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.