Disaster Inspired Travels
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I want to update everyone as to my status following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I recently returned to Japan following 12 days of travel outside of the country. It's been an uneasy time for me, as I've lived through many intense experiences recently, but had minimal time to process the thoughts that come along with those experiences. My intent in writing this blog is to try to formulate some thoughts resulting from my experience over the past three weeks. Please read if you’re interested. As always, I really appreciate any comments or questions regarding the blog.
It’s been approximately three weeks now since my rather sporadic decision to leave Japan. It was undoubtedly one of the more difficult decisions I’ve ever made
I sincerely believe I made the correct decision, although I’ve certainly felt a strong sense of guilt regarding that decision. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to leave, considering my life in Japan is temporary. However for many of my close friends, co-workers, and students to whom I have grown so close over the past 8 months, leaving was not a viable option. Fortunately, everyone I’ve spoken with in Japan has been very supportive and understanding of my decision to leave for a bit.
So, for those of you who are unaware, this is what I did. Five days following the initial earthquake and tsunami, at the height of the nuclear threat, I booked a one-way ticket to fly to Hong Kong. Fortunately I still have some good connections working in the travel industry, and they were able to assist in finding me a reasonable last minute ticket amidst a difficult time to leave Japan
I find myself continually using the word surreal to describe my feelings about everything that has been occurring. I suppose it is a default word of sorts because it’s quite ambiguous, but it still seems like the best word to describe my feelings and emotions. Anyway, it was quite surreal for me to leave so suddenly. So many intense emotions were consuming my thoughts and feelings. As I was frantically packing my bag, a friend stopped by my apartment to say a final farewell. We were discussing how broken up we were about our last minute decisions to leave as a 7.0 aftershock struck with the epicenter just off the coast of the Chiba Prefecture (where I was). I won’t even begin to put words to what I was feeling at that moment. If nothing else, as the last tremors lingered, I had absolutely no doubt I made the correct decision to leave
When I finally arrived at the airport, I met up with the captain of my soccer team who opted to fly to Australia. We shared our frustration with each other, and wished one another safe travels and a swift return. There was a noticeable sense of anxiety among the overcrowded airport inhabitants. Once on the plane, it was comforting to share my thoughts with a Bangladeshi student, whose abrupt departure from the country was similar to my own. His Ph.D. dissertation was up for review in two weeks time. Everything he had dedicated to his studies was in the grips
When we finally landed in Hong Kong it was refreshing to see a friend unrelated to my experience in Japan. I was able to stay with my Singaporean friend from Semester at Sea. She is a busy woman, consumed by a heavy work load in the Asian financial epicenter of Hong Kong. So, I did a majority of city exploration on my own, but was appreciative of what she showed me when she could spare the time. While it was a priority of mine to experience Hong Kong for everything it has to offer, my main goal was to utilize my experience not to obscure my thoughts and feelings regarding Japan, but instead to encourage new insight from a different perspective. This wasn't easy, but I discovered a good mix of activity, adventure, exploration and interaction to facilitate the process. That is what the remainder of the blog will focus on.
Hong Kong is a stunningly beautiful city. I would classify it among my favorites along with Cape Town, San Francisco, and Rhinelander. Hong Kong seemed rich in character and personality, with a noticeable international influence. The culinary variety, ethnic diversity, majestic cityscape, and remarkable architecture were welcomed changes from Tokyo, which has comparatively remained largely nationally (Japanese) culturally and ethnically influenced
I indulged in the various ethnic foods as much as possible in the week that I was in Hong Kong. I ate Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, bad Mexican, German, Italian, and even some half decent spiced brats. The food was great aside from my second last dinner when I ate spicy Szechuan Hot Pot, and picked up a stomach bug. I'm not sure if it was the cow bone marrow, chicken throat, pork intestine or cartilage that I ate, but... Now that I think back to it, I suppose it could have been the jellyfish I ate the night prior as well. Hot pot is basically a boiling fiery soup base in which you cook your own raw meat and vegetables. It was delicious, but I paid the price. It wasn’t my first dance with traveler’s diarrhea, so I knew what I had in store, as well as realizing that I would most likely be traveling through areas with no sitting toilets, or plumbing in general. I’ll leave it at that, but let me say, it was quite an unpleasant experience.
My favorite aspect of Hong Kong was the cityscape. It’s an urban jungle. The city is built around a bay of the South China Sea. The surrounding landscape consists of abrupt rolling hills covered in sub-tropical vegetation. It’s as if this enormous metropolis flooded with massive skyscrapers amidst a dense jungle simply appeared out of nowhere
I spent the majority of my free time wandering and exploring different sections of the sloped city, sporadically popping in temples, cafes, restaurants, and botanical gardens throughout the course of the day. Also, many of the skyscrapers are linked together with enclosed walkways, so I would challenge myself to see how much ground I could cover while remaining inside. I grew bored with this pretty quickly as it was mostly designer clothing shops, malls, and advertisements. I much preferred being outside exploring the harbor, or the various levels of the hill. I made it up to the peak by foot on the nicest day. This is where many of the included pictures of the city are from. Also, there is a lengthy escalator which splits through the downtown and makes its way approximately halfway up the slope. It consists of 20-30 different portions of steps and sloped moving walkways. I don’t know how many times I rode it up to the mid-section, and then walked back down a different route, but it never seemed to grow old
Then at night, when my friend finished working, I would usually go out with her and her coworkers. We spent the only Saturday night I was there on Lan Kwai Phong, the notorious 'going out' street in Hong Kong. We went to a variety of different clubs. It was an interesting experience for me, as I found it to be very different from the clubs I go to with my friends in Tokyo. The Hong Kong clubs had too many yuppies, and not enough dancing. It was hard to find much variation in music, but then again, we may have just gone to mostly poppy clubs. We finished the night in a decent electro club which was quite a bit better.
One last thing to mention about Hong Kong, which absolutely baffles my mind, is the bamboo scaffolding. I saw countless 50+ story buildings coated in bamboo scaffolding all the way to the top floors. Try to imagine… I suppose just another one of the exotic beauties of Asia.
While I immensely enjoyed my experience in Hong Kong, after one week I realized I had exhausted my time in city and it was time to leave
My friend in Manila responded first, within an hour of my original email. He welcomed my visit, offered to take a few days off work, and gave me options of various places we could travel within the Philippines. I originally met him through Couch Surfing when he stayed with me in Togane back in October. He only stayed with me one night, so I didn’t know him that well, but I appreciated how willing he was to introduce me to the Philippines. He actually works for an adventure travel company in Manila, scouting out trips for those with a hunger for exploration. So, I booked another last minute ticket to Manila for the following afternoon.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the Philippines. I certainly believed I had a good understanding of Southeast Asia, having traveled through every country except Indonesia, Myanmar, Brunei, and the Philippines. Every country I had been to seemed so unique that I had little expectation for what my experience would be like in the Philippines
I will say, that relative to where I had been and what I had been doing, the condition of the country unexpectedly caught me off guard. I quickly realized, not only had I been spending time in Tokyo and Hong Kong lately, but it had been three years since I was last in a developing country.
After arriving in Manila I made my way to the airport via bus and metro. It was a headache to say the least. The immediate comparison that came to mind was Chennai, India; poverty stricken shanty towns with barefooted inhabitants in ragged clothing doing whatever they could to make small amounts of money. More instantaneous guilt piled on, but I quickly recalled many of the realizations I made while living in Thailand a few years back. Due to my experience there, I was much better prepared to handle the surrounding poverty. Nonetheless, it was another perspective building experience, especially as I feel that I’ve grown tremendously since I last found myself in a similar situation.
I coordinated meeting up with my friend at the end of the work day a few hours after I arrived. It was a bit of a struggle without a working cell phone on my behalf, but eventually we managed. After meeting up, we grabbed my first authentic Philippino meal, and were on our way to Calaguas, in the Bicol Region (Legazpi on the map), which was a 10 hour night bus from Manila. If you look at the map, you can see how we weaved all the way along the peninsula from Manila south to Legazpi. I’ve always been a proponent of night bus travel as it saves both time and money if you were to be otherwise sleeping in an accommodation
My friend negotiated a price with a boat operator, and within a few hours we were on our way. I have to say, that without my friend, my experience in the Philippines never would have been possible. He knows the ins and outs of travel through remote areas in the Philippines, and I could tell based on the way I was received by the locals, that very few, if any other foreigners had opportunities to experience these areas. We fed off each others hunger for adventure amidst the inevitable frustration of rugged travel. We hired a single hulled long-tail boat with two bamboo pontoons for stability on the mighty blue
We arrived at the island about 3 hours later. As we approached we could see the deserted beach we would be camping on. There was no public development on the island whatsoever. Only a small community could be seen nestled into the jungle. This community consisted of three families which greeted us with smiles. On one portion of the white sand beach there were a collection of children doing flips and cartwheels, just about as care-free as imaginable. After anchoring and wading to shore, the man in charge of the small community took us to a shaded area where he recommended we pitch our tent. Then we relaxed, swam, explored, and relaxed some more. I couldn’t have imagined a better place to clear my mind. This beach was as picturesque and pristine as I had ever seen. In one direction clear water and calm frothy waves gently crashed as the beach gradually progressed into the dazzling teal ocean contrasting the white sands, which evolved into a deep blue as the depth increased
The only bad aspect of my time at that beach was that it had to end so soon. The following afternoon we were back on our boat, heading for the mainland once again. Fortunately, the ride was more enjoyable as we were able to ride the waves, instead of battling through them. Upon arrival, we geared up for 4 van rides which lasted about 9 hours in total. Another long period of travel, but we figured it was worth it, as we intended to swim with whale sharks the following day
We woke up and made our way to another beach exhausted and sunburned. We registered with the national park fund to get permits to swim with the whale sharks. Then we hired another boat and were ready to go. We enjoyed our experience. I’ve done a fair amount of scuba diving, snorkeling, and even great white shark diving, but this experience was completely different. Whale sharks are the largest fish on earth, and they are absolutely massive. The largest whale sharks span up to 42 Feet in length, and weigh up to 80,000 pounds. While they are enormous in size, they are very peaceful, graceful, calm and copasetic creatures. Our boat scoured the bay we were in for about an hour until we finally saw a ripple in the water, which meant a whale shark was below. We jumped in the water with our snorkel and fins, and quickly other boats approached littering other converging swimmers. Soon there was a pack of about 20 aimless swimmers in search of the whale sharks. It was a cloudy day, so visibility was poor underwater. Also, this particular bay was plankton rich, which ultimately attacks the whale sharks, but makes the water even murkier. I quickly realized in order to get a good view of the whale shark I would just have to free dive down a ways. Fortunately I know how to equalize from my experience scuba diving, so my sinuses didn’t explode from water pressure, but I didn’t have to go down that deep anyway
On one particular occasion, I saw a group of swimmers approaching, so I cut them off from the side and opted to dive down right in front of them. When I finally made it deep enough, I realized, I was impeding the path of the shark. They have oblong shaped snouts, with massive mouths which they usually leave open to catch plankton, later straining them out through their teeth. I saw its mouth…open, got frightened, and quickly surfaced for a few panicky gasps of air. But I swear I shared a moment of eye contact with that thing, and we had that brief moment of understanding. And that understanding was that I need to move out of its way, because it would not move out of my way. It was an exhilarating experience nonetheless.
I was quite lucky to have this experience. The whale sharks are only around in this bay from March-May, so timing was on my side. Also, although it’s incredibly remote and largely inaccessible, this activity attracts people from all over the world. Environmental regulations are strict, so only a limited number of boats are allowed at one time
After the whale shark diving, we packed our bags grabbed some Jollybee, (McDonald’s Philippino rival) and prepared ourselves for our 12 hour night bus back to Manila. It was sad to leave this beautiful region after such a short time. Our bus departed from Legazpi Town which is at the base of the active symmetrically cone-shaped Mayon Volcano, surrounded by tropical vegetation and untouched coastline. As beautiful as it was, I figured I was better off not testing my luck with natural disasters, after having not such a good record recently.
I lived some incredible experiences in the Philippines, but perhaps what moved me most, was the valuable lasting relationship I cultivated with my friend throughout our travels. Before I left the country I visited his home, and learned of the poverty stricken conditions he grew up in. He is an unbelievably driven individual, who now, at the age of 24 supports his entire family. We were able to strike a balance as to who would pay for what after constant bickering about the other being overgenerous
So, now I am back in Japan, living life as usual for the time being. I’m not sure what my experience here has in store for me, but I’m trying to live free of any expectation, so as not to be disappointed. As before, I am keeping close tabs on the nuclear issues in the north, and if the threat of radiation contamination intensifies to the extent at which it poses heath risks, I will have to leave again. Hopefully that is not the case as I’m happy here, and looking forward to the upcoming Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Season. I was frustrated to have had to scrap a trip with a close friend from back home. But, I’m trying my best to remain flexible, and stay optimistic about the situation I currently find myself in. Earthquakes seemed to have settled down, but I still feel a few throughout the course of the day. Here is an interesting website that shows just how many earthquakes there have been. http://www.japanquakemap.com/
Also, I've been quite busy moving apartments since returning
For all those kind-hearted souls trying to send me things via snail-mail, my address has changed to:
Meison Bell B203
Togane City, Chiba-Ken 283-0005
Lastly, we had nice weather here this past weekend, and I made it back out to the beach to teach my friend how to fly a power kite. He filmed some of it, and made a video: http://vimeo.com/21864638 We are hoping to make more with the legitimate power kites, and hopefully some sand boarding and kite surfing as well. I'll post them when they are finished.