2019, BLOG XV: PAPE’ETE AGAIN

NB: A friend thought that the cats in the previous blog were going hungry. They were well fed by the owners of the Fare Tokoau; both slept in their bed at night. The Multi-colored Miss lost her mother as a kitten and had to be bottle fed by them, resulting in a food neurosis, a problem not unusual among mammals.

Rising in my airless room at the Fare Hau. I went out to look at the view of Mo’orea regretting that I wasn’t there. Out the kitchen window I saw someone had hung leis of flowers on the bushes by the side of the drive and couldn’t imagine why. I decided it must be something my landlady had done.

But it turned out the leis belonged to a family—mother, rather European looking, father handsome Tahitian, a boy of fourteen and a girl of twelve, both wearing glasses. They had hung them there over night to preserve them rather than bringing them into the house. The leis had a significance, but what I’ve no idea, because the parents took pictures of the children in their leis. I ran into them with their backpacks in the market, later in the afternoon. I thought myself stupid, and insensitive because I suggested the restaurant upstairs to them. I thought these were people who could not afford that. However, when I ran into them some weeks later they no longer looked like backpackers but very middle class tourists. However, it seemed to me that the children were being led by their father through some rite of passage on this backpacking trip.

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That morning waiting for the bus, I had no difficulty walking down to the stop, I was joined by an elderly, toothless Chinese man who stood with his mouth agape. He talked to me, in French, while touching my arm, my shoulder, my back, as I moved away from him but not far because I was trying to keep my feet in his shadow so they wouldn’t get sunburned. We kept performing this dance—he trying to touch some part of me, me trying to judge the distance of his arm reach while keeping my feet in his shadow—until the bus arrived, quite full. It was a funny, ludicrous dance.

Getting off the bus I walked to the post office. It was closed. No one had an explanation as to why; no one knew when it would open. It was only later that someone told me, “They are on strike.” Of course, this is FRENCH Polynesia.

Every nation has its indigenous curse–the English their cast system, the Americans bizarre religions, the French strikes.

I went to talk to a woman in a shop I had made friends with about tourist things, which she didn’t know of course.  She sensibly steered me to the Tourist Information office.

But she also told me the story of how she came to Tahiti. Although French she had lived in New York City for many years working with jazz musicians and in the jazz world. Friends had been asking her to visit them in Tahiti but she didn’t come until a potential job in Dakar with a jazz festival did not materialize; she decided it would be rude to keep putting off her Tahitian friends. She came out, this is forty years ago–no electricity, no cars—and in two week, in her words, “I had a job, an apartment and a boy friend.” The boy friend is no surprise as this is a sparkling, attractive woman.

I found a substitute bathing suit in the form of garish shorts with matching shirt. My thought was that if I wore these into the sea a couple of times they would fade. I also found Pape’ete’s premier chocolate shop but managed not to buy.

I ate in the upstairs restaurant in the market, the Cafe Maeva, raw fish in a mango sauce that was a revelation. There was a further sauce that was piquant besides a salad dressing with curry in it. All of this made me happy. I had a praline pastry that looked like a hotdog and was superb.

I bought stamps from a tourist shop upstairs that displayed a most extraordinary object–an open bowl made of pieces of nacre carved into fish shapes and somehow connected. With a light inside and hung from a ceiling, the room’s walls would swim with fish. It was, thank heaven, not for sale.

Down the street at the tourism office I made a date for another dolphin watch with a young man, not entirely bright, but very sweet through whom I discovered that if I want to see The Diadem in the center of Tahiti I am going to do it by helicopter since there is no four-wheel drive trip there and the hike is eight hours in each direction.

I started walking toward the airport through the garden bordering the sea on Boulevard Pomare, asking people about the bus. No one knew and the police didn’t speak any English. At last a woman told me that the bus was running on the street two back from the sea from Boulevard Pomare. I walked back and another woman, in front of her shop, told me to wait there for the bus. I did, paid my 200, got off at the right stop, slogged up hill past the airport motel but somewhere after that I took a wrong turn and was lost.

I approached an elderly man and woman at the gate of their house and said “Fare Hau?”  She, under her bird’s nest of white hair, became immediately frightened and, if she had been alone, would have closed the gate on me. Instead she stood inside. Neither of them had heard of my guesthouse.

I went waved at a car to stop. I showed the young man at the wheel the Fare Hau card; he drove to his apartment, a short way, to get his phone, and called them. I saw as we drove how I had gone wrong. I was extremely grateful to the young man for saving me and also for speaking English. He confessed he too had no sense of direction.

Maman at the Fare Hau was all in a dither and wanted Rani to drive me to town the next day. I pointed out I had no difficulty going down. Coming back was the problem. However, as I had cancelled my dolphin trip, Rani drove me to town in the morning.

Maman is a bit of a nut. She would have me writing in the dark, she is so obsessed about turning off lights. Since I complained about the temperature of the water in the shower, I have had much hotter water. She is fixated on money, although for all I know they might be over their heads in debt. But it was annoying to be driven since it meant I didn’t get to walk as much as I wanted.

A friend in Flagstaff emailed me about murals in Pape’ete, spray-painted street art. I saw these as I walked around town, more and more of them. Most are interesting, although some are abstract, geometrical things. In 2018 they had a contest for spray painted murals; artists from all over the world came. Some are moving. Some are subtle protest art.

A little girl, wrapped in a red and white patterned pareu, lies in fetal position, on a pareu of the same design, her long, black hair streaming out behind her. If you look closely at the patterns on her pareu and the one that is a backdrop you see the symbol for radiation and an atomic cloud.

I went into the cathedral without expectations but was surprised by the stained glass windows. At the back is a large, complex abstract window in blue and red. A small arched window above the altar, in jewel hues, of the Madonna and Child is obviously European. I was and am puzzled, because it did not strike me as being French. The Child is represented as a little king with an elaborate crown. I associate this with Czech or Polish iconography. The other windows, however, are local, some to my eye quite idiosyncratic. Doubting Thomas is shown with his head almost completely upside down, a symbol of wrong thinking? There are drums, a guitar, a man blowing a conch. A woman in a rich blue and white pareu, long black hair over one shoulder, kneels in prayer. But my favorite is a small figure of St. Joseph planning a board while about his bent figure dance curls of wood.

Intimidated by Maman I took a taxi home. When we approached the car I asked the young driver if he could do it for 20 rather than 25. He smiled and said, “I would get in trouble with my boss.” He was right.  I know her. She has driven me and has a grim mouth.

He and I talked about the cost of living in places around the world. He wanted to know if prices were as high as they are here. I pointed out that Tahiti is an island and everything has to be brought in from a long way away. He hadn’t thought about that. I also pointed out that people want things. When Tahiti had no electricity, no phones, no cars, no TV it was probably cheaper to live. We talked about Barcelona. I don’t think he had any idea where it is. Finally he asked, “Do they have good sunsets there?”

He won my heart. How superb to come from a culture where the sunset is of such importance that you would not move away from it for economic reasons.

I washed, ironed and packed the next day, preparing to leave for the Marquesa Islands. During the afternoon we had a sudden storm, the rain coming straight down for five minutes in shinning tinsel strands. Then it stopped.

Late in the evening three Canadians arrived. I talked to the young woman, glimpsed the man but never saw his daughter. The woman, however, was a treat and confirmed all my prejudices about Canadians. They had started some months ago in South Africa and had moved about a number of countries there.  She recommended Botswana. She works by computer contacts, which gives her mobility but also means she has to be up at four am. It is always a joy to meet a real traveler. She is one.

2019, BLOG XIV: Mo’orea

 

Idiotically, I flew to Mo’orea, and also flew back, fifteen-minutes on the wing each way. Why not at least go one way by ferry? At the Air Tahiti check–in counter they decided my carryon bag was too heavy. I transferred two books and my MacBook Air to my purse. What difference does this make? I still took the same amount of weight into the cabin.

I doubted that they would serve lunch on a fifteen-minute flight so I had a baguette with chicken, crudités and mayo in the lounge, all fresh and better than anything you could get at JFK. As we assembled for the plane I could see we were 99% vacationers and honeymooners. Locals take the ferry.

Taking off we skimmed the jungled pinnacles of Tahiti, whose main group is The Diadem. I wondered about these formations, sharp as stalagmites. Later I learned the volcanoes forming Tahiti exploded, shredding their walls, an event one is glad one missed. Coming down to Mo’orea there are precipices and walls but not the stalagmites of Pape’ete.

The Mo’orea airport is even simpler than that in Pape’ete. It caused an outbreak of nostalgia in me for small tropical airports—bare floors, a slight odor of disinfectant, windows but little glass, and the lugubrious circling of ceiling fans. In Indonesia, at one time in my life, there were a lot of these.

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There were the flower crowns on bare heads or as a hatband that I have already mentioned because part of traditional dress here is a flower behind your ear or in your hair. The crown may be simple, a compact circlet of green and white leaves or it may be flamboyant with spikes or red and yellow flowers of varying lengths. These are worn by both women and men. I love them but am at this point too shy to buy one.

I waited with others as a man, having pulled a cart out to the plane where another man threw bags on it, pulled the cart into the airport and then heaved the bags onto slanted shelves from which we removed them.

Outside people climbed into a large hotel van or a car that awaited them and I could see only one taxi. I thought with resignation, “Well, here’s where I get skinned.” And so it was.

The Fare Tokoau, Fernando, the driver, claimed, was on the other side of the island. This was almost true. He charged 50US, worth it to see Cooks Bay, where Cook did not land but the cartographer thought he did, Opunohu Bay, where he did land, the Hilton, and the Intercontinental as we went around. The scenery is stunning, breathtaking a clutter of clichés—towering rock walls are covered with jungle or turn bare faces to the turquoise to aquamarine water at their bases. Further out the white fringe of the reef sends inland the continuous roar of the ocean’s breakers. Beyond the reef the water is dark blue. This is a new world for me, knowing nothing of reefs. Along the road are public beaches, deteriorating boats, fabulous boats, and towns strewn like broken toys along its verge. In the tropics buildings tend to have an accidental, intimidated appearance.

My new, young landlady, who has a boy age five, a girl age two and a husband who works, as she used to, at the Intercontinental, was furious when she found out what Fernando had charged me. This, while it did not put money in my pocket, was very satisfying.

I had a bungalow with porch and its own enormous bath and small kitchenette. She kindly drove me to two grocery stores where I bought lettuce, tomatoes, carrots—not easy to find in the tropics—cheese—god bless the French—ham—god bless the French again—and yogurt. She also called Dr. Michael Poole for me, arranging a pick up the next morning at 7:40 for a dolphin watch he runs.

I went to bed in my bungalow that seemed vast after my previous room, listening to a strengthening wind and the crash of the surf on the reef.

I woke in my comfortable bed and had hot water to wash my face, something unavailable in Pape’ete. The roof is thatch, the ceilings high, the walls decorated with quite nice paintings behind one of which lives a gecko who makes pleasant chirp-click noises. The bungalows are surrounded by a beautifully made stonewall.

As I prepared my breakfast a small ginger cat appeared on the veranda. He sat up very straight about 4 feet from the door and watched me. He was an extraordinarily courteous ginger gentleman and did not advance until he was sure he was welcome. As I ate breakfast I scratched his ears to which he responded with a refined purr. Something in his stance suggested that he would not have refused a sliver of cheese or ham. However, I did not offer.

After breakfast I went outside to wait for the car to take me to the dolphin watch boat. At 7:40 it occurred to me perhaps they would not drive onto the property but would wait on the road. When I got to the road the van was waiting. I felt less guilty for holding things up when the couples we picked up were invariably late or had to run back for something.

There were 18 of us, mostly French and American, although there were two British women as well. A number of couples had children, including a French couple next to me. They had a beautiful four-year-old boy and a red headed baby girl who treated her mother like an open bar, grabbing her tee shirt with both chubby fists and lifting it up to get what she wanted when she wanted it. She and I communicated throughout the trip but her parents found me invisible.

Dr. Poole, who talked brilliantly through out the cruise on many subjects, runs the branch of the University of California, Berkeley Oceanographic Institute on Mo’orea at the Gump Center. It was he who informed me about the two volcanoes of Tahiti. He told us to look for dolphins in dark blue water, that they surf a ship’s wake to save energy; they can dive 300 to 400 meters; they feed at night when their prey come out. A small dolphin lives 35 years, an orca 100. We hunted assiduously but never saw dolphins, which Dr. Poole says happens only about 5% of the time, but we did go over the side, down a slippery ladder, to swim with rays, some four or five feet across and slimy to the touch, but clean slimy if that makes any sense. I loved watching the slow flap of the rays’ wings; it is such a graceful motion. There also were black tipped reef sharks about. Clutches of terns turned in the wind; there was one brown booby.

I stayed close to the boat, which, unfortunately put me in the vicinity of a ridiculous American woman who kept squealing, “I don’t want them to touch me. I hate them.  I don’t want them to touch me. They’re disgusting.” This was aimed at no one in particular. Regrettably the daughter was beginning to imitate her mother’s behavior. Her husband had sensibly disappeared. As a friend later suggested in an email, if you don’t want to be touched by rays, get out of their element. Why don’t I think of these responses?

Poole passed around pieces of baleen from a whale’s mouth.  I had never seen this before except in illustrations, pictures of dolphins’ fins and whales’ tails, which are unique to the individual and used for identification. He also showed us a dolphin and a whale’s tooth. They are conical. Age is told by the layers of enamel laid down year by year, like tree rings. I asked why there were no gulls. He told me that gulls are costal and this is an island. I don’t understand this answer. Don’t islands have coasts?

I had brought a bathing suit I haven’t had on for at least 12 years. I discovered that the elastic was totally gone and I had to knot up the straps at the shoulders. I felt self-conscious but also had to laugh. Buying a bathing suit in your eighties is a big psychological hurdle.

Despite disappointment it was a good day.

The next day I went walking, eight kilometers, noticing along the way the small white boxes by the side of the road that are the electrical and internet connection for each house. When Fernando-the-over-charger pointed these out to me I realized for the first time that there were no wires overhead.

In typhoon territory that’s a good idea.

On one side the green, hills lush with banana, coconut palm, other trees or just thick grass go almost straight up while on the other is the brilliant blue of the sea. Often the houses are invisible behind gates and walls. Those that are visible may be neat and planted with trim flowers and bushes or disheveled habitations with bits of machinery and furniture half hidden by long grass in the front yard. Often I walked through a haze of smoke. People were burning off leaves and other forest leavings.

I came to Tiki Village, a place where dances are performed for tourists, turned back to the Tokoau, and then went on to the tiny village of Hauru where I found a French restaurant that served duck and took credit cards.

The next morning, word having got around, I had two breakfast visitors, but what different personalities. The Ginger Gentleman was his usual restrained, courteous self; the new guest was multicolored without manners or any sense of decorum. She climbed on the table. She climbed on my lap. Her one objective, to eat my breakfast. However, it was obvious she was in a panic, convinced she was in imminent danger of death by starvation.

I left the Fare T, where the ambiance of kindness and warmth is comfortable as a hug, for the Kaveka, more up scale but situated on Cooks Bay. My landlady, who has grey eyes, a color I have read of in English novels but never seen before, walked me up to the road where she had arranged for the local bus to pick me up. As we walked I looked behind me and saw the Ginger Gentleman was sitting at a distance, a restrained good-bye quite in character. He got up, arched his back and walked off into some bushes.

My landlady’s son came with us and we hung out on the edge of the road talking while he broke dead branches into short lengths of sticks a good five-year-old activity. She talked about her not very good mother manipulating everyone to be on her side against their father now that they were separated, about her much younger brother, about her uncle, my age, who still plants his vegetables each year, until the bus arrived, half an hour late and totally empty. On the trip to the Kaveka only one man got on. I liked the bus. It was old, the driver was a bit surly; it creaked but felt right. If I came back to Mo’orea I would do all my traveling by bus.

At the Kaveka I had a neat little cottage, not as large as at the Fare T and without kitchenette, but with woven bamboo walls and stained glass in the smaller bathroom. The dinning room is on a wharf over the water and as you eat you can look down and watch the fish or feed them bits of your baguette. There are striped black and white fish, colored fish, but I was struck by some greenish greys traveling in what looked like family groups—a large fish and several small—with their eyes above water and their round mouths agape.

I wandered the property. As the sun went down a small, white cruise ship with sails glided from the bay trailing music behind it with all of us on shore taking pictures.

Being on Cook’s Bay is heaven. Great walls of rock, broken here and there, form a rough amphitheater around part of the bay, which is a small horseshoe.

Sunday, I walked toward the Bank of Tahiti, not expecting much to be open. In the morning the big supermarket was and in the afternoon a few dress and pareu shops flaunted their wares on clotheslines. Passing two churches, through open, unglazed windows, I saw the congregation all in white in the pews, and heard them sing, heavenly eaves dropping.

I found the Bank of Tahiti but it wouldn’t give me money. However, another bank that had never given me money except at the airport in Pape’ete delivered.

There are white sand inlets, crossed by small bridges, tree shaded and full of the clearest water. A few houses perch high on the hill on dirt roads but most cling to the circle road or the shore. Any road off the circle road is unpaved.

I passed a derelict hotel, two stories with colonnaded verandas fringed with Victorian gingerbread. I was told the French company that owned it went bankrupt through mismanagement. It is now in the hands of the government who would sell it for nothing but you would need a lot of money to fix it up. It’s been empty for 20 years.  I wish I had the money and the years to invest. What fun that would be.

Coming back I stopped at the Kaveka, discovering that in twenty minutes lunch would be over. I ate before going back to walk half way round Cooks Bay. This is a gorgeous, indescribable walk either looking up at the volcano’s old, rock walls or out to sailboats nodding on the sea.

The next day I flew back to Pape’ete.

2019, BLOG XIII: Pape’ete to Mo’orea

Pape’ete has a little airport snuggled against the sea. Coming down one sees classic, as advertised, absolutely stunning views of Mo’orea. I was met by a rather gruff, tough looking Tahitian woman named Sandra who took me up to my home stay or guesthouse, or whatever you want to call it, that is on the side of the hill near the airport. The family live in the lower part of the house; the paying guests are upstairs. For over 100US a night I have a room a little bigger than my bed with dazzling hand-painted white and orange sheets on it whose window looks into a shed where the mother hand-paints pareus. There is no noticeable air movement. I share a bathroom with from two to six people depending on the resident population. There is one room with its own bath with big windows that give a view of Mo’orea. I suspect that’s over 200US a night. The residents at the moment are two very young Danish girls one year from finishing their degrees; they are both psych majors, and a couple from French Antibes.

Off the living room there is a porch with an incredible view of Mo’orea and the reef, a continuous white lie of surf with aquamarine on one side and dark blue water on the other. That view of Mo’orea, a dark tower of volcanic rock covered with jungle is so familiar from photos that seeing it for the first time from the veranda I had the same reaction I had had years ago upon initially seeing Mont San Michel. I wanted to say over and over, “But it’s just like its picture,” and felt like an idiot.

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Mo’orea frequently wears a small chapeau of cloud on its head or it may wrap itself in a dark eiderdown of weather and disappear completely.

I know I am in the tropics because no-seeums are attacking my feet and ankles under the table. I must remember not to scratch.

I woke in the morning to roosters crowing and dogs barking. When we drove down into town we scattered red hens onto the verge. Looking down from the veranda there are houses of various undistinguished sorts, mostly one story, with corrugated roofs painted cream or red. Any space between houses is crammed with bananas, palms, frangipani, langilang flower and fruit trees of various identifiable and unidentifiable varieties.

I went down into town with the Danish girls who were leaving to go on a cruise with ten other Danes. We were driven by Fafa who was much less sullen than Sandra. She has been to the States and driven around California.

Fafa had told me to go to the Bank of Polynesia to get money. The machine coughed up my card and told me to contact my bank. This always sends a chill down my spine. I stood in line for half an hour to find out that they do not recognize cards from outside French Polynesia at Bank Polynesia. They suggested I try Bank Tahiti, which I did but I was only allowed to take out the equivalent of 250US which considering that my hotel had to be paid in cash was not enough. But I could get more tomorrow. I walked around the market, which is high roofed, airy, full of bananas, papayas, pineapples but few vegetables. Upstairs I could see there were tourist shops but I put off visiting them. As I wandered the aisles I saw hats. I had left mine in New Zealand. I tried one and liked it. The seller and possibly maker then demonstrated that you could fold it up and pack it, a surprise since it looked brittle and fragile. I was convinced at 20US. In amongst the hats were bright flower crowns to be worn with or without a hat. Women in the market were wearing them on their heads or as a band around their hat.

I walked up and down Boulevard Pomare, looking in shop windows and gazing across the street at the sea. Going in and out of pearl shops I picked up useful bits of information, most particularly where to have lunch–upstairs in the market at the Café Maeve.

My informant was quite right. I had a delicious poisson cru en lait coco, smooth on the tongue and rich with the flavor of coconut with taro chips and a papaya smoothie. Excellent.

When I got home, again a taxi, this time from the taxi stand on Boulevard Pomare, I found the daughter of the family, Rani, was teaching English to an elderly woman. I sat down and helped with hints but over did it at one point and was scolded by Rani. The woman was finding it difficult going, mostly I think because the elderly brain does not memorize easily.

After the lesson Rani took me down to the supermarket by the airport, which was nice of her.

The next morning after breakfast I walked down to the main road and the bus stop with the French couple. The bus is fine and is 200 instead of 2,500 as the taxi costs. I got out at the market, walked to the Bank of Tahiti and withdrew more money.

Remembering that I needed postcards I went upstairs in the market, browsing a few of the shops, before finding a place that offered 10 cards for 750, about seven-fifty US. I suggested to the woman 100 cards for 7,000. She said in French 7,500. I said 7,000.  To my surprise she made an angry pounce saying in English, “You are not in charge, Madam.” I said “7,500 then.” As I picked out the cards I wondered at her anger.  When I handed them to her and she counted them—99, I had to pick another—she said, “7,000.” I was touched that she had thought about her reaction and made a fiscal apology.

Again I ate at the Café Maeve, this time chicken. As I was leaving the French came in. They had been to the Botanical Garden and urged me to go. On the way home I excoriated myself for not doing more but I don’t think I have ever been in a place where I have been so happy to do nothing as I have been in Pape’ete.

I didn’t, knowing my ability to get lost, have the courage to walk home so again it was 2,000, or 20 US. I have no sense of direction and get lost easily. Luckily I also tend to walk in a circle. However, price was a huge inducement to try finding my way in the future. I packed. I was leaving the next day for Mo’orea.

2019, BLOG XII: a train, a ferry, a bus

I spent the day on the train going through a different landscape than I had seen up north but, as the day before, going in and out of rain. There had been yellow-green moss on trees around A’s house but from the train the trees were encrusted, scaled with green lichens. Besides cows and sheep there were occasionally llamas. I got on the train before eight am and off just after seven in the evening.

In the afternoon we climbed into more rocky, rugged land that had been brutally clear-cut for sheep pasture. Trees’ grey bodies lay about on the land, decomposing. Erosion was apparent in horizontal lines on hills where sheep had grazed. As we climbed there were more sheep, fewer cows. We came down through tunnels and over several deep, narrow gorges, with sides barren as a Nepali landslide.

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From the station I took a share taxi to my hotel. The driver gave a tour of the earthquake aftermath, pointing out injured buildings and those under reconstruction. In my Spartan hotel, my room had no window, but there was endless hot water which considering the chill outside was very welcome.

Waking early, I dawdled, thinking probably there wouldn’t be many places open for breakfast until at least 8. I found a terrific cafe with eggs Benedict over fried potatoes and a large serving of bacon. Their cappuccino was enormous.

I have no sense of direction but I do have an early warning system that tells me I am off course. I asked my way to the Ta Papa Museum, curious to see their Maori carvings and exhibits. What they have is not as extensive, I think, or as fine as what is displayed in Auckland, however, there is a fascinating modern meetinghouse in a room of its own. The carvings, more delicate than the old ones, include female figures and are painted in fantasy shades of purple, green, the prism’s colors.

There is a small, frank, factual display about the Waitangi Treaty of 1840, its physical fate and how it affected lives for the next century and more. It is reminiscent of various treaties with the Native Americans in the U.S.

L and K had recommended an exhibit about the Anzac troops at Gallipoli. The figures of soldiers, two to three times life size, were accompanied by films, photos, recordings by men who had survived the massacre. It recreates the horror and is immensely moving.

After a yogurt lunch at the museum I walked back to the hotel to find the City Gallery. It was close but I managed to go the long way round.  I am directionally impossible.

There was an exhibition of sculpture by Eva Rothschild, fine but unexceptional—open triangles welded together into a tower, for instance. Upstairs, however, was an exhibit, I doubt the word “art” applies, I found upsetting and shattering to mind and emotions. Called “Semiconductor: The Technological Sublime”, the first part consisted of a long curving video installation entitled, “Earthworks” that is a “five channel computer generated animation— (that) processes seismic data to represent the folding, faulting and forging of the land, encompassing millennia in mere moments.” Waves of apparently multi-colored matter—green, pink, yellow, red, purple—surge and recede accompanied by rumblings and detonations. The brochure describes the video as “immersive and entertaining”. Definitely immersive! I watched for a half an hour but terrifying rather than entertaining. It made me feel the raw power of the geologic earth intensely. It was deeply disturbing. I never really got beyond the first installation.

I walked back to my Spartan hotel, unpleasantly conscious of the earth beneath my feet, investigating shops as I went along and restaurants of all nations, including Iran. But I ended up having a beef cheek pie for lunch at a small café.

The next morning out of anxiousness I rose too early, went to the rail station too early and, therefore, spent too much time in the cold. From the station a bus took me to the Inter Island Ferry. I have not been on a long ferry ride since I was in Denmark, 45 years ago. As I came onto the ferry I saw a notice about a special lounge. I decided to upgrade. There was lots of food—eggs, bacon, croissants, sausages, muesli and passable coffee, in a warm room with great views.

We nosed our way between green islands, many with houses and villages on them. It was calm and pleasant with the addition of scones. We went through a short passage of open sea, followed by more islands, but these were different, higher, more precipitous to the sea, less populated and frequently unpopulated, no beaches, just rock.

We came into Picton, tiny, not very populous, with big, pined hills about it.  After a short wait, I climbed onto the bus. The scenery became, immediately, more dramatic, big barren hills—sheep and cows—sandblasted areas of erosion. It is dryer than the Palouse of Idaho but similar. We came down to the coast and the drama heightened. Hills became white peaked mountains with rivulets of snow down their sides, while on the left, after a stretch of black beach, a wild, rock-bound coast developed where white manes of waves threw themselves in foaming profusion.

I got out at Kaikoura but had trouble finding the Dolphin Lodge, a slightly fancy backpacker’s hotel. Having dragged my two cases up the street I decided I’d better ask because what was ahead was not promising.  First I asked a man with two hearing aids behind his ears. But even with them he couldn’t understand me until the third repetition.  Since I too have hearing aids I understood. However, he had never heard of the Dolphin Lodge. I went into the museum where a charming woman not only knew of the Lodge but let me use the museum elevator up to the next level, allowing me to skip an extremely steep hill. She then dragged my bigger case the rest of the way up and pointed at the Lodge’s sign.

The Lodge was freezing and the young woman who gave me my key seemed to be wishing that I would disappear. But she was informative about the radiator in the room.  The room was slightly larger than the bed. It was like being back in Japan but that meant the room heated up quickly. There was a bathroom and the water was hot. I asked about the location of the supermarket.  She said vaguely, “Oh, it´s just down the street. “ It was quite a way down the highway but was a good supermarket and I bought what I would need for both dinners and breakfasts. I was planning on going whale watching the next morning.

By the time I came home from the supermarket, however, I was beginning to feel ill—sore throat accompanied by a decided bodily malaise. I had dinner, letting my room warm while I tried to think my situation through. I WhatsApped L, telling her how I felt. She came right back with the information that the town hospital was ten houses from where I was staying. I decided to go to bed and see how I felt in the morning. There was one couple and one young man who stoked the wood-stove in the living room besides me. I felt decidedly alone, isolated and frightened. But I went to bed and had no difficulty sleeping. The room was warm.

L canceled my whale watch and in the morning I walked a hundred meters or so to a reassuringly modern, clean and efficient hospital where I received an appointment. When I saw the doctor, whose first name was Anders; I asked if he was of Scandinavian descent.  He was. This was quite irrationally reassuring. Not reassuring was that he couldn’t tell anything; probably I was too early in the process. This meant I had to decide whether to trust myself or decide I was being psychosomatic. I decided to trust myself. I had the receptionist at the hospital call a taxi. When I asked the woman driver where to eat she recommended a place on the highway that had a good lamb lunch. I returned to the Lodge. L cancelled my whale watch, they gave me a refund, but I hated giving this up. She had communicated with her sister-in-law S in Christchurch that I would be arriving to stay and then fly back to Auckland. I had originally planned to stay with S but the circumstances had changed slightly.

Coming back to the Lodge I found the young man who stoked the fire in residence. He is a New Zealander. I asked if he had ever been outside New Zealand. He seemed shocked at the idea. I was surprised because I have met a lot of New Zealanders on the road. He explained he came from a large family and he couldn´t leave them. I said I knew lots of big families that are scattered in interesting places around the world and visit each other. He considered this bizarre. I had dinner and went to bed. My sinuses were beginning to feel as if someone had recently injected them with large quantities of lead, but my throat wasn’t any worse, maybe better.

The next morning I got up packed and had breakfast with two delightful Netherlanders who were going to a conference way south and having a wonderful time driving the coast. We were both puzzled by the lack of warmth of many of the New Zealanders because New Zealanders we had met on the road had invariably been wonderful people.  Maybe only the nice ones leave the country?

I braked my bags down the steep hill to the bus stop and caught the bus to Christchurch. The scenery is dramatic with steep mountains on one side and either black sand or rocks among the froth of tumultuous surf on the other.

On the bus two women behind me were speaking something that was not English. I tuned in and could separate a word or two. It was Spanish. Then I began to understand the Spanish, sentence after sentence and with such clarity that I thought, “They have to be speaking Mexican Spanish.”

Whatever the dialect, accent in which you first learn a language it will, forever, be clearer more easily understood, than any other variation. It is your home in the language

When we all got off the bus at Christchurch and waited for the driver to pull our bags out of its belly I asked, “Estás de Mexico?” Delighted, they responded, “Si. Si.” One was from Oaxaca, the other from a town I have heard of but not visited when I lived in Mexico. We talked as we went into the station, I to get a taxi, they to find out about their next bus.

The young woman at the information counter was made up to the enth degree–flounces of eyelashes and lips painted in a many colored design with slender vines separating one hue from the next. This was startling but I had seen something similar when out to lunch with L in Auckland at my favorite restaurant, the Blue Breeze.  We were served by a young woman with a navy blue pout. One wondered if her boy friend was an embalmer. I was fascinated since most women eat their lipstick off in 20 minutes or less. I do it in less. Made up like this one would have to make a constant conscious effort NOT to eat your lipstick.

With her extraordinary lips she told me to find a taxi at the curb outside. I waited a minute while one of the Mexican women asked about their next bus. The girl asked her name but it was already obvious that she was put off, probably frightened, at having to speak to a foreigner. She asked the woman’s name and immediately said she had no reservation.  I have to admit I couldn’t understand the name either. She then asked their booking number. I translated; my Mexican friend nodded and went to get it from her friend. I followed her. They had the number. I thought it would be all right. I felt like death so I left them to their fates and climbed into a taxi, which for 50US took me to S´s house.

The attitude of “You don’t speak my language, therefore, I am going to block you,” is fairly universal. It happen to me at the rail station in Xining, China; I was lucky to have a Chinese speaker with me. But the woman overcharged for my ticket, a statement of her opposition to my foreignness.

Once out of the taxi, I discovered that S’s gate had a combination. I didn’t know the combination and my phone was only good for WhatsApp and email. I had no New Zealand sim. I looked about, went up the next door neighbor’s drive where I heard dogs yapping. There was a car in the driveway beyond the gate. I thought, “Maybe this is the extra car. I hope not but those dogs, if I ring the bell, are going to yap until Hell grows tulips.” I pressed the bell firmly. The dogs, there were two, went into small dog hysteria.  Sure enough a woman wearing a violent pink bathrobe and a scowl and came down the drive. At first she was unwilling to help even when I explained my predicament. There is evidently a strong, automatic distrust of strangers in New Zealand. I stood there looking friendly and impeccably respectable with my bright red Tumi suitcase next to me. After I explained a second time making it clear via body language that I was not going away, she gave in, called S, and transmitted the combination.

I let myself in after carrying the red case since the driveway was gravel and the little wheels wouldn’t work. Inside I immediately made myself ginger tea from a root I was in my pocket and a meal out of what I was carrying with me. The house was cold but there was a warm welcome from a small, boney, elderly, black and white cat who delivered short, aphoristic lectures and was delighted to see me. S arrived, turned on the heat and, well beyond the call of duty, carried my suitcase upstairs. The house is airy, beautiful with bare, black lacquered floors and huge windows looking onto Sumner beach and its surfers. It is full of S’s individual art collection. I drank cups of ginger tea as we talked.

She was going out to dinner. I went upstairs, got into bed accompanied by the elderly black and white cat still delivering lectures, and went to sleep.

In the morning I found L and S had arranged everything. I had a flight to Auckland. Sue delivered me to the airport. I was fine until we had been in the air about 15 minutes when my sinuses exploded. I was in pain and my ears, never the best part of my anatomy, blocked. I grit my molars. Luckily it was only an hour and twenty minute flight. K and L took me to their warm home where I collapsed, drank ginger tea, collapsed and continued with that routine for two days.

My sinuses had improved on the third day and L made an appointment for me at a clinic where a doctor from Malaga, Spain prescribed prednisone and a mild antibiotic. With this I took an elixir prescribed by A. You boil a three-fingered pinch of the leaves in a mug and a half of water for an hour and drink it twice a day. A had said it tasted foul. It was bitter but not bad; in 48 hours it had done the trick.  I was coughing up stuff. The prednisone is like taking speed and a bit scary but it also worked well in union with the antibiotic.

At the end of four days of this treatment and sleeping after breakfast and after lunch I began to have energy so I went to the gym, which gave me more energy with which I walked, one day, to the zoo. It was about 11 kilometers.

The Auckland zoo is an excellent zoo, although the walk is along very busy roads. The animals are housed in big natural settings. A lion on a hill looked about him while his buddies lay on their backs, paws in the air, in the sun. A serval cat in an enclosure full of trees and ferns with superbly striped ears provokingly lay with his back to his audience. You knew he knew he had an audience, his ears twitched and turned.

The New Zealand section is wonderful for its birds and lizards. There were whios, a startlingly blue duck, quacking and being gregarious in the fubsy way of ducks. A kia with greenish, gold feathers seemed attentive, looking over its tightly curved beak. Even more interested were kias, a burrowing parrot, bright green, bright eyed, full of ‘satiable curiosity, and wise cracks. I could not see the kiwis in their nocturnal enclosure. I was glad I had seen the one by the side of the road when driving up north around A’s house. I took a taxi home, having done my 11 km getting to the zoo.

Otherwise I did nothing but lunch at the Blue Breeze on Tuatua clams, big juicy clams cooked in an excellent Thai influenced sauce, luscious dim sum, heavenly fried noodles, lamb curry and salmon salad. All of which worked because by June 30th I felt ready to go on to French Polynesia.

Although this blog is too long, I want to do a quick assessment of what I have learned about living with my newly old body.

  1. I have learned to STOP. My reflex is to go on and that’s wrong. STOP is right.
  2. Sleep. Those naps after breakfast and lunch worked. They meant I healed. I never take naps because “old people” take naps. Welcome to being and “old person,” Karen
  3. Go see a doctor.  I have always done that.

I hope this knowledge will help me continue to travel.

So when June 29th arrived, I was hale, hearty and ready to leave for Tahiti.

2019, BLOG XI: Auckland, New Zealand

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L, bless her, met me at the airport. The first flight, coming in close to midnight, was relatively short from Tokyo to Beijing. A modern version of Dante’s Inferno, with an entirely female cast, the Duty Free in Beijing was, in lurid half light, a scene of hysterical anguish with women clutching jars, perfume bottles and waving credit cards as the shop was about to close. The second flight was 11 hours to Auckland. Air China does not believe in providing much oxygen to dilute its recycled germs even in business class. When I stumbled out of customs my sinuses felt as though they had been immersed in Thai chili sauce for those hours but over the next few days at K and L’s they seemed to quiet down. This is despite Dr. F’s many pills. Going to the gym helped.

One day L and I went downtown to Queens Street to look at black pearls, since I am going on to Tahiti. Every shop was Chinese staffed and I would suppose Chinese owned. It was an education. At one store the owner, when I showed interest in an opera length strand, started at over 17,000 NZ and came down in less than five minutes to 7,000 NZ.  This does not inspire confidence; it inspires terror.

It was an education and the owner of the Gallery Pacific, which had no black pearls but wonderful nephrite carvings and small statues in bone, wood and bronze, educated us further. He told us that in Tahiti the Chinese dredge freshwater ponds, seed them with oysters and then dye the pearls they harvest from these man made puddles. The Chinese are extraordinary at dying things. If I buy anything jade from the Jade Market in HK, I always presume it is dyed. No one else knows how to dye jade successfully but the Chinese.

The nephrite carvings at the Gallery Pacific are much more skillful than any others available in Auckland. Also he has artists who produce quirky, sometimes funny, sometimes haunted two-inch high statues of men and beasts.

The racial mix of downtown Auckland is exhilarating, heavily Asian, of course, but a mix that Europeans or Americans are not used to because of the addition of the South Pacific islands—Maori, Polynesian, Samoan, Fijian and on it hopes from island to island across the expanse of the ocean. These are faces that are completely unfamiliar to most westerners. I love walking among their unknown colors and features. I am thrilled to the core to come up behind two squarely shouldered young men and realize that they are speaking a Maori dialect.

The next day the three of us went out on L and K’s boat. We went not at all far from Auckland harbor—the skyline was behind us—to anchor in a bay, not more than a half an hour out. There were two rather nondescript modern houses at the top of the ridge but otherwise there were just outcroppings of yellow rock below overhanging trees as we were rocked by the passage of other boats. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon with L’s excellent feta and spinach pie.

That night I used their new hot tub cut from cedar which perfumes the air around you as you lie in the water looking up at palms or across at the small lemon tree pendant with heavy ovals of bumpy yellow fruit. Above a few stars can be glimpsed despite the ambient light of the city.

I had promised myself a return to the War Memorial Museum which houses exhibits about the white history of New Zealand, grim in its deprivations, and the most magnificent Maori art I have seen anywhere. The “meeting house”, the war canoe, the tiki entrance arch, the New Guinea and New Ireland masks are viscerally thrilling. Unfortunately the Madonna and Child carved by a recently baptized Maori two hundred years ago was on loan to a museum in London. It is not “beautiful” but it is vigorous. The pastor refused to accept it as a gift.

In the morning L and I left with a little roar and a long purr in her black, 1992 Saab, low slung convertible. We drove to Muriwai where far below us were surfers and a swath of black sand beach. A core of rock, flat on top, towered to the right. We walked on a narrow path with scrub trees beside it a fantail following us companionably for a while fluttering and spreading, scissoring its tail from tree to tree. It has a white clerical collar, a belly and breast of a color similar to the American robin and a fan for a tail. Looking down I could see the hummocks of the gannet nesting grounds. Beyond was a shorter outcropping of rock, flat as a table on top, on which two men were fishing in very dangerous conditions.  A good wave would have wiped them off into the sea like a hand sweeping crumbs from a table.

Further right from that short rock is a stretch of black beach. You can see the rip tides that form a line like a zipper from beach into sea.

We stopped for lunch at Wellsford at the sort of cheerful neighborhood restaurant where waitresses serve big portions followed by lots of coffee.

In Kawakawa we stopped to see and use the Hundertwasser Toilets on Gilles Street. They were designed by the Austrian artist, a recluse, who came to Kawakawa to live in 1975. It was completed before his death in 2000 at the age of 71 and is as eccentric as its creator. A tree sprouts through a hole in the corridor ceiling. Grass that was uprooted for the construction continues to happily thrive on its roof. Sculptures, ceramic tiles, discarded bottles and bricks from a former bank have all been incorporated into it. It is a huge amount of fun. It reminded me in its whimsy and use of the broken and rejected of the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia in Los Angeles. The outside pillars resemble children’s wooden beads, although much more irregular, with their brilliant primary colors. It is a great place.  Busloads of tourist come but L and I had it to ourselves.

We then continued on our drive to A’s at Totara North, a long drive through rolling hills with copses of trees in their dimples, some stands of planted timber, cows, cows and sheep, sheep. It is an occasionally three-lane road, which is most of the time a two-lane road, frequently winding and definitely dangerous. There are warnings about crash areas and about speeds on curves.

An anomaly of the New Zealand countryside is that it frequently looks like the English countryside—rolling hills and dells full of most un-English vegetation, tree ferns, for instance. It is not England also because it is Big Sky country with huge, goose down billows of cumulus. There is as well something un-Englishly edgy about those hills.  They are a little aggressive, too intense.

I have known L since she was 8 and I was about 27. Her family lived across the courtyard from me at 319 St. John’s Place in Brooklyn. We became and stayed friends, although we have not seen each other for many years at a time. When she lived in Bella Coola, British Columbia, living in the dorm of a salmon-canning factory, I was teaching at the University of Idaho, Moscow. At her suggestion I drove up for a visit.

It was an epic journey in my little red Honda hatchback, which I drove back and forth across the U.S. 10 times in 6 years. I drove up into Canada, then over to the coast to follow 97 to Williams Lake where, as instructed, I made a left onto a road that turned, within a mile, to dirt and stayed dirt. I drove all day with mountains flanking me, with a cattle herd surrounding me until I honked at them, stopping at and providing entertainment at a school just by my unexpected appearance. There were no signs. As the day progressed I became more and more nervous. I was, apparently the only person on this road. When I was going up a rise two young Native Americans in a flatbed Ford came toward me. I braked and honked. Leaning out my window I asked, “How far is it to Bella Coola?”

“We don’t think like that,” the young couple replied grinning. “You go up this rise, then down a bit. Then there is a big rise and you come down and down from that.  When you are down you are in Bella Coola.”

The down and down was on a gravel and dirt road that serpented its descent on the mountain edge. I hugged the cliff wall as eighteen-wheelers charged up past me snorting like wild boar.

When I arrived in Bella Coola, L was waiting for me. As I remember I got out of my little red car and gave her the following curse.  “I hope when you are almost 50 someone gets you to do a day’s driving like this.”

Bella Coola is on a fjord.  It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to.

When, in their sixties, L and K finally married I came to New Zealand for the first time. Both of them were in the film industry in New Zealand. K was a grip. L still is in the industry and has won awards for her work as a producer.

My other connection to L is through travel.  She is a thoroughly intrepid traveler. Once she hired on as a cook on a yacht with the understanding that she could leave, instantly whenever she wanted to. They came down the U.S. coast and then along the coast of Mexico. Somewhere along the shore of Central America L saw some people on an island, told the owner she was leaving them, bundled her clothes up and swam to the island.  She spent months living with the islanders until they returned to the mainland. She left them shortly after than to go to Belize and design shoes.  She was one of my original traveler role models.

I met A, who is unforgettable, at the wedding. She’s about as unique a personality as one is likely to find, gifted with her hands and her heart—part tomboy, part shaman, seasoned by some Maori in the blood. She worked as grip coordinator on Lord of the Rings. She was the first woman grip in New Zealand

We had a glimpse of a harbor before we turned into A’s. Her house is a huge, but plain, villa, the New Zealand name for a wooden, colonial house, pre 1910, surrounded by trees. There are six rooms plus a long kitchen opening onto a verandah lacy with Victorian gingerbread, fretwork, hung with small, mirrored, disco balls and elaborate spider webs. There is also a bathroom, its window propped open so that Mr. Black, A’s cat, can enter and exit at his convenience.

The rooms are large with twelve-foot ceilings. The man who built it around 1900 was a cabinetmaker; everything fits. The ceiling is paneled. The entire house is made from one tree. It is up on posts. The windows, like the windows in my Brooklyn house, have rippled glass because it was poured, not rolled. There are two fireplaces, wood burning, surround by tiles, in one room yellow-orange chrysanthemums with fern leaves in the corners. The other has unidentifiable bluey-green flowers.

The front door has panels of yellow to mustard stained glass in a pattern of raised daisies. There is a worn front porch with Victorian gingerbread. There are palms in her front yard and a tree covered with purple blooms. I felt it an honor to be asked to stay at A’s house.

Starting out in A’s car, we drove through mostly rolling but occasionally craggy country and stopped at a supermarket at Coopers Beach. We had coffee, and a ginger cookie, at a little coffee bar next door. There is a Vermont feeling about this area, of people having difficulty getting the two ends to meet.

We went on to Mangonui, a harbor with a simple fried fish restaurant where you eat outside. I had oysters. A and L had fried fish. We were greeted at the door by a grey shag, a largish cormorant, who talked a lot, getting out of the door way reluctantly. Sparrows hung out inside the open air eating area, the gulls, small ones, outside. The sparrows also were not at all afraid. The oysters were delicious.

While we ate we watched men fishing on the pier. One pulled in a big fish, over two feet long, a kingi fish, or king fish. It did not come in easily; it was heavy. When we walked over to the pier it was slowly, painfully drowning in air. Why not finish it with a strong blow? A two year old watching its death pushed on its eye causing it to convulse–a gesture of both curiosity and unconscious cruelty.

We drove on to Taupo Bay with a gorgeous bulge of rock on one side. There were twenty or so youngsters out in the surf paddling and coasting small waves. It is a dramatic coast.

Driving back to Auckland from A’s on roads along the coast we suddenly had to slow and stop for a funeral at the roadside. At first L thought it was a protest as it was largely Maori with lots of children. The cemetery was by the side of the road. A truck had hit a ten year old. The crowd was both sorrowful and angry. A Maori warden with embroidery on her hat slowed us and then waved us through. It was terrible to see those clenched, dark faces in the green graveyard—grey tombstones against green, black clothes against green.

We had a late lunch at Waipu Cove at the Cove Café, another outdoor restaurant, but not as successful as at Mangonui. I had adequate venison but I have had more tasty and tender in New York. L had some good tuna and luscious squid. The restaurant was right off the beach, full of people of all ages, with a tiny playground next to it with a slide.

All day we drove in and out of rain accompanied by rainbows.

 

2019, BLOG X: A Castle and a Samurai

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I was excited because the site I was headed for was something I had planned to see from the moment I began thinking of my trip to Japan. I started at the front desk. The receptionist gave me instructions to the JR Motomachi station. There I asked the people behind the counter by the turnstile who helped me buy the right ticket. I had a big bill and discovered that the machine gives paper as well as coin change. The people in charge of Barcelona’s Metro should learn about this. I was going to have to change trains. I explained my problem to a couple on the platform that were obviously on a day’s outing. They too were going Himeji. We traveled together largely speechless.

When you exit the station the castle is directly ahead of you and just becomes more and more stunning as you approach. As I walked a passing man told me of a covered street with shops I could take. When I turned this down he was amused.

I noted restaurant possibilities as I walked in the hot sun. The castle is White Heron Castle with grey blue roofs that rise up in a layering of wings. You can come in on the side at Hishi-no-mon Gate and walk the long connecting corridors coming out to walk through a series of gates. The walls do not rise up straight but in a fan curve. Once in the main keep you climb stair after stair. Huge trees supplied the timbers of the rafters that have a ponderous presence in the soft gloom of the small windowed spaces on each floor. One climbs looking down through arrow slits that became musket slits, at the pitch of the roofs below. The lifted eaves are decorated with toothy fish with flashy tails.

It is beautiful from every possible angle outside. Inside it is magnificent but has that grim quality that all castles, of whatever nationality, have. Coming down the stairs was worse than going up but there were plenty of handrails and lots of equally scared, elderly Japanese with me.

Walking back to the station I found the restaurant I’d picked was closed. I went to a family sushi place, very nice. They were horrified when I wanted to stir extra wasabi into my soy sauce. Apparently that practice, accepted in the US and, I believe, Europe is, in Japan, a solecism the equivalent of twirling up your spaghetti in a soupspoon.

On the train home, I discovered my morning’s companions also on their way back, eating chicken and drinking beer. I got out at the intermediate station for a train to Kobe and when I changed boarded a car labeled “Women Only”. This was a total surprise. I had no idea such a thing existed in Japan. There was a pleasant air of relaxation in this car.

In Kobe I found the shop of the samurai with no difficulty. The woman wasn’t there, but the girl called her. The price was still 70,000Y, about 640US. I asked the girl to call the woman again to ask if she would take 60,000Y in cash. I wasn’t sure I could get that sum, not knowing the withdrawal limit. She said, “Yes.” I headed for the nearest Family Mart to withdraw 60,000Y. We packed him in a box surrounded by bubble wrap and wads of newspaper.  He is elderly, as least my age, and it is a long journey.

The next day I took the train to the Hyogo Prefecture Museum, the one with the frog on the roof. They have two floors of their permanent collection. It is interesting if not thrilling. There are a lot of Japanese painters imitating various Western painters and styles. The most interesting, I thought, was Oiwa who is a surrealist. In one painting a ship cuts across layers of green leaves of different varieties and green stripes in two hues, another is of the outside of a butcher’s in a meat packing district with a conveyor belt from whose hooks hang sides of meat in the shape of various countries—France, Italy and yes, Japan.

Among the European works were some terrifying Katha Kollwitz drawings. The Mothers shows a tight, compressed huddle of women their arms around each other, their faces desperate with fear and determination. A wary looking boy gazes out from under their arms.

They had a special exhibit of Impressionists and later painters collected by a particleboard manufacturer. I think one sees one’s own culture a little differently when it is exhibited in another culture. It focuses it in a different way. I found myself thinking how “sweet” the Impressionists often are. There were Degas and Renoirs, two Monet’s. A Van Gogh of peasants trudging home at sunset with heavy loads of wood through the snow was less sweet.

I regretted leaving Kobe and the Okura hotel that I enjoyed despite an argument with the chambermaid I never met.  I would put my toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss in a glass in the bathroom. When I came home at the end of the day all my dental accessories had been removed from the glass and lined up neatly on a clean washcloth. We did this every day. According to her rules the use of the bathroom glass for your dental implements was not acceptable.

I am not against rules. They are an important part of life and art. They make social life possible in civilization and they enhance art. Social contact can be difficult between widely varying personalities and rules make easy bridges. I think the rules have made art immensely inventive in Japan. In poetry you have 17 syllables to say what you want. You are given a small box and have to figure out how to expand your creativity within those bounds. Art is to the Japanese about finding freedom in a confined space.

Quite the opposite is true in the US where it is often believed that art is doing whatever you want. This may be as self-indulgent as it is self-defeating. The mastery, even the partial mastery, of rhyme and meter often makes for better poems. Form increases creativity. I suspect Thomas Hardy was right when he thought Walt Whitman didn’t write in rhyme and meter because he couldn’t master the techniques or was too impatient to learn them. Making a posture of superiority out of an inability is a bit of a con trick. Not that he didn’t write interesting poems. I’m just suspicious of all that bombast about creating something totally new.

From toothpaste to poetry in one paragraph. It does seem to me that the Japanese are rule bound in a way that makes them unhappy. I often found myself feeling sorry for the people I met.

I was up and out of the Okura Kobe long before breakfast to catch a 7:05 flight to Tokyo and my old hotel where I couldn’t get into my room until 3 pm. I had the hotel breakfast and met an American from Texas who was with an interesting young American, interesting because one sensed he knew his way around. This is unusual.

I had planned to use this time parenthesis to go to the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints. It took half the neighborhood, none of whom had heard of it, to get me close. But they did get me close. I looked down a hill and saw a sign I could not read but which, heaven knows why, looked right. As I started down, a man coming up was queried by one of the women helping me.  He said, “Yes,” in English. I waved goodbye to everyone and went down the hill.

Just as I entered the shop another woman came zipping around the corner, breathless on her bicycle, to tell me it was the right place.

There was one young man in the shop, whose walls were lined with prints, mostly by Hokusai. I knew what I wanted; prices were reasonable. The problem was not buying more. That was difficult. I managed to buy only two.

I went back to the hotel on the subway, had a late sushi lunch and went to bed early to make up for rising at 5 am.

The next day, my last, I realized the Texans, there were five of them, were a church group. The young man who knew his way about was a translator of the Bible from Hebrew. I asked if he knew Greek but his answer was equivocal.

I went to the Nezu Museum, a treat in itself. It was raining, as it had been the first time I went there unsuccessfully. I found the displays disappointing, not that they weren’t very fine, but they were of Chinese art showing the basis of Japanese painting and sculpture. A scroll painting of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy, was beautiful in its serene spirituality. There was also a scroll of sparrows, vigorous in its display of these cheery, gregarious, small singers.

I ate at the museum restaurant, crowded, limited in selection but with pleasant views into the rainy, dripping woods.

Going home I became muddled as I changed lines. A young couple rescued me, steered me to the right platform, waited until my train came, and as it pulled out we waved to each other. I thought, “This is, indeed, my goodbye to Japan.”

I dutifully washed and ironed, packing as much as I could.

The next day, after emails from Amsterdam and Japan, Madoka and I finally met. She is as beautiful as Moon said she was. We both had worked on human rights in Burma. We talked about the different ways one can lead one’s life. Madoka is a yoga practitioner and has become interested in Zen as a way of living. We had coffee, before she helped me find an open post office; it was Saturday. The cards went off and I mailed my Japanese guidebook back to Carrer Hospital.

2019, BLOG IX: Kobe, a frog and a Samurai

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Breakfast at the Hotel Okura-Kobe was even more expensive than at the Piazza in Nara but it was a better breakfast with a handmade omelet and dainty little pastries in all kinds of flavors that you can eat while looking out at the sea. Also it was a long walk into town to a place that served breakfast. I went, on a full stomach, to the Maritime Museum, not as nice as the Barcelona Maritime Museum, although the building is a treat, as are many of the museums in Kobe, indeed, in Japan. It faces the sea and wears on its roof a set of white sails of steel netting. The signage is not good if you are an English speaker, very little is explained in English. A Japanese man talked to me on and off as I wended my way through the displays. I was disappointed because I wanted to know about those Emperors and Shoguns who were interested in Japan’s naval power.

Walking out of the Museum, along the broad promenade facing the harbor, passing a vigorous, leaping fish statue, something began to nudge for my attention, something subtle and familiar. I paid attention to it and realized it was the smell of the sea, an odor that means home to me. It was part of my life in NYC, in Barcelona and now, here in Kobe it was telling me I was here; it was here. I liked Kobe I think because of this and because like Barcelona it has mountains at its back and the sea before it.

I walked through Chinatown, a continuous string of restaurants, many offering dim sum. I tried to locate the Kobe City Museum but could not find it, although I asked and asked. A middle-aged Japanese couple joined me in my search. I even had it written out in Japanese. When at long last we found it in a fashionable part of town where all the international clones are—Gucci, Kate Spade, Dior—we found it was closed for renovation. The other place I wanted to get to was up hill in Kitano-Cho where foreigners in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s built houses. This is the time period when Kobe opened its port to the world.

The couple was still with me as we headed up hill through endless covered markets that finally ended. At that point things became less cluttered, buildings were older, shorter, more eccentric. I suggested to the couple who were admiring my walking ability, I did over 10 kilometers that day, that I buy them lunch. But they had to go back down to catch a train to somewhere around Hamomatsu. They had a passing man take out picture together. We shook hands. I headed up hill going in and out of shops—one was Russian with babushka dolls and some very good looking oversized blue and white cups.

I was looking for a kind of Japanese doll made in the late 19th or early 20th century. I had seen some contemporary ones in Kyoto but I wanted an old one. These are not children’s toys but art objects. The quality of the face, the expression, is of particular importance.

Years ago I gave one, a flute player, to friends as a wedding present. He had the most beautiful, wistful expression on his gentle face. You knew that his life had been hard but that his playing was exquisitely emotional. Because they were artists, I thought they would understand him. But they put him in the sun and the next time I saw him was bleached out of existence. A lesson. Don’t give people things you treasure and expect them to treasure them. That is egotistical. But ever since I have had a little hole in my heart the size of the flute player.

I was in need of lunch and found a very modern restaurant where Kobe beef was cooked before you and served over fat bean sprouts with rice, soup and a miniscule dish of pickles.  There was an elderly couple across the way with their daughter laughing over their lunch. When I got up to leave, the daughter on the way to the toilet, stopped and asked where I was from. Only then did I realize that she was so drunk she could barely speak or keep her eyes open. There is a different attitude toward public intoxication in Japan-

As it began to rain I went on up hill and saw two houses.  One was built by an Englishman, very Victorian, full of coal fireplaces lined with English tiles, a piano in the living room and a balcony cum veranda with, what must have been at the time, a superb view down to the port. Now, of course, it is totally obstructed by buildings

The second, Weathercock House, was built by a German, G. Thomas, with red brick walls, and the eponymous weathercock on its tower’s steeple. There are Art Nouveau tidbits—curved door levers, stained glass, chandeliers. But there is also a lot of dark wood giving a medieval castle feeling. There are Western bathrooms in each of these houses that must have elicited a sigh of relief from the owners and their guests.

I walked down, looking into shops as I came along into the center of town. I went into a very cluttered, dusty, dark shop, and there, behind some candlesticks and a carved wooden bear was an old head with wrinkled brow, bushy, white eyebrows, tangled grey hair, a disintegrating black hat and broad shoulders covered in armor. I looked more closely–an elderly samurai, about eight inches tall with a chipped grin and an expression that suggested canniness.

The price was high, close to 800US, but he was obviously early 20th century and possibly 19th. I walked home to the hotel in turmoil.

The next day I talked to the young Japanese woman sitting next to me at breakfast. Our conversation obviously made her happy. I then went to the reception desk for instructions.  They are not as good as the women at my Tokyo hotel or in Kyoto but by asking my way I arrived at the Motomachi Station, got on the right train and out at the right stop. Now I had no idea where I was in relationship to my goal the Hyogo Prefecture Museum. I asked and followed those directions. I asked again and received more interesting directions. “One light, left. Second light, right. Frog on roof.  That is building.” Those worked very well.

There was a frog on the roof with one green leg over its edge. I was enchanted by him and the building designed by Tadao Ando that incorporates green and the sea into its structure. It is a great piece of work. You walk along a passage arched with tree branches, pass through a rectangular opening, here three people were doing tai chi, and come out at a channel of the sea with the building behind you. This is a brilliant museum particularly in comparison to that mediocrity erected at enormous expense between 53rd and 54th Street in Manhattan.

However, it was closed because it was Monday. The receptionist should have caught that. I started back to the train station. One of the tai-chi-ers ran after me to tell me to come the next day.

I asked a woman in the station which track to take to get back to Motomachi. We got into conversation about Barcelona, why I liked Kobe, about her desire to travel.

I came into Motomachi and tried to find the samurai’s store. I could find the area but not the store. I walked up hill. Finally I went into a store and asked for Tor Street. The clerk was mystified but the manager said, “One light,” and pointed. I went over to Tor and there it was as I walked down. The man wasn’t there but there was a woman. I had thought I would ask for a smaller one. I looked up and there were, on a high shelf, a number of small dolls, not as old but in much better shape. Why didn’t the man show me these? The woman took them down but only one had real expression in his face. Then I asked to see the samurai who, although I looked about, I could not find. He was there. Seeing him again, I knew I didn’t want a small one. The man the day before had given me a price of 80,000Y. She gave me the price on the price tag, 88,000 but came down quickly to 70,000Y.

I said I would think about it and return tomorrow.  She said she would think about a further discount. I floated back to the hotel. I was going the next day to see something I had planned for, something I did not want to leave Japan without seeing.