Kamakura’s temples and Tokyo’s many faces…

(Top: Moss covered steps lead to Kamakura’s Sugimoto-Dera temple; Bottom: Street scene in front of Tokyo’s Sensoji Shrine)

First – an apology. For those readers hoping for an orderly place-by-place blog, that is not happening. I like to take the time to mull over my travels and let them age like a good red wine before attempting to write about them. Today’s mulling has lead me back to Japan.

Kamakura resides on Japan’s Pacific coast, a short train ride south of Tokyo. It is famed for its myriad temples, peaceful walking trails and for the Daibutsu – the Great Buddha (completed in 1252) that smiles benevolently from the courtyard of Kotoko-in Buddhist temple (incidentally this is the Buddha written about by Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim)

(Top:Daibutsu Buddha sitting 13.35 m tall; Middle: Buddha’s hands – together like this signifies meditation; Common room complete with traditional heating coals sliding panels at the lovely Kamakura guesthouse)

Kamakura boasts an excellent bus system that will transport you to any destination – but wear your walking shoes because to reach the temples you must climb endless stairs and navigate stone walkways. (Let me add that yours truly did become lost several times navigating this bus system and required rescuing by Kamakura’s excellent citizens. This lead to lovely conversations about raising teenagers and one elderly lady who told me, her eyes radiating great sympathy, that she has been alone in a strange land before too).

Each temple nurtures a beautiful garden where, for a small fee, you can linger and ponder spiritual questions. The garden most talked about is the serene, towering bamboo forest at Hokoku-ji temple.

(Both photos above: scenes from Hokoku-ji temple bamboo forest)

(Top: Entrance to Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu Shrine, Kamakura; Middle: Traditional offerings of saki; Bottom: Entrance to another temple)

The only regret I have about Kamakura is in not spending more time there. It is a lovely city with a lot of character and my stay was made even more special by the Kamakura Guesthouse. This guesthouse affords tourists the chance to experience a Japan that is disappearing – one that includes sliding screens, creaking wooden floors and a traditional heating system of coals burned under a pipe that leads to the upper floors. I had the best night’s sleep sandwiched between the thick mat and heavy duvet – in a room shared with seven other guests. Even Japanese tourists come to experience this place. In the evening, seated on mats around the low wood table, a young french tourist, a Japanese tourist and I held an animated conversation using a combination of butchered French (me), questionable English (French tourist), google translate, and various crazy hand motions in which we may or may not have ascertained that he had just graduated as a French pastry chef, she (Japanese tourist) was a student and I am not a great cook. (He also shared a recipe for pastry which I have forgotten – it’s ok, I was never going to make it anyway 😊).

(Top: Kamakura guesthouse send-off; Bottom: Rickshaw driver training. The teachers appeared to include monks and there was a lot of bowing at each stoplight)

In the morning, with the fanfare of a departing dignitary, the staff and other residents of Kamakura guesthouse crowded around to wish me joy on the rest of my trip and wave me good-bye. I managed to find the correct bus to take me to the direct train to Tokyo station where I discovered that Tokyo employs guides, dressed in bright red shirts and equipped with iPads , to help addled tourists at their main train and subway stations. I could have kissed them but thought it might seem odd so did not.

(Top: Subway guide sign; Middle: Sensoji Shrine at night; Middle: View from Ueno Park toward Tokyo cityscape; Bottom: Wall of humanity waiting to cross on one side of the famed Shibuya crossing)

I thought that Tokyo, due to its sheer size would be more intimidating. However, I found a city that is easily navigable and is really several cities in one. Tokyo has many faces – Akihabara with its anime and gadgets, Shibuya with its youth culture, Ginza with expensive shopping and Kabuki theatre – and many more. I stayed in the Asakusa area, known for its traditional culture, the Sensoji Shrine and the walking streets where you can spot Geishas and where street stalls sell every manner of Japanese cuisine.

Tokyo is a city of extreme contrasts. Strolling in the Imperial Garden it is easy to forget that they open out onto traffic-laden streets lined with skyscrapers. After spending a delightful hour watching Kabuki theatre the mind has to readjust to the high end boutiques that greet you outside. The oasis of Ueno Park with its zoo, museums, temples and tree and blossom lined trails, is framed by high rises.

(Top: Courtyard in front of Sensoji temple with Skytree behind; Middle: Poster for traditional artist exhibit at Ueno Park Museum; Middle: brightly clad Buddhist statuary; Middle: Imperial garden; Bottom: Kabuki Theatre, Ginza district, Tokyo)

I am not a big city person but, against my will, I loved Tokyo. It’s extremes lend personality and it has an energy that lures you in with promises of fresh discoveries at every corner – aided by a 24 hour subway pass which for 600 yen will take you anywhere your heart desires.

Of course, no trip to Tokyo is complete without a visit to the Hedgehog Cafe and more plum blossoms lining yet another temple walkway.

As a Canadian in Japan, I must add that it is interesting travelling in a country that is known for its extreme natural disasters, from tsunamis and earthquakes to typhoons. This proclivity for extreme danger does sit in the back of your mind as you meander around – and is apparently something on the mind of Japanese citizens. While deep underground in the Tokyo subway, an older gentleman engaged me in conversation (a rarity in Tokyo as on the subways most people are quiet). In fluent English he ascertained where I was from and how I liked Tokyo and revealed that he was an engineer nearing retirement. “Have you been up the Tokyo Skytree?” he asked. “No,” I replied. He nodded sagely. “I don’t know why we build these tall buildings here,” he said. “We are due for a big earthquake. It’s coming.” Hmmm…

I’m sure that he is right, but would this stop me travelling to Japan – sincerely and resoundingly, no. Kamakura, Tokyo , plum blossoms, temples, serenity, skyscrapers, peaceful gardens, rickshaw trainee drivers, natural disasters – these are some of the many and varied faces of Japan. Minus the disasters, I am honoured to have experienced them.

(Note: Download the free Safety Tips app before you go. This app is directed toward tourists to Japan and provides alerts and evacuation flowcharts)

lessons from history…but have we learned…

(Top: Peace Park in Nagasaki, Japan; Middle: Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima, Japan; Bottom: Killing Tree amid the Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

I have stated previously that I travel in order to learn. And that holds true. But now that I have toured Nagasaki and Hiroshima and wept through the Phnom Penh memorial sites, the question that rattles continuously through my brain is, “How??” How do we, throughout history, and in my lifetime and in yours, even now, continue to prance and threaten, drop bombs, clash swords, shoot, escalate tensions, renege on peace agreements, torture, and kill each other?

The message from Nagasaki is clear. This small city by the sea with its long history of trading with foreigners even when the remainder of Japan remained closed, with its friendly people and homes built up onto the surrounding hillsides, holds the awful distinction of victim of the second and last atomic bomb used in warfare. It’s streets are littered with memorials which all end with the same sentence – “Nagasaki city installs this plaque as a prayer for the repose of the souls of the people who died here and to ensure that this tragedy is never repeated.”

(Top: A memorial plaque in Nagasaki; Middle: Banner depicting the bomb’s destruction; Middle: Clock stopped at the minute of the atomic detonation on August 9, 1945; Bottom: Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall – the column of files hold the names of all the victims)

(Top: Nagasaki city sprawls up the surrounding hills; Middle: Ancient camphor trees have grown back after the blast: Bottom: A city of small gardens everywhere with the scent of oranges filling the air)

Hiroshima, victim of the first atomic bombing, is also a seaport. It was chosen because it was a military base and, perhaps more importantly, had escaped the U.S. airforce’s previous bombing raids and was therefore considered a good place to test the effects of an atomic bomb. It was also home to 350,000 people.

Now the rhetoric that I was taught in school (and which justified the atomic bombings) was that they hastened the end of the war and ultimately saved Allied lives. However, a careful reading of history reveals that Japan, realizing that the end was near and with Russia threatening their borders, was willing to surrender in May of 1945. Due to the U.S. policy of unconditional surrender and to the U.S. desire to show off their new weapon to the world, Japanese efforts for peace were rejected and the bombs were dropped – the second bomb on Nagasaki merely an unnecessary exclamation mark that claimed approximately 80,000 more lives. It also started the nuclear arms race that overshadowed my earliest memories – a threat to our planet that is once again rearing its ugly head.

(Top: clock depicts number of days since dropping of first atomic bomb and number of days since last atomic bomb test; Bottom: inside Hiroshima’s National Peace Memorial Hall)

As I write this, world powers are threatening to tear up hard-won peace agreements and the spectre of nuclear war again looms. Japan itself has failed to sign the new UN Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty.

But the real questions are: What will we, the people, say? What will we allow? What have we learned?

Cambodia’s memorials to the victims of the Khmer Rouge bring more unanswered questions – for these atrocities were the result of civil war, severe paranoia, extreme nationalism, and faulty ideology. The roots can be argued to lie within colonialism, America’s “secret” war in Cambodia, the 1970 U.S. backed coup that lead to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, communist philosophy, etc, but the result is stark and unmistakeable – millions dead – of starvation, of torture and outright murder. The memorials make you stand in corners and weep, leave you sitting in the shade of trees that remember the cries of countless victims, force you to walk alone and think of parents pleading for the lives of their children. (The memorials literally place benches under trees and instruct you to sit while you listen and read as people become very emotional. There is no talking and no laughing).

(Top: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The former secondary school became the notorious prison S-21 under the Khmer Rouge; Middle: the killing tree where children died; Bottom: the fields where mass graves continue to yield bone fragments)

Any Cambodian I spoke to could relate how the Khmer Rouge seized power on April 17, 1975 and was defeated in January of 1979 when the Vietnamese army battled their way into Phnom Penh. What is harder to discuss and explain is what followed. From 1979-1990 the Khmer Rouge still held power in a small western territory and the UN, by this time possessing full knowledge of their atrocities, gave the Khmer Rouge a seat in its General Assembly and recognized them as the only legitimate representative of Cambodia.

Cambodia today still bears the scars of this legacy – land mines, people still searching for missing family, mental illness resulting from atrocities witnessed and borne. I spoke to people my age who lost parents, siblings, friends – who almost starved, who still wonder what happened. Peace is a fragile thing. It matters who we elect. It matters if we build walls and keep refugees out. It matters if we believe and spread lies.

Three cities – Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Phnom Penh. Each of them asks us to listen. But will we? Each of them says never again – but is that sure?

I ask again – What will we, the people say? What will we allow? What have we learned?

(Top: Riverfront walkway, Phnom Penh; Bottom: Busy intersection downtown, Phnom Penh)

downtime in Kratie, Cambodia…

I arrived in Kratie (bus from Siem Reap to Kratie – 8 hrs – $12.00) without any real knowledge except that it is a good spot to view the rare and endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. I found a sleepy little city with few tourists nestled on the muddy shores of the mighty Mekong River. In short, it proved a great place to rent a bicycle, relax and explore.

I arrived at Le Tonle Guesthouse in Kratie literally dripping sweat after a mere 10 minute walk from the bus station. The polite young man at the desk had the good sense not to mention my beet-red face and matted hair as he asked to see my passport, showed me my room and watched me dive in front of the fan (alas no a/c). Le Tonle, to my delight, turned out to be a training centre for youth from local low-income families, and provides basic clean rooms as well as delicious meals at their restaurant.

(Le Tonle Guesthouse and Restaurant)

After a good nights rest using an old nursing trick to stay cool – take a cold shower and go to bed soaking wet with the fan on – I was ready to explore. But first – a bike. For $1.50 I found myself trundling the streets of Kratie in a pink helmet on a bike complete with little wicker basket.

(Channeling my inner child in Kratie)

Kratie itself didn’t take long to explore. The dusty streets yielded a small fruit/vegetable/meat market and a pagoda. Soon I headed to the riverbank to catch a ferry (think small old wooden boat) to Koh Trong Island. Soon I was headed up Koh Trong’s sandy shores with the 25 other ferry customers (plus a motorbike and several large sacks of rice).

(Ferry to Koh Trong Island)

Koh Trong is structured for cycling – the only other forms of transport on the island are the odd motorbike, ox carts and, of course, legs. I cycled past traditional Khmer homes built on stilts, palm groves, fragrant frangipanis and Buddhist pagodas. Children yelled hello. Then, I took a detour. I had read about Rajabori Villas Resort and their lovely swimming pool and cycled up in all my sweaty pink-helmeted glory to pay the $5.00 to use that pool. Let me tell you – it was bliss.

The only other people poolside that afternoon were a lovely couple from Britain with whom I shared lunch and several hours of great conversation (if you are reading this – thanks again!).

Next day I woke ready to go kayaking and dolphin spotting on the Mekong. I had booked the tour the day before and arrived to find it would be just me, a tuk-tuk driver and a guide. (Hmmm – I guess we tuk-tuk to the kayaks?). Twenty minutes and several questions later I determined this was not, in fact, the kayaking tour but a tour of local sites that included a boat trip on the Mekong To spot dolphins. Sigh! Oh well, life goes on. We did, in fact, spot many dolphins(sorry – no photos but please google them. They are adorable little blunt nosed creatures.) from a boat that legally has to cut its engine and paddle through the dolphin area. As it turned out, it was so hot that kayaking the Mekong that day would probably have been unbearable.

We also visited the Phnom Sambok Pagoda. Many pagodas in Cambodia, it seems, are designed to test the visitor’s stamina in extreme heat. Phnom Sambok and it’s many, many stairs is one such place (my guide also regaled me with a sad story about a child on a bicycle long ago that lost control on the downward journey) but it is beautiful, peaceful and provides a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.

(Top: Approach to Phnom Sambok Pagoda; Bottom: Wise words posted at the pagoda)

My final morning in Kratie, I woke to the now familiar rooster crooning outside my window and a beautiful sunrise colouring the muddy expanse of the Mekong. The enterprising and ever polite and helpful youth at the Le Tonle front desk ensured my bus pickup was on time and waved me a cheerful goodbye. I thank them all for a wonderful stay!

(Rice fields surround Kratie)

two days in Battambang, Cambodia…

(Buddhist monk receives his morning alms donation of food – on the street in Battambang)

After Japan, arriving in Cambodia is a bit like falling down the rabbit hole and arriving at the Hatter’s tea party. Where Japan is order, precision and peaceful meditation, Cambodia leaps at you with chaotic traffic, blaring loudspeakers and all the colour and smells of the tropics.

Following two days in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, I had journeyed by bus to Battambang, a small city in the countries Northwest. The thermometer hovered near 40 C as I checked into my hostel and I just had time for a quick bite, a short walk and a cooling shower before retreating to my air conditioned dorm room for the night.

The next morning began with coffee on the hostel’s rooftop terrace. Already at 7:00 am the air clung thick and hot to the city, and an orchestra of engines, horns and birdsong filled the streets. Below me, in the courtyard of a Buddhist temple, monks clad in bright orange robes performed morning ablutions.

I had arranged for a tuk tuk to pick me up at 8:30 a.m. Promptly at 8:50 it arrived – its driver – the friend of a friend of the smiling young man at the hostel’s front desk – turned out to be the affable Zokor.

Now ladies, when preparing for a day riding around in the back of a tuk tuk, forget about your hair. The wind, dust and clawing heat will conspire to make you look much worse than something the proverbial cat dragged in. So that is how I look while sitting here writing this, but oh how I wish you could have had my day.

Zokor (despite his winning ways, five children and a wife who prefers money to flowers – wouldn’t any mother of five?) did not drive one of the better tuk tuks in this country. Ours was a slowish putt putt through the streets and into the countryside of Battambang, complete with pushing said tuk tuk at one point ( past a waving crowd of well wishers), shopping for a new front tire, and waiting in the comforting shade of a frangipani while the tire was duly changed. This interlude was well spent, however, in answering Zokor’s English vocabulary questions and in asking some Khmer language questions of my own. Language lesson and new tire complete – off we trundled.

The horrors of the Khmer Rouge (1975 – 1979) found Battambang and the ancient temple of Wat Somrong. Mostly women and children were imprisoned and tortured here, and some 10,000 died. A Khmer motto was “If we keep you, it is no gain, if we kill you it is no gain.” Truth held no value, and the lies devalued people until they also were valueless. Today a monument to the dead stands on the temple grounds, its inscriptions dispelling the myth that hatred ever leads to a better world.

(Memorial at Wat Somprong. The stupa is filled with bones from the mass graves unearthed here. The inscription on the panel above reads ” If we keep you it is no gain, if we kill you it is no gain”)

It is wedding season in Cambodia and Khmer wedding music ricocheted off my eardrums at regular intervals as we puttered along through the outskirts of the city visiting various cottage industries. I witnessed the making of kro lan, a staple Cambodian fast food made from sticky rice, coconut milk and beans and sold at roadside stalls.

(Making kro lan. Families rise at 1:00 a.m. to cook the sticky rice, pack the rice, beans and coconut mixture into bamboo and roast it over hot coals and have it ready for sale at dawn)

We also visited women making rice paper wrappers and something called “Cambodian cheese” which is open barrels of rancid fish and salt left to ferment in the heat for one year until it is a grey mass. Truly a health Canada nightmare. I declined a sample therefore cannot report on taste.

The thermometer hit 37 C as we reached Wat Ek Phnom – ruins that predate Angkor Wat, it’s more famous cousin to the south -an adjacent giant stone Buddha and its 10 carved sentries. A toothless older woman and two young boys offered to guide me which consisted of pointing and saying “see.” Cambodia is a country of ever visible poverty and children are everywhere selling trinkets or guiding the way.

I wasn’t going to ride the bamboo train, the remnant of a larger network built by the French, but was persuaded because, as a tourist attraction, it supports a broad local micro economy – and it ended up leading me to Sukre. I clamoured onto the Nori, (a straw mat covered bamboo rack that sits atop two sets of metal railcar wheels) with a fellow traveller from Britain. The staccato engine roared to life, drowning all conversation, and we shot forward, the wind blast-furnace-hot. Judging from the scorched fields that surrounded us, crop burning is done here, a practise where, after harvest, instead of tilling the stalks into the soil, they are burned. It leads to soil nutrient depletion and the need for synthetic fertilizers. Rib jutting white cattle trudge the thirsty landscape.

Our mobile bamboo mat roared 15 min out into the landscape then stopped at a posse of makeshift huts offering drinks and souvenirs. Enter Sukre, proprietor of a hut. She had a great smile and really wanted to sell me something. I chose a tshirt. Sukre was happy but not ecstatic and began to wheedle in a theatrical sing-song that was half cry, half laugh. We looked at each other then burst out laughing and her mother joined us. Then we were hugging and still laughing. The British tourist snapped our picture, no doubt believing we were all nuts. Sukre gave me a final hug and said, “Something else for you Canada?” as I boarded for the return journey.

Our final stop of the day was Temple Banan, a 12th century temple ruin at the top of a daunting (in this heat) vertical climb of 350 stone steps. But first – lunch!

(Top: Temple Banan beckons in the shimmering heat. Middle: the lunch kitchen. Bottom: lake with water supply for lunch kitchen and homes of locals)

Local entrepreneurs have constructed a restaurant shantyville at the foot of the temple and lunch was a tasty affair of noodles and veggies that had me praying that my Dukoral vaccine would do its job. It wasn’t the cooking or the cook (a lovely shy woman) but rather the local water supply that had me worried. (I am glad to report that Dukoral saved the day).

I arrived back at the hostel to find a power blackout (thus no A/C. The heat has the grid under severe stress throughout the country). I grabbed my bathing suit and headed to a local hotel where for $5 you can swim in their pool – heaven! The power returned later while sharing a drink with fellow travellers on the rooftop patio (big happy roar) then failed again (big sad shout) then returned (happy roar again) to give us A/C for the night.

My final day in Battambang, the power was out again, so I wandered. I do not feel afraid in this country and find people friendly. The children holler “Hello!” and the women return my smiles. Wandering lead me to the small but beautifully curated Battambang Provincial Museum stuffed with priceless artifacts from Cambodia’s past (fortunately the Khmer Rouge did not destroy most of the country’s treasures). I also found a wonderful temple complex, Sangke Temple, not listed in any guidebooks. (Battambang is like that. It is not yet a tourist staple and is filled with little discoveries). While browsing there, a young Cambodian man asked me where I’m from. It turned out that he is a teacher who volunteers time teaching the children of poor families who care for the temple grounds. He showed me the little school, and when I asked him if I could give a donation for the school, he declined, saying that he had everything he needed. I asked if any of his students needed supples and only then did he agree to take money to buy something for them.

(Top: Humble and well spoken volunteer teacher. Middle1: Dog at temple gate. Many dogs take refuge in temples. Middle2: Colourful paintings tell a story in a Buddhist Pagoda. Bottom: Spirit house in a yard. To keep ghosts away)

At 2:00 p.m. I boarded the bus for Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat) – 3.5 hours away.

But before we leave Battambang, let me tell you my favourite part. On day one, after visiting the victims memorial, Zokor and I strolled into the grounds of an adjacent school. After the sober brutality of the Khmer Rouge, the children’s voices floated over us like a refreshing breeze. Cries of “Hello!Hello!” filled the air. Some of the children grabbed my hand and pulled me with them (while throwing clouds of talcum powder into the air!). And in the shadow of the memorial, their little smiling faces gave me hope. May we never forget.

A Tribute: To Women Everywhere Pushing The Boundaries Of Solo Travel

Pictured: My Daughters , Both Travellers. Top picture – my older daughter hiking in Jordan. Bottom picture – my younger daughter chats with kids in Kenya

I’m lounging beside the pool at a popular hostel on a sweltering evening in Cambodia. Music blares as people from umpteen different countries talk, laugh, swim and play cards. Many of the women are travelling alone.

It has been a sad few months for female travellers. Just last week a young British backpacker died in undetermined circumstances in Guatemala. In December another British woman was murdered while travelling New Zealand and another two young women died in Morocco. And in Sept. 2018 a female Belgian tourist to Canada was murdered.

When you hear about these stories, please do something for me – don’t blame the victim – don’t shame these young women for daring to venture out to see and experience all the splendours of our planet.

Instead, please ask yourself, “What is broken in my part of this world and how can I fix it so that women everywhere can travel without fear?”

As a woman, I not only deserve safety while in a foreign country. I deserve to lose my way on a deserted country road in Canada and to live to tell the tale. I deserve to walk to my car alone at night without worrying about being raped. Women everywhere deserve an evening out – dinner, wine, dancing, a movie – with the secure knowledge that they will arrive home safely afterwards.

Every taxi ride, every walk across campus, each and every daily commute and morning jog, every time a woman shoulders a backpack or grabs her suitcase, she deserves safety.

Demand it, make it happen, give it. Women are half the sky.

I think of my mom who, when I was 14, travelled for a month by dugout canoe deep into the Amazonian jungle. Mom would have been 42 at the time and she and another woman stayed in village huts and ate simple local foods. She had been really nervous to go but that trip changed her and became one of the highlights of her life. I own a small black and white photo of Mom smiling from that canoe.

I think of my daughters who are both world travellers, world changers. Let us help change this world and make it safer for them.

So today, now, please hold a moment of silence for these young women, so needlessly lost, and for their families whose lives are forever altered.

I close with these words from American poet Audre Lorde:

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”


This is a short post , but very sweet. Do not be fooled, Japan is not about sushi or sashimi or seaweed or seafood. It is not about rice. Forget all of that. Hands down, 100% it is about cake – cake that sends taste buds to nirvana, and so light that it hovers over your fork.

Just one bite on my first morning here and the 13 hour flight (14 hour time change) was all worthwhile.

I have been a noncommittal cake eater all my life but Japan has transformed and for that I am grateful.

Japan, my reality…

(Top photo: Zen garden, Zuiho-in temple, Kyoto. Bottom photo: View from Miyajima island of Hiroshima)

It’s my fourth day in Japan and I am standing on the raised wooden walkway of Kyoto’s Zuiho-in Zen Buddhist temple. An older gentleman, dressed in a traditional black robe, engages me in conversation. I ask if he is a priest. Laughing, he shakes his head and in halting but fluent English explains that he is preparing for a traditional tea ceremony. Then he asks, “Tell me, is the reality of Japan different from the Japan that you anticipated in your head? Are you disappointed by the reality?”

These honest questions have reverberated through my mind ever since. I contemplate them while sitting by the Zaiho-in Zen garden, as I climb the 12,000 steps of the Fushimiinari shrine and pass through its 10,000 red Torii gates, and while searching the faces of elderly shopkeepers and the impassive countenance of the giant bronze Buddha in the great Todai-ji temple in Nara.

(Photo: Giant bronze Buddha, Nara. Originally gold covered, it has seen several reconstructions over the centuries due to disaster.)

But as I wander and listen and touch and see, the questions change, for in reality it is not Japan that is under scrutiny, rather it is my own heart. So here is my attempt at philosophy – as I experience this bountiful feast, these incredible opportunities which compose my life in Japan – what do I bring to the table and what do I take from it? I think I can only answer for here, today, this moment, and this one – now. Today I offer gratitude and joy for everything I have received from Japan.

This is a country bursting with natural beauty. Plum trees blossom and birds twitter (don’t ask me the lyrics – they are singing in Japanese) in immaculately sculpted serene gardens. Ancient trees are nurtured and supported.

(Photo: Tree supports, Imperial Palace garden, Kyoto)

Probably I am most surprised by the devotion of Japanese people. Officially, 4% Shinto, 35% Buddhist, and 2% Christian, the prayers and incense rise here with a devotion I can learn from.

(Photo: prayers offered at Fushiminarii Shinto shrine. Fox revered here as messenger from God)

Yesterday, while visiting Nara’s Todai- ji Temple, I took advantage of the offer of a free personal guided tour. The aptly named Sachiko (“Happiness”) was my smiling guide and together we roamed the grounds – two middle-aged women from different cultures, sharing laughter and learning, together. It felt very real.

(Massive gateway to Todai-ji Temple, Nara. The temple has been rebuilt 3 times after destruction by natural disasters, each time on a smaller scale)

(Japanese school girls who asked me for assistance with a school project)

solo backpacking as a middle-aged woman – the how

Ruins of Ephesus – Turkey, 2016

I am often asked, “How do you plan your trips?” The good new is that in this digital age, planning is much simpler than when (in medieval times) I first began travelling abroad. I have many vivid teen-aged memories of arriving in a foreign city, queuing at the train station tourist information booth to book accommodations, then racing down dark streets trying to find the hostel before it closed for the night. We slept many nights on the train station floor. Looking back, I cherish those adventures. (My travel guide was a book titled “Europe on $20 a Day” and we managed on even less. I ate a lot of bread and jam). But that was travel in a pre-cellphone era, and I am now grateful for the ability to book from the comfort of my phone. Here are my tips for planning a solo trip in an age of apps, plentiful travel videos, and translation tools…

  1. Buy a cellphone that you like and spend time learning what it can do. Comfort with your cellphone is a great start to booking and sustaining a trip. (P.S. I also use my cellphone as my camera and have spent some time familiarizing myself with the camera settings. This saves me from having to carry around a separate apparatus).
  2. Download and experiment with different travel apps. My favourites are Booking.com, Hostelworld, Rome2Rio, and Flightnetwork. Booking.com is actually my #1 favourite for finding accommodations due to several feature: it displays plenty of hotel/hostel options for each location, you can filter results to fit your needs, it is vey simple to change and cancel bookings, and my bookings automatically load into the calendar on my phone. Hostelworld is also a good option. True to its name, listings are mostly hostels, so fewer but more focussed results. The downside to this app is the difficulty in making changes to or cancelling bookings. I often use the Booking.com and Hostelworld apps in tandem – I find a hostel on Hostelworld, then look for it on Booking.com and book it there. Always choose the free cancellation option when booking accommodations. Rome2Rio is a delightful little app that allows you to type in two destinations anywhere on the planet and it will tell you the transportation options between them, number of times those planes/trains/buses/ferries leave each day, and approximate costs. Flightnetwork displays your best flight options all over the world and costs them in Canadian dollars. Perfect!
  3. Join an on-line travel forum. I use Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree. You can login to the forum anytime to read comments and ask questions of other travellers and the in-country moderator. Lots of good advice about the nitty gritty details of any travel itinerary available here.
  4. Plan to use public transportation in the countries you visit. Buses and trains are affordable and relatively stress-free modes of travel. You don’t have to park them, worry about dents, or navigate freeways or shoulder-narrow one-way alleys in foreign countries. Instead, You just sit back, relax, and enjoy the scenery. Many countries/regions offer travel passes that you can purchase ahead and that cover train/bus/ferry transport. Explore these options before you go. (If you do plan to rent a car, explore whether that country requires an International Driver’s License. Some do and some don’t. Know before you go to avoid disappointment)
  5. Passport – All countries require that you have space in your passport for their stamp and that you have at least 6 months (or sometimes more) remaining before your passport expires. Before you book those tickets, check your passport.
  6. Visa – Many countries require that you have a visa to enter. The type of visa will change depending on your planned length of stay and the purpose of your trip. Some countries allow you to apply for and purchase this at the airport. Other countries require that you attain this ahead of travel. This is must-know information. If you do not have a required visa, the airline may not allow you on the flight. Every country now has a website where they outline the process for attaining an entrance visa. For example: Vietnam requires that all Canadian tourists have a visa. To obtain this visa, you must first apply and pay for a permission letter which is emailed to you. This permission letter must be shown at your port of entry into Vietnam where you then pay another fee and receive the visa stamp in your passport.
  7. Purchase comprehensive travel medical insurance. Do not leave home without this because your home country medical coverage will not cover your medical costs abroad. Having said that, for Canadians at least, your Canadian medical coverage card must be current in order for the travel medical insurance to be valid. Some travel rewards credit cards automatically cover you for limited (i.e. 3 weeks) of travel. Also if you are planning a very active, adventurous trip (i.e. including skydiving or scuba diving, etc), you must disclose this to the travel medical insurer. Many insurers will not cover these pursuits but there are companies, like World Nomads, who will.
  8. Vaccinations and Medications – start looking into this early as some vaccines are given as a series over weeks or months. Most major centres now have travel health clinics so book an appointment with a travel specialist. A good source of information is the U.S. Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov) website which lists current outbreaks and endemic risks and advises how best to protect yourself. And please, please, please consider taking Dukoral vaccine to prevent “Traveller’s diarrhea.” When I was growing up, gastrointestinal illness was just an expected nuisance while travelling. Thanks to Dukoral, it no longer has to be.
  9. Register on the travel.gc.ca website (look for Registration of Canadians Abroad). This government website supplies Canadians with up-to-date travel advisories on every country in the world. Registering your trip here informs the government about your presence in a given country and allows them to account for and contact you if there is ever an emergency there. In this beautiful world in which we live, ugly situations can arise. (I pay attention to the news and to travel advisories and removed two countries from my original itinerary for this trip due to political instability. There is always next time). From this site you can also print off wallet-sized cards containing contact info for the Canadian consulate/embassy and emergency services in that country.
  10. Plan an itinerary that is attainable. If your travel goal is to relax and renew, then racing everywhere to see everything accomplishes nothing. Decide the focus of your trip and the must-sees and leave the rest. I promise, you will enjoy the trip more. And please leave time to interact with and learn from the local people. I have found that people love to talk about their country and help you to see it through their eyes. My favourite memories of Turkey are of taking tea with a shop keeper (who also showed me the antiquities he had for illegal sale) and the scrumptious lunch we shared with our hotel owner and his family.
  11. Consider your fitness level. If you want to do a hiking trip abroad, train for this. Don’t just arrive and think that you can traverse that mountain trail without problems if you haven’t exercised in six months. This is a consideration whether you travel with a group or solo. And since a solo traveller has to rely on herself a lot this is a big consideration. So make travel your fitness goal. I have spent the past year and a half recovering from a severe leg crush injury. Intensive physiotherapy and effort have allowed me to fully recover for this trip, but eight months ago I could never have attempted it. Know your limits.
  12. One more little item before I sign off this post. I invite you to please always travel with humility and with a respect for the places you will visit and the people whom you will meet. I truly believe that whenever I travel I am an ambassador for Canada. Whatever I may believe about the politics or practices of a country, I am a visitor and must always find the energy for thoughtful and respectful attitudes. I do not travel expecting or wanting everything to be “like it is at home.” Please view travel as an opportunity to learn from other cultures and to examine your own culture from afar. The results may surprise you.

Happy travels everyone! Thank you for reading and stay tuned for my next post from the road!

solo backpacking as a middle-aged woman – the why…

The Baths of Lady Maria de Padilla – the Alcazar, Seville, Spain – 2016.

I am not an adrenalin junky. You won’t catch me jumping from airplanes or rafting down whitewater. The thrills I seek are found in history, hiking and introspection. (Let me make something else clear – I don’t always travel alone. I often journey with family and friends and enjoy those trips as well). My first solo backpacking trip was a week in Switzerland where I hiked alpine trails, rode gondolas to mountain peaks, and anxiously watched as young base jumpers leapt into seeming oblivion. Next came three weeks meandering across southern Spain and the discovery of a dormant love for long periods of reflection, of setting my own agenda, of drinking coffee and reading books in beautiful locales. I discovered something else too – the hostels where I stayed were packed with young people who sometimes missed their own mothers and appreciated a listening ear or a word of advice as much as I loved hearing their stories. Travelling alone is like that – you talk more to strangers – and learn that the world is filled with people who are your friends, your sons and daughters, your aunties, sisters and grandmothers. In short, you are not alone at all, but often surrounded with inquisitive people who are on their own journeys of discovery.

Now as I embark on a 14 week journey across the world, I feel joy in the anticipation of both solitude and discovery. But why does a woman travel alone and what are the inspirations for such solo wanderings? For me, the roots branch in several directions. Travelling and living abroad as a child enabled me to closely observe new cultures and, from a young age, begin to discern similarities and disparities. These observations have fostered a life-long yearning to experience and learn from the people that inhabit our world. I have been humbled to tears by women dwelling in smokey African huts and inspired by the fierce protectiveness of the Greek woman who rescued me in Athens decades ago. I have watched these same roots nurture my daughters and listened as they described their own insights gleaned from living and travelling abroad. These insights have also fostered a deep love of and gratitude for my home country. I love Canada and am eternally grateful for the rights and freedoms and access to natural beauty that we have here. Thus, for me, the introspection of solo travel affords the opportunity to grow as an individual and as a citizen.

One lesson I continue to learn in my work as an RN is the lesson of time – as in “we do not know how much time that we have,” and as in “I have this moment to hold in my hand.” Along the way, I have held many, many moments in my hands and savoured them. Now that my children are grown and independent, solo travel is my ongoing response to this lesson. It is acknowledging a deep gratitude for my career and pension, while pursuing life beyond their limitations. It is living along the road to retirement. Some time ago, I cared for a man, not much older than myself, who suffered from incurable ill-health. This man stared into my eyes and implored me to “not wait to do the things you love.” These journeys are my answer.

Ultimately, though, I travel because of faith – faith in God who created such diversity and beauty, and who is, I believe, the source of my curiosity. I have a burning desire to wander along mountain trails and through temples, to chat with women in markets, to hear stories translated from other languages, to become lost in the gardens and slums of the world and to learn and contribute along the way. Lucy Maud Montgomery, herself a Canadian and a woman of faith, perhaps expressed it best when she wrote, “Dear old world, you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.”

travelling with a grateful heart…

the world is wide and its people so interesting – it is teacher and student, prophet and poet – and i have much to learn

with my daughter in Peru where it all began (June, 2011)

It seems I have backpacked all my life – a blessed fact owed partially to my parents who, though not wealthy, made sure that we ate a steady diet of the unusual. Mom and Dad were always pitching our cumbersome canvas tent somewhere in the Canadian Rockies or along the B.C. and Oregon coasts. Eventually they transplanted us into the Peruvian jungle where I cavorted barefoot, swam with dolphins and piranhas, and dangled from trees while eating fresh mangoes as the juice wept off my elbows. I even managed a pet honey bear and a short stint as a dental assistant in a remote village (I held the flashlight and swatted mosquitoes while the nurse pulled teeth). But that was decades ago. The intervening years have found me raising a family, working, and living in Canada, with short stints in Africa and Europe. I have travelled Europe, returned to Peru to hike the Inca Trail, rambled across Turkey, and annually fly to Kenya to do aid work. In short, I am a sometimes traveller, always with a backpack – a woman who takes every opportunity to wander the world. This blog is for women who travel solo (or hope to!) – and always with a grateful heart