The snow-capped peaks awe at every turn, providing my first true glimpse of “winter” this year. I have abandoned my book in lieu of the National Geographic special unfolding out the window. My lid-less coffee, resting on the tray table in front of me, barely ripples as we tunnel through the Japanese Alps. Lounging in my plush, reclined and oh-so-padded seat, I begin to think of my last mountain journey – the first leg of the trip back to Manila from Sagada – only one week ago yet separated by decades of development.
Even before we got all the way to the jeepney, it became clear that our entire troupe would not fit. Well, at least not on the inside. The benches and aisle were already packed, maybe room enough for one or two. Rather than wait for the next jeepney, to arrive at an undetermined time, I chucked my bag up and followed the other newly arrived passengers… to the ladder. Time to truly understand local transportation to the fullest.
Paulo (my Portuguese-German friend) and I shared the comfort of a spare tire latched to the roof for a seat of sorts. I clasped my hand around the metal exoskeleton of the jeep as it lurched to a start. Soon my feet searched holds as the tumultuous mountain curves proved more than one handhold could manage. And then it started to rain.
The driver swerved to the side of the gravel road; my body jolted with the sudden stop. He jumped out of the jeepney and tossed up a tarp. The other ten or so Filipinos on top quickly responded to this apparently normal procedure by covering themselves and the bags. As Paulo and I sat in the very front, we were tasked with holding it down. In a matter of seconds, the engine had burst back to life. As we gained speed, the tarp became taut in the wind. Handholds were abandoned in the effort to keep it from flying away. I wondered if Paulo and I would get a free paragliding lesson; our fellow rooftop passengers laughed (lightheartedly) at our struggles. But soon the rain subsided, we arrived at our destination, and we dismounted with a smile.
There is no denying it: Japan has been a big ole gulp of luxury. And I have savored each and every swallow, letting it cleanse from the inside out. I had forgotten what it was like to end the day without a layer of grime – of dust and soot and smog – coating my body. I had forgotten what it was like to travel between cities feeling certain there will be no accident [and to end a journey without sore muscles and a shortened spine]. I had forgotten what it was like to walk down the street on a sidewalk without being hassled to buy or to give.
Now, instead of dirt and sore muscles I have Japanese onsens; instead of relentless touts I have hosts bowing with endless courtesy; instead of rooftop jeepney rides I have Shinkansen bullet trains and heated subway seats. And as if this was not enough to burgeon my quality of life, my doting mother has joined me.
Let me tell you, if you want to really feel the love, reunite with a parent after traveling alone across the world.
It’s a wonderful thing.