Saturday, September 7, 2013

New Blog Site -

I've decided to take the blog to next level and have moved it to a self-hosted page. If you've been following me here please join me at Thanks for following along!!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Full Circle

I can't believe it's been almost 4 years since I've posted to this blog. Time goes by fast, but a lot has, and is happening. When I started this blog in the summer of 2009 it was to log our journey from Cape Cod to Alaska and back. Many of my friends and family followed our trip here on this blog. The trip was amazing of course, but even 4 years later I'm still feeling the affects of it. I'd be remiss if I didn't report back that the trip was life-changing. I don't think I'd be the person I am today if not for that adventure. For some reason, prior to that, it just seemed like such a far-fetched idea to me. It seemed like the kind of adventure that other people had, not necessarily me. After completing those 12,500 miles by motorcycle I was left with a sense that anything was possible. That I didn't have to be the person that said, "I wish I could...."

Many adventures have followed since. And I've been lazy in recording all the amazing things life has offered. I spend two months in Japan, James went to OCS, we bought our first home, traveled Spain by motorcycle, volunteered for a Sea Turtle conservation program in Costa Rica and shared beers at the Lazy Lizard bar on the beach in Belize.

Life is good. Of course, it does have it's ups and downs. James lost his grandfather, Lavoy, and I lost my grandmother, Barbara. And our two Australian Shepherds, Sydney and Shelby, both passed over the last few years. But overall we are blessed beyond measure.

I've recently run in to some inspiration. And that's what brings me back to this blog. After anticipating that we'd be staying in the San Francisco bay area for another couple of years, the news that we'd be transferring wasn't initially well received. Even if it was to Alaska. There's something to be said for digging in some roots. My stint here in our home in the bay area holds a record for me - three years in one home. I was enjoying my little nest and I had to have a serious attitude adjustment about the whole thing. But now, armed with my big-girl pants, I'm embracing the change. And it's hard to imagine now why I wasn't excited about it from the start. Let's be honest... set me in one place too long and I get thinky and start pondering the meaning of life, and that's just not a good rabbit hole to fall down.

So back to the inspiration - our new journey and adventure. We'll be leaving for Alaska some time mid-July. Don't ask me for a specific date because, well, we don't know just yet - big planners that we are. I can tell you we'll be out of our home on the 27th and bouncing around spending time with people before we head up to the wilderness.

If moving to Alaska wasn't enough adventure for the next couple of months I'll be leaving for Uganda in August. I'll be traveling with an organization that takes water filters and digs wells for communities in need of clean water. It's amazing work really. And enough cannot be said about the desperate need in Uganda and other developing countries around the world. I'll be volunteering to help on the trip, but also to film a documentary about the need and the work being done there. It's a dream really - and I can only imagine the ways it will change me. I'm humbled to be a part of the work they are doing, however small a way. And I'm hopeful that in making a documentary, highlighting the needs there, giving them a voice, and showing what people are doing to help will inspire others and help change even more.

I'm inspired, overwhelmed, excited, nervous and anticipating. With the first Alaska trip inspiring so much, I can only imagine what the move there will hold. The journey continues.

Carpe Iter Itineris!

P.S. stay tuned for a new blog site.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Martial arts, bullet trains and Tokyo firsts

I feel like a little girl again. I remember the way I felt when I was young, and the excitement of traveling by plane - the wonder at the airport, the curiosity about my fellow travelers, wondering where they were going, where they had been and whom they would be meeting. The excitement of take-off and landing, all novelties before the dozens of business trips took the luster away. But I feel it again now as the sleek shinkansen train arrives at the station and I make my way to car 12. I reserved a window seat, looking forward to watching the Japanese countryside pass by – but lament not having the words to explain to the attendant I would have preferred a seat on the left side of the train as to afford me the view of Fuji-san. It’s a clear day, and the view should be beautiful.

An uniformed attendant walks to the front of the car and bows. To whom I don’t know, as he is ignored much like the airline attendant teaching the safety features of the aircraft, and I think I am the only one that notices. I imagine him stopping and doing the same on the 11 cars behind me, and I wonder at the tradition.

Several weeks ago, while bravely exploring a Sannomiya bar by myself I met Nobu, Takashi and Tetsuya. Nobu is an old man. He is almost bald, but resolutely keeps the little bit of hair he has ridiculously long. He has the look of an ancient Chinese philosopher and I can imagine him with a very long beard, giving instruction in the secrets of some martial art. I ride up in the elevator with him. He looks out of place here – at a pseudo British pub - but his sparsely toothed grin seems familiar to all here and I get the impression that this is his spot. We bump into each other later and he is quick to introduce me to his two friends, Takashi and Tetsuya. They speak English, although they make apologies about their skills – a typical Japanese trait. They are better than they let on, and I am happy to just have someone to speak to. I’m not sure how the topic of Aikdo came up, but in response to my interest they politely invite me to come watch aikido practice at their former university. We exchange email addresses before I rush off to call James from home since I know he will be able to receive my call at that hour.

I was surprised to receive the polite e-mail from Takashi renewing the invitation. I have a hunch that he appreciates having someone with which to practice his English. I feel confident the invitation is friendly only. When I travel in Mexico I can’t help but notice men looking at me – it’s unnerving but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit a little flattering. In Japan I realize I do not fit the standard of beauty here. Rather than being at all insulted by the polite indifference I find it comfortable – not too unlike going dancing at a gay bar.

Yesterday I met Takashi at Umeda Station. He’s wearing a fedora and I almost miss him. Kyoto University sits on the side of a mountain. It’s a little ways up from the very busy part of the city – quaint and a little cooler. We walk through the campus under a canopy of yellow-leafed ginko trees. Still warmer than usual, the mountainside is not yet fully ablaze in kouyo, but the cooler wind blows the early fallen around at my feet. It smells like fall.

At the opposite end of the campus we reach the dojo. Half of the dojo is floored in tatami mat, the other half is smooth wood. Soji screens wrap around the bottom two feet of the walls and sliding doors are opened wide, inviting in the autumn breeze. I notice that there is what appears to be a wooden shrine of some kind hanging on the wall, lemon leaves arranged as offering. Beside it is a picture of a stoic-looking elderly man in hakama, which I assume to be the sensei. When we arrive Kendo practice is taking place on the wood floor, bamboo swords clacking between grunts. On the tatami students wearing hakama prepare for Aikido. Tetsuya is already there and has begun stretching.

It’s an informal practice today, led by the team captain rather than the sensei. To begin they sit on their legs, bowing low and then alternately sitting upright and clapping four times in unison, and bowing again, arms prostrate in front of them. Tetsuya later explains that this is done in acknowledgment of God and directed at the shrine I had noticed upon entry - no particular religion he adds, just a general acknowledgment of a higher being.

They begin their warm-up practice. In unison they walk in a squat across the tatami and back again. Next they roll, right shoulder, left shoulder, right shoulder, their black hakama swirling around them giving them a look like Sonic the Hedgehog. Practice begins and they quickly pair up, going through the first kyo (technique). They switch partners for the second and so on, slowly and methodically practicing their technique. It looks quite effortless, but then I start to notice the beads of sweat building on foreheads. Takashi and Tetsuya take turns coming over to me and explaining something or another about the art. “This is to help you understand the spirit of Aikido,” Tetsuya explains and then quickly shuffles back to his practice.

Takashi invites me to join. It’s an intimidating prospect, but one I can’t pass up. I’m showed yonkyo and gokyo, and although he humors me, I’m sure I missed the point altogether. It’s difficult for them to explain in English the complexities of the technique, and perhaps I am not yet capable of understanding. I enjoy it though, and leave feeling like I have experienced something of Japan that not all tourists have the opportunity to.

The train glides over the rails - the normal ca-clunk-ca-clunk of tracks below almost imperceptible. I watch bright countryside fly by in the window, occasionally interrupted by intervals of darkness as we dive under mountains. I can feel in my ears that the pressure changes – have we descended or is the change created by the bullet forcing the air before it into the dark tunnel? I think that James would know the answer and I miss him. It’s easier to focus on things in the distance – closer objects pass by in a dizzying whir.

I make my way through Tokyo, change trains and arrive in good time at the Narita airport to pick up Tara, little sis and co-adventurer for the next two weeks. Her flight is delayed, but without too much ado we make our way back to the hotel. She was up for a stroll and dinner out. While on our search for dinner we unexpectedly find Senso-ji Temple. I didn’t realize our hotel was that close to it. It was on the list of things to see and so we put our hunger aside and explored for a while. It was quite beautiful at night. Strings of bright lanterns line the way – something you’d miss entirely during the day. The pagoda is brightly lit, and it’s red an gold make an even more impressive display against the black sky.

We settle on yakuniku, one of my favorites and something I’m confident ordering. Korean BBQ that you grill at your table arrives and Tara and I enjoy ourselves and catch up a little. We soon call it a night - we have a big day ahead tomorrow…matter of fact, a big two weeks.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

So That Others Might Live

"So that others might live." I'm sure you've heard it. It's always said with conviction, of course, and we nod in understanding, perhaps not realizing at the time what those words really mean. If we really understood, if the weight of that burden was clear to us at the time, would we have simply nodded in understanding or agreed enthusiastically? The concept, although easy to grasp in theory, is difficult to truly understand until tragedy touches home and that toll is collected from those we love.

Several years ago I was traveling on a business trip and was in a hotel lobby with colleagues when I received a call from James, "I'm going on a search and rescue, not sure when I'll be back, but I'll call you when I can." In response to my friend's raised eyebrow, I relayed the message. "Doesn't it bother you? Don't you worry?" she asked with concern. "Well, yes," I said, "I do worry a little. But you get used to it." The next evening I had not yet heard from James. As I laid in bed I pushed away worrisome thoughts, convincing myself that the C-130 was rock-solid and chiding myself for letting silly thoughts run through my head.

In the wake of the loss of the Sacramento crew a wave of emotions runs through me. I've cried for those that lost their lives, and even more for those that they left behind. My heart breaks for those that were out long days and nights looking for their own in vain and for those that could do nothing to help. I've had anger, fear and guilt. Guilt at being relieved that it wasn't my husband. Anger that it happened at all. And fear that it could happen again. My self-delusional bubble that allowed me to sleep at night while my husband was flying long hours officially burst. As I read comments from friends in the Coast Guard and their spouses, the sentiment seems the same. The reality of those words, "so that others might live" has officially hit home.

I know my husband. I know he, like others in the Coast Guard are brave and strong and will do what needs to be done in order to get the job done and protect others. Even if it is at the cost of their own safety. And selfishly, that scares me. And while I admire the honor in the phrase, when I think about those that are suffering such great loss right now I can't help but wonder why. Why must some die so that others might live? But I know the answer to that. I know that the world needs the brave that are willing to risk all to save another. Our family and friends in the Coast Guard make that choice every day they get on a plane or go out to do their job. Because of that daily sacrifice they are the best part of humanity.

Perhaps my friend Ta Chan here in Japan said it best. When I first arrived I was trying to explain to him what my husband did for a living. I carefully and slowing laid out the list of things while Yuki translated for her husband. I simply explained search and rescue, port security and drug interdiction, making no attempt at embellishments for ease of translation. Ta Chan, nodding his head let out a slow "ohhhhh" indicating his understanding and added in broken English, "Ah, yes, Hero."

“These poor, plain men, dwellers upon the lonely sands of Hatteras took their lives in their hands, and, at the most imminent risk, crossed the tumultuous sea…, and all for what? So that others might live to see home and friends.” - Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service, 1885.

My thoughts and prayers go out to those that are suffering something there is no consolation for.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Osaka by Night, Kyoto by Day

From Osaka and Kyoto 10.20.09
Ta Chan's sister, Yumi-san, owns a small okinomiyaki shop hidden in an older part of Osaka. The best way I can describe okinomiyaki is as a mix between a savory pancake and an omelet, with various meats, veggies and noodles prepared in front of you on a large griddle and served with a special sauce and dried seaweed flakes sprinkled on top. Ta Chan had the itch to take me there, and after our workout at the boxing gym yesterday we made the trek over to Osaka for this special treat.

It's a humble establishment with loyal clientele, good food and of course, karaoke. Yumi-san runs the whole place herself. It's early when we get there, and when we walk in there's only Yumi and one customer who is smoking in the corner. We take off our shoes and climb up to the tatami mats and Yumi begins preparing dinner for us. An older couple enters - they are here not only for the food, but also the karaoke and it's not long before they plunk down yen and start belting out what Yuki describes as Japanese "country" songs. Although I can't understand much of it, the conversation feels friendly and familiar and I'm keenly aware that this is a side of Japan that tourists would never see - and I'm grateful. This is what I want from traveling - not only sites, but people.

Everyone is curious about the unfamiliar American and I'm introduced. I can tell they are talking about me, and Yuki explains to them that I am studying Japanese. As if that was the key to the club, I'm instantly in, and I'm caught off guard when they begin urging me, "Shana - song? Shana song please." I would have preferred to turn down the offer, but I didn't want to seem impolite so I sang Alanis Morisette's "Ironic" - the only thing I could think of and easily find in the book. I guess it was a hit - or maybe they were being polite - but they urged for another. Norah Jones gets a turn with "Don't Know Why" and thankfully, my singing career for the night is done.

Wednesday we were off to Kyoto. Once Japan's capital, the city is rich with history stretching thousands of years. Full of temples and shrines, the city attracts vistors from all over the world. We started the day with Kiomizu Dera. This temple rests against the side of a mountain and you have hike up a narrow street, flanked by traditional Japanese buildings filled with wares and treats of all kinds. Tea and spice shops, souvenirs, mochi, green tea and red bean ice cream, swords, dolls - all distractions as you make your way up to the temple.

Autumn is on it's way and the little bursts of red and orange leaves let the cat out of the bag. I can hardly wait for kouyou - which is what the Japanese call the time of year when all the maple leaves are red. For now I settle for just a hint, which still makes for a beautiful backdrop to this ancient temple.

Next on the agenda was Kinkakuji - literally the temple of the golden pavilion. Fine gold leaf covers this temple that sits in the middle of a koi pond. The sun was just beginning to set and the golden temple was beautifully brilliant in the early evening sun. We enjoyed green tea under a bright red umbrella, the sun streaming in from through the maple leaves above.

Girls Night in Osaka

From Osaka at Night
Yuki is determined to have me, like it or not, try all the culinary delights that Japan has to offer. Despite my protests about the hazards of fried food (have you seen my hips lately???) she wanted me to try kushi-katsu. Kushi-katsu is an assortment of foods - anything from squid to asparagus - batter and deep fried on a stick. I was a good sport - and it was well worth it. Thank God I'm walking everywhere!

We started in Namba - a hot spot for food and shopping. Then we were off to look for a club for dancing. We struck out on that account because we were still hostage to the train schedule and things don't get going until after midnight in Osaka. Most young people actually stay out all night and catch the first train home in the morning. With the dance clubs not yet warmed up, we opted for an hour at the karaoke bar (we could pick our own music at least!) and headed home on the last train to Suma.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tea Ceremony, Sake and Karaoke

From Japan 10.15.09
Like a mother ushering her child off to kindergarten for the first day of school, Yuki says goodbye to me at the front door. I'm armed with a custom train schedule courtesy of Yuki, keys to the house and a note in Kanji that I'm supposed to show the coffee shop clerk so I can purchase espresso roast with beans ground to a number three.

To travel the train you have to purchase a ticket at the kiosk. Above the kiosk is a map of that particular train line, it's stops and corresponding fares. It costs 180 yen to get from the Suma station where I change trains and hop on the JR line. Ten stops later I will change trains again - this one will take me to Rokko Island, which is where I was heading for the Tea Ceremony. The train sounds like it should be easy, but with five different lines plus the subway the chances of me getting my lines crossed, literally, are pretty good. I've given myself no room for error and one misstep would make me late to the Kimono talk. The whole evolution takes me just over an hour and I miraculously manage without incident.

I make it just in time and after being introduced to the teacher, Mizushima-san, we are invited to select one of the ten beautifully wrapped Kimonos displayed in front of us. Orchid-colored silk delicately wraps kimonos that have been carefully paired with coordinating obis, sashes, and cords. Kimonos in all colors with elegant designs and embroideries are revealed one by one. Rich reds, lustrous golds, and deep blues are accented by butterflies, flowers and beautiful details.

The first layer is a simple robe with a thick white color that will later just peak out from under the fine silk kimono. The kimono is next and Mizushima-san expertly pulls, tucks, cinches and ties in what seems like elaborate origami.

Tea Ceremony is a very meditative experience for both the guests and the performer. Contrary to what I had previously believed, Tea Ceremony was performed almost exclusively by men and even Samurai up until WWII. This act of service was done for guests to demonstrate the utmost humility. After the war, Mizushima-san explains tongue-in-cheek, "the women and the stockings got stronger in Japan."

Hidden in this otherwise modern building is a traditional Japanese tea house and small garden. As if you were entering a secret hideaway, you duck through a small square door on the floor. The small door was intentionally designed so that everyone must lower their head upon entering, leaving all rank behind and entering all as equal. "The tea room is an equalizer", she explains. Here we arrange ourselves in a semi-circle, all trying desperately to be even a tenth as graceful in our kimonos as our host.

Mizushima-san is not performing the ceremony herself today but rather her assistant, an elegant, beautiful woman who I imagine is in her early 40's. We are served Japanese sweets and Mizushima-san encourages us to watch all the subtle movements. She cleanses the tea making tools, prepares the tea and gracefully serves - every movement with a purpose. She prepares tea for one person at a time, each time repeating the process with the same dedication. Watching her graceful movements is hypnotic, not too unlike the feeling you get when someone is playing with your hair. Every movement is careful, giving the ceremony the air of a performance. And it was over all too quickly.

Friday I had my first Japanese lesson. Sensei explained to me that to understand English you must have a vocabulary of at least 1,000 words. To understand Japanese, one must have a vocabulary of 5,000 words. Even she admits that this is a difficult task, and I'd be lying if I didn't wonder for a moment just why I had chosen probably one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. It doesn't matter though. I'm committed to the task and will do my best in the time that I have.

After my lesson I opened my Kobe guidebook and discovered that not far from where I was there was a sake producing area. A short train ride and I was out exploring. Only once did I have to accost a perfect stranger with, "Sumimasen, (enter the name of a place here) wa doko desu ka?" (Excuse me, where is such and such?) I explore the sake museum and one of the breweries where you can see each part of the process in action from behind plate glass. Of course, I got to taste some sake too.

At four I met Yuki, Ta Chan and Hazu - we had a date for Karaoke and dinner. Karaoke in Japan is so different from in the states. In the states, most people wouldn't be caught dead signing Karaoke, but here in Japan it's the hot thing to do as evidenced by the numerous Karaoke bars all around town. Unlike in the states where there is one stage and only brave or really drunk souls venture up, in Japan you go with a group of friends and get a private room with a various array of high-tech equipment. Is the pitch of the song you are singing too high for your voice? No problem, with the click of the remote you can bring it down an octave. Choose from thousands of songs. Make the mic have an echo. You name it, they've got it. In short, we rocked out in true Japanese karaoke fashion.

Yuki and I are heading to Osaka tonight after our work out. I'm looking forward to that and will share an update later.
From Japan 10.15.09