Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Everybody Rides...

... in Kyoto. This city is built for bicycles and the local population is taking full advantage of the broad bikepaths along the major roads, as well as the opportunity to hit one another (not to mention pesky foreigners!) with their bikes in the crowded market streets. (I would liken this a bit to Romans` abuse of scooters, albeit with a higher chance of getting an apology when hit and a lower likelihood of permanent damage.) After spending an afternoon alternately enviously eying the riders (who, amusingly, range from high school students to primly dressed "OL"s -- Office Ladies, business women) and practising my "deer in headlights" impersonation, I`m joining the race today. Given that coordination isn`t high on my list of God-given gifts, this might be a good time to start praying for the city. :D

Japan has so far been one marvel after another -- arguably the biggest of which is my place of lodging. Let me be clear: At $10/night in a decent part of one of Japan`s most popular tourist cities, I was expecting "comfort" and "privacy" to range in the same realm of likelihood as "peakcockfeather-studded duvet provided." What I didn`t expect was Kyoto`s self-advertised Cheapest Inn: Imagine, if you will, a room roughly half the side of the NewSong Kid`s Connectino room -- or a long-ish, decent-sized living room. Now picture a garage door shielding aforementioned room from the by-walking, by-riding public. Add a shower-stall an a couple of toilets, and you`ve got the bottom floor of the Inn. It gets better, though! Add a steep fire-exit walking up 6 floors. On floor #2, you have aforementioned room filled with 8 bunk-beds, a couple of futons and (and this is where yours truly comes in) tatami covered floorspace equal to about 2 futon. Upon aforementioned floorspace, picture 6 little cubbies, separated by partial, low dividers -- in these cubbies, lone travelers lounge on sleeping bags ... except for the cubbie next to mine, which is occupied by a couple. Thank God for earplugs! :D

The rest of the building is filled with junk, aside from the rooftop, which overlooks Kyoto and is quite lovely in the morning hours when the smokers have cleared out. I admit, I was a bit put off by the arrangements upon arriving, but a night`s rest and shower (10 minutes/100 Yen) later, things don`t look so grim. The plan for the day is to explore some of Tokyo`s stunning architecture, the mid-city market whose delicacies I couldn`t even begin to sample yesterday (note to visitors: international ATMs are slightly rarer than gold in Kyoto -- and Lonely Planet is *wrong* about virtually all of the locations it describes), and in the evening partake of a special treat: The Japanese public bath. Beforehand, though, I think I`ll be catching up on something I omitted to do a couple of months ago and will now have a far more interesting setting for -- watching Fahrenheit 9/11 ... or rather: watching the Japanese audience watch Fahrenheit 9/11 :D (Arguably, I may need that ritual bath after the experience, but I can neither confirm nor deny such reasoning ;)

... so, what`s new in the old US? :)

Monday, August 30, 2004

Lost in Translation

I`m in Japan, more specifically in Osaka, most specifically at the Kansai Int. Airport. There`s no sign of a typhoon, fortunately, but I still need to negotiate passage to Kyoto, a nearby city (ca. 75 minutes via the haruka, the airport express train) and given that I`m grubby and very tired after a night of sleeping in various twisted positions on various airport furniture not designed to be slept upon, least of all by people of non-Asia body-type, this isn`t as easy a task as it should be -- nor one that`s helped by the local lack of faith in smokefree zones or good airconditioning (... haven`t I mastered the American sense of entitlement admirably?! ;)

Lack of sleep leads to diminished linguistic dexterity; I knew this in theory before, and I know this in painful practice now. Being able to speak Japanese decently well under normal circumstances is making this ironically a more stressful experience than visiting a country where I don`t speak the language, period -- and being the stubborn mule that I am, I`m insisting on negotiating my way in Japanese. Audible sigh.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

The Drowned Rat & The Large Silver Birds

God has a unique way of solving my problems. In this case, the "problem" was the realization that my 4:30p.m. light would be hitting Osaka roughly 45 minutes before the last effective train connection would be leaving Kansai International Airport for Kyoto. Given that, yes, these *are* international flights, including immigration checks and luggage delays, I was beginning to fret whether I'd have to spend the night in the airport -- until I was informed that I needn't worry: I would *definitely* have to spend the night at the airport! :D You see, Osaka is currently plagued by a typhoon, a large tropical storm that would cause any aircraft headed for Kansai International to hit the airport in the most literal sense. So, here I sit, fortunately not at Hong Kong International but in the center of the city, at one of my airline's "city-center check-in" locations (... brilliant idea, no?)

Hong Kong, too, is feeling the effects of these zephyral upheavals: A long scroll through Kowloon yesterday left me wetter than a drowned rat. The interesting thing, especially for L.A. dwellers, though, is that the rains seem to bring out the best in the native population, make them kinder, more solicitous, draw together (literally and metaphorically) families and friends: Standing at a street corner after one of the heavier downpours, I smiled at a young girl standing huddled under an umbrella. The girl smiled back, tugged on her mother's sleeve, and immediately the woman (who was likely no older than myself) hustled me under their small umbrella. We walked a few blocks together until she was reassured that I indeed knew where I was going (and for once, I did!). When we parted ways, I glanced back over my shoulder -- the girl was looking back, too, smiling; we waved at one another.

Such is the nature of this contradictory city: Cast entirely in steel and concrete, the city is nevertheless overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the islands -- parks abound, only the most crowded blocks are devoid of signs of trees and greenery (.. a German woman who occupied the bed besides mine in the Youth Hostel dorm told me that she and her mother had inspected one of the new housing constructions on the outskirts of Hong Kong with an eye towards buying a place. The 27th floor of the high rise had been allocated as a "park" inside the building -- the anxiety to carve out space for nature, while at times odd and even pathetic, is palpable.) The streets are built for speed and crowded with taxis -- yet Hong Kong is very much a walking kind of city: Over the last 48 hours I've crossed most of the central island and Kowloon on foot, and there's every indication that most of the population is equally auto-mobile.

Before I run out of time, a few logistics: I generally have no more than 5-10 minutes of internet time, so these posts are rushed and far from well-edited (... far from edited, period!) Much more detailed accounts are to be found in my paper journal; perhaps I'll transcribe the more interesting parts of them at some point as well :) I appreciate the comments and e-mails I've been getting a lot -- as well as the prayers and words of encouragement. I miss everyone at home in the moments I get to catch my breath, which happens more regularly than I anticipated. I pray that this finds all of you well!

Saturday, August 28, 2004

The Eye of the Storm ...

To call the rains of this morning torrential would involve serious misrepresentation -- if I've seen the heavens open in this fashion before, it's been many years ago. The contrast between the clear midnight skies, opening an incredible view of the bay, the ferries, the lights of Hong Kong's central district and the thick blanket of gray moisture this morning was stunning. By 6:00a.m. the mourning calls of the foghorn had replaced the clanging of industrial hammers that's an inevitable daytime sound of the islands. Given the gusty wind and relative warmth of the rain, it was quite an enjoyable experience, undoubtedly enhanced by my partiality to fauna and flora in their struggle against the encroaching city :) Even the humidity -- which is truly tremendous: one isn't merely soaked externally by the rain but internally by perspiration -- isn't unpleasant (... a shocking assessment, given that I generally dislike heat but am made to lose my will to live by humidity.) One is left with the impression that the island is trying to sidle up to you, awing you with its visual beauty before drawing you into its warm, moist embrace -- without even bothering to buy you dinner, I might add! :)

This morning I'm spending in Kowloon, a part of Hong Kong that lies a short ferry ride across the bay from the central islands and is in many ways the cultural center of Hong Kong, containing the city's Museums of Art, Science, Space ... The Museum of Art is small compared to the jewels that Los Angeles offers but exquisite and thriving almost exclusively on ever-changing exhibitions: Chinese Gold and Jade, calligraphy, paintings of Hong Kong history, and, my favorite, a multimedia exhibition titled "Parallel Time." There, documentary movies made in a variety of Asian cities, each functioning by its own (as well as the Western Christian) calendar run parallel to images from the Western world in- and out-side Asia: Bangkok, New York, Kyoto, London, Instanbul, etc. The reason the images are so compelling, I think, has to do with the exhibition's sly reflection of life outside the holy halls of the museum -- Hong Kong *is* that amalgamation of West and East: It's virtually impossible to take a picture, reflect upon a place or sight or sound, without having to pay tribute to the influences of multiple cultures.

Speaking of which! Connie: You'll be delighted to hear that Starbucks has taken over Asia, second only to McDonalds, from what I've been able to tell. Not only that, the Hong Kong Starbucks franchises sell "Green Tea Frappuchinos" in addition to regular Western fare -- quite delicious, I must add (... having been sucked into a Starbucks in search of a cool place to rest of after dragging a 40lb backpack around Hong Kong's Central station.)

Enough for now, though -- I hear the Space Museum and the palacial Hong Kong parks calling me. Be well, friends :)

Friday, August 27, 2004

Hi from Hong Kong!

Yes, yes, I've made it to my first destination, arriving this morning at 5:30a.m. (... it's now nearly 3:00p.m. local time ...) after an uneventful 15 hour flight. The only word to describe Hong Kong is -- fecund: Lush, fertile, beautiful. The islands appear to be deadlocked in the war of the human jungle (symbolized by the huge cranes all over the city -- Hong Kong truly is permanently "under construction") against God's jungle (e.g. the incredible greenery, huge flowers, lush vines that grow everywhere from rock-surfaces to railroad tracks). Just between you and me -- I think nature is winning out against civilization! :)

The hostel I'm staying at was hit by lightening 2 days ago -- the humidity here is tremendous and shifts back and forth between merely moist air and drizzling rain: Thunderstorms accordingly are very, very common, and the hostel staff is quite wryly relaxed about it: The hostel is hit at least twice each year, thus handily disproving the proverb that lightening never strikes the same place twice. In the process, though, the modem, computer monitor and landline of the place were fried -- internet access is thus harder to have than I anticipated. I'll be sure to update again in the near future, though -- I'm in Hong Kong until the afternoon of August 30 at which point I'm continuing on to Japan (Osaka/Kyoto).

And how is everyone back in the US of A? :)

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

A Chinese Treat ..

Thislooks like a movie I may try to see while in China. Too bad I ran out of time to catch it in the U.S. -- 24 hours and counting.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Expatbirds v.2.0

Some significant site improvements:

(1) My Asia e-mail -- mariainasia@gmail.com -- is now live.

(2) You may now comment to this blog without previously registering for Blogger. Low entry-barriers, that's the philosophy here ;)

(3) A gratuituous link to one of the more intriguing phenomena of Asian Christianity: The Mukyokai, the Japanese Non-Church Movement. For a more popularly accessible introduction, check here.

Monday, August 23, 2004

3 days and counting ...

I'm a big fan of rollercoasters. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I'm first in line to hop onto one of those deliciously twisty-turny-scary rides. If you, too, are an inveterate coaster-rider, you may be able to relate to the following experience as well: Once the ride has begun there comes that moment where your fragile little cart begins to ascend a terrifyingly steep slope -- you can only imagine what drops, of cart and stomach, lie ahead of you, and in that moment begin to curse fate and your own stupidity for getting on the ride in the first place! Insanity! You're paying good money for having your insides twisted in ways nature never intended! What if the ride breaks?! Get me out of here, someone, anyon---aaaahhh!

I'm leaving for Asia in just barely more than three days, and I'm coming to appreciate aforementioned experience in all new ways. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

P.S.: Last but not least, a big hello to all my new readers -- whose existence I know by faith rather than by sight, since this blog is still largely a comment-free zone. :)

Saturday, August 21, 2004

This'll make no sense at all to most ... :)

I was going through my travel check-list yesterday and ended up remarking to a friend that all I still needed for my trip was a towel. Then I realized what I had just said and got the giggles.

Just remember: "A towel [...] is about the most massively useful thing an intersteller hitchhiker can have.  Partly it has great practical value.  You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you -- daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.
     More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value.  For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc.  Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the might accidentally have "lost."  What the strag will think is that any [wo]man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still know where his towle is, is clearly a [wo]man to be reckoned with.
     Hence, a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in "Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect?  There's a frood who really knows where his towel is."  (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)"


Friday, August 20, 2004

Time after time ...

As you can see, the time-difference between the West Coast and next month's stomping grounds is 16 hours (Japan) or 15 hours (China). No wonder I'll be leaving Hong Kong at five to midnight on September 25 and arrive in Los Angeles after a fifteen-hour-long flight ostensibly 2 hours earlier than my departure time :)

For all who want to see me, wish me well, or make delivery requests of me, time is running out -- in 6 days, I'll be heading to the airport (... and, really, don't *you* want to see me before I leave?!). This queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach must be either nausea or excitement.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Packing on the Down Low ;)

One of the more frequent questions I get when I make known that the only piece of luggage I'm bringing for the month I'm spending abroad is a large frame-backpack is -- "How do you do it?!" and "What are you bringing?" or rather "What are you NOT bringing?" These are sensible questions for anyone who's ever seen me leave home to go to the grocery store with an oversized messenger bag including no less than three books (+ bible, +journal) in tow. In short, I vastly overpack for my daily sojourns but tend to be decent at packing light when going abroad, thanks to nearly a decade of international travel and the painful realization that if I pack it, *I* will be the one to lug it from home to airport to luggage carousel to connecting flight to car to room and back again. Unless you're posh enough to travel with porter (or muscle-bound travel companion), she who sews overpacked suitcases begets hernias, strained shoulders and a deep sense of self-loathing upon realizing that half of the junk she brought was never unpacked, much less used.

So, here for all the world to see, is what I'm bringing for a month in Asia:

3 pairs of capris
2 skirts
2 tanktops
2 blouses/button-down shirts
3 T-shirts
1 pair pajamas
2 pairs shoes
1 towel
+ underwear to last a week :)

Ultralight sleeping bag
Small back-pack for day-trips (... this will be my carry-on for the plane as well)
Document pouch with Passport, Tickets, Travellers' Cheques
Travel flashlight
Postcards (... to give out instead of business cards.)
Photographs (... of me, for railway passes, of me and family and friends to show to people I encounter.)
Camera (... the one item costing more than $50 in my luggage.)

Asthma meds + vitamins
Travel-sized shampoo/conditioner/toothbrush/toothpaste
Bug repellant
Contact lens stuff + glasses
Sunscreen (!!!)
First Aid Kit
Brush & Clips to hold back hair

Thin folder with print-outs of receipts, maps, addresses etc.
Journal & pens
... as many other books as I can fit and carry!!! :)

And YES! It ALL fits! :) Go me and my 1337 packing skillz ;)


Part of my comfort with relative sparsity of luggage has to do with the relatively minor amount of "personal maintenance" I practice (... I have friends whose hair is the equivalent of a Boticelli painting, a magnificence that requires half a suitcase of utensils to maintain. My hair looks more frequently like something harvested in the herb garden and then left on the counter for too long -- a "look" that as you may imagine takes little to "create.")

I also recently for the first time remembered consciously some of the facets of my childhood that likely play into my "travelling lite" attitude. I say "remembered consciously" not because I had previously forgotten these things, but because they always appeared on the periphery of my childhood memories, pushed off into the fuzzy gray area of recollections that houses the 'props' and 'settings' featured in one's "real, important" memories but that rarely take center-stage themselves.

One of those memories if that of the weekly family bath: The house I grew up in featured an old hot water boiler of limited capacity and even more limited life expectancy. Accordingly, if every family member was to get even remotely clean on a nightly basis, all we could afford, water-wise, was for each to fill the basin with warm water, wash one's hands, arms, face and (by lifting one foot at a time into the basin) one's lower body. Once a week, however, my father ran a bath that was used, in succession, by myself, my mother and my dad, while the water turned gradually cooler and less clear. On those weekly occasions, we would also all wash our hair -- once per week, no more, no less. We never took showers.

My parents were far from wealthy in the 1970s and 80s when raising myself and my brother, and at the time I never questioned the normalcy and necessity of this water shortage. In retrospect, I doubt that this austerity was representative even if the people in our community and likely more of a reflection of the extreme poverty (and associated neuroses) my parents experienced when growing up in the aftermath of World War II. These days, of course, I shower daily, wash my hair regularly, and otherwise have adapted smoothly to Western customs of hygiene. Part of me, however, remembers that it is perfectly possible to survive and thrive without these creature comforts, and that the terrible curse of dirty hair or unshaved legs is unlikely to slay me while in Asia.

And yes, I'm bringing deodorant. Just in case I encounter some real Americans during my travels ;)

"What on earth are Ex-Pat Birds?!"

From elsewhere, on the topic of the peculiar name of this journal:

"Expat Birds" -- That is, I think, what the section of my blog that will be dedicated to the preparation and consummation of my month in Asia will be called. Wandering around town today, I was toying with different reflections and expressions, and this one stuck, largely because it's such a contradiction in terms: Birds are native anywhere their wings can take them; even when they are taken out of their natural habitat, their allegiance is to the sky, not to any country -- the only place they are truly expatriate is when put in a cage.

I love birds, and I envy them. I've longed to fly since I was very young, and the childlike vision of soaring with outstretched arms is still near and dear to my heart. "When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will forever long to return." Da Vinci said it, and I believe and affirm it. More than that, though, I despise feeling caged. My relationship with place, with stability and mobility, has always been an ambivalent one: Growing up rootless in a deeply rooted culture, appreciating -- always in theory, sometimes in action -- the value of settling into country, a city, a home, but being never free of the call to wander and explore and pioneer. There now is the truly America spirit in this European! ;)

Lately I've been reading about an area of theology that speaks to this very tension -- a spirituality of place. While the 'big names" in this area are apparently Philip Sheldrake and Belden Lane (... whose "Solace of Fierce Landscapes" I eagerly await -- I mean, seriously, does this book have my name written all over it or what? ;), I've so far enjoyed Doug Burton-Christie's writings the most, no doubt in part because of the sympathy he evinces for wandering ones like myself: "The passion for place and the power of journey appear to be so closely bound up together that they cannot be untangled. ... This paradoxical tension signals, I would suggest, the kind of exquisite balance we must maintain in learning to respond to the touch of God upon the soul, in learning how to live in this world." We must be, in short, at home and on the journey simultaneously. If this sounds mighty zen and just a smidgen impractical -- well, join the club. I am still pondering, thinking converging circles around this issue, the call of forth and the call homeward, and likely will for some time to come. There is blessing, though, in simply having someone else speak aloud or write about this beautiful paradox.

Finally, here is another take on the matter, from the fiction corner of the literary world, a quote from Penelope Lively's recent novel Spiderweb, from the inner narrative of her protagonist, a retired -- but not quite retired -- cultural anthropologist seeking to settle down in an English village: "I am part of the landscape like everyone else. And some of us are more tenuously placed within that landscape. Some are entrenched; others merely perch."

Expat birds, perched in the landscape of life -- there are, I think, worse ways to be."

How can you miss me if I won't go away?!

With "the trip" being only about 10 days away, I've begun to take stock of my personal hopes and expectations, worries and concerns. One fear I didn't expect to face is that of getting lonely while abroad. This isn't an entirely unintelligible fear: Being gone for a month makes for a fairly substantial absence from one's social
relationships, especially given that for 90% of the time I will be on territory where I don't know a soul and don't speak the native language (very well). Yet to know me is to know that I am a harcore introvert, one who routinely tests as an 8 out of 10 on the "I" side of the MBPI (... a score surpassed only by the 10 out of 10 I ten-d
[sorry!] to score on the "N" component. I am as of yet unaware of a test that scores one's propensity for stupid punnery and silly wordplay.)

Nor is it terribly surprising that I turned out this way as an adult, having grown up as the daughter of two even more pronounced introverts than myself, both of whom has very socially interactive, inter-personally demanding jobs. My father especially was and is a "closet introvert," a wonderful man whom I love very much, and whose skill with people and real sense of social responsibility completely obscured his wiring to anyone but his family, who ended up on the receiving end of long sessions of silent reading or meditating when he came home. A couple of decades later, I seem to have re-created this scenario effectively in my own private/professional life. Working for
a church is a virtually non-stop contact sport that leaves my social life a little, ahem, dry: When the idea of catching a movie with friends or hanging out on a Saturday night becomes yet another time when I *have* to interact with people (but would rather crawl into a hole with a book or just my brain) one might justly expect me to be more the social caterpillar than the corresponding butterfly.

And yet, being "wired" as I am makes me more appreciative of community and connection with others, and a tiny, neurotic part of myself fully expects to pass from the minds of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances into a Lethe-like sea of oblivion during my month abroad. This blog is part of my endeavor to record my experiences, but also to share them with others -- the gaps between what you see and I see, what "we" hear and "they" hear are overwhelmingly, dishearteningly great so much of the time that it feels like a privilege, or perhaps arrogance, to invite others to see with me, listen with me, hear my thoughts, process together. My desire is for this to be a shared journey, and to invite others into my wanderings as I desire to be invited into theirs. Perhaps together we will be more likely to be "not lost."

Sunday, August 01, 2004

$$$ Matters

And because these rather significant numbers tend to fly out of my head at lightspeed -- the currency conversions:

Dollar/Japanese Yen

Dollar/Chinese Yuan

Dollar/Hong Kong Dollar

Dollar/Thai Baht

And just for kicks: Dollar/Euro (... see, it's not dead yet! ;)

"Silly Caucasian Girl likes to play with Samurai Swords."

*grin* I think I must either have a death-wish or love a good story just too much ...

Things are slowly coming together:

I've got accommodations in Kyoto, where I'll be sleeping on on the Tatami Mat Course (... read: a hallway with sleeping mats for intrepid backpackers with sleeping bags) here. After about five days in Kyoto (not nearly enough time to see this splendid city!) I will probably take a couple-day jaunt into the countryside and spend the night at a Buddhist temple. An overnight trip should take me to Tokyo, where I'll be sleeping in a multi-person tent on the roof of a gaijin house ... I'm a touch worried about the quality of sleep I'll be getting, but when will I ever have the opportunity to sleep on a Tokyo rooftop again!?

I'm hoping this will leave me time for a night-climb of Mt. Fuji. Beyond that, though, I have no set agenda at present -- there's certainly more than enough to keep me occupied for weeks in Tokyo and Kyoto, and I have another month to put together a rudimentary "must see" list.