Wandering the World
The Ground Beneath my Feet
Over a year ago I went on a fascinating journey. This week I finally put my photographs together with the writing I did on that journey so I can share it with you.
Well, because I broke my leg in Japan just 6 weeks before leaving Japan for Istanbul, I had to take the traditional land route instead of the more modern air route. Nika and Kerem on the other hand are already safely ensconced at Babaanne and Dede’s house in Istanbul as I write this.
Yesterday I took the airplane from Tokyo to Vladivostok. I know, I know I was not supposed to fly but the ferry boats were all full for the entire month of April and I figured that a three hour flight was better than an 11 hour flight. I was nervous almost the entire time since my doctor had put the fear of embolism in me. I kept fidgeting especially my injured leg which is totally not like me and I took 2 trips to the bathroom. The second one was thwarted as the guy in the front seat of the plane jumped up right before I got to his row and sprinted to the bathroom and then the captain came on to say that we were to go back to our seats for landing. I wasn’t too upset though because the main purpose of going to the bathroom was so I would have an excuse to get up and move around. I had also prepared myself with aspirin to thin my blood and compression socks to keep the swelling down.
So, I landed without embolism and proceeded to find my taxi driver. He was waiting outside with his two adorable daughters Angelina and Sasha who had made a sign with my name on it. He was a bit hard to find as he had been arranged by my Airbandb host and apparently couldn’t come in to the airport. Either that or he was late, I am not sure. He strapped his kids in and we were off. We got about half way to Vladivostok (it is about an hour outside away from the airport) when he pulled the car over ran around to the back and reprimanded the kids for something. It reminded me of the ever popular parental warning, "Don’t make me pull this car over!"
When we arrived my host popped out of the old high school where she was attending an art exhibition and gave me a big hug. Then we entered and her friends were all there offering me champaign. They seemed delighted that I would drink with them. I wasn’t actually supposed to have alcohol because it might make me dehydrated and give me an embolism but I figured, what the hell, I was on the ground again at that point. Conversation topics included “What do you think of our president?” This seemed a possibly dangerous topic so I side stepped it by saying that I did not like president Trump. One gentleman shared that he loved Arizona because of it’s open gun laws. According to him people kill people, not guns. I said that if people kill people, they should probably be kept away from guns. He didn’t agree. I think he was disappointed that I didn’t like Arizona gun laws as much as he did.
After the art exhibition there was a play rehearsal that involved my host’s son so we stuck around for another couple of hours and then caught a taxi. The driver was pretty good at speaking English and he was about my age so we had a great talk about working on boats and living in Vladivostok.
I was then escorted into a tiny but charming house with three extremely friendly cats. I gave my host and her son omiage from Japan and was so happy to see that the son who is twelve years old very carefully and meticulously opened the wrapping so as to not damage the paper. That is exactly what I would have done, so I appreciated that. After dinner, he dove into the individually wrapped cakes and decided that the sakura was the best.
I was then introduced to the toilet and I went to bed.
Then next morning Ray went off to school and Katya and I chatted over tea using Google translate. She is a fascinating person who loves art, cats, dogs and her freedom. She chooses to live in a small, very unique house rather than an apartment because she thinks it is healthier even though it means that her son is sometimes made fun of. She then decided to take me for a walk up the mountain in her back yard. This involved climbing up steep slopes with the aid of ropes and climbing through a hole in the fence. I doubted the wisdom of this as my leg is still pretty sore but I had already started so I didn’t want to be a wimp. I made it up all of the ropes only to get bloodied by a barbed wire fence I didn’t see while getting through the hole in the fence. I hope I don’t get tetanus. I think my last shot was about 5 years ago so I should be OK. Katya put a blue antibiotic on it, that stung. Now my hairline is blue. Then we went all over Vladivostok on foot. Happily she had an errand to run and sent me to the yacht club for an hour where I ordered a really cool chocolate ball and tea. They poured caramel over the chocolate melting it and revealing ice cream in the middle. It was warm and quiet and beautiful and I got to read my book for an hour.
Katya then retrieved me and we proceeded to walk to the train station so I could book my trip to Moscow for the next day. I couldn’t understand the exchange but the ticket woman kept shaking her head so it didn’t look good. Katya said that the next available seat was a week from now and I could feel my heart sinking. I had only booked Katya’s place for one more night and she was booked after that so I would have to find another place to stay. I really want to be on my way also because my leg is killing me at this point and I am really looking forward to 7 days of not walking all over hell’s half acre.
Being with someone who knows the system is a bit like being with Dumbledore however. She simply marched me out the door, across the tracks, through a gate and into another office, empty aside from one very friendly lady who proceeded to issue me a ticket for tomorrow. I am not sure why no in one place was not no in another place but I will take it! Actually I will be leaving the day after tomorrow at about one in the morning but it is calculated on Moscow time and in Moscow it will be tomorrow.
Then I thought we were going to go back home but we didn’t. Instead we climbed another mountain to get a spectacular view of the city. It was wonderful and I would have been excited to see it if my leg wasn’t hurting so much. I suggested taking a taxi home but we couldn’t get one because Katya’s phone had run out of batteries. That meant I had to walk all the way back down the mountain to find a cafe so she could plug the phone in. Walking into the cafe was like finding a mountain lodge after being lost in the snow, I sat down and put my foot up and enjoyed a hot lemonade.
The only thing I wanted more than to be in that cafe was to be laying down in bed so after a brief respite Katya loaded me into a taxi while she went off to hang some art at the exhibition. Luckily the driver found the right street. I wasn’t sure at first because it is a dirt road that you can only find after several turns but the young driver found it. He couldn’t fine the exact gate but luckily Katya had made me look at the gate before we left this morning so I could identify it and make it safely to my bed where I am writing this. Tomorrow I don’t get on the train until really late and I don’t want to walk very much so I think I am going to suggest that the big activity be trying to take a shower which according to the description on the airbandb site should be just down the street at the public pool.
So far I am finding the Russians to be standoffish with strangers but extremely friendly with me as soon as we are introduced. They generally don’t waste their smiles on people they don’t know.
OK, so because I overdid it yesterday walking from 9 am till about 7 pm my leg feels like it is on fire! I can’t wait to get on the train. I spent a good portion of the day sitting in bed reading and doing my physical therapy. I had 1 goal today and that was to take a shower, it didn’t happen. After stocking up on supplies for the train trip (I now have enough food for a small family) we headed off to find a public bath house. Unfortunately it was mens only day at the local one so Katya assured me that we would head off in the evening to one in town that she likes. We got there and it was closed. Apparently there is some kind of Easter bathing ritual that will take place the next day and they were closed getting ready for it. She assured me that I would be able to bathe on the train for 2 dollars and it would in fact save me money. This morning I got all of my bathing stuff together and was told that the shower is mythical. Wow am I going to stink by the time I get to Moscow!!
I want to share with you 3 days of memories I wrote while laying in a hospital bed in Japan but first I should give you a bit of context as to why I was laying there.
I have skied since I was 6 years old. When I click my rigid boots into the bindings on my flexible skis, they feel like an extension of my body. They allow me to fly! Now, in my 40s, I am not is as good shape as I was in high school when I raced through slalom gates to a finish line, but I am showing my daughter how to ski and it is exhilarating to see her learn how to turn and stop. She is discovering the joy of flying on snow, just like I did at her age. We are skiing in Nagano Japan, staying at a guest house in which the owner prepares us sumptuous meals and shares his experiences and space with us so graciously we feel like friends.
Towards the end of the first day, my husband urges me to try out the upper lift that we have been eyeing all day. It is unusual in that I have not seen a single person board that lift, all the chairs are parading up to the top of the mountain empty, it is like something out of a postapoctaliptic movie. Curiosity got the best of me and I climbed up on one of those empty chairs alone.
I have a great fear of heights, sometimes I dream that I am drawn to the edge of a cliff and for some reason I can't keep my balance and I fall over. These dreams always leave me panicked and sweating. I have however, never felt even a prick of this fear on a ski slope. As the chair took me further and further up the mountain, the incline became steeper and steeper, I twisted my body around to look back and saw nothing but huge expanses of air around me plunging down to the beginner ski slope which now seemed impossibly far away. Was I just down there a few minutes ago? How is it possible that it is so small now? I began to feel that familiar panic creep up my spine, I spun back around and looked at the mountain ahead of me but it was too late. I began to sweat in spite of the cold and my breath was coming in short spurts.
This is crazy, I tried to calm myself. I had been on chair lifts thousands of times, there was nothing to worry about but I couldn't shake the panic that had by now spread all the way to my fingertips.
I made it to the top of the lift but the feeling of panic was still with me and after a short traverse through the trees I came out on a slope that seemed steeper than anything I had ever been on before. I was acutely aware of the fact that there was no one else up there with me, I was all alone. I stood on the top of that slope and worst case scenarios started to run through my head, if I had an accident up here it would be a long time until anyone could help me. My husband and daughter were skiing down below and would probably start to worry but not for a while. I did have my cell phone but there wasn't any reception up that high.
All of my confidence left me and I started to side slip down that mountain. My thighs were screaming within a few minutes but I was too scared to actually ski. I side slipped all the way down, it took me forever and by the time I met up with my family, my legs were shot but I hadn't been injured so I considered it a win and we all went back to the guest house.
The next day when we arrived at the mountain, we made plans to go to an onsen (a natural hot springs where people soak, usually in beautiful, natural settings) after skiing and before catching our shinkansen (high-speed train) back to Tokyo. We packed up our suitcases and everything was ready for an efficient exit after our day on the slopes.
It started to snow as we took our first run. It was a truly beautiful place and the skiing was spectacular. My husband was super happy because he was snow boarding and the fresh powder was making it even nicer for him. My daughter and I were skiing though, and the powder was becoming difficult to push around. After lunch we took a few more runs and it started snowing even harder so my daughter and I went back to the cafeteria for some hot chocolate. We were both cold and tired so it was a welcome respite. My husband wanted to get the most possible snow boarding in so he kept at it. He found us a while later and urged us to take just a few more runs before calling it a day and heading for the much anticipated onsen.
His Enthusiasm was contagious so I rallied my energy and we headed back out. My daughter, in spite of only having been skiing for a total of about 6 days in her life, had become super speedy. I struggled to keep up with her but I wanted to be there for her if she fell so I pushed myself. I was after all on a beginner slope but as I went into a turn I felt my ski hit something under all of that fresh powder and I went down. My body flipped over itself, I felt myself become airborne and I came down with all of my weight on my right foot.
I was laying face down in the snow crying and screaming when my husband who had seen everything from further up the slope got to me. I knew my leg was broken even though I had never broken a bone like that before. I didn't know which bone, I didn't know where but I knew it was broken.
Ski patrol came, they tried to talk to me but I don't speak very much Japanese on the best of days and this wasn't one of those. They took my ski off, bundled me up, and put me on a sled. I had never been on a sled and I remember thinking that it must be scary on one of those things with no control over what was happening. I squeezed my eyes shut. I don't remember the ride at all.
The next thing I knew I was in the medical building my daughter was holding my hand and crying. She had never seen me hurt before and it was quite traumatic for her. She pulled herself together though and translated for me while they took my boot off.
Our host at the guest house came right out and drove me to the local clinic where they took an x-ray and declared that my fibula was broken (this turned out to be wrong, it was my tibia), put a cast on me, and sent me on my way. I was wheeled through the train station in a wheel chair and deposited on my seat for the long ride home, where my dear friend was waiting for me with a set of crutches.
A few days later I was in the hospital waiting for surgery to screw my bone back together. As I lay there, I wrote.
I checked in with Kerem and we had some trouble finding the right room. We had to go up and down the elevator because we were in the wrong building but once we got there things went more smoothly. They put me in a private room but when we requested the public room, they were able to accommodate within the hour. My new space is a bit like a room but with pink curtains instead of walls. I am in the space nearest to the door and there are 5 other people here with me. This is good and bad because I am close to the bathroom but I am far away from the window. I wouldn’t be able to pick my roommates out of a line up because we are all curtained off from each other so as to preserve our privacy. The curtains change from pink to a kind of net about 2 thirds the way up so that the florescent light illuminates my room quite brightly. It is lights out at 10:00 and lights on at 7:00. my bed is great, I have controls that I can use to elevate and lower different parts of my body and a nice Japanese pillow made of little plastic beads. The pillow is not soft but it does mold into shapes very nicely. As I type this my head is propped up well and it doesn’t get hot like other pillows do. I also love the table that rolls right up to the bed so I can type this with ease.
“Hi, my name is Erika.” my nurse introduced herself in beautiful English. This was great as my Japanese is sadly lacking even after being her for over three years. It turns out she is the head nurse and she was in need of a change of pace so she told everyone that she was going to devote herself to me for a few hours and she took me around the hospital in a wheelchair to get my various tests. We had a great time chatting in between blowing into tubes, getting x-rayed and CT scanned. Then it was back to my “room” where I spent the rest of the afternoon reading and writing.
In the evening the lights went out abruptly at 10 and I had to leave a chapter unfinished. I was strangely not sleepy but my companion across the curtain was and I was delighted to hear her snore. My husband is always complaining about my snoring so it was a relief to hear that I would not be the only one disturbing the absolute silence that reigns in this room. I have rarely had the pleasure of spending time with 5 other people who make no noise at all.
As people began to drift off they started farting. I wonder if I fart as I am falling asleep. I found it greatly amusing. The absolute silence only highlighted all of the little noises bodies make as they relax.
Lights on at seven o’clock!! I wasn’t quite prepared for this, but so it was, so after trying to hide from that bright florescent light, the long ones you know, that take up several feet of ceiling space, I sat up and was just about to grab my crutches to hit the restroom when my breakfast suddenly appeared so I held it, ate my breakfast and then visited the privy. Then came the long wait for a shower. I considered putting my bra on and maybe even getting dressed but I smelled so bad I didn’t want to sully my other clothes so I waited. I had to wait a long time because even though they made a special effort to schedule my bathing time as 12:30, I think they forgot. At 1:00 I called a nurse and asked her, via my smart phone translation, if my shower time was coming. That prompted them to usher me into the bathroom post haste. I had no idea what to expect but what I found was a chair with a hole in the middle so the water could drain through and a sparkling beautiful empty tub. The chair was for me. My leg, bagged in plastic was safe from the water. They told me they would come back for me in 10 minutes. I finished early and had nothing to do but look longingly at the tub. The basket on the rim held a sponge and a spray bottle that contained something orange. The spray part on the top was the exact color of a rubber ducky.
Then it was time for physical therapy. A wonderful woman named Tomo showed me how to lift my leg so the muscles wouldn’t waste away. I don’t know why I hadn’t been doing them before since they really aren’t hard and even with a broken bone, they are totally doable. I guess I had given my entire leg a pass to do nothing at all since the glute muscle had seized up that first day after the break when I had to sit in a hospital waiting room for 6 hours.
Now I am waiting for my family to arrive or Etsuko to arrive so they can explain anesthesia to me. I think I may prefer not to know since it just makes me feel kind of nauseous whenever they show me what my bones look like or what they want to do to me or what my risks are. I guess I should want to know but I don’t really think I have a choice in all of this. I want to walk again.
I woke up nervous. It was the day of the surgery. I knew it was coming at 3:00 so from the moment the lights snapped on at 6 am (they were early today) I was on alert. They came for me at about 10 am with the needle for my arm. The young man, who I can only assume was a doctor in training, looked in vein for my vein. He couldn’t really see it I could tell but took a stab at it anyway. He fished around in there for a while while I closed my eyes and bit the index finger of my other hand. Finally he decided to give up on that particular site and try again. Luckily his second try was more successful and I had an IV drip. This made it so that I had no choice but to take in liquids but it was much more difficult to go to the bathroom as I couldn’t use crutches and hold onto the rolling drip at the same time. Now I needed to call a nurse to wheel me in a wheelchair every time I needed to relieve myself.
My writing ends there. The following days were too painful for me even to consider writing or reading and I just lay there trying unsuccessfully to will the pain away. I remember being taken to the operating theater and laying on the table looking up at at least 5 male faces looking down at me. They were all happy and relaxed, I was trying not to have a panic attack. I had never been under general anesthesia before. I focused on observing the myriad of lights pointing down in my directions, the shine on the stainless steel. I didn't want to make my surgeon feel bad by showing too much anxiety.
Someone put a mask on my face and I faded out for what seemed like a split second before I was being shaken awake. I opened my eyes and a searing pain in my ankle started. I was groggy and trying not to cry, surely the pain must be just temporary until the pain killer kicked in. I was wheeled back to my bed with the pink curtains where I tried to sleep but the pain didn't abate.
A while later, I have no idea how long, the surgeon came to talk to me. He was super happy and proud of his work. He showed me the x-rays but I was having trouble showing how much I appreciated his work through the haze of anesthesia and pain. I tried to smile but I don't think he was convinced so he left saying he would be back later.
I buzzed the nurse to ask for a pain killer and she gave me a pill. I took it but it didn't seem to have any effect. This was repeated every few hours for a couple of days and I was despairing of ever being out of pain. When one of the nurses suggested that I might take a different kind of pain killer but, she warned, it was a suppository. She was quite emphatic about this and repeated it several times, clearly expecting me to turn it down. I didn't! The resulting relief was reminiscent of when, after 30 or so hours of labour, I asked for an epidural. I could think again, suddenly life seemed worth living again. It was lovely. Shortly thereafter I was sent home to convalesce.
A few weeks later, after being cleared to walk, I headed off to Vladivostok to take the Siberian Express all the way across Russia but that is a story for a different post.
Spring is just coming to a close and the flowers are still blooming. In spite of myself, I keep taking pictures of them, maybe so I can linger in their presence just a few moments longer.
Red: Poppies - delicate, bloody reminders of disruption
A few years ago while reading Birds Without Wings, one of my favorite books about Turkey, I noticed a lot of references to poppies and I began to wonder what they symbolized. When I looked it up I learned that poppies represent World War I. Poppies grow on earth that has been disturbed and they grow blood red. Turkey was on the losing side of that war when it was still the Ottoman Empire. After WWI the empire was broken apart and Turkey took on the shape it is today when the victors dictated what the world would look like, at least for a while. The newly formed nation, defining itself, exchanged much of its population with neighboring Greece causing more disruption. The poppies come back every year; the people never did.
Pink: Cherry Blossoms - Ephemeral Overwhelm
“the cherry blossom represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It's a reminder that life is almost overwhelmingly beautiful but that it is also tragically short.” - Homar0 Cantu (chef)
Every year, sometime in early spring, Japan is washed over by a tide of pink. It starts in the warmer south and sweeps its way north. People stop what they are doing, companies let their employees take a break to go outside, and everyone enjoys Hanami (cherry blossom parties under the trees). Advanced scouts are sent out to the parks in Tokyo to stake out good spots beneath the pink to lay out blankets while others gather the food and drink. The dates are not fixed, they depend on nature, but it happens every year. I left Japan during Hanami last year, and the contrast between cold, brown Russia and warm, pink Japan could not have been more marked.
Purple: Tulip - Of Love and Islam
My grandmother was from Holland and tulips held a special place in her heart. I always assumed that they came from Holland because they are so iconic there. Who hasn't seen the Dutch fields, bright colors stretching to the horizon? It wasn’t until I moved to Turkey 18 years ago that I was disabused of that notion. Tulips were actually brought to Holland from Turkey in the 16th century. In Turkey, the tulip (or lale), represents Islam and can be found on ceramics and ebru (an art form in which paint is applied to the surface of a viscous liquid and lifted off with paper). They also have many other meanings depending on their color. The purple ones in this photograph represent royalty.
Red, White and Green: Geraniums Against White Walls
On my way to drop my daughter off at school each morning I am greeted by striking pink and red geraniums agains white walls. I often stop to admire them and chat with the ladies who carefully tend them so we all can enjoy our trips through the winding streets. Both the white paint and the bright flowers keep the houses cool in the hot Spanish summers. They are hardy and easy to grow, bright, cheerful and for me, they symbolize Andalusia.
After years of begging, I finally let my daughter pick out a tiny kitten when we moved to Spain. Previously we were living in Japan and our apartment didn’t allow pets. This meant that we had to leave our beloved cat Hisser (who was born under our bed just weeks before I married my husband) with my parents in Arizona and no pets for my daughter. Our apartment in Spain however, happily allows pets so, welcome Thimble!
For the 4 years we lived in Japan and were unable to have pets, I was constantly amazed and amused by the differences I saw between how pets are viewed and cared for in Japan and how I am used to caring for them in the United States.
Dogs around Tokyo
We were fortunate to live near one of the most beautiful parks in Tokyo, Ueno Park. It took me about 20 minutes to walk there at a good clip and many weekends would find me strolling through its many cherry trees and lotus ponds. I was not alone, many many people frequent this park and often with their dogs. People in Japan often take their dogs on walks in strollers and sometimes backpacks just as we do in the United States with children. They often also accessorize their dogs.
Japan Loves Cats!
People in Japan love cats! There are cat statues, toys, paintings etc. everywhere and on the rare occasion you actually get to see a cat on the street there are often many people gathered around it taking pictures.
Since many people are unable to own cats, they have cat cafes where people can go and spend time with them. I visited a couple of cat cafes. Once with my daughter because she missed having a pet so much I hoped it would help. It didn’t, they have very strict rules at the cat cafes, no picking up the cats, no interaction with the cats unless they come up to you. This means patrons grab kitty toys and try to lure them over. Unfortunately, the cats, being cats, are often aloof. There are tons of people trooping through each day and they don’t know you so it is understandable that they don’t really want to sit on your lap. They aren’t dogs after all!
More Fascinating Things Pertaining to Dogs and Cats in Japan