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!


Saturday, March 14, 2009


On my first day in India I was walking through an outdoor vegetable market. The streets were narrow and full of people, cars, rickshaws (three-wheeled oversized moped type vehicles used as taxis), motorcycles, and even the occasional cow or human-drawn cart. It was dirty—dust and cow dung everywhere, flies covering the fruits on display, piles of rubble, deteriorating concrete buildings without windows or doors, fraying posters covering any flat surface—but I couldn’t help but think it was beautiful! There were fruits and vegetables of every color—green, yellow, purple—laid out on tarps or cloths or spilling out of carts. The women wore brightly colored saris covered in intricate designs and accented by gold jewelry. Even the rickshaws and trucks were all bright yellow with unique designs and phrases painted on each one, like “save rain water,” “drive slow,” and “avoid AIDs.” The market was loud, full of honking horns, the constant din of conversation, motorcycles roaring by, and the occasional snippet of music fighting its way through the noise of the street. Through all of this chaos I suddenly smelled coffee. I looked around and, sure enough, about a block away, there was a tiny hole-in-the-wall (quite literally) shop with a couple of men holding the famed Madras filter coffee standing outside. I walked over and asked for a coffee and paid just 5 rupees—10 cents—for a cup. Madras filter coffee is just coffee and steamed milk with lots of sugar and some foam on top, just like a latte, but somehow buying it from a tiny shop in an Indian market makes it taste better. The man I bought the coffee from didn’t speak any English and seemed a little shocked to see me there—I don’t think many tourists come by his shop—but his coffee was the best I had in India. And believe me, that is a tough call to make. When I was asking around to find out what coffee I should get in India, everyone told me to just get tea. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to them! Of course I did get tea too, but India has some wonderful coffee. Another great coffee I had was at a coffee shop called Mocha. Their menu listed coffees from all around the world accompanied by a description of each roast. There were two Indian coffees available, and I ordered the Monsoon Malabar. It gets its name because long ago the coffee beans would be exposed to trade winds during transport to Europe, giving the coffee a distinctive flavor. Today the coffee beans are laid out during monsoon season to be exposed to trade winds in a process called “monsooning.” But enough about coffee.

I spent most of my first day in India at the Mylapore Food Market, but not until after my three hour long rickshaw ride. The rickshaws in India do not work exactly like a taxi should. Most of the drivers have deals with all the shopkeepers that allow them to receive a commission if they bring customers to their shops, so instead of taking you right to your destination, rickshaw drivers will stop at a number of these shops first. After a couple of friends and I negotiated for a ride to Spencer’s, a local mall, our rickshaw driver informed us that Spencer’s would not open for another two hours—which we later found out was not true—and that he would be happy to show us around Chennai for a while for no extra charge until the mall opened. Of course, we agreed and were taken from one overpriced shop to another for the next three hours. We never did get to Spencer’s and were charged extra at the end. It was frustrating, but I soon learned how to avoid that situation. So, a word of advice; if you ever find yourself in India catching a ride on a rickshaw, do not let the driver tell you your destination is closed and be sure to specify that you want to be taken straight to your destination with no stops. Once they know you won’t play their game, they usually won’t try to pull any tricks. Anyway, that night a few friends and I went out to dinner and, after noticing the theater across the street, decided to see a movie as well. One tour guide I had told me that 500 movies are made per year in Chennai alone! The film industry is huge. The movie we saw was all in Tamil (the local language along with Hindi and English) and was a very strange combination of action and comedy. It was really cool to see how easy it was to follow the storyline despite the language barrier, though.

The next day I took a Semester at Sea tour to the towns of Kancheepuram and Mamallapuram to visit various Hindu temples. Most of the temples in the state of Tamil Nadu—the state of India that Chennai is located in—are dedicated to the god Shiva, the god of destruction. Every temple I visited was a Shiva temple. The temples are beautiful and consist, roughly, of an outer wall surrounding a courtyard with a smaller enclosed temple in the middle of the courtyard. Every single surface was intricately carved into scenes depicting stories from Shiva’s life. There were also many statues of cows or bulls because each Hindu god has an animal that is called their vehicle of transportation, or their vahana. Shiva’s vahana is Nandi, the bull. In Mamallapuram we were near the coast visiting a temple but I don’t remember what it was called or who it was for because a class of Indian schoolchildren was on a field trip there. As we walked up to the site they swarmed us, shaking our hands, asking our names, asking for pictures, just crawling over one another to get in pictures, crawling on us... I loved it! They were so happy to see us and I think we were equally happy if not more happy to see them. I know I was supposed to be there to learn about Hindu temples, but I think meeting the kids was the most valuable thing I took away from that trip.

The next day was the day I discovered Mocha and got that Monsoon Malabar. I spent the rest of the day around Chennai, shopping and seeing the city.

I left Chennai again on the fourth day for another Semester at Sea organized trip to see rural India. Our trip started at a small town about two hours outside of Chennai. It was a lot less crowded and a lot cleaner than Chennai. Cows, goats, and even monkeys roam freely along the streets! We stopped at a rice paddy and it was kind of surreal for me. Looking across the fields, rural India doesn’t look much different from the South Dakota countryside. We went into an even smaller town where the people get around on bicycles or carts drawn by cows. I saw just one motorcycle while I was there. The village was so clean and bright with houses painted bright green, yellow, and orange. We were given an indoor tour of a typical home there. It consisted of one main room, a bedroom, a room for worship and prayer, and an outdoor kitchen. We watched a woman make a rangoli (designs traced with rice flour each morning in front of houses) before riding a cow-drawn cart around the town to the coconut groves. There we were given coconut milk to sip on while watching a coconut harvester climb a coconut tree—with nothing but his bare hands! We got back on our carts and waved goodbye before heading off to our next destination—the Dakshina Chitra Heritage Village. This place is dedicated to providing a picture of how cultures differ in Southern India. They have houses from each southern state and offer demonstrations of pottery making, silk weaving, henna tattoos, and even parrots reading tarot cards!

My last day was spent at the Sri Sayee Vivekananda Vidyalaya Matriculation Higher Secondary School, a school housing 694 students of all ages. When we first got there we were greeted by the school band and were given roses. Then the students had their morning assembly. It was amazing! All 700 students sang their national anthem together and recited various prayers. They also had a reading of the day’s current events including a story about Barack Obama. After the assembly we were split into pairs and sent into classrooms. I am not really that good with kids and was not prepared to entertain a whole class of third graders—but it soon became clear that that was exactly what I was supposed to do! I was a little bit terrified but ended up teaching the kids how to play hokey pokey. Then they wanted to learn a dance, so I taught them some line dances! Now a bunch of Indian schoolchildren are doing the electric slide. I was shown some games, yoga, and karate in return before being dragged off to another classroom by a mob of children. They sang their national anthem for me so I had to reciprocate, of course. I asked them to show me one of their games, and they started teaching me how to play their version of Duck Duck Goose! It was cool to see the same games I grew up on being played on the other side of the world. Before we left the students put on a show for us of traditional dances and karate. I was so amazed by their talent! The visit to this school was probably the best experience I had in India.

If you asked me, like so many people have, “how was India?” I would have absolutely no answer for you. I won’t lie to you—I found it very frustrating at times, and I am kind of ashamed of that. It felt like no one wanted to talk to me unless there was a chance they could get some money from me. The rickshaw drivers pulled every trick in the book to earn a buck and salesmen on the street would follow you for blocks, completely ignoring any polite refusals. I am ashamed because I know why these people are that way. The poverty in India is… terrible. The townships in South Africa are in better condition than the whole city of Chennai. It’s hard to write about because I don’t know how to process all I saw, I don’t know how to describe it, and I definitely don’t know what I can do that would improve it. Before we reached India our executive dean Les MaCabe said, “You don’t happen to India—India happens to you.” I believe that to be true in my case, but I guess I still am unsure exactly how India has affected me. All I know is that it has.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009


We only stopped in Mauritius for a few hours, but I still managed to get my coffee. I just got an espresso shot—I was still fighting off the exhaustion from South Africa! I got it at a café on the beach along with a marlin sandwich right before spending the rest of the afternoon soaking up the sun. Mauritius was described to me by someone in South Africa as Africa’s Hawaii, but Mauritius looks nothing like Africa or Hawaii. The majority of the population in Mauritius is Indian and after being to India, I would say Mauritius looks more like a milder version of India. In the city, the streets are narrow, crowded, and lined with shops selling all kinds of fabric, clothing, spices, and fruits and vegetables I have never seen before. When we got off the ship we had to take a water taxi to get to the shore. My first impressions of Mauritius weren’t so great—the port water was littered with plastic bottles and smelled terrible and I was bombarded by street salesmen and taxi drivers the second I got off the boat. While walking to find a bank we passed shop after shop selling cheap souvenirs of dodo birds with “Mauritius” printed across them (Mauritius is where the dodo bird lived before it became extinct and convinced the world that it is possible for a species to be wiped out). But the further into the island we got, the less touristy the shops became and I could start to see some of the culture of the island. It is a really unique blend of many different cultures. This is especially evident in the music of the island. Sega—a fusion of traditional African music and European dance music—is one popular genre while seggae—a blend of reggae and sega—is also prominent. I personally really like the seggae. It was really cool to see so many cultures living together, too. Just walking down the street you can see African faces next to Indian faces next to Asian faces… Port Louis even has its own Chinatown. After wandering the streets of Port Louis for a while we decided to take a cab to the beach to spend the afternoon. We flagged down a cab and asked to be taken to the Grande Bay. After talking to the driver for a while we learned that he wasn’t actually a cab driver. He was a merchant who travels to India and China for products and sells them at his shop in Mauritius and was just borrowing his brother’s car. When we told him we were only in Mauritius for the day he gave us a bit of a driving tour around the island and even took us to a better beach—for no extra charge. It was really nice to meet someone who wasn’t just trying to get as much money out of me as possible for once. We spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach. It was perfect—the water was clear and just as warm as the air. We had a really great cab driver on the way back to the port too. He charged us a little more, but offered to give us a free ride the rest of the way to the ship later on if we needed it. I gave in and finally bought myself a pizza before boarding the water taxi back to the MV Explorer and leaving Mauritius.

Our stop in Mauritius was really short, but it was a nice break from schoolwork—midterms!—and a great way to ease us into what was to come. India was enough of a shock even with the tiny glimpse I got in Mauritius.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

South Africa

My best cup of coffee in South Africa was similar to my experience in Namibia. I was in Mfuleni, a township outside of Cape Town, sipping a cup of instant coffee while sitting on the front stoop of a house there, talking to a man named Rasta about South African politics and economics. It was my birthday, and we were taking a break from putting up roof tiles on a house across the road. I also had coffee a couple of times at a place called Melissa’s—first a cappuccino, then a black coffee, both made from Kenyan beans—but that first one was by far the best. South Africa is a place of contrast. There are skyscrapers and 17th century fortresses, shopping malls and shanties, the kindest hospitality and the most critical crime rate of all the countries I have visited so far. It was amazing.

The first day I went on a Semester at Sea City Orientation. We first stopped at the Castle of Good Hope, a fortress built by the Dutch when they first came to South Africa. The Dutch settled in Cape Town in order to provide vegetables to passing ships, and this fortress is where they lived and grew some of their crops. I spent most of my time walking around the fortress on top of the walls surrounding it, looking out over Cape Town. Cape Town is so beautiful. It sits in the cradle of a U-shaped bay with Table Mountain—a huge, completely flat-topped mountain—flanked by Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head Peak as its backdrop. After the Castle of Good Hope we visited the botanical gardens and had rooibos tea, a staple in every South African home, and biscuits with jelly and fresh cream. Our last stop was the Iziko Museum, a natural history and rock painting museum. There was an exhibit of nature photos taken all over the world that I spent the majority of my time looking at. That night some friends and I went out to a restaurant called Rafiki’s to hear some live reggae. They had amazing calamari! We got it fried, but it was so good we ordered another batch, this time grilled. If you ever go to South Africa, go to Rafiki’s and get the calamari. Not. Kidding.

The next day was a big one for me. I went on a Semester at Sea tour called Cape Town, Apartheid, and Robben Island. This tour basically took us around Cape Town to all of the most important places having to do with the apartheid era. We started at a museum dedicated to District Six. Apartheid—basically extreme segregation—split the South African people into three groups: black, colored, and white (it is not considered politically incorrect to refer to people in South Africa as black, colored, or white). District Six was a neighborhood inhabited by mostly black and colored people. It was a poor neighborhood, but the people had a really cohesive, colorful community. They may have been poor, but they were relatively happy. Then the government decided they wanted District Six to be a white neighborhood. They forcibly removed thousands of people from their homes and relocated them to the outskirts of the city. Then the whites decided they didn't want to live in District Six, so they just demolished everything. The museum is dedicated not to rebuilding District Six, but to preserving its memory and its culture. We drove through District Six, and today it is just this massive expanse of nothingness and rubble. All of this happened in the recent past, in the 1970s. The saddest part is that every single city and town in South Africa has a “District Six.”

The next step on our tour was the townships. The townships are... huge. Townships are impoverished, make-shift homes and communities. The "houses" are built out of scrap wood and scrap... whatever they can find. The lucky ones get running water and electricity. Fires are common in the townships during the dry season, often devastating entire towns in a matter of days because the houses are so close to one another they are impossible to stop. And the townships, at least what I saw, cover a land area larger than the city of Cape Town, and Cape Town is not small. It's nicknamed the "Mother City" in South Africa, partly because of its prominence and partly because it takes about 9 months for anything to get done there. We were driving on the interstate for about an hour and the townships stretched out on either side of the street for as far as I could see the entire time. The townships they leave you speechless and hopeless and depressed, until you get in there and meet the people. They have such a strong sense of community, they are educated, and they love to talk about their country. We visited a prospering bed and breakfast in the middle of a destitute township started by a woman, Vicky, who lived there and just had a vision for her life and wanted to spread the knowledge of township life. We visited an organization started by a local business owner that teaches residents of the townships how to make pottery and other crafts so that they can start their own businesses and support themselves. We ate lunch at a restaurant that was a woman's dining room. Her name is Sheila and she just loves to cook for people. And she's good at it! Sheila has lived in her home since 1960, so she lived through and survived the apartheid era. She also helped launch a marimba band's career by letting them play at her restaurant and raise money to make a CD. They performed for us while we ate and played a mixture of traditional South African songs and Bob Marley.

Our last stop was Robben Island. Robben Island is an island off the coast of Cape Town. It used to be where they would put all the people with leprosy in order to quarantine them before they learned that leprosy could be cured. It's a sad story... for years they just sent the lepers there without doing any research on how to cure the disease. Robben Island is better known as the prison where they sent political rebels during the apartheid era, namely Nelson Mandela who ended up spending 27 years in jail but still initiated a peaceful transition from apartheid to freedom. He also became the president in 1994, the year of liberation. Robben Island was a pretty brutal place where they used both physical and mental torture, kept prisoners in solitude, and would bring prisoners as close to death as possible without actually letting them die. If any were to die, because they were such prominent political leaders, the white wardens feared revolts and revolution back on the main land. So they imprisoned them and tortured them but kept them alive. We were given a tour of the island by a former prisoner. Former prisoners and former wardens alike work on the island together. Someone asked my guide how he feels about working with the former wardens, and he gave a surprising answer. He said that although the wardens tortured the prisoners, he could forgive them because it was their job. They were brought up to believe in the apartheid system and thought they were just helping to keep order. They are still decent, moral people.

That night I spent along the VA Waterfront, a strip of five star hotels, shopping malls, and restaurants, not different from some places in the United States. It was strange to be there after seeing all I had seen that day.

The third day was my birthday, and it was the best birthday I think I have ever had. I mean, how many people get to spend their birthday—their golden birthday—in South Africa? This is when I went to the Mfuleni township to build a house with Habitat for Humanity. The walls were already standing, so our goal for the day was to build the roof, patch up the holes in the walls with cement, and paint. Some highlights of the day were when Rasta, my site manager, had some girls from the township sing happy birthday to me in Afrikaans when he found out it was my birthday. The woman across the street, the one who gave us the coffee and some sandwiches also, had a cake for us, so I even got a “birthday” cake! Aside from talking to Rasta about the standard of living in the townships, how best to improve the poverty problem, and illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe, I also had a great conversation with a man named Pless. Pless lives in Mfuleni and has a beautiful voice. He sings opera with an orchestra in Cape Town. He told me that, if he had the means, he would love to get out of South Africa so he would actually have the opportunity to make it somewhere. He said he wishes he also had the means to learn to play an instrument. It about broke my heart, because in the United States we take the opportunity to learn to play an instrument so lightly. In fact, most people don’t even like taking music lessons. He didn’t ask me for money or help, but only asked that I remember him. So I will.

I’ve already written a few examples of South African hospitality, and on my fourth day in South Africa I received the best hospitality of my life. South African people are so open, kind, and giving, and Mark and Belinda Lindhorst are no exception. A friend of mine on the ship has a roommate back home whose father, Mark Lindhorst, owns a vineyard in Paarl, South Africa. We went to visit his vineyard and were taken on a tour of the entire facility, from the fields to the tasting room. We saw the wine making process in action, the cellars filled with rows of barrels stacked to the ceiling, and Mark’s own personal wine collection. We even donned sarongs and—get this—stomped grapes with our bare feet! Mark filled two huge blue buckets with freshly picked grapes and we just climbed in and started stomping. All I could think of was I Love Lucy the whole time. The process takes quite a while, because once you stomp the grapes you have to pick out all of the stems. We tasted the grape juice (I know, gross, but you would have done it too), and it was seriously the best grape juice I’ve ever had. Must have been the toe jam. After we were all cleaned off, Belinda, Mark’s wife, made dinner for us all. We had a braai, or barbeque, of lamb and garlic bread covered in this amazing sauce called sweet chilli sauce. I don’t know if we have sweet chilli sauce in the United States, but if we do, you need to go out and buy some now. It is so good. I learned so much that day about wine, but I learned even more about South African hospitality.

I spent the last day in South Africa around the waterfront. I had so much to think about and to process, I just wanted to relax. I grabbed some coffee at Melissa’s and did some souvenir shopping before getting back on the ship. I could write about South Africa forever. This post is only the tip of the iceberg of everything I did, saw, and learned while in Cape Town! If you ever get the chance to come to South Africa, take it. It is beyond worth it. I truly hope I get to return someday. And if you want to know more about South Africa, ask me about it! I’d love to tell you so much more!

I know I am quite a bit behind on my blogs… I have been to Mauritius by now too, and am docking in India in just a few short hours! But I hope to be caught up soon. I hear India is even more life changing than South Africa, so I am bracing myself for quite an experience.
I also wanted to let you know my email address onboard the ship. Initially I thought I wouldn’t have enough time to answer emails from everyone so I only let a few people have it, but I love getting news from home and receiving emails! I still don’t really have time to answer all of them, but I make time.

Tomorrow, India.


Saturday, February 28, 2009


Namibia was such a change of pace from Morocco and Spain. Life moves so slowly there! Namibia is about the size of Texas with the population of Rhode Island… I think. In any case, it is very sparsely populated. The towns I visited—Walvis Bay and Swakopmund—were both so small that most businesses were closed on the weekend. We were there over the weekend, so that was kind of a bummer, but I spent most of my time in the desert anyway. But I am getting ahead of myself. Coffee first. My first cup of coffee was in the middle of the desert. It was most likely instant coffee powder and hot water, but it was the conversation that made it so good. I got my second cup of coffee in Swakopmund at a restaurant called Ombo. I had a café latte with sugar after eating ostrich for dinner! My third and last coffee was at a small German café in Walvis Bay with the most impressive coffee menu I have ever seen. I asked the server what she recommended and she pointed to the Amarula Coffee. I had no idea what it was, but after I got back to the ship and looked it up on Wikipedia, I was so glad I ordered it! Amarula is a cream liqueur kind of like Bailey’s, but it is specific to southern Africa. The coffee was espresso, amarula, steamed milk, and fresh cream. The amarula gave it a sweet, fruity taste and the fresh cream made it so thick. It was amazing, and it was a coffee drink I cannot get anywhere else in the world! The conversation over that cup was pretty good as well. But that was my last day in Namibia. I need to start back at the beginning.

When we first docked in Walvis Bay on Valentine’s Day we had some diplomats aboard the ship to welcome us and let us know about the current political and economic conditions there. Then we were free to get off the ship and explore Namibia! There was a choir of girls down on the pier, singing and dancing for us as we filed off the ship. They could sing! Some looked as young as five and they were dancing much better than anything I can do. After finding a bank to exchange some cash, I returned to the ship for lunch to find the girls from the choir getting a tour of the MV Explorer. One of the girls came up to me, took my hand, introduced herself, and asked to see my room. I took her on a quick tour of the ship until she ran off to find another girl to latch onto. The girls were all so curious and not shy at all. Their dance group is part of an after school program for orphans, and you could tell they loved doing what they were doing. After I grabbed lunch I boarded my 4x4 and headed off to the desert for camping and stargazing in the desert. My driver’s name was Rolly and since everyone else in the van fell asleep, I asked him all the questions I wanted and got my own personal tour guide. The drive there was beautiful. The sand dunes literally run right up to the coast. Some joke that Namibia has the largest beaches in the whole world, because the sand just never stops. It’s so true! Soon the desert turned from sand dunes to a flatter, rockier landscape and it was there that I saw a springbok, an animal native to Namibia that kind of looks like an antelope. Finally we made it to the where we would be camping for the night. It was near the moonscape, a vast, grey, rocky landscape that looks like the moon on earth. Where I camped the rock formations were taller and more sand colored, kind of like the Black Hills but bigger and with fewer plants. Rolly told me the landscape was once volcanic and was later shaped more by glaciers. We climbed the rocks for a while before sitting in the shade under the food tent to wait for dinner. An a cappella group of five Africans came and performed for us, playing drums, singing, and making all kinds of rhythmic sounds like whistles and clicks. They sang In the Jungle, of course, and The Lord’s Prayer, among other songs. Then it was time for dinner—rice and a kind of stew made with lamb. After dinner we were supposed to look at stars but there were clouds so we sat around and talked. This is when I had that cup of instant coffee. First I talked to one of my friends from Columbia and she told me all about the civil war in Columbia. I was fascinated because I didn’t know anything about it. Then I talked to one of our professors who has not lived in any country for longer than a year and a half besides the United States. He was full of amazing stories and has pursued so many different career paths. It was encouraging to talk to someone who did amazing things with his life but never settled on one interest! I am so interested in so many things; I can’t pick just one to follow my entire life. I slept so well that night. I always do when I am camping.

The next morning I wandered around and took some pictures before we got back in our 4x4s to drive back to Walvis Bay. Again, everyone in my van fell asleep so I had the guide to myself and he pointed out the moonscape and Dune 7, the largest sand dune in Namibia. After we made it back to the ship I met up with a few friends and took a taxi to Swakopmund. We browsed the shops there for a while and I talked to a lot of the shop keepers and learned all about the different wood carvings and paintings they do as well as what their families and homes were like. Down by the beach we found a place to grab some lunch and I got fried eggs. It was definitely comfort food and oh-so-tasty. Namibia was once a German colony so they are big fans of hearty food, which makes me a big fan of Namibian food. I washed that down with some sherbet and wandered around the street craft market a bit more and bartered for a few souvenirs. Later that evening we met up with a few more people and headed to Ombo for dinner and had ostrich! It’s kind of strange to eat because ostrich is a red meat, but it is definitely a bird. It is very good for you because it is so lean. We had it in ravioli, in minced meat form (like ground beef), and on steak kebabs. It was after all of this that I had that café latte. That night we went out dancing and actually found a salsa club. It was fun to use what we had learned in Spain!

My last morning was spent around Walvis Bay. This is when I got the Amarula Coffee. Over the coffee, I asked my friend from Cuba about Che Guevara because a lot of the locals were wearing t-shirts with his face printed on them. The conversation that followed was a crash course in the Cuban revolution, and again, I was hanging on her every word. The more I learned, the more I felt so uneducated about the world. Anyway, we also found some lunch before I headed back to the ship to get ready to go on my tour of the townships. We went to Kuisebmund, a township near Walvis Bay. When the German’s controlled Namibia, all the black people were made to live in what are now the townships. It was much cleaner that I thought but the houses were still small and you could see the poverty. The people were so friendly and wanted to pose for pictures. First we saw a bunch of shops selling food, clothing, cigarettes, etc. I got to try a kind of energy drink made out of fermented… something. It wasn’t too good and had pieces of what looked like grass or splinters in it, but at least I tried it. We passed a bunch of men playing a game similar to mancala, but it was much larger and it had four rows. We passed through a market where they were selling all sorts of fresh fruits and vegetables and all kinds of barbecued meats. Barbeque is a Namibian specialty. They call it Braai. We stopped by the house of a herero (Namibian tribe known for cattle farming) woman who taught us some of the !khoisan language, the click language. Finally we stopped at a shebeen (basically a bar in a township) where we were presented with some traditional Namibian dishes, one of which was caterpillars. Yes, caterpillars. Of course, I had to try one! It was in a kind of spicy sauce which made it taste like I was eating a sausage, but it was crunchy. Honestly, I tried not to think before I ate it because I know I would have talked myself out of it and I tried not to think while I was eating it because I knew I would make myself sick. But I did it! And I washed it down with a Coke. I needed something to get the taste out of my mouth! And that was my last experience in Namibia.

I learned so much in Namibia. Through learning about the histories and current conditions of Columbia and Cuba and all of these countries that I am visiting, I have realized how small my world view is and how much I want to change that. So this is me encouraging you to pick up a book or a newspaper and learn a little bit about a foreign country. There is so much going on out there, and right now! Take a look at the economic situation in Zimbabwe and you won’t feel so bad about our current economic “crisis,” or if you are upset about unfulfilled promises from our government, learning a little bit about South Africa’s Mbeki might make you feel better.

Ok, I will get off my soap box now. I’m going to try to post my South Africa blog soon but man, it is going to be a hard one.

Tomorrow we dock in Mauritius. I’m excited for a little relaxing on the beach and some fresh seafood!


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Neptune Day

Of February 9 we celebrated Neptune Day. Neptune Day is a tradition that started with the Royal Navy, US Navy, and the US Coast Guard for those sailors crossing the equator for the first time. Crossing the Line ceremonies were actually pretty brutal initiations akin to hazing, but we participated in a much milder form of the initiation, of course. First, the crew woke us in the morning with whistles, yelling, and pounding on our doors. We were all ushered up to deck 7 aft (the pool deck) to see the crew all decked out in costumes as King Neptune’s subjects and were informed that, as pollywogs, we would need to perform a series of tasks to be allowed to cross the equator as trusted Shellbacks. First, we had (fake, but still very smelly) fish guts dumped on our heads. Then we were to kiss a fish, jump into the pool, climb out, kiss King Neptune’s ring, bow to the queen, and touch another fish. Finally we were deemed Shellbacks with a touch of a sword, like being knighted. The last (optional) step was to shave your head! I participated in all but the last step, but a lot of people went bald, including quite a few girls! That evening we were treated to burgers, ribs, hot dogs, baked beans, and ice cream out on the pool deck. On top of it all, we had no classes! It was wonderful. The next day we crossed the equator as initiated trusted Shellbacks.

We reach Namibia the day after tomorrow! I will be camping in the desert, watching the sky in the best place in the world to go stargazing, accompanied by a trained astronomer to tell me all about what I am looking at. And you thought your Valentine’s Day plans were good!


Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Morocco was so different from anything I was expecting, probably because I have never seen or experienced anything else quite like it before. I will start with the coffee, just for the sake of consistency. I was unable to try much coffee for reasons I will mention later, but I did manage to get my hands on a café noir and a café au lait (French is widely spoken in Morocco, along with Arabic and Spanish. Many Moroccans know some English as well). The café noir (a shot of black espresso) was very bitter and very black! Absolutely no orange tint. I preferred the café au lait (coffee with steamed milk, like the café con leche in Spain). It was more like an American latte. It had foam and tasted heavenly with sugar. However, Morocco is known for its tea, not its coffee. The national drink is a mint green tea. They load it up with sugar and serve it in small 8oz glasses. It is very good!

I didn’t eat much Moroccan food. I like Moroccan food just fine, but Moroccan food did not like me (hence the limited coffee)! But I did try the Moroccan national dish of couscous (tiny beads of rice or grain). Also, I had a tajine. A tajine is a dish named after the pot that it is cooked in. The pot is huge, like a giant shallow bowl, and the lid is conical in shape with a little hole at the top. It is shaped like this so that when the steam rises as the contents cook, some escapes but most is collected on the sides of the lid and drips back down to keep the food moist. Most tajines consist of beef or some kind of meat along with vegetables and sauce, kind of like a stew. Oranges are also grown in Morocco and were served after most meals. My favorite dessert was sliced oranges with cinnamon sprinkled on top. It is very simple, but surprisingly good!

The first day in Morocco I was supposed to go on a city orientation of Casablanca including an interior tour of the Hassan II Mosque. The Hassan II Mosque is a huge mosque on the coast with a retractable roof and a glass floor built over the sea. Unfortunately, I had to miss that. We stopped at Gibraltar to refuel but the seas were too rough so we had to wait an extra day while the seas calmed down before we could take on fuel, making us a day late to Morocco. Instead, when I got to Morocco, I headed directly to Marrakech with a Semester at Sea tour. Our first stop was actually outside of Marrakech in the Palm Groves to ride camels! First we were treated to a traditional tea ceremony complete with live, traditional Moroccan music. We were served mint green tea, of course, and flat bread with honey. Then we mounted the camels. The camels actually sit down to allow you to climb on top of the loose saddle that sits on their back. There is nothing holding you on—no stirrups or reigns, just you and a small handle at the front of the saddle. Then the camel stands up, first the front legs, then the back, so you feel like you are going to slide off the back! After that, it is just kind of like riding a really tall horse—except much bouncier. We got to ride for about 30-45 minutes. You can imagine I was pretty sore when it came time to dismount! We rode through an impoverished neighborhood. Little children smiled and waved and ran alongside us while their parents stood in the doorways of their mud houses and just stared. There were piles of trash alongside the road. It reminded me a lot of Juarez, Mexico except the houses were generally made of red mud rather than scrap wood and metal sheets. This might not sound pleasant, but I was happy to be seeing Morocco, not an artificial Morocco put on for tourists. After the camel riding we were taken to our hotel in Marrakech for dinner and to relax a while. Later that evening a few friends and I went to explore Marrakech and ended up at a restaurant where we ordered some drinks—a bottle of water was 60 dirham, about $7.00!—and soaked up the atmosphere. Usually the place has live music, but not that night. They were playing cheesy ‘80s music over the radio!

The next day we started early on our day-long tour of Marrakech. In the morning we saw the Koutoubia Mosque (just the outside. Non believers are not allowed inside mosques in Morocco, except for the Hassan II in Casablanca), the Bahia Palace, and the Saadian Tombs. The Saadian Tombs were undiscovered for hundreds of years until aerial photography uncovered them in the early 1900s. They are beautiful! It is a collection of chambers or tombs lining a central courtyard speckled with graves and orange trees. The tombs are floor-to-ceiling full of beautiful wood carvings and decorated arches. Morocco is an Arab country and the Arabs are masters of ceramic tile design and wood carving. All three of these sites were magnificent examples of that. After some shopping at the Super Market and eating some lunch, we went to a spice market. This place was the highlight of my time in Morocco (along with riding the camel). To get there, we first had to walk through the Djemaa El-Fna, a huge, central square full of snake charmers, orange juice stands, women offering henna tattoos, and men offering photos with their monkeys (for a few dirham, of course). It was crazy! Well, I thought it was until we entered the souks. The streets are, at times, barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side. It’s a labyrinth of make-shift shops selling all kinds of wares and food and, of course, mint green tea. There are different smells with each step—leather, gasoline, olives, the hot metallic smell of welding, and countless unidentifiable smells. You can hear honking, metal pounding metal, talking, singing, fuzzy satellite televisions, and men calling you into their shops. I can’t even describe what you see. It is something different around every corner—children begging for money, sparks flying from a welder, a moped coming right at you, giant heaping bowls of olives… it is a very sensory experience. Anyway, to get to the spice market, our guide led us down some very dark, sinister-looking alleyways and through a door to a stairway reeking of incense. But then we entered a room lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves holding jars filled with substances of every color. There were benches and we all sat down while three men in white coats came into the room and explained all of the different spices, oils, creams, and perfumes in the jars. We learned more about saffron and creams to prevent varicose veins, under-eye circles, wrinkles, everything! And everything was made from all natural Moroccan spices and minerals. They also offered henna tattoos and massages, and I got a neck and shoulders massage that felt wonderful after riding that camel. After weaving our way back through the souks and the Djemaa El-Fna we got back on the bus and headed to our hotel for dinner. I fell asleep immediately after dinner. It had been a long day!

The last day we drove back to Casablanca and I spent my last hours in Morocco with a few of my friends, browsing the shops and getting my coffee. For all of you who are wondering, yes, there is a Rick’s Café in Casablanca! I saw it from the bus but didn’t go inside. It was opened after the movie came out, I think in 2004, by an American woman. I did talk to someone who ate there and they said that there was a live piano player. I was happy to hear that Rick’s had a Sam! It just wouldn’t be the same. No Humphrey Bogart, though.

Right now I am somewhere between Senegal and Namibia off the western coast of Africa, south of the equator. We had quite a celebration when we crossed the equator! They call it Neptune Day and it involves some strange rituals including kissing a fish and shaving your head… but I’ll save that for next time!