Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak Always a Draw

The View from Victoria Peak's Sky Terrace 428 on a really clear day

The View from Victoria Peak’s Sky Terrace 428 on a really clear day

I consider Hong Kong one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Not, necessarily, on street level, where there’s such a jarring juxtaposition between the profound and the mundane, the grand and the gross, it’s hard to take in the whole picture.

Take the Peak Tram to The Peak, however, and you’re met with a sweeping panorama of the harbor, the high rises of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, and undulating hills in the distance. There are plenty of restaurants and shops in Peak Tower and Peak Galleria, but my favorite thing to do is take the circular, 2-mile hike around the peak, which offers different views along its shaded path and glimpses of millionaires’ mansions.

Because of the differences in what you see, I recommend going to The Peak twice: during the day and again at night, when the city lights up like few others do. If it’s cloudy or rainy, however, don’t bother. In fact, pollution over the years has become so ubiquitous, if you have a clear day consider yourself very fortunate.

I discovered this article about The Peak, which quotes from my Frommer’s Hong Kong:

Hong Kong Victoria Peak Is A Must See

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A 12th-century Buddhist Utopia in Japan

The Pure Land Garden in Hiraizumi

The Pure Land Garden in Hiraizumi

http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20170202-a-pure-land-inspired-by-treachery

Most of Japan’s history–skirmishes and wars between feudal lords, legends surrounding ancestors of the Imperial Family, even the location of its capitals–played out on the southwestern end of the main island of Honshu, so it’s not surprising that most of its historic sights and World Heritage sites are also found there. But in Tohoku, the northern region of Honshu, there’s a town I very much would have wanted to visit if I had been alive in 12th-century Japan. Hiraizumi was created as a Buddhist heaven on earth, a place of sprawling temples, pagodas, sutras, gardens and quarters for hundreds of monks. It lasted only 100 years before being sacked by the man who would go on to become shogun over the land, but Hiraizumi’s influence on Japan was tremendous. This article I wrote, published by BBC online, tells why.

A Pure Land Inspired by Treachery

 

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Kume & Kobe Refound

Kume Island

Kume Island

Thanks to the Internet, I keep finding magazine and newspaper articles I wrote before the Internet was either born or publications didn’t publish additionally online. That’s fun, because those old clippings are yellow and worn, slowly changing to dust.

Kobe Reborn, published in The Rotarian in 2003 in advance of the Rotarian convention in Osaka, describes how Kobe had changed and grown since its horrific 1995 earthquake in which more than 5,000 people lost their lives.

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Kobe is one of Japan’s oldest international ports and most cosmopolitan cities

Japanese Island is Beauty of the Sea, published in the Los Angeles Times July 14 1985, is about Kume in the Okinawa archipelago, which I had the chance to revisit in 2008 ago and found remarkably still unchanged and undeveloped. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include the photographs I took for the article, which would have been slides I sent via snail mail.

Man, we’ve come a long way.

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Two New Tokyo Hotels, Worlds Apart

Staff await at the entry hall of Hoshinoya Tokyo, ready to deposit my shoes in the decorative cabinets lining the hallway to the left

Staff await at the entry hall of Hoshinoya Tokyo, ready to deposit my shoes in the decorative cabinets lining the hallway to the left

A couple of months ago I was in Tokyo and had the opportunity to stay in two new properties that had opened in 2016. One was contemporary and the other very Japanese. You stay in them for completely different reasons.

A room at Hoshinoya Tokyo

A room at Hoshinoya Tokyo

Hoshinoya Tokyo is Tokyo’s most posh Japanese inn, a modest-looking low-rise amidst the office high-rises of Otemachi not far from Tokyo Station. But inside it’s an oasis of calm tranquility, with soothing traditional decor like tatami flooring and shoji paper screens. On the roof is a hot-spring bath, a rarity in downtown Tokyo, while on each guest floor is a lounge where attendants pour tea, answer questions and provide individualized service. My room was

My breakfast at Hoshinoya Tokyo

My breakfast at Hoshinoya Tokyo

gigantic, with a raised platform bed, a table and chairs (where my wonderful Japanese breakfast was served) and a resting area. But because I could plainly see people in surrounding offices, I felt like I was in a fishbowl. I was assured that even though I could see them, my windows prevented them from seeing me. A shy exhibitionist’s fantasy, perhaps, but I opted to keep my shoji closed. Still, whereas you used to have to leave Tokyo to have a Japanese inn experience of this caliber, the Hoshinoya Tokyo now means you can be pampered in true Japanese fashion without leaving town.

My room at Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

My room at Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

What a change, then, the Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho in Akasaka! Here it’s all about the views, with expansive windows from the lobby, the bar, restaurants and my room providing dreamy panoramas of the capital. My room faced over Akasaka Palace toward Shinjuku, with a window-side sofa where I drank coffee every morning. Because of a glass-walled bathroom, I could have looked at Tokyo even from my tub (I haven’t a clue why this architectural design is so popular nowadays), but of course I didn’t, instead opting for the button that made those glass walls opaque.

You can read more about these hotels in my reviews published in Global Traveler here:

Hoshinoya Tokyo and Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

View of Akasaka Palace from my room at Prince Gallery

View of Akasaka Palace from my room at Prince Gallery

 

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Memories of Isla Amantani, Peru

Isla Amantani, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Isla Amantani, Lake Titicaca, Peru

It’s been many years since I spent a month in Peru with my two sons and my sister Kristin’s family, so this is taken word-for-word from my journal about one of my favorite places, the island of Amantani on Lake Titicaca, the highest fresh-water lake in the world. I’ve kept a journal since I was 12. Sometimes I wonder whether I, like seemingly everyone else these days, should write a memoir.

From Puno on the way to Cusco, July 17, 2008

“If this is impossible to read, it’s because we’re on the bus from hell. The seats are broken, there are no seatbelts, the suspension is shot, and we have 7 hours ahead of us. We opted for the local direct bus rather than the tourist bus that made stops along the way because the tourist bus cost $45 per person including admissions and the local bus cost about $8.

We spent the past 4 days on islands on Lake Titicaca, Isla Amantani and Isla Tequile.

A communal effort building a house on Isla Amantani

A communal effort building a house on Isla Amantani

Both had red, rocky terrain that rose steeply from the shore, with stone or sand footpaths linking adobe houses schools, the market, tiny stores selling candy, drinks, eggs and central plaza. There was no running water, and everyone hauled water from open wells up the steep slopes. Toilets were outhouses, holes in the ground, though where we stayed toilets had been installed over holes in the ground but you still flushed them by pouring in water. Cooking was done with a propane stove or over a fire. Electricity was limited or nonexistent.

On the way to the islands we stopped at the so-called “Floating Islands,” where communities lived on matted reeds in reed houses. They originally moved to the reeds to escape fiercer people, and there are still families who live isolated just as they have always done, but  the families we visited were there purely for us. Being an architect, Kristin found it fascinating, and I was glad they were able to make some money from tourists.

Floating Island on Lake Titicaca

Floating Island on Lake Titicaca

Then it was on to Amantani, the more primitive of the two islands. We stayed with a woman who went by Gladys and her 9-year-0ld daughter. Our 2 rooms were simple, built specifically for tourists, with beds and a table, a wood-plank floor, and candles for lighting. Gladys made us soup for dinner, trout the second night, pancakes for breakfast….

The daughter of Gladys, the single mom where we stayed

The daughter of Gladys, the single mom where we stayed

I liked watching the village life, the people were all shyly friendly and greeted with an “Hola” or “Buenas tardes.” They wore traditional dress, the women in full colorful skirts and embroidered black shawls. The children played with balls, tops, marbles. I don’t think people bathed much–why would they, with no bathrooms, no running water, and no hot water. Even we didn’t bathe for 4 days.

Life on Amantani was about the things you had to do daily to survive–haul water, cook meals, herd sheep, gather eggs from chickens, wash clothes by hand and hang them in the sun to dry, weave or knit clothing (which, amazingly, they didn’t try to sell to tourists; in fact, there were no goods produced for tourists). In a way, it was like camping, busy but so much less stressful or busy than our technical lives. And although our stay seemed primitive, and not hygienically clean, we met a couple who had it far worse. The old woman they stayed with (all accommodations on the islands are homestays) kept 7 guinea pigs in her kitchen [guinea pigs are a delicacy in Peru], along with cats, and there was feces on the floor and flies everywhere.

Herding sheep across Amantani's central square

Herding sheep across Amantani’s central square

Tequile was more heavily touristed, mainly by day trippers. There was a communal store selling handwoven or hand-knitted hats, gloves and shirts. We hiked, first to a school where a teacher invited us to visit and classroom and then to stone ruins dating from 100 B.C. The ruins were magical, neglected and empty. Peru, perhaps, has so many ruins, something 2,100 years old isn’t special.”

Our hostess, Gladys, accompanies us to the boat to wave goodby on our departure

Our hostess, Gladys, accompanies us to the boat to wave goodby on our departure

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Japan’s Koban–Public Relations Ambassadors

A Police Box in Ginza

A Police Box in Ginza

Because Japan’s crime rate is very low compared to most other countries, the police officers I see in Japan are not apprehending criminals or breaking up fights. Instead, their main duty seems to be giving directions to lost souls. I myself have been that lost soul on many occasions, but because of Japan’s complicated address system and twisting narrow streets, there are plenty of lost Japanese souls as well. What makes police officers so handy for providing directions is the Japanese system of placing tiny police boxes, called koban, in strategic locations in towns and cities throughout Japan. There are more than 800 koban in Tokyo alone, manned by officers who know their districts like the backs of their hand. It’s kind of like having a tourist office in every neighborhood.

Unlike in most cities in the United States where police officers generally roam the streets in police cars, which physically separates them from the general public, Japanese police officers patrol their neighborhood on foot or on bicycle, making them highly visible to the public. They often stop to chat with local residents. They know which shops have closed and which restaurants have newly opened. Just mention the name of your destination, and they’ll probably know exactly where it is. If not, they have maps on hand to send you on your way.

Police Box, Ueno Park

Police Box, Ueno Park

Most koban are very tiny, with only a front room equipped with a desk and a back room. Some are architecturally appealing, either because of historic features or because they were designed to complement the surrounding neighborhood. I was able to see the interior of a koban—nope, I wasn’t arrested!—when I visited the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum on the outskirts of Tokyo. Among its many thatched farmhouses, traditional Japanese- and Western-style residences, shops and other structures dating from the mid-1800s to the 1940s was a brick koban from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) that used to stand beside the Manseibashi Bridge in Kanda. An employee dressed in period police clothing was in the front room, presumably to give directions to lost souls on museum grounds. The back room contained a small tatami area so that police could rest in shifts.

I know that police officers must attend to duties like helping someone locate a lost pet, arbitrating a dispute, or taking down information regarding lost or stolen property, but most of the time they seem to be waiting just for you and to point you in the right direction.

And by the way, if you get lost looking for the Edo-Tokyo Open air Architectural Museum or the bus that will take you back to the station, you can get guidance on the main street near the museum’s entrance—at a koban, of course.

Meiji-Era Koban at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

Meiji-Era Koban at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

 

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Rocky Mountain High

Becoming a national park in 2015, Rocky Mountain National Park boasts the highest major highway in North America (12,183 ft. above sea level) and 72 named peaks above 12,000 ft.

Becoming a national park in 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park boasts the highest major highway in North America (12,183 ft. above sea level) and 72 named peaks above 12,000 ft.

My earliest memory of the winding road to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park is from when I was a kid, on a family road trip courtesy of our station wagon. It was summer, but as often happens in the mountains (at least back then), snow was falling unexpectedly, making the winding road slick and visibility poor. There were no guardrails to prevent us from catapulting us to our deaths. My parents, of course, were terrified, but we kids in the back seat thought it was a grand adventure. Although other memories from that trip have long disappeared, that snowy day sticks out because of a song my siblings and I composed as we were inching alongside the mountain, sung to the tune of On Top of Old Smokey:

“It snows in the Rockies, in June and July, and sometimes in August, and that’s not a lie. And if you don’t believe us, as we certainly know, just go to the Rockies, and wait til it snows.”

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Our campsite at Half Moon

Little did I know that that memorable day would be the start of a long relationship between the Rockies and this Kansas girl and that I would eventually become a parent and bring my own two sons to experience the magic of the mountains. In addition to camping trips when my kids were young, my son Johannes and I camped at what my dad said was his favorite spot in Colorado, Half Moon. The next year we visited Estes Park and RMNP after his soccer tournament in Boulder, even though he was so devastated by his team’s loss that he wanted to cut our trip short and return home to sulk. Luckily, after just a few hours in the mountains, he began to succumb to the healing power of nature.

Johannes in RMNP

Johannes in RMNP

The next trip came when my older son Matthias, 21 at the time, announced he was going on a solo hiking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park and I couldn’t talk him out of going alone for all the obvious reasons—Bears! Lightning! Forest fires! So I said I’d drive and buy the food (he jumped at the prospect of saving money), and because my 80-something-year-old dad loves camping in general and Colorado in particular, I asked him to come along.

I knew the trip would give the three of us valuable time together, allow us to experience the stunning peaks and valleys of Colorado in our own individual ways, and provide Matthias with memories he could cherish for a lifetime if he didn’t fall off that cliff. What I didn’t expect was that our eight days together would bring to light so many similarities among us—our love of nature, the desire to ferret out the absolute best camping site, and the innate drive to strike out on our own. More importantly, the journey carried me to the realization that this stage of my life was about letting go—to support my son’s three-day hike as a coming-of-age experience and, in a broader sense, as a launch into manhood. I also had to acknowledge that because Dad can’t get around as well as he used to, this could possibly be our last Colorado camping trip together and might even be a harbinger of more losses to come. This unspoken recognition made for some teary-eyed moments for me and made our vacation all the more meaningful.

Matthias, Dad and I at our Poudre Canyon campsite

Matthias, Dad and I at our Poudre Canyon campsite

One morning I awoke to find my dad already settled in his chair (to be truthful, he was always up and about before me). “This is my favorite time of day,” he remarked. “It’s lovely. I like to drink coffee, sit and ruminate.” I stole a look at the clock. It was 6:30am. But I knew what he meant. As the sun dappled through slender trees that swayed and rustled with the wind, it struck me that what I love most about camping is being outdoors virtually all day long, being in synch with the sun and the stars and the weather, and living without distractions that devour a big part of our daily lives. We had an easy rhythm, getting up when we wanted, Matthias in charge of campfires, everyone agreeing meals would taste better if I cooked, Dad content to stick around the campsite and “man the fort” whenever the rest of us took off. Dad, who had spent five years of his childhood in Colorado, talked nostalgically about Sunday drives, a summer camp where he learned to ride horses and the cabin his family rented on Grand Lake. And at night we’d look up at the stars and Milky Way, trying to figure out constellations, feeling small and insignificant in the magnitude of the universe.

When it came time for Matthias to set off on his trek, I accompanied him for a while, my heart in my throat when I took a last photo of my son and sent him on his way.

Matthias starting out on his trek

Matthias starting out on his trek

“Mom, I’m just happier in nature when nobody else is there,” Matthias had explained when arguing his reasons for a solo trek. I have to admit I understood, because I too have become almost giddy on day hikes by myself, reaching a spiritual high from the sheer joy of being alone in the woods. We probably get it from my dad, because he has long gone off on camping trips by himself. Although he used to take off for Colorado annually, he has stuck closer to home the past few years. The family worries, of course, that he might fall where no one might see him, and darn if we’ll ever get him to use a cell phone.

So when it came time to head home from our vacation, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me when Dad said he was staying behind to revisit some of his favorite camping spots (we had driven separate cars, because his van is rigged for travel, with the back seats removed and replaced with a bed he built himself). I was concerned, because over the course of the week I’d observed how less steady he’s become on his feet, the result of arthritis and a severed ACL since college that has increasingly taken its toll. And based on what I now knew, he was going to camp as far away from others as possible. But I respected his desire to stay behind, and after a week together I understood why he had to go solo, why, as Matthias put it, he was happiest in nature when no one else was around. I wondered whether Dad thought of this as his farewell trip, too, one last chance to revisit old haunts and, as he likes to say, to ruminate.

But all went well, and now Dad is talking about returning to Colorado. Regardless of what happens, that trip with my dad and son helped me work through some of the mourning stages of letting go. Matthias proved himself a competent young man, ready to forge his own place in the world. And with my parents, I’ll try to make the most of whatever time we have, with an appreciation for every day we get to spend with the people we love.

But letting go doesn’t mean giving up memories. In fact, it might be the memories that help us let go.

“I love the mountains so much, it makes me feel tingly all over,” Dad had said on our first day in the Rockies.

Many years ago he told me he’d like his ashes scattered in Colorado, including that campground at Half Moon. And when I carry out his wishes, calling on the healing power of nature, those are the words I’ll remember.

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My Favorite Cuban Town Blasted by Hurricane Matthew

A main street in Baracoa

A main street in Baracoa

Baracoa was established in 1511 as Spain’s first settlement in Cuba, but then it languished in obscurity for the next several centuries, isolated and reachable only on foot or by boat. Located on Cuba’s far eastern coast, it became accessible only in the 1960s, when a winding road that threads over mountains and through woods finally made its way here. Tourists, of course, soon followed, prompting many families to open rooms in their homes as casa particulars (the Cuban version of a B&B) to accommodate them. With its brightly-colored buildings, laid-back street life and lack of fancy hotels and pretension or even any tourist sights, it’s the kind of seaside village that would be overrun by backpackers if it were located, say, in Thailand. Still, it gets its fair share of young travelers in peak season, which normally begins in November. After Hurricane Matthew plowed through this week, however, there’s a lot to be done cleaning up debris and repairing roofs and walls. Some families lost their homes entirely. Unlike in Haiti, however, people had time and the means to evacuate, so that not a single life was lost.

I went to Baracoa as an antidote to the big cities of Havana and Santiagoimg_1458 and to picture-perfect, tourist-mobbed Trinidad. Of those four cities, Baracoa was my favorite. I loved spending time in the town’s shady plazas, where townspeople gathered and visited and from which I could observe the steady parade of pedestrians, children in school uniform, motorcycles, bici-taxis (pedicabs) and horse-drawn carriages. There were very few cars and even fewer taxis. One of the things I love most about travel is seeing how other people live and–if, by some miracle–partaking in it; Baracoa, like most villages, is a fast-track to observing and participating in daily life.

img_1528Most Baracoan homes are one- and two-story, lining both sides of dusty streets and with doors and windows flung open wide to catch any breeze. Most have backyard courtyards and rooftops for hanging laundry, growing produce or hanging out. From the roof of my casa particular, I could look out over the neighborhood and watch barefoot teenagers playing soccer in the street, dogs slinking down alleys, boys tending pet pigeons kept in rooftop cages, horses pulling carts full of fruit to sell, and buff young men working out in a courtyard makeshift gym.

On Sunday, my travel companion and I hired a taxi, an orange-colored 1952 Chevrolet that was a far cry from the polished classics cruising for tourists in Havana, to take us to Managua Beach about 10 miles west of town. But first, of course, we dropped off his sister at Duaba Rio, on the riverbank where her friends were gathering for a party; they insisted we later join them. After continuing on the bumpiest and most bone-rattling one-hour ride of my life to Managua Beach, we swam a little, read a little and ate lunch at a table brought down to the beach just for us. But what I most wanted was to join that party. Our taxi driver, whom we’d hired for the day, found a roadside restaurant where we bought beer and rum (we didn’t want to show up empty-handed) and drove us back to the river, where we were met by about 20 people in full swing of having fun, including children of all ages, young couples and an older woman who was a mother, aunt or grandmother to most of them. There was a big pot of stew, beer aplenty and pulsating music blaring from a boombox. Soon everyone was dancing, including us, though we looked ridiculously inept compared to the Cubans, who can make dance look like a close approximation to vertical sex.

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A man and his horse outside Baracoa

After the taxi driver drove us back to our casa particular, we asked him to wait while we retrieved from our room a coloring book for his niece, eye shadow for his sister and Ibuprofen for his aunt, whose feet were terribly swollen from diabetes. People in Cuba make out with only the basics, and when they don’t have the basics they improvise (the owner of our casa particular cut aluminum strips from a beer can to repair the stripped threads of our shower’s faucet). Life is hard, and it seems like everyone we met wants more. But though Cubans are very poor, they’re all in it together.

These two girls asked to take a picture of me, so I asked to take a picture of them

These two girls asked to take a picture of me, so I asked to take a picture of them

So though I worry how the Baracoans are faring after Hurricane Matthew leveled more than a few buildings and made the road leading to town impassable, I also know that strong family ties and ingenuity will help get them through. They’re used to being separate and doing things for themselves; Baracoa’s history and vibe makes it different from every other place in Cuba. That river party reminded me that you don’t have to have money to enjoy life with people you love or to show generosity with strangers. When it comes right down to it, it’s the vision of life most of us strive for.

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Colonia del Sacramento Preserves its Past in Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento is one of those small towns with such a photogenic historic center and a welcoming, laid-back atmosphere, you feel instantly at home. Soon you find yourself imagining living there.

img_0831With a history stretching back more than 330 years and a well-preserved Barrio Histórico that’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, Colonia owes its existence to its strategic location on the Uruguayan side of the wide Río de la Plata. Just a 75-minute ferry ride from Argentina’s Buenos Aires or a two-hour bus ride from Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo, the tidy town is an obvious top choice for a side trip from either capital. With its ancient architecture and right mix of museums, artisan shops, restaurants and sidewalk cafes, the town makes for a stress-free day or two of relaxation and exploration.

Although many travelers make the trip to Colonia just for the day, my travel companion and I opted to spend the night, which allowed time to walk virtually every cobbled street of the historic district, visit several museums and kick back at outdoor cafes and restaurants, giving us a more intimate connection to the city. If we had had more time, two nights would have been even better.

History of Colonia del Sacramento

Portuguese founded Nova Colonia do Santisimo Sacramento in 1680, at a tip of a small peninsula on the opposite side of the Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires, which had been founded a century earlier by the Spanish. This did not sit well with the Spaniards, who promptly attacked the new settlement and threw the Portuguese out. Although a treaty signed in Lisbon restored the town to Portugal shortly thereafter, Colonia’s turbulent beginnings were just a shadow of more to come.

During the War of Spanish Succession in 1704-05, Colonia was attacked again by the Spanish and razed to the ground. It was returned to the Portuguese yet again in 1715, when it grew to more than 1,000 inhabitants and became a thriving commercial center. But a tug of war over Colonia continued over the next century, when it changed hands another seven times, mostly between Portugal and Spain but falling also to Brazil from 1822 to 1828, after which it became part of Uruguay.

Unsurprisingly, war and time destroyed some of Colonia’s earliest structures, including most of its fortifications and some houses. But otherwise the historic district remains remarkably intact, surrounded on three sides by the river and made up mostly of modest one-story buildings that reflect a fusion of Portuguese and Spanish colonial styles and are strung together along narrow cobblestone streets that spill open onto plazas rooted in the town’s founding. One of the most delightful things about Colonia is that you can walk virtually everywhere.

Impressions of Barrio Histórico

img_0865It was a slightly cool, sun-drenched winter’s afternoon when we arrived in Colonia’s historic district, which lent brilliance to the deep-blue sky, gaily painted homes and huge bougainvillea bursting forth in colors of fuchsia and deep orange. Narrow cobblestone lanes, which follow the contours of the land, are in some cases so ancient, uneven and roughly hewn that some of them are almost impossible to walk upon with any sense of decorum.

Nonetheless, we made our way to the wide Plaza de Armas Manual Lobo, shaded by

Friends gather for yerba mate tea and conversation

Friends gather for yerba mate tea and conversation

sycamores and anchored by the Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento, first erected when the town was founded but restored in the mid-1800s after being destroyed by lightning. Without any plan or direction, we wandered down lanes leading to the river, through a square noisy with brightly colored parakeets chirping from palm trees, and to the old wharf, where young locals meet to talk and share yerba mate tea in traditional cups. We saw dogs sleeping in shadows, gathering on grassy patches for play and socialization, and hanging out at open-air cafes hoping for a handout, making me envious of their carefree lifestyle.img_0881

It wasn’t long until we discovered the old city gate and Colonia’s most famous landmark, a lighthouse erected in 1857. To get the lay of the land, we climbed the many circular stairs to the lighthouse top, where we were rewarded with views over the old town, church spires and the never-ending Río de la Plata. At the base of the lighthouse are the ruins of the Convento de San Franciso, destroyed by fire in 1704. World travelers turned artisans, some with dreadlocks and tattoos, laid out their wares on tables beside the convent ruins; from one of them I bought a bracelet fashioned from black and neon-green fishing line. The smell of pot wafted faintly through the air. If I were a young traveler peddling wares, this would be as fine a spot as any for settling in while contemplating my next move.

There’s a definite hip vibe to old Colonia, from art galleries tucked away in courtyards toimg_0870 restaurants inhabiting rustic buildings and serving innovative cuisine, but one of the things I found most captivating about the old town were the many old vehicles left standing on its cobbled streets or plazas, as though they were conceptual pieces of art. We saw old VW bugs, a Chevrolet Bel Aire, jeeps, old Ford trucks and more, making the old picturesque town even more picturesquely old fashioned.

“Oh, my father put his old car out on the street,” a shopkeeper said ruefully when I remarked about the abundance of old cars. “I told him he shouldn’t do it, but now there are even more cars. People keep adding to them.”

Personally, I think the vintage cars are a nice touch, as though the streets of Colonia are awaiting a film crew or simply never caught up to the 21st century. In any case, they’re much more interesting than those huge painted cows, bears and other city mascots so popular around the world.

img_0876More Things to Do in Colonia

Surprising for a town this size but not considering its long history, Colonia has more than its fair share of museums relating to its architecture and past. Most comprehensive is the Municipal Museum, housed in an attractive stone building first erected in 1795 and rebuilt by the Spanish in 1835. Displays relate the town’s many wars between the Portuguese and Spanish, along with local archaeological, geological, religious and cultural artifacts. Colonial-era furniture, dinosaur fossils, military costumes and an array of mounted local birds and other animals are spread throughout several floors.

We also toured Nacarello’s House, dating from 1790 and simplistic with its couple of smallimg_0880 rooms and Portuguese furnishings of the time. Other museums include the Portuguese Museum in an 18th-century stone building and with an impressive display of maps; a Spanish Museum, first constructed in 1720 and rebuilt in 1840; and the Indigenous Museum with items belonging to the Charrua and other indigenous tribes of the area. An 1880 rambling building that variously housed a glue and soap factory, a laundry for wool, and a tannery is now the Centro Cultural Bastion del Carmen, with art exhibits, musical and theatrical events and good views of sunsets from its park-like grounds.

But while Colonia del Sacramento is largely a sleepy little town when not bombarded by tourists, the bird that woke me up during the night seemed to be single-handedly trying to rouse everyone to action. Its call was the same as I’d heard in Buenos Aires, so when I visited the Municipal Museum and wondered which of the many birds in the natural history display might be the culprit, I mimicked the sound for the bemused women at the admission desk.

“Whoo Whoo! Whoo Whoo!” I gave it my best shot.

“It’s an owl,” they agreed.

I conceded that that’s what it sounded like, but in the middle of Buenos Aires? What struck me was that the hoot of the Colonia owl differed slightly from its counterpart in Buenos Aires, which puzzled me until a fanatic birder I know confirmed that birds can acquire different accents according to where they live. But of course! The Colonia owl sounded gentler, less strident than the owl over in Buenos Aires, as though it, too, knew it had a good thing going.

[For a slightly longer version of this article, see my published feature in gonomad.com.

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A Face in the Crowd

My first morning in Japan took place more than three decades ago, but I remember it vividly because of an unexpected act of kindness. Shouldering my backpack, I was making my way from my Tokyo hotel to Shinagawa Station, a sea of people streaming past me on their way to work. A soft, wet snow was falling from the gray sky.

Meiji Dori/Omotesando Dori intersection in Harajuku

Meiji Dori/Omotesando Dori intersection in Harajuku

Suddenly, a woman appeared at my side and fell in sync with my stride, holding her umbrella aloft to shelter me from the cold snow. We walked like that all the way to the station, where, to my surprise, she whipped a towel from her bag and proceeded to dry my wet hair. My Japanese back then was limited to phrases like “Where’s the bathroom?” so all I could manage was a polite arigato. But my guardian angel’s job wasn’t over yet. She helped me find the Yamanote Line bound for Tokyo Station, and, finally satisfied, sent me on my way.

Over the years I have been the recipient of so many acts of kindness I have to wonder whether it’s because people in Japan are so nice or whether it’s because I’m so inept (if I didn’t get lost so often, I wouldn’t need so much help!). Strangers have gone out of their way to deliver me to my destination, made telephone calls on my behalf, helped me choose meals from indecipherable menus, and showered me with small gifts.

But no one stands out in my memory as much as that woman who took me under wing that very first day. I was excited to be in a new foreign country, nervous about finding my way, tired from the long flight, and feeling just a tad lonely in the sea of unfamiliar faces. Of course, she didn’t know any of these things when she stepped up to help. I was just a face in the crowd, but when she left me, I no longer felt quite the stranger in a very strange land. Over the years, I’ve tried to pass it forward.

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