Whipped Cream Breakfast & Vending Machine Noodles

Japan Day 3 - Tokyo to Sendai

We woke up to a rainy day. We did come to Japan during rainy season. Most of my trips here have been during rainy season and it has never been a bother before. It was quite early so I spent some time scouring the internet for breakfast places. Japanese breakfast usually consists of rice and fish, and while I do love fish and Japanese food, my palate isn’t quite ready for such adventures yet first thing in the morning. I’m a big fan of fruit and/or eggs.

My early morning search brought us around the block to a Hawaiian chain restaurant called Eggs ’n Things. I know, I know, succumbing to the comfort of American food already on day three, but egg breakfast is hard to find in Asian countries, so you have to take advantage of it when you can find it.

Eggs 'n Things, Ginza, Tokyo

The restaurant was up on one of the top floors and had a very bright and open atmosphere inside, quite a change from the cramped and cozy little holes in the walls that most Japanese restaurants are. That had to be the American influence. It really is an experience to visit at least one American restaurant on a trip to Japan, because while the menu items may seem vaguely familiar, it is most definitely not the food you find back home. Take for example the basil and shrimp eggs Benedict that I ordered. When have you ever seen basil and shrimp on a Benedict before? The restaurant’s claim-to-fame seemed to be the pancakes that every table was ordering. Four little pancakes sat beneath a foot-tall tower of whipped cream. You probably think I’m exaggerating, but Fletch and I discussed at length how many cans of Reddi-whip it would take to create a tower that size. America may be the land of super-sized everything, but I’ve never seen that much whipped cream served up on a breakfast plate before. If anyone from Hawaii who knows this restaurant is reading this, I’d love to hear if that’s an Eggs ’n Things thing, or a Japan thing.

Why yes, that is lettuce on my shrimp and basil eggs Benedict. 

When we walked into the restaurant, the hostess told us “two hours,” scrambled in with some Japanese words that my brain wasn’t registering yet. In the USA, this would mean a two hour wait, but the restaurant was practically empty. Remembering that Japanese people are notoriously fast eaters, it dawned on me that she was telling us we couldn’t stay any longer than two hours. There are lots of things that are considered rude in Japan that are completely different from other cultures. Loitering in a restaurant for more time than it takes to eat is one of them.

Since we were in the high-end shopping district, it occurred to me that there might be a Pandora shop here. There was, and so with no help from Google Maps, which couldn’t figure out our position between all the skyscrapers, Fletch took me shopping for a charm to commemorate our Japan trip. The Pandora shop in Ginza, Tokyo had the best selection I’d seen yet.

We made our way back to the train station, and almost navigated it successfully, except that the name of the train had a number which we took to be the platform number. That put us in line for the new “Gran Class” car, a class above even first class. How did we manage to score that? But when the ticket lady looked at our tickets, she informed us that we were on the wrong platform. Luckily the platform we were meant to be on was only one track away. Note to travelers: Japanese train tickets do not list the platform number. 

Shinkansen arriving at Tokyo Station

We rode the shinkansen and hour and a half north to my old home up in Sendai. I wanted to show Fletch the place where I spent a summer in high school exactly ten years ago. My how time flies. I spent a good deal of time trying to track down my host family when I was booking the trip, but to no avail. Facebook was brand new when I lived here. I had just set up an account, but it had not yet caught on in Japan. My old email address that I used to use must have gotten corrupted or something, because by the time I finally figured out the right password, it was completely empty. I also tried emailing my study abroad organization, but no one ever responded. As a final resort, I spent a day searching Facebook for every combination and spelling of my family members' names that I could think of. No luck though. Their names were probably written in kanji, the Japanese characters, if they even were on Facebook. Sendai has a population of 1 million people, so I wasn’t exactly hoping to just bump into them either.

Hotel Vista Sendai was only a five minute walk from the train station, and Google Maps led us around the block the long way. We were grateful for the extra walk though, because it brought us down a block with some delicious smells floating out into the street. We agreed to come back after dropping off our bags.

The hotel was very nice, although missing a few of the little comforts that the hotel in Tokyo had already spoiled us with. They did not have any coffee, or face masks, or a smart phone to walk around with. The bathroom was more Japanese style in that it was split up, rather than having the toilet and the shower in the same room. A lot of times in Japan these are separate rooms. The layout did make it a little easier to walk around.

We went back around the block to the noodle shop where the delicious smells had been coming from. The sliding door led us inside a little hole in the wall where another couple was slurping their soup. The place was quiet aside from the slurping. In the corner was the vending machine to place our orders. Noodle shops in Japan don’t have servers, just a vending machine to order what you want, cash goes in, and a ticket comes out. Present the ticket to the chef behind the bar and voila, several minutes later you will be treated to a piping hot bowl of noodles in soup. This was a soba shop. Soba noodles are made out of buckwheat. My knowledge stopped there and we stood bewildered, staring at all the kanji on the vending machine. There were pictures, but all the pictures looked identical. We incorrectly tried to test a few buttons before putting cash in, and the machine started yelling at us in Japanese and making error noises. The volume was turned up way too loud for the quiet little shop, and I’m sure the couple eating and the chef got quite a kick out of watching the gaijin (gringos) trying to figure out what to do. Suddenly we were back in the Japan I remembered, the Japan where English wasn’t an option.

We finally gave up trying to figure out what was what and just fed the machine our cash and pushed a couple buttons, then sat down to wait and see what we had ordered. The noodles and soup that arrived were good and filling, though apparently we had missed all the toppings. No matter, by that point we were just happy to eat. There was a mysterious green sauce on the counter that added some excellent flavor. No, it wasn’t wasabi.

On our way back to the room we stopped at one of the numerous conbini (convenience stores) to pick up some drinks that did not have the word “zero” printed on the can. Fletch picked up some ume or plum flavored concoction that he did not like and so passed to me. I thought it was delicious. Ume and alcohol go well together.

A Day Inadvertently Dedicated to Ducks

Japan Day 2 - Ginza, Tokyo

I am nearly certain that there is no such thing as sleeping in on your first day in Japan. For one there’s the jet lag. But there’s also the fact that you are in the land of the rising sun. That’s not just some catchy name. The sun rises at 4:20 in the morning in the summertime in Japan. Since we were on the 12th floor, we found it unnecessary to close the drapes the night before, instead enjoying the small view of the city. That was a mistake. We both woke up happily, seeing the daylight and knowing we had slept until a decent hour, and then saw the time in horror. In what kind of place is it broad daylight at 4:30 in the morning?

We caught up on some episodes of the Big Bang Theory on the iPad, and then at a more respectable hour, around 6, we made coffee. Fletch and I both like to start our mornings with coffee. It’s a nice wake-up ritual. Luckily the hotel had presented us with a basket of assorted teas and coffees to choose from when we checked in. Upon examining the little packet though, Fletch announced that it was actual ground coffee beans, and alas, we had no coffee maker in the room. That couldn’t be right, Japan doesn’t usually leave much to be desired when it comes to amenities, save for space maybe. We examined the packet more closely and here it was a little tea-bag-type contraption with cardboard props on either side to prop it over a coffee mug and make drip coffee. Ingenious! And it was quite good too. Why is it that a tea drinking country thought of this before we did?

There is one thing to do at 5:00 in the morning in Japan above anything else and that is go to Tsukiji Fish Market, where the majority of the fish in the world gets shipped from. Unfortunately the main market is in a state of limbo at the moment, as apparently they are thinking about moving it. Whether or not it is currently accessible by tourists, I was unable to determine. Some sources said no, some places said you have to get permission a day ahead. Regardless, it wasn’t happening on short notice. The outer markets are still a big tourist draw though, so we waited around until they opened at 9:00 and then walked 15 minutes from the hotel to a fresh fish breakfast.

If you could imagine Diagon Alley, set in Japan instead of England, and selling seafood instead of school supplies, That would be Tsukiji’s Outer Market. Quaint little storefronts are crowded together on numerous narrow alleys, while throngs of people bustle around, so that you really have to plan your move from one spot to the next, or risk getting carried away by the crowds. I know most people cringe at the smell of fish, but the fish is so fresh that there is hardly any smell, and the amazing scents of dishes wafting from some of the world’s best seafood restaurants cover what little smell there may be. We made it down maybe half an alley before stopping for grilled scallops, grilled squid, and some sort of sweet but gooey corn cake things. The next alley brought us to grilled scallops again, but this time covered in a warm dollop of uni or sea urchin. They say uni is an acquired taste and they are correct. I have sadly not acquired the taste yet, but still appreciated how fresh it was. We found more grilled skewers, but these were much less expensive, 200 yen apiece. We went for more squid, eel, and yellowtail. Fish never tasted so good for breakfast. The next thing we put in our mouths was a free sample of something or other. We were trying to find a corner to huddle in to stop and eat our skewers. In Japan it is considered sloppy to eat on the go, so everyone always stops to enjoy what they are eating. There was hardly a place to stand, let alone sit, and still not offend anyone’s storefront whom we hadn’t purchased from. Finally we found a little corner to duck in and a little Japanese man not an arm’s reach away, offered us some minced meat on a tray with a toothpick. I made out the word maguro which is tuna. We each tried a bite and it just melted in our mouths in sweet, peppery goodness. We wanted to go order some in the shop he was pointing to down the way, but had no idea what to ask for.

Down the next alley we found bowls of chunked raw tuna with fresh wasabi. I learned not to long ago that the majority of wasabi in sushi restaurants isn’t actually wasabi, but a mixture of horseradish, mustard, and green food coloring. Real wasabi loses its flavor about 15 minutes after being grated, which makes the fake stuff a lot more convenient, even in Japan where wasabi comes from. The real stuff has a more herbaly flavor, and watery texture. The tuna was divine. The whole bowl was divine. We finished up breakfast and cleansed our palates with some matcha ice cream, then walked across the street to a coffee shop for cappuccinos and a look at the guide book to see what we might want to do next. I hadn’t planned anything for the day just incase we were too exhausted from traveling.

We decided to take a stroll through the Hamarikyu Gardens. It’s amazing how in Japan, you can be in a bustling city one moment, and then cross a street into a serene park area with beautiful landscaping. We saw a 300-year old pine tree that probably should have fallen over a long time ago, but every branch was being supported by bamboo posts. There were also multiple tea houses in the middle of the lakes, but we were pleasantly full and happy to just enjoy the scenery. 

300-Year-Old Pine Tree

Tea House on a Lake, Hamarikyu Gardens

We also learned a bit about duck hunting, which was the original purpose of the park back in the Edo period. Several little wooden hideouts were scattered around with peep holes looking at trenches. The ducks would swim down the trench, and then the guy in the hideout would bang a big wooden plank with a big wooden stick, signaling some other guys in hiding to jump out with these giant nets. they would cover the trenches with the nets, so that when the ducks tried to fly away, they would be caught. It was necessary to catch all the ducks so that they didn’t go off and warn their friends.

Apparently the Japanese people felt some remorse for all the fallen ducks in the years following the Edo period duck hunting, so there was also a spot in the park with a nice little memorial dedicated to all the fallen ducks who had lost their lives. 

A memorial to all the fallen ducks of Hamarikyu Gardens.

There was a beautiful, ornate kabuki theater not too far from our hotel, Kabukiza, so we decided to look at performance times. Their shows changed every month, and showed twice a day, everyday. Traditional kabuki performances go on for as long as five hours, but they also sold tickets for each individual act. We chose the shortest act which was just under an hour and only 600 yen apiece.

Kabuki is traditional Japanese theater. It involves lots of makeup and elaborate costumes. The three kanji that make up the word kabuki mean 'sing,' 'dance,' and 'skill.'

Do I dare say we ate a sandwich before the performance? I don’t want to disrespect traditional Japanese culture, but the sandwich seemed important. 

I really didn’t know what to expect, but I was envisioning something like a fancy symphony performance where everyone would be dressed up for the special occasion. Fletch and I were in shorts and t-shirts so I hoped no one would say anything about a dress code. No one did. We were ushered upstairs to the 4th floor where all the single act ticket holders were admitted. There were no assigned seats, but there should have been, because the process of getting us to fill every seat felt like being at the DMV. We did have numbers on our tickets, from 1 - 100 or maybe more. A guy holding a sign with 1 - 10 written on it came through the small waiting area and asked everyone with ticket numbers 1 - 10 to please line up. And so we preceded in increments of 10 until all 100 or so of us were lined up single file, snaking back and forth throughout the small waiting area. And then the theater doors opened and we were allowed to enter, filling every seat as we did. At IMAX there's just a big sign on the screen asking everyone to sit in the middle and not leave any empty seats as you spread out to either side. But the DMV experience was effective too.

The vibe inside the theater was not what I had envisioned. People were wearing everything from their casual day off clothes, to school uniforms, to their fancy dress clothes and traditional yukatas. On top of that, the full 5-hour attendees were all in the midst of devouring bento boxes which looked as though they had been provided with the tickets. I suppose if you're going to sit for 5 hours, a meal should be included. I love how lax Japanese people are with food. They eat on the trains, and in traditional kabuki theaters. I’ve yet to see a 'no food allowed' sign. Just don’t bring outside food into a different restaurant or eat on the go.

Inside Kabukiza

We sat in the last row next to the wall, which I ended up being very grateful for by the end of the act. The performance began with narration and several beautifully painted scenes being raised one after the other on stage. One was a mural of a lake with many different kinds of birds and, you guessed it, ducks. Today was apparently going to be a duck day.

The final scene lifted, and seated against the far back corner of the stage, were seven men in green robes. Three started playing traditional guitar-type instruments. The sound transported us back to Edo-era Tokyo. Then the other four men started singing. Or more like wailing. Ok let’s just be honest here, they sounded like Tarzan. Again, I don’t want to disrespect traditional art forms, but the sandwich was making it hard to keep my cool while everyone listened so intently to the wailing.

The costumes and the dancing were a lot of fun and very mesmerizing. We had rented a little translator device that would display all the lines in English for us. The translations made it even harder to keep a straight face. All of the lyrics and narrations were obviously very poetic, but poems rely heavily on metaphors, and when you translate metaphors between two languages as different from each other as Japanese and English, there is a lot of unnecessarily funny comedy as a result. I wish I had a copy of the transcript, but the story was about a man being pursued by ugly women who smelled like onions, and he would compare their love to the yowling of cats. Or maybe he was admitting that the background music sounded like yowling cats. Regardless, I was very grateful for our back corner seats because I clearly lacked the proper appreciation for this "UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity."

I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when the act was over. Tears were pouring down my face from trying so hard to stifle the giggles. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, but would have just as happily watch from an isolated, sound-proofed room.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a convenience store to pick up a few drinks to enjoy that evening. There is an alcoholic beverage here that Kirin makes called hyouketsu, which is vodka and fruit flavored carbonated water. They come in every flavor imaginable and are quite drinkable. I recognized the label from ten years ago and pointed out that they were worth getting. New in the past ten years though is the “zero” version. I didn’t notice the big “zero” printed on each can, and when we got back to the hotel and toasted with a Japanese kampai!, we both practically spat out the beverages. Cough syrup would have been more palatable. I know artificial sweetener nonsense has been around for ages in the US, but when did people decide that chemicals were preferable to calories?

We laid down for a quick nap around 4 in the afternoon and neither of us woke up again until the following morning.

Back to Reality… Sort Of

Japan Day 1 - Narita to Tokyo

There is a lot that I left unwritten about Fiji, but perhaps that is for the best. Life in Fiji was slow, which was a beautiful way to live life, but not all that much to write about. Fletch and I lived on a little island where we never had to worry about shoes or wallets. We did lock the door, but our key lanyards were left in the open window of the dive shop, so it’s not like it was really that necessary to lock up. Plus every door could be opened with the right sized butter knife. We worked 10-12 hours a day, twelve days on, three days off. While that was a lot, we were in the ocean playing with sharks and introducing people to Peter the pufferfish and Dolly the turtle, so it was really just very demanding play. The outside world stopped turning in Fiji. There was a phrase you’d sometimes see scrawled across a wooden post on the beach: Fiji Time, take time to live, because the whole world has time to give. And that was really the mission statement of the country. Time really didn’t matter there. Life was simple. Material possessions meant nothing. The clothes you were wearing didn’t matter. We didn’t even realize just what sorry shape our clothes were in until being re-introduced to the civilized world. All that mattered was greeting everyone by name and a jovial Bula. And so nearly two and half years of our lives happily passed with hardly a care in the world.

I know I won’t last long in the real world after that bliss but there is much of the world left to see, so here Fletch and I are, sitting on a train in Japan. We took a complete 180 turn from possibly the slowest moving place in the world, to the fastest. Now we are being whisked between cities in one of the most densely populated countries in the world on trains that move 200 mph. Sitting on the train is the easy part. Navigating a station with hundreds of thousands of people knowing exactly where they are going, with brightly colored signs everywhere to point you in the right direction that we can’t actually read, that’s the fun part. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’ve spent the past I don’t know how many years talking about Japan, so when we decided to leave Fiji, Fletch said he wanted to see Japan. So he gave me a generous budget and said have fun planning. What more could a girl ask for?

Japan used to seem a world away, but after all the remote places we’ve been recently, the 12-hour direct flight from Denver to Narita was just too easy. To further make it seem like we hadn’t gone anywhere, I ran into an old friend from high school in the Narita bathroom. We made plans to hang out at the end of the trip when we’d be back through Tokyo where she was currently living.

We had two things to do after collecting our backpacks, find data SIM cards for our phones, and exchange the vouchers we had pre-ordered back in the US for JR Passes. We walked back and forth along the length of the airport a couple times, trying to get our bearings, before we noticed the kiosk with the sign that said “SIM Cards.” Mobile data is something that’s new to the world since my last visit to Japan. It’s amazing how much technology has changed. (And I thought Japan was high tech before!) When I was here last, smart phones did not yet exist, and lots of time was spent studying railway maps before attempting to purchase a ticket. Now there’s apps for that, apps that you can plug in point A and point B and it will tell you which train to get on, on which line, which platform, where to change trains, and what time the next train is coming should you miss yours. Yes, it’s worth having a SIM card (make sure your phone is unlocked). Japan does not yet allow foreigners to have SIM cards that can make phone calls though. 

We also managed to collect our Japan Rail (JR) passes without any trouble, just by following the JR signs downstairs to the ticket office. When we collected our passes, the guy at the ticket counter asked where we were going. We said Tokyo, and he printed out two tickets for us. The whole transaction happened in broken English. Apparently Japan is in the process of trying to become more English friendly in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. JR passes are a good investment to make if you plan on traveling through multiple cities in Japan. The passes come in 7-, 14-, and 21-day increments, and give you unlimited access to the railways for that period of time. 21 days is the maximum for just over $500 US. $500 instead of the $1133 that each individual ticket would have amounted to for the itinerary I planned out. 

An hour-long, bullet-train ride later, we arrived at Tokyo Station. Upon debarking the train, I once again had to spin around lost a few times before making sense of the blur of people flowing past like a busy river, and different colored signs pointing to the color-coordinated lines in every which direction. We just needed an exit. Preferably a South-East-ish exit. Fletch figured that one out and then Google Maps helped us find the Daiwa Roynet Hotel Ginza a 15 minute walk away. What did people ever do before smart phones?

A month of scouring the internet for hotels to stay at, in various cities across Japan, showed me that for the mid-range budget for a couple, there’s really not much variety. All the business hotels started looking exactly the same after a while. A low budget brings up an assortment of hostels, guest houses, and capsule hotels, but those all have single beds and shared bathrooms. Some hostels have a few private rooms on the side with double beds, but the price comes out to about the same as a business hotel. The business hotels have notoriously tiny rooms, so that people on TripAdvisor were complaining that they didn’t even have floorspace for a suitcase. You’ve probably seen those memes online to always check the dimensions when ordering on Amazon, with something like a picture of a cat next to a miniature sized cat tree. The same is true for Japanese hotel rooms. Always read the square footage. I finally came up with a method that involved finding the biggest room that was closest to the train station for the best price. 18 square meters at the Daiwa Roynet Hotel Ginza turned out to be a good amount of space. Probably more space than the little shoebox where we lived in Fiji.

The room was not only pleasantly more spacious than expected, but a lot nicer than I thought it would be as well. The bathroom had the typical Japanese toilet with a million buttons to warm the seat and play music and spray off various areas. The floor was a fake grey hardwood, and a glass door separated the shower area where a shower head a foot in diameter hung from the ceiling. The water pressure was adjustable between an eco-friendly drizzle, and an epic shower downpour. The back of the door had magnets to place out, including one to opt out of having the room made up. As a reward for our conservation efforts, the hotel gave us some eye masks. The room also included a smart phone loaded up with data and useful apps and articles on Japan which we were free to take out of the room with us.

We dropped off our things and went to take a walk down one of the brightly lit streets in search of food. Ginza is the shopping district so we were surrounded by various high-end stores like Chanel and Harry Winston. Exhausted from jet-lag and a day of travel, we didn’t look very hard, and found a “food mall” on the 4th floor of a building. There were several small restaurants to choose from, and we stopped for some fish curry at the last one. It hit the spot but was nothing to brag about by Japanese standards. We barely made it back to the hotel before passing out.

Travels with a Cat

Ratu Kitty Cooper became a very essential part of our lives in Fiji and it soon became apparent that we would have to bring him with us when we left. When Fletch and I accepted the jobs at Ratu Kini Backpacker’s and Dive resort on Mana island, we agreed from the beginning that we would stay for three consecutive 6-month contracts, and that is exactly what we did. Our year-and-a-half was up just in time, as we were really beginning to despise and resent the resort owner. I did write a nice long rant in a notebook once that I planned to post after leaving the job. After having time to clear my head though, it no longer seems as interesting. Maybe one day I’ll post it but this one is about the cat.

Ratu Kitty Cooper going through an existential crisis as we are packing up.

We had to jump through a lot of hoops to get Ratu Kitty Cooper from Fiji to the US. I was able to find only very limited information online during the process so hopefully this will help anyone who is trying to go through a similar situation.

To enter the US with a pet, it has to have a microchip, a rabies vaccination, and be spayed or neutered. Some individual states may also have their own requirements. A simple google search for “importing a pet cat into Colorado” revealed that the state of Colorado had no additional requirements.

We contacted the vet in Fiji and asked them to order in a microchip and a rabies shot. The rabies vaccine had to come from Australia as Fiji is a rabies-free country.

Airlines all have different rules regarding pets so we had to find the shortest route that would allow us to bring the cat. Fiji Airways doesn’t allow animals to be transported in the cabin, so unfortunately we wouldn’t be able to use their direct flight from Nadi to San Francisco. The next route was the one we usually took, from Nadi to Seoul to San Fran and finally to Denver, usually resulting in a combined total of 24 hours of flying, not including layovers. That’s a lot to put a cat through, so we did some research into companies that specialized in relocating pets form place to place for families in the process of moving. The company I found that claimed to service Fiji, was very responsive to my emails at first, but eventually I stopped receiving any replies. After several more attempts on my end, the lady finally let me know that the company she was trying to work with in Fiji had stopped responding to her. Knowing all too well what “Fiji time” could mean, I demoted that plan to the bottom of the list and went back to trying to figure out how to carry Cooper with us.

Biosecurity Authority Fiji was actually very helpful, and had a detailed flowchart on their website outlining all the steps one must go through to export an animal from Fiji (which you can find here). What ensued was a long chain of emails between myself and the various Biosecurity people and the vets at the animal clinic. The last step of the process was picking up an internal and external parasitic treatment from the vet, which we would have to bring over to have administered by Biosecurity during his final examination, sometime within the ten days before the date of our flight. Remember we had been living on an island, one with two boats regularly making the hour long trip back to the mainland. We knew from previous experience that bringing pets on the big ferry, the South Sea Cruise was prohibited (oops), so that left our own resort’s transfer boat that left once a day, which meant we’d have to make an overnight stay. Trying to arrange the time off of work plus an overnight stay plus a time that would work with both the vet and the Biosecurity office took about 20 back and forth emails.

We couldn’t find any better options than our usual itinerary through South Korea, so we called Korean Airlines to see what we had to do to bring a cat on board. It’s a good thing we called early on, because they only allow one pet in the first class area, and three in economy. We had so many miles saved up from back and forth travel at the end of every vista, that we had enough miles to cash in for first class tickets all the way home. Kitty got the one lucky pet spot in first class on both flights.

All pets traveling in the cabin on Korean have to weigh under 5 kilograms with their carrier. Kitty was pushing 6 just on his own, So in the month leading up to our departure, his food bowls became much smaller and his favorite treat game came to a stop. I’d also let him outside on his leash and harness at the end of the day and let him wander around the hillside while I followed. He really enjoyed that, and it was nice to see some parts of the island that I never would have bothered trekking through otherwise. This was also when Survivor was filming, cutting off access to half of the island for us, so wandering through the woods where there were no paths and no security guards to turn us around was very satisfying. 

Kitty's Flight Body Bootcamp

Our final flight from San Francisco to Denver would be with United Airlines, who are very pet friendly regardless of all the bad press. After the dead puppy incident, any animal traveling in the cabin gets a big yellow tag and no one lays a finger on them or says a word. The big yellow tag is basically an invisibility cloak.

In the days before our departure, I had to call each individual airport to see if they had any requirements for a cat arriving internationally. Korean airport did not care since we would not be leaving the transit area. Once at Incheon Airport, I hoped we would be able to let Kitty out of his carrier, but looking around, couldn’t find any rules and didn’t see any of the other small frou frou dogs out of their carriers.

When I called, San Francisco airport made a big fuss over asking about what food we would be bringing into the country for him. Would it be sealed? Would it still have its original label? I made a mental note to chuck whatever food we were traveling with before crossing the border, so as to avoid any hassle. After the food questions were through, I asked about the actual cat again, wondering if this food and agriculture department only dealt with food and I had yet another person to talk to. No, I was on the right line. The guy said crossing the United States border with my foreign mutt we picked up off the beach wouldn’t be a problem. Strange country. After all the months of preparation to get him out of Fiji, waltzing into my home country with him wouldn’t be a problem.

Kitty was losing a little bit of weight, but not nearly enough. We decided we could find a carrier for him that wasn’t as heavy. There’s not a lot of pet products to be found in Fiji, but luckily at the New World supermarket, the only grocery store in Nadi that specialized in more western foods, there was a small pet section in the back corner. They had one pet carrier available, but it happened to be one where the supports that gave the soft carrier its rigidity were removable, making it much lighter. We could remove the supports for his weigh-in and then replace them.

We also had to find a hotel that would allow the cat to stay with us for the night on the mainland before our flight. Fijians have a different culture when it comes to animals. Very few keep pets inside the house as we do in the US. Animals inside the home are regarded as dirty. Instead the cats and dogs basically run wild while their families leave out the food scraps for them to live off of. Since animals are considered dirty in the house, you can imagine there aren’t any pet-friendly hotels to be found.

We asked the vet and she recommended a Stoney Creek Resort not too far from the airport. The lady who ran the place turned out to be the Fijian equivalent of the crazy cat lady, except extend cats to all animals. She expressed some concern when we inquired into the possibility of staying at her resort with our cat, probably thinking that we were just some tourists who had picked up a stray mutt off the beach and had no idea what we were doing with it. She relaxed a bit though after we took them time to sit down and meet all of her furry friends. She was definitely eccentric, but we were grateful to her for being able to bring Chief Kitty.

Kitty had his final inspection at the Biosecurity office a couple days before our departure. They administered his parasitic treatment, and then wrote him out a very nice certificate. Since we had all of our ducks in a row, traveling with him went about a smoothly as we could have hoped for.

On our travel day, Kitty was in his carrier, with his harness on and his leash in the side pocket. We had a little waterproof mattress pad in there as an extra precaution, and one empty bowl. We had brought him on the boat before and he had been polite enough to spew into the bowl when he got motion sick. My carry-on bag was all pet wipes and towels and cat food. 24+ hours of traveling ahead, and no access to a litter box. I was trying not to imagine what sort of messes I would be cleaning up.

First Class on Korean Air

Going through security in Seoul was a little bit of a pain as we were the only ones in line and so the security agents kept trying to tell us what to do when we had the process down by that point. We knew we had to take the cat out of the carrier to walk through the metal detector, but that isn't until about step 3 or 4. It’s better to pull out your liquids and electronics first while your hands are still free. Security kept asking us to remove him from the carrier though, and then we were stuck trying to unload our bags with a cat in one arm trying to get free. Can’t argue with security though.

Marching into the US with Kitty was a joke. After the phone conversation I’d had over the food, as soon as we landed, I went into the bathroom and threw the remainder of his food into the trash. Then we went to the customs line. The dude saw the yes on the form for the animal and immediately asked where his food was. I replied that I had disposed of it already. He asked where. In the bathroom trash back there. He gave me a look and said that unfortunately, that was not the place to dispose of it. There was a moment of awkward silence before I asked if he would like me to go retrieve it. He said yes, that would probably be for the best. So he escorted me back to the lady’s bathroom where I did my best to scoop whatever cat food I could find out of the bottom of the airport trash bin without thinking about what else my hands were coming into contact with. Then I scrubbed my hands in the sink for much longer than was probably necessary, but there is really no washing your hands enough after that sort of experience.

The customs agent marched me back to the customs area and disposed of the cat food himself, then waved us away. We asked if he wanted to see the cat, or the cat’s paperwork. Again he just gave us a dismissive wave. Apparently escorting me away from his work station was as much work as he wanted to do for the day.

United Airlines was a breeze with the cat. Unfortunately they’ve gotten a lot of bad press recently, because of a few very sad incidents. No one ever reports all the success stories though. Kitty got a bright yellow tag to identify him as a live animal and no one laid a finger on him or said a word about him. He sat quietly under the seat in front of me the rest of the journey back to his new home in Colorado, ecstatic that he wouldn’t have to go into the overhead bin for takeoff and landing like Korean had made him do.

With regards to relief areas, there were none at the Incheon Airport in South Korea, so Fletch brought him into a bathroom stall and let him wander around for a while to stretch his legs. San Francisco Airport had several pet relief areas, but unfortunately we didn’t jump on the one when we exited the plane, and then ended up in a terminal with no relief areas after security. So I did the same thing and looked for a family bathroom and let kitty loose inside for a little while.

When we finally landed in Denver and let Kitty out of the bag for the final time, he stretched around into more shapes than I knew a cat could contort itself into. He was a champ through the entire process and I never even had to clean up a mess. 

Celebratory Touchdown Yoga 

Kitty is staying with my mom for a while, who has two other cats, Gus and Chester. He has never had other animals to play with, or so much space to run around in, and is very happy because of it. The entire process of moving him and introducing him to a new home with other animals really couldn’t have gone any more smoothly.

No Shoes, No Money, No Worries

It’s been a long time since I attempted to compose an entire story with something as primitive as pen and paper. Letters, sure, but an entire story? I’m having flashbacks to a little piece of prose I tried to compose in middle school in my very best script handwriting (which was always too sharp and pointy and lacked the right curves in my opinion). It was a “short” story about a girl who played the cello on the Titanic, and went on for page after page because the story just kept coming to me all at once as I wrote. I thought it was a masterpiece. My mother deemed it too long and secretly removed several pages before I submitted it. That is the last time I remember writing anything longer than a page with a pen.

I came to the mainland today, as I do every 12 days, on my day off, with a backpack full of laundry. All of the locals on the island do laundry by hand. When we first moved to Mana Island, Fletch bought us a little camping washer that we would crank by hand. It was a novelty for everyone. For us because we were used to the modern convenience of putting all our dirty, stained, and stinky clothes in a machine, pushing a button, moving on with more important parts of our days, and then magically coming back a while later to clean, but still wet clothes. To think of what an inconvenience it felt like back then to put the clothes from the washing machine into the drying machine and having to push yet another button. Now there was no magic button. The little camping washer depended on our sweat and muscle instead of electricity. And drying was dependent on the weather. Luckily it is always sunny on Mana Island.

Ratu Kitty Cooper likes to supervise. 

The little camping machine was novelty for the locals because having a crank to turn was a very high tech convenience indeed. They had nothing but their bare hands and a communal sink. Or sometimes the clothes were just worn into the ocean and hung on a line and that was that. The camping washer held about three t-shirts and two pairs of shorts at a time, so it was necessary to have it churning during most of our very limited free time. It wasn’t long before we got lazy and found a hotel in Nadi on the mainland that was posh enough (by Fijian standards) to have laundry facilities in the room, and not just a washing machine, but a dryer to boot! Dryers are a very rare thing in this part of the world. If you own a dryer, then you have really made it in life. The hotel, horribly named the Ratsun, was brand new at the time when we first started staying on our days off. Now it is a year old, and it is all too obvious the level of quality that went into building the place. Already paint is chipping, upholstery is tearing, doors aren’t latching… Fletch and I keep an ongoing, nonexistent list of what is wrong with each room. We’ve stayed in most of them. In room 205, for instance, the dryer stops every 5 minutes unless I find a screw to wedge into the appropriate spot, which causes it to keep running when the door is open. No matter, it still feels very luxurious to be able to put my clothes in a dryer, rather then having to compete for space on the clothes line with the Chinese neighbors. They always find a way to hang every last item they packed onto the 6 meters of clothes line we have to share. It used to drive me nuts when I would open the front (and only) door in the morning, to be greeted by some large lady’s granny pantaloons, which would obstruct my entire view of the ruins of the rest of the resort that burned down back in the day. A burned down building where the locals still go to shower years later is much easier on the eyes than some overweight stranger's underpants, but now I just smile and think that in less than two weeks time, I will have access to a dryer.

I get that dryers are as normal as sliced bread back in the gold ol' US of A, but here they are a rare commodity. 

The view from our room.

Preparing for this journey to the mainland can be quite a feat, mentally as much as anything. Island life is vastly different than city life, even when that “city” is only 7.8 square kilometers (3 square miles) with a population of 42,000. That’s 41,000 more people than Mana has. Ok, I don’t know if that is exactly true. Mana has two villages, both with a few hundred inhabitants. Then there are 4 resorts. Tadrai is the place you stay when you lack imagination and have run out of other things to spend your wealth on. For $3,000 per night, there are many places in Fiji that offer a lot more than 5 bungalows on an otherwise deserted beach. Places with unlimited massage packages and rooms with private pools, for example. Mana Island Resort averages around $500 per night and can house 300 people. It feels like a large school campus aimed to cater to quantity over quality, complete with cafeteria style food. People who stay there refer to it as "Paradise Alcatraz." Ratu Kini where we live and work averages around $100 for a dorm with full board, to $300 for a private with full board. Apparently we have a max capacity of 50, but I don’t remember the last time we had more than 30 guests. Then down the beach is the other backpackers’ place, the super budget one, where they drag mattresses into the closet when they overbook, and only run the generator a couple hours a day. Seeing as how they always procure an extra mattress and an extra closet when it gets very busy, I’m not sure what their max capacity is, but you can see that Mana Island is a very small place, the kind of place where you greet everyone by name on your way to work in the morning. The second an unfamiliar face turns up, everyone reminds you to not leave your phone sitting out. Mana Island is also the kind of place that you can leave your phone sitting out all day and it will still be there. I know I’ve written twice now about stolen phones, so you’re probably scratching your head wondering which way it is. Mainland Fiji is a whole different culture where petty theft is not uncommon. On Mana Island, our phones should have been stolen every other day for as much as we leave them lying around. Yet in a year and a half, Fletch’s phone got nicked once, and to this day, everyone warns the guests when the boat arrives that the thief used to work on. The thief was fired of course, but still everyone is wary of the boat.

While it may be safe to leave a valuable piece of technology that you have your entire life stored on lying around, there is one thing you should never ever leave unattended: flip flops. Especially if you have large, Fijian sized feet. Flip flops will walk away as soon as you leave them on the beach to go for a swim. Now why anyone bothers with shoes to begin with is beyond me. There is no pavement on Mana Island, just sand and dirt. Sand gets inside flip flops so you're walking on it anyway, why not just ditch the shoes? There is one field full of stickers that you should never ever walk through bare footed unless you have the hobbit-tough feet of a Fijian (I found this out the hard way my first night here), but that field is easily avoided, deeming shoes unnecessary. Until it’s time to go to the mainland to do laundry. Then I have to tear the room apart trying to find the last place I tucked my shoes away for safe keeping. Shoes and money. Apparently when you want food on the mainland, they like some money in exchange. I’ve gotten very spoiled for a year living in a way where money just gets shoved in a drawer somewhere because there is literally nothing else to do with it. You see, in exchange for diving and carrying some tanks up and down the beach (gym time), I get a shoebox to stay in, three meals a day, and a crate of beer per week, which I donate to Fletch on account that I don’t like beer and he enjoys a cold drink after laboring in the sun all day. There are no stores of any kind on Mana, save for our one little shop that sells cookies and two or three other processed, packaged food items. Those don’t appeal to me so I really couldn’t spend my money on the island if I tried.

The panorama view makes this photo of our room look much more spacious than it really is. Now it is crammed with a queen bed, dresser, and all of our belongings. This photo was also taken before I scrubbed the mold off the walls. They are a much cleaner shade of mustard now. 

Viti Levu, the big island is another story. Money becomes very important. So do shoes. Fletch and I forgot shoes once and had to wander barefoot to the nearest store in search of flip flops. After wandering through two or three stores that smelled of Indian spices and body odor, we finally found some rubber flip flops for $5. In an effort to prepare ourselves for the inevitable time when we would again forget to bring shoes, Fletch and I carefully hid our new $5 flip flops in the storage shed at the jetty so that they could be there waiting for us. You don’t leave flip flops unattended in Fiji though. Obviously they were never seen again.

Fletch also forgot to bring money with him not too long ago. The money wasn’t as big a deal as you might think. After a year and a half on Mana, and two years in Fiji, Fletch has many friends here whom he has helped on numerous occasions, and so it wasn’t difficult to find someone to borrow $50 from for a day. I sent his wallet over on the next boat and we both had a good laugh that he had forgotten to bring money with him an hour boat journey away.

I remembered to bring money and shoes this time around. What I did not remember to bring was a charger for my iPhone or iPad, and unfortunately, I left with only a 10% charge on the iPad. How on Earth would I entertain myself while pushing the magic button that does all my laundry for me?! Normally I have a book, a real life ink and paper book. I like reading the old-school way, and watching the pages slowly curl in the humidity the deeper in I delve. But last night I finished a particularly funny book, and desperate to keep the laughs coming, downloaded another of the same author’s books onto my iPad. Technology is amazing. I can have any book I want at the snap of my fingers. Not too long ago, being in a non-English speaking country would have meant traveling with a stack of heavy books if you wanted reading material. In 2018, you can be on a spit of sand in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and have instant access to nearly any book ever written. Unfortunately that book only has 10% battery left, and I was silly enough to not bring a charger. Oh the horror. Hence, why I still prefer to tote around physical, tree-killing pages splattered with ink. So to amuse myself on my day off I walked downstairs to the Shop n Save and spent $3.83 Fijian on a notebook, a pen, and a pack of coconut cookies that I usually don't eat, but somehow seemed essential for the coming afternoon of old-fashioned blogging. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lugged my computer around, assuring myself that I would be writing every moment of spare time I had, only for it to sit there and collect dust, and yet here I am rambling on with a pen and notebook, drinking tea, and listening to the pouring rain outside. There’s something very refreshing about it.