Cape Town, South Africa—I took one of those double decker tour buses to Signal Hill. It was the most efficient mode of transportation when trying to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
Immediately after we arrived, I hurriedly exited the bus and walked around to find the perfect spot. I didn’t know what I was looking for but I knew it would be far away from the large group of people perched on the ground in front of the parking lot. The farther I walked, I discovered that I was in my element – trodding through rough terrain, almost barefoot…Totally free. It reminded me of when I was a kid, climbing trees and exploring the unknown.
I finally found a quiet spot, perfect for watching a sunset. And I waited. As I set up my camera to take photos, I turned around and there it was, a beautiful rainbow.
Bangkok, Thailand—’Tis the season for staying up late writing final papers. And that’s basically all I did in the 3 weeks I spent in Bangkok. This is a snapshot of every December and May: late nights reading, writing, snacking. Fortunately, the weather was great! It was around 85 degrees and consistently sunny (perfect conditions for studying).
In October, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, died after 70 years as head of state and everywhere I went, I noticed memorials in his honor. I visited the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre where there was an exhibition in his honor, which consisted of thousands of Instagram photos posted by Thai citizens to commemorate their king. It was a heartfelt display of connectedness, rooted in artistic expression. Most of the photos were portraits of the King at different stages of life. At the end of the exhibition, I noticed a large mosaic-like structure of the King’s image, made up of individual Instagram images. It was a great example of art and technology being used to help people express themselves during the healing process.
Another memorial for King Bhumibol.
Bold colors everywhere.
A condiment at my local restaurant that I didn’t have the courage to try, but I thought it looked nice.
Seoul, South Korea—My entry into the country was seamless, which I always take as a good sign. Everything was going well. I had a good wi-fi connection in the airport so I was able to coordinate the directions to my hostel, I was well rested and my feet were comfortable (it’s little things that can be annoying on travel days so I try to mitigate those when possible). I was also able to buy a 5-day subway pass while at the airport, which is my preferred method of transportation (cheap, reliable and usually no surprise fees). I was so productive!
I found the train and I was on my way to the hostel. According to Google maps, it was a direct commute from the airport. When I reached my stop on the train, I kept thinking, ‘wow, that was easy!’ (That should always be my internal cue to brace myself). Nothing is ever easy. When I reached the top of the stairs of the subway, I immediately started walking while at the same time looking at my phone to check the blue dot on Google maps to make sure I was going in the right direction. The blue dot wasn’t responsive. So I would stop on the sidewalk and wait…I may have shaken my phone a bit. For some reason, the Google maps directions for Seoul are in beta. So, the directions were a bit off. I kept the app open, checking it frequently while I hauled my luggage around for about an hour.
Then my phone died.
I didn’t panic. I just shook my head, because, Murphy’s Law. I found a Starbucks and ordered coffee so I could charge my phone and also use their internet. Then I remembered that my outlet converter was buried in a bag within my suitcase. It’s one thing to walk into a coffee shop in a foreign city with luggage but it’s another thing altogether to start rummaging through said luggage. I had to draw the line somewhere. Then I thought, ‘Aha!’ My iPad is charged, I can use that for directions. Now, imagine walking down a city sidewalk with luggage while your eyes are glued to an iPad. That was not a solution. So, I decided that as much as I hate paying for cabs, in this instance it was justified.
I finally hailed a cab and once I got in, I realized that I didn’t have the actual address to the hostel written down, it was on my phone. I only had the cross streets and the website on my iPad. The cab driver said (well, I’m not exactly sure what he said because it was in Korean, but I got the gist) that he needed the exact address to take me anywhere. I got out of the cab and had to start over with the directions from Google maps.
Three hours after landing in Seoul, I finally made it to the hostel. Exhausted.
I was only in the city for a few days so my schedule didn’t allow me to see much of the city. For the most part, I stayed in my neighborhood. I observed the youth culture (by default, because my hostel was located near a university). I encountered music, fashion and graffiti clearly influenced by hip hop culture. I heard a lot of ’90s hip hop and R&B. Apparently, hip hop is a growing trend in the city. I’m always fascinated by the global reach of hip hop.
This color combination is close to something that I would normally wear.
Kyoto, Japan — Ah, Kyoto. It encompasses so much of what I love about Japan: Clean public restrooms, delicious food, escalators that work, reliable public transportation, chic fashion, art (I could go on). But one of my favorite things about Kyoto is how comfortable it feels. Even teeming with tourists like myself, it still seems ‘small-town’ in the best possible way.
One thing that I desperately wanted to do before leaving Japan is to learn about kimonos. Prior to visiting Kyoto, my knowledge of the kimono, was extremely limited. Okay, so everything I know about kimonos I learned from the film, Memoirs of a Geisha, based on the novel by Arthur Golden by the same title. The visuals in the film are breathtakingly beautiful. While I can’t speak on the historical accuracy of the film, it does give some insight into the artistry, skill and thought that is central to the profession.
“…the very word ‘geisha’ means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.”1
So, there I was in a kimono rental shop on a Saturday morning. It was like being at Macy’s on Black Friday…a bit overwhelming. Many tourists who visit Kyoto rent kimonos to take photos at one of the shrines. I resolved to go back the next day with the hope of missing the crowd. Luckily, day two was a lot quieter.
Putting on a kimono is an arduous task. It’s not something that one can do comfortably on her own. First, there are several layers involved, with lots of binding and pulling, smoothing and folding. There were three ladies who helped me with my clothes and hair. I learned about the structure of dressing and how to coordinate colors, which was a lot of fun.
The result was a work of art.
Fisher, L. et al. (Producer), & Marshall, R. (Director). (2005). Memoirs of a Geisha [Motion Picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures Corporation.
I told a Japanese friend from college that I was taking a Shodo class while I’m in Tokyo. She told me, “Shodo is a way of life.” I had never heard it put like that but I completely understand it. It could take a lifetime for a person to master Shodo. I started taking lessons last week and I’m slowly but surely catching on but I know that I will have to practice consistently.
My biggest problem so far is my ignorance of the hiragana and katakana. When I’m drawing the characters, I’m consistently trying to quiet my mind while focusing on each stroke, so I won’t mess up. I know that it’s just practice and because I’m such a novice, it’s expected that I will make mistakes. But I have a commitment to honor the Shodo, and knowing that it is something that is taken very seriously makes me feel justified in my obsessiveness.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the written word as art. The only good thing about not being able to read Japanese is that I can look at it from a purely aesthetic view, not assigning any meaning to words (a skill that is completely unhelpful when I need directions or have questions about what’s on a menu.) As frustrating as it is to not be able to communicate, I relish in the fact that I can appreciate the language in a way that a person who is literate in Japanese can’t.
This week I started learning Shodo, or Japanese calligraphy. I’ve noticed that it’s quite calming, even if you’re not very good at it (like me). I’m reminded of how I learned to write the English alphabet in kindergarten and first grade. We would practice writing each letter, one by one, over and over. You don’t realize all of the components that you had to master with your first language until you try learning another language.
Shodo requires patience and intention. Starting with making the ink, every action is purposeful. As I was practicing today, my teacher reminded me to breathe and be calm while creating the characters, which is funny because it’s the same advice that I give myself when I’m trying to speak Japanese.
Tokyo, Japan – Sushi is one of those things that people either love or hate. I don’t remember when I first tried sushi, it was sometime during my freshman year in college. I just remember trying to convert my skeptical friends, like a sushi evangelist. One friend was adamantly opposed because of the raw fish. I think if you strip anything down to its disparate parts, it has the become unappealing but sushi is more than just raw fish. The combination of freshness and immediacy makes it special. An experience. Add to that the skill of the chef and well, it can be a bit intimidating.
Today I learned how to make sushi. It was quite simple. Notice I said ‘simple’ not ‘easy.’ I imagine a person could spend half a lifetime trying to perfect the art of making sushi. I have a great deal of respect for people who make (good) food. They’re artists. Anyone who has ever had bad sushi recognizes that there’s an art to it. From material preparation to presentation, there seems to be a purposefulness to everything.
Having a teacher is my preferred way to learn most new skills. There is no substitute for it (pun not intended). Our teacher today has been making sushi longer than I have been alive. I had to let that sink in. I observed him, how he placed his hands, how he moved, everything. When you’ve done something for so long, it becomes second nature so when trying to explain your technique, some things may not translate (another pun, BAM!).
In Tokyo, it’s acceptable to eat sushi with your hands. You have no idea how happy I was to hear that. My chopstick skills are at an intermediate level. I mean, I can use them just fine, but it takes effort. Removing them was like removing a barrier between me and the sushi. It became a more informal and enjoyable experience.
My only problem now is that I can’t wait to get into my own kitchen and practice.