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.  

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Magnificent Mauritius

Before I write a blog about India, I want to write a quick one about Mauritius.  It will be fairly short because we were only there for 12 hours.  First of all... where is Mauritius?  It is in the Indian Ocean, about 500 miles east of Madagascar.  Most of the people there are of Indian descent and there is a large French influence, including the language.  We got there 4 days after leaving South Africa, and 5 days before getting to India, so it was a nice break from life at sea.

I was getting over my cold at this point, and I had a nice relaxing day.  I was going on a snorkel trip to a tiny island a quarter mile off the southeast coast of Mauritius called Ils de Deux.  We had about a 45 minute bus ride from Port Louis.  Then we had to take water taxis for about 3 minutes to the tiny island.  It was absolutely beautiful and luxurious.  There were tents with white couches and tons of lawn chairs.  The water was a perfect temperature and it was about 85 and sunny.  

In the morning we just played in the ater, and walked around the island a bit.  Then we had a wonderful barbeque for lunch with really good sea food and other yummy things.  After lunch we went snorkling near by.  The boats would take us a bit off the coast and watch us because the currents were pretty strong.  We were on a huge coral reef so it was really cool to see all the different coral and sea life.  

Eventually it was time to head back and get on the ship to leave.  I didn't end up taking too many pictures because it was such a quick trip, but I think the one that sums it up is below.  You can also see that I'm starting to grow some hair back, and it is even a bit longer now.

I also just thought I would put a couple more pictures of things on the ship.  My friends and I eat dinner everyday at 5:30 and then afterwards and a few of us go and sit on the back deck and relax and watch the sun go down.  Sometimes there is napping.  It's a rough life.  These are my friends Conor, Matt, and Ben.

We also have awesome sunsets almost every night, many like this:

Right now I'm in India.  We leave tomorrow evening.  It has been awesome, and I will post a blog about it in the next few days.  Until then...

Monday, March 2, 2009

Splendid (and sick) South Africa

I'm sorry for not posting an update for so long, but I was sick last week and just haven't gotten around to it until now.  South Africa was awesome and I absolutely loved it even though I was getting a bad head cold toward the end.  I'll try and do a quick summary of the days with some pictures.  I highly recommend going to the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and may even be going myself.   

Day 1:  Our ship docked at the V & A waterfront, which is upscale and fairly touristy.  It could be any coastal city in the US and reminds me particularly of San Francisco.  When we got off the ship, this was our view.  The very flat mountain a bit covered with clouds is the famous Table Mountain.

To the right of this picture is the main part of the waterfront with a huge mall, lots of nice restaurants (with cheap prices), a few pubs, street performers, and little shops.  The first day my friend Jill and I wandered around this area and I picked up a bunch of stuff I needed at the mall.  That night a bunch of my friends and I went out to dinner at one of these nice restaurants and then went to a pub.

Day 2: I had an all day trip through Semester at Sea called Cape Town, Apartheid and Robben Island.  In the morning we were going to go to two townships, which are at least 15 minutes outside the city.  It's pretty hard to describe a township and the size of them is astounding.  They are huge and hold hundred of thousands and even millions of residents.  It is basically the picture below stretching on for miles:

The houses are made mostly of these tin sheets usually have a dirt floor and running water shared at a common tap with neighbors.  There are projects going on to build stone houses for people, but you can imagine that the rate is at a snail's pace compared to the need.  The first township we visited is called Khayelitsha.  We stopped at a very nice bed a breakfast which was a triumph story of the townships.  Despite what we would consider destitute conditions, the people we met appeared happy.  There were a few kids hanging around and I went into a classroom of preschoolers at lunch and gave them all star stickers that I had brough along.  They were very cute.  Here is one little boy who didn't exactly get the smiling part of taking a picture:

Then we went to another township called Langa.  We had a very nice lunch at another oneo f the "triumphs" of the township, a restaurant called Lelapa.  There was a marimba band that played for us during lunch and I bought their CD.  Then we went to a cultural center in the township where people were selling some of the crafts they made, which were all very beautiful and I did buy a few things.  

Next we went to Robben Island, which is the famous prison where Nelson Mandela and other prisoners of the Apartheid served their time.  After a tour around the island by bus, we were given a tour of the prison.  All tour guides for the prison are former prisoners, which amazes me.  Our guide was there from 1983 through 1990 for being a part of Umkhonto we Sizwe, which was the military wing of the African National Congress.  The whole experience was very powerful.  

That night we went to Long Street (which we found out on our walk there was indeed very long) and had good pizza for dinner (which we all crave constantly along with many other American foods).  Then we went out to a bar and then a club.  The national animal of South Africa (a type of antelop) so of course they also have a Springbok Shot, which is amarula (kind of like Bailey's) and creme de menth and is absolutely delicious.

Day 3:  I slept in a bit and then went and used free internet on the waterfront for the rest of the morning.  It was so nice to visit any site that I wanted and not have to worry about usingup my internet minutes.  In the afternoon and couple of friends and I went down the coast a bit to a little beach town called Camp's bay, which is super cute.  We walked around, got an ice cream, sat on the beach and bought some curios, the South African word for all the crags and such that people sell in the street and in small stalls.

That night a bunch of us went to a rugby match, the Vodacom Stormers (the home team) vs. the Reds.  This was the professional league of South Africa, so something like the level of the NFL.  The game was very fun to watch and by the end I understood the scoring and could grasp what was going on.  The Stormers won 27-24.  This I learned is called a scrum.  This sort of pile is an organized one and the ball gets thrown in the middle and chaos ensues and the ball somehow pops out. 

The food at the game also served as entertainment.  Of course there was biltong, which is basically jerky and a South African staple.  There were also guys walking around with boxes of donuts and huge thermos backpacks of hot chocolate with basically a hose coming off the serve it into styrofoam cups.  After the game, I just went home and went to bed since I was starting to get a head cold at this point.  

Day 4:  First day of my full on head cold and also the day that my friends and I took a wine tour through Stellenbosch and Paarl.  We got taken out to a hotel where it was to start and we were driven around to five different wineries throughout the day where we got to taste a lot of delicious wines and have lunch all for 350 Rand, about 35 dollars.  Pretty good deal.  I actually poured out a great deal of my wine samples after tasting them, so I didn't end up drunk at the end of the day, which could not be said for everyone I was with.  At a vineyard called Fairview, they also made delicious cheeses and we got to try those as well.  The winelands are some of the most beautiful places I've ever seen with the vineyards and mountains in the background.  Her eis a picture from the yard in front of a vineyard called Dieu Donne.  

I went home and went to bed at 8[m while many of my friends went out because it was our last night in Cape Town.

Day 5:  My friends got up at the crack of dawn to hike Table Mountain and others went up at the cable car later, but I stayed home because I really wasn't feeling well.  I just wandered around the waterfront in the early afternoon and did some last minute shopping.  

The ship was supposed to set sail that evening at 8pm, but we didn't leave until the next morning because the winds were too high for us to navigate out of the narrow channel into the harbor.  Subsquently, we had to book it to get to Mauritius (which we did, more on that in a later entry).  We averaged about 27 knots for 4 days.  

During those four days, I was mostly sick and sleeping all day and night with a head cold and a fever for two days.  It was not very much fun, but at least it was while we were at sea, so I didn't miss anything in a port.  More on Mauritius though in a bit.