Thursday, September 29, 2005

Itinerary Update

Quick update on the plan. We are staying two extra days in Cape Town (yes!), then traveling to the middle of the Indian Ocean to the island of Mauritius for three days. Good thing I brought my scuba gear. I wonder what 700 students are going to do in this tiny island.

Sara and I are in Hermanus, about two hours east of Cape Town. We'll have lots of stories.

Monday, September 26, 2005

My Man-Crush

Every dude has his man-crush.

Reshad is in love with Tom Brady. Jason has something going for Chris Farley. Aden would have Dave Matthew’s children. Dunny gets a funny feeling every time Jackie Green is in town. And this is all perfectly natural.

I have a huge man-crush on Desmond Tutu and I’m proud of it.

The 1984 Nobel Peace Laureate from South Africa graced us with his presence on the Salvador to Capetown leg of our voyage. I’ve heard of Desmond Tutu all of my life, but the first time I really started paying attention to him was about six months ago, when I watched Anne Dowd’s video of her Fall 2000 SAS voyage. The Archbishop boarded the ship in Capetown that year for a brief speech, and the portions that made it into the final video, perfectly-delivered call for young people to dream and “soar”, was perhaps the most inspirational speech I’ve ever heard (and this is from someone who for various reasons is not a big fan of inspirational speeches). I secretly began rooting for him to join us again, if only for a day.

As with everything else related to this voyage, I wanted learn more about the man. Archbishop Desmond Tutu had two major impacts in South Africa, first by stepping up to the leadership of the country’s anti-apartheid resistance at a time most of its leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, had been put in jail.

His second major impact came when he was appointed to be Chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 1994. South Africa, having just gone through the terrible years of apartheid, was in the unique position of having to figure out how future generations of oppressor and oppressed people could live together. There were two main options:

1. The Nuremberg Solution – the oppressed punish the oppressor for all their deeds. This is a very problematic solution when the punished and the punisher need to coexist.
2. Forgive and Forget – this was impossible when there were so many wounds that were opened from years of apartheid.

The solution South Africa came up with was the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, in which anyone (black or white) could ask for amnesty for their crimes during the apartheid era if 1. they confessed in full to their crimes, and 2. if the crimes were demonstrated to be politically motivated.

This is a very simplistic summary of the TRC (I’m making it sound like the forgive and forget solution), but I highly recommend reading the bishop’s masterpiece called “No Future without Forgiveness”, which is essentially a discourse as to why the TRC is the best Reconstruction solution for South Africa.

(The book, by the way, introduced me to the word ubuntu, which broad concept under which, for example, a fractured relationship between two individuals is a problem of the community, and needs to be dealt with for the good of the community. I mention this because that’s how I usually deal with conflict, and I like the word.)

He’s one of the gentle giants, in the same line of leaders as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, MLK, Ghandi, Jesus, etc. So I couldn’t have been more excited when I found out that he was joining us for over a week. In fact, this might have been what I was most excited about this voyage.

My first encounter with Desi was an indirect one. Every night, Semester at Sea puts on a community college of some sort, and on Tutu’s first day, there was a racial discussion in the room adjacent to the Union, where he was present. I had organized a massive, all-student Karaoke Rager that night, and since the Union was clear a little earlier than expected, I started breaking the ice with a full, loud, unabashedly solo rendition of “Like a Virgin” as the students waltzed in to see what was going on.

The bishop’s racial discussion was interrupted by my impression of Madonna and I don’t think they were too happy about it.

But I don’t think anyone was bothered for too long. Mr. Tutu physical presence is endearing – a small, Yoda-ish man with expressive hands and long fingers, a quick wit, and a high-pitched, accented voice. He is always laughing and or making fun of you in a way that makes you like him even more. I believe the wise baboon character in the “Lion King” was directly based on the Archbishop, so if you’ve seen the movie, you can have a good sense of his mannerisms.

This attitude (along with faith and his wife) are probably what got him through a lot of his ordeals over the years. His wife Leah, by the way, should get half of the credit for everything she does. She is a stereotypically large African woman who is gentle, funny, and extremely articulate – in fact, she answered half of the questions that were directed to Desi. They have been married for 50 years, and in a revealing moment as I was setting up his mic, he asked that he be seated so he could see his wife from where he was sitting.

He’s extremely approachable, from the time he starts exercising at 6am to walk his seventh deck, and all day, so I had the pleasure to have three meals with him and his wife, where we talked about the serious and the not-so-serious, and since I was around him a lot setting up his microphone for his many events, I became very comfortable around him.

So we’ve learned much about what he is all about. He is brutally honest – he told us that if he had known our ship was headed to Myanmar given the country’s human-rights violations, he wouldn’t have joined us on this voyage – which is refreshing because it becomes clear that his endearing-ness is not an act. The guy’s the real deal.

Capetown is around the corner and I will stop here because I need to go to bed. But given this eventful crossing of the Atlantic, I think I’ll be bringing up this leg of the trip for a long time.

Saturday, September 24, 2005


In a bit of sad news today, our trip to Kenya has been canceled due to Al Qaeda and piracy activity in eastern Africa, and since we’re a big, easy target as a shipful of American students, this was in our safety’s best interest. We don’t yet know where we’re going after South Africa. I was going to lead a camping safari in the Maasa Mari region, and after numerous conversations prior to the voyage with friends who have been Kenya, especially a really long one with Doni Thompson at the Nuthouse, it was one of the countries I was most excited about visiting.

Oh, well. This trip is all about being flexible. Anywhere we go will be new and exciting and somewhere I’ve never been before. So we wait.

Tomorrow I’ll share my thoughts on Desmond Tutu.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Emerald of the Atlantic


A quick update before we enter Ferndando de Noronha: this is what I look like now

Yup, my hair is gone. We participated in the time-honored maritime tradition known as "Neptune Day", where those polywoks (sp) who have never sailed across the equator before must pay respect to King Neptune in to ensure calm waters in the future.

As Romo will attest, the hazing is much more intense when it involves real sailors or crew members. The attitude aboard SAS is much more laid back and quite fun. The morning starts with the crew members (who REALLY get into it), dressed up in togas beating drums and waking everybody up from their cabins. Everybody congregates outside on the 7th deck, where King Neptune (the captain completely painted in green) awaits us. A delicious mixture of fish guts, sour milk, vinegar, and oatmeal is poured on top of you before you kiss a large fish of some sort. Then you pay respects to the King himself and shave your head (optional) before you are considered a shellback.

It was a lot of fun. I was surprised by how many/which of the girls shaved their heads. Given that I almost need to shave twice a day, I expect to have my hair back by Kenya. I don't care how it looks because it feels phenomenal. I've become a shameless head rub junkie and everyone knows it by now - if I sit still long enough, there will be a hand. I'll make sure of it.

Alright, enough about my (lack of) hair. Where were we? Ah yes, Brazil. The archipelago of Fernando de Noronha is an ecological reserve and national park and one of the most beautiful places in the world. Because of its rich marine life and its unusual geologic features, the islands are given special protection by the Brazilian government, which limits the number of people that can travel to the island to a few hundred a week. This means that it is possible to enjoy some of the best beaches in the world for hours without seeing another person.

I woke up on my own after only a couple of hours of sleep and rushed to hail a taxi straight to the airport. Well, kind of straight. In typical SAS fashion, the taxi had a flat. My eagerness to help not miss my flight made matters worse. In my mind, multitasking was clearly the fastest way to get the job done - as the driver placed the new tire, I would store the flat in the trunk. That's when the car slowly started creeping forward , followed by a loud bang and a scream from the driver. I had pushed the car off its precarious balance on the jack, sending the breakpads straight to the asphalt and jamming the drivers fingers in the process. Whoops.

We straightened things as much as possible, I gave the man a nice tip and made my flight on time. Two hours later, we had our first glance of the island.

There was an audible gasp in the airplane when the plane took a sharp right to begin circling the island, giving the passengers our first look at Noronha. The topological features that most of us grew familiar from the thousands of pictures we'd seen over the years are now directly in front of us, in full-resolution 3-D, and it is better than expected. This phenomenon of experience is something that I think about over and over. I did my research for at least nine months for this trip, but nothing can ever prepare you for having a vast ocean filling your line of sight anywhere you look, the feeling of the soft sand at a beautiful beach, or the smell of smoke of a Pemon bush fire. You think you know, but you really have no idea until you are there.

With that, we land on the island. I head to my pousada and rent a buggy. to maximize the exploration in the limited amount of time. So much for ecological tourism.

My first stop is the Praia do Cachorro, followed by Praia da Conceicao, where I immediately put on my snorkeling gear for an hour or so. Then I head over to the huge Cacimba do Padre, a placid beach that turns into surfer's paradise during the rainy months, where I find only one other person on the opposite side of the beach. I decide to sit down and proceed to have the first of several zen moments of the weekends.

Actually, it was more like zen hours. I didn't move until several hours after dark. As most people are well aware, there's nothing I love more than being around other people, but in doing so, you forget to appreciate the value of the occasional solitude. Aside from the two dogs that randomly decided to join me that night, there was no one there, and for the first time since I left Brazil, I enjoyed being by myself.

I staggered back to the pousada in the dark, and woke up early the next morning for some scuba diving. That's were I met Tom Piozet, a Los Altos native who was doing documentary work on Noronha for the Discovery Channel. I struck a conversation with him as soon as I saw this obvious American was carrying a very expensive HDCAM video camera, and he soon tells me that my boss, Ray Clark, gave him his first freelance job back in the Bay Area many years ago. He seemed intrigued by the fact that I spoke english so well as a Brazilian that he asks to interview me about the island and why Brazilians are attracted to it. So dear Ranchmates - please TiVo the word "Noronha". He says the documentary shouldn't air until March of next year, but he didn't know for sure, so why take a chance of missing it?

We soon parted ways as I continued my exploration of the island. I packed all of my snorkeling gear in the hiking back Romo lent me and set afoot or by buggy to see as much of the island as I could see. Most of my hike ended up being me finding a beautiful vista, sitting in a spot for a few hours, then getting in the water for more snorkeling.

I love snorkeling. Those of us blessed with lungs out to our lats and the ability to equalize ear pressure in real time probably enjoy it more than others. Given the calmness of some of the areas I chose, I went deeper, 50ft or so, and saw more sealife than I did scuba diving. I like seeing how deep I can go, trying to spend about a minute or so exploring the nooks and cranies of the ocean floor. It is easy to go up and down for hours. Then put the gear in the bag and go explore the next beach or geological formation.

That's pretty much how the first full day went. As an ecological reserve, Noronha is a protected breeding ground for sea turtles, and the island has thousands of them, especially at the Praia do Sueste where they come to feed every day. Turtles are beautiful creatures underwater. They fly effortlessly and aren't terribly afraid of human beings, allowing for some pretty close contact. You are bound to follow any turtle you find underwater for however long you can keep up.

Saw yet another sunset from the Praia do Bode, then prepared for one of the most amazing things I've ever seen the following morning.

The Fernando de Noronha archipelago is an underground volcanic island in the middle of an otherwise deep equatiorial Atlantic - an oceanic island in every sense of the word. Over millenia, spinner dolphins have discovered the island to be an ideal place for feeding, resting, and breeding. especially in the Baia dos Golfinhos, which by some incredible coincidence, translates to Dolphin Bay.

Every morning around 5am, the dolphins start coming in groups of one hundred or so, marching in after feeding all night long. And they keep coming. And they keep coming. In a few hours, the bay is full of dolphins, doing things spinner dolphins do best - resting, mating, spinning, and attracting tourists. Spinner dolphins are a particularly interesting breed. They are about 50-75% of the size of the more famous bottle-nosed dolphin, and they are perfectly named because every time they leave the water (which is a lot), they spin several times in the air. The local dolphin researchers (who have the best office in the world) tell us the the jump is a form of communication because every time there is a jump, there is a response. But the dolphins are everywhere. If you go out on a boat, the dolphins are bound to follow you (which, by the way, I found out is not playful but rather extremely stressful behavior because they think boats are predators and are trying to deviate this threat away from the youngins when they are seen "playing" near the bow of a ship. Isn't that awesome?).

After enjoying the dolphins for several hours, I went to witness another phenomenon of the island. Because of its unual rock formations, the low tide creates natural pools which are breeding ground for fish. Essentially they become natural aquariums. These pools are protected by the Brazilian government, but they allow 100 people a day, in groups of 20 for twenty minutes, to visit Atalaia beach. I went in the nude.

Alright, just kidding. But I wanted to. Anyway, the point is that these pools really are teaming with life because of the protection from the open ocean (in the background). So much so that it is easy to find a lot of life in very shallow water.

A lot more happened the last two days, but I'll leave these stories to myself. After a lot of hiking and enjoying the beaches, I quickly made friends with tourists from the Bay Area, and more importantly,with the locals,. My favorite part was meeting these two artists who lived in their open studio in the middle of the island, sleeping in hammocks, and having an all-around good time. They showed me a lot, and I don't think I'll ever have to pay to visit Noronha again. I hope it happens again. I hope.

On the fifth day, I had to leave. I had been nervous about missing the ship, but the worries completely disappeared on the first day I got to the island. I made it back on time, and caught an early connection in Recife that required that I sprint dangerously through the airport (which to my surprise, is the nicest airport I've ever seen), but got me back to Salvador with five hours to spend. We got a small group together, went to Boi Preto, the best churracaria in Salvador, which ended up being one of the best meals I've ever had. If you know what a churrascaria is, and how much I love Brazilian food, you will understand that that statement is no exaggeration.

So when the ship pulled back into the atlantic ocean, it hurt, and people knew this. Brazil still feels like home. I gain 10 pounds buying all the food and candy from my childhood; I spend the night watching TV in hopes of catching a rerun of one of my old childhood shows; I walk into record shops looking Brazilian songs my mom used to play on the piano years ago. It was tough leaving 15 years ago, and it is still tough leaving now. I know I'll never live there again - I wouldn't trade my life, my home, or my friends for anything in the world - but it is still a big part of my identity, more so than I realize sometimes.

Sorry for the sappy stuff - I don't usually put much thought into stuff like this, but I have a lot of time at sea, and as I said before, this is stream-of-conciousness stuff, so you guys have to suffer through it. I'll try to change the tone and upload funny stories with the Archbishop in the next couple of days. Try this on for size... as excited as I was about going to Brazil, I'm much more excited about going to South Africa and the rest of the countries on the itinerary. That should tell you something.

Off to bed. These 23 hour days are killing me.

Bonus pics:
The King of Unibrows
Sunset with Friends
Sunset alone

P.S. Thanks to everyone who has been posting and emailing... expect something in the mail soon.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Stranger in the Homeland

Since this is Brazil, and there’s a lot on my mind about it, I’ll make this a two-parter, focusing first on the arrival and Salvador, and the second part on the island. Desmond Tutu, my new hero, is onboard, and I already have some good stories about that, so I’ll write a little about him before arriving in South Africa.

Anyway, Brazil… things had been building up all week for me. I’d been one of the interport lecturers and tried to point out some of the funnier nuances between the cultures that I noticed over the years (the consequences of a different understanding of personal space, the melodic nature of the language, the greeting with kisses on the cheek, etc…), and much to my surprise, it was extremely well-received. As a result, I found myself agreeing to be the tour guide for about 25 students and staff members who wanted a native speaker to show them around.

Next time I’ll pay a little more attention how many times I say “yes”. You see, I might be Brazilian, but this trip was strictly tourism. Brazil is larger than the continental United States, and a traveling from Salvador to see my family in Sao Paulo is analog to flying from Hawaii to see family in San Diego. I’ve never been to the northeast part of the country, and since I was only going to be there five days, I was going to stick around there and make the most of the visit.

And I was extremely excited, and I couldn’t hide it under my perpetual grin. Think of how giddy I get heading up to the cabin in Tahoe and multiply by 100. Seeing Salvador from the deck hit me really hard - I couldn’t wait to get off the ship. This is a historic town that I remember studying as a child, and the landmarks were easy to pick out from where we were, and, it’s Brazil we’re talking about.

So when “my” crew finally got together near the purser’s office to head into town, I saw that this wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to see the city on my own terms – sharing the experience with others but not having the pressure to translate or explain everything, over and over. As we headed to the historic Pelourinho (Whipping Post) area, it was pretty clear that I was happy if people tagged along, but that I wasn’t going to wait for anyone, especially if they wanted to shop along the way. It was perfect. I got a great feel for the city, and eventually (thanks to several people who thought the group was a little big themselves) we dwindled to a perfectly-sized group of five people and headed over to the Barra area to watch yet another sunset.

(Remind me later to write why we go out of our way to watch just about every sunset this voyage has to offer)

We head back and get ready for the welcome reception, for which I’m a bus leader (translation – I get some money back). This is a big party with 300 of our students and hundreds of (horny) Brazilian students. As groups are leaving on the buses one-by-one, I’m the last of the bus leaders, and the last group is so small that they didn’t notice me and I didn’t notice them leaving… on the bus I was supposed to board. I find out that they left from Dean John Tymitz (of deus-ex fame), who runs into me as he is escorting two girls on a private van to the party. I hop in with them and find out the two of them had been mugged in the Pelourinho area in broad daylight a few hours earlier. They were ok, though a little shook up and missing $4000 of camera equipment. They wouldn’t be the only ones to be attacked.

The reception was fabulous. There is a great Capoeira demonstration, followed by a live performance by Saduka or Sudaka (I don’t remember which). Please google and download their music. It was spectacular – it was techno-ish with a very Brazilian twist. The main musician played the berimbau, which is a one-string bow, but played it so well that it sounded like a 12 string guitar. I’ve listened to the berimbau all my life, but I’ve never heard anything like that.

It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had dancing. But it was on a Tuesday night in the off-season, and the party was shut down at midnight. The Brazilian students insisted there was nothing going on, but we knew better. I got together with Jason, Yas, Rita, Martina, Erin, and we all piled up in a taxi and headed over to the Aeroclub area where Club Cancun was hoppin’.

We get there, and there are three problems with our group:

1. Open toes are not allowed. Most of the girls were wearing sandals.
2. The club is 21 and over. I never heard of that in Brazil, but two of the girls are well under 21.
3. They require original passport for foreigners. As recommended by SAS, no one carried their original passport for fear of losing it.

That meant I was the only one able to get in, even though I used my Brazilian registration card that still has my picture as a 10-year-old. I talked to the manager, trying to do a “jeitinho”, Brazilian-style, and get them in, but to no avail.

They left. I stayed.

The party was going strong and looked like it was going on the entire night. And for the first time in my life, I felt like a foreigner in Brazil.

It became obvious to me inside Club Cancun that by missing my adolescence in Brazil, by spending my formative years in the U.S., that I might have been missing something. I didn’t have any cousins to lean on, and I finally saw that there are times when not having an accent works against you. By sporting an accent, there is an implicit understanding of your behavior and nuanced mistakes can be dismissed as part of some cultural misunderstanding. Without that accent, people attempt to reach a level of communication with you in which a lot is sent between the lines. It is easy to take for granted how easy communication becomes when you are immersed in a culture. Since I haven’t been in Brazil in this environment before, and this was my first day back in a while, I felt a little lost at times. But the solution is simple – lower people’s expectations by letting them know right away you’ve been away for 15 years. Since Brazil is an extremely warm and friendly country, they will probably make fun of you while going out of their way to make sure your initiated (or in my case, updated) into the culture. It was really interesting to me.

Two things stood out as different in the club from anything I’ve seen in the US. The second thing is that in a chic bar such as Club Cancun (and probably many places), they have dance leaders that lead the crowd in line dances, and the crowd loves it. Seeing this was like seeing a bouncer lead 1050 Folsum doing the Macarena. This should catch on – it is on the same, corny-yet-so-much-fun level of karaoke, especially when the crowd is so much into it.

The second thing I noticed is the gradient of races on the dance floor. Brazil is a much more culturally mixed country than the US, for reasons I won’t go into here. Racism is not based on “black” or “white”, but on a gradient. This integration is striking for someone who has grown used to very sharp lines of separation.

I left the club to the ship at 3:30am. Despite the fact that it was Tuesday, there was no chance the party was going to end for those people before sunrise. I needed to go pack and go to bed for Fernando de Noronha. I got back to the ship, set my alarm, and wrote a note on my door for people to make sure I was awake at 7am so I wouldn’t miss my flight.

Tomorrow I’ll post about the island. I’m putting a picture up for Tom, who requested that I photograph his Rinsipirator throughout the world. Try explaining what this device does in another language.

Finally, I'll start linking other people's blogs if you want more stories. Today, I'll link to Beth's, our administrative assistant. She says she's written about Salvador, so you can search for "Rico" if you want more stories from there:

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

I'm heartbroken - Salvador is no longer in sight. The gamble was well worth it; I made it back to the ship with plenty of time to enjoy Salvador and Brazil for a few more hours before meeting with boarding. Bare with me as I need a few days to process this experience, but I leave you with two things. First, the following is the introduction to Fernando de Noronha taken from page 511 of the 6th Edition of Lonely Planet - Brazil (2005). FYI, the Lonely Planet series is the bible to any self-respecting travelers these days.

"With its crystal-clear water, rich marine life, and tropical landscapes, the Fernando de Noronha archipelago is one of the most stunning places in Brazil, if not the entire world. Brazilians consider Baia do Sancho, Baia dos Porcos, and Baia do Leao to be three of the best beaches in the country. The mainland, much of which is national park, is sparecely populated and tourism has become the main source of income for locals.
"As a guaranteed highlight of any trip to Brazil, Fernando de Noronha is worth the expense."

I believe this is an understatement. As exhibit #1, I leave you this picture until I post a full report.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Chegando no Brasil

Brazil is within site. I was given the opportunity to talk about Brazil as an improvised interport lecturer and the excitement is back in the stratosphere. I'll be spending all day and all night having fun with the new friends in Salvador, then flying off on my own to Fernando de Noronha. My only disappointment is that I'm going to be traveling by myself; a lot of people want to come along, but it takes a lot of planning to be able to get a plane ticket to the island. So I'll make the best of it and have a great time in Bahia before taking off.

I'm also taking a huge gamble by flying back to Salvador the day the ship leaves. I have four back-up flights and a lot of cash ready in case there's a problem, but you never know if there's an act of god that can leave me stranded. I'll be following the island's weather reports closely in case I feel I should leave a day early. I won't be checking internet until the 17th or so, assuming I'm back. It would be terrible if I don't make it, especially since I would miss ten days with Desmond Tutu on the ship, but if there is one place to miss the ship, this would be the least horrible since I would travel to Sao Paulo to see the family, then fly to South Africa and meet up with Sara.

But I refuse to jinx myself. The weather will be beautiful, and the plan will work as scheduled. Keep your fingers crossed.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Rough waters

We finally hit our first stretch of rough waters as we crossed the equator, and unlike the many people who get sea sick, I love it. Here are my top seven things to do as we ride bigger waves.

7. Going to sleep. It is like being craddled all over again. The center of gravity of the ship is near the aft, so those of us living in the front are most affected by it all. I say we're not affected enough.

6. Taking a shower. There are two techniques to showering in rough waters. 1) Chase the water around with moderate success, or 2) Stay in one spot and wait for the water to hit you about 50% of the time. I definitely am a student of option #1. Who knew showers could be so much fun?! Actually, don't answer that.

5. Going to the bathroom. Ever lived with someone with bad aim? Good thing I have my own cabin.

4. Watching the mass of students change classes. There's a spot in the sixth deck between the classrooms that is full of students walking in both directions for about five minutes, several times a day. I need to static video camera to show everybody getting slammed one way before everybody gets slammed the other way. It is like everybody is drunk, but in a very uniform, organized way.

3. Running up and down the stairs. A more accurate term would be "chasing the steps". It's like a tag between humans and the stepkind, often with hilarious results. If only the staircase could trash-talk... "Think that step will be there when your foot arrive, eh? Think again, sucka!"

2. Playing basketball. If there is one thing I am terrible at in this world, it is basketball. The rough waters won't stop me from trying, however. A well-timed wave can my turn my a shot into a shotput and my layup into a Lebron-like dunk. The NBA should needs to find out about this... watching people play when the court and the basket are moving all over the place is beats the heck out of watching a real game. I think my free throw percentage is a ship-leading .0000001% (which is actually better than what I shoot on land, but that's another story).

1. Going to the seventh deck to watch the students try to run on the exercise machine. Or as I like to call it, the "Log Run". In a culture of fitness where everybody walks around in swimsuits, there's something really funny watching students figure out the hard way that perhaps there are safer machines available. An that proves that yes, I have an evil side.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Livin' on a Prayer

New statistic of the trip: I've been told by the residence deans there were 26 confirmed pregnancies during the spring 2005 SAS voyage. Postscript: I can't believe I fell for that one. Holy schneikies.

In other news, as the AV coordinator, it was my privilege to organize a karaoke party in the Pit for the staff tonight. Many had never done karaoke before, and I believe they’re all sold on the idea. With 80 percent of the ship’s crew hailing from the Philippines, I had no problem finding two Karaoke machines (one of them portable) with thousands of songs to choose from until ship security told us students were complaining that we were being too loud. We might be done for tonight, but there will be several more Karaoke nights as we plow forward. Consider this a warm-up for Japan.

We’re crossing the equator tonight, and I’m already tired of having to adjust my clock as we head east towards Brazil. I can’t believe I’ll be doing that another twenty times or so. I always felt my biological clock operates under a 26 hour cycle, so these 23 hour days are going to catch up to me at some point.

Since everything is geared towards Brazil right now, I’ve been doing my best to be an expert as I get asked to do things such as teach the choir some Brazilian music and be interviewed by many students about Brazilian culture, religion, food, and language. Luckily there is an interport lecturer onboard who knows capoeira, so I wasn’t asked to teach that, but am thoroughly enjoying learning it from him. I expect to be a mestre by the end of the week.

Team America to the Rescue

With 700 students, hundreds of flights, thousands of miles on the road and many more miles at sea, the perpetual potential for, war, crime, storms and other natural disasters, etc… three times a year, for thirty years, I’m shocked that SAS has the safety record that it does. I say this not to alarm, but to point out that people need to be smart travelers to minimize their risks, and even so, freak accidents do happen. I am convinced that the organization is so well run that I believe the program is as safe as is physically possible.

The potential for a freak accident became pretty evident to the 16 of us (seven dudes, six cuties, and three staff. BTW, I apologize ahead of time for the eminent abuse of the word “cuties” when describing certain – most – ladies in this blog. But I digress.), who flew to the part of Venezuela known as the Gran Sabana, in the Canaima National Park. The park is located in the southern part of the country, where the Amazonian Rain Forest elevates into the Venezuelan Cloud Forest. The region is so big that it takes about two hours by plane to fly over the park.

Within it, there are some of the world’s more striking features, a mixture of Yosemite with Montana with the Amazon, culminating is structures such as Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall. Dubbed “The Lost World” by Arthur Conan Doyle, it is easy to imagine dinosaurs roaming around – if fact, I guess the scene in Jurassic Park where the herd of ostrich-like dinousaurs run the plain was shot in the Gran Sabana portion of the park.

The Gran Sabana is the home of about 4000 Pemon Indians who still live scattered in mud huts around the area. The area was once luscious cloud forest as well, but the Indians, in their tradition of communicating by fire over the centuries, have turned the luscious cloud forest in this particular area into a large, meadowy savannah. This tradition continues (our tour guides described the Pemon as pyromaniacs), and in fact, it is impossible to miss the dozens of brush fires intentionally started at any given point of the day.

The area is desolate and remote, so after flying to the town of Puerto Ordonaz from Caracas, we boarded two seatbelt-less Land Rovers, facing each other in a confined space (interlocked knees), and prepared for our eight-hour bonding experience to the park. Our experienced tour guides, Juan and Arturo, would teach us the lifelong lessons that Venezuelans love Celine Dion and speedos, no matter what kind of shape they are in.

For the most part, the roads were well-paved and relatively new, but there was the frequent pothole that needed to be swerved, as well as the occasional gift the forest leaves on the road.

I haven’t many trees this big in my lifetime, so it was a pretty memorable sight seeing this on the road. The army had arrived and started making room for the cars to pass under, and eventually, enough room was made for cars to pass between the trunk and its massive stump.

Our LandRovers, however, were a little too big to make it through, but we did have 4x4 drive to take full advantage of. So with the help of another truck, we managed to make our way through the very dense jungle, around the tree, and back onto the road. Woohoo!

In the meantime, those of us in the truck have no option but get to know each other, sharing all sorts or memorable stories, each person trying to top the other. I still think my story about splitting my head open on the high-bar tops them all. Anyway, it was as one of those stories was being told that things became pretty memorable.

Just ahead of us, an older gentleman somehow loses control of his blue Honda-ish-looking car and swerves into incoming traffic – us. The swerve is violent enough that it causes the car to go airborne about four feet, do a half-turn as the front of the car catches the bank on the right side of the road, which spins the car like a top at it lands upside down.

All of us in the car are watching the event unfold as this mass of crushed metal comes spinning straight towards us.

But somehow, we slow down enough that the other car misses us by about 15 feet, is spun back in the original lane of traffic, is slammed against the trees on the other side of the road.

We were all sure the man was dead.

Woody, one of the staff members on the trip, was an EMS responder for 13 years and shared several of his gnarliest stories during the first couple hours of the trip. It must have been instinctive on his part – we could almost picture him looking around for his emergency bag as he opened the back door of the truck and ran to the overturned vehicle.

It was quite a sight. All of us were ok – Juan, our driver, was sweating, and people were shaken up a bit. But as things settled down, the driver emerged out of this wreck. Bloody, with a swollen face, but he walked out alive. We got back in our vehicles, relieved that the man was alive, and proceeded for another four hours. The jovial spirit returned in immediately. But the thought that things would have been very different if we had been a second ahead of where we was in the back of everyone’s mind.

The next day we got to experience the Gran Sabana and the surrounding cloud forest. I’ll leave a lot of the story to the pictures, since I’m not sure I can do the place justice in a few paragraphs. But some of the highlights include spending a lot of time in the Pemon Indian Villages (if you’ve never chased an Indian kids in a handstand, you don’t know what you’re missing out), playing wifflball (whiffle? Wiffel? Weiffel? Am I wearing pants? I shouldn’t be.), hiking, swimming, off-roading to remote locations, cliff diving, star-gazing, and eating great Venezuelan food. Instead of recounting it all, just know that I ended up with some 20 new pages in my journal over the four days, and yes, I started a journal on this trip. Sue me. (Also, I decided I will burn a CD/DVD will pictures and caption of the trip and mail it to the Ranch for uploading – it is too expensive and/or time consuming to do it on this trip).

A few more:
Twin Sisters Waterfall.

Fast forward to the last day. The plan was to wake up at 7am, eat breakfast, and get on the road by 8am to make it back to our 6pm flight out of Puerto Ordonaz to Caracas, very far away. No one wants to leave. But we reluctantly get in the cars and psychologically prepare ourselves for a long, long drive. We also knew that there was little wiggle room for making the flight; any more fallen trees and car accidents, and we would have to consider other ways of meeting up with the ship.

Right away we knew things weren’t quite right. At every military stop along this solitary road that connects Brazil with northern Venezuela, they are telling us that the locals were staging a protest and have blocked the road in Las Claritas. We were hopeful that by the time we arrived in town, things would have calmed down and we would be on our way.

That wouldn’t be so; it wasn’t long before we hit the blockade. Turns out that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, of “Pat Robertson wants me dead” fame in the United States, made a very U.S. friendly decision a month ago of prohibiting gold mining from the state that Canaima is located. Mining has been ecologically devastating for the area, dumping thousands of gallons of mercury into the rivers and destroying much of the forest around Las Claritas.

And Las Claritas happens to be a mining town. The army had seized their equipment and the government imposed a quota of 20 liters of gasoline per resident of the town, which apparently prevents them from operating any clandestine machines (BTW, gas in Venezuela is between 20 and 40 cents a gallon).

So the residents of the town had been out of work for over a month and the frustration boiled over in this peaceful protest. They simply took over the road at 5pm the previous day, and were refusing to let anyone through until the government paid attention to them.

We did talk ourselves through the first blockade, but there was no way we were getting through the second one in the same town. We park the cars and start trying to figure out how we were getting out of there. Here were some of the possibilities:

1. Since we were driving reliable four by four vehicles, we looked for ways around the blockade, through the jungle. That idea was squashed when we realized that the forest is pretty freakin’ dense.
2. Cross the blockade by foot and get a taxi on the other side. Much easier said then done. Turns out the nearest cab was a two-hour drive and a several hundred dollar ride away.
3. Get our tour company to send vehicles to the other side of the blockade. This was looking like the most realistic possibility, but it would mean we would miss our flight and find alternative ways to meet up with the ship.

Now, at this point, we want to stay. Despite the fact that there are hundreds of people on the streets, and we were a group of distinct group of American tourists who stood out in every way, shape, and form, we felt safe the entire time. It is easy to sympathize with these people even as they are killing the environment. It is easy for us to criticize their practices from the comfort of our ship, but these people already made an average of $2 a month, and couldn’t do that any longer. This should be my cue to insert a paragraph on the double-edged sword of globalism here, but I have already babbled enough and I’ll save the preaching for later. Anyway, we had such a good time in the park, and we were having such a good time during the protest meeting the locals, that we didn’t want to leave. Besides, if we missed the ship, we would have to fly to Brazil where I could hang out with my family for six days and have a good time with six cuties in Rio before meeting the ship in Salvador and flying to the paradise that is Fernando de Noronha.

So as we debate the alternatives, it is clear we won’t make it back to the ship on time. Cue the dues ex machina (thank you Dunny for your wonderfully googled explanation on the term – even my grandparents are asking me about it.). Everything in Las Claritas was closed, except for the a satellite phone/internet bar, where I was able to do a little blogging. Woody is in constant contact with the ship explaining the situation over the course of three or four hours we are in Las Claritas. Aparently, after looking at the situation, John Tymitz, the dean/CEO of Semester at Sea calls upon option #4:

4. Send the “Team America” rescue plane to take us over the blockade. Enter the puppets.

Yup, at this point, Woody is given instructions to head back to the Gran Sabana, where we “are to find the landing strip in the middle of the park and wait for a plane to pick us up”.

We’re ecstatic now. We had a great time at the protest, we’re going back to the savanah, where we don’t have to ride in a car for seven hours and can spend some more hours blasting U2 from the Rover, playing whiffleball, and hanging out with more Pemon Indians who come to check us out.

Sure enough, an old Russian plane, complete with wet seats and signs in Cyrillic and just big enough for our group, lands in the middle of the Gran Sabana. And for some reason the plane didn’t fly above 3000ft, which means we got a impromptu aerial tour of Canaima that included Angel Falls – which we were not scheduled to see.

We made it back on the ship with less than one hour to spare. I not sure I’m conveying how awesome this was in this non-stop rambling, but I give the trip an A++++++. Coming back to the ship, I try to keep my mouth shut about the experience because I don’t think anyone had a better time than the 16 of us (“Oh, you went to Caracas? Really? So you did some dancing, eh? Me? Oh, I just went to the south of the country. It was ok.”). Venezuela was the place I was least excited to visit on the itinerary (perhaps an 8 out of 10 on the excitement scale), but I can’t wait to go back now. I keep telling myself that this is only the first stop on the trip. And I keep telling myself we should have missed the ship…

Life is good (notice kitty in the bottom right).

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Safe on the ship

For those of you wondering - we made it back on the ship safely, though it did require a deus ex machina that I will sit down and write about during my shift tomorrow morning. Sorry to leave you hanging, but this was an intense and unbelievable experience that will take a while to type up, so until then, I leave you with two low-res pictures of this last week:

First look at Venezuela:

The Venezuelan Cloud Forest in Canaima:

I love making these panoramas so I have another 5-10 to go from this last trip.

10 more trips to go...

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

This isn´t Nassau!

I didn´t expect this crazy of an experience this early in the voyage. Everything well, but our group of 16 people is stuck in the town of Las Claritas in southeastern Venezuela in the middle of a peaceful protest. This is a gold mining town and its residents closed the only road out of here at 5pm last night in protest of the 20 gallon gasoline quota imposed on them by the government. We still need to make our flight seven hours away and the boat is scheduled to leave tonight. I´ll let you know if we make it.

I have a ton of crazy stories from day one in the country, but I´ll have to share them upon my return to the ship. But things are good here and we´re all enjoying the experience, despite the fact that there are a hundreds of people on the streets right now.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

En Route to South America

Statistic of the trip: of 700 students, 67 percent are female, 33 percent are male. I have no idea why that is.

Classes have started and things are a little hectic trying to set up before each period. Luckily, I’m managing four work-study students and a crew member, and given that this is the most organized I’ve been in my entire life, things with work and schedule are going as smoothly as possible while a ship is rocking in the middle of the Atlantic

We passed Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica yesterday (all visible from the ship), and are halfway between the islands and Venezuela. The seas are a little choppy (nothing as bad as we will encounter at the Cape of Good Hope), but there is something incredibly comforting being rocked in oscillations of four seconds or so. You feel like you’re being cradled when you go to sleep. Walking down the hall or going up the stairs is always a lot of fun… no matter how sober you are, you feel a little drunk.

Stairs, stairs, stairs. We have access to seven decks, and are going up and down the stairs what must be hundreds of times a day. It didn’t take long to feel comfortable with it. After getting lost for several days, I think the staff understands the layout of the ship pretty well now, so it takes us thirty seconds to get from anywhere to the staff lounge, where we meet every night. Last night was so windy that we decided to put on windbreakers and see how far we could lean forward with the wind holding us up with some of the shorter folk leaned almost 45 degrees. We were finally kicked out by the ship’s safety officer, who told us what that what we were doing was really stupid. After putting a second of thought into it, we agreed. It really doesn’t take much to fall overboard. But god, it was fun.

There was a problem with one of our remote Transvideo cameras in Fremont recently, and we’ve had it set up so that we can work remotely, and I was controlling it from the middle of the Atlantic while sitting in our panoramic faculty lounge. I thought that was pretty cool.

I’ve also managed to wake up early to see the sunrise recently. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s ever been out of sight of land before. I’ve been taking a lot of panoramic and time-lapse pictures around here, and even though internet is pretty expensive, I think it is worth taking the time to upload these because I feel it captures the essence of the trip pretty well. I’ll be doing several full-res panoramas in each country and make posters of them when I return. Here are some low-res versions:

Here’s the view of Nassau at night as described in the previous posting:

And as a bonus, the narcoleptic tour guide:

I’ll try to put a little on each of the staff members as the day goes by. Jason, the campus store guy who lives across the hall from me, has a great story that I’ve been told can be read on this site: . I know the story is hilarious in person, but I have yet to see the website. But enjoy.

Thanks to everyone who has been sending emails (and posting messages). I promise I’ll be back to you soon.

Back to work!