Mysterious Albania Unveiled

When my travel partner put on the table the next big trip idea – the Big Balkan Loop, to her big surprise, my feelings were rather lukewarm. But when I heard our itinerary would include Albania, the one country in Europe I have always wanted to visit, my decision was easy. Albania, or Shqipëria, as the Albanians call it has been on my bucket list since my first trip to the region in 1968. I barely brushed the border of Albania then, as I passed through Kosovo, and under Enver Hoxa Albania was hermetically closed to the outside world for many years to come. When they finally opened their doors we were tempted to go, but we put it off because of its Wild West reputation.

The reputation persists even 30 years in. As we were asking people close to the border in Montenegro, what were the conditions in Albania they all warned us not to go.

“You shouldn’t drive alone in Albania. The roads are bad and it is too dangerous.”

“How do you know?” was our retort. “Have you been there?”

“No…”

And so it went in some other areas, too. When we asked on the Romanian – Moldovan border about the price of gas and the road conditions on the Moldovan side, no one could tell us. But they had plenty of bad stuff to share about their neighbor.

“Have you been there?” was our retort.

“No, but we hear from the relatives on the other side.”

Those who don’t have relatives on the other side, get their information from the TV. And as we know the one principle of the news agencies is: If it bleeds, it leads. So the sensationalistic news of the day about murders and crime gets repeated until everyone is convinced their neighbors are just waiting to pounce on them, if they ever dare cross the border.

As we crossed the border into the last European “hermit kingdom”, our expectations were running very high. Not that we didn’t read plenty of enthusiastic blogs of people traveling through the country, still, there were questions swimming around in our head:

Is the country ready to accept individual travelers; is the basic infrastructure in the places of our interest ready?(Um, yes, the hotels were quite lovely and up to snuff.) With the recent history of unrest and wars in religiously diverse Balkan places like Bosnia and Kosovo, I was especially curious how this country passed through transition from communist dictatorship to some sort of civil society.

How will we communicate? We have done very well so far with Ksenija’s old school Serbo-Croatian to the extent that often the parking and boat touts would yell to their brethren, “They’re our people! Let them be!”

But Albanian language is unrelated to any other and we will have to rely on people knowing some English. Answer: The young people spoke English and were open and eager to talk.

After the morning boat tour on the Montenegro side of Lake Skoder we crossed to the Albanian side of Lake Shkodër and well, we are happy to report that the water in the lake is still the same on both sides of the invisible border. Not only that; the fish in the water, plentiful birds and fowl and blooming water lilies are the same as well. Nature finds its own sensible ways!

On the solid ground of the border our first impressions were pretty good! The road was certainly better than in Montenegro! The post communist new government’s first act was to allow Albanians to own cars. And the fight for hearts and souls had begun in earnest the same day! And the winner is…….. Mercedes-Benz! Albanians love their cars, but not just any car. It must be a Mercedes Benz! And the newer (latest models apply only, please) and bigger, the better! Even if I do not know what was their starting point in 1989 when the regimes of Eastern Europe crumbled, the most significant item needed for a satisfying way of life of any Albanian was ultimately the right to own THE CAR. And everybody had to own the car the very next day. As our guide in Tirana told us: “I had no idea that my grandpa could even drive a car, but the morning after government issued a decree that people could own cars, I saw him happyily driving without the driver license through my hometown in the car of unknown origin!”

Of course Mercedeses, especially new ones, would be too expensive for most Albanians. But they creatively introduced an innovative business model as we were told by a 4-wheel car driver we hired for a ride into the mountains. The vast majority of cars you see in Albania were actually stollen in Western Europe and openly smuggled across the border. If you have had a car for a year and have one thousand euros you can get it legally registered.

No matter how we felt about the state of law in Albania, this information had quite a positive impact on our state of mind as we were, before arriving to Albania, quite concerned that our borrowed old, small BMW (model 100) would be stollen the first night after we crossed the Albanian border. Thankfully, we were assured by people in the travel industry that there is only a limited interest in BMWs, and especially not small and old. Nevertheless we deliberately kept our car very dirty to further lessen the appeal. Of course, if you have a car you have to ride on the roads and, it was a pleasant surprise, the roads were not only empty (of car traffic), but were much better than expected.  I would dare to say they are in much better shape than in the country of our car’s registration, (Czechia), where the roads are under permanent state of repair, and definitely better than in the town of our own permanent residency, (Orinda, California) where the roads are left in a state of permanent disrepair.

The only road we could not drive was the famed road to Theth in the Albanian Accursed Mountains, also known as Albanian Alps. Indeed there was a certain amount of cursing going on driving on that dangerous road and certainly more by the British chaps we came across, who punctured their tire. But in true fashion of travelers helping travelers they had help changing the tire and our driver right off the bat offered to take it back with him and send it to them on the first bus next morning. Proving what people have noticed in their blogs that Albanians are helpful and generous people. Of course if they are not part of the Albanian mafia, which is successfully taking over the world’s underworld.

It is worth mentioning here that during the WWII Albanians were a bright shining exception to one rule. While their Balkan neighbors happily handed over their Jewish population or exterminated it themselves, Albanians not only protected their 200 Jewish neighbors, but also accepted Jewish refugees from Europe, hid them in their homes and helped them leave for safety. Albania was the only country where after the war the Jewish population was bigger than before the war.

Mountain villages were a good place to hide the refuges. And what mountains these are! The mountains remained surprisingly Catholic for centuries of Ottoman rule as they were too remote and the people too fierce for occupying Turks and they left them largely in peace. With intrepid travelers just discovering Albanian mountains and shores, there is a sense of camaraderie that we so fondly remember from our early days of travel. Looking into your smart phone for information is simply not enough and travelers do talk to each other, comparing notes, asking questions and sharing tips.

Let’s just pray the Albanian mountain beauty will stay protected from plastic and architectural garbage that we could see in our short visit to other places.

As we didn’t want to undertake the hike across the mountains we took Lake Koman ferry to reach the other side. At the other end an additional hour drive on a new road brought us to Valbonë, the beginning (or end) of the hiking trail. The mountains on this side were majestic as well and the rivers ran clear. But with a good road, the development was quicker and some larger, uglier hotels started creeping up. So were the first mosques. Nevertheless there seemed no issues about the coexistence of different religions in the mountains or in Albania overall. As a matter of fact Albanians we talked to emphasized this fact and they were clearly proud of it. Just as the American ambassador in 1934 exclaimed that there were no religious problems in Albania, the same has been assessed today. I only wish their neighbors and others further around the world who can’t help but claim their religion is the only right one and can not help but keep killing each other, could learn from Albanians. 

Just a short walking tour through Tirana downtown with a great young Albanian guide gave us the sense of how all major religious groups live peacefully next to each other. Here is a newly built mosque funded by Turkish President Erdogan not far from the Catholic Church of Mother Teresa’s fame (she was Albanian born in North Macedonian capital Skopje) serving as a counterpoint to a beautiful Orthodox Church on the other side of Tirana’s Main square.

The population of Albania is made of a little less than 60% Muslims, 20% Christians (half Catholics, the other half orthodox) and 20% atheist. All of them clearly live in a very peaceful coexistence. Of those Muslims mentioned before more than half are Sunni and the smaller half is Bektashi (a Sufi dervish order) whose members can drink alcohol and eat pork. We were told that because every religion needs some restrictions this sect forbids consumption of rabits.

Research could not verify the latter statement, but in solidarity with the rest of the country we decided to order in the cozy restaurant in the beautiful town of Berat an exquisite roasted rabbit to fight increased population of this animal in Albania. We were happy to help. As always!

Berat by all means looks very Muslim, with the typical stone houses of Turkish Ottoman design and slim minarets. But at the Berat Castle there are churches galore and a Museum of Ikons.

Beer and wine is flowing freely and people are friendly. Here just leaving our Residenca Desaret hotel for a cobblestone stroll, I was stopped by a local chap and invited home for a morning shot of raki. I apologized for the hour was too early for drinking, but I did ask him how he enjoyed last night’s women World Cup soccer game in France.

As we drove through the countryside we marveled at the huge new houses in every village. No doubt they were built by the remittances from the 3 millions of Albanians working in the West. We found those left behind also hard working and eager to serve with a smile. We now regret not having stayed longer in Albania and not continuing down south to the Albanian riviera.

Undoubtedly the southern beaches have more appeal, but we got a bit put off by the overdevelopment in the first sea destination in Dürres. It was still a pre season calm, but thousands upon thousands of lounge chairs told a story, we did not want to be part of.

A Photo Essay of Kotor Bay

Known simply as Boka (The Bay) Boka Kotorska is simply stunning in all its reiterations. No surprise it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Surprises abound around every curve of the very narrow road above the Bay. And there are many tight hairpin curves, a delight for a seasoned driver and a thrill for the motorcycle riders. For some passengers – not so much. An experienced friend said to us, “The only way to really see Kotor Bay is from the water!” And he was right. It is especially thrilling on a speed boat. In a few hours you can explore the whole bay and see things you might not even notice from the shore. Like secret tunnels used to hide partisan boats and submarines. Talk about history coming alive when you enter one of those. For a special treat you can swim in a Blue Cave. In the Bay there are islands with churches and cemeteries. When you return to the port, you need to go past the impressive old fortifications to explore the old streets of Kotor town. Early in the day and early in the season is best as they can easily get clogged by eager tour groups. It must have been laundry day when we visited. Have you ever wondered how the fancy clothes were laundered in the old ages when there was no dry cleaners? I asked this guy but he didn’t have a clue. In more comfortable attire he enthusiastically explored the Kotor cathedral From top to bottom no details escaped the avid photographer

and no sacrifice was too big when he worshiped at the altar of his art.

If you will go a bit beyond the edges of boka, any transport will do, you will discover more hidden treasures, like prehistoric rock art, mini chapels, newly thriving nunneries and more great views, like the Sveti Stefan bellow.

We old farts on the road advise you to find your way to Montenegro. You will surely be welcomed in with open arms!

Back to the Balkans

There is travel baggage and then there is travel baggage. We both bring our own very old Balkans travel baggage, mine going back 40 and my husband’s 50 years, when we were both here for the first time.

We both explored parts of the Balkans before we met. Seeing that I am originally from Slovenia, the Balkans were practically on my doorstep. Depending how you define the Balkans, they were my doorstep! I have spent many childhood summers on Croatian coast, have been to Bosnia when it didn’t have the notoriety of a war torn country and as a teen backpacked through Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

For Mirek, seeing that he had grown up behind the iron curtain of Czechoslovakia, the Balkans were the few allowed places visit outside the fence called Iron Curtain. As a young man he had done a lot of hiking (and drinking with his buddies) in the Balkan mountains. But it was a trip through Yugoslavia that brings the heaviest travel baggage. It was in a way a defining moment of his life. If he had stayed just a day or two longer on the Balkans, his life might have turned out very differently.

You see it was year 1968 and Prague Spring was in full bloom with liberalization of the communist regime. As an engineering student 19 years of age he went on a summer adventure. Hitchhiking through Romania and Bulgaria on his return trip, he arrived to Yugoslavia. First to Macedonia and Kosovo and then along the beautiful Adriatic Coast. Hitchhiking was then a great way to meet and talk to many people and as the tough regime at home started to melt down many warned him that the big Russian brother will not look kindly on the weakening of the communist grip. As he reached the north he had to make a decision: go left and move to the West or to turn right and stay home. Having the last dinner with a professor from the University in Zagreb he declined his kind offer to stay and took a train to Prague.

Two days later the Russian tanks rolled into Prague, and shortly after the Iron Curtain shut down again!

Balkans has a lot of heavy historical baggage with much warring from the beginning of time as tribes and kingdoms and empires and political systems clashed on its territory. But to make your summer blog reading lighter we will concentrate instead on showing you the beauty and hospitality of this still somewhat undiscovered and exotic area.

So what can you expect to find on the Balkans?

A lot of old stone fortresses like this one in Belgrade, the Capital of Serbia. Defended by all kinds of heavy canons. You will also find a lot of new, not necessarily always charming or tasteful. The capitals of newly minted countries want to show off with palatial new buildings, lighted up brightly all night. Macedonian capital Skopje is particularly insane in this aspect. Did you know that it just recently changed its name to North Macedonia? It was the Greeks who insisted on the name change. They also forced the renaming of the Skopje airport. It is not called Alexander the Great anymore. Alexander III of Macedon certainly wasn’t Slavic from Northern Macedonia (the Slavs came in much later) but he also wasn’t Greek Greek. He was of a Macedon tribe with its own language. He studied under the Greek philosopher Aristotle in classic Greek. Oops, I said no history lessons!

Everywhere, be it in a big capital or a small town you will find a lot of al fresco restaurants and coffee shops on cobble stone streets, where friends, lovers, families, and tourists sit after the temps drop somewhat in the evenings.

Certainly you won’t go hungry, but it won’t be that easy if you are a vegetarian as meat of all sorts is the main ingredient do most Balkan meals.Besides your typical pork, beef and lamb, you will also find on the menus specialties like tripe, calve’s liver, rabbits, and sheep’s brain. Expect your plate to be overflowing and the your wallet only slightly diminished. Food and alcohol is extremely affordable and generally of great quality. We especially appreciated the ripe, red, juicy tomatoes and the early summer fruits of cherries, apricots and peaches. Much appreciated by all guests!

After food and any other time coffee is taken seriously on the Balkans. But coffee is more than coffee, it is a ritual and an offering of hospitality and friendship. In some places it is also a way of life, especially for older men, who meet in coffee houses killing time until lunch or dinner, prepared at home by their wives, who certainly had invited a neighbor or two for a cup of their own. Interestingly, for the longest time Turkish coffee (thick, mud on the bottom concoction with lots of sugar) was the poison of choice. Nowadays the cappuccinos and the like have become very trendy, especially amongst the younger crowd. In some former Yugoslavian republics you might be surprised to find a certain amount of Yugonostalgia. Compared to Stalin and most other Communist leaders, Tito was seen much more as a benevolent dictator and many people still remember him fondly and come to visit his quite modest marble grave in Belgrade’s House of Flowers . So let’s stay with the former Yugoslavian republics. We skipped a few like Bosnia and Kosovo. (Our car insurance wasn’t valid there, besides there were clashes with Serbs reported yet again). At the beginning of our 6 week trip around the Balkans we drove on the freeways from Ljubljana via Zagreb straight to Belgrade and in quick six hours we were there. That’s were in my mind the Western (Austro Hungarian) and Eastern (Serbian Orthodox and Turkish) worlds come together.

Enormous, new, but still unfinished Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Sava.

We have heard enthusiastic reports about Belgrade from friends, but we found it gray, dilapidated and under construction. It is considered the Party Capital of Europe, but being old farts that go to bed early, we did not check out the famous river venues. After a brief and very hot day in Belgrade we hightailed it straight down towards the sea.

We only stopped in a small side valley at the Mileševa Monastery to say a quick hello to a famous White AngelThis beautiful angel fresco has been recognized as a universal symbol of peace. It has been sent as a first ever satellite message from Europe to North America. It has also travelled into space a few times, hoping to convey the peace message to any possible interceptors.

We crossed into Montenegro (=Crna gora=Black mountain) and everything became green! There was an extraordinary wet May and Nature exploded in a riot of leaves, grasses, and flowers. It was particularly spectacular from the high point of the bridge on Tara River.

The bridge saw heavy fighting during WWII, when partisans blew up the middle span to halt the Italian occupying forces. As a kid I remember watching a movie about it and crying over the execution of the bridge engineer who helped the partisans.

Finally we stood at the view point overlooking the Kotor Bay. I remember arriving at the very same spot on the old narrow road for the first time on a local bus with a crazy driver who cut the curves and screeched down the hills with half the bus hanging over the unprotected edges. I was sure I was gonna die.

Today in the comfort of my own car with my most excellent driver, my thought was only that the view was really to die for. No wonder James Bond’s Casino Royal was placed in Montenegro (though, sorry, not a single scene was shot there).

We crossed with the ferry as the sun came down and pulled into the little town of Donje Lastovo, where our home away from home was waiting for us.

We quickly and easily slipped from the Balkan into the Mediterranean mode.

Brief Encounters of a Japanese Kind

A big part of why I love to travel is meeting diverse people (and robots!) I would never ever had a chance to meet otherwise. Sometimes they are interesting travelers, sharing tips and excitement of the road, but mostly they are locals sharing insights into their culture and way of life.

“Isn’t it impossible to travel on your own to Japan?” asked some friends, who travel often and far. “We heard Japanese speak no English.”

No English is a gross exaggeration, but yes, communication in Japan is a bit of a challenge, to say it mildly. Japanese all learn English in school, but in a very old fashioned way, without a chance to practice and speak English. So, surprisingly, even young people with college education often are not able to put a sentence together, though they probably do understand quite a lot of what you are saying.

Still, since our first visit 35 years ago, when there was no English anywhere, the tourist infrastructure is vastly improved with excellent English signs everywhere. Occasionally the translations are too literal and afford great opportunities for some laughter. The tourist information centers are well stocked with English brochures and timetables even if sometimes you have to and people manning them have a very limited spoken English capability.

Luckily for us we had a chance to communicate with a few excellent English speakers so we could have quite in depth conversations and ask some pressing questions. Important, because Japanese culture is not always easy to understand for an outsider.

For example: What is it with grown women walking around dressed like live dolls? I still do not have a full answer. It has something to do with Japanese obsession with cuteness called Kawaii, that can refer to things, people or toy characters that are charming, shy and childlike. Think Hello Kitty!

What is it with Japanese obsessed with plush animals, that continues far into adulthood? A friend told me she once spent a night at a Japanese family’s house where she was offered their grown daughter’s bedroom . She said it was literally hard to find the bed for the whole room was full of large and small stuffed animals. Here’s a couple taking their wedding portraits sporting their favorite plush animals. Huh? It would only make sense if they then ceremoniously flushed them down the toilet as a symbol of leaving all childish things behind. Didn’t happen.

My husband, who always pays (too?!) close attention to ladies, was the first to notice that most Japanese women wear shoes at least one size too big. I still don’t have a satisfactory answer, but a variety of responses from people like: shoes are a relatively new idea for us Japanese….we take off shoes more often than the westerners, so they need to be bigger…the fancy western shoes are sold here in Japan in small, medium and large sizes only, so everyone goes for the bigger size. Didn’t have a chance to confirm this. Looking for shoe shops was not very high on my priority list.

Just as you can’t help but notice the inordinate amount of passionate kissing and hugging in (romantic) European cities, you also can’t help noticing the total lack of any public affection in Japan. The closest you will come is seeing a young couple holding hands while on a walk in the park. It is simply not acceptable to show any more and very impolite to “burden” others with having to watch you. What’s wrong with that? Well, the problem seems to be that this dispassionate approach to love does not diminish at the doorsteps of Japanese bedrooms. Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the whole world.

On the other hand most visitors to Japan will tell you how extremely helpful and warm the Japanese people are towards Western visitors. People will go out of their way to help you and are very concerned if you are a woman alone. If I happened to stray from my husband, someone would invariably ask if I was traveling alone. With crime rates the lowest in the world I figured it would be a perfect country for a woman to travel alone. I asked a young black woman from England traveling solo on the same ferry, if she felt safe in Japan. I expected her to nod enthusiastically, but she looked at me gravely and said thoughtfully, “Yes, the Japanese are helpful, but let me just say they have not seen a lot of black people.”

Ah, another good thing about traveling – it teaches you to not make assumptions one way or another.

You certainly can count on the Japanese to help you if you ask to the extent that they would rather send you in the wrong direction than not helping you. Or is this the case of Asian “Not loosing face”, by admitting you don’t know.

One early morning after having spent a night at a youth hostel in Kanazawa, the only accommodation we could find, we were desperate to get some breakfast. The only person up and about was a lady struggling to put up a flag in front of the Samurai museum. So I lent her a hand and she in turn mobilized the staff of the museum to brainstorm on our breakfast options.

The Japanese are in general quite shy and will not be the ones to initiate a conversation. We found that we could always exchange at least a few words if we stopped and offered some lavish praise to the owners of pampered pets. My understanding is that isolation is a really big challenge in Japanese society, especially for young men. I wager that overuse of technology does have a role to play. Riding local trains we could frequently observe school kids on their way to school. While the girls would be engaged in some conversations and giggling together, the boys invariably just played (violent) video games on their smart phones. Indeed, it seems that in general girls are doing much better in Japanese society these days than boys. As they grow up they tend to be more confident, educated, enjoying their life, shopping and traveling. They are in no rush to get married. Because of the very traditional gender values and expectations, the pressure on men, especially first sons is exacerbated. Men are supposed to be responsible breadwinners, working extremely long hours, while women should stay home alone minding the house and kids. Very clearly depicted in this beer ad:Rejecting those norms has initiated a worrisome phenomenon called Hikikomori whereas adolescent boys and even middle aged men shut themselves in their rooms and refuse to come out for years. On the low end the estimate is that about 1 million Japanese are modern day hermits.

quite in the contrary our three Japanese Servas hosts very very outgoing. They were the ones answering lots of questions and giving us a real insight into the real Japanese life. First we visited a family of four in Sapporo. The dad was an elementary school teacher who had studied music in the States, so he could speak English. His wife was also a musician, but was now a stay home mom with two boys. We spent the day with them driving to the site of the Winter Olympic museum and ski jump.

They taught us how to eat Hokkaido noodles with just the right amount of appreciative slurping and arranged for free tickets to a grand concert of community wind orchestras. Who knew classical music was so popular in Japan? With the high level of professionalism and prevalence of young musicians classical music has a secure future there.

We even got to visit the wife’s mother and father for a demo of green tea ceremony and a real home made Japanese dinner feast with lots of kanpai (=cheers!) toasts. It is surprising how easily family secrets and complaints surface after a few drinks! Our second host was a divorced woman living with her elderly parents in a house they built after their 130 year old traditional home was totally destroyed in the 2016 earthquake, burying the parents underneath for many hours. What are the chances that the first morning of our stay a strong earthquake of 6.3 on the Richter scale magnitude shook and swayed the ground. If I wouldn’t have believed in PTSD before, I would have been convinced, as our new friend jumped into my arms crying hysterically. Luckily there was no damage but frayed nerves.

To get into a different frame of mind we drove to another friend’s house in a traditional village nearby where they prepared a wonderful lunch and showed us their old treasures. Upon departure they pressed upon us a few old lacquer bowls even though we protested we had no room in our luggage. The best part though was a peek into their thick green bamboo forest. The size of the trunks and especially of the fresh bamboo shoots was really impressive. As the friend was going through a divorce as well we had a chance to discuss this still rather taboo topic. Divorce continues to be very much frowned upon in Japanese society.

If in agreement, a couple can get easily divorced by mutual consent, simply filing a form with the local government office. But there are much less simple solutions for their children after a divorce. Or rather there is only one simple solution. As there is no joint custody of children, if the parents can’t agree, the court decides whom the children shall live with and it can be the mother, the father or even the relatives. The divorced father or mother then pretty much looses any right to see his or her children. And the children who are not seen as individuals with legal rights, but as belonging to a family, have no right to access their non custodial parent. This might be one of the major factors why the divorce rate in Japan is quite low.

Our third host was Tomoko, a 75 year old retired High school English teacher, who returned with her husband to her small home town of Sasebo, Kyushu, where they built a beautiful house made of fancy wood and filled it with books. She picked us up from the train station and immediately took us sightseeing. Her English was wonderful, so our conversations were the easiest and most enjoyable. You bet we had discussions about challenges of having retired husbands! If anywhere in the world it is in Japan that husbands literally live for their job and they are lost without it. She said that Japanese retired men simply refuse to learn anything new, like using a smart phone. But, she noted, at least her husband, contrary to many of her friend’s husbands, even though he does not want to travel, does not object to her going off on her own. So much so that we will reunite with Tomoko in September in Europe.

Her women network was a real boon. Whatever my wish, she could pick up her (smart) phone and within minutes she arranged for some really special Japanese experiences. I was tickled pink to have a private kimono lesson with her friend, a Japanese traditional dance teacher. Did I mention how much I adore any and all Japanese kimonos? I also love Ikebana – the art of Japanese flower arrangement. I have taken many classes and found much creative enjoyment with my limited artistic skills in Sogetsu Ikebana school. Turns out Tomoko’s cousin is an Ikebana Instructor, from a different, Ikenobo school. So of course we had to pay a visit and she gave me an introductory lesson! Her house and garden, too, were full of flowers – what a treat! While these were all well planned visits through Servas organisation, it is a chance encounter with a special 80 years young lady that we cherish even more. We came across the big traditional house of Ishikawa International Exchange Center on our stroll around Kanazawa. The Japanese garden was beautiful and the special exhibit of a rich collection of Japanese fabrics even more so, but the crowning glory was the woman runing the show. Seeing our interest, she took us to the off limits upstairs to show us some secret features of the old house. She was a big U.S. enthusiast, having sent both her daughters to the U.S. for high school and university studies. Her love for America was triggered when she was 5 years old and the American soldiers came to war torn Japan. “We couldn’t believe how nice the soldiers were; big, strapping guys, with pockets full of candy and chocolate. truth be told Japanese husbands don’t have a great track record, so I am really glad both my daughters have American husbands!”

On the way out the door she gave us a hand made Temari ball, which is a traditional gesture of friendship with the symbolic design of the crane, the bird of happiness.

We said goodbye to Japan, knowing that there are still many unexplored places beckoning, but also new friends that will welcome us back.

Inspired by Japanese Style

One of the few books that has escaped numerous moves and decluttering of our home is a 35 years old book called Japanese Style. It has influenced our aesthetics and inspired our home style, from the purchase of our first family size futon when we were a really broke young family to the attempt to design a Japanese inspired garden when we were a little less broke or at least the bank was willing to give us a home equity loan.

While we find things worth bickering about often, we are united in our love for most things Japanese. We can and do spend hours admiring the perfect patterns of raked gravel in Japanese dry gardens or the exquisite shapes and colors of Japanese pottery or lacquerware.

The Japanese have the unsurpassed sense of refinement, attention to detail, and the mastery of craft that extends from the gold leaf splattered imperial finery of an ink box to a humble toothpick or just a simple bamboo fence. A wooden door becomes an intriguing piece of art or a canvas for the rain to draw a masterpiece on. Nature is also coaxed to perfection in Japanese gardens. Initial garden inspiration came from China, but as in many other things the Japanese took an idea and developed and molded and mastered and perfected it to unreachable heights. It takes a great knowledge of Feng shui and care and skill to set up a Japanese garden and then it takes hard work, patience and attention to details to keep it growing well. Japanese gardeners are in my book the unsung heroes.

There are big castle park gardens with large bodies of water that are wonderful for strolling, especially in the evenings under romantic lighting. Where you have water, you must have bridges. They come in different shapes and colors, but my favorite is a cheerful red. Under the bridges giant black, golden, and orange koi fish are swimming happily.Sometimes the water is not water at all, but is represented by white pebbles that flow like a river. And the fish are a ceramic rendition. How fun! The reflection of the trees in the water is replaced by the black shadows on white gravel river.We first encountered this concept at the spectacular Adachi Museum of Art Garden, considered by many the best garden in all of Japan. It certainly is the best and the cleverest set up for six gardens in total, because they blend in perfectly with the surrounding hills and while you can’t walk through them at all, you can watch large landscape tableaux through the contemporary museum windows, changing through the seasons. A very different experience of a garden, indeed! We had a few quiet moments at Yuushien Garden coffee shop that employs a similar wall window garden view idea. For a short time in spring time you can watch thousands upon thousands of yellow and pink peony flowers floating on the water. Peony symbolizes good fortune, bravery, and honor.No wonder it was depicted in a very similar pattern on a samurai’s lacquer box.

Water and modern architecture were also combined well in the D.T. Suzuki Museum, celebrating the life of the Japanese philosopher who introduced Zen Buddhism to the Western world. Fittingly it was very minimalist, inviting the visitors to quiet reflection or shall I call it Zen meditation?For us though, it was the smaller, more intimate garden settings, that we enjoyed most. We stumbled upon the Namura Residence garden in the old samurai district of Kanzawa, not knowing that it was no. 3 on the list of the best. It is a tiny garden, but fits in all essential Japenese garden elements:

Rocks and stepping stones and koi, and a cube shaped water feature beautifully reflecting the surrounding trees.Water features are probably my favorite element of Japanese gardens.Mirek really likes stone lanterns in all their shapes and forms. Especially if accompanied by beautiful women, or shapely trees,or vibrant leaves. Oh, the trees! What can be more Japanese than the flaming Japanese maples? Only flowering cherries, if you please! Yoo-hoo, what about bamboo?Of course. Green, black, variegated? Tall, for sure! What I like about Japanese garden approach is that even if you don’t have a castle or a house, you can still plan a tiny Japanese garden in a corner by your front door or at least a mini one on a tray. If all else fails, you can always hang a garden painting on your wall.

The Great Japanese Train Adventure

Please read carefully the following Customer warning:

If you never played with toy trains as a kid, STOP reading and spend your time more productively by looking through the window observing the clouds in the sky.

For the rest of you being irreversibly infected by the train fever:

Welcome to the world of TRAINS! Japanese trains! Just saying the word SHINKANSEN gives me a jolt of excitement and joy.

Originally we had a very simple plan. First and foremost we will go to Japan in the spring for Sakura. As it is difficult to predict where and when the cherries would bloom, we contrived a plan to outsmart them.

Let us fly to northernmost island of Japan, rent a car as we like to do, and move slowly against the blooming cherry line as it moves with warming weather north and….let fate bring us together.

Until, a few days before leaving Western Australia for Sapporo, as I read my car rental agreement, I found to my big surprise the fine print: “Driving in Japan is allowed with Japanese driving permit OR National driving license WITH the International Driving Permit (IDP) issued by the country of the driver’s origin ONLY!”

Damn! We have been renting cars year after year and we carried our IDPs, but nobody ever asked for them! So when the last one expired in January 2019 we did not bother to renew it. Well, great timing going to Japan, the only country that demands it!

In a few days we made an urgent inquiry with our families back in the States and in Europe, and the message was clear. If you want to get it, you better come home in person, show your valid National/State driver’s license, get the IDP issued and then you can drive around Japan for six months but not a day more!

Forget it! Instead we will have to opt for travel by trains. What can I tell you, I was in heaven!

Why?

For those of you who read our last year’s blog covering our overnight travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, it is a well known fact that I love trains – the marvels of engineering innovation since Locomotion No. 1 was put on rails by Mr.Stevenson and run some 200 years ago (1825 to be exact).

But you may remember that we did not do much train travel after Chiang Mai, not just because of the miserable and well refrigerated overnight Thai ride, but even more because of my wife’s well known dislike of trains. In her youth she once spent days and days on stinky Soviet trains, which left her with TPTSD (Train PTSD) and utterly diminished appreciation for the beauty of train travel.

With the IDP Japanese disaster my chances of getting on a train again were now looking very good, indeed!

Now let’s get those fabulous Japanese Rail Passes that let you ride the Bullet trains! According to our initial Google research the JR Rail Pass could only be issued to bona fide temporary foreign visitors of Japan and purchased outside of Japan. There were offers of ordering and paying for the 1, 2 or 3 week passes on line and then having a voucher sent to your home address. After arriving to Japan you then present the voucher and your passport stamped by Japanese immigration officer to the Japan Railways office and receive the real pass. Complicated? You bet! Especially if you are not at your home address, but half way around the world. There must be a different way! After further Internet digging we found out that one could also buy the Rail Pass from an overseas Japan tourist office and Hallelujah, there was on the list a convenient office in Perth, Western Australia, where we were heading next.

To sweeten the deal, I suggested we upgrade to the first class so called Green car. My wife agreed and with a 21-day Rail Pass voucher in hand I could start planing the optimal route. On this map

red lines mark Shinkansen High Speed (known in the West as Bullet) Train network. The yellow lines are Local and Limited Express Trains. Complementing the rail lines are also JR operated buses, and in addition, surprisingly, one ferry. All covered by the Japan Rail Pass issued either for different geographic regions or the whole National one.

Japan is a densely populated country of about 130 million people. But that number is very unevenly distributed over the main 4 islands to such an extent that 80 million people live in a relatively narrow belt on the southern coast of Japan biggest island of Honshu.

That is where Shinkansen concept came initially to life with its first section between Tokyo and Nagoya open to public for Tokyo 1964 Olympics (bravo, you guys, nice excuse to get funding). It is true that the costly overruns were alarming (about double of initial requested funding), costing the project champion his position and career but nobody dared to stop this project. The concept proved to be very successful and today Shinkansen is a sturdy skeleton of a very efficient and apparently profitable rail transportation system of the whole Japan. As for our travel plans the rails went where we wanted to go and not the other way around. We had to look for our accommodation to be as close to the rail stations as possible so we would not have to drag our luggage around or rely on expensive taxis. (No cheap Uber in Japan). Fortunately, in a country like Japan, where businessmen use fast train transport, there are always clusters of hotels in easy walking distance from the stations. With 3 weeks of unlimited rail travel we (read I) figured we could pretty much cover the whole of Japan from the North to the South, avoiding the most popular and tourist infested areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, where we have been before anyways.

We flew to Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaidó, the northern most island and after getting our passports properly stamped we easily found the JR office at the Airport rail station and got our vouchers exchanged for the glorious real Rail Passes. With the skillful help of the lovely JR ladies we even got reserved seats for the first week of our train travel. We were ready to jump on our first train. Hurrah! Our Great Japanese Train Adventure had just begun! My excitement could not be significantly marred by the disappointing fact that the Shinkansen network has just one Hokkaidó station. It is in Hakodate, a temporary terminal in southernmost tip of this island. The further northern reach of Shinkansen is still under construction through mountains of Hokkaidó and will not be open till March 2030. While sad that my complete Shinkansen experience may have to wait beyond my useful life expectancy, I do hope in the improbable case of beating the odds, I will report to you on riding the newly open section if I am still able to hear, see and write.

We were forewarned that the learning curve on riding the Japanese trains was steep so let us share some tips we learned along the way. The frequency of trains run by JR is incredible, so you do not have to worry that you will miss your train. If you do, there certainly would be another one coming soon, probably within minutes. But you should be aware that majority of non-local trains have many cars assigned for reserved seating only and you CANNOT buy the reservation ON the train. In this case you will end up in non-reserved seats car(s). From our experience there is no reason NOT to reserve your seat. In each and every station in Japan we were able to get a seat reservation in a matter of minutes. It helps to install on your smart phone HyperDia application with JR schedule, so with a click or two you can get all possibilities of how to get from point A to B and hence can just show to the JR sales person the phone screen with the train you want. You could theoretically even master this activity on the station’s automatic machines but it involves a conversation with the JR person in the Central JR office in Tokyo and at least rudimentary knowledge of Japanese language.

After you have your reservation stubs you approach the station gates, Rail Passes in hand. The gates are mostly automatic, armed with sensors reading the tickets. They unfortunately do not work with Rail Pass and to enter the station you have to show your Pass to a live JR staff at the gates. They usually just glance at the pass and wave you through. Please note on this picture the essential differences between women of East and West. The petite Japanese girl is the epitome of the demure cuteness with her toes pointed inward while the Western sturdy feet are firmly planted in a outward conquering stride. The speculation and our unproven theory here is that after centuries of wearing a tight kimono and mincing her steps, the Japanese woman walks pigeon toed, and men find this attractive, while in the West the open feet ballet stance is more in vogue.

Any which way, let your feet carry you towards your train platform, most of the time on a different level, but serviced by escalators and/or elevators so you do not have to struggle with your luggage on any stairs.

On your reservation stub you have the name of the train and car and seat number so now you only have to look around the platform to find the exact spot where your car door will stop. Look down on the floor and up on the hanging signs and then line up at the marker. But before you embark on your train, do check carefully that you are indeed on the right platform.

On station signs, which most of the time alternate between Japanese and English, you can, in a hurry, get confused looking only at numbers amongst the flashing Japanese signs. We once got misled by recognizing the time of our train departure and blindly followed to the wrong platform with our luggage in tow, only to discover there were two different trains leaving at the same time and our train was on the other side of the station. A feverish run ensued and we barely jumped into the last car of our train, totally out of breath, but with a big grin on our faces.

Of course whenever and wherever we could, we rode Shinkansens. They are physically separate from other trains and ride on mostly elevated tracks, never crossing the roads or other train lines. But we were happy to experience many other trains, too: local, commuter and so called Limited Express trains. We had fun on a local train with one and only car, where separation between the train engineer and traveling public is almost none existent and on this two car train in Kyushu where we were the only representatives of traveling public. Except for the busy Golden Week where it looked like all of Japan was traveling and on a few trains taking high school students to and from their very long days at school, the trains have been surprisingly empty. Perhaps not as surprisingly, for our Japanese friends complained about the high cost of train travel and were quite envious of our Rail Passes. It is indeed unfar to local residents that a similar Pass is not offered to them. Our running tally says we would have had to pay three times the cost of what we had to pay for all our train rides as individual tickets!

Still people do take trains in Japan, especially in highly populated areas where commuter lines are packed tight. On Tokaido Shinkansen line between Osaka and Tokyo the Bullet trains transport on average 22,000 people in an hour in each direction! In a year Shinkansen trains take 159 million passengers to their destinations. Standing on the platform observing those 16-car trains passing one another every 4-5 minutes is mind boggling! It is even more mind boggling that the trains run at the maximum speed of 320 km/hr (200 miles/hr). Not to say anything of my impression of the futuristic design of the train locomotive. It is like watching Formula One race but much safer! If I add to this the beautifully designed new Kanazawa Rail Station I am really feeling like in a sci-fi movie. The interior design is very cool, too. The seats can be easily configured so that families can sit face to face. Some private line sightseeing trains were built for scenic excursions into Japanese countryside. A train like this bird watching beauty runs three times a day and provides the bird lovers comfortable seating with plenty of opportunity to sharpen their eyesight with enough drinks, so no one would be sorry for binocular forgotten at home. What all of the Japanese trains have in common is their admirable accuracy, frequency and cleanliness. The bane of my wife’s (train) existence – toilets are modern and immaculate, much nicer and roomier than any airplane bathroom, which, of course, is not saying much. The service too, is much better. You can order some food and/or booze from lovely, young, smiling train attendants. When not chatting up the attendants, one can enjoy the fleeting images of Japan rushing past the window. From snow capped mountains of the Northto warm sea and shore line of the South, or most exciting engineer’s view of the tunnel.

And let’s not forget passing more than twice through Japanese Alps which gave us the sense of how much of Japan is still covered by the lush green forests, contradicting the notions of sprawling urban concrete jungles along the Shinkansen line.

It is the last day of our 21-day Rail Pass on our 2,000+miles long trip, and we are spending it on trains back to Tokyo airport. We reached our goal of riding trains from Northernmost to Southernmost Japanese Shinkansen station. For good measure we added the Western most rail station in Japan in the town of Sasebo. We are on Hikari 476 Shinkansen arriving just before expiration of our Passes at midnight. As I am browsing I discover the fresh news:

“Japan is pushing the limits of rail travel as it begins testing the fastest-ever Shinkansen bullet train, capable of speeds of as much as 400 kilometers (249 miles) per hour.

Called the Alfa-X, the train is scheduled to go into service in 2030. Rail company JR East plans to operate it at 360 kilometers per hour. That would make it 10 km/hr faster than China’s Fuxing Hao, which links Beijing and Shanghai and has the same top speed. Good! It looks when I come back in 2030 I will be riding a new faster Shinkansen to Sapporo and beyond.

In Search of Sakura

Waiting for the sun to tease open the tight pink buds sitting on bare brown branches like tiny baby birds crowding together for warmth, ready to burst open and sing the ode to long awaited spring, we wandered, dressed in all our warm clothes, over the island of Hokkaido in the far North of Japan. We had scoured the official Japanese meteorological webpages for historical data and this year’s predictions on cherry blossoms bloom. We emailed people in Japan. Everyone said because of the mild winter Sakura will bloom early. Afraid we will miss the last wave of cherry blossoms and the famous hanami (cherry viewing) parties sweeping up north through Japan, we decided to start our three week trip at the tail end of April in the very North and then turn down South.

Well, everyone was wrong. Waiting at the airport on a long layover from Bangkok to Sapporo we looked at the weather app and panicked.

Rain and snow was predicted for our arrival. We scrambled for a few hours trying to rearrange our itinerary and book new hotels further south, only to find there were no hotels available. Or there was one smoking(!) room left for 1 person for $8,975. No kidding.

Flummoxed I texted a friend who has recently been to Japan, and she had an easy explanation, “It is Golden Week and the coronation of the New Emperor coming up on top of it. It is 10 days when the whole Japan has time off and everyone is traveling.” Oh, another great timing on our part! Start doing your homework, people!

When I told her about the weather forecast she responded, “Maybe pink blossoms and white snow will make for a beautiful picture!”

What a blessing to have friends who always see the cup half full.

And so we went. On a search. On an adventure. Reminding ourselves that truly it is the road, not the destination that matters.

And on this, at first quite cold, road we found all we hoped for and then some. For nearly the whole first week we had Japan to ourselves. We climbed up to lonely little wooden temples, and trespassed (shhh!) into some still closed off parks, cherishing every brave new cherry blossom. We warmed up in museums and galleries and in the we drank copious amounts of hot tea and had fun signing the guest book.We searched for sakura in alternate places and found them everywhere: on big gilded screens, on small handkerchiefs, even on apples,and Coke bottles. Then the day arrived with blue sky and glorious sun and warmer temperatures and we discarded our winter clothes and jumped on a train (thanks to the unlimited Rail Pass) and rode five hours to the town of Hakodate on the southern tip of Hokkaido, where 1600 old cherry trees just opened at full bloom. Planted around a star shaped fortress Goryokaku, of which only a moat remains, all the cherry trees, like beautiful blushing brides, were covered with a heavy white veil. I don’t know if it was our relentless effort or our bated breath anticipation, but finally seeing the spectacular sight and walking, bah, practically floating, underneath the white canopy of endless blossoms was an unforgettable moment of awe and fulfillment of a dream. For once we did not mind sharing it with about a million other people who came to enjoy the Nature’s Spring spectacle. Except for a few rowdy groups of people with kegs of beer, most of the spectators were chatting amiably or sitting quietly on blue tarps under the white canopy, enjoying their picnic lunches. Of course, if they were not busy strolling around, finding the perfect spot for a selfie. I was disappointed to not see a single person with a book of poems, as in the olden times it was a tradition to compose or at least read a poem while drinking a cup of sake under the blossoming sakura. I have been an admirer of Japanese haiku poetry of the greats like Basho, Buson and Issa. They knew how to catch the fleeting moments of short lived cherry blossoms with a few words and impressions like this Buson’s haiku:

Petals falling

unable to resist

the moonlight.

I was glad to see that a few young women dressed in elegant traditional kimonos and styled their raven hair. It was a very romantic notion seeing the striking patterns of cloth amongst the patterns and shadows of the blooms and branches. We caught our falling petals just a few days later when we crossed from Hokkaido to Honshu island and arrived in the town of Hirosaki, where the rain has scattered the blossoms of the first blossoming variety (amongst 200 wild and domesticated cherry trees in Japan). In fact the banks and the water of the moat around the castle looked like covered with freshly fallen snow. Luckily there are 2600 cherry trees at Hirosaki Park with over 50 different types of cherry trees including the classic simple Somei Yoshino cherry blossoms, Shidarezakura (Weeping Cherry), and Yaezakura (Double Layer Cherry) and many were still blooming happily. The basic classification of cherry blossoms is simple, there are only two groups. If they have 5 petals they are called single and if more than 5, then they are called double, even if some have up to 50 petals forming one fluffy blossom. We crossed over a cheery red bridge to reach the big tower, the most substantial remnants of the castle. The cascading pink weeping cherriesenhanced the rather simple architecture. It was really the trees that stole the show. Some were very old and majestic. There is a special spot in the garden, forming a hearth in the canopy,  attracting couples, especially newlyweds, that come to take their traditional wedding portraits. May their love blossom beautifully like the lovely sakura of Japan!

As for us, the Great Sakura Search brought us Moments of Awe, Bliss, and Small Delights. All there is left to say is:

Australian P. S. The Tale of Bossy, the Baby Kangaroo

It has been a long while since our table mate left for the bathroom. I started wondering if I should go and check in on her.

The only dinner place in the little seaside town of Denham, Western Australia open that night was crammed with customers. We spotted two empty seats next to an older couple and zoomed in.

They welcomed us to their table and quickly, over a couple of bottles of beer, while we waited for our food, a friendly banter ensued. Last year they have spent three months driving a Winnebago around the United States. It was an unforgettable adventure. They loved the people. They loved the National parks. Couldn’t wait to save enough money to go back.

They were truck drivers, running water and hay for the farmers in the big Australian outback. Hard working, salt of the earth people. When I asked about retirement, the wife answered, pointing at her white haired husband, “He is only 84, he will die of boredom if he quits.” A few years younger, she had been a truck driver since she was 16, just to spite her mother, who did not think it a fitting profession for a girl. She had met her husband some 8 years ago, when her truck broke down. “Came to my rescue on the road, my knight in shining armor,” she said laughingly, patting his hand. She had an easy laugh and a twinkle in her eye. There was no obstacle that could stop her. She was planing to acquire a third truck next year for their little company.

Now she was striding back to our table with a fresh bottle of beer in her hand. Her husband looked up from his steak (“you need to take a loan from the bank, to pay for food here”, he had said), and asked quietly, “Is he OK?”

“Oh, fine, sleeping on the bed, but I left the TV on,” she answered softly and took a swig. She wasn’t eating anything, “she never eats anything in the evening, but likes a few of them light beers.”

My curiosity got the better of me and I asked, “Do you have a puppy with you?”

“A baby kangaroo, but shh, don’t tell the hotel, they don’t allow pets!”

For a moment I thought she was pulling my leg, but no, she wouldn’t. Not her. There wasn’t a mean bone in her body.

“What?” my husband said, nearly falling out of his chair. “Are you serious? How old is he?”

“Three months! We got him when his mom was killed on the road. People know to look in the pouch for baby joeys if a mom gets killed. They brought him to our pub. So we took him. We’ve had a few orphans before. But this one is a special character.”

“He is very gentle for a boy and he is so attached to her,” the husband jumped in. “He follows her everywhere, he really thinks she is his mother. We can’t leave him with anyone. So we have to take him along when we go on a job.”

“Well, he is getting a little bit more independent,” said the wife. “Now, when I take him for his morning walk, I don’t put him on a leash anymore and he is starting to hop in a bigger loop, further out, not just sticking to my leg.”

“What do you feed him?” was the next question.

“He is raised on bottles with special non cow milk formula. Joeys spend a long time in mom’s pouch. They are tiny jelly bean size creatures when they are born and can not survive on their own until eighteen months.”

“What will you do when he gets too big? It would be really hard to let him go, I am sure,” I stipulated.

“There is a special rescue place that takes orphan kangaroos. It is pretty big, so they can be quite free. But we don’t advertise its location widely. Kangaroos raised by humans can’t really be rehabilitated to live in the wild. It is nice that we can come visit.”

“What did you name him?” asked my husband.

“Boss, because he is a little bit bossy.”

I looked at my husband across the table and saw he was just as curious as me. We had to meet Bossy, the Kangaroo!

“Do you think we could see him on the way from dinner?” I asked excitedly.

“Of course!”

We refused desert and coffee and in no time we paid our bill and were on our way out the door and in the corridors of the hotel. As they quietly unlocked the door a surprise was awaiting us. There in the entryway stood Bossy on his oversized hind legs with his diaper on and his long tail sticking out.

“Oh, did you wake up, Bossy?”, asked Bossy’s mom and scooped him up. “Oh, you are cold, poor baby!” She grabbed a big gray pouch and wrapped him in it tightly. My husband totally surprised me by asking, “Can I hold him for a little bit?” He then proceeded to gently rock him on his lap. Then he patiently fed him his bottle of milk! After a little while Bossy was warm and ready to come out. He hopped around the room and took a little snack of rabbit food. Despite the best effort of his mom to get him into bed, he was not interested. Perhaps, like a little kid, he was too excited to have visitors!

“Let’s see if we can get him into the pouch to calm down,” his mom suggested. “It is interesting when they are little and they first learn how to hop into the pouch. It is a bit of a reverse process, as in real life they have to first learn how to gather courage to hop out of their mother’s pouch. The grey kangaroos don’t leave their mother’s pouch for good until they are 11 months old.”

My husband had the honor to get him into the pouch and naughty Bossy didn’t make it easy for him. When finally he was in and settled, we knew it was our time to say goodbye to Bossy, the Kangaroo and his wonderful parents!

P.P.S. Don’t forget to play all the video clips!

Chasing the Aussie Big Ones

After 9 months of drought, on the day we drove 1300 km (800 miles) up to Exmouth, the most North Western tip of Australia, it started dumping buckets of rain. We have met an unexpected cyclone. We could hear the collective sigh of relief of all the Australian farmers, worrying about their thirsty and hungry cattle. But we couldn’t help but worry about the effect it will have on our plan to go swimming with the whale sharks. To make matters worse we realized that the school holidays and Easter were just about to begin so accommodations were going to be really tough to find.

This was our second trip to Western Australia in as many months. On our first go the timing was off, as the whale sharks have not yet started their yearly migration. (Hm, I am noticing a pattern here.)

We drove up to experience Ningaloo Reef in all its glory – not very well known and lucky for us, much less popular than Great Barrier Reef. We were here to check the claim that this was the best reef in the world, with the healthiest coral, abundance of life and crystal clear visibility. Now we were worried that due to storms the whale shark swimming boat wouldn’t even sail.

But Aussies are tough and optimistic cookies. After a night of relentless rain, the dawn sky was gray and heavy as we boarded our boat. Yet, the big smiles of the beautiful and fun young crew of Ningaloo Discovery warmed up the morning and our mood. We were lucky to find ourselves in a small group of only eleven, as twenty is the usual group size. We had a young boy of nine in our midst. In case you think his parents were irresponsible freaks to let him do this, let me assure you that there is absolutely no danger, as whale sharks are indeed sharks by classification, but have no teeth and are only feeding on plankton and krill (like some toothless whales) by filtering it through their gills. Very quickly we were kitted in wet suits, masks and flippers and thrown in cyclone cooled waters for a quick snorkel. It was to “get comfortable with our equipment”, but it was really to check if everyone was a competent enough swimmer. Too bad the sun was not out, as the coral was indeed abundant and quite striking even in the muted shades of purple and blue.

After we all climbed back up the crew revved up the engines to look for the whale sharks with the help of two spotter planes circling overhead. As only ten people are allowed at a time to swim with the whale shark, they divided us into two smaller groups, each accompanied by an instructor and an underwater photographer. We got precise instructions on how the swim will be conducted. You can only stay with the shark 10 minutes at a time. No touching his tail or riding on his back! Line up behind the instructor, swim 3-4 m away and do not approach the whale shark’s head as you could interfere with its direction of movement and that would be disturbing its natural behavior. There are a few other places around the world, like Mozambique and Mexico, where one can swim with these cool animals, but operators there are not anywhere close to as disciplined, sensitive, or ethical.

Our first attempt was a disappointment. The captain shut down the engines after the word came in from the spotter plane there was a whale shark nearby. 10 minutes after our first group got into water we were given a signal to jump in. We lined up behind the instructor, battling the waves, only to be told, ooops, the shark whale decided to dive deep. Get back on the boat and we will go find ourself another one. While the first group celebrated their whale shark, we waited disappointed. But in no time another creature was spotted and we went back into the water, this time first in line. It is pretty hard to explain the excitement of meeting a whale shark face to face. (Or mask to fin.)

You are underwater looking at the empty dark blue and suddenly the figure of the huge spotted whale shark appears, hurtling towards you. As it passes, you turn and start swimming full blast to keep up with it Nothing exists but your breath and the movement through the water. It is all consuming and exhilarating. The time stretches out. The ten allotted minutes are longer and shorter at the same time.

Back on the boat everyone now had huge grins on their faces. It was not the biggest of the whale sharks, more of a juvenile, about 6 meters long. Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean and can reach 18 meters and weigh over 30 tonnes.

Ningaloo reef is the epicenter of the whale shark feeding aggregation from March to July with anywhere from 200-400 whale sharks passing through. We expected that we will get a swim or two and that’s going to be it. To our surprise and utter delight the crew kept looking for more whale sharks and asking us, “Do you want another swim?”

Of course we do! At one point one of the curious whale sharks decided to swim in a circle and check us out, the little humans flailing about. We had to backpedal to try to keep the required distance. On the last, about the 7th swim some people decided they’ve had their fill, so the remaining troop went in at the same time and I think we combined our allotted times and had a really long farewell swim. If anyone, like us, was initially a bit reluctant to spend the AUS$400+ per person for the day, we now agreed that per swim or per swimming minute it wasn’t such a bad deal after all. Ad to that a nice lunch and a second afternoon snorkel in now sunnier weather and it suddenly seemed like a steal! While the tail end of the cyclone made for very dramatic sunsets it gave us limited opportunities for snorkeling on Ningaloo reef. The Turquoise Bay was turquoise just for a little bit, enough for a few drifting snorkels, that proved there was indeed a rather thick soup of turtles, reef sharks and colorful tropical fish of all kinds. At Coral Bay there were more corals and different kinds of sting rays, including fun leopard and blu polka dotted ones. The wonderful thing about this coral reef is that you don’t need a boat to get to it, even little kids can see the colorful fish in knee deep sandy bays. Of course you first have to fly all the way to Australia and then get all the way to the top of Western Australia.

Since you already made this big effort you can get another big reward. At any time of year there are different types of whales to be seen. If you are a faithful reader of our blog you might remember that on the very tail end of our first visit to Western Australia we went to chase orcas in the Bremer Bay, an underwater canyon on the spectacular southern coast. In spite of all efforts of the Whale Watch Western Australia crew and the most beautiful clear day we saw not one living marine thing, let alone an orca. We were generously offered a voucher for a free cruise at any time. Well, now it was the time, not for the orcas, but blue whales and we wrote to the company that we were back. They honored their promise and booked us on their blue whale tour. We drove back to the capital Perth and the port of Fremantle just in time for Easter. To everyone’s shock it was the coldest and stormiest Easter on record and our tour was delayed by a few days. It was to be again on the very tail end of our stay and we could only hope for better luck. Not to keep the suspense going too long, the morning of our blue whale tour was beautiful and sunny. The water was still a bit choppy, but I have taken my Dramamine with my breakfast and Mirek never gets seasick. I could not say the same for half the people on the cruise, who half an hour into our departure from port were so sick they could not stand up at all. I really felt sorry for them as I was once very sea sick on a boat in Hawaii. They could tell you a space ship has just landed on the horizon and you would just groan and say, “Can you please ask them if they could take me ashore really fast?”

What a terrible pity as very quickly we spotted a distant spout from a blue whale foraging in the Perth (underwater) canyon, looking for patches of krill. After establishing its surfacing and diving pattern we tracked it pretty much the whole day. Whenever we spied the spout after the resurfacing we sped in that direction, but for the high ethical and conservation standards stayed a respectful distance away. We were rewarded by the whale understanding we were not a threat and becoming comfortable with the vessel’s presence.

Blue whale is the largest animal in the world, reaching up to 33 meters and 170 tons. Ours was about 15-18 meters, a juvenile. It was in fact mottled gray in color. The name blue whale derives from its sea shadow, or shall we say underwater reflection, that is indeed beautiful turquoise blue. A very interesting aspect is also a fact that a blue whale leaves a footprint at it dives underwater. It is a large sleek area that stays on the surface for awhile after the whale has disappeared.

Blue whales do not perform exciting breaching like humpback whales or wild hunting as the orcas, but they are still impressive to see. We were welcome up in the captain’s cabin and got our many questions answered by captain and the crew, which are one family, literally. The mom, dad and their two young daughters, who grew up on the boat and were homeschooled, are a perfect, well oiled, lovely seafaring machine. It is wonderful to see them interacting with each other and the guests. The older of the daughters provides a thorough informative commentary with a smooth voice worthy of a radio announcer. We were so enthralled with the search, we could barely take a few minutes downstairs for the delicious lunch.

Then we were treated to a very special dessert. A few white waves on the horizon multiplied into hundreds and soon turned into dolphin shapes racing towards our boat. Soon we were surrounded by a joyful super pod of 500-800 yellow striped dolphins, a species, compared to the regular bottle nosed dolphins, not often seen, we were told.

It was the most spectacular show ever. The dolphins swam in front, alongside and under the boat at full speed, then jumped in the air in graceful arcs and spins.  We have seen a fair share of dolphins in our lives, but this was an unforgettable thrill of a lifetime. We toasted it with a glass of champagne on our return journey to port. As the Whale Watch mom poured us a glass, she said, “My husband was so impressed that you returned to Australia for the tour that he extends an invitation for a free orca tour anytime you come back again.”

Never say never! Last year as we finished our big tour of Australia, we never thought we would return, now we were back for the the third time. We made some wonderful friends on the way and we literally fell in love with this largest, most unknown state of this smallest of all continents.

The Wild(er) Side of Sumatra

Wild, rugged and adventurous are the words often used in the same breath with Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world. It is the place touted as the last sanctuary for wild orangutans. 
We found that the Northern half of Sumatra (Sumatera Utara) was certainly much less populated than Bali or Java, but not really that wild. Our first foray into wilderness was Bukit Lawang on Bohorok River. After a very long ride from the airport in Medan on very bumpy roads and a short walk through the village we got to our aptly named Hotel Orangutan’s beautiful room high up, overlooking the river and green trees. Wow, fantastic, but wait, where is the air con? Sorry, this was the best joint of all for $35! It does cool down in the night, they say. 
Waiting for the relief of the evening, sweating profusely, we decided to cross the river by one of the pedestrian suspension bridges. Something wild was awaiting us on the other side – no, not this monkey, but a wild human party, that ended in the wee hours of the morning. Turns out that the wilderness of Bukit Lawang is a popular party spot for the city rats from Medan. Or should I say lady rats? Hordes of women immediately descended upon us, wanting selfies and photos with us, but mostly with my delightfully obliging husband! Soon they dragged him onto the improvised dance area next to the picnic site where live music was playing. Wild dancing and hooting ensued, occasionally paused, so more ladies could take selfies with Mirek. 
I had a hard time extricating him from the crowd of adoring fans. Walking down the river we came to another bridge and crossed over for our return back to the guest house. 
“Don’t leave the door to the balcony open,” the staff warned us, “or our resident monkeys will steal whatever they can.” True, every morning and evening the cheeky monkeys came over, cavorting on our roof, climbing onto our balcony and looking in through our windows.

But it wasn’t those monkeys we were after. It was the big fuzzy orange orangutans. We were told in order to see them in the Gunung Leuser National Park one had to book an expensive hike with a guide. You could choose a camping overnight, a day hike or an early morning encounter. Lazy old farts that we are, we choose the easy way out.

We had two guides waiting for us at 7 am. They admitted to being a bit tired as they partied the whole night, but their enthusiasm was unabated.

“We will do our best to track down some orangutans for you,” they assured us. We crossed the river over the same bridge as the day before, but everything was blessedly quiet. We were the only people on the jungle trail going up into the National Park. It was green and steamy. We were sweaty and tried to keep up our enthusiasm, though our expectations were down around our ankles. Our guides kept reminding us that, of course, this was wildlife and we had to be lucky to find it. But they were the best in finding it. They took us up and down and around, stopping now and again, making orangutan sounds. At the highest point we took a break and had a variety of fruits: bananas, watermelons, mandarins cut up for a snack. We could only eat a few, so the rest were packed up and then one of them took us on a side track while the other went scouting. Soon we found ourselves back on the path we came up on.

Well, I guess we are going back, I thought to myself, and we found nothing.

Just then our guide said, “Hurry up, I think my friend found one!”

We scrambled up the slope and there in a small clearing was a young mama orangutan with a little baby, hanging off the tree. She looked us straight in the eye with her little one hanging on tightly. The baby orangutan was just the cutest little thing ever. Despite anticipating and looking forward to this encounter we were totally overtaken by surprise, intense feelings and joy!

She climbed down and tried to get close to the scout, but he jumped behind a bush. Then she slowly ambled back to her tree and climbed up, looking back at us. We could not tear our eyes from her. When she settled in the crook of a branch, we craned our necks to see the pair up in the canopy. The little one was practicing how to climb on his own, and we watched with batted breath, worrying he would slip. I could have stayed the whole day and watch them, but the guides suggested we go look for some more. As we walked down towards the river we started encountering the other people coming in with their guides. In an area close to the path there was a crowd of foreign tourists gathered with a few orangutans in the low branches. I could see a big bunch of banana skins on the ground by the tree. Officially there was no orangutan feeding in the park, but I realized it was our leftover fruit offered to our mama orangutan by the scout, that brought her down from the tree. After all, these were not really wild orangutans, they were the released orangutans from the former, now closed, rescue and rehabilitation center, and their offspring.

Still relishing our special personal encounter, we left the group and bypassed the local Indonesian tourists that were now waking up after their partying and heading in droves into the park. They had no guides and there was no one collecting park fees.

I have to give our guides credit for taking us in a different direction, where we were lucky to encounter some interesting primates. The funny black and white Thomas monkeys immediately got a nickname Punky Monkey because of their hairstyle. They also had babies and those are always fun to watch.It was the endangered white handed gibbons whose territory protecting calls we were hearing the whole morning that were even more exciting. When we finally saw them, we were suitably impressed. They are quick, nimble swingers and it is quite strange to see their white furry hands grasping the vines. Returning to our jungle outpost we agreed that after all, it was worth spending the money and generously supporting the local economy. We left the river to drive to the Karo villages of Berastagi through vegetable and coffee plantations on the Highlands, fed by the ashes of volcano Sinabung. It was very easy to see the proof of the devastating 2014 eruption down its sides. We enjoyed the sunset view, “enhanced” by numerous flower and wooden Instagram frames, popular with avid selfie takers. We skipped the sunrise volcano climb, pressing on to the Sipisopiso waterfall. One does get a bit jaded after seeing a lot of waterfalls traveling the world, many endowed with superlatives. But 120 m (400 feet) tall Sipisopiso (translated: Like a Knife) did not fail to impress. Unfortunately the effect was marred by the really badly maintained trail with huge amount of trash lying everywhere, despite the abundance of trashcans provided. As usual there were many, more or less dilapidated shacks selling bottled water and junky snacks and souvenirs, whose owners did not care to pick up the rubbish. As usual there was also a bunch of guys lolling about and demanding an entrance fee. I got so riled up that in my head I started writing letters to the Ministry of tourism. Little did I know that I will soon get to meet the honchos from the ministry in person.

But first let us visit the enormous and very deep Lake Toba. It is fitted by a few green islands, but Samosir is the inhabited one. To get to and from Samosir one has to contend with local ferries, running on unpredictable schedules and engines. The mesmerizing ever changing views and the play of light, water and clouds help you forget their unsafe track record. We lucked out with the choice of a wonderful, intelligent local driver with a wicked sense of humor, that we hired for the day. He quickly understood our interest in traditional villages and the roads less travelled and took us all over the island, showing us some special hidden treasures. This might not have been the tallest waterfall, but it was beautiful, for our eyes only and immaculately clean.If anything I am besotted with Asian rice fields and here we could see both, just recently harvested and newly planted, tended to by beautiful, friendly, hard working women. We also lucked out at our third Sumatra destination – Nias Island. David, the driver/guide/owner of our little Oseda Nias Surfhouse was originally from Lake Toba, but married a local Nianese woman. We quickly became friends and together explored the island. It always gives us a special pleasure to get the locals to take us to some places they haven’t been to and we so smartly managed to discover in some travel article or blog.

Nias has a specialized claim to fame amongst Australian surfers as one of the better locations to surf. While we are certainly no surfing experts we didn’t find the Sorake surf particularly exciting, especially compared with Australian beaches and their enormous waves. We figured it must be the extreme affordability of guest houses and the constant warm weather.

We were really taken aback with the lack of sand on Sorake beach. We were told the latest earthquake with tsunami pushed up the coral. But there is another reason sand is disappearing from many Nias beaches. It is indiscriminate digging and bagging of beach sand for construction purposes. Mirek was quite horrified, not only by the disappearance of beaches, but also by the fact that sea salt infused sand is unsafe for construction. Our David and his other guest houses owning friends were very upset about all this and even more so with the the lack of concern and action from the government.

Well, here I got my chance to step in and shoot off my big mouth. Knowing my keen interest in all things traditional one early morning David told me he heard there would be a special dance performance for some visiting dignitaries at a small hotel nearby. Of course we headed right over and after taking some wonderful pictures of the dancing students (shared in the previous blog) and listening to some long boring speeches and watching the photo op for all the big shots (the regional assembly rep and his wife, plus Indonesia Tourism ministry rep from Jakarta) I asked for an introduction. Seeing that I was the only western person far and wide I was granted an audience. After expressing my undying admiration and love for the beautiful Indonesia I then gave them my list of grievances. I brought to their attention in particular the sand stealing and the safety issues in construction and suggested they constitute large financial penalties for the act and make beach restoration their priority and legacy, if they want to see any foreign tourism. With the elections right around the corner, my words might or might not have had any impact. Nevertheless I was treated to an official portrait with the big wigs, but more importantly earned undying admiration of David and his island friends.

To show us what a truly beautiful Nias beach looks like he drove us over an hour away for a sunset on Moale Beach. Why has nobody developed such a spectacular sandy beach? Ah, an investor did buy the beach front property, but failed to investigate the sea conditions. There was such dangerous undertows that plans for development had to be abandoned, so the beach remains pristine. Unfortunately even here we encountered some local boys digging the sand and stuffing it onto sandbags and transporting it away on motorbikes. How sad! We bid a fond goodbye to the wild Sumatra, knowing that we only saw a small part. Indonesia as a whole is inexhaustible source of travel discoveries and the list of places we want to see keeps on growing.