Sunday, December 28, 2008

Big Trouble in Big China

            China: a potentially magnificent country whose splendor is clouded by too thick air, asphyxiating air which colors even the most resplendent hotels, temples and skyscrapers grey. Of course, many people consider China to be tenacious in its allure, breathtakingly beautiful as opposed to just breath-taking, but after three days of suffocating, I have reasoned that China is simply not for me, that my lungs will surely collapse if my escape weren't as soon as it is. And it is clear that I am not the only sufferer, as a number of other tragedies have befallen our tightly knit American clan since our arrival, adding to the leadenness of the grim air, and this slow decay brings us to Beijing's Temple of Heaven.

            Awaiting our departure for the temple on a bus, we receive the devastating news of our lost comrade, Kurt Leswing, and our inert wake-up-at-six-am-every-day lethargy quickly pours out of us in violent tears, streaming from hotel to Xuanwu. As the mourners hobble off the bus, heads bowed, arms find their ways into the arms of others, wrapping themselves up in another's seeking warmth, seeking solace, seeking peace. We arrange ourselves in a circle—which, as it happens, coincides with the Chinese representation of Heaven as a circle—and have a moment of silence for Kurt, during which we hear the playful chirps of Chinese men and women capering over the temple gates.

Not knowing the extent to which it is necessary to pay my respects to a deceased friend, I resolve to remain doleful throughout, at least, the day, to demonstrate how deeply his death has affected me, but it's difficult here. I have been told that Taoism, in addition to other eastern religions, focuses heavily on familial piety, especially after death. It has been emphasized, more specifically, that the practice of mourning is incredibly important; if not genuine in heart, it should at least be believable in semblance. But in either case, great attention is paid to lamentation, be it sharp memory, an expensive funeral, or keening wildly at the committal. But I don't know what to do—haven't learned the rules of mourning in America—so I allow myself to cry, silently and behind sunglasses, good for nothing in this sunless country except to hide behind.

As we file through the temple's gates, I sense that the air hanging over Temple of Heaven land is vastly different from that outside; it carries music, dancing, singing, laughing—absolute vitality. It grows increasingly tiring to retain my cynical attitude as I watch small and sprightly men chasing after badminton birdies, couples gamboling about in a choreographed social waltz, chain smokers snickering on each side of a mah-jong or chess board as crowds watch over their shoulders, and music everywhere, emanating throughout the area without ever giving away its origin. This energy urges me to drop my stubborn will, to give up everything and let life run its natural course without propelling myself into despair, or angst, or otherwise not-quite-authentic responses. Cry if pressure builds behind the eyes; laugh if enlivened bubbles rise at the base of the throat; smile when instinct naturally lifts the corners of the mouth; don't force anything. How appropriate, for this Taoist temple; I am being pulled into that natural harmony known as wu wei, the effortless one-step-will-follow-the-other mindset that reigns in any passive yet receptive mind.

As we continue on through the temple, it seems that the same adjustments are occurring within my classmates; those whose eyes had drained themselves of fluid are now being wiped dry, and some are even smiling, taking pictures, jumping into hackeysack circles with strangers. It is clear that our natures, as humans, are prone toward happiness, or are, at least, desiring happiness, and even a great disaster can be subdued when a person wholly sheds his will and gives himself over to the spontaneous external world. And Taoism seems to be designed for such dispositions, especially in contrast with Buddhism, the religion with a marketing scheme appealing to anyone who believes that the world revolves around suffering. Taoism may incorporate some similar concepts—such as emptiness and detachment—but it does not carry the same severity on which Buddhism seems to pride itself; rather, there seems to be more trust in the positive, natural flow of organic energy that will minister to everyone willing to open himself to it. While both "religions" may be working to cure the same illness, the two work from opposite sides of the attitudinal outlook line.

Though Taoism as a religion is somewhat hidden amid the busy crowd, it is obvious that there is something much deeper going on: first, I have to remember that Taoism is as much a cultural tradition as it is a religious one, incorporating philosophy and ethics which ordain "the way" life should be lived. As such, this temple feels unexpectedly inviting and lacks the strictness inherent in many religious institutions I've visited, particularly Western Christian influenced churches, but also Buddhist temples in the countries before China. And Taoist emphasis on health is particularly obvious here, with circles of fluent dancers and squares devoted to tai chi—every participant balanced and natural in his movements. It is remarkable to see Taoist votaries gathering in masses for this productive custom, all braving the cold to meet and exercise together; I can't say that I have ever seen any religious practice so easily applied and integrated into ordinary life.

After passing through the first surge of tai chi-ers, we see a few more groups scattered throughout the area, but the focus is now shifting to the buildings themselves. Unfortunately, given the nature of Semester at Sea excursions—to check as many sights off the tourist list as possible in the least amount of time—the Temple of Heaven is subject to strict time restrictions; thus, only one building of the three fit into our itinerary, this one being the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.

Sitting atop an expansive, raised square—the Chinese representation of earth—with thirty some stairs leading up to the platform, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is splayed out like a Victorian ball gown, delicately embroidered and king-sized. Though I never see the other buildings, it is difficult to believe that they could outshine this three-tiered colossus, tastefully dressed with classic golds and blues and pinks over a coat of heavenly blue at the top and red toward the base. Under each tier are whipped cream-textured ridges, lifting up the skirts like tulle under a dress which give the circular—Heaven—hall a very full appearance. This arrangement symbolizes the relationship between Heaven and Earth—the round building positioned augustly atop the square—and the building itself is capped with a golden ball atop a rod as if to attract lightning or penetrate the heavens.

After having visited the Disney influenced temples in Malaysia, it is almost confusing to see such a simply ornamented edifice. The bareness of color—a coat of blue and red to cover the whole structure—is perplexing, and the uniformity of the accents is unexpected. It is clear that the designer knew his palette well, knew which details fit where; he hid the more complicated carvings in the shadows of the tiers, veiled the detailed paintings beneath those. The spareness is striking, and the size of the building does most of the bragging.

What I don't entirely understand, however, is why such a tremendous building was built for the purpose of praying specifically for good harvest—wouldn't a less imposing, more natural looking tower have been more fitting? I do suppose, though, that the three-gabled circle design is relevant, as it encompasses the Chinese depiction of Heaven. First, as I have already mentioned, by the circle shape, and also by the three tiers that, as I learned from Professor Groner himself, are symbolic given their likeness to the Chinese character for king: () three horizontal lines (Heaven, humans and earth) intersected by one longer vertical line (the emperor, who maintains the harmony between the three). So beyond the architects constructing a beautiful building, they were also smart in considering Chinese language and culture in its design.

At this juncture, it seems that everyone has found this temple to be a suitable distraction from the news; students stand, arms akimbo, mouths and eyes wide, staring up at the sublime structure before them; others poke each other on the shoulder urging them to take a closer look at this carving or that stroke of paint; everyone is smiling, amazed, and happy, at least temporarily.

After a few photos, I start back down the stairs and see my classmates gazing up at the Temple of Heaven, as if they are considering heaven now that it feels oddly within reach. Or at least this is what I am thinking as I leave, whether I should have vetoed the photography session for a more useful prayer service and appeal to whatever god is responsible for me. But I wouldn't even begin to know what to ask for, because anything regarding Heaven assumes that I will, someday, be removed from the earth and deposited elsewhere, which is a thought I wholeheartedly dread and would prefer to ignore until any time that cannot be called "now." I suppose I could wish for immortality, sought for by religious Taoists, but the thought of eternal aging has never appealed to me. I have often been told—by friends and professionals alike—that I think about death more often than the average my-ager, which has probably accounted for some peculiar facets of my personality and overall perspective, but this is the first time anyone close to me—in age, in life path, in physical proximity—has passed. It's not that I want to think about death now—I have to.

Wu wei has diverged down another road, and I am on the trail of tenacity, vulnerable to bad weather, ill omen, and an agitated mind.

            The sky, which has been mostly eclipsed by the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, is now visibly grey and murky again as I walk back through crowds of lively Chinese exercisers. It's as if they are in Heaven here, gods playing checkers and smoking cigarettes and tossing balls around, so far from death that playing games seems a good way to spend a life. But I know that they are all subject to the same rules, that they are just trying to follow the Tao and let life come at them without swimming against the natural flow. I am reminded of an essay by Chinese poet Li Young Lee who explained the difference between Eastern and Western perspectives: Americans always talk about walking forward into the future and leaving the past behind; the Chinese see and know the past which lies ahead of them as they walk backwards into the future. Perhaps this fundamental belief is what allows them to give themselves up to the unknowable future, as using one's will to fight it is futile. They are not stifled by the air like I am; granted, they were born into it, but I still feel as if it may be because of my outlook, a persistent anxiety about what will happen in my future that was there even before Kurt.

I re-board the mega bus, thus returning to the tragedies let loose within its doors. I am thankful for its air filtration system which aids me in regaining a clear mind, then notice the number of friends hugging each other in the rows before my seat in the back of the bus. Despite having spent months living among these people, I have never seen such compassion, moderation and humility—the three jewels of the Tao—shared between them, and I am so moved by the sight that I realize I want a hug, too, even though I am not the kind of person who generally seeks physical consolation. I think that, maybe, I need to reconsider my way of living—open up, stop dwelling on the future, hug people more. And re-read the Tao of Pooh.

[The above is an essay written for Zen, which was featured (along with the Dakshina Chitra essay) in Semester at Sea's "Academic Gallery" that nobody went to! Hurray!]

[The photo was found on the internet, and I presume that it was heavily photoshopped, possible alterations including the color of the sky (brightened) and clouds (superimposed, of course)].


I think that about sums up my entire China experience. A few overlooked but important details include:

A brief stop at Tiananmen Square where the phrase "boo-yao" often escaped from my mouth; five-star hotels; being feverish and sore throat-ed the whole time while Kristin selflessly took it upon herself to follow my "but I'm sick…" demands; Peking duck which was tasty enough the first time but not so much the fourth and fifth; delicious hot pot; reserving the whole back seat of the bus for Kristin and myself, and sometimes Per (a curious, rich New York boy who drank much too much); spicy noodles; soy bean popsicles; Mao's face on every wall, t-shirt and deck of cards; climbing the great wall with Drew and skipping all the way down; riding in a dragon boat at the Emperor's summer palace; seeing the Bird's Nest from our a foggy bus window as we sped down the highway; our (me, Scott, and Drew's) leisurely walk back to the ship from town, during which we watched rubber pigs and rats being thrown against the ground so hard they spread a foot around, dolls manipulated by hidden remote controls, calligraphy, and an Asian Woody Allen who effortlessly cut Scott's profile out of a piece of paper and unknowingly inspired my computer's taking on the identity of Scott Rollins.

I liked China just fine but was very ready to leave when I did, as was everyone else, I think.


Plus, Japan is next! Oh, goody.

Good Bye, Vietnam

Oh, Vietnam. So close to Thailand, yet so far away. Cambodia was closer, to be sure, but no one thinks about Thailand when they're in Cambodia—Cambodia is enough. But Vietnam, Saigon, with your unruly Ben Thanh market and Pho 2000, Pho 24, All Pho All Pho-king Day, why couldn't you have been Pad Thai and Chatuchak on the river?

But no matter, you were Vietnam, a good place for pearls, for tailored suits and gowns, for Frogger: 4D, for water puppets, for avocado smoothies, noodles and raw eggs. You were fun, Vietnam, but that's all you were. And for only two days, that's okay.

Given my lack of ability to collect memories in anything resembling a linear narrative, I am left with no choice but to summarize—and sloppily, I anticipate—my stay in Vietnam.

I do recall a day at the market with a good group of us, though I can't say exactly who or how many; I can't accept all the blame for having forgotten as it was impossible to hold on to every member in a group from one place to the next, from one market alley to another, and I cannot be expected to remember who was missing, who had strayed, who had been stolen away, etc. And to take from (another) something I wrote for school:

"In Viet Nam, oh boy, you should see, it's just a mess of people, like an emptied can of creamed corn covering the whole city that pops and boils over into markets and alleyways. It snatches up squirming pedestrians, sinks leaden cars and butters the road for swerving motorbikes that will eventually meet and have no choice but to go and hope they don't become cream."

We had pho that day, that I remember, (though even if we didn't, it would be a pretty good guess to say we did), and Kristin and I got caught in the rain as we searched for a shopping strip we'd spotted from a bus the day before (or was it that day?). At a point, Kristin and I were Frogger-ing in the pouring rain under one umbrella from one flooded street to the next and we ended up under a lifted building where a Japanese man stood, possibly waiting for something, and he eventually let us in on a little place called "Zen" which sounded like a nice escape from the rain so we went and were very pleased, to say the least, with what we found there: shops galore! Unfortunately, the store was fashioned after Japan, meaning everything but the tag was the same (to borrow from a Vietnam-inspired proverb: "same same, but different"). That also means that the entire building could be judged as soon as the first floor has been covered, as everything from then on would have frills in the same places, of the same color, etc. So we left, back into the rain, and headed to a tailor shop where Kristin's custom dress was waiting. And in case you're curious, that thing is still floating around somewhere in Vietnam, orphaned and hideous.

As it was my first (and last) night in Vietnam, we all (Drew, Kristin, Chris and I) went out on the back of motor bikes to Volcano, (how I remember the name of that, I will never know) outside of which a (very drunk) set of Vietnamese Americans from Seattle happened to be loitering until they dragged us inside. The ground shook with the music, louder than music should ever be, so loud that the bartender couldn't hear my order, so loud that another bartender couldn't hear me complaining about my drink being served without alcohol, so loud that we left after fifteen minutes, frustrated, deaf, and ten dollars poorer. We took a cab to an American/SAS-friendly bar called Apocalypse Now which was apparently emptier than the night before, (according to Kristin) meaning the SAS kids had found a better place to hang out. But we headed upstairs and danced for a good hour, met Edward Scissorhands' doppelganger, then went home and fell happily asleep.

Next morning was for Saigon Water Puppets under Cheri Vasek, Semester at Sea's theatre aficionado.

The following is a rather inane essay I wrote about the show for a theatre class, (again, the cheesiness factor is inflated "for class"):

Twirling metallic dragons and harlequin gentlemen stole the show at the Saigon Water Puppet Performance, a depiction of daily life and cultural rituals particular to ancient Vietnam. Capering through the water of a humble, flooded stage, these puppets displayed the country's buoyant spirit and tenacity, embodying elements of Vietnamese heritage still connecting modern Saigon to its primeval counterpart—farmers harvesting grain, a grazier rearing his cattle, a peasant boring for water. And of course, the sacred four—dragon, unicorn, phoenix and turtle—who shared the stage for an animated dance manifest four vital life forces: health, longevity, peace and happiness. Add a few fireworks, and here we have a real spectacle.
As my first introduction to the art of water puppets, I could not have imagined a more enlightening experience. The small scale of everything, from the compactness of the room to the modest box stage in the center below, made the entire event much more intimate. I could even make out faint shadows and muted splashes of the performers maneuvering behind the curtain, and though that may have appeared tacky to some, I appreciated the glance at the private goings-on, like the puppeteers were sharing the secrets of the technical operation with me, in a way, as opposed to me just watching puppets gliding autonomously on the water. Not that self-governing puppets wouldn't make a fantastically magical show on their own, but the point seemed to be, at least to me, the puppets' actions and their physical embodiment of traditions and history shared by the Vietnamese people controlling them. And this connection, in water puppetry, could be found not only in the stories, but in the sturdy metal scepter attaching puppeteer, the sovereign controller, to his puppet.
As for the puppets themselves, though my first instinct told me to say they were tawdry and altogether indistinguishable, I can see the advantage of this aesthetic. First, the basic appearance of each puppet can be ascribed to the form in which they were first made: of wood with an unavoidably shiny water-resistant varnish. The homogeneity corresponded to the unity of Vietnam and its people, dressing every puppet in red, green and gold to represent the country's vitality. Then, by demanding little attention to makeup and costume, the audience was forced to study the role of each person based on his physical movement and interactions with other puppets. After all, what separates puppetry from other conventional theater forms (by which I mean an actor on a stage) is the control and detail that must go into body language and gesticulation. It is much more impressive to find the personality in three identical puppets through their movement alone than to distinguish them only by their features. It is also important to note that, culturally, Eastern countries value family and group identity more than the individual; thus, it seems suitable for the puppets to appear synonymous with one another.
So far I have done nothing but praise the performance; not that it wasn't worthy of hearty applause, but I do recall being slightly irked by the distorted, pre-recorded music. As a vital component of any show, music is capable of securing a Tony or, in this case, disturbing the whole production like a clanking metal cloak weighing everything down. The wind instruments blew everything out of order like a steaming hurricane; the drums were so shocking and muddled that it was impossible to distinguish a beat on the snare from a scratch on the CD; and everything else was simply unidentifiable rumpus. If I had the power to change anything, I would have replaced that cacophonous clamor with a live orchestra, seated on both sides of the pool, and playing to enliven the audience rather than just fulfill the traditional aesthetic.
But besides the music, I found the performance wholly entertaining, a wonderful mix of history and theater. And of course, the highlight of the show occurred afterward, after the puppeteers took their bows and demonstrated how to flip and spin the sheeny unicorn, when Cheri V. took the stage and exhibited her natural agility for everyone to see. (Cheri V., I have trouble believing you had never twirled a unicorn puppet before). The puppeteer's post-performance interaction with us showed how invested they were, how skillful and passionate about this centuries-long tradition a person can be even in today's Saigon.

To be truthful, I nearly fell asleep during the performance and spent a good while resting on Kristin's shoulder, but I do really believe that I would have enjoyed it with at least a fair percentage of the enthusiasm displayed above had I not been so fatigued.

As usually happens, I felt revitalized right about the moment I exited the theater, felt comfortable erasing "nap" from my itinerary, and went out to explore the city on my own. (Kristin stuck to the schedule and slept on the ship).

Not knowing where anything was, I walked blocks in the wrong direction until I finally found the post office, and that was only after stopping in every store within a two block radius of the post office asking "where's the post office?" or "stamps?" or "Notre Dame?" (which was right next to the post office) or "cathedral?" or "church?" and even the English speakers didn't quite understand Notre Dame, though their name for it is the same. Baffling. I found it on my own, luckily, struggled to buy some stamps (I still don't know if the postage was correct), then drifted into a shopping mall where I simply looked around with no intention of buying anything (which I didn't, and boy, am I proud). After I left, I walked across the street to a popular chain café (though the name escapes me at the moment—was it Highlands? I don't know). I sat there for an hour or so watching everyone walk by, guessing who was visiting, who wasn't, what people were saying in their foreign tongue, what they were drinking, what the loners were thinking and so on. I can't say I was particularly appreciating the country and culture of Vietnam, but it was surely one of the best travel days. Reminded me of being in France after my Dad deserted me there, when I wandered aimlessly around, over bridges, around churches, lay in parks, drank coffee, watched people. That is how I like to travel.

It quickly became night and when it did I was walking along the main street, kind of lost, knowing Kristin would be trying out a new dress at a different tailor at 5, and though I had been there the day before, I couldn't quite place it in the strip with jewelry store after tailor after underwear stand, and repeat; it all looked the same to me. So I gave up looking and opted to head back to the ship for dinner, and wouldn't you know it, as soon as I had resolved to do so in my head, I passed Kristin, Scott and Eilis on the street. I stuck with them and had frozen yogurt at a place designed like Pink Berry in LA and Swirl (or Cultivé, if you're new to the trend) in Davis, enjoyed it immensely, then went back to the ship to write and send postcards.

All in all, well, I can't say I'll be heading back to Vietnam. It is for people who like big crowds, big, big crowds, and stuffy markets, and noodle soup. Or for those who want to relive their war days—though I can't see how anyone would—as U.S. Army paraphernalia is really a hit in Saigon's capital market these days. Robin Williams may not be there, but the Good Morning, Vietnam t-shirts can be found everywhere. Odd.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Angkor Wat?

Where to start.

For those of you who don't know—which is likely everyone not in my extended family, ship family, or frequent text messaging circle—Semester at Sea is over. OVER. So it would have been only logical for you strangers to assume the voyage is still going considering the blog hasn't been completed, but that is only because the blog was forgotten under the masses of goodbyes and a few new countries; in any case, my priorities shifted and it is only now, after Christmas, that I've found time to trek a month or so back in my memory to write about a some bygone ports—Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Hawaii and Costa Rica.

Foreword: (No one to write this but myself, this being a mediocre and unknown blog, so here goes): Consciously or not, I think that the non-completion of this blog rests on a few factors. The first and most obvious of these is that the conclusion of this log denotes the conclusion of the action about which the writing is happening, and this situation is unfavorable no matter which way I look at it. Second—as more of an amendment to the first—regarding this blog as "finished" would thusly make every incident, event, exploit or affair first detach from my immediate self, then isolate itself among other departed memories resting in a large box tagged "SAS," and all of those will only grow more stale over time. This process allows the deaths incurred to die, the love to cease swelling, the excitement to be snuffed out. All of it is so final. (The next reason is still more of an amendment than a new point, but) with the end of the voyage comes the end of the blog, which has received its fair share of praise and lived a happy (but short) life. And I am somehow afraid that now, on this quiet, unwavering land, the writing that once flowed from my fingertips was lost with the sea, that because I'm no longer in the middle of some terribly exciting journey my mind will have noticed the downshift and grown dull and uninspired. Too dull to entertain, too dull to finish. I haven't picked up a pen with the intention of writing since the trip ended—not even to write a letter, which I do often—because I'm afraid of what will happen, afraid that my time (not that I have "a time" to mourn) has ended. With this senior year, college ending, new house, friends gone, thesis thing looming over my head as my constant companion, impending failure, sails in right behind it, any theory thwarting my writing ability will be wholly believable and ultimately deadly.

So now that I've given you my excuses, I can get started on Cambodia.

As people have asked about my favorite ports, without giving it much thought, I say India and Cambodia. Then they ask why and I go on and on about India, and they say, sure, ok, India, everyone loves India—what about Cambodia? But I find that one harder to explain as it's not altogether dazzling, or mystic, or… It was sad. It was simply sad, tragic, really, and I think that may have been its allure. Sure, it was beautiful, but even the beauty was shrouded by something fatal.

Before arriving in Cambodia, we first had to sail into Vietnam and board a plane from there to Phnom Penh ("The Pearl of Asia"; Cambodia's capital; I don't expect you to be familiar with the country yet). As my memory is hazy, I will have to assume we arrived late and immediately retired to our hotel rooms after arriving that night.

Just kidding. I was just informed by cousin Drew that, being Halloween, we went out that evening in search of a masquerade, or some sort of wingding to celebrate our most cherished holiday. We found an alehouse with a pink-wigged bartender and hip tunes and stayed there for a bit while our driver (of his own volition) waited outside. That same kind-hearted man later took us to a series of brothels and similarly questionable establishments, and once it was clear that prostitute hour was to last the rest of the evening, we headed home to get some much needed rest.

The following morning was an early one and we wasted no time immersing ourselves in the tragedy that is Cambodia—to the Killing Fields where Cambodia's own citizens were flogged, shot, hung, trampled, or killed any other way the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian government opposers) saw fit. There were fields for children, for women, for intellectual, threatening men—educators, doctors, writers—and in some, clothes were still embedded in the sodden ground. T-shirts hung limply over tree roots as if they had tried to escape, shoes whose toes jutted out from a patch of grass were still trying to run away. Hack marks in every tree trunk where a child's head was beaten to a board, ropes hanging like living vines from the trees, and a tower that would have been gorgeous had it not been for the hundreds of butchered skulls it held: all of it suddenly transformed the ground I walk on, the layer of earth separating myself from the millions massacred, the dead, into a blessing, but a thin one.

To carry on with the theme, we went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a prison with a purpose similar to the Killing Fields. A Cambodian Auschwitz, if you will. Founded, ironically, out of a high school, the facility made cells of the classrooms and torture chambers of the corridors, then enclosed these all with electric fences, barbed wire and iron bars. Between a thousand and fifteen hundred people would be housed here at a time, each of them forced to utter the names of family members who would be summoned after the prisoner was swiftly exterminated. Given the fertile location, the Khmer Rouge had the means to execute more creatively—not just beating and shooting, but suffocation via plastic bag, (the recently disputed) waterboarding, electrocution, burning and mass starvation were widely popular forms of killing, too. Where thousands fell dead, pictures of their rotting corpses stood for tourists to see, and even the small, blurry photos were the most graphic and sickening images I had ever seen. For fear I would vomit on the recently mopped tile, I exited the room and went outside to the courtyard where, yes, still more had been killed, then I continued to the outside-outside, past the deactivated electric fence, where victims of neglected land mines crept through the alleys with half a leg, half a face. At that point, I could do nothing but get on the bus and sit and wait.

The Royal Palace was next, a stunning plane of silver and gold outside of which a clever many beggars without arm or foot wheeled or lurched before the entrance with postcards or water to sell, collecting Riel and looks of sympathy-stricken horror. I wandered inside the gates with Drew to whom I commented that the roofs looked like they were on fire, each one topped with spikes as would be found on a dragon's back, and he agreed. Beyond the obvious beauty of it, not much was to be found in this place besides puddles, Buddha relics, and a small wooden xylophone orchestra. And for all of you who venture to travel here, good luck finding the silver pagoda. (It's actually gold).

Following this stop and another run-in with incapacitated street crawlers (pardon the interruption, but I realize that I sound condescending and heartless in these descriptions; I'm finding it difficult to create a concise and polite image for such a troubling sight), we made a brief stop at the National Museum. Looking back, I wish I hadn't entered, as I would have been more impressed seeing only the façade, red, on fire, and complete with burly elephant. But inside, hundreds of sandstone antiquities from the Khmer period sat silently, heavily, bored. In the center was a very nice pool, though, with swaying lily pads and koi fish adding color to the place. And my favorite part of the centerpiece, something few of us sailors noticed, was a view from behind two pygmy sized lions with abnormally large testicles, beyond which sat a statue of Yama, the god of death, sitting proudly in front of his pond. A queer sight indeed.

Take the last few paragraphs and sprinkle them with fish, rice and noodles, and there we have Phnom Penh.

Now a plane to Siem Reap, and the saga continues.

Evening number one, the SAS clan discovered "Bar Street," a most delightful strip of bars and shops with heavy (drunk) foot traffic. Europeans, Canadians and Americans filled the streets and windows, each holding a bucket of hooch with a few straws for friend-making, and a merry time was had. That's about all you need to know there.

For the following days' activities, I have for you a short "essay" written for a class ("for class" should by now translate to "saccharine" or "hyperbolic" or "overdeveloped") about Angkor Wat which basically consumed the rest of our time in Cambodia.


As we near the end of our voyage, and particularly the close of our innumerable temple visits—with one paper left to write—it has come to my attention that I must now fish out one tour from the purée of religious site images in my memory, one that has evaded the mindless blending-together of the last three months. The prototypical temple appears in my mind, a somewhat hazy canvas of tans and browns foregrounded by some sort of very lush tropical tree and tourists swarming underneath. How do I find a standout in this muddle?

I then scour my memory for other things; forget what they looked like—what were the stories? I clear away the muted temple image and allow a story to form. I see a man, slightly older than myself, with tanned skin and powerful arms. In public, his face is honest and his smile heartfelt, but in his room, he wears the same brooding scowl as Hamlet's Claudius, steely and full of rage. This brute also shares Claudius' murderous agenda: kill the king, usurp the throne. And as Claudius' target was his own brother, so will this man turn against his own family. Now it starts to get interesting.

According to our Cambodian tour guide, in whom I have full trust, Angkor Wat came about when a twenty-five year-old man, Angkor, with most unsettling family ideals, murdered his uncle and proclaimed himself the new king of the Khmer Empire. He went quickly to work on a new project, Angkor Wat, while executing a great number of military campaigns in his free time, most of which were unsuccessful. Despite his failures, however, Angkor's ego never suffered; he thought so highly of himself that he proceeded to name himself after Vishnu, the Hindu god to whom he dedicated his temple. So the newly dubbed Paramavishnuloka enjoyed a fabulously busy life, posing for artists even though the tradition had by then been unheard of in Khmer, and he now lives on in Angkor Wat bas reliefs, portraits and standing sculptures.

After hearing this story, the otherwise forgettable building begins to take on vivid color, As a sidenote, I realize that I have been portraying myself as an overcritical commentator up to this point, so in my defense, I would like to clarify that I am not necessarily closed off when I sightsee; that's not the case at all. But I have found that even if I think I am being riveted by a certain sight or experience, the spectacle, no matter how spectacular it may be, will be promptly forgotten if no supplementary knowledge of the site is provided. Personal and somewhat dramatic tales such as that narrated by the tour guide give life to these mysterious buildings, make me want to study every door, wall and window rather than just skate around the periphery. In fact, I can still relate, in great detail, the pattern in the King's wallpaper in Versailles, as well as the exact hue and depth of the sheets, all because I was told the King used to urinate in the corner of the room. Those are the sorts of details I need to etch a place in my memory.

I can still picture some of Angkor Wat's bas reliefs, for example, as if I were watching the imperious Angkor himself, silently snickering as he carved ribald images of large-breasted, smiling women with stocky snakes peeking out of their skirts. Or the general labyrinth-inspired interior on which Angkor surely prided himself; I can imagine him crouching in a shrouded corner of the most perplexing corridor as he watched his laborers' curses echo off the walls, trying to find the way out. These intricate visions of Angkor Wat comprise one larger, much more interesting view I would have never seen had it not been for the brief historical sketch. And if I could, I would thank Angkor for his brilliant biography, as he is what made Angkor Wat extraordinary.

[Refer to top for image of Angkor]

Some Angkor Wat highlights not included in the essay were: being attacked by fire ants, the spots from which appeared suddenly after hiking around Japan; sinking into saturated soil in the middle of an open field; elephant riding (watching, not participating, as participating is ten less dollars in my pocket); always walking up to walk back down to walk back up again (in every structure), vendors with dollar t-shirts (many of which I now own or have gifted), five dollar paintings (of which I have one, now hanging in my Monterey bedroom), bracelets (which I now wear, a black, pink and blue woven thing with triangles and self-braided ties); adorable, endearing, persuasive children who use tourists for English lessons (with much success); tough, smoky snake cooked bacon-style, but with more pepper (yes, I ate it); sunset from the top of Angkor Thom with a view of the city, bright yellow hot air balloons and people scaling up the wall from below; and of course, the ever-extending profile of Angkor Wat over the river, proudly presenting every color worth having. Well, not really, but it is damn pretty.

So hopefully you can all infer from the above chronicle why Cambodia was my favorite country (with India). I will warn you now that my country-shock ends here, though the fun and excitement and all that jazz will continue on through Costa Rica. Now let's see if I ever get there!

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Tropical Fruit Getaway

Day one in Malaysia I am immediately traumatized. Though it may be true that the dream of a tourist in Malaysia is to see "the real Malaysia," it may not always be what she wants. At a Chinese restaurant, a flaccid, scaly body housing a pair of alert eyes that seem to be saying something sinister through a soupy, sallow patina, "eat me! hahaha," is set on my table on a silver tray, spinning around and around the lazy Susan. Everyone but the professor grimaces and scans the faces of others, then wipes the horror off their faces and eats so as to be polite—to prove Americans can be receptive and respectful. And to our surprise, the fish is good.

After overcoming the next horror—the bill—we depart for the Thai style Wat Chaiyamangalaram temple, home of the sleeping Buddha. Guarding the doors are dragons and phoenixes, posted in the ground like the motorized children in It's a Small World. The creatures—after being caked with garish blues and yellows—are shelled in a thick, extra glossy lacquer that parades as it protects. As majestic as they are, (in their height alone), I cannot imagine these sentinels protecting the temple from anything stronger than a light breeze or a giant, (assuming the giant is too wide to fit between them). I can vouch for the statues' purpose in attracting tourists and locals alike, however, as I catch many a visitor snapping pictures of them, some posing as the animal next to which they stand, and they are a real hit with the kids who treat them as king-sized dolls or climbing posts.

I urge myself to keep an open mind and go inside where I am relieved to see that the glitter and glare humbles itself, now found in the form of aged bronze and brass and small squares of thin gold paper with which the effigies have been painted by believers. After removing our shoes, (which would have been better left on my feet, considering how filthy they are), we circumnavigate the temple—which way is right? perhaps we'll never know. It is in all ways modest, with simple décor, simple colors, devoid of much lavishness as the seventh bodhisattva precept peaches, and the lighting is just right, gently reflecting off the curves of a brass Buddha, the corners of the gold squares, the bends in candle flames.

Around the first corner, and we are walking clockwise now, the feet of the Buddha, complete with soiled, very human toenails, lie unapologetically before us. I cannot see his head yet, so I turn to the wall behind me, dressed from head to toe in color. The bottom half is tiled blue and green, framing an extensive number of shadow boxes housing urn after urn. On the glass covering each is a name and a description of the deceased person, some more personal than others, but all of them carrying an inexplicable heaviness, of the urn itself, the pithy eulogies, the money to reserve each box, the feeling that I'm surrounded by death, dry death, made to look polished and delicate. I wonder how devoted the family was when they burned their parents or siblings and left them in a vase, in a dark shelf, miles and sometimes seas away from home. I suppose it is possible for the deceased to have asked for this burial, but it seems too easy to me, too impersonal.

My grandfather was a bent old man who considered himself a devout Buddhist until his death, and though we never really spoke to each other—he spoke only Japanese, and I, only English—when I was but a wee nine-year-old watching him kneel before my grandma's enshrined ashes, I was amazed by his piety, to her and to the practice. I didn't understand what the stick and gourd were for, and found it especially odd how he made music with it, but I saw the loyalty in his drumming, how the steady rhythm was a sort of prayer, and every day I could count down to the minute he retired to that muggy chamber to pay alms to his deceased wife. How can a person show his love and respect if his family's ashes are on public display in impounding two by two inch boxes?

When jiji died, he was placed next to the rest of the family on a slope of a tall mountain, (the name of which I will not divulge, to keep it free of visitors), the privacy of which allows us to rightfully respect him and plant gifts at the family headstone. I can only imagine how much less sanctified those visits would have been were the path fringed with cartoon monuments and tourists snapping pictures of their children climbing over them. I will admit, though, that the Thai temple's "shrines" are pretty, and I understand that donating, in a way, a family member's ashes to a holy place ascertains the deceased's karmic merit, but it all seems a bit ostentatious to me. Perhaps there is a part of the process I am missing.

Above the showcase of urns are murals depicting the physical execution of Buddhist practices with captions—in English. These initially spark my interest, but I quickly move on given the hardly legible writing and awkward placement of the paintings. Besides, these will later be greatly outshone by the series of Buddha's life images in the Burmese temple across the street, so I will now move on to what I actually liked.

Inside the temple is a man—much like my grandfather, but slightly larger around the waist—who takes me by the hand and leads me to a bronze statue of a rabbit for 1987 babies, which I am. Then he tells me to pray. Having no idea how to do so properly, I ask him for help, but he speaks little to no English, so I motion to him as I used to do with my Japanese grandpa and he eventually catches on. He picks up my left arm by the wrist and places my hand over my heart. For good measure, he presses it into my chest so it is firmly in place. Next, he takes my right hand and pulls it forward onto the hip of the coppery rabbit, and he leaves me there. I look at him hoping he will instruct me further, but he is talking to someone new. I look at the person standing before the dog and she is praying with her eyes closed, so I copy her, feeling foolish and false. I have never prayed before, at least not sincerely. I am only religious when I need to be; when I am in trouble, sick, or particularly worried, I put my hands together and say amen, but never have I prayed when I don't need anything. So this experience is very new for me, and slightly embarrassing, but it feels good to take the focus of myself and wish for the well-being of others who may not be so lucky, whose happiness will never be as tangible as my own.

Shortly after, my social barometer peaks and I feel the eyes of other judges burning the back of my head. Though it may be customary to pray in many countries, I, as an American, associate the practice more with religion than social custom; I thusly assume that my audience expects the same of me, thinking I am trying to assimilate by copying the people around me. The truth is, I do not mind being seen as a tourist as long as I am also seen as receptive and respectful, and I would never expect my mimicking of others to grant me full access to the secrets of Malaysian, or Thai, Buddhism. Maybe it is okay to just wish happiness upon everyone, regardless of race or faith. But the social pull is strong and draws my hand away anyway.

I then proceed to the head of the Buddha, the proud father of the caricatured figures outside—his face beams with plastic radiance, eyes lazy but still emitting the same glare, and he wears a subtle smirk like the sly adult jokes in Disney movies, missed by children but worth another look by their parents saying, "something's strange here…" Which of the three Buddha bodies is this? I determine that there must be a fourth, the kind for tourists, unconcerned with the other three—the real, the celestial, the body of teachings—and more focused on kitschy attractiveness.

We have almost completed the circle when a large group of restless schoolchildren pile in; they are not as focused as the older visitors, but it is obvious that they are at least familiar with the customs, know where to stop, how to bow, and when to pray. I recall my own primary school childhood and can admit that I hardly knew what God was, who Jesus was, and I wonder if my life would be any fuller had I at least been let in on the big secret, seen the inside of a church or a synagogue even if I don't choose to practice. My most religious experiences revolve around Hanukkah and Christmas, and I only recently learned what those are for. Shameful.

After leaving the main temple, I head left to another structure built, consciously or not, to look like a merry-go-round, which does not surprise me. But it is just a statue surrounded by plants, still matching the colors and design of a carousel without the music and movement. To the left is a small, odd plot of farmland ruled by chickens and hens, suitable for an animal-friendly Buddhist establishment, and they welcome us into the next section consisting of two buildings, a jagged U with a smaller building in the center, devoted to housing more urns. These buildings, separated from the main attraction, are without showy embellishment and seem more conducive to paying homage without distractions. I am blown away by how many cases there are, how many dead people must be in that one building alone, and I am intrigued.

Here, I see the attention allotted to family union, but I cannot find Buddhism, in practice or in spirit, anywhere.

The next stop is the Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple, stemming from a country right next door to Thailand, but without much else in common. It houses murals similar to those found in the Thai temple, but these are much more plentiful and specific, smaller, framed paintings which guide visitors through the major events of Buddha's life—a precocious baby, Asita's prophecy, enlightenment under the bodhi tree, etc. I am unconsciously led to a well-like fountain composed of natural materials, which is both refreshing and charming. Beyond the water is a large open room, organically lit, with classic furnishing that contributes to the mood of the whole room instead of demanding too much individual attention. The only figure that stands out is the Buddha, gold and gigantic, but still, monochromatic, and simple enough to let the eye choose if it will look or not.

Around to the back wall is a series of international Buddhas representing other Buddhist countries, China, Japan and Thailand among others. They are black and simple, almost like a curtain over the white background which, I have just now noticed, is composed of countless white Buddhas, small and aligned to fill up every wall in the room. Amazing how this temple basically follows the same formula as its Thai counterpart, taking contributions from paying visitors, but displays the donations in such a classy way. And the austerity of this place is probably what allows for practice to actually occur, as I spot a monk, robed in orange, shaking a water-dipped, long-stemmed flower over a genuflector's head in blessing. I want to approach the two and ask what exactly is happening, but feel as if I may be disturbing something important.

As we leave, I see the flashy plastic idols guarding their theme park across Burma Lane. I look back at the man being blessed, his gaze transfixed in veneration and prayer, and I am thankful to be witnessing something genuine, or at least less fake than the show across the street. Though it is probably ignorant to think that tourism can be shaken from one building to the next, or to think I know what I am looking for when I ask to see real Buddhism, I like to think that the Burmese temple knows or has at least held on to a more sincere notion of Buddhist beliefs and practice, as I saw in the eyes of the blessed man that Buddhism, in some form, is still alive for some people.

After these temple visits, our taxi van driver carted us to the Khoo Kongsi Clan Hall, which was exciting for all of us seeing as how our professor had shown us pictures of it in class, introducing it as some great historical monument, a treasure. Ultimately, I have to admit that after seeing so many temples within such a short time span, they all begin to look the same. One can only get so excited by the fifth and sixth shiny, red, pagoda-roofed edifice. But I will say this: if this clan hall were my clan hall, I would be damn excited. And so, for the purpose of class, I was forced to elaborate a bit in the essay, pretend that I actually had an impassioned opinion, and because the only opinion I had was based around my wanting the place for myself, I basically projected this attitude upon the Khoo family. Not one of my most shining pieces, but an essay on boredom surely would have been worse.

The forefathers of the Khoo family deserve to be honored for their attention to kinship, though they seem to have already taken the liberty of rewarding themselves with a sumptuous clan hall in Penang, Malaysia. It is impossible to ignore the more recent demotion of family values which have been greatly sacrificed for the rising individual—though I will admit, I haven’t been around quite long enough to prove these judgments and am basing my knowledge on what I have been told every time an elder begins: "when I was young…"—but the Khoo Kongsi Clan Hall, standing majestically amid rows of humbled wooden houses, concretizes that aforementioned intimacy in such a way that societal shifts cannot shake its foundation.

As we approach, passing hordes of men riding solo on their motorbikes, or single women strolling along sidewalks in the rain, the gold trimmings along the curves of the clan hall's roof flame up behind the woven wooden mass of houses and grow exponentially up and sideways like wildfire. The building itself remains hidden until we round a narrow corner, and then it emerges all at once: its broad base; heavy plinths for sturdy pillars holding a looming, dramatic marquee; and a brilliant façade adorned with wall carvings and lanterns and gold. Unquestionably a building for which anyone—even Hearst—would trade his own house. Its stability intimates the sort of security one seeks within his own family and seems to suggest, "family is still here; we, at least, will never be alone like those drifters outside."

I will give the Khoo family further credit for its creativity, as most temples I have seen basically mimic the décor of the outside, slightly inverted to suit the inside of a building. But this zealous clan hall adopted entirely new furnishing for its interior: striking metal bird sculptures; intricate sketches of men riding lions, dragons, elephants; and full color scene paintings on every joist, beam and rafter. This family must have been very proud, and even somewhat self-righteous, to build such an imposing edifice for itself; but again, I say that family pride is greatly overlooked, and despite the vanity inherent in the clan house, it is nice to see a bloodline so rich and hearty that a family devoted so much time to constructing this lasting monument.

According to Wikipedia—shamefully, my only resource—a new Khoo clan temple was constructed in 1844, but was so grandiose, (or so it is believed), that it burned to the ground after being struck by lightning fifty years later. Though it may be a foolish mistake to liken this belief to African religion, I cannot help but be reminded of the strategy behind naming a child so as to not draw the gods' attention to it; Chinese believed that the new clan temple's resemblance to the Emperor's palace provoked the gods and ultimately led to its expeditious destruction, and so it seems that baseless ostentation is an inter-cultural taboo. The ambition behind this project is obvious, as even after that temple was cremated, so to speak, the Khoo family persisted in building a new clan hall, as if the family will perpetually thrive as long as a building still stands in its name.

As a person in the world, I can vouch for the importance of "home," an unyielding domicile that houses people, or collective ideas, or memories. It is a sanctuary, be it a frequently visited church, bar, or a private home, and with the destruction of such an adored shelter comes the subsequent destruction of all it contains—physical, mental or imaginary. And knowing that the Khoo family emigrated from South China—again, to steal from Wikipedia—makes the clan hall all the more powerful in its potential to unify, and even though the building is somewhat extravagant, it is easy to envision the family settling into Malaysia more comfortably with this Chinese style refuge to return to.

As a tourist, I can still appreciate the hall for its pride-suffused ornamentation, far surpassing any private house—save for palaces, which I am not including in this contest—I have ever seen. The Khoos nobly commemorated family precedence in building the clan hall but didn't stop there; it then embalmed it with gold.

Were it not for the too dim lighting inside (probably used to preserve the art) and the distant location, I would surely have chosen this building as my personal palace. As if I will ever have my own palace.

That evening—if memory serves me correctly—I retired to bed early in preparation for a flight the next morning to Kuala Lumpur, a city boasted to have a night life akin to the most happening cities in the world—Hong Kong, New York, Tokyo, etc. This plan was devised only shortly before arriving in Malaysia, after my friends and I realized how cheap the flights were, and after two of us agreed to take the risk of being secret guests in an ultra chic and fancy five-star called the Swiss Garden Hotel.

After a very hectic and confused transfer from the boat to the airport, all of us (Kristin, Eilis, Kelsey and I) were accounted for and boarded the short flight to Kuala Lumpur. The taxi drive to our hotel was significantly longer than the flight, which I don't think should ever happen, but we played a number of childish and wildly entertaining word and I Spy games to the driver's annoyance until we reached our very impressive fountain-fronted hotel. The first KL meal greatly outshone the first Malaysian meal, this one involving soy meat (my most relished of foods), though it will never taste as good as it did prior to Kristin's announcing that it tasted like throw-up. She never lets me be happy.

Our dear Benson's birthday happened to be that day, so we headed to a bar he recommended we "hit up," Luna, which turned out to be worth the short trip there. It was located on the top level of a skyscraper (though I cannot recall the exact number of flights) which offered a panoramic view of the dazzling city below, and all with open windows and an open roof that seemed to thrust you into the sky. And who could forget the pool at the center of it all, lit up by the moon above and the flaming cocktails on the bar to the side.

We ended our evening there and returned home at a reasonable hour—don't worry, Mom and Dad!—only after a brief stop at KFC, the motherland, which has been surprisingly but dependably locatable in every country we've visited. So we had a few chicken nuggets then went back to the hotel where I promptly fell asleep while everyone else took advantage of the free internet, sacrificing sleep for the holy facebook.

Day three was reserved for China Town and delicious food. A perfect day. I found what I had thought to be a hopeless Halloween costume, which, to my surprise, turned out to receive a hefty number of comments at the masquerade ball on the ship, (though it could hardly have been called a ball; it was more of a deflated balloon). And I could go so far as to say that this was my best food day, consisting of a very peanut-y tofu salad for lunch and sashimi for dinner. The perk of hitting only the most coastal cities of every country is that the fish is always reliable. Note: that is in port only, never on the ship. The fish on the ship is deadly.

It was also on this day, this very historic day, that Kristin made the embarrassing purchase of Gossip Girl, Season One. Now those of you who know me at all know I would never stoop so low as to watch trashy high school dramas (i.e.: The OC, Laguna Beach, The Hills, etc.) In fact, I would generally prefer to spend the hours required to watch one season of any such show verbally expressing how much I detest them. But Kristin, that persuasive girl, managed to get me hooked, and we zipped through the whole season in twenty hours or so. And I even found myself fawning over one of the lead characters (Dan, for any fellow fans out there), something I always hear other dumb girls gossiping about, which is most despicable.

Kristin, if you're reading this, I apologize for ridiculing you for your poor taste in television shows. It may still be true that the shows you watch are entirely devoid of substance, but I am now no better than you.

Back to the substance of this thing. Night three, everyone save for me went out and had a lovely time while I went to bed, but not before wasting away on the internet for a couple hours first. It was glorious. This would be my last night in Kuala Lumpur.

The last day in Malaysia, back in Penang, Kelsey and I went on a very romantic date to the Botanic Gardens. It was one of my most carefree, mirthful days, spent eating tropical fruit and soya milk out of coconuts and capering about the jungle with exotic monkeys and Malaysians who treated us like celebrities. I hadn't experienced such fame in my whole life—strangers encroaching from afar, hiking out of their way to come hug and take pictures with us. It was bizarre, and I don't think I liked it. After leaving the gardens, Kelsey and I went on an expedition for lunch food, which apparently was a mistake as it was a Sunday and nothing is open on Sundays. That is, except for Little India, but no one should ever go there after having come from India. I warn you, you will be disappointed.

The final hours in Malaysia were shamefully devoted to that which I have already touched upon, four paragraphs above. I needn't bring it up again.

So, in conclusion, there wasn't much to be done in Malaysia. The food was delectable, but could have be found elsewhere after a bit of searching. In fact, when trying to recall the ports I needed to revisit in this blog, I completely forgot about Malaysia until I realized a void in my mental itinerary. It's may be that I didn't see the right things, but judging from my own experiences, the country made a very little impact on my memory outside of the sweet hotel (to be outdone in Beijing) and the exotic fruit (which was easily trumped by Japanese Fuji apples). Sorry, Malaysia.

So that brings us to Viet Nam. I have no previously composed essays on the place so it may take me a while longer to weave my yarn. Please be patient.

Finally Coming Up for Air

To begin with a very obvious statement: I have not updated since India, which is now very far behind in mind and proximity. For that, I apologize. However, I did predict this tardiness happening even before I was trampled by the rapid acceleration of time in the brief stops in several other countries, and even briefer stops back on the boat between these destinations during which hours were lost every night. Even I am surprised by how long it has taken me to find a free moment to write again. I must also confess that the earlier blogs were written at the expense school work, which was more or less neglected so I could continue to entertain you all out there in world wide web land. But something had to be done, as my time here is quickly vanishing and the list of work to be done is swelling. To your relief, I have very little work left to do now, which means more time devoted to you, dear readers, all of those outside of the hours spent sleeping (an unhealthy number) and eating (often sacrificed for more sleeping hours).

So where are we now. Today is Friday, November 21st. I have doubled my list of visited countries since I last spoke with you, and in half the time. That should give you a good idea of how the momentum has surged. Until now, I have had very little time to sleep—five days to try seeing everything there is to see in Malaysia, two days to catch up on work on the ship while battling unruly bowels, five days in Viet Nam for six-am wake up calls and twenty temple visits, then two days on the ship to relearn how to sit and type papers on a computer, five days in port dragging my sick, fatigued body around four Chinese airports and up and down the Great Wall, two days on the ship trying to recover from China's noxious air condition and a great loss incurred by everyone, five family-filled days in Japan to show everyone everything I used to love in every city I'd ever visited, all while translating in a language I hadn't spoken in months, which brings me here, to November 21st, the first time I have sat in bed with nothing to do, or at least nothing to be done immediately.

It may take me a while to provide you with sufficient entries of all five countries, but I will work as fast as I can, and as with the last India entry, I will probably be pulling some content from papers written from school. Yes, I have more time now, but I still think it unrealistic to carry myself back to where I left off. It's much too much.

So I will begin with Malaysia in the next entry, separating each country thereafter to give this blog a little structure—just to prevent you from feeling overwhelmed with everything at once.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The 8-Fold Path to Loving India

Some over-generalizations about India, as counseled by veterans (inter-port students, professors, citizens):

1. Everything that can be said about India, the opposite is also true.
2. You either love it or hate it; really, it's true.
3. It will shock all five senses, with immediacy and unapologetic force.

Now that this has been said, I can say that I wholeheartedly agree with every statement. To begin with the first, yes, a traveler in India will be in a relatively consistent perplexed state. Vast homeless populations set in front of prodigious homes; a culture technologically advanced and capable but unable to stabilize simple electrical power, which is shaky everywhere; impressive synergy of race and religion in the South, devastating chasm in the North, Hindus versus Muslims versus Christians, etc. Any country with twenty-two official languages will come with its share of incongruities. As for the second, from what I've gathered from the shipboard's responses, the majority hated it, while I (and Kristin) really, really loved it. More on that later. And the third, the shock factor, also much more on that later; however, I can now very blandly vouch for its indelible air (having caught constituents of all the senses) that planted itself in our sinuses as turmeric smoke, stained our clothes a loud red and yellow and followed us onto the ship.

India is crazy!

Now onto the action:

[The following will detail my visit to Dakshina Chitra for a yoga/meditation retreat. And given the classes I have been taking on the ship (namely Zen), I will frequently refer to Buddhism or aspects of it in other terms, but creative writing has also been dominating so much of my time and energy that I find it impossible to elude this distracting, flowery language.]

Days One and Two and Three:

Six hours in a stale bus with brief twenty minute vacations in the stifling humidity; heavy, constraining denim and canvas to hide offensive knees and shoulders; the only shade found trapped inside doll-sized, open-air display cases with space enough for Vishnu, Ganesh, or Shiva alone: this is my first day in India, and already I am beginning to understand why Buddhism may have developed in such a country. For me, at least, the suffering is relentless—sweating and sticking to myself, the bus chair, the foul air, an impending sense of future digestive disaster, the unabated fear that malaria is already swimming through my blood, or if not that, dysentery hidden and packed away in my Aquafina. When my thirst level reaches parched, I begin to resent the fact that everything so commonly within my grasp is now unattainable. But I am just a tourist, and everyone else seems to be weathering the challenges without a sweat.
By nightfall, the bus makes its final stop at Dakshina Chitra, a community encompassing all of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka within a few buildings as a means to promote the amity between those diverse Indian cities. We are released into the hands of strangers, cruel strangers who feed us bountiful trays of zesty bartha and chapatti late into the night before telling us the days start at 6 and we will have only a few hours to rest before the first yoga instruction. Are these the ascetics the Jainists advocated?
I suffer all night, choking on the thick turmeric-saturated air mixed with bug repellent outlining my body like chalk. I am steeping in my own sweat and cannot, cannot sleep. Eventually it becomes morning, and I slide dazedly down to the kitchen for what was listed on the schedule as "coco," which I interpret as "coffee." But it is coco, and coco only that I am being served in lieu of my usual two coffees, so I take what I am allotted and sit down with the rest of the group in plastic chairs against the wall. "No coffee," I grumble. My neighbor is suffering, too, and adds a few more banned substances to the list—caffeine, nicotine, drugs of any kind—and I feel like I am being subjected to the bodhisattva precepts, though I am just here for yoga. Although lying, killing and stealing were never mentioned, I have been raised well enough in my own country to know they are, at least, ubiquitously frowned upon.
The steps which much be taken to successfully practice yoga and meditation are beyond my power to execute. Straw mats, thin and hard and abrasive against my bones; pillows whose cases have spent years soaking in the soupy Indian air; raucous ceiling fans cutting through the rising heat; and of course, mosquitoes, are among the few adverse distractions in the room. The instructor is a petite woman whose face is like a rich redwood carving with deep wrinkles etched under every sac of skin and two dark knots for eyes. She sits herself down in a plastic chair at the front of the room and silently holds a microphone in her hand. So far, she seems to be a victim to sloth and torpor, and while that sort of attitude would normally suit me, I know that enlightenment—or at least serenity—will not spring from a lazy mind.
"Day one will consist of three separate yoga sessions, as will the next two days," she begins. "By the time you leave, you will be familiar with The Art of Living, but it will not be natural until you make the effort to apply it to your lives back at home, or on the ship, which is the hardest part. Help each other," she instructs.
Stage one of morning yoga is Pranayama, or three-stage breathing. I have done gymnastics all my life and consider myself to be athletically capable, but I have never been well acquainted with breathing. I am often oppressive in regards to respiration; air does not flow easily through me, but is customarily locked in my lungs during movement and quickly expelled afterwards. Though Pranayama follows anyone's habitual breathing pattern, it requires immense effort on my part—four seconds breathing in, four seconds to hold, six seconds slowly releasing the breath, then hold again for two at the bottom, all with our arms configured different ways—hands at our hips, hands under our armpits, elbows folded in towards the head with hands on our shoulder blades–to maximize stamina. Meanwhile, my knees and ankles, bearing the weight of my whole body, are throbbing and splitting at the joints as they take on the pattern of the woven straw. I wonder how whole societies—Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc.—can withstand this posture through meals, ceremonies, and I reason that they are unquestionably superior. I must tell Professor Groner that he was mistaken—Buddha nature is not within everyone.
Next, I am instructed to sit Indian style with my hands on my knees, palms facing up so as to create a sort of energy absorption panel, lightly touching my thumb and forefinger to form a continuous circle. "I'm sure you've all seen Om chanting before," the instructor speculates, which I have, but only in movies. She initiates the first "ooooooooommm" and I follow, but as I do, I feel as if I am making a mockery of the whole practice, like om-ing is something only seasoned meditators are invited to do, and I can't even sit on my knees yet.
The following exercise is done lying down, which is a relief. Savasana, or complete rest—our time to meditate on anything we think relaxes us, be it a tree, a flower, or a stream. The instructor suggests a coconut tree, so I begin with that, but I grow quickly flustered when I am unable to create the image in my mind. My thoughts dart between irises, what lunch will be, oak trees, people on the boat, people at home, my sleeping foot, the potential swarm of mosquitoes over my face, another oak tree. I have a bad case of "monkey mind," and the only way to make it stop is by falling asleep, which I do unintentionally. Caffeine deprivation and little sleep will do that to a person. A positive course of action, I suppose, would be cutting off my eyelids like Bodhidharma himself, but that would be assuming I have reached the level at which such adjustments are necessary, kind of like om-chanting is only for veterans.
We break for an hour lunch and the staff has broken out the silverware, so I eat mindlessly. When we return for yoga, the instructor splits the thirty of us into five groups, then tells us to discuss a life-changing and deeply personal moment in our lives. The people here are all faces I've seen, but have never, and might not ever, speak to. Beyond that, I have never been one to divulge my own sob stories to even the best of friends; that's what my mother is for. But as I begin, I remind myself that it is a mandatory exercise, that I am not seeking pity, and I am simply following the rules. I catch myself laughing through the saddest parts, unable to maintain eye contact with my audience who is listening in earnest, and as I finish, other groups are crying and hugging each other and I wish that I could detach myself from my deleterious pride, but it is too sturdy. America is not conducive to such openness, unless it is aired on daytime talk shows in which case suffering Americans may vicariously purge themselves of grief.
The groups disperse and form into two lines, each Indian style and facing the other. "Now I want you to look at the person across from you and find the humanity within them," she instructs. My partner is a boy who has flirtingly teased me since I met him, with no success, and both of us find it impossible to gather the humility it requires to gaze into each other's eyes, so we laugh and scan the room. The next partner is someone I have never seen before this trip, and we have yet to introduce ourselves, so we do not laugh or smile once, just appreciate the other's existence until we switch again.
My final stop is across from the instructor, and when she looks at me, she grips my hands and shifts her face around ever so slightly, her eyes drooping and sad while her brows are raised at attention. She is speaking to me. Her mouth is still but some strange power is coursing from her eyes to mine, trying to tell me something like, "we are both people, you know? We are on this earth together; isn't that amazing?" The compassion I feel towards her is unlike any I have felt for a person; to love a stranger just for their being alive, the only connection between you found in the air which encircles the whole earth, the ground that spreads between countries, and a heart we all share, the same heart with the same simple desires, to feel love, joy and acceptance. I don't feel silly for crying, and won't until I return to my life on the ship with people who have not yet looked into the eyes of ren.
Tonight, I can finally breathe, and the mosquitoes don't bother my sleep.
Day three without coffee: We begin the Pranayama breathing which is less straining now, then ease into "five sheaths meditation"; that is, visualizing levels of self and the environment from the outside in, then back again. The first level is Annamaya kosha, the environment, during which I sit silently, eyes shut, locating every sound around me to define my place in the world. Pranamayakosha is next, and in this step I assess the various sensations in my body—sleeping limbs, an ache in my lower back, an itch behind my ear. We then progress to Manomayakosha, an evaluation of the conscious mind and determining its relation to a single self (I) and surrounding forces (everything else). By this point, my body has reached optimum relaxation and the border between myself and the world is dissolving. Vijnanamayakosha is the fourth sheath; referred to in my common tongue as "intuition emotion," it concerns itself with intellect and the five senses and "my" perception of "everything else." During this step, the instructor stresses this kosha's impermanence in that our perceptions are ever-changing and fleeting, and also incapable of perceiving anything objectively, which I find to be true, as the formerly objectionable cumin aroma sailing into the room grows increasingly appealing in conjunction with my hunger. And finally, Anandamayakosha creeps into my sleeping body and quells my cramping knees, carrying me into a state of bliss, as ananda is defined. My mind is awake and my body is buzzing, and I have complete confidence that supine meditation will serve to lift me closer to enlightenment, as opposed to a deep sleep.
Twenty minutes later, I open my eyes and everyone is sitting up again; I fell asleep. But I accept my defeat and still feel as if I have accomplished something beyond my average ability. During the course of Panchakosha meditation, I recognize a relationship between these Hindu sheaths and the five aggregates particular to Buddhism—material shape and Annamaya, feelings/sensations and Pranayama, cognition/perception and Manomaya, discriminative consciousness and Vijnanamaya, and discriminative consciousness with Anandamaya. Though the last two are disputable—or perhaps they all are—it is impossible to miss the shared perspective and arrangement of phenomena among them all, and I must say, it feels rewarding to finally see a class lecture executed in real life.
Our departure is preceded by one final discussion, the most pivotal of all. My fellow yogis seem to have progressed at the same pace, as the people who were once so inhibited on the ship, including myself, are suddenly willing to bare their souls, responding to a series of pertinent, yet neglected questions: What do you want in your life? When will you be happy? How long do you propose to stay on this planet? What have you done to bring out divine qualities in other people? Questions I would have—and probably already have—laughed at due to their gravity I am now examining with others. I am benefiting sentient beings by making myself vulnerable and accepting others who are just as afraid; I am promoting good by participating in a worthwhile conversation; I am divining the morality within strangers and friends. I like to think that this awareness is wisdom, though I am not so bold as to declare myself wise just yet. And now three days back on the boat, I already feel myself backsliding; perhaps it is all the coffee I've been drinking.

Now I must make a confession. The past few (hundred) paragraphs were extracted from a sort-of essay for Zen Buddhism, so I hope it wasn't too painful for anyone. Are you guys still reading? Please comment if y'are.

The final (two) days in India were equally fun, though less stimulating. They consisted of a mall visit, vegetarian curries, coffee shops, walks and explorations. Sadly, we were two soldiers down—weak-stomached Billsteins and their dysenteric difficulties. I, luckily, made it out of India alive (without any fiery stomach syndrome), so I was able to stroll the streets and race rickshaws in my free time. (A side note regarding India's streets: NEVER DRIVE IN INDIA. Unless you are capable of transforming your image of cars and cows and motorbikes passing at breakneck speed into a simulated video game, which I was forced to do on many occasions, or if you are prone to heart trouble, THIS ADVICE IS FOR YOU!) Though I am without rickshaw-or-other-vehicle-related injury, I managed to leave with my own slew of issues, which I will expound for you below, as we are all family here, and families share important news such as this, for health and ego purposes:

After returning from yoga, while writing the above essay for Zen class, as it happens, I noticed a strange glare flaring up around each letter on the screen and surmised that something must be terribly wrong, so I initiated a series of tests to arrive at a very basic conclusion: my eyes suck. In the history of my life, my eyes have been equals, living in perfect marital bliss. Now, my right eye is beginning to deteriorate, and without the support of the left. They are forced to complement the other for the time being, but my sight is stronger with the left only, so I have been considering an eyeball replacement, or perhaps an eye patch, though the doctors warned me not to wear an eye patch near the captain as he will mistake me for a pirate and destroy me, as he has been taught to do.

So we have my degenerating right eye, and to add to that—also plaguing the right side by sheer coincidence—we have my right leg (and right arm, on occasion), with a constant throbbing pain akin to that of a growing child's joints. What can be done about this? I will refrain from seeking too much pity from you all, my family, as that can only go so far.

Beyond these harmless ailments—which may result in blindness, paralysis, amputation, or even death—I am fine. Don't cry for me yet. I have no complaints about India besides the brevity of our stay there, and I hope to return at some point in the future, as I have never felt fuller than I have there, just sitting and breathing in the air. I can't compare it to any other countries—as I did with Salvador, Namibia, Africa, etc.—so I apologize if I didn't provide a clear visual for you all, but you must go there and see for yourself. I demand it. And hopefully you will love it, as the minority did. (But please keep in mind that the pool consists of highly sheltered and privileged white children—not to say I am not privileged, because I know very well that I am—but if you saw these kids—oh man!—you would really understand, these are one-spot-of-dirt shower people, touched-by-a-stranger shower people, let's-butcher-the-language! people, let's-buy-saris-and-wear-them-so-our-bellies-show! girls, let's-get-so-drunk-we-fall-out-of-our-rickshaw! boys, and so on).

And now, I am in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in a ritzy hotel, searching for internet before going out on the town. Please don't judge me.

P.S. Please say hello! (in the form of a kind, flattering comment on this blog. I will use it for recommendations later). Love everyone! Stay tuned for news from Malaysia.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Rainbow Nation?

First and foremost, I apologize to my dear reader(s) for keeping you in the dark for so long. South Africa sunk its teeth into me and maintained its fierce grip from sunup to sundown, and sometimes late into the night, if that's what the monster wanted. It dragged me into cars, along streets, into bars, up mountains. It shook me until the change fell from my pockets and rolled down the street into the hands of begging children and their hungry parents, or just disappeared under tall white towers of accented South African men, their dainty seafood forks waving through the air as they shooed the blacks away. When the monster turned left, I saw poverty; to the right, immense wealth. There were countless shacks (literally countless, they have never been counted because it would be an impossible task) composed of collected dumpster material scraps only five miles from the majestic wharf serving hundred dollar plates of seafood and curry to men in suits and ties.

In the middle is Long Street, a fairly even blend of both sides; here, we have some respectable stores, busy restaurants and loud bars where blacks and whites live in harmony-or coexist, rather-as blacks serve and whites buy. Apartheid having ended only a little over a decade ago, I suppose it's positive to see everyone sharing the same space, if nothing more. America is still struggling and we've had over half a decade to acclimate to desegregation laws.

Despite the partition of South Africa into black and white areas, the nation as a whole is so rich and colorful, so energetic, and really, really beautiful. From the second I stepped off the ship, I was bound by its scenery, seized by some aesthetic force to go! explore! make it yours! And so I did just that, running down the ship's stairs to embrace the city, say hello to the ever-napping trio of seals docked on the pier, and make the city mine (by buying things, of course. How else?)

But that was not before a very long South African authors reading on the ship which included two women-one white, one colored-and one black man who managed-by some great stroke of luck, I would guess-to get his work published. One woman knew how to use words, I'll admit, but I can hardly say anything in defense of the other two. Their "author" status was thanks to nothing more than fortune, being one in a million people walking along as a good story was dropped from the sky like bird shit. I give them props for trying, especially in a place where reading isn't the most popular pastime (nor is it in America), but I just couldn't get past the Dick & Jane narratives when the stories had such great potential.

As it turns out, novel writing is not the most revered profession in South Africa, and the population of readers is dismally low, so competition is scant and most who try succeed. Remind me to move here before I resort to intra-family loans, bank loans, theft, unemployment benefits, or welfare.

Back to Cape Town.

Yes, Cape Town. Nothing the ship staff said could have prepared me for this place-mostly because the staff's pre-port comments are dependably ignorant and bigoted, harsh and unwarranted. Not to worry, a lot of the teachers are great and knowledgeable and the like, but the few responsible for filling our heads with fear before every port need to check themselves. On the other hand, perhaps I am lucky to have a staff so willing to sacrifice its own prestige, offending students, other faculty, and visitors from future ports, just so that we may dismiss them and their comments as we create our own. Thank you, faculty.

First debunked anti-Cape Town remark: Cab drivers

Keep in mind, this is following Namibia where I grew quite skeptical of cab drivers and was willing to believe everything Semester at Sea had to say against taxis for the remainder. But as they were wrong about Namibia-low crime level, certainly not a place you have to worry about being ripped off or driven around by a drunk cabbie, no sir-they were just as wrong about Cape Town. Unlike Namibia and Salvador, our dear Cape Town cabbies were willing to talk about anything and everything, from love to politics, which made for some really delightful road tours. One divulged his romantic love of Oprah Winfrey and explained how he would, someday, go to Chicago and profess his love; another openly discussed the recent presidential swap in South Africa and continued to comment on America's upcoming election, about which he had some very strong opinions, and surprisingly extensive knowledge; others convinced me of South Africans' immense strength through apartheid and the following years of desperation and death. Had I followed Semester at Sea's advice and avoided cabs, I would have missed out on all of this intimacy and left with a very flat image of the city.

Second debunked anti-Cape Town remark: Theft

The pre-port talk had me anticipating Salvador, Revisited (+zombies, bazookas and bombs), but what I saw was more on the level of Pleasantville (+color), Canada (+the Jeffersons), or Cheers bar (where everyone knows your name, and actually wants to see you).

Theft is everywhere, including my own quiet town of Monterey, (I will give them that), but in comparison to Salvador (where children walked the streets with switch blades waiting for you to say something wrong, men stared at you while they peed in the street, and vendors chased you down to sell you something then refused to give you enough change) and Namibia (where taxi drivers charged 100 ND to drive you to the wrong place and 100 more to make the correction, dark men followed you from store to store to see how much money you had, and everyone warned you against everyone else until you couldn't trust anybody), Cape Town was a relaxing little beach stroll, an umbrella, a coconut and a straw. I never once felt threatened, nor did I hear of any crimes committed against Semester at Sea students (unlike in Salvador and Namibia). What I saw were a bunch of happy, smiling South Africans wanting to talk and exchange stories, to drink and to dance, and to be safe and clean just as we wish to be safe and clean.

And Schoppa, really? Theft on Table Mountain? You've got to be kidding.

Third debunked anti-Cape Town remark: Violence

This has already been touched upon in relation to theft, and again, as theft, Semester at Sea explained how being in public, especially late at night, equals violence, death, and all other potentially horrible things. Sure, Cape Town children asked for change, but begging was never followed by a blade to your throat. Denied children would kindly walk away or accept a hug and a picture in lieu of a coin. Hungry adult roamers were equally polite, and some even went out of their way to help us when we wouldn't help them. The only complaint I heard from students had nothing to do with theft or violence or other discomforts, but that we all wished we could have stayed longer, as a week wasn't nearly enough to swallow such a rich city.

I have been paying far too much attention thus far focusing on the negative aspects of this visit (ship logistics) so I'll tell you all a little bit more about what I actually did, without wasting too much more of your precious time.

After watching the authors read, I headed to a 400+ store mall with Kristin and Eilis where I stopped in maybe 200 and bought one measly sweater. The mall was really no different than any I could find in America, so I don't think I'll waste my time with shopping malls any longer. Afterwards, I went to a Thai restaurant, and while it may be true that those, too, may be found in America, I don't care. I have gone far too long without Thai food, and as long as we're not stopping in Thailand, I have every right to seek it out in every country I visit. In any case, it was delicious and I would have gone back there every night had it not been for my conscious telling me I should try more authentic cuisine. And because no one else would go with me.

The second through fourth days were spent in Kwazulu Natal Game Reserve two hours outside of Durban, which is on the opposite side of South Africa and a two hour plane ride from Cape Town International Airport. I am pleased to say that British Airways treated us well, not to say the food was great, but at least there was food, which is essential, (especially on airplanes) and there were complimentary beverages, and even free wine on the return flight, which was nice after three exhausting days with Kobus (pronounced Quibbis), our deranged safari guide. From the airport, Kristin and I were immediately acquainted with our dear guide who introduced himself as "your worst nightmare," which everyone found quite endearing coming from a rather small and stout blonde fellow. He reminded me of Nigel from the Wild Thornberries (a reference for you mid-90s Nickelodeon devotees) given his rough Aussie-type accent and extensive knowledge of the wild, and also his meek demeanor, how his elfin face fluttered about as he joked and pointed out rhinos and buffalo on the side of the road. In stature, he reminded me very much of Ben Stiller in Heavyweights, but less serious. He made threats in slapstick manner but followed through only slightly and very clumsily, and his arrogance was similarly exhibited even though he was small in size, like Stiller.

I can easily say that if it weren't for this particular guide, I would be very upset with my safari. We didn't see much (of the big 5-rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo-we saw only two while other groups saw four or all), we froze (having slept in tents with thin sleeping bags, no lights and little protection from prowlers while others stayed in four star hotels with golf courses, multiple pools and high speed internet) and we endured a horribly cramped two hour bus ride between the airport and the reserve (while others were delivered swiftly to their hotels in sleek limousines-not really). But, while others may have pictures of lions licking each other, buffalo eating impala and the like, we had the most startling experiences that will remain dung fresh in our minds for years to come-hyenas stalking our tents, impala and nyala droppings shooting over the campfire, traditional (AND delicious) meals prepared by Mama Cook herself. And the final evening, after two days of parenting a rotting egg, we sat around a campfire and were victims in a brutal social experiment in which everyone ultimately threw their eggs at others to save themselves, and no one got out clean. I still don't know exactly what Kobus was getting at with that-though he touched on something about the circle of life and how life is scarily dispensable and quick and not every game has to have a point as long as you actually remember the life you engage in-but I surely won't forget those three days as easily as those with their three hundred pictures of impala in their iPhoto libraries will forget theirs.

Upon return, we sought out civilization and found it in the form of an Irish pub where a Bon Jovi look-and-sound-alike solo guitarist-singer played early 90s hits. I think the music summoned all of the Semester at Sea students scattered along Long Street, all dancing their ways inside as they distracted themselves with cheap beer and high fives. Being lost in this group is fun, at times, but gets tiresome very quickly.

The following day, Kristin and I branched off and followed a long strip of highway to the Khayelitsha Township, a muddled collection of temporary houses-box-shaped scrap metal mosaics housing three to seven family members-each one anonymous and lost in a morass of colors and shapes that extended miles in every direction. As our awkwardly clean and large bus pulled in, the men stooped on the curb waiting for any work they could get lifted their heads, children ran after us waving and screaming hello! hello visitors! and their parents let them run without calling after them.

Stepping off the bus, we were greeted by these children begging to be hugged and held by Americans, as Americans equal gifts, which some asked for almost immediately. They received crayons and coloring books, paper airplanes and rubber balloons, and seeing how happy these kids were to have just one balloon to run around with, I thought of kids back home who would ask, where's the helium? I then considered those commercials we see back home from some Christian foundation asking for five cents a day, that's all these kids need. I felt guilty for ignoring those gaunt girls in braids and the bald man who had the compassion to hold them and ask for money. But there were so many of them, so many that you'd have to choose favorites, and then what about the rest? Our tour guide warned us about giving out money, because if you give to one, they'll all come swarming after you asking for more; I saw that happen with Smarties, and it was brutal. I'd hate to see what kind of savagery would surface when the coins come out.

I am most afraid that the image of those kids and their energy will dissipate as the boat sails farther away. The girl who was so slight she felt like a papier mâché doll; the little boy covered in scabs who loved to be lifted over the preschool fence so his feet dangled over the other side; the boy who just wanted to be held, and cradled, and loved; I hope they never leave me. And even though I can't help them all, I hope they still see me, or Americans, as good people.

Not sure how to follow that experience, I went shopping. I know, I'm horrible. In my favor, it had already been planned, and I limited my purchases to one hand-painted t-shirt of a giraffe which, in turn, supported the community, I think. In any case, it is a wonderful t-shirt, you would love it.

Enough of these minute by minute accounts.

That night was fun, we went out and successfully avoided the overwhelming American crowd by ducking into a place called Zula where the music was still American, but the people weren't. We even ran across the closest human construction of Papa Smurf, a pale and delicate figure with glorious white hair, thick and sprouting from all the right places in his head to complete the guise. Oddly enough, he sported a Rutgers sweatshirt, which gave Eilis hope that he was a New Yorker as she is, but he was not. New Yorker or not, he was a delightful fellow and a wonderful entertainer, and we will miss him, Papa Smurf, wherever you are.

Thursday was reserved for sky diving, but as people hold suspicions against the truly wonderful coming to fruition in one's own life, so was the case here. We were transported the whole hour and some minutes to the jumping station, teased as we watched the trained jumpers re-load their backpacks with colorful parachutes, then told in a haughty manner by the man in charge that today was simply not our day, thanks to the wind, and we would have to go home. This put many of us in low spirits for the remainder of the day as we all went out separate ways-to Long Street, to bed, to drink. We reconvened at 5pm to watch Desmund Tutu-who I would have guessed was quite drunk, had I not known his status-speak on the ship. No one is quite sure what he was aiming at in his talk, but we all agreed he was a very delightful fellow, as we had deduced by this point that all South African men were.

That night (our last night) five of us-Drew, Kristin, Kelsey, Chris and I-wasted an hour or so at a hookah bar while everyone else hit the town hard. All we hit that night was the floor, because we were laughing uncontrollably, because Drew was dancing with the belly dancer, trying to imitate her. I wish you could have seen it.

Friday morning (our last morning) was Table Mountain morning, but only for two of us. Chris and I started climbing at 10am, without water-because we are novice climbers, and exercisers for that matter-but we made it in a speedy hour and fifteen minutes, everything burning and begging for refreshment. It was enlivening to feel that tired and cold and uncomfortable after being catered to at all times of the day, and Powerade had never tasted so good.

But as all things, even the best experiences have their negative angles, and mine was missing Dave Chappelle who was at the mountain's top at the same time but just managed to escape my vision. Another Semester at Sea student had the honor of making this known to me through a photo of himself with the comedian on his personal camera. The nerve.

And now we skip to today, our third day back at sea. Day One was a rough turn for everyone, either puking or subjected to hearing it throughout the night as the ship pushed its way over the converging Atlantic and Indian oceans. Dresser drawers flew open and shut, tvs spun, glasses and picture frames slipped and crashed to the floor and nobody slept. And those few who did sleep, well, they never woke up. They took that doggone Dramamine, and oh, is it strong. I took the "less drowsy" formula and am just now feeling like I can open my eyes.

I hope to not need it again until we leave India, as I need to be alert for my three day yoga and meditation retreat. Nine days!

Pray for no dysentery.