Wednesday, June 11, 2008
VIETNAM 2: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2077680&l=76594&id=24205401
JAPAN 1: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2078152&l=52390&id=24205401
JAPAN 2: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2078156&l=5c777&id=24205401
COSTA RICA: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2080004&l=77359&id=24205401
SHIP LIFE: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2077681&l=f7653&id=24205401
TACO DAY: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2077597&l=39d25&id=24205401
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Here are some pictures to distract you from your job/life/kids/homework...
INDIA 1: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2077363&l=8532b&id=24205401
INDIA 2: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2077367&l=5727e&id=24205401
HONG KONG: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2077370&l=4d9fc&id=24205401
CHINA 1: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2077374&l=141bf&id=24205401
CHINA 2: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2077376&l=6a16d&id=24205401
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
I wanted to take the chance to thank so many of you for your love and support in various capacities to make this semester as meaningful as it possibly could. From financial support to keeping in touch through e-mails, even just for taking the time to read a blog entry or two means so much to me. Whether from family, friends, alumni, or complete strangers, I have heard from several people who have contacted me saying that are living vicariously through my voyage and that means the world to me.
So to everyone—and there’s too many of them to mention specifically—thank you SO much for everything you’ve given me to make this voyage complete. I know I am ready to come home, but thanks in advance for being aware that America is as foreign to me now as any other place I’ve visited this semester and that on Friday the 800 of us, who have lived within 590 feet of each other for 109 days, will dissipate across the country at the snap of a finger with only memories to hold us together.
I would love if you could leave a comment on this post just so I could know who is out there reading. And to the crazy Blog Parents on the MSN Group, leave your student's name!
See you in America!!
From the Panama Canal,
PS- Hawaii and Costa Rica and any new links to pictures I can put up in a few weeks from home.
Saturday, May 03, 2008
Strolling through Japan I couldn’t help but think “Japan is perfect.” Toilets have more buttons than a computer. Commuter trains have three times as many “Watch your step” signs than the United States and Europe. Japan is the only industrialized country without a widespread drug problem. No one crosses the street until all traffic has completely stopped. Employees often work without late pay. Seventy-five percent of Japanese students go to school voluntarily on Saturdays. Teachers are the highest-paid civil servants in Japan. Almost the entire nation can read. There are no slums. The cities are clean. Cars are energy efficient. Crime is low. People are nice. Streets are labeled. Respect for elders is prevalent. Why not live in Japan? Well, maybe I will….
My travel mates for Japan were Andy and Adam: two friends who, though in-depth conversations have bonded us together, I’ve had very little interaction with outside of the ship. They’re both from the deep South and rely heavily on their Christian faiths—two really interesting people I was excited to get to know. Adam’s father had previously done business with a Japanese man so Adam e-mailed the man and told him we would be in his country, hoping he would be able to help us out. As a result, we departed the ship to find a woman named Yoshiko waiting for us. She held a sign in between her hands. Adam’s last name was scribbled across. The Japanese man, whom Adam had never met, was in California doing business but hired us a personal guide for the entire day. We would be taken to Kyoto free of charge and including meals. This was all compliments of someone none of us had ever met. The offer was indicative of not only the high regard for respect but also the value of business in Japanese culture.
After the hour train ride to Kyoto, the four of us were taken to a Japanese restaurant. The restaurant was buffet style so we had the leisure of experimenting with new foods while having the option to dispose of the weird and unusual. While we ate, Yoshiko taught us some Japanese and allowed us to answer all of our questions. Like most places we’ve been this semester, most locals only know “white people” from Hollywood movies and celebrity magazines. As Yoshiko told us, to the Japanese, we are like movie stars. With that said, two giggling Japanese girls our age, who spoke no English, insisted on escorting us to our next destination. So, with giggling girls at our sides, we arrived at the Kiyomizu Temple, a temple built in 798 at the foot of Mt. Otawa. The Kiyomizu Temple was surrounded by beautiful rocks, ponds and a carpet of cherry blossoms. I took off my shoes to explore the interior of one of the worship areas. When I came back, my shoes were gone. Instead, another pair of New Balance sneakers, similar to mine, were present. I stopped, looked around, and scratched my head. Did someone steal my shoes? Yes. Instinctively, I ran around the temple property to scan everyone’s shoes in search of my own. After I had scanned every Japanese person’s shoes in a 1-mile radius, I gave up and strapped on my new kicks. I’ve always wanted to spend a day in another man’s shoes, somehow I got a week.
We continued walking around the Kyoto area where small, quaint streets were lined with small shops and houses. The Japanese people are very small and because of that everything is miniature—homes, doors, windows. Like a New England log cabin in the dead of winter, the Japanese homes possess a feeling of warmth and old-world charm. Eager to see the rest of the city, Yoshiko took us by cab to the downtown area. Here, the youth of Japan walk the streets to shop and dine—over 50 universities are in Kyoto. After orientating us a bit to our surroundings, we departed Yoshiko and went on our own search for dining. Stuck in a world of Japanese characters and armed with only the words “koneecheewa” and “domo adigato” engraved into our heads, simply trying to get a bowl of rice in this city was going to be a disaster. An hour later we finally found a menu with pictures and we filled our bellies.
After, we checked into our Japanese hotel—a simple and cozy alternative to the commercialized hotels of the West. We removed our shoes, put on the ruby-red slippers provided, and preceded up the stairs. The floor of our square room on the second floor of a small building was simply a straw mat from wall to wall—there were no beds. In the corner sat a pile of floor-pillows and a traditional tea set. In the closet were our beds: flimsy floor-pillow mattresses to be placed on the floor. We set-up our beds on the straw mat, laid on the floor, and smiled contently to an informal yet surprisingly pleasant resting place. The rice-paper windows on the wall allowed the city lights to shine brilliantly onto our tired faces. That night’s sleep would be preparation for the four trains we would need to take to get to our obscure and outlying destination tomorrow.
The next morning, armed with our regional rail passes, the three of us hopped from one train to another, and finally got to our fourth. We looked out the window. The city skyscrapers were gone, cars were few and far between, people were scarce, and cherry blossoms lined the train tracks. We pressed our noses up to the glass of the window looking in awe at the height we were achieving up over the mountains. Running through my head was the childhood story of the “Little Engine That Could”—I think I can! I think I can!—as we slowly chugged around and around the edge of a cliff overlooking the vast countryside of Japan. We made it. We were in a place so distant and remote that Buddhist monks who sought a lifetime of refuge from the modern world would come to this place to spend the rest of their lives. Koya-San, as its called, is essentially a Monk village on the top of a mountain. The three of us wanted to get away from the city, do some adventure traveling, and sleep in a corner of the world where no one would find us—this certainly fit the bill.
Once in Koya-San, I asked Adam and Andy to stop. “Listen,” I told them. It was silent, absolutely silent. We had given up Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Osaka, even Tokyo—all the places we could have gone—for silence. “I haven’t heard silence in months,” I told them, thinking of the 735 college students I live with, the commotion of India, Vietnam, Hong Kong, everywhere. Indeed, Koya-San is a village literally at the top of a mountain and home to over 50 temples of Buddhist Monks. We checked into a small hostel run by an old man and his wife. Again, we were given an empty room, with rice-paper walls, a straw mat, and floor cushions. After eating lunch in the Japanese style of kneeling on the floor, Adam, Andy and I decided to take the afternoon to explore on our own and away from each other. Adam went one way, Andy went another, and I too went another.
I stumbled upon a huge Buddhist cemetery set in the middle of a huge forest. The evening sun shone through the hovering trees as I wandered by the 200,000 moss-covered grave tombs that rested within. Lining the paths were statues of Buddha, most of which were dressed in small aprons for good fortune. The paths led far into the depths of the forest where the Torodo (Lantern Temple) was situated—a hall of sublime quietude, adorned with thousands of hanging lanterns illuminating in the obscurity of the evening light. Inside, monks sat behind large desks creating wood prayer-panels for Buddhist visitors. I was by myself so I took it all in. I chatted with two men from Osaka as I walked back to the village center and met Andy and Adam again for a Japanese-style floor dinner back at the hostel. After talking with other European travelers also staying in the hostel, we shut off the lights and fell asleep on the floor.
The next morning I took Andy and Adam back to the Buddhist cemetery after they heard my raving reviews. I told them if we stayed long enough we would see a unicorn—if you’ve seen the place, you too would believe me. After, we found a path that seemed to lead up to the mountain. Eager for adventure and with peanut butter, jelly and bread in my backpack, we headed up the path into the forest. We hiked up the path, passing bamboo trees and small Buddhist shrines resting among the dirt along the way. Up and up we went, halting for moments at a time to rest our legs. All the while the three of us talked about ourselves, our lives and about our experiences this semester—silencing ourselves only to listen to the birds. We rested at the top of a mountain peak to climb trees and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, occasionally making nonsensical conversation with passing hikers who spoke little of our language. Four hours later we exited the forest to a small residential neighborhood where, with the help of a local, we found our way back to the center of town.
As we walked around for a restaurant, an elderly Australian woman who we had passed earlier that morning stopped to make small talk. After chatting for a bit on the sidewalk, Adam extended the offer to come and join us for a cup of tea and rice. We found an empty restaurant and ate with her as we learned about her life in Australia and her vacation in Japan. We departed her for our bus, which took us to a cable car, which took us down the mountain, to a train further down a mountain, to three more trains back to civilization, and a taxi cab back to the ship. Along the way we read English newspapers, snacked on delicious Japanese pastries, and befriended three Canadian girls visiting the area. Although exhausted from a long day, I joined a crew to go out to a Kobe bar which offered open-bar for SAS students and then called it a night. Open-bar is never a good idea.
On our last day in Japan I ate lunch on the ship then headed out by myself to find new sneakers to replace my accidentally-acquired ones. Craving a random adventure, a nap, and noticing that my 3-day rail pass was only used for two days, I hopped on a train headed for Osaka. I don’t remember why I did it; in fact, it was really strange. A forty-five minute nap later my train pulled into Osaka leaving me lost in another new city—story of my life. In Japan, however, cities are so clean, efficient, and perfect that there really is no getting lost. I walked around for about an hour and took some pictures, then headed back on the train to Kobe, and then another train back to the ship. Sayonara Japan.
This voyage started out with the Bahamas….Puerto Rico…Brazil…South Africa…then Mauritius. It was nice and spaced out. Now we just experienced Indiamalaysiavietnamchinajapan. Whew. Now the end of the journey was coming close with only short stays in Hawaii and Costa Rica left on our itinerary. But in reality the journey was far from over—we still had a month to go with twenty-two days on the ship and three-days in-port. Although that meant more homework, tests and papers—it also meant late-night conversations with friends, catching up on sleep and time for reflection. Ship life only happens once in life and twenty-two days at sea seemed more appealing than ever. If you’re going to feel claustrophobic and sea sick, you might as well be surrounded by friends.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
I remember as a little kid picking up clothing from the floor of my bedroom and reading from the tag: “Made in China.” China?
Now several years later, I’m all of a sudden at my hotel in Beijing, ten minutes from Olympic Stadium and just a few months before the Beijing Summer Olympics 2008 Games. Without a day of passing, I’m climbing the Great Wall of China, feeling like I’m on top of the world and sharing the moment with some of my best friends from the voyage. Just days before, I had revisited a friend in Hong Kong whom I once shared the soccer field with back in high school. And now, I was enjoying a cup of tea with three Chinese students whom I had randomly met in the middle of a park in Shanghai. For these reasons and more, China was surreal.
Hong Kong’s skyline is intimidating. Every skyscraper is like a monster; each seeks height beyond the clouds as if in a race to the heavens. Some of them look like they were built within the year; others look like they were built twenty years too early. Once immigration officials cleared our ship for disembarkation (and once we confirmed with a travel agent that there were indeed NO Dunkin’ Donuts in Hong Kong), we took a ferry to the mainland city and headed right toward those monsters.
Just a few minutes into the city it became quite obvious that we were, for the most part, completely clueless. For our other ports we have several days to research, read and prepare for our approaching destinations. We were in Vietnam only 48 hours ago, and research took the backburner for China. Essentially, we were lost in a city we knew nothing about. The good thing is we’ve become excellent travelers and if being dropped off in a foreign country is anyone’s favorite game, it’s ours.
We waited at a bus stop and got on a bus. We didn’t know where it was going and we didn’t know how much it cost. We just needed an adventure. Two stops later the bus driver looked back at us and pointed across the street. We took that as our cue to leave and handed him a handful of change and left. We found ourselves at Hong Kong’s Peak Tram—a cable car that takes us to the top of Hong Kong. We boarded the Disney-esque ride to the top to what was supposed to be an amazing view of the Hong Kong skyline. We couldn’t see each other, never mind the skyline. The fog was so horrendous that we were basically living inside a cloud. We sought refuge in the shopping mall and got some lunch before it was time to meet my friend. We walked to a new part of the city to meet up with my friend from home, Yoni.
Yoni was a year younger than me in high school and we played on the same soccer team. Now, he was studying for the semester in Hong Kong. Since we had basically been aimlessly “bus-hopping” for the morning, it was nice to be with someone who actually knew what they were doing!
As my friends and I walked alongside Yoni through the city we were all a bit amazed by it all. Just by the way my feet took every step of the pavement I knew the energy of Hong Kong was flowing right through me. Like most Asian cities, there were people walking everywhere, things lighting-up, and always something moving. Yoni took us to the Guinness Book of World Record’s longest escalator in the world, through the subway system, to the restaurant district, the bar district and then to some markets. We stopped by the goldfish market where hundreds of fish swimming around in little baggies were pinned to boards outside various shops. Eeels, turtles and frogs joined as they swam around in tanks along the sidewalk. We went to the bird market where, same story, birds were cooped up in small cages and being sold. It was weird to see two entire streets dedicated to goldfish and birds in the middle of a huge international city. Though it was somewhat disturbing, in a country where dog is a delicacy it could have been a lot worse. After doing our city orientation with Yoni, the sun began to set so we said goodbye then headed back to the ship to shower and get dressed.
We departed in our finest clothes to enjoy Hong Kong’s nightly laser show, dinner and the nightlife. Hong Kong’s famous 8pm laser lightshow is a really unique spectacle. Watching from the island where our ship was docked, we saw the city skyscrapers come to life as lasers and lights, set-atop the buildings, danced and coincided to music broadcast around the city. After, we took to the subway and headed into the city for Chinese food—namely, for some of the best sweet and sour pork we’ve ever had. After, we headed to the bar district where Hong Kong’s extremely, extremely high prices were universal. We had already shelled out way too much money on dinner, so we went to the local 7-Eleven and asked an English-speaking man about drinking laws in the city. With the law in our favor, we had some beverages on the sidewalk before heading to a few bars. Outside, the streets were packed with hundreds of people dancing to the music. The nightlife was less about the bars, but rather the social interaction in between them. Blame it on the British, but Hong Kong definitely knows how to party.
The next morning I had my first big trip sponsored and arranged by SAS, a trip with 60 of us in total. Many of my good friends including Bob, Sara, Nick, Jesse, Kate, Kierstyn and Kathleen were also with me so I was thrilled. For once I did not have to plan my own trip. We had our flights already booked, our restaurants reserved and our sightseeing tickets in-hand. We were headed to mainland China, a separate government and economy than Hong Kong requiring entry through a regular immigration process. We went to HK Airport, and off we went to Beijing.
Peking University, the “Harvard” of China, has been hosting Semester at Sea students for the past 10 years. Instead of hiring professional guides, Peking University supplied their students to accompany us to our various destinations in Beijing throughout the week. The opportunity would also give us time to interact and talk with them. In the evenings, we would hang out at the university for activities. On our first night we split into small groups and were given a campus tour. The second night we had a party with them with an open bar. Our trip leader, one of the RD’s from the ship, had asked me on the first day if I wouldn’t mind “emceeing” or otherwise host the party. I’ll do anything especially if it involves me holding a microphone, so another Chinese student and I rocked the mic and organized games to play with the 60 SASers and the 30 Peking students. We sipped on complimentary beer as the Chinese came up with small games to play as examples of their cultural activities. I thought it would only be appropriate to return the favor. In a surprising turn of events, I disrupted the night, with the approval of my shipmates, to challenge the Chinese in a game “Flip-Cup”—a drinking game they had never heard of. The game, which lasted more than a few round, was one of the greatest things I‘ve ever seen. Like most things on this trip, it only gets betters. My friend Amanda and some others took the stage to teach the Chinese the Soulja Boy dance (that would be “rap music” for all you old-timers). It’s hard for us to say that drinking games and rap music is what the American culture is—but when it boils down to it and you look at things through a cultural lens, there are only certain things that bring our generation together and that is certainly one of them. Needless to say, it goes down as one of the greatest memories of this voyage.
In college you will often get asked the question “You want to order in some Chinese food?” If you’ve already had it recently you usually reply, “Nah, I had Chinese last night” because you know that meals can be heavy and overwhelming to the stomach. Well, try going to China and having Chinese food for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 6 days in a row. Getting myself to eat breakfast in the hotel every morning was an inner struggle between right and wrong. Forget about bacon and eggs—the Chinese eat lo mein, spring rolls, and beef stir-fry for breakfast! At every meal I told myself I couldn’t snarf down another plate of Chinese food—but every day we did. Chinese meals are eaten family style, so large plates of food are usually put on a “Lazy Susan” and spun around to everyone at the table. Some days we would have Chinese dishes that Americans have come to love; other days we would get mystery dishes, including strange meats and un-skinned fish with head, tail and all. We always joked that we were being fed dog, but seriously, we may have.
When we weren’t eating hoards of Chinese food, we were seeing everything a visitor to Beijing would want to see. We went to a cloisonné factory, the Ming Tombs, Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven. As far as the all the temples, I am what I call a little “templed out.” I have been to some sort of religious architecture in every port since India, and I was ready to close the book on religious studies for a while. But some of the sights, especially Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City are some of Asia’s most famous and recoznizable landmarks. One night we attended an acrobatic performance at Chaoyang Theater. Seeing people fly through the sky, contortion their body to inconceivable positions, all while balancing plates on their fingertips is something the Chinese, apparently, do best. The Chinese dynasty came to be in 1523 B.C.—we were experiencing China in 2008, seeing where they’ve come from all these years and what “today’s China” has to offer.
And then, of course, there was the Great Wall of China—the great Wonder of the World—a wall of stones stitching through the mountain and an ancient form of protection in order to keep China’s large landmass free of invaders. There is a Chinese saying that says “He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man.” I believe that. The great wall is the biggest, meanest staircase in the entire world. We ran off the bus and went right for the first of many staircases. We climbed. And we climbed some more. We kept our heads high and our eyes on the distant end. We passed families, children and tourists and gave them a smile—we were sharing in an experience with them, just by the simple act of climbing stairs. We stopped periodically to put our heads to the wind and see the distance we had traveled and captured it with our cameras. At each rest point we motivated ourselves to trek on, we had a better view waiting for us at the end.
You would have known we were nearing the end just by our feet—we took every last stride with energy and determination. Our faces began to light up as we saw our fellow shipmates waving from the top of the lookout castle. We did it.
I oriented myself in a stone corner, away from the picture taking and the excitement. I took a deep breath and looked out into the distance. I felt like I had the world below me. I tried to find the places I had been—Brazil, South Africa, India, Vietnam—I knew they were out there…somewhere. My family was somewhere there too, and my friends and my school. Everyone was beyond the Great Wall of China and I wanted everyone to come up and join me. “Take a look,” I would say. “Look where I’ve been.” And that’s how it was. It was a surreal experience that I wish I could have shared with the world. However, it was just as nice to share it with the people I have come to know and love over the past three months. How many people can you say you’ve climbed the Great Wall, let alone, circumnavigated the world with? These moments will hold us together, maybe forever.
Four days spent in Beijing and our trip was nearly over, however our time in China was not. While we were gone our ship traveled two days up the coast of China from the South to the East side to Shanghai. After I almost missed the flight due to an unfortunate series of bathroom trips as a result of a week of Chinese food, I finally nestled comfortably into my AirChina seat and enjoyed the flight to Shanghai to meet up with the ship.
The next morning I woke up to a rainy and dismal sky hovering above Shanghai. Like Hong Kong, I knew nothing about this new city and after breakfast I was thankful to run into Jake who knew a bit more than myself. We grabbed a taxi, pointed to a general area on our over-sized tourist map, and found ourselves in the middle of skyscrapers—nothing new. We poked out heads into some fancy hotels and proceeded to the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, a ridiculously looking tower hovering over the city. Whatever it was, we paid some money to take an elevator to the top. We enjoyed the view, including a bird’s eye sighting of our home docked in the Shanghai river, then proceeded down a level to a cheesy indoor amusement park where we rode a small roller coaster for a good laugh and cheap thrill.
One thrill after another, Jake and I went to Shanghai’s very own Hooter’s restaurant—most likely built for American businessmen in the city on business trips.
Next, came the biggest surprise of the week. Aimlessly strolling through a park in the city we were approached by three Chinese students our age who asked if we could take a photo of them. Clearly, we obliged. Thrilled to meet some natives that knew basic English, we engaged in conversation with them telling them all about our journey. Perhaps feeling bad for two guys walking around the city on a rainy day without anything to do, they invited us to enjoy some tea with them. Without thinking twice, we continued with them to a Chinese tea ceremony. The ceremony was probably not as peaceful as they usually are just for the mere fact that the six of us in a small tea room could not stop talking. Tea was less important; a unique cultural exchange that was taking place
Here were three Chinese students and two American students who met an hour ago on a rainy day in the park and were now being offered the Chinese highest form of respect to a stranger—offering to have tea with them. We spent three hours in the tea room as I casually scribbled notes on a small piece of paper so that I could remember all the interesting things they were sharing with me. Our new friends Huang Sun, Zhang Le and Chen Yi Mi (or, Thomas, Jack and Emmie according to their self-appointed “American names”) walked around with us for the rest of the day with non-stop walking and talking around their city. They suggested we attend a Chinese acrobatic show with them that night, but with the approaching on-ship time for our destination we had to decline and sadly depart after we exchanged e-mails. By the time we reached Japan, I already had two new e-mails from our new friends.
They say life can be measured by anything—miles, minutes, laughs or tears. By the end of China I had been to three cities, been on two planes, seen a Wonder of the World, saw an old friend, met three new ones, and ate eighteen meals of Chinese food. I don’t know exactly how that calculates to travel experience but I think if you add it all up it means that I truly “conquered” China.
And as for that place printed on the tag of my t-shirt—“Made in China”—I’ve been there, that’s not such a mystery anymore.
Monday, April 21, 2008
I’m still writing about China and Japan, but since we’re in a long-stretch of “ship life” I think I’ll catch you up on that first. Bare with me, I have about 2.5 months to cover on this one. I’ll be informal…
DAY IN THE LIFE OF KEVIN AT SEA:
7am- wake up, shower, breakfast
9:20am-10:40am- Global Studies
10:40am-1pm- write e-mails/nap
1:30pm-3:30pm- Class on B days/lay outside
4pm- gym or another nap
8pm- shipboard and student events
10pm- watch movies/hang out
SEA OLYMPICS: The Sea Olympics were on March 8th right after Mauritius and it was one of the best days on the ship yet. There were over 20 events scheduled from 8am-10pm. People go insane for this competition. My teammates and I didn’t sleep for the days leading up to it; we pulled all-nighters choreographing and practicing. We got 1st place in the Synch Swimming (we did a Disney montage). The LipSynch can make or break your team—it is the last event and all 800 people on the ship watch it. We got 2nd in Lip Synch (me and 4 guy friends stripped down to dresses and danced to the Spice Girls, the Barbie Song and Britney Spears…true story). Our Spice Girls dance was so popular that Dr. Brown (the shipboard doctor) had us do a surprise performance in front of everyone again but with the lyrics changed to health precautions for Vietnam. The Sea Olympics brought me really close with so many new people and I look at it today as kind of a turning point for my social life on the ship.
CLASSES: I continue to be disappointed with my writing class, the professor is just too old to be teaching. It is really disappointing because I was looking forward to the class more than anything. My archaeology class isn’t the most exciting class either, but I really like my professor because she’s nice and cool to talk to. My economics class is a lot of work but is really interesting. We have great conversations about signs of economic development we see in port. She is so enthusiastic about what she teaches and I really enjoy hearing her talk.
SIGNS YOU KNOW YOU’RE NOT AT AN ACTUAL UNIVERSITY: 1) Your professor’s office hours are from 1-2pm everyday… by the pool. 2) Your professor cancels class because she is sea sick. 3) You skipped your professors class in the morning but ate lunch with her that afternoon 3) Your professor tells you that you look good in a dress 4) You’ve had a drink with at least one of your professors in a foreign country 5) Your homework is to go to the bathroom and rate the country’s economic development based on the cleanliness of the toilet 6) Your Internet works depending on your location with outer space 7) there is a library, hospital, a pool, a restaurant and a classroom within 100 yards of your bed
GLOBAL STUDIES: Global Studies went through A LOT of drama this semester. Our Interim-Academic Dean was replaced by the real Academic Dean who joined us in South Africa after recovering from being hit by a car. He is nowhere as kind as our previous one and is actually quite condescending. He came at a time when Global Studies was falling apart; a time when more than half the ship protested against Global Studies by sleeping-in and not going on most days. Many were sick of waking up to hear our hippie teachers bang on tribal drums or irrelevant lectures. The average scores on our tests were in the 60s. They never tested us on important, relevant material. For instance, one question on our exam was “What is beef-jerky called in South Africa?” Our new Dean, although not that popular, actually started to put things back together quite nicely. He seems to have done some major adjustments among the faculty and just recently wrote the 3rd test himself. Most professors have publically admitted that Global Studies is a mess. In fact, everyone knows that it’s all gone wrong. As a favor to us, they will drop our lowest test score. I have only missed 3 classes, but the majority of students have not gone since the end of February, no joke.
TROUBLES IN PARADISE: There have been a few people that have lost or had their passports stolen while in port. This means they’re not allowed on the ship and they have to go to the US Embassy and apply for a new, super-expedited passport and book a flight to our next port. It has happened to a few people I know. For the most part SAS books your flights, hotel and hires a guide to help you around so you’re not doing everything by yourself. There are 4 students that we left behind in Japan. At least two of them are passport related, one of them is because she had to be hospitalized for drinking, and I am not sure who or what the 4th one is all about.
INTERPORT STUDENTS: For every port on our itinerary, SAS welcomes one or two students from that country to join us on the ship as they travel with us for one-leg of the journey back to their homeland. We’ve had students from South Africa, India, Malaysia, Vietnam and Japan live with us on the ship for up to a week before they disembark when they arrive back home. They’re around to answer questions and often present at Cultural Pre-Port.
INTERPORT LECTURERS: We also have adults from other countries join us as guest lecturers. We’ve had professors from Brazil, Mauritius and China all join us to live on our ship and guest-lecture in pre-ports and Global Studies.
DIPLOMATIC BRIEFINGS: Almost every port we have a United States ambassador or a team from the US foreign consulate come onboard and welcome us to their country. They provide us with additional safety tips, cultural differences and other information while immigration officials stamp through all our passports.
CREW APPRECIATION DAY: The crew on the ship continues to be amazing. They work so hard and deserve nothing but praise. I cannot thank my cabin steward Hector enough for cleaning my room every single day and I can’t wait to hand him a well-deserved tip at the end. When we come back on the ship from port, the waiters always say “Good to have you back, we missed you. Can I get you something to drink?” They are always smiling, always so happy to see us. I know a lot of them have been living on the ship for years and years, but they do this so that they can send money back to their families—but in the meantime, I would like to think that we are their family. We have strict rules about fraternizing with them, but it is a lot of fun to run into them in port or at a bar at night just to say HI and see them enjoying themselves. We had Crew Appreciation Day so we made cards and a banner and went out of our way to make sure everything was clean and tidy so that they had an easy day. There are 197 crew members and we probably only see ¼ of them. For instance, we don’t see anyone in the Laundry Dept or the Engine Dept so I made the Engine Dept a card so that they know we appreciate them too!
CREW TALENT SHOW: The crew put together an absolutely amazing show of dancing and singing for us. They are all hilarious and it was so much fun to see them enjoying themselves and making us laugh—it was one of the best events of the semester. The show raised money for the Crew Fund which gives them a little extra cash so that they have opportunities to go out and sightsee in port just like us. It also allows them to purchase new gym equipment etc for their living quarters on Deck 1.
AUCTION NIGHT: Our voyage continuously raises money through several events throughout the voyage, with an end goal of $35,000. We had an auction night where people donated things or services to be auctioned off. The event really proved how wealthy some of my shipmates are. Since I knew I wouldn’t be bidding on anything, I decided to donate to do my part. I auctioned off “a bed time story and tuck-in” by yours truly. The auctioneer made me go up (I think that was Bob’s fault) and auction it off myself in front of everyone, how embarrassing. Oh well, who would of thought I’m worth $110!! (and I thought I was priceless!). Other items were the Captain’s hat ($500), the world map from the lobby ($600), raising the flag as we pull into Miami ($1,000) and a jar of peanut butter ($40) including tons and tons of other items (including a bubble bath in Dean Gaither’s 5th deck suite).
THE BEST DAY EVER: I was sitting on the 6th Deck Aft outside eating dinner. The meal is traditional meatloaf and mashed potatoes—one of my favorites. For dessert there were creampuffs with chocolate dipping sauce—my other favorite. Does it get any better? Yes. A huge rainbow touching end to end is in clear view shooting through the sky over the water—a perfect and magical backdrop to our dinner. And it doesn’t end there. Someone yells out “dolphins!” I turn around, and there are about 3 or 4 dolphins swimming and jumping out of the water in the distance, under the rainbow, as I eat meatloaf and creampuffs. Amazing.
WEATHER: We got our first day below 80 degrees this semester a few weeks ago in China. Japan was the same way, but we’re heading back toward the equator so more sun is coming.
OCEAN: The Pacific hasn’t been too crazy, but we have been getting some descent waves. The other day our drawers were opening and shutting, and one of the glasses in our bathroom broke. Being on the 2nd deck I have it relatively easy. The people who live in the front of the boat and on higher decks have it much much worse. I am one of the ones who enjoys the choppy seas, so I’m still holding out for a storm to throw a little adventure into this trip.
FOOD: I eat too much. Not everyone loves the food, but I love it. People think I eat a lot. I do. They had an outdoor BBQ for us yesterday, and it was so much food including ice cream sundaes.
AMBASSADORS BALL: As you can probably tell from the way I’ve described life on the ship, if they want, the crew can whip this place into a 5-Star resort in a snap. Sometimes randomly at dinner there will be food sculptures of swans made from melons or castles made of chocolate. But for the Ambassador’s Ball after Hawaii they will go all out. The finest food and wine will come out for the Ambassador’s Ball and we get a 5-course meal. We have to dress up very nice, and we will have assigned seating. It’s supposed to be one of the greatest nights on the ship.
NIGHTLIFE: There is so much going on this ship sometimes I forget that there is a bar on the 7th deck! Dances, plays, performances, speakers, movies, you name it. There is always so much going on, it’s awesome.
OVERALL: The MV Explorer is my home. I can always travel and I can always live in a new country but I will never find a community like this again. The experience of living on a ship with 1,000 other people is irreplaceable. If you want to be social, there are 1,000 people to talk to. If you want to be by yourself you can find a quiet place on the ship. If you want to be active, you can. If you want to be tired, you can. Adults? We have them. Kids? We have them. Senior citizens? We have them. I can hang out with my best friends or I can sit down with people I’ve never talked to before in my entire life. I can do my homework in the sun or I can look out my porthole and see endless ocean. I can catch the best sunrise and sunset I will ever see. I will miss SAS, I will miss traveling, but most of all I will miss “ship life.”
THOUGHT ON GOING HOME: I think the overall consensus on the ship is we’re all ready to go home. We’ve been out of touch with the world for 3 months and we’re all excited to reconnect. Some of us haven’t even heard the sound of our parents voices in months. We know we have family and friends that are anxiously awaiting our arrival back home. We know that for many it was an adventure of itself just to follow our blogs and look at our pictures; our families have waited by the phone or the computer waiting for a sign that their son or daughter is alright. We’ve brought our families on this journey with us, and it’s only due time that we get to end it together. It is going to be an overwhelming experience pulling into Miami with hundreds of friends and family holding signs just trying to get a glimpse of their son/daughter whom they haven’t seen since January. We abandoned some of the most basic things like cell phones and Internet. We’ve thrown ourselves out of our comfort zones. Each and every week we’ve embraced a new culture, a new people and a new way of life. We fought language barriers and we made friends around the globe. We’re all worn out and unsure what to make of this entire semester. It’s hard to let it go, but at the same time a journey only becomes amazing when you can reflect on it. Some are nervous for reverse culture-shock and confronting friends and family because they’ve changed and things at home or school have remained constant. I’m not worried about re-entering America, I think the summer will be a good transition back to the real world and I’m excited for what’s ahead of me. If this trip has taught me anything, it’s that nothing can stop me from reaching my dreams. I seem to always have big plans for my life, and that shows no sign of stopping…
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Vietnam is something that has to be experienced firsthand in order to understand it. Its pulsating cities and the calmness of its vast rice fields is something that only your senses can comprehend. Its cities are unruly, relentless and overpowering not to mention completely out of place in a region that, at the same time, also boasts mountains, beaches and farmlands just hours away. Its culture is seemingly unmoved despite the encroaching Western culture seen almost everywhere. ‘Nam to some American generations, Vietnam holds not only its own history but it also holds the key to the past of our own country. But despite years of fighting off those trying to conquer it, Vietnam seems forgiving and welcoming to all. It’s a place that, without its hardworking and resilient people, would not be everything it was to me.
My friend Michael and I had one goal for the first day. We wanted to find a tailor that would sew us a custom-made suit. I think the overall chaos of Ho Chi Minh City threw us off a bit because despite HCMC’s reputation for manufacturing clothing, we could not find one tailor. We dodged speeding motorcycles and overzealous sidewalk vendors as we chartered through streets with names like “D Nam Ky Khoi Nghia” and “D Cach Mang Thang Tam.” When crossing the street in Vietnam one just has to walk and pray. There is no method to the madness of the traffic; walking straight and hoping that all of the traffic swerves around you is the only way to do it. Unscathed by Vietnamese vehicles, we eventually found some tailors.
In almost every port bargaining is the name of the game if you want to go shopping. In Vietnam you can practically walk into a department store and still bargain for prices at the cash register. I’ve been conned many times into the “tourist” price and if this trip has taught me one thing it’s how to bargain. Not only is bargaining deeply imbedded into culture and therefore completely necessary, but it’s also a great excuse to interact with locals. There is the walk-away method, the sad-puppy face method, the outraged and disgusted method, the let’s-be-best-friends method, and the-guy-next-door-has-it-for-less method. Michael and I went to at least 8 tailors throughout the city getting offers as much as $400 for one suit. We found a legitimate place that would do it for $80 so we chose our fabrics, styles, and got measured.
Somewhere in between a motorcycle and a moped is a vehicle that has a population of 4-million in Ho Chi Minh City called the motorbike. Cars seem impractical when you can ride a motorbike in and out of traffic, through an intersection, over a sidewalk, and amid both locals and tourists whenever you want. If you think bargaining sounds like fun, try standing on a street corner in Vietnam doing a “vroom! vroom!” pose (as if your hands are on the handlebars of a bike) and wait for a man to come pick you up on his motorcycle. Hitchhiking for a motorcycle in Vietnam is the easiest way to get from Point A to Point B. You literally are holding onto a stranger’s hips, weaving in and out of the urban chaos, and praying your friend on the other bike hasn’t got separated by too much. With that said, we strapped on helmets and “vroomed” over to the Behn Thanh Market among the hundreds of other motorcycles polluting the streets that day.
Behn Thanh Market is a huge building right in the middle of the city that sells everything from handicrafts to clothing, cheap! The most inexpensive products you will see in your entire life are in Vietnam. Yes, most of it is fake, but even the real stuff is one-fifth of the price you will ever see in the U.S. The market is full of designer purses, shirts (supposedly) from Abercrombie, Hollister, Lacoste, Polo, backpacks and jackets from Northface and just about every other brand name there is. The market is the biggest fire hazard in the world with stores practically on top of each other. Piles and piles of clothes, mostly stored away in trash bags, cover the floor. Like most of Ho Chi Minh, it’s a vibrant and frenzied place. The Vietnamese, especially the woman, are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen. Not only do they lug around huge heaps of clothing and fold millions of shirts a day, but they are relentless in making sure you don’t walk away empty handed. “Friend! Friend! I make good price for you. Yes, yes. Very special price for you. Look. You like. Yes. Very cheap. I make good price. I make good price. Very cheap.” It’s the game of harassment, language barriers and bargaining—just another day in the life of a Semester at Sea student. At sunset the market transfers to the street and the “night market” emerges. Not surprisingly, I am still at the market at sunset…
By the end of the day, what once was a mild head-cold turned into a full-fledged mess of migraines, sinus-congestion, sore-throat and a cough. Blame it on India, Malaysia and now Vietnam—but my immune system finally gave into the stress of traveling and I too joined the hundreds of sick SASers. An early night’s sleep on the first night of Vietnam hopefully would do me some good.
The next morning I went on a trip to the Khuyer Tat Hoc Mon School for the deaf and hearing impaired. Established in 1993, the school has 50 students varying in age from 4 to 14. Facilities at the school are very basic—small to medium sized rooms with wooden benches and tables attended by 10 children per class. The school is in a rural area that produces about 60% of the vegetables for Ho Chi Minh City. Students, many of whom are collected and returned home by the teachers themselves, come from up to 15km from home just to attend.
I walked into a classroom. Silent. It wasn’t just the Vietnamese language because, now, any spoken language would be impossible for us to communicate with. I sat with 3 deaf boys in the corner as I tore them a page from my coloring book and offered them crayons. The kids were overjoyed to see us, but only their eyes and their smiles could tell us this. We pointed at objects on the paper and smiled, though there was still an invisible wall preventing me from even getting to know them. Still feeling awkward, I took out my Lonely Planet and quickly looked up some words. I wrote Ten la gi? on the top of the page and showed it to them. They understood me and wrote their names. They pointed to me. My turn? K-E-V-I-N, I wrote. I paused. Wait! I know sign language! My days in high school as a junior counselor at an overnight camp in New Hampshire brought memories of sitting in Cabin 9 fumbling with my fingers as I tried to communicate with a camper. I tapped on their coloring page to get their attention, and then spelled out the letters of my name, one at a time, with my fingers. They corrected me; Vietnamese Sign Language is not the same as American Sign Language, but similar. The teacher of the classroom saw that I was the first to break the communication barrier and she became interested. She helped me figure the basics out and soon I was on my way to a simple, descent conversation. The class became interested in my knowledge and together we all spelled out our names for each other, then our ages. I was so happy that, at the least, I could know all their names and be able to do it in a way I rarely get to communicate. The visit was a valuable experience and just more proof that no matter how much distance separates children or what other traits may set them apart, children are the same everywhere.
After the visit, I met some friends at the War Remnants Museum, a museum dedicated to the Vietnam War (or as they call it, the American War). It was a small museum with mostly photographs but the photos were as real as they could get. Dismembered people, bloody children and piles of bodies were just some of the snapshots to disturbingly stare into. The section on Agent Orange, a chemical used to defoliate trees to expose the enemy, was a clear reminder that my friends at the deaf school that morning were a living example of remaining warfare chemicals in the soil and water. After the museum, I went out to dinner with Lindsay and Nicole and ordered chicken fried rice and Vietnamese spring rolls—my addiction.
As we walked out of the restaurant, I took out from my back pocket a worn pamphlet for a “water puppet show”, one that would start in 10 minutes. With lack of something better to do, we thought we would check it out. We hurried through the streets, through the night market and quickly bought a last-minute seat still not knowing what “water puppetry” was. The stage is a pool of water and wooden puppets seemingly walk on water. The brightly colored animals and figures are maneuvered by puppet masters who are hidden behind the set and the figures tell the hardships and joy of Vietnamese daily life. Much humor can be found for the foreigner who watches Vietnamese-speaking puppets dancing on water. Though we laughed at ourselves for actually going, we really did enjoy the performance, plus, it was nice to splash a little more culture into our day.
The next morning I had a trip to the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is an area of marshlands that’s been cultivated into a series of canals. Along the Mekong the Vietnamese have adapted to cultivating rice, fish, soybeans, maize, peanuts, tobacco and melons. Many of these items are sold right from their boats—becoming the famous “floating market” of Vietnam. A two-hour drive brought us to the Cai Be area where we boarded a small riverboat and visited a thatched-roof hut only accessible my water. The people there produce rice cakes and coconut candy over open flames—items we were able to sample ourselves. Next, we boarded the boat across the river to the other side.
Floating down the river is a way of life for the people of this region. Wooden boats drift downstream as young men, tired from a long day’s work, rest their eyes and fall asleep in makeshift hammocks secured between the two sides of the boat. Women, sheltered from the sun by their Vietnamese-style hats, sit on top of their homes chopping pineapple and throwing the remains into the water. Children play along the docks as their older brothers and sisters secure the boats with tattered rope. Their families might spend months at a time on the water surviving with every bag of rice sold. They often have a land home too, a shack built on stilts that is prone to inclement weather but readily accessible to the water highways below. The people here are used to tourists, so they wave as we pass them. We take pictures of their small canoes filled to the top with fresh fruit. Their children sit and peer out the windows, eating a bowl of rice and peering onto the land. Life on the Mekong is tiring and by looking into their eyes, one can tell they long for the sun to dip well below the horizon. But no matter the height of the sun, their boats continue day in and day out.
After disembarking our boat, a short bus ride and ferry ride, we find ourselves in the river city of Can Tho. Free to explore for a few hours, my friend Jake and I got a taxi to try to go to a soccer game we saw as we drove in. After we finally conveyed the word for “soccer” through pantomime and description, our taxi arrives and Jake and I walk into a large stadium full of Vietnamese soccer fans. The crowd is enthused by everything happening on the field and only a few notice the two white boys in their presence—those that do smile and wave from their seat. The home team wins and Jake and I are off to check out the mystery hovering over the soccer stadium.
Up in the sky flies several colorful kites of all shapes and sizes blowing in the wind. Curious, we look up to the clouds and follow the kites right down to their beginnings. The bearers of these kites are children and families enjoying the nice evening. They stand in the park taking pleasure in the evening breeze and allowing their kids to run free. It is almost impossible to avoid a kite—there are hundreds of people all with a spool of string gazing up at the clouds. Each string leads to a child with a smiling face, eyeing their floating creation and beckoning for the attention of their parents. The “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” philosophy brings Jake and I to a woman selling kites on the street corner where we purchase our very own red and yellow kite, a ferocious shark to join in on the fun.
Like always, being the westerners on the continent of Asia is bound to get us attention. Little kids immediately ran over to us, excited to see we are joining their little party and to help us set up our kite. They proudly stuck each wooden pole in the correct spaces, glancing occasionally at our faces for approval. Once assembled, the kids showed us how to get it airborne, as if there was some secret scientific method to the wind. Parents brought their children over to meet us, to shake our hands, and allowed us to take pictures of them. We turned our digital cameras around so they could see their own picture. They kids didn’t speak English but talking wasn’t necessary. Together, we shared an experience that brought Jake and I back to our roots—a time when we too innocently roamed free without care. Now, we were roaming freely again, this time around the world, and yet still doing what we once did fifteen years ago. We headed back to the hotel via motorcycle for an Asian dinner, followed by drinks at a rooftop bar with some friends and some of our favorite professors.
The next morning we woke up early, had breakfast, and went to the famous floating market. Here we saw the entire river community come together to exchange goods. Boats would pull up to one another, sometimes up to four or five boats long, to exchange fruits, vegetables and rice. The Vietnamese threw melons from their boats to be passed along down the river—an assembly line of the day’s goods ready to be sold. It was a colorful and lively event; everyone was working, throwing, catching, selling, or buying. A unique water highway of commerce, the floating market is a simple yet complex system of sales and purchases. We pulled up alongside boats and enjoyed fresh pineapple and banana straight from their boat to ours. We climbed up to the roof of our boat, enjoying our fruits and the Mekong Delta way of life. The sights and sounds of the Mekong were indescribable that morning; it was a surreal moment that reminded me how far away from the familiar I really am. We spent the rest of the day enjoying more Vietnamese cuisine at a restaurant, and headed back to the ship.
On the last day of Vietnam I wandered off to do some exploring on my own. I enjoyed as bowl of pho (a soup of noodles, vegetables and meat) while reconnecting with the real world on the Internet. I moseyed around Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker’s district, where most international travelers hang out and enjoy a cup of coffee outside various hostels and inns. I found a small restaurant that my archaeology professor, who used to live in Ho Chi Minh City, recommended. So even though I was full of pho, I managed to squeeze in a few more Vietnamese spring rolls before a brief stop at the market, picking up my new suit, and heading back to the ship for our departure from Ho Chi Minh City. It would be just 48 hours to catch up on sleep, get rid of my cold, take a test, and internalize my experiences before I would be in Hong Kong.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Here I am at the GREAT WALL OF CHINA!!
Thanks Mom and Dad for your love, support and helping make all my dreams come true. You have truly given me THE WORLD. I love you, and I can't wait to see you all in a month! Hi Bryan & Katie!
Monday, March 31, 2008
(Also, even though Hong Kong and Shanghai are two different ports... I am actually staying in China for 6 days instead of 4 and meeting the ship in the next city, something we are allowed to do. Mom and Dad that is mostly to you, incase I don't talk to you or forget to tell you). There is also a recent Malaysia post, if you feel so inclined to read it.
SEA OLYMPICS: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2072389&l=acee4&id=24205401
Friday, March 28, 2008
First a Muslim woman with complete head covering might pass; then two minutes later there might be an Indian woman with her traditional sari and a Hindu mark on her forehead; and behind both of them might be a Chinese family. This is Malaysia. The population is made of native Malays, Chinese and Indian—most all of whom follow Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism and speak Malay, Chinese and Tamil, respectively. It is a diverse place, and every street, place of worship, and person proudly displays their identity for all to see. Below the surface none of these ethnicities get along, but to the outsider it is a melting pot of Asia.
Malaysia’s biggest strength is its economy—it is the most developed country we have visited this semester. The cities of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are two recognizable international cities. The quality of life, education and health system in Malaysia are high-quality. Malaysia offers not only clean cities but some of the world’s best beaches and islands. Our ship docked off the coast of the island Penang and we “tendered” (took the ship’s life boats) to and from the ship like a water taxi.
On the morning of our first day in Malaysia I went on a city orientation trip. We headed to three Buddhist temples. The first temple was simple, traditional and seemed more like a museum than anything else. I picked-up some descent knowledge about Chinese symbolism and we moved onto the second temple. The second temple was so fascinating that I bought a postcard of it before I left Malaysia. It is comprised of many different structures all on top of a mountain. I didn’t have my camera, so I thrived on just living in the moment. I wanted to feel something powerful; I found myself taking off my shoes and walking into the temples as I tried to understand this guy “Buddha.” We climbed up the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas and got an amazing view of Penang. For our last temple, we went to Snake Temple. Snake Temple actually ended up being one big tourist trap. It’s a small, one-room temple with a gift shop and two small snakes. The rumor on the ship was that Snake Temple had snakes everywhere! Clearly, I still choose to believe these rumors. We went to lunch for some great Chinese food afterward. I ditched the rest of the tour a few hours early so I could get to the airport for my flight.
In most of the ports so far, I’ve generally traveled with the same group of people. The last three weeks of the ship has been a social boom for me and I’ve had the opportunity to meet some new people. I made plans to travel with Jason, twins Jaime and Sean, Krishna and Amy. It was sort of a random group for all of us, but we were ready. We wanted to get away from the island of Penang in search of something more exciting. We boarded a plane headed for Kuala Lumpur, referred to as “KL”, one of Asia’s premiere cities.
After landing in KL, we got a taxi to the downtown area. As we approached, I could not believe what I was seeing. The main street of KL has the lights of the Las Vegas strip, the glitz of New York City’s Times Square and the charm of Disney World. Hotels had bellhops in funny hats waiting at its doors, huge shopping malls with glass lobbies towered above the sidewalks, and open-air restaurants lit the streets with colorful lighting. This city was not only decorative, but sophisticated.
We pulled onto a side street in KL’s less-exciting Chinatown, a few minutes from the downtown area. Chinatown was dark and littered—a stark contrast to the main area of KL. There are certain places you don’t want to be at 3am: KL’s Chinatown. There are also certain places you don’t want to be for 3 nights in a row, and that would be our hostel in Chinatown! The hostel (which somehow got rave reviews on hostels.com) turned out to be a flop. The “library” was a few books creatively thrown in the corner. The “airport transportation” was refused by the owners. “24-hour security” meant there would be a guy sleeping on the couch, 24 hours a day. The “kitchen” was a refrigerator on the roof. Our beds had stains on them. We had no blankets. “Traveler’s Home,” as they called it, was more like a traveler’s nightmare. I guess the less you pay, the more you get. We went to bed half-laughing and half-crying about our situation. Our lives reeked with the eeriness of a scary movie. We knew we had a good story, but we also knew we had to get out of the place as soon as possible for our own health and safety.
The next morning we told the hostel owner that our plans changed and we were going to Singapore. That was a lie. We also accused them of “false advertisement” and said other big, American legal terms to legitimize escaping our next two night’s reservations. We were successful and went right to the heart of the city to find better lodging. That’s when we found, among all the radiance of downtown, another traveler’s hostel called “Haven.”
“Haven” was truly what it sounds like. Not only did they have blankets, but a decorative lounge with leather couches, a pool table, free internet, really cool spiral staircases and modern art all around us. For only $12 a night it put all the towering five-star hotels to shame. The people there were mostly young people from all over the world who thrived on travel; we would be able to sit in the lobby, have a drink and exchange travel stories. Most of all, we felt safe and part of the city’s excitement.
With lodging taken care of we got ready to celebrate Amy’s 21st birthday. We went out to a Lebanese restaurant and had some of the best food I’ve had in a long time. We spent the night walking up and down “the strip” and awing at every building in site. The hotels all presented large waterfalls, fountains, gold-plated ceilings, endless lobbies, towering wine cellars, and sheik five-star restaurants. Some of the most incredible shopping malls in the world were in this area. We found some other SASers and hung out at the popular hotspots for the night.
The next morning we embarked on an adventure far from the city and into the countryside. Our ultimate goal was to end up at one of the best elephant sanctuaries in the world and spend the day there. We bought the $2.50 ticket for the public bus and gave an English-speaking Malay the responsibility of telling us when we should get off. The bus went up and down mountains, past farmlands and villages, and by waterfalls and rivers. The trees stood grounded in the soil as huge waves of brown, muddy river rapids splashed against their tree trunks below the highways. Two hours later, we found ourselves in what seemed like “Nowheresville, Malaysia.”
Our original plan called for a taxi from the bus station to the sanctuary. There was no bus station; we were on the street corner of an isolated and rural town. There were no taxis either. With dirt and wind blowing in our faces we stood on the side of the street. Behind us was a tattered convenient store; in front of us sat Muslim school children wondering what we were doing in their little town. We had no more idea than they did. We found two old men nice enough to drive us to the elephant sanctuary, which wasn’t too far away, for just a few dollars and headed onward. With sweat dripping down our faces, tired legs, and hungry stomachs we finally pulled up to the sanctuary—needless to say, it was disheartening to see a few SASers there with their personal tour guide from their luxury hotel. We prefer the adventure, ok!
The Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre is the base for its Elephant Relocation Team. The centre locates, subdues and translocates elephants from unsuitable habitats to safer ones. Over the years, they have relocated over 500 wild elephants away from plantations and other human developments. Their visitor’s center has elephants that are trained so that they can use them to rescue other wild elephants as well as look after orphaned ones to ensure their survival.
The trainers sat on the elephants necks and rode them in a procession like a circus parade. They are beautiful, massive beasts controlled by just the slight movement of the trainers’ feet behind the large ears. We watched the elephants bathe in the river before they were brought out for feeding time. We were given buckets of fresh fruit to feed them in two ways. One, was to hold out the fruit and let their trunks wrap around and grab. The second was to literally put your hand inside their mouth and put it on their tongue. The whole time I had this huge, goofy smile on my face. I ventured into a fifth-grade mentality, giggling as their trunks tickled by arm and tried to steal our cameras. We got our chance to hop on an elephant and ride one around. Jason and I paraded around with our elephant, posing for pictures and singing the theme from “Aladdin.” Afterwards was the best part: we got to bathe, ride and swim with the elephants in the river. Our elephant decided it would be a good idea to cool off in the water and dunk us all under. It was an amazing time and a once in a lifetime encounter. We were wet, happy, and enthralled with our day. We headed back to the middle of nowhere and waited on the side of the road again for the two-hour bus ride back.
Back in Kuala Lumpur, we showered and hung out with some of the other travelers in our hostel over some drinks in the lobby. We headed to the Petronas Towers around midnight. Although you might not know what the Petronas Towers are, you would surely recognize a picture of it. They are the largest twin towers in the world. They are the icon of Malaysia and are absolutely stunning. I didn’t get to the Taj Mahal in India, so this was my Taj. We took a billion pictures from different angles for a while, then headed out for another night of dinner, nightlife and walking around the city.
The next day the girls went off on their own while Jason and I went to Chinatown. The Chinatown Market was shopper’s heaven. Every stand displayed fake versions of designer brands for an eighth of the price. I hate shopping more than anything, especially on this voyage, and for the first time I wanted to buy everything I saw. Since the camera I bought in Mauritius stopped working, I had to find a mall to buy Camera #3 of the semester. It’s an expensive purchase to do twice in the same month, but in the scheme of circumnavigating the world it’s totally worth it. Without consistent access to Internet, telephone, or postal services (basically contact with the outside world), once something breaks there’s no getting it fixed until May. So, Jason and I went to the Times Square Mall—the biggest mall I have ever seen in my entire life. Here’s an example: Jason and I are walking through one of the lobbies when all of a sudden thunder erupts from the ceiling and the ground starts shaking. Earthquake?! No. It is the 2nd largest indoor roller coaster in the world right above out heads. In fact, the mall has an amusement park with 11 rides. I ended up buying a great digital camera just in time for Vietnam. That night, we took a 5-hour bus back to Penang, our port city. I went out to dinner quickly with Amy, then headed to bed.
I wake up on Sunday to have Bridgette, one of the professor’s kids, give me a handful of jelly beans from a basket. It was Easter! The Easter Bunny made it to Malaysia for the kids on the ship, and boy did I miss home!
I had a taxi driver take me to a church where I found other SASers there also celebrating the holiday. A group of kids performed a song and dance to gospel music—just like something they would do in an American church. After, the congregation extended an offer to all of us to eat lunch with them. Outside the church was a big buffet of Asian food, so we sat down together, conversed with some of the Church goers, and ate.
Living on a ship with over 1,000 people and then always traveling by someone’s side, it is always a privilege to be by yourself. I decided to venture off in Penang for the rest of the day on my own. I took off on foot and decided to explore whatever I could. Each street in Penang shows a different culture; one street might be Chinese, another might be more Indian and another Malay. Malaysia is so diverse; every person you pass the street looks, dresses and speaks differently. After stopping in and talking to a few shop owners, I walked to the mall and bought the bootlegged versions of “Lost” seasons 1 & 2, for only $30.
I went back to the ship early that afternoon and sat in my bed. I couldn’t believe it would be only 3 more days until Vietnam…then 2 more days until China….then 2 more days after that until Japan.
**If you don’t see any posts for a while, the ship did not sink (I can joke about that, it’s my home). There is no time to think, write and post all while taking classes in those short amounts of time. Look for most of them after Japan…the alternative is me failing out of SAS, oh wait, I am already doing that...**
Friday, March 21, 2008
SOUTH AFRICA 2: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2071124&l=1a6d9&id=24205401
SOUTH AFRICA 1: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2071121&l=e83a6&id=24205401
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Catching the sun rise over a distant foreign city, just beyond the ocean is one of the most magical things you can experience.
In India that is not possible.
The smog in the city of Chennai covers everything in the distance. It is accompanied by an unrecognizable and pungent smell and adds an odor of mystery to our breakfast. With a brief pause in casual conversation one could hear the distant sounds of auto rickshaws, taxis and trucks plowing through the streets. Beyond the docks were worn down buildings, oil and dirt covered streets and tired looking railroad cars. The local workers, with soot and dirt covering them from head to toe, looked up at the ship with curiosity and confusion. With a glass of orange juice in hand, we looked down at them, suggesting the same.
Although traveling in any foreign country is a challenge, the Indian culture alone presents its own. Bathrooms, even in malls and restaurants, are often squatter toilets with no toilet paper, offering just a water hose to clean oneself. The use of the “evil”, left-hand (my dominant one) in traditional Indian culture is considered rude.(I spent every meal literally sitting on my left hand pinning it down against my chair). Utensils are rarely used and instead Indian cuisine is better experienced with the bare hand.
In India you learn to be aggressive. Even the concept of waiting in lines in their culture is not all that much prevalent. Instead of realizing that the person in front of you should be served first, it is like whoever can elbow oneself to the front wins. The roads are the same story. Any driving law or regulation in India either does not exist or is not followed. The law of physical size is the hierarchy for travel. Trucks supreme over cars, then motorcycles, then rickshaws, then bicyclists and finally pedestrians. Changing lanes, as is every other task, more easily accomplished by honking the horn. The only thing that will stop traffic in India is the Hindu-sacred cow.
By now, you can probably picture me at an Indian restaurant waiting to use the bathroom with people cutting me in line as I try to regain consciousness from our taxi ride with my personal supply of toilet paper in my back pocket and a rice-covered right-hand as I attempt to reestablish blood flow in my left one, all the while it smells like cows. It’s true, mostly.
Nothing is simple in India for the American tourist. Walking into a restaurant we will be stared at. Walking through the city we will be tugged at by beggars. And by taking a taxi we will be taken advantage of. These are just some of the elements of challenge a typical day in India provides.
I find none of these challenges and characteristics negative. India is the most amazing and different country I will ever encounter. I would live in India in a heartbeat. It is repulsive and beautiful all at the same time. If you can’t embrace the madness then you probably shouldn’t travel in India, let alone go to Asia.
On the first day, after some customary and intense price negotiations with the drivers, we piled into the 3-wheel, open-air taxi called the rickshaw and experienced the roads for the very first time. We headed to an Indian restaurant and ordered by choosing wherever our finger first landed on the menu. We all somehow ended up with some sort of bread, rice and spicy dip which we later discovered is basically what all Indian food comes down to. It was our first hour in India, and just ordering and fitting in was the hardest things we’ve had to do. We were completely lost and overwhelmed in another world—and we loved it. Meanwhile, our rickshaw drivers waited outside the restaurant for us to finish so that they would have the privilege of taking us around more.
The thing about the rickshaw is that your chance of going where you actually want to go is very, very unlikely. It is custom for your rickshaw driver to ignore your requests and take you to his friends’ gift store, rug shop, silk shop, etc completely against your will. We had nothing planned for the day so it was a good opportunity to see the city. The shops all offer similar things and harassment to buy something is common. At the end of the day we headed back to the ship to leave for a Welcome Reception with some Indian college students. We ate some more Indian food and watched some of the traditional dance there.
The next morning I embarked on my homestay visit with an Indian family. Given that we were in the poorest country of our itinerary, I really did not know what to expect. Little did I know I would be staying in a home with two servants, two security guards, three drivers and a personal chef. My host parents were born in India, lived in California for 15 years, then came back to India. My host mom owns her own event planning company, and my host father owns a construction company. My host brother is 21 and my host sister is 23, and their grandmother lives with all of them. In addition to the regular home, the gated property boasts a home for the servants, an office building for my host mom her employees, and then the regular house. This would be my home for 3 days.
On my first day, myself and my homestay roommate Justin talked to Nalini (our host mom) as we got to know each other a bit over lunch which was prepared and served by the chef. Then, we went with the grandmother to a Hindu temple to meet another host family where they showed us around and taught us a bit about Hinduism. The Hindus we saw were entirely engaged in their Gods, completely peaceful and tranced by the power of Shiva. The temple was dark and candles flickered among the statues. It is a powerful religion and one that, as an outsider, I found more inviting than intimidating.
Next, Justin and I met my host brother Anish for a drink and some food. We then went with him to a hotel where a reception for all the host families was taking place. Altogether, there were about 35 SASers taking part in the homestay program. They had so much praise for their interactions from past voyages and were excited for our next few days together. They offered us a buffet of more Indian food and a short performance by some dancers. That night, Anish took my homestay roommate and I out to a bar with his friends. His friends, also from wealthy families, were custom to Americans as most of them could afford to go to school in the states. Nonetheless, there were periods of interesting cultural exchange and we had a lot of fun.
The next day all of the SAS homestay participants, minus the families, went to Mammallapuram which is an archaeological area of Hindu temples. From there we had a traditional Indian lunch, and then went to a crocodile farm. The whole trip was very characteristic of India’s culture of unpredictability. Our bus randomly stopped every once in a while, and no one ever knew why. We were never told where we were actually going; there was really no plan. But in India you realize that nothing ever makes sense. You just had to go with the flow.
That night, the family invited me to get their new car blessed, something that is common for Hindus. We took the car to the temple and offered coconuts and bananas to Ganesha, the son of Shiva. The car was adorned with flowers, chants were said, and the grandmother prayed. I just kind of stood there, in my bare feet, smiling. We walked around the temple, and then blessed ourselves by putting ash and a red dot in between our eyes above our nose, like you often see many Hindus with. It was nice to partake in the ceremony, and another way in which my host family really brought me into their family.
The next day, the driver take me to meet up with friends so I could spend the day exploring Chennai. We took the autorickshaw around, did some shopping, had some interaction with some locals then headed back to the ship. I was excited to hang out with Anish one more time, but this time it was my turn to share with him my friends. He picked us up at the port, we went out to a local place, and his driver brought us back to the ship at night.
The next and last day of India was one of the most memorable. Bob, Sara and I found a really nice rickshaw driver named Sham to take us around the city. Sham spoke English well and knew a lot about Chennai. He took us around to see a few churches and a temple, and then went to the beach where he let us drive his rickshaw (the same beach that was devastated by the tsunami a few years ago). I saw some people in a parking lot playing cricket and I hopped out and twenty people crowded around me excited to see a white boy taking interest in their sport. Sham took us to Snake and Deer Park, a zoo that was completely rundown and inadequate for the animals living there.
What was great about Sham was that he was honest. Whereas other rickshaw drivers will hold you hostage to take you to local shops, Sham told us like it was. He explained that each time he brings tourists to a store they credit him and he earns money for his family. We already knew from earlier conversation that Sham lives in a house made of coconut leaves, so we were more than happy to poke around in a few stores for him.
We all sailed away from India with stories and a certain level of culture shock. I think at some point we all saw things that wore us down; beggars, people dying on the streets, babies with leprosy, and children digging through the trash were all things we encountered on a daily basis in India.
At our post port Open-Mic Night, I shared my story with the shipboard community. Many came across poverty, I acknowledged. The only difference is, I was one of the few that witnessed it through the window of my family’s car. Culture doesn’t have to be found in the disorder of the city streets. It is everywhere. I found a family, got to know them, and discovered their lives. Sometimes American tourists are drawn to poverty as a way of discovering a culture. I argued that by living with the rich, I didn’t shield myself from India. Instead, I found India in a different place and through a different lens. Everything is an experience.
3 days rest, and onward to Malaysia…
PS- Thanks for the birthday wishes today. I decided to celebrate it in both the Eastern U.S. time zone and the Malaysian time zone, which gave me 37 hours total of celebration. I also had a cake. Two. And it was all while crossing the Bay of Bengal.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
We all need a vacation, and nothing’s better than a vacation within a vacation. That’s why they sent us to Mauritius: to take a break from the stressful and demanding life of a 3.5 month cruise around the world(?). Hey—if the white sand beaches are there, you might as well dig your feet in!
Much of the ship was ready to head to Flic en Flac, a really cool name for the Southwest part of the island with beautiful beaches. People already booked sleeping arrangements before we got there, but myself and some others stuck with our usual technique: pack a backpack, and hope for the best. We paid our taxi driver a little extra to take us to Flic en Flac, get us to an ATM, and find us a bed for the night (and to not leave us until we do).
After denying a few sketchy hotels, we found some luxury condos near the beach. I just knew we couldn’t afford them for three nights, but then again, I must have forgotten we’re not in America anymore. A six person, 3 bedroom, 2 full bath, including master bedroom, a dining room, kitchen, a flat screen television, a pool outside our door, and a stones-throw to the beach cost only 80 U.S. American dollars a night (take that and divide by myself, Bob, Ryan, Sara, Becca and Lindsay). Yes! I could start a lemonade stand and afford to live on an African island for life!
In most ports we try our hardest to avoid other groups of SASers (or as we jokingly call them, “tourists.”) But for some reason in Mauritius it didn’t matter. We’re a few hundred American college kids renting out villas, condos, bungalows and beach houses, so it just makes sense to all hang together. Naturally, we took the social scene to the beach.
I don’t think I’ve seen my fingers and toes wrinkle-up and prune since my bathtub days, but the Mauritian ocean was one big bathtub and I spent hours swimming around. SASers grouped together and lounged beach-style. If we weren’t at the beach, we were snacking by the pool back at the condo. In the mornings my “roommates” and I cooked our own breakfasts, and on nights we went out to eat. On our last day, we went out on a boat and went snorkeling in one of the coral reefs. On our last night we ( all of the SASers) started a bonfire at midnight on the beach sat around and bonded.
The one and only bar in the area was supposed to close at 10:30pm each night, instead it didn’t close until 4am. By the end of the week, they just hung signs outside “Private Party for MV Explorer.” When the MV Explorer pulls up to their tiny island it’s like a national holiday. Some of the taxi drivers have Semester at Sea t-shirts and photos in their taxis from past voyages—they’re our biggest fans. Not our biggest fans are the owners of condos, neighbors, and normal people who don’t benefit from the overwhelming immaturity of the SAS population, but that’s a whole other story.
For our last day in Mauritius we headed back to the ship, dropped our backpacks and decided to explore Port Louis which we initially bypassed for the 3-day beach vacation. Port Louis, the capital city and home of our ship, was interesting. The Mauritian people are Indian (as a result of slavery), and speak French or Creole (as a result of French settlement) but also speak English (as a result of British control). Becca and Lindsay had to find a fish market for their biology class. We found a smelly market and a guy beating a live octopus to death with his machete. And less comforting was the poultry market, but you know what happens to those chickens.
For a final Mauritian thrill, I embarked on a journey to find me a new digital camera. (Apparently the tile floor of our condo doesn’t cushion electronics well). With the help of several Mauritian police officers in a society without modern shopping malls, I dragged my friends through city streets and electronics stores before finally purchasing a digital camera that I think will work out for me.
In all our ports so far, we’ve averaged about 4 hours of sleep a night. We wake up early, climb the biggest mountains, take the longest taxi rides, and then stay out late and do it all again. It was nice to just sit and watch the world go by. In Mauritius I could reflect on the last month, the month ahead, or I could just think about nothing. With the unsettling extremes of India next and an insane Asian itinerary to follow, we are slowly approaching the part of the voyage where we become physically and emotionally drained. In one 30-day period we have only 9 days of classes with the rest spent throughout Asia.
It’s quite possible I missed out on a cultural experience or two in Mauritius, that I won’t deny. But, I know I’ll be thanking myself later for taking it easy and just living in the natural moment that be. Sometimes, I don’t think I do that enough.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
NEPTUNE DAYL http://quinnipiac.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2069126&l=e9523&id=24205401
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
"Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living." –- Miriam Beard
The Lonely Planet travel guide for Cape Town notes that the city is a “a fool’s paradise”—a city that is so modern and enchanting it’s easy to forget the violent and unstable country in which it is based. Our ship was docked at the V&A Waterfront Mall where Lacoste, Gucci and Prada were just some of the stores within a few feet of our cabins. Executive Dean Gaither told us the night before our arrival to “look beyond the mall.” Beyond the mall, I realized, is the real South Africa: the 50% who are below the poverty line, the 30% that are unemployed, the 1 in 5 that have HIV/AIDS, and the South African who on average will only live to age 45. Like most places, seeing the highly developed world and the undeveloped world at the same time is confusing. But while South Africa’s economics weren’t in synch, its people were. The typical South African is an honest and reliable person with a joke to tell and a story to share. If you ignore the statistics, there seem to be no worries, no problems and no evils in or around South Africa.
On the first day in Cape Town I headed to Robben Island. Robben Island was most recently used as a place for those who spoke out against the apartheid government. It is a powerful place with a lot of history. After a bus tour, we walked around the prison with an actual apartheid prisoner kept at the same time as Nelson Mandela. It was amazing to explore South Africa’s history, especially because that “history” is as much a part of today as it was 15 years ago. In a lot of ways apartheid still exists, and by visiting Robben Island it’s like visiting yesterday. That night, we headed to the hippie-trendy area in downtown Cape Town along Long St. for dinner. I downed a plate of ostrich over some live music, then we headed out for drinks for the night.
On the second day, I went on a trip to the Amy Biehl foundation. Amy Biehl was an American college student during the apartheid years who decided to become an activist, but was later killed. Her parents forgave her murderers because they were only rebelling against racist injustice they face every day. It is an unbelievable story or forgiveness. Anyway, our guide was one of her murderers (now working for her parents’ non-profit). We visited their office headquarters and talked with the staff there. Then we went and ate at a restaurant in a township and visited 4 elementary schools to see the after-school programs the Amy Biehl foundation sponsors. The kids showed us their crafts, music, dances, etc. I was sort of confused by the whole day. I couldn’t forgive Amy’s murderer and I had no interest in “touring” schools—I am not a tourist, I am a traveler!
That night was a full moon and the night of a lunar eclipse. Me, Bob, Matt, Sara and Sydney went on a late-night adventure up Lion’s Head (the mountain peak next to Table Mountain). The hike was about an hour and we couldn’t have done it alone had we not befriended some University of Cape Town students who knew the trail well, even at 9pm. The view at the top was amazing. I have never been so high above a city at night before in my life. We spent hours at the top with a bottle of wine and took it all in. We didn’t get down from the mountain until 3am. It was an amazing adventure that is better than anything a “tourist” could ever do. We were driven back to the ship by some kids we found. Nice people…everywhere!
I didn’t get to bed until 4am that night, and ironically when I woke up there was more hiking to be done. At 7am thirteen of us took off with a nature guide who took us 4-hours, 4 miles, and 3,000 feet up over the Twelve Apostles Mountains and across to Table Mountain. The hike seemed to bring us where human foot had never touched before. Some of the fauna there is some of the most unique in the entire world. We were in the middle of nothingness, and the view throughout the day was outstanding.
Now with two hikes and less than four hours of sleep under our belts, Bob, Sara and I decided we would embark on an adventure. We dared ourselves to run away from the ship. We didn’t want to eat on it. We didn’t want to sleep there. We didn’t even want to see it. We had no reservations and no expectation but to see what was outside of Cape Town. We arrived by taxi to a small college-town set in the winelands called Stellenbosch. We secured the last room in a “backpackers” (aka hostel) and checked into it. When we opened the door, the doorknob broke away from the door. But the big problem? We only had this room for one night because it was booked for the rest of the week. We couldn’t—just couldn’t—go back to the ship!
In search of a 2nd night’s lodging, we found ourselves in front of a Cape Town Tourism Center. That’s when we met a South African Dutch woman named Matilda. Matilda wore glasses and sat at her desk with a warm smile and an interest in our travels. Of course, we told her our life story (the “I go to college on a ship” speech usually takes about 10-15 minutes). She called a few places of lodging for us, but the Celine Dion concert the next day stole all the rooms in the area. Then Matilda extended an offer characteristic of the sincerity and trust of any South African we had met that week, “Well, why don’t you just stay at my house? I have a few extra beds I suppose.” Free lodging? A possible cultural experience? SOLD.
With two night’s of lodging secured, we decided to go out to a nice seafood restaurant and then check out this so-called “college town.” We finally found where all the University of Stellenbosch students hung out. We sat down at the bar, and naturally our American accents automatically triggered a great interest in our presence in their city. We stuck around for a bit, eventually discussing the subject that everyone is talking about in South Africa: politics.
The next morning we were picked up from our backpackers by one of Matilda’s friends. She is a certified wine guide and would take us around the winelands for the day. After picking up a few more tourists, 6 of us in total were on our way to 8-hours of wine tasting and traveling across the South African winelands. The scene was remarkable. Rolling hills meet towering mountains. Endless vineyards give way to farms of zebra, ostrich and deer. Endless driveways lined with tall trees yield Dutch cottages. By the end, we had more wine than I can count, lunch in a small town, and even had time to play with some Cheetahs at an animal sanctuary. On top of all that, I actually could tell you a thing or two about wine.
We asked to be dropped off at Moyo, an African restaurant where one eats outdoors in tents, tree houses, or below giant trees. African drumming fills the air while others chant to the beat in their native tongue. Waiters and waitresses, dressed in their traditional clothing, offer their energy and African face paint brings us into their culture. The buffet was probably the length of a football field offering African cuisine. It was one of those places with enough good food and entertainment we could have stayed the whole night. It was very “Africa.”
Later, Matilda (still a complete stranger) picked us up at the restaurant and brought us to her home. Matilda is widowed and her children are all grown-up and married. She lives at the base of a mountain, her pool is surrounded by palm trees and has a waterfall. Her side-porch overlooks Cape Town, and her back-porch overlooks the winelands. Needless to say, Matilda is as appealing as her home. We spent time talking to her then eventually fell asleep in the rooms she arranged for us. She brought us back to town in the morning on her way to work, as we still wondered just how we managed to say in someone’s home that night.
Two-out-of-three nights of adventure-traveling, complete. One more day to go. Our next random adventure took us to a Bed & Breakfast which we managed to book a few days before our arrival in Cape Town. The bed & breakfast is not your average bed & breakfast. It is Vicky’s Bed & Breakfast—a shack made of scrap metal in the middle of Khayelitsha, the youngest and biggest township in all of South Africa. A township is basically a residential development for non-whites, established during apartheid. They are also the poorest and most AIDS-stricken areas in South Africa. The B&B is set among hundreds of scrap-metal shacks piled up on one another. These are homes. It is a situation somewhat risky for white Americans. In fact, without the accompaniment of a black native, Semester at Sea students were told not to visit these areas because they can be violent and harvest gangs. (South Africa is the most murderous country in the world, and has a crime rate 9-times the U.S.). So to sort-of satisfy SAS’s request we paid a native driver to drive us there.
Vicky has a lot of kids. With the money they’ve earned from their B&B, Vicky has begun to build a second floor and all the children sleep on what appears to be an active construction site. Some of her kids are just a few years, some are in their college years. We spend the day playing with virtually every small child in the neighborhood. I taught them all duck, duck goose and we all sat and played it in the middle of the dirt road. The kids, just 6 or 7 years old, took us by the hand and took us around the neighborhood. Shack after shack. We are literally in the middle of the poorest community I’ve ever seen in my life. We are the whitest people they have ever seen. It was surreal. People came up to us just to shake our hands. One man was ecstatic, “In all my life, I never thought I’d talk to a real American” he told me. I felt like a celebrity, but I didn’t want to be. They thought I was a superhero, but I didn’t know what super-powers I had.
As temporary residents of their community, we became a part of them. All the neighbors knew who we were. I had kids yelling my name from down the street. I wanted so badly just to ditch my American life and come live with them. They are simple. They appreciate life. They are blind to their own poverty, and they smile. And somehow, they thought I could help them. And somehow, I knew I could help them too. I was ready to abandon the ship and stay there and figure this whole thing out.
Vicky made us dinner that night, then we hung out with her kids. The kids couldn’t get enough of 5 white American college-kids (me, Bob, Lindsay, Becca and Sara) all staying in their small home. They were enthralled. The girls did each other’s hair or made fun of me because Britney Spears was evidently my girlfriend. I don’t think I will ever forget Wanda, the 18 year old son. Almost emotional when it was time to leave that morning, I felt like Wanda was my best friend. We spent the whole night talking about everything. His future, my future, his country, my country. It took me 15 minutes just to convince him that America has homeless people; that we too have people sleeping on the sidewalks begging for money. His perception of America was from MTV.
Staying overnight in Khayelitsha is something above and beyond any experience I thought I would ever have. I still try to make sense of it. I kept saying “I’ll be back.” I don’t know if I meant this literally or not, but somehow I knew what I was really saying is “I will never forget you.”
Our last day in Cape Town, Bob and I went to a museum for an archaeology assignment, then went to the mall to eat American food. Then I went and uploaded photos at wireless coffee shop, then drank some wine as I watched the sunset, and sadly, boarded the ship. A pretty typical “last day” in port.
Now, Mauritius.... (African island off the western coast, next to Madagascar)