Sunday, April 22, 2018

Finishing up the voyage (7 years later)

Well, we all know time flies, and so much life happened in the time since we sailed around the world in 2011. This post is dedicated to finishing out the Semester at Sea voyage experience, and getting to move on to present day adventures. (And yes, I know, this is the longest post ever.)

The final three places we visited after Vietnam were:

China, Taiwan, and Hawaii, before our final destination of San Diego, California.

(Luckily, I had a saved post on China that I never published, so all I had to do was cut and paste! Here it is...)

In an effort to catch up on some of the travels that I didn't get to capture here from Semester at Sea, and also to re-live some of these memories since the prospect of international travel probably won't be a reality for a few more years now that we have little one in our lives... I am attempting to dig back into the depths of my memory and share some of the most significant moments we experienced for the remainder of our voyage.  The next stop along the way was... China!

We sailed up to Hong Kong, and I was immediately taken by the skyline --- it was very Manhattan-esque with a distinctly Asian feel.  Later in the evening we would enjoy an incredible light show of all the sky scrapers.  For some reason, arriving at the Hong Kong port felt very 'home'... I think because the actual port itself was somewhat reminiscent of the malls in Singapore, with shops and Asian bakeries.  One neat thing about our time in Hong Kong and China was that although the ship docked in Hong Kong, we had the option of traveling over land and meeting back up with the ship in Shanghai... so we decided to do just that!  This would include multiple modes of transportation to get us to Beijing, because we wanted to go to the Great Wall, as well as see the sights in Beijing. 

Our first task was to connect with one of my colleagues from back home who happened to also be traveling in Hong Kong with her fiance... so we met up with them, and got the subway station, and headed to lunch--- our first stop - Crystal Jade -- it was sooo good.  It's actually a chain restaurant, and had some really amazing food - including xiao lim bao (pronounced shaow - lim - baow), which is a soup dumpling.

We later did some sight seeing, and went to Ngong Ping 360 - a large buddah statue that required the most picturesque sky trolley ride I've ever been on - through the mountains with not a sight of city life around.  Later in the evening met up with them again for an incredible szechuan dinner, that featured red hot szechuan peppers in many of the dishes, with a deceivingly hot soup.  It was hot, but it was good.  Another cool thing we did in Hong Kong, we buckled and despite our best effort to avoid chains and replicable things from the US - we did go to Hong Kong Disney - and oh, it was SO much fun.  The park was a lot smaller, but very similar in feel and vibe.  Space Mountain was the only major ride... and again -pretty spot on.  The HK Mickey and Minnie characters were awesome.  Mark was a little disappointed because the turkey legs in Hong Kong did not live up to the super-sized one's they have in Anaheim.  The HK version was almost like a chicken leg (no growth hormones there). In the end - we had a fabulous Disney day, even though it was raining.

From Hong Kong, we took a flight to Beijing and visited amazing landmarks, Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven, Wangfujing, and the Summer Palace. There were lots of night-time street vendors with bugs and various delicacies on a stick. We also had a blast with the blaring techno music out of many of the stores. One playlist was so awesome, we went inside to see if they could tell us where to buy the music. Due to a little getting lost in translation - we ended up paying $20US for the shop owner's flash drive full of music. It was a great deal - because there were over 50 songs, none of which we would ever be able to find.

We also went to the Great Wall of China - which was amazing. There are many different places along the wall that you can visit, and the one we went to, Mutianyu, had a 'lift' to get up to the wall, and a tobogganed down. Another awesome memory from our time in Beijing, we stayed at the Novotel Peace Hotel, which was really nice. We asked the concierge for a recommendation of very good, and very authentic food, not Americanized. So he took us through the back of the hotel, through the kitchen into an alley. Across the alley was a dumpling restaurant, that definitely looked like a hole in the wall. We couldn't read the name of the restaurant, nor anything on the menu, but that was literally one of the most memorable meals on our trip. The dumplings were amazing, and we came back another time before leaving.

Our last stop in China was Shanghai. We flew there from Beijing, and reunited with the ship. Shanghai was great - the skyline was amazing, backdoor shopping was fun, and food was good. I wish we had more time there, but because we went to Beijing, we couldn't squeeze it all in.

I know there were many more awesome times, but I've gotta wrap this up :)


Our unexpected port, in lieu of Japan because of the tsunami, was Keelung, Taiwan. I remember we got off the ship on a rainy day and wanted to make the most of this port. The first stop, buying tickets for the train to get to Taipei. We stopped in a convenience store, and I remember it vividly, this was the moment we discovered Hi-Chew! One of our friends bought it, and said we all had to try it. Before we knew it, we all pretty much bought out their inventory of Lychee and other incredible flavors.

We got to see Chiang Kai-shek, a famous memorial park with gardens, and went to the top of Taipei 101 an extraordinarily tall skyscraper. I remember we got a room in Taipei and then went out karaoke-ing in a private room until all hours of the night. It was so. much. fun. We also discovered Lychee Beer at a streetside bar/restaurant, and it was as delicious as it sounds.

The night markets were amazing - so many delicious foods, and delicacies. It's a distant, but distinct memory. One favorite moment was walking by some of the store fronts at the night market in Keelung. We saw one store - that was literally the narrowest store we've ever seen - almost like a long walk in closet. It was brightly lit - with umbrellas on one side, and, wait for it.... chicken feet on the other side. Cooked chicken feet to be exact.

Our last day in Taiwan, we took a SAS sponsored trip to Taroko National Park and Gorge. A cool perk, we got to return to the ship from our trip past the boarding time. It was a stunning place with waterfalls, scenic views, and a beautiful shrine (see below). Although this port was not on the original itinerary, we were all grateful for the opportunity to visit another country. Being our final international destination before heading back, it's safe to say we all soaked in the time being in Taiwan.

Takoro National Park

  Chiang Kai-shek


By this point in the voyage, we had literally been around the world, and being back in the US still felt like we were away. We stopped at the Big Island, and did some sightseeing, visiting with a local colleague who took us to University of Hawaii at Hilo and other key highlights. The landscape, food, people, all were stunning, and it was super fun to get to explore the island with friends. We had a fun last night off the ship, hanging out and playing games.

Another note - it was quite sobering to be on a land with so much rich indigenous Native Hawaiian history, that was technically part of the United States. I think at the time, there was so much more we could have been prepared for with this port, including the royal family on Oahu, and the seizure of the state.  Since our voyage I have continued to learn about the history of the islands and their native culture.


It was surreal to be home. Our bags had expanded with relics to remember and give to others as proof we actually did travel. It felt like in an instant, all of our travels had disappeared, nowhere to be found. But at the same time, we were very different and impacted personally. There were many tears as we sailed into our final destination - the community that was built on the ship was awesome. Students, faculty, staff, lifelong learners, we were all one when we were on the ship. We went through a lot on the voyage both physically and personally. Our first stop for food back on the mainland US was Lolita's Mexican restaurant - there wasn't a lot of Mexican food around the world. Even though this post is 7 years late - I can still feel, see, and remember how it felt to return to a familiar place feeling so different. I guess that's what travel does - it reminds us of who we are and how we are connected. It gives us perspectives that would be impossible to teach otherwise. And, its a nourishment to the soul to discover and engage in new ways.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Good morning Vietnam!

[Disclaimer: So, although I didn't get the chance to finish blogging about SAS in real time - 2 years later I am finally posting this piece that I actually wrote while we were in Vietnam (approx March 2011)... I just edited the end. :) ]

Sailing up the Saigon River to Ho Chi Minh City (known as Saigon before communist regime came into play), was amazing.  It was interesting to see how similar it felt to sailing up the Amazon River, but with Vietnamese boats and fishermen, rather than Brazilian.  This was my second visit to Vietnam, I visited the north back in 2007 with my classmates (see previous blog posts).  Saigon was definitely a different, more modern feeling city than Hanoi.  Since I have already seen HaLong Bay and SaPa, we decided to stay in the south.

We were fortunate to be traveling with our good friend, Annie, who is Vietnamese and had a family member in Saigon.  I feel like in our time there, I had the privilege of traveling like a 'local' and experiencing all kinds of great foods.  Service was also a focal point for our time here.

Our first meal off the ship was at a cute little place with a deceivingly westernized name, called "Wrap and Roll" (see yummy freshness above:).  Annie ordered for us and we had 3 different kinds of spring rolls, roasted chicken cooked in banana leaves, and a few other delicious things.  Saigon had a distinct Westernized feel.  In Hanoi in the north, I remember definitely feeling the French influence in the architecture and in the city layout, but Saigon felt much more cosmopolitan.  There were high end stores like Chanel and Louis Vuitton, modern malls, an oversized colonial post office, a replica of Notre Dame (see photo below), a backpackers district, and the all encompassing Ben Thanh Market. This market was a huge warehouse with hundreds of little stalls selling everything from fabrics and shoes, to candies, dried fish, and North Face backpacks.

On our second day in Saigon, we got to meet up with one of our friends from California who happened to be in Vietnam for business.  We met up for breakfast at a place called, Pho Hoa Pasteur, which is apparently where pho (a vietnamese soup) was made popular.  I've had pho before, but never for breakfast, and that is actually when most people eat it in Vietnam.  It was delicious and so authentic in a hole in the wall type place.  Here's the evidence...

The following day we went to a center called the Christina Nobel Foundation, which is a program for street children, and they have a variety of facilities.  They have a live-in center, a medical clinic, school, art program, and other locations throughout Vietnam.  This was one of the most organized and best kept programs I've seen.  We were there because our friend Annie made a connection with them, and through her involvements with Freedom in Creation, we were able to have the children in the art class paint some pictures and create a poster.  It was a great experience, and although there was a major language barrier, we were still able to elicit the smiles and hugs that melt your heart.  That night we went with a big group of friends to dinner at Nha Hang Ngon, which was a sister restaurant of one I loved in Hanoi.  It's an open air restaurant with French decor, and authentic Vietnamese food stalls lining the perimeter of the restaurant.  The food was amazing, and Annie and her cousin just ordered a bunch of different things for us.  We also did our fair share of karaoke in Vietnam... which was such a fun group activity with the private rooms.  So fun!

The next day we went on a Semester at Sea sponsored service trip to a school in a more rural area for children with disabilities and who are hearing impaired.  We rotated through a few different classrooms and played with them during recess.   When we were outside playing, these two little girls came up to me and wanted to take pictures.  I soon realized that they were twins, and they so reminded me of my own nieces whom I missed tremendously.  I showed them my nieces pictures, and they looked at each other and laughed as they realized they were twins too.  It was definitely a moment I won't forget.  I let one of them use my camera and she wanted to take a picture of me -- I'll never forget that - I was wearing my green SAS shirt giving a peace sign.  She was so excited to get to use my camera.  This 'service' experience and the other brought back memories of my dissertation research and the idea of ethics in service.  While I don't consider this a true service experience, I think it was more of an exchange that was still beneficial to both parties.  The teachers and principal at the school were extremely proud and excited to share with us all of their projects and initiatives.  At the end of the visit, they invited us to buy some art created by some of the children as a fundraiser for the school.  We could not resist.

The replica of Notre Dame in Saigon

Overall, Vietnam was great and I feel like we got to have a unique experience with a good friend.  She hadn't been back to Vietnam in a number of years and it was fun to see the sights and foods from her perspective.  This was the only country I've been to before on this voyage, but I had never been to Saigon.  On an unfortunate note, for the first time in all of my travels - I got robbed in Vietnam.  It was our last day, in my last taxi to the ship... I was leaving the Ben Thanh shopping area, and my friend and I decided to separate because she had another errand to run and I had felt safe getting around.  I looked at the cab driver in the mirror, and I had a gut feeling (always follow your gut!!!)  He didn't really smile when he picked me up, and I knew something was up.  I only had the specific amount of dong left to get back to the ship, and I saw that the meter was skipping... as others complained about being scammed like this earlier in the week.  So I confronted him, and after a heated and somewhat scary exchange, he ended up with my iphone.  I had pulled it out to show him the numbers of $ that I had on me - and handed it to him to see (as I had been doing while shopping).  He took it, started yelling at me in Vietnamese, and tried to grab my bags.  Luckily we were parked right outside of the port, so I got out of the cab after giving him all the dong I had left.  I didn't realize that he had my phone until I got to the ship.  I am lucky that it wasn't a worse situation, and ultimately, it was just my phone and a bruised ego.  I survived and found it somewhat freeing to not have a phone (to the point that after we returned, I stalled on getting a new one!)  Overall, despite this incident, I really enjoyed this experience in Vietnam.  The food was amazing, the sights were sensational, and the service experiences provided more awesome opportunities for reflection and growth.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sensational sights of Singapore

Marina Bay, Singapore

It's amazing how time is flying on this journey.  We have such a warped sense of time to begin with - adjusting our clocks forward every few days (and today is our 2nd April 12th because of the international date line).  It feels like our time in Asia - incredible as it was - went by in the blink of an eye.  When I last wrote, we didn't know if we'd still be heading to Japan, and soon thereafter it was decided that we would not be able to stop there.  The alternate options were South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwain.  Although I was wishing with all my might that we would get to visit the Philippines, ISE decided that our best and safest option would be Taiwan, so we added that to our itinerary.  We are now currently on the Pacific Ocean on our way to Hawaii, but I still want to try and capture the experiences and poignant moments we had at each stop… so since I left off with India, I'll pick back up with Singapore.

Singapore.  What an amazing city.  We came into the port in the early morning and got to see the sunrise over what appeared to be an extremely modern and well kept city.  There was a feel in the air that this would be unlike any place we've been yet, and it was foreshadowing of the modernity we'd see in our later visits to China and Taiwan.  Knowing that the season finale for Top Chef was taped in Singapore, Mark and I were ready to experience their culinary offerings.  Another thing that I was really excited for in Singapore was to reunite with my cousin who I haven't seen in 15 years!  

When we first arrived we got dropped off on the main shopping road, and the even the drive through the city was amazing.  In our pre-port lecture to prepare us for the visit, Prof. Kluge mentioned that Singapore was an extremely clean (and safe) place.  This couldn't be any more true - the streets were spotless, architecture was very interesting, and it felt like a really safe place as well.  It was an added bonus to be able to drink beverages with ice in it, and even order water from the tap.  No GI problems here :)

My cousin met up with us and she and her friend took the day off of work (they are nurses) to tour us around the city which was awesome because they knew the best ways to get to different places.  We started walking through some of the underground malls that are again, super clean and very well organized.  The subway stations are also there, so we hopped on and went to our first recommended place - Banana Leaf Apollo, which has a fish head curry soup that is the talk of the town.  We then toured around town - went to Marina Bay which is this huge Vegas-like hotel with a huge ship on top of the three full-size hotel towers.  It was right on the waterfront, where they also had a soccer field/stadium right on the water (not next to the water, but on the water).  Singapore is also known for their 'Hawker Centers" which are basically street food centers, similar to a food court, where you can order different foods from different vendors.  We went to the Newton Circus hawker center - and it was awesome!  We sampled their chicken rice, among other dishes, and the ever popular chili crab.

Chili Crab at Newton Circus (yumm!)

The distinctive statue of Singapore is the Merlion (half merman, half lion), but there was a special project with it by the bay.  There was another huge version of the Merlion on Sentosa Island, so we ventured out that way.   Sentosa Island was amazing - it was basically a resort island with a 'Disney/Universal Studios' feel to it.  Beautiful beaches, and a sky-luge - which my cousin bravely took us on despite her fear of heights.

Overall, Singapore was a complete highlight, even though we were only there for one day.  I hope we get the chance to return and spend more time there - it was such a treat.  Hands down, my favorite aspect of the day was getting to run around town and do all these fun things with my cousin.  It felt so great to get to spend that time with her and reconnect.  That was definitely another blessing to add to my list of things to be thankful for.

The Merlion on Sentosa Island

Monday, March 14, 2011

Reflections from India and thoughts & prayers for Japan

Shore Temple at Mamalapurum

Where to begin?  So much has transpired in the last week or so, both within our travels and in situations around the world, it's hard to know what to begin with.  Prior to arriving in India, I was preparing myself to see and experience a wide range of extremities: extreme poverty, intense over-crowded settings, lack of personal space, smells, dirt, etc.  In looking back at our time in India, it exceeded my expectations, and in the area we were in, these things were all tempered.  Before we even arrived at the harbor, you could smell a distinct, indescribable smell of India.  Many people mentioned that hours before we came to dock, the smell was in the air.  When I opened up our window shade, we had arrived, but to my surprise I saw rows and rows of Ford cars lined up, ready to be shipped (later we found out they headed to South Africa).  It was an odd but foreshadowing sight to welcome us to this country.

From the intense heat and dust, to the crazy rickshaw rides, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in India.  A lot of people chose to travel to different parts of the country including Agra and Varanasi (Taj Mahal and Ganges River), but we decided to stay in South India.  We were in Chennai, in the state of Tamil Nadu (apparently one of the wealthiest states in the nation).  On our first day we took a city orientation tour, which included a stop and a fort museum where colonial items and a church were preserved.  Then we were off to St. Thomas Cathedral, where supposedly the tomb of St. Thomas was buried.  It was a very interesting (and Western) introduction to Chennai and India that left me a little perplexed.  We got to drive through the town, see Marina Beach, which is the 2nd longest beach in the world, and finally we got to stop at an amazing Hindu Temple called, Kapalishvara Temple in the Mylapore area.  That was an amazing site.  We watched people smash coconuts onto the ground in a certain area, as an offering to remove evil spirits from their lives.  The complex was a bit of a courtyard with lots of other little temples around.  There was even one section where cows were milling around, and yes, this was in the middle of the city.  That was something that will stay with me, seeing cows, donkeys, and other large animals lounging, walking, pulling carts alongside cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, and buses in a pretty metropolitan area.  It was SO interesting.  We also visited a special needs school called, SANKALP.  We got to meet the founders, three women who created this school for children with autism, and another school for children with learning disabilities including dyslexia.  That was a powerful experience as well.

Hands down, the food in India has been my favorite thus far.  Although cautious, we were able to fully explore the spice-infused offerings and were not disappointed.  The first place we tried for dinner was great - we had chicken biriyani, rice, curries, etc, all served on a banana leaf on a tin plate to be consumed with our hands, well our right hand to be exact (it's rude to eat or use your left hand there).  It was awesome.  The following day we went to a chain restaurant called Saravana Bhavan (which, coincidentally has a location in Sunnyvale, CA, about 20 minutes away from where we live!)  Again, the food was amazing.  This is a vegetarian restaurant, but after eating here (a number of times), I did not miss eating meat, and felt fully satisfied, and not gross afterwards.  We tried dosas, which are a large thin crepe-like wraps that taste like a parmesan sourdough cheese crisp.  You dip it into a variety of sauces, and of course, eat it with your hands.  It was delicious.

Another highlight of our time here was our trip to Mamallapurum, which are ancient temples near the shore about 1 1/2 hours south of Chennai.  Our driver, Raja, took us down and was great.  There were huge original 7th century temples and stone statues carved out of a single rock called the Five Rathas.  We spent quite a bit of time here thinking these were all there was to see.  Then we found out that there were many more spots to see.  My favorite was the Shore Temple which was overlooking the beach and the water.  It was incredible to see such a beautiful temple so close to the shore, preserved and in tact for so long.  Amazing and awe-inspiring.

And, no trip to India would be complete without the experience of looking, shopping, and bargaining.  It is, after all, the home of many great and beautiful things we purchase and consume in the United States.  We got to see a variety of places from street vendors to state of the art westernized malls.  One thing to note, whenever going anywhere, if you appear in the least to be a tourist, your rickshaw or cab driver will take you to a 'shop' where they get commissions and perks for bringing customers.  The first night we got roped in and a few overpriced items were purchased by our group members, but after seeing the prices at the malls and shops we realized these shops were very overpriced.  It's part of the experience though, everyone had a story like this, where they wanted to go somewhere and were taken to one or two 'tourist shops' along the way.

I know this post is getting long, but I cannot leave without mentioning the tragedy in Japan.  It was interesting because while we were in Chennai a few of my colleagues and I were trying to buy a Japan Rail Pass because you can only purchase them before arriving in the country.  Due to a variety of random but fortuitous circumstances we weren't able to buy them, and afterwards just thought that it wasn't meant to be.  Three days later, news of the earthquake and tsunami came, and it was mind blowing.  It's hard to describe the feeling of being at sea, supposedly on our way to this country, and seeing what has happened there.  Our shipboard community has been in the process of making 1,000 paper  peace cranes for travels Hiroshima, and now that project has taken on new meaning.  We don't know for sure what this will mean for our voyage to Japan, but more importantly we are holding in our hearts and minds a peaceful recovery for them from the devastation.  With a huge world event such as this, we also learned that the ship is able to receive satellite news - so we have Aljazeera News on our TVs in our cabins now (which, by the way, is such a succinct, different, uncluttered, and direct approach to worldwide news).  Seeing the images and hearing stories riles up our interests in helping out if we do end up going to Japan.  Many people are talking about and asking how we can provide support or relief, and it's nice to see that interest amongst the community.  We will see what happens next…but in the meantime, our hearts and prayers are with all those who were affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mauritius, lessons, and life at sea

It feels as though so much has happened since my last entry about Cape Town, and each place we leave feels worlds away.  We had one day in Port Louis, Mauritius, which was an interesting stop.  We visited the city center, but unfortunately because it was a Sunday many places were closed, including the Aapravasi Ghat, a UNESCO world heritage site that I really wanted to check out.  After a bit of sightseeing through the markets, we decided to head to one of Mauritius' beautiful beaches.  Our taxi driver took us past the fields upon fields of sugar cane to Trou Aux beach.  It was divine... clear blue waters, soft white sand, and extremely calm waters.  We dipped in and waded and swam for awhile.  I wish we had more time, or a weekday to really get to know what the island was like, but we were pretty limited to the area around the port because there were preparations for a big Hindu festival, which congested many of the roads that would take us to different parts of the island.  Nonetheless, it was beautiful and I'm grateful for the experience.

Up until this point, we've had a pretty smooth sailing experience with a few incidents here and there, but on this day, a number of people made poor decisions about alcohol.  We had one really serious case, and though it was disappointing, it wasn't the majority of folks.  This called for a community meeting the following evening and our Executive Dean addressed the entire community in a manner that I am still in awe of.  He eloquently, gracefully, and pointedly urged each member to be responsible, make good choices, take care of one another, and remember that the majority of folks are here for the right reasons.  He encouraged us to dive deeper in our conversations and make the most of what we know to be the second half of our voyage.  I hope people were listening, and even if it didn't directly apply to their experience, I hope it helps to encourage accountability and collective responsibility.  He's an extremely inspiring and poetic individual, and I thought that his talk changed the mood and (hopefully) set the tone for the rest of the voyage.

After this talk, we actually hosted what we believe is the first Women's Conference on Semester at Sea.  With our crazy schedules and time flying like never before, we actually pulled the event together in 4 days, and it was fantastic.  It was extremely gratifying to have organized a thought-provoking, interactive, well-attended, and well received program on board the ship.  Over 200 people attended, and a number of faculty members commented on how good the program was.  That was definitely a highlight for me thus far within my role on the voyage.

Other highlights from the week include: the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary dinner on March 1, an amazing birthday that I got to celebrate at sea with an unexpected stop at a secret military island called Diego Garcia, and an amazing authentic Indian dinner on the Indian Ocean.  We didn't dock in Diego Garcia, but a submarine was constantly at our side and Navy Seals came on board to sweep and secure the ship and take 3 passengers who needed medical attention.  It was quite an impressive feat that involved the British and US Governments allowing us to sail in, as no other civilians have ever been to this island.  It was an incredible thing to witness, and my thoughts are with the three who needed to disembark.  So far there have been a number of defining moments along the way, but I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity that it's giving me to reflect upon who I am, what I value, what privileges I've had in life, and what matters.  There have been many great conversations and laughs, and overall we've been having the time of our lives.

On another note of our voyage, we've had to advance our clocks one hour ever few days, but tonight we advance it 30 minutes.... who would have thought.  Off to bed, and ready for 2 more busy days at sea before arriving in Chennai, India.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Finally out to the beautiful Cape Town...

Wow, what an amazing city.  Cape Town is definitely a place that we want to return.  We experienced so many great moments: breathtaking, inspiring, and thought-provoking.  Our journey into Cape Town wasn't the easiest.  On the morning we were to arrive, we got up extra early to watch the sunrise, and see our ship pull in to what we've heard to be one of the most stunning cities on the planet.  The sunrise did not disappoint, it was gorgeous.  What did disappoint was the tablecloth and the weather that prevented us from coming into the port that day.  The winds were at high speeds, and the waves were rocking the ship so much so that when you looked out the windows, at times all you could see was the sky, and at other times all you could see was the water.  We were stuck out at sea for over 24 hours because the mouth of the port was too narrow for us to safely enter.   Despite that challenge, I was pleasantly surprised at how our shipboard community pulled together to make the best of this delay.  We called it our 'snow day,' put on movies in the union, held games of mafia and other board games, and in the evening pulled together an open mic night that distracted us from our status of being stuck at sea.

Cape Town with the 'Tablecloth' clouds covering Table Mountain.
When we finally arrived - it was easy to see that Cape Town would be one amazing port.  Where we docked was a beautiful harbor, and in some ways reminded me of the San Francisco bay area.  The waterfront definitely smelled like Pier 39, and there were many familiar westernized features.  It was a trip to see the neatly kept grounds, the gigantic mall greeting visitors, and the rides and confections that also had a Disneyland feel to it.  After walking around the pier area, and getting our visit to Robben Island situated, we met up with some folks to go up to the top of Table Mountain.  My student from Stanford, Amy, suggested that we go at sunset and bring a picnic, so that's exactly what we did.  We went up at about 6pm, and took the cable car up to the mountain with a distinct flat top that warrants the name Table Mtn.  It was phenomenal.  The clouds were climbing over the rocks where we were standing, and started flowing down the mountain like a waterfall.  It was an amazing feeling to literally be walking in the clouds.  We explored the grounds and saw amazing views from each spot we stopped.  It was incredible to see the clouds cascade down the mountain like a waterfall.  The picnic, wine, and good company of friends capped off the evening into one that I'll never forget.  It was ethereal.

The clouds rolling down Table Mountain at sunset.
The following days continued to live up to the high expectations we had of South Africa.  This was one of the ports that I was most looking forward to, and it pleased me and challenged me in ways that I am truly appreciative of.  We continued our exploration of the area with a train ride down the peninsula to Simon's Town.  We stopped stopped in the beautiful town of Fish Hoek to play at the beach and grab some lunch.  After arriving at Simon's Town and securing awesome accommodations at the Central Hotel with Merle (the sweetest woman we've met thus far), we went down to Boulder Beach where there was rumored to be lots and lots of penguins.  The rumors were true, and we got to see a bunch of penguins on the beaches and in the wooded areas.  It was great.  The next day we went down to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, which is the South Western most tip of Africa.  It was amazing, the views and the meeting of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans were highlights.  We also got to see baboons and ostriches on our drive in and out of the national park (our own mini-safari).

We later made our way out to Stellenbosch, the winelands of South Africa.  The wineries and surrounding area were great, and we felt blessed to be doing what we were doing.  On our way out there, we got our first glimpse at the townships which served as a stark reminder of the recent history of apartheid era policies and infrastructure.  It was very sobering to see the endless amounts of tin shacks piled up on top of each other in a condensed part of the land.  I couldn't think of anything that is comparable to this in the United States, or anywhere else I've been thus far.  It was also crazy because the area was so compacted, and yet was surrounded by sprawling amounts of land and soon vineyards.  19.5 million blacks were confined to these areas and restricted from basic rights such as education, work, and other things we take for granted.  They made up the majority of the population, as there were only about 4 million whites who established homes and occupied much more land.  It's crazy to think apartheid only ended in 1994, and it was a harsh reminder that it takes a lot of time to make change.  I also have a new-found respect for Nelson Mandela as a leader, as he was able to prevent what could have been a destructive 'revengeful' uprise once apartheid was abolished.

Our final two monumental visits were to the Amy Biehl Foundation, and to Robben Island.  Both again, were sombering experiences but provided hope and comfort in seeing how they were there to educate people and remind them of peace and unity.  On our visit to the Amy Biehl Foundation, we were joined by one of the men who was involved in her murder.  Filled with mixed emotions, this day challenged us in more ways than one.  We got to see the work of the program in schools within the townships, and the power of forgiveness.  Google Amy Biehl Foundation to find out more about her story.  While we were at Robben Island, one of the former political prisoners who spent time there was our tour guide.

Needless to say, Cape Town provided us with lots to process both visually, intellectually, and emotionally.  It left us with a lot of questions, and a strong desire to return.  There were many other highlights of amazing food, great sights, beaches, and people, but these were some of the most significant experiences that I wanted to make sure to remember.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Searching for the words to describe Ghana

Where do I begin? Ghana was so intense and amazing. I'm trying to gather my thoughts for this blog, but it's much more difficult than I anticipated. From visiting small dusty villages, beaches, walking through a canopy of trees in their national park, seeing the poverty, smelling strange and sometimes pungent things, to the most heart-wrentching visit to the slave castles and dungeons, each part of the trip was significant. Especially the slave castles... of all my life experiences, that was one of the most intense and powerful that I've ever had, so much so, that it brought me to tears hearing the details. We were incredibly lucky because we had an amazing historian, Ato, as our guide at the Elimina Castle. Before we actually entered any of the rooms, he stood with us in the courtyard in front of the church that stood between the slave dungeons, and he shared an amazing historical account of the elements within both African culture and European culture that contributed to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He actually authored a book about the Elimina castle/dungeon, and was  extremely prolific. He gently painted the picture of the horrific scenes and practices in the slave dungeons, while reminding us of the story and lesson for humanity in the midst of all of this pain.

On another note, I also had the opportunity to visit a women's empowerment group in Ghana because one of the SAS students set it up before she left. It's called the Leading Ladies Network, and they are absolutley amazing ( Yawa Hansen-Quao is the director and founder, and she personally picked us up from the ship in a bus and gave us a tour and hosted our visit while they did a seminar at the University of Cape Coast. They have a development person who is from the bay area, and will be back in May, and they are currently working on applying for a Global Fund for Women grant - what a small world!! It was a great visit, we went to the University of Cape Coast, and attended one of their seminars, then got to have lunch with the Ghanaian women... it was very cool, and reminded my of the WCC's work. It was interested how similar the topics were to what we cover as well, and great to see global work with the same purpose and strategy that we employ.

These few paragraphs only begin to scratch the surface of what I experienced, and what we experienced as a community visiting Ghana. I will definitely post some pictures soon as well, and I hope to elaborate before we get to South Africa. Thank you for sharing in my journey!