Part of the Family in Tokyo

As I mentioned before, I had a wonderful family experience with the Shirotas, and my luck with hosts in Japan didn’t end there. I stayed with a gregarious couple in Hirosaki and a gracious teacher in Yokosuka. But I spent the most time with a lovely family in Tokyo. Andrew, whose parents I stayed with in Shinrin-koen, put me in touch with his friends Eiko and Junko, Japanese sisters who both studied in Washington state, traveled around, and settled back down in Tokyo a few years apart. Eiko took me out to a delicious okonomiyaki dinner in Kawagoe with her family and gave me travel tips for the rest of my time in Japan. Junko put me up in her newly built house in the hip Umegaoka neighborhood in Tokyo. Both of them welcomed me with open arms into their family lives for the short time I was there.

So much fun with these lovely women--thanks for sharing your holiday with me!

So much fun with these lovely women–thanks for sharing your holiday with me!

My first day in the city, Junko said, “It’s Golden Week and today is Cinco de Mayo! Come celebrate with us.” It wasn’t actually May 5th, but since that day was national Children’s Day, the Latin American community of Tokyo threw their Cinco de Mayo party a few days early. The festival took place right next to Harajuku, a central location perfect for a concert stage and food stalls. I joined Junko, her daughter, and their friends at the festival, where we ate chicken and tamales and listened to a Mexican pop star belt out power ballads and dance numbers.

At the Tokyo Cinco de Mayo 2013 Fiesta

At the Tokyo Cinco de Mayo 2013 Fiesta

Food ranging from tasty to intensely spicy

Food ranging from tasty to intensely spicy

The kids, all between three and seven years old, were gorgeous and funny, playing on a skateboard, kicking around a soccer ball, and entreating two strangers to swing them around by their arms. It was such fun, and it was also the perfect place to see how cosmopolitan Tokyo is. I saw the first black people I’d seen the whole time I’d been in the country, and I heard English, Japanese, German, French, and several other languages I didn’t recognize.

It's not a great photo, but this girl was so happy dancing up there on the stage

It’s not a great photo, but this girl was so happy dancing up there on the stage

The Cinco de Mayo fest is used as a pan-Latin American celebration here, rather than solely a Mexican event. There are apparently a lot of Japanese people with connections to Latin America and Spain. Junko and her friends are some of these. Junko went to college in Washington and spent a semester in Mexico. She loved it so much that she moved there after graduation, and stayed seven years. She moved back to Tokyo to raise her daughter, Carmen, and she works for the American Embassy. One of her friends, Susanna, was born and raised in Venezuela by Japanese parents; she and her Venezuelan husband are raising their two adorable kids in Tokyo. Another friend, Japanese, married a Spanish man, and their son wanted to show me how he’s going to be a soccer star. Everyone there, including the kids, spoke at least Japanese and Spanish, and most of them spoke English as well. I was so impressed by their language skills and the community they’d built together.

Junko and Eiko were both amazing women, smart and loud and funny. They shared with me how it was sometimes difficult to live as loud, strong-willed women in Japan. But they both insist on living their lives as they please, not dimming their personalities to meet any societal expectations, and they seem to have a lot of fun in the meantime. I admire them immensely. Also, their kids were really cute.

With Eiko and family in Kawagoe

With Eiko and family in Kawagoe

After the Cinco de Mayo fest, we all went back to Junko’s house, where Eiko and her kids were waiting for us. Eiko took over the kitchen and turned out several delicious dishes, all the kids played together, and the women graciously spoke English often so that I could be included in their conversation. They were a fun group of women. It was a great first night in Tokyo.

Carmen's grabbing for the camera and her thumb's in the way

Carmen’s grabbing for the camera and her thumb’s in the way

A couple days later, Junko took Carmen and me to meet up with yet another international friend (Japanese, moving to Angola to teach Spanish for a year). We went to the park behind the Meiji Jingu shrine, a sprawling grassy area spilling down to a little pond. Junko was proud to show us the park, which her friend had never heard of, despite living in Tokyo for years. It was a secret hidden in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city, Junko said. We had a picnic of sushi and frittata, and Carmen ran a kite around the park in adorable, energetic fashion.

Carmen decorated the kite herself

Carmen decorated the kite herself

Doesn't this just make you love kids, and kites, and life?

Doesn’t this just make you love kids, and kites, and life?

It took Carmen a day or two to warm up to me, but by my last day in town, she was hugging me and pulling on my arm to show me something she’d built or written. In the manner of seven-year-olds everywhere, she took great pride in showing me how to do the simple routines of her household, and we had a lot of laughs over putting stickers in funny places.

Carmen's only seven, but she already knows to flash peace signs in every photo

Carmen’s only seven, but she already knows to flash peace signs in every photo

Junko also fed me every day for the five days I was there, drove me to the kabuki theater and the boat that took me to Kaminarimon Gate, told me about the Lost in Translation karaoke room, and directed me to an amazing night view of Tokyo. She gave me a driving tour of the city one day, and talked with me about my dreams for the future. She gave me my own room to sleep in, a key to her home, and an invitation to come back any time. All this, and she’d had two days’ warning from Eiko before I showed up on her doorstep. I experienced Tokyo as a temporary member of Junko and Carmen’s family during busy Golden Week, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way. I can only strive to be as generous when I host in the future. Arigato!

Junko and me

Junko and me

Hirosaki in Bloom

Hanami celebrates the ephemeral nature of life and the beauty of friendship and the natural world, but this year the few people I saw engaging in the custom were also celebrating hardiness and perseverance, whether they meant to or not. Hanami is the Japanese custom of having a picnic with friends under the blooming cherry trees in spring, but it was an especially cold and rainy spring in Hirosaki this year, so I was impressed by the few groups of people I saw laying out plastic sheeting and blankets, bundled as they were in raincoats and scarves.

Celebrating hanami despite the gloomy weather

Celebrating hanami despite the gloomy weather

I wasn’t upholding a national custom or family tradition by visiting Hirosaki for the sakura (cherry blossoms), but I did rearrange my schedule and endure the cold and rain for it. I was as determined as those chilly revelers to admire the beauty of the sakura in weather that did its best to mask it.

Sakura in bloom

Sakura in bloom

Hirosaki is in Aomori Prefecture, the northernmost district on the main island of Japan. It’s 400 miles northwest of Tokyo, and part of my journey there was spent on the Shinkansen (bullet train). As expected, the trains were clean, comfortable, and on time. I covered 400 miles in about 5 hours, including changing trains. I’ll repeat what every American who’s ever traveled this way has likely said: Why aren’t we doing this in the States? They love cars in Japan, too, but they still put money, research, and time into the train infrastructure.

The nearby mountain is popular for winter sports

The nearby mountain is popular for winter sports

Anyway, sakura season was already over in most of the country by the time I arrived in Japan in late April, but I’d done my research and I knew that I could still catch the fleeting beauties if I went north. I saw patches of snow on the hills the closer the train got to Hirosaki, the first snow I’d seen since March of the previous year. Except for a few sunny hours the day I arrived, it was cold and rainy the whole three days I was in town, so I went everywhere in my fleece, raincoat, and scarf. It felt like New Zealand all over again.

Snow on the ground, blossoms in the trees

Snow on the ground, blossoms in the trees

The park provided a couple of backgrounds like this, so you could take your picture with the sakura even if they weren't actually in bloom.

The park provided a couple of backgrounds like this, so you could take your picture with the sakura even if they weren’t actually in bloom.

Part of the appeal of the sakura is the setting, and Japanese towns go all out in creating the right atmosphere. In Hirosaki, it’s easy, because there used to be a castle there. One of the guard towers of the inner castle still remains, and there are some stone foundations and impressions in the grass that show where other parts of the castle used to be. It’s free to cross the moat and enter the outer walls of the castle, and then to cross the inner moat.

Foundations of a guard house in the inner castle grounds

Foundations of a guard house in the inner castle grounds

The outer moat

The outer moat

Some concessions for English-language tourists

Some concessions for English-language tourists

They only charge to enter the inner castle area and the guard tower. My excellent Couchsurfing hosts told me to save my money on the entrance fee, but I spent the $6 anyway. They were right about the guard tower. Steep stairs, half-hearted displays of samurai weaponry, unimpressive views through tiny windows more suited to the arrows of warriors past than the cameras of today’s tourists. But there was a gigantic weeping cherry tree in the courtyard, more in bloom than most of the non-weeping varieties outside, that I was glad I saw.

View from the guard tower of Hirosaki Castle

View from the guard tower of Hirosaki Castle

Another view from the guard tower

Another view from the guard tower

This weeping cherry tree, in front of the inner guard tower, is over 100 years old

This weeping cherry tree, in front of the inner guard tower, is over 100 years old

The grounds are large, and several paths are lined with food and souvenir vendors. I had a pork bun, a sausage on a stick, a chocolate-dipped banana, and a donut that at first struck me as dry and only vaguely sweet, like communion bread, but about halfway through I realized it was delicious, and I wished I’d bought two! Do with that what you will for metaphors about trying new things, sticking it out, etc.

The donut of metaphors

The donut of metaphors

These fences were actually made of hard plastic--it's the most convincing fake wood fence I've ever seen!

These fences were actually made of hard plastic–it’s the most convincing fake wood fence I’ve ever seen!

The lamps along the paths were mostly photos of adorable children, like this one. Looks like people could buy the space to show off photos of their kids and support lighting the castle grounds.

The lamps along the paths were mostly photos of adorable children, like this one. Looks like people could buy the space to show off photos of their kids and support lighting the castle grounds.

Not everyone chose to put their kids' photos up.

Not everyone chose to put their kids’ photos up.

The blossoms were at 10% when I arrived, and maybe 30% when I left (the government issues sakura updates, so you can see what percentage of “open” the blooms are in which areas of the country–that’s how big a deal the sakura and accompanying hanami celebrations are).

My first day in Hirosaki--hardly any blossoms

My first day in Hirosaki–the trees are just starting to bloom

The trees exploded in bloom a few days after I left, but that’s how it goes sometimes. The admiration the Japanese have for the sakura is their perfect, delicate beauty and the fact that such beauty is only on display for a short time every year. Cherish the beauty you see in the world, and accept that it’s ephemeral.

My last day in Hirosaki--more blossoms

My last day in Hirosaki–more blossoms

One of the serene bridges of the castle grounds

One of the serene bridges of the castle grounds

Seeing cherry blossoms hang over a red bridge reflected with a castle tower in placid water was still worth it, even if the blossoms were only barely open, even if rain drizzled down the back of my neck and my toes slowly numbed throughout the day, even if I spent a lot of extra money to travel north just for this rather than stay south. The weather did its best to dampen my spirits and dull the bright white blooms of the cherry trees. Nice try, weather, but the blossoms were still beautiful to behold, and I’m glad I went out of my way to see them.

Aesthetically pleasing

Aesthetically pleasing

I was so happy to see these little flowers in this setting

I was so happy to see these little flowers in this setting

My Personal Ryokan in Japan

I bought the Fodor’s Japan e-book while I was in Vietnam, to get ready for the next country on my trip. The author of the guidebook spent many pages rhapsodizing about the ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Ryokan are a simpler form of accommodation than modern hotels, with no amenities like mini-bars, TVs in the rooms, or wifi. Instead, the emphasis is on a peaceful, introspective stay. The tatami (rice straw) floors, futon beds, sliding doors, private garden views, and expertly cooked food are consistent features from place to place, and you can expect to pay at least $100 per night. But I stayed at a top-notch ryokan in Shinrin-koen, and I didn’t pay a cent.

Painted screen doors in the traditional home I stayed in, in Shinrin-koen, Japan

Painted screen doors in the traditional home I stayed in, in Shinrin-koen, Japan

Giantess in the ryokan

Giantess in the ryokan

The secret is to know incredibly generous people, so I cannot flog this as a general travel tip. Too bad, because I want everyone to meet the Shirotas, who put me up and fed me for five days. The assistant rector of my parents’ church is from Shinrin-koen, a small town in the Saitama province, about forty minutes northwest of Tokyo. When he heard I was going to Japan, he put me in touch with his parents and assured me they’d be happy to host.

Blossoms in the garden

Blossoms in the garden

I quickly learned to wear slippers as soon as I walked in the door

I quickly learned to wear slippers as soon as I walked in the door

Kuni and Kimi run a restaurant that’s attached to their house, so it was no surprise that everything I ate was delicious. They spoke very little English, and I spoke no Japanese, so we used Google Translate to bridge the gap. That is a very imperfect tool, I am here to tell you. We had some delightful misunderstandings, all taken in stride by the three of us, and everything smoothed over with the smiles permanently on our faces. I was grateful to be taken care of after months of looking out for number one, and touched by their generosity. They were pleased to host and chuckle with a young person who couldn’t ever seem to remember how to say “good night,” no matter how many times they pronounced it. They were the sweetest hosts, so my permanent smile wasn’t just a tool for cross-cultural communication. It was the real thing.

Kuni and Kumiko, my gracious and generous hosts

Kuni and Kimi, my gracious and generous hosts

And although their home isn’t really an inn (except for once a year, when they host several international travelers who come to town for a famous multi-day walk), it was the real thing, too.

The room had tatami mats and a low table:

Traditional table and tatami mats

Traditional table and tatami mats

And a futon rolled out on the floor:

A comfortable floor futon

Super comfortable. I had some of the best sleep of my trip here.

My room looked out on a small, lovely garden:

Peaceful work station

Peaceful work station (and yes, they had wifi, which was handy for blogging)

And I ate very, very well:

shinrin-koen ryokan

Handmade soba noodles

shinrin-koen ryokan

Beautiful presentation, every time

Delicious food

Delicious

I knew as soon as I met Kuni and Kimi that they were going to be wonderful hosts, and that I’d love staying at their home. Thanks to my guidebook, I also knew how lucky I was to have a ryokan experience without the expense.

Culture Clashes

Couchsurfing can make people nervous for various reasons, but questioning what it might do for your reputation or job security is not usually something that comes up. Janet at Journalist on the Run published a letter her friend received after hosting CSers at her flat in Korea. In it, her supervisor warns that her neighbors have filed a complaint about her because several strange men have been seen exiting her apartment over the past month.

Basically, her supervisor says, “I know you’re doing Couchsurfing, but you look like a slut, which is not the image we want for teachers in Korea, and you’re hired by the government of Korea, so you gotta change your ways or risk being fired.” Janet and the commenters discuss whether the supervisor should have supported the employee or whether the employee should have taken a cue from CS and adjusted to the new culture she finds herself in.

It’s a fine line between respecting cultural norms that are different from yours, and standing up for your own beliefs and way of life. This particular issue is made trickier because it involves her job. I guess for me, knowing that my job protection as an American in Korea is basically nil, I’d err on the side of caution and keeping my job. Then engage in conversation with other teachers and parents over the course of the year, with the goal of gently encouraging alternate points of view. Actually, if you’re a teacher in the States, your job security is pretty bad too, so that’s probably the tactic to take here as well.

Now, if it didn’t involve employment, I might act differently. Living in an apartment in Rome and my landlady disapproves of my nighttime visitors? Too bad, lady, I pay you each month and my bedroom is my business. Miming trying on a skirt at the night market in Chiang Mai and the merchant just laughs and says “too big! too big!”? Okay, that’s blunter than I’d hear at home, but you know your product better than I, so I’ll move on.

It can get a lot more serious, of course. A woman visiting Saudi Arabia? Cover your head. A lesbian couple visiting South Africa? Don’t hold hands. A Sikh man visiting rural Alabama? Bring a white friend. These aren’t matters of cultural misunderstanding so much as basic personal safety. How do we integrate respecting other cultures and respecting our own integrity? A question for the 21st century, and one that can only be answered by including the voices of people from the countries we visit as outsiders.

There’s a lot more to say on the topic, but I find myself posting later than expected today. Weigh in, dearest fellow travelers. What would you do if you were the teacher in question? What changes do you make in deference to cultural differences when you travels? What changes do you refuse to make?

A Happy New Year in Singapore

When I landed in Singapore, I realized I’d had it mixed up with Hong Kong in my mind. I pictured Singapore as a concrete jungle packed with skyscrapers, but actually the tall buildings part of the city is contained to a small part of the waterfront. The rest of the city is made up of the small shophouses of the colonial era and the large department stores of the modern age. I met up with my friend Emily and she took me on a walking tour of the Geylang Serai neighborhood (she plotted out the walk just for me–isn’t that sweet?). We walked when it was dry, and ducked into eateries each time the rain started up again. A lot of the rowhouses are a bright pastel, and we found a little alley with some houses in vibrant colors too.

Rowhouses of Singapore

Rowhouses of Singapore

singapore

We stopped in the Katong Antique House and looked at some Peranakan artifacts. The Peranakan are descendents of Chinese and Malay in Indonesia and Singapore; they have a particular style of dress and set of customs found only here.

singapore

That night, I joined up with my friend Mindy for more delicious street food and a quick walk around the Bugis neighborhood, which was pulsing with people shopping for the holiday and eating with their friends. We met up with Mindy’s husband Alan and went to the 70th floor of the Swissotel. We sat in the bar and admired the view through the rain-streaked windows while a singer serenaded us. Mindy and Alan generously treated me to a drink in this fancy place, and given my location, what could I choose but a Singapore Sling?

Oranges for luck at the Chinese New Year--with Alan and Mindy

Oranges for luck at the Chinese New Year–with Alan and Mindy

On the eve of Chinese New Year, everyone has a family dinner. Many people travel long distances to make it home in time, and there are rituals to start the year off right. I was honored to be invited to dinner with Alan’s family. After they showed me Chinatown, Alan and Mindy took me to his mom’s high-rise apartment.

Auspicious phrases!

Auspicious phrases!

The dinner started with the stirring of the big fish dish. Alan’s sister sprinkled ingredients signifying certain things over the dish, and then we all used our chopsticks to stir the dish in the center of the table, while shouting out auspicious phrases. By the end, we were just yelling good things in whatever language came handy–“Success! Good relationships!” I added “good studies” for Mindy (she’s working on her PhD), and she added “safe travels” for me. Alan’s mom gave me two oranges–a traditional gift I’d meant to bring for her–and even a red packet! It was a great evening.

Colorful new year

Colorful new year

The next day, I met up with Emily at her great-aunt’s house. On the first day of the new year, you visit around to various family members, and Emily invited me along for this stop on her circuit. I was graciously received by a couple dozen relatives, given more red packets, and plied with so much food. This time I remembered to bring two oranges, which was a great success. I watched three generations play round after round of blackjack, which just about everyone was betting on. I talked with Emily’s teenaged cousins and elderly great-aunts, and I was glad I wore red, the lucky color of the day, because I could tell it made a good impression.

Emily and me

Emily and me

On my last day in Singapore, I saw a lion dance outside the converted shophouse apartment I was staying in, and then took the train to the Gardens by the Bay. I knew last year I wanted to check this place out, and I was lucky: it rained pretty much the whole weekend I was in Singapore, but for the few hours I was at the gardens, it was all sunshine. The supertrees were pleasingly imposing in person, and I liked the mini-gardens surrounding the central hub, which were all devoted to different styles–Malay, Chinese, colonial.

The shop owner hired these dancers (and musicians out of frame) to do the lion dance outside the shop. The kids dig it.

The shop owner hired these dancers (and musicians out of frame) to do the lion dance outside the shop. The kids dig it.

Supertrees!

Supertrees!

For being a small island, there’s a lot to do and see in Singapore; I didn’t even get up to the pool at Marina Bay Sands, or out to Pulau Semakau or the Southern Ridges, as I’d planned. I know I keep saying it about everywhere I’ve been on this trip, but it’s true: I’ll have to come back.

Marina Bay at night

Marina Bay at night (pretend it’s blurry because of the rain and not my lack of camera skill)

Welcome to Wellington–You’ll Want to Stay Awhile

Wellington proudly wears the title given it by Lonely Planet—“the coolest little capital in the world”—and I’d say it has good claim to it. It’s a small city on the southern tip of the North Island of New Zealand. Although most of the city is curled around the harbor and seems like it ought to be protected, the city is relentlessly buffeted by winds that rival Chicago’s. Or possibly outdo Chicago’s. Four months later, I’m still combing the tangles out of my hair, so I haven’t had time to consider the question.

Much of the public art in Wellington plays on how windy it is there.

Much of the public art in Wellington plays on how windy it is there.

I spent a few hours in Wellington with my friends after Christmas, as we waited for the ferry to take me across the Cook Strait. They drove me up to Mount Victoria, which stands guard over town. It contains a monument to Antarctic exploration, made up of stones from a glacier on the seventh continent; and a cannon that was fired at noon every day for years, to tell time by. We stood at the lookout and watched planes brave the gusts of wind on their descent into town. On the way down the hill, my friends pointed out a stand of pine trees that had been used for scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies.

View from Mount Vic

View from Mount Vic

Antarctic monument

Antarctic monument

My second time in Wellington, I lucked out yet again in my Couchsurfing host. Woo was an accommodating host, and the other surfers at his place were super friendly. We had a nice dinner out and cakes in a frilly tea shop. Also, Woo’s place was right downtown, so for probably the first time since I set foot in New Zealand, I didn’t have to hike up and down hills just to get to the corner store.

I’m not sure what the economic situation is in New Zealand right now, or in the greater Wellington area, but I can say with confidence that the government has put a lot of money into the downtown area, because it looked great. City Hall and its square; Te Papa, the national museum; Waitangi Park and the waterfront; the Embassy movie theater, home of Lord of the Rings premieres: they were all pleasant places to spend time in, without seeming too whitewashed.

I wouldn't mind Gandalf watching over my city

I wouldn’t mind Gandalf watching over my city

I grabbed a couple free brochures from the visitor’s center and went on a self-guided tour along a path that followed the Art Deco trail and the Te Ara O Nga Tupuna trail through downtown. The Art Deco tour was less historically interesting than the Maori sites tour, but I sure do like that sleek, clean style of the interwar period.

Quite the fire station

Quite the fire station

The Te Ara trail covers a broader area than can be walked, but there are a few sites in town important to Maori history that the brochure points out. Waitangi Lagoon was a major source of food in pre-Pakeha times, and is now a major intersection. Waitangi Park is up the road, a carefully maintained patch of marsh grasses facing both the harbor and Te Papa, with a climbing wall at the end.

Waitangi Park

Waitangi Park

The most surprising site was Whare Ponga, a storefront that contains an archaeological dig showing the original Te Aro Pa—a pa being a fortified Maori village. The site, which was unearthed, like so many interesting sites around the world, during construction work, is from the 1840s.

Te Pa

Te Aro Pa

I met up with Jose, a traveler friend from Chicago, at the botanic gardens for a summer concert in the park. It was quite chilly for a summer concert, but that didn’t stop everyone from coming out. The band played upbeat reggae, and at least one overtly political song, and Jose took me ‘round the gardens as the sun set to show me the colors.

The groovy duck pond

The groovy duck pond

When the sun goes down, the lights come up: pink globes on the duck pond, red spotlights on the palm trees, even a blacklight area by the ferns. Bubble machines were mounted on some of the lampposts, and when they started up, all the kids in the area leaped into the path—some to dance, some to swat at the bubbles with their sweatshirts in a battle that they all won.

wellingtonJose showed me a willow tree that seemed to sparkle; when we pushed aside the leaves and stepped under the tree’s broad branches, we saw a half dozen disco balls rotating in the air, reflecting hidden lights and creating a dance hall for fairies. The whole place was magical.

Blurry disco scene--is there any other kind?

Blurry disco scene–is there any other kind?

I took the cable car up to and down from the gardens. It’s a quaint little car, with small wooden seats and brass poles. It makes a few stops along the way, so if you live on the hill, you could use the cable car to get around. That’s the only form of transit I took the whole time I was there. Woo picked me up from the ferry station and took me to the airport (an excellent host, as I said), but otherwise it’s a super walkable city, and it was nice to wander around. I passed the Bucket Fountain on Cuba Street, and plenty of other public art installations around town. I walked by a guitarist busking on the sidewalk and a girl who sat nearby and quietly harmonized on a recorder.

The cable car

The cable car

Bucket Fountain

Bucket Fountain–that little kid loved it

I left the visitor’s center on my last day in town and cut through Civic Square, where a drag queen and her assistants cheered on audience participants in a delightfully clumsy dance contest, and then two police officers on duty were cajoled on stage, where one cheerfully did her own little dance and put on the tighty whiteys flung at her before continuing on her beat. That was easily one of the simplest, most fun moments of Everyone Getting Along I’ve ever witnessed.

Fun for everyone

Fun for everyone

Te Papa is a huge museum five floors tall, and its permanent exhibits include a Maori meeting house built specially for the museum, a hokey display about geothermal activity, and an interactive hall about the sea and forest especially aimed at kids. It was a great museum, too big to explore in one day, so it would be easy to revisit again and again, which is fitting for a museum built as a tribute to a country’s citizens, who might return over a number of years.

Te Papa meeting hall

Te Papa meeting hall

The Beatles look cheerful, but I know they must have been freezing under those capes.

The Beatles look cheerful, but I know they must have been freezing under those capes.

The Maori exhibits struck a tricky balance between anger and indignation at Pakeha treatment of Maori throughout history, and relaying information about Maori traditions still maintained today. One plaque carefully explained how disrespectful it is to wear images of carvings, which are considered something close to sacred, which I hope informs visitors’ souvenir choices.

Lovely detail and color

Lovely detail and color

I had an epic night out with Jez, who I’d met at Theresa’s in Melbourne. We drank delicious local craft beers during Wellington Weekend at Hashigo Zake, caught the end of a queer rock show on a hoedown theme night at Bar Medusa, danced to the sometimes questionable choices of the DJ at Mighty Mighty Bar, and ended the evening at an overpriced Irish pub playing bad Top 40–a somewhat ignominious end to an amazing night.

Good times

Good times

I know a lot of people who want to immigrate to New Zealand, and after days exploring downtown and a night of fun and music, I was half convinced to myself.

Aye, Dunedin

Water of Leith. Glenorchy. Macandrew Bay. There are a lot of Scottish names on the South Island, and that’s just the most immediate sign that the main Pakeha settlers in this part of New Zealand came from the land of lochs. Dunedin (Gaelic for Edinburgh) used to be a major industrial and commercial center for the country, but nowadays it’s mainly known as a university town. I’d intended to spend a couple days there, but as so often happens near the end of a stay in a country, there suddenly didn’t seem to be as much time as I’d thought there’d be. I liked what I saw of the town, though.

Dunedin train station, now the site of farmer's markets

Dunedin train station, now the site of farmer’s markets

Theresa’s friend and fellow Couchsurfer Ritchie picked me up from the bus station and we decided the beautiful weather made it the perfect day for a drive along the Otago peninsula. We stopped at a shop next to a tiny beach half full of determined ocean bathers, and I bought a cheese roll, which Ritchie said is something of an Otago institution. It consists of a piece of long bread (the kind you find pre-sliced) rolled around soft cheese and chives, and then toasted. It wasn’t a delicacy, but it did the trick for lunch.

The closest I got to seeing an albatross was this stuffed one.

The closest I got to seeing an albatross was this stuffed one.

We drove up to the Royal Albatross Centre. The albatross is a rare bird. There’s a well-protected colony on the Otago peninsula, and you can often see them up at the center. We saw a lot of seagulls but no albatross, so we carried on down the winding coastal road to the small town Ritchie lives in. His house overlooks the ocean, and he said he often goes spearfishing for his supper. We relaxed on the balcony and I had the luxury of an afternoon nap and a few hours of reading. That night, Ritchie’s roommate mentioned how clear the skies were, so we stood on the balcony staring at the stars. I’d been searching for the Southern Cross the whole time I’d been in the southern hemisphere, but hadn’t had any luck finding it until this night, when Ritchie pointed it out to me. Just in time before I headed back to the northern hemisphere, where you can’t see it.

Ocean views from the balcony

Ocean views from the balcony

The next day, I had to catch the bus up to Christchurch, so Ritchie dropped me off in the Octagon a couple of hours before it left. The Octagon is the town square, with—you guessed it—eight sides. A road rings the small park in the center, and another road bisects the park. Fancy shops and nice restaurants take up most of the storefronts, and there’s also Town Hall and the Cathedral Church of St. Paul the Apostle. Right at the top of the hill—this is New Zealand, remember, so there are hills everywhere, I hardly need mention that the Octagon was set on a hill—anyway, right at the top of the hill is a statue dedicated to Scottish poet Robert Burns. This is a city that wears its heritage with pride. (Also, Burns’ nephew was one of the founders of the Otago settlement in 1848.)

Impressive stuff at the top of the Octagon

Impressive stuff at the top of the Octagon

The cathedral was putting on a free “cruise concert” for cruise ship passengers right as I was admiring the building, so I went inside. It was a lovely twenty minutes of listening to the organist play Bach, Handel, and Elgar while sitting in the spacious, sparsely decorated church.  Afterward, I had lunch at a perfectly collegiate café (trendy, charming, overpriced) and admired the train station made of local stone. On the bus ride out of town, our driver told us some fun facts about Dunedin, all of which I’ve forgotten, but what stuck with me is I need to come back and spend more time here.

Southland in the Summertime

The Southland of New Zealand is some of the flattest part of the South Island, which meant that when I took a bus down to Invercargill, there were no hills to block the wind blowing in straight from Antarctica. It was cold, is what I’m saying. And raining. But by that time, I’d grown to expect that of New Zealand, although I can’t say I ever got excited about it. So I went ahead with my plans to rent a car and explore the Southland.

The gathering storm on the Southern Scenic Route

The gathering storm on the Southern Scenic Route

Like any good American, I got in my car and headed west. I drove along the Southern Scenic Route, which hugs the coast from Dunedin down to Invercargill and then next to the mountains up to Queenstown. The road reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway in California for the obvious reasons–coastal road, lots of twists and turns–but also because the towns I drove through were small, laid-back, usually boasting one tourist spot or small picnic area to break up the journey with.

An idyllic beach scene, three minutes after a storm

An idyllic beach scene, three minutes after a storm

I stopped next to a large statue of a whale in Riverton to look at the sea, but it started to rain pretty hard, so I got back in and drove for no more than three minutes, just to the other side of the small bay, where the rain had stopped and puffy white clouds scudded across the blue sky. What was going on? I don’t know, but this sudden stop/start pattern repeated a few times throughout the day. I think the Southland was showing off.

That sheep still has its tail attached; I'd never realized sheep even have long tails until my Couchsurfing hosts saw the picture and commented that this one hadn't had its tail removed.

That sheep still has its tail attached; I’d never realized sheep even have long tails until my Couchsurfing hosts saw the picture and commented that this one hadn’t had its tail removed.

hatchback southland

My little hatchback for five days.

Colac Bay is a popular surfing spot, and a crude statue of a dude riding a cresting wave marks the beach, but the rain was back at that point, so I moved on down the road. This was a different experience from my Coromandel adventure; I had only myself in the car, there were fewer cars on the road and fewer twists and turns, and I wasn’t driving on a busted tire. Like a good American, I enjoyed the certain kind of cheerful freedom that only a road trip can bring.

highland coo! southlandI followed the signs for Cosy Nook, a little bay with some houses from the 1800s, when Pakeha set up a fishing village close to a Maori fishing village. (Faded signs informed me that where I stood was technically part of Mullet Bay, named for a bay in Scotland, and the real Cosy Nook was around the corner; more correcting of names, like Milford Sound/Fiord.) Looking at the gray skies and small, clapboard houses, I had strong flashbacks to visiting the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts during spring break in high school.

Cosy Nook--I mean, Mullet Bay

Cosy Nook–I mean, Mullet Bay

Back to gorgeous weather at a lookout showing Steward Island in the distance, and then I was in Tuatapere. (I still have a hard time saying the name, but I think it’s close to “Too-ah-TIP-ery.”) Tuatapere is the most southwestern town in New Zealand–or “the last NZ town to see the summer sun set,” as the town sign poetically put it–and it also bills itself as the sausage capital of the country. I had a dinner of sausages bought from a local butcher, and they were indeed tasty.

Claims to fame

Claims to fame

I stayed with a lovely couple I met on Couchsurfing. They’d moved down from Auckland for a change of pace, and were happily settled in to the small-town life. It’s a very small town–my directions to the house included turning right at the woodpile, and left on the road parallel to the railroad. I checked out the antiques museum/tearoom and the charity shop, and I peered in the windows of the closed toy library. (Are toy libraries a thing in rural America? I’d never heard of them before, but they’re a brilliant idea. Apparently, they’re big in rural Canada too.)

Antiques in Tuatapere

Antiques in Tuatapere

Leonie, my host, had time off on my second day in town, so she took me around to see the sights. We went to Lake Hauroko, which is the deepest lake in New Zealand (462 meters at the deepest point). Part of the path was flooded when we went, so we just did a short walk along a path lined with ferns in various states of unfurling.

Lake ?

Lake Hauroko

ferns southland

Next we went to the Clifden suspension bridge, where a tiny kitten appeared out of nowhere and followed us around for awhile. A couple of women had parked their campervan next to the bridge, taking advantage of the remote location to do some free camping. Free camping–camping wherever you find a spot–is possible in a lot of New Zealand, but there are restrictions, and information booths will usually give you a map of places that are off limits, so you don’t incur a fine.

Watch out

Watch out

Clifden Suspension Bridge

Clifden Suspension Bridge

We ended the drive at Bluecliffs Beach, which I never could have visited on my own because you need a 4WD to get down there. We braced ourselves against the wind and admired the sea, and then Leonie noticed the seagulls to our right were behaving oddly. We looked closer, and they’d made their own water park! A tiny stream of water had branched off from a river and cut through the sand to the sea. Just above the tide line, the seagulls were climbing into the stream and letting the fast current carry them down to sea. Then they’d flap back up the short distance to what they’d apparently decided was the starting point, and did it all over again. It was so fun to watch.

It's hard to tell, but look at the guys to the far left and far right--they're on the Bluecliffs Beach Water Park Thrill Ride

It’s hard to tell, but look at the guys to the far left and far right–they’re on the Bluecliffs Beach Water Park Thrill Ride

After our day in the brisk air, Leonie and I went back to her house and promptly made tea. I don’t like the taste of coffee so I never drink it, and I’ve never thought much of tea, but being in New Zealand changed my habits a little. Literally everyone I met who invited me into their home offered to make a cup of tea–British roots showing, I think–and it’s rude to refuse. I became a bit more discerning than “whatever you’re having” and now I know I prefer black teas with just a little milk, no sugar. You never know what you’ll pick up on your travels–the fantastic and the mundane.

Leaving Tuatapere

Leaving Tuatapere

Feasting in Singapore

Singapore is known for its heavy fines for any number of minor offenses, and for its high residents-to-shopping-destinations ratio, and for its endless variety of foods. It all seemed to be true on my four-day visit this past weekend, especially the food part. I ate so much and so well in Singapore, and I think almost every single thing was something I’d never eaten before.

My culinary guides in this adventure were native Singaporeans I’d hosted separately through Couchsurfing back in Chicago. They were eager to explain how things were made, and the different combinations you can make in different dishes, and which dishes are their favorites. This is the way to see Singapore!

Here are some pictures of What I Ate, and my best guess on remembering what they’re called:

breakfast at coffee shop

Tea with milk; kaya spread on bread; soft-boiled egg carefully cracked over saucer containing some of the hot water from making the tea, with soy sauce and pepper

slurping my egg

Slurping my egg as instructed–although then my friend ate hers with a spoon!

Delicious potato cake, not quite like a samosa, a different kind of dense

Delicious potato cake, not quite like a samosa, a different kind of dense

Egg tart, especially popular at the Chinese New Year

Egg tart, especially popular at the Chinese New Year

Duck and brown rice, soup, braised peanuts, and eggs

Duck and brown rice, soup, braised peanuts, and eggs

Beef noodle soup with cilantro

Beef noodle soup with cilantro

Delightful drinks: soursop, sugarcane, and water chestnut

Delightful drinks: soursop, sugarcane, and water chestnut

Eating all the Chinese New Year snacks like a good guest--prawn crackers, pineapple tarts, and much more

Eating all the Chinese New Year snacks like a good guest–prawn crackers, bak kwa (pork jerky, so good), pineapple tarts, and much more

Soup, preserved sausage, fish ball, veggies

Soup, noodles, preserved sausage, meatballs and mince, fish balls, veggies

Two kinds of chicken

Sea cucumber, two kinds of chicken, broccoli

Not pictured: the durian cream puff I ate (tasted kind of like onions), the Singapore Sling I drank (yum), and various other tasty things

The Gorgeous Great Ocean Road

I almost didn’t get to go to the Great Ocean Road, but with a little Couchsurfing magic and the luck of some very fine weather, I saw one of the loveliest stretches of Australia, not to mention some wild koalas and parrots, days before I left the country.

Great Ocean Road lookout toward Gibson Steps

Great Ocean Road lookout toward Gibson Steps

I was having a marvelous time in Melbourne, so I left it a little late to organize a trip out to the GOR. I didn’t really want to do a bus tour, but I didn’t want to take on the expense of renting a car all by myself either (not to mention, the thought of driving on the other side of the road freaked me out). I tried some rideshare websites with no luck. I posted in the rideshare group on the Couchsurfing website. I was starting to think that I was going to have go on a bus tour and make a few scheduled stops for over $100, when I got a message on CS. A ride!

Gibson StepsDani and Fede, from Sicily, were packing in a lot of sightseeing on Fede’s trip to visit Dani down under, so they only had a day, rather than the two I’d hoped for, to do the trip. But they were willing to split the driving between themselves, and Dani’s roommate Ali was joining in, so the costs were super reasonable. Another reminder that sometimes if you leave things to the last minute, you miss out, but sometimes, you luck out.

Color upon color

Color upon color

Ali’s lived all over the world, since he can teach all the romance languages and is well sought-after. In that infuriating way that all my beloved teacher friends have, he found it hard to admit when he didn’t know something, and could turn almost anything into a teaching moment, which Fede and I teased him about. Fede, on holiday from doctoring in Italy, had a wonderful way of teasing everyone and soothing tempers at the same time. Dani embodied that free-spirited attitude that movies always try to imitate but never quite get right. It was a great group to join for a long day of sightseeing.

Near Torquay

Near Torquay

Ali and I braced ourselves in the back as Dani got used to driving on the left, bumping up against several curbs and almost a few parked cars along the way. After some exclamations, arm waving, and yelling (all of which made me smile with fond memories of living in Rome), we got settled in to the drive. It takes about an hour, an hour and a half, to get from Melbourne down to the coast, but once you’re there, the drive becomes consistently beautiful.

Split Point Lighthouse at Aireys Inlet

Split Point Lighthouse at Aireys Inlet

We went to the Split Point lighthouse at Aireys Inlet and had a good view of what looked like might become a stormy day. (Happily, it did not.) Afterward, we wended our way up a hill into the bush a bit to Erskine Falls. We perched ourselves on the benches at the lookout and ate our lunch amid the foliage and the dull roar of the falls.

erskine falls gor

Erskine Falls

Back on the coast proper, Ali played DJ, occasionally putting on a song in Italian that made both Dani and Fede groan. He’d grin and explain that this was a particularly well-known ballad or pop song, and Fede would say, “Really, no, we cannot hear this.” I imagine it’s like every time someone plays Foreigner around me.

So far, we’d been following the advice of various Italian and English guidebooks, but at this point I said we should make a stop recommended by another Couchsurfer. We pulled off at Kennett River, which consists of a general store and campground. My travel companions got coffees while I asked the barista for directions to the “road with the koalas.” She pointed to the road next to the campground and said, “what you’re looking for is a gray basketball in a tree.” With these succinct instructions, we set off across the road.

Koala yoga

Koala yoga

Almost immediately, we saw a koala! It did, indeed, look sort of like a gray basketball, curled up as it was up in its tree. It appeared to be sleeping, which koalas do almost all the time. We went to the other side of the tree to get a better look, when whoosh–a bunch of birds flew right at us. Look at them:

Good thing I never saw "The Birds," or this might have freaked me out

Good thing I never saw “The Birds,” or this might have freaked me out

Dozens of colorful birds, all eager to flap around us, squawk in the trees, and generally cause a wonderful distraction. The internet tells me that I saw cockatiels, cockatoos, crimson rosellas, and Australian king parrots. One bird landed on Fede’s back, and then they all got the idea, and soon Dani and Ali were covered in birds as well. But none came to me! Maybe I had the wrong shampoo or something.

Cockatoo strut

Cockatoo strut

So I’m a little ashamed to say that when another group of tourists offered us their bread to feed the birds, I took some, and I was thrilled when a king parrot pecked at my outstretched palm, and finally made the leap over to my arm.

It deliberated about moving for a long time

It deliberated about moving for a long time

We saw two more koalas in the gum trees. One was ever-so-slowly shifting position, while the other remained resolutely asleep. As we reluctantly started to leave, we had another rush of birds, and this time, with no prompting, one landed on my head! I have never been so honored to have something attack my scalp as I was at that moment.

Hanging with royalty (that's an Australian king parrot)

Hanging with royalty (that’s an Australian king parrot)

It was hard to leave the playful birds and adorable koalas, but there was more to see, so we pressed on. We arrived at the Gibson Steps and descended those steep stairs to the beach to get a better look. We passed a kangaroo corpse, which is a strange thing to see when the animal isn’t roadkill, and I wondered how it got down to the beach, or if it had fallen off the cliff and that’s what killed it? I’m sure there’s a Kangaroo Kops number I could call to get to the bottom of this.

At Gibson Steps

At Gibson Steps

A long haul back up the steps and a short drive later, we arrived at the 12 Apostles. This is one of the most popular destinations in Australia, so perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me to see a visitor’s center set up and hundreds of people milling about, but because we’d been four of only 30 people, tops, at all our stops so far, I was a little taken aback. Here, as at Stonehenge in England, you park on one side of the road, then follow an underpass path to get to the attraction.

Subtle signage

Subtle signage

The 12 Apostles were stuffily renamed in the ’50s; they were originally called the Sow and Piglets, which is much more evocative. They’re limestone rock stacks, which used to be part of the mainland, then eroded into arches, then eroded further into stacks. There are 8 left today. The light was terrible when we were there, but another thing about a rideshare is you can’t insist you stay an extra several hours to get less harsh sunlight for your photos.

12 Apostles

12 Apostles

In fact, once we’d admired the rocks and the ocean, Dani said we should head back so no one had to drive in the dark, which is a sensible suggestion. So we cut through inland roads that Theresa had told me about, and sped back to Melbourne, exclaiming over the wildlife and the coastline, and happy to be road tripping together.

Ali, Dani, Fede, me

Ali, Dani, Fede, me