Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Caracol means "snail" in Spanish.

I've always liked the sound of the word, but found a new appreciation for it when I visited Chiapas, Mexico in 2006 and hung out with some Zapatista rebels for a couple of days. The Zapatistas live in autonomous communities called caracoles. The caracoles are named as such for lots of reasons, one being the fact that the Zapatistas move around a lot. Just like snails, they're self-sufficient enough to carry their homes on their backs -- both literally and figuratively.

So what does this all have to do with my blog on life in Japan?

I spent the weekend being inspired by caracoles of a slightly different kind -- the backpack-clad kind that are trekking the globe simply for the sake of trekking the globe. I've always liked the romantic, wanderlust-y notion of being able to live out of a backpack, being adaptable to enough to pick up and go when an opportunity for adventure presents itself.

(Disclaimer: At this point, I'm sure I'm raising a few eyebrows by drawing a comparison between backpackers on holiday and the indigenous people involved in the Zapatista movement. Those who know me best already know that I have the utmost respect and compassion for the latter, who are forced to move around constantly to escape government persecution. 'Nuf said.)

At any rate, I had a small taste of caracol-ness this past summer, when I was attempting to pack my life into two suitcases to move to Japan. There was something quite cathartic about giving away my furniture, selling my things on Craigslist, and donating bags of clothing. It was nice to get rid of all of that stuff, realizing that I could live a year with the few things I could cram (tightly) into two barely-meeting-airline-regulations-sized suitcases.

But, alas, I'm not much of a caracol after all: I have an apartment here in Japan. A place to hang my figurative hat. And I still have stuff. I'm a poser.

This weekend, I traveled to Osaka and met some folks who put my stabs at caracol-ity to shame. There was "L," an engineer who has a job that's 100 percent travel. She has no home -- just a P.O. box in Chicago -- but a passport full of stamps. There was "P," a Jamaican-Kiwi guy who's been circling the globe for four years with little more than a chess board, supporting himself by challenging people to games of chess in the streets. There was "I," an ex-exec's assistant from Australia, who was backpacking through Asia before heading to Serbia, where she was born, to reconnect with her roots.

Quite the motley crew. I swapped travel stories with these folks until the sun came up on Sunday. It was a fantastic evening/morning.

But perhaps caracol-ity is best embodied by "R." He's a Spanish guy who's been cycling across Asia for the past two years. Across New Zealand. Through Malaysia. Down Mt. Fuji in a snowstorm. That's a picture of his bike above -- and that's all the stuff he has to his name at the moment. Respect.

I met "R" back in Fukui, and, with some friends, joined him for a leg of his bicycle journey -- a 10-hour, 120-kilometer (75-mile) leg of his bicycle journey. The ride was exhausting, but the experience was incredible -- we wound our way through rice paddies, climbed mountains and coasted down to the Sea of Japan, where we cycled through the tiny fishing villages that dot the coastline. I rode past waterfalls, squid boats, and hunched-over octogenarians working in the rice fields. I tasted strawberry mochi and sea salt. And, lest the experience be too Norman-Rockwell-meets-Japan, I saw a woman hanging out with her random huge pet turtle in the road. (Really.)

All of this on a perfect 75-degree day with puffy white clouds in the sky. The pack on my back seemed almost weightless (though the pain shooting through my saddle-sore butt was very real!). Maybe it's fitting that カタツムリ (katatsumuri, or "snail") was one of the first words I learned in Japanese. I may get this caracol stuff down after all...

Monday, April 14, 2008

You say 'hanami,' I say 'hasami...'

Spring has sprung here in Fukui: my car's windshield is ice-free in the mornings (yippee!); I no longer see my breath indoors while walking through the hallways at school; and, perhaps most importantly, the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.

Happy, happy times.

The Japanese are serious about their sakura (cherry blossoms). This shouldn't come as a surprise: the Japanese are serious about nature in general. Remember my tale about the teacher who drove 7 hours to see fall leaves? Add to that dedication to nature the fact that the sakura blossoms last only a week or two, and you have an all-out sakura hysteria. The Japanese say that the brevity of the sakura is what makes them most beautiful.

Each year, the Japanese weather service issues a blossom forecast (桜前線) which shows when the sakura blossom "front" will start in the south of Japan (in late March) and move up to the northern parts (by early May). This forecast allows folks to plan hanami (flower viewing) parties, which involve packing a picnic, setting up a tarp under the blossoming trees, and drinking lots and lots and lots of sake.

On Friday, I went to school, proudly announcing to my colleagues that I would be doing "hasami" on Saturday. I felt so cool. I thought they'd be happy to learn that I was participating in something so Japanese. Instead, my little proclamation was met with stifled laughter and confused stares.

Hasami (with an 's') means 'scissors' in Japanese. Doh!

Turns out my hanami experience was as botched as my attempts to pronounce it. I had planned to meet two friends at the castle here in town, which, conveniently, is surrounded by cherry trees. Unfortunately, Saturday, in true Fukui fashion, turned out to be overcast and rainy. The raindrops pelted away some of the blossoms in the morning, leaving a soggy, cold mess at our designated afternoon hanami time. We met at the castle anyway, accepted a couple of beers from a few die-hard fellow hanami-ers, took a few half-hearted pictures (the picture above is actually from earlier last week, taken in Fukui City while I was walking to my car...), shivered for about 10 minutes, and then called it a day. Oh well.

So my hanami was as short-lived as the blossoms themselves. Hanami, hasami. Let's call the whole thing off.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Seoul & The Skin-Eating Fish

On my way back to Japan from Cambodia, I stopped in Seoul to catch up with two old pals: a friend from high school who I hadn't seen in eight years, and another buddy from my undergrad days, whom you might recall from my misadventures in Osaka in February. Both work as English teachers in Korea.

It was, of course, lovely to see my friends. We took Seoul by storm, visiting a centuries-old palace called Gyeonbok, climbing a mountain to view the city from Seoul Tower, taking in a healthy dose of America by drinking at a bar near the U.S. military base, checking out the Korea War Memorial Museum, strolling through markets and shopping districts, and dining on authentic Korean kim chi and bibimbap.

However, my most unforgettable Seoul experience came on Saturday night. In what will certainly go down as one of the Top Five Weirdest Experiences of my Life, I voluntarily stuck my feet in a pool of fish that eat dead skin.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I could launch into a list of obvious puns, about how I smoothed my soles in Seoul, or about how a nice pedicure is good for one's soul, but I think that this experience is weird enough to stand on its own, without the lame cliches.

The place was called the Doctor Fish Cafe, a lovely little coffee shop with a menu featuring creamy lattes and cute cakes - and, for 40,000 won ($4), the opportunity to stick your bare feet in a pool of sucker fish.

Is there no better way to bond with old friends?

The fish, as per my extensive research on Wikipedia, are called cyprinion macrostomusare and are imported from the Middle East. They eat dead skin. And they tickle like heck while they do it. So it's a good thing that this cafe also had beer on the menu -- a certain member of our party needed to consume several to take the edge off.

During our "treatment," I chatted with other patrons around the pool, trying to put the steady tingle of little fish lips out of my head. I concentrated on other things when the big fish -- fat from eating loads of dead skin -- attacked my pinky toes. And I tried not to be embarassed when the fish passed up my friends' comparatively-dainty feet to feast on my running-induced calluses. Gross but hilarious.

The post-treatement regiment included an aromatherapy soak in fish-free water (ostensibly to get rid of the fishy smell), coffee and beer at our table, and a piece of complementary cake.

Two days later, my feet are noticeably smoother. But I think I have a fish hickey on my big toe.

Smiles and Tears in Cambodia

In some ways, Cambodia reminded me of the United States. I used American dollars for all of my purchases, for example. Cars drove on the right side of the road. Lots of folks spoke flawless English.

Maybe I've been in Japan too long.

But I knew that I definitely wasn't in the United States -- or Japan for that matter -- when I woke up at 4:30 a.m. on my first morning. My alarm hadn't gone off early; instead, the folks in the home next to my guesthouse were blaring wedding music through rented loud speakers. I peered out the window to see a dozen or so people congregated in plastic chairs, eating breakfast as they shooed the chickens running through the dirt yard. In Cambodia, weddings last anywhere from three days to a week and are truly all-day affairs. The volume of your party music correlates directly with the amount of money you have (or are pretending to have). Talk about keeping up with the Joneses...

Other than the very early starts on multiple mornings, my spring break in Cambodia was an amazing experience. I sojourned to the town of Siem Reap to volunteer as an English teacher at Anjali, a locally-run NGO (the name means "divine offering" in Sanskrit) that provides schooling for street kids.

Working in a desperately poor country, Cambodian teachers make dismal salaries, forcing them to "tax" their students to supplement their incomes. While this "tax" is usually about 12 cents per day, it means that many struggling families can't afford to send their kids to school. Instead, these youngsters get sent out to work in the street, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Anjali is working to fix that by offering free classes -- and lots of love -- to these kids. As Siem Reap is located just footsteps from the Temples of Angkor, a world heritage site and major hub for tourism, Anjali tutors these kids in English, in hopes to help them score a legit job in the tourist industry when they get older. The kids -- all 80 of them -- were amazingly well-adjusted and eager to learn, despite their rough backgrounds.

As much as I loved my time at Anjali, I was able to play both volunteer and tourist in Cambodia. Already awake at 4:30 a.m., I set out for Angkor Wat at sunrise on my weekend off. Built in AD 800, Angkor Wat is the largest of the hundreds of temples at Siem Reap -- actually it's the largest religious structure in the world -- and is beyond breathtaking. I loved it so much that I returned at noon to photograph it again -- check out the postcard-ready shot of the temple with the three pine cone-esque spires.

You'd think that Angkor Wat would be hard to top, but Cambodia kept outdoing itself. After the Wat, I visited Bayon, a temple with 200 mysterious faces peering out of the jungle, and Ta Prohm, which also served as the set for Tomb Raider a few years back (see: temple crushed under tree roots, above). I covered the 17 kilometers between the temples in a tuk tuk on the back of a motorcycle -- with a fun-loving, Japanese-speaking driver named Heng -- and on the back of an elephant.

Pretty spectacular.

Other highlights included chatting up some Buddhist monks (and scoring a phone number -- turns out they're just normal guys!) at the Wat across the street from my guesthouse; meeting the founder of a land mine museum (a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge, he planted the mines two decades ago, and now is working to deactivate them); speeding on the back of a motorcycle to check out a village floating on a lake; and dining on Cambodian stir fry with the locals for a buck in open-air street stalls.

Warning: buzz kill ahead. While I've posted smiling pictures and have painted a happy picture of my trip, I feel compelled to balance the sunshine with the truth. Mixed in with all of this fun was a sobering dose of reality. Cambodia's Khmer Rouge-induced civil war ended just over a decade ago, and the economy and people are still recovering. At the Temples, I'd meet tiny children hawking guidebooks who spoke multiple languages flawlessly (if I told them I was from the USA, their sales pitch was in English; my lie about being from Spain was met with a pitch in perfect Spanish; my Swedish friend got the pitch in Swedish; and I also heard them speak pretty darn good Japanese). Had these kids been born anywhere else, they'd be well on their way to going to university and leading comfortable lives. But in Cambodia, they have nowhere to go.

Sadly, even the the kids at Anjali weren't immune from begging: after dinner in town one evening, I was absolutely heartbroken when I saw two of "my" kids -- the same kids I'd taught and laughed with and hugged during the day -- selling postcards in the street. Though Anjali has a strict "no begging" policy, these kids' parents were HIV positive and unemployed, leaving the family little choice but to put the children to work at night. I bought the kids a hot dog and told them that seeing them on the street made me very sad, that they needed to go home, but I know that they're probably back out on the street as a type this, just one week later.

So I guess that's where my Cambodia-United States comparison ends. In the U.S., I'd like to think that driven, motivated kids would have options -- at the minimum, some small chance to break out of the cycle of poverty. In Cambodia, that's simply not the case right now. But perhaps my week in Siem Reap at least made a few disadvantaged kids smile.

All in all, it was an eclectic, unforgettable week -- both inspiring and sobering -- one that pictures and words really can't do justice to. Though I went to Cambodia to work as a teacher, I learned far more than I taught, and I'm thankful for the experience.