Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I had been looking forward to visiting Guatemala the entire voyage, not because it was the last country on our itinerary—I was actually rather unhappy about that part—but because I was scheduled to visit a real, live, functioning coffee plantation! And seeing as how Guatemala is one of the top coffee exporters in the world, I was also excited to get my hands on a fresh cup of locally-grown coffee. The plantation I visited is called the Roberto Dalton Coffee Plantation and it is located right outside of Antigua, the historic colonial tourist destination of Guatemala. After driving through Antigua (we didn’t get to stop there, all the more reason for me to return someday!) we reached the plantation and were taken on a walking tour to see the whole coffee growing, processing, and roasting operation. The coolest part, I think, is that they take the roots from one coffee species—Robusta, a lower quality species—and connect it with the top of another species—Arabica, a gourmet coffee—because worms eat Arabica roots, but not Robusta roots. That way, R. Dalton can grow the higher quality coffee without using pesticides. It’s a labor intensive but environmentally friendly process. We saw the fields where the coffee is grown, the machinery where the layers of the beans are removed, the large patios where the beans are dried, and finally where they are roasted. We even saw the tasting room where they have a professional taster come in every Saturday to taste their coffee, not unlike the tasters that visit the vineyard I visited in South Africa! I wouldn’t mind having that job. We were given a nice, steamy cup of coffee before heading back to the ship. It was heavenly.

The next morning I got up early to leave for Honduras. It was an eight hour bus ride across Guatemala to get there. While most of the people on the bus slept, I was too busy watching the landscape and listening to our guide, Jose, talk about Guatemala. Guatemala is mountainous and green, then barren and flat, then even more mountainous than before. There are volcanoes so tall I saw their bases, the middles shrouded by clouds, and the tips peeking over the top. Jose said that to the rest of the world Guatemala is coffee and pineapples and bananas and poverty, but that’s not the real Guatemala. “Poverty” to the rest of the world doesn’t mean what it means in Guatemala. In Guatemala, the “poor” don’t have flat screen TVs and brand new cars and air conditioning, but they eat. They don’t need all that stuff because they don’t care. They are more in tune with nature. I think he was mostly talking about the large population of Mayans still living in Guatemala. Someone asked a question about the drug trade in Guatemala and Jose defended his country by saying that very few people do drugs in Guatemala; they just grow and export them. He said that if there were no demand in the United States, there would be no “drug problem” in Guatemala. He said Guatemala is not about coffee, tropical fruits, and drugs. Guatemala is about its rich history and diverse population. It’s about its people.

When we crossed the border into Honduras it was a short half-hour drive to Copan and our hotel. There we ate dinner before going horseback riding. That night I got some pizza and wandered around Copan. It’s such a cute little town full of small shops and restaurants. The locals were all out at night too and everyone was friendly. It felt like daytime, actually. It was dark but the stars were out and the narrow cobblestone streets were lit with street lamps and by store fronts. There were a lot of tourists, though. Copan is quite a tourist destination because it is home to one of the greatest Mayan ruin sites.

The next day we visited the ruins. When I was in seventh grade I did a project on the Maya and the Aztecs and ever since then I’ve wanted to see the ruins of their cities and temples. I’ve always been fascinated by their complex civilization. It just seems impossible for such sophistication at that time. Jose called Copan the “Paris” of the Mayan world because Copan is known for its art rather than its size. Tikal, Mayan ruins located in Guatemala, would be considered the “New York” because of its giant temples and its reputation as the largest Mayan city. I can’t believe how much of the Copan ruins are still intact and how detailed some of the carvings and statues still are. It’s amazing to see how they incorporated astronomy into their architecture and lives. I really wish I could say more about the ruins, but I don’t know how. It’s another one of those places where I don’t think words can do it justice. I’m afraid to try. After we left the ruins we drove back to the ship to board the MV Explorer for the last time.

Soon after that the ship passed through the Panama Canal. I remember sitting on the back deck, watching the last locks of the canal close behind us and feeling like those doors were separating me from the rest of the world, from everything I had just experienced. I was not ready for it all to be over. I’m still not! I would do it all again in a heartbeat. While I was watching that last lock disappear behind the ship I wrote this in my journal: “This ‘world’ I’ve been living in, it has been the world. I’ve been viewing this whole experience as a bubble, a departure from my real, my normal life, but I’ve been wrong. My life back home is a bubble. I went about my daily business, blissfully unaware of the world going on outside of my own experience.” I feel like I’ve slipped back into that perspective a bit since I’ve returned, become less aware of the world and preoccupied with my own little corner of it. It’s been hard living in sleepy little Sioux Falls after all of that traveling. It’s hard to feel motivated to pay attention to places so far away and so seemingly irrelevant to my everyday life. But I have been changed in a great many ways and am still learning every day how I’ve been affected. I talk to the friends that I made on the ship nearly every day still and even flew to Boston earlier this summer to visit a few of them and the Explorer. They serve as a constant reminder of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen and what it all meant to me. I guess my next big challenge is learning how to take the rest of the world home with me, how to use my experiences to better my little corner. And, of course, I’ll have to figure out how I’m going to top sailing around the world…

Sunday, June 28, 2009


It has obviously been a while. I’ve been home for almost two months now and while I have always intended on finishing this, there was just a lot to do in that time. As soon as I got back I had to see people I hadn’t seen in months, find a job, and just get back into my little bubble of the world. But now that I have some time to sit down and write, I’ll finish the job.

Hawaii was wonderful for so many reasons. First, everyone speaks English! It’s amazing how much of a difference that actually makes, how easy everything seems. I hadn’t realized how much not knowing the language of a country made everything more exhausting and difficult because it had been such a long time since we’d been in a primarily English speaking country. The last one was South Africa! The currency was familiar, the stores and restaurants were familiar, even the familiar bathrooms were a relief! Also, my phone worked so I was able to talk to people I hadn’t spoken to in months. It did make me glad, though, that I hadn’t been able to use my phone the whole semester. It was such a time suck and distracted me from experiencing Hawaii at times. That being said, however, Hawaii was mostly just a nice vacation from all of my schoolwork and I didn’t feel so much pressure to “soak in the culture” because 1) it’s the United States, 2) I’ve been to Hawaii once before, and 3) I know I’ll be back again someday. As a result, I ate as much pizza as I could hold and felt no guilt from filling up on Starbucks. I did drink some local, Hawaiian grown coffee though. Did you know that Hawaii is the only place in the United States where coffee is grown? Fun fact.

When we reached Honolulu on Oahu, a friend and I were going to find a church we had heard about that does services in Hawaiian, but we were too late so instead we wandered around the shopping center by the Aloha Tower. We went to a convenient store and bought Doritos, Snapple, Mentos, and some other snack foods we’d been craving. Shopping was a bit of a wakeup call—we were definitely back to US prices! When we got tired of that, we caught The Bus (that’s what it’s called in Hawaii. Original, isn’t it?) to the Ala Moana beach. We ate lunch at the California Pizza Kitchen before heading down to the beach to relax and catch up on phone calls. It was so nice to lie on a beach for once! I had only done that in Mauritius, despite the fact that there were nice beaches in nearly every country we visited. On the way back to the ship we stopped at a shopping center and bee-lined it to the food court. I got an almond glazed pretzel from Wetzel’s Pretzels and a smoothie. It is true though, US portions are bigger. The smallest smoothie I could get was a 16 oz and I had to share the pretzel with my friend. Nonetheless, it was delicious! Back at the ship we showered and got dressed up to go out for a late dinner. I tried to look for Opah, the fish I had the last time I was in Hawaii and the best fish I’d ever eaten, but I couldn’t find it so I settled for salmon. It was still amazing. After walking around Honolulu for a while and meeting a few locals, we headed back to the ship for a short night’s sleep before getting up early to visit Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial.

After coaxing a few people out of bed, picking up a Starbuck’s latte, and navigating unfamiliar public transportation on way too little sleep, we finally made it to Pearl Harbor. We got our tickets for the ferry that would take us to the USS Arizona Memorial and looked around the gift shop while we waited for our time to go. The gift shop had reprinted newspapers from December 7, 1941, the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I bought a couple, one from the local Honolulu paper and one from a St. Louis newspaper. There were veteran survivors of the attack sitting outside the shop. I wish I could have talked to them, but they were mostly just there to sign souvenirs for people. When our group was called, we watched a movie explaining the events leading up the attack and a play-by-play of the day. One of the more interesting things I learned is that only one Japanese bomb strayed from its target and hit civilians. One. And we retaliated by killing thousands of people with the atomic bomb. Anyway, after the video we boarded the ferry to the USS Arizona Memorial. The Memorial is built right on top of the actual USS Arizona where is sank. You can actually see the rusted, deteriorating ship below the water and shifting rainbows on the surface where the fuel is still leaking from its tank. Over 1,500 men sank with the ship that day and the Memorial serves as their collective gravestone. There is a large marble wall with all the names of the men who died printed on it. It was actually pretty moving; most everyone was silent. We took the ferry back to the visitor’s center and after a very frustrating string of phone calls trying to fix a class registration problem, (it really wasn’t that bad, I had just not had enough sleep to deal with it that day), we headed back to the beach. We didn’t even make it to the sand! We just spread out on the grass under some palm trees and took a nap. Exhaustion had definitely set in. Luckily we woke up in time to make it back to the ship before our dock time. Vacation was over. Time for finals.

Friday, May 1, 2009


Going to Japan is like stepping into the future. They have the coolest technology and funky gadgets everywhere! For example, in many of the restaurants you go into, you order through a machine. No joke! The menu is a touch screen, you choose your food, feed your money into the machine, it spits out your change, and suddenly a server is coming with your order! And at some sushi places there is a conveyor belt that runs past your table carrying plates of sushi. You pick out the sushi you want and when it is time to pay the bill, the server counts up the color coded empty plates to calculate it. Also, one of the sushi places I went to had tea cups, a little pot of powdered maccha (green tea), and a hot water tap all right at your table so that you could make your own tea! They have maccha everything… tea, ice cream, cake, candies, lattes… everything. My favorite gadgets by far, however, were the vending machines. I know we have vending machines in the United States, but Japan has probably ten times as many vending machines as the States and they are everywhere. That’s not the cool part though. Not only do these vending machines have cold sodas, teas, and water, they have coffee. Cold coffee, yes, but also hot coffee! It comes in a can and it’s hot, cheap, and actually pretty good too. It was not good, however, for my caffeine addiction…

When I first got off the ship in Kobe, Japan I met up with my family for the home stay I had signed up for. My “family” ended up being one 20-year-old girl named Yayoi. She has a family of course but her parents were working and her brother is studying abroad in Spain. I didn’t mind that they couldn’t be around though. Yayoi and I had so much fun and it was nice to be shown around by someone my own age. We did tag along with a couple of other Semester at Sea students and their families for the first day though. All of the host families were part of this organization called Hippo. The organization focuses on teaching different languages and cultures and coordinating home stays and exchange programs. I went with Yayoi, June and her husband (an older couple), Monica (an energetic woman who was so much fun to be around!), and three other Semester at Sea girls. Together we were three families, but we all travelled together to Kyoto, got lunch at a food court in a mall there, and ended up at Monica’s house for tea. At tea, Monica’s neighbor and her son came over. Her son was about seven, very shy, and adorable! He was so good at origami and taught us some. After tea we went to Nijo Castle to see the cherry blossoms. The castle was alright, but the cherry blossoms stole the show. The cherry blossoms, or sakura, bloom for only about two weeks out of the year and we came during the peak three days! After the castle we went out for sushi and Yayoi’s mother met us for dinner. She was so sweet, I wish we could have spent more time with her. That night we stayed at June’s house. She reminded me of my own grandmother because she was into all kinds of arts and crafts. Her house even smelled like my grandmother’s.

The next morning June made us all breakfast. Breakfast in Japan is so different! We had a noodle soup, salmon, rice, and baby sardines. And, of course, green tea. Then Yayoi and I went off on our own. We took the bus to the Golden Temple and after wandering around the Temple grounds for a while we got ice cream. I got maccha ice cream, of course. Then we took the bus to a shopping district and found some coffee. Yayoi speaks a little bit of English, Spanish, Korean, French, and a few more but I can’t remember them all. She said she only spoke a little of each one, but her English was very good and she was almost fluent in Spanish. She has studied abroad in Spain and has been to Mexico and India, and probably a few more places though we didn’t talk about them. She had pictures of all of the people who have come to stay with her family from all over the world since she was a baby. She goes to school in Osaka and is studying languages with an emphasis on Spanish. Soon it was time for me to catch the train back to Kobe so we met up with the other families again to say goodbye. I took the train back to Kobe and walked around Sonomia—a district of Kobe—with a couple of friends, got some food, and started to walk back to the ship. It was a longer walk than we thought and we got a little lost on the way and had to run to make it back to the ship on time! But we made it and the ship left Kobe for Yokohama.

On the first morning in Yokohama a few friends and I took a combination of trains to Tokyo. One of my good friends is from Japan, so she helped us find our way around the train system. I don’t know what we would have done without her! Once we made it to Tokyo we walked around before getting some lunch. Tokyo is huge and even more modernized than Hong Kong. The streets are clean and busy with crowds of people, many in business suits. That first district we stepped out into had designer stores on every corner—much more expensive than any of us could afford—so later we found Takeshita Street, a mess of younger, more casually dressed people and t-shirt shops. We found a huge, multi-floor 100 Yen store (the equivalent of a dollar store) and stocked up on snacks. Japanese snacks are so good. My favorites were these little chocolate cookies soaked in even more chocolate… I don’t know how they make them, but they are delicious. I also loved looking at and reading all of their t-shirts. My friend from Japan told me that it’s considered cool to have English words printed on clothing in Japan, but it’s all random! The shirts make no sense. I almost bought a sweatshirt that read, “How often do trains?” Almost. I was walking around a convenient store when a guy came up and asked me—in English—where I was from. I told him the United States and he asked what I was doing in Japan. I got ready to explain the whole concept of Semester at Sea—it usually takes a while—but I had hardly started when he interrupted and said, “oh yeah, that school ship that goes around the world?” Turns out he had run into some Semester at Sea students while we were in Thailand too! I asked what he had been doing in Thailand and Japan, because he obviously wasn’t Japanese. He said he was originally from Italy and had been saving up for a few years to just travel. He had no particular plans for while he was in Japan. I don’t think he even knew where he was going to spend the night! I’ve talked to a few tourists and travelers (there’s a difference) in each of the countries and I have heard some amazing stories. Compared to most of these people, I have hardly been anywhere or done anything. We talked to him for a while before going to the “Times Square” of Japan for coffee and people watching. Then we caught the train back to Yokohama and the ship.

I spent my final day in Japan in Yokohama. I wasn’t too crazy about Yokohama, mostly because there just wasn’t much to do. We went to a big high-end mall and got some (expensive!) sushi for lunch. We were studying the sign to find more food when I heard a piano playing. About six floors down in the lobby there was a pianist. While the other three girls I was with went to McDonald’s and Coldstone I went down to listen to her play for probably an hour or so. She played Claire de Lune and a Chopin piece I remember learning. Then she played Sakura, a song I’ve known forever but didn’t know until I got to Japan that sakura means cherry blossom. I’d had that song stuck in my head for three days, so it was cool to hear her play it while I was in Japan with the cherry blossoms blooming right outside. Soon it was time to be back at the ship and to leave Japan.

What followed was a nine day stretch across the Pacific to Hawaii. You’d think it would be a nice break after so many countries one right after the other, but I had so much schoolwork to catch up on. On top of that, the ocean was a little bit rocky so I had almost constant headaches. You can imagine how ready for a break I was by the time we finally reached Hawaii.


Monday, April 27, 2009


I’m sorry to say I don’t have much to say about coffee in China. The more industrialized and modernized the countries I visited became, the less “local” coffee I could find. I did have a latte in the Forbidden City though. I wish that I had learned more about China before I went there. It’s such an old country with so much history, but it is still a major player in the world today. I think it is important to understand its history because events that happened in China have influenced so many world events in recent history like the Vietnam War and other countries’ failure to assist in the conflicts surrounding Tibet and Darfur. That’s why it took me such a long time to write this post. I didn’t feel right writing about China and all of the historic sites I visited without really understanding the significance of each and why they are considered historic sites. I’ve been waiting to get some free time to do some research (it’s been hard… I’ve been busy trying to catch up on all of the homework I neglected from India to Japan, and now it is finals week! Sometimes I feel like my education is getting in the way of my education). Finally I had some time to sit down and do some reading, and while I know I still have a long way to go in understanding China and how it got to where it is today, I can at least do it a little bit of justice. I’ll try not to give you a history lecture, though. I know that’s not why you read my blog, after all.

My flight from Hong Kong to Beijing left early in the morning (I got myself a café vanilla latte to wake me up, of course). As soon as we landed in Beijing we boarded a bus and were taken to the Beijing National Stadium (or the Bird’s Nest, as you probably know it) and the Beijing National Aquatics Center (the Water Cube) where the 2008 Summer Olympic Games were held. We didn’t get to go inside either one—our time was limited—but we got to walk around the Stadium for a while. The grounds surrounding the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube are huge! I know they need to be to accommodate so many people, but you really have no idea until you get there. The place was swarming with tourists, foreign and Chinese alike but mostly Chinese. The Chinese tourists kept taking pictures of us—three even came up to me and asked if they could take a picture with me! This was a common occurrence the whole time I was in China. It was actually kind of cool—in every country leading up to China I have been so fascinated with the people and here they were just as fascinated with me! After leaving the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube we were taken to the Peking University campus where we would be staying for the next three nights. Peking University is described as China’s Harvard. They have their own hotel on campus for visitors like us. After checking in we had some free time before dinner. My roommate and I wandered around the campus to find an ATM and a convenient store. It was really strange being back on a college campus, watching students walk by or ride by on bikes, backpacks on their backs and books in their hands. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was like almost any other college campus I have been on—big homogenous dorm buildings, academic halls made of brick, fenced in tennis courts, a campus store, dining halls… it was even cold in Beijing, so the trees were bare and everyone was in sweatshirts and jackets, much like it would be back in Nebraska, minus the snow. After getting some Yuan (and some Pringles) it was time for dinner. We were taken to a restaurant on Peking University’s campus. In every restaurant I ate at in China they served about eight people at a round table. Each person is provided with a small plate, a bowl, a small cup, and chopsticks. On the table is this giant glass lazy Susan, if you know what that is. It’s basically a rotating surface. The servers bring dish after dish of soups, vegetables, seafood, meat, and rice and place it on the lazy Susan. You serve yourself a little bit and then turn the table so the next person can serve themselves. It’s a lot more efficient than passing food around. And of course, there is always as much tea as you can drink. I have to admit, I think I like Americanized Chinese food more than authentic Chinese food, but I also think we were brought to more upscale restaurants and weren’t served everyday food that the average Chinese person would eat. In fact, we were eating with some Peking students later and even they didn’t recognize some of what we were being served. Anyway, after dinner we were introduced to our student hosts and split off into groups to spend some time getting to know them. The student I was paired with was YaJing. YaJing is a freshman studying history and has lived in Beijing her whole life. We walked around the campus for a while and wandered around some stores before YaJing went back to her dorm to study and I went back to the hotel to sleep.

The next day was the visit to the Great Wall! We had a few stops beforehand though, of course. That morning we got up and had breakfast at a campus dining hall. Chinese breakfast is nothing like American breakfast—they eat dumplings filled with meat, egg drop soup, rice, pickled vegetables, these greasy fried flat breads… it was good, but so different. We visited a cloisonné factory—a Chinese art where they take copper posts, use copper wire to make designs on the outside, and then fill in the designs with colored fired clay—before reaching the Ming Tombs. The Ming Tombs are the burial sites for 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty, dating back to the 15th century. Only one of the tombs—the Ding Ling tomb—has been excavated, but no others have been excavated since. Excavation of the tomb was started in 1956. Inside was found thousands of articles of silk, wood, textiles, and porcelain, and the entombed bodies of the Wanli Emperor and his two empresses. Unfortunately, because of the lack of proper technology and the political pressure to finish the excavation quickly, the articles were not documented and stored properly. Most were thrown into storage and were ruined by wind and water leakage. Then the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. The Cultural Revolution was a movement started by Mao Zedong, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Republic of China. Basically Mao had young students called Red Guards purge China of any western influence, from western books to western trained doctors and scholars from the years of 1966 to about 1976. One of the major leaders of the excavation was targeted by the Red Guards and thrown in jail, halting all further excavation. Then, the Red Guards invaded the Ding Ling museum and stole the bodies of the emperor and empresses and burned them along with other artifacts. What remains today is an empty tomb. Any artifacts inside are replicas of the originals. It was less than impressive while I was there, but now that I know the history behind it, it means so much more.

Finally it was time to go to the Great Wall! After visiting so many countries and encountering so many cultures, I had kind of started to lose that giddy feeling in my gut I get when I travel. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely still get excited for each new port, but by the time we reached China such a state of exhaustion had set in that it was hard to muster up so much anticipation for each new place. But not for the Great Wall. The portion of the Great Wall we visited was about two hours outside of Beijing. I kept staring out the window the whole time, hoping to catch a glimpse of it. The landscape started getting more mountainous and the road was starting to wind more and more until suddenly we rounded a corner and there it was! The Great Wall is one of those places where I always wanted to go, but never actually thought I would. It always seemed far too exotic and mythical to actually be a reality, but there it was. We were given two hours at the Great Wall to climb and explore. You know all those nice pictures of the Wall with its long, flat stretches? Those were nowhere in sight. It was all stairs. Uneven, steep stairs. And it was cold. But I didn’t even care! My adrenaline was enough to keep me going, and after a while I was so hot from climbing I had to take my jacket off. There were some beautiful views of the mountains, faint grey lines skimming the tops where the Wall continued off into the distance, but visiting the Great Wall was less about the views and the climbing than it was about actually being there. After the drive back to Beijing we ate dinner and met back up with our student hosts. They had a party planned for us where we played various games like the limbo and the human knot. After the party a bunch of us went out to karaoke with Robert, one of the students, and a few of his friends for a few hours before heading back to the hotel.

The third day was spent in downtown Beijing near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. When we first reached Tiananmen Square we were given a couple hours of free time to explore. That was another surreal experience for me. I had seen many pictures of Tiananmen Square with the large portrait of Mao looking down on everything below, so it was so strange to be seeing it in reality. I also knew vaguely about the history surrounding the Square and the massacre that had happened there, and had I known exactly what had happened, I think I would have been even more struck. The massacre at Tiananmen Square happened when I was born, in 1989. Tens of thousands of college students staged a prodemocracy demonstration in the Square. It lasted for weeks until the Chinese Communist Party, afraid of loss of control, injured thousands and killed hundreds of the students. Hundreds more were systematically hunted down and brought to trial for sedition and spreading counterrevolution propaganda. The most shocking thing about all of this is that most Chinese people either don’t know what happened that day or deny that it happened. I didn’t know to ask about it at the time, but a few of my friends on different tours asked their guides about the massacre and all of the guides basically said that it was all rumors or that they had never heard of it before. Nothing about the protest or the massacre was mentioned on my tour. Interesting fact: Mao’s body is preserved and is on display in a building on Tiananmen Square. I didn’t get to see it—again, long lines and time constraints—but it’s there. Instead I walked a few blocks away from Tiananmen Square to see the new National Centre for the Performing Arts. It is an opera house opened in 2007 more commonly called “The Egg” because of its shape. It is dome-shaped and surrounded by pools of water, so when viewed with its reflection, it looks like a giant metallic egg. Once again, I couldn’t go inside, this time because a concert was being performed. But it was still cool. After seeing The Egg I met back up with the group and went inside the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is named as such because it was where the emperors lived and commoners were never allowed inside. It is a beautiful series of temples and living quarters, all ornately decorated and painted in red or gilded in gold. There were giant white marble staircases leading up to each building, each one carved into dragons and clouds. I also liked the gardens toward the back of the Forbidden City. There were beautiful pagodas, crazy coral-like rock formations, and flowering trees. After leaving the Forbidden City out the back gate we went across the street to Jingshan Park, a tall hill that offers a beautiful view of the Forbidden City and the rest of downtown Beijing. After eating dinner we went to the Chaoyang Theatre to see an acrobatic show. It was amazing! Things I thought were impossible were being done onstage right in front of me. There were balancing acts, contortionists holding themselves up in the air by their teeth, up to 20 people on one bicycle, two men jumping rope in giant rotating hamster wheels… so crazy. After the show we headed back to the Peking campus to sleep.

Our last day in Beijing was pretty jam packed. We had our last breakfast and checked out of the hotel before boarding the bus to go to the Summer Palace. While the Forbidden City was where the emperor lived and conducted official business, the Summer Palace was like his vacation home (kind of like Martha’s Vineyard to the White House… kind of). It was so beautiful! There is a giant man-made pond with islands in the middle. The pond is circled by the famed “Long Corridor,” a long covered walkway covered in paintings and murals. There are various temples and lots of trees. It’s all very tranquil. Or at least it would be without all of the tourists. After the Summer Palace we had lunch and finally got to eat the famous Beijing roast duck! We ate it wrapped in a very thin rice pancake with cucumber and onion and a sort of thick, sweet soy sauce. Beijing roast duck is one dish of Chinese food that I did like. After lunch we went to the Temple of Heaven, a Taoist temple from the 15th century constructed by the same emperor who built the Forbidden City and the Ming Tombs. To be completely honest, I was really tired and a little templed out by this point so a few friends and I spent most of our time taking pictures near a cherry blossom tree. Four Chinese people about our age started taking pictures there too, and soon we were all taking pictures together. We even sat in the tree until a security guard came and asked us to get down. Oops! He was really nice about it though and let us finish taking our picture first. After some shopping and one last meal we headed to the airport to fly to Shanghai. The plane had a personal television and movie selection for everyone and a complimentary meal… I actually wish the flight had been longer! We reached Shanghai about midnight.

My one day in Shanghai was split between shopping and eating for the most part. Shanghai is sort of a cross between Hong Kong and Beijing. It is more modernized than Beijing, but not as much as Hong Kong. At the indoor market where we were shopping they have these kind of personal shoppers that follow you around. They’re really there just to take you to their shop, but on the way they help you bargain and find what you’re looking for. At first I found our girl a little annoying—they don’t leave your side, no matter how many times you insist you don’t need help!—but after a while it was nice to have her there. She spoke pretty good English that she learned entirely from working with tourists and helped translate and bargain. She is just 19 and when we asked if she was in school she said no, absolutely not, she is done with school and is just working at this market now. I wonder if that was her choice or if she just couldn’t afford anything else. As far as eating goes… I have to admit, I got a cheeseburger. At McDonald’s. And it tasted exactly like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. I don’t even like McDonald’s in the States, but it was wonderful. Then it was back to the ship and on to Japan.

I don’t think I entirely achieved my goal of not giving you a history lesson, but I think it is impossible to talk about China without mentioning its history, past and present. And I did cut back a lot on what was originally in the post. Anyway, congratulations on making it to the end of this post if you did! I know it was a long one. I’ll try to make Japan’s shorter.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Hong Kong

You all would be so disappointed in me. I had Starbucks in Hong Kong. I know, I know! But really, Hong Kong is such a modern city that every other store was an American or a global brand. I really hadn’t given much thought to Hong Kong before we arrived. I was only going to be spending a day there before flying to Beijing and I didn’t know what I was going to see or do. Hong Kong is so clean and modern, it feels like the United States. In the port area where we were there was a giant shopping mall, even nicer than the V and A Waterfront in Cape Town, full of designer stores and plenty of Starbucks. That was the first thing I saw when I walked off the ship—we had to walk through the mall just to get to the pier! Once outside, the Hong Kong Island skyline is all you see. Giant skyscrapers with logos for Samsung, AIG, and LG flashing at their peaks line the shore, mountains rising up behind them. It’s not like Cape Town, though, where there are a few skyscrapers and low-lying buildings running up to the foot of the mountain. In Hong Kong, all there is is skyscrapers! They cover the ground up to the mountains, and a few even climb up the mountain, towering over the thick foliage below. It’s unlike any city I have ever seen before.

When we got off the ship a few of my friends and I found the subway and took it to Sham Shui Po, a local market. While the area near the port looks like the United States, Sham Shui Po is a whole different world. It is a maze of streets between tall buildings, lines of shops on either side, and two more lines of shops set up on the street! Any space not taken up by a shop was full of people. I’ve never seen so many people in such a small space before. Each street sold something different too. There was a street dedicated to video games, a street for computers, cell phones, toys, food, bags and clothing… It was very neatly organized chaos. We shopped for a while and put our well-practiced bargaining skills to good use before eating at a restaurant called Eat Together, a small, crowded place down one of the streets that I would probably never step foot into in the United States. But it turned out to be so good! One long table runs down the center of the restaurant and everyone, strangers and friends alike, do just as the name says—eat together. We were the only tourists there as far as I could see. After eating some delicious rice, ham, and eggs (weird combination, I know, but you should try it) we left the Sham Shui Po market for Hong Kong Island. We took the subway back to the port, the ferry to the island, and then a taxi to a place called Stanley Market. It was closing, but by the time we got there, I didn’t even care. The drive there was worth the taxi money alone! The roads wind precariously around the mountain and below we could see beaches next to huge resorts. There is so much natural beauty—tons of trees and really green—but modern buildings and apartment complexes still perch intermittently on the sides of the mountain. If you ever go to Hong Kong, I highly recommend taking a trip over to the south side of Hong Kong Island. I wish I had had more time there. We stayed at Stanley Market for a while before catching the double-decker bus back to the ferry. I had always wanted to ride a double-decker! We sat on the top, of course. Once back at the pier we were so hungry and craving pizza—so we gave in and ate at the California Pizza Kitchen in the mall. Between the four of us we took out three whole pizzas and an appetizer! Clearly we had been craving some familiar food. Asian food is amazing, but when you haven’t had pizza in two months, it’s hard to resist. That night I packed for my flight to Beijing—and the Great Wall!—the next day.



On my last day in Vietnam I went to a coffee shop called Gloria Jean’s. I felt like I was at home—the shop was small and crowded with tables surrounded by comfy mismatched chairs, there was “coffee shop” music playing over the quiet din of conversation, people were reading the newspaper over a coffee and a scone before work—except when I looked through the windowed front of the shop, there was Vietnam. Across the street was the seamstress where I had my dress made, down the block was the Rex Hotel (a popular hangout for military officials and war correspondents during the Vietnam War, and home of the MACV daily press conference The Five O’Clock Funnies), and a five minute bus ride would take me back to the port and the Explorer. Still, it was nice to sit there by myself for a few hours and read and write like I normally would back home. After my time in Vietnam, I needed some time to sit back and relax. I had done a lot and learned a lot and needed to decide what to do with it all.

Saigon (technically Ho Chi Minh City now, but most people there still call it Saigon) is exactly like what you see in the movies, but at the same time so different from what I was expecting. Everything is green and thick with foliage, but the city is still modern, new, and clean. Well, parts of it. There are more motor bikes than I thought was possible and the weather is even hotter than I imagined. The low on any one day was 78 degrees! And the humidity is amazing. It’s like breathing water. I say Vietnam is different from what I was expecting, but I really didn’t know what to expect. Vietnam, despite the importance it has with regards to American history, is a country that I knew next to nothing about and even with the brief history we were presented with on the ship, I don’t feel like I was prepared enough for it all. Of course, I am mainly talking about the Vietnam War. Since I didn’t know anything about the Vietnam War, I won’t expect all of you to know, so here’s a very simplified explanation. The Vietnam War was fought between communist North Vietnam and the government of South Vietnam from 1955-1975. The United States supported South Vietnam and got involved in order to stop the spread of communism. There was a lot of controversy over whether the United States should have been in Vietnam at all and over certain war tactics or weapons that were used, such as Agent Orange. South Vietnam lost the war and a communist government was established.

On my first day in Vietnam I had the opportunity to meet with a former UPI (United Press International) photographer. His name is Hoang Van Cuong and he is Vietnamese but took pictures for the United States during the Vietnam War. We met him at his house. When we got there he showed us the memorial he built for the over 200 journalists that were killed in the war. We got to sit down and ask him questions for a while and I think he had some interesting things to say. One question asked was why he chose to be a war photographer. He answered that none of us should ever be a photographer! It is too crazy of a job. He only did it so the rest of the world could see the suffering that was happening in his country. Someone else asked if he ever felt bad for just taking pictures instead of helping. I really liked what he said; “Sometimes history happens in a second, and I had to capture it to let the world know what really happened.” Finally, someone asked how he could ever forgive Americans for what we did to his country. He said that Americans are lovely people. They were just doing their duty, their job. American policy was bad, but not Americans. I wish I had known more about the war then. I would ask him so many more questions now, like what he thinks we should learn from the war. Next we went to the War Remnants Museum, formally called the Museum of American War Crimes. The museum is full of pictures and artifacts describing the atrocities that were committed during the Vietnam War. One photo I saw was an American soldier holding up the charred, shredded remains of a Vietnamese soldier—and smiling. There were also many photos of the deformities caused by Agent Orange, a chemical used by the United States to eliminate the foliage that hid Vietnamese soldiers from sight. Agent Orange, however, also caused horrible deformities in people and the effects are still being seen in babies born today. There were even fetuses on display, preserved in a case, showing babies with multiple heads. I understand that the museum is controlled by a communist government and is probably one-sided—the North did some terrible things to the South and Americans too—but just because the information offered isn’t complete, that doesn’t make it untrue. It was hard to see what my country had done to innocent people, but it was harder to walk into that museum completely ignorant of it all until that point. I couldn’t believe that I had never learned about this in school, and after talking to a lot of other students I found out that no one had learned about it. In fact, later in the day I asked my tour guide how Vietnamese people my age feel about the war today, and he said that most of them don’t even know about it! That shocked me. The war only ended 34 years ago. Their parents and grandparents would have lived through it, and the effects of the war—namely Agent Orange—are still being seen today. I think it is great that Vietnam can forgive the United States so quickly, but not if they are forgiving by forgetting. I don’t understand how we are expected to learn from history if we just gloss over the messy parts. It is the messy parts that we need to learn from. Later that night a few of my friends and I met up with a group of Vietnamese students through a tour group called Saigon Hot Pot. This group is led completely by student volunteers who want to show tourists their country. We were taken to one of the students’ home and taught how to cook Vietnamese food. Our tour turned out to be a little bit special—the whole time we were being filmed and interviewed, and will be on Vietnamese television! It is just a plug for Saigon Hot Pot, but it’s still cool. After eating dinner—and mastering chopsticks!—we went to a café for coffee before heading back to the ship and crashing. It had been a long, exhausting day.

The next day I spent walking around Saigon, shopping, eating, drinking coffee, people watching, and motor bike dodging. I bought a Vietnamese coffee filter and some coffee. Vietnam has amazing coffee, unlike anything I’ve had before! It almost tastes like liquid dark chocolate—very dark and bitter, but thick and flavorful. That evening a few friends and I went to the Drink and Talk café. This place works with the Saigon Hot Pot tours to provide a place for Vietnamese students to practice speaking English with English speaking tourists. When we got there, we sat down with a man from Romania, a Filipino man, and four or five Vietnamese students and just talked! We stayed for a couple hours. The owner brought us a complimentary fruit plate and came in to personally welcome us, as well as see us off when we had to leave. After Drink and Talk we went out for karaoke with some of the students we met the night before.

On my third day in Vietnam I went on a Semester at Sea tour to a Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels. There are many Cao Dai temples but the one we visited is the main one in Tay Ninh. It’s like the Vatican of the Cao Dai faith. Cao Dai is a religion that developed in the 20th century as a result of so much conflict between religions. In order to minimize conflict, Cao Dai accepts and combines many religions and belief systems like Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, etc. We were allowed to go inside the temple during one of the four daily masses and watch from a balcony above. The service consisted mostly of atonal music and chanting and bells with all of the people neatly arranged in rows and columns on the floor, bowing similarly to how Muslims bow and pray facing Mecca five times a day. Then we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels were used during the war by the Vietcong (the communist forces based in the South). There are miles upon miles of these tunnels and the people just lived underground for years! The tunnels are tiny, too. We got to go through one and I, at 5’4”, barely fit through the tunnels that were enlarged by 40 percent for tourists! It was an incredibly sophisticated system, so much so that the American soldiers never could beat them. The Americans tried flooding the tunnels, pouring gasoline in them to light them on fire, gassing them with tear gas, sending special forces of men under 100lbs down called Tunnel Rats—but nothing worked. The Cu Chis also used a variety of what were originally tiger traps to catch unsuspecting enemies. These traps would be pits in the ground hidden by brush and leaves. When the victim stepped on top of the trap, he would fall to his death, impaled by bamboo spikes. It was sobering to go to the War Remnants Museum one day, and then to the battlefield the next.

The fourth day I went to the Mekong Delta. The delta was so much bigger than I expected! The water is brown, but from silt, not pollution. The land surrounding is thick with heavy greenery and fruit and coconut trees. The sky that day was blue with big, white, marshmallow clouds… it was beautiful! We took a boat to an island in the delta and, after a trek through the jungle, were given fruit and tea. Then we boarded small four person rowboats, the kind that the Vietnamese used to use to navigate the small canals dug in the islands. We had two Vietnamese women rowing, pulling us through the mud when the water was too low, and dodging the tons of other boats on the canal. Later we were given lunch. It was about 2PM and I hadn’t had breakfast, and I was starving! They start bringing out the food—and it was a giant, whole, fried fish! Head, tail, scales, and all. But then a server came and showed us how to wrap some of the fish with some greens and noodles into rice paper and dip it in a sweet sauce. It was so good! Another four or five courses followed and I was so full! That night I just relaxed on the ship, though I did go out to dinner—and got french fries! They were so good, I don’t even feel bad.

The last day was the day I went to Gloria Jean’s and just wandered around the city by myself for a while. That night we had a barbeque on the ship with burgers and hot dogs (they treat us every once in a while!) and left Vietnam for Hong Kong.


Saturday, March 28, 2009


I don’t know when I made the decision to start every one of my blog posts by talking about coffee, and I don’t have much to say about coffee in Thailand, but in keeping with tradition I will say one thing. Thailand is the first country since Spain to have a Starbucks. In fact, Thailand doesn’t have just one, but many. I made a vow to myself before I left on Semester at Sea that I was only going to get coffee at local places, and while I did experience some major cravings, I managed to stay away from the tall white chocolate mocha that was calling my name. So hard though! I’m getting to the point in the voyage where I wouldn’t say that I am homesick, but I am starting to really miss some simple comforts of home like the ability to curl up on a couch and watch a movie, to drive a car, to order a pizza, or to drink a tall white chocolate mocha at a Starbucks with a friend.

All that being said, Thailand felt much more like home than India. It was much cleaner, traffic laws were actually acknowledged (for the most part), and chain stores and shopping malls were common, as opposed to the little street-side stands that make up nearly all of India’s shops. Our ship was docked at the Laem Chabang port, a port city that is just that—a port city. There is nothing there except for a shopping mall, and even that is a 10 minute cab ride away. Nothing is within walking distance. Pattaya, a town that is just a 30 minute cab ride from Laem Chabang, is where I spent the majority of my time. I spent my first day in Thailand there at the Sriracha Tiger Zoo. That was a bittersweet experience. While I was there I got to feed a baby tiger while holding him in my lap and was picked up by an elephant with his trunk! But we also watched a tiger show, a crocodile show, and an elephant show. The tricks these animals performed were amazing—did you know elephants can walk on tight ropes and hula hoop? I didn’t—but I couldn’t enjoy them because it felt wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I saw no evidence that any of the animals were being mistreated, but you could tell the tigers didn’t want to dance across the stage on their hind legs. They were only doing it because of the whips that were in the trainers’ hands (I never saw them used) or the raw meat being dangled in front of them. The elephant show was more enjoyable because the elephants just looked like they were having fun. I spent a lot of time around elephants while in Thailand and am convinced that they actually like doing the tricks and playing the games. After the Tiger Zoo I visited Mini Siam, a park full of miniature replicas of major monuments throughout Thailand and around the world. It sounds lame, but it’s actually pretty cool! It was fun to see the miniatures of monuments I have seen before like the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph, Big Ben, and the London Bridge. They had a replica of the Statue of Liberty, so now I’ve seen her in France and Thailand, but still not in the United States! Probably the best part was when I saw Mount Rushmore. People may have no idea where South Dakota even is, but we’re still leaving our mark around the world! That evening I got dinner with a few friends at an authentic Thai restaurant and ordered a soup. The menu said it was spicy and I like spicy, but I’ve never had anything like this before! My eyes watered, my sinuses completely cleared, and my whole mouth and lips were tingling. It was actually really good though, and I had been battling a cold so it was nice to be able to breathe for a while! After dinner we wandered around Pattaya and saw the Hard Rock Hotel and a strip of shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs called Walking Street. Thailand, or more specifically Bangkok, is known for its nightlife so I can’t write a blog post about Thailand without mentioning it. It was actually more sad than fun for me, walking down Walking Street and seeing all of the prostitution, strip clubs, and children trying to sell roses and other trinkets. It’s not pretty, but if you ever go to Thailand, it has become such a part of the culture that I think it is important to see.

The next day I took a day trip to Bangkok to visit the major monuments there. After a two hour bus ride there we were ushered onto a boat for a river cruise. I was expecting Bangkok to look similar to Venice because I had heard that it was a canal city, but it doesn’t at all. It looks like most big cities with a few rivers running through it. The primary mode of transportation is still by vehicle on a road, as opposed to Venice where there are literally no cars. It is all canals and boats. Anyway, we sailed down the Mae Nam Chao Phraya canal (the River of Kings) and saw the Grand Palace and Wat Arun, both monuments we would tour later, from the water. Our first stop was the Wat Arun temple. Wat Arun translates into the “Temple of Dawn” and is a steep tower representing Mt. Meru, the center of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. It is incredibly ornate and covered in mosaics made from actual broken china fragments from China. After an amazing lunch at a riverside restaurant we visited Wat Pho and the famous reclining Buddha. I couldn’t hear my guide because there were too many people in the group, so when I walked into the shelter that houses the Buddha I was completely unprepared for what I was about to see. This Buddha is 46 meters long and completely gilded in gold leaf! I can tell you it is huge, but I don’t think you will understand how impressive it is unless you go see it. Our final stop was the Grand Palace, the capital of Thailand in 1782 consisting of the royal residence and various throne halls and government offices. I won’t bore you with a bunch of historical information, but you should look up photos of the Grand Palace. I can’t describe it. There is too much gold, it’s too ornate… I won’t do it justice. If you are really interested, you should look up the story of the Emerald Buddha. It’s pretty cool.

The third day I spent back in Pattaya. I visited the Pattaya Orphanage and School for the Deaf. There really isn’t much to say about what we did there—we were given a short orientation and a tour of the facility before being shown the baby room and getting to play with the babies—but this may have been the highlight of my time in Thailand. There are over 170 children at the orphanage ranging from babies to university students. The orphanage is not government run or funded, so it relies on a small staff and many volunteers to keep it running. I think I might return as a volunteer there someday.

I spent the fourth day at the Pattaya Elephant Village. The elephant is the national animal, so it makes sense that I saw so many during my stay in Thailand. At the elephant village we learned about elephant masters, the work that elephants used to do, the differences between Asian and African elephants… probably more than you thought there was to know about elephants. Then we got to ride them! First bare-backed, then on a seat. There was another elephant show but this was less about tricks as it was about showing the intelligence of elephants. After the elephant village I stayed in Pattaya for shopping and dinner before going back to the ship.

My final day in Thailand was spent at the Nong Nooch Cultural Village. We saw a beautiful garden of orchids, a show of traditional dances and costumes of Thailand including a boxing match and a battle scene showing how elephants used to be used in battle, and then yet another elephant show. I know, this is getting a little ridiculous. By this point I wasn’t really paying attention. I had seen all the tricks. Instead, a little girl who was selling bananas to feed to the elephants sat down next to me and, once I told her I had no money to buy bananas, introduced herself as Zin Maroo. She was 12. I wanted to ask why she was working so young and how she felt about it, but she didn’t understand much English and I didn’t know if it would be appropriate to do so. Anyway, she just sat and chatted with me for about ten minutes before going back to work. She is one of the few Thai people I sat down and had a conversation with, and I regret not talking to more people. Visiting monuments, riding elephants, and feeding tigers is fine, but the people I meet will be what I remember years from now about Thailand, India, South Africa… wherever I go.

From this point until I leave Japan I will be almost constantly in port. We have five to six days in each country with only two days at sea between them. It’s going by so fast! I’ve already been to Vietnam. If every country is as physically draining as Thailand (I got so tired there!) or emotionally draining as Vietnam, all I’ll be able to do between Japan and Hawaii is sleep!