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.

Elise’s first published article in Rabbel Magazine!

Elise’s first article, “If Not Now, Then When?”, has just come out! She wrote about facing fears while traveling the world. The article appeared in Rabbel Magazine, a new quarterly print magazine for fierce-hearted girls aged 7-13, replacing stereotype-heavy narratives with inspiring, uplifting, and validating content focused on creativity and global role models. The mission is not only inspiring, but the artwork and layout are gorgeous. If you’ve got a young, fierce-hearted daughter, a subscription would make a great gift. https://rabbelmag.com/

Astonishing family discovery!

I grew up believing I was German. With family surnames such as Ollmann, Meinold, Wilke, and Kreutziger on my father’s side, and Geiling and Gallert on my mother’s, there seemed no doubt.  But thanks to a DNA test which led me to a 1st cousin once removed and his wonderful genealogist wife, Ginny, we have not only discovered my mystery grandfather(!!!) on my mother’s side, but we’ve also learned that we’re part of an enormous family with records as far back as 1609 which includes some fun French surnames such as Longchamp, Hermes, LaCroix (hmmm, seems the fashion gene is recessive in my case), Champagne, Sansoucy, Rouillard and my favorite – Leblond. Mon Dieu! Nous sommes français! Many of our ancestors migrated from France to Quebec to the US. There are a few German names in the family tree  such as Stenglein and Vogelsberg, and it appears that my grandfather’s surname may actually have morphed from Thommes to Nelles in Waldorf, Germany in the early 1600’s.

The family tree is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I expected it to be triangular, but to view it, one must scroll endlessly to the right and left given the huge number of children in each generation. Two pairs of great-great grandparents had 26 siblings and 26 children between them, and my great-grandparents Conrad and Josephine Nelles had 11 children and 70+ grand-, great-, and great-great-grandchildren, which means my known relatives have suddenly ballooned to include a bewildering number of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th cousins. I love it!

Best of all, my Mom has half-siblings – 2 sisters and brother. She’s wanted sisters her whole life. I can’t wait to travel with her to meet them and other family members. 

My mystery grandfather, Marvin Vincent Nelles, served in the US Army just after WWII. He was stationed in Bamberg, Germany, where he met my grandmother. When my Mom was in her 30’s, my grandmother dropped the bombshell on her that her dad was not her biological father. She provided a fictitious name which led me to many genealogical dead-ends over time. But DNA testing did the trick.

Originally, I took the test in the hopes that we might discover distant relatives in some far off country whom we might visit during our year of travel. A Catholic Mexican friend had discovered she had Jewish Ukrainian relatives, and that she was related to two of Ponce de Leon’s mistresses, so I was hoping for a good story. I could never have imagined that we’d make such a meaningful discovery right here in own backyard!

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.

Street markets of La Paz

We left the steamy Amazon behind and returned to brisk, bustling La Paz. Flying saved time and offered a glimpse of the Cordillera Real, but also eliminated the adventure – this time there were no edible insects, no smashed mirrors…and no driver wearing a top that said ‘Bridesmaid’.

We saw what might have real bridesmaids, though, at the airport, in long, fringed shawls and jaunty bowler hats.

Around the corner from our hostel in La Paz was a sprawling street market. I absolutely loved the faces in the crowd.

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.

Rurrenabaque – lanquid days and funny dogs

The air in Rurrenabaque was hot and humid, and the pace in town was languid. Dirt roads kicked up dust as motorcycles putted by. Dogs napped in the shade of palm trees in the plaza, and banana merchants waited for customers on the riverbanks. A lone boat maker took his sweet time carving out a boat.

Exhausted from the long drive the night before, after switching hotels, we chilled under the high thatched roof of Casa del Campo, ordering pancakes, then smoothies, then soup, then native potatoes as the day wore on.

At some point, we ventured along the main drag to inquire about jungle tours. Normally, I’m a travel do-it-yourselfer, but without a jeep, boat, or platform on which to pitch our tent – or, ahem, wilderness survival skills – we needed a guide.

There were dozens of little offices with walls covered in maps and faded snapshots of adrenalin-pumped tourists catching piranhas, swimming with dolphins, shining flashlights on tarantulas during night walks, and gesturing like rappers next to giant anaconda. My particular interest was in hiking deep in the jungle with indigenous guides with knowledge of medicinal plants. But, it wasn’t meant to be. We learned that it was easier to spot animals in the pampas than in the jungle, which appealed to Elise. And, strangely, the office for one of the most reputable eco-lodges in the jungle had an overpowering stench of mold, as well as a haughty salesperson, so we looked elsewhere and ended up booking a pampas tour with Fluvial Tours. The agency’s claim to fame was that its founder had helped saved a man, Yossi Ghinsberg, who’d been lost in the jungle for weeks. Ghinsberg’s book was made into a film starring Daniel Radcliff.

Along the way we spotted amusing dogs – one on a motorbike with wind-blown ears and another with surreally blue eyes.

 

Death Road and edible insects

Although it seems that a part of us will forever be trapped at the Bolivian Hotel California, we finally bid Coroico adieu.

Our route to the Amazon avoided Bolivia’s infamous Death Road, which is now used mostly by mountain bikers, but given the sheer drops, lack of guard rails and the muddy surface, our road did not exactly inspire confidence. We were promised professional drivers, but they ended up being kids in their early 20’s. One was barely as tall as Elise. The other wore a crop shirt that said “Bridesmaid”. The Swedish physicists in the back seat were completely unfazed, but I was wide awake the entire journey, which started at 5pm to bypass road construction during daylight hours and ended at 4am.

Three hours into the journey, we stopped to get fuel and food in a tiny, but blaring, one-road town. All of the kids were scampering around to catch slow-moving, apparently edible insects called Tuho. One little girl was busy chopping off their blueberry-sized abdomens with a bottle cap. She offered us a sample but none of us was brave enough to try it – not even the Swedes.

Our “real” food was not much more appetizing – French fries served up in a sweltering, cement-walled, fume-choked, roadside restaurant bathed in green flourescent light. I could hardly have been more uncomfortable. The Swedes took it all in stride, however, and were as relaxed as if they’d been sipping Glogg at a spa.  

It was a relief to me to get back into our vehicle. But there were more adventures ahead. The hundreds of enormous potholes finally took their toll and a tire blew. Our driver adeptly pulled to the side of the road and the two guys got right to work replacing the tire. Meanwhile, all of the ladies required a bio break. We were miles from any restrooms, however, so we opened the curbside doors and stood guard on either side as each one of us went – camping-style. Elise, who has been particular about proper restroom etiquette since she was a little kid, was appalled. But nature called and she eventually followed suit. It was a revelation to her and she kept saying: “I can’t believe I can go to the restroom outside!” Fortuitous timing given upcoming plans to trek in Patagonia.

A few hours later, we found ourselves in a muddy, four-lane traffic jam, sandwiched in between 18-wheelers and cement-mixers. Shorty saw an advantage and tried to squeeze ahead, but the vehicle to our left also moved forward. The mirror on the driver’s side was smashed to the ground and we got stuck. After inching backwards to the sound of scraping metal, Bridesmaid jumped out and shouted directions until we could maneuver into a “proper” lane. He then picked up the mirror and brought it inside the car. Sad sounds in Spanish came from the front seat. Meanwhile, in the back seat, the Swedes were cracking physics jokes until Miriam finally said: “Not everything is about pressure, Frida.”

Given the lack of road markings along much of our route, it came as a surprise that the final stretch of road into Rurrenabaque was perfectly straight and smoothly paved and had an excessive number of signs (all with the same information), reflectors, and street lights. I am guessing that the road construction company was paid not by the mile but by the number of peripherals installed.

Finally, at 4am, we arrived at our hotel and unloaded our gear. Blown tire and smashed mirror aside, the drivers had done a pretty good job, so I gave them a tip. They looked at me without comprehension.

Elise was cranky and immediately hated the hotel. The curtains did not fully cover the large windows (which we later discovered faced the river) and she saw a large insect scuttle in and out of the room on the ceiling. Poor thing lay awake, staring, waiting for Gregor to return.

Sol y Luna – you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave

Sol y Luna, a low-key hillside resort in Coroico, Bolivia, with winding paths, exotic blossoms, tranquil pools, Japanese-style yoga rooms, and killer mountain views, was our home for more days than we’d expected. Our goal was to get to the jungle in Rurrenabaque. Options included backtracking to La Paz to catch a flight (I do not like backtracking, Sam I am) , or 8+ hours of overland travel on primitive roads. Without internet, we couldn’t book our flights or even check availability, so we chose the overland route and hired a driver with a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. The price was high, however, so we sought out other travelers to share the cost. Two Swedish physicists, Frieda and Miriam, decided to join us – but only if we’d delay our departure. Arg! If there had been internet, both Elise and I would have eagerly welcomed the downtime. The misty grounds and our spacious corner room with its large, old-style windows had a magical vibe. On sunny days, the scent of lilacs wafted in, and during tropical rainstorms the air turned cool and damp as the rain drummed on the tin rooftops.

So we made the best of it. Elise drew in her diary and played board games on the open-air terrace with the Swedes while I read “Cloud Road: A Journey Through the Inca Heartland” by travel writer John Harrison. The book was the perfect escape and brought to life the history of the Incas. Harrison’s portrayal of the capture of the Inca Emperor by the Spanish was brilliant. The book also put our “hardships”, eg unaesthetic hotel rooms, long bus rides, diarrhea – and no internet, into perspective. As he walked the Inca Road from Quito to Cuzco, Harrison pitched his tent in the pouring rain, slept in grimy rooms, got attacked, got lost, and was trapped by floods.

Maybe being trapped in tropical paradise wasn’t actually so bad, after all.

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: