Vietnam, North to South

Howdy folks!

Emily and I spent three weeks traveling in Vietnam north to south – from Hànội to Ninh Bình to Huế to Hồ Chí Minh City (AKA Sàigòn).

We knew going in this was going to take our travels off “easy mode.” Whereas we had heard nothing but great things about Taiwan, we had been warned both online and in-person about Vietnam. Were we gonna get scammed? Run off the road by wild motorbike traffic?

Well, it turns out we only got scammed twice (no big deal, honest) and did crash a motorbike once. But otherwise? It was fantastic. These pictures are the receipts.

We’ve only got a week left in Thailand and have some amazing photos to show you. Stay tuned for more! Next stop: Israel.

Love,

E&E

“The Eastern Expanse” – August 1-14, Guangzhou

Howdy folks! Ethan here (on Emily’s laptop, because she stole mine to play videogames).

TL;DR – Here’s a link to our photo album!

On August 1, we put those Chinese visas we got to good use and crossed the border north of Hong Kong. If HK was scary, Shenzhen was terrifying; never had we felt more out of place on this trip, wandering from the subway to our hostel. Suffice it to say, staring is not considered rude around these parts, and Emily’s hair is a roving tourist attraction. As I kept stupidly saying, “We aren’t in Kansas anymore.”

However, arriving in Guangzhou (just a quick high speed train ride away) released some pressure. Guangzhou (and the broader Pearl River Delta region) is a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, and smells, befitting of its sometimes-nickname of “The World’s Factory.” The people are direct, friendly, and have places to go, and their obvious hustle is a living testament to China’s incredible economic growth.

But, as soon as we arrived, we departed – off to a eco-village/meditation center (I know, right?) outside the city. It wasn’t the best experience (hippies aren’t the most organized folks), but it meant a week to get used to China in the surreal surroundings of the subtropical forests that ring a not-too-far-away megalopolis. There, Emily and I were put to work clearing trails that led away from the village and into the forest, armed with machetes. When we weren’t exhausted from doing that in 35 degree C (~90 degree F) heat, we became good friends with a Danish dude (not annoying) and a 17 year-old Chinese kid who didn’t speak a bit of English (sort of annoying; he’s a sweetheart though).

…and then off again! With the Dane in tow, we spent a week back in the city proper sightseeing, sweating, and eating lots of dim sum. Already, I’m eager to repeat what I said above – Guangzhou is a mesmerizing hive of activity. And yet, it’s a strangely cozy place, with plenty to eat, convenient public transit, and tons of things to do. For instance, I was amazed by not only the number of museums, but just how busy they are. Folks in Guangzhou might not be the most quiet or polite in museums…but they seem to really love learning about history, culture, science, and more. That I can really appreciate.

I write this to you now from a small village outside a slightly larger town outside a city 2 hours north of Guangzhou (by high speed train) – it’s called Yangshuo and it’s surrounded by unbelievable mountains. We’re working at an English language school for a week – our job is to talk with the students for 2 hours in the evening.

Will our heroes go have an insightful cultural experience? Will Ethan talk too fast for non-native English speakers to possibly understand? Will Emily go crazy from having to chat with – ugh – people? Tune in in two weeks.

Love,

E&E

 

 

On the Edge of the Mainland – Hong Kong, July 24 – July 30

Howdy folks,

After leaving Japan, Emily and I spent a brief week in Hong Kong before crossing over into mainland China for the first time (our current location: in the forests outside Guangzhou). Check out our pictures here.

Our time in Hong Kong was the first time I experienced culture shock on this trip. Even after the crowds and sheer size of Tokyo, Hong Kong assaults the senses in a way that took several days to get used to. Sometimes pictured but not fully captured in our photos – the frequent smell of sewage, the oppressive consumerism, the trash on the sidewalks, the aggressive touts along Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, and the large difference in public manners when compared to Japan.

All that said? I found the shock of Hong Kong to be an exhilarating new experience and look forward to going back before flying from Macau to Taipei at the end of September. I’m sure my initial apprehension is nothing a little seasoning from the mainland can’t fix!

Love,

E&E

To Hiroshima, All My Love

By Emily

I’ll be honest, I was nervous about our trip to Hiroshima in the days leading up to it. The city’s name seems to be underlined with sadness whenever it’s said, regardless of the context. No one I’ve heard talks about the city the way they do with Tokyo or New York or London, even though they’ve also been subjected to attacks in the past. When people hear “Hiroshima,” they think “atomic bomb” and not much else. So planning an overnight trip there made me anxious.

In preparation, I tried to remember the first time I learned about Hiroshima and the atomic bomb. I read a story in elementary school about Sadako and the thousand paper cranes she wanted to fold. I’ve watched Jaws about a couple dozen times, and Robert Shaw’s infamous monologue ends with “Anyway, we delivered the bomb.” But it’s hard for anyone to conceptualize a single event which left over 100,000 people dead and an entire city flattened. It’s harder still to grow up and learn that your own national leaders ordered such an incomprehensible attack, the same men who have been touted as heroes for “winning” World War II. My grandfather was a WWII vet who fought in the Pacific during those years – what was he fighting for? What did “we” win? As an American, what should my relationship with this city look like?

The trip was also clouded by a memory I have from 2015: Ethan and I went to New York City (my first time there) and made a point to visit Ground Zero and the World Trade Center memorial. After getting lost in the surrounding buildings numerous times, we finally found the site – and it was packed with tourists and selfie sticks. Malls were under construction around virtually the whole area. We ended up leaving after fifteen minutes, because it didn’t feel like a place with history anymore. It felt like a local attraction.

I didn’t want Hiroshima to be a kitschy place, but I also didn’t want it to be a place without history. There lies the problem – I was trying to predict what this place might be like now, and what I wanted from it. I wasn’t thinking about what Hiroshima is.

During the ferry trip from Matsuyama to Hiroshima, I read John Hersey’s article for the New Yorker. Published in August 1946 (exactly one year later), it was one of the first articles many Americans read about the bombing. And he pulled few punches – the fear, the chaos, the violence, and the destruction caused are all there in his essay. I followed that up with Wikipedia research on the bombing, the Manhattan Project, and the city landmarks that mark important sites. When we arrived in Hiroshima, I nearly expected a flattened city still in ruins, since my head was swimming with all of those horrific words and images.

But traveling from the ferry to our hostel proved different. A fully functioning, dense, and populous city spread out before me, full of nail salons and banks and vending machines. The people waiting for pedestrian lights and walking out of restaurants didn’t seem to be unbearably sad or burdened with the memory of their longitude and latitude. They seemed to be… regular people.

That night, Ethan and I watched Hiroshima Mon Amour, a film with one of my favorite screenplays (written by the indefatigable Marguerite Duras). Made in 1959, the film focuses on an affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect, but it quickly devolves into an exploration of the trauma of war (just super uplifting stuff, you know?) The first ten minutes are essentially stock footage videos of post-bomb Hiroshima, the burned victims and the fallen buildings and the immense suffering. But the rest of the movie was filmed in Hiroshima in 1958, giving its audience an idea of how quickly the city began to rebuild. A museum had already been built to memorialize the bombing, tour guides are shown bringing groups around the city, hotels are fully furnished, and modern cafes are bustling with crowds and booze (it’s a half-French movie, after all).

The next morning, we woke up early and prepared for our daunting walk through the city. On the way to our first stop, Ethan suddenly pointed at the roof of our covered walkway – “It’s the same one from the movie, we’re on the same street.” Fifty years after the film debuted, some parts of Hiroshima were still recognizable. And I began to see it differently.

We went to a small museum in an elementary school, one of the few buildings left standing when the bomb hit. Walking through the exhibits talking about the number of lives lost, I could hear students playing at recess outside. It was almost hard to concentrate on the pain, when positivity was so immediately present. While looking at the paper cranes made by today’s students for the museum, the docent approached me and handed me two small ones. “Gifts for visitors.” He asked me where I was from, smiled, and thanked me for visiting.

Our next stop was the official Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a huge building with incredibly detailed and well-curated exhibits. Hundreds of people, from every corner of the world, were there together – learning and talking and bumping into each other while swarming the interactive tables. If that sounds a bit cliché, well, I suppose it was. But the museum was living up to its goal – promoting history and peace between all peoples. I saw a few tears, but mostly the smiles of children who were visiting with their parents. The heavy stuff went over their head, but the diversity of the group around them kept them engaged. It’s not every day you hear twenty different languages spoken in one room.

Ethan and I walked through most of the park, full of monuments dedicated to victims and peacemakers alike. Friendly locals stopped to say hello, and even our trek to the hypocenter – the direct spot beneath the location in the sky where the bomb went off – was with a tour group of elementary school students (inadvertently). One of the boys was very keen to impress Ethan with his knowledge of the site, and I couldn’t help but smile.

Walking through Hiroshima, I began to feel less afraid and more encouraged. One of the worst tragedies in human history had befallen this place, and yet all around me were tall buildings and families and hundred-year old trees. Not even a nuclear bomb could defeat the spirit of the people of Japan (and Hiroshima in particular), and the evidence is plain as day. The people here know their history, and what’s more, they know all of it: the centuries before, the hot day in August 1945, and the decades spent rebuilding and doggedly pursuing a new goal – peace.

Let me remain on my soapbox for just one more paragraph – it wasn’t until visiting Hiroshima that I realized just how “little” a bomb can do. I’m not trying to minimize the lives lost, the trauma of survivors, or the evils of war. But before this trip, the words “nuclear bomb” sounded to me like an ending. As we hear more and more about countries developing nuclear weapons, and we’re told the end is near, it’s easy to be totally pessimistic and anticipate the end of the world. But Hiroshima is proof that even the most unfathomable attack can’t break the human spirit. Even if World War 3 starts tomorrow, there will be those who survive, stand up, and rebuild.

As we packed up and headed to the train station, I remarked to Ethan that I’d like to travel to Hiroshima again. I saw a few neighborhoods and museums I wanted to revisit, and the overall vibe felt relaxed but engaging. He was visibly taken aback, and pointed out that that was the first time I said that about a city (that’s normally “his line”) during our trip. That may be so, but Hiroshima is a special enough place to keep watching it grow.

In the Mountains, Again – Photos from Kumakōgen

Howdy, folks! Ethan here again with another exciting installment of AirE&E, AKA Bad Idea 2k17, AKA Ethan and Emily’s Team-Building Exercise 2k17, AKA “If I have to see one more goddamn temple… – Emily Cardoza” 2k17.

After 10 days of vacuuming and laundry folding and so much social activity in Osaka, Emily and I set out on July 4 for Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku. Our final destination was Kumakōgen Furusato Ryokō Mura, a “tourist village” nestled in a valley an hour outside the prefecture’s largest city of Matsuyama.

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My (Reconsidered) Interview with Japanese Schoolchildren

(Emily wrote this!)

This morning, Ethan, Kit, and I ducked into Tokyo’s Traditional Crafts Museum, a small cultural center located in the neighborhood of Asakusa. Only two rooms, this museum offers a quick overview of all kinds of Japanese traditional art forms, from woodworking to doll-making to metallurgy. While admiring a rocking horse necklace, I was approached by a young Japanese student, who I’m guessing was in middle school (based on his uniform and height).

“Will you please give interview?”

I acquiesced, and answered his questions best I could – with my almost nonexistent Japanese and his careful beginner’s English, we had a bit of stumbling. But he and his friends (about six of whom gathered around once he had bravely selected an interviewee) were very sweet and kind, and I’m pretty sure I helped them complete a school assignment.

Still, I’ve been thinking about his questions, many of which had already been asked of me by other Japanese people I’ve met this week. Though very basic, they bring to mind a lot of thoughts and feelings I’ve had since arriving in the country.

So, here are his questions, my answers, and my reconsidered answers.

“Where are you from?”

What I said: “California” (this generated some excitement among the group)

What I think now: I’ve been saying “California” mostly in answering this question, partially to avoid saying “America” and having to deal with the ensuing political questions, and partially because it’s true. I was born and raised in San Luis Obispo county, and spent my college and recent post-college years in Berkeley – I feel more “Californian” than “American.” It’s interesting to me that California is almost universally known, because I certainly couldn’t name the 47 prefectures in Japan. But that speaks more to Hollywood’s and San Francisco’s global reputation than anything else.

“What do you like about Japan?”

What I said: “Everyone is so nice here.”

What I think now: Everyone really is nice and polite and helpful. From train station agents to restaurant staff to casual acquaintances, Japanese people are the most hospitable citizens I’ve come across. Perhaps it’s overly simplified, but it’s been true so far. Other things I like about Japan include:

  • The fashion! Women here dress impeccably (men too, but primarily in similar suits), and their hair and makeup are pretty much flawless. Current trends include culottes, flowy tops, stripes (EVERYWHERE STRIPES), neutral shades, and midi skirts – the last of which I’ve now purchased for myself. When in Tokyo…
  • A sense of safety. Into the evenings, the feeling of security exists, even when navigating side streets and unfamiliar areas. Maybe it’s the gentle police presence, or the various guards and attendants around, or the well-lit roads, or the infrastructure (see below), but I’ve felt very safe in a completely new place.
  • The infrastructure. Kind of an odd thing to comment on, but Tokyo has the cleanest and most comfortable public bathrooms I’ve ever seen. There seems to be a commitment to maintaining and improving all city functions, from clear signage to manicured public parks to a lack of litter anywhere.

“What do you not like about Japan?”

What I said: “Uhhh… I can’t think of anything.” (Hopefully this won’t impact his grade)

What I think now: I can think of things I miss that aren’t allowed here, like Diet Coke (my kingdom for a 12-pack) and certain “medications” (#yeswecannabis). But a few things do bother me – the extreme commitment to work over health (12 hour days are normal), the bombardment of advertising everywhere I look (but that might just be a Tokyo thing), and the (seeming) lack of animal rights laws – there are FAR too many owl/parrot/cat cafes in damp basements. Being that I don’t have all of the information about these phenomena, I’m hesitant to make further judgments. But as Ethan, Kit and I discussed later, every culture has its trade-offs, and it’s got me thinking about what I’m willing to give up in my world in order to get something else.

“What surprised you about Japan?”

What I said: “That vending machines are everywhere!”

What I think now: They really are!!! Anytime you feel thirsty, a cheap beverage is usually within sight. I don’t know who restocks these machines, but they are EVERYWHERE. The only issue is that my lack of familiarity with Japanese brands has me staring at the machines for longer than socially acceptable. Other things that surprise me include:

  • Hard liquor is available at every convenience store. Why alcohol is so easily accessible in Japan while marijuana is verboten is beyond me. I bet a few of these salarymen could use some more relaxation in their life (and fewer hangovers).
  • The cleanliness of the public bathrooms. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but they’re seriously cleaner than any apartment I’ve ever inhabited.
  • Despite the fact that this is a huge city with 13 million people, we’ve only encountered graffiti in Tokyo twice.
  • Shrines and temples are everywhere, both Buddhist and Shinto. They’re also well-kept, with beautiful structures and cemeteries and fountains.

“What have you bought in Japan?”

What I said: “Material…?” (I couldn’t think of the word, which is furoshiki, traditional Japanese wrapping cloth)

What I think now: I bought beautiful furoshiki (and a guide to wrapping styles) for myself, and a few gifts for others – chopsticks, postcards, and such. I also bought a midi skirt to try and imitate the lovely styles I see around me. But what I’ve mostly spent my money on is transit fare and food – SO. MUCH. FOOD. My favorite meal to date was lunch today, cold soba noodles with dipping sauce. Dinner wasn’t bad either, Kit and I found a Thai place with excellent pad se ew. Can you tell why I’m spending so much money on food?!

It was admittedly a very short interview, but it’s given me a frame of reference to start working out my feelings about this adventure. So, in conclusion, thank you, Japanese schoolboy, for asking me questions that require me to seek answers.