Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Year After-Word

Hello, and congratu-lations for reaching the end of my blog. This is the Mitzi of anniver-saries pas-sed: My first day on the ship, first port, first caterpillar, first moment of enlightenment, and the second.


As it's now obvious that my efforts to halt time have failed, the time to write the conclusion has come. It's hard for me to write, as it denotes the end of the action; regarding this blog as "finished" would detach every incident, event and exploit from myself as they join other departed memories that only grow staler over time. This process allows the deaths incurred to die, the love to cease swelling, the excitement to be snuffed out.


With 2009, a tumultuous year of honors theses, graduation, moving back home, it has also been impossible to find time until now, when I am living out each hour of every day, very quietly, until my next adventure.


Now people are asking about my future. I know it's my duty as a college graduate to repay my patron (grand)parents—get a job and live independently of the family I'll visit often anyway, because I love them.


But the truth is that, after Semester at Sea, after four months of being shocked and inspired by the world, I can't help but feel like I'd be cheating myself if I settled for anything less. Maybe I'm spoiled. People have said that. But knowing how large the world is, how diverse, and now, how accessible it can be, I can't settle for less. Not unless my parents kick me out before my next adventure, to start in July of 2010, in Japan.


Beyond career paths, SAS influences me every day; as soon as I decided to live again, alas, on land, my memories started integrating themselves into my present. A feather-adorned vagabond I've seen in Salinas reminds me of Papa Smurf in Cape Town; dirty drunks recall that Salvadorian beer swiper. Why was it so easy to sympathize in countries I'd never been to, when I never even considered my own country? Now, I try to be mindful of their cir-cumstances, and I keep food in my car for the next guy who needs it.


The strongest effect SAS has had on me, I'm a little embarrassed to say, is in the emotions. Compassion hands my lunch to the homeless. Gratitude is what calms me down in long lines. Love insists patience with friends and family. I've even cried watching Oprah.


And for the first time, I really miss my friends. I thought that comparing American tastes with them in Hawaii was exciting, but having memories from eleven countries to share is unsurpassable.


In short, I hope you read this blog. Skimming the first time through is okay, but I hope you actually read it sometime, to learn about me, my experiences, to see that your money was put to good use. Even if you learn nothing, I expect it will provide you with enough material for a good conversation—with me, with my cousins, with an attractive stranger at the carwash who's just returned from Africa—as every good coffee table blog should.

The Coda at the Dock of Miami

Breakfast has never tasted so bad. The eggs are under-cooked, the fruit is bitter and the cereal is too quick to dissolve.


I may be projecting a bit.


As we near land, I resent that everyone is on their cell phones. It's our last day together, people! Aren't you devastated like I am?! I go outside to catch my last view of sweeping ocean before the screams of parents at the port sullies the pristine-ness of it. Bobby, Barb and Nicole are to meet us there, in that horde of people, but I can't manage to find them even after everyone else around me has located their families. It's been so long away from home that I've forgottten what my own family is like—Fridricks? Late, of course.


But we won't be off the ship for another few hours, so all the better for them. We disembark by floors, and ours is about the last to get off. So we wait around in headquarters for our turn, and our friends turns; a few friends come by the room for goodbye hugs. When Eilis' group is called, Kristin and I head up to the gangway on the fifth floor. We can hear the cries and sobs of people before we even reach them. When I hug Eilis goodbye, we both start to cry, but I won't show Kristin, because she'll call me weak. But whatever, I'm sad and I'm crying, and everyone else is crying, so Kristin is the odd man out here.


A sidenote to that: I used to attribute people's lack of emotion to toughness. I have never questioned someone for not crying. But the thought that people can go through this horrible goodbye without getting sad, well, that's something to question. And in Kristin's case, I wonder if I may have ruined her emotionally, after Nicole, Yoshi and I terrorized her so successfully as a wee one. Come to think of it, Drew isn't crying either.


Finally, our turn comes. As I leave, my ship ID is confiscated and I look over my shoulder as if to say, "Goodbye forever."Then a very dramatic exit, slowly trudging down the stairs, feeling as if the sky is pressing against my head.


Little do we know then, but when we get outside, everyone is still there, hanging around the grass lot outside. Eilis has located Bobby, Barb and Nicole, and a few other friends are able to meet the fam before they disperse for their own flights home. Hundreds of hugs later, Drew and Bobby separate to drive back to Ohio, and the rest of us—Barb, Nicole, Kristin, me, and even Eilis—load into the van and drive around until we have to drop Eilis off at the Miami Airport to fly back to New York.


We continue on to Bayside Marketplace for lunch/dinner. In honor of Chris, we eat at Chili's. It's a decent enough American meal, but doesn't come close to sating me after those months of deprivation.


The rest of Florida involves a lot of eating and family loving; picture and story sharing, too.


But a short day later, it's home for me. I am thankful that there is little to say about this travel day, as all flights are on time, no luggage is lost, and nothing positive to the point of mentioning occurs either.


Though I would like to stay close to that ship forever, it departs Miami with the dawn of the day following our disembarkation. So now that my schemes for sneaking back on to sail along into eternity are foiled, and I absolutely cannot return to my home on the ship, I would like very much to return to my first home, with my parents, so that I may start sharing my stories.

The End of the World: Final Ship Days

Until we're back on the ship—and the voyage continues!


This entry will be dedicated to the final days of Semester at Sea; therefore, the accounts may be conveyed with height-ened emotions and contain additionally saccharine sentiments. If you are with-out heart, you may find the next few pages difficult to read. If you are a/my grandparent, parent, or other close rela-tive, please read on. Maybe you will be moved by the heart I've found in myself.


Pulling away from Costa Rica is not a happy time for any of us. Once the land is out of view, the ship becomes a sort of vacuum; everyone is sucked inside, shuffling around like dust particles riding an air stream. All anyone can say is, "It's over."


Port excursions are over. With them, pre-ports—cultural and logistic. Making reservations—plane and hotel—and plans for what we'll do in port. Finals are over. In turn, classes, lectures, paper-writing, due dates. Anticipation has been replaced by anxiety. Nobody wants it to end. We will live the next few days in dread of that moment we are called off the ship.


That must be why the shipspeople arrange the much awaited Ambassadors Ball for this time, to give us something to enliven us in this otherwise pale week. And with too much time on our hands—what with no classes or tests or anything—there is little to do but plan outfits and dream about what we might be fed that night. Because without that dream, it's brooding for all of us. Some people try running in the opposite direction of that thought, inviting everyone in their hall to exchange stories and pictures, but it all comes back to brooding. Ultimately, even those distracted by their dresses or their suits have to lay their heads down at night. It simply can't be avoided.


Luckily, Kelsey and I, who have been designated as the ship's artists, somehow, are given the task of providing some decorative banner-length dragon, which keeps us engaged for a long while. Sitting on the hard floor in the only hidden but accessible space on the ship leaves us with enough bruises to draw our minds away from being sad. We listen to peppy music and scribble away with markers, outlining, cutting. After a very long day, we put the dragon to sleep with the promise of returning to it the next day.


December tenth, the buzz around the ship is Ambassadors Ball. While there isn't much to discuss beyond which dish we'll have or what our dresses look like, everyone finds a way to keep talking about it. Kelsey and I get back to scribbling the dragon; hours later, perhaps two hours before our five thirty dinner serving, we get the dragon set up outside of the Aquamarine dining hall and retire to our rooms to lie down for a couple minutes before getting going again.


Come five thirty and half of the ship is lined up outside of the Aquamarine Dining Hall, decked out in their six inch pumps and custom-tailored suits from Vietnam. It's funny that we're eating here; there are two dining halls, and my friends always eat at this one, the Aquamarine. The upstairs dining hall seems to be the more popular dining hall, though, so for all of those people, this switch preserves the magic. For us, it's like our everyday dinner in an alternate universe with Chinese lanterns where people dress up and the dishwashers serve us food that actually tastes good.


So you have a better idea of what goes on for this Ambassadors Ball, our dinner ticket:


Front:

The Ambassadors Present


A Forbidden Night


The tenth of December of the year two thousand and eight

First Dinner Serving at Five Thirty & Second Dinner Serving at Eight

In the Aquamarine Dining Hall

Desserts and Dancing to Follow


Back:

Menu

Vegetable Spring Rolls, Dumplings, and other Asian Dim Sum

Hot and Sour Soup

Mandarin Salad


Entrees

Filet Mignon with Pomme Frites and Asparagus

Poached Salmon with Hollandaise Sauce, Saffron Rice, and Asparagus

Tofu Stir-Fry and Brown Rice


Dessert Buffet


Amazing what italics can do, huh? Anyway. The men of our table (Chris, Scott) eat the filet, the women (Kristin, Kelsey, Eilis, Amanda, Jen and I) choose tofu. We eat it down with the one glass of champagne we are allowed. After dinner, we hang out in headquarters, which is the abode du Kristin and Mitzi. I have never been a resident of "the house to be at," so it feels good. Chris helped rally for our title and everyone else followed suit; it may be thanks to our laziness, as no one would ever see Kristin lest they come to our room. In any case, I am cool here and I am very sad to go home because my status here is already so favorable and well-articulated. Shame.


When the dessert buffet is set up, we race to deck six for finger-brownies, cupcakes, cakes, cookies and strudels. While the sugar is still racing in our blood, we go to the main lecture hall, now having proven itself a very adaptive space, and with the chairs contained to every wall, we dance.


I would continue to update you on the rest of the evening's happenings, but I will save you the repetition. So in one sentence: We dance until we sleep.


The next day, December Eleventh. Nobody has anything to do. We are still resisting from packing our bags to go home, because it's still safe to deny that it needs to be done. There is enough time tomorrow and the following day to do that. Today is paranormal, Bermuda Triangle. We've been through the Triangle already, from Florida to the Bahamas and on past Puerto Rico; we're not actually there now, but it's a peculiar feeling here on this ship. We're not coming or going. Time doesn't pass today.


We sit around. We drink coffee. We play board games. We watch movies. We eat the most average meal we can at every meal to retain the mediocrity of this day. This day isn't special.


The evening. We attend the final pre-port for Miami, the apotheosis of pre-ports. Students replace the usual presenters and are given the creative freedom to impersonate and mock them for our entertainment. The ship's doctor and his assistants, who developed a routine of incorporating their warnings of severe illnesses and dangers into humorous songs, perform their final opus. Nobody leaves the room without having had a good laugh.


At the end of this emotionally barren day, everyone finds himself on the open deck, number seven, by the bar and around the pool. There are more people gathered here than there have ever been—save for the Sea Olympics, which was mostly mandatory—and none of this was planned. After all of this sailing, we're finally on the same wavelength. We all have a glass of wine or two and take pictures with the people we never got close to, but wish we had. But no one mentions leaving. We're all drawn into hugs, but won't admit why it's any more comforting today than any other.


December Twelfth. Two days away. Some people are starting to get sad to the point of crying, the end of which we'll never get to see. While last night was for living out the ends of our lighter relationships, from this point on, we spend every moment with the people we'll miss the most.


Today, Chris, Kristin and I find ourselves sitting together admist morning fog on the seventh deck. We joke about the most menial things, what certain words mean, the state capitals. We quiz each other on our knowledge of other countries; while Kristin and I can't remember the currency of Malaysia, we remember the lights of Kuala Lumpur at night and the hot smell of China Town that crowded itself between the throngs of people walking every direction. Chris and I have forgotten how much it cost to take the cable car down Table Mountain, but we can still feel how burned and unusable our freezing hands felt as they sruggled to peel oranges at the top. We make fun of each other and laugh at Chris as he tells us how much he misses Chili's, the mediocre American restaurant, and plans to go there as soon as he gets home. Then he goes into how much he'll miss us and promises that he'll visit; Kristin and I play cool and unaffected, adding only to the list of foods we miss, (mostly: burritos, good cereal, pizza and cheeseburgers). Of course, I know that I'm not, that I am internally very glum. I'm not sure about Kristin, but I like to think that she, too, is feeling doleful deep down.


For the rest of the day, we are inseparable. Chris, Drew, Scott, Eilis, Kristin and I sit around headquarters talking and telling each other how much we love one another. Even Scott who wears a thick coat of "I don't love anything" admits he'll miss us and steals a few candid pictures of us to take home. We eat together. We stroll the ship capturing mental images.


From our beds that night, Kristin and I share our worries with each other, unable to fully articulate any of them. We repeat those more important musings, each time trying to find a clearer explanation. More or less, we are able to express our gratitude for being here, for having each other, and for being sent together. And isn't it cool that our parents did this, too?


We fret about returning home, if we can readjust to a consistent and stationary life after this great adventure. What will we tell people when they ask about it? Will we forget about what we've done here? Can you believe that people lived in this room before us, and that more will move in when we're gone? Doesn't that make you feel cheap? Kind of, but we can't live here forever. What? Share my experience? But it's mine. Oh yeah, I forgot about Devin. Sure. He'll be a better person for it. So will the rest of the world.


December Thirteenth. Tomorrow, we will be stranded in America. We wake up in the Panama Canal and spend the next few hours slowly wedging our way through. We split our time between watching some men control the height of the water as they sift it between a number of containers, and being inside, in our rooms. Every minute spent in the room is devoted to packing our lives quickly and messily back into our suitcases to be brought to a loading room by dinner time.


The last supper. Being what it is, we expect the food to be especially well prepared, but what we are given is perhaps just as good. The norm: cream of something, vegetable medley curries, pale fish. It's comforting, it reinforces our being here.


After dinner, everyone crowds into the main lecture hall for a goodbye assembly where Brittany App, the ship's photo-grapher, will showcase her voyage slideshow, and Garrett Russell, the AV-guy, will reveal a few clips of the video yearbook he has been working on all semester. There's a nice shot of me on the unicycle in Brazil, then a few words about how I enjoyed the circus, which is embarrassing to watch in front of everyone. The people who have already cried cry through a large portion of the show, and many others cry for the first time. Kristin remains blank-faced, unfeeling; so does Scott. Chris, with his laptop, distracts himself. I eat M&Ms, rictus spread. The night is coming to an end, and with it, everything, everything.


As I try to sleep that night, everything falls on top of my head.


Regrets: I should've gone on this trip or talked more with that person. I should've branched out and not let myself be so comfortable all the time. I should've watched less Gossip Girl and read more of what was required of me to read. I should have written more about my reactions to things instead of keeping a log of activities.


Dreams: How will I save the world? How will I make money to donate to kids without crayons in Africa, amputees in Cambodia? Will I remain involved?


Memories: Will I ever feel as accomplished as I did at the top of Table Mountain? As scared as I did trying to sleep in the tent with hyenas stalking the camp? Will I ever meet the compassion I saw in the yoga instructor's eyes when she opened them to me? The desperation of limbless men selling sodas in the street? Will I ever feel as liberated as I do watching the sky and sea unreeling for miles off the back of the ship?


Woes: How will I retain all of this? How will I keep in touch? Will I hold on to my newfound sympathy for the world? Will I forget about the plight of people countries away? How will I get myself on another ship, and quick? How will I sleep without the ocean waves to cradle me?

Paradise at the End of the World: Costa Rica

Advisory: This entry is going to be short. In addition to this stop being shorter than most—only three days in comparison to the more common week—things are slowing down. School is over and we have reached the final port. With no more field trips to attend, papers to write…now that we may do nothing and suffer no consequences…I have one word for you: inertia.


We have reached the final frontier. Last call, Costa Rica. I arrive to this country with a dithering heart, at once, excited, but forlorn, also. At least Costa Rica is a good choice of final port; it is a place for the young and adventurous, but also provides nice coastal views and breezes for those who prefer to lounge outside. Not that any of us have the energy left to be too adventurous—or at least I don’t—but it’s still nice to know I have options. Also, Costa Rica is just foreign enough, with alien sights and people, while still being accommodating, as everyone speaks English. More or less, it invites laziness. And the scenery is lush and un-American enough so that we will arrive in Florida feeling as if we’re just returning from a vacation. Which, now that I think about it, is about right.


Because school is over, everyone is completely and totally free. To celebrate this, everyone gets as far away from the ship as possible, as quickly as possible.


Our shuttle picks us up at the port two hours after we arrive. After picking it out of a crowd of others, we get situated by putting popular American rap in the stereo and demanding it be turned up high. The driver worries me with how consensual he is of it all, the noise, the stop at the liquor store, etc. I’m sure he is accustomed to dealing with people like us, or like the people we happen to be with, and knows that the more heartily he agrees, the happier we are.


A note on that last comment, the specification of “people like us.” Our coterie, consisting of Kristin, Drew, Chris, Scott, Eilis, Jen, Emily and myself, are not enough to fill an entire beach house reservation, especially after Scott decided to extract himself from the party. So, we are now a joint unit, the other group consisting of some not-so-close friends who also needed additional members for a house. They are a crazy bunch, much rowdier than us, which is good in a way, as I have become, perhaps, too comfortable with my friends. But then again, they are crazy, which often translates to messy, and sometimes unbearable.


The house, or as we learn when we arrive, the three houses, are amazing. They are clean, roomy, tropically decorated, fully furnished, and they surround a pool that is still only steps away from the beach. It is all too much, too good. The other group—to whom I will refer from now on as the others, just to keep it simple—starts drinking without wasting any time. They drink in the pool, on the beach, in beer pong games. They are wild.


We—we being the aforementioned coterie—spend the first few hours at the house napping and swimming with the others, admiring the beach, and talking with the owner of the houses who is an altogether jolly and bountiful man. He helps us order dinner from a restaurant across the sweet—Mexican-type food like burritos and quesadillas, mostly—then delivers it to us later, while we’re still in the pool. What a nice vacation.

Later that night, we have our driver—yes! We have a driver!—take us into town to explore. We go to a couple of bars on the main street but stick with a place called Le Loft that has somehow heard of our arrival and is offering specials to SAS students. Ergo, bar is packed with SAS students. It’s upsetting in one way, like I mentioned earlier, but I also think that, because it's the last port, I should let myself enjoy it. It is impossible to avoid, and it is fun.


After a treacherous ride back to the houses down a dark, dark winding road, we are safe and gathered around the pool. Somehow, a couple of stray SAS kids end up here, having gotten a bit too confident with all the alcohol and senses of desperate finality. It is a bizarre night; the sky is the darkest a sky can be, and the various light sources are scattered to look like lightning bugs hiding in the grass. The light inside the central house is on, illuminating the backsides of everyone, and the energy levels of everyone here are as contrasting as drunk and sober. The randoms who found their ways here have ostracized themselves on one corner of the pool, considering their options. My mind blanks as I watch an orange ping pong ball’s journey from one hand to the table to a red cup. When I check on the randoms, they are gone.


At that point, we all decide to sleep. The others stay up for a bit longer to lick up the last drops of beer.


The next morning, we, and the others, clean. After cleaning, we walk across the street to the restaurant and eat plates of tropical fruit. When we return, we clean as we pass by the central house to the beach where I share a kayak with Eilis. Once we reach the opposite bank, we turn back and retire in our lawn chairs to read, or pretend to read, as we close our eyes.


Well rested, we take the van into town for lunch and for gift buying. Few gifts are to be found, but I do find a flattering pair of red heels to wear to the Ambassador’s Ball (a few days from now) with my black dress from Vietnam. What a well-traveled girl, am I. Drew and Emily split after lunch to rent motorbikes so that they may travel the Costa Rican coast; the rest of us return to the house for naps and various things.


That night consists of the same activities as the prior evening, though to a lesser extent. We rack up a hefty bill at a sushi restaurant, for which Kristin is somehow stuck paying, then we return to Le Loft, much reduced from the night before. It is empty save for a couple of kids (clearly SAS, though I've never seen them before) who clearly don’t know where else to go, so we leave for a place across the street which turns out to be tonight’s hot spot. The music is American hits from the 80s and 90s, and the drinks are cheap, so everyone is happy to stay until the night is over. Kristin and I are exhausted; in between external conversations, we discuss our respective fatigue and slap each other’s faces to stay awake.


The next day—also the final port day, which I would rather not think about—is the day we have all been looking forward to: The Canopy Zipline Adventure! We swing between trees one by one, gloves accumulating heat as they slide down the wire, harnesses sliding farther and farther up as we use them for support. It’s easy to see the whole adventure as a symbol of our entire voyage, if it isn’t too cheesy to say.


The first run is fast and shaky, and a little scary; the narrow vista is bright on all sides as we glide by. The next hones our recently acquired skills; we can go a bit faster and know how to break before flying off the other end. Those following are less distinct; we know the ropes, but there are still standouts. The second to last slide provides a surprise: a view of the ocean we have forgotten is so close and so vast. And the last ride is bittersweet; it feels a bit too long at first, but too short after it's over. And when I look up at the whole course from the bottom of it all, only the trees between each zip line are visible. The countries still stand as they are, but the voyage lives on only in memory.


I’m making myself uncomfortable now, so I’m going to move on.


But sadly, moving on is impossible, because this is the end…

Ohana in Oahu: Hawaii

Of all the places to follow Japan, Hawaii could not have come at a more perfect time. Now that I’m really starting to miss Japan, this tropical, Japan-infused America feeds me from both ends. Japanese and American, that is. What are you thinking?


In the week between Japan and Hawaii, everyone has been focused on making very specific schedules for Hawaii, as we will only have ten hours. Finals are happening now, too, so of course, our priority is there, but on top of that, this Hawaii thing has a lot of us tied.


It seems that everyone’s schedule somehow traveled from one mouth to another, because within an hour of docking, everyone I know is at Wal-Mart. Our objective was made so clear, in fact, that a team of Wal-Mart shuttles is waiting at the port, busing people to and from our dear American megastore. I don’t know why I am so easily convinced to follow, considering that I refuse shopping at Wal-Mart on the mainland; I think it’s just the time away that has gotten to me, and Wal-Mart, beyond supplying us with snacks we are missing, serves now as a sort of museum of “Things I Used to Know.” We go through every aisle pointing out the things we recognize, asking, “Do you love this stuff as much as I do?” or realizing, “Oh my god, you eat this with peanut butter, too?!” None of us have been given the privilege of living in America together—which seems odd after sharing so many other countries—so everyone is curious to know what everyone else is usually like. The bonds, superficial as they may seem, substantiate some of our friendships; we happened to like the same strange curry dish in India, but now, you eat Cheerios for breakfast, too! Now I understand why we're friends.


Chris, Kristin, Kelsey and I go to Waikiki Beach, and again, everyone else is sticking to the schedule, too. The beach is swarming with us, many of us on cell phones calling home to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving. We swim, mostly, and I am amazed to find that the Pacific is actually warm in some places. Monterey’s stretch of Pacific is about fifty degrees on a good day. Tired of swimming, we lie on the beach with our eyes closed, blindly reaching our hands into the Cheez-It bag every few minutes.


Eilis and Jen find us and urge us to walk around a bit, so we wander through over-priced tourist shop after over-priced tourist shop until dinnertime. Because it is Thanksgiving, we seek out the heartiest and most delicious food we can find. By the port, in a complex of shops and restaurants, is a sushi buffet that allows us to fill large Styrofoam take-out boxes with fresh fish and other Japanese delicacies. We eat too much food in true Thanksgiving style. When it comes time to re-board the ship, we give the leftovers to some crew people at the bottom of the gangway, and they are thankful for it.

Big in Japan

Japan is probably the hardest country to write about. It’s difficult to revisit without past impressions leaking into the present, impossible to separate it out. I have to articulate how things have changed rather than how things are. And Japan, it being “my country,” is especially difficult. I’ve been here a handful of times. My father is from here. My parents lived here for a very short span in my own lifetime. Of one member of a trio on the ship, it’s easy to point me out as the one who looks different, Asian. It’s easy to mistakenly associate me with Japan, especially for an outsider.


But Japan still holds so much novelty for me; I don’t understand the language, the culture and all of its invisible intricacies, the roads, the routes, though I manage to put on an impressive show for those completely foreign to it. And though my friends, American as they are, sense a tinge of orient sun in my skin, I naturally feel more white than Asian, and the Japanese would agree with my judgment. Long story short, Japan is a strange place for me to be, like the abducting beams from competing alien spacecrafts are both working to spirit me away, all the while dangling sweet fruits and confectioneries from the top of each portal so that I feel equally enticed to enter both. Or something like that.


As another introduction to this segment, and an additional representation of my “identity crisis,” I will relate to you a story, a true story, of something that happened to me on the ship to precede our arrival in Japan.


This story concerns the dean of Semester at Sea, named Leonard Schoppa, and his wife-accomplice whose name has escaped me for the better. Dining with them, seated around a round table, are a few spectators. Then there is me, standing where a waitress would stand were she serving them. Relevant back-story: In preparation for arrival in each country, Semester at Sea calls the students together in the main lecture hall for an hour-or-so long briefing on foreign customs and attractions and currency-exchange and so-on. A student or two from the ship joins two students from the next destination to relate their own experiences and provide advice, etc., and Leonard Schoppa, a curly-headed brunette whose body matches the thickness, length and width of a pillar, was the man in charge of rallying students for this service. And being the charitable person that I am, I approach this Japanophile Leonard Schoppa to inquire about being involved in the “pre-port,” as they’re called, for Japan. The following is the conversation that ensued:


CHARITABLE STUDENT: I’m sorry to bother you, but I was hoping you could tell me how I could get involved with the cultural pre-port for Japan.

LEONARD: (Points one finger into the air and lifts another up to his mouth to show it is too full for speech. Eyes cross as he chokes down lumps of potatoes.) You know about Japan?

STUDENT: Well, my dad is from there, and I’d say I’ve spent a good amount of time there, too.

LEONARD: (Smiles a smile that will persist throughout the dialogue.) Great, great.

STUDENT: So I was wondering if there are any topics you’d like to have covered, or if the speakers can just talk openly about whatever they find interesting?


(Student leans on nearby railing as Leonard turns away for a

time to share his smile with his meal-mates. Leonard props an

elbow on the railing and twists his torso to face the student.)


LEONARD: Well, (Ahem), Judging from your appearance, I’m guessing you’d like to talk about anime?

STUDENT: (Baffled.) Well, actually, I would say I lack even the slightest—

WIFE-ACCOMPLICE: (Delighted.) You look just like Sailor Moon!

STUDENT: Uh—

LEONARD: Does she ever!


(Student scans the faces of the Schoppas’ company and finds them

all wearing the painted smiles of a circus ring. Student grips

railing, tests her arm for the strength needed to pry it from

the ground for a weapon. Not enough. Student kindly retreats,

resolving to never associate with Japano-phillic administrator again.)


It’s true that Leonard Schoppa is not the first to relate my appearance to that of the Japanese cartoon variety, what with the very un-Japanese wide eyes and modest mouth at rest, the crescent-moon squint and mouth that stretches across the whole face when smiling, but I expect more from an academic dean of an international voyage, much less a man who lived out his boyhood in Japan. Does not his breadth of knowledge extend beyond anime? And to so openly pass such judgments—it’s just tactless. So this is the position from which I am entering Japan, a country I fit into only by caricature.


Now that I’ve set the climate for this entry, I’ll get to the good stuff. Of course, it is exciting to re-visit a place after being thrown into the vast, exotic jungles of other countries; now I can show people around, explain transportation, see my parents who are currently living in Tokyo. Japan is still my favorite place, in a sense, and there are plenty of good things to say.


As a more modern country of those we visited, the entry process in Kobe is much more involved and takes about three hours for everyone to disembark. Luckily, those on organized field trips (including myself) are let off first, so I am stuck between the gates for only half an hour or so. I track down my group (consisting of friends Kelsey and Jen, and fifteen-or-so others), led by my professor of two classes, Paul Groner, and after chasing down my mother via payphone to organize our meeting in Kyoto, we’re off.


Exiting the building, the sounds and colors surprise me. Leaving a place, (as I left Japan last December), I expect everything to be covered by a big dark cloud that preserves the dignity of the area until I can return with the power to roll back the shroud and see it again, with less color. But nothing is dulled at all, everything is bright and new, but familiar. It is a wonderful feeling, overwhelming, and I revel in the excitement until we arrive at the train station and everyone starts bombarding me with pleads for help. The ticket machines are covered with weird writing!


I enjoy making myself useful then, to share my secret-society-of-Japan knowledge and impress people as I help them along. As expected, though, everyone makes monkey bars out of the handles lining the train. And I, wanting desperately to swing, remain loyal to the secret society and its rules by staying seated. Some passengers stare at them, horrified by their poor manners, others direct their eyes forward to avoid confrontation, and the last few sleep, heads slowly bobbing with the bumps in the track.


Travel from the port to our destination (Toji Temple) in Kyoto is a bit more complicated than I had expected, requiring three transfers between monorails, bullet trains, subways and trains.


Snafus are many in the Kobe station as we all stop by a sushi stand to order lunch, everyone both unfamiliar with the choices and unable to read the menu. I make recom-mendations, as does Paul Groner (who spent a decade studying/researching Buddhism in Japan), and eventually, the food is nicely laid in bamboo boxes and wrapped in plastic bags. The next halt comes at the bullet train ticket counter as everyone struggles with one rehearsed phrase: Kyoto ni kippu hitotsu onegaishimasu. (One ticket to Kyoto, please.) Meanwhile, I worry that I sent my mother along too early, as I haven’t anticipated my journey to be so slow. So, after the bullet train to Kyoto, as everyone confusedly goes about securing their tickets to Toji, I rush ahead to meet my mama.


And what a joyous reunion! After months on the open sea, in unfamiliar lands, a hug from my mama is just the ticket. And having been at that station before, seeing that the McDonalds, curiously tall and slim, has remained in its place across the street, is a refreshing sight. Twenty minutes later, the rest of the crew finally arrives. What took them so long, I can’t understand. I proudly introduce everyone to my mother who, whiter than some of them, managed to make it here without a hitch. You go, Mom.


Down the street to Toji Temple we go. The walk is exactly as I remember it, same colors, same number of people on the sidewalks. Professor Groner takes us into a temple museum stocked with religious statues and scrolls; the most impressive of all are towering statues of Komokuten, a humanity-guarding king, surrounded by flames and backed by bright vermillion paint. A few statues of Yama, the Hell God, catch my eye, too.


The next stop is Tofuku-ji, a Zen temple. Everyone gets lost trying to find the “San-mon Gate,” until we all collide somewhere in the middle. Once we’re all herded together, Professor Groner leads us down a bridge to paradise, a small forest replete with every shade of living plant from yellow to deep red. The curve of the tree trunks leads the eye to a narrow river streaming over a polished rock bed, the end of which I can’t see from here. It is everything nature should be, serene but lively, though the temple’s name led me to be disappointed when tofu is, in fact, nowhere to be seen.


Seeing this arrangement proves to me that the Japanese know aesthetics. How else can I explain why koi are the only fish that don’t trigger my gag reflex? And for a person who isn’t particularly moved by nature, here, the intricacy of the trees, of even the simplest green things shooting out of the ground—it’s all ornate but bold and pronounced at the same time. Someday, I will build a hut here, take a vow of silence and pick berries for breakfast. Not yet, though. I’m not ready.


The temple’s closing brings us to the end of our field trip. Mom and I accompany a lovely ship sociology professor Christine Wernet, (who was also one of my roommates at Dakshina Chitra). After dining on the very traditional ramen and udon, I escort the professor back to the ship to ensure her safety while mother returns to her own Kyoto inn.


Later that night, (unbeknownst to my parents! Shhh), after running across countless fliers for this spectacular Welcome, Semester at Sea! event, the crew (Kristin, Drew, Kelsey, Chris and Scott) heads into the city of Kobe to see what it has to offer. The short monorail trip into the town is directly followed by confusion, as it turns out none of us knows how to read a map. After fifteen minutes of walking, we come across a taxi driver—the only car that has passed our way in minutes—and I do my best to explain our predicament. His speech is sloppy and accented, so I eventually give up trying with him. A group of four hip-to-it girls walk our way, and I stop them to ask "where da party at?" but they don’t understand me. All is not in vain, though, because were it not


for these girls, our map would still be upside down; our destination lies on the opposite side of Kobe station.


Defeated, we seek consolation in a neon lit convenience store. The candy and chilled beverages surrounding us do the trick, and we leave the store with renewed hope. (We may or may not have been holding and sipping malted chu-hais.)


Without much trouble, we find the bar advertised on the flier. We waltz up the stairs, proud members of the Semester at Sea group, but upon reaching the top, a bouncer explains in his very poor English that the bar is full, and we have to go away now. So I, working my dual-citizenship, beg (in Japanese) to be let in, and magically, he grants none of us entrance. Is he not impressed by my dexterous tongue? The answer: No, he is not.


Foiled once again, we collapse down the stairs and continue down the street where a slew of SAS kids are loitering American-style. A bouncer at the nearest bar is yelling at them to scatter, or the police will come and and ticket them. So they, American-like, remain in place, drinking their canned beers on the sidewalk louder than ever. Here, I find myself at another awkward juncture. Do I knock cans with my vulgar crew? Do I pass by quietly? The answer: I approach the horde, laugh and yell as I pass through the center, and ultimately pass them by.


On the other side is an attractive maybe-Japanese girl, about my age, holding a sign for a nearby bar. She stops us in her perfect English and asks us about our stations in life—what is this program? where are you from? where are you going? etc. She and I form an instant bond as we realize our mutual connection to UC Davis. She is recently graduated from there, and I am to be an alumna of the university in the next year. In the bar, we find even more to be excited about: As Japanese majors, we know the same professors; we share a number of mutual friends, including my ex-boyfriend who happened to date her best friend; and we lived on the same street, though at different times. So naturally, she buys me every drink I have that evening (at a greatly reduced price, I’m sure, as her boyfriend owns the bar). Unfortunately, she leaves early due to a prior engagement, but what she leaves me with is surely worth the untimely parting: a sense that Japan is more of a home than I had recognized, and a new Facebook friend. One can never have too many.


The following day is for a much anticipated tour of Osaka, my old stomping grounds. With myself as the guide, I bring a few friends (Kristin, Chris, Kelsey and Scott) to the central area of Shinsaibashi, the highlight of which is El Pancho Mexican Restaurant. I first discovered it when studying abroad in Kyoto; it was an hour away, but very much worth the three trips I made there. Especially now, after three months of shippy food on board, or traditional food in port (save for the best pizza of my life in Namibia) everyone is in the mood for Mexican.


The area itself provides a wonderful taste of Japan as well; the main station exit leads to a sort of tunnel lined with clothing stores, cafes, and Hello Kitty d├ęcor. As we stroll down the walk, full-bellied, we pass the often visited Shakey’s Pizza Buffet, familiar shoe stores. And at the end, the bridge that gave Shinsaibashi its name (bashi meaning bridge), the carousel over the river with a cartoon god nested on top. Then, passing the tall buildings at the end, the view that struck me so the first time I discovered it. Restaurants, each with its own mechanical mascot, greet the passersby; the crowd, twice as busy here, is amplified by the shouts of young girls and boys in the doors of their restaurants, calling us inside. The energy here is intense, and I am thrilled to find that my friends love it as much as I do.


After absorbing all of the energy we can hold, we depart for Kyoto to meet mother at Sanju-sangen-do. Among the least interesting temples I have been to, Sanju-sangen-do (lit: “hall with thirty-three spaces between columns”) takes thousand-armed Kannon, arguably the most popular Buddhist deity—probably because he is of the more merciful type—as its centerpiece. Surrounding a large golden statue of him are one thousand more statues of him, though smaller—about life-size. Around those statues are twenty-eight more, of guardian deities. Naturally, Japanese visitors pay homage to these deities for their own protection by placing gifts at their feet, things like money (concealed in envelopes, of course), candles, and oddly enough, un-Buddhist sake. And the sake, apparently, is drunk by the monks or by laypeople, the empty bottles returned to their places before the deities. It is true that Japan appears more traditional than other Asian countries at first glance, but religiously speaking, they are surprisingly liberal (especially with libations).


Kiyomizu-dera is next. In my first visit last year, I met it with indifference; as the first temple I visited in Kyoto during my study abroad stay, I assumed that my parents arranged the trip there only because of its proximity to the school. It was attractive, to be sure, but I was more interested then in the tens of souvenir shops along the road. It was only after visiting other temples in the area, and in other areas, that I realized how impressive the shrine is.


Returning now, I find it all so charming. The colors are perfectly balanced and arranged around the buildings, though it all looks so natural in display. The height at which it is located allows for breathtaking views all the way around. In the center is a deep gorge and a full landscape of trees; from one extreme, I can see the cityscape of Kyoto; and on some concealed hill slopes hide themed sanctums to memorialize deceased children or pray for health. It is especially nice to watch my friend’s expressions as they wander through.


When it becomes dark, we head to our inn, Ryokan Nakajimaya. It looks exactly like a house in all respects, though a bit larger than a traditional Japanese house, with extra rooms for guests. We are greeted at the door by an adorable Japanese woman, nearly a foot shorter than all of us, but with the verve of a teenager. She leads us to our bedrooms up a very steep set of stairs, very clearly designed for a small Japanese foot. The rooms are closed off with rice paper screens, coated with thick tatami floors, and are surprisingly sizeable. Four of us (me, Kristin, Kelsey, and Emily who is yet to arrive) take the girls’ room, and the other three (Scott, Chris, and Drew who is also yet to arrive) take the boys’. Scott, with a football player’s physique, has to fold halfway over to pass through the doorways. Freed of our luggage, we go to dinner. This traditional city calls for another traditional meal: Okonomiyaki (lit.: “what you like, grilled). Attributed to the Kansai area (Kyoto, Osaka) of Japan, okonomiyaki is a sort of savory pancake of egg, flour and vegetables, (meat, too, if desired), and I have yet to meet someone disapproving of it. Topped with green onions and sweet Worcestershire-like sauce, this dish can be customized to all tastes, (except for Yoshi’s, but only because of its gluten content).


After dinner, we retire to our respective inns. When we awaken the next morning, we poison our purified bodies with a McDonalds breakfast. McMuffins and McGriddles—filthy in every country. Mom met us on the corner in a cab, scooped up our luggage, and in two cars, we depart for the Kyoto train station to take a bullet train ride to Tokyo. I have been on bullet trains, (or as Japanese call them, the shinkansen), but I am always astounded by the ride. It is the closest to teleporting I have ever come, the world whizzing by through the window, and smooth smooth smooth all the way.


The problem comes later, after we’re off the train, when it comes time to board another train to a smaller station in Shinjuku, where my parents live. As with all mother-related messes, I get more frustrated than I should as Janet realizes that we mistakenly deserted some necessary train tickets in a machine, and proceeds to freak out Janet-style. Voice elevated, feet stomping, arms flinging wildly about her like streamers, she sifts through her thoughts aloud and walks in circles. “We'll have to buy a new ticket! What’ll we do…what’ll we do!” Her mumbles silence our advice, but eventually, she has no choice but to follow us as we walk away, back to the machine to explain our situation to a station attendant (we are foreigners, after all). As expected, the blue-capped gentleman is very understanding, opens the ticket machine and returns our lost tickets to us. Job well done, team.

*(I include this anecdote not to embarrass my mother, but simply because it is among the more memorable Japanese happenings.)


My parent’s apartment, owned by the university at which my father is teaching, is extravagant for this country. It contains not only a carpeted bedroom, but two carpeted bedrooms, a carpeted living room, and a clothes dryer! Unheard of. This dear domicile tells me that my father must be a very important man.


That evening, we meet my cousins (Akiko, Kaori and Yoshiko) in Harajuku, where Japanese fashion gets out of control. Girls in Little-Bo-Peep outfits, boys with every imaginable color in their hair—it is plain absurd. As soon as everyone scans the area, we head toward Shinjuku, a more modest area, where we settle on a restaurant called Jonathan’s for dinner. If food belongs to families, traditional Japanese being one, McDonalds being the other, Jonathan’s would fall into the latter. Their plates are all western dishes with a tweak, and not necessarily a good one.


Upon leaving, we stroll the main street of business towers and clothing mega stores, then head to Shibuya where we entertain ourselves on the bottom level of a department store. There, we reap the exotic savory and sweet samples offered by spirited salespeople and indulge in Fuji apples and green tea ice cream, both of which are exponentially tastier than the American copies.


Sayonara to my Japanese cousins, then it’s off to Asakusa for us Americans. The non-cousin few (Kelsey, Scott, Chris and Emily) are staying in a hostel there, so we center the night’s activities around a few block radius, including Tokyo’s oldest temple and a karaoke bar.


We spend the next few hours in Shunjuku at my parent’s house, to sleep, then it’s right back to Asakusa for a most magical day. Though a couple of us are hesitant at first, as soon as we’re cruising down the main street on our bicycles, everyone is elated. Even Scott whose knees hit the handlebars, Kristin whose butt hurts, and Drew who insists on racing everybody cannot deny the bliss encircling us.


We stop at a multi-building grocery store for fruit, sushi and mochi then continue through the gates of Ueno Park for a picnic. We find a secluded refuge with a roof of tangled, leafy branches; on one side of us is a humble temple with one monk idling by the entryway; on the other is a pond with the kind of marshy bottom that yields lotus flowers, lily pads and deep-voiced frogs. The boys get rowdy, picking fruit from an overhanging tree and pitching it at one another. The girls eat, hearts full.


On our way back to the bike rental station, on a winding route, we happen upon a pond rimmed with paddleboats of all kinds—rowboats, pedal boats, swan boats. Naturally, all of us go for the swan boats, except for Chris who tries his hand at the rowboat. He paddles backwards long enough to get frustrated then trades his boat in for a swan. We skim along the edge of the pond then sit for long increments to nibble on the last of the mochi and rice crackers. When we’re tired enough, we return the boats and ride on into the gloaming.


Our last stop comes as we discover a walkway of craft andantique vendors. But we bore quickly, have a group picture taken before a fountain background, then return to the bike rental office by means of busy shop-filled avenues and intersections.

Kristin, Drew and I part ways with the rest and depart for Shibuya. There, we are to meet my parents and a certain half-Japanese boy with whom I grew up, more or less. Our parents were friends somehow, and in every visit to Japan, my brother and I played with the boy (Jack) and his sister (Emi); our ages were perfect, Yoshi two years older than me and one year older than their oldest (Jack) who’s two years older than his sister. It’s funny to see now how differently we’ve ended up, as Jack and Emi spent most of their childhood in Japan and went to America for college. Yoshi and I are undeniably American, born and raised. Seeing Jack now is like seeing how I could have been, and to be honest, it makes me a bit sad. His Japanese is perfect, obviously, and mine sucks.


My parents leave, and us kids go to a ramen shop, then off to a few nighttime attractions in the area. In our romp, we encounter a few SAS kids, which is a bit disappointing because I am reminded, after almost a week of freedom, that I am no more than one of hundreds of foreigners who is here by consequence of others’ hard work. But I would like to try to be. More, that is. Be more. Anyway. We dance a little at a place called Gaspanic as some very inebriated Japanese people try to make friends with us, then we sprint to the last train and barely make it home.


The next day is a very sad one indeed. We are leaving Japan.


The ship is berthed in Yokohama, so after saying bai-bai to Otosan (Dad) and Okasan (Mom), all of us (Kristin, Drew, Scott, Kelsey, Emily, Chris and I—what a tight little clan we've become) meet and take a half an hour train ride there; with our bags tucked on our laps or resting on the shelves above, our heads bob slowly with the bumps on the track, and we are exhausted from all of these long days.


But reaching Yokohama, the journey is not yet over. A friend of mine from Davis, Josh Shiau, is studying at Meiji University so we meet him for lunch at (surprise!) a ramen shop. The place is so small that we have to sit on our luggage. This being my third ramen meal, I am starting to notice differences between them all. This particular bowl is less flavorful than last night’s, but saltier than the first. I wonder if there is any demand in Japan for noodle connoisseurs.


Our journey ends with the last slurp of noodle. We say goodbye to my Chinese-American friend who blends in surprisingly well here with his small stature, sharp suit-style dress and thick glasses. Then, after picking up a final few Japanese goodies in the very impressive port building, we board. As soon as I'm back on the ship, I start planning my next trip to Japan. Everyone can't stop talking about how much they love Japan, and that makes me very proud, it being "my country."