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Japan Jaunt Part 2 – Kyoto- gets its own section

Right, before we continue our tour let us take a moment to consider culture shock. Because, of course, a journey is not just a geographical jaunt but also a cultural one. This is especially true when you live in the Middle East and you go to the Far East. How shall I put this? The Japanese are good at respect. They love order. The Israelis…. less so. Order and respect are not high on the list of adjectives that spring to mind in the Middle East. It seems that everything in Japan was designed to make you feel respected, or at least  comfortable. This applies to the uncanny quiet on a crowded subway train, where nobody speaks in a loud voice on their mobile phone. They don’t walk and eat. There are designated places in the food market where you should eat (because … no trash cans anywhere). Similarly  the orderly lines of people waiting to cross at a busy intersection and being careful not to knock into anyone. And in the  ubiquitous  convenience stores (konbini) where there are footprints and arrows on the floor showing you where to line up. Wherever we went locals were quick to come to our assistance whenever we paused to examine Google Maps. They bowed profusely when addressing us.  The station guards, bowing, are happy to direct you politely and not ignore you. The newsreaders bowed on TV. And the toilets! Oh my god, the TOILETS are just awesome. They play music so as you won’t feel embarrassed by your bodily noises. They are heated and they squirt water at you from all angles. All of this was a cause of constant wonder. And so to Kyoto.

We got a fast train to Kyoto, but not the fast train we were meant to get. We had a short connection at Nagoya and I was so worried we would miss it that we belted on to the platform, stood at the correct place (marked so you know which carriage you are boarding) and hurried to our seats that were occupied by two Japanese gentlemen. I showed them my tickets and one shook his head sadly and said “Wrong train”. Aha. But this train IS going to Kyoto, right? I asked nervously. Yes he said, Nozomi. The Nozomi is the SUPER fast train not covered in our JR Pass because it is faster than the REGULAR fast train. A young guard hurried up when he saw our confusion and said that we could just walk through the carriages to the first one where the non reserved seats are, but by the time we found a seat we were arriving in Kyoto, 20 minutes before we were supposed to. Never mind. I learned a new thing, that the trains have names ( Sakura, Hikari etc) and that it was not enough to know the time, the platform, the carriage and seat number but one also has to check the name of the arriving train before boarding.

Our arrival in Kyoto was D’s birthday and to celebrate we went up the top of the Kyoto tower at night which was quite a lot of fun. We then repaired to a nearby izakaya and ate stuff.

 

Kyoto is a bit difficult to tackle because it has become a victim of its own success. By that I mean that it has hundreds of temples, but the really popular and famous ones are overrun with tourists so if you want to see them you have to get there at the crack of dawn. And Gion, the geisha area, is totally overrun with tourists at any time of the day or night. WE only tackled a few of the popular temples because after a while one gets pretty overwhelmed. SO we first picked Kiyomizu-dera which was pretty bearable when we arrived and totally packed by the time we left. It was nevertheless very impressive, even when swamped with tourists and school children.

WE then walked along the river bank up to Gion Corner, where we met an Israeli tour guide called Shimrit, from Kfar Saba, who is  married to a Japanese guy and lives somewhere near Kyoto. She directed us to the Geisha area, where we observed NO geishas. Moreover there are now signs up barring photography ,since the geishas are fed up with rowdy tourists shoving cameras in their faces when they try to enter a tea house or a taxi.There are countless police and guards trying to maintain order. The main street of Gion was so stuffed with tourists that you can hardly move and is not an enjoyable place in my opinion.  We beat a hasty retreat and set off for Nishiki Market which was utterly wonderful, and full of all manner of exciting things, both edible and whimsical.

Our next touristy site was next morning,Fushimi Inari, a short train ride from the train station near our guest house. This site, I had been warned, is highly popular with the Instagram brigade, so if you want to see it in its glory, be there early in the morning. We arrived there at around 8 am, which seemed to be early enough. The instagrammers, however were there and snapping away, with and without selfie sticks. There were also some school kids who asked us some questions. We then visited Tofukuji where the entrance to the gardens cost money but as you see was well worthwhile.

Another “must see” I had read about is called Arashiyama and it boasts a very widely instagrammed bamboo forest, a river with a “romantic train and cruise” and numerous temples. Again we set off early to avoid the hordes. Arashiyama was my first experience of being underwhelmed in Japan. Since Japan is such a highly tourist destination, there are many “must sees” and not all of them are what they are touted to be. For us Arashiyama was one such. There is a bamboo “forest” but it is more of a grove and no great shakes. The “romantic train” was packed and we could not get on it until 3pm ,so we gave it a miss. The area was ok but not wildly exciting. We returned to Kyoto city and decided to give Gion another try, but on the way we found Maruyama Park which was far more rewarding.

Day 5 of Kyoto (we allocated it 6 days because there is such a lot there) we headed for Nijo castle. Not overly crowded and rather lovely. Shoes were removed and photography not allowed inside, but the beautifully landscaped gardens were certainly worth a shot or three. Thankfully not the instagrammers were not in abundance.

We rounded off our time in Kyoto with a far less touristy site, in fact we were totally alone there. It was a rather quirky place, quite a long way from all the hot spots, mentioned online as “Monster Street”. There were not a whole lot of monsters, but hardly any people either which was a blessing. We rather liked it there.

And so to Hiroshima…. stay tuned.

Cairns, and the Great Barrier Reef

As for many people, the Great Barrier Reef was an almost mythical destination on my travel wishlist, and one that I didn’t think we would manage to do. The distance and the expense seemed overwhelming. But eventually we just decided, as with this whole Australia trip, that life is too short to put off your dreams, and you should just go for them, before you regret not doing it. This has been the principle behind my thinking ever since we retired in 2011, and so you can imagine our excitement when we boarded a plane from Brisbane to Cairns to realize this dream.

The flight from Brisbane to Cairns was longer than from Melbourne to Sydney, at 2 and a half hours. Unfortunately it was at night, so we didn’t get to see Cairns from above (we did when we flew out at the end of the trip). We arrived at Cairns at 7.30pm and quickly got our stuff (airport is tiny) and headed off by taxi to the Cairns City Palms Motel, where we were spending our first 3 nights. It was nice and clean and had all the things you need, but we particularly appreciated the friendly staff, and the breakfast room which supplied free juice and hot and cold drinks throughout the day, as well as home made pastries. The first day we just explored the Cairns Esplanade, and went to check on our car rental from Europcar. There was some kind of festival going on right on the Esplanade, and they were handing out free sausages, water bottles and other goodies, so that was fun. Then we set up the trip to the Reef for the following day. (Booking through our motel got us a 10% discount.) From the myriad tour companies available we chose Reef Magic which had been recommended to us by my cousin Yehudit. ( $215 AUD pp) The main pull for me about this company was that all the activities were included in the main price (glass-bottom boat, submersible boat, lots of snorkelling, buffet lunch) but also because the company has a pontoon, from which you do the snorkelling and diving, not from the boat itself. The boat takes you out to the reef, and stays there,and you have a good 5 hours or so of activities. You can snorkel the whole time or you can try all the other activities as many times as you wish. It was all well organized and the buffet was great. Everything was enjoyable and we had a great, memorable day despite me having a sore throat (so I limited my snorkeling time) and D had an aching shoulder but also enjoyed his time at the Reef immensely. WE decided not to do the optional helicopter ride, as this was really expensive. WE were satisfied with the things that we did, and it was certainly a memorable day. I don’t however have any photos of that day as I left my phone in the safe of the motel. D has a few but we were too busy having fun to take many pictures. It is possible to hire an underwater camera for the dive but we didn’t bother. You can look at the photos on the company website.

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Six weeks Down Under- from Melbourne to Cairns

Things I loved about Australia:

Friendliest and most open people in the world -Amazing scenery –  Ease of getting about -Clean and convenient ( never had to wait for a bathroom!)- the noise the traffic lights make (kind of like the spaceship doors on Star Trek) Cosmopolitan – you can get lots of different kinds of food like Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian in the cities – Everything is safe- trails are clearly labelled, information is freely available, nothing is mysterious or confusing

Things I liked less:

Prices- Everything is ridiculously expensive :The package tourist trips are ridiculously priced.  ( unlike Mexico for example)  Transportation is also not cheap  You can’t eat out cheaply like in Asia    Local  is not so healthy (everything seemed to be fried/ hamburgers – we missed a good Israeli salad and fresh fruits)  There are Chinese EVERYWHERE (more than we saw in China?)    I couldn’t get Uber to work (ok,not Oz’ fault)

We have just returned from what had seemed to be the “dream trip” for many people, and in many ways it was miraculous, and marvelous. and was certainly different from many other trips we have done. For a start it took us to the furthest eastern and southern point on the globe we have ever been, and was the longest flight we have done. It took over 24 hours, with one flight from Tel Aviv to Hong Kong and the second from Hong Kong to Melbourne (with a return from Cairns through the amazing Cathay Pacific).

Having said that, I was not expecting Australia to be “exotic” or “alien” in the same way that our Asian trips have been. The culture in Australia is so familiar, that for the first few days in Melbourne it felt like England- the sky and fields of Victoria looked like England, the houses in the city looked English and the roads and signage were the same. There were pubs called “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Charles Dickens” and of course many of the citizens are of British or Irish descent. WE could read everything written and understand everything said to us. So coming to Australia was physically but not culturally far.

I will divide the blog into sections, because of course a trip of 6 weeks is going to make for a very long blog post. So first, to Melbourne.

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Part One Melbourne  and Sydney ( and a bit further north!)

WE spent 6 days in Melbourne. The first day we arrived at night and the next day we spent having brunch with family, and that was really great. They gave us a few pointers about what to see around town. So we began by walking along the Southbank (a bit like the London South Bank) cultural area and this was indeed the part of Melbourne we enjoyed the most. It has a lovely walk along the river, with cafes and restaurants, and some cool statues. I didn’t think much of Federation Square, which was not as lively as I was expecting. Neither did I find the alleyways with the graffiti in Hosier Lane that impressive- the ones in Mexico were far more colourful and artistic. We did enjoy the colonial architecture of the buildings, the Victorian shopping arcades,  the fascinating Immigration Museum and thoroughly enjoyed the Old Melbourne Gaol House  experience, during which you go  through what a prisoner in Victorian times would have felt on being admitted to the Jail – it was fantastic, and the lady sergeant who “processed” us was deliciously scary.

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Southbank sculpture

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The (B) itch is back! (sorry Elton)

As you can see I have not written for some time. I was recovering from my foot injury (which seemed to take forever) and then once I could walk normally again juggling with various travel destinations in my head, and possible courses of action. It’s not that I don’t enjoy life in our new home (Kfar Saba) – actually it’s great- clean, green, small enough to walk around but not so small that it is boring. There are tons of cultural events on here all the time and if we want to pop over to Tel Aviv for music, drinking, theatre etc, it’s only 30 minutes away. But as a travel- obsessed individual, the travel itch is never far from the surface of my skin. So I am constantly scanning  Dave’s   or the Esl Teachers Board and looking into various volunteering websites to plan our next getaway. I discovered that most volunteering sites demand a TON of money to get you a position, and often it doesn’t include flights, and usually just very basic accommodation, which in any case in those locations is dirt cheap (Vietnam, Myanmar, Central and South America).Also, most volunteering websites seem to be geared to very young gap year travellers, and not so many grey nomads, so I don’t know if it would really be appropriate for us to go on one of those things. So then I thought why shouldn’t I just go somewhere that we fancy,  and if we get a volunteering opportunity whilst we are there, then good, and if not we will just hang out. We often travel using Couchsurfing or Servas , since we don’t really enjoy staying in expensive hotels, and we prefer to meet locals and hang out with them.

I have mentioned Servas before- I think it’s an amazing way to travel if you have time. It’s so much more interesting than being a tourist, to spend time in the company of a local who can tell you so much more about a place than the guide book.

So I can’t exactly explain how this happened. I juggled more and more destinations in my head. Realizing that we have seen a lot of Asia and Europe but having  never been to Central or South America, three places kept popping into my mind: Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico. I know that technically Mexico is North America, but everyone thinks it isn’t. Anyhow I went to hear a lecture on Costa Rica and far from convincing me to go there, it put me off. I am not sure how this happened, ( maybe it was the pictures of the huge spiders and the swaying jungle rope bridges in the Cloud Forest) but when I see a lot of pictures of a place it either turns me on or off. Somehow, the latter occurred. But Mexico suddenly became a more attractive destination and as I started reading about it, it became more so- beaches, delicious food, Maya and Aztec sites, colonial architecture, cheap and accessible.  We initially thought to combine it with North America, but as often happens with me less seems better than more. I don’t want to gallop around the places on my itinerary I want to “hang around” in them for a long time and get to know them. So Mexico it is! Booked for February and planned to take about 6 weeks, to do it at a leisurely pace. So we will fly into the Yucatan peninsula, and work our way south through Chiapas and then fly out of Mexico City. I already have about 5 Servas hosts scattered around. And otherwise guest houses or Air BnB look to be about $20. Stay tuned for trip report on our return!

Back in the Big Silly

After 8 months back home here we are back in Jimei. After a slight mishap at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airport where I attempted to lift a 23kg suitcase onto a trolley and felt my back give way with a loud crack,I have become much wiser,and am gradually feeling my back improve.The first week here was agonizing.I can now get out of bed without giving a massive groan of pain.

Our new apartment is right in the University campus of Jimei University, pretty  close to our old one,but for some reason it all feels totally different.Arriving back here was comfortingly familiar.WE knew how to get from Hong Kong airport to Shenzhen and we knew how to get to the train station to board the fast train (max speed 300 kph) back to Xiamen.At the North station we were met by staff of the International department and taken straight to our apartment.Here we were met by friends we knew from before,and that too was comforting and nice. Of course there are many differences.The apartment is much smaller than our old one,but reasonably comfortable- and hey,when you get a free apartment with phone,TV,microwave,and computer you should be grateful,right? Our campus is right across from the Wanda Plaza shopping centre, which has shops,restaurants and supermarkets,even a Starbucks.And five minutes in the other direction is Shigu Lu student street with tons of shops and coffee bars so all is well.Or it would be if there wasn’t military marching music played full blast every morning at 6.30am ( bar weekends,thank god)/ We still need to bring various things we left at the old apartment over here,such as plates,cups etc, and then it will be great.

The campus itself is pretty nice,not as impressive as Lin’an,but with plenty of trees,statues,grass,a huge lake with benches along it and lots of cafeterias.

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Campus lake

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One of the many campus statues

Yesterday we went over to see our friend Celine the dance teacher and were amazed to see how her new dance school is coming along.The whole place has been revamped and she has another couple of branches around town,and has about 400 students.Angela,who is her assistant,and was D’s private student last year,told us it was Celine’s birthday and that we were to join her at the KTV where she was celebrating.So she whisked us off in her car to the KTV.As D remarked,when you get up in the morning in China you never know where you are going to end up.At the KTV we met Celine’s sister and brother in law,and some other friends.WE had forgotten how odd the whole Chinese KTV experience is,but it was a laugh,and there was beer and lots of very odd snacks,most of which I didn’t eat.I did eat a lot of almonds though.

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Celine at her KTV birthday celebration

After Celine dropped us back home we met up with our old mate Bernard,who teaches at Xiamen University.He had been hanging out with some other friends in the Wanda Plaza so he came over to our apartment to chat for a bit.

Stand by for further adventures……

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Me and Bernard

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Night view from our balcony

Where have I been and where am I going?

Apologies for the long silence! Of course I have been disorientated by leaving China, and in mourning for my China life.But never fear! I have been travelling and not sitting and crying.However I have definitely been a little stagnant too,as life at home is not life on the road.This is the difficulty that long-term travellers face,how to be in a “normal,routine” life at home,with all that entails,and how to get on with one’s  non-travelling friends and relations.This has been discussed at length by many a travel blogger so I won’t dwell on it.

But China beckons once again,and it seems that in March we will be back in Xiamen in the gainful employ of another university. Ssssssh,nothing is final yet! But fear not dear reader. You will now get a glimpse of our glamorous life in Israel and the wonderful places that you can visit here,if you are lucky enough to travel here.How can you pretend to be a traveller in your own country? Easy,just host some guests from abroad and you instantly become a tourist,traveller or onlooker.

So when our dear friends Barry and Renee arrived from Hawaii by way of Shanghai we were delighted to take the opportunity of showing them around this tiny but vibrant and diverse country.

We of course began with Jerusalem which has a wealth of sites for the historically minded traveller.We showed them the Haas Promenade in East Talpiyot which affords one of the best views of the Old City. We showed them the Mahane Yehuda Market with its jostling populace and wonderful fruit and spice stalls,and we enjoyed a great meal at the Lebanese Restaurant of my friend from Marseilles.And we explored the Old Train Station and the area of town where the Ethiopian Church and Russian Church stand practically side by side.Exploring these places with guests from abroad allowed me to view them with renewed pleasure and to appreciate the richness and complexity of this weird city I have lived in for the last 30 years.

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Russian Church in the Russian Compound,Jerusalem

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Ethiopian Church,Jerusalem

We showed them the lovely village of Ein Karem, one of my favourite places here, with its slightly Italian feel,its pretty churches and yuppy restaurants. The weather smiled on us and the sites were very photogenic.

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The Russian Orthodox Gorny or “Muscovy” convent of Ein Karem

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General view of Ein Karem from the steps of the Sisters of the Rosary Church.

We then continued down to the Dead Sea and Massada.I had not been there for a long time,and the site appeared much bigger than I remembered, and made for a very impressive day out.We even managed to get lost on the top of Massada and managed to miss the way out!

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Top of Massada

Next post will be about our wonderful trip up North to the Galilee and the Golan,and the Jacobs Ladder Folk Festival,which really deserves a blog post all of its own.! Stay tuned…..

Wrapping it up

It is about 8 weeks until the end of the semester… which means the end of China! Is it possible? Have we really been here for almost three years? It’s inconceivable.After all we came here for one year, right? This thought is causing me to weigh up and mull over (and various other verbs) all that has happened over this time and try to make some kind of sense of it all.I don’t really fancy my chances so I decided to just consider it this way- Things I will miss and things I won’t about China.I apologize right up front if this post is going to be a bit rambly but you have probably gathered that it’s an emotional time.We don’t really know where we are even going in June and we don’t know how we will feel about being back home either.

SO here goes: Things I definitely will miss about China.

1.Being able to go down and get really tasty cheap and varied foods at any hour of the day or night for practically free.We also have a small grocery store guy under our building.The store is manned by a grocery man (whom we have nicknamed Coconut Head), his wife two daughters and occasionally his father-in-law.( or maybe his father I am not sure).They are lovely and always welcome us.We sometimes just walk through the store to get home and say hi. Will try to photograph them before we leave.

2.People smiling and saying hello on the street as if we are royalty (I know some laowei don’t like this but I kinda do)

3.Chinese babies.-Don’t know why they are just amazing

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Awesome baby

4.Feeling free- we have few responsibilities here.Nobody cares what we do, where we go, or how we dress.We feel liberated because of being outsiders.I know it’s different when you are home.You have to worry about bills, the news, what’s going on with family, and you are constantly bombarded with the current affairs, politics etc.Here we don’t understand the news, we don’t read the papers or watch TV.I know it’s a bit escapist but it’s very liberating and I would like to be able to do it at home but I know it’s not feasible.

5.Hooking up with all kinds of people- here just by virtue of the fact that you are an outsider,it is really easy to become friends with all kinds of people,both Chinese and foreigners.You just say hello and then you find yourself going for dinner,hanging out with them or even going away for the weekend with them.Nobody cares where you are from or how old you are.Last weekend we had a couchsurfer lady from Boston staying with us for a week.WE went to dinner at a Vegetarian restaurant with her and there were 25 other couchsurfers there,some from here but some from France,Brazil,Malaysia,Singapore and elsewhere.IT’s fun- you just eat,chat say good bye and move on.

6.Our job- I use this word loosely.The job is completely undemanding and relaxing.I have already mentioned how lovely the students are.They send us messages saying how great we are all the time.They are polite and charming.Yesterday at our Public Speaking Class a couple of kids came up at the end to tell us how much they enjoy the class.It’s just so great.And the campus was looking splendid today as I walked to work.Working 8-10 hours a week in that situation is hardly taxing.There is no driving as we go by school bus.We don’t have to sweat about finding a parking space.We don’t have a lot of paperwork to do.We don’t have staff meetings- we just teach,chat to the students and go.There is little preparation for Oral English class.SO all in all, that’s a big draw to this place.

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Campus was looking gorgeous this morning

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Tiny Love Restaurant on Campus

Now for things I definitely will NOT miss about being here:

1The spitting thing- I have mentioned it before and there is no getting round it.They do it , we don’t.End of story

2.The pavements (sidewalks for my US buddies)- I don’t think I mentioned this but I fell down a couple of weeks ago and sprained my ankle.Now I know this is something that can happen anywhere.But the likelihood of it happening in China is pretty high.THe pavements are woeful and they seem to get broken,cracked ,etc very fast.Even a short while after you see a pavement has been laid it gets all messed up.They are continually digging everything up and building everywhere and walking down the street can be hazardous.

Likewise there are often strange things (hooks,bits of metal etc) protruding here and there.They are digging up our neighbourhood for some reason and it never finishes.China is just one huge building site.It also means the street is dusty and gravelly most of the time.

3.Fireworks- I never was a big fan of these not Guy Fawkes Night ,not Independence Day ,not any time.But I particularly don’t appreciate Chinese fireworks at all hours of the day and night, come rain come shine.And especially not 5am on a Sunday morning.

4.No bread- much as I love Chinese food there are some things I miss from home.Good whole meal bread for one.Good fresh milk is another.WE buy German longlife kind of milk and I really dislike it.There are other Western foods we have found at the store downtown but sometimes you just want a nice fresh salad with some massive chunks of Feta cheese and black olives on it,right?

I know I will miss jiaozi,baozi, gong bao ji ding and so on once I get home,but that’s life I suppose.

5,Being illiterate- now I know I said that I enjoy not reading the newspapers but that doesn’t mean I want to feel like an idiot.And naturally living here and NOT being part of everything means that I do feel like a total idiot much of the time.The upside is as I said,no meetings,no news,no involvement.But this is exactly the problem.We do have a limited amount of Chinese,so conversations can only go so far.WE have really given up trying to get any further.So this means we have no clue what is going on sometimes,and of course we can’t read the notices posted in the lobby of our apartment block.So we are illiterates.

Sorry that the last two posts are a bit philosophical.Hopefully when we travel to Laos and/or Thailand and Yunnan it will get back to its usual travel-blogginess.Comments welcome.

I could go on but I think I need to muse it all over a bit more.

So that will do for today.