3.27.2009

i lub thailand

Wow. Thailand.

I have to say that heading into Southeast Asia I really didn’t have a lot of plans. I knew I wanted to have an adventure and fly by the seat of my pants but I really didn’t have any expectations about the amazing country that I was about to encounter in Thailand. What I found was a place that was colorful, spicy, friendly and overwhelmingly beautiful. However, more than anything else, Thailand was fun.  It was the perfect combination of an exciting culture, lucky opportunities and amazing travel companions. So let’s start at the very beginning…

The first day we docked in Laem Chabang, a port city about 2.5 hours south of Bangkok.  That afternoon a bunch of my friends and I had all signed up for a visit to the Pattaya Elephant Village so after lunch we hopped on the bus and got on our way. We arrived at the elephant village and were greeted by about 15 elephants! I really love elephants so I was immediately excited. We were able to feed them bunches of bananas and stroke their trunks.  It’s crazy how they use their trunks as an arm, scooping up the bananas, picking them off and popping them into their mouths. If they smell the bananas they immediately stick their trucks out in the direction and grope around to try and find them, like hungry children asking for sweets. This tactic resulted in a lot of elephant snot and a couple messy banana grabs, but no one really minded.

 Once everyone got settled our host asked us if anyone would be interested in helping to bathe the elephants. A few people volunteered and hopped on the elephants’ backs. We all ran down to the river to watch as the elephants trudged into the water and dunked themselves under. Everyone was soaked, laughing and having a great time. Once they were done with their bath we all came back and our host told us about how elephants had formerly been used for labor in the timber industry before it was outlawed by the Thai government. He demonstrated how an elephant master trains his animal and how, once the master has achieve absolute trust, his elephant will lay down in front of him to show that he or she is not afraid. The elephant who was demonstrating lay down and it was such a silly and surprising thing to see. You never see elephants lying down and she looked kind of like a big wrinkly dog.

They then showed us how to get onto the elephants back by holding onto the ear, stepping on the knee joint and hoisting yourself up.  Everyone got a chance to hop up on the elephants’ backs and go for a quick ride around the village. After coming back together we got to meet a male elephant and one who had formerly worked in a circus. The elephants came right up to us while we were sitting and were so big and beautiful and gentle. I was in the front and literally had an elephant standing next to me for a lot of the presentation. Very cool. Finally, we were treated to a Thai drum performance and then took one more ride around the village before it was time to go.

After the elephant village a few of us decided to stay in Pattaya instead of heading back to the ship.  Pattaya is a beach town with lots of restaurants, shops, bars and a number of go-go clubs. My friends Steve, Hussain, Disha, Keith, Martha and I split off on our own and decided to explore and find some dinner. We found a restaurant and immediately settled in for a meal and some local Thai beer. We ordered dinners and I got a dry aromatic peanut curry with shrimp. It was definitely spicier than I had anticipated but it was so tasty.  We took turns tasting everyone else’s food, finished our beers and went to go explore some more. We had heard that there was a night market in Pattaya so we walked around trying to find it. We shopped a little and eventually found a network of stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs, clothes, muy thai gear, backpacks and pretty much anything you can imagine. We had a great time shopping and joking around and after making it out of the market we decided to go find a place to sit a have a drink.

We walked down the street and the Thai women would catcall from inside the bars, beckoning to our male friends and trying to pull them inside.  We had learned a lot about the sex trade and sex workers in Thailand and it was kind of shocking to see the women (and men as women) in person, literally in almost every bar and club along the streets. We finally found a place with less aggressive women and after our drinks we decided to go out in search of street food.

We walked around past all the bars and found a few street stalls out in front of a 7-11. We went in and bought some Thai snacks and drinks and when we got back out there were plates of noodles with egg and pork waiting for us. They were hot, fresh and absolutely delicious. After our snacks we saw a phone café down the street so we stopped there to make some quick calls home. While we were waiting we watched the bar across the street which was full of Thai women dancing and, as we saw everywhere else in Pattaya, lots of older white men enjoying their company. A bunch of other people on the ship went to go see ping pong shows, but luckily everyone in my group was unanimously creeped out by the idea. If you don’t know what a ping pong show is, I promise you don’t want to.

I went inside the cafe to make a quick phone call and when I came out I saw everyone huddled around a street cart which had piles of insects on it. My friend Steve informed me that he bought a bag of grasshoppers and we were all going to eat them. The man at the cart fried up the grasshoppers, seasoned them and gave the bag to Steve. I really don’t like bugs so I couldn’t even make myself stick my hand in the bag to touch them. I actually tried to but then freaked out and dropped my grasshopper on the ground. My friend Keith just popped it in his mouth like a chip and Steve, Martha and Hussain all sucked it up and chomped theirs down. I kept saying I would grab it by the thorax and Martha said that I definitely was not allowed to say thorax if she had any hope of eating hers. Finally Hussain grabbed the last grasshopper, a big one, and I let him pop it in my mouth. Disha got the head and I got the body and both of us freaked and danced around while we chewed and finally swallowed. Honestly, it was really crunchy but it tasted fine, kind of like popcorn or soy nuts.  Plus, now I can say I ate a grasshopper.

After our buggy snack we decided to catch a taxi home. All the taxis from Pattaya were pickup trucks with roofs, open sides and benches that you sit on in the back of the truck. We all piled into a truck and made the 40 minute drive back to the port. The breeze was great and we enjoyed laughing about the grasshoppers, hookers and silly things the whole way home. When we got back to the port all of our friends were sitting outside, hanging out, and recounting their adventures in Pattaya. We joined them for a little while, laughing and having a good time until it was time for bed.

I really wanted to have an adventure in Thailand and I had originally planned to go to Bangkok the next day and stay there until it was time to get back on the ship. I had toyed with the idea of flying to Phuket or trying to go to this Half Moon Party on an island off of Koh Sumoi but both of those seemed expensive and involved flying which I didn’t want to do on my own. However, Keith, Steve and Hussain were all going on an SAS trip to this island called Koh Samet which is only an hour taxi and 15 minute boat ride from our port. They said that I could stay with them in their hotel room for free and basically just hang out. I decided that this was exactly the kind of adventure I wanted and by the time we got out of the taxi at the port I had decided that I definitely wanted to do it. My friend Hannah was sitting outside when we got back and after she decided to come with me I knew it was going to be great.

The Koh Samet trip wasn’t until Wednesday morning so I still had the whole next day to myself. I had hopped online the night before trying to figure out something to do and had come across a Thai cooking class that this woman Angsana Andersson teaches in her home. I love cooking and I was even more excited about the idea of learning traditional food in a home setting. I had written her on short notice and wasn’t sure if she was going to get back to me, but when I got back on the ship after Pattaya I had a message from Angsana saying that she would be able to teach me the next day and that I should call her when I arrived in Bangkok.

The next morning I hopped on a bus and took the 2.5 hour drive up to Bangkok. I called Angsana and she told me to come by her house around noon. I had some time to kill so I walked around this area mall called Central World. It was a giant, westernized mall and I decided to find some food since I had skipped breakfast and didn’t want to cook on an empty stomach. There was a pizza place that I had seen ads for so I stopped in to order some food. I got a Tom Yung pizza with shrimp, calamari, pineapple, mushrooms and Thai chili sauce. I figured if I was going to eat chain restaurant pizza it should at least be interesting.
When it was almost 12 I hopped on the Bangkok version of the subway, an elevated network called the sky train. I got off at the Ohn Nut station and made the short walk to Angsana’s house. She was at the store buying ingredients when I arrived and I was greeted by her mother. Angsana came back and introduced me to her husband and 1-year old daughter Victoria. Originally, she had been working in Bangkok teaching Thai to foreigner when she met her husband who is originally from Sweden. After they married they moved to Florida for a few years and then transferred back to Thailand in order to raise their two kids and be closer to her family.

Angsana took me back into the kitchen and we got ingredients ready to make khao niow mamuang (mango sticky rice), gaeng khoa sapparot (red curry with shrimp and pineapple) and moo satay (pork satay with peanut sauce). We put the rice in the steamer, marinated the pork and then got to work making the chili paste for the red curry. I chopped up spices, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and chili peppers and then ground them with a mortar and pestle in order to make the paste which would serve as the base for most of the sauces and curries we would make.

Once the rice was done we poured over a mix of sugar, salt, jasmine oil and coconut milk and let it sit to absorb. We skewered the pork and made the peanut sauce to go along with it. Then I diced up vegetables and pineapples, de-veined the shrimp and we got ready to make the curry. We mixed the chili paste in the wok with the shrimp and vegetables and then added coconut milk, fish sauce, palm sugar and at the very last minute threw in some more fresh chilis.  The smell of everything cooking was incredible – spicy and garlicky and sweet – and it hung in the air in the kitchen as we cooked. The last thing we did was make a vinegar/cucumber sauce to go with the pork satay and then it was time to eat.  The pork was tender and tasted great with the mildly spicy peanut sauce and the cool vinegar to set off the creaminess. The shrimp curry was hot, spicy and so delicious. The coconut milk and the palm sugar set off the spice of the chilis and the saltiness of the fish sauce and it was so good.  Finally we took out the sticky rice and cut up a fresh mango to go along with it. The mango was awesome and tasted great with the sweet sticky rice. I left full, satisfied and with a bag full of leftovers.  I thanked Angsana and took the sky train back to the Siam stop.

I had a few hours to kill by myself but didn’t want to stray too far from where the bus was picking us up so I decided to explore the Siam stop area. I looked around a few outside markets selling clothes and then went into this giant western-looking mall. It had 9 stories and the ground floor was an aquarium. I bought some books at a bookstore and sat down with a Thai iced tea to read a little. I grabbed some dinner, walked around some more and finally hopped the bus back to the port.

The next morning Hannah and I got up early, grabbed breakfast and decided on our plan for getting to Koh Samet. We were getting our taxi just as the SAS trip was coming out to their bus and we told Keith, Hussain and Steve we would see them at the island. We were really excited for an adventure and we knew that it was going to be a great day. We took a taxi to Ban Phe and then hopped a 15 minute speedboat to Koh Samet. We were let off at the end of one of the nicest beaches I’ve seen. It immediately reminded me of the summers we used to spend in the Bahamas with the Haestads, wearing nothing but bathing suits and just playing all day. We walked onto the beach and both Hannah and I just smiled because we knew we had made a great decision.

We figured that we were ahead of the SAS trip so we decided to just walk down the beach and hang out until they arrived and then try to find someone. We had worn our bathing suits under our clothes so we dropped our backpacks and ran into the water. It was so clear and warm and perfect. We laid in the sun for a little while until all of a sudden my friend Bradee comes walking down the beach. She pointed us in the direction of the hotel so we walked up the beach and within 5 minutes we found the guys. We all decided to get some lunch, drop our stuff and then enjoy the beach.  We sat down at a beachfront café for some pad thai and fried rice and after lunch dropped our stuff off in the guys’ bungalows. It turns out that each of the rooms, in addition to the double bed, also had a padded window seat which was about the size of a twin bed, which meant a perfect (and free) place for us to sleep!
We decided to leave everything and just get on our bathing suits and enjoy the beach. I think we spent most of the rest of the afternoon playing in the waves and hanging out in the ocean. We hurdled the waves and swam out to the buoys. The guys did flips and tried to ride in on their stomachs and we just had a great time joking, laughing, and marveling at the fact that it was a Tuesday afternoon in March and we were at the beach in Thailand. I couldn’t even tell you what was so funny but we were laughing the entire time and I felt like a little kid again.  We stayed in until all our fingers were pruney and then we decided to go explore the rest of the beach.

We walked down past the sculptures of Buddha and the Mermaid that were on one of the rocks and sat down at another beachfront restaurant for D1 (dinner 1). The guys got fried rice and sticky rice and Hannah and I ordered nachos. We listened to Thai covers of 90s music and while the boys got their food our nachos never came. We asked around until about half an hour later we were informed that they were out of nachos and forgot to tell us. Le sigh. We knew D2 would be in a few hours so we just turned back around on the beach and decided to find a place to get massages.

We had been told many times that Thai massages were incredible, not to mention very inexpensive so when Hussain, Hannah and I saw some women who were given massages on the beach, we settled down while Steve and Keith decided to go explore some more. The massage was awesome. I could hear the sound of the waves and the women speaking in Thai and I’m pretty sure I fell asleep at one point as it was so relaxing. When I woke up the sun had started to set and I felt great. It was almost like waking up from a kriya. We looked around for Keith and Steve but since they weren’t back yet we decided to run into the water and wait for them.  We played and when we got out we realized it was cold so we ran back in, Baywatch-ing it the whole way.

Once Keith and Steve came back we all cleaned up and found a place for D2 that had tables on the sand and little cushions that you sat on and faced the ocean. We ordered kabobs, garlic bread, and corn on the cob and enjoyed dinner on the beach. The kabobs and the corn were really good and the garlic bread was really strong and kind of raw? But overall everything was tasty.  After D2 we decided to go back up the beach to Buddy Bar for a D3 of desserts and drinks. We ordered a banana split, 3 baskets of fries and a satsung bucket which was basically a small beach bucket filled with ice, red bull, vodka and coke with a bunch of straws stuck into it. We dug into our fries and ice cream and left an empty bucket on the table after a satisfying D3.

A bunch of other SAS kids were at the restaurant with us and after D3 everyone walked down to beach to a pub on the water. There was music and dancing and fire show.  We danced and then sat down to watch the guys spin fire on the beach. They had flaming batons, rings and chains and it was incredible to watch. They would throw the batons up in the air and catch them effortlessly and they would spin the chains around them making all kinds of patterns in the air. After the fire show we decided we wanted to night swimming so we took off our clothes and ran into the water. It was still warm, even though the air was chilly, and it was fun to just lay back and appreciate the night, laughing and joking as always.  After a good swim we walked back on the beach to our bungalows and passed out.

The next morning we all met up in Keith and Hussain’s room and went to get breakfast. Breakfast was free with the hotel which meant that it was free for Hannah and me too! Yess. We decided that we wanted to get back in the water since we only had a little time left. Keith went to go to the internet café to call his girlfriend and the rest of us ran into the water just as it was starting to drizzle.  Pretty soon the drizzle turned to a pour and we all continued to swim in the ocean while the rain fell. It was really fun, especially since the rain and the air were cold but the water was nice and warm.

Eventually though it began to thunder and lightning and we decided it probably wasn’t a good idea to be in the water. Keith wasn’t back yet but we decided to just make a run for it. We ran all the way back to the bungalows and hopped in the warm shower in Steve’s room since we were all shivering. We dried off, watched some of Field of Dreams and then got ready to head home. We asked the tour guide if we would get a ride back with the SAS trip and he said to just make ourselves invisible and get on the boat. We stowed away on the boat and the bus and were able to make it back to the ship for free! All in all, an awesome adventure.

After getting back to the ship we re-packed our bags and got a taxi to Bangkok. We had a hostel booked where a bunch of our friends were staying so we grabbed a van and started the trip. The drive usually takes about 2 and a half hours but once we got into Bangkok our driver got really lost. That along with the combination of bad traffic turned our ride into 4 hours. The van kept playing a loop of bad love ballads, Celine Dion, Thai covers and Stand By Me by the temptations. I love Stand By Me but this was painful.  All of us were exhausted from the night before, still full of Thai redbull and a little bit delirious.  However, when we arrived at our hostel and Bangkok all of our stress and delirium melted away.

The place was called Lub d Bangkok (sleep in Bangkok) and it was awesome. Free internet, a big open lobby, all kinds of rooms with big bunk beds, clean modern style and a really great atmosphere. It was clean, friendly and all of our friends were there to greet us. We were absolutely starving so we went out to get some dinner. We stopped at the first place we saw with food and ordered generous helpings of noodles and rices and curries. For dessert a bunch of people tried fried bananas with ice cream and I got this thing called taro mousse with gingo nuts, which we ended up calling it grimace soup. It was a warm sweet white broth with little purple chunks in it that were the exact color of Gimace, the McDonalds character. Despite its unusual coloring it was actually pretty tasty and we all left feeling full and happy.

We decided we wanted to check out some of the night markets so we walked through the Patpong area toward the Suan Lum market. We looked at all the stalls and bought a few things. I got a pair of flowy pants since so many of the countries we’ve been visiting are really really hot, but require legs and arms to be covered. We decided to take an alternate route back to the hostel and just walked around the city enjoying the sights and sounds. We were told by some faculty that we had to try durian, a fruit that apparently smells terrible but tastes great. I don’t know who decided on the tastes great part but we bought one from a street vendor and were fairly grossed out. The smell was not so great and it kind of tasted like a garlic mango? Plus the consistency was really gross. Overall – grasshoppers=yum, durian= noooo.  We bought some sodas and dragon fruit to get the durian taste out of our mouths and headed back to the hostel. Since we were all still tired from the night before so we decided to just hang out, enjoy the free internet and get some sleep so we could explore the city in the morning.

We got up bright and early the next day with the resolve to see the sights and get back to the ship on time. We saw the Grand Palace which was beautiful and ornate. We saw a few of the buildings and stopped in the monastery to see the Emerald Buddha. It was blistering hot out though and we all felt like we were melting. Literally, on this trip I am becoming increasingly amazed at how much sweat my body can produce - a disgusting but true fact.  After the palace we made the walk to Wat Pho which is home to the giant reclining Buddha. The reclining Buddha is incredible and, most notably, HUGE. It’s a giant sculpture of the Buddha, all gold and glowing, showing him in reclining position.  He is literally 15m long tall, 46m long and fills the entire space. His feet are decorated with mother of pearl, as are his eyes. When you walk in there are people dropping coins into little buckets in order to bring prosperity so the entire space echoes with the clinking of the coins.

 After seeing the Buddha we took a cab up to Koh San road which is a street famous for being a backpackers hangout. We got a great Thai lunch and shopped around before making our way back to the hostel.  All of the monuments were beautiful and it was nice to make sure that we saw the big sights before leaving Bangkok. After lunch we met our friends at the hostel and grabbed a taxi back to the ship, making it back just in time for on-ship time.

Overall, I think that I had such a good time in Thailand, not only because of the country, but because of the way this trip has changed the way I think about travel. Normally when we go somewhere we plan and have an itinerary and make sure that we know what’s happening, to who, and when. If anything, as this trip progresses I’m finding myself wanting to do exactly the opposite. I want to have adventures and not make plans and just go with whatever happens.

My friend Dave on this trip is my independent travel idol. In Cape Town he hitchhiked all the way to the Cape of Good Hope and back again, camping on the beach and relying on the kindness of strangers. And while I don’t think that I’m ready for a hitchhiking adventure just yet, I really am more open to the idea of just seeing where things take me. As long as I have a place to sleep, I’m down for anything.

I’ve also realized that it truly is the people you’re with that make your travels awesome. You learn a lot about people when you travel with them and on this trip I was lucky enough to travel with a really great group. Sure it took us four hours in a 10-person van to get to Bangkok and we were all sweaty and exhausted and starving, but we made it and I was still laughing as we walked into the lobby. I’ve met so many incredible people on this voyage and I’m encountering new ones all the time.

We hit the halfway mark of the trip two days before we arrived in Thailand. It was definitely a bittersweet day as it means that now we’re officially on our way home. But, it was also neat to think that, while I know the second half of the voyage is going to fly, I still have a whole half of my time to fill with as many adventures as possible. And I intend to do just that.

We arrive in Vietnam tomorrow and we’ll see where it takes me,

lia

intensely india

Since Art of Living really was its own experience I figured it deserved its own blog entry, not to mention the fact that you deserve not to read a zillion pages of blog at a time.

The morning after Dakshinachitra my friend Hannah and I decided we really wanted to get on one of the service visits that SAS was doing the next day. We got up early and were able to make it on the bus for the visit to the Samarpana handicapped home and orphanage.

The Samarpana visit was great but heartbreaking at the same time. We arrived at the home and there were about 55 mentally and physically disabled people ranging from small children to adults. We all went into a large square room and were given time to just hang out and play before they ate breakfast. The entire room was full of excitement as we played catch, hand clapping games, and just hung out. The highlight for the kids though, was seeing cameras. They loved them and wanted to take a million pictures. They loved to take a picture and then run over to have you show it to them on the screen, laughing and smiling whenever they saw themselves in a photo.  I took pictures with three little kids named Vijay, Lakshmi and Priyanka and played catch with my friend Taylor and another one of the kids.

After playing it was time for everyone to have breakfast. We passed out big tin plates to everyone and they were given scoops of rice and a sweet that I can only describe as really thick cream of wheat but sweeter. We all sat back while they ate their breakfast and then we split up into groups to do work around the house/school. People did laundry, cleared dishes, and took rags to start dusting. They needed people to clip fingernails so some of my friends and I volunteered. Everyone eats with their hands so it’s important that their nails are kept short and clean so no one gets sick. None of the kids or adults spoke English but we communicated with charades and everyone was very sweet while we cut their nails.

After all the nails were clipped I played some cricket with the kids in the front yard. Basically we just had a ball and a big plastic cricket bat and it reminded me of playing baseball in the backyard with my dad as a kid. I would pitch and the kids would hit, with some helping me field. I played a lot with Vijay and he was hilarious, responding to jokes and striking poses whenever I would pretend to wind up too much or take too long to pitch.  After cricket I went inside to play with a few more of the kids and everyone eventually filtered back into the big square room to play more before it was time to go.

Almost all of the kids we met had some kind of mental or physical disability but there were a few kids that the people who ran the home called “flappy children”. They didn’t speak, were unable to move their arms or legs and their limbs were so small and frail. One of the little girls, Swetha, was 7 years old but she looked like she couldn’t have been older than one or two.  My friend Hannah spent almost the entire morning holding this one little boy named Suresh. Even though he couldn’t really move or speak you could tell that he was totally aware of his surroundings and when he smiled his whole face lit up like a light. When the kids were dusting the grate above the square room Hannah pretended that dust was going to fall on their heads and would pretend to scream and run and spin in order to avoid it. Suresh absolutely loved this game and was smiling from ear to ear the whole time.

It was really great to get to visit the home, play with all the kids and the adults, and to hold the children. Everyone we met was well cared for and all of them were so sweet. But at the same time, all of us left feeling a little helpless. The people who live at Samarpana are the ones who no one in society wanted. Their families abandoned them, the hospitals said they were lost causes and wouldn’t treat them, and they were just given up on. The home gives them a nice place to live, clothes and food and schooling, but there’s just so much that they need and so little that can be done. There are 55 of them and only 5 people who work in the home.  The people who work there provide wonderful care, but they’re spread so thin. Even something little, like clipping fingernails, is a task. Between that and bathing, dressing, feeding and teaching everyone it leaves very little time for things like playing cricket or holding the kids like Swetha and Suresh. It really impressed upon me how much people need each other and I was reminded of Veda's lecture on responsibility. There is so much that needs to be done and I hope that I can at least do something.

After leaving Samarpana we headed back to the ship for lunch before heading out to explore Chennai. A group of us decided to get into some auto rickshaws and check out the city. Auto rickshaws are these little three-wheeled taxis which are basically a motorbike with a three person backseat, covered top and open sides. The six of us piled into two rickshaws and headed out into Chennai. We had heard that the traffic in India was crazy and we were not disappointed. There were motorbikes everywhere, other rickshaws, cars and buses. There are lanes but no one really uses them and driving through the city is a symphony of horns. Unlike in the US, car horns aren’t just for when you get cut off, but rather a way to let other drivers know where you are and what you’re doing. You honk when you’re passing, coming up next to someone, moving over, and just like home, when you’re pissed off at the other drivers. The horns are all different tones and pitches and you hear them everywhere. I loved riding in the rickshaws though and kind of really wish I could take one home. It would be great to cruise around Middlebury/Woodbury in the summer with the sides open and the breeze coming in. India is so hot and the breeze in the rickshaw felt so good.

After our adventures in traffic we arrived at the Pondi Bazaar. We walked around and bought some bangles, henna paste and took in the sights and smells. More than any other place I’ve been, smell was the sense that captured India. Walking through the city is a mix of sewage, jasmine flowers, fruit, garbage, food cooking at street stands, car exhaust, henna, smog and spices. We wandered around, stopped to try some Indian sweets (everyone really liked the ghee), and then went back to our rickshaw drivers. Taylor and Jess wanted to get some henna done so our drivers took us to two guys on the street just outside the bazaar. The men worked so quickly and the henna was absolutely beautiful. Even though Hannah and I had gotten some on our palms at Dakshinachitra we sat down and got the other side of our hands done because their work was just so intricate.

We had heard of a great place called Mocha to go for dinner but we still had some time to kill so the rickshaw drivers took us to a few shops downtown. They way it works is that the drivers have certain stores and if they take you to them then they get a kickback and if you buy something they get even more. The problem starts when you have a destination and they keep making unwanted pit stops. People wanted to see some handicrafts so we let the drivers take us to the stores they knew. There was one store that had really funny salesmen and we quickly made friends. Most of the guys working there were around our age or a little older and we had a good time joking around with them. Hannah and I ended up buying Christmas ornaments and they said that if we bought one, we could have one of the salesmen for free. We ended up just getting two ornaments but we stayed for a soda and a picture before heading back out.

At this point we wanted to go to Mocha but the drivers told us it didn’t open until 5:30. We let them take us to one more place, popped our heads in and left. We asked them to take us to the restaurant and they said it didn’t open until 6:30. At this point we realized that we were being “given a haircut” as my dad likes to say and we adamantly insisted that they take us to Mocha.  After some more stop attempts and more insisting we finally made it to the restaurant, which we found out had opened at 11am. After some terse words with the drivers, we went into the restaurant. We were all a little shaken up by our tension with the rickshaw drivers, but after we walked into the restaurant we immediately felt better.

The place was really cool. Completely outdoors with lights everywhere, comfy booths, long low tables with pillows and a river flowing down the middle, one table and chairs covered in Astroturf and just a really neat atmosphere. They had a menu full of really tasty sounding western food and a huge assortment of hookah flavors. Plus, free wi-fi. We settled into a booth and spent a while reading over the long menu. They had whole pages for milkshake flavors, kinds of coffee and lots of sandwiches. We ordered  a whole bunch of sandwiches, shakes, teas and some blueberry hookah. We smoked our hookah and joked about our rickshaw adventure until the food started to arrive. Everyone got theirs but mine hadn’t come out yet so I told them to just eat figuring it would be out soon. We asked someone and they said it was coming but pretty soon everyone else was done and I was still sandwich-less. Bummer. Everyone ordered dessert and eventually I got a hold of someone and explained that it was really no big deal but can I please have some food? Finally once the desserts had been consumed, my sandwich came and I think I made my chicken and pesto croque-monsiuer disappear in record time.

After inhaling my dinner I decided that I wasn’t quite ready to head back to the ship for the night so I ended up staying with some of our other friends from Art of Living who had been seated at the booth next to us. We smoked some more hookah and I had some really tasty masala chai. On the way home the five of us squeezed into a rickshaw and decided to play the rickshaw game where you try and touch as many other cars and rickshaws as you can while you’re in traffic. Double points if you high five someone and a million points if you can switch places with someone driving a motorbike and no one notices. We had a great time all smushed into the rickshaw with Hussain trying to high five people and no one knowing why he was sticking his hand out at them.

The next morning was our last in Chennai so we decided to go see the Shiva temple and then get some last minute shopping done before heading back to the ship. The Shiva temple is a Hindu temple in the middle of the city and it’s so colorful and beautiful. All of the Hindu temples we saw were so intricate and just exploding with color. The tops of the temple towers were covered with carvings of gods and goddess and stories from the Ramayana and the Gita and its almost overwhelming to try and take in all the imagery.

 We walked around and over to one side in the temple and saw that there was a wedding going on. I’ve always wanted to go to an Indian wedding so I walked over to get a closer look. A few people came over to my friend Disha and I and it turns out they were the brother and sister of the bride. Apparently Indian people really like to have tourists at their weddings? Or so we had heard, but they asked us if we wanted to take a picture with the bridge and groom. We jumped at the chance. A bunch of younger girls at the wedding must have gotten a kick out of us as well b/c they walked up shyly and asked if we could take a picture with them too. We did and talked for a little while before piling back in the rickshaws and heading out.

All of us brought our laptops and went to Mocha again for omelets and free wi-fi and then headed over to Spencer mall for last minute shopping. I bought a bunch of silk scarves as gifts and we browsed the book stores and silk shops before heading back to the ship.

After India you could really sense a change in everyone on the ship. We all had a lot on our minds and if the trip had started to change us before, it was really starting to show now. My friends and I all went to the post-port reflection meeting where people get up to share their stories from the port and everyone had something to say about the children, the cows, the poverty and the garbage. But we also had so much to say about the kindness of everyone we met, the beauty of the country, the awe people felt when seeing the Taj. We had been put in the middle of a place so different to what we were familiar with and it was both wonderful and overwhelming.

I know that my experience in India will inform the rest of my travels and will stick with me long after I arrive back in the states. I want to return as soon as possible and see the rest of the country – Agra, Jaipur, Varanasi, Kerala and Delhi – and experience their strong regional identities.

In the meantime though, the travels continue, and as we race through Asia I know that I will continue to be changed by my experiences. I’m looking forward to it and look forward to sharing it with you.

art of living pt. 2

We woke up bright and early again the next morning for coco and 6:30 and class at 7:00. We started this day much like the previous, with stretching, yoga and a short guided meditation.  After breakfast we watched a video with Sri Sri Ravvi Shankar, the man who designed the Art of Living course, about the 5 arrows of love and then had another half-class before lunch. After lunch Veda talked with us about continuing our education in Art of Living and showed us how to do a mini kriya without the tape.
 I didn’t really want to do another kriya since my last one had been so good but I ended up being glad we did. This time, instead of images, my thoughts were filled with music. As I breathed all of sudden my mind remembered this beautiful recording I have of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the hymn Peace Like a River, one of my favorites. The song looped in my head while we breathed and as I lay down I heard another hymn that we sing every Sunday at MUUS called Spirit of Life. The lyrics of both of the songs were so fitting for the experience I was having and I awoke again feeling incredibly at peace.

After class we had time to explore the village and my friend Hannah and I got henna done on our hands and watched as some of our friends got their palms read. We headed back for another class session where Veda had planned a samsat. A samsat is a Hindu tradition with singing and dancing. The songs are call and response style and everyone in the group is involved.
Before we began, Veda talked us about the ego. She defined it as the way we are affected by the opinions of others and how we act differently because of it. She encouraged us to remember when we were children and we didn’t care about ego. With that thought in our minds, the musicians came to join us and our samsat began. We sang along with a few songs and on the more upbeat ones some of the women encouraged us to dance. They began to dance and we followed along and pretty soon everyone was just dancing, jumping, clapping and doing their thing. Someone later remarked that it was the first time they had danced sober since middle school and they had forgotten how much fun it could be. We put Veda’s lesson about ego to good use and really had a great time.

After that we had a break between classes and a bunch of us decided to get our palms read. We quickly ate a snack of onion fritters and fresh grape juice (mind blowingly good –tasted like eating a handful of grapes) and we headed over to the palm reader. She only spoke Tamil so Veda was nice enough to come over and translate for us. I sat listening to the fortunes of my friends and they all sounded great. The palm reader told them about their life lines, heart lines, how many kids they would have, when they would marry etc. When it was my turn I was excited but a little nervous as I told the palm reader my age, name, picked a # from 1-12 and picked a flower. I picked 6 and lotus and she scattered a handful of cowl shells. She told me that I was blessed by God and that the charity and good work of my family and ancestors protects me (thanks mom and dad).  She told me 7 was a lucky number and 4 and 6 were not. She said that in a year and half two big events would happen in my family, possibly involving the buying and selling of property. Then she read my palm.

She said that my lifeline was good but that my heart line was not good. She said I would work in education and that I would travel and wouldn’t live in the same place I grew up. She said that I was going to have health problems, not serious ones, but that I would have to see a doctor. She said that I would worry about small things and would make myself sick with headache and heartburn and that when I was confused in my life I should do nothing. She did say I would have a good marriage though, would be successful at my job, would marry between 23 and 26 and have one boy and one girl. At the end I asked her about my mother and her health and she said that my family would also have some health problems.

At first coming away from the reading I was a little shaken. Everyone else’s readings had been so good and really positive for the most part, but mine had been not so great and everyone in the group was a little bummed out by it. I don’t usually feel confused or worried about small stuff and I was a little unsettled about it to be honest. I headed into our last Art of Living class with a lot on my mind.

Upon arriving in class Veda had us split into groups of 5 and told us we were each going to tell a story to our peers. We had a few minutes each to just tell our own life stories to each other. I learned a lot about my group members and it was really cool to learn not only the facts they told, but the things that they felt were important to share about themselves. I was surprised by a guy named Bill who had transferred schools a few times and was trying to figure out what to do next, especially after getting home from the trip. I was really touched by a girl named Molly who admitted to us that after high school she felt really out on her own at college and lost herself. She began to run way too much and just wasn’t healthy. She told us about how supportive her family had been and she began to tear up as she told us about how much they had stood by her and helped her.  All of us talked about how our voyage has already started to change us and the challenge that faces us when we get home and have to reconcile our new perspective with our old surroundings.  At the end of our time we all hugged and headed back to our spots.

We did some other games and exercises and then did one where we sat directly across from another person. Without speaking we looked them in the eyes and tried to convey to them the fact that we appreciated and accepted them. We could hold hands if we wanted to and I sat across from my friends Keith and Hussain. Veda told us that we should look at each person we come in contact with and try to accept them unconditionally for who they are. Imagine that they are God, incarnate as that person. We can’t know everyone’s life stories, where they come from or what important to them, but if we can accept them as they are; you never know who might be able to teach you things.

The last thing we did in the class was a guided meditation. Veda had us imagine ourselves at different ages – 6 months, 2, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 40, 60 and 80; The first few ages I had such clear pictures of myself; looking up to see my mother, playing in our yard on Birchwood street, being at Chase and UConn and of the people in my life. It made me feel so lucky to reflect on the wonderful life I’ve had so far. As I tried to imagine my future it was both difficult and exciting. I don’t know what my life will be like at 25, 30, 40, etc. I know I want a family, a home, children and grandchildren. I know I want to work but I don’t know where or even doing what really. I realized that I’m curious and excited to see how my life unfolds.

Doing this meditation also put me at ease about my palm reading and helped me to realize a few things. I know I have the potential to make myself sick if I choose to, but I also have the potential to keep myself healthy. I can either take this palm reading and give it weight, or I can let it go and live in the moment. I had just spent the last three days feeling so relaxed and happy and I decided that I’m not going to let something silly like a palm reading cloud the fact that I am whole and healthy and well. As Veda said, this moment is inevitable. If any of those things on my palm do happen, I can only control how I respond to them. I’m deciding to be happy and take things as they come and I believe that thought is far more powerful than anything someone may have seen on my palms.

After our last class was over we thanked Veda, had one last delicious Indian meal, said goodbye to Gobal James, and took our bus back to the ship.

art of living


Hi everyone. If you’ve been checking the blog and you read my “sorry-I-am-so-behind-post” you know that’s just been really hard to put my experience in India into words. But at this point the trip is moving fast and I can’t exactly put this off any longer. It took all of us on the ship a while to process everything that we saw in India and I’m just going to do my best to tell you what I saw, smelt, heard and tasted and hopefully we’ll get somewhere by the end…

That being said, before we even got there India was definitely one of the ports that I was most excited about visiting. My dad went there for a medical conference when I was a freshman in high school and ever since I’ve wanted to see it. I’m fascinated by the culture and the people and the history. Last semester I took a modern Indian history course which only deepened my knowledge of the country and my desire to see it with my own eyes.  In our pre-port meetings before every country they pump us full of expectations, which I kind of love and kind of hate. The result is that we arrive in most ports expecting them to be simultaneously life-changing and violently threatening, and India was no exception.

India was also the first country in which I signed up for a big SAS trip. Usually I prefer to travel independently as it’s a little more spontaneous and involves a lot less time on tour busses. But, I had seen a photo slideshow about this trip last year on the SAS website and after talking to my friend Vinny who had done it last semester I decided that it would be a great experience. It was called the Art of Living, which is a program designed by the guru Sri Sri Raavi Shankar (although not the same Raavi Shankar who played sitar with The Beatles).  It’s a combination of yoga, breathing and meditation, as well as group and personal reflection. (You can learn more about it at www.artofliving.org if you’re into that).

We all assembled for the trip, got onto the bus with our boxed lunches and started the drive to Mamallapuram, which is a town outside of Chennai known for its temples. As we drove through Chennai we got our first glimpses of the city and the way that people lived. We drove along the coast and could see all of the boats out catching fish and then strips of markets where people tried to sell their catches. On the opposite side were all the houses where they fishermen and their families lived, and it was astounding to see. Their homes were made out of palm fronds all woven together into flat planks and then stacked on top of each other to make walls and a roof. There was garbage absolutely everywhere and people were just living on top of each other. No electricity, no running water and filth abounded. There were some homes that weren’t even palm fronds but were just tarps propped up with some poles like a makeshift tent. However, they weren’t makeshift and you could see women and children sitting in the doorways looking out. We had heard over and over that India was a country of contrast and juxtaposition and this was our first glimpse of how true that statement would be.

We arrived in Mamallapuram and Sushela, our guide brought us to this rock which had been carved originally to make a temple, but was then left unfinished. The outside of the rock was beautiful, with a whole pantheon of Hindu gods, cows, elephants and depictions of stories carved on the outside. On the inside they had carved out a cave with pillars and there were more gods and vignettes represented on the walls. We walked a little down the road into a park to see something called “Krishna’s Butter Ball”. There was a little stone slope and on it rested a giant boulder – the butter ball.  It looked like it could just fall and start rolling down the hill but somehow it stayed balanced on the ledge. A bunch of Indian schoolboys were sitting in the shade underneath it and would take turns sliding down the stone slope on their butts. My friend Molly and I saw and thought it looked really fun so we decided to try. The boys got a big kick out of us and it was really fun to slide. The hill was slippery and we ended up going pretty quick. After sliding we headed back to the bus.

The minute we had stepped off the bus when we arrived we were swarmed by people trying to sell carvings and charms and drums as well as women and children begging for food and money. It was hard to turn away from these women and children and get back on an air conditioned bus and I felt simultaneously guilty and helpless- knowing that giving them money wouldn’t really help and that I couldn’t give to everyone, but also knowing that not giving was just as bad.  We saw two other temple sites and the situation was pretty similar. The carvings and temples were beautiful and intricate and everywhere we were followed by a similar group of merchants and beggars.  Before leaving we got together all of the food from our boxed lunches and gave it to the kids outside the bus. It was good to be able to do something, but at the same time we knew that it was kind of like putting a band-aid on a broken bone.  That feeling was one that I would experience a lot during my time in India and after.

After leaving Mamallapuram we drove to Dakshinachitra, the heritage village where we would be staying while we did the Art of Living program. Dakshinachitra is kind of like a south Indian Sturbridge Village, in that it’s a recreation of the traditional south Indian way of living with period style homes and craftsmen. There’s a potter’s house, a weaver’s house where they made silk saris, and a glass blower. There are also craftsmen who live in the village with their families and sell their crafts in the market that they have daily in the middle of the village. They led us through the village to the guest houses where we would be staying. The accommodations were Spartan but nice; brick walls with thin cots, ceiling fans to help with the heat and a bathroom with a bucket and cup for a shower and a squatter toilet. We were welcomed and given the third eye on our foreheads made with a paste and red powder. We were given a coconut with the top open and a straw and had a chance to explore the village until snack time.
After some delicious vegetable samosas, it was time to go to our first Art of Living class. All the classes were held in this hexagon-shaped room w/ high ceilings, lots of natural light and mats on the floor with a pillow for each of us. We met Veda, our instructor, and she gave us a pen and paper and asked us 3 questions - What do you want in your life? What are you afraid of? and What are your expectations from this course? We wrote our answers and a few people shared their expectations. Veda informed us a little bit about the course and then we dove right in.

First, she showed us how to breathe. We sat on our knees w/ our feet under us and took deep breaths, inhaling and then exhaling from the back of the throat. We then learned a deep breathing technique called Jai breathing where you inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, exhale for 6 counts and then hold for 2. The counts were very slow and it was a little hard to get the hang of. We also learned the three pranayama, or poses for jai breathing, which help to focus energy in different parts of the body, working from the bottom up. Then we learned how to do bhastrika, which is an exercise where we sit and hold our hands in loose fists in line with our shoulders. When Veda says “In” we throw our hands up and take a breath in and when she says “out” we bring them back like we’re closing a shade and then exhale through our noses.
The last thing we learned before ending class was how to chant Ohm. We took a deep breath in and started with the Oh held deep in the back of our throat and then moved to the Mmmm in the top. The “oh” vibrated through our chests and moved upward as the “mmm” vibrated in our throats and mouths. We exhaled on Ohm three times and after slowly opening our eyes we got up and headed to another part of the village for dinner.

The first night we were treated to a traditional south Indian dinner. All the food we ate at Dakshinachitra was vegetarian but this dinner was served on a banana leaf and we ate with our hands. There was chappati bread, thick tasty vegetable curries, rice, noodles, yoghurt, spicy pickles and sweets.  So spicy and so delicious. After dinner we had storytelling. A woman named Devika took us outside and told us stories under the stars. We learned about Shiva and the Ganges, how Ganesha got his elephant head, and a love story about Nala and his princess. The stories were definitely bedtime stories so after almost nodding off under the stars we headed back to the guest houses and fell asleep

We awoke bright and early at 6am for coco at 6:30. We arrived for our first class at 7am and began w/ stretches. Veda stretched us out and taught us a series of yoga poses. We lay down and did the yoga and it was so relaxing and fun. We did some jai breathing and a short meditation and then it was time for breakfast. Before we left Veda asked us to reflect on two questions – What do you need to be happy? and When will you  be happy? We headed off to eat with those questions in our minds, feeling refreshed and relaxed. After another delicious vegetarian meal and good conversation we headed back for our second class.
We lay down and listened to Veda talk and then split into pairs to talk about the questions. I was with my friend Kelly and I told her that what I need to be happy is to have people in my life who I can love and care for and who will love and care for me. I said that in order to be happy I want to find some way to positively impact the space that I live in and life a life that is purposeful. She agreed, especially on the loving and being loved.

When we talked about when we will be happy, I had to say that honestly, I am happy now.  I wake up every day and I have to marvel at how lucky I am to be where I am in my life. And even more than that, I am so thankful for the fact that I am so surrounded by love. We came back as a group and Veda said that so many people think, “when I do this, then I’ll be happy”. When I get this job, when I get a boyfriend, when I graduate, then I’ll be happy. But that’s not the case. Happiness is not conditional and it doesn’t follow a timeline. It’s our mind’s natural tendency to wander toward the future or the past, but the only moment that is real and that we have control over is the present.  Veda said, “This moment is inevitable” and all we can do is choose how we respond to it. The only time that you can be happy is right now.

As Veda was talking, I began to get tears in my eyes. I had traveled halfway around the world, by plane and by ship and by bus, and here I was being told that somehow, I had started to get it right. The thing that made me emotional though, was that if anything had taught me be grateful and happy in the present; it was losing my good friend Adam last year. Adam was one of those incredible people that you meet only rarely in your life -brilliantly smart, a great writer and the kind of person who embraced life with verve and excitement. He always made me feel loved and valued as his friend and losing him made me realize just how important that is. I have so much joy in my life right now and I need to make sure that I am thankful for it and enjoy it, instead of worrying about the past or the future.  His death taught me that events happen that you can’t change, but you can hold on to what is important. I am lucky enough to have such incredible friends and family, and the best thing I can do is be thankful for them, right now.

After our discussion Veda told us we were going to do an extended breathing exercise called a kriya. We would do the three stages of pranayama with jai breathing, three rounds of bhastrika, chant ohm three times and then we would follow along with a tape, inhaling when it said “so” and exhaling audibly through our noses when it said “hum”. Our eyes would be closed the whole time and at the end we would lie down. We did all the breathing and came to the “so-hum”. The breathing went through stages, starting slow and then speeding up to a point where you almost felt like you where hyperventilating and then it would slow and speed up again. At the end of all the breathing you lay down on your back and it’s such a surreal experience.

You don’t really know if you are asleep or awake and you lose complete track of time. During our first kriya and was able to dream but I was also completely aware of my surroundings.  After lying on our backs for I don’t really know how long, we rolled onto our right sides and lay there before slowly coming up and opening our eyes. When I opened my eyes I was struck by how the light in the room had changed as the noon sun moved across the sky and the glow had softened while we had been meditating.
To be honest in the beginning I was distracted by the jai breathing and my posture and couldn’t seem to keep my mind from wandering where it didn’t want it to. However, I still felt relaxed and Veda instructed us to perform 5 random acts of kindness before sending us on our way for another tasty meal.

After lunch we watched a video about Dakshinachitra and then got a tour of the village. It was an interesting but strange experience living there since it was also a destination for local Indian tourists and school field trip groups. As they wandered around taking pictures we were going to class or just wandering around, almost as if we were the insiders, despite the fact that we clearly looked like outsiders. After the tour we had the afternoon to wander around and check out the handicrafts before being served snacks.  We had another snack similar to the samosas along with this insanely delicious watermelon juice and once we were officially snack-ed out, we headed back to the pavilion for a four-hour class before dinner.

Upon arrival Veda had us split up to talk about two questions – What am I responsible for? What am I not responsible for? My friend Matt and I both agreed that we were responsible for our actions, the way we treat people and the decisions that we make, but that we are not responsible for the baggage that people often carry with them and the way that they perceive things. Veda brought us all back and told us an anecdote about a well-known guru who had been hired to help with a phone-a-thon to raise money. Upon getting on the air the first words he said were “Charity is a sin. You should never give charity”. This made the organizers of the drive pretty nervous but the guru continued; “When you give a gift to your brother, or you help your mother or your father, you don’t give them charity. When you take care of your house or feed your family, it’s not charity. You don’t think of it as charity because these things belong to you and are yours to care for. But the truth is that there is no charity. Everything is yours. Every man who is sick or child who is hungry is yours because you exist with them and your livelihoods depend on each other.” Veda impressed upon us that we need to think outside of our own personal realm of responsibility and realize that by caring for others, we are caring for ourselves. She also stressed that our inactions are just as important as our actions. After this talk we were told to take a walk around the village and then come back for the last part of the class.

The sun was just getting ready to set and the village was closed to the public for the day. We each walked on our own, thinking about the day and all that Veda had said. I sat on the porch of a few of the houses and then walked through the playground to pick up some litter. I walked through an unfinished renovation at the edge of the village and the sight and the smell reminded me of the years we had spent on construction sites while building out house in Woodbury. Finally, before returning to class my friend Rachael and I climbed 3/4 of the way up a tall water tower ladder in order to look over the village walls at the slums that lay not too far outside its borders. One thing that has struck us both about India was the sheer amount of garbage and litter that was literally everywhere. She commented that if this is the amount of garbage produced by people who live so minimally in the slums, imagine what it would look like if we saw all the garbage that we produced, even in one day.

After returning to class we settled in to do another kriya. This time I really didn’t want my posture or achy legs to get in the way and I was hoping to remain a little more lucid and not let my thoughts get clouded. I don’t know what was different but for some reason this time things just clicked. I was able to do the jai breathing without focusing too hard on the timing and move easily from stage to stage without getting distracted in between.

But what made the kriya so good, and probably so fluid, were my thoughts. The whole time we did the exercise I pictured with crystal clarity so many important people, places and moments in my life. I saw my family and friends, teachers, neighbors, people I went to school with, construction workers, family friends, pets – everyone. I saw all the homes I’ve ever lived in, my schools, the land, and places that were important to me. I saw moments from my childhood and adolescence that I hadn’t thought of in years or didn’t even realize I remembered. I saw my whole life and it was so beautiful and I was so able to be at peace because of it.
When people snuck into my thoughts who I didn’t want there, I just let them in and they’d pass in sequence as another would take their place. When we lay on our backs I wasn’t asleep but just so completely relaxed. I thought about food and holidays and meals that I’ve loved. As we were lying on our backs, all of a sudden fireworks began to go off right above our building and it sounded like small bombs going off. At first we were all shaken but I fell right back into it, imagining that the vibrations and sounds were a drum and allowing it to beat. We rolled onto our sides and I was curled up like a baby, floating. The last image I had was the one of me a few weeks ago, floating in the pool as the rain fell on my face and my favorite song played on loop in my head. When we finally sat up and opened our eyes I don’t think I’ve ever felt calmer or more at peace.

After class we were all starving and enjoyed another awesome vegetarian meal outside under the stars. India is not the hottest place I’ve ever been but I can say with certainty that it is the sweatiest. We were literally dripping all day, but once the sun set it was cool and beautiful out. We all ate and joked and made friends with one of the dogs who lived in the village who we named James. The busboys informed us his real name was Gobal and that he was actually a she. Gobal James tagged along as we walked back to the guest houses and after a long day, we retired to our rooms and fell quickly asleep.

3.16.2009

tardiness is a hallmark of mine...

Not a very great hallmark, defnitey not one I'm proud of, but I will admit that I am often a procrastinator. Hence, you may notice that while India came and went, there is no blog post detialing my adventures there. For this, I am sorry. India was a country of contrast; sensory, beautiful, dirty, stricken, thriving and intense, all at the same time. And coming back on the ship it's taken me a while to process everything that I saw and experienced and try to find a way to share it with you. I promise, I'm working on it though.

I'm in Thailand right now and I already have a million stories to tell. This next month in Asia is really going to fly - out of the next 26 days, we spent 20 of them in port. I will do my best to keep you up to date on everything going on. I know this is easier said than done, but I'll work on it lol.

Just wanted to let you know - India is coming, Thailand is incredible and I am safe, happy and having the time of my life.

With love and good thoughts from Bangkok

lia

3.03.2009

some thoughts en route to india


So I’ve decided to go a little out of order. I still have to write about the Sea Olympics but I was in the mood to write this entry now before bed so here you have it. I promise to be all caught up before we arrive in India the day after tomorrow, and I’m pretty sure little disorder never hurt anyone (I don’t think). This little stretch of time at sea between Mauritius and India has been pretty enjoyable, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe it’s because the Indian Ocean is so calm, or maybe it’s the fact that we had grilled cheese for lunch that one day. No one can be 100% sure. But before we get to India I wanted to take the time to reflect on a couple really great moments I’ve had over the past few days.

On Monday we had our first day back to class and it was honestly one of the coolest school days I’ve ever had. I got up for global and we learned pretty much the entire history of India in an hour and then I had a break until 1:30. Usually I don’t have class until Ecoacoustics at 4:15 but we were having a MICE performance that day and I attended the MICE class in order to get ready and learn the piece we would be performing. At 1:30 I met up with the professor, Matthew, and the MICE boys in the classroom and we grabbed all the computers and cables and microphones and headed up to the pool.

The piece we were performing was called Kañja, which is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “born from the water”and the East African Kikuyu language meaning “from the outside”. We were going to be playing the piece underwater in the pool. The name immediately reminded me of my parents and my brother (and of the videos of Russian women giving birth in the ocean that my sister and I were made to watch as children in preparation for watching the birth of our brother - another story entirely). But, aside from the Russian women, anyone who knows my family knows about our connection with waterbirth, and because of that I automatically had a strong affinity with the piece. Matthew described the experience to all of us in the context that, in our travel we’re coming from the outside as visitors to each of our ports and that through the water we’re able to make our journey around the globe. The pool is filled each day with ocean water so the concept of the performance was playing in the middle of the Indian Ocean –literally in the water itself and while we traveled through it.

We grabbed all the equipment, put on some sunscreen and hopped into the pool to play with the hydrophonic microphone. The mic is meant for recording the sounds of water and we were going to use it to record the sounds of the water moving with the ship and us vocalizing and playing instruments in the pool. We tested the mic out, trying different underwater vocalizations and they sounded really cool. Steve screamed into the mic, I made some higher pitched sounds and Justin made whale noises. Then we grabbed the cowbells we had used for the previous performance in Cape Town and started playing them under the water. Those sounded pretty neat as well and we played around with those sounds, in addition to playing with the drumsticks on the ladders and metal sides of the pool. We decided that for the piece Matthew and Keith would be on the deck playing whale calls and ambient noise and we were going to respond to the whale calls by making similar sounds underwater to be picked up by the mic. Then they would introduce a beat into the mix and we would pick up the cowbells and play them underwater, varying in time with the beat. Finally, we would fade out the sounds of the beat and the bells until we were left with only the sounds of the moving water and ambient sound.
 
MICE class ended and the performance was set to happen around 5:30. We were going to have Ecoacoustics in the pool at 4:15 as well so I decided to just stay in the water until then. A little after the MICE class had finished the clouds began to move in and as the humidity in the air finally reached its breaking point, the sky opened up and it began to rain. We quickly moved all the electronic equipment out of harm’s way and I stopped to look out and admire the rain. Justin walked out into the rain and jumped into the pool and I followed suit. It was pouring by this point and I lay on my back in the middle of the pool with my arms outstretched and closed my eyes. I was surrounded completely by water –lying in the middle of a small pool of ocean with rain falling all around me as we moved slowly along in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. It was such a quiet and peaceful moment with the rain falling on my face and the clouds surrounding the ship as the rain came down. The water in the pool was warm and the rain was perfectly chilly. I popped back up just in time to see a bunch of friends coming out from under the covering to enjoy the rain with me. A few of the professors and families with children came out and we all hung out in the pool and played as the rain came down. Like all good summer storms, the downpour didn’t last long and the sky had cleared in time for our Ecoacoustics class. We all sat around the pool and discussed the difference in the way that sounds moves through water versus air. Sound moves much faster underwater meaning that the sound waves themselves are far larger in water. We did some math and calculated the speed, wavelength and frequency of certain pitches in water versus air and then Matthew let anyone who wanted to hop in the pool and try out the hydrophonic mic. I was pretty soggy by this point and let my classmates take advantage of the opportunity to play with the mic.

At 5:30 the class dispersed and we set up for the MICE performance. We put the audience in front of the pool and tied our MICE poster to the showers at the back of the pool. From where the audience sat, they looked aft to the pool and then out off the back of the ship toward the ocean. A good number of people showed up and once the audience was settled we all hopped into the pool to start the piece. The whale calls and the ambient noise started and the entire deck was quiet. The mood was calm and serene and we moved through the water slowly and deliberately, going down under the water to respond to the calls and vocalize, and then resurfacing. The beat was introduced and we grabbed the cowbells, playing them softly as the sound was amplified through the water. Eventually the beat faded out and we all came to the surface and the final sound was that of the water in the pool sloshing from side to side with the motion of the ship. It ended up being a really beautiful piece, definitely one of my favorites that we’ve done thus far. Apparently Matthew has been posting all the pictures and information on the MICE facebook group, but as none of us have internet minutes we have yet to see them. As far as school days go however, it was pretty neat to spend two class periods in the pool, making music and playing with sound. It beats sitting a lecture hall to be sure.

After MICE I ran back to my room to wash off all salt a get dressed up for my friend Megan’s 21st birthday dinner. On the ship you can sign up for Special Occasion Dining where for $25 you get a really tasty five course meal served in a smaller private dining room. A lot of people do it for their birthdays and we signed up for the first time in order to celebrate with Megan. Aside from the absolutely awesome fried chicken/french fries of sea Olympics day and the bright spot of grilled cheese for lunch, the food on the ship had really been starting to wear on us. So, we were extra excited to get dressed up and have a really good meal. My friends Taylor, Rosaly and I got to the small dining room and ended up at our own little table next to Megan and everyone else. We were given a menu with two or three options for each course and a glass of champagne. I decided on a trio of grilled and smoked fish, chicken tinola soup, salad with feta and oranges, filet mignon roulade with spinach, and mud pie. The food was so delicious and it was really fun to have a nice meal with friends. After dessert they brought out another cake and we all sang for Megan and sat around joking over coffee and tea. My extended shipboard family has a fancy dinner scheduled for March 12th and I’m excited for it already.

Aside from class in the pool and a delicious meal, the other highlight of the past few days was earlier tonight when they shut the lights off on 7th deck forward so that we could look at the stars. I headed up alone and at first it was a little overcast and hard to see. However, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and as the wind picked up a little the clouds blew away. I grabbed my ipod and lay on my back staring up at the sky. It was so nice to just listen to the music and let my thoughts wander while looking up at the stars. The sky was so clear and so big and it was incredible to just look up and marvel at it. Sailing along and seeing nothing but ocean for days can often make you feel very small. You look out and realize that you’re just a dot, floating along in the great mass of water, somehow in transit across this giant globe. Looking up at the sky continued to impress upon me the big-ness of the space that we’re in and how small each of us are in comparison. And while this might make some people feel insignificant, it actually made me feel hopeful. So often we get stuck in our own little microcosm and it becomes easy to get caught up in the rigors of our lives and our space in the world. But the knowledge that there is so much out there, so much space that we never even think of, is kind of comforting. We have the ability to seek out new spaces and carve new niches in the world, indefinitely if we need to, as long as we create the means to do so. And the idea that there is so much out there to see is both humbling and exciting all at the same time.

I am incredibly excited for India and also incredibly in need of sleep before my last day of classes tomorrow. I am so looking forward to experiencing India and I have no doubt that I will have much to share when I return to the ship. Until then I hope you all are enjoying the snow and staying warm and dry inside.

With love from the Indian Ocean,

lia

3.02.2009

mauritius: former home of the dodo, current home of awesome.

I have to say, I never thought that I would ever step foot in the country of Mauritius, but it may well be the reason I am on this trip in the first place.

The whole reason I even heard about Semester at Sea is thanks to my friend Ted. We were at the study abroad fair last fall and I had been looking around the Italy table thinking about studying in Florence and Ted goes “Come with me to the SAS table. It’s so cool. They go to Mauritius! No one even knows where that is”. And it’s true, I did not know where Mauritius was, but Ted got me to the table and after one look at the itinerary I was sold. So thank you Ted. Because I have now set both feet on Mauritian soil and I have to say that it was a pretty great experience.

For some reason after leaving South Africa everyone on the ship was in a bit of a funk. We had a global studies exam that stressed everyone out, there was a lot of school work smooshed into a short amount of time, and after having endless things to do in Cape Town I think we all felt a little stuck on the ship. However, by the time we got to Mauritius our tests had been handed in, papers typed, it was Friday and we were all excited to spend the day in a country that truly is a paradise.

We learned in global studies that Mauritius had no native people but had been slowly inhabited by traders and pirates starting in the 1500s. After killing off the now infamous Dodo bird and cultivating lots of sugar cane they settled in to stay and were later joined by a large immigrant population from India. These days Mauritius retains a bunch of cultural influences and has synthesized all those cultures into their own blend of Mauritian creole.

After diplomatic briefing in the morning everyone was itching to get off the ship and get going on their trips. My friends and I had signed up for an SAS trip to the Adventure Park and Beach. We boarded the buses and made our way through Port Louis, the capital, toward the adventure park in Chamarel. Our bus driver was driving like a mad man which made the trip half a little scary and half more exciting. He rear ended someone in traffic, got pulled over and would accelerate really quickly before slamming on the brakes to go around a sharp turn. However, I think we made it to the adventure park in record time considering his speed.

The park sat on top of a mountain with views of the valley below and the other peaks dotting the coastline. The entire area was completely green with trees, grasses and flowers everywhere. Upon arrival we were given harnesses, applied ample amounts of bug spray and headed into the woods to do the ropes courses. The first half of the course was a series of suspension bridges that went through the forest. We hooked our carabineers onto a lifeline above the bridge and then walked across. I decided it would be more fun to walk without holding on and made it across for the most part on all of them. The bridges looked over more views of the valley and the forest which made for a pretty nice time on the first course.

For the second course we had to take a mini hike up into a different part of the forest. It was hot and very humid so by the time we got into the shade where the course started we were thoroughly sweaty and gross. The second course was more exciting and also more physically challenging. There was a bridge that you had to swing and jump from plank to plank, one that involved jumping from swing to swing, one that was a rope enclosure with no bottom that you had to climb across and another that was just a rope net that you climbed across horizontally. Luckily after that there was a small zip line and it finished with a tightrope-like bridge where you held onto one rope and walked across the other. It was funny to watch each other trying to get across and Taylor and I had a great time. It was definitely more physically tiring than I expected though and I woke up with sore arms for the next few days.

After the ropes course we got back to the base for a lunch of chicken curry, lentils and rice before getting changed to go to the beach. Everyone else had gotten eaten up in the woods by mosquitoes but whatever bug spray my friend Bradee brought kept us all bite free, for which I was very thankful. We hopped back on the bus with the Mauritian Dale Earnhardt Jr behind the wheel and started the drive to Flik en Flac beach. On the way we passes more views of the mountains looking down onto the ocean and fields upon fields of sugar cane. We got to the beach and it was absolutely beautiful. All of us were hot and pretty yucky so we dropped our stuff and went into the ocean for a swim. The water was a gorgeous clear light blue and was as warm as a bath. It was everyone’s first time swimming in the Indian Ocean and we were all pretty excited about it. The salty water washed away all the bug spray and sunscreen and we just hung out in the ocean and enjoyed the view. After our swim we headed to a local restaurant to get some drinks to take back to the beach. We tried a really tasty local beer called Phoenix and sat out on the beach sipping our drinks and enjoying the scenery. After another dip in the ocean it was time to head out. Instead of going back to the ship we had the bus drop us off at the Waterfront which was an area with restaurants and shops. We grabbed a table at an outdoor café overlooking the harbor and had some more snacks and drinks before it was time to go back to the ship. When it was time to go we hopped on a water taxi across the harbor and made it back to the MV in time to enjoy the bbq that they had for us on the 7th deck. After a quick shower and changing into some purple attire it was time for the opening ceremonies of the 98th Sea Olympics.

All in all Mauritius really was a paradise. It was great to spend the day outside enjoying the natural beauty of the country and just having a good time with friends. It was interesting to see the effect that humans have had on the island and to think about it as it would have been when it was completely uninhabited. It’s strange to imagine a place without a native people but in the end I saw that the people of Mauritius actually had a great sense of national pride that we rarely see in America. When asked about their nationality people identified themselves first and foremost as Mauritian which I found interesting. I definitely know I would not have had the opportunity to visit it without SAS or Ted, (chances are I probably never would have heard of it at all), but I am definitely better off for having experienced it and will be able to carry my day in Mauritius with me now and for the rest of the voyage.

Onto Sea Olympics,

lia

3.01.2009

cape town

First of all, I wanted to apologize for the delay in this post. Unfortunately the realities of taking classes on the ship really set in the past few days with exams and papers in almost all of my classes. Plus, Cape Town was too incredible of an experience to be squeezed in between studying and homework. Even though we spent 5 days there, longer than any of our previous ports, I still think I could have used another month to experience all Cape Town has to offer. I don’t think I’ve spoken to a person yet who didn’t fall in love with South Africa in one way or another and I would honestly look into spending a year there after college, doing service work if I could find a way. My friend Caroline has already emailed the owner of a local vineyard in the hopes of getting an internship this summer.

We got into the port a little late the first day due to fog in the harbor and everyone scrambled to get off the ship in order to get some food and run some errands before a lot of FDPs headed out. Unlike most of our previous ports, the place we docked in Cape Town, The V&A waterfront, was not at all industrial and very tourist-friendly. You step off the ship and out of the port and there is a giant mall, along with restaurants, hotels, places to get taxis and an amphitheatre. This was a welcome change from the cranes and long walks we were used to. Since I had another MICE FDP in the afternoon I spent the morning walking around the area, stopping to use some internet and grab lunch at a local health food store. We all met up for MICE at 12:30 and walked over to the amphitheatre with our computers, cords, speakers, mics and gongs. For this performance we did all four pieces that the MICE had learned thusfar and it was a pretty cool experience. The amphitheatre was right in the middle of the outdoor square so there were plenty of people there to listen. We performed Sandprints, Anemoi (a piece that uses wind and voices), Squex (a piece that features squeaky toys) and That Which Is Bodiless Is Reflected Through Bodies. The last piece was new and ended up sounding really cool. We used synthesized noises, soprano sax, a gong and a number of bells and bowls, gradually building and then ending with a last hit on the gong. It was interesting to see the way the audience reacted to the songs since the MICE sound is very different from traditional music. But, it was pleasantly surprising that a lot of the locals seemed to really enjoy and appreciate the pieces and a bunch of them came up afterwards to ask about the music and how it’s made etc. After the show a bunch of us went to Mitchell’s, a local microbrewery, for some food and drinks. I met up with my friends back on the ship and we decided to go out for dinner at a place called Blue Pizza. It took us a while to find and we definitely got lost a few times, but between us and our cab driver Antonio we made it in time to eat some really delicious bacon and avocado pizza and have a few Savannas. After dinner we decided to go out to Long Street which is the main street for restaurants, shopping and nightlife in downtown Cape Town. We ended up at a club called Chrome which was playing a mix of R&B and House. We made friends with our bartender, Wessel, and had a great time dancing. After a good night Antonio picked us up and we headed back to the ship to sleep.
The next morning I didn’t have any plans so my friend Caroline and I decided to spend the morning exploring the V&A. We shopped a little, went over to the clock tower and then decided to find an African place for lunch. I tried some Bobotie which is a traditional African dish with meat and a sweet and savory sauce. It was a little on the sweeter side but overall not too bad and I was glad I tried it. Caroline and I wanted to do something exciting in the afternoon so we flipped through one of the travel guides on the ship. I had seen something earlier about horseback riding so we called a few places and found one that could take us for the afternoon. We took a cab to Kommetjie which was about 35 minutes outside Cape Town. We were a few minutes early and so we took a walk around the farm while we waited. As it turns out the place was called Imhoff Farms and in addition to horseback riding they also had a natural foods restaurant and a store where they sold all their own homemade cheeses, breads, preserves and spice blends. Being a big foodie nerd I was in heaven since the ingredients were locally fresh and everything smelled great. I was able to taste some of the cheese and browse around the shop before we headed over to the stable. As far as horseback riding goes, Caroline and I were novices to say the least. We were put in a group with three other women- a mother and daughter from NYC and a 14 year old girl named Holly from England. They had a lot more experience riding than we did so once we walked the horses down to the beach they broke off to trot and canter while Caroline and I moved along at a leisurely pace. The coast was absolutely beautiful, with waves crashing on one side and mountains and valleys rolling off in the distance. There were surfers in the water a few other people walking dogs on the beach. It was peaceful and quiet with the waves crashing and the occasional conversation. For the most part it was a nice opportunity to think and enjoy the scenery. My horse Echo and I strolled along until it was time for all of us to head back to the barn. We hopped a cab back to the ship and got there just as the sun was setting and it was time for dinner.

Our big group split into a few smaller ones and some of my girlfriends and I decided we wanted to try some game for dinner. Bradee, Rosaly, Mischa, Agnes and I wandered over to a place called City Grill near the pier and ordered a bunch of interesting food. I got springbok, Rosaly got crocodile and Bradee got a giant skewer with kudu, warthog, ostrich, impala and venison sausage. All of us shared and tasted so everyone got to try all the meat. Some of it was a little gamey but most of it was delicious. The ostrich was really tender and the venison sausage was great as well. After dinner we headed back to the ship and most of my friends decided to turn in early. I wasn’t tired and wanted to explore more of Cape Town so I joined up with some other friends to go out. We stopped at Mitchell’s for a drink and then headed to Long Street to a club called Bang Bang. Despite the questionable name, the club itself was really fun and relaxed. There was a DJ mixing house music and everyone had a good time just enjoying the songs and dancing. After a little while there we headed a couple blocks over to a place called Baghdad for some hookah. After some conversation, hookah and a little more dancing it was time to turn in, so we headed back to the ship.
The next day my friends Greg, Alicia, Caroline and I met up early to grab some breakfast before hiking Table Mountain. At 3,563 ft. Table Mountain is one of the largest landmarks in Cape Town. It’s featured on the Cape Town flag and looks over almost the entire city. We took a cab up to the base and decided to hike the Platteklip Gorge route, which we thought would be a pretty easy and direct trail to the top. While we found that it was definitely a fairly direct route, it was not as easy as we expected. We started our ascent and were quickly met with a really steep trail. After taking a wrong turn and realizing that we were on our way to another, crazy hard route, we turned around and kept climbing. I can honestly say that climbing Table Mountain was one of the hardest and most rewarding things I’ve done in a long time. It was also a glaring reminder that I am very out of shape. The trail was steep stone steps almost the entire way up and I thought my legs were going to fall off. Caroline and Alicia quickly sped ahead, leaving Greg and I to head up on our own. I honestly don’t know what Greg and I would have done without each other but between the two of us we dragged ourselves up that mountain. We would pick a break point, hike to it and then stop to breathe and keep going. The views coming up the mountain were absolutely incredible. From the trail we could see all of Cape Town, the coastline and the two peaks on either side of Table Mountain –Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak. We appreciated the views on our constant breaks and it helped to look down and see the people at the bottom of the trail far below us and appreciate how far we had come. Par for the hike is usually 2.5 hours and we were able to make it up in two. When we finally got to the top I have to say that I was really proud of myself. We were so tired and sweaty and my legs were shaking but we didn’t stop and the feeling of self-satisfaction was worth all the pain. The views from the top were equally breathtaking and we were able to take a break to eat lunch and take some pictures before taking the cable car back down the mountain.

After the hike I headed back to the ship to get ready for my SAS trip that night. We met at the pier at 6:30 to go into the townships for Township Music. I had heard about the townships from friends who has visited them the other days and I was excited and a little nervous to see them. As nice as the Cape Town I had previously seen was, I had yet to be exposed to the part where the majority of the citizens lived. As a result of Apartheid almost all of the black residents were forced into the townships and most of them live there to this day. There are three main townships in Cape Town and we were going get to see all of them. Our guide, Shy, was a 36 year old Xhosa man who lived in the Guguletu township. The Xhosa language is one of the few that speak with clicks and Shy tried to teach us a few Xhosa words. We did our best to get out the sounds and the clicks right, but to mixed results. Shy told us he had graduated from school and got his certification to do tourism. Our first stop was Langa, the smallest township. Driving into the townships for the first time, the first thing that strikes you is their size. There are houses upon houses upon houses; all two or four rooms and right next to each other. There are also trailers that house hair dressers, stands grilling meat and people in the streets everywhere. We were getting there at the end of the day on a Friday so everyone was outside. There were all these kids and when they saw our bus they all called and waved and got excited. We left Langa and headed toward Guguletu, another township which houses 70,000 people. Coming into Guguletu we got our first glimpse of the squatter camps. The people living in the squatter camps are on the list waiting for some of the government houses in the townships to open up, but the chances of them being able to actually move out of the shanties are slim. The houses they live in are made of iron sheeting, pieced together with weights on top to keep the roof down. There are literally shacks on top of shacks for acres. Large families all live together in the one room, some with running water and electricity, and some without. HIV is rampant in the townships with an infection rate of 1 in 4. Shy told us that in Guguletu alone they bury 200 people every weekend. After driving through Guguletu we were taken to a school/gym area and brought inside to learn some music. In the building we were met by a group of 5 young guys playing for us. They played marimbas, drums and cowbell and were led by Khaya, their director. Khaya walked us through the piece and showed us the instruments and then we were told to go over and learn the beats. The guys showed us each of the melodies on the marimbas and the drum rhythms and then Khaya told us it was our turn to play. We winged it and tried our best to imitate what we had learned and it didn’t sound half bad. Then they took us into another room to drum. Each of us had a djembe and Khaya showed us beats to play. Khaya was a big guy with a booming voice and when he played the sound rang through the entire space. He split the beat into halves and we jammed for a little while he encouraged us in his booming voice. After drumming it was time to dance. We got into a circle and Khaya started this loud, strong call and response. He spoke his piece and we were supposed to respond with “USUNTU!”It took a few tries to get to the level of volume and aggressiveness that he wanted but eventually everyone in the group let go of their inhibitions and Khaya was happy. He started drumming a beat and started to teach us an African dance. It was a men’s dance but since our group was mostly girls everyone learned the steps. We walked and sat low while moving our shoulders in time. After that we learned a women’s dance and all the guys grabbed a drum to keep the beat. We learned a fast paced dance where we moved our chests, stepped left to right and then shoulder shook. Most of my friends can tell you that I’m not exactly a good dancer (understatement) but everyone in the group just did their thing and had a good time. After the dancing we got back on the bus to go to dinner. They took us over to Khayelitsha, the last township, to a place called Soosy’s for a bbq. 

 The largest township, Khayelitsha is home to 1.3 million people. We walked into Soosy’s and it was clear that we stuck out like sore thumbs. We had been warned over and over never to go into the townships, especially at night, and while we were safe with our group it was clear that we didn’t exactly belong. But, despite our awkwardness everyone we met was really friendly as we sat down to eat some dinner. We had an African bbq with a first course of tripe, pap and bread and then grilled meat, sausage, baked beans/lentils and rice. All of the food was tasty and even the tripe wasn’t bad. The guys from the music lesson were there and after dinner we all went outside to hear them play. The guys played some songs and we all hung out outside with the locals who had come to Soosy’s to drink and hang out. At first it was a little like a middle school dance with all of us on one side and the locals on the other but we got to talking to a few of them and had a good time. I talked to a few girls my age who live in the townships and a guy who had visited the Semester at Sea ship a few years ago with Desmond Tutu when he worked for the Amy Biehl foundation. We all danced to the music and the guys passed us the djembes so we could play with them for a few songs. When it was time to go we said goodbye to the guys and got back on the bus with Shy to head back to the ship. Shy talked to us more about the townships and gave us each a Xhosa name. Mine was Andiswah which means “grow prouder”. As we drove he stressed to us that it was important for us to take our experience and share it with others; to talk about the townships and make sure that our friends and families know about them and the people there. Despite living in conditions that most Americans would shudder at, the people we met in the townships were not defeated people. Everyone that we came in contact with, even after being forced back by Apartheid and a disappointing government under Mbeki, continue to be hardworking, generous and open people. It’s honestly hard to do the experience justice with words, but I was touched by community I encountered in the townships and I hope I can back if ever possible. SAS works with so many organizations that do service projects in the townships –Habitat for Humanity, The Amy Biehl Foundation, Operation Hunger –and I hope that someday I’ll have the opportunity to get involved with one of them and spend more time in South Africa.

After getting back from the townships I was physically and emotionally exhausted after a long day and I clocked out. The next morning we got up and Greg, Alicia and I had planned to go on a wine tour. I met up with my friend Justin at breakfast and he and another friend from MICE, Brandon joined us for the day. We got a cab around 11 and after stopping for a quick snack our cab driver started the trip out to Stellenbosch. South Africa has a big wine industry and the vineyards are some of the most beautiful areas outside of Cape Town. For only a few hundred Rand a taxi will take you out for the day to a few different vineyards where they offer wine tastings and food. We had heard about one vineyard called Spier that our friends had visited the previous day which had cheetahs that you could pet so we decided to go there first. This ended up being the best decision of the day. We arrived at Spier to find that they were having their annual harvest festival. Upon buying entrance tickets we were given a complimentary wine glass and a card with stamps to taste 5 wines. We walked in to find a beautiful sprawling lawn with tents and giant white pillows on the ground to lounge on. There were tables with wine to taste, a bbq, a live band and lots of games for families. There were families everywhere –parents chatting and drinking wine, kids with faces painted like spiderman, a playground, a pond and a little brook with a bridge. The sun was out and the weather was beautiful. There are few things I love more than wine and festivals so I was pretty much in heaven. We all got some wines to taste and lounged on the pillows enjoying the scenery. I watched families playing and kids enjoying the games. We tasted a few wines, and really enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz and the Chenin Blanc. Unfortunately we’re not allowed to bring alcohol back on the ship or I probably would have brought home quite a bit of wine. The other big feature aside from tasting was the 4 barrels they had set up which you could climb into and stop grapes, I Love Lucy style. After seeing a few kids do it Brandon, Greg, Alicia and I decided to roll up our pants and give it a try. The grapes were really smushy and felt really strange but fun to feel them under my feet and between my toes. The band was playing New York, New York and we stomped and smooshed and danced in our little barrels. So fun. After hosing off the grapes we decided it was time for lunch. We got in line for the bbq and ordered some burgers and steak sandwiches. The steak was so good all wrapped up in a soft roll with caramelized onions. We finished with some white wine and cupcakes and I was pretty much euphoric. We grabbed a bunch of wine grapes to snack on for the road and decided to visit the cheetah before heading to our next stop. There was a bit of a wait to pet the cheetah so we admired from afar and took some pictures. The cheetahs were so peaceful and gentle to humans. It was kind of incredible to see them interacting with their trainers, looking almost like oversized housecats.

 After visiting the cats we got back in the cab and our driver started towards Franschhoek, another wine town further near the mountains. On the way we stopped to try and fine a geocache, but after looking in a few hollow trees and under some bushes we left empty handed. Spirits weren’t dampened though as we drove through Paarl and arrived at the second vineyard called Boschendal. We filled out our wine cards, got some cheese to taste and sat down underneath this beautiful big oak tree that shaded the wine bar and all the tables under this soft dappled light. We all tried 5 wines and I had a selection of really delicious fruity white wines along with one red and one really tasty sparkling wine. After having our fill of wine and cheese it was time to head back to Cape Town. Greg and Alicia had plans to attend a birthday party that night but Brandon, Justin and I decided to go into downtown Cape Town to Green Market Square which houses a craft market. The market was closing so we walked around a little, bartered and bought some crafts before heading back to the ship. A bunch of our friends had eaten at a restaurant called Mama Africa on Long Street which has good food and live music so we stopped there on the way home to make reservations for dinner later. After a quick change and snacks on the ship Justin and I headed out to go to a phone café before meeting Brandon for dinner. We were able to make some phone calls home and it was great to talk to my parents and hear their voices. We got to Mama Africa and it was packed. We stayed at the bar for a little while they got our table together and listened to the live band playing marimbas, drums and singing. The singer performed a version of La Donna e Mobile which sounded really cool accompanied by the African instruments. We got seated and had a nice meal with the sounds of the band in the background. I had hung out with Justin and Brandon in MICE and enjoyed going on the wine tour with them earlier that day but it was nice to have a good meal and a conversation and get to know them better. After dinner we decided to go to Bagdad next door for some hookah and then to Chrome to dance. As it was our last night in Cape Town we wanted to make the most of it and we had a great time going out, talking and dancing with more friends that we met up with along Long Street from the ship. The boys had a big hike up the other side of Table Mountain planned for the next morning so we headed back to the ship to get some sleep after an amazing day.

The following morning was our last in Cape Town and I spent most of it getting errands done and buying things at V&A that I would need before Asia. My friends Taylor, Rosaly and I met up on Long Street to check out Green Market Square and stopped for a really great Mexican lunch at an outdoor café. We sat in the sun, swapped stories and had some delicious enchiladas. Spending so much time together on ship and traveling in port makes the friendships that you have on SAS particularly meaningful and it was nice to spend the day with friends just hanging out and enjoying the surroundings. We headed back to V&A and hopped on the internet one last time before getting back on the ship to sail to Mauritius. 

Before Cape Town and Namibia I had never really given much thought to traveling in Africa. My travel aspirations never strayed below the Sahara and I thought of Africa mostly as a place for safaris or hunting. However, after visiting, I am already dying to come back and to see more of Africa. I want to travel to Kenya, safari in Northern SA and see the tribes that still live peacefully and simply in the bush. In Africa I was able to meet people who were struggling to make ends meet but who still approached their situation with determination and hope. South Africa has struggled for a long time to try and be an example for the rest of Africa of a thriving post-colonial democracy. It hasn’t been easy to say the least but with their elections coming up in April everyone is hopeful for a new post-Mbeki government. The world cup in South Africa is roughly 460 days away and will give SA a chance to showcase itself on the world stage. It is a country filled with so much beauty and so many different cultures and spending five days there allowed me only to scratch the surface. One of our interport lecturers said to us that “South Africa is the world inside a single country”and he was right. I’m so thankful for the time I was able to spend there and I can only hope that if I don’t get the chance to come back that I can keep my experiences in SA with me as a reminder of the challenges, joys and juxtaposition that exist everywhere we go.

I know that this was a mini novella and I hope that you took snack breaks, but I promise to be up to date with everything soon and maybe try to break things into more bite-sized chunks for next time.
Mauritius and Sea Olympics to come soon but until then,

lia