Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Night Out in Tokyo


After flying 13 hours from Chicago to Tokyo, I was a tiny bit woozy. Although the ANA Airlines inaugural flight from Chicago to Tokyo's Haneda Airport was smooth and comfortable, the drastic time difference was starting to affect me. Although we landed at 9 pm Tokyo time, it was 6 am Chicago time and that 15 hour difference was screwing with my equilibrium. But I am the boss of my body, not jet lag so I do what I always do whenever I land anywhere; hit the streets! Walking around in the fresh air does wonders for your internal time clock even without the sun. So I grabbed MJ, the fellow Chicagoan in our group and we strolled out of the Imperial Hotel into the streets of the Chiyoda business district. I had researched a small cluster of hotels that lined the subway near our hotel and we located them neatly situated in a lighted alley, pictured above.


On a Monday night at 9 pm, there's not too much activity in Chicago but that's not the case in Tokyo. The sidewalks were filled with people and as we walked down the alley, waiters came out in white aprons to lure us into their restaurants. We walked down the alley for 20 minutes before choosing a place to grab a late night snack. Since nobody spoke English and most of the signs only had photos, we chose the restaurant that actually offered an English menu.(I need to know what I'm eating because of my food allergy and dietary restrictions.) The eatery was crammed with people who looked like they had gathered after work and were relaxing with drinks and food.


This group of men, who were seated behind us, smoked so much that our clothes were full of smoke when we left the restaurant. With the U.S. ban on indoor smoking, it's been a long time since I've been in a smokey place and I consider it part of my authentic Tokyo experience. We nibbled ramen and chicken wings and absorbed the atmosphere until our eyes started fluttering closed. Then we walked through the dark streets, back to our hotel, ready to reset our inner clocks to Tokyo time.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

What I Learned From Intense Travel in 2016


The year of 2016 was unrelenting on so many levels. It seems like unexpected scenarios and challenging situations just kept piling up until everyone was numb by the year's end. I felt torn for most of the year. I was heartbroken about the glaring racism, injustice and brutality that kept sprouting up and I fought to keep my spirits and expectations positive. It wasn't easy. On the other hand, I received more invitations to travel than ever before--I took 15 trips in all, exploring 9 countries, three continents and five states. I loved it and appreciated the opportunities but an undercurrent of sadness clung to me. How could I be happy and wander around glorious beaches and mountains and deserts when so many people, especially my people, were suffering?

Through a process of  discussion, analysis, meditation and observation, I learned that traveling with intention, and being present instead of caught up in taking photos, notes and posting to social media, revealed the importance of all of my experiences. People are suffering everywhere but people are also overcoming their challenges and finding joy despite pain. So my 2016 travels exposed many small lessons that have helped me live more authentically. Here are a few:



This is Mark. I met him in Valencia, where he owns the decadent Cafe de Las Horas. The lounge is a popular nightspot to sip Agua de Valencia and hear live music and I reveled in the baroque decor and lively atmosphere. Mark is from Guyana and he's lived in Valencia since the '90s, when he moved as a Spanish language student. He explained how hard it was when he first moved to Spain. There were not many foreigners in the city at the time and the Spanish are notoriously insular. He felt isolated and alone. But he stuck it out and eventually opened the cafe as well as two other restaurants in Valencia with his partner. Now, he's embraced by the locals and feels a part of the culture. He's even moved his mother to Valencia, where she's made lots of friends. Mark's experience taught me that sometimes you have to persevere in tough situations and continue to be true to yourself.



In Dubai, I learned so many things that I can't even begin to explain all of them. It's a complex place that has a lot going on beyond its glittering surface. But I learned the most with my friend Sophia, who moved to Dubai from London. Sophia took me to the local places that you won't find on websites or guides. Most of the locals don't live the luxurious lifestyle that's so visible in much of the city, which was no surprise. What was a surprise was how light the abayas, the flowing covering that many women wear, feels. I tried on several and talked to women about how they get them custom made. These garments appear heavy and suffocating but they are very airy to wear. I learned that you really have to try something first hand, whether it's food or a place or a custom, before you can  honestly form an opinion.


I tried on this blingy abaya, which is layered over a solid version, inside the Dragon Mart, where most locals shop for bargains.


 Although I never travel anywhere with the expectation that people will speak English in Japan, I was caught off guard. I stayed in the heart of the Tokyo business district at the Imperial Hotel and my image of Japan as a major business hub, was that many people would know English. I traveled all over the city, on the subway and walking the streets and never encountered one person who knew English. I laughed when it was explained that while it's true that many Japanese study English, they speak English the same way that Americans who study  high school French or Spanish, which is not very fluently! I learned that there are always different perspectives to even well established facts.


Finally, in Portugal, which is also pictured in the first photo, my love of the Portuguese influences I experienced in Brazil and Macao were vividly confirmed. I adored every aspect of the culture but what I learned was the value of simplicity. I visited castles, flew in helicopters and dined on 10 course meals but the most memorable experiences were gazing at the natural beauty of Portugal's coast and eating flawless meals on sidewalk cafes. The Portuguese live simply and I think that's a key to happiness. I hope to learn more during my 2017 travels, what did you learn in 2016?