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Delia Wilson, Writer Posts

The Okinawan Detour


Just recently I remarked to a newcomer that the jam-up American traffic jam does not occur here on Okinawa. I went on to say that traffic moves slowly at times, but I had never seen it come to a total halt. I had an adventure this week which led me to revise my thinking on Okinawan traffic. It’s called the “Okinawan detour.”

Riding along a busy four lane recently, I spotted flashing signs and vigorously waving people ahead of me. As there was a barricade across the road, I correctly jumped to the conclusion that I was to detour to the left. I immediately and al­most automatically followed the two cars in front of me. As they turned right, I turned-onto an itty-bitty paved road. I hesitated a little and then said, “Oh, but of course, they know where they’re going!”

Catching sight of the leader’s license plates a few minutes later, I gulped and moaned, “Oops, he’s American, too! Oh, well, big deal, I’ve got time. Let’s see where he’s going.” Bare seconds later, the lead car stopped, looking over an incline. (“That should take us right back to the same road we were on, shouldn’t it?.”) His hesitation became understandable when I reached the edge. No more paved road, no more smooth road. Would you believe a road divided in two by a ravine!?

Keep reading. If you believe that, there’s more to come!

The lead car decided to use one half the road and the ravine. I giggled hysterically watching him ride down a near 60 degree angle. The second car (an Okinawan – why in the world he followed the American, I’ll never figure out.) straddled the ravine and inched his way down.

Intelligent me, I say, “Hey that looks better!” forgetting the narrow width of my minicar. That ravine kept getting wider and wider and just as I thought I was going to lose my whole car in that ravine, the road leveled out.

“Whew! Oh, no, where’s the road?” I don’t know when that “road” was last traveled certainly not since the last flood anyway. The lead car mired down in some red mud (I thought I had left Georgia) and I said no more! Making a full reverse and turn, I proceeded back up into the ravine, when, around the bend, four more cars were coming down! Another fast reverse and subsequent turn and wham, seven cars parked at four different angles.

Now I call that a traffic jam!

Chuckling, I shut off my motor and waited. A heave ho loosened the lead car and he bounced out of sight. Two cars and a van did their turns jumping over the water and rock bed.  The pickup now in front goes leap and lands beautifully, spinning tires, in a hole.

My helpful nature demands the offer of muscles, but he only muttered in Japanese and set to work on his stuck tire.

More cars behind me an American crawls out of his car, “what in the world? what kind of detour is this?” We both survey the terrain making comments as to problem holes, routes, etc. I busy myself placing chunks of cement in a water hole.

Three Okinawan men race up just as the pickup truck owner raises his sunken tire by way of his jack. (What is this fellow doing, I wonder) while he’s filling his hole with rocks, the other Okinawans are moving in circles making the identical comments my friend and I have just finished with (only in Japanese) . The youngest came to the same decision as I, and picked up this enormous cement block and dumps it in my hole! it only stands 5 Inches above the “roadway”! “Oh, grief,” I mutter. The pickup on his new road of rocks spurts ahead with the owner returning to check his road building talents, adding a rock here and a rock there.

This story ends here for I gaily bounced through our makeshift road back onto the road we had detoured off. We were some 100 yards beyond that detour barricade!  I kept laughing as then I could see there was no reason for the detour in the first place.

No traffic jams, no normal detours, Mama, just adventure around every turn!

Sayonara from the land of improvised roads and high tropical adventure.




Every so often I get to comparing driving a car here on Okinawa to what I was used to back in the States. The usual car is rather small compared to our average American car. My son, in fact, calls them “race cars” and he has a point. Quite often I feel like I’m in the Indy 500.

I’m not saying we drive fast here, Mama, actually compared to 1-75 back home it’s quite slow. It’s just that when you’re driving down a street wide enough for two pedestrians and one car, and then you meet up with a trash truck, well… The feeling is akin to claustrophobia (so what if the trash truck is small too!). acrophobia (looking over the road side down a three foot drop—into the storm ditch) and pure panic (reverse, where’s the reverse?!).

We feel like our driving talents have increased since our arrival. Hubby keeps saying, “I’ll get a Caddy and drive it through Atlanta traffic on two wheels – you’ll see!” Trust and defensive driving are the keys to staying alive here, however, trusting the fellow next to you to do something (like u-turns, turning left from the through lane, etc) that you aren’t expecting.

Therefore, one drives defensively with eyes wide open. Defensive driving is trying to close your mouth when the taxi driver decides he needs your lane and there’s only three feet of space there; laughing when the man in front does a double u-turn and ends up behind you; waiting to see if anyone will let you through the left hand lane from the right so you can make the street that was hiding behind the bus a moment before.

That last example is purely American. I darn near lost my cool while trying to turn left one day recently. I waited and waited and waited until the five cars behind me started honking. With traffic coming in both directions, I realized they meant for me to move out into the street to force the oncoming cars to stop. Well, even though I automatically swing into the right lane nowadays to avoid stopping behind a left-turner (no matter whether there’s traffic or not), I still lack the courage, brazenness and/or heart to just move into traffic like they do here.

That kind of courage or knowledge of self seems to be taught here from a young age. Not long after our arrival we took a drive towards south Okinawa. On a flat, straight section of road we spotted five youngsters ahead. One stout fellow raised his hand to stop us and proceeded across the road with his friend.

We quickly realized there were no cars in front of us and none for miles behind. As we turned to watch them after we passed, those two boys with the three girls from the other side raced giggling and laughing back across the road – back across to await their next victims!

Sayonara from the land of confident Okinawa drivers and minature Coca-Cola trucks.



The Circus


A couple of weeks ago I foolishly told my son about the circus with the elephants, lions, clowns, the smell of popcorn, hot dogs and cotton candy. He was excited about the idea, (so was I!) and I promised him we would go.

The first objective was to buy ticket – a nerve racking experience. The Thursday before, I attempted to buy them at the USO on base. “Sorry, all gone,” said the girl, and I just stared at her. With the child psychologist warning, “never break a promise” screaming in my head, I gasped, “Oh no, my son will kill me!” (Can a three year old be tried for murder?)

The attendant behind the counter, sensing the emergency, immediately called another USO and tracked down some available tickets. My thoughts on how to run away from home on Okinawa kept being interrupted by a small voice saying “Mommy, go circus now?” until later the next day when I finally was able to get those tickets.

The day before the circus we rode by the area by chance and noted the absence of tethered elephants and circus tents. I supposed (in my infinite American wisdom) that they hadn’t gotten here yet, and, throwing a prayer towards heaven, continued on.

“Circus day” arrived. We found a minor Okinawan traffic jam at the stadium with six cops directing traffic, one of whom directed us into the wrong lane while the rest ignored our plight. Literally hundreds of people standing out­side should have forewarned us. That gymnasium was packed. Every seat was al­ready taken. The crush of people forced us onto the floor of the gym. Suddenly, on our right, arose a 5’3″ figure of authority, shouting “Shoes, Shoes!” He pointed to the paper-taped floor. “Shoes!” A passing American breathed in my ear, “Put them in the plastic bags” and he promptly faded away. Baggies for shoes? You bet, partner! Let me tell you about the pair of large cowboy boots I was wearing-they really didn’t fit into that Okinawan-sized bag!

We bagged the shoes and gained squatters rights on the floor. The lights dimmed and I heard a whisper, “Mommy, go bathroom!” I stood up but all I saw were squatting and kneeling people. Slowly, carrying my very impatient son, I picked my way through the crowd. The crowd didn’t thin out even in the rest-room. Many mothers with equally impatient children stood waiting. Next door, meanwhile, was a nearly empty men’s room. After a few moments of indecision (will he come back if I let him go in?), a man generously escorted my son inside.

Returning with our apples (yes, apples, forget the popcorn, hotdogs, and cotton candy), I realized, plowing through that mass of people again, that we, of course, had chosen the longest way over, through, between and by fifty or so circus watchers. At least I believe there was a circus. Those who stood up could occasionally catch a glimpse of clowns and even dogs. (No, ma, no elephants. I think we would have spotted them.)

With my husband holding my son aloft, I sat cross-legged on the floor meditatively crunching on my apple, the smell of recently unsneakered feet rising to my nose. Yes, they tell me there was a circus performance that night. I had been reassuring myself that at least my son got to see part of it, when earlier today, he looked up at me and asked those fateful words, “When’s the circus, Mommy?”!

Sayonara from the land of “you never know what you’re getting into,”




Dear Mama

Your request for the phone number in our new home made me take a moment to reflect on the “phones” here on Okinawa. I’m sorry, Mama, but we have no phone. Not only that but we won’t be able to get a phone off base. “What no phones?” I know it sounds un-American and even foolhardy, but to install a phone is to invite financial ruin (in­stallation costs one arm, an eye and ten teeth).

However, that does not mean that people here do not rely on phones. Quite the contrary! One must resort to pay phones, stealing phones or just using base phones (categories A through Z).

Soon after our arrival we tried to phone the base from our hotel. My brave hus­band dialed digit after digit after digit and sat expectantly. Without a comment, he hung up and dialed again. With a quizzical expression, he listened and then hung up once more. “Honey, what’s wrong?” I asked. No answer.

Finally deciding he had been struck deaf and dumb, I hesitantly dialed about ten or fifteen digits. (Surely, this phone system is no different, I thought.) When a voice answered and I didn’t understand a word, I quietly replaced the receiver in much the same manner as my husband. Later that afternoon we did get through to an English speaking voice but by that time it was too late, our voices failed us and the communication seemed lacking.

Today things are different. No matter who answers I have learned to speak right up in English (keeping fingers crossed in hopes of comprehension). One gets further that way usually. Ignoring pay phones that beep at you.(“Oh, no, all I’ve got are quarters!”) lousy connections and numb fingers, I end up one of several ways:

(1) Ring, (or should I say,’ “BRRRR”!), “Moshi, moshi”, “Hello, may I speak with John?” pause “John who” “John Smith” “OK, you wait maybe I find.”

(2) No ring, as I interrupt a conversation, “Sorry, the wires are crossed.” “Nani?” “Oh, well,” I hang up.”

(3) Ring, “Moshi, moshi” “Hello, may I speak with John?” Answer in Japanese, “Oh, well,” I hang up.

(4) Ring “Moshi, moshi” “Hello, may I speak with John?” Answer in Japanese, I hear the phone drop, ten minutes later American voice and conversation ensues.

At this point I should stop and figure out the odds. Jimmy the Greek could start a whole new betting line here. “Ten to one it’ll take me three tries to get the right number and person.” I’ve also noticed that guide books and Japanese conversation books don’t include telephone etiquette. Perhaps they are trying to tell us something!

Sayonara from Okinawa, the land of baby blue pay phones and lousy odds.


Okinawan Cherry Blossum Festival

Note: this was the first column; I took over an existing column named Dear Mother.  At the time I had no idea I could do humor!


Despite a dismal morning recently, we decided to brave the Nago Cherry Blossom Festival. For those unfamilar with the rock, Nago City lies nestled in the “Mountains” (you know, towering hulks at 1,000 ft.!)  on the northern end of the island.

Rushing along our merry American way, we zipped to the expressway. The Okinawa expressway has a maximum speed of 70 kms. per hour or 44 miles per hour. We whizzed on at this breathtaking speed past the no smoking signs, casually hiding the cigarettes below window level. At this snail’s – or maybe sea creature’s is more appropriate – pace we arrived within the hour at Nago amidst the ever present dripping sky.

Not to be outdone by the local residents, we set out, carrying children, with only 2 umbrellas between the six of us. No matter what the previous weather the typical Okinawan can materialize an umbrella or other rain gear when rain threatens. Being the average American new to this wonderful (wet) isle, rain gear is not yet an established part of our wardrobe. As I stood on a corner licking the rain from my lips, I marveled again at the dry Okinawans around us.

One young mother took pity on us dumb, wet Americans and gave us her um­brella. Feeling like charity cases in this land of stunted bananas, we went on to explore downtown Nago. The cherry blossoms were a vivid pink. Our expectations died out quickly when upon closer examination they turned out to be wire and plastic.

A bathroom was decided upon as the first priority. Standing in the middle of a fresh food market I grasped at the correct Japanese for “where is the bathroom?” Within five minutes I had it, but it took another 10 minutes to raise the courage to ask. (Thank heavens it wasn’t the 3 yr. old who needed that bathroom.) I carefully started “Benjo wa….” gesticulating wildly. The woman led me to another who kindly escorted us to the correct facilities. I hate to dignify it with the term restroom. Oh my Koshi! (that’s “back” in Japanese for you illiterates(. To squat or not to squat.) The decision made and acted upon we ventured on.

At 1400 the rain stopped and the parade began. We eagerly awaited the arrival of the floats, fire engines and dragons. A lull followed the six or so school bands and four cops bearing a large Think Left sign. Our mouths gaped open as we watched the same bands and police do a reverse and parade back past. With a “well, I guess they wanted to make sure we got enough pictures,” from our American friend, we followed the parade to Nago crossroads.

Street dancing was scheduled next and the cop with the green arm band (You speakee English?) was prevailed on. “Where will the dancing be?” Standing in the cross­roads directing traffic, he solemnly answered by pointing down to the pavement. We laughed. Some minutes later as we watched up to 200 women run, Okinawa style – dressed in traditional costumes, through the intersection, the truth dawned on us. This time, taking few pictures, we watched knowing they would dance past again just like the parade rerun. The joke was on us though because they never returned!

After hours trekking through the streets and climbing the 500 steps up Mt. Nago, we returned to our car for the finale of fireworks. At eight on the dot the fireworks and the rain began. It was as spectacular as I had hoped, I thought as I gallantly wiped the rain from my collar.

Exhaustion was the main byproduct of the day. We returned home physically and mentally spent and culturally full.

Sayonara from the land of the spluttering fireworks.