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

Embarkation

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.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Manaus, Brazil

Manaus, Brazil is in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Manaus was truly a unique port because we spent two days sailing on the Amazon River after entering the mouth of the river in Macapa. After several months on the Atlantic Ocean, traveling deep into the Amazon rainforest on the famous Amazon river was a distinct change of pace, and noticeably different, with brown water, the smell of burning and smoke in the air, and a closed food deck as a result of the plentiful and large bugs. Sometimes immensely wide, other times narrow enough for us to wave at the local village tribes on the banks of the river, the landscape continually changed as we wound through the river, with seemingly endless channels and mazes deeper into the rainforest. Upon arriving in Manaus, I boarded a small riverboat for a 2 night, 3 day, relatively rugged riverboat adventure deeper into the Amazon rainforest, which turned out to be a definite highlight of the entire voyage. After recently coming from South Africa, Patagonia, and Rio de Janeiro, every day seems like a highlight, but the remoteness of Manaus, the isolation of the Amazon Rainforest, the interaction with indigenous Brazilians, and sleeping in hammocks on a riverboat, certainly made the rare experience a highlight. The days and nights quickly passed with endlessly new adventures. We traveled to the Meeting of the Waters, where the black-colored water of the Rio Negro and the brown, sand-colored water of the Rio Solimoes run side-by-side, but don't mix. We sailed under the Manaus-Iranduba Bridge. We learned more about Amazonian culture from our funny, interactive, and experienced guides, as well as the village where we stopped to witness daily life. Our guides made the experience educational, interactive, and fun, welcoming us into the communities we visited. We saw giant water lilies. I held a small sloth in my arms, which is possibly the cutest and wildest looking animal I've ever seen. Our cooks on the riverboat set up the first of many delicious buffet-style arrangements of fresh fish, rice, and plantains. Our guides hung hammocks inside the boat, where we spent the first night listening to the sounds of the Amazon as we fell asleep, or at least tried to fall asleep given the fact that hammocks are more suited for naps than a good night's sleep. The next morning we went on a ridiculously hot hike through the jungle. (Even our guides admitted the heat and humidity was a little higher than usual.) Despite sweating more than I've probably ever sweated in my life, which is saying a lot since it doesn't take much for me to start sweating, I was fully in the moment, as I felt all my senses alive during the hike, with the sounds, smells, and feel of the hot Amazon jungle. Our guides passed along survival tips while explaining the culture and life in the Amazon rainforest. We cooled off with a swim where our riverboat was docked, and then traveled to the Acajatuba village, where we played soccer with kids from the local community. I'm pretty sure they went easy on us, as they moved around the field and passed and kicked with ease, clearly able to dominate us if they didn't hold back. Their welcoming nature and the joy they all had was definitely memorable. After the game we had a couple drinks at their local bar, and watched the sun start to set over the village. We were visiting in the dry season, and the church, market, and homes exposed the stilts built to keep the buildings above the flooding waters during the rainy season. Being there in the dry season made it difficult to comprehend how much water floods into the villages. The canoes at the base of the homes were signs of how walking where we stood would not be possible in several months. The evening canoe ride in search of caimans, an alligator species, was beautiful, as we slowly started to become immersed in the jungle at night. Although we didn't catch a caiman, the ride was absolutely scenic, and I'll always remember the loud chorus of frogs. We ended the night with a barbecue on a beach, and then went fishing for piranhas in the morning. I'm deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to experience life in the Amazon rainforest. I was humbled to realize that while back home in the United States I live with an abundance of probably unnecessary amenities, these Amazonian communities are living their daily life in a completely remote area, with very little, in a rugged and unforgiving environment, and doing so with fulfillment and joy. I'll forever look at a map, see the Amazon rainforest, and think of those communities, and feel a sense of wonder and awe that for several nights and days, I was there, sleeping in a hammock to the sound of the rainforest, learning more about the economy, life, culture, and community of the Amazon rainforest.      

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


Everyone was excited to arrive in Rio de Janeiro. One of the greatest aspects of Semester at Sea was our method of traveling. No bags to carry through an airport and no need to keep our eyes on the road, but instead we continually arrived in one new country after the other, with a slow approach on a ship, allowing us to stand outside on the deck and see each city in the context of its surroundings. Despite a cloudy morning, arriving in Rio was as exciting and beautiful as we all hoped it might be. We passed by the crowded favelas on the hills, the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, and Sugarloaf Mountain before arriving in port. Although we occasionally had to wait in line to pick up our passports and have a face-to-face encounter with a customs agent, as we did in Rio, I always appreciated the ease of traveling on the ship and simply swiping our shipboard ID to immediately head out and explore a new country. One of the smartest decisions I made before leaving the United States was to bring currency from every country. The ATM at the port was overrun with Semester at Sea students, faculty, and staff waiting in line and the ATMs outside the port didn’t like Brett and Kai’s Visa debit cards. The Brazilian Real I brought was enough to get us a cab to Sugarloaf Mountain, allowing us to beat the crowds and not wait in line. Brett, Kai, and I took the cable car to Morro da Urca, the first mountain, and after walking around amazed at the view and geography of Rio we took the cable car to the summit, Pão de Açúcar, where the view only became more stunning. The scattered mountains and hills that surround the beaches, neighborhoods, and lagoons of Rio create an otherworldly panorama that is hard to turn your eyes away from. Even as we got back on the cable car to take the scenic ride back down, I wanted to remain on the mountain with my imagination running wild about the world and life that was below us. After going to the beach and having lunch in Ipanema, we went to the Hippie Market, where we ran into numerous Semester at Sea friends (also known as SASers) and I had an indulgently delicious acai smoothie with guarana from a local juice bar on the street. In every country we would run into friends from the ship, which created a fun illusion, as if we actually lived in Brazil and were simply running into friends at the market. I then joined Henri and Jake for a walk around Ipanema, where I switched from acai to a mango juice drink, which was equally good. The juice bars in Rio are fabulous, and they perfectly satisfied my sweet tooth because I could feel healthy indulging in them. Our walk along the beach during sunset was one of my favorite walks of the voyage. The sun was setting behind the mountains and the street was closed to traffic, allowing everyone to walk, run, bike, and skateboard in the street. With most people walking, the street looked a lot like zombies from The Walking Dead overtaking Ipanema. We watched locals on the beach, some skilled and some beginners, balancing and jumping on slacklines tied to the palm trees and silhouetted by the setting sun behind them. Later we went to dinner at a local hangout and sat outside, with Henri working his magic and ordering us a delicious array of food to share. On our walk through the streets after dinner, the favelas on the hill were magically lit up with a condensed constellation of lights twinkling amidst the dark night. We walked over to a local music venue to see a Bossa Nova show in Ipanema, where a large Semester at Sea group had gathered for the show. After a long day of walking, sitting down and listening to live music was a comforting ending to the night. The next day Henri, Jake, and I gathered again for coffee and breakfast at a local confeitaria. We joined Jessa, Claire, Kim, and Patrick for yet more acai drinks, and then we all walked along Ipanema towards Copacabana. Afterwards we all took cabs to the culturally rich, lively, and artistic neighborhoods of Santa Teresa and Lapa, where we spent time walking around the Escadaria Selarón, the famous tiled steps created by the late Jorge Selarón, who recently and allegedly killed himself by setting himself on fire on the steps. Jorge Selarón was at the steps in Rio the same day, but unfortunately not during the couple of hours we were there and had lunch nearby at a local restaurant by the steps. Afterwards we went to Corcovado and took the train to the peak, where the Christ the Redeemer statue overlooks the city of Rio. For the longest time I have seen photos and videos of the statue, and to actually be there was hard to believe. I never ceased to be grateful and filled with wonder and awe that I was going from one famous landmark to the next. This day was just another day of the voyage, which happened to be at one of the most famous peaks and statues in the entire world. The size of the statue (125 ft.) on top of a peak (2329 ft.) is breathtaking, and the view of Rio is equally stunning, with scattered hills and mountains, some with favelas, rising above the neighborhoods and beaches. We arrived with enough time to marvel at the view, as the clouds soon took over the peak, hiding the view below and drastically lowering the temperature. Our busy day led us nicely to perhaps the most food all of us ever ate at one sitting, at Porcão, a Brazilian steakhouse, where meat arrived at our table within a few seconds of sitting down. Our servers rotated around the table, cutting us endless pieces of meat, as we all laughed and stuffed ourselves silly. We took time lapse videos of a true feast, which was a nice moment, a group of friends together sharing a meal, talking, laughing, and feeling full after a full day of exploring Rio together. Jake, Henri, Patrick, Kim, Claire, Jessa, and I were all together at that moment in time, in the amazing city of Rio de Janeiro, and my heart felt full as well. The next day was unfortunately an endless downpour of rain, but I suppose I was in the right place. Patrick, Jacques, Emily, Kierra, Keith, Claire, and I were all on a trip to the Tijuca Forest, the world’s largest urban rainforest. The experience was certainly complete with us hiking in the rain. Fortunately we spent our days on the beaches and streets of Rio during the first 2 days of sunshine, but despite the rain on the 3rd day, we enjoyed seeing another side of Rio. Also, our hike through Tijuca Forest served as an appropriate transition to our next port, Manaus, Brazil, a city deep in the state of Amazonas. Rio was certainly a highlight of the voyage. A unique feeling I had whenever we left a city or country, was a sense of bittersweet sadness at leaving a place that started to feel like home. Even in a short amount of time I would grow somewhat attached to every country, the people, the culture, and the lifestyle. As the ship’s horn blew (miraculously not causing me to drop my iPhone in the sea as I stood on the edge of the deck and filmed us sail away) and the land began to fade away in the distance, I was missing a place I could suddenly call home, which was how I felt leaving almost every country; however, I was always looking forward to our next destination, which at the time was an unfamiliar and unknown place, but after a few days of exploring the unknown, suddenly the country, people, culture, and lifestyle would become familiar, and I’d most likely find yet another place I could call home, which once again happened in Rio de Janeiro. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay


Before boarding the ship I purchased in advance the Semester at Sea trip to El Calafate and Chalten in Patagonia, Argentina. As we approached South America I was a little hesitant about the trip, only because I would miss most of the time in Buenos Aires and Montevideo; the Patagonia trip was 4 nights and 5 days long, departing in Buenos Aires and rejoining the ship on a flight to Montevideo the night before leaving for Brazil. Also, none of my friends signed up for this trip and I didn’t know any of the students. My hesitations, as minor as they were, ended up being completely ridiculous; the Patagonia trip was a definite highlight of the voyage and one of the best trips I have ever been on in my life. I don’t really know what to say to capture Patagonia. I most likely can’t find the words to describe the surreal landscape. I already looked at my pictures and video, and although they give a good sense of what we saw, they don’t capture the feeling of standing there in person. I’ll won’t attempt to use superfluous words to describe a landscape that is somewhat indescribable, but I’ll first begin by saying that I fortunately got to see many parts of Buenos Aires on my one and only day in the city. I went on a city orientation Semester at Sea trip that drove through and stopped in different neighborhoods, including the Plaza de Mayo, La Boca, Puerto Madero, Palermo, and Recoleta, where we visited a variety of buildings, streets, and sights, such as La Casa Rosada, the pink government building in Plaza de Mayo, the colorful houses and tango artists on Caminito in La Boca, the streets and architecture of Puerto Madero and Palermo, and Evita’s grave in the Recoleta Cemetery. At night, a large group of us went out in Palermo for dinner and drinks. Don, Erika, Jake, Brett, Henri, Claire, Jessa, Kai, Kim, Holly, Patrick, and I went to a cool little bar while we waited for our tables at a popular local restaurant which ultimately lived up to its reputation, as they filled our table with Argentinian meats, sides, and dipping sauces in an impressive array of deliciousness. I had a lot of fun and really enjoyed the company of good friends. Soon after I joined our Patagonia trip in the Union at 3am for our early morning flight to El Calafate. What followed was a trip I will remember for the rest of my life. Our flight connected in Ushuaia, which is considered to be the southernmost city in the world, by Tierra del Fuego, where we flew over the massive snow-covered Andes Mountains, descending directly over the peaks, close enough to feel as if we might crash into the Andes. Upon arriving in El Calafate, our first stop was the Perito Moreno Glacier, a landmark that is often the picture used to represent Patagonia, and for good reasons. You look directly down on the massive glacier as it extends beyond the horizon and you can also walk further down to stand almost directly in front of the glacier. The contrast against the mountains on each side as well as the point where the glacier ends and the lake begins, creates a surreal landscape. The sound of huge pieces of ice falling off the glacier echoed through the silence of the area. Our evenings in town were also surprisingly fun. El Calafate is a charming small town, with great food, and I had a fun dinner with some students, followed by calafate ice cream and chocolate. Calafate is a local shrub grown for its fruit, with a unique taste that worked perfectly in ice cream and chocolate. The next day was the highlight of the trip for me and for many of the students as well. We started our morning in a small boat on a 3-hour ride through the Argentino Lake, passing through icebergs in what was without a doubt the best boat ride I’ve ever been on. The icebergs looked like CGI as we slowly passed by them and maneuvered in between them. We were all in wonder and awe at the glassy and still water and the various shades of blue in each iceberg, enhanced by the gray skies that actually brought out more color through the reflections on the icebergs. This would have been enough fun on its own, but from there we arrived at the Estancia Cristina, where we had lunch on the ranch before taking 4x4s up the mountain. The ride up the mountain became more interesting with every turn, as we ascended to a stunning view of the Andes Mountains. Once we arrived at the point where glacial erosion had occurred and we had to hike, we walked along the glacial rock, a surface that appears to belong on another planet. The hike led us to quite possibly the best viewpoint I have ever stood upon, as we looked at 3 different glaciers wedged between the Andes Mountains, most notably the Upsala Glacier. The small lake was a glowing shade of bluish-green that I had never seen before. Although the wind was incredibly powerful, making it difficult to talk into the wind, nobody wanted to leave. We were in an incredibly remote part of the world, where few people have probably stood, and I was in wonder and awe at my place in the world at that moment. On the way back to El Calafate, I had fun talking to our guides, who offered their thoughts on living on the ranch and exploring Patagonia, while sharing mate with me. Upon returning to town, all 16 of us had dinner together at one table, like a big Thanksgiving dinner. The next day we took a short boat ride to the Viedma Glacier, where we went ice climbing and ice trekking. To be honest, when I was guided along a thin ledge of snow to climb the ice with a crevasse below me, even though I had 2 ice picks in my hand, crampons on my boots, and a climbing rope, I was slightly hesitant upon looking up at the steep glacial ice in front of me; however, ascending was actually easier than going back down. Despite trusting the guide with the rope, repelling down is not easy without the proper posture and somewhat blind footwork to allow for a quicker descent. Ice climbing was definitely a rush and I wish I had more time to climb again. Afterwards we walked along the glacier, which provided stunning views of the expansive glacier. Looking ahead of me and seeing our group walking on top of the glacier, with crevasses everywhere in sight, appeared as if we were somewhere exceptionally difficult to reach, and in fact, we were. The glacial ice of Patagonia is a remote location seen by few people, and as we finished the day by having chilled Baileys with snow as our ice, served happily by our guides, we all marveled at the multitude of sights we were seeing. For the evening we moved on to our next location in Chalten, a much smaller town where we had dinner in a small charming log cabin with a fireplace. The next day we braved the Laguna de los Tres hike despite potentially bad weather. The first part of the hike was clear, as we walked through the forest with mountains and glaciers appearing on our side, but upon beginning the more challenging elevation gain, the weather turned bad. Most of us decided to hike anyway, through the rain which caused the rocky ascent to sound like and appear to be a koi pond waterfall. As we continued to ascend towards Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torres the rain soon became snow, and our footing was on progressively deeper snow-covered ground. Although the viewpoints were diminished once we started to hike in a blizzard of snow, and Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torres were not clearly seen, the thrill and adventure was clear, as we reached the summit with wind taking away our breath and snow falling in our faces. The hike was by no means over. Once we came back down towards the base camp, we hiked in a different direction back to the town of El Chalten. The hike provided us a great opportunity to talk to each other and at times hike silently, reflecting on the adventures of the past several days. The guides were fun to talk to. Talking to the locals in every country is always a highlight, helping our time in port feel more like an immersion in the country and feel much less touristy. The hike was a total of 28 kilometers, taking up the entire day and definitely wearing us down. The next day was clear and on our way out of El Chalten we were able to stop at a viewpoint that offered us a beautiful view of Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torres. We also stopped at La Leona, the historic hotel where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid away when they were on the run after robbing a bank. Our flight to Montevideo from Buenos Aires was delayed and it was a long day and night getting back to the ship, but all of us were grateful for every adventure in Patagonia. We all felt as if we shared a unique experience and visited some of the most beautiful sights in the world. Our closeness was evident, especially the next day when we all got together to make the most out of our one day in Montevideo. We walked around the new and old parts of the city until ship time at 1800 hours. I returned to the ship with various pastries that provided decadent snacks in my cabin on the voyage to our next port of Rio de Janeiro. Reflecting upon the trip to Patagonia helped me realize the importance of trying new experiences, going to places few have gone before, and having a curiosity and gratitude for the peacefulness and beauty of the world in which we live. Travel, explore, don’t hesitate, and see what’s out there, for this world is truly not to be missed!          

Friday, November 2, 2012

South Atlantic Crossing


The 10-day crossing from Cape Town, South Africa, to Buenos Aires, Argentina was a unique experience. Apparently very little travel or trade takes place in this route across the South Atlantic. We saw nothing, no ships, no land, no boats, no planes, and hardly any sign of life. A few albatrosses were following us for several days, giving an even more eerie feeling to how alone we were in the world. I didn't feel isolated, but instead felt deeply connected to the ocean. The water and skies looked different every day, depending on the clouds, the light and the time of day, the depth, the swells, and various factors that paint a different picture for us. The crossing was peaceful and fun. I don’t know another time I will ever be removed from society for such an extended period of time, especially with the uniqueness of being in the middle of nowhere, yet surrounded by a shipboard community sharing the experience. I've grown to love the days at sea. I am going to miss having the Atlantic Ocean as my front and back yards. Numerous magical moments seem to occur, like looking out a cabin window and seeing the moonlight illuminate the black sea in the middle of the night suddenly remembering that I’m going to bed in the middle of the ocean, someone yelling “whale!” as a rush of people move towards the edge of the deck, sitting outside in the sun and being surrounded by the ocean on all sides, looking at flying fish gliding over the water before diving back in, dolphins who seem happy to see us as they swim along with us, watching the sun set along the horizon every day, always different from the previous one always hoping for a green flash, having breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day with great friends and an ocean view, or staring out at the night sky, getting lost in the blackness and the multitude of stars. I’m going to miss a daily routine that I will likely never have again, especially when I think of all the experiences unique to life on the MV Explorer, such as the shipboard library, Glazer lounge, the field office, the purser’s desk, Tymitz Square, the Union, main dining room, garden lounge, snack time, the piano bar, cabin stewards, dining hall crew members, bridge tours, bing bong announcements, the tv loop, special dinner, cabin parties, extended families, trying to shoot a three-point shot or lift weights during a rocking ship, Mexican dinner, ice cream cake and cookies, deck 7 pool, gym, and bar, powerful wind, Sea Olympics, Neptune Day, talent shows, explorer seminars, the gangway, shipboard time, dock time, pre-ports, post-ports, always carrying around a water bottle, global studies, walking up and down flights of stairs, trying to walk in a straight line down a hallway, never having the slightest idea of what day it is but instead operating on A-days and B-days, never having a wallet or keys, and everything that makes up our days on the ship. Living with students, staff, faculty, lifelong learners, and dependents makes for a fun and interactive shipboard community. Since I work on a college campus back at JMU, I think I will miss having the close interaction that I currently have since we all live and work together on the ship. The MV Explorer has truly become my home, and all of us on the ship share a special connection in the way we experience a college semester on a ship, an experience unlike any other I've had before. Some people say that going on a cruise afterwards is absolutely nothing like the Semester at Sea experience, which seems obvious and makes sense, and also makes me a little sad to know that our sailing around the Atlantic this Fall, especially on a long 10-day crossing surrounded by nothing, nothing but the vast ocean, is a unique experience that simply cannot be replicated; how happy and grateful I am to be here.     

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cape Town, South Africa


I undoubtedly had high expectations for Cape Town, South Africa. When I first started talking about my Semester at Sea voyage, Cape Town was frequently the location that prompted the most envy from others. The natural landscape, opportunities for adventure, culture, people, and history certainly provided the potential for the best port on our itinerary. As our ship departed South Africa after 4 nights and 5 days in port, I felt as if Cape Town indeed emerged as one of the best ports of the voyage. I can’t particularly say what day was the best, although Day 4 certainly stands out, and I can’t particularly say what activity was the best, although the Lion’s Head hike stands out, and I can’t particular say what experience was the best, although the township visits stand out, but I can say that I fell in love with Cape Town, and the enthrallment started on the first day. Kim, Claire, and I went on a Semester at Sea trip to the Khayelitsha and Langa townships. In Khayelitsha we visited the Baphumelele orphanage. I was impressed to hear about the large number of volunteers from the township who help provide more direct care to each child. I was once again reminded of how small my problems seem upon viewing these children who faced a threatening risk of living a life without love or care if it weren't for the Baphumelele orphanage. We walked through the room of babies sleeping in their cribs, one of the houses where the older children live, and the school rooms where dozens of children were taking naps, some cutely cuddled up against each other. From the orphanage we went to the Langa township, where we rode bikes through the township, which was more fun than I can probably express. Our guide lived in the township, and as we rode our bikes we were greeted by smiles and what seemed like endless hellos from people he knew in the township. The township culture is lived outside. People don’t hide away in their homes, but instead live their lives outside with each other in a tight sense of community. As the sun started to lower behind Table Mountain in the distance, all the colors of the township came alive. We stopped by an area where a woman was carving sheep heads and cooking them over a barbecue  but I somewhat easily refrained from trying the sheep tongue. We also stopped at the Happy Feet Youth Project, an organization founded by our guide Siviwe in order to bring safety, joy, pride, mentorship, and empowerment to a rougher area of the township where he used to live, in shame as he said, since the area was associated with drugs, violence, and abandoned children. The younger children and teenagers performed a powerful gumboots dance, a type of traditional step dancing, which left us in awe of their talent. After the performance we played a fun and lively soccer game with some of the older kids. After the first game went to penalty kicks, we played 2 more games which also went to penalty kicks, most likely because scoring was difficult since we had to kick the soccer ball against a couple of concrete blocks in order to score a goal. The kids were talented and had good foot work, not a surprise given their dance moves. The little children were affectionate and often found one of us to hold their hand, hug them, or pick them up, and the same kids would always seem to find us again, quickly developing an attachment to us. They walked us back to our bus, all of them holding hands with someone. After we arrived back at the ship I went to dinner with a large group of our friends, but because the rain started to fall in between our outdoor umbrellas, a smaller group of us moved to another restaurant to seek more shelter. Kai, Brett, Henri, Kim, and I had a delicious dinner at the Waterfront, paired nicely with South African wine. Day 2 was unfortunately cold and rainy, but we made the most of it by going wine tasting in Stellenbosch. Henri kindly set up a driver for us, Faizal, who took us around for the day. Henri, Claire, Kim, Renee, and I spent most of our time at Spier, a warm and comfortable place where we tasted several wines along with meats and cheeses. We took our time and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of conversation, wine, and treats, while a hard rain fell outside. We stopped at one other winery before going into the town for coffee and food. We undoubtedly made the best out of day that kept us from being outside. Day 3 started with a walk to the Greenmarket Square with Claire, Kim, and Holly, where I found yet more bracelets, a common market purchase of mine. After lunch in the city center, we all went to the Waterfront before going different ways. Claire and I decided to ride one of the Hop-On Hop-Off buses. We went through the city, to the base of Table Mountain, and then over the other side to ride around Camps Bay and along the beaches. The drive was an enjoyable way to see more of Cape Town and end the day as the sun started to set, as the bay and beaches offer a beautiful coastline. The homes along the mountain descent of Camps Bay were a sight to see, and a sharp contrast from the poverty we saw two days earlier in the townships. The sharp contrast of rich and poor is clearly evident in Cape Town and isn’t always easy to process or accept. For the evening a large group of us went out for dinner on Long Street, and afterwards, Don, Erika, Jake, Holly, Kim, Claire, and her friend Marion visiting from Johannesburg continued the evening at Mama Africa, where we had drinks and listened to some fun live African music. Day 4 started with a church service back in the Langa township. Siviwe was once again our guide, and before arriving at the church we first stopped inside a home, where he explained to us how multiple families often live in one home. The overwhelming number of people sharing a small place is another explanation of why the township culture is lived outside. When we arrived at the church, the choir already had the room filled with life and several people greeted us and guided us to open seats. Many students who attended said that even the liveliest of Baptist churches back in the United States weren't as vibrant as this church in the Langa township. We also had time to visit the Happy Feet Youth Project, and since this was my second visit, I recognized several of the children and had fun talking with them again. The older and younger children both performed for us. Instead of playing soccer afterwards, we spent time with all of the kids, who were always looking for hands to hold and people to hug. All of the children are surprisingly affectionate and comfortable bonding with us, asking us to pick them up and throwing their arms around us. Upon returning to the ship, Henri once again arranged for Faizal to drive us on a ride down to Cape Point. Faizal first drove Henri, Claire, Marion, Jake, and I to Simon’s Town, where we had coffee and muffins before walking around to view the penguins cutely bobbling around upright on two feet. From there we went to Cape Point for a stunning view of the ocean from on top of the cliffs. I had previously seen aerial views of Cape Point, and to stand on top looking around at the panoramic view definitely breathed life into me. Our drive somehow became even more scenic in an embarrassment of riches as we went to the Cape of Good Hope, where waves crashed up against the rocks, the sun began to set along the horizon, and we joyfully walked around on the rocks that make up the coastline. I pictured myself on a map, thinking about where I was in the world, and felt a tangible sense of wonder at awe at the experience I am currently living. I am obviously blessed to visit numerous countries and all of the beauty this world possesses, and I felt grateful to be alive and witnessing such beauty. We also saw wild ostriches directly in front of us as we drove along the road, switching lanes to make room and stopping to see them up close. The road then led us along a hillside, looking across the water at Hout Bay while the fading sun started to shift Cape Town from day into night. The buildings at the foothills of Hout Bay magically came to light as the sky grew darker, creating a brilliant contrast of the rolling dark mountains and the twinkling lights. I stayed there as long as I could to watch this transformation, once again feeling a tangible sense of life. I will forever be drawn to sunsets and the drastic change of light that occurs. A memorable day ended with a memorable dinner in Hout Bay, at a charming seafood restaurant where we took our time eating and drinking, being present with one another and fully living out our day together. The next day, our fifth and last day, Claire, Marion, and I hoped to take the cable car up Table Mountain, but strong winds despite the clear day, once again closed the cable car. Instead, we decided to hike Lion’s Head, a brilliant decision, after a lunch on Long Street. The Lion’s Head hike is one of the best hikes I have been on, as you hike in a circle around the mountain, getting a complete view of Cape Town, including the city, Table Mountain, the Twelve Apostles, Camps Bay, the beaches, the ocean, Robben Island, the townships, and the mountains surrounding the city, allowing us to look upon the country we began to fall in love with during the past 5 days. The hike to the summit was definitely a workout on a hot day, but the view provided a beautiful reward. Before heading back to the ship we went to the Waterfront for a drink, a nice ending and sendoff to quite possibly one of the best ports on our itinerary. I now clearly understand why people were envious of my visit to Cape Town, and their envy should inspire them to visit a country rich with history, inspiring people, and beautiful scenery. As we watched South Africa slowly fade away as the MV Explorer departed to cross the South Atlantic on a 10-day crossing to Argentina, I thought about how far we had come, from Canada to Europe, through Africa, and now on the way to South America, and I didn't quite believe that this whole experience was really happening.