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bat+open door = oops

So. Much. Stuff. Happened. Last night.

Except sleep. Sleep did not happen much.

The evening was fine until I got a text from someone who pissed me off. And I could not stop thinking about it. I was mad, mad, mad. I went to bed and stared fiercely at the shadowy ceiling while I tried not to worry about the 6:30 am alarm that would be coming soon.

My cat Racecar likes to sleep on my neck. It’s hard to breathe, but she’s soft and warm and she’s my comfort blanket. Except last night it was 87 degrees and neither one of us could get comfortable. I had opened the deck-side sliding glass door a little, and the window, but there was no cross breeze. Racecar walked across my throat, stepping on a boob now and then, back and forth, back and forth, but could not pick a satisfactory place to curl up on my neck. Too hot. She finally found a place at the foot of the bed and it suited us both fine.

Even with my comfort blanket down at the foot of the bed, the damp sheets, and no cross breeze, I finally fell asleep, who knows when. But I do know it was 11:47 when I heard a “mrrroowr! meeeooowww!” from a strange cat that woke me out of a dead sleep. It had managed to squeeze through the opening in the sliding glass door and got all the way to the kitchen to eat my cat’s food, and then couldn’t find it’s way out. I started yelling and it found the door and skeedaddled. Racecar, worthless cat, was still curled up at the foot of the bed, clearly not defending me from foes.

Then I was awake again.

Ugh. It was so hot. Against my better judgement, I went to the other side of the room and opened the door to the back yard. And opened the glass door wider, trying to bring the outside air in. I figured the strange cat probably wouldn’t come back. I tossed and turned for at least another hour. I was hot and mad, trying to sleep. You know how you silently yell at yourself, “go to sleep NOW!” and it doesn’t work?

Then I started wondering what that fluttering sound was. Such a soft, pretty sound. Probably a moth. Fluttering around and around the room. Racecar got up and started following it around the room. “Good girl,” I thought in my fogginess. “Eat the moth so I can sleep.” Flutter flutter. Moth wings have a sort of fur on them, which must be making that lovely sound. Then there was a quiet “eeeek” on one of its passes over my head. Funny, it reminded me of a bat. Racecar started jumping as the moth swooped close.

Actually the flutter was pretty loud. That must be a damned big moth. I picked up my phone and turned on the flashlight app and shined it up to the ceiling so that I could see into the blackness…and saw a BAT swooping around my bedroom! Shadows cast by my phone covered half the room. Wing shadows, probably teeth shadows, but I didn’t hang around to look. Obviously it came in through one of the wide open doors and now couldn’t find it’s way out.

A bat! A Bat! In my bedroom!  I slunk off the bed, crouched, arms over my head, and duck-walked to the door to the living room. Once out, I closed the door behind me. The bat could find it’s way out of my bedroom eventually, but I needed to sleep in a bat-free zone.

I checked to make sure kitty had come out of the bedroom with me, then padded down the hall in bare feet to Tara’s room (unoccupied while T is at college), and climbed into bed, pretty much awake.

I took deep, slow breaths, calming myself, thinking some more about the 6:30 am alarm. Still mad about that text message, planning all the clever mean things I would text back in the morning. Tara’s room was a little cooler, and the bed is comfortable. My eyes began to close and I began to drift off.

thump I hear from the living room. Thump thump…bump. CRASH! What the?? I sat up and listened. Whack-bump! thud.

Jeeze Louise.

I got up and walked into the living room in the dark and found Racecar leaping from the furniture into the air, trying to get the BAT that had followed us out of the bedroom! I ducked.

I wouldn’t even walk through the living room. I went out the front door of the house, outside in my bare feet, around the house to the deck, opened the living room sliding door so the bat could get out, then through the sliding door into my bedroom again, and dropped to the still-damp sheets. Is this for real?

Fully, fully awake. I checked my phone. 2:12 am. I went to the bathroom and swallowed a sleeping pill. I had to work in the morning. Sleep was critical. It worked after another 45 minutes, and I finally fell asleep after composing a perfect text response in my mind.

There was a time warp and in four minutes, the alarm went off. “Like hell,” I mumbled. Turned off the alarm and went promptly back to sleep, only to be awakened immediately by cluck, cluck, cluck…brrrrr cluck? Clearly chicken sounds, and clearly too close. “Arrrggghhh!” I said to no one, looked at my phone, which said 6:33. I heard it again, cluck cluck?

I got up and opened the door to the living room, and crept in while crouched, eyes at the ceiling. No bat. But there, in the living room, was one of the Hussies. Of course this would be the morning Tawny got loose, and of course she came up on the deck and found all the doors open, and came on in. Because, she’s a chicken. Chickens are dumb, and annoying. I love them, but it’s an honest relationship.

“Come on, chick! chick!” I called, and dumb, happy Tawny followed me out the door, across the porch, down the steps, across the grass, and to the chicken pen. I’m Momma Chicken to her.

Back in the house, I checked for poop (none! yay!), and resigned myself to starting up the work day.

As I settled in at the computer in my home office, I heard CCCRRRREEEERRRR….CCRAAAACCKK! BOOM!

Pretty little elderberry tree by the creek.

Exactly 24 hours later. Can you see the massive tree that has fallen across the creek?

I ran outside, and saw that a huge Alder in my back yard had just fallen. No wind. No storm. It just…gave up and fell. An enormous tree that now lies in the creek. Just last night I had stood there, captivated by glowing evening light on the elderberry bush beside it. That must have been an omen, the light on the bush. Earth was saying to me, “Pay attention and enjoy this moment of peace. Because… well… you know.”

It was pitch black through my nighttime adventures, and I couldn’t get a photo, not that I was even thinking of it. I told a few people today, I’m gonna write a blog post about it, and Allie Brosh will do the illustration. Sadly, I don’t know Allie personally. So I had to do the illustration myself a-la-Hyperbole and A Half.  This is me, crouching behind my bed, arm up as protection against the bat:

In lieu of Allie Brosh.

Here’s another photo of the downed tree. You still can’t get sense of how big the tree is by looking at the photo, but it’s a little better.

All those sideways branches=one tree

 

Who am I to turn down a willing Valentine on Valentine’s Day?

I like what I did with yesterday’s theme: boiled it down to two highlights. Today I’ll do the same. While the day was long and filled with adventure, the two things we will remember the most are running after a train (and the 30 minute stop at a tiny town) and camel affection at the zoo.

The Circle Train in Yangon gets its name because the tracks circle the city, with a few little branches of tracks leading off from the circle. You can get on and off at any point, but if you choose to remain for the entire loop, it’s a three-hour journey. The draw of the train is that it is old (character!) and that you get a good look at the area. It costs a whopping 15 cents. We knew our hostel friends, S and A (the two guys who recommended Chinatown yesterday) were planning to ride the train today so we asked them at breakfast, and they graciously welcomed us along.

We found the train station without too much trouble, and settled down to wait for the right train. Rickety old trains passed through every few minutes. One of the local people waiting asked if we were taking the circle train and we said yes. As one train approached, the same person stood up to board the train and told us, while pointing, “circle train!” indicating that we should board it as well.

“This is it?” we asked, not sure if we had waited long enough for the right one. “Oh yes,” we were assured. We asked a couple of others, and got enthusiastic nods and smiles.

Ok, here’s one thing I’ve learned in Myanmar so far: the people nod and smile and say yes even when they have no idea what you’re talking about. So, the train slows down and the four of us get up, a little hesitantly. We asked a few more people “Circle train?” “Yes, yes,” we were assured. Someone spotted some Western-looking tourists getting off the train, and asked them. English was not their first language, but it seemed like they understood the question because they also smiled and nodded and said “yes!” So we came to the consensus that it was the correct train as the train was pulling away from the stop.

Obviously the next thing to do was start running!

Margaret and I had the best shoes. Holding our backpack and camera and water bottles to keep them from bouncing away, we ran and leapt onto the high steps. Friendly hands already on board reached down and pulled us up and into the train. I was SO grateful! With joy at having made it, we glanced down the car to find our companions. S had made it, but outside the train, we saw A still running, in his flip-flops, beside the train. He had tossed his water bottle on board, and ran to catch up with the doorway. He, too, had to leap toward the arms outstretched, and was pulled on board as the train continued gathering speed.

“In retrospect,” says A later, “That was probably not a smart thing to do. But I never ran to catch a moving train before!” He grinned and we all grinned, agreeing that it was a first for all of us, and that it was the best adventure of the day already, and only 9 am.

Every train stop was lined on both sides with vendors like these.

Commerce at another train stop.

This young man (his mother sits there at the side) begged his mother for money to buy me a treat.

This effervescent hoodlum jumped off the train each time it slowed for a stop. The train would pass him, and then when it began to move again, he would jump back on, then come back to our car.

A scene from the train

While on the train, I was having a great time. Like yesterday, we were treated like celebrities, with many people smiling and saying “Hello! Hi!” and waving at us. Aside from that, the scenery was a constant delight. The places we saw were often dirty, smelly, structurally unstable, and I loved it all. Trash everywhere, napping dogs, flies buzzing, multicolored fabrics on men and women. Vendors on the train walked through selling avocados, strawberries, fried potatoes, bottled water, eggs, sliced mango with a kind of chili powder. Smiles and smiles. I can’t help myself. I don’t know where I got this vibe on this particular trip, but I am happy and relaxed and everything I see makes my smile wider.

One boy took a shine to me beginning before boarding the train. He continued to stare once on the train. We shared a few moments during the trip, while watching things happen on and off the train, though we couldn’t communicate much without a language between us. He ran over to his mother at one point and begged some money off her. He then went to a woman creating meals from the goods piled on a great tray, balanced on her head, that she had carried into our car. She prepared a dish for him and he brought it directly to me. I have been reluctant to eat the food on the street here, sticking mainly with fresh fruits and vegetables. I am not judging the food, I am only worried that if I eat too locally, I’ll get sick. I was torn. The boy held the dish up to me and I wouldn’t take it. I could see the disappointment in his eyes and I felt so bad. I really wanted to taste it. Heck, I wanted to eat it all up. But I’ve been sick in another country and I wasn’t willing to take the risk. So, I took one bite. It was *delicious!* Sort of a savory salad type dish with crunchy garbanzos on it. I handed it back to the boy and he sadly began to eat it himself.

The next adventure was an hour later, when we realized the train had not curved around the circle, but continued due north. Not knowing what to do, we jumped off the train at a stop that turned out to be someplace called Industrial Zone, almost to Shwepyitha. It’s a tiny little community with dirt streets and simple homes and businesses. After talking with the person at the train station, S informed us that the train we left would go all the way to the end of the track, then come directly back, and it would be the next train to come through. We would just pick it up again and head back to Yangon!

None of us wanted to go the full 3 hours on the train in any case, so this actually worked out perfectly. We had a 30 minute break from the train, so we wandered the industrial zone town. The towns people treated us very well. When I went to purchase a cucumber from a woman at one shop, she wouldn’t let me pay. At one spot we watched boys playing some kind of sport with a hard ball bounced off their bare feet and heads, played roughly like volleyball. Our walk was shady and pleasant, and we had a chance to chat about each others’ lives.

Train station where we disembarked

S, A, and Margaret walking from the train station into town.

Dirt streets of the town.

Friendly smiles when they see we are foreigners.

A young man returns the ball with a head shot.

We got back on the train without having to chase it this time, and rode the hour back to Yangon. From there, we parted ways with A and S, who had been a whole lot of fun and the perfect partners for chasing a train.

The main Yangon train station was close to the Shangri-La hotel, so we went back there and sat in the air conditioning and had lunch and some refreshing Myanmar beer. Then we walked to the zoo. Conscious that we may get pagoda’d out by the end of this trip, we have already been scanning the maps for things other than pagodas to see.

The beak on this bird was tremendous.

We decided this one looked prehistoric.

Margaret and the deer check each other out.

The zoo, like the rest of the town, was rather run down and had piles of trash in all the unused areas. But it was a pretty good zoo for all that, if you can overlook the fact that it’s a zoo, and the animals mostly lived on dirt and concrete. We were lucky and it was feeding time for many of the animals. I saw more animal activity than I’m used to seeing at zoos. They had a nice variety of big and small critters, and I appreciated that most of them were from the region.

Beautiful hippos, up close and personal.

White Tiger eating chicken for lunch.

Visitors fed the elephants.

I just loved this camel.

The sun began to drop in the sky and it was time to head back to the hostel. We were totally exhausted and conversation was quiet as we made our way home. We made bus plans for the following day’s pagoda trip, and dropped to sleep.

A sign we spotted when using a drive way to turn around. Tara and I thought it was hilarious.

A sign we spotted when using a drive way to turn around. Tara and I thought it was hilarious.

In my “About Me” page, I say that this blog is my online journal. And it is. But it’s public, of course, and thus some of the more complicated personal stuff is left out or glossed over. Happy happy happy: that’s me.

I have been sensistive to the fact that I nearly dropped out of the blogging world completely this Spring. Some of you I haven’t read in a year. I can hardly stand it. I miss you more than seems reasonable for a group of people I have mostly never met. I’ve been resisting telling you guys what’s going on with me for a long time, but I now have a way to bring it up that isn’t painfully awkward. Just painfully real. Sorry. Like everybody else in the world, I’ve got layers. 🙂

I’m leaving in a couple of days for Chile! Isn’t that awesome and amazing? It is! A couple days in the capital, then down south to the wine country and the lake country. I’m nervous and excited and hopeful, and I’ve been casting meaningful glances at my Nikon, every time I pass her, sitting on the desk. “You are getting ready for this, right? You have a lot of work to do.” It’s the first last-minute, spontaneous overseas trip I have ever taken. It’s the first trip I have not been the one to orchestrate. All that is kind of surprising, so let me explain.

One of the most brilliant things about me is that I have a crazy intense will to Live. And by Live, I mean that with a capital “L.” Not staying alive, but living with intent, Consciously Engaging with my life because it’s the only one I’ve got and I am loathe to squander it. Things knock me down, and I do not stay down. When there is an obstacle that threatens to make my life begin to resemble merely existing and surviving, things inside kick into gear and get me out of that spot. It is a very good thing. That’s why I’m going to Chile. But…. let me back up a little bit.

Because of some traumatic events during my military service, and the fact that I had no support group of friends or family back then to ease me through it, I developed posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. I didn’t know it at the time. Over the years I built a toolbox for myself of defensive strategies to get through life that are good in times of crisis, but unhelpful when there is no crisis, which is nearly always. So after 20 years of wondering why I was struggling so much, I finally got a therapist that specialized in military trauma, who helped me learn how to give up my crisis strategies. She began to teach me a more accurate way to view my life: not as this enormous, uncontrollable, scary place, but just a place with good and bad things, and none of it was to be taken personally.

In May 2015, my therapist retired. I was doing so well with her that I announced that I did not need a replacement therapist. In July 2015, I moved from the city out to a big property in the country and began country living for the first time in my adult life. In September my only child left home for college, and I began life alone, really alone, for the first time in 18 years. In October I got a new, challenging job. Blam, blam, blam, all these big life events. And it was too much. I sort of lost control of the organization of my life. The old crisis strategies took over.  And by November, a year ago, I nearly fell to pieces.

I worked too much. I drank and smoked too much. I was depressed and angry and irritable and yelled at Tara when they came home from college. I didn’t clean the house. I didn’t buy groceries. I cried. It has taken me all this time to come back, and I’m still not totally better, but I am confidently on the path to better. I got a new therapist. I’ve been binging on your blog posts now and then. I even won the award for Most Comments On Blog Posts In A Single Day, on Curt’s site, ha ha!

My girlfriend Margaret called me earlier this month and said, “What’s new?” Because something is always new with me. I am a woman who keeps pots going on all burners at all times. Even the small stuff is interesting and exciting. And I replied, “Uh, I’ve been working. And Tara’s still at college. And…um…” While I was saying it, I realized that when she called the last time, 4 or 5 months earlier, I had said the exact same thing. Margaret must have noticed it too. “Meet me in Santiago at the end of the month,” she insisted. “yeah, right, Margaret.” In my mind I was thinking, now wait…in what country is Santiago?  She said the trip was already plannned, I’d have to split the Air BnB costs, and taxis and stuff. I explained about the big property, and the chickens, and the fact that vacation time at work is always set in January, so it’s too late anyway. She wasn’t buying it. “That’s no obstacle,” she said. I think it was her brassiness that caught my attention. I mean, we’ve been friends for 16 years, but was that appropriate? I asked, “Did you just tell me that the responsibilities I have in my own life are no obstacle?” “I did,” she said with no humility at all. “Crystal, I know you. You are smart and capable and you can figure it out. I’ll call you in two days and get your answer.”

And that will to Live sparked up like when a breath of wind hits a bed of coals.

I realized the trip was just the slap in the face I needed. I made a bunch of phone calls and 24 hours later I texted Margaret to say we’d be on the same plane from Houston to Santiago.

My flight leaves Portland at noon on Tuesday, and arrives in Chile at 10am on Wednesday. That’s a lot of time in a plane. Wish me legroom and no crying babies! (I know, impossible request) I’ll bring the laptop, and with any luck, my brassy friend will indulge me at an occasional wifi hotspot. If not, I’ll be gone two weeks and my beloved Nikon and I will share our stories with you when I get back.

My Tara and me, September 2014

My Tara and me, September 2014

Not my adulthood, of course. Tara turned 18 years old on Sunday. My baby is a legal adult now, and – just like 18-year-olds everywhere – remains part child even though they are now part adult.

It’s a really exciting time for us both. Tara has more fear about it than me. With all my adult years of experience, I can see that Tara is ready to take on the world. My child is not so sure I’m right about that, but I have confidence based in years of watching Tara meet challenges and come out victorious.

The new status doesn’t make me feel old, but does make me nostalgic. I still can’t believe that hollering, impatient, needy infant is already packing bags to leave home. Wow, how did that happen so fast? And only a month ago (wasn’t it only a month?) my index finger was being squeezed by a tiny, damp, chubby hand of someone very small learning to walk. Last week my heart thumped every time that little person ran on unsteady feet, and then the next day…off they went on their bike.

I taught Tara how to cross the street without me. How to watch the lights, and the traffic, and to think of how heavy and dangerous a car can be. And I stood on the sidewalk and held my breath till they arrived safely on the other side. Then with the glee of freedom without the weight of responsibility, Tara watched the lights and the cars, and when it was safe, came hurtling back to me. And I didn’t tell their dad for a long time, about what I had done.

And then we practiced taking the bus to ballet lessons. The #15 went right from our house to the studio. I rode with Tara the first time, telling them what to look for, what to listen for. We rode together a second time, and I waited for my child to give me instructions. We missed the stop. It was ok. And after that, Tara made the busses, the streetcars, the lightrail their own territory, and off they went again. Off to ballet, off to school, off to the mall and to a friend’s house on the other side of the city. Gone far away to return to me much later, always to the relief of my pounding heart. Always putting away the nightmares of the headlines that could read, “Reckless mother teaches child to be independent in the heart of the city.”

I took notes in the Tokyo Narita airport when I went through, and then emailed them to Tara a couple months later, so Tara could make the same trip, alone, to come visit me while I lived in Japan. “Keep your passport on you, and handy, and never never set it down. There are signs in English when you get off the plane. After you pick up your luggage, you’ll have to go through customs, and hand them your forms. Then find the terminal for domestic flights. If you don’t know where to go, follow the other people. If you get scared, ask for help.” I actually cried with relief when my 15-year-old walked into the tiny Hiroshima terminal from the plane.

And look what I’ve done to myself: ensured that this beautiful, strong, smart, brave, amazing used-to-be-child is ready to leave again. We were talking about last week’s college orientation the other night, and about Tara’s move to Corvallis when school starts. Tara says, not in an angry way at all, but matter-of-factly, “I’m sure you’re as sick of living with me as I am sick of living with you.” And you have to understand our relationship to know that it wasn’t a hurtful comment in it’s delivery or receipt: we are two very strong and independent people who respect each other enough to be honest.

Much as I am sad about the separation that will happen this Fall when it’s time to go to University, I see that I have done my job properly.

Tara checking out their Oregon State University dormitory room during orientation last week.

Tara checking out their Oregon State University dormitory room during orientation last week.

There used to be a

There used to be a “No Hunting or Trespassing” sign on a tree by the lake. Tara has it in hand, after replacing it with a different sign.

Yes, this sign suits us much better.

Yes, this sign suits us much better.

Diego walks along the nature path beside the Klickitat River, frequented by Bald Eagles.

Diego walks along the nature path beside the Klickitat River, frequented by Bald Eagles.

It’s always a pleasant surprise to me how easy it is to discover truly interesting and entertaining things in my world, if only I go outside and pay attention.

It also consistently surprises me that I forget my camera so frequently. No, worse, I think to myself Will I need my camera? Naaawwwww.  And then 20 minutes into the journey, I am kicking myself. This is what happened weekend before last when Arno, Diego, and I wandered into Klickitat County in southern Washington.

Our original intent for the entire day was to attempt to spot bald eagles, and practically as soon as we crossed the Columbia River, we began to see them. Where was my fabulous camera with zoom lens? Safe at home, intentionally left behind because I thought I wouldn’t need it. Luckily Arno had his little pocket camera, but the light in the sky was poor and the camera not powerful enough, so I can’t show you photos of eagles. They are huge. Really huge. And beautiful. Every time I see a bald eagle it makes me proud and patriotic. Thank goodness our national bird didn’t end up being a turkey.

We also saw a Golden Eagle and I was excited to spot a Kestrel. I became intimately familiar with a kestrel family when I lived in Nevada, and am glad that their voice is still recognizable to me.

Double bridges span the Klickitat River on the Washington side, but they are clearly visible from the Oregon side.

Double bridges span the Klickitat River on the Washington side, but they are clearly visible from the Oregon side.

We had parked beside a nature trail, so we went for a walk. I was very pleased to see the double bridges I had spotted many times from I-84, the Oregon side. Each time I see them I lament the lack of a place to pull over and take a photo of the remarkable arced bridges. Viola! Here I was at last with an excellent view of them, and not traveling on a freeway at 68 mph.

Not yet ready to head directly home, we followed highway 142 into the canyon. It was a stereotypically beautiful creek canyon for this area, and my hungry eyes gobbled up all I could see till I spotted something I had never seen before in real life. “Oh! They’re fishing platforms!” I said out loud. “Arno, pull over.” And he did, though he had not seen them.

I peered over the steep ledge and was more convinced that they must be fishing platforms built by local Indians. I had seen a photo or two of Indians standing on wooden platforms above rushing river water, waiting to spear fish, but I couldn’t remember when or where. Perhaps that famous photo of Celilo Falls was my resource. Arno and Diego, the climbers, instantly felt that we needed to go over the side and get down to the water.

Unstable but apparently effective fishing platforms

Unstable but apparently effective fishing platforms

You brought the camera!

You brought the camera!

At riverside, I suddenly wanted Arno’s camera, which I had – wait for it – decided to leave in the car thinking I wouldn’t need it. Arno clambered back up the steep cliff to retrieve it for me.

I was satisfied simply by looking at the platforms, but the boys spotted the rickety wooden bridge spanning the river, and needed to cross it. So I indulged them bemusedly and watched with anxiety as Arno bounced across the bridge over raging whitewater.

After returning to the car, we continued farther into the river canyon, which led higher in elevation to the source of  the Klickitat River. We went up, and up, and came out high above the rest of the world, on an incredible plateau so high that the mighty Columbia seemed only a mild trickle in the canyon below us.

Arno bounces across the handmade bridge. Yikes.

Arno bounces across the handmade bridge. Yikes.

We were understandably hungry by this time, and Diego was happy for the chance to play with his dad’s smart phone, even if it was only to use the map feature to find us a place to eat. He steered his dad directly into the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant in Goldendale, WA. Sated, we turned south onto highway 97.

Stonehenge replica made of concrete and perched on a ledge above the Columbia River.

Stonehenge replica made of concrete and perched on a ledge above the Columbia River.

I remarked that I had never seen the Stonehenge replica out there before, except at night, when I was a kid traveling through in the back of a big brown 1975 Ford Elite. There were lights on the structure, and all I remember is the circle of bulbs, and someone telling me it was Stonehenge, which was confusing, because I thought Stonehenge was far away, but I was a kid and often wrong about things at that point in my life.

So Arno turned east on highway 14 and announced that we were going to see Stonehenge. It wasn’t far, and soon we were standing beside it. I learned that it was built by Sam Hill to honor the fallen soldiers from Klickitat County in World War I. It was the first WWI monument built in the entire nation! The site now has other memorials, honoring the Klickitat military sacrifice in other wars, Vietnam, WWII, Afghanistan, and more.

Diego climbing

Diego climbing

View of Columbia

View of Columbia

My climbers couldn’t resist the walls of the life-sized replica, and were soon scaling them. I wandered through the inside, marveling at not only the original monument in England, easy for me to visualize with this replica surrounding me, but also marveling at the ambitious project of the man who built the Klickitat version. It was a cold, windy, horrid day, and we were all ready to leave that exposed point rather quickly. However, I will go back this summer in better weather, better light, and armed with my camera!

Inside the Stonehenge replica

Inside the Stonehenge replica

Arrow points to white buildings you can see on the horizon. That is the Iwakuni Marine base. I walked to where I am standing while taking this photo. Whew!

It’s been pouring for a couple of days, and everyone said the rainy season has begun. When I left my room this morning, prepared for a 3 1/2 mile walk to the Kintai Bridge, I brought my umbrella expecting rain. I ended up using it for shade, since it never occurred to me that I would need sunscreen today!!

Part of my long walk to the Kintai Bridge

Look at these little metal walkways to connect the door of the home to the busy street.

These homes have the luxury of off-street parking!

Iwakuni Castle on the hill above the Kintaikyo Bridge

Good news: sun! It made the views, the photos, the whole experience way better I am sure. It took me two hours to get to the bridge (long ass walk+getting lost multiple times), then it was a whirlwind of fun and sights and craziness for another couple hours (I accidentally joined a Japanese tour group….ha ha!!)

My tour group at the top of the Iwakuni Castle

So. How did I accidentally get in a tour group? By not understanding Japanese, that’s how. I read beforehand that it was 300 yen to cross the Kintai Bridge. So I’m all over that. I walk up to the ticket booth with three, hundred-yen coins, all ready to go. She says blabbity blabbity blabbity bridge? Or blabbity blabbity castle and museum and bridge? I could see the castle from where I stood. I’ve always wanted to see a Japanese castle. She’s holding the tickets: 300 yen for bridge, 930 yen (about $12) for several things. I bought the bigger ticket. She smiles, makes change then blabbity blabbity something or other, question mark? I smile and bow and say arigato gozaimasu. She points at the bridge and I bow and thank her again and I’m on my way, smiling, tucking the tickets into the cat bag. But a guy in a reflector vest is trying to get my attention, and points out a tour group just beginning, and calls to the tour guide. The tour guide is a super friendly woman about 4 1/2 feet tall, with short hair under her bright blue cap with buttons all over it. She has a neon green reflector vest and a microphone hooked up to herself, and gestures me to scurry and join the group. She’s doing the tour guide talk: a mile a minute. Apparently, that’s what I bought: a tour.

I missed a whole huge bunch of information today, while the sweet, 50-something mini-lady talked in Japanese and got everyone laughing. I laughed too, but it was because everyone looked so happy, not because I understood the jokes. She tried to include me many times. I practiced my deer-in-the-headlights look. But eventually we all made friends and I had a very good time despite pretty much never knowing what was going on. She went out of her way to find stuff written in English for me. Once we passed a tour booth of some kind, and she stopped the whole group and went inside and came out with two brochures written in English for me.

Irises reflecting in a pool

We crossed the Kintai Bridge, then went to one of the very few Samurai houses left in existence. I didn’t realize they were rare. I was able to recall scenes from The Last Samurai, set in a Samurai house. It was one of those traditional Japanese places with beautiful patterned floors and nothing else in the room, with sliding paper walls between rooms.

The White Snakes of Iwakuni are a designated natural monument because they are not found anywhere else in the world.

Next we saw a statue of Hiroyoshi Kikkawa (the Kikkawa family built the castle), a park with lots of water features, the famous Iwakuni White Snakes. Just one couple and I agreed to pay the 100 yen ($1.25) to go into the snake house. There, I saw a tangle of about 5 albino snakes. The brochure claims that these white snakes are found nowhere else in the whole world. Apparently, it’s a form of albinoism (white snake, red eyes) that has stabilized, and all of the offspring are white. I was very lucky to see a rather active snake – you know that snakes in glass houses typically doze – moving quite a bit.

Cable car coming to collect us and haul us up the mountain

Then we boarded a cable car. A cable car! I had no idea that was coming up. Mostly likely it was explained to me in Japanese at the time I purchased my ticket. The cable car took us to the top of the very steep mountain on which the castle is built. We had a deliciously cool walk from the cable car to the castle, where our guide talked on and on about…um, stuff. Then we reached the castle grounds. There is the original foundation, still in place. The castle was built in 1603. Then (the brochures are vague on this…) it appears that the castle had to be destroyed due to enforcement of a “Law of One Castle Per

Iwakuni castle

Province.” That’s all it says, I’ll have to look it up. The current one was rebuilt in 1962 (about the same time the Shinkansen started business), and is now a museum. In the museum, as we went up the four flights of stairs to get to the top of the castle, I finally began getting more at ease with my Japanese tour group. I wanted to know how to

Samurai armor

hold the weapons that I saw. Some of them knew a couple of words of English. I was looking at this gigantic curved sword, about six feet long, and asking “How do you hold this thing?” And they managed to explain to me that it was only a gift, this one was too big to be used as a weapon. too heavy. So then, they pointed out the smaller ones, used as swords. They mimed how they would be used, how held, how carried on the belt. Then, we had a talking point. Each new weapon, they tried to mime for me how it was used. At one neat display, a series of things was laid out in a row. Some rocks at one end, a sword at the other. It turned out to be the stages of creating a sword, heat and hammer, till the sword was the final result. Cool. The museum also had a full samurai suit.

Women dressed in kimonos to celebrate their day at Kikko park

Torii at the entrance to this sacred garden

Back at the bottom of the hill, we went into a traditional Japanese garden and heard a concert of people playing instruments like big zithers. My guide told me the name, but I don’t recall it. We crossed a creek with not only koi, but also soft-shelled turtles. An older gentleman in my group kept saying suppon nabe, which I found out is turtle soup. He gestured to me that I must eat soft-shelled turtle soup to get big muscles!

A teacher I met, in his traditional clothes

In the garden, there were people dressed in tradi- tional kimonos having picnic lunches. Jap- anese dress in traditional clothes sometimes when visiting a special place, particularly on holidays, to make it more of an event. I overcame my resistance to photograph people obviously (it’s not in good taste to stare, or even to hold eye contact, so I am reluctant to obviously photograph people), and snapped two of people in kimonos. I also saw my first Torii.

The rest of the group waved sayonara and took off then. The tour guide asked me something. A lot of words. I don’t know what she was saying. I said warkarimasen a few times (I don’t understand), shook my head, nodded. Whatever. I understood that it was over and I was trying to give my acquiescence. The guide kept trying to get me to respond and I had no idea. So she pulled a brochure of a flower show featuring irises, out of her bag. I made appreciative sounds. I love irises. So, she promptly waved goodbye to the rest of them, and took me under her wing for some more tour. It was just the two of us.

An iris garden  near Kikko park

A young artist takes inspiration from gorgeous irises

I can’t help but get romantically artistic here in Japan.

People enjoying the irises

I guess I showed up during peak iris blooming season. And wouldn’t you know it, that very weekend was the main advertised iris show! There were people there with gigantic cameras and tripods and lenses right out of Hollywood. Holy cow. Many of the tourists had cameras that made my Nikon D5000 look like a point-and-shoot. I was now the sole tourist in the group, and my guide led me to two different iris gardens. The first, she explained, had 90 colours and contained 10,000 plants. The second, only 50 colours but 100,000 plants. They were both remarkable and I was very grateful that I had done whatever it is I did to get this personal tour. After that, she showed me the statue of Kojiro Kikkawa, and finally she said sayonara for good, and I was released.
That’s when I walked into the very first restaurant I found. It was tiny, and beautiful. They handed me a menu, and the entire top section of drinks was translated into English. I ordered iced tea. It came with lots of ice, and a little glass container with liquid sweetener. I was happily drinking my iced tea and NOT WALKING (my feet were singing my praises for the decision to sit down), when the table next to me had their meal delivered. It looked like Indian dal. I could smell the curry. I was practically swooning from the delicious smells drifting over to my table.
I shot covetous glances at the table next to me until I could get one of the staff over to me again. I asked if I could have “that” (pointing but trying not to point, because it’s not polite). She didn’t understand. I tried several times. Blatantly, I pointed directly at a woman’s plate, and then pointed to the empty table in front of me, “Please, I want some of what they are eating.” Still, she didn’t understand. I rubbed my hand over my belly in a circle. “I am so hungry and that smells so good,” I moaned.  She laughed (and so did the poor woman whose plate I had been pointing to) and asked, “You want menu?” I pointed to the Japanese characters on the menu that looked most promising, and I did receive the same large plate of dal and rice and tomatoes, with the side salad, that my neighbors were eating.  I wished I could apologize for my behavior, but I didn’t know how, other than bowing and saying sumimasen– excuse me.

With my meal, I received a spoon and fork! It was the craziest thing, looking at the spoon and fork, and having to think through what to do with them. That is hilarious. It was incredibly delicious. I had two glasses of iced tea and two glasses of water. Wow, was I thirsty, hot, tired and hungry. I was in a few minutes of ecstasy while I tasted my meal. I think I actually moaned out loud. 🙂

Plastic ice cream! Point to the one you want and you get a real one!

I found something like a rose garden, with a few other flowers in it, and couldn’t read any signs except one in front of a dogwood. The sign explained that the dogwood was a gift from the U.S., in exchange for all the cherry trees sent to Washington, D.C. It said dogwoods are rare in Japan. Funny, they are so common in the U.S. Then I went to a market that was perfect because no one was screaming “one dolla! one dolla!” like in the last couple of countries I’ve visited. Just pleasant vendors, happy to explain their wares, give small samples, and answers questions as best they can. Up to that point, the only other non-Japanese I had seen were Germans. But there at the market were Americans in their easy manner of moving, and speaking. We Americans have a lower tone, and softer edges on our consonants than Japanese. Anyway, the sounds relaxed me a little.

boys play in the Nishiki River on a hot June day

The respite was so rejuvenating that I resolved to walk all the way home. In no time, I was sorry about that decision, but had left the tourist= taxis part of the town. My cat bag began feeling as though I had filled it with volcanic rocks from the mountain.

I learned some lessons about the trip that will make it easier the next time. And also, in case I get a chance to climb Mt. Fuji, I want a little practice wearing my body out. I want to walk it again, because you see SO MUCH of regular Japanese life. Like beautiful vegetable gardens, everywhere! I found a place where people swim in the river, totally by accident. I saw how, for example, every morning bed mattresses and clothes are hung over the porch railings. To air out, I assume. How nearly everyone dries their clothes on racks outside. Japanese dryers must be rare. How the houses have what look like plastic replicas of ceramic tile roofs. How the houses with actual ceramic tiles also have frosted glass tiles in little groups that make skylights. How many houses have solar panels. How the adults politely avoid eye contact, but the kids say, in English,  “Hello! How are you?” with total delight.

How I finally learned that there are different levels of greetings in Japan. Acceptable is to avoid eye contact, but if you make eye contact and want to quickly break away (or if you’re too far away for words), you can bow your head and it’s totally friendly and respectful. Then, if both people are really looking, you should probably toss out an ohayo gozaimasu (good morning sir or ma’am), or konnichiwa with a bow. And, if the greeting needs to be a little stiffer (because of personality maybe?), then just gozaimasu (sir or ma’am) will do. Always with a bow. And the friendlier and more genuine the eye contact and greeting, the deeper the bow. It’s actually very similar to our own greetings, once I just let myself get used to it.

It was a very good day. I’m beat.

“Furry animals with whiskers who dress in space suits frighten humans and cause them to run away. Therefore, they will be burned alive.” {This is thrown in purely for entertainment value. I get giggle fits every time I look at this image. The sign was on the hill, walking toward Iwakuni Castle. YES, I can guess what it really says, but I prefer to look at it as an ignorant American.}

One of my many guises

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