When I was 17 years old, I was living in Fukuoka, Japan. I was studying in an all-Chinese prep school to pass the Japanese university entrance exam. I was paying for my school and living expenses by teaching English to yakuza (mafia). Both studying Japanese in an all-Chinese school and teaching English to the yakuza are great stories, but today I want to tell you about another one.
One day after my yakuza English lesson, I took the wrong train back to my school and ended up waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out there, in a rural area I’d never been to before. There was a woman sitting in the seat across from me, she was older and it was clear after a while that she had an intellectual disability. I enjoyed chatting with her so much that I didn’t care about getting back to the city immediately (- it was a weekend anyway, no rush) and I just sat back and relaxed. When the time came for my new friend to disembark, I gave her my contact information in case she wanted to keep in touch.
She did. Shortly after, her sister called me in my school dormitory, and invited me to come out and stay the weekend with them.
I had no idea who they were, no idea where they lived.
I was also 17 years old, so I beamed and said I would be delighted.
So the next weekend after work, I got on the train that would take me to where they lived. I had my enormous black umbrella on me, the one with the very sharp tip that I could use as a weapon if I needed. I felt safe. I figured if I didn’t like the look of things, I would simply either not get off the train or I would turn around and head back.
But as the train continued to its destination, I realized that that might not be possible. I was waaaaaaaaaaaaay outside of the city, well into the countryside. There was nothing out there besides rice paddies, and I mean nothing.
It was growing dark. I was getting nervous. What if there was no return train?
The station that I was supposed to get off at arrived – it was the last stop – and I looked out onto the platform. My friend was there, along with her whole entire family. I’m talking, her WHOLE ENTIRE FAMILY: her sister, her mother, her brother in law, her nieces, nephews, the entire clan had all come out to meet me on the platform. They were dressed simply, with ruddy red cheeks – they all looked so healthy!
And something in me kind of shifted. To have an entire family come to meet me at the train, all of them so clearly excited. To feel so wanted and to be with people who appeared to be so very solid. I smiled, put my umbrella behind me and got off the train.
My relationship with this family over the next year, and the things they showed me and allowed me to experience with them were among the most joyous moments of my time in Japan (which totaled 5 years).
I visited them often.
There were a myriad of events that occurred with them that lent beauty and meaning to my life, which at that time was not very happy.
One of those events was playing with ‘hotaru’ – fireflies. The family and I would sit out by the river next to their house and watch the fireflies and sometimes even catch them. Those little lights, the beauty of the night, the warmth of the air – it was magical.
I believe we need these moments when we travel.
I think it’s maybe even FOR these moments that we travel.
That we to take the occasional leap of faith, trusting in our instincts. And we need the magical moments to sustain us. It’s like Traveler’s Soul Juice.
Last week I was in short supply of the stuff… After the dried up feeling that I got from Teotihuacan, then from accommodation issues at Cholula and the icing of the shit-cake in Veracruz, I needed to feel alight. I needed to have a connection, make a connection, I needed to be charmed by a place, feel some magic fill up my cup of Soul Juice.
And that’s when we rolled into Catemaco, the third in a string of terribly charming towns in a terribly charming sierra region. We rolled in, set up camp and…the fireflies came out.
All over, twinkling in the grass, their brilliant sparkles lighting the darkness like ten million diamonds set ablaze. My children laughed and ran after them and I sat there on our low stool with tears filling my eyes, remembering how good magic feels, remembering that family from a distant place and the moments I shared with them that helped me stay alight.