Ecuador by the Numbers

Hours spent in Spanish class–my first classroom experience in a decade: 40

Hours spent valiantly struggling to make conversation with my host mother in Quito: 20

Iguanas encountered: 12

Delicious soups consumed: 20

Waterfalls admired: 8

Ankles sprained: 1

Inca ruins visited: 1

Equatorial lines straddled: 1

Waves dived in: hundreds 

Presidential palaces toured: 1

Chicago Bulls paraphernalia seen: countless items

Total days spent in Ecuador: 47

Total money spent: $2,663.25

Average per day: $56.66

Total money spent, minus the airfare: $1,983.25

Average per day, minus the airfare: $42.20

Blissful beach and waterfall moments experienced: many

Las Tunas, Ecuador; March 10, 2014

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

Hawaii by the Numbers

Miles driven: 362

Beds slept in: 5

Accommodations rented: 4

Accommodations with balcony ocean view: 3

Waterfalls admired: 4

Hours snorkeled: 3.5

Sea turtles seen: 2

Fake tattoos painted on Heather: 4

Flowers worn in my hair: 1

Hula dances watched: 2

Near-death driving experiences: I can’t even think about it

Sunset drinks drunk: 9

Palm trees photographed: approximately 500

Hawaiian words I knew before arriving: 2

Hawaiian words I learned while there: 15

Hawaiian words I know now: 2

National parks visited: 2

Friends made by Heather, at the hotel check-in, at restaurants, at the luau, etc.: At least 6

Total money spent, including airfare: $2,477

Total days spent there: 14

Average per day, including airfare: $177

Total money spent, NOT including airfare: $1,677

Average per day, NOT including airfare: $120

Money regretted having spent: not a cent

Moments treasured with a beloved sister: countless

Are You Flirting With Me Right Now?

Dearest fellow travelers, let’s talk bodies and how we talk about them. Just a bit! The subject of one’s weight and beauty is fraught with social pressures, personal histories, and private traumas. I’ve talked a little about how my own fatness affects my ability to travel, and I will probably post some more about that in the future. But for today, I wanted to share my new favorite way of stopping damaging body-shaming talk in its tracks. You can use this on yourself, your friends and lovers, even casual acquaintances. Ready for this amazing secret??

Mirror, Mirror, does this dress make my face look green?

Generally, we all feel some sort of weird in our own bodies. Maybe we think we’re too fat, too skinny, too dark, too light, too too too something–we’re always some measure off of an impossible beauty standard so deeply ingrained that we almost think it’s natural. I have a lot of thoughts about that, and a lot of websites to direct you to, but despite appearances to the contrary, I don’t like to spend all my time pontificating. I have a set amount of pontificable time. The rest is spent reading Kate Atkinson novels and imagining myself into Cary Grant movies.

But just because I’m not pontificating doesn’t mean I think it’s okay for us to go around hating on our own bodies (or those of others, but that’s a whole other conversation). How do I shut down body shaming without making the person feel yelled at, or shamed, or condescended to? How can we take a moment of body shaming and turn it into a gentle reminder to love your body, without preaching? The answer: humor! (AS ALWAYS.)

My friend told me about a roommate she had who turned her world around on this one. My friend is usually comfortable with herself, but she has her bad days, as we all do. Whenever she’d get down on herself about her thighs or her hair or her skin or whatever, her roommate would look at her lasciviously and say, “Are you flirting with me right now?” in a super exaggerated way. She’d even flutter her eyelashes a little and pucker up her lips. Every single time, my friend would laugh and carry on with her day.

It’s perfect! It’s absurd and non-confrontational, while also gently pointing up the absurdity of endlessly stressing over perceived body flaws. It doesn’t offer any of the usual reassurances — “no, that doesn’t make your butt look big,” “just eat yogurt for the next week and you’ll feel so much better,” “I have a new moisturizer you should try, it only cost $3,000” — but it is reassuring nonetheless. It reassures the stressed friend that what they see as a major flaw or even minor annoyance is actually nothing at all, a triviality, a reason to relax and have a laugh. It’s like saying, “I wasn’t focusing on your body but if we’re going to, let’s enjoy it!” It takes a moment of anguish and turns it into a moment of connection and fun.

So the next time you’re despairing your love handles, or your friend is bemoaning her chest size, make a funny face and a dramatic gesture and say, “Are you flirting with me right now?” I bet you laugh and move on with your life, in that beautiful body of yours.

I’m definitely flirting with you right now

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