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.

Salt Flats of Bolivia – surreal island and train cemetery

On Day One in Salar de Uyuni, we experienced a major shift in perception as we sped deep into the vast salt flats. There was white as far as the eye could see. The surface, formed of dried-up prehistoric lakes, was etched with hexagonal cells, much like honeycombs and the columns of Giant’s Causeway, evidence of nature’s fixed rules on order and economy. Elise had fun hopping up onto salt mounds that were ready for harvesting. Everything was dry – our hands, lips, the air, and the salt itself.

We stopped at a train cemetery where trains were abandoned in the 1940’s after the mining industry collapsed. As would not have been the case in the US, we were allowed to clamber all over the rusting structures.

For lunch, our guide brought us to a restaurant formed of blocks of salt. Even the chairs and tables were made of salt. Needless to say, there was no lack of table salt, lol.

Outside the restaurant, a sea of international flags were flapping madly in the strong wind. After traveling for so long in foreign lands, Elise found comfort in the familiar and ran to the American flag and hugged it.

Most astonishing was Isla Incahuasi, a cacti-covered island rising out of the salt flats, which played games with our sense of sea and land. Elise and I hiked its trails through caves and across scorched terrain.

The sky deepened into shades of gold and violet as night fell, a fitting end to a surreal day.

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:

Witches’ Market in La Paz

We visited the famous Witches’ Market in La Paz, which was just two blocks from our place.  Mostly, it was a tourist market selling all the typical sweaters, bags, jewelry, hats, etc. But there were also strange remedies and good luck charms for sale (like the one that the lady in the blue smock is holding, which I bought) and Halloween-type decorations.

Most gruesome and heart-wrenching for Elise, were the mummified baby llamas. We stared in disbelief – looked away in horror – and then couldn’t help looking again. What on earth??

Turns out, they were all stillborn, and instead of being buried, they are carefully preserved to bring luck to one’s home or farm. It was only when Elise discovered this fact that she could handle looking at them – she even managed to vlog about them.

But there was a much lighter side to the market. As usual, Elise actively checked out all the little figurines. Here she is comparing prices between a small and large llama with a good-natured merchant (10 vs 25 bolivianos or $1.45 vs $3.60).

And here she is making sure that the hat she bought as a Christmas present for her beloved stuffed animal, Paws, matches a tiny sweater. It was an astonishing $2.89! (Anyone up for a handcrafts import/export biz?) When we got back to the hotel, she announced that Paws was sleeping and tried the sweater on him. It fit.

A few more Witches’ Market scenes.

Full disclosure: I did not want to be impolite and photograph the woman in the photo below without her consent, so I offered to pay her. She drove a hard bargain! But it was worth it. I love her faraway eyes, bowler hat perched jauntily on her head, and her colorful scarves. Other ladies I’d tried to photograph in the produce market would accept the money I’d offered, then hide their faces with their hats, much to the amusement of their friends around them.  When I would say “Awwwwwwwww!” and not take a shot, they would laugh and return the money.

Remedies for all your ailments. Not sure what the one at the bottom left is with the cross. Maybe for those who’ve lost their faith?

I don’t even want to know what those things are.

Continuing on the spooky theme, we checked out the masks at the Ethnography & Folklore Museum…and the less scary ceramics, hats and feather creations. I hope you enjoy the pix – I was nabbed by a guard for taking photos without a photo permit (didn’t know I needed one). But then I paid the 20 bolivianos – same price as the entrance fee – and was allowed to shoot with impunity.