South Africa

South Africa was by far the most action-packed port of my voyage. From the moment I got off the ship to the time I sailed away, I was in overdrive trying to pack as much as possible into a country with so many things to do and see.

CAPE TOWN

My first day was spent with my History of Jazz class, visiting the home of renowned jazz saxophonist and composer Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi. He lived during the height of apartheid, and for many of his performances with primarily white bands in the 80s, he played behind a curtain, hidden from the audience’s sight. Though he passed away in 2014, the man who currently lives in Mankunku’s home gave us a brief history lesson on the musician and the effects of apartheid in his life.

Next, we went to another home in a township nearby where we had the pleasure of listening to local jazz musicians perform a small concert for my class of about 18 students. The townships were astounding, revealing how the remnants of apartheid are hardly remnants at all. Townships are the neighborhoods where black families were relocated during apartheid, forced to move from their homes so that white people could take over their properties. Although apartheid is technically over now, those people are still living in these communities, which are nothing short of slums that made up the better part of our drive along the freeway.

It was wonderful seeing such talented musicians perform live music, and even more wonderful when my professor, a professional saxophonist with multiple released albums under his belt, joined them for several songs. The old bassist strummed along as young students from elementary to high school played sax, piano, trumpet, and flute. The music was lovely, and we all thoroughly enjoyed watching the musicians in their element.

To wrap up the field class, we visited University of Cape Town’s music department to sit in on a jazz rehearsal. The campus was beautiful, built on an upward slope that led to the foot of a foggy Table Mountain.

The sounds of the rehearsal drifted through the halls before we even arrived at the room. The students were incredible, easily good enough to be a professional band (at least my ears thought so). We listened for about 30 minutes, then talked with the students about their experiences over delivery pizza. It was a lovely day, and the fact that my participation in these events constituted 25% of my final jazz class grade is just plain silly to me.

When we returned to the ship after dinner, I prepared for a night out on the town. It was the eve of my 21st birthday, so you can imagine my excitement for going out, especially after being on the ship for 11 days straight (save for the one day stop in Mauritius).

My friends and I met with our tour guide, Fareed, for the first time that evening, a friendly native South African who we would get to know very well over the next few days. He drove us from the ship to my Airbnb in the city center.

When I arrived at the Airbnb, my other friends (who had checked in hours before) surprised me with a fully decorated apartment, snacks on the table, bottles of Absolut, and music blaring. I felt so incredibly lucky to have made such wonderful friends who would go through the trouble to do this for me, and I will never forget their kindness.

After pre-gaming at the apartment, my girls and I hit the town. We found a bar filled with other Semester at Sea students and began the night there. At midnight, everyone in the building sang happy birthday to me, and I was too buzzed to be embarrassed.

I wish I could tell you more about the night, but my memory is less than reliable for reasons I’m sure you can understand. All I know is that I had a great time with great people, and at some point I sang R&B karaoke on a stage in front of a full bar.

I later found out that on the one of my classmates got mugged on the same street I was on that night. The people who beat him up broke his wrist, arm, and elbow, and he had to get surgery before returning to the ship. South Africa is infamous for its violence, deemed the rape capital of the world. Even though we were warned of the dangers before arriving on the ship, the reality of the danger did not strike until hearing about that student. Though he now has a severely bruised face and an arm sling, he is quickly recovering on the ship.

The next morning, I woke up on the window-sill bench of my Airbnb in the same clothes I had left in and my bangs sticking out in every direction. Sorry Mom and Dad, but this is my reality and I aspire to tell the truth about my life in full detail.

After a strong cappuccino at Truth Coffee down the street (which apparently is known for having the best coffee in the world (but it really wasn’t that impressive)), I felt slightly revived. I threw all my strewn about items into my backpack before leaving the apartment bright and early for the long drive with Fareed to Aquila Game Reserve three hours north of Cape Town.

AQUILA GAME RESERVE

The drive to the safari lands was rough because I felt sick to my stomach the whole time, but the beautiful scenery made up for my poor health conditions. Tall mountains reminiscent of the Colorado Flatirons passed by, covered in alternating sheets of green grass and grey slate.

We checked into our two luxury bungalows on the outskirts of the grounds (all of the regular hotel rooms were apparently full so you can imagine how we over-paid for accommodations we didn’t need). The grounds were beautifully landscaped with green lawns and rock gardens. So much for the coping with the drought! (You can read more about that in my water crisis article in the Daily Wildcat 😊). About half a mile in the distance, we watched two elephants slowly navigating up a rocky hill. The place was beyond anything I could have dreamed.

After a much-needed nap, my friends and I took off on our first safari. In just an hour and a half, we passed by baby rhinos, submerged hippos, herds of zebras, loping giraffes, and graceful springboks under overcast skies. It was breathtaking.

WNQK8460.jpg
XVTC2992.jpg

There was a brief rest stop on the game drive where we were given platters of dried fruit, different types of dried meats, and champagne in silver chalices. It might sound like an odd combination, but everything was absolutely delicious, especially the ostrich jerky.

My friends and me enjoying our complimentary champagne mid-Safari.

My friends and me enjoying our complimentary champagne mid-Safari.

I ended my 21st birthday watching the African sunset fade into a sky full of bright stars by a bonfire with my favorite people. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d spend this milestone in such a fantastic way, and I don’t think it could have gotten much better than that. The only thing missing was my best friends and family from home. Even through the happy celebrations, my heart ached quietly for them.

The next morning was the sunrise safari, and I woke up feeling much livelier than the previous day. We took off as the sun peaked over the distant hills, casting fresh light on the sleepy wildlife.

This time, we went through the lion enclosure. Everyone on the bus had little hope for a sighting because we heard the lions tend to be shy, but only a minute after passing the massive gates, we spotted two lionesses on the horizon.

We continued down the road to a dead end. Confused as to why we took that route, everyone looked around at each other skeptically. But then we saw them, two enormous male lions lying beside the road. We got so close to them that I could have reached out and touched one.

The battered face of the majestic lion just feet away from my seat on the bus.

The battered face of the majestic lion just feet away from my seat on the bus.

Just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any better than that, we left the lions and pulled up to the two elephants from the previous day at the watering hole, spraying themselves down and shoveling heaps of grass into their mouths with their trunks.

As we turned to leave the magnificent scene, one of the elephants started walking our way, and my driver took off at the pace of the giant. He followed our bus for about five minutes, and I was lucky enough to be sitting in the very back where I had a perfect view of the whole experience. The elephant lumbered along, and as the cameras rapid-fired around me, I was frozen in disbelief. I don’t think I will ever witness anything as cool as that for the rest of my life.

BISM3860.jpg

My friends and I left Aquila that morning, still in awe of all we had seen, and began the drive back to the city. Fareed surprised us by organizing a horseback ride on the beach, so instead of going straight back to town, we took a coastal road about an hour past Cape Town, a drive that rivaled the beauty of the Pacific Coast Highway in California.

When we arrived at the ranch, we were in awe of the location; several acres of pastures and arenas sat beside the bright blue ocean with big, lush mountains rising in the north. If the owner of the place had asked me to stay there and work for free, I would have gladly taken the offer.

We quickly learned that the horses we were riding were retired racehorses. I didn’t get to talk to the owner very much, but he told me that he only owned Thoroughbreds and he raced them all. How anyone gets to a point in their life where they get to raise racehorses on the coast of South Africa is beyond me, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t envy that man.

After all eight of us took a beautiful but slow walk along the beach, the guides asked if any of us were experienced riders. My friend Camila and I were the only ones who raised our hands, so one of the men told us we could go “canter” for a bit while the others waited back at the ranch. We happily accepted, tired of the slow pace we’d endured for the walk with the others.

IMG_2209.jpg

When we exited the main corral, Camila, the guide and I made our way to a narrow trail beside the beach. When the man asked if I was ready to go, I said yes, thinking he meant we would ease into the speed. I was dead wrong.

All of a sudden, the man kicked his horse into a run, and my horse took off after him. I went from a brisk walk to a flat-out sprint within a split second. I have been riding horses since I was five years old, and I can honestly say that I have never come close to the speed I was moving then.

My horse was reliving his racing days, and I let him go, praying that I wouldn’t lose my balance in that glorious moment. I have not even felt that exhilarated on the back of my friends’ motorcycles back home. I was absolutely flying, and when my guide called for me to slow down and turn back home, I got rope burn all over my fingers and palms.

Camila and I returned to the rest of our group, breathing hard with heavily blistered hands and stupid-looking smiles from ear to ear. We agreed that we had never felt that elation in our entire lives, and I am still dumbfounded by the fact that we got to race actual racehorses on a gorgeous beach along the cape coast. Sometimes I don’t think I deserve what this life has allowed me.

That evening, we got delicious fish and chips at a restaurant beside the sea and stopped at a beautiful overlook of the cliff sides before returning to the ship. The scenic drive was unreal.

IMG_1698.jpg

CAPE TOWN (again)

My group had VIP tickets to an electronic music festival at Shimmy Beach Club, a nightclub only steps away from where the ship was docked. We arrived earlier than expected and enjoyed a night of live music and tequila at a beautiful venue beside the ocean. I don’t usually enjoy electronic music, but the DJs were surprisingly talented, singing along with the beat of remixed 90s classics. I had a great time and still managed to get to sleep on the ship just before midnight.

The next morning, Fareed picked us up from the ship to take us on a wine tour in the vineyard lands north of Cape Town. After yet another picturesque drive, we began the tour on a hop-on-hop-off tram that navigated the most beautiful wine valley I had ever seen.

The first winery we visited. I didn’t catch the name of the place, but it had the best views by far.

The first winery we visited. I didn’t catch the name of the place, but it had the best views by far.

We sampled wines and cheese at five different vineyards throughout the day. I was not a wine person before this tour, but now I feel much more appreciative of wine after learning about all the cautious work that goes into every bottle. My friends and I left the valley extremely satisfied and a little drunk.

IMG_1662.jpg

Back in Cape Town, we checked into a new Airbnb not far from our first one a couple nights before. This was easily the fanciest place I have ever stayed, and between the six of us staying there, it was dirt cheap. While the kitchen and living room overlooked the city and the harbor, the bedrooms had perfect views of Table Mountain as the evening fog cascaded over its sides like waterfalls. We spent the night in, listening to music and enjoying more cheese and wine for dinner.

MUIZENBERG BEACH

The next day was the most laid back of the entire trip. While my girlfriends went on a city tour with Fareed, my friend Brendan and I opted out to go surfing. I woke up to him blasting ‘Surfing USA’ by the Beach Boys in my room, which was oddly irrelevant considering our location, then we called an Uber for Muizenberg Beach.

Muizenberg was reviewed as one of the best surf spots in the Cape Town area, and since it was on the Indian Ocean side of the cape, we weren’t hopelessly freezing in the water. After a quick breakfast, we rented our wetsuits and boards and hit the water.

IMG_8974.jpg

The waves were rough that day, and since neither of us was very experienced in surfing, we struggled to stand up for more than a couple seconds at a time. After repeatedly wiping out for a couple hours, we decided to take a quick break and then try again.

What was supposed to be a 30-minute rest turned into about two hours of hanging out a bar beside the surf shop. Brendan, against my scolding, ordered three bottles of wine at 11 a.m., and I had no choice but to join him in finishing them.

We ran into our friend, Simon, a hilarious student from South Africa who had actually recommended Muizenberg Beach to us on the ship. He was also struggling to surf, so he sat down and gladly took over the wine for me. We all talked and laughed about nonsense until I decided I should probably surf instead of get wine drunk while I still had the chance.

Brendan and I returned to the water, but now I was even more unbalanced than before (I wonder why?), so I accepted the fact that I suck at surfing and made fun of my failure. After a long day, Fareed and the rest of the group picked us up to take us to see the South African penguins at a beach nearby.

We pulled up to the beach where hundreds of penguins dove in and out of the water under pink skies as the sun set. They were adorable little creatures, and indifferent to our presence among them.

IMG_1748.jpg

As Camila tried to crouch down to get a photo of the penguins, she slipped on a rock and into the sweeping water below. The whole group stood frozen for a moment as she struggled to paddle back to shore with her camera equipment lifted high above the water, but as a big wave came upon her, she and her camera went under.

At this point, we all started to scramble to help her, half of us laughing and half of us genuinely concerned (I was not surprisingly one of the ones laughing). My friend, Agathe, took it upon herself to be a hero and jump in after Camila, and then there were two people stuck in the swirling tide.

Agathe’s boyfriend, Zach, started a human chain down the rocks, and we eventually got both girls out of the water. Soaking wet, the two were fine, but the camera suffered a worse fate. We attempted the bag-of-rice technique to dry it out later that night, but it simply was too far gone. Although we laugh about it now, I still feel for Camila. I would have been devastated if I had destroyed my camera, so she is a trooper for finding the humor in the disaster.

CAPE TOWN (last time)

Since it was our last night in Cape Town, my friends and I wanted to go out with a bang and hit the bars again, but I had felt like I was coming down with a cold since that morning, so I was on the fence about it. However, my friends peer-pressured me into bucking up and going out.

We started the night at a gay bar (our driver recommended it), but I felt so sick at that point that I could only bring myself to dance for about 15 minutes before calling it a night. The bartenders, who were shirtless and had the most gorgeous bodies I have ever seen, kept bringing me glasses of water and asking if I was alright before I finally left. I’ll never get over how sweet they were.

The next day, I woke up feeling about as useful as a pile of garbage, and I dreaded the downward spiral of my health. I was supposed to go skydiving that afternoon with Camila and our friend, Willy, but to my sad disappointment, the man who booked our reservation signed us up for a 3 p.m. time slot. Since we had to be back on the ship by 6 p.m. and the drive to the dive site was over two hours away, we knew we wouldn’t be able to make it.

To our dismay, we had to change plans, so we chose the second-best option and went paragliding. I would have been stoked about this, too, but I was getting sicker by the minute, so I just wanted to get it over with.

When we got to the top of Signal Hill, a tall peak near the base of Table Mountain, the sight of the paragliders floating down to the beach instantly perked me up. Within about half an hour, I was strapped to my pilot, and we were off.

The ride began with us running as fast as we could down the side of the hill, and in the blink of an eye, my legs were kicking at air, the ground slowly falling away from me. We hung a right, twisting over the Earth while I howled with excitement.

G0015015.jpg

As we zigzagged down the hill, my sick feelings vanished for the short time I spent in the sky. We were so high up that birds were flying below us. I watched in awe as we sailed over cliffsides, then the freeway, then neighborhoods, then the ocean. We floated a little longer over the sea, my pilot doing thrilling tricks over the water, then landed effortlessly on the beach.

Even though I didn’t get to go skydiving, I wouldn’t trade my paragliding experience if I could. I can jump out of a plane virtually anywhere, but I can’t jump off a hill and fly over the South African coast anywhere. It was an incredible experience, and I’m so happy I did it.

My time in South Africa had drawn to a close. Fareed dropped us off at Victoria Wharf right near the ship, and we said our sad goodbyes. He was one of the sweetest, most caring guys I have ever met, and I can’t imagine anyone better for the job of taking eight obnoxious college students across the country. He’ll be the first person I call the next time I go to Cape Town.

While my friends enjoyed one last meal beside the water, I returned to the ship early because I could barely hold myself upright. Losing my strength fast, I trudged through immigration and went straight to my room (I was in quarantine for two days and had to have my meals delivered to my room because I didn’t have the strength to get out of bed, but that’s a dramatic story for another time).

South Africa was an incredible country, and I know I will be back someday. There is simply no way to do and see everything in a place like that in only six days, but I think my friends and I did a pretty good job of making the most of our short time. Even though I got so sick by the end of the trip, this was still one of my favorite ports. From turning 21 to driving beside an elephant to flying off the side of a hill, I will never forget my adventures in Cape Town.


Mauritius

My one-day stop in the east-African island nation of Mauritius proved far more exciting than expected.

PORT LOUIS

In the capital city of Port Louis, Mauritius, students were only allowed to leave the ship if they signed up for a field class or a field program chaperoned by lifelong learners and professors. I opted for a class because Semester at Sea paid for it as long as it counted for my global studies credit. I jumped at the chance for a free trip.

For my field class, I attended Sustainability Meets Luxury Island Tourism. This program aimed to teach about sustainable hotels, destination marketing, and the ways that the tourism industry can reduce effects on the environment while still promoting worldwide visitation to distant destinations like Mauritius. We bused to the nearby University of Mauritius, taking in the sights of the gorgeous, green mountains rising up around crystal blue water. There wasn’t a single unsightly view.

IMG_3216.JPG

During a one-hour lecture at UOM, the professor discussed how destination marketing is the biggest challenge in Mauritius because, since it is such a small island nation, it is not widely known throughout the world. Nearly all the US students in the lecture admitted that they had never heard of the country before embarking on Semester at Sea, including myself. She said that this is an issue they overcome by standing out in their sustainable efforts so that eco-tourists feel they can contribute to sustainability by visiting a country that supports the environment.

Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, a native Mauritian oceanographer and SAS inter-port lecturer, discussed on the ship the deteriorating coastlines in Mauritius. When I asked the professor at UOM about this problem and what she thinks can be done to overcome it, she said that Mauritius has never shut down beaches for natural repair, but that if the issue worsens, the country will not hesitate to do so for the sake of the beaches. She also said that they are working to plant more mangroves along the coastlines to slow down the coastal erosion since their dense tree roots strengthen the beachfront.

While the UOM lecture was a great educational experience, the following hotel tours and discussions seemed much more like promotional events than sustainable learning opportunities. That surprised me because the description of the program indicated that we would be learning from these hotels about how they run their businesses sustainably, yet the moment we walked into each, we were given fruity drinks in plastic cups with plastic straws. My initial impression of both hotels was off-putting.

After the tours, I spent the remainder of my day on the beach at one of the resorts. While I had been living on the ocean for three months, this was the first time I had actually gotten in the water. I was in heaven.

IMG_0851.jpg

Semester at Sea prohibits students from drinking alcohol on any field classes or programs as they do not want to be held responsible for any of the stupid things students do under the influence. One single day without alcohol doesn’t seem like the hardest thing to resist, but apparently these students couldn’t go without it.

As I walked past the resort bar, I saw about twenty students slamming shots and sipping cocktails, slinking back into the shadows to avoid the eyes of my trip liaisons. I even saw one girl stumble into the ocean with a half-empty bottle of rum.

As we left the beach around sunset to return to the ship, I noticed how some of my classmates were running around and screaming like idiots on the grounds of this beautiful, peaceful resort, completely obliterated. My friends and I were filled with second-hand embarrassment.

We all got back on the buses, and though there were no issues on my shuttle, another bus was not so lucky. The girl I had seen in the ocean had thrown up all over the windows, spraying chunks on nearby students, one of which was my good friend. To the horror of the tour guide, professors, and bus driver, they pulled over and held back her hair as she heaved on the side of the road for 30 minutes.

When their bus arrived back to the port, the girl was escorted onto the ship by very upset resident directors, too wasted to feel humiliation in front of the long line of students waiting to go back through immigration. I did not witness this sight myself, but I heard it was an absolute mess.

After the drinking fiasco, the dean of student life decided to indefinitely ban beverage nights on the ship, designated evenings where we could have up to two beers or glasses of wine with dinner. This small privilege was taken away because of the few idiots who couldn’t go one day without alcohol. Many people were caught drinking on other programs, and they had to go through multiple meetings and counseling sessions before getting off the hook.

Although I think SAS may have overreacted with the all-encompassing repercussions enforced after Mauritius, I understand the shame of being associated with such a disastrous group. I have certainly made my own alcohol-related mistakes, but this was such a blatant failure to follow simple guidelines, and SAS may never be able to return to Mauritius as a consequence of those students’ actions.

I hope to see Mauritius again because only one day was nowhere near enough time to appreciate and explore its beauty. The events that occurred during my field class were irritating, but I still enjoyed my brief stay, and I was thoroughly entertained by the drama to say the least. Hopefully these events do not serve as a premonition for the lunacy that will occur in South Africa, but stay tuned for that next week!

India

COHIN (KOCHI)

India has always been one of the countries I wanted to visit most. My family and I share a love for Indian food, so I grew up eating almost weekly at the best local spots. Some of my favorite movies are Slumdog Millionaire, Outsourced, and Lion, films shot in India that depict the many different cultures and lifestyles of the country. One of my best friends, Laura, is slightly obsessed with Bollywood, and I have been entertained by her song and dance renditions since we met. The colors, the music, the food, the people – for so many years I wanted to see it all in person, and the time had finally come.

The recent tension between Pakistan and India had the whole ship worried about possibly rerouting, and the rumors went rampant about what substitute country we would be visiting. Fortunately, the presumptions were incorrect, and we sailed our way into Cochin with no intention of turning back.

When we docked in Southern India, I had one thing on my mind: food. As soon as I got off the ship, my mission was to find the most authentic restaurant possible. Just outside of the immigration area, a hoard of tuk-tuk and taxi drivers swarmed the students, practically pulling us into their vehicles whether we wanted to go with them or not. I had six men fighting over who was going to drive me around, and I had to repeatedly shout at them to stop and weave through them to get into the open air where I could think straight. Already feeling a bit overwhelmed, my friends Camila, Lauren, Brendan and I took a taxi with one of the more polite drivers to an island right across the water from the ship to eat and escape the commotion.

My friends and I googled restaurants in the area, but every time we navigated to these places, we ended up in residential areas with no restaurants in sight. Giving up on technology, we ended up going to the first restaurant we found called “Grandma’s Kitchen”. So much for authenticity! It actually ended up having some really delicious samosas, dosa masala, and paneer dishes, and we all left happy and full.

Keeping up with my international beer tour, I ordered a King Fisher Strong from a beautiful upstairs bar by the ocean before heading back home that day. Not my favorite beer, but it was refreshing on the hot and humid afternoon. I spent the rest of the evening relaxing on the ship to prepare for the long day of transit ahead of me.

THE ROAD TO RANTHAMBORE

I woke up at 4:30 to go to Cochin international Airport the next morning. I signed up for a field program called “Tigers and Taj Mahal”, an all-inclusive trip which, like my Vietnam program, was completely arranged by Semester at Sea. We were headed to see the wild tigers in Ranthambore, the most renowned national park in India in the northern state of Rajasthan. Although I am not a morning person, I was wide awake and stoked for the journey that morning.

The airport was the biggest shit show I have ever experienced. All 45 members of my program arrived an hour and a half before take-off, and the lines were already wrapped around the building when we got there. When we finally received our boarding passes and made it to security, the line we formed was promptly broken up by a large group of Indian men who pretended they didn’t notice the massive queue of confused Americans.

When we finally got to the front of the line, the plane already in the boarding process, more men came up and started launching their luggage over our heads onto the scanner. The lines were separated by male and female, and of course the eight guys in our group breezed through. The rest of us were left to fend for ourselves against the unrelenting force of these men who pushed on with no repercussions from the security guards, who gladly helped their bags onto the pully even though they were cutting the women’s line.

My trip liaisons panicked about missing the plane, so they started grabbing our bags and throwing them to the other side of the scanner, yelling at us to just get through security and run to the plane. In the midst of the chaos, I unknowingly dropped my boarding pass, and when I got to the security check, I was empty-handed.

As my friends furiously checked my bags for the pass on the other side of the room, I called out to the crowd behind me to check the floor for the little slip of paper. They blankly stared at me and then carried on with their conversations, completely disregarding how I was on the verge of tears.

After being blatantly ignored for several minutes, I forced myself back into the crowd, shoving tiny Indian men and women to the wayside like a human plow. Lo and behold, I saw my boarding pass through the forest of legs, heavily trampled and blackened. Finally, someone noticed my panic when a young man leaned down to pick it up and pass it over a dozen other heads that didn’t even turn to look at what was happening. I don’t know how those people had no reaction to me nearly having a mental breakdown. I profusely thanked the kind man, stared daggers at the rest of the crowd, and sprinted for the gate.

By this time, the plane had been held for over 20 minutes, and we still had to catch a shuttle to the entrance. My liaisons looked like they were about to have heart attacks, and I was so stressed by the boarding pass fiasco that I couldn’t even speak. Somehow we made it, and I have never been so relieved to sit down in a cramped, middle-row seat.

The rest of the travel that day was long, with an additional flight, lunch in Jaipur (where I ate about 12 pounds of the best naan, curry, and lentils I’ve ever had), and a four-hour bus ride. My driver was an elderly, 5-foot-tall Indian man who must have driven with pegs tied to his feet to reach the pedals, and he drove the bus like it was an ambulance en route.

I hate to generalize, but I’ve concluded from my travels in the past few countries that drivers in Southeast Asia have a death wish. This man weaved into oncoming traffic like he wanted someone on the bus to crap their pants. He came within inches of buildings, motor-bikes, Sikhs and their goats, but he was always sure to give the cows in the middle of the street plenty of room.

If you didn’t already know, cows are sacred in India. Go to any Hindu state and you will not find beef on the local menus. According to the Hindu religion, your soul takes on 84,000 lives before becoming a human, and your last stop before that is in the body of a cow. My tour guide told me that cow killing is illegal in nearly every Indian state, and if you kill a cow for any reason — for food or by accident — you have to go on a repentant journey across India for several weeks before you can be cleansed of your sins (in addition to the repercussions of the law). You really don’t want to murder a cow.

I couldn’t get over how my previous impressions of India so closely matched the real thing. The stereotypical sights of colorfully dressed women, children running through the streets, and cows in every direction were entirely real. The cows really impressed me. I lost track of how many times I saw one inside a building, just standing there in a repair shop or a convenient store while people maneuvered past them like water around river rocks. When I asked my tour guide if he even notices them anymore, he said, “only if they cause a traffic jam.” What an odd society.

We barreled on, dodging cows left and right, through the most intriguing little villages with camel-drawn carts and enormous herds of goats led by turbaned men that blocked the road. At one point, we passed about 200 goats, and at the end of the herd, there were about a dozen dead goats just sitting alongside the road with stiff legs sticking straight up in the air (probably killed by erratic drivers like mine). It was such a horrible and ridiculous sight that the whole bus couldn’t hold back the laughter.

This was not an uncommon view from my seat on the bus.

This was not an uncommon view from my seat on the bus.

We arrived at the wildlife resort during sunset that evening. After eating dinner and checking in to my tent-style room in a beautiful little courtyard with my roommate, Tori, I collapsed on the bed and slept like a rock until yet another early morning wake-up call.

RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK

The next morning, we awoke to rain patters on the roof and the sound of Hindu prayer hymns echoing from somewhere nearby. Tori and I, hopelessly unprepared for cold weather, shivered our way to the front driveway to start our first game drive. After 20 minutes of confusion about who was sitting in which safari bus, roofless vans with multiple rows of metal benches, we finally began our drive as the sun peaked over the mountaintops.

Ranthambore National Park is a beautiful piece of land spanning 392 square kilometers. Our buses split up into different zones that morning, and mine went to zone three, the area that recently had had a handful of sightings of a mama tiger and her two cubs. I desperately hoped to see the trio along the way.

As I passed through the stone gates of the wooded park, I admired the beautiful wildlife right away. The road was lined with long-tailed grey monkeys that hopped overhead in the trees over the bus. Small deer flecked with beautiful white spots filled the woodlands, so accustomed to the buses that they never ran when we stopped to take photos of them.

The scenery was entirely different from what I expected; I thought we would be in a jungle landscape, but the forest was dry, very similar to something I would see in the canyon areas around my hometown in Arizona. Although there were large trees here and there, the majority of the foliage consisted of bushes, cacti, and ground vines.

My guide conversed with other guides as we passed them, asking where the tigers might be. When we first caught wind of a sighting, we drove in reverse at top speed until the man almost drove us off the side of a cliff and into a crocodile-infested lake. Everyone on the bus screeched at him to stop, our eyes wide and hearts beating fast. He chuckled, then carried out a horrendous three-point turn, taking out several shrubs as he turned in the opposite direction, then launched forward to the tigers.

When we made it to the site, we struggled to see anything because there were about two dozen other safari buses fighting for the same view. I saw some of the most massive camera lens I have ever seen in those buses, one with a radius of about three feet. Some of those photographers must have been working for major nature publications because nobody in their right mind would travel through India with equipment like that.

Through the sea of bus railings and khaki bucket hats, the magnificent mama emerged from the woods. She walked past the buses like she was on the catwalk (pun intended), stopping to pose for a group here, turning to look back at a goliath lens there. She was truly one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen.

NKKE6393.JPG

When the tiger moved on, we continued to look for her for the remainder of the ride. Nearing the end of the drive, we heard once more that she had been spotted, and my driver stepped on the gas again. We arrived at the site on the opposite side of the road where everyone was parked and waited patiently for a few minutes.

Suddenly we heard the buses across the way give out a collective gasp. Down the hill appeared the big mama followed by two mini versions of herself. The cubs chased her past the swarm of vehicles, then angled directly toward my bus. They approached slowly, weaving through hanging tree vines and tall grasses, coming right for us.

My guide saw me with my camera and yanked me from the middle of the bus to the very front bench seat and told me to shoot, and shoot I did. I had a front row seat to see the most gorgeous creatures in their natural habitat, and I don’t think I will ever get over how lucky I was to experience this.

UEET1514.JPG
When I took this photo, one cub had been separated on the other side of the road, so mama was running back to get take him safely to the other side.

When I took this photo, one cub had been separated on the other side of the road, so mama was running back to get take him safely to the other side.

After the tigers came and went, we drove back to the wildlife resort, freaking out about what we just saw and hoping that the other groups had had successful drives as well. In the dining hall, we learned that the others had not been so lucky and did not find any tigers in their zones. There were still two game drives to go, though, so we weren’t too concerned about their odds.

The second drive that afternoon took us to marshy grasslands. We didn’t see any tigers that time, and neither did the other groups, but the landscape was incredible and the wildlife was abundant; monkeys trailed our every move, wild hogs rolled around in mud patches by the side of the road, peacocks pecked around in all directions, and buck deer fought over a doe beside a pond covered in red algae. It was the most enjoyable nature drive.

After dinner that night, my tour guide announced that he had a surprise planned for us. We walked over to the courtyard beside my tent to find three musicians surrounding a campfire on the grass. We gathered around them in wooden chairs, and the show began.

As two of the men kept up a continuous song of guttural chants and tribal drumming, the third danced around the circle with the most energy I have ever seen. This man was tiny, maybe 5’3”, and my God, he could move. He pulled every single one of us into the middle of the lawn and taught us his traditional dance. We rolled our hips, gyrated in place, and skipped around the fire for hours. It was the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen, and I don’t remember the last time I laughed so hard.

He looks a bit demonic in this low-quality photo. Alas, the dancing man’s hilarity simply could not be captured on camera.

He looks a bit demonic in this low-quality photo. Alas, the dancing man’s hilarity simply could not be captured on camera.

For the last song, we did an “Indian train” around the entire courtyard, yelling more than singing, undoubtedly pissing off the rest of the guests at the resort. Nobody cared. We would never do anything like that again, so we let ourselves go, and it was more enjoyable than I can put into words.

The next morning, we took our final game drive through the park, and this one proved less exciting than the others. All three buses visited the same zone, and the most interesting thing we saw was a group of peacocks. I felt bad for the people who never got to see tigers, and some of them were pretty upset by the fact, but the tour did specify that tigers are wild animals and won’t always come out of hiding for tourists. We packed our things back at the resort and boarded the bus for a six-hour drive to Agra.

AGRA

The trip to Agra was long, but the eclectic visuals throughout the journey kept me thoroughly entertained, and the time passed fairly quickly. We stopped at a women’s craft shop along the way where we got to interact with the sweetest women as they hand-sewed the most intricately beautiful sarees, quilts, and tapestries I have ever seen. Though we could barely communicate with language, it was enough to simply sit with them as they worked. Their purity and kindness radiated from their smiling faces, and I was beyond blessed to meet them.

My friend, Tori, and I sat with these women for about an hour, and they were thoroughly entertained when they wrapped us in their sarees and scarves.

My friend, Tori, and I sat with these women for about an hour, and they were thoroughly entertained when they wrapped us in their sarees and scarves.

By the time we made it to the busy city, the sun had set, and I watched the world go by in dusky light. Agra was one of the most cramped areas I had seen yet, with pop-up shops selling used clothing set up over trash-clogged drainage systems, dogs wrestling on rooftops, and families eating dinner around waste basket fires.

After waiting in a traffic jam for nearly an hour, we finally reached our hotel just five minutes away from the Taj Mahal. Dinner was held in a banquet hall downstairs, and when my group finally made our way down there, we were surprised to find that several other SAS programs were dining as well, and the hotel had set up a mini “prom” for us. A small, wooden dance floor and a DJ with the worst song transitioning skills I have ever heard played loudly from the corner.

I ate yet another wonderful buffet dinner, getting seconds within about five minutes of my first meal. My friends and I danced for the remainder of the night. It reminded me of high school dances where everyone was actually having sober fun (my high school breathalyzed our dances), and it brought me right back to those fond memories. We all danced like idiots and had the time of our lives to the beat of early 2000s throwbacks. It was awesome.

The next morning brought me to a moment I had anticipated my whole life; we were going to the Taj Mahal. Bright and early at 5 a.m., we drove a short way to the main gates, smooth-sailed through security, then made our way in.

The morning was thick with fog, and as I passed under the first gate that opened up to the postcard scene of the crystal blue pools leading up to the Taj, I didn’t even realize where I was. The fog was so heavy I could barely see my hands stretched in front of me. The complaints of not being able to see tigers and now not being able to see the Taj drifted through the crowd.

I refused to accept that this was the case. I did not go to India, take stressful flights and long bus rides, and finally arrive at the Taj Mahal just to stare at it through impenetrable haze. Life simply would not do that to me. So I waited. I sat by the water and gazed at the space where the incredible mausoleum was supposed to be, and I patiently waited for it to appear.

As the sun rose around 6 a.m., a faint outline of the building appeared, and I knew my luck had not run out. The fog lifted ever so slowly, revealing bits and pieces of the sight I so desperately wished to see. The drifting mist made the place look like a video game animation, and I felt my heart race the more it cleared.

IMG_0405.jpg

I entered the building before the fog had totally lifted because my tour guide had only allowed us a couple of hours, and I was running low on time. Shah Jahan, ruler of the Mughal empire during its golden age, and his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, laid in the center of the round hall, white marble ceilings arched elegantly over the couple. The ruler had built the structure for Mumtaz in 1631 when she died giving birth to their fourteenth child, honoring her in the most lavish way he could imagine. According to my lessons on the topic, the two were inseparable.

Even though the security guards ushered me out faster than I wanted to leave, I was able to appreciate the sheer beauty of the architecture during my brief visit.

I returned to my viewing spot by the water as the Taj finally emerged in her full glory, new light illuminating the white marble dome and surrounding minarets. I sat and stared at it, tuning out the chatter of the tourists surrounding me, and took it all in until it was time to leave. The Taj Mahal was the most exquisite piece of architecture I have ever seen and probably ever will see.

The Taj Mahal in all it’s beautiful glory.

The Taj Mahal in all it’s beautiful glory.

All 45 wonderful members of my field program!

All 45 wonderful members of my field program!

The rest of my time in India consisted of transportation from one end of the country to the other. We finally arrived back in Cochin that night after 14 hours of bus drives and flights. When I finally laid down in my bed on the ship, I could hardly comprehend that I stood in front of the Taj Mahal that morning. It felt like it had been weeks.

COCHIN (again)

I spent my last day touring Cochin in a tuk-tuk with my friends Sophia, Erika, and Tori. We enjoyed coffee, shopping along the beach, and henna tattoos by two of the sweetest women I have ever met. I realized after getting the tattoo just how much of an art form henna is; the intricacy and precision of the drawing on my arm was truly incredible.

This beautiful pattern still looked good after about a week before finally wearing off.

This beautiful pattern still looked good after about a week before finally wearing off.

When I got back on board that evening, I watched the sun set over Cochin as dolphins leapt from the water around the ship (my first dolphin sighting yet!). It was a picture-perfect ending to my favorite experience of the voyage thus far, and I cannot wait to return with my mom and best friend, Laura, one day. My time in Asia had drawn to a dramatic close, and now I am headed for Africa. I don’t think life gets any better than this.

Myanmar (Burma)

Fun Facts:

  • Along with the United States, Myanmar is one of three countries in the world that has not adopted the metric system.
  • Fishermen fish in the water standing on one leg.
  • Touching someone’s head is a major insult.

YANGON

The Myanmar port was very different from any I have been to thus far. The city center in Yangon was a two-hour shuttle ride away, so my first view of the country was of flat, sandy land covered in grey, bristly bushes and small palm trees. It immediately reminded me of Rocky Point, Mexico.

The ride to the city was a learning experience in itself. As we rumbled along heavily torn-up roadways, I watched the Burmese world go by. I saw masses of stilted huts with palm-frond woven walls and rickety floors built just above a thick layer of garbage covering the ground. The sides of the streets looked like landfills. Herds of cattle grazed on trash instead of grass, and the ditches by the roadside were overflowing with murky water.

Contrasting these drab scenes were magnificent, golden pagodas that glistened from miles away in the sunlight. These were surrounded by long rows of singed apartment buildings that looked like they’d just survived a bombing. There were massive, barbed-wired walls enclosing nothing more than gardens, rebar and broken tiles in every direction, and then a ten-story hotel with beautiful architecture and fresh paint would appear. It was all so different, yet all in the same place. My brain struggled to make sense of the lack of unanimity.

I arrived in Yangon with my friends, Tori and Camila, hit the ATM, then began my adventure. In need of a game plan, we stopped at the Babett, the first hotel we found across from the shuttle station. This place looked like it belonged on the California coast, especially next to the battered stores surrounding it, so we were eager to sit down and relax for a bit in the air-conditioned bar (it was 96 degrees in Yangon and humid as hell).

We all ordered drinks to start, and this is where I discovered Myanmar Beer. This beer is incredible. I’ve considered myself a beer person since my trip to Germany three years ago, but I have not found one I was this crazy about until tasting MB. It was like Heineken’s far more attractive, smooth-talking cousin.

Soon enough I had ordered three, so to balance out my tipsiness, I ordered a pesto prosciutto cheeseburger. There’s nothing like a traditional Burmese meal! It ended up being one of the best burgers I have ever eaten, so I was happy as I could be. What started out as a planning stop turned into a three-hour long siesta for my friends and me, but we finally brought ourselves to rise from our little paradise and get a move on into the city.

The market we found was a huge indoor area filled with hundreds of separate stalls, all selling eclectic items from elephant pants to hand-crafted jade jewelry. We spent the better part of two hours buying things we didn’t need but couldn’t pass up because the prices were so cheap. Shopping bags in hand and vendors trailing after us, we left the market and headed for the giant golden pagoda in the city center.

The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most stunning site in Yangon and the most sacred pagoda in all of Myanmar. In a country containing over 2,000 pagodas, that’s saying something. We didn’t even need to use our navigation apps to find it because we could see the nearly 100-meter-tall structure from two miles away. At the foot of the pagoda, we removed our shoes and made the trek up long rows of stairs to the main edifice.

ESFI6066.JPG

The pagoda was covered in bamboo scaffolding because we happened to visit during the one in four years when the place gets renovated, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Swarms of locals and tourists placed burning incense around the various buddha statues that encircled the gilded stupa. As darkness fell, the gorgeous shrines remained lit up by the light of these flames, and I listened in fascination to the small groups of people praying aloud around them.

JZZI2486.JPG

As I took it all in, an old man approached me and asked about who I was, where I was from, and what I was doing there, the usual from curious locals. I learned his name was Richard and that he had been an English and mathematics professor at Yangon University, one of the most renowned universities in Southeast Asia. He talked to my friends and me for half an hour about his life, clearly thrilled to have a conversation in English. He told us that he went to the Shwedagon Pagoda every day for sunset to worship, and that if we ever returned someday, we would find him there again. I was so happy to interact organically with a local without the help of a tour guide and felt incredibly grateful for Richard and his willingness to share his time with us.

We parted ways with our new friend and left the pagoda to find dinner before catching the night shuttle back to the ship. At a street shop a few blocks away, we enjoyed some of the most delicious noodle dishes I have ever tasted, filled with grilled vegetables and rich broth. We posed individually with our ecstatic servers who stood about an inch from our table the whole time we ate. And of course, we threw back a couple more Myanmar beers before heading home. It was a satisfying day.

The next day, I spent a good amount of time on the ship trying to catch up on sleep as I was not feeling my best that morning. After a couple naps, a massive lunch, and one more nap, I shuttled to Yangon to meet my friend, Shanaea, for happy hour before catching a night bus to Bagan.

During the 20-minute walk from the shuttle station to Shanaea, an Indian man with a lazy eye followed me for a bit, repeatedly asking if I was Russian. When I told him that I was in fact not Russian, he shouted to his brother about how fascinated he was by this fact. His brother, who materialized from thin air on my other side, also had a lazy eye, and looked like he didn’t give a damn about my heritage. They were probably harmless, but I didn’t want to find out either way. I crossed six lanes of oncoming traffic just to get away from them and continued on alone to the bar.

At the bar, I bought a beer and mojito thinking that that was all I needed to get me in a good mood for the approaching nine-hour bus ride. I was unaware that these were part of a two-for-one deal, so I ended up with four drinks I didn’t need and a very small window of time before taxiing to the bus station. I didn’t want to be rude to the waiters (who were all watching with radiant smiles as the two of us ate and drank), so I threw the drinks back, paid the bill, then called a cab.

When I first sat down in the cab, which is similar to an Uber since you call it through an app on your phone, the time for my journey from the restaurant to the station read 45 minutes. However, as soon as we started driving, the time went up to an hour and five minutes. I looked at the dashboard clock. 6:58. My bus was leaving at 8 o’clock. Summoning the positive energy of the universe, I told myself that no matter what happened, I was going to make it.

My driver putted along the highway in heavy traffic for the better part of a half hour. My friends were already waiting for me on the bus, and they told me that the driver would only wait five extra minutes for me. After stopping at multiple red lights in a row, I informed my driver of the time crunch with somewhat slurred speech.

“8?! As in tonight?” he said. Why the hell he would think I might leave thirteen hours early I don’t know, but I confirmed the time, and suddenly I felt like I was in a rocket ship. This man started veering into any empty space he could find; bike lanes, sidewalks, dirt patches, you name it. He held down his horn for five minutes straight, blasting past the other vehicles that barely flinched in his wake.

I sat plastered to my seat like I was on a Starship carnival ride as my chauffeur maneuvered the streets like a maniac. I cheered for him, encouraged his lunacy, pumped my fists as the speedometer crept forward. How we didn’t plow into multiple cars and motor bikes is a mystery and a miracle to me, and I have never felt so close to dying in my life. Thank goodness I had had four drinks before going through this.

We pulled up to the JJ bus station at 8:04 p.m., and I whooped with joy at the sight of my horribly stressed friends Sophia, Tori, and Erika in front of the bus. Throwing bills at him and patting his shoulders, I profusely thanked my crazy driver for his fierce determination to get me there on time. My friends dragged me inside as soon as I was back on solid ground, and the bus rolled away from the station the second the doors closed behind me. The power of the universe, man.

BAGAN

The night bus to Bagan was brutal, but not unbearable. I slept in 30-minute intervals as we rumbled down horribly potholed roads for most of the time, shifting each time one of my body parts fell asleep.

The four of us arrived just before 6 a.m., feeling exhausted but excited for the new city. We bargained with a crowd of taxi drivers and managed to get a decent deal on a ride to catch the sunrise by the ancient pagodas before heading for our hotel.

Navigating twisted dirt roads, our driver took us past incredibly old pagodas, faded and weathered from age but still in-tact and magnificent. We arrived at a crowded viewpoint just as the red sun overtook the horizon and two dozen hot air balloons rose over the ancient city.

DWUJ1596.JPG

Ballooning is the main attraction in Bagan. You know the hot air balloon festival that happens once a year in New Mexico? That happens every day in Bagan. Each sunrise and sunset, dozens of balloons carry 10-20 tourists each above thousands of pagodas, a sight I wish I could have witnessed myself. I passed on the opportunity because I didn’t want to pay $350 for a 45 minute experience, but if I ever return to Myanmar, I’ll be sure to buy my ticket for the sky ride.

Erika, Tori and me posing with a Chinese lady who wanted us to be in her photos for her family.

Erika, Tori and me posing with a Chinese lady who wanted us to be in her photos for her family.

After the glorious sunrise, we continued in our taxi to the hotel to meet our friend, Kacie. When we arrived, we were thrilled to find that our humble home for the night had a rooftop hang-out and a killer view of a cluster of pagodas. What a wonderful morning.

After a quick and delicious breakfast at a hotel across the street from ours, we decided to rent a tuk-tuk – basically a rickshaw – because we had no idea where to begin with the thousands of pagodas on our own. With three of us and a tour guide in the tuk-tuk and two trailing on motor bikes, we rode around the dirt roads of Old Bagan for the entire afternoon. I lost count of how many pagodas we saw, but each one was more beautiful than the last, and I loved every moment of exploration. Driving the motor bike was liberating, and I don’t remember the last time I had that much fun.

A little boy mimics the Buddha’s “fear not” sign outside the main hall of a pagoda.

A little boy mimics the Buddha’s “fear not” sign outside the main hall of a pagoda.

After a jam-packed and exhausting day, we returned sweaty and grimy to the hotel for showers and rooftop beers. We watched the sun set over hazy pagodas and hot air balloons with cold liters in hand. An American geologist sitting nearby noticed that we spoke English, so he approached us and we all talked for a bit. I found out that he discovered catacombs in Springerville, Arizona, a very small town only a few miles from my family cabin. It’s amazing how the world can go from so big to so small after having just one conversation with a stranger.

That night, we met up with a group of other SASers for drinks at a local hostel bar. We kept the beers coming and taught each other card games for a couple hours before calling it a night. I felt like a true traveler, laughing and exchanging stories with people I hardly knew in a wildly foreign country. It was one of the greatest days of my life.

The next morning, my group woke up bright and early for the 6 a.m. shuttle to visit an elephant sanctuary just outside of Bagan. After picking up several other groups in the area (all of whom were SAS students), we arrived at the reserve about an hour after sunrise.

When we researched this place, we were excited because we genuinely thought that this was a sanctuary that treated its elephants well and protected them from poachers, lumber labor, etc. However, my first view of the gentle giants broke my heart.

Enclosed in small wooden corrals with woven saddles attached to their backs, these elephants looked miserable. The workers mounted them, mini pick axes in hand to steer them around with jabs to the head. The sight was sickening. I fed them slices of watermelon and cantaloupe and patted their heads and trunks, trying to make them feel all the love I could offer.

I suppose this kind of life is better than what they previously experienced in Burmese lumber yards where they were forced to haul massive beams of heavy timber, but they still looked so upset. Elephant eyes are incredibly expressive, and I could see the sadness in them plain as day.

I refused a ride on the beautiful creatures because I couldn’t bare to think of contributing to their pain. Instead, I walked down to the big lake down the hill to watch another group of elephants bathe in the water. This experience was far better than what I left behind up the hill.

The elephants were totally different in the water. They let themselves tip over, completely emerged except for their trunks sticking in the air like submarine viewfinders. They were so visibly ecstatic to get to play, and as I tossed handfuls of water on their backs and faces, their newfound joy gave me a much better feeling. I hoped they got to do this every day, because it was the very least they deserved.

PXJW8261.jpg

Finally, it was time to leave, and because everyone was sleep-deprived and muddy, we were more than happy to head back to civilization. Since we had already checked out of our hotel, my friends and I decided to crash the pool at a fancier hotel across the street.

What was supposed to be a quick swim and a relaxing lunch turned into an all-day excursion. The hotel staff was so happy with our constant food and drink orders that they didn’t kick us out for eight hours. I took a nap in the sun and later got a massage at the spa for a considerably cheap price. I hadn’t had a day of real relaxation since the voyage began seven weeks earlier, so I welcomed the lazy day with open arms.

As the sun set, we packed up camp by the pool and returned to the bus station for yet another dreaded night bus. This one was worse than the first, with smaller seats that retracted back so far that the girl in front of me practically had her head in my lap. I accepted the fact that I would not sleep and passed my time listening to every playlist I’ve ever made.

YANGON (again)

In the brief time remaining in Myanmar, my friends and I decided we needed to get some rest if we were going to be at all productive that day. We arrived in Yangon at 6 a.m. and immediately boarded a shuttle to the city center. This thing was so packed that I had to sit on the fold-down seats in the middle of the aisle, blocking anyone who had to get off at the stops. I sat next to a musty-smelling man who repeatedly hacked up his lungs, a pleasant companion for an hour-long ride.

A few minutes into the drive, Sophia realized that she had left a bag of clothes on the bus, so she and Tori panickily exited the shuttle to taxi back to the station while Erika and I continued to meet Kacie, who had taken a separate night bus, at a hotel near our shuttle station.

When we got to the hotel, I enjoyed a very delicious but very expensive American breakfast with Kacie and Erika at the hotel café. Since we would have to wait for Sophia and Tori for another few hours (the bus that contained her clothes had already left and wouldn’t return until 9 that morning), we decided to hang around there and try to get some rest.

I fell asleep on a couch in the fancy hotel lobby but was quickly awakened by a worker shouting No sleeping! No sleeping! over my exhausted body. I was so low on energy that all I could think about was getting back on the ship. Even though I wanted to take in the sights of Yangon for the last few hours I had before boarding the 2 p.m. shuttle, I simply couldn’t bare the idea of exploring instead of sleeping.

When Sophia and Tori finally made it to the hotel, we were all so tired that we agreed we just wanted to relax at a bar with one more Myanmar beer before heading home. I drifted in and out of sleep on the shuttle, and after getting my bags checked at the dock and a quick dinner at the buffet, I went to my room and slept for 13 hours.

Before disembarking in Myanmar, I was taught some disturbing things in pre-port about what the Burmese military has been involved in, such as the current genocide of the Rohingya Muslims, but I did not encounter anything troubling in the country. This was expected, however, as my fellow students and I knew we would not witness a warzone. But these events are indeed occurring outside of our limited scopes.

It saddens me to know that so many lovely Burmese citizens who want nothing to do with the carnage are now stereotyped as killers. Many of the voyagers were incredibly upset that we would even go into a country engaged in such atrocities, and apparently this is the last SAS voyage visiting Myanmar. I don’t know enough about the crisis to discuss it here, and the ship’s terrible Wi-Fi has prevented me from educating myself further, but I feel very lucky to have had an opportunity to see the country before it undergoes potentially vast changes that close it off to the world.

Myanmar provided me with some of my favorite days in my whole life, and that is something I will never forget. This was unexpected because I literally knew nothing about the country beforehand except that it has two names. The people were so kind and the landscapes so unique, and I am very thankful that I got to visit such an underrated country. I hope that Myanmar will soon achieve peace so that more global citizens can witness its magnificent history and encounter its wonderful people.

Vietnam

HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON)

My first day in Vietnam set the tone for an amazing experience in a wonderful country. When I first got off the shuttle bus from the ship to the post office in the city center, my friends Tori, Sophia, Erika, Yumei and I exchanged USD for Vietnamese Dong. One American dollar is equivalent to about 23,000 VND, so when we each exchanged 100 USD, we basically became multimillionaires. The jokes didn’t stop for the duration of the trip (i.e. I never thought I’d get so much Dong!).

A handful of Dong.

A handful of Dong.

Newly rich, we bought matching rice hats and made our way to the market areas. Along the way, a man carrying a bamboo shoulder pole full of coconuts and snacks decided I needed to carry his goods on my own shoulders. I thought this was a very peculiar strategy to get us to buy from him, but we all ended up leaving him with freshly cracked coconuts in hand. Although it was a brief and random encounter, the cheerful man’s spirit affected me immediately, and from that moment, I knew I would fall for Vietnam.

Sophia and me posing with our new coconut friend. The rice hats instantly gave our tourist identities away.

Sophia and me posing with our new coconut friend. The rice hats instantly gave our tourist identities away.

Tori’s mom and friend flew in to visit from California, so we walked to their hotel and got to know each other before going out for massages. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little envious of the family reunion, and for a little while I wished I could see my own parents’ faces and take them with me through the streets of Saigon. I brushed the nostalgic feelings aside as I made my way back out into the world to meet our friend, Willy, down the road.

A quick note on motor bikes in Vietnam: they are absolutely everywhere and there is no way to cross a road without feeling like you’re about to die. During our pre-port lecture on the ship, my higher-ups’ best advice was to walk without every taking your eyes off the other side of the road no matter how many motor bikes you see barreling toward you. Do not make eye contact, do not change your pace, and for the love of God, do not try to dodge them because you will probably end up getting split in half or smushed like a bug.

I took photo this from the middle of the crosswalk (so safe, I know), but it does not do justice to the reality of the chaos. Notice the brave man crossing to the left in the background.

I took photo this from the middle of the crosswalk (so safe, I know), but it does not do justice to the reality of the chaos. Notice the brave man crossing to the left in the background.

I consider myself a thrill-seeker, and even I can say that crossing the road in Vietnam was one of the biggest adrenaline rushes of my life. On one occasion, I crossed blindly (as I was told), and when I reached the middle of the street, I felt the hair of a rider whip my face in front of me while the heels of another clipped my calves behind me. I later learned to trust the process of the recurring near-death experience, but I had no other choice. I continued on to our appointment.

I had no idea what I was getting into before this massage, so hopefully what I am about to tell you can serve as a warning in case you ever decide to do this in Vietnam. I began the experience by changing into bright orange shorts and a T-shirt with buttons down the length of the back. I looked like a little boy and a prisoner all at once. Fully changed with my neon jumpsuit and woven sandals, my group filed upstairs to begin the massage.

The eight of us split into two dark rooms of four chairs, spiritual-sounding music floating through the ceiling speakers and four very small Vietnamese men beaming at us in the dim light. They began their routine by putting strips of cucumber on our faces and rubbing our feet for a good 20 minutes. This was nothing too extreme and really very relaxing.

Next, they flipped us over and unbuttoned our prison shirts in the back to begin the real deal. I have never gotten a massage from a dude, and I don’t like anyone touching me anyway, so I was a little more squeamish than usual when he started straddling me and pouring hot oil all over my back. The indecipherable chatter and bursts of laughter from the little men didn’t make matters any better. The four of us girls had no idea what they thought was so funny, but it made us uncontrollably laugh the entire time.

As I sat there with this tiny man grinding his elbows into my back knots and more parts of me exposed than I preferred, I couldn’t help wondering when the experience would end. All of a sudden, I felt four limbs on my back instead of two. At first, I couldn’t figure out what was happening, but then I realized he was bear-crawling all over me from by toes up to my neck. I could hardly breathe with the full weight of another human body on mine, and when I lifted my head for a split-second glimpse of my friends, I saw the other three men climbing all over them like balance beams, reaching at hand-rails on the ceiling for support. The sight made me cackle, and then I really couldn’t breathe.

Just in time, my masseuse hopped back onto the floor and asked me to lean forward. He sat behind me and put me in a headlock, then lifted my entire body over himself with his feet. My back cracked so many times it sounded like someone stepping on a bag of potato chips.

“All done!” the little man said merrily as he hopped back down in front of me. I felt like I had just been run over by a semi-truck, but I thanked him nonetheless. My friends and I had no words. I still have no words. It was the weirdest experience of my life. I can’t say that I will ever do it again, but I certainly will not forget it.

Feeling sorer than ever before, we left the massage place dazed and exhausted. We got food at a market nearby with about 25 different food stalls. Starving, I bought a plate of fried noodles, the best sweet potato fries I have ever had, fried spring rolls, and two Vietnamese 333 beers all for under $10. This meal alone made me realize that I could thrive in Vietnam; the people are kind, the food is delicious, and the beer is cheap. What more could you need in life?

The Ben Thanh Street Food Market. I could have sat there people-watching with my beer all night.

The Ben Thanh Street Food Market. I could have sat there people-watching with my beer all night.

After dinner, half of us wanted to get pedicures and the other half wanted to explore. I was a part of the explorers, and after walking just a few blocks, we came across a festival celebrating Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. We paid less than a dollar for admission into a bustling park filled with homemade jewelry stands, acrobatic dancers, aquariums, and delicious-smelling food. The place was alive as can be, and according to locals, these kinds of Tet celebrations occur for several weeks before the streets and parks return to normal.

Rejoining our group after about an hour, we walked a few miles back to the boat and called it a night. I needed a decent amount of sleep before my field program the next day.

HANOI

I slept in the morning of my field program and woke up just in time for lunch. The buffet in-port is a hundred times better than when at sea, so I indulged in a tableful of pasta-bar stuffed rigatoni and a mountain of the elusive SAS brownies before meeting my group.

I signed up for a field program – an all-inclusive Semester at Sea trip – that would take us to North Vietnam to the rice terraces of Sapa, a picturesque landscape far from city life. While my friends were all flying off to Halong Bay to get wasted on booze cruises, I was off to hike six hours a day through humid jungle terrain. At the time, I was a bit regretful because I thought drinking on a boat with my friends at one of the natural wonders of the world would be better than exerting myself with people I had not yet met, far from any paradise beaches. However, the experience was so much more than I thought it would be.

My group consisted of five students (including myself), the media coordinator, Megan, and our trip liaison, an older man named Rich who had a knack for having long-winded conversations with himself. We took an afternoon flight to Hanoi where we met our tour guide, D.

That evening, we bussed around the capital city to see some of the typical sights. An important note about driving in Vietnam is that it is complete orderless insanity. To understand just how bad these conditions are, there are two motor-vehicle-caused fatalities in Saigon per day and only one every other day in New York City.

A typical sight throughout Vietnam, these motor bikes can carry anywhere from one to six people.

A typical sight throughout Vietnam, these motor bikes can carry anywhere from one to six people.

From the high window of my bus seat, I watched as families of five zoomed by on one single scooter, babies dangling from handlebars and toddlers bringing up the rear with exhaust pipes burping on their legs. There were no lanes, and the bus driver used our size as an advantage by simply holding down the horn and going wherever he so pleased. There were times when we cut off a dozen cars and scooters with no regard for their direction. I wasn’t afraid for myself so much as I was scared we were going to flatten an entire family, but we somehow made it through the ocean of insane drivers and arrived at our restaurant without racking up a death toll.

Dinner was a six-course traditional Vietnamese meal, all of which was delicious. I swear I did not have a single bad meal in this country and the food got better by the day. After eating, we drove to the train station to board a night train to Lao Cai, the small town not far from Sapa. This train would take nine hours, a duration that didn’t seem so bad considering we would be sleeping for most of it.

The train was surprisingly comfortable, each room equipped with two bunk beds and a little side table loaded with snacks and water bottles. I prepared for sleep, content with the accommodations, when I heard the air conditioner turn off. At first, I though this was normal, that the thing was meant to turn on and off throughout the night. However, an hour passed and the room started to heat up. At this point it was close to midnight, and my superiors were surely sleeping in the next railcar. There were no train workers in sight when I peered out of my room.

I tossed and turned in my bed, praying for the cold air to return, but more hours passed, and the heat continued to rise. I searched the length of my car for any kind of thermostat, but all I found was a thermometer by the bathroom door that read 87 degrees Fahrenheit. My roommates were somehow able to sleep through the hellish temperature, a blessing I was outrageously jealous of, meanwhile I laid in a pool of sweat for the rest of the night.

By the time we arrived in Lao Cai at 5:30 a.m., I had not slept for one single minute. Good thing we were about to hike six hours! I was crankier than ever before, and when Rich asked how I slept, I snapped, “I didn’t.” That was all I said until we got on our bus to Sapa. In a dinky hotel by the train station, we were given an hour and a half to “freshen up” before embarking for the mountains. I collapsed on a rock-hard bed with sheets of questionable cleanliness and slept until it was time to leave.

THE HIKE

Our little bus was clearly not made for mountainous terrain, so we crept along the rocky roads of the Vietnamese countryside for about an hour and a half before reaching our starting point at the top of a tall mountain. The scenery was beautiful, and although I was horribly sleep-deprived and a little nauseous, I couldn’t help my excitement for the place. Being from Arizona, I freak out at the sight of a tree, so the miles and miles of rice terraces really got my heart racing.

I took this photo on the actual hike, but this is what the land looked like everywhere we went. The hazy mountains and terraces covered in purple flowers and water buffaloes were absolutely breathtaking.

I took this photo on the actual hike, but this is what the land looked like everywhere we went. The hazy mountains and terraces covered in purple flowers and water buffaloes were absolutely breathtaking.

When we finally got off the bus to begin our trek, we were greeted by a huge group of Zao tribal women with no eyebrows and their hair tied back with red head scarves. They swarmed around us as soon as we stepped foot outside, demanding that we buy their homemade purses and miscellaneous jewelry. The tour guide gave us no warning of this factor in the journey, and we were especially surprised when all the women followed us to the trail head.

I was always so refreshed by the smiles I received from the villagers I passed. Although they live simple lives, the Zao people are some of the happiest I have ever encountered.

I was always so refreshed by the smiles I received from the villagers I passed. Although they live simple lives, the Zao people are some of the happiest I have ever encountered.

A lady named Mei Lee walked beside me, holding my hand and asking me questions about my life and relating everything I do to her son who just so happened to also be 20 years old (I’m not sure she really had a son at all). Although she was very sweet, I had no need for what Mei Lee was selling, so after I turned her away about 14 times, she finally gave up on me and made her way back to the village.

The hike began downhill, which wasn’t hard at first, but my shins and quads started to burn about an hour in. The weather was mild, far cooler than Saigon, which was a blessing given the treacherous terrain and heavy backpack on my shoulders. Despite my minor discomforts, the scenery was incredible, and the cool breeze and sight of staircase mountains gave me a sense of elation I cannot explain.

Representing the SAS flag wherever we go! This small group was so easy to travel with, and I am very thankful for how well we all got along. From left to right: Matt, Itka, Rich, Me, Alexis, Maddy.

Representing the SAS flag wherever we go! This small group was so easy to travel with, and I am very thankful for how well we all got along. From left to right: Matt, Itka, Rich, Me, Alexis, Maddy.

The next couple days were filled with hiking and sweating and taking a million photos and eating the best spring rolls of my life. On the first day of the trek, a local family made us lunch and, holy hell, it was outstanding. Although we didn’t interact much with the couple, their generosity and time was much appreciated by all of us. Because of them, I will never feel the same way about any other spring roll for the rest of time. They were just that good.

That night I stayed in a stilt house in a little village called Sin Chai. The dinner was incredible again, consisting of lemongrass chicken, ginger pork and, you guessed it, more spring rolls! I drank half a liter of Ha Noi beer as I wandered the village at sunset, taking in an environment I was so unaccustomed to. Children played in the dirt with sticks and half-deflated soccer balls, chickens and cats occupied the same spaces in harmony, and the village men enjoyed time away from their wives in a small congregation by the corner of a convenience store, talking and laughing and singing until darkness fell.

The village hang-out.

The village hang-out.

I was so content with the day and so full of appreciation for my life on that night. I don’t recall ever feeling quite the same way, but I sincerely hope I feel that again someday. It was an enlightening time. After all the excitement, I returned home to crawl into my floor-mat bed surrounded by a mosquito net cocoon and slept for 11 hours.

A surprisingly cozy set-up on the second floor of our host family’s house.

A surprisingly cozy set-up on the second floor of our host family’s house.

The next day consisted of a long hike back to civilization. Along the way, we stopped to swim in a beautiful river where mothers were carrying their children on their backs as they washed their laundry along the banks. I found out that Rich is an avid swimmer and watched him go nuts for the water, repeatedly diving from jagged boulders as the rest of us nervously watched for fear of him slipping and us having to carry his injured body through miles of rice terraces.

This is one of my all-time favorite photos. This woman and her baby were walking up from the river as we made our way down and she gave me one of the most authentic smiles I have ever seen.

This is one of my all-time favorite photos. This woman and her baby were walking up from the river as we made our way down and she gave me one of the most authentic smiles I have ever seen.

Rich made it out alive, and when we finally arrived at another village in the valley we had driven through the day before, we all enjoyed homemade pho before getting a ride back to Lao Cai. After lunch, I was thrilled to finally take off my worn hiking boots and kick up my blistered feet in the air-conditioned bus. According to my phone, we had hiked 24 kilometers and over 250 flights in just two days.

Back in the main town, we had dinner at the same hotel with the brick mattresses before taking yet another night train back to Hanoi. You’ll be pleased (or unamused) to know that while the air conditioner did go out again for the trip home, the weather was considerably colder that night, and I was able to sleep soundly for a few hours.

HANOI (Pt. II)

We arrived in Hanoi at 4:30 a.m. and promptly bussed to a hotel near the city center. This one was ten times nicer than the previous, and I got my own room to relax in for a few hours before my last day of the tour. It dawned on me that that was the last time I would have a room to myself for the next three to four months, so I lived it up by blasting my music and having a conversation with myself for about an hour before sleeping soundly.

For the final day with D, we visited several spiritual sites and the Ho Chi Minh Complex. When we first arrived at the HCMC, I didn’t even really realize where I was or what we were supposed to do there. I was caught off guard by the soldiers marching robotically beneath massive communist flags all around the grounds and felt a knot in my stomach every time I walked by them. The place had very strange vibes.

In the enormous mausoleum, I viewed Ho Chi Minh’s dead body entombed in a glass coffin illuminated by glowing orange lights and guarded by four very bored officers. He was so perfectly preserved that I half-expected him to pop up and ask who the hell were all these people? I don’t know about you, but I think there is something very unsettling about having someone’s corpse stared at for 50 years, and it’s a fate I would never desire. Nonetheless, it was very intriguing to see the beloved Vietnamese father of communism.

The tour finally came to an end at the Hanoi airport. Although I had only been traveling with the group for 72 hours, it felt like a month. I mean that in the best way possible, but that trip was so non-stop, and my exhausted self was excited to get back to my familiar life on the ship. The seven of us hugged D goodbye and flew back to our southern port.

WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM

On my last day in Vietnam, I visited the War Remnants Museum with some friends in Ho Chi Minh City. Previously named “The American War Crimes Museum”, the place was filled with heart-wrenching stories and appalling photos from the Vietnam War. From gunned-down families to terrifying displays of the affects of Agent Orange, the museum had no shortage of terrors to present to a crowd of previously clueless visitors.

Although the museum was incredibly powerful, I had an issue with the one-sidedness of it all. In the four stories of viewing rooms, I did not see one single mention of the Viet Cong’s atrocities, nor did I read anything about the slaughters conducted by the North Vietnamese after the Americans went home. What was shown was obviously brutal, but it did not tell the full story, and that is something that, as a novice journalist, I cannot appreciate.

I overheard half a dozen students talking about how terrible America is, how “we” are blood-thirsty savages, and how they dreaded returning to the country after seeing what the museum had to offer. I couldn’t imagine how they wouldn’t even question the other half of the story, how they truly believed that the Vietnam War only consisted of atrocities committed by Americans and no one else.

I think we can all agree that that war was particularly violent and tragic, but I feel it is so important to know the history behind these events to avoid jumping to conclusions or believing the first things you hear. I, too, do not yet have enough knowledge to have a sophisticated conversation about the events that occurred then, but I recognize that and choose not to spew my forming ideas until they are accurate and precise. I would love to know your feelings about this, dear reader, so leave me a comment below if you want to have a conversation or donate some of your knowledge to me. I sincerely appreciate what you have to say.

I wrapped up Vietnam on a solemn note that day, but the museum still added to my incredible experience in the country. I sailed away feeling like I could have spent a lifetime there, but I know that my strong connection to Vietnam will bring me back someday. The people, the food, and the scenery far-exceeded my expectations, and I am so excited for the day I get to experience it all over again.

China

SHANGHAI

I instantly fell in love with China when the ship docked in Shanghai. It was just after midnight, and I could see every bit of the electric skyline through the heavy fog. The view itself told me that it was going to be a good city. Despite the biting cold, I couldn’t wait to explore.

The next morning, I went with a group of friends to the black market. When we arrived, an enthusiastic vendor started heckling us the moment we stepped off the train. He led us through a maze of designer stores: Adidas, Nike, Louis Vuitton, Lulu Lemon, Patagonia, and about a hundred other notable brands.

I considered buying a pair of Dr. Marten’s boots at our new friend’s store, but when he brought out a pair for me to try from his sketchy and imaginably minuscule attic storage space, I found that the things were cardboard excuses for shoes with bubble-wrap soles. I passed on his offer, not looking to pay so much as a few cents for that garbage.

Other stores proved luckier, and I bargained away with my friends, stopping at any store that looked like it had moderately believable quality. I ended the spree only spending $65 for a 40 liter North Face backpack, a Lulu jacket, and a Stussy beanie. Not bad if I do say so myself.

The day passed quickly as we navigated the train system, and I soaked in my first looks at China. The country is very different from Japan; it’s grungy, unkempt, and wildly colorful, much more my style than uniform and overly-polite Japan. Every street was filled with charmingly crumbly buildings, only distinguishable by the arrays of small-sized laundry hanging up to 40 stories high on their balconies.

We saw the Bund, the area where you can observe the new, high-tech buildings across the water from the comfort of the historic district, a place of beautiful architecture and classic street designs. I was smitten with the view and so thankful that the rainy day cleared the smog enough for us to see the entirety of the horizon.

IMG_8700.JPG

That evening, I went to dinner with my friend Zayn’s family at the revolving restaurant just beside the ship. Over 90 floors up, 24 of us enjoyed traditional Chinese cuisine by way of Lazy Susan, including meals of chicken talons, fish heads, and Peking duck. We also took shots of a signature Chinese liquor – to show great respect and appreciation for the family’s generosity, of course – and it tasted like nail polish and gasoline (not that I’ve tried either). Regardless, it was a wonderful time and I am so thankful for Zayn and his family.

IMG_9093.jpg

After dinner, my friends and I went to Mint, a night club on the top floor of a skyscraper in downtown Shanghai. This place had an entire hallway decked out with a shark tank, and the drinks costed more than I like to recall. Speaking of recalling, the night is a blur for me, but I do know that nearly everyone on the ship was there, and I bet we gave the staff at the club one hell of a surprise.

My second day in Shanghai was a total waste since I stayed in bed for most of it, unable to drag myself far from my dark little room. I’m still kicking myself for this as I am not one who accepts wasting time, so I’ve learned my lesson and will not be over-doing the clubbing any longer. I pulled myself together just enough by the time I had to catch a train to Beijing, and away I went.

BEIJING

Beijing is very different from Shanghai. It struck me as the Washington D.C. of China, filled with official buildings, historical monuments, and marching soldiers. The smog was so heavy we could stare at the sun without hurting our eyes, and the air smelled of cigarettes and car exhaust everywhere we went. I could not get away from that god-awful smell, and I still feel the weight of it in my lungs.

My friends and I stayed in an Airbnb in the city square. The place was cute and conveniently located, but we couldn’t turn off the blasting heat for the first night. I awoke at 2 a.m. sweating buckets and violently tore the covers from my bed, which was hard as a rock and had a bar running horizontally through it, a real treat for my spine. I tried to fall back asleep, but it was 31 degrees Celsius, unbearably hot even for an Arizona native. I brought my pillow downstairs and slept on the hardwood floors of the living room for three hours until the dim morning light gave the final consensus that I was not going to do better than this for the night.

We started a day-long tour of Beijing with our guide, Candy Lin, an adorable spitfire of a woman with a long pink jacket and matching pink beanie. She took us to Tianenman Square where a brief walk through the square was sufficient to get a taste of the governmental history, and then we made our way to the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City is 600 years old, but despite its age, the city looked only slightly weathered, wonderfully preserved after all these years. As I listened to Candy explain how the place was designed to keep the emperor in and everyone else out, I wondered if those ancient rulers were rolling over in their graves as thousands of tourists wandered through their once-exclusive homes. Even the emperor’s wife was only granted access to the city one time on their wedding day. After that, it was back to the lonely outskirts. Oh, and the emperor had up to 3,000 concubines, meaning he had hundreds of kids with virtually all different mothers. What a society.

The Forbidden City was beautiful, but I was so cold that I could barely focus on what Candy had to say. When we finally finished the tour, I was ecstatic to get back into the bus. We drove to a tea house for a traditional tea ceremony. It was delicious and much more entertaining than I imagined, and we all ended up buying about $40 worth of tea after the ceremony. They really know how to get you to buy what you don’t need in China.

After tea, we finally made our way to the Great Wall. Along the way, nearly everyone fell asleep except for Candy and me, so she and I had a conversation about what it’s like to live in China. The gist of what she told me is this: rich or poor, the Chinese work their asses off because their communist government says they have to, and there doesn’t seem to be much hope for a life outside of the ones they are born into. The government’s attempt at population control is falling apart as well, the elderly population substantially higher than that of the youth due to the one-child rule. I listened to Candy explain these predicaments and thanked my lucky stars for being born in America. Every passing day of this voyage makes me realize just how blessed I am to be able to make my own decisions and chase opportunities and live the life I want to live.

At the Great Wall, we walked with extra zest in our steps. We were about to be on the freaking Great Wall of China! It didn’t feel real to any of us, and yet, moments after getting off the bus, there we were. Candy allotted our tickets, and off we went.

IMG_8870.JPG

The section of the Wall we visited was called Badaling, and it provided one of the stereotypical views of this Wonder of the World you’ve probably seen in photos. There the air was miraculously less clogged with pollution, and we were able to see the expanse of the incredible structure as it rolled over miles and miles of treacherous mountains. The fact that the Great Wall was built without machinery is absolutely astounding to me. Over 6,000 kilometers of bone-crushingly heavy boulders were lugged up those mountains by people who had no choice but to do so 3,000 years ago. God bless those poor bastards. To think that I complain about having to turn in more than one homework assignment per week!

9D5E70DC-4990-4421-B29B-B8ACD25718D4.JPG

When we finally got home from the Wall, we had been with Candy on this tour for over ten hours. We were cold and exhausted, but we needed to eat, so we found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a basement down the road from our place.

The second we stepped inside, customers and workers alike pulled out their phones to take photos and videos of us. We did stick out like a sore thumb, but the shamelessness of the Chinese in their relentless recordings of Americans is hard to get used to. They make you feel like a celebrity or a godamn president if you have blue eyes or even a streak of blonde hair, and there is no way to avoid it.

Eight of us shared fifteen dishes of mystery meals for $60. Although we felt like we were on a TV show with the amount of cameras on us, we were so happy with the dirt-cheap dinner that we didn’t care one bit, and we smiled and waved for our fans as we left. We returned to our bearably heated apartment (the owner had sent a maintenance person over that evening, thank the heavens) and laid our exhausted bodies down to rest. We had a big day ahead of us.

HONG KONG

We flew from Beijing to Hong Kong the next day, and the airport process was surprisingly smooth. I didn’t have anyone in the seat next to me on the plane, which automatically made it one of the better flights of my journey. We had a delicious included meal of spaghetti and chicken and red wine and a stellar variety of movies, so it’s safe to say that I was living it up in the China skies. 10/10 review, Hong Kong Airlines.

We arrived at the airport past midnight, and after going through immigration, we finally made it to our bus close to 2 a.m. This mofo was supposed to stop six times before we reached our stop at Mong Kok station, but I stopped counting after 20. The directions didn’t tell us that there was only one bus after midnight. We finally made it to the hostel at nearly 3 a.m., which isn’t an ideal time to arrive in an area of an unknown city that looks like slums.

The hostel owner was a very nice man who spoke excellent English and stayed up two hours longer than he was supposed to having to wait for us, and he led us through outdoor halls of drippy ceilings and cracked tiles to two very small but clean rooms on the eighth floor of our building in the middle of Hong Kong. Although my legs were too long for the Chinese-sized bed, I was so exhausted that it was the best night of sleep I had had in my time in China.

The next day, we walked nearly two miles to the ship to drop off our things to start exploring. Unsure of where exactly the boat was, we wandered through the most lavish shopping mall I have ever been in alongside the ocean until we found the terminal. When we rounded a corner, the sight of the beautiful World Odyssey after so many nights in shoddy sleeping conditions made us whoop with happiness. We were home.

After a much-needed shower and some relaxation, we made our way to the Peninsula Hotel, a place my mother used to go with her mom and sisters when she was my age travelling to and from her home in the Philippines. We dined on finger-foods, mini desserts, and enjoyed high tea. This was the highlight of the trip, and we all got teary-eyed as we reflected on how lucky we were to be sitting in that beautiful lobby on Chinese New Years Eve.

WJZI8306.JPG

After tea, we wandered through the busy streets of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is one of those places where no matter where you go, something interesting is happening. I know I say this a lot, but I was enamored with the place. The vibe was so welcoming and so exciting, every corner offering a new adventure. We roamed a night market as darkness fell and witnessed the bustling nature of outdoor shopping in the city.

That night, we decided we couldn’t leave Hong Kong without experiencing the night life. Our first destination was Ozone, the tallest bar in the world on the 118th floor of the Ritz-Carlton down the street from the ocean terminal. Drinking Heinekens in the street on the way there, we all felt less than stable as we took three elevators up to the bar. When we arrived, we were disappointed to find that the outdoor deck was closed and the drinks costed an arm and a leg, so we stayed for maybe 15 minutes before making our way down to the subway to catch a ride to Hong Kong Island.

Across the water was another world. We followed the noise to a loud section of bars, but everyone was drinking in the street rather than indoors. I bought all of my drinks at 7/11 (that place is the ultimate go-to no matter what I need), and my friends and I partied all night with people from all over the world in this obscure little spot.

I met a cute Australian named Max (a name to which the next day my dad told me “belongs to a dog, not a person”), and we talked throughout the night about our lives and our futures and made fun of each other’s accents. I you’re reading this, Max, feel free to invite me to Australia.

I had to leave behind my foreign man to take care of my friend who was drunk off her ass, stumbling into light posts and brick walls with a hoard of Chinese men following her. My friend, Camila, and I roped her in and sat her on the sidewalk while we waited for a taxi. The first one to roll up said he would charge me $100 HKD per person, an outrageous price for a ten minute drive. I told him to piss off as he yelled at me to get out of his car, then flagged down another more welcoming driver.

On the way home, drunko was sick out the window, but our taxi driver thought it was a hoot and gave us plastic bags to help her, bless his soul. We made it back to the port in one piece and miraculously got through security without any problems. This was the final night in China, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can honestly say that, despite the chaos and the drunken friends, it was one of the best nights of my life.

China was such an amazing country, and I cannot wait to return to Shanghai and Hong Kong someday to spend more time in those wonderful cities. I would also love to see more rural areas of countrysides and twisted canals, but it saddens me a bit to think that I could never see it all even if I spent my entire life in such a massive country. From the food to the people to the street culture, my heart went out to China, and I will undoubtedly go back!

Japan

KOBE

After spending 18 days on the Pacific Ocean (save for the one day stop in Hawaii), waking up in Kobe, Japan was a dream come true. When I first left my cabin to join everyone on Lido deck as we pulled into port, the sight of a parking lot gave me that jumpy feeling in my chest that I get when I see an electric sunset. Dry land had become a distant memory after all those days at sea.

(Top left to right) Cayla, me, Julia, Shanaea, Kylie, Emily, Abby. (Bottom left to right) Dono, Piper, Riley.

(Top left to right) Cayla, me, Julia, Shanaea, Kylie, Emily, Abby. (Bottom left to right) Dono, Piper, Riley.

I started exploring Kobe with my friend Shanaea early in the morning. Our first goal was coffee. We found a local shop just outside of China Town and I swear, I have never had a better latte in my life. Maybe it had something to do with how the ship coffee tastes like they use gravel for coffee beans, but I have never appreciated a cup of caffeine so much. I had no idea how to communicate to the waitress, and when she tried to confirm that the item I pointed to on the menu was correct, I responded with si. Yes, I tried speaking Spanish to a Japanese barista, and I have never felt so ignorant in my life. It happened once more before we left, and I’m astonished that I didn’t throw in a gracias on the way out.

After coffee, Shanaea and I brought my horribly broken phone to a repair shop next door, and let me tell you, there’s nothing like having to ask for help from someone who has absolutely no idea what you’re saying. The experience showed me just how much I take general communication for granted, but we eventually succeeded with the help of Google Translate.

Next, we wandered to a massive department store filled with Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana, Prada, and other name-brand luxuries that make my wallet ache just by looking at them. We found a rooftop garden on the tenth floor that overlooked the entirety of downtown Kobe, and this is where the silence hit me. Here was a city that was so full of people and cars and tall buildings, and yet, it was so quiet. All I could hear was the dull hum of the train below. I appreciated a place that could behave this way and breathed in the sight until the stinging cold brought me back inside.

HVFZ4952.JPG

OSAKA

My field class in digital documentary photography took me to Osaka where my classmates and I spent hours wandering the streets taking photos of anything and everything. We went to the Dotonbori District along the river, which was incredibly vibrant and lively, filled with bright little restaurants and colorful thrift shops. Everyone – and I mean everyone – was incredibly well-dressed as if they had just left a department store photo-shoot. I was instantly taken with the city.

CYGF3826.JPG
RPLJ2147.JPG

After six hours of photography, we ended the day at a restaurant that served okonomiyaki – a savory pancake filled with pork, vegetables, and other mysterious items (I prefer not knowing when it comes to meals like that). On the bus ride home, I tried to remember the last time my feet ached so much. It was a wonderful feeling.

Although I only spent half of the day in Osaka then, I returned for my last night in Japan (more on that later).

KYOTO

On day two, I took an early train to Kyoto with my friends Sophia, Willy, and Taylor. It was a beautiful city, even less noisy than Kobe, and we spent the day roaming around temple squares and admiring the quiet chaos of the place. We sampled octopus skewers from a street vendor in a very I’ll-try-it-if-you-try-it way. I’m not a seafood person, but I can honestly say that with a little salt, it wouldn’t have been half bad.

IMG_8347.jpg

Later in the day, we took a bus to the monkey park in Iwatayama, which was definitely the highlight of Kyoto. The monkeys were absolutely hysterical, and the lookout over the entire city of Kyoto was gorgeous. I could’ve spent my entire day there and never tired of the sight. I tried to feed a peanut shell to one of the little guys, but I pissed him off and he swatted at my hands, just barely scratching my finger. If I end up getting rabies, at least I’ll be able to say I got them from a Japanese monkey and not by a lame stray dog or something like that.

WNVT0817.jpg
Some of my favorite people! (From left to right) Sophia, me, Yumei, and Willy at the top of the monkey park overlooking Kyoto.

Some of my favorite people! (From left to right) Sophia, me, Yumei, and Willy at the top of the monkey park overlooking Kyoto.

I woke up the next morning to a view of snow-covered mountains through the window of my cozy hostel pod. Unfortunately for me, I did not pack for the weather, but I bared the freezing temperatures and headed for the station to catch the bullet train to Tokyo.

TOKYO

Everyone knows that Tokyo is a wildly chaotic city, but the reality of it is entirely different from what you see in photos. The moment we stepped out of the train station, we found ourselves at Shibuya Crossing, one of the largest crosswalks in the world. When the little green man appeared, hundreds of people hurried every which way beneath the massive neon commercials. I felt like I was surrounded by robots perfectly programmed to maneuver the insanity, and after weaving our way through the orderly disorder, I breathed a sigh of relief. Continuing down the streets to the massive shopping malls, my girls and I bought wigs for our night out on the town. One does not simply go to Tokyo without buying an outrageous wig.

My wigged women and I went to the Robot Restaurant that night, which was entirely different from the bar scene I had imagined. It was a full-on light show performance filled with gigantic robots and tribal drumming and staged battles performed by shrieking Japanese dressed in the most incredible metallic outfits. It was absolutely insane and absolutely wonderful.

IMG_9210.jpg

After one too many vodka sodas, we left the restaurant and stumbled through the streets of Tokyo, occasionally posing with locals who were so excited to see us idiot Americans in our ridiculous get-ups, then made our way to the Womb.

The Womb is a nightclub that is famous to Semester at Sea students. Everyone knows about it and everyone must go if they really want to have the full SAS experience in Japan, so nine of my friends and I met there for a night of clubbing. To be honest, I think it was a bit overrated (I’m pretty sure the same song played for the entire night), but then again, I don’t remember much about the night. Sorry Mom.

A good old-fashioned McDonald’s breakfast made me slightly less corpse-like the next morning, and my group and I made one last Tokyo outing at the Digital Art Museum. This was my favorite part of the entire trip. I would have stayed in that building for weeks and never gotten tired of the incredible light shows and trippy projections on mirrored walls. It was incredible, and if you ever go to Tokyo, this is something you cannot skip.

LKKC1481.JPG
VSTS7094.jpg

OSAKA (again)

My friends Julia, Piper, Riley, Cayla and I took the bullet train back to Osaka to stay in a ryokan – a traditional Japanese hotel complete with bed mats and kimonos. There we were served a six-course meal, but we had no idea what anything was because the menu was in Japanese. We stifled our laughter as the server brought us plates and plates of mystery fish, eggs, and God only knows what else.

Presentation is everything. Although it looked good, it tasted God-awful.

Presentation is everything. Although it looked good, it tasted God-awful.

I cried laughing as we shared the misery of having to eat a few bites of everything to avoid insulting the staff. I have never come so close to throwing up from a bad meal, but dear God this food was horrendous. After I took a shot of what I think was a raw quail egg, we called it quits and booked it out of there, our stomachs aching from the laughter and the meal.

We ended the night in the ryokan’s onsen – a Japanese “hot spring” which, in our circumstances, was basically a public bath. Respecting tradition, we all threw a middle finger to our insecurities and stripped down. Huddled in separate corners of the onsen, we were doing alright until two middle-aged women joined in, letting it all hang out. Liberating for them but scarring for us, we quickly succumbed to the awkwardness and returned to our rooms for much-needed sleep.

IMG_8535.jpg

NARA

My final stop in Japan was Nara, a sacred town at the foot of the mountains outside of Osaka filled with beautiful temples, tidy shops, and herds of tame deer. I still have yet to discover why the deer are there, but they’ve been a tourist attraction since my mom’s SAS voyage in 1981. So strange yet so cool. We wandered through the streets, petting deer all along the way, until we came to the giant Buddah, which I witnessed in awe.

DXNME7584.JPG

After all of these adventures, getting back to the ship was truly a relief. I had been walking seven to eight miles a day with an incredibly heavy backpack that was definitely not designed for long-distance travel, and I was excited to be back in my own bed. Nonetheless, I truly loved Japan and I will certainly be returning some day to explore all the places I missed like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Until then, I’ll be getting a new backpack and avoiding seafood at all costs. See you next time in China!

Life at Sea

My first week on Semester at Sea has been very different from anything I’ve ever known. I had no clue who my roommate was until she walked into our windowless shoebox of a room on the fourth floor of the ship. I quickly learned that she is originally from Germany but graduated from her three-year high school in Costa Rica just last summer. We share a space only slightly bigger than a walk-in closet but, given the amount of time we spend roaming the ship, that space is more than enough.

When this 126th Semester at Sea voyage began, all the students were virtually in the same boat (pun intended). Most everyone did not know another soul, including myself, and the hunt for a solid friend group began immediately. My first days were spent sitting at a new table for every meal, introducing myself and small-talking my way to the people I could see myself independently travelling with in-port. The students here share a love for travel and a curiosity for what the world has to offer, so making friends is suggestively easier than your typical land-locked campus.

There’s also the no Wi-Fi factor. Forced to do things other than scroll mindlessly for hours on our phones and lock ourselves away in our caves full of Netflix sitcoms and Hulu series, voyagers stay busy by playing board and card games. Hours and hours of card games. And hours. I think I’ve played enough BS in the past five days to last me several lifetimes. But there is something so refreshing about the inability to access the internet aboard this ship. Where in the world can you find 650 college students off their phones, actually communicating the old-fashioned way of face-to-face conversation? In the middle of the ocean, that’s where.

Students wait for sunset by playing hackeysack on the Lido deck. This is a popular gathering place for outdoor activities such as yoga and stargazing.

Students wait for sunset by playing hackeysack on the Lido deck. This is a popular gathering place for outdoor activities such as yoga and stargazing.

Class on the ship is not unlike what I experienced at UA, but the schedule is vastly different. There are no week days or weekends since we are constantly moving, and the dates and times change too frequently, so we follow an alternating A and B class schedule. This means that we could have class anywhere from two to eight days in a row, with port stops as our weekends. It all depends on the itinerary.

The Kaisersaal Union is the largest gathering place on the ship. There we have class, lecture sessions, movie/game nights, and pre-port discussions.

The Kaisersaal Union is the largest gathering place on the ship. There we have class, lecture sessions, movie/game nights, and pre-port discussions.

Every student is required to take a Global Studies course in the Kaisersaal Union, the main meeting area on the ship. This course reviews the meaning of globalization, the history and other important ideas of the destinations we are going to visit, and mixes in some lessons on Oceanography. Other classes are held anywhere on the ship including the library, any of the four restaurants, and even on the Lido deck beside the vast ocean.

I spend my free time (and boy, do I have a lot of it) reading by the pool, playing games with my new friends, and napping. I have never slept this well in my entire life. The constant rocking of the boat simulates a giant cradle, and I am knocked out as soon as my head hits the pillow. This is a blessing and a curse, because while I sleep like a baby at night, I remain tired throughout the day, especially in dark classrooms with cozy chairs.

SASer Jack Wold relaxes in a flamingo floaty in the pool. On warm, sunny days, nearly every student can be found tanning on the pool deck in between classes.

SASer Jack Wold relaxes in a flamingo floaty in the pool. On warm, sunny days, nearly every student can be found tanning on the pool deck in between classes.

The ship-rocking is pleasant, but to an extent. On calmer days, voyagers are happy and healthy, but when the captain comes on the intercom to announce harsh weather and large swells to come, everyone slaps on their seasick patches and pops nausea pills like their lives depend on it. It’s entertaining to watch students pinballing-down the hallways as the ship braves massive waves, until I find my own legs crisscrossed and I stumble into a wall or two. I only majorly felt the effects of the ocean on my second day, but since then I have attained my “sea legs” as the crew calls it. My roommate, on the other hand, has not been so fortunate. There’s nothing like waking up to the sound of violent vomiting at 5:30 in the morning. It will take some more time, but I am sure our bodies will soon adapt to the instability.

By the time I reached my first destination in Hawaii, I had not seen land in seven days. That fact amazes me when I really think about it. I’d been sailing across the Pacific Ocean for 2,000 nautical miles to the most isolated chain of islands in the world, all while taking college courses with a ship-full of other students from around the world. This floating campus is unlike any other, and I can safely say that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.