Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Whale Mothers by Dawn Reno Langley

"A very personal piece that takes the reader on a journey with a surprising destination."

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest


Honolulu is a disappointment in a lot of ways.  The Waikiki Beach I remember from movies like Elvis' "Blue Hawaii" is wide and filled with surfers, girls in bathing suits, and Diamond Head in the distance. But, in truth, Waikiki Beach is a very thin strip of beach overcrowded with towering hotels, and even the ocean itself is shallow. I walk and walk and walk out into the Pacific before it's deep enough to swim. Though the "beach boys" take tourists in bright orange life vests for outrigger rides, it all seems a bit too planned. Even Diamond Head seems as though it's pasted into my vista rather than truly a part of the coastline.
            It's not until we're driving along the coast of the island that I get the full Hawaiian effect: the often harsh trade winds, warm and strong enough to make me lean backward; the powerful ocean current pounding against the northern tip of the island, creating the best surfing waves in the world; the velvety green rainforests; the hot pink hibiscus, fragile orchids, exotic bromeliads, and towering imperial palms that color the landscape so brilliantly your eyesight blurs. 
            On the North Shore, we sit on a windswept, powder-sand beach, uncomfortable in our city clothes, watching bronze surfers challenge waves as tall as buildings. The surfers here are different than the others we've seen in Florida and California. These are professionals, taut-muscled and sun-streaked blond. You have to be strong to take on these waves. The ocean here is too tumultuous for me. Pummeling waves knock me down and twirl me underwater in a terrifying whirl of blue-green and volcanic rock, twisting my back unmercifully. I’ll stick to my blanket on the beach, thank you very much.

Five days on Oahu is enough to see the island, to drive past the Sacred Falls, around the Kahuku Point, past the sugar cane fields, to the lighthouse on the western tip of the island at Kaena Point. It's long enough to explore Pearl Harbor, to notice the big fishing boats off the coast, long enough for our skin to pinken and tan.
            We fly from Honolulu the following weekend, passing over the high cliffs of Molokai, the pineapple plantations of Lanai, the dormant volcanic peak of Haleakala on Maui, and land in Hilo, on the eastern coast of the Big Island, Hawaii.
            My friend Fred places fragrant leis around our necks. He packs us into his car, happy to play the tour guide as he drives from Hilo to his home overlooking the black sand beach at Kaimu on the southeastern tip of the island.
            The devastation from the most recent lava flow from Kilauea is close. Houses less than a mile up the road from Fred's place sit on stilts. The black lava steams as it flows into the bay, and at night, From Fred’s bathroom, I can see the red lava spurting out of the still active volcano. How can people live in the shadow of a volcano?
We ride the Kohala Coast road, and the guys chatter about trivia while I stay glued to the window, watching spumes of gray mist in the distance that signify a whale pod has approached the coast.
            The humpback whales migrate here every year, putting on a spectacular show that we can watch from just about any vantage point on the western shore of the Big Island. I am in heaven.  Whales and dolphins have fascinated me since I was very young, but this is the first time I've ever seen them in the wild. Though Fred continuously reminds us that we aren't seeing the best of the "show," that the western coast of Maui is where teams of researchers track the whales' migration route, I'm quite satisfied. With every breach, my heart pumps a little faster.
            Near Fred's house, a barely noticeable pathway leads down the side of a cliff to a black sand beach. The beach is home to some of the old hippies that migrate to the islands at the same time as the whales. They sit on the beach, stoned, staring at the ocean where whales breach, spinner dolphins fly through the air, giant tortoises skirt across the top of breaking waves, and native Hawaiians fish with spears like their ancestors did. 
            We settle into a pattern of visiting the beach every afternoon. The guys take their snorkeling gear and head out past the breakers, coming back to me every once in a while to report on some fantastic fish that they've seen. 
            I sit on the beach, train my gaze on the horizon, enjoying the spectacle of the breaching whales and of Fred and Bobby swimming with a pod of spinner dolphins. I envy them out there, but I'm not strong enough to make it past the breakers. I try to identify the whales by their flukes, the large and powerful back fins that are always the last to disappear as the whales dive for a sounding.  Humpbacks' flukes are as unique as a fingerprint. One particular whale has been breaching near the shore throughout the afternoon. Over and over and over.
            The beach begins to empty. The Hawaiian fishermen take their last load of fish up the cliff-side path, then I realize the big whale has disappeared. I start gathering my things. Bobby and Fred will be in soon. Their dolphins are heading out to sea, and the guys must be tired.
            I shade my eyes and look out to sea, trying to spot them. Then something dark and very large fills the cove and the blue expanse of sea turns black and frothy. This is not a wave. Within seconds, I spot the distinctly round eye of a whale. A calf. A spume from its blow hole. And right behind it, a larger spume. A larger eye. The mother.
            I’ve witnessed a birth! I yell and dance up and down the beach, but no one else is there. The whales spume once more. Fred and Bobby, still surrounded by dolphins, are too far away to hear my gleeful screeches.
            Then the whales are leaving. Somehow they travel right beneath Fred and Bobby. Right beneath the pod of dolphins. The mother and calf surface again, further out, then disappear. Then, I'm crying. Big, gasping sobs. 
            I’m left on the beach, reliving the moment I gave birth to my daughter, and the evening when I first took her out of the nursery to hold her in my arms, the full moon streaming its light through the quiet window.
            I miss her.

During the remaining four days of our vacation, we have another face-to-face with a mother and her calf when we join a whale watch off the Kohala Coast, but nothing will ever match my own personal glimpse at that special mother and child.
            We leave Hilo for Oahu, and as we make the long flight home, I stare out the plane's window, searching in vain for the spumes of the great whales as they make their migratory path through the tall green islands of Hawaii.


Dawn Reno Langley developed wanderlust as a child and has a long bucket list.  She holds both a PhD and an MFA. She has published 29 books, hundreds of shorter pieces.  Mother to one, grandmother to the world’s cutest toddler, and dog mom to a sassy Shichon, Langley practices yoga, gardens, travels, and is fascinated by the night sky.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Walking Istanbul by Ana Astri-O'Reilly

"Good style in this piece. Lucid and cool."

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off Travel Essay Contest


I felt unexpectedly at home in Istanbul. Sometimes it was a flavour that evoked that sense of familiarity, like the sweet peanut paste called halva, which took me back to my childhood. Argentina’s version of halva is called Mantecol and has a very similar taste. Sometimes it was the architecture. Istanbul underwent a process of Europeanization spearheaded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Father of the Turkish Republic, in the 1930s. Entire streets wouldn’t look out of place in Paris or Madrid or even my hometown of Buenos Aires, where generations of Spanish, Italian and French architects have left their mark. This was described by Nobel Literature prize winner Orhan Pamuk in his book Istanbul. I lost myself in his book and in his city.

Orhan Pamuk describes Istanbul as a city of ruins, whose inhabitants have embraced as a common fate the melancholy brought about by the end of the Ottoman Empire and its faded glories. I see Istanbul as someone going through a midlife crisis: her best years are behind, the beauty of youth is fading and she’s trying to reinvent herself, find a new identity; however, she can’t quite achieve that because she is who she is.

Yalis, Ottoman wooden mansions on the Bosphorus
Likewise, traces of the Ottoman Istanbul scattered here and there remind locals and visitors of a past that stubbornly clings to the present. Stately yalis (Ottoman wooden mansions) perched on the edge of the Bosphorus, the tombstones of Ottoman dignitaries in the cypress-lined historic cemeteries topped with a turban or a fez to indicate the men’s rank or decorated with a flower for every child a woman gave birth to, magnificent mosques, a fortress.

Walking is the best way to know a city. You share a bit of the locals’ daily activities; it gives you a glimpse into their daily lives. You can tell what is going on by looking at their faces and the speed at which they walk. One can learn a great deal about a town by pounding the streets.

I learned that it is culturally acceptable for men to walk arm in arm as a sign of friendship. It also applies to women. However, I did not see couples holding hands or kissing, which tells me that public displays of affection are frowned upon. Men and women socialize separately. Men gather at tea houses, where they while away the afternoon sipping tea, playing backgammon and puffing away at their narghiles. Men seem to dominate the streets and the trades. Street vendors, waiters, hotel receptionists, taxi drivers, carpet sellers are mostly male. I also learned that people are not as aware of personal space as some of us are. It was a little uncomfortable to have people walk so close behind me that when they took a step forward they made me stumble and were surprised when I looked daggers at them.

In some cultures, staring is considered rude. This may not be the case in Turkey. People stared at us without shame and without hostility. It was a bit uncomfortable at first but then it gave me carte blanche to stare back and observe them. Men, whom I mostly didn’t find handsome, sport a short beard and wear dark clothes. These are the people in dark coats and jackets [...] rushing home through the darkening streets Orhan Pamuk writes about. Women also wear dark clothes but their colourful veils  put a cheerful note in their austere wardrobe. Some ladies have exotic (to me) features: striking high cheekbones and kohl-lined, almond-shaped eyes reminiscent of Scheherazade and all the magic and mystery of the legendary Levant.  

Our hotel was close to the University of Istanbul so the area was full of students coming and going along Ordu Caddesi, both walking and on the tram. I felt a tiny bit envious of those students with their books and notes in hand. They can do anything they want; their life is still a blank book for them to write their own story. I wish I were that age again, with the world at my feet, but with what I know now. I noticed that a big proportion of those students were female, both veiled and unveiled.

The tram line along the Ordu Caddesi also goes to the Grand Bazaar and Sultanahmet Square, two of the most popular places to visit in the city, so passengers get on and off at every station. Traffic is dense, if rather chaotic at times. Horns are a constant feature all day long until late at night. While drivers always stop at the red light, pedestrians are more remiss. They take traffic lights as a mere suggestion and cross the street in a helter skelter fashion.

Yet, in the middle of this apparent chaos, devout Muslim men calmly wash their feet and perform the ablutions prescribed by Islam before prayers five times a day. I admire the strength of their faith. Under no circumstance would I ever wash my bare feet in the open air on a wintry day. Seeing this made me question my own religious faith and why I lost it. Did I ever really believe in God? Did the beliefs I used to have come from my heart or were they imposed from the outside? Probably the latter, especially when I was at Catholic school. I think some people need to believe in a Superior Being and some don’t. However, I do sometimes find comfort in the ritual of Mass, in the communion with other people and the energy it generates.

That´s the energy that courses through Istanbul when the muezzin’s calls to prayer reverberate throughout the city, bounces off walls ancient and new and vibrates in my chest. It is the energy that brings people and the past and the present together.


Ana Astri-O’Reilly is an Argentinean expat living in the US, travel blogger, avid reader, curious traveller. She worked as a translator and foreign language instructor in her native Buenos Aires. She is a contributing editor at and writes about travel on the blog Ana Travels She speaks fluent Spanish, English and some Portuguese.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Genki deska? by Alyson Hilbourne

"An iconic image we’re all familiar with – the bathing monkeys of Japan – is itself refreshed in this behind-the-scenes account."

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay contest


Genki deska?”
The red-faced monkey ignored me and continued to stare into the distance, unblinking, in a Zen like trance. Most of its body was submerged in a warm pool as it disregarded completely the bank camera lens we tourists pointed at it.
I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous. We’ve come across macaques before. In Thailand they raid bags and snatch ice creams from your hand. In Sri Lanka we had monkey bars on the windows at school to prevent them climbing in and wrecking classrooms. At Jigokudani Park signs advised against taking food into the area where the monkeys were. There was a bank of lockers for visitors to use. But apart from two macaques sitting on top of the drinks vending machine, presumably ready to fleece unwary tourists, these monkeys were placid, almost somnambulant in their movements, lulled by the warm water.
Jigokudani means Hell Valley in English and is a common name in Japan for thermal areas. One benefit of the unsettling seismic activity in the country is a ready supply of near boiling water that the Japanese use for onsen or hot spring bathing.
We walked into the park along a narrow snow-mud forest path. The heavy snow on the hillsides and dense wood deadened all sounds. Through the trees we glimpsed serow, a Japanese goat-antelope, a strange woolly creature, once hunted but now protected in many areas.
After paying the entrance fee, we descended a few steps and crossed a bridge to the man made pool beside a river where a dozen or so monkeys sat in a monkey onsen, grooming each other and studiously ignoring the visitors. It began to snow lightly and steam rose from the water. These monkeys are often called ‘Snow Monkeys’. It was easy to see why.
 The monkeys, macaques, are wild, but they are encouraged to stay in the area with free food. In winter they are happy to sit in the warm pool, but apparently in summer they need to be bribed to enter the hot water and food is thrown in.
After fifteen minutes of watching the monkeys do very little but pose for the cameras we wandered down to the river. There was less snow on the ground here, and adult macaques turned stones over looking for seeds, while the youngsters chased about.
We left the monkey park, returning along the forest path and took the bus to the nearby town of Shibu Onsen. The town has a history as a hot spring resort. Apparently in the past a warlord used the mineral waters to revive his men after battle. Today most of the bathers are tourists who stay in the ryokan, Japanese style inns that flank the narrow cobbled streets.
At Shibu Onsen

            Our evening’s entertainment was to don yukata, cotton kimonos and geta, Japanese wooden sandals, a meld of flip flops and ice-skates and stumble round town on a tour of the onsens. The shoes proved surprisingly difficult to walk in. The beautifully dressed Japanese ladies we see in Tokyo wearing silk kimonos move stylishly. My ankles rolled and twisted painfully as I negotiated the cobbles.
The ryokans give their guests a key, attached to a large plank of wood so you won’t inadvertently walk off with it, that opens the nine small bathhouses in the town. They are segregated, male and female, and once inside you are expected to observe the usual onsen rules such as washing yourself down before entering the water and bathing naked. The baths themselves are all slightly different. Most are lined with wood, which feels slightly slimy to the touch and only big enough for two or three people. One, that does not require a key, is larger and open to day visitors as well as those staying overnight.
Steam swirled around the bathrooms and the water temperature at one was so hot it was impossible to get in. Although entered by separate doorways inside the male and female onsens are only divided by a wooden panel so I was able to have a conversation with my husband through the wall.
“Hot, eh?”
“Too hot.”
“Are you cured? Shall we move on?”
             Mostly, however, the effect of the hot water was entrancing and I sat quietly, with a glazed expression rather like the macaques.
We followed other groups of tourists wearing yukata round the town. Some were just out for an evening stroll before or after dinner and were not using the onsens. The yukata is a perfectly acceptable dress code for dinner in Japan.
An old lady, bent over, but walking nimbly in her geta approached us outside one bathhouse.
Genki deska?” she asked, indicating the onsen behind us.
“She’s asking how we are,” I hissed at my husband.
We smiled and bowed slightly.
Genki desu (I’m fine),” I replied, stretching the limit of my Japanese.
She was delighted we understood and rattled off a stream of Japanese, punctuated with arm pointing and some polite bows.
We bowed back and scuttled away as soon as it seemed respectful having not understood a word. But I suspect she was telling us about the cures each onsen is supposed to give. One claims to cure gout, another eczema, other organic disease or neuralgia. Doing all nine brings good fortune. Each bathhouse is numbered and you can buy a souvenir cloth and ink stamp it with the wooden blocks outside each onsen as a keepsake.
            “Well, that’s my stomach problems cured,” said my husband as we tripped out of our fifth bath of the evening.
            “Mmmm, but you are rather red in the face,” I told him.
            Just as red-faced as the monkeys at Jigokudani Park a couple of kilometres up the valley. I hoped all their ailments were cured too.
            Genki des.

Alyson Hilbourne currently lives in Japan and uses the opportunity to travel as much as possible. She has had travel pieces published online and by the Oldie magazine in England. She also writes short stories, which occasionally are  published. She belongs to the online writing group, Writers Abroad.