LA to Tokyo In Just 21 Short Years

I left Los Angeles for Japan in August of 1985, finally arriving in November…November 2006, that is. It was a long, circuitous journey that I could neither have anticipated nor predicted. I had just gotten married earlier that summer, and we had a small (very small, by today’s measure) amount of money saved for a honeymoon. We decided that our fortunes would be made teaching English in Japan, and so we began to get our ducks in a row for the extended stay abroad. We converted several hundred dollars into yen, we honed our chopstick technique in a number of LA’s Asian dives, and we bought maps and budget-travel books to peruse over green tea in our Mid-Wilshire apartment.

As Cyndi had never traveled outside North America, I suggested that, rather than a trans-Pacific crossing, perhaps a trip eastward, via Europe, might be in order, so she could acquire her beginner traveler’s chops in less alien surroundings. The airfares were not terribly different, and it would mean that we would have well-stamped passports to show off to our American friends and acquaintances upon arrival in Japan. Not that we had any American friends and acquaintances there, mind you, but sooner or later we would, and we didn’t want to display virgin passports when the time came for show-and-tell.

So we loaded up our trusty Plymouth Champ (when was the last time you heard of one of those?) and headed off to New York, by way of Cyndi’s grandparents’ place in Idaho, Yellowstone Park, Mt. Rushmore, Chicago, Detroit, and Niagara Falls. Even if we had turned around there, it would have been a respectable honeymoon, but we still had two-thirds of the world ahead of us. We left the car in Pennsylvania at my uncle’s place and caught the $99 flight from JFK to Brussels; People’s Express was the airline, as I recall. It was basically a Greyhound with wings, but it didn’t crash, and it was really cheap, my two main flight criteria in those days.

It was in Brussels that our new best friend Claude (pronounced “Cloud” in the French manner) talked us into a detour. It should be mentioned here that Claude was a used-car salesman, and (surprise, surprise) he had a car that would be “chust right” for us, a three-year-old Peugeot 305 with only 18,000 kilometers on it, driven back and forth to school by one elderly teacher. He told us, with great sincerity, that we could buy this wondrous vehicle from him, drive it wherever we wanted to go in Europe for a month, then take it to West Africa and sell it for double what we paid for it. And, if we bought it now and hustled southward, we would be just in time to beat the rainy (read: monsoon) season that drenches West Africa, rendering car travel difficult if not impossible.

Clearly there was no time to waste on silly things like planning, provisioning or having our heads examined. We forked over some cash and, snap, just like that we were the proud, albeit somewhat dubious, owners of an anonymous beige four-door sedan in purportedly mint condition. We got on the road the following day, keeping to the backroads down through France, Spain, Gibraltar and Portugal, before doubling back into Spain to catch the ferry to Morocco. I guess we were the better part of a month in Europe, then easily another six weeks or more working our way south across the Algerian Sahara Desert and into Central West Africa. Other than a flat tire in Spain, the car performed flawlessly.

We spent Christmas in Togo. If you look at a map of Africa, and think of the northwest as an outstretched arm, Togo would be the armpit. That is not an editorial comment, just a statement of fact; infer what you will. We stayed at a small pension in the capital, Lome, a place noted in our guidebook as a rollicking hangout for seamen and prostitutes; it thoroughly lived up to its billing. We sent a telegram to my parents for Christmas, using a bit of our precious dwindling stash of dollars: “MERRY CHRISTMAS STOP SAFE IN TOGO STOP LOVE B AND C”. Later, my mother told me that she looked in vain at a map of Japan trying to find a city called “Togo”, then misremembered a small South Pacific island (Tonga, what on earth would they be doing there?), before settling on the correct Togo in West Africa. She dismissed it out of hand for several weeks until our much-delayed postcards began arriving from points en route: Gibraltar, Algiers, and Ouagadougou.

In Togo, our hitherto reliable Peugeot had its first problem: the morning after Christmas, we could not get it to start. Inspection by a local shade-tree mechanic, his entire tool kit in his jeans pockets, revealed that the carburetor had sucked up approximately half the sand in the Sahara Desert. With some effort, and more than a little of what I assume was swearing in some arcane African dialect, he removed the carburetor and emptied it out, giving it a swish with some fresh gasoline for good measure. It started right up, good as new. The service call cost us $10, and we gave the mechanic our spare tools as a tip. Just after New Year’s, we sold the car, to a local elder with six wives (no kidding). For a bit more than twice what we paid for it, just as Claude had predicted. Flush with cash again, we contemplated our next move. Our friend Dieter wanted to sell us his Land Rover, in which we could continue on to South Africa. Or, we could take Aeroflot to Moscow, then on to Tokyo from there. Another option would be to take Ghana Airways to London, with stops in Accra, Lagos, Dusseldorf and Paris, and then figure out our way to Asia. In the end, we decided that we had had enough travel for the time being, so we put off Japan for another time, and headed back to friends and family in California.

We did a fair bit of traveling in between then and now: Central America, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, but somehow never made it to Japan together. After 20-odd years, Cyndi and I divorced in 2005, after which I spent one frigid winter alone in Prince Edward Island, and swore I would never do that again. I’ve never been much of a country music fan, but those folks sure nailed it in songs about the double whammy of cold and loneliness. Years of living in temperate climes had burdened me with a wussiness about extreme cold (and extreme heat) that I never would have predicted. So nowadays, I spend mild winters in Tokyo, prepping for departure when the humidity starts its inexorable climb to the triple digits, and warm summers in PEI, ready to bolt at the first chilly breeze of autumn.

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