I started reading this book on my parents' couch and ended it while sipping a freddo latte and eavesdropping on a spirited conversation in Greek, having traversed the very globe whose projections I was studying. Upon flipping to the Acknowledgements page, I returned to the start, hoping that the book magically transformed into part 2 of itself. But alas, I am only left with a deeper admiration for cartography, a better understanding of the accessories of my life, and an awareness of the things that evoke my cherished memories and imagination.Read More
Semester at Sea
I think there's merit in going on a field trip (or field programs, used to be FTPs in my day) in the first location, because–as cliques form quickly–you can meet random new people and create relationships with many people from the get-go. I did a quick trip to El Yunque rainforest in Puerto Rico, and this pulled together some adventure-loving travelers who were excited to get their new hiking boots dirty.Read More
One year of teaching in China and two years of Peace Corps in Malawi later, my dear friends from Semester at Sea and I finally reunited. Alexis and I flew to Burlington, Vermont within 20 hours of Garrett's homecoming, and these are the good times we enjoyed. When I'm not at work, I don't want to be continuously documenting my life in high def. That's why I played with Instagram this time around (click on the images to view in lightbox).Read More
Q: I am from Birmingham, AL this is going to be way out of my comfort zone do you recommend finding a friend or just going alone. Is their a good floor to be on and does the inside/outside room make a difference? How many classes did you take while you were there and did studying abroad put you behind in your studies when you got back to school?Read More
I have just been accepted by SAS for the Spring 2011 voyage, and I randomly chanced upon your website. I am currently having a hard time trying to decide between a Semester at Sea program and a study abroad program in Berlin.
I know they sound very different, but I think they appeal to different parts of me, which makes it even harder to decide. Hence, I have some questions about your experience if you don't mind answering:
1. When you were traveling around the ports, did you feel they were too touristy? I don't want to limit myself to only exploring typical tourist destinations.
2. How strong were the academics? I know that the main experience comes from the ports, but I still want to learn and enjoy my classes. Did most people take classes seriously?
3. I wanted to clarify this with you. I heard that SAS had a reputation of being a "booze cruise" or a "party boat" in the past. How did you feel about that from your experience?
I just thought that it would be good to consult with someone who has been through the experience. Best, AlyssaRead More
A tsunami smacked me on the head last Tuesday, energy and activity in one exhausting wave, rendering me not quite unconscious but with twitching eyes and a crumbling mental capacity. And I don't mean that in a bad way.
Since the dawn of this website, I've known a radiant being of 6'1" stature and a high verbal capacity. Alexis Reller was my potluck, shipboard roommate on Semester at Sea and an instant friend, even though she found my ship ID photo pre-meeting downright worrisome. Alexis and I continued to galavant around the MV Explorer and the world's ports thinking, "Gosh, how lucky am I to have a partner like this broad," only to disembark post-trip and reunite regularly for the next three years with our friend Garrett Russell.
Since then, we've tackled fifteen European countries in thirty days (on a budget) and experienced ski and road trips alongside each other. She's my ultimate travel pal, one whose friendship is instantly renaissanced upon a simple "s'up" regardless of the time between interactions.
For the last year, she's been teaching English at a university in China. Emerging from the Mother Land in one piece, she carried with her musings on communism, the ample travel opportunities of the expansive land, and the power China can have on her expats. Her first night in Indianapolis, we discussed these - and many other - topics ad nauseam, letting conversations go conceptual at the drop of an adjective. I was thrilled to be back in contact with the person who helped me hone my appreciation for the world and its powers.
Late night chats welcoming later bedtimes and early morning rises squeezing in a sense of productivity; I wired myself with caffeine and racked my brain in the afternoons for food and entertainment ideas in the Indy area. It's rare I seize the day in my own city, and I usually save those occurrences for guests. We rode thirteen miles on bikes, hit up Michael Jackson (a tribute, of course) in concert, and grabbed a beer next to a handlebar mustache at the Rathskeller. And best of all, we coexisted in the same hemisphere - nay, the same room - for six days of social splendor.
Now you know why the website has been a little barren recently.
Opening our Conversation Up
With great friends come great conversations. Instead of using seemingly-unnecessary, elevated text to relay my fun week with a friend, I wanted to pose one of our musings for a more public debate. What's the point of having a blog versus a journal without calling for commentary?
Question: Does the quarterlife period virtually guarantee a change in character, often catalyzed by extreme factors, such as living in China? Or is the quarterlife a time to expect your friend pool to thin out automatically, as we all branch and swerve different ways, ultimately becoming the persons we were meant to be all along or will be formed into?
Alexis felt the country of China does weird things to people, mainly to the expats she knew, but I also felt people go through distinct changes post-graduation from college or simply in this transition period to "job world." It couldn't be just China, based on my own exposure to crises stateside, but I can only imagine what a year in Mao Country can do to a person.
And on that note, I'm sure both Alexis and I have changed since our high school or college years. We could very well be among the population of vastly changed individuals, but for the sake of our conversations, we are never in the wrong. Never.
What's your take on the changes in the quarterlife? Comment below or contact me!
Prepare yourself for a very visual-centric post today. Perfect if you went to a horse race yesterday and are a wee bit feeble this morning.
Gastropalooza: Indian Style
An eclectic video on Indian street food that will either make you hungry, want to go to India, have a headache, or think a musical pig is sneaking up on you. Thank you, MatTV.
The Exciting News
I hope you followed the application process like a fox. If you did, you already know the exciting news...
Not only am I pumped for these two lucky individuals, but I'm so thrilled that a fellow Semester at Sea-goer won the honor! And I'm glad that Natalie whipped out the big guns with her dance moves in both videos. This summer will be a treat to watch.
Travel Your Eyes Though Tibet
Some portraits, some editorial, some snapshots of interesting moments in Tibet; this is one interesting photo essay on China's rooftop from the Matador Network. The portraits are stunning, and I personally find any mountain culture thoroughly interesting.
Naughty Volcano Dirtying the Skies
Did you hear what happened this week with the skies over Europe? This is the culprit.
I can't believe I went to Chicago last weekend and didn't meet up with former applicant and current STA World Traveler Intern, Casey Hudetz! If I happen to make it up north again before this summer, I'm certainly going to make that happen.
And where am I this week? Right about now, I should be waking up from a rowdy weekend filled with galloping horses, tweed, and 90 pound men in pretty silks. Yes, I went to Keeneland to witness all the whinnies and snorts with my childhood friends!
1 Minute or Less Moments: This week on my Nomadderwhere Facebook Fan page I have published three more videos, and are they cool or what?
- The Christmas lunch in Nakavika, waiting to be served as we sit segregated in the community hall...boo
- Garrett, Mario and the twins taking a nap on our floor on Christmas day
- The awesome traditional architecture of the Fijian forts in Pacific Harbour
She's sailed around the world's circumference and traveled alone across the Subcontinent of India. Passion fuels her global pursuits, and today she's investigating women's rights and human sex trafficking in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Let's check her out.
Amanda Ferrandino was a fellow student on the Spring '07 voyage of Semester at Sea who has been doing amazing things ever since the final disembarkation. This series of Interview a Traveler continues to give kudos where they are due...to fellow travelers doing some very cool things.
Her Bio: Sup, traveling dogs! I'm Amanda, guilty of being from Long Island but a NYC girl at heart. I think the best way to bond with people is through dancing. I studied abroad with Lindsay on Semester at Sea Spring '07 then studied abroad in Kolkata, India with IPSL while working in a shelter for survivors of sexual violence.
In May '09, I finished my Bachelors in Anthropology/Sociology and Women & Gender Studies from Pace University in NYC and currently living in capital of Bangladesh on a Fulbright Scholarship studying the independence of women after sexual violence.
"Moon River" is my favorite song. I shaved my head on Semester at Sea. I could live off of trail mix, and I have a slightly odd fear of peacocks.
Have you always been very globally-minded, or was there a life experience that got you thinking and caring beyond American borders?
I never was globally-minded as a youngin'; Long Island was a safe little bubble that didn't need to burst. But my high school teachers led a trip to Italy my senior year in '05 - first time I left the country. I remember sitting in St. Anthony's Basilica in Padua, staring up at the endless ceiling, crying with a good friend, realizing that we didn't know who we were. A little existential, I know, but from then on, I keep running to try to understand the world and myself. The same teachers pushed me to explore the world on my own, so I spent a summer working in the slums of Lima, Peru and that's when my learning turned in activism.
How did you grow to have such an affinity for South Asia, and what calls you back over and over again on your travels?
It's such a simple answer in my heart but expressing it is so hard. It's cliche, but you just have to go to South Asia to understand. Everyone should. The best I can describe it: South Asia is real. Everything is just real - a punch in face of beauty and ugliness, poverty and wealth, color and grey, joy and suffering. There's not a particular moment that represents this; it's more the accumulations of experiences over almost 9 months of living here. South Asia is so loyal to all the positive and negatives of that is life, and that's what makes life, and South Asia, beautiful.
Tell us briefly how you decided to pursue the study of human/women's rights in Bangladesh.
My study abroad program in Kolkata, IPSL, required us to volunteer for credit hours. Working in the shelter with these amazing young girls left such an indelible impression on me that their nickname for me is tattooed on my wrist: paagli didi (crazy big sister). It grew to reflect how, yes, I'm slightly off my rocker and can entertain the masses with creepy renditions of Ursula from the Little Mermaid...but more importantly how I felt this deep connection and sisterhood with these girls. I'd do anything for my own sister, Camille, and I felt the same love and responsibility to help their growth toward independence.
As soon as I arrived home, I shouted "How can I go back?" My university advisor said, "Here, apply for this." Fulbright is, as an advisor said, "a crapshoot" in terms of being selected because there are thousands of perfect candidates...and I was lucky. What's great about Fulbright is that I have freedom to explore all depths of my location, discipline and topic.
What have you discovered about the anti-trafficking programs in Dhaka thus far?
My focus is mainly on sex trafficking, so that's what I'll be talking about here (but please note that labor-trafficking exists too). Most the programs in Dhaka are pretty comprehensive and multi-faceted. They are trying to cover all sides of the issue: rewriting policies (obvious illegal loopholes are taken advantage of), providing awareness and sensitivity trainings to families and communities (it takes a village to raise a child, so let the village stand guard against trafficking; also erasing the 'stigma,' which is another word for "blaming the woman") and offering health, social and legal services to survivors (i.e. What does she need now? She was just raped for two year).
What I am looking at exactly is how the NGOs treat the survivors: are they victims needing to be saved from the evils of the world? Are they sinners in need of redemption? Or are they active agents in their own lives? The last view is the ideal: don't victimize them, and don't blame them - empower them. It's too soon to say for sure, but I think some aid worker's attitude DO need adjusting toward the women. But stay tuned to know for sure.
The biggest factor facing both changes in attitude and trafficking is how taboo sex is. It's an uncomfortable topic anywhere, but especially here, being an Islamic country. Sex is to remain inside the home between married couples; therefore it's hidden and also immoral. Most people don't know about it, and if they do, judgement is placed on them without knowing the situation. Sexual violence needs to be pushed into the public space if it's going to change.
What were some of your greatest fears about living in Bangladesh before you arrived, and where do they stack up now?
I was too excited to start my project, and too sad to leave my perfect NY life to be afraid of Bangladesh. Mostly my thoughts ranged from,"What can my research contribute to the global fight against violence against women?" to "How will I survive a year without penne alla vodka?"
The first few months living here created my greatest fears. It's Bangladesh: as a Westerner, even a well-traveled one, it's scary when you first arrive to armies of armless beggars, stormy seas of angry vehicles and endless types of crime. I never wanted to leave the house past sunset. Now, I go home at 3:00am on a rickshaw and still have the audacity to argue with the driver. I've learned to adapt.
Traveling to a place, and living there is completely different, so I experienced culture shock for the first time. Recognizing it as cultural shock, I had no choice but to adapt. Please note, this involved a lot of crying to my mother, angry that a man on the street couldn't understand me. But I had to feel the emotions then overcome them. My biggest fear now is not learning everything I can in the next 7 months.
Describe a day in the life for you in Dhaka.
Awkward, wonderfully awkward.
My house mother pounds on my door to wake me up and feed me potato parata and eggs. Throwing on a salwar kameez and orna (affectionately named 'boob scarf'), I go to the old, bustling part of Dhaka (as if the whole city isn't either of those characteristics) and work in a center for women who are trying to leave prostitution. They learn crafts and skills and once they receive their certificate, some can work making crafts for the organization's shop.
As an anthropologist, I perform participant observation for a few months until they feel comfortable enough to share their lives in a structured interview. Right now, I sit on the floor with them and help them do their crafts and try to gossip with them in Bangla.
Lunch is always the same: rice, potatoes, mixed vegetables, dal (lentil soup). I complain, but I'll miss it when it's gone. After spending at least an hour in traffic to go 2 km in a baby taxi, I have meetings with different NGOs to make myself known in the women's rights community (it's all 'who you know' here). I love listening to the different programs development organizations offer and will conduct structured interviews in January. Nights and weekends are with my fabulous new friends, getting tea and chilling on someone's roof, attending a few shows of local bands and trying to score illegal substances (i.e. alcohol is illegal for Bangladeshis by Islamic law.)
Any plans yet when you return home in 2010?
HA! I always laugh at that question. The only plan I have is spending 4th of July with my best friends and family at an outdoor concert on Long Island with buckets of wine and cheese. I don't know what I'll learn from this experience, and what I learn will shape what I want to do when I'm back. Then again, what falls in my lap first might be the thing that I'll do. I believe in serendipity; that's the only plan.
Is there an effective way your fellow Americans at home can impact issues of human trafficking globally?
Talk about it. Believe me, I know how it is kind of a downer at parties, but if you don't create space for it, how will it ever change? Read The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam, a first account experience of sexual exploitation and share with people what you learned. And please realize that it could be your neighbor exploiting these young women and girls, either in a foreign brothel or downtown America. People are trafficked to America too.
One reasons for trafficking is the want for exploitative labor: it's our corporations and our people that demand cheap labor or sex as much as foreign countries do. If there is ever going to be an effective way that we can impact human trafficking, it's starting with our own awareness and choices.
Do you have any questions for Amanda about Bangladesh, the Fulbright, or human sex trafficking? Leave a comment, and I'll make sure she gets the question!
He's conquered the slopes of Vermont and explored 23 countries across the globe. He's got the amazing ability to befriend anyone and has committed the next three years of his life to working for others. Let's check him out.
Garrett Russell is one of my favorite travel buddies and my partner on the Nakavika Project. Once again, this series of Interview a Traveler is not just an outlet for me to gab about my best friends; these people are my favorite and worth mentioning because of their amazing character and ambition that spans continents for the purpose of learning and doing something they can stand behind.
His Bio: Garrett Russell hadn't left the country until he boarded the MV Explorer and embarked for a 100-day, 11 country journey with Semester at Sea. Since then he has had the opportunity to visit Europe twice and can now reminisce about his adventures in 23 countries on 4 continents.
Currently residing in Vermont, Garrett is an avid skiier and hiker with a passion for outdoor adventure. With the upcoming winter season biting at his heels, a call to service has changed his mindset and brought his attention toward Fiji.
In the very near future, Mr. Russell will be joining the Peace Corps to teach Secondary Science Education. But before this big leap, he's leaving December 1st to coordinate the Nakavika Project and immerse himself in a Fijian village for 2.5 months.
Why on Earth do you travel?
When I step onto a plane or hop in my car for a long distance trip, I feel a sense of independence and courage. A lot of trips I take are low budget, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, flip a coin to find the next location type trips. Traveling like this gives me a thrill and scares the crap out of my mom.
When you click the "submit" button for that next flight to wherever, how do you justify spending your hard-earned money to see the world?
I work in an environment where people are stuck in one mindset. The monotony of everyday life can suck you in and but also give you the comfort of stability. I want to stimulate my mind and mix things up. My entire senior year of college I saved for my trip to Europe, and everyday I think back to the crazy things I did and the knowledge that I gathered and feel proud. Being young and having a flexible (and seasonal) job is a plus. So spending my money on travel is why it's there.
What are some of your travel goals or "bucket list" entries (if you make such lists or goals)?
I have started making a bucket list, but as the years pass, things change. There are a lot of things I want to do and my mind flies a mile a minute. Most of my bucket list contains things like having a cabin in the mountains, owning a dog...more permanent things.
What was your initial motivation to study science, and what are you reasons now for pursuing this area of study?
I was exposed to the sciences my whole life and proved to be a natural. My junior year of college was a huge turning point where I had no idea what my goals were or why I was a Biology major. I really had to find out who I was first, and travel helped me to do so. Life has a way of choosing your path for you. I never thought I would be a teacher, but in the upcoming fall I will be a science teacher in East Africa. Ask me this question again in 3 years.
Tell us a little bit about the process of applying to the Peace Corps. How did you make the final decision to join, and what did you have to do in order to complete this process?
The Peace Corp was a huge defining decision for me that started out as an excuse to not continue on to grad school and for a lack of knowing what I wanted to do. It took me a year to complete the application, not because its long but because I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing. I feel that I made the decision because I wanted an experience to work independently and make a difference. I finished my application in February 2009 and was accepted in April. After you are accepted you are put on a list for available positions. I had to wait until July 30th to be nominated, which happened to be my birthday. I have finished my medical evaluation and am waiting to hear back. The Peace Corps involves a lot of patience and time. It will be a year and a half or more from the date I sent in my application to the day I leave for training. I hope it's worth the wait.
Where did this Nakavika Project come from? And why do you stand behind it?
This project was thrown into my lap, and within 24 hours I had bought a ticket. Whoa! I know now that I have [an affinity] for traveling and an education, so I have to be productive. This project will give me the chance to work toward a goal, to help people and to learn more about myself and my future. Am I capable of giving up my current life for others in a far off place? The Nakavika project will test me, and I believe in it 100%. It is something that anyone with an idea, a place and the means to accomplish can create for themselves. I hope that people are inspired by our trip and have the courage to travel themselves.
When you consider your future life in the Fijian village, what are you most excited about?
I'm really excited to get to know the people of the village. To play games with the kids, learn to cook and do things their way. When I have traveled before, I have not been able to immerse myself into another culture. I'm pumped!
You're going to miss being home for the holidays for the first time. Why did you allow yourself to miss out, and how do you hope to spend this time abroad?
This is an opportunity of a lifetime, and missing Christmas is not a problem. My family is super supportive and as long as I make intelligent decisions, I have their support...except for last Easter when I ditched the family to climb and ski down Mt Washington in New Hampshire, my brother was quite upset.
I thank my family, roomates and especially Lindsay for supporting me and introducing this opportunity to me.
Do you have any questions for Garrett about the Peace Corps, the Nakavika Project, or skiing? Leave a comment, and I'll have him respond!
I have very mixed emotions about cruise travel. There's the old side of me that remembers fantastic family vacations at resorts and on cruises, memories caked with the residue of absolute joy. And there's the new side, the backpacker side, which silently writhes and struggles in the wake of "money travel" and the foreign concept of the land not being of much interest.
Freshly disembarked from the Sapphire Princess in L.A., I will begin by saying there were great meals, belly laughs, excellent massages and very friendly crew members from whom I reaped beneficial information and fun stories.
Even though I traveled with my parents, an often rocky experience in the past decade of vacationing, the cruise atmosphere made it incredibly easy to enjoy a day without the stress and difficulty of decisions. I'm very glad I got on board for this trip.
There are certain aspects of cruise ships that strike a backpacker as unsavory, commercial and completely unauthentic. What was once a battle against man and every ounce of mother nature is now a floating casino and spa with absolutely no thought to the nautical experience (aside from the slight inconvenience of the ship's roll and maintaining balance in the shower).
The term "cruise director" is synonymous with a lacquered, cheesy grin and a clipboard listing about 70 daily activities, many of which you would never consider if not marooned at sea.
Within the open ocean is a sea of 60-40 couples, incredibly perky cougars on the prowl, families with seven year-old twins and recent divorcees taking back their lives, not to mention a slew of Rascals scooting about. Of course, every cruise liner caters to a different demographic, which accounts for the vast differences among the commercial cruising fleets, but what they all share is the sense of ease that, in the mind of a "bare-bones" traveler, strips the so-called adventure down to physical displacement and cognitive retirement, which is in many cases the whole point.
Not all water travel is cruise travel, however.
Many land-lovers refer to Semester at Sea as a "glorified booze cruise," a term which would never be used to sum up the voyage by an actual participant in the program.
Aside from the fact that drinking is forcefully limited, it's an experience of measuring the Earth's waistband and the notches in between, a chance to see how small the world really is and how connected we land mammals actually are to each other.
It's one with a solid emphasis on the nautical experience, which cannot be ignored when the smaller MV Explorer sends alarm clocks and water bottles flying around cabins with an extreme roll.
It's a shared journey with about 700 other college kids, and even though some of them are unfortunately disconnected to the concepts of self-awareness and cultural acceptance, one can discover amazing insights on board from fellow travelers hoping to be moved by all that movement.
Every week, thousands of new suitcase-luggers board cruise ships for a trip made so often the water highways display hull marks. These are no new trails being blazed.
And it's rarely the destination that makes the difference on these journeys. In fact, the cruise is the reason why people board, not the fact that the ship ports every other day for four hours in Mexico.
But does anyone really still believe in this "off the beaten path" business? There's virtually no land or odyssey undone after these hundreds of thousands of years of human existence, and in the last millennium, such journeys have been documented in detail by the first eyes, the most enlightened eyes, the most knowledgeable eyes, and the newcomer's eyes that relates to the common denominator.
And if you are somewhere no one else has been, chances are you're not going to make it back.
Tour companies boast trips that take paying customers into the unknown - along with twenty other strangers who all have the similar delusion. There are the locations and transportation methods that the majority frequent and utilize, and there are those that self-proclaimed travelers justify as less common and, therefore, enviably adventurous.
Voyages begin every hour of the day that press the boundaries of previous limitations, and what once was a trail blazing experience will soon, if it hasn't already, become a valiant attempt at something potentially more extraordinary.
The Lingering Question
Water travel enabled civilization to spread, discoveries to occur and still manages to remain the most "green" method of mass, extended travel today, and somewhere in this evolution of usage, cruises became the bearers of romance novels, geriatric shoes and illegitimacy as a means to discover the world and the self.
Is it because we backpackers envy and despise those with money to spend without readjusting life plans?
Are we hurt by the devolution of water travel to its Disneyland appeal?
Or do we believe we must bleed for our passionate pursuit of world exposure?
I take a morsel of offense to the approach of the "authentic" often exercised by cruise-goers or unaware travelers. Tourism sustains an incredible amount of countries' economies, and I have to assume a massive proportion of this help comes from the cruise culture in ports of call.
Coastal cities with active harbors have many similarities: overpriced day tours, suave salesmen hanging out by the docks, boardwalks or shop-lined thoroughfares to facilitate the flow of traffic towards the art galleries and jewelers abroad, and manufactured local culture [where blocks away people continue to live their true lives].
To sail away from a port believing the nice man who sold you authentic tequila or Mayan-inspired jewelry was your connection with something real and authentic from that country would be to rob you of the opportunity to see past the cruise port facade and notice the way that man actually lives, the way he views his life and culture.
Authenticity. Who seeks this, and is it possible that there are those who really don't want to find it? Is this what separates the self-proclaimed traveler from the ones who take vacations or [dare I mention the ever-present debate of] tourists?
We meet multi-cultural resort and cruise workers and feel worldly for interacting in a melting pot, but to what extent have we flexed to meet their alterations of personal culture?
Is the point of a cruise the ease and only the ease, and if so, is the cruise destination the cruise itself? If so, I'm not sure I like that.
She's been intimate with an octopus and smuggled scorpions onto a cruise liner under her clothing. She's traverses five continents and now tackles her most recent escapade. Let's check her out.
I've had the stellar privilege of traveling with Alexis around the world. As someone who takes their travel buddy choosing very seriously, I was amazed at the karmic happenstance of scoring a potluck roommate aboard Semester at Sea that became such a dear comrade and friend.
I report this to you not because she's my best friend (or because she could squish me with her trekking shoe) but because she's someone you should know. She's Alexis Reller. She's taller than everyone in China, except maybe Yao.
Her Bio: I'm a 186cm Western female romping around China for a year (6"1' for all the confused Mei Guo Rens, Americans)... that means I fall somewhere between celebrity and freak to the Chinese. I am here to teach English and American Politics and Government at Hebei Normal University in Shijiazhuang, China. My flexible and non-demanding workload make traveling easy: this country is NOT small, but I travel it like it is. My current passions include self-depreciation for screwing up my Madarin tones, consuming gratuitous amounts of noodles and pi jiu (preferably simultaneously) and furthering my love/hate relationship with my 2009 Lonely Planet China.
What sort of music are your students listening to, and does China love American music as much as the rest of the world?
The kiddies do enjoy some American beats, namely the late great MJ. All of the songs they blast on their speakers are quite behind the times; I just heard Elliott Yamin crooning "(Baby I will) Wait For You" and an unidentified American pop hit from the 1970s. I haven't the slightest idea how they get these random songs, especially considering China's well developed illegal downloading cyber infrastructure.
Do you have any other jobs in China other than teaching at the university?
Many foreigners easily pick up extra teaching or tutoring to pick up some extra RMB on the weekends. Some of my friends and I have picked up some "modeling" gigs. I was paid a handsome sum to wear an ugly red dress and hand out flyers at a grand opening for a luxury housing development. My friend Josh received the equivalent of a third of one month's salary to appear at a medical conference in a neighboring province. He was provided with a pre-written speech and an alias: Dr. Jesse McCartney, M.D., Specialist in Prostate Cancer (No, I'm really not kidding). I still have not yet wrapped my head around the Chinese intrigue with foreigners, but until I do, I will continue to accept gratuitous amounts of cash for doing next to nothing.
Maybe the Chinese maybe overuse the word "maybe". Maybe after you are here for awhile you will maybe do the same? Maybe...
What are the most hilarious cultural trends or habits specific to the Chinese?
Everyday in my neighborhood a large truck drives by blaring carousel music a la the Ice Cream Man. Don't be fooled, this truck doesn't bring ice cream. Instead, they spray the street down with water. Apparently, its to control the dust.
They also LOVE foreigners. One of my students once told me, in all sincerity, that he thought Americans hated them, the Chinese. I asked him why he thought this. He responded, "Well, when my friend and I went to Tienanmen during the Olympics we saw many Americans. We ran up to the to say hello and take pictures of them, but they were not friendly to us." The Chinese love foreigners but are super awkward in expressing this feeling. Two months into the semester I still have students that whip out their phones to take pictures of me as I am trying to turn on the computer/write on the board/blow my nose. Reminiscent of the Paparazzi, it can be a little obnoxious. But they really mean no harm. So get ready for your close-up...
Any sticky situations with that infamous Chinese traffic yet?
I've been lucky, but I was once trying to balance a large potted plant in my bike's basket while talking to my friend on the phone, and I nearly ended up squished to the back of a city bus. Not wise choices.
China really has no traffic rules. They have traffic suggestions. Maybe. I also find that biking in China is both a simultaneous stress inducer/reliever. Inducer in that people are forever swerving, cutting me off or playing chicken with me. Yelling obscure English curse words out loud is somewhat of a relief though.
I know you've been all over the country these last few months. What's train travel like?
Train travel in China is not your mother's sport. Many new travelers to the train scene might be a bit overwhelmed. There will probably be odd smells, shirtless men, only squat toilets and people yelling into their cellphones at five in the morning. The Chinese don't often bring things to entertain themselves (ie books, magazines); if you are a Western, be prepared to BE the entertainment, for a little while, at least.
All that being said, traveling by train in China is AWESOME. I have seen hours and hours of beautiful countryside that would have been totally missed if I traveled by plane. Once I learned how to work the system, I learned that traveling by train in China is convenient, affordable and fairly comfortable. I'm also very proud of my train ticket collection (22 tickets in about 80 days).
China seems to have jobs for English speakers out the yin-yang. What's the ex-pat community like?
The ex-pat community in China varies greatly, depending on where you are. Metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai are like playgrounds for foreigners with plenty of decent Western eats and bars. Some smaller cities like Guilin, Kunming and Dunhaung also have thriving expat communities. Most foreigners are here to learn the language, teach their own language and/or have a blast.
But almost as bad as the Ugly Tourist is the Ugly Foreigner: someone who abuses Western Privilege. The Chinese are intrigued by foreigners and thus Westerners are often times given advantages over the locals. This comes in great handy if you have someone escort you to the front of a lengthy queue or you dodge a few cover charges at clubs. But I have seen far too many foreign Beijingers romp around like they own the place, degrading both the scene and the countries they are representing. All in all, I've met some darn cool people.
What home comforts have you found in your city?
There are a couple of grocery stores in my city that sell cheese, baguettes and Skippy peanut butter. Oh yes, and Shijiazhuang also has a Dairy Queen.
Living abroad is not easy, and I remember China being an aggravating and difficult place to travel. How have you learned to cope with the frustrations of ex-pat life?
Pi jiu with my peng yous. (Beer with my friends)
I jest. But only partially.
I have a job that I love in a city that I hate....which happens to be conveniently located on a major train line. I have been here nearly 3 months and this will only be my second weekend in Shijiazhuang (I'm staying to stimulate my economic situation). I travel constantly and I love it. My friends in nicer cities like Beijing and Guilin have not capitalized on this opportunity to roam and are already starting to envy my adventurous ways.
It also helps that I have a strong network back home to support me in times of stress/homesickness. My parents and Reller-tives surely have some frequent buyer discount with the US Postal Service, given the amount of treats they have shipped over the Pacific to me. And even though they are on the other side of the planet, my friends/sisters are still sending me love messages from the bar and coaching me through my law school personal statement (thanks especially to Linsey, Cecilia and Mikala). My coordinates may have drastically changed, but my friends still keep me grounded.
Can you teach us a good phrase in Mandarin that will tickle a Chinese funny bone?
An easy phrase to use is pronounced like "Ren Shan, Ren Hi!", literally meaning "People Mountain, People Sea" or "Oh Cripes, this place is packed." ANYONE traveling in China will inevitably find themselves in a crowded situation at some point. Busting this phrase out will surely lead to some chuckles...and probably rapid Mandarin responses as everyone around will now have assumed you speak their language fluently. Congratulations for momentarily fooling them.
How do you think you'll feel when you return to America in July of 2010?
POOR, sad and hungry. But also proud and grateful for my year in China. And I'm sure it will be wonderful to see all of the family again, too.
One of the first questions that any Chinese person will ask you is, "Do you like Chinese food?" My first few months here I would respond positively through gritted teeth: secretly, I was NOT a fan. I was so sick of fried rice and pork dumplings I once resorted to eating KFC, something I would never crave in the US.
Now, I am in love with the food here. Everything is unprocessed and fresh. In China, I watch my noodles being rolled and pulled right in front of me. My veggies are not chopped until I order. Since food is really cheap here, I can go out with friends a lot. My opinon might change with time, but I am currently dreading my return to US food. Especially when a lunch out with friends costs 8USD for a sandwich and unfrozen soup instead of 40 cents for a giant bowl of family recipe, time perfected, glorious homemade noodles and tofu. Hen hao chi! Delicious!
Do you have any questions for Alexis about China, teaching English, or being an ex-pat? Leave a comment, and I'll get them to her (as she has a terrible internet connection).
On a trip dripping with solitude, I surprisingly felt very little in terms of personal, all-encompassing, heavy-hearted loneliness. Although, those rare times [when I did feel the weight] were compressed into quick moments that were scattered at key points on the trip. New beginning moments. Big change moments. To strap on my backpack and walk out of that Delhi apartment was sad; it was a lonely moment. After being in India for two weeks, I was finally without friends and headed towards the obligatory stops, those which I dreaded but found necessary for sanity's and discussion's sake down the road. I could have stayed in Delhi and done the city right. I hadn't yet seen one monument. I had no idea what the inside of their museums looked like. But I had met some great people, some of which hung over the balcony to watch and wave as I took my first steps from the complex stairwell into the 'turd minefields' known as streets.
Starting to clomp like a Clydesdale in my normal backpacking fashion, I began blazing the trail towards the main chowk before I gazed upwards at Mudi looking down on me. A man of my age with his own business, living in one of the harshest cities in the world, having experienced the mercurial stability of his home state Kashmir during its worst times…what this guy must already know. My knowledge paled in comparison, and though I was walking away to no one and nothing I cared about, I set out to, once again, live another day searching for sustainability, enlightenment, and a good time. I jumped on a train, stared at a blank journal page, and waited for Agra to roll up.
Being immersed in an environment where English is the language minority has its many obvious downfalls for we, the Western travelers. However, because of this acceptance [that I cannot and will never be able to understand those around me], I have learned how to ignore people…really well. I mean if I were to exhibit my skills for casting directors, I'd give it 48 hours before I received a film role as a woman who had eternity's most annoying ghost following her with persistent questions around the clock. I showcased my best work while disembarking the train in Agra. A man spotted my silhouette from a mile away, massive backpack towering over my head on the back, little backpack attached like a pregnant belly in the front, and tried to lead me towards his taxi. Since I knew exactly where I needed to go to find the honest answers, I paid no attention, never made eye contact, and plastered a permanent, unwavering half smile on my face (so he didn't find me completely unfriendly). As it turns out, my best options was to ride with this man, only after, of course, he knew I was aware of the resident scams. His tour offers were friendly but not in touch with the nature of my day…I wanted to get into the Taj and get out...fast.
I had him drop me at the mouth of the crap hole they call the Taj Ganj area, which holds cheap hostels, eateries, and souvenir shops surrounding the Taj gates. Every old man with red, rotting teeth and a cycle rickshaw surrounded me and tried to give me a ride to a café I was searching for. After walking for five minutes with a persistent little boy at my side, trying to sell me a hotel room for $2, I gave into one of the cyclists because, as Neil Young would put it, the heat was hot. The winning cyclist who won my business offered a ride for 2 rupees. I laughed at his audacity to sell me a ride for virtually 5/6th of a cent but gave him the chance to be honest and not take me to the hundreds of stores where he would receive a commission. I warned him with a smile to be honest. "Be honest, please. I'm surprised you would take me for so little when I refuse to go shopping." Since many Indian entrepreneurs don't hesitate to scam and most have big hearts (an odd combination to our way of thinking), it's easy to see through their schemes by reading their turned faces and diverted eyes. I crawled out the back of his rickshaw in pounding traffic, and he pedaled away, calculating his potentially lucrative loss.
And you thought this post would be about the Taj. Well let me tell you...Agra is the pits, and going it alone and on a dirt cheap budget takes a bit of the magic out of going to that most magnificent of human shrines to love. I truly wanted to see the palace but dreaded going there because I knew exactly what was going to happen. This crap. Slimy sales pitches, the grit of scammer India, and the ridicule for being a white woman alone and without the desire to obliviously spend my funds. But this is no gripe session. I had the money to pay for a personal tour around the Taj and the Taj Ganj area. I could have paid one person to tell me the shrine's story, take numerous pictures of me with the domes beyond, and cover both of our elaborate 4 star meals…all for about $25 or less. India is a completely different world where necessity, logic, reason, assumptions, common courtesies...everything is turned around. Not only was I trying to compensate for spending a foot thick wad for my Kashmir trek, but I could see millions living in squalor around me. I could feel a potential pit of sickness in me, based on the knowledge that I was spending thousands to see the world while over 98% of the world could never be granted the privilege. The world doesn't make sense. The world is unfair. At times I acted in ways I knew were completely unnecessary…such as putting myself through unnecessary crap. This is your mind. This is your mind in India.
After finding a place to store my bags and something fizzy to guzzle, I went to the Taj Mahal. I walked in and smiled at the tour groups and visiting Indian families. I graciously said "no" to offers for tours and photographs. I clicked my camera and ignored the glares from surrounding people at my long shorts (I neglected to opt for a costume change that would have made me more common in these parts). The Taj was white and marble; its detail immaculate and mind-boggling for the time period. I could whirl up a big stink about its awe and grandeur, but it wouldn't be an different than the things you've heard before. Pull open your history book or a Frommer's guide for a wordy description. If this stop were one of my firsts on this entire trip, I'm sure I could have said a lot more. But at this point, it seemed to me that the Taj is what it is. It didn't transcend the air of a tourist trap. You know what I say? I want to see it covered in snow. Let's warm the Earth up a little more, whack India's climate around a smidge, and then revisit the big ol' mausoleum. Now THAT would truly be a beautiful vista.
With many hours to spare before my night train to Varanasi, I went out to dinner on a rooftop overlooking the timeless onion domes. I ordered my usual club soda with lime refresher and laughed internally at chance, nostalgia, and fate. A half hour before, I was leaving the Taj when I heard English…and saw polos…and caught in the corner of my eye a handmade paper sign that said "Mom," "Dad," or "Giving"…whichever word was allotted to the India port of call. Yes. I saw SASers. The Fall 2008 voyage of Semester at Sea had docked in Chennai the day before, and the entire country was crawling with American college girls and boys aimed at taking rad pictures of themselves with the historic, the strange, and the desolate with signs that say "Thank you, Mom and Dad, for giving me the World." Darling. Wearing my MV Explorer shirt on that day by chance, I got many lingering stares from kids begging their friends to use their cameras for sunset shots of the Taj and their perfect chicklets. "Is she on the ship?" No, my babies. Don't mind me. I am the ghost of travel future. Carry on, and come find me in a year when the bug sends you back to find your successors. Sitting aloft a rooftop in Agra, I felt like I had done the unthinkable. I was traveling around the world by myself. The two girls sitting near me at the restaurant identified me as a SASer and further affirmed this growing feeling in me. True, I was becoming ungrateful and jaded by this point (damn you, over-stimulated mind!), but talking to budding travel enthusiasts about the accessibility of the world was fulfilling. I felt like I was opening some minds. I was probably just grossing them out by my pizza face and stanky apparel. One of the two…
My on-going ticket to Varanasi left from a non-Agra station. I had to find a way to some city that started with a 'T' about 20km away. Hmm…what would Emily Post do? Put on her white gloves and ask the doorman to hail her a cab, which would whisk her off to the station's entrance where a previously informed, first-class railroad attendant would wheel her hat boxes into a silk carpet lined cargo space and her into a stylish dining car with Kenny G on sax? Ok.
What would a cheap-o do? I'll tell you.
A cheap-o would hail an auto rickshaw, intertwine their arms around both backpacks to avoid drive-by muggings, inquire poker playing bus officials at the station about the next bus out, sit, waiting, next to 80 year old nearly naked, sleeping men, board a bus for $0.20 and proceed to be squeezed into the back corner by a family of women and sleeping children, brace themselves on a 40 minute ride in an awkward position dangerously near a women's airing armpit, crawl over said sleeping children with failing muscles almost dropping 40 lb. bags on their faces, throw themselves out of the bus towards another auto rickshaw already packed with six bodies, and somehow end up at the back entrance of the train station where the scheduled train isn't ready to leave for hours. Man…what a cheap-o will do to save about $5.
Once again…this is your mind…in India.
It may never again be the case that my weekly schedule includes two of the same day, a Groundhog Day-esque situation where déjà-vu is on the agenda. I can easily get lost in every activity and duty I have this week, but times like these need to be relished. We are crossing the International Date Line tomorrow night, and our previous time travel attempts will suddenly be trumped by massive proportions. We've started a trend of contemplating yesterday in order to make sense of today, and in the spirit of doing so, I need to take a minute and remember the massive country I visited just a few weeks ago.
The rain created an unpleasant ambiance outside but an "oh" so glorious one in the cabin as we pulled into Hong Kong. I snoozed until the large, loud buildings burst my dream bubble with their antennas, and I crawled up to breakfast for a priceless view of a very wet city. Unfortunately, this wonderful moment in time came with a bitter tragedy, as we congregated in the Union to learn about the Virginia Tech shootings. To be comforted by the Archbishop was a moving experience that sadly had to occur.
After a talk and a moment of silence, Hong Kong beckoned us to its more authentic locations where the Chinese influence resonates audibly. Garrett, Alexis, and I boarded the cleanest bus we had seen in months to explore the great Kowloon Walled City Park, set up the hill away from the city life. Garden pagodas littered the natural paradise, which provided an arena for many to practice Tai Chi. A leisurely walk down the road led us to a temple complex for Buddhists, Confucians, and Taoists worshippers, and the colors and sounds were invigorating to every sense.
After soaking in the exotic ambiance and hitting up the Ladies market, Alexis and I prepped our lovely selves for a night on the town of all towns. Two hip American ladies in colorful dresses strutted along the waterfront to view the city light up with flare, and then we hopped on a ferry, a bus, and a subway to the nightlife district.
The next morning started a non-stop travel fest where Alexis and I, equipped with massive backpacks, took every form of transportation imaginable, excluding horseback transport. When I awoke the next morning on a sleeper bus with the smell of feet and smoke engrained in my nose, I was in Lijang, China, a beautiful city adjacent to the most spectacular craggy, snow-covered mountain. After applying layers of clothing in the parking lot, we began to tackle a very sleepy city at 5 am.
The old town was at the least picturesque, with long stony streets lined with antique architecture and winding rivers reminiscent of old European cities. It might have been my imagination, but every little stray dog that scurried by looked oddly like a dragon. Taking a moment to enjoy the morning traffic, we stopped at a nearby Tibetan restaurant and ate a breakfast I continue to fantasize about. Vegetarian dumplings and steamed rice…as Dad would have described it as a culinary extravaganza.
The Black Dragon Pool park, on the outskirts of the town, showed us once again that nature reigns supreme over all, with calm ponds that reflected the omnipresent mountains in the distance. I bought an ink painting near the entrance by an artist who paints with his palms and is known throughout Asia for his skill. The depth and mood of the work that I picked was dreary and mysterious, completely opposite of the physical space I was viewing. Monkeys and peacocks ran amuck to thrill the tourists, but my favorite moments did not include the "wildlife" but the cool stones in the shade where I laid back for a nap.
The students painting the surrounding landscapes made me feel I was in the presence of true inspiration Another tasty Tibetan meal later, we were on a five hour bus ride towards the borders of Myanmar, Tibet, and mainland China. The streets of Dali at night were an incredible sight to behold: rooftops lined with Christmas lights, women dressed in mountain Sherpa cultural apparel, and brilliant pagodas lit from beneath. Our window shopping flew to a halt when a sudden rainstorm blew into town for sixty seconds and receded back into the mountains as fast as it had come.
We welcomed the night, anticipating the most pleasant sleep in days, which unfortunately only lasted about five hours because the mountains called our names in the early morning. We took an incredibly bumpy rickshaw ride to the cable cars that scaled up the steep and leafy mountain side, and once we reached the top, market vendors, restaurateurs, and policemen were waiting for us. The views from the mountain were hazy and grand, especially from where we scaled the ancient cliff side dwelling near the summit. The altitude made this five minute hike the most draining length to date, but the destination made all the wheezing worthwhile.
Luck missed us on our descent when they decided to oil the cable lines and cause us to miss our check out time at the hostel. Then came Beijing...
Three months had to pass before I understood that life had not stopped at home. Muted communication and selective media made it nearly impossible to remain intact as my family encouraged a vacation from my home realities. I read today that a fellow high school classmate died on Valentine's Day, and I remained oblivious of this for too long. A close family friend suffered a heart attack while exercising and dropped dead on his own residential street, but my relatives refrained from telling me. Here I sit on the outskirts of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, feeling the hot sun warm my legs, the cool shade brush my jacket, and sensing bitter confusion from the experiences I continue to have.
Did I pay money to escape the sour points in my life that I would otherwise chew on and grow from in order to fill a slight curious void with new social settings and dynamic people? Is the existence of my emotions pivotal to a stable and justified environment at home? This confusion is as hard to swallow as my malaria medicine from breakfast, which still lies lodged in my throat. In this land, so tangibly orderly, they believe that souls live on in others, using them as vehicles out of the chaotic cosmos in which they inhabit. No matter how closely or distantly connected I am to those who die, I feel a sudden loss of purpose and a fire in my throat that lodges until a clearing is paved. Some times my lost sense of worry proves helpful, in instances like last night, when sleeping on the street was the most viable option. However, I take advantage of this power because it drains my unconscious feeling of gratefulness for my own life.
A layer builds between my tangible body and my soul. Heavy falling leaves sound like stickers on the ground, and each pop reminds me I am human. Talib Kwali says life is a beautiful struggle, but it is hard to find beauty in lives being cut short of their potential. For the lucky ones like me, the beauty crawls on us willingly, but when it struggles to find those in need of it the most, I lose faith in its abilities.
In my circle of friends, he was known as Krazy Karl, and his accomplishments were always overlooked by his reckless weave through maturity. Out of the thousands of people that make up my concept of the human race, two less lives stand behind me. Whether they knew their influence or not, they gave me a mental springboard off which I bounced my life goals. The numbers I know continue to whittle down, without stopping in order to let me cruise through this cultural experience untouched. Thankfully, the most important numbers in my life have stayed around to retain the form of my sanity, but as easily as a neighboring heart can fail, so can one directly connected to my bloodstream.
A few washes of water eventually ease my malaria pills down smoothly, but the fire remains. It could be a wandering flame from my internal hearth that diminishes from worldly disappointment, but I hope that the inevitable coming of every death does not take such a toll on my fervor. I need the thoughts to breed appreciation, and hopefully washes of paint can slowly ease the painful residue that this beautiful struggle leaves behind.
Have you had any similar experiences while on the road? Tell me about them by commenting below!
I am sitting on a ribbon that tops the craggy mountaintops of North China, the distant laughter of tourists are drowned out by the rustling dry leaves around me and even though I am breaking a serious law in a Communist country. My means are justified by an ending sense of satisfaction from one of the most visited sites in the world. My left leg dangles over a drop that would surely cement a lasting impression of the Wall's stature, and my neck seeks shelter in the shell of my coat. The zigzagging mountains ahead look nearly impossible to climb, but somehow thousands of years ago, a man thought it wise to add twenty more feet of troubles for intruders. It is snowing upwards with white bud tree petals, and I can gather the faintest scent of their aroma.
As if we don't time travel enough on this globe-trotting adventure, I jump yet again (backwards this time) to moments near Charley Creek when the air was changing and the bare trees led my imagination to reveal its potential. The true magic of the Great Wall is not in its breadth and magnitude, but it is in the crumbles, where these once natural materials attempt to return to Earth and give in to the wind.
I, in my man-made coat, sit sheltered and sniffling from the weather that chills and astounds me. I, too, will one day crumble, hopefully after being something grand, and return my natural essence to the world that provided me the chance. I am one of few who can sit where I am, but this sensation can be acquired within a foot's step from a front door or a sidewalk. This nature is the same everywhere, but it is the man that transforms the land that looks on.
Just as the gutters jut out from the vertical surface, so does my left foot, now asleep from neglect. The mountains echo back every noise from the city below, as if to say "that car horn was annoying…here, you listen and tell me it's not." How long would it take to sit here and feel uninspired, to do something great, to live outdoors, to sense the world, to feel like a part of the human race. I guess that would be until the next tourist walks by and ruins your moment in history.
The chaos has fully set in. Lauryn Hill and her soulful ballads mark my release from a hectic two days of studying, exams, and all that shipboard hooplah. It really is a shame that we spend such a ghastly sum of money for an incredible school experience, and the most distracting element of the trip is the school part.
It has been nearly a month since the hazy view of Chennai rose from the horizon, and just as the stale smell dissipated from the ship, so did India's potential for immediate digestion into my cultural bell. The speed in which I had to work, rest, and prepare for the next new experience caused me to sweep its colorful memory under the rug, and because of this fatal gesture, my mind has slipped into the Semester at Sea shock state (also known as SASS).
Days at sea lack their former luster, new countries leave me confused, and beads of sweat explode out of my pores at the mere mention of a paper due date. I firmly stand on the opinion that this voyage of discovery cannot be experienced with open eyes unless one gets the opportunity to chew on every memory, every instance of fun and hardship, every incredible sight.
I have yet to review the hundreds of pictures I took aimlessly from Malaysia or Vietnam, and it only occurred to me, while wandering through a cave in Ha Long Bay, that I should stop clicking and start looking. It is a true tragedy when someone receives such an opportunity [to travel and encounter millions of different people, most who would never get this chance] and does not realize its potential to shock the eyes, shatter past views, and construct new truths that open the eyes even wider.
As if the first day of my homestay didn't evoke intense emotions concerning the lives of these people and my own in comparison, the trip consisted of an entirely new itinerary to challenge and amaze us.
The morning was fresh and dripping with tea and street noise, and no amount of sleep deprivation could keep four American girls from waving at pedestrians and recalling Disney musical favorites on the bumpy drive. A temple complex appeared at the merging of three rivers, and I surrendered the idea that I could capture every unbelievable sight that walked in front of my lens. Instead, I settled with four or five certain portfolio entries as every corner offered me an incredible view into the lives of the colorful Hindis. I mimicked every motion of our guide in her veneration for the idols; however, I conveniently slid out of the way when elephant blessings provided a nice snot slick to all who offered their heads.
Now that we had tackled Hinduism, the textile industry needed to be covered if we were going to command India by midnight. Speedy, smiley weavers with impeccable skill magnetized us to the cashier with rugs, throws, and placemats in hand, but not until I spent the majority of the time watching rows of thin cotton accumulate on ancient looms. The street life whirled around us as we piled into the motor coaches with our wrapped winnings in tow, but we spun the dust upward to squeeze in another school before lunchtime.
After months of constant smiles, I experienced a surge of sensations that led to confusion and, eventually, tears when the next visit included a student body struggling with the crippling effects of polio. Our welcome came in the most traditional manner, and once adorned with the appropriate jasmine garnishes, the children began to impress us with their dedication to prayer, their grace in traditional dances, and discipline in the art of karate. My state of confusion arose after the first recitations resonated throughout the room, and I observed the tightly squeezed eyes and unwavering voices of one hundred souls. I encountered the same situation the day before, but the presence of physical disabilities led me to see them in a new light. This enraged me.
I couldn't understand why I felt sad for children who seemed more excited and happy than others and tried to view them with the same eyes. Regardless of my mindset, these children were incredible and vivacious, and after we exhibited our high caliber skills with the hokey pokey, the school's lead dancer took interest in me from my stellar performance. I wish I could have retained all the Tamil they taught me.
After lunch and a table top nap at our last school, we witnessed yet another beautiful dance number, and at its conclusion, all the Western ladies approached the stage for a shot at traditional Hindi dance. Every sight I could ever hope to witness was a part of our eventful two day itinerary, and I left exhausted, dirty, and content on a night train back to Chennai.
As we floated away from the jellyfish infested waters of the harbor, my wallet was lighter, my new goods littered my bed, and my mind felt forever altered by this country I will probably never see again.
How would you have reacted at that school? Tell me your impressions of India in a comment below!
The brilliant skies of a port sunrise illuminated our cabin before we cleaned up our mental messes from India, but regardless of your readiness for another mind blowing experience, they rise out of the horizon and thrust you to land. Malaysia was a 270 degree sight to behold, where billowing clouds transformed into neon palettes that decorated the mountains in our path. High dock prices kept the Explorer in the harbor, so we boarded our own lifeboats to tender onto Penang Island. City buses helped us avoid the taxi rush and dropped us near shopping malls and street markets, where raw fish and chicken carcasses dampened the mood to shop for the local candy and pretty trinkets. Alexis and I shocked ourselves with a multi-hour stay in a massive indoor mall, equipped with a Starbucks and internet cafe. Reasoning that we would be one with nature the next day silenced any internal disappointment immediately, and we continued to spend money.
Trishaw rides, local beers, and night markets gave us our first cultural taste later that evening, but we cut the evening short in order to rest up for an early morning bus ride to the Cameron Highlands. Anna, Laura, Alexis and I caught a tattered old bus and discussed life goals before the bumpy ride rocked us to sleep. We took Lonely Planet's suggestions and set up camp at Father's Guesthouse, where the sound of rain drops on the corrugated steel roofs won us over. The mountains wrapped a misty haze around our relaxing day, and we soaked up the lush land we so often miss at sea.
What the city of Tanah Rata lacked in activity, it made up for in ambiance. We planned for a "Mossy Forest Hike" the next morning to quench our flora and fauna cravings and spent the rest of the night tasting Malaysian table wine, playing new card games, telling stories, and watching Alexis track jaguars outside. We neglected to tell her this was not jaguar country but tiger territory.
Our adventure began with the sunrise, as we piled into a van and drove up to the highest point in the Highlands. The wind was brittle on the lookout tower, as was the rusty tower itself, but we braved the cold and the tetanus to take our scenic photos. The mossy ground gave with every step of the hike, where we had to hurdle logs, weave around bamboo, swing around branches, and long jump frequent mud pits. Every few minutes, we would reach a clear patch that revealed a breathtaking view of the tea plantations, but the mood heightened from serene to exhilarating with the discovery of a tiger paw print.
The BOH tea plantation wrapped around every hill in sight, and the museum café that overlooked the fields was a perfect location to sip on a cup of fresh caffeine. Instead of heading back to the city, we asked our guide to drop us on the side of the road, just to make the trip a little more interesting. Strawberry, bee, butterfly, and rose farms littered the mountain roads, and we couldn't pass an opportunity to buy cheap and fresh produce at the little markets. Four American girls walked down the country roads in Malaysia, with bags of tomatoes, dried strawberries, and jam galore. While we walked back towards Tanah Rata, I had an incredible urge to hitchhike in the back of a pickup truck full of chickens, but my search for the perfect candidate went unsuccessful. Instead, we settled with the city bus that we flagged down by throwing our bodies in its path.
Only after a little shopping and dinner did we get back on a return bus to Penang, and I spent the five hour ride day-dreaming and giggling at Alexis sleeping with mouth open wide. We called it an early night in order to maximize our last day shopping and wandering aimlessly. After a stressful tendering situation, where I nearly received dock time, I stood on the back deck watching the lights of the city dissolve into the sea.
In short, Malaysia was a success.
Of all the times I have celebrated the grand holiday of April Fool's, never have I been in such a vulnerable location, where the Captain and his crew have incredible potential for scaring the living daylights out of us. Doctor Matt claimed to quarantine two students for leprosy, Dean Ron (the voice) mentioned a nearby cyclone, and I have a feeling the sly Captain Jeremy will cut all power to the ship suddenly without explanation, just for giggles. He draws on his eyebrows; he's capable of any slimy deed. It's all fun and games until someone contracts the plague, falls overboard, and dies in a tropical storm. The hallways are continuously regaining their fresh smell after the stench of Chennai and its rancid waters. Every student has a designated pile of "India clothing" in their rooms that they dare not mix with regular dirty laundry. True, the big city pollution left a permanent memory in all our noses, but as India disappeared in our wake, it was not our olfactory abuse that dominated conversations but the diverse array of wild experiences and wonderful people that we met in those five short days.
Alexis and I brought some much needed excitement to the anti-climactic harbor sunrise of Chennai by wearing turbans and striking Yoga poses on the top deck. The Indian bureaucracy and their ridiculous immigration rules gave us many good hours of sleep before we could clear the ship, which was immediately followed by some rickshaw fun.
It would have been helpful to know a little Tamil, because when we said "street market," I guess we actually said "the most expensive market in Chennai." Five costly shops later, we realized our driver received commission for dropping us off at these Nordstrom-esque locations. Anger slowly began to devour our little group, but arriving at a tasty Indian restaurant quickly made us forgiving people again. It was at our first lunch that we noticed the head bobble, the Indian way of saying yes, O.K., it's all good, whatever you want, etc.
More shopping lead to extreme exhaustion, which we decided to medicate with a nighttime visit to a chic coffee bar called Mocha. It is here that I will warn you of an ancient Indian proverb: I wear capri pants; therefore, I contract malaria. My leg was a succulent network of bloody tributaries to those silent killers.
The next day, two Lindsays, a Meg, and a Sarah were graced with the company of a well-mannered, good-hearted rickshaw driver, who became our practical guide to the city and told us to pay only if we were truly satisfied. That night, after buying out the textile industry, we popped sleeping pills and rode the night train to Erode.
Up until this port, any countryside we have seen could have resembled an American landscape, but India's farmland was nothing like the corn-filled plains of Northern Indiana. Our home stay was in an upper-middle class house juxtaposed with a school that resonated with praying children. Welcome leis and bindis gave us our first cultural bite, but it wasn't until we found ourselves in a line of chairs facing a sea of young faces that we felt a wave of difference between our two lifestyles.
They proceeded to pray for the prosperity of the world and meditate as a school, while the foreign onlookers discreetly took pictures. The children were respectful in every sense of the word, and it was refreshing, a treatment we didn't deserve. Later, when the teachers left them to their own devices, mayhem restored in their little bodies, and dust was flying up from their pattering feet.
We saw weavers, sugar cane farmers, and carpenters, all before the lunch hour, where the tables were sprinkled with a vast array of savory foods and no silverware. It was an odd experience to which we quickly grew accustomed.
After a mid-day siesta, our group departed for the local markets, and never have I felt more like a celebrity, or an outcast, as I did in the fruit market, where eyes constantly followed our every move as though we were a new species or life form. Apparently, white people don't hit up the rural Indian food markets often. I found no interest in shopping for discount sarees when I could sit on the street corner and watch this exotic world go by, where bulls lead carts of grains down the street and half the shoppers lacked foot apparel.
Dinner at the home of our hostess exceeded expectations yet again; however, it was the Hindi lesson and henna/Western gift exchange later in the evening that satisfied our cultural cravings. One day in the little city of Gobi felt like many, and we could have left on the train that morning with ear-to-ear smiles, but a whole new day still awaited.
Any questions about traveling through Chennai and rural India? Comment below!
My transformation began with the first step off the gangway. The equatorial sun toughened my already sun-kissed skin, pollution darkened my nostrils, mosquitoes feasted on my leg, and the stench of the city penetrated deep into the fibers of my clothing. Any Westerner would experience this discomfort with a visit to Chennai, but this is not the transformation I am talking about Now I sit under a canopy with yellow spices under my fingernails, jasmine in my hair, red and yellow pigment on my forehead, seasoned air in my lungs, dirt covering my bare feet, and the sound of a thousand school children resonating in my ears. These sensations are by choice and this decorative lifestyle I once found tacky is gaining my appeal.
I shot one hundred and fifty photographs, and the best ones were those that the school children took when I let them push the shutter. Vivacious curiosity captured even through the numbing effect of the flash. This moment is beyond storybook…it's time travel. Instead of bringing popular inventions and artistic prints like Marco Polo, I can only offer my worldly stories and a deck of IU playing cards. A coconut just crashed to the hard dirt ground, splashing its milk onto nearby flowers…THAT moment was storybook.
Smiles from old man gardener make me comfortable, but his eventual hover over my writing does not…ok, he just left.
I'll never be further away from home as I am now (unless I follow Sally Ride's footsteps into space), and it just shows that physical proximity has nothing to do with proximity in the mind. Home is a constant thought, here, in the land of colorful gods and caste systems. I can only imagine that when I return, India will come back to me in vivid memories
How will I change when I go back to my SUV, my air-conditioned dream home, my wasteful lifestyle? Will I be a snob with a knowing smirk and exclusive adventures that no one wants to hear? Will I drop every modern convenience and result to an ascetic life?
Never mind my literary fluff because I know what will result from these priceless journeys…a mind that give me confidence to test and question. The old gardener just asked if I ate lunch with my hands…yes…and it was good. Earlier today, I followed a band of drummers, adorning a welcome lei and a bindi, and with the turn of a corner, one thousand girls and boys came into view, sitting "Indian style" facing 10 empty chairs. Ten Americans stood in disbelief before taking a seat of honor. I could imagine multiple SAS people who would laugh at the situation or find it ridiculous, but as these children sat meditating and praying in unison for the prosperity of the world, I found great pleasure being in their company and not the shipboard community.
These children are many and fill this country with humor as vibrant as their sarees. It could be wonderful to fill your days with smells of wet soil or the sweeter sound of classroom recitations in unison, like the old gardener (who just offered me a handful of freshly picked berries). I can always have that option later in life, but for now I will search for this feeling deep in the bowels of overstuffed and under-cultured Indy, where at least I can enjoy my own family instead of the idea of others. I'll take it as a sign that I just ate the last offering of flowers from the gardener.
Just putting my thoughts into words...what do you think? Do you ever have similar musings?
"The stretch between Mauritius and India will be our worst waters of all." We are cruising at a speed of 12 knots on an ocean reminiscent of cobalt blue Murano glass. Whoever scared me into thinking this would be a week spent taped to my mattress is getting their room teepeed. As Alexis and I sat watching last night's sunset off the Garden Lounge deck, our non-existent wake and the slow ripples from the bow barely distorted the brilliant palette of colors that painted the ocean. I mentioned to her that our vista reminded me of a computer desktop background, a sad comparison that told me I am sorely nature deprived. It was a glorious and tranquil moment in time quickly ruined by the evening announcements.
Every day, San Diego gets closer and the pain of separating from the MV Explorer, from daily brilliant sunsets, and from my closest globe-trotting comrades becomes a burning thought, especially when my experiences keep getting more interesting and memorable.
Mauritius came into view around lunch time last Thursday, later in the day than we expected thanks to some rocky, nauseating waters slowing us down. After a dramatic turn of events within our travel group, Alexis and I exited the gangway with backpacks bulging and the mottoes of "Carpe Diem" and "Let's leave every American in our dust."
We did just so as our taxi cap plummeted us into downtown Port Louis and plopped us on a street corner, a.k.a. the bus station. As he urgently pointed towards a bus that predated Rosa Parks, we realized we had no Mauritian Rupees to pay the fare; however, in a moment's time, the nearby electronic store (with a non-existent inventory) transformed into a friendly American Express office, changing six of our USD into Rs 200 and giving us the benefit of the conversion doubt. Luck be these ladies so far.
An hour and a half ride (that definitely wasn't an express route) left us on a street corner of Mahebourg, and juxtaposed to our gawking eyes and aimless walking, the surrounding stray dogs looked like they were running errands. Once again, the words "Blue Bay" and a finger point were all we needed to eventually find our way down the stretch of rentable bungalows.
It only took four price inquiries, multiple tours, and a mile of browsing to find the gorgeous "Chantemer" and her wonderfully psychotic landlady, Ms. Indra Tinkler. All we had was all we needed: a queen bed, a clean shower, and a door leading straight out to powder white sands and views of neon green mountains. It seemed all too easy to plan a snorkeling trip and rent bicycles around the peninsula, especially when travel guides like Patrick are willing to drive to the nearest ATM just for convenience's sake. Sugar cane fields and roads leading right into teal waters made our leisurely ride a dream, which we finished with a grocery raid and a beachfront picnic.
Our American girl charm attracted a nearby Englishman staying in our chateau, and we shared Mauritian sundowners, life goals, and humorous accents until the wash of a trillion stars covered our rainbow sky. As any female American college student knows, evenings out are most efficiently enjoyed if teamwork is the number one priority, and work together we did. Thanks to a rental car, a local child with a Mohawk, an odd deck of cards in conjunction with the new game of "Walrus," a thorough impression of the Incredible Hulk, and our sly skills of persuasion, we experienced an unforgettable night that left us richer and fulfilled, laughing under the stars.
A few hours later, the sun came out along with a few malarial mosquitoes, but nothing could break our gazes with the fluorescent clouds that dwarfed sunrise sailors. Our private beach was littered with neighbors raking their backyard beaches and walking their rascally dogs, one of which darted to us and set up camp in my lap until others arrived for a sniff. Alexis, being the native San Diegon that she is, spent hours in the tide pools, searching for stranded animals and throwing starfish at the ocean and myself. I was not amused and photographed from a distance.
The day had come for us to pack our bags and depart from this island of fantasy and merriment, and, with an entire free day upon us, the last thing we wanted to do was rush back to a shipload of sun-kissed boozers. Instead, we went sailing. Along with the Englishman and his father, a Korean couple, and two local sailors accurately described as "pirates", we boarded the Renaissance and headed out, albeit hesitantly, on our three hour tour. The irony of our miniature voyage magnified with the passing of a one hundred year old shipwreck and the skipper's decision to jump off for a swim out to sea.
We arrived back at the marine park, where our previous snorkel trip took place, but our personal pirate proved to be an invaluable resources as he swam alongside us, grabbing wildlife for better viewing. I understood how crazy he actually was when the removal of his snorkel preceded two minutes of hole gouging and the emergence of eight long tentacles. Ink sprayed continuously until he slapped the angry octopus on the stomach of my roommate and told her to swim back. I remained a good fifty yards from the gelatinous creature, but this didn't stop the pirate from thoroughly scaring me at a vulnerable moment while climbing into the boat…twice.
A stop at the most beautiful beach imaginable gave our tour a magical and humorous turn as the ocean's massive waves sent us spinning across a pure white plane. On our way back, the crew couldn't help but scare the Korean woman a few more times with mock disaster before coming to shore in front of the Chantemer.
Our new sense of satisfaction topped off an incredible entire journey, and it was time to cast away from our vacation destination. A penny-pinching dinner on board gave us some dollars to spend on an enjoyable St. Patrick's Day celebration, where we reflected each detail of our adventure over Blue Marlin beers and basked in the glory of each accomplishment. Once again, the world's inaccessible, unfriendly, foreign façade lifted to let these American girls through.