So I’m going to India

For the sixth time in thirty-two days, I’m on a plane. After three weeks in the North, the Andaman coast, and then Bangkok, my time in Thailand has come to a close, at least for now.

I find it hard to sum up my thoughts in on the country, except to say that there are a lot of them. From my time at Elephant Nature Park to my mixed-up week in the South to my long weekend in brash, sprawling Bangkok, Thailand has been many things to me: pure and polluted, quiet and deafening, relaxing and stressful. Above all, though, I think: easy. Easy to navigate, easy to find anything I need, easy get help in my language even though it’s not the native tongue of any locals. The reason for this is clear: major swaths of development, thousands of businesses, and entire cities have been built up just for me and the other tourists, who fuel a major part of the country’s growth. Thailand is immensely popular with travelers of many kinds, and the path to almost anywhere is well-worn. The result, at least for me, is a feeling of insulation from Thailand as the locals experience it, and also a bit of guilt because the whole thing feels, somehow, like cheating.

I don’t mean at all to say that I didn’t enjoy myself. I loved the varied cities and climates, delighted in crossing paths with friends old and new, and adored the food. I appreciated the convenience and low prices – delicious smoothies or entire meals for $2 on every street corner, $6 massages and pedicures at any time of the night. I relished the complete lack of dress code and wore flip-flops everywhere like I haven’t since getting a big-girl job. I discovered the joy of zipping around on a motorbike. I nearly always felt completely safe, even at night in the city. Despite all this, though, I do feel ready to go somewhere that’s a bit more of a challenge.

And what perfect timing, because the plane I’m on is an hour away from landing in India, a country that made it onto my itinerary as the result of a random thought I had while sitting on my couch in San Francisco. I wonder how much it costs to go to Bangalore from Bangkok.

About $300 round-trip, it turns out. Seeing the numbers on the screen, I knew I had to do it. I had always been interested in India, but had thought of it as a far-off fantasy, something I probably wasn’t ready for or would do when I was older or had more time. But here it was, within easy reach, a few clicks and a credit card number away. There was no good reason not to do it, so after thinking about it for a few days, I did.

After deciding to go to India, I started telling people about it — and that’s where I ran into a bit of trouble. Cocked eyebrows, widened eyes, and wow from dozens of people I knew, none of whom had gone before. They had heard stories, from varying numbers of years ago, about women travellers there who had gotten into serious trouble. They didn’t know much else, but they knew it was unorthodox for me to go on my own. They told me to please be careful. I said I would, and gradually learned to stop mentioning India voluntarily. When asked exactly what countries were on my list, I learned to say “Southern India…?…!” a certain way, conveying that I was surprised as they were and also making a bit of an intonation-apology. I know it’s weird, I was saying without saying. But I guess I’m doing it.

When I got out on the road, I started talking to other travelers, and the reaction was different. These were people from many different places, some close to India and some far, several of whom had gone recently or knew someone who had. While they also told me to be careful, it was just as an aside to a completely different feeling: they were happy for me. They told me about beautiful beaches and jungles, incredible food, and the stress and hassle and rush of the cities. It would be hard, they told me, but I would love it.

So, here I am, a few thousand feet above a country that seems to scare a lot of people. My itinerary is really only a tiny slice of the huge subcontinent, and I’ve deliberately chosen places that are considered somewhat more laid-back and Westerner-friendly – whatever that may mean. I’ve read the encouragement of many solo lady travelers before me, and learned the rules to keep myself safe. I have my plans. I am nervous, and I am excited, and I am not sorry.

Here goes.

Madrev’s misadventures, #2: Alone in Ao Phang-Nga

Madrev’s misadventures, #2: Alone in Ao Phang-Nga

It was an imperfect week in southern Thailand. Upon arriving in Krabi from Chiang Mai, I had been met by the white-grey haze blown over from the devastating forest fires in Indonesia, blocking the views of the striking karst cliffs I had seen in the pictures. I had gotten sick with not-sure-what poisoning in Koh Phi-Phi, rendering me weak and unable to eat anything but rice for most of two days. A cranky French lady had yelled at me on the ferry to for taking up too much space when I couldn’t sit upright without getting dizzy. At last I had made to Tonsai, a quiet, uncrowded beach near Railay, where I met my lovely friend Edyta from elephant camp and settled down in a bungalow to recover. As the rain cleared the haze and I regained the ability to digest, I plotted my next move.

I had read somewhere about a nearby national park called Ao Phang-Nga (pronounced ow-pung-ah, with an extra long nnng), which was supposed to have some of the best cliffs and caves in the area. The regional capital and nearest city was Phang-Nga town, Lonely Planet said, but most people went to the park on organized day tours from Krabi or Ao Nang. Phang-Nga town wasn’t much to see, and wasn’t frequented by tourists. Hmm, I thought, that actually sounds perfect. I’d check into one of the three guesthouses in town, get away from the hordes, and head to the park independently. I read that longtail boats left from the park headquarters in small groups, and that the best way to explore the park was by kayak. Perfect again! I loved kayaking. I pictured myself out for the day on a rental kayak, my camera and sunscreen in my fancy new dry-bag, exploring the caves and wildlife away from the tour groups and hired boats. I made my reservation at the guesthouse and left Tonsai the next day.

I arrived in Phang-Nga by bus (after explaining to the driver that yes, that was in fact where I meant to go), and sure enough: no Westerners whatsoever. Things were different here; I watched the locals picking their kids up from the tutoring center, some of them stopping to give me a smile and a quizzical “Hello!…?”. Two tiny girls rushed up to me in a 7-11, hugging me around the hips and loudly showing off the English words they had learned in school (Nose! Mouth! Hair!) — unlike the children I had seen everywhere else, who were used to foreigners, they were excited to see a native English speaker. As drab as the town was, I was excited to be in a real Thai place. The next morning, I rented a motorbike from the guesthouse (a boxy but sturdy and fast little Suzuki that I loved), and set out to realize my kayaking dreams.

At park headquarters, I asked the staffer where I could rent a kayak to go out on the bay on my own. “Oh, no kayak from here; go Koh Talu by longtail and rent there.” Damn, I thought. Lonely Planet had made it sound so easy. I was told to head to the pier and talk to the boatmen about getting to Koh Talu. That did not go well. I spoke to several different people, pantomiming paddling motions and explaining that I just wanted to kayak. Nope, they said, five-island tours only, drawing a big circle on the map on my brochure. 1,500 baht ($42), and I’d have to pay it all myself since all the groups had already left that morning. I tried to negotiate, but they wouldn’t budge. Sweating in the blazing sun, I trudged back over to my bike, beginning to despair that I had come all the way to Phang-Nga for naught. I looked at the cliffs in the distance, rising up from the bay, taunting me. Needing a break from the heat, I got on the bike just to feel the wind on my skin. I headed back up the main road and turned at another sign vaguely suggesting bays and boats. I figured it was worth one more try.

A couple of kilometers down the road, I found Nai Ngob pier, where the boatmen were much more friendly and willing to negotiate. For 1000 baht, they agreed to take me on longtail to Koh Talu for kayaking, stopping for lunch at the Muslim fishing village of Pan Yi on the way. It was more than I had hoped to spend, and I felt fairly absurd hiring a whole boat to myself, but I had come to Phang-Nga, and damn it, I was going to kayak. I handed over a 1000-baht note and decided to just think of it as taking a taxi. A weird, beautiful taxi.

My boatman, Yusop, smiled serenely from the back of the boat while I perched on the front taking pictures of the cliffs and mangroves as we motored through them. We stopped in Pan Yi, where I was reunited with several fellow Westerners and sort of accidentally ordered a yellow-curry crab feast that turned out to be my most memorable – and messy — meal in Thailand.

The aftermath.
The aftermath.

After lunch, Yusop asked if I was ready to go kayaking. I said yes about four times, explaining that that’s all I had come to Phang-Nga for. We arrived to a floating platform near the island, where there were stacks of boats stored under blue tarps – but these weren’t kayaks. They were too wide and too long, red, with fat inflatable sides. I balked. Sea canoes.

SONY DSC

I tried fruitlessly to explain to Yusop that these weren’t the boats I wanted, but he just smiled back at me blankly, pulling one onto the water and sitting down in the back, gesturing for me to get in. There was nothing I could do – my independent kayak-exploring dreams were shattered. I laugh-sighed, slid off my shoes, and got into the godforsaken sea canoe. Yusop started to paddle, but I demanded to do it myself – if I was going to do this, I would do it with some dignity. The boat was horribly hard to maneuver, particularly from the front, so in the end we took turns paddling, giving looks of mutual amusement each time we switched.

We paddled through a cave, around a grove and back – the whole endeavor probably lasted no longer than 30 minutes, but as we pulled back up to the platform I decided that was all I could bear anyway. “This is funny, right?” I asked, getting out of the boat and wiping mud off my feet. “That I’m alone?”. Again, the blank smile – and a request for a selfie with me on his phone, which I suppose was the least I could do.

We took the longtail back to the pier, laughed and bowed to each other as I returned to my bike. I putt-putted back to town, stopping on the way at the Temple of Heaven and Hell, a Buddhist temple with a cave and sculpture garden unlike anything I’d ever seen. I wandered between the grotesque statues in the Hell section, confused and disturbed but somehow unsurprised that this would exist in weird little Phang-Nga.

Yeah, that's cool. Feel free to haunt my dreams.
Yeah, that’s cool. Feel free to haunt my dreams. [Not even close to the most graphic of the statues.]
On the van to Phuket, where I would stop for a night before heading to Bangkok, I wondered what I had learned on my peculiar adventure. I had gotten off the beaten track semi-successfully, but ended up doing almost the same thing as other tourists, alone and for more money. Perhaps next time I’d think twice before venturing out to realize a vision that wasn’t pictured on the back of a tourist brochure — or at least, think twice before expecting it to go as planned. Ah well, I thought, at least I can write about it on my blog.

A week at Elephant Nature Park, or how I learned to stop worrying and love voluntourism

A week at Elephant Nature Park, or how I learned to stop worrying and love voluntourism

Once upon a time when I sat in an office and dreamed of wandering off to travel, I needed a plan for Southeast Asia. I had the vague sense that it would be cool to come here, but I was missing a headliner: I’m going to Thailand to ______________. I’m uncertain why this was important at the time, but it was, and I found myself Googling around for projects to be a part of. Then I came upon Elephant Nature Park, a large and well-established sanctuary for rescued and retired working elephants, outside of Chiang Mai. And my, how pleased I am that I did.

Elephant Nature Park (henceforth “ENP”) has been around since 1996, and now sits under the umbrella of the Save Elephant Foundation, which works on a number of projects addressing the plight of the Asian elephant in Southeast Asia. My cool friend Max and I stayed at ENP for a week as onsite volunteers, as part of a group of maybe 50 from around the world (but mostly, let’s be real, North America, England and Australia.) Weekly volunteers stay onsite in basic accommodation, help out with various tasks around the park, and get to hang out with elephants — and also about a bazillion cats and dogs and a large herd of water buffalo, just for good measure.

Watermelon unload is fun but can result in abdominal injury if one doesn't pay attention...
Watermelon unload is fun but can result in abdominal injury if one doesn’t pay attention…

The volunteers, split into groups of ten or so, worked for two shifts per day, sometimes prepping elephant food, sometimes (er, often) shoveling elephant poop, sometimes planting grass or helping clean up the park. One group per day gets the lengthiest job, riding out to a corn field to cut stalks for the elephants to eat. This was actually my favorite day – we loaded up a giant truck with corn stalks, then the whole group climbed on top and rode back to camp for an hour with the wind in our hair and the countryside rushing by. Total travel bliss.

The thing is, though, the shifts weren’t particularly long – so outside of the 3-6 hours of work each day, we spent our time eating from a massive vegetarian buffet, napping, getting 150-baht massages from the staff who visit every night(!), swimming and tubing in the river, and sitting around tables socializing and drinking Chang. It reminded me a lot of summer camp – so much that it was stirring up many summers’ worth of Camp Leslie memories in my brain and running them as dreams throughout the week.

All this leisure was a little disconcerting at first. I had always thought the whole concept of voluntourism – that is, paying an organization to go spend time nominally helping out somewhere in the world – was kinda lame, and this was definitely that. I wanted to actually help. I heard some of the same from my fellow volunteers, but of course it didn’t stop us from having fun and making friends all the same.

At the end of the week, we finally got to meet the founder of the park, an amazing and tireless animal rights activist named Lek Chailert. She gave us a complete and truly harrowing presentation about what makes ENP and her other projects so important. In a nutshell – the situation for elephants in Asia is truly disastrous. If you have some time, watch this video (not for the faint of heart), which shows some of the sickening abuse elephants go through to get “broken” enough to work – and then the awful conditions they face in industries like logging, trekking, circus, street begging, and others. The aftermath of this work can be seen in the elephants at ENP – many have permanent injuries, from blindness, to mangled feet (from landmines) to broken backs (from forced breeding). While many elephants bounce back impressively from a life of work, joining family units at the park and finding a semblance of life as it should be, others have permanent psychological trauma and never recover. The thing is that the majority of tourists are unaware of the horrors of the industry – every year, countless people come to Thailand and happily jump on an elephant, either unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge the abuse they’re supporting. The best way we can help, Lek said, is just to get the word out and educate our fellow travelers.

That’s when it clicked for me – at least in this case, the voluntourism model totally makes sense. ENP didn’t bring us onsite because they needed people to plant grass and wash watermelons – they could just hire some staff to do that if that was they case. What they really needed was our attention, the connection to the place and the animals that we quickly developed, and certainly the donations we make as ‘volunteer contributions’ that allow them to run the park. If they had us working all day, every day, the program wouldn’t be sustainable or enjoyable enough that they could make elephant lovers and word-spreaders of 50 new people per week. I knew it was a popular program for a reason, and now I know that it will continue to be for years to come.

So, friends, next time you’re in Southeast Asia, please be mindful and critical of the elephant industry. You’ll see it everywhere, and will continue to until the public is educated and willing to step away from these animals who have been enslaved to feed human greed. Especially in Thailand, where tourism is the lifeblood of the economy, where you spend your dollar really matters. If you want to see some elephants being elephants (and you should, because they’re amazing), I wholeheartedly recommend ENP or other Save Elephant conservation projects. Visit for a day or volunteer for a week – you will not regret it.

Why I’ll be back to Japan and you should go, too

Why I’ll be back to Japan and you should go, too

Greetings, all! I know I’m pretty far overdue on a Japan post, but I’ve been very busy lounging in the river and feeding watermelons to baby elephants. More on that later.

Before the brief week I spent there slips from my memory, I want to tell you: Japan is so great. I’m going to go back. You should go, too, as soon as you reasonably can.

Since I’ve been reading lots of great, advice-laden travel blogs lately (shout out to Hippie in Heels, who single-handedly convinced me to go to India) I figured I’d try my hand at Producing Some Content. So, here’s a listicle detailing the reasons I loved Japan and you will too.

  1. It’s not that expensive. I can’t tell you how many times that, when I mentioned I was going to Japan, I got a weird wince from the person I was talking to – eesh, it’s pricey there, right? Japan doesn’t seem to make it into a typical backpacker’s itinerary because you can’t get a beer for a dollar or a hostel bed for under ten. I get that. But when I landed in Tokyo, bracing myself for the worst, I found that my day-to-day costs were noticeably lower than what I was used to in (admittedly pricey) San Francisco. Accommodation ranged from $20-40 a night, depending on the place, and I easily stayed way under my budget of 10,000 yen (about $80) per day on transit, food, and sights. As long as you like noodles, which are the go-to budget food at $4-8 a bowl, you should have plenty left for occasional splurges on whatever you like.
  1. Hot damn, the livability. Japan just makes so much sense. At least in large cities and areas frequented by tourists, everything is well-marked in both English and Japanese, the transit systems are perfectly navigable even by a foreigner, and all things are scheduled and on time. Modernity, cleanliness, and efficiency rule, but not in an overbearing or boring way – the cities are still allowed to be themselves, too.
  1. It’s safe as hell. Travelers remarked on this everywhere I went. It’s not uncommon to see locals leaving their laptop, phone and keys to mark a table at a restaurant, or leave bikes unlocked on the street. There are tons of stories (including one of my own, which I won’t comment on) about people losing valuables and having them found and returned to them promptly. I walked alone at night with abandon, knowing I wouldn’t be able to do the same in other cities on my itinerary. Random crime just doesn’t seem to be in the Japanese cultural vocabulary.
  1. It feels real. Unlike some other cities I’ve seen in Asia and elsewhere, where tourists are relegated to certain areas of town or there’s an overall feeling of would-this-place-even-be-here-if-I-wasn’t, traveling in Japan feels like just being in a place with the people that live there. Kyoto and parts of Tokyo certainly cater to tourists, but in others I spent hours just walking alongside the locals, eating whatever looked good and experimenting with thoughts about living abroad. That feeling of authenticity is, I can already tell, something that can be hard to find on the backpacker trail, and a feeling I anticipate chasing for the coming months.
  1. Cool travelers. Precisely because Japan doesn’t fall onto a typical backpacker itinerary, the travelers you do meet in the small selection of hostels are of a different breed than those you might find elsewhere. I met a lot more solo travelers and a greater mix of people from different corners of the world, all with a real desire to see and understand the place and the people inhabiting it. While I don’t have anything (well, much) against the party-hardy gap-yearers from the US and Commonwealth who seem to reign here in Thailand, I really didn’t realize how rich the traveler community was in Japan until I had left it behind.
  1. One week is nowhere near enough. I braced myself for this when I booked my stay in Japan, knowing that I couldn’t stay as long as I’d like to because I couldn’t blow my budget right at the beginning of my journey. However, that didn’t make it any less of a bummer to skim quickly through one little slice of the country, wistfully flipping through a borrowed Lonely Planet full of interesting and less-traveled destinations I didn’t have time for. Much like I did a few years ago in New Zealand, I left the country making a promise to myself that I’d be back someday for a longer period. Who knows when I’ll make good on that…

So, where did I actually go in Japan?

Tokyo: Enormous, confounding city full of everything, described aptly by a British lady I met in an onsen as “New York on acid”. It’s not a bad comparison; I walked through at least 3 major neighborhoods (and probably missed several more) that reminded me of Times Square, but with a thick layer of Japanese cutesy/respectful/stylish/traditional/crazy on top. It would take forever to detail everything I saw, but highlights included Harajuku (part classy hipster neighborhood, part fashion Disneyland, plus an amazing park and shrine right next door), a sorta-horrible expat comedy night in Roppongi, and of course, Tsukiji Fish Market and Sushidai (described in my first on-the-road post).

hello-shibuya

Hakone: Mountainside resort area reached by the Romancecar train (see last post!). Quiet and charming with only one hostel to its name, a traditional ryokan building with a sulfuric hot spring in the basement. Sadly it was too cloudy to see Mount Fuji, but a lakeside hike, amazing tonkatsu pork, and the chance to see a little of non-urban Japan made up for it.

hakone

Kyoto: Probably my favorite place I visited, which makes it especially sad that I lost one of 2.5 days there to a stomach bug of some sort. It’s quite a bit more touristy, and for good reason: Kyoto was spared during World War II (supposedly because the then-Secretary of War had honeymooned in Kyoto and was too fond to bomb it), so it retains many zillion-year-old buildings, temples, and amazing zen gardens that really give a taste of Old Japan. Some hostelmates and I hired bikes and rode out to Fushimi-Inari shrine, which is as awesome as it looks, then I made my way to a mind-blowingly beautiful zen garden near Nanzen-ji temple and finished the day with a stroll through the historic geisha district of Gion. We thought we might have spied a real live geisha scurrying down Shijo street, but it can be hard to tell since Japanese and Chinese tourists have a habit of dressing in kimono and sometimes full maiko garb when visiting. Either way, it was fantastic.

kyoto

Osaka: I nearly skipped this place until reading a post by Adventurous Kate about how much she liked it – and she was right. Osaka doesn’t pander to tourists and isn’t as stylish or upmarket as Tokyo – it’s just being its authentic, retail-filled, somewhat gaudy self. One major highlight of the trip here was finding a circus school to get my aerial fix — it was open-practice hours and no one was really around, but the owner somehow knew I had come and called the guy at the desk to welcome me over the phone. Rusty as I was after a couple weeks off, I got a great workout and got on my plane to Thailand sore and satisfied.

ikura circus

osaka

So, all this to say (again): go to Japan!

I’ll be back soon with words on Thailand, though I’m moving through the country a bit fast for my liking and have had trouble making time to write. I had remembered travel blogging as being easy and fun, but sort of forgot that Madrev Down Under was written largely when I was staying in one place for an extended period. We’ll see how this thing evolves as I modulate my pace — for now, off I go to find my third smoothie of the day.

Madrev’s misadventures, #1: Cashless in Hakone

Madrev’s misadventures, #1: Cashless in Hakone

Okay, so admittedly this isn’t the first time I’ve screwed up when traveling (a return trip to my homestay from the airport in Ecuador to retrieve my forgotten passport comes to mind). But this was the first mishap of my solo Asian adventure, so I figured it deserves a quick post for posterity.

So, my brief stint in Tokyo has come to a close, and today I took a lovely express train (for some reason called the Romancecar) to Hakone, a mountainous resort region dotted with hot springs about 2 hours west of Tokyo. By reserving ahead of time, I got a seat in the first car where I could enjoy the scenery up ahead while also playing peek-a-boo with two darling Japanese babies, with whom I shared a vocabulary in the local language.

romancecar

After a transfer to a local, switchback-heavy train route up through the mountains, I arrived to Gora, where I chatted with fellow backpacker from Germany while walking to the hostel. On arrival, I realized I had forgotten to withdraw cash in Tokyo — I had the equivalent of $16 left in yen, and needed about $30 to pay the balance on my stay, since they didn’t take cards. I stashed my big pack at the desk and told them I’d be right back. Gora was a fairly major station in Hakone, so they’d have an ATM for sure, right?

Wrong. Nothing. The lady in the information shack told me there was an ATM at a convenience store about 1km away. Okay, arigatou, I said. NBD. But when I arrived and started to stick my card in the slot, I saw: “Sorry, no cards issued outside Japan”. Damn it.

I managed to get on a WiFi network at the convenience store, which told me there was a 7-11 I could try — in the next town, 2km away and across the river. I was pretty sure Seven Bank took international cards, so I went, knowing it was my only hope. I descended a steep winding road into a humid river valley, accompanied only by the sound of running water and the occasional car speeding around the bend. The area made me think somewhat of Ithaca, NY (fun fact: the city where my parents met and thus to which I owe my very existence), only without the college town and with a touch more volcanic activity.

Not the worst place to get lost-ish.
Not the worst place to get lost-ish.

I finally made it to the next little town, found the 7-11 in question and held my breath as I inserted my card. Yes. 

SONY DSC
My beacon of salvation.
SONY DSC
Sweet.

I checked the map again and looked up at the many feet of elevation I had lost. I found a route of narrow stairs through the forest that led me back to Gora, sweating and chuckling at myself the whole way. I finally checked in successfully, and now I’m hanging out here:

Not so bad, I think.
Not so bad, I think.

So, moral of the story? Don’t be like me — always think ahead, and carry plenty of the local currency especially when traveling outside major cities. But, if you do happen to slip up… the power of Internet just might save you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a hot-spring bath to take.

Japan, hours 1-12: Tsukiji and Sushi Dai

Japan, hours 1-12: Tsukiji and Sushi Dai

I’ve walked something like eight miles today, and slept no more than seven hours in the last 48. My body is tired and my feet ache, but my brain seems too busy detangling this place to want a break.* Every moment I consider stopping, my mind pushes me on, hungry for more surprises. Had it not been for a blister on my heel, today might have never ended.

I am already extremely fond of Japan, and I know my limited days here are precious so I don’t want to spend a lot of time writing just yet. But I’ll share a snippet from my first twelve hours in town.

I arrived in the early evening Thursday to Toco, an outstandingly charming little hostel in Iriya, a quiet neighborhood near Ueno park. After an inaugural ramen dinner – at a place piping in an honest-to-god shamisen cover of MJ’s ‘Beat It’ – and getting a bit lost in a district of pachinko parlours, i.e. the loudest places on earth, I wandered into the hostel bar and met my first round of friendly foreigners. One of them was a guy named Aki, in Japan for a work trip and also his very first time outside his home country of China. We discovered that we both had the same plan for the next morning – a visit to Tsujiki Fish Market and the tuna auction (those who’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi know what’s up). We agreed to meet at the gate of the hostel garden at 3:45am(!) to catch a taxi to the market and secure a spot to visit the auction, which was necessary since since only 120 people are allowed to observe the auction each day.

I woke up just before 3am, downloaded a map of the market to my phone, and prepared to wing it and/or get totally lost on the way. However, when Aki and I got into the taxi, I was surprised and delighted to learn that he majored in Japanese in university and speaks the language beautifully, meaning we could get wherever we needed to with ease. We made it to Tsukiji’s Fish Information Center and learned the devastating news:

nooo

The auction was already fully reserved. Apparently reservations open at 3am rather than 5am on Fridays. Who knew?

Moderately disappointed but still wanting to see the market, we walked around the outer areas and found ourselves in line for Sushi Dai, one of the most famous sushi spots in Tsukiji. It seemed right that we wait in line for something, since we had missed the opportunity to do so at the auction, so we hunkered down (behind a couple of LinkedIn employees from San Francisco, which somehow didn’t surprise me) to wait for a seating in the 13-spot restaurant. It started to rain. Like, really rain. We were each handed a clear plastic umbrella and stood there quietly, as if it was totally normal to chill in a downpour at 4:30 am waiting to eat sushi.

We finally got in for the second seating around 5:45am. And, oh my god, was it good. The chefs, who were incredibly friendly and spoke decent English, prepared each piece by hand and placed in on a wooden shelf in front of us one by one (no plates, except for the soy sauce). Everything was wonderful, but I was blown away by the tuna in particular, which somehow tasted like a dozen things at once despite being a piece of raw fish on rice. Also worth noting: the octopus was not quite done moving until seconds before we ate it.

sushidai prep

sushidai tuna

sushidai

tako

me and aki

At 4000 yen ($33 USD) for 11 pieces plus some spectacular miso, it was well worth it. My only slight regret is that I should have let the chef know earlier on that I am (embarrassingly) not crazy about wasabi. It was usually placed between the fish and the rice, and while it was obviously still excellent, I could have gone without it if I had thought to ask.

After breakfast, around 6:30, the wholesale area of Tsukiji was still not open, so we wandered the consumer area of the market, and I found some life-changing azuki bean mochi that I brought back to the hostel and devoured in my bunk. After a morning lie-down, I was ready to face my first full day in Tokyo.

A special shout out to my dear friend Val who provided the camera I used to take these shots. More to come soon!

*Out of honesty I will disclose that I fell asleep halfway through writing this post, slept 10 solid hours and finished it in the morning. It was true at the time, though.

Transit

Transit

I’m on a plane. The air is a bit rough, and flight attendants are scurrying through the cabin getting this or that for traveler after weary traveler. The windows are closed, creating an artificial night as we follow the blazing sun westward. I’m drifting in and out of a half-sleep, groggy from staying out late and rushing to be ready this morning. My heart, brimming from a score of bittersweet goodbyes, idly leads my mind through a maze of emotions: weepy one moment, then thrilled, then serene, then jittery, and back again.

I can’t help but think of another time, not 30 months ago, when I sat on a jet to San Francisco from Montreal, drenched heavy with sadness for a life I loved and left too soon. I was going to a new place for a job I knew little about, a plan I’d just said ‘yes’ to when it presented itself. At the time, that ‘yes’ was an act of bravery. The details were arranged, but the outcome was uncertain.

Now, that place where I landed is the one I leave behind. I fly away now from the parched-dry but beautiful California meadows and mountains; a transforming city I feel I barely know; two start-up companies that chewed me up and spit me out; the dear friends I’ve made and an extended family that welcomed me with open arms. These things form a life — a good one, to be sure, but one that found me. It’s time now to reach out and touch something that I’ve chosen. ‘Yes’ alone will no longer do. Now I must say what, and when, and how.

So, in four hours I will land in Tokyo, a city I don’t know and that has extended me no particular invitation. I will sleep the next seven nights in hostels in Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, and then Osaka, where I will catch a flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand. My itinerary continues on, ambling through Southeast Asia, a bit of India, and eventually New Zealand, where I hope to stop, catch my breath, and find some temporary work. At the end of my working document there currently sits a string of nine question marks. There could be ten times as many, and it would only begin to illustrate my exhilaration and wonder at not knowing where the road will take me.

And, before you ask, I also don’t know yet what exactly will be on this blog. This seems to be a byproduct of not knowing what state I will be in after five days or four weeks or three months on the road. Short-and-sweet postcards? Silly anecdotes? Walls of text about the shifting landscape of my inner life? I don’t rightly know. All I can promise is that whatever comes out of my head will land right here.