Saturday, May 2, 2009

Panama Canal

The info below is copied from an SAS memo. If you're interested in seeing us go through check it out!


Panama Canal:

Our tentative schedule is as follows:

            0910-1000  Transit Miraflores Locks

            1050-1130  Transit Pedro Miguel Locks

            1245  Pass by Gamboa

            1445-1705  Transit Gatun Locks


When we go through the Panama Canal there will be a webcam at the Gatun Locks and the Miraflores Locks from the Panama Canal website:    This way your friends and families at home can watch the ship sail through! The Canal Website has a new High Resolution Webcam at the Miraflores locks for a very clear image of the ship! More information and links to the webcams are located on the Panama Canal folder on the public drive.



Hawaii Day 1

        After nine straight days on the ship I was delighted to get to Hawaii. TheVoice (aka Luke on the intercom) played “Coming to America” at 6:30am to wake us all up for customs. We had to go upstairs to the faculty lounge to hold up our passports for customs. Luke specified that ‘proper clothing’ must be worn. After that, I returned to the room to pack up a day bag for the beach and call everyone! That was one of the best parts! Rather than sit around and wait for them to call our sea we got to sit around and call family and friends since it counts as the USA! I swear I went through half of my phonebook.
        Somehow we (Britt, Perri, Becca, Jenna and I) managed to get off the boat by 9. Our destination was The Outrigger on Waikiki Beach (Perri, Becca and Jenna rented a hotel room). Since there were five us (split the ride 5 ways) and the beach was close we decided to hop in a cab to get there. It had been a while since I had taken a real cab so it was actually quite nice to go directly to our destination with no stops and in comfort.
        The hotel was in the perfect location, with the beach on one side and the main drag on the other. The room wasn’t ready for check-in so we (they were nice enough to let us drop our bags too) dropped our bags with the concierge and took a quick spin around the main drag. They had a lot of tourist shops as well as beach shops as well as the usual ‘name brands’. We stopped in at LeSportSac which had the cutest fanny packs in Hawaii exclusive prints. There was also a little enclave along the block called ‘International Market Place:Hawaii’. It had a ton of little vendors selling tropical jewelry, shells and knickknacks. You could bargain, but it wasn’t more than them knocking off a few dollars-no skill needed. After purchasing a small turtle necklace (the other girls bought a bunch of other stuff) we were on our way.
        Happy with our purchases we headed to the beach! We spent the morning laying out and taking in the sights and sounds of Waikiki. The beach itself is not very wide, unlike Miami Beach, but is absolutely beautiful with Diamond Head (an inactive volcano) picturesquely featured at the end. The surfers were everywhere and we were itching to give it a try. I walked up and down the beach trying to find the perfect afternoon lesson and the perfect price. I finally found a hut offering 1 hour lessons for 30$ each. Becca and Jenna and I booked a 1:30 appointment while Brittany decided to just rent a surf board. Feeling like we had all our ducks in a row, we headed to (believe it or not) The Cheesecake Factory for lunch. It’s always nice to have some sort of reminder of home and we all enjoyed the Americana for a little while (I actually had a Kaluha Pork pizza since that is what Hawaii is known for-it was very yummy and full of a BBQy flavor). Afterwards we headed back to the hotel to drop our belongings in the hotel room (it was very nice) and then went to our lessons. Our instructor was a Hawaiian man in his late 20s with a long ponytail. He was very helpful and I managed to even stand up on the board! It took me quite a few tries but it was a lot of fun! Granted he did push us into the waves (so we didn’t have to paddle as hard). After a little while, Brittany paddled over from ‘The Big Surf’ to play with us. We had bought an underwater camera and got busy taking pictures of each other. Somehow our one hour lesson turned into two (although he didn’t charge us more), but we weren’t complaining (who could really when the weather was sunny and the view of Diamond Head was beautiful).
        After our lesson was over we headed into the hotel to shower and change. Brittany and I headed out to the main drag because after much deliberation I ended up buying the LeSportSac fanny pack (Britt bought a couple different ones, Becca bought one, etc), which came in really good use as opposed to my usual money belt. The rest of them caught up with us and we all hailed a taxi to Diamond Head, our main go of which was to hike it at sunset. The bad news was once we got there they told us it was closed (it was 5pm and I guess they don’t like people hiking at dark). We ended up hopping out of the taxi anyway, there was a lovely overlook of the other side of the island which we took even more pictures with. The city was sprawling with the ocean’s waves meeting the shoreline at just the right distance, while the volcanoes peaked in the background.
        We decided to just walk back rather than pay for yet another taxi cab. It was quite a scenic (and long walk) through the streets of inland Honolulu. The houses were very modern and another reminder that we were in the states. We got back to the main drag around sunset and sat on the beach taking it all in. It was pretty beautiful but it had nothing on the ones we have on the ship. Afterwards we walked around the main drag some more and had sushi for dinner (there’s a large Japanese presence in Hawaii). It was really yummy and I even got wakame salad (I had searched all over japan for it!). We continued walking around the shops before heading back to the ship for a good night sleep.

Some Updates

Swine Flu:
I’ve been getting a lot of emails about this. When we went to Guatemala there were no reported cases and to the best of my knowledge there still aren’t. The big joke around here (its not funny) is that if someone ends up with Swine Flu on the ship that we are going to be quarantined outside of Ft. Lauderdale for weeks with a gigantic battleship to make sure no one jumps ship. I am REALLY glad that this just became a big deal because it could have really impeded on our travels (such as SARS did).

Leaving the Ship:

I’m really sad to be leaving this voyage and community but I am definitely ready to see my friends and family. I just took my last final so school is over (I think I’m getting 3 As and B+), which is fine by me. Right now we can see Central America in the distance, the little outlines of their coasts. It’s nice to have birds flying outside of the window too. It’s odd to have flies on the ship though (since we’re close to land now we have them). I’m going to miss the little things on this ship such as the noon update or even the structure of the nights activities (pre-port, etc). I can’t believe we’ll all be saying goodbye in just three days but I really feel like this is the start of a brand new chapter in my life and I can’t wait.

Happy Sailing,

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Days 4-5 Japan

Day 4-Tokyo, Japan
I awoke early in my small capsule, quickly showered and woke up Brittany. After getting organized we decided to head to Roppongi Hills, a sprawling metropolitan complex of Japanese economic hegemony. Brittany’s feet were bothering her (we weren’t having good feet luck in Japan) and she chalked it up to her shoes. She was desperate to get some relief so we headed to Birkenstock, which was closed (we were there too early), so we decided to head to the top of the building for the Tokyo City View. It turned out that it was a two-for-one ticket which included the Mori Art Museum AND a car show (I took pictures for you dad).

The Art Museum was really cool, very modern. The main attraction was this triangular form of rings with light bulbs on it, it was supposed to be confusing, yet reflexive. Also included in the ticket was a headset which guided us through the museum and told us little factoids. Some of the exhibits were really odd, such as one which consisted of a wood table in the middle of a dark room which you were supposed to touch which made it make noises and quote movies-very weird.

My favorite piece was done by a man who was trying to express what happened to his world when his family’s farm was taken back by the government to be turned into something industrial. It was spread across an entire room with names of the farm, his family, trees and other organic matters.

From the museum we headed upstairs to the car show. It was really cool because not only could you view the Japanese Bentley or a MiTo, but you could also look out the large window on the 52nd floor out towards Tokyo, a great outlook.

After taking quite a few pictures we took the elevator (and deposited our belongings in a locker so they wouldn’t get blown away) up to the official Tokyo View. The window was blowing and the view was fantastic as we looked over all of Tokyo and took more pictures (of course!).

Brittany’s feet were really killing her so we decided to go back to Birkenstock and try to find her a good comfy pair of shoes. We were successful, so we went down to the food court to get a nosh. I found take-out tempura (sticking with authentic food, all the business people were ordering it), while Brittany grabbed a bagel(with too little cream cheese).

After lunch we took another timely metro to Asakusa. Asakusa is well known for it’s Nakamise Shopping Arcade and it’s Buddhist Temple Sensoji, which is Tokyo’s largest Buddhist temple.

Upon walking up to arcade itself you pass by the Kaminarimon or the Thunder gate which is a huge gate with a large lantern with the guardian gods, Raijin and Rujin. We walked around the shopping arcade for a little while, Brittany bought some pottery for her family while I watched the locals buy discount makeup and other goods. The arcade was pretty busy and the Japanese can be a little pushy in lines (if there is a space in the queue then its up for the taking), but all in all it was pretty orderly. The color scheme is bright reds and yellows, working together to lead one to the main attraction amongst the cherry blossoms (although not as prevalent as in Kyoto, Tokyo did have quite a few), the Sensoji.

The next thing we pass by is the Kannondo. There were quite a few individuals surrounding the small circular well, each holding incense while wafting the smoke towards themselves. Before entering the temple we wash our hands in another dragon (in metal) fountain with little cups to cleanse ourselves.

We look ahead and see hundreds of white lanturns, neatly hung in orderly rows leading us to the main gate. The gate is a two-tiered pagoda which we slip through in order to get a glimpse of the main alter which is totally plated in gold. It is actually behind glass which skews the view a little bit but it is still a beautiful array of alter and flower, mixing and mingling in order to showcase Buddhist beauty.

As we look up to the ceiling we see a beautiful painting of a G-d with a red skirt, twirling different pieces of cloth. As we walk out of the main gate we see a 5-tiered red and black pagoda, Gojunoto, which is sad to house some of the ashes of Buddha. Surrounded by blossoms it is a truly a magical place.

Continuing through the garden we see more beautiful carved stones (my favorite!) as well as black stone statues of Buddhas and small prayer and donation pagodas (they look like mini-pagodas with green roofs and wood structures on top of stones). It was just so beautiful.

After reflecting in the garden we decide to head back out to the shopping arcade (its getting late) and make our final purchases. I really wanted a little container for powdered green tea (and green tea), because let’s face it, I love green tea. But, I wanted it for a really good price so we had to walk all around to find one that was more geared towards wholesale. After walking through at least 10 pottery shops, we find the perfect shop in a small ally. I purchase a small, white, condiment container with small cherry blossoms painted on it. It is beautiful. Afterwards, we managed to track down a  grocery store to buy some powdered green tea.

Exhausted, we hop on the metro to head back to the capsule hotel to drop our belongings and recharge before heading back out.

The capsule hotel is alive with travelers (including some SASers), we utilize the computers and research what to do for dinner and the late afternoon. Next, we hop on the metro and head to Ginza, famous for it’s shopping malls. Sitting on the subway at rush-hour was quite a site as the young student next to me kept falling asleep and the businessman to my right was furiously texting.

Ginza looked like any other section of any other city and we quickly bored of the shopping centers (it was all VERY upscale). We decided to head into one of the centers to grab a quick snack (I got a hand sushi roll) as we were getting hungry but didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg. Brittany’s foot was also starting to hurt again at this point.

We hopped back on the metro (we had unlimited passes and wanted to see as much as we could) towards Shinkjuku, famous for it’s electronics, music and department stores. We walked along the very busy streets before deciding (Brittany was having trouble walking at this point) to stop for some dinner. We ate at a Japanese version of an IHOP (part fast food but with service). We each got some very yummy shrimp tempura with rice and miso soup. After dinner Brittany decided that she wanted to return to Roppongi to try to return the Birkenstocks. So, once more, we got on the metro and headed to Roppongi. Although she wasn’t able to return them, she did get the arches hammered down which helped. Afterwards she got some Ice Cream and we started discussing if it was possible to wake up to go the Tsukiji Fish Market at four in the morning. After deciding to do it, we headed back to the Capsule Inn to go to sleep. Sleep came easy as I was exhausted and before I knew it, it was morning…

Day 5- Tokyo to Yokohama

I was in disbelief when my alarm buzzed at 4:30 am. The idea of waking up that earl and the actual occurrence of such an event are two totally different things. But, alas I was waking up early to see the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, so really I had nothing to complain about. I woke Brittany up (she was not particularly happy about it) and we got ready, then headed down to the metro to grab the first train of the morning to Tsukiji (the 5:12am). The station is roughly a kilometer from the market and we were a little disoriented, but we were able to follow a German family all the way there.

The market is alive and very real. People are conducting high stakes auctions (tuna is expensive!). As we walked into the open air building, I was reminded of Rona. The industrial fork lift thingies (I don’t know what they’re actually called) were whizzing past us(you had to be really careful) carrying everything from squid to enormous tunas. The smell was quite overwhelming, but I managed to get used to it. It was amazing to see all the different kinds of fish in little stands, the shopkeepers proudly slicing and dicing. I tried to not get grossed out as we traversed the aisles. We slowly (it was sensory overload) made out way to the back of the market where the tuna auctions were.

The auctions were held in what looked like huge storage units (with garage doors). We peaked under one and saw rows upon rows of frozen tuna, larger than a person! The back tail (or fin?) was cut off and a little hanging piece of meat was exposed to allow bidders to feel the meat (grosssss). I ducked under to snap a few shots before getting in trouble and being shooed to the ‘official tourist line’. After waiting for 10 or so minutes (while watching the whizzing carts full of fish almost collide with each other and tourists) we walked into one of the units, down a small aisle, and got a better view of the auctions. It is truly amazing that so much goes into buying sushi (lol). The chaos began to subside around six and we made our way back out of the market, viewing for the final time curled octopus legs, thousands of tiny shrimp and fish that I have never seen in my life. Let’s just say the fish market in Seattle has nothing on Tsukiji.

After we washed the smell off our clothes we took a short nap at the Capsule Inn before heading back out to explore Ahkihabara (where our hotel was located). We had decided to leave this adventure for last because we weren’t going to buy a all-you-can-ride pass for the metro and we could easily leave our stuff at the capsule.

Ahkihabara is also known as the Electric Town, Chou St. being the main drag. We arrived a little early (around 9:45) as the huge mega-shops were opening. The whole street looked like one big Brandsmart USA and each shop seemed to resemble the discount electronic store. The stores housed everything technical or manga (the Asian comic book style) you could ever imagine. Although their technology is ahead of ours, the prices were pretty similar. As Brittany browsed the multi-story electronic stores looking for ‘junk drives’ and a camera for her dad, I looked at the DSLRs. They still had D40s on the shelf! They are definitely more into DSLRs than we are in the United States (for instance a D700 or something that would be marketed at professionals in the United States is marketed for consumers!). They had lens upon lens and more camera bag choices than I have ever seen in my life. However, I was a good girl and managed to restrain myself!

As many of you know, I am kind of obsessed with Copic Markers (used for anime, or in my case, rubber stamping!), so when I heard we were staying in the anime district I had hoped that we would run into them. Since we had a little extra time before lunch (the McDonalds 390 Yen lunch special that served us well in Japan wherein you get a cheeseburger, fries and a large soda for the equivalent of 4 USD (any other Japanese lunch sets you back roughly 10 USD or much more), Brittany used her limited Japanese to ask some clerks about them. After asking 10 or so people, we managed to locate a store that sold them!

Nothing is cheap in Japan, but the Copic markers were only 399 Yen (4 USD) as opposed to 6 or 7 USD in the states. I was good again and ended up just buying two (E04 and B000) plus the starter airbrush set (I had extra yen). I was happier than a kid in a candy store and even took a video of the shop for my stamping blog!

After stopping for our fast food lunch (yucky, but cheap!) we headed back to the capsule to grab our bags then to the metro to say goodbye to Tokyo and head to Yokohama to meet the ship.

After making it to the ship (the trains were easy!) we dropped our belongings, changed our shoes and headed out to explore Yokohama for  two hours.

Yokohama, like most of Japan, is very modern and sort of reminded me of the Boston Harbor area. We walked down to the stadium, passing quite a few purple and yellow tulips on our way. From there we headed to China Town where we sipped some green tea and saw most of the items we had bought in China for triple the price. I enjoyed seeing the city, but it was basically like any other smaller city so I was glad that we had stayed in Tokyo.

I really enjoyed Japan. After seeing poverty around the world it was nice to see a country and a people who were thriving. Many comforts that we enjoy they have even improved (case in point: Toliets, there’s sing to you (the flushing noise), heat your bottom, have built in bidets and I’m just talking about the ones in McDonalds, some even blow dry you). Its amazing to me that a country that was once a great military power managed to harness that energy and turn their economy into a real prize. Successfully, they managed to avoid a lot of military spending and in turn put that federal money towards good use. I think the world could learn a lot from Japan.

Happy Sailing!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Day 3- Kyoto to Tokyo, Japan

Day 3- Kyoto to Tokyo, Japan

As usual we woke up early, this time to go to Tokyo. I was quite excited to use the Shinkansen to get there. The Shinkansen is the Japanese bullet train which reaches speeds of up to 190 miles per hour. We took the Nozomi train on the Tokaido track from Kyoto to Tokyo, direct. The train itself had a futuristic outside (very slanted and white) but the inside was just a more luxurious train. We sat next to a Japanese businessman who told us what towns we were passing and when to look for certain highlights. It was pretty amazing to literally see buildings flash before my eyes. The true highlight was towards the end of the ride (at 12:12, exactly, they were able to tell us ahead of time and were perfectly correct) when we got to see Mt. Fuji. It was a spectacular sight with its white snowy volcano top overshadowing the towns below!

The ride only took a little over two hours and we were hungry by the time we arrived. But, we decided to head to our CAPSULE hotel!!! After a little navigating we made it to the Capsule Inn Akihabara which is in the ‘Electric District’ (its where all the electronic stores are). The lobby was on the first of ten floors. We gave the man our registration and in return he gave us the key to our main lockers as well as the key to the shoe lockers. He told us we could drop our belongings but that we had to be out of there quickly as they were only ‘open’ from 5pm to 10am. We quickly ran upstairs (the 8th floor, which is all women) and dropped off our bags. We also snuck in to check out our capsules. Each one was roughly the length of a twin bed with the width of a full (the entire bottom was mattress). There was enough room to sit up. A TV was mounted to the ceiling of the capsule (although the channels were all in Japanese). Next to the head of the bed was a small ledge to put contacts, etc on, below which was a built in alarm/clock/radio. We also each got a small pillow which was full of pellet like beads (comfortable, but odd).

After putting our shoes back on and exchanging our locker keys for slips of paper with our room number (and paying, it was 4,000 yen or 40 USD) we headed for the Metro Station. We purchased our tickets (the machines worked in English too!) and headed to the platform. Japanese trains are SO timely, it was amazing! We almost never had to wait more than 3 minutes for a train, it was awesome.

We decided to go the Harajuku district which is known for its funky and hip fashion. We were sooo hungry that we decided to get lunch right away. I spotted a lunch special at a pizza place and for 10 USD we each got iced coffee, Caesar salad and pepperoni pizza. It was really yummy!

After our late lunch we headed across the street to Top Shop and some other small (expensive!) boutiques. Neither of us were having much success shopping, but we did see A LOT of Harajuku teens with their crazy spiky hair and extravagant style (boys in heels, but not in a transsexual way, just in an extreme way, its hard to explain). A few were nice enough to let me snap some pictures. After wandering through the busy streets we found an off-street which had a ton of cute, funky and cheap boutiques. Somehow I managed to find the perfect dress for Passover at over 50% off (it was like 3,000 Yen/ 30USD) and it fit perfectly. Brittany found some dresses and shoes and we were on our way!

We decided to walk up the streets (its on a hill) towards Meiji Jingu. It is a Shinto shrine, which is Japan’s ancient religion, void of a founder, holy book or conversion. However, they value nature and virtue. The closest things they have to G-ds are Kami which are divine spirits. One such Kami was the Emperor Meiji who passed in 1912. In commemoration of his life individuals from all over Japan sent trees (100,000 total) which worked to create the forest which we visited. It is considered Tokyo’s grandest shrine.

After walking (for quite a while!) through the forest we passed through a large torii gate (this one was brown and gold) that denoted that we had made it to the actual shrine. The roofs were green and sloping, overshadowing the brown temples that they covered. Once more we cleaned our hands and faces in the fountain, found a little bit of Zen and then walked back to the main street again.

We passed a plethora of fashionable youths before deciding (as the sun finally set) to get some food. We found a conveyor belt sushi restaurant and sat down for dinner. This one was bar style (like ruben’s in Miami) and we sat next to a kid and his father (we think it was his father, we’re not sure). I enjoyed some more roe and tempura while drinking hot green tea (it comes in powder form there, which you mix with the hot water). The kid was pretty funny as he grabbed almost everything that passed by him.  I was much more frugal and ended up with only three small plates worth. It’s amazing how many plates some people had accumulated (10 or more!).

We were pretty tired by the time we left the restaurant and were eager to try out our capsules. The inn was very much alive when we got back. They had the internet on (it was free) and we got to check our email and facebook. We also researched what to do the next day. The shower was divided into individual stalls by curtains, but was very clean. They also had free tap water (it’s the little things in life). I watched YouTube on my Ipod (free wireless) before falling fast asleep (it was noisy at times as there are about 30 capsules on each floor and the door to the balcony was open to let cool air in), but I am a sound sleeper so it was fine.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Kyoto, Japan

Day 2- Kyoto, Japan

We awoke super early as we wanted to rent bicycles from a nearby hostel and we had heard that they sold out most mornings. Becca and Perri explored during the day by bus. I was a little rusty on the bicycle, mostly do to the fact that it was not a multi-speed bike like I am used to, rather it was a simple one with a basket on the front. Brittany was a bit of a speed demon, while I was more careful of my movements close to cars and individuals. After some practice I became steadier and the bell came in handy for warning pedestrians that we were coming.

Our day’s goal was to get to the Philosopher’s Walk, which is a 2km long path with hundreds of cherry blossoms, by two o’clock to meet Perri and Becca. It was clear across town and we weren’t sure if we would make it, but we wanted to give it a go.

I was the navigator, making sure we were always going the right direction and with Brittany’s help I am proud to say we never got lost! Our first detour was to a small temple and it’s surrounding gardens along Gojo-dori street. We got there before it opened so we were only able to explore the outside. The cherry blossoms were exquisites and paired with the morning sun and beautiful stone carvings we were in Zen once more.

Our next pit stop (after some hard core biking) was to the Kiyomizu-dera temple. It was gorgeous! Since it was overlooking (we biked a hill/mountain to get to it, it was windy and narrow, it’s a small miracle that we made it) much of Kyoto the views were amazing, it was probably my favorite temple in Japan. The entrance to many of these temples have sacred water which you take from a dragon spout or the like and wipe on your hands and face. Of course, we delved right in asking the locals how to properly proceed. The temple itself is Buddhist and belonged to the Kita Hoso sect which was founded by Enchin in 778 CE and it is made to enshrine the G-d of Mercy (Kannon). The current structures were rebuilt during the 1600s and are a Romon or two storied gate, a Sanjunoto or three storied pagoda and a Shoro or belfy.

The cherry blossoms were everywhere and we got to delight in their presense snapping pictures and looking at the city below. The structures all had black tile roofs which pulled upwards in the corners. The structures themselves were painted red and white. The temple sold trinkets promising love and other charms for luck, etc(which I found interesting, it was like a glorified cheap gift shop right in the middle of everything). There were different pagodas with places you could pray (ring the bell, etc), but Brittany and I had had enough prayer for the day so we decided to just walk down the hill and play with the cherry blossoms. The road back to our bicycles was paved with shops selling everything from expensive sake sets to tshirts. We stopped for crepes before departing.

It was another trek, this time up Higashioji-dori street to the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, but we were quite in the swing of things, having totally mastered biking amongst crowds. The entrance to the building was a huge red traditional Japanese gate or ‘Torii’. It was pretty spectacular. The museum had a special exhibition going on which was a photo gallery with Ads made by Japanese individuals. It was pretty cool to see all the different campaigns produced by Japan. Another hall had all pieces of modern art, I really liked one that was an interpretation of Matryoshkas from Russia. The upstairs portain of museum wanted like 1,000 yen for entrance (10$) so we decided to skip it and play once more in the gardens outside before departing. Our next stop was to the Kyoto Handicraft Center (I put Brittany in charge of this navigation). It was really touristy (it was basically a shopping mall) and since Japan was much more expensive than our past ports, I had already had my fill of less expensive Asian products. Brittany bought some thing for her dad and we were on our way.

Tired, but determined, we biked all the way up Higashioki-dori and over Marutamachi-dori to The Philosopher’s Walk. It is named after Kitaro Nishida who used to take the walk and preach philosophy to his students.  It was quite spectacular. There were more cherry blossoms than I had seen in our entire trip! They all lined a canal and made for some beautiful sights. There were quite a few vendors around as well. We couldn’t find Perri and Becca so we decided to just meet them at the hostel.

The bike ride back was also quite an event. Rather than wind through the busy streets oncemore, I thought it might be nice to bike along the Kamogawa Canal which splits Kyoto. Brittany agreed and after biking the cross street we made it to the canal. It was alive with locals picnicking and frolicking. Parts of the canal had larges stones which you could hop across, some where even carved into turtles! We jumped from rock to rock and then continued our long bike home, proud of ourselves for our journey!

We stopped for coffee in a vending machine before returning to our hostel. I don’t think I have mentioned these yet, but they are THE greatest! They have a ton of varieties of hot and cold coffee in cans in vending machines lining the streets for 120 yen ($1.20 USD). It is the simplest thing ever, but ever so yummy.

We napped for a little bit before Perri and Becca got home. We changed and quickly left for Kawaramachi Street. A shopping street, dotted with Karaoke joints and sushi restaurants was quite a haven for us after our exhausting day. Becca had heard about a conveyor belt sushi restaurant named Kappa Sushi which we all made a J-line for. The line was long but we waited it out and were rewarded with a really fun and interesting experience. All the rolls were 105 yen (1.05 USD) which was really awesome because it made us want to try every roll which rolled on by (they were on little plates on an electric conveyor belt). My favorite rolls were the Roe and Shrimp Tempura (two separate rolls), each plate had like 2-3 rolls which was great for sampling. The girls all competed for who could eat the most and I failed miserably, consuming only 5 plates worth (they were at 8-9). The other really cool thing was that there were little computers on each table from which you could special order rolls which would come on a fake shinkansen (bullet train). It was a really fun restaurant.

Becca had read about the Nijo Castle which is lit up at night. It was quite a long walk but eventually we made it. Brittany and I decided not to go in as it was a little pricey and we were tired. When Perri and Becca came back we were really tired but decided to walk back to Kawaramachi street to sing some karaoke. We rented a room for a half hour and the four of us belted out Madonna, Beauty and the Beast and Jessie’s Girl while drinking free Ginger Ale. We had a lot of a fun! Our voices and bodies were tired by the time we made it home (we had a little trouble figuring out the night bus) and to sleep.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Day 1 Kobe to Kyoto, Japan

Day 1 Kobe to Kyoto, Japan

We woke up early only to find that customs was going very slowly. Customs is an interesting thing, especially internationally. In some countries the ship gets cleared in an hour once passports are stamped, but in Japan we were required to give them our fingerprints and go through a lengthy procedure with our baggage. Once the ship finally called our sea (we’re always last) we dashed into the Kobe terminal and bought train tickets to Kyoto. Finding the correct train is always stressful, but somehow I managed to pick the right one and Perri, Becca and Brittany hopped on. It took about an hour to get to Kyoto. The train was clean, but there weren’t enough seats so we (with some other SASers) took to the floor and a few stood. Eventually everyone was able to obtain a seat. As I looked out the window, I saw a very urban landscape. Japan is debatably the most industrialized country in the world and it showed. From the deep black roof tops with their corners pulled upwards it was clear that Japan successfully pulls from the old while turning to the new.

We finally arrived at Kyoto station and ran upstairs to grab tourist maps (in English) before heading to our Hostel. We stayed at Tour Club Kyoto, which was my first true hostel. It was clean but very different from anywhere we had stayed before. There were four beds in our room all on the floor with just a little room between it and the bathroom. I took the bed closest to the wall (away from the bathroom) and delighted in the free internet that I could receive from my ipod.

After we dropped our bags off we split up, Perri and Becca wanting to explore the local area (Brittany and I knew we were going to rent bikes the next day). Britt and I headed to the Gion District, which is where the Geishas are. We took the bus (we always use public transport) to the foot of the district.

The cherry blossoms were out and despite the fact that my foot was bothering me (I had twisted it earlier) we managed to make it to Kenninji Temple. The sweeping temple is one of Japan’s largest Zen temples. Brittany and I posed with the immense black and white temples and beautiful gardens. Most of the gardens had some sort of large stone with Japanese writing on it. They were striking, especially paired with pink cherry blossoms and green flora.

After arriving at some sort of zen we decided to tread on. The district was basically a street lined with restaurants and brown doors which led to Geisha’s quarters. There were a few Geishas outside with their ornate kimonos and flip-flops (with white socks, of course!). I snapped some pictures of them and we were on our way, content with our sightings.

Our next stop was to the Yasaka Shrine on the eastern end of Shijo-dori. The Gion Matsuri takes place in July at this shrine. It was quite large and had some sort of an event going on so there were stalls full of food from fried chicken (which Brittany purchased) to sodas and beers. Shinto Shrines seem to resemble carnivals to me in some way. There are different booths within which you donate money and then do some sort of a ritual and pray. We participating in one where you toss money into a basket and then pull a very long rope which makes a bell ring and then you say a little prayer. It was very cool to participate in yet another religion.

From there we headed to it’s gardens which were lined in blue tarp. I sat under a cherry blossom and listened to the Japanese students surrouding me. My foot was really hurting so Brittany walked around a little and tried to cheer me up. Soon Perri and Becca arrived from their travels and we all headed to a local Japanese restaurant. We sampled some hot green tea (loved it!) and dined on tempura and rice. The Japanese individuals around me utilized their chopsticks in such a graceful spooning/shoveling manner, whereas I seemed to be picking and pulling at my rice bowl. By the end of my meal (and three of Perri’s advils) my foot was feeling better!

Becca had read about a temple which is lit up at night so we decided to try to find it. After a while (it was getting cold quickly), we realized it must have just been the park behind Yasak Shrine (Maruyama Park). It was full of young Japanese college students partying it up under cherry blossom trees. There were vendors all over. The main attraction at the park is the weeping cherry tree (Shidarezakura), which is lit up beautifully at night. I managed to garter up the courage to ask (well sign and motion, lol) a Japanese man if I could use his tripod to take a picture at night! He kindly obliged. After my photoshoot, we walked around the trees and talked to some other tourists (from Holland!) and some Japanese students who spoke pretty good English. Brittany and I were quite tired by the time we said goodbye to catch the last bus back to the Hostel, while Becca and Perri stayed with our new friends.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Quick Update

A Quick Update

All is well here. We had a major test today in “Global Studies”, so between studying for that and catching up on sleep I haven’t had time to write my Japan Journal. But don’t worry, it’s in the works.

We have quite a long stretch at sea right now. We are almost half way through the 9 days until Hawaii. We even had one day twice! LOL. Since we crossed the International Date Line we had two April 12ths. We went from ahead of you guys (east coast) by 15 hours to behind by 9. Pretty crazy.

My days at sea have been busy. I am being good about exercise and have been using the bikes and ellipticals upstairs. I have also been catching up on reading and notes for my classes. Its hard to be academic when there are so many things and countries going on!

I’m excited for Hawaii. We’re staying on the ship at night (its only 2 days, 1 night), but we are going to go to the Pearl Harbor Museum and the beach, plus explore the other parts of the island. I can’t wait!

Tomorrow we don’t have classes so I am going to try to get to business on my journaling.

I have to go to class, but I’ll post Day One soon.

Happy Sailing,

PS. It’s rocky. We haven’t had these kinds of waves since Spain. Luckily, I don’t get sea sick but I don’t know how some students made it through the Global test with the movement.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Days 5-6, China (PRC)

Day 5- Beijing, PRC
We awoke for our 9:30 check-out just in the knick of time to call home and run out the door. Our first destination of the day was to the Summer Palace also known as the Yihe Tuan or “Gardens of Nutured Harmony”. Besides the beauty of the palace itself, there is the Kunming Lake which is just under three square kilometers. It was actually man made and the soil that was taken out was used to create Longevity Hill.

It was originially called the Garden of Clear Ripples in 1750, but after it was attacked and rebuilt after the Anglo-French invasion of 1860 and after the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. It is also a World Heritage Site.

The entrance to the park and palace reminded us a lot of epcot as it was pretty hokey. But once we got to the main palace, with its green and yellow roof tops, it was apparent that this place was architecturally beautiful and unique. Situated on Longevity Hill one could sit amongst the pagodas (circular and rectangular) and view the massive lake with it’s dragon decorated longboats. It was absolutely gorgeous as the red pillars once again accented the green, yellow and blue trimmings. We played around, taking pictures in “meditation stances” before descending the hill and heading onto dragon (they served as the base of the long boat) boats with yellow roof trimmings. It was really cool to see the palace from the water and I once again borrowed Jordan’s long lens.

Our next stop was to this amazing hibatchi buffet. They had more food and options then I have ever seen before it was quite decadent for SAS. I sampled a bunch of dishs from seasoned oysters to banana sushi to shrimp tempora and even some dishes that I didn’t know what the contents were! The place itself was very “hip” with a bright color scheme. After we ate I realized that the lobby had wifi and with my ipod touch in hand I was able to send a few emails.

After everyone had had their fill (it took quite a while, actually) we headed to the “Bird’s Nest” the site of the 2008 Beijing Olympic games. It was a pretty gorgeous and massive structure. It is called the “Birds Nest” because it is basically a hodge podge of steel, which is woven through itself. It was very pretty in person and we once again we took a bunch of pictures. We then went into the stadium, which was packed, quite a contrast to the one in Barcelona that was kind of abandoned.

The 2008 games had these adorable characters which looked like little stuffed animals. They had large scale ones which we happily took pictures with, fighting off the others who wanted to get in (it was actually quite hilarious). From there we moved on to the gift shop, where I could almost hear Dad’s voice going “we throw this type of stuff away”, so you will be happy to know that I did not buy a cute stuffed animal, lol. Brittany bought a few souvenirs for her and her family and then we went back outside to take more pictures.

We walked over to “The Icecube” which is made of steel and plastic. It was pretty cool from the outside. We ran out of time (and didn’t want to pay the entrance fee) to see the inside, but we were quite content to take pictures with the structure which was the highlight.

From there we headed to the bus and went to the Cloths market. Our last market of the trip. I bought Ilana a Buddha chop with her name carved in it and I got Bubbie a magnet, while Brittany bought some LeSportSacs and pearls.

We then headed to the airport (which was very modern, another contrast to Russia which had a very soviet style, old school airport). We took a 747-400 to Shanghai. It was huge. I’m pretty sure we took one to Israel, but it seemed sort of a waste to take a double decker two hours. On the flight the stewardess helped me with my calligraphy practice, bringing me water for the book and helping me get the hang (and meaning) of the characters. It was quite nice and she was very excited to be a “teacher”. By the time we got home it was almost midnight and I was excited to be able to see the Shanghai TV Tower from our room. Sometimes we get the best views!

Day 6-Shanghai

Brittany had to wake up early for a Taiji FDP, while I slept. We met around 8am for breakfast before heading out. We found Perri and Becca and the four of us shared a taxi to the downtown area for about a dollar each. Our plan (Brittany and I) was to go to the Art Muesuem, the park and just walk around exploring the city since we were tired from Beijing.

Unfortunately the Museum was closed due to a special event and we had to scrap that idea. We moved on (a little bitterly, lol) to People’s Park, a beautiful public park full of pink roses, neatly trimmed topiaries and a local people (who make it a habit of blowing their noses onto the street and spitting, gross, but I guess it is their culture).

After walking around and taking pictures for a while I saw two older Chinese women practicing Taiji. Although Brittany had gotten her fill of it, I hadn’t tried it yet so I decided to go up to the women and “ask” (no English) for a lesson. They were quite helpful and funny and we played for quite a while, they weren’t happy with our stances but tried to help us anyway. My chi was centered at times, but when they tried to test us by pushing us (if you have the proper stance and alignment you shouldn’t be able to be pushed over) we both failed pretty miserably. It was quite remarkable to be learning Taiji from to ladies in a park in china and I am confident that I won’t forget it anytime soon.

As we exited the park two young Chinese women (about our age) started chatting us up and told us they were from a nearby province and that they were visiting and asked us if we wanted to go with them to a tea ceremony. Being a good traveler I had already looked up scams on wikitravel and this one seemed to fit the bill. We politely declined their offer and I was a little sad since I was unsure if it was truly a scam. When we returned to the ship later it was apparent that it was and that a lot of people had fell into it, some getting charged over 50 USD for some tea.

After our near run in, we continued out to the busy streets, Shanghai being a bustling city. We walked in and out of shops without much luck our remaining money burning a hole in our pocket. We walked through Nanjing Road, a closed shopping street and I found some hot wheels for my dad at a toy store. Feeling tired we ended up stoping for lunch before exploring side streets. Similar to NYC, many fake bag sellers ran up to us, I kept saying no, but they were quite aggressive. We followed one into their back room (similar to NYC, again) where Brittany bought a LeSportSac. Frustrated that I couldn’t find anything to spend my last 100 Yuan (about 15 dollars) we continued searching the streets.

We ended up stumbling upon a calligraphy shop and I happily bought some colored ink sticks and papers. Purchases complete we hailed a cab and returned, sleepily to the ship.

We took some pictures on the decks with the skyline before passing out for a couple of hours (dock time was early!). We headed to Shabbat and then to Mindy and MickeyG’s room to watch the nighttime skyline (I bought a flexible tripod in China for like 8 dollars so I could take the pictures very well!), the TV Tower a colorful glow with ships passing by.

I really enjoyed China, especially Beijing. Besides the fact that the communist party controls and censors the press, I felt that the country as a whole felt very capitalistic and free. The people seemed happy and taken care of. I’m sure if I had seen more rural areas my opinion would have been VERY different, but the big cities did seem quite progressive. The fact that their economy has been loosened for 30ish years made it a big contrast to Russia where its only been so for 15-20.

Ok, I’m off to explore Japan.

Happy Sailing!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

No more updates for a while...

The internet is about to go out (due to Japan) so I can't update the last two China days. I had a great time and will post them when I get back!


No more updates... internet is about to go out until we leave Japan, so the last two days of china won't get put up until we leave. Sorry :( I'm having/had a great time!!


Day 4-Beijing, PRC

Day 4-Beijing, PRC
I was very excited, albeit a little nervous for the climb itself, to finally go to The Great Wall. Its one of the wonders of the world! It is basically a compilation of stone walls created between the 5th century and the 16th century. It covers over 4,000 miles from Shanhaiguan to Lop Nur. Over 2 million people died during its creation and at one time it was guarded by over one million men.

We went to the Mutianyu section, which houses a toboggan that we took down. The climb was pretty intense and we were all out of breath by the time we made it to the top, Brittany and I stopped half way through to take pictures by a lovely red pagoda. Jordan had his long lens, so I popped it on my camera and shot some spectacular shots of the wall from afar (I decided against bringing mine due to the weight and the long climb).

We spent the next hour or so exploring the wall itself. Constantly stopping to take pictures, the day crisp and sunny (what luck!). The wall itself was pretty amazing. Made of stone and seemingly going on forever I tried to picture the Mongols on one side with the Chinese forces holding them back on top of this massive peak. I felt so lucky to have been able to see such a magnificent sight (Thanks Mom and Dad!). After taking pictures from every angle we possibly could we headed down to the toboggan station. I took my time, while Brittany whizzed right off. The view was spectacular, despite my nerves as I looked out to see what would happen if I flipped it, lol.

The bottom of the mountain was full of vendors. One woman held out a “I Climbed the Great Wall” and pronounced that it was only 1 USD. When we followed her to her stall she quickly rebuked on the offer and even pinched Brittany as we walked away, it was quite shocking. Once we realized just how aggressive the vendors were we decided to divide and conquer. Brittany got a chop made (I got a case and ink for mine for only 10 Yuan), while I bargained one of those shirts down to 10 Yuan (I was/am out of cloths due to the slow laundry, but they say we’ll get it back before Japan, so we’ll see). We got back on the bus a little late (along with some other people) and promptly took our seats.

The tour guide pulled quite a trick on us, telling us that since we had been so late that we would have to go to McDonalds rather than a pizza buffet. Many people on the bus were extremely angry, while I was disappointed, I didn’t see any sense in getting worked up so I put on my ipod and looked out the window. We eventually pulled up to a “Big Pizza” and figured out that Jeff had pulled a prank on us. Many didn’t think it was funny, but I sure did. The buffet was very yummy and it was nice to have a change from Chinese food (though who could really complain about authentic Chinese food?).

From our Pizza filled feast we headed to the Silk Market. My goal was to get my chop carved for under 20 Yuan (bringing the sum total to around 8 dollars), while Brittany wanted to get pearls. After quite some searching, I found a shop that would do it (the stone I bought was very strong and they needed a special electronic carver), so I left it with them after having them literally promise their lives away if it wasn’t completed. While Brittany was hard at work buying like 10 sets of pearls, I found a small family owned calligraphy shop.

Having not made real art in TOO long, I was so excited when they offered me a lesson (albeit to get me to buy the supplies, but still). I really enjoyed doing it (their English wasn’t so good, so it was a little hard) and since I had overestimated the amount of cash I should have taken out the first day, I haggled for a quality brush, a box for the brush, black ink and a practice book (the coolest thing ever, it dries after you paint on it with water) all for under 10 dollars. The women took pity on me after a while as she was pretty adamant about selling it for more than twice that. It will really come in handy over the long stretches of sea time coming up. I was also able to get a bendy tripod for under 8 dollars (I already used it to take pictures of the Shanghai skyline at night). At the last minute Brittany ended up getting another LeSportSac.

We all piled back on the bus comparing our finds. It was very interesting to see what other people had bought. Many bought a ton of fake clothes, bags and even shoes! I was happy with my art related purchase.

We headed back to the hotel for dinner with the Chinese students. We ended up sitting with two Chinese students who had been dating for two years. They were really friendly and the boy kept refusing to eat until we had all eaten, which meant that I kept putting food on his plate. It was quite funny in person. After another lazy susan filled dinner, Brittany and I excused ourselves to go get her a phone card (I still had time left on mine).

On our way back we bumped into Faye and her boyfriend (our Chinese friends) and we asked them if there was a grocery store around. They walked us through some very dark streets and we ended up at a multistory department store complete with a bathroom. Brittany looked for a belt for her mom and cloths for her, although she didn’t end up buying any cloths because they weren’t very high quality despite the large price tags (weird since everything was, you guessed it, made in china). I got some cup-of-noodles (but a Chinese version) and Brittany got moisturizer.

On our way back to the hotel we got some street vendor popcorn (it was yummy and cheap, I’m still surprised about the lack of street food in china though, I guess the government is strict about it). I talked to the male student about politics and he seemed very pro-American, stating that he wants to continue his studies in the USA.

By the time we got back to the hotel we were very tired, but excited for the coming day!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Day 3-Beijing, China

Day 3-Beijing, China

Our first true day in Beijing was truly a highlight. Our first stop was to Tiananmen Square. Maybe it is due to my political science background or the many east asian classes I have taken, but, when I think of China, I think of this infamous Square.

Tiananmen means “Gate of Heavenly Peace” which is kind of ironic due to the events that have taken place there. On October 1, 1949 Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China in that very square. His government would ultimately, directly or indirectly, kill millions. Many parades have also taken place in the square be it during the Cultural Revolution or a military parade. Finally, the infamous protests of 1989 unraveled in the square and just when students thought their communist government was loosening up they were massacred for their protest. The accuracy of how many were killed or how the event went down varies tremendously. Some people who witnessed the event say that no one was killed in the square itself, while NATO believes 6,000 were killed. It is rarely discussed in Chinese textbooks. Some of our guides seemed to deny that even,t but the Chinese students I talked with did say that it happened. It’s a particularly interesting event, both in analysis of the actual event and the denial, by some, of the event.

When we walked onto the plaza we immediately began taking pictures with the red gate which has a brown “typically Chinese” roof (the corners turn up), which is decorated with Mao’s picture, the crisp, cool breeze chilling our skin.

Then we took a few pictures with the National Centre for the Performing Arts which is also known as The Egg, since it is dome shaped and made of titanium and glass and encompassed by a lake. It was pretty gorgeous.

From there we walked toward the center of the square which has the “Monument to the People’s Heroes” which is a 10-story obelisk, sort of similar to our Washington monument in shape. It has a quote by Mao on it and even an inscription by Zedong himself.

Next, we dropped our bags with the guide who promised me like 10 times that he would watch my camera closely, in order to go to Mao’s Mausoleum. China having been my third communist (if you count Russia) country I am constantly trying to look for bias or “sucking up” or similar tilts. I found a major sign in this mausoleum. Not only were people bringing rented flowers to this man (who killed so many) but they were bowing and seemed genuinely sincere in their actions. Besides that (which I guess I can understand because some people view many of Mao’s worst creations, i.e. the cultural revolution, as things that just backfired but were not meant to hurt people) the fact that we were ushered so quickly by his “actual” (embalmed) body that it looked so fake. Who knows? It was odd. Maybe its just cultural.

Then we headed back to meet the group and walk to the gate to go to the Forbidden City. While Jeff (the university guide) explained how to use our headsets (which were super cool and would just start talking when we walked to a certain place in the FC) a cute Chinese family came up to us and asked us to take our pictures with them. Apparently that is very common and we were asked to take our picture with Chinese individuals many times throughout our trip.

The Forbidden City itself was the imperial palace for China, starting in the Ming Dynasty all the way until the Qing Dynasty. During this time, almost 500 years, the Emperor used it as his home and as the center for politics in China. It was created from 1406 until 1420 and there are still 980 buildings which have made it until today. It is also a World Heritage Site and holds the most old wooden structures on the globe. Its north-south axis is still used as the axis of Beijing.

The FC is constricted by a 26 ft high wall and a 170 ft wide moat. They were used for defense of the city as well as for keeping the servants in. One of the main colors of the city (amongst the blues and reds) is yellow which is the color of the Emperor. Most of the roofs have yellow tiles, which sparkle in the sun. Most of the roofs are adorned with a line of statuettes, most of them depict a man riding a phoenix who is chased by a dragon. The more statuettes, the more important the building.

I could go on for pages about the beauty of the buildings. The bright reds mixing with gold carvings, The paintings of dragons, in gold, on top of bright greens and blues, the sloped roofs contrasting to the thick beams, the beauty was endless.

At one point Brittany remarked that she had gotten dusk in her eyes, I laughed as I told her that it was actually a snow flurry! Very cool. Time seemed to fly by as we posed with gold lions, intricate beams and everything in between. It seemed like we could spend days getting lost in this Forbidden City. Just before we made it to the exit we were surrounded by the beautiful Imperial Garden. Branch like vines twirled and we felt the zen.

Since our guide was not a regular tour guide, rather a professor from UIBE, he took the fact that we had extra time to take us to another site rather than a shop where he got kickbacks (oh, India). Anyway, he directed us up the Jingshan hill which is about 45 meters high (it was a bit of a hike). It had amazing views of the FC and we were really able to see to the massive size and quality of it. The pagoda on top was magnificent in itself. Bright red beams with two layers of roof, all in golds, blues and greens. It was magnificent.

We headed back onto the bus, flushed with images of imperial greatness. The next stop on our itinerary was lunch and we were slightly surprised to hear that we would be eating at the Temple of Heaven.

Large golf-like carts took groups of us through the chilly park to a Chinese restaurant on the side of one of the buildings. Once again we had lovely Chinese food (and toilets, lol, non-western, hole in the ground style) on a lazy susan, enjoying more duck, orange chicken and rice.

After our food fueling, we headed out with Nicole and Ben (the trip leaders) to explore the tripartite temple. The Temple of Heaven is a compilation of Taoist buildings. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, emperors would come to pray to heaven for good harvests for their people.

It was very interesting as the three separate temples were laid out on a hill and we decided to go to the bottom first and make our way up to the “best” one last. The first was an altar and is known as the “Circular Mound Alter” it is basically a large circular platform made of marble stones. It is where the emperor would go to pray for good weather. The next building we visited was the Imperial Vault of Heaven which is a one tired building on small round alter. It was beautiful. Its circular shape was accented by red around the base and then gold, blue and green trimming with a blue roof-a distinction from the yellow roofs in the Forbidden City.

Before heading with to the final temple, we went with Ben and Nicole to do geocaching. Which is a global treasure hunting game in which individuals utilize GPS to navigate to find little containers with logbooks or small trinkets. Ben let me be in charge of the GPS which had a virtual compass. It took us a while, walking through the garden and surrounding forests, but we found a 35mm film canister which had been signed by individuals from across the globe. It was pretty awesome.

Feeling proud of our find, we headed to the last temple which was called “The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests”. This was a combination of the first two temples we had seen. It was amazing. Almost 40 meters tall and 32 meters in diameter this three tiered circular building, on three layers of marble stone is where the emperor would go to prayer for good harvests. It is made in entirety of wood, without any nails or the like. The prominent color in it is blue with accents in red(the base of the building) and golds. The top of the building (it comes to a conical point) is a fiery gold. Once again we took a plethora of pictures including some of the surrounding rectangular buildings which were mainly red with gold accents.

Our feet were aching by the time we returned to the bus. Jeff told us that the acrobatic show that we were supposed to see before dinner was sold out so we would “have to” see the longer one after dinner, but that we would have time to go to The Pearl Market. Brittany and I were pretty psyched about the news since we wanted to see what the shopping was like in the city and who doesn’t like a longer show?

The pearl market is a multiple story air conditioned (or heated) building which has individual vendors selling everything from knock off lesportsacs to knick-knacks. We only had a little over an hour and we didn’t know what we wanted to buy so we just explored. The vendors were VERY aggressive. They literally pulled us or blocked us from leaving their shops. It was intense but with the right attitude it wasn’t too bad. I ended up getting Mom some glass pendants before we went upstairs to see the touristy goods. I really wanted a chomp which is their version of a name stamp. They are carved into decorative stone and then you use them with special inks to stamp your name on art work, etc. The Chinese still use them today.

After circling the place for while, Brittany worked on bargaining some pearls down while I found the perfect chop. It was sparkly and had a dragon (my year sign) carved into it and I managed to bargain it down to only 40 Yuan (6.7 Yuan=1 USD). They promised me it would take only 20 minutes (I had only 30 until we had to be back), so I gave them a deposit and walked around pricing out various items (I got black pearl earrings for 10 Yuan). Brittany wanted a LeSportSac so we literally ran downstairs to haggle for one before running back upstairs to check on my chomp. It turned out that they couldn’t get it done in time and they kept telling me 5 minutes. Well we didn’t have 5 minutes and I really wanted that Chop, so after some pleas, slight raising of my voice and a tinch of back and forth I got my uncarved Chop for 20 Yuan, with the plan to get it carved elsewhere.

Exhausted, we headed back to the bus. The deal with going to the acrobatic show later was that we wouldn’t get dinner until after and we were hungry. We ended up stopping at…McDonalds, for a crutch dinner which we ate in our seats at the acrobatic show. The show was VERY impressive. The acrobats were particularly talented from the Juggler who could balance TEN balls to the TWELVE women who managed to all fit on a bicycle, we were very impressed.

By the time the show was over our  beds were particularly welcoming, especially knowing we had The Great Wall to explore and climb in the morning.

Day 2- Traveling to Beijing

Day 2- Traveling to Beijing

This day was mostly spent traveling. We woke up earlish to meet our group of 50 around nine oclock. After going through formalities we headed to the bus and then arrived at the impressive airport. It even had free wireless. After heading through customs (since its considered an international flight) and getting our temperatures electronically taken (you walk through a machine) we boarded the plane for our three hour flight, which was pretty uneventful. From the airport we headed to our hotel-Ying Hua. The hotel its self was pretty nice and very convenient to the university (we did a university hosted trip through University of International Business and Economics).

After throwing down our bags, Brittany and I headed to the lobby to meet for dinner. After the group had assembled we walked a couple of blocks to a Chinese restaurant. We headed upstairs and were greeted by very Chinese d├ęcor (red, calligraphy, etc). We sat around a lazy susan adorned circular table and were joined by other SASers. SAS really went all out on this meal; we had everything from Peking Duck (which Beijing is known for and I actually really liked) to Orange Chicken to Chicken with Cashews to Broccoli to Caramelized Sugar Apples. It was quite the feast.

After stuffing ourselves (remember ship food=inedible, so any really good food is like heaven), we walked across the street to the university. We had mixers and icebreakers with about 30 UIBE students. It was really cool and interactive. The students all seemed really interested in us and in the United States, many of them had plans to continue their studies there. They seemed politically aware without traces of communism. (I’ll talk about the communism stuff in my reflections). They played music but very few people got up to dance, it seemed that boys and girls dance separately.

After the mixer we walked back to the hotel and fell fast asleep in anticipation of our full next day.

Day One-Hong Kong, PRC

Day One-Hong Kong

Waking up is always easy the first morning of a port and this day was no different. I knew I had the SAS “City Orientation” trip with Becca and was quite excited to have everything planned for me ahead of time. Brittany had a FDP (Field Directed Practica-which are basically school related field trips) so she went off exploring with Nathan before her trip.

We were ported right across the river from Hong Kong Island on Kowloon. We had an AMAZING view! Brittany and I headed out to the 6th floor deck and took some great pictures with the skyline.

It took quite a while for the ship to get cleared so we didn’t have time to head out to the mall that we were ported at (literally, you had to walk into the mall to get a bus or what not) before boarding the bus for our trip.

I took my seat next to Becca and stared out at the plethora of skyscrapers. Hong Kong is the financial capital of Southeast Asia and it certainly looked the part. Unlike mainland china Hong Kong had been a British colony for around 100 years (it was also occupied by Japan during WWII). However, in 1997 Britain’s “99-year lease” on HK ended and they returned it to mainland china under a one country-two systems idea. That basically means that the very commercialized and capitalistic city maintains its British Common law but does not get to have control in foreign affairs or defense. They also maintain their own currency: the Hong Kong Dollar.

Our first stop was the Sampan Tour Point where we took a riverboat cruise. It was kind of hoaky but we got to see “boat people” who spend their whole lives on the water. At various points the government tried to kick them our of their boats but they couldn’t sleep on land because they were so used to the movement of the ocean. Very Interesting. We also passed giant dinner restaurant boats.

From there the bus drove up a tall mountain known as Victoria’s Peak太平山, which is over 1,800 feet high. It was a pretty hazy day, so the view was not quite as magnificent as it could have been, but one could still see the sweeping skyscrapers and even our ship!

After viewing the scene Becca and I headed into a small mall on the mountain and had Hong Kong cuisine which has been internationally flavored (it is different than Chinese food). It was THE best curry chicken I have ever had. After scarfing down our fast food style meal (again it was delicious) we headed back outside and low and behold the haze had lightened! We had a MUCH better view!

We then headed back to the meeting place where we walked to the funicular train station. When we got inside I was perplexed by the fact that every row of backed benches faced the peak of the mountain so that we were going backwards on the seat UNTIL we started to descend. Let me tell you, the angle was pretty intense! If not for the seatbacks we would have flown!

We walked out of the station and began our walking tour. We viewed the oldest church in Hong Kong which was established by the British. What struck me was the scaffolding which was made of bamboo!! Cheaper and more limber than steel, I guess.

We walked around for a little while before stopping near a railway station which was flooded with people picnicking. It was kind of odd since they were literally picnicking under a skyscraper, but whatever lol. Money make the world go round, but it seemed to particular make Hong Kong go round. It seemed like every story our guide told us centered around money. He even pointed out two huge lion statues, one with its mouth open and the other with it closed, and went on to explain that one was to catch the money, while the other was to keep it.

Our guide gave us a little free time and after exploring the mall (the city is basically NYC on steroids, its all malls and skyscrapers) we headed into Starbucks where I was able to use my starbucks card from home. Globalization, gotta love it!

Our last stop was to the Man Mo Temple 文武廟, which is Taoist. It was created in worship of the God of Literature(Man) and the God of War (Wo). It was build during the Qing Dynasty in 1847. The interior of the temple was painted red with gold molding. It was filled to the brim with incense and adornments. There were conically shaped incense burning on the ceiling in the center of the temple, which held a red tag with Chinese writing on it. The whole place smelled strongly of it. A man was praying on an alter of sorts, holding incense. When he was done I politely asked him if it was appropriate if I said a little prayer while doing the same thing. He happily said yes and handed me some incense which after some thoughts I placed in a large gold bowl with many other burning incenses. I took quite a few pictures.

It was almost five by the time we returned to the ship and Becca really wanted to explore the mall sense a lot of her cloths got tie-dyed in the laundry (it really bites). So we walked around for a while. She picked up a few tops at Zara but I didn’t get anything because the exchange rate wasn’t favorable for international brands and frankly they didn’t have many authentic or boutiquey shops.

We had heard that there was going to be a skyscraper light show at 8 and that there would be a great view from the ship. When we glanced at our watches we realized that it was 7 so we ended up eating some yummy pizza at, believe it or not, California Pizza Kitchen. It was actually quite a nice change to eat familiar food!

Becca stayed at the mall to use wifi while I walked the 20 feet (lol) to the boat to see the light show. It was actually kind of cool. The buildings each lit up in a choreographed skit of sorts. I would recommend it if you stay in Kowloon, but its not worth crossing the river for.

After that I headed back to the room to pack and sleep and to hear about Brittany’s day.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Vietnam Day 5

Vietnam Day 5

We woke up extremely early (around 6:45, which is ghastly for us) in order to make it to the bus for our service visit to Hy Vong Quan 8. HVQ8 is a government sponsored school for deaf children.

The bus drove a half hour before dropping us off outside HVQ8. We walked in and climbed endless stairs to the roof top terrace to greet the kids. They ranged from 4 years old to 18. We sat down and began interacting which was slightly difficult since they couldn’t hear and we couldn’t speak or write the same language. One of the girls had a notebook full of Vietnamese/English phrases and questions and she would point to the phrase in Vietnamese and we could read the translation and do the same for the answer. It was really neat.

I colored and played tic tac toe with a few youngsters before a group of them did a short dance show for us. It was really cute even though we couldn’t understand it.

From there we headed downstairs with the group of students. They told us we could pick a partner. A young girl, about 5, came right up to me and held on to my hand. The teacher said her name was Tong and she had beautiful pigtail braids. She was totally adorable and sat with me on the way to the zoo. She was totally fascinated with the airconditioning was pretty much in love with it as she continuously pointed up to the cold air.

When we arrived at the zoo the teachers told us we would have three hours with the kids. The sweltering heat made that hard to fathom but I was totally excited to spend some time with Tong. We had boxed lunches which we ate immediately in an effort to save ourselves from trekking them with us. Tong was a good eater, although at times she tried to eat the chicken bone, but Brittany was adept at pulling it away from her.

At first I tried to walk around with Brittany and her older groupie (she was about 12), but Tong really wanted to run with her friends so I ended up with a new group of people. We called ourselves the kindergarten counselors and laughed at what a good idea we had to pick the cute little ones. It seemed that they would never tire as they ran through the various exhibits. The animals were in kind of sad shape and very small cages, which was pretty sad to watch, but the kids did enjoy themselves. Tong got very nervous when we went to see the crocodiles (one of the little ones had an imitation lacoste shirt and kept pointing to the emblem to display his want of seeing the animal) and kept grasping my hand, it was very cute!

Eventually I knew we needed a break so I bought Tong some ice cream and she happily sat down while I talked to a fellow SASer (Joe). From there we headed back through the zoo seeing lions, elephants, hippos and more.

The three hours had passed and it was time to head to the bus. I was very sad to leave Tong as we snapped pictures (they really like to hold up peace signs during pictures). I really enjoyed my day at the zoo with her. She was so happy to be there and very sweet. It was a wonderful visit!

Vietnam Reflections
I really enjoyed my time in Vietnam. It’s funny being the product of the “Vietnam Generation”, we seem to care so much more about the war then they do. The people in HCMC seemed rather over it and greeted us as Americans much more than individuals in other countries have. For them it is just a blip in their very long history, but to us it has come to symbolize grave failure and government mishaps.

I also enjoyed watching all of the motorbikes go by, as silly as it may sound. For a city with no real public transport (skytrain or subway), it’s the perfect solution (despite the sadety risks), they’re easy to park, they’re cheap etc.

If you ever get the chance to go to Vietnam I highly suggest it, from the delta to the people, it’s a wonderful place. Just try to go when it’s a tinch cooler!

Vietnam Day 4

Vietnam Day 4
We awoke really early to meet the bus at 8 o’clock for our Cao Dai Temple and Cu Chi Tunnels trip. I was quite skeptical of the Cao Dai segment of the trip because we had already seen one of their temples, but I was very excited for the Cu Chi segment.

After three hours on the bus we arrive at a restaurant (yep at 11 am) to dine before heading to mass at the temple. We had fantastic (what could go wrong?) fried shrimp and pho before heading back to the bus to go to the temple.

The temple was huge, much larger than the one we had seen days before. We went up to the second story which overlooked the ground floor where the service was taking place. It was obviously set up for tourists (although the praying seemed very legit) and I found myself surrounded by individuals of all ages and nationalities. Below, there were men and women in red, blue, yellow and white were lined up perfectly and spread out evenly, a very choreographed affair. There were probably 150 of them all together grouped in colors and designs. We stood taking pictures and taking in the tranquil music, the colored atmosphere surrounding us. Once again it was very hot and we were all quite sweaty by the time we left and headed back to the sanctuary of our air-conditioned bus. I really did enjoy seeing this relatively new religion during one of their services.

The trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels took us through very rural areas and some veryyyyy rural roads (which was a little intense on the bus lol). I enjoyed taking in the scenery which included many individuals on hammocks trying to take in whatever breeze nature would impart on them.

The Cu Chi Tunnels are located in the Cu Chi district of HCMC. They were a major location of guerilla fighters for the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive in 1968. They were part of a large series of tunnels which served as hiding locations during war. The United States tried several times to destroy the tunnels during Operation Crimp and other campaigns. We even had B-52 bombers try to explode them. During our tour the guides showed us booby traps which they would use to kill Americans.

Visiting the site was kind of odd in terms of their story versus ours. The film that they showed us talked about “American Killer Heros” and harped on all the bad we did without ever showing anything that the North Vietnamese did wrong. I understand that there are three sides to every story (yours, mine and the truth) but the propaganda was very prevalent.

The guide discussed how the Cu Chi people used their smaller size to their advantage as sometimes the tunnels would be just too small for larger American soldiers to get through. Pretty tricky!

We got a chance to go through one of the tunnels ourselves, which had been slightly enlarged for us to be able to go through. It was very dark and lets just say I was not very happy to be crawling in the dark hot space, I cannot imagine making that my home as many individuals did. They say that most of Cu Chi literally lived in the tunnels, men, women and children. Brittany seemed pretty content however and wanted to go on for more than our guide did! After our tunneling adventure we snapped some pictures of us coming out of it. We also got a chance to see how tiny the true entrance would have been and snap some pictures of us in it.

From there we continued to walk through various booths in the forest which housed animatronical robot people performing various tasks. It was a little hokey, but quite interesting as we saw how they made their own shoes and what they used to eat.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like to have fought in that war: the extreme heat, the dead bodies and the ever prevalent places for the Viet Cong to hide. Those men were sure brave to be dealing with it. I forgot to mention this in my Mekong Delta entry, but John Kerry was a swift boat captain even though they depict him as not a hero or a leader. But leading those boats through that tangled river where you are constantly turning corners and looking out at thick forestry, makes you a pretty brave leader, and a damn good one if you manage to stay alive!

I thought the Cu Chi Tunnels were quite thought provoking a number of levels. First of all it showed the ingenious of the Vietnamese people. They used their native land, their body size and the weapons that we left (they would turn unexploded bomb powder into gun powder) to defeat us. It was really quite humbling. But moreover, the intense propaganda of the place also showed me how distorted views can be, that maybe our view of it is just as distorted as theirs.

Well enough theorizing, back to the story!

After our sweltering afternoon in the jungly forest, we picked up some coconuts (well I got a coconut and Brittany got ice cream) and headed back to the bus for the ride home. I slept most of the journey and was even a little surprised because it felt like we got home rather quickly.

We went upstairs and showered, pretty exhausted. We had promised Matthew and Anish Burtner, two faculty members, that we would watch their three year old son, Barret that night as we knew we would be tired and would want to stay in for a change. He was pretty well behaved and we ended up also watching Luc and Melanie’s daughter Abby. We went for ice cream at the pool bar and let them run around by the piano lounge while Jonathan played on the piano. Once we figured they were thoroughly tired we took them back to Matthew and Anish’s room to watch bootleg Aladdin. Shortly after the movie was over all of the parents arrived to pick up their kids. Matthew and Anish gave us each a little money and a rose, which was very nice of them. We headed back to our rooms to get as much sleep as possible before our service visit the next morning.

Vietnam Day 3

Vietnam Day 3

Brittany wakes me up around 9 am, announcing that Erin would be joining us for the day. At 9:45 we headed down to catch the shuttle to the Rex. From the Rex hotel we crossed the street (which is actually quite a feat, you basically walk directly through traffic as motorists swerve to miss you, you can’t slow down or stop because the motorists time your pace) to the air-conditioned mall next door. Brittany needed a duffel and I, well, I needed coffee. I ended up finding some perfect gifts while Erin bought a table cloth. After a little bit of shopping we headed to Highlands Coffee for a little break. I had Vietnamese Traditional Coffee, which seemed to be espresso and creamer, but I could be wrong.

Refreshed we headed back to the market (a 15 minute walk) to get more pendants for my mom and other various goods. We stopped back at our favorite Pho counter, this time each ordering our own (such big spenders at 1 USD a pop!). I got a little more adventurous with the spices so mine was very hot and yummy! I took a bunch of pictures of the market before we headed out.

We decided to take a taxi, as we didn’t exactly know where the Museum of Vietnamese History was and we didn’t want to get separated (cyclos can sometimes be dodgy). After 10 or so minutes in the car we arrived at the History Museum. Created in 1979, it displays artifacts from East Asia back into “The Primitive Period”. We saw kettles from the 3rd century, urns from the 14th and ceramic plates from the 15th Century amongst other items. I’m not sure I would call it a history museum as it seemed more like an ancient art museum with poorly translated signage, however, it was interesting and worth the trip. I really wanted to catch the Water Puppet show, but there weren’t enough patrons for them to put it on. However, I did get to see the set, which was cool enough. We took pictures in the atrium which was full of lotus flowers and colorful blossoms.

After exploring the various exhibitions we headed back towards the Rex. I picked up my Sari top which came out better than I expected. Erin loved her suit and ordered a matching skirt to be made while Brittany ended up very disappointed. Brittany ordered them to redo the entire top (which was totally necessary) as it was sized inaccurately. (The dress had braided straps, a grey top, flowered belt and black skirt) After the hoopla we returned to the ship (it was almost 4 o’clock by then) to shower before dinner.

I still hadn’t fulfilled my Vietnamese food fix despite my meal the night before, so we decided to get all dressed up for another night on the town. We walked the opposite way of the market and decided to just pick a restaurant that looked good. After a healthy walk we found a gorgeous corner restaurant. We all ordered spring rolls which came out themed in a very Vietnamese way. You see on all the streets in HCMC there are vendors who balance what look like judge’s scales (two bowls connected on top and crossed over one’s shoulders) and that is exactly how these spring rolls came. It was very cool and reminded me of Barton G’s in the states (only this meal was less than 12 USD rather than 50 USD). We chatted with a Canadian couple who sat adjacent from us.

After our relaxing dinner (we needed it, the sun in Vietnam is very draining), we headed back up the street to the tailor. The street was dotted with street vendors trying to sell us counterfeit lonely planets and bottled waters. On the way we ran into Erin’s roommate Gaby who joined us for the rest of the evening. We stopped in at Art Gallery (Tara and Kys) and I immediately fell in love with a painting. It was done in a calligraphical style with a women dancing. She was surrounded by beautifully stamped imprints and I knew I needed it! After the woman told me it was one of a kind (and reasonably priced!) I decided to make it mine. From there we headed to the tailor once more to see if my Asian top had been fixed. It still wasn’t fitting properly and despite the fact that it was inexpensive, I wasn’t going to purchase something that was ill fitting. Once more they promised me they would fix and we walked on to see a painting Gabby liked.

She had quite nice taste (the painting was almost 800$) and we all gave it a thumbs up (given the fact that she was ok with spending that amount of money). After glancing at our watches, we realized that it was almost 9 o’clock (times flies when you’re exploring Vietnam) and that Brittany’s tailor (the one with her dress) would be closing shortly.

I went with Gaby back to my tailor while Brittany and Erin ran to get their items. The top ended up fitting perfectly and I happily paid before Gaby and I walked back to Tutti Frutti to meet B and E. Brittany was still slightly unhappy with her dress but decided to suck it up while Erin still needed to wait a day for her skirt.

We decided to head to a Jazz Bar before heading back to the ship. Upon entering the bar our lungs filled with smoke and after seeing the rather pricy menu we decided to leave and catch the bus home, happy with our wonderful day in Vietnam!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Vietnam Day 2

Vietnam Day 2

I was very excited to go to the Mekong Delta, since HCMC itself is very urban and not exactly what you might think of when someone says “Vietnam”. Brittany and I had signed up for the trip through SAS since we thought it would be much easier than organizing it on our own.

We boarded the bus very early and looked out the window sleepily when we heard the giddy tour guide announce that we would also be stopping at a Cao Dai Temple. Cao Dai is a pretty new religion having been established in 1926 in Southern Vietnam. We were slightly confused because the stop had not been published in the Field Program and annoyed that we would be going to another Cao Dai Temple when we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels (it ended up working out perfectly, since the later trip included a mass). Caodaism is sort of a combination of religions, if you will, combining G-d as the Saint, Sage and Buddha.

The temple itself is extremely colorful, decorated in bright blues, yellows and reds. The faded paint in its corners reminds me of India. There are sculpted dragons wrapping themselves around columns and a bright alter in the front of the rectangular building. We snap pictures with the lotus flowers as we take in this new religious movement.

We then follow our tour guide to a bustling market. Much more local and authentic than the Ben Thanh (although the Ben Thanh did have sections meant for locals), the smells of raw meat tangle with the heat and make my head swell, but I remind myself that this was true cultural immersion and trek on. Our tour guide points out various funky fruits including dragon fruit and odd melons. Women in conical hats smile at us and invite us to purchase their goods.

We head back to the bus and my eyes close once more for another hour when we reach a rest stop.

This rest stop was absolutely gorgeous! It had a lake chalk full of lotus flowers, some open, some closed. I had a field day shooting the flowers from every angle before boarding the bus for the Delta.

Our bus stops next to a picturesque scene. The sun is shining, the clouds are sprinkled just right and the water is a crisp, yet slightly murky, blue. We take a long, covered, though open-air long boat up the river. I take my long lens and snap pictures of the rural homes along the water and take in the spring sun.

We stop at restaurant along the river. A woman serves us tea with fresh honey and other various spices while we snack on dried coconut and ginger. She asks us if we want banana or rice wine and I ask for some of the rice variety. Unknowingly, I sip the wine as if it were, well wine, only to be vary surprised when it turns out to taste like hard alcohol. The woman then tells me that it consists of 40% alcohol.

After relaxing for a little bit under the hut like canopy, the owner brings out a very large snake to take pictures with. Brittany hops in for a picture while I timidly pet its smaller counterpart. After pictures, the owner shows us wine that is made with dead snakes (an odd irony), their bodies (as well as scorpions) in the mixture (odd, very, very odd).

From the tea shop, we walk a little more in the swamplands (under a blistering sun) to another shop where we take seats under a fan. We are served pineapple and other fresh foods that we do not recognize. We pick at the food while we watch a traditional band play (one man singing, another on a guitar, a women on a traditional looking string instrument).

After the show we walk to a small bridge and board tiny boats. Four of us hop on, each on our own plank with a man and a women paddling. It was a perfect slice of Vietnam, the palm trees and grass sprouting up all around us, the shallow water beneath our boat as we pass traditional homes and snap, yep, more pictures! We don conical hats and feel as if we could have been in a world that existed 500 years ago.

After a little while we are paddled right up to our original long boat. We board and are greeted with fresh coconuts, from which to drink milk. Coconut milk is one of my favorite things (I had it all over south East Asia) so I delved right in. We enjoyed our snack before heading to another stop (this trip was jam packed!), in which we were taught how coconut candies are made. We tasted the sugary treat and viewed the different stations, from the mixer to the cutter and packager.

From there we went to our last stop by boat once more to have lunch (yep, after all that eating we managed to still have lunch). Britt and I went to the vegetarian table (sometimes the meat can get a little sketchy on these trips), so we viewed the full fried fish from afar (yep, an entire fish, fried and displayed on the table!). Our meal was actually very good, it consisted of pho, veggies, tofu and other very yummy items. Satiated, we headed back to the boat and returned to the bus. This was such a cool trip. I really enjoyed seeing the countryside!

After a couple hours on the bus we head back to the ship to shower before meeting up with Becca, Perri and Mark for dinner.

We take the shuttle back to the Rex Hotel. We decide to walk around the city a little more, stopping to take pictures with a statue of Ho Chi Minh. Perri, Becca and Brittany buy more paintings (of the skinny Buddha) while I give my advice once more. From there we head to another tailor for Becca to get a bowtie made for dad. I end up falling in love with a traditional looking top on the 50% off rack. It doesn’t fit perfectly, but they agree to fix it for me, so they take my measurements and we head off to get dinner.

We end up splitting up since Becca really wanted sushi, but Perri wanted traditional Vietnamese. I head off with Perri and Mark, while Brittany stays with Becca.

The restaurant was really yummy and the three of us split five dishes and soda and water for 7 USD each! We had escargot in coconut milk, spicy beef, chicken satay, some sort of a noodle dish and a yummy soup. We meet Becca and Brittany near Tutti Frutti (a tart yogurt place) before heading back on the bus to go home. We had a wonderful day, but were ready to go to sleep (the sun take sit out of you!).

Vietnam Day 1

Vietnam Day 1
We had big plans for our first day in Vietnam, which included going to the tailor, the market and a museum or two. As pre-port drags on, our neighbor Erin asks if she can tag along for the day, which we happily agree to. When they announce that the ship has been cleared we dash upstairs to get our shore passes (official documents issued by the Vietnamese government) before swiping out for the day.

SAS supplied a free shuttle from the port to the Rex Hotel, in the middle of downtown Ho Chi Minh City. We acquaint ourselves with the shuttle and hop on, ready for our first stop: the tailor.

I needed to get a top made for my sari (I already had the fabric), Brittany wanted to get a dress made and Erin wanted a suit. Vietnam is famous for cheap tailoring. We don’t have a particular shop in mind as we wander through the HCMC streets, walking a few blocks in the sweltering heat (a theme of our trip to Vietnam) before stumbling upon ‘Orchid Silk’, an air-conditioned storefront tailor. Greeting the cool air, I find a lady to help me with the top (I had a picture of exactly what I wanted) while Britt and Erin explore the colorful patterns. After a little haggling, I agree to pay 20$ for the handmade top (including the finishing touches on the sari fabric which needed to be stitched) and hangout, approving and denying B and E’s various outfit choices. They settle on their designs and we decide to start walking towards the “War Remnants Museum”.

On our way to the famed museum, we stumble upon the Ben Than Market and like any good tourists we decide to head in. The sights are overwhelming as we explore the tight, boiling hot aisles which are congested by shopkeepers calling out to us. They are more aggressive than many of our previous countries (less so than Morocco, though) and some even pat our shoulders or grab our arms to get our attention. Bargaining was also a little different as the general half price (half of the original quoted price is usually the right price) rule seemed null. Some vendors would drop the price radically, while others held strong to their original offers and would drop 2$ as if it were 20$.

I am determined to find a chopstick set for my new apartment and after a good deal of research (looking and bargaining with shopkeepers); I find the perfect set which contained sea shell holders! It will be great for our international homecoming party!!! Brittany and Erin also purchase chopstick sets and Buddhas. While exploring the huge market we run into two SAS boys who are eating Pho at one of the many counters in the center of the market. We ask them how it is and one of them offers for me to taste it- it was delicious! The three of us sit down and split one huge bowl of the hot noodle soup, sprinkling the various spices on top of it. For two dollars we enjoy the spicy soup and three waters! Yum!

The heat finally gets to us and we head out to catch a cyclo (it’s hard to describe, but picture a man peddling a baby carriage that you sit in). After some bargaining, they agree to take us for a dollar each. We all get into three different cyclos and clutch our cameras while taking many pictures as we glide through the crowded streets (HCMC is the motorbike capital of the world, there are about 4 million in the city limits alone!). We arrive at the museum only to find that it is closed for the following hour. We decide to explore the immediate area and stumble upon a beauty parlor. Upon our entrance we are served with a menu and figure out that a pedicure is only 4 USD (Vietnam takes dollars almost everywhere)! I can’t say that it was the best pedicure I’ve ever gotten, but for 4 dollars it was well worth it.

After our pedicures we decide to head back to the museum which we find open and alive with patrons. It was quite depressing as it chronicles (sometimes distorting) United States involvement in the Vietnam War (they call it the American War). I found some of the signs humorous as they referred to the South Vietnamese government in signage as the Puppet Government. However, much of the open air (and very hot) museum depicts the atrocities of Agent Orange and the destruction caused in part by the United States. It was very sobering indeed, but totally necessary when visiting Vietnam. I understand the reasoning behind United States involvement (our belief in The Domino Theory, our fight against communism, etc) but the whole thing seems totally misguided and unnecessary, after all after Saigon fell they went to war with China, the other communist country on their side of the continent. But, enough history, back to our adventures…

We decide to take cyclos back to the Rex and revisit the tailor so that Erin can explain some missing details of her suit. I really wanted to see some sort of cultural event while in Vietnam and when we walked past what looked like a theater I knew I had to investigate. After having some language difficulties with the women who was managing the desk, a man walked up and explained to us that it would be 6 USD for tickets that night, but that it was totally in Vietnamese. The three of us discuss the idea of going to a play totally in Vietnamese and after some pleas I manage to convince them to join me.

We stop for Vietnamese fast food on our way back to the Rex (Lotteria?) and then take the shuttle back home. We shower, take a little breather and eat dinner on the ship before heading back out (all dressed up!).

Before heading to the theater we stop in at an art shop which displays painted imitations of famous works from Matisse to Picasso. Brittany purchases a Klimt from the vendor while I check my email (they let me use their internet). From there we walk to the theater.

I make conversation with a Vietnamese family while we wait for the doors to open for the play. He repeatedly asks me why we are there (in a VERY nice, but quizzical manner) as we do not speak the language. I reply that we want to feel the culture and there is no better way than to immerse ourselves with the people (ok, so I said it in planner English than that, but you get the picture). The doors finally open and we are welcomed with Michael Jackson’s “Bad”, but more importantly by cold air-conditioning. The three of us take our seats in the fourth row next to a cheery young couple. The play starts a half hour late (the couple tells us that that is totally normal). The actors are very energized and the couple sporadically translates for us. The gist of the story (from what we could tell) is that there is a man searching for a wife. One women is too short, the other too young, yet another too old. It was quite entertaining, but a little confusing given we couldn’t understand what they were saying. The audience cackled often so the comedy was obviously very effective. We left at intermission, knowing that a good night of sleep was imperative before heading to the Mekong Delta. I was very happy that we had gone to theater as I feel that I grasped another aspect to their culture.