Friday, June 11, 2010

Culture and climate shock

It was an 8 1/2 hr flight from Osaka to the Gold Coast. As another funny aside about how close to home Japan is to me, the Japanese girl at the check-in counter in the Osaka airport spontaneously told me that she had studied and worked in North Vancouver for 3 years, and then on the plane, the Japanese stewardess (it was a mix of Aussies and Japanese) that was strapped in just in front of me on take off and landing started talking to me and turns out she had studied English at PGIC in Vancouver also. What are the odds? Actually, probably pretty good, but that is a further strong memory and link to Japan in my mind.
Brisbane is not the coldest place in Australia by any stretch of the imagination but being this far from the equator in my first winter in a year and a half had me worried. Turns out the temp is running from a high of about 20C and a low of about 10C and when I arrived at sunrise it was 14C. I kid you not, in the time it took me to walk from the plane to the airport I was freezing and literally went through immigration shaking and answering questions through chattering teeth. I was already wearing a fleece but as soon as I got my bag I quickly threw on a third layer and ran outside again to catch the bus. You can imagine my horror as still-frozen me walks outside to see the bus driver and many other locals standing around in shorts and/or t-shirts. Had it been raining I might've just asked them to deport me... I've been here 5 days. It's nice and sunny, Brisbane looks like a great city but I am still wearing 3 layers at all times.
I've walked around a lot getting oriented and trying to get info on finding work. I needed to find something quick but there isn't much around right now. I'm staying at Ben's apartment at the moment while I get settled but Ben isn't there. He's in S. Africa so it's just been me and Ben's Aussie roommate Tom.
As far as culture shock goes. Wow, I am so now used to western prices. It's horrifying. I'm glad the city is very multicultural, with a lot of Asians especially, but I can't say I feel like I belong here when I'm walking around. It's the whole first world thing of order, rules and regulations. I did a rough calculation and even if I count all the borderline countries that you wouldn't really think of as first world per se, so in total, my brief return to Canada, all of Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Kazakhstan, Turkey, South Africa, the Persian Gulf, Australia, Israel, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, I've still only been in 1st world countries for a total of just under one year (about 50 weeks) out of just over the last 5 years (about 266 weeks) with most of it being in the first 2 years. So it's going to be a bit of an adjustment I think. My gut has also gone to hell with the change of diet, worse than it's been in ages. I need to get back to rice, rice and more rice I think. It's not 3rd world food that ruins you, just the change in food, as any long-term vegetarian knows after digging into a steak.
I did get work though. I went into a hostel and they had a little job agency guy there and put my name on the list. He called back a couple days later to say there was farm work available. As there was nothing else coming up that I could find quickly, I'm off to go do some field clearing and stuff preparing for planting. I go with 2 British guys (whose accents I can barely decipher) for 3-4 weeks to a place called Dirranbandi, some 500km from here into the outback. Could be interesting, for sure it will be an experience. I'll tell you all about it if I survive.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Simple Love Story

Spending my days gazing out at the grassy meadows, blowing along canals and spinning windmills shadowing over quaint little wood bridges in Holland I begin to reminisce…
When I’d left Egypt in late December of 2008, I didn’t look back. I was headed home! Home to the place I’d dreamed of for nearly four long years or at least, this was how I got myself to step on that plane, walking away from a man who’d eased my pains and changed my life in Africa. It seemed, the impossible dream I’d managed to coax up would cease to exist, fading into nothing more than dizzy memories. I thought, after applying all of the principles of the "jack rabbit factor" novel and promising, that I could walk away and life would go on as it should. That I could indeed begin my “normal” life….finally! Of course, being alone for the first time, separated from the family, I felt empty and slightly lost. I didn’t know what Vancouver would have in store for me after so long away. The place that was anything but unordinary to me, was now culturally and visually shocking to my many heightened senses. One thing I do remember was my strong appreciation for even the most miniscule things. Ice cubes were treasured in the freezer, running hot water was glory on my skin but all those things like “subway, sushi, sorting through storage” that I’d talked so much about didn’t seem satisfying…like I had expected. It was as though all that time I had created a perfect world in my mind, that wasn’t really there. And now that I’d found a man who made me laugh there was nothing that could replace it….and yet I had lost that only thing.
As each day went by I could see the deep creases of dirt, engraved in the bottom of my feet begin to fade but my love could not. A continual ache lingered in my chest and I knew, there had to be a way. “If there’s a will there IS a way” and that may have been my biggest lesson that kept me pushing on. This realization was not one that suddenly appeared but something I’d known all along but tried to ignore, for the chance of a “better” more logical path in life, as Kees had tried to rationalize with me throughout our entire journey together. After all my struggles and drawing it to me, to simply let it slip away? Where was the sense in that?! The only rational thing I could see...WAS him!
Thinking I’d learned many lessons about life on the road, there were indeed more lessons in store for me about the world. The world is not fair and in getting what you want sacrifices need to be made and mine was my best friend. I knew I couldn’t have everything. I understood the threats and consequences but if people can not accept and let me be who I need to be then I can only wish for that acceptance, not be expected to change my life for other people. That is what I realized. Trying to change who I am to please others will not bring me happiness…so I had no choice but to follow my heart.
Although one journey ended, I hadn’t doubted another would begin. Once again, I was caught off guard and thrown across the world in a whirlwind, but this time, every action was my own and I would be held accountable for every move I made along the way.

Saturday, June 05, 2010


Japan has been totally awesome for me.  I hadn`t been to Japan before and had always wanted to go. This trip existed solely because Ducky, a former student of ours, found me online just before I went to the Philippines and had invited me over. Lord knows I couldn`t afford to visit Japan on my own right now. So I found a cheap flight over and the rest is an amazing memory....
I wasn't sure what to expect and upon arrival Ducky established a "no choice" policy. He and his wife Nozomi had actually taken a week off from work and had planned out the whole thing, so I was just to sit back and enjoy ride, doing whatever came up and eating whatever was put in front of me. No choice. But in a very good way. Ducky has not changed at all. He's still the crazy maniac that he was before and it was such a strange feeling suddenly reminiscing back to 1996 and the Dollarton house. So much has happened since then. What was also a little weird was Japaneseness seemed like home also and the whole thing brought back memories of my youth. The Japanese accent is still so familiar to me though for some reason the Japanese don't look "Japanese" as I remember them.
Japan was surprisingly normal to me. It felt like home. Maybe it was also the change to non-tropical vegetation on the hills as well. And it was cold! Ducky was laughing at me for being cold in temps in the low 20s. I think that the country is great but being the element of chaos that I am, there is no way I could live there for long. Everyone is so formal and polite at the shops and restaurants. Way too much attention to form and ceremony with so many thank yous and goodbyes at every shop and restaurant you enter. It is also so quiet on the street most of the time. No honking and people outdoors running around, laughing, etc. But the biggest overall surprise was the fact that somehow in the last 2 weeks with Taiwan and especially Japan I seem to have gained about 7Kg! Perfect! I knew the food was better but hadn't realized how much of it I'd been eating.
Ducky lives in Wakayama, which is about a 1 hour drive south of Osaka. On my first full day we did a day trip up to Kyoto, the most famous tourist city in the area. It's an hour north of Osaka so we had a bit of a drive ahead of us. Unfortunately the Japanese put up a lot of walls beside their highways so I wasn't able to really get much of a view or any photos along the way. Osaka is massive. Flying into Kansai airport (which is built specifically out in the bay) you can get a perfect look at just how huge and industrially developed the whole area is. It all blends into the nearby towns and cities and in a way comes across as just a huge gray mass encircling the coast.
Kyoto was interesting. Lots of traditional architecture and some old temples, shrines and things. Of course the gardens are nice too but I am a couple months too late for the cherry blossoms. It was a nice half-day trip. We then had dinner in central Osaka. Wow busy place. I can only describe the local fashion as "freak show". Definitely a very different look from what I'm used to.
The next day we started on a 3 day/2 night road trip to the south in a more rural, provincial area. The first day we drove down to Shirahama. It's known as a local tour area famous for its white sand beach. The funny thing is that the historical beach has long washed away and the current beach is actually made of sand imported from Australia. The day was cloudy and cold and the water colder but somehow Ducky got me in for a swim. It helped that there was one of many hot springs in the area just beside the beach to jump into to warm up again. The Japanese love their hot springs and the hot public baths. That night I went to a public bath for the first time (and more were to follow on later days). It's not really my kind of thing but definitely a cultural experience and for sure the cleanest I've been the last 5 years.
The following day we made it down to the southern tip of Honshu (the main big island of Japan) and over to Taiji, which is the historical whaling centre of Japan. Visited the museum there which had a couple dolphin and whale shows, models, and whaling exhibits. Always interesting to get the story from the other side and whaling is certainly an unpopular livelihood these days. We stayed in a Japanese-style hotel that night which meant futons and public baths and cool traditional robes to wear while hanging out in the hotel.
The following day we retraced our route along the coast to Shirahama for some more swimming and then home. There are a lot of dive shops in the area and although it is not tropical it seems like it could be really nice diving anyway because the water is amazingly clear and clean.
The following days we spent in the Wakayama area, visiting the local castle, the electronics shops, hot springs, eating, etc.
It's interesting to get as look at Japan in a non-touristy area and I only saw other foreigners when I was in Kyoto and Osaka. Wakayama didn't seem to have any. I know the sushi in Vancouver is great but Japan blew me away. I ate way to much of it as well as other local dishes and the quality of the fish is unparalleled.
Probably the craziest high technology here is in the bathroom. It is actually possible to go to the bathroom completely hands-free. Automatic sensors will even lift the seat for you... But despite all the technology everywhere everyone seems to be riding ancient-style bicycles. There are battery enhanced ones that apparently make it a lot easier to pedal too but it just seems somehow wrong that everyone is using this big old framed bikes.
They really have to use their space efficiently so houses are small and the roads and lanes in residential neighbourhoods are less than 2 cars wide. It seems like every usable space is used for something and I was blown away by all the tiny rice plots in what amounted to peoples' backyards in the villages we passed. I always think of rice fields as being big flat fields outside a village or terraced up and down mountains but here they were squeezed in between the street and a couple of homes. ANd where rice wouldn't do you'd also see a vegetable patch.
I was very sad to leave Japan and for sure I'll have to go back there again someday too. The final demonstration of just how polite and disciplined the Japanese are came as we were exiting the plane on our arrival in Australia. It always seems like mass chaos on planes when they arrive as everyone fights to get off first and grab their bags from overhead. But at the back of the plane with me was a large highschool group of 50 or so kids all sitting quietly and waiting while everyone else got off. I just can't imagine that really happening elsewhere...
I am now in Brisbane at Ben's place.