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!


Friday, February 6, 2009


Of all the European countries I have been to, I think it is safe to say that Spain is now my favorite. I don’t even know where to start! I suppose I’ll start with Spanish coffee, since it is was my very first experience of Spain, and my very last. While in Spain I had three café con leches (equal parts espresso and steamed milk, no foam), one café solo (black coffee, but just espresso shots; I encountered no drip coffee while in Spain), and one café cortado (basically a café macchiato; espresso cut with a small amount of steamed milk). I ordered the café cortado last minute walking back to the ship, and I am so glad I did! It was one of the best coffee drinks I have ever had. I am on a mission to try coffee in every country I visit, and Spain was a wonderful place to begin my sampling of coffee around the world.

I did do more than just drink coffee in Spain. I ate food! I hit up tapas bars on multiple occasions. Bars in Spain are nothing like bars in the United States. They are family places, open all day, and they serve food—tapas—as well as drinks. Tapas are just small, bite-sized portions of different dishes. For example, I had salmon tapas, potatoes in some sort of brown sauce, calamares (squid), paella (a rice dish), tortilla (an egg and potato dish), and gambas (shrimp), just to name a few. My favorite dish in Spain, however, was one I ordered on a stormy night at a café along the cathedral square in Cadiz. The cathedral square offers wifi, and a couple of friends and I wanted to take advantage of the free internet on our last night in Spain. Unfortunately, it started raining on the way there and in order to sit underneath the awning of the café to escape the rain, we felt obligated to order some food as well. I am so glad we did! The dish was scrambled eggs with shrimp, boiled green beans, sauted potato wedges, fried garlic bits, pickled sweet and sour onions or turnips, parsley, amazing Spanish olive oil, and salt (a good friend of mine on the ship is an expert on food, so she helped me with that description a bit). I don’t even know if that is typically Spanish, but it was really good!

My first day in Spain I spent in Cadiz and went on a Semester at Sea guided tour of the city. We saw the town hall, the cathedral museum that supposedly houses a fragment of Jesus’ crown of thorns, and the cathedral itself, including a tour of the crypt below the alter. After finding a bocadillo (a sandwich on a baguette) for lunch, we also saw the architectural museum housing ancient artifacts from both the Phoenician and Roman periods of Spain’s history. Fun fact: Have you ever wondered why so many Roman statues are missing heads and arms? A person would choose a body from the wide selection of premade bodies and then have the head and hands custom made and added later. Also, looters found heads and arms better souvenirs because the bodies were too heavy. That night we went out to a salsa club and saw some authentic Spanish night life and salsa dancing.

The next day I went on another Semester at Sea tour to the smaller “white” towns of Argos and Ronda. All the buildings in the towns are white in order to stay cool during the hot summer months. Orange trees line the streets and grow on the rooftops. The oranges are too bitter to eat, but they use them to make orange marmalade, a specialty of southern Spain. Ronda was my favorite of the two towns. It was founded by the Celts as a fortress and built literally on cliffs. A giant bridge spanning the deep cavern that runs through town was once used as a prison. They didn’t even have to put bars on the windows or balconies because it was too far of a drop for the prisoners to climb out! The largest bull ring in Spain can also be found in Ronda. They now hold one bull fight a year. Last year, just one ticket could cost a buyer as much as 7,000 euro!

My third day in Spain was spent in Seville. A friend and I took an early train to Seville to meet a couple of our friends who were already there. We mostly just walked around, saw the outside of the cathedral and the Alcazar, an Arabic palace. We got coffee and tapas and did a little shopping before taking the train back to Cadiz. That night we spent in the rain at the cathedral square and went to bed early in order to get up early the next day and take advantage of our few remaining hours in Spain. That last day was literally spent eating. The whole time. We had a very popular Spanish breakfast—churros con chocolate! Deep fried doughnuts dipped in thick, melted chocolate. Yum! Alice, my food expert friend, is conducting interviews in every country about street food so after the churros she interviewed the owner’s son about the history behind tapas, churros con chocolate, and street food in Spain. Pretty soon after that it was already time for lunch! I have to admit, we did have burgers, but it was so different from American burgers! For one, they use pork instead of beef. The cheese was just like American cheese, but about ten times more flavorful. After burgers, we had our last tapas and I got my café cortado on the way back to the ship.

I was not ready to leave Spain, but the prospect of Morocco—and riding a camel—made it a little easier…