Sunday, August 28, 2016

Not One For The Ladies? Women in the spy genre

A month or so ago, I came across a piece in one of the national UK newspapers, The Daily Telegraph, detailing the ‘twenty greatest spy novels of all time’.

The books dated from Rudyard Kipling’s KIM from 1901 and Eskine Childers’ RIDDLE OF THE SANDS (1903) up to SLOW HORSES by Mick Herron, published in 2010.

Monument to Yulian Semyonov in Yalta
In between are the likes of Joseph Conrad, Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, Graham Green, John Le Carré, Robert Ludlum and Len Deighton, among others. There’s the odd more unusual choice, such as Russian author Yulian Semyonov’s SEVENTEEN MOMENTS OF SPRING from 1969, apparently written at the urging of the chief of the KGB as a propaganda exercise that became greater than the sum of its parts. Fascinating to see the Cold War from the other side of the curtain.

But, only one female author’s work makes the cut – Helen MacInnes’ ASSIGNMENT IN BRITTANY from 1942. Interesting that in the short paragraph describing each entry on this list, more lineage is given to Ms MacInnes’ husband, (an Oxford classicist and MI6 agent) than to Ms MacInnes’ own background.

Helen MacInnes and her 1968 novel, THE SALZBURG CONNECTION
Is it truly the case that women don’t, won’t, or can’t write in this genre? Or that the quality of what they do is not up to the standard of the men? I do hope not. But, if not, why isn’t their work more highly regarded?

Some of the first espionage thrillers I remember reading were those by Evelyn Anthony. She started writing mainly historical novels in 1949, but later switched to spy thrillers, including those featuring the female head of British Intelligence, Davina Graham.

More latterly, Gayle Lynds has enjoyed enormous success in the espionage genre, after her first novel, MASQUERADE, was apparently accepted then rejected by the female president of a New York publishing house as it “couldn’t possibly have been written by a woman”.

Libby Fischer Hellmann writes in the crime thriller field, but has branched out in more recent years with standalones such as THE INCIDENTAL SPY, set during the early years of the Manhattan Project.

And when the Robert Ludlum estate were looking for a writer to continue his work, the job went to Jamie Freveletti.

I don’t claim to be enormously widely read in this genre, but surely that can’t be it? Can it?

Any suggestions welcome!

And another point I noted from the ‘twenty greatest’ list – only one book featured a female protagonist. Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise is the only woman given centre stage, with others relegated to the usual love interest/damsel in distress/femme fatale role. Indeed, in John Buchan’s original novel, THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, the character of Pamela/Victoria/Miss Fisher (depending on which of the movie adaptations you’ve watched) is missing altogether.

Peter O'Donnell's MODESTY BLAISE.
I can only hope the novels are better than the dire 1966 movie of the same name ...
Reading the jacket copy synopsis for many books being published today, I would have said there were far more female protags about – I do wonder why they all seem to have to be beautiful, however. Do all male protags have to be mind-bendingly handsome?

OK, I’ve had my rant. Time for you to have your say.

This week’s Word of the Week is goya, an Urdu word meaning ‘as if’ and often used to describe the suspension of disbelief or transportation that comes through good storytelling.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Miracle Worker


A friend of mine from Switzerland, who’s a big fan of mysteries and Greece, just sent me an email describing a miraculous experience he had a month ago on the island of Corfu. Miraculous life saving experiences aren’t unique to William Griffiths, for aside from having created hand-rub formulas celebrated by World Health Organization in its “Clean Hands Save Lives” program, he’s been present at more miraculous, life-saving moments than I care to say. 

Though some wags might be tempted to say to one involved in so many situations requiring miraculous intervention, “Please send me your itinerary so I know where not to be,” William sees it as another of his continuing contributions toward bettering lives.

Among the many ways he betters those lives is by taking their photographs, for he’s also an excellent photographer. 

At times, William’s avocation overlaps with one of his miraculous moments, as was the case with his latest experience at the concert of his good friend, Greek classical composer Stamatis Spanoudakis.

Here is my adaptation of William’s brief run down of the miracle he witnessed on Corfu. It’s of the sort he labels, “Hazards and Coincidences”:

It all happened on the Greek Ionian island of Corfu on the evening of Sunday, August 7th.  The concert was scheduled to start at nine, but as musicians waited offstage to take their places, the Bishop of Corfu used the opportunity of welcoming Maestro Spanoudakis to give the crowd of 3,500 fans a half-hour speech. 

[I can just see the audience fidgeting in its seats.] 

As soon as the Bishop finished, the musicians hustled on stage, unexpectedly accompanied by an unwelcome crew of gate-crashers: trees of lightning, roars of thunder, near gale force winds, and heavy rain…the tail end of a fierce storm that brought flooding and 20 deaths to FYROM.

Next to the stage stood a fifty-foot high metal pole holding heavy concert lights in place.  The winds sent the pole crashing to the ground at the spot just vacated by the musicians—and opposite to where they now stood—while rains drove the 3,500 fans to the exits, and winds sent their now empty chairs flying in all directions.

Miraculously, only one person was injured, and he just slightly.

As William puts it, the Bishop’s speech averted disaster, for by speaking as long as he did he’d not left enough time between the musicians coming on stage and the storm hitting for fans to move into the prime spot vacated by the musicians.  Had he spoken any less—or more—the falling light pole most certainly would have cost lives.  

Way to go, William!

By the way, the concert was held on the following night—before an even larger crowd—and here’s an example of Spanoudakis’ music.


Friday, August 26, 2016

The Death Of The Olympic Dream

Another Olympic Games has drawn to a close and didn’t the Brits do well ( not a penny of the 40 million quid spent developing that bike was wasted!).

Once again we were a United Kingdom cheering on our cyclists, our gymnasts and our athletes. Interesting to see that today the newspapers are full of headlines about the death of the Scottish Independence debate due to the 15 billion hole in the Scottish economy that has just been announced. But that is for another day.

Andy Murray was Scottish, Jade Jones was Welsh, Mo  Farah was a Somalian now a Brit and Mark Cavendish is from the Isle of Man (A Manx man- if you want to amuse yourself look up any interview that Mark gives--- that is one weird, weird accent).

What the Olympic Games are now about seems to be a bit of a movable feast. First, the freak show argument. Whether you like it or not, to be that good at some things you have to be on the very extreme of a normal human physique and physiology. Mo Farah has very long tibia and radial bones. Michael Phelps has a very long back and short legs for his height, as well as huge feet. Simone Biles is extremely short with an underdeveloped pelvis for a woman of that age – see later hormone arguments. 
                                                     Talented but you don't see guys like that in Walmart.

After the Bejing Olympics the British Sports Association put out a call for anybody that was too tall to 'feel normal'. It was  a jokey way of getting hold of those women over 6 feet tall and those men over 6 feet 4 inches. They then sat them in a boat and asked them to row quite quickly and the rest is pure gold.


So if that tweak of DNA and freakishness is applauded in gymnastics where it is not seen to be an unfair advantage to tumble quicker and more accurately than anybody else why is that acceptance not universal.  (I have a Russian patient who was a gymnast in the same Soviet training camp as Olga Corbet and she waxed lyrical on how precise a female like Simone can tumble and somersault due to her power/ weight ratio and short limbs. She also knew Ludmila Tourischeva  and although she was a fine gymnast her physique- female with curves and in /out bits - would be incapable of doing what Biles does now with such ease – the physics just doesn’t work out).  


Why do we not accept that it's only a tweak of nature that makes hyperandrogonous women so good at running the 800 metres. The woman standing next to Caster Seminar in the 800 metres must have the same feeling as the man standing next to Usain Bolt in the 100 metres. The best you are going to get is silver. 

So why is one accepted and the other one up for all kinds of debate?

The state of hyper androginism (where the levels of testosterone in a female are 3 to 4 times what is present in a normal female) lends itself to the 800 metre distance. Caster has a 3% time advantage as she starts on the line and the investigations are now being called for into the testosterone levels of Niyonsaba and Wambui who were second and third in the race. There is no easy answer to any of that and the comments of the girls they left in their wake were not helpful. I do have some empathy for the Scot Lyndsay Sharp who ran a personal best in the Olympic final but could only finish 7th but she DID run a  PB in the Olympic Final and that is  much to be applauded. Shame six others went faster.

                                                Headlines like this are both inaccurate and unhelpful

 Sharp’s always been a tricky customer and her post race interview and the hugging of the other slim/ white females while ignoring the medalists (Semenya, Niyonsoba and Wambui). Somebody took a photography of Caster,  the gold medallist with an arm outstretched to the  three white athletes and from the look of the photograph, they blanked her and that is inexcusable. Caster is not cheating. She didn’t ask to be built that way. She  gets out her bed in the morning and trains just like the rest of them and she was a human being who just won a gold medal.
                                                                 Margaret Wambui, Bronze medallist

I do think sport should transcend all; the black power salute, the  magic of Jessie Owen and his friendship with Luz Long ; 'find my son and tell him the way things should be between men,' wrote Luz in a letter to Owens just before he was killed in WW2.   The fact that a Serb and a Croat can hug each other after being punished over 26 miles in searing heat. There is unification in adversity. And I’m very glad that the Olympic officials hauled Judoka Islam El Shehaby over the coals for refusing to shake hands with his Israeli opponent, Ori Sasson. The rumour is he was on the next plane home.

And on a different note ,  experts say that there is no such thing as the Olympic legacy. Nobody gets inspired to stay fit. Venues fall into disrepair. Everybody thinks about being the new Jason Kenny, buys a bike, sticks it in the hut and goes off to the pub for pie and chips. 

Public Health experts suggest that the money would be better spent on projects such as cycle and walking paths which is the policy of the fittest nation in the world and they only scored a single bronze at Rio (Finland).

So in the true Olympic Spirit I would like to offer some more sports to really entertain the masses;

Synchronized swimming and javelin – the thrower takes a run and sees how many swimmers he can spear.

Taekwondo and trampolining – as they both like bobbing and bouncing up and down for no apparent reason they might as well make it more difficult for themselves.

Pole vaulting and shooting – I think you can see where I’m going with that one.

The high hurdles and the show jumping...

The gymnastic vault  using a real horse to vault from – a horse of the dressage variety

In my youth I have seen my dad and the Scottish cycling fraternity do a training thing which was basically table tennis on a bike. You had to have ridden to the  other side of the table to return the shot. Mark Cavendish eat your heart out.

All the Olympians, I salute you. From my sofa.

Caro Ramsay    26 08 2016 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Stander Gang

Thursday - Stanley

I was hoping to have a big announcement today, but it will have to wait until next week!  Instead I have reprinted an old post of mine about a truly captivating person.


Most countries have criminals or criminal events that capture the public’s imagination, sometimes positively, but usually negatively.  Some that come to mind are Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, Ronald Briggs and the Great Train Robbery, Jack the Ripper, and so on.  We all have heard of these people and the crimes they perpetrated.
In South Africa, it was what the media called the Stander Gang that caused newspaper sales to soar.  The public couldn’t get enough information (or speculation) about the gang and its exploits, and even today there are many South Africans who wish that the gang had got away with its daring exploits.  In fact, at one stage in the spree of bank robberies, it became a badge of distinction to have been robbed by the gang.
The gang was named after its leader, André Stander, son of a senior officer in the Correctional Services, Major-General Frans Stander.  After failing high school, the Major-General suggested (!) that André join the police.  In a surprising turnabout, André was selected as the Best Recruit in 1964.  After graduating he rose through the ranks and was promoted to captain in 1977 and headed the Criminal Investigation Department at the Johannesburg suburb of Kempton Park, near Johannesburg’s international airport.
Apparently his success in the police force didn’t meet all his needs, probably both emotional and financial.  So he took up robbing banks as a hobby.  On his days off from his police job, he would fly to Durban, don a disguise, rent or steal a car at the airport, and go and rob a bank or building society.  When he finished he would drive back to the airport, fly back to Johannesburg, and become a policeman again.
He did this for three years, leaving his colleagues in the police force bewildered, with no clues as to who was pulling off the audacious jobs.  As is so often the case, he became overconfident and boasted to one of his close friends about what he was doing.  The friend worked for the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) – one of the draconian arms of the apartheid government.  The friend reported the comments, and the police set up surveillance.  Sure enough, after flying into Johannesburg from a heist in Durban, he was apprehended with money, disguises, and a firearm in his luggage.  He was found guilty on 15 of 28 charges of bank robbery and sentenced to an effective 17 years in a maximum-security prison. 
At this stage in his career, he enjoyed only minor celebrity status, which included rumours that he would rob a bank during his lunch hour, then return to it later to investigate the crime.


However, it’s what happened next that catapulted him to the spotlight and fame.
While in prison, Stander met and befriended two other bank robbers, Patrick Lee McCall and Allan Heyl.  In August 1983, Stander and McCall, with several other prisoners, were scheduled to meet with a physiotherapist.  While in the waiting room, Stander and McCall overpowered their guards and the poor physiotherapist and escaped.
About two moths later, Stander and McCall returned to the prison and sprung Heyl from the maximum-security facility.  Then the fun began. 
Over the next three months, what became called the Stander Gang, robbed at will.  They raided a gun shop and took an arsenal of weapons.  Stander took a yellow Porsche Targa for a test drive at a dealership and left the salesman gawping as the Porsche sped into the distance.  Far from coy, Stander used the Porsche to go to nightclubs and to transport girls from an escort agency to and from the gang’s three safe house in the affluent suburb of Houghton.
In the two months from mid-November 1983 to mid-January 1984, the gang robbed twenty banks, sometimes four in a day.  Each time they robbed a bank, the newspapers splashed their deeds all over the front page, and the public cheered.  They saw Stander as a modern day Robin Hood, a gentleman robber – although there is no evidence he did anything charitable with his money, and in fact the police were pretty sure he was a rapist.  The more the gang robbed, the more support the gang garnered from the public.
Again over-confidence took hold.  Stander robbed a bank, in disguise, but without his sun glasses.  A camera caught him in action, and the police at last had a clear image of his face – which they gave to every newspaper in the country, as well as to TV.  Stander realized that time was running short and arranged to buy a yacht in Cape Town in which the three could sail to the United States.  Stander flew to the States on a false passport  to finalize details.
The day after he left, apparently based on information offered by some of the escort agency girls, the police surrounded one of the safe houses.  After a mighty gun battle, McCall was killed.  Heyl, who was elsewhere that evening, then fled the country and went to ground in Greece, on the island of Hydra.
Mugshots of Stander by Florida police
Stander meanwhile assumed the guise of an Australian writer in the Fort Lauderdale area of Florida.  He bought an old Ford Mustang, but was stopped by the police shortly afterwards for driving an unregistered vehicle.  They photographed and fingerprinted Stander (or Peter Harris, as he was known) and impounded the car.  Undaunted, Stander broke into the police impound lot and stole his car back.  Then he did something that boggles the mind – something that if any of us tried to use in one of our books, the editor would delete it immediately, rolling her eyes, thinking how stupid some writers can be.  Stander took the Mustang back to the second-hand dealer from whom he had bought it and asked for it to be sprayed a different color.
As luck would have it, the dealer had read in the local newspaper about the Stander Gang and recognised Stander when he walked in.  He called the police.  That evening the police surrounded Stander’s apartment, and when he showed up around 10:30 PM, they confronted him.  He tried to wrestle with one of the policemen, whose shotgun went off, fatally wounding Stander.
As for Allan Heyl, he left Hydra for England, where he pulled a small heist.  Eventually a confidence trickster he had befriended, turned him into the police.  He was arrested at a house in Surrey.  In May 1985, he was sentenced to nine years imprison.  When he was released, he was extradited to South Africa where he received an additional sentence from which he was paroled in 2005.  And guess what?  He is now a motivational speaker!
As I was researching this blog, I spoke to one of my friends about the Stander Gang.  Twenty-five years after the events, she remembered much of what the gang had done.  She said she still wished it had got away with its exploits.  Stander’s audacity and the number of successful robberies he pulled off endeared him to large numbers of the public.  They admired his cool and daring, and probably fantasized that they too could do what he did. 
He became a people’s hero.  And of course a movie was made about him – Stander starring Tom Jane (who’s he?).  And BBC Masterminds devoted an episode to the gang.  And there are several books also.
PS.  I also discovered that one of the reasons Heyl gave to his parole hearing in South Africa was that he needed to collect his share of the royalties from the movie!  The world is a strange place.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Seventy two years ago this week Paris was liberated

Denise Damensztein is fifteen years old in this photo. It was taken at Leon, a Jewish restaurant, that operated during the Occupation. Denise worked serving here on Sundays and lived upstairs in the apartment on the first floor. In 1942, her parents and sister answered a knock on the door to the French police. Because they were foreign born in Poland they were on a list. Denise, fourteen at the time and born in Paris at the Rothschild Hospital, wasn't. Still the police wanted to take her. But her father bribed the policeman not to take her with a bar of soap. Denise lived in the apartment for two years by herself, thinking and hoping they would return. She went to beauty school, worked partime at a coiffeur outside Paris. Everyday she took a train and a bus, wore a yellow star as required by law but covered it with her shoulder bag. Downstairs, the family who ran the Leon bistro, fed her dinner and she earned tips on Sunday. Her family were close friends of Monsieur and Madame Bellalisse who ran a leather factory next door to their apartment. Monsieur Bellalisse was a Greek Jew and his wife, a German. The couple treated Denise as a niece during the Occupation. after her parents and sister were taken. Here is the remembrance of the Muguet, lily of the Valley, when the couple took They took Denise for her 16th birthday to the famous Pied au Cochon at Les Halles.
Here are the papers that enabled her to emigrate to the US in 1948.
At the end of the war, now 16 she received her Carte d'Identitie.
At Liberation in 1944 Denise learned her parents and sister had died at Auschwitz. But here she is, seventy two years ago during the week Paris was liberated, sitting next to a GI in his jeep in front of the restaurant Leon and below her apartment. She's the one smiling.
Denise loves chocolate. Here she is a few days ago topping off lunch with a dessert of chocolate mousse.
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, August 22, 2016

Longing for Africa


Without a planned trip in my future, I am bereft.  Bear with me while I reminisce.  

Two years ago today, I had just arrived in Nairobi, on my own in Africa for the first time, and so looking forward to all that I would see.

That trip started with a Google search more than a year before.  I was doing some general research for my African series.  I have no recollection what terms I had typed in, but there on the first page of results was the entry for Old Africa Magazine.  Be still my heart.  One click, and there it was: the website of my dreams.

“Subscribe now,” it said.  Faster than you can say “Jack Robinson.”  Back issues?  “Please send all you have.”

Once they arrived.  I began to read them in date order.  (You do remember that I went to Catholic school?)  They gave me exactly the kind of thing that moves my imagination most—stories of people who had lived there and then, photos of life at the time of my novels.  There was also, in each issue, a contest to identify some past event.  Nothing I could ever hope to do.

But then I came to Issue No. 12, which was by then seven years old.  And I found this:


The words carved on the rock were given in the magazine as: “Benvenuta, ELIA, NATO, 7.2.1912. PARATICO, BRESCIA, WL ITALIA, WRE.”  The page went on to say that though the contest was over, answers were still welcome.

The thing was, I could read that rock.

So I emailed the editor—Shel Arensen—and asked if they had ever gotten an answer.  He responded that they had only a partial translation.  So I sent him mine:

Dear Shel, the magazine copy says that the carving says “Benvenuta"— which would be “Welcome" in the feminine as if to a girl.  But from the photo, it could be “Benvenuto,” which would make more sense considering what the rest says.  
"Elia (usually a masculine name), “Nato” born in the masculine.  It goes on "7 February 1912 Paratico, Brescia,” which is town in Lombardy. The W in "WL Italia" could stand for VV, which would mean  “Viva L’ Italia” (Long live Italy.)  WRE would really be VV RE, “Long live the King.”

So my take: It says.  "Welcome, Elia.  Born on 7 February 1912 in Paratico, Brescia.  Long live Italy.  Long live the King.”

Paratico a hundred years after Elia's birth,
In his first email, Shel had also asked what sparked my interest in his magazine.  An understandable question since he could see no connection between a woman of Italian descent living in New York and a nostalgia magazine about Kenya and Tanzania.  I told him about my forthcoming Strange Gods.  And he offered to review it.


I sweated that review.  After all, Shel and his readers were the descendants of the people I was writing about.   Every mistake I made would glare at them.  I am gratified to say that he liked the book.  He even found convincing my characterization of Vera McIntosh, born in East Africa, the child of a missionary, which Shel himself is.

And then came the magic invitation.  Old Africa was about to sponsor a hundredth anniversary tour of the World War I battlefields of Kenya.  With ten books planned in my series and three of them to deal those very places and times, how could not go.

And so I did.

Some if you have read here about my visit during that stay to the wonderful nuns and the splendid Maasai girls at Emusoi, and about my overwhelmingly thrilling safari in the Masai Mara.  I am saving the details of the battlefield tour for when those books come to the fore, numbers five, six, and seven of the series.  In the meanwhile, on the two-year anniversary of that trip, hungry as my heart is to be in Africa right now, I can’t think of anything else to share with you today but these thoughts and the photos that take me back.

My hotel in Nairobi

First destination: Karen Blixen's House

James Wilson's book: the definitive history of WWI in Kenya

Jim recounting the story of the war.  He went and sought out the places
where he took us.  I want him to sit next to me when I write those stories.
Jim found this building.  The first shot of the war came from this window,
as German troops attacked what was then a police boma in the Tsavo.

Our headquarters during the week-long tour was a lovely safari camp.
BIG bonus for me, there were game drives every evening.

The view from my bedroom window.

The tracks of the narrow gauge railway the Brits built to supply their troops.

My fellow travelers--with their LONG lenses, made fun of my little camera, but I love it.

They had trouble capturing Kilimanjaro at sunset.  My camera got the best shot.
We knew there was a lion under that tree and waited and waited for him to stand
up.  The others were packing their cameras away, but I stayed zoomed in and I
whispered, "Come on, honey.  Just raise your head." Just then, he did!  CLICK

They made me prove I had gotten the shot by showing it dinner that night.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Power of Letting Fuji-san Decide

-- Susan, Every Other Sunday

A Japanese proverb says: You cannot decide to see Mount Fuji. Mount Fuji decides who gets to see him.

All the traveler can do is show up and hope the mountain wants to be seen.

During my travels abroad, I've always tried to prepare a careful itinerary, but also keep myself open to whatever experiences the trip and the country might also have in store for me. I don't believe in coincidence, and I do believe that keeping your eyes, mind, and heart wide open often result in experiences we never could have planned on our own account.

Last year's research trip to Japan is a perfect example of what happens when you decide to "let Fuji-san decide" what you should see.

Six months before that trip, my son sent photos of coffee jelly he enjoyed while studying in Kyoto. I'd never tasted coffee jelly, and envied his experience--especially when he told me how delicious and refreshing coffee jelly was with cream.

I hoped to taste it in Japan, but neither he nor I knew how to track it down (he had it in his college cafeteria, a place I could not go). On our first morning in Kyoto, we went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, and guess what I found waiting for me in the buffet line?

Coffee jelly. With cream.
It proved exactly as delicious as my son had said that it would be.

While in Kyoto, we walked the Philosopher's Path, a road that runs along a canal in the northeastern part of the city. The path is famous for its lovely scenery, as well as the many shrines and temples that lie along the way. My son and I visited each of them, including a little temple called Ootoyo Jinja that lay about five minutes' walk from the beaten path. (In fact, we almost missed it.)

There, I discovered the shrine is dedicated to Okuninushi--a Japanese god whose story I first read and loved as a child, when my mother gave me a book of Japanese myths. In the story, a field mouse saves Okuninushi's life and helps him win the hand of his true love, Suseri-hime, daughter of the storm god Susanō. (If you want to hear the entire story, I blogged about it here.)

Guardian mouse at Ootoyo Jinja.
The shrine even has two statues of guardian mice, symbols and messengers of Okuninushi. 

But for my willingness to step away from the path, I never would have seen this childhood favorite come to life.

While climbing the slopes of Mount Inari (at Fushimi Inari shrine), I once more left the beaten path to follow an unmarked trail into the trees. Though clearly meant for visitors, it wasn't the pilgrim trail up the mountain, and I was the only one who took the route.

A quarter of a mile ahead, through an old-growth bamboo forest:

The road less traveled, Japanese style.

I discovered a hidden dragon shrine I didn't know was there.

Dragons are excellent hiders.

It was clearly set up for visitors, but none of my research and no one I spoke with told me it existed.

The "coincidences-that-aren't" continued to follow me throughout my trip, from the crows that appeared ahead of me when I approached important spots (in Shinto belief, the crow is a messenger of the gods and a harbinger of their favor):

Waiting for me at the entrance to Kasuga Shrine (where I plan to set a novel).

To my tearful arrival at the base of Itsukushima Shrine's Great Torii on the eve of my mother's 70th birthday (she went to Japan with me last year)--where I'd reserved a once-in-a-lifetime evening for us without fully realizing which night I'd booked it for...

... to the magical moment the following morning, when I arrived at Itsukushima just after dawn, as one of the Shinto priests began his morning meditations by playing a shakuhachi (flute).

(I tried to upload the video, but Blogger wouldn't let me - so I posted it on Facebook instead)

The Great Torii at dawn.

Some people may call these random events, but I see a larger plan. Each of them gave me something I had always wanted, but didn't even realize I did. Each of them added magic to an already spectacular trip, and gave me memories I will carry for a lifetime.

Even without these experiences, my journey to Japan was amazing, but remaining open to the adventures that might come along (instead of gluing myself to a plan that left no room for improvisation) the journey itself truly became more important than any given destination.

Sixty-four days from today, I'll board a plane to return to Japan. I'm teaching at the Japan Writers Conference in Tokushima (on the island of Shikoku) October 28-29 and then spending 17 days traveling across Japan to research the next four Hiro Hattori mysteries. Although I'm going with "things in mind" and a detailed itinerary of places to do and things to see, I'm also determined to remember that, when it comes to travel, amazing things happen when we release our grip on "the plan" and just let Fuji-san decide.

(And, since I'm actually planning to visit the Fuji region on this trip, here's hoping Fuji-sama appears for me, for real, this November. If he does, I promise to bring back pictures.)