Monkeys on mountains and Elise in kimono

At the shops near Arashiyama Mountain Elise tried on her first kimono. Various undergarments were wrapped and hooked, and the hem was fitted to her by hoisting up the excess fabric and folding it under a wide obi belt (so different from the Western cinched-waist silhouette). She was given tabi split-toe socks to accommodate the traditional wooden shoes, and her hair was twisted into a bun and embellished with a flower.

Parasol in hand, she was ready to head outside.

Even with the restrictions of the clothing, she did not move like Japanese ladies in kimono, with tiny forward steps, but instead clumped in the unusual shoes and struck poses like the cartoon characters she draws. I wanted her to stay in the kimono all day, but the shop was closing so we returned and she changed back into her normal clothes. While I waited, I took in the sumptuous patterns and colors of the kimono and obi and was practically floating by the time we left.

After that experience, a bowl of udon noodles and veggie tempura was in order. We try to avoid fried food in the US and Germany, but in Japan, the tempura batter is so light that it does not feel as sinful.

But the best part of the day was our hike up Arashimaya Mountain, where monkeys roam free.

Feeding the monkeys outside is not allowed, so Elise was delighted to discover that it was possible to buy tiny bags of peanuts and chunks of apple and feed the monkeys through a screen at the visitor’s center.

This little gal surprised me by scooting over and plunking herself down behind my chair. It was fun, but after having had monkeys clamber all over us in the Amazon trying to get our bananas, I longed to scoop them up in my arms and hold them – or at least let them hang out on my shoulders for a while.

To round out the day, we headed to Gion, the oldest part of the city and Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. The tiny alleys are atmospheric, and if you’re lucky (we weren’t), you may catch a glimpse of apprentice geisha disappearing behind sliding wooden doors into one of the traditional tea houses or restaurants.

Also atmospheric at night is Yasaka Shrine, which overlooks the bustling Shijo-dori shopping avenue. By the time we wandered inside, however, the vendors had started packing up, and so we decided to call it a day and headed home, tired after the long day.

Shibuya’s beloved dog Hachiko, tiny treasures, and soba noodles

Elise was moved by the story of a beloved dog, Hachiko, who came to the station every day to meet his master, a professor. At one point, the professor died, but Hachiko kept coming to the station for 10 more years until he died. Hachiko’s loyalty was so moving to the townsfolk that they erected a statue in his honor. Even today, crowds throng to get a shot of the statute. A cat has apparently taken up residence at the statue, but wasn’t to be seen the day we were there.

Shibuya is also know for the Pedestrian Scramble, one of the largest pedestrian crossings in the world. It struck me that there is a lot less smoking today than there was when I lived in Japan 1989-92, which is a fantastic thing. Or maybe everyone’s e-smoking and we just can’t smell it.

The neighborhood is full of funky shops selling gadgets, school supplies, zany clothes, character figurines, and toys. Elise spotted My Melody, the character on the dress she bought in Harajuku and got a matching pen, and then struggled over whether to spend her Tooth Fairy money on tiny furniture for a tiny Pikachu. I was pleased to see that she decided not to acquire anything else new.

After a day of lots of walking while dodging the crowds, it was very pleasant to sit down to a meal of soba noodles. Elise chose a bowl with hot broth and kelp, and I choose my old favorite, cold Zaru Soba noodles with a delicious soy/mirin dip with seaweed and sliced green onions.

Extreme cuteness in Toyko’s Harajuku, petting owls, and Meiji Shrine

We finally made it to Tokyo! Since Elise is a girly-girl, our first foray into the city was to Harajuku, ground zero for über kawaii toys, clothes, candy and necessary accessories such as bunny ears for your cat.

We happened upon a crowd oohing and awwing over these life-size dancing bear characters and their little chick friend. The chick accidentally tipped over and the reaction was as if a real baby had fallen.

Elise found a froofy dress she loved in a little boutique. I was afraid I was going to have to say No, but a 70% discount meant it was within our budget. As she came out of the store excitedly clutching her bag, Japanese ladies walking by beamed at me and said “Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiii!”

We then happened upon a cat “forest”. We sat on the floor while Bengal cats curled up on our laps. Instead of music, the soothing sound of twittering birds was piped through hidden speakers. It was supremely relaxing, and the perfect break from the thronged streets outside. We thought fondly of Chaos, the Bengal cat that lives across from my Mom.

Downstairs from the cat cafe was an owl forest, with a dozen or so owls perched on branches throughout a phony cherry blossom forest. Elise felt like she was a character in Harry Potter. We were instructed to pet the owls only with the back of our hands. I couldn’t believe that we were allowed to touch these beautiful creatures! It was a rare treat being able to look into their eyes and to feel the astonishing softness of their feathers, but I worried about their well-being and hoped that all visitors were closely supervised.

We then made our way to splendid Yoyogi Park to see Meiji-jitsu, the Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken. At the entrance, Elise purified her hands with water using a bamboo dipper.

A tiny Japanese girl in a kimono was posing for photos while her parents looked on proudly. It seemed that it was expected that everyone photograph her – that not doing so was actually impolite. We guessed that she was part of the wedding that was in progress at the shrine.

On our way out, we stopped for dango, sweet rice flour dumplings, which were gooey and icky sweet. Feeling the effects of jetlag, we picked up sushi for dinner to eat at the hotel, and then fell into a deep sleep…until 2am.

Squirrel monkeys in the Bolivian Amazon

During a river tour in the Bolivian Amazon, a troop of squirrel monkeys spotted Elise’s bananas and sprung into our boat. In a flash, the adorable, agile, little creatures were everywhere – hanging from our clothes, sitting on Elise’s hat, and grabbing food with their tiny hands. A number of them had babies clinging to their backs. As soon as the bananas and apples were gone, they sprung back into the trees. It was awesome!

Seeing crocodiles up close, exotic birds, turtles, and the occasional flash of pink dolphins was also fantastic!

I enjoyed observing how the boat operators served as unofficial delivery men of food and fuel to communities along the river. Someone would wave a canister and the boat operator would pull up along the shore to pick up or drop off, whistling a happy tune all the while. It struck me that the work was leisurely compared to that of the delivery men I’d seen in the Himalayas who lugged everything from bags of rice to cages of chickens on their backs to remote Nepalese villages.

The animals, our happy guide, the sunshine, and spectacular greenery made for some glorious moments out on the water. When the the boat zipped along at a good clip, the breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay. However, whenever we slowed down or got close to the shore, I could feel a constellation of bites all over my body – even on my butt since the seats were made of nylon strands, which produced protrusions of flesh perfect for mosquitos. This was despite 4 layers of protection including natural bug spray, Skin so Soft from our friends in Berlin, clothing impregnated with repellant – and even DEET. It was so bad that we had to forego fishing for piranha since they were in an area surrounded by dense vegetation. (Bummer! As a lapsed vegetarian, it’s the only creature I relish catching and eating!)

Even worse than the bugs, however, was the ubiquitous stench of mold at the riverside camp. In the dining room and cabins, it burned the nostrils like nail polish remover. When I mentioned the stench to the staff, they seemed not to know what I was talking about. Proof positive that humans can adapt to just about any living conditions.

That said, Elise made the best of it by befriending a kitten which had apparently just lost its mother to a crocodile. Without meaning to be ironic, she named her Alli.

In the end, although the trip was challenging, I am very glad we did it. And after having seen the movie “Jungle” in which Daniel Radcliffe pulls a squirming full-grown worm out of a boil on his forehead at a location not far from where we were, it’s clear that our discomforts were miniscule.

La Senda Verde animal refuge

We visited La Senda Verde, a 22 acre animal refuge in the semi-tropical Yungas region of Bolivia north of La Paz. This is beautiful Mara, a rescued spider monkey. When she was a baby, a poacher killed her mother so that he could capture Mara and sell her. But as her mother died, she fell on Mara’s legs, paralyzing her from the waist down.

Marcello, co-founder of La Senda Verde, rescued her from the poacher and then spent two years caring for the terrified, injured baby. Her legs and tail still have no feeling and need to be bandaged so that she doesn’t hurt herself as she drops down from swinging or drags herself along the ground (a truly heartbreaking thing to observe). But she is healing emotionally, and is so profoundly comfortable with Marcello, that she falls into a restful sleep when he holds her in his arms – and it is clear that his affection for her is as deep as a father’s for his baby girl. Mara has been accepted by the other monkeys and will eventually be able to move into a larger enclosure with them. To learn more about Mara, click here: https://youtu.be/a3bAwPnNE0c.

This is Ajayu, another one of the rescued animals at La Senda Verde.

He was blinded and his cheekbone was smashed when humans attacked him with rocks. There is footage of him bleeding from his eye and face that is soul-crushing. He was terrified and wailing when he was brought to La Senda Verde. After the vets treated him for his extensive injuries, co-founder Vicky nursed him back to health. She hand-feeds him and gives him loving comfort and attention. Like Mara, he is healing emotionally. In spite of his blindness, he can navigate his entire enclosure and will be getting a larger space when he is ready. To watch his heartbreaking rescue story, click here: https://youtu.be/X9vLz_zsJvg.

This is Maruka. Her human owners tried to extract her teeth with pliers, and, in the process, smashed her nose and blinded her in one eye. They also fed her the wrong food, and her stomach permanently distended.

Marcello learned of their abuse, and visited them regularly over many months, bringing food for Maruka and rice and sugar for the family. Eventually, his gentle persuasion convinced them to put Maruka in his care, and he brought her to La Senda Verde, where she flourished and even became the alpha female (she’s now 25 and has passed that baton to a younger female). Her abuser wore the traditional long Bolivian skirts, and – astonishingly – she taught the other monkeys to fear anyone wearing such skirts, and so the staff at La Senda Verde wear only pants.

If ever there was an animal refuge deserving of your donations or volunteer efforts, La Senda Verde is it. The Bolivian government provides no financial support, yet anytime the police bring an animal to the refuge, they are required to take it in. Bolivian law also does not allow them to release rehabilitated animals into the wild, so when an animal arrives, space must be made for it for the rest of its life. They currently have about 700 animals in their care and are reaching capacity, but buying land is very expensive. They have many projects in the works, including a new enclosure for an incoming jaguar, but need financial support. Click this link and you’ll see the Donate button in the upper right. You can also shop at your favorite stores via the portal and a small percent will go to La Senda Verde.

As a future veterinarian who loves animals, Elise was profoundly moved by the rescue stories of the animals (and I haven’t cried this hard in years).

She was given a tour of the grounds by volunteers. She saw a rescued tapir, cabybara, armadillo (so fat that he could not roll into a ball), deer, turtles, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, kinkajou (who hissed when looking at you, but expected a backrub when he turned his back on you, lol), boa constrictors, alligators, a lone duck, ocelots, three bears (including dear Ahayu), and many birds. She learned that the green-winged macaw’s beak is stronger than a lion’s jaws so that it can crack nuts. She also learned that the alpha male spider monkey protects the troupe, but that the alpha female makes all the societal decisions.

She also toured the clinic with Veterinarian Rosa from Spain.

Rosa showed Elise a turtle who’d needed stitches, a night monkey missing its teeth, another who’d pulled out much of its fur due to stress from an abusive situation, a parrot with a damaged claw, a tiny little monkey Rosa had named Rosita that had problems with its hands, and other physically and emotionally abused creatures.

Rosa showed Elise the operating room and explained how they gently put animals under for surgery. She told Elise that when normal medicine didn’t help, she treated the animals with homeopathic remedies, and many were showing signs of success. (Perhaps Elise will consider the same program in homeopathic treatments for vets in Barcelona that Rosa had done.)

We spent two nights at the refuge, first in a treehouse high above the grounds.

We slept under our mosquito net and were awakened by a fantastic bird chorus. Elise slipped out onto the balcony for a few minutes, and before she knew it, a group of playful squirrel monkeys had appeared. They ran back and forth along the railing, and one even jumped onto her back! Before they scurried away, the little mischievous critters held us hostage by hanging on the screen on our front door for a while, trying to get in. The second night we spent in a spacious, two-story lodge with lovely wooden details and a large screened-in porch near the bird enclosure. Throughout the day I heard different bird voices calling “Ola!” “Ola” “Ola!” to one another.

You can support La Senda Verde by volunteering, sending a donation or by visiting the refuge. If you do visit, you will be amazed by the astonishing level of caring for the animals and moved by their stories, as well as by the beauty of the natural environment. When the US president decides to make it possible for American hunters to import elephant ‘trophies’ from Africa (this violates some of my deepest beliefs), more than ever, we need everyone with a heart to make efforts to protect those who cannot protect themselves from human cruelty. To learn more about La Senda Verde, watch the video below:

The donkeys of Isla del Sol

When we arrived in Copacabana (no, not the famous one), the place we wanted to stay was fully booked, so we bopped over to Isla del Sol, a 70-sq-km island with no vehicles on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, to spend the night. I’d planned to do a walking tour of the ruins and little villages up and over the steep hills, but altitude sickness made breathing difficult and I even felt irregular heartbeats when climbing the steep stairs, so that was out. 🙁

As soon as we stepped off the ferry, Elise spotted a drove of donkeys and immediately went over to them to pet them. Soon afterwards, she saw a train of them carrying heavy sacks up a very steep set of stone steps and became distraught that they were in pain. I reassured her that donkeys are able to carry heavy loads. Still, she looked over each one carefully and pet them whenever she could. They seemed to enjoy her affection.

The next morning she woke up fantastically happy because we were heading back to Copacabana where a very cool and unusual suite was awaiting us (more on that in my next post).

From the terrace where we had breakfast, Elise spotted a few donkeys tied to posts or rocks below.

One broke free, but instead of bolting off, he sniffed around for food near a fellow donkey and then rolled around in the sand to scratch his back, and then just stayed put. We considered what that meant. Was he actually content with his donkey life, in spite of having to lug heavy loads up the hill? Or did he not understand that escape was even a possibility? Whatever the case, Elise took one last opportunity to bring them a little joy by giving them a snack before we boarded the ferry back to Copacabana.

 

Llamas on Machu Picchu!

Never mind that Machu Picchu is one of the Seven Wonders of the World or that it’s South America’s most magnificent ruins. When you’re a kid who loves animals and wants to be a veterinarian, what matters most is that Machu Picchu. Has. Llamas!!! Elise had spotted some of them when we first arrived, but they proved elusive as we toured the ruins. The stonework, walkways, temples, agricultural terraces, and the spectacular mountain views were a photographer’s paradise. I loved every minute of it.

We’d made our way through most of the ruins when two of these gentle creatures caught Elise by surprise – and, for her, the real fun began. From that point forward, there seemed to be llamas everywhere she turned!

She fed them apples, pet them, talked to them, and filmed them for her vlog. The Little Sweetie was totally in her element!

After we’d finished our tour of Machu Picchu, we headed down the mountain for dinner in Aguas Calientes at a riverside restaurant, and Elise got to work on her next drawing, which included – surprise! – llamas. 🙂 As the perfect ending to a perfect day, we saw our new friends Meghan and Giannina again on the train back to Ollantaytambo.