Once we decide to head home the rest is easy. Drive for four hours from the Lake District to Temuco. Fly to Santiago, Then to Toronto to Austin, and finally drive to Canyon Lake. Jo abbreviates this as drive-fly-fly-fly-drive. The only long stretch is the ten hour Santiago-Toronto flight.

We wake up to a beautiful dawn with volcan Osorno standing clear and almost cloudless. Nice day to hike around here. But we say good bye to Mocha and try unsuccessfully to avoid Bianca’s goodbye hug and drive into our first obstacle – getting out of Puerto Varas and on to Ruta 5, the tollway that will take us all the way to Temuco. It’s Saturday morning and the only road out of town is temporarily closed off for an event. The officer from the Carabineros del Chile, the national police, walks over to tell us something. I roll my window down and greet her in English. Then I roll down Evan’s window and point in his direction, with my usual “por favor no habla espanol”. The officer is taken aback for a second but then chats with Evan. We find out that it’s a bike event and it’s going to take some time and to be patient! She tells Evan that the bike ride starts at 08:30. That is only 15 minutes away.

It takes a little longer than that. The tollway speed limit varies between 100 and 120 km/h, so I work my way along close to 130 km/h, and after a coffee stop we get to Temuco airport in good time. Someone in a red Avis shirt meets us curbside at departures and helps us unload and then drives away in the rental. Jo wonders aloud that his investment in an Avis shirt has paid off well as we hurry inside (but my Avis app pings me with a checkin notification a moment later, so all is good). We’ll be inside airports or airplanes for the next 30 hours now.

The view from the Temuco-Santiago flight is stunning. Dozens of snow capped volcanoes ring the horizon towards the east and a fabulous coastline is below us on the west. You can see the entire width of Chile – from Argentina to the Pacific, the whole way.

The Santiago-Toronto flight is a sardine can. About 400 of us packed ass to ass into a 777. We are obviously hoping we haven’t picked up the coronavirus up until now. But this flight couldn’t have been designed any better to be a virus incubator. Everyone else seems to have just finished cruises which makes us cringe even more. I feel bad for the cabin crew.

My morning coffee from the gas station on Ruta 5 is still working through the overnight flight but Vivian sleeps a bit. Three movies (I like Motherless Brooklyn best) and two wine servings later we are in Toronto. Vivian and Evan are pretty chipper. They are seasoned travelers by now. We get a nice sit down breakfast and then clear American customs and immigration in Toronto airport with zero lines which is good because it’s the first day of the freshly constituted health inspections in the US and the news is full of stories of 4 hour waits in crowded lines at every major American airport. Our Toronto-Austin flight is empty and the airline has spread the few of us out through the airplane, we assume for the sake of social distancing.

We take a cab to Jen’s, greet her from a distance, pick up the Land Rover, get some groceries at the Fiesta (thanks to a great tip from Jen) and drive to Canyon Lake. We have rice, dal, and keema for dinner. Vivian tucks in and says she’s missed home cooking. We’re home!

Of Mice and Men

The Chilean Lake District is a panorama of soaring snow capped volcanoes and deep blue lakes. Picturesque towns with black sand playas dot the shores. Dramatic waterfalls tumble down carved volcanic rock. Towering emerald forests blanket the valleys. In a few days we fly further south to Punta Arenas to explore the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.

Our days in the cabin on the shores of Lago Llanquihue are idyllic. But as the coronavirus spreads we discuss our options. We sit out on the deck by the lake while Mocha lays on our feet and we ask where would we hang out for 3-4 months to ride this thing out.

We like where we are. The cabin is secluded and reasonable secure. It has a wood burning stove and sits beside a clean fresh water lake. And it has Netflix! The town is sufficiently near and far. Evan’s Spanish is getting us by. We have a car. Chile has fewer Covid-19 cases than Texas and we’re in a sparsely populated area with few visitors. Disadvantage: 1) winter is approaching in the southern hemisphere; and 2) we’re in somewhat unknown territory. The other option I put forward is Canada. Advantage: 1) closer to the US in case we’re needed back; and 2) Canada is English speaking. Jo thinks we should return to the US if we’re going to take the trouble to go to Canada. But I counter with two facts: 1) no TP shortage in Canada yet (is the average Canadian smarter than the average American?); and 2) better leadership (the average Canadian is smarter than the average American). We decide that tomorrow Jo will ask Bianca about staying here at the cabin for a while. But we’ll go ahead to Torres del Paine and probably even the Atacama desert and return here in a couple of weeks.

The next morning we wake up to more coronavirus news. Trump incoherently announces travel restrictions. More are surely coming. Italy is struggling to meet the medical demands of thousands of infected people. China is coming out on the other side of this. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan show how leadership and smart policy can slow the outbreak. Argentina closes its borders. American Airlines cancels its DFW-Santiago flight indefinitely due to a lack of demand. It’s dawn outside. We decide we need to go back. Not two weeks later, not three months later but now. We’re ok here but our families are back in the US and it will get increasingly harder to go back to them. Jo gets on her phone and an hour later she has booked us tickets to Austin. We depart tomorrow and fly via Toronto. When the kids wake up we tell them our new plans. They are sad. We all are.

We drive halfway up volcan Osorno to where the ski lifts start. The lifts gently sway in the wind, empty and waiting for winter. Above the tree line the black volcanic soil crunches under my hiking boots as I walk up a steep slope. In a minute I’m met by three dogs that materialize out of nowhere. They like me to pet them and stay close but they aren’t clingy. I enjoy walking with them. The view is stunning.

Then we drive a few miles to Saltos de Rio Petrohué – waterfalls on the Petrohué river between Lago Todos los Santos and Lago Llanquihue.

Tomorrow we’ll leave early. I try to finish the bottle of local Carménère wine which is very good. Jo has a couple of drinks of her pre-made pisco sours. We eat home cooked pasta with local smoked salmon and watch a few short movies on Netflix. The kids pack. We feed Mocha her dog treats. It’s suddenly the very last night of our adventure.


This was the view after a long travel day. We left our Airbnb in Austin at 11:00 last week on Wednesday. More than 24 hours later, after two flights and two drives we arrived at the lake side village of Villarrica named after the huge snow topped smoldering Volcan Villarrica and on the shores of Lago Villarrica (when you find a good name, stick to it).

Evan and Vivian are earning their keep by translating. It must look odd: imagine checking out at a grocery. A local asks a question. We say “por favor no habla Espanol”. Then we find Evan and put him in front. He carries on for a while. And then we’re magically done!

Chile is amazing. The Lake District is pure Chile but you can approximate it as a mix of Switzerland and Italy and New Zealand. The food is delicious – grilled meats prepared on fiery parrillas, great wine and craft beer, fresh local salmon, and more good quality bread than I’ve seen anywhere (yes, anywhere). The people are lovely. In the Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve where there was no internet, we found our cabin by asking a lady for directions who stopped a jogger on the sidewalk who in turn hopped into our car and took us to her sister who,it turns out, was the owner of the cabin. And at tiny Puerto Fuy we asked a girl who was swimming in the lake about kayak rentals and she informed us that she would be happy to rent us kayaks after her lunch swim.

There are more lakes than you can shake a stick at and each one is prettier than the last.

A couple of days ago we arrived to our cabin on the black lava shores of Lago Llanquihue about 20 km outside the town of PuertoVaras. Stately Volcan Osorno stands guard over us though her snowy top is mostly hidden in the clouds. The neighbor’s dogs immediately adopted us. Mocha is a Great Pyrenees and we’ve named her sidekick Latte. The black sand beach leads from the back deck to the blue lake. Sometimes the lake is placid like when we went paddle boarding and swimming yesterday. Today the waters are streaked with white waves and breakers are crashing on the beach. It is sporadically raining which doesn’t bother Mocha – she is laying out on the beach.

While the lakes are beautiful our thoughts keep returning to the coronavirus pandemic. Are our friends and family safe back home? Do we quit and return to Texas? Should we make a base somewhere in South America and ride it out? How bad is it going to get before it gets better?

Meanwhile, the grocery stores are normal down here. There’s plenty of toilet paper and wine on the shelves. I hope things are fine with you dear reader.

Texas Again

The easiest way to get to South America from Japan is to fly through LAX or DFW. South American countries are increasingly aligning with China in terms of trade and tourism. But there are no direct flights from Asia to that continent. One reason is the distances involved. The Pacific Ocean is big. Tokyo to our destination Santiago is longer than the longest commercial flight service which runs between Singapore and Newark. So we picked to fly from Tokyo to DFW to Santiago. And when you’re that close to Austin, you take a break and visit friends and family.

We landed at DFW at sunrise and drove to Canyon Lake and visited Carol first. On Saturday we helped Nicolle and Michelle tear down some cabinets and walls as a part of their remodel. On Sunday Aaron came over with his kids and we had an almost full complement of Texas cousins in one place (except for Peyton who is at college who incidentally was born in Okinawa). There’s no internet at casa Canyon Lake so the kids had to entertain themselves. Vivian improved her sketching skills and Evan hung out with Cade (and they didn’t fight!).

Then we moved to our Airbnb in Rosedale and within hours had friends arriving with drinks (keeping it weird, they bought hard Kombucha). Evan’s calendar had a sleepover, two birthday parties, and a full day at school with his buddies. Vivian had two sleepovers planned. Jo had made plans for dinners, breakfasts, mani-pedis, workouts, and hanging out with friends. Which led Evan to observe “Daddy has no friends”. Boo hoo. Luckily, FT was visiting Austin on business and dropped by. And Alu and Michelle jetted in for 36 hours in Austin. So I managed to make it look like someone was glad I was back.

The sleepovers and parties must have been a blast because we didn’t see much of the kids. Evan went to his first paintball event and got a bruise on his ribs from a short range shot but had loads of fun. Vivian practically moved in with her friends. And then it was time to get back on the road again.

Meanwhile, Italy and Iran are having major coronavirus outbreaks and the little bug keeps spreading and doing its thing. It has arrived in America. We’re going to keep traveling unless we are boxed in by the disease. Here we are about to board at DFW.

Vivian took this photo of the morning sun over the mountains as we came in to land in Santiago about 10 hours later. Hola Chile!!

Tokyo Again

After our drive around the inland sea of Japan and our trip to Okinawa we are back in Tokyo for a few more days. On our first morning back Jo took us to the Shinjuku Gyoen park. It is famous for its early blooming cherry blossoms.

We spent some quality time sitting among the blooming cherry trees. Then Evan really got into it and planned our walk around the huge park and through its various sections. Just when it looked like we would spend the rest of our lives at this wonderful park, Vivian appealed to Evan’s baser instinct and eventually got him to leave by promising him lunch. Google and Jo found a Vietnamese restaurant close by and we had pho, probably Evan’s favorite food, for lunch. Then we went back to Harajuku for more giant cotton candy.

The highlight of our second time in Tokyo is a trip to an exhibit space called TeamLab Borderless. It is a mix of visual graphics, art, and interaction between the real and virtual worlds. In one place, Evan drew a snake on big sheet of paper. When his artwork was scanned in to a computer, his snake wriggled into the exhibit space and joined the myriad other creatures projected on the walls and floor of the space, till it was eaten by a giant salamander, someone else’s art.

We loved our time in Japan. As we prepare to leave we will miss our Seven-11 cashiers and onigiri. And the best taxi drivers in the world. And super clean and warm toilet seats. And an amazing transportation network. And the quiet clean narrow back streets of Tokyo filled with tiny restaurants. And polite people who tried to take over the world a mere eighty years ago. Goodbye Japan, we’ll miss you.

Meanwhile, the threat of the coronavirus grows steadily while the panic it sows rises exponentially. China has thousands of confirmed cases and has locked down an entire province. But this cat is out of the bag, this genie isn’t going back into the bottle. There is an outbreak in South Korea and there’s a giant cruise ship docked in Yokohama with three hundred infected people quarantined in there along with the rest of the few thousand passengers and crew. But we are still at a stage where we can count the infected and the dead. And a world that watches, unprepared.

It is with these thoughts swirling in our heads that we board an American Airlines 787 at Narita at 11:30 on Friday, February 21st for a 12 hour flight.

And suddenly we face a more immediate crisis – without doubt the worst airline food we’ve seen anywhere!! Luckily we have eaten a big breakfast and it sees us through till we land at DFW at 07:00 on Friday, February 21st.


My friend Tiki sarcastically said that all Americans who visit Japan go to Okinawa. It is set to rain and get really cold in Tokyo for the next three days. So we did the American thing.

As we drove from the airport towards our resort, we passed an area with bars and strip joints. Jo said “marine base” and sure enough we soon passed the Marine base. A bit later we passed an A&W restaurant and a McDonalds. Jo said “Air Force base, and a minute later we drove past the US Air Force base at Kadena. I guess Jo knows her brothers well! Or Okinawa.

Okinawa is very different from Tokyo or Osaka or Kyoto. For starters, it’s not an urban jungle. Okinawa is where Hawaii meets Japan. Vivian found it unnerving and kept referring to Tokyo as “real Japan”.

The island is pretty. We walked a bit, hiked to a waterfall recommended by Beth, and drove to the best cherry blossom viewing spots though the peak had passed. Jo and Evan went down to the beach and got in the water. We ate breakfasts at Hawaiian pancake places and dinners at yakinikus where you grill your own dinner at your table. The scallops and squid were good but the wagyu beef specially cut for the grill is to die for. We celebrated Vivian’s 13th birthday at the best yakinuki in town.

The other thing Vivian got for her birthday was to scuba dive. She literally no instruction beyond equalizing her pressure and purging her mask, hastily explained mostly in sign language while we were on the way out in the dive boat. But Vivian flipped backwards off the boat and we stayed down for about 30 minutes at about 25 feet and the dive instructor stayed with her. She loved every minute off it and stared and the fish and coral in fascinated awe. Sadly about 90% of the coral was bleached. First thing she said once we were back topside and the regulator was out of her mouth? “When can we do this again”?


We walked through the Hiroshima Peace Park at ground zero and visited the museum and memorial hall. It was a surreal and emotional experience for all of us. An old man, one of the docents at the museum, asked us our country of origin when we entered. With a smile he nodded and greeted us when Jo said “USA”. We wondered if they have made their peace with Americans. At the museum there were a lot of Japanese school kids on field trips, with open notebooks and pencils in hand. The overriding sentiment was sadness. Most of the exhibits and stories had to do with the day of. What was it like when 60,000 lives ceased to be within a few seconds of 08:10 on August 6th of 1945, and what happened to the others in the following hours and days.

When we exited the museum, the old man gave Vivian and Evan a couple of the famous origami cranes of peace. There wasn’t a dry eye around.

Later, as their writing assignments, Vivian and Evan wrote about their visit. Evan focused on the technicalities of the bomb – the design of Thin Man versus Fat Boy, radioactivity, critical mass, etc. Vivian wrote as if she survived the bomb and returned home to find her little brother dying.


Eating in Japan has been an adventure. The foods are amazing and the restaurants are super specialized. A ramen noodle place is different from an udon noodle place which again is not the same as a soba noodle shop. We went to a solo seating ramen restaurant in Kyoto, and we loved it so much that we came back a second time. Here’s a quick run down of how it works: go to the machine at the entrance of the restaurant and select the type of broth you want, and extras like soft boiled egg and sliced mushrooms and push the buttons as you would in a vending machine (an average bowl is about 1200 yen or $12). Then you pay the machine and out pops a small printed ticket.

The waiter directs you to your spot inside. You sit on a stool in a long room facing a narrow counter partitioned off from your neighbors to your right and your left. A water dispenser and ceramic cups are to one side. An opening in the wall in front of you is covered by a bamboo blind. To your right is a packet holding blank forms and a pencil. Take a blank form and fill it in. You select the richness of the broth, the amount of garlic and spice (on a scale of 1 to 10), and other stuff. You put your ticket and the filled form on a designated spot on the counter and press a button. Your waiter appears on the other side of the bamboo blind, raises it, greets you, collects the paperwork and lowers the blind. Meanwhile your party sits at their own stools along the same counter. You’re separated from each other by wooden partitions on the counter. Some times the partitions are hinged and can be folded back to allow interaction with your neighbor.

After a while the bamboo blind is raised and a steaming bowl and ramen and extras are placed in front of you on the counter. The waiter says something in Japanese that I didn’t understand and then bows deeply from the waist but his working space is narrow so he has to bow sideways. Given the geometry of the opening you just see the top of his head as it is lowered to counter height. Then the blind is closed and you are left to contemplate your ramen. Slurp well and enjoy.

Jo described this to a friend who said “like a prison visit”. I guess it is, but tastier.


We took a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, cruising at 300 km/h while enjoying nice views of Mt. Fuji along the way. I did not know that in the 53 year history of Shinkansen they have carried more than 5 billion passengers without a single fatality.

We woke up our first morning in Kyoto to unexpected snow. Jo and I let the grumbling kids stay at home and we went to Kinkaku-ji. We watched the golden pagoda serenely glistening in the morning light while huge soft snowflakes floated down around us. The crowd of tourists was meanwhile less serenely pushed through a stockade of fence-work around the beautiful grounds. I guess it’s just the sheer number of us. Tourists are the worst : )

In the gently falling snow, Jo and I walked on to Ryaon-ji, the combination of fifteen famous rocks and bits of moss enclosed in a sublime courtyard of manicured gravel. I sat and contemplated the garden from the ancient wooden steps of the pavilion for the third time in my life till my slippered feet got too cold. We returned to the gate, got our shoes, and walked through the moss gardens – Jo’s favorite part.

Kyoto is a city chock full of temples, shrines, and gardens. One of the most picturesque is the Fushimi Inari shrine with the thousand orange torii gates built on the path to the shrine. We met three young ladies from Canada on vacation. They were dressed in kimonos (there are kimono rental shops in Kyoto for this purpose). So Jo and I got into a discussion about cultural appropriation. We don’t see eye to eye. The kids rolled their eyes.

Speaking of cultural appropriation, the torii of Fushimi Inari was the inspiration for the Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed art project consisting of seven thousand orange gates with saffron curtains arrayed around Central Park in the winter of 2005. Remember that?

One afternoon we took the metro to Arashiyama, a small town north west of Kyoto. It has a famous Buddhist temple and gardens and a “bamboo forest”. The “forest” (you get it, I’ll stop quoting the word now) is an overgrown bamboo plantation that is no long economically viable or necessary. It is beautiful. Someone put a half kilometer long path through the forest. The government added the place to the list of Japanese soundscapes. Condé Nast named it among the 50 most beautiful Places On Earth! Result: every tourist in Japan comes here and posts a picture of herself to her Insta account that her friends enviously like about for one second and then forget (I’ve used the female gender to show my disdain for the patriarchy).

We’ve been having fun with eating out in Japan. I’m leaving behind a tsunami of unacceptable behavior. Like the time in Tokyo at an izakaya when the waiter brought me a large (like 3-4 liter large) bottle of sake after he got me my sake. We later thought he wanted to show me the bottle he poured my sake from. Meanwhile I tried hard to undo the cap and get some more. Luckily I was unsuccessful. So I was bent of making a good impression at an izakaya we visited for dinner in Kyoto. This place has maybe 8 stools along a counter in a room so narrow that people further down from you pretty much wait till you are done – the classic first-in-last-out method from queueing theory.

With a little help from Jo (she took a semester Japanese sometime during her education) and an English to Japanese crib sheet on the menu, I said “Sumimasen, mizu wo kudasai”. Jo said that the other three other patrons of the restaurant and the chef and his assistant stopped breathing, waiting for every sound that came out of my mouth. When I finished they all broke into muted applause. The chef poured me a glass of water. Phew. I asked if I could take a photo of him. He posed with my teppan-grilled squid.

On our way out of Kyoto our cab driver gave us an impromptu tour of the city. He used a hand-held translator that worked pretty well. One of the places he stopped was the original head office of the Nintendo Playing Card Company. Then he dropped us off at the train station where we caught a train to Ōsaka.

Though, at some point we are going to have to talk about cultural appropriation.


The attendants bow outside on the curb as our airport bus departs from Haneda Airport. About an hour later the bus drops us off at Shibuya not far from the famous intersection that 3000 people cross every time the lights change. We take a cab to our Airbnb in Motoyoyogicho and meet Keko, our host who shows us to our tatami mat covered room with futon mattresses on the floor. We’ve embarked on our 21 day Japanese adventure.

We marvel and big things and tiny details in Tokyo. The bathrooms everywhere are spotless and are equipped with lux Toto models that have heated seats and various washing options. The traffic, both automobile and human powered, at building exits and around construction sites, is deftly directed by men in white gloves and glowing batons who bow and wave gracefully. Mothers (usually, though there were a few fathers) take toddlers to school in the morning on their bicycles with double child seats and rain covers, pedaling their way through narrow streets and park roads. Children younger than Evan board the subways on their own, in smart navy uniforms and hats and backpacks, to and back from schools. We pass through Shinjuku station where tens of thousands of people transfer smoothly with no jostling, forming neat lines to get on to escalators or into spotless trains. We stroll through Harajuku filled with young people dressed in the most interesting ways and Vivian and Evan buy giant cotton candy. We get take away lunch at the gourmet food shops below the Takashimaya mall that make Whole Foods look like a country outpost, but realize that there is no place to sit and eat because the Japanese don’t eat in public. We wander through the serene grounds of the Meiji Shrine and read about the history of Japan opening up to the rest of the world after 250 years of self imposed isolation (though their version stresses on the actions of the Meiji emperor while the American version pivots on the arrival of Commander Perry and the militaristic might of the US navy). We walk past displays of KitKats in dozens of flavors and colors, ready for Valentine’s Day. We sample onegiri (salmon and rice wrapped in dry seaweed) from various corner stores in our quest to find the very best. We eat at izakayas, tiny restaurants where a single chef prepares everything and you have to select the cup for your hot sake. Vivian and Evan get pretty good at navigating the seeming labyrinth of the Tokyo rapid transit system (over 800 stations serviced by a dozen different operators providing 40 million passenger rides a day) that turns out to be amazingly user friendly and the best way to get around. They can find our home station of Yoyogi-Uehara on the maps and learn to look for it and other connecting stations when it is time to hop off the trains. We visit the old Senso-ji shrine and walk past the rows of wooden stalls selling everything from Hello Kittys to dorayakis, red bean paste filled pancakes, and Evan buys his fortune by randomly pulling a numbered bamboo stick from a box and then opening one of a hundred small drawers filled with notes about your future. We spend a day with our friend Prartho, hiking to the top of mount Takao, an hour west of Tokyo, and follow it up with a lovely long dinner at a Korean barbecue restaurant near the Shimo-Katazawa station. We visit the famed electronics and video gaming hub of Akihabara and Vivian and Evan buy souvenirs for their friends in Austin from the gacha machines that swallow three hundred yen and spit out a plastic egg containing a plastic toy. We are beckoned on the streets by “maids” from the maid cafes and by building sized posters of child-faced anime girls with big boobs, and are reminded everywhere of the uncomfortable intermix of the cultures of cutesy and smutty.

We try to find answers by sampling tiny slices of life in the city and end up with dizzying collages of wonder and surprise and more questions and an appreciation for the impenetrable urban experience that is Tokyo. Evan is excited beyond anything he’s seen so far and slumps onto Jo’s lap at the end of each day on the train ride back home. Vivian vows to return here when she’s older, “probably for college”. Our work here is done. Thank you, Tokyo.