After threading through traffic on the main road for half an hour, the Citroen pulled up in front of the world-famous Recoleta Cemetery, guarded by a thick brick wall. Eva Perón, one of the most celebrated figures ever to come out of the country, had been buried there.

“I hope that my car will be okay if I park it here,” Lylia muttered as we pulled up on Guido Street, parking behind another car with a sticker reading “Viva la Republica Argentina!” slapped on  its bumper. “I hope I won’t have to bribe any policemen not to give me a parking ticket.”

Deciding to risk it, we got out of the car and walked through the entrance, a large, neoclassical vestibule with white Doric Greek columns labeled “R.I.P.” or “Requiescat in Pace” (Latin for “rest in peace.”) It was quiet inside the cemetery; the sounds of the city muffled as we walked along the lonely, ghost-ridden paths. The place felt detached from the pulse of the city that throbbed just beyond the wall. The cemetery was laid out on a grid, a small city with tall stone mausoleums for buildings.

“‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina, the truth is I never left you,’” sang Samantha softly as we walked through the mazelike grounds, passing a man staring at a cross etched into the stone wall of a mausoleum, his eyes full of sadness.

“Is that song from Evita, the musical starring Madonna?” Lylia asked suddenly.

“Yes,” Samantha replied, her face turning red.

“Some Argentines were really insulted by that movie, and others thought it was really funny that those people were insulted. It depends on who you ask, though. People who believe that Evita was a saint were furious when the producers cast Madonna, who’s anything but saintlike, as Evita.  However, it really pleased the people who dislike Evita because they could laugh at the people who were upset over it.”

“I see . . . but how did you feel about it?” Samantha asked hesitatingly as passed a white marble statue of a weeping angel.

“Well, frankly, I don’t see Evita as a saint, but I don’t dislike her, either. So I really didn’t care much about the casting. But my opinion about Evita is quite rare. You will find that most people here either love Evita or hate her.”

As the morning grew warmer, droplets of sweat began to gather on my temples. I wiped them away, wishing for a fan.

Eva Duarte Perón, as Lylia explained to us as we walked, was the most famous first lady of Argentina who ever lived and had died tragically from cancer at thirty-three. Eva grew up in a poor family, moved to Buenos Aires as a young woman, and became an actress. She met her future husband and idol, Juan Peron, at a charity event in San Juan and he became president two years later in 1946. However, the upper class relentlessly taunted her about her earlier poverty.

Wanting to show those who taunted her that they had picked on the wrong woman, Eva sent officials to seize property and goods from the upper class, and in turn gave their possessions to the descamisados, the poor and underprivileged, whose existence many wealthy people ignored. The Argentine people still talk about her life, which was full of controversy and drama.
Despite opposition from powerful people, Eva was an advocate for labor rights and women’s suffrage, and she ran the Eva Perón Foundation, a charity organization that gave away goods for the poor each year.

Following Lylia, Isabella, and Samantha through the web of paved paths in the cemetery, I noticed that the coffin in many of the polished marble mausoleums was clearly visible. In Argentina, bodies were stored above ground in mausoleums or in niches of walls. Anniversaries of death dates were strictly observed and family members visited the graves of their deceased relatives on the dates of their deaths. Lylia also explained that it was very expensive to be buried in Recoleta Cemetery and that most of the mausoleums we were looking at belonged to very wealthy people, including several presidents and well-known scientists. Some of the tombs had cost up to two million U.S. dollars. Recoleta was a place for the rich to flaunt their wealth after death and rest in a place that was the essence of peace and quiet.

“It’s like a miniature city in here, a city of the dead,” Samantha commented quietly.
Even the trees lining the central paths seemed melancholy, in mourning for the souls in eternal rest all around them. Crosses, cherubs, owls, roses, and frozen-faced weeping angels guarded the mausoleums, all images of the afterlife. The owls, Lylia explained, represented wisdom; the roses, eternal life; the cherubs, angels, and crosses heaven. Jewel-colored stained glass windows decorated some tombs while faded family photographs adorned others.

The air was heavy with prayers and, despite the presence of several tourists besides Samantha and me, the cemetery was a deeply sorrowful and otherworldly place. Each mausoleum listed only the name and the date of death without a birth date. A few cats wandered about, living creatures among the nonliving, slipping between the tombs and disappearing out of sight. Because of the financial crisis, Lylia explained, many people had been dropping off their pets in cemeteries and parks, because they could no longer afford to take care of them. As a result, the number of cats in parks and cemeteries had skyrocketed, and no one was sure of the exact number.

It wasn’t long before we arrived at Evita’s tomb, the entrance of which was adorned with iron roses. Several bouquets of wilted flowers lay at the base of the mausoleum, probably put there that very morning but quickly withering in the midday heat, giving off a strong, sickly sweet smell like honey. Several brass plaques on Evita’s tomb caught my eye, and I leaned in closer to read one.

“I have an uncontrollable desire to burn up my life. If by burning it I can shed light on the way and the happiness of the Argentine people, I shall return and be millions.”
Another plaque read, “Don’t cry for me, I am neither far away nor lost but an essential part of your existence, all the love and pain were foreseen; I carried out a humble imitation of Christ; let it be an example to those who follow me.”

Because I had stumbled across a lot of information about Evita before coming to Argentina, I was fascinated by this larger-than-life woman. When Evita had fallen ill, thousands of Argentines had cried and whispered prayers outside the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, clutching photographs of her to their chests and holding dripping wax candles. In her honor, someone with unbelievable loyalty had fasted to death. Some people, believing that Evita’s death might cause the apocalypse (which I thought was crazy), had even committed suicide.

I was amazed that one woman could capture the hearts of so many people and induce such madness in her followers. After the mass panic surrounding her death, forty thousand people wrote tear-stained letters to the pope, requesting her canonization.

Even more interesting was what happened after the military coup of 1955 that overthrew Evita’s husband and sent him into exile in Europe. To bury the memory of the Peróns once and for all, the incoming government wanted to get rid of Evita’s embalmed body.

Juan Perón had paid a prestigious Spanish embalmer, Dr. Pedro Ara, one hundred thousand U.S. dollars to preserve Evita’s body. Ara worked on her body for a year, replacing her fluids with a mixture of glycerin and formaldehyde and coating her body with a thin layer of plastic. During this time, plans were made to build a monument in her honor. Evita’s body would be stored in the base of the monument and be displayed for the public. While the monument was being built, Evita’s embalmed body was displayed in her former office for nearly two years. The government wanted to get rid of her body but didn’t want to have a normal burial because of the madness that would surely ensue, so they appointed Colonel Moori Koenig of the Army Intelligence Service to guard the body and assigned him to find a secret burial place for it.

While he searched for an appropriate spot, he kept Evita’s body in the attic of an office building in Buenos Aires. However, something unexplainable and unsettling happened. The colonel let the affection of his soul take over, falling in love with the body and refusing to part with it. After rumors arose that he had performed inappropriate acts with it, the military dictatorship had to seize the body. He ended his days as a shadow of his former self, drifting through the back streets of Buenos Aires, sad and dreamy, raving about his lost love.

After that incident, rumors spread that the military had hidden Evita’s corpse in various places in Buenos Aires, including private houses, and even, for some weeks, behind the screen of a movie theater in Palermo.

In 1957, in a moment of clarity, the government finally figured out what to with Evita’s body and sent it to Rome to be buried there under the name of an Italian housewife. Pedro Aramburu, the president of Argentina at the time, arranged for the details of the burial to be written in a letter to be given to the next president in case of his death.

Eventually, the government returned Evita’s body to Argentina after eighteen years in Italy. News reports said that her nose was a bit squashed and she was slightly disheveled, but her golden hair was still beautiful, as smooth as silk and not a strand out of place. Rumor claimed that the only people with a key to her tomb were her family members, so it didn’t look like Evita would be leaving Argentina again. Some people believed that Evita’s body wasn’t even in the coffin in her mausoleum but stored in a vault three floors below it, with three different trap doors requiring three different keys to unlock them.

After leaving Evita’s tomb, we ventured to the outlying portions of the cemetery. There, the graves sat in ruins and a smell of life and death wafted through the stale air. Some bodies had been stored in niches in a wall, much like the layout of a morgue. Weeds poked their ugly heads through the lumpy soil among discarded trash. I wondered who these forgotten people had been and why their memories had been allowed to fade away.


This is an excerpt from Jamie Rockers new book, 6,000 Miles From Hollywood: A Tale of Wanderlust in South America coming soon to Amazon.com!
 
 
Africa. What does that word conjure up in your imagination? For me, it is of vast savannahs in a sun-bleached land, of empty drifting dunes, soft sandy beaches with turquoise waters, an ancient and raw frontier where the skies are set aflame with the setting sun, and where the most exciting wildlife on earth coexist. I had always wanted to go to Africa. It is one of those places that I wrote in CAPS on my bucket list and somewhere I described as "ESSENTIAL TO TRAVEL TO”. Although I have both traveled and lived abroad extensively, I always felt like Africa should be kept as the "final" destination in my traveling career. Not that I will never travel again, it just seems appropriate after trawling the globe, to leave Africa for last.

So after turning thirty, and realizing that there wasn’t much time left before life’s real responsibilities got in the way, I knew that it was time to go. So I gathered up my resources, suffered through eight vaccination shots against various deadly diseases, pinched my savings together, and took off on a three-month overland safari through Africa. Safari is a Swahili word that means “journey”. Someone “on safari” was away and out of town, which summed up my trip perfectly.

Many people had asked me why I was going to Africa of all places, a continent that had seen horrible poverty and atrocities committed over the years. I wanted to see the Africa beyond what the newspapers and media said, the simple Africa that had nothing to do with war and poverty, child soldiers and corrupt politicians. I wanted to take a closer look at this continent and interpret it for myself.

I often wondered why people who wanted to travel didn’t travel extensively more. Studies conducted with elderly people who are nearing death have shown that many of them wished they had travelled more. And not all the people who travel extensively do so because they are considered "lost". 

In my own life, I have travelled and learned a lot and chose the life of unknown possibilities. And like the famous poem from Robert Frost about the fork in the road, it has made all the difference. Sometimes I think that we try to plan our lives out perfectly but we forget about luck. Luck happens to us all the time and whether or not we act upon those opportunities is up to us. 

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My first destination was Kenya. Upon arrival into Nairobi, the weather was perfect. It was sunny with dry heat and no humidity. It was heaven after being in England for so long (I’m American but currently living in England), with rainy and overcast days ruling my life for the past few months. From the window of my taxi from the airport, I watched scenes of Nairobi life; lean, ebony-skinned women with shaved heads dressed in long skirts with colorful African prints on them, some of them carrying bags of food on top of their heads; groups of smiling kids in school uniform walking to school, their hair braided in cool patterns, men dressed in long sleeve shirts and pants sitting along the side of the road in groups, chatting the day away. Lots of road workers stood about next to large holes in the earth just chatting. Strangely enough, it didn't really seem like anyone was working or at least, they weren’t working hard.

Vendors with paintings, towels, potato chips, and ice cream wandered amongst the traffic when it stopped, gazing at drivers and passengers with hopeful eyes. Matatus lined the road, picking up people at random. Matatus were like mini-vans that carried a lot of people, most of whom sat on each other’s laps. Being too close to someone else was just something you had to get over if you lived in Africa. The matatu drivers loved to get as many people as possible into their vans because, naturally, more people meant more money. Lots of big dump trucks carried dirt past us and the air was filled with choking dust. I pulled my blond hair into a tight knot and slipped on a pair of sunglasses as the wind blew through the cab and the sun shone down with intensity. I was excited to begin my journey. It was the start of a new adventure and I was feeling the newness of these foreign surroundings for the first time. 

Some of the workers sitting along the side of the road stared at me with vague interest. I, of course, could not possibly go unnoticed here with my blond hair, green eyes, and pale skin, not to mention the huge backpack I was carrying on my petite frame. I was the foreigner here, the mzungu, which in Swahili meant “white person”. The backpack was nearly the same size as I was and screamed out “tourist”.

“Look sister,” the taxi driver said, pointing to two giraffes grazing in an adjacent field separated by fence.

“What? I see them. Yes, two giraffes grazing!”

 It was my first wild animal sighting in Africa and it had happened within thirty minutes of being in the country. And this was all after just coming from the airport. There was also a Maasai with his herd of goats in the large field.

“This land is government protected,” the taxi driver explained.

The Maasai are a Nilotic ethnic group and are one of the many tribes in Kenya. They are semi-nomadic, and are perhaps the most famous of all the tribal groups in Africa due to their unique style of dress and their custom of drinking cow blood in their diet. The Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have instituted programs to encourage the Maasai to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, but the people have continued their age-old customs. I hope they weren’t planning to abandon their customs anytime soon. Seeing them was like stepping back in time, a time that I could only imagine from looking at them. Because there are so many tribes in Kenya, many Kenyans consider their nationality to be of their tribal affiliation rather than of being ‘Kenyan’, which I found very interesting. Therefore, the Maasai would identify with being Maasai before Kenyan.

Kenya was a place where archaeological excavations around Lake Turkana in the 1970s had revealed skulls thought to be around two million years old and those of the earliest human beings ever discovered. What an exciting thing to think, that the first humans had potentially come from the very land that I was standing upon! Not to mention a land that played host to the annual wildebeest migration, which is the largest single movement of herd animals on the entire planet.

Nairobi, my jumping off point, had a population of 3 million people. The fact that its nickname was “Nai-robbery” did not comfort me. Violent crime and extreme poverty was a big problem of the city.  

I was staying in the suburb of Karen, which was the wealthier suburb of Nairobi, in a place called Karen Camp. It was from here where I would depart on my overland adventure.  Upon arrival, I checked into my dorm room and then decided to get something to eat. While I was perusing the menu at the bar for lunch, I chatted with an older white Kenyan guy.

“I like to come here for cheap beers,” he exclaimed, making his point by slamming his bottle on the bar top and laughing.

He seemed a bit lonely and anxious to share his stories with someone.

“I had a real wild time growing up in Kenya,” he reminisced. “I used to ride my motorbike really fast along the savannahs. But then I grew up and started to see all the problems that Kenya has, with the corrupt politicians. I think kids have it good, don’t you think? They can live in their own peaceful and innocent worlds without knowing the real truth about the world.”

I nodded, taking a sip of Tusker beer, the most popular Kenyan beer. I was disappointed that the bar didn’t serve a local specialty of nyama choma (barbequed or roast meat). I had heard that you could buy the meat (usually goat) by the kilogram; it’s then cooked over a charcoal pit and served in bite-sized pieces with a vegetable side dish.

Soon, a local Kenyan guy joined us by the name of Mr. Happy. Mr. Happy was very happy indeed, and I could see exactly how he had gotten his nickname.

“There are some strange rules that the Kenyan government enforce; no public smoking, no talking on cell phones in public, and a seriously crazy $4000 fine for loud noise,” he explained. “These rules all have a reason though, as people have been hit by cars while chatting on cell phones, and clubs with loud music have opened next to schools.”

Kenyans were conservative. I had noticed that women wore long skirts and covered their knees and shoulders when out. I could sense that even from looking at people on the street. The women were appropriately covered and there were signs for Christian churches everywhere. Religion, in the form of both Christianity and Islam, had a big presence in Kenya and this may have also contributed to the conservative way of thinking.

The bar began to fill with both expats and locals and it seemed to be a watering hole for the wealthier residents of Karen, most of whom appeared to be white. I suspected that many of these people had come from one of their fancy homes in the neighborhood, a home that was surrounded by high electric wire fence. Seeing these kinds of large houses with all their high security made me feel as though the gap between the rich and the poor might be considerably high in Nairobi. But it was just a guess. Mr. Happy told me that even in Karen, it wasn’t safe to walk around alone. I hated labels and stereotyping of an entire city or nation and I am a firm believer that there are many more good people in the world than bad.

However, “Nai-robbery” didn’t get its nickname for no reason. I planned to head Mr. Happy’s advice. He was a local after all, and he certainly knew more than I did. 


Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Savannahs & Sunsets: An African Overland Adventure, available on amazon.com
 
 
After a restful three days in Swakopmund, Namibia wandering around and going to the beach and local markets, we departed for Spitzkoppe, a series of rock formations in the desert. Spitzkoppe is one of Namibia’s most instantly recognizable landmarks and rises like a tower in southern Damaraland. This was where I would be spending my first African Christmas. We would be bush camping for two nights there and I was sure it was going to be one of the more interesting Christmas holidays that I had experienced.

We arrived at the amazing red rock monoliths in the early afternoon. They were huge rock formations, many of them like smooth balls piled on top of each other. It reminded me of Uluru and the Olgas in Australia. Some had smooth, sheer faces of red rock while other parts were just a huge pile of medium to small-sized boulders.

We set up camp at the foot of a large smooth rock mountain with smaller boulders piled on the top like marbles. It was a stunning location. The sky was a bright blue, the ground was white sand and surrounding us were giant red rocks reaching to the sky. It looked like we were on Mars. There were a few acacia trees here and there so I set up my tent under one of them to get some relief from the intense heat of the sun.

Along with a few others, I decided to climb some rocks. Some of them were really challenging, requiring you to jump across deep ravines and watch your step very carefully. It was fantastic and after crossing over one rock formation, we moved onto another. There were snakes in the area so we had to be careful, not to mention scorpions, lots of thorny bushes, and piles of small feces in the form of pellets. The feces pellets belonged to rock dassies, a small mammal which looked like a guinea pig that lived among the rocks in large groups. 

The views were stunning from the rock formations, of endless desert that was so flat that there was just a single straight line on the horizon. Shrub brush dotted the landscape and I wondered how anything could grow in such a dry and intense heat. But there were obviously species who thrived here.

Down by the truck, a fire was started and dinner was beginning to be cooked. We sat around chatting about Christmas and then ate our dinner and roasted marshmallows. A blanket of stars was laid above us and they seemed so brilliant that I could touch them with my hand. Needless to say, I didn’t even need to use a flashlight. The stars provided enough light.

 

                                                                                       ***

 

The next morning I woke up and it was Christmas! It didn't really feel like Christmas since I wasn't from the Southern Hemisphere, where it was hot on Christmas Day. I wondered what all the people I loved who weren't with me were doing. I was handling Christmas in the desert better than I thought. I had expected to be homesick throughout the day but somehow, Africa had fooled me into believing that there was no Christmas. I am the ultimate Christmas lover. I start putting up decorations after Thanksgiving and listening to Christmas songs a month before Christmas. I love the traditions, the food, the presents, the parties. But I had survived so far by simply being in denial. It worked a treat.

Our tour leaders were preparing a big breakfast for us, in addition to Christmas lunch/dinner. Breakfast was really good, with sausages, bacon, beans, eggs, toast, and juice.

After breakfast we decided to go rock climbing. An American couple in our group had rock-climbing gear as they were avid rock climbers and had found bolts on the side of a rock face about five minutes from camp. About nine people had a try at rock climbing. The rock face was actually really hard to climb and I only made about 60 percent of the climb before calling it quits. It was really much harder than it looked.

After rock climbing we had some snacks and sat around for a while until it was time for dinner. To pull off a Christmas dinner on a gas cooker is a pretty big feat but our tour leaders pulled it off. On offer were chicken, rosemary lamb, gravy, potatoes, carrots, cranberry sauce, and all the condiments that came with Christmas dinners. We went on another rock scramble after dinner, up the formations, and then watched the most amazing purple and pink sunset over the desert. That was probably the best present I could have received on Christmas. I had to really remember that sometimes, the best presents cost no money at all.
 
 
It’s popular all over the world. It’s the quintessential Japanese food and could be considered the earliest “fast food” in Japan. It’s a dish that consists of raw fish, vinegar-rice, and a smear of wasabi. If you haven’t guessed it already, it’s SUSHI! But what is this thing that many people so readily gulp down at the drop of a hat and how did it come to be?

Surprise, surprise, the original form of sushi actually came from SE Asia, eventually making its way to the shores of Japan and accidentally becoming the sushi we know today. During ancient times, sushi was not a kind of food, but a way of preserving fish for fermentation, a verb instead of the noun we know today. This was called nare-zushi.

Fish was preserved in fermented rice and when it was ready for consumption, the rice was discarded and only the fermented fish was eaten. Consuming the fermented rice along with partially raw fish/partially fermented fish became popular during the Muromachi period, called sesei-zushi. This is where sushi began to be known not as a way of preserving food, but an actual dish. It wasn’t until the Edo period, at the beginning of the 19th century, that sushi became what it is today. Because of the popularity of food stalls in Tokyo or Edo, as it was called back then, sushi was made to be eaten easily and informally and this is the sushi we know today, called nigiri-zushi.

As a result of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, many nigiri-zushi chefs lost their jobs, packed up their things, and set out for somewhere else to settle and practice their trade, eventually spreading the popularity of nigiri-zushi from Edo to the rest of Japan.

Interestingly enough, we can still try nare-zushi today, near Lake Biwa in Shiga prefecture, about an hour from Osaka, Japan. Carp from the lake are caught, scaled and gutted, and then packed with salt and stored for a year before being repacked annually in rice for up to four years. That’s a long time people! So if you go to Japan, forget about your goal to try fugu, (poisonous blowfish) and make a resolution to try nare-zushi!
 
 
I immediately noticed a different feeling about the place. The fresh alpine air filled my lungs as I took in a deep breath and a strange sense of peace and reverence washed over me. Koyasan, a sacred site on the top of a peak in the Kii Mountain Range (Wakayama Prefecture), was definitely another world, far away from the hustle and bustle of daily life below it. Little did I know, I had arrived on the day of Kechien Kanjo, one of the most important ceremonies of Shingon Buddhism. In this ritual, wisdom water is offered to the participants in order to wash away the worldly desires. I wondered if it really worked and decided to find out.

After taking the bus to the main area of Donjon Garan, I blindly followed a group of pilgrims carrying walking sticks with jangling bells. They were wearing all white clothing and cone-shaped bamboo hats. Some were chanting sutras. Everyone carried a votive candle and a handful of brightly-colored flowers. I followed them along a dirt path lined with stones until we reached a clearing. Before my eyes a towering orange and white pagoda stretched into the sky. It was dusk and fire torches flickered around the pagoda. The air was heavy with incense. Monks dressed in vibrant ceremonial shades of orange and purple tended to the shrine inside the pagoda, performing rituals as both pilgrims and bystanders watched on.

“Welcome,” an old man as wrinkled as piece of dried fruit said to me with a gap-toothed smile as I stood solemnly in front of the shrine, bowing my head in reverence.

“Arigato gozaimasu,” I replied, bowing.

I walked on. Near the edge of a thicket of towering cedar trees was an enormous wooden structure, one that (in my opinion) rivalled Nara’s Todaiji Temple as the largest wooden structure in the world. I figured this structure, called Kondo, was at least the second.

After consulting my trusty brochure given to me by the nice people at the train station, I saw that it had been built by Kukai in 819 (although the present hall was built for the 7th time in 1932). Kukai, or Kobo Daishi (his posthumous name), is the Japanese monk responsible for spreading Shingon Buddhism in Japan. He lived from 774 to 835 and during his life travelled to China to study with the mystics there. After returning to Japan, he founded Koyasan as a retreat away from the world. Koyasan, surrounded by eight peaks, was selected because the terrain it lies in resembles a lotus plant. There are several sects of Buddhism in Japan, including Tendai, Shingon, Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren. Kukai is the founder of Shingon.

Although the pale gray of dusk had set in, I decided to forget about curing my desire for worldly treasures and head to Okunoin, a massive graveyard among the towering cedar trees of the Koyasan forest. From Donjon Garan, it was about a fifteen minute walk to Sando, the entrance path. Along the way, shopkeepers were closing up for the day and the streets were empty and silent. I wondered if I should really be wandering through Japan’s largest graveyard at night.

Upon arrival however, I was relieved to find the entrance path lined with lanterns that cast a flickering pale glow so I could see where I was going. A few other brave souls had also decided to venture through the graveyard at night and the only sound was the wind in the trees. The graveyard was impressive to say the least, filled with the headstones of monks, military commanders, and a few commoners. Passing by some of the towering headstones, I noticed the older ones were written in Sanscrit, the language of Buddhism from India, circa 4th century BC.

Because of the festivities going on, I passed a few monks along the path and two kilometers later, I arrived at Kukai’s mausoleum in the heart of the forest, next to the quiet Tama River. Because of the festivities, the mausoleum was still open and monks flitted about quietly, replacing incense sticks. Monks still bring food to Kukai everyday, as they believe he is not dead but meditating. They feed and change his clothes everyday and no one but the highest monks are allowed to see him. The mausoleum was bedecked in gold lacquer and red upholstery. A group of pilgrims chanted sutras in Sanskrit and I felt like I had been transported to another world.

As I turned around to leave, I noticed with dread that the sky was black above me. Graves stretched before me as far as the eye could see and the trees shifted in the wind. A bird cried out. As I began to walk quickly along the path through the forest, I made a mental note that next time, I would definitely come back during the day.
 
 
“Why don’t you come join us?” asked a petite young woman, handing me a flier for the Tango School Academy Dandi in San Telmo after Spanish class the following day. “Tonight is a demonstration lesson at seven P.M. and it’s free,” she added, sounding unusually enthusiastic for an Argentine.

It had to be fate. I couldn’t pass up a free tango lesson (that was one reason I was in Buenos Aires, after all), so I went home to change. Half an hour later, after taking a city bus to the address on the flier, I arrived at the studio where students of all ages were stretching gently to Carlos Gardel’s Soledad. His velvety voice filled the room, a lullaby sung in colors.

Gardel is credited with taking the tango out of the Argentine brothels and into New York and Paris. Only after the dance became popular abroad did the Argentine elite finally accept it. People still say that Gardel “sings better every day” even though he has been dead for years. I had heard that his fans still visit him daily at his mausoleum in the Chacarita Cemetery, the second most famous cemetery (after Recoleta) in Buenos Aires. I’ve also heard that his fans keep a lighted cigarette in the left hand of his life-sized statue at nearly all times. I’m guessing the man liked to smoke.

Why am I here? I asked myself, looking around the room. The music made me sad. It was soulful, moving, and heartbreakingly romantic. Something about it spoke to me. I just hoped that it wouldn’t send me running to the psychiatrist for a prescription for Prozac.

Suddenly, I froze. Standing at the front was Marco, dressed in a fitted T-shirt and black pants, talking to a leggy woman wearing a black dress with a long slit up the side, fishnets, and black patent leather tango shoes. And just as I started to turn to leave, my nerves shaken, I heard Marco’s familiar voice calling out to me.

“What are you doing here?” he asked me in surprise, coming over and dashing my plans for a quick escape.

“Well, I’m taking classes at the University of Belgrano and someone gave me a flier for today’s class,” I explained, embarrassed and feeling the need to explain that I wasn’t really a stalker. “I didn’t know you were teaching here.”

“Well, although there are several schools in San Telmo, you’ve come to the right one.” He smiled, his green eyes twinkling. “So, you’re interested in tango, huh?”

“Yes, but I’ve never danced it before,” I answered weakly. “And I was just getting ready to leave.”

“Leave? Oh no, you can’t do that. If you stay for the first class, I promise to take you to a milonga. But first you have to learn the basic moves of the tango milonguero, right?”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I said, my hopes rising. “Okay, I’ll stay.”

It wasn’t long before Marco and the leggy woman with the black tango shoes were at the front of the room, illustrating el pechito Argentino, the basic posture in tango, in which both partners stick out their chests. Partnered with a tall old man who must have been in his seventies, I took his hand with quiet determination. We both attempted to stick out our chests as far as we could and lean slightly toward each other with our heads held high. Although we were both trying to be as graceful as possible, we kept stepping on each other’s toes as we tried to follow Marco and his partner’s movements. The old man accidentally kicked me in the shin and I bit my tongue to keep from crying out in pain—not the shining image of tango that I had envisioned.

“Keep your head tall and point your toe. Let your hips do the talking, and don’t be afraid to get close,” the female instructor advised as she walked by me.

The last part, especially, was easier said than done, especially with a partner who was old enough to be my grandfather. It would have helped to have a partner closer to my own age with whom I had a bit of chemistry. Nevertheless, I respected the old man for attempting to learn the tango so late in his life and did my best to dance well with him.

After about an hour of learning basic postures, the class watched in silence as Marco and the leggy woman danced an advanced tango number with the deep connection between two people who know each other well. I watched in awe as they kicked their legs and twirled around, demonstrating ganchos, or “hooks,” where one partner inserts a leg between the other’s, hooks it around an inner thigh, and squeezes. I wondered how long it took to learn that move. As graceful as the morning mist, they moved as one, their feet barely touching the floor. My thoughts drifting, I couldn’t help wondering what Marco and Olivia looked like when they were dancing the tango together. Probably fabulous, I decided.

After their demonstration, we switched partners. This time, my partner was closer to my age, a man with kinky black hair and a leering smile. I could have kicked myself for wanting to change partners.

“Stop thinking so much,” the female instructor commented to me, tapping me on the shoulder as she observed us trying to perform a gancho on our own. “I can see your brain going a thousand kilometers per minute. Tango is about feeling, and you’ll have to learn to stop thinking. Let him lead.”

I certainly didn’t want to give control to my leering partner, but I had to remember that tango was about giving the man control. Above all else, it was about trusting someone else and letting go. It was hard for me to do.

“Let me show you,” Marco said, coming over and pulling me to him.

Taking a deep breath, I summoned all the confidence I had and began to follow his lead. Suddenly, I was moving without thinking, dancing without tripping, and even starting to enjoy myself. I was dancing tango (I think)!

This is an excerpt out of Jamie Rockers upcoming book, 6,000 Miles From Hollywood: A Tale of Wanderlust in South America available now on amazon.com!
 
 

In Osaka, Japan, I had recently taken the opportunity to sign up for a recording device “experiment” through a company that needed native English speakers to test out their translating device on Japanese people in some sort of field experiment. All I knew was this, and that I would get paid 100 dollars for about three hours of “work”. Most often, I signed up for things like this because for one, the extra money never hurts and two, it always turned out to be an interesting experience. I have found that if I walk into things blindly and with no expectations, I always have a new and interesting experience to talk about later. 

This recording was taking place in Kyoto, which was only a stone’s throw away from Osaka, about 45 minutes by train. On this particular day, the heat was soaring and I was suddenly very sorry that I had signed up. If anyone has survived a Japanese summer, you know what I'm talking about. Muggy, hot, humid...no wonder the Japanese carry umbrellas everywhere in the summer to shield themselves from the intense sun.

The experiment, I discovered, involved completing three tasks in which you had to use a translating device in various situations, and get Japanese people to speak into the device. The experiment was to test out the device to discover if improvements could be made on it and how convenient it would be to use them. The translating device, I was told, was worth about $4,000. I just hoped that I wouldn’t drop it. 

My first task to complete was to buy pickles, using the device to translate my English into Japanese, after which we had to try to get the Japanese speaker to speak into the device, translating their Japanese back into English so that we could communicate. 

This was not as easy as it sounded. 

Approaching the pickle stand, I chose the my first victim, a rather young and nervous looking guy. 

“Excuse me, I’m looking to buy some pickles. Do you have any recommendations?” I asked loudly into the device in English. 

The young man looked at me in alarm. 

Pressing on the button to translate my sentence to Japanese, I held the recorder up to his ear. He jumped back and shook his head. 

“It’s okay, it’s okay," I soothed him in Japanese. “I am testing this equipment. Please speak into this device.”

“I can speak English,” he stuttered, still looking at me with wild eyes, clearly terrified of me and my strange device. 

“No, no, please just speak in Japanese,” I replied back.

He looked at me in confusion and then looked at the recording device like it was a ticking bomb. I noticed his hands were shaking. Again, I pressed the button so that the device would translate my previous sentence into Japanese. Since he seemed reluctant to get anywhere near the recording device, I showed him the character translation that appeared on the small screen. 

“Aaaah…so ka,” he said, indicating he understood. 

Pointing out some fluorescent yellow pickles, he nodded. 

I pointed to the device again, indicating for him to speak in Japanese into the device. 

“You should try these pickles,” he said in English.

I sighed softly to myself. This was not working. 

“Dake Nihon-go,” I said, instructing him to speak only in Japanese. 

He nodded. 

I tried again.

This time, he replied in Japanese, which I showed him, was then translated into English. However, he still looked absolutely terrified of the handheld device. I was sure he thought I was just another crazy foreigner. I had to get this done quickly or else he was going to run away and I would have to start all over again with someone new. 

After asking a few more questions such as “how much are they?”, “do you have any other recommendations?” and “do you have any for under 500 yen?” and nearly pulling teeth to get him to answer me, I was finished with my first task. And I had a bag of delicious pickles to show for it. 

My next task was to ask for directions in the train station. 

This time, I was looking for someone who wouldn’t want to run off screaming into the night after talking to me. Approaching a young and hip-looking guy leaning against a wall and smoking a cigarette (surprising fact of the day: 70% of Japanese men smoke), I confidently walked up to him, large handheld device in hand. 

“Hello! What bus can I take to get to Kiyomizudera temple?” I asked (into the device).

Looking at me like I was the biggest nerd on the planet, he shrugged. 

“Basu….ni-ju go…tabun,” he replied, taking a drag of his cigarette. 

I pressed on.

Indicating to him to speak into the device, I felt extremely embarrassed. Why had I signed up for this? Fortunately, he obliged and spoke into the recorder. Pressing the button to translate it back into English, I showed him how it worked. He nodded, uninterested. Unfortunately for him, I had been instructed to ask at least four questions. 

Four questions later, he was clearly annoyed. I apologized.

Finding the facilitator, I let her know which sentences I had asked him and what responses I had gotten for her notes. 

“I’m sorry, can you ask him one more question? Can you ask him if he knows how much a bus ticket is?” she asked.

It is really hard to say no to the Japanese when they ask you to do something. When you are asked to do something for your job, you do it, no questions asked. 

I nodded but inside I was groaning. That guy was going to kill me. 

Setting off to find him, I was happy to discover that he was still in the same place, smoking another cigarette. 

“I’m very sorry but I have to ask you one more question”, I said, approaching him timidly. 

He did not look happy. 

“How much is a bus ticket?” I asked, then showing him the translation.

“Wakaranai,” he replied. I don't know. He didn’t know and I wasn't going to press the issue with him any longer. I mean, if he didn’t know, he didn’t know right?

Finding the facilitator, I let her know this and also that I was unable to ask any more questions of this particular individual for fear of him taking the $4,000 dollar device and smashing it to bits on the ground (leaving out the last part of course). She nodded.
My last task of the day was to buy a souvenir at a traditional shop in Kyoto.  Entering the shop, I groaned. All the shop staff were elderly ladies. There was no way they were going to want to talk into a $4,000 dollar piece of equipment and to a foreigner at that. 

Approaching my first elderly victim timidly, I admired a stand of delicious looking Japanese sweets to give her a chance to approach me. I spoke into the recorder.

“I’m looking for some sweets for a souvenir for my family. Do you have any recommendations?”

She looked at me strangely and backed away a couple of steps. Pressing the button to translate my English into Japanese, I held it out to her so she could read the kanji. She looked at me as though I was carrying a live bomb and backed away further.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I soothed in Japanese, as though speaking to a small child. 

From the look on her face, it clearly wasn't.

She came closer, squinting at the letters on the small monitor of the device. 

Nodding, she pointed to a box of strawberry-flavored daifuku, a Japanese dessert. 

As I motioned for her to speak into the device, she backed away again. I was clearly getting nowhere. Thanking her for her time, I shuffled back to the facilitator, my tail between my legs. I had failed the task.

Explaining to her that none of the older ladies in the shop seemed receptive, I threw up my arms to indicate that I wasn’t sure what to do. She nodded. 

“I would like for you to ask that woman at that snack stand over there where the bathroom is,” she replied. 

This woman was a slave driver! This seemed to be the final task however. I could do it! 

With confidence, I walked to the lady at the snack stand, asking the question into the recording device. Laughing heartily in response, she pointed to the left and began rambling away in Japanese. Pressing the record button on the device, I tried to record everything she said. Giving a small bow to show my appreciation, I finished the recording and walked back to the facilitator.

“And what does this mean?” she asked, listening to the translation. 

I had no idea. 
 
 
I hate pigeons. I really do. 

Japan has turned me into a pigeon hater. It really has.

I wasn’t always a pigeon hater, however, since pigeons have taken residence on my apartment balcony, I have come to despise the creatures. “Rats with wings”, I’ve often heard them being described as. They came in twos or threes to my balcony, pooing all over everything and making strange noises. Since I use my balcony to hang out my washing, I really prefer the pigeons to poo somewhere else. 

Recently, I’ve tried everything from firecrackers to makeshift scarecrows to batting them away with a broom to make them go away but it seems that they always return. They don’t seem to be getting the hint that they have outstayed their visit and are no longer welcome on my balcony. 

One particular sunny day when I was hanging out my washing, I was horrified to discover a nest in the corner of the balcony, with three eggs that looked like they were going to hatch at any minute. Running inside, I grabbed a broom and a large plastic sack and began the task of gingerly sweeping the nest into the sack. My plan was to move it next to the garbage bins downstairs but in full sight so if the mother was looking for it, she would be able to find it easily. This was as humane as I could be at the moment. I had no intentions of hurting the eggs but I certainly did not want them hatching on my balcony.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw a sudden movement, a flash of wings. It was the mother, flying directly towards me and flapping her wings, while making a strange guttural sound that sounded as though it came straight from hell. 

Screaming, I ducked and swung the broom, avoiding having my eyes clawed out by mere seconds.  The mother pigeon circled and quickly dove at me again. Swinging my broom like a madwoman at the mother, (who was clearly not scared to fight me for the right to birth her children on my property), I fought back. The pigeon, deftly dodging the broom, continued circling and diving towards me, the target. While swinging the broom, I backed up, until I was against the sliding doors of the balcony. With one swift move, I slid the door open and squeezed inside, slamming the glass door shut just as the mother pigeon had reached me. It flapped at me from the other side of the glass, still making guttural noises. 

I had to do something. 

Picking up the phone, I called the landlord, explaining the situation. He stated he would be over the next day to put up some netting over the balcony to keep the pigeons out. 

Once the netting was put up, I could clean up all the pigeon poo that covered everything, he told me. I had never been more excited.

Sure enough, the next day he came to put up the netting. Luckily, the mother pigeon was nowhere in sight. She must be out getting a bite to eat or something. 

The netting was put up quite quickly and I thanked the landlord profusely for his part in eliminating the pigeons. Now, I could get rid of that nasty nest. 

Immediately, I began scooping up the nest (very carefully) into the plastic bag and (very carefully), carried it downstairs. Upon arrival back into my apartment, I heard a strange sound. 

It was the guttural noises. Peering through my curtains, I saw that the mother pigeon had returned, but she had gotten her wing caught in the netting while trying to get onto the balcony. I really had not intended to bring any harm to any pigeon. Now, I was feeling really bad. 

Opening the sliding glass door, I grabbed a writing pen and went out onto the balcony. Taking the pen, I used it as I would an extra finger (as there was no way I was touching a pigeon) and slipped it under the part of the netting that was wrapped around the mother pigeon’s wing, eventually freeing her wing. After she had clumsily flied away, I hoped she would find her unborn children where I had left them. 
 
 

Receiving a few curious looks from other Japanese women that lasted merely a few seconds (after realizing that I had the same exact body parts as they did), I went safely unnoticed as I submerged myself into a near boiling pool of water at the foot of a Roman statue. The Japanese were pretty tough when it came to hot water, taking plenty of time to simmer themselves while catching up on local gossip with their friends. 

I had also grown accustomed to the high temperatures of the hot baths and after a couple of minutes, my body would adjust and my muscles would relax. It was only several minutes later that I would realize that my skin had turned a splotchy red color, which took a couple of hours to disappear. 

This time was no different and I decided to head for the sauna to give my skin a break from the water. The sauna of course, was also extremely hot, but in a different way. In America, warnings on sauna walls always suggested staying inside for no more than 10 minutes, as saunas make you release buckets of sweat and you can easily become dehydrated and faint, where some hours later somebody finds you dead and shriveled like a prune inside. I was always painting lovely pictures such as these in my head. 

In Japan however, I couldn’t read the signs so I had no idea if there were any warnings or not. However, I often saw women stay inside for 30 minutes or more. Heading inside and greeted by a sudden gust of pure dry heat, I saw that it was only myself and another woman in the sauna. The other women, was laying on her back, with a towel over her face. I wondered how long she had been in there. 

I laid down, allowing the heat to penetrate my body and instantly, little beads of sweat poured out of my pores. I think that my ears were even sweating. After a good ten minutes had passed, I sat up. The woman was still there. 

Was she breathing??

Tiptoeing gently over to her to make sure she was still alive, I was relieved to see her chest still moving up and down with each breath. Reaching out my hand to tap her on the shoulder to make sure she was okay, she suddenly shifted, grunting, and pulled her towel off her face in one sudden movement. Looking a bit shocked to see me, her eyes widened. 

“Anata wa daijobu desuka?” I asked her. 

“Hai, daijobu des”, she answered, breaking into a slow smile.

At least she had sensed my concern. 
 
 

Gion Matsuri was clearly in this area. However, I didn’t see any floats, just people. Determined to find the floats, I set off to Yasuka shrine, where the festivities were supposed to start. After wondering through Gion, the geisha district, I managed to follow the signs until we reached Yasuka shrine. Situated on the top of a hill, its main feature was a giant stone Buddha which seemed to come out of the bamboo forest that surrounded it. It was beautiful and quite impressive. 

Next to it, at a smaller shrine, a large group of children and adults were preparing for Gion Matsuri. All the children, standing next to a couple of smaller floats, were all dressed in similar festival costume. Adults scampered around, tending to the last details on the floats and getting everything in order. It seemed as though I had stumbled upon a “mini Matsuri”, one where the kids would be carrying the floats through the streets and chanting to the beat of Taiko drums. 

Old men, dressed in their jinbei (resembling a men’s summer kimono) and old women in their yukatas (summer kimonos) stood around, chatting and nodding their heads slowly. Mothers tended to the needs of their children. Tucked away in this quiet area of Kyoto, there was a sense of excitement in the air. 

The children, anxious to get on their way, could barely contain themselves, fiddling around and yelling to each other. 

Suddenly, a whistle blew. The children, heaving, lifted up the mini float and began to chant to the beat of the Taiko drums which had also begun. Their chanting was angelic, yet full of determination and vigor, as they slowly turned out of the shrine and began to walk down one of the many winding and tiny streets of Kyoto, followed by their families and friends. 

“Mechasugei!” a bystander next to me exclaimed.

I agreed. It was really awesome. After the first float passed, I soon heard the sounds of another one coming and sure enough, from around the corner, a new group of kids barreled toward us with a rather heavy looking float. With the assistance of a few adults, they were able to keep it steady. 

After watching for awhile, I decided to head back to the Kawaramachi street, where the main festivities were being held. By this time, it was beginning to get dark. Making our way back to the main area, I nearly collided with two businessmen, red-faced and drunk. 

“Sumimasen”, they slurred, as they took another sip of their Asahi canned beer. 

I laughed. The poor Japanese could never hide when they were smashed, as their faces turned a bright red color. I had read somewhere that the Japanese lacked an enzyme in their body for metabolizing alcohol and the side effect of this was flushed skin. So therefore, whenever they had a drink (or a few drinks), it was quite obvious that they had been boozing. 

Unfortunately for them, there was no way to lie to anyone about whether or not you had been drinking. They just couldn’t rely on a simple breath mint or a spray of perfume to do the trick. As a spouse or a parent, it was a foul proof way to tell if your husband, wife, or child was under the influence. Ingenious, really.