Sunday, September 12, 2010

Searching for Mr. Atse

Dear Elise,

Life has been pretty different these last three months, hasn't it?

We were reading a book you love - Olivia - and as we reached the last page of a very happy ending, you started crying. And not just any whiny cry - the quiet, sad kind that breaks your heart, where your bottom lip protrudes as your eyes brim with tears.

That's not like you to do that. So I asked you why were you crying. And you said it was because on the last page of the book, Olivia's mom had said goodnight and gone away, and Olivia was sleeping alone.

I didn't expect you to have a harder time coming home than any of us. But I think it was tough for you, and you showed it in your own little way. Some days you would want to know where the Union was, or if you could test microphones, or if we had ship yogurt in the fridge. Other days you asked your nanny if she's been to the Acropolis, or if we remember the Coliseum. Most days were more subtle - you'd simply ask the whereabouts of Emma and Diana and Caleb and Val and Tom and Johnburkoff and Allan and Margo and Tanya and Natalie and Rebecca and countless others friends, as if there might be a chance these people you love were just around the corner, just as they were every day this summer.

I thought I'd jot this down because I'm not sure you'll remember any of our amazing Summer of 2010, or have memories of these amazing people who meant so much to you. Then again, maybe you will - you do surprise me every day.

I think you loved being on the ship. I'm pretty sure because of the way you let everyone know you were going to the pool, the way you insisted on singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" every night the Union, the way you begged for cart rides, more than anything, the way you made a point to visit everybody in their office every day.

Your morning routine started with a conversation in Elly's office, followed by a visit to the campus store, the library, and the AV booth. After lunch, you would stop by Hotel Director John's office on your way to orange juice in Johnburkoff's office, pretzels in LaVahn's office, and Purell in Tom and Kim's office ("Can I have some soap"?). The visits were clearly the most important part of your day, and if you found an office door that was closed, you would make a point of returning several times until it found it open, with friends inside.

The way we dropped this trip on you, you had every reason to kick and scream and curse the parents that dragged you for two months away from everything you knew placed you in a tiny cabin en route to distant lands with endless walking in 100+ degree heat. But you didn't.

Maybe it was the gelato, maybe it was Ingrid at the pool bar, I don't know. But you seemed so happy, I'd like to think you played a tiny role in bringing everybody's spirits up on the ship.

Your great-grandfather would have been really proud. He was the biggest fan of my first voyage, constantly sending emails and commenting on my blog, and even serving as my mission control and travel agent for most of the trip . I remember getting my travel bug from him, as a little boy pouring through his albums in Sao Paulo, full of photos of him and Bisa in places like India, China, Russia, and other exotic locations in the never-ending list of countries they visited throughout a rich life. There was nowhere else for him to visit, so in many ways than one, I've been following in his footsteps ever since.

I think he would have made a good SASer. More than anyone I know, he embodied the idea that a person is a person through other persons. He relished his family and recharged his batteries through the interaction of his countless friends. It was a little sad not having him travel vicariously with us. He passed away not long after you were born, having never gotten a chance to meet you in person. I think you two would have gotten along.

So now we're back, and you seem to have adjusted to a whole new set of changes. Mommy and I are back at work, so you have a new brand new preschool to adjust to. We now live with Mimi and Baba, but we spend a lot of time in our old neighborhood, because you've ask to see all the people there you loved before we were on the ship. You seem to like your new room now, as hard as it was to fall asleep with no swaying, dolphins outside your window, or mommy and daddy's feet within arm's length of your crib.

And as you already know, the biggest change is yet to come. You must really have paid attention to the conversations around you - it was amazing that you figured out all by yourself that mommy was pregnant. I think the little peanut that *you* want to name Leo is lucky to have you as a big sister - we think you have that caring Nagy gene, so much so that mommy and I have to plan what we're going to do when you insist on trying to breastfeed the baby yourself. Because we know it's going to happen.

(And how many families can claim they have not one but two, ehem, "souveniers" of SAS?)

Sigh. I miss the ship sometimes. There were some great people aboard, who I hope will continue to be a part of our lives in some way or another. Once I let go of the ghosts of my first voyage, and let this voyage develop on its own terms, something special happened. I look back at how close we'd become by the time we all went out to dinner in Istanbul. It was always a neat feeling to see the ship after a long day, looking forward to sharing hilarious stories with our friends in the hallway outside of our cabin while you, Caleb, Margo, Cash, and Cal slept

Mommy and I laughed a lot.

But my favorite part of the summer, by far, was the uninterrupted family time we had for 11 weeks. It's easy to take these things for granted in the everyday rush, but as busy as things have been lately, life has just felt more balanced since.

I don't know when you'll be able to read and understand this (who knows, maybe you already can?), but I wanted thank you and your wonderful mommy for making this a amazing summer, amazing in ways I could never have imagined. Even if you don't remember the voyage, I hope it affected you in as many positive ways as it affected me.

I think our family will grow up with Semester at Sea.

I love you very much,

Friday, August 20, 2010

Last Day Out at Sea

It's a calm moonlit night not too far away from the Chesapeake Bay, and we're all mingling at the faculty lounge one last time, enjoying all the drinks and snacks we've collected throughout the voyage that we won't be able to take out of the ship in Norfolk. For the second voyage in a row, the last day has been one of my favorites, with our Convocation that puts a brings a really nice closure to it all. We're all dying to get home, but there's something about the shipboard community. The faculty and staff are simply top-notch, filled with great people from the bottom down. I think our little family will miss them very much.

I'm exhausted from Elise's extremely early wake-up times, so I don't think I'll be up waiting for sunrise like many on people on the ship are doing. If all goes we'll be arriving to our new home at the Nagy's house before midnight. Then I'll let it sink in and write my final thoughts next week.

Off to bed. We'll have one busy day tomorrow.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Best Crew in the World.

We’re two days away from being back in the US, having spent a week just watching the uninterrupted sea go by. It’s been somewhat of a lazy morning – we had our formal Ambassador’s Ball last night (themed “A Med Summer’s Night Dream”. Get it?), complete with a late night dance on the Pool deck. It was sweaty enough to remind me of some frat parties in college, but that’s not important right now. Everyone had a blast, and I was surprised at how many people woke up for breakfast this morning.

The reason I know how many people got up is because we have a 2-year-old aboard. And while many people would love the extra hour (of sleep) we get every feel days from sailing west, as Dave wisely pointed out, for those of us with kids, the extra hour simply means that we have an extra hour watching them. Their biological clocks don’t seem to adjust as quickly as ours… resulting in the earlier and earlier bedtimes (3pm, anyone?), and, of course, earlier and earlier wake up calls (4am, anyone?). I mean, she’s up for good. And wondering when breakfast will be served (answer: three hours later). At least she’s usually in a great mood at that time (“Momma! I’m awakey-jakey!”) the sunrises are magnificent at sea, which makes the early calls quite nice. But really, we’d pay big bucks to install a snooze button on her. I know I would.

With the earlier and earlier bedtime, she fell asleep at 3pm yesterday, and by the time dinner came around, she was comatose. But we had to wake her up – we were seated with Dean John and Nancy, as well as Tom, Rebecca, and little Parker, and couldn’t miss the amazing meal that the crews prepare that night. So somehow we managed to awaken her, and once she got up, she was in a surprisingly slap-happy mood, which made for a great meal with lots of hugs for everyone.

(That reminds me… ever tried putting pajamas on a comatose baby? Elise fell asleep with her clothes on, so we had to get her ready for bed, and the scene was straight of our “Weekend at Bernies”. It would have been easier to dress a cat. We couldn’t stop cracking up… and definitely documented the entire ordeal).

Back to the meal, boy, do the crew members do a great job getting the ship ready that night. They’ve been working on it for over a week, and fancy up the hallways quite a bit. What an amazing. amazing crew.

I think, like last time, that’s one of the things we’ll miss the most. The crew is simply amazing, working so hard for us, always with a smile on their face, and with Elise, they turn it up another notch. They are so exceptional with her. Many of them have families back home, usually in the Philippines, and don’t see them months at a time, for years on end. So the children really pick them up quite a bit, and they treat them like family. Elise knows so many of them by name – Perry, Ismael, Archie, Darwin, Ingrid, Rey, Joel, Allan, Clyde, Lea, Malaya, Mandy, etc, etc… - and they go out of their way to make sure she’s at home on the ship. I can just picture that we’ll be sitting at dinner when we get back home, and she’ll be asking us, “Where’s Perry? Where’s Cletus? Where’s Vic”? Makes me sad just thinking about it.

And for me, one of my absolute favorite part has been sailing with Allan “Sparky” Pesado for yet another voyage. He’s my AV crew counterpart, and we get along so extremely well, that I pray he’ll be back on the ship next time I sail, sometime in the next five years. He’s been on the ship over 16 years now (I don’t remember the exact number), and always makes the experience so much fun.

Some of my favorite memories from Fall 05 involved singing Simon and Garfunkel songs with Allan, since we share “The Boxer” as one of our all-time favorite songs, and we did it again this year, several times, with me on the melody, and Allan on the harmony and guitar. And he’s one of Elise’s favorites – when he retires, I will make sure our family files to the Phillipines just to visit him in the future farm he will someday build.

So we have two more days at sea… today is a day of reflection, and tomorrow is convocation, and then we’re home. We can’t wait to see everybody soon.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Hill of Beans in this Crazy World

Who would have thought that the most relaxing moment in the entire voyage would happen in Morocco, nine weeks after we left Ft. Lauderdale, after visiting havens of relaxation like Croatia and Santorini? We realized as Monika and I put Elise to bed and sat in the courtyard of our ryad in Marrakesh, enjoying couscous served from tajines with fresh orange juice in one of the most pleasant evenings of my life. Morocco proved to be the hidden gem of the voyage, and as Ishai put it, we were expecting Alexandria and found ourselves another Istanbul. It is the place where we knew the least about, but know enough look forward to coming back here again.

In retrospect, I really didn’t know much about Morocco at all, save some images of deserts, and the ubiquitous CSN&Y song about the Marrakesh Express. But unlike all of the other ports except for Spain, we had plenty of time to prepare for this trip, because we had six days at sea between Alexandria and Casablanca.

And what a six days it was. In that time, we watched Casablanca in the Union, and we had the Sea Olympics, which anyone who has sailed on Semester at Sea knows how seriously everyone on the ship takes the competition. The staff and faculty were part of the Diploma Sea (we were the Vitamin Sea on Fall 05), which made for some pretty great costumes and mascots. Not sure how this happened, but I was signed up for the pull-up, synchronized swimming, and lip-synching competition. Monika had been signed up for a bunch as well (like the dodge-ball tournament), but Elise’s sleep schedule didn’t seem to care too much for they Olympic spirit. Surprisingly, we didn’t finish last, and just like Fall 05, the winning sea celebrated as if it they had just won the World Cup. Which was pretty awesome.

Most importantly, we also had plenty of time to learn about Morocco in class (verdict: quickly modernizing nation with lots to work on, with the Western Sahara issue as the camel in the room). In that time, we decided to get out of Casablanca, as we were told the modern city wasn’t particularly pretty or interesting for a short visit. So we picked to take a train to Marrakesh over Fez (because of the distance), a beautiful (and extremely hot) city about a three-and-a-half hour train ride from Casa. We would go with the McAdams/Hagens, the Patersons, and the Kongs with all the kids and try mostly to stay in the same ryad.

We arrived in the most commercial port of the voyage, amongst pellets getting loaded directly aboard cargo ships. As soon as stepped off the ship, the shuttle drivers out of the port were “out to lunch”, so we found ourselves taking a 20-minute walk in the hot sun with the kids just to get to the taxis. After much negotiation, we split up the group, with us and the Kongs taking the train, while the rest took a van to Marrakesh. We preferred the train over a vehicle… Elise tends to do much better when she can walk around on the long trips.

What a train ride it was. We made it too late to get assigned first-class tickets, but bought one of the unlimited number of second-class tickets, packed in with the 400 or so students who had the same idea as us. It was a pretty packed train, with benches inside cabins full of strangers and little or no air-conditioning. Monika and I split up further, but luckily Elise fell asleep through the first portion of the trip, enough for us to reshuffle and find a more comfortable cabin by the time she woke up.

It was immediately apparent that Morocco was no Egypt (not that Egypt was bad… but just really hard with a 2-year-old tagging along). There wasn’t the chaos in the traffic, there were much fewer people out and about, and surprisingly easier to get around because everyone spoke French (so Monika was right at home).

Once we got in Marrakesh, we hired a taxi to take us to the ryad, who dropped us off at the main square and told us we’d have to take a foot taxi to carry our luggage at that point. Not knowing anything about Marrakesh, this seemed highly suspicious, as the man was taking us through little dark alleyways and tunnels of the medina, not really knowing where HE was going, until he knocked an unmarked wooden door that turned out to be where we would stay.

Ryad Cadi – what a lovely place it was. It was built by combining three medieval houses into one, and the tiny hallways twist, turn, go up and down through courtyards before you get anywhere, with a small plunge pool of uniform depth that was just big enough for me touch the bottom while safely holding Elise out of the water.

It made the entire trip worth it. I went back out to grab delicious Moroccan food, we put Elise to bed, and just sat there in the warm evening enjoying that true moment of calm that is so fleeting on a moving ship with hundreds of people.

We took it as easy as possible in Marrakesh. Most of our walks were near the ryad, and we where very close to the amazing Souks, where all the shopping action happens in Marrakesh. Note that Monika and I are not shoppers by any means, in fact, I would say that my least favorite activity in the world is shopping, but we wanted to get gifts for as many people back home as we could afford or carry back with us. The souks happened to be a great place for this – the experience was infinitely better than any shop in the voyage, such as the craziness of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, because there was almost no pushy store owners as there were everywhere else. It was pretty surprising. As a result, we found ourselves doing something we didn’t expect to do at all, especially after we were cornered on our honeymoon in Turkey - we went rug shopping, and actually enjoyed the experience quite a bit.

We were actually looking for artisan tiles to give as gifts, and the store owner sold carpets as well, and gave us a card if we were interested. We then wanted to see a few, and the first carpet he lays out was a slam dunk – exactly what I would call “Monika-ish”, and the first price he put out was already a fifth to a tenth of what they were asking for in Istanbul… so we bought four small ones. And Valerie and Jer bought two big ones. And Elise had a blast, because she would do forward rolls every time our friend Hassan would put down a new carpet. It’s quite interesting, actually, with him specifying the details of the mostly Berber artwork. One of the most interesting one was this Jewish-Berber pattern from the time not too long ago when there were a lot of Jews in Marrakesh (we visited the Jewish quarters there… Ruth Setton, the creative writing professor who is also a Moroccan-born Jew, said that there once was a very large and vibrant Jewish community, there are probably less than 5000 Jews left in the country today).

One note about shopping… by this point, we’re all sick and tired of negotiating. We know we can get everything down to a third or half of what is originally offered, but honestly, none of us have the patience for it anymore. We’re at the point we prefer buying a lot less for a premium, because the process, as enjoyable and part of the culture as it can be, can get a little exhausting when you are in the sun with a tired two-year-old. So we often pay whatever the price, or maybe just counter with 20% off, and leave walk away happy. I mean, sometimes it feels silly to spend so much time and effort to negotiate from $3 to $1.50. We’d do that with taxis all of the time, only to have such a good experience with our drivers that we would tip them quite a bit more anyway…

That sums up our days in Marrakesh – a lot of walking around the old medina, a lot of hanging around the ryad, and a lot of eating delicious food. We did, however, experience the scariest moment of the entire voyage just blocks away from where we were staying.

On the second night in the city, Elise was getting tired but hadn’t eaten yet. We unwisely decided to take her to get some food at the closest restaurant to our ryad, as nighttime was falling. We run out pretty quickly, and by the time the food arrives, Elise is done, do we decide to take the food back with us.

By this time, however, the locals had all come out, because much like Egypt, it is much cooler to live your day-by-day at night. There was about, say, ten times more people on the streets than there were only an hour before.

Monika is carrying Elise, and I have the food, with two large clay tajines in in my arms. As we’re headed back to our place, we notice that there is a major, major human bottleneck ahead of us, just a crowd of hundreds of people trying to get through this narrow spot where the alley converges. And amongst the sea of people moving in both directions, there are motorcycles, wheelchairs, and strollers in the crazyness, all trying get through the narrowest 30-foot stretch of the street.

As we are getting closer, and old man approaches me, taps his finger near his eye, and point to a few people behind me. He really saved the day – he was warning me that there were people looking at me, so keep an eye on my belongings. I was in the most vulnerable position possible, and I knew it – I was wearing cargo shorts, with my wallet, camera, and Monika’s wallet in my pockets, with my hands tied up by trying to hold up the food. It was just enough time for me to rearrange and grab the camera and Monika’s wallet in hand, but couldn’t reach for the wallet in my back pocket. By this point, we were swept by the crowd into the point of no return.
It was five minutes of pretty grueling pushing, with people coming in all directions. We were mostly ok, but Elise started getting a bit nervous after a while, and I kept touching my pockets as much as I could with the food because I was pretty certain someone was going to try to get the wallet behind me.

Sure enough, I felt the hand in my pocket. At first I thought it was a child tugging from in front of me, but I couldn’t see anyone in the melee, until I realized it was a man’s hand that was coming from behind me. There was a skinny man in his early twenties pushing his whole body against Monika and my own, forcibly reaching into my pockets as I tried to pull him away, and I told Monika that he was trying to pickpocket me, so help keep with the back pocket. So she grabbed my remaining wallet through my pants and just held on to hit, while trying to elbow the guy out of the way, and I kept wrestling to keep his hands away from the remaining two minutes or so we wee in the crowd.

A lot of pulling and shoving later, we were free of the bottleneck, just in time to duck away into our alley and into the safety of the ryad. We were pretty shaken up about it – I think if I had been single, I definitely would have expected this more and would have been more prepared with my wallet in safer place. Besides, it’s not the first time I’ve wrestled hands away from my pockets. But the fact that I had Elise with us, and that we placed her in an uncomfortable position like that bugged me a bit, and as we talked about it, we realized Elise was picking up on everything we were saying. She started repeating, very excitedly, with her hands out to the side, “THAT WAS CRAZY!”, and “DID YOU SEE THAT GUY?!” Finally, after she kept asking us, “What happened to that guy?!!!”, we started telling her that nothing happened, that we were just hugging and that he was a friend who we told goodbye before he went away. We think it worked, because she hasn’t asked about him in a several days.

That was the only potential incident of the whole voyage, and the rest of the time in Morocco was wonderful. We left Marrakesh the next day, and though we had first-class tickets this time around, there was no air-conditioning for 3.5 hours, which was quite brutal as it was over 110 degrees in Marrakesh the day we left. Check out the pictures… we’re burning up in there. Good times all-around.

When we got back to Casablanca, we found the ship caked in phosphate dust. Phosphate mining is one of the biggest industries in Morocco, and there was this loading center right next to our ship that spewed phosphate all over the place. It affected everything, even the cooking water on the ship, and it made it very hard for the crew members who had to work the gangway all day, so they were all wearing masks.

We took it relatively easy the last day in port, going out with Tom, Rebecca, and little Parker over to the Hassan II Mosque. I heard that it was a must-see in Casa, but I had no idea how big and spectacular it would be. The mosque, built in 1991, is enormous – you could fit a couple football fields inside. If it hadn’t been built in 1991, it would give the Taj Mahal a run for its money in terms of sheer awe. In a trip where we visited buildings like the Familia Sagrada, the Colisseum, the Acropolis, the Aya Sophia, and the Pyramids, I was surprised that the building that awed me the most was on I had never heard of before, on the last day of the trip. Elise had the time of her life running up and down the steps, and jumping on the carpets they were rolling out in preparation for Ramadan, which started the Thursday after we left. We spent the morning at the Mosque, drove by Rick’s CafĂ© (when in Casablanca…), bought a few last souvenirs and an extra suitcase to fit them all in before heading back to the ship to cool off in the pool.

And with that, our ports were over. We quietly sailed away from Casablanca, leaving our last foreign port on a really good note, and wondering when we’d come back. We’re done with the ports, but it’s far from over… we’re a couple days into our 10-day trek across the Atlantic Ocean on our way back home.

The pictures are up on Picasa again.

Friday, August 06, 2010

I’m on a Camel!

I have to admit - I wasn’t showing it, but I was pretty nervous about this port. We knew in advance that with the long travel to and around Giza, the heat, and just the all-around craziness of even waking down the street, that Egypt would had the potential to be a really rough port on Elise (and therefore, us). Somehow, the stars aligned perfectly, and we left with the experience that I’ve wanted to have since I was a sixth-grader checking out pyramid books at the Hennepin County Library – yet another item checked off the bucket list.

After two days at sea, we headed south and docked in Alexandria, with full preparation that this port would be unlike any of the other ports we visited. And this was evident immediately outside the port gates in Alexandria, where we docked. Egypt is the closest thing I’ve seen to India since I was in India – a bit dryer, with fewer people, but with the same sensory overload for anyone who steps off the confines of the ship. It’s one of the great formative experiences for anyone of privilege such as ourselves, taking it all in, understanding that this is how much of the world goes about day-by-day.

Our plans were made around the one thing everyone is required to do when visiting Egypt – traveling to Giza to experience be in the shadow of the great pyramids. We decided to sign up for a Semester at Sea trip overnight trip to Cairo, because these trips are impeccably organized, and we didn’t really want to deal with having to negotiate every single taxi ride to unfamiliar places with a two-year-old in 110+ degree heat. In the past, I would have shied away from too many SAS trips because the can be a bit too easy on you (though they are a fantastic way to meet and bond with fellow shipmates), but with a two-year-old, it was exactly the right thing to do.
But the trip to Cairo didn’t leave until our second day in port. So we wanted at least to explore Alexandria the first day on the trip, but not having thought it through too thoroughly ahead of time, we didn’t sign up for any SAS city orientations, and were unsuccessful on jumping on one of the ones that left that morning.

So were 30 other students, so our amazing field office team of Wade, Carol, and Holly put together another city orientation bus with a guide for us, and since I was the only staff member who wanted it, I was made the trip leader - free trip! As soon as we left the port, the amazing dance that is Egyptian traffic began, with our bus finding itself in a lane in the wrong direction, gridlocked with an oncoming tram ahead of us, and another on the side, plus several more cars, all in an Escher-esque puzzle that took all drivers several quick conferences on the road to figure out how to untangle the mess. It was pretty great – I don’t think we traveled all that much, but because of our little street waltzes, it certainly was a 4+ trip when all was said and done.

Alexandria is a amazingly interesting city. Fairly conservative with a majority muslim population, I don’t think we saw any women that weren’t covered – the vast majority had the full burkas on. The beaches (quite numerous) were full of men and women, but all women were fully covered in the water, head to toe, and I can only begin to imagine how hot it is in that sun, while how heavy it could be swimming with all that cloth.

Most people also only get out at night, when the heat is manageable, so the streets that were only marginally crowded during the day are PACKED in the evening, with pedestrians taking over much of the streets in already busy traffic. Much like India, car horns abound, as a statement of affirmation to anyone who will (can) listen, and much more interestingly, I noticed that headlights are not meant for lighten the road for the driver, they are used to flash and alert pedestrians of the oncoming vehicle on an as-needed basis. There certainly is a rhythm to it… we get very nervous the first time we step into the craziness, and it certainly isn’t “safe”, but generally, everybody understands the beat and accidents are probably a lot less numerous than it should be. I thought we would have hit at least a dozen people by the time we got back on the ship.

(Which, by the way, our taxi driver on the last day told us he had done just a month before).
So we got the insulated city tour the first day – great to get the lay of the land with Elise, and having wonderful conversations with our city guide, who also had a two-year-old. We visited sites such as the Catacombs, the Montazah Palace and Gardens, the fort on the site of the old Lighthouse of Alexandria, and the stunning new Library of Alexandria (more on that later).
The following day we boarded the bus for what would be our three-hour car ride to Cairo and Giza. I was the bus leader with about 35 pretty great students on the bus, and we set off early morning through the desert. And really, the highway just goes right through the desert. The entire population of Egypt lives along the Nile, or on coastal cities, and the rest of the country is pretty deserted. My favorite part of the ride was learning about these pigeon houses built everywhere, because apparently pigeon is quite the delicacy out there. Yum. Elise was in pretty good spirits, therefore, so were we.

As soon as we get near Giza, the big pyramids come into view. You can see them from everywhere, and they are quite the sight – exactly how you’ve seen them in the million of pictures since childhood. We drove past them, through the extremely poor outskirts of the city to avoid the traffic, straight to the Step Pyramid, which is the oldest attempt at building a pyramid that we know of.

As our favorite tour guide Hedy explained, the everyday things could be built of perishable materials, but the tombs and stuff for the afterlife had to last forever. And boy, did it. In the intense, intense desert heat (summertime is not the high tourist season in Egypt for a reason), we ventured out into the tombs and into the pyramid for our first experience with hieroglyphs, which are everywhere and still in pretty great shape.

What we discovered is that Elise would really enjoy going to the pyramids, not because of their sense of awe and wonder, but because there sand everywhere. Egypt is a big sandbox to her (maybe that’s why we saw so many cats too). You can see it in all the pictures – we would step off the bus, and while everyone is looking at the sights, she’d go straight for the ground. Our biggest regret is we had purchased sand toys exactly with that scenario in mind, but forgot it aboard the ship. Oh, well, next time. We have to come back to see Luxor someday anyway.
We went back to the hotel (Mena House?), literally in the shadow of the great pyramids. One thing that you don’t realize from all the pictures is that the city encroach right up to the pyramid complex, with houses and hotels and highways fairly close to them, yet it is really hard to tell that that’s the case from all the pictures, given how everything is positioned.

We finished the day at the Cairo Archaeological Museum (which was really crowded… and it isn’t even the high season). The best part of the museum? The Tutankhamen exhibit, with all the artifacts we’re familiar with. There’s are so many items there, that makes me think that the traveling Tutankhamen exhibits don’t really have anything left to show. It’s more impressive when you think that Tut wasn’t the most lavish of the tombs – only the one that was found intact. Elise was running on empty at that point, so we skipped the mummy exhibit and headed to the hotel.

In typical SAS fashion, the hotel was perhaps 7 stars (is that possible? I have no idea. And low standards.), and much to Elise’s delight, full of grass for her to run all over the place. Monika took over as bus leaders to take the students to the cheesy sound and light laser show at the pyramids, where the Sphinx was the british narrator over an overly-dramatic musical score. I stayed back and let Elise enjoy her first bathtub in months before she fell hard asleep. It was a good day for all.

The next morning I was up at 4am (while the ladies stayed behind), to take the students to the pyramids for sunrise and camel riding. One of the advantages of being on Semester at Sea is that they can pull off things like this… they opened the pyramid complex just for us so we could see the sunrise behind the pyramids. The view was amazing and the temperature was perfect at that time, and we also had a lot of fun doing some camel riding, but I have to say I don’t think I’ll ever do that again, as the camels aren’t very well treated over there.

What else can I say about the pyramids that haven’t been said before? I think the most amazing part is that they were the worlds tallest structure for 3500 years, of a size and scale that required an ungodly effort to complete in 20 years. I think that perhaps there’s an emotional connection as the pyramids are something that people (myself, at least) have distinct memories learning about in their childhood, and to see them materialized in front of you, picking up the little details that can’t come up in any book, is something worth seeing.

We met up with Monika and Elise soon afterwards, spending over three hours around the pyramids and the sphinx (including the sunrise), then went to the biggest bazaar in Egypt, and finished with a cruise on the Nile. The cruise, unfortunately, matched a lot of Vegas with some of the cheesy aspects of it. It had over-the-top Egyptian decorations (think Luxor Casino without the budget), complete with a photographer half-dressed in pharaoh’s clothing. The food was good but the music was too loud, so we spent much of the time on the staircase since Elise is pretty sensitive (still) to loud noises. They had a bellydancer, and having been surrounded by burkas all trip long, it felt so wrong and dirty in the context. I asked our guide how bellydancing is perceived in the area, and her face led me to believe that we were in the region’s equivalent of a strip cruise. I would have loved just to sail the Nile, but I assume there is a real demand for this type of cruise when in Egypt. Oh, well.

Other than that, the cruise was lovely. It really was – there was a derv-ish dancer aboard who did some truly interesting moves, and Elise kind of bonded with him.

Afer a busy two days in Cairo, we were soon on our three hour drive back to Alexandria. Elise fell asleep the entire time, so we really couldn’t have scripted it better.

I have to say that as interesting as the pyramids were, I was pretty fascinated by the often ignored history of Egypt since the ancient times, and where Egypt is today. Egypt has gone through as many transitions through the ages as Turkey, and it is easy to forget that there were several thousand years of history (and fairly interesting history at that), that happened since the ancient times – with the Greeks, Romans, Christians, Muslims, and everyone else between dropping by. Its particularly interesting to see such a predominantly Muslim country when it was Christian not so long ago, and how the population embraces its distant past.

Most interesting to me was experiencing the country with Elise and Monika. I hope Monika writes an entry from her perspective – she was getting so many mixed messages. On one hand, men were really forward with her, particularly when they didn’t see I was with her, taking pictures of her, and on the other hand, she was in a society where she wasn’t supposed to interact with men who are not her husband. She said several times that it would be much easier for her to maneuver around if SHE was wearing a burka, so she didn’t have to worry about what to do (and she was dressed conservatively by our standards – covered shoulders with full-length skirts the whole time.

Also interesting was traveling with Elise. As has been true in every country, but especially in Greece and Turkey, people were extremely forward and loving with her. The main difference I felt this time was that more women came forth to her than before, and that there was a curiosity factor to the interaction that hadn’t existed in the other countries – perhaps because tourists don’t usually bring a two-year-old to travel to Egypt too often. When we visited the library at Alexandria, Elise wasn’t allowed in (had to be 6 or older), so Monika and took turns hanging out with her outside for almost three hours. She was mobbed by women and children coming up to her, picking her up, kissing her, taking pictures of her and with her. At first, Elise took it extremely and surprisingly well, smiling for the pictures, and not freaking out when full-burkaed women picked her up to hold and kiss her. After three hours, she finally got tired of it, and when a man came up from behind her and picked her up, she screamed, and that was the end of the touching for that day (the man did, however, as me permission if he could take a picture with my wife. I said yes.).

Speaking of the Library, that is easily the most impressive thing we saw in Alexandria. Located on the same site as the ancient Library of Alexandria, it is a masterpiece in design. The outside is pretty neat – a circle that submerges beneath a pool at sea level, but the inside is simply stunning, with several staggered, open, naturally-lit floors, each with their own unique function interspersed between the books. The library has books in Arabic, English, and French (and I saw others too, all on the same shelving), with half a million volumes, but it has enough space for eight million items (it is very empty right now). The guide told us it is the fourth largest library in the world, but should be the largest once it is all completed – larger than the Library of Congress. It would certainly look more impressive.

The last thing of note was that I didn’t want to come all the way to Egypt and just experience it from the insular bubble of the ships and tour buses. It is very difficult to just go out with Elise, so once she fell asleep, I went out to walk around the city of Alexandria with Emily, Kris, and Holly. This was sensory overload at its peak, as we went out in the cool hours of twilight when the masses came out. There was so many people all over the place, navigating effortlessly through the chaos, full of colors from the fabric of the bazaars. We had two guys follow us for 25 minutes before we told them we were just going to walk alone, and I was sure they just wanted to see us something, but after hearing stories from people on the ship that they were followed and helped by these individuals for hours who didn’t try to sell them anything, I realized I may never know if we blew off two individuals with purely noble purposes. It was a pretty neat experience all around.

Egypt is tough, and I think the most important port for the shipboard community to have visited. I hope people took in more than the pyramids, because just like India, I think that’s what will stick with me when I look back at this trip years from now. It is the kind of place where you find so many hidden wondrous gems in the unlikely of places, surrounded by a chaos and poverty that makes you realize how randomly lucky we are to be born where we are. I think about that all the time.

We’re bunkering right now on the shadow of the massive Rock of Gibraltar out our window, finishing six days at sea, sailing through the Barbary Coast (no pirates! But same view they had.) before docking in Morocco. We’ve had the Sea Olympics (always awesome), the Talent Show, and the Crew Talent Show (absolutely, positively the most amazing and awesome crew in the world). We’ll be in Casablanca in the morning, Marrakesh in the afternoon, and four days later, we will be at sea for ten days, reflecting on the experiences on our way home.

Gotta go take Elise to dinner. Back in a few.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Honeymoon Do-Over

What a difference 80 degrees make. When we got married, we wanted to go somewhere far for our honeymoon, and we’d narrowed down our choices to New Zealand and Turkey. The deciding factor was the ticket prices – flying down under was over $2000 per ticket, but flying to Turkey was about $600 apiece. It was a no-brainer for us, so we packed our bags and were off to Istanbul.

On all the high praise we heard from our friends who had been to Turkey, and also the usual guidebooks, few had mentioned how cold it can get there… certainly a lot colder than San Francisco. It was sleeting cold, and as little as 6 degrees F. in Cappadoccia. Add the fact that Monika was five months pregnant at that time, it made for a delightful but certainly trying time—enough to get a great feel for the area, but leaving us longing to revisit when there were leaves on the trees on a warm day.

I’m not sure our return could have been much better. After really intense heat in Greece, we hit a couple rainy days in Istanbul, which was a relief. We even took the kids to the park in the warm rain, somewhere in the mid-80s. And since we’d had a pretty hectic time in Greece with the travel back and forth to Santorini, we wanted to take it as easy as on Elise as we possibly could, especially knowing that Egypt was about to be the toughest port on her.

Unlike last time, we also had the advantage of having lectures on the history and politics of Turkey that we didn’t get the first time around. Istanbul is as much in the crossroads of different cultures as anywhere in the world, having been ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and now the Post-Ataturk government of secular rule, and that history seeps out in everywhere, one layer built on top of the other.

What a lovely time it was. I looked at the pictures of our honeymoon, just to refresh our memory of what the place looks like all dark and grey. And everything was so vibrant and full of life. We stepped off the ship, right next to the Istanbul Modern past the Galata bridge that we were already familiar with, and made our way to the Spice Market, off to a lunch at some hole-in-the wall place with tasty meats, and in hiding from the sudden rain, discovered the Basilica Cistern that somehow we missed the first time around… a heeby-jeeby underground structure where the city used to store all the water that came from the mountains.

By the time we walked back on the ship on the first day, we had revisited much of the steps of our honeymoon, culminating on what may turn out to be my favorite playground (for Elise) of the trip, right in the middle of the Gulhane Park next to the Topkapi Castle.

That night was also one of my favorite of the voyage, where most of the staff walked from the ship to a restaurant up in the Taksim district. Somehow we managed to seat 45+ people, eat a ton of delicious food, while everyone, including the kiddos, had a fantastic time. I think when I look back at this voyage, I’ll see that meal as the moment that the trip turn from fun to comfortable; when the ship became home. Those who have sailed on Semester at Sea before know of that moment, and it’s always a nice feeling when you get there.

We stayed in Istanbul the entire time, and despite having planned on making it to the Asian side of the city at some point, the closest we got to the other side was about 20ft of the continent on a impromptu Bosphorous cruise that we jumped on at some point. Monika and I have been there before, but if Elise doesn’t go back to Asia before she’s 18, I can imagine this scenario with her as a teenager where she will hold a grudge against us for having taken her 8000 miles never to step on the promised land. (Elise, if you’re reading this, please understand that it’s not that big a deal, I promise I’ll take you back someday.)

One thing we noticed: more than any other country, Turkey had an inordinate number of men and children come up and grabbed Elise, always touching her, and often picking her up and throwing her up in the air. It was pretty uncomfortable at first, but slowly it became clear that it was never malicious, that there seemed to be a expectation that you are supposed to come over and complement any child. They really value children (could it be that it was because Elise was a girl?) in a different way there, and we’re really happy that Elise was mostly ok with it.

(The relationship with children has a slightly different twist in Egypt – I’ll save that story for the Egypt blog).

When we left Croatia, Monika and I looked at each other and said it would be hard for any of the upcoming ports to beat it, and we thought we had our sure favorite. Three ports later, I’m not so sure. I personally felt like we completed what we missed in our first visit to Turkey – things I couldn’t possibly have predicted – and enjoyed way beyond the level of simply going to the tourist sites (Monika even went to a Turkish cooking class for a day). I left Istanbul the first time around loving it, but now it is also in my “list of favorite cities in the world”, which it hadn’t cracked the first time around. We had rested from Greece, and ready for the craziness that was about to come up in Egypt.

We’re leaving Egypt right now, another wonderful port, and easily the craziest place I have been since India, and we’re about to be at sea for 6 days before going to our last port in Casablanca. Sea Olympics are tomorrow, and this will be the first port we actually have a couple days at sea to reflect on what we’ve seen. And this was a good port for a little reflection time.

Good times for all. Pictures are up at .

Friday, July 23, 2010

Dolma, Dolma, Dolma

I’m aboard the ship right in Istanbul right now. Monika went to a Turkish cooking class with a bunch of the staff, and I stayed behind to take care of Elise. So after a fun morning at the park in the middle of the pouring rain, with lots of puddles to jump in, Elise went down for a nap. I’m just waiting for Mon to get back, and I’ll be heading out with Kevin, another staff member, as we try to get a haircut in a foreign land. Which is always an adventure.

It really has been a great several weeks now. After a long haul crossing the Atlantic, and testing the waters a bit in Spain, I think we’ve gotten into a really nice rhythm. Italy and Croatia were great with Monika’s parents, and Greece and now Turkey have also been fantastic, with some of my favorite days in these two ports. We had staff Karaoke night at sea followed by a full day in Istanbul that culminated in an enormous all-staff dinner in Taksim, and it couldn’t have been much better.

I can’t believe how much we’re getting done, and how great Elise is handling it all of it. With all the new places, new people, and shuffling around, it is a lot of stress and stimulation, but she’s doing amazingly well. She misses everyone at home a lot (she mentions everyone by name all the time), and she’ll miss everyone on the ship when we get home as well.

But I’ll do a quick summary of Greece. At some point before we arrived in Greece, we decided that five days would probably be too much to just stay in the port/Athens area, so the night before we dock, we decide to go to an island. Most of the students were going to Mykonos, and Monika really wanted to see Santorini given all the wonderful testimonial of all our friends who have been there – including Dave and Tanya, who spent their honeymoon there.

So in true Semester at Sea fashion, we make a last-second plan and purchase our tickets for a 2:15pm flight the day we dock. With the crises in Greece, there was going to be a air traffic controller strike the day after we arrived, and we wanted to make sure we had at least 2+ days to explore Athens. We figured that with the ship arriving around cleared by about 9:30am, we’d have our passports not long after that, could each lunch in Piraeus, then head to the airport in time to enjoy the famous sunset in Santorini. We booked our flights with our good friends Tom and Rebecca Jelke, who also have a little one (Parker).

We’ll, even though people were able to leave the ship, we didn’t get the passports back until about 2pm or so, which meant that we had to change our flights to 6pm or so at some cost. In the meantime, went out to explore Greece until it was time to leave for the airport. Which we discovered…

- We love the greek alphabet. It felt like an omnipresent calculus class (or a fraternity, if you’re so inclined. Which I’m not). I kept wanting to solve for all the missing variables. It was fun because by the end of the voyage, we were kind of able to pronounce some of the words, as long as we very carefully spelled out the greek letter aloud. We had no idea what it meant, but at least we knew how it sounded like.
- Greece is really hot this time of year. Really hot. It makes it really hard to go out with the little one, which meant we needed to keep her hydrated at all costs, use lots of sunscreen, go swimming as much as possible, and really try not to go out in the middle-of-the afternoon sun. My favorite moments of the port – the amazing sunset at Ia in Santorini, and the sunset at the Acropolis followed by an early evening at the Plaka district – were my favorite in part because it was so dang pleasant at that time of day. We’re getting in this pattern of going out early, eating and going to museums when it gets hot (and Elise falls asleep on the stroller), then enjoying the late afternoon and early evening hours again.
- The food is fantastic. Even the smallest, touristiest place has tasty greek food. Too bad I don’t remember the name of a single item. But Monika does. Hmmmm….. And we always order too much. There’s no way around it.
- I don’t know if we just got lucky, but the greek people seemed to have an exceptional care for children that I’ve never seen en masse before. Everyone has been absolutely wonderful to travel this whole time, making it very pleasant to bring Elise everywhere in Europe, but they took it to a new level in Greece. By the time we sat down to lunch on our first hour in port, we already had two people show us pictures of their kids and grandkids, and she was become fast-friends with our fast-talking waitress. If there was a line, we were sent to the front of it. Seats were always made available to us, motorcycles would stop accelerating and even stop traffic for us (and nobody else), and everywhere we got some free foods and items because of Elise. It was often quite touching and completely unexpected, and I really hope that we didn’t just hit an amazing streak, and that this is something the culture really values.
- The economic crisis is real over there. We benefit from not having as many tourists around, and lower rates to meet the lower demand, but everyone we talked to told us how slow business is right now (and thanked us for sailing in with so many students for five days).

So after the passport delay, an hour-long cab ride to the airport, another 2-hour flight delay because of air-conditioning problems, we were aboard our 40-minute hop to Santorini, where we witnessed the Santorini sunset from the air.

The island is very striking in appearance. Located on an enormous volcano, the caldera is open on two sides into the ocean, forming creating a huge three-quarter circle of gentle slopes on one side and 1000ft drops into the sea on the other. Inside the caldera, there is a growing lava island of the active volcano. The island used to be the home of the ancient Minoan Crete civilization, and there is a lot of evidence that the massive eruption around 14 BC (I believe) became the origin of the myth of Atlantis, because parts of the island disappeared, and the populations of Santorini and neighboring islands, including Crete, were destroyed.

Now the island, particularly the top of the cliff on the caldera, is covered in these distinct white buildings with blue roofs. I kept wanting to visit a hardware store just to take a picture of the paint aisle. I’m pretty sure all swatches are either “Santorini Blue” or “Santorini White”.

We arrived at night, took a short cab ride to the city of Thira, where our (cheapo) hotel was in the middle of everything and less than 100ft from the caldera. There’s enough time for us to get some delicious whatdoIcallits pita with Kebabs (greek tacos? Sufliakes? Mon, help!), then go to bed and get ready for a full day.

We discovered how much Elise loves beaches, so we made it the first priority the next day. We took a bus down to the public black-rock beaches on the southeast corner of the island, and parked there the first half of the day while Elise had the time of her life in the water. I don’t think it was possible to have a better water temperature… in the extreme heat we were in (made hotter by the dark pebbles), it was just cold enough to be extremely refreshing but not too cold. Fun times for all.

After lunch and nap on our way back to Thira, we jumped on another bus on our way to Ia (spelled Oia with what I though was a silent Theta in greek, but what do I know?) on the northern tip of the island. Which, to us, was the best part. Quaint, clean, with the best view, this is the place I would recommend staying to anyone visiting the island (though prices were sometimes six times more expensive than what we paid for our hotel). Elise fell asleep in time for us to have a glass of wine, and woke up to discover the playground out of heaven (Mt. Olympus?), on top of Ia, just ahead of a most amazing sunset. After playing for a few minutes, we grab a pizza, enjoy the most perfect of evenings, then take the bus (again) back to our hotel in Thira.

(OK, Mon’s back to watch Elise. I’m going to get a quick haircut. Be right back.)

(Alright, I’m back. That was hilarious. I guess they are used to dealing with a lot of hair here. I went with Kevin, we found a random barbershop near the ship, they spoke no English, and they give you the equivalent of a Turkish bath on your head. Lots of stubby fingers all over the place, lots of tools to snip hair you didn’t even know you had (they sure take care of that nose hair for you), and, best of all, they singe your ear hairs. Yup. I didn’t even know I had them until I felt a burning pain in my ear. The barber had pulled out a lighter, put them to my ear, and burned away all of my ear hair, on the lobes and everything. And he didn’t just put the flame and pull it away. He kept it there. It hurt a lot. And it smelled like burnt hair.

Then he took my head, dunked it in the sink in front of him, washed my face all over – stubby fingers in my eyes, ears, and nose, and then dried me off with a towel so vigorously I kind of felt I was being waterboarded. It was hilarious.)

(And my ears feel like a baby’s bottom right now. We have so many hilarious stories from Turkey – I can’t wait to type up that blog in two days).

(But I digess).

So after enjoying one more light day in Santorini, we made it back to Athens. The following (extremely hot) day, we explored Piraeus by going to the local playground with Cal and Cash, ordering WAY too much delicious food (I blame Dave), going to the local archaeological museum, and taking a nap, before waiting for things to cool down to visit the Acropolis near the end of the day.

The Acropolis is something. Way cooler than anything I could have imagined, and just a shame that much of it was destroyed by conflict. We picked a perfect time and day to do it – even though it was extremely hot, it was certainly cooling down at that point, the pollution had mostly blown away (giving us an amazing view of the city and sea from up top, and Elise was in a pretty great mood.

We were scrambling to make it but there before it closed, so we didn’t bother getting more cash. They didn’t take any credit cards, and we somehow managed to pay for the 24 Euro entry fee with the last remaining coins we had, and miraculously, we barely had enough. I can tell you the cashier loved us when we dropped all the coins in front of him.

For those of you who have never been to Athens, the walk up to the Parthenon is pretty precarious, with slippery, worn-down 2000-year-old marble, on some pretty steep ground. I can’t imagine what it is like when it rains – I can only imagine that these ancient marbled cities like Rome and Athens was a disaster when it rained. Can marble be any more slippery?

After enjoying the view, we tried to make it to the new, amazing Acropolis Museum, but it was too late. So we let Elise play in the grassy hill outside for a while, then walked over to the beautiful and quaint Plaka neighborhood, on the foot of the Acropolis, for another perfectly pleasant dinner with a view of the Parthenon.

We took it really easy on our last day in Greece and decided to go back and explore the Acropolis museum, which is stunningly brilliant. It is built on top of ruins (which you can see through the plexiglass floors), is laid out more like a modern art museum than a history museum, then had an offset third floor of the size and orientation of the Parthenon, to house every single sculpture that was ever part of the outside of the Parthenon.

The problem is that many (most) of the artwork is outside of Greece, and in fact, much of it has been housed outside of the country, primarily at the British Museum in London. The Greeks have been trying to get them back for years (claiming they were stolen), and one of the biggest arguments against returning the artwork has always been that they would be better cared for in England than in Greece.

But with the new museum, that argument is done for. It really is world class, and though it’ll be unlikely that the Brits will return anything, I think the Greeks have made a pretty good case that the statues belong in Athens, in the context of the Acropolis. It’s a must see for anyone visiting the city.

So that was pretty much our time in Greece. I think the pictures summarize it pretty well (

Now we’re almost done with Turkey (I’m now enjoying the most amazing view of nighttime Istanbul from the Staffulty Lounge, or 10 Forward, as we call it on this voyage) and we have crossed that point in the voyage where the ship is home; that you get the nice feeling when you see the lights of the ship when you’re out at night, and that you get really excited if you haven’t seen somebody for several days. We miss everything from home, and are looking forward to going back soon (two more countries), but doggone it, it’s nice to be here.

Off to bed, but a quick Elisey-ism before I go (I need to keep better track of these - there are a million of them).

The three of us were in our cabin two nights ago, and while Elise was having a boob, one of us (who shall remain anonymous to protect his identity ) passed gas, and quite audibly. So to distract from the fact, I say, "Elise, I think there's a frog in the room".

She looks up right at me and says, "A farting frog."

She would have gone back to the boob but Monika was too busy rolling on the floor laughing.


The next day, Elise was looking out the cabin window when SHE flatulates. She giggles for a second, looks at us, and says, "That was daddy's frog."


Back in a couple days.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What are you sinking about?

I’ve seen the MV Explorer in 22 different ports since 2005, and the view from the ship in some of these places have been stunningly beautiful (Hong Kong and Cape Town are two of my favorites). But none of them have been as quaint and picturesque as our little home in Dubrovnik, Croatia, with it’s light-colored houses topped by red-tiled roofs surrounding the little bay we were in.

Dubrovinik has been the surprise revelation of the trip so far. In sharp contrast with everything in Italy, we found an extremely clean, friendly, calm city, as if tourists hadn’t discovered it yet. It probably helped that we arrived in the middle of the week, during a European economic crisis, but that first day in Dubrovnik was one of the most lovely, peaceful, carefree days I can ever remember. The city quickly shot up into one of my favorite places in the entire world).

And what a place it is. It is a really modern city, with one of the most amazingly well-preserved medieval centers, the Old Town, with its massive white walls surrounded by the Ocean. We met Tom and Karen after they ferried over from Italy the day before we arrived, and spent the rest of the day walking around the old town and the walls, enjoying the magnificent view of the emerald and green Adriatic, and eating seafood and delicious pizza while Tom tried to converse in Croatian with our waiters. It was what I imagine some parts of Italy and Europe looked when tourists and pollution take over.

(And, weirdly enough, they had set up a tennis country in the middle of old town for an exhibition match between John McEnroe and Goran Ivanisec, which while was supposed to be out of view of the unpaying public, things are small and quaint enough in there that it was pretty easy to catch a glimpse of the action from the side. But I digress).

So we packed a lot in there in a few days. On the second day, we went with several friends to a hotel on the west side of town to do some scuba and snorkeling off shore while the kids swam in the hotel swimming pool. It was quite nice, with Elise taking her first ocean swim, but it was highlighted because the Croatia Summit was this week, with many leaders of European countries in town, and in the hotel we were in. Security was incredible, and the Scuba instructor told us Berlusconi was with us. Dave swears the old man in the hot tub with him was the Italian Prime Minister, since security was really present in the pool at that time.

That afternoon Monika and I left Elise with the grandparents, and rented a kayak for the rest of the afternoon. That was hilarious and a lot of fun, especially when we didn’t sink, which we almost did, since we rented a cracked kayak unbeknownst to anyone. The story of those four will be its own entry, and I’ll let Monika describe it from her perspective (which was the dry, comfortable, front half of the boat).

The next day we rented a little boat with a 15-year-old skipper to check out some of the island and beaches around the area, with Dave and Tanya. We jumped in the ocean, stopped by caves along the shore, and Elise enjoyed the water at a sandy beach for the first time in her life. Given how much she enjoyed playing in the sand, then running off to the water to wash it off, then back to playing in the sand, I think we’ll be scheduling more time to take her to the beach from here on out. She really had a great time.

But what stuck with me the most was the car ride back from the boat to the ship. The driver was our skipper’s mom, and she told her a bit about life in Dubrovnik. Life over there is really, really good right now. Really good. She said that “people celebrate more than they work”. The money is coming in from tourism, and the city has been able to keep order.

But she told us how miserable the 1990’s were for her and everyone in the country. Its hard to believe that the quaint little town was part of one of the most brutal conflicts and ethnic cleansing in recent history, and what kills me is how recent it all happened. The area has had an amazing history of conflict under different rulers, but it was quite peaceful and relatively prosperous under the Tito. After his death, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Slobidan Milosovic, a Serb, organized takeover of the Yugoslav republics to all be under super-Serbian control (after a system of apartheid had begun in the area). With that in mind, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, and the international community refused to recognize Croatia for a long time.

Croatia had no army, and without international support, faced retaliation from the Serbian military, who bombed Dubrovnik (a city of little strategic value) to ruble. Our driver delivered her son the day after the bombing of the city, in the hospital with no electricity or water, and delivered her other son (our skipper) later in the war.

And the brutal genocide began, with Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, etc… all cleansing their lands of the “other” people, with a brutality that was described by one of the professors this way:

“Rape has always been used in war, but they turned rape into a violent artform. They would rape women in front of their husbands, kill their husbands, then leave the women to bear the child of different ethnicity in the process of ethnic cleansing”

This was just over a decade ago, and of the people we asked about were affected by it. I can’t get my head over it. That everyone was affected by something so brutal not so long ago, and somehow manage to move on, at least superficially, into one of the most friendly and peaceful places in the world.

(They are really friendly. These old women who were sewing along the city walls gave Elise a pair of shoes she knit. We tried to pay her, but she refused – I don’t think I’d ever quite seen that happen before).

I honestly find it very scary, to say the least. Not because they move on, but because it seems like that violence and conflict can actually erupt anywhere, and I’m sure these people would never have imagined the turn their lives were about to make in the early 90s. I’m one of the most optimistic people I know, sometimes unreasonably so, but this is something I think of a lot, especially since having Elise. What kind of world are we leaving her? And the more I think about it, the happier I am that we are raising her in a culture of global awareness and cultural education, because I think this will be one of the most important skills or requirements of her generation. This will be a topic for a later post.

(And about the Balkan War… we visited the war photo museum in Old Town on the last day, and all I could think about is that we have a moral obligation to stop violence around the world. Sounds simplistic, and it may be, and some may consider this being the world police, but doggone it, that genocide was preventable if the international community had stepped in sooner. It’s really sad).

To finish on a good note – the driver told us they had bought some land by the water after the bombing for almost nothing, and that now that the city is doing so well, that they are really well off. I hope that’s the case for everyone who managed to stay in the city through the worst of times.

So now we find ourselves away from one of the most amzing places in the world, and off to Greece (which we can already see out of our window). We look forward to sending more updates then!

(Croatia pictures are at

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A Rome with a View

So something really fun happened tonight. Elise was playing with our camera in the cabin, and figured out how to take pictures. So the grabs the camera, comes out of the room with it, and starts taking pictures of everyone she sees.

It’s a great little sequence of about 50 pictures or so. It starts out with tentative pictures, of walls and fingers grabbing the lens, but then quickly becomes this dynamic sequence from her little point of view… where she runs to people she’s really excited of seeing of seeing, and tells them she’s about to take a picture of them. It’s just pictures of happy people so happy to see her, and see her so excited, and crouching down to her level.

And, of course, she took many pictures of students she never met along the way. It was a great icebreaker (and right before she crashed an Insanity workout class and apparently tried to follow along with everyone. Wish I had pictures of that). I’ll post the sequence sometime after Croatia. I have a smile on my face just thinking about it.

Which, by the way, were doing a late-night docking as I type this. Immigration will happen in the morning, so we can’t leave the ship until tomorrow. Monika’s parents will again join us at this port, and everything seems to point to a wonderful four days here.
And why do I think that? Because we just had a fantastic seven days in Italy.
(Ah, Italy. Your architecture reminds me so much of Las Vegas.)

(Alright, just kidding.)

Remember when I said we did approximately 20% of what we normally do because Elise is around. Well, scratch that. Maybe it was because we worked out the kinks in Spain, maybe it was because we had a fantastically-located apartment in Rome, or maybe it was because we had the extra helping hands of Monika’s parents who met us in Rome and will meet us in Croatia. Or maybe it was just the gelatarias on every corner.

Whatever it was, we did everything we wanted in Rome. I checked all the major items on my list, and I got a great sense of everyday life over there. We even managed to walk from the Colisseum to the Vatican with Elise – one of our many walks – due to the perfect timing of her afternoon 2-hour naps.

We arrived in Civitavecchia after single day at sea, in which we went right between Corsica and Sardinia with an amazing full moon on the still water. We immediately venture in the intense summer heat with Dave, Tanya, and their kids, to the train station to purchase an express ticket to Rome. We were there in 40 minutes.

Much to Elise’s delight, Mimi and Baba were waiting for us at the train station. I really wish I had captured it on tape, because it was something out of a movie. She saw them from a distance, and as soon as she recognized them, she darted off into their arms. They are her favorite people in her entire little world.
And we were off to the apartment, which belongs to a Nagy family friend, and which was close to everything. We were immediately off to explore Rome, chasing Elise, eating gelato, and visiting playgrounds.

Which reminds me of a few things.

First, because the playground was amongst ancient ruins, as was everything else in Rome I mean, everything in Rome is old. There are ruins everywhere, and I’m assuming that everything is built on something that is over 2000 years old. It has to be a nightmare to build something new there, because I can only imagine the bureaucracy (beyond the typical Italian bureaucracy) to get permission to dig up in the city. I imagine that if you do get permission, and do dig, you’ll find something interesting. I imagine that has to be a problem with Athens and Istanbul and a bunch of other old world cities as well, which have a rich history, all where people have been living continuously in mass for centuries.

Second, I’ve come to the feeling that one of the measures of quality of life in a city is the number of playgrounds and park benches to be found. It really makes a big difference. Italy had great playgrounds (and an inordinate amount of park benches), but my favorite was in Naples. Beachside, really nice, and full of old Italian grandfathers bringing their kids to the park. Naples is a really “gritty” city by any measure, but walking around on that part of town really made me (us) fall in love with it.

Third, I had a wonderful conversation with one of the professors tonight about the environment, and where we are going. Things aren’t looking great right now, and he thinks it is too late to reverse the climate changes that we already started, and that things will change and that the third world will suffer most from it, but that he doesn’t think all is hopeless. Humans will have to adapt, and I can’t help but see Italy as a window into what countries like the US may look like many years from now. Things are crowded, and fairly polluted, but there is a great use of communal space. And since one of the biggest problems with dealing with global warming in a a world of increased standards of living, is that people are living in bigger houses. But the Europeans are using a lot fewer resources than we are, and part of the reason for that is that they live in smaller spaces, and make much better use of their communal spaces, going out for everyday entertainment (instead of making big living rooms with huge back yards). Imagine if WE had a pub on every corner.

And you know what? They’re happier because of it.

(This is what I love most about Semester at Sea – this sense of communal living. We have a small cabin, and we have to get out and be social to live – and luckily, we live amongst some amazingly interesting and well educated people to talk to.)
(I also love that I get to attend the lectures. We had a brilliant guest lecture in Global Studies about Croatia today. I may have to do a whole blog on it).

(But I digress).

This is all a long way of saying that we saw all the tourist attractions in Rome, and even hosted a party at the apartment where 22 shipmates (mostly parents and kids) came. And Tom and I made sure to take as many goofy pictures as we could. It may have annoyed our wives to the fullest, but doggone it was fun.

We even made it to Florence for two days, where Monika had lived a bit after college, before we went to Naples to meet the ship. Florence was pretty packed with tourists, and was extremely hot. Monika felt very nauseous the night we arrived there, and we later attributed it to sleep deprivation, dehydration, a possible heat stroke of some sort. Which makes her (according to her), a ninety-year-old woman.

One of my favorite things about Florence was seeing the statue of David. The museum opened at 8:15am, and because of the extremely long lines the day before, we decided we would make see it as soon as the museum opened.

So after a fantastic morning stroll seeing Florence wake up, we realize that everyone else had the same idea to show up early to the museum as well. Which means we waited 40 minutes to get it, but it was well worth it.

It’s a stunning statue – bigger than I imagined, and beautifully rendered. I always thought David was just passively posing, but going around it, you can see that he actually has a pretty angry “determined” face on him, like is about to cause some damage. And of course, Elise had to point out that “David has a small pepito”. That’s our daughter.

I can go on and on… but I need to go to bed. We posted pictures at, and will have lots more in a few days.

And we can’t wait for a few more days with Mimi and Baba. They are the best inlaws. And I may need to send some Tom Nagy-isms instead of Elisey-isms on the next post.
(One more quick story before I go. I was swimming on the ship pool yesterday with Elise, and she was laughing her head off as I threw her as high as I could and caught her back in the water. In between the laughter, she manages to say, “I have poops!”, which turns out is the last thing you want to hear while throwing a little kid in a small swimming pool.

I managed to catch her before causing too much damage, but man, there was poop everywhere. Monika and I quickly do the “I’m carrying you with the least amount of contact as possible as you dangle in front of me” that every parent is familiar with, and had to wrap her in towels since the inside of the ship is SOOOOO much colder than the outside. By the time we got back to the cabin, there was poop everywhere. I don’t think we could have gotten more poop on the towels and close if we had tried to catch it directly.

And it wasn’t even the worst poop story of the moment… as Cash had, at that same time, woken up from his nap with a poopy diaper, only to decide to take it off and smear on his bed before his parents got back in the room.

Just look at the picasa pictures and you’ll see it’s all worth it).

Thursday, July 01, 2010

My in-laws crack me up

We're enjoying a couple of days in Rome at a friend's apartment, with Monika's parents. They crack me up. Here are some pictures just from my camera - they have a lot more.

Monday, June 28, 2010

You brought her, you Barcelon’er

Welcome to Italy Day! We are currently sailing right between Corsica and Sardinia, with an AMAZING full moon that just arose behind the horizon. The water is so calm that it feels like we’re on a lake, and we’re moving so slowly that it feels like we’re not moving at all. It’s been this way since we entered the Mediterranean, and it’s expected to be this way all the way until the next Atlantic crossing. You know what that means… more seasickness! Woohoo! I mean, crap.

And it is really hot and humid already, at night, so I think we can expect some pretty sweaty weather in the next few days.

Our beta-testing country of Spain is out of the way, and we’re now full-fledged travelers with a two-year-old. We have discovered how to plan for only one or two big things a day, and everything else is bonus. I used to be able to absorb every single detail that tour guides would give me about a place, but now I’m content with getting, oh, say 20 percent of the information on the first go-around, because one eye is on Elise all the time. Which is just fine – it means we get to stroll around a lot of neighborhoods, meet all the local kids at the playgrounds (which have been plentiful so far), and enjoy the food at a lovely pace. It’s completely different from any travel I’ve ever done, and in many ways, it is richer. And I love it. I’m definitely looking forward to filling up the holes I missed on all these tours. I mean… when was that statue built again? Is that Church Romanesque or Gothic? Where’s the surreal roof with all the chimney? What’s a Spanish tortilla again? It goes on and on.

(Though we’re developing a pretty good system where we take turns listening to the tour guide and watching Elise, and just summarizing what the other one missed on the last go-around. We’d make great study partners).

We were lucky that, as in most ports, the ship docks right next to the action. So from the first day, we were able to get off the ship, walk to the famous Las Ramblas, and mostly enjoy the Old Town of Barcelona, walking down the narrow alleyways, looking for playgrounds, and enjoying the open spaces.

The day we arrived was a major holiday (St. Joan), so everything was closed and quiet, and Barcelona was hungover from the celebrations the night before. But after strolling with a couple of the other parents and kids, we found a nice little place to get some juices and beer and take a break from the sun.

It was a pretty nice break, though at one point, a drunk man came into the bar, and seeing that some of us had beers, demanded that he be served a beer as well. The bartender said no, that we were his family, and that he didn’t serve beer in the morning. That caused the drunk man to start screaming, threaten the bartender, and the result was an altercation between the two of them that almost got very ugly, as the bartender shoved him out of the bar, then grabbed and iron rod when he thought the drunk man was coming back to join us. The guy was escorted away by a friend of the bartender.

It was a lovely sight for all the children present. I’m not sure they noticed what was happening. We continued on with the stroll.

Most days went on that way. We would pick a place to go to, then try to time the longer distances with Elise’s naps, then stop to get food, or find a place for her to run around, when she was awake. It worked extremely well, especially when we visited Gaudi’s Casa Mila (with the chimneys on the roof) and Familia Sagrada (if you’re not familiar with Barcelona, Gaudi is a surrealist architect that created many of the defining structures of the city. They are certainly something to behold. Imagine if Cirque du Soleil built houses and churches).

Both those were very far from the ship, but we walked all the way to both and back, and it all worked out perfectly. We didn’t go into those, as the lines were too big to wait with Elise in the sun. But, because we had been building up everything we do to her, especially the night before (she prefers predictability), we had to explain why we weren’t going on the roof of Casa Mila after we made such a big deal about it. We told her the lines were too big. She seemed to get it right away, enthusiastic that the “lines were so BIIIG!”

Not much later, we understand why she is enthusiastic. She said, “I’m scared.” And we asked her why, and she said because the “Lions were too big” on the roof, so we couldn’t go there. So now she’s convinced there are lions on every tourist attraction that has a queue. Good times.
On the second day, we visited the monastery at Montserrat, about an hour away from Barcelona. It was our first SAS trip after we gave away our tickets to the city orientation (knowing Elise would not want to sit on a bus after 10 days at sea). If you don’t know what Montserrat is, take a look at our pictures at . It’s pretty impressive, originally build in a serrated mountain centuries ago (but rebuilt several times over the years), and still going strong as one of the major tourist attractions in Catalonia.

We made it up with Elise, and started perfecting our tag-team over there. I mean, the hard part about taking a kid is that they get so excited, you know, but going up and down the three steps to the gift shop. And I love her watching her do that. But we’re succeeding in getting her to be excited to see the things WE want to see as well. We even managed to take her on a short hike up the mountain, in the hot sun. She really is a trooper.

We’ve hit Barcelona in the middle of World Cup fever, with the spaniards doing a good job making it to the second round after losing its first game. So we got to see the game out at a Tapas bar, with good people like Dave, Tanya, Tom, Rebecca, and Emily, and still took some time during the game to see more of the city in celebration. It was also pride week over there, and we saw what must have been the smallest pride parade in the world. I’m really curious what the homosexual culture is like over there.

Our last day in the city was Sunday, and there were a lot of celebrations going on… we managed to take in the Picasso Museum while Elise napped (which was surprisingly good – showed a lot of his student work, which you could see a definitive progression of his skill as an artist. So much energy). There was a lot of dancing on the streets, and at noon, we caught this human tower competition – seven stories up, with the tiniest of kids, maybe 4-6 climbing up to make up the top of the tower some 40 ft in the air. And the tower is trembling the entire time. It is truly dangerous stuff, though I must admit that if I were a kid growing up in Barcelona, I would most certainly have been one of the kids dying to participate in the tower every weekend.

It was one of my favorite parts of the weekend, though I found out later that we missed the last tower, which fell with the kids on top. I don’t know if anyone got hurt, but I think we left at the right time.

So that was Barcelona in a few paragraphs. We had a wonderful time, and it was a perfect place to hone in our on-location parenting skills. We had a quick all-Italy day on the ship (since we had 10 days to prepare for Spain, but only one for Italy, so it was non-stop Italy lectures today). The best part was that they asked us, being from California, to share earthquake safety tips to students, since Italy is seismically active.

Enter Monika Nagy, Italian Geologist, who shared the tips she learned from having survived the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Everybody left thinking that all Californians as versed in earthquake safety as she is. Did you know that you shoudn’t necessarily stand in the door frame during an earthquake? On some buildings, it may be the strongest part of the building, but on some buildings, it’s the weakest! Bet you didn’t know that.

So we arrive tomorrow in Civitavecchia, and will take a train to meet with Tom and Karen Nagy in Rome. We really look forward to it. Elise will see Mimi and Baba, and we will get few hours to ourselves over there… which hasn’t happened since we left.

Other than the "Lion is so BIIIG", here is a quick round of Elisey-isms:

When getting ready for a boob, Elise exclaimed, really loudly, "OH, JESUS! I GOT A BOOBIE!"

When asked if she wanted to sit on the potty, she said, "No, dadda. I'm too small. I'll fall in."

We're trying to break her of the habit of the binky, so we ask her to keep her binky and froggy in the cabin whenever we go out. So as we're getting ready to take her swimming, she starts singing, very happily, "We're taking the binky to the pool... I'm taking the binky to the pool.... we're taking the binky and froggy to the pool... we're taking the binky to the pool..." To which I say, "No, love, we're keeping the froggie here." She looks at me as if I'm crazy, and says, "It's just a song."

She really likes these bunny crackers, so one morning, she says, "I want some bunny crackers." We didn't have any, so Mon tells her so. She intently replies, "But I want some!" Mon calmly says, "They're all gone." She exclaims, "Let's get them at the store!" Mon responds, "The store doesn't have any."

She very calmly looks at us, pauses for a second, and says, "Oh. I guess they're all gone."

You can almost see here wheels spinning. We really have to explain everything to her.

Alright, off to bed, but pictures are up here:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Don Ricardo

The name Ricardo Andrade is one of the most common in Brazil – about the equivalent of Peter Smith in the U.S. And somehow, in the early days of gmail, I managed to snag the coveted “” email address. The result, six or seven years later, is that I keep getting personal emails sent my way – not spam, but sincere emails from people who mistakenly think I’m Rodrigo Andrade, the parent of a truant high school student in New Mexico,, or dozens of other possibilities.

Now, most of the time, a simple, “I’m sorry, you sent this in error” to me is enough to not get emails again, but there is a small, persistent, and vocal minority that do not believe that I’m not the person they are trying to reach, and in fact, argue with me to knock it off. With gmail, this becomes even more problematic because of the “chat” function, so I often find myself chatting with people, trying to convince them that I am not, in fact the person they think I am. And two of these threads have been going on for over two years.

The first is from a guy Marlison in Brazil who thinks I’m his college buddy Romario. Apparently, Romario always arrives on campus first, and the buddy wants to find out what the upcoming classes are like. And apparently, Romario must be quite the joker, because no matter how much I argue that I’m not Romario, even offering to do video chats and phone calls on my US cell phone number, Marlison thinks that I’m pulling his leg. So after a while, I usually just give in and make up information about the classes I’m supposedly taking. Here’s a transcription of a typical chat with this guy, translated from the portuguese:

marlisonhbsi: Hey Romario!
Heeeeyyy... do you know when class starts?
me: I'm not romario. I'm Ricardo
marlisonhbsi: There you go with your kidding
later later
me: No, really. I live in the United States. I'm Ricardo Andrade
marlisonhbsi: so, Romario Ricardo Andrade
and the classes?
me: Dude - you're talking to the wrong person. :
marlisonhbsi: yes, romario ricardo
and the classes?
me: Do you want to do a video chat or skype to prove I'm not Romario?
Call me in the U.S. now . 650-793-3537
American cell
marlisonhbsi: I don't want to know if you are romario ou ricardo I want to know about the classes
me: what classes?
marlisonhbsi: the classes
Don't you study?
me: no
I work
a lot
marlisonhbsi: you think I don't know you?
me: Where do I know you from?
marlisonhbsi: is your car working better
me: it's much better
marlisonhbsi: thought it'd get worse
right now
yes, and the classes?
quit kidding around
since you're there
tell me.

The second one is even better, because apparently I’m a very important man in Southern Chile, who is holding off some sort of civil project because I refuse to sign the documents. I’m not kidding. A guy by the name of Christian has been emailing me for over two years, very politely asking me to please sign the documents, so they came move on with this project. He’s even gone as far as writing me a long philosophical letters addressed to the “Esteemed Don Ricardo” flattering me and my services in every way possible in hundreds of words, only to finish off saying that “as you can see, this is very important, and your cooperation in this matter is urgently needed.” One letter started, in spanish, as “Dear Esteemed Don Ricardo. I would like to share with you some of my reflections regarding the Garcia letter.”

He even comes on chat every once in a while. One time, he chatted that he was waiting his meeting with “me” in the auditorium, so he must have been surprised when he saw “me” come online at the time of this meeting. This was one of the many times that I argued with Christian that I’m not Don Ricardo, and the general response is always, “Ah, yes, very funny, Don Ricardo. But please, Don Ricardo. We need those documents.”

And I keep having to tell him that I don’t speak Spanish, but it doesn’t matter. He thinks I’m kidding.

So I’m picturing that Christian is an eager young intern that has been assigned to deal with the jokester of Don Ricardo, the town’s Marlon Brando in the later years. Because the only reason I think this has continued on for so long is that 1) Don Ricardo is the kind of guy who hides whoopee cushions during important meetings, so pretending he’s not Don Ricardo on emails is not beyond him, and 2) He’s a powerful and intimidating enough person that no one dares question him – kind of like no one questioned Brando when he made some cookey acting decisions in his later years.

From what I understand, the project has to do with preparing the city for its 100-year celebration of its founding, with a few public works. And based on the emails that came into my inbox for so long, I’m assuming that the celebration came and went without any festivities, and that somewhere, there is a fuming, real Don Ricardo wondering why no one asked him to sign any documents…

Anyway, that has nothing to do with SAS, but I was reminded of it because we’re heading to Barcelona tomorrow, and the word “Don” comes up quite a bit, especially since we have an actual Spanish Knight, Don David Gies, aboard the ship. We sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar yesterday, and could easily see Spain and Morocco at the same time (well, I have deep set eyes with terrible peripheral vision, so not technically at the same time. But I could if I had a mirror. You get the picture. I’m a hunter, not a gatherer).

At this point, the two countries are only seven or so miles apart, and the terrain is fairly dramatic. There are very large letters written on a Moroccan mountain that says, in Arabic, “God, Country, King.”, and what appears to be a fairly large fort of some kind, but I have no idea at this point. It’s pretty easy to see why the Strait (Straits? There’s only one) inspired the Gates of Hercules at one time. I was almost anticipating sailing through two large statues a-la Lord of the Rings at any time. We’ll be refueling at the Rock of Gibraltar

But it was pretty awesome. We were greeted by a bunch of dolphins out our window again, and ship traffic was pretty heavy as everyone is funneled into this area. They also have jumping swordfish out here too, which we saw out of our window. Which is nice.

The Spanish side had a lot of windmills (and we had a great lecture today on how Spain is a leader in developing renewable energy today). It has been really neat learning about Spanish history the last several days, particularly the fact that because of the Islamic invasion, Spain continued advancing as a civilization while the rest of Europe fell into the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome. I miss school.

That’s it. I’m off to take Elise to the pool, and tomorrow we’ll hit Barcelona, so there may be silence on our end for a few days.

P.S. We're sailing past Ibiza right now. You can see the clubs from here.