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.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tema, Ghana

Our arrival in Tema, Ghana was my first trip to Africa. Walking off the ship for the first time presented me with a stark contrast to the European countries we previously visited. When Claire and I visited the local market on the first day, I clearly noticed and felt that I was in a country unlike any other I had ever visited. I looked around and saw the industrial port area, the streets with huge potholes and crazy traffic, the dirt roads with clouds of dirt kicked up by speeding trucks passing by, the various people along the street, some working and others watching people pass by, and locals carrying their goods by balancing them on their heads. The market was unlike any other I had seen before, with an endless maze of narrow alleys in an enclosed area of shacks and stands within, where locals were selling huge piles of bananas, dried fish, drug store items, clothing, huge pieces of raw meat, and various other products. Some shop owners were sleeping on the floor, others called out at us, but the majority kindly watched us pass by. I undoubtedly had an acute awareness that I was a white tourist among the locals. All of my senses were heightened by being in such a new environment. I was also very hot, and I was aware that I was a foreigner sweating like crazy, even though I was wearing shorts while locals wearing pants were barely breaking a sweat. After passing through the market, Claire and I wandered around the town, visiting the church where the Prime Meridian is located, allowing us to immediately step from the Eastern Hemisphere to the Western Hemisphere. We walked along a street where larger goods were sold, like couches, televisions, and refrigerators, all lined up on the side of the street. We wandered back to the market but got a little lost. We asked a woman for directions and she directed us in two ways, a longer path along the road, or a quicker route zigzagging through a slum, which we took. Although seeing poverty is difficult, the residential area was visually stunning, with narrow alleys, clothes hanging on lines, food cooking on fires, and a diverse array of shacks. I refrained from taking photos or video since people were walking around or looking out from their rooms, and filming seemed like an invasion of privacy. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of footage from Ghana for this reason. For a little while we enjoyed the walk through the slum, but our enjoyment waned when our luck of finding smiling faces ran out and we were followed by a man who didn't seem pleased to have us walking around. I definitely felt uncomfortable and we quickly walked out to the main street. The next day I traveled on a Semester at Sea trip to the village of Torgorme, for an overnight stay in the village. A large number of children ran up to the bus to greet us, and we then proceeded to shake hands with the village elders, who were dressed in their ornate clothing. Everyone happily greeted us, especially in the naming ceremony where we all received our African birth names, written on a clay pot made by locals in the village (my name is Kofi Worlanyo, which I believe means I was born on a Friday and that our maker is good). Our Semester at Sea group watched from our seats, with a large group of children in their school uniforms on the right side, the queen mothers on the left side, and the elders at center stage. The ceremony also involved music and dancing. The unique dance moves of the people from the village were much more graceful than our attempts to follow their moves. We also witnessed an honorary queen mother ceremony during the middle of the event, as a Semester at Sea alum that was with us received this honor after the work she has done with the village. The queen mothers dragged her away to dress her in the colorful and ornate clothing worn by queen mothers, and upon presenting her, all the queen mothers let out a loud chorus of singing and dancing. Afterwards, we met our host families and after lunch they took us around the village. First I drank coconut water and ate from the coconut with my host family. I was also with 3 other Semester at Sea students since our family included a large group of brothers who lived together in one section of the village. We listened to stories about the role and importance of the village elders, and then proceeded to walk down to the river and run and play with the children as the sun set along the river. I was able to talk to a few of the older brothers who spoke better English, and heard about the sacrifices they make to get through school, walking a long distance to get to a university. The primary schools in the village are in rough shape, with few supplies. Despite the poverty the people face, their spirits are incredibly high and their happiness is certainly apparent; which is not to say that they don’t have needs, for they undoubtedly deserve clean water, electricity, access to education, and various other resources, but overall, they are not in need of the material things we possess, as we so often look for a happiness that evades us, but yet exists in this poor village. I didn't feel sorry for them as much as I felt sorry for myself, that I complain about such silly things sometimes, that I offer up stupid prayers to God, like for a Celtics win over the Heat, or for love in my life as if I don’t already have an overflowing amount of love, and that I don’t realize I have everything I need, and more importantly I’m in a place where I should give and not receive. I also learned how much more I should open up my life to others, as the locals gave us some of their nicest rooms in the village, and when I say nice, I don’t mean a mattress and air conditioning, but at least a platform upon which to sleep, a pillow, a fan, and a faint blue light of the little electricity they could add to the room. After our dinner we went back to our host families, where the younger children performed some hilarious dances in the dark underneath the straw hut in the center area surrounding our rooms. After our breakfast and a clay pot making demonstration, we proceeded to the Shai Hills Game Reserve, where we walked right up to the baboons that wander around the reserve. They hesitantly accepted bananas from us and peeled and ate each banana in less than 3 seconds. We also went on a short hike through the expansive plain with rocky hills where tribes used to live in caves. I bravely walked into a crevice where hundreds of bats flew above me. I was in almost complete darkness if it weren't for the narrow strip of light from far above, as I listened to the stunning sound of bats flying back and forth above my head. On the last day in Ghana I went on a trip to a private Catholic school, which provided an interesting contrast to the village I saw the day before, as this school had relatively modern facilities, with a science lab, media room, basketball courts, church, and library. The librarian I talked to was envious of my library gig on the Semester at Sea ship! Mostly all of the students spoke English, and a frenzied game of tag broke out among dozens of students who were close enough to tag someone else throughout the entire playground area. On the way back to the ship I once again witnessed the terrible traffic in Ghana, with broken down cars, huge potholes, dirt roads, long traffic jams, and various people selling goods to people as the cars slowly moved up the road. I grew more and more comfortable in Ghana during the four days, from the first day of sensory overload in a new country, to the last day where I left the country with memories of new Ghanaian friends and an inspiration to live my life with a more resilient sense of focus and happiness.    

Monday, October 1, 2012

Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands

Unfortunately Semester at Sea had to cancel our trip to Morocco because of the anti-U.S. protests that were taking place shortly before our arrival. Everyone was disappointed but we all understood that our presence raised significant security concerns. I had been looking forward to the drive through the Draa Valley, stopping in Ouarzazate, Marrackech, Mhamid, Zagora, and the Ait Benhaddou, with camel treks in the Sahara Desert near the Algerian border, sleeping in nomad tents, but it was not meant to be. The cancellation allowed us more time in Spain, and a trip to the Canary Islands, to the island of Tenerife. At first, I felt as if I ran the risk of letting this port get away from me. I was tired from a fast paced journey through Europe, with little time for rest in between countries, and I was slightly in a bad mood that we weren't in Morocco, as snobby as that may sound. My state of body and mind set me up for a pleasant surprise. On the first morning, a large group of us walked around an endless market, which was interesting more than it was useful. In other words, it was a lot of junk, but we had fun walking around. Kierra, Keith, Annalyn, Jacques, Emily, Kate, Brett, Lisa, and I spent the rest of the day in Puerto de la Cruz, a black sand beach town that looked more like the island I had in mind compared to our port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. We took two taxis which drove next to each other until our driver, while listening to house music, decided to put his foot on the gas and book it into town. As a result, our taxis dropped us off in different locations and we couldn't find each other. After walking along the coast and sitting out in the sun, we eventually found each other a couple of hours later when we were putting our feet in the ocean as we watched the hang gliders fly above us. After a few laughs about losing each other our groups merged for a Chinese buffet while overlooking the ocean during sunset. We then walked the streets, where I found cool bracelets and delicious coffee and gelato, and Brett and Annalyn found a pedicure of fish nibbling on their feet. After listening to an impressive drum circle along the beach, we walked back along the main street to take a taxi home. The next day provided yet another pleasant surprise with a hired car tour through Teide National Park. The landscape was surreal, at times resembling a west coast desert, a northwest rain forest, other times Hawaii, and sometimes Mars. We drove through rain until ascending above the clouds to sunshine, which was a surreal experience. We drove through a vast and changing landscape formed and shaped by El Teide, the 12,198 ft. volcano, which we drew closer to as we drove through the park, stopping at the most scenic areas to walk around. The silence was strikingly powerful. The sound of my lens cap opening or my foot pressing down on the pebbles seemed to echo through the entire park. At such a high elevation, with nobody around, the air was powerfully fresh and clear. After traveling through Europe, being in Teide National Park was drastically different, and all my senses took in this welcome and satisfying escape from civilization. Before boarding the ship, I went into the city to spend the rest of my euros since Tenerife was the last European stop. I enjoyed frittatas, bocadillos, and red wine, boarded the ship somewhat last minute before ship time, and went to the 7th deck to join the barbecue we had before disembarking during a gorgeous sunset with all of my friends gathered together. As we left for Ghana I was pleasantly surprised by a fulfilling trip to the Canary Islands, despite our detour from Morocco. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Cadiz, Seville, and Granada, Spain

Although our ship arrived in Cadiz, my first visit to Spain began in Seville, as we traveled there by bus for a bullfight followed by a tapas dinner on the first day. The bullfight was a truly cultural experience and unlike any sporting event I've ever attended in the United States. The crowd is dressed up and is often reverent, calling for complete silence when the matador gets on his knees, says a prayer, and the bull is released into the ring. We were fortunate to attend the last bullfight of the season, with two of the most popular matadors in Andalucía. There were several intense moments, some dangerous, when the first bull pinned a picador to the ground, and some ecstatic, when the matador loved by the local fans was carried around the ring and out into the streets in a euphoric and somewhat crazy scene that was on the front page of the newspapers the next day. Although I didn't have a crazy Hemmingway experience, drinking with the matador in a tiny bar, the event was certainly memorable. After the bullfight we had what seemed like endless tapas at a restaurant near the Seville Cathedral. Brett, Kai, Jessa, Henri, and I finished the night walking around Seville, having a drink, and moving on to our hotels. We met up again in the morning and spent the entire next day in Seville, walking through the narrow streets, having breakfast, with jamon of course, exploring the beautiful Plaza de Espana, and viewing Seville from Triana across the Guadalquivir River, where we had tapas, drinks, and coffee. Afterwards, we walked back across the bridge and wandered through several more alleys and various stores, discovering flamenco dresses, bracelets, bullfight posters, pink shoes, attempts to convince the group to eat churros, and surprisingly grand entryways extending out into courtyards from the narrow streets. We finished the evening with yet more tapas and drinks, taking our time and enjoying each other’s company before taking the last train back to Cadiz. The next day Patrick, Henri, Jessa, Claire and I went out for a late breakfast in Cadiz, where we shared a delicious frittata and wandered through the market, where there were endless rows of various types of fresh fish. We took the long way back to the ship, passing along the coastline, where we were inspired to go back to the ship and change in order to sit out at the beach. We spent the afternoon on the beach, listening to music, reading, going out into the powerful waves, and falling asleep in the warm sun. Once the sun started to fade and the wind picked up, we went across the street for exceptionally sugary mojitos and then walked back into the city center for coffee and pastries. The night ended with surprisingly cheap cervezas y bocadillos, with others joining us from the ship and ending what was a spontaneously fun beach day and city night. The next morning Claire and I took a bus to Granada, and upon arriving at the hotel I booked using my secret librarian research skills, we quickly decided to stay two nights instead of one since our hotel was an incredibly sweet home away from home and Granada looked promising and inviting. The hotel was actually a large and charming two bedroom apartment in the middle of the city, in a narrow alley near a famous row of local tapas restaurants. We wandered this street first and continued along several others, developing a sense of each area of the city. Our wandering, or organized wandering since I read about the best spots, led us to the Albaicin, an old part of town that has maintained the medieval Moorish past, on the hill opposite the Alhambra. We walked through the maze of streets to the Mirador de San Nicolas, at the top of the hill, for a view to the opposite hill upon which the Alhambra towers over the city. We walked back down as the sunlight faded and we passed by the storefronts of Elvira Street, heavy with Moorish influence. For dinner we had our first experience with free tapas upon ordering a drink, an old Granada tradition. With each beer or mojito we were also given delicious tapas, and not bread and olives, but quality tapas. We took a long and slow route back to our hotel, stopping for coffee and desert at an inviting cafe, and stopping at one last bar where we had a perfect pairing of fried fish tapas, free of course, with our beer. The next day Claire and I were in heaven eating churros con chocolate for breakfast before going to the Alhambra, a truly impressive place, where we walked through Generalife and the Alcazaba, the former offering a peaceful walk and the latter providing a beautiful view of the Albaicin and the entire city below, where we sat on the wall and talked while enjoying the view. For the evening we had an incredible night of free tapas. Bodegas Castañeda might have offered one of my favorite bar nights of all time. The bar is well known and popular for good reason, as the interior is charming and the bartenders are moving around with high energy and a funny rapport with each other, and the food and drinks are exceptionally good. With our orders of red wine and sangria we continually received different tapas, for free of course. We ended the evening with coffee and dessert again. The evening felt as if we were locals embracing the culture and tradition of Granada. The next morning we had churros con chocolate for breakfast again, this time with a croissant con jamon to last us through the bus ride back to Cadiz, where I walked the streets with Bret, Kai, Greg, and Joe before boarding the ship. The trip to Granada was an unexpected highlight of my visit to Spain and our time together left Claire and I with great memories. For every lasting memory made during this voyage, another one seems to present itself only moments later. I am undoubtedly blessed to be traveling on Semester at Sea. What a unique experience, to say the least.