Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Pacific IS as Blue as my Dreams

We’ve arrived in Hawaii, we’re waiting for the ship to clear. It is going to be faster than we expected. The day was glorious – I didn’t work much, the sea was smooth, the weather was perfect, we had a navy plane fly by the ship some three of four times, dipping its wing each time, and we even saw two whales as we approached the ship. Well, I didn’t, but most people did.

The funny thing was watching people activate their cell phones as we came into cell phone range. By the time we reached Honolulu, EVERYBODY had a cell phone outside, and even I talked to Becky from the Chaplin’s phone. I think the voyage will be psychologically over after this port.

Here’s a sample conversation, as suggested by Jason:

Yeah, I’m in Hawaii. What? No, I’m in Hawaii. The O.C.? They broke up? Really? Oh, I liked them all, but tell me… they really broke up?

Good times. A few housekeeping items. First, I wrote a guest blog entry on the most popular blog on SAS.

Second, I found out Amy has a bunch of pictures up from Brazil.

We’ll be off soon, we might have time for more.

Aloha means...just about everything, right?

We're docked in Hawaii on a gorgeous, gorgeous day. We're waiting for the ship to clear, and as usual, we'll be uploading short ramblings before we can leave the ship. Jason wrote the first of the ramblings

We're in Hawaii, docked and just waiting for immigration to get onto the ship and start processing us. It's supposed to take about three hours, so we have some time to blog. First off, I'm going to talk about the language barrier. We're in the US now, but there is a native language here other than English. That language is Hawaiian, and while not a lot of people speak it, a goodly number speak Pidgin. This is a language that has some parts of English and some of Hawaiian, and is also a lot like nothing else.

Aloha is about the only word of actual Hawaiian I know, excluding a few fish and bird names. It means hello. It means goodbye. I think it means I Love You, and probably also, The Bathroom Is That Way, Idiot. It's one of those words that takes up a lot of pages in the dictionary. In Pidgin, I know just a few words, and I'm not sure how they're spelled in some case. Da is The, which is pretty obvious. Haoli is a little less clear, but I know that it means foreigner, non-Islander and also more importantly, white person. It's used almost always by native Hawaiians, be they ethnically so or not, and it's not a good word. Usually it's paired with stupid. I expect we'll hear it a lot, and a lot of people will have no idea what it means. All I know is that when I do hear it, I'm going to get the hell out of the way, because it's trouble when it comes from a big Samoan.

So other than those two other languages, it should be pretty clear. Except for Chris, because he's Canadian, and they speak a funny language up there too, eh? Do Canadians speak other languages, anyway? I mean, besides French, which doesn't count. And poutin.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Groundhog Day

Welcome to Tuesday, November 29, 2005, for the second time! We just crossed the international date line, which looks just like the scrimmage line in a football game. A couple girls celebrated their 21st birthday twice, and we’re no longer 21 hours ahead of Cali, we’re two hours behind now. I already miss being in the future.

Sorry for the lack of original blogs – the Kunming and Japan blogs are in the works, as well as I’ll be guest blogging in the most popular SAS blog out there (Beth says she wrote about us in China and Japan… oh, to have cheap internet), but life got really busy lately with all sorts of end of year performances that keep an AV Coordinator busy. But I have a lot of good stories to upload, including how they’re getting us ready for the culture shock coming home.

We’ll arrive in Hawaii tomorrow, and after circling the globe, it is pretty clear that the U.S. is the hardest country to get into. Gosh, we make it complicated. Really. There’s a good chance it’ll take a few hours to get off the ship given all the paperwork and all the officials that need to come aboard. There’s no messing around here.

We’re waking up early to see the sunrise and the raising of the American flag for the first time this voyage (the ship always raises the flag of the country we’re arriving at). The choir sang America the Beautiful tonight, and as a very recent American citizen, it was a pretty sweet moment, I won’t lie to you.

This will be my fourth paradise island of the trip, along with the Bahamas, Fernando de Noronha, and Mauritius. I have some plans already, but I’ve never been to Hawaii, so if anyone has any good suggestions of what I should definitelydo, let me know.

On a side note, someone alerted me that the Cambodia entry made it on someone else’s blog.

On another side note, the lovely Yas wrote about Kunming, but I’m afraid to upload it because she misses some key stories. Everyone has a blog these days.

Screw it, here it is:

Tempus Fugit

Another Jason guest blurb. Changing the hours so many times is surreal.

Dawn is an hour late. Or an hour early. Night falls while you're having your afternoon nap. There aren't enough hours to work and sleep and socialize, so you drop the second. And one magical time, you repeat a day entirely.

This is the Pacific crossing.

Tempus fugit is Latin; its literally meaning is time flies. But as a phenomenon, it is applied to all manner of time distortions. Your line at the supermarket will always be the slowest one? That's an example. A movie seen the first time seems longer than the second time? That's another. Those five awkward minutes you spend waiting for your date to be ready? Yet another. And the crossing eastward of the world's largest ocean is the biggest of them all.

Westward is easy. Every couple days you gain an hour, so that you get more sleep, or take a long lunch, or spend that extra time looting other peoples' I-tunes. A day vanishes entirely, which would be odd, especially if (as is almost surely the case on a large ship) it was someone's birthday. But it's not such a big deal. A cakewalk.

We, instead, are a ship that's sleep deprived, aching and tired, wondering what the hell hit us. It can't be those little time changes, can it? Oh, and we get that extra day, but do we spend those lost hours, now regained, in rest? No, it's just another day. Great for the one girl whose birthday it is, but sucks for the rest of us.

So time flies, and we get carried along with it. Sometime, probably around the 10th or 12th of December, we'll start to feel a little more normal again. But feeling normal means going back to the real world, and if that's the case, I'm ready for a bigger ocean. But could we just sail north and south next time, please?

A Truly Japanese Experience

Jason had written this in Japan, I haven't gotten a chance to upload until now. Taking care of someone in a land you have zero understanding of the language is a great story that I am working hard to make sure hits the Cobosce before the end of the voyage.

I also realize that we might be giving the wrong impression of the trip, but I think there's enough other entries to show otherwise.

The first night in Japan provided me with an excellent opportunity for a truly local experience. You see, in Japan there's an entire group of people, sometimes called in English salarymen, who work their little hearts out and then, after they're done with work, go out and party. They drink shots, pound back beers, challenge each other to drinking games, and in general misbehave on a grand scale. They do this almost every night, because it's the only way they can vent. Late in the evening, it's considered socially okay for them to publicly urinate, vomit or just about anything else they need to do, so long as they're obviously drunk.

That was pretty much me. But without the good job or the public urination. And I didn't even get to karaoke.

Many thanks to Chris and Rico and Alex for making sure I got back to the ship in one piece. Smaller but still sincere thanks to the people who bought me drinks. I wish I could remember them all, but I can't.

I wonder if this would look good on a job application at the Japanese corporation?

The Life Emanuel

Welcome to Tuesday, November 29 #1! Little known fact outside of the ship: one of the first things I did getting on the ship was join the Salsa team, and in honor of our big performance tonight, I wanted to write a quick word about Emanuel Pleitez, who just happens to also be our main salsa instructor.

Remember that name - he's one of those people I just know we'll be reading about someday. Emanuel grew up in a poor neighborhood in Southern California, got himself into Stanford, and now on SAS comes up with some ingenious methods of financing his trips that he couldn't go to otherwise. Whenever we arrive in port, Emanuel works for the taxi drivers in exchange for rides, spending hours fraternizing with them right off the ship and serving as their salesman. Language doesn't seem to be an issue - he came back from Myanmar with a surprisingly extensive Burmese vocabulary - and often has some of the best stories from his trips to places money can't take you.

Janet Eastman wrote a short blurb on Emanuel for the LA times. The guy impresses me tremendously, on and off the ship, so I mention his name here as a favor. I think you'll hear his name again. So if someday you pick up a newspaper and see the picture of a guy who looks like a football-playing John Tuturo, remember that you heard of him here first.

(I just noticed our one-headlight incident in Mauritus also got a mention.)

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Hardy har har

For some reason, I'm unable to upload anything to the servers (dang holidays...), but I wanted to upload the pictures of the state I found my cabin in after a five-course dinner with the captain and chief officers tonight. Yup, my room is covered in toilet paper.

I'm glad they did it... I already have my revenge planned out an everything. I've been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. I'd tell you what I would do, but I've been told Chris's girlfriend Nicolle-with-two-"L"s (hi Nicolle!) reads this so it might come back to him. Even though he probably had nothing to do with it. Unless you're willing to keep him in the dark, Nicolle.

(BTW, if you think I'm just putting the TP to waste, you're very wrong. It will be rolled up and be used as the good lord intended us to.)

In other great news, we're arriving in Hawaii a day early, so we actually get to spend a night there. A repeat of the last night in Kobe? Umm... it can happen.

In yet another great news, Danny and Becky are coming down to tour the ship in San Diego when we arrive. I might be more excited about that than going to Noronha. Did I already mention that? Am I still wearing pants?

We forward the time one hour some four times before Hawaii. I have stopped thinking that I'm eighteen hours in the future from you guys and started seeing it as being five hours back plus a day, and getting closer. We'll get two November 29s, aka "Groundhog Day." It is pretty funny because since we have two consecutive Tuesdays, we need calendars that can accommodate the extra week day. They can either end up looking like a periodic table, or November 29 is split into two sections. People tend to prefer using the latter calendar.


I was pretty excited about being able to upload a (bad) MP3 of Allan's song tonight, as part of an charity audio CD with original music by SAS students titled "No Silence Can Be Heard". The whole project was organized by a student named Adam Deutsch and the music is really good.


I just realized these entries aren't nearly as fun without pictures or videos or music, eh? Perhaps I shouldn't upload this...

[Trying to hold back the fingers...]


Whoops. There it goes.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Stuck in a Cambodian Prison

What would you do? One of the students in the trip you lead gets a little silly and while running after a monkey, knocks down a pillar in an ancient Siem Reap temple. It starts a chain reaction that destroys several hundred years of civilization in a matter of seconds.

Poor Beau. Stuck in a Cambodian jail. All other 57 students made it back to Vietnam. Did the one thing you don’t do in a Buddhist country: mess around in a Buddhist temple. Bad things are bound to happen.

Or so the ship thought. You see, Beau lost his passport in Phnom Penh. He wasn’t sure where it was in the afternoon. He might have lost it in the morning at the hotel. Or he might have been pickpocketed the night before. Whatever, he was really stuck in Cambodia. It is one of the worst things you can do on Semester at Sea, losing your passport. Because you need a visa to enter Vietnam, and you need an exit visa to leave Cambodia, and because it takes a few days to get a new emergency American passport, and because it was a Cambodian holiday, Beau didn’t make it to the ship. It wasn’t that big of a deal, just an expensive pain in the arse. He’s an adult who can take care of himself; he would meet us in Hong Kong once the paperwork was straightened out.

But the ship didn’t know this. So we agreed as a trip to tell the story that Beau was arrested in Cambodia. We would be vague with the details, “I didn’t see it, but I think was climbing the temple to take a picture,” or, “I saw him pretending to be Sarah Croft earlier and next thing I know you hear this crashing sound.” But he had knocked something, and didn’t come back to the ship.

Boy, was that fun. As trip leader, I must have had dozens of incredulous students come up to me to confirm the rumor they had heard about our trip, and of course I played along with it. Not all the students in the joke could keep a straight face – one student told me I convinced her to lie to her best friends on the ship, whoops – but enough students believed the story that, now that he’s back aboard, Beau is still asked about his prison experience. It was worth it.

Besides, our story made him look cool. Losing your passport is careless and a pain. A very nice girl lost her passport in Venezuela and was unable to leave the ship until Cape Town three weeks later, missing Brazil as she couldn’t get issued a visa in time.

Such was HCM24. Somehow I managed to trip-lead one of the most popular SAS trips, to Phnom Penh and Angkot Wat. The four trips to Cambodia were so popular that one of them had 100 students sign up beyond the maximum number of 60 per trip, growing to the point they added another trip leader - Tina Trap on our medical staff.

I had been selected to trip-lead a small, four-day camping safari in Kenya, but as you probably know, we never made it to East Africa and all my efforts would have to wait until Cambodia. A week before the trip, I started building excitement amongst our group by announcing over the closed-circuit TV system that HCM24 would be the “Best Trip Ever”. As a result, the entire ship was aware of HCM24 a week before arriving in port, and as mentioned in previous entries, several members that didn’t make the trip articulated their concern that we (I) was rubbing on their faces. That wasn’t my intention, so I stopped the campaign immediately and apologized.

But it served its intended purpose, and everyone involved felt pretty good about going on the trip. My leadership style has completely relaxed since my days as an RA at Stanford, which means that basically anything goes as long as we’re respectful to the people and places that we were going. That also meant that we wouldn’t be doing head counts or really checking for people until flights, so if people missed the bus, they’re adult enough to take care of themselves. We just didn’t want to wait around for people.

Our group arrives in Phnom Penh, and we have two hours to waltz around before heading over to a boat ride up the Mekong River. Phnom Penh (which sounds like a drum beat at the end of a bad joke, as in “I just flew into Cambodia today. Boy, my arms are tired.” phnom-penh) is under construction, and is probably well on its way to becoming a big metropolis in the next few decades. The city is also underwater, which is normal during the rainy season.

Over the centuries, the country has changed back and forth between Buddhism and Hinduism depending on the emperor of the day, and the temples and artwork are a striking mix of what appears to be Indian and Burmese architecture. With monkeys all over the place.

After our a fun meal trying to that involved somewhat randomly picking items in a Cambodian menu, we hit the Mekong for the sunset. The timing of the ride was perfect, because as we watched the sun do down along the temples and stilt houses along the river, we could see, quite literally, a wall of water approach us. It was so precise and linear that we could predict the arrival of the monsoon to the second… five…four…three…two…

We all, needless to say, got soaked, but we were soon back on the bus, bonding to “Tiny Dancer” on our way to an over-the-top yet delicious Cambodian buffet. One of the problems with many SAS organized trips is that they pamper you too much, and this was one of those trips. The hotels they put us in were ridiculous, and perhaps a few hundred dollars could be shaved off the trip if only we were treated to something a little more modest.

We visited the concentration camps and Killing Fields on day 2. I’m not ready to talk about that. I had consciously not done any research on Cambodia before coming, in order to view everything for the first time and not put up an emotional shield. I’m not sure that ultimately was a good thing. It does hit you hard. The pictures and the stories of torture and the mass graves and the teeth and bones on the ground and the walls of skulls hits you hard. Everyone you talk to mentions they lost a parent or a sibling or a son during the Khmer Rouge. Everyone. Yet they talk about it so matter of factly. You leave with a terrible feeling, knowing that 2.5 million people were killed.

Moreover, there’s an academic reason I’m not ready to talk about it. I found out coming back to the ship that there is a serious academic debate on the history of the Khmer Rouge, and that perhaps the total number of people dead was more towards the hundreds of thousands, not in the millions. Not that this diminishes the gravity of the situation. It’s just that I want to do this story justice. It is important to too many people to do otherwise.

The second half of the trip was very happy. We traveled to Siem Reap, home of the temples that inspired the Jungle Book (and were also the set of Tomb Raider). These are magnificent temples, and watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat was the highlight of the trip to Cambodia for most people. The temple is huge, discovered by the west in the mid 19th century, but built about 1000 years earlier that as a Hindu temple. You think to yourself how amazing it must have been to be the first westerners to encounter the temple going through the jungle. One of the temples has been kept exactly as it was found, and the trees growing in the temple walls are breathtaking. They are more of an attraction than the temple itself, and ironically, as they grow, they destroy the temple even further. I’m not sure how they are going to deal with the problem, say, 100 years from now, as trees die down and grown in the places. Is it just going to be a pile of rubble someday?

I was wondering which would I rather visit, Bagan in Myanmar or Siem Reap in Cambodia. I decided a few massive temples was slightly cooler than thousands of smaller ones. The problem is that Angkor Wat is setting itself up to be a Vegas-like resort town, and they are over 20 massive new hotels being built around the temples. I’m not sure that is the way to go – I hated the area around the hotels. The sense of adventure was completely lost in them, and we you can see that soon that area will look like a “Angkor Wat Hotel and Casino” in Vegas. Actually, why doesn’t Vegas have a Cambodian Temple sort of casino yet? Hmmm…

That was just a blip on a fabulous port. Hanging out with the students was a lot of fun (though I was glad that it would be my last SAS-run trip), the sites are impressive, and the Killing Fields stay with you long after you leave them. It is an amazing place.

I can’t wait to come back.

Happy Turkey Day, all. SAS doesn’t operate on a normal calendar, so the concept of weekdays or holidays have become completely alien to us, but we did somehow manage to fit in a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner, complete with mashed potatoes and carved turkey, even though classes proceeded as they normally do.

So before I go to bed, I’ll place the first (but not last) mention of the MS150 bike ride that I participate every year with my great buddies Aden, Dunagan, Danny, and several other friends. This is an 180 mile bike ride from Houston to Austin that raises money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the experience is as amazing as anything that has happened on Semester at Sea. We definitely go all out every year and have raised some $17,000 in the last two years. Below you can see the annual videos we made for the last two rides. There are a lot of videos, so sit back and enjoy:

Please don’t use last year’s donation link; if you’d like to donate this year, please use this link:

I’ll post a lot more about the ride towards the end of our trip. This is a really big big deal to the four of us and to the millions of people suffering of MS.

Check out our nine 2004 videos here.

I’ll also start posting the blogs from the arrival in Japan, starting with Amy’s first guest blog (below).

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Rico hearts Me!

I do. I heart Amy. As IT Coordinator extraordinaire, she makes this blog possible. I heart her for that. She wrote this entry, the first of several guest blogs written as we approached Japan.

Amy is myscuba-diving buddy (on the right) and will be living in Santa Cruz later when she returns.

Here's the picture she took of me petting a huge morray eel.

Over the past 3 months we have become a close knit bunch and most of us have no shame in showing that love. Briana made a sign for Beth that said "I heart Beth," and the phrase stuck. This love was not felt all the way around however. Poor little Yas thought she was unloved because she'd tell Rico that she hearted him, but he'd just smile and not give his heart in return. While in Hong Kong we realized that it's not that Rico doesn't heart Yas, he doesn't heart ANYONE. Well, he might, but he won't admit it. We've been working on him, though, and finally got him to say "I heart y'all," and then...the miracle of all miracles happened. The other day after I gave Rico something that he really wanted, he showed his appreciation by saying "Amy, that's why we all heart you." That was the closest I'd heard him get to sharing all that love he has burning inside. Then I asked if HE hearts me, and indeed he does...I then became the first person that Rico outwardly hearts, when at last he told me "Amy, I heart you." It made me feel all warm and tingly inside.

Strike Up The Band

Jason's second Pre-port Rambling as we pull into Kobe.

Kobe pulls out all the stops for us. Not only did they build a port just to have us here, but they sent out their fireboats to do a little routine. I just hope there wasn't a fire in port while they did it, though I did see some suspicious looking smoke. And now there's a full band playing American marching music of the John Phillips Sousa type. Later, I hear that two samurai are going to fight to the death on the pier for the priveledge of welcoming Dean John to Kobe once more.

Okay, only half of this is true. But this is still the most welcoming port we've been to, and we haven't even gotten ashore. I think part of it may be that they don't have to jack up their prices for us. In other countries, everyone likes us for our money. Here, we're kind of poor, so we know they like us for who we really are.

Wait, the samurai are coming out onto the pier...

Now where did I put that Parka?

Jason's first Pre-Port Rambling as we pulled into Kobe

When we pulled into Cape Town, lo those many weeks ago, everyone was on deck wrapped in layers of clothes, blankets and towels. We all wished we might have a toque. It was cold. Or so we thought.

There's a cold wind blowing over the Inner Sea. Winter has started in Japan. It's cold. It's really fricking chilly. Okay, it's pre-dawn and all that, but that doesn't change the fact that I don't have a really good coat. I thought it would be a little cool here, not something which would make Chris's Canadian heart quiver as he realizes this is going to seem warm to him in a month when he's back in Calgary.

So there are students standing on the deck in t-shirts. Either they didn't get up in Cape Town, or they didn't go to Beijing, or they're just not very bright. They admit that if they went back inside to go and get their jackets, they wouldn't come back at all, but they still don't admit that it's cold enough to need the jacket. I don't get it. There's no f-ing way I'd be hanging out in the cold if it weren't the last port, and if we didn't need video.

Which I'm going to go and film now.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

I think I'm turning Japanese

I am buying myself a little more time in port before having to board the ship and leave. In the last twenty-four hours, I have gotten lost in Tokyo, had dinner with an old coach, stayed up all night doing Karaoke, and traveled to Miyajima in the southern part of the country to enjoy the fall colors by myself.

I couldnt have predicted a better way to finish our last day in a foreign country. Maybe I shouldnt board the ship.

Just maybe.

I take solace in this quote from Shawshank, in lieu of our two-week Pacific crossing (with a bathroom break in Hawaii):

I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.

I hope.


I miss my friends.

Time to go home.

Monday, November 21, 2005

I Said I Wanted to SEE a Game Show...

I just confirmed my meeting with Yoshi by email, so I thought I'd mention that I fixed this link of crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh from the Vietnam entry.

Good lord, I love Japan.


I believe the question at the end of the trip will be: in a few years, would I rather spend a year traveling around the world, or would I rather spend a year in Japan? Good lord, I love this country. I honestly do not know the answer.

(There will be no apostrophes in this entry as I cannot figure out where it is on this Japanese keyboard. But I learned the hard way how to turn the Kanji on and off on my screen. Alas.)

The ship internet was down as we approached Japan, so I have a ton of entries that several of us wrote as we approached and waited for the ship to clear that need to be uploaded, including the summary of Cambodia. That will have to wait until the first leg of the Pacific crossing.

I am trying to see if I can make it up to Yokohama to meet up Yoshiaki "Yoshi" Hatakeda, one of my many former Japanese coaches at Stanford.


Sunday, November 20, 2005


We're trying to figure out how many entries we can post before the ship is cleared... in twelve hours. This is Jason's second of the Pre Port Ramblings.

We get to Japan in about 8 hours. We'll leave the ship in maybe 12 hours. And then, just a few hours after that, we'll have Sushioke. All night long, perhaps with a little Kirin or Sapporo, we'll have some Sushioke.

Some might already have figured out what it is. It's not exactly hard. For a made up word, it works like a combination German word. In this case, Sushioke is of course the combination of Sushi and Karaoke. Who doesn't like raw fish combined with drunken yodling? I mean, at least if you're already a little drunk yourself. Otherwise it could be a bit stomach turning. The singing. Not the raw fish.

We made that term because we wanted to have them both at once. I don't know if it's really possible. We might have to eat and then sing. With drinking for both. But I think we should manage it somewhere. Because, damn it, we're in the last port, and we're going to need to combine a thing or two to fit it all in. Probably a thing or three. So long ago we figured out that this particular combination could work really well, and really easily, and now we have the chance.

What would be best would be one of the conveyor belt sushi restaurants. After you took your sushi plates, you could put your song requests back on the same belt, and the sushi chefs would pass them on to the MC. He'd call your name, you'd gulp down a last bite of deliciousness, take the mike, and sing your heart out. In a perfect world, there'd be a beer converyor belt, too, but I don't think that we'll be that lucky.

So we'll hit the street and drink some ten dollar beer. We'll spend a hundred on sushi and then rent a little room for big bucks and belt out hits from the seventies. And we'll return home a little drunk, a little full, still singing something by Barry Manilow, maybe. With visions of Sapporo dancing in our head, we'll sleep deep, and wake up with just a few days left, and wonder where it all goes.

But we'll always have Sushi. Oke, that is.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Do the Chinese have a word for it?

Jason wrote another guest entry... consider him the co-Cobosce (Co-Bosce?). Expect a slew of blogs as we wait for the ship to clear in Japan tomorrow morning...

The auction mentioned below raised over $25,000, btw.

There was a charity auction on the ship last night. The thing about charity auctions is that people get a little carried away. Because it's for charity, they bid on things they have no real interest in. Sometimes just to give money, sometimes in a misguided attempt to raise the bidding price. Rico and I were the main auctioneers (along with the very game and willing Dean John), and through the glare of spotlights I saw a few poleaxed looks on faces as people realized their bids were actually being accepted.

One of my work studies did it. He bid on a chair, because he thought the price would go higher. Weirder things had sold for more. But after his bid, the second for the item, the room fell silent, and suddenly he was the proud owner of a ten dollar chair, for which he had paid thirty dollars.

A member of my adopt-a-family made an accidentally successful bid, too. She was bidding for a ski weekend in Aspen, which is spitting distance from where she lives right now. And after she named the reasonably high but still underpriced sum of 325 dollars, there was just shifting in the seats, and Rico and me calling for more bids with diminishing enthusiasm, and suddenly she had a vacation to a place she goes to anyway.

And there was me. One of the items was, oddly enough, staff and faculty only. Except there were just about 8 total staff in the room, and I think there were no faculty most of the night. So I ended up bidding 200 dollars on a weekend in a condo on the west Florida coast. I have no interest in going there, but I wanted it to sell, and no one at all was going to bid. It turned out I was completely correct, no one else was going to bid, and now I have a trip to a place I don't want to go to.

There has to be a word for that, right? For bidding when you don't want something, or don't expect something? Maybe it's a French word, because they're subtle like that; or a German word, because they enjoy tangled situations like that; or a Russian word, because they understand awkward misery pretty well. And if there's not a word for it, there should be, because it would make this story much easier to tell.

Crazy Game of Frogger.

Welcome to the South China Sea, where the MV Explorer has encountered the roughest seas of the voyage! Everybody is sick! Woohoo! About 30 people showed up to Global Studies that they decided to break with the tradition and allow the class to be broadcast directly into the cabins. Kevin Murphy, the Global Studies lecturer, almost stopped mid lecture, but somehow managed to pull it through. I was really busy since so many professors decided to show movies instead of lecturing today. I don’t blame them. Even Sam, my new AV counterpart, who has lived six years on a ship, tells me was the first time he’s ever gotten sick.

The rocking is pretty violent and random, unlike previous swells, and that is why I think everyone is sick. It is impossible to sleep for any length of time before getting jolted awake. The windows on the seventh deck Staffulty lounge are getting nailed with spray. Several students and I spent some time last night timing our jumps with the slams to see how high we jump. Really, there was only one thing left to do in this kind of weather.

I needed a haircut.

Yup. Apparently the hair on the sides of my head an the back of my neck grow much faster than the hair on the top of my head (balding? Um… my grampa on my mom’s side died with a full head of hair… I’m safe! Whew!) that I beginning to show hints of Gallagher with a mullet. Chicks dig that, right?

I went to the beauty spa, home of the sauna and massage tables and exercise rooms and barber shop (rough life, eh?), and requested a touch up of the sides. Remember that scene in Jackass when Steve-O gets a tattoo while offroading on a Hummer? It was like getting a haircut from someone with severe Parkinson’s. The results?

Well, if you think Kim Jong Il of North Korea is sexy, than I’m the man for you. I might request a little touch-up when the water is a little calmer, but we’ll see.

The captain will try to steer behind some islands for protection against the weather, and I can see a huge city of Taiwan as I type this. Not sure which… I’ll got check the Map Channel later.

Alright, more catch-up to do. We new immediately that Vietnam was going to be a different experience when they taught us how to cross the streets in Ho Chi Minh, complete with simulated cars. The trick? Once you go for it and start crossing the street, you have to commit and go all the way through. Much like gymnastics, the most dangerous thing you can do is hesitate, because the drivers assume that you will be moving forward and will dodge you accordingly. Since there seem to be more motorcycles than people in Ho Chi Minh, this is a scary proposition the first time you actually try it, but it isn’t long before you trust the system and start walking into the busiest streets just to get a kick of watching the parting of the Red Sea.
After a windy, three-hour trip up the Saigon River, we arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, and immediately you notice how modern and western the city is. The staff members who have been here as recently as two years ago say that the city has undergone a tremendous shift. Gone are the bicycles and traditional clothing and in are shops and malls and fashionable wear. I saw little evidence of a Communist economy while there, unless the Communist Party is really into making sure all citizens get a fair share of Armani Exchange. There were western brands everywhere.

(By the way, I’m convinced KFC is the most popular brand in the world. Colonel Sanders died a famous man).

I had planned for a long time to meet with a man named Cuong, a native Vietnamese man who befriended some SAS staff members over a decade ago. When Pete returned to Vietnam as a resident dean of the Fall 2000 voyage with Anne, he had raised some $5000 to help Cuong buy a house. Cuong has been indebted ever since.

Anne gave me his contact information, and we agreed by email to meet at the Ho Chi Minh Museum upon my arrival. What I didn’t know at the time is that the city has some five Ho Chi Minh museums, and he waited next to the one located next to the ship, dedicated to HCM the man himself. I walked all the way to a museum dedicated to the city, waited some time and didn’t find him, so decided to tour the city by foot, on my own.

The city is wonderful, modern, easy to get around, and I got to do a lot, so I’ll save a few details.

First, I visited the War Remnants museum, dedicated to the victims of the Vietnam War (or, as called over there, the American War or the War of Vietnam Agression). The first thing I noticed is that I’ve never seen a movie has successfully captured the look of Vietnam during the war. There was an war photography exhibit, and most of the pictures involved a lot of mud, which we don’t see in most of the movies set in the war.

The museum puts a real face on the Vietnamese side. Most of what I know about the war comes from movies from the war, but, as noted by Kevin Murphy, they’re never about the war but about how the war changed the soldier. The Vietnamese side is faceless or never dealt with, and the museum immediately adds that perspective for you.

There are two moments in particular that make Americans feel very uncomfortable while there: the start of the exhibit, which starts with the American Declaration of Independence, and this text on Agent Orange. It hurts reading it, and in combination to the descriptions of torture techniques, the experience was powerful. War is hell.

I continued on my foot tour of the city, visiting a Catholic Church that had a Virgin Mary statue that the faithful believed was “crying” and so they clamored around it by the thousands. I’d never seen a miracle up close and personal before. Unless you count the Berman’s performance on the HBMR video. That was an amazing experience.

Things were so cheap in Southeast Asia... and everything is fake, though oftentimes the workmanship is so good there is nothing to tell you what you're buying isn't real. All the CD and DVD are pirated, all books are illegal copies, and there are fake brand name accessories all over the place. I bought a huge North Face backpack for $15 and a Rolex for $10. Not bad, eh?

After calling my mom for the first time since the voyage began (I'm a bad son), getting pinched by a prostitute, and hanging out with the staff and students until late, I was able to figure out where Cuong and I went wrong, and luckily, he volunteered to try again the next morning at 9am... just a few hours later.

I met up with Cuong, a diminutive man who believes he's 40s, though either he doesn't know exactly or he wasn't able to convey it to me in English. His wife was also present, and after a brief introduction I hopped on the motorcycle and we headed into the crazy Vietnamese motorcycle traffic. I'm not going to tell you I thought this was a smart idea - they tell us on the ship that 30 people die a day in Vietnam from motorcycle accidents, and I didn't have a helmet. But I couldn't miss out on this unique opportunity and Cuong's generosity, so we hopped on board. It was pretty fun to see him dodging the pedestrians and other obstacles, and since I'm about twice his size, I'm pretty sure he needed quite a bit of effort to get the cycle moving... objects in motion tend to stay in motion...

We drove and drove and drove until we got to an industrial part of the city, where Cuong lives. We arrive at his house, in a very poor area where there is a home-made fishing pond and chickens around. In other words, I was near malaria and avian bird flu at the same time, and with the motorcycle rides, the only unsafe thing I didn't do was have unprotected sex with a prostitute. That I remember, anyway.

Soon the neighborhood children are packing his door frame trying to get a glimpse of this strange creature that's come to make a visit. "They've never seen an American," Cuong tells me. As I've done in all the other places, I start making friends with a little juggling, and next thing you know, I'm playing tag and other games with them while Cuong's wife cooks us a delicious meal.

At lunch Cuong tells me all about himself and shows me his pictures, including some that I had seen before from Anne, He doesn't live in the house bought with the $5000 given to him - his wife lives there with his five-year-old son because there are better schools in that neighborhood. He lives near his work, and now work isn't much anymore. Nine months ago, he was working at a nearby factory making fishing nets, and he lost a finger in a work-related accident. He was fired and given a $60 severance package. Out of work, he had to improvise, so now he collects cans and after opening them with a device he built, he sells them as scrap metal. His wife makes about $70 a month at her job.

After the meal, he asks if he he can take me anywhere, and I tell him I always wanted to go to the Cuchi Tunnels. He said no problem, so we hopped on his motorcycle on our two hour trek of Vietnamese backcountry. This time I had a helmet.

The backcountry is exactly as we expect Vietnam to be in our minds: rural, green, with traditional clothing, ox carts, bicycles, conical straw hats, and rice field after rice field after rice field. I did wonder why they bothered marking the streets with traffic signs, because really, they didn't mean much. We never stopped dodging cars and buses and trucks driving into oncoming traffic, often sending us to the shoulder. There does seem to be a pattern after a while, so you really get used to it and feel safe. Until it starts raining. But I'll save that story in a second.

Two hours later, we arrive at the tunnel, which is an amazing experience in itself, showing me how little I knew about the Vietnam war. I had an impression in my mind that the tunnels were somewhat like the U-boats in World War II, that is, impressive but ultimately not important in the big picture of how the war progressed. I was wrong - the tunnels were an intergral part of the strategy of the guerilla warfare. They are an impressive feat of stealth engineering and improvisation, complete with hospitals and dining halls and booby traps. I walked through them and they are very small, I was sweating profusely by the time I reached 50 meters or so - it takes a lot of effort crawling through them, and the smaller average size of the Vietnamese soldier actually worked in their advantage because oftentimes American soldiers couldn't fit through some of the holes.

I spent two hours around the tunnels, and you leave with the feeling that the Vietnamese had a complete resolve to win the American War, regardless of the cost to their country. They were simply hard-wired to do so. Even today, you sense this undertone of pride that the little country beat out the big American invaders. It feels very weird to westeners, especially since the Vietnamese tend to be very hospitable to Americans nowadays. Cuong tells me he wishes people would just forget what happened. I wonder how easy that is to do.

I leave the tunnel, and a monsoon of epic proportion hits us. Of all the Vietnam movies I've seen, the only one that gets this right is Forrest Gump. Really, Forrest Gump! They rains come and go exactly as described in the movie, like someone turns them on an off in a matter of seconds. It can be sunny, and then you see a wall of cloud rolling in, and it's pouring rain in a matter of 30 seconds.

We're running out of light, so we need to make the two hour trek home. I ask Cuong if this is safe, but I'm not sure he understands my question. He puts on a plastic bag, and we're on our way.

I'm not proud of this, but this was definitely one of the craziest things I've ever done. I can't see a thing with the hard rain pelting my eyes. I'm not sure Cuong could see it either. The traffic continues moving as if this were a drought, and the road is often flooded. At one point, crossing about six inches of water, Cuong loses control of the motorcycle and we manage to fall off but stay on our feet (thank you, gymnastics!). Cuong loses a sandal in the process, which I find in the middle of traffic and have to run out and get it.

An hour later, the rain stopped, and we're relieved. We get back to the ship so I can get some dry shoes (I hate wet shoes), and I go out and treat Cuong to dinner and coffee. I'm not sure what it is with me and motorcycles in distant countries, but this was a pretty sweet day, one of the best. We say our goodbyes and I'm off to another night of fun in Saigon. If you're ever in Vietnam, give me a call, and I'll put you in touch with Cuong. He'll show you around.

The next day, we traveled to the Kingdom of Cambodia. That's next.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

For the Best Trip Ever, bring new Rico (tm), now with Magic Happiness Action!

Jason's eighth (?) guest blog. I might not need to write about Kunming after this.

Seven ports. Seven times I heard Rico boldly declare he had been on the Best Trip Ever! And while I'm not going to call him a big fat liar on his own blog, I never really thought everything could be as good as he claimed. Rico has a far too positive attitude for his own good, so that something that most people might just say “Meh” to, Rico would love. I was willing to believe he had some pretty good trips, but that was about it.

Then we came to China, and I saw him in action. Not that he did much. He just had an unfailingly positive, hopeful and wonder-struck attitude. He's ready for everything to be awesome, and ready for anything bad to turn out good. That's not my attitude; I'm ready to be disappointed, and I'm ready to have things that look good go bad. And yet, with Rico that just went away. A couple times I was pretty sure that we were screwed; Rico said to just give it one more chance, and lo and behold, a little Chinese woman would appear and everything would be fine. It helped, too, to have Yas along, who also has a good attitude, so that my vague negativity was pretty much overwhelmed.

Further, things just happen. Like you walk around a corner, see lights and hear music, and find yourself rollerskating five minutes later. Or you wander the airport and discover that it's possible to have hot, sour, aching and distended breasts like when you were a young girl, and this is a sublime and amazing thing. Or you mean to order tea, but the woman makes you a full, delicious meal; what it is, you have no idea, but you can't stop eating. Rico did nothing to make any of this happen, but it fits with all the other trips he talks about, all the strange and great things that seem to occur. He's a walking bundle of serendipity, that wondrous sensation of finding an unexpected and amazing thing.

So in other words, Kunming was great. Rico'll write all about it. Yas, too, will surely write about it. I might, but I rather doubt I'll do it with any completeness. It's more special than that. I feel odd even talking about it, though, this being SAS, I have to do so, because people ask. I want it to sink into the back of my brain like some story I heard as a child, a tale of wonder and magic that I can somewhat remember the details of, but that I can more importantly remember the feeling of. I want to hold onto that feeling, and I feel too much writing, too much analysis, will lose it, and make it less special.

We walked in a stone forest and saw an elephant dancing on a platform. We heard eerie music played on strange instruments echoing on the night streets. We were kings in an ancient palace. Kites flew higher in the sky than all the string in the world would allow. A monk opened a golden door to show us a unicorn. Every word is true. Every word is unbelievable.

It was the best trip ever.

It's a City... From the FUTURE!

In 1989, my family visited Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida, as must be required by law of every Brazilian in their first visit to the United States. I was ten at the time, and some would call me slightly gullible. But can you blame me? While at Epcot Center, my dad took full advantage of my youth by convincing me that even the bathrooms of the futuristic park were of the latest technology, complete with self-flushing toilets and a robotic hand that would extend out from the urinal to shake off the last drops. “There’s no need to do it yourself,” he told me. “But be careful because if it malfunctions the hand doesn’t let go.”

Of course, the hyperactive, Calvin-esque child that I was thought this was the coolest thing I’d ever heard, and immediately proceeded to the bathroom, patiently waiting with my fly open for five or ten minutes after the deed for a robot to molest me. Disappointed that nothing happened, I walked back out to meet my laughing parents, probably wondering if I had enough evidence to get them arrested.

Fast forward to 2005. Why do I mention such humiliating moment of my youth?

Because we’re in Hong Kong, a city which seems like it was made in 2025. Everywhere you look, you feel like you’re decades ahead of anywhere else in the world. If someone had skated past me on a hoverboard, I wouldn’t have been surprised. If the urinals had a robotic arm that “took care of business”, I wouldn’t be shocked. It is certainly the trendiest city I’ve ever visited, with brand new buildings constantly being built on man-made islands reclaimed in the Victoria Harbour. The city is clean, safe, easy to get around, and reminds me a lot of a mixture of New York and San Francisco (an extra-large China town, complete with the Bay, if you will). Gone are the days when the harbor was filled with the romantic junks sailing into the sunset, once synonymous with the city.

The ships literally drops you off in a mall, and immediately you realize that the city is a shopper’s paradise. There is mall after mall after store after store after mall. This is quite jarring after the stretch from Chennai to Ho Chi Minh, especially since prices jump exponentially from the pennies we’ve gotten used to spending. I remember thinking in 1997, when Hong Kong was “returned” to China after British rule, that the claim that Hong Kong would operate in a separate political and economic system from the rest of the communist mainland wouldn’t last two long. Eight years later, the system seems to be working just fine, and if anything, mainland China is moving more and more towards a model of an open capitalist market.

(Speaking of the handover, we ran into Lord Patten, the last British governor of the island, who was promoting his new book. I “recognized” him because I noticed he was holding a book with a big picture of himself on the cover.)

Hong Kong is easy. I feel like I know the city very well after only some three days here (two of our days we spent in Kunming). You don’t realize how stressful it is to see constant poverty and suffering until you visit to a prosperous, rich place like Hong Kong. So we sail away at night from one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and from my favorite port so far in this journey (if that was possible after the rest of southeast Asia). This is my view as I type this. Just for kicks – these are my five favorite cities in the world in alphabetical order (I haven’t visited Paris and Sydney and many other towns in the world):

Cape Town
Hong Kong
New York
Rio de Janeiro
San Francisco

We’ll be in Kobe, Japan in three days, and I have no plan of action. I have to write about Vietnam, Cambodia, and Fresn… err… Kunming, and hopefully I can get it done before then. I might need the help of some guest bloggers.

Monday, November 14, 2005

When in Fresno...

Imagine this scenario:

Imagine 700 Chinese students arrive on a ship in Los Angeles. 500 students immediately board a plane to San Francisco to see the Golden Gate Bridge. The rest stay in the trendy LA area. Three staff members randomly decide to go to Fresno.

Now imagine that going to Fresno turns out to be the most fortuitous decision you've made the entire voyage.

We're in cloud nine right now. We'll be back in Hong Kong - the coolest city on the planet - for another day and a half starting tomorrow.

Good times. Good times.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

That's Our House. We live there.

(Jason's note: I wrote this more than a month ago, but Rico's only now posting it because he wants to avoid posting another entry he says he'll post later. So here's this one instead.)

We live on a ship. This is pretty obvious. It's Semester at Sea, after all, not Semester in a Condo or Semester on the Streets. But it bears repeating. We live on a ship. I don't know how many of you have ever been on a cruise ship, but I'm reasonably sure none of you have lived on one longer than ten days.

It's not like living elsewhere. You can't go out. Or you can, but only as far as the seventh deck bar. Which is two minutes from your cabin. Which is two minutes from your work. Which is two minutes from the one and only restaurant on the ship. And so on. The place is small, and it's your whole life. You might have been on a big ship, and thought it was really quite large, but it's a lie.

The MV Explorer. 590 feet long, 84 feet broad; we have access to parts of Deck 2, most of Decks 3 through 7. This is it for us. All of us. For any single person, it's a couple shops, a few classrooms, a few public spaces and one cabin. A cabin that's probably smaller than the bedroom of whoever is reading this, unless you're in a dorm. In which case, get back to your homework.

The ship moves, too. I mean, of course, we're sailing around the world, but that's not it. It rocks. It sways. On occasion, it tips a goodly bit. Shit falls over. People lean as they walk, unusally in tandem. Doors, if not anchored, threaten to crush limbs. It's worse in the front of the ship, where I live (and Rico, too.) It's worse higher up. The Staffulty Lounge, which is that seventh floor bar I just mentioned, is about the worst, but then, it's private, and there's coffee.

Pretty much the entire ship is like that, one big compromise. Our rooms in the Pit, or to be more proper, 3 Forward, are small and lack amenities like windows, chairs and color. But the people there are the best on the ship. There's seasickness in the wings, but then, there's the endless swell of the sea. There's the smell of a thousand of us, hidden by strong cleaning agents, that fills the halls, but outside, there's the freshest air you've ever smelled, air that hasn't been bothered by people and their messes except briefly, as with us, in passing.

And for all the little problems, the lack of space, the minimal privacy, the repeition of sleep/work/home/bar being all the same places every day, for all of that, it's still home. The title of this piece is something I've heard people say, not once, but several times. Maybe we're drinking in a waterfront bar, and we look over to see the blue and white ship. Someone looks at someone else and says it. That's our house. We live there. And we smile, because we're the luckiest people on earth, to have such a home.

When we're in port, they turn on the lights at night. It's nothing much, just a string of bulbs from stem to stern. They're prettily ornamental, hundred watt bulbs strung in a single great line that must be seven hundred feet long. They're the first thing you see of the ship, once the sun is set. When the cab driver doesn't know the way, you spot those lights above the werehouses, and suddenly you can find the ship. They shine out into the night, into the strange, sultry darkness of foreign ports, and they call us home.

That's our house, we whisper, and point, and the cabbie smiles, if it's not too late, if he's not too tired from ferrying students to the port. We live there, we say. He already knows, and so do we, but we all like to say it.

Passport Paranoia

Editor's note: We're still on the ship. Jason had time to write another guest entry.

The last time I travelled I took my passport with me everywhere. It sat in my security belt, and I didn't worry about it. When I was in a hotle I just put it down wherever and didn't feel the least bit concerned. Whatever happened, I would be fine.

This trip is a little different. From moment one, they told us that we should be terrified about losing our passports. I got on the ship, and they asked for it, and I didn't see it again for days. They're so afraid that we're going to lose it or get it stolen or possibly both that we're not allowed to have them unless we absolutely need them.

We don't carry them around in port, which is strange to me. My passport is my only ID, the only ID I ever breing when I travel, but now they tell us to just carry a photocopy. So far, that's been good, but what if some official looks at me funny? I think that's a bigger risk than carrying my passport. I'd rather have to use my photocopy for a few days than have to spend time in detention. But maybe that's just me.

But when I do have it now, I'm actually catching their paranoia. I feel a little worried. I think that maybe something is going to happen, that some clever pickpocket with get it, or that it'll just vanish someplace. But that's ridiculous. Like I'm going to just lose it somewhere. People do, but then, people also don't read books, and vote Republican, and other stupid things. Despite that comforting notion, the notion that I'm not a idiot, it has spread to me. I am partly convinced that it's a bad thing to have my passport. My rational mind knows that's moronic, but I can't help it. It's like a mob mind thing. And I want it to stop, but I can't.

Hopefully, I'll get over it. There will come a day when can I carry it safely but without concern again. Just not on this trip.

"The Ship it Used to Be"

Postscript: The MP3 of this song can be downloaded here.

Alright, still have time to post. These are the lyrics to Allan's song. I'll post the MP3 when I have one. Sing it with a thick accent. Trust me, it is really catchy.

Written and composed by Allan Pesado,
A/V Officer
Fall 2005














We're still in port, so I'm going to keep posting until we clear. Jason had time to read through my posted entries and is making fun of me for referring to the docking of the ship as "birthing". Actually, it's "berthing". I'm an idiot. That's the last time I try to use cool maritime lingo.

That's what happens when English is your second language. That would never happen in portuguese. I think.

Hong Kong

When did we sail into Manhattan?

We're off the ship in a shortly. See you if we make it back from... where was that again? Oh yeah, Kunming. Time to start reading about the city. As far as I know, it could be just like that British guy in "Love Actually" that decides to visit Wisconsin. I can only hope to meet the same kind of locals he did.

See you in a few.

Friday, November 11, 2005


There are two worlds on the ship, one in which passengers know very little about. There are about 200 crew members aboard the MV Explorer, and due to strict ship regulations, they are not allowed to fraternize much with the passengers beyond some small talk when they are doing the job. There are some awesome people on this ship's crew.

Which is why I’m very, very lucky to have a crew member assigned to be my counterpart on this trip. Mr. Allan Pesado, "Sparky", who is leaving the ship in Hong Kong to wife and kids in the Phillipines for three months. He’s been aboard the ship for 11 months, and has been living this life as a Radio or AV for 13 years.

Crew life is tough. I’ve learned all about the shipping industry in our hours and hours and hours and hours of conversation about the ship. He’s been through everything - he’s been through fire, collision, embankment, deaths, and was the radio operator calling “MAYDAY” during the infamous 50 foot wave damaged the ship earlier this year.

(That story, by the way, is one of the best stories I’ve ever heard. If I don’t find a site that fully documents this stories, I’ll have to create one myself).

Allan is a short, bald, with the body of Homer Simpson and a thick Phillipino accent. He’s also on the jolliest, funniest, hardest-working people I have ever met – he’s often working from 7:15am until well after midnight. And we get along extremely well. I can’t tell you the number of times during Global Studies we busted out in the AV booth into a quiet rendition of “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel, with me singing the melody and him singing the harmony. We assume no one can hear us, but we often hear from students later telling us, “We heard you singing in Global Studies today…” Whoops.

But he’s a great musician, though most people would never know it until the crew talent show, where he played guitar or piano or sang in just about every skit they did. As we were setting up the instruments for the show in the empty union, he picked up the guitar, started strumming “The Boxer”, and next thing you know I’m on the keyboard and we’re singing our brains out. I’m sure people heard us as they walked to the library. I hope they did. How often do you get to karaoke at work?

Then when sang his original composition “MV Explorer”, with lyrics like…

The MV Explorer
It means a lot to me
Going lots of places
With Semester at Sea

…where the word “Semester” is pronounced “SEA-mester” due to his thick Philipino accent, we’ll let’s just say someone must have been chopping onions in the union that day.

The crew members don’t get paid a lot, though it is good money relative to the countries they come from. The work is rewarding but tough – they work extremely long hours, often living in small cabins with three other individuals (as an 2nd officer, Allan gets his own cabin). They work long hours every day, are required to be on the ship at least nine months at a time (though they have to stay longer or cut their vacation short if the ship management company, V-Ships, asks them to do so). Allan deserves to go home and see his family. But he’ll be missed on the ship.

This is him and his replacement Sam (who I like already)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Burma Identity

Catch up time. I have lots of things to write about Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and my crew counterpart Allan who is leaving us in Hong Kong, so let’s get to it.

Burma/Myanmar was clearly the great unknown of this voyage. What would happen when 700 students – the largest congregation of Americans in the country since 1962 – descend and take over a country that wasn’t quite ready for it?

There was a lot of buildup to this port. Information about our arrival changed every day, and the administration made a big deal about what to prepare for, and they made it clear that they had no idea what to expect. The only thing that seemed clear, thanks to reports of our risk management company (iJet), was that the small bomb that went off at our home base in Yangon a week prior to our arrival did not pose a serious threat to our shipboard community. But otherwise, no one really knew what was going once we arrived in port, or even arriving in port.

As described in previous entries, we hit the mouth of the Ayerwaddy River on our way to the port located some 45 minutes south of Yangon. Due to the shallowness (is that a word?) of the river, we had to enter the river at high tide, and limit the amount of water aboard the ship to minimize how much of the ship was submerged (this would lead to a severe rationing of water aboard the ship which I’ll come back to).

Everybody went outside to see the rural countryside go by, and many straw houses and pagodas later, we arrived to the cargo port in the middle of rice fields. A shuttle service had been set up from the ship to Yangon for the students, and once we got off, we knew this stop was different from most others. We didn’t have to deal the usual hordes of taxi drivers and peddlers outside of the ship that have been characteristic of most of the other ports.

On the way to Yangon, a few things jump out at you:

1. Men wear these long skirts in Myanmar. ALL men except for the military wear these skirts, the longyls. If you don’t think I purchased and bought one by the time I got back on the ship, you are just plain wrong. If you don’t think that most of the guys on the ship bought and wore one at some point, you are also very wrong. They’re pretty cool and comfortable – you won’t believe the freedom down there. Alright, too much detail.
2. The women and children wear a blotch of white paste on their cheeks. I had no idea this was coming, so it is no exaggeration that I was more surprised to see this for the first time than I was seeing dead bodies at the Ganges.
3. I took a picture of the first monk I saw. After my millionth monk, I didn’t think I had to take pictures of them any longer.
4. Burmese is the coolest looking language in the world. They write in circles (which I’ve been told developed from having to write on banana leaves). At one point, the letters started looking like little people to me, which makes for some funny stories if you “read” your interpretation out loud (“So this pregnant woman gets on her knees before losing her legs…”
5. What an amazing difference from India, which we had just seen two days earlier! There wasn’t nearly as many cars and people, and the countryside seemed so much cleaner. Was this in fact representative of Myanmar? The country has twenty times less people than India, but I’ve been told about the extreme poverty and the American diplomats warned us of the “veil” of Myanmar, where tourists are able to visit without having any idea of the political turmoil of the country. Was this part of that veil?
6. Things were unbelievably cheap in Myanmar. A dollar is worth a lot in that country. The local currency doesn’t have much teeth.
7. I thought, “I bet this is what Thailand looked like 40 years ago.”

I’d say that we surprised most of the people there. We got off the bus and no one came out to us. Of the people we did talk to, they were extremely gentle and seemed almost intimidated by us. After five days in India, we were shocked to see vendors not be pushy, accept “no”s, and not try to sell you much. It was amazing to see a transformation in five days, because the vendors and peddlers became much more aggressive by the last day in port. Why? Because it works, and every time you buy from a pushy person, it becomes an incentive for them to do it again. Though to be honest, it seemed most SAS people didn’t mind when you’re asking 25 cents for a shirt priced at 50 cents. And I’d say most people didn’t mind pumping some money into the informal economy.

Chris, Jason, and I decided to hang out the first day and improvise Yangon. We took a Lonely Planet, and started walking out and about, looking completely lost, when Mr. Toe approached us.

Mr. Toe. He’s like Red in the Shawshank Redemption. He’s the man that gets you things. Myanmar only gets 300,000 tourists a year (compare this to Thailand’s 12 million visitors), but Mr. Toe is one of the few tour guides around. He walked to us in the middle of an intersection, asked us what we wanted, and we wanted food. Authentic food. Cheap food. Good food, which wouldn’t make us sick later. He told us he would take us there. Since we hadn’t agreed to pay him anything, we took his advice, and sure enough, the restaurant fit all of the criteria. We needed to pay in Kyat (pronounced “chiat”) but the official government rate is 450 kyat per dollar. The black market rate is more like 1300 Kyat per dollar. Instead of going to a bank, Mr. Toe took us to the back of a t-shirt shop, asked us to cover our money, and we discreetly exchanged our money. I’m not sure why we had to be so discreet since EVERYBODY exchanges their money in the informal market, but we did as told.

The money lasted a while. Our dinner, with drinks, was around US$5. Chris got a haircut for 40 cents. At one point, Mr. Toe looked at Jason’s bag and noticed it was all ripped, so he took us to this alleyway where a shirtless tailor was working on a 100-year-old sewing machine. Seeing how fast the tailor fixed – actually, made stronger – Jason’s bag, we started looking for things we needed worked tailoring. Chris needed to fix his expensive Canon camera straps – the man whipped out some leather (that sounds bad) and fixed them. I had a missing zipper on the side pocket of my expensive REI short/pants (shants), and without having to take them off, I had a brand new zipper in no time. Total cost for all this: $2, paid in Kyat.

By this time, we had started to develop a funny bond with Mr. Toe, and the video of us singing “Killing Me Softly” in Burmese proves it.

(By the way, why does every country have it’s own version of “Killing Me Softly”? And why does the entire world enjoy Celine Deon? And why does the entire western world wear speedos? Why?)

Mr. Toe then took us the Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest place in Burma and one of the holiest (if not THE holiest) place in Buddhism. (We liked calling it the “SchwearToGod Pagoda”). The pagoda is huge, some , covered in billions of dollars worth of gold that accumulated over the centuries. For such a beautiful place, there was one thing in particular that never seemed right by western standards – the flashing colored Vegas lights that they put behind the heads of the Buddhas. To us, it looks tacky, but it must mean a lot to them, because these lights were very common in Myanmar (I didn’t notice them that much in Cambodia).

We watched the sunset at the pagoda and got in a long conversation with a monk who somehow learned amazing English in his one year in the monastery and was much more progressive than we’d been told to expect. (Women, for example, were told not to look a monk in the eye, yet they kept coming up to the SAS students and engaging them in conversation. There are some really nice people in Myanmar). As someone who speaks English as my second language, I’m amazed at how well people can learn English around the world without being immersed in the language. This is particularly obvious of the little children on the street, who often speak English perfecty.

We had another cheap dinner with Mr. Toe, and gave him some money for being such a quality guide in the eight hours+ we were with him. If you’re ever in Yangon, ask for Mr. Toe. If you look lost at the intersection near the Trader’s hotel, he’ll find you. Tell him you know Chris, Jason, and Rico. He’ll take you around.

We took the last shuttle back to the ship to get some sleep and get ready to fly to Bagan the next day.

I hadn’t seen any evidence of the evil Myanmar that was on everybody’s mind. They asked us not to engage in political conversation with the locals as to not endanger them and have them questioned by the police later on. We were afraid to ask, for their safety. But I wanted to. I would have to wait until Bagan.

(I’m in the Union writing this as the choir is practicing “America is Beautiful” for the first time, to be sung prior to arriving in the U.S. I just got chills. The trip is coming to an end…)

I woke up the next morning, a little too late to be able to go to Yangon and back and still make it to my flight. So I decided to explore the nearby area on foot. I made my way out of the port, towards some oxen in a muddy rice field towards some straw huts I’d seen from the bus. As I got closer, an 18-year-old (whose name I unfortunately can’t remember) came to greet me, and I spent the next hour or so talking to him, asking a million questions, learning quite a bit about the poor people in Myanmar, getting angry at the government who makes things worse for them, and thought a lot about a time when my parents were going through serious financial difficulties and had no one to turn to. I hate to compare the experiences because the conditions are obviously very different, but I thought back about the feeling of helplessness, and the inability to understand why people are unwilling to help. This brought me right back to my experience in India, and in my mind, all the sudden all the beggars have a background story – such as, what got them to the point of having to come beg at a dirty station – and I began to understand, I think, the feeling of helplessness they must feel when a “rich” individual goes by. Why won’t these people help me? Can’t they see I hungry? Can’t they see I can’t help myself?

Why is it that even though we spend thousands of dollars on elaborate trips around some of the most exotic locations around the world, some of the most meaningful moments happen alongside a non-descript road within walking distance of the ship?

I said goodbye, and hitchhiked a ride back on a truck carrying teek (sp?) and was dropped off just feet away from the ship. I joined the group, went to the airport, and headed to Bagan, home of some 2500 ancient stupas and pagodas. There were no lights visible as we landed, so we knew we were in the middle of nowhere. I won’t spend too much time describing our plan of action because I’d be summed up like this:

Pagoda, pagoda, stupa, pagodas, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, pagoda, Buddha, stupa, stupa, pagoda, stupa, Buddha, stupa, pagoda, Buddha, stupa, stupa, stupa,. And another Buddha. Please don’t underestimate how cool that is, especially by someone who’s never been to a Buddhist country. Some of the highlights:

1. Going to some really cool resorts on the river. I thought the hotels they put us in Varanasi and Delhi were overkill, but these seemed to fit the trip. They were really nice.
2. Climbing the temples and seeing the view from the top of them. There really are thousands of ancient temples all over the place in Bagan. They should shoot the next Indiana Jones here.
3. The city is still not tourist-friendly, which is great. There aren’t many people there, most streets are still unpaved, and it isn’t hard to find large empty temples to explore. I’m not sure long this will last – the country is spending a lot of money doing out-of-place constructions in the area, and rebuilding a lot of the ruins, with modern bricks. I’m not sure what their motivation is, but I think they should just leave the temples as found. See Bagan now before it is too late.
4. Best Idea Ever – renting bikes. We had some free time, and this girl Jamie and I decided to get the bikes and go exploring. It was my favorite part of the entire trip.
5. The city is dead at night. I left our resort to meet up with a friend at another resort, and asked at the reception if it was safe to walk around. “Be careful,” they said. “Many snakes.” I was thinking I’d have to worry about some government operative, but instead they gave me the nice tip that Cobras make a hissing sound when they attack. Vipers, on the other hand, are completely quiet. When I left the hotel, it was completely dark, but I could see the very faint silhouette of the temples as I made my way past them. And I saw many huge flying foxes along the way. Good times.
6. Stargazing on the shores of the Ayerwaddy River in Bagan is one of the coolest things ever.
7. The welcome reception was jaw-dropping. They lit one of the largest ancient temples entirely by candlelight as the locals came out holding torches and playing the drums. Just one of those moments you had to be there to understand, but that by itself made the trip all worth it.
8. Finally having the political conversations I wanted. The locals we talked to asked us not to let anyone know that they had talked politics with us, and there were a lot of revealing statements. They are scared of the government, and one guy in particular believes there will be a revolution in the next few years. “No one thought Nelson Mandela would be president of South Africa someday,” he said. So true. So true.

Upon return to Bagan, I still had two days in Yangon, which I made to good use of. As soon as we got back from Bagan, Sony and I decided to walk with the goal of getting lost. In the process, we saw all of the poverty and slums that we hadn’t seen in around the tourist trail. Poverty is poverty is poverty, no matter where in the world you are. The saddes sight was of these old men swimming in the sewer looking for possible objects of value that could have been dropped in there. A few hours later, we made our way back.

I met up with some students, booked a room in $3-a-night hotel, hung out with staff and students until very late, and I met up the next day with my adopted son, Ashish (long story – I have an adopted son and three adopted daughters on the ship), and we explored Yangon and ate and ate and ate all day long. Ashish is Hindu, and since India was fresh our minds at the time, we spent several hours talking about the subcontinent. Sounds boring, but for someone who knows little about this stuff, it was fascinating.

Remember when I said there was a severe rationing of water? We couldn’t take in new water in the river, and people didn’t reduce the amount of water while on the ship, so by the time we got back, they shut off the water except for a short time in the morning and evening, including flushing of the toilets. And since we spent another half day in port, some people were really stinky by the time we hit the sea, present company included.

Myanmar was wonderful. I think it is a much easier country to travel in than was believed before we arrived there – you can see they are trying to make an effort to up the tourism in the country, and I don’t doubt that it’ll be at the same level as the other southeast asian countries someday. But the government needs to change. Though embargo is not the answer.

Thank you, Mr. Toe.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


I loved this port.

I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it I loved it.

Loved it loved it loved it loved it loved loved it loved it loved it loved loved it loved it loved it loved loved it loved it loved it loved loved it loved it loved it loved loved it loved it loved it loved loved it loved it loved it loved loved it loved it loved it loved loved it loved it loved it loved.

Loved it.


I loved it.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Good Morning Vietnam!

We woke up arriving on the Saigon River, and we’re doing our awesome 3 hour trek into the Heart of Darkness (actually, that’ll be in the Mekong River in Cambodia), but should be arriving in Ho Chi Minh City in a couple of hours. The river is narrow and twisty and crowded and in the middle of what appears to be some pretty dense jungle – I’m amazed at how well this huge ship handles these tight turns. The ship has gotten in some serious collisions here before. Let’s hope for the best.

This is so, so cool right now. I’m working on my Myanmar report, but I’ll be honest with you, I might get easily distracted and not finish it. But I’ll get it done, for sure.

A little about what I’m doing in Vietnam. Once we arrive, I plan on visiting the War Museum and meet up with a local named Cuong, who had befriended a friend of Anne’s. We’ve been in touch by email and he said he’d be happy to show me around.

Also, I’m trip leading one of the Cambodia, into the Killing Fields in Phnom Phen and the temples of Angkor Wat. These have been the most popular sign-ups on this trip, with hundreds of students not getting a slot, so snagging the trip-leader spot was a pretty sweet deal. I actually chose not to do much research on the subject. So why am I going if I don’t know much about where we’re going?

When I started researching what I was going to do on this trip, Anne gave me three pieces of advice:

1. Don’t let money be a concern – if there is something you really want to do, figure out how to do it, because you never know when you’re going back there.
2. If you go on SAS trips, pick the ones with the fewer maximum number of people.
3. Whatever you do, go to Cambodia.

So that was it. I was sold. We never talked much about it after. I signed up, got the trip, became so excited I started a media campaign to get the rest of my group excited – I would post on the television screens slide shows essentially saying that the “Best Trip Ever” is coming. It worked a little too well, because I brought to a halt when one student told me people who didn't get a slot were starting to get really jealous.

So yes, I’m excited. I’ll get back to the Myanmar stuff since I like writing about things when they are fresh. I’ll keep y’all posted.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The Myanmar Dilemma

Question asked by Chris at breakfast this morning:

“Do you remember that time we had lunch in Singapore?”

The answer, of course, was yesterday. We pulled over for a pit stop in Singapore for gas, a Slurpy, some twinkies and beef jerky, and a bathroom break. Well, we just stopped for refueling, but were right off the Singapore skyline and got our passport stamped even though we weren’t allowed off the ship. Which really sucks, by the way. What a tease.

Otherwise, god, I love this. One of the most surreal elements of SAS is the fact that as vast as the ocean appears to be from the seventh floor deck, the world feels as small as the big map posted in the hallway denoting where we have been. There’s a feeling of, “Hey, wanna go to New Zealand?”, and we can do that. I “just” happens.

Another reason I love being on the ship. Here’s an announcement taken verbatim from our Dean’s Memo.

“Pirates still do exist, although they probably do not look like the one we see in Hollywood movies. There are reports of pirating on the seas throughout the world, oftentimes when a ship is traveling close to land like in the Malacca Strait, which we are about to enter. Although the risk is low the ship does take precautions, like increasing our speed through the area of risk. Pirates are much more interested in cargo ships, not passenger ships.”

Any job that warns you about the danger of pirates can’t be all that bad. Can it?

I reread my final India entry, and reread my journal, and I still don’t think I’ve quite conveyed my experience there quite accurately. I had a long discussion with Janet Eastman, who is teaching journalism on board and writes for the LA Times, about our thoughts and experiences there, and neither of us have quite nailed it yet. India is a difficult country. My journal makes it seem that I jumped out of an airplane, with sensory overload, but yet I feel somewhat removed from that ten days later. But I thought about it a little further, and I’m not sure if simplifying the experience to an intellectual exercise is accurate. I also wanted to emphasize that I loved my five days there. I just wish I could have come up with a better understanding in those five days.

I have lots of pictures to upload, but as Internet is quite slow again, so I’ve only uploaded the Rinspirator picture:

(Speaking of pictures, I guess the link I put up to Chris’s Mauritius pictures didn’t work, so just go directly to his main site and click on “Mauritius” ( and Myanmar because I hung out with him the first full day there.)

But India takes us to Myanmar. Semester at Sea had sent trips to Myanmar from other port stops, but this was the first time that the ship would “birth” (cool maritime lingo) in the country. But this would not be without controversy. Myanmar has one of the worst records of human rights violation by the government, second only perhaps to North Korea, and culminating with the house arrest of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still in custody to this day. Desmond Tutu called her his hero and said there is a poster of her up in his office.

The country has the worst possible diplomatic relationship with the United States and still be recognized as a country, and in defiance of the Myanmar government, the U.S. will refer to the country as Burma in its official documents.

(This leads us to our first dilemma – how do we refer to the country when we’re there? I decided that the US government should indeed call it Burma as a symbolic gesture against the government, but when talking to the locals, “Burma” is a vestige of British colonialism and only encompasses the Burmese people, which is only about two-thirds of the population. Myanmar means “Strong People” so the locals seemed to prefer that. Alas).

There is a US diplomatic staff in Myanmar, but, in a move filled with symbolism, there is no U.S. Ambassador there. We have been told that the embargo against the country is the foreign relations issue with the largest bipartisan support of any issue in the US Congress. My OMHML, Archbishop Tutu, is the world’s most ardent opponent of the Myanmar regime and a huge supporter of sanctions in the country.

A very serious dialogue started on the ship. Should we be going to Myanmar? The answer from the Institute of Shipboard Education’s side seemed pretty straightforward – this is an educational trip, and ISE will not put itself in the position to making a political statement by choosing not to go to a country. They’d been to Communist China before they opened their doors to the west, to Vietnam, Cuba, and apartheid South Africa, all in the name of education.

But that still wasn’t reason enough for me to exit the ship. Would our visit be perceived as some sort of endorsement of the government, and would our money end up in the hands of government to be used for more human-rights violations? Should we stay on the ship as some sort of protest? If I decide to not stay on the ship, would that be perceived as some sort of ignorance or indifference to these issues. Coming from India and South Africa, where there was a history of systematic injustices, these were questions that were laying quite heavily with a lot of people.

(By the way, I think this opportunity to compare so many countries in a short amount of time is the most important aspect of SAS, and have a lot to say about it, so I’m sure I’ll come back to this at the end of the voyage).

The answer, for many of us, came when the Kevin McGrath and his wife Olga, our Myanmar Interport Lecturers, boarded the ship in Chennai. He was an UN officials in Burma (and many other countries) for many years, and he built a very convincing case that the sanctions are not working at that they are the wrong approach to dealing with the country (actually, he made the case that sanctions are generally a bad way to deal with international issues, South Africa being a notable exception). Some of the main points, as I understood it:

1. In a country where the ruler believes in Karma, suffering is caused by some greater cosmic force - if my people suffer because of the economic sanctions, then it was meant to be. There’s little motivation to do anything about it. But the government can continue to splurge whatever is left on itself, which means Myanmar has the world’s most disproportionate ratio between military spending to social spending (something like 9 to 1). The ruler isn’t afraid to make insane rulings on the basis of astrology: in the early nineties, the government decided that the money needed to be based on the number 9, and the financial system lost its credibility and collapsed when certain bill denominations were deemed illegal overnight.

2. The sanctions only bring Myanmar closer to China, who fills in the void left by the sanctioning countries. It seemed like all of the major businesses, such as hotels, were owned by Chinese (and Thai) companies. This very close relationship with China is very much against the interest of the United States.

3. The government somewhat fills in the void of services that were missing before by becoming a middleman, taking in the profit, and making services too expensive for the little guy to afford.

4. Keeping Myanmar isolated keeps it away from our consciouness, since there is absolutely little motivation to learn about the human-rights violations in the country if we don’t foster some sort of business or tourist interest there. Sad but true.

5. The conditions in South Africa, under which sanctions worked, was very different from Myanmar. South Africa had a large white middle class, without a despot, which was heavily hurt by the sanctions. South Africa was also surrounded by countries that disapproved of the government, whereas Myanmar is surrounded by friends who can fill a lot of the holes created by the sanctions.

The conclusion: the country has declined tremendously in the last 10+ years, with severe poverty and on the brink of an AIDS epidemic, yet the government has not changed its human-rights record. So the sanctions aren’t working.

What can we do about it, then? Kevin and Olga have a lot of suggestions, and I hope I get a chance to talk to them about it before they leave us in Vietnam.

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything remotely academic! (Not that this counts, but, woohoo!) I just realized I vented all this on Myanmar without a word about what happened off the ship… I guess it’s been on my mind a lot. Or I just like venting. Hope you enjoyed it – I’ll post this entry, then start write about fun stuff.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The India 500

Hello from the Strait of Malacca! We’re passing by Thailand, sailing past some of those famous Thai islands (Thaislands?). A number of people threatened to jump off the ship and swim ashore. Soon we’ll have Sumatra on one side and Malaysia on the other on our way to Singapore, where we will dock for refueling. We won’t be able to leave the ship. Well, legally anyway.

It’s been a while since India was in our consciousness, but the memories are still pretty fresh. The highlight of the Varanasi trip was boarding the boat that morning on the Holy River Ganges (our guide always referred to the river as such). Just as amazing as seeing the bodies, dead or alive, in the water, was seeing the vendors that came up to you on boats and tagged along to you remora-style. One of the peddlers was selling DVDs of Varanasi and actually had a working television set playing the DVD aboard the little boat.

We left the boat and toured Varanasi on foot, getting close and personal to the funeral pyres, dodging cows along the narrow alleyways, and visiting the Golden Temple, the holiest temple in Hinduism, with a steeple (?) made of solid gold and monkeys jumping all over the place. What was most interesting to me was the mosque next door, with its 30 foot fences and hundreds of military police guards. The mosque was put in the place of an important Hindu temple that was destroyed during the last of many Muslim invasions in India, and now there are many people who want to tear down the mosque and turn it back to a Hindu temple.

The security was simply a microcosm of the immense tension between the Muslims and Hindus in that part of the world. As I alluded to earlier, this is the greatest threat to world peace, more so that the Israeli-Palestinian or the US conflicts as there are two nuclear powers (India and Pakistan) with a history of three wars between themselves in the last fifty years, compounded by possible line of command issues as to who has actual control of that launch button. Few people know how close we were to nuclear war when tensions escalated in 1999 or so (and the more we study it, the more I’m impressed at how thoughtfully and firmly the Clinton administration dealt with the issue). And as the bombings in Delhi (where we were) proved to us last week, the tensions are very, very serious. There are billions of lives at stake here.

Anyway, we get back to the comfort of our hotel, where much to the chagrin of several of us, and to the pleasure of others, they serve us Americanized food. That drove me nuts. Part of the tour involved a tour to a carpet factory, and since I had already done my shopping the previous day, I ditched the group with two girls and we went in search of adventures through the streets of Varanasi.

We are careful not to get hit by the hundreds of honking motorcycles and bicycles and trucks and cars, and eventually make our way in the rain to a village on the very polluted shore of a tributary of the Ganges on the north side of the city. We see some kids playing and we’re curious enough to go down to visit with them, and by the time we get down there, we’re surrounded. The kids are fascinated by these laughing white people dressed in funny clothes, and next thing you know, we’re teaching these very enthusiastic kids how to count to ten in English and I’m doing flips, which means the adults come out as well. I should have taken some video of it, but I did remember to finally pull out the camera before we were out of sight. They were still waving at us when I did so.

One more thing I did in Varanasi – I learned how an ancient loom works while people were gift shopping. Pretty amazing piece of primitive technology. So if you don’t get a gift from India, you can blame it on my morbid fascination for spools of thread. Oh, if I were a cat… them looms are cat-toy heaven… all them hanging spools and stuff…

[Coughing a hairball]


Soon we were out of Varanasi and back in Delhi, which, thanks to those crazy British imperialists, looks a little more western as we know it, though it is the smoggiest city I’ve ever visited. We arrived around 4pm, and the sky was brown on a perfectly cloudless day, and the smog was so thick that we were getting sunset light several hours before sunset – perhaps the ugliest sunset of the voyage.

We went to the largest Hindu temple in Delhi, quite a piece of work. The chanting filled the marble rooms, and in the Krishna section, a very nice old man invited me to sit as he prayed, and regardless of any sort of metaphysical or spiritual significance you attach to prayer or meditation, which I don’t, you can’t deny that it is some pretty soothing and relaxing stuff. Good times.

We also went to a Sikh temple and had to cover our heads to get in. Interesting religion. Relative to the other religions we’ve looked at, I still don’t know much about it, but they seem to steal the pageantry of Islam and the philosophy of Hinduism and seem to be a fairly organized group in India. I took some of their literature to read up a little more on them.

We woke up at 4am after a late night of hanging out and enjoying the World Series (go ‘stros!… sniff…) took off to the crazy Delhi train station and headed for a two-hour trip to Agra.

There really is one reason to visit Agra: the Taj Mahal. We visited two beautiful forts in and around Agra, one of which had the worst and most aggressive peddlers I think we will ever see, and the other which housed the prison of the king that built the Taj, with the view of the Taj down the river, spending all day as we prepared for sunset at our main attraction.

As great as they were, I won’t spend any time describing these forts, because the Taj Mahal is absolutely, positively the most beautiful man-made object I’ve ever seen. (WARNING: CHEESY, FLOWERY, OVER-THE-TOP YET ABSTRACT AND VAGUE LANGUAGE ABOUT TO FOLLOW. I would hate reading myself right now. I’m not kidding. Really, shouldn’t you be working right now? Is that your boss behind you? Should I insert some text about spreadsheets and budgets here? Alright, here it goes…)

Someone should invent a headphone device that plays angelic music every time people set their eyes on the Taj Mahal. I can’t imagine someone building something more beautiful. My first sight of the Taj, from down the river at Fort Agra, was stunning. It is perfect – you can’t stop looking at it. All our pictures from Fort Agra involve views of the Taj, even though the Fort is something to behold itself. When we eventually arrived in the Taj Mahal premises, it was clear that the building had lived up and surpassed all of the hype over the years. In typical Islamic architecture, it is perfectly symmetrical with inlaid black Persian text and artwork on the marble. The flowers and grass and trees and gardens around it are perfectly upkept. There must have been ten thousand tourists there that day, but it never seemed crowded as the marble structure is enormous. People should be required to visit the Taj. The tomb took 22 years to build, and the king was going to build a mirror image of the Taj in black marble across the river but the plan wasn’t completed after he was imprisoned by his own son. Can you imagine what that would have looked like? I know I can’t.

Ok, no more coffee after noon. I promise.

By the way, getting in was an adventure since the place is under heavy security, and I had Kerberos’s Rinspirator™ with me that I promised Tom I would take pictures with around the world. The Rinspirator™ looks like a gun, so try explaining to Indian security what that little device is for. I succeeded – the Taj has been Rinspirated™.

We were there for almost four hours, so after walking around, most of us just picked a spot and watched the sun set on the Taj. Since you’re all sunseted out, I’ll spare the pictures, but I’ll add that I did what must have been the first back flip in Taj Mahal history. Unless you’re talking about the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, which I hear is just as nice. I’m sure they do back flips over there.

We made our way back to Delhi, but not before we were delayed in the Agra train station at night. The two train stations were quite something, a home for many of India’s most impoverished and disabled beggars. We have been suggested not to give for various reasons, the main one being that if we give, we would do more good by giving to a charitable organization such as the Mother Teresa Foundation. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you. So you do what you can, and as we had well over an hour delay in the station, we would play with the kids, and no matter where you are in the world, a little juggling or a magic trick goes a long way. At one point, I started to chase the kids in a handstand, which elicited the same response as the when I chased the Pemon Indians in Venezuela, but if you saw the ground of the train station, you would agree with me when I say it was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever done. Well-worth it, but disgusting; though nothing a little bottle of Purell, a liter of bottled water, some grossed-out looks, and another bottle of Purell couldn’t take care of.

Back in Delhi, we cleaned up, went to a sheesha (sp?) bar with the students (When in Delhi…), and hung around until the start of the World Series before getting on a flight back to Chennai in the morning. Chennai would subsequently be hit by a .5 meters ( that’s about 18 inches of rain for those of you who don’t habla espanol) and a cyclone the days after we left.

People simply couldn’t stop talking about Indian experience on the ship. Some people were very affected emotionally by it, and some people preferred to stay on the ship our last day in port. I’ve been thinking a lot about my experience, and I guess I prepared a little too much for it, because as amazing and incredible and surreal as it was, I knew that I would see bodies in Ganges. I knew I would see terrible things in the train stations. I knew I would see people defecating in the streets. And I knew I would see the crazy traffic and the billions of people on the streets. Which means I might have made a protective buffer for India, and after immediately having the unknown of Myanmar as a point of reference, I think my experience in India was more intellectual than emotional. Life-changing? Certainly, I think. Not an immediate change, as I was told to expect and as many people on the ship experienced. Probably something a little more gradual, cummulative, as I still think about the experience, particularly Varanasi, the religious tension, my limited understanding of the caste system (which would be another four pages), and the future of the country, every day since. I hope to come back for at least a month next time. Because I will come back.

The digiweb is slow, so I’ll upload some pictures next, but in the meantime, check out Chris’s Mauritius pictures at (Hi Nicolle!) Starting with the pictures of me jumping over – gasp – another sunset, go a couple pages and you can get a sense of our excursion.

That's our wild tour of India in a nutshell. Next up: Myanmar.