Around the World in 104 Days!


Semester at Sea, Around the world in 104 days... Bahamas, Dominica, Brazil, Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius, India, Singapore, Viet Nam, China, Japan, Hawaii, San Diego here I come!

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

Back home in America! Just got to Honolulu. I am now part of the elite few people in this world that have circumnavigated the entire planet.

Touring Taiwan One 7-Eleven at a Time

After disaster struck in Japan, our ship re-routed to visit Taiwan two days after China. None of us knew what to expect, but it turned out to be sub-tropical island, shaped like a tobacco leaf, with exquisite natural beauty serving our exploring purposes well. Taiwan rules—it is definitely underrated. While everyone that we talked to in China claimed that Taiwan was absolutely a part of China, Taiwan considers itself an independent country. Taiwan is kind of like the Israel of Asia, with 1000 missiles pointed at it at any given time, waiting to be fired should the United Nations consider Taiwan its own nation. The people of Taiwan are a lot like the Chinese, (mostly are Chinese, descending from Chinese refugees) but they are not rushing around madly and smile a lot more often. In China, every time we smiled at people, they did not warm up. In Taiwan, everyone welcomes friendliness, even though they never understand a word we are saying. I got off of the ship with Adam and Lakshmi for our unforgettable and hilarious adventure. It was the type of trip where I did not stop laughing hysterically the entire time. I literally woke up with aching abs every morning from all the laughter. Day one, we stepped off of the ship in a city called Keelung. Keelung is a pretty ugly industrial town and it was raining, so we knew we had to find a bus or train and book it out of there. We had heard that transportation was available near the 7-Eleven, so we made our way there. We bought some snacks for the ride, thinking we would get onto a bus, since we were at the bus station, when we realized there was another 7-Eleven across the street, and that one had a train station. After buying the snacks and starting our sticker book, (acts as a punch card and when filled you get a Hello Kitty charm) we rolled to the next 7-Eleven where we got train tickets to a little town on the east coast called Toroko. We had read that Toroko had a national park with incredible mountains and gorges. Nobody speaks a word of English in Taiwan, so getting around definitely called for some creative communication. Luckily, over the course of the trip we have become excellent at miming words to locals and finding English speakers to help us get to the next step wherever we go. We also had a Chinese speaker on the ship write down keywords that we thought would be useful: train, bus, hot spring, Toroko National Park. So, we showed the guy at the ticket booth our symbols for Toroko National Park, and he gave us a train ticket to Badu with a connection to Toroko. A 20 minute train ride later, we were in a little town called Badu. We had a couple hours to spare before the train to Toroko, so we did some exploring. Badu is a tiny town on the outskirts of Tai Pei, the major city of Taiwan. We were in search of something to do or somewhere to eat, so we followed a path that appeared to go into a pocket of town with a lot of apartment complexes. We found a hiking trail in the forest and followed it to a spot overlooking Badu, in all of its lameness. The hike was really fun though, with lush greenery and hidden parks, even though it was raining. Overlooking the city, we were able to discover that there really was not much going on anywhere, so we would have to search for a place to eat lunch. Coming down from the hike, we found an alternate path down, which led to some peoples’ houses that doubled as restaurants. Ordering food was a tough one, but we pointed and imitated chickens and eventually got something close to what we wanted. The train station in Badu had a 7-Eleven, so we bought some beer, mostly on a quest for more stickers, and a growing admiration for our new hotspot, the 7-Eleven. The train ride to Toroko was a scenic couple of hours, exposing us to the natural splendor—beaches, rivers, forests, mountains, vegetation, etc.—that Taiwan has to offer. We almost missed our stop but ran off the train just in time at the very last second. We immediately realized it was going to be difficult finding a place to sleep because the only place open was a fruit stand and nobody there had any clue what we were saying. When we mimed sleeping, they finally got it. They shook their heads and we realized they were trying to tell us that all the hostels were full. We knew that Taiwan was having a long holiday weekend for a day where they honor their dead, but we did not anticipate trouble finding a place to stay in this sleepy town. The fruit stand worker called somebody, and a few minutes later, a man and woman pulled up in a van. The lady was from Singapore and spoke perfect English. She explained that she too was on vacation in Taiwan, and she was staying with the man driving the van. He had asked her to accompany him to translate for us. The man said we could stay at his hostel and in the morning he would drive us up the mountain and give us bikes to bike down through the Toroko National Park. The whole situation seemed a bit sketchy and we were reluctant, so we asked to see the hostel before making any decisions. He brought us over to his mansion of a house, turned hostel, and we were in. We bargained him down to half the price for sleeping there, food, rides and bikes, getting him to agree to about 30 U.S. dollars per person for the whole deal. Once we worked everything out and realized how nice the guy was, we felt bad for being so sketched out by him. The truth is, he kind of looked like a monster, but you should never judge a book by its cover. Lucky for us, even the tiny town of Toroko, the smallest town we had seen yet, had multiple 7-Elevens. Taiwan has a serious love affair with 7-Eleven and to be honest, the love is contagious. We just could not stay away. We went to dinner with the girl staying at our hostel and her friend, which was a relief because they were able to order our food. Taiwan does Chinese food even better than China, in my opinion. Dinner was bomb. Then we walked around town, which can be completed in about 3 minutes flat, top to bottom. We stopped at a fruit stand to taste test every exotic fruit before settling on some starfish, grapes and mangos for our bike ride the next day. Then, we just had to end the night at the 7-Eleven; the place was starting to feel like home. We saw a white guy in there who was clearly American, and he just refused to make eye contact or talk to us. After traveling the world, we have grown accustomed to the idea that any white person in these exotic countries is our friend and they have some unwritten obligation to talk to us. It just feels right, like a common understanding, that everyone American is a friend while so far abroad. I mean it isn’t like we were in Europe or Australia, we were in Taiwan—he was the first white guy we had seen there. So, Adam creepily stalked him around the 7-Eleven until he had the chance to strike up a conversation. The guy is a New Yorker that works for Kink, a motorbike manufacturing company that outsources to Taiwan, and he fell in love with Taiwan so he moved there. We ended up spending a lot of time talking to him and getting the inside scoop on Taiwan and learning Chinese. Adam, Lakshmi and I had had such a silly day, laughing hysterically about nothing, that the guy even asked us if we were drunk because we were so full of laughter. We had not had anything to drink was the funniest part. Then, Lakshmi accidentally knocked over a bottle of wine that shattered all over the floor. That was the end of our new friend; he was officially too embarrassed and left. Lakshmi paid for the bottle and we got so many stickers that we filled up the sticker book. YES. We returned to the hostel for some hot sake and game night with the hostel’s supply of board games we had never heard of. The next morning, we went to the best breakfast on the house. Our hostel host brought us to this amazing hole in the wall restaurant where everything came fried to perfection. I had not had this type of Chinese breakfast and I immediately fell in love and have been dreaming about it ever since. They brought out fried crepes with egg, fried Chinese pancakes with chives, breakfast dumplings, sandwiches, and delicious hot tea and soymilk. Then, we got driven up to the top of the national park’s mountain. Our host gave us really nice bikes, which we did not expect. He begged us to be careful because the bikes cost 30,000 New Taiwanese Dollars, which equates to $1000. He let us go and we began our trek down the mountain. Though we were supposed to have all rain and clouds, the weather was sunny and warm all day long. The park was breathtakingly beautiful with fantastic mountains and foothills, gorges, suspended bridges, temples, Buddha statues, caves, and flourishing plant life everywhere. Because we were on bikes, we were able to see it all, biking to each pocket of the park, which we could never accomplish on foot. First, we visited Buddhist temples and statues, which were magnificent in natural settings, as Buddha would have hoped for. Then, we made our way across some suspension bridges over the gorges and climbed into dark caves tucked into the mountain on the other side. We spent a couple hours off of the bikes climbing down into the gorge for some attempted swimming in the rough current and rock climbing around the riverbank. The sand was black and felt like clay. The gorge was lined with shiny, sparkling white marble mixed with silver metallic rock, such a stunning sight to see. We explored the entire park all day long, making it about a seven-hour journey through the natural wonderland. We biked to a dinner spot, going to a few different places before settling on one. All the restaurants in town are dumpy little shacks with weird displays of goose head/necks and other suspicious looking things. So, we found the one that smelled most appealing and struggled to order by literally going into their refrigerator and pulling out bags of stuff and pointing to noodles, tofu, rice and veggies. We ended up getting a couple of dishes that had nothing to do with those foods, but we were pretty much satisfied. We knew we would be hitting up the 7-Eleven later anyways, so it was no big deal. After dinner, we made our way back to the hostel to return the bikes, grab our backpacks and return to the train station. Our next destination was Jiaosi, an entire hot spring town. Again, communication was an obstacle in buying train tickets, especially because as Chinese as we attempt to make our pronunciations sound, the language is all about tone and we just cannot make our Chinese understandable. Also, similar to in China, every English spelling of cities, streets, etc. is inconsistent from sign to sign, so we can never be sure if Joichi is the same as Jiaosi is the same as Shoyaschi, and so on. Every time the train stopped we had to make sure that the sign was not just a new spelling for Jiaosi. It took about an hour and we got to our hot spring town around 8pm. To our excitement, the town practically looked like the Las Vegas of Taiwan compared to the teeny tiny towns we had seen. There were lights and lanterns everywhere, five 7-Elevens (woohooo), tons of hotels and even restaurants that were not run down shacks. Obviously, our first stop was the 7-Eleven where we searched for an English speaker to explain where we could find some hot springs. The lady we found explained that every hotel would have something and pointed us in the right direction. After checking out several hotels that all boasted hot spring facilities, we decided on one that was open late and even let us bargain down their set price. Their hot springs resembled a giant aquatic center with indoor and outdoor tubs, pools, water slides, jets and fountains. There were three steam rooms and two saunas which all had different scents. We had fun playing in the hot springs and trying out literally 50 different types of jets throughout the pools until 1AM when we crashed in our hotel room. The next morning we found some more of that delicious fried Taiwanese breakfast that we still cannot stop thinking about. We explored the town a little bit, obviously hitting up the 7-Eleven, and looking for a natural hot spring to visit. The town lies over a scalding hot spring, but we realized that they pretty much only put it to commercial use, and there are no truly natural sites where the hot spring meets the river that we could visit. Or maybe we just could not communicate properly. In any event, it was getting hot outside and so we were happy to change plans and hike up a mountain to some waterfalls. We tried catching a shuttle to the mountain, but the shuttle went right past us. The English speaker that we had found to help us figure the shuttle/waterfall business out (we seriously just go from place to place finding English speakers to help us with our next step) explained that the shuttle thought we were not trying to get on. Then, we met a little seventy-year-old woman named June who told us that she hikes up the mountain every morning. We figured if she could do it, we could, and we were on our way. Midway to the mountain, the English speaking lady helping us figure out the shuttle drove over in her car, apparently feeling bad that we missed the shuttle, and drove us up as far as she could to where the hike officially began. We had a great time hiking up the beautiful mountain seeing several different waterfalls and jumping in the pools below them. We climbed the rocks up to the waterfall and lounged in the sun, happy to be in one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Before we knew it, it was time to hike back down and find a ride back to town, lunch and a bus back to Keelung. I scoured the parking lot at the base of the mountain for somebody that would let us hitch a ride. I found a young couple that spoke a few English words and they let us hop in their car to get back to town. It is like every step of the way on this adventure, whenever we needed something or somebody, it or they came to us—the hostel man, English speakers here and there, June, rides around town, hotels, train rides, whatever, whenever. We found amazing fried street food to munch on, Chinese fried pancakes filled with veggies and eggs. Then we used a map to point out where we needed to go to various people in the streets. We followed numerous pointing fingers down a couple of blocks to a bus station that had a bus leaving for Keelung 20 minutes later. Taiwan was definitely a success. We spent our remaining cash at the 7-Eleven and hopped back on the MV Explorer to head on over to Hawaii. On my way, way back home!

China… The Land of Over Stimulation

The next morning, after I slept over four girls’ legs at the foot of our bed in our tiny hotel room, we explored Hong Kong a bit more before making our way to the airport for a plane ride to Beijing. We arrived in time for a gorgeous sunset, but Beijing definitely does not possess the glitz and glam of Hong Kong. It is industrial, a bit more drab and sprawling. If Hong Kong is like New York City, Beijing is like the Washington DC of China. It was also much colder, getting down into the 50s, which was a shocker after all these tropical ports. After checking in at a crappy hotel, ironically called “rich man hotel” in Chinese, we hit up a Chinese hole in the wall for some dinner. Strolling through the night markets afterwards, we were glad we ate indoors because the night market foods were unconventional to say the least: dog, cat, snake, lizard, frog, and other unappetizing delicacies. The best thing in the market though was the “I heart BJ” shirt, which we all had to have of course. We were annoyed to discover that Beijing, like India, uses squatting hole in the ground toilets, no toilet paper or soap included. What is with that? China is one of the most advanced countries in the world and they still don’t use toilets… common China. Also in China (not Hong Kong though) there is not much English word spoken or written. This gave us a little taste of what traveling the world would be like if we weren’t English speakers. See, everywhere we been, except Brazil, there has been some English speaking to help us get around, thank god. In China, there is much less English present than anywhere else we have been. I always wonder what it would be like to try traveling the world as anybody that does not speak English or another romance language, and it would be incredibly hard. Most places in the world are accommodating to English speakers, but not many other languages. Menus, train stations, bus rides, subway tickets, maps, any kind of getting around is impossible. Fortunately, there was some English, enough to get around, but it was still frustrating. We did our best to find English speakers from time to time and ask them to write down different words, locations and phrases in Chinese for us so that we could communicate with people that way later. The Chinese love making their menus picture books, so that was really helpful too. Drinks were sometimes in English but with hilarious misspellings: Sexy on the Beach, Margarilla, etc. They spell everything converted to English differently, so any street name that they write in characters has 10 different English spellings, which makes it really confusing to get around. We went to a street of bars to find out what Beijing had to offer on a Monday night. The street was lit up with tacky Christmas lights and typical red Chinese lanterns coming down from every roof and tree. We ended up at a strip club that doubled as a hookah bar. Interesting. The strippers were Chinese of course, so they had no boobs or butts, but pole danced like champs to a Britney Spears medley. Between pole dancing acts, there were random entertainment bits, like a Michael Jackson impersonator, a belly dancer, and silly Chinese YouTube clips played on a projector. It was just more proof that China truly is the land of over stimulation, from HK to Beijing to Shanghai, we were thoroughly entertained no matter what we were doing. The scene at the strip club was even more ridiculous than the entertainment. It felt like a family environment with women sitting on one side of the table, men on the other, all of them stone faced, not cracking a smile for a second. After about an hour at the most awkward club I have ever been too, the hilariousness of it all died down and it was time to go. A couple of equally weird bars later, we returned to the hotel to sleep on our rock hard beds. Chinese people traditionally slept on wooden boards, so they keep the tradition alive with firm beds that make Westerners writhe in pain all night long. In the morning we headed over to The Forbidden City, where various Chinese dynasties’ emperors would live lives of leisure away from the peasants that were prohibited from entering their fancy city. The place is massive. The imperial gardens started blending together, the traditional Chinese architecture all looked the same, and all of a sudden, Megan and I were lost in the Forbidden City. We ran around madly trying to find our friends but they were nowhere to be found. Every courtyard and corridor seems the same and it is a giant maze that kept us laughing for about an hour until we decided we actually needed to find the group. We ran to the entrance thinking they had to come out sometime, but that was a mistake. The Forbidden City goes for over a mile and then spits visitors out on the other side. So we decided to meet them at Tiananmen Square on the flip side, but the guards wouldn’t let us back into the Forbidden City. So, we took an overpriced cab to Tiananmen Square and ran around amongst hundreds of people until we found everyone. Tiananmen Square is famous for the video of a student protestor standing holding his hand out in front of a bunch of military tanks. It is funny because everyone in our group had seen the video, even multiple times, but our Chinese tour guide, Tommy, had never once seen it. He explained that the government banned it and he did not know many people that had seen it. Communism man. Next stop was lunch at the Pecking Duck and some bargaining at the Silk Market. The market was full of everything never wanted and nothing you need. Fake designer bags, shoes, clothing, jackets and electronics and Chinese trinkets and nic nacs stocked the shelves, which were overflowing with crap. I did grab some stuff for the Great Wall though because we found out that it was going to be 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and I didn’t have anything for less than 60-degree weather. Everyone working at the market gets in your face begging, demanding and nagging that you buy their goods. They get really pushy and forceful, so we had some fun competing over who could say the weirdest stuff to get them to leave us alone. For example, when somebody yells “underwear, underwear! Do you want buy underwear?!” I would yell back, “I DON’T WEAR UNDERWEAR!” Things like that freak them out and then they don’t try too hard to suck you in. Then, we made a trip over to the Beijing 2008 Olympics venue. We saw the stadium of the opening ceremonies and the pool cube where Michael Phelps kicked ass. After a long day of sightseeing, it was time to drive two hours into rural China for some Great Wall of China action. We ate at a restaurant at the Great Wall and bundled up in preparation for some extreme cold in our eyes. In pitch black night, we carried flashlights and sleeping bags on a hike up the Great Wall of China. Tommy brought snacks and cases of beer up to “our tower.” We spent hours playing King’s Cup and hanging out, really not able to see the wall at all, but stoked to wake up to the sight and having a great time camping out. The Great Wall is awesome but dangerous, and unfortunately, two girls in our crew tripped down 20 stairs together and ended up in bad shape. A few heroic people we were traveling with helped out by ripping doors off of the Great Wall of China and strapping the girls onto the doors with rope for makeshift stretchers. They got the girls down the steep hike to find out that the ambulance in the area was broken down and they had to drive in a car the entire 2 hours to Beijing to get to a foreigners’ hospital. I don’t want to go into detail about their story because it isn’t mine to tell, but they are both recovering. It felt 10 times colder outside when we woke up shivering to the sun rising over the Great Wall of China. It was absolutely gorgeous and we could not believe that we had slept there all night and were just now truly seeing it. It stretches on and on forever, broken up by majestic towers, like the one that we slept in. It was spooky when we woke up and fully realized that we’d torn the doors off of the wall and they were now gone. The Wall is surrounded by beautiful mountains and rural land, wide open spaces for days. The stairs are killer, very tiring to get around. We hiked around the wall and back down it to head back to Beijing. Lunch was at a really random little shack that felt suspiciously like somebody’s home and smelled like India, so cows. All the lunch and dinners in Beijing, including this one, were delicious greasy Chinese foods, all blending together a bit—dumplings, sticky rice, eggplant, soups, sweet and sour chicken, duck, fried noodles, mixtures of things we couldn’t identify, etc. After lunch we swung by the Pearl Market for some more obnoxious market action. We kept hearing about Chinese acrobatics shows, so we decided to buy tickets to one. The show was really hilarious. There was a lot of cool contortionists, jugglers, dancers and all that but it was just funny how much different an acrobatics show is in China verses the U.S. Basically, we are used to overloads of entertainment, like the circus, but theirs is a little more downplayed. All the Chinese people were thoroughly impressed by the stunts though, so it was a fun experience with the crowd. The end stunt was really awesome, with six motorcycle daredevils in bejeweled jackets cycling around inside of a giant mesh sphere doing tricks and crossing paths dangerously close to one another. After the show, all the foreign tourists stood up to clap while the acrobats bowed, but the Chinese bolted out of the room as quickly as possible. It was just a funny demonstration of how the Chinese always seem to be rushing around. It makes for high productivity though, I’ll give them that. Nighttime consisted of bomb dinner and a sleeper train to Shanghai. After Indian train experiences, we were all a little nervous about the conditions. We were surprised and thrilled to find the sleeper train to be immaculate and comfortable, even more so than the hotel we stayed in two nights before. The beds were rock hard, even though we chose the “soft bed” option, but it was fun being on the train all night and waking up to Shanghai. Shanghai is freaking amazing. It is a clean, beautiful, bustling city that is advancing unbelievably quickly. I met up with Lakshmi to go to lunch at a fancy hotel with her friend’s dad who is a billionaire investment businessman in Shanghai. She lured me in when she told me he was recently on the cover of Forbes magazine; hey, it’s always nice to have friends in high places. We strolled around the city, through beautiful parks, around the harbor and through the local street markets until it was time to get over to the other side of the river for lunch. We ate an awesome lunch in a glass room on the 84th floor. He loved us and insisted that we stay in touch. He taught us all about Shanghai which was an excellent city orientation before exploring it ourselves. We had to cross the river from the main city to meet him, which is where most of the business oriented skyscrapers are. We actually took a crazy tram in a tunnel, doubling as a completely insane light show, to get there (only in China). He said that before 1993 there was not a building over 10 feet tall on that side of the river as we gazed out at hundreds of skyscrapers, amazed. Following lunch, a woman on the street lured us in by showing us amazing portraits, so we agreed to have one done of ourselves, together. We did not pay much for it, but it turned out hilariously terrible. She made us look completely Chinese in the eyes and our other facial features were pretty off. It is so funny that we actually love it though, because every time we look at it, we die laughing. Exploring Shanghai, we fell in love with the city. Every building is majestic and different, serving as landmarks all over the city. The parks are filled with cherry blossom trees and flowers. There are statues everywhere celebrating China’s “liberation” which is ironic because it is when they became socialist. Each area of the city has a different feel to it; there’s a street of beautiful Victorian buildings, a hipster corner of town (yes, there are Chinese hipsters, it is awesome), the business district where everyone is on the move, the local food markets, the nightclub streets, the upscale designer shopping district, the traditional Chinese feeling streets, and so much more. We tried delicious street foods and amazing teas all over town, exploring the sights all day in warm, sunny weather. Nightlife in Shanghai is wild—they know how to do it right. We started out at M1NT, an upscale nightclub with a 17-meter shark tank. We were excited to find out that a famous DJ would be there that night, who DJs at Jay-Z and Mariah Carey’s parties, MTV events, and all kinds of other big shot parties. The club was really awesome, but drinks were 25 dollars a pop and the crowd was too old, so we got out of there pretty fast. We headed to Phebe, which was definitely more our style. Chinese ragers and hipsters were dancing all over the tables and going crazy, it was definitely a sight to see before leaving China. Chinese people are incredible smart but are a bit lacking in the social realm, so watching them interact out at night is awkward but awesome. The music everywhere we went was incredibly loud, far too loud to speak, so I think it is kind of their mechanism to drown out awkward social interaction. In any event, there was one quiet room with a bar in it, which was where we found all of the Europeans at the club. We could actually talk, so we made a bunch of cool friends from Paris, who we accompanied to the next hotspot, Muse Two. We danced the night away at Muse Two until the early morning. When Lakshmi and I returned to the ship, the sun had risen and breakfast was being served, so we saw no reason to sleep. We ate and showered and headed back out on the town. First stop was a cheap little massage parlor that gave off that suspicious vibe that they probably do happy endings. We didn’t care though; any 20 dollar massage is fine by me. Then, we walked around trying more teas because we just couldn’t get enough of Chinese tea. We walked through a giant park on the water, which had a very oriental feel to it with its fishponds, cherry blossom trees and bamboo structures. At the other end, we found the locals market, which we had been dying to find because everything besides the food markets had been very touristy. Most of the stuff being sold was still crap, but we had fun roaming around and seeing the tacky local goods we knew had to be hidden somewhere. Then we got to a street that had traditional Chinese buildings filled with shops and restaurants. The funniest souvenir we found were live goldfish living in tiny water balls on key chains; that one would not make it back to the States though so we had to leave it alone. Finally sick of Chinese food, we were determined to find Mexican food for lunch. When we made it to the best Mexican restaurant in town, Adam and his uncle were having lunch outside next door at an Italian place. We took our food over to sit with them, laughing about the fact that we were eating Mexican food in an Italian restaurant in China. Adam’s uncle is awesome so we had a really fun lunch before returning to the MV for our trip on over to Taiwan! I freaking love China. China is so much fun it is indescribable. Everyone go to China!

China… The Land of Over Stimulation

Sing a Hong Kong Song

Two days of rocky waters after leaving Vietnam, the ship arrived in Hong Kong. After months of temperatures never dropping below 80 degrees, we were surprised at the mild weather, 70 degrees felt cold. I got off the ship by myself in the morning, planning to meet Krissy, Caroline and Lakshmi in the afternoon at Hong Kong Park. I walked around the massive port, which was on a little island off of Hong Kong, and made my way to the Star Ferry, which would bring me to the city. Confused about the token machine, a 25-year-old guy from Amsterdam helped me figure it all out. After chatting for a while on the ferry, we realized we were headed to the same place, Hong Kong Park, so we stuck together for the morning. Hong Kong is like a clean and beautiful version of New York City. Although it is part of China, Hong Kong and China is one country with two systems. They have different currency, government and policies, but are still one nation. Hong Kong Park is similar to Central Park, but more scenic and very tropical. The Dutch guy and I got to the park and headed to the Aviary House, a giant enclosed netting, housing hundreds of beautiful birds. There were waterfalls, trees and flowers everywhere and it was so bizarre to be in a tropical bubble with the city’s skyscrapers as a backdrop. The birds flew around above and below our heads as we walked around on bridges over the rivers and waterfalls. After the Aviary House, we strolled the rest of the park, seeing more ponds, waterfalls and flora. They had massive colorful fish all over and hundreds of turtles piling up on rocks and on top of each other. The cherry blossoms were in bloom for spring, giving the whole park a very Chinese feel. We ran into Krissy, Caroline and Lakshmi while exploring the park, and we headed to Lock Cha Tea House for some lunch and a Chinese tea tasting experience. We all shared a bunch of dim sung dishes, which is like the Chinese version of tapas. I have never drunk more tea in one sitting, or out of such fancy cup and teapots. It was an adorable tea party and we all left wired off the caffeine. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Hong Kong. Everyone was walking around in costume and we really weren’t sure why; we just figured the city was a wild place where dressing up crazy was acceptable any time of the year. We came across insane costume markets with wigs, tutus, masks, wings, ears, glasses, props, and any other costume imaginable. We only bought things that we could wear for the night because we were determined to stay out all day and night without returning to the ship to drop stuff off. The day was mostly city stuff, strolling around, touching stuff, figuring out the subway, eating street food, etc. We’ve all become really great at city orientation within our first day in port. It is an important skill to have when visiting five countries in a month. After only a few hours in a city, we feel like we’ve got a handle on it. After some food and drinks, we were determined to find a high-rise lookout to view a rumored light show called Symphony of the Stars that occurs nightly using the buildings of Hong Kong. After a few failed attempts at getting to the rooftops of business buildings, we found one rooftop bar with a great view of the buildings. Right on time, the business buildings displayed a colorful, rhythmic light show—a very festive sight that you would only see in the U.S. around Christmas. Saturday night in Hong Kong had begun and we were ready to find out where the party would be going down. We kept hearing the buzz words Lan Quay Fong, so we thought we might as well give that street a shot, since it was rumored to be a street full of great bars. When we got there, we found out what the costumes were all about. It was the most ridiculous party scene I have ever seen in my life. Think Margi Gras meets Isla Vista Halloween. Lan Quay Fong was packed, in every bar and spilling out, inundating the street with people from all over the world. We were astonished and ran down to the party to join in on the fun. We found out that the commotion was due to the Rugby Sevens Tournament, an annual event in Hong Kong, which is the biggest rugby tournament in the world. It is also the biggest party in Southeast Asia for the entire year. If the world had a party, it would be on Lan Quay Fong that weekend. I met people from Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, Canada, England, France, Holland, Germany, Italy and so many more countries than I can remember. Everyone was in costume, dancing and raging all throughout the streets, celebrating all night long. It is kind of a long game of musical costumes, because everyone just gives each other props, trading costumes all night long. We all returned to the ship that night with new wigs, hats, capes and more. The shenanigans of that night are indescribably fantastic. I have never had so much fun in my life… until the next night when we did it all again. Lan Quay FUN. Seriously, this weekend Hong Kong was the center of the universe. The next day in Hong Kong, I got off the ship with Cynthia, Lauren, Lilly and Emily. The ship was leaving to Shanghai, we were to meet it there, and so we had to find a hotel room in Hong Kong for the night. Many hotels were full due to the rugby tournament, so we ended up in a cute little artsy district in central downtown. It was a tiny little room, but we figured with Lan Quay Fong on the agenda, we wouldn’t be getting much sleep anyways. We now had costumes that we’d somehow ended up with from the night before, so we were set to go to the actual site of the tournament to see what all the fuss was about. When we got there, it was pretty clear that tickets were impossible to obtain and we would have to just join the ticketless under party tents next to the venue with a giant TV screen to watch the game. The scene of wild spectators drunkenly running around in colorful costumes was worth the drive over. After that, we strolled through some markets, checked out more of the city sights and returned to our hotel to prepare for a long night ahead. To our amazement, Lan Quay Fong was still going strong on a Sunday, even stronger possibly, because this time the tournament was ending, so all the rugby players came out to party. We danced until we dropped, meeting all the rugby players we could handle, tossing costumes around and partying with the best of ‘em from all over the world. Our remarkable timing landed us in Hong Kong just in time for this fabulous weekend—a very unexpected one. I must go back to Hong Kong someday for the Rugby Sevens Tournament: best party you will ever know.

Nam-a-rama

The ship arrived in Vietnam two days after leaving Singapore. I waved from the seventh deck at my mom and dad waiting below to get let onboard for a grand tour. As requested, they brought a box of Cheez-its, my beloved. After checking out the floating palace, we got off the ship to some steaming hot weather in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We had a private tour guide, Hai, and a driver to take us around Vietnam. First stop was lunch. Then, we met up with Lakshmi for some sight seeing. Vietnamese people sure love their scooters. The streets are packed with them and there is never a clear pass to cross the street, ever. You must learn to just forge through the traffic, walking with a purpose through the street, praying they will slow down to dodge you. It always seems like you’ll get hit, but somehow you just make it out alive. I just latched onto some locals most of the time and crossed with them to make sure I was doing it right. The city is a very modern, developed place with upscale shopping and hotels, skyscrapers, and a wild nightlife. Everything about Vietnam is a triangle—rice hats, carved shrubbery, street signs, roofs, everything. Hai took us around the Presidential Palace, where the Southern Vietnam democratic government operated prior to the Vietnam War. All of the grand rooms and offices are still in tact, but there are communist flags waving outside, boasting the North’s victory and the fall of democracy in Vietnam. They’ve been a socialist country ever since. Next stop was the War Remnants Museum. The museum exposes the truths and atrocities of the Vietnam War that they won’t show you in the U.S. It is kind of like a Holocaust Museum in that it holds back nothing, no matter how gory or gruesome. The most horrendous exhibit is the Agent Orange Room where they show photos of the victims suffering from exposure to Agent Orange, and the children that have been born deformed and defective from prenatal toxic exposure. The entire museum is a very eye opening demonstration of all the brutal and tragic attacks on Southern Vietnam. After the museum it was time for some market shopping—a crowded, crazy, bargaining mess of fake designer stuff and Asian trinkets. I was pretty overwhelmed so I kicked back with a beer, but my mom rocked the market with her mad New York skills. Lakshmi and I got hooked up with our own room at a sweet hotel right in the heart of downtown. We went to dinner with my parents and then convinced them to go out to the bars with us. The hottest nightclub in town was rumored to be Apocalypse Now, so we headed over there for some drinks and dancing. June and Alvin proved that they still know how to let loose and have a good time. Tons of Semester At Sea kids showed up at the club (where there is nightlife, SAS follows) so my parents got to meet lots of my friends. My mom, in typical June fashion, introduced me to new Vietnamese friends all over the club. When the club started getting packed and increasingly wild, my parents left Lakshmi and I to rage it all night long. I never imagined that nightlife in Vietnam would be so rowdy until the wee hours of the morning. My parents woke us up at 9 for breakfast, after they had already worked out, gone to the market and the pool. They never stop moving. Breakfast was a smorgasbord of all things imaginable—a dream come true. It was fuel for returning to the market, where I once again left the bargaining and shopping to mom and Lakshmi. Before I knew it, we were saying goodbye to Lakshmi and hopping on a plane to Nha Trang. Nha Trang is a sweet little beach town where life is a little slower and easier than in Saigon—just how I like it. The surrounding ocean is dotted with volcanic islands all around, making for a very scenic vacation spot. The soldiers used to party and relax in Nha Trang during the Vietnam War. It was a peaceful spot where no battles took place, so no destruction of infrastructure or foliage. We stayed at an amazing resort/spa in a little hut right on the beach. We spent the first day hanging around the beach and exploring the resort. It was pretty much my first time just purely relaxing in a port, so that was nice. Dinner at the resort was fantastic, at a restaurant in the sand. I tried convincing my dad to take me out on the town. We made it to the pool, where he convinced me to have a few drinks at the pool bar. Two passion fruit martinis later, it was obvious we weren’t going anywhere. The next day, Hai took us on a boating adventure around the various shores of Nha Trang. The boat went all of 4 miles per hour; we probably could have rowed faster. First, we went to an aquarium inside of a giant concrete structure shaped like a pirate ship, where we saw all of the sweet marine life of Southeast Asia. Then we went to another shore to see it all close up, scuba diving. I’m not certified so it was a thrill to go diving in a place where I didn’t need to be. A guide helped me out of course, but I was still able to get inches away from bright colored fish and coral without certification—it looked like Disneyworld it was so vibrant and lively. I snorkeled after that, for old time’s sake, but it wasn’t nearly as awesome. We got back on the boat for a ride over to lunch on another island. In the boat we were able to get close up to tons of different fishing villages throughout Nha Trang. They seem to really like these circular rowboats, which resemble bowls and seem difficult to operate. After lunch, where I continuously insisted that we were eating cat and dog, we cruised back to our resort (no place like home) for some spa treatments on dad. Oh yeah. The following morning was biking day to keep my dad happy, since he really only likes biking and wine. I threw on my dad’s “cool” biking clothes and we got on some bicycles with Hai. He took us to an ancient Cham Hindi temple leftover from about 3000 years ago. Then, we biked for hours, and while I’ll admit the views were gorgeous, it was about 95 degrees and the ride seemed like a never-ending uphill climb. We biked through the village, over bridges and into the foothills of the mountains. When I really couldn’t take it anymore, I threw my bike down and my mom was happy to join me for some beers while we waited for my gung ho dad to finish his ride. He found us chomping on some bacon French fries (weird) and we hopped back on the bikes for the long awaited downhill ride to lunch. We spent the rest of the day relaxing on the beach. My last day in Nha Trang, we ran around the market, which was much more local and non-touristy than the markets of Saigon. Still though, they kept badgering “Lady! Lady! You want t-shirt?!” No thank you, I still do not want communist flag tees and hats shoved in my face. Then we headed over to Long Son Pagoda, a Buddhist worship site. The roofs of all the buildings are decorated with mosaic dragons made of pieces of glass and ceramic—flared and fancy in typical Southeast Asian fashion. We entered the temples and Hai taught us how to light incense and stick it into the big pot in front of a Buddha shrine during prayer. Hai is Buddhist. He has a massive mole on his face with inch long hairs sticking out, quite disgusting. However, Buddhists consider the mole/hair combo noble; he calls it his good luck charm. Anyways, behind the pagoda is a steep hill of stone stairs, which we climbed to find a 14-meter high white Buddha statue sitting on a lotus blossom. There is an amazing view overlooking all of Nha Trang from the top of the hill where the Buddha sits. We drank milk out of coconuts and made our way back down the hill. I lucked out and got another spa treatment before heading back to the airport to return to Saigon. My parents stayed in Nha Trang because they were to bike back to Saigon, a nine hour car ride away. I would die. Good thing it was time for me to make my way back to the ship. I ran by the tailor in Saigon who had turned my sari from India into a long skirt and halter top. Then, I ate my last delicious Vietnamese dinner by myself and headed back to the MV Explorer for a ride over to China!

Singapore Slingers

Here starts my blog-a-thon. Since Mauritius it feels like I’ve been getting off of the ship every other day in a new port, and we pretty much have been. On ship for two days then off for a week, it has been hard to write about it all when all the countries in Asia are so close together. I have one day left until Taiwan and I’m determined to churn out entries about Singapore, Vietnam and China. After India, it was interesting to go from the dirtiest country in the world to the cleanest. Singapore was a whirlwind day, because that is all we had. The ship administration knows Semester At Sea students, and if we had had any longer than one day in port, somebody would have been arrested, due to Singapore’s stringent laws and our rambunctious tendencies. In Singapore it is illegal to spit on the ground, chew gum, litter, eat in the subway and do a lot of other things that we consider everyday actions. The punishments are severe and include being caned publicly in the streets. So we made sure we were on our best behavior. Lakshmi and I invited a medical student that was new to the voyage, Ben, to come around Singapore with us. Ben is in residency in Virginia and is gaining experience working in the medical clinic on the ship. So we all got off the ship and headed over to Chinatown for some lunch because we heard that Chinatown in Singapore is famous. We took the immaculate subway over there and found a hole in the wall that turned out to be fabulous Chinese food. After that, we ran to the grocery store to try out the Singaporean beers, which we brought with us to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. This nature reserve is actually a rain forest, and it is the only rain forest within a city in the entire world. It was beautiful with lush greenery, monkeys and lots of different hikes. We trekked around, amazed that all that beauty could be found right in the midst of a bustling city. In typical rain forest fashion, it starting raining on us, so we ran to take cover in a gazebo and polished off the beers. It continued to pour, so we sucked it up and ran down the hike, soaking ourselves for the rest of the day. Next, we toured the city a bit by foot. Singapore is an amazing city, very modern and advanced. It is a marvel of Asia because it has built itself up from nothing. The country began without natural resources or geographical advantage, and their development was still a wild success. They have really advanced city planning, like bullet trains and billboards that announce the amount of spots left in each parking garage. It is so clean that you would probably be fine eating off of the sidewalk. When we realized that everything was way too expensive, we decided to go swimming. We headed over to this park on a boat looking structure that stretches atop three skyscrapers. We went into one of them, a hotel, and on our way up to the top, Lakshmi made friends with a guy in the elevator. It was a smooth move because it cost 20 dollars a person to get in if you are not staying at the hotel, and this guy got all three of us in for free. He expected some fun with Lakshmi in return, but she said she didn’t have a swimsuit. Next thing we knew, he was gone and we were all swimming in a giant infinity pool that towered over all of Singapore. Lakshmi just went in her underwear, which was pretty hilarious in the high class scene of the hotel. The view from the top was spectacular; we could see everything. After hanging around the pool for a while, we got dressed to leave and the guy from the elevator came back with an Armani bikini for Lakshmi. She rejected him, turned down the bikini and we were on our way. Next stop was dinner at an outdoor food court near a lake. We ate some local cuisine, then headed to the bar. We tried Singapore’s infamous “Singapore Sling.” Apparently, you are supposed to drink it out of syringes sitting in wheelchairs, but we just slurped them out of cups. Next thing we knew it was time to get back on the MV Explorer to cruise on over to Vietnam.

Still India

I think I left off on the streets of Varanasi—the realest game of Frogger you have ever seen. They call it “the heartbeat of India” and it is the oldest living city in the world. Dodging rickshaws, beggars, bikes and animals, we finally made it through the chaos. We toured the oldest university in India and visited a historic Hindu temple on the campus. Hungry from the early morning, we ate breakfast before heading to the airport for a flight back to Delhi. Delhi is the country’s capital and is known for their modernized lifestyle. When we arrived in Delhi, we had a small sightseeing bus tour of the bustling city, viewing the war memorial, Parliament House, Secretariat buildings and the official residence of the President of India on our way to a Sikh Gurwara. Shout out to Shelley! I had my first Sikh temple experience! As in all other temples India, we were required to take off our shoes. The Sikhs were actually washing their feet as well in these still water baths in front of the temple. It seemed pretty nasty since the water must be filthy from hundreds of feet, so I skipped that part. The temple was absolutely gorgeous and the busiest temple I visited in India. Everyone was worshipping a giant shrine in the center of the room, sitting on the floor all around it, chanting prayers. On the way out of the temple, they have this big bowl of wet dough looking stuff that an Indian man scoops his hand into and plops into your cupped hands. All the people I was with were avoiding, but I decided to try it, not realizing I would get a hunk the size of a fist. With no trashcans in sight, I had no choice but to finish it all, even though it tasted like baby food. I learned that the food was meant to cleanse people of their sins, along with the water that they washed their feet in. Outside of the temple there was a pond that when dug up, groundwater filled it automatically, so they never had to bring water in. The water miraculously replenishes itself from the ground, so they consider it holy water. We checked into the Ashok Hotel, a giant hotel with many restaurants, shops, and nightclubs. We immediately discovered the clubs, which we were stoked to hear would be open until 4am. After a delicious Indian dinner, we went to the hotel’s hookah bar for some hookah, drinking and belly dancing. Then, we ventured to the bar which we were surprised to find resembled American nightlife much more than anywhere we had seen in India so far. They were playing mainstream music, mixed with some Indian rap that was in English but spoke of the Taj Mahal and other Indian things. While we danced and socialized, a photographer was treating us like celebrities, sticking to us with paparazzi fervor. Brittany and I met some South African bankers that were in town for business and stuck with them for a bit because the drinks were expensive and they were buying. When some of our friends came into the bar saying a club called Capitol was letting in Semester At Sea kids, the South Africans begged us to take them over to Capitol. We had no idea that Indian nightlife could get any crazier than what we had already seen, but when we were let in to Capitol, we were shocked at the scene. People were raging and raving to techno, women were actually drinking, and the DJ was getting the crowd to go wild. Girls were dressed in tight little mini-dresses, showing cleavage, shoulders and knees—something we had definitely not yet seen in the conservative parts of the country. Brittany and I went to the bathroom and an Indian girl dressed in stilettos and a little party dress was helping Brittany, a white American, pin her sari back into place. We asked the Indian girl how she got away with dressing like that and if her parents ever tried prohibiting her from leaving the house like that. She laughed and explained that she worked at a call center in Delhi, sending remittances home to her family. If they had anything to say about her clothing, they could get their own jobs and earn money themselves. She holds all the power in her family thanks to outsourced jobs in India, which provide opportunity to English speaking Indians. We stuck with her most of the night, dancing the night away, meeting tons of Indians in the young, liberal crowd. After a crazy night of partying, we realized it was already 3am and our wakeup call was at 4:15am. It was okay though because we had plenty of time to sleep on the Shatabdi Express, a train to Agra. The train station in India is an experience in and of itself. It is jam packed with thousands of people. Beggars and homeless people remain there day and night, displaying some of the most abject poverty in all of India. A lot of people had birth defects and deformities, many unable to stand up due to defective hip sockets. One man had Elephantitis, which made his feet the size of my backpack. We saw the children bring their earnings back to older men. Some ran up to us on both legs than dropped to the floor, pretending their hip sockets were collapsed. Many children appeared as though they had been maimed, with missing fingers or other defects to evoke sympathy—proving that Slumdog Millionaire was actually pretty accurate. The whole station reeked worse than any place I’ve ever been. We were lucky to travel first class in chairs, because the lower classes on the train crammed people in like cargo. There were literally Indians sitting on each other’s laps with another man on top of that, spilling out the door of the train and sitting on the stairs up to the car. The sleeper trains weren’t any better, with bunk beds stacked four beds high. It was a very scenic train ride though from what I saw when I did open my eyes between naps. When we got to Agra, it was time to see the legendary Taj Mahal. We got dropped off at the long walkway up to the monument, where monkeys prance around, stealing pins and flowers out of tourists’ hair. The Taj Mahal was beautiful, of course, and we took tons of photos, walking around to the surrounding monuments and getting inside of the Taj. Here’s a quick rundown, since we all know the Taj, but most of us just know its pretty and famous and nothing more: The Taj Mahal is a 17th century Mausoleum in white marble, built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his queen Mumtaz Mahal. It is an architectural marvel due to its perfect symmetry of design and construction, with intricate detailing carved into every inch. The impenetrable marble never stains or scuffs, so it is just as beautiful as the day it was built. The emperor ordered its construction after his favorite wife passed away, during a time of economic distress in India. He made it a public work project so to employ the unemployed for many years. The monuments surrounding the Taj are also dedicated to his various wives, however, theirs all look alike and boring in the presence of the Taj. However, I was surprised upon entering the Taj Mahal to discover that it is really just a giant, gorgeous tomb for Queen Mumtaz, with her coffin surrounding by fencing, and a circular pathway around that. We walked inside and just thought that’s it? The outside makes it look like the inside will be a fantastical palace with rooms and corridors for days, but the inside was really just a small room for one very special corpse. Still, the whole scene was definitely worth seeing. When we walked out the other side, we sat down on the marble stairs to look out over the river. All of a sudden, we were the main attraction. Indian tourists were snapping our picture left and right, even lining up with their families to be the next to pose with us. We were shocked. Here we are, sitting at one of the world wonders, one of the hottest tourist spots in the world, and people want pictures with us? We laughed and smiled along for the photos for a while, as people stuck their kids between us, and grown adults asked to pose next to us. What are they going to do with those photos? Like here we are kids, with a bunch of white girls sitting outside of the Taj Mahal…this one is going on the mantel! Whatever though, they were so excited, even giddy, so we humored them and posed until we were sick of the modeling and got up to walk around more. Next, we went over to the close by Agra Fort. It is basically a walled city that was used by numerous emperors and has changed hands frequently for hundreds of years. Many emperors and rulers have added and taken away from the fort and the structures have withstood many battles within and outside of the forts walls. Emperor Akbar, king at 14, began consolidating his empire and, as an assertion of his power built the fort in Agra between 1565 and 1571. Emperor Shah Jahan added to the fort and ended up a prisoner in it. The fort has a beautiful view of the Taj Mahal. After another spicy Indian lunch and all the naan we could handle (I LOVE NAAN) we traveled to the Fatehpur Sikri, a deserted city 25 miles from Agra. Emperor Akbar built it as his capital in the 1500s to honor a Muslim saint that correctly prophesized the birth of his heir. It is a congregation of beautiful red sandstone palaces that are in a remarkable state of preservation. When we arrived, I was strolling around the palaces alone to take photos when an Indian man approached me asking if he could take me on a tour around the palaces. We had been told not to talk to Indians around Fatephur Sikri, because they were up to no good, but he was well-dressed university student, and promised he just wanted to practice his English, so I agreed. I’m so glad I did because I learned so much about the city. We walked to each palace—one for the king and three for his wives. In the king’s palace, he showed me the king’s bed, which is actually still standing and resembles a giant fratty lofted bunk, which I thought was funny. He had three wives and 540 mistresses that all got to spend time up there. The king’s palace had a huge five-story lookout for watching his citizens. The three wives’ palaces were beautiful but the king definitely liked to play favorites. He had a Hindi, Muslim and Catholic wife. The Hindi’s palace was massive and gorgeous, obviously the favorite wife, the Muslim’s was a bit smaller, and the Catholic wife got shorted with a tiny but detailed palace. They all had their respective places of worship and rooms for entertaining guests. There was a dance school for the women as well. On the ground outside of the king’s palace, there was a giant chessboard engraved and painted onto the concrete. He used naked women as pawns to play with his friends. The city was definitely a marvel, with spectacular lookouts and amazing architecture. After my enlightening tour, I told my guide that it was time to go. He told me that he “liked to me so much” and that I simply must return to India so that we could get married. Seeing as this was my third proposal of the trip (Bernard in Ghana, my safari guide Dean in South Africa, and now him) I’ve become great at lettin’ em down easy, haha. So I graciously declined and got out of there. It was time to hop back on the Shatabdi Express for a ride back to Delhi. Brittany got some mad food poisoning and an Indian doctor had to meet us at the hotel to help her out. I decided to stick with her in the hotel for the night, ordering room service and watching movies instead of returning to the wild Delhi nightlife. We had another early wake up call anyways and I was exhausted, so it was a good decision. In the morning we hopped on a plane back to Chennai. I ran around doing last minute shopping at the market before returning to the ship for our ride over to Singapore. At this point, I’ve been to Singapore, Vietnam and China since leaving India, and my clothing still reeks. I’m not sure it’ll ever smell the same, so I can always remember India—a place at the crossroads of modernity and tradition, crowded with people, bursting with culture—a place I’ll never forget.

India, Part Deux

We left Chennai on a plane to Delhi, then another plane to Varanasi—the oldest city in the world, and the holy city of Hinduism. This means lots and lots of holy cows. The streets are jam packed with street vendors, masses of pedestrians and big piles of trash blocking the roads with a giant cow standing on top of them, naturally getting first dibs on the best dumpster diving. Incredibly godlike. This is no place for personal space or relaxed strolls through town. Looking down for an instant could lead to disaster. Oh, and feces everywhere—human, cow, goat, who knows what else. After checking into our hotel, where they smeared bindis on our foreheads and draped us in flowers, we ate a bomb Indian buffet lunch, which was a great opportunity to try all the spicy flavors and weird lookin’ dishes. Then, we traveled to Sarnath, to see the ruins of the ancient city where Buddha preached his first sermon to his first five disciples. Sarnath is as holy to the Buddhists as Varanasi is to the Hindus. We visited the Archaeological Museum of Sarnath, which exhibited Buddhist and Hindu statues and works of art that have been preserved for thousands of years. We went to Buddhist monastery ruins, which were scattered throughout a beautiful, peaceful garden. Buddhist monks from all over the world gather here to pray, meditate, and visit the place where it all went down. At first I didn’t understand why all the depictions of Buddha appeared so normal, like your average Joe. When did Buddha come from skinny, solemn teacher to fat, jovial legend? Then I learned it was only after death that Buddha reached his ultimate form, the “rub da Buddha belly” type that we all know and love. My favorite Buddhists were the Tibetan monks who walked around in robes, all chubby and jolly with shaved heads and smiles from ear to ear. A lot of them wanted to take pictures with Brittany and I, I guess because we were white girls in saris? We weren’t really sure. We sat down in the fields listening to the humming and melodic prayer of the Buddhists, meditating alongside them. Next, we went to the new Buddhist temple at Sarnath. It is intricately painted with murals lining the inside, leading up to a shrine to Buddha. Outside the temple there is a huge exhibit filled with prayer flags and candles, incense burning, a quadruple life sized Buddha with his five disciples, and other tributes to Buddhism. My favorite part about temples in India is that you can never wear your shoes. Next stop was Varanasi’s historic silk factory. We watched two men working a silk spinning device and explaining their work through a translator. They can only create three centimeters of silk per day. We bought some sweet colorful silk goodies at the vibrant warehouse and went back to the hotel for some dinner. At dinner, the hotel staff invited all the women to gather in the center of the restaurant around a giant cake with a Barbie on top and candles. They claimed it was International Women’s Day, and we all laughed skeptically, assuming the hotel wanted to prove to us Americans that their treatment of women is progressive. We had never even heard of the day. So, being the cynical Americans that we are, we decided to Google it on somebody’s cell phone. We looked no further than Google’s homepage, which was dedicated to the 100th annual of International Women’s Day. Still it was pretty hilarious to celebrate women’s rights with a giant Barbie display. Brittany and I ordered a bottle of Indian wine to celebrate her birthday, which started at midnight. In 24 hours, we truly celebrated her birthday right, on a tour through the entire lifecycle, Indian style: a baby shower, a wedding, a funeral, and a rebirth. Starting with the baby shower: the hotel we were staying in was hosting a giant celebration and we weren’t sure what it was, but judging from the music and lights, we knew we wanted to get in. After watching a few Semester At Sea students get turned away at the entrance, we decided to give it a shot because we were actually dressed up for the occasion in our beautiful saris. We walked up to the man greeting guests at the door and asked if we could join the party. He said, “Yes, of course! Why not?” as though we were invited guests. We were received well at the party for the most part. The mommy-to-be seemed a bit confused when we approached her on her swing to give congratulations, but not displeased. The party was a giant arena of Indian dishes and desserts in a ring around a lawn. There was a bounce house and costumed men to entertain the children. There was a big dressed up mouse and a mime, but they both seemed to be on crack, and would not leave us alone, coming toward us in zombie fashion, trying to creep on us and begging for money. It was weird that we could not even escape beggars at a very high caste baby shower. Nonetheless, the baby shower was an all out celebration with over 100 guests. We ate our second dinner, socialized with cool Indians and marveled at the glitz and glam, which we had not yet seen in India. When the baby shower seemed to be winding down, we ventured to the bar to drink with fellow SASers to gain courage for our next escapade. We heard music across the street, so we followed it, this time crashing a wedding. Indian wedding crashers. The wedding was gorgeous and colorful, with flowers everywhere, another bounce house, and tons of people eager to meet us. Again, we were welcomed with open arms, immediately approached by the brother of the bride, Raj, who said they were honored that we came. We could only chalk up our good fortune to our saris, before buying them Indians never received us this well. It was a Brahman wedding, the highest caste in India, so we were talking to doctors, lawyers, high priests, and other wealthy elite of India. They explained that they were eager to hear our perceptions of India and our life experiences in the U.S., which is why we were swarmed with chatter. The wedding was like the baby shower in setup, only four times the size. The arena of food was incredible, and Raj saw to it that we tried all the most authentic dishes, despite our hesitance, seeing as it was our third dinner. The bride and groom were up on a stage, sitting on a throne. The throne sat on a bed of rose petals, surrounded by an arc of assorted bright flowers, with machines shooting out rose petals from every direction. This was the only place in India that smelled amazing. Guests sit in line to take photos with the newlyweds, and Raj took us right up to the front of the line. We saw disapproving eyes darting our way so we insisted that we wait until later for our photo, as cutting the line would be unfair to other guests. So, he brought us back to the desserts where we continued stuffing ourselves silly with the most amazing food and at the end of the food gauntlet, there was a hookah table. We asked if it was okay for women to smoke sheisha, and the men said yes, but motioned for us to smoke through their hands. We did not want to refuse and be rude, so we did, and whatever we were smoking didn’t really taste or feel like tobacco. All of a sudden, the elders who never seemed to really want us there to begin with, were crowding around us, coming closer, looking angrier. It was scary, so we timidly backed out of the wedding, waving and thanking and rushing our asses outta there. On our way out, the younger men explained that all the modern, younger guests were happy to have us there, the more traditional, older ones were more reluctant to white people attending a Brahman wedding. It was one in the morning, and the fun was over. The next morning we had another early wake up call—4:30 AM—to make it to sunrise on the Ganges River. We got to the banks of the river and boarded a boat to sail along the river to witness a spectacle of religious practice that has continued unchanged over centuries. The Ganges River is the most sought after funeral sight, because it is believed holy to have your ashes scattered in the river. Gandhi did it—trendy, trendy. We visited the place where the bodies were being burned and cremated, making for unbearably sooty air and the smell of burning flesh. At dawn, pilgrims converge to the holy waters for the ritual immersion and prayer to release their souls from the cycle of rebirth. From what I gathered, they are symbolically rebirthed in the holy waters instead of literal rebirth after death. The sight was unbelievable, with masses of people praying, bathing, and meditating under a gorgeous sunrise. When we got off the boat, we strolled through the ancient city surrounding the river. The path weaving through tightly packed buildings was about five feet wide, just barely allowing the traffic of beggars, vendors, tourists motorcycles, cows, and monkeys through. We saw a homeless man summoning cobras out of baskets with his flute. Two cobras that we had to walk past, leaving about three feet to get past safely. When we got out of the cobble streets and through the madness, we were met with more madness—the streets of Varanasi. I’ve never seen more chaotic streets at six in the morning. I still can’t finish this post yet, because we just got to Vietnam and my mom and dad are about to get on the ship! I still have lots more of India to describe, a trip to Singapore, and now Vietnam! I’m behind, but I’ll catch up soon.

HOLY COW!

I smell India! Seriously though, India smells man. I haven’t blogged in a while, so this is going to be a long one. Leaving Mauritius, we only had a few days at sea before arriving in Chennai, in Southern India. On the way, however, we had a couple of students that were had serious medical conditions that needed immediate treatment. Worried about the quality of health care in India, Captain Jeremy decided to book it over to Diego Garcia to drop off the kids and fly them to Singapore for medical attention. Diego Garcia is a super secret US army base where they apparently do tons of experiments and testing (Shutter Island?) but nobody is supposed to know about it. We were the first cruise ship to ever dock there, and some of the first non-military people to ever catch a glimpse of the island. To get there, we were cruising through some pretty sketchy pirate territory. I asked Captain Jeremy what our defenses against pirates are and he told me that we have our speed (the MV Explorer can go faster than most naval ships) and a fire hose. He says that a fire hose can knock out people trying to attack, but if our ship is shot at, we’re pretty much screwed, so we depend on speed. Normally we run one engine at about 30% capacity on a daily basis. To get in and out of Diego Garcia, we ran four engines at 90%. After the detour, we made it to Chennai. Before getting there, the crew covered all the deck furniture with plastic and the stairs and carpets with cardboard. We asked them why and they explained that India was so dirty it would literally ruin the inside of the ship and outdoor furniture if they didn’t cover everything. Niiiice. So we get to India knowing a few things: it’s incredible filthy, we need to clothe almost every part of our bodies, there will be no toilet paper available, we can’t use our left hands to wave, eat, drink, or gesture because it is disrespectful seeing as they wipe with that hand, crossing our legs is disrespectful, no public displays of affection, and don’t eat street food. So pretty much, no more African shenanigans. Day one, I got off of the ship in search of some spicy Indian lunch with Elliot. A lot of people went to the World Cup cricket match, South Africa verses England, held in Chennai, but considering it is a slow, boring, eight-hour game, I passed on that one. We got in an auto-rickshaw, India’s very shady form of a petty cab. Picture a little smart car sized tin on top of tricycle wheels, two in back, one in front, with the steering wheel of a motorcycle, and no doors. All of the traffic in India has this chaotic but fluid system of making you think you’re about to die, while amazing you with the flow of it all. India has 1% of the world’s automobiles and 10% of the world’s driving accidents. The hierarchy starting from the top is pretty much cows, cars, motorcycles, rickshaws and then humans—determining who stops for who, who dies first. People u-turn whenever, wherever, honk uncontrollably and relentlessly, and will literally push people out of the way. I had a rickshaw driver stick his arm out and shove an old man from behind on a bicycle to get him to move out of our way. The cows flood the streets, but they are considered sacred and god-like (even though they just mosey around eating out of the trash) so they have the right of way. Looking around at the treatment of cows in India, the source of Tommy Boy’s “Holy cow!” tagline came to me. It’s funny because we’ve seen a progression of stray animals: Dominica had feral cats, Brazil had feral cats and dogs, Africa had feral cats, dogs and goats, and India had feral cats, dogs, goats, cows, and water buffalo. There are tons of monkeys too, but it seemed like some were domesticated. I met one little girl that was running around and playing with a monkey wrapped around her head. Who needs a safari when you can just walk the streets of India! Anyways, after a delicious lunch of vegetable butter masala and buttered naan (best bread in the world), I headed back to the ship for a field trip called “Socioeconomic Problems in Chennai.” It ended up being a bit more like socioeconomic solutions in Chennai though, because they took us to a rehabilitation and resettlement center for families that have been saved from tsunami destruction, or found to be living in the worst slum conditions around. The village was called Semmancherri and was funded by the government and various charities. They provided school for children, usually pulling them out of child labor, skill training for adults, clean drinking water, permanent housing, health care, awareness programs, livelihood support groups and more. The goal is to train the adults in trades that could help them to pull themselves out of abject poverty, to stand on their own two feet, eventually providing for their families themselves and moving out of the rehabilitation center. The particular room we visited was a room of women taught to make female sanitary napkins and adult diapers. It was so funny, but it wasn’t really the kind of place where you can laugh. We learned a lot about the rehabilitation center and all of the different trades and projects available. Then we went to the school to play with little boys. We asked where the girls were and the men looked confused, so we were pretty sure that girls don’t get a shot at education. It was here that I braved my first trip to the bathroom in India. I asked a woman where I could go and she brought me to stall with a hole in the ground and pointed at a bucket. I could not understand what she could possibly be trying to tell me about the bucket but she kept gesturing at it. Finally, she picked it up, walked outside, filled it with water and brought it back. I realized that the bucket was the Indian style of wiping. They splash water on themselves with their left hands, instead of using toilet paper, hence the dreaded usage of the left hand. Walking around the village, people were so excited to run up and meet us, shaking our hands and asking us millions of questions. Caked in dirt, we returned to the ship to shower off and go out on the town. Ajay and Ashok are the inter-port students that came on in Mauritius to teach us about their hometown—Chennai. They gave us a list of things to do and told us they’d show us around, so we decided we would meet up with them for hookah at Mojo Mochas. First though, Adam, Pato, Lakshmi and I wanted to try getting in to an Indian classical music concert at the Music Academy. We had been told there would be a concert, but upon arrival, realized the Academy was being taken over by “Herbalife” promoters, introducing a California weight loss drink. We were surprised that weight loss scams had even made it to a place where so much of the population is starving and malnourished. Anyways, we stuck out there, like everywhere we went, so at least we made some friends. Chennai is unusual because we literally did not see one person (excluding shipmates) that was not Indian. It is the most homogenous population I have ever seen. In Northern India, it was much more integrated with swarming tourists, but since Chennai is more of an industrial city, it was quite an experience to be in a place that has not conformed to western ways whatsoever. We left the concert hall and headed to the hookah bar to meet up with Ajay and Ashok. We ordered a delicious chocolate fondue platter, Indian sweet milk tea and an Indian spice hookah. Ajay warned us that if we did not get to the nightclubs before 11pm, we would not get into them. Indian culture shuns drinking and nightlife closes down really early, with alcohol only being served at hotels. Once we headed over to the nightclubs, they were all closed before 11pm, so we ended up finding a bunch of Semester at Sea kids at the one hotel pub that was open. Where there is alcohol, SAS kids will find it and congregate. The hotel felt overwhelmed and kicked us all out, but Adam, Pato, Lakshmi, Ajay and I stuck around for a few minutes. A rich Indian man took a liking to us and brought us back into the bar and demanded that they reopen it for service. A few drinks later, it was really closing time, so Adam, Pato and I bought a bottle and headed to the beach. When we got there we were surprised to find thousands of people sleeping stretched out over the beach for miles. I guess when you live in poverty it might as well be on the beach. They weren’t close to the water though so we headed to the ocean for some night swimming. The Indian Ocean is so warm and we had a great time. Lucky for us, nobody saw us, because we found out the next day that women are prohibited from wearing swim suits and it is not socially acceptable for men or women swim at all on the beaches of Chennai—yikes. Women in India walk around looking like princesses on the daily—bright colored saris, dripping in jewelry, lavender flowers tucked in their hair, and fancy bindis stuck between their eyes. We were completely mesmerized by them, so the next day, Brittany, Mariah and I went on a mission to find some saris so that we could fit in. We got in a rickshaw and told him where we wanted to go, and learned a little driver trick of Chennai. When they realize you are going shopping, they take you to the wrong store, a terribly overpriced boutique usually, and tell you to just take a look for five minutes. Usually this is either their friend or family’s store, or a place where they receive commission for taking tourists. If you realize they are doing this and demand to go straight to your destination, they offer to lower the cost of your ride to convince you, or pretend they don’t understand you and take you there anyways. This poses a problem when you really need to be somewhere, but luckily we had all day. Finally, after seeing two expensive but beautiful art gallery stores, we made it to the sari shop. Three gorgeous women helped us try on tons of beautiful saris until we found our matches. Then, it was time for another awesome Indian lunch where we were introduced to the Indian head nod. Instead of up and down for yes, or side to side for no, Indians shake their heads laterally like bobble heads to mean yes. Americans can easily mistake this for no, but it is not merely a side to side nod, it is a facing forward shift of the head left to right in a motion I have yet to master. At first we thought they were telling us that none of the items on the menu were okay to order, but after repeated nods we thought we must have some food coming and left it alone. After lunch, we went to a big market to get shopping out of the way. Indian clothing, tapestries, pillow covers, bags, scarves, silk, rugs, everything was so vibrant, bejeweled, and striking that we just had to have it all, so we had a long day of successful bargaining. We went back to the ship to put on our saris and realized we had no idea what to do, so we asked Indian crew members to help us out. They wrapped us up and we were ready for a night on the town. We went to a delicious dinner on a rooftop of Rain Tree Hotel, enjoying drinks and dessert under the stars. We called it a night, returning to the ship for a couple hours of sleep, before our 3:30AM wakeup call to catch a flight to Delhi. In line for security screening, Brittany and I met a white American girl that had just been married in Chennai to an Indian man. She was with her wedding posse—husband, twin sister, father, brother and some friends—on their way to Delhi for some sightseeing. She was covered from head to toe in henna, in traditional Indian wedding fashion, with her husband’s name hidden in the henna for him to find on their wedding night. If the groom cannot find it, he owes her money or a favor. She explained that her husband is a Brahman (the highest caste in India, high priests) so many of his friends and family refused to attend their wedding because this would be endorsing the mixed marriage. Instead of the traditional three day Indian wedding, theirs was cut short to only one day because it was so small. She was from Idaho and her father was hilariously redneck, with sloppy shorts and a stained t-shirt on, badly sunburned and saying in a loud, obnoxious, croaky voice, “my little girl’s gonna have three weddin’s!” referring to her court marriage, Indian wedding and American wedding. I would have loved to see him meet the Brahman parents of the groom—he really outdid the typical American white trash stereotype. We flew from Chennai to Delhi, and Dehli to Varanasi. Varanasi is the oldest city in the world, and a cultural hub of Buddhism and Hinduism. The next few days were a whirlwind of sightseeing, wedding crashing, meditation, religious overload, yoga, song, dance, crowds, rebirth, spices and all things India in Varanasi, Agra and Delhi, but you’ll have to wait for my next entry to hear the rest because this boat rocking is putting me to sleep. Namaste!