Thursday, December 3, 2009

Japan! Kyoto: Getting Lost and Ginkgo Trees

       The next morning Meena and I headed to Kyoto. We spent the entire day wandering the city. We wandered into temples, removed our shoes, and meditated alongside the locals. We wandered into an art museum and down narrow alleys. We saw hundreds of vending machines that dispensed everything from coffee to sake. We even saw a sort of vending machine for cars, a space efficient parking garage.

      We got lost on our way back to the train station. But, getting lost always unveils new and unexpected things to see and do. We went to Pachinko’s (no, not like the Miami bar). Pachinko’s is a small gambling venue. They are tucked in every nook and cranny of Kyoto. There are large two story Pachinko’s and small ones in the stairwells of subway stations.
       My favorite was the Imperial Palace gardens. Although we could not go inside the palace itself, the grounds were breathtaking. The trees were changing colors, all different colors. The air was so fresh and exhilarating- with every breath came a clear mind and soul. An elderly couple strolled past us holding hands. A young father smiled and watched over his bouncy toddler daughter.
       The ginkgo trees were the most impressive. Every first day of school at the old house, we would take photos in front of our tiny ginkgo tree. Dad would always say that it was the slowest growing tree. It would take hundreds of years to grow tall. Dad said that when I went to Japan (because he’s dad, he just knew) I would see the biggest ginkgo trees ever. It is such an old country and rulers from ancient times planted the trees and watched them grow strong just like their country.

Japan! Hot Springs, Bullet Train, Kobe

         Six am comes quickly. Molly steals away down the stairs and comes back with a horrified look on her face, “she’s locked us in!’ Who is this lady?
         I sigh and we line up by the window. It is scarier going the other way. But we all make it across to the ledge and to the road. We walk towards town. As we cross a hanging bridge I breathe the air in, it is so fresh and crisp- it makes me smile. We eat our 7/11 Japanese traditional breakfast near Lake Akashi, one of Mt. Fuji's Five Lakes. We take a small bus up to the Yessuen Hot Springs. We look like bums sleeping in the lobby as we wait for the other half of our group. There are complaints that we are loitering. Our group shows and we spend the morning bathing in baths of red wine, sake, coffee, and green tea. Outside, Barry and I are reminded of Wisconsin Dells- in the cold mountain air we race down water slides. We try to get the Japanese kids to play with us, but they are frightened. My favorite bath was the Dead Sea bath, there was so much salt in it that you floated just by sitting in it.
        We took the Shinkansen (The Bullet Train!) to Kobe. Taking a bus would be a journey of 16 hours, and it took us only 3 hours!
       In Kobe, we went out for sushi to celebrate Megan’s birthday. We found this very small sushi bar. I ordered every type of eel that was on the menu and then sea urchin just to be adventurous. The eel (unagi) was delicious! The sea urchin (uni sushi) tasted like poison. I tried to wash it down with sake and almost died. Sake is officially my least favorite drink and sea urchin shouldn’t even be considered a food.

Japan! The things we do for a place to sleep

       We arrived in misty Hakone with nothing but the name of the place we were meeting Molly and the gang. We took a taxi up the mountainside, our ears popped on the way up. Nearly thirty minutes into the ride, I looked out the window and caught the familiar and SAS popular panda hat. Barry! I pressed my face against the window and he motioned for us to stop.
       In a whisper, “uh hey! You guys made it! Follow me.”
       We followed. We followed him into the woods. Jonny and Austin were ahead of him.
       Jonny turned around, “whoa! Who is that? Who’s here?’
     Austin nudged him, ‘hey let’s just keep going’
     Meena and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders: c’est la vie.
     We were now creeping, still on a steep incline, past windows and through the yards of small homes. We stopped. We were looking at a window. Molly came to the window!
      Barry turned to me. He quickly and quietly explained, “Listen, so the lady that runs this place is a Nazi. She won’t allow more than four people to stay here.”
      I stared at him blankly. Then looked at Molly and her worried expression. The boys were talking frantically, pointing to different things and moving their bodies to make their separate points.
      Jonny came to my side, “Kate. Okay. We are going to jump through that window.”
      “But, Jonny that’s a second story window.”
     Meena laughs. Austin is standing on the edge of the ledge that drops the two stories down to a night-black bottom.
      “I have a big bag though!”
      Jonny takes it off my back, hands it to Barry. Barry throws it towards the building. Austin has somehow already made it inside and has caught our bags. Barry goes next; he jumps from the ledge and gracefully lands in the window frame like a cat ready to pounce.
     “This is crazy, this is absolutely crazy.” Meena just laughs again.
      My knees are weak as my toes try to grip the ledge. Jonny gives me a tap. I look over my shoulder; he grins wide and gives the thumbs up.
       I jump. I am now clinging to the window frame. My exhausted body hanging down the side of this lovely bed and breakfast. I roll my eyes; this is such a stupid, stupid reason to go to jail. I try to pull myself up. I squeal, this is such a stupid, stupid way to die. Brian and Jonny pull me in. Meena makes it in much easier.
       Now all nine of us are sitting in the room plotting the morning escape. I look around; the room reminds me of the bedrooms in the movie, My Neighbor Totoro. There is one long and wide mattress on the ground with several blankets. We agree that the five of us will try to sneak out at six am. Another early morning!

Japan: Harajuku & getting to Mt. Fuji

      Our plan was to leave early for the base of Mt. Fuji. But, we had not yet seen Harajuku- so in the afternoon the three of us ventured there. The street was teeming with women dressed just like Gwen Stefani’s famous ‘Harajuku Girls.’ Their costumes were decadent- a cross between a punk rock and Victorian tea party, skull & crossbones and lace & bows.

       We left in the evening to try to make the seven o’clock train. We were told this was the last train so we sprinted through the long station- not bothering with the moving sidewalks. Hesitantly we boarded the train that left at half past; once again we were told that it would take us where we needed to go: Hakone. On the train we met an official from the Kuwait Embassy who was very interested in Semester at Sea and helpful in reassuring us we were heading in the right direction. Mr. Takao Mineoka and I exchanged email addresses and we have been in correspondence about our adventures in Japan. We also met a kind lady who was an English tutor in Tokyo a few days a week. She took the time to write down several points of interest for us to consider in Tokyo.

Japan! Tokyo: Ebisu Beer Museum

       Although we only had a total of 4 hours of sleep (give or take a few shut-eye train rides) for the 42 hours we had been in Japan- Meena and I wake at seven am and begin our day.

       The street is like a graveyard- the liveliness that was here hours before had vanished leaving only traces. We silently drag ourselves to the metro station. By now we have mastered the Tokyo subway: we don’t even look to each other to be affirmed in our ticket purchases, we make the correct switches, we end up at our destination, and we know our way to the street. We are zombie-like as we ride the escalator up to ground-level. A man passing us the opposite way says something in Japanese, when he receives no response he asks ‘are you okay?’ It takes a moment to realize he is talking to us. We look at each other, we look at ourselves, we look back at him, and we start laughing! Uncontrollably. I am in a tissue-thin black dress with uggs. I have my arms wrapped around myself to keep warm on the brisk November morning. If Meena’s hair and makeup are any reflection of my own, I am a mess. We look ridiculous. The kind gentlemen smiles and says ‘ohhh you are drunk!’ We cannot even reply. Once again, Meena and I have come out of an unpredictable night alive and unscathed.
       At the Westin Hotel in the Ebisu district, we meet Taylor and her parents for a delicious brunch. We all went as a family to the Beer Museum. The exuberant Mr. Taylor insisted we try the sampler platter of all five Sapporo brews. Mrs. Taylor looked after us with her mothering eyes. It felt so nice to be with family.

Japan! Tokyo: Roppongi District

       Karaoke is like Sunday Night football to the Japanese- the best way to spend free time and let it all go. While American businessmen relieve stress by drinking brews and yelling at the television, the Japanese businessmen unwind by drinking sake and singing their hearts out. Thirty-five of us packed into a small room that reminded me of the back of a limo. Mirrors on every wall, sparkly vinyl booths, and an intercom used to request a new song. Someone would go to the front to sing, but their voice was drowned out by the booming chorus of the rest of us singing the best of the 90s.

      As the night progressed we became slightly worried about our situation. We polled the different locals we met. At the Tokyo Ice Bar (overrated) we met two couples that were stationed on the US Navy base. On the street we met four women who had moved to Japan just because, they approved of all options but told us to stay away from the Roppongi district because it was dangerous for travelers. Guess where we ended up? Roppongi.
       You know those movies where they speed up the film and show a bunch of people running back and forth, running into each other, going up an escalator then back down, then remembering someone they left behind, etc? That is what we looked like as our large party navigated the metro to get to Roppongi.
       A group of SAS students had rented apartments. The five of us were relieved to have found a place to stay. Stephen and I went out to explore the district life. It was explosive with the energy of people celebrating life in the crisp open air. My night ended on the apartment balcony, smoking a cigar with Nick looking at the city lights in the distance, the busy street below us, and the still metro bridge in front of us. I closed my eyes tight trying to save the image and memory.

Japan! Tokyo: Home vs. Homelessness

      After making our way back to the hostel, I used one of the lobby computers to skype home. I could see and hear my family but could only interact through the keyboard. Molly walked by and squealed and pointed to the computer screen, she thought I was looking at a picture of myself- in fact, it was Madeline. Others that took turns looking at my real-live family in America compared my features and mannerisms to Mom and Dad.        I laughed; rather I typed ‘haha.’ It felt like I had been sprinting around the world and home life had been stretching, gearing up to join me when I returned home. I stunk of fish, had not slept, was typing on a Japanese keyboard, in an alley hostel in Tokyo. Back at the starting line, Mads, Hayl, Mom and Dad gathered in our familiar kitchen; sun streamed in from our patio door lighting up their bright faces. Watching them, I could feel the warmth of a meal at that kitchen table with that winter Wisconsin sun toasting the family with illuminating memories. The conversation ended as we rushed out the door to go begin another Tokyo adventure.
        I had begun our backpacking adventure with my backpack, the clothes I was wearing, a dress, a swimsuit, a toothbrush, and my trusty travel bag. On the second day in Tokyo, I was therefore on a quest for underwear. Cat, Meena, and I had checked out of the hostel with only a plan. We had been on the North East side the night before so we were heading to the South West side of Tokyo: Shibuya. On the way in Yoyogi, I spotted a GAP from the metro window. So we got off, I ran in, and began my search. All underwear was an XXS, XS, or S- I guess this is telling of the American physique. I picked up two pairs of underwear and two pairs of socks. I checked out for $66: My most expensive pair of underwear. Reality Check: we were no longer in one of the developing countries that I had been used to since September. This was even more expensive than the US, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
       While I scoured the store, pulling on my underwear, trying to ask where I could find it, Cat and Meena had run into a few SAS students. They were also looking for a place to stay. Word on the street was there wasn’t a single hostel, hotel, or motel with vacancy that night. Our night of homelessness began then: in between a four-story GAP store and a busy metro station in Yoyogi, Tokyo, Japan.
       We made our way to Akasaka, where Stephen, Casey, and Stephanie had a hotel. It was a pristine district. We were reprimanded for jay-walking a street that was no wider than a sidewalk. We peaked through some tall shrubs to see a bride descend a spiral staircase into a garden. When she reached her groom loud and festive music started playing. When we reached the hotel, white Christmas lights had been lit up and down the streets adding the elegance of the area.
       They let us shower and keep our things in their hotel room. Missy and Andrew were also desperately looking for a place to stay. Options: 1) A love hotel that we could rent by the hour. We would only need a few hours if we stayed out late. We could even pick themed rooms. 2) Go to a business bar that has tubes to sleep in. These are popular in Japan because in order to be successful drinking after hours with clients is expected. The tubes provide a place to sleep after the subways close at midnight. 3) A karaoke bar. You can rent the boothed rooms by the hour. There is no law that you have to sing while you are in there. This is another popular alternative for travelers.

Japan! Tokyo: the city that never sleeps

       Ninja Tokyo Hostel? With a name like that, good times are guaranteed. As we walked the five flights up the steep stairwell, we were intrigued by the anime story that visually explained the perils of playing with samurai swords. The moral of the story: if you are a ninja octopus, you may cut off several of your tentacles.

       Our hostel was very Japanese meaning very space efficient. I would like to compare our sleeping area to the back of a band’s tour bus: a narrow path between stacked, box-like, wooden, private sleeping cubby holes. We were each given a key. So we threw our backpacks onto our beds, slid the wood panel shut, and locked our things into our personal caves.
       I actually never slept that night. After dinner we headed to Club Camelot in the Shibuya district. We made several friends in the metro station that used iPhone applications to direct us through the metro routes. We arrived back at the hostel after three in the morning and we all made use of the free internet: chatting with friends who were in class on mid-Thursday afternoon.
      At four in the morning we woke the rest of the group up and we headed to the Tokyo fish market for a cultural experience. Before the sun could even provide a sliver of light, we dodged forklifts while hundreds maybe thousands of people scurried like ants around the covered market. I chatted with a local fisherman after he caught me poking one of the large translucent squids he had on display. He took a liking to me and my foreign curiosity so he offered me a fresh cut of tuna sashimi. I excitedly accepted it and ate it, only thinking about the possible repercussions of fresh raw fish while I gaped at a large tuna being publicly dissected a few stalls over. With the rising sun came more and more spectators, buyers, and fishermen. Buyers were bidding for the finest seafood for their five star restaurants. Local mothers, trailing their small children behind them, bargained for smaller morsels to provide for their family. Fisherman argued pointing fingers, brandishing fish, shouting Japanese. Other fisherman proudly arranged and rearranged their my-sized catches or passed their hand over tanks as if to frame their seafood in a braggadocios manner.

Japan! Yokohama

The ship docked in Yokohama on November 20 and left from Kobe on November 24. Everything that happened in between was an adventure. This adventure was five days, four nights, thirteen hours of sleep, hundreds of miles, five major cities,
and the experience of a lifetime.

       We were only in Yokohama for the amount of time it took to walk from the ship’s terminal to the metro station. (Granted, the time inside of the terminal was extensive due to Japanese Immigration Standards that required face-to-face interview, fingerprints, infrared temperatures, and personal photo upon arrival.) But the short two block walk was enough to make a striking first impression of Japan. This was the first port that the streets were not comprised of a loud ensemble of (depending on the country) angry taxi drivers, squealing motobikes, deafening horns, rickshaws, ox, donkey, cow, intense pedestrian traffic or any other general chaos. Once we noticed the difference it was deafening, cutting off one sense to fully take in another. Japan looked and smelled much cleaner than any of the past several countries we had been to.
       Even inside of the metro stations I would feel safe to eat something that had failed the ten-second rule. Looking back on it, I must laugh when I describe the utter confusion of our group and discombobulating manner that we tried to decipher maps, signs, hand signals, and Japanese phrase books. After no less than forty five minutes, half of us boarded a train heading for central Tokyo. The other half set out to find their Japanese Rail Passes that they had pre-ordered. We wondered if they would make it to Tokyo. Brian, Meghan, Meena, Dave, and I watched Japan transform from countryside, to suburbs, to tight housing districts, then go underground. In only forty five minutes we arrived at the central Tokyo station. We stepped outside and I strained my neck to look up and all the way down the grid of tall buildings. Once again the buildings seemed to personify the typical Japanese businessman- standing in regiment single file in their finest, sleekest, black or blue suit awaiting an order to dutifully fulfill.
       We pulled out maps trying to find our way. A nice local man heard us speaking English, formally introduced himself with business card and all, explained he attended high school in San Francisco, and then asked if he could be of assistance. We showed him the address we were trying to get to and the options of circles that had been drawn on the map by conflicting local opinions. He shook his head and led us all the way to another metro station, walked us downstairs, showed us what buttons to push, which train to take, and where to get off. Well we got the right ticket. Got on the wrong train, skipped the right stop, and then backtracked to do it all over again.
       Finally we were in Nishi-Nippori, the district of our hostel. We began to walk in the general direction- I even got out a compass to make sure that if we were going to walk aimlessly, we were going to go the right way. Luckily, we ran into some other SAS students. They pointed us in a direction and we found it!

Friday, November 20, 2009

hey so i am in a hostel in tokyo... i cannot determine what picture is which so here are some pictures from my latest adventures, eh?

playing chicken in the Saigon river.. i was afraid these guys were donezo.

Bert is watching intently as our guide is showing us graphic pictures of all of the victims of the Khmer Rouge.

Kelly and I excited in front of Angor Wat.

children at the killing fields that kept repeating please please i want to go to school, i want to go to school. they followed Anders and I from the far side all the way to the bus...

then the reflection of the Angor Wat temples at sunrise on the one of the four ponds a part of the front landscape.

hanging out in elephant palace

getting suits made in Viet Nam

Le PUB! 
then Tienanmen square

getting ready for a cold night Great Wall Style

forbidden city and temple of Heaven

where we slept


on top of the Shanghai World Financial Center 

Hong Kong


Thursday, November 19, 2009

China: Shanghai

 Arriving back at the ship was one of those moments that you are so happy to see home. Espcially because it’s backdrop was the skyline of Shanghai. We wasted no time and headed out into the gloomy city. Our goal: to go to the top of the tower that looked like a beer opener. What we realized when we arrived there was that it was actually the second tallest building in the world. The tallest building in Asia and also the tallest observatory in the world. Nice. It had just been finished in 2008. Our experience felt futuristic as we were guided by clone-like guides to various fast-paced slideshows and an elevator that took us to the 100th floor in less than a minute. From the top we could see our ship amidst the city buildings. We were up there for sunset and saw all of the buildings come alive with lights.
Everytime we were in a taxi the driver would ask, “Obama?” yes. Obama! And they would somehow communicate that they were excited that he was in Shanghai! During one ride we heard part of his speech on sustainability in China. It was unreal to hear our president’s voice when he was in the same city as us a half world away.
When we were in the markets Obama was also talked about, but in a different way. Those who sold knock-offs and stolen goods were extra cautious. While hunting for a purse, I was taken through a series of five secret doors. When I asked her why she said that security had increased because Obama was in town.

China: The Great Wall

THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!! We arrived late at night and had dinner at the base before we began our trek up the dark mountain to the Wall. It was freezing, literally less than zero degrees. Our local guide powered up the hill with nothing but a little flashlight. Our large group spanned for hundreds of feet behind him. I followed as close as I could. After a fifteen minute hike we reached the wall. I could still see little flashlights way below winding up the mountain. Our guide said we needed to go seven towers over. So we started slipping and sliding in the dark towards the seventh tower. This entailed walking on narrow paths with no wall or rail. We all slipped or fell a few times going up and down the stairs and ramps in disrepair. Our local guide gave us each a matt and a sleeping bag. We split into groups and went to different towers. Our guide passed us as we set up our bags. We asked him where he was sleeping, he laughed and said he was going home.
We wondered exactly how dangerous it was to be sleeping outside in the snow on part of the wall that is not maintained or patrolled. We feared it would become Lord of the Flies because no one was looking out for us. We convulsed and shook all night long as we tried to huddle as close together as we could. Not even Jim Beam could keep us warm. I did not sleep most the night, no one did. I closed my eyes and thought warm thoughts but mostly hoped that death would come soon.
It was all worth it to see the sun rise over one of the seven wonders of the world.
In the morning I did not see any locals. A rumor was passed down the wall saying to head east. So we did. For four hours we walked, slipped, climbed, stumbled, got turned around, and guessed how far we had gone. It was the best way to experience the Great Wall. It was so much fun. It was so much work. It was all so unforgettable. We reached the zipline and huddled together as we waited in line to descend. Taylor and I screamed “I CLIMBED THE GREAT WALL!” as we streamed down the mountain with a crystal clear lake below us.

China: Beijing

Beijing Top 5:
1)      the weather in Beijing reminded me of Wisconsin. The city reminded me of Milwaukee. Minus the number of apartment buildings. In India the density of the population was seen through homelessness. In China the density could be seen through the numerous of gigantic apartment buildings. Each one was probably home to over a thousand people and there were rows of them.
2)      We had a packed day touring Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the temple of heaven. Danny and Nick made it a point to get in as many Asian tourist pictures as possible. A lot of us were asked if we could be in a photo with them. Our guide explained that they thought we were movie stars. Then she pointed at me and said and a lot of them haven’t seen real blonde hair. The contrast of modern and ancient history was notable. It was within my lifetime that the student protests occurred at Tiananmen Square. Chinese history came alive as we wandered through the Forbidden City. I was reminded of the Disney movie Mulan. At the temple of Heaven old and new collided. The temple has a point that the rulers claimed was the exact center of the universe. Outside the temple walls was a park that was being used by locals for tai chi and kite flying. China has young population with a lot of free thought. This makes China a communist country with a capitalist economy.
3)      I have always wanted to be involved with the Olympics at some point in my life so seeing the Birds Nest and other venues of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics was incredible. I remember watching each of the Phelps races with Megan Sharkey in New Jersey. Now I was standing beside the arena that I had seen live  through modern technology not too long ago.
4)      We went to an acrobat show before leaving town. I saw humans bend in ways that I didn’t think was possible. The acrobats performed amazing and dangerous feats in elaborate costumes. It isn’t every day that you see twelve girls riding one bicycle at the same time or a short man do back flips on a pogo stick, eh?
5)      We were set to take an overnight train from Beijing to Shanghai. Inside the train station we learned a cultural lesson. Chinese do not wait nicely in line. I have not been pushed around as much as when we were all funneling through to get to the train platform. Car number 15 was arranged with a long hallway down one side and open cabins on the other side. Each ‘cabin’ had six beds, three bunked on top of each other on each side. The top one was so close to the ceiling that you would have to squeeze in. There were eight of these cabins. We got on the train at ten pm. A voice came on and spoke Chinese for about ten minutes, we joked that he was telling a bed time story, but then seriously wondered how we were going to know when we arrived. We all passed out for twelve hours before we safely reached Shanghai in the morning.

China: Hong Kong

Hong Kong Top 5 memories:
1)      Our ship docked inside of a mall. I could walk from my room, up to the gangway, across the bridge, and I would be inside of one of Hong Kong’s many shopping centers. There were stores that I have only heard of never seen. From Jimmy Choo, Burberry Juniors, Burt’s Bees, Miu Miu, they had everything. I headed for a ski apparel store to buy some warm clothes for our trip to the Great Wall. Out on Canton Street I got a surge of energy, it was as close as I have been to a city street like I have seen in the movies of New York City. Large advertisements and video screens crawled up the skyscrapers and we danced up and down the street running in and out of the various shops.
2)      Hong Kong is a series of islands. We took a ferry from our island to Central Hong Kong. Here Molly, Taylor, and I explored Hong Kong park. There was a court dedicated to Tai Chi, an aviary, an Olympic training mini-stadium, a wedding chapel, lakes, and paths that led through beautiful gardens under waterfalls and up and down the hill it was built into. It was great to see that admist such a busy city of steel there was a green sanctuary. Also, I loved that we could ferry so easily from place to place.
3)      On the list of things I was most excited to experience on my Semester at Sea journey, the Hong Kong night skyline was near the top. We were only there for one night and I wanted to have the best view available. When the opportunity to go to dinner with Mrs. Lawrence (George’s mom) and Mrs. Lawrence (Hong Kong local for the past few years and family friend to Nick and George) I did not want to pass it up. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to see the skyline, but also wanted the chance to see Hong Kong through a local’s eye. Alas, I was not disappointed. I was blown away when we got to go to the top of a skyscraper to the American Club. It was incredible to see the light show from a balcony above the skyline. Indescribable really. I think it had such an impact on me because Dad has tried to describe it so many times and I finally realized how awesome it is. It was the power and beauty of man’s achievement: tall, reaching the sky, each building with unique architecture and lighting, each a Mecca of strategy, ideas, goals, and accomplishment not only in its grand exterior but also in the symbolism of the interior.
4)      After a delicious Thai dinner, Mrs. Lawrence took us to an escalator than was more than a mile long and took pedestrians down the hilly island in the morning and went up the hill in the evening. She dropped us in Lan Kuai Fan the bar district. It was like Mardi Gras in the streets. Fashionable locals dominated the clubs and we floated up and down the winding street getting a taste for all the district had to offer. The next morning I received an email from Cuz (Emily from Miami) in response to my email: ‘I am in Hong Kong! What should I do?’ her answer was a perfect description of my night’s adventures and I felt like I had a completely successful night in amazing Hong Kong.
5)      By subway, we went to a different island that had two things we wanted. The Buddha on top of the mountain and the airport. We took a tram through the clouds to the top and we could not see the immense Buddha above the mountain village because it shrouded in clouds. The ride in the tram was fun though, there was a glass bottom and we could see a lot in our half hour ride up and down the mountain. However, this ride caused a panic later on as we raced to the airport. We ran through the airport and it reminded me of my close call in South Africa. Except this time we were cutting it even closer and no one spoke English. We ran with our big backpacks on from level to level looking for Hong Kong Express Airways. We checked in with twenty minutes to spare. Then had to get through security (where they take your temperature with infrared), take a subway to a different building then with not a minute to spare we got on a bus that took us the outdoor terminal.

Vietnam: Hookers and Motobikes

Vietnam by day is crazier than Vietnam by night. In preport, they warned us over and over about the dangerous traffic. We even saw multiple demonstrations on how to cross a street. We were instructed to take a deep breath and go, at a steady pace, never stopping, from one side to another. If we stopped, went back, sped up, or ran death was probable. My eyes were wide as I witnessed the truth of the traffic. There were no rules. There weren’t many cars but there were several types of two-wheeled vehicles. We grabbed locals to act as our personal Moses parting the sea of danger.
I used the motobikes to go around the city. I had the same driver all day, Baak. He promised he wouldn’t let me get hurt. He always fastened my helmet for me. I was trying to go to a tailor to get a few suits made. I told my driver he had passed it and without hesitation he turned and made his way against traffic. Incredibly frightening. On our way to the market we ran a few red lights and I dug my nails into the seat as if it would somehow produce an airbag.
We went to the War Museum, formerly known as the Museum of American Atrocities. The name hindered tourists from visiting. But there was still proof that the victors write history when I gaped at mortifying pictures and read slanderous memento descriptions.
        We passed a park that functioned as a public gym. Locals stretched and worked out on jungle-gym like equipment that decorated the park along with shrubbery.
        I got my nails done. I think they were done by a prostitute. Baak took me somewhere where the ladies all wore skirts that didn’t cover their entire behind. Their only role was ‘massaging.’ There were men doing the haircuts. She brought out a box full of old nail polish. She kept calling me beautiful and comparing our skin. I watched men get escorted to an elevator then be joined by at least two more girls before the doors closed. There were beautiful girls in platform heels who had the job of stroking the men’s arm and talking to them while they were getting their haircut. It wasn’t long before they headed to the elevator never to be seen again with only half a hair-cut. I realized I was the only woman-customer there. I tried to make conversation. Telling her what I did the night before. She said, ‘ya ya! You me. Dance later. At the club. What time?’ I think I unknowingly ordered myself a prostitute; I stayed in that night just to play it safe.


Cambodia to Vietnam: Full Throttle 24 hours

I eat when I’m hungry, I drink when I’m thirsty, I celebrate each day,
and I’ll sleep when I die.

0430: our day begins with an unwelcomed alarm and a visit to Angkor Wat for an unforgettable sunrise. The bright orange and reds highlighted the sandstone temple as the sun crept up the sky elongating the reflection of the scenery in the pond in front of us.
0630: We came back to our beautiful hotel and had a huge breakfast. We waited for the other half that groggily joined us at breakfast after opting to sleep instead of see sunrise.
0800: Our first tour of the morning was at Ta Prohm- this is where tomb raider was filmed!! The trees had roots like vines and grew all over the carved stone. I think it’s crazy that we were allowed to climb all over these ancient ruins. There are no railings anywhere and no one around to say ‘hey put that 800year old pot down!’ so we ran around swinging from vines and pretending we were in Indiana Jones, stopping our explorations only to hear the guide point out important areas and tell us interesting facts.
1130: back at the hotel we had a bountiful lunch with all of the unusual khmer food one could wish for.
1230: we are packed and checked out of the hotel. It already feels like we have had a full day. With hours of temple viewing under our belt it was hard to rally the troops for our afternoon tours.
1300: A lot of people sat near the busses and waited. I am glad that we walked through the last temple- it was incredible. The stairs were built so steeply so that whoever scaled it would have to always have their face towards the temple and their body bowed. We scaled these stairs up and down all over, it felt like rock climbing!
1400: After our guide left and we had an hour before our bus left, Casey and I walked around looking at all of the carvings making up stories to go along with the stone-captured action.                                                 

1530: We are at the airport. We have been to an airport each day of our trip. Each one feels like it was constructed just for us- vacant and pristine. Once again Eddie, our trip leader, asks for an extra dollar from everyone in our group. This is a bribe, on top of the cost for our exit visas, for the Cambodian officials to let us out of the country.
1630: Our flight is delayed. I look at magazines: Cosmo magazine sold for nearly $16- outrageous!
1815: we are landing in Vietnam- it’s dark and Ho Chi Minh is so bright! We are all anxious to get back and go out into this new country.
1845: Everyone is having trouble with the Vietnamese officials in customs.
1945: The bus is plowing through the flooded streets. Each night the Mekong Delta overflows causing the streets to drown in the knee-deep water. I notice that most places have names like ‘lucky clothing’ ‘happy food’. The Vietnamese are superstitious and put luck and happiness in front of every named place.
2045: Back on the ship everyone is already gone. The graffiti board has a list of highly-recommended places to go at night. Casey and I race showering, eating, and getting ready.
2115: Casey and I are ready to go. We make a pact that we are going to go twenty four hours. 0430 to 0430.
2130: We set out to Le Pub to meet up with a group of friends. The ten minute taxi ride costs two dollars for six of us. Brad and Tommy say that we are only taking a taxi because us ladies are in dresses- it’s more fun to take the motobikes.
2140: Le Pub is in an alley. Really, the way we got there was saying we wanted to go to Alley 175. How we find places like this, I do not know.
2215: Everyone is wearing bandanas that say Vietnamese phrases on. Jugs of mixed drinks are five dollars. There are SASers behind the bar, apparently this has been the hang out while we were away, the bartenders and students are good friends. It is fun to exchange stories and adventures.
2330: It’s been determined that the place to go is Apocalypse Now. Le Pub empties onto the streets. There are busses, motobikes, and taxis. Of course, I opt for the motobike. Stephen chivalrously allows me the bike with helmet.
2340: A convoy of motobikes stream down the buzzing streets. The drivers confusedly take us several places before we arrive at the club with red carpet.
2400: The club is alive. There are guards at the mouth of the club and locals hailing cabs. The neck of the club is a narrow hallway leading in from the street; it is lined with well-dressed hookers. The body of the club is a moving abyss of people gravitating to the tall chairless tables scattered around. There are teachers here, there are more locals, there are only a few students. The arms of the club are the long bars that span the length of the club; the bartenders moving as quickly as possible to serve the never ending orders. The legs of the club extend from the body, they are floored open courtyards; the students are gathered here to chat. The majority of the students are instead chatting at the foot of the club- the dancefloor. Using our feet and hips to communicate.
0200: The lights are turning on. Everything that was covered under a shield night, strobe lights, and smoke is exposed.
0230: Hundreds of people are on the street. I wait with Molly for the crowd to clear. She and a group of friends have rented a hotel room for $15 a night and wants me to join.
0250: Her group piles into a taxi. Three of us are left. Two motobikes. Danny and I manage to grip ourselves to the back of one. The driver doesn’t know of the hotel. We ask him to find a pizza place. We spend quite a while zooming around the vacant streets that are still lit with the neon lights of the vibrant city. It was incredible to see the city this way.
0330: Back on the ship we go to the seventh deck to look at the city and the stars.
0400: The sky is turning lighter, black to blue. There is a little produce market being set up below us near the ship’s gangway.
0430: We made it.  Cambodia to Vietnam. Ancient jungle temples to the electric jungle city.

Cambodia: Shop 'till you drop

After lunch we went through the markets. If the vendors put a roof over their stands and became a supermarket it would be called: Same Same But Different... Everything 2dolla!
In Cambodia, the currency is Riel. But US dollars are used more commonly. The Riel has such a small value that they are used as the change to our dollars. Example: 500 riel= 23 cents. This is partly due to the fact that not too long ago, after the aforementioned national tragedies, several hundred American diplomats and humanitarians came to Cambodia to help reconstruct their country. They spent for themselves, for the country, and for the people. They were not using credit cards or debit cards, they were using cash. Everything was cheap so small bills (mostly one and five dollar bills) were used. It wasn’t too long ago that this country was in complete isolation, so they didn’t have much of their own currency- most people still bartered and traded. Also, in a country with such a small per capita population a few hundred foreigners made a huge impact. Eventually there were just as many dollars as there was riel. Now, when you see price tags they are in USD. When you pay for something that is $1.50 with $2, the change is 1700 riel- usually given in four small, bright colored bills.
  Obviously, I shopped my little heart out. Not because I really wanted anything but because of how cheap things are. This is what would happen:
American Girl will be played by me. I look like a tourist to the tee (try as I might, I can’t help it). I am wearing dark jeans, a low cut-earth toned shirt, my trekking shoes, my hair is in braided pigtails and I wear no jewelry (safety measures of course) instead I am adorned with cameras and travel bags.
Cambodian Vendors will be played by three types: each with a specific sales tactic.
Vendor child: the younger the child the less clothes they wore. The younger children travel in groups it sounds like a choir is following you, singing soft and sad songs. The children mumble repetitive phrases about being able to buy food or go to school always drawing out the coda word, ‘pleeeassseeee’. Then beginning again. They follow closely at our sides but seem distant. They bob their heads all about searching for something but stare at nothing as they sing their begging songs. This girl wants me to buy fifteen bracelets for a dollar. They aren’t pretty, I don’t want them. She knows that I stopped to consider it so she zeroes in on me. Following me for well over half a mile. I have 1500 riel- less than fifty cents- I tell her I will give her this (unconvertible) currency for one bracelet. She is zombie like as she tucks away the money and gives me all fifteen bracelets. Justin tries to shoo away a child vendor by saying the only thing he wants is bug spray. You can’t make bug spray from weaving or witling so he thinks he is successful when the child leaves. However when we return in the afternoon the child is waiting for him- with bug spray…
Vendor pre-teen: I say pre-teen because life in a third world country ages the soul. Not the body, malnourishment causes the body to be stunted in growth and development. Yet, teenagers often provide for a large family or have similar burdens that we wouldn’t expect until mid-life. Anyway, these vendors are sharp. Trying to respect their culture by wearing long pants and conservative top I am wearing from walking and climbing under the high sun in the tropical jungle climate. I do not want to be followed by a parade of vendors. The pre-teens know this so they single us out. When we turn them down they make bets:
Vendor: ‘If I tell you the president of (Insert any country here)/ the capital of (insert any state/ providence/ country here) you will buy these postcards.’ It’s a command not a request.
American: ‘okay buddy, tell me the capital of Wisconsin.’
V: ‘Madison. Postcards.’
A: ‘California’
V: ‘Sacramento, where you from lady? Postcards.’
A: ‘Not fair. Who is the president of Canada? The king of Morocco? The capital of Ghana?’
The vendor knows every answer. Even to questions I don’t know the answer of, they answer confidently enough that I believe them. I try to stump them over and over. I end up with at least four packs of postcards by the end of the day.
Vendor adult: desperate. I touch a pair of pants and they are by my side offering them to me for five dollars. I say I am not interested. The price is cut to three dollars. I apologize, I was just looking. I walk away and they call out two dollars, final offer. I don’t want the pants! I just touched them! He is at my side when I stop at the next stand. One dollar for a pair of pants. Fine! I will take the pants! I empty my bags; I have things I forgot I had even bought. I have things that I do not know what to call. I have clothing items that I cannot figure out how to wear. However, I do not have buyer’s regret. Like my mama taught me, if you save more than you spend it’s always considered a success

Cambodia: I had no idea

Our arrival to Cambodia was eventful to say the least. We took a small airplane. It was one of the shortest plane rides I have ever been on, just under 30min. But it was by far the scariest. Everything was going smoothly as we filled out our Cambodian visas and customs forms. That was until we took a sudden drop from the air! For a mere second or two I felt suspended in gravity. I couldn’t even make a noise but there were several people screaming in the rows behind me. I looked across the aisle to Kelly (from Miami University) and we laughed uncomfortably. A minute later there was a loud shaking sound and I could feel the nose of the plane dipping and the suspended feeling came back. I shrieked and sunk my nails into the poor victim beside me. The pilot came on the intercom and said “ladies and gentlemen we have begun our decent.” Thank God.
        We visited an orphanage in Phnom Penh. It had been started by a Semester At Sea alumnus, Terry. We were all led by hand around the compound by the kids. We watched a traditional dance about fighting monkeys- later I saw professionals do it too. They led us to the roof where we could see city buildings with clay roofs all around us. It started pouring and we sought shelter inside where they showed us things they had made from recycled rice bags. I talked with Ben, a volunteer and SAS alum, for a while. He talked about his adventures from 2004. He has since graduated and spent a year in the work world. He decided a desk job wasn’t for him, so he contacted Terry and has decided to volunteer for five months in Cambodia teaching English to the orphanage children and figuring out his next move.

        Our itinerary said we were heading to the natural museum and our guide began telling us about the history of the Khmer Rouge. Then we were at a police blockade. Then our guide left the bus. Then we all worried because he was out of sight for too long. Then our driver left the bus. Then our trip leaders began asking for a cell phone to call for help. We tried to look through the rain covered windows but all I could see was a group of men stirring a large vat of stew under a tarp awning. Finally, our guide returned. He explained that the police wanted money to let all of us Americans through. I don’t understand exactly what happened but I know that our guide was really upset for the rest of the night. He said that this is a dilemma. The government wants the economy to improve, tourism is a great way to do that, but the police are corrupt and he fears this will make tourists not want to come back. I thought it was exciting.

        Our hotel was directly across from the American Embassy. Our friend Griffin had a balcony off of his room. We all gathered there and watched the activity in the streets below. That night was the last night of the Light Festival and we had a great view of the celebration flooding the streets below.

At a traditional Khmer dinner, which was enough to be my appetizer, we asked our guide about a club we had heard of called, ‘The Heart of Darkness.’ Our guide didn’t understand what we were asking and told us to never walk alone at night- especially in the heart of darkness. Nevertheless we took tuk-tuks (the Cambodian version of a rickshaw) to the club. It ended up being a gay club full of hookers. But we danced to the old top 40 American hits nonetheless.

        The next morning after we visited the haunting killing fields. Our bus was engaged in a heated debate over whether to go to the natural museum or genocide museum. Justin a hilarious friend from Stanford made a convincing argument for the genocide museum. He argued that the history of the Khmer rouge, the genocides that wiped out over 2 million people from a population smaller than California’s, and America’s decision not to get involved were all too recent for our generation to avoid. Although statues and art would have been interesting, we can get our art fix in the markets. We saw photos of victims and the torture methods they endured. I am glad he made this argument because the reeducation school we visited was eye opening.

        We took another short plane ride up to Siem Rep. We went directly to the temples of Angkor Wat to watch the sunset in the reflecting pools. The first time I saw a picture of them was when Grandma and Grandpa received their National Geographic Magazine in the mail and it was on the cover. That is also the moment I decided to go on the Cambodia trip. Seeing it in person was humbling, Angkor Wat was immense and so carefully constructed. It is amazing that only one fifth of it is uncovered. The rest is still out there in the jungle, it reminds me of the jungle book.
        As I have said, according to what I have read and what was confirmed by our tour guide, Cambodia’s main industry is tourism. Nothing makes this more obvious than the amount of hotels that line the street. On short ride to ancient temples, at least seven five-star hotels will unfold from the landscape rotating beside us.  This makes sense. If they want the industry to grow they need the infrastructure to support it. We stayed in the Borei Wat Hotel and Spa. It was gorgeous. Hard wood floors, beds comfortable enough for the princess and the pea and, white drapes twirling around the doorway to the balcony that looks over a crystal blue pool framed in thick tropical landscape.
        Kelly and I took advantage of the Spa. I had no idea Cambodia and Vietnam were known for their massage services. For an inexpensive price I was treated to a ‘Healing Massage’ for a full hour. I have never gotten a massage before. We were separated into two rooms. My masseuse did not speak English. She held out her hand and said ‘naked.’ Okay. She started rubbing me down with oil and I realized how tense my body was. I was falling into an imagined realm of peace listening to crickets and the lapping pool. Okay. Then I heard smacking coming from the other room. I started laughing. Okay? Then my lady gets on top of me and starts smacking my legs and butt. Okayyyy… this process continues for a while, when I hear smacking coming from the room next to me I brace myself for the ‘healing.’ Then she flips me over so I am fully exposed and I am reaching for a towel and she puts her weight on my neck forcing my chin into my sternum she keeps pushing and my head falls between my legs and I keep going like a summersault and we both collapse onto the mat. Oh.kay! I was extremely sore the next day. Not Okay. What’s the hype about massages anyway?         

Vietnam: Playing Chicken in the Saigon River

One day, Taylor and I decided to do homework in a hallway on deck 7 since the front was closed due to high winds. Dean Nick came by and made a joke about his fan club always hanging out outside his door. He ended up showing us his massive suite and the view from his balcony. During our conversation he told us his memory of pulling into Ho Chi Minh City port from the last time he was on Semester At Sea. I have found that each professor, staff, crew, or faculty member who has sailed before has a different favorite port. And before each port I think, ‘Nope. No way. I am sleeping in because ____ said the last port was the prettiest.’ But sure enough like the ship will surely dock, I will surely find myself convinced that the next port will be breathtaking.

Docking in Cape Town is still a blazing image branded on my mind: the sun rising over Table Top Mountain with a sprawling metropolitan city along its base. Docking in Spain is like the memory of a first love- after my first eight days on the ship with nothing by sea around me, the sight of shore from the top deck was miraculous. Each port has that first impression image of beauty. But docking in Ho Chi Minh City was my favorite so far because docking here was an Experience.
To get to the city we had to wind our big home down the Saigon River for three hours. To give an idea of how wide it was: not only could we see both sides, but if I were to shout out to someone standing on the river banks they would definitely hear me and I could probably have heard them if the Captain wasn’t blowing the startlingly loud horn at the time. Seeing a country by bus window is one thing, seeing it from a ship is another. We could see little huts along the river. We could see lines of fishing boats tied up waiting for low tide. We called out to fishermen as they floated by. We placed bets on games of chicken with other boats. It was awesome.

That was all I saw of Vietnam for a while because once we were docked I was off to Cambodia.

Monday, November 2, 2009

INDIA: How to preserve the memory

I have a bad memory. Maybe it’s because so many thoughts bounce around in my mind. Maybe it’s because I’ve killed too many brain cells. Or maybe it’s because life moves at such a fast pace that I never have time to properly file away a feeling or experience. For a memory to stay with me it does not have to be a moment of great achievement, a nail-biting situation, or the realization of profound thought. Actually, I wish I could recall those moments more clearly. I have realized that an honest description defining each of my five senses is only way to construct my memories in a way that catapults the reader into my own reality. Thus I have unknowingly created my own rubric for cataloging details about a country or culture. Look out Hoefstede, Hall, and Trompenaars; here I come.

When the sun sets, bursts of bright orange and yellow are brushed across the sky’s smog canvas, the sherbet colors a gradient of smog-soluble watercolors diluting the sky’s polluted. Sunsets in India are compared to those in the old, list topping polluted Los Angeles. Four of the top ten cities affected by air pollution are in India. I was told that sunsets in India will stand out vividly among the thousands of sunsets seen in a lifetime. Again it wasn’t until I saw it that I truly understood. I see black smoke coming from the exhaust of a taxi in front of us. Behind us, I see a bicyclist covering their nose and mouth with a handkerchief. Before we even reach port I see the crew laying plastic and cardboard on the staircases and down the long hallways to protect carpet from the natural filth of glorious India.
The density of the population is visible through the images of poverty stricken crowds of emaciated bodies covered in dirt clothed in rags. I see a swarm of shack homes and the families getting a night’s rest on the side of a busy road. I see a petty theft of bread. I can count the ribs on this little boy. I see a girl tuck her school rationed crackers into her shorts and her jealous mother at the school gates putting her hand out and claiming them for herself.
I have taken notes in science lectures about pollutions effect on agriculture, the atmosphere, and my body. I notice the activists on campus and pause long enough to hear the list of pollution’s effect on daily life and I roll my eyes as they begin to preach that earth’s future is in dire straits. I have taken exams testing my knowledge of the Malthusian Theory.
Now I see it. I travel, I see, I understand.

The sound of India is distinctly different during the day and night.
With sixteen different main languages, horns are used as a common communication. In India every ride is a nail-biting experience. Horns are used by drivers to self-regulate the vehicle flow. We ventured by rickshaw to Spencer’s Plaza (a roof-covered version of Moroccan souks). We screamed with questioning smiles on our faces as we tried to balance the tiny cart and cheered when we successfully high-fived friends in another rickshaw that we streamed by.
Molly and I met Said, the kindest shopkeeper, while we were in a rush to get back to the ship. We were in enough of a rush to trust his twenty year old son Tosef to drive us back to the ship. “If you can survive learning to drive in India, you can do anything!” he announced as he started the engine. He was a good enough driver to get us to the ship on time, we only stopped twice. First when the road closed was closed by police. I rolled down my window and heard the chanting of teacher’s protesting something indecipherable. The traffic started again with the sound of a long whistle. Our second stop occurred when we heard the crunching of our front bumper and the yelling of a motorcyclist- a major earful for a minor scratch.
A unique sound from India, the repetition of English words and sentences in a training room at Perot Systems. I visited this outsourcing center with my intercultural communications class.
By night, the chaos of India is put to sleep by the melodic beat of dance drums and the rhythmic sound of port workers loading a train.

How to describe the scent of a nation? Hesitantly I untie my laundry bag.
Gasoline fumes are released into our small cabin. The source is my tarred capris from my painting job at the Dalit school. My job: to paint blackboards. My paint: a mixture of gasoline and tar. When I ran low more gasoline was added. The only way to wash it from my hands was with a gasoline soaked rag. Also contributing to the smell is each article of clothing worn while weaving through traffic in an open-air rickshaw.
The salty smell of sweat permeates the room next. Source: my tie-dye tee that I wore while walking to the rural Kanicheepuram village down an unpaved road which cut through large a large field that absorbed the equatorial sun. I recalled the program director saying that the child laborers in the quarry were only allowed a break when sun was highest because the rocks were too hot to touch. We laughed when I pointed out that we had begun our mile trek at the point of day that even child laborers are permitted to seek shelter from the sun. When we reached the village, we all wiped away our perspiration trying to look presentable.

Taste is intrinsically linked to smell.
I smiled as I pulled out a pashmina scarf that I wore to Indian family dinner at Said’s house.
At first I was skeptical of his incredible Semester At Sea discounts and an invitation to his home. But Said and Tosef had been so helpful showing us around the city and explaining Indian culture, I accepted his good will. I bought this colorful silk from his shop (along with many other things). I unwrapped it to wear to dinner to show my appreciation, it had the familiar scent of his shop- incense and tea. Now as I smell it there is a residual scent of dinner- an array of spices. The curry scent makes my stomach crave the delicious multi-course meal.

I stuff the filthy clothes back into the bag but keep the scarf out. I like it’s smell because all together the scents trigger a homey familiar feeling and there’s no smell better than that.

When exploring, my friends laugh and say I am going to get myself in trouble because I touch, poke, and prod everything.
You can touch anything mass produced and it will feel the same in every country, maybe a little grimier in some. The way to get a distinct sense of a country through touch is to examine the detailed things. Like the century old temple carvings of marble and stone tell the stories of the Hindu gods, each scene frozen in time by precise craftsmanship. Or the wall hanging made from pieces of colorful Indian wedding dresses, each unique in material, beading, pattern, and size, and meticulously sewn together, linking happy memories together into a work of art. Or the soft touch of a little girl’s hand, her young skin is a reminder that she has endured too much too early.  Or the fresh paint of a political symbol, two leaves or a spread hand, on the outside of someone’s home. Or the raised henna itching as it dries in a creative design on my hand.

It is easy to say a country has touched one’s life. What is difficult is encapsulating the reason why. I think that exploring the five senses will help me remember exactly how my memory of a country was defined by my experiences.

INDIA: Dalit Work Service

You must be the change you wish to see in the world- Gandhi.


Gandhi is the most well-known social activist from India. After making his point in South Africa he moved back to his homeland and begun his pacifist work towards social equality. Since then, many other political, spiritual, and humanitarian leaders have steps towards the abolishment of the Indian Caste System. There are four main castes: the Brahmins (teachers, scholars and priests), the Kshatriyas (kings and warriors), the Vaishyas (agriculturists and traders), and Shudras (service providers and artisans). Within these four groups there are over 2,000 subgroups. The lowest sector of the Shudras is the Dalit, the untouchables. In 1950 India adopted its Constitution fashioned after our own, emphasizing human rights. Although the caste system is no longer an official part of the Hindu relgion, it is still deeply enculturated in the attitudes of Indians, especially rural in rural India.

My first day in India I was amped to do service work in a Dalit Village. I was surprised to be greeted by song, lei of eucalyptus flowers, and a spiritual blessing. We were paraded by school children down the street past awestruck onlookers. Upon our arrival a few groups of children beautifully danced for us. I was beginning to get upset, it seemed like these kids were just fine, I wanted to go and actually work to help. All doubts were queued as soon as the intricate welcome reception ended. I was told to follow, to grab a paintbrush and tin, and begin. I painted blackboards with a paint mixture of gasoline and tar. Class did not stop, I was just pointed to a classroom and I would go in to begin. Of course there was a lot commotion to the teachers’ dismay. They would ask my name, I would say ‘I’m Kate,’ they ooed ‘her name is Imkate.’ I learned to say just ‘Kate’ and to not attempt to pronounce all of the names declared in my direction. I would say ‘what pretty/handsome names!’ Whenever I paused my horrific painting to interact with a class one of the leaders would come in and say ‘work, work, work’

The school we were working at had been deemed worthy of repair by our service organization. A group of us painted blackboards, some planted small shrubs, and some whitewashed the walls. The school deserved all of the attention our small group could give in the few hours we spent there. Over a thousand children make it to school each day to be instructed by only thirty six dedicated teachers. There was not enough room for all of the students, some classrooms were situated outside between buildings. When school let out, we all celebrated good work playing and taking pictures (I’m telling you, every child I have ever encountered on this trip is fascinated by cameras)

I had my first extreme toilet experience here, the hole in the ground type experience. I was escorted to a outhouse that was kept locked. A little boy ran in before me and turned on a water spout. The water flowed into a full bucket causing the overflow to run down the sloped floor towards.. the hole. I stared for a bit, thinking of my approach, and eventually made it out alive.

At the end of the afternoon I had tar all over my body and clothes. A girl came up to me and started rubbing my arms with gasoline. She said it was the only way to get the tar off. I was fine with this until the president of the school concluded our service by leading us in a peace meditation that involved several open flames.