Tuesday, November 2, 2010

More tales of travel: Okinawa

It’s been too long since my last entry.  I’ve traveled rest of Japan, came back to US, lived in Canada for a month, returned to Connecticut, and now back in Japan…… all since my last entry back in February.  Why did I stop writing?

Somewhere along the way, I lost my inspiration.  Don’t get me wrong, I still loved the road; Japan still made my head spin; I still smiled whenever I met strangers and still held my breath whenever I saw something beautiful.  But I was no longer traveling alone.  I was blessed with road companions who are among my closest friends.  Traveling with them made the roads shorter and the nights full of laughter.  However, traveling with others took away the time of self-reflection which was essential to my writing.  Traveling with my friends took away the loneliness, which was my inspiration in the first place.  Before, I could sit anywhere: park, train station, host’s house, restaurant or street bench and write; but with friends, the time of self-refection shortened to a few minutes at night right before falling asleep.  

Nevertheless, I would like to share with you the rest of my original journey. 

I left you hanging back in February with the last story of Thailand.  January 21st I flew back to Tokyo, where after spending the night at a domestic airport and sleeping on the benches, I took a flight to Ryukyu Islands aka Okinawa. 

The Ryukyu Islands were once an independent state called the Ryukyu Kingdom.  It was populated by indigenous people who spoke their own distinct language and followed their own customs and traditions.  At one point, China claimed the islands for their own.  Then came Japan with an equal claim.  Finally, less than 150 years ago, The United States allowed Japan to “plant its stake” and declared the islands Japanese. 

The Ryukyuan people suffered a great loss during WWII when the Americans overtook the main island in order to use it as a base to get to the main island of Japan.  After the end of WWII, the United States took over the island to maintain its presence at the Pacific. 
Finally they returned it to Japan 40 years ago. 

Although, there are still many American bases on Okinawa Island, the locals have long gotten used to them.  Okinawa and its many surrounding smaller islands are popular vacation destinations for main-island Japanese.  The locals do not consider themselves Japanese and many still speak the original language. 

The largest population of centennials live on Okinawa.  They say it is the combination of lifestyle and diet that keeps them going for so long.  They eat fish, rice, seaweed and goya.  They live in close communities where families take care of each other.  There are many grandmas to one child, and many grandchildren to one grandparent.  Everyone is a family.  Sustaining close relationships keeps them going way past 100 years old. 

The island is stunningly beautiful.  It’s long south to north and very narrow west to east.  The drive north along the shore is magnificent.  The color of the water is purest greenish-blue.  The small towns feel quaint and cozy.  The people are smily are friendly.  No one is in a rush.  Busses are late (which is unheard of on the main island).  It’s an island life.

I stayed in Naha, the capital of Okinawa for two weeks before finally setting out around the island.  Through my sister, I found an American girl who was teaching English in a town nearby, and quickly we became friends.  I stayed with her for almost a week while touring the island.  We went out with her students at night, explored the gardens of Naha in the south, cooked home food for each other and spend lots of time talking.  NiQui was very happy on Okinawa.  She found a job she cherished, she acquired close friends with whom she felt happy, and there was a prospect of a relationship in the works.  Her smile was unobtrusive, contagious and sincere.  When she laughed, people around her burst in fits of giggles.  She had a feel of a person who knew what happiness was.  And that was immensely attractive.

When the day to say good bye came, I was sad to part but having these new memories felt good and I was happy to have met her.

I was going back to Naha to meet a friend.  He was flying from New York to spend a week in Japan.  To check-up on me and to learn about a new culture. 

The first couple of days, we spent exploring the southern part of the island.  We found ourselves strolling through the streets of Naha talking about our lives and fulfillment.  We explored the famous Gyokusendo Cave, which is one of the longest natural caves in Japan.  And eventually, our feet led us to a pier where we took a boat to a remote Tokashiki Island. 

Tokashiki Island is very small. There are only four towns, two on each coast and they are separated by mountains.  Strolling through empty streets, hiking up in the mountains, swimming in crystal blue waters, we were always alone.  There was not a soul in sight.  Every once in a while, we’d run into a local, they’d share a big smile with us and we parted ways.  We came to Tokashiki off-season and that was our luck.  Complete serenity, peace and silence were in abundance. 
On the way to our town
 Our beach

After exploring most of the island’s hiking paths and swimming in the ocean to our content, we finally left.  My friend was going back to US and I was bound for Kyushu.  The plan was to visit my friend Sumire, whom I met during my last days in Japan back in November and then move forward to the main island.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Floating Market and the final days

We woke up in the morning to the fresh scent of coffee and Thai breakfast.  The cops’ force increased in size and now there were five of them; all excited to see the two foreign girls staying in their cabin.  After taking a shower and getting dressed, we were ready to meet them.  The most senior officer was in his 40s and as it turned out later was the one who made us breakfast.  The youngest was in his early 30s and had a big smile on his face.  The oldest cop was the one who hosted us last night and two others were too shy and didn’t talk to us.  When the chief invited us for breakfast into the kitchen, the others stayed behind and patrolled the highway.  Apparently, the table was set just for us and the chief.  He outdid himself.  The table was full of different dishes varying from fried rice to spicy soup and fried meat.  When we were done and the chief stepped outside for a moment, we thought it would be appropriate to clean up after ourselves.  Olga tided up the table and I decided to wash the dishes.  When the chief walked into the kitchen and saw us cleaning, he immediately ran out without a word.  Next thing we knew, all five of them piled into the kitchen and started taking pictures of me washing the dishes.  I wasn’t sure what was special about the situation but they looked shocked. 

Before we left, the guys asked us to sign a guest book and gave us a card with the Highway Police logo.  They said if we ever needed anything, we should stop by at any police box and show them the card and we would be taken care of.  It was a nice thought. 
 Our Breakfast

From Uttaradit, we drove straight to Bangkok and then on to Petchaburi where we heard the Floating Market was located.   The trip took us over eight hours and we were exhausted.  Finding lodging in a beautiful small village built on rivers and canals we bade to wake-up early to make it to the morning market.
Our Cabin
View from our cabin

 The Floating Market was superb.  Old women, smoking cigarettes, floated slowly in their tiny boats selling fruits and souvenirs.  Men yelled loudly, summoning tourists to buy their delicious viand.  Kids ran around selling healing balms and coconut ice-cream.  We bought an enormous amount of fruits we’ve never seen before, sat by the river and bought a lunch from a passing boat; after roaming the river market for several hours, we finally left.

Our final destination was only an hour away.  We were looking for a resort near a beach where we were planning to spend the last several days of our trip.  Finding the perfect place, we happily settled.

Our last few days in Thailand were mostly quiet.  We spent days on the beach, getting as much sun as possible.  In the evenings, we went to local restaurants and met friendly people or sat on the porch of our cabin and talked for hours. 

The ending was perfect.  It was peaceful and happy.  Although, there was one disturbing event, that is worth mentioning.

On our second or third day, we decided to find another beach nearby.  After half an hour drive, we found a very secluded beach and took it for ourselves.  Splashing around for several hours, we saw not a soul in site.  After getting lunch at a nearby restaurant, we were back on the beach getting a tan, when we saw two jet-skies.  One jet-ski was towing a banana boat behind with four riders, the other had a lone driver.  The lone driver, drove onto the beach and we noticed a very cute 12 year old boy.  He smiled at us and waved a greeting to take a ride with him.  We smiled back but declined.  The other jet-ski rode onto the sand pulling the banana boat with its riders.  The men were splashing in the water, laughing, waving at us and screaming something in Thai.  The rider of the second jet-ski, a 30some year old man came over to us and offered a ride on the banana boat.  Again we declined.  He persisted and told us it would be fun and free.  Free must have been the magic word and we finally accepted.  The men in the water looked ecstatic.  When we got on the boat (which holds a max of five riders), all four of them tried to pile behind us.  Lek, the jet-ski driver, told two of them to get off and walk back to their beach.  After, trying to get on the boat a few times and falling back into the water because they couldn’t hold their balance, we knew the men were dead drunk.  But at this point it was too late and we were off into the deep waters. 

The ride was fantastic.  Water splashing in the face, wind whistling by, adrenaline pumping; we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves when Lek made a very sharp left and overturned the boat.  We knew he did it on purpose because we specifically asked him not to.  We got back on the boat and Lek drove by asking if one of us wanted to ride the jet-ski with him.  Olga begged to go because she couldn’t smell the alcohol breath of our companions anymore.  Lek showed her how to ride the jet-ski and we were off again.  Of course, they had to dip us in the water, over and over again.  By the third time, the men had no strength and energy to swim back to the boat and pulling themselves back on top of it.  I had to pull them.  All in all, Lek must have dipped us 5 or 6 times.  Soon, I was losing energy as well.  Finally, we were back on the beach.  It is worth mentioning that not at any point of time, did the drunk men tried to come onto us or touch us.  They were drunk but still very courteous.  We took a few pictures, declined their invitation for lunch, bid them farewell and they took off.

Ten minutes later, as we were strolling on the shore, we saw the young 12 year old boy from before, running towards us.  He was saying something in Thai in a very excited voice.  We couldn’t understand him of course but laughed at his cuteness.  Realizing that we don’t understand him, he pointed to the bushes, made a very phallic sign and then pointed to his crotch.  We were so shocked, we were sure we misunderstood.  Laughing at our silliness, No way this boy just offered to have sex in the bushes with the two of us, we padded him on the head and continued to walk.  Then he grabbed Olga’s hand and started to drag her into the bushes!  I tried to stop him but my laughter made me so weak, I could break his grip.  Somehow, tearing his hand away from Olga, I tried to explain to him that he is very young for us.  To which he replied and showed that he was old enough and more than “ready”.  The absurdity of his offer, just couldn’t settle in our heads and we continued to laugh.  He tried to take advantage of our mood, grabbed my hand and started to drag me in the water.  What the heck is he going to do with me in the water!  I just couldn’t stop laughing.  And then as suddenly as it began, the fun was over.  The boy put his hand below my waist and tried to put his face in my boobs.  Hitting his hand away, I gave him a very sharp “No”.  He finally got the point, smiled with his cute dimples and ran away.  We stood silently on the beach, trying to understand what just happened. 

We never went back to that beach.  And a few days later, we were back in Bangkok saying our final good-bye to Thailand.  We had a lot of fun over the past month, getting into adventures and meeting interesting people.  We found many beautiful places on land and in sea.  We bonded tightly with Valentin and Erawan family.  We experienced re-birth in Tham Le cave and exercised our muscles on Tiger Cave Temple.  We met 2010 with newly acquired Turkish friends and treaded the jungle on long zip-lines.  We got lost in mountain villages and almost drowned in a beautiful cave.  We picked up hitchhiking monks and spent the night talking to cops.  We couldn’t ask for a better adventure.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The White Temple

The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), which Olga dubbed Jacky Frost, was built in 1997 and designed by a famous Thai painter, Chalermchai Kositpipat to show his love for Buddha and Thailand and to signify purity of the Buddha.  It was made out of white plaster and glass and sparkled gloriously in the sun.  From far away, it looked like it was completely covered in fresh snow.  The ends and corners were designed in curvy shapes, magical dragons and holy Buddhas.  The entrance was a long bridge over a river which represented the crossing over from the cycle of rebirth to the Abode of Buddha and was guarded by goblins and mystical creatures with swords.  In front of the bridge was a small trench from which hundreds of human hands outstretched from the pits of Hell towards the sky.

Taking our time, admiring the temple, we slowly walked inside.  And that’s where we learned the true magnificence of the temple.  

The simplicity of the inside surprised us.  We were used to seeing gold, glamour, shimmer, endless amount of Buddhas, incense, flowers, intricate designs, etc.  However, this was a small room with a wax statue of a holy man sitting in the middle and Buddha hovering above his head.  That was it.  The wall on the right was completely naked and the wall on the left had a few paintings.  A bit disappointed, we turned around toward the door, ready to walk away and then stopped short.  The front wall held a different story.  From ceiling to floor, it was completely covered in murals.  It was the drawings that shocked us to the core.  Superman, Matrix’ Neo, spiderman, burning twin towers, naked women, atomic bombs, space ships, oil pumps, cell phones, guns, bullets, devils, batman, sex, missiles, sins; every inch of the wall was covered in fantastic imagery of our movies and existence.  Trying to figure out what it means, we turned to a Thai man who was a guide to a middle-age British couple. 

- This is our history.  Everything portrayed here is the reality of our culutre.  The cartoon superheroes are our children’s reality, the oil wars and guns are our everyday news, the sins and devils are our way of life. 

It was thoroughly upsetting how true his words were.  The paintings were disturbing and full of negativity.  But then our eyes moved further up the wall.  Closer to the ceiling, hovering above the horror below, were very different pictures.  Small challots were tied by glowing ropes amongst each other and were carrying children into Heaven.  Bubbles filled with Flowers of Life and Egyptian Triangles representing souls and spirits, were rising up into the sky.  Everything was connected and unified.  So much good energy and light radiated from the pictures above, that it was hard to turn our eyes away. 

We stayed in the room for over an hour, admiring drawings and talking to people about their thoughts and interpretations.  After we left the temple we found out that the artist himself was working hard at one of his murals in a dark corner furthest away from the entrance.  Alas, we already left the temple and were heading back south. 

On the way, we stopped by a 70 meter waterfall, where we met two courageous Belgian guys who despite freezing temperature of the waterfall, went in the water.  And although we didn’t go, we were thoroughly wet from the mist which reached as far as the top of the waterfall. 

By nightfall we were far away from the temple and the waterfall, in a small town Uttaradit, which had a large and loud fair going on in the middle of the town.  Weary and hungry, we looked for lodging for hours but found none.  Then I remembered seeing a police box on the highway and decided to go back and ask them where we could find a hotel.  When we pulled over, we were greeted by a middle-age man, dressed in uniform pants and white t-shirt.  When we explained to him that we were looking for lodging, he smiled and said we need not go any further and pointed to a house behind the police box.  It was a small room with three beds, completely covered in cops’ uniforms, guns and dirty towels.  He quickly cleaned up, got dressed in uniform and welcomed us with a smile.  He offered us internet and said he’ll cook us breakfast in the morning.  Contemplating our situation, we decided that there is no harm in staying with police plus we were getting free lodging, breakfast and internet.  It was a deal we couldn’t resist.