Monday, February 16, 2015

Saigon, Vietnam

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

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Hong Kong, China

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

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Shanghai, China

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