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...

1 comment:

Susan said...

So, I've been so swamped at work and haven't had much time to catch up on the blog. Thought I'd see what you've been up to the past few weeks, and WOW, it puts everything I've done to shame! What an incredible experience you've had!!