Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Well in Wellington

It has been quite a week since I last posted on here. It didn't take too long to give up on Auckland once I found out that the woman who was supposed to be helping me find a job was in fact doing absolutely nothing. So when a new friend told me she was driving down to Taupo (about halfway to Wellington) last Friday, I was eager to catch a ride. Taupo looked pretty much the same as the last time I was here, but it was still great. Hopefully the next time I am there, I will get to see it from a whole new angle: jumping out of a plane. Taupo has the cheapest skydiving in New Zealand, if not the world, and I am not missing out on that.

Me in front of the Huka Falls where they flow into the Waikato River (later I will try to find what I'm sure is the exact same picture taken in 1997):

The Huka Falls from another angle:

A wierd geothermal area known as Craters of the Moon. That's all steam rising up from the ground. I didn't get any good pictures of the boiling mud, but just trust me that it's there.

On Saturday I was planning to take a bus from Taupo to Wellington, but got really lucky and happened to find a brother and sister who were driving down to Wellington and were happy to give me a ride if I split fuel costs. So my whole trip to the bottom of the North Island ended up costing about $15, plus I got to ride in real cars with interesting people instead of a cramped bus. Not too bad!

In Wellington I was greeted by some familiar faces. My cousin Peter and his wife Roni have just moved down to NZ as well. They're a little more hardcore than I am--they're getting residency status, finding real jobs and actually planning to live here. Even though they are also newcomers, they were able to give me a nice orientation to the city and point out all the important things (mainly where to eat, which really is the most important thing). Sunday was more family reuinon fun, with an awesome hike around eastern Wellington up to a lookout where we could see the South Island and the Southern Alps. It was the perfect day to go because it happened to be the one day since I've gotten here when it was not gray and chilly. Even though this picture is not the greatest in the world (gotta get my camera fixed--it doesn't seem to like taking pictures in focus), that white stuff on the horizon that looks like clouds is actually the Southern Alps.

On Monday it was time to get down to business and I spent the day handing out/emailing resumes to every temp agency I could find. I was a little frustrated at first when one of my roommates at my hostel--who doesn't even have a work permit--got some phone calls back and I didn't hear anything. But Tuesday brought better news and an interview with a temp agency who has already found an interesting position for me. They said they just need to finish talking to my references, and I should actually have a job to start ASAP.

Hopefully my good luck with this city will continue as I move on to the next piece to the puzzle: finding a place to live. I went to check out a place yesterday and was thoroughly disappointed. However, the girl showing me the room could have done a little better at selling it by not telling me things like "I would never go in the bathroom without shoes on" or "We just got a cat because we have a mice and rats." I'm willing to forego a little luxury for cheap rent and a good location, but only to a certain point.

So all in all, Wellington has been treating me well and I can only hope that it continues to do so since I plan to stay here until the end of October. The only area where I could stand some improvement is in the weather, but if this is "winter" then I really can't complain.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Still in Auckland

As the title says, I have not left the city yet. No luck on the job front, so I'm just killing time here until something comes up. The program I'm here with has a job recruiter who is pretty much doing all the work for me. This is great in that I don't have to do anything, but also nerve-wracking because it means that I am just sitting around waiting and wondering if there's something else I could be doing.

But because I don't have any job hunting work to do, I have been free to sightsee around the city. Auckland's got a fair amount to see and do, and this has been greatly enhanced by the fact that backpacker tour companies here run free "orientation" tours of the city. Considering that I don't have a car and the city is extremely spread out (supposedly the fourth biggest city in the world in terms of urban sprawl), this has been an awesome way to get around. Here is a small sampling of some of the things I've seen (as you can see, the blog is finally being cooperative with pictures ). Hopefully the pics will give you an idea of why I think it's so beautiful here.

Here is a beach in Devonport, the richest suburb of Auckland. With views like this, no wonder it's so expensive.

View of the Auckland city skyline from the top of Mt. Victoria, one of Auckland's 50 volcanoes. Supposedly they're all dormant. Let's hope so.

However, this is Rangitoto Island, which was formed only 600 years ago when an underwater volcano errupted in the middle of the harbour. Geologists expect that another erruption like this will happen sometime in the next 100 or so years. Maybe it's time to get out of this city.
And since we're on the topic of volcanoes, here is the crater of Mt. Eden, the biggest volcano in Auckland. According to the tour guide, some university students played a great prank by throwing some tires down in the crater and lighting them on fire in the middle of the night, so when everyone woke up in the morning there was smoke coming from the volcano. However, the truth behind this story is a little suspect considering that the tour guide said it happened seven years ago, yet when I was here nine years ago our tour guide told us the exact same story. True or not, it's still a good story.
And here is some culture for you. At the Auckland museum they have a Maori (the indigenous people) marae (meeting house) that you can walk inside. I think Maori artwork is some of the most beautiful I've ever seen.

If Auckland is considered boring, then I can't wait to get out to the rest of the country.
If anyone is interested in sending me any mail (and I know you are), you can send it to the following address. It will get forwarded to me wherever I am in New Zealand:
c/o IEP
PO Box 1786
Shortland Street
New Zealand

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Kiwi Country

Well, I've made it over "the ditch" and have arrived safely in Auckland. Despite the fact that it's about 10 degrees (Farenheit) colder here than it was in Australia, I'm glad to be here. I remember falling in love with this country when I was here in '97, and as soon as I got here I felt that love again. Even the descent into Auckland was breathtaking, complete with rolling hills, crashing waves, and lush greenery. Everything is beautiful, and I love the general feel of the atmosphere. So far my favorite thing about Auckland is definitely the diversity. Walking down the street, the majority of the people are non-white, and there are countless ethnicities represented. There are tons of East Asians, a susprising number of Indians, and more Pacific Islanders than I have ever seen in my life. I'm pretty sure I've seen more Africans in my three days here than I did in my entire time in Australia. I'm definitely feeling a little more at home.

Although I of course want to see everything there is to see in New Zealand (much more feasible here than it was in Australia), I've decided that I'm going to settle down first and work for awhile. This will be good for a couple of reasons. First of all, I'm pretty sick of traveling. I'm ready to unpack my bag, make some long-term friends and actually live somewhere. Second, staying in the same place for awhile is decidedly cheaper than moving around nonstop. Hopefully a steady job will help me save up some money so that by the time I am refreshed and rejuvenated and ready to travel again, I'll actually have the funds to do so. Finally, my plan coincides pretty well with the seasons. It's fall/winter here now, so working for six months or so will mean that I'll start my travels right when the weather gets warm enough for the kinds of activities I'm interested in (hiking, swimming, boating, etc.--pretty much anything that does not involve snow or cold).

My resume is out to employers, so hopefully I should hear something soon and I can start in on becoming a temporary Kiwi.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Finally, Some Pictures

I know I said the previous post would be my last from Australia, but I have found a computer that will let me post pictures! I've edited past posts to include some good ones, so you get to go through and read everything again.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Peace Out, Oz

Well, this will be my last post from Australia. Since I've been here, I've naturally liked some things, and been underwhelmed by others. I've actually started keeping lists of "Where Australia gets it right" as well as "Where Australia gets it wrong." I thought I'd share them with you. A couple caveats, of course. Most of these are comparisons to life in the US, or at least my life in the US, so just because something is good/bad for me here, doesn't mean it would be for everyone. Also, these are of course generalizations and seeing as I have only been to a limited number of places for a short period of time, they probably don't apply to all of Australia or all Australians.

Where Australia Gets it Right

(This list seems like it's kind of short, especially compared to the other list, but I'm sure it will grow once I leave the country. It's always easier to see how good something was once you no longer have it.)

  • Hostels. I am amazed at how many hostels there are, how nice so many of them are, and how easy it is to find them. With a lot of the places I stayed, I'd defintiely choose there over a hotel because it had stuff like cooking facilities. Of course some were dirty, but so are a lot of hotels. It's a pretty great way to travel cheaply, and I would expect that overseas 20-somethings would be more than interested in backpacking around the US if they had the kind of options that I do coming to Australia. Are you listening tourism industry?
  • Green bags at grocery stores. Every single grocery store sells these $1 canvas bags that you can use for your groceries. They encourage you to reuse them, and people actually do! I definitely bought one and have been using it most of the time. And now I'm much more conscious of using plastic bags and plan to keep using my canvas one at home. I can't imagine how many plastic bags this saves and how much better this is for the environment.
  • "Monopoly money." I love that the bills are different colored--it makes it so much easier to go through my wallet.
  • People who travel internationally. Most Australians I've met have not only been out of the country, but have done some serious traveling out of the country. So much better than most Americans I know who have only been to Canada, and then only to drink at age 19.
  • EFTPOS (Electronic Funds Transfer at Point of Sale). This is catching on in America--where you can pay with your debit card at the store and get cash out at the same time. But it is everywhere here, even in the middle of the outback. Plus, you can get a card to use even if you just have a savings account. Very convenient.
  • Tim Tams. These are maybe the most delicious cookies ever. It's chocolate mousse sandwiched between two chocolate cookies, and then covered in a chocolate coating. The best way to eat them is a "Tim Tam shooter" where you bite off opposite corners and use it like a straw to drink your coffee. Awesome.
  • Potato wedged with sweet chili sauce and sour cream. A delicious combination that I would never have thought of.
  • Friendly people. People are always up for a chat, and are happy to share all kinds of information and hospitality. Much friendlier than in the US, I think.

Where Australia Gets It Wrong

  • A lack of clocks. I can't seem to find a clock anywhere! In offices, hostels, on the streets, or anywhere. I guess maybe it means that Aussies are more relaxed, but that's just not working for an uptight American like myself.
  • A lack of trash cans. I can never seem to find one when I need it. This especially seems to be true on public transportation. They tell you not to leave trash on the train, but then there are no trash cans in the stations. And very few on the streets. I don't understand how the cities stay as clean as they are.
  • Skim milk only comes in small containers. I haven't been able to find more than one litre at a time, even though other milk comes in big jugs. At home I usually drink about a gallon a week, so I have been spending a lot of time in grocery stores here.
  • Terrible music on the radio and in clubs/bars. Now, I have to of course note that America's pop scene is pretty horrible as well, and a lot of the stuff on the radio is American. But I am consistently amazed to be in a bar and hear one hit wonders from 10-15 years ago--and everyone gets excited! It's like the closing hour at Rick's or Scorekeeper's all the time. Also, there is this weird thing with playing TV theme songs as pop music. Popular right now are the Baywatch theme (seriously) and the theme from the Biggest Loser.
  • Crossword puzzles. In the US, each square of a crossword puzzle covers two clues. Not so here, and I think they're like that in the UK too. But it means that I have no hope of finishing a crossword puzzle if I don't know just one of the clues.
  • A lot of people, especially in more rural areas, walk around barefoot all the time. Like on the street and into stores and things. I just don't like it.
  • In small towns, I've found that there don't seem to be a lot of street signs. There are lots of signs pointing to tourist attractions and things, but no names of actual streets! Even though the towns are only a few streets big, a few times I've just had an address and street name and can't find where I'm going.
  • Food. Okay, I saved this for last because there is a lot of say about how much I've disliked the food here, and I'm not just talking Vegemite (but I didn't like that either). My number one complaint is a lack of flavor. Perhaps this is a leftover from the British legacy, but there just doesn't seem to be a lot of flavor in anything. Except for salt. Food here is super-salty. Often you can actually see the salt on your food, and that means there's too much. I can feel my arteries hardening even as we speak. There also seems to be a big under-use of sauces. When you get ketchup ("tomato sauce"--which is usually very vinegary, even the Heinz) at a place like McDonald's they will give you one packet for your fries ("chips") and expect that to be enough. Most sandwiches come with the option of butter on your bread or nothing. The pizza I've eaten just had a couple of spoonfuls of sauce on top. And I won't even get into the chicken parmigiana debacle. That's not to say that every meal has been terrible. Things I've enjoyed have included a few restaurants in the Blue Mountains, the kangaroo steak I tried in Alice Springs, and a delicious meal in Adelaide (where I was luckily treated by locals who knew where to go and could point me to the good choices on the menu). On the updside of things, I've learned a lot more about cooking for myself.

So those are my immediate reflections on some of the good and the bad in Australia. Like I said, I'm sure there will be more later on as I am further removed from the situation. I have had a good time in Australia and seen and done a lot of once-in-a-lifetime things. I'd say my favorite part was the sailing trip in the Whitsunday Islands and my least favorite part was, no surprise, tomato planting. There are some other things I wish I could have seen, like Tasmania and parts of Western Australia, but I am ready to move on to New Zealand.

Final verdict on Australia (for now, so not actually final): A great place to visit, but I'm pretty happy living in the USA. I guess that's probably the way it's supposed to be, right?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

New Scenery, Still the Middle of Nowhere

I am currently in Coober Pedy, quite probably the wierdest "city" I've ever been to in my entire life ("city"=4000 people and one main street; no street lights that I can see). Coober Pedy is the "Opal Capital of the World," and the industry here consists of opal mining, and tourism surrounding the opal mining industry.

Driving into town, the barren landscape is interrupted by huge white piles of dust, all the excess from the mines. They filmed the movie "Pitch Black" here (one of the worst movies ever) because it looks like another planet.

75% of the people here live underground because of the heat (it gets up to 50 Celsius in the summer, which is "really freakin' hot" in Farenheit). I took a tour of an underground house (pictured right), and was surprised to learn that not only do they live in these caves, they actually can carve them out themselves. You buy a plot of land and start drilling or pick axe-ing. They explained that rooms are often misshapen because someone will find opals and just keep digging, so their bedroom or something ends up being huge. Also, there are no major mining companies, so everyone just sort of mines on their own. This means that local shops sell the ingredients for homemade explosives and the local notice boards are all advertising stuff like drills and whatnot. It's all very surreal, to the say the least.

Tomorrow is a 10-hour drive down to Adelaide, after the 7 hours we already did today. The driving is surreal as well. We are travelling on the Stuart Highway, the "highway" that cuts north-south down the center of Australia. I thought I had driven through the middle of nowhere last year when I drove through places like Texas and North Dakota, but that was nothing. Those were at least 4-lane highways with places to stop more than once every 2-3 hours. And you could see buildings from the road at least some of the time. The Stuart Highway is basically just one long two-lane road. Signs point north to Alice Springs or south to Adelaide--and that's about it. At least it's hard to get lost.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Red Centre Rocks! (sort of)

I'm writing two posts about the last couple days: one about the tourist-y aspects and one ranting about some stuff. This is the post explaining all the tourist-y stuff I've seen/done.

My main objective for coming to Alice Springs was to travel another 5 hours from here and visit that all important symbol of Australia: Uluru (AKA Ayers Rock, but I am going to use the correct, non-colonized name). Since my lack of car prevents me from traveling anywhere myself, I was left with the option of taking a tour. Not a bad option because it meant I also got a tour guide, some traveling companions, some food, and to see a few other things besides the rock itself.

Since everything is such a long drive from everything else, the tour bus picked me up at 5:10am. Yes, it was still dark, and remained dark for about the first hour of the bus ride. After another three or so hours of driving in daylight, we arrived at our first stop: Kings Canyon (pictured left). There's really not much to say about Kings Canyon, except that it is a really big canyon and there were a lot of rocks. Pictures would explain more--it did look really cool--but there's not much I can write that would be of interest, except maybe to mention that we got to see the spot where they filmed a key scene from "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert".

Next was another good hour and a half of driving before arriving at our accommodation for the night. The brochure said we'd be camping, so I was expecting to rough it a little, but really I was was not too disappointed by the fact that our "campsite" included a full kitchen, a screened-in eating area and permanent canvas tents. I also would not really call if camping due to the fact that there was not even one mention of s'mores, but maybe that's just an American thing. Anyway, you can't get Hershey's chocolate here, so really s'mores would be pointless.

Although there were the canvas tents, we were highly encouraged to sleep out under the stars in swags. A swag an Aussie sleeping bag of sorts (as in "Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong..."), and is sort of a canvas cocoon on top of what feels like a deflated air mattress. The air mattress aspect is actually quite comfortable--definitely more comfortable than some of the hostel beds I've been sleeping in. It was freezing cold--about 5 degrees centigrade (which converts into "too cold to be outside" in Fahrenheit"), but our guide assured us that the swags would keep us warm, especially with a regular sleeping bag inside. I believed him, even choosing to sleep in just shorts and a t-shirt (he said that the less you wear, the warmer it is). Maybe I set mine up wrong or something, because I woke up shivering in the middle of the night, put on about three more layers, and still ended up sleeping in the fetal position.

In the end, it was worth it just for the view when we were woken up in the "morning." I put "morning" in quotes because it was actually 5am and still dark out. But the full moon had set, nobody had lights or a fire on, and you could see the stars brilliantly. It's not too bad waking up to see the Milky Way overhead.

We were up so early so that we'd have time to make it over to Uluru for sunrise. People are right that seeing pictures of it does not compare to seeing the actual thing. Its size just can't be captured in a photograph (although I tried, with the requisite photograph to the right. I know, it looks like I'm standing in front of a postcard or something, but I swear I was there). The sunrise was pretty, and the rock definitely did change colors as the sun came up, but I was mildly distracted by the cold and by the fact that my camera chose that moment to stop taking pictures in focus.

After sunrise, we took a walk around the base. It's a 9km walk in total, but we skipped a part and cut it down to just 7km. That's one big rock! There were some interesting cave paintings along the way and lots of interesting formations, but in the end it really was just a gigantic rock. Next we went over to Kata Tjuta, a group of rock domes that's right by Uluru. Our hike through the part called the Valley of the Winds (pictured left, and you can see some of the rock domes in the background) was very pretty, and--you guessed it--filled with a lot of rocks. Again, pictures would help make this blog entry more interesting. I'm not sure I'm convinced that it is worth traveling all the way to the middle of nowhere just to see a whole lot of rocks, but I would have regretted it if I'd skipped it.


In other news, my travel plans have changed more than just a little bit. My original plan was to work here in Alice Springs until my visa expires in the middle of June. But by the time I got here, I didn't really like that plan much, so I've decided to throw in the towel and just cut the Australia portion of my trip short. I'm leaving tomorrow on a two-day drive down to Adelaide, stopping along the way in the underground mining town of Coober Pedy. Then on Monday I'll catch an early flight back to Sydney, and on Tuesday I'll leave for Auckland. While I've done and seen a lot here in Australia, that's sort of turning out to be the problem. Traveling is exhausting and I'm ready to settle down somewhere for awhile. Hopefully in New Zealand I can find a job for six months or so, and I can stop being a tourist and find out what it's really like to live--not just travel--in another country.

This is Why I Went to Bed Angry Last Night

This is one of two entries I'm writing about my experiences over the past few days. I felt like I needed to write two: one about the tourist-y aspects and one ranting about some things I've been thinking about lately. This is the rant :)

One of the bigger regrets I have about this trip so far is that I have not spent much time learning about the indigenous cultures here, either the modern or ancient aspects. I was hoping that in coming to Alice Springs I would be able to work on this, both because of the high Aboriginal population here and the cultural significance of the Red Centre's main attractions. I was hoping that in touring Uluru (AKA Ayers Rock) and the surrounding attractions that I would be able to book a tour that had an Aboriginal guide, both to support the economics of the indigenous people and also so my tour would not have the colonial history of the area as the main focus (I just don't care who "Ayers Rock" was named after). Unfortunately the tours run by Aboriginal guides all operate out of Yulara (the resort town by Uluru), and I needed to find something that would leave out of Alice Springs. So instead I got to see how a white Australian guide explained the cultural aspects of the sights. Let's just say that I was not impressed.

On the other hand, I guess I was not that surprised either. It reminded me of the way that white American tour guides (and other people) often talk about Native Americans. To begin with, the tour guide took to describing indigenous beliefs as "myths" and "legends," as though the culture is something so ridiculous that it can only be thought of as a fictional story. The guide would say things like, "The Aboriginals believe that the hill over there was the mother dingo and the other hills were her pups. But to me it looks like a bunch of hills." Oh, those crazy Aborigines, believing that rocks are dingoes! It would never happen that a tour guide in a church would explain communion by saying, "Christians believe that they're actually drinking the blood of a dead guy who they thought was the son of God, but to me it just seems like cheap red wine." Completely disrespectful, no?

Along those lines, I also noticed the tour guide saying things like, "Aborigines believe ABC, but Australians think XYZ." Since when are Aborigines not Australian? This subtle "othering" of indigenous Australians seems to be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the segregation I've noticed between white Australians and the natives.

Finally, it drove me crazy that the tour guide kept referring to "the Aborigines" as if all indigenous people of Australia are the same. I feel like I always see this when people talk about Native Americans at home. When you're talking about things like how "the Aborigines" traditionally lived, there is no way that you can group those who lived in the desert regions like this and, for example, those who lived up in the tropics. Why was it so hard for the tour guide to talk about "the Anangu," the name of the people in this area? You wouldn't talk about all Europeans as having the same culture, so again, what's the difference?

Unfortunately, the tour guide was not the first Australian I've met who spoke of the indigenous people with a sort of disrespect. And unfortunately, I have met a number of tourists who have adopted these same negative views. Most of my conversations about Aborigines have consisted of someone else talking about how they're "all drunks." Great. This leads me to a question I've been thinking about for awhile. My first instinct is to argue that (1) not all Aborigines are alcoholics and (2) alcoholism is not a problem confined to Aborigines. But this seems somewhat unproductive as well because it ignores seems implies that the causes and effects of alcoholism are exactly the same for Aboriginal communities as they are for white communities. It's a fact that alcoholism rates are high in the Aboriginal communities, so how can we talk about that in a productive way? I feel like most of the people I've discussed this with would say "Alcoholism is a big problem for Aboriginal communities," with the implication that this is the result of some inherent failure among Aborigines themselves. This completely ignores the role that, say, colonization has played in creating this problem. And more importantly, to attribute it to some inherent flaw implies that either there is no solution to the problem, or at the very least, the sole responsibility for fixing this problem lies within individuals and/or the Aborigines themselves. (This same kind of rhetoric comes into play when people discuss problems like high crime rates among African Americans or low test scores among Latinos.) So how do I, especially as someone who is not part of the Aboriginal community and who knows very little about the issues, talk about the problems in a way that accounts for the complex and multi-faceted factors that led to them? And how do I create a conversation about these problems, especially with foreign travelers and white Australians I meet, that looks for a solution instead of a place to lay blame? How do I strike the balance between having a casual conversation with fellow travelers and flying into a rage where I end up calling them racist?

I'm disappointed that so many people I've met so far have been so ignorant, but I guess I wouldn't expect much better traveling in the United States.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Dead Centre

After a nice overnight flight from Osaka (it was so empty that I had an entire center row to myself!), I arrived yesterday in Cairns and then killed another 6 hours waiting for my flight to Alice Springs.

Alice Spring is in the very center of Australia. It originally was not so much a town as just a telegraph outpost. From the view as we were flying in, honestly I couldn't tell that it had turned into too much more. The view from the plane was pretty cool--the land really is red and dry and flat. There is nothing for miles and miles and miles. As we flew into Alice Springs, I really couldn't figure out where the actual town was. I saw some houses, and not much more. As we descended, I couldn't even figure out where the airport was. We just landed on this big long road and it wasn't until we got off the plane that I actually saw the airport. This is a tiny little town.

Monday, May 01, 2006

How Do You Say 'Thirsty' in Japanese?

An unfortunate thing has happened: just like in Australia, John has fallen sick soon after seeing me. He's pretty sick this time--fever and sore throat and whatnot, and understandably was not up for much more than sleeping yesterday. So I decided that after 2 days in Japan I was ready to set out on my own and still take in the sights we were planning to see.

Thanks to the always helpful Lonely Planet, I was able to navigate very easily to my two destinations of Nijo Castle and the Kyoto City Gardens. There is more signage in English than I expected, so I didn't get lost at all on the subway. And of course at the tourist attractions there was quite a bit in English. I was even fortunate to latch on to an English-language tour at Nijo Castle. Very informative, and also amusing watching a group of truly middle Americans learn about 11th Century Japan (these people were decked out in fanny packs and jogging suits and all the awesome 'ugly American' paraphanelia one might expect).

I was quite hungry by the time I finished my sightseeing, so I decided to get some lunch. My first thought was to just go into one of the many convenience stores and/or sample from one of the many vending machines because (1) it would not require really talking to anyone or needing to understand anything and (2) the food and drinks from the convenience stores is actually pretty good--nothing like 7-11 in America. I could have ended up with a pretty staisfying lunch, eaten in the park and everything.

But I was pretty hungry and wanted a bit more of a meal. Given that I only know approximately five words in Japanese, this would not be easy. But there were a few things on my side. First of all, a lot of restaurants not only have their menu outside, but they also have plastic models of the food. A truly brilliant idea. Second, having grown up being close friends with a Japanese American family, I have been exposed to enough authentic Japanese food that I can recognize a surprising amount of dishes both by sight and name.

I found a place with pretty plastic food in the window and recognized a dish I could order (tempura udon--not too complicated). Everything was fine, except that I was hot from walking around and realized that I did not know how to order a drink. I didn't see any bottles of pop or a jug of water, so I couldn't even point. They brought me hot tea, so at least that was a liquid, but I didn't even know how to order more. The hot meal made me even hotter, and I was dying for something cold by the time I left. So in the end I guess I still relied on a vending machine for part of my meal, but in the end I am pretty proud of myself for venturing out on my own and not fumbling too badly.