I awake at 4 in the morning to the rhythmic chanting of the devoted being called to mosque for the first prayers of the day. It’s Christmas Day in this predominantly Muslim country of Indonesia and I’m preparing to leave Cibodas, a mountain village some distance from Jakarta. After a cold shower and breakfast, I get a ride down to the main road. There is no direct bus to Bandung because it’s Christmas Day (yet nobody I've met so far is actually celebrating it), so I get on a bus for Cianjur (pronounced Chianjur), where I hop another bus for Bandung. Finally I’m on my way to Pangandaran, a beach town situated on the South Java Sea.
Prize awaits at Pangandaran
We wind for hours and miles through tropical mountain ranges and deep, green gorges followed by lush green valleys of banana and palm trees—vast expanses of totally unspoiled, undeveloped land, touched only by the people who farm it. We ride through a mid-afternoon downpour but the sun comes out again as we get closer and closer to the coast. When we finally ride into town, I haul my heavy pack off the bus and hire a becak (trishaw) to take me to my guesthouse. (Mind you, this is in the days before searching online and booking ahead. I’m going purely off my Lonely Planet Indonesia guidebook and the author’s recommendation of a place called Delta Gecko run by an “eco-groovy Aussie” named Kristina.)
Gateway to Pangandaran Wikipedia/Michiel1972 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
After pedaling a short while, my driver starts to realize how far I’m asking to go. "It's seven kilometers!" he protests, and tries to persuade me to go to another place for the same price per night. "I'm meeting a friend there," I lie, realizing I should’ve just taken a motorcycle taxi from the bus station. He keeps pedaling, and when we got within two kilometers or so I tell him I'll walk the rest of the way.
Where the trishaw comes to a stop, we’ve just turned right down a long dirt road that hugs the South Java Sea/Indian Ocean. The wind is whipping through the palms and the waves crash on the beach as the sun begins to set. I’m struck by the drama of the scene and inwardly grateful to have to walk the rest of the way, just taking it all in. Up the road a way, I see a sign over the entrance of Delta Gecko Village. I duck under a bamboo archway and ivy-covered trellis, soon entering an enchanted world of two-story bamboo and thatch-roof huts built on stilts in an enclave of trees and gardens. I find my way to the office and am met by Kristina with a lit Djarum dangling from her lips and a hearty welcome. "You're just in time for Christmas dinner!" In that moment, all my weariness, tinged with a touch of self-pity and loneliness, dissolves. I feel as though I’ve been chosen to arrive at this special place.
The beach at Pangandaran By Kondephy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
My bamboo hut: Bed, bath and beyond
I settle into a dorm-style hut with one bed up and two down, our own mandi (a toilet hole in the floor and a well of clean water in the corner to pour over yourself and down the hole). There’s no electricity but all the huts and gardens are lit by the soft glow of kerosene lamps in the evening. My roommate is Milly, a dynamic 29-year-old Australian girl. When I ask her how long she's been on the road she replies matter-of-factly, "Five years." She's done Africa and South America, and has just returned from five months in India. I inundate her with questions about traveling alone as a female and she says she wouldn't have had it any other way. People look out for you and always want to help you if you're traveling alone. I realize I've already experienced some of that on my way there.
Christmas dinner includes traditional Sundanese dancing and martial arts. Gathered around three large dining tables are about 30 people—foreign travelers and Indonesian friends and neighbors—being served a huge buffet of Indonesian food, under a bright full moon on Christmas Day. Kristina tells us the next full moon on Christmas wouldn't be for another 100 years. I allow the profundity of the moment, this time and place and my being in it, to sink in.
Feasting on Javanese and Sundanese culture
She goes on to explain the first act of the evening, a traditional Sundanese dance. Pangandaran officially marks a divide between Sundanese and Javanese, two entirely separate ethnic groups with different languages and related, but distinctly unique cultures. With apologies to the Dutch in the audience she talks about the Dutch occupation of Java and how the Sundanese had been the main victims of oppression. During a period of several hundred years, the Sundanese were not allowed to practice their traditional martial arts so they disguised it as a dance (similar to slaves in Brazil who developed kapoera to disguise fighting techniques, so they could continue their martial art tradition). A young Indonesian girl performs a beautiful dance followed by demonstrations of the martial art itself, called pencak silat, fluid and rhythmical movements accompanied by beating drums and flute music.
After dinner we’re invited out to the beach for a bonfire. Milly performs a flame-throwing demo and the Indonesian guys sit around strumming their guitars, singing Bob Marley. “Don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing, gonna be alright.”
Indeed it is.
Standing at La Plaza de Las Tres Culturas—an evolutionary intersection where Aztec ruins sit alongside a 17th-century church and 21st-century modernity—what you’ll first notice is that the church and the plaza are leaning. And that is because Mexico City is sinking. Yup, the entire city, in fact, is one big swamp, built in this location because here was spotted an eagle with a serpent in its talons, perched on a cactus—a prophetic sign for the Aztecs to build a city after wandering nomadically for several centuries.
For modern-day Mexico, that means that all over the city, there are leaning, sinking buildings as well as ruins that are retreating into the earth.
Aztec ruins in the foreground with La Basilica (the old one) leaning in background
By Deror_avi - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
La Basilica de Guadalupe, a modern structure (hideously out of architectural sync with the adjacent churches) that holds 10,000 parishioners, faces a plaza where you can also see the old Basilica (sinking), La Colegiata (sinking), and high on the hill behind, El Templo de Cerrito.
The story behind La Virgen de Guadalupe, which has produced a kind of cult following in Mexico, as well as becoming central to Catholicism in this part of the world, goes something like this:
In 1531 an Indian named Juan Diego was walking over the hill on his way home from church (the Indians walked for miles to attend services in the city) when the Virgin Mary appeared to him. Over a short period of time, she appeared to him several more times, each time telling him to send a message to the bishop to build a church on a nearby spot.
When the Indian approached the bishop, he wouldn't believe that the message actually came from the Virgin) and he asked for proof. When the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego again, he told her that no one believed him because he was an Indian, and they wanted proof. She gave him a bundle of red roses and told him to fold them in his jacket, take them back to the bishop, not showing anyone until he got there.
When he returned to the bishop he opened his jacket and the roses fell out. Imprinted on his frock was a perfect image of the Virgin. The bishop believed, and had the church built (the old Basilica).
The faithful make the pilgrimage to La Basilica de Guadalupe
By Karolja - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
The entire square is considered a holy place, a mecca for millions of people who make the pilgrimage to visit the site. Even poor people come from the outer regions of Mexico and camp out in tents on the plaza for several days. On the periphery are hundreds of vendors selling rosaries and images of the Virgin. The most pious crawl on their knees across the plaza, approaching the Basilica in prayer position.
While church services are going on, visitors can enter a passage behind the church altar and shuffle by the huge 24K gold framed frock of the young Indian and you can clearly see the colorful image of the Virgin peacefully looking down. The guides joke that instead of being called "catolicos," Mexicans are often called "Guadalupanos"—for such fervor around La Virgen de Guadalupe.
Regardless of your religious leanings, it’s well worth seeing the churches and holy spots of Mexico City—before they sink into the earth.
Our guide, Castor, is serious when he tells us, "No camera. No flashlight. No cigarette." It's 10 o'clock at night, and we've been stumbling along behind him and his wife, Maria, on the beach in complete darkness for half an hour, hoping that every shadowy form is a giant green sea turtle that has emerged from the Caribbean to lay her eggs on Tortuguero Beach.
My husband and I have traveled from the central highlands of Costa Rica - three buses, a taxi, and a five-hour boat ride - to the western Caribbean coast, just miles from Nicaragua, hoping to witness this event in late October at the end of the nesting season. Thunder rumbles behind us offshore. A crack of lightning crosses the moonless sky. Ominous raindrops threaten to end the whole expedition, and I wonder how the baby turtles ever find their way to the sparkle of the sea on a night such as this.
We traipse behind Castor and Maria in dutiful silence, contemplating the impact we could have on a turtle's nesting decision. Although they can't hear well, green sea turtles have a powerful sense of smell. Strong odors and lights can disturb them, and if the female feels threatened, she'll likely return to the sea to abort all 100 to 120 of her eggs - a huge sacrifice for an endangered creature.
The threat is real: Hatchlings rarely make it
Earlier that day we had read up on threats to the turtles - toxic waste, plastic bags, and fishing hooks among other things - at the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (now the Sea Turtle Conservancy) information center in the village of Tortuguero. These threats apply, however, only if the baby turtles even make it to the sea in the first place.
Behind Tortuguero beach is a thick jungle and a national park that are inhabited by 57 species of amphibians, 111 species of reptiles, 60 species of mammals, and more than 300 species of birds. While the Caribbean Conservation Corporation has helped curb the human appetite for turtle meat and eggs - Tortuguero means "turtle catcher" in Spanish - natural predators remain hungry. Hundreds of broken eggs and shells litter the beach, commingling with debris such as dead coconuts, driftwood logs, even garbage.
Yet this vast area also produces most of the green sea turtles of the Caribbean.
I had imagined groups of tourists prowling around the beach, all of us hovering in a huge, gawking circle over a nesting turtle, but, surprisingly, we're the only ones. Castor explains that some guides take people out at 8 p.m., but we're less likely to see anything at that hour.
Approaching the birthing ‘chamber’ - quiet reverence in the darknes
We stumble farther, past the end of Tortuguero village. Night sounds kick in, mysterious calls of unknown birds and insects, followed by profound silence. Then Castor stops suddenly, our small group coming to a clumsy halt behind him. With his low-beam flashlight, he draws our eyes down to the sand, churned as though a miniature tractor had driven up onto the beach and headed straight inland.
Castor slips away, follows the trail, and returns. "She is there," he reports, "making her nest now. We'll wait for her to finish and then we will see her lay the eggs."
Castor lowers his voice, stoops over with his hands on his knees, and explains what the female turtle is doing: She's using her body like a giant power drill, turning herself around and around in a circle until the top of her shell is nearly even with the sand. Using her powerful, leathery flippers she scoops sand out around her, burrowing deeper. Employing her back flippers, she then reaches beneath herself to dig a neat, deep hole for the hundred or more eggs she'll lay this evening. In two weeks, she'll come back to this beach and lay some more.
In hushed tones we shower Castor with questions. How long do the eggs need to hatch? Sixty days. How long do green sea turtles live? A hundred years or more. How much do they weigh? They average 300 pounds. Why this beach? The conditions are just right, and the turtles nest on the same beach on which they were born.
From Tortuguero, the hatchlings may travel the Caribbean Sea for decades. Once the females mature at 20 to 30 years old, they'll return here to lay their eggs every few years.
Then Castor is off again. We sit silently on a big piece of driftwood, waiting patiently like family members outside the birthing room. Some minutes later, we get the message we've been waiting for: "It's time, she is ready." In the dark we move up the beach, wondering where she is exactly, hesitantly stepping as though we might trip over her.
Summoned to witness laying of eggs
"Come, come close, have a look," Castor says, and we gravitate toward the soft red glow of his flashlight. His right hand holds the massive turtle's left rear flipper aside so that the light shines directly into the hole, which is already filling with eggs. The turtle's droopy pointed tail heaves as a soft, slippery egg slides through and plops into the hole, followed by another and another, sometimes two and three in one push, followed by a watery substance.
Watching her tail so intently feels invasive and I wonder out loud if holding her flipper back is among the things guides shouldn't do, but do anyway for the tourists' sake.
"She's in a trance right now," Castor assures me. "She doesn't know we're here."
I gasp in awe as dozens of eggs drop into the earth, recalling that only a sturdy few will survive, and that only 1 to 3 percent of the females who hatch from these eggs will make it back to this beach to lay their own eggs.
The turtle's tail swells one last time, then relaxes, producing nothing. Within minutes her tail flippers begin scraping sand from the walls around her, dragging it over the top of the eggs to build a mound underneath her. Gradually the eggs disappear from sight, and the scraping sound of her flippers subsides.
A new brood scrambles for the sea
Castor has slipped away again. He signals us to another spot some distance away. Unbelievably, another nest is hatching at this very moment, dozens of baby turtles desperately flailing their way to the surface, trying to drag themselves up out of the hole and to the sea.
But there's a problem. A huge driftwood log lies embedded in the sand parallel to the sea, obstructing their passage down the beach. As the little turtles scatter from the nest, dazed and looking for the light of the sea, Castor shines his beam toward the water and Maria scoops the newborns up by the handful and places them on the other side of the log.
If we weren't here at this moment, most of them would have wandered aimlessly toward the jungle and death. Hordes of them scramble from the hole. It's a process that's gone on for 2 million years. I root for every tiny one of them.
Afterward, as we stroll back to the village of Tortuguero, I recall my mixed feelings about the human impact on this environment. Now I'm going home joyous that my presence here helped an entire nest of baby turtles survive the first challenge of their lives.
The most obvious way to have a unique and authentic experience that’s not being had by a dozen other people at the same time is to separate from the pack. If you’re traveling with a group, this means going off on your own for a bit. Traveling with a friend or spouse? Excuse yourself for some “alone” time and head off on your own adventure, even if it’s just for an afternoon or an hour or two.
What you’re looking for is opportunities to interact with the local culture in ways that are impossible when you’re traveling with others. When you’re alone, you open yourself up to experiences differently than if you were comparing notes and conversation with a travel companion. Simply put—more things happen when you’re solo, and you’ll be more willing to make things happen that you might not otherwise, had you been with another traveler.
Once you’re by yourself here are some ways to have your very own unforgettable experiences, made just for you:
1. Think like a storyteller (writer).
If you had to come back from your little solo venture with a good story to tell, you’d start thinking like a writer and looking for the “angle” of the story. Whom can you meet to start a conversation with? What can you get yourself involved in—an event, an activity, a local scene—that would give you an inside track on what’s happening where you are? Where would you wander that’s not on the list of highlights provided by the hotel or tour company or guidebook? What questions could you ask of someone on the street or in a café about local lore, or a historical subject, or perhaps something a bit controversial? What questions and thoughts do you have in your head that you’re a little bit afraid to ask?
Not that every destination is going to be so seductive, but you get the idea. Write your own story. Create your own plot and develop your own characters. With you, starring in the middle, narrating the whole thing.
2. Take (measured) risks.
Here’s what I mean: You’ve been told you have to go to the Bayon (Angkor Wat) temples at sunrise. It’s the best time to go as the first rays of light are cast through the shadowy statues and monuments. The photography is amazing. The serenity and solitude is available to all—if you get there early. You could go with the driver and small tour leaving at 5 a.m. but instead you negotiate a ride on the back of a motorbike for $5 and leave at 4:30.
Sometimes you’ll have a good enough sense of a place to know that certain “adventures” are okay, that you’ll be reasonably safe and taken care of. I’m not saying to hop on some stranger’s motorbike and hope for the best (though frankly, those have been some of my best travel memories!), but I am saying, be willing to push beyond your own comfort level sometimes. Recognize those moments when you’re hesitating because it’s just not what you’re used to or what you’ve heard is the way things are supposed to be. Be bold. Get out there. It’s your own internal world where the risk usually takes place.
3. Keep it to yourself.
When you travel with others, there’s a natural tendency to share your thoughts, opinions, feelings, even off-handed remarks about things from “back home.” Sometimes it’s fun to share in the excitement of the new place, to learn from one another and laugh and grow together. But if you want to have experiences no one else is having (see number 1 and number 2), you also need to keep some of those experiences to yourself. As soon as you start talking about your travel moments with others, it is likely that others will chime in and add to (or take away from) your very personal travel experience.
Not everything needs to be shared. In fact, keeping some of those travel treasures to yourself will sustain you for years to come. Maybe you’ll share them, maybe you won’t. They’re yours to keep for the rest of your life. You just have to get out there and have them.
Have some interesting examples or ideas of how to have travel experiences no one else is having? Would love to read your comments!
While you’re admiring the cherry blossoms, digging the serenity of the local temples, and watching the young fashion trendsetters in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, you might also be on the lookout for a distinctly “sukebe” (perverse) aspect of Japanese culture.
I share this with you as an American woman who lived in Japan for three years and as someone who has a deep affinity for the country, the culture and its people. Still—as any Westerner can attest, there’s some weird shit about Japan. One such perversion is chikan, the gropers on trains.
In the United States, women learn to hold onto their pocketbooks out of concern for pickpocketing. In Japan, I learned instead to watch my ass—literally. This is because of a groping tendency some Japanese men have. These men are just ordinary guys dressed in suits, on their way to or from a long day at the office, squeezed into a train car so full it requires station attendants to lean with all their might into the throng of passengers in order to get the train doors to shut (much like sitting on your suitcase to close the zipper). Once you’re squeezed in, there’s nowhere to go. Movement is impossible. Arms are trapped at sides. Your face is inches away from another person’s nostrils. Twisting or moving slightly only produces a tightening effect, wedging you further into the contours of another human being.
All of which provides fertile ground for the groper who may, for example, be pretending to read a newspaper, but underneath the paper his hand reaches out to grab your boob. Or the one who stands stoically gazing at the advertisements hanging from the train ceiling while his clenched fist presses on, intentionally, against your crotch.
At first, there is overwhelming shock. Did that guy just reach out from under his newspaper and grab my breast? No, wait, that’s not possible. What? Seriously? Is that what just happened? It’s too much to fathom, the mind can’t even comprehend that it’s real. Then it happens again, the fist, the pressure, the shifting in the crotch area. Good Lord, seriously?
So I consult with Japanese friends and they lament I’ve had such an experience—this aspect of their culture is embarrassing for them. Yet it’s also validating to know that yes, in fact, I was groped, and it’s this “thing” about Japanese culture I was completely oblivious to until it happened. (If you’re still in disbelief look up “chikan train Japanese porn videos” and you’ll see just how real this phenomenon is.) Interestingly, I learned from an American guy friend of mine that he was also groped on the train. Far from being a homosexual overture, it was more of a curiosity grope, to see how big the package was. Even more shocking, when it happened a second time, it was a middle-aged Japanese woman doing the groping!
After being taken by surprise a few times, I finally got wise to train travel and came up with strategic ways to get on and off the train and also position myself once inside the car. Here are three quick tips to avoid being groped on trains in Japan:
1. Always hug the bars.
While waiting for a train door to open so you can get on, be sure to stand to the very left or right of the doors. This will allow you to grab onto one of the metal bars immediately to the left or right when you step onto the train. Grab one of those bars, hoist yourself through the door, and hold on for dear life as all the other people getting on squeeze past you and get a good shove from the station attendant. You will have to fight to hold this position vs. being shoved through the crowd, but once they are all squeezed in and the doors finally close, you’ll be able to rotate your body such that your rear is facing the bars (behind which is a train seat). This means you’ve got 50 percent of your body protected. The other 50 percent, the front, is the only thing you have to worry about, but being in this position allows you to hold your pocketbook in front of your chest and crotch. You won’t need to hold onto anything for balance because you will be surrounded on all sides by half a dozen people whose bodies wedge yours in place.
2. Prepare to be vocal.
I mean get ready to use your finest string of English expletives to humiliate any would-be groper. This, in fact, may be your best defense of all, but of course you can’t use it until after you’ve been groped. Japanese do not like attention, and they particularly don’t want negative attention. There have been fantastic stories about women who aggressively turned on their gropers by stomping on their feet or yelling “sukebe!” over and over again, right in the middle of the crowded train, much to the mortification of the unwitting chikan. In another instance, a woman waited until the train stopped, then as she and the groper were oozing out of the train with the hoards of passengers, she grabbed his hand and raised it in the air, yelling “Chikan! Chikan! Chikan!” for all to see and hear.
photo courtesy of Yoshi
3. Take the women-only passenger car.
These might not be available on every route, but it’s certainly worth asking about even if you don’t speak Japanese. Just ask one of the station attendants for the “women only” train and they will give you a universal nod (or indicate not available). The women-only trains are just that: free of men and the nuisance of groping. There is no extra fee or reservation needed. It is simply a convenience for women to feel more comfortable on their train commute.
Now—you may feel inclined to judge and criticize. I certainly experienced some disgust and outrage when it happened to me. Which is why I write this, in hopes that you are now armed with some good information to help you avoid getting groped in Japan. Unless of course you like that sort of thing.
Soon after you’ve had your first cup of rich dark hot chocolate in the city of Oaxaca (wa-ha-ka), you’ll be making plans for Mitla, one of the most important archaeological sites in Oaxaca (the name of the state/region, as well as the city).
Built around 800 BC by the Zapotecs (and the Mixtecs), an Indian race that followed the Mayans, the ruins of Mitla have remained remarkably well-preserved. The huge complex is laid out around a central, cross-like structure, with each facade of the "cross" featuring nine panels of mosaics--elaborate stone puzzle pieces perfectly fitted to one another.
Zapotec innovation in pre-Colombian times
When the Spaniards arrived in 1521, they assumed that because of the cross-shape of the structure, and the small cross-like designs in the mosaics, that earlier Europeans must’ve arrived before them and influenced the Zapotecs with Christianity. But of course there was no relation, as there had been no earlier arrivals, and the four directions of the cross have been seen universally in many cultures to represent the four sacred elements—fire, air, water, and wind—as well as the four directions.
Within the site’s walls and tunnels, the same wondrous feat of geometric patterns gracing the walls of a large, dark passageway (complete with a creepy little bat flying around), in which the symmetric patterns on one side directly correspond to the patterns opposite, as if you were holding up a mirror—an amazing feat of geometry and mathematics that took modern scientists and graphic designers eight months to duplicate with a computer.
Further excavations have revealed cylindrical quartz bars, perfectly rounded and carved, and inside: phosphorus. Do you know what that makes? LIGHT. Nearly 3000-year-old light bulbs, developed by ancient Mesoamericans!
Mitla is also unique because it’s one of the sites not overtaken and altered by the Aztecs. As such it is a unique monument to the ingenuity of the Zapotec and their harmonious successors, the Mixtecs. Mitla was never buried under earth or ash, which means you can still see signs of the original colors painted on some of the walls, preserved for years because of a combination of calcium and lemon/lime juices.
Mitla--every bit as memorable as that cup of dark hot chocolate you'll be sipping in nearby Oaxaca City.
One of the highlights of Shikoku is seeing the small clusters of pilgrims paying homage to Shikoku's revered saint: Kobo-daishi. Recognizable by their matching white suits (bearing the motto which translates: "Daishi and I, going together"), wooden staffs, and sedge hats, the pilgrims embark on what is known as "Shikoku Henro," or the Shikoku pilgrimage, to retrace the steps of Kobo-daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Many stories and myths, similar to the "miracles" performed by Jesus Christ, surround Daishi's accomplishments. But among his many admirable traits, skills, and powers, Kobo-daishi was also credited with introducing many aspects of Chinese culture into Japan, including a system of measures, various Chinese medicines, the growth and processing of tea, as well as architectural knowledge. Kobo-daishi has sometimes been dubbed a "father" of Japan.
Kobo-daishi's quest for truth along the shores of Shikoku
In his search for spiritual truth and enlightenment, Kobo-daishi roamed from the rocky shorelines of Shikoku, to the tops of its mountains, so today his followers often make the pilgrimage by foot (though some make it any way they can, by scooter, train, or bus). There are 88 Sacred Places (Buddhist temples)—88 representing the number of evil passions, as defined in Buddhist religious doctrine. It is believed one can get rid of an evil aspect of one's character at each of the temples, thus it's suggested that visiting only one temple is at least a good start!
Dedicated pilgrims pay homage at shrines and temples
One pilgrim hotspot is Kotohira, or Konpirasan, a combined shrine and temple which can only be reached by climbing hundreds of stone steps (as in over 800 gruelling, exhausting ones). The "reward" isn't that phenomenal, but to say you did it, "you and Daishi going together" as it were, may be worth it.
When crossing back to Honshu (the main island of Japan) via the Seto Inland Bridge, you can stop in Okayama prefecture to visit Zentsuji, a temple built around the birthplace of Kobo-daishi. Not just an ordinary temple, Zentsuji boasts a circular underground tunnel which takes visitors groping through pitch-black passageways until they arrive at a tiny candle-lit alcove, the supposed birthplace of Kobo-daishi himself. There you can take a rest from the dark, light incense and pray, or watch the candlelight dancing on the walls painted with Buddhist figures. Roaming the tunnels in total darkness is supposed to help us clear our minds and concentrate on ridding ourselves of our sins, though most people seem to giggle nervously as they grope along the walls--or maybe that's because someone from behind groped them.
Sins removed: Winterlong chocolate obsession and temptation to attack rude train passengers in Japan.
A visit to Ryukyu Village, an enchanting tourist attraction north of Naha, the capital city of Okinawa offers a glimpse of myriad Okinawan cultural traditions, including bingata (painted red patterns and design), orimono (textiles), and toki (pottery). But most delightful are the mischievous shisa lounging on rooftops, lined up in grinning rows, and peeking out of bushes with goofy eyes.
If a single icon could represent the resilient spirit of Okinawa, it would be the mythical lion-dog shisa, which playfully adorn rooftops and entryways, store and home fronts throughout the Okinawan islands.
Usually in pairs, a female shisa's mouth is open to beckon good fortune, and a male shisa's mouth is closed in a quirky snarl-grin to keep the good luck in.
Chigan-san and the legend of how the shisa came to be protectors of Okinawa
The shisa originally came from China, but a mythical story to explain its powers suggests that a long time ago on Okinawa island, there was a young boy named Chiga-san whose village was constantly terrorized by an angry sea dragon.
After one particularly ferocious attack, the king of Okinawa, concerned for the villagers, approached the young Chiga-san and gave him a small statue attached to a piece of rope. He explained to the boy that this shisa statue should be placed at the seaside in front of the village, and that it would protect the people from harm.
Chigan-san accepted the statue, a dull, brownish lion figurine with a fierce snarl on its lips. Chiga-san bowed in respect to the king and placed the shisa as he was told.
The next day, the waves crashed loudly, signalling the approach of the dragon. The villagers ran from their homes, eyes expectantly on the tiny shisa statue perched on the beach. The dragon sprang up from the sea, then froze at the sight of the shisa figure, which had begun to tremble, a loud rumbling coming from deep within.
The statue suddenly burst open and a huge shisa lion roared as it bounded out and attacked the dragon. The two creatures disappeared into the sea, and the villagers feared the shisa had been killed.
Moments later, far off in the ocean, a blast of water shot up and the fighting creatures reemerged, only to sink down into the water again. Much to the surprise of the onlooking villagers, a tiny island suddenly appeared where there had been none before.
Chiga-san kept watching for the shisa lion, which never reappeared, but he gasped when he looked down at the shisa statue on the beach. It was completely intact without even a crack.
Word soon spread of the shisa lion's bravery and the peace that had come to Chiga-san's village. Other villages soon began making their own shisa lions and the shisa came to be known as the guardians of the Okinawan islands.
The shisa later made its way to mainland Japan in the form of kumainu, which are often seen guarding the gates of jinja, or Shinto shrines, but do not have the peculiar omnipresence of the shisa in Okinawa.
Shopping in Naha, a shisa-lover's delight
Shoppers wandering down Kokusai Dori, Naha's "international street," are greeted on all sides by ogling shisa figurines, in all sizes, positions, and range of facial expressions: shisa with wagging tongues and crossed eyes, cartoon-like clay shisa showing the two-fingered peace sign, even companion shisa engaged in sexually adventurous positions. The somewhat spiritual, yet laugh-at-life quality of the shisa, in many ways captures the essence of Okinawa itself.
Okinawan islands a world apart from mainland Japan
South of mainland Japan, the chain of islands once forming the independent Ryukyu Kingdom boast a unique cultural blend of influences not only from Japan, but also from China, Thailand, and as far south as Indonesia. In the Japanese conquest of the islands, they were renamed "Okinawa", but as anyone who has been there can attest, Okinawa is like visiting a different country--culturally and linguistically quite removed from Japan.
The Okinawan islands, in fact, are closer in proximity to Taipei than to Japan's southern port city, Fukuoka. Okinawa's geographical location has strategically poised it for centuries of trade and commerce between Japan and China, and in the present day, it serves as a beacon for international exchange and understanding between Asian nations.
The spirit of Okinawan people fortified in the face of Japanese imperialism
Okinawa-ben, the language of Okinawa, is practically unintelligible to mainland Japanese, and physical characteristics, such as facial features and skin color, more closely resemble those of Malaysian people.
Okinawans are proud of this distinction. For centuries they have struggled to maintain their identity under the yoke of Japan, being treated as second-class citizens, having their women stolen away to the mainland to become wives for Japanese men, and later, during World War II, being forced to serve the Japanese Imperial Army. Okinawa, often considered "dispensable", suffered some of the war's bloodiest battles, and even now Okinawa shares a disproportionate burden of the US military presence in Japan.
Those arriving in Okinawa from the mainland are often struck by its relative shabbiness in contrast to the rest of Japan. A small, cluttered airport, dingy buses, and rundown-looking buildings greet the eye, but it is this very lack of modernity and luster, punctuated by palm trees and bathed in warm breezes, which make it instantly endearing.
Also gone are the stiff, interpersonal encounters customary on the mainland, but instead an outward friendliness and radiant pride Okinawans seem to take in the survival of their culture.
Okinawan culture, despite inevitable "Japanization", has retained its distinctive customs, and most importantly, it is blessed by the genuine smiles and easygoing attitude of the Okinawan people.
Some might say there is more weight, after all, to the story of young Chiga-san and the guardian shisa who saved his village from the fearsome dragon.
Outside the National Museum in Phnom Penh I spot my moto driver, Dararot, in a throng of drivers all vying for my attention. As I beeline for the motorbike, I pass politely by the amputees (victims of landmines left over by the Americans during the Vietnam War) scooting around in dilapidated wheelchairs and hobbling on crutches, begging for money. I’m relieved when they settle for a cigarette each and the horrible irony is not lost on me when I find myself telling my driver I want to go see Choeung Ek ("the killing fields") and Tuol Sleng (the genocide museum), all in one breath, in one day, like I'm going to Buckingham Palace.
A glimpse of history: Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime
When Pol Pot stormed Phnom Penh in 1975, many city-dwellers fled for their lives to the countryside. Many others who stayed behind were systematically executed, seemingly without cause or reason, but certain individuals were particularly singled out: intellectuals, teachers, speakers of foreign languages, but also peasants, Cabinet members, women, children, and eventually, even members of Pol Pot's regime. (For a great movie about this, check out The Killing Fields, about a Western journalist trapped in Phnom Penh at a time when people were trying to escape the country.)
High school turned torture chamber
Tuol Svay Prey High School was turned into a prison and renamed Tuol Sleng, with high walls and barbed wire built around it. Here, the classrooms were made into holding cells by building tiny brick cubicles up from the floors. Accused of holding back the "revolution"--much the same as in Red China--the victims were interrogated and tortured, from being dunked into huge vats of water until close to drowning, to having their fingernails ripped out or their heads placed in a vise. A large wooden beam structure looks as if it might have been a swingset for the former school, but instead, the two iron rings protruding down from the beam were used to string bound and gagged captives up by the wrists (which were behind their backs).
The large vessels for holding water for dunking still sit, with accumulated debris in the bottom. Holding cells have dark stains of red and black on the floors, as if the blood had never been cleaned up when Pol Pot's reign of terror ended. Rusted metal boxes are strewn around the rooms, "toilets" for the inmates, and huge steel bars with ankle rings help formulate a gruesome picture of what it might've been like. Victims not in the brick-wall holding cells were laid in beds side-by-side, their ankles locked into the steel rings which were held fast by a heavy metal, horizontal bar, positioned between two bars which came up vertically from the floor. The victims locked in, side-by-side, were forbidden to speak to one another, and the rules of the prison were strictly enforced; those who deviated were flogged with whips or ropes, or tortured unimaginably.
History comes home: My moto driver lost his entire family
In conversation Dararot tells me he's 40 (but looks about 22). He was in Phnom Penh when Pol Pot arrived, and like many others, he fled, not knowing where his mother, father, and sister were. He eventually ended up in Siem Reap and further west, close to the Thai border, where he remained for three years until the Vietnamese invaded and "rescued" Cambodia from Pol Pot.
He found out only later that his parents, sister, and uncle had been killed. He wants to point out the photos of his mother and father to me—amidst hundreds of other photos of men, women, and children who had been tortured and later murdered. At Tuol Sleng, photos of victims, as well as their torture, line the walls; haunting eyes peer out from emaciated bodies. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge documented their atrocities. Dararot points out the two separate photos of his parents and I nod in solemn respect.
The prison buildings are run down, the paint peeled and chunks blown away by gunfire and grenades. It has a sobering quality: standing there amidst the peace and surrounding beauty, knowing that so much horror had gone on there. The cheerful voices of young guys playing volleyball behind one of the buildings seem incongruous.
After victims were interrogated and tortured at Tuol Sleng, they were taken to Choeung Ek, the killing fields—Cambodia's Auschwitz—if they survived the torture.
Choeung Ek, Cambodia's Auschwitz
We bump along a long, dusty road and suddenly the land off to the left starts looking lumpy behind the barbed fences and wooden posts: some 8,900 skulls/remains have been found, but many more remain. I pay $2 at the entrance and find myself greeted by a large Buddhist stupa. Inside, in rectangular glass casing, reaching layer upon layer to the stupa's ceiling; are human skulls, just sitting there jumbled together like they had never been anything but skulls. The bottom layer in the glass encasing has a few placards: "mature male, 40 years old and up,” "senile female over 60 years old,” "European."
The sight of it is staggering, the tragedy unfathomable, and I find it hard to take in as though it couldn’t possibly have happened. It's just too unbelievable. But it's all real, all here, right here in my face. I mean, my God, what was I doing in 1975? Running around, playing with my friends, going to school and summer camp, fed, clothed, cared for. I've seen nothing.
Gruesome, genocidal details (and remnants) for all to see
Dararot tells me his uncle and sister were killed here. He points out a white sign marker of a mass grave that reads "150 women and children.” Another says "100 victims with heads cut off.” Dararot shows me a heavy spine from a thick-trunked sugar palm. The spine branches were used to slit people's throats. Wooden posts lie around as testimony to the clubbings. Pol Pot wouldn't allow the use of guns, so every victim was tortured "by hand,” and murdered equally mercilessly. Many of the skulls show large holes and cracks, indicating heavy blows to the head.
As we walk alongside the graves, Dararot stoops down and moves the dirt around with his fingers, producing a human tooth and handing it to me to examine. My stomach turns. We kick up shards of bone as we walk, and sometimes find whole pieces lying on the grass. Yet again there's that peculiar tranquility, flowers growing in the gravesites and traditional Cambodian music, carried on the wind from a house nearby.
Dararot returned from the mountains after three years, he tells me. His father, a policeman, who spoke French, Japanese, Thai, and English—bad skills and job to have possessed under Pol Pot—has been murdered. His mother, a teacher, is gone as well.
Having doubts (can you really have your own Pol Pot story for every wartorn tourist spot?)
I've started not to believe Dararot's connection to all this tragedy. It's all too much, the photos in the museum, the familial connections in specific mass graves, and mostly the fact he looks so young. So I've decided he's lying to me, embellishing so I might take some kind of pity and give him more money than the $5 we’ve agreed upon.
But in the next moment I think to myself, the story he's told me is somebody's story, somebody's mother, father, sister, uncle. Maybe it is his, and I'm just in denial. An estimated one to two million people perished in a country of only seven million. It’s likely this genocide has directly touched his family’s life in some way.
And now it has touched mine.
Have you been to Cambodia and did you visit Tuol Sleng and the killing fields? What were your impressions? Share a comment - Would love to hear your thoughts!
P.S. Talk a walk on the dark side. Must-read Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls and Ganja.
I recently caught on that the Danes were the happiest people on earth. Yearning for some mid-life satisfaction myself, I've been reading up on hygge, a Danish term loosely translated as "coziness of the soul." Hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) is very much about feeling, a feeling you get from certain aspects of life that, as it turns out, you actually have some control over. Things like time spent with friends and family. A comfortable nook created in your home where you like to curl up with a good book. Fireplaces and candlelight not to mention a wall of good books are all hyggelige (hygge-esque, if you will).
For a quick hygge fix, here are three easy ways to make your home feel more hygge:
1. Light a hygge-load of candles.
The Danes love candlelight. Not just one candle either. Try four or more. The more warm, soft glow the more hygge it is.
2. Bring the outside in.
Nature sure looks nice from a window, patio or balcony, but even better when we're out in it, gathering up nature's souvenirs: a handful of interesting rocks, a twig with an acorn attached, curling leaves, a single wildflower. Adorning your home with nature is totally hygge.
3. Let books be your companions.
Nothing says hygge like a shelf lined with books, or a stack of books on a coffee table. Books, particularly works of fiction, beckon our imaginations to wander. There's a spirit and an energy to books. Let them speak volumes about who you are and what you're interested in.
What do you do to get your hygge on? Share your hygge practices in the comments!