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Saturday, May 26, 2018

Japan- VM's New Destination


IMPRESSIONS OF JAPAN

Travelling to Japan without much thought or research is probably not a great idea. Fortunately I had Mieko, a Japanese born Canadian to introduce me to this intriguing culture, so different from our laisser-faire life in Canada. With most of the Western World we have many cultural similarities, but Japan was full of pleasant, easy to adapt to differences. 

My initiation into Japanese culture was in a very remote area of Japan located on the Sea of Japan - Mirakami, home to Mieko and her family. NO, I repeat NO English spoken here. But hey I am the foreigner, non? I depended heavily on Mieko for translation, but soon I realized the importance of hand signals - except when I tried to indicate to Mieko’s Mom I was just going for an evening stroll and she thought I wanted to take her photo!  I honed my hand signal skills after that. 


My first impression of the countryside was fields of water (it was rice planting season) and I wondered how people navigated between towns - perhaps in gondola like Venice?  But no, in fact there are tiny road in between the rice paddies for cars and machinery and for part of the year the backyards of most people are these ponds of rice plants.  They do grow barley and wheat as well, but given that their main diet is rice and not pasta or bread, you know which one wins out!                   Dexterity with chopsticks is a must! 


The Japanese are a well-disciplined culture - they always obey the rules and in fact crime is very rare in this country. If you lose your wallet, chances are you will get it back passport and cash in tact. 
They have very little influence from the outside and lots of influence from Buddha!  Shrines are found in most homes and many temples in the communities, but with no set “meditation times” - just a personal time on their own to live in harmony with nature.


There are two forms of worship in the Japanese culture. The spiritual one was adopted from the aboriginals of Japan and it worships nature. Shrines are found throughout Japan often in beautiful forests where you can hug a tree if you like. Buddhism is the religion with many different sects and Buddist monks reside close to the temples which can be visited for meditation or to pay respects to ancestors.  I had the pleasure of being instructed by a ZEN Buddhist monk on how to meditate - believe me - not easy to have your knees folded under you OR cross-legged in front of you for 45 min. I may have managed 5 before my feet fell asleep.  This started me noticing the seating habits of the Japanese - they are often in this position - they seem to be shopping, eating, meditating on their knees - a very humble society.  I, as a Canadian sought out every chair I could! And yes, there were some. 

Bowing is a common practice showing humility and respect for the person you face. However, no, I repeat NO physical contact - no Bisous 2,3 or 4 times like in Europe, no handshake, just bowing and smiling.  I was so taken with Mieko’s parents, I tried a couple of times to give them kisses on the cheek was met with a stiff reception. In the end I was able to give her Mom the “bises” but I  stuck with the respectful bow with her father. It is customary to bow twice at the Shrines, clap twice and then bow again to have the spirits listen to your message. The train conductors bow as they leave the car, sales staff bow as they return your change, then again as they give you what you bought in one or two wrappings, then bow again as you leave the store.  

I noticed when shopping that nothing is exposed to the elements - everything is over packaged in bright boxes that are stacked on the stored counters - no chance of contamination!  However, what astounded me is that they lag behind on recycling all this plastic. As I Canadian I was always searching for the recycle bin for plastics, bottles, paper.  They are smart and they will soon catch up. It does make me wonder though where all this “over packaging” ends up.
 
Japan is mountainous with volcanos - most of them dormant - which results in hot springs throughout the country.  A hot springs or spa experience is nothing like home. First of all men and women are separated (no fun at all) and you have to scrub yourself down at little stations before entering - nude - into the sulphur water. Even business hotels have a little spa (again separate) which is open early in the morning for the guest to enjoy. Did I say they were super clean?

My biggest challenge was to remember to take off my shoes and put on my slippers, then take of the slippers again when walking on the mats in the bed and living rooms. And get this - there are separate slippers worn in the bathroom!!!! So take your living slippers off at the bathroom door and put on the bathroom slippers. You can’t imagine how many times I forgot and went wondering into the kitchen with the bathroom slippers!!! Even in public places they provide bathroom slippers!  And speaking of bathrooms you will not believe the technological toilets!  Low flush, full flush, bidet option and heated toilet seats on every single toilet in Japan!!!! Did I say they were super clean?  

      
Kimonos used to be the dress of the day and many can still be seen in the streets, particularly in Kyoto.  It takes quite the effort to dress up in one - not like slipping on a housecoat!  The kimono itself has to be tied up at the waist to the proper length, then the obi (the wide waist band is tied several times around the waist to fill in the curves. A curvy figure is not attractive on a woman, but the nape of the neck and the wrists delicately visible when pouring tea are! And yes the geishas still don full regalia to entertain in the guest houses. They are fewer in number than what used to be but we managed to catch the scene of a Head Mistress and her two geishas heading out for an evening’s work.


Japan has 126 million people, but they are all polite and organized so not many collisions occur, unless you happen to be running for a train and end up dodging through the crowds at the station. Yes, this did happen! And we did make the train.  The Bullet trains are a great way explore Japan as they travel up to 300 km an hour and they depart on the second! We bought a rail pass and used it on fast trains, slow trains, ferries and busses. 

My biggest worry about travelling to Japan was dealing with crowds. However, despite its population I never felt more crowded than in Paris or Italy. The trick is to choose the time of day to visit the temples or to go shopping or to take the train or tram - all this comes with the experience of being a TRAVELLER and not a tourist.

For me, Japan and the Japanese were an absolute delight!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Canadian Farm Women visit Majestic Morocco



This past November a group of 14 Saskatchewan farm women visited Majestic Morocco to discover how they sustain themselves in this developing country. They were more than amazed as traveller Michelle Rea describes in detail in her daily blog to the folks back home.


Wow! What an AMAZING (I’m going to use this word a lot) trip!!!

Nov. 11: Casablanca – Zac, our French/Moroccan Guide and Abdoul, our chauffeur met us at the airport  where we got our money and went to Rick’s CafĂ© and had a wonderful meal.  Then we were off to the Hassan II Mosque.  A really beautiful place and we learned about their religion and beliefs which we referred back to for the rest of the trip.  Then off to the hotel.  We had a couple of hours to relax which was nice.  Zac took us on a little walking tour in the evening…he noticed something was going on. Everyone was celebrating, with the cars honking their horns and waving their flag.  Zac said that Morocco was playing an important soccer game and they had scored a goal.  So, we suggested going to a bar to watch the game and experience this excitement too. The hotel bar  was packed, and what a great time we had!  Morocco won 2-0 so at the end of the game everybody got up to dance and celebrate.  We discovered Casablanca beer here…mmm.

Nov. 12: Pottery & Essouira – We had a nice walk on the beach in the morning near our hotel.  It was Sunday, so there were about 5 soccer games happening there.  Then off to do some pottery shopping in Safi.  Pottery, pottery EVERY WHERE!!!  The Moroccan people are the most generous, kind people anywhere in the world most of them speak English even though their official language is French. We went for lunch on the beach!  The fish had their heads and eyes and teeth!  But we powered through it.  They gave us a couple of complimentary dishes, sea urchins and clams.  The drive up the coast to Essouira was magnificent and humbling.  To see what the land is like and where they are trying to grow crops!  It was evening when we reached our hotel – what a magnificent place right on the ocean edge. 

Nov. 13: Essouira – Went for a tour of the port with the fisherman.  That way of life is so interesting to us prairie gals.  We saw a shark and a sword fish come off a boat!  Then we toured the old fort.  And I learned something else about Morocco – no matter where you go for a “solution” (Zac’s word he used for bathroom), they were all incredibly clean!  We decided we had had enough of fish so Zac and Abdoul found us a restaurant that served Italian food (spaghetti & bolognese).  Then off to the woodworking shop – where of course, we shopped some more!  I would have liked to have taken some big pieces home, but didn’t.  Then we just spent some time walking around the markets and relaxed in the “party” room once more.

Nov. 14: We went to the Argan Oil Women’s Co-operative.  What a great experience this was!  It was very interesting how the work and the profits are divided evenly amongst the women.  After that, we took a little detour from our agenda – Abdoul knew of a camel cheese place where we could have lunch (and assured us that there would be wine there too), we said of course!  An older gentleman came out on his scooter and asked where we were from.  When we said “Canada” he asked if any of us were “Habs” fans!  When we said we were from Saskatchewan, he knew we were crazy Rider’s fans!!!!  This gentleman had been a professor at a University in Ottawa for about 20 years!  He was so pleased to have us there that he gave us 2 bottles of wine for our lunch.  Considering that 16 of us showed up out of the blue, this was probably one of our best (if not the best) meals we had on our whole trip!  Of course we also ordered many bottles of wine to go with our meal. 

Nov. 15: Leaving Essouira and off to Imlil – Zac &/or Abdoul knew of a winery on the way so we stopped there and had a tour and of course some wine.  After we had been driving for a while, we saw a truck that had an ice cream ad on the side of it, so of course, we needed ice cream.  Abdoul to the rescue again! Found us a little place to load up on ice cream and snacks.  Driving in the mountains is a little harrowing for us as many times throughout the trip people had to switch seats on the bus and gravel was enjoyed by all.  What a quaint inn in Imlil.  It had so much character and we loved the dining room with the fire.   It was late when we got there and Abdoul really wanted to show us the sunset in the mountains, so we threw our luggage in our rooms and were off again.   Abdoul is a very competent driver and got us to a beautiful spot to watch the sun sink in between the mountains.  We also brought a couple of bottles of wine which we shared and Zac had some nuts for us to eat.  Back down the mountain where we had supper. 

Nov. 16: IMLIL - THE MOST AMAZING AND FREAKY DAY OF OUR TRIP!!!  We met Abraham who was our guide for our trek up the mountain.  Zac didn’t realize what sort of trail we were going to be walking on.  It wasn’t physically hard but it was certainly mentally challenging for us!  The trail was only about a foot wide and there was a sharp drop off down the mountain.  Anyway, we all made it safe and sound.  There was one little “shop” on our way up the mountain – I couldn’t believe it.  So, of course, we had to stop and shop there.  Ya know, everyone is so poor there and to spend a 100 or 200 dirhams is really nothing for us – we couldn’t just walk by a place like this and not spend some money there.  Then we got to go to Abraham’s home and what a beautiful place it was.  Abdoul showed us how to make mint tea and how to properly pour it.  We helped prepare our meal.  Abraham’s family was delightful and it really was the best day, being able to take part in the “real” Morocco.  The trip down the mountain was way better for those of us who walked – on a different path than what we came up on.  Some took a taxi down – they had quite an adventure.  Drinks then another wonderful meal at the inn.  After this day, we all agreed the camel riding would be a breeze.


Nov. 17: Marrakech – Off to Marrakech.  What a crazy busy city this is.  We did a little walking tour when we got there to stretch our legs.  We all agreed we were getting tired of tagine, so Zac & Abdoul found us another Italian restaurant to go to and enjoy a cold beverage.  The place was lovely and had great spaghetti and bolognese.  The Berber Pharmacy was quite interesting…we shopped.  Then off to our wonderful Riad – beautiful!  After some mint tea we were off to the spa.  So, I have never had a massage/pedicure/manicure because I don’t like to be touched, but I am all for experiencing new things when on these adventures.  When we got there I knew we were booked for an hour massage but the lady asked who would like a scrub too?  I had no idea what that entailed, but I stuck my hand up.  WELL!  Chandra, Sherry, Linda and I go into this dimly lit room and before we know it we are all naked!  (We are now best friends.)  Well we giggled and made inappropriate comments and had a great time.  I felt amazing after my scrub and then of course I had my massage and it was awesome! 

Nov. 18: Marrakech – We visited the Majorelle Gardens.  Zac had left us at the garden’s on our own, which was weird because he never left us alone anywhere.  BUT…he and Abdoul were arranging our caleche rides.  Let me tell you, Abdoul showed up in style!  Then we were off to the Sultan’s Palace.  Zac tried to get us a tour guide who knew a lot about the palace, but when he didn’t show up we told Zac that he would be great at giving us a tour.  We told him to tell us what he knows and make up the rest – we wouldn’t know the difference.  As it turns out, he knew a lot and we very much enjoyed our tour with Zac.  In the midst of our stay in Marrakech we also visited the markets a few times and shopped…   Oh ya, I almost forgot another wonderful thing that happened because of Zac.  He knew of an Italian restaurant just down the street from our Riad that was run by an Italian who made his own gelato. (Apparently, Zac loves ice cream)  We of course wanted to go there for lunch.  On the way there we pass a building that had been torn down and another that had the door to the courtyard open.  This courtyard was nothing but concrete and some old doors in it – this seemed to interest Zac.  After lunch we headed out and passed this courtyard again.  Zac asked us to wait and he went in and started talking to the owner.  Then he came back and said there was a family owned museum underneath this courtyard that wasn’t going to be opened for business for a year or so.  The owner agreed to let us come in and see the most beautiful treasures including, clothing, weapons, furniture from all over the world!.  This was all privately owned and the owner said she was wanting to open a gallery and have an area for tea. This was another highlight of our tour and I bet Zac will be keeping an eye on it to see if it should be officially added in the future. 

Nov. 19: Ouarzazate – On the road again…another great day visiting the Ait Ben Haddou Kasba. Ouarzazate is an interesting place because of its great movie history.  The fortress we visited was very interesting and our guide, Muhammed was a character.  He is a very proud black man because he has blue eyes.  We did some shopping here too & bought some art from local artists.   After our tour we went to the co-operative where they do the embroidery and weave some amazing cloths.  So we shopped.  This is where I spent the most money on one item - $1200 dirham for a beautiful material that can either be a bedspread or a table cloth – I just fell in love with it.  Then off to our hotel for some drinks, a meal and a much needed sleep.

Nov. 20: Zagora – Funny story…our guide from yesterday called Zac last night and wanted him to tell us how much he enjoyed us on the tour.  Also, he wanted us to know, he is single…J  The last leg of our journey and we are all a little sad that it is coming to an end.  Another wonderful hotel.  In fact it was “super”!  After another lovely meal at the hotel, our rooms weren’t quite ready so we went for a walk to a place where they take in the people’s things they need to sell for needed funds.  I guess kind of like a pawn shop.  We had a great little tour and then what did we do?  We shopped… They served us mint tea and started showing us some amazing rugs, jewelry, furniture – just about anything you could want.  Then we walked back to the hotel and got settled into our rooms.  Before supper we decided we needed to shop for scarves for our trip into the desert the next day.  So Zac and Abdoul took us shopping – bless them.  After supper we gathered in one of our rooms for drinks and said “good bye” to Abdoul.  We were truly sad that he was leaving us.  I cannot say enough good things about him.  There were a few tears.

Nov. 21: Sahara Desert – Packed up our rooms and met with our new drivers.  We went to the Library and met with Mohamed (a different one).  He was an educated young man who explained about the school there and then we got to see the REALLY old books!  Then he took us on a walking tour and honestly we were all very quiet as the poverty here was palpable.  He took us down the “street” he was born on and grew up on – nothing more than a small dark alley, but he told us some funny stories of his childhood and you could tell he was very proud.  Then we ended up at a community run pottery place.  Again, we were quiet – it was a little sad.  Zac thought something was wrong as he had never seen us so quiet.  Chandra told him that he had 12 mom’s here who are feeling very sad for the way these children have to live and are grateful for our children.  They took us to their pottery store where we absolutely had to shop – there was no way we were going to “haggle” with these people.  We paid what they asked.  Some of the kids were asking us for money.  Our guide told us not to give them any as they would think it is better this way and quit school.  Zac went and bought them a soccer ball instead and some of the ladies kicked it around with the kids.  We then went to the hammam for lunch.  No swimming, the water was cold.  We did sit outside in the sun.  Then off to the camels!  We had fun!  The guides were wonderful and our camels were very well behaved.  Our camp was great and we were very happy to have modern bathrooms there.  We climbed the highest dune to see the sun set – but nothing can rival the sun sets we have in Saskatchewan.  Back down to camp where we relaxed and had some mint tea and of course, we brought drinks too.  After a great supper, we all sat around the camp fire and enjoyed the entertainment.  But then they wanted us to sing.  We said we didn’t know any songs and one of them said, “What about Hotel California?”  That is my very favourite song so Shannon and I sang a couple of courses of that.  And then all us women sang “Koombya”.  It was fun.

Nov. 22: Zagora – Back to Zagora today for our last full day in Morocco.  We did nothing all day – it was super.  A few of us sat around the pool and our waiter just kept bringing us beer.  Then Zac had them make fries for us and they even found some ketchup!  Court & Chandra took a very quick dip in the pool before supper.  Another super supper and a few drinks and then off to bed.

Nov. 23: Leaving Morocco – sad, sad, sad.  The airport in Zagora was kind of funny because the scanner that we walk through wasn’t working right, so the security people were shaking it and kids were running in & out and around it.  Zac made sure we made it through to the correct places at the airport in Casablanca – we had to do a couple of little different things there, so we were once again glad we had “Super” Zac.


CANADA!  The rest of our trip went well and no matter how sad we were to leave Morocco, we certainly realize how lucky we are to live in Canada.

The enjoyment of this tour  definitely had a lot to do with the people of Morocco.  Anita, who has traveled all over the world said she has never met such kind and helpful people.  These people have so little but they are happy and there wasn’t one tour we went on where our guide or some other Moroccan didn’t make a joke.  Also, Zac and Abdoul were so wonderful!

ABDOUL: What a kind, caring man he is.  His knowledge of Morocco enabled us to have some experiences we wouldn’t have had without him.  He came shopping with us in the markets and wouldn’t let any of us out of his sight.  He would also try to help us bargain with the shops  and you could tell sometimes he wasn’t happy with what I paid for something – but he wouldn’t tell me that!  He came on the mountain climb with us and took a video of our experience climbing which is great so we can show people.  I didn’t know him long, but I consider him a friend.

ZAC: What can I say about Zac?  That man put up with 14 women for almost 14 days!  He was so tired of shopping by the end of the trip.  Both Zac and Abdoul are very proud of this country and they really wanted us to experience the “real” Morocco.  Zac has a great sense of humour and can give as well as he takes.  He was willing to answer ANY questions we had, and if he didn’t know the answer, he would get it for us.  When he showed us a picture of his wife and kids and told us her name, for some reason we couldn’t get it and just called her “Aphrodite” because she is beautiful.   Although, I was sad to part from Zac, I don’t think it’s the last time we will be seeing him.

Morocco is such a stunning, country.  I encourage anyone who is interested in visiting a beautiful country, different culture, and some of the most amazing people in the world to not hesitate to visit Morocco.f
Sincerely, Michelle