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 old-school bike 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.

The weird life

11924915_10152909893926853_6672686374771263182_nSpending time in Bali means the following:

Getting woken up by a combination of rat, snake, rooster noises at 4am and/or by a prayer call coming from the only mosque in town.

When your yoga teacher used to be a gay drug addicted escort/ prostitute and porn star (but now is only addicted to yoga).

When your other yoga teacher tells you she can see spirits and communicate with the dead after showing you her piece of $6,000 medical technology that can cure parasites. Awkward.

When you have to hire a local male dancer for the evening to be able to actually go dancing.

When your capoeira teacher has class in the ‘living room’ of his house which is on a ravine above a gushing river next to a temple and meditation cave.

When you pay for the privilege of going to a farm and working your ass off all morning harvesting and planting things.

When you have to go to the immigration office to renew your visa and the person sitting next to you is a tall, blond American in a million jingly rings, who tries to get you to join her cult in India

When her young, rich American ivy-league educated student tells you all about his plans to create a startup which involves bugs becoming a staple of people’s diets.

When you find Diva Cups, Yoni Eggs and self-administered enema kits for sale in restaurants.

When the American women sitting next to you at a vegan restaurant earns her living by working two hours a day via Skype doing past life regressions.

When the British-Brazilian family sitting on the other side of you at a vegan restaurant live in a boat and sail from country to country as they please with no ‘home’ to return to.

When the old Beatnik couple sitting on the other side are engrossed in coloring books for grown-ups.

When all the local families you meet have two things in common: a father that passed away too young and at least a ten year gap between the closest siblings.

When you don’t ‘do’ yoga, but ‘practice’ yoga; when dying is ‘transitioning’.

When there are chickens literally crossing the (main) road.

When the elderly Hindu locals prefer to bathe half-naked in the chilly river rather than make use of their western-style showers, even in front of curious tourists.

When you discover that there are some 400,000 thousand dogs living on Bali and only about half of them have been vaccinated for Rabies. Meaning if you get bitten by a dog, you have a fifty percent change of dying.

When you meet a lot of whippersnapper expat male New Zealanders whom you wish well in their yoga, surfing and engineering pursuits even though you secretly want to punch them for the idyllic lives they lead.

Down the Ubud rabbit hole

10922787_10152835605896853_7435212503923004836_o (1)Having never been to Bali before, and having made a last minute decision to come here, I did not know what to expect. My lack of research landed me with some visa issues and therefore some restricted mobility, and that is how I came to spend almost all of my time so far in Ubud, the artistic and cultural center of this famed Indonesian island.

Surrounded by lush green rice fields and jungle, dotted with temples and quaint old-fashioned Balinese family compounds, there is immense beauty here. Deep ravines frame gushing rivers. Monkeys hide high up in the trees and huge coconut palms provide shade from the sun’s heat. Some four hundred cafes and restaurants cater to the transient population which is made up of local Balinese, Indonesians from other parts of the country, expats from all over the world (but particularly Europe, the US and Oceania) and the travelers and seekers just passin’ through.

Ubud is generally a quiet and peaceful place. There’s some traffic congestion on the main street and the markets get a bit crowded, but the pace of life is enjoyably slow and the people watching is phenomenal. At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that the non-Indonesians who visit here fall into one of two categories: twenty year old supermodel couples or beautiful white, rich, married European couples with equally beautiful 2.5 children.

But then you spend some time at The Yoga Barn, a kind of yoga utopia, perhaps attending a yoga class or even the venerated Ecstatic Dance. Visit any of the dozens of raw, vegan, organic restaurants and cafes that dot the busy streets, rice fields and hillsides and you come into contact with a different beast altogether. I got talking to another New Zealander who has been living here for two years. He told me he calls this tribe the Trustafarians. And that’s exactly what they are: young, rich twenty-somethings living bohemian work-free lifestyles off their inherited money. They come to ‘find themselves’ but, my friend tells me, they end up staying and not really finding anything. I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite – I’m all for a good old fashioned Eat, Pray, Love style mission – and indeed, I went on a short one in my twenties. I may even be on one now (replace ‘Pray, Love’ with ‘Read, Sleep’). But how much fucking yoga and eating kale are you going to do? It’s like the kids here have taken the fanatical new age, health obsessed culture of California to a whole new level.

So there we are, trapped far down in the interior, subjective rabbit hole. I hope these man-bunned, tramp-stamped, tie-dyed, colonically-irrigated, glittered beautiful people aren’t doomed to a life of navel gazing and spending their days doing Louise Hay-inspired affirmations (after their coffee enema and morning Vinyasa practice) at the expense of achieving something worthwhile with their lives, of having an impact. But hey, this kind of tourism is helping keep an island economically afloat (even if most of the places frequented by said Trustafarians are owned by expats and the local staff get paid shit and don’t reap any profits).

Perhaps I’m a little bitter. It’s hard not to feel a bit hard done by when you’re surrounded by such self-indulgent, self-absorbed people who don’t know what it’s like to flip burgers at McDonald’s. At the same time, I swing to the other extreme and feel an immense sense of gratitude. Most of the locals have never left the island. Many of them never had the opportunity to get an education. Many are illiterate. I’ve heard the same hard luck story from my various taxi drivers many times – born into a poor family, unable to attend school, limited prospects for employment and earning an income. And yet they managed to teach themselves another language and make a life for themselves. Just to be able to write that sentence (“my various taxi drivers”), just to be here and witnessing this kind of apartheid, the beauty, the poverty, the comedy and the tragedy is an incredible privilege and stroke of luck.

 

Leaps of Faith in Venice

10703716_10152232332981853_2837997001685255358_nDuring the Summer of Love, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit one of the most magical and enchanting cities in the world – Venice. Don’t hate me, but it was actually the second time in my whole life. While I spent three days there, two of them alone, I of course became reflective. It had been sixteen years since I had trotted through the labyrinthine streets and over the little ponti. Back then, I had taken a leap of faith and began working for a family near Amsterdam as as au pair. Not long after my arrival, they announced they were going on vacation and I would also have my vacation time. I didn’t have much money so I booked an extremely cheap all-inclusive trip to the coast of Italy, near Venice. It took 24 hours in a bus to get to the ritzy seaside town. It was the kind of trip I could probably only do in my youth. I slept alone in a tent, although it was too hot to sleep. I made friends with three Dutch girls who were also on the trip. They were nurses from a town near the south of Holland. During our time together, we ate a lot of pizza and I felt very European as we strode among the waves at the beach in only our bikini bottoms. Once I got so attacked by mosquitoes that my ankle swelled up to the size of a baseball and I had to be injected with something. At night, we hit the discos, along with hoards of multinational young people – we looked like a giant, drunk United Colours of Benetton ad.

At first I was unnerved by the young, ripped North African men (boys?) dancing in wrought iron cages suspended above the dance floor, and the dancing that looked like it was influenced by National Geographic mating videos. But soon I understood that this  too was grist for the maturing mill. Wait until I tell my friends back home at the end of the world about this! We got to spend only one fleeting day in Venice, but it was like a dream for me – in the sense of being in one and of achieving one. Just a few weeks earlier I had no idea that I would have the opportunity to realize this dream – a childhood fantasy. I have a photo somewhere of me standing in front of the iconic Rialto Bridge, wearing my favorite blue tank top and grey trousers that I bought for $10 dollars in Australia some months earlier when I attended my uncle’s wedding. I have an impish smile on my face and the same long, two toned blond-brown hair that I have now. I was infinitely cooler back then.

And back to the future: I chose the busiest time of year to go. I caught a train directly there and of course got motion sickness on the canal taxi ride to the hotel. Yes, there was no ghetto tent for me this time. I was living the high life and stayed in a very beautiful hotel. I figured it would probably be the last time in my whole life I would visit there and so I splurged. I walked around in a daze, camera in hand, dodging the hoards of other privileged people from all over the world. I got my bearings and walked around and around the narrow streets, just walking, looking, thinking. The food is overpriced here, I thought. The waiters are rude. It’s so commercial, with an H&M and Disney Store tarnishing the elegant buildings that have watched over the canals for hundreds of years.

I went into a quaint little paper store and bought an exquisite little blue notebook from a very well dressed man with silver hair who looked like he’d been working there for about 300 years. I went back to my airy, plush hotel and I wrote in it. I wrote down all my fears and insecurities. I wanted to see myself, to see how I was back in this context after so many years. To see my progress. As the writing spilled onto the paper, I could still see that I had the same issues as that naive eighteen year old girl standing on the bridge. We are two different people but we are the same. I was again taking a leap of faith.

I trudged around. I explored. I escaped the heat in shops and restaurants. I healed an old wound from the first time I was in Venice when I had very little money and couldn’t afford to purchase anything more than some little glass ornaments. I went to a mask store of some renown and it took me about ten minutes to buy four exquisite Venetian masks. Every time I check my bank account I’m reminded that I still have to pay for them. But the highlight, the climax, the crescendo was walking alongside the largest canal one night in the dark, waiting for a boat to arrive. On that boat would be my sweetheart who had worked all day then driven some hours to be with me. At his arrival, we embraced and I shut my eyes tight, never wanting the moment to end. It was perhaps the most fairytale moment of my entire life, and in that one moment, I could say that love, with all its messiness, is worth it.

As I write this, I have just re-read for the third time a favorite memoir of mine by Vanessa Woods that entwines three stories – her personal love story with her husband, their work together in the Congo with Bonobos, and the heartbreaking history of the region. One passage struck me, and I should write it down in that little blue notebook full of my anxieties: ‘If there are those you love, whoever or wherever they are, hold them. Find them and hold them as tightly as you can. Resist their squirming and impatience and uncomfortable laughter and just feel their hearts throbbing against yours and give thanks that for this moment, for this one precious moment, they are here. They are with you. And they know they are utterly, completely, entirely…Loved.’

In My Italian Dream

10383631_10152230773851853_4697526860467526129_nAnd old and rather Zoolanderish friend of mine from my university days recently posted some modeling shots of himself from some years ago. One photo caught my eye – of him sitting next to a Vespa with a smoldering look on his face in jeans and a loose-fitting shirt. The caption he wrote was: ‘The photographer said, “Think you have just got out of bed and you are fixing your Vespa on a sunny morning in Rome.”‘ It’s such a cliche, but it’s so true. I lived this experience. I didn’t make it to Rome this time, but I did spend a fair amount of time on the back of two different Vespas, being driven around by one very handsome Italian, clinging to him like a koala. I spent time at the Vespa repair shop too. I learnt about the trajectory of the brand and the different models and heard all about the intricacies of finding and buying old parts and the quasi-communist payment system it entails. This was all a part of my Italian dream.

I slipped in and out of this dream in the two months I spent there. Sometimes the dream took over reality, like the first time I visited the shabby port city of Livorno in Tuscany and walked along the narrow canals, watched lovers kissing on the bridges and had my first taste of ponche, a local speciality which consists of espresso mixed with spirits. As I gazed up past the sheets hanging out to dry from the windows of four storied terracotta buildings built decades, if not centuries, ago, and scanned the stars in the sky, I wondered if I was on a movie set. As rain fell and we sought shelter under the canopy of a pizzeria, watching the ubiquitous lone African hawking umbrellas, would Fellini come chasing after me and swipe me with his pudgy hands and yell at me in Italian to VATTENNE (go away)?

10672204_10152230774971853_2200441193191780817_nI walked along Roman aqueducts hidden in a forest, through Roman ruins on the coast, around crumbling castles, in and out of monasteries, stood high atop a fascist-era tomb. I trudged through city centres where nuns and monks, beggars and merchants have walked for centuries, listening to the chime of church bells while licking gelato made from lavender. I observed meadows of sunflowers nod off at sunset, all witnessed from the back of a Vespa, zipping through the narrow back roads of Tuscany. I heard the waters of Venice lapping against the ancient, sinking piers as an orchestra played in Piazza San Marco, in almost complete darkness, apart from the moon and the silhouette of Venetian arches. I swam in the same  clear blue lakes as nobility and old monied families on vacation from Switzerland. I took in the view of an old Tuscan village from a restored farmhouse high upon a hill. I was literally under the Tuscan sun. And I stood in awe of many a dazzling Tuscan sunset – like the hottest, reddest fire burning into gold and then blackness.

And yet, while these moments are perhaps too beautiful and perfect to adequately describe or recapture in words – moments I never thought I would be lucky enough to experience in this lifetime, moments of reality seeped in. The gypsies who try to swipe your things at the train station. The young prostitutes standing on the side of the road. The mentally ill who want to fuck them in broad daylight in public. The shops and supermarkets constantly being closed. The fact that it’s so difficult to communicate and so easy to feel isolated. The realization that it’s your own fault because you were too disbelieving in your Italian dream to study much beforehand. The way that public transport doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t run on time. The astronomical cost of said public transport. The whining and justified pessimism of locals entering middle age who feel that there’s no way for them to get ahead. The tenacious clinging on of nepotism and a Byzantine bureaucracy designed to make your life a living hell. A youth disillusioned and/or brainwashed by twenty years of rule by the vacuous iPod Nano that is Berlusconi. A culture of immediate gratification and materialism, and hypocrisy.

And yet La Dolce Vita triumphs. I met her in my dream and now she haunts me while also comforting me. I close my eyes and dream of once again riding on the back of a Vespa, zipping through not only dreams, but also reality.