The Change

For all Google Reader users, you may or may not have noticed there has been a format change on my blog.   My last background picture was taken from one of my favorite hikes in Hong Kong.  After leaving Hong Kong, I felt that the blog needed a bit of a change to represent my next move.  But considering that this is the most drawn out move in the history of mankind (seriously!!), I don’t have any pictures from Seattle yet to post as my background.  So I am using a picture that more accurately describes my life for December and January.  On the road.   Now, if you know me at all, you know that I LOVE to travel.  I even love driving.  But these 6 weeks are a bit much, even for me.  All worth it, of course, but just a bit much.  Here’s my run down of Hong Kong to Seattle:

Left Hong Kong, flew to Osaka, Japan.  Took a train from Osaka to Kyoto and then back again.  Flew from Osaka to Beijing (insert 5 hour layover), then Beijing to LA.  We drove from LA to Los Osos.  Flew from San Luis Obispo to Phoenix to Chicago to Louisville, then drove to Lexington.  From Lexington I drove down to Panama City.  Christmas Eve the family drove to and from Marianna.  The day after Christmas the family drove to Montgomery (where I also go to meet up with the HC group, more about that in another post).  The next day we drove back to PC, then the next morning I left for another drive up to Lexington.  On Sunday I’ll drive down to Atlanta for the Mission Intern midterms (a debriefing).  From Atlanta back to Panama City, then FINALLY on to Seattle.  Want that in numbers?

Number of planes flown so far: 6

Number of miles on planes so far: 9,886

Number of trains taken so far: 2

Number of miles on trains so far: 54

Number of car trips so far: 7

Number of miles driven so far: 1,940

Total Miles: 11,880

All that to say, a lot of traveling going on these days.  When I get to Seattle there will be a new background, until then, enjoy the new photo.  New posts about traveling to come soon!!

A Simple Christmas

Every year, my home church has a special program they use the Sunday before Christmas called “A Simple Christmas.”  During the service, Brother David (our pastor) talks about the meaning of Christmas, what the birth of Christ meant for the world and for us as individuals.  He talks about each piece of the Christmas story and its significance in our lives now.  As he talks about the proclamation of the angels, sweet children dressed in white robes and tinsel halos appear behind the pulpit.  As the choir sings, a young couple donning earth toned robes and head coverings slowly make their way down the aisle and sit in the front.  While the pianist plays a haunting rendition of We Three Kings, men in brightly colored robes and funny hats walk up, stifling smiles as they peer from the corner of their eyes at their giggling children in the pews.  This year, while my sister sang a song about the irony of a baby being a King, another angel walks in carrying a baby Jesus (sometimes real, sometimes just a doll if the real baby has decided the acting life is not for her after all).  Brother David takes a different theme each year and uses testimonies from members of the church.  This year the theme was Faithfulness and 8 people, myself included, got up and talked for just a few minutes about ways that we had experienced the Faithfulness of God.  The stories ranged from a young girl whose life was spared after a tragic car accident, a couple who found love again after both of their spouses had died, a divorced woman with three young children finding a way to provide for her family, a young missionary assisting migrants with legal aide and realizing that they had much in common.

The service is a beautiful and unique one.  A break from the norm of sermons and hymns.  There is an anticipation in the air, as everyone waits for the final swell of music.  There is a sense of awe that can be seen on the faces of the congregation at the sight of a simple setting, people they know well, playing parts of the Christmas story without words.  Listening to the testimonies of others and to the words of Brother David, remembering (or for some, learning for the first time) the story of Christmas, of the significance of the birth of Jesus.

A Simple Christmas.  One without all the fuss and consumerism that has taken over this beautiful tradition.  And though the service is a production, a rehearsed scene, there is meaning behind it.  Not just for the people watching and listening, but for these involved.  And it goes beyond the service.  For me, A Simple Christmas doesn’t mean that I forgo giving presents to my family.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t participate in the huge meals (the eating or the cleaning up), or flip my nose at festive parties and gatherings.  It just means that beyond all of that, there is a deeper meaning.  It is always a struggle to fight through the traffic, the corny Christmas music that can ruin a perfectly good holiday cheer, staying up late to wrap last minute presents.  But in the struggle, beyond the struggle, it is always important for me to remember.  Watching my family interact and joke around, listening to my father read a familiar passage from Luke on Christmas Eve right before we go to bed, the sense of solmenness as my entire extended family on my mother’s side gathers on Christmas Eve at my grandfather’s church for communion, waking up to smells of blueberry muffins and extended family gathered around the breakfast table.

This year is a particularly special Christmas for my family for a few reasons.  I am back home from Hong Kong.  I spent last Christmas overseas, away from my family.  Through the miracle of Skype, I was able to see and talk to them, but it was hard to be away.  So there is much joy in being home for this special occasion.  This Christmas also marks the last Christmas my family will experience in our current status.  My sister is getting married in March, and though Scott has been a part of our family for years, it will be strange next Christmas to wake up and have to wait for my sister and her husband to drive over for breakfast.  And finally, as many of you already know, Christmas is a double day of celebration for my family, as it is also my brother’s birthday!  This year my little brother is turning 18.  It is hard to believe that the little baby who “interrupted Christmas morning” for my sister and I 18 years ago is all grown up.

A Simple Christmas.  Spent at home.  Remembering.  Being thankful.  Being blessed.  Passing on blessings and cheer. A Merry Simple Christmas to all chose to celebrate.

Japan

Sorry for the delay in posting.  The ridiculous amount of travel has curbed the normal flow of blogging. I decided to shorten and combine the Japan posts into one.  So I apologize in advance for length.  It is broken into three days, so take your time reading. 🙂

Day Two proved to be a lot better than the previous day of travel and hobbling.  We took an easy morning to recover from the absurdity that was the day before and slowly made our way into town.  We managed to figure out the subway system without much problem, which was great because a cab ride to and from town every day would have gotten expensive real quick.  We spent the early afternoon wandering through the Nashiki Market in the center of town.  The market easily took up 10 blocks and spread out about 3 blocks wide as well.  There were hundreds of restaurants, clothing stores, art shops, novelty stores and anime displays.  After walking through for awhile, trying to get an idea of what all was around us, we stopped at this wonderful little restaurant down in the basement of a shop.  Kris and I ordered separate set meals and they both came out looking like art.  With the exception of the cold tofu covered in orange fish eggs, there was very little I left on my plate.  I had seafood noodles with a rice omelette and fresh salad.  Kris had some of the most tender and well seasoned beef strips I had eaten in over a year, which more than made up for the “Denny’s” steak we had the night before.  His meal was also served with with cold tofu, rice, vinegar pickles, prawn and slices of sashimi (we know that one was salmon, not sure what the other was).  Dessert was some kind of green tea-chocolate sponge cake.  Very light and a perfect ending to a wonderful Japanese meal.

After lunch we walked around the market for awhile, spending a good bit of time in a woodblock print shop, admiring the unique art.  Dotted throughout the market were small shrines, which appeared to be Shinto.  I called them “Pray-n-Go’s” because of their funny location squeezed between tourist shops.  We left the Nashiki Market right as the sun was setting, and we watched the clouds turn pink and the sky turn dark (at 4:30!) as we walked from the town center towards Gion (the former Geisha district.)   We happened upon the Yasaka-Jinja Shrine, a Shinto shrine formerly known as the Gion Shrine.  Set up more like a park, Kris and I walked beneath glowing lanterns, paused by the rods with slips holding prayers and wishes, and gazed at the full moon hanging like a painting above the curved tiles of the temple roof.  We tried until near frustration to capture the moon, but without a tripod, all of the pictures came out too blurry to do justice to the beautiful scene we witnessed.    101_2191

After walking through the Shrine/Park, we walked back down to the central area to find dinner.  The restaurant we ended up choosing turned out to be owned by the same people who own the restaurant where had eaten lunch.  Another fantastic Japanese meal was had, followed by creme bruelle and fondant chocolate.  With our stomachs full and our feet aching, we headed back to the hotel.  Back at the hotel we had a relaxing drink in the hotel bar before going back up to our incredible room where we watched part of Ice Age in Japanese while drifting to sleep.

Day Three started at the Botanical Gardens.  In my opinion, any day started at the botanical gardens is going to be a good day.  Even though we were witnessing the transition from Fall to Winter, the grounds were beautiful.  I can only imagine how incredibly beautiful it would have been in the Spring (a phrase Kris and I found ourselves saying no less than ten times a day, every day we were there.)    The bare branches of cherry blossom trees created a sparse canopy beside a picturesque lake, complete with a wooden foot bridge.  101_2213

We spent a couple of hours in the Gardens, just enjoying nature and clean air.  After the Gardens we decided to make what we thought would be only a 2km walk to Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion and Japanese strolling gardens.  That 2km walk ended taking us twice as long as expected (and no, we didn’t get lost!)  We stopped in a quiet little place for a light lunch of vegetable dumplings and a chicken/pepper mix in a sweet soy sauce.  Much later than anticipated, we finally ended up at the Golden Pavilion, which was everything its name suggested.  We ended up arriving at the perfect time of day, as the sun was reflecting off the west side of the Pavilion, which the reflected into the pond surrounding the pavilion.  Kinkaku-ju has a 650 year history by name, though the original pavilion (and the 2 subsequent buildings) were all lost to fire (two from wars, one from arson by a monk). 101_2334

At the other end of the strolling gardens was a traditional tea house where Kris and I stopped for tea and cake.  We had to kneel on the straw mats to receive and enjoy our tea.  We both crashed into the sliding paper door behind us, though thankfully neither of us crashed through the door!!

The late afternoon brought a trip to the Kyoto Museum, which was not really worth the half hour we spent inside.  After a much needed pick me up in a coffee shop (of which could be found on every other street corner!), we walked around a little more towards the central part of town before stopping in a very tradition sushi bar for dinner.  We shared rolls of pickled vegetables and a red scallop and cucumber roll, along with fatty tuna and shrimp sashimi.  Kris also had grilled cheek of smoked salmon, which he said tasted so much like ham, had he not seen the picture on the menu, he would not have believed it otherwise.  Kris had a local beer while I found a new favorite drink – plum wine.  It came in a rocks glass and looked suspiciously like bourbon, but tasted like a life saver.   After dinner we walked around the area a little more, finding ourselves back in the Nashiki Market.  There was so much to see, just walking through the streets.  Kyoto is nothing like Hong Kong, and walking even the busiest streets was quiet enjoyable (despite the hobbling).  Before heading back to the hotel we stopped at a crepe shop on the street, which may seem random, and it was, but it was also very delicious.

Day Four, our last full day in Kyoto, was spent mostly at Kiyomizudera, or the Pure Water Temple.  It was definitely the most crowded we had seen any area or temple thus far, but even the crowds and the shops the lined the streets leading up to the temple, pandering specifically to tourists.  Set on a steep hill, the large grounds surrounding the Buddhist temple, founded in 780 and which also housed a Shinto Temple, offered us breath-taking views of the city.  101_2409

We spent most of our afternoon at Kiyomizudera, stopping in a coffee shop with a great view of the city on our way out.  After leaving the temple grounds, it was Kris’ personal mission to find a toy store.  Apparently, Transformers are from Japan, and Kris thought it was be cool to find a figure or two in its original Japanese packaging.  Though we had been keeping our eyes out the past two days, we were yet to run across a single toy shop, which we both found to be incredibly shocking for Japan!  We spent a couple of hours wandering through the southern part of the city before finally giving up on the toy hunt and settling on a wonderful dinner of fried Japanese deliciousness.  For my last dinner in Japan, I had a fried chicken filet in a noodle and egg hot pot, with rice, pickles and mussel soup.   Shortly after dinner we headed back to the hotel to pack up for the long flight home the following day…..

Homeward bound

Well, I am back in the States, finally.  I still have a couple of Japan posts pending, and I’ll try to get those up in the next few days.  I’m currently in California, visiting Kris’ brother.  We fly out tomorrow for Kentucky where I’ll be for a few days before heading home.

It hasn’t quite hit me yet that I’m back in America.  Because I’m still living out of a suitcase (or two) and traveling to unfamiliar places, it just doesn’t quite feel like I’m “home.”   Though I think once I get to Kentucky and Florida, that will change.  I keep waiting for reverse culture shock to hit, but so far so good.  Same on the jet-lag front.

Just wanted to let everyone know that Kris and I made it back safely.  I’ll update again in a few days!

Hobbling around Japan

Yesterday was one of the most ridiculous days….ever.  No wait…..EVER.   Our day started at 3:30am, despite the fact that our previous day had ended at 2am.  We zipped up our bags and headed downstairs, and as I was rolling our luggage out of the elevator, I jammed one overweight piece of luggage right into my big toe.  Apparently, I rammed it so hard, that I actually broke my toe.  At 4 in the morning.   Boo.

We arrived at the airport before the counter guys, and had to wait for them to get to work before we could check in.  When we finally boarded the plane, we just had to laugh, because apparently I somehow booked us on Retro-Air, to put it nicely.  I am not exaggerating when I say that the inside of that plane was held together with zip-ties and duct tape.  Though they were classy enough about it to use the colored kind of duct tape, so it matched the walls.   The T.V. screens were, no wait, they didn’t have T.V. screens.  They did however have projection screens.  You know the kind that your science teacher would pull down from the ceiling to show slides on?  That kind of projection screen.  The whole plane made creepy noises, as if it only had half a wing.  The food was among the worst airplane food I have ever had.  I know that airplanes are not known for their high class cuisine, but what was on my tray was absolutely inedible.  But, we made it safely to Osaka, and that is the most important thing.

Going through Immigration was a task and a half.  First we had to go through a fever/sickness check, then through immigration, then again through baggage check.  Our guy gave us a hard time, probably because of the ridiculous amount of luggage we were carrying with us.  As much as I tried to send most things home, I still ended up with two suitcases (one large, one small), my laptop bag, backpack, purse and a pillow.  Kris had his backpack, suitcase, and a carrybag of goodies and gifts I received in my last few days in Hong Kong.  We probably looked like we were moving into Japan.  Which is probably why the guy gave us a funny look when we said we were really only staying for 5 days.

Finally through those gates, money exchanged, we started searching for the train.  Picture two very haggard looking Americans in a Japanese airport, dragging around an obsence amount of luggage, trying to figure out the train system…in Japanese.  We thought we had figured it out, and even made it on to the train.  But after departure, the ticket guy came around to confirm our tickets, only to inform us we had purchased the wrong ticket.  Or not enough tickets.  Or something that required us to give him more money.

Once in Kyoto, struggling to get our luggage through the tiny gates the lead out, we were stuck, as our tickets wouldn’t open the gates.  A serviceman had to come over and jimmy the system to let us through.  We stepped into the chilly city, found a taxi, and were on our way to the hotel.  We kept driving, and driving and driving.  Pretty soon, we were going through a tunnel and out into the mountains.  The hotel is in a beautiful location, but it is not close to anything.  Except incredibly scenery.  Which is fantastic.  The colors of a lingering Fall and approaching Winter are breathtaking.  Mountains of gold and crimson remind me of my love of North Carolina, though the unique Japanese architecture draws me back and reminds me that I am far from home.

Kris and I are oddly out of place in the hotel we are staying in.  Fancy beyond our normal means, but yet affordable.  The hotel is full of old business men and international conference-goers.  We have heard just as much French as we have Japanese.  The room is enormous.  The bathroom practically the size of my Hong Kong flat.  Two showers.  A heated toilet seat.  The kind of luxury that would be very easy to get accustomed to.   We just spent the afternoon relaxing after a rough day of traveling, resting my poor little foot.  For dinner we decided to dress up, as it was our first dinner alone together in 16 months.  All dressed up, me in my high sandals (there was no way I was cramming my broken toe into my boots) we set off to find food.  Into the cold, sans jackets, we wandered.  And wandered.  And wandered.  Well, I hobbled.  And sporadically tripped slash fell off my shoes.  Which never ceased to make Kris laugh.  Finally, after passing a McDonald’s and giving it serious consideration (that’s how hungry we were), we finally smelled something wonderfully delicious.  We tried to follow the scent, but somehow, I think we missed it.  The restaurant we ended up in was the Japanese version of Denny’s.  Instead of a soft-serve bar, they had a beverage bar.  We just had to laugh about coming all the way to Japan to eat in a Denny’s.   We walked/gimped back to the hotel, and crashed out by 10:30.

What a first day.

Last day

Today is my last day in Hong Kong.  Kris and I fly out eaaaaarly tomorrow morning.  (we are leaving so early, we have to take the NIGHT bus to get to the airport on time!  gross)   I am mostly packed (stop laughing), all of my stuff is shipped off, and now its just a matter of saying those last goodbyes and moving on.

Kris has been here since Friday, and I’ve been trying to cram 15 months of Hong Kong into 4 days.  Quite a feat.  We’ve been running all over the city, I’ve been introducing him to pretty much every person I’ve ever talked to, and we have made it a goal to eat a different ethnicity of food for each meal.  It is great having Kris here, showing him bits and pieces of my life in Hong Kong.   I think he may be a little overwhelmed, but at least he is managing his jetlag well. 🙂

Last night was my going away party at the shelter.  It was sad to say goodbye to all the girls there.  They have really made my time here worth it all.  We had a great time eating (Kris tried my favorite Filipino dish – Donagoan – a pork dish made with….well, you probably don’t want me to tell you what is in it!), they all sang karaoke (notice the they, as I did not), and I even danced!  (yeah, it was ridiculous)  There were probably thousands of pictures taken (mostly on cell phones) and everyone loved Kris.  It is just a little hard to believe that my time here is done.  The 15 month stretch is over, and in just over a week I’ll be home.

We fly out tomorrow for Japan for 4 days, then on to California for a few days to see Kris’ brother.  Then its home for Christmas!!  Hope to see most of you Stateside soon!

Bleh

What I hate the most about packing is not the time it takes.  Or the organization involved.  Or the money inevitably spent.  I really don’t even mind the beginning stages of packing.  It is the end stages of packing that I hate the most.  The part where I have to start taking down my pictures from the walls.  When I have to put away candles and my Willow Tree angles that make my shelves look sweet and homey.  Or taking down my collection of activist posters to be rolled up in the shipping tube.  It is removing the last details that I actually lived here that are the hardest.  The removing all evidence of myself from a place where I spent so much time.  It makes me think of the Patty Griffin lyrics:

So I’m wearing my footsteps into this floor
One day I won’t live here anymore
Someone will wonder who lived here before
and went on their way

I live too many miles from the ocean
and I’m getting older and odd
I get up every morning with a black cup of coffee
and I talk to the mother of God

Now, excuse me if the following reflections are sappy and possibly a bit cheesy, but I’m just in one of those moods. 

Over the last 15 months I have made little touches that have helped to make this little 300 sqft hole my home.  The cards sent for birthdays and Christmas, the magnets on my fridge from the places I’ve traveled, my books that lined the built-in shelf; these things are representative of people I love, places I’ve been, experiences I’ve had.  And while I recognize that they are only things, it is still hard to pack them away, even if for only a short while.  Taking down the bits and pieces that made this place my home is harder than I thought it would be.  My time here has not always been easy, and I know that I have expressed on more than one occasion how I am not a huge fan of Hong Kong the city.  Yet, I have grown to really enjoy my life here, the people I interact with on a daily basis, and the work we engage in together. 

To all things there is a season, this I know to be true.  And this season is very quickly drawing to a close.  I am saying my goodbyes and trying to get the final boxes packed and shipped before Kris gets here (tomorrow!) While I am sad to pack it away, to move on, I am excited to take this life with me.  I know that it is not something I am simply leaving behind.  My time here will define me for years to come.  So as I wrapped the final picture frames and store away the earring collection supplemented through gifts from clients, I know that wherever I go next, it is not just the things that are going with me; but the lessons, the stories, the memories, the experiences.  And that is not something you can just pack away and ship off.