Our Fierce Girl

One of only a few pictures we received of YaYu before we met her. She looks so big and robust in this picture, but in reality she was very tiny, and still is quite petite today.

Brett and I thought we were done after we brought WenYu home in 1999. But, in 2004, we were eating banana splits with Meiling and WenYu at the Ghirardelli factory in San Francisco (on what was our 25th wedding anniversary!), and began teasing the girls that we were going to adopt again. Brett and I glanced at each other, and knew immediately we weren’t joking – he and I really did want to add one more child to our family.

So, we came home and filled out the application paperwork again, this time asking for an older child. The only request we made was that we would like the child to come from the same province as our other girls (Hunan). Around two weeks later I received a phone call from our agency, asking if we would consider a little four year-old girl who was waiting for a family. She had some burn injuries, but was otherwise in good health. I listened to the information about her, and then asked one question: Where was she from? When the person from the agency said “Hunan” I knew this was a sign this little girl was meant to be ours. I shared everything with Brett that evening, and he agreed. That was in April 2004; in August we were officially matched with YaYu, and we traveled to China in late February 2005, along with Meiling and WenYu, to bring our new daughter/sister home.

YaYu with her new family, not long after meeting us for the first time. The day after we met her she requested a purse because her sisters each had one, and new shoes like theirs!

Right from the start we knew we had a real pistol on our hands. Before meeting her we couldn’t figure out how she got dressed or fed herself with just two fingers, but she did everything easily (no one is more skilled with chopsticks!), and we learned there was nothing she couldn’t figure out how to do given time and effort. YaYu was initially terrified when placed with us, but with her sisters’ help she began to relax (they could speak to her in Mandarin), and within a few days YaYu told our facilitator that she was ready to go to America with her new family. She started kindergarten in September and the rest, as they say, is history. She is our fierce girl, always moving forward, facing head-on whatever comes her way, always trying harder.

But that’s my story. Below is YaYu’s, the essay she wrote for her college application:

Almost like a warning label was a note my parents received when they adopted me at the age of five: “She can be quite stubborn at times.”

I resented the associations that came with the word stubborn: Obstinate. Headstrong. Pigheaded. I wasn’t any of those things. I was persistent. I was determined. I was creative. I had to be to do what anyone else could.

When I was a toddler I was burned, and left with scars on the left side of my face and only two fingers on each hand. I don’t remember what happened, but doctors believed I had likely pulled a hot pan from a stove. What I do remember is discovering I was different, and that I often had to try harder, or figure out a different way to accomplish what seemed so effortless for others.

Once, in elementary school, a teacher taught our class a neat little technique of using our fingers to make adding and subtracting easier. She started with the equation two plus eight. She held two fingers up and then began to fan her fingers out one by one until magically she was holding up all ten fingers! But when I put my hands up and attempted the trick, the only equation I could do was two plus two.

At first embarrassed, I realized I didn’t have to accept the situation, and tried to think of a different way to do the problem. My eyes settled on the little basket of crayons that sat in front of me. I dumped all of them onto my desk and tried the trick again. My solution proved to be just as effective as everyone else’s fingers!

As I progressed through school I continued to adjust in little ways to fit in, and my life was comfortable. Friends and teachers hardly noticed my hands and scars, if at all, and I believed nothing could hold me back. Then my whole world changed when my family moved to Kaua’i the summer before my first year of high school. More than just a “new kid,” I was again the girl with scars on her face, the girl with missing fingers. Each day at school I faced stares and questions about my abilities.

My greatest challenge came when I joined the school’s swim team. Would I be able to swim quickly enough with only a few fingers to help propel me forward? Competitive swimming was difficult beyond anything I had done before, but I loved to swim and believed I could succeed. One day at practice the coach asked the rest of the team to swim laps with their fists closed, to help them understand what swimming was like for me. Watching the entire team slow down to a crawl was crushing. I felt angry and wanted to quit. This wasn’t fair – I tried so hard! Later though I overheard a teammate tell someone that I inspired her because I worked so hard, and I didn’t give up. Her words were a revelation to me, and pushed me to work even harder to improve my technique and increase my speed. I will never be the team’s fastest swimmer, but I have become a better, more successful racer.

When I was a little girl I used to wish my hands could be restored, and my scars erased. Over time though I’ve come to see that my scars and missing fingers were never limitations, but invitations to challenge myself, to look at things differently, and to persist in order to accomplish my goals. I have applied those lessons to everything I undertake, whether it’s making my own pasta or learning another language or mentoring a young student.

I am not stubborn. I am creative. I am persistent. I am determined, and I am eager to embrace all the challenges that are yet to come.

We are so immensely proud, and humbled as well, by this amazing girl that we have been privileged to parent. What a ride it’s been, but she is ready to fly on her own. Look out world, here she comes!



Thinking Ahead

As mentioned a short while ago, Brett and I have started discussing where (and even if) we want to settle when the Big Adventure ends in May 2019. There’s much to consider, and still lots of unknowns right now, the biggest being where YaYu will attend college. That information alone, once we have it, will have a profound affect on our decision, but in the meantime there are things we can begin to talk about. Brett and I have gone back to our tried and true method of developing lists and spreadsheets, and looking at the pros and cons of different options. Once again, we’re taking our time to come to the best decision for the direction we’ll take once the Big Adventure is over in May 2019.

For the time being we’ve been putting together a list of the things that are important to us, or that we believe will be in the future. We haven’t particularly ranked anything yet, and none of the points listed below is yet a deal-killer. Some of the things we are considering so far are:

  • Do we want to settle somewhere or keep traveling? Everything will revolve around our answer to this question.
  • Cost of living: We’re pretty sure we’re going to want to continue traveling in some form, and the lower the cost of living if we decide to settle somewhere, the more we will have for travel.
  • Taxes: We will want a location with a good tax environment for retirees that doesn’t tax Social Security, has a lower or no tax on military retirement, low sales tax, etc. (We’re allowed to dream, aren’t we?).
  • Walkability: We do not want to own a car again, if possible. We would prefer to live somewhere where we can walk or use public transportation for the majority of tasks, and use ride or car share for those times when we absolutely have to have a car.
  • Culture: We’re mainly thinking about having access to classes for enrichment, but would also like a variety of other other cultural offerings nearby if possible, like art museums, theaters, etc.
  • Health care: The availability of good medical care, specialists, etc. will become even more important as we age.
  • Travel & transportation: If we settle, the ease of our getting to other places and for our children to come see us will be important.
  • Weather: While we would prefer sunny, warm weather, we (me especially) also would prefer someplace with less humidity if possible. We’re also not crazy about living somewhere that gets a lot of snow, especially since we’d like to walk a lot for as much of the year as possible.

So far, we have come up with four general location options with pros and cons to each one:

  • Return to Kaua’i: The thought of leaving here permanently is difficult to think about, but we’re not sure it will make sense to return if all of the girls are attending college, or living, on the mainland. Especially since neither we nor they can afford the cost of them (and eventually their families) traveling here every year, or us to the mainland to see them in all in the various places they live or will live. However, if YaYu ends up attending the University of Hawai’i, it will make sense for us to continue to live here, for a few more years at least. We would move to a smaller, more affordable space on the island, and perhaps even buy a condo here (although local HOA fees have pretty much priced us out of the market).
  • Settle somewhere on the mainland: If YaYu ends up attending college on the mainland, it will make much more sense for us to resettle back there somewhere, as it will be easier to see the girls and for the girls to come and see us. It’s also easier, believe it or not, for our son and family to travel to the mainland than to come to Kaua’i from Japan. Where that somewhere might be though is the big unknown. Living on the mainland would be more affordable overall, and we would probably buy something small, a true pied à terre so to speak. Brett and I dream of being car free and able to get to places by walking, using public transportation or using a ride-share or car-share service when necessary, and there are locations on the mainland where we could make that dream a reality.
  • Relocate overseas: The opportunity to live in a different country and experience a different culture still greatly appeals to us. Having lived overseas twice (in Japan) we know many of the ins and outs, pros and cons, and pitfalls of overseas living. It would mean a major, major lifestyle change and affect the whole family so it’s currently not as viable as the two options above. Still, it’s not out of the running. We both agree that if Japan ever offers a visa for retirees (highly unlikely) we would move there in a heartbeat.
  • Continue traveling: The Senior Nomads, who have been traveling non-stop for the past four years, were the inspiration for our own upcoming Big Adventure, and we are not ready yet to write off the possibility that we will enjoy our experience enough to want to keep going for another year or longer. There are so many places we want to see and that we won’t be visiting on our upcoming Adventure, and we may decide we just want to keep traveling for a while longer.

I am grateful we have so many choices, but there is a great deal to consider before making a decision. Thankfully nothing has to be decided in a hurry. Both Brett and I are physically, mentally and in good (enough) shape financially to take on any of these options, and all of them appeal to us in one way or another. We’re currently leaning toward one of the first two options, but will reevaluate our position as the year progresses and eventually come up with a firm decision about our future direction.

The Games We’ll Play

Because we know that not every minute of the Big Adventure will be spent sightseeing or traveling from place to place, Brett and I are taking along three of our favorite diversions, Scrabble, Yahtzee and cards, for when we have some “down time. They’ve all made countless moves with us over the years, and we thought they deserved to be part of this journey as well.

We’ve had our Scrabble set since before we were married, but have ditched the box for this trip. Brett is a skilled player and I rarely can beat him, but am always willing to embarrass myself yet again and try. We’ve had our Yahtzee cup since our son was in elementary school, and repeated coverings of duct tape have kept it functional. Our family came up with our own version of Yahtzee a long time ago, playing across the scorecard versus down each row. The game moves a little faster this way, and requires a bit more strategy, but we can’t imagine playing any other way now.

Our favorite card game is a simple one: eleven card gin. We keep score, and first person to get to 500 loses. We were going to buy a couple of new decks of Bicycle playing cards to take along (versus YaYu’s deck of Studio Ghibli cards pictured above), but after I took the picture she presented us the lovely boxed set from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, something her aunt gave her years ago and that have never been used.

Brett and I also enjoy putting together jigsaw puzzles, the more complicated the better, but for obvious reasons will not be putting one of those into our suitcases. We hope to buy one now and again though when we’re settled in someplace for a while, and will leave it behind for the next guests when we move on.

But Will It All Fit?

Gifts play an important role in Japanese culture, so any trip to Japan for us means taking gifts for family and others . . .  and in our case this usually means lots of gifts. However, Brett, YaYu and I will only each be taking a carry-on bag, and one additional bag for under-seat stowage (tote bag for me; backpacks for Brett and YaYu), so making sure everything fits and arrives in good condition will be a bit of a challenge.

Besides clothing for eleven days, here’s what we’ve got to fit into our luggage this time:

Gifts for our granddaughter: Two onesies, a Hawaiian-print sundress, some leggings, a stuffed hippo, a feeding set, and some ocean-themed blocks.

For our grandson: Star Wars Lego set (he’s obsessed with both right now), Star Wars Lego t-shirt, six boxes of macaroni & cheese, and two packages of tortillas (for quesadillas). Tortillas and mac & cheese are available in Japan, but are super expensive.

For our daughter-in-law, Kona coffee and Kaua’i made soap.

We’re giving our son some of his U.S. favorites that are unavailable in Japan. He especially loves anything chocolate & mint, and it’s hard if not impossible to find in Japan. We’ll also get him two to three cases of Diet Coke from the mini mart in the hotel while we’re there – you can’t buy it otherwise in Japan, and he loves it.

We’ll probably get together with our daughter-in-law’s parents, so we’re prepared with a small gift of Hawaiian items: Kona coffee, chocolate covered macadamia nuts, and Kaua’i-made cookies.

Because it’s so ridiculously expensive now to mail anything to Japan, we are taking along some of our granddaughter’s first birthday gift: eight board books, a birthday card and gift bag. We’ll buy a couple of other things while we’re there for them to put away until her birthday.

We’re also taking several gift bags, tissue paper and tape, and will assemble and wrap everything once we get to our hotel room. Presentation is important in Japan!

The big question as we start this week is whether we can get all of this to fit into our bags. I think we can – the only “big” items are the box of cereal and the Lego set. Brett is a master packer (and I’m no slouch), and I’m confident will find ways to squeeze everything in. We do have some Space Bags to use if we need them, but I’m hoping they won’t be needed.

Fingers crossed!

Death and Life

In the coming month our family’s emotions will run the gamut from deep loss to profound joy.

College senior
College senior

My mom is getting ever nearer to the end of her life. It’s been just over a month since I saw her, and there have apparently been profound changes since then. Her pain is increasing, as is her dementia. She still has an appetite, but is losing weight. We were informed last week by hospice that Mom is most likely entering her last few weeks of life, but no one can say for sure how much longer she will be with us. She is still her positive and upbeat self and gets up and dressed every day, but it’s getting harder each time. She frequently talks of her parents now, either that they’re coming soon, or that they’ve been taking care of things for her, bringing her things. This is not uncommon with the dying, to sense the presence of and talk to already dead relatives and friends.

My father’s death was sudden but not unexpected, and even though he and I were not close it was still a shock. My mother’s death is expected, but I already know it will affect me far more profoundly than my father’s did. My mom and I have had our differences, but she has lived a long time, had a good life, and lived it her way. She has been a genuine force of nature, a comet racing across the sky, and the world will be emptier without her in it.

Great joy will also be coming in October though as our new granddaughter is due to arrive this month! My son and daughter-in-law are ready, with the baby crib set up and other baby gear cleaned and ready to be put into use again. Our grandson is also excited and eager to meet “his baby.” Our son will be taking several weeks off from work to take care of things around the house, and get our grandson to school and home while our daughter-in-law recovers and adjusts to life with two children.

This time we don’t know the name they have chosen for the baby, and we’re looking forward to learning what they’ve decided on. We’ve tried to guess but have given up; we can’t figure out a name that works in both Japanese and English. I wish we could meet our granddaughter sooner than next year, but hopefully March will be here before we know it. Brett and I are looking forward to being those grandparents again when we go to Japan, with suitcases bursting full of baby things, and goodies for our grandson as well. We’re so excited about getting to spend loads of time with both our grandchildren.

Both death and great sadness, birth and great joy will enter our lives this month. It’s a bit overwhelming to contemplate at times, but that’s just how life happens sometimes.

Another One Is Leaving the Nest

WenYu and I had a great time on the south shore this past Saturday, finishing up the last bit of shopping that needed to be done before she leaves for college next week. We had a fun time together, and enjoyed our lunch stop at Puka Dogs in Poipu.

This will be WenYu’s last week of work for the summer; Saturday is her final day. She’s been starting to get her things organized, and packing will begin in earnest next weekend. We’ll finish that up on Monday, and on Tuesday morning she and I will leave to take her back to Massachusetts.

WenYu's referral picture, the only one we had before we met her
WenYu’s referral picture, the only one we had before we met her

Although she’s not our youngest child, WenYu was our last baby, the last child whose diapers we changed, watched take her first step and all those other milestones. Brett and I had requested to adopt an older child, a toddler between the ages of two and four because we were getting older, and had also gotten rid of almost all of the baby things we had borrowed for Meiling’s arrival. When we got “the call” from our social worker two months earlier than expected, letting us know that we had been matched with a 10-month old baby, we were told we could turn down the referral because she was so much younger than we had requested. However, Brett and I both felt there must have been a good reason this baby was matched to us, and we accepted the referral without hesitation.

In Beijing, age seven
In Beijing, age seven. WenYu thanked us for taking her when we got home, and told us “I left a piece of my heart there.”

WenYu was and continues to be the easiest baby/toddler/child/teenager/young woman to raise. There were no “terrible” years, ever. No scenes, no tantrums, no talking back, no demands, no sulking. We could have sent her to have tea with the Queen at age three and not worried about her manners or ability to make conversation. She’s always been a good listener, and able to see what’s under the surface in almost every situation . . . an old soul. She has always provided a calm, serene presence in our family. She is the child that eats anything without complaint; the one that when you ask for an opinion gives a thoughtful one, and with kindness; the student who gives a little bit more than what is asked for.

She’s never been a pushover though. She knows how to assert herself, both subtly and otherwise, and you know if she asks you stop, or says no, that she means it. One of my favorite memories was when I took her to swim lessons when she was three years old. Meiling was also learning to swim and took to it like a fish to water, moving up to the next level after each six-week session. WenYu, on the other hand, happily went along to the pool, put on her swimsuit without complaint, got into the pool with her classmates, and then did nothing. She ended the year at the same level she started because she was just not interested in learning to swim at age three and this was how she chose to assert herself. But the next year? She decided she was ready, and after that she was the one moving up after each session, and ended up surpassing everyone else. We’ve learned that she may do things on her own schedule, but she always gets done what she needs to, and always on time.

Is she perfect? Most definitely not. Her spirit animal is the sloth, and her pace can sometimes leave the rest of us feeling very frustrated. She’s a packrat and her room is always a mess, and I genuinely feel for her upcoming roommate. We’ve made her promise that she at least keeps her mess to her side of the room.

High school senior

WenYu wrote the following when she was 16:

Sometimes as an adoptee, I feel like my mosaic is flipped over, so all my pieces are undetected, mounted on a foreign substance — material that is familiar to me, but completely bizarre to some. People want to inspect me. They want to know my “dramatic” life story. They want to know about my “real” parents. Am I related to my sisters? Would I change anything? In return, I smile and shake or nod my head respectfully, but in the back of my mind I can’t help but wonder, “Why does it matter?”

I don’t mind being asked these questions. I believe curiosity isn’t something that should be held in contempt, but sometimes I am confronted by people who believe that because I’m adopted, I’m missing a crucial part of who I am. They look at me as though my picture can never be complete. My personal experiences have actually had the opposite effect. I am confident in this growing montage of myself. I know what I like, what I believe in, what I want to do with my life. I don’t think anyone can control these things. Of course our parents will influence us, but it is my own decision whether I find their opinions to be true or not.

As I’ve grown, more pieces have been added to my “big picture,” slowly covering that unknown material that is my foundation. I was born a clean slate, but it was me who found these fragments that made my mosaic strong. After 15 years of being an adoptee, I realize that everyone is defined by more than where or who they come from. I am more than blood and DNA. I am more than a pair of brown eyes. I am a mind, and a voice. I am somebody’s daughter. Someone’s sister, whether we came from the same people or not. I am—in the simplest, most true way of describing it—Me.

We are going to miss WenYu so very, very much, but at the same time we are so excited for her that we can barely stand it. She is ready to fly away as her own person, and we want to yell, “Look out world! Here she comes!”

My Second Choice

My first day in Japan, my host family put me on the train (the orange one, the Chuo Line) and sent me into Tokyo on my own for orientation and first day of class. It was quite the experience, but I didn't get lost and made it home at the end of the day!
One of my favorite images of Tokyo – Ochanomizu Station.

Looking back, sometimes in our lives there’s that one choice we make that seemingly changes everything, and affects everything that comes after it. We may or may not recognize its importance at the time. Call it fate or whatever, what appears to be an insignificant choice at the time can end up having a profound influence on almost everything that happens after, in both small and large ways.

I graduated from high school in 1970. I had applied to several colleges, but Lewis & Clark College in Portland was at the top of my list, and I was accepted in early spring. Lewis & Clark is known for their overseas study programs, and after my acceptance I was sent an application for the upcoming overseas programs that were being offered during my freshman year. The only one I was even remotely interested in was England. On the application we were asked to choose a back-up program just in case we weren’t selected for our first choice, so I marked Japan, the only other program where language proficiency wasn’t a requirement. I didn’t know the first thing about Japan, and didn’t give it another thought – I was going to England.

On graduation day in June I received a letter from Lewis & Clark informing me that I had been selected for the 1971 Overseas Study trip to Japan, and in early January 1971 I and 18 fellow Lewis & Clark students boarded the S.S. President Cleveland in San Francisco, and sailed off to the east. Two weeks later we disembarked in Yokohama. Right behind me in the immigration line were John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who had been on the same cruise as our little group*. At one point, John leaned over and asked me if I had had a nice trip. “Yes, I did. How about you?” I have no idea what he answered because I think at that point I had melted into a puddle on the floor.

Our group spent five months in Japan, doing homestays in Tokyo and Hiroshima, and living in a hotel in Takarazuka (located in the middle of Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka, and famous for the all-female Takarazuka Review). The final two weeks of our trip we traveled by train along the western coast up to the north, staying in youth hostels each night, all the way up to Sapporo for another short homestay. During our time in Japan we took language and culture classes, visited famous and interesting locations, learned to eat (and love) sushi, wasabi and other Japanese food, did research for a major paper, and improved our Japanese.

I didn’t see it coming, but in those five months I fell totally and completely head-over-heels in love with Japan.

Looking back, that one trip, taken when I was just 18, has played a highly influential role in my life ever since. It’s influence has stretched far beyond a young college student’s visit to a foreign country (which of course is one of the reasons Lewis & Clark holds overseas study trips every year).

Here’s some of what’s resulted because instead of going to England, I instead went to my second choice country:

  • Because of my desire to go back, Brett did two tours with the navy in Japan, when our son was young. Our first tour was for three-years (1980-1983), the second for three and a half (1989-1992). The second tour included nearly two years of living out in town like a local. That was hard at the time, but I now feel so thankful for the experience. We traveled all over Japan both times we lived there, made wonderful friends, and brought home some beautiful treasures.
  • I taught English conversation during our tours in Japan, which inspired me to get my Master’s degree in TESOL when we returned to the U.S. I had a wonderful career teaching English to amazing and inspiring students from all over the world, and am so much richer for it, as well as getting a pretty nice retirement package.
  • When we returned to the U.S. after our second tour, our son decided to teach himself Japanese because he wanted to read the manga (Japanese comics) he had brought back from Japan. He ended up more proficient than the Japanese teacher at his high school, and went on to major in Japanese Studies in college. He did his junior year abroad in Japan, and met a Waseda University student at a party; she would eventually become his wife. Following his graduation from college, he went to Japan and taught English for a couple of years, then worked at the U.S. Embassy for several years before returning to the States to attend law school. He has been working as an attorney in Japan since graduation.
  • When I went back to college, I took an anthropology class on East Asia to learn more about Japanese culture. My professor had just adopted a little girl from China and told me about the process. Two years later Brett and I travelled to China to adopt Meiling, and we went back twice more to adopt WenYu and YaYu.
  • Because our son and his family live in Japan, one of the things we were looking for in a retirement location, besides good weather, was proximity to Japan. It’s one of the reasons we ended up in Hawai’i, where there are plenty of direct flights to Tokyo, and a prominent Japanese influence in the local culture. I’ve been to Japan twice since we moved, and we’ll be going again next year to meet our new granddaughter. Brett and I are looking forward to spending several months in Japan each year once YaYu has headed off to college.

Of course, all these things might still have occurred if I had gone to England in 1971; there’s no way to know. However, I know for sure these things did happen because I went on that first trip to Japan.

I’ve always seen my life as a sort of giant flow chart. Each choice I make along the way, big or small, determines both future choices and the continuing direction of not only my own life but my family’s as well. These days I think carefully about how a choice or decision I’m making will determine or influence what happens in the future. But at eighteen I didn’t consider the future so closely, if at all, and couldn’t imagine that a casual selection of Japan as an alternative for overseas study would end up having such a profound influence on the path my and my family’s lives have taken, and for so long.

*I cannot find it, darn it, but somewhere I have the most wonderful photo, taken by the ship’s photographer, of John and Yoko stretched out on deck chairs, bundled up against the cold and wearing their puffy life jackets during the weekly drill.

Our Short Oahu Getaway

Our short visit to Waikiki has been . . . perfect. In just two and half days here we’ve enjoyed great weather, gotten everything done we wanted and needed to do, and we‘ve relaxed.

The view from our lanai.
The view from our lanai

I don’t know what we did right, but the room we were given at the Hale Koa was on the top floor, with sweeping views of the resort grounds, the ocean and Waikiki Beach. We spent a lot of time at the hotel out on our lanai enjoying the view, whether that was for the sunset in the evening, or coffee and breakfast in the morning, or relaxing between other activities. Our room was spacious and comfortable, and the hotel had everything you could think of: restaurants, several bars, casual dining options, two pools (one for 18 and older only), beach access and rentals, tennis courts, a day spa, a gym, and beautiful grounds for strolling. Most things are for military only (you have to present ID to get in), but a few things, like the day spa, are open to the public with military receiving a discount. We laughed that Brett probably had the longest hair there (for a guy), and seemed to be the only retiree not sporting a ball cap that stated “Retired <branch of service>.”

Our hotel tower, one of two at the Hale Koa. Our room was on the top floor, second from the left.
Our hotel tower, one of two at the Hale Koa. Our room was on the top floor, second from the left. The Maile Pool (18 and older only) is in the foreground; there’s another larger pool on the grounds for families and children.
The Maile pool looking down from our lanai
Looking down from our lanai at the Maile pool.
Beautiful landscaping surrounds the Hale Koa.
Beautiful landscaping surrounds the Hale Koa.

One of our primary reasons for coming to Oahu was for the girls to do some shopping. Neither has really bought any new clothes for two years other than t-shirts for school, and with WenYu needing clothes for college they were eager to hit the stores. After we checked in on Wednesday afternoon we took a short walk over to the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center to let them get started. Brett and I turned them loose while we found a quiet seat outside and enjoyed coffee and lemonade, and watched Japanese tourists shop and learn the hula (they picked it up very quickly).

Sunset view from our lanai on Thursday evening
Sunset view from our lanai on Thursday evening

We slept in on Thursday morning, enjoyed our breakfast on the lanai, and then walked over to the huge Ala Moana Center, about a mile away. The girls took off on their own once we got there, and Brett and I mostly spent our time window shopping but bought a couple of things for ourselves: I got new pair of slippahs (flip flops) and some lingerie, and Brett got a new 10-year shaving brush for his Father’s Day gift – his old one is on its very last legs. We met up with the girls in the late afternoon and rode the bus back to the hotel. Dinner that night was at one of the hotel snack bars, with the girls staying to swim for awhile afterwards and Brett and I heading back to our room to enjoy the sunset. We surprised the girls when they got back with some tasty cupcakes from the famous Magnolia Bakery – they have an outpost in the Ala Moana Center.

It's a tough job, but someone has to sit out by the pool
It’s a tough job, but someone has to sit out by the pool
New slippahs and a pedicure!
New slippahs and a pedicure!

Yesterday was dedicated to relaxation. We slept in again, had breakfast on the lanai, and then we all headed in different directions for a while. Brett visited the nearby Army Museum of Hawai’i, the girls went to the pool, and I went to the day spa for a manicure and pedicure. We all got together for lunch at another one of the snack bars (all the snack bars served really tasty food), then headed to the pool for an afternoon of swimming and sunbathing. The girls took off early and went back into town for one last round of shopping while Brett and I relaxed at the Maile pool for a while longer.

Dessert selections included carrot cake, raspberry panna cotta, chocolate mousse and mini fruit tarts
Dessert selections at the buffet included carrot cake, raspberry panna cotta, chocolate mousse and mini fruit tarts

We had not planned to do any restaurant dining, but one of the Hale Koa’s restaurants hosts an all-you-can-eat buffet every evening at a very reasonable price, and Friday evening we learned they were serving crab legs and peel-and-eat shrimp as well as the regular menu items, so we decided we had to go. Our table came with a gorgeous view of the beach, and the food was amazing! We all ate too much, but agreed it was well worth it!

Ou intrepid shoppers relaxing on Waikiki Beach at sundown
Our intrepid shoppers relaxing on Waikiki Beach at sundown

Then we headed down to the beach to view Diamond Head once more, and see the sun set, before heading back to our room to watch the fireworks show in honor of Kamahemeha Day, the biggest state holiday in Hawai’i. We ended the day getting everything packed and ready for this morning’s departure for home.

The remains of the day: Waikiki sunset
The remains of the day: Waikiki sunset

While we greatly enjoyed the hustle and bustle of Honolulu and Waikiki, we are glad to be heading home to our slower-paced island. The getaway was a great one though – we all had a terrific time, got what we needed and did not go over budget! Brett and I are especially proud of the girls and their shopping prowess – they found lots of great stuff and are coming home with money still in their accounts. We’ll definitely be heading back to Waikiki again, but next time will give ourselves more time for sightseeing around the island. We loved our time on Oahu!

First Trip to India

Photo: Wolf Price
Photo: Wolf Price

I had no desire to visit India until my son asked me to go.

He was living in Nepal and ready for a fresh adventure after volunteering in Kathmandu.

I had missed out on Morocco when he asked me to go with him and a friend when we met in Spain (I had to go to Italy for the first time) so no way was I going to say no to India and a chance to let my son lead me to a brand new country.

So I jumped in with no prior knowledge of India except for seeing the movie Gandhi.

That first trip to India and Nepal changed my life, turned me upside down, and electrified my bone marrow. I was never the same again.

The photo of me above was shot right after rafting down the Ganges River in the winter; drenched with icy waves over our heads as we paddled to stay afloat.

Of course we had to volunteer for the front paddling positions in the boat which means you get the worst of the waves over your head and the rest of the passengers just get sprayed.

But I never felt so alive in my life.

My son pushed me to go.

I just wanted to read a book that day.

India blasted open my spirit, forcing me to leap way out of my comfort zone.

Photo: Bartnikowski, Dalai_Lama in India
Photo: Bartnikowski, Dalai Lama in India

I was cold in the Himalayas, I got deathly sick, but I also ate tasty delectable food, was immersed in a multitude of religions, saw the Dalai Lama teach at his home in Dharamsala, had my eye balls seared with women’s colorful clothing, met gurus, saints, and friendly elephants!

There is nothing India doesn’t have but order.

Amritsar, photo student from Miri Piri Academy, during the class I was teaching
Amritsar, India photo credit: student from Miri Piri Academy, during the class I was teaching

There aren’t any rules in India: you can have bonfires in the street with cows who want to get warm in the high ethers of the Himalayas.

People drive recklessly. Watch out crossing the street. You don’t want to get mowed down by a motorbike or attacked by a monkey.

Some monkeys are mean in India, one stole my new dress off the clothes line and I didn’t find it until 2 hours later in the dark with my flashlight.

I’ve since been to India 4 times solo. And as soon as I left that first time, I wanted to go back. I found myself in Bali which seemed awfully tame compared to jolt your eyes open India.

What made me buck up and get strong?

The fact that yes I’m deliciously free and can make all my own decisions.

This is a huge opportunity for possible risk but it was also a leap into the unknown, an adventure beckoning, a bewildering array of options, food I couldn’t identify and stumbling happily through a language I didn’t understand.

I tried to learn Hindi and the Nepali language.

“Sundar” means pretty in Nepal. And meeto-cha means this food is yummy. That’s all I learned and actually I didn’t need to know anymore on that first trip.

After traveling with my son for a month, we went solo on our own paths. And boy did my India adventure change.

Being solo is misunderstood in India.

Local people from India wonder why you’re not traveling with your in-laws, 7 children and two sets of grandparents. Really.

Many people want to help you in India, some are scammers, and some are saints. Both will approach you especially when you are solo.

Here is what I do now. I surround myself with a shield of white light and send out the message with my mind, you will not approach me unless I invite you.

It works.

Do you remember the Beatles White Album? Much of it was written in Rishikesh, where I shot the photo below.

The Beatles stayed at a now defunct ashram with Maharishi on the Ganges River while they learned meditation and wrote songs.

Rishikesh, India, Ganges River_Photo: Bartnikowski
Rishikesh, India, Ganges River_Photo: Bartnikowski

What I did was I was lay on the marble floor of this gorgeous “ghat.” (a river side temple, dock, or bathing spot)

The nightly puja was happening.

My tripod was only 6 inches high, one of those tiny jobs that don’t extend, but even though a policeman’s foot was inches from my head, I got this shot from a unique angle.

My body commanded me to capture it.

That’s the real secret of how I get the money shots. My body tells me to shoot and I listen.

So this was our happy hour of prayers, offerings, songs, and chanting.

Puja persuaded me to stop drinking wine when I hadn’t decided to give it up.

But Rishikesh is a holy town in the foothills of the Himalayas; you can’t get booze there.

I was not going to get on the boat, cross the Ganges, and go into town to purchase low grade wine or spirits.

I had spirits at the puja so instead of a cocktail I joined the young Hindu priests, the head swami, and countless tourists from India and worldwide.


I was in heaven.

Afterwards we would meet with Swami for a blessing (darshan) then I’d walk back to my room at the ashram, or go hook up with Skype, being careful not to step in the cow flops along the path.

Yes India has the internet. And this was in 2006.

But India is the mothership. All roads lead to her.

You don’t have to go to the Himalayas to turn your world upside down pineapple cake but it was just what I needed after living in Palo Alto, California, the epicenter of Silicon Valley for 29 years, not knowing that outside this comfortable bubble of technology, splendor, and genius, there was a world named India that whispered to me, Just Do It.

So I did and I thank my son for inspiring me to do it.

I took 3 months off from life in Palo Alto, turned down work, closed my apartment door, paid the rent which was significant, and set out for India, Nepal, and lastly, Bali.

If you ever hear the call to go to India, do it. Your life will never be the same.

Wolf, my son, and me.
Wolf, my son, and me.

Mary Bartnikowski is an author of 4 books, award-winning photographer in Palo Alto, Hawaii, and worldwide for 29 years.

She has led programs at Apple, Stanford, Intel, and globally.

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