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.