Hakuna Matata! Yes this actually means no worries in Swahilli and the locals say it ALL the time (no not for tourists).Image

Hordes of baboons patrolled the parking lot as we entered the world famous national park. After this pic saw another baboon leap into a car filled with people, steal their lunch and then scurry to the jungle. Then another stole a womans chips right out of her hand as she walked by.

Watch out for the troop

I didnt even care though– I was preoccupied with puking relentlessly out the window. It was the worst bout of food poisoning I have ever had. As we drove on our safari I was so cold that I put on 3 sweatshirts and wrapped myself in a blanket, AND I was still shivering. It only lasted about 12 hours but I truly felt near death.

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–Clearly enjoying this moment on our safari.

Funniest part is I have eaten scorpions in Vietnam, streetfood in India and pigeon pie in Morocco without a problem. Somehow it was the lettuce from a 4 star hotel in Tanzania that brought me off my “I eat everything when I travel and never get sick” pedestal.

We watched them eat a Cape Buffalo and then wander to the shade by our car to pass out.

I did manage to glimpse at some wildlife here was was a functional human by the next days journey. Over the next 4 weeks I suffered extreme altitude sickness while climbing the highest mountain in Africa, blew out my dirtbike tire in a small village in Zanzibar, and went to the 2nd largest slum in the world. Ah so much I’d love to write about but definitely don’t have the time to right now. Check out some pics below though:

Zanzibar:

Sunset in Stone Town, Zanzibar

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Scuba diving quite an adventure. We even did a night dive.

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Kibera Slums–near Nairobi KenyaI know that might be hard to believe

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I gave them 60 click pens and they were thrilled. Really made me want to give more. Seems unfair to be born in these conditions but honestly they seemed just as happy

Tanzania

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We climbed for 24 miles and 17 out of 20 hours on the final day of our trek up Kilimanjaro. I had such bad altitude sickness and the temp was -20 with 45 mph wind so we only stayed at the top a few minutes

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A break we took partway down on this intense day when we summited

Leeches I believe theyre called. I like the name hairy strawberries better though.

Ok enough monkeyin around. Im out to get some work done.



Talked with a few people who have read my blog in the recently and decided Id update it for the hell of it. Ill add a few things from some of my recent adventures because looking at site stats it seems im still getting over 15 people a week checking out this site.

The second I walked off the ship in 2009 I knew semester at sea was a life changing experience. Every day that goes by I realize more and more how lucky and life changing that experience was. 13 countries, 55,000 miles and a lifetime of memories in 4 months on that ship. Since SAS I have saved every dollar possible to feed my addiction of traveling. In the two years since semester at sea Ive explored Thailand, New Zealand, Honduras and Puerto Rico. In a week I am going on another trip of a life time. Here is our itinerary: Dublin–>London–>Paris–>Rome–>Madrid–>Pamplona (running with the bulls!)–>Barcelona–>Ibiza–>Amsterdam–>Prague–>Budapest–>Warsaw–>Berlin–>Dublin–>Cedar Rapids. All this in 5 weeks. Yes it is now officially an addiction. Ill just throw up some pics and big events from recent trips:

Thailand 2009:

This trip started being planned the week I got back from semester at sea. I saw so much cool stuff while traveling that I was able to persuade my closest friends to travel across the world with me. My one roommate, Adam keune, had never even been on a plane. His first flight was a short flight from Chicago to Tokoyo haha.

Some big things we did:

Visited the Grand palace in Bangkok. I have been to palaces, cathedrals, statues and other monuments around the world and this is the most impressive I have seen yet. Its strange architecture and shine set it apart for me. One funny story is that on our way in a guard came up to us and told us it was closed for a Thai holiday. He had a big gun and uniform so he seemed believable but we had heard there was scams so we kept going in. We found out that he was lying, he was trying to trick us into catching a $4 tuk tuk (taxi thingy) ride from his friend. How could that 4 dollar scam be profitable? Oh the joys of a third world country…

In our stay in Bangkok we also visited the floating market, went on a zoo tour, and boated around town on some shanty boats for a few dollars.

We also shot machine guns in Bangkok. That was expensive but easily worth it.

Probably the most dangerous thing we did all trip was driving around on mopeds in the traffic. Traffic in Bangkok is like Chicago traffic if all laws were suddenly abolished there. Sheer madness. We rode on mopeds several times and it felt like I was in a video game. We decided to take a risk and rent our own towards the end of the trip. They actually went 100km/ hr (60 mph) so these were not to be joked around with. Thai drivers disregard lanes and constantly honk their horn.

One vivd memory I have from renting mopeds was when we were sittign at the front of the line waiting at a red light. There were roughly 20 mopeds behind us at the red light. There was a countdown timer that clicked down so everyone knew when the light was turning green. Once the countdown timer got to about 15 seconds all the motorbikes revved up and started swerving around us. A few honked at us as they drove around us as they drove through the red light. Screw it I thought,  red lights red lights must not be a big deal here; we followed the stream of locals running the red light.

We then flew down south to Koh Phi Phi. We were escorted to this paradise by a small wooden boat. The local Thai captains, on our way over smoked a joint as they drove us through the crashing waves. Not surprising given their dreadlocks and hippie clothes.

We went snorkeling and partied around the island with other travelers. I dont have the time to do this place justice as it is one of the most chill, beautiful places ive ever been. One quick sketchy circumstance we ended up in: We hiked from the village on one side of the island to the other side so we could go snorkeling. We had a 1.5 hour hike over a small mountain and through dense jungle. There were also lots of shanty huts hidden for locals on the side of the path. We made it to the other side and snorkeled for a few hours. By the time we went to swim back into shore the tide had went down and there was a 100 yard area of rocks that had become exposed. The waves were smashing around these rocks so we debated what to do for a few mins. Were we supposed to swim around for hours until the tide went down so we could go in? Should we just attempt to make it through the rocks?

We decided we couldnt swim around the rocks, didnt have the energy to stay out in the waves so our only option was to try and ford through the danger zone. The water was literally 2-3 ft deep and we couldnt walk through it because there were so many sharp rocks and spiny sea urchins cluttering the path. With no other choice we hovered as close to the top of the water as possible. We frantically spread our arms and legs like starfish and tried to stay as far from the bottom as possible. I ended up with several large cuts on my stomach (which now I have a scar from). There were so many thousands of sea urchins in the path that I took off my flippers and started swatting them out of our path so they wouldnt stab us anymore (normally im all about leaving sea life untouched but this was an extreme circumstance). With a trail of blood behind us we finally reached a point where it was sandy so we could stand up. We erupted with joy and ran to the beach.

On our way out to snorkel...before we knew that the tide was going wayyy down to strand us

We were thrilled to be mostly unhurt from the experience but there was a downside; we had spent way too long in the water and it was now getting dark. We could not possibly make it through the jungle path in the middle of the night. Even if we had a flashlight im sure we would have looked like fresh meat for the locals in their little shanty huts that were on the side of the path. We nervously debated what to do as the sun set. We wandered down the beach a ways and found a small set of huts for honeymooners. We had only 20 dollars or so to our name but we told the owner our circumstance and he let us stay there. It was an amazing beachfront stay. That night thousands of fiddler crabs(the ones with one claw triple the size of the other) came out of their holes on the beach. First thing in the morning we snorkeled again from our beachfront property and then made thelong trek home. Ridiculously good experience and I love the hospitality of the Thais.

This is the path we went on for over an hour...wayy too dangerous to go by night

Where we were forced to stay...not too bad

Ok this is already going longer than I intended. I have a dental patient tomorrow real early so ill wrap up quickly.

After prying ourselves out of Koh Phi Phi we flew up north. None of us wanted to leave after only a week but we had to if we were going to make it to Chang Mai. In Chang Mai there was multiple other crazy incidences that I dont have time to get into. The main activities we did were elephant riding, cuddling with tigers, zip lining and shopping (everything was 1/5 the price as here….so amazing that it even made me love shopping).

Tigers in Chang Mai

View from our hotel over Chang Mai...wish i could go back

Ill try n update from some of my other trips before I leave. Not sure who out there is exactly reading this but leave a comment or something! Itll give me some encouragement to do more. Even if its just google bots or something I figure writing this out will at least make it so I can always remember my travels. Hopefully I dont die running with the bulls so I am able to go back to Thailand.

Guatemala is arguably the most dangerous place we visited while on Semester at Sea. In the days prior to our arrival, students were buzzing with information they heard, like 40 murders per week and many tourists being killed. The ship gave us a mandatory 11pm curfew and banned us from going to certain areas of the country. Because of hijackings we were not supposed to be in cars at night and had to travel in big groups. Even the buses used for the ship’s field trips were accompanied by armed guards.

If this had been our first port everyone would have probably stayed on the boat in fear. Luckily for us, we were now experienced travelers, ready to take on anything in Guatemala. We had traveled for 55,000 miles (including plane/train rides) around the world through 13 different countries, heard countless languages and seen every variety crisis. The now experienced travelers from our boat were undeterred, and students arranged for beachouses and excursions all over Guatemala.

We walked down the gangway unceremoniously. There were no dancing kids, signs, or malls connected to the ship as we had seen in past ports. We only had three days and two nights here, so we immediately bartered with the horde of taxi drivers for a ride to Antigua. Wikitravel told us that Antigua is a quiet, relatively safe town about 90 minutes away from where the boat landed in Puerto Quetzal.

Our driver was a middle aged local who we began practicing our broken Spanish with. In our van was myself and six of my close friends who I was staying with. The driver stopped and got us some beers and then he blasted N Sync through the van. We thought it was hilarious this Guatemalan had N Sync and we jokingly sang along for a while. Most of the ride I ended up staring out my window at the volcanoes. The thick vegetation crawling up their sides made them into solid mounds of green.

Guatemala Volcano

We arrived at our hotel in Antigua shortly later. Hotel is not the right word for this place though. Even with all the Rhiads and five star hotels we stayed at while on Semester at Sea, this was possibly the most luxurious place. There was a series of small cabins set up at the base of a volcano. Right outside of our room was a black pool that looked like it was made of marble because it was so smooth and dark. A few minute walk away was another large pool with an unforgettable view of the jungle life surrounding us.

Pool withvolcanoes in background

black pool

Inbetween the clusters of rooms were lounging areas. These little squares had benches circled by ferns, bright orchids, and other tropical plants. For a few minutes I sat here in awe. The dangerous and dirty streets of Guatemala were far removed. Steel bars protecting the windows were the only reminder of the perils outside.

park inside hotel

We were supposed to climb a Volcano, but it ended up being too late in the day by the time we were set up. A group of six rich white kids climbing a volcano at night was just asking for robbery and kidnapping. Before we landed we looked into dirtbiking and found a local business we could do it through. So instead of climbing the volcano, we arranged our dirtbiking excursion for the next morning. The store owner, who also is the trail guide, interrogated us about our previous riding experience and said we needed to be skilled to be able to make it through the strenuous jungle terrain. I owned and rode dirtbikes for many years, so truthfully told him I could do it. My friends were a little more heisitant but claimed they would be fine.

Afterwards I went to a small local restaurant with three friends. We were the only people there so we had a fun time speaking Spanish to the manager. I had a delicious fajita type meal and then went out to a club. After a few hours there, I noticed it was 12:30 pm and about a hundred semester at sea kids were still there partying— so much for the mandatory 11pm curfew.

Despite little sleep, I woke up the next morning excited to go on our dirtbike trek. It had a year or two since I had ridden and I couldn’t wait. I found out my friends had lied and knew nothing about riding a dirtbike, so I tried to teach them how to use the clutch as we ate breakfast. We arrived at the meeting point to see seven brand new bikes waiting for us. I got a 2009 Yamaha 175 cc bike.

Ready to go

Ready to go

I slowly took off and realized riding a dirtbike is like riding a bicyle, you never forget how to do it. I looked back to see a concentrated look on my friend Jason’s face. He was the one I tried to teach how to use a clutch over breakfast so I was worried. He gave the bike way too much gas and let out the clutch too quickly so the bike pulled a wheelie and ripped forward. He smashed into my bike, pinching my leg against it and then was dragged blindly through an intersection. Finally the bike flipped in the middle of the street. We stared with our mouths open as the bike lay on the ground with engine still screaming and the tires wildly spinning.

Then, right as we’re starting to react, my friend Rory does the exact same thing! He gives the bike too much gas, pulls a wheelie, and flies across the intersection. However, instead of flipping his bike on the street, Rory swerved into brick wall going 10 mph. To make it even worse, a local Guatemalan had to leap out of the way to avoid being pinned against the wall.

I surveyed my throbbing leg and thanked god nothing was broken from being ran into. Even though we had shinguards on, I felt my jeans becoming damp with blood. However there was no time to pity myself, we had bigger issues. The nearly crushed local looked upset at the situation but in comparison to our guide (the man we told we were experienced riders) he seemed happy. Our guide was irate and leapt off his bike to lecture us. Luckily the bikes weren’t significantly damaged and we decided it was too late to turn back. This was going to be an adventure.

Our guide and I split up to teach the two virgin riders how to properly use a clutch. Eventually they sort of got it down, and we took off into the streets of Antigua. We had a caravan of six dirt bikers and one four wheeler loudly heading into rural Guatemala.

A local woman on the stone streets of Antigua

A local woman on the stone streets of Antigua

As we started riding through town, it was obvious the infrastructure was in bad shape. The buildings were made of stone and had peeling paint. There were bars over all the windows and barbwire over fences. Semis unloaded their cargo under the watchful eye of guards who flaunted shotguns over their shoulders. While on the roads, many of the semis pulled open a side flap to display an armed guard vigilantly waiting for hijakers. Police patrolled constantly and like the other guards carried a large weapon in hand. I’m not sure if seeing so many armed protectors made me feel more comfortable or less.

Guatemalan shotgun_edited

Despite these safety issues, I was charmed by the beauty as I rode through Antigua. The buildings were brightly dyed with pink, purple, and yellow paints. Even the deteriorating signs and peeling paint gave the city an antique feel that I found appealing. The best part was the volcanoes stretching upwards all around the horizon. No matter where you looked they were there. Floating near the tops of the volcanoes were clouds creating a necklace for the peak.

Guatemalan buildings

As we got out of town, our guide began to speed up. Before we knew it we were on the highway in Guatemala going 65 mph. At first I really enjoyed it, but then I began to get worried as semis flew by us and we passed other cars trying to keep up with our guide. This had to be one of the most dangerous things I did on SAS: going 65 mph in a foreign country, where we don’t know driving customs, cant read the Spanish signs, passing other cars and being passed in a desperate attempt to keep up with a guide we didn’t know. To make matters even worse, we were on bikes we had never ridden and two people in our group had never ridden any kind of dirt bike.

We went along the highway for about 20 minutes before turning onto a dirt sidestreet. The side street was much better than the highway. I was having a great time doing small jumps from the tops of rocks and flooring my bike around. The views of the countryside were incredible as well.

The only problem was wearing so much protective gear in the scorching heat. So it was a welcomed relief when we came to a stream flowing over the road. It was about ten feet wide and three feet deep. We took a momentary break and then splashed through. I’ve never felt so refreshed after getting covered in mud.

Taking a break before plunging through

Taking a break before plunging through

Throughout the next few hours we rode down these jungle roads. On either side of us was a wall of plants. Frequently the jungle spilled onto our path with exotic flowers and vines. Rocks large enough to topple our bikes were scattered throughout the road. Throughout the day we forded about ten more streams that were similar to the first one. 

During our ride we nearly ran into a herd of cattle that was casually going down the middle of the road. Their herder was with them, and like many of the people we saw, was carrying a machete. We even saw some kids wielding these blades. The only other traffic was an occasional yellow bus or semi truck. I was shocked these vehicles could make it through the harsh terrain.

After about five total hours of riding, we stopped in a small rural town for some food. We could tell we were in a place where tourists do not go and were getting a taste of life for a real Guatemalan. The buildings here did not have the same quaint attractiveness as in Antigua. They were rusty and falling apart. A small creek of filth flowed along next to where we stopped. Our guide told us how these small towns can be dangerous. Apparently he had been robbed at shotgun point twice while giving a dirt biking tour.

rural Guatemala

Going into nontourist areas of third world countries is dangerous, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. A few minutes after stopping, six or seven local kids ran up to us and began admiring our vehicles. They became giddy when we let them put on our helmets and sit on the four-wheeler. While they played on the vehicles I ate inside a local restaurant which was more like a home kitchen. I had tortillas with fresh guacamole, corn and native beef.

 

The kids were thrilled

The kids were thrilled

For the final part of our ride, we wound towards the top of a volcano. It became cold as we drove through the clouds I had earlier admired from so far below. The cloud forest was incredible. It was cooler, wetter and foggier than the lowlands but had the same density of life. Our high vantage point gave us a breathtaking view of the country we had just spent hours riding through. We made our way back down, where we were given one last dose of the frenzy on the Guatemalan highways.

When we got done I was dead tired. We had ridden through a variety of intense terrain for eight hours and 90 miles. My eyes felt like they were bleeding from all the dust in them and my body was covered in mud. The blood on my jeans from the earlier collision had dried but my leg was still throbbing and swollen. From tightly gripping the handlebars for so long my hands felt like they were permanently molded into a C shape. Still I felt great. There was only one minor fall after the initial incidents and everyone escaped mostly unscathed. We had seen more of Guatemala in this time than would have been possible any other way.

Tired but feeling good

Tired but feeling good

Despite our tiredness, we could not rest. We were meeting a big group of people at a beach house two hours away. So we groaned as we packed up everything from our hotel and hopped in a cab towards the beach. By the time we were in the taxi, it was pitch black outside; so much for not riding in vehicles at night. I was more concerned with finding the best sleeping position in the car and was asleep before I could begin to worry about hijackers.

I woke up in a haze to find we had already arrived. I was too tired and it was too dark to see much of the surroundings on the walk to our beach house. I stepped inside to find everyone else rowdy and ready to party for our last night. My body ached and my muscles were stiff from the brief sleep, but I decided to ignore these signals. I hopped in the shower to wash away the mud that was still caked on from dirt biking and had a fun night of beer pong, going to a beachside bar and chilling on the beach. It was a great last night.

I awoke in pain the next morning and struggled out to a hammock in front of our house. As I sank into the hammock, I saw how beautiful of a place we were in. In front of me there were large waves crashing into a black volcanic beach. It was nothing like the crowded Hawaii beaches; our group and the other semester at sea kids who were staying here had the place to ourselves.

This is the life

This is the life

The house behind me was far more impressive in the day. There was a path lined with palm trees leading to the door. The house itself was made of stone and had a roof that looked like it was made of grass. We had our own private swimming pool, four bedrooms (with mosquito nets to cover the beds), and a kitchen. All this and I only had to pay 10$ for my portion of the house. It has to be one of the best deals I had all trip.

Beachhouse

After lounging on the hammock for an hour, we lazed into our front yard, which luckily happened to be a blacksand beach. The girls laid out while my Hawaiian buddy Dylan began to teach me how to body surf. The waves here were much stronger than I expected. They were even bigger than they often get in Hawaii according to Dylan. As I tried to get out far enough to body surf, walls of water kept battering me back towards shore.

I eventually swam out far enough only to be violently thrown as I tried to body surf. The waves tossed me underwater like a rag doll and would hold me down for 15 to 20 seconds. Definitely the most intense waves I’ve ever witnessed. I managed to ride a few waves briefly. It was a little scary, but nothing after our dirtbiking experience. We body surfed and lounged our final day away before finally heading back to the boat.

 

Trying to avoid being pummeled

Trying to avoid being pummeled

On my way back, a man tried to trade a sweet Mayan mask for my sandals. Unfortunately I could not walk barefoot through this area so I had decline. Then later another guy tried to barter for my backpack, which was being used as my suitcase on this trip. They were offering me a lot more than they were worth so I would have loved to trade them but at the time they were essential items. I still got a few unique gifts before getting back home to the ship. It was sad going to the ship knowing this was our last stop, but I was too tired to think about it as I lay down for my final postport hibernation.

 

Living In America

May 4, 2009

On our day of arrival into Hawaii I was jolted up by the song “Living in America” blaring  over the intercom. It was 6:30 am so of course I was unhappy to be awake but, the song brought a smile to my face. At breakfast everyone was talking on their phones to family and friends for the first time in weeks (or even months). We were all sick of four dollar per minute phone calls. As we got off the boat students erupted with joy as they saw the familiar roads, cars, stores and foods of America.  People rushed into Starbucks like it was black friday at JC Penny. We were finally back in the States.

 

Hawaii was similar to home compared to the countries we had been in but was still very different from Iowa. The mountains created a dreamlike background for the skyscrapers of Honolulu. An ocean breeze protected us from the sun’s rays. We walked alongside the ocean and looked down on the crabs and bright schools of fish. The path was lined by white sands on one side and palm trees on the other.

honolulu

 

The people also did not look like those in Iowa. Most were in only their swimsuit and dark skinned. The best part was that they spoke English. It was a little disorientating. When I was trying to find the beach I felt like I should still speak in caveman like phrases “We need beach… sand and water…beach” like I had been doing for the past 4 months. Also, whenever I wanted to buy something I had to fight the urge to barter. Hawaii was expensive so I wish I could have negotiated.

 

After wandering around for a while we rode on the bus for an hour to get to Hanauma Bay. Hanauama Bay is a US National Marine Park as well as a National Monument. As we got out of the bus I could see why. Hundred foot tall cliffs formed a protective semicircle around the bay. The cliffs nestled a glowing beach lined with palm trees. In the water I could see the coral reef and the hundreds of tourists gathered to see it. Unfortunately a place this beautiful draws many tourists.

 

 

Hanauma Bay

Hanauma Bay

For many years while I was growing up I wanted to be a marine biologist so snorkeling is a thrill for me. We quickly rented our gear and flopped off into the bay. The water was as clear as swimming pool water and quite cold. We used our flippers to quickly push us as far away from the other tourists as possible. As we neared the center of the bay, far away from anyone else, we began to see lots of marine life.

 

This snorkeling trip was actually partially schoolwork for me because I had to write a paper on the different animals I saw. There were turquoise and yellow parrotfish, black and white boxfish, yellow stick shaped fish called Cornetfish, Anchilles Tangs and many others. The most exciting thing I saw was two Green Sea Turtles. They are an endangered species so it was a rare find. They were so slow I could see why they were endangered. They swam undisturbed while I hovered around close enough to grab onto their shell for about 25 minutes.

 

Afterwards my buddy Dylan was throwing a big luau at his house. A luau is just a Hawaiian party with a pig roast and local music. I was jealous of his house which is on a bluff looking over the ocean. There was a buffet of food as good as we’ve had in any country and a live band. He even had hula dancers! They pulled me and some of my friends up to the front and we learned how to hula dance. It’s surprisingly easy.

 

The next day I planned on going to Pearl Harbor but all my friends decided to go skydiving instead. I decided I could skydive back home so I laid around and relaxed for much of the afternoon. I ended up sending some postcards and walking around Honolulu in my last few hours.

 

Hawaii reminded me of how much I miss America. It made me nostalgic watching some classmates meet up with there family and friends. Before this trip I would have considered Hawaii an exotic place. Now it is the most similar place to home I’ve been in 4 months. After being gone so long it felt great to be back in America. Even the sight of Wal-Mart almost brought tears to my eyes. I miss living in America.

I just wrapped up my final port in Guatemala. It was a dangerous place and I am happy to have made it out of there alive. It was especially risky because we rode dirt bikes to explore the rural villages. I was shocked to see shotguns and machetes being casually carried around. Even children had them.

I don’t have time now to write my blog because of schoolwork. I have one final remaining and have to write two FDPs (field directed practica). FDPs are school related activities within countries. For example, in my Tropical Ecology Class I can write about hiking through the Thai Jungles. Finals have not been too bad and I think my grades are going to turn out mostly A’s.

Hopefully I will be able to write a blog for Hawaii and Guatemala before I get back. We only have five days left and lots of activities going on so it will be tough. We have finals tomorrow, the Ambassador’s Ball the next day and then preparing for reentry. The Ship just sent us a 5 page email about what we have to do to return. The US will be the most intense customs we’ve seen yet. We must go through and mark everything we have bought and write down its value.

The process of getting off is going to last for 3-4 hours and will be frustrating. It wil be worth it; I’m very much looking forward to returning home. This voyage has been a life altering experience and I will undoubtedly write more about my reflections on the voyage soon. For now though I need to prioritize and work on my remaining schoolwork.

Japan

April 22, 2009

 
 

 

 

The Land of the Rising Sun

The Land of the Rising Sun

 

 

 

 

Japan started off painfully with a three hour wait through customs that included fingerprinting, pictures, and an interrogation. We even had to walk through an infared scanner that checked our body temperature. Once through, I had some time to waste until my friends finished, so I went to an internet café where I planned on posting some pictures and my last blog. This was easier said than done. I couldn’t find anyone who one spoke English to direct me there and I had no idea where to look.

 

While wandering the streets looking I couldn’t help but notice how pleasant Japan was. The streets were clean, a band played music on a street corner and everyone was dressed stylishly. Women were in heels and expensive clothes while most men wore suits and ties. Trees and parks mixed in with high rise buildings and train tracks. Having been in third world countries for the last month I was awed.

 

 

 

 

An enjoyable place to wander around

An enjoyable place to wander around

 

 

 

 

After gawking around the streets for a while, a man directed me towards an internet café. Inside there were older men in booths playing computer games. Based on the food wrappers strewn around them and the intense looks on their faces I assumed they had been there for days. I gave the staff a confused look and they guided me to a computer. The screen was cluttered with undecipherable Japanese characters. I barely could tell I was looking at the desktop of a computer. Japanese characters, which look more like artwork to me, were trying to instruct me how to get on the internet (I think?). I called the staff over and they laughed while setting me up. After they left I had a great struggle to switch the keyboard to English. Frustratingly it would switch back to Japanese every few minutes. I tried to use my thumb drive to load my blog but nothing was working. After a wasted 40 minutes, I threw my hands in the air and headed back to the ship.

 

My buddy Dylan has been to Japan five other times and took us to a favorite local restaurant. To get food we ordered it outside in a machine. I had no idea what anything was on the menu so I just pushed a random button with fun looking characters and hoped for the best. The machine gave us a stub to take inside for them to make our food. It was pretty high tech and completely eliminated the need for waiters. Many places throughout Japan used similar methods. The food came quickly and was delicious beef tenderloin over noodles glazed with a sweet sauce. I was told everything in Japan would be expensive but this only cost me four dollars.

 

restaurant-machine

 

I then had the heavenly experience of using my first Japanese toilet. As I sat down, I felt like I was in the commanding seat of an aircraft.  There was a complicated control panel on the wall and a robotic looking light coming from the toilet. The seat was  heated and the room was spotlessly clean. A flowery smell and soothing classical music completed the atmosphere. I did my business and cautiously started pushing some buttons. A cleaning spray of warm water shot up and then a dryer turned on before the toilet flushed. What a change from the holes in the ground of India!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Japanese Toilet

The Japanese Toilet

 

 

 

Feeling refreshed my friends and I headed to Osaka to experience some Japanese culture. The area is famous for its octopus biscuits. The octopus vendors were all over the street, like hotdog stands in the US. They tasted good but I went overboard getting 20 of these octopus balls. I met some local kids and interacted with them for a while. Everyone seemed so friendly and polite. The trains going back to the ship didn’t start running until five am so we had the easy task of entertaining ourselves throughout the night. We ended up getting VIP passes to a place and having a great time. In the early morning I lost my friends, but a Japanese man saved me from the intricate train system.

 

On almost no sleep I managed to set off the next day. I went to breakfast at a unique restaurant. Each table had a personal grill and chef. The chef prepared beef, eggs, cabbage, and potatoes into a big pancake. It sounds strange but was one of the best things I ate all trip.

 

 

 

Beef and cabbage pancakes

Beef and cabbage pancakes

 

 

 

My six friends and I then delved into the subway system to head to Kyoto. As six big white men with oversized backpacks, we were not discreet. I felt the stares and whispers of the people around us. Similar to the other Asian countries, we stood a head taller and 50 lbs heavier than anyone else.  The contrast was especially noticeable here because the Japanese population is so homogenous. I saw less Caucasians than I had in any other country.

 

We arrived in Kyoto at an optimal time. There is a cherry blossom tree that flowers for two weeks a year and we just happened to be there in this period. People from all over Japan travel to Kyoto for the beauty of these trees as they bloom. Their white and pink flowers lined the streets of Kyoto. The wind swirled the falling pedals around like confetti. Inside the town a stream was diverted through the central square. Japanese tourists lazed around while a few fishermen cast their lines into the slow currents. We mulled around the area taking pictures and enjoying the scenery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Admiring the cherry blossom trees as we walked through

Admiring the cherry blossom trees as we walked through

 

 

 

            In an alleyway restaurant we had another unique dining experience. The tables inside were only two feet off the ground and we were given pillows to sit on. The table clearly wasn’t made for people our size and the Japanese customers were giving us curious looks as we tried to contort ourselves under the table. It was a painful experience. The food was mediocre and not worth the effort, but it was a good experience nonetheless.

  

 

Not comfortable seating

Not comfortable seating

 

 

 

            We stretched ourselves out and went to a special cherry tree festival. Japanese families sat crosslegged on mats around ponds and cherry blossom trees. Food vendors were everywhere with a diverse selection of exotic foods. There were octopus biscuits, jumbalaya looking dishes, meat kabobs being cooked over fires, and a moat filled with floating cucumbers. We enjoyed the scene for a few minutes but had to rush off to catch the bullet train to Tokyo.

 

cherry-blossom-festival

 

            I was excited to get a chance to ride the bullet train. All of the trains in Japan come exactly on time and this was no exception. The sleek, grey train came to screeching halt and we scurried on. Only a moment later this plane on wheels took off. It was the fastest I have ever gone on land. Outside my window was a blur of lights. I was fascinated momentarily but quickly fell asleep in the ample room provided.

 

            When I woke up three hours later, we were in Tokyo. The city, one of the three largest in the world, illuminated the night. I was surprised at how busy the train station was; people were shoulder to shoulder and it was 10:30 pm. We found our hotel and explored the town a bit before finally going to bed as the sun rose.

  

 

Tokyo Skyline

Tokyo Skyline

  

 

            We awoke at two pm, which is the latest I have gotten up in any port. I wasn’t too worried though, we had three days in Tokyo. For our breakfast we went to a sushi bar. Like every restaurant I had been to in Japan, it had an interesting twist to it. There was a conveyer belt wrapping around one main table and back into the kitchen. A wide variety of sushi dishes circled around the table and you grabbed what looked appealing. You could also shout back to the kitchen for something specific. Each plate cost only 100 yen ($1) so I ate 13 plates of sushi as my breakfast.

 

sushi-bar

 

 

 

 For the rest of the afternoon, we wandered the Tokyo streets watching the masses of people and going into random shops. I found a 400 yen (4$) shop that had University of Iowa hats and Iowa license plates. Strangely Iowa and Washington were the only two American universities represented. We all bought outrageous gear at the store. There was no worry about ever seeing any of the Japanese people again so we had no shame at all.  We all strapped on “the sickness masks” that many of the Japanese were wearing. People in Japan wear these surgeon like masks whenever they’re ill to avoid infecting others.

 

In the evening, we decided to go to a baseball game. The tickets were relatively cheap and we heard they were a lot of fun. I don’t normally like baseball, but this was Japan so I wanted to give it a shot. As we walked into the stadium, we saw the Japanese intensely involved in the game. They reminded me of a student section at a football game with their coordinated chants and rowdiness. We pushed our way into the group and tried to chant along with them. We barely knew the team names and I still don’t know who won but I’m glad I went.

 

baseball-game

 

For the rest of the night, we went to a karaoke bar. We were given our own private room and went wild. Dylan had friends living in Japan who came with us and they said they had never seen anything like it before. I actually left and went to a neighboring room where I befriended a bunch of Japanese students.

 

Later on in the night, I realized I had left my camera at the baseball game. I called the stadium the next morning, and miraculously they said someone had turned it in. Only in Japan could this happen. My buddy Eric and I split off from the group to recover it. On our way back to the stadium, we found a rollercoaster twisting through the middle of the city. It weaved through the middle of a ferris wheel and around buildings. The ride seemed out of place in downtown Tokyo but we had to try it. I have high rollercoaster standards since I have ridden many, and this surprisingly was one of the best.

 

 

 

 

 

It went right through a building

It went right through a building

 

 

 

 

 

We recovered my camera afterwards and then went to a virtual reality arcade we heard about. There were lots of hi tech video games and simulations there. Disappointingly it was similar to a US arcade, except a little bigger and more expensive. There were almost no lines, but the staff moved excruciatingly slow. We ended up spending most of our time waiting at the front of lines. It was irritating. I was more impressed by the lit up Tokyo skyline outside than by the arcade.

 

We decided to do more karaoke after we met up with the rest of our group. The karaoke was wild again and then we went to a club in downtown Tokyo. As the trains began to run at five am, we decided to go to the fish market instead of back to the hotel. The fish market was a frenzied scene with carts filled with fish going in all directions. Thousand pound fish were being sliced with saws and Japanese men were yelling at each other. We watched for a while and then ate some fresh sushi. The best part of the fish market was hopping on the back of fish carts and darting around the area.

 

Tsukiji fish market

Tsukiji fish market

 

By this time it was ten am and we had not yet slept. Thankfully our ship had moved from where we landed, Kobe, to the other side of Japan in Yokohama. We only had a quick train ride to catch before we began our several day recovery from the adventures we had in Japan.

 

Japan had features that we could learn a lot from in the States. Their culture is so polite it’s shocking. As I mentioned, people went far out off their paths to help us and felt ashamed to not help more. Even people with good English would continually apologize for not being able to speak perfectly. They wear masks whenever they became ill as to protect their fellow citizens and didn’t steal my camera when I left it at the baseball game. Most people didn’t even lock their bicycles up in downtown Tokyo!

 

Japanese society is also incredibly automized and compacted; probably because there are so many people on such a small island. Everything from food to train tickets is through machines. Japan also had capsule hotels; you pay a cheap price and sleep in a small tube. I wanted to sleep in one but we didn’t have enough time. I feel like a month would not have been enough to experience Japan and we only had six days. 

Aloha

April 19, 2009

Hello guys, sorry no entry for a while, I’ve been occupied lately. I was dead tired when I got on the boat from Japan and was rudely forced to do excessive schoolwork. We actually are in the midst of having our final examinations right now. I will have my blog about Japan up in about two to three days. For now I am in Honolulu, Hawaii! I am about to go snorkeling in Hanami Bay, a luau, and then Pearl Harbor.

A Glimpse into China

April 11, 2009

Hong Kong was the most modern place we’ve visited yet. Our ship was connected to a mall they forced us to walk through on the way into Hong Kong. I saw familiar stores like Toys R Us, Nike outlets, and Starbucks as I walked through. Inside the stores, everyone spoke understandable English and wore American clothes. As we exited the mall, we saw the thriving metropolis of Hong Kong. Skyscrapers were in all directions. According to wikipedia (the only free website at sea), there are more skyscrapers in Hong Kong than anywhere else in the world.

 

Traffic was hectic outside. Motorcycles were illegal and I didnt see a single rickshaw, but the roads still had logjams of traffic similar to what would be seen in Chicago or New York. One unique element for the Hong Kong streets was the double decker bus. I saw more double decker buses in my one day here than I have in the rest of my life. Once I saw seven of them waiting at an intersection. 90% of people in Hong Kong use the public transportation daily.

 

 

 

Double decker buses of Hong Kong

Double decker buses of Hong Kong

 

 

 

 

 

 

             To get the local feel, we decided to get a city tour on one of the buses. They gave us headphones to tell us what we were seeing and we toured the city for three hours. The bus stopped at a place called the peak, which is the highest point in the area. It was a foggy and dreary day, but luckily our view was just below the blanket of clouds. From our vantage we were eye to eye with the tallest of the skyscrapers.

 

 

 

Looking over Hong Kong from the Peak

Looking over Hong Kong from the Peak

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            We rode around on the bus for a while longer before getting off at the lady’s market to shop. I don’t understand how the Lady’s Market gets its name because there are equal items for both sexes. The sellers here were the pushiest in the world, with the arguable exception of Morocco. For 15 blocks small vendors lined the streets with the usual purses, souvenir crap, jewelry, clothes, sunglasses and watches. The main difference between here and previous markets was cheaper prices. Shirts were $2-3, designer jeans were 10$, shoes $10-20 and knockoff Purses were $6-7. 

 

Even though the streets were crowded with people the vendors harassed everyone individually. If you even gave a passing glance at a shop, they would rip you in. Once inside, the seller frantically pulled out item after item and watched your reaction. If you showed even slight interest they would begin pressuring you to buy it. Then you had to go through a ten minute bartering process to get a fair price.

 

 

 

Lady Market

Lady Market

 

 

 

 

 

 

              I was given the difficult task of finding a purse for my mom and sister in this scene. Shopping for women is always difficult, especially when there are inferior knockoffs everywhere. After being badgered by a few purse vendors with low quality items, I found someone who said they could help me find better quality. They led me and my friend into a trashy apartment in a nearby alley. We walked up several flights of stairs to their apartment and were led through two heavily locked doors. Not the safest thing to do; I was worried about getting robbed in this isolated and barricaded location where no one could hear me scream. Still I pressed forward, determined to find a high quality purses, even at risk of my own personal safety. (I never imagined I’d write that sentence).

 

            Behind the dead bolted doors of the apartment was a woman’s paradise. There were more designer purses than I thought existed. They had Burberry, Coach, Louis Vouiton, Prada, Gucci, Dolce and Gabana, and who knows what else I didn’t recognize. The purses lay on makeshift shelves lining the walls of the room. The shelves looked like they could be collapsed and hidden at a moments notice.  I later heard whisperings that places like this steal them from the assembly lines and trucks. Not sure how plausible that is, but regardless they were much higher quality than the ones on the street. I had an intense bartering session that included me walking out three times, getting punched and pinched by the seller, and a discussion with her boss. Twenty five minutes later we left triumphantly with our purses.

 

            As we got back on the boat, the city’s skyline glowed showing the prosperity of the area. Then unexpectedly, green lasers and spotlights started beaming from the tops of buildings. Different skyscrapers began to change colors and flicker on and off. It looked like a psychedelic power surge was hitting Hong Kong. A worker on the ship saw my confusion and told me they have a laser light show every night here. Our boat was in perfect position to watch this show, which is the largest continuous laser light event in the world. I was mesmorized with the show for twenty minutes. The skyline was so impressive it could have kept my attention even without the laser show.

 

 

The symphony of lights

The symphony of lights

 

 

 

 

 

             Afterwards I headed downstairs, threw on my new Vietnamese tailored clothes and set off into the illuminated Hong Kong night. Earlier in the day there was the Rugby Sevens, which are the Super Bowl of rugby. Hong Kong was flooded with European, Australian and African rugby fans. These mostly white tourists made us stick out a little less for the night.

 

My friend knew someone from Hong Kong who directed us to the party street of town called Lhan Kwai Pang. When we arrived there it was madness. It seemed as if every tourist in Hong Kong converged to this point. I ran into countless people from Semester at Sea, along with hundreds of crazed Rugby fans from around the world. The street was crowded enough to look like Melrose after an Iowa football game. You could barely move and death by trampling was a plausible fate. Unlike the black and gold Melrose, these fans were wearing outrageous attire that had nothing to do with rugby or their home countries. They wore blue wigs, dresses, skirts, inflatable hands, no shirts, shower curtains or shaving cream. Bars and food vendors lined either side of the road but I avoided them due to their obscenely expensive prices.

 

We went into a bar where everything is made of ice. You are in an oversized freezer with chairs, tables, and counters made of ice. The staff gives you a fur coat and gloves, if you want it, upon entry. We only went in for a few moments because it was way too expensive for us, besides the street outside was far more exciting. I wrapped up my night on this street and caught a cab home early in the morning.

 

After a little sleep, I narrowly caught my 10:30 am flight to Beijing. I slept for the three hour plane ride. It’s becoming second nature to sleep when I’m on any sort of bus, train, taxi, or plane. I was awakened from my nap to the unimpressive sight of Beijing. The city did not have the towering skyscrapers and crowds of people that I expected. In fact, Hong Kong dwarfed Beijing. Beijing had the feel of a smaller town like Milwaukee but actually held an impressive 18 million people. Apparently it’s just really spread out.

 

On our way to the university we were staying at, we stopped by the Olympic stadiums. The water cube and birds nest were next to each other and both were awe inspiring. The birds nest was an entanglement of steel beams around a huge coliseum and the water cube was a blue block with an ocean pattern etched into it. I was amazed to think they created these spectacles just for the Olympics. The buildings are so unusual that many people come to visit them as if they were a monument. Our group was the only white tourists there amongst thousands from China, Japan and other Asian countries.

 

 

The Bird's Nest

The Bird's Nest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Then we made our way to the University of Peking, which is considered the Harvard of China. It has apparently been rated as the best university in Asia by a bunch of magazines. From what I saw students here do not have lives outside of school. The campus had all the amenities required for them to never leave. There were fruit markets, bread markets, convenience stores, basketball courts, clothing stores, and even a hotel within the gated walls. Shortly after arriving I went to bed. This is the first time I can remember going to bed early while in a port. It was a good decision because I needed the sleep for upcoming struggles.

 

 

The next day a few students escorted us to the Great Wall for a hike. As our bus neared the Wall, all of us students burst into a fury of yelling, pointing and picture taking. The great stone walls snaked up and down the mountains as far as we could see. The wall was truly an epic creation. It ranged from 10 ft high to 60 feet high for thousands of miles. The builders plowed through mountains, rivers, valleys, snow, and anything else in their way.

 

The section of the wall we were at went straight up a mountain, down a valley and up another mountain. Due to hasty packing I had only sandals to climb the ancient stairs up the mountain. It was a 40 degree windy spring day in Beijing. The steps were steep and exhausting. More than once Chinese hikers pointed at my sandals and laughed. I made it fine though, by the time I reached the top of the first peak I was sweating like I was in the jungle again.  I looked with pride at the steps stretching far below I had just conquered. I took a bunch of pictures, hiked down the steps, and up the other side. I even had a race (I had to go barefoot) with a friend along the wall. By the time we were done, we walked for three hours and several miles along the wall.

img_1302

 

 Exhausted from our hike we piled into the bus and gave the Chinese students a perfect glimpse of Semester at Sea—all 25 of us sprawled out dead asleep. We awoke for an evening of activities planned by the university students. There were ten of them to give us insight into what they do for fun. The students all looked much older than us, the 24-28 age range. In fact, everyone at the university looked about this age.

 

We started off game night with limbo. Apparently I have a hidden talent for limbo and was the last male remaining. Hilariously, on my last time through I pulled a muscle. After all the hiking and adventurous things I have done, I end up hurting myself in a game of Limbo! Next we played the Chinese version of musical chairs, where you have to sit on the floor with three people and act like you’re rowing a boat or eating with chopsticks. Following that was a contest where you were fed by someone who was blindfolded. I was upset because I got second place. Our guides favorite game, that he was really excited to teach us, is where you find a male with long hair and try to tie as many pony tails as you can on his head. To wrap things up we did a human knot and taught the Chinese students how to do the solja boy dance. Their dancing skills made me feel much better about myself.

 

 

Having fun and laughing at a friend who fell

Having fun and laughing at a friend who fell

 

 

 

 

 

            The local students had schoolwork to do so their night ended at 8:30 pm while ours was just beginning. I wanted to see what Beijing had to offer so a bunch of friends I had recently met and I went out to a place called Propoganda (how ironic). The staff was excited to see us and gave my friends and I VIP cards. The cards gave us free cover and half off on drinks. We got them either because we were foreigners or because I was the only guy with seven girls.

 

            We danced for a while, and then I met some local kids my age who taught me a Chinese game involving dice. Looking around the venue I saw almost every table intensely playing this game. It was a lot like the card game BS we play in the States. I taught them a few of the card games American youth play like Circle of Death (aka Kings cup/Waterfall). Watching them do “Never have I ever” was quite humorous. They loved it and I made some new friends in the process.

 

            The next day I awoke in the early morning for more sightseeing. We started off by going to the Forbidden Temple. This is the place the emperor used to live. At that time only royalty were allowed on the grounds, hence the name The Forbidden Temple. The area was a huge estate. It was a 25 minute walk from the north to south end and nearly as long from side to side. Inside were banquet halls, statues, temples, and housing for the most prominent citizens of ancient China. The structures are exquisitely adorned with gold roofs, red pillars, and blue walls displaying intricately engraved designs.

 

 

Part of the Courtyard

Part of the Courtyard

 

 

 

 

 

            We went to two other royal estates, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven. Both were similar to the first temple, having massive grounds scattered with extravagant buildings. The summer palace was especially impressive. It was basically a summer retreat for royalty and sat alongside of a lake. The summer temple was alive with bands playing the Chinese national anthem and women whirling colorful ribbons.

 

            Afterwards we went to a dinner that was typical of what we ate throughout the trip. We sat around a table with a spinning piece of glass in the middle. On this table was an excessive array of dishes. Each person had a small tea set sized plate and chopsticks. For proper use you spin the middle of the table around to the food of your choice, shovel a few bites worth onto your plate, eat and then repeat. I really liked the concept; it was like a buffet at your fingertips. The food was shrimp, fish (with head and tail attached to show completeness), spicy beef, rice, unfamiliar vegetables, wantons, tofu, peking duck, gooey eggdrop soup and curry. They brought us out more than we could eat at every meal. Many people were grossed out by random vegetables that they were convinced were horse intestines or other overly dramatic things.

 

 

Our private buffet

Our private buffet

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be blunt, the food was the worst I’ve had, with the possible exception of Spain. Not because it was bad, it just wasn’t exceptional like much of the food. Another thing that upset me was I could never eat fast enough with chopsticks. I would eat as fast as I could for 25 minutes straight and still not be full when we got up to leave. I now consider myself skilled with chopsticks, but they are not the utensil of choice for mass consumption.

 

            That night we went to a famous acrobatics show in downtown Beijing. The acrobats did things like one handed handstands on top of two other people doing handstands all while hovering on a platform 30 ft in the air. There were Chinese women who were more flexible than should be humanly possible and they fit 13 people onto a bicycle at one point. The coolest part of the show was how they incorporated lasers into it. They had a machine shooting them in all directions, colors, and designs. It created tubes of light and other brilliant displays. The show ended up being much better than I anticipated.

 

 

 

The lasers were the best part

The lasers were the best part

 

 

 

 

            As I walked back into my room, I met some Americans studying here and went on the town with them. The night was similar to the one before with Chinese dice games and dancing. Earlier in the trip I noticed some basketball courts near our dorms.  I wanted to test my skills here but the only time we had left was this last morning. This was probably the only chance ill have in my entire life to play basketball in China so I skipped sleeping and hit the courts at 6:30 am. Even with zero hours of sleep, I dominated these tiny Asians. At one point, the biggest guy there thought he could post me up, and I crushed his fantasy by swatting his shot to half court four times in a row. All the local people watching started hooting and yelling in Mandarin as it happened. It was quite an ego booster playing on the courts of China.

 

            A few hours later I went to Tiananmen Square, exhausted, but still excited to explore. It is the one the largest city centers in the entire world. I was not that impressed because it was basically just an open area with thousands of tourists. It has an important place in Chinese history so I am glad I was able to look around briefly but I couldn’t have stayed for more than an hour.

 

 To end the day we went shopping at the Pearl Market. The names of Markets make no sense here; the Pearl Market had everything in it, not just pearls. The pearl market especially had electronics. I debated buying a camera for my sister for about 2/3 the price it costs in America but decided I didn’t trust the quality. They had watches, clothes, jewelry, memory cards, USB drives, makeup, t-shirts, shoes, backpacks and everything else. These markets are the Wal-Mart of China—you can get anything. The only problem is you need to barter for 15 minutes for a fair price. Afterwards we caught a plane to Shanghai to meet up with the ship. By the time we got there I had been up for 40 hours straight. I went into my usual post-country coma to try and recover before Japan.

 

China was a great experience for me. The people here are highly driven and focus themselves upon specific tasks with a vigor unseen in America. Many of the students were jealous that our scholastic programs were flexible enough to allow for Semester at Sea. In China this would never be possible. You pick your scholastic specialty early on and do not deviate. This is one big difference between their academic system and ours. They learn the intricacies of one field while we study a broad spectrum of subjects.

 

  I spoke in depth with one of our tour guides, who was also a student, to receive some insight into how Americans act compared to Chinese. She mentioned that when she has Chinese tourists they always immediately quiet down when she talks, follow directly behind her, and obey her commands. All the Chinese students I met were quiet and respectful, which goes along with what she said. They are used to a more authoritative system.

 

The student guide said Americans like having freedom and at times demand changes in the itinerary that a Chinese person would never do. She also commented on how adaptable Americans are. She has had Semester at Sea students for the previous few years and mentioned we are some of the most versatile and street smart people in the world. We will wander the city, not knowing the language, layout or culture and be fine. Also we are much more extroverted than locals. For example, everyone in our group bought local clothes or hats and ran around yelling and having fun with them. Throughout my trip multiple other Chinese people commented on how free we act. Things like walking up and talking to a group of strangers or wandering off alone were unexpected here.

 

I will be in Japan tomorrow following one of my best friends, Dylan, who has been there five times. I am lucky to have someone who knows the layout and language a little bit. He has mapped out an itinerary for us to follow and we will be going to Kobe, Tokyo, and Yokohama. I tried to buy all my souvenir stuff in China and Vietnam where it is cheapest because I heard Japan is ridiculously expensive.

 

            My time on the boat is flying by recently. We have been going from country to country with almost no break in between. I hate to say it but I wish we could stay on the boat for a few more days to rest up and catch up. We get back to the US in one month. I’m ready to go home but not ready to leave the ship. I know, makes no sense to me either. No time to think about that now though, when I wake up tomorrow morning we will be in Japan.

           

China/Japan

April 6, 2009

Im sitting in an internet cafe next to a bunch of old men playing warcraft right now. The keyboards and computers are ridiculously hard to use. I cant figure out how to upload my pictures or even find my computer on these things. So its going to have to be after Japan (5 or so days) when I upload my blog and pictures from China. I hiked 2 miles up mountains in sandals and played musical chairs with chinese students. Heading to Tokyo, kobe and Kyoto in the next few days.

 
The Jug of Snakewine
The Jug of Snakewine

           We braced for the usual taxi rush as we departed from the ship in Vietnam. Hundreds of locals were waiting for us to get off the boat to try to sell us different things or give us a ride somewhere. Motorbike seemed to be the transportation method of choice as about thirty of them paced the street waiting for us. We had five people with us and wanted a car taxi but the motorbikers ganged up and held the doors shut on the nearby taxi we tried to get in.  We argued for a while before realizing they would not let us go by “normal” car taxi. We decided to walk into town.

 

           The streets in Vietnam were overflowing with these motorbikes. You could hear their engines screaming and smell their exhaust at all times. Everytime we had to cross teh street it seemed to be a game of Russian Roulette. There’s always a stream of motorbikes flowing by so you’re forced to cut through without the aid of stoplights or walking paths. We carefully observed and copied the locals method for crossing– walk at a constant pace so the drivers can anticipate your path and swerve around you. I felt like I was crossing a motorcycle race with my eyes closed.

 

Motorbike Madness

Motorbike Madness

 

            We had a few hours to burn so we looked around through the shops on the way into the city. There were signs greeting saying “Big SAS Discount” or “Welcome Semester at Sea.” We looked through a few and before deciding to make our way to the main market.

 

 Inside was the usual chaos of a third world mall. Everyone was yelling and grabbing at us to buy fake northface backpacks, northface coats, long and short sleeve polos, purses, pearls, and all sorts of trinkets. Prices were more than I expected but still cheap. For example, I bought two tailored cashmere suits, three tailored button up shirts, and three ties for $210. Northface heavy duty backpacks were $20 and t-shirts and button ups costed $2-6.

 

The Market Frenzy

The Market Frenzy

 

It is difficult to shop in this environment. Many items are low quality; vendors use glue instead of stitching or lie about what materials they used. I know several girls who bought purses that fell into pieces after a few days. Another reason it’s difficult to shop in these markets though because you cannot browse. You have to ask a clerk what price something is and then try and barter down. After the bartering they assume you want to buy it, even if you were just trying to scan for prices. Sometimes they actually get quite upset. I liked it at the beginning of this trip but am so sick of bartering now. I can’t wait to walk into a fixed price store back home.

 

            After getting fitted for my suit and shopping around we headed out to the airport for our main excursion in Vietnam—Haolong Bay. This was my ninth plane ride in two months so I’m getting pretty used to it. We arrived in Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam at about 10 pm. The town was black and desolate. There were no people or motorbikes in the streets and the buildings were boarded shut. It looked like a ghost town.

 

            We managed to find an open club where we were the only white people. It was a fun place with many dancing Vietnamese. I met a local who bought me one of the 4$ drinks. I felt a little unwelcomed here though. One man dressed in an army uniform kept trying to push us into the corner and another grabbed my camera when I took a picture. I fought tug of war style with him over it and won. Not a chance buddy, this camera is far too important to me. He scowled and yelled something as he walked away.

 

After all this we hopped on motorbikes to get home. We handed them our hotel card and said take us here. They dropped us off and we paid our one dollar fee. Once inside we realized it was the wrong hotel! It was the same name and layout but the wrong place. After some difficult communication and hand gesturing the hotel manager guided us in the right direction. Traveling is hectic when you don’t speak the same language.

 

On the ride home--please notice the sandwhich in my hand

On the ride home--please notice the sandwhich in my hand

 

            The next morning we set off for our houseboat around Haolong Bay. We arrived and saw hundreds of boats crammed onto the docks. The boats looked to be mass produced wooden galleons. All of them had Vietnamese flags flying above them. As we walked onto our boat we all bought traditional Vietnamese rice hats at for one dollar.

 

Rice hats

Rice hats

         When we first got on our boat we began running around it like giddy school kids. Our boat was apparently brand new. It had a restaurant style dining room, eight staff members, air conditioned cabins and a sundeck with beds and chairs. It was a miniature cruise boat! The best part was staying on this boat for several days cost us next to nothing. Then just like I was dreaming the staff immediately sat us down for a six course meal. We had prawns, shrimp, rice, fish, curry, fresh pineapple, soup and chicken.

 

After dinner I struggled to carry my bulging stomach to the sundeck. As I laid around digesting, I noticed the dramatic mountains in the distance. Over the next few hours we moved slowly until the mountains completely enveloped us. It reminded me of the Islands in Thailand. Except this area was much larger, had more mountains and a mysterious fog. Apparently foggy weather here is very standard and it is almost never sunny here. The fog gave the hundreds of miles of Islands an ancient and peaceful glow 

Haolong Bay

Haolong Bay

       

 Our first stop was to a famous cave nearby. We docked and made our way inside. The cave was lit up by multicolored lights and the main cavern was as big as a highschool basketball stadium We admired the rock formations for 30 mins before making our way out to enjoy sunset from kayaks.

 

Our whole group inside of the cave

Our whole group inside of the cave

      

We had no idea the trouble we were paddling into....

            As we kayaked away from the boat our guide explicitly warned us to not paddle far away. I was in a two person kayak with a girl named Ashly. We paddled slowly through the fog in awe of our surroundings. After an hour or two we had the startling realization that we were far away and it was nearly dark. Uh oh! We quickly scambled to head back. The looming darkness and fog caused a surge of adrenaline in my body. Twenty minutes later we were draped in darkness. We heard strange animal noises all around us. We’ll be fine I kept reassuring Ashley. All we had to do was follow the coastline on our left. After 20 more minutes of fearful paddling I saw a buoy we had seen when we first headed back to the boat. We had somehow gone in a circle. Big problem.

           The islands and rock formations created a treacherous water maize. Our wooden boat would be impossible to find because there were thousands of other wooden fishing boats and tourist galleons that looked the same as ours. Behind every island there were another few hundred boats so our chances of randomly stumbling onto our indistinctive boat was basically zero. Besides we barely knew what direction was up in the black foggy night. We might be 5 km away by now. We stopped by a few boats to ask directions but no one spoke any English. We didn’t even know the name of our boat. By this time, we were in the pitch blackness of the Vietnamese night. We had no money, no phone, no passport and no clue where we were.

 

 

Ashley was now terrified and I felt my heart beginning to race as I thought of different catastrophic hypotheticals. How would they ever find us out here? Our boat was supposed to leave the bay early in the morning, what would we do if we didn’t find them by then? Why didnt we look at the name of our boat or at least bring a few dollars? I took closed my eyes and took some deep breaths to regain my composure. We made our best guesstimate of where to go and headed off to do our best. We paddled rapidly but our clumsy two person kayak moved slowly against the dark waves.
 
Hao Long bay

Before it got dark

 

After 20 mins of paddling and stopping to try and get help from other boats we were in no better shape than when we started. I was shirtless, posessionless and utterly lost. The possibility of sleeping on deserted Vietnamese island bounced through my mind. The, by sheer luck, we saw a boat picking up Kayaks around the bay. We rushed to the boat praying they spoke some english–they did not. On the boat was a homely looking Vietnamese man and his son. They did not speak english but motioned for us to come on their boat. I shrugged my shoulders and agreed to hop on this random locals boat instead of paddling around in the blackness. We tied our kayaks to the boat and embarked on whatever path this man was taking us on. He laughed at our nervous looks. We didn’t know if they were taking us to the right place or if they even had any idea what we needed, but we had no other option.

 

Thankfully the man and his son dropped us off at the right dock after 20 minutes. Ashley and I hugged each other in joy as we stepped onto land. They called the search party they had sent out for us and they carried us back to the group houseboat. Wow was it a relief to be back. We told our story repeatedly, had a few drinks and went to bed anchored in the middle of Haolong Bay. —–Looking back on this incident years in the future I realize it was one of the most important travel lessons ive learned: Always dilligently watch your path and always carry a hostel/hotel/boat card that says your boat name or address at least. This invaluable information helped me time and time again on future travels——

 

There were so many boats in every bay even in the day it was confusing

There were so many boats in every bay that even by day it was confusing

               The next morning we went kayaking again ( carefully watching our path) and then went to land for biking. The bikes they gave us were either old mountain bikes or newer granny bikes with baskets and big seats. You should be able to guess which I chose. We peddled along a cement path next to the emerald ocean waves at the base of a  lush mountain. After cruising around the junction of jungle and ocean for 30 mins we turned into the jungle. This bike ride was my first expedition into the Vietnamese jungle. Every nook of space was crammed with the green jungle plants. I couldn’t help but think of my family and how much they would love to cycle here.

 

The riding was intense at the pace my friends and I went. I regretted picking the mountain bike when I realized it was stuck in 21st gear. The area was hilly and made for quite a workout. As we entered the jungle our cement path dwindled into a mud trail.

 

After peddling down these trails for long enough to be dripping with sweat, we emerged into a Vietnamese village segrated from the world by mountains on all sides. The cleared land around the village was a big change from dense jungle surroundings. Here the jungle was replaced by terraced rice patty fields extending far from the village. In them workers wearing rice hats slaved away. On the streets we passed shoeless women carrying water on their heads. A few kids waved at us.

 

Biking into the Village

Biking into the Village

             We stopped at the far edge of the village to drop off our bikes for a few kilometer hike deep into the jungle. We climbed up rocks, through vines and into cave passageways. Afterwards we got back on bikes and my friends and I raced ahead of the group to head back to the boat. Several peoples bicycles broke down and they had to hitch rides w friendly passing motorbikers. Some of the girls caught motorbike taxis as well because it was too hard of a ride.

 

After everyone returned to the boat, we floated towards Monkey Island. The boat couldn’t get close to land so we had to swim to it. I was the first one there and saw monkeys playing on a small hut. The monkeys were curious and came next to me to investigate. After messing with them for a bit, two friends and I hiked high up on a nearby mountain. It was a gorgeous place and an enjoyable hike (even though I had no shoes on from swimming over).

 

 

For our final night, we stayed on a nearby Island. We found a bar with many tourists. I met some people from New Zealand, Britain, Canada and the US. I was happy to hear the bar had snakewine shots (sorry for out of place picture at the top, im having formatting problems and have little time to correct). I’m not sure exactly what it is still, I just know it was in a huge jug with dead starfish and snakes. My friends and I all decided might as well after some encouraging from the locals. Pretty raunchy to be honest and I was glad I onyl had a small amount  I caught a motorbike back with a friend and we decided to check out the beach before going back to the hotel. It was a great moment as we stared into Haolong Bay on our final night.

 

 

The next day we had to travel by boat, taxi, bus, motorbike and plane for eleven hours to get back. I was severely sleep deprived, not only because of lack of sleep the past night, but also the previous two nights. Previously this long day of travel would be daunting, but I’m used to it. It’s what Semester at Sea is all about!

 

On the way back there was one scary incident. We had gotten off our plane and were going back to the ship in a taxi. Partway through the 30 minute ride a man on a motorbike banged against the windows of our taxi. This guy was about thirty years old and had a shady look. Our windows were down and he began yelling at us. The driver yelled back. Neither spoke any English but it was obvious this motorbike man wanted our taxi to stop.

 

Our driver ignored the harasser and made a hand gesture symbolizing crazy to us. We laughed and then looked back to see the crazy guy still at the side of our car. Now the man on the motorbike was making the hand signal of shooting a gun at our car. He glared at us with a frown on his face as he repeatedly made the gesture of shooting up our car. Our driver sped off but at a stoplight five minutes later the motorbike man reappeared and parked his bike to block our taxi. He hopped out and ran at us but our driver swerved around and sped forward.

 

At first it was funny having this little Vietnamese man on a girly motorbike yelling at me and two of my friends (who are both bigger than me). After the gun gestures and blocking us in it was now getting a little scary. This guy followed us yelling at our car for the remaining ten minutes of our drive. As we neared the port, the harasser pulled into a dark alley on the side of the road and motioned for our driver to follow him. In the alley there were another six men on motorbikes. Fortunately our driver ignored him and dropped us off at the heavily policed port entrance.

 

Our taxi driver spoke no English so I still have no idea what exactly was going on. The driver asked for extra money because of the motorbikes and we gave him a little. I am not sure if this was a scam to get us to pay more for the cab, if we were almost robbed or something else. Regardless it was another adrenaline filled moment and I’m glad to have made it out safe.

 

I went out this night with a bunch of friends from the boat. We ate a combination of chicken, rice, peppers, noodles, fish oil and bean sprouts from a street vendor. Not sure how I haven’t gotten sick yet, I’ve been eating street food in every country. Close to this stand my friend Becky from the University of Iowa had a man make the cut throat gesture to her after she said she was from America. He actually picked up a knife from the stand and looked over at us. Then he set it down but still followed us for a while. Finally we lost him, or so we thought, until we saw him drive by yelling on his motorbike. He turned around and parked next to where we were sitting on some steps. We lost him when we went into a club.

 

I stayed up all night because we were leaving at 6:30 AM the next day to explore the Cu-Chi tunnels. After a two hour drive, we arrived and the tourguide sat us down for an introductory video. It was a very different perspective on the war than I’ve always gotten. Instead of calling the video “The Vietnamese War” they called it “The American War.” Which makes perfect sense, but for some reason it caught me off guard. They talked about the heros at Cu-Chi and how they won medals for killing so many Americans. They also told of the tunnel tactics and innovations the Viet Cong used to kill Americans with glowing praise.

 

We saw the intricate system of tunnels the Viet Cong used to attack Americans. There was a wide assortment of barbaric looking traps they employed. Some were holes covered by trap doors that soldiers would fall through and onto a floor spiked with bamboo poles. Others were triggers that Americans would set off as they stepped into the tunnels and metal spikes would shoot out to impale them. It was eery to think these gruesome traps were used on American men my age in this exact location.  

 

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Halfway through the tour our guide said we could crawl into the tunnels if we weren’t claustrophobic. We decided it needed to be done and lowered ourselves into the tiny burrows. Shortly after entering, I was dripping with sweat while army crawling through a small portion of this anthill created by the Vietnamese. My shoulders were too wide and drug against the walls as I squirmed through. I felt like I was going to get stuck. I started to freak out a bit because there were people directly in front and behind me and I felt caged by the dirt squeezing my shoulders together. One main problem was the suffocating heat while crawling along the tombs. I was dripping in sweat and could barely breathe the stagnant tunnel air.   I demanded for my body to fight forward for the full experience of the tunnels. Fifteen minutes after entering, we emerged, relieved, on the other side of the camp.

 

Entering into the Tunnels

Entering into the Tunnels

 They designed the tunnels so they would be too small for American soldiers to fit through. In fact, the tunnel I barely fit through was widened for tourists. I would not have fit if it were any smaller. I cannot imagine the fear of any American soldier exploring these tunnels during the war time. I was flustered and there was no danger from enemies or traps.

 

To end our experience, we got to shoot some guns. I shot an AK-47. The thing that stuck out the most was how loud the guns were. They gave us stereo headphones to protect our ears—not exactly American safety regulations. I heard ringing for a minute afterwards.

 

We caught our taxi back and wandered the market delirious from tiredness. I managed to stay awake until 5pm when I could pick up my suit.  I made it back to the boat and fell asleep for 14 hours straight. That has to be near coma status and is probably the longest I’ve ever slept.

 

Now I get to travel throughout Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai in the next 5 days. I will be hopping on another plane ride for a university stay and will be shown around the great wall by students. I leave tomorrow morning. Just wrote all this in a few hour straight session so forgive me if there’s some errors. I figure if I don’t write it now I never will.—some extra pics are below

 

 

 

Littttle tunnels

 

What our boat looked like

 

Dining room n catering staff on our Junk boat

Strange fruitsMonkeys

 

Floating villages

 
 
 

Peace out Nam

 

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