Category Archives: Living abroad

Next Steps

As we were leaving our last museum of the day, the kindly volunteer gestured to a shelf with books for sale and invited us to take a work of origami made by her and other volunteers, gratis.  I realize they didn’t have many visitors this time of year and so they have time on their hands, but still—these works were really impressive.

For some reason I would have felt guilty taking, literally, a whole boatload, so I selected a deer, the symbol of Nara.  Here it is, in my curio cabinet, where it will remain the only item until I sell this behemoth.

The volunteer waved us back over to her desk, where she informed us of an approaching typhoon.  It turned out to be nothing, but it’s weird that I’m writing about it now, when there was actually a typhoon in Tokyo and the surrounding areas just last week that killed 60 people.

Back at the hotel, Lynn and I decided we would be too embarrassed to partake in the All You Can Drink menu for a third night.  So we ordered room service and had doughy, crustless cucumber sandwiches again, with corn nuts and vending machine beers.

The next day, I would journey on to Koyasan and Lynn would return to Tokyo, where she would spend a night and then fly back to Scotland the following day.

Since we met in 2006, Lynn and I have visited Prague, Italy, Berlin, Colombia, New Orleans, Spain, New York, Minnesota, many places in the UK, and now Japan.  As is our habit on our last night, we packed and talked travel.

Where were we going next?  What were the top three destinations on our travel wish lists?  Where should we try to meet up next?

I already had a round trip ticket to Panama for December. Lynn said she and Richard might have a holiday in Crete in spring 2020.  We talked about going to Vietnam.  It’s something we’ve discussed for a few years but between our work schedules and Vietnam’s rainy season, it hasn’t panned out so far.

We had the news on.  At the G20 Summit in nearby Osaka, Trump was insulting his host and our US ally, Japan.

“I know I talk about moving to another country all the time,” I said, wincing at the news.  “But this shit really, really makes me want to flee.”

“Well now you’re self-employed, you can work anywhere,” Lynn responded.

True.  But not so easy, with my mother declining and my son’s family growing.

There’s all my stuff. And my US friends

And inertia.

We went round and round about the bill for the hotel.  I had been tracking our shared expenses in an Excel spreadsheet, at which Lynn rolled her eyes.  In the end I snuck up to the front desk and paid the whole thing, and she wired me a few hundred quid once she was home.

Today is October 20 and here is an update before I wind up my Japan narrative.

I cancelled my trip to Panama.  It’s the first time in my life I’ve done this, but I didn’t have enough financial certainty to feel comfortable paying for two weeks there.  But also, the Rough Guide was full of statements like, “Avoid the scar slum,” and “The museum costs $2 and isn’t worth it,” and “This cathedral has been closed for renovation since 2010.”  So I wasn’t feelin’ it anyway.

As soon as I cancelled, I learned that my main contract would renew next year.

That’s good news, because I’ll be housesitting in Oxford for three months this winter and won’t be able to work in a job job.    I’ll be chicken and cat sitting, and working remotely on contract.  I’ve found a sub-letter for my duplex, so I won’t be losing money.

Then, I will traverse Europe by train and boat—an experiment to see if I can produce zero carbon emissions by not flying.  I’ll meet Lynn and Richard in Crete, where they will be with some other friends.

In the meantime, I’ll be working all the hours I can get at the YMCA, and substitute para-teaching, to save, save, save.

Curio Schmurio

I spent a night at my son’s before I left for Japan, so he could easily give me a ride to the airport the next morning and use my car while I was gone.

There are so many logistics involved in a one-month trip, and the more stuff you have, the more thinking and planning it takes.  My car—much as I need it and love driving—falls under the category of stuff.  I couldn’t leave it parked outside my house; it might have been reported as an abandoned vehicle and towed.  My first plan was to leave it in my brother’s driveway, but that would have made getting to the airport challenging because he was already transporting my sister-in-law and two nephews and their baggage in his small car.  I could have taken an Uber or a taxi from there, but Vince said he’d be happy to use my car, which gets better mileage than his minivan.

I know I’m not alone in struggling between liking my stuff and wanting to heave it all out the window and run away forever.

Yesterday I acquired the ultimate piece of stuff, an antique curio cabinet that has stood in successive generations of my family’s homes, most recently my aunt’s.

Why, oh why, did I take it?  It’s a lovely but useless piece; the worst combination of both fragile and heavy.  But there’s a strong tug of nostalgic value.  I have childhood memories of gingerly opening the glass front and taking out the trinkets my grandmother kept inside.  Once a year or so we would do the same at my aunt’s, and she would tell stories about the origins of the cut-glass pickle boat or the bisque Christmas ornament of a roly-poly little man we called Happy Fat.

Molly, my cousin, said she always felt the curio cabinet was a ball and chain.  “We could never run around the house without mom yelling, ‘Be careful of the curio cabinet!’”

It’s a symbol to me, this curio cabinet.  A symbol of my ties to ancestry and place, but also of being stuck in Minnesota and never being able to escape its gravitational pull.  So I’ll try to sell it.  Some nice gay couple may want it for their Lalique collection.

I struggled the day before I left.  Why was I leaving?  It was summer, which is so fleeting and precious in Minnesota!  Summer is our reward for getting through the long winters.  Why wouldn’t I stay, and spend time with my son’s girls?

Of course I went, and here they are examining the Japanese food items I brought home a month later.

People aren’t stuff.  But, like belongings, they make it difficult to run away from home, temporarily or permanently.

I came across this quote from Henry David Thoreau:

There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself….

I’m not sure what it means, or what it means for me, but I do know I’ve got Post-Trip Depression Syndrome (PTDS) and maybe Thoreau—the ultimate case of someone who chucked it all and went to live in the woods—can help.

My travel to Tokyo was completely smooth until I exited Hamamatsucho Station with my suitcase and attempted to find my hotel.  I had chosen not to pay for a portable hotspot or data, so I was going off printed directions, which said the hotel was a 10-minute walk from the station.  How hard could it be?

An hour later I was trudging down the same tiny alley for the third time, squinting to scry English anywhere but mainly to hold back tears of frustration and anxiety.

I was also hoping a stranger would feel sorry for me and help me find the hotel without me having to ask for help.

Finally I walked a half block farther than the city blocks I’d circled four times.  I saw something that looked like a hotel and … it was my hotel.  Whew.

Here’s another quote I totally get, from the travel guru Rick Steves.

Fear is for people who don’t get out very much.

Exchanges

Thanks to Craig’s List, I found someone to sublet my duplex while I’m in Japan.  This will cover my bills back home, which will help me to not dig myself too deep into a financial pit.

The sub-letter is a Chinese guy who is earning a PhD in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Zhang came by in February to look at the place and give me the deposit check.  Yesterday he came again to get an orientation to the house.

He brought a friend with him, Winnie, probably not her real name. Also Chinese, she graduated from the program in Counseling Psychology last year and is working two jobs, one in a group home for severely mentally ill adults and one in some other kind of home for handicapped children, I think.

So the US will still grant work visas for people who are willing to do that kind of physically and emotionally demanding work.  She probably makes minimum wage and gets no benefits.

It’s surprising, once you start thinking it through, how many things about a 900-square-foot duplex need explaining.  I’ve been foiled many a time by Italian washing machines overseas, so I didn’t take anything for granted.

Zhang is renting the place for his parents, who are coming to visit for a month.

I didn’t want to talk down to him but I didn’t want to assume he knew things.  “Your parents aren’t farmers from the Autonomous Mongolian Region, right?” I joked.  I had a renter years ago whose family fit that description.  She had not known what a waste basket was for.  I suppose, on a farm, they just burned their trash out back like we used to do in St. Paul in the 70s.

Zhang laughed and said his parents lived in a big city, but not far from that region. They had just retired from their factory jobs and this would be their first vacation.

“You mean their first vacation since retiring?”

“No, their first vacation, ever.”

Zhang seemed a bit taken aback by the gas stove.  “It’s a flame,” he remarked when I demonstrated.  I assume his parents would know all about stoves.  Maybe he never cooked until he had to fend for himself as a college student, and then maybe he ate in student dining or had a Bunsen burner in his dorm.

My compost bin also seemed a puzzle.  “Why is this woman showing me a can full of garbage, and why does she keep it in her house?” I imagined him thinking.  Winnie said, helpfully, “So the animals can eat this when you discard it outside?”

I said yes.  Why not.  I wasn’t going to try to explain how I am trying to save the planet by creating organic compost that I never use.  And the animals do eat it.

Zhang’s parents have never been on a vacation, never been outside of China or on a plane.  I’m not going to worry about them composting their food scraps.

I asked Zhang if he was done with school for the year.  He has finished his coursework and is now starting his thesis.  “I hope to finish in six years,” he said.  I wondered what his goal was—to teach?  Research?

You hear about the Chinese ability to think in terms of 50 or 100 years, unlike us Americans who are focused on where to buy our next bag of Cheetos.  Would Zhang return to China to help inform his government’s plan to make America its servant? Does that sound parnoid?  Well, I am just as vulnerable to my culture’s propaganda as any Chinese person is to his.

I felt I had to explain why I was going to Japan and not China.  “My sister-in-law is Japanese, and she and my nephews are going, so that’s why I’m going.”  I didn’t mention my daydreams if eating sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

“I don’t know how my sister-in-law feels about me going,” I added.

“Inscrutable.  That’s the word westerners use about Asians,” replied Zhang.  I was glad he said it, not me.  And I was impressed.  I don’t think I knew the word “inscrutable” until I was 50.

Crocodile Adventures!

Day 21 of my Australia sojourn. I waited eagerly in the reception area of the resort to catch my 7am bus to the Daintree Rainforest. As I’ve mentioned, I’m sort of obsessed with plants.  I also love heat and humidity, so rainforests are my kind of environment.

A German couple sat on the couch opposite and we chit chatted about where we were going. Their bus came and went.  An Aussie couple I had made small talk with at the pool came out, said they were going on “a brekky reccy,” and left.  It was 7:15.  An English family of four came and we didn’t talk because their bus pulled up as if queued to their arrival and whisked them away.  I began to feel anxious.

Jim had said 7:00, right?  Maybe I had misunderstood.  Maybe he had said 7:30; it was just 7:30 now, and maybe the bus was late.  It was probably me—I had gotten too relaxed yesterday.

People came and went.  It was just past 8:00.  The Aussie couple returned and were surprised to see me.  Maybe I imagined it but I thought they looked at me pityingly.

Pangs of emotion welled up.  It wasn’t all the couples and families and no one else sitting by themselves waiting for a bus that never came.  It was not wanting to waste a day.  One day of leisure was enough for me.  I want to do and see everything.

Jim arrived to open the office and did a double take when he saw me.  It turned out there had been a mix-up on the tour company’s end, and he apologized.

“It’s not your fault,” I told him.  “What can I do, still today?”“All the tours are either full day or half day,” he said as he rifled through piles of brochures.  “It’s too late for the full day ones,” so the reef and the Daintree are out.”

“The two things I came all this way to see,” I replied glumly.

“There’s Hartley’s

Crocodile Adventures,” he suggested weakly.

I had seen ads for this place in the airport, on the street, and in brochures for other attractions. They certainly were good self-promoters.  I felt a surge of fear at the word ‘crocodile.’  Did I want to spend 5 hours in being surrounded by them?  The place sounded like a totally tacky tourist trap.

“Sign me up.”

Hartley’s turned out to be pretty fun.  There was much more wildlife than crocs.  Did you know Cassowaries are prehistoric Kung Fu fighters with giant claws with which they can disembowel you?  They’re actually very shy and avoid humans, but here’s video about how to survive a cassowary attack in case you decide to plunge into a jungle, locate one, and provoke it.

There was an interesting small exhibit about the break-up of Gondwana, the mega continent that had included almost all the continents.

And about first encounters with kangaroos.  People back in Britain thought the explorers’ tales and early depictions of roos were tall tales until someone managed to bring back a live specimen.

There was the obligatory croc boat ride, where a young blonde guy named Matt fed dead chicken parts to gigantic crocs and made dismemberment jokes.

Having worked up an appetite, I had a burger in the café.  It had beets in it; beets on burgers are an Australian thing.

I toured Hartley’s crocodile farm. I’m not sure to which end of the spectrum this sign was directed—animal rights activists or poachers.  Maybe both.

Our very earnest guide downloaded so much knowledge about breeding and raising crocs I felt confident I could start my own crocodile farm.

You could pose with a Koala for $$.  The poor things.

I bought yet more souvenirs in the gift shop.  All my unsuspecting friends’ and family members’ birthdays and holiday presents for the next year were now covered.

Which nativity scene would you have chosen—kangaroos or koalas?

I went to pay, the cashier asked for ID, and that was the moment I realized my passport was gone.  She let me pay anyway.  I said the only logical thing: “It must be in my room.”

But I knew it wasn’t.

Down Day

I allowed myself one down day in Australia, in Palm Cove.  I didn’t plan anything, I went where I was called.

I took a couple long walks on beach.  I had not realized that crocodiles swam in the ocean, but that helped me decide I would not be swimming here or renting a kayak.

I had wondered, before arriving in Australia, if the whole crocodile thing was overblown—something they played up to titillate the tourists and TV audiences.  But no.  As I wrote before, on the shuttle on the way from the airport I had seen signs that warning people not to swim or wade in streams, and just beyond the signs were people standing in the water up to their thighs, fishing.

“So … isn’t that dangerous?” I asked the driver.

“Yeah, it is.  A ranger was doing the same just last week with her family. She was an Aboriginal. You would think she would have known better.  One minute she was there, the next she was gone. They found her body a couple days later.”

I walked through the jungle around Palm Cove.  There were paths and boardwalks so I knew I wasn’t crazy to be walking here, but there were also warning signs about crocodiles everywhere.

I’m normally a pretty intrepid hiker.  My mother would freak if she knew some of the deserted places I have hiked alone down by the Mississippi River.

All the time I was in Australia, I never felt afraid of crime.  I’m sure crime happens there, but I never saw warnings about crime like one does everywhere else.  You know: “Be vigilant on trains and on the street for pickpockets.”

I would take my chances with a pickpocket any day, I thought, over a crocodile.  I was really on edge, watching for signs of fast movement on the sides of the paths.

It really wasn’t very relaxing, so I headed back toward the beach, past a new housing development. I imagined walking out my back door to find a big croc in my pool, or leaping out at me as I gardened.  No thanks.

I stopped for a fried barramundi sandwich at the corner restaurant/grocery and perused the Sunday papers while I waited.  I don’t know who this guy was, what really happened, or what his greatest triumph was, but he was handsome in a Cro-Magnon Man way.

They had all manner of fried snacks that sounded like exotic variations on fish sticks; I imagine my five-year-old nephew would find them appealing.

There was this sign explaining why they don’t issue plastic drinking straws.  Because of the glare you won’t be able to read it, but trust me—straws are bad for sea turtles.

I checked out every shop along the promenade and bought a few things but it was basically resort wear—nothing I would have occasion to wear in Minnesota.

Back in my room, I pored over the brochures, then arranged with Jim at the front desk to take an excursion through the Daintree Rainforest the next day.  I was excited; it would involve a train ride through the jungle, then a couple hours in the village of Kuranda, where I could buy more trinkets and have a beer, then a hike through the rainforest, then a cable car ride back.  I would be gone all day.  I couldn’t wait.

I sat by the pool and read my book.  I was half way through my 800-page Somerset Maugham short stories.  I was tearing them out as I read not only to lighten my load, but because he uses the N word and other offensive language.  He was a product of his time.  These were the words people used.  But I would not be leaving this on the take one, leave one shelf.

I took a dip in the warm salt water pool, gazing up at the pointillist canopy of gum tree leaves way above me.

I capped off the day with a gag-inducing “Japanese” dinner.  Imagine sushi made with “local fish.” Now think—like I didn’t—that the local fish is not tuna or shrimp or  salmon, but barramundi, which is nice fried, but not raw.

 

Palm Cove

After a 20-minute drive I alighted at the Reef Retreat in Palm Cove.  This was my big splurge. I had read about the place in Frommer’s Easy Guide to Australia; it wasn’t easy to find the website and when I did, it was fully booked for some of the nights I wanted.  I went back and forth for a month before securing five nights there, then I added a sixth night when I was in Blayney.  I felt so lucky to get the place I wanted.

I wanted it because it was one block off the beach, which was traced by a road full of traffic. I didn’t want to stay in a B&B because I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to stay in a chain hotel. I didn’t want to stay in a sterile high-rise where you had to take an elevator and walk down a long hallway.

This was the photo that got me.  The red square outlines the Reef Retreat.  Two stories of rooms were built around a central courtyard with a pool and, basically, a miniature rain forest. I could be close to the action but feel like I was in the jungle.

And it was only $95 a night.

The place did not disappoint.  I checked in with Jim and Joanne, the owners, who would soon become my personal support group.  I loaded up on brochures from the Wall of a Thousand Brochures, then rolled my bag through the courtyard to my room, which was up a flight of about 20 stairs.  This was the only downside of the place—you would have to stay on the first floor if you couldn’t manage stairs.

The rooms were clean and bright and had everything one needed to be a hermit in paradise.  Balcony screened by trees, couch and TV, and fridge.

These are the views from my balcony.  The big screen is to keep people who are using the barbie from being barbecued themselves, by the sun.

I hung up my dank clothes to air for the first time in weeks, then hustled out to buy supplies.  The books in the “take one, leave one” shelf in the laundry room were typical of a resort that attracts an international crowd.

I would pass on “Analfabeten” but I had a couple books with me and I could read by the pool every day!  I could catch up on blogging.  I could sleep late.  I could take long walks, rent a bike, maybe a kayak.  I would alternate excursions, like to the reef, with down time.  This was going to be great.

This was the night I would lose my passport.  This was not going to be great, but I didn’t know it yet.

I walked on the beach and took a few excellent photos, for once.  They somehow vanished off my phone, so here’s a photo from the official tourist site.

I have been to tropical beaches in Belize and Colombia in the last two years, and I have to say that one beach looks very much like another to me.  There’s sand, and water, and palm trees.  But that’s not to take away from their beauty.

I walked along the promenade and bought groceries, then donned my rain poncho so I could keep my bag from disintegrating until I got to the casino/bottle shop where I could buy wine and beer.  The 16-year-old kid who waited on me asked for my ID, and I fumbled with my poncho, backpack, and grocery bag to find it and show it to him.  If you like casinos, you would have loved this place.  I hate them so I hurried to get back to my quiet retreat.

I watched TV; there was the Ernie Dingo Show, where an Aboriginal guy walks around the outback and shows sites of cultural significance to a white guy, whose job is apparently to nod and show keen interest in everything Ernie says.  Megan and Harry were on the news, as they would be every night during the Invictus Games.  Harry was climbing Sydney Harbor Bridge, and it was raining hard.  “Guess I picked the wrong day to cross the bridge,” he quipped.

People with Points

As I waited for my flight, I reflected on how wonderful it is that people welcome me into their homes.  I knew Dean and Lisa from UK days, but we hadn’t been close.  I had never met Auntie Margaret.

Getting to know new people, and getting know acquaintances better, is such a huge attraction of travel for me.  Spending time with people I care for, like Heidi, is a luxury.

That said, I do like my alone time.  I’m an introvert who likes people, but I’m still a loner.  I can happily spend days in my house without hearing a human voice.  I’m never bored.  I get lost in household projects, a book, or long walks in the woods.

After 18 days of being crammed into planes and trains and cars with fellow human beings, I was ready to be alone.

As I boarded I was diverted from these lofty thoughts by a woman behind me asking the flight attendant for a seat belt extender.  This was my first knowledge that there was such a thing.  Australia doesn’t have quite as high a percentage of its population who are obese as the US (33%), but it’s up there, at 27%.

A flight attendant asked if I would like something to drink.  I replied yes, a Diet Coke please, which was when she informed it would cost $3.  Three dollars for a can of coke!  Way to nickel and dime, Virgin Australia!  I asked if I could have a cup of water, if it was free, and she gave me one, smirking like I was a cheapskate.

I read the thick weekend edition of a newspaper from front to back except for the sport section.  I compiled a list of new Aussie vocab to Google when I had wireless: squiz, spruiking, chook.

There was an article about young members of rich Aussie families who posted photos of themselves with products on Instagram.  They had millions of followers and made millions of dollars which they didn’t need.  They were beautiful, vapid, and dull eyed.

Another article was about an immigration scheme to make people settle in “regional areas,” meaning underpopulated areas that need workers.  To quote:

“Australia is in the self-inflicted paradox of having vast amounts of space but no room.

“Australia has pursued a big immigration intake for the entire post-war era for the very selfish reason that it’s in the national interest.  It boosts the economy.  It lowers the average age of the population.  This means that national aging is slowed.  As a result, the rising cost to the taxpayer of healthcare and aged care and welfare is slowed.  And it adds skills.  And cultural richness.”

The debate is: is it unconstitutional to dictate where people must live?  Is it impossible? Is it unconscionable?

“It is none of those things.  Australia already has such a program in place. It’s a category known as designated area migration agreements. There’s only in in effect, in the Northern Territory, but it exists in principal and in practice.”

In the proposed national scheme, people applying for Australian work visas will be given extra points if they indicate they are willing to live in Tasmania, for example.

Why can’t America have debates like this about immigration?  All we talk about is whether to build a wall or not.  A wall—such a 15th Century solution.

Australia has its version of a wall.  It’s the island of Nauru, where desperate migrants from Syria and Congo are penned like animals. But there seemed to be a lot of other ideas afloat.

It’s about control, right?  Any country justifiably wants to know who is entering and how they will contribute to the common good.  The US is one of few countries with a diversity lottery—most countries manage immigration based on merit, conferring extra points for engineering degrees, fluency in the native tongue, or big bank accounts.

As we approached Cairns, I looked down at the verdant scenery.  No wonder people want to come here.

I made a note to partake in the airport wine tasting ahead of my return flight.

My van driver was a British immigrant.

“Twenty years on, and me and the wife ain’t never been back.”