Keelung, Taiwan

Goddess of Mercy
Goddess of Mercy

It seemed to take forever to drift down the long approach to Keelung. Even our enormous cruise ship was reduced to just one more piece of transport in a busy waterway. The Buddhist shrine, with its mile-high Guanyin statue, watched us enter its territory with a peaceful expression of mercy: on this stop, finally, we were going to be allowed off the ship. We parked right at the end of the harbour, nudging ourselves into a spot of comfort against an old pier. Crew members assured us it would be an easy 20 minute walk into downtown. We started out.

Forty minutes later, we were waved on by a resident who seemed to understand our worried expressions: he pointed down the road, saying “Keelung” in encouragement. Glad that we hadn’t by mistake taken the wrong turn, we waved our thanks. Pretty fast walkers, we couldn’t imagine even the young crew members managing it in twenty minutes. No matter – we enjoyed the ramble. It led us past an enthusiastic sidewalk garden, vines and ferns growing out of the hillside at the edge of the street, an abandoned train station, a burned-out city block in the middle of sidewalk vendors and food stalls. We reached the city center, walked the twisting alleyway markets, inspected all the remarkable raw foods waiting to be cooked. My favorite were the open baskets of dismembered claws.

simple sidewalk garden
simple sidewalk garden

 

We had seen as much as our limited time allowed, but hadn’t yet experienced the best of travel. We hadn’t gotten truly lost in Keelung. The walk into town had been longer than we thought it would be, but we had been always heading in the right direction. I couldn’t count it as being off-trail. I thought we’d briefly try again. We headed up a side-street towards what looked like a secondary retail area. Bright lights were strung across the street, traffic came into the intersection from five different directions, electrical wires framed every view. Motorcycles were parked on the sidewalk in front of businesses. A group of men gathered on a corner and watched our slow walk up the hillside street. We window-shopped a second-hand store. Stanley may have wanted to look at the knife with the pearly decor, and pick through the old coins, but the store was not open. We continued, crossed the street, looked through the window dust of another closed variety store.

nicely off the beaten path
nicely off the beaten path

Then we found a tiny staircase up an alley onto an entrance to apartments. Up we walked, the steps slick with humidity, old-age and grime. We reached the top of the stairs, wondering where to go next. The men had been tracking us, looking at our progress. We decided getting lost was perhaps not the best of ideas. We retraced our progress back to the business street, back toward the gathering of men and the main avenue of the harbor. As we passed the group, several pointed the long road back to the ship. “Cruise ship” they said, smiling. We once again waved our thanks, and were on our way.

The real deal
The real deal

 

I had never set my foot in Asia before the cruise, never been to Keelung. But this was to me a comfortable place, like other places I had lived outside the US. Slightly tarnished one hundred years ago, it had never been renovated. A cell phone store opened up in a burned-out building that had electricity strung in from a series of oddly connected and tangled cords. There was grit from half a century of someone living in a place I would never have given a thought to if I had just stayed home. I may not ever choose to return, but in that moment when I was there, I loved it.

Goodbye, Osaka

 Please don't step on the artwork

Please don’t step on the artwork

It wasn’t only the cleanliness of Osaka’s streets that caught our attention. It was the artistic attention to detail that graced the very sidewalks. Stanley was the first to notice, fascinated as he is by a city’s mechanics: how does the subway work, where are the utility lines, what is that beautiful manhole cover doing in the middle of the sidewalk? I might never have glanced down, and if not, I would have missed one of those items that most aptly described the place we were visiting. Manhole cover works of art – who would ever have guessed – and each one we saw was different from all the others.

That discovery led me to thinking how wonderful are those visits that are put together by a surprise of coincidence. Like this one to Osaka, starting with that rousing welcome I gratefully witnessed from the balcony. No one can plan this experience.

Close to the end of our day, we walked into a food court, expecting some food. We found colors, flags, streamers, paper kites, and outside the opposite door, a crowd of people clapping in time to a performance of some sort. We decided the food could wait; we went to see what was holding the crowd’s attention. A young juggler spun flaming batons, then tossed them into the air, catching as they came down. He spoke constantly to the crowd through a tiny microphone strapped to his ear, and they laughed and clapped in response. The music was loud, the crowd delighted, the entertainer vibrant. The flaming torches added just that touch of danger and sparkle.

tomorrow will be hot
tomorrow will be hot

It was time to return to the ship. We sailed away as the enormous ferris wheel on the wharf lit up. To predict cool weather the next day, blues would appear, warm weather would lite up with red. After a day filled with man hole cover works-of-art, an Instamatic camera buff, metropolitan young men, a geisha on the subway, a torch-swirling comedian, a slow ferris wheel softly lighting the night and predicting tomorrow’s weather should not have surprised me.

It had all started with booms from a bass drum as the band welcomed us to Osaka. If we had been in the room we paid for, we would never have seen this heart-warming welcome. Especially when we travel on cruise ship, we look for the best travel deal possible. We had reserved and paid for a cheaper interior room. We’d really only be there to sleep, so what’s the big deal? A couple weeks before we sailed, we got an email announcing an upgrade. We’d been moved to a balcony room. A day after that, we received a second email announcing another upgrade – to a mini-suite. Until we arrived in Osaka, I hadn’t been all that impressed. An interior room on a ship is nice; the mini-suite is also nice, just more spacious. But I was very happy to see the welcome that Osaka gave that morning, and I have the balcony to thank for that.

A Walk in Osaka, Japan

We had high expectations for Osaka, where our ship would dock in the city center. The day before, we had attended the ship’s port talk, the first time we had used this source of information. Turns out, we had been missing some good advice all those times we skipped the lecture. The presenter had great slides and instructions about how to use the subway, and what to see in the city. We planned what we wanted to do: long walks to the fun shopping streets, long walks to a castle, long walks to find udon noodles, long walks to buy comic books. Our itinerary filled up, and we put ourselves to bed the night before with hopes of a fabulous first day in Japan.

The Stars and Stripes Forever
The Stars and Stripes Forever

I slept well. Until I started dreaming about marching bands. The steady boom of a bass drum keeping up with a row of trumpets, and the ting of a triangle entered my peaceful rest. Marching bands? When the ripple of snare drums started up, I decided I better open my eyes. The edges of the curtain told me morning was approaching. The band played on, despite me waking up. I got out of bed and opened the curtain, then the patio doors and stepped onto the balcony*.  Right below on the dock, nine stories down, there stood a dozen members of a marching band, playing ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ like the whole world should hear them. And the world whole should have – their rousing music took my breath away. Too soon, the song ended, the band flourishing at exactly the right moment. In Osaka’s early grey dawn, applause sounded from the ship as a Japanese band marched away to the fading notes of an old American patriotic standard.

good, clean fun
good, clean fun

Welcome ashore. Rubbing up against the wharf in a tight hug, we had a city to reach out and touch. As we had slept, we’d been guided to a different country. This is the best advantage of cruising: you get to a fabulous place while you sleep in comfort. Workers on the dock finished tying the ropes that would hold us in place at the port of Osaka. It was time for Stanley to get up and smell the Udon broth waiting for us along the bright, clean streets of the first Japanese city we will ever have visited.

The subway provided us with a perfect introduction. Though it was well-used, there was a quiet order about the ride. We stayed on to the end of the green line, retraced our steps then took the blue line to find some comics, back on the brown line to the castle, a little bit of everything to get us back to the ship. I love getting lost in places that are new to me, and though I tried in Osaka, I did not get lost. It was disappointing and reassuring at the same time. We sat next to a hundred or more young men in tailored dark business suits and one young lady in geisha-wear. We sat near a family from San Jose, California, Japanese-Americans, who looked at their new surroundings with the same expressions as were on our faces. I admired the outfits that the young women wore: short pumps, nylon stockings, tailored skirts, flared jackets. I knew that the conservative attire of the daytime might change dramatically for fun and frolic at night. Sitting on the subway, watching another culture’s day begin is more fascinating to me than the most thorough history book.

On the Osaka Castle grounds, a young man approached and bowed. He handed me an Instamatic camera, a type I had never seen before, and mimicked taking a photo. Without speaking, he gave me a couple instructions, then stepped back, framed by a cherry-blossomed tree, and I snapped the photo. Through hand motions and expressions, he asked me and Stanley to pose, and handed us the developing picture when he was finished. Without a word of common language, we had a memorable exchange.

We stopped at the vibrant comic stands and bought a Manga comic, stopped at the wild tee-shirt shops and bought two outlandish shirts. But really, the only souvenir I value from Osaka is my under-developed photo of Stanley and me standing beside the cherry tree on the castle grounds, taken by a fellow whose name I will never know.

a happy place
a happy place

*balcony?? see next post, please.

Cruising to Seoul, South Korea

China, now South Korea. How did we get to these compelling destinations? By cruise ship. It’s an interesting topic. So many people I speak with say they would never NEVER go on a cruise. I was one who said precisely that a few years back. And, here I am, three cruises later, wondering exactly what was my real objection. Travelers can be rude off cruise ships and can eat too much on land. We can all be wasteful to extreme, wherever we set down our feet at the moment. I must have been afraid that somehow the cruising stereotypes would pull at me and make me a different person. It hasn’t happened. When Stanley and Marsha cruise, it’s to get us where we want to go at a good price with a reasonable degree of convenience.

Seoul Springtime Blossoms
Seoul Springtime Blossoms

But Seoul, you may say, is not convenient to a cruise ship along the coastline. And so, we landed at Incheon, Korea, which isn’t Seoul and wasn’t on Stanley’s list of places to see. Our usual habit when arriving anywhere is to walk. In Incheon’s case, though, if we had started walking off the ship, we would have reached only – maybe – the far side of the ship terminal by the time we needed to turn back. Instead, we did the unusual thing of booking the cruise tour. An eight-hour day took us into Seoul to see what we could see, and back to the ship in time for the majestic departure from port, lights coming on inland as we sailed out to open water.

For the tour, though, mostly I remember running to keep up with the guide, and hearing some parts of her long lament against Korean women’s treatment. She had a very interesting story to tell, and told it well, as long as we ignored the sights around us and focused on what she had to say. We went to the cultural history museum, where our guide began by drawing our attention to her big feet. “You will never get married because of your big feet,” she heard her mother say repeatedly as she grew up. We walked rapidly by the traditional Korean home, laid out room-by-room. “I spent $2,000 American to find a husband, but it didn’t work,” she said, racing by the kimchee demonstration. Half the group was drawn to the kimchee, being hungry and tired. But Stanley and I ran alongside our guide, knowing that our chances of getting back to the ship on time lay with the guide and not the kimchee. Our group of 40 was now down to 20, but on ran the guide. How the lost half of the group found us is a mystery, since the guide never once counted heads nor raised one of those ever-present tour flags. Her big feet kept pounding the sidewalk all day, except for a tasty half-hour in a Korean barbecue restaurant.

IMG_1057We were finally given 30 free minutes in an outdoor downtown shopping area. The bus paused by an intersection of sidewalks, and the guide pointed to a mass of people, disorganized, heading all directions at once, bounding around the stalls that were being set-up on the sidewalks. “The bus will meet you here. I will leave without you if you are late. Don’t go into the alleys. You will get lost,” said the guide before she ran off. The forty of us carefully got off the bus, took pictures of the location on the street for guidance, looked at the time, and headed off into the intersection of walking shoulders. Stanley and I took off immediately into the alleyways, which were, of course, the best part of Seoul.

Stanley bartered all the coins he needed for his collection. I spent the bit of leftover money on a tiny purse I will probably never use. We listened to the late afternoon life, witnessed the crowds and the companionship, noticed that everyone but us bought ice cream from street vendors, got back to the bus on time, and slept all the way back to the ship. We were tired from all that big-footed running.

Looking back on Seoul
Looking back on Seoul