Looking for things to do this Spring in Washington, DC?
Whether you live a few metro stops away from DC, or you’re flying across 11 time zones to see Dorothy’s Ruby Red slippers at The American History Smithsonian, I wanted to let you know about some fun things to do around DC this spring. There’s something for everyone here, from the solo spring breaker to the family of nine. After leading bike tours on the National Mall since March with Bike and Roll DC, I’ve had lots of fun meeting families from all over the world and showing them the countless wonders of the U.S. Capital.
“What someone who can’t afford rent on their own and/or can’t find roommates quick enough does when they are “between” places.”
While yes, not having to pay is a great perk, Couchsurfing is so much more than finding a place to crash for free. It’s a site for meeting and staying with locals all over the world. This was a great way for me to meet people while traveling on a budget in Colombia. I’d only met up with one person through Couchsurfing before, in 2009. I’d I met up with a family of Chicano descent in Bakersfield, California. The father, Jesus, had found me and invited me for dinner with his family because his oldest daughter was thinking of going to Wellesley College, my alma mater. She didn’t end up going, but her younger sister did (and won the hoop rolling tradition).
Couchsurfing was one of the best choices I made while traveling in Colombia, and I was very intentional about how I used the site. Here are my Couchsurfing tips for solo women travelers (or anyone else who finds them useful) and here’s how I applied them to make wonderful friends in Cartagena, Colombia. I even stayed an extra day with them and missed out on the biggest lesbian-themed night of the Pride Festival in Bogotá (I’d queer it up in Bogotá eventually, anyway!). Follow my advice for the best experience.
Since people are more likely to be checking Facebook than Couchsurfing, most large cities have active Facebook groups. I introduced myself, said I was traveling alone, and was looking for people to meet and a place to stay for three days. Shortly enough, the group’s leader invited me to a language exchange meetup. One woman my age named Angie, who lives in Medellin and was visiting a friend in Cartagena also replied to my post. She invited me to join her and her friends at Playa Barú (La Playa Blanca), which is famous for its white, sandy beaches.
2. Post a public trip.
The Couchsurfing application lets you post the details of your trip. Do this as far in advance as possible. I did this before coming to Cartagena so that people either in or from the city would know about my trip. I even had someone from Seattle message me who was traveling to Cartagena at the same time. He wanted to get drinks, but I was more interested in meeting locals and learning Colombian slang. I was only in the country for two weeks, and wanted to immerse myself as much as possible, no matter how vulnerable I’d feel.
3. Reserve a place to stay in advance.
My biggest concern as a solo woman traveler while Couchsurfing in Colombia is definitely safety. I had reserved an Airbnb apartment for three days, but since I hadn’t yet bought my flight out from Cartagena to Bogota, I was open to staying longer. I also felt safer having a place to stay and being able to feel someone’s energy out before crashing with them.
As a solo woman traveler, it’s better to have a backup plan, even if it’s an $8 dorm room in a hostel when you can’t Couchsurf. If you’re not feeling someone, you have the right to discontinue seeing them and to put your safety first. Or, it’s nice to have a backup plan if your host cancels on you at the last minute.
4. Use your phone.
When you don’t know anyone in the area, it’s not as easy as it would be to let your friends know your whereabouts. I should have given my Airbnb host, Libi, a heads up that I was going outside of the city and with whom. I didn’t even have a working phone in Colombia, since I didn’t even bother buying a chip to put in my phone, but in retrospect, I should have. I merely relied on phone booths in the street.
After my taxi-related sexual assault later in Bogotá, I would buy a smartphone in Panama so that I could use Uber and other apps to hold my drivers more accountable. Check out this video I made with my trusted taxi driver, Hugo, in Managua, where he helps me explain why it’s important to have a taxi’s number on speed dial!
5. Travel safely yet vulnerably.
If I had been nervous about not being liked, then I wouldn’t have met up with anyone. I knew that if I didn’t hit it off with someone, that I could choose to no longer meet up with them. It’s that simple. After having lived in Nicaragua for two years, I’ve become a much more open and patient person. I’m also an introvert who judges a situation, a conversation, and people carefully before jumping in. To some, I may come across as quiet. Around others, I’m a non-stop giggler.
I’ve also become used to being an outsider so that I’m used to being uncomfortable. Growing from discomfort makes me excited about travel. The discomfort teaches me that I have preconceived notions about a place, just as I did about Medellin and Cartagena. These notions are both positive and negative, but traveling helps me break down where this notions come from in the first place, deconstruct them, and rebuild them for myself.
Above all, share your culture and ask questions about your hosts’. Ask them about their slang, their music, their customs, their passions, their food, and anything else you’d like to know as long as you’re respectful. Treating your hosts to thank them is always a good idea, whether you’re buying drinks or writing them thoughtful thank you note (or blog post dedicated to them!).
I hope my Couchsurfing tips for solo women travelers inspired you to use this option on your next trip. Do you have any other tips? Share in the comments!
“Dios bendiga Cartagena, La fantástica, Viva el África, Viva el África” says Carlos Vives, a Colombian Vallenato singer in his ode to Cartagena, Colombia: La Fantastica. In his song, he alludes to the Afro-Caribbean roots of the people. I’d later find out what made this city so fantastic!
Before traveling solo to Colombia for two weeks, I was sure that I’d see Medellin and Bogota, since I’d be flying in and out of these two cities. I also knew that I didn’t want to spend a week in each (but now I want to live in Bogotá, so…).
Aside from visiting these cities, I had to decide between Cali, Santa Marta, and Cartagena. Where would I spend 3-4 days? I wanted to experience more than just the mountains. Cali’s famous salsa and music scene had an undeniable allure. Santa Marta, on the Caribbean Coast just like Cartagena, appealed to me as the gateway to Parque Tayrona and La Ciudad Perdida. I’d need more time.
When I asked foreigners and Colombians about Cartagena, I heard mixed reviews:
“Cartagena is where tourists go to find cheap sex and cocaine.”
“It’s more expensive than Miami.”
“There’s not much to see-it’s where rich people go to vacation.”
On my final days in Medellin, I had to pick a place, but I couldn’t decide. Finally, I went to the Laundromat in El Retiro to pick up my neatly folded clothes-in-a-bag. While there, I met Carolina, a kind and friendly woman my age who spoke perfect English (she went to college in Chicago). We would’ve been friends if we’d studied together. Now, she was back in Colombia, helping her family manage a Laundromat after they’d moved from Bogotá. I was telling Carolina all about my trip, and presented her with my dilemma. Her father, I skinny man with black hair and rimless glasses, sat behind her, sewing a garment. Her brother sat nearby, helping him.
Carolina and I asked her father for advice on where I should go. “If you have a few days, go to Cartagena. La ciudad amurallada (the walled city) is nice, and the beaches are, too. Just be warned that vendors won’t leave you alone. They’ll offer you massages and sea shells, but just tell them no.” I ended up chatting with them for about 30 minutes. It was getting late, and since I’m used to heading home by the time it gets dark in Nicaragua, I headed out.
The next morning, I bought a plane ticket to Cartagena on Viva Colombia airlines. It was one of the most impulsive things I’ve ever done. I’d be leaving in about five hours! Since I knew no one in Cartagena, I scrambled to find a place to stay. A host named Libi had an apartment for about $17 a day, so I made a reservation. I called her to confirm that everything was in order for me to arrive that night, and she said that there was a problem-the apartment wasn’t ready. What she could do, however, was give me the keys to another beach front apartment for $20 a day. I’d have air conditioning, and be by the beach? Fair deal. I booked it for three nights.
“Whatever you do, please don’t do the Pablo Escobar tour. That would be very indignant for me,” Gina said to me. Gina was my host in El Retiro, a sleepy, crisp-weathered, mountainous town an hour outside of Medellin, Antioquia, Colombia. I had just flown into Medellin that night from Nicaragua, and Gina had been kind enough to pick me up from the airport during an important soccer game. She was helping me plan for what to see and what to avoid. When I told friends I was visiting Medellin, most of them innocently referenced Pablo Escobar, a drug lord whose ruthless chokehold on Colombia’s cocaine supply left Medellin victim to decades of violence.
We stopped at a typical paisa (a term representative of the northwest region’s people and culture) restaurant. In between glimpses of the Colombia vs. Chile world cup game, she broke down the political, economic, and cultural history of the region for me. The waiter asked if I wanted sugar in my guayaba juice, and I was surprised that I had an option. I don’t even remember what I chose.
She asked me what I knew about Medellin. “Well, I know that Escobar was a very violent man…” I trailed off, embarrassed that I didn’t do my research. Gina clarified that there was more to life in Antioquia than Escobar. I listened eagerly as I poked into some crunchy fried pork rinds with a toothpick.
Medellin, she explained, was Colombia’s center for textile production in the first half of the 20th century. The city of over three million people even boasts a skyscraper called the Coltejer Building, which is shaped like a needle. Today, Medellin’s economic legacy includes high-quality coffee production and it’s famous for beautiful leather products. Oh, and Latin America’s biggest fashion show, Colombiamoda. I should have taken advantage of the sales at the Velez leather outlet while I had the chance.
Once Escobar’s drug cartel took over, Medellin became as violent as Beirut, Gina explained, shaking her head. Car bombs went off frequently in the city. She grew up being used to the violence. Once Escobar died in 1993, the violence decreased. I felt safer in Medellin than I did in Nicaragua. Gina suggested that we go for a walk when it was dark, and I wondered if it was safe to do so. In Nicaragua, once the sun goes down, it’s usually time to head home and lock the doors. Gang violence isn’t as prevalent there as it is in Guatemala, but petty thefts and muggings in isolated areas after dark are common.
Unfortunately, it was drizzling, so we couldn’t go for a walk. Instead, we went to bed early and I slept like a rock. When I’m in a new place, my mind feels the need to rest up as much as possible in order to absorb its surroundings when it is ready to.
I decided that in order to understand the region’s history, that I would eventually go to the Museo de Antioquia. I walked to the bus stop in El Retiro, and spoke with other people waiting to confirm that my bus was the one going to Medellin. Five minutes later, a woman honked her horn and asked if I were headed to Medellin. This was the first time a woman had offered to give me a ride, but I declined. In retrospect, I wish I’d done it, but I didn’t do it, and I was safe.
I spent the day in Medellin with a fellow Wellesley alum, Vero, who graduated with me, but who I had never met. Thanks to a mutual friend, we were able to meet and to reminisce about our college days. We also bonded over how driven Wellesley women are, and about how we just cannot seem to sit still. We always need to be doing something and doing what some people call “overachieving.” To us, it’s just “achieving.” That’s what happens when you are privileged enough to go to school with some of the most driven, independent, and intelligent women in the world. It was nice to be with someone who got me. I didn’t have to really explain why I was spending three weeks traveling alone.
Eventually, I made it to the Museo de Antioquia. As a child, I dreaded museums. I thought they were the most boring, lifeless places. It wasn’t until I studied abroad in France that I began to appreciate museums, especially art museums, for being portals into a region’s history. These histories are never completely inclusive of different racial, socioeconomic, and gender identities, but that’s why I allow myself to be critical of these spaces in the first place.
The “I think” is why I’m writing about sexual assault.
On July 4th, around 1:30 a.m., I was sexually assaulted by a taxi driver on my way home on Pride Night in Bogotá. This post is not to scare people from visiting Bogotá. This could’ve happened anywhere, and every day I feel a pull to return to this city because of its vibrant street art, its organized chaos, and its communities or artists and activists. I can’t wait to write about how inspired I felt there, and I won’t let this incident erase that sense of freedom.
I’m writing this post is because, since this happened, of all of the times that I said “I think I was sexually assaulted” instead of saying “I was sexually assaulted.” It took me two weeks to report the incident to my safety and security officer, and when I did, he said, “Yes, that was definitely a sexual assault.” In no way did he blame me for the incident or for waiting so long to report it. He has been 100% supportive.
When I’d pictured what a sexual assault looked like, I imagine either A. a rape or B. someone running up and grabbing a woman’s boobs or crotch. Both of these things do happen and should never happen. Ever. However, everything else to me is grey area, and it shouldn’t be. That night, a taxi driver invaded my personal space without my consent, grabbed me, and tried to kiss me. I told him to stop, and he did.
Once I got home, I felt shocked and unsafe in ways that I’d felt after I was assaulted at knife point on a run on November 30th, 2015. Only this time, I felt disgusting. I was shaking and crying because I’d been violated in ways I never have before. I immediately felt the shame that our patriarchal society wants me to feel. That it was “my fault” and that it could have been prevented.
Well, guess what. A person should be able to go out at night and to ride in taxis without the fear of sexual assault. What happened, happened, and blaming me, the victim, won’t do anything to fix it. So before you blame the victim, check yourself and know that if you do, your actions are the reason why so many women never come forward and admit what happened to them. After the incident I bought a smartphone and I used apps like Uber to hold my drivers more accountable.
After talking with other women about what happened, they’ve revealed to me that they realized they’ve also been sexually assaulted and never thought to report it because of they don’t feel comfortable doing so, and because of the “I think” piece that trivializes the assault in the first place.
I have the privilege of talking about what happened to me without fear of social repercussions, so that’s why I’m doing this. I also have access to free counseling with the Peace Corps, which I’ve used throughout my service after a long-distance breakup, then after my assault, and after the Orlando shooting. It shouldn’t be a big deal for a woman to come forward and to talk about what happened. I know that reporting it won’t erase the damage, but it’s the first step in exposing what happened.
If you or someone you care about has been sexually assaulted, you are not alone. I am not alone and it’s by talking with survivors of different gender identities to know I am not alone.
I’ve talked to the Peace Corps medical officers about it and was given the option of a medical evacuation or respite leave. I am considering taking the 14-day respite leave to go home and recover in a familiar place, which is something I wish I could have done after my assault last year. Volunteers are given the option to request respite leave 30 days after they report an incident. This is a new policy that I hope volunteers are aware of in case something happens to them.
Below is the description I sent to my Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer of the sexual assault.
The Solentiname Islands in Nicaragua’s Rio San Juan department don’t usually make it on most travelers’ itineraries. The Solentiname archipelago lies at the southeastern corner of the massive Lake Nicaragua, and the islanders experienced a liberation theology movement led by the priest and poet, Ernesto Cardenal. Ernesto built a church on Mancarron Island and inspired the locals to create landscape paintings and artisanry that are so endemic to the islands.
After having been in Nicaragua for nearly two years, I hadn’t even visited this area because of how far away Solentiname was. The seemingly inconsistent boat schedules also deterred me. I was dying to visit a place with fellow painters because times are rough where I am. It’s been hard to find other artists who I could share my work with. Luckily, my time to visit came when my boss asked me to observe Stacey, another TEFL volunteer living in the region.
I woke up at 5 AM on a Sunday morning without drinking water as I’m used to doing. I needed to dehydrate myself for the seven hour bus ride. The Rio San Juan department is so far away that it borders Costa Rica, but Nicaraguans proudly call the 119-mile river of the same name theirs. Stickers boasting “The San Juan River is ours!” are pasted on buses here.
I took a taxi to Managua’s Mayoreo terminal, then I hopped on the bus at 5:30. It cost 150 cordobas, which at the time was about $5.30. Since it was Sunday, not many people were traveling, so I could have easily gotten a seat right before the bus left at 6 AM. Vicente Fernandez, a famous Mexican singer, crooned over the speakers in the bus.
Vendors boarded the bus. A woman in a crisp, white polo and white sneakers glided through the aisle, saying “rosquillas, rosquillas” (baked corn cakes that taste like salty cardboard, but they’re great when you’re hungry). She had only three bags left in her hand and I’m sure she sold them quickly. A man came in and offered apples shrink-wrapped onto Styrofoam plates.
The engine rumbled to a start, and my nervous excitement kicked in as I felt the slight tremor under my feet. I’d finally go somewhere new! The Rio San Juan, Nueva Segovia, and the RAAN (which is off-limits for Peace Corps volunteers) are the only departments I hadn’t been to.
I’m glad I packed National Geographic magazines and my Moon guidebook to Nicaragua. As the bus cruised along, I was transported to the world of Kinshasa, Congo’s chaotic, creative capital. I read about the city’s relentlessly passionate artists, like Chéri Chérin, who paint next to lanterns at night because most of the city’s power goes out at night. While I get annoyed that the water runs out for days on end here, I still have a consistent supply of electricity.
San Carlos is a tiny, clean port town with not much else other than restaurants, bars, and a fortress. I decided that I didn’t feel like I needed more time to explore the town, so I boarded a boat to Solentiname. I paid $10 for the Transol ride. Every day at 3 PM, boats leave San Carlos for Solentiname. The cheaper boats cost about $3.50, but they only run on Tuesdays and Fridays. I thought it would be worth the investment, and I’d have two days in Solentiname anyway.
I called Hostal Vanessaon San Fernando (or Elvis Chavarría) Island, Solentiname’s second biggest island. José, or Chepe, reserved my private room with a bathroom ($12). I was lucky he answered my call since cell service is so spotty out there. He happened to be on the biggest island, Mancarron, when I’d called.
San Fernando Island, Solentiname
My motorboat pulled out of the dock into Lake Nicaragua, which was at an all-time low because of the insanely dry summer. I saw a man walking in the middle of the lake, and I couldn’t believe it at first. The lake is Central America’s largest, but it’s definitely not the deepest. As I put on my lifejacket, I looked out at the never-ending water and could see Solentiname in the distance. It felt like I was in ocean.
After about an hour, the boat dropped me off at San Fernando, where Chepe was waiting for me. He even helpeded me onto the dock! The islands were so small and I must have been one of only a handful of tourists. He knew exactly who I was just from our phone conversation. Chepe showed me to my room, and I asked him if Ernesto Cardenal were around, but he said that he was in Managua. I might be able to meet him at the Casa de los Tres Mundos Art Gallery. Ernesto only visits the islands about four times a year.
As we spoke, one word came to mind: solitude.
Not the miserable kind of loneliness, but the solitude of hearing only birds chirping and the slightest rumble of the boats chugging along. There was no smog, no ambulances wailing, and no motorcycles screeching to a halt. All of these things characterize my city. While I love being in a city, it felt incredibly calm here.
There was a hammock right outside my room, and I knew we would be getting to know each other soon. I asked Chepe if it were safe for a woman to walk around, and he said that there have never been reports of rape or violence against foreigners. Since there aren’t many people on the islands, there’s much less anonymity and a sense of safety that I didn’t know I’d miss so much.
As soon as I showed Chepe my paintings, he showed me around the island to visit his friends and family members who also paint. Almost everyone is an artist here. His wife showed me her artwork. My favorite was the painting of the islands at sunset, with the water dyed a bright orange.
Chepe and I walked along the narrow path to Albergue Celentiname (firstname.lastname@example.org), a hotel overlooking the water that is owned by Doña Maria Guevara, a painter who fled to Costa Rica for two years to work with the likes of Gioconda Belli to feed the flames of the revolution. She returned in 1979, when the populist movement ousted The Dictator, Somoza.
Maria wore a bright pink dress and sat in a chair-like hammock. Chepe introduced me to her, and we talked about painting, the revolution, and gender roles. “Women are responsible for educating men, since men come from women,” she said. I didn’t necessarily agree with everything she said, but I respected her. We shared the warm, humid air between us and I was fascinated by her story.
“I haven’t even left yet, and I know I want to come back! I knew that I had to come here to meet you,” I said to her. She thanked me and said that it was lovely meeting me as well.
For dinner, I went to one of the few if not the only restaurant on the island, and paid 140 cordobas (around $5) for a simple plate of tostones (friend, smashed plantains), rice, chicken, and avocado. That plate on the mainland would cost half as much, but because of the time and money it takes to ship goods out here, everything costs more. The chicken was the best I’d had in the country—the meat wasn’t overly cooked, and it was marinated in citrus. The crown jewel was the locally-grown avocado, though. The massive, green wedges tasted like butter.
The nighttime was insanely hot. Since many hotels and homes are solar-powered, the electricity only ran at night in my room. I was so tired that I went to bed at 7 and my fan shut off by 4 AM because the solar energy ran out. I was nervous to sleep with the window open because I was alone, and there was a simple screen covering it, so I shut myself in and delt with the heat. I got my towel and handkerchief wet and lay them over my nacked body to cool down even the slightest bit.
In the morning, I found out that Chepe had left the island to help build a school on Mancarron. He’d told me the day before that he’d show me where I could get cell service, but since he was gone, I found a replacement.
Then, I came back to Maria’s to show her my paintings from my ipad. Both of her scarlet macaws were sitting on the floor, eating their food from bowls. They looked like dogs. Maria scrolled through my acrylic portraits, and she liked them because they don’t involve just the faces of the people I paint—the portraits are about the movement of the people, whether they are cooking, washing, or playing with cats. I asked her for advice, and she suggested that I make the background behind my main subject darker so that the subject could pop out more.
Maria and I spent the entire morning together. She told me about the very first painting she ever did, which was of a tree, and how she couldn’t stop thinking about it until she painted it. Ernesto then took it to sell it in Managua for $400, and she was crushed despite the hefty earnings she’d unintentionally made. “That painting was mine, and there was nothing else that existed for me at the time. I haven’t seen the painting since.” We snacked on some granola bars I’d packed as she told me her stories.
She brought out her binoculars to watch the different species of herons, egrets, and songbirds flutter by and crash onto the branches. Although it was insanely hot, humid, and dry, I could imagine how green and vivid the islands must look in the rainy season. The air was so hot that I didn’t want to move, so Maria told me to lay down in a hammock and relax. Like me, I could tell that she likes to stay busy. She went in and out of the kitchen to prepare some beans for her guests.
I felt more at peace than I’d felt in a while. Spending an entire morning with a stranger and laying in their hammock isn’t something I would have done in the states, but here it is normal. I like this kind of normal.
After lunch at the same restaurant, I made my way back the one path to the artisanry museum, the Museo Archipiélago de Solentiname($1), which unfortunately was closed for Labor Day. I did, however, stumble upon an artisanal workshop, where I bought the most well-made earrings I’ve seen here. The woman with the key to the shop, Marielos, saw me coming up the stairs and introduced herself. She then opened the doors, and I couldn’t believe the amount of painted birds, fish, and turtles there were, either laying on the tables or hanging from the mobiles. I bought meticulously painted tucan, parrot, and fish-shaped earrings made of light driftwood.
As I tried each of the earrings on, I got to know Marielos, who flipped through the paintings I had stored in my ipad. She asked me if I’d heard from Mateo, a former Peace Corps Volunteer who’d spent three years on the islands, and left in 2000. “He used to stay in touch with us, but then he got married and stopped talking to us. I wonder if something happened to him when the twin towers collapsed.” I tried comforting her, telling her that not everyone is very good at keeping in touch.
By 4 PM, I returned yet again to Maria’s hotel so that I could catch a boat ride to Mancarron for 150 cordobas. It was ten minutes away. One of the men who worked for her, Daniel, took myself and a Costa Rican couple. We walked along the path through town, and I saw the colorful stained-glass windows of the church that was locked shut. We stopped through different houses, gazing at the wood carvings and paintings of the local flora and fauna. Some people owned parrots, and a green parrot looked down at my group, softly whispering “hola.” It was nice seeing a different island, but I was happy I was staying on San Fernando.
That night, I paid Estelbina, Chepe’s wife, the $24 for both nights at Hostal Vanessa, and since Chepe would be running the boat to San Carlos in the morning, I paid for the 90 cordoba fare for that, too.
Chepe had told me that the boat stops by at 5:30 AM, but Estelbina’s sister advised me to be ready by five. The spotty schedules made me nervous, so I woke up at 4:45 (after having slept with the window open) and I was at the dock early. By 5:15, the boat pulled in. I jumped in and we were out of the port by 5:20. It’s a good thing I’d gotten ready early.
The boat sailed slowly over the water. I peered out at the different islands, and tried to guess at which one was Zapotillo, which once housed an orphanage and a pedophile Evangelist priest who was eventually chased into Costa Rica. Costa Rica was so close that if it weren’t so hazy, I would’ve been able to see the Arenal Volcano to the south.
I was filled with so much happiness that I’d finally found a community of painters with whom I could share my art. I’d love to return to Solentiname during the rainy season so that I no longer need to imagine the potential of its beauty.
Is there anything you’d like to know about Solentiname? Share in the comments and I’ll get back to you!
Out of all the markets, restaurants, bridges, and museums, my spot was a bench. I had just arrived in Tokyo on a solo trip, and it was my first time in Asia. I had chosen to travel to Japan because I’d just spent ten months working at a high school in Texas. I’d finished an unhealthy job and saw the demise of a once enriching long distance relationship.
I needed a fresh start. I was exhausted. Adjusting to an 11 hour time difference didn’t help. I’d also spent over a year trying to make a career and relationship work in a place where I was supposed to have been able to understand the language and the people. Maybe I’d have better luck in a place where I couldn’t understand it all.
It was June 2013, and I can still remember the cool humidity. My hand brushed the water off of my bench before I sat down in Hibiya park. My bench overlooked a carp-filled pond that was shaded by an enormous tree. Its branches extended 20 feet over the water. A dove flew right toward me and veered off at the last second to perch beside me. Sorry, birdie, but this lady had no stale bread to offer, I thought.
About 40 feet away stood a Japanese businessman wearing a black suit and a bowl hat. He puffed away at his cigar while feeding bread to a turtle. The oversized, golden carp swam about, snapping at the bread and water bugs that skimmed the surface. Drops of water fell from the branches above and landed on my face.
Hibiya was built as Tokyo’s only westernized park and it was my favorite place in the city. Sometimes, you just know you’re in the right place at the right time. The air was cool and misty. All of the plants were relishing in all the moisture. The weather was such a contrast to the heat I felt from driving across the Southwestern U.S. All I wanted to do while driving through New Mexico was blast my air conditioner in the hundred degree heat, but I didn’t want to kill my low battery.
Now, I was walking through paradise with my umbrella. There were cats everywhere in Hibiya Park. Why? Where did they come from? They glared at me as I snapped their pictures.
Cities that are bursting with people need calm, green havens like this one. Just as Central Park can numb the sound of ambulance sirens in NYC, Hibiya can, too. It was so green here-as if the trees invited you in and begged for you to breathe their cool air. I journaled for a bit, closed my eyes, and soaked in the calm. There was no place I would have rather been, especially after making the mistake of wandering into the overwhelming Sega Video Game Arcade I’d popped into earlier. I appreciated Tokyo’s introverted side more than its technological, flashy side.
After a moment of stillness in my green spot, I got up and headed for the frenzy of the bustling Shibuya district. It’s a clean version of Times Square that is famous for its diagonal crosswalk. I stood in front of this intersection and witnessed the masses flowing through, like red blood vessels being pumped in and out of a heart. Each time the light turned red, the pedestrians piled up and waited at the starting line. Once the light said “walk”, waves of people raced to the other side, as if it were 6 a.m. at a Macy’s on Black Friday.
While green parks are calming to me, places like sprawling city centers are strangely soothing to me as well. Commercials were blasting on oversized TV’s, rich kids sipped on strawberry cheesecake frapuccinos, and a girl dressed as Alice in Wonderland walked by.
Tokyo led me from a green space of tranquility to one of concrete tranquility.