china it gave my feet a chance to heal enough for the arduous walking ahead. The seas seemed quite rough last night. The ferry is much smaller than a Carnival cruise ship. Most of those have an average of around 13 decks. This ferry has 4. It catches the waves better....or worse depending on your point of view.

One of the things about cruising I love the most, whether big or small, is I've always found them to be "no hate zones". I've heard for two weeks about the dislike the Chinese and the Japanese have for one another and I know there is a lot of history for those feelings. But I found the two groups to be quite friendly the past couple of days. I had been worried about how I might tell my taxi driver at the port which hotel I need. Not to worry at all. A mix of Japanese and Chinese roommates formed a 4 person committee to write out kanji names of my hotel and its phone number. I'm in good hands.

Wow!!! After sailing through the harbor for hours, We've been Shanghai'd!!!! More tomorrow!!!

China (part one October 22) .......makes me smile

Friday the 21st was spent getting to know other passengers after the initial embarkment in Osaka I was assigned to a large tatami room with 5 other ladies and 2 children. it is 2nd class much like the people who did NOT survive the Titanic.

I quickly made friends with a young Japanese girl of 23 named Naoka who, in true Japanese form, took me under her wing. I spoke very slowly in the manner I've heard my kids speak numerous times and she gets about 10 percent of what I say. But she knows I get 0 percent of her Japanese and, the truth is, very little of her English.

The two children were an annoyance at first because they stared so much. Staring by the Japanese apparently is not considered rude as I've learned on various buses and subways. I've discovered staring back produces some comical results with some flustered looking away with darting eyes to see if it was safe to stare once more. Children aren't programmed like adults. The staring contest became a no blink contest with both the six year old boy, Hayate, and his 4 year old sister, Lin Then came the giggles. I had created a couple of little monsters. Hayate would come over just to entice a contest and run away with glee when I obliged. This was going to be fun.

Later that evening, Hayate, with Naoka's help, taught me some kanji. A lot got lost in translation. On one symbol, Naoka said "bowl" and I stood up, put my fingers to my head and shuffled my feet like I was a bull which was my understanding of the pronunciation Fits of laughter......and I'm just shaking my head at this remarkable experience I'm having.

Earlier in the day, I became aware of a couple of Japanese men with an affinity for Chinese beer They were loud and obnoxious and as the day wore on I was not proven wrong. Ordering another beer was a banging of the empty on the table which was not the behaviour I had come to expect from the Japanese. One looked fairly normal but I was very certain the one with purple hair was a true eccentric. I like eccentric people but I like to know what same eccentric people are saying. Purple hair joined Naoka and me for dinner last night and it was hilarious. It turns out Purple hair (who wears a ladies white bangle bracelet watch and was really quite harmless and charming) owns a Japanese restaurant and a $3 a night guesthouse in Bangkok frequented by westerners in Thailand (which I thought at first was guesthouse with tiedowns... Naoka was interpreting his English). I also understood Naoka to be telling me his restaurant had no menus. I was glad I wouldnt be frequenting that restaurant as it is hard enough WITH one). That turned out to be her warning to me as "no men". Apparently Purple hair was wanting me to spend some time with him in Shanghai. How do you say "Mamacita, he sounds like fun." in Japanese??

I awoke several times last night with rolling seas. I don't have a propensity for motion sickness so it seemed a little like being rocked to sleep. This morning we were really rocking and rolling. I could barely open the exit door to go out on the deck to feel the delicious sea air on my face. It was hard to walk across the deck without hanging on to something. My guess was around 6 foot waves which I actually thought to be outrageous thinking to keep strictly to myself. No one would believe that. After a short time at breakfast, I spotted a freighter bobbing up and down front to back in the distance like a child's toy in a wave pool. A young Chinese staffer came over to speak to me at that time who told me the freighter looked like it could be in danger and the seas were at 3 to 4 meters. Not 6 feet. It was closer to 9 to 12 feet. Alrighty.

We were still in Japanese waters at morning, soon to depart. I had no idea the country extended so far to the southwest. At around 10 am, the only land I could see were distant port side Japanese islands. The next time I see land, I'll be in China.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thoughts of Japan ....... make me smile

The past couple of weeks have been the closest I have ever felt to being an alien on my own planet. Japan is so different from any place I can imagine. Not only is there a language barrier, both written and spoken, but there is a custom barrier as well. They may be very modern with all the perks (That's not a camera. THIS is a camera.) but it is mixed with what a lot of us westerners would call "old world".

There are no trash cans on the streets. Somehow that works. There is no trash on the streets. That includes festivals and places where there is a lot of street food (such as squid and unagi on a stick!) consumed. Japanese don't walk around eating or drinking. They will eat or drink at the point of purchase and give the trash to the vendor or take it home. Most of them think to bring a plastic bag with them just in case. I chuckle at the horror a proper Japanese matron would feel watching state fair attendees anywhere USA eating a huge turkey leg.

Being clean is a Japanese custom tenet.

1) Anytime you eat out you are given a wet paper cloth in plastic and at a few you will get a warm moist cloth This is for your hands not your face.

2) In a lot bathrooms, in both private hotels and homes, there are slippers to step into so your feet don't touch the floor.

3) I thought my son was being utterly ridiculous about using a different sponge for dishes, pans, and surfaces until I saw the same rules posted at the hostels

I am so impressed with police officers in Japan At one time I saw a police officer talking to an older man who seemed a bit disoriented. Another time, just yesterday, I saw a man asleep on a bench in a train station. A police officer was there moving some packages back closer to the wall. He never disturbed the sleeping man.

Both beer and cigarettes are sold in vending machines. No nanny state here.

Speaking of nanny states, my daughter -in-law and I went to some old castle ruins in Matsusaka one day. In parts of these ruins there are very steep precipes with no guardrails in sight. Definitely no nanny states.

The most WTF moment of my time in Japan came last evening when I came out on the subway to find out where I was supposed to be this morning. An older lady timidly walked up to me and asked me if I knew where I was going. I guess a little confusion showed as I was on a subway change. I showed her the hotel brochure and tried to explain I was first going to Cosmosquare to find out where the shuttle was for the ferry. She was fixated on the hotel and was literally yanking me back to prevent me from boarding. I tried to explain I wasn't going to the hotel at that time because I couldn't check in just yet. It was completely lost on this lady who seemed so timid at first. An official was nearby and I broke free long enough to point to my destination. After his nod I was able to board the subway. But the lady got on board to keep an eye on me. Who needs a nanny state when they have such watchful people like this?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Cute socks..............make me smile

Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans. John Lennon

Sometimes things happen that you didn't expect and hope you never forget. This afternoon, after studying a map and trying to determine what I had time for (and energy!) in Kyoto, I set off to explore the neighborhood around the hostel. There were numerous restaurants, a small boutique hotel and a dog boarding establishment (Score!!). I glanced across the street to see a couple of child manikins dressed in traditional kimonos I crossed the street to see if it was at all possible they might have anything I could afford. Oh, and big enough to stuff my American sized body in.

While there I noticed the socks. In Japan, it is very important to wear decent socks since you never know when you will have to remove your shoes. I learned this the hard way one day when I wore some holes held together by threads that I was still calling socks. An older man walked up to me and I tried to communicate that I was not sure of the sizes. I know my size in shoes in Japan but not socks.

When I said something about the socks being "cute" that seemed to really chime in with them. They looked at each other quizzically and kept repeating "Cute?" To explain what it meant I motioned to the young girl and said "Cute!". "Ummmmmm". They seemed to understand somewhat.

Next I pointed to the socks and said "Cute!". "Ummmmmm". Understood again. After that I said "Cute socks!". They caught on so well they were pointing to everyone's socks and everyone was repeating "Cute socks! Cute socks!" and raising their feet. I felt like I was in the middle of a crazy Bill Murray movie.

I walked away with the biggest smile on my face! They were all doing that cute little side to side Japanese wave. The older lady grabbed my hand and said something my ears did not understand but my heart did.

Japan is a strange country full of ironies and it could use a warning label. About the time you decide you don't like it and it is just too different, you start falling in love with it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dear God!!! Deer and gods...........make me smile

Have you ever heard of Nara Japan?   Before I came to Japan as a visitor, I hadn't.   Nara was the capital of Japan before the USA was a twinkle in her forefather's eyes and before a lot of forefathers were a twinkle in...well, you get the point.   Nara celebrated it's 1300th anniversary just a few years ago.  This is the home of the largest housed Buddha and several other very large warrior statues.  

 So many of the deer seemed almost comotose.   I found out later
they had been slightly anesthetized because their antlers had been removed
that day.

The park is home to hundreds of freely roaming deer. Considered in Shinto to be messengers of the gods, Nara's nearly 1200 deer have become a symbol of the city and have been designated a natural treasure. 

 Greedy little buggers.

Like the deer on Miyajima, Nara's deer are surprisingly tame, although they can be rather aggressive if they think you will feed them. Deer crackers are for sale around the park, and some deer have learned to bow to visitors asking to be fed.

 I don't want this guy to be angry at me.

Remember these statues are over 1300 years old.

The Great Buddha Hall is the largest wooden buildling in the world and the Buddha housed within is the largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana known in Japanese as Daibutsu.  It is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site as "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara", together with seven other sites including temples, shrines and places in the city of Nara.

 They missed this little guy!! 

The entire park is part of the experience.   Thick with tall, old trees, you couldn't help but gape at the beauty.

 For a small country, there are some really large things here.

Traditional dress.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A sushi bar for the non-lover of sushi...makes me smile

My best experiences with Asian food has been sketchy at best. The only times I have ever believed myself to have suffered from food poisoning has been directly related to Chinese buffets eaten at inopportune times. I learned a long time ago to make sure I go at 11:00 am or shortly thereafter when the offerings were fresh and not wilting under pressure of heat lamps. It didn't hurt to make sure it was a popular place with adequate food turnover either. Food sickness rates right up there with a trip to the proctologist in the pleasure department.

With that on mind, I thought it would be quite simple to continue my weight loss mission on a trip to Japan and China. That was before I met Sharon and Bernie aka Shinozaki and Katauo.

Today they took me to a sushi bar complete with food on tiny plates that were on a conveyor line. There was more on the menu but it was not "western friendly" as my lunch companions admitted.

There was Katsuo fish which was quite comical to Sharon as it is also her husband's name. She could never resist calling him a fish when she told me on several occasions what the dish was called. Then there was chawan mushi which I can only explain as some kind of mushroom with flan. I love mushrooms. Hate flan. Mushrooms definitely won that one. Then there was abi and salmon sushi. It was 4 for sushi and 0 for my diet mission. Kutsuo was the only one who ate the really pretty one which was raw egg and raw tuna. Um, just no.

The bill was tallied by how many plates and bowls were stacked You can see we had quite a collection. And then what did I hear but music, beautiful music, to my ears!!! Pumpkin cheesecake. Is this the promised land or what? I would have been eating sushi a long time ago if I had known that was my reward in the end.

I'm now at a point that I'm only hoping to maintain my weight loss. It's a certainty nothing else is coming off. Unless it's the top button of my jeans.

Tomorrow morning I will be leaving and joining my son in Nagoya. While I look forward to seeing Zachary for the first time in over a year it will be hard to say goodbye to Sharon and Bernie In a couple of days in their home I have laughed so much and we have shared details of our lives. Bernie just went to work and thanked me for accepting their house. He was quite happy that I thought his house was great and it was him and Sharon who made it so. I was honored to be their guest and am hopeful to maintain a friendship with them for years to come. I am grateful to airbnb for making it happen.