Breawna.com Personal and travel writing by Breawna Power Eaton

About Lady Seeking Adventure

Welcome to the Lady Seeking Adventure Blog

I named my life- and travelogue blog Lady Seeking Adventure not because I am adventurous, but because I want to be. Tom sailed off on an aircraft carrier 12 days after we arrived in Japan, the summer of 2012. Alone, in a very foreign country, I needed something to motivate me to push back my fears, just go for it, and tell my loved ones stories about it later.

LSA has become more than a blog–it's my reminder to never stop exploring, not just the world, but the depths of my relationship and myself. My hope is that LSA inspires readers to do the same.

  1. Ancient Cedars, Ancient Prayers

    One of my most memorable weekends in Japan was spent hiking the snow-covered mountains of Nagano. We also ate our fair share of the regions specialty — soba. A noodle-dish I’ll definitely crave this winter, as the temperatures continue to drop in Newport, RI, where we’re still settling back into our home. Go Nomad recently posted my story of our hike under a canopy of ancient cedars, a trip inspired by Tom’s flipping through Flipboard and finding a photo of snow-covered torii gate (the entrances to series of shrines in Togakushi) just a bullet train away. And so, our adventure began (click here to read!).

     

    Tom, pausing on the path through ancient cedars.

    Tom, pausing on the path through ancient cedars.

  2. Slightly Settled Nomads

    Funny that my first published personal essay — about feeling like a slightly settled nomad — posted today on Full Grown People, when we finally began moving back into our home, where we will — maybe — live for three years. Unpacking walls of boxes strangely feels like an adventure when you just don’t know what each box, packed two years prior, may hold.

    We had some fun finds, including my beloved cheesy workout DVDs (Tank Top Arms, Bikini Belly,and Boyshort Bottom being one of them!) and even better Tom’s original wedding ring. Fits even better than it did on our wedding day. I’ll take that as a good sign.

    Sincere thanks to FGP editor Jennifer Niesslein for working with me on “Slightly Settled Nomads,” an essay that means a lot to me as it tackles the question I’ve been struggling with ever since Tom joined the Navy — what if I want to stay, and he, again, wants to go?

    Below is the beginning. To read on, visit FGP, and read a few of the other essays while you’re at it. Essays about the growing pains and delights of adulthood. Edifying every time.

    Slightly Settled Nomads

    My husband and I weren’t fighting, just winding down dinner, discussing life, our future. Then it happened—a mutual, unspoken realization, and all we could do was stare in silence across the table, weighing the words we’d just said:

    “Constantly moving just isn’t the life I signed up for.” I’d shrugged, thinking he’d nod and say, “We’ll see” or maybe, “We’ll settle down one day.”

    Instead, he said, “Well. I thought I married someone who loved to travel.”

    His hazel eyes remained steady.

    “I do love to travel.”

    My blues eyes resisted a blink.

    “I know, but you said you wanted to live overseas.”

    “For a few months, Tom, not a life of constantly moving.” Exactly what his career as a Navy judge advocate now required of him. Of us. … (Read on at FGP)

     

     

  3. Sail away with me

    myanmar

     

    Though we left Japan on August 14, we’re still on the move. Four states (WA, OR, CA, RI), seven friends’ and family’s houses, and three hotels later, we’re “settling” back into Newport, but still have a few weeks (and a few more hotel rotations) before actually moving into our home.

    Amidst all this movement, the online travel magazine GoNomad picked up my article “A Taste of Life at Sea” on sailing Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago with Intrepid Travel, a more detailed story of the epic adventure I blogged about previously…when we first learned I had a little one on board. Sincere thanks to Mike, Marie, Hein, Wen, and our fellow travelers for a voyage full of gloriously long days and laughter-filled nights. Definitely recommended for any adventure lover’s bucket list!

     

    Intrepid Travel Crew

     

  4. Relearning to Live with My Husband: Part Three

    A friend who left Japan last winter said the turmoil of the moving process made her relieved to be on the plane, a moment she’d mourned before the actual packing began. Hopping around piles of our stacks of “organized” stuff on Sunday, I finally understood what she meant. I hate moving! I thought as I faced each closet, each drawer, each suitcase still to be packed.

    Meanwhile, Tom, who’d recently returned from the carrier, chipperly worked his way through the house. Packing was better than being on the ship, better than being deployed in Afghanistan. Dare I admit that I’m jealous of his new perspective? A perspective that I wrestle with each time our lives have re-merged, as anything that feels overwhelming or even slightly stressful to me is not worth caring about for him.

    Well, somebody has to care about what kind of couch (car, detergent, salad dressing, etc) we buy (sell, clean, or eat)!!! I’ve snapped more times than I want to remember. The words sounding lame to me even as I said them. How much do these decisions really matter? Enough to ruin what little time we’ve had together with a tit-for-tat fight?

    Marriage is not about keeping score, I know, but whenever we begin living together again I can’t resist tallying, all the while knowing that I too am far from easy to live with.

    Can’t you let me finish a single sentence? Tom snapped in the car the other day when I interrupted him again.

    I’m just listening interactively! I retorted, instead of apologizing, then pressed, It’s better than not responding at all, like YOU!

    As days passed, we remembered again the quirks that came out less in emails and over phone calls. Tom steered clear of our bedroom, sensing a brewing storm as I went through the drawers of my vanity, throwing out make-up I hadn’t touched in two years and bagging up things I would probably not use for the next three in Newport. Over the years he’s learned to give a stewing Bre much-appreciated space.

    Amidst this joyless process, a former student emailed to say he’d found kids training hashi (chopsticks), which I’d asked about off-handedly at our sayonara dinner (followed by my sadly belated first-last karaoke experience) and asked when we could meet up. Last minute souvenir: awesome. One last goodbye: great. Random meet-up mid-day while packing: not high on my list.

    But of course when I saw him — always smiley, ever thoughtful — the gloom of packing that had been hovering over me, no matter how many lies I told myself about why moving is actually helpful (forced spring cleaning, organizing, purging) and even fun (Tom is actually home and we’re working on a project together!) instantly dissipated. The meet-up was quick, a chat cut short by the building wind and sporadic rain of the forecasted typhoon.

    After saying goodbye, I drove to the market at the Navy housing area nearby for the next set of to-dos, feeling recharged and motivated. I threw out some trash. Bought granola bars for the movers. Smiled as I left the parking lot and drove toward the gym, the next box to check off today’s list. It was then I realized the ring finger on my left hand was bare.

    Just that morning, over breakfast Tom and I had played with a love languages survey I’d found amid our pre-move mess. I hoped it would be a fun way for us to reconnect. And it worked. We realized our shared preference for words of affirmation and quality time over gifts. I’d looked at my wedding ring and joked that I didn’t like receiving nice things because I didn’t trust myself not to lose them. I’d marveled at my ring then, proud that it was still shining on my finger after ten years.

    As I stared at my bare finger now, that moment replayed in my mind, followed by a numbness of disbelief. Maybe I just forgot I took it off while organizing my trinkets and make-up? I thought as I pulled up to the small gym. But I knew I hadn’t. After Tom and I had finished the survey and parted ways to pack, I’d noticed my ring turning sideways on my finger, loose like it is every winter. Strange since everything else on me seems to be swelling.

    I parked at the gym, then got out of the car to think. Maybe it fell in the massive bags of trash in the back of my car? Or in the small trashcan by the market? Or as I walked to the market? Or as I talked with my student? My heart began to race. Raindrops again began to fall. I had to get home. I had to check my vanity where I’d spent the last two hours, where I did not find the ring once I ran back inside our house.

    Breath escaped me as my eyes raced over the piles of beauty products, the ziplocked bags of feigned organization, our bulging suitcases. I held my belly trying to breathe back to calm, but a sob escaped instead, followed by another, as my lungs fought for oxygen, unsatisfied by the air that wheezed in and out each time my chest heaved.

    I had to calm down. For the baby. I had to breathe. It was just a ring.

    But what quaked my body now was not just about the ring; this storm of panic was the upwelling of stress and sadness and fear about leaving our life in Japan, about rebuilding our lives in Newport, about having our first child. Would Tom and I lose the new closeness we’ve found? These feelings and questions I’d bottled to deal with later as I fought instead to live day-by-day and enjoy the final moments of our adventure in Japan.

    But pile upon pile of our possessions, on all three floors of our house, only reminded me of the more than 150 boxes already waiting for us in storage in Newport. The stress looming ahead, now unbottled, only revved the panic. My inability to focus on one pile muted the possibility of actually finding my ring — if it was even in our house.

    Bre? Tom hollered from downstairs when he returned from lunch. I looked down the stairwell and croaked, I can’t find my wedding ring.

    Like a child waiting to be scolded, I sobbed into my hands again, to be greeted instead by his soft embrace, his words of reassurance, his plan of attack. After five hours of touching everything we owned, Tom took a break to run while I tackled the office upstairs.

    I was so hoping you’d found it! he said, when he returned. A fading look of hope graced his glistening face, drops of sweat and rain ran down his arms and legs. Seeing my eyes well again, he paused me. His hands gently rested on my arms, his eyes locked on mine.

    It’s just a thing, Bre. A special thing, but I have you, and the baby, he said and moved his hands to my rounded belly. We have all we need.

    My head nodded. Eyes spilled. Heart warmed by these affectionate words. Later we’d both admit kind of enjoying the hunt, the feeling of closeness as we tackled each room on our own. Our freshly learned love languages in action. Cheesy turned true.

    Soon the office too was organized on shelves and in piles.  I looked over at a bulging basket of office supplies, but dug into my basket of Peace Boat memorabilia instead. I DID NOT want to go through the mess of office supplies. There was no use! The ring was so small. It could be anywhere. This was NOT how we wanted to spend one of our last nights in Japan! My friend was so right. Rather than clinging to my final moments here, all I wanted was to wake up in Newport with our house freshly unpacked.

    Breawna! Tom yelled as he stomped upstairs and slid across the floor toward where I was sitting. I’ve always loved you, he said.

    His hand held out the ring he’d placed upon my finger ten years ago. And just as I had then, I stared at the ring in disbelief. Back then, I’d stared in wonder, realizing I was actually living out the on-bended-knee moment my awkward teenage self had been so skeptical of – how do two people, so different, actually like each other enough to live the rest of their lives together?

    And now, I stared at that ring and felt the weight of our murky future slacken. His promise of love, said so urgently even after a day of tackling life’s stressful surprises, more than the ring assured me that we will find our way, again and again.

    Ring

  5. Busan, South Korea: A Hunt for Not-so-hidden Gems

    Looking straight down from our hotel window

    Looking straight down from our hotel window

    Before closing the door behind me, I took one last look out the window wall at the panoramic view of Busan’s crammed blocks of mid- and high-rises, not yet awake, nor undressed of its early morning mist. A view Tom and I had woken up to for the last week, a view that had shimmered in multi-colored light as our eyes closed on another day actually spent together.

    The trip, my final port visit, was longer than normal as Tom arrived ahead of the ship, which gave us a few extra days of eating breakfast and often dinner together, whenever he wasn’t meeting local officials and police or cruising the city to be briefed on the popular sites sailors would potentially explore (hopefully, on their best behavior).

    Fortunately, he slept through most nights without a call, especially since each morning he work up feeling worse than the last, a subtle sore throat that morphed into full-body aches to a hack-up of mysteriously colored mucus. Was he sick or reacting to the air flowing in from China? I hoped for the latter as we lay in bed reading most mornings, his hand on my ever-growing belly, eagerly awaiting the next kick. Our eyes looking up to admire the view of the city we were visiting but not wandering the way we usually do, trying to dig deeper than the normal tourist experience.

    This was potentially our last trip for a while, so I struggled to lounge. How could we just stay inside half the day? I’d never been to South Korea and would most likely never return. But Tom wasn’t entirely to blame. My first morning in Busan, after he left for work, I just stood in our hotel room, staring at the busy city below, unmotivated to get any closer to the alleys that would usually lure me downstairs. Who knew where they could lead? What people I might meet? What treats would delight my taste buds (or require a quick chew, gulp, and grimace)?

    But I easily rationalized staying inside — the next adventure that looms ahead, the one brewing in my belly, will soon leave these moments of solitude, of peace and quiet, as rare as the Korean treats that might just further upset my stomach, already grumpy about the lil one’s recent growth spurt, as if my newly squished organs were trying to figure out how to rearrange their living quarters, unhappy about being kicked out of where they’ve worked just fine for the last 32 years. The thought of trying to figure out another transit system in another language of symbols I don’t understand made my writerly to-do list seem that much more appealing.

    So when Tom needed rest, I rested beside him.  But then, when too restless, I ventured for a walk in the massive green expanse that beckoned from the window. A park I wish I could transport to Newport, RI, to bring our little tot to explore its winding paths through gardens and ponds and interesting playgrounds.  One in particular looked like a space station, more fit for the moon than a green field.  Steep staircases led up and up to a metal tower shaped like a cartoon diver’s scuba diving mask, from which slender tubes twirled their way back to earth below. The gates were closed. The signs in Korean, boxy characters made up of circles and lines, warned off big people like me from running up and sliding down, I was sure, but my feet still slowed as I walked, tempted to try and see if I fit anyway. The excuse of illiteracy.

    Instead I wandered up a wooden staircase that led to a bridge that led to a trail I was tempted to follow, but seeing the backdrop of lush green mountains, I left the opportunity to get lost behind. Trying to find the park from the hotel was enough adventure seeking for this lady, and I still had to find my way back.

    Tom had mentioned the park as a not so great place to run, so I wasn’t expecting much – of the city in general, actually. He didn’t really like the food. He enjoyed running the trails (for which many locals seem dressed for every day, donning brightly colored hiking pants and shirts when just out for a stroll), but the city itself was just a city. Nothing special, he’d warned.

    His warning became my challenge – find the gems. As much as I loved the park, Tom’s conclusion seemed right. Busan is a bustling port city (though many websites call it the countryside compared to Seoul!). There are a few things to explore — the famous Jagalchi Fish Market where stalls’ menus are the tanks of fish and crabs and other mysterious sea creatures you can point to and have delivered freshly cooked to your table. Haeundae Beach broke the world record for most umbrellas (7,937 parasols, over 300,000 people) in 2011. And nearby Gwangalli Beach boasts an assortment of foreign restaurants, many having views Gwangan Daegyo’s (or Diamond Bridge’s) twinkling twin arches at night.

    The rainy season’s thunderstorms (or threats thereof) kept us off the beach. On my day alone, I took the City Tour Bus out to Taujongdae Park where I hiked the coastal loop and quickly met a steeper climb than I’d expected. After trudging up for so long, I almost whimpered when I saw the fleet of stairs down to the base of the lighthouse. Would I make it back up?

    The lighthouse was not worth the climb, but the view was (on a clear day you can see the controversial Tsuchima Island, caught in an “It’s mine!” tug-of-war between Japan and Korea). I rested near the edge of the plateau-like cliff, where far below aquamarine waves crushed white against the rock. The wind’s chill against my sticky skin, a reward.

    Slowly, my quivering legs ascended the stairs to the cement trail that runs along a road where the touristy mini-tram loops the park, one I wished I could hop on now that I’d seen the highlight. But I was wrong.

    Focused on finishing, I almost passed an offshoot to a temple, but was lured down the path by bushes afluff with blue, pink and purple blossoms. The hydrangea festival! I didn’t linger long near the temple, but followed a path of lanterns to an even thinner path whose lush overgrowth required ducking until a small clearing opened, hugged on all sides by tiny flower bouquets of brilliant fuchsia and a surprisingly deep purple past kings and queens would’ve drooled over. Fairies could’ve fluttered by next and I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised, so at home they would’ve seemed in this wonderland.

    My luck continued the following day when my friend Andy, an Antioch MFA study buddy, hopped on a bus from where he and his wife are teaching English. Five-plus hours of bus and train hopping later, he arrived in the lobby of our hotel toting a backpack and a kick-back travel plan to see just where the night led. Over pizza and beers (water for me) at Galmegi Brewery, Busan’s first craft brewery and pub, we swapped stories about living in South Korea and Japan, our love for transit systems, and the gratification that surpasses the frustration of navigating a culture at once similar and yet so foreign from our own.

    We came to the same conclusion that another Antioch alumnus, whose family recently finished teaching in Taiwan, relayed to me in an email. Before moving here, Andromeda said, Asia had seemed like just a massive continent; the opposite side of the world. For all of us, traveling throughout Asia has been like pausing in a crowd and actually taking the time to see each body as an individual, to pause and appreciate the complex, unique characters that make up the mass.

    The door clicked shut behind me, sparking a dull sadness and the realization that these port calls are not mere travels, but opportunities for reconnection, respites for sailors working insane hours without holidays at sea, and I have been but a beneficiary. Sadness outweighed by wonder — was this really my life for the past two years? — and gratitude. For me, these trips often felt like a reward for building our lives in Japan on my own, adventures that many spouses cannot take advantage of, but patiently wait instead for their other halves to return home.

     

    If you go:

    –       Enjoy a stroll around Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. Waves crashing on the adjacent rocky shoreline complement the serenity of the scenic holy grounds.

    –       Andy recommended visiting Gamcheon Culture village; his first-hand recommendation confirmed all of the others I’d found online (directions at the end of the post). This  World War II safe-haven’s colorful history is reflected in the rainbow of tightly packed homes that climb the hillside. Painted fish nailed to the walls guide you to the most scenic sites, including houses revamped into quirky art installations.

    –       Eat! You’ll have no trouble finding Korean Barbecue. I’m not much of a meat eater, so I have no suggestions for you there. Sorry! My favorite Korean food is bim bim bap, a classic rice dish that arrives steaming in a very hot stone pot. (My rec here.)

    –       Lame as we were being some afternoons, we simply ventured down into the basement food court at the Lotte Hotel, where a bounty of international and local foods are whipped up fresh before your eyes. An interesting walk through if thunderstorms or heavy heat push you inside.

    –       When I tried to order the veggie patty on the menu at the Butcher’s Burger (across from Gwangalli Beach, with a sparkling view of the bridge), our Korean waitress cocked her head and looked closer at the menu. She had no idea what you’re talking about, Tom laughed after she left. Who goes to a burger place and gets a veggie burger, especially in Korea? Sure enough, my burger showed up a delicious cheesy mushroom mess sans lentil patty, which another server giggled at when he plopped it on the bar. Turns out, I was the first person to ever order the veggie patty! The expat chef whipped one up fresh for me. Totally worth the wait for this lentil lover who longs to one day stop being lazy and make veggie patties of her own…and serve them to Tom for dinner! hehe

     

  6. Singapore — A moment to savor

     

    How cool to know our way around, Tom said one night mid-trip as we walked back to our hotel in Singapore’s China Town.

    We’d just passed a familiar Hindu temple – a steep pyramid of stacked statues, a pastel rainbow still eye-catching in the pitch of night – and rounded the very same corner, we realized, where a tree bearing strange green fruit shaped like big spiky balloons had caught our attention last fall.

    Before taking another step, we shared a smile, surely sharing the same thought — We’re in Singapore?!

    Just as we often remark on walks home from our little train station in Zushi — We live in Japan?! Even after almost two years our life here still often feels like a dream.

    As did not just being in Singapore, but realizing we were nonchalantly walking its backstreets sans maps. Cool indeed. One of those moments you don’t mind lingering in for a while, would even lean back and put your feet up in, if you could. If only you could somehow capture not just that feeling of perfect bliss, but the sense of that time, that place, that spark of epiphany, breeze kissing summered skin, cheeks aching from the night’s laughter. As nostalgia for our time in Japan and exploring Asia has begun (even as we live out our final weeks here, me at home, Tom on the ship), there seem to be more and more moments like these.

    I want a charm bracelet built of capsulated moments in Singapore alone –

    On the metro when my Peace Boat students stumbled into a woman they’d taken a photo with previously that day, a reward for getting lost and being late back to the ship;

    Three months later, the sound of Tom calling my name as I walked into a hotel followed by the look of surprise on his face, seeing me in the flesh for the first time in months;

    The first sip of our cocktails whipped up by a gregarious bartender at a speakeasy style mixology bar we’d almost given up trying to find;

    The scent of spices as thick in the air as the crowds in the streets of Little India, as we gorged on curries piled on banana leaves;

    The chill that danced up my arms, propped on the edge of the world in Marina Bay Sands rooftop infinity pool.

    And now, this corner. The spiky fruit. The cool breeze. Tom’s smile, soon to be another memory in my mind as he returned to the ship and I flew “home.”

    Could you live here? he asked.

    In 2009, when Tom’s first Navy orders displaced us from my beloved San Diego, to say that I was bitter would be an understatement. I never anticipated falling in love with Newport, Rhode Island.  Never even considered visiting, let alone living in Japan. NEVER would I have foreseen myself pausing in awe at the crayon box of colored row houses just outside Singapore’s Chinatown, knowing the Navy base nearby made his question not entirely hypothetical, and not rolling my eyes but saying, with a tingle of excitement — Yah. That could be nice.

     

    If You Go

    Singapore is a glitzy metropolis where you can spoil yourself shopping couture on Orchard Road and drinking $20 cocktails at swanky bars or just as easily eat all three meals for less than that at the many hawker stalls serving up local and Malay delights, from the speciality of chicken and rice (a little plain for me) to spicy laksa noodle soup to chili crab and stingray. (Here’s a helpful guide.)

    I enjoyed eating the traditional breakfast of soft boiled eggs and kaya (an eggy-coconutty jam) toast and a cup of strong, sweet kopi (Singapore’s coffee is strong and a regular cup is served with a dose of condensed milk. Here’s the NY Times article that enticed me to give the meal a try and a  guide to ordering coffee at one of the many intimidatingly fast-paced cafes).

    There are many touristy to-dos, but my two musts of that bunch would be visiting the Singapore Zoo (known for their work with endangered species) by day or on their Night Safari at night. You can also roam the forest of Super Trees in the gardens behind Marina Bay Sands by day, but I would recommend walking their canopy — a metal construction that feels less like the Eiffel Tower and more like walking through the jungles of Avatar’s Pandora — when brilliantly aglow by night. If you want to escape the city, go for a long walk or hike around MacRitchie Reservoir where you may just spot some fiesty wild monkeys.

    By day, definitely explore Little India and China Town. My favorite place to window shop, though, on Arab Street  (and those that run parallel), where you’ll surely work up an appetite for a mezze platte and cassis mint freeze at one of the many cafes near the mosque. Sit on the patio to nibble and people watch until your feet are ready to move you on to dinner.

    Our favorite eats and drinks: 

    The Quays are nice to walk down when lit up at night and full of restaurants and bars. A new hip area with trendy eateries and bars is located near Outram Park Metro Station  near Chinatown. We found the area last year when Louis, our favorite bartender at the Horse’s Mouth (then) and L’Aiglon (now), recommended getting a reservation at Burnt Ends, an Australian barbecue that serves up farm fresh fare (menu made daily) cooked right before your eyes. The narrow restaurant is nothing more than a long bar that overlooks the entirely open kitchen full of colorful fresh produce and the scent of meats grilling to perfection. An investment, both in financial terms and time and effort. Best to make a reservation for dinner as far in advance as possible, go in for lunch, or put your name on the dinner list around lunch time, and even then you may be waiting til long after 9pm for a seat.

    If you don’t get into Burnt Ends,  no worries. There are many places, from cheap and local to artsy to chic. Check out my write-ups on Potato Head Folk (a three-story burger joint with a quirky lounge bar upstairs), The Library, and The Study. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in the area at the New Majestic Hotel, whose eclectic hotel rooms  have various themes and features. We spent many an evening cooling off in our outdoor bathtub on our private patio.

     

  7. Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road: An Enticing Blend of Old and New

    HK_HollywoodRd

     

    Because travel opportunities are limited, we often ask ourselves – return to where we’ve loved or head somewhere new? Traveling has only made us realize just how big and diverse the world really is, how many more places we want to explore. Even so, we long to return to Paris sans backpacks and a two-day time limit, with our Youth Eurail Passes luring us on trains to other yet-to-be-explored wonders. But we haven’t been anywhere in South America. Hike Machu Picchu or return to the City of Love with more than a budget of 100 Euros a day?

    The pro/con of Tom’s stint on the aircraft carrier is that the ship’s schedule decides our travels for us. Last fall I met him in Singapore and Hong Kong, both of which I’d never imagine us visiting on our own, both of which we thoroughly enjoyed, both of which were on Tom’s schedule again this summer, for his final tour.

    At first I wondered if I should meet him. With a baby on the way, shouldn’t we be saving our money rather than sending me off to places I’ve already been? Besides, I have a busy teaching schedule now and limited time in Japan, not to mention a hefty list of writing goals unchecked with my two years to try and fail at a freelance career quickly coming to an end.

    But our friends with kids encouraged us to travel while we can with just the two of us. So, easily convinced, I booked a hotel for us in Hong Kong near our favorite area, SoHo.  Not surprising, as the neighborhood sharing the same nickname is also one of our favorites to leisurely roam in NYC. Not just the area — South of Hollywood Road – but the actual road itself is what beckoned me back to Hong Kong.

    Last year, Tom left with the ship a day earlier than planned. On my own, I did most of the recommended musts: visit the Tian Tan Big Buddha, haggle (or my version of haggling = smile and pay the amount they ask, maybe knock it down a few if I’m feeling gutsy) at the markets (I went to the Ladies Market, Flower Market, and Bird Market, though there are MANY more), breathe in the incense burning on massive coils hanging from the ceilings of Man Mo Temple, admire the glowing city skyline from the ferry at night and also from the Peak.   While Tom was in town, we’d hiked the Dragon Back Trail and embarrassingly over-ordered dim sum.  Wanting to try more local food, but not knowing how to read the menus or where the best eats were, we even went on a HK Foodie Tour. But most of our time we spent on Hollywood Road.

    My favorite places are those that seamlessly blend the old and new.  From Wyndham Street to the Man Mo Temple, antique stores line both sides of Hollywood Road (For HR antique shopping tips, read this handy article). Last year, I slowly strolled peeping into windows at the ornate vases and intricately carved furniture and finally entered a shop with a colorful bird statue up front.

    A talking myna, a black bird with a golden beak, greeted me from a cage when I reached the second floor.  I wandered through the maze of woodwork – armoires, vanities, chairs and even a dark wood canopy bed – and hand painted porcelain, wondering just how old everything was and where in Asia it was made and what some strangely shaped oddities could be used for. The shop felt more like a mini-museum where the artifacts were not protected behind glass but stacked together in beautiful disarray. The shopkeeper joined my perusing, and staid with me even after I apologized for not being able to afford his treasures.

    Leaving the antiques behind after Man Mo Temple, you’ll stroll past countless boutiques, cafes, and galleries. Patrons stand at high tables sipping wine in open front, quasi-al fresco eateries and bars or relaxing with a cup of coffee. Alleyways often lined with stalls selling bright produce or trinkets lure you to step off the main road to take the steep stairs to other wonders above and below. It’s the kind of place you could visit every day for a year and still notice something new each time.

    After being converted to the glories of the old fashioned at a speak-easy in Singapore last summer, Tom has been on a quest to find the best mixology bars wherever we go. This year, we returned to Lily & Bloom, for their creative cocktails and the ambiance, truly what feels like sitting inside a dreamy room in a candle-lit Restoration Hardware catalogue.

    We also tried out the gastro-pub Common Room, where my grapefruit mocktini was a bit too tart to finish, but Tom enjoyed his rye old fashioned, after explaining to the bartender just what it was he wanted  (a scary sign at a place whose price tags suggest mixolo-genius). But what Tom was most excited to return to was the Blue Butcher, a bone-in wagu rib eye that had been calling his name since last November (for me it was the beet, feta, and pistachio salad. Divine.).

    How about we go on Wednesday, Tom said when I asked for what night to make our reservation.

    Great idea! I said, For our Anniversary, right?

    I smiled as he realized, but didn’t give him a hard time.

    I have to admit that I don’t remember much about our meal the previous year. When I think back, I feel again the struggle to keep from laughing too loudly and strain to see Tom’s smile in the dark room, filled with the loud hum of conversation and clanking of glasses. Our table was late, so they’d given us complimentary drinks, after we’d already had drinks at the bar downstairs (worth a visit in its own right). All I really need is a sip to be giggly in the first place, especially on an empty stomach. We both woke up relishing the night as one of our fondest memories together.

    On our anniversary, we didn’t giggle as much, though I did steal a few sips of the complimentary bubbly the waitress brought to our table. (Luckily, I haven’t missed wine – my other love besides chocolate, coffee, and Tom — as much as I’d feared, but that night I was in the mood for fizzy celebration). Instead, sitting in the candlelight in high backed wooden chairs reminiscent of thrones, we spent more time marveling at the occasion. Nine years?! Had it been that long? In some ways it felt longer. I can hardly remember my life without Tom in it. Yet, we’re both such different people than when we first swapped smiles twelve years ago.

    Staring at him across the table in the flickering light, I wondered just how much more we’ll change, and in what ways, as we enter the next chapter of our lives together as parents. At times the mystery that lies ahead for us, as individuals and as partners, terrifies us both. But at that table, in that dimly lit room, who I saw in front of me was both the 19-year-old lip-ringed rebellious boy I fell for and the 32-year-old Navy lawyer that will soon be the father of my child. At once, old and new. What I do love most.

     

    If you go… (and you should! :) )

    * Most of my top recommendations have helpful links tagged above. I would recommend staying on Hong Kong Island (we stayed at the Ovolo on Queens Rd, small chic rooms with complimentary breakfast at their quirky cafe), but definitely roam the markets in Kowloon, where the cheapest Michelin star dim sum restaurant in HK, Tim Ho Wan, lives. (Here’s a helpful guide to dim sum, along with other HK restaurant recommendations.)

    * I also recommend strolling through the Chin Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden and having tea along with vegetarian dim sum at Lockcha Tea House in Hong Kong Park.

    * Here’s a link to my Hong Kong Wanderlist at AFAR.com (which I always use to find hidden gems wherever we travel).

     

  8. One epic adventure leads to another

    In our small rectangular toilet room, Tom and I stared down at the small, white rectangular box on the white, plastic stick. As if watching grass grow, our eyes strained. A bright fuchsia line appeared. Then, a faint pink follow up.

     

    Is that a line?

    I think so, but it’s so light. Is it supposed to be that light?

    I don’t know.

    What do the directions say.

    The directions say the line will appear inside the fuchsia “this-test-is-working” line not outside it.

    But…maybe the fuchsia line is the “Yes!” line. If so, THAT is a line.

    No, I think the “Yes!” line is the second line… if that is a line. Is it a line?

     

    Again, we strained our eyes, looked again at the illustration on the directions, then at the pink mysteries, then at each other, then — two 32-year-olds, holding a collection of graduate degrees – shrugged. Totally stumped.

    I’m going back to bed, I said, not wanting to feel anything, trying to keep the excitement from building about what I was sure, and he was pretty sure, was in fact a second line.

    Ever since our red-eye flight from Cambodia three nights prior, I couldn’t seem to catch up on sleep. We’d spent 9-days on a boat with Intrepid Travel, island hopping around the Mergui Archipelago, about 800 (mostly) uninhabited islands that sprout of the southwestern coast of Myanmar. A hidden paradise that is impossible to explore without a private charter or tour.

     

     

    After  a taste life at sea (which felt more like camping on the ocean than a luxury cruise) we spent the night at a beach resort in Phuket, Thailand before heading to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to ogle the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.

     

     

     

    There were signs. I was late (but I’m always unpredictable). My face broke out. I actually filled the cups of bikini top.

    And I did wake up every night, resisting nature’s call until I thought I might wet the bed. Then, flashlight in hand, I’d climb the ladder out of our bunk, tiptoe across the deck, down another ladder and into the galley restroom, where I had to pump the toilet to flush, an annoying process that was sometimes rewarded with flashes of luminescence with each pump. No matter how many times I went before going to bed, my bladder insisted on waking me.

    And I, normally a night owl, did find myself fighting heavy eyelids every night, while joking with our shipmates. The same exhaustion that hit when I tried to go for a run in Cambodia. But maybe it was the long days in intense heat. The humidity? Maybe that’s why my face was freaking out?

     

    Four tests showed the same mysterious marks. Each time, we stared, questioned, then shrugged, not wanting to get our hopes up, though we were pretty sure. Then the memories I was fond of just days before morphed into horrifying flashbacks of what-was-I-thinking?

    Like the nightly booze. I rarely drink mixed drinks, but that Myanmar coconut rum. And the lychee cordial. And that rosé at the hotel in Cambodia. I was just so thirsty after long hours of temple explorations, that crisp minerality was just what I needed…or so I thought.

    And that hike, when we pulled ourselves up by hanging ropes,  one-by-one  ascending the steepest parts. Dousing ourselves in bug spray as we waited for the rest to catch up.

    Was heavy activity ok? What about exerting one’s self in muggy heat? And snorkeling? What if we’d gone scuba diving like we’d planned? Thank God!

    And what about eating ridiculously spicy food? And street food? Fresh squeezed fruit juices blended with ice (the sneak attach of unsanitary water!)?Snake?

    Pieces of dried snake meat — flat, circular jerky – that hung outside on the patio of a café we visited in a Cambodian houseboat community flashed in my mind. Tom and I chugged beer as a chaser to each bite. Snake AND beer?

    Snakemeat

    And yesterday, when we finally returned home, I took a hot bath. A hot bath AFTER a trail run…AFTER we already saw the mysterious pink markings.

    What was I thinking??????

    But it just didn’t seem possible that there was a new little being blooming inside me. We’d kind of tried before. Then Tom found out he was deploying to Afghanistan and then after that, the aircraft carrier. Surely this was too soon.

    Maybe it really was the heat. And maybe the tests were faulty. I mean, how much could a cheap plastic stick really know?

     

    On Monday, I went the hospital on base, peed in a cup, then raced home to catch a train to teach a lesson. As I waited for my transfer, I realized I wouldn’t be out of my lesson in time to get the results. So, I took my chances and called early. Was put on hold. Plugged my ear as my train was announced.

    You ready? she said when she came back on the line.

    Yah. I hesitated, feeling safer now in this moment of uncertainty.

    You’re pregnant, she said.

    There it was. My eyes welled. All that I didn’t want to feel all weekend ballooned inside me, an ever-expanding rush of excitement and fear and love I let embrace me for a moment before quickly tying it back down, as I raced onto the train.

                                           ~

     These last nine years have been the greatest adventure. Ready for our next chapter?  Read the sign waiting for Tom downstairs when came home that night.

     

    You went to the hospital? he hollered from the bottom of the stairs.

    Yep, I said peering down at him.

    You’re pregnant?!

    I nodded.

     

    Soaked from rain and sweat from running home, Tom bounded up the stairs, his eyes alight like a child racing for his Christmas stocking. He lifted me up in a kiss. Though my feet were barely off the ground, my waist secure in Tom’s embrace, finally, finally, I was free to soar, just as I’d started to when I first heard those words today and thought to myself — I’m pregnant?!  Even now, the words felt too magical to say aloud. Instead we just stared, marveling at this new moment, our silence holding three futures combined in one.

     

  9. Back home in Japan: The kindness of strangers

     

    Of course, I thought as my car click, click, clicked in response to the turned key. Nobody had been home to drive if for the last three months, so why should it wake up now?

    I knew that coming home after Peace Boat would feel like this – anticlimactic. How does anything compare to traveling around the world?

    I’d escaped this realization at first, hosting my fellow teachers. The house got a little quieter as they slowly returned home, but Alda saw me off to meet Tom in Singapore. So, I had yet to be in our house alone.

    When I returned to Japan from a dreamy week of catching up with my husband, the house screamed of its emptiness as did my schedule. The teaching opportunities I thought I was returning to had fallen through. We had nine months left in Japan,  time that seemed both long and short, time I did not know what to do with, in any meaningful way, at least.

    So of course, as if feeling the lack of electricity in my fingertips as I turned the ignition, my car battery died.

    Immobile on our driveway, wanting to escape this feeling of being stuck in a rut, I took the train instead to meet a friend for lunch near base. Talking about Peace Boat with her brought back the spirit of optimism that I’d hoped to hang onto when walking off the ship that last time.

    As I made my way back home, I noticed a voicemail from Kimi, my Japanese grandma on PB. Just the voice I needed to hear today.

    Bre-san, I send you sweet potatoes. They will arrive tomorrow, is about what she said.

    Hearing her voice, I was suddenly transported to her house, watching Ryan help her pick sweet potatoes in the back garden, seeing their giddy excitement as the bounty built up in their arms. Again, I felt lucky to have that experience — to spend a weekend in a Japanese home, not as a visiting stranger but as a beloved friend. And yesterday, I spent the afternoon with my Japanese teaching partner Rie and her family, playing with her sons Kaito and Shuto, practicing numbers and colors and animals in English. Two years ago, I never thought I would have these experiences.

     

    As I walked down the canal toward our house, I felt suddenly emboldened to get the car fixed. Not to take the easier, more expensive route of calling the auto coverage through the base to have a tow truck lug it to the mechanic there, but to attempt taking my car in to the shop near my house.

    We didn’t move on base for a reason — we wanted to live in Japan. So, that’s exactly what I would do.

    I had no idea whether the local mechanic spoke English or not. As back up, I took a video of me trying to start the car, captured the clicking attempts to start. Next I popped the hood (no small feat with my stubborn one) and took photos of the battery and any other important looking stickers full of number codes. I also grabbed the car’s handbooks out of the glove compartment, figuring they couldn’t hurt. Then, with “do you speak English (eigo wo hanashimasu ka?)” prepped on the translator ap on my phone, I started walking down the canal toward the garage.

    It’s not going to be open, I thought (almost wished) as I turned the corner, but up ahead, across the train tracks, I could already see a car in the small driveway. I took a deep breath, repeated the Japanese line in my head one more time and walked into the car part filled garage, then sideways between two cars toward a man in a blue jumper, who was sitting near the back.

    Konnichiwa! we said, exchanging smiles, his accompanied with a hint of surprise.

    Eigo wo hanashimasu ka? I asked.

    He laughed and said, No!

    Nihongo scoshi, I said, trying to communicate that I could only speak a little Japanese, and even that was an overstatement. Watashi no karuma (my car) wa , I motioned my arms into a big X. Bat-tu-ree-wa, another big X.

    I pulled out my phone and showed him my car-won’t-start-video.

    We went back and forth, making car noises, imitating different car sounds. He quickly concluded, Bat-tu-ree wa Chane-jee?

    Hai, I said and asked how much it cost.

    Nana – sen -en.

    $70 bucks sounded about right, so I nodded, then realized I had no way of getting the car here, nor did I know to ask for a jump.

    Jump-u? I ventured a guess.

    Jumpu, he said, nodding. Kyo- he asked.

    Yes, today would be great. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening!

    We agreed, after drawing some maps and looking at Google maps on my phone,  that he would come to our house an hour later, at 4pm. He arrived ten minutes early and quickly changed the battery in our driveway (after a little trouble with the hood, making me feel even more proud of myself).

    I didn’t have the exact amount, so I handed him a 10,000 yen note then asked if I could get an oil change the following day. He said something I didn’t understand but took it that he didn’t know his schedule.

    It’s ok, daijobu. I said and thanked him profusely, pointing to his car and then mine, meaning you drove over here, no worries, keep the change. I felt stupid after — should I have used one of the cute little envelopes my students use to pay their lesson fees? I just handed him the money. How uncouth!

    He waved and left, but I had a feeling he’d be back. That he wouldn’t take the extra change as a generous tip for his own generosity.

    Auto service in your driveway? I couldn’t imagine this ever happening without costing double back home. But Japan is not a tipping society, so I wasn’t surprised when my doorbell rang less than 10 minutes later, as I was about to head over to the shop to make an appointment for an oil change (and give him some chocolate as a “tip” he surely could not refuse – it would be rude to not accept a gift here, I knew that much!). I opened my front door to find his hand held out with my change.

    We shared a laugh.

    Domo arigatou gozaimasu, I said with a deep bow, and then he was gone. I bent down to grab the chocolate I was going to bring him, but by the time I stepped back on the porch, he was already down the street on his bike. Arigatou gozaimasu, I hollered one last time.

    He looked back, waved with one hand and smiled.

    I watched him ride away and felt the happiness that lifted my cheeks into a smile dance down my limbs. I beamed at my adorable teal car, now healed. And, I walked back inside. There was nothing anticlimactic about today. I was, after all, back home in Japan.

  10. Ishinomaki, Japan: Still healing, years after 3/11

     

    A former neighborhood in Ishinomaki, Japan.

    A former neighborhood in Ishinomaki, Japan.

    October 9, 2013

    The day before our journey ended, Peace Boat pulled into the small port town of Ishinomaki, Japan, where the organization had galvanized tsunami disaster relief efforts that still continue today. The town no longer needs the masses of volunteers to clean up what remained, the tons of debris the ocean did not sweep away. Like any area still healing from catastrophe, the town needs to know they’re not forgotten, once the news cameras have gone away. That’s why we’d stopped by. To say hello.

    But is showing up enough? I wondered as our tour bus pulled away from the port and our eyes met the town we’d seen swallowed by an unfathomable tide on TV. Or, what remained of it — the buildings and lives not washed away two years ago (and now, over three).

    Fields overgrown with weeds and yellow wild flowers flanked the road we drove along. In the middle of the field, a single, plain, beige house stood alone, the only remaining sign that this was once a neighborhood. Cement box outlines remained rooted in their dirt, like fossils, signs of former lives buried under the tangles of new growth. As we drove by, I pictured a child riding her bike along this very road. My heart ached.

    Still it was easier to conjure images of former happiness than the catastrophe that swept it away, especially on this bright October day. The sky so blue now. The clouds light and wispy.

    Survivors of the biggest earthquake in Japanese history could have optimistically asked, “How much worse can it get?” But then it started snowing. And then hundreds of miles of coastline were soon swallowed by a tsunami whose waves reached heights of  133 feet in some areas. Just as destructive as these walls of water was the current that sucked almost everything in its path back out to sea. Throughout our voyage, Japanese participants had referred to 3/11 with a similar since of dread and disbelief as Americans refer to 9/11. A day of doom stamped into our history.

    I’d seen news reports about the massive 9 magnitude earthquake, and the tsunami and nuclear meltdown that quickly followed. Each a catastrophe on their own. Their swift succession seemed less like reality and more like the makings for an apocalyptic movie. Though we may be moved, watching global news can feel just like that – a TV movie. From a distance, we can be horrified, then change the channel. Turn off.

    As our tour bus pulled further away from the coast, just a few miles inland, the neighborhood seemed to be like any other sleepy town. Streets lined with businesses and homes the tsunami’s wrath did not reach, and if so, with less force.

    The destruction we could not see with our eyes — 15, 853 lives lost (over 3,000 in Ishinomaki alone), over 6,000 injured, over 3,000 still missing, thousands left homeless. In nearby Fukushima, 160,000 people were displaced due to the nuclear meltdown, most of whom will never be able to return to their homes in zones deemed too contaminated to enter let alone re-inhabit — we sensed later when listening to the stories of those who’d survived.  

    I will never forget the story of a man who clung to the roof of his house as it was sucked out to sea and later made it back to shore in a boat that miraculously floated by.

    Or the monk we met at a local temple. I think it was the transparency of his humanness that struck me, the range of emotions he was willing to bare: the jolly laugh he let out after kidding us about staring at his rounded belly to the sadness in his eyes as he remembered aloud the moments of mourning and prayer he shared with the people who came to him – so many who had lost everything — seeking guidance. What unimaginable pressure.

    There is nothing you can say to make up for what has been lost, just be with them in their sorrow, he said (through a translator), and I know that’s exactly what he did. Before beginning his story, he had apologized, jokingly, about his appearance, as he opened his mouth and pointed to the gaps in his smile where teeth had fallen out, physical signs of the immeasurable stress and sadness he took on while empathizing for and with his people.

    Like him, many nearby heeded the tsunami warnings and evacuated to the hilltop, from where they screamed and wept as they watched the destruction unfold below. The splintered remains of their homes, like piles of driftwood, being swept out to sea, along with those who’d stayed behind. While horrified by what happened, the monk could understand why people wanted to stay with their homes. Why they did not flee.

    You are raised to confront the difficulties you face, he said. But you also have to understand – Nature is more powerful than anything you can confront.

    A similar closing message came from our tour guide, who revealed that he’d considered committing suicide after the tsunami. His business was destroyed; he had to lay off his employees in a time when he knew they needed the work the most. During the flood, he had fought to keep his head above the frigid water as it rose to his neck, had clung to a pole in his office, straining against the tide receding back out to sea. And, for what?

    To be left with nothing. To be nothing.

    Our group was silent. Shocked maybe? It was difficult to imagine this man, who’d beamed with pride for his community and hope for the future all day, ever thinking about taking his own life. But, he revealed, he knows he was not alone in this sentiment.

    Nor was he truly alone, he realized as more and more volunteers began to appear. People from around the world came all the way to their tiny seaside community to help clear the mud and debris that the families and shop owners would never have been able to clear on their own.

    Our tour was the first of English tours the group is hoping to host, to bring people to their community, to hear their story, see their progress, and cheer them on. It may not feel like enough to bare witness, but even by showing up, without speaking, we say – you are not forgotten.

    Nature is powerful, but people are powerful too, he said, pausing to look at each of us, standing in front of him in a semi-circle. Beyond family, nationality, religion, people are people, and people can help people.

    ~

    The following day, we stood on the deck of the ship we’d called home since October, bending our heads back to peer up at the underbelly of the Yokohama Bay Bridge, just as we had done when heading in the opposite direction 80+ days prior. Last time, the whole world was ahead of us; now, our normal lives neared as we approached the pier, crowded with family and friends waving hysterically, the pier that, unlike us, was just as it was when we left.