As the days in Japan ticked by quickly, I found myself wary of the next step. Soon, I would leave the comforts of traveling with a parent, the comforts of the developed world, and dive into what had been built up as the biggest challenge of the year… Six weeks in a country where I would be incapable of even the most basic communication. Six weeks behind the “Great Firewall.” Six weeks in the People’s Republic of China.
After sending my mother on her way home, I stayed in Japan another week for the opportunity to meet with the Institute of Global Environment Strategies headquartered outside of Tokyo. This also provided the chance for my first “travel buddy” reunion. In the Philippines, I had spent some days exploring with a young Russian couple, Eugene and Eugenia. Eugene – in addition to being an active member of the Couch Surfing community – is completing his PhD in Tokyo. They opened their home to me, and we reminisced our shared adventures only a few weeks earlier – a most valuable reminder that scattered friends can, in fact, come together again.
After a couple days of sweet story-telling, I said good-bye to the Russians (once again) and went to spend my last two nights in Japan’s largest port city: Osaka. From here I would depart to China, for my journey was not by airplane. Rather, I would travel by ship – for 48 hours. What was chosen for both its economic value and adventurous allure ultimately became prized for its (relative) luxury, opportunity for rest, and beautiful views.
On the Shanghai International Ferry, there are two sub-classes within the “economy” class (obviously the class for me) – Economy A and Economy B. Economy B was bunk bed/dorm style, and Economy B was tatami style – one large room with 16 mats on the floor – and $20 cheaper. I first opted for the cheaper tatami style, but after my mom delivered a few birthday checks from back home, I upgraded to Economy A (still cheaper than a plane ticket) for the chance to sleep in a bed, albeit still sharing a room. Upon boarding the ship, in the wake of creating a stir of commotion and ogling eyes as a solo “blonde”-haired female traveler, I was escorted to my room.
This room, I soon discovered, was meant for me and only me. It also included access to the “upper class only” Japanese onsen (essentially a fabulous hot tub) with views overlooking the ocean. Best. Upgrade. Ever. As a perpetually under-slept traveler, I took full advantage of literally having nothing to do and slept fully and deeply for the first time in months. It was glorious.
The first day of travel cut through the southern Japanese islands, allowing gorgeous views of lush, volcanic mountains. That night, we hit open ocean. The second day brought stormy seas, changing every walk down the hall into a zigzagging trail. The rocking merely lured me to an afternoon nap. The third day brought calm waters once again, and these waters brought us to port – the end of a wondrous passage, my favorite of all border crossings.
I contemplated hiding out in my cabin to get a few more days’ rest… but only for a second. The allure of the strange and exciting culture awaiting was strong and enticing. I was also hungry. Thus, I gathered my things and disembarked. After a quick border patrol check of my not-so-quickly-acquired visa, I found myself in China. Fresh Off the Boat.
I felt ready, rested and ready for all the new challenges – language, culture, communism. My confidence soared as I stepped through the doors and into the city… And then I realized, I didn’t know where I was going.
Well, to be fair, I knew where I was going, I just didn’t know how to get there. Or how to communicate where I wanted to go. I had been given directions to my place of rest by way of metro. Easy enough. Only one problem: the metro does not go to the International Ferry Station. Not the most welcoming revelation upon arrival, particularly when you have no shared vocabulary.
In the end, I was able to track down someone with full command of the English language: Siri. A young Chinese girl and I communicated through her iPhone – the first of many wordless conversations. Once she understood my need to get to the metro, she took it upon herself to walk me to the bus stop, escort me onto the bus, and tell the driver my stop. Soon enough, I was off the bus and on the metro, off the metro and on the street, off the street and into my room.
First test passed.