Friday, December 18, 2009

Honolulu and Hilo, Hawaii

And finally...

Day 1:

We came in to Honolulu early and got woken up at 5:45am to do the face-to-face immigration inspection (since we're officially a foreign ship). As soon as practical, I got off the ship to meet my parents, who were kind enough to fly to Hawaii just to show me all the cool stuff on Oahu. It was nice to see them again and hear them try to pronounce "mahalo", meaning "thank you". ("Maloha"? "Melanoma"?)

The day included a trip to a beach that usually had turtles and sand but now lacked both (but had a great view of the surfers), a visit to a macadamia nut plantation, and a mini-train tour of the Dole pineapple plantation (which also incidentally has the world's largest hedge maze). The macadamia nut plantation was the coolest, despite having nothing to do with macadamia nuts. We got a tour on the premises by a Samoan named Chief Sielu. He's legit. He and some others, all dressed up in what I assume is traditional Samoan garb, showed us all the flora, did some drumming, showed how to open a coconut, showed how to start a fire with sticks, and did some crazy fire juggling stuff. And throughout it all, they were pretty much doing a comedy show. The joke density was ridiculous (in a good way).

I also ate incredibly well, with my first real steak in 3 months, a darn good burger, and some excellent shave ice. Shave ice (not "shaved") is delectable, and I need to find some back home, or alternatively buy an ice shaving machine and some flavoring.

Day 2:

I went skydiving. I had made plans for this weeks in advance, but I guess I forgot to tell my parents about it. Whoops! We booked a 14000ft drop with a company called Pacific Skydiving Center that advertised directly to the S@S kids who go through Hawaii every few months. It was a longer drop for less money than I'd have to pay in New England!

We got picked up from the port in a group of about a dozen; I went with Colin, my roommate. Once we got there we had to sit through an instructional video narrated by a skydiving grandmaster with a long beard who looked like a rabbi. Then we signed our death waivers or whatever and waited for our turn. We got to watch a few flights land before we got harnessed up and assigned our tandem partner. Mine was a guy named John who had shaggy blond hair and a laid-back attitude. I felt safe because he seemed like a stereotype of a skydiving instructor, so I assumed he knew what he was doing. He made a lot of jokes and messed with me a lot, which I appreciated and thought was funny, but evidently made everyone else in our group feel unsafe. I was easy to tease since I was prepared to follow any instruction he gave me at that point.

We crammed about 15 people into a tiny plane and took off. While we were in the air the tandem guys strapped us in. Eventually the plane leveled out and people started jumping; John and I were near the back and got to watch them all go. I was expecting to feel really nervous by now, but oddly enough, I felt pretty good about it. Even with my feet dangling out of the plane, I was pretty calm. And then I felt John push us off. I signed off and closed my eyes. Then I was falling through the skies. Oddly, it wasn't as thrilling as, say, a roller coaster. After a few seconds, it just felt like floating, except with a strong wind. Pretty soon, John pulled the parachute and I got violently jerked back, which was a mite bit painful but a much-appreciated feeling since it meant I wasn't going to die. We cruised in for a landing in the drop zone and landed standing up within a few steps. Very smooth.

When we got back to the ship, it was already afternoon, and most of my friends were gone. I killed the rest of the day walking around the port area and getting a nice lunch before going in for the trip to Hilo.

Day 3:

Hilo is a much smaller city than Honolulu, but it's on a much bigger island. I spent all of the first day there on an S@S trip about volcanoes, which was required for my Natural Disasters class.

We had a bunch of stops, including two museums, a few places to view some mighty big calderas (volcanic craters), an area full of active steam vents (pleasantly warm), and a black sand beach that was backed up by a wide field of cooled lava that still looked like it was flowing to the sea. This last stop was also in view of a giant steam plume from actual lava meeting the sea. We would have tried to go see the glow of the lava itself, but the only viewing area was closed off due to poisonous gases. A shame.

Day 4:

For my free half-day in Hilo, Colin and I and another friend Eric rented bikes and cruised around the island. We got to see a little bit more of Hilo and some scenic routes around the coast. We stopped for lunch at a tiny mom & pop bakery stand at the side of the road and had malasadas, which are essentially doughnut-like pastries that can be filled with just about anything (peanut butter and jelly, pepperoni and cheese, whatever).

Our last stop was a little unpaved path leading down to the ocean. It was part of a donkey trail, and since we regrettably had no donkeys, we couldn't get past the water crossing unless we wanted to get very very wet. Instead, we hung around near the coast and found a coconut. After much rock bashing and improvised chiseling, we got the husk off and used Chief Sielu's teachings to open the coconut. We then drank the juice and rode around on imaginary horses making clopping sounds with the two coconut halves. Good times.

On the way back, we got more shave ice, since it was just that good.

Day 5:

We were told late at night that due to a storm, there was to be a schedule change. Since Hilo had no berth and the open ocean wasn't looking good, we were going back to Honolulu, and they were even going to let us off the ship! The bad news was that exams were still going to be taking place on the following day. Essentially, we were getting the chance to spend our study day in Hawaii.

I lacked plans, so I went out with friends and walked with them to Dave & Buster's for lunch and fun. It was my first time to one, and I get why they're so popular. It's like an adult Chuck E. Cheese's. After that, we picked up study supplies on the ship and holed up in a nearby restaurant with free refills and free internet for the rest of the day.

And now, I'm speeding back to the mainland! I arrive on the 14th.

Yokohama and Kobe, Japan

Japan! There are vending machines *everywhere* and all the dogs are handsome and well-groomed.

Day 1: Tokyo

We arrived in Yokohama and immediately had to get off the ship. The Japanese authorities insisted on individually clearing every passenger, which meant that everyone had to get off the ship and get checked (a process of about 3-4 hours) before anybody could get back on. This process was a good first impression of Japan: everyone got put into perfect lines in near-absolute silence and were efficiently shuffled through the bureaucracy. Rather than wait for the whole process to end, my friends and I left for Tokyo as soon as we could. Getting the right subway and train tickets was tricky but manageable, and we got there comfortably, quickly, and cheaply (the train ride was about 40 minutes and $7).

Tokyo is like New York, except imagine that nobody else in earshot is making any noise. Nobody talked. The only sound was the drone of cars and machinery and the loud Americans like us. We wandered around for a long time looking for a place to eat and finding nothing simultaneously appealing and cheap. We spent some time in a park with some gorgeous buildings and foliage before remembering that we were hungry and carrying on. Eventually we found a strip with a bunch of little noodle places filled with Japanese salarymen on their lunch breaks, and we jumped into the nearest one. For $5 I got a bowl of rice topped with fried chicken and a plate of cold soba noodles. The chicken wasn't spectacular, but the soba was pretty good. It came with a thin sweet sauce to dip in. There were also a bunch of condiments on the bar we were sitting at, including a weird red pepper mix and wasabe (which is, I discovered, as hot as I had been told). The whole meal experience felt very authentic.

After that we walked across town to the Akihabara Electric Town, the famous high-tech shopping district of Tokyo. It was full of useless electric gadgets, laptops, computer parts, lightbulbs, and lots and lots of pornography. We had several instances where my roommate would say "Oh look, a DVD and book store!" and walk inside to discover that it was an 18+ years old only zone. We wandered around the more legitimate stores for several hours, following whatever were the brightest multicolored lights in sight. Lots of fun for nerds, but everything was too expensive for us to actually buy. After a while we walked back to the city center, grabbed a train back to Yokohama (*much* more crowded this time), got dinner at the Yokohama station, and went back to the ship for the night.

Day 2: Yokohama

We woke up and went a-wandering more locally this time. Yokohama is a much more pleasant-feeling city, with more of a small-city waterfront feel. There's an amusement park dominated by a massive Ferris wheel that's always in sight, so we started out in that direction under the assumption that we'd find something interesting. There turned out to be some pretty nice-looking roller coasters, but yet again we thought with our wallets and skipped it. We got lunch at a Japanese place selling American Mexican food, a true cross-cultural experience.

After lunch we followed the waterfront for a little while. There was a little fair with a bunch of food and craft stalls and some girls doing Hawaiian dances. We also passed a small outdoor clothes market (secondhand stuff, possibly) and a few performers doing juggling on unicycles and stuff like that in front of a huge crowd. Candy apples and fried dough completed the picture. It was really nice.

There was a big mall underneath the tallest building in the city (not *that* tall, thanks to earthquakes) that we checked out. They're already putting up Christmas decorations, since there's no Thanksgiving to distract from it this time of year. After that we took the subway to the other side of town in search of an extra-large dollar store (actually, 100-yen store) that we had been recommended to visit. We didn't find it, but we did find a long stretch of cheap and interesting stores, the city's Chinatown, and a pleasant little park on the coast. The last activity of the day was touring a big, old Pacific ocean liner. It was built in the 1930s, served as a hospital ship during WWII, briefly returned to passenger/cargo service, and has been a floating museum ever since. It was built to be comfortable for both US and Japanese passengers, so the whole setup was very accommodating.

Day 3: In transit. We sailed to Kobe

Day 4: Hiroshima

I was signed up for this S@S trip for my Warfare class. We took a long, long bus ride to Hiroshima and got a lot of factoids from a tour guide that said everything as if she were speaking to a cute puppy (e.g. "Did you enjoy lunch? Did you enjoy lunch?" with me expecting her to say "Yes you did! Yes you did! Good boy!!!").

Hiroshima turned out to be a well-planned and beautiful city. They could pretty much redraw the map however they wanted in 1945. We first visited the Peace Park, which has several monuments and memorials, including for the children that died (many were working on demolishing lines of buildings to create fire breaks in the city center) and the Korean victims (lots of forced laborers). There's one building that was purposefully not rebuilt. It was one of the few that remained standing near the explosion's center.

After that, we did a self-guided tour of the Hiroshima war museum. It's split into two sections. The first section shows examples of building damage, talks about the political and scientific background behind the dropping of the bomb and selection of targets, and includes a 1/1000th scale model of the city both before and after the bomb. The second section takes off the gloves. It starts with a series of remnants of clothing or possessions of various victims, along with the stories of their families and how these artifacts were found. It then includes graphic pictures and descriptions of the injuries caused by the heat and radiation of the bomb. Every display was gruesome in an entirely unique way.

The interesting thing about the museum is that it was remarkably even-sided. It didn't take an anti-American tone. It was anti-nuclear weapons and made several appeals for their wholesale removal and destruction, but it didn't at all dwell on the right or wrong of WWII. The comment that "if there were no war, this wouldn't have happened" came up several times; it seems to implicate the one who started the war more than all those who fought in it.

And then we watched sumo wrestling on the bus TVs on the way back, and we all felt better.

We had dinner at a rest stop on the highway. There was a food court with a bunch of Japanese restaurants. You'd go up to a vending machine (naturally) and pick a numbered menu item. The relevant restaurant would get the order and you'd get a numbered ticket. When your number was called, you picked up your tray. It worked out very nicely. I had sticky rice with curry and chicken, which was delectable, but made my stomach yell at me for the rest of the evening.

Day 5: Kyoto

I had planned to spend the day in Kobe, but most of my friends were gone on trips or had other plans, so I hopped on the S@S trip to Kyoto since I had heard so much about it. Kyoto is Japan's ancient capital and renowned for its temples and beautiful foliage. I got to see both, and they were both well worth it.

We made five stops. First was a palace/castle built during the Tokugawa Shogunate. The floors creaked on purpose so that eavesdroppers or infiltrators could be easily detected. Second was the Golden Pavilion, a villa that was donated to become a Zen Buddhist temple after the owner's death. It's essentially a pagoda of gold, surrounded by the "Mirror Pond" and a breathtaking garden. Third was a park where we could eat lunch and a nearby Shinto shrine, where our guide showed us how to pray properly. Fourth was a larger Shinto shrine and attached garden, where I saw an adorable baby turtle swimming around the pond and got to hop across a series of stepping stones. Fifth and last was a Buddhist temple. It includes a stage that stands 36ft above the ground. Apparently there used to be a myth that jumping from the stage would grant any wish; for obvious reasons, this myth is now discouraged. The temple was at the end of a long line of shops and restaurants, where we had some time to explore. I ended up buying a tiny samurai-sword letter opener. I figured that I couldn't get a real sword back on the ship, so this was the next best thing. Now I can open letters with great ferocity.

Kyoto was gorgeous in general, and the gardens especially so. I'd be happy to come back here or to Yokohama someday, as long as I could share the experience with someone.

One port left!

Hong Kong and Shanghai, China

Day 1:

We land in Hong Kong! We usually get a "diplomatic briefing" with some advice from local US Consulate officials, but the guys who were scheduled to talk to us in Hong Kong didn't show up. We were docked in Kowloon at a shopping mall complex; the directions to get off the ship included stuff like "go down the escalator and turn right at the KFC". I went a-wandering with some friends who also didn't have any trips scheduled for the day, and we promptly found an ATM, got some Hong Kong Dollars, and took a ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong island proper.

We arrived at yet another shopping mall. We walked through it, went over a street on a raised bridge, and entered... a shopping mall. This pattern continued for a while. We actually traveled a decent distance like this. The malls differed in character. Some only contained designer clothes, while one was full of small, colorful, cheap Asian stores and stalls.

After wandering through the shops and finally reaching the streets, we followed signs to the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens. I wanted to see animals, and I got my wish. They had all sorts of birds, monkeys of all shapes and sizes, turtles, crocodiles, one giant snake, rodents of unusual size, and lots of lemurs. Fun times. Our second big stop of the day was Victoria Peak, via the tram. We walked along a mountain trail for a while, enjoying the view of the city, before doubling back and spending some time at Peak Tower, the mall at the top of the mountain.

After heading back to Kowloon at the end of the day, we wandered the ship's attached mall and stumbled across a video arcade. It was pretty cheap, and it had all sorts of cool games that we had never seen before, so we spent some time and money experiencing foreign geek culture. Lots of rhythm games.

Day 2:

The middle portion of my trip was dominated by the 4-day Guilin S@S trip. Guilin is a city on the Li River and is famously picturesque. It's the part of China immortalized in all the landscape paintings. The trip was especially nice because, like my trip to Hanoi, about half of the travelers in our group were professors or other adults. We also lucked out by getting a great guide (Alex) who grew up speaking English.

We flew out of the Hong Kong airport. I don't know if it was actually the biggest airport that I had ever seen, but it sure felt that way. They confiscated my sunscreen, which, combined with my wearing sunglasses, ended up leaving me with a raccoon sunburn. After an uneventful hour-long flight, we landed in Guilin, met Alex, and took a bus to the hotel. Dinner set the pattern for most meals on the trip: a family-style affair with rice, some style of pork and/or beef, and a bunch of mystery dishes.

Day 3:

Today centered around a trip to a rural village in the nearby hills. The hills around the village have been converted into terraced rice paddies, giving the area a distinctive look. The village is populated by one of China's many minority ethnicities. This helps to make Guilin and the surrounding areas a center for Chinese domestic tourism. We saw a lot of signs for things like "Photos with young minority women in festive dress" and "A place to enjoy the very original minority song and dance".

The village itself was on a hillside, and we spent the morning slowly going up the trail to the peak. The path was surrounded by stalls and merchants, and there were several decent-looking hostels and restaurants. The older ladies in our group elected to travel via sedan chair; they essentially hired two guys to carry them up the mountain in a chair on poles, like empresses. At one point we lost one of our students, but since he was the tallest guy in the village (pushing 7 feet) he wasn't too hard to track down.

That night in Guilin, a small group of students and I wandered around the area near the hotel. Alex pointed us towards the pedestrian-only street, where a night bazaar had been set up. It was essentially a row of stalls, several blocks long, featuring paintings, CDs, snacks, and all the little pieces of junk that we saw everywhere else. We also ducked inside a little cafe-ish place called Momacake and got some random pastries and beverages.

Day 4:

The day centered around a cruise up the Li River. Over a dozen riverboats left at about the same time, all run by different companies and jam-packed with Chinese tourists. The entire day was spent playing cards, eating lunch, and admiring the scenery. This is possibly the most picturesque place in the world. It was an overcast day, which was unfortunate, but even in those conditions the gumdrop-shaped mountains were pretty awe-inspiring.

We were dropped off in Yangshuo, a smaller town than Guilin and another big domestic tourism destination. The city is centered around West Street, a somewhat Western-influenced stretch of commerce. We had some time to wander up and down for a while before dinner and our big show for the evening. The show was called "Impression, Liu Sanjie" and was directed by the same guy who masterminded the Olympics opening ceremonies. I don't really know what to call it. It might be a dance, or an opera, but it's probably best to just call it a spectacle. It was dark by the time we arrived, so all we could tell was that most of the stage area was water. The show started with a spotlight on the main character, floating on a small raft in the middle of the stage. After about a minute, the previously-unseen mountains surrounding the area were lit up by colored floodlights and in the reflection on the water we could see a group of silhouetted boats rowing in a circle. It was pretty spectacular. Apparently this show runs twice a day and has been going strong for five years.

Upon getting back to Yangshuo, a group of students, one professor, and I went to Jimmy's Cafe and Bar on West Street. They served Western and Chinese food, but they looked a lot more confident about the Chinese food. We suspected that Jimmy didn't actually exist. Also, I discovered that in settings like that one, professors are happy to give frank opinions about their colleagues.

Day 5:

We had been scheduled to go on a bike ride this morning, but unfortunately the weather caught up to us and we got rained out. Instead we took a bus to see the Big Banyan Tree. It was a big Banyan tree and, we were told, was planted many centuries ago. Supposedly if you walk around it and make a wish, it will come true, so I'm glad I didn't sleep in. Our next destination was another picture-taking stop, this time of a rather underwhelming rock that looked like a rising moon under the right conditions.

We had a few hours of free time before flying to Shanghai to meet up with the ship, so I and a few others took the advice of one of the professors (who studied China and had visited several times) and got a foot massage. We picked the "Special Effect Ginger Flower Foot Massage" from the extensive menu, since they told us that it included a hot water foot bath, which sounded nice on a cold day. The hour-long massage was mostly for the feet, but also the back, neck, shoulders, and most of the leg. I was generally just really, really uncomfortable. My feet felt better afterward, but I didn't.

Day 6:

On our last day in Shanghai, some friends and I went into town to wander some more. I had already seen most of the sights with my parents a while back, so I was happy to just walk around. Luckily, adventure found us.

We got stopped by two younger Chinese people, a guy and a girl, who said that they were art students in town for a month for some sort of exhibition. They were very friendly and chatted with us for a while before inviting us to see their art, free of charge. They took us to the 10th floor of a tall bank building and into a room with a bunch of paintings on the walls and table. They took the four of us around the room and explained what each of the paintings meant and what the canonical symbolism was. There was a wide variety of styles, from ancient to abstract, though most was of a distinctly Chinese flavor. After a while their teacher, a man about 45 years old, came in and chatted with us a bit as well. They eventually mentioned that the paintings were for sale. That made me suspect that maybe all this wasn't legit, but their prices were actually a lot lower than we had seen elsewhere for similar paintings. I bought the smallest thing I could find in hopes of absolving my friends of any obligation, but two of them decided to buy as well.

It was only after we left that one of my friends revealed that it was an obvious scam. He said that he had seen the exact same set of paintings for sale several times in Beijing, and that the girl had claimed her teacher to be 89 years old before he walked in. As for why my friend didn't speak up *before* we handed over our money, I have no idea. Their explanations of the paintings were probably real, and I would have been happy with my purchase under other circumstances, but I still feel a tad bitter.

After that, we wandered the busy streets of People's Square and saw some sights. One friend wanted to see another video arcade that he had read about online, so we walked there and took a look. It was huuuuuuuge. The arcade filled an entire floor of a very large mall building. We all bought 100-yuan game cards (about $15) and spent a few hours in a technological playground. They had a whole set of games that were more like rides, where the seat would rotate and shift in reaction to the game. I played an automated tennis game, with real racket and tennis balls, inside a netted enclosure. There were also a ton of more standard arcade games that were way more advanced that most of the ones in the USA. For some reason, a lot of Chinese people stood around watching us play the games. It was fun.

Now I've got another day at sea before landing in Japan. I'm hoping to see four cities in four days: Yokohama, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Kobe. Then, I'm on my way back to the States. More news to come.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I'm a little late; we left Vietnam two days ago. It's been busy and I've been a bit sick. But I'm better now and my homework's done and now I've got time to write!

Day 1:

Ho Chi Minh city is hot, but not nearly as bad as Chennai. The morning was spent watching our ship navigate the crowded Saigon River. After that, I hopped off to go on a trip required for my Warfare class: a visit to a former UPI photographer followed by a trip to the Museum of War Remnants.

The UPI photographer was an interesting guy. He spoke to us (in *heavily* accented English, like everyone else in Vietnam) about his experience in the war. After it was over, he was briefly investigated by the new government before fleeing. He worked as a farmer in the Mekong Delta before they found him and sent him to a re-education camp. After seven years of hard labor and not enough food, he was released. He now runs a little antique museum and sells old photographs that he took during the war (he hid the negatives during his re-education). It was an interesting visit, but he was more concerned with selling photographs than telling stories.

On the bus ride to the museum, the bus driver turned on neon lights and put on a bunch of painfully loud J-pop music videos. Inexplicable.

The Museum of War Remnants was formerly known as The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government. It provided a very interesting perspective on the Vietnam War. They displayed a bunch of captured American military equipment in the yard outside the museum. There were exhibits on French oppression, South Vietnamese treatment of POWs, Agent Orange, the My Lai Massacre, and lots of other ugly stuff. The experience was reminiscent of the Holocaust Museum or the Ghanaian slave castles.

Day 2:

I woke up early (4AM) to run off to the Saigon airport and take a flight to Hanoi with a S@S trip. People killed time by doing some shopping in the little airport stores. The exchange rate is 1 dollar to about 18,000 Vietnamese dong (there were many jokes about the currency). Even airport stores were cheap. The flight was perfectly normal and pleasant, to my mild disappointment.

Upon arrival to Hanoi we met our awesome tour guide, Hung, and did a quick visit to the Hanoi Army Museum, which was sort of like the museum in Saigon (lots of hardware on display, very one-sided) but the tone here was much more glorious and less about mourning the atrocities of war. After that, we took a long bus ride out of the city to Mai Chau village.

Mai Chau is a regular ol' village that has successfully marketed itself as a tourist stop. Most of the people there were involved in rice farming, animal husbandry (lots of cows, chickens, ducks), or selling cheap crap to tourists. The countryside of Vietnam is absolutely beautiful. Lots of steep mountain cliffs, green fields and hills, and a cover of mist in the mornings. Our group stayed in the village longhouse, a big room on stilts with a bunch of mats and pillows on the ground. There were electric lights, but the electricity died several times during our visit. Our gracious hosts gave us food (cooked over an open fire) and did a small show with a bunch of 20-somethings performing a set of traditional dances to live music before putting us to bed.

Day 3:

We got woken up every five minutes from 3AM until we actually got up by roosters. Evidently, in Vietnam they aren't trained to wait until dawn to crow. I HATE roosters.

The next morning we enjoyed the scenery for a while, had breakfast (some sort of fried banana pancake), and walked around the village shopping. The coolest items were definitely the crossbows. There were some that were at least a yard in length; I ended up buying the smallest one I could find, which was still powerful enough to lodge a dull little wooden dart into a log. (I had no chance of getting it on the boat, so I shipped it home.) There were also a ton of puppies in the village. The dogs were all awesome. I wanted to take one home, but shipping wasn't an option for them. I had to settle for taking extra pictures of them.

Lunch was absolutely delicious. It included rice (of course), plantain fries, some sort of breaded pork, and a deliciously salty chicken dish. Then we took our ride back to Hanoi. We got back fairly late; myself and a small group went out to see what was to be seen around the hotel. I got to hang out at a nearby cafe and get a (mercifully) brief look at a Vietnamese dance club.

Day 4:

We got a few brief tours of some pagodas and other sites, including an ancient Chinese university. The coolest sight was the Hanoi Hilton, the famous prison that housed American POWs during the Vietnam war. It's now a museum. Most of the museum is dedicated to demonstrating how barbaric the conditions were... when the French were using it to imprison Vietnamese citizens. There are two rooms that are all about American POWs and shows how wonderfully nice they were treated. Lots of pictures of happy Americans smiling and playing pool or chess or getting a medical checkup. What a fun place! It was practically a vacation. They proudly display John McCain's flight suit.

Lunch was at Pho 24, the biggest Vietnamese Pho chain. Pho is rice noodle soup, and it's delicious. I got Chicken Pho, like most people. Others in our group got the Pho "Special", which involved a lot of unidentifiable but very suspicious pieces of meat.

We ran into a traffic jam on our way to the airport, and for a while it looked like we were going to miss the flight. Luckily, Hung and the tour company were resourceful. Vietnam is soon to be hosting the Asian Indoor Games, a big sporting competition that called for all sorts of billboards and advertising. There was one bridge out of the city that led to the airport that was reserved for only certain types of cars and for buses transporting athletes for the games. Our tour company had some of those buses. Our bus borrowed the official "athlete bus" sign and drove through (we had to put up the window curtains and hide behind the seats, though). We got to our flight with plenty of time.

On our way back into the ship, we were stopped for a while by the housekeeping staff. Apparently, somebody else on our bus had found bedbugs in their hotel in Hanoi. I guess we were in danger as well, and they demanded that we hand in all our packed clothes to be frozen for two days and then washed to get rid of any possible bugs. Our trip leader, an otherwise mild-mannered older man, got really frustrated at this unforseen delay and went berserk, yelling and trying to barge through the security checkpoint and ripping off his shirt and at one point yelling "WE ARE THE PEOPLE!!!" I think he was trying to make the point that we shouldn't have to deal with the check because we were the customers of S@S, but it sounded like he was trying to start a revolution. That professor's reputation will not recover anytime too soon.

On our last day, I finally came down with whatever illness I picked up in Hanoi, so I slept in and took it easy, only briefly going into town for lunch and free internet at a cafe. There were also a bunch of movies shown in the classrooms later that evening, as everybody who bought bootleg DVDs for a dollar apiece decided to put on shows. Fun times!

We land in Hong Kong tomorrow morning. I get 1.5 days in Hong Kong, then go on a 4-day overnight trip to Guilin, and then catch up with the ship in Shanghai for a day. More news afterwards!

Chennai, India

During all of our preport briefings, I don't think I heard a single positive portrayal of India. Everyone made it out to be stressful, crazy, dirty, and unpleasant. And it was all of those things, but it was also full of really cool culture.

Our port was Chennai, formerly known as Madras, the fourth-largest metropolitan area in India (well behind Delhi, Mumbai, and Calcutta), in the state of Tamil Nadu. Southern India is evidently more culturally conservative than northern India. The people in the region speak Tamil (not Hindi) and do pretty well with English; it's mandatory in school, but evidently that curriculum is primarily focused on written English instead of spoken.

Chennai is hot. It's a humid, sweating heat, too, not the pleasant exotic dry heat of Morocco or Ghana.

The streets are lined with trash, covered in dust, and full of cars, bikes, and auto-rickshaws. The rickshaws were our primary method of transportation when getting around Chennai on our own. They're rectangular, three-wheeled, driven with handlebars instead of a steering wheel, and with an underpowered, puttering engine. The drivers are famous for ripping off tourists and locals alike. They'd ask for ridiculous fares (though still pretty cheap compared to American taxi rates), and they had a whole repertoire of tricks to get their way. They'd try to get you sitting in their taxi before agreeing on a fare (giving them the upper hand), or they'd stop at a gas station and ask you to pay for it, or they'd pull over on the side of the highway and try to convince you to go to a shop of their friend's, or you'd ask for 50 rupees and they'd nod and say "OK, OK, two hundred" as if they were agreeing. It was something of a fun game to try to get around for a good price.

Day 1:

Colin and I were both signed up for two trips: the city tour and a "welcome reception" with students from local universities. But we had a few hours to kill before those started, so we decided to walk out of the port (about a 15 minute walk, with rickshaws hassling you the whole way) and see what was to be seen. The port gate was manned by some guards with huge automatic rifles who demanded to see our shore passes every time we went through. Once outside we stopped at an ATM and walked with a big group of S@S students who were looking for a nearby market. We got our first taste of Chennai traffic and child beggars. The group got lost, and after they decided to get rickshaws into the deep city, Colin and I paid a dollar to get rushed back to the port in full retreat.

Our rickshaw driver was a guy name Rama. Before we went back, he pulled out a big pile of letters, pictures, and printed emails; they were all testimonials from previous years of Semester at Sea students about how awesome and friendly he was. I was a bit incredulous, but he had an awful lot of documentation, and he *was* very friendly and inexpensive, so maybe it was legit.

The city tour was somewhat interesting (we stopped at two old churches and a large Hindu temple), but it turned into a partial shopping trip as well. Our bus stopped at two higher-end stores selling handicrafts, jewelry, saris, and other clothes. We could watch them making the products as well. This was the real, quality shopping, but I was more interested in the cheap stuff to be found later on, so I mostly abstained.

I got a bit sick to my stomach while walking around one of the church gardens. I needed to find a bathroom, but our guide just asked me to wait until the next stop. So I walked around in obvious discomfort until a helpful lady who didn't speak any English pulled out a key and opened up a hidden door to the secret holy bathroom in the back of the garden. I was extraordinarily grateful, and I was lucky that I had been warned previously to bring my own toilet paper. Also, I carried along a pack of Pepto-Bismol for the rest of the port. It seemed unfair that the only food that got me sick in Chennai was the stuff served for lunch on the ship that first day.

The welcome reception later that night was a lot of fun. We entered past some musicians and all got a bit of sandalwood paste on our foreheads; I discovered in the mirror later that night that mine had been placed off-center, so I had been looking silly all evening. After walking in, I was quickly paired with a young guy named Arun. He was a friend of the organizer of the event, and not a student. In fact, he was working as a Technical Support Engineer and a trainer of others. Essentially, he worked in a call center doing technical support for users of RealNetwork's Rhapsody music player.

Arun asked me what my plans were. After I told him that I had nothing scheduled for the next evening (about three minutes into the conversation), he offered to show me around. I accepted, of course. After about an hour, Arun had to leave to go to work, since it was the start of business hours in the good ol' USA. Apparently he only sleeps in the late mornings and early afternoons.

They served a lot of food that I had never seen before (rice cakes, two sauces for the cakes, "indian doughnut", cashew-based snacks, and a dough ball drenched in a sweet syrup for dessert). I tried everything, and some of it wasn't bad. There were a few Indian girls painting henna on people's hands in the corner. Nobody told me that this was something primarily for girls (mostly as a pre-marriage thing). I got a small design on my wrist, where I could cover it with my watch in case I didn't like it, but it turned out pretty well.

About half of the reception was spent watching a Bharatanatyam dance. Bharatanatyam is a style originating in Tamil Nadu involving highly scripted dances by heavily decorated women. It's a narrative dance, telling stories from Hindu texts as live musicians play and sing the stories in song. They showed some of the basics of how it worked and the basic movements and then performed a few stories. It was pretty mesmerizing once they got into it.

Once I got back to the ship, I blew my nose and got black dirt. That remains the most disconcerting experience of my S@S experience. The air quality is something less than fantastic.

Day 2:

A longtime friend of Semester at Sea in Chennai organized a "100th Voyage Celebration", and S@S encouraged all the students to go on this free trip, so that's how I spent my morning. They served us tea and biscuits (both surprisingly good) and then put us into an auditorium of Ethiraj Women's College along with a bunch of students.

The event was divided into two parts. The first half was a bunch of dance exhibitions for our benefit. These ranged from highly traditional to modern pop. The performers were students of the college or a nearby public primary school. There was also a performance by a four-woman a capella group, who sang a medley of Tamil songs as well as Billie Jean. That was interesting.

Then, in a total surprise move, the MC invited us American students to do a performance for them. We spent about a minute looking amongst ourselves in confusion. Luckily, we had Terrence with us. Terrence Smith is the most likeable showboat you've ever met, and a damn good dancer. He's a mini-celebrity on the ship. He plugged his iPod into the sound system, played a repetitive dance tune, marched up on stage alone and started doing the cha-cha slide with way too much exuberance. It worked splendidly, and soon a bunch of other students (American and Indian) ran up and joined in. A smashing success.

The second part of the event was a series of speeches by dignitaries, including a Member of Parliament and the Mayor of Chennai. It was a seminar on Youth Leadership and Education Through Travel. Nobody listened to the speeches, not even the other dignitaries (they talked amongst themselves).

I went back to the ship and killed time until Colin arrived and it was time for us to meet up with Arun. We met at the port gate to find that Arun had brought along two friends (I never understood their names), one of whom brought the car. They were all very friendly. Arun had taken leave off work to hang out with us, which was truly gracious. They took us to a beach first; it was incredibly wide and I think I heard that it was the second-largest beach in the world. Apparently, it was hit incredibly hard by the 2004 tsunami and hundreds of bodies were buried under the beach. That didn't stop a ton of people from spending their evening there.

Our next stop was City Centre, the biggest and most modern shopping complex in Chennai and a favorite hangout of Arun & Friends. Traffic and parking were a problem, but luckily the friend who was driving the car was the son of a soon-to-be Member of Parliament, so traffic laws were not a concern and the supposedly full car park magically opened up for us after a short conversation with the gate guard.

Once inside, we stopped at Landmark, an everything store, and bought some Indian music. Later, Arun and friends bought Colin and I each a hot dog laden with weird sauces, a weird fusion of American and Indian cuisine. Arun himself (a vegetarian) bought a small cup of corn masala, which was spicy and the most delicious thing I had eaten in weeks. I think I've become a fan of anything masala, actually. Then they took us to a little cafe that they liked to frequent and bought us several more Indian dishes that I can't recall the names of. They were all vegetarian dishes and all surprisingly good, though not the sort of thing I'd go out of my way to get.

That was it for the evening's activities; Chennai goes to sleep at 11PM. Arun told me to go to Amsterdam if I wanted a party (although he claimed to enjoy the occasional "long conversation with Jack Daniels"). We talked a lot in the car, which was probably my favorite part of the evening. We asked for crazy stories from his work; he told us that a guy called in earlier that day with a routine question and the interesting supplementary detail that he had a brain tumor and two months left to live and lived only for music. Arun gave the guy $10 of credit for more songs.

Colin had two interesting exchanges with the group. At one point, he was carrying his empty cup of soda, waiting to find a place to throw it out before Arun grabbed it out of his hand and tossed it onto the street, commenting "Welcome to India, buddy!" Later, Arun's son-of-MP friend asked Colin what he thought of the Indian ladies:
Colin: Very pretty, actually. Why? What do you think of the girls here?
Arun's friend: Cute. Sexy.
Colin: Ah. And what do the girls think of you guys?
Arun: They think we're ATMs.

At the end of the evening, they refused to let us pay them back for the food or gas. I can't help but be grateful for their hospitality.

Day 3:

Dartmouth's own Marissa, good friend and S@S alumnus, had met a guy named Krishnan during her voyage last year. I was put into contact with him and was eventually invited to be taken to see Mammallapuram (a town outside Chennai that's full of history) with some other S@S students. So I caught a taxi in the morning to meet with the group outside a small nearby stadium.

It turned out that Krishnan was actually *Mr.* Krishnan, a pleasant man with a loud combover, who hosted S@S students for the homestay trips. This day, he was leading all of the homestay students on their trip, so I essentially got a free day trip with a bunch of S@S friends, complete with breakfast, lunch, and a comfortable bus with soft, reclining seats.

We visited a series of monuments and temples. They were interesting, but not very. I was more enjoying the conversations with Krishnan's daughter about the education system in India; she's now working unhappily as a programmer, but she's happy that it pays the bills. At the end of the day, I got a rickshaw back to the ship. Krishnan was extremely apologetic that he hadn't been able to spend more time with me personally, even though he had been checking up on me all day to make sure that I was happy and comfortable. An incredibly nice guy.

Day 4:

The day was dominated by a Rural India trip. We visited two villages. In the first, we briefly walked around and saw the sights: the village well (with people bathing and cleaning clothes), cows, chickens, a monkey, a temple, and several stalls selling food and cheap colorful plastic toys.

At the second village we got to go inside two homes. In the back of one, a group of guys were cooking lunch for 200 people (in a village of about 1500). We were driven around in some carts pulled by oxen. The first stop was a rice field a short distance away. After showing us how to plant rice, we were invited to try it out ourselves, so I rolled up my jeans, stepped into the shin-high mud, and started sowing. It was a classic Semester at Sea experience. Also, it means that I'm at risk for schistosomiasis, a fun little parasitic disease (easily treatable) with some unique symptoms (see The second stop was a field of coconut trees, where a guy showed us how to climb a tree and let a few S@S kids try to climb as well (to the horror and anxiety of our faculty trip leader).

On the way home we stopped at a "crocodile bank" and snake park. Essentially it was a zoo for crocs, with a few snakes in cages off to the sides. The crocs were separated by species. Some enclosures were filled to the brim with crocodiles, all of them pressed together and climbing over each other to get in and out of the water. I'm pretty sure they're not that cuddly in the wild. PETA would have a fit. The guides threw a few pieces of meat into the enclosures so that we could watch them feed. The pride of the park was Jaws III, a 16-foot saltwater crocodile. 16 feet is biiiiiig.

The last stop of the trip was the Dakshina Chitra, an "architectural heritage museum". Essentially, they transplanted about twenty houses that are representative of historical South India into a small area and filled them with exhibits. It's a bit like Colonial Williamsburg. They also had some of the ubiquitous handicraft stalls and gave us ample time to shop.

After returning to the ship, Colin, myself, and a friend named Brad took a rickshaw to City Centre again with the hopes of catching a Tamil movie (Chennai's film industry, called Kollywood, is one of the largest). Unfortunately, all shows were sold out. So we got food at the Arabian Hut Charcoal Grill, I bought my own cup of corn masala, we stopped at Landmark and bought some PC games for cheap, and we picked up some food from a grocery store for the ship.

Day 5:

I had two short trips on our last day in port. The first was entitled Socioeconomic Problems in Chennai. We went to the headquarters of MCDS, an Indian Christian charity that operated several programs in the nearby slums, including a mobile hospital and programs for women and mentally handicapped children. We got to speak for a while to the founder of the Chennai chapter of the group and he explained what the charity did. Someone asked him if they did any evangelizing; he said that they chose not to, since they would rather direct their efforts towards making "good Muslims and good Hindus rather than bad Christians". He said that since we were American, he knew that we were all Christian, but that religion was not an end focus of their work.

We then visited three of their programs-in-action. The first was a microfinance program for women. The women were put into "self-help groups", each of which could pool their resources and get a small low-interest bank loan. After this was paid back, they were eligible for a larger loan that enabled many of them to open businesses like sari shops and beauty salons. Evidently, some women were now making more than their husbands. The local economy has improved with the program, and along with this improvement came a liquor shop, which the women (when prompted) identified as the biggest social problem they were facing.

We then walked through a slum market (full of women shredding fish on iron saws and lots and lots of flies enjoying the mess) to a small center for mentally handicapped children. Actually, it was for children who were mentally challenged *and* had other disabilities as well. Some of them weren't really children, either. Not physically, anyway, but that's not how MCDS classified them. One of the girls there had won a medal at the Special Olympics, of which she was incredibly proud. The center's goals were to teach them all basic life skills (dressing, eating, etc) and some basic occupational skills. They do what they can to provide some stable future for the children there; we were told that the old alternative was to be hidden away inside by the family.

The last stop was a "transit school" for children who had failed or dropped out of school and were found doing illegal child labor. The idea was that they would attend the transit school (funded by the Tamil Nadu government) for a year and then re-enter public school at their age-appropriate grade. Getting kids who had been used to making money every day to go to school regularly is apparently a difficult task.

I arrived back in time to be the first on the bus for my next trip, Visit to a Cross-Cultural Enterprise. It was run for the students of a business class, but it sounded like a visit to a call center, and I wanted to see it. The professor saw me and politely explained that he had requested his students to come in slacks and collared shirts, and that I might be the only one in jeans and T-shirt, and that I might be more comfortable changing clothes. So I ran to my room, found that I had not, in fact, packed slacks, and ended up in the absurd combination of baggy, frayed, rice-paddy-stained jeans and a white dress shirt. When I got back, the professor had a wry smile and told me "You're not the only one." I got on the bus and found that almost everyone was in jeans or shorts and T-shirts. Grr.

Our destination was Perot Systems, founded by Ross himself. It now makes several billion dollars a year, has several thousand associates (the plurality located in their Chennai headquarters), and works with several American companies (mostly in health care). They do some software development and some "business process solutions" involving taking customer calls and working them through the health care system. We got a long, slick presentation by some impressively smooth-talking professionals in a comfortable boardroom with free Diet Coke. A bit of a change from the morning's activities. They told us about their hiring and training processes (apparently they get 50 applications for every position, and they weed people out based primarily on English fluency and computer proficiency).

The coolest part of the afternoon was seeing the pronunciation training. They were practicing their short 'i' sounds ("This is in the gym"). We didn't get a chance to see the call center in action since the time zones don't work out. They also served us an exquisite lunch before we had to run off to catch the ship before it left.

Next stop is Vietnam, where I'll be spending most of my time on a three-day trip to Ha Noi and Mai Chau Village. More updates then.

Port Louis, Mauritius

Five countries down, five more to go!

Mauritius is easily the most obscure of the nations that we're visiting. It's an island nation situated about 560 miles east of Madagascar. It's got about 1.2 million residents packed into its 780 square miles, and it gets about 800,000 tourists every year. Tourism accounts for a big portion of the nation's GDP, and it shows.

Mauritius was discovered by the Portugese and then colonized by the Dutch, French, and English. At some point, tons of Indians were brought in to work on the sugar cane plantations. Now, the result is a population that mostly looks Indian (with Africans and southeast Asians mixed in) and speaks French, French Creole, or English with a French accent. It's an interesting combination.

I started out my first day with a City Orientation of Port Louis, the nation's capital. We saw a bunch of religious buildings (Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian are all well represented) and an old colonial fort. The coolest part of the tour was the city's famous botanical gardens: the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden, or Pamplemousses Garden for short. There were tons of fruits, trees, and flowers that I'd never seen before. There was an aquatic plant that looked like a water lily but about ten times bigger, a tree that looked like a bunch of branches braided together into a trunk, and (most interestingly) the "penis palm", so named for its remarkably phallic appendages that stick out near the roots. We also saw some resident giant tortoises and deer (one of which came to the fence and said hi; I finally got to pet a deer!).

The city orientation ended an hour and a half earlier than expected (for which we got a partial refund), but I wasn't too upset since that just meant more time to explore the city. Colin and I hit the waterfront first and had lunch at a South African / English pub. Then we did a lot of wandering and shopping, with some time taken out to visit an internet cafe. One thing that's really nice about shopping in Mauritius is the exchange rate: 30 Mauritian Rupees (MUR) to the dollar. I felt rich! We then visited the city's central market, where they were selling fruits, vegetables, breads, clothes, fake DVDs dubbed over in French, and lots more; I bought a pair of sandals for 100MUR, which seemed really really expensive until I did the calculation. Later we had hoped to visit the museums and see the skeleton of the last dodo bird, but it turns out that the museums close surprisingly early on a weekday, so, lacking any other destinations, we called it a day.

On the second day (our only full day in Mauritius), I went on a trip to the Ile de Deux Cocos and the nearby marine park. Our classes require that we do certain trips that relate to the curriculum; for some reason, this gave credit for my Natural Disasters class, and since I had wanted to do some snorkeling anyway, I signed up. Myself and a bunch of S@S kids took a complete cross-country bus trip, which took about an hour, and then took a short boat ride to the private island. It had a beach and an open bar with unlimited free drinks, but they were instructed not to serve any alcohol to S@S students due to an "incident" on last year's trip. The day was spent snorkeling in the marine park (lots of fish, but not as good a variety as I had seen in the USVI), eating lunch, and lounging on the beach.

When I got back, I met up with Colin again and we head out on the town. There was a lot of chatter about the casino on the waterfront, and we decided that it might be fun to waste some money there. I spent 500 MUR, which got me a big bucket of 2MUR coins. The ground floor was filled with video poker and slot machines, while the upper floor had the real card tables. We weren't allowed to go up to the top level because Colin was wearing shorts and I was wearing a hat, so I didn't get the full casino experience. But slot machines are hilarious, and I had fun with them, and it was an evening of cheap entertainment (I played until I ran out). As Colin cashed out (he finished with about half of what he started), we noticed a sign that informed us that all patrons must be 21 or above. Whoops.

We heard music as we walked out of the casino, so we followed it and found a live concert in a little waterfront amphitheater. They were playing some sort of Indian music and had some girls doing a dance in front. This was the day before Diwali, the Festival of Lights, and I think it was part of the pre-celebrations (there were a bunch of people selling fireworks nearby as well). We enjoyed the music, wandered the area a bit more (they converted a telephone booth in the middle of the waterfront into an aquarium, which was pretty cool), and headed back to the ship in a freelance water taxi for the night.

Today, I woke up early for an "Adventure Park" trip. I wasn't sure about this one, but I had heard good things about it and so I decided to give it a shot. We drove to the south-western tip of the island to the park. It was essentially a massive ropes course. The first section involved a bunch of wobbly rope bridges (we had harnesses on) over chasms of various depths. The second section was the more intense ropes course stuff. You had to swing from ropes, climb on nets, swing down ziplines, etc. to get to the next platform. It wasn't a cultural experience, but it was a ton of fun.

The second part of today's trip was a visit to Flic en Flac, a major beach area with a funny name. My group didn't spend much time on the beach, instead electing to walk up and down the coast and check out the town. We stopped at a local grocery store and got some snacks, and some of the others bought a lunch at a beachside fast-food & kebab stall. We only spent about an hour and half before we had to drive back to the ship, but it was a pleasant experience.

The deans and professors made Mauritius sound more like a vacation break than a serious educational destination, and that's ultimately how it felt, though it was still very interesting in its own ways. Our next stop is Chennai, India, which everyone makes out to be a complete horror show, and so a break beforehand was very welcome. More updates then!

Cape Town, South Africa

The travelogue continues...

Cape Town was one of our longest stretches in port, with 6 days and 5 nights to explore the city. The city is absolutely gorgeous; the plateaued Table Mountain looms over everything and the clouds drift over it in the morning like a tablecloth. We were docked at the V&A Waterfront (for Victoria and Albert), a touristy development with all sorts of restaurants, malls, curio shops, and stalls advertising helicopter tours, boat rides, shark diving, bungee jumping, and skydiving.

Day One:

Colin (my roommate) and I went exploring the waterfront in the morning, did some shopping, enjoyed some street music (there are a lot of bands on xylophones; I think it's called marimba), and had lunch plus free internet.

The afternoon was dominated by a visit to Khayelitsha Township. The townships were the places where blacks lived during apartheid. Khayelitsha was Cape Town's largest, with over two million residents. It's essentially a giant expanse of shacks packed tightly together, built out of aluminum plates and cargo containers. The city of Cape Town is building housing projects with the goal of eventually providing a legal brick house for every resident, but for now most live in the shacks with porta-potties for plumbing and electricity illegally run from huge octopus-like clusters of wires (they had to use a pole to hold the wires out of our way when the bus came through). It's a fully-functioning city, though; we passed tons of restaurants, barber shops, and even internet cafes, all run out of the same style of shack as the homes.

Our group stopped at a church and a nearby craft sale, where we were assured that we'd be buying directly from the women who made the things they were selling. We later visited two bed & breakfasts, each run by highly educated women who were looking to give tourists a safe and real glimpse into the townships. They were very interesting to talk to, and one served us biscuits and (non-alcoholic) homemade ginger beer.

I had hoped to catch another trip with Colin when I got back, but things were running on African time and so we were pretty late. As I went back to the ship I saw a friend leaving for a trip called Cape Town Jazz Safari; my earlier plans were spoiled, so I joined up with this trip on a whim. It ended up taking the crown as my Favorite S@S Experience So Far. We were a group of about a dozen students and a few professors, led by a guide who knew a lot about the musical history of the city. Evidently, Cape Town jazz is rather famous:

We went first to the house of Robbie Jansen. He's an aging jazz legend who went into cardiac arrest four years ago, nearly died, and now walks around with a tube running under his nose. He can still play the saxophone awesomely well, though. He took us into his living room and we were served some snacks, while Robbie and his friend on piano played us a few songs and talked a bit about their music and experience as musicians in South Africa. Their music gave me a brand new appreciation for jazz; it's really, really cool to hear live and up close.

Then our group split into two halves, and my half went on to the even cozier house of Hilton Schilder, a composer who plays the piano, guitar, and bow. The bow is a traditional African instrument; it's a solid hunting bow strung with piano wire. The player hits the string with a stick and holds the end of the bow in his mouth, changing the frequency of the resulting sound by changing the shape of his mouth. Hilton played us a few songs; it has a really cool, almost electronic sound. We were served an excellent dinner of rice, lentils, and chicken curry, and he played us a bit more on piano and guitar (which he played by plucking and tapping for different songs). He told us that he'd be playing again tomorrow at a jazz club in town, and we all resolved to come check it out.

Day Two:

I took an S@S trip to Cape Point, the "most southwesterly point of Africa", whatever that means. It's a pretty stunning view. We hiked up to the lighthouse and cliff lookouts and got a good eyeful. On the way back home our group stopped for lunch at a seafood restaurant. I had missed breakfast, and surprised myself by finishing an entire filet of fish. It was good! Our last stop was Boulders Beach, famous for its colony of African penguins. They were molting and looked really cranky but, as penguins, were still pretty darn cute.

I got back late (again), but was lucky to run into the ship's music professor as he was leaving the ship, so we shared a cab to the jazz club and I met with a bunch of other students there. We enjoyed some food and good music. After a few acts, Hilton and his band went on stage and he played the bow and piano. The bow didn't sound as good with accompaniment; it's too subtle a sound to be able to hold the foreground of the song. He played some songs that we'd heard him play solo the night before, which was pretty neat. He dressed and acted a lot more like a beatnik jazz dude than when he was entertaining us in his living room.

Day Three:

Colin and I met up with a friend named John whom we met in Cadiz to hike Table Mountain. We neglected to get a map before we began, and so our first trek up took us away from the actual mountain towards the nearby Devil's Peak, but we had all day so we were happy to get the extra hike in. Then, on our traverse back towards the main mountain we passed a trail called Platteklip Gorge, but we decided that it was probably not the quickest way up, so we kept going for a while longer until our trail petered out near the bottom of the mountain. We were later informed that, in fact, the gorge was the only way up. So, not willing to give up yet, we backtracked and went up the gorge trail. This part was *really* difficult after having hiked so much already, but we eventually reached the top.

A short, level stroll from the peak took us to the upper station of the cable car that runs up and down the mountain. We enjoyed some absolutely delicious cold drinks and a snack before buying a ticket on the cable car back to the bottom. On our taxi ride back to the ship we enjoyed some South African Christian radio.

Day Four:

Safari! We went to the Aquila Private Game Reserve; essentially, somebody had bought a bunch of farms, fenced them in, and brought in a bunch of animals. It was a full-day trip, but only about 2.5 hours of that was actual safari drive. Still, we got to see most of the cool animals on the reserve: elephants, hippos, rhinos, zebras, water buffalo, ostriches, and a bunch of different birds, as well as cheetahs, lions, and a leopard in separate enclosures. Oddly enough, I was most impressed with the springbok, a small type of gazelle, which also happens to be South Africa's national animal. They're sleek and pretty and have awesome horns. I bought a hat of the SA Springboks rugby team just because I liked the animal on their logo so much. Anyway, I have a ton of pictures and video to show people months from now; remind me!

Day Five:

I met with Terry Berkow, a business partner of a business partner of a guy named Philip McNeill that I know pretty well. He drove me around in his awesome convertible and showed me some of the neighborhoods and scenic outlooks of Cape Town. The really neat part of the morning was the conversation, though; I got all sorts of interesting perspectives on South Africa, as well as international business and branding strategy. Also, he took me to a fancy hamburger place, which makes him very cool in my book.

I met up with Colin back at the ship and went out on the town for some shopping, free-internet-hunting, and dinner. We also got tickets for a late-night showing of District 9, a recent sci-fi movie produced and set in South Africa. It has all sorts of allusions to apartheid and the famous eviction of blacks from District Six of Cape Town. It's a good movie, if a bit icky to watch. The slum in the movie was shot in an actual township outside of Johannesburg, and it looked very similar to Khayelitsha.

Day Six:

All of the day was allocated to a trip about apartheid, with visits scheduled for the District Six museum, Robben Island, and a few other stops. The morning museums were fairly interesting, though District 9 did more to make me care than any of the museum exhibits. Lunch was the most delicious meal I had in my entire Cape Town visit; it was served in a restaurant in one of the townships by a woman who talked on and on in a manner akin to a stand-up comedy routine. There was another marimba band, and at the end of the meal they brought me and a few other guys up, showed us some notes to play in a certain rhythm, and had us jam for a while. It sounded pretty darn good.

The afternoon's visit to Robben Island (the prison at which Nelson Mandela was kept) was, unfortunately, canceled due to strong winds; the ferry wasn't running. Apparently, that's a problem during this season. But that's one more thing for me to do when I return to Cape Town! I'd be more excited to come back here than any other port so far.

Next up: Mauritius. More news then!

Accra, Ghana


My first trip into Accra was on the S@S-run city tour. My tour guide was awesome. He spoke excellent English; it's the most common language spoken here, mostly because it was the British that actually shoved the various communities together into a nation. His name was Nii, which is a really common name around here. We later were told that the local tradition is to give a first name based on the day of the week that the child was born. Names like Kofi and Kwame come from that.

The tour involved stopping at a monument to Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana's first president and a political hero), a nearby arts market (we only had 30 minutes to exchange dollars for Ghanaian cedis and shop), and a memorial to W.E.B. Du Bois (an African American who later became a Ghanaian citizen). In between, we had a lunch of Jollof rice, fried plantain, and chicken.

But! the cool part of this tour was just seeing the people and shops on the streets. Everyone can balance loads on their head; they all carry giant platters of stuff that would be impossible to carry in any other way. Nii explained that carrying water from a well used to be a common chore, so kids would get used to carrying the buckets on their heads. One day, they'd suddenly realize that they were no longer supporting the bucket with their hands, and that's the moment that the bucket falls. :)

There is advertising everywhere for Coke and for various Ghanaian products, but by far the most common advertisements were for the big four telecom companies in Ghana: MTN, Zain, Vodafone, and Tigo. About half of the shops, stalls, and homes that faced the streets were painted in the colors and logo of one of these companies, and their billboards were all over the place. Sometimes every building on a block would be painted in the same company's advertisements, like one big Vodafone village. It was crazy.

Ghana has a significant portion of the population practicing Islam and lots of people practicing African traditional religions, but the vocal and visible majority are Christians. A lot of taxis had religious messages on the back windows (e.g. "Try Jesus"), a lot of walls had religious things scrawled on them, and it seemed like every other shop had a name like "By His Grace Fast Food" or "God's Word Beauty Salon" or "Jesus Jesus Jesus" (actual examples). I also heard a minute of a radio show in which a guy was preaching the gospel over reggae music.

There's a lot of animals around: I saw lizards in most shady rocky areas, and a certain type of bird was absolutely everywhere (they're black with white necks, like crows but pretty). It seemed that every populated part of Ghana outside of downtown Accra seemed to be filled with little goats, chickens, and occasionally cats and dogs. The goats will eat anything, it seems, which is a good thing because the sides of most roads are covered in trash. There were also a lot of walls that had "DO NOT URINATE HERE" written in big letters, which I suppose says a lot.

The people are also very, very friendly. About half of the people we passed would smile and wave at the bus (and the other half glared, but whatever). Even the annoying guys selling us stuff off the bus would ask our names and where we're from. They *love* Obama, especially since his visit; there are a ton of billboards up with his face next to that of the current Ghanaian president (which I expect is the president's attempt to improve his own image).

During the traffic jams, of which there were surprisingly many, nearby vendors would swarm the streets and hawk their wares to the car windows. There are a lot of people selling cheap bags of plantain chips or nuts and a ton of people selling little 500ml sachets of purified water (which is the biggest contributor to all the litter). Someone on our bus bought some chopped up sugar cane through the window and passed everyone a piece to chew.

The coolest part of the day came at dusk. We were riding home and somebody pointed out a flock of birds outside the window. Then we realized that they had feet and ears and leathery wings. And then we noticed several other flocks, and pretty soon the entire sky was filled with bats! I like bats, if only because they kill the mosquitos.

Did you hear the joke about mosquitos? It's malarious! ...
Mosquitos are a problem this close to the equator, but I'm not too worried; I only got bitten a few times. Apparently, about 5-10% of mosquitos here carry malaria, but since I'm on an antimalarial drug and used plenty of bug spray, I think I was careful enough to get through unscathed. Another consequence of being at this latitude is that the sun is a lot more powerful than elsewhere. You can really feel the difference. It bakes you alive.

At the end of the city tour, myself and some friends got dropped off at a "welcome reception" being run by students at the nearby Ashesi University. The Deputy Minister of Education came and gave a short speech. Later, an African student dance troupe did a performance for us. The rest of the evening was just freeform socializing with the Ghanaian students. They served kebabs (the chicken had bones in it, I discovered the hard way) and plantain chips (delicious!). I met several Ghanaian guys, including a few Computer Science students! One was even making games using XNA and the Unity engine, technologies that we're playing with at Dartmouth; I told him to do the Imagine Cup next year. Nerds are everywhere! They said they'd be my Facebook friends. :)

The next morning was an early departure for the Cape Coast Historical Tour trip. The bus ride that morning was difficult; our tour guide laboriously instructed us on some basic vocabulary in Akan (the second most-spoken language, and very common in Accra), her microphone had an echo (which made the vocab lesson oddly eerie), the bus was speeding along some rather bumpy roads, and honking is extremely common.

But we eventually reached Kakum National Park, my first visit to a rainforest! We had been told that there would be a choice of whether to walk in the canopy walkways or on a trek through the floor of the rainforest; in actuality, they just had everybody go through the canopy. We took a short walk up to the first platform and saw plenty of dense foliage. Aside from a lot of butterflies, there weren't any animals in sight; I think our group was too big and noisy. The canopy walk itself was a lot of fun, although very short. We were very, very high up on a safe but narrow rope bridge. It was something I've always wanted to see firsthand.

We had to wait for another group to go before ours, and traffic was worse than they'd expected, so we were very late by this point. We were told before landing in Ghana that the philosophy here is: "in time", not "on time". We got to lunch about two hours late. Lunch was at a place called the Hans Cottage Botel, a restaurant built over a pond with some resident crocodiles and weaver birds (both very fun to watch).

One of our two buses broke down at this point, so we all crammed onto the remaining one. The guides decided that we would go straight to the hotel for the night and postpone the day's castle tour until the day after. We stayed at a place called Coconut Grove Beach Resort, which was pretty much what you'd expect a place with that name to be like. Palm trees, beaches, reggae music coming from the pool bar. When we arrived, they gave us a welcome drink by hacking open a coconut, sticking in a straw, and handing it over to us. Coconut milk has a very weak, very peculiar flavor.

Dinner was rice, chicken, and yam balls. I spent the evening lounging around watching the stars come out, enjoying a bonfire on the beach, playing volleyball by streetlamp, and hanging out with Paolo, my assigned roommate for the trip, who's from Mozambique.

We woke up early the next morning to try to fit in both of our two castle tours (the "Historical" in the trip's title). One was Cape Coast Castle, and the other was Elmina Castle; both were built by colonial powers to facilitate the slave trade, and both tours were pretty much identical (though equally fascinating). The experience of visiting these castles was akin to visiting the Holocaust Museum. We got shown all the slave dungeons and packed into the cells. The guides told us about how it all worked. Some parts were particularly disturbing. Apparently, slaves that died on the ships were thrown overboard, and groups of sharks would learn to follow the ships. Then, when the food supplies ran low, the sharks were trapped and fed to the remaining slaves. There was also a whole system in Elmina Castle for raping the female slaves; the governor's balcony was set up right above their dungeon so that they could be paraded out for him to make his selection. Then, they would be washed and brought up through a special trap door to his bedchamber. Slaves that resisted at any point were thrown into the ridiculously small "condemned cell" and left there until they died.

The nearby township of Elmina was a fascinating sight to see. It's dominated by a giant chaotic fish market. Apparently the town accounts for almost a quarter of the fish supply in the country. We had some of the locals show up at our buses on the way out to try to sell us stuff. They would ask our names and be very friendly and then suddenly become extremely pushy. One guy asked me to donate to a charity. He was wearing a shirt that said, in giant block letters, "F*** ALL MY ENEMIES". For some reason, I didn't trust him.

We got back to the ship three and a half hours late. Remember, "in time", not "on time", and sometimes neither. I had been planning to meet up with my roommate Colin when I got back and go into town, so I was worried that he would have left without me, but his trip was equally late, so everything worked out. Colin had become friends with a local named Fred the night before. Fred was a 20-year-old tour guide who had been inviting S@S kids to have dinner with his family. We took the shuttle into town and met up with him.

Fred, Colin, myself, and another group of my friends from S@S went with him to his house. He led us past all sorts of interesting street food stalls and bought some palm wine for us to have at dinner. His house was plain but comfortable; we met his mother and his siblings, Oliver and Olivia. They were all very nice and they gave me a water sachet to have (they're pretty fun to drink). They were watching a Nigerian movie on TV when we came in; it looked like a bad soap opera.

We were served banku, a sticky ball of dough made from corn and cassava, served in a broth of okra, crab, beef, and heavy spices. We were instructed to wash our hands in the basins of water they brought out and then eat with our fingers; you'd pinch off some dough, scoop up some broth, and shove it all into your mouth. It was the opposite experience of what I was expecting: it started off surprisingly palatable and soon became disgusting. I ate as much as I could (not very much), and nobody in our group finished their plate, but since we had eaten earlier that evening, they didn't seem to be insulted.

The palm wine was young, which meant it was very sweet and not very strong; after a few more weeks, it would have had the opposite characteristics. I had a sip since I wanted to be polite (the taste was very strange), but I was surprised that Fred refused to have any for himself, citing that it contained alcohol. Apparently, his family is very religious, and until he turned 18 he had never had anything to drink or seen the inside of a bar or known anything about alcohol to start with. He made it sound like he considered his upbringing to be very sheltered.

We stayed as late as we could and then took the final shuttle of the night back to the ship. The other kids on the shuttle had had a lot more than palm wine that evening.

My final day in Accra was dominated by the Torgorme Village Experience trip. We took a ride out into a fairly sizable village and were welcomed by a big crowd of locals. There were a lot more kids than adults. We paid respects and shook hands with the village elders and chief. A bunch of kids of various ages then did several different drumming and dancing routines for us; while it was choreographed, the dances were more about the individual's movements than the group's synchronicity.

We also participated in a naming ceremony, in which we were each assigned a day name and a local name. Mine was Kwabla (born on a Tuesday) Dzidzo (pronounced "jee joh" meaning "happy"), so if anybody wants to start calling me by my Torgorme name, you're welcome to do so. Other names translated to "beauty queen" and "your savior is alive"; there was a lot of variation. They gave me a pot with my English and African names written on it and tied a bead bracelet to my wrist. Fun stuff!

They did some more dancing and invited us to join in. Some kids took it upon themselves to walk right up to me and show me how it was done. It felt like a really awkward dance when I did it, but they really got into it. Just about when it was time for us to be leaving, the wind picked up and we noticed that a big front of clouds had snuck up on us. It started pouring rain just when we hopped onto the bus. We had another meal of rice and chicken at a nearby kitchen and mess hall; they also served some delicious french fries to cater to our fine American tastes.

The last stop of the trip was the Shai Hills Game Reserve, where we were planning to visit a cave. Unfortunately, the rain made the road impossible for the bus to travel on, so we were given the option of either walking to the cave or staying on the bus. Most of us walked. I was well prepared with bug spray and sneakers and raincoat, but some girls were out there in shorts, flip flops, and purse.

We walked for about an hour over some very muddy roads; my sneakers didn't hold up very well. The last ten minutes was a legitimate hike to the cave up some steep rocks. I had a lot of fun with it, even if the latter parts of the path reeked of bat guano. Apparently, this cave (known as "the bat cave", no joke) was used by the Shai elders as a sacred meeting place. It was pretty wet and miserable, but worth seeing. On the way back we saw an antelope in the distance and a family of baboons hanging out on some rocks nearby; I got some decent pictures. Then it was back to the bus, back to the ship, and back out on the ocean!

We've got about a week at sea before hitting South Africa. Cape Town is our longest time in port, with six straight days. More updates then!

Casablanca, Morocco

Well, we're back on the ship after another exciting port! Morocco was cool. I shall explain why.

We arrived in Casablanca early. I had signed up for a trip called "Marrakech and Camel Trek in the Sahara". It was advertised thus:

Located on an oasis at the base of the High Atlas
Mountains, Marrakech is the gateway city to the Sahara.
Legend and fact both contribute to the explanation of
Marrakech’s unique character. The town’s origins are
attributed to the development of an oasis, which grew out
of the refuse of caravans from the south, whose food
supplies contained dates. The palm groves that sprang up
provided an ideal place for the Saharan nomad
Almoravids to settle. Since this time, Marrakech has
seen many dynasties and fortunes rise and fall, resulting
in a remarkably beautiful city which has not only become
the capital of southern Morocco but an integral city to the
Islamic world. The cultural, natural and historical
attractions of this traditional Berber capital, seat to nearly
all of Morocco’s dynasties over the last thousand years,
make Marrakech the top tourism destination in North

Ouarzazate lies on the confluence of three important oasis valley systems: the Ouarzazate, Dadès and Drâa. As one
travels southeast from Ouarzazate to Zagora, the contrast of bare sun-baked rock with the lush green of the palm
groves forms some beautiful scenery. A labyrinth of irrigation channels feeds the fertile, palm-shaded terraces of
farmland in the Drâa valley. Dates are the primary commercial crop, and the best eating dates are found in Zagora.
The Drâa Valley has always been strongly influenced and interlinked with the destiny of the surrounding nomadic
tribes. It has served as a stepping-stone for Saharan explorations since the 10thcentury. Your experience in the
Sahara will include an overnight in a nomad camp and a camel trek into the desert.

Day 1: Depart by minibus to Marrakech (3-4 hours). Upon arrival, you will have free time to explore the city. This
evening enjoy a Moroccan dinner with folklore show and horse fantasia at Chez Ali. (L, D, Hotel in Marrakech)
Day 2: Travel to Zagora (7-8 hours, not including stops) in the magnificent Drâa Valley. A lunch stop will be made
in Ouarzazate where you will have a tremendous view of the Saharan world including its dunes, oases and small
mud villages. Later enjoy dinner in a nomad tent before settling into camp for the night. (B, L, D, Camp)
Day 3: This morning you will venture into the Sahara Desert on an early morning mehari (camel trek) with nomads.
Enjoy a last mint tea in the desert before returning to Marrakech. The late afternoon and evening are free to explore
the famous Jemaa el Fna Square and other sites. Dinner is on your own. (B, L; Hotel in Marrakech)
Day 4: Enjoy Marrakech on your own until you depart for your return by minibus to Casablanca.

It turns out that over 170 other students also thought that this sounded fun, so we had the largest trip group so far. We all met up early, got off the ship and onto the buses, and departed for Marrakech. I barely got to see Casablanca at all on the first day (and most of that was ugly cityscape), but we did stop briefly at the Hassan II Mosque, the third largest mosque in the world (after those in Mecca and Medina). It's big, and it's pretty, and it has a retractable sunroof (no joke) and a giant, powerful green laser that points towards Mecca at night.

After about two hours of passing ugly scenery, we hit Marrakech, which was gorgeous. Marrakech is the Red City; every building has a red clay look, with the occasional orange and pink. We went directly to the Jemaa el Fna square, a famous square and market in the old city. We were immediately beset by salesmen (target the tourists!). Some students had monkeys thrown on their back for a picture (gratuity highly suggested), and snake charmers were in easy sight.

The whole group went to a restaurant at the square. It's Ramadan, so we were the only ones there. I sat on a bench with pillows. Oddly, drinks (even water) cost extra, and we had to use our dirham (7.8 dirham to the dollar) to get any. We were served some good flatbread, an assortment of cold fruit & vegetable dishes, then a delectable chicken dish. Dessert was some very sweet mint tea (the only tea I've ever enjoyed). One of the guys at my table had a lot of trouble communicating that he wanted mint tea to the waiter, and then he proceeded to talk trash, say he was going to start a fight, and talk about how drunk he was going to get in the desert. Fun stuff!

After lunch we hit the souks. There were lots of bags, pots, beads, breads, massive piles of spices, orange juice stands, instrument shops, and pretty much everything else (including hashish, as some students were apparently offered). There were plenty of mopeds navigating the narrow streets of the market area, as well as the occasional donkey cart. One merchant made fun of me for wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day.

Speaking of those clouds... Nobody really expected it to rain. We thought we were heading into the desert. But sure enough, we felt a few drops of water, and then we had about ten seconds before a massive downpour started. My group ran onto the covered porch of a cafe, where we chatted with some smugly dry French and Australian tourists. We also got to watch the monkeys run for cover. We pretty much just tried to stay out of the rain until the buses got back.

We were taken to our hotel for the night and had a few hours to wander. We saw some closed shops (Ramadan again), a McDonalds (now serving the McArabia, a burger on flatbread), and lots of stray cats. Back at the hotel, some people tried to use the free internet but had a lot of trouble with the French keyboards. French is definitively the second language here, we discovered.

The night's planned entertainment was Chez Ali, the largest tourist trap in the largest tourist destination in northern Africa. It's like Epcot Morocco. We entered through a fake plastic Arabian treasure cave, passed by several groups of singers and dancers (all of whom looked depressed), and got to our tables in one of the many tents. The food was meh. Periodically some performers would come by all the tables in our tent and interrupt the conversation. Some of them were really cool; there was one guy playing the violin extremely well. Others were just depressing; they looked like they wanted to be anywhere else. It felt like cultural exploitation. And still others were just baffling, like the guy who walked around with some other singers with a giant old-style phone against his ear, occasionally putting it away and pretending to take pictures of us with a tiny disposable camera. I think maybe he was making fun of tourists? I don't know.

The second part of the Chez Ali experience was a big show in a central arena. First, a guy came out, lit some balls connected to strings on fire, and spun them around like he was at a rave party. Then, they brought out a belly dancer. Then, some guys doing acrobatic tricks on horses (and one donkey). After that, a bunch of guys on horses charged down the arena, spun their rifles (really just sticks with gunpowder), and fired at once, several times in a row. To end it, they had a guy on a fake flying carpet emerge from a high window, and they lit up the Arabic word for "goodbye" in fire. Overall: sometimes cool, mostly just really tacky. They took pictures of the people there and sold them on the way out, like a roller coaster.

Back at the hotel, I found a comfy bed and a weird shower that sprayed water in a 180 degree arc in front of it for no particular reason. I made sure not to drink any of the water. The next morning brought a measly continental breakfast and a long, long bus ride.

I was not looking forward to the trip out to the desert, but it turned out to be one of the best parts of the excursion. We traveled through the High Atlas mountains, taking narrow roads that wound up the slopes. The Atlas mountains were mostly barren, but beautiful all the same. We passed village after village of rural Berber farmers, each of which had a little cluster of simple adobe-like buildings, a few little plots of crops, and a few Coca-Cola signs. Some of the later ones out by the edge of the mountains were centered around oases and were surrounded by fig, apricot, olive, and date palms.

We stopped a few times to stretch our legs, take pictures, and visit the occasional roadside merchandise stand. We had lunch at a surprisingly spiffy restaurant. By now we were catching on that pretty much every "traditional Moroccan meal" was following the same pattern: flatbread, cold fruit, hot vegetables, and an assortment of meat, in that order. Rumor had it that one of the meats they served was pigeon, but it sure looked like chicken to me. Dessert was fruit in a camel milk yogurt.

As we reached the end of our drive, the landscape remained pretty but got progressively flatter, drier, and less colorful. Yes, the desert! A lot of people were pretty bummed because they were expecting to be in sand dunes with no plant or animal life for miles in any direction, but evidently, not even nomads live out there. This area was about half sand and half dried, cracked earth, with grasses and palms scattered about. It was still desert, though, I figured.

We were met by a big group of camels waiting for us on the ground. We had to split the camels since we were such a big group; half of us had to walk at any given time. I chose a friendly camel and named it Kevin, inspired by the movie Up. Other names given by our group included White Lightning and Toe. It turns out that it's really easy to ride camels nowadays; between the rugs that are piled on back and the hump, there's a pretty natural saddle, and there's a harness with a handlebar attached to the animal's torso. The camels were tied to each other and led out by the nomads towards camp. There was a lot of picture-taking on the trek; we joked that we were really only there for the Facebook pictures.

Our camel trek only took a bit more than an hour at a walking pace, and the buses took all our luggage to the camp ahead of us. The "nomad" camp had hot showers, running water, and a bar. I got the impression that these guys make their living by being "nomads" and taking tourist groups out on camel rides.

We had some time to kill at camp, so some friends and I wandered around the nearby desert for a little while. We found a bunch of bone fragments that someone determined were human; our trip's professor later agreed. Apparently it was a much less hospitable place without modern plumbing. We talked to the professor for a while as well. She's the Parasitology prof, and she made me deathly afraid of eating rare meat or swimming in fresh water at any of our ports.

At dinner (same formula as usual, but tastier) I sat with my little group of friends and a visiting Psychology professor. We talked US politics; I was sad to have missed Obama's big health care speech. At one point we were invited to have some fresh flatbread right off the fire; it was delicious. Afterward, the nomads brought out drums and did some singing and dancing, though the students' dancing was a lot more energetic.

After sundown, the parasite prof brought out a blacklight for some scorpion hunting. Apparently, scorpions fluoresce under UV light. Who'da thunk it? Sure enough, after some running around, we found a glowing-in-the-dark scorpion. After following it around for a while it decided to collapse on the ground and play dead for a minute before eventually running off. We also found a spider about as big as my palm.

The tents fit about six smallish mattresses, with sheets and a flat pillow for each. It was actually quite comfortable. We woke up early the next morning to a brilliant sunrise, a simple breakfast, and another camel trek back to where we got dropped off the day before. The camel behind mine on this trip was awfully friendly; I got some slobber on me.

The bus ride home was as beautiful as the first. Our tour guide (an Arab, the ethnic majority in Morocco) shared some racist jokes at the expense of the Berbers (the ethnic minority). They didn't always translate that well; I've done my best to format them in English:
- Why did the Berber put a mirror in his safe? So that when he took out money, he knew it was him.
- A Berber man has some money and wants to put it in a bank, so he goes into the city, goes to a bank, opens an account, and deposits it all. Then, he waits outside the bank for hours. Eventually the manager closes the bank, walks out, and locks the door. Then, the Berber puts his own lock on the door.
- A Berber man walks from his village to the city. He crosses a street, but not at a crosswalk, so a nearby policeman tells him to go back. The Berber goes all the way back to his village.

The other bus also got a sort of riddle that was relayed to me:
Q: Three ants are walking in a straight line. The first ant says "I am in front of two ants." The second ant says "There is one ant in front of me." The third ant says "There are two ants behind me." How is this possible?
A: The third ant is lying.

When we got back to the hotel, everyone in my group was looking for comfort food. I'm ashamed to admit it, but we went to the McDonald's near the hotel. It was still a cultural experience, though. In my group, we had a shrimp burger, a McArabia, steak fries, pesto-mozzarella nuggets, and a Kit-Kat McFlurry.

The evening was free, so we walked about half an hour to the big square again. We passed a huge crowd of Muslims praying outside the nearby mosque on the way in. At night, the square was a lot more crowded. There were a bunch of entertainers in the middle of it all, and most of the rest of the square was filled with small restaurant stalls. We were confronted by a guy who walked up and started reciting an old Obama speech. Then, after we caught on, he started high-fiving us and quoting Borat. We all got glasses of orange juice for three dirham (<50 cents); they were delicious but way too pulpy for me.

We entered the souks again and found out that the merchants here are very, very pushy and very, very difficult negotiators, way less flexible than what I saw in Egypt. Some of my friends paid way more than they needed to, but I suppose it's cool if everybody's happy with the price. I bought a cane to replace the one I lost on the way home from Egypt. We later found our way into a little musical instrument shop with all sorts of nifty devices. The shopkeeper pulled down a three-stringed bass plucking instrument that was apparently traditional in the Atlas mountains; he noodled around for a while before transitioning into "Stand By Me". Two of my friends paid good money for some drums. I expressed interest in one of the smaller drums they were selling, but I didn't have much money left. I emptied my pockets for the guy and ended up getting the drum for a dollar, a euro, and about 40 dirhams; it was a real deal.

The next morning we went to the square one last time. This time I prepared myself by filling my visible pockets with the amount of money I wanted to pay. I chose the trinkets I wanted, emptied my pockets in front of the guy, and got the price I was looking for. We got back to the hotel soon after and caught the bus back to Casablanca.

I met up with my roommate that evening on the ship and he convinced me to go with him and another friend to a hookah bar. My friends from the Marrakech trip raved about hookah as well, and one of the ship administrators told us that hookah was one of the few things that we definitely needed to try out, so I ultimately decided that I had to see what all the fuss was about. We left the ship and pretty soon wandered into a Casablanca local who said he had been visiting a friend he had on the crew of our ship. He happily directed us to a local hookah bar.

We were the only non-locals in the place. When we arrived there were only two other tables taken, but when we left it was packed; there was practically a line to get in. We got one hookah to share amongst the three of us (I think the tobacco was licorice flavored) and some mint tea. They also served some bottled water, but the bottles were unsealed, so we decided to stay away. We stayed there for a few hours talking, watching the people around us, and trying to learn how to blow smoke rings (with some limited success). It felt very authentic. Honestly, it was probably the best experience I've had on Semester at Sea so far. The whole experience cost 40 dirhams split among the three of us; about five dollars.

The next day was our last in Morocco, and my last chance to see Casablanca. I woke up to see a small group called Global Nomads setting up a satellite broadcast on the ship. The group is traveling with the ship and broadcasting to classrooms from the different ports. This time they had a female hip-hop artist from Casablanca to interview in front of high school classrooms in Virginia and New Jersey. I sat with a friend to the side and watched. At one point one of the US kids asked if he could ask some questions to the college students, i.e. us. So we ended up on the broadcast, talking about Semester at Sea, which was pretty neat.

Afterwards my roommate and I hit the town for a few hours. We found a craft shop that was selling everything that we saw in the Marrakech souks, but for lower, fixed prices. Sigh. We got some stuff together and got a discount from the supposedly fixed prices. On the walk back to the ship we stopped at one of the several painting shops and I fell in love with one of the paintings. The merchant asked for $70, then dropped it to $60. After much theatrical hemming and hawing, I said that I just *couldn't* pay so much and left. He called my bluff and let me go. So, I came crawling back and paid the full $60. That's way more than anybody else on the ship paid for a painting, but I don't regret it. I think that this shop may have been a bit nicer than the others; the paintings were more intricate and all from the same artist. But that's probably just an excuse.

In any case, we got on the ship with merchandise and painting in hand and set sail for Ghana that evening. I'm back in the Atlantic ocean and trying to regain my sea legs. More updates post-Ghana!