Where do I go from here?

I have been struggling since my return from Japan to keep an outsider's view of my home country and maintain the tone of "Brave New Word". It has been a difficult month for me to say the least. Shortly after my Sept 5 post, my sister passed away. I have been busy trying to support my family members, to get a job, move into my apartment, and get into a routine. The past year has been a journey by foot, to Japan. It is very clear to me that now I need to go a journey by thought: how do I go forward from the loss of my sister? Both of these journeys are about healing. How do new experiences and ideas help us to become better people? Please look forward to reading how these two journeys weave together in the months ahead.


Old Mexico

Another weekend. Another destination. Another Mexico. This time I went to Ensenada in Baja California de Norte, Mexico. Something in me wanted two more days out of the US, so Gilda and I took off on a Thursday afternoon to beat the weekend rush. Of course, LA would not let us go without at least one traffic jam. But Gilda and I were carpooling, so in this picture I think we're sailing by in designated lane for cars with 2 or more passengers. Kinda sad that most of the cars stopped to our right have only one person in them, eh?

The border station between San Ysidro, CA and Tijuana, BC is the most heavily traveled in the world. Gilda and I were all prepared to show our passports and answer scrutinizing questions by the border patrol. Instead a little camera took a picture of our license plate as we drove through at 20 miles an hour. Suddenly we were in another country. It was getting close to sunset and the Tijuana night life was just getting started. With ideas of Tijuana as a chaotic border down, we rolled up our windows and high-tailed it towards the toll road to Ensenada. Actually, Tijuana isn't that bad. Just don't go looking for drugs, shop for cheap souvenirs, or flash wads of cash around, and you should be left alone. It helps to speak some Spanish, too.

We stayed at the wonderful Hostel Sauzal, run by Maria. At $15 a night including breakfast, you almost can't afford not to stay there. Gilda and I didn't go for many activities while we were there. Just some together time at the beach, sitting around the Hostel reading books, and going out to taco stands and Mexican-Japanese restaurants to eat. Yes, there is a chain of fusion restaurants in Ensenada called La Cochinita. The portions were not Japanese (ie, huge) but it was still very tasty. I only wish that I could have tasted the other side of the fusion: Japanese-Mexican. Mexican food, being quite spicy, is not very popular in Japan.

Our trip was a short one, but it was fun to be immersed in another culture and language again. I got to practice some Spanish, but Gilda did most of the talking. I couldn't get enough of the tacos and paletas. But we had to get back for the start of the work week. Coming back, the immigration procedure was much more congested. We must have waited in line for 40 minutes. It is such a usual thing that vendors set up permanent shops right on the highway lanes leading up to the customs agents.

Now I'm back in the States for good. And the full re-adjustment begins. I'm struggling to figure out how to keep this blog going in a travel mood while I'm still in the States. Please bear with me in my efforts!

New Mexico

Some people say that the best way to readjust to your own country is to travel again. I would say that this is just postponing the inevitable. But then again, I'm guilty of it too.

A week after I arrived in LA, I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico for some church business. I've been going there for an annual conference since 1999, so every year I get to track the changes in the town. I've seen a lot more new homes go up, more shopping areas and a revitalized downtown, and some local attractions that have been added. It's a funny feeling to go to a city for one day a year: you feel familiar and attached to the place yet you don't get enough time to soak up the daily culture and relationships. Albuquerque is along the famous "Route 66" which was the main route to the West before the Interstate Highway system was created. Plenty of kitschy motels lined the "Mother Road" with eccentric designs local to the area. Here you can see the "El Don" motel as a salute to the Spanish Conquistadors and American Cowboys who roamed the Wild West.

The city has a high population of Hispanic and Indigenous people. One of my favorite places to visit is a barber shop that still gives "shave and a haircut" treatment to its customers. Men may not go to a beauty salon, but they still need some pampering in the form of steaming hot towels and a straight-razor shave. Have a cut so close that you don't need to shave for two days is quite a luxury for those who otherwise have to shave daily! Also nearby is Old Town, where original Adobe-style buildings survive from the 17th century. Most people don't realize that while the English colonies were just getting started on the East Coast, Spanish colonies were thriving in the southwest. With four centuries of Spanish heritage here, is it really a wonder that there are so many Spanish speakers here?

On Sunday I traveled up to Santa Fe to visit the local art museum. It features a few pieces by Georgia O'Keefe, whose watercolors reflect the soft pastels of the desert landscape. Most of her works are in the eponymous museum, also located in Santa Fe. Also on display were some woodblock prints from an artist in the 1930s when times were tough and the government sponsored public works projects to employ artists, boost morale, and document local culture. Santa Fe, and Taos further North, host thriving artist communities that make for a very interesting visit.

I knew I would be in for a disappointment when I decided to take the train from ABQ to LA. Having experienced the Japanese train system in all its grandeur, I figured that I should try out Amtrak just to have a fresh experience to compare it with. It started with the train arriving 90 minutes late. This happens so frequently that Amtrak has programmed its customer service phone number to feature "train status" as its first option. I had called earlier in the day to check, so I knew this, and got to the station about 20 minutes before the train arrived. Japan's trains are mostly one level, run by electricity, and compact; Amtrak has gargantuan double-decker cars powered by diesel locomotives. More train, more to maintain. Shortly after I boarded the train, the lights went out and the A/C stopped blowing. This would be the beginning of a 3-hour delay to replace a bad engine. I don't mind the train being late or going slowly as much as I mind sitting on a train in the high desert that isn't moving when it's supposed to. My hopes to see the beautiful desert landscape at sunset were dashed as night fell and we still hadn't left the station.

Thanks to my sleeping mask and inflatable pillow, I was able to get some sleep through the night. I woke up at first light and watched the sunrise over Western Arizona. There's something about the barren desert that sets your mind to wander up to the soft blue sky for comfort. I got to thinking about my job and life prospects in LA which hadn't come together yet. Then I started reading some children's books to take my mind off questions that I didn't have answers for yet.

After almost 21 hours on the train, I arrived in Los Angeles. The slow way to go (trains) really needs an investment boost to become a viable alternative to airplane travel. Many train trips are marketed in the USA as preserving the "golden age" of train travel: luxurious dining, sleeping cars, and steam engines. Other people love trains, warts and all: I saw a few train buffs on my trip who had scanners to monitor the communications between engineers. The USA uses commuter trains pretty well, but intercity travel doesn't really compete with airplanes. It can. I've seen it in Japan. I will be closely following the developments of the California High Speed Rail Authority to build a bullet train between SF, LA, and Sacramento by 2020. Only 55 years after Japan. There ARE things the USA isn't the first and best in. Check it out.

Countries I have visited

Where I've been in the USA