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A lovely shot of the rental car dashboard.

A lovely shot of the rental car dashboard.

Yesterday afternoon – no doubt related to the wet weather – my camera went on the fritz. It stopped working completely by evening, to my dismay. The next morning, it worked again, but sporadically. For every 20 times I press the shutter button, it may actually work once. Now there is a blinking green light on the front of the body of the camera that apparently indicates there is a problem, but not the nature of the problem. The blinking green light drains a full charge on the battery in two hours, but at least the camera takes a shot now and then. I’ve decided to leave the battery out until I want to take a photo.

What this means for you, dear reader, is fewer photos. Instead of 200 to choose from like usual, this time I had 24 (that’s including the shots of the car dashboard and the gravel road, and other dumb stuff when I got impatient and just kept pressing the shutter button but stopped aiming the camera). Time for the Nikon doctor when I get home, wouldn’t you think?

Dessert cookie

Dessert cookie

We woke up in our Villarrica hotel, got another fabulous breakfast and pinched some more hockey pucks with meat and cheese, and more of those positively sinful cookies. They’re like a whole dessert in a cookie and it’s enough sweetness to last a whole day. I think it’s layers of cookies, frosting, caramel and cream, and coated in a vanilla shell with a walnut on top. Margaret’s preference is the same type of cookie, only chocolate. Anyhow, in that way we secured another picnic lunch.

We hit the highways with a map we had picked up in Pucón a couple days earlier. I navigated and Margaret drove, and we cut through the gorgeous countryside from Villarrica and connected to the Pan American Highway, down here called Ruta 5, at Los Lagos. We drove for about 4 hours total, and reached our hostel in Puerto Varas at 1:30pm. Along the way we pulled over and got out lunch, and continued driving as we ate. We had an appointment at 2:30, and until we found our room were not comfortable taking a food break. We stopped in Los Lagos for petrol, which was a fun stop for me because a man working there spoke English and said he had become fluent when he spent some time at West Point Military Academy in New York. I told him I was also a veteran, and we talked military shop while Margaret stressed about getting the attendant to pump gas and then pay him (she had to break into my conversation to solicit for pesos). It was a bit of an abandonment of my traveling companion, so I tried to balance it out by pumping the man for ideas of what to see and do in the region, and he was happy to comply.

I tried to get shots along the way and my camera hardly ever complied. There were a lot of scenes like this.

I tried to get shots along the way and my camera hardly ever cooperated. There were a lot of scenes like this.

I can't get over what a beautiful country Chile is.

I can’t get over what a beautiful country Chile is.

The rivers and forests and mountains make for stunning scenery.

The rivers and forests and mountains make for stunning scenery.

We saw a lot of this today, but even Ruta 5 is beautiful in its way.

We saw a lot of this today, but even Ruta 5 is beautiful in its way. Margaret was impressed by the mostly empty highway, which made for low-stress driving.

We found our hostel in Puerto Varas with very little trouble, as the Air BnB hostess gave great directions from Ruta 5. We are staying at Galpon Aire Puro, a refurbished ginormous potato barn. It’s four stories, with shops in the first level, offices on the second level, the hostesses’ living quarters and guest rooms on the third level, and another guest room at the top. It is gorgeous. Our hostess is Vicki Johnson, a sparking, popping burst of positive energy. She showed us to our rooms, gave us tons of information about getting around town and where to find good food, then whirled out the door to meet a friend. We then had 30 minutes to wait for our scheduled pick up from the river rafting company.

The common room at our hostel.

The common room at our hostel looks out over the town of Puerto Varas.

Looking through the common room to the kitchen. Guest rooms above, and on all sides of the common room.

Looking through the common room to the kitchen. Guest rooms above, and on all sides of the common room.

The stairwell between all the floors of our hostel.

The stairwell between all the floors of our hostel.

The rafting company is Ko’Kayak, based in Ensenada. They sent a van to pick up rafters Jaime, Daniella, and Alicia and us. Daniella was doing the rafting trip as a birthday gift for Alicia who had just turned 15. Jaime was a Santiago transplant who came to live in Puerto Varas after visiting and falling in love with his novia (girlfriend). We met Michelle, our guide from Australia, who chatted with us during our hour-long drive to Ensenada and put us all at ease as much as we could be prior to a rafting trip. Margaret and Jamie had done this before, the rest of us never had and were somewhat nervous, not knowing what to expect.

The rain had been falling all day, from the moment we awoke, and we were wondering if the rafting trip would be canceled. But rafting in the rain turns out to be a great idea since you get soaked anyway. Michelle ran us through the safety speech, and then taught us how to paddle and which commands would be used. Then we changed into wetsuits, got fitted for helmets, and climbed into the van again for the ride to the river.

The rafting headquarters.

The rafting headquarters.

Getting ready for our safety briefing.

Getting ready for our safety briefing.

Margaret, me, and Jaime in our attractive rafting uniforms.

Margaret, me, and Jaime in our attractive rafting uniforms.

It was a small group and we all fit into one raft. Our first order of business was to get another safety lecture, this time from the man who introduced himself to us as our Angel. He was in a kayak and explained that if anyone went into the river, he would be the rescue crew. He explained what we had to do if we found ourselves outside the raft and floating down the river. Then we all climbed into the raft and practiced paddling. Michelle is fluent in Spanish and English, and switched back and forth with ease, giving instructions in both so everyone could understand. In fact, the command “forward!” got a little lost in the river noise, and I found it easier to listen to “adelante!” after a few minutes. (I think, for the next few years, any time I see the word “adelante,” I’m going to hear it in Michelle’s voice, shouted over wave noise.)

Before we knew it, we were in the Petrohué River in the Vicente Perez Rosales National Park and our first rapids were right in front of us. It’s apparently a category 3 river, but I am ignorant of category definitions. I can tell you what it means though: giant waves that smash you in the face! It was terrifying at first. I’m a bit of a shy person in new situations and with new people, so I hadn’t said much to anyone since the van pick up. M and I were placed in the front of the raft, and right out of the gate we were rocketing down cliffs of water and facing huge walls of waves that just came right at us. I had the presence of mind to notice the aqua colour, the triangle shapes of the waves, the way the water was so clear we could see the black rocks below, causing all the commotion, even though we were separated from the rocks by a lot of water. The only time I have ever experienced waves like this was surfing, so I noticed how nice it is to get a faceful of fresh water vs. sea water. And likewise, how lovely that the water was warmer than the Humboldt Coast ocean I have known. The Pacific Ocean off Trinidad California is around 52 degrees in the winter when the best waves are available. The Petrohué River was much warmer – maybe 65 degrees – but that’s a guess.

Anyhow, despite my shy quietness up to that point, and despite my ability to find the good in the experience, at first I was scared out of my mind and let fly some expletives. At one point I actually yelled at Margaret, “I can’t believe you got me into this!” I hollered, as I flailed with the paddle while the nose of the raft was airborne, and then squeezed my eyes shut as the next wave smashed into my face. I said to Margaret, “Yeah, I think I change my mind about going rafting,” and she thought I was serious. But…I had realized I was going to live after all, and I was just kidding. After two sets of rapids, I found that it’s pretty easy to stay in the boat. Also, Jaime was sitting right behind me and laughing his head off. I relaxed and began having a marvelous time.

My camera was not working anyway, so I had left it behind and thus I cannot show you the absolutely stunning scenery we saw from the river. Stunningly beautiful. The river was wide and warm (well relatively warm), there were birds and plants to identify. I decided to leave my glasses behind too, but was still the first person to spot a kingfisher. We had a long discussion about the hillsides covered in Nalca (Gunnera tinctoria), that apparently is delicious. {postscript: M and I tasted some later, and it does taste much like rhubarb. Though another name for this plant is “giant rhubarb,” it is not actually related. The plant has been introduced all over the world and in New Zealand and Ireland has created a weed problem.} I could not stop thinking of how the scenery at the river looks like Japan, with the steep lush mountains rising out of the river.

Our Angel circled the raft in his kayak, played in the rapids, and stationed himself off to the side to watch out for us every time we went through rapids, but there were no accidents and everyone had a great time. Eventually Michelle suggested that we could get out and float in the river (buoyed by our wetsuits), and Alicia, Jaime, and I did. Margaret used the rescuing skills that we were taught, and hauled us back into the raft when we were done swimming.

After only about an hour of rafting, we rowed to the beach and the crew waiting for us hauled in the equipment while we went to the van. During the long ride back, we all got pretty chilled in our soaked suits. We changed back into dry clothes with lightning speed, and met up again to share hot coffee and tea and empanadas. I had heard about Chilean honey, and thought that honey was honey. But Jaime insisted that I try Miel, and it turned out to be amazing! I wish I had the means to buy twenty jars of it as gifts for all of you, but my luggage was already full. Jamie explained that the flavor came from a particular tree that the bees flocked to. I shopped for the honey later and couldn’t tell how to ensure that a particular jar contained honey from the tree I wanted…since I imagine bees to be reluctant to take commands from beekeepers. After empanadas and miel on crackers and coffee in our bellies, we were all good friends despite the language barrier.

Ko’Kayak took us all home and M and I turned in for the night. Though we wanted to explore Puerto Varas, it had truly been a long day.

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Gorgeous Hozu Gorge through which the Sagano Romantic Train passes. You can see the river rafters bottom left.

The next morning I went for a run before breakfast, and then joined the group on the bus. Our first stop was at the Kameoka Tram Station, set in a picturesque canyon. I watched with envy while a few groups put in some rubber rafts for a river trip. Nice choice on a hot summer day. It wasn’t until we all climbed aboard the train that I realized what a tourist attraction we were about to experience.

Tourists take turns standing by the engine of the train for photos.

Soon the “Romantic Train” was clacking along, detonating the horn, and to my delight: heading directly into the stunning river canyon I had been eyeing from a distance. (Yes, I admit, much of the time here I do not know what’s going on until it’s underway. I just cheerily hand over my yen and see what happens.) It is a beautiful old-style train, with wooden seats inside and open-air viewing. It was only a 25 minute ride along the Hozu River, but we were treated to non-stop scenic beauty. This was probably the most beautiful part of Japan I will see all summer.

With an entertainer on the train.

I took some fabulous photos (and a video) of the river tumbling through the jungly canyon, while the conductor told us stories and sang songs in Japanese. We saw picturesque bridges spanning the canyon, and fishermen down below. I asked to have my photo taken with an entertainer as he moved through our train car. We made a brief stop at Hozukyo Tram Station, where people can explore a nature trail or have a picnic in the gorge.

At Hozukyo Station. Nothing says Japan like a row of overweight raccoons in sombreros. Yes, I am assured that they are raccoons drinking sake.

Soon we were in the tourist village of Arashiyama. I immediately set off in the opposite direction of everyone else, as I am wont to do, and followed streets through the sweltering thick air, till I unexpectedly came upon some unusual architecture. At the far, far end of whatever road I was on, there were a few houses, a restaurant, and a small shrine with thatched roofs. It is a distinct and fascinating construction style. Some of the roofs were old enough to have grown moss, and some looked brand new. The newest one was most curious to me, because it means the skill to make those roofs has been maintained.

On my way back, I admired some tiny white sculpted figures in a glass case along a narrow street. As I stood beside the case, I noticed a steep, narrow stone stairway that zig-zagged up the steep slope and curled around out of sight. I followed it up. At the top of the stairs was a beautiful little garden tucked into the side of the hill, with an equally beautiful little shop opening onto the garden. I was too broke to consider shopping because this morning I thought I had a 10,000 yen note, but it turned out to be a 1,000 yen note (all those zeros). I still wanted to look, so I stepped in, and was greeted with questions, and I explained “America-jin des”(I’m American). The two women’s eyes grew wide and they began chattering excitedly and called for another person, and when he arrived, he spoke English with me.

Shop filled with cocoon sculptures, and a rare English-speaking shop keeper.

All three of them pointed out things in the shop to me, explained that the little white things were cocoons from a caterpillar from somewhere in Japan. The sculptures were made from taking slices of the pure white cocoons and gluing them into animal shapes. They showed me photos of the artist himself. They brought me green tea, and “sweets,” and basically fawned over me every second. The man brought a pad of paper and was translating things into roman characters, so I could pronounce them with him. I didn’t really want to buy any of the little white cocoon things, but they were making such a special time for me, I was compelled to. So I explained that I collect dragons, and they helped me choose one. My dragon is mounted on a board that has calligraphy stating a wish for good luck in the future. My hosts proudly told me that the man who creates the sculptures also does the calligraphy.

Captivating bamboo forest

Before I left the shop, my hosts had insisted that I must visit the Zen Buddhist Tenryu-ji (sky dragon temple). It was fully my intent to concede. However, on the walk back down the hill, I attempted to visit three different temples, and all charged a fee. A small fee, yes, but I had just spent my lunch money on a dragon cocoon. I intended to find Tenryu-ji, but I was losing hope for being able to enter.

Returning to the river and the train and the tourists, I stumbled upon a remarkable bamboo forest. These trees were far more mature than in the forest I walked through in Hawaii last August, likely because this area has been volcano-free for a longer period of time. I found no sign of undergrowth or midstory growth or any other kind of plant besides the bamboo trees. The forest scene is compelling. In the midst of the forest, I met Greg, another solo traveler who was even happier than me to find an English-speaker. I gratefully

detail on a porchlight at a home in Arashiyama

accepted his company. It does get tiring on the brain to not understand the language spoken around me for an extended time.

Unlike me, Greg was not on a tour, but really by himself, catching some of the sights while visiting his daughter in college in Tokyo. Greg even paid for my tour through Tenryu-ji so we could extend our English-speaking time. Bonus! He had just returned from a couple of days as a guest at a monastery, and was much more comfortable with the ritual of exchanging shoes for complimentary slippers when we entered the temple to explore inside.

At the pond in front of Tenryu-ji

With mere minutes to spare, we excited the temple and hurried to the Totgetsu-kyo Bridge to meet the rest of the group and get on the bus. I get very caught up in exploring and tend to lose track of time.

Back at the hotel, I dropped my gear and went downstairs to catch the hotel shuttle downtown again. On the shuttle, I discovered that three women from the Iwakuni group were heading to get geisha photos done. They invited me to join them, so I decided to do it, and thus check off one more item from my Japan To-Do List.  Once we found the photo place, we asked if, rather than doing photos for 3 women, they could include a fourth. They made room for me, and I had such a fun time.

One of the very few photos in which the photographer let me get away with no teeth. I tried to argue, “But geishas don’t have big smiles.” The man would have nothing of it. He would not let up till I flashed a giant grin. Ah well.

The women and men who keep the place running are friendly, professional, and quick! They had us up and choosing kimonos right away. Then we stripped down to our undies, and put on thin flimsy gowns, folding the left flap over the right, and tying with a single strand. They gave us these funky white polyester socks to wear, with a sleeve for the big toe like mittens, and silver tabs that fit into slots to fasten them.  We sat in front of mirrors and in twenty minutes had the full white geisha faces and necks, black liner around the eyes, and deep red lipstick. Then back to the fitting room and 15 minutes later we were all buried in layers of heavy brocaded fabric, cinched tight till we could barely breathe.

Look at those sandals!!

Amidst multiple cautionary admonishments not to touch anything, not anything, they dropped pre-sculpted wigs onto our heads. “Do not touch face. Do not touch wig. No, no. Lips –here the woman speaking to me pointed to her mouth and pressed her lips together– no, no, no!” Then we were off to the photography rooms with charismatic photographers who said, “Beautiful photo! Very nice! Smile big. Bigger. Show teeth.” Snap! Snap! And that too, was quick. All four of us were finished in another 45 minutes.

The photographers went off to process our photos, and we ladies were led to a room full of sinks where we got some quick instructions for how to clean our faces, and instructions for where to discard our headbands, washcloths, robes, and socks. By the time we returned to the front lobby, two and a half hours had passed from the time of our arrival, and our CDs with all our photos were waiting for us. It was a little expensive, $120 approximately, but totally worth it! The photos are awesome and it was a completely professional and enjoyable experience from beginning to end.

a quartet of colorful geishas

One of my many guises

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