Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Toward the end

Well, I am finally in the eastern time zone again and I will be home late tomorrow night.  I just wanted to add a few pictures since we've left Guatemala.  On May 3, we went through the Panama Canal.  There are two sets of locks to go up at the beginning, then we traverse a lake to the other side of the country, and then go down to sets of locks to the Atlantic ocean.  I watched both of the up locks in the morning while tanning.  For our ship to go through the Panama Canal costs about $140,000.  Here is a picture of a ship that was slightly in front of us in the second set of locks, whom we were mirroring in the lane next to them.  It was really cool to watch the water come in and watch the ship rising up.  It only took a couple of minutes to go up the height you see in this picture.  

That day was also the Ambassador's Ball, a semi-formal dinner and dance.  The food was really good and then dancing was fun for a while, and then my friends and I just hung out for the rest of the night and took a bunch of pictures.  Here is a picture of all of my friends (minus one, Conor), everyone looking very snazzy all dressed up.  I got my dress made in Vietnam for $40 and I love it.  

Here is also a good picture of Ben, Jill, Conor and I after dinner.

At 10 pm there was an amazing dessert bar with lots of delicious things.  There were all sorts of sculptures, though they weren't exactly edible, like the Taj Mahal below.  They also had the Great Wall and other monuments from places that we went.

These last couple of day we have been hanging out and lying in the sun a lot.  I also packed yesterday, because they take our luggage today and then we pick it up when we get off the ship tomorrow.  I will see some of you in the next few days and then many more throughout the summer!!!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Gorgeous Guatemala

I wasn't really sure what to expect of Guatemala because I've never been to Central America and because I hadn't researched very much leading up to it, because we had finals.  But I had an amazing time.  I travelled with a group of 8 of my friends and we had a lot of fun.

The ship was docked at Puerto Quetzal, which is a small town on the coast without much going on, so we headed to Antigua.  Antigua is a very cute, now touristy, colonial town.  There is a small park in the middle with most things to do within a few blocks of it, including a market.  The streets are all cobblestone, which makes car rides intersting.  Here is a picture down one of the main streets in Antigua.  The yellow arch down the street, Santa Catalina Arch, is a popular image of Antigua.  

We got there around 1 pm and found a really cute, partly outdoor, restaurant.  We were all very excited to have Guatemalan food, which is fairly similar to Mexican food, with a lot of rice and beans.  We shared really good nachos and I had excellent chicken and rice soup.  We met up with our other friends who were coming later and wandered around the city for the afternoon.  We went to the market, where they sell everything from quilts and bags, to DVDs and chocolate.  

We found a hotel and took naps for a little bit in the afternoon and then got ready to go out to dinner and out on the town.  The ship had recommended that we be back to our hotels by 11pm because Guatemala can be dangerous, but we didn't experience any problems in Antigua.  We went to a restaurant and had pizza because two of the girls we were traveling with have had pizza in every country (not a feat I would be particularly proud of, but still fun) and they had to continue their streak.  Here is a picture of all of the girls (the three boys were sitting up in a lounge area in the restaurant).  From the back left is Kristie, Jill, and Stephanie, and then Alex and I on the right.  

The next morning we had a trip scheduled up to Volcano Pacaya that left at 6am.  For some reason most of us work up at 4 am and couldn't sleep, so we had been hanging out since then.  We got picked up in a minibus and driven up to Pacaya which was about 90 minutes away.  The last half hour of the drive was on very rough roads as we were actually going up the mountain a bit.  We got our guide and started the hike.  For about 90 minutes the hike looked just like a mountain hike through the trees.  It was not a particularly easy hike, but we had a fun time.  We came out of the trees and had about this view.  We had to hike on the volcanic sand and rock up to where you see those specks of people on the right and then up some more to reach the flowing lava.

Climbing up the volcanic rock was difficult because it was sharp and very unstable.  Several people, though luckily none in our group, fell and cut up their legs pretty badly.  But eventually we made it up to the lava flow and other molten rock and it was so so so awesome.  Here is a good picture (taken by our guide Roni) of the lava flow, which was maybe moving about 1 mph. 

Just up the volcano a bit was more lava like this, that was moving very slowly, if at all.  A few minutes after I took this picture, that part at the bottom cracked and sort of fell forward.  

We had bought tropical marshmallows, which were indeed very fruity, to roast in the lava.  It was so hot that the marshmallows roasted perfectly in about 5 seconds.  We roasted some on the lava and then here is a picture of Jill and I roasting some on the white hot rocks.  

On our climb up and down we had a really good view of Volcano Fuego in the background.  We got to see ash spewing out of it at one point because it erupts a few times per hour.  Here is a picture of Jill and I in front of Fuego.

We got driven back to Antigua to walk around a bit and do some shopping that we hadn't done yesterday.  Prices seemed to be pretty standard in the market and we couldn't get everything bargained down to price we wanted, which was a little frustrating.  Then we got driven to Monterrico, a small beach town about 45 minutes from Puerto Quetzal.  We were going to stay there for the night and go back to the ship the next day.  

Monterrico is a black sand beach, which was so cool.  It also had the roughest surf I have ever been in and we all definitely got knocked over and worked by many waves when we were playing around in the waves.  We got there around 5pm and just hung out for the evening.  There were a bunch of other SAS kids there, which was fun.  Here is a picture of the place we stayed.  We stayed in a bungalow, like the ones on the left.  There was a huge storm and the power was out for a few hours, but they had good food and drinks at the restaurant, so we were happy.  

Here is a picture of 6 of us lounging on the beach.  We were all covered in black sand the entire day and for several days were were all finding it in our ears and bathing suits.  From the left is me, Jill, Stephanie, Matt, Ben, and Conor.  

That afternoon we got driven back to the ship and boarded it for the last time, which was strange.  Since then we have had our second and last day of finals and have just been hanging out, getting ready to go home.  

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Happy Hawaii

Hi everyone... I'm sorry that I have not posted a blog in so long, but things were actually getting a bit busy here and I was caught up in finals and such.  The ship actually just left Guatemala a few hours ago (which was awesome), but I will elaborate on that in a future blog when I get all of the pictures that I want from our friends.  But first, our brief stop in Honolulu, Hawaii.

We had been on the ship for 9 days between Japan and Hawaii, and they weren't as bad as I thought they were going to be.  The weather warmed up along the way and we all found things to distract ourselves.  My friends and I were all very excited to get to Hwaii and just relax and eat all kinds of American food.  It's hard to describe how much we were looking forward to eating at restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory and such.  

We got off the ship and headed to Waikiki Beach, arguably the most famous in Hawaii.  We walked along much of it before settling down and just enjoying the sand and the surf for a few hours.  Some of my friends had a surf lesson on little baby waves.  Here is a picture down the beach and toward downtown Honolulu.  The weather was absolutely perfect the first day.

Then Jill and I went and had lunch at the Cheesecake Factory.  I had a good salad (we can eat lettuce again!!!), but we actually didn't get cheesecake because we were so full.  Then we layed out for a while longer and went to a big mall because I needed a pair of heels and Jill needed a dress for the Ambassador's Ball.  We walked back to the ship and showered and went out to dinner with some friends at CPK, also excellent.  Then my friends and I went back down to Waikiki and hung out for the night at a couple of bars.  We were back to the 21 drinking age, which was weird because we had all gotten used to everyone being allowed to drink everywhere, but most people were able to get around it one way or another.

The next morning, Jill and I and our friend Matt went to IHOP, which was awesome.  We were really excited for real scrambled eggs, because on the ship they make eggs from some powder or something and they are awful.  Then we went and found a beach nearby and just lounged for a while.  We talked with a soldier who was on leave from Afghanistan.  He is stationed in Kabul and does mostly humanitarian work, but he is definitely still there and it was very intersting to talk to him about the war and life there and other things.  I don't think I had had a conversation of that depth with someone who has been involved in this war.  Here is a picture of the breach, pretty much paradise.  I really take many pictures in Hawaii, because it all felt so normal, and were all excited just to do very American things.  

It was starting to cloud over so we began the couple mile walk back to the ship.  We stopped on the way at a drug store to pick up a few things, but really just headed back to the ship.  Hawaii was definitely a nice break.  Then we had 7 days on the ship until we got to Guatemala.  We had four more days of class, and then the start of exams.  My exams have been fine and I got all of the work I needed to for my classes done.  

The weather was actually cool and very cloudy for the first 4 days of that, which helped us all to get work done.  It finally got nice out and we all did a lot of lying out and sitting on the back decks.  We always sit on the back deck and watch the sunset after dinner.  Here are some of my girlfriends doing our regular after-dinner routine.  From the back it is Jill, Emily, Alex, and Sheila.

We are all sad that the voyage is coming to an end, but people are also excited to come home.  It will be nice to be home and have a "normal" life, but I will miss everyone here terribly and we already have many plans to visit each other over the summer and at other times.  As we got on the ship this afternoon it was very strange to think about this being the last time we would board the ship, and the same feeling of weirdness and sadness occurred when we were pulling away from Puerto Quetzal.

Okay, enough of that for now.  I will post a blog tomorrow or the next day about our fun times in Guatemala.  Bit of a preview... I climbed a volcano and roasted marshmallows in the lava, and then hung out on a black sand (volcanic) beach.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Joyous Japan

Right now we are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and we are all learning to appreciate the vastness of this ocean.  Our route from Yokohama, Japan to Honolulu, Hawaii is 3861 miles on a great circle route, as compared to the 2475 miles between New York and Los Angeles.  The seas have also been fairly rough for the past couple of days and the weather has cold and nasty.  Not good for getting my tan back that I lost in China and Japan.  But it should be warming up soon as we get to Hawaii.

Japan was awesome.  My friends I and bought rail passes that let us get on practically any train at any time, and we took advantage of it and went to 6 cities in 5 days.  The ship docked in Kobe, Japan.  It took forever to get off the ship because everyone had to go through face-to-face inspection and get their photo and fingerprints taken.  Five of my friends and I were planning on headed to Hiroshima to see the museum and park there.  It again took us a long time to exchange our rail vouchers for the actual passes, but if this whole trip has taught me anything, it is patience.  

We made it to Hiroshima on a bullet train around 4 pm and made our way to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which is in the Peace Park.  The museum was very well put together and powerful and I learned a lot about the bombing and the aftermath.  We then walked through the peace park, which was beautiful, especially with all the cherry blossoms in bloom.  At the end of the park is the A-bomb Dome, which was a sort of city hall building that was the thing closest to the bomb that is is still partially standing.  It was beautiful and eerie all at the same time.  

Then we headed back to Kobe.  The boys wanted to have Kobe beef for dinner, but the girls didn't want to spend $80 on a meal, so while they had their beef, we went to a noodle place and had ramen and dumplings and rice.  Kobe is also famous for its pastries, so of course we had to sample a couple of those as well.  The next morning 12 of my friends and I headed to Kyoto, which is an old city in central Honshu that was the capital of imperial Japan.  It is famous for the cherry blossom trees and we were there at the perfect time of year.  We got off the train and found our way to a shop and rented bikes for the day.  We got split up into two groups and my group ended up going to a pretty garden and walking around for a while.  Here is my friend Emily and I in front of a cherry blossom tree, which are everywhere.

Then we rode up toward a temple that is in the mountains near a gorge.  We grabbed a lunch of rice or noodle bowls and then walked up to the temple.  It was really pretty and had a great view of the city.  Then we started biking toward another temple across the city, but never made it because it was getting late.  We still saw a lot of Kyoto over a short period of time.  We made it back to return the bikes and then some of us headed to the small town of Koka where we were going to visit a ninja village the next day.  Koka turned out to be a really small town, but we found a hotel for the night.  Then next morning we met up with the rest of our friends, and after wandering around in wrong directions for a while, we went back to the train stations and took a shuttle to the Ninja Village.

When we got there, we got a tour of a ninja house, which had all sorts of secret doors and passageways and even a sort of three foot middle floor for storage.  We then went and threw ninja stars, which was really fun, and it was also fun to see all of the boys become about 8 years old again.  Here is a picture of the boys throwing their ninja stars.

I got several of my stars to stick to the board, and even got on in the outer right of the bulls-eye.  We swung across a little ravine on a rope swing and just wandered around.  We also took a bunch of ninja pictures, like this one of all the girls.

After this we headed back to Kyoto and then went to Tokyo on a three hour bullet train.  Mount Fuji was out the left side of the train at some point and it looked really cool.  We got to Tokyo and took the subway to the Roppongi district, which has lots of lights and night life.  We found a hotel and had dinner and met up with our friends.  That night we all went out and fun around Roppongi.

The next morning my friends and I headed to Akihabara, a district in Tokyo that is knowns for all its electronic stores and gaming stuff.  It is very bright and colorful.  We wandered around for a while and went into all sorts of stores.  We wandered into this five-story arcade, which was interesting.  There were what looked like Japanese businessmen on their lunch break playing video games.  I also played one round of Dance Dance Revolution, which was fun.  Here is a picture of the main street, with the arcade, the red "game" building.  

We had lunch at a cafe and then headed back to Tokyo station to walk around the Imperial Palace.  It took us a while to find it, and by the time we got in there, it was closing in a half hour, so we just walked around for a little while.  We decided to walk back to Roppongi because we could see the Tokyo Tower and knew it was near by.  Those sorts of walks always turn out to be longer than planned, as was the case here, but it was fun.  We grabbed some dinner and then met up with our friends.  Later that night, people split off and my friend Matt and I went and had some terrific sushi.  I was much more adventurous than I usually am, and I got all sashimi, which is just the fish on top of rice, and it was all excellent.  My friends were going out that night, so I went out for a while and then headed to bed.

The next morning, most of my friends went to the biggest fish market in the world, outside of Tokyo, but a few of us headed to Yokohama after a delicious breakfast at a bakery.  We went back to the ship and ate lunch there, and then went out into Yokohama in search of Internet.  It took us a while to find, but we eventually ended up in a hotel lobby.  We sat for a couple of hours and then headed back to the ship.  Yokohama is a very pretty city.  Here is a picture of part of the skyline.  

That's all from Japan.  There are still 5 days until Hawaii, and it's definitely going to test the patience of many.  I will try and call lots of people when I'm in Hawaii because my phone will finally work!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Chilly China

Thinking of a "ch" adjective to describe China was difficult, and I even skimmed most of that section of the dictionary before settling on "chilly" which was definitely fitting for my whole experience there.  We had all gotten used to super hot weather ever since Namibia, so the cold was refreshing, but also a bit shocking.  It was literally freezing on the Great Wall and we were all wearing most of the clothes we had brought on the whole trip.

Bust first we were in Hong Kong for a day.  The ship was docked on Kowloon in Hong Kong and the next day my trip left for Beijing and the Great Wall.  That day, the ship also left to travel to Shanghai, where we picked it up at the end of our trip.  My friends Jill, Conor, Ben, Emily and I decided to go to one of the less populated islands, called Lantau Island, and see the world's largest sitting Buddha.  The ship's gangway went right into a fancy mall, so we had to walk through that, then take a ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, take the subway to Lantau island, and then we got on a gondola to go up to the little mountain village and up to the Buddha.  The gondola went over a lake and then up through the mountains and into the clouds.

We had ramen (but 1000X better than the stuff with the packet) in this really touristy little village and then walked up to the Buddha.  We had to climb over 250 stairs, and you could hardly see him at the bottom in the fog, but it was really cool, and he was definitely big.  Then we wandered over to a monastery near by that was also very pretty.  Then we walked and took the gondola back down.  We got back to Hong Kong island and found in a little travel guide that the world's longest escalator was there, so of course we had to go and find it.  It isn't the longest continuous escalator; there were breaks to get off or cross streets, but the whole thing went up and around this huge hill.  It took us about 25 minutes to go up the whole thing

Every night at 8pm many of the big buildings on the waterfront participate in a light show.  The lights on the sides of the buildings and coming off the top blink and flash to music on a radio station.  Here is a picture of the skyline from the back of the ship, right before the light show began.  this has been the best view of a city from the ship we have had so far.

The next morning was my flight to Beijing.  A bunch of my friends and I were going on an independently organized trip to Beijing and the Great Wall with about 150 other SAS students.  Our flight was very smooth and we finally got to our hotel in a bunch of busses around dinner time that day.  We had the rest of the evening free before our tour really started the next day.  My friends and I ended up at a restaurant where no one really spoke English, so it was an adventure, but it turned out delicious.  I really enjoy the communal style of Chinese eating where all of the dishes are on a lazy susan and everyone takes a little bit of all of them.

The next morning we had breakfast and organized into busses of 35 that would be fairly separate for the rest of the trip.  My friends and I all ended up together with a few other groups of friends on the "Green Team."  Our tour guide's English name was Robert and he was really nice and very informative the whole trip.  He carried around a green flag, which he loved, that we followed around whenever we were at some location.  It was pretty funny, but at least we didn't have to wear all the same hats like the other Asian tour groups because we all have different colored hair, so Robert can keep track of us easily.

The first place we went were the Ming Tombs, which is where 13 of the 16 Ming Emporers are buried, each in their own separate tomb.  We walked around the grounds a bit and then got to go down into the one tomb that has been excavated.  It was really cool just to think about all of the history that is there.  After a traditional Chinese lunch (though they never gave us anything too weird that you always hear about), we started driving up to the Great Wall.  We got there around 4:30 and hiked a bit to a spot to watch the sunset.  Here is a picture of our view; you can see that it seems to go on forever all across the mountains.

After sunset we went back down to have dinner, which was another family style Chinese meal.  People throughout the day had been buying all sorts of hats and gloves and sweatshirts, because it was literally freezing outside.  We then hiked up for a bit and got to the watchtower that was designated for our group.  My friends and I decided to sleep out on the wall in a row so that we could all spoon to keep warm.  After hanging out for a bit and watching the stars, I tried to go to sleep.  I ended up on the end, and I just couldn't warm up enough to fall asleep, so I got to lie and watch the Big Dipper move across the sky.  At about 3:30 am, I moved in between two boys and was eventually able to warm up enough to sleep for about 2 hours before we were woken up by a friendly "Robert is here!"

After breakfast and cleaning up our area, we started our six mile hike along the wall.  I was expecting everything to still be in tact, but much of our hike, the wall was starting to fall apart.  Many of the steps were just slopes with rubble, so there was a lot more rough terrain than I expected, but it was still awesome.  The first two hours were really tough, with a lot of up, but then it got easier toward the end.  I mostly hiked with just Jill because we were going at about the same pace.  Here we are a little more than half way.  

At the end we had to cross a gorge on a sort of suspended wood bridge, and then we got to zipline across and down the gorge to get to the little village for lunch which was really fun.  Then we headed back toward Beijing and the entire bus passed out as soon as we started moving.  We stopped at the Bird's Nest and Water cube, which was really cool to walk around and see.  Here is a picture of Jill and I and our friend Meghan in front of the Bird's Nest.

That evening my friends and I went shopping at the Silk Market, which sells all sorts of jackets and scarves and jewelry.  Then we went out to dinner and saw the Olympic stuff lit up at night, and then just called it a night.  The next day was our tour of Old Beijing.  First was the Forbidden City, which is where the Emperors used to live.  It is hard to describe how enormous it is.  In one of the big courtyards near the end, my girlfriends and I took a jumping picture.  We have been doing these pictures all around the world and they are a lot of fun.  We have gotten good with poses and getting everyone in the air at the same time, for the most part.  From left to right are Jillian, Meghan, Jill, Laura, Emily, and me.

Next we walked into Tiananmen Square, which was huge, and I think is the largest square in the world.  It was interesting to be there, and we got a feel for the Chinese government and their level of censorship.  All Robert said was, "something happened here in 1989" and when we asked him more about it, he said that it was dangerous for him to talk about and that he can't find anything about it when he tries to research it on the internet anyway.  Also, right before we got there, the Chinese government decided to block Youtube, which is interesting.  The 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre is this June.

Then we went up to the Bell Tower which overlooked a lot of the city.  After, we got into bike rickshaws and were driven around an old Beijing neighborhood for a bit and then stopped at a hutong, a traditional stone quadrangle house and met the owner and got a tour.  They had a really cute dog, which made us all miss our own puppies.  After lunch, our last stop was the Summer Palace, which was one of my favorite places.  Here is a picture of Jill and I with the palace in the background.  We always call pictures like this "mommy pictures" because both of our moms (and most people's) love picture of the kids standing in front of different things, so here is one for our mommies.

After walking along the lake and by the palace, we clambered into the bus and headed for the Pearl Market (which has pearls and everything else you could possibly imagine) for some last minute shopping before heading to the train station to catch our sleeper train to Shanghai.  The train station was insanely crowded, but we all made it.  My friend Conor and I had the top bunks in a compartment with Chinese men on the bottom bunks, which was fine until one of them started snoring in the middle of the night.  The sleeper train was fun and it was nice to be able to just sleep through the 12 hour ride.

The next morning we eventually made it back to the ship from the train station and Jill, Ben and I wandered around.  We wanted to go to the science museum, but for some reason our cab dropped us off two subway stations past the museum even though we had shown him a map and had someone who spoke some english helping us, but we got there eventually.  We didn't go into the museum because it was kind of expensive and more geared towards kids, so we just wandered around that area and then took a subway back to the main area of Shanghai before walking back to the ship.

So that's about all for China, I think.  Sorry that this was later than I said it would be... our internet on the ship didn't really work in Japan because of two much interference or something.  I will update about Japan hopefully soon along this super long stretch across the Pacific to Hawaii.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Vivid Vietnam

I know that this blog is late, but things have been crazy around here.  We just left China yesterday, and we get to Japan the day after tomorrow.  We have been going country to country to Asia with only two days at sea in between each port.  It's all very exciting, but doesn't leave a lot of time for rest or blogging.  I will try and put up a China blog shortly after this one.

I really enjoyed Vietnam and plan to backpack around southeast Asia sometime in the next few years to visit Cambodia and Laos and then all the parts of Thailand and Vietnam that I wasn't able to see in the short five days.  I mostly stayed in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and did a couple of day trips, which was good, because I have done a lot of travelling in Thailand and China.

The first day my friends and I kind of wandered around.  We went to the War Remnants Museum, which used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes.  It was very interesting to see, but also emotionally draining.  I felt very weird there being and American, and many of my friends felt the same.  Then we grabbed lunch at a restaurant where we sat on the floor at low tables and the ceiling was too low for any of the boys to stand up straight.  I had my first Vietnamese iced coffee with milk (also involves chocolate sauce), which is the most delicious coffee drink I've ever had, and I proceeded to have a couple everyday thereafter.  Then we wandered to the main markets in the city.  They are huge and different stalls sell shoes (which don't fit any of our big American feet), t-shirts, jewelry, crafts and then a whole section of food.  The currency is Vietnamese Dong, and the rate is 17,000 dong per dollar, which can make bargaining interesting.  Everyone was a millionaire.  The boys I was with got fitted for getting suits made, which is a popular thing to do in Vietnam.  That night we went out to dinner my friend Laura and her sister who was backpacking around Vietnam and I had delicious curry and got to try dragon fruit, which was delicious.

The next morning Jill and I went to a disabled children's school with a SAS trip.  Jill and I ended up in a class of young children with Down's Syndrome, and other kids at the school were deaf, blind, and a few physically handicapped.  They were all very cute and enjoyed the stickers and paper and crayons we brought along.  Afterward we played out in the schoolyard with other kids and signed lots of autographs.  I stood holding a bubble stick letting different little kids blow bubbles for about 20 minutes.  Here is Jill coloring with one of the little girls (I told her to be candid, but it is well established that Jill can't not smile at a camera)

That afternoon we went to a cafe with free WiFi for a while, which was awesome and then wandered towards the market.  We tried on a tons of dresses along the way, but didn't really find anything.  That night I just stayed in and used the internet since I had a lot f things I wanted to get done and people I wanted to talk to.

The next day was the big shopping day in the markets for Jill and I since we both had lots of gifts we needed to buy for various people.  The markets were awesome, but overwhelming with people everywhere and women grabbing your arms and saying "What you looking for?"  I managed to get everything I needed including a few things for myself.  The next day I also bought a new duffle bag since I have literally filled one up with all of the stuff I have bought.  I also got fitted to get a dress made since I didn't find any that I liked the previous day.  That evening we went out to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant with several of our girlfriends.

A little aside to try and describe the traffic on Ho Chi Minh City that we were constantly dealing with.  The population is about 8 million, with about 5 million able to drive, and there are 4 million mopeds in the city as well as a few cars and busses.  They are absolutely everywhere and traffic is so dense that you have to just step off the curb or you will never get across the street.  You just walk slowly across the street maintaining eye contact with the mopeds, never stopping or lurching forward, and the mopeds will got around you.  It really is impossible to describe, but that first step off the curb can be very scary and Jill and I once stood for a good 3 minutes before we started across.  Here is a picture of me the last day at an intersection that we frequently had to cross with traffic like you see.  

The fourth day I was going on a Mekong Delta day drip with several of my friends through SAS.  We drove about two hours away to an area of the Mekong Delta with several islands in it.  Along the way we stopped at a Cao Dai temple, which is the sort of weird new religion in Vietnam that seems to kind of combine all religions together.  I don't know much about it, but it seems very strange.

We got on a boat of about 40 people and travelled to one of the islands.  We sat under little pavilions and got to try tropical fruits grown on the island, including grapefruit, mango, jack fruit, and lychees.  Then we walked down to this really narrow, low river (can't really even call it a river at the beginning) and got into boats of 4 people with two guides pushing and paddling the boat down the river.  We got to wear rice hats and the river was covered with palms.  It was a really cool experience.  

Here is our guide, who spoke no English, paddling down the river.

Then we went to a place where people make delicious coconut candy, and I bought a bunch to bring home.  Then we headed to have a local seafood lunch.  The first thing they brought out was literally a whole fish that had been fried and was standing up on a little stand thing.  A woman showed us how to take the fish meat and make summer rolls with them that we delicious.  Here is a picture of my friend Blair and I at lunch.  We are Vicarious Voyage partners, which means we have a classroom of 3rd graders in the Bronx that we send packages of things we collect throughout the trip.  We collect postcards, newspapers, pamphlets, and anything else we can find to send to them.  I also try and send a postcard from each country.  They have a map up in the classroom to follow ship and learn things about each area we travel.  (Also keep in mind that it was about 90 degrees and humid that whole day and every other day in Vietnam)

The last day in Saigon, Jill and I did a bit more shopping at the markets and then were going back to pick up my dress and some pants and a suit for our guy friends who were going to be in Cambodia until late that night and wouldn't have time.  My dress turned out awesome and was only $40 to have it made for me.  It is deep purple satin and goes a bit past the knee and has skinny straps.  It is really cute and I'm going to wear it to the Ambassador's Ball at the end of the voyage so I will pst some pictures of that.  We had some time to kill before our friend Ben's suit was finished so we got manicures and pedicures and Jill got a haircut (they asked me if I wanted one, but I don't quite have enough hair yet to need one).  The Vietnamese ladies were really cute and I have never had prettier cuticles and smoother feet in my life, all for a whopping $16.  

That's all for now.  Look out for a post about China, hopefully in the next couple of days.  

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Terrific Thailand

First a quick update on grad school:  I am going to UCSF.  I still have to hear from Stanford and the waitlist for Columbia, but I would rather go to UCSF even if I do get in to those places.  I'm going to figure out I'm actually supposed to confirm and then do it in the next couple of days.  So yeah, San Francisco...  that means you all should come out and visit me once I get settled and such.  

So now onto Thailand.  Right now I'm actually in an internet right across from the ship using free WiFi in Ho Chi Minh City, so that I don't have to use up my internet minutes on the ship.  We only had two days at sea between Thailand and Vietnam (going 11 knots, which is super slow, so that they could spread it out and make us go to two days of class.  There was also a man overboard drill with a dummy so we got to watch the crew go out and retrieve it in a life boat which was pretty fun), so it was a very quick turn around.

The ship was actually docked in a smaller city called Laem Chabang because our ship is too long to go into Bangkok's harbor, so we had to take a two hour bus right to actually get to Bangkok.  As soon as we got there we got a cab (which are bright pink, blue, orange, or other colors depending on the union) to Khao San road which is a couple of blocks full of hostels and bars and restaurants that is very popular with backpackers and is super international.  We found a hostel for the night and then starting walking toward the Grand Palace which wasn't too far away.  It was late in the afternoon and we were told by a guard that it was closed so we continued down to Wat Pho, which is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  "Wat" is the Thai word for templed and this particular one had a giant (and I mean absolutely huge) Buddha laying on his side.  We actually somehow missed the building even though it was right at the front and wandered around and didn't see it until the end, which made it all the more incredible.  Here is a picture of Jill and I in front of it (there are also huge feet at the end of the legs that we couldn't get in the picture):

The rest of the temple grounds was beautiful as well, with lots of tiling and spires and pretty roofs.  Here is a picture of Ben and Conor in front of two statues.  We have many pictures of using copying the position of various statues.  

After that we walked over to the Chao Phraya river and took a long tail boat tour along the river and the canals surrounding it.  The long tail is a long wooden boat with a motor with a really long pole before you get to the actual propeller, hence the name.  It was a really interesting way to see part of the city.  Here is a picture of Jill and in in the long tail:

Then the boys wanted to go and see a Muay Thai fight, which is the traditional Thai martial art.  Jill and I didn't want to go so we went to eat dinner at a place near by.  The owners basically ate dinner with us and it was also a karaoke place so they were trying to get us to sing, but we didn't want to.  That night we went back to Khao San road and hung out at a bar.

The next morning we took a cab to the airport and caught our flight down to Phuket.  Phuket is an island province in the south of Thailand.  It is known for having some of the world's most beautiful beaches and great snorkling.  We were heading toward even tinier islands called Koh Phi Phi (which are actually made up of six islands) about 60 kilometers off the coast of Phuket.  We had to take a minibus to the southern part of Phuket and then had to wait a few hours and get on a 2 hour ferry to get to Koh Phi Phi Don, which is the main island and the only one with permanent residents.  All of the scenery was absolutely gorgeous and the village was really cute with stone paths full of restaurants and shops.  The whole island was full of people from all over the world, mostly backpackers.  

The first day we just found a hostel and hung out on the beach for a while.  Jill and I got a Thai pancake, their excellent version of fried dough.  It's sort of like a crepe, but cooked a little more to be crispier and then thy put all sorts of stuff in or on top of it.  I got nutella on top and it was delicious.  Then we grabbed dinner and hung out in a couple of bars for the night, including one on the beach, which was fun.  The next morning the boys were going scuba diving and Jill and I were going to lay out on the beach.  Here was our view:

I am getting much tanner on this trip, but I did manage to sunburn myself after laying out for 1.5 hours.  It was extremely hot and we were in the water every ten minutes to cool off.  After we got a Thai massage for an hour for 300 baht (about $9).  It's a full body massage, and it was good, but my lady was sort of a beast, and she sort of killed me.  That afternoon we were leaving for a trip that we had signed up for the night before.  We were going to go to Maya Bay on the island of Koh Phi Phi Leh and sleep there for the night.  Maya Bay is the beach from the film "The Beach," (with Leonardo DiCaprio) which I saw for the first time the day before we got to Thailand.  It is supposed to be one of the most beautiful island/beaches in the world, and I definitely agreed.

Here is a picture of Conor, Ben, Jill and I jumping on the beach.  We have been doing jump pictures all over the world, and there is also one in the movie, so we thought it was fitting.

Here is another picture that Ben took at Maya Bay with a long tail boat and I really like it.

We got to the beach with our group that included a few Thai guides and about 12 other travelers: two french girls, one british girl, one canadian girl, two greek guys, one dutch girl, and four indian guys, so you can truly get the sense of how international the island's travelers are.  We took a small boat out to the island and before we actually went to the beach, we snorkeled and kayaked in the bay.  Then we took a longtail onto the beach and just hung around for a bit.  They had brought dinner for us, but right as we started eating, a storm started.  Luckily there was a long rock overhang that could hold us and all of our stuff.  We just hung around for the night talked with everyone about their lives and travels in other countries, which was very interesting.

We walked down to the water and saw that the surf was glowing.  There were little specks of light in the surf and if you kicked the water, it looked like you had fireworks coming out of your foot.  It's a certain sort of plankton that glows when it's disturbed and it was definitely one of the coolest parts of the trip.  It had stopped raining and we slept on the beach on mats and sleeping bags.  It was all fine except I woke up in the morning with about 200 bug bites of varying sizes all over my body, mostly on my legs and back.  Luckily most of them weren't itchy, but it looked like I had a bad case of the chicken pox.  They are all gone by now.  We had breakfast and got to walk around the island a bit more and then headed back to Koh Phi Phi Don.

We had to take the ferry back that afternoon so we just had lunch and wandered around the beach a bit.  Here is a picture of where we ate lunch.  It is my desktop background right now.

So we took the ferry back from Koh Phi Phi Don to Phuket and then a taxi back to the airport.  Then we flew back to Bangkok which was fine until the guy next to me puked, luckily in the bag and then ran to the bathroom, but it was still gross.  We went back to Khao San road and got a hostel and then met up with some friends at a club for one girl's birthday.

The next morning we got a tour in a tuk-tuk, which is the Thai version of a rickshaw, sort of a small three-wheeled gold cart.  We went to "Big Buddha" and it also involved going to a government tailor shop and tourist agency so that the driver gets free gas money, which is really annoying, but common.  Here is Big Buddha, and he is definitely big.  

Then we walked around the grounds of the Grand Palace but we didn't go in because it costs about $10 and we didn't have that much time before we had to go and catch our bus back to the ship.  Here is a picture of the outside of the Grand Palace, which I heard was awesome on the inside too.  

We went back to Khao San to grab our stuff and did a bit of shopping.  There were shops and stalls all over the street wiht lots of clothes and bags and jewelry and shoes.  I'm also going to do a bunch of shopping in Vietnam, which will be much of the same, but cheaper.  Then we just took our SAS bus back to the ship and hung out.

That's about all for now... sorry for that getting a bit long, but Thailand was pretty sweet.

Friday, March 13, 2009

grad school update!!!

Thought I would give a little update after I got some news this morning:

Berkeley: admitted
UCSF: admitted (found out this morning, super excited)
Columbia: waitlisted (I don't think they were thrilled that I missed the interivew weekend)
Rockefeller: rejected
UCSD: rejected
Stanford: still waiting to hear
Northwestern: still waiting to hear.

I'm definitely going to end up in the Bay Area (Stanford, UCSF, Berkeley), adding to the Bomber Annex there.  I'm most likely going to go to UCSF, but I want to wait to hear back from Stanford and then give myself some time to think.  I have until April 15, but I will keep you all posted on what I actually decide.  

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Incredible !ndia

The title of my blog is a phrase used to attract tourists to India and it is indeed incredible.  It is also a land of contrast: between wealth and poverty, beauty and degradation.  I had a wonderful time and it is definitely a country I would return to in the future. 

We got to the southeastern city of Chennai the morning of March 5.  Chennai is in the state of Tamil Nadu (Tamil is the native language) and is the fourth largest city in India.  It did not smell as bad as I was expecting (except when we were near a river) though the port area was incredibly polluted and there was this black soot all over everything, including me when we would walk back to the ship.  Some people were traveling to the Taj Mahal, and a few of my friends flew to Mumbai.  Jill and I were going to do various service projects the first three days and then explore Chennai for the last two days.

The first day we were going on a SAS trip called Dalit Work Project.  "Dalit" is a modern term for the "untouchable" cast in India, and is a term of empowerment for the group, though the majority of them remain poor.  We were going to the largest slum in Chennai and were going to some sort of small project for the afternoon.  When we got off the bus we were met by a few drummers in uniforms and then a bunch of school kids gave us each a few jasmine flower necklace.  We were literally paraded through their town to a school.  

There was a sort of welcoming ceremony and a few people sang and some kids did some traditional dances.  We learned that our task would be to paint the blackboards of 4 classrooms and to paint a bunch of the exterior and interior blue, which I was assigned to.  After about 2.5 hours of painting in unbelievable heat and with an Indian man watching us to make sure were doing it right and not taking breaks, we finally finished.  Then we got to play with all the kids for about an hour.  We signed a bunch of autographs, gave out a lot of stickers and we taught them to play duck duck goose.  I think half the town came out to watch us.  It is amazing how many people are everywhere in India and how quickly a crowd can materialize.  Here is a picture of our duck duck goose game (also not the progress in my hair growth):

The kids also loved having their picture taken and then to see it in our digital camera.  Many of the adults wanted their pictures taken too.  They would all swarm around you if you tried to take a picture, as below.  

We had a similar send off and headed back o the ship.  I just hung out on the ship that night because I was dirty and tired.

The next day Jill and I had the morning free before we left for our SAS trip called Child Labor in Rural India that afternoon.  We decided to go to Fort St. George which was nearby with a church and museum to look around.  To get out of the port, you have a very hot, dirty, polluted half mile walk.  As soon as you get out of the port you are swarmed by rickshaw drivers.  A rickeshaw is basically a tiny three-wheeled golf cart that zips in and out of traffic (good image that if you don't know what I'm talking about, and yes, at one point there were five us plus a driver in one).  Eventually we bargained our way there for 20 rupees (which is 40 cents, though it was really close, still incredibly cheap).  We just sort of wandered around and actually found a Tamil newspaper that had the ship on the front page.

We eventually made our way back after some miscommunication with our driver and packed for our overnight Child Labor in Rural India trip.  We took about a 2 hour bus ride to the city of Kanchipuram, which is known for its stilk industry.  We were basically getting a tour of an organization called RIDE (Rural India Development Education).  They work to fight child labor and get kids into school and also to empower poor people in villages to help the kids stay out of child labor.  The first day we got there, we went to one of the RIDE schools.  There was a classroom full of kids in uniforms that had been "rescued" from either the silk industry or the stone quarry.  Then there was another classroom of kids who had not yet been rescued and only came to the school occasionally in the afternoon.  they were in random clothes that didn't fit and were dirty and had no shoes.  It was pretty heartbreaking to think that they had been at work that morning carrying around small stones and breaking them up with a hammer.  Here is a picture of a few of the girls from the quarry enjoying some of the treats we brought:

We played around wiht all of them and gave out stickers, candy, and balloon animals.  They gave us a presentation of songs and dances and a lot of their school work, a good chunk of it in English.

Then we went back to the RIDE headquarters and had a delicious traditional Indian meal.  Every country we've been to so far has their own version of some fried dough concoction and they've all been excellent, including the sort of pancake things we had in India.  That night we slept in a very hot dormitory, but we were all thrilled to even had beds, which we had not been expecting.  

The next morning we were going to a village to get a tour.  When we got there, again we were greeted with flowers and stuff put on or foreheads, and a drumming and dancing performance.  We were the first foreigners they had seen, which was crazy to think about.  We basically got a tour of the village all day, being fed at different houses and taking tons of pictures and playing with all the kids along the way.  The ground was covered with rangoli, which is artwork sprinkled on the ground made out of rice flour and colored sands.  The women in southern India put small, white rangoli outside their door every morning and for special occasions they are bigger, with color and sometimes flowers and candles.  Evidently we were a special occasion because the streets were covered with beautiful rangoli: 

And then just because these two little sisters are so so cute:

Then we went back to RIDE for lunch.  Then went to a silk shop (government sponsored, so it doesn't use any child labor) where I bought a silk sari to make curtains or something in my bed next year.  Then we stopped at a Hindu temple on the way back, which Kanchipuram is also famous for.  Here is a picture of Jill and I in the temple: (note that we also hadn't showered in two days and had been sweating bullets about that whole time)

The remaining two days were spent wandering around Chennai and doing lots of shopping.  One day my friend Chrissy and I had an interesting adventure shopping when our rickshaw driver wouldn't really take us where we wanted to go.  It is very common for them to take you to a "great shop" that is actually an incredibly expensive goverment store, which they get moeny for if you stay in there long enough.  But I bought a lot of stuff for insanely low prices.  We left Chennai the evening of March 9.  

Yesterday we went through the Strait of Melaka, which as a lot of ocean traffic and also some pirates occasionally, but we didn't run into any problems.  We bunkered (took on fuel) in Singapore yesterday.  We get to Thailand tomorrow.  Jill, Ben, Conor, and I (same group from Spain and Morocco) are going to Bangkok the first day and then to Phuket for three days.  Phuket is an island province in the south and has beautiful beaches and lots of snorkling and other water stuff to do.  I'm really excited.  More later.