August 6, 2007
Elk Grove, California
It’s been nearly 20 years since my first international adventure, a trip to Panama while working for Uncle Sam, but the inspiration to travel goes all the way back to early childhood. I have vague memories of a six week family journey across the United States in a Ford station wagon towing a travel trailer when I was five. What possessed to two otherwise sane adults to pack five kids, ages five to 15, in a car for six weeks, I’ll never know. But the journeys didn’t end there, my parents just upgraded the mode of transportation. There was the train adventure to the East Coast when I was 12, a trip to Hawaii when I was 13, and a visit to our nation’s capital at age 14. My parents’ traveled farther abroad after becoming empty-nesters - Europe, Alaska, and the Caribbean. I hope to pass along that same passion for travel, for exploration and discovery, to my own son. When Scott was eleven, I had the pleasure of sending him off on a five day non-stop field trip to Washington D.C. Two years ago we visited Orlando; last summer it was New York and Boston. Tomorrow we will venture farther from home and deeper into the world-Asia.
This will be Scott’s first true international journey. Although he has crossed our country’s borders several times, Cozumel when he was seven and Jamaica two years later, I don’t consider those resorts true international destinations; all-inclusives are too adapted to American visitors. But tomorrow, we depart San Francisco International Airport on an eleven hour flight that will literally take us half way around the world, a world to which we will have to adapt. Our initial destination is Atlantis SCUBA Resort, Puerto Galera, on the Philippine island of Mindoro. After four days of diving, beachcombing, and relaxing, we will continue our adventure in Tokyo for four more days of urban hiking and exploring.
Scott remarked recently how difficult it was to believe the time of our much anticipated trip is upon us. The months of abstract planning quickly progressed into something real, something here and now. I was reminded of my own adolescent anticipation of a trip to Hawaii, that "Christmas is coming" state of mind. Instead of sugar plums dancing in our heads, our visions will be of warm clear South China Seas and bustling neon Tokyo streets.
August 10, 2007
Parents have always recorded milestones in their children’s lives-first steps, first day of school, often devoting entire books to documenting them. While ordering a meal in a foreign country for the first time may not seem as momentous as a baby’s first words, ordering in a foreign language, with foreign currency, for the first time is an accomplishment. Today, in Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, Scott bought a Chicken McNugget meal. During my first trip to Asia, I followed the evening flow of a crowd through a Singapore market and I ordered my first meal, some strange noodle dish, from a food stall with just a couple gestures. I came away with not only a delicious meal, but the knowledge that I could do this. I could adapt to a foreign environment. McDonald’s in any country is still McDonald’s (substitute rice for French fries), but hopefully Scott will discover from simple experiences like this the confidence and courage to discover the world.
Sailors, too, have ways to mark milestones unique to them. First voyages and first equator crossings are traditionally marked by the shaving of heads. I’ve yet to cross the equator, but I did have my own head shorn aboard the Andrea C the first day out of Puerto Rica bound for Panama. Many travelers aren’t quite so drastic, choosing instead to have companions sign a dollar bill as a keepsake. Perhaps there should be some a ritual for crossing the International Dateline, something more than the usual ponderance "How can it be Thursday if we left home yesterday on Tuesday?" Scott and I wrestled with that question while chasing the setting sun west for eleven hours and somewhere over the North Pacific we lost one day from our calendar but only one hour from our clock. The time was filled with reading, sleeping, and card playing. Thank goodness for on-demand movies! A two hour lay over in Tokyo gave us the opportunity to exercise our aching legs and buy that first international Happy Meal. After another five hour flight south fromTokyo, we finally reached Manila.
Perhaps it was Scott's long blond hair that drew so many curious looks when we wandered the streets around our Manila hotel early this morning or maybe it was simply because we were the only non-Filipinos around. Within a few minutes walk, we saw gutters clogged with trash and dead vermin, air heavy with black smog, traffic choked streets, and a lot of poverty. Scott and I were repeatedly approached by whimpering children with outstretched hands; many were naked. I knew the Philippines to be a poor country, but I was not prepared for such a stark display of poverty and I wondered about its impression on Scott. It was impossible not to feel sorry for these kids while at the same time wonder if passing out a few coins would really improve their lives or simply perpetuate a cycle of poverty. We didn’t have any local currency (Pesos) and I wasn't about to start passing out US $20 bills, so we did our best to ignore their pleas. It was difficult to look past the boy with clouded eyes. Fortunately, a warm tropic rain developed and I let it chase us back to the hotel where we awaited the next leg of our journey-a two hour van ride to the southern coast and one hour boat ride to Mindoro.
August 13, 2007
Puerta Galera, Philippines
We found Nemo! He’s down here just off Sabang Beach in the Verde Island Passage faithfully guarding his sea anemone against any would be intruders-including SCUBA divers. Not so friendly in person, Nemo actually darted at Scott's outstretched hand, apparently not recognizing it as a friendly, curious gesture. We’ve spent the last three days exploring the coral gardens of Mindoro's northern coast while discovering our own limits. From the day this SCUBA diving trip was conceived during evening meals at home in Elk Grove, I knew I would constantly be nervous underwater. From that first back roll off the outrigger boat with our dive master, Rusty, I hovered over Scott like a tropical fish guarding an anemone, carefully watching his every movement.
Sabang Beach, Puerta Galera
Diving at 40 feet, the maximum depth of our first dives is neither difficult nor dangerous, but it does require constant attention to conditions and equipment. Scott's first dives in over two years were a constant battle with himself and his equipment-leaky masking, buoyancy problems, and unwieldy equipment. My struggle was internal, trying not to be like Nemo. As the days progressed, though, and the weather turned from overcast grey to beautiful blue skies, Scott's comfort level increased. His budding confidence became more apparent when his diving skills became second nature and he began to actively explore the ocean. As his underwater poise grew, so did mine. I hardly fretted over him during our last dives. We made several dives, exploring ship wrecks and coral reefs. Thanks to Rusty's experienced eye, each trip below brought new and fascinating sea creatures - banded sea snakes, eels, lionfish, and octopuses (or is it octopi?). Watching Scott discover, and excitedly point out, several large color changing cuttlefish was the highlight of my underwater adventure.
August 14, 2007
Puerta Galera, Philippines
Several years ago I spent a week on a live-aboard dive boat in the Turks & Caicos Islands. It was my dream SCUBA vacation-non stop pampered diving; I didn’t have to do anything except dive, eat and relax. It was a wonderful experience, but something was missing. In the isolation of the boat, I got no sense of the culture of the land, of the people. I’ve since decided to devote as much time discovering the world above the waves as below. Over dinner a few nights after our arrival, Scott and I reflected on our adventures. When he asked what I thought was the most interesting sight of the day, I answered by first defining interesting. Rather than characterizing it as the most unusual sight like the frogfish clinging to a staghorn coral or the frog skin purse hanging in the local market, I offered the experience I would share most with others back home - meeting John-John, Jaron, & Gilbert at Tamaraw.
After our second morning of diving, Scott and I decided it was time to see some of the island. We rented a motor bike (insisting on two helmets) and, with a sketchy map, set out to find Tamaraw Falls. Along the way we explored the town of Puerto Galera and I introduced Scott to the village of Sanandigan. The windy road from Sabang Beach to the town is narrow and heavily traveled by Jeepneys, those colorfully painted U.S. military surplus transports turned into public transportation. Although I've got some experience riding a motorcycle, this was an unfamiliar bike on an unfamiliar road with my son on the back, so we took our time riding the few kilometers to Puerto Galera, taking in the roadside fruit and vegetable stands and makeshift homes along the way.
The road to Tamaraw Falls
When we reached the center of town, little more than a crossroads where a yellow-shirted man directed traffic, we took a left according to our directions. At the outskirts of Puerto Galera, the road's center line ended, followed quickly by the asphalt giving way to hard packed rock and road construction dust. Like Scott’s underwater confidence, my riding poise improved and I was soon dodging potholes and passing earth laden trucks. We passed several road construction crews widening the road and digging drainage ditches and I was struck by the contrast to Cal-Trans. Advance construction methods like traffic control haven’t reached this corner of the world and we were left to our own cunning to navigate the maze of backhoes, graders, and road rollers, any one of which would have translated to a 20 minute delay back home. When we had gone further than described and were nervously close to half a tank (the nearest gas was back in Puerto Galera), we stopped to ask a crewman if we were on the right road to the waterfall. He simply turned and pointed across the ravine to a tall cascade partially obscured by the dense jungle. We found Tamaraw Falls.
From high above, the water fell 100 feet from a vanishing edge into a clear pool beside the highway. It crossed beneath a bridge and dropped again, into a man made pool below where children were splashing and laughing. The heat and humidity were stifling, so Scott and I gladly paid the PhP $20 (USD $0.45) admittance fee to the public swimming hole. Four boys playing in the first pool that we came to immediately stopped their games. They watched us quietly, suspiciously, but I knew how to break the ice. The children on Sabang Beach happily hammed for my camera during a visit several years earlier, so I simply gestured with my camera and the four swimmers were soon posing for pictures. Before long they were doing flips and somersaults. Scott felt a bit foolish when I asked the boys to pose with him, but it’s a great picture, one I will always treasure. The boys did not speak English, so I got out a Tagalog translation book and introduced Scott and myself. They introduced themselves as John-John, Jaron, and Gilbert. The fourth boy, a bit older and too shy to pose for the camera, didn’t share his name. After sharing their pictures with the boys, Scott and I climbed down to a lower, larger pool and enjoyed the cool water spring water.
The Boys of Tamaraw Falls
Back in Puerto Galera, we gassed up the motorbike and took a walk along the main street, visiting the shops and markets. As we passed an outdoor butcher’s stall, a young man called out "one picture, mister!” – the universal cry for "take my picture!" I first heard in an Indonesian spice market. I took his picture, and then Scott took one of me with him in front of a fly specked side of beef. Scott with the boys of Tamaraw Falls, me with the butcher! After a soda and beer at a quiet roadside restaurant attended by a young couple, Scott and I rode the narrow road back to Sabang Beach. But our ride was not over. From the Sabang road, I turned the bike down a side road, past the local fruit and fish stands, and up to the village of Sanandigan. I was looking for Hilary's house.
During my last visit to Puerto Galera and Sabang Beach four years ago, I met an Irish woman working as a Dive Master at the resort, who, despite her 20-something youth, had traveled the world. I was fortunate to cross paths with Hilary in Asia where she shared a side of the local life, Sanandigan in the early morning, I would never have found on my own. I walked this road only twice before (once in a mystical midnight rain), but after 4 years I still was able to pick my way up the road and down a couple side lanes. My faded memory was serving well, when I recognized the last path, a particularly steep culvert, as it suddenly appeared from around a bend. Without hesitation, I gassed the motorbike and headed up the pathway.
There are moments when throwing caution to the wind reaps rewards, like that evening when Hilary invited me top see the sun rise over Sanandigan. In sober daylight, though, caution would have better served Scott and I. Half way up the path the motorbike lost power and sputtered. I applied the brakes as hard as I could to keep us from rolling backward, but the hill was too steep. I yelled at Scott to jump off as the bike began to slip back, but he couldn't move fast enough and the bike toppled on top us in the tall weeds alongside the path. I panicked, having just dumped a motorbike on top of my son in a remote Filipino village god knows how far from the nearest medical facility, and wrenched the bike off of him as quickly as I could, fearing a broken bone or worse injury. Luckily Scott escaped with only a minor burn. With the motorcycle safely parked at the bottom of the culvert, Scott and I hiked up the last part and found Hilary's hilltop home. As we stood at the garden gate and surveyed the panoramic view of the island and the sparkling ocean, I shared my epiphanic moment with Hilary.
Over dinner on a veranda overlooking the beach, Hilary shared her life of adventure-traveling Europe, South America, Australia, and now Asia. I was enamored with the confidence she possessed to journey across the world alone. After sharing several bottles of wine and accepting her invitation, Hilary bargained with a slightly drunk jeepney driver in Tagalog for a ride up the hill to Sanandigan. My senses reeled with the sounds of the waves on the beach, the aroma of fishing frying in a nearby restaurant, and the warm tropical rain falling on us, and I was amazed by how easily this young single woman traveled the world and adapting to new environments. At that moment, on a midnight Sabang Beach street corner, I decided I would no longer let my ignorance of the world, my fear of the unknown, keep me from discovering it.
Atlantis Resort Card Shark
A few nights later, alone in a Manila hotel room, I looked out the window at the busy city ten floors below. Before meeting Hilary I would have stayed in that safe air-conditioned room and wondered what it was like outside. Instead, on that humid November night in 2003, half a world from home, I put aside my fears and went outside…alone…and discovered the world around me. I’m told Hilary has since returned to Ireland, married to a marine biologist, and is attending a university. She made it clear when we parted on the beach four years ago that ours was only a holiday romance, but she made a much greater impact on me than that. I hope Scott caught some of that inspiration at the garden gate to Hilary's house.
A bit battered and bruised, Scott and I returned to Sabang Beach and spent the remainder of the day, and much of the next, wandering the same shops, bargaining for more pirated DVDs, and relaxing by the pool. Our last evening at Atlantis Resort was spent in the hotel’s beachside bar, where Scott amazed the staff and fellow divers with a few of his card tricks while a group of Japanese divers got drunk on beer bongs.
August 15, 2007
Grand New Prince Takanawa Hotel
While visiting Singapore, I developed a wonderful habit of spending my mornings at a coffee shop near a busy mall. I would while away the first hours of each day reading a book and sipping coffee before setting off to explore some new part of that island country. Each day in Sabang Beach started in a similar fashion. Scott adapted to the 15 hour time difference quicker than I, easily sleeping past dawn. I, however, was awake each day before first light and spent the solitude quietly on our patio with a fresh cup of coffee and a book. On the morning before our departure from Puerta Galera, after lazily strolling through the shops one last time, Scott suggested we return to our ocean view room and read. I readily agreed, thinking he was becoming the perfect travel companion-SCUBA diving, reading and relaxing.
Arriving in Tokyo yesterday afternoon hot, hungry, and travel weary, Scott and I wandered the neon streets of the Shinjuku ward looking for someplace to eat, someplace that appealed to both of us; someplace offering traditional noodle dishes and pizza. The humidity took its toll and we both had grown quite irritable and I swear he was taking delight in disagreeing with every one of my suggestions. Finally, at about 9:00 PM, we found Anna Miller's American Food. There was no rice or ramen on the menu, but the sandwiches were very good (as well they should for USD $30!) Our hunger was satisfied, but we were still very tired and, despite the late hour, the humidity didn't show any signs of abating, so we ended the night early.
Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo
Our long journey to the Shinjuku ward, which served as the back drop for Bill Murray's Lost in Translation, began with a dawn flight from Manila. We reached the The Philippines’ capital late the night before thanks to a very rough crossing of Verde Island Passage from Puerta Galera to Batanges and a four hour traffic-choked drive into the city. At the airport this morning we passed through nine different security checks between the parking lot and the plane itself - a visual inspection of our taxi, x-raying our luggage at the terminal door, hand inspection of our carry on bags, etc., etc., etc. The security ladies at the last checkpoint kept giggling and looking at Scott while searching our backpacks. Feeling a bit self conscious, I asked why they were laughing. Apparently another teenage boy with long hair passed through their check point just moments before and I think she was insinuating that we all look alike. We saw very few other boys with long hair in the Philippines (long locks aren’t very practical in the humid environment), so Scott got plenty of curious looks everywhere we went.
After our four hour flight to Tokyo and a 90 minute bus ride into the city, we reached our hotel late yesterday afternoon and promptly set out to master Tokyo’s public transportation. If New York's subway system is mapped like a plate of colorful spaghetti, then Tokyo's system is three separate plates of rainbow ramen labeled in Japanese script! It is very confusing, but after a few missteps and a wrong ticket (wrong plate), we finally reached the Shinjuku ward.
There are many stark contrasts between Tokyo and the Philippines. Puerto Galera was rough roads and poverty. Tokyo is immaculate asphalt and prosperity. We've not been hounded once by street vendors selling necklaces, watches, or pirated DVDs since leaving the Philippines. In Puerto Galera we paid PhP $35 (USD $0.81) for a cold beer and soda. A soda and bottle of water at Anna Miller’s set us back Yen $1,210 (USD $10.52). Everything in Sabang Beach is geared toward English speaking visitors; in Tokyo, outside our international hotel and various billboard slogans, there is little evidence of English. In fact, if Japan hadn't adopted a Romanized alphabet, we would probably still be on our first subway ride.
Today, our second journey on the Tokyo noodle, to the Imperial Palace, was much smoother (it's amazing how much easier things can be when you ask for directions!) Unfortunately the palace itself, hidden behind high stone walls, is open only one or two days each year, so Scott and I settled for a stroll through the Imperial Gardens despite the most oppressive heat and humidity I’ve ever experienced. We found it curious that we had difficulty finding a trash can anywhere on the garden grounds or nearby public areas. Perhaps in Japan, where eating in public has been traditionally frowned upon, trash cans aren’t necessary.
August 16, 2007
Grand New Prince Takanawa Hotel
We discovered the Museum of Science Technology in the northern grounds of the palace gardens yesterday afternoon. Ever the inquiring mind, Scott quickly became engrossed in the five floors of hands on science displays. One of the more popular attractions was an exhibition on earthquake construction technology. We sat in a machine that simulated a large quake, first in an older building, then in a modern quake-resistant one. Early this morning, Scott and I got a non-simulated demonstration of the latter. I was awaken at 4:00 AM by the gentle rolling of my bed and was immediately aware of a quake. Not wanting Scott to miss the experience, I quietly called across to him. Already awake, he asked what was happening; he had never been in a trembler before. The 5.5 quake lasted ten or 15 seconds and we were both well awake when it was done. Scott talked excitedly in the aftermath and it was quite some time before he calmed down.
After visiting the museum, Scott and I went to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s part of the Tokyo Dome City, home to the Yamuri Giants baseball club and an amusement park. We arrived 45 minutes before closing, but Scott and I decided to see what we could. Last summer we spent a day at United States’ Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., but it only took us only 30 minutes to take in the entire Japanese version. There far fewer exhibits and very little of the information is in English. The only name I recognized in the actual hall of fame was Sadaharu Oh. Scott and I debated about who was the real homerun king – Barry Bonds (758 and counting) or Oh (800+) and we agreed on our home team player.
Baseball Hall of Fame
It took a couple days in Tokyo, but we finally found souvenir sellers this morning. The road leading to the Senso-ji temple in the Asakusa ward is lined with vendors hawking souvenir swords, fans, and refrigerator magnets. We also saw the highest concentration of American and European tourists here and even met a California family at a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken. Just outside the temple, Scott learned future by shaking a can containing dozens of fortune sticks, each carved with Japanese script, until one finally popped out the small hole on top. He matched the stick’s carvings to the rows upon rows of small drawers and found the one matching his stick; inside, a sheet of paper foretold his fortune. The Senso-ji temple was built to honor a small stone statue accidentally fished out of a local river hundreds of years ago. Inside the noisy shrine, where tourists mingled with worshippers, I noticed a large mat to the side of the shrine screened off from the rest of the temple. I led Scott to the mat where we removed our shoes and quietly knelt for several minutes. Rather than remain with the crowd, I showed Scott we could go beyond merely looking and experience sights.
Early on Scott expressed an interest in experiencing a traditional kabuki theatre during our visit to Japan. We learned that plays last several hours and that it’s not impolite to bring a picnic lunch or even doze off during one of the many acts. Fortunately, we discovered that balcony tickets could be purchased for individual acts and the must-see theatre was the famed Kabuki-ka. A large crowd was already waiting when we arrived in the afternoon. Just ahead in the line an official looking man stood with a sign in his hand repeatedly made an announcement. Unsure what was going on, we agreed to just go with the flow. After a few minutes, the man noticed us and repeated his announcement. When we gestured that we didn’t understand, he became visibly distraught. He gestured for us to wait where we were and rushed off. A few minutes later he returned with an English sign indicating we were too far back in line to be admitted to the next show and would have to wait for the following act. I was amazed how upset the usher was that we didn’t initially understand him and that he felt compelled to immediately bridge the language gap. I don’t imagine that would happen if the roles were reversed outside a Broadway Theater.
The heat and humidity were once again relentless and I was sure Scott wouldn’t want to wait over an hour for a dramatization performed in Japanese. I learned how strong his interest in theater was, though, when his determination didn’t waver. Luckily, just as they were closing the door just ahead of us, we were offered standing room only tickets. It wasn’t difficult to choose between standing in line in the heat for 75 minutes or standing inside the air-conditioned theater for 75 minutes. We paid our admission and climbed three flights of stairs to the gallery. Scott, aided by an English audio commentary recording, enjoyed the story of a lazy man befriended by a ghost. I wasn’t able to follow the story closely, but he filled me occasionally and I enjoyed the kabuki experience, too.
After the show Scott and I rode the subway to the Shibuya ward, where endless neon lights tower over the narrow streets lined with restaurants and arcades. This is where Gen X-ers gather in trendy, sometimes outrages, outfits and hairdos to hangout and socialize. Scott enjoyed the endless video games, particularly in the arcade with five narrow walk up floors and a stuffy smoky basement. I was amused by the middle aged man dressed in a business suit playing Drum Maniac over and over with as much gusto as Wang Chung. Scott would have been content to explore Sega World and the many other arcades all night, but we only had one morning left to visit the sunrise fish market, so we made it an early night.
August 18, 2007
Elk Grove, California
As a child, December 26 was the most depressing day of the year. With the excitement of the holidays past, the weeks of anticipation gone, the day after Christmas was always a let-down. Fortunately as I’ve grown older, that disappointment has been tempered with an appreciation for getting back to a normal routine. Today feels like December 26, with a January 1 jet-lag hang over. It’s sad our journey is over, but it is good to be home.
It took about seven days in Asia before I finally got over jet-lag and on each of our last evenings in Tokyo we determined to wake before dawn the following day to visit the famed Tsujiki Wholesale Fish Market where over $15 million worth of fresh fish are sold each day before sunrise. Each morning, though, it was easier to sleep past day break and put it off one more day. Finally, on our last day, Scott and I got up before sunrise (no earthquake alarm), made two subway transfers, and reached the market before most of the city was awake. Unfortunately, the market was still asleep, too. It was one of those rare days the market was closed!
As Scott and I returned to our hotel and prepared for our return home, I thought about the many sides of Tokyo. We visited ancient temples attended by simply dressed monks, high tech business centers filled with men in suits, and neon arcades filled with Gen-Xers dressed in the latest fashions. In one subway ride we saw a skimpy clad teen girl with bleached blonde hair, children in school uniforms, and a woman wearing a traditional kimono. Not one of them, though, showed any signs of the heat that left my shirt perpetually soaking wet!
We left Asia in the afternoon, flying east away from the setting sun only to find it rising over our west coast. Somewhere over the north Pacific, Scott and I found that lost day and arrived in San Francisco seven hours before we left Tokyo. Perhaps our Boeing 747 was outfitted with a flux capacitor. Riding BART to our parked car, Scott and I shared a train with Americans of Asian, African, European, and Central American descent –a true melting pot. Whether we were walking the streets of Manila, wandering the shops of Puerto Galera, playing video games in Shinjuku, or riding the Tokyo subways, people stared at us every where we went. It felt good to be a local again.
We've had the great fortune of seeing another part of the world. The experiences-watching huge cuttlefish scurry by, motor biking to Tamaraw Falls, mastering Tokyo's subway, fortune reading at the Senso-ji temple, are far more memorable for having shared them with Scott. I brought home no T-shirts or key chains, no trinkets to put on a shelf. Aside from a few hundred pictures, the only souvenirs I have from our journey to the East are what I learned about the world, about my son, about myself.