Friday, August 1, 2003

Kia Ora from New Zealand!!

Semester at Sea, Port 6: Auckland, New Zealand

Well, this was a particularly fun port for me because Allison finally didn't have another pre-planned trip to go on, so all three of us (my roommates, Krystal, Allison, and I) were able to spend the whole port doing independent travel together. We docked in Auckland, but decided to get out of the city as quickly as possible and head to Rotorua. Rotorua is an extremely geothermically active area AND it is a huge center of Maori culture. Maoris are Polynesians that came to New Zealand about 800 years ago and have preserved their culture as much as possible in this area.

As you may or may not know, New Zealand is the world’s capitol for extreme sports! So naturally, our plan was to go sky diving on our first full day in the country. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy, so we went Zorbing!! Zorbs are these huge (10 feet tall) rubber balls with a smaller ball inside of them. You jump inside and then they roll you down the hill! So you’re basically inside a huge bouncy ball. It’s awesome!

Zorbing originated in Rotorua. Actually, the place where we went was the first place in the world to have Zorbing and it’s the only plac
e in the world that they make the balls! They have three different kinds: In the first one, you are strapped into the ball spread eagle and they roll you down a strait hill, (pictured above) so your rolling head over feet the whole time. The second version is where you just jump into the ball and they throw water in there with you (warm water cuz it was cold out) and you just roll around inside it. I did that one twice down a zig-zag path! You just bounce all over the place and do flips and slip and slide while rolling down the hill, I could not stop laughing the whole time. And then there is the third version, where where you can go down the straight path with water with three people!! So me and my roommates did it together and it was awesome!! We had a crazy fun time.

After Zorbing we went to Te Whakarewarewa which is a thermal valley with geysers! It was like being on a different planet. You read about places like this in National Geographic or whatever, but it was never really a concrete thing that I acknowledged existed until now. The most awesome thing I saw was boiling mud! It was all over the place. I felt like a dinosaur was going to come out from behind the rocks and attack me. The ground was warm and there were hot springs everywhere and holes in the ground with steam coming out and tons of geysers! We were lucky and got to see the biggest geyser in New Zealand, Pohutu Geyser, erupt. The shaft is 20 meters high and it’s intense to watch. It was quite amazing to see 20 meters of boiling water just shoot out of the earth. The plants were also very weird because they all live in an extremely acidic atmosphere and the rocks are stained yellow and black with mineral deposits. It was really neat. And while we were there we saw a KIWI bird!! They are a lot bigger than I thought they would be.

Then after dinner (It was Krystal’s 20th Birthday!) we went to use our free voucher to the Polynesian Spa. We stayed for 2 1/2 hours sitting in a small hot pool with fine gravel lining the bottom. It was sooo relaxing! A great way to end a tough day of Zorbing and sight-seeing!

The next morning we woke up to a BEAUTIFUL day and so we decided to go SKY DIVING! The company came to pick us up and took us to the Rotorua Airport. It was the TINIEST airport I have ever seen. As we suited up I was getting really excited... it wasn't until we got in the plane that I became really terrified. I realized that I have never even been able to jump off the lowest platform in a diving pool and I was about to plummet towards the earth out of an air plane!! I kept asking my tandem partner, Vince, "are we hooked together, are you sure we're attached!"

As we climbed up I could look out the window and see the most gorgeous country side. The area had 7 lakes all near to each other and we could see all 7 plus the Pacific Ocean from where we jumped!

When we reached 12,000 feet we scooted up towards the door of the plane and I started freaking out asking Vince, "where are we going, where are we going!?" Then, they opened the door. If i wasn't strapped to someone who was determined to get me out of that plane, I don't think I would have been able to do it. The first time that you are 12,000 feet in the air and someone opens the door has got to be the scariest moment ever. Obviously, I had never been in a plane where someone opened the door while we were airborne! That is just CRAZY!

Well…. since I was so scared, Vince decided that I should go first, lucky
me! He pushed us up to the edge of the plane and I started screaming "o my God, o my God" over and over again. I was basically hyperventilating. It was terrifying. I was completely horrified. He pushed us out and for only a SPLIT second I kept screaming, I thought I was going to die. But then 1/2 a second after we began our free fall the terror was completely gone and I realized how amazing the view was. Falling through the sky with NOTHING holding you up and nothing slowing you down is such a RUSH!! It was indescribable. The funny thing is that even though you are falling at an alarming rate toward the earth, you are still so far up that you really can’t tell how fast or far you are falling. The lack of perspective really makes the whole thing much less scary.

After about 45 seconds of free fall he pulled the shoot and then there was nothing. It was complete silence and peace. It was like there was nothing in the world that could disturb me. The view was absolutely spectacular, I saw all of the lakes and the ocean and Vince pointed out some volcanoes. We did some spins and just hung out for a while until it was time to land.

It was quite a drastic change. One minute I felt like I was way above everything and I would never land and then all of the sudden I realized that I was falling pretty quickly to the ground. Perspective is a funny thing. Next thing I knew, I was only 20 feet above the ground and lifting my feet for landing. And it was over! I landed on my bum and when I was unhooked from Vince I started jumping up and down and running around like a crazy person for a couple minutes before I came down off of my huge adrenalin rush. It was an amazing experience, I seriously think everyone should skydive at least once in their life!

On a cultural note: One thing I definitely noticed about New Zealand and Australia, especially after being in Russia and Japan, is that they are both a lot like the US. Australia is much more so because its also like a 'melting pot.' The Aussie culture is a culture of a bunch of different peoples coming together to be Australian, like the American culture is a bunch of different peoples who come together to make up America.

New Zealand has more of its own culture. They have two official languages, English and Maori, which I thought was pretty interesting. Both countries are very western and modern and I felt really at home and comfortable there. The thing that I found most cool (and that as an American, (or as a Pennsylvanian) I am most jealous of) is that they are so close to Asia that they have a much larger Asian influence than America. There are a lot of Asian characters all over the place and Asian food courts and Asian markets around. YUMMMY!!!
Anyway, New Zealand was just amazing. I definitely am not the same person I was when I left for Semester at Sea. Every morning I wake up and wonder how my life could ever get any better than this and then every night I go to bed and realize that today was better than the day before and I just can't believe how lucky I am.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

G'day Mates!

Semester at Sea, Port 5: Brisbane, Australia

How awesome is life? Every moment of this trip i just keep wondering what I did to deserve something this amazing. How can life ever get any better? This trip is absolutely incredible.

Australia is amazing. It’s beautiful, the people are beautiful, and I had the time of my life.

The first thing we did when we got off the ship was go to get our noses pierced! Three of us did it together and the woman who pierced us loved Americans, so she gave us a bunch of free stuff and treated us really well. (I have to mention, she was a stark contrast to some of the Australian’s I met. One, for instance, wouldn’t give me a key to the bathroom because I was American and Bush was our president! Seriously!) Anyway, I love love love my nose ring! So that trip was a success! (Unfortunately later in my Australia trip, I was at a night-club and got my nose ring caught on someone’s clothes and ripped out…. It never was the same after that.)

Next we were off to the Loan Pine Koala Sanctuary. I must admit I wasn't too excited about it. But, everyone wanted to go because they let you hold a koala bear there, so I figured... what the hell!

As soon as we got there, we got in line for the holding of the koala and it was a SPIRITUAL experience!!! Ok, maybe that’s a little bit of an exaggeration! But it was awesome. I could not wipe the smile off of my face for the rest of the day. Koalas are now my favorite animal. They are the most adorable creatures ever. Their fur very dense and they actually aren't as soft as you would think, but they cling to you like you're a tree and sometimes they will nuzzle you or put their nose up to you like they're kissing you. I held one twice, I just couldn’t get enough!

After that, we went to this huge penned-in field where they keep kangaroos and wallabies (which are basically small kangaroos). It was like a petting zoo in the states, but WAY cooler because instead of petting and feeding deer and goats, we were petting and feeding kangaroos! They were really soft and docile, and they look absolutely hilarious when they jump, it was awesome.
Next, it was time to hop on our flight to Cairns (pronounced cans) to go to the Great Barrier Reef. I went with Krystal and our friends Dannon and Chris. We all went out to dinner and went to bed relatively early (no partying that night!!) so we could woke up at 7 am to head to the reef.

We actually got an awesome deal, it was $288 to sleep for one night on a really nice boat, get all of our meals for two days AND do 5 scuba dives in the reef! On our way out to the reef, we laid on the top of the boat in the sun and all I could think about was how lucky I am to be alive, it was so awesome. The weather was absolutely beautiful, and the water was an awesome shade of blue. They told us it was the first sun they had in 3 weeks, so we were lucky!
About a 1/2 hour later, I was doing my very first SCUBA dive EVER in the GREAT BARRIER REEF!!! It was amazing. During the first dive my ears hurt so bad that it almost took over the whole experience. Breathing under water is pretty tough to get used to, it was a little scary to trust the oxygen on my back. All-in-all, I'd say SCUBA diving is just a weird experience. But the diving instructor, Damien, was AWESOME and he held my and Dannon's hands for a bit, and showed us sea cucumbers and stuff, so we both relaxed and enjoyed the dive.

After that dive, it just got better and better. Throughout my 5 dives I :

-Touched a sea cucumber and a pinapple sea cucumber
-Touched all this amazing coral... there is one that when you touch it, it retreats into its shell and you leave a hand print on it. It was so soft, it felt awesome to run your hands through.
- Pet a little Great Barrier Reef clown fish, like actually held the thing in my hands and pet it
- Swam IN a school of fish, there were a million yellow tail fusiliers (which are blue fish w/ a yellow tail) and I just went in the middle of them and swam in their school with them!!
- Saw 2 reef sharks (4 or 5 feet) and chased one
- Pet a couple sea turtles and swam with them
- Put my hand inside a GIANT clam (like 4 or 5 feet big) and it closed on my hand! Their muscles are sooo huge that they can't close all the way so my hand was squished between its muscels and it is sooo soft, its like velvet

AND -- I KISSED A FISH!!! There is this huge fish (4 feet) named Wally and he's so friendly, he's like a dog. If you put your hand in the air he will come to you and put his nose into your hand to actually push you through the water!! And, he loves to be petted and he's so soft, it was absolutely crazy. I took out my regulator while I was diving and kissed him on his HUGE FAT BLUE LIPS! It was awesome! -This is someone else's picture, but i just wanted u to see what he looks like and how huge he is! -

I saw so many amazing fish. They were all kinds of crazy colors that I never really thought existed naturally, it was breath taking. All in all, the trip was amazing. There was a nice small group of us on the boat, it holds 60 people and there were only 15 of us, so we all got special attention and became pretty good friends. [Commenting now 5 years later, I am still in contact with a girl named Stav,from Israel, who I met on this trip!]

I have to say that I am a lucky, lucky person to have done my first SCUBA dive ever in the Great Barrier Reef! My only regret is that I didn’t get certified before I went, because then I would have been able to go on a night dive, which sounded really cool. But the instructors were really lax and let us do almost everything the certified divers could do, so I really didn't feel like I was missing out at all.

Australia was awesome!

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Notes on Japan

Semester at Sea, Port 4: Osaka, Japan

Ok... so enough about what I did... here are some things i noticed about Japan

(1) Food: Japanese food is amazing. I am obsessed with it! Believe it or not, the best part was their convenience store food! I'm so serious. Every little store or kiosk had sushi and little rice rolls and noodles, it was AMAZING food. Its actually funny because there are a lot of 7-11 stores in Japan, but originally, they were doing really poor in the market because the food they had was crap. (like the food in our convenient stores in the states) So they actually had to put better food in their stores to stay in business in Japan because their “fast food” standard is so much higher than ours. Probably out of everything I ate, I could recognize about 1% of it, but I did not try one thing that I didn't like. (This picture is of my last meal that I got at a convenient store, it was freeking awesome)

(2) People: The people in Japan are so quiet, and very polite and welcoming. We were by far the loudest people there and we were trying to be quiet. I would have never thought a crowded subway could be that quiet. They are extremely respectful people.

(3) Beggars... o yeah they didn't have any! Japan is all about saving face, its about respect, honor, unity... they will never do anything to disgrace themselves or their families.

(4) Litter.... o yea they didn't have any of that either! Their city streets have about 1/4 the amounts of garbage cans in their cities and still NO LITTER, at all! It was amazing, we were always looking for garbage cans but no one ever saw any litter. In Japan they are totally all about loyalty to their emperor and their country, that is above all else and then family is RIGHT behind that, so they don't litter because they love and respect their country… what a novel idea.

(5) Models: First of all, there are NO fat people in Japan. But for how little the people are there, I mean TINY people, their swim suit models are bigger than ours.. now don't get me wrong, they still have perfect bodies, but they have bigger boobs and more curves than American ones... go figure.

(6) Japanese people separate themselves from the rest of Asia. There are Asians, and there are Japanese... Japanese people are not Asians. Interesting.

(7) Temples and Technology: One of the craziest things about Japan is seeing one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world and then everywhere you go you see traces of their ancient civilization. Right in between two sky scrapers, you can see temples and shrines built centuries ago. It hard to believe that it all coexists in the year 2003. It’s just amazing.

Finally two other fun things of note:

their main toilet design is basically a porcelain hold in the ground that you squat over. It is very weird to see a middle-aged (or older) woman come out of a stall and realize that she was just squatting over a hole... bizarre.

Also, you can buy beer out of vending machines!

Domo Arigoto Mr. Roboto

Semester at Sea, Port 4: Osaka, Japan
Konich E Wa ~ hello from Japan!!

Top Ten Best Things About Japan:

10) Night Life
9) Sake
8) The Australians
7) The Subway
6) Kabuki
5) Kanji
4) Shinto Shrines
3) Buddhist Temples
2) Convenient Stores

Japan was amazing and also a completely different experience than Russia. The best part about Russia was the people, I really spent most of my time hanging out with local people, and that was really awesome. I was lucky to meet some people who knew English and were studying to be translator so we didn't have too much of a communication barrier. On the other hand, my trip to Japan was definitely more touristy. There was a huge language barrier which made it a completely different situation. So we played the typical tourist role, going to seeing all the sights, etc. but it was amazing.

Japan is so different than the states. One of the first things I noticed was that it kind of reminded me of ocean city during peak tourist season... ok ok I know that sounds crazy, but it really did. There are just soooooooooo many people in Japan with soooooo little land that the entire country is just packed together. It looks like the beach where there are hundreds of houses trying to get as close to the shore as they can.

When we arrived in the port we were greated by a huge welcoming committee with a band and a fire boad that gave us a little water show. It was the most exciting docking experience we'd had all trip. Once we got on land, we immediately went to the subway station to get to Kyoto and see some temples and shrines. Although our initial experience with the Japanese subway was a little confusing, it ended up being SOOO easy to navigate. It was amazing how easy it was for us to get around the country. Literally, getting around Japan, knowing NO Japanese is easier than navigating New York’s subway system!

We arrived in Kyoto and found a nice restaurant and outside of it, there was a huge display case with realistic plastic replicas of all
of the dishes they serve there. So a waiter came out and we pointed to what we wanted and he took our order!! It was crazy, every restaurant in Japan is like this! (or at least has picture menus) But the food looks so real, its actually an art there and it makes it so easy to order. After we placed our order we go in the restaurant and sat at a low table on little pillows on the floor. Then I had my first sushi ever!!! It was amazing; I am completely in love with all Japanese food! I have to admit, I was a little startled by the tiny dab of wasabi that they put in between the fish and the rice! But I instantly fell in love with sushi!

This is a picture of my actual first meal in Japan

After lunch, we walked around the city to the largest wooden structure in the world, a Buddhist temple. The architecture is amazing and we took off our shoes and walked into a breathtaking, absolutely gorgeous, room. There were straw mats with people kneeling and paying homage to huge gold Buddha in the front of the room. After spending some time in the temple, Krystal, Keekan, and I decide to leave the rest of the group and take a bullet train to Tokyo!!!
The bullet train was very cool. The station was huge, like an airport, and so easy to get around. We bought some sake and got on the train. Once we arrived in Tokyo we went to Rapongi, a newer part of the city where a lot of backpackers go. We found a hotel for the night and headed out to checkout the Japanese night life. We partied ALL night and when we finally decided to go home we walked out of the bar and to our surprise and it was broad daylight!! We partied till 6 am!! I think that was actually the first time I partied until the sun came up. Good thing we spent the $$ on a hotel room!

So we slept for a couple hours and then woke up at 8 am and went to see kabuki theater, which was an amazing cultural experience. Kabuki is traditional Japanese theater. All of the actors are male (even for the female characters) and they wear traditional costumes with crazy makeup and play these old string instruments. The performance was four hours long with four individual plays. We stayed to watch two of them. I seriously left the theater feeling more cultured than I was when I went it. It was a really neat experience.

The next day we visited Hiroshima which was one of the most intense experiences I have ever had in my life. The first thing we saw when we arrived was a beautiful park filled with little monuments commemorating people or groups that died. We saw the A bomb dome. which is one of the only buildings still standing (reinforced to ensure that it would not crumble) and it was just breathtaking. And then we came to the memorial mound where the ashes of 70,000 unidentified and unclaimed victims are held... that is the first time it hit me. I can’t even describe the experience except it was difficult to breathe, it was just so overwhelming.

The picture here is of the main memorial and the Cenotaph, which holds the names of all of the people killed by the A-bomb and reads "Repose ye in Peace, for the error shall not be repeated." In the middle, you can see the eternal peace flame and the A-bomb dome. The arch over the Cenotaph represents a shelter for the souls of the victims. After we made our way through the park, we walked around the museum dedicated to the atomic bombing. If you EVER go to Japan you MUST go to this museum. It left a huge impression on me. I don’t think I will never be the same after seeing it. There are so many artifacts from the victims, stories of how people were so desperate for water that they drank black rain and had diarrhea for three months, people sucking the pus from their wounds, coughing up something black.... all of these little kids clothes and their stories, poems survivors wrote and pictures they drew... it was so powerful... I can't even describe what I feel even now just writing about it, it was amazing.

Its quite remarkable how peaceful the memorial is. There is no animosity toward the States or direct reference to how horibble the people who decided to do this to them were. It was just a focus on peace and making sure that this never happens again to any country in the world. While it was a very powerful and sad thing to visit, it also gave off a sense of peace and resolution to protect future generations from the same fate. It was really a beautiful thing to see.

That night we went to Kyoto, and were just walking around town when we stumbled on an amazing Shinto shrine all lit up with Japanese lanterns. There was no one around, so we could just walk around it and explore. Because I am taking a class on Asian Religions, I had been leaning about Shintoism and their shrines, so it was really cool to actually understand what I was looking at. We saw where they pray and their Kami mirror (which is the most sacred part of the shrine) and the bells that they use to summon the spirits.

The next day was by far the greatest day. We went on a tour of Kyoto to about 10 different temples and shrines.
The first stop was the Nijo Castle which had 'nightengale' floors. This means that when you walk on them they squeak to warn the emperor of intruders. Next, we saw Kinkakuji, the golden temple, which is a Buddhist temple completely covered in 22 karat gold leaf. We also went to Sanjusangendo Hall which has 1,0001 buddhas in it, all lined up 500 on each side with one HUGE Buddha in the center, probably like 10 feet tall. When you’re in these temples and shrines you can see why these people worship there, they are quite inspiring. They really bring you to your knees, it is just amazing. I don't even know how I can ever describe what I saw in Japan. Pictures will never do it justice. There are just no words to describe the feeling of being in the presence of something so old and sacred.

Monday, June 30, 2003

Dinner with Sasha

Semester at Sea, Port 3: Kamchatka, Russia

After being stuck on the ship for a whole day (we were on lock down after someone snuck a Russian girl on the boat thus committing international passport fraud!) I finally got to go on an organized trip at 6:00 PM. The trip was called "dinner with Sasha" and to be honest, it sounded totally lame. Sasha is a Russian Bard. A Bard is basically a traditional story teller and song writer. I was in a completely bad mood on the way there because I knew that all my friends were out at Mozunka (a night club) and I wanted to be out and about with them.. but here I was on this trip, so I had to make the best of it.

A long bus ride took us into the mountains to our final destination: the home of a middle-aged Russian man named Sasha. He took us for a walk around the place and shows us these wild plants that he was going to cook for us for dinner. The whole time I was a little debbie-downer, thinking how gross this is going to be and 'I am not eating THAT.' Next, we arrive at his “entertaining teepee.” Yes, he built a TeePee to entertain tourists in! We sit around a fire to chat and on the table are all these "salads" that are just twigs and weeds mixed up in a container and it looked pretty disgusting.

But I had to be polite and everyone else was eating it so I did and it was AMAZING!! Lesson learned: I will never turn down foreign or bizzar food again. You can’t judge a book by its cover. I would never ever think to eat this crazy plants but it was one of the best meals I ever had.

Just as we’re getting situated with dinner, he pulls out like 3 bottles of Old Russian Vodka for our small group of college students. He dumped a little vodka from each of the bottles into the fire and added this homemade balsamic stuff to it and proceeded to lead us in 10 toasts!! Yes, that is 10 shots of balsamic vodka, on a “school organized field-trip!” It was so much fun, even the chaperones were getting tipsy! Throughout dinner, he played a guitar and the piano and sang Russian songs and told us stories. During one of his toasts he started talking about the Russian man and said: “when his wife leaves, he drinks vodka, when his lover comes, he drinks vodka, when they win a battle, he drinks vodka..... and when nothing happens, he drinks vodka!" and then of course, we all drank vodka

I was sitting next to one of the interpreters, Yulia, so I kept talking to Sasha through her, and me and him became very friendly. He kept talking directly to me and making eye contact with me and then at the last toast he filled my glass up extra full and did a special toast with me and when I left we took a bunch of pictures and he picked me up and we hugged and said we would email each other and it was just so awesome. So at the end of the night I went back to the boat for the night to rest up for my last day in Russia. Of course, I am thinking this is the first and last time I will ever see Sasha in my life.

At the end of the next day though, I made my way back to the ship just in time to catch the last little ferry boat back to our ship, and who is there to greet me!? SASHA!!! He drove 1/2 hour to the dock JUST to say goodbye to ME!! Can you believe it? It was so awesome. He can't speak a word of English so he went and found a random person to translate. He had brought me a liquor that he made himself from local plants for me to take home to my family in Pennsylvania, but we're not allowed to bring alcohol on the ship so we drank the whole bottle right there on the dock there! lol He told me that he is going to learn English so that he can talk to me and that he will come to Pennsylvania to visit me and cook for my family!

(FYI, that is not the SAS ship behind us in this picture!)

I just feel so blessed to meet all these people and make such good friends. This was the most amazing three days of my life. Right now I'm staring out the window at the most AMAZING sunset I have ever seen, over the Russian mountains...

I was sitting on the boat this morning I was looking out to Russia and thinking about how amazing my life is and how lucky I am that I can look out a window and SEE RUSSIA!! Who gets a chance to do that?? I have had so many amazing experiences so far and its only day 13!! Can you believe that! Semester at Sea is awesome.


Going back and reading this post five years later (and editing it for this blog) I'm thinking a lot about the impact that Semester at Sea had on me. After my first international port my eyes were already opening up to how huge the world is and how isolated we are in the states from the cultures of the world. The biggest lesson of this particular trip was that people are the same everywhere. A smile really is international and can break the barriers of language. I am so glad that someone committed international passport fraud, or I never would have gone on this trip.