Japon (Nippon): Culture Shock in the Land of the Rising Sun

We are staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. We arrived to face a line of women dressed in kimonos poised and ready to greet us with a bow. I’m so awkward with this type of grandiose hospitality. Upon exiting our shuttle bus, the staff were so eager to take my bags, I just handed them all off. I’m more concerned about someone getting in trouble for not doing their job than I am about what I actually need or want as the guest they’re trying to impress. I walk in and the kimono ladies all bow and greet me with smiles, which my Canadian modesty can bear exactly one time. I walk over to check-in and realize I need our passports and therefore have to run back outside to chase my bag down while the woman assigned to help us is apologizing profusely. Walking through the doorway a second time – all the ladies bowing – it’s almost too much.

Our time in Japan began in Tokyo. You know the pictures you see in magazines of Asians wearing face masks? In Japan – and especially Tokyo – face masks are pervasive. People are not wearing them because they are sick, but as a preventative measure. I wish our family had been quicker to jump on the mask-wearing bandwagon. While mask wearing in North America is broadly reserved for hospitals, I think this is one social taboo we should abandon – for good reason. Our second night in Tokyo both Penelope and Elyse developed a horrendous cough, reminiscent of when our big dog Sumo once had Kennel cough (like whooping cough in humans). The sound is bark-like.

To date on this trip, Elyse’s puke count is up to three. Once after a long flight (we’ve medicated her with anti-nausea meds since during subsequent travel) and twice in one day since arriving in the Mt. Fuji region. She happened to be sharing a futon with me, directly facing me, when she appeared to choke on her phlegm from a cough and threw up all over my pillow. The joys of parenthood. After that, she put herself back to bed and slept the entire morning. She got up around lunch time, drank some orange juice and ate some teddy grahams, which also came up. Then she was fine. A kid’s ability to rally is phenomenal, but I’m questioning whether a face mask may have prevented the drama. While it’s hard to say whether the vomiting was a result of her cough or a virus or otherwise, I know for sure that all the travel and tiredness has something to do with it. Also, culture shock!

One night at dinner Elyse asked for pizza. There is no such thing as pizza in Japan, and for the North American – isn’t that weird! Since we’ve arrived here, I’ve been craving Mexican food – give me a grilled chicken pita or fajitas or a Mexican salad – no way! That is just not in Japan’s wheelhouse. If you want oodles of noodles, then Japan’s got your back. I was expecting sushi to be everywhere, but certain dishes are much more prevalent according to their region than others. There must be a region for the kind of sushi we eat, but we are simply not in it, though I have eaten my fair share of sashimi (raw fish). It is such an odd feeling to be completely outside your comfort zone. Stick me in North America and I can get along just fine. I know what food to buy in the grocery store for my kids. I know I can always order something, and have it delivered to my doorstep. Not so in Japan. The hotel we are staying at, the finest in town, or so I’m told, does not serve lunch; you have to find alternative arrangements, if lunch is your thing. And yes, lunch is my thing.

I have little to no Japanese to work with and the English at the front desk of our hotel is mostly limited, but this is the gist of various conversations I had with staff one morning:

My daughter is sick, can we bring food up to the room for her to eat later (from the breakfast buffet).

The response: Umm, no. No, you cannot bring food up to room.

Prior to lunch time, I inquired about where to eat? The response: you cannot eat here.

Is there anywhere to get takeout or can we order in?


Such a difference in culture! While the hospitality here is truly outstanding, in America it’s my way, all the time, when and how I want it. In Japan, there is a system for everything and that is what keeps the country so orderly, fair, clean and functional. Even with housekeeping, with Elyse sleeping off her sickness in our room, we wondered if housekeeping could be shifted to dinner time.

No. Housekeeping is done by 12:30.

The staff were apologetic, but…not really. Because that’s just the way things are, no exceptions. And – at the risk of sounding like I’m complaining – I’m not at all. I respect boundaries. As an organized person myself, I appreciate Japan’s transparency and adherence to rules. I put my trust in these people, but I feel like a bit of a loose cannon in comparison.

Speaking of trust, how about leaving your bags in the hotel lobby after checkout for safe keeping while sightseeing elsewhere? How about bikes left unchained, out in the open, in the big city of Tokyo and not needing to use a safe or lock your door? Japan is so frickin’ safe. And if my sense of safety is only an illusion then the Japanese are master magicians. It’s a culture of caring for the group, not looking out for number one. Case in point. One day, we took a taxi into town to visit a park and famous pagoda with a gorgeous view of Mt. Fuji. We settled on a little restaurant nearby for lunch and were treated like family. Extra treats for the kids and snacks to go. We paid a total of about $20 CAD for our meals. Before we had the chance to ask if they could call us a taxi, the owner’s daughter said she would drive us back to our hotel. And she did. This is the caring and kindness I speak of.

We happened upon our first travel mishap on our way to the Mt. Fuji region. We missed our bus and when I approached the attendant, he was reproachful. I asked him if we had missed our bus and he tapped his watch and said, “Well, look what time it is.”

We were five minutes late. Of course, we missed our bus! What, did we think it would wait for us? That is not how Japan works (or really anywhere, I’m pretty sure, but especially in Japan). And while he had given me a sideways glance, with the click of a button we were on another scheduled bus an hour later, our family seated near one another, no woman seated beside a man outside our family. One word: efficiency.

There are signs translated into English everywhere. Many people speak rudimentary English. But, the even bigger shock to my senses is that most people don’t speak at all. Japan embraces a culture of silence. On the whole, the Japanese are an extremely quiet group of individuals. Emotions are subdued. I smiled and engaged countless people on my 12 km run in Tokyo and the response was almost a unanimous look of bafflement, like what are you doing? I’m trying to be friendly, but I clearly don’t know how.

Having now experienced culture shock, I can empathize better with visitors and new immigrants who join our culture and wonder at our overt displays of emotion, in-your-face friendliness, and comparative lack of hospitality. Our North American boisterousness. The constant chatter.

Japan is so damn quiet. I find myself hushing and whispering constantly.

Those who know me might be snickering. I am who I am. A talker. Outgoing and somewhat obtrusive. Penelope and I went on a lunch date for noodles in an authentic joint and the first thing I did was to loudly knock a glass of water off the table onto the tatami mat. Like we didn’t stick out enough already. The hostess was understanding – she blamed Penelope and I didn’t correct her – but I couldn’t help but shake my head and laugh at my ineptitude. I will never be Japanese. Maybe that sounds funny, and at the risk of generalizing – what I mean to say is I could never operate at that level of perfection. I need a big margin for error. I may never be Japanese, but I will always respect this country for all that it offers and the opportunity it has afforded me to truly feel like an outsider in the best of ways.

Looking through the window, there is so much I’m taking in, including how to graciously accept the person on the other side.

Hawaii Part II: Oahu, Catching A Wave

It’s a Friday, I woke up early this morning, 6am, as I have almost every day for the last week and a half since our travels began. I don’t mind early mornings and travelling west suits me. Looking out our window with a view of the Pacific, there’s a certain quality to the light that isn’t duplicated at any other time of the day. On this last day in Hawaii, I don’t want to miss it. The early morning’s light is as fleeting as our time on the island.

The beach house we stayed in for three nights on Oahu has a row of large ocean-facing windows. When I look out, I can’t help but smile at the surfers that make their way toward big distant waves, paddling far out unfazed, hands cupped with clear strokes, over the sharp rocks and coral and sea turtles and whatever else lies below. For the people here, surfing is a way of life. Our surf photographer first took his baby out at six months old. Locals get up early, pack up their board and gear and make their way down to the beach. With the wind picking up, the surfing conditions appear to be excellent and blinking out at the blue sky, the warm sun overhead, I wish I was heading out there with them. But it’s not to be, we have a flight to catch.

While in Oahu, our entire family had the opportunity to try surfing. From the onset, I was extremely nervous – though I wouldn’t have admitted it – both for myself and because of the helplessness you feel when you’re putting your children’s safety into the hands of another. We had to trust complete strangers to keep our children safe far from shore, amidst powerful ocean waves. Trust can be won and lost in an instant.

Thankfully, we were in highly capable hands with North Shore Surf Girls company. Three instructors, plus a photographer (also a skilled surfer), were there looking out for us, and had our family secure and locked down at all times. The kids each wore a life jacket, for starters, and Dan, Ariel and I were all tethered by the ankle to a giant floatation device – our surfboards. Having instructors was key: they not only showed us the ropes and taught us the beginner basics, but they set up our waves for us. Essentially, they kept an eye on the waves, brought us to the right spot and helped us get into position, then they pushed us into the wave and yelled “Paddle! Paddle!” at which point you paddled with both cupped hands. You then heard “push up!”, which meant you were to slide your hands down to your hips and lift up your chest, so you look like a seal. The next part was up to the surfer. On land, we did a dry run of proper surf technique. For the beginner, push up your chest, then slide up to your hands and knees; next put your right foot forward, push up onto two feet sideways, remembering to keep your knees sufficiently bent and your hands touching the board for balance and to turn your feet sideways, then once – if – you make it that far, both hands come off the board and your arms go out straight for balance. No problem.

Standing at the shore, I cupped my hand up to my face, shielding my eyes, to watch the other surfers out in the distance. What had I been thinking dragging our family into this? To add to the butterflies in my stomach, Penelope was being uncooperative. She wanted nothing to do with this surfing business. With much protestation, we got her onto the board with me, laying her on her stomach, and with Ariel on her own board to the other side of me, one instructor, Alexa, strapped on flippers, then holding onto her surf board with her arms and placing one flippered foot onto both my board and Ariel’s board, we set out into the ocean. She towed us out and maneuvered us carefully, avoiding any big waves, and the first knot in my stomach began to unfurl taking in her skill and agility in the water. Elyse was sitting on a board with Carol, the incredible owner and operator of NSSG and Dan was, funny enough, left to paddle himself out. Jenn, our third instructor set out ahead to create a “holding” area. The holding area was a calm zone in the water where we would wait as a group when not surfing, and the area we had to paddle back to after surfing a wave. You could think of this area as a chairlift on a ski slope.

Once we made it over to Jenn, Dan and Ariel were led immediately over to the waves with Elyse and Carol close by. Jenn made friendly chitchat with me in the holding area while I craned my neck wildly to see where they were taking Dan, Ariel and Elyse. Her voice was soothing and reassuring, but I needed to have eyes on my family. Dan would be the first to try a wave, and I saw him go out and then bail hard. When he fell off, he dipped below the waves and for a minute I couldn’t see him, but next thing you know he popped up with a smile on his face and I watched him paddle off to the right. I allowed my body to relax on the surfboard a smidgeon, but then it was Ariel’s turn to be pushed into a wave and I tensed right back up again on her behalf. They sent her on a wave and there she went, off on her own. She made it to her knees, but I never saw her stand. It all happened so quickly, and I couldn’t see her. Alexa was there to keep an eye on her though and paddled out to meet her when she fell off. I relaxed when I saw my husband and eldest daughter paddling back in my direction and allowed myself to sink down on my surfboard and embrace the bobbing waves, instead of trying to fight them. To enjoy myself, I had to relinquish control, which is hard for me. Dan and Ariel each had a few more turns, and then Elyse went with the instructor too and even stood up (not very willingly, I’m sure). Carol the owner, or auntie Carol as we called her, never once fell off her board or let the kids fall into the water. She made surfing on her knees, holding our children, look effortless. Later in our session, Penelope and Elyse did get to have a swimming session in the water, but otherwise they stayed safely afloat either in the holding area with Dan or I, or on the board with auntie Carol, out surfing the waves. I can’t say they loved it; I think the activity was fairly stressful for them being so novel and foreign to their senses; but at the very least, they were exposed to surfing, kept very safe, entertained and looked after while Dan, Ariel and I got to try our hand at surfing too.

Finally, the moment of truth, it was my turn to surf. Penelope, with much protestation, was removed from my surfboard and onto Dan’s. Alexa waved me over, and so off I paddled. Alexa would be the one to push me into a wave. She must have picked the perfect wave because when she told me to, I paddled, pushed up, got on my hands and knees and before I knew it I was cruising the wave and loving it. The proper way to end your ride is to get back down onto your knees and into the paddling position, and so when my board slowed down, that is what I did. We were told, under no circumstances, should we ride a wave to shore. That is where the shallowest water and dangerous rocks are. Using the technique they taught us, I paddled my way off to the right and back up the “water chairlift” to meet back up with my crew.

“You’re not doing it right!” Dan yelled out to me jokingly, “you’re supposed to fall off.”

I took a second turn with success, then Dan and I traded off again in the holding area.

Now, I’m making this sound easy. The surfboard does give you more support than I imagined, but you still have to contend with the awesome force of the wave beneath you. After my third turn, on my way back up the chairlift, a big roller came my way. We were taught, when coming face to face with a wave, to always turn your board directly at it, versus turning lengthwise or sideways. If you turn sideways, you’re bound to be bulled over, but face to face, you simply push up into that seal position and sail over the wave. The contingency plan, if you don’t think you’re going to be able to push up in time to avoid the crashing wave, is to roll off your board and submerge yourself underwater. This option sounded scary to me, because it contradicted the other advice to remain flat and stretched out when you fall off the board, so you don’t accidently brush against the rocks or coral at the bottom. I was determined to face the waves head on and stay on top of my board. As a second giant wave came my way, I bobbed up in time to see the faces of my crew looking concerned, I pushed up strong and just barely made it over the top of the wave before it crashed on the other side of me. From the holding area, Dan said our photographer had been holding his breath, commenting, “Whoa! I didn’t think she was going to make it.”

On my fourth surf attempt I bailed hard. The wave came too quickly from up underneath me and I never made it to my feet before my board flew out and up into the air. I tumbled under water and grabbed for my ankle like we had been taught, reaching for the cord that would get me back to my board as soon as possible where I could hoist myself up and paddle to safety.

“I guess you didn’t hear me say to push up, huh?” Jenn asked me kindly on my way back. I was plowed over by the wave.

While Ariel silently refused to try standing while surfing on her own, once she rode tandem with auntie Carol she rocked it. The whole time we surfed I could see the worry written all over her face; she takes after her parents in being risk-averse, so I was surprised when in the car ride after the experience, when we were all exhausted, she asked, “So when are we going surfing again?”

But I shouldn’t have been surprised, because now I understand what draws people to surfing. At least, I know what draws me to surfing. Harnessing the power of the awesome wave beneath you is an incredible feeling. Once I let go of my anxieties, out riding the waves, then I truly felt in control. Being able to tame mother nature in this small way is so gratifying. Or perhaps tame is the wrong word. It’s more of a partnership, a unison, a meditation of becoming one with the wave. There is definitely a thrill. When I made it over the crest of that second giant wave, the sense of relief and redemption was palpable. I had been pulled under the water and spit out upon our arrival in Hawaii, but not this time. This time I came out on top, riding the waves.

On our way to the airport, as we bade Hawaii goodbye, the melodic ukulele strumming in Somewhere Over the Rainbow playing through the car speakers, I got misty-eyed at the reality of our leaving.

“What’s wrong with your eyes, mommy? Penelope asked.

We made a family pact to one day come back to the North Shore, to shaved ice and acai bowls; to lush tropical forests and waterfalls and crystal blue waters as far as the eye can see.

And when we do, I’m going to ride those waves.

Big Island, Hawaii: The Black Rock

As the designated Big Island driver, I’ve had less time for writing and travel musings in my notebook as I’ve been driving all over this black rock. Hawaii. The place where new land is made. During our time here, there’s one theme that keeps coming back to me, hanging out in my mind, and so naturally that is what I will write about. But first let’s get the obvious out of the way: Hawaii is paradise. There is no question about that. But it’s a natural paradise, rough and rugged, alive and vibrant and the forces at play are not only elemental, but unstoppable.

I got my first taste of the island’s awesome power on the shores of Kua Bay. If you were to choose a swimmer in our family, it would be me. My affinity for water is well known (especially by my friends and family who have pools) and so immediately after disembarking from our flight I slotted in a trip to the closest beach. I knew Big Island was about visiting volcanoes rather than being renowned for its amazing swimming and beaches, but I hadn’t understood the awesome force of the currents.

When we arrived at Kua Bay, the beach was a dazzling array of turquoise waters and lush palms. As the self-proclaimed water tester, I approached the crashing beach waves with a degree of caution, but also with the air of someone who knows they are a competent swimmer. Within minutes, when I did a slight jump with my back into the wave, I was sucked right under and spit back out, coughing and sputtering, my sun hat lost in the wave. Well, hello there Hawaii, I thought; you like it rough; I see how it is. Danger. Imminent threat. Could it be otherwise on an island with not one, but two volcanoes? The most recent of which erupted in 2018 causing devastation to everything in its path and the loss of 7,000 homes. The apparent danger is everywhere, and yet, you really aren’t afraid, instead you feel emboldened. The stark beauty of the ocean, the lush land; the land that can erupt and the ocean that can pull you under. There’s a balance to be found here, a place in between, teetering on the edge.

On our second day we drive to visit the caldera of Mauna Loa. Hot steam vents surround the massive crater in the earth, and Elyse, right on point, is terrified when we tell her we are going up to see a volcano. “No!” she wails convincingly, “it’s too hot!” She has seen the pictures. She knows what burning rock can do.

Arriving at our beach house, Dan realizes there’s no coffee. Not being a coffee drinker myself, but understanding his need to caffeinate in the morning, I suggest we stop at a coffee plantation on our drive to the volcano. I was sure I’d read something about a store nearby. Coffee beans, pre-roasting, if you’ve never seen them, are cherry red. I was excited to show the girls the beans and get Dan his cup of Joe.

I hung a right into the driveway of the first coffee plantation we arrived at. As we drove down the incredibly steep laneway, it occurred to me that this could be a terrible mistake. It was a Sunday morning. What if the store wasn’t open? What if there wasn’t a store at all? What if the property owners weren’t understanding or grew upset about our intrusion – because this is what this was.

I shifted into park at the place that seemed the most promising and offered to take a look around. We were in the middle of what looked like a jungle and there was no one to be seen, just a few cottages belonging to some sort of retreat. There was a narrow pathway that disappeared into a thicket of trees. This seemed to be my only option. I took it. My heart was beating wildly in my chest. Where was everybody? Hello? The next minute, I ran into a man who didn’t speak English and seemed quite surprised to see me, but he was pleasant and gave me a smile.

“One minute! One minute! I go get…I go get…”

Who’s he going to get? It didn’t matter. I was committed now. He disappeared into one of the cottages.
A woman emerged and greeted me warmly as two oversized German Shepard’s appeared out of nowhere and made a full display of barking and howling aggressively. A second man appeared from the cottage and waved the dogs off. I relaxed when the dogs seemed harmless and appeared to listen to their owners who were clearly communicating there was no need to eat me. I explained to the couple that my husband needed coffee when my kids loud voices back at the van roused the dogs’ shackles back up and sent them into another barking fit. They took off full speed in the direction of my family; I hoped Dan would close the doors in time.

Though there was no store, and they only shipped their coffee overseas, in the end I walked away with a delicious bag of the freshest ground coffee you can imagine, and a ziplock bag of macadamia nuts – an island specialty – the kind woman told me she had roasted only the night before.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Best macadamia nuts I’ve ever tasted.

Back to swimming in the ocean. Once you make it past the shorebreak, and let me tell you, THE SHOREBREAK IS REAL (Dan and I joked about this after I was pulled under and we had essentially ignored the signs); once you make it out there, there’s salt and sea creatures to contend with. After Kua Bay, we found a calmer, kid-friendly idyllic tide pool thanks to a conversation with a friendly local who told us about the spot where he took his grandkids. Fact. We all know there are sharks in the ocean. Fact. Sharks don’t usually eat people, let’s remember that for later in the story. Sea creatures don’t usually want to hurt people either, but we all have a need to protect ourselves.

Even at the tide pool, danger lurked around the corner. As I wade into the water, a young boy, eight or nineish in age, tells me, “oh, don’t go that way. That’s usually where the sea urchins are.”

“The what?”

“The sea urchins. They have spikes and if you step on them they will hurt you.”

Oh, I know what they are. The question is why are they where I want to swim? That was my initial arrogant approach. Then we hung out for a while and watched as the other kids and a local family discovered the sea life around us. There were black crabs scurrying on the rocks and a hermit crab. The mother of the family was scooping up sea urchins in her bare hands and passing them to her toddler. I talked to the children who lived there and found out that if you don’t press on a sea urchin, it has suction cup tentacles that don’t hurt you at all – they tickle. Sea urchins generally stick to the bigger rocks, so avoid the rocks. I laughed at the silly sea cucumber that look like a…umm…what’s a polite way to say this…a black soggy cucumber. The kids told me if you squeeze a sea cucumbers it pees. Maybe don’t squeeze them. There was a black brittle star, a creepy starfish looking thing, that clung to the underside of rocks and gets its name because of its fragility – if you pull on one of its limbs, the limb detaches. For that reason I felt protective of the little guy.

Once the scariness factor was removed from the sea creatures and the girls and I were exposed to them, like with everything else – once we are informed – we felt safe and could fully enjoy our natural surroundings. Not to mention the majestic sea turtles we encountered at a different beach later.

But, remember, balance. There needs to be balance, and to tip the scales in the favour of danger we factor in a good shark attack story.

While at the gentle kid-friendly tide pool I was chatting with a mom Elyse had really taken a liking to. She’s done this a few times now, buttering other mothers up, then throwing herself at them like she’s in need of a new mother, a better family. Oreo, my dog, does the same exact thing. We’ll be walking together in one direction, and another family will pass us by and Oreo will turn and start walking with them. I’m trying not to take this personally. Anyway, I ask this woman what she knows about the Ironman finals that are held on the island. I’ve recently signed up for my very first Ironman. The championship race recently took place in Kona. She explains the participants start out in Kona Bay for the almost 4 km swim. As she’s telling the story, her face clouds over. Someone she knows from work, not two days before the Ironman race was held, disappeared in Kona Bay. He was night fishing, alone. They found his belt and dive kit with big teeth marks in it.

“A shark got him,” she explains.

As I’m thinking of those elite athletes getting in the water a few days later, she retorts, “Yeah, they sure didn’t advertise it. That one got swept under the rug.”

On our final day on Big Island, we visited one final beach with tide pools for the kids and a coral reef for Dan and I to explore snorkeling.

“There’s a reef shark out there,” a local woman explained to me, she gestures at Ariel, “its mouth probably isn’t even big enough to eat her.”

We didn’t swim out there to find out.

Now, as the sun is setting its final rays, I’m urging my crew, let’s hike out to that cliff point, one final hurrah as darkness sets in, a final opportunity with high stakes: the chance to see humpback whales.

But as night falls, watch your step, the black rock cuts deep.

California: The Souls of Dinosaurs

Elyse wakes up at 4:13 a.m. It’s our first morning in San Francisco and we’re staying in a hotel room Dan booked on points.

Our free hotel room consists of two separate rooms, includes a full kitchen, and that morning we enjoy a complimentary hot breakfast. We swim in the “heated” sparkling pool upon our arrival. We are pleasantly surprised.

My husband graciously slides out of bed, checks on Elyse in the bathroom. There’s the pitter-patter of feet and two more sisters out of bed. I get out of bed to help but insist on keeping the lights out to try and hold onto the night. We’re all shuffling around in the dark.

The day before, on the first day of our ‘round the world trip, we arose shortly after 4 a.m. eastern time. We woke the girls from their peaceful slumbers – what felt like a violent act – and loaded them into the minivan. We ate a rushed breakfast past airport security then were delighted to find ourselves in row eighteen of the plane, the first row past business class with extra leg room. The girls were even gifted an activity bag as they boarded the plane containing earphones for the onboard TVs, a colouring book and a small foam game of exes and oes.

The first five hours of our flight from Toronto to California were smooth sailing. The girls settled happily into their seats, ensconcing themselves in ipad land, embracing permission long denied, finally granted, to go back to their beloved screens. Around the four-hour point of our flight, Dan and I insisted Elyse forfeit her screen to use the washroom on the plane. She was belligerent about the request but didn’t cause much of a scene. When we unstrapped her from her seat she flopped onto the floor down on her bottom. She insisted on being carried to the bathroom. Dan didn’t mind obliging, but we should have taken this as a sign. When the duo returned from the bathroom a second time, Elyse climbed into Dan’s lap and tumbled into sleep. Her sleepiness was atypical, but not unusual given the circumstances. When Elyse awoke an hour later, it was time for landing. Penelope was getting giddy and worked up by this point in the five hour and forty-five-minute flight and when disconnected from her screen, Ariel had been uncharacteristically scowly and cantankerous. As the plane commenced its descent, tempers flared. Ariel and Penelope, seated to my left, went after each other. There was catty poking and swatting, eye rolling and whining. In other words, typical childish behaviour from kids who haven’t had enough sleep.

Our plane touches down seamlessly and I look over across the aisle to see Elyse slouched down in her seat like a sack of potatoes. My two quarreling girls are settling, their cat fight giving way to the novelty of the moment – t’was but a scratch – when the words you never want to hear as a parent come barrelling out of my husband’s mouth, “Are you going to be sick? Elyse, are you going to be sick?” Elyse looks placid, pale. Like she might cry. She’s dry heaving and making that gagging sound kids make when they’re trying to throw up. Passengers are disembarking all around us. Thinking fast on his feet, Dan reaches for the activity bag, containing headphones and all, and Elyse vomits into it. As it turns out, the poor kid suffers from motion sickness. And so we arrived in San Fran with a splash!

We got our rental car sorted without problem, Elyse recovered nicely and we were swimming in the hotel pool feeling nice and relaxed by early afternoon, having gained three hours heading west. On our drive to dinner, not surprisingly, Penelope fell asleep and by 8 p.m, it’s safe to say, we were all knackered. Ariel and Penelope slept together and fell asleep in the exact position they first laid down in and Elyse took the pull-out, joining them in dreamland a few minutes later, with Dan and I not far behind them.

Why then, at 4:13 a.m., when our kids woke up in San Fran, did they seem so damn fresh?

By 5:15 a.m. I’ve given up on trying to get the girls to go back to sleep. Any pretense of getting them to rest has faded away, so I turn on a light and pull out their books. Dan has clamoured back into our bed and as I flop down beside him, I feel a deep-seated exhaustion, despite having gone to bed the night before at 8:30 p.m. My legs are lead, my head all foggy clouds, like the ones we flew through high in the air and the ones down below us enshrouding California hill tops.

“Why don’t the kids feel exhausted?” I bemoan to my bedside partner.

“because they didn’t have to get themselves here.”

Elyse interrupts our sleep a few minutes later.

“I want breakfast.”

Our time in San Francisco did not disappoint. We visited the tall and majestic sequoia trees in Muir Woods National Park. We took a short boat ride to Alcatraz – “The Rock” – and took a stroll down to Pier 39 to gawk at sea lions and ride the merry-go-round. We ate clam chowder at Fisherman’s wharf and gazed out over the Pacific as the sun set in a dazzling array of purples, pinks and oranges. We crossed the Golden Gate bridge and stopped to take pictures. We experienced crime and big city problems. Homelessness. Bumper-to-bumper traffic. In the middle of the day, the car beside ours was broken into, smashed glass everywhere. There was a bomb threat nearby and several earthquakes an hour or so away. Nobody seemed perturbed. In comparison, I appreciate the relative calm and safety of our small town; the uneventfulness of small-town Ontario. Big city, big problems. Yet, San Francisco is not without its charms and character. Scooters and bikes and motorized skateboards abound. The giant sequoias and hearty palms, windswept vistas overlooking the ocean, and picturesque rows of stucco houses that go on and on in tiers packed into hillsides. Roads that disappear into the horizon. A shoreline with surfers, pelicans and sea lions; and who could forget that California sunshine. Even when it’s cold in San Fran, it isn’t really cold.

On our way into the city we came across miles and miles of white tombstones. An entire cemetery of them in the heart of the city. Ariel asked what we were seeing from the backseat. I told her it was a graveyard, and Dan added,
“That’s where soldiers are buried.”
“That’s where the souls of dinosaurs are buried!?” Ariel was incredulous.

California has class and soul. The city has grit, but its inhabitants are peppy, friendly. Sun-shiny. On one such vista overlooking the Golden Gate bridge and the endless city, Ariel and I stumbled across a blond in a leather jacket, chest heaving, one leg propped up on her Harley with her burley fiancé, hipster beard and all, pressed up behind her for a photo shoot. With the golden gate bridge in the background, the pacific and steep drop to our left, I thought, yeah, this is San Francisco.

What We’re Made Of

Free advice: if and when you plan a trip around the world, don’t leave the final details until the week before you leave. There are best laid plans and then there is reality. The reality is you might not have time to apply to that publisher you were hoping to apply to; you definitely won’t write that piece for the magazine and you will more than likely have to put all of your writerly activities on hold. You will bow down to the demands of the schedule. Finalizing the itinerary will become all you know, the intense focus on your existence; the first thing you think of in the morning and the last thought jettisoning through your mind before bed. Sleep will be fitful. Exercise will be cut short. Your children’s questions will go unanswered, and they will repeat them ad nauseum until they grow tired and weepy and wander away, mewing like kittens who’ve lost their mother. You won’t really be gone, but you’ll be transformed from a living, breathing person, to a research troll. Your obsession with controlling the trip – before the trip controls you – will be all-consuming in the final days before your flight; it has to. You want to bitch and moan about all the work you have left to do, but hell, who would listen? I wouldn’t listen to me. And who am I kidding? A bit of sweat and tears, the burning sensation in the back of my eyeballs from too much screen time, is a fair exchange for the trip of a lifetime.

What do you mean, trip of a lifetime? You might ask. Where are you going? There are the physical locations themselves, but a trip, a real voyage, is so much more than that. The girls’ music teacher said to me, “you’re going to shed some skins on this trip,” and I told her I liked that, I liked that a lot; that she nailed where we are going right on the head. Traveling is about unravelling other versions of yourself; peeling back, delayering the proverbial skins. Let’s see what we’re really made of.

I’ll give you an example. Surfing. Let’s take surfing as an example. Canadian Adelle, the person typing this post in her usual local café wouldn’t consider surfing as a family activity that her particular family could enjoy. Dan and I knew WE, the adults, wanted to go surfing while in Hawaii, and we included Ariel in that realm of possibility, being the capable, swimmable, eight-year-old that she is. We wrote the other two off…we’d have to do something with them. But travel Adelle, the woman looking ahead, reaches out to her future self and sees that all is possible. She scours websites for information and sees the surfing company, the one with the cool name, North Shore Surf Girls, and the possibility of surfing for children as young as two. As young as two. She writes to said surf establishment in Hawaii and she inquires…are you sure? I have a three-year-old and a six-year-old who can’t swim and my six-year-old has Down syndrome…are you sure? She wakes up to the chipper reply. Yes! But what sealed the deal was the closing line in the email response, “I think it will be super fun.” Super fun? Can I get a HELL, yes! She’s speaking your language.

Suddenly new horizons open up. The impossible becomes…likely. Normal. Travel can broaden that which we didn’t even know was narrowed; can unearth truths buried deep below. I want to hold my children back, but the world calls them forward with open arms, out into un-surfed territory. The pre-planning is about keeping them as safe, comfortable and well fed as possible, to make our trip as enjoyable as possible, but there is so much impossible that becomes possible in the course of a day in another country that maybe it’s best just to let go. Just let go.

Maybe that’s another great reason to travel. To just let everything go. Step outside the relative safety of the everyday, the worn path and to look around the corner, check out what’s over there. I’m one to explore new paths, hike my way through a new forest, perhaps not always in the safest of ways. I’ve read atrocious stories of women walking alone in the woods and the bad things that happen to them or almost happened to them. Little Red Riding Hood for starters, but memoirs, too. A distance runner hiking with her baby when a man with a mental health issue emerges and out of nowhere throws a boulder grazing her ear, narrowly missing her newborn baby’s head in the carrier. Stories of rape, homicide, murder and the occasional animal attack. I should probably carry bear spray when I walk alone, but not because of the bears.

I have read horror stories from travel on the road, too. Whole volumes of them. Travellers who’ve gotten hurt, lost, scared. Who’ve encountered murderers face-to-face and lived to write about it. I’ve read a memoir written by a woman whose fiancé died from a fatal box jellyfish sting in Thailand, as well as a woman who became paralyzed falling off the second story of a building in Thailand because of a loose railing. There are SO MANY factors out of our control to worry about. There are terrible things that happen in my neighbourhood, yours too, stories I try not to think about.

But do you know why I’m not afraid to travel? Why we can’t be afraid to travel? Because as much as bad things can and do happen, more often beautiful, transcendent moments occur out on the road. Moments of hilarity. Moments of solidarity and humanity. I’ve read these stories, too; mostly these are the stories I choose to focus on. There is kindness to experience that goes beyond words. There is nature to encounter that draws the breath away. There are places to explore and people to meet who will open the heart up wide and in exchange there will be pieces of your heart left behind, I am sure of it.

Travel because who can stay still for long? And my biggest because, is because travelling together is a guaranteed way to spend time as a family. Sure, we don’t need to go to Japan to do that, but wouldn’t it be fun? There is a big part of me who knows I am going because I can. Because today is the day. Now is the time to go. Not tomorrow. Not later. This year, right now. Okay, in five days. FIVE DAYS!!!

As if I needed any more reasons to get away, I am reading the British author A.L. Kennedy and her meditation (or is it a witty rant?) called On Writing about the daily act. Her writing packs a punch, but it was this line that spoke to me last night at Ariel’s TKD practice, “Oh, but inside, Dear Reader – the writer is in minds, under skins, on roads untravelled, and anywhere and everywhere and more.”

The writer is under skins, and this trip will nurture my inner writer, fill the well so to speak, in a hundred different ways. The writer in me is giddy AF to soak in the world’s offerings. I’m all eyes and ears. This skill that writers must hone, this paying attention, children do it naturally, so I don’t even have to tell you what my kids will get out of our trip. But my hope for them, if I had to peg one down, is the collective experiences from our travel will shape the rest of their lives and provide the map and compass that will help them find their place in the world. And even if we get lost, we will be lost together, and they will know they are loved indeterminably because time is a great gift of love. Time is all we have, and love is all we need (if that isn’t already a song lyric, it should be).

Travel because, beneath the layers of skin, we are connected to this whole big wide Earth; to the land and the people in it.

Travel for no other reason than to go, to take a look. It’s time. Let’s see what we’re made of.

The Write Retreat

I hosted my first Writing and Wellness Retreat over the weekend. How to explain the writer’s retreat? In a word…I can’t do it. Life-changing? That’s two words. A dream come true? That’s a phrase, overused and too saccharine. Teachable moments? There were many. Exhausting? Emotionally draining? Challenging? Hard work? That just sounds like I’m complaining about an experience that was truly incredible, but in truth, all of those words are true to the experience.

Perhaps a word won’t do the writer’s retreat justice, but I can capture the retreat in the moments that stood out for me; in the moments that are mine to share.

So much of what happened is not mine to share because the stories are simply not mine. When you are the host, or the teacher, you are there to give of yourself and to take in and try and improve what others have to offer. I was there as a guide, not primarily as a creator. So that will be my story.

The themes we touched on were heavy, I can tell you that much: cancer, loss, abuse, grief, violence, trauma, love. I have read memoir of unspeakable things: children dying, rape, gruesome murder, tragic deaths, devastating disease and deformities and yet I didn’t know the authors. They weren’t standing facing me, looking me in the eye. I didn’t care about the authors whose books I read the way I cared about the participants at my retreat. Their stories will haunt me always, but not in a way that I want to forget, but in a way I will hold with me and want to remember.

There were tears. Of course there were tears. I cried when I wrote my memoir, but I hadn’t anticipated the tears would be mine this time; that I would be blubbering. In the seemingly most unlikely scenario, a writer took me by surprise, she sideswiped me and I was carried away by a sea of tears. I don’t think she would mind me sharing that it was motherhood that did me in. I held it together through the abuse and the trauma and the unspeakable violence, but tell me about the chair you nursed your babes in, the cheap one from Sears with the stains on it; the one you stuffed granola bars into the side pockets for the late night feedings when you got the munchies (nice detail, I might add). Then tell me that nine years after you purchased that rocking chair, the time has come to let it go, and I will come undone. The flood gates will open and I won’t be able to stop my tears. The tears find their way back even now, thinking about it again. It’s the mundane everyday things, a rocking chair, that can really get ya. My friend believed her piece wouldn’t have the same emotional punch as some of the darker subjects, but it’s all in how you tell the story and man, she knocked me right out.

She shared her story, as we all did, during the Saturday night Writer’s Circle I organized. This evening event, which proceeded our Chef-created dinner and scrumptious dessert, was one of my favourite times of the whole weekend. Everyone shared a piece of writing, one to two pages, and then we discussed it. As my friend read her piece about the rocking chair, she hit a nerve – I realized I will be in the exact same position as her next year, sending my last baby off to school. I was sitting next to her, and as she read her piece aloud, at one point she needed a comforting gesture, a hand on her shoulder to help her get through it, but instead of leaning in, I threw my hands in the air, sobbing, “Don’t look at me. I can’t help you!” Some facilitator I am. Whatever happened that night, I know I’m not the only one who felt the energy in the room, it was magic. There was talent, raw talent, and though sadness and loss and grief and pain and tragedy wove their way through many of the pieces shared, there was also so much hope sitting in that room. Love, hope, acceptance and peace. Resilience. Perhaps, in allowing ourselves to connect with others, we open ourselves up to moving forward in our grief and in letting the good flow into and out of our hearts.

While the writer’s retreat was never specifically geared to narrative non-fiction, primarily that is what participants wrote and therefore the weekend shifted to a more personal focus. I therefore played the dual role of writing coach/ therapist.

Creating this weekend, for me, was about bringing writers together, feeling inspired by each other, but also to see if I wanted to teach creative writing. I begin my Master in Fine Arts for creative writing, narrative nonfiction, this spring and at its completion I will be officially qualified to teach writing at the college level – did that even interest me? As it turns out, it does! I was privileged to spend some one-on-one time conferencing with two of the participants and to work through their stories with them, and – as hard as that was, emotionally – I loved it!

I am so grateful to the six women who took a chance on me and for putting themselves out there. Grateful to myself for putting away my fears of who do you think you are? and just going for it. Grateful to my husband, as always, for his support and care of our children. Grateful to our wonderful Chef, Sheila Ward from LOCA foods, and yoga instructor, Erica Forbes, and to the cottage owner and my friend Randi with all the connections and to the universe for conspiring to bring it all together. And, I am especially grateful for the opportunity to do it all again in May, and for the writers whose names are already on the waiting list.