Monday, February 16, 2015

Saigon, Vietnam

I remember being in Harrisonburg in the fall, and something, often my Vespa, would remind me that I would be returning to Vietnam in the spring, and I would suddenly be filled with joy and anticipation. My life in the United States has various traces of Vietnam in my daily life, from the Vespa I bought weeks after returning from Vietnam to the Vietnamese coffee I buy in the Asian market and brew with the drip coffee filter I purchased in Saigon a year-and-a-half earlier. Vietnam is close to my heart. When I say that Semester at Sea changed my life, I can make the statement a little less cliché with evidence. How I changed is most evident in my trip to Vietnam six months after the Fall 2012 voyage ended. I booked the trip weeks before leaving, which is action I simply wouldn’t have taken before the Semester at Sea voyage opened up my life to international travel. Something about Vietnam drew me in before I left, and drew me in forever after I left. Bruce Springsteen songs about Vietnam, going to the Vietnamese shopping center in Virginia, meeting someone from Vietnam, going to the Vietnamese restaurant in Windsor Locks, photographs of Vietnam, or simply seeing the word ‘Vietnam’ immediately captures my attention. The morning we arrived in Vietnam awakened my attention and brought a joy and anticipation more fulfilling than daydreaming of Vietnam from the other side of the globe ever could. As we walked off the bus in front of the Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral, I immediately recognized the streets and was able to walk towards my AirBnB apartment, stopping for lunch on the way, without a map. The motorbikes, street food, and Vietnamese people felt like a home I missed. The last time I was in Saigon I was busy, visiting sites within and outside of the city. This time, I planned on feeling like a resident of the city, slowly drinking iced coffee and eating fresh Vietnamese food. The bright and modern apartment I found became an even better choice thanks to the friendly and interesting owners who talked with us and made us feel like we had local friends in Vietnam. Throughout my stay they remained around the property since they were converting the building to AirBnB apartments. On the way to the rooftop space five of us got stuck in a four person elevator, which was the first time I ever got stuck in an elevator. The next several days were exactly what I hoped for, although a little busier than I anticipated, as I made myself at home in my Saigon apartment. We had iced coffee in cafes to hide from the midday heat. We had iced coffees in cafes at sunset to watch the busy streets turn to night. We had drinks on a rooftop bar, a growing trend in Saigon, to see the streetlights and motorbikes bring the night to life. I jumped on motorbikes for taxi rides around town, although I had no idea who was an actual motorbike taxi driver and who was a random guy with a motorbike looking to make some money. In the morning I went to the park, where all the locals come to fly their pet birds, do tai chi, play jianzi, and drink coffee. I found popular locations for pho and banh mi, I went to a spa for a traditional Vietnamese massage, and I went to a show at the Saigon Opera House. I walked around the flower market, a sea of yellow and pink flowers in preparation for Tet, the New Year, only a few days away. One night a group of us went on a motorbike foodie tour, where we rode on the back of motorbikes and spent five hours riding around various districts outside of the more popular tourist areas, making several stops for delicious and authentic Vietnamese food. The evening was definitely a highlight of our time in Vietnam, not only for the motorbike riding and the food, but for the fun and interactive company of our drivers who ate with us. I then joined a Semester at Sea field program for a homestay in the Mekong Delta, which was a great way to experience a region of the Mekong Delta I had not visited during my previous trip to Vietnam. We spent most of the day on a few different boats, cruising through both open waters and narrow channels. We docked in a village for lunch, where I wrapped a pet snake around my shoulders, and we took a small four-person sampan boat down a lush and narrow channel and stopped in a village for the night, riding bicycles around the village before sunset, and then helping cook our dinner. The next day we visited Heifer International and put in some work on the farm. The day after, we visited the famous floating market, where various goods are sold from boats in the water. As we left Vietnam, I felt a little sad to leave, and a little like a spoiled child with a bad attitude. I probably shouldn’t have a bad attitude after six wonderful days in Vietnam, but I didn’t want to leave. I wasn’t sure when I would be back. Having traveled to Vietnam twice within a couple of years and always seeking to explore new countries and cultures, despite Vietnam being one of my favorite places in the world, I felt unsure of how soon I would be back and I felt uneasy knowing I might not be back in the near future. One can easily excuse sadness by giving a false sense of comfort that you can always come back one day, which is true, but the world is a big place with many interesting countries to visit, and life is short. I feel confident that I will return to Vietnam one day, and in many ways I could see myself staying in Vietnam for an extended amount of time at some point in my life, but as we watched Saigon fade beyond the horizon as we moved out of the Saigon River, I felt sad, almost like I was betraying a country I love by leaving without any definite plans to return. One of the reasons we often all feel sad when leaving a country is because we make connections during these days in port, with the people and the culture, and then we leave without knowing if we will be back. Fortunately, Vietnam remains in my heart and traces of Vietnam remain in my daily life. Upon returning to the United States, some of the first actions I will take will be going to a Vietnamese restaurant, making Vietnamese iced coffee, and riding my Vespa, which I am tremendously impatient to do after being surrounded by motorbikes for a week. I won’t be in Saigon when I am on my Vespa in Virginia, but my love for Vietnam and the way the culture remains with me, is certainly the reason I am on a Vespa. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Hong Kong, China

I could write various stories about Hong Kong, including my AirBnB apartment in SoHo, at the top of the Central/Mid-Levels escalator, the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world, which much more easily takes you up the steep hills of Hong Kong Island, or my adventures around SoHo and PoHo, where I ate delicious food and found quirky stores where I could have designed a wonderfully unique apartment with all the vintage and modern home furnishings I saw, or I could write about the endless dim sum I ate every day and often multiple times a day. I could also write about a friend’s fun birthday, when a group of us went out for dinner, drinks, and dessert, wandering around the streets of SoHo. I could write about the sights I saw, including the stunning architecture in Hong Kong, Man Mo Temple, Star Ferry, Hong Kong Island light show, Kowloon, Temple Street Night Market, or Victoria Peak both at night and during the day. I think the better story is something I wrote one day in PoHo, an upcoming neighborhood that appears to be overcoming some abandoned buildings and currently has far less crowds and equally good food, architecture, galleries, and street wandering. Here is what I wrote: As I sat in Teakha, the taste of black tea with sea salt, coffee, and condensed milk in every sip and the taste of apricot ginger granola with yogurt, blueberries, pomegranate, and roselle compote in every bite, my eyes closed while sitting at a wooden table dimly lit by mason jar lamps hanging from thick rope, with a light breeze sporadically sneaking through the partially opened windows, I was able to close my eyes and leave my overly stimulated mind and look down upon myself, in Hong Kong after six days in Japan and three days in China, and I thought about how one day I won't be alive in this world, but on this day I was indeed truly alive and awake, sitting in a back alley Teahouse, and I thought about what a shockingly gifted life I was in the middle of living, and despite all the sadness, confusion, and disappointment life can bring, life can also be surprisingly beautiful, joyful, and fulfilling, especially when traveling on a ship through vast seas and oceans, surrounded by ever-changing skies and water, dropped off in new countries every week, experiencing new languages, currencies, traditions, cultures, and people, and allowing travel to open my mind, heart, and soul, not selfishly receiving experiences that quickly expire, but with a vigilant commitment that these experiences remain alive and continued, helping me learn how to respond to the fact that around the world millions of people lead difficult lives, often with happiness but undoubtedly with challenges, and guided by this increasing awareness of others I want to change the person I am for the better, in the same way my family brought me into this world and filled me with love, encouragement, support, and foundations, and now quite literally sent me out into the world, a sending forth I hope I responded to in a way that evokes pride, not for my sake but a reward for their hard work, with past and new experiences intertwined, like the old and new buildings rising out of the streets and hills of Hong Kong, with stories of confusion and disappointment but also with beauty and joy, these memories of the past and hopes for the future, all crowded into this present moment, which every now and then, with the proper environment, like a Teahouse in Hong Kong, we can step aside for a moment with closed eyes and look at where we are in this rather surprising gift of life.       

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Shanghai, China

I didn’t love Shanghai, China, but the purpose of our voyage is not to fall in love with every country. We are here to learn about these countries and cultures, to get out of our comfort zone, to become more open-minded, to increase our global perspective, and to experience new ways of life. I’m grateful for our time in China. Even though the majority of voyagers didn’t like Shanghai, and I share their thoughts, Shanghai offered a much needed awakening to a culture different from our own. Although the experience might not have always been pleasant, the experience was cultural and challenging, broadening our perspective and opening our minds. Japan provided a comfort and familiarity that eased our traveling. Shanghai did not, which first became apparent when we tried to find a taxi to our AirBnB apartment in the French Concession. I heard about Chinese taxi drivers not wanting to deal with tourists who can’t speak Chinese, and to be honest, I don’t blame them; however, watching available taxis speed away wasn’t pleasant. Eventually we found a willing driver, who was only slightly relieved to see that we had our address written in Chinese. Meeting our AirBnB owner, a young expat from South Carolina, was a highlight of the day. He offered to join us for lunch and took us to Din Tai Fung for dim sum. As we shared xiaolongbao, an absolutely delicious steamed-bun soup dumpling I impatiently waited to eat ever since I learned about them months before the voyage, he answered all of our questions about life in Shanghai. Not only did we get advice about what to eat and how to spend our time, we also learned more about his transition to life in Shanghai. Even better, I got to ride on the back of his scooter as we drove through the tree-lined streets of the French Concession, where the tree branches curve above the road to create a natural canopy of beautiful lines from the bare branches of winter. In the AirBnB apartment I learned that Shanghai buildings are often cold, as the walls fails to keep out the cold despite the heating unit on the wall. I also learned that beds in Shanghai homes are often not comfortable, as I would later try to use all the extra blankets to create a cushion underneath while also providing warmth from the cold room. I also learned that my local community had a lot of cats, whose litter smell came through the bathroom window and into the bedroom, since the bathroom window opened directly into the neighbor’s home. Shanghai is also a massive city, and isn’t compact. The French Concession is hugely spread out, and walking to a different neighborhood is not easily done, as your legs are exhausted before you even leave the French Concession. We moved over to the Old Town neighborhood, where we went to the famous Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant for yet more xiaolongbao for dinner, which is where I learned that service in Shanghai is not a priority; however, what appears to be a dismissive rudeness is only my perception. Coming from a culture that values customer service, I found the Chinese in Shanghai to be dismissive and annoyed with me, which is certainly understandable since I’m a tourist, but much of this was my perception of rudeness because of the environment in which I am more comfortable and familiar, and given the culture in China, no rudeness or dismissiveness is actually intended. We continued to walk through Old Town, where the buildings’ curves from the traditional architecture were enhanced and accentuated with lights that soon went out along with the crowds. We finished the night with a drink in the French Concession, mostly to find a place to hide from the freezing cold out in the streets. On the streets I learned about the hacking and spitting. Apparently in Chinese culture the constant loud throat-clearing-spitting is an acceptable act of cleansing, but from my perception it’s mostly gross. The next day a group of us gathered in Tian Zi Fang, where a community of alleys magically appears off a main street, with narrow walkways and a variety of shops, bars, and cafes. We had breakfast and coffee, with the coffee highly recommended and in fact delicious, in a corner nook illuminated by windows all around us. Afterwards a friend and I continued on to People’s Park, where several different groups of people gathered, some playing chess, dominoes or sharing photographs, and others were protesting something we didn’t understand. Before we left the park we were approached by three tourists apparently from Beijing who wanted us to take their picture, and afterwards continued to talk to us because they were happy to practice their English. After developing some comradery they encouraged us to go to a tea ceremony they were about to attend. Fortunately we said no, because if you Google this scenario, you will soon see that we were approached for the tea ceremony scam in Shanghai. The whole routine was rehearsed, practiced over several years and still continuing, and had we joined them we would have seen a tea ceremony, but they would also give us an astronomical bill that we would be pressured into paying as we sat in a small room not knowing what would happen if we didn’t pay. Happy to not be scammed, we went a different way and walked along Nanjing Road, and I continued on to the Bund, the waterfront area along the Huangpu River. I went on the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, a rather strange but entertaining light show in a tunnel to cross the river to Pudong, where I went to the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower for an enlightening view of the pollution in Shanghai. I learned how polluted Shanghai is from above, where at 263 meters I should see a blue sky and a massive collection of skyscrapers, but instead I only saw the skyscrapers that emerged before the pollution drowned out the buildings, sky, and sun into a cloud of gray. By the end of the night the pollution would cause my eyes to turn red and slightly sting. My time in the Oriental Pearl Tower, however, was peaceful, as I looked down upon our ship, the MV Explorer, and contemplated on where this ship brought me in the past and where the ship was about to take me. I thought about the thousands of students who have traveled on the MV Explorer, a ship they often think about and miss. I thought about how lucky I am to see the ship with my own eyes, 263 meters above the river, because I’m currently on a voyage. I remembered how we are on the last Semester at Sea voyage on the MV Explorer and how fortunate and privileged we are to have a floating home that continues to provide us with new experiences in new countries, helping us learn about the bigger world we are a part of, exposing us to new cultures and new ways of life, broadening our perspective of the world, and helping us realize that despite differences, we are all human, and ultimately the same, with hopes, dreams, and daily lives. Despite not falling in love with Shanghai, I felt grateful to be a part of a Semester at Sea voyage where I can learn about other cultures by actually visiting a country like China, instead of only hearing about China on the television or in the newspapers or online. I ended the night by viewing Pudong from the other side of the tunnel, looking back upon the Oriental Pearl Tower now spectacularly lit, illustrating the tremendous growth that has occurred in Shanghai. With the pollution, the growth is probably too much and too fast and too densely populated, and I was happy to leave. I also learned about the pushy culture of the subways on my way back to the French Concession. If you want to get on the subway in a massive crowd, you push and pay no attention to personal space. Again, this was my perception from what I am used to in the United States, but Chinese culture is different, and that doesn’t necessarily mean bad or good, it just means different. I smiled as I was pushed around because I felt happy to be experiencing something new, in a culture far removed from the comforts of home. I don’t think I would return to Shanghai, but I learned a lot, which is why we are on this voyage. I had the wonderful opportunity to experience life in a much different culture. I was out of my comfort zone, I broadened my perspective, and I learned about life in Shanghai, which is ultimately the reason why this ship takes us around the world.     

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Kyoto, Japan

Arriving in Kyoto together, on time, was most likely the result of some guardian angels of traveling. I really don’t know how we walked on to our bullet train to Kyoto seconds before the train left. Meeting at large silver bell in the Central Passage of Tokyo Station was easy in theory, but my friends had my ticket, which I needed to enter the Central Passage, assuming I could find the Central Passage, which I couldn’t find. Without a way to communicate with each other we had to guess where to find each other. The bullet train to Kyoto would be a likely choice, but most of us didn’t know where to find the train, including me, even though a nice Japanese woman gave me a temporary ticket to enter the gates. Two minutes before departure time I was closer to our train but I was walking the wrong way and somehow my friends saw me, grabbed my arm, we quickly found the correct platform and the bullet train sped off seconds after we walked on, mostly because the nice Japanese man kept pushing the button to keep the door open for us. The Japanese people we encountered are truly friendly, welcoming, and helpful people, offering joyous greetings upon entering a restaurant and willingly helping the tourists who would annoy most locals in other countries. After a late-night dinner at the Family Mart konbini, we rested and started the next day with a much needed and relaxing breakfast at the Café Bibliotic, where we found carefully prepared pastries in the attached bakery. With the heat blasted we happily escaped the cold winter streets of Kyoto, and were instead surrounded by books, wood architecture, and Japanese hipsters all dressed far better than us. The Japanese certainly know how to dress, with trendy black coats and scarves, dark tailored pants, and dapper shoes. Our next stop was Kinkaku-ji Shrine, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which despite a huge crowd of tourists, still managed to convey the peace, tranquility, and beauty of the original intention. The gold temple looked like an apparition with the curving lines of the mountains in the background and the reflecting pond and gardens in the foreground. After wandering around and trying some more konbini snacks, along with vending machine hot coffee and various cold drinks, a  brilliant offering on almost every other street in Japan, we furthered our wandering around the Gion District, but unfortunately failed to see a Geisha in the dark streets. Working up a tremendous hunger we were rewarded with a warm, flavorful, and intricately prepared udon meal, along with sweet potato tempura and pork cutlet tempura, a meal I would think about for the next two days until I went back again. The next day I ventured off on my own, wandering and exploring, one of the true joys of being in a new country. Unfortunately the first half of the day was rainy, but I found several hideouts from the rain. My wandering led me to bookstores overflowing with books on the shelves and stairs, a return trip to the Café Bibliotic for the brilliantly delicious peanut butter pastry, soon followed by fresh, and fun, conveyor belt sushi at Musashi Sushi, where one of the servers gave me recommendations. I continued to hide from the rain in the covered streets of the Nishiki Market, a narrow and seemingly endless alley of colors, sounds, sights, and vendors, with fresh fish, meat, spices, and various goods for sale. I managed to find room for grilled mochi with red bean paste, matcha dorayaki cakes, and a matcha cake slice. With the rain finally stopped, I took the train to the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, where as many as 10,000 torii gates are lined up one after the other in over 4 kilometers to the top of the mountain. The Fushimi Inari Shrine was definitely a highlight of Kyoto. I arrived shortly before sunset when there wasn’t a crowd of people. With less people I could more easily place myself in a peaceful retreat in the woods. The thousands of orange torri gates, slowly fading in color as the sun went down, lined up in a maze through the woods, with thousands of small shrines located off to the side, as well as numerous fox sculptures, and a large pond around one turn, made the site a mystical place, an architectural wonder, and a spiritual experience. Afterwards, although I was able to find a backstreet yakitori restaurant, a 36 Hours in Kyoto New York Times article made the location too popular for me to walk in without a reservation, so I moved along to another well-reviewed yakitori restaurant, where I sat at the bar and watched the cooks grill the chicken, quail eggs, chicken meatball with egg yolk, and heart that I ordered. The next day we had to be back on the ship, but a friend and I decided to make the most out of the time we had, visiting the Kiyomizu Dera temple in the morning. The temple is tucked alongside a mountain and surrounded by trees, except for the eastern side where there is a clear view of the city skyline, and is a perfect embodiment of Kyoto, where traditional and modern seamlessly blend together. Although the temple is popular and crowded, the feeling of a spiritual retreat remained alive, especially as the snow started to fall. I will always remember the sun shining and snow falling at the same time, as we stood on the edge of the temple’s balcony looking upon the mountains and the skyline of Kyoto, with incense burning and worshipers bowing and clapping, recognizing that we had just spent 5 nights and 6 days in Japan, quickly learning more about the culture and becoming more comfortable in a new country. We said goodbye to Kyoto with three more eating and drinking visits within a couple of hours, including a repeat visit to the udon restaurant and a new visit to an old 1950’s style basement bar famous for its coffee and donut. The owner quietly and meticulously weighed and measured the coffee during the preparation. Well-dressed Japanese men and women quietly read in the basement retreat on a busy street, yet another blend of the busy and modern aspects of Japan and the quiet and serene aspects of Japan. Our last visit was to the conveyor belt sushi restaurant I found a couple of days earlier, where I joyfully and sadly ate my last bite of fresh sushi in Japan. Hanging on to every last minute of Japan, we arrived at the ship and I suddenly found myself back in my cabin after six days of a tremendous amount of walking, a glorious amount of Japanese food, a culturally enriching comparison of Tokyo and Kyoto, and our first memories and experiences in a new country during the Spring 2015 voyage. Japan is easily a country in which I could live. What a wonderful country where you bow instead of shaking hands, you take your shoes off when entering a home, you carefully prepare fresh and delicious food with attention to detail, you are quiet on the subway, you are welcoming and respectful to others, you honor spiritual traditions, and you embrace eccentricity.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tokyo, Japan

After leaving San Diego on January 6th, we spent 17 of 19 days at sea. During our route to Japan we were alone at sea. No ships, no land, only a few seabirds, and weeks of ocean water. Waking up on January 26th to finally see other ships and to finally see land, was surreal and I struggled to comprehend that we had crossed the massive Pacific Ocean. The last few days brought rough seas. Students fell out of chairs, dishes slid and broke, my shower water poured out of the shower and onto the bathroom floor, people were slightly grumpy, and I often felt nauseous during the last two days. A week earlier we went hundreds of miles off course to avoid a major storm that would have brought 50 foot swells. Fortunately we only had 18-20 foot swells. Before arriving in Japan, the ocean apparently wanted to remind us that crossing the Pacific is not easily accomplished. After weeks at sea without visiting any countries outside of the United States, and having experienced a Semester at Sea voyage before, I felt as if something was missing. I don’t think I knew what was missing at the time, but as I left immigration and walked into Yokohama, Japan, I found what was missing during the Pacific crossing, which was the feeling of visiting a new country.  I couldn’t read the signs, people didn’t speak English, I didn’t know where I was going, and I couldn’t have been happier. We eventually found our way to our AirBnB apartment in the Shibuya neighborhood of Tokyo. We crossed Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest intersections in the world, on our way to a small ramen restaurant, Kiraku, popular with the locals, which was unbelievably delicious and possibly one of the best meals I had. The broth, noodles, pork, egg, bean sprouts, and gyoza were all fresh and full of flavor. We then found a second-floor aerial view of Shibuya Crossing, watching all the cars stop once all the lights turned red, clearing the intersection for a brief moment before a flood of people cover the white crossing stripes seconds later. In Harajuku, we slowly walked through the smell of crepes, the sight of clothing stores, and the feel of a crowd of people strolling through the narrow Takeshita street. Upon recommendation, we made our way to Golden Gai, where narrow alleys with messy electrical lines reveal small two-floor shacks of old Japanese architecture, with tiny bars. Without a recommendation, these alleys might have looked like trouble. Albatross was a highlight, with only about five bar stools, two tiny circular tables tucked in the corner, and chandeliers, a disco ball, a deer head, and liquor bottles filling up the small space. Hungry for dinner, we ate a delicious Japanese meal with a former UVA international student from Japan, who fortunately did all the ordering for us. The next morning I continued my love for Japanese convenience stores, konbinis, by getting breakfast at the Family Mart. I navigated the subway system to meet up at the Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa. Our senses were truly alive with the rituals of cleansing water, burning incense, clapping hands, coin throwing offerings, fortune stick shaking, and crowd gathering. After a tempura lunch on tatami floors we went to the Tokyo Skytree. I will never forget the shock of arriving on the 350th floor and looking down on Tokyo, a massive city which looks like a futuristic CGI representation of some futuristic city. The scale of the city is difficult to comprehend and I couldn’t stop staring out at the 360-degree view of city neighborhood after city neighborhood. As night fell and the city started to light up, I didn’t want to leave, but we had to meet others for dinner, where we grilled our own fish at the table. I can’t describe the robot burlesque show that followed, other than to say that each skit began eccentrically and nonsensically, only to escalate to greater eccentricity and much less sense, like pandas riding cows fighting robots, which made the Japanese girls playing drums on robots, the show opener, seem rather normal. The show was especially fun because we brought around fourteen Semester at Sea friends together for the show. We all gathered into a karaoke room after the show, which made the evening a fully eccentric Tokyo night, ending around 3am. The night definitely brought us closer together, as this was one of our first nights out in a new country. The next day I ventured out alone, wandering around the streets in Harajuku, stopping for coffee, including a stop at one of the best coffee shops I have ever been to, a small home with a single counter and a single barista making some of the best coffee I have ever tasted, so good that I followed my cappuccino and baked custard with a macchiato and another baked custard. Later I had conveyor belt sushi, where a nice Japanese woman helped me understand what was going on. She even made my green tea for me from the matcha powder. One of my favorite parts of traveling alone is the increased wandering that you can create, which often leads to surprising interactions and a greater awareness of your surroundings. The Meiji Shrine was my final visit before grabbing some tonkatsu for the bullet ride to Kyoto. I absolutely fell in love with Tokyo. The energy of the city is contagious and addictive. The variety of neighborhoods makes exploring the city an unending adventure. The quality of the food and the attention to detail is hard to leave behind. The eccentricity is uniquely Tokyo. The shrines, parks, and open spaces give breathability to Tokyo. As I looked out at the city from the Tokyo Skytree I thought about what it would be like to live in Tokyo, choosing a neighborhood, finding endlessly new places to eat, easily navigating the seemingly complex transportation system, and falling in love with a new city. I thought about the feelings and experiences travel evokes. Those feelings and experiences were missing in the first few weeks of the voyage, and although they were worth waiting for as we built the foundations of the shipboard community, the Spring 2015 Semester at Sea voyage was beginning again in a new and exciting way, and I found what was missing.     

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Hilo, Hawaii

Had we not stopped in Hilo, Hawaii, we would have spent 17 consecutive days at sea on the way to Japan. Our one-day visit welcomingly offered a chance to step on land after 6 days at sea since Ensenada and before 10 days at sea until Yokohama, Japan. I woke up at 6am to watch us arrive in Hilo. After a week of no land in sight, the emergence of the volcanic Big Island of Hawaii was an impressive sight. In the dark before the sunrise, the lights of the island were the first signs of land, until they faded and the ridges of the mountains and the outlines of the shoreline emerged in the early dawn sky, followed by the appearance of the island’s colors once the sun rose and colored in the green trees, black and solidified lava, and glowing red windows reflecting the rising sun. Arriving by ship offers an expansive view that slowly changes and narrows, offering more details as we move closer to the port. The world suddenly comes to life. Whales emerged from the water all around the ship, volcanoes looked down on the land they created, paddle boarders watched us arrive, the pilot jumped off his pilot boat onto our ship, and the sun continued to rise. I witnessed our arrival from the 7th deck, talking to Evan, one of the students I am happy is on the ship. We also talked to a couple students who currently live in Hawaii and were able to offer information about the island as we arrived. Many of the students surprise me with their maturity, curiosity, and sense of adventure. I often feel renewed after talking to a student. I don’t think the Semester at Sea experience has become routine to me in any way, but I definitely have a comfort and familiarity with the program, and talking to a student reminds me of the newness and adventure of the voyage. With limited time in Hilo I decided to join a Semester at Sea field program to make the best use of the time, and get some much needed exercise. The field programs are also a good way to meet students, and I enjoyed talking with Andrea, Ramin, and Tirso during the day. We went on a bicycle trip through Volcanoes National Park, which was a great decision. Riding a bike while you pass by lava flows, steam vents, volcanic gas, and craters is a pretty scenic location for a bike ride. As a result of the sulfur levels and still air we unfortunately had to delay the start of the bike ride and travel in the van, but this ultimately worked in our favor because we were able to see more of the park by the end of the day. We started at the Kilauea summit, around Crater Rim Drive, to Thurston Lava Tube where we walked through the rainforest. We had a delicious lunch with fresh papayas and pineapple alongside one of the many craters, and then jumped on our bikes. We rode our bikes to the Keanakakoi Crater where we walked on the hardened lava and looked at Pele’s Hair, a volcanic glass fiber formed by the molten lava, which looks like the Goddess Pele’s hair but is sharp enough to scrape your fingers, which happened to me since I played with it like it was her hair, which it is not. The landscape is powerful and alive. Our guide was enthusiastic and clearly wanted to share his love of Hawaii with us, which helped me learn more about the island, including the formation of Hawaii, types of lava flows, risk of eruptions, rain climate, low cost of real estate, natural medicines, ethnic diversity, wildlife, birds, agriculture, industries, and movement for sovereignty. I wish we had more time in Hawaii, especially for some of the hiking around the park. Hawaii is an interesting state with a culture obviously far different from the other states, a culture and history that offered a fitting bridge between our travels from California to Japan. The next day we stopped in Honolulu to refuel, but unfortunately we had to view Honolulu from the ship, as classes resumed while we were in port for the refueling. Honolulu drifted from our view later that night, as we began the next stretch at sea, 10 days to Japan. 

Monday, January 12, 2015


I was somewhat emotionally exhausted as the voyage began, which was not ideal, but I was grateful more than any other emotion. I traveled from Virginia to Connecticut to San Diego to the MV Explorer, as if I was on a tour of my life, allowing me to reflect upon all that has led me to this present moment, my second voyage around the world with Semester at Sea. The transition to the Spring 2015 voyage was especially full-circle, as I spent a few hours of the first night on the MV Explorer with some of my friends from the Fall 2012 voyage. In a way I was able to connect the two voyages. I was not leaving Fall 2012 behind, but I was carrying the experience with me as I join the Spring 2015 shipboard community. My Fall 2012 friends' excitement for me, and their jealousy, helped me move from reflection to a readiness for a new experience, one in which many people would trade places with me in a second. The Spring 2015 voyage will be the last Semester at Sea voyage on the MV Explorer, a ship that has been home to tens of thousands of students, faculty, staff, dependents, lifelong learners, and crew members. To travel on any Semester at Sea voyage is unique enough, but to travel on the final voyage of the MV Explorer is an opportunity every single one of those tens of thousands of people would drop everything to have. How blessed and grateful I am to be here. Slowing down and being present did not come easy. The first few days were a blur of activity, exhausting in a different way, with orientation meetings and preparations. After leaving San Diego and sailing to Ensenada, the students boarded and the excitement truly began. The students bring a welcome energy to the ship and a way to see the experience through new eyes. I remember standing on the observation deck after the sun had set and most of the observers left. Above the horizon, a darker orange than the sunset had offered began to glow, lighting up the sky in a subtle shade of purple. The ocean offered an expansive view of nothing but water, with no land in sight, and a different dimension of seeing as we floated above the ocean with grace. Two students came up from behind me and immediately let out shrieks of wonder and awe at what they were seeing, as they had not yet been to the observation deck for a sunset. How unique and rewarding to be a part of the meaningful and eye-opening experiences these students will continuously have. How unique and rewarding to feel the same as them. I often don’t have words to describe what I am experiencing. I’m shrieking in wonder and awe as much as they are. We are indeed lucky little bunnies to have the opportunity to visit 12 countries and 15 cities and broaden our perspective and understanding of the world, while living on a ship and sharing the experience with each other. I’m starting to feel comfortable back at sea. When I stare out at the ocean from a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with no land in sight, I feel like my soul is reconnecting with a part of itself it has sorely missed. Living on the ocean for four months during a Semester at Sea voyage is difficult to explain. This is not a cruise, in any way. Describing the experience as a voyage is not simply a marketing technique. We become a community and the ship becomes a home. We view the ever-changing ocean away from the comfort of land. We explore places we have never been to before. We are on a journey. I’m happy to be home at sea on the MV Explorer. I also miss my family and friends and my many homes through the years, all of which I visited in a matter of days, but right now, I’m here. I’m home.       

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Spring 2015 Semester at Sea Voyage

In a few days I will embark on the Spring 2015 Semester at Sea voyage. Of course I am excited. Of course I am grateful. Of course I have been impatiently waiting for the voyage to begin. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m not calm. I’m quite the opposite. I’m a mix of nerves, anticipation, joy, and anxiety, and I’m reflective and nostalgic about all that I’m leaving behind. You wouldn’t think I would be nervous. Since August of 2012 I have traveled to Canada, Ireland, England, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Canary Islands, Ghana, South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Dominica, Vietnam, Guatemala, Sweden, Denmark, Scotland, Iceland, and Northern Ireland. I’m familiar with the Semester at Sea program and I’ve thought about the transformative benefits of international education ever since the Fall 2012 voyage. Yet my emotions are heightened, I’m nervous, reflective, and even a bit sad. I somewhat understand the cycle of my emotions. I know in four months I will be in tears because I don’t want the voyage to end. Yet right now, I’m on the verge of tears as I think about the life I am leaving behind for four months. Stepping out of your comfort zone is not easy, and the uncomfortable feeling of being pulled away from your safety net, facing the unknown, and taking a risk, is probably why many people avoid stepping out of their comfort zones. Although in four months I might question them, right now, I understand and empathize. I’m living on a ship for four months, not knowing anyone on the ship, and traveling across the Pacific Ocean to 15 cities and 12 countries, mostly countries I have never traveled to before. Of course this is exciting, of course I am crazy fortunate, and of course this will be a highlight of my life, yet I feel pulled away from the safety of family and a routine. Stepping out of my comfort zone doesn’t come naturally to me. Some people might think I’ve become an adventurous world traveler, but this is not my natural state. I enjoy routines as much as anyone else, but I also live in a state of wanderlust, which is a confusing and emotional dichotomy. When I’m in a routine, I want to shake things up and experience something new. I know life is short and the world is big. I have a curiosity about other cultures and I feel truly alive when traveling. However, when I act upon that risk, at first I am uncomfortable and sad about what I’m leaving behind, but when I experience something new I am renewed and grateful, feeling silly for the prior hesitations. This is the cycle of stepping out of your comfort zone; it’s always uncomfortable at first, filled with hesitations, but is always rewarding and fulfilling, filled with the thrilling joy of discovery, allowing you to experience life in a way you never have before, opening up your eyes, your mind, your heart, and your soul, and changing and enhancing your life forever. I know this. I remember when I traveled to Vietnam I was full of hesitations at the airport. I felt overwhelmed and nervous. I was arriving in Vietnam on my own, having never been to Asia before. I was standing on a cliff looking down at the water, afraid to jump in, like a child afraid to go down a slide, and like the thrill of having let go, experiencing life, ready to go back up and do it again, so was I after a couple days in Vietnam. I learned phrases and was able to talk to locals. I was crossing the street, dodging motorbikes and cars, with a confidence as if I lived there. I was in tears at not wanting to leave after two weeks. I came home and immediately bought a Vespa. How opposite the emotions can be when you step out of your comfort zone, from hesitation to commitment, from fear to courage, from sadness to joy. Right now I am nervous and hesitant, sad to leave everyone behind as I think about all the love, support, and encouragement I have received. Right now I am in the comfort of home. However, I know how important stepping out of your comfort zone truly is, in order to take risks, to experience something new, to embrace other cultures and other people, to learn and grow, to live this short and fragile life as a gift and have a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty in this world, to be a part of a shipboard community where hundreds of people experience a meaningful highlight of their lives, growing close in a way few experiences allow. In a few days I will have no choice but to summon the courage to lose sight of the shore, because I am ready to cross the ocean.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Fall 2012 Documentary

I am happy to share the travel documentary I made, Across the Ocean, about the Fall 2012 Semester at Sea voyage. I had a lot of fun editing this video, as beautiful memories of the voyage quickly returned. To look back on many of the experiences is undoubtedly a gift. With gratitude, Jonathan

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Roseau, Dominica

I realize I never wrote an entry about our time in Roseau, Dominica, the last port of the Fall 2012 voyage, most likely because I didn't know what to say, and I still don't. I'll never forget Dominica, for both good and bad reasons. I won't try to capture the emotion of this port, because I can't, but what I will always remember, good and bad, deserves a place with the reflections of the other countries we called home during the previous four months, even if the reflection is brief and unrepresentative of what we all felt. Somehow our voyage was coming to an end. Only four months ago I had never been to Canada, Ireland, England, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Canary Islands, Ghana, South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, or Dominica. The entirety of the voyage was coming into view, a view both tremendously joyful and bitterly sad. The MV Explorer was our new home, our jobs on the ship had become our new work life, and our friends on the ship became our new community. The seemingly endless new experiences became our new way of living, and Semester at Sea had become our daily life. Somewhere along the way, the voyage was no longer a temporary journey, but a home. In some ways, this would remain true, as we now saw the world and ourselves in a different way, and our thoughts, beliefs, and actions were forever changed. New experiences, embracing other cultures, and an opened mind were in fact a new way of living. Yet, the voyage was about to end. With two days in Dominica, we spent the first morning in town, wandering the streets of Roseau, followed by hiring a driver with the most colorful and flashy open-air van in town, complete with a squeaky horn. We spent the afternoon on the beach, happy to be with each other, aware that our adventures in new ports were coming to an end, yet still present in the moment, admiring the warm sun and clear waters. Our drive back from the beach was stunning, with some of the warmest glows from the sun I've ever seen, causing every color, the pink and blues of the houses and the greens of the leaves, to brightly glow as the sun faded. Our driver rushed to the top of a hill where we looked down upon our floating home, the MV Explorer, a ship that had taken us all over the world, resting alongside the city of Roseau, as the sun faded and the city turned to night. We returned to the ship to hear sad and tragic news. We will always remember the beach in Dominica, as one of the students, Casey Schulman, lost her life there, not far from where we were in the water earlier in the day. Looking back, I think we were in denial the rest of the day, convincing ourselves that she was okay, despite what we saw on the beach. I'll never forget how silent and sorrowful the ship was that night. After four months of liveliness, with classes, travel stories, meals, music, dancing, seminars, lectures, travel plans, student organization events, happy hours, and new friendships, the ship was completely silent. Everyone will forever remember Casey, of course for who she was, but also for the reminder that life is a fragile gift to never take for granted. The next day is a bit of a blur, but we managed to enjoy a day of guided snorkeling in one of the best snorkeling and scuba diving locations in the world. Leaving Dominica was not easy, knowing we were headed back to the United States with one less student. All of our hearts were hurting as we pulled away from the port and headed home. What would have been more of a celebration became a deeper reflection on the fragility of life, with gratitude for what we had experienced over the past four months. Also, we were not individuals, but a shipboard community, deeply connected, where every life is a gift. Our Fall 2012 Semester at Sea voyage was truly a gift. We all felt truly alive during every moment of a new cultural experience, and grew close with one another in a way that few experiences allow. The unique bond that occurs during a study abroad program is a powerful force. I don't know how to end my travel reflections from the Fall 2012 Semester at Sea voyage, for the same reason tears fell from so many eyes at the end of the voyage. We never wanted it to end.