Friday, March 30, 2012

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The smoothness of the ocean continued from after we left Singapore. But the evening before we arrived in Vietnam, the water suddenly became rocky again, and I started feeling a little sick. But shortly after, we made it to Ho Chi Minh. This was the beginning of a crazy schedule, we had two days of class before Vietnam, we will have two days after, and then go to China. Then we will have just two days before Japan. After Japan we will be crossing the Pacific and on our way home, making a brief stop in Hawaii. It seems like this last leg will go by the quickest.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on March 25 and I had a city orientation. We drove around and looked at some of the major sites of the city. Immediately, I noticed the large amounts of motorcyclists. And the traffic only seemed to get worse throughout the next few days. It's a pretty sketchy place to ride a bike in. First, we stopped at a temple that I think was Buddhist, but it might have been a mix with Caoism or Daoism or something like that. It had a huge painting on the wall of the sea. They worshiped a goddess to ensure safe crossings over the ocean. The temple was partially enclosed and outside. It had a lot of incense and candles that were used to pray to the gods and goddesses. After the temple, we went to eat at a very nice Vietnamese restaurant. I thought the food was OK, but it had too much cilantro for me. It definitely wasn't my favorite meal in Vietnam. After lunch, we visited the Unity Palace, which is where the president of South Korea once lived. It was huge and mainly consisted of large, extravagant rooms with very nice carpets and rugs, taxidermy, and nice furniture. We saw rooms like the president's office, room, and meeting rooms. Then, we went to a cathedral near the post office. It had giant ceilings, kind of like what you would picture when you think of a cathedral. We also saw the post office, which was huge and looked kind of like a train station. The last thing we did was visit a museum of Vietnam's history. It was different than the War Museum but had a lot of interesting artifacts. That's one thing we didn't get to do - go to the War Museum, and I really wish I had done that.

The next day was my trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels and Caodaoist Temple. We began with a long drive to the temple. It was completely different to the temple the day before. It was entirely indoors and was just one enormous room with elaborate statues and decorations.The religion fuses a lot of different religions together to create one perfect religion that wouldn't cause controversy and would create peaceful unity. Yellow stood for Buddhism, red for Confucianism, and blue for Daoism, I believe. We made it there in time for their noon service, which involved a mass prayer and song. After that, we stopped by the Cu Chi cemetery for the veterans. Then we made our way to the tunnels. First, we saw a video of life in Cu Chi, which was extremely sided toward the Vietnamese and seemed anti-American. Which makes sense for a video in the '60s, but I just thought that was interesting. Then we got a brief introduction to the tunnels and saw a model of what they once looked like. After that, we got to walk around and look at/go inside the tunnels. The openings were well hidden and extremely small. We also got to go further down into a tunnel a few feet underground. We had the option to go about 60 meters, but I only went 20 meters. It was very small, you had to crouch down, so someone that was claustrophobic had a lot of trouble. And it also had bats in it, although I didn't see any. They showed us the traps that they used to wound or kill American soldiers. They all consisted of long, metal spikes that were arranged to form various traps that rolled, swung, folded, etc. It was a different experience, because you really saw their side of the war, which also made you understand our side even better and what they had to endure. It was a lose-lose situation for both sides.

On the third day, I didn't have any trips planned. So I just found a couple girls who were going to get Internet and explore the city. We went to an Internet Cafe we had seen the day before, but it wasn't open. So we walked around and tried to talk to local people to find out if there was a place to get Internet, but no one spoke English. We were just about to give up when we saw the cutest Husky puppy. I went up to the owner and motioned to pet her and he nodded. We tried asking him if there was Internet anywhere and he, luckily, understood English, but said no. Then he said we could use the wifi in his office. It might have seemed a little sketchy to some people, but it was in the middle of the day, in a crowded area, with three people, and a man with a puppy. So we just went for it and it was completely safe. It was an advertising business and several people were working inside. They didn't mind if we skyped though, and one even struck up a conversation with me. After that, we dropped our computers off at the ship and went back out. We explored some of the markets, like the Ben Thanh market. They sold mostly electronics and American clothes. So I didn't find much to buy except headphones and an extension for my Mac cord. We decided to take a bus to a random part of town and found a local area with a long strip of shops. We walked along the strip, and I found a moped helmet that I bought. I just had to get one, since almost everyone there has one and has a moped. I really wanted to buy a moped though! We kept walking around and decided to get dinner. We finally found a restaurant but they spoke hardly any English. I asked for noodles and rice with no meat. The waiter acted like he understood, nodded his head, and even repeated "no meat." I made clear and even said, "No pork, no beef, no chicken, no fish, no shrimp." And he pretended to understand, but he didn't. When the food finally came out, mine had shrimp in it. I tried to explain to them what I wanted but they didn't understand one word I said. After nearly an hour of trying to get them to see that I didn't want the shrimp, they went in the back and quickly brought back noodles without the meat. I figured they just pulled out the meat, which I still don't eat food that has touched meat, but I just ate it anyway. I was tired of being there and wanted to leave. After dinner, the two girls I was with decided to go back to the ship, but I went to the night market. People had told me it was really safe there and it was crowded and well-lit so I decided to check it out. And I'm really glad I did because it was a great experience! I bought a lot of cool souvenirs! After about 30 minutes there, I walked to the place where the shuttle picked people up to take back to the ship.

I went to the Mekong Delta the next day. First, our guide took us to a local food market. It was good and bad. The good was all the fresh fruit and other foods all along the road. But the bad was all the meat, especially seafood. The fish were in these tiny buckets, alive, and the entire area wreaked of fish. Then we took a boat to the Mekong Delta. It kind of reminded me of those swampy, wet areas with tall plants that you saw in movies about the Vietnam War. And in fact, people in the war had to fight there. The river was brown and narrow, and one both sides were these tall plants. Then, we went to an island and saw how local people used the coconut. They use it to build houses, rugs, roofs, lamps, purses, and candy. And I bought six packs of coconut candy, I already almost finished off one. I'm trying to save the rest to bring home and share with my family. We got to see how they make the candy by shaving off coconut meat, liquifying it, and then it hardened and they hand packaged it. We also got to eat lunch there and it was very good! Then we took several boat rides, some smaller and hand paddled, and others larger and with engines. We even took a ride on a horse drawn cart, which I was very upset about. These poor horses were the size of ponies, and had to carry around six people in the heat and humidity. I wasn't very happy. But all in all, the day was interesting and we were able to see how people lived on the Mekong Delta. Although, we didn't really learn much about how they use the water in their everyday lives, which I thought was interesting.

The last day in Vietnam, I went to the Can Gio Biosphere (pronounced something like Cun Jia) with my marine biology class. We took a bus ride to a ferry, then took the ferry to the other side (wherever that was). Then we took another bus ride further to the Can Gio Reserve. Along the way, I saw a lot of aquaculture going on, especially shrimp farming. I thought that was interesting since it's one of the worst things for mangrove areas. It was interesting that there were so many since the Can Gio area was devastated by the Agent Orange gas. The shrimp farming only furthered the devastation. That and cutting down the mangroves for fire wood. But we went to the reserve and got a presentation about how they use aquaculture and about the Can Gio Biosphere in general. I saw a lot of mudskippers (which they eat), prop roots on the Rhizophora trees, pneumatophores on Avicenia, propagules (baby mangroves), macaques, an area that they farm blood cockles, crab farming (everyone else participated in fishing for crabs, but luckily caught none!), a bat island, these crazy, huge deer, a gibbon, a water snake (it was tan and had black lines going down it the long way), and some birds. We also helped rebuild the mangroves by planting baby propagules. We walked a long way through the thick mud and got covered in mud. We were the first Americans to help in the rebuilding of the area since Americans destroyed it in the Vietnam War with Agent Orange. The last thing we were able to do was probably the most exciting, maybe even my favorite on the entire voyage. We were able to feed crocodiles! We went into a caged area (it was a very large reserve that was just caged so they couldn't get out, but they said they planned to release them into Can Gio in the future) and got into a caged boat. The crocodiles came from everywhere and surrounded the boat, they knew that meant food time. Then, we were handed a fishing pole with a wire and a dead fish attached to it. The first person to do this put the pole over the edge and almost immediately the crocodile jumped up and snatched the fish from the pole and made the most terrifying sound when he closed his jaws. Then he played tug of war with the rope for a minute. I was terrified to feed them because I thought maybe they would pull me in! But the nice crocodile i fed just snatched the fish off, clean and easy. I was grateful for that. But at the end, a crocodile got the wire caught on his tooth and couldn't release. I felt really bad for it, and the tour guide just pulled really hard and eventually it snapped. But the whole experience was very cool. I've studies crocodiles in high school and only saw one in Kenya, so to be able to see that many was amazing! After the crocodiles, we went back on the bus, took the ferry, then got back on the bus again and returned to the ship. We will be traveling for two days to China, and will arrive in Hong Kong on Sunday. But the journey is expected to be rocky, because we will come very close to a typhoon - hopefully it won't get too bad.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


The journey from India to Singapore across the Indian Ocean was extremely smooth. The water just looked like a surface of glass. I was very happy to have a few days where I couldn't feel the waves. We also had our Sea Olympics, which Baltic Sea should've won but just barely lost. We did win the sportsmanship award though! We arrived in Singapore on Thursday, and just stayed for the day.

The first thing I noticed in Singapore was a couple huge, futuristic-looking skyscrapers. I wish I'd gotten a picture of them, but I didn't even think about it. As we walked off the ship, we entered long lines for customs. To get through customs either way can be a long, time-consuming process. But after we made it through, we went to a place called Arabic Quarter. Singapore is very famous for having a variety of ethnic groups like Muslims, Indians, Chinese, etc. We were originally going to go to the world-renound zoo and botanical garden, but we decided to just explore the city since we only had one day there. So we went to Arabic Quarter and we immediately got some food at a Hawker. A hawker somewhat resembles a food court but is just filled with food vendors that are side by side. They sell all kinds of food, but this Hawker was mostly Indian food, which I didn't mind. (Oh yeah mom and Shauna, I like Indian food now.) And so I had some delicious Indian food and we left. Then we walked around Arabic Quarter, which consisted mainly of fabric shops where you could buy fabric and have it tailored. So there wasn't a lot to buy there, but it was still neat to look around. Then we went to Little India, another part of Singapore that resembled India. It had a ton of shops like what we saw in India and I found the perfect Aladdin pants I had been searching for. I also bought a ton of Singapore souvenirs for family and friends.

Probably what Singapore is best known for are its laws. Chewing gum, failing to flush the toilet, littering and jaywalking can have huge fines. The punishment for drug trafficking is death. Caning is also a form of punishment. They are very strict in Singapore, but they have one of the lowest crime rates in the world. It's also known for being relatively clean compared to other places. Even having a smelly fruit called a durian is illegal in many places.

Singapore was really interesting and I felt like I might be seeing the future in a way, but I think it's a little too strict for me. There's also not a whole lot to do there other than walking around and going to the zoo. I am not sure if I'll end up going back there.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Kochi, India

My first impression of India wasn't too great. Well, strike that, my first impression of India, pulling into the port was amazing. Palm trees everywhere, beautiful buildings on the side of the water, it was gorgeous. But when I went to exchange my South Africa Rand for Indian Rupees, which I was told I could do at the front desk of the ship (they had several Indians there who were exchanging money), my impression of India went way down. The exchange rate for Rand to Rupees is 1:6.56 or so, and I expected it to be worse at this exchange but when we offered me 3,000 Rupees for 1,000 Rand I was shocked. An exchange of 1:3 was really, really low. So I said absolutely not and he actually tried to bargain with me. He asked if I would take 4,000 and I just walked away. I'm not stupid, I know that goes on a lot in India, but when you are dealing with money exchange, especially on the ship, that was really unacceptable. I didn't hear about that happening when exchanging dollars to rupees to my only guess is that he didn't think I knew the exchange rate and figured he could get away with it. I think the ship should do a little more investigating if their going to bring in a local money exchange for the students. Anyway, after that things didn't get much better. For some reason, whether it was students taking a long time to go through customs or immigration taking forever to process the ship, we were a couple hours late getting off the ship, making everyone late for their trips. There was just this huge mob of people waiting in Tymitz Square for such a long time and that was not fun at all. Once we finally left the ship, I raced to my bus and we left for our trip to the Kumbalanghi Village. On the trip we took the bus maybe 30 minutes to an area where we got on a little boat (I can't think of the name) and took a short ride over the brackish backwaters to the village. When we got there we were greeted with a coconut, which I've learned to like on this trip and become a pro at drinking/eating. They taught us the various ways they use the coconut and palm trees, which are very plentiful in India. We saw veeshu vala, fishing with conical nets, and padal, fish trapping in coconut tree leaves. They also showed us how they catch crabs (huge blue crabs that they catch from the ocean and grow until maturity in freshwater), catch fish, boil clams, make coir from the palm fibers, make coconut milk, use the leaves as shelter, climb and get the coconut, sharpen knives, break open coconuts, and much more that I just can't think of right now. But it's amazing how one plant can be used for so much! You can literally use every part of the palm tree for something, according to our guide. After all of this, they treated us to a great meal, which I was surprised about considering I don't like Indian food. Of course they had curry, which I hate, but also fish, shrimp, and several vegetarian dishes, which I enjoyed. Then six young girls performed a dance for us for when their friends are about to be married. When we were done, they let us all ride in a richshaw, just for a few minutes, to get to our bus. The rickshaw is a three-wheel motorcoach and seems a little sketchy, but it was still a lot of fun! Then we quickly viewed several sights of Kochi since we were running late. We just went to the first European church built in India I think at Fort Kochi, the first European colony. The church was where Vasco Da Gama was once buried, he first discovered India. Then we walked to the Chinese fishing nets near an area where there was a market and got bombarded with salespeople (I think it was a trap!). On the way, some of us saw a snake charmer on the other side of the street. I was the first to see it and looked over and all I saw was a cobra figure swaying back and forth in a small basket and asked, does that look real to you? After we decided it was real, one of the professors whipped out his camera, and as I was about to do the same, the man put the lid back on the basket and demanded money for pictures. Since I didn't have any money and didn't really want to condone using animals for such entertainment I just kept walking. But it would've been amazing to get that on camera! At the market I surprisingly didn't get hassled. I just didn't make eye contact with the salespeople, and the one who wouldn't leave me alone I just completely ignored and walked away. But several guys on the trip must have just looked like they were going to give in because they just wouldn't leave them alone, so I tried to help saying that this was our first day here and nobody had gone to an ATM yet so we didn't have money. Which wasn't true, but usually when you look at them and say I have no money they will back off. And it worked in these instances. After that we just went back on the bus and went back to the ship.

On Tuesday I went with my media studies class to visit the Times of India, which is India's most popular newspaper. They just recently opened the bureau in Kochi in February so everyone was new. But they had some very interesting things to say, and I was a little surprised considering we have a tendency to view newspapers as boring in the US. But in India, it's quite the opposite. Newspapers are still very popular and aren't going to become obsolete any time soon, according to the editor. He said that many people, even young kids, read the newspaper often. Even though they have an online web page that's free to read, people still buy newspapers. He said it might be because buying Internet is more expensive than paying 2 rupees (1 dollar = 50 rupees). He also said that English newspapers tend to be weren't popular in India at all until the Times of India began. Another interesting fact is that they are sponsoring scientists to go and get water samples from the river in Kerala and testing the water. Then they are going to report the results and show how poor and polluted the water is. I thought this was very strange because usually it's the governments job to fund such research but the newspaper company was taking it into their own hands to show people the extent of the problem. In addition to all of the newspaper's accomplishments, I was also very impressed with the hospitality. The entire time we were there we were being served with bottled water, more cookies than we could eat, and the most amazing coffee I've ever had. All while in the most air-conditioned room I've been in in India. I felt really spoiled.

The third day I had a trip to another village called Chendamangalam. Upon arriving, we were greeted by young girls who threw flower petals as we walked by. Then 10 or 20 members of the community were waiting for us, along with a musical performance using drums and a sort of trumpet instrument. We were, of course, given a coconut and watched as the women performed a traditional dance. Then we were shown a 93-year-old grandmother's recently built home, it looked nicer than many American homes. We were then served a meal on banana leaves, which consisted of fish for some (and I have the recipe for it for my mother!), potatoes, rice, breads, and bananas. After that, they gave us a tour of part of the village and we just walked around for a while. Everyone was very friendly and the locals stood outside of their homes as we passed to wave hello. We were able to meet many of the young boys and speak with them. Surprisingly, there weren't many young girls we saw outside. After walking around, we drank some lemon tea and then went to a factory where the villagers weaved. I was a little taken aback because it looked somewhat like a sweatshop. Women working inside a hot building all day and being paid very little. But I guess it's how they are able to make money. We were then taken to a shop and I bought a dotee/tablecloth. After that we just went back to the ship.

On the fourth day I decided to take it easy and went on a relaxing harbor cruise, which is pretty self-explanatory. A cruise around the harbor. We got to see life along the harbor and people fishing and things like that. Then we decided to take a few hours and go shopping. So we were originally going to take the ferry for 2 rupees that takes us to old town. But then we decided to take a rickshaw, or a tuktuk for 100 rupees total (50 rupees each) and then he took us all around to shops and an internet place. The thing about the rickshaws is that they get paid to take you to certain shops, so he took us to the ones he got paid to take us to. But I was looking for more market-type shops, instead he took us to very nice, expensive stores. After every time I walked out and told him, "No stores like that. Cheap stores. Like a market." And after every time he would nod and understand what I was saying, but take me to another store that was just like the first one. It was a little aggravating, but he was nice and the stores were nice so I just walked around and looked at them. Apparently, there's a place called Jewtown that has the huge market like what I was looking for. So on Saturday I'm going to go there. But after a few hours shopping and chatting with the store workers about life in India, we went to eat at a hotel called the Taj, it was just a 5 min walk from the ship, and they had the best food! It was an amazing dinner and everyone was very friendly. And then we went back to the ship and I went to bed.

Friday I had an SAS trip to the Alleppey Backwaters. It was pretty neat, but it was very similar to the harbor cruise I did the day before. The only difference, obviously, was that this was on the backwaters and the day before was through the harbor. But we took a bus ride for an hour or two to a hotel and ate a nice lunch. They had spaghetti, fruit, fried vegetables, potatoes, chicken, and fish. So it was the most American food I've had in India. It was still good, but I wish I could've tried some more authentic food. Then we went back on the bus and went to the place where we got onto a boat, the same kind as for the harbor cruise, and went around Kerala backwaters. We saw a lot more "life" on the side of the water compared to on the harbor. There were many more people in the water either washing clothes, kids playing, or fishing. So it was a great experience to see the true fisherman village's lifestyle. After cruising around for a couple hours, we went back to the bus and came back to the ship. By the time we got back, I was already exhausted so I just went to bed.

The last day I used as my free day to go out and do some real shopping and exploring. I used the rickshaw driver from two days prior and told him to meet me at a specific time. Then we went to the same Internet place and I was able to Skype and use the Internet. It was only 30 rupees an hour, the same as 60 cents! After that I told my driver he could take me around shopping to where he wanted me to go. He took me to Jewtown since I hadn't gone there. They had some decent shops, kind of cheap, but nothing really special. Then he took me to some of the shops where he would get money if I went and shopped there. So I decided to help him out a little and walk around those shops! I ended up buying a few things too, but not much. I got some goodies for souvenirs! After I spent a few hours just driving around and going in random shops, I went back to the ship, took a long needed shower, and we left for Singapore! We will only be there for a day, but at least I can explore a little bit!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Port Louis, Mauritius

After three long, rocky days at sea, we were looking forward to our stop in Mauritius on March 6. However, we were all disappointed when, over the loudspeaker, the assistant dean told us we weren’t going to be able to stop in Mauritius. He later explained that due to the weather, we were way behind and there would be no way to stop there and make it to India on time. After two days of complaining, spoiled, rich kids, I guess the staff decided that we needed to have at least a little time in Mauritius. They allowed us to stop in Port Louis on March 7 for just four or five hours, from the time the ship cleared immigration at 7 a.m. until noon. I was a little satisfied with this agreement, but there isn’t much you can do for just a few hours. And since we didn’t want to get dock time (punishment for getting on the ship after on ship time, which means you aren’t allowed to leave the ship at the next port for a certain period of time), we decided to get back a little before 11 to be safe. So we just went to a beach and hung out for a little while. A lot of the shops weren’t open that early so we just relaxed and walked around until they opened, and then we went to one shop to gather our souvenirs. However, not everyone spent their short time in Mauritius like my group. Apparently, many people just drank for five hours straight and then returned to the ship completely intoxicated at 12 p.m. Needless to say, there was a large amount of students (around 40) that got in trouble and went into the “drunk tank.” This is just a room where the really drunk people have to stay until they sober up. But they weren’t in the clear after that. We had a Mauritius reflection where a lot of the students and faculty got together and talked about their experiences. But that turned in to a lot of people yelling at the people who got drunk. They said that their behavior reflected badly on the community, that they set a horrible example for the dependent children on the ship, that they were wasting their experience and time in these countries, along with many other things. And I agree with everything they are saying, but I think the way in which some statements were said didn’t help the situation. It’s one of those things where you really had to be there, but it was a very interesting hour. I’ve been saying all along that getting wasted is a dumb way to spend this voyage but nobody said anything until after this specific port. The thing is, we’ve had this problem in every single port but just because this was such a short time in which these kids got drunk that they decided to bring up the issue. I have to say that I’m extremely disappointed in some of the types of students on this voyage. I thought a lot of people would be like me: trying to do well in school, trying to experience the countries, not trying to get drunk, etc. But a lot of the “rich kids” here are just spending their parents’ money and using this time as a vacation, a “booze cruise,” and a “party boat.” All of those rumors that people say about Semester at Sea are completely true, but there are a few who spend their time the way the program was intended. So for the future SASers, if you want to just get drunk and waste your money then you’re not alone. But if you really want an education and an experience, you might have some difficulties being surrounded by partiers and drunks. It’s a little disappointing and had I known that I’m not sure if I would’ve come on the voyage.

On the Way to Mauritius

Just a quick update on life at sea: we are traveling along the coast of South Africa, where the seas are notoriously rocky. The meeting of the Agulhas and Benguela currents cause this due to their different speeds and temperatures that meet and cause larger waves. It also dosen’t help that we are following a storm and so that makes it even more rocky. It’s a little difficult to sleep with the motion, although I haven’t really gotten seasick. Classes and work are also more difficult to get through when you’re being constantly jolted in different directions.