Congratulations to our three finalists, as voted for by you. These three entries received the most votes in the public vote and the final decision was made by Jez Lazell, Travel Editor of the Sunday Times and prolific travel writer. His thoughts & comments on all three pieces are published below each one.
Congratulations to all three.
Winner: Astrid Aoko Okello – In My Culture
“Afurika! Afurika!” Two young boys shout, pointing to my direction as they enter the train. They are accompanied by their parents. They giggle as they jump onto the priority seat. Their mother tries to calm them down, while their father turns to me and slightly bows, I guess as a way of apologizing. Afurika is the Japanese pronunciation of Africa.
Before the train stopped at this subway station, almost everyone minded their business. The young people were glued on their phones, while old people were busy reading those Manga comic books. Now, these children have shifted everyone’s attention. All eyes are on me, making me uncomfortable. So, I get out my phone and scroll through Facebook notifications. Soon, the doors close and the train starts moving.
Deep inside, I am thinking of the amazing experiences that I have had in this city. I am still amazed by how the system here works so perfectly for the citizens and how clean, green and orderly the city is, despite being the largest in the world. I have been learning a few words and sentences here to blend more into the culture. Indeed, I have learnt a lot, even though I keep forgetting to add the word “san” to names of people, and still have the habit of referring to restaurants as hotels, and convenience stores as supermarkets.
It is around 5 pm. I am going to see professor Sara-San for a discussion on her library project in Kenya. She is a famous professor of Socio-Cultural Anthropology at Tokyo University. She also serves as the director of the International Students Association at the University. She has written several books, two about African culture and has been to Kenya several times. She is Scottish, married to her Japanese husband. She speaks Japanese like a native and has blended well into the culture. She has also recently received her Japanese citizenship.
I first met Sara- San about 20 years ago in Kenya when she donated fairy tale books to my primary school in Kenya. I remember being selected to read some few pages of Cinderella at her appreciation ceremony. I was about seven. I was surprised to see her at the African conference at Tokyo University. I immediately recognized her bob-cat hairstyle and the wide gap between her front upper teeth. Twenty years down the line, she had not changed that much. She did not recognize me at first but was in tears when I reminded her of her visit to my school. When she learned that l was the young girl who had read the story, she hugged me tightly as she sobbed.
She shared her undying love for the Swahili language, and how she had constantly practiced it on her occasional visits to Kenya. She could’nt keep calm as she dropped Swahili words, explaining their meanings. It was hard to convince her that ‘Waambaje’ is a traditional salutation which we never use, at least in Nairobi. She was offended when I reverted to English, and reminded me to embrace my African culture.
Two months into my arrival here, my African origin has fascinated many. I have received lots of attention. I came here for a writing fellowship at Tokyo University after winning a creative writing contest. Whenever I introduce myself as a Kenyan girl with a degree in Sociology, and with a great passion for writing and environmental matters, my introduction seems incomplete. This is as long as it is not spiced with some African aspects, something like I have two lion pets.
On the other side, I have used this phrase “In my culture” for giving excuses, like those of why I cannot consume raw meat, or why I cannot drink “kohi” (coffee) without sugar.
After about forty-five minutes, I arrive at Harajuku, where Sara-San lives. I get on Google maps to locate her house, which she says is about ten minutes walk from the station, that is if I get out through the right exit from the station. It is a cold autumn; winter is fast approaching. It is now 6 o’clock and completely dark, something I have not processed as much as the fact that the sun could be up, shining brightly, yet still cold, very cold.
So far, I have been to Harajuku not once, not twice. Harajuku is my favourite spot in Tokyo. I love the vibe it gives and its sense of fashion. Unlike European streets, lined with famous cathedrals, Harajuku has beautiful shrines, beautiful parks and cornered restaurants. I cannot forget to mention its pop culture!
The sky is clear and the air is filled with anime tunes and people constantly saying the thank you word, “Arigatou.” As I walk down the crowded narrow alley, the aroma of Ramen from the cafés fill my empty stomach. I love Ramen, more than the famous Sushi. As I brush shoulders with people, I can hear them whispering “Afurika.” Everything is beautiful from the flower arrangements at the front of the houses to the beautifully decorated manholes.
I finally arrive at Sara’s house. She lives with her husband and her sister-in-law is visiting for the weekend from Okinawa, where she lives and works. I love how Sara-San has blended the living room with both Japanese and Scottish style, with a touch of Africa, represented by carvings of different wild animals on top of the cabinet.
On the left wall is a big picture of a small thin girl, shyly holding a microphone on one hand and a book on the other. She is standing in front of a large crowd. Among the crowd is Sara-san. I know it’s her, even though she has black shades on. I recognize myself as the young girl and for seconds, I get glued on the picture as memories of my tormenting childhood fill my head. The house smells of of Ramen, and I feel hunger burning in my stomach.
Sara-San introduces me to her family, then asks her sister-in-law to lead me upstairs to the study room to see the books she had collected for her library project in Kenya while she sets the table for dinner. The study is a small irregular room. There is an old desktop lying on one corner, at the centre is a small table with an office chair tucked underneath. Each side of the wall has a bookshelf, with books piled up to the ceiling. Among the book piles, I spot several familiar books including Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi and The River Between by Ngugi wa Thiongo.
Sara’s sister-in-law reaches the top shelf and lifts out a book. She blows off the dust on the cover and hands it over to me saying, “Afurika.” I take the book and flip a few pages before I read the summary on it’s back. It’s the story of the legendary Yasuke, the African Samurai who is believed to have been the first African to arrive in Japan in the 16th century. Now I know why she thought I would love it.
After dinner, Kiyosaki-San, Sara’s husband takes the lead and explains details of their planned library project in Kenya. He then shifts to other stories, including how he has been recovering from a minor stroke, which has seen him stop his teaching career for over two years. He has a PhD in music and brags of his mastery of foreign genres. He tells us stories of his first visit to Kenya and his love for the Kenyan coast. He narrates a near-death experience when he was attacked and robbed in Malindi town.
He goes ahead and mentions his dying love for “Zilizopendwa,” a famous Swahili music genre, so he pulls out an old guitar from the side of his chair and plays “Stella Wangu,” a famous Swahili love Song as he sings along with a ridiculous tune in his Japanese accent. He nods as he strikes the last note and we bow and clap simultaneously, then he turns to me and says, Afurika!
This is a thoughtful, nuanced piece, totally nailing the complicated feelings of otherness experienced as a foreigner abroad. On first glance Astrid’s ‘moment’ is not as obviously ‘breathtaking’ as those described by our other two finalists, but by that loaded final “Afurika”, the impact Japan has on Astrid is quietly but devastatingly clear. I loved how honestly Astrid admits to trading on her otherness when it suits her, and how generously she examines the racism experienced. A really insightful, big-hearted piece – a worthy winner.
Astrid says: I am happy and glad that my story won the competition among other amazing stories. “Travel doesn’t become an adventure until you leave yourself behind”. Marty Rubin
RUNNER UP: Raven Patzke – Breathless
I wanted a taste.
I shut my swollen, sunburnt eyes and basked in the aroma of the sweet, frangipani flowers as the strong rays of the afternoon sun beat down on my knotted blonde mane. It was my third day in paradise, or Fiji as some people called it. I’d spent my last two nights island hopping and, since spotting a spider the size of my palm in the showers the first night, my hair had been getting the ocean treatment, as I’d come to call it.
“When’s the last time you went?” the instructor startled me out of my haze.
“Uhhhh, last week,” I hesitantly replied, as I made internal eye contact with my panic-induced self confronting my last instructor by grasping his arm beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean miming “I. CAN’T. BREATHE.”
“Should be fine,” he nodded to the island boy who somehow earned the title of Captain.
I began wrestling with my wetsuit to dissolve its wishes of staying free of my body as Captain plopped a hefty air tank behind me. After hours of lounging on the beach, I figured it was time to get my adrenaline pumping.
“Arms in. Arms up. Now, stand. Okay, you’re good,” he notified me.
“Up here,” my instructor tapped the edge of the dinghy we’d ventured into the open waters with.
Mustering up the strength I’d incurred from all those years of missing the bus, I heaved my body along with the steel tank of death attached to my back toward the edge of the boat.
“On three, we do backflip.”
“I’m sorry, wh-“
With a swirl of blues, I was suddenly drenched in saltwater.
“All right, ready?” the instructor said as he grasped my hand and plunged beneath the choppy waters.
Left, right, left, right. My flippers were the only stability I had left at this point as my instr- as my bodyguard and I descended to the distant ocean floor and crouched behind an old coral reef wall. Now, eyes wider than the gap between my kindergarten teeth, I spotted something. No, I spotted a lot of somethings. Despite having that tank of fresh air I’d so graciously lugged around for myself, I held my breath as 30 bull sharks circled my so-called hiding spot. Ranking in the top three of unprovoked attacks on humans, these guys were not to be messed with.
I was completely, utterly, vulnerable. This reef wall, this bodyguard, this boat—nothing mattered. No one could have stopped these sharks, much less 30 of them should they decide I would make a better lunch than their fellow marine friends. This was a whole new world. A world where money, status and connections couldn’t get you out of trouble. Above water, we all had our own stories, but down here, we were all one of the same: Speechless.
As another diver from our group opened the chest of bloody fish heads he’d boldly brought with him, I began to hope the sharks wouldn’t be considering these offerings as the hors d’oeuvres. I watched intently as the diver stabbed a mangled piece of meat and offered it to the crowd. A few members went in for a bite, however, the bull sharks weren’t about to be crowned king so easily. A stealthy red snapper snagged the snack and sped off, being chased by some upset brunch guests.
Despite the commotion, I began to settle into my skin. After all, if this ended up being my last few moments of life, the little me watching me take my last breath from above would be extremely disappointed that I didn’t end it on a good note.
However, it was odd. I was 9,687 miles away from home, underwater, with a man I’d met five minutes beforehand, surrounded by millions of unknown creatures that all had the potential to end me, and yet I found peace. I found peace in the idea that I could be vulnerable and trust that those around me would do the same. As our tanks began to deplete their last supplies of fresh air, I took one last inhale and filled my lungs with the taste of freedom.
There were two things I loved about this piece. Firstly, it is instantly evocative: from that very first whiff of frangipani, we are right there with Raven and her knotted blonde mane. More profoundly though, I loved how Raven captures the dizzying exhilaration of those moments on the road when you act with an abandon you wouldn’t dream of at home. That ‘boy captain’: who hasn’t turned their life over to him at some point on their travels? The trust in others that’s asked of you is one of travel’s great gifts – it offers, as Raven so powerfully concludes, the taste of freedom.
RUNNER UP: Julie Heath – Full Bore with a Chance of Arrival
Every fibre of my being implored me to not look. And although I knew beyond doubt, that looking was a terrible idea, I did it anyway. The essence of that sentence sums up the narrative of my life. My children will probably have it carved on my head stone in large gothic letters ‘SHE KNEW SHE SHOULDN’T BUT SHE DID’. I had hoped that it wouldn’t be quite so soon though.
Looking over my right shoulder I watched in horror, as the inch or so of grass that separated us from an almost sheer drop, sped past. Like a rabbit in the headlights it was difficult to tear my eyes away, but finally, I forced my face forward and tried to relax. The vintage Lambretta beneath me, and Nick, the rider with my fate in his hands, would surely get us out of trouble.
Over the past two years, I had been gradually introduced to the marvellous mayhem of scooter rallies at many British seaside towns. Thousands of devotees ride their beloved vintage scooters to weekend rallies all over the UK. The weekend events tend to follow a similar script: meet up with friends, admire each other’s scooters, buy spare parts, and watch some fantastic bands. Ska, Northern Soul and Brit Pop are the tunes of choice, and dancing into the early hours is the norm. It is great fun, and I love it!
Now though, I was riding pillion in a group of 21 scooters to the 16th European Lambretta Jamboree, to be held this year in Leutasch Austria. We had docked at Zeebrugge three days ago and had left Saarbrucken this morning, making our way through the Black Forrest towards Villingen. For me, the trip was a revelation. The scooter suited my pace for travel and sense of adventure. I could feel the nooks and crannies of the towns and villages we travelled through. The experience of being off the tourist maps, of not knowing where we would end up each night, would fill the hearts of some of my friends with terror, but this uncertainty was perversely thrilling for me. The sense of achievement when we arrived was my reward. This was my first such trip, and it certainly wouldn’t be my last – if we could just get back on the road before the rough track slid down the mountain taking us with it.
Looking down to the left I could see that our way back to the tarmac, only inches away, was blocked by a kerb snaking its way along the side of the road. Seemingly, put there to avert vehicles from going over the precipice, it now prevented us from getting back to safety. The ground beneath us was diminishing rapidly and we were running out of options. This is it, I thought, this is how I die. After all the madness my life has attracted (not always my fault but shit happens), I’m going to end up as a collection of body parts, scattered across a beautiful patch of wooded mountain in Germany. What a stupid way to die. The wheels started to wobble which made the scooter jiggle and my teeth hurt, as Nick tried to keep us as close to the road as possible. A glance down to the right, confirmed my worst fear. The ground had disappeared. Any second now, we would be sliding and bouncing down to annihilation. There were many tall trees embedded defiantly in the mountainside and my only hope rested on catching one on the way down to interrupt my fall. Closing my eyes, I struggled to force my mind to its happy place, away from the incomprehensible truth.
I felt a bump and, thinking I’d have slightly more chance of survival if I didn’t get dragged along by the Lambretta, I released my grip on the back rest. Ready to jump I opened my eyes and was astonished to find we were back on the tarmac. The wheels had stopped wobbling and were now gaily spinning round, gripping the road with confident vigour, as though the last few moments (felt like hours) were already a remote memory.
I dragged my thoughts back from the brink of oblivion. The joy and relief threatened to overwhelm me, and I had to fight just to breath. Suddenly I was unequivocally grateful for everything in life. As well as the big important family/nature things, I was grateful for the stiffness in my knees after being sat on the scooter for hours, for the nosey neighbour who always popped round when I had visitors. I was even grateful to the person who had reversed into my car in the supermarket car park and sped off before I could hold him to account. Life was joyous. Every scrap of it. Eagerly, I looked at some of the other riders, trying to share my joy through eye contact with fellow compatriots. I had expected to see a reflection of the relief that I felt, something at least to hint at the drama we had just lived through but there was nothing. Settling back into my seat, a thought struck me. Had I overdramatised the situation? Were we never actually in danger at all? Perhaps we weren’t as close to the edge as I had perceived. Being the only female in the group, I certainly didn’t want to be the one pushing the panic button. I resolved not to mention it. A nonchalant and casual manner was called for.
We swung into a car park in the shelter of the mountain and came to a halt. Nick put his feet on the ground and pressed forward to give me space to get off, then he pulled the scooter backwards onto the stand as I began taking off my helmet and gloves. It was then that I saw, as Nick lifted his helmet, the fear in his eyes.
“Are you OK?” he took my hand as the rest of our group pulled up and were gathering beside us.
“I’m fine,” I said, attempting a detached shrug “it was a little tense but ….”
“I’m so sorry,” Nick cut in “I couldn’t get back onto the road because of the kerb. I’d swung in too close to the edge just before the kerb began and then we were trapped.” He was babbling, and a small rivulet of sweat was wending its way from his temple, down into the neck of his jacket. The rest of the group now joined in the commentary. I heard snippets of accounts: “thought you were toast”, “don’t know how you managed to keep her steady”; “was sure you were over the edge”, as I wandered towards a patch of grass and sat down with my thoughts. We had at least 3 days of riding before we would reach our destination. I wasn’t sure that I could carry off a nonchalant casual manner in the face of any more jeopardy.
Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this type of impatient, unpredictable, and hazardous travel. I had just begun to mull over the feasibility of using a train for the rest of the trip when I looked up to see helmets and gloves being pulled back on, over damp hair and sweaty hands – the short de-brief was over. Re-joining the group, I swung my leg over the seat of Nicks GP200 and adjusted my seat pad (actually it was my granddaughters ‘bubble bum’ which I’d whipped out of the car before we left home). We pulled out of the car park and continued along the forest road, each rider instinctively checking the one behind. As the fresh breeze flicked my cheeks, and the buzz of 21 scooters bounced through the mountain air, a frisson of excitement tickled my bones and, in the words of Winnie the Pooh when he first met Piglet, I knew an adventure was going to happen. I decided to give the Lambretta another chance. After all, even when I knew I shouldn’t, I tended to do it anyway
This is a really accomplished piece of writing, instantly drawing us in with that eye-catching opening. I also like how seamlessly Julie weaves in her back story (a difficult trick), with the spectre of that terrifying drop a compelling ever-present. Mostly though, I just love Julie’s spirit: giving the Lambretta one last chance, silencing her fears for a sniff of adventure – it’s what travel is all about, and this piece captures that brilliantly.