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.