Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Dispassionate Life is Not Worth Living

“I lived on a ship for almost four months?” I often ask myself. “With 900 people?”

24,036 miles. 12 countries. 4 continents. 100 days (99 for everyone else). 21 take-offs. 20 landings. Countless new friends. I didn’t think the transition would be as glaring as it has been, I’m not going to lie to you. I wouldn’t call it difficult per se, but it isn’t as if I had never left. I’ve already gone back to work, trying to organize my office before plunging head first in this next chapter in life, but often daydreaming about the days I would sit in the Staffulty lounge for hours just watching the sea go by. It was one of my favorite things to do on the ship, enjoying the one view in this world that has remained unchanged in the history of mankind.

I’m starting to believe that the shipboard life affected me more than any of the countries we visited. Whereas we studied the countries and prepared ourselves psychologically for them, many of us dismissed shipboard life as a downside to getting to the ports. I think this is why the trip went from excellent to spectacular after the Sea Olympics, between Mauritius and India. That was a symbolic turning point in the development of this shipboard community, and more so than the ports, the experience was a purely emotional one.

Ever tried saying goodbye to 900 people? It is logistically impossible in a few days. It takes planning and preparation, and despite the fact that I was writing notes and saying goodbyes for three days straight prior to the end of the voyage, I think I only hit a couple hundred of them.

In a sense this trip has been far from over, and this is clear to me now. I rented a car in San Diego, spent a day or two saying goodbye to the staff in Laguna Beach, hung out with students in Coronado before heading out with Rita, Corey, and Roy to Los Angeles to attend the premiere of Do A-yay (Our Cause) at the 20th Century Fox Film Studios. We were invited by Cristina Moon on the US Campaign for Burma, a group that is very passionate about doing the best for Myanmar. I am eagerly trying to get them involved with SAS because they are a wealth of information on the country and I think a lot of good things can come with their help. (Though we completely disagree on what role sanctions play in this issue… we’ll sort that out later).

We spent the night at my sister’s house and in the morning headed up with the girls to the Bay Area. I hope I didn’t hurt my friends since I tackled them when I saw them for the first time. I was ecstatic to see everyone. They hosted a holiday party the night I returned, so there were a lot of people crashing at my place, and since my subletter still hasn’t moved out, we had to make other sleeping arrangements. So many of my friends were there, including several new SAS friends, that it was a little hard devoting just a few minutes to everyone when you would love to talk to everyone for hours at a time. Oh, well.

Since the girls had never been to San Francisco before, I took them to the best places in SF (SAN 100, San Francisco and Beyond), including a phenomenal sunset from the fort across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Oh, the sunsets. I’ve been made a lot of fun for putting so much emphasis on it. I don’t know why we’re still attracted to them. I guess it is because it was one of the few constants in our experience. The sun that my friends see in California is the same sun we saw in Mauritius. The sunset follows the same arc of a drama, complete with a development, climax, and a conclusion – you feel like you missed something if you don’t catch it from the beginning. And even though you know how it is going to end, the enjoyment comes from appreciating the differences from sunset to sunset, like watching a sports movie when you already know your team will win at the end.

I actually debated whether I should travel now or save my money to travel in the future, and the answer is clear to me now: get out while you can. There’s something to be said about traveling when your knees don’t ache, when your sight is good, when you don’t have other commitments to tend to. I traveled at a particularly good time, when all was spectacular in my life after a period of not knowing if there was a life after gymnastics. It was like entering a good relationship - where both parties are happy and confident in who they are, and not dealing with personal issues.

So it’ll still be a while before I understand the experience. I already notice I see some movies in a new light (the experience of watching Lost in Translation and Titanic are completely different to me now). This sounds cheesy, but I walked by some Indian students speaking Hindi at Stanford yesterday and I noticed them a lot more that I ever had before. My ears perk up every time I hear one of our countries mentioned in the news.

Will it always be that way? Maybe I’ll get used to the huge American portions again. Maybe I’ll be comfortable again with the convenience of my car in this age of global warming. Maybe I’ll turn into a pessimist, because sometimes that is what it takes to be a realist in this world. Maybe I'll be even more of an optimist, because it motivates us to do something about the world's problems.

I don’t know. Too soon to tell. I’m just so happy that I did the voyage, and did it with passion. As a matter of fact, when Desmond Tutu’s exhibit in South Africa asked us “If you had one piece of wisdom to give, what would it be?”, my answer was simple. Do it with passion. Pour yourself into what you do. Make it personal. Work hard. Play hard. I think I did that.

I leave you with the MP3 of Allan's song, "The Ship It Used to Be." The lyrics can be found here. Thanks to everyone who read my ramblings, and sorry for the stream-of-consciousness disconnectedness of it sometimes. A lot more people read this and wrote me than I ever expected (Clara - your inbox is full). I might do one more upload of all my pictures, by popular demand (now that I have fast, free internet), but otherwise, this is the last entry for this Cobosce. If you have any questions on SAS or are some random Fall 2005 alum who randomly bumped into this blog, or anything else, I can be reached at

I’d love to hear from you someday.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Coming to America

I've been up all night again, my second night in a row, saying goodbye to peeps and engaging in very long conversation with professor Kevin Murphy about Global Studies and Semester at Sea. Because of that, I need to finish packing and won't write extensively right now; I'll extend my final blog entry to sometime next week when I get back to the Ranch.

It's been an eventful last day. I don't think anyone on the ship missed last night's sunset, where, after 100 days (99 days back home), I finally saw the mythical green flash at the tail end of the sunset that I heard so much of during the voyage. It really exists, though you have to stare at the sun the whole time to be able to see it.

We had a final convocation last night, which was a great way to bring closure to the voyage. I'll write a little more about it when I'm coherent.

We walked out early today to watch the last sunrise, with everyone on land as California appeared in the horizon. All of the backs are packed in the hallways of the second deck, which is surreal - the long hallways seem to be made of suitcases.

Because of a military ship, we're running some 45 minutes late, but we should be alongside shortly. I need to hurry up. More updates in a few days.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Clearing Out

Editor's note: Jason Vanhee wrote his last guest blog entry on our final day at sea, and I just found it now, ten months after the fact. I think it is still worth uploading.

I arrived on the ship early, three days before almost all the staff, seven days before the students. When I got here the halls were empty, the walls barren, the rooms tidy and quiet. There's something of the same look to the ship again, now on the last night.

The students aren't roaming about tonight. They sit in public places talking and getting their journals signed, or huddle in their cabins with their good friends. The walls are vacant once more; the stewards are clearing everything off of them. It's a lot like trees in autumn; some are still green and leafy, some are losing their leaves, but most are bare, a few dry, skeletal vestiges left. Here and there a nametag has somehow escaped notice, or a white board wasn't packed, or a sticky note leaves a message that may never be answered.

And in our rooms the chaos that has grown up in the last months has vanished. All of our bags are packed, the largest carried away to completely fill the second deck hallways. What's left isn't much; a few changes of clothes, perhaps, a book, the breakables. The things that we'll need for the day or two until we get home. So the cabins, too, look much like they did, just a few signs of life in most of them.

Within twenty four hours the Explorer will look the way I found it, clean and empty, just a few people walking about where once there were hundreds. I wonder if anyone leaves a sign of their presence; a note hidden behind a life jacket, or a picture tucked up under the bed. Do the cabin stewards search carefully to eradicate any signs of the old voyage, or can something slip through? I like to think that somewhere on the ship there is such a sign, overlooked for months or years, waiting patiently for someone to find it. That the clearing out of the ship is somehow not the end of our presence here. That we will still sail onward.

Packing et al.

I was going to write my Japan entry, but instead I’ve been packing all night, figuring out my receipts and forms for customs (I’m only taking back $392 worth of new stuff, almost none for myself… I spent a lot less money than I thought I did), writing goodbye notes and getting everyone’s contact information before we leave. I’m doing a blog break to procrastinate a little more before going to watch the sunrise. I just don’t want to pack.

Tonight they gave us a few suggestions upon returning. First, to say our goodbyes tomorrow because we won’t get much of a chance to do so on the 7th. Second, not to make any drastic decisions until we’re settled back in to make sure we’re not reacting to our change in environment. Third, they told us to go outside tomorrow to take in the ocean one last time, making sure to appreciate the 360 degree view without land, because it’ll probably be a while before anyone of us experiences the open ocean again. I made sure to get out on the deck tonight, to see the stars one last time, listed to the ship cut through the wave, see the wake of the ship disappear into the pitch black darkness of the Pacific. I also saw my first moonset of the voyage tonight, with a beautifully red moon, and I’m wondering why I didn’t do that more often. I’m going to try to see the moonset again tomorrow.

Quick summary of Japan since I won’t want to do it tomorrow:

We hit Japan at exactly the best time of the year, in that little window where all the leaves are as red as they possibly can be before falling off. The country was stunningly beautiful, slightly chilly, but you wouldn’t want it any other way. We arrived to much fanfare, with fireboats spewing water alongside the ship, and the city of Kobe hosting welcome ceremonies on the ship, complete with a marching band, samurai swords, and Taiko drums. I love Taiko. Oh, to have more time here.

We had bought bullet train passes, which saved us because it allowed us to enjoy every second of the country and sleep on the train on the way to your next destination. The first day Jason, Amy, and I headed down to Hiroshima, and it wasn’t long until we were completely lost in translation (except for Jason, who researches these things methodically before we go anywhere).

I thought I knew a lot about Japan. I’ve had Japanese coaches throughout my Stanford gymnastics career, watched Japanese superhero shows as a child in Brazil and have a few friends who were Japadaphiles. But I didn’t – and got lost over and over in the process.

The reason is simple: Japan doesn’t need the US. They are financially independent, and since they didn’t weren’t colonized by the west like most of the other Asian countries, there is little by way of English there. So our ATM cards don’t work, and few places accept the credit cards. And signs are all in Kanji, making sure that you will get lost once you’re there. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Our first mistake was putting money into a machine thinking we were paying for a streetcar. It wasn’t until we were yelled at in Japanese by the driver that we realized we had put our money into the change machine and hadn’t paid for the ride yet. Whoops.

Everyone had similar stories. My favorite was of these girls who thought they had gone into an empty dance club with techno music, started dancing, were chased out only to find out they had gone into a strip club. I would have paid to make that mistake.

Anyway, we head to ground zero of Hiroshima, the Memorial Peace Park, which is solemnly beautiful in the park, complete with the thousands of paper cranes that come in every year. The museum is incredibly informative (I heard they changed a few years ago when people protested that there wasn’t much information related to why the bomb was dropped in the first place). The bomb was devastating, though I wondered why there wasn’t a Tokyo firebombing museum (which was much worse) until the museum transformed itself into a peace museum calling for the disarmament of nuclear arms around the world.

(By the way, after studying this on and off the ship, I’m pretty convinced now that the primary reason for using the bomb had more to do with scaring the Russians in the post-war world… but that discussion is for another time).

After a few hours in Hiroshima (a bustling city nowadays), we eat some delicious Chinese food with a little sushi and get back on the bullet train to Kobe to hang out all night with the students. Jason hinted at what happened to him that night in the previous blog, and I’ll leave it at that. It was a bonding moment for all.

Chris and I left the next morning for Kyoto, the cultural center of Japan. As usual, he was looking for his National Geographic moment, with me happily tagging along, and Kyoto in the fall is a pretty good place to find one. There were so many Shinto, Buddhist, and other temples to choose from, and I was so surprised to see how much of the Japanese population is involved in this religious aspect of the society, most notably ancestral worship. There were men in business suit who would just bow near a statue, pay their respects, and be on their way.

After walking around and taking pictures all day, Chris and I head by taxi to the one place we were told we HAD to go, the Golden Temple. We thought we had enough time to make it there at sunset, but traffic is a little slow in Kyoto. After 40 minutes inside a taxi with self-opening doors and drivers in suits and white gloves, we missed the sunset by some ten minutes, which made Chris’s pictures a little flat. But the pondside temple covered in gold leaf is a must-see, especially when it is overwhelmed by the red trees surrounding it.

We headed back to Kobe after yet another bonding day for the both of us, and I got ready for another night out in town. The next morning I set out for Tokyo since I had gotten a hold of Yoshi Hatakeda, two-time Japanese Olympian and one of my former coaches at Stanford and we would be having dinner in Yokohama. I was planning on going by myself, but I was pleasantly surprised to see Jason taking the same train as myself, where he told me he had slept until the afternoon the previous day. We caught up in the happenings and were off on our three-hour train ride, taking us alongside the magnificent Mt. Fuji. We made some basic plans arriving in Tokyo, heading to the grounds of the Imperial Palace before going to the Tokyo Times Square. I had thought this was area the famous intersection showcased in Lost in Translation, which is the iconic representation of Japan in my mind, but it wasn’t. It was, though a very, very high-tech, trendy, busy shopping district. Something about Gwen Stefani shopping there?… I don’t know...

(By the way, I always loved Lost in Translation, but it catapulted into being one of my favorite movies after going to Japan. No only did I think Sophia Coppola nailed the details I noticed about Japan, but the feeling of the and pace of the movie matched a lot of my experience of my last day in Japan.)

Jason and I parted ways so I could meet my coach, and I try following Yoshi’s directions and get completely lost in Tokyo, which was the best thing that could have possibly happened. Because in between trying to figure out subway signs and where I was, I waltz out of the Shibura train station to find myself exactly at the famous intersection at sunset. The place is as cool as advertised, with screens that fill the entire sides of buildings. I had never been so happy to be lost, but then again, I wasn’t sad in the first place. I just thought there was a chance I’d miss dinner with Yoshi if I was to make it back to Kobe to save a little money on hotel rooms.

But a clue here, a sign there, and I figure out my way and made it to Yokohama an hour and a half late. Yoshi hadn’t changed much in these last three years – said I got very skinny since the last time he saw me – but his daughter Hitomi was 5 now and he had a new girl that I’d never met before. He was coaching a the University of Yokohama and helping the National Team some. It was great to see him, getting a ride in his 3-D GPS-equipped car, which seemed pretty common there. The meal was some spicy Japanese food that I don’t think I’ll ever again outside of Japan, but I’ll email Yoshi to get it again.

We have dinner as late as possible, and run out to make it to the Shintansen bullet train. Luckily, those trains seem to be accurate to the second, because that’s how much I had before I missed the last train last to Kobe. I got to sleep soundly before going on an all-night Karaoke session with the students, and we all know how much I love Karaoke. This was supposed to be the last night in port (we were given an extra night in Hawaii later), and the trip was supposed to culminate with a karaoke all-nighter in Japan, so I’m glad it did.

The next morning, I took a bullet train back to Hiroshima on my way to the island of Miyajima, which Yoshi said he wouldn’t allow me to leave Japan without visiting it (and my friend Matt Traverso had just sent me an email with the words “Miyajima is the bomb” in there somewhere). I decided to go by myself, because I had enjoyed a day by myself in just about every port end realized that it is pretty good to sit back and take time to yourself once in a while. This is something I don’t think I’ve ever really done before.

I’m out of server space, so I can’t upload pictures, but please Google “Miyajima”. It has the famous red gate shrine in the water, and I hit it perfectly at high tide. The temples strewn the island, some going in the water, and it was completely red from the trees. I rented a bicycle and hit my state of zen. It was absolutely the perfect way to end the trip.

I headed back at the end of the day, meeting up with friends to find out all of the great stories and all of the other things I had missed. Four days in Japan is a crime, but I enjoyed it to the fullest and it will probably be the easiest country for me to go back, Brazil excepted. We all left the port exhausted, with heavy heart, on our way to our long Pacific crossing. It was time to start reflecting on the last few months.

Back to packing. Tomorrow will be the my last entry on the Cobosce.

Sunday, December 04, 2005


Apparently I’m out of server space on all the servers I have access to from here, so this will be another report without pictures or videos until I can figure out the problem.

The world is a smaller place after you travel on SAS. To us, it isn’t a big deal to travel anywhere in the world, finances notwithstanding. If our friends call each other and decided to meet in Turkey, everyone would go. Sometimes even on the same day.

This sentiment was the underlying motivation for Yas, Jason, and I to forgo a trip to Beijing to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and somewhat randomly choose to go to Kunming Beijing is easy, we thought; we’ll come back someday. After our bonding episode in South Africa, the three of us decided to travel together to Sizchuan, since we heard so many good things about it, and once we arrived in India, the travel agency told us that the tickets that we wanted were no longer available. It took just a couple of minutes us to ask for a map, decide that Kunming was “close enough”, and reserved the tickets. We were going.

The second morning in Hong Kong, the giddiness began. We had no idea what to expect, except what the few words that the Lonely Planet had to tell us. Jason had read everything about the city in the book, and Yas and I had not. Jason had effectively become our trip leader, complete with head counts and dock time. If you ever happen to be on a SAS trip, you would understand why this hilarious. Alas.

There wasn’t much listed in the book, something about a stone forest, surfing Buddhas, and unicorns. Unicorns became the theme of our trip, and we wouldn’t rest until we saw one.

After an eventful couple of hours at the huge Hong Kong terminal (on an artificial island off Lantau), eating dim sum and making videos about what we expected in Kunming, we were on our way to the Yunan province.

The culture shock started immediately. Whereas I could somewhat communicate in every place we had traveled to thus far, there was no sign of English upon arrival. Because of the Chinese characters, we spoke lonely-planetese, calling someone’s attention and pointing to the good book to ask what we wanted. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But the good book would ultimately save us many times in the next few days.

Jason and Yas passed through customs somewhat easily, and, being what must have been the very first Brazilian ever to set foot in Kunming, my process took much longer. I’m not convinced they knew where Brazil was, and given that the receptionist at our hotel asked me that very question, I think that possibility is very high.

But I got through, eventually, and we set out to find a cab that could take us to the hotel. After getting dupped into paying 50 Yuan to get to the hotel (the price was close to 15 Yuan), trying to explain to the appropriate people where Brazil was, and enjoying a quick drink and laughing our arses off, we headed out to a beautiful fall afternoon. You can’t beat the fall in China (well, you can in Japan, but that’s another entry).

Sunday afternoon in Kunming. A lazy Sunday afternoon in Kunming. A comfortably lazy sunny fall afternoon in Kumning, with red leaves dominating the trees. I can keep adding adjectives all day. This was one of the most pleasant afternoons I could remember, watching the bicycles go by, strolling the street markets, and enjoying this clean, surprisingly beautiful city. Somewhat industrial, with 4 million or so people, but you’d never know from that afternoon. We slowly and deliberately made our way to these 1300-year-old pagodas, one of the few “attractions” listed in the Lonely Planet, and found hundreds of old men playing Mah Joon (?), who seemed very excited if somewhat confused by our presence there. Yas found what she thought was a tea house – we’re still unsure. But a cute older woman was extremely excited to see us, letting out what sounded to us like yips, and Yas did the international symbol for “we want tea” (bringing an imaginary cup to your mouth while holding a plate on the other). Apparently, that means “bring me the largest, most delicious meal imaginable”, because that’s what we got. She didn’t even seem to want money for it, but we insisted (by putting the money out), and she eventually showed us a number. We still don’t know if we committed a faux pas or not.

We continued on our stroll, and would run into one thing after the other. We encounter a huge, empty Chinese pagoda, with just the three of us enjoying the premises during sunset. There were Buddhist chants coming from the corner stores, and music coming from rounded flutes that seem to be the local instrument of choice. The city is famous (in China) for its eternal spring, with blossoming flowers all over the place. We’d look up and see that people were flying kites from the tops of buildings; the kites flying so high they were the last objects catching sunlight that day. We decided to randomly enter any small alleys to see what they brought, and soon enough, we found ourselves searching for the source of some music… was it live?

Sure enough, the music was coming from a Karaoke bar, a gay Karaoke bar in China. It wasn’t long ago when homosexuals were deemed insane in China (I think it is still illegal), so this bar was a little surreal. Of course we went in. As much as we wanted to, there was no chance we would sing since English songs or words were nonexistent, but perhaps we could find someone for Jason, who happens to be gay? It wasn’t long before all eyes were on him; this exotic occidental man who strolled in. This would surely be his night.

At some point, I went to the bathroom (one of those typical Asian squat toilets that deserves its own entry someday), when I noticed our smiling waiter had followed me in there. He shows me a piece of paper with the words, “Ar your gay” written on it.

Oh oh. I don’t remember anything in the Lonely Planet about what to say if you get propositioned in the bathroom of a gay karaoke bar in China. I’m sure there were no Chinese characters I could point to to gently let him know that I wasn’t. I shook my head as clearly as I could, and attempted to tell him that my friend was. I think he got it. Well, actually, of course he must have, because nothing happened.

A while later, Jason come back from the bathroom with the same story, except that he said “yes,” and the waiter turned the paper around to the words “I lov your” written on it.

“I think it’s time to go,” Jason said. We took off.

We were about a block down when two of the guys from the karaoke bar come running and screaming after us. They look desperate, terrified, and we have no idea what’s going on. I thought they were mad at us for some reason.

After a couple of minutes, we realize that they want to see our pictures, and the reason was very obvious – they didn’t want to be recognized and possibly incriminated from a picture that we had taken. We showed them every picture we had, and once they saw that there was no one identifiable except for ourselves, they calmed out, gave us a friendly smile, and were on their way.

Other than clues like that, there was little evidence of the Communist government running the mainland – a soldier here, some populist art there, some Communist flags – otherwise, we saw plenty of capitalism, western companies, mosques, churches, and temples. I’m curious if this is different from not-that-long ago.

“What else could possibly happen?” we asked ourselves. By following our rule of going down little alleys, we heard techno music that lead us to lights in a park. We had come across a late night roller-skating rink. When was the last time you used the four-wheeled rollerskates, much less with a bunch of adolescents late at night in China? There was no rhyme or reason to the way they skated. Some people went clockwise, others went counterclockwise. Both Jason and Yas went down on collisions, and I myself caused someone to go down hard. I’m not that big, but I happen to be bigger than most people we encountered.

A few bruises later, we returned the skates to find another excited cute Chinese woman (one of many we would find), and followed her to see where she would take us. And, to my excitement, she took us straight to another karaoke place, this time with private rooms and songs in English. Of course we sang the night away. Could we have done anything else?

It was the perfect ending to the perfect day. We knew we had come to the right place.

The next morning we woke up early to get the shuttle from the hotel to the Shilin Rock Forest, another one of the “attractions” near Kunming. The shuttle, however, was full, and somehow we discovered that there are buses that go in that direction. We hop on the taxi, and our miscommunication in lonely-planetese took us straight to the train station, where we eventually found an attendant who spoke English… after many unsuccessful attempts at communicating in Chinese. She said the train wouldn’t arrive in Shilin until after 2pm, so she directed us to the nearby bus station.

As we walked through the crowds, we run into our third over-excited cute Chinese woman yelping “SHILIN SHILIN SHILIN SHILIN SHILIN”, and in following protocol, we followed her through parking lots and hotels and back alleys until she took us to a car with what we assumed was her nephew. We negotiated a private ride to Shilin at about the same price as the hotel shuttle – pretty good deal.

The two-hour+ drive through the Chinese countryside was beautiful, going through luscious canyons, hanging terraces, and houses covered in corn. I can’t quite explain it. There was also plenty of evidence of massive public works projects (seems like there are a lot of highways coming into the area… lots of questions about the environmental consequences of those works, but I digress).

Our driver was the most overtly-cautious driver I’ve met in a long time, and perhaps the nice car he was driving had something to do with it. If there was something on the road, he would honk. If there was something off the road, he would honk. If there was a chance that someone a mile away from the road would somehow go crazy and run onto the road and into our car, he would honk. Really, I swear he was honking at trees sometimes. And I don’t think it was ever necessary. Good times.

We arrive at the beautiful Shilin Rock Forest. The name couldn’t be more appropriate. Huge free-standing rock formations that you can walk between and climb at will. Just know we were very excited about spending the day there.

We ate some spicy South Chinese food before finding our driver having a party in our car (we think there were 13 people in there somehow…) and driving back. We even saw the obligatory motorcycle accident, but the guy looked like he would be alright.

We finished the night walking around Kunming, coming welcoming tea house where we finally saw how tea should be served. This was a work of art. As part of a tea tasting, this woman would brew and re-brew, washing the cups in tea before serving us the perfect cup of tea. And it was delicious – let’s just say some people will be getting tea as my gift from the trip.

That was perfect day #2.

We woke up early the next morning and had to make our way to the third “attraction” in Kunming, the mountain temple with the surfing Buddhas and the unicorn. The trip wouldn’t be complete without seeing them.

If you’re ever in China, please wake up early and walk around someday. One of the most peaceful moments this entire voyage was watching hundreds of people do Tai Chi or lining up their motorcycles and bicycles as badminton nets. Please don’t miss seeing that if you’re ever in China.

We were the first people in the misty mountain temple, greeting the monks as they woke up and offered to join them for breakfast. We declined… we wanted to see the unicorn and the surfing Buddhas, and they were nowhere in sight.

And, as Jason wrote, as we were standing in front of the incense pyre, a monk opened a golden door to the main part of the pagoda, and everything was revealed. The hundreds of surfing Buddhas, and the unicorn, as beautiful as our imagination would allow. Yas, Jason, and I looked at each other, and the trip was complete. We could go home now.

We staying in Kunming a few more hours, enjoying museums and the Not-So-Great Wall of China. As I read back at what I just wrote, I still don’t think I capture our giddiness, the same kind of giddiness I get when driving to the cabin in Tahoe, or making a Ranch video. It was a great time, one we still look fondly at. We spent the night in Hong Kong “street bar hopping”, thinking back on the last 48 hours, some of the best on the trip. If I had a chance to redo every country by going to a random city, I might take it. I finally understand why they call this the "Voyage of Discovery".

Friday, December 02, 2005

Sassy McSasserville

Clara, I’m sitting next to your daughter Nicole who is one of my salsa instructors and my future wife. Really. I proposed to her and everything… I’ll let her tell you the story.

Boy, was I pooped last night. Who goes to Hawaii for a day? Has that ever happened before? In trying to maximize the time there, I ended up sleeping some 13 hours last night, well, more like 12 if you count the time change. Again.

It is Dead Day on SAS, with all of the students studying for finals on the back deck on this glorious day. I took some time to do my end of year evaluations and paperwork, but now I’ll try to sit back, enjoy the ocean while try I catch up to the huge email backlog I’ve accumulated over the months.

Quick recap of Hawaii:

Went to a nice dinner at a pub with some staff members. There are definitely things about American culture that jump out after being gone for so long.

1. As Mandee put it, “Gosh, it’s nice to see fat people again.”
2. You just expect things to look nice and clean in the US. If Hawaii were in Asia, we would have said, “Gosh, Phnom Pehn is modern and clean.” Since it is in the US, you don’t think there’s anything special about it.
3. Walking into traffic doesn’t work – they won’t swerve to avoid you.
4. We are overly security conscious.
5. The American flag is one of the most beautiful in the world. We display it more than most countries do.
6. Americans are loud and shameless. Asians are not.
7. For the first time on this voyage, it is hard to pick out SASers from a crowd

(Our name for a place full of SASers: Sassy McSasserville. It just rolls off the tongue).

I have a lot more, but I forgot most on my 12 hour beauty sleep. I’ll have to remember it later.

After a nice dinner and hanging out with staff and students all night in Waikiki, including waddling in the ocean, Chris, Jason and I set out for the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. There was a great movie presentation prior to taking a ferry to the memorial which answered a lot of the questions I never thought of asking prior to SAS, such as why would we have such a large military presence in Hawaii at the time anyway?

The memorial is over the sunken remnants of the USS Arizona in the water, and you can still see the oil blots coming out of the ship at an rate of about a quart a day. There’s something about the oil smell that gives the memorial an unique immediacy to the day of the attack.

Listed along the names of the dead are the “Attack survivors interred with their shipmates,” which means they are still burying people near the memorial, as recently as earlier this year.

As soon as I got back I met up with a bunch of student and headed to the North Shore for my first skydive since I became certified a while back. Since my USPA membership had expired, they wouldn’t let me jump solo (which would be really cheap), so I strapped on to a dive master and headed up.

I forgot how much I love to skydive. There’s nothing natural about it, yet it becomes so comfortable after you jump a couple of times. I also forgot how relaxing a tandem jump is, where in a normal jump you have to check your altimeter literally every second, you don’t have a worry in the world in a tandem jump. Just sit and enjoy the view.

My favorite part was waiting outside of the plane as it circled 180 degrees over the drop zone. Oh, to be able to do that every day. And the view of the island from above was magnificent, with waves as big and blue as advertised.

If there was a downside, it was that the jump was only from about 10,000 ft, with about a 30 second free-fall. All the jumps in Hollister are between 15,000 to 18,000 ft, with about a 90 second free-fall, which is so long as to almost be boring. Almost.

We went back to Waikiki to sit on the beach until sunset followed by a little night swimming. A suggestion for people in big groups in Hawaii – limos are cheaper than taxis. Keep that in mind.

I would have gone snorkeling, but we couldn’t take much off the ship because we didn’t go through customs and couldn’t take anything bigger than a camera with us. Oh, well. Hawaii is easy to come back to. As much as I loved it, I would have traded it for another day in any of the countries we went to. Except Mauritius.