I started writing this post many months ago when the word pandemic was not yet uttered throughout the globe. And the murder of George Floyd, and too many others, had not yet ignited the fight and protests for justice.
The cataclysmic news of these events, the devastating wildfires, and the political arena has consumed me. Focusing on anything else has been nearly impossible and any attempts at writing has seemed frivolous.
It remains difficult. News is still bleak, but there are signs of promise too. And enjoying nature, whether a flower on a window sill, a tree, a field, the sea, gazing at the moon, or listening to a bird sing is key.
In this spirit I’ve decided to try and resume my writing. I hope my words and images bring you some joy and peace during these difficult times and this finds you and your loved ones well and safe.
In searching online for my next destination, after the Seto Islands, Okinawa kept on coming up. I associated it with war, an American Army base, and little else, but the images of beautiful secluded beaches, a unique culture, and delicious cuisine enticed me to go.
Getting there meant catching a flight from Okayama. It gave me a chance to wander the city and enjoy the autumn colors at their peak.
I’d rented a car and traveled around Okinawa’s main island. There were some lovely places, but I was seeking somewhere more off the beaten track. I took a flight to Ishigaki Island hoping to find it there.
Ishigaki, at first glance, was not the undiscovered paradise I’d hoped for. The port town was touristy and the busy streets were lined with fastfood establishments. The small house I’d rented was on a drab street of low-lying commercial buildings crowded together with little charm. However, my bedroom was in the back, off the street, and abutting lush undeveloped land. As I lie in my bed a chorus of frogs started singing. I couldn’t have hoped for a better lullaby.
Touring the island along the back roads, I found the locals’ surfing spot and stayed awhile to watch a small group of men attempt to ride the waves with varying success. Another road took me to a lighthouse where the winds were so strong I struggled to reach it, but then a calm came as if a magical spell had been cast to reward me for my tenacity.
There were beautiful beaches and the expansive Banna Park to enjoy some birding and hiking, but the nearby Iriomote Island was more remote and less developed. I planned a stay and took a ferry over.
On the far side of the island is the tiny village of Funauki accessible only by boat. I booked a small home there for five days.
On the way I stopped for a visit to Yubu Island.
Despite Yakushima’s reputation for raining “366 days a year”, this understandably spectacular, verdant island offered me a few chances to see it under clear skies.
Navigating the Setouchi Triennial for the first time was daunting. The twelve islands in the Seto Inland Sea, that host the three season contemporary art event, were unique in size, had names which were difficult to roll off my tongue e.g. Ogijima, Inujima, Naoshima, and visiting all, or at least most of the sites, required planning.
Transportation and housing options varied, and although the Triennial isn′t well known outside of Asia, it still attracts huge crowds and I was hoping to avoid them.
I looked for a convenient base to begin my explorations and was fortunate to find the exceptional Wakabaya Guesthouse in Takamatsu, one of the two port cities that provides access to the islands. I arrived from Kyoto by train on a rainy day. The kind owner, Takeshi, whose youthful face displayed a perpetual smile, had an abundance of knowledge, an untiring desire to share it, and an endless supply of hot tea.
After choosing a lower bunk in a comfortable, spotless room with eight beds, and returning to Takeshi for more advice, I went in search of a recommended restaurant “where only locals go.” A young woman from Shanghai, also staying at the guesthouse, joined me. She was traveling alone for the first time—and loving it. Her English, which she honed by watching Gossip Girls, was flawless.
The small restaurant on a quiet street, run by a spry woman, decades past middle-aged, doing all the cooking and serving, was far from undiscovered—the majority of diners were tourists—but the fresh seafood was delicious.
The Setouchi Triennale began in 2010, and takes place every three years, as an effort to revitalize the region. People had sought opportunities elsewhere, leaving the islands with a decreasing, aged population (the average resident is around eighty), and many homes and schools vacant. Permanent museums were built and international artists were invited to create work throughout the islands, often in the abandoned structures. The event began attracting thousands of visitors.
Takeshi mapped out a strategy, given my luxury of time, to visit the less popular islands and sites during the Triennale and visit the others with star attractions later on. He recommended I begin with Oshima and Isamu Noguchi’s studio and home.
The following morning I walked to a nearby station and took a train to the port. Commuter trains pass through the streets of Takamatsu frequently and the railroad crossing signals quickly became a familiar sound. The car was crowded with men, and a few women, wearing business attire. I stood out in my casual clothes, and as the only foreigner.
I walked to a 7-Eleven to buy some coffee and warm red bean buns, keeping an eye out for the bicyclists riding on the sidewalks. Takeshi had said it was unlikely that I’d find anything to eat on the island so bought some cooked fish, rice, vegetables, and several bottles of green tea for later.
Freshly prepared food-to-go in Japan is practically an art form. 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart are ubiquitous convenience stores throughout the cities in Japan and offer a wide choice of tasty meals. However, everything was wrapped in plastic, then put in plastic bags, with plastic wrapped utensils, plastic wrapped napkins, and sometimes another plastic bag. Coming from countries where asking for a plastic bag could result in getting a dirty look and a comment like “Plastic is dead, get over it.” the unchecked use of plastic took some getting used to.
The ferry port was already crowded at 9 a.m., but as I had hoped most of the people were there to visit the main attractions of the Triennale: Naoshima and Teshima islands.
Oshima, one of the smallest islands, did not covet the same attention. I took the short ferry ride with a few tourists, and a large group of co-ed students with matching white caps and shirts, black shorts or skirts, white sneakers, different color school bags, violet ties, clipboards, and yellow umbrellas. The teacher never uttered a sound above a whisper, but the teenagers, like a disciplined orchestra, followed the subtle instructions of their maestra, and demonstrated perfect decorum throughout the journey.
I followed the group to a visitor center where a tour was offered, but the guide spoke little English. He led me to a young woman sitting at a table with the Setouchi Triennale flag. Her English was excellent and her enthusiasm was palpable. She sold me the necessary “passport” for the Triennale, offered some suggestions–the forest walk was not to be missed–and gave me a map. She acknowledged that the island did not attract many visitors, but it was her favorite.
I walked to a row of small buildings which housed installations, then took the requisite forest path–it was lush, quiet, beautiful, and dotted with curious ceramic forms and signs with poetic personal accounts of those who had lived there.? The history of the island unfolded.
It is not a happy one.
Oshima in 1909 became a leprosy colony. Under a new law people afflicted with the disease were forced to live there, separated from their loved ones.? Patients were stripped of their freedom and subjected to hard labor and tragic injustices.? The law was repealed in 1996.
Much of the art paid tribute to the suffering these people endured. The tiny, beautiful island seemed incapable of containing all that sorrow.
Some survivors of this era have stayed on with no where else to go. While I strolled along the well-tended paths near the island’s buildings, a curious and grating tune played continuously from a series of loudspeakers. I was reminded of the 1960’s television show The Prisoner. I learned the music was intended to keep the blind residents safe and guide them from straying too far.
The following morning, after buying my breakfast and lunch, a routine already established, I set off to visit Megijima and Ogijima.
At the ferry terminals, cheerful volunteers distributed maps with the numerous art sites marked out. The atmosphere was festive. My “passport” was stamped at each site. Megijima, larger than Ogijima, but still tiny at 2.5 square miles, had bikes to rent. I opted to visit on foot. Wandering through the narrow lanes gave me a sense of time past.
Picturesque abandoned wooden homes were transformed by the art and infused with life. Sites were unique and captivating. Ogijima’s charming new café/library was an effort to cater to and potentially attract more residents.
Despite taking the first ferry in the morning and returning on the last ferry in the early evening, the hours weren’t enough to explore the islands. I wanted to stay somewhere, but the few accommodations I’d found were either closed or full.
That evening, sitting comfortably at a low table in the guesthouse, sipping a cup of tea, I asked Takeshi for advice. He opened a thick folder filled with names, phone numbers, maps, ferry schedules, and assorted information. After looking through it and asking me some questions he made a phone call that went on for some time. Even though he was speaking Japanese I could tell he tried to bring the call to an end several times. Finally he hung up, told me I could stay a few nights on the small island of Awashima, and added, “The owner likes to talk.” His smile turned wry.
The road from the ferry dock to the Awashima Lodge was steep, curved, and followed the coast. A passing car was an anomaly. As I trudged along, following the map Takeshi had drawn for me, glad I’d left most of my things at his guesthouse, I gazed out at the sea. The lodge was a simple, large, two-story rectangular building a short walk from the main road.
The owner, an elderly man, greeted me upon arrival and brought me to his and his wife’s living area on the ground floor. It was crammed with chairs, tables, boxes, and other things. After a quick introduction, he only spoke Japanese and my vocabulary remained quite limited, I was shown upstairs to a long corridor. A tiny toilet was down the hall, the shower was downstairs.
My room had a sink, a narrow futon with some blankets, a small pillow, tatami mats, and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. There were no decorations except for a faded calendar hanging from a hook, however windows filled the far wall. I walked across the room and looked out to a small beach, the sky, the sea, and the islands. The only sounds came from the wave’s gentle rise and fall. I needed nothing more.
Later that afternoon I met the wife. She began speaking to me in an endless burst of sound. Despite my best efforts to demonstrate that I did not understand what she was saying, she just kept on speaking. I tried using Google translate, but it was an abject failure. I spoke, then showed her the screen with the words I said now in Japanese, she looked at it and wouldn’t utter a word. As soon as I put the phone down she began speaking again. I tried using hand gestures in the hopes she would do the same, offering me some clues, but she spoke with her arms stubbornly at her side. Fortunately another guest arrived. Sakiya, a lovely young woman from Osaka, spoke some English and offered to translate. She listened to the wife at length and asked “Is dinner at six okay?”
Awashima offered no dining opportunities so breakfast and dinner were included in the price of lodging. A few minutes before 6pm, after removing my shoes at the front door, putting on the downstairs slippers, different from the upstairs and bathroom slippers, then removing them to enter the tatami dining area, I sat on a cushion in front of a place setting at a large low table. Sakiya and Ryo, another guest, a sound engineer from Kobe, were already seated. Several courses of vegetables, sashimi, smoked fish, and fruit were served soon after with hot tea. It was a delicious meal, and served by the husband with pride. Everything was fresh and came from the area.
The wife’s bad knees made the ascending and descending of the high step to the room difficult leaving her free to take a semi-reclining pose and talk non-stop throughout the meal. I tried to be polite and look like I was listening, but when it seemed as if she was never going to run out of air, I excused myself to the quiet of my room upstairs.
Sakiya came by later that evening and asked if I wanted to come outside to look for sea fireflies. I’ve always loved fireflies, but I’d never heard of sea fireflies. I quickly followed her downstairs. Sakiya, Ryo, the husband, and I walked in silence to the water’s edge. The husband was as reserved as his wife was long-winded.
Donning high white rubber boots the husband started stomping by the shore. The enigmatic creatures reacted to the movement. Specks of blue light suddenly appeared and offset the darkness. The sea fireflies’ eerie glow complemented the stars.? We began stomping our feet too, wanting more. The show continued until the chill of the air drew us reluctantly back indoors.
The following morning, while standing on the beach. Ryo recorded Sakiya and me reciting words respectively in Japanese and English. I spontaneously chose sky, air, waves, sun, moon, and sea fireflies/umi-hotaru. It was a way of saying goodbye. They were heading back to their homes and took the first ferry from the island. I decided to stay two more nights and spent the days exploring Awashima, Takamijima, and Honjima.
If I did see the residents, which was not common (I generally encountered tourists or volunteers), they were mostly tending to their gardens or fishing nets, working with the fishing boats, hanging up their laundry, carrying a parcel, or quietly taking a stroll. Life during the Triennale didn’t seem to alter their routines.
They were predominantly women and all of advanced age. I was struck by their indifference to the tourists and the potential for economic gain. In addition to a lack of places to stay, food and drinks were rarely sold, shop hours were short and erratic, and there was nary a souvenir for sale. But the residents were not unfriendly. I shared a lovely moment with a woman as she weeded her garden. She seemed pleased to have the company and I was delighted to understand the word “broccoli” as she spoke.
I returned to Takamatsu for some days of rest and further exploration. I wandered the city’s center of long covered arcades that went on for blocks, packed with shops and restaurants.
And took a train to the mountain/park Yashima where I hiked to the top for a splendid view and visited the impressively designed Shikoku Mura open air museum and gallery. Ancient homes and buildings from the region had been relocated to a strikingly beautiful, lush environment offering visitors a chance to stroll through history and learn about the past. The modern gallery on the same grounds offered a stark but stunning contrast.
With the Triennale officially over, it was time to visit the popular islands, hopefully without the crowds. I managed to find a place to stay on Teshima for four days in the welcoming home of Kureishi. He had been born and raised on the island, left for many years to see the world, returned, and opened his family home to guests. I spent the days exploring the charming island on foot and bicycle, and sharing time with Kureishi and a new found friend, Chika, who is Japanese, but lived in Sweden for many years.
I met Chika working at the Yokoo house, a museum designed by architect Yuko Nagayama, in collaboration with artist Tadanori Yokoo, to showcase the latter’s artwork. It was converted from three traditional homes, redesigned with rooms and garden of various shapes, colors, and forms: reflective red Plexiglas walls lined the entry, koi swam beneath the transparent floor, paintings, some lit from within, hung on the walls, and a faux silo’s interior was completely covered in old postcards. For each step my concept of a “museum” was stretched.
But the Teshima Museum shattered it.
Getting inside the Teshima Museum requires a timed ticket and during the Triennale, reservations were made months in advance. But as hoped, the crowds had left and I was able to get a ticket easily.
I’d rented an electric bike for my stay and was happy to get some assistance on the long steep hills to get there. I parked in the area specifically for bicycles, a popular way of getting around the island, and entered a small building used for welcoming guests and checking-in. The staff directed me to a path that led around the hill, through a small wood, and a bench to stop and enjoy the view, then continued. It was a pleasant walk that took a few minutes. During the Triennale with the long lines it would take much longer, and was probably designed to please as well as placate impatient visitors.
I arrived at a sign and waited, a young woman wearing white and holding a walkie-talkie appeared. She asked me to remove my shoes, place them on a low rack, and to please remain silent. I entered a huge, rounded, cement space with a single entry, like one for a large igloo.
Once inside I tried to take in the extraordinary surroundings. The curved walls, also cement and completely bare, met the floor at a sharp angle. The only light came from the entry and two large, oval openings of different size, spaced a considerable distance apart. The openings let in the elements and offered views of the sky. While orienting myself, an attendant demonstrated that I watch my step. Tiny rivulets of water randomly appeared and traveled along the slanted floor. I began walking around and noticed a small piece of porcelain, there would be more.
Fearing I might break something, my pace slowed. Each step became conscious. I watched the droplets of water emerge and noticed the subtle changes in the light. I listened to the near silence and looked around at the other visitors. One woman sketched. Some chose to sit or lie on the floor with eyes closed. All was calm.
And then some people began speaking and the acoustics of the structure amplified their voices to a near roar. They were oblivious. I was annoyed. Then John Cage’s composition 4’33”(four minutes and thirty-three seconds) came to mind. It is a piece Cage composed for musicians to have, but not play their instruments for the duration. He intended the ambient sounds to provide the “music.” This helped, but I was pleased when the quiet was restored and?lingered.
I had the good fortune of returning twice more. I specifically chose different hours of the day and was rewarded with the contrasting light I had hoped for. One day it rained and the raindrops mingled with the drops emerging from the floor. Reflective puddles were formed. Another day the wind picked up and leaves floated in creating swirling patterns in the air.? All was in flux.
On the island of Inujima is a museum converted from a copper refinery. It uses solar, geothermal, and other natural energies, and was designed to minimize environmental impact. As I wandered, hesitantly, down pitch black hallways suddenly encountering visions of the sun, and saw the deconstructed home of Yukio Mishima swaying in the wind my imagination was continuously challenged and my senses were energized. While strolling around the stunning island I discovered quiet village life, the utopian Life Garden project, and fish leaping high from the sea.
Naoshima, the most famous island, has the immensely popular Chichu Museum among other wonderful museums and sites. There was much to enjoy.
Shodoshima’s autumn colors were peaking. Like the other islands it had an abundance of natural beauty, intriguing and impressive art, picturesque hamlets with narrow lanes, and women wearing large bonnets tending their fields, but also a Greek windmill, and a park of roaming Macaque monkeys who visit for feedings.
One day, just before a storm, I found a small café serving lunch and waited until the clouds cleared. Time passed peacefully there.
I’d rented a lovely home for two weeks on the mainland, just outside of Uno, across the sea from Takamatsu. It was an ideal location to explore many of the places I’ve mentioned, catch my breath, visit another onsen, and Kurashiki a picturesque, but touristy town, return to Teshima for a final picnic with Chika, and plan my next destination.
The temperature was dropping, I wasn’t quite ready for the cold, and sought out warmer climes.
I’ve greatly appreciated your comments, the flurry of entertaining videos, and inspiring words during these difficult times.? I think often to one quote in particular:
“Let’s not count the days. Let the days count.”
I hope this finds you and your loved ones well and safe.
With warmest regards,
18 October to 28 October, 2019
Staying at hostels in Tokyo meant compromising some comfort and privacy, but it also meant meeting kindred spirits and gaining information on places to go next.
Although I knew the cherry blossoms in Japan attracted hordes of tourists, I didn′t realize the colors of autumn did too. Travelers raved about towns not far from Tokyo with trees ablaze with color, splendid temples, and hot springs, but they also lamented the size of the crowds.
Tokyo was largely spared, but the typhoon left some towns with damaged roads and rail inaccessible. I looked into my options. The most appealing inns, tucked away in forests, were owned and run by the elderly. Unfortunately they were fully booked or, as one owner more or less stated, “We are only two here and we have been working very hard. We are old. We are tired. We are closed.”
And then a couple from France mentioned Magome: one of many ancient “post towns,” that existed along a path connecting Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). It fell out of use with the introduction of the railroad, but the old wooden buildings remain. Although the town seemed appealing, hiking the Nakasendo trail which connects Magome with Tsumago, another post town, along the original highway, seemed ideal.
Although far fewer people spoke English than I’d imagined, taking several trains and a bus to Magome was pleasant and relatively easy. Virtually all signs were bilingual and there was always someone willing to assist me.
The Gaku Magome Guesthouse, about a fifteen minute walk uphill from the bus stop and town center, was huge and previously an elementary school. Japan’s markedly decreasing population has left many schools closed or repurposed. The industrial-size kitchen’s sinks, tables, and chairs were barely thigh high. (Despite some awkward posturing, the kitchen was a godsend: all shops and restaurants closed around 4pm.)
Despite the building’s high ceilings and endless hallways, the warmth of the staff, extremely comfortable bunk beds: each enclosed in a private wooden compartment with reading lamp, and welcoming communal areas, the guesthouse felt surprisingly cozy.
I’d been mostly unaffected by the Rugby World Cup fever sweeping across the country. But I happened to be there on a night that the Japanese team was playing. The few guests (the typhoon had deterred many travelers) from Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Spain, Belgium, the staff, and I gathered to watch the game. Many of the travelers were serious sports fan and had come to Japan specifically for the World Cup.
Japan was hoping to once again defeat South Africa (They’d managed to do so in a remarkable upset back in 2015). The team enjoys a faithful following and admiration from locals, and foreigners: they make up for any lack of prowess with their extraordinary gusto. Beer and food were passed around as our small group gathered on couches, chairs, and the floor to watch them play. The staff had made banners for their team and were prominently on display. As cries of elation, frustration, and excitement filled the room, I made an attempt to understand the game, and failed. At least for a time the enthusiasm and passion was contagious and the sense of team spirit lingered. I was sorry to hear of Japan’s defeat the following day.
Baths are an integral part of Japanese culture and onsens (hot springs) are the culmination. Onsens vary in size and ambiance, but the honored traditional etiquette is fixed. An exception is the recent admittance, in some onsens, of people with tattoos–a symbol of the yakuza or Japanese mafia–but the tattoos need to be covered with bandages or tape.
I was familiar with communal bathing (women only) having savored many hours at hammams (steam baths) in the Middle East, Turkey, and Morocco, but onsens were uncharted territory.
The guesthouse made arrangements for me to visit one. Hiroke, another guest, who could have been mistaken for a Sumo wrestler, and I were the only ones interested. I was expecting an ancient wooden structure but we arrived in front of a modern long, white, low-lying building. The lobby looked disappointingly corporate.
A man with a large smile standing behind a counter warmly welcomed me in English and asked for my shoes—it reminded me of going bowling as a kid. In return I received a small towel and numbered bracelet with a tag. Now barefoot, Hiroke and I headed down the wide staircase where he pointed to the woman’s entrance marked in Japanese.
I entered a large room with multiple sinks, vanity tables complete with an assortment of creams, showers with low stools, bottles of soaps, and rows of lockers and benches. The space was nearly empty except for a few women, all Japanese, who were showering, combing their hair, or chatting.
I’d retained an image of extremely modest Japanese women where the exposed nape of a neck was the height of eroticism, so I was surprised to see all the women comfortably naked. (The YMCA locker room back in Brooklyn seemed Victorian in comparison.)
I wandered around the aisles of lockers looking for the one matching the number of the tag on the bracelet. I found it, and tried using the tag as an electronic key. No luck. A woman with short cropped black hair and gentle smile approached me. She knew a little English and seemed delighted to have the opportunity to speak it. She showed me the small key artfully tucked inside the bracelet (there was no end to the clever designs I would see in Japan).
I removed all my clothes and placed them and the towel inside the locker. It was clear that towels were not used for covering oneself and after showering–onsens are not for washing—I was heading directly to the hot springs so there was no point in drying myself off.
I walked through an area with more showers into a spacious room with large windows, bare walls, and a medium size pool: the onsen. I sat down slowly, adjusting to the hot water, and relaxed. The heat made me light-headed.
A woman sat across from me with eyes closed and a folded towel atop her head. Another woman took a towel, placed it under a faucet of cool water, folded it, placed it atop her head, then entered the pool. So that’s what the towels were used for. I regretted having locked my towel away.
Reclining neck deep in was quite pleasant, but I felt like I could have been anywhere, except for the naked part, soaking in some baby pool with hot water (onsens are not for swimming). And then I saw a woman go through a set of glass doors. What was I missing?? The doors led outside. The night was chilly and I was hesitant to follow, but my curiosity prevailed.
High stalks of bamboo and large rocks enclosed a natural pool of steamy water. The ceiling of bright lights was replaced with the night sky and all was silent. I waded into the pool and a light rain started to fall. I sat back enjoying the cool water on my face and the warming water of the?onsen. I was transported to another world.
The following morning, after breakfast, I walked from the guesthouse down to Magome where the Nakasendo trail began.
Busloads of Japanese tourists had already arrived in town and the picturesque cobbled main street was packed. They were indulging in red bean sweets, dumplings, matcha and chestnut ice cream, chestnut confections, roasted edibles on wooden skewers that would regretfully remain a mystery, and other freshly made snacks while resting or strolling in and out of the numerous clothing, craft, and frivolous souvenir shops.
The trail began at the town’s end with a steep uphill. I was happy to leave the crowds behind and was soon walking through forests of trees and bamboo, crossing rivers on old bridges, gazing at waterfalls, and passing small communities with traces of daily life but no locals were in sight.
And then there was the ringing of the bells placed along the route to ward off the bears.
About midway, I was welcomed to enter an ancient teahouse by an elderly gentleman pouring cups of teas for the hikers. A group of us from various countries sat on opposite sides of a long wooden table enjoying hot tea, tasty snacks, and conversation before leaving a donation and setting off again.
Returning to the guesthouse late in the afternoon, pleasantly tired and sated from a hearty lunch of the area’s specialty, soba noodles, I considered where I would go next.
I chose Takayama, a small city.? Wooden buildings and narrow lanes of the ancient quarter were stunning, but they too were mobbed with tourists. Fortunately, the beautiful temples and expansive, lush cemetery on the outskirts were nearly empty, except for the birds who seemed as happy as I to be there.
A day trip to Kamikochi in the Japanese Alps was a highlight and revealed autumn’s splendor.
That evening I managed to find a tiny restaurant, where I learned the removing of shoes before entering was a good sign,? serving divine sashimi far from the hubbub.
Next stop Kyoto.
For many people, Kyoto is the ideal Japanese city. I’d spent about a week there decades ago, retained many fond memories, and considered staying for a month.
But the beautiful traditional home I rented was suddenly not available for an extended stay and I reconsidered my plans. After five days of exploring, indulging in local specialties, being the sole spectator at a Butoh dance performance (maximum capacity was ten), getting lost in the backstreets, and finding the city more crowded and bustling than I recalled, I decided to go to the Setouchi Triennale. It was the reason I’d come to Japan after all.
While still in Paris, just a few days before arriving in Tokyo, my Couchsurfing(CS) host, Shinsuke, warned me of an approaching typhoon. I let him know I was still coming.
I hadn’t planned on using CS, nor on a typhoon touching down around the same time I would, but neither had I known when I made my travel dates a few weeks earlier, that they corresponded with the city hosting the immensely popular Rugby World Cup.
I’d managed to book a bed in the appealing Toco Hostel for five nights, but they were full on the other three nights of my stay. Most places were. And those with availability, did for a reason ie, charmless hotels with tiny sleeping pods (think large coffins with bedding) charging outrageous prices.
I’d only used CS in the past to meet locals or other travelers for socializing, but I sent out a few requests seeking lodging. Shinsuke had excellent reviews, identified himself as an anarchist, and spoke a little English. He agreed to put me up for three nights.
I arrived in Narita airport. My luggage did not.
Young men and women wearing crisp uniforms attended to a group of us with smiles and patience. After filling out a form, I was told my bag would be arriving the following day.
I headed to Shinsuke’s home with my day pack, about an hour away, on an impeccably clean train, then spotless, quiet metro (talking or doing anything to disturb your fellow passengers is very much frowned upon, however squishing each other during rush hour doesnˋt seem to count). Fortunately I was unencumbered and not taking up much space–there is an upside to having your luggage lost in transit then delivered to you.
Some months before, friends of mine had raved about the Setouchi Triennale, an art festival I’d never heard of. It takes place every three years for three seasons, on several islands in the Seto Island Sea. I was intrigued. It was too late for the spring session, and having been in Japan during a brutal summer on my first and only visit in 1987, I opted to go in the fall and decided to include the triennale in a three month trip to Japan.
I’d never been to Tokyo before. It hadn’t appealed to me. I imagined it as I suppose most people imagine New York City, horribly congested with an inescapable onslaught of noise, crowds, and neon lights, making Times Square seem quaint in comparison. But I decided it was worth experiencing first-hand.
I followed the detailed directions Shinsuke had sent me to a small, wood-shingled two story building. I climbed the very steep, narrow staircase and entered his apartment. He wrote that he would be at work when I arrived and unable to greet me, but the door to his home would be open.
The apartment was small, but bright and clean. The kitchen was compact with a tiny table,?two low stools, and a welcome note indicating which room was mine. A cup with a toothbrush and toothpaste sat atop the sink. Near an open window socks and shirts hanging from clips on small tiered plastic rings spun slowly in the breeze. The bathroom had a large deep tub requiring agility to enter, and a washing machine. A toilet, with what looked like a water fountain on its tank, was separate in a compact closet. Sitting with the door closed would be a challenge. Off the kitchen was Shinsuke’s compact room. On the other side of the kitchen was mine. He’d given me a large very pleasant room with windows filling two of the walls, looking out on a small quiet street, and an extremely comfortable bed.
I slept soundly for two hours. It was only 1PM and Shinsuke wouldn’t be home until that evening.
The typhoon was likely to arrive the following day. I left the quiet lanes of his neighborhood and walked a few minutes to a bustling main road filled with an array of shops. I was expecting to see people waiting on long lines to buy emergency provisions, as one does in NY whenever any approaching storm is announced, but parcels remained small and the daily routines, as far as I could tell, looked routine.
I passed restaurant windows displaying perfect plastic replicas of sushi, ramen, tempura, and other dishes, in lieu of menus. And I quickly learned to remain alert and nimble on the crowded sidewalks: despite the noted decorum of the Japanese, bicyclists recklessly darted between the pedestrians testing Darwin’s survival of the fittest.
I had a toothbrush, but no change of socks or clothes (Although I usually put them in my carry on, “just in case,” this time I’d managed not to.). I wandered into a store that seemed to sell everything. Its narrow aisles were defined by floor to ceiling packed shelves. Interspersed throughout were bright flashing lights and tiny video screens showing itsy-bitsy people with blaring voices singing ditties.
Japan is a study in contradictions. The country offers serene Zen gardens, meditative tea ceremony, and quiet metros, but also deafening pachinko parlors, think “pinball/slot machine on steroids,” and, depending on ones perspective, entertaining/sensory assaulting shops. I found socks, leggings, a tee shirt, and remembering I didn’t have my rain gear either, a raincoat. I left the shop as quickly as possible.
Shinsuke’s English was limited, and my Japanese allowed me to be polite and little else, but we managed to have a lengthy discussion that evening about Japan’s present government (Shinsuke was not a fan), our travels, (he’d lived in Uganda as a street performer), my luggage which given the typhoon, could be delayed indefinitely, and where to go for dinner. His desire to please me with familiar American food and my desire to treat him to a fine, traditional Japanese meal became a confused attempt of our best intentions.
We ended up in a brightly lit, casual sushi restaurant offering the newest trend in dining: stand while eating. The small dishes, mostly familiar, were all delicious and I could tell Shinsuke was pleased, since I was paying, that the prices were very reasonable.
That evening in his apartment, he drank cups of coffee and I herbal tea while eating the sweet delicacies I’d brought from Paris as a gift, and he graciously shared with me. We spoke of the approaching typhoon and his concern for his workshop an hour outside the city center. It got late. I wished him a good night as he prepared another cup of coffee.
It was my first night in Tokyo.
I hadn’t expected the song of crickets to be the only sound punctuating the silence and lulling me to sleep.
Shinsuke was already gone when I awoke. I’d slept very well and spent a lazy morning enjoying the serenity of the sun-filled apartment.
Later I visited the Nezu Museum. Its peaceful, lush gardens and tea house was an oasis of calm and tranquility. I sipped matcha tea and ate, almost guiltily, a gorgeous, delicately designed red bean pastry/art form.
Just outside the museum was a street lined with high-end fashion shops and passersby exquisitely attired. The sky was dark and rain was falling. The typhoon was nearing. I dodged the umbrellas–raincoats have not caught on here–and headed back to the apartment.
I spoke with the airline hoping to get my bag before transportation was disrupted by the storm. With luck, it would arrive that evening.
Shinsuke greeted me with unwelcome news. He was leaving to tend to his workshop. He wanted to be there during the typhoon just in case. Although he welcomed me to stay in his apartment, he could not guarantee the building was sturdy. It didn’t take me long to decide to leave too and I started looking for another accommodation.
Many places were now available. News of the typhoon had led to numerous cancellations. I called a hostel with excellent reviews. Photos depicted a brick building nestled between other brick buildings. It looked secure. It was around 9 pm and the owner took some time in answering the phone. Most of the guests had cancelled their reservations and it was likely I’d be the only guest, but he was closing shortly and I needed to arrive soon.
I quickly began preparing my things. I resigned myself to doing without my bag which still hadn’t arrived. Just then I noticed a small van pulling up outside. I hurried downstairs while a stout man was pulling it, completely wrapped in plastic, out of the back of the van.
Shinsuke and I said our good byes in the pouring rain. He hailed a taxi and the driver wearing the customary suit, white gloves, and cap, opened the automatic door and we drove to the aptly named Backpackers Minihouse.
The owner, Gigi, a wiry, energetic man in his seventies warmly welcomed me in English. The ground floor of the hostel was a single small room and an enormous table took up most of it. Packages of instant noodles, tea, and Nescafe sat near a large hot water maker. Gigi offered me a cup of tea and showed me to my bed in a shared dormitory with four bunk beds on the third floor reserved for women.
I went to sleep shortly afterwards. The hostel was pleasant enough, but I missed Shinsuke’s cozy home and the?crickets.
The following day more people showed up at the hostel. Each with a tale of disrupted travel: a woman from Mexico, a mother and son from Argentina, a man from Norway, and a man and woman from Japan. With a curfew in place, and little room to spread out, we sat huddled together watching television as images of a flooding river played over and over again. The view outside the rain drenched window did not look nearly as dramatic.
Streets were empty and many of the closed shops had tape, wood, and cardboard protecting their windows. Strong winds were blowing. But the higher buildings provided us with a buffer from any direct gusts. (Other parts of the region would not be so lucky. We would later learn lives were lost and towns and railways experienced severe damage.)
We ate instant noodles while amicably communicating in English and Spanish, and learning “oishi” was “delicious” in Japanese. We had no choice but to wait out the storm.
Typhoon Hagibis head out to sea the following evening. The rhythm of the city and rugby matches resumed, shops and stores reopened, repairs were made. Streets became busy again.
After moving once again, this time to the Toco Hostel, I set out to explore Tokyo.
I wandered down narrow alleyways, ventured inside museums displaying ancient treasures and modern masterpieces, learned to distinguish between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, reveled in the tranquility of lush parks, sipped copious cups of matcha tea in beautifully crafted tea houses, discovered contemporary artists in newly conceived galleries, strolled peacefully in picture perfect gardens and cemeteries, marveled at the assortment of fish and other delectables in markets and department stores, slurped ramen as best I could, sipped beer and sake in tiny bars,? spent quiet moments reading and writing in coffee houses and bookstores, and became a major fan of japanese ice cream.
I shared many memorable moments, meals, and tales with locals and travelers, including a group of South Africans (who in a few days time would watch their team win the world cup), and who invited me to join them in singing Rodriguez tunes (See, if you haven’t yet,?Searching for Sugar Man) in a tiny upstairs space of a Golden Gai bar called “Lonely Bar” cramped around a small table piled high with beer bottles.
Tokyo soothed, inspired, dazzled, overwhelmed, and thrilled me. Its many facets charmed me.
Still set on getting to the Setouchi Triennale, I had a few weeks to explore other regions of Japan before then.
I left Tokyo with my preconceived notions of this extraordinary city completely shattered and looked?forward to my return.
Josehine Baker sang “J’ai deux amours,? Mon pays et Paris”? She sang of Manhattan and her enduring enchantment with Paris. I thought of that song as a fitting anthem of my own: New York and Paris are the two cities I love too.
I started this blog about six months ago, but my travels consumed my attention and directed my efforts elsewhere. I only got as far as some ideas, images, and this title.
And now the catastrophic impact of the coronavirus worldwide has made concentrating on any one thing a challenge. These past few weeks I’ve only wanted to read the latest news and connect with my loved ones many of whom live in or near these cities.
But today, I’m attempting to finish it. It will not be the blog I would have written six months ago.
Instead of recounting tales of my travels I wish to pay tribute to all my loved ones, friends, and people throughout the globe, who are facing extraordinary challenges, hardship, and tragedy with courage and strength.
Everyone I speak with is resounding with resilience AND exhibiting?a great sense of humor!
The indomitable human spirit is in evidence everywhere.
Now that I’ve begun writing again I hope to continue where I left off and share with you my travels in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. And how I arrived here on a hilltop outside of a town called Coyhaique in Chile.
I hope this finds you well.?May these words and images bring you some moments of peace.
I received a message from an acquaintance I’d met in Cape Town. She was enjoying her time in Antananarivo. Antananawhat? Antananawhere? I didn’t have a clue how to pronounce it or where it was.
It had an exotic appeal. Ironically, this was the same woman who’d told me about the Okavango Delta and whose name alone inspired me to venture there.
I’d been looking for a place to go after Hermanus and booked, on a whim, a flight to Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city, for the end of August.
I knew virtually nothing about the country except its extraordinary biodiversity. At least 80% of its species are endemic: they are found no where else on earth. I was surprised to learn that French, along with Malagasy, is an official language, not knowing that Madagascar had been a French colony from 1897 until 1960. And that it is one of the poorest countries in the world.
The flight from Cape Town via Johannesburg to Antananarivo was long, but I was looking forward to making the most of the day. I lined up at immigration to buy a visa in the airport.
I handed the woman seated inside the simple glass booth my credit card and passport. “Sorry, cash only.” she responded in French. I’d managed to spend all my U.S. dollars and Euros some time ago. I had only a few Euro coins still packed in my bag.
When I explained I had no cash, this same woman kindly assigned a lovely young woman to escort me to an ATM in the airport. However, it only showed a message stating that my bank was refusing the request. We went back and explained the situation to the woman, now outside the booth, standing elegantly in high heels and miniskirt. This is not the first time we’ve run into this problem, she said with more empathy and kindness than I expected.
By this time I was thinking about the driver who my accommodation had arranged to pick me up. The woman suggested I go with the escort and driver to an ATM outside the airport. Remarkably she apologized for the inconvenience and expressed her frustration with the lack of a credit card machine.
We met the driver, who looked relieved to see me, and explained the situation. We set off in his weathered Citroen on congested roads to a nearby bank. An endless line of people were waiting. “We are not in luck. Everyone gets paid today, the last day of the month. All the banks will have lines like this.” My companions looked ready to wait the inevitable few hours, but I was concerned my card wouldn’t work anyway. I suggested we go back to the airport and find another solution.
The elegant woman remained remarkably kind. I couldn’t imagine another airport official anywhere behaving as she did. But despite her concern and empathy, the rules were clear. No visa, no entry into Madagascar. I began to imagine spending the night in the airport.
Then she and the driver offered to do the unimaginable. She would pay for my visa herself, arrange for the driver to transfer that money to her, via his phone (he had no cash either), and I would pay back the driver.
I soon had my visa.
The driver calmly maneuvered his taxi as carts pulled by men and beasts, cars, motorcycles, and trucks all competed for space on the exhaust-filled narrow roads. Men, women, and children were selling or buying things from small makeshift shops along the roadside.? Women with packages piled on their heads wearing colorful fabrics strode along. Some people sat observing the passersby. We made our way slowly toward the bustling city center.
I spotted an ATM, and miraculously only a few people were standing in line. I got out to try my luck and was rewarded with enough Malagasy ariary to pay the driver and get me through the next few days. Having repaid my debt I sat back and enjoyed the ride.
I’d rented one of several apartments for tourists in a beautiful old brick building perched at the top of a very high hill. I enjoyed magnificent views of the city and of the Queen’s Palace next door. (The palace was abandoned?after the French colonization and consequent fall of the Madagascar monarchy. ) The view also displayed the city’s extraordinary economic disparity. Cafes, restaurants, and hotels catering to tourists and well-heeled locals contrasted sharply with the impoverished neighborhoods.
I was given conflicting messages about the city’s safety but my strolls alone during the day felt safe and secure. In the evenings I was escorted short distances by the building staff and took taxis.
Wishing to meet some residents, I used Couchsurfing and met a Lebanese photographer, Toni, and Tim, a Frenchman who worked for the telecommunications company. Both had lived in Antananarivo for years with no immediate plans of leaving and graciously offered their delightful company. I dined with Tim at a high end Italian restaurant where our conversation flowed from travel, to linguistics, to literature seamlessly until noticing all the other diners had gone, and the hour.
Toni invited me to partake in his mother’s cooking, generously carried from home by his visiting sister–the reputation of Lebanon’s fine cuisine is not exaggerated. Travel tales were swapped and Toni’s bold risk taking and ample harrowing experiences had me wondering if he was an adventurer or a masochist, but he was kind and caring and living his life exactly as he wished to.
I met a guide working at the Queen’s Palace and arranged for him to walk me through his neighborhood. There was poverty, but also happy children and a robust community life.
Antananarivo was a fascinating vibrant city, but after five days I sought a more tranquil, natural setting.
I learned that the country’s roads were terrible and travel was extremely taxing, unless one flew.? I wasn’t up for any hair-raising, bone-rattling adventures like Toni’s so I opted to fly to Nosy Be.
I heard Nosy Be in the north was touristy, but also astoundingly beautiful. I booked a private room for several nights in the highly rated Tamana Hostel, smack in the middle of its major town, Hellville.
After making the reservation I heard that Hellville matched its name. Sex tourism was apparently rampant and permeated the area with sleaze. It was too late to make any changes.
Fortunately, Hellville pleasantly surprised me. It had a relaxed, small town atmosphere, the tourists were largely outnumbered by the locals, fishermen and their boats lined the coast, and markets were inviting and offered delicious local cuisine. The unsavory aspects were mostly hidden, at least from my eyes, and the hostel, with its large rooftop terrace and sea view, was clean, comfortable, and quiet.
On my second day at the hostel I met a nineteen year-old German, Alex, traveling alone for the first time, who was open to do some exploring. We hired a young, handsome tuktuk driver donning silver aviator sunglasses, a bright red tee-shirt, shorts, and no shoes to take us to Lokobe National Reserve, about forty minutes away. We only had a vague idea what to expect, but the staff at the hostel highly recommended the reserve.
After leaving a paved uneven road, we were soon traveling on one of dirt. There were no cars or people except a few local men walking and carrying machetes. They gave us a look and given the isolation, and movies I’ve seen, the moment felt a tad disconcerting. Moments later we made a turn off to another dirt road and five men rushed over to the tuktuk. One jumped in next to the driver, the other four hitched a ride on the sides. The driver stopped. The man in front started shouting at the other men in his native tongue, then turned to us. It all happened quickly and it was hard to figure out what was going on. Then he put laminated photos of lemurs and forest into our hands. The others tried to do the same. It became clear they were all seeking business as guides.
The man sitting next to the driver, and older than the others, held his ground. He continued speaking sharply to the other men, who in time conceded their positions. He then offered us in a markedly sweet tone, a day’s tour including lunch.
After some discussion, we agreed. The man, Freeman, turned out to be all bark and no bite, at least with us. He was knowledgeable, patient, kind, and gave us a wonderful leisurely tour. We continued on the tuktuk a short ways to the sleepy town of Ambanoro. Freeman, Alex, and I got into a pirogue, the traditional canoe with outrigger. Although Freeman did most of the work, Alex and I took turns rowing with the extra oar. It was not an easy task.
We then hiked through a dense forest where lemurs leapt around us. We stopped to observe the wondrous diverse flora, and tiny spotted frogs. When we got back to Ambanoro, several hours later, Freeman brought us to a terrace where Alex and I sat overlooking the sea. Soon after he served us a delicious lunch, that he’d prepared himself, of fresh fish, rice, vegetables, and pineapple.
We were the only tourists in sight, besides a small group of Italians who’d arrived with a guide in an organized tour. It was easy to understand why Freeman had been so aggressive with the other men. They would probably not be making any money that day.
Our tuktuk driver, as agreed, had waited to take us back to Hellville. He was comfortably stretched out napping when we walked over.
Both men had given us a splendid day for fares that pleased all of us.
With my reservation at the hostel coming to an end in two days and no plans, I looked at the Couchsurfing site for ideas. There was an unusual and enticing offer to spend a week on a fifty-three foot ketch presently docked in Nosy Be. The dates worked out perfectly.
I contacted Tom, the host, for more information and we set up a time to meet later that evening. Tom and his crew had just spent five months sailing across the Indian Ocean. Four of the crew members were now going their separate ways and Tom, his girlfriend, Emma, and one last crew member, Simon, all French, were planning on spending a relaxing week exploring the area. They had room for two more passengers to partake in the daily life and minimal expenses on board.
The following day I was putting my bags in my small, but private cabin at the front of the ship, and we were leaving port.
Tom had bought the abandoned ketch, Karaka, in 2004, for $1 in Hong Kong. He’s refurbished it from top to bottom with the help of an impermanent but dedicated crew, and has called it home ever since, while he and Emma circumnavigate the globe.
The two of them are usually seeking crew members to commit for several months, but fortunately for me, this short holiday was different. Emeline, a woman living in Mayotte, a French island in the Indian Ocean, had arranged to join them too.
We immediately fell into a comfortable, easy rhythm. There was some sailing, but mostly relaxing and engaging in our own pastimes: reading, playing with Plume, the aloof, but always entertaining resident cat, watching a video, napping, swimming, kayaking, and on occasion getting lucky and seeing dolphins. I learned to play some tunes on a ukulele. Singing and playing with Emma as she strummed her guitar was a treat. Time took on a delicious pace. Days slowly unfolded. Nights came early as did sleep. This was meant to be a holiday after all.
Tom, Emma, and Simon were interesting, kind, and very gracious people, but there was much less conversation on board than one might imagine. I suspect that sharing a limited space for long periods of time undoubtedly inspired their desire for both privacy and solitude.
Breakfast, was the exception. Emma would miraculously whip up delectable crepes, cakes, and bread in the tiny kitchen and we would gather around the table on deck to drink coffee, eat, and chat. There was no refrigerator so everything was fresh. Before leaving port we’d gone to the market and stocked up on fruit, soups, bread, personal snacks (this apparently was key to staying sane and happy on long ocean voyages), various essentials, and a few frivolities.
Tom chose a place to anchor for a few days. We could see a tiny village in the distance, but the boat’s keel wouldn’t allow us to get near . The following day a boy, from the village, paddled up in his pirogue and offered to sell us some fish. We had a delicious lunch that day.
We had two kayaks on board and Emeline ventured toward the village the next day, but feeling intrusive she decided not to go ashore. But my curiosity was piqued.? The following day I rowed over. It took about thirty minutes to get there and when I neared the shore a group of children came rushing over to greet me.
The boy, Flavio, who’d sold us the fish was there. He spoke French well and walking toward the simple wooden homes he started introducing me to the other villagers. Flavio’s grandfather gave me a warm hello and started dancing to the loud music coming from the large speakers outdoors, a group of men stopped playing dominoes to say hello, and soon I was sitting and chopping manioc with Flavio’s grandmother while other women helped too and giggled. Everyone in the village, about forty people, was related.
Afterwards Flavio gave me a short tour. There was a cow,? a garden, and a few more simple homes that edged up to a forest, never far from the sea.
I was introduced to Theodore, Flavio’s uncle. He asked if I’d be interested in going in his pirogue on a four hour tour the following day. He was a pleasant young man who spoke French well. His son, Dora, a lovely, polite boy of thirteen would go too.? I asked the price. He said 20,000 ariary (about $5).
The following morning, just after nine. Theodore and Dora came to pick me up from the Karaka. His pirogue had a slender mast and sail lying atop the outrigger.
I took a seat in the middle of the narrow vessel and Theodore and his son began to paddle, each with a single oar. Dora sat in the back steering with the same oar, his father sat up front.
When Theodore spoke to Dora it was always in a quiet tone and spoke to him not as a child, but as a man.
Theodore’ slender build, like Freeman’s, did not reveal his strength. He and Dora rowed continuously, rhythmically. I rowed too, but had to take breaks.
The sail lay unfurled. The wind’s direction was not favorable.
We rowed through the sea toward a wide river. Our pace was slow, but no one was in a hurry. All was calm. The weather, like the other days, was warm and sunny. Birds swooped down from the nearby trees hunting for fish. We passed an older couple rowing in a periogue too, then a small boy traveling alone using a plank of wood as his oar.
We passed small villages. Theodore would ask if I’d like to stop and visit them. I never refused. Each was unique. One consisted of just four homes.
Another was somewhat larger with racks of fish left out to dry. Another larger still had dozens of chicks scurrying about and people sitting around on plastic chairs. But the simple wooden dwellings were largely the same. And there were no roads that I could see. People traveled on the river and the sea.
Theodore seemed to enjoy walking me through each village. My presence was largely welcome, sometimes there was indifference from the residents, but I never felt unwelcome.? My request to take a photo was always accepted. Many people seemed delighted I asked.
As we made our way down the river the wind remained elusive. We rowed and rowed. When a motorboat approached Theodore arranged for us to get a tow,
The motorboat took us to a dead end. Leaving the pirogue behind and the oars hidden in the brush we walked until we reached a huge market. People were carrying bags of goods, selling CDs, clothing, fruits, vegetables, housewares, and socializing. Children stared at me with curiosity, but always returned my smile. Market day meant a gathering of people from villages near and far. It was a wondrous, fascinating scene.
It had taken us several hours to get there and Theodore excused himself to buy some rope and other things.?After some time, it was getting late and not knowing how long it would take to get back I reluctantly suggested we go.
The wind for short spells would blow favorably and carry us along. I relished each moment.
Otherwise we rowed.
Our “four hour” tour extended to eight hours. We returned to the Karaka at dusk. My shipmates looked relieved. (Although Theodore never mentioned money, I compensated him for the additional time.) I said goodbye to him and Dora and thanked them for an extraordinary day.
After many months at sea , Tom and the others were looking to enjoy a dinner out and a more animated atmosphere. We set sail the following morning for Nosy Komba. It had the reputation of being a laid back, pretty, tourist island. It was, but compared to where I’d been and what I’d seen, it also seemed inauthentic and brash.
The places I’d thought of visiting in Madagascar, no doubt beautiful, but all well-trodden on the tourist trail, suddenly had little appeal.
There was some things I needed to take care of back in New York and doing them sooner rather than later was ideal.
I decided to leave Madagascar, foolishly or otherwise, with my spectacular memories still fresh in my mind.
With my Nambia and Botswana adventures behind me, I looked forward to spending the month of August in one place before setting off again. And I yearned to be by the sea.
Hermanus came to mind. I’d spent a night there, back in May, while traveling along South Africa’s Garden Route. Its Cliff Walk, which follows the coast for 12kms offers a picturesque path, splendid views of the sea, and the chance to see whales from land.
I found a cottage to rent only a few minutes walk to the coast.
August is the beginning of the whale migration when females come from Antarctica to give birth near the shore. Residents boasted of seeing hundreds throughout the season.
Although it was still too early for frequent sightings, any glimpse I got of these magnificent creatures was a thrill.
August is considered low season in Hermanus. The local schools are in session and the beautiful warm sunny days are joined with torrential downpours and strong winds. It kept the crowds away.
Each day I walked along the shore and enjoyed the subtle shifts of color, the birds and their songs, seeing the regulars, and when lucky, catching sight of one of earth’s most extraordinary creatures, the whale.
The month in Hermanus gave me exactly what I’d wished for before setting off to Madagascar.
Usually traveling independently, I had some trepidation booking a seventeen day guided camping safari. However, I was not up to the challenge of driving through the wilderness and camping on my own. I decided to compromise my freedom and solitude for an experience I would otherwise forgo: an extensive encounter with Botswana’s wild life. The safari began in Maun.
Coming from my overnight camping trip in Chobe, the short flight from Kasane to Maun went well. Arriving at the airport, I waited for my bag, and waited. I asked employees, on three different occasions where I should pick up my luggage. All of them instructed me to stay where I was. Some time later I see a man pushing a cart toward me. My bag was the only item on it. He had been waiting for me in another area of the tiny airport and was on his was to drop my bag off at the lost luggage. I noted it would be best in the future to do my own investigating rather than rely on the advice of others.
With bag in hand I looked for the transport I’d arranged from the airport to my accommodations, the Maun Lodge. Already delayed, I was surprised it wasn’t waiting for me. After another thirty minutes, I called the lodge and was cheerfully told someone would be leaving now to pick me up.
I’d met a man from Maun at Afrikaburn and from his description I envisioned a quaint town where I could spend a few days and explore it on foot. My plan had been to relax there before setting off on the camping safari.
But the short drive from the airport on a busy road, with no sign of a quaint anything, shattered my expectations. The road was dusty and heavily trafficked with an array of motorized vehicles; some horses and cows wandering freely.
Later, returning to the reception, my idea of walking to a restaurant for lunch was quickly nixed. A woman at the reception told me, “You’ll need to take a taxi to get anywhere, it’s not safe to walk around here and everything is far.” She suggested I go to the “Old” shopping mall. I suspect my face revealed my disappointment. I asked her how to get there.
I was escorted by a slight elderly gentleman, wearing a green uniform with gold epaulets, to the roadside. He waved down a shared taxi and speaking in Tswana, the country’s official language (besides English), gave my destination to the driver. The two other passengers, a couple, made room for me in the back seat. I paid the driver with the five pula coin (about 45 cents) I’d borrowed from the woman at reception. I had no local currency (a visit to an ATM would soon change that) .
The “Old” shopping mall was a number of large stores selling clothing, food, electronic and household goods, and simple wooden stands displaying more of the same encircled a large parking lot. Makeshift nail salons and hair dresser stands selling wigs and extensions were busy with customers. American country and western music was blaring from speakers in the center and seemed markedly out-of-place. I asked a vendor about the music and she shrugged, then added. ” I think they’re trying to sell something.”
Lunch options were slim: Wimpy’s, Bimbo’s, and KFC. Fast food reigned. I walked across the street to Debonairs, a pizza chain, for a decent vegetable pizza. Afterwards I looked for a pair of pants and shirt to take on the camping trip, and despite the friendly, patient assistance of the vendors, I left empty-handed.
The three days and nights in Maun passed pleasantly: I had time to chat with the locals, including two young women studying plumbing and another hoping to heal a broken heart : despite a nearby night club which made sleeping before midnight a challenge.
I met the guide, Robson, and the cook, KK, a day before our departure. Robson displayed a cockiness in marked contrast with KK’s reserve. For the first five days it would only be them, a German family of four, and me exploring the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. We would be joined later by seven French tourists to head into the Okavango Delta and beyond .
The seven of us set off in an open safari truck with four rows of seats for the passengers. The family and I had plenty of room to stretch out. Morning hours were downright cold and the wind added to the chill. We bundled up in several layers and huddled under the blankets we were given as we set off to the game reserve. The paved road was soon replaced with a sandy track that ran along an endless fence to deter the spread of hoof and mouth disease among the livestock.
It wasn’t that long ago that cattle ranching superseded any concerns for the multitudes of wild animals that migrated freely for food and water: the fences denied wildebeest, gazelles and other magnificent beasts access to crucial water holes and streams leading to their devastating demise.
A slow-starting, but ultimately fascinating account of this struggle can be found in Mark and Delia Owens book, Cry of the Kalahari. Thanks to their efforts, and others, the Botswana economy shifted to promote tourism and the preservation of its glorious resources.
Our accommodations were the canvas two-person tents we set up ourselves (with assistance from each other). Foam mattresses were supplied. Toilets were of the bush variety: a seat on a stand over a hole in the ground. A small pile of dirt and shovel were provided for “flushing”. Our drinking water was filtered from the large tank that traveled with us and our scarce water supply for washing was unfiltered. I relied primarily on wet-wipes for my personal hygiene.
All cooking, including our bread, was done on an open fire. When asked about dietary restrictions I had written that I ate some meat, but preferred a vegetarian diet. After the first week of virtually nothing but meat, I gently requested more variety. KK managed to create some delicious options.
Our days followed the typical safari schedule. This meant waking up between 5:30am and 6:00am for breakfast: breaking camp when necessary (every or every other day): then heading out wearing my many layers for a three plus hour game drive; a tea/coffee break about 10am; lunch around noon and a return to or setting up camp, then given the heat, I would strip down to one layer; another game drive around 4pm until sunset around 6pm; dinner around 7pm when I would put back all those same layers and get into my sleeping bag for sleep around 9pm.
I resigned myself to the regimented lifestyle and focused instead on starting and ending each day by a camp fire and enjoying extraordinary sights and sounds during each waking moment.
And in addition to the schedule there were other changes to the lifestyle in the bush. Any necessary night “small business” we were advised, should be done cautiously: “Listen while inside your tent, open the flap and look around with your flashlight, listen again, step out of the tent, walk a few steps to the side or back of it, do not wander off, head back in without delay.”
I noticed the others opted to bypass this ritual altogether by avoiding any intake of liquids after 4pm. But I feared dehydration, given the heat, more than I did an encounter with a wild beast. Besides, I thoroughly enjoyed the nightly show of the moon and stars.
The rewards largely outweighed any inconvenience or discomfort.
When you go on an African Safari, generally the goal is to see “The Big Five”: lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, cape buffalo. There is also the “Ugly Five”: hyena, wildebeest, vulture, warthog, and marabou stork, the “Little Five”, “Shy Five,” etc..
The longer the safari, the greater the chance of seeing what you hope to. I tried to keep my expectations to a minimum, but that didn’t stop me from keeping my fingers crossed.
A bat-eared fox could be spotted from a distance with its distinctive outline.
Heading back to Maun to meet the French tourists we made time for a flight over the Okavango Delta. I had the pleasure of sitting next to the pilot.
After the Okavango Delta we traveled to the Moremi Game Reserve. I was told we were almost certainly going to see lions there.
After Moremi we headed to Chobe.
My expectations were met and exceeded ten-fold.
Returning back to Vic Falls I decided to treat myself to another sunset cruise. As the beauty of the moment unfurled, the wonderous images from Botswana did too.
The name “Victoria Falls” conjured an image of an exotic, inaccessible place. No doubt when David Livingstone saw it for the first time in 1855 the falls rightfully deserved such a notion. But the number of tourists who get there by plane, as I did, or by road, attest to its accessibility.
And the paved pathway, along the top of the gorge, leading sightseers to sixteen different lookouts points requires no treks through a jungle, but an easy stroll.
The risks are primarily getting doused with the spray, if the winds blow your way, or having food snatched from your hands by one of the enterprising baboons–which I managed to avoid.
I suspect nothing can mar the thrill of seeing the falls.? Even in the dry season, when the wide sheet of rushing waters is a fraction of its full force did not disappoint. The locals called the falls?Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders), and still do.
Watching rainbows form with the cascading water, and being cooled by the mist made me giddy.
I was reminded of my visit to Niagra Falls between US and Canada, there are several parallels. Seventy-five percent of Vic Falls are seen from the Zimbabwe side and the town, Victoria Falls, although pleasantly low-key is clearly in large part catering to the tourists that flock there. The Zambia side is smaller, but the pathways have thicker foliage with turnoffs offering a chance of a more isolated viewing. And its town, Livingstone, retains an authentic feel.
I reserved four nights in swanky accommodations on the Zimbabwe side? at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, justifing my splurge with the demanding road trip in Namibia the previous weeks. I indulged in hot showers, quiet relaxing moments observing wildlife, and sight-seeing.
The lodge, each afternoon at lunch time, offered the chance to watch vultures and marabou storks engaging in a feeding frenzy, thanks to a naturalist who supplied them with meat. It was the lodge’s effort to raise awareness of the vultures threatened existence and to stave off their decline.
Beside the walk along the falls there was the much talked about helicopter ride over the falls, which I couldn’t pass up (another splurge), and a delightful sunset cruise on the Zambezi River where hippos peeked from the water and crocodiles rested on the banks.
The public, denied the adventures of David Livingstone during his jungle trek, can get their thrills at the falls by bungee jumping and other “adrenaline rush” activities. I eschewed them all and opted for scenic walks.
There is some debate whether the falls are best visited on the Zimbabwe or Zambia side. I decided to visit both.
The border between the two countries is fluid: people travel for jobs and business opportunities daily.
Wishing to spend some more time in Livingstone, I found a room in the home of a delightful Zambian/Russian couple, Emmanuel and Natalie, who’d met on holiday in Spain five years prior.
They shared a passion for dogs and during my stay were busy caring for a recent litter of fourteen pups.
Their mom, a black lab mix, was overwhelmed by the prospect of feeding them all. She would blithely wander off despite their whimpering, and displayed no tug of maternal instincts. Her previous litter had been one sole pup, Shaka, from an arranged encounter with a Rottweiler.? He was 65kgs of muscle, and gentle as a kitten, as long as you didn’t come between him and the door.
The days gave me the chance to share time with Emmanuel and Natalie, explore the town, and the falls from the Zambia side.
I strolled about forty minutes into downtown Livingstone each day, enjoying a glimpse of local life, greeting people along the way. I found them warm and welcoming.
Asking directions to a shared taxi, a woman, with a large box of vegetables propped atop her head, walked several blocks with me until she was certain I knew my way.
Shared taxis were a convenient way to get around and gave me the chance to chat with the residents. They all showed excitement in speaking to someone from New York City. One driver had family in New Jersey.? In asking about a gospel concert being advertised, another driver made it clear that he did not belong to that denomination. Drivers never tried to take advantage of me, I was always asked the actual fare.
Some images of Livingstone:
Through Couchsurfing, I found a man, Ivor, who with his own funds started a school for abandoned/ impoverished children. He and his wife converted their home into a classroom, a room for a volunteer, and another room for their family. They built an outdoor classroom where, when I arrived, about thirty kids from two or three to twelve years of age crammed inside, engaging in play, with little supervision. The adults were busy preparing a farewell lunch for a French man who had been volunteering the past two weeks.
With barely a moment to introduce myself, the kids began calling me “teacher,” vyied for my attention, and jockied to sit beside me.? Some of these kids quickly soaked up anything I showed them. There were find the word books, all with Christian terminology, that mixed capital lettering in the list with lower case letters in the puzzle making the task difficult. A small group sitting near me patiently waited while I rewrote the words in lower case, while others preferred to style each others’ hair,? or gently touch mine. Having enough pencils with points was generally achieved quickly.
It was difficult to access what the kids already knew, but most seemed eager to learn. Many had a rudimentary command of English–some had more. It was a chaotic, boistrous atmosphere and after about an hour I was exhausted.
The couple’s aspirations were challenging at best, but these kids, coming from abject poverty, for at least part of their day, were safe, clothed, and fed.
During my stay in Livingstone I was trying to figure out my next destination.
Through an acquaintance, I learned of the Okavanga Delta in Botswana. The name entranced me, but how to get there? I spent a considerable amount of time looking into flights and travel options.
Although I loved my road trip in Namibia, I missed the opportunity to camp out in the wilderness and looked for camping trips in Botswana that included the delta and elsewhere. I found a seventeen day camping trip beginning in Maun, Botswana. The best option was to fly from Kasane, Botswana less than two hours by car from Livingstone.
I decided to make the most of this. I found a travel company, Kalahari Tours, that would pick me up in Livingstone, and offered a one night camping trip in Chobe National Park before dropping me off at the Kasane Airport.
Emmanuel, Natalie, and all their dogs, gave me a warm farewell before I was transported by van with a Spanish tourist, to the crossing, between Zambia and Botswana, by ferry. We were met on the other side by another van and driver, went through customs, and set off for Kasane to begin our tour.
Botswana didn’t seem too different from the countries I’d left behind. Despite a thriving economy and a much stronger currency, the pula, from what I could see there was little evidence of a wealthy nation.
After lunch, our group coming from Poland, Ireland, Holland, France and other places across the globe, enjoyed a boat tour of the Chobe River where wildlife was abundant and fascinating. We then set off in a safari truck in pursuit of seeing game.
Safaris are big business in Botswana. And some of the drivers in tracking game displayed a recklessness in their determination to please their customers. After hearing of a leopard in a tree, our driver sped along dirt paths in Chobe National Park sending helmeted guineafowl scurrying for their lives. Although I am not certain, it looked like at least one was sacrificed during the pursuit.
After watching a spectacular sunset and herds of elephants along the Chobe River, we set camp. We were warned not to wander off. Elephants and big cats roam freely.
The temperature dropped precipitously, and facilities were basic. It was an excellent preview for my camping trip, beginning in Maun, Botswana, a few days away.
The day I left Swakopmund, the area experienced a major power outage due to high winds. I’d been told “The sandstorms here can strip the paint off your car.” Carol, the host of my apartment, advised me to wait out the morning until the winds subsided. I did. When I left town around noon, sand was blowing across the highway. I figured if need be, I’d turn back and stay in “Swako” another night. But the drive, despite the usual bad roads, went well.
Driving from the coast, the terrain changed dramatically. Mountains suddenly jutted out of the desert. I was nearing Spitzkoppe, a group of granite peaks.
I passed simple structures of wood decorated with cans and bones. Locals had set up stalls by the road to sell handmade souvenirs and minerals. I pulled into the Spitzkoppe Tented Camp and was greeted by a young woman: her brother was the owner and both had grown up in the village.
My accommodation, a large canvas tent with bedroom and en suite outdoor private bathroom, had a spectacular view of the mountains. I was grateful I’d brought my down sleeping bag from AfrikaBurn, nights and mornings were cold.
I spent the days walking through the beautiful landscape and meeting the residents of the village, about a fifteen minute walk away. At night I gazed at the sky enjoying the solitude, as if I were the only living creature for miles. The barking dogs, and the sudden loud music coming from the shebeens(bars) of the village, would abruptly disrupt the illusion.
I decided to stay an extra day before heading on to Twyfelfontein. There I passed a night before driving to Palmwag.
Twyfelfontein and Palmwag offered natural splendor, ancient rock carvings, safari drives, and close encounters with Namibia’s elephants, and rhinos.
The thrill of seeing these marvelous creatures roaming free made driving on gravel, dusty, rocky, pot-holed roads, and even my second flat tire, worth it.
When I was in South Africa driving along the Garden Route, I often saw people standing or walking along the road, holding money in their outstretched hands in exchange for a ride. I passed them by. Many of them were women, all black, often with babes in arms and/or children in tow. It was very difficult not to stop and offer them a ride. Eventually, after careful consideration of each situation, I did.
The scenario, was often the same. The woman would get in the front seat, perhaps with a baby on her lap. I would always have to tell her to put the seatbelt on: the typical transport was open work trucks with no seats nor any security measures. If there were other children, they would get into the back seat, barely containing their excitement. Some of the women could speak some English. Many did not. The children, always quiet and extremely well-behaved, would show their pleasure with their smiles. Before departing they thanked me and offered me their blessings.
The roads of Namibia, offered the same predicament, with one major difference: distances between towns, villages, and settlements were vast, cars and trucks on many of the roads were extremely infrequent, and there was no public transportation. A person could wait for hours before a single car passed by.
I stopped for a boy who knew a few sentences in English and shyly did his best to speak with me; I was waved down to take a sick child and his father to the doctor; I picked up a man carrying a radio, playing what sounded like polka music, walking in heavy work boots toward his destination 30kms away; And here again were mothers with their children, traveling long distances, dusty and tired. I received more thank yous and blessings to last a lifetime.
A woman sitting by the road had two large bags by her side. I asked where she was going. It was in the opposite direction. She had already walked several miles and asked if I had some water. After filling a bottle, I set off and wished her well. I didn’t see a car pass in that direction for another two hours.
After many hours, I arrived in Opuwo, a dusty, windy, animated town with long stretches of buildings with little visual appeal and a dearth of cafes and restaurants.
However, the Hereo, Himba, and other tribes who reside there, come in for provisions, and/or sell trinkets to tourists often just passing through, offer a fascinating experience in Namibian cultures. The women were most distinguishable by their attire: the Hereos wore large colorful fabric dresses and hats,modeled from the German settlers; Himbas with reddish skin from applying a mixture of ochre and butterfat, were bare-breasted, wearing short skirts of animal skin, intricate hand-made necklaces, ankle bracelets, and adorned long braids; various other tribeswomen wore westernized style skirts, some with only a bra for a top, or dresses; some had closely cropped hair and others wore braids adorned with some beads.
I spent a night in the Abba Guesthouse, about a fifteen walk from the center shopping area in Opuwo, where I passed about eight churches strolling between the two. The owners were a missionary couple from Europe who’d built a church, founded a school and orphanage many years ago, and had more recently started a guesthouse on the same property. The accommodations were simple, but comfortable, and I enjoyed hearing the laughter of children playing outside. The password for the wifi was easy to remember: Jesus.
V. On the Road: Week Four ( Epupa Falls to Etosha National Park)
Epupa Falls, Etosha( Dolomite, Okaukuejo, Halali)
After a long drive from Opuwo, over arid lands on difficult, broken, dirt and gravel roads, suddenly patches of shrubs, marsh grasses, and trees appeared. I was nearing the Kunene River and Epupa Falls. The river, which separates Namibia from Angola, was wide and flowing well. Monkeys, crocodiles, multitudes of birds, at least one huge, but elusive, monitor lizard,and other wildlife were reaping the benefits of its life-giving force. My senses, after a lengthy deprivation of greenery, hungrily soaked it in.
Epupa Camp, which lies right on the banks of the river and just a short walk to the falls, was an ideal place to stay and explore the area, most notably the Himba villages.
Visiting the Himbas and their villages, was an extraordinary experience and gave me a glimpse into an ancient way of life.
Each encounter moved me greatly.
I was in the company of a guide/translator who was Himba and shared his life story: At ten years of age, while tending his herd of goats, he met a boy who could read. He had no formal education (it is generally frowned upon as a threat to the Himba’s traditional way of life) and felt compelled to run away to get one. He hitched a ride to a school, hours away, without telling his parents, and asked to be admitted. He had never held a pencil, did not know the alphabet, nor had he ever worn a pair of shoes. Despite the difficulties adjusting to a foreign world, and lacking the mandatory uniform, his dedication and abilities were quickly noted. He was given the basics to stay on.
After two weeks, the teachers went back to his village to speak with his family. His father nearly beat the teachers, but was convinced to let him stay. Making a toy helicopter that could fly, by himself, brought him to the attention of a Swiss man. This man seeing his promise offered to pay for his advanced studies. After obtaining a degree in mechanical engineering and living in Windhoek, far from his family and culture, he decided to return home and began working as a tour guide. The same Swiss man is currently paying for his sister’s education–without any protest from the father.
My time in the villages broadened my perspective of the human experience. Despite their basic way of life, I pondered the richness of their lives in comparison to my own.
At Epupa Camp I cherished the moments watching and listening to the river flow, being entertained by monkeys who scampered and played in the same tree that cast my shade, and reveling in the sweeping display of stars.
After a stay I could have easily prolonged, I took the same long road back to Opuwo, and continued on to Etosha where accommodations had been arranged.
Etosha, about the size of Switzerland, is a primary tourist destination in Namibia. I didn’t know much about it, except like everyone else, I’d hoped to see a range of animals roaming in their natural habitat. Not far from the entrance a herd of zebras ran in front of my car, warthogs scurried along the roadside, and a rhino grazed a short distance away.
Each day in Etosha offered extraordinary encounters with exquisite animals and insight into the animal kingdom. My breath was often held in excitement and taken away.
VI. On the Road: Week Five (Etosha NationalPark to Windhoek )
Etosha (Halali), Waterberg, Windhoek
Etosha rewarded me with quintessential images of Africa and indelible memories. Having to leave the park was not easy, but my visa was expiring in a few days. I drove south to Waterberg for my final stop, before a return to Windhoek.
Waterberg offered a diverse landscape, hiking trails, another flat tire, and a too close encounter with a bold, large male baboon.
Although Windhoek did not win my heart, I didn’t wish to take the chance of having another flat tire and potentially missing my flight. I left Waterberg and booked a room in a home for the night before my departure.
Between Waterberg and Windhoek the minutes on my SIM card had run out leaving me without GPS nor a means to make any calls. The only map I had did not mark all the streets. I finally found my home for the night, but it took a number of precarious wrong turns to get there.
The home with a cavernous living area, staircases that went off in several directions, and nearly vacant, was enormous. The husband was temporarily living in another country for work and the daughter, a finalist for Miss Namibia, was busy with the pageant. The wife/mother was kind, but not particularly social.
Not wishing to get lost the following day en route to the airport, reluctantly, on my last night in the country, I headed to the shopping mall to attend to the SIM card. Leaving my car behind, my host gave me a ride to the mall.
After sorting the card out, I didn’t have the energy to seek out a restaurant or some event in town. In the mall, I saw an eatery that offered an open view of the sky. Watching its colors, as day became night, was a welcome prospect.
My waitress, Sylvia, as I settled in for something to eat and catch up on my writing, continuously touched me with her kindness and sincere caring. I’d been hoping to give my tent away before leaving Namibia, and spontaneously asked if she, or someone she knew, might need one. Tears instantly welled up in her eyes.
Her sister was getting married back in their village and she and many of the guests would be sleeping outdoors. Sylvia was saving up to buy a tent, but hadn’t yet succeeded. She couldn’t believe her good fortune and thanked me again and again. We made arrangements for a driver she knew to take me home and pick-up the tent.
Since then, I’ve been receiving photos of Sylvia’s family in traditional Hereo attire at the wedding, an open-ended invitation to her village, and a request for my shoe size when I complimented her on the slippers she was wearing in one of the photos. “I will send them to you.” she offered.
I left Namibia sooner than I would have liked, but there was time enough to forge new friendships, have wonderful encounters, and share memorable moments with good, kind people whose names I never learned: people who offered traveling tips, helped me change my three flat tires, filled my tank with gas while sharing aspects of their lives and asking about my own, gave me directions, took the time to tell a tale, and offered a wave and smile as I drove by.
I hold on tight to the many images of Namibia’s people, wildlife, and terrain knowing in time memories fade.