Travel requires the right state of mind

I’m not superstitious or religious. However, I do find myself regularly evaluating whether I’m ‘going with the flow’ or not. I’m not even sure what I mean by that phrase in a detailed sense, but I do know that sometimes everything seems to come together and sometimes I’m battling every step of the way.

I’m traveling a lot this summer. Two days after returning from a wonderful week in NYC for my daughter’s wedding, I left for a 2 week+ trip to Japan and China for a conference and lectures. I’m now in Viginia for a great family reunion on the beach, and not long after I return I’ll be going to Saõ Paulo, Brazil for a PhD defense of a student there who worked in my lab last year. In less than 2 months I will have been in several of the world’s biggest cities: NYC, Tokyo, Beijing, and Saõ Paulo.

Traveling is one of the real benefits of my job as a university professor. There aren’t many international conferences for saddle making and leather work, but there are many nice places to go for biomedical research. However, traveling is also very tiring and can be stressful if you aren’t in the right frame of mind. I wasn’t quite ready for my trip to Asia after just 2 days being back from the wedding. And apparently the ‘going with the flow’ gods weren’t either. I first paid an extra $50 to get an earlier flight from Orlando to Atlanta, because the flight that I booked only had 60 min for a layover, and I like more time than that to catch a 12.5 hour long international flight. The early flight got me in just fine, and all was looking good until we had a very short delay pushing back from the gate for the Tokyo flight. Initially it was a computer glitch, and we were soon getting pushed back to taxi. Then the computer problem resurfaced and after ~30 min sitting in limbo, we returned to the gate to get it fixed by the pros. Initially we all stayed sitting with out seat belts fastened but then the pilot told us that it was a small hydrolic leak and that we could stretch our legs for a little while but we couldn’t get off the plane. After another hour getting to know each other, the pilot announced that there were 2 hydrolic leaks and that we needed to deplane with all of our stuff. Remarkably, Delta had found a backup 747 just waiting to go in in the neighboring concourse. About 60 min later, all 300-400 of us were waiting to board the new airplane, and then the lights went out on the flight announcement board at the gate (never a good sign…). About 20 min later, a person announced that the flight had been canceled and that all 300-400 of us should speak to a Delta representative to get a hotel and new flight reservations. I got booked for the next day’s flight 24 hours later. My flight the next day was 5 hours late, but at least we finally were going…

My initial few days in Japan were not “going with the flow”. I was tired and hadn’t prepared well for the trip. For example, I wasn’t sure what city my conference was in (just that I knew I needed to take a long train ride) and I didn’t have a clue about the exchange rate between the yen and dollar. It can be disorienting to not know how much you are spending on a cup of coffee or train ticket. Fortunately my friend Tatsuji helped me navigate Tokyo and got me on a train to my meeting in Tsuruoka. It took me a few tries to figure out the very complicated train ticket-taking machines that require multiple pieces of paper, all of which in total comprise your ticket, to be put into a ticket reader at once. The people in Japan are too nice to be outwardly rude, but I know that the long lines of people hurrying to catch their train were not pleased watching me bumble while I learned the system.

I got to Tsuruoka, feeling extremely jet-lagged, unexcercised, hungry, and I had no idea where my hotel was located. Most people in smaller cities in Japan don’t speak English, so it took a few false starts to find my hotel. I arrived about 7 pm and decided to take a walk to find a good dinner before bed. I always try to do extra exploring every chance I get, so rather than back track my footsteps that got me from the area with food to the hotel, I decided to take another street that looked parallel to the main road. My cell phone didn’t work, so I left my GPS at the hotel. After all, I was just walking to dinner…

Needless to say, the road wasn’t parallel to my reference road, and I got completely lost. The sun started setting, and there wasn’t a restaurant in sight. The streets were very narrow with no sidewalk, and I started having visions of getting hit by a car. A kid on a bicycle rode by, and I asked if he spoke English. He didn’t, but I rubbed my stomach and gave the “universal” motion of eating food (with a fork, I realized later…), and he was clueless. I finally asked for the train, and he smiled and pointed me in the right direction!

I finally made it back to the starting point and was not lost, but I could not find any restaurant. I walked by a sign that had food pictures that looked good, but then I couldn’t figure out if it was a restaurant or if it was even open. I pulled on the only thing that I could find that seemed like an entrance, but it was locked. A taxi driver was looking at me in dismay, and he got out and showed me that I needed to walk under the half curtains that were hung in front of the door to show that they were open.

Japan_restaurant.JPG

This is an example of the way some of the best restaurants looked from the outside. This one had a fantastic pork stew dish!

Inside, I got a table on the floor in a semi-private room. I was making progress! The waiter spoke no English and showed me the iPad-like device on the wall to order. Fortunately, he recognized “beer” after he completely didn’t understand my request for a sake (it rhymes with “clay” in Japan; not “we”). I could not figure out how to order from the iPad-thing, which had no English and photos that were unclear either the type or quantity of dishes. I convinced the waiter to give me a paper menu, which wasn’t any easier to understand, but at least I could operate it. I pointed to 2 pictures, one that looked like sushi and the other tempura. I was right with the sushi, which was great! The tempura turned out to be fried chicken cartilage. I always try new food anywhere I travel, but this one pushed me past my limits, especially in my “not going with the flow” state of mind. I manged to eat about 1/3 of the cartilage before I just couldn’t manage any more, and then I just ordered a second sushi.

Eel_dinner_appetizer.JPG

Eel dinner appetizer: fried eel backbone, fish liver, and squid intestine

The trip got better and I did manage to start figuring things out. I got into the right state of mind and a few nights later had a delicious eel dinner, complete with fried eel backbone, fish liver, and squid intestine. It was great!

2 responses

  1. Oof, I always wonder how people order food when they are in a country where they don’t know the language. No one ever really talks about it. Thanks for sharing. Happy travels!

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