Random thoughts from our detour
12.09.2008 - 08.10.2008 10 °C
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Things we didn’t expect to see on our trip to Asia. This:
I guess sometimes life’s most interesting journeys are the ones you weren’t anticipating. We left Japan on Sunday, September 14th, to return to the USA for Lynn’s brother-in-law’s funeral in Tucson, and are now in Germany helping her sister organize her stuff to move home.
Mark Allen was born in St. Louis in 1958. He enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1982 and met Lynn’s sister Gail at their first assignment, in California, where she was told by a friend that he gave really good backrubs. They married in 1985, and duty assignments stationed them in the Azores Islands (following which she retired), Oklahoma City (part of which Mark spent in Korea), Biloxi, Germany, and Boston. A satellite communications specialist, Mark was often among the first military personnel into a hotspot, and he was veteran of missions to Panama, the Persian Gulf, and the Balkans.
Mark retired after 22 years of service, and he and Gail returned to Germany, where he worked for the European Command in Stuttgart as a civilian contractor. Last year he began to suffer from ongoing health problems, and shortly after Lynn and I bought our tickets for the trip in March, he was diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare cancer-like disease which produces excess proteins that then attack the body. After months in German hospitals, he was being airlifted back to the USA for treatment, and he passed away at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.
We spoke with Mark and Gail while we were in Bali, before they began the journey home, and he told us (he didn’t ask -- as a sergeant he was used to being obeyed) to continue our trip, enjoy ourselves, and not worry. The day we arrived in Nara, we received the news of his passing, and so we began to make our emergency plans to return home.
Lynn and Mark having a relaxing evening during our visit in 2006
Mark was a good friend to us, and loyal in service to our country. The funeral was held at the Southern Arizona Veterans Cemetery, a peaceful spot in the mountains overlooking the Sonoran Desert. The words of the soldier from the Honor Guard who presented Gail his flag, “Ma’am, the President of the United States, the Department of the Air Force, and a grateful nation thank you for your husband’s service,” are a beautiful tribute.
Thank you, Mark.
We travelled from Nara back to Tokyo (rather than on to Korea as originally planned) where we spent a couple of days in the stores, since any funeral-worthy clothes we had were in storage in Houston. Shopping in Tokyo is a pretty interesting experience. For starters, it’s ridiculously expensive, but we were able to find an outfit for Lynn that wasn’t too bad, and I really scored -- found a men’s store with a big sale going and I was able to put together a whole suit, shoes included, for only about $280.
Equally cool was that I really fit the Japanese mold for size: I was able to pull a suit right off the rack and it didn’t need any alterations except hemming -- something I have never been able to do in the States. Lynn, however, really went through a brutal self-esteem bludgeoning. “I have never felt like such a fat cow,” she whimpered after trying on what seemed like dozens of outfits that were all too small. “The women here are all toothpicks!” We were completely unable to find her a pair of shoes that fit -- they simply don’t come any larger than a size 7.
We spent our final Tokyo night with a uniquely Japanese experience: a capsule hotel. This is the cheapest place you’ll find in Japan to lay your head, at about $35 per person for the night: designed for business travelers on short stays, you get a locker, access to a common bathroom, and your very own little 3’ x 6’ x 3’ private sleeping capsule in a room of twenty, complete with a tiny TV. Men and women have their own separate floors.
Dang, which one was mine again?
What, no tatami mat?
We left early the next morning on a very long day that took us from Tokyo to Beijing, to San Francisco, to Phoenix. The stop in Beijing was actually rather interesting. All that stuff you heard about them trying to clear the smog for the Olympics? Here’s how successful they were:
Welcome to -- *gag, cough* -- China
Beijing has a fantastic airport that they recently built in anticipation of the Olympics and the imminent growth of air travel to and from China. The central terminal was quite amazingly lovely -- after we got through the most absurdly thorough Immigration check for connecting passengers that I’ve ever experienced... including thermal scanners to check whether you have a fever. I am not making this up. Lynn was suffering from a cold and we were praying she didn’t have a coughing fit. “No, really sir, it’s just the... *cough* ...pollution! Yeah, that’s it... It’s not SARS, really!”
Welcome to China. Listen to beautiful music during your Immigration rectal exam!
The funny thing was, they have this massive airport, and one thing immediately struck us...
There was hardly anyone in it. They did, however, have really cool lounge chairs at the gates. Find that at O’Hare!
”Pardon me while I take a load off...”
After, I don’t know, maybe 30 hours (it gets really hard to keep track of time when you’re changing time zones that frequently) we arrived in Phoenix. We picked up Lynn’s sister Jane the next day and drove to Tucson, which is a very pleasant city, incidentally.
Sunrise over the valley
The day after the funeral, my mom came down for a couple days’ visit. Then we hung out for the next few days, and on Thursday the 25th, we flew to Stuttgart via Los Angeles and Düsseldorf. In college, I briefly dated a girl whose family lived in Düsseldorf, and I went over for a visit one summer, so it was fun to see the city from above as we landed -- “Oh, hey, I remember that Rhine Tower...”
So now we are with Gail in the small town of Waldenbuch, just outside of Stuttgart. It’s beautiful country around here in southern Germany, very much like Wisconsin -- weather-wise, as well: all this week it’s been cloudy, drizzly and 50°. Just what we were attempting to escape. Last week was lovely, sunny fall weather, though, and we enjoyed seeing the color spreading across the forests.
Making cider at the Stadtmühle (town mill)
Waldenbuch’s claim to fame is being the home of Ritter Sport, Germany’s favorite chocolate bar.
My personal favorite variety, dark chocolate with hazelnuts
It comes neatly divided into 16 easy-breaking squares, with a resealable wrapper. Advertising slogan: Practisch. Quadratisch. Gut.
“Practical. Square. Good.”
Which pretty much sums up Germany itself.
As a side note, here's one good thing about this detour that I learned: we avoided a huge typhoon that recently swept through southern China and northern Vietnam, leaving about 50 people dead in flooding. We were originally due to arrive about a week after it came through.
I’ll take the Deutsche drizzle, thanks.
So, we're here until October 8th, when we fly from Frankfurt to Amsterdam to Seoul and resume our trip, starting with a visit to our good friend April, who is in Korea teaching English.