I have spent the last few weeks worrying about finding something to make this year sound interesting, and as luck (?) would have it, in the middle of December we were blessed with something to talk about! Skip to the end if you can’t stand the wait.
As we have for the past few years, Shoko and I took our winter vacation in February, this time to Malaysia and Ko Sukhorn, across the border in southern Thailand.
It was “good” timing as tourists were staying away from Thai beaches due to the tsunami only 6 weeks earlier. We saw none of the devastation and the trip was without incident until the day we left the island. We missed our train back to Malaysia, and ended up (via minivan and taxi) on a mad chase, which took 9 hours (missing the train at station after station) and added a few grey hairs to my head at least. The drivers (the ones who do it for a living at least) of Asia are total maniacs! That’s all I can say after 13 years of travel there. I dare someone to give me a better adjective.
Most of the first part of the year though, was spent planning for the arrival of Mom, Susie and Jeannie. This was to be the first visit of family to Japan after 8 years of pestering, and I was more than a little bit concerned as to how they would take it. In the end, there was no need to worry. Toss 3 women who somehow don’t look like they belong here (don’t ask me how, but there is something) and Japanese people all of a sudden find the ability to speak English! AND they approach you to talk, on the train, in the street, at the temples! This may not sound odd to any of you, but in my 9 years here it’s been my experience that only drunk salarymen speak English to foreigners. Anyway, it’s a mystery I may never solve.
Highlights for me include:
- Mom kissing a Japanese man at a temple after he explained to her that the charm she chose we Big Luck.
- A totally unexpected and very rare encounter with a Geisha on a small street in Kyoto.
- An unfortunate (it was caught on both video and still film) but hilarious Geisha dress up party for Mom, Susie, Jeannie and Shoko.
- A private hot spring bath on the Noto Peninsula, so nobody had to be naked in front of anybody else.
- Asking for cutlery at our first Japanese meal and getting child spoons with Donald Duck emblazoned on the ends.
- The two “Moms” finally meeting.
- Managing to almost totally avoid crowds.
- Cultural exchange with the local liquor store guy.
- Not missing one train!
On the job front, I can finally say I’m not an English teacher! I now work for the parent company of Berlitz as some sort of manager. If you really want to know, send me an email and I’ll attempt to explain. Shoko also got promoted to acting manager while her boss is out on maternity leave. I think we’ve been busy because I don’t remember anything else till this month.
Oh yeah, I do remember this. This year saw us starting to get involved in “important matters” and we have been doing a lot of reading about animal cruelty, poverty, fair trade, etc. I am almost a vegetarian now. Fish is the last holdout. Shoko already was, so veggies are all I get for dinner anyway! The reading we did led us from one topic to another, as these things tend to do, and sometime in November I get this email from Shoko saying that wouldn’t it be cool to go to Hong Kong in December. I’d been there 4 times already, so wasn’t really sure what would be so great about it, but the next email enlightened me. The 6th WTO Ministerial would be held there and the decisions made (or not made) would directly relate to many of the issues we were getting interested in, particularly trade and poverty. She wanted to go and join the protests and marches planned around the event.
So, I bought the tickets the next day and we were off. After a couple of days in North Point with our good friends, Adrian and Erica…
…we dove into the multitude of events that were happening around the meetings themselves. We basically just walked from tent to tent, stall to stall, listening to the stories of people in (mainly south) Asia who feel that the policies of the WTO and the rich countries that rule it, are destroying their livelihoods, impoverishing their land, and starving them in the process.
But I must say, and I really hate to say it, the most important thing that happened to us in Hong Kong was being tear-gassed. We were essentially in the wrong place at the wrong time (we were there for 4 hours, so odds were we would hit the “wrong time”) as witnesses to an amazing spectacle. A huge contingent of South Korean farmers had deaked out the police by not following the main parade route (that stayed a safe distance from the Convention Center) and basically out-flanked them to get within a few meters of the place. Shoko and I saw the police in riot gear and stuck around out of curiosity.
By about 6pm there were thousands of protesters (not just Koreans) and small, orchestrated “battles” were taking place between the farmers and the police. There were some real clashes and lots of pepper spray was being used (to little effect as the Koreans had wised up and either wrapped their heads in Saran Wrap or had bought goggles) by the police. The real trouble started when one section of the farmers saw an opening in the wall of cops, and proceeded to attack there. They actually succeeded in getting through a little and that is when the police exploded the first couple of canisters of tear gas. This dispersed that group really quickly and we (about 100 meters away) could feel the sting of the gas. I guess, encouraged by the success of that group, the main body of farmers attacked again and it got a bit rough. Then I heard a few more explosions and saw this giant, brown cloud coming or way (we were directly downwind).
The sensation is hard to describe. It’s probably like being in a smoke-filled room. Your eyes are watering uncontrollably, and you nose is running all over the place. But, the worst part by far is the effect on the lungs. You can’t breathe but at the same time you can’t stop searching for oxygen. The good thing was that all along (everybody was running away at this point) you had the knowledge that tear gas doesn’t kill you and that if you just keep running you’ll find clean air. And that’s what happened. Every step was better than the last and we were essentially back to normal in a half an hour or so. If all this sounds dramatic, well at the time it certainly was. I now have a very healthy respect for the weapons available to the police, not to mention the power of chemical agents. And next time I will certainly bring along some Saran Wrap!
Here’s wishing you all a wonderful, tear-gasless 2006!
Gerry and Shoko