Worth remembering

“Tokyo,” I answer. The question was where I’d like to turn 40. Of course Tokyo.

Our lives are brief windows into the world, and we manage only a smidgeon of the possible. Places learned when young remain outsized in memory, our early experiences more important, larger, than recent events. So, of course, Tokyo.

The first time I saw it, the week before my 18th birthday, Tokyo was already changing my life. That trip, a gift from a family friend, was my first real glimpse of the world outside the US, and enabled me to say yes to the post-college move back, at 22.

Turning 40 is an excuse to gather people to a city I love, to celebrate something both personal and utterly universal. Mostly, it’s a way to remember that boy turning 18 here, reading the Stand and operating with limited language. A week in Tokyo without goals, with no objectives or destinations, is an invitation to the deluge of memories from birthdays in two thousand two and three, turning 23 and 24. I remember, scant days before arriving, how I used to give presents to those who came to my birthdays, Bilbo Baggins style. And so I do, picking out small things that I love about Japan for each guest. It’s an excuse to wander Tokyu Hands, to consider who is coming, and to consider where we are.

I am lucky this time, and so many people have agreed to join us, from San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, New York, and Singapore. As these friends gather to our rented apartment I am shocked at the joy each arrival brings. Shocked not because I didn’t expect to be joyful but because I hadn’t understood in the planning stages how *much* joy sharing Tokyo with these people would bring. For this boy born in the rural hills of the US North East, Tokyo remains the perfect city. It combines incredible transportation with utter foreignness, huge crowded centers with quiet side streets. More than any place I know, Tokyo rewards wandering, with small shops, shrines, and beauty scattered across an urban tapestry of such scale as to be infinite. Tokyo, in many ways, is proof of what humans can build, as opposed to what we so often do.

On this trip we rent bicycles for the first time and reap the rewards of this most human scale of transportation, meandering from Hatsudai to Naka Meguro on small streets and through new neighborhoods. We bike to Shimo Kitazawa and back and are immediately lost. These kind of odd adventures are enjoyable only on bicycle, with the ability to cover large distances, stop easily, and never be too tired to manage one more side street.

As a way to welcome a new decade the week is perfect, filled with old friends and new memories. Seth takes us for whisky at the New York Bar that once housed Bill Murray, a foray inaccessible in our early twenties. A large group of us have drinks at the tiny 10cc, enjoying newfound comfort in a neighborhood that intimidated the younger version of myself. We stand on the rooftop of our apartment and watch Mt. Fuji as the sun sets. We take the Yurikamome line back over the rainbow bridge from Odaiba and Toyosu, artificial lands of the late boom now comfortably part of the present day. We eat in Ginza and Ikebukuro, in Harajuku and Hatsudai, together and separately. Some discover crem brûlée shaved ice and others revel in okonomiyaki, and no one goes hungry. Mostly we wander far and wide, on foot and by train, in the best fashion of unplanned vacation.

Watching my friends spend the week sharing their favorite parts of Tokyo and discovering new treasures is the best kind of present, one that makes my heart bigger. At the end of the week, on the Narita Express, I watch the skyline drift past and try to lock down all the memories, to remember each day, sure that I will forget the joy too quickly. Mostly though I think of the boy who once turned eighteen here, and who first took this train.

He would be so happy to know that at forty he will share Tokyo with his friends.

Shanghai again, together

We land at Terminal 2 some eleven years since our last shared departure. In between Shanghai has been a touch point and frequent destination, but only for myself.

Shanghai is a city of change, where the list of bars and restaurants that have closed is daunting. Most of the places we knew in two thousand seven and eight are gone. Most of the places that opened after we left have likewise disappeared. The subway has blossomed, from four incomplete lines to more than a dozen. Entire entertainment districts have grown, become popular, and then been closed by the government. Apartments have gotten more expensive but also more numerous, and there are new cool neighborhoods far beyond what was our circle of frequency.

I have been lucky, taking in these changes over the course of the intervening decade, on work trips that lasted days and weeks. Since two thousand eight I’ve been paid for probably four months of time in Shanghai, though none since 2016. There are still changes that surprise me, every time I land. Taking them all in at once is daunting, and I watch Tara wander, eyes wide with uncertainty. Is this the corner we walked to so frequently? Is this our grocery store? Which way did we go to get from one apartment to the other, in those early days?

There are moments of joy too, in this adventure. The stalls attached to Zhongshan Park station, which had always been a home of odds and ends, now feature local designers, and better food. The connecting Carrefour features the same broad array of goods but under better lighting and with a cleaner sense of organization. The old apartment building is still standing, and the convenience stores nearby are far better than the old Kwik. We eat dumplings and meat pancakes for $3, and wander the neighborhood in the morning heat. Zhongshan Park itself is pretty, and filled with dancers. Of the Faithless concert that brought us there together for the first time, well, we have memories.

On Yueyang Lu we wander beneath the green leaves of Shanghai July, happy to see how much good the intervening decade has done for the foliage. These streets have always been a special part of Shanghai, a gift of foresight that keeps out the worst of the summer heat. Along Zhaojiabang Lu and throughout much of the city, efforts to spread the feeling of the French Concession’s tree-lined roads have paid off. “The trees are so big now,” we remark to each other again and again. So often, in this greenest season, it’s impossible to see tall landmarks scant blocks away, not just in our old neighborhoods but all over the city.

Tree growth more than anything is the lingering lesson of these ten years. Buildings have gone up and become accepted. Businesses have come and gone. People too. Subways have been built so far out that the borders of the city are difficult to determine. All these efforts, though, are overshadowed by how green the city has become, at least in the summer. As we leave, walking up the stairway to our plane from the Pudong tarmac, we know the trees are what we will remember from this visit in twenty nineteen.

A decade is a long time to a person, or to a couple. A decade is a long time for our careers. Eleven years ago we knew so little of what we would become, and where that would take us. And we did not appreciate enough the small saplings being placed all over Shanghai.

A decade, it turns out, is a long time for the small trees planted along Zhaojiabang. Long enough to grow tall and dense, to separate one side of the street from the other, and to quiet the noise and improve the air. Long enough to make the city a better place.

On the river

The patio at Deer Creek

For three weeks we drift down the Colorado. The Grand Canyon is so large as to take hours to approach by car. Finding the flat space at Lees Ferry where we launch our boats feels very random, and I wonder how the first explorers managed. So many miles of walking or riding to reach this place, and so hidden from view. How many ridges had they crested looking for a way to the river before discovering this one?

Our days are nothing like theirs must have been. Our route is well planned and food precisely proportioned. We cook in crews and camp at spots long favored by the elders of our group. We stop for hikes to waterfalls that pour into the canyon, and stand in them, letting the cleaner, warmer water wash and refresh. It is a hundred and ten degrees in Arizona in August, and we are often in the sun.

Mostly a passenger, I spend some part of every day with my feet up and my hat over my eyes, watching a narrow sliver of river and sky without a care. It is peaceful, to be rowed, though less so to row, and several of our party eat ravenously every day. I manage to read three books, mostly in the quiet hours after camp is made, on nights when I am not responsible for the cooking. It’s a beautiful scene, to look up from one’s book and see the canyon walls rise high into the distance, or to see the river wind away into the sunset. For three weeks any conversation can be interrupted by “wow, look at that,” and everyone will. Condors, mountain sheep, hawks, herons, and frogs cause these exclamations, as do waterfalls, landslide evidence, and the cliffs themselves as we wind through one tope of rock into another of a far earlier era.

So often the canyon reveals beauty in hidden spots. These side hikes, hidden caverns, or waterfalls are a surprise, the beauty of place that is invisible from without. The grandeur, the huge vistas and towering walls that sprawl across the horizon is overwhelming and an excellent reminder of real scale. These giant vistas have been photographed though, and can be seen in some sense from the rim, from above. The small canyons, etched by water in oddly smooth curves, with pools in between small waterfalls, that can be swam in or sat beneath, are impossible to discover any other way. They can only be found from the river.

And so for three weeks these small discoveries keep us climbing, hiking, and sweating, up hills and over cliffs, looking for another beautiful spot that takes work to find.

 

Healing time

Bangkok skyline

Eight months ago we watched this same view with more pain, our skin worn away by a road in Laos so that the pool stung slightly.

Now we sit and watch the buildings almost astonished to be back. Work travel like this is always unexpected, and neither of us planned to return to Bangkok so soon after the last strange week here, shuttling between hospital and hotel.

We were too injured then to explore very far in any direction. A half dozen blocks at most, a couple of train stations, a single mall. Now, back to a more regular health, we wander a dozen miles a day around the city, becoming both more comfortable here and less tied to those injuries.

It is a strange reunion, a vacation given to us out of odd circumstance. A colleague unable to travel due to the new US government for Tara and the freedom of minimal employment for me has given us three days in the city before her work begins to relax and revisit old views.

In the interim months Bangkok has changed as much as our skin. The building across the street from this hotel is gleaming white and the pool on floor five filled. On our last visit it was wrapped in scaffolding and construction elevators, and filled with work men welding at odd hours. The interior of the upper floors does not yet look finished, but the lower ten seem occupied. For our part we can both do pushups, a testament to the surgeons at Bumrungrad that added titanium to Tara’s wrist and to her intervening months of physical therapy and dedication.

As a reminder of physical progress the week in Thai sunshine is welcome. As a mental break from the past before we begin building the future, it’s a luxury.

Sometimes we are lucky indeed.

Barely attached

View of the islands in Raja Ampat

Sitting on a deck in Raja Ampat, the water fading to black in front and beneath me, I perform a strange ritual. Like the four other people on this deck or at the tables behind me, I am waving my arm slowly overhead, searching for a signal.

In this corner of the world we are barely connected. The idea of a global network is alive, just out of reach. Once or twice a day TELSEL E springs to life and delivers the occasional email. More frequently it delivers only subject lines, leaving us curious as to the writer’s intent. Instagram displays pictures from several days ago with enthusiasm.

On some evenings between 6 and 11 pm, when the generator is running, there is satellite wifi. It is a finicky thing, ephemeral and varied. Weather affects it, I hear, or the breeze. In my own observations it works hesitantly or not at all. Waiting for these brief slivers networking is a tedious and laughable exercise that brings mosquito bites as often as data. Luckily all present are taking malaria pills.

The Internet, when found this way, in slivers of roaming or satellite data, feels far more fragile than the conduit of knowledge we’ve grown used to in the US. This is life not “on the edge” but on the remote coasts of the world. Overhead here Orion is upside down and the moon sets early, a tiny sliver. Out in the bay between islands the occasional skiff motors, drawing a straight line between points, unconcerned about traffic.

The next morning we circumnavigate our private island with ease in a kayak, enjoying these flat seas. Here at the equator the world is beautiful and time goes slowly, just like the networks. We hear of the owner’s plans for a second resort, for more solar panels to supplement the generator’s few hours. He bemoans the lack of infrastructure, how machine parts have to come from Jakarta. The capital city is a five hour flight, a two hour ferry, and a thirty minute speed boat ride away. Nothing arrives next day. This is no great distress when fish can be caught and eggs gathered on island, but would concern everyone if water ran low.

To my right the next evening, on a raised wooden walkway connecting the eating deck and the shore, the resort owner sits, arms around his knees and hands on his phone. Like us he is searching for the signal, happily alive on this island but barely connected to the wider world.