Tune in, Tokyo

14712861_10153714705356853_3737233960148924578_oI found a cheap ticket to Tokyo so faster than you can say ‘konnichiwa’ I was on my way to spend a few days with my dear friend Ai. We survived living in a small cabin together as we sailed around the world some years ago, and a year and a half ago, Ai, recently heartbroken, came to my rescue in Seoul as I found myself in the same predicament. Her calm, strong presence was healing and comforting to say the least.

I have lived in Tokyo and spent a lot of time there over the past ten years. It’s a megacity, that’s for sure. I’m always amazed by how it stretches into infinity, as if it was its own galaxy. Lucky for me, Ai lives in a upscale residential ‘hood in central Tokyo. Despite its central location, her place was incredibly quiet and that’s perhaps the most surprising thing about Tokyo – despite being home to millions of people and gazillions of stores, restaurants, cafes, clubs etc, it’s so eerily quiet.

When we weren’t eating ourselves silly, I spent some time visiting my old haunts – the glitz and glamour of Roppongi Hills, the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku, the craziness of Shibuya, the peace and quiet of Yoyogi Park. After some hours of this, I remembered the reasons I chose not to live there longterm: it’s a giant concrete jungle with an incredibly confusing subway system with little English available. Navigating it can be exhausting. One also expels so much psychic energy on deciding where to go, what to do, what to eat, what to buy. It’s the paradox of choice: there’s just so much choice, it’s hard to decide. Even buying something as simple as a toothbrush, one is confronted with fifty different shapes, sizes, functions and colours. When I remarked about this to my friend, who had spent two years living in the undeveloped Solomon Islands, she said, “I know what you mean. Life was in a way easier in the Solomons because I had no choice about so many things.”

Another thing that struck me was the rampant consumerism and materialism. There are just so many shops! For everything! And shopping is a kind of national sport. I think the Japanese economy would collapse if people stopped shopping for even a day. Of course, no one, apart from perhaps the Italians, does aesthetics so well. The sheer array of beautiful (expensive) things for sale is mind-boggling. My favourite store, Muji, with its Scandinavian-inspired minimalism, is what heaven looks like and I spent an hour just walking around and touching all the things that I may one day own (if I win the lottery).

But my absolute favourite thing to do in Tokyo is to just walk around the narrow, winding streets of its diverse neighbourhoods and observe people go about their daily business. The sushi chef hard at work, a little old lady petting a stray cat, a boy riding his home from school, a gaggle of salary men on their lunch break playing Pokemon Go in the park next to a patch of lotuses, a family taking their child all dressed up in kimono to visit a shrine. People are also unfailingly polite and always greet you with a smile, even if you’re shoving a camera in their face.

A friend once described Tokyo, the Big Daikon, as Fantasy Island. There’s truth to that. Anything you want, you can get it. From north to south, east to west, there’s so much to do and see. Even if you spent a year just walking around and exploring, you wouldn’t be able to cover all the city’s terrain. There are too many secrets that the city won’t reveal. And that’s good news for someone like me who can’t get enough of this beautiful, maddening, confusing city that doesn’t sleep, and despite the constant flickering of neon lights, is oddly quiet.

Awkward Encounters on Gili Meno

img_4881Now that I have a new computer, I have been able to download and actually edit some of the thousands of photos I have been hoarding on various memory cards  for the past year. So today I will release some of my photos from Indonesia’s beautiful but tiny Gili Meno island, not too far off the coast of Bali. Warning: travel essay equivalent of ten year old suburban white girl lyrics comes first.

Some context: Gili Meno is known as ‘Elizabeth Gilbert Island’. It was featured in the book Eat, Pray, Love as the place Liz goes alone for ten days at a low point before the shit hits the fan. Here she tries to confront her demons and make sense of the chaos and pain. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but recently she has said that it was a mistake to do that while in such a state of depression and despair. What she in fact needed was an entourage of therapists – so don’t try this at home folks.

Anyway, Gili Meno was forever etched in my mind after reading that book and I decided I would visit when I made last minute travel plans to Bali last year. I would take a side trip there (alone) and bask in the beauty and solitude (and also spend large chunks of time trying not to brood and ruminate over my recent heartbreak). A friend also told me about some kind of turtle sanctuary on the island. This was another pull factor – turtles!!! As usual, I didn’t make any plans and just plodded along with only a Lonely Planet guide. It took a couple of boat rides to get there and on one of them I started talking to a young Canadian woman on a gap year (is everybody who travels in that region on a gap year?) Accommodation options were limited so she suggested I follow her to an eco-hostel. This means everything is made out of bamboo and there is no hot water. OK, I thought, I’ll rough it for a few nights. Upon arrival my friend (whom I suspect is living off a trust fund) promptly disappears into a copy of The Power of Now and into the arms of a rugged Eaton-educated ‘gappy’ and so I have a virgin cocktail at the outdoor bar and chat to the American couple who own the place. I’m a little surprised at the age gap between them – the woman seems at least ten years older, but this is the age of Madonna and Demi Moore. I’m even more surprised, however, when the guy starts flirting with me. Wow, this is awkward. Not just because his wife is standing right there, but also because he’s not my type. I slither off my stool and head to the beach to watch the sunset. I later learn that his partner is in fact his mother. Note to self: live on a tropical island in order to preserve youthful appearance.

The next day I’m determined to see an elusive sea turtle while snorkelling (and after a few attempts, I do!). I also check out the ‘turtle sanctuary’ which was perhaps the most disappointing experience of my adult life – there’s just a bunch of smelly little turtles flapping around in what appear to be baths. There’s a woman there to take care of them but you can’t really touch them or, as in my imagination, ride on the back of them. And there’s still 9 more hours until it gets dark. I fill the few days I’m there with snorkelling, exploring, taking pictures and reading. I have a few conversations with the gaggle of strapping young British men who are probably related to Prince William and Hugh Grant. They’re here for volunteer work which involves building more bamboo things. They sleep outside in hammocks (with their shirts off) and enjoy the company of the ubiquitous drunk, loud-mouthed Irish girl.

While I’ve been assured that the island is safe, I do feel slightly scared when I walk around in the evening. The muslim call to prayer occurs at sunset and the island being undeveloped and populated by only a few small fishing villages, does feel eerie. Nevertheless, I don’t let that stop me. I head to one of other beaches around the coast to watch the sunset. There are a few local kids running around and only a few white people lounging on chairs, beer in hand.

I spot a young-ish looking white guy sitting on the stony sand, playing around with his camera. We start talking and compare lenses. Turns out that he’s Canadian and bears a striking resemblance to Ned Flanders (he later tells me that his nickname is ‘Ned’ because he’s so nice. I don’t have the heart to tell him otherwise). We order some juice and he tells me his life story – of how he recently got concussion and was unable to do anything except lie in a dark room for three months with no movement or stimulation and how he was wracked with anxiety. I feel compassion towards him and don’t begrudge him the fact that he’s traveling for an entire year or more by living off his savings after quitting his corporate job. He became heavily involved with all kinds of energy healing modalities, and after we’ve eaten an 80 cent dinner of rice and vegetable curry made by a woman in her house, I find him sitting opposite me cross-legged doing some kind of non-invasive reiki on me. What does one say in that situation? I just tried to stifle a laugh. Millions of stars pop out in the now ink black sky and it would be very romantic if I actually saw Ned as more than a friendly fellow traveler. I don’t. He offers to walk me home which I gratefully accept, not sure that I could find my way back in the dark. We see the faint glow of light and hear the happy, drunk slurring of whippersnappers. It’s time to say good night. “Do you know what would make this night even more perfect?,” asks Ned. I start to feel uncomfortable. “What?” I ask. “If I could kiss you,” he replies. Talk about awkward. “Um, I don’t think so,” I quip as gently as possible. “I had fun hanging out, but let’s leave it at that.” It pains me to see the hurt expression on his face, but I don’t look back as I dodge toads and stones on my way back to my creaky bamboo bunk.

And your reward for reading (or more likely scrolling) through that are these photos of gorgeous Gili Meno.

Chur NZ

14231970_10153633433321853_3983663703483409390_oSome months ago (holy crap, like almost nine months ago) I declared that this would be the year of gratitude. With that in mind, I need to give a shout out to NZ for reigniting my appreciation and love of that magical place.

So, without further ado, I’d  first and foremost like to thank the incredibly stunning scenery – from gardens, to parks, to mountains, forests, beaches, buildings, streets, you name it, everyday my heart overflowed with how beautiful the nature is. Even in my father’s backyard there was much to be admired (and a backyard, what a concept!).

Next, I need to thank all the friends and family who went out of their way to meet with me and show me a good time, even when it was inconvenient for them. One aunt in particular knocked herself out by making an incredible apple pie from scratch just for me. All those home-cooked meals and catching up over coffee, going to movies, galleries and museums were wonderful ways to reconnect. Even while experiencing unsettling life events, I was honored that you made time for me among the chaos of everyday life.

Which brings me to my next point: Is there any way to emphasize just how amazing the food is? Big ups to the amazing supermarkets, restaurants and cafes that took a huge chunk of my bank account but in return nourished me with the most incredible pies, kebabs, risotto, lamb shanks, sushi, curry, soup, mussels, organic bacon and eggs, cheese, yogurt, muffins, cakes, chai lattes, hot chocolates, Kombucha, sandwiches and other culinary masterpieces. I won’t lie – I did feel incredibly overwhelmed loitering in the supermarket, having too many beautiful and delicious things to choose from. And also a combination of feeling deprived and having no willpower led to massive overspending. But #yolo.

And I can’t leave out the amazing cultural facilities. I visited myriad galleries, museums, libraries. New Zealand is a country that values these institutions and I was so impressed with the displays and exhibitions. Also, there was some stella journalism found in newspapers and magazines. Honorable mention must go to NEXT, The Listener, North and South, The Sunday Start Times, The Otago Daily Times. Also, thumbing through copies of my alumni magazine for the past couple of years, I was blown away by how much interesting and cutting-edge innovation is happening in that small corner at the bottom of the world – so many accomplished and enterprising geniuses toiling away in the arenas of medicine, science, engineering, education, sociology, anthropology, literature, art, design etc. Truly phenomenal. Also: shopping. I had so much fun pillaging thrift stores. They are a great way to shop as well as to raise money for various charities. I wish more of that culture existed in Asia.

Last but not least, I had warm fuzzies for much of my trip because of the people. It was so nice to have people smile at me, make eye contact with me, open doors for me, apologize even when it wasn’t their fault, make small talk with me, let me go ahead of them in line, answer my questions patiently, offer helpful advice when there was nothing in it for them. In one instance I had to get my driver’s licence renewed. I failed the eye test (of course). No worries, the lady said. Pop next door to the optometrist and get him to fill out this form and bring it back. Then you should be alright. So I pop next door, wait five minutes for the optometrist, a lovely grandfatherly-like figure who makes jokes about how anal the driver licence place is, tests my eyes, fills out a form and charges me all of $5. It was just so ridiculously easy, and dare I say, pleasant. Even sales people in snooty high-end stores are kind and welcoming. Also, as I zipped up and down the country trying to catch up with as many people as possible, it became evident that social class is not a barrier to friendship. My friends and family span the whole spectrum from working class to the country’s tiny upper crust. And I can get along with all of them. Although social inequality is increasing, I still think that NZ is one of the few developed nations where social class is not (as much of) a barrier to relationships with others. Semi-related to this point is the lifestyle. People make an effort to spend time with their loved ones and, how weird is this, cook and eat dinner together most nights at home. Whaaa…? Thanks to an emphasis on work-life balance, people actually get to hang with their loved ones for weekday lunches, dinners, and general hang-out sessions. Easy to schedule in when almost nobody works past 5pm.

While NZ does have so many fabulous qualities, it’s not a utopia. So I’m going to take a quick look at some of the things that irk me. First, while print journalism is still decent (though John Pilger wouldn’t be impressed), TV journalism has gone down the dunny. The ‘news’ is dumbed-down gossip and targeted toward the interests and intellect of the average 12 year old. And people are like zombies, lapping it all up, as if it’s ‘truth’ and gives them an accurate picture of what is going on the world. This almost certainly is in part responsible for the provincialism and parochialism that plagues the country. Next, the crazy housing boom is a topic that is hot on everyone’s lips. Kiwis are obsessed with buying and owning a house. And everyone I exchanged more than ten words with, told me I also needed to buy one. My next gripe is public transportation. It is basically crap. Buses are few and far between and too expensive. Where are the subways, trams and affordable taxis? Which brings me to my final point: NZ, while you are gorgeous and amazing, you are also prohibitively expensive. $3.80 for a 500 ml bottle of water? Really? Obviously, I’m not the first person to point out how Kiwis are being ripped off left, right, and center with food, coffee, transportation and clothing costs. I’m all for slow, sustainable living and try not to participate too much in rampant consumerism but I do think some things are excessively expensive, even taking into account economies of scale. Despite the high cost of living, I spent time with two young families who moved back to NZ from Asia, leaving behind high powered jobs and fat salaries to own a house with a backyard and to bring their kids up in God’s own. Both families, just back for a  few months, were incredibly happy they had made that decision. All in all, while not perfect, I give Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud, an A.

Being Nobody, Going Nowhere

Buddha-Meditation-TreeI can’t pinpoint the exact moment I learnt about Vipassana meditation. It could’ve been from reading this hilarious travel memoir of India, or from watching the excellent and poignant documentary, The Dhamma Brothers, about the technique being taught to inmates on death row in the American south. There were also fellow travelers I met ‘on the road’ who had done it (it’s like number three on the travel To Do List after a diving course and learning Thai massage).

So as I find my interest in meditation deepening, I wanted to tick it off my list too. So I applied to the center in New Zealand, just outside of Auckland. Being the chicken that I am, I didn’t read too much about it for fear of psyching myself out at the last minute. All I knew what that you couldn’t talk, read or write for ten days, had to get up at 4am, and could only eat twice a day. Oh, and you couldn’t use the Internet. The not talking part I could get on board with – being an introvert, it’s basically like normal life for me. But the other rules, they would probably kill me. Spoiler: they did not.

Having low or no expectations sometimes pays off. In this case, there were some nice surprises: we got our own little cabin that had a heater (being a cold-blooded reptile, this mattered in winter). Although bathrooms were shared, they were clean and the showers hot (for the first five minutes at least). The other people seemed normal (and didn’t turn up in straight jackets as I had initially imagined). The setting was gorgeous, full of native flora and fauna. Men and women were completely separate, except for the meditation hall, so I didn’t need to worry about being victimized by the intrusive male gaze. Nobody checked my bags and found the contraband candy and pen and paper that I had smuggled it. Win.

I gave it my best shot the first few days. I followed the rules, got up and 4am, worked hard huffing in and out through my nose for ten hours a day and rewarded myself with hot shower before bed at 9pm. By the fourth day, when the meditation technique changes and becomes more complex, requiring more dedication and concentration, I was losing interest. I started to ignore the 4am incessant donging of the bell. I would give up midway through a session and open my eyes surreptitiously and scan the room. Why is everyone so still and quiet and in the zone? Why can’t I stay still for more than a few minutes at a time? Where does the teacher stay? Why does she just pop in and out like the bird in a cuckoo clock and never leave the little house attached to the meditation hall?

Then, when we went back to our cabin for hours of self-practice, alone, I would crawl into my sleeping bag and take a nap. I was bored. I was ruing the day that I handed in my iPad. I would’ve killed for a book, a distraction from myself and my spastic monkey mind. The only things to look forward to were eating, walking around the forested pathways and hopefully seeing the big fluffy wild rabbits that sometimes hung out, and showering. (Although once, I did indulge in a rapturous two minutes when I found a cotton tip in my bag and was ecstatic to clean out my ears for the first time in a few weeks.

So I was getting increasingly tired and grumpy listening to Mr. Goenka’s droning on and on. I was also becoming more sensitive to noise, smell etc. My body ached and I spent more time focusing on not farting in front of 60 silent meditators than actually meditating. I was conscious of disturbing my neighbors with all my squirming – of course, the Russian IT exec in front of me, the American classical musician on my left and the German princess/supermodel on my right were perfectly still all the time and obviously accessing some deep state and inner peace that was available to everyone except for me. However, my true nemesis was the woman who was sitting north east of me. She was one of those tall, eccentric, commanding ladies who take up too much space. I named her ‘Geisha’ after the ridiculous Japanese kimono thing she wore which rustled like someone was making balls of aluminium foil every time she moved. I spent good amounts of meditation time thinking about how I was going to murder her. So, without ever having spoken to her, I made her my enemy number 1. Every time I saw her in the food hall or walking to the bathroom with her oversized Japanese silk duffel bag, I gave her the stare of death.

I soldiered on, somewhat half-assedly. And lo and behold, my mind did become still and clear. I did experience ‘equanimity’. I did become ‘equanimous’ (that has to be read with Goenka’s thick, drawling Indian accent). I was able to step back from the ups and downs of my thoughts. To look up at the sky and watch the clouds come and go and realize that my mind was the sky and my thoughts were the clouds. I had moments of ‘choice-less awareness’ and experienced interesting meditation states. Not blissful per se, but otherworldly. I was not, however, one of those people running around, hugging trees with a maniacal look in my eyes. But alone in my little cabin, I felt present and a sense of what it is to be nobody and go nowhere.

So  finally at the end of the ten days, we were allowed to talk and to get out phones back. Two interesting points about this. First, I didn’t really want to start talking again and kind of liked the protective shield Noble Silence gave me. Second, I really, really didn’t want my phone back. At times during the ten days, I had worried about missing important work-related emails, and had catastrophized about something bad happening to a family member or friend, but I didn’t have any FOMO. So when I got my phone back and had an Internet connection, I was reluctant to plug back in. Of course, it was inevitable that I had to, but was relieved to find that there was nothing of importance awaiting me.

Also, another nice surprise: the other ladies were really, really nice. We all admitted we had made up stories about each other, including names (because we had talked so minimally before the course started, if at all). The people were normal! There was doctor, a nurse, a scientist, a film person, a Harley Davidson dealer, an art gallery director, a Dutch social worker, a Tahitian dance teacher and a gaggle of requisite characters straight from central casting (yoga teacher, German travelers, massage therapist). We all felt bonded by our shared experience.

As we were cleaning up in the final hours before heading back to civilization, one of my meditation hall neighbors apologized for moving so much and distracting me. “You were so still and quiet, I felt bad every time I moved,” she quipped. I found this rather ironic and told her that I should be the one apologizing to her. We laughed. As for Geisha, well she came and plopped herself down beside me on the last day at breakfast. We started talking and of course it turns out she is in fact not a bitch but super simpatico and funny. I felt like such a jerk, just for a minute though. I didn’t want to get too attached and disturb my equanimity.


After four years of being away, of making some of my travel and life dreams a reality, I finally stepped foot back on the fertile soil of home. I have been back in the land of the long white cloud (and the long black) for two weeks. It has been intense, confusing and a bit of a roller coaster – which is to be expected.

A few months ago, as I tried to sort my life out and plan what I would do over the vacation (or if I would move back permanently or take another job in another country), I had a romanticized idea of what my time back here would be like, based on an amalgamation of my favorite memories from the past: drinking wine in a cozy bar with leather couches and a roaring fire with my friends, hanging out at the public library and writing everyday (which I’m doing right now, but it’s the second time in a few weeks), going to yoga and capoeira classes everyday, shopping at farmers’ markets and eating like a rabbit, being cultured and going to concerts and arthouse films, lounging around in my mother’s bathtub under a heaping of bubbles bought from Lush, walking the family dog along the beach, hanging at the esplanade sipping decaf flat whites, shopping for classy and original clothes by local designers so I don’t need to dress like a 14 year old anymore (thanks Seoul!).

Alas, I was thumped on the head by Reality. While I’ve been able to live out bits and pieces of my being home fantasy,  expectations and reality have been often clashed. It would be appropriate to insert a Buddhist quote about impermanence here, but we all know intellectually that everything is impermanent and nothing stays the same. It’s just jarring to be confronted with it on a daily basis, in both big and small ways. An obvious example is that old shops and restaurants have closed down or moved. It’s disorienting. On a more personal level, friends and family have changed jobs and careers, gotten married or divorced, had more kids, gotten sick or even passed away and your old friends from back in the day, a clique brought together by being big fish in a small pond have dispersed and are only held together by the fraying thread of Facebook. After a bit too much wine, the family stories come out and you find out that people are much more complex than you thought. There’s a bottomless pit of family secrets to fall into and coming to terms with the fact that those you put on a pedestal do not belong there.

There’s coming to terms with the fact that everything is so damn expensive. I knew I would spend a lot of money, but not THIS much money. Holy crap. $3 for a bottle of water? $3 for a one way bus ride? Talk about reality slap. But there are so many things that I have been ‘deprived’ of that I go nuts: chai lattes, marinated mussels, merino wool sweaters, organic NZ yogurt, authentic Japanese food, real carrot cake, sexy underwear, op-shopping, leather boots, lamb everything, licorice, and of course all those movies and concerts cost money too.

Also jarring is the fact that I have had to step out of my Peter Pan bubble of denial. Yes, my friends are buying multiple houses, stepping up their career game and breeding. Family, family friends, and friends all take me aside at one time or another and ask that most Kiwi of questions, ‘So, when are you going to buy a house?’ It’s a national obsession (after rugby) – on the six o’clock news, on the front page of the paper and the talk of the chattering and working classes. I start feeling very inadequate and very poor. To add insult to injury, I sometimes get the ‘why don’t you have a husband and kids?’ question too. I retort that when I die, my face will be eaten off by my thirty cats, but I’m OK with it.

Then there’s trying not to fuse with the reality of those you are bound to by blood. I have had many moments of biting my tongue, of trying to be generous and compassionate. Instead of flipping out with a snarky ‘Well, all you do is go to work, come home, cook dinner then watch TV and go to bed’ statement, I breathe and remind myself that this kind of boring, predictable, stable life has advantages too. It’s just not for me, and that’s OK. I do not need to keep reverting to my sixteen year old self and slam doors every time I disagree with someone else’s life choices.

And we can’t forget the lifestyle piece: in this small city on the coast, sandwiched by pristine mountains and beaches, people talk about the lifestyle. While some smart, ambitious and enterprising people have been able to forge incredible careers and still get to enjoy the lifestyle this part of the world affords, most people I meet and know work to live. They don’t care about climbing up the greasy monkey pole. Instead, they want their freedom and free time to enjoy the outdoors and slow pace of life. To stay home and raise kids, to be able to head out camping for weeks at a time when the mood strikes them, to survive on a part-time wage so they can do other things. It’s seductive, this idea. Leaving behind the rat race and all its pressures and pitfalls. But again, it’s not for me.

I’m in the midst of this ‘coming home’ story and I’m sure with more reflection, my experience and opinion will change. In the meantime, the beauty of this little paradise on the east coast of NZ’s South Island  still takes my breath away. Enjoy.

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