Free internet day! The internet has been the biggest headache for everybody on the ship with lost minutes (I lost 3.25 hours I had purchased between Salvador and Cape Town), and they’re switching the whole system in India, so until then, the internet is free. The problem is that EVERYBODY is on – no one is going to class, and many, many students stayed up all night online. Which means the internet is EXTREMELY slow. Result: no pictures in this update. It’ll take all night to upload the text.
Freakin’ IM. Everyone’s on it. Here’s a sample of every conversation, as suggested by Photographer Chris:
John: Where are you?
Bette: In the middle of the Indian Ocean. Where are you?
John: That’s cool. I’m in my room.
Bette: That’s cool.
Or, this is becoming more common:
John: Where are you?
Sandy: In my cabin. Where are you?
John: In the Library. I’m coming down.
Sandy: Cool. Let’s make sweet love.
Alright, I made up the last line. Sort of. But we’ve seen a lot of students locate each other on the ship, eating up bandwidth since every single line goes from the ship in the Indian ocean to a Satellite to a server in the United States and back again.
Anyway, before we launch into Mauritius, we just finished the Sea Olympics two nights ago and these two days might have been last two days have been my favorite days on the ship. Every team is called a “Sea” – Red Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Aegean Sea, etc.. grouped by where you live on the ship. The (very old) adult passengers, staff, faculty, and dependents named themselves the Vitamin Sea, and since I control the media on the ship, we started a trash talking war that involved lots of slides coming up in the middle of lectures that involved the eminent dominance of the Vitamin Sea over the rest of the ship. It was a great way to get people into it early, and doggone it, they were into it.
There was an opening ceremony complete with the lighting of the torch (built by my counterpart Allan and I using an overhead projector, a fan, and colored streamers. It looked really cool). Our talent show included the video that I spend way too much time on, but it will now be the final act of the official voyage DVD since the students liked it so much (I hope Transvideo is ok with that…). We might make an extended version of it. We have plenty of great raw footage we can add.
There were many events, such as relay races, "lemonade pong", basketball, tug-o-war, etc... I limited myself to the push-up/pull-up (with Global Nomad David) and synchronized swimming competitions. I haven't worked out much on the ship at all but managed to 76 push ups and 24 pull-ups (1 min rest in between), good enough for third place, I believe. Doing that is soooo hard with the rocking of the ship because there are moments when you are incredibly light (when the ship is sliding down the swell), and then moments you become extremely heavy on the way up. That's usually when most people collapse.
Anyway, since all the old people were on my team, we put together a team of five of the older women on the ship and myself, and prepeared ourselves for the synchronized swimming competition. They went all out - dragon costumes, choreography, and headbands made from (unopened) condoms. The pool is shallow enough so I was going to pull out my best tricks - the apple trick, the balancing of the cans, parallel bars on the pool ladder, and lots of flips.
Because of weather conditions (Monsoon season in India), the competition was moved indoors, and it was hilarious. Everyone dressed appropriately (or inappropriately), and did their routines indoors. Plus, it was televised to the entire ship, so all the crew members saw it as well.
I went crazy with the tricks. I took two 65lb weights from the weight room to use as parallettes, figured out I could spin a balancing guitar on a pen in my mouth, relearned Russian circles on the floor, and the response was much greater the one from the one-arm Kolman surprise at the Alumni meet last year.
Realize that people know I'm a gymnast, but until that point no one had seen any tricks, so this came out of nowhere. I'll let Chris comment on it when he writes the next guest blog. Beth says she mentioned it in her blog, and when I the internet actually works again I'll read what she said. But I had a good time.
Today is also the 50-50 day, the midpoint of the voyage, and so much has happened so fast. This is the lamest thing I'll write this trip, but the ship's really become a community and feels like home. It's always a nice feeling to see the ship when you've been away from port for a few days. And before I came aboard, I thought only the moments off the ship would really "count", but there's an entire life aboard that is pretty significant.
Things get really busy now. We spent most of our days at sea on the first half of the voyage, and now we spend most of our time on land - for example, a week in India is followed by a week in Myanmar with only 1 day on the ship in between. Given how much we do in port, this is crazy. But I'm certainly looking forward to it, especially this India-Myanmar-Vietman/Cambodia stretch.
Before I get back to India, let me talk about Mauritius. Now how did 700+ people end up on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that most of them had never heard of a week before? The threat of a pirate or a terrorist attack in East Africa is very real right now, and on a big ship full of American students, we are one of the most clear, visible, and easy targets imaginable. It was the smart decision. But I certainly wish we had gone to Kenya. I was looking forward to going to a majority Muslim country, but since the Global Studies class, (which I love and all faculty, staff, and students are required to take) focused on Kenyan and African subject matter even though we were going to Mauritius, it made for a little sadness that we didn’t make it.
Photographer Chris and I have decided we’ll do our own trip to Kenya someday – he’ll come in on his Canadian passport and I’ll come in on my Brazilian passport. Luckily, they made some time to talk about the island in class and cultural preport lectures, which showed Mauritius is a fascinating country in its own right - an island without original natives, it was populated shortly by Arabs, followed by Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French, with thousands of Hindus migrating to work on the sugar cane fields and Chinese to work in trade. The island has a developed economy not dependent on tourism, and is often cited as a model for peaceful racial relations. As a result, this incredibly diverse population is consisted mostly of French-speaking Hindus. It is a trippy experience. I can only imagine how many places with a million people we don’t know exist around the world – with their own history, culture, economy, etc… and how easy it is to forget other people are out there.
Mauritius is most famous for being the only home of the dodo - a huge flightless bird that was extinct in no time centuries ago since it didn't seem to have the fight or flight instinct in it. People would bonk one on the head and none of the birds would try to get away. What a dodo.
There’s a famous quote by Mark Twain about Mauritius – “You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius." I’m sure that was true at some point, but years of foresting and industrialization and dynamite fishing keep it far from being heavenly in most places, but it is still a beautiful place at times. Google "Isle de Cerf" and you'll see what I mean. Again, when I have fast internet, I'll post the pictures.
No one had really made plans on the island, so we decided to wing it and just pick a spot and go. Seven of us on staff decided to go to Grande Baie on the north side of the island, look for a villa, and just stay there. We got a cab driver to get us around, and after a lot of wasted time and negotiation, we got a great deal in Mont Choisy, two apartments for very cheap near the beach. Since I hate just sitting on the beach doing nothing, I took my snorkeling gear and immediately go in the water while the rest of the staff would grab a little sun with a few Mauritian drinks of choice.
I loved my first experience in the Indian Ocean. I've been diving/snorkeling in the Atlantic Ocean my whole life, and I'm pretty familiar with the fauna, which doesn't vary all that much from place to place. Especially in the Carribean. But immediately I saw sea life I'd never seen before, with this interesting fire coral all over the place. There was a lot of damaged coral - a lot - and the landscape wasn't striking at all because of it. But I was more fascinated with the new fish that I didn't care all that much. I was out for a while, managing to go about a mile off shore before coming back.
By the time I came back, the Mauritian beer had taken a hold of the group and things had gotten a little incestuous. Since I didn't feel like getting hit on by older staff members all week, and since Chris has a girlfriend at home, we made our plans to get away the next day. We decided to rent scooters to travel around the island to the nicest beach we knew about, Isle de Cerf.
Thinking it through, there were a LOT of reasons not to rent the scooters, including:
1. Mauritians drive on the left side of the road.
2. I have absolutely no riding experience with motorcycles.
3. Mauritian traffic can be very Indian. In other words, scary.
4. My headlight didn't work. But we didn't know that.
Students, by the way, are not allowed to rent motorized vehicles of any kind. Staff is, but we're supposed to keep it quiet. We thought it through a little more, and once the price tag came out - $18 for the full day with no ID check or collateral - we were sold.
Chris had done this before in other countries, so I asked to follow him. We had a little map of the island and we would guess the routes. I packed my snorkeling gear and he packed all his cameras. As the photographer, he wanted his National Geographic moment, and we found several of them. As soon as something looked cool, we would stop and shoot it. I can't wait to upload them (he might have uploaded them to his site already, which I think is http://37thframe.ca/sas.
We started out a little slow as I gained more confidence in my riding abilities, but soon we stopped in the very non-tourist town of Goodland, which I thought was a perfect combination of Carribean and what I imagine India to be, but with all the text in French. Chris was in his first heaven, with no SAS student in sight. I got some directions to the other side of the country, and then first thing we found ourselves in the middle sugar cane fields and other plantations in the heart of the island. By the way, every place we stopped we made a quick video making fun of the other staffers that they weren't there with us. I'll share those videos when I get back to the US.
The next thing he found to shoot were these old Hindu women picking chili peppers with the Mauritian landscape in the background. They didn't want us there at first, but Chris has done this for years and it was awesome watching him approach and befriend the ladies. He stayed them for a while, not speaking a word in each other's language except for a little of Chris's broken Canadian French, they were fast friends and shot away. We couldn't stop repeating to ourselves, "We're in the middle of island off the coast of Madagascar on the other side of the world picking chili peppers with old French-speaking Indian women."
We rode for hours, stopping to shoot, enjoying the ride, landscape, beaches, people, and Hindu temples. Finally, we arrived on the east side of the island, where Isle de Cerf was located. We paied this guy who assured us a boat ride to the beach with a lunch in between. It was cheap. We locked out bikes, took a ferry through saltwater marshes into a beach where delicious bbq chicken awaited us. Then we went to the beach, where (old) topless European women and several clothed SAS students awaited us. I put my snorkeling gear, Chris shot away, and had a good few hours over there. Our plan - get back with enough time to return the bikes at dawn so we didn't have to ride in the dark. We took the boat back to the mainland and headed back to the north of the country.
Well, turns out the best light for taking pictures is at dawn/dusk, and Chris knew that. He would see something, pull over, look over at me, and tell me with his Canadian accent, "Rico, I have to shoot this." As the sun set on the horizon, there was a man burning a sugar cane field (they do this twice a year), the sky looked beautiful, and ashes were all over the place. He took a camera, I took some video, and he really did have to shoot it. By the time we left, it was pretty dark. And I found out my headlights didn't work.
Crap. I'm riding on the left side of the road with no motorcycle experience in an unfamiliar country around uninviting traffic with nothing to indicate I existed. And we would find these awesome things to shoot. We stopped at a soccer game while the sky was still blue, and I figured out my turn signal was working, so I put it on even though the vespa went "beep beep beep beep beep beep" when I did so. And people thought I was turning, so they wouldn't pass me thinking I'd be out of their way at any time. But better be visible jerk and be alive than an invisible target.
Out of this complete darkness, we see another burning sugar cane field, but this one had men with net trying to catch the animals that would run out of the fire. It was hilarious - of course Chris had to shoot it. And I took more video of it with his still camera.
We made it back safely at 9pm or so. I think we'll always think of that bike ride every time we hear a beep for the rest of our lives.
The rest of the staff was still being incestuous at the villa, and since I really enjoy hanging out with the students, Jason and I left the incestuous staff (Chris went to sleep) and went to the clubs at the island where hundreds of SAS kids were enjoying themselves. We got back at 4:30am, concluding one of my favorite days of this trip.
Amy, the IT coordinator, had reserved a scuba dive for us the next morning. After a little hassle trying to convince the dive shop people to let her dive without her card, we put on our wetsuits (it was surprisingly cold) and made it in the water. Ultimately, Amy said it was the least impressive dive she's ever done, probably because of the damaged coral, but I was so fascinated with the new fish that I had a great time and didn't pay much attention to that. (I got in my usual scuba dive zone - Amy said I didn't make eye contact with her until the end of the dive). I did get to pet a 10 foot green Morray eel, which was awesome (Amy took her camera - I'll upload the picture when the internet...). Their "skin" feels like this slimy silk and is the coolest-feeling thing in the world. They should make pillows out of that stuff.
We got back, met up with Global Nomads Jason and Byron (who lived in Jessica Simpson's house), and hired a driver to take us to the south of the country to see the mountains and temples in that area. This is a lot like what I imagine Hawaii to be - lush, striking volcanic landscape against blue ocean water. The difference is that this area has many Hindu temples, including one with an enormous Shiva statue being built that looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. We hiked up to a temple where wild monkeys were feasting on offerings to Shiva, and the worshiping locals were being so incredibly generous by giving us some of the treats they had prepared. I was a little skeptical at first, but tried them anyway and they were delicious and no one got sick from it.
There are many waterfalls in the area, so the rest of the day involved us visiting them. Where possible, we would go right to the edge of the falls and enjoy the view for a while before hiking back. The only thing we didn't think was all that cool was this much-hyped seven-colored dirt, where hundreds of tourists were taken to see this mound in the middle of the forest. Granted, it is really nice dirt. Some of the nicest I've ever seen, actually. But it's dirt. It's not like the badlands, where the colored dirt fills your line of sight. It is more like someone noticed that Mauritius has really nice dirt, cleared some forest, and charged tourists 60 Mauritian Roupees to see it. But given the giant tortoises they add in for bonus, the $2 admission charge was worth it.
So that was our Mauritian experience. If the beginning of the voyage focused more on introspection, this trip was more all-out good time. Though it made me really, really excited for India. We crossed the equator again, making our way into warmer and more humid territory every day (by the way, we also hit Flatonia - this was the first time I've seen a swell-less sea on this trip).
I'm ecstatic about visiting India. I'm not sure what to expect. I'm waiting for a life-changing experience, since everybody tells me that India overwhelms the senses, but I don't know yet what that means. We've been studying it all week on the ship. We've been covering the carpets to protect from the filth that they've experienced in previous voyages. We've been told again and again of all the precautions needed to leave the country with a healthy stomach. We've been told to prepare psychologically. And we've been told to expect graciousness that can't be found elsewhere in the world. I don't know yet what that means. But I'll have a better idea in a week. I hope.
Rahul and Meg wrote a great essay on their visit to India in the TMTTV. I'd find it, but... anyway, I'm visiting the Delhi, the Taj, and Varanasi - one of the holiest places in India, and I'm waiting to see if it really does change people who go there. Even if it is only a couple of days.
I'll try to do a marathon blog session on our one day on the ship between India and Myanmar, for the "cobosceholics" as Anne calls it. Depending on what I find, it might be therapeutic. Who knows?
May the better half of the voyage begin.