Tuesday, April 5, 2011

India 2

“You cannot describe it to anyone, you have to go there and feel it. Which makes Kashi the most holliest grounds in the Hindu world. Every Hindu is supposed to see Kashi once in his life time and it is because of that energy and the vibration.” –Aman (our tour guide)

Despite the dark connotation that is often cast on India, to me, it still shines brighter than any place I’ve ever been. It seems obvious that India has more layers and personalities than anywhere else. Although I have only had the opportunity to experience Varanasi, one small section of the huge country, it was clear just from there how every person could take something different with them from India.

Located on the banks of the sacred River Ganges, Varanasi is known as the heartbeat of India and the holy city for the Hindu’s. It is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in India attracting around 20,000 new visitors a day. Varanasi is the oldest inhabited city in the world and has been a center of civilization and learning for the past 2000 years. The Hindu’s come to see Varanasi and the River Ganges in order to achieve Moksha. If they have achieved Moksha, they will be freed from the cycle of rebirths and become cosmic energy. It means that they will have achieved complete liberation or salvation.

That being said, I’m going to attempt to describe it to you. But let me just say first, that Varanasi was much more a feeling, kind of like a buzz or a high, that you get just from being in its environment and consumed into its rituals and culture.

Our journey to the Ganges River required three modes of transportation. The nice air conditioned bus we had grown accustomed to which would take us from the hotel to the dirt lot where we would meet the rickshaws and then the rickshaws to the beginning of the overly crowded street where we would have to walk the rest of the way. The bus dropped us off at an empty lot where about 40 rickshaws were lined up waiting for our arrival. Rickshaws are bicycles with a seat connected at the back so the passengers are sitting about four feet off of the ground with no covering. As we stepped off the bus we went right to the first available rickshaw and climbed in. We weren’t even moving and I was already nervous. I was thinking about the traffic I had already seen in India, and thinking about the completely exposed seat I was sitting in, and the small Indian man in his GAP khakis and dirty baseball cap that would be responsible for my life for the next 20 or 30 minutes. Across the way my friend in another rickshaw called to me and Margo (my rickshaw partner) “smile!” and she pointed a camera at us. I put on a smile for the picture as I whispered to Margo “I think this might end up being the most dangerous thing I’ll ever do in my life.” Before I could think about it anymore, we were off. The rickshaw drivers filed out of the dirt lot one by one onto the crowded street. Deep breath. Here we go. There was honking coming from every angle. It was like surround sound, literally, because the honking wasn’t just coming from right behind us. Drivers in India don’t pay attention to the lanes on the street (when there are any) so the cars and other bikes and rickshaws along with their horns were coming at us from every direction. Despite my fear, I couldn’t help but smile at the situation. It was sort of like bungee jumping, exhilarating, terrifying, amazing, and something I would never do again. I didn’t know what direction to look so I’m sure I resembled bobble head as I was continuously turning in every direction I could without falling off the rickshaw. We passed by party stores that had hats and banners hanging down from the front of the small cubicle, clothing stores, one I noticed was called “Barbie” and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was named after the American Barbie doll we are all familiar with. Our driver dodged in and out of traffic as I watched mesmerized by the stores that lined the streets, filled with glittering saris and bangles. Every now and then I would be jolted back to the reality of the situation I was in. I would look at the driver and see that we had obviously been a centimeter from a collision, and without hesitation he would continue forward making the herd of people part ways for us. When the crowd got so thick that there was no longer hope for the rickshaw to get through, we jumped off the bench and continued by foot to the River Ganges where we would be seeing the “Thanksgiving” ceremony which is performed every night.

As I walked down the street I felt like a little kid at a carnival. There were neon colored banners strong between buildings and store signs framed by Christmas lights. There were small shops for everything; saris, jewelry, fabrics, scarves, sunglasses, and more. People were pushing through from behind, from the sides, and trying to go the opposite direction of the foot traffic. I found it hard to stay with the group because I just wanted to examine every store and watch the people go by. As we got further and further towards the river bank the crowd began to disperse and it felt like we had walked from one world to another. I began to notice more street vendors than store fronts and all of a sudden we were being approached by beggars and little kids who just wanted food or money. We continued walking like we were told to do by our guides and we eventually came upon the security checkpoint to get to the River. It looked so out of place, this modern technology standing alone, protecting the River Ganges from the rest of the world. This turned into more than just a security checkpoint; it was also a reality checkpoint. We have to go through security at airports, government buildings, and other “official” buildings, but it was somewhat devastating to see that people can’t even be trusted to respect such a sacred place as this.

I walked through the security scanner and once again felt like I was in another world. I could faintly make out the wooden boats near the river banks filled with tourists and the candles floating in the water (I later learned that the candles were to wish on and then as you make your wish you let them float away). There was a set up right at the top of the stairs that lead down to the River with seven arches, connected, and a rectangular area under each one for the seven men who would be performing the thanksgiving ceremony. The river bank started to fill up with locals coming to give thanks to the Gods and with tourists from around the world who were there to experience the ceremony. The men who stood under the arches began chanting and people in the audience would participate when they could. I watched in a trance, suddenly understanding what our guide meant when he told us earlier that day that this would be an experience we would not be able to describe to anybody.

I didn’t want it to end but as much as I was in the moment, I had to keep pulling myself out of it because I was on a schedule. That’s the downfall of Semester at Sea trips; it’s hard to let yourself become fully immersed in anything because you are always having to worry about leaving before the experience has even really started. So the clock struck 9 pm and it was time to head back to our meeting spot 15 minutes early to be sure that we would not be left behind. The group gathered and we went back to the way we came. It was like putting a movie in rewind. We walked up the stairs, through the checkpoint where we began to be followed by children asking for food and money, down the street lined with stores that glittered with saris and bangles, across the streets which could have easily been our last steps, back to the rickshaws which we climbed aboard and then through the streets which had quieted down, and finally back to the empty dirt lot where our air conditioned buses awaited our arrival.

On our way back to the hotel our guide, Aman, shared is life motto with us. After experiencing the thanksgiving ceremony which I thought was one of the most incredible things I had ever done, I was prepared for an inspirational speech. Aman began, “1. Money cannot buy happiness,” yes, this will be inspiring, “but somehow it is more comfortable to cry in a BMW then on a bicycle.” What? “2. Help a man in need and he will remember you when he is in need again. 3. Forgive your enemies but remember their names.” These were not the life lessons I was expecting “4. Many people are alive because it is illegal to shoot them. 5. Alcohol doesn’t solve any problems, but neither does milk.”

Yes, Aman’s mottos were funny, but something was lost to me. I had spent the day learning about this holy place and these religious people who seem to be so spiritually guided, and then I was hit with these mottos. Perhaps it was naïve of me to be surprised. I was expecting a stereotypical life lesson and instead I got these, which in thinking about them, seem to have more truth than most inspirational sayings. Another reality check I suppose.

And there they are, some of the many layers of just one small city in India. In the few miles from the bus to the River Ganges I saw the poverty, the wealth, the traditions, the religions, the tourists, the locals, the stores that shined bright with lights and glamorous items, and those that looked like holes in the wall hanging on by a thread.

India 1

The first day in India I had the morning free before my trip left in the late afternoon so my friends and I decided to go out and explore. Getting out of the port in India was a process. We had to take a shuttle from the ship to a gate where we had to wait in line and have Indian immigration officers check our passports and check us out of the port. While we were waiting in line we were approached by cab drivers and not knowing any better, we agreed to let them take us to the “market”. A stop at the ATM and a few minutes later we pulled up to small shop where we could see other Semester at Sea kids in the store and some already leaving. Clearly, we had all been suckered into the same scheme. We knew we had no choice but to suck it up and go in so we browsed a little and departed the overpriced store empty handed. When we got back to our taxis we discussed with our drivers that we were ready to go to lunch and let them recommend a place. They said okay so we got back in the cars and before we knew it we were at another fancy store. We told our drivers that we didn’t want to go to the stores we just wanted to get lunch but they were not having that. They told us okay okay after you look at the store, they have really nice things. We spent a few minutes in this other store where they gave us a carpet demonstration and showed us a bunch of other statues and jewelry and then once again left the store empty handed hoping this time, they would take us to lunch. Not so lucky. One more store, and then lunch. Finally the moment I’ve been waiting for. Real, authentic Indian food, and it did not disappoint. I don’t even know what we ordered but it was all delicious and came to a total of about 5 dollars a person. On the way back to the ship our driver pulled into a gas station and asked us for money. 3000 rupees which is equal to 60 dollars for three people. My two friends and I were in shock. 3000 rupees?! No wonder the driver refused to discuss prices with us at the beginning of the day. it turned out that he had not decided to drive us to his chosen stores and wait for us out of the kindness of his heart, but rather, that meant that he would be with us longer and he had planned on charging us per hour. After arguing for a few minutes we didn’t seem to have a choice. We paid up and were more ready than ever to get back to the ship. At least it was a learning experience. We didn’t get in another cab without negotiating prices beforehand for the rest of the trip.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Mauritius was a quick stop on our voyage. We had about 6 hours in port. While most of the ship left early to do catamaran rides, otherwise known as “booze cruises” my friends and I opted to go explore the town. From the dock we had to take water taxis into the town so we hopped on one for 2 dollars and a 10 minute ride to the city. There wasn’t much there, and because it was a Sunday the few stores that were nearby were either closed or would be closing at noon and it was already 10 am by the time we got there. We wandered through the water taxi port and walked towards all of the buildings close by. We found a mall but the shops were all closed so we kept walking and came across a “craft mart”. Many of the vendors were selling handmade crafts and Karissa and I found collages with dried flowers mod-podged onto banana leaves. We each got one and those were our purchases for the day. After the craft mart we went to lunch at a small café. I ordered a chicken Panini, but it was pretty much just bread. When we were finished with lunch we went back to the water taxi’s because Karissa went back to the ship since she was suffering from a fat lip. The cause of that is still a mystery.

After we waved Karissa off my friend Chelsea and I decided to wander in another direction. As we walked we came upon an open air market/street fair kind of thing. We walked up the street browsing the tables filled with sandals, perfumes, knockoff boxer briefs, Tupperware, kids toys, and more. Once we walked the whole street we decided to go back to the craft mart and make sure we didn’t miss anything. Unfortunately at that point it was already passed noon so we were out of luck. The city was pretty much shut down by then so there was really nothing left to do. We headed back to the water taxis and back to the ship.

We got back around the same time that people were getting back from the booze cruises and it was quite the scene on the ship. Dinner was filled with kids swaying with the ship, except that the ship wasn’t moving. Everyone was in sunglasses trying to cover the drunk eyes, dresses on backwards, cowboy hats, and lots of yelling. And those were the kids that got past security. Apparently a lot of people were written up getting back on the ship. Good things we skipped that mess.

Cape Town

Cape Town wasn’t one of the ports that I was excited for so when our ship was stuck right off the coast over 24 hours after it should have been docked (because it was too windy to dock), I was much calmer than most of my peers. But as soon as we docked and I could see the port area, my opinion quickly changed. First of all, the weather was perfect and after being in Brazil and Ghana where it was miserably muggy, 80’s and sun couldn’t have been more exciting. From the ship we could see the port area which was no more than 100 feet off the ship with a mall, restaurants, a Ferris wheel, markets, and tons of people wandering around. Unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to explore the town quite yet because I would be leaving for my trip to Johannesburg and Pilanesberg Game Reserve shortly after our ship finally docked.
After a lot of waiting to hear what the new itinerary would be, the ship finally announced that my trip had gotten on to another flight and we would continue with our schedule, it would just be a little bit delayed so we would have to go faster through the first day in order to get everything in. We boarded our plane in Cape Town for our short flight to Johannesburg. We got to our hotel and had an amazing fancy dinner that none of us expected and before we knew it was 11 pm and we had to be up at 6 for our site seeing and then our drive to the game reserve the next day.
After breakfast we went to Nelson Mandela’s house which is now a historical site. They’ve built brick walls around the house and the bricks state facts and Mandela and his family giving a timeline of his life and the big events in it. We went in the house which is still equipped with many of the things that were there when he lived there. Looking at his daily items like shoes, family photos, hats, and things like that I couldn’t help but be taken aback at how amazing it is that somebody can be so influential and important that their everyday items are now monumentalized in a museum. How awesome is that, to have made that big of a positive impact on not only a country or culture but really the whole world.

After Mandela’s house we visited the Apartheid Museum which was amazing. I’ve been to a lot of museums and this was one of the best. It was small but full and modern with lots of colors and images and the timelines were huge with the writing broken up so it wasn’t overwhelming.

From the museum it was time for our three hour drive to the game reserve. Aka, nap time. We pulled up to a resort that kind of reminded me of family camp, just nicer. There were individual buildings with rooms instead of everything being in one building like at a hotel. We walked through the lobby to see endless grassland with a fence blocking the safari land from the hotel so that animals couldn’t cross the barrier. We had time to eat lunch and put our bags in our rooms and then it was time for our first safari drive. About 2 minutes into our drive we saw a pack of zebras on the side of the road. It was amazing to see these animals that are normally only seen behind bars in a zoo, roaming free on their land. In the next few days we had 4 game drives and saw four out of the big five. The big five are elephants, buffalo, rhino, leopard, and lions and we saw all but the leopard. They are the big five because they are the most dangerous animals. We also got to see baboons, zebras, and a few other animals.

When I got back to Cape Town I had one day to explore so Karissa and I walked around the port area and then went to meet her roommate Olivia who is doing a study abroad program in Africa and happened to be in Cape Town at the same time as us.
I wish I had had more time to spend in Cape Town itself because it seems like a really cool city. Of all the places I have been so far, this was definitely the one that I could see myself going back to, but that’s probably because it was the most like home.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Tree at Aburi Botanical Gardens. The close up symbolizes coming back to your roots.

First Presidents Memorial

Hello...My name is Araba Nyame (Ara ban ya mey)

Ghana Days 4&5 Cultural Immersion

I walked toward our meeting spot wondering what the hell I was thinking signing up for this trip. I thought I had decided that I would not be doing any home stays on this trip because I have been there, done that, and don’t especially enjoy the awkward silences that come regardless of whether you speak the same language as your host family or not, but surely there will be more with the language barrier. Too late to turn back, I’ll have to make the best of it. Rumors started circulating the minute we got with our group that it would be a” four hour bus ride”, “no six hours”, “wait, I heard it was a different village than last semester” etc., so I ran back to my room to collect my ipod in preparation for the long drive ahead only to find out when I got back five minutes later that we were only looking at an hour and a half long bus ride. Time to board another bus, actually, lets refer to it as the ice box because they keep the buses in Ghana freezing cold, which feels great right when we get on because we have just been in the muggy sweaty weather, but after the sweat dries, I’ll tell you, it is freeezinggggg!

We arrived in the village of Atonkwa in our big green bus which looked so out of place in this small village with little houses, no cars in sight, and no paved roads. Before the bus doors opened there were kids waiting for our arrival. As we walked off there were kids grabbing at all of us from every direction and our guide had to try and guide us all away from them to take our seats for the naming ceremony. That was our first activity of the day. We would all be receiving African names. We were called up to the “stage” in alphabetical order and the elders would say a prayer then we would have a sip of water, they would say another prayer and we would have a sip of Fanta, then we were presented with a medicinal leaf, a bracelet which was a gift (not something received in normal naming ceremonies)and then handed a certificate with our name on it. My African name is Araba Nyame. Araba means born on a Tuesday and Nyame means a God/Goddess. They called people up to the front in groups of ten and there were dancing performances and drumming by people from the village between each group. It was really cool to see this ritual even though it wasn’t completely authentic considering we obviously aren’t babies or members of the community.

After the naming ceremony we were free to play with the kids. One of the guys from SAS ripped open a bag of plastic whistles that he had brought to give out. Oh shit…In my frenzy to get ready to go I forgot my little toys that I had brought for kids in this exact situation. Although I didn’t have presents, I did have a camera. And as I had found out in the fisherman’s village a few days before, these kids LOVE pictures. As I snapped away they couldn’t have been happier and then, one of them asked for the camera… I reluctantly handed over my nice SLR making sure that the neck strap was securely around this 12 year old boy’s neck, and let him play photographer. After mingling in the main area of the village, we were told it was time to head over to the school so the kids grabbed our hands and tugged us in the right direction. The 12 year old boy, James, still had my camera in hand and continued to take pictures on our walk towards the school which made me nervous until we arrived at the buildings where he saw his friends and then I just saw a bunch of hands reaching at my camera, grabbing the lense, trying to take the whole thing so that they could have their chance to take the pictures, and after a few minutes I had had enough. Most of the kids had their chance to take pictures and I took the camera back to safety around my neck and asked the kids to show me there school.

I followed them to their library. Concrete floors, two big wooden tables with benches around them, and two walls lined with shelves covered by disheveled books. By the way, at this point I was drenched in sweat and my white shorts were no longer white, they now blended in with the dirt ground (which had so much soil and sulfur that it was a reddish color). James, the boy who had pretty much adopted me for the afternoon, grabbed a book and sat down on the bench and beckoned me over to sit with him so he could read the book. I took a seat and was immediately surrounded by kids n both my sides, behind me, and climbing on the table next to me. In the loud room it was hard to hear but he attempted reading the English book as best he could and before I knew it our time at the school was up. Our group would be getting back on the ice box and taken somewhere for lunch. James and his friend had been with me for the better part of the 45 minutes we spent at the school and as we walked back I received my first real culture shock. James asked me if I was going to buy him shoes tomorrow. Feeling speechless and not understanding how I would buy him shoes tomorrow regardless of whether I would have or not, I mumbled something like “I don’t know we’ll see” and the next thing I heard was James’ friend say “you’re a liar”. I just wanted to disappear and knowing that was not possible I started walking faster towards my only relief which was joining the crowd and redirecting conversation before getting on the bus. I mumbled something that I don’t even remember in response to his accusation and we continued walking to meet up with everybody else. As we approached the crowd and it was obvious we would be parting ways James asked me if I had any pens. A request which was much easier to meet, and I still had to say no. I told him I would check my backpack which was on the bus but I knew I didn’t have any because I had cleaned out my bag before packing it. I felt awful and helpless I waved goodbye and boarded the bus, hoping that I could find some pens where we would be eating lunch and if not, praying that I could avoid having anybody else asking for something that I was not prepared to provide.

We drove through a small town and past the dungeons and slave castles (which I didn’t get the opportunity to visit) till we arrived at the Coconut Grove Hotel. In an isolated spot on the beach it was easy to see that this was one of the, if not the nicest hotel anywhere nearby. We had the usual rice, chicken, fish, and plantain, meal with our choice of soda or water and enjoyed the breeze eating at the beach. This was our last chance to collect ourselves because when we got back to Atonkwa we would be meeting our host families and spending the rest of our time (aside from dinner) with them.

When we got back to the village it was much quieter than it had been when we left. The kids had apparently dispersed to their own houses and the only people who were around now were the host families. We sat back down where we had previously been seated for the naming ceremony and waited for our names to be called with our corresponding families. As I sat waiting to hear my name, I prayed I would be staying with someone else from the group. “Samantha …. And Alisson”. THANK GOD. I didn’t know this Allison yet was still incredibly relieved. I would have a companion to struggle through the language barriers, answer the questions that I couldn’t, and hopefully fill the awkward silences that I so dreaded. Not to mention remember the details and fill in the blanks where I had forgotten things that I wanted to include in my blog. Lucky for me, Allison proved to be all of those things, and a much better journaler than myself because she carried her notebook and paper with her writing down everyone’s names, ages, conversations, and observations. We stood up to meet our host mom, Runkuwa . as she led the way back to her house, I felt like it was very tense. It could have just been me being uncomfortable but aside from the usual trading of names and where were from, it was hard to find a common ground to talk about. We got to the house which had a courtyard and then rooms surrounding it. One room was the kitchen, one was Runkuwa room, one was where he brother and his wife and kids lived (I don’t know it I was a room or if there were multiple rooms beyond the front door), and another door that I don’t know what was behind it, and the door to where we would be sleeping which opened up to a room that was attached to another room set up with mattresses on the floor and a ceiling fan. After we put our bags down we were greeted by Runkuwa’s sister in law and her children, and Runkuwa’s other sister Comfort who was 17. I asked comfort if she had gone to school earlier that day and she told me no because she had a toothache and my immediate reaction which I kept to myself was what if she has to have her wisdom teeth or molars taken out. In retrospect I could have asked but I was worried that they didn’t have access to dentistry like that and didn’t want to scare anyone that it might be necessary but not possible. Then again, a lot of things that we find “necessary” in the US are probably not top priorities in other countries or cultures where access to things are limited and unreliable.

We sat in the shade in the courtyard and looked at each other awkwardly, just as I had suspected but the mood lightened as Runkuwa ‘s sister in law started investigating my hair. Karissa had pig tail French braided my hair that morning which was apparently something very unfamiliar to this woman who was the hairdresser of Atonkwa. With her baby wrapped in a scarf on her back, she stroked my braids examining them intensely and then moved on to Allison’s blonde hair. She had her take it out of the pony tail and began to play with it, then started braiding it in tight little braids across her head, kind of like corn rows but not as tight. As Allison tried not to wince in pain I could see the strands of thin hair being pulled from her scalp because she didn’t realize that our hair is a lot finer than the thick hair she was used to working with. I was extremely thankful that I had opted to have my hair braided the way I like it which seemed to satisfy the girls I was staying with because they let me keep my braids. When we had exhausted the hair conversation Runkuwa took us on a tour of the village. We walked passed their church, the cassava plants, the day care center, and the nursing home.

Back at the house the kids had returned from where they were playing earlier in the day; two five year old boys and a five year old girl. My roomie for the night went to go relax in our room and I stayed outside with the kids and proceeded to have a photo shoot. It didn’t take much for the pictures to come out well because these three kids were so adorable. I just wanted to bring them home with me. After awhile I noticed that one of the boys was wearing a Boston Celtics shirt and I got excited. Not because it was the Celtics because I of course am a Lakers fan, but because this rivalry is usually a topic of conversation not too mention the Celtics have become a sign of Boston which is now a sign of my friends, etc. But as I tried to explain the significance of the shirt he was wearing, the kids and their mothers didn’t really understand what I was talking about or who the Celtics are. That’s when I realized that we often leave our mark in places whether we mean to or not. This shirt must have been given to the little boy or left behind by a traveler or a visitor in the village who was from Boston and even if they just left it behind because they wanted to offer clothes to a child who needed them, they still left their Boston mark in this small village in Ghana.

We sat around outside for awhile and I noticed Comfort looking at my shoes. She looked up at me and asked me if she could have them. Once again I was caught off guard and didn’t know how to respond or how I wanted to respond. I needed time to process the question, it is such an unfamiliar thing to have people ask you straight up for things especially right off your body. I hesitated and said that I didn’t know if my shoes would fit her but maybe she could try them on later. Part of me was hoping she would forget because I had a feeling that if she didn’t I would be giving my shoes away in the morning. Time progressed and Runkuwa invited me into her kitchen to watch her make dinner. The SAS students wouldn’t be eating dinner with our host families because the program was having our dinner brought in from the restaurant where we ate lunch ( I don’t know if this was because they didn’t want to worry about anybody getting sick or if they did want to put the pressure on the families to cook for us). I watched her mix maize and water in a pot over a fire until it became a thick sticky substance. As she mixed the concoction she looked over at me and asked “what did you bring me?”. Again, speechless. I wonder if questions like this ever get easier to hear or to answer. I told her that I didn’t know and I would have to look in my bag. In my head I knew I didn’t have anything, I was hoping to get creative because I know better than to go to a home stay without a gift. Unless I could think of something in the next 12 hours, I knew I would be saying bye bye to my tennis shoes. I would have to talk to Allison at dinner and find out if she brought anything and what we should do.

It was dinner time for us. Runkuwa’s daughter walked Allison and I through the village, past where we knew dinner was, and to an open field where older kids were playing soccer and her friends were there with our friends playing games. It looked like summer camp. It’s weird because we don’t do that at home, we don’t just go out on an empty field with all the kids from our neighborhood and play soccer and games just for fun. We hung out there for a bit and I was re –introduced to hand games that I hadn’t played since elementary school, these girls just used different words but the movements were familiar. Rockin’ Robin, Miss Mary Mack, double double this this double double that that double this double that double double this that, down by the banks where the bullfrogs jump from bank to banky, etc. any girl roughly my age should remember these. As the sun started to set we walked back over to the center of the village, you could hear the electricity running through the electrical wires above us. I had made a new friend at the field. She was my name sakes daughter, aka the real Araba Nyame’s daughter. One of four and as sweet and talkative as can be in her adorable pink dress and gapped teeth. She held my hand as we walked to the community center where dinner was served and we got there before they would let us in so we were all lingering outside and she didn’t leave my side, just cuddled up against me in the crowd. When it was time for us to go in I told her I would see her later hoping it was true but not sure I would be able to find this little girl in the pitch black later that night especially since she wasn’t part of my family, but after dinner, there she was waiting at the door to grab my hand and lead me back to the house. I realized she was with Runkuwa and asked her if she would be sleeping over because she was friends with Runkuwa’s daughter and she said yes, so I happily accepted her guidance along the dark road back to the house.

Back at the house we were joined by my new friend’s sisters who were roughly the same age, and little brother who was one and a half or two. The girls pulled out a book from school that had pictures and words in Fanti, their language, and they attempted to teach me a few random words. As some of them walked me through the book, another one was playing with my hair. At first I was worried about her messing up my braids because I had no intention of taking them out until we got back to the ship the next day, but then decided what the hell, it’s probably already a mess, and let her go for it. A little bit later Runkuwa’s brother Osmond, who we had learned earlier goes to school in the morning and then to work in the evening, arrived home. He is a student and his ultimate goal is to become an accountant and move to the US. His English was great and for the first time we were able to have a fluid conversation with an adult where the language barrier wasn’t such an issue. It was the first time in the village that I felt like I was having a candid conversation. Although there wasn’t such a language barrier per se, there were still struggles with understanding not words but attitudes. For the first time my eyes were really opened to the difficulties that most people in Ghana struggle to overcome. Yes, it is common knowledge that the poverty level is disturbingly high and education is not prevalent Ghana, but I hadn’t yet had the chance to discuss some of the hardships that people go through. We got to a point in conversation and I could see that Osmond was trying to figure out how to word his next question about America. He looked genuinely confused and proceeded to ask me how black people are treated in America because he has heard from Ghanaians that have been to the US that they get there and they are harassed and not treated well, but he didn’t understand because when white people come to Ghana they are so friendly to us and open up their homes to us and are friendly and want to talk to people and tell them about Ghana, etc. The best answer that I could come up with was that first of all, it depends on where you are as to how people of other ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds, etc., are treated. And second of all, that perhaps as a country American’s just aren’t as nice as Ghanaians. We don’t generally take the time to welcome new people into our Country because we’re too wrapped up in our own lives. Osmond nodded his head but the look of confusion didn’t go away. I don’t think those were good enough answers for him but that’s all I had at the time and am still not sure what the right answer to those questions would be, or if there even is a write answer. We continued the conversation learning about the education process in Ghana and explaining to Osmond how the process works in America. He told us how hard it is to get through school because of money. School is expensive and on top of the school expenses its hard to get through school without a computer which is an additional cost that most people in Ghana at this point cannot afford. He also commented on how we have the opportunities to travel abroad but people in Ghana don’t have the ability to do that because once again they cannot afford it. It was a very difficult conversation. A few months ago I saw the movie Waiting for Superman which is about the public school system in the US and since then, whenever I discuss education not matter where it is, I remember that movie because it really enforced for me that education is really the basis of intelligent people and therefore and intelligent and successful society. The fact that getting even a basic education past the 9th grade in Ghana is a struggle is just tragic. How can a country grow and develop if the majority of its people aren’t educated?

Mentally exhausted we all decided to retire for the night. I didn’t get away before Comfort reminded me that I had said she could try on my shoes, so I removed my tennis shoes and handed them over to her. She said they fit, whether they did or not ill never know. I told her I would leave them with her in the morning and that was that. The deal was sealed. Allison and I went to our room and discussed what else we could leave behind in the morning because she hadn’t brought anything to leave either. She decided she would leave her hat with the little boy and was debating between her shoes or her watch for Runkuwa, and I would leave my shoes for Comfort.
I slept much better than I thought I would, as a matter of fact I woke up because I was COLD in the middle of the night. The fan really worked, and the noise outside from the goats and the roosters also probably contributed to my waking up sporadically from about 5 am till 8 am when the kids woke us up. Runkuwa had made us donuts/fried dough and porridge. The donut was good, the porridge was not my thing. It wasn’t American porridge, I don’t think. I’ve never actually had porridge in the US, but this was a thick substance made from Maize and it had a tangy spice to it. I took a sip and panicked because I knew I would not be able to finish the whole cup. So I tried to divert attention from myself and I pretended to take a few more sips and then set the cup aside. Hopefully I didn’t offend anyone. The kids were all dressed in their uniforms and ready to leave for school I gave them all hugs and said goodbye. Then it was time for Allison and I to rejoin our group back at the community center. But not before I handed my shoes over to Comfort. Luckily I had packed a pair of flip flops.

So, with those tennis shoes, like the Celtics shirt, I left my mark. I hadn’t planned on it but I knew they would be appreciated by Comfort and maybe when she wears them she’ll be reminded of me.

They called the program cultural immersion. I think its difficult to really be immersed in a culture over night. I think cultural observation would be a more appropriate name. Most of us enjoyed our time in the village. We got to see how these people live and conquered the cultural differences in lifestyle for the 18 hours we were there, but the reality is that we all knew we would be waving good bye in the morning.

Accra and Aburi

Ghana Day 2/3

This was my first overnight excursion without Karissa and I went into it not knowing anybody. Needless to say, I was a little nervous. When I got to the meeting place in the morning there were indeed some familiar faces. Two other Bentley kids were on the trip along with some other girls I had met once or twice. After our initial meeting I was more comfortable and ready for the 4 hour (minimum) bus ride to Accra, the capital of Ghana.

A few minutes into our bus ride, after our guide gave us some trivial information about Takoradi, I was ready to sleep. Lucky for me, I can sleep pretty much on command in a moving vehicle, so I passed out and didn’t wake up till we were almost in the city. When I did finally come out of my slumber I opened my eyes to a city much different from Takoradi. The streets were jammed with cars, and people. There seemed to be four lanes of cars all just trying to squeeze around and between each other, fighting to be at the head of the traffic. And the people, there were people walking through the streets, between each row of cars, on the sidewalks and the middle dividers, with baskets of various items n their heads. Some people carried bowls with water in them. This water isn’t in bottles like we drink, instead it is in plastic bags. People cut off the corner and drink water from plastic bags. Some people has chips, some had other snacks. Some were piled high on peoples’ heads and others were in huge shallow bowls. I still can’t understand how they learn to walk with all this stuff on their heads and they do it so naturally, paying no attention to it as if they have forgotten that it’s there.

We stopped for lunch when we arrived in Accra. “Ghanaian” food. Chicken, rice, plantains, and fish, this would be the extent of our meals for the next 4 days on this trip and my other one. I think the Semester at Sea sponsored trips try hard to make sure we have the Americanized version of the food so that we don’t get sick or complain about it. After lunch we got back on the bus for our tour of the city. We drove by the soccer stadium, and went to the Memorial of Ghana’s first president, and we went to the where W.E.B Dubois lived and is buried and then we went to an open market.

The market was quite an experience. The second the people selling goods spotted us it was like we were wearing signs that said ATM. We fought through them and went to exchange money and then to a small shop on the side of the market. There, we met Colin Powell (that’s what he called himself). He told us that he could name every capital in the US and to test him. I told him that I wouldn’t know if he was right wrong. He said to stick with him and he would take care of us. So he walked us to his “brother’s” shop. And as we walked we gathered a following of people trying to sell stuff. I called my Mom and my Uncle suckers when we were in Turkey and they gave in to buying rugs, well the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree (in either case, because Karissa and I BOTH were totally suckered on the first day but that’s a whole other story). All of a sudden I was surrounded by men trying to sell me bracelets. It was claustrophobic. “How much you give me for these?” well, the point wasn’t how much was I willing to pay, the fact of the matter is that I didn’t even want them at all! Eventually I gave in. I handed the 15 Cedi (Ghanaian currency) over to one of the guys and took my 5 bracelets. When it was finally time to go, we pushed through the merchants lined outside our bus and when we finally got on the bus it was like the safe zone. Such a relief. We went back to the hotel for dinner and an early morning trip to the botanical gardens and then back to the ship. The botanical gardens were pretty cool. Not much to write about them but we saw some nice trees.

All together this was honestly not the best trip I’ve done I don’t really like feeling like a tourist and although it is usually unavoidable especially in Ghana where people with light skin stick out like sore thumbs, I felt like all we did in were typical tourist things. The one activity that could have been somewhat normal for people who live in Accra was going to the market place but being swarmed harassed and probably taken advantage of with pricing just made it as much of a tourist activity as going to the museums. But on our drive back to the ship we passed by tons of different towns and one town we must have passed through right about the time that school got out. The older kids were walking down the road with their backpacks and held onto the hands of the younger kids. Parents were outside waiting for their kids to get home and playing games in front of their houses with the ones that were home. I realized that at the end of the day, our lifestyles are completely different but most of us are on the same path. Just trying to make ends meet and doing everything they can to take care of their families. I guess we really are all one tribe if you look at it like that.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ago! Amee!

Takoradi, Ghana – Day 1

In Ghana the way people call to get someones attention is to yell “ago” and in response everybody is supposed to yell back “amee” so that it’s clear they’re paying attention.

For the first day in port, Karissa and I happened to have signed up for the same field program which was a Twin City Orientation. Takoradi and Secondi are known as the Twin Cities so we would be exploring those for the day. Not really sure what the trip would entail, we got dressed for the overwhelming humidity that we would undoubtedly have to endure for the day. We boarded the bus and were on our way.

As we pulled out of the port, I looked out the window and saw the roadsides covered by garbage and then when we started to get into the city the scenery changed. I was now looking out the window at sheds basically back to back with each other and clothing lines strewn between them. These were the houses in Ghana. I was taken aback, and still am, by the poverty that is so blatantly obvious in this city. Yet despite the fact the people sat outside their homes in ragged clothes and no shoes, many of them smiled and waved at us enthusiastically as we drove by snapping pictures, seeing their neighborhood from the shelter of our air conditioned bus, momentarily. The air conditioning soon died and we were all much too suddenly forced to understand what it would be like to live in Ghana with no air conditioning. The beads of sweat started forming as we all looked at each other and questioned if this was a fixable problem or if we would have to suffer this heat the rest of the day. Our guide soon came onto the loud speaker and announced that another bus would be meeting us at our next stop so that we could switch and get back to the comfort of the ice box.

Where we stopped was a fisherman’s village on the beach. From the road where the bus was parked we could see the tin roof tops of the huts, some covered by tires and all of them by dirt. We unloaded the bus and waited for our guide to start the decent down the stairs from the road to the village. There was a funky smell, chickens, fish, and probably some other stuff but after a few minutes we got I got used to it. Kids started coming up to us as soon as they saw us enter the village. Our guide tried to keep our attention to explain to us about the village and I tried to focus for as long as I could. I learned that in this village the men fish and the women cook the fish (smoked fish is very popular in Ghana). I also learned that in this village, everybody is “family”. They all know each other and whether they are related by blood or not, they all consider each other as family and work together.
Our guide tried to keep our attention so he could talk to us about the logistics of the village and the boats that they make by hand out of wood but our attention was quickly redirected to the adorable kids who gathered around us. As we made our way through the village to the beach front there was no hope for our guide. Our group spread out and each of us were circled by kids who wanted to know our names, ages, where we were from, but mostly, they wanted us to take their pictures. These kids absolutely LOVED the camera, being in front of it and taking the pictures. They would pose with wide smiles and then as soon as they heard the snap of the pictures being taken they would rush over eager to see what they look like on camera, giggle and then return to their last location for more pictures. Pose, picture, review, giggle, repeat. The women of the village made their way down to the beach as well. With their babies swaddled in fabric on their backs, they came carrying buckets of fish and proceeded to show us what they do with these fish for fun. As we watched in awe, they took a knife, cut a hole in the gills, pulled the tail and threaded it through the mouth, out the gill, and then did a little knot with the whole thing. We found out that they did this because if the fish are too long, this processes makes them shorter so it saves space. The women laughed hysterically at our curiosity about this process and they couldn’t have been happier to share it with us. They also were quite fascinated by my braces. One of the women looked at me with curiosity and then started pointing to her teeth. I knew immediately that they were wondering why I had metal brackets on my teeth and what the purpose of them was. I told them that they were to make your teeth straight but knowing that they probably didn’t understand, I called our guide over to explain. He laughed along with all of us and explained to the women what braces are and they oo’d and ah’d just has I had about their fish moments ago.

Our guide called to the group that we were moving on and we walked the few feet off the beach and back to the part of the village where all the “houses” are. We were going to see how they smoked the fish. With her baby still sleeping peacefully strapped to her back, the woman we had met on the beach lit a fire under a man made oven and showed us the trays of fish laid out stacked high over the fire. Im sure for people who enjoy fish this might have smelled appealing, but I am not one of those people. As interesting as it was, I was eager to move away from the smell of the smoked fish. The display didn’t last too long and then it was time to go. We started back to the buses and the kids lined the pathway sticking their hands out for high fives with smiles from ear to ear. These people seemed genuinely happy to have had us in their village and to have been able to show us how they live. It’s amazing how these people with pretty much nothing, especially in comparison to us, are just so happy. It was amazing to see that and be able to leave the village with that knowledge.
Tsamina mina
Cuz this is Africa

Tsamina mina eh eh
Waka Waka eh eh

Tsamina mina zangalewa
Anawa aa
This time for Africa

The Sweet Life on Deck

Location: The middle of the Atlantic
This is the longest stretch between ports, from Brazil to Ghana. So I was going to get cabin fever now would be the time, but so far so good! The past few days were very routine, rotating from A day to B day. B day I have consumer behavior at 12:15 and thats it so the morning and afternoon I usually spend between laying out by the pool and using the gym or catching up on work. A days I have global studies at 9:20, international marketing at 12:15, and travel writing at 4:15. Rough schedule huh? I’m enjoying my classes for the most part. Global Studies is not what I expected and there is a lot more reading than I have had to do in a long time. Rumor has it the teachers were told to make classes harder in an effort to make sure that Semester at Sea keeps a strong academic reputation. Interesting…

Anyhow, they don’t make us suffer through classes for too many days in a row. Last night we had the opening ceremonies for Sea Olympics! There are I think 8 seas, each one is something different. Arabian, Baltic, Bearing, Caribbean, etc. and each time is associated with a color. I’m in the Arabian Sea and our color is black. we met in our hallways before the procession into the union where the “ceremony” was held. Everyone was dressed in black head to toe and super enthusiastic about the event. Everyone got each other pumped up as a team and it was definitely a bonding experience for our hallway. Last night we presented our banner and our chant to the rest of the Seas and came in third with our chant. Unfortunately we didn’t place in the banner competition, but I still stand by ours because it was definitely the most official looking. Karissa and I along with a group of 6 or 7 others worked on the chant and it went over great. There is a guy in our group who does a really good Obama impression so he stood up and made a little speech and then said that the Arabian Sea was the best. Someone from our team called out “WHAT DID YOU SAY?” and the rest was a call and response that went like this:

And then at the very end the Obama impersonator said “ Im Barrack Obama and I approve this message”

The next day were the actual “Olympics” which started at 1 pm. There were activities going on throughout the day such as a trivia match, basketball, three legged race, synchronized swimming, volleyball, dress your RA (we had to dress our RA like a hippie), and others. The day went by like a blur. As a member of the activities committee, I’m trying to figure out a way to make sea Olympics more like color wars at camp (color wars went on throughout a camp session) because everyone really enjoyed the activities so I think it would be good to try and have different games or competitions throughout the semester. We didn’t come in last place so the motto we adopted is that if you didn’t lose you’re a winner.

I also met my extended family during the nine days at sea. The head of our family is named Judith and she is a lifelong learner who did semester at sea as a student in the 70’s. she has two kids in there thirties and a one year old grandchild, and her husband passed away a few months ago and she thought now would be the right time to do semester at sea again. There are three other kids in my family; One girl who goes to Michigan, another girl who goes to Charleston, and a boy who got to Point Loma in San Diego. We had our official dinner together that was organized by the ship and then the night before we arrived in Ghana Judith treated us to dinner on the pool deck which is more like a snack bar/grill and tomorrow (the day after we leave Ghana) we will be having dinner with her again in the main dining area. Signing up to do the extended family was a really good way to meet a few new people in a much different way than we would normally get to know people so im really glad that I did it and cannot wait to continue to get to know my “family”.

Monday, January 31, 2011

“I realized I did not have to be part of it, rather it could be a part of me” Truman Capote
The past three days were filled with great conversation and meeting new people. I think that having an overnight really opened my eyes to the possibilities on the trip. On the ship it can be hard to branch out from the groups that people have inevitably already formed, but on overnight excursions the dynamics are different. They bring new people together in smaller groups and there is no doubt that you will have the opportunity to get to know people you might never have had the chance of meeting in another setting.
As I said, Karissa and I got very lucky with the girls we were assigned to room with and we also had one of the nurses from the ship who we also really hit it off with. We would sit at dinner for hours because of good conversation. Everything from the wonders of the world, issues that had come up on the ship, politics, and personal lives. We discovered that there are more than 7 wonders of the world because there are natural wonders, manmade wonders, and other odds and exceptions, but we would be seeing to on our voyage. One was the meeting of the waters that I talked about before and the other will be the Great Wall of China. How amazing is that?!
Another amazing thing that I have to mention are the Life Long Learners are in the ship. Life Long Learners are adults who are travelling with us just to see the world. They sit in on the classes that they are interested in and they sign up for excursions that they want to do right along with the students. There were several Life Long Learners on our trip who must be in their 70’s at least, and I was just taken aback at how amazing it is that they were trekking through the jungle right alongside a group of 20 year olds. On top of that, they were loving it. Some of the women with us were taking this trip on their own due to various life circumstances which made them feel like doing Semester at Sea would be the right thing and this was the time to do it. Now or never right?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

1/25 Continued

The rest of the day was much better. I guess that’s not hard to do considering how much I did not enjoy the jungle. We had some time to relax by the pool, had lunch, and then it was time to go fishing for Piranha’s! we loaded these little man made boats and headed out onto the Amazon River. We stopped at what I guess was a good place to find piranha’s and the boat drivers gave us bamboo fishing sticks and cups of raw red meat to put on the hooks. I was initially grossed out and not wanting to touch the fish bait, then realized that you touch raw meat when you cook so it was really not that unbearable. I threw my hook into the water and waited for a nibble. I got several but every time I pulled the line out of the water the fish had already gotten the bait and was no longer attached to the hook. I decided I reloaded my bait and threw the line back into the water several times until finally I felt a nibble, pulled my line out of the water and had a piranha! That was satisfactory to me so I had let the fish loose and retired for the afternoon. The sun started to go down and it was literally the most beautiful sunset I have ever experienced. We were in the middle of the Amazon River, surrounded by trees, the water was like glass, and there were green marsh areas dispersed throughout the area. The sky gradually changed from a light purple with orange shining through the clouds to a dark blue and has it got darker the trees became silhouettes. Once again, I’ll be posting pictures as soon as I can. While we were all watching the sunset our boat driver and his assistant, David, were on an alligator search. When it got dark they pulled out a small spotlight and David hung over the front of the boat scanning the marshes. In no time at all he pulled stood up, baby crocodile in hand! (It was actually a Cayman, but I don’t know what the difference is, they look the same). But it was sooo cute! I think just cause it was a baby cause they boat next to us got one too but theirs was a little bit bigger and not as cute. We all oo’d and ah’d at the crocodile and then I got to hold it!
A few things you probably don’t know about crocodiles:
1) Their sex is determined by the temperature that their eggs are kept in. if it’s over 30 degrees F they are usually female. If under, they’re usually male
2) An adult can smell its victims from 3.75 miles away
3) They have 36 teeth on top and bottom
4) They don’t have a tongue
5) Their eyes close sideways and upside down
6) The Portuguese word for them (which I don’t remember) means “the one that can see on both sides” because their eyes can turn 180 degrees on the right and the left
7) When it closes its mouth it’s like 400 kilos coming down
8) 70 percent become female because of the heat of the Amazon.
When we got back to the hotel it was the usual dinner then chatting and sleeping. We convinced our guide to depart the next day at 9am instead of 8am for the rubber factory. We got there and realized that this was just a model of what a rubber plantation used to be, or something like it. It was really not fun, and not that interesting since we had already seen people who really were making rubber…so I’m not going to write anymore about that. After the rubber plantation we went back to the hotel for lunch and to collect our stuff, then it was back to the ship for some much needed showers and homework time.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Once in a Lifetime


…because I refuse to trek through the jungle EVER again!

We got up in the morning knowing we would be walking through the jungle, but I was not expecting the adventure that was awaiting our group. We began the mission along a narrow pathway covered in leaves with typical jungle nature all around us which is fine. About 5 minutes into the walk we stopped and our tour guide asked for two volunteers…thank god, I did not raise my hand. the guide grabbed a nut of a tree and cracked it open and but the substance that was inside the nutshell in the palm of my friend Sloane, then proceeded to tell her to eat it without giving up any information about what it was. She realized that she was already in this so she popped it in her mouth, bit into it once and swallowed it. Then Terry, our guide, told us that it was the larvae from the butterflies that lay their eggs in the nut shells… ew. We continued on our walk and came to a tree which we learned was a mahogany tree. Cool….Then we came to another tree (which is hard to describe so I’ll try to post a picture in our next port) but basically the base of the tree kind of has little cubbies, so you can stand in them. And this is good to know because if you are about to be attacked by a jaguar you should put your back against a tree such as this one because jaguars and other similar animals don’t attack from the front. Next we saw a hut in the middle of the jungle. The ground was cleared out underneath it so it was just soil, no leaves. I feel bad for the people from our trip that we learned would be spending the night there because at this point we had come upon several bugs that I cannot identify and we saw what ringworm grows in because it was EVERYWHERE and to be honest, that is what put me over the edge of hating the jungle so I’m going to spare you all the description of that. Anyhow, seeing this hut made me appreciate the fact that I was only going to be in this environment for another 1.5 hours tops. Next we came upon a vine that grows from the ground so its roots were at the top. Next stop on the tour, a tree swarming with little tiny ants. This doesn’t look cool to someone who doesn’t know things about the jungle, but I now have the knowledge to tell you that if you rub these ants all over your body they have a scent so you smell good. Honestly, who thought to do things like this! Needless to say, I did not test this, but I watched others put their hands up to the tree and lets the ants crawl on them and then rub their hands together and there was indeed a smell. Next we came to another tree with guess what, MORE ants. But these were not little ants that smelled good. These were the biggest ants I have EVER seen in my life. They were about the size of a fat marker cap. Don’t you worry, I have pictures! We saw a few more things after that but my attention span was long gone in the moment as it is writing about it. So that’s all I have to say about the jungle. I learned a lot, I’m not gonna lie, some of it was interesting, but I DID hate it.

coming up next, piranaha fishing and crocodile searching

Amazon=The Tribe of Native Warrior Women


“It’s like you’re putting cream in your coffee” I heard someone comment. Perfect description, but doesn’t do it justice.

Today was the beginning of my first overnight excursion which Karissa and I happened to both be on. Our first stop on the excursion was the meeting of the waters, the Rio Negro (from Colombia) and Solomon’s(?) River (from Peru). This is one of the natural wonders of the world and it is certainly a wonder! “It’s like you’re putting cream in your coffee.” Perfect description, but doesn’t do it justice. From far away it looks like you’re coming up to a beach but as you get closer it is a clear distinction between the dark river and the light river and they absolutely do not mix! There are three reasons for this, density, temperature, and speed. If you’re bored, I encourage you to look it up because it is really amazing.

We crossed from one river to the other and went to a small island that you wouldn’t even know is inhabited. The people there sleep in hammocks as one of the guides told me, “they’re tree people”. Who knew! The boat we were on docked at a tiny man made wooden dock that was more like a plank and we walked up a bridge, more planks of wood, to the town. I felt like I was walking into the Dharma Initiative community (and Lost fans?) because there was this community in the middle of an island. It just felt so out of place. We wandered past the houses, further into the island and were shown how rubber is made. Rubber comes from trees. I did not know that. What they do is they carve a diagonal line and this white liquid substance starts to appear. They put a tin cup at the bottom of the slash and the liquid drips (very slowly) into the cup. When you rub a little bit of the substance around in your hand, it turns to rubber for the body heat. So what they do is, once they have collected enough of the liquid they put it on a stick over a fire and it turns to rubber and they gradually add more and more liquid till it becomes a rubber ball about the size of a large water melon.

After seeing the rubber demonstration, we continued walking through the island along the river and to my surprise, there were neighborhoods! There were only a few houses in each one but they were separated by gates and there was a footpath that went through all of them that we referred to as Main Street (more like Only Street) for the day. At the end of the road there was a large wood building which was set up with long dining tables where we had lunch cooked by the people on the island and it was amazing. Oh, and outside the building there was a young girl with her pet sloth…
After the island we went to the Tiwa Amazon Ecoresort where we would be spending the next 2 nights and 3 days. The resort is located on its own beach and the cabins are built along both sides of a lake. When we arrived we gathered in the lobby/restaurant and were given room assignments. Karissa and I were split up which was good because we are SO tired of each other. JUST KIDDING! (Incase anyone was wondering were getting along great and shockingly not tired of each other and not fights. All love in cabin 4143!) HOWEVER, we do recognize that splitting up means meeting new people as individuals instead of as a duo. That said, our 3 day roomies were great! My roommate and Karissa’s two roommates already knew each other because they all go to Michigan but the 5 hit it off and so a beautiful friendship began.
We had the rest of the day and evening free to spend by the pool, with the pet parrot. No, really. There was a parrot at the hotel and its bird stand was right by the pool so we would be sitting on the lounges talking and all of a sudden it would swoop down and start yelling so try to picture a bunch of girls jumping out of their seats and screaming at the shock of this creature flying through our conversation. It was probably pretty funny to watch and equally as embarrassing to be watched in the situation. But anyway, it was hot and muggy so the pool was great! We hung around the pool for awhile and unfortunately nobody brought homework since we didn’t realize there would be this much free time, bummer, so we just spent the day hanging out.

Dinner was served at 7:30. It was gourmet spread of vegetable, fruit, breads, meat, chicken, fish, salad, and probably more that I don’t remember (this is how every meal at the hotel was). We were informed that the hotel had free wi-fi and although everyone was disappointed that we didn’t have our computers so that we could take advantage of that luxury which we don’t have on the ship, it was nice because we ended up sitting at dinner for 4 hours every night just talking. So that was the end of night one. We went back to our nice air conditioned hotel rooms and thought about our friends who were either out in the jungle or on riverboats sleeping in hammocks. We had to get a good night sleep because we would be leaving the hotel for our jungle trek at 8 am the next day.

Oi, Abrigado! (Hello, Thank you)

Manaus, Brazil Day 1 Monte Salem Orphanage 1/23

If you have ever looked for the port of Manaus on a map (which most people probably haven’t) it is difficult to find because you have to go through what looks like a very narrow canal but is in fact the Amazon River. Coming down the Amazon into Manaus was truly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and the photos unfortunately do not do it justice. The river is lined on both sides by the jungle. You can see the uncovered soil below the tall trees and the thick grass because the water level is currently low in parts of the river. The colors change throughout the day depending on how sunny or muggy or dark it is, and the sunset is breathtaking. That said, the actual docking in Manaus, is not so sensational.
Our view from the ship is of the rundown city. The building look like they were once painted bright and vibrant colors but they have become dull over the years. We can see a storage port further down the river where storage units filled with electronics are imported to, and right next to our ship are the riverboats which people use to travel from place to place in around Manaus and sleep on.
When we got off the dock we emerged into a city in action. As with most ports, there are cabs waiting to take you wherever you would like but what was out of the ordinary to me is that the people just hang out on the streets, if not in them. There is an island in the middle of the road where people sell drinks and are BBQing. Some people have their lounge chairs out and seem to socialize right there in the middle of the traffic and the bus stops. When we walked further into town it reminded me of Canal Street in NY. There are street vendors selling everything from notebooks with Justin Bieber’s face on them, to popcorn. There are shoe stores coming out of shoe stores that sell more Havaianas (a Brazilian made sandal that is popular in the US) than I have ever seen in one place and more little kid backpacks with sparkles and characters than I have never seen before.
My activity for the day was going to Monte Salem Orphanage. We loaded the bus and our guide took us through Manaus instead of going straight to our destination. A few facts about Brazil:

1) Private school is “expensive” 200-300 dollars a month
2) Government (public) schools you are required to wear a uniform but a lot of people cannot afford them so their kids can’t go to school

3) Girls start having babies are 11

4) 4:1 women to men

5) The government gives houses but you have to take classes to know how to live in them. The problem is that one they move in they don’t practice any of the things they learned. The people who are eligible for these houses are people who live in stilts houses and they can live there for five years then they have to sell it

6) There are HUGE problems with human trafficking in Brazil- When babies are born there are often people waiting in the hospital to steal them and on some occasions the mothers are already planning on selling their babies because they need money. The traffickers are between Brazil and Venezuela and according to our guide the traffickers buy them and then sell them into adoption.
We got to the orphanage and learned that there are currently 25 kids living there between the ages of 0 and 16. The way that this orphanage works is that the children are removed from their home because of various reasons but then when the parents have gotten their acts together, the children are returned to them. There is one building with a kitchen, bathrooms, one room for the boys, one for the girls, and one for the babies, and sitting with a couch and a TV, and on the grounds there is a play ground and a school.

We got to “work” entertaining the kids. People brought all sorts of toys: sticker books, face paints, bubbles, foam airplanes, etc. and the kids were loving it, especially the face paint. Trying to interact was a challenge because of the language barrier. The older kids were more patient and creative in trying to explain things to us by showing or pointing or hand motions, but the little ones had difficulty getting their point across because they didn’t know how to tell us what they wanted. Non the less, we made it work and it was clear that having visitors was an uplifting sentiment not only for the children but also for the staff at the orphanage.

Dominica Day Two 1/17

The second day in Dominica was unplanned and not too eventful. We walked around the town looking for souvenirs and a grocery store to get snacks. We found the grocery store “Save-A-Lot” at the end of town right by the water located next to a KFC. Dominica is not a modern town and it is pretty rundown so the KFC looked extremely out of place. We went into the grocery store which was somewhat of a shock but more of a relief. Most of the items they had there were American. We stocked up and ran into one issue which is that you cannot bring drinks on the ship unless they are closed and wrapped in plastic. I am a cereal lover, and I bought cereal, but couldn’t figure out how I was going to get milk on the ship. As we were browsing the isles we came upon something that looked like formula in plastic bags and we asked the ladies working there what it was. They told us that it was powdered milk. This was the perfect solution to my problem. So I bought the powder and when we got back to the ship I added water to it and put it in the fridge. A few days later, I still hadn’t tasted it so one of my friends decided to be brave and check it out. She said it was fine but I was still skeptical. Eventually I had it with my cereal, and I will never do that again…It may be in my head, maybe not, but there was a funky taste. So that plan failed. Dry cereal it is!
Now onto Brazil!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Dominica 2-Travel Writing Assignment 1

We heard the music lingering in the streets of Roseau and we found ourselves determined to find the source. We followed the music to a street filled with people drinking-some locals, some who appeared to be from Semester at Sea-and behind the crowd, we could see the club. Before we were able to get to the entrance cab drivers were offering rides for “2 dollars a head to Crazy Coconuts!” left and right. Trying to stay with the crowd in this unfamiliar town, we turned down the cheap rides and fought our way into the club. Once we got in there was no sense of personal space because it was so packed, yet the air was surprisingly fresh instead of stale and minimal as it typically would be in a space so full of sweaty body’s. I looked up and saw the moon, which explains it. I heard someone next to me yelling “there is no roof! There is no roof at this place!” clearly, the girl had noticed the same thing I did and took quite a fascination to it. As the music blared on we became increasingly more curious about “Crazy Coconuts”. We squeezed through the mob of people and found ourselves once again on the street, not knowing where to go. So we started walking aimlessly, waiting to either think of what to do or stumble upon something. As we wandered up the street we continued to be offered cab rides to “Crazy Coconuts” and as we watched people pile into vans all headed toward that destination, the idea grew increasingly more appealing. “What the heck! Let just go” one of my friends made the executive decision. So we bargained with a cab driver who offered us a ride for 2 dollars a person, “How about, she rides free because it’s her birthday?” I pointed out. “Okay okay, let’s go!” The cab drivers who loiter outside the bars in Dominica are extremely friendly and it can be mistaken for sketchy. Or is it the other way around, they are very sketchy and can be mistaken for friendly? Regardless, we jumped in a van and once we were joined by some locals the driver started the engine, and we were on our way.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

We Believe in the Face of the Moon-Dominica

I spent the past two day on the Island of Roseau, Dominica (Dom-in-ee-ka). The night before we docked, the door to the deck of my floor was open; Karissa and I could feel the mugginess in the hall, an indication of the humidity we would be subjected to the next day. The tour I signed up for was of the Emerald Pools and the Carib Indian Territory.

I got ready for my excursion and realized this was the first time I was pretty much on my own for the first time in awhile (Karissa and our other friends had signed up for other activities). At first I felt a little lost, and then saw a familiar (someone who had been in one of my orientation groups) so I reintroduced myself and realized it’s not that hard to make friends if you’re willing to put yourself out there.

We boarded the buses that awaited the SAS group at the end of the pier and were on our way. Our guides names was Sherri and she filled us in on the history of Dominica on our way to the Emerald Pool, which by the way is named that because the area that surrounds it is so green. A few interesting facts:

1) They grow sugar cane in Dominica, but not for sugar, it’s for rum

2) They have three universities on the island. Two for medicine and one that is general studies

3) There are 365 rivers, “One for everyday of the year” where they go fishing and do their laundry every Sunday

4) They “believe in the face of the moon…for cuttin’ da yams, makin’ da babies, etc.”- I want to look further into this idea because I don’t remember everything she was saying about it, unfortunately, internet on the ship is not really worth using other than for necessities…email, facebook, school work on occasion…

We got to our first stop which is part of the rainforest so we hiked/walked through the rainforest and learned about different trees on our way to the waterfall. There was one tree that was stripped of its bark. Any idea what tree grows in Dominica that’s bark would be useful? I don’t know the name of the tree either, but, its bark is apparently like Viagra… interesting.

We got to the Emerald Pool and saw the waterfall then continued on our way through the rainforest back to where we started. As scenic as this part of the tour was, I personally did not find it much different than the waterfalls I’ve seen anywhere else. The next part of the tour was definitely the more interesting and worthwhile part. We drove up a long windy, somewhat paved road to where the native Carib Indians still reside. We got off the buses and were greeted by the man who used to be the Chief of the tribe. When he was appointed, he was only 21 which made him the youngest leader thus far. Our tour would consist of seeing a home, watching one of the natives cook a native dish, and learning about sugar cane.

We were split up into groups of three and my group went to view the home first. I found this to be the most interesting part of the tour. We were greeted by the man who owned the home and had built it with his own hands. There was an outdoor shower, the walls were made of tin, a stove with a roof over it and a shed next to it with cooking materials, a gazebo type thing where a woman was sitting making baskets, a man made pond (which the man of the house makes use of by going to the river and catching little fish, then putting them in the pond located next to his kitchen, and catching them when they are ready from there), and the main house that was up on stilts where we could see the faces of little boys peaking out the windows, running away when they saw us notice them.

The man who lived there showed us every plant in his garden and explained what they were all useful for. Some were for inflammation, some were for fever, some were good for cancer, some were good for rashes, there was literally a use for every single one. As the tour went on we were curious about the actual house, on the stilts. We weren’t sure if we were welcome inside but one of the girls decided it couldn’t hurt to ask, so she did, and after the mother went inside and perhaps scanned the room to make sure it was appropriate for other people, she welcomed us inside. We learned that she was the mother of 5 boys and they all lived in this two bedroom house that had two rooms and a living/family room kind of area with no furniture. One of the rooms was for the parents, and the other, which consisted of one bed, was for the boys. The clothes hung from the beams on the ceiling and some were thrown under the bed and sitting on the floor outside the bedroom, one of the boys was playing video games on his laptop. Next to the laptop was a shelf with an enormous set of speakers hooked up to a boom box, and on the shelf next to that, was a little Nokia cell phone (it reminded me of my very first phone) plugged into its charger. It was crazy to see these self sufficient people who live on the outskirts of a city in order to maintain that lifestyle, using these modern technologies. I suppose that says something about the world and how we determine what we spend money on these days. At this time, having access to a computer, and a cell phone to reach people is basically a necessity even in communities where you wouldn’t think that to be true. The speakers however, I can only assume those were there for fun…?

Next we went to see a young girl, about to turn 21, demonstrate making a type of bread. What was so different about this demonstration was that 1) the base of the “stove” was made of rocks, the fire was from wood, and it was outside with just a cloth covering and 2) this bread was cooked in a pan, over heat, but it was made from grains and the girl didn’t add any water to the substance. What resulted from this was what looked like pita bread with the texture of coos coos.

We then wandered over to another house where a man was demonstrating how to squeeze the sugar cane. He had a wood contraption that he put the cane on top of, and lowered a wood beam onto and it, which squeezed all the sugar juices out.

We ended the evening with some snacks from the land. There were fresh picked bananas and coconuts, cooked bananas, saltwater fish curry ( I didn’t try that. Sorry!), some kind of root which they was served cooked and uncooked (the cooked one tasted like a potato chip, the uncooked one tasted like a baked potato), and some kind of baked bread with a filling that tasted like what I would imagine Velveeta tastes like, so we determined that the filling was not fresh.

All in all, I’m glad I chose to do an excursion that was exclusive to the place I was in instead of something like hiking or river rafting that you can do anywhere.

When I get to the next port I’ll try to put pictures up and those will hopefully help you all to understand the stuff I’m talking about

Ship Life

After unpacking, I realized that I have way too many clothes. The original plan was to take only what I needed and not try and fill the empty room in the suitcases with stuff just because I could, that was a fail, but challenge number 2 was mine! Lucky for me, the closet is much bigger than I expected and although a bit cramped, everything fit just fine.

We boarded the ship yesterday morning and have been in orientation meetings with the entire ship, our floor (sorry, im supposed to call them decks), and another small group which we can refer to as the reflection group, until right now, 10 pm of day 2. Luckily in between all of that Karissa and I had time to set up our room so it is really very comfortable. We decided to bring duvets with us so that it didn’t feel like we were leaving in a hotel for 3.5 months and I’d have to say it was a great idea cause our room definitely looks like its our own. Ill post pictures as soon as I can. The internet connection isn’t usually strong enough to upload them so ill have to find an internet café in port.

We had club sign up’s tonight and I signed up for photo club, service learning/community service, arts and crafts with the kids of teachers onboard, and a program that semester at sea has called extended families where you get a member of the faculty/staff or a lifelong learner as a “family” member along with some other students and you have dinners and activities with them.

Challenges number 3 and 4 made themselves evident today:

3) As I was thinking about what to write tonight, I realized that I am writing this blog for my friends from school, my family, and everyone in between. I usually write for the person that I am writing to and I hope you can all see where this is a challenge when writing to such a huge span of ages, personalities, and interest in what I’m doing. So, I have decided that I am going to try to write for me, and I hope that I don’t bore any of you, but you can all let me know how im handling that challenge with some emails! slhakim@semesteratsea.net (we don’t have to pay for internet to use our SAS email account).

4) Making friends. I have to keep telling myself that it really is only the second day on the ship (referring to this vessel as a boat is a NO NO!) It took me about a semester, maybe a little longer, to form my group of friend at Bentley, and for those of you that are reading this, you are really the best group of people I could have ever imagined getting to know and enjoy at college. In our reflection groups tonight we discussed the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, some of you may have heard of it. Im not going to go into a synopsis of the story but the title comes from the following passage

“The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stanger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you take tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything…”

Perhaps in the American culture tea can be substitude for meals, or in the instance of college…shots (haha). But in all seriousness, for most of you reading, we have already shared three cups of tea. So to summarize my blabbing on about challenge number 3, it is to have three cups of tea with the people ill be surrounded by day in and day out for the next 102 days. Wish me luck!

First Things First...I'll Eat Your Brains

(mom, grandma, auntie, it’s just a song!)

I guess I should start from the beginning. I was born on February 13, 1990 in Santa Monica, CA…

Just kidding! As eager as im sure you all are to know my life story, im going to try to keep this blog to my travels and experiences on Semester at Sea. The beginning of that story, I don’t clearly remember. There used to be a TV show that is a vague memory at this point, but it was a high school on a cruise ship, im pretty sure my interest sparked there. Add to that the many cruises and traveling I’ve been fortunate to do with my family and a craving to experience new things, and you get the desire to study abroad on Semester at Sea.

A lot of people like the idea of being in one location for their study abroad programs because it gives you the opportunity to become a part of another culture and get to know an area as if it was your home. I chose to do Semester at Sea because I’m curious to learn about all different cultures and hopefully will be able to go back to some of the places one day. Not to mention, most of the places im going to get to visit are countries that I probably could never in a million years convince my mom to take me. Europe, she is all for it, Ghana, not so much!

The first challenge of the trip has already come and gone. That would be, packing. If you know the depth of my closet, and you saw the size of my cabin, you would understand. As my cousin Allie once said, “I don’t like editing my papers and I don’t like editing my clothes” touché. Hence the reason I have two overweight suitcases, a large carry on, and there will probably be some spelling and grammatical errors in my writing. Challenge number 2, fitting it all into my room. Karissa (my cousin who im rooming with) and I have already decided that there will be stuff everywhere, but hopefully we will be able to see the beds and the floor for the first few days…stay tuned for the results!