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I'm just a stressed-out-perfectionist-not-so-average-cupcake-making-graduate-student-from-Kansas trying to find my place in this world.
Current Adventure: Interning for the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

UK Road Trip

London moves quickly—so quickly that I have not even been able to make time blog but a couple times. I would like to say that I’ll be better for the rest of my time here, but I highly doubt it. Work has piled up all the way to my ears. In the next three weeks, I need to write two ten-pagers for my “Gender in History” class, finish up my research and write upwards of 50 pages on the UN Genocide Convention of 1948, lead a walk on the development of the area around Queen Anne’s Gate, and take a final exam for my History of London class. No big deal, right? This term is so back loaded with work, it is unbelievable. Mostly it’s just unbelievable that I knew that this was coming—I had the syllabi—but the term just caught up with me and now, I am swamped. Whoops.

However, even with all of the impending work, I’ve managed to have to fun. Starting November 4th, my mom, her friend Natalie, and I have been adventuring throughout the UK, Ireland, and Poland. And by adventuring, I really do mean adventuring. Mom and Natalie arrived at Heathrow airport on Friday, November 4th. We spent the weekend exploring London. On the agenda was a classic British pub dinner, an evening Jack the Ripper tour, a tour of London by an open-air double decker bus, Wicked, and dinner in Chinatown. Tuesday morning, (with Kasia!!) we made our way over to King’s Cross/St. Pancras train station to pick up a rental car—a brand-spanking-new black Vauxhall Corsa. It was pretty. But since I can barely cross the roads here without getting hit, I was a little bit concerned about my mom driving on the opposite side of the road all the way from London up to Scotland and then back down again. But needless to say, she did great. The roads here in the UK have a lot of roundabouts on them, which we utilized often to put us in the right direction once again.

Our first stop was Cambridge for lunch and a daytime tour. It was proper English weather—dark, gloomy, rainy, and windy—but we made the most of it, enjoying steaming bowls of soup and delicious bread. Unfortunately, during our delicious lunch, we also got slapped with a 50 pound parking ticket. It put a damper on the day. We made our way from Cambridge to Bridlington. In Smith-adventuring-style, we did not pay for the GPS, so instead we just mapquested everything before we left. Mapquest likes to tell you that something will take 2-3 hours…but instead, it takes 9. So, we got to Brid quite late at night. Bridlington is a small town located on the beaches of the North Sea. Supposedly, our bed and breakfast had a “seaside” view, but we determined that we’d definitely need some binoculars and a room on the other side of the building for that to be true. It was still a nice stay, and it included our first proper English breakfast (complete with black pudding . . . made out of blood!). We walked along the shoreline for a couple hours, collecting pretty rocks, before we got back in our little Vauxhall and headed for our next stop: Edinburgh.

The drive from Bridlington to Edinburgh was beautiful. Most of the time, we drove alongside the sea, at times dipping in to drive among sheep farmers’ paddocks. Of course, because our hand-dandy friend Mapquest let us down so many times, it took us until 7PM to drive what was supposed to be just a couple hours drive to Edinburgh. Kasia had a late evening flight, which gave us just enough time to eat dinner with my high school classmate Joyce Chan (reunited after three years!), before getting Kasia to the airport. Afterwards, we dropped Joyce off at her flat, which is right across the road from where my mom used to study (small world), and headed on over to Mom’s friend Juliet’s house.

Oh. My. Word. Juliet is a trip. Probably the funniest person I have ever met. From the second we walked in the door, we were laughing and talking and drinking. Natalie—Mom’s friend who was traveling with us—was in search of a good, British bloke . . . and much to our surprise, Juliet had just the person in mind: Ross McPherson! A good, ol’ Scottish sheep farmer, who also owns a bed and breakfast in the highlands. Perfect. So, Juliet pulls out the photo albums to show us his pictures, leaving them in strategic points around the house so that we can admire him over the next couple of days. Sadly enough, we never made it to see Ross, but he and Natalie are going to establish email contact and then who knows what’s next? Juliet had another suggestion for Natalie’s bloke: her husband’s friend, Luigi. Luigi is Italian, over 50 (Ross is still a little young . . . ), and well-off. But Natalie was smitten at first-sight of Mr. McPherrrson, so he must be the one.

Juliet took us around Edinburgh the next day, showing us all the old haunts where she and my mom hung out during midwifery school, telling me (according to my mom) one-too-many stories about the mischief they would get up to—including one time, where my mom volunteered Juliet to go on a vacation to Greece with the bartender at their favorite pub. Juliet went and had the pictures to prove it! The bartender now lives right down the street from her.

We met up with another one of my mom’s old friends—Deidre—at a lovely restaurant, which was all decked out for Christmas, covered in lights and trees, for some tea and mince pies. Afterwards, I headed to Bobby’s Pub (where my mom and Juliet used to hang out) for some drinks with Joyce and a fried Mars Bar (like a Milky Way). It was quite interesting and might have been worth the horrible stomach aches we had afterwards.

I’ve fallen in love with Edinburgh, too. It’s got everything that I love about London: the shops, the convenience, the fun things to do, the diversity of people without the craziness of London. Seems like it might be a nice place to live one day. . . then I could get myself a Scottish bloke.

We spent the next day driving up around the Loch Tay and Loch Lomond, seeing a couple of whisky distilleries before ending up at Deidre’s house. Now, Deidre is from Northern Ireland, and her husband, John, is from Scotland. So their children are almost impossible to understand! The youngest, Killian, was an absolute riot. We enjoyed a beautiful salmon dinner with them and some whisky afterwards.

The next morning, we left them in Hamilton, Scotland, and headed back down to England, where we stayed with the family my mom used to nanny for back in the 80s in Gloucestershire. They live in an old manor called Ashcroft, and the walls are, I kid you not, more than a foot thick. It was Mom’s birthday, so we had a surprise little party for her, including absolutely delicious chocolate cake and candles (my part of the surprise). We were treated to yet another sumptuous dinner of fish pie (so good, despite how the name instantly makes you skeptical) and some sloe gin (gin made with sloe berries and kept for years—thick like syrup and just as yummy). Georgina keeps a diary whenever she is at this house, and so, she was able to turn to the exact spot that my mom was there, and read to us about her. They raise alpacas on their property, so the next morning, we got to walk around and see the alpacas and all of their gorgeous property (most of which is let out on long-term leases to sheep farmers or for small crops).

And of course, later that afternoon, we were on our way to yet another old friend of Mom’s. This time, we went to Bath, but we were only there for dinner, because then we were off to Windsor. We stayed that night at the cutest bed and breakfast with the sweetest hosts (Dee and Steve), who made us a beautiful breakfast, let us pay in change (I had more than 50 pounds on the bottom of my purse!), and showed us the way to the castle. We spent the morning at the castle and I got the guard to smile (again!). We thought we had left ourselves plenty of time to get our rental car back to the garage in London, but we pulled in with, literally, only one minute to spare.

The next morning, Natalie and Mom were off to Dublin, where they stayed for three days, taking—from what I’m told—a hilarious tour from Dublin to Galway Bay and the Cliffs of Moher. They got back about 7PM, and because of their genius tour guide (AKA me), we were on the bus back to the exact same airport at 2 the next morning for a flight to Krakow, Poland.

Poland was different from anywhere else we had visited. It was cold. It was dark and gloomy. But there is something really special about Poland that I love. Maybe it’s just because I’ve become such good friends with Kasia and Ewa, so learning about where they are from is fascinating. We stayed in a very nice hotel in the city center of Krakow and had a wonderful Polish dinner of kielbasa (of course), pierogi, cabbage, etc. Mom and Natalie went to Auschwitz/Birkenau, but since I had already visited the concentration camp two winters ago with Ewa, I chose to spend the day with Ewa. We ate good food, walked around the city, found a guy selling bracelets made out of forks, and caught up. Ewa took us to a really lovely dinner in the city center, and then helped us get back to the airport early the next morning.

Packing was quite the chore for Mom and Natalie, but they did it. And then they left me the next morning.

Traveling reveals certain things about people, and can make best friends or enemies out of people, and so it was really special to travel abroad with my mom—just the two of us—for the first time. I loved getting to know her old friends and learn about what her life was like in the UK. So it was, all in all, the best vacation ever.

Friday, October 21, 2011

In Love With London

I am in love with London. Seriously, I’m never coming home. But we do have an extra bed in our flat, so feel free to visit me and send care packages to:

Emma Smith
Hampden House
2 Weymouth Street
London, UK

Just kidding. Well, kind of about the coming home part and definitely not kidding about the mail part. Send me mail. Please?

I don’t know if I can accurately describe how much fun I’m having, but I will try. I only have class one day a week, so I spend Monday night doing all the reading and homework for my two classes on Tuesday, go to class on Tuesday, and then our professor takes us all out for dinner (on the program’s bill) and gives us lots of wine and cider (again on the program’s bill—thanks for the scholarship, Dartmouth!). Then, Wednesday through the next Monday night, I have fun. Lots and lots of fun.

I’ve gotten plugged into an awesome church—All Soul’s Church—which has just been the biggest blessing. I’ve made so many British friends, who have been instrumental in my navigating life in London so easily. All Soul’s is Church of England, so I was skeptical about them at first, mostly because I’m used to really energetic Southern Baptist churches, but this church is so amazing. They have more than 1,000 people at each service, and everyone is really friendly and welcoming. I found my niche almost immediately, which is great since time is not a luxury during my short stay here in London. I spend so much time at church. Wednesday nights I’m there from 5:45 (for coffee with the college girls) until 10:00PM when the student Bible study and dinner ends. Then, I head to the Horse and Groom, which is a pub right down the street, for a pint of cider with all my friends from church until at least midnight. Then, on Sundays I go to both morning services because they are just so energetic and inspiring to listen to, go to lunch with the 20s and 30s group from church, and then head back for the evening service at 6:30. Then, there is free coffee, music, and cake for the college students until about 11:00PM, when we head to the pub for a pint of cider. I was definitely not expecting to find college students in London who were just so excited about Jesus, but I did, and it’s awesome.

School is good, too. You know, for that one day a week I have to go. We’re currently in midterms, so I will have a kindabusy weekend studying for those. We also have walking tours every Thursday afternoon, which I love. Yesterday our walk took us through the East End (traditionally the poorest area of London), down Brick Lane (home to rows and rows of Indian restaurants and Jewish “beigel” bakeries), through Spittalfields (the up and coming artsy district), and ending in Hoxton Square, which was the first public square in London. We had two breaks during the walk: one to get hot chocolate from a teeny tiny little Belgium chocolate shop ($6 well spent) and the other to get bagels from a bagel bakery. Both were delicious and as usual, we ended in a pub to warm up with some cider before heading back to the West End, where we live.

I’ve seen Kasia (my Polish friend from high school for those of you who don’t know her) twice already. Two weekends ago, I took the train to Leamington Spa where she lives (about a two hour train ride) to hang out for the day. Since we hadn’t seen each other in two years, we really just ended up having lunch and then chatting on the couch with a pint of cookie dough ice cream. Last weekend, she and her roommate, Louisa, came to London to stay with me. We had a grand time, and found a really nice Mexican restaurant on the Thames and then saw the musical Dreamboats and Petticoats. In order to get the tickets that we did—front-row Mezzanine, seriously discounted—I stood in line at a ticket office in Leicester Square from about 8AM to 10AM. It was a fun experience, but really, I just felt like I was intruding on seniors’ night out—it was a musical comprised entirely of 50s music (kind of like Mama Mia!, in that there was very little plot, but lots of cool music), and all the elderly people (seriously, we were the only people there sans gray hair) were singing and dancing along. So adorable.

Lots of other fun things have been going on, too. For example, I met a guy at church—Pele—who is a producer’s assistant for the show Jerusalem, a contemporary British drama. He let me and Zoe come see the final dress rehearsal. It was fabulous, even though there was a lot of strong (very, very, very strong language) and most of the British jokes went right over our heads. The next week, my friends and I all went to Ice Bar London, which is a bar made completely out of ice (the walls, the tables, the chairs, the bar, the cups, everything) for our friend Hannah’s birthday.

My favorite part of my week here in London is going to the senior centre on Wednesday morning to volunteer. Mostly, I just hang out and talk with the seniors there, but I’m also helping a nearby museum record oral histories and put together an exhibit on the seniors who come to this senior centre. Last week, I took Zoe and our friend Hannah with me, and we did manicures for all the ladies (and some men!). In a couple weeks, a lot of my group will be coming with me and they are going to do an acapella concert (I will not be performing, in case you wondering).

My research is going well. Sometimes it’s hard to make myself go out to the archives (about an hour ride on the tube) since there’s so much to do in London and so much fun to be had, but I still manage to do it. I’m still trying to synthesize all the information I’ve found and discern why what I’m finding is important, what my argument really is, etc. I had a moment of panic the other day when I realized that our program is more than one third over and I still have so much to write for this research paper. However, I think that everyone who pursues a project on this scale is also a little bit overwhelmed at times. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes—so far, though, so good.

Just two short weeks from today, my mom will be here! I’m so incredibly excited. I’m having a blast planning our trip, and it’s going to involve four countries, eighteen days, many, many reunions with friends, and tickets to see Wicked (my friend’s cousin plays Glinda, so we have to see it!). The rest of the details, though, you’ll have to find in one of my future blog posts!

Much love from London!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Welcome to Blighty!

I’m sorry that I’m already a few days behind on blogging, but the last week (well, year) has been a whirlwind of activity. I left for London in the middle of the afternoon on Friday, the 16th. I arrived in London around 10AM on the 17th, but I did not get through customs until closer to noon. Because I look oh-so-suspicious, I was treated to a very thorough pat down in the Kansas City airport and an intense interrogation at customs in London. The customs officer and I actually ended up having a long conversation about my genocide research before he let me through. I spent a couple minutes wandering around the arrivals area (my luggage arrived just fine) before I found Mom’s friend, Bronwyn.

I stayed for two days at Bronwyn’s house with her husband, two sons, and their dog—Milo. They treated me so well! I had many cups of tea with them, a ride in their 89 Land Rover along the Thames, and a truly British meal of fish and chips and a pint of ale at a pub that was built in the 13th century. So delicious. The waiter was cute, too. I had not slept for more than 40 hours by the time that I got to sleep that night, so I slept like a baby. I even slept through my alarm, and Bronwyn had to come and wake me up in the morning. They fed me a sturdy British breakfast before we were off on public transportation to my flat.

To get to my flat from Weybridge Village where the Borghesi family lives, we just had to take a train for a few stops into Waterloo Station, where we jumped on the tube (no small feat with two bags, each weighing about fifty pounds) for several stops. There are two stops around my flat—Regents Park, which is on the Bakerloo (or Brown) line and Great Portland Street, which is a much larger station and the intersection of four different lines. We went to the Regents Park stop and then walked about five minutes to my flat.

My flat is gorgeous. I share it with seven other girls, all of whom I really like. We have four bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, a large living area (complete with fireplace), and a kitchen. The flat is long, with all of the rooms being located off of a single corridor. I share my room with Zoe Friedland, who is actually a senior at Dartmouth. I got lucky, because Zoe and I really click. We have the only room with hardwood floors, the rest of the floors are carpeted. The bottom floor of our building is a Starbucks!

While I was pretty much over my jetlag by the time we all arrived, the rest of them were not. So, we had an early dinner at Nando’s—a Peruvian chicken joint—before heading to bed.

Since Monday morning, I have been to the British Museum (which has everything—mostly things that the British stole over the years from their colonies. Still pretty cool, though); gone grocery shopping and unpacked; watched Dr. Faustus at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre (we had to stand for all three hours of the performance!); been to several pubs and tried many different types of ciders, ales, and lagers; worked my first shift at the Holborn Community Center, which is a senior center about one and a half miles from my flat where I’ll be volunteering this term; and I have now completed my first real day of research.

The highlight of my week was definitely volunteering at the senior centre (look, I’m spelling like a Brit, already). The seniors there are so sweet, and they call me “ducky.” There’s one little old Scottish man named George who tried for two hours to make his magic trick work, but by the end, he had just managed to light a balloon on fire and get himself in trouble. He spent the rest of the time doting on the little old ladies. I’m going to be working every Monday and Wednesday morning, serving morning tea, helping the seniors learn how to use the computers, and leading games like Bingo and Bunco. I became friends quickly with the cooks. Rose is a 65-year-old grandmother from Sierra Leone and Annie is 25 and from Nigeria. She has one daughter. Annie and I have plans to go out next week.

My first day of research went well, too. It was exhilarating to be sitting with all of the professional researchers and being able to call up my own documents and have them delivered to my assigned seat. I looked at papers from Raphael Lemkin (the man who coined the term “genocide” and lobbied the United Nations for the Convention on Genocide that occurred in 1948 after the Holocaust. Since the focus of my research is on how the British responded to this idea of “genocide,” I looked first at his letters to members of Parliament. Just for background information, I also looked at the notes and memos left by members of the Foreign Office who were present at the UN Genocide Convention and their recommendations to the British Home Office on how to deal with it. From secondary research, I'm already familiar with the general conversation between the two offices, but I thought that looking at the official documents would help me build a strong foundation. What was really exciting is that I found so many letters from organizations and individual constituents lobbying their members of Parliament to do something about the "UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide" mixed in with the official memos! I was hoping to find evidence of public interest in the case, but I was not sure that it would actually exist. So exciting!! I’ll be working the next few weeks at the National Archives, which are quite far away from my flat. It took me about an hour this morning to get here on the underground, and then I had to go through an hour-long registration process to get my “Reader’s Ticket,” which will be valid for the next three years. After I finish up here at the National Archives, I’ll be working closer to home in the Metropolitan Archives and the British Library.

That last paragraph probably bored you, so congratulations if you made it to this one! Zoe and I are making dinner tonight at home tonight—ravioli and salad. Yum.

Lots of love from London!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Home Again

Sorry that I’m a little behind on blogging, but it seems like I blinked and instead still being on the beach in Hawaii I was in Kansas. And it was cold. But the holidays have treated me well; I’m catching up on sleep, losing a little bit of Semester at Sea’s potatoes, pasta and bread that seemed to have affixed themselves to my thighs, and getting all my ducks in a row for my next term at Dartmouth.

But back to Hawaii, San Diego, and the past two weeks:

Hawaii was great. The ship docked in both Honolulu and Hilo. Both were what I expected from Hawaii. Honolulu had long white beaches, swarms of tourists, and fancy stores and restaurants and resorts. Hilo was secluded. The people were laidback, and the movie theatre only charged one dollar per ticket. It was awesome.

Hawaii was so warm, and it seemed even better knowing how cold I was going to be in the coming weeks. Mackenzie, Carren, and I lay on the beach for the first two days in Honolulu. We had booked a room at the beachfront Mariott; it was so wonderful to sleep in a big comfy bed (even if Mackenzie bear hugs her bedmates all night long). The food was AMAZING. It was such an incredible feeling to be back in the United States (even if I was still thousands of miles from my family) speaking English, ordering my food in English, and knowing what I was going to get. No more surprises. The first taxi driver that we had must have thought Mackenzie, Carren, and I were crazy since we were getting emotional just over the fact that he was speaking to us in English.

In Hilo we made it to a black sand beach, saw HUGE sea turtles and saw a dollar movie. We didn’t do much besides hang out and do a little studying for finals.

The six days from Hawaii to San Diego were some of the longest of my life. My finals weren’t that bad, but it was hard knowing that Semester at Sea was about to end and saying goodbyes to people. My friends and I had a couple of balloon parties because my mom had sent me a care package to Hawaii filled with balloons and a couple of pumps. It helped to pass the time.

My dad surprised me by meeting me in San Diego! I felt so loved when I saw a bright orange “Welcome Home Emma” sign on the dock. My dad and I spent the day with Mackenzie’s family eating a delicious lunch and then touring SDSU, Mackenzie’s future college. It was fun, but I was exhausted by the time that we made it to the airport. Of course, I had to overstuff my duffel bag to the point that it ripped apart, so we had a quick run to target to get another duffel bag. I was a sight to behold, carrying oversized duffels, wearing a dollar Vietnam rice paddy hat with my camera around my neck and carrying stuff (excuse me, “treasures”) from around the world. A security guard took one look at me and started laughing. “Disney world, right?” My dad replied, “Try around the world.” To which she respond, doubled over with laughter, “Did you hear that Herald?? They think they’ve been around the world.” . . . Welcome back to America, Emma.

Life’s been good though since I’ve been home. I spent the first few days running around Missouri and Kansas giving presentations on my trip before coming home to collapse for the next week and a half. Christmas was difficult. I found myself getting frustrated with holiday shoppers; couldn’t they just send that money to Egyam Orphanage?? And then I found myself getting frustrated with myself for slipping back into old habits and mindsets. Going around the world was amazing—fantastic, educational, and it exceeded all of my expectations. But having seen and experienced what I have comes with certain responsibilities to do something about the injustices that I’ve witnessed, to tell others, and to never let myself stop caring about the humanity around the world.

I leave for Dartmouth on the 31st. I’m giving myself a few days leeway considering that it is wintertime and I don’t want to be stuck in Newark, New Jersey while my classes are starting. I’m going to keep this blog up and running for my future adventures around the world (next stop: London with my mom), and I’ve started another one for my daily life stories (which you know I have plenty of). You can find it at www.emmalovesherlife.blogspot.com. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Annnd...I'm on my way home!

Japanese security is even more intense than China’s. I was one of the first students in line to get off the ship, and it still took more than three hours to go through all of the stations. They took my picture, my fingerprints, scanned my passport, took a picture of each of my eyes. I felt like I was headed to prison, not just into downtown Kobe, Japan. But finally all of the interrogations were over and done with and Mackenzie, Carren, and I took the monorail from the port into the downtown area. It seemed like every other huge metropolitan area—sky rise buildings, fashionable girls, fancy boutiques. We were extremely hungry after standing in line for so long, so we headed into a little Japanese cafĂ©. It was packed with locals, so I assumed that the food must be amazing. After standing awkwardly in the door for a while, the waitress motioned that we could sit down at the end of a long table, filled with a bunch of other customers. We did. We waited for her to come and take our order. She didn’t. Meanwhile, floods of people just kept coming into the restaurant. They would stop by this machine that vaguely resembled a juke box, put their money inside, push a button, and hand a slip of paper to the waitress before seating themselves. I got up and approached the machine; it was all in Japanese. Great. So, I put in a 1,000 yen note (about $12), pushed a button, got a receipt and handed it to the waitress. Mackenzie and Carren followed suit. About ten minutes later, we all got different meals. Mine had a steaming bowl of stick rice, a bowl of what might have been chicken, a side of tofu, fish soup with the fish still floating in it (even the eyeballs!), and some sort of drink that kind of tasted like those dirt pie milkshakes Vikki and I used to make in the backyard and feed to our grandma. Yum. It actually wasn’t that bad. I didn’t have the soup or the tofu, but the rice and chicken were very filling.

After lunch, we just walked all around the downtown area, occaisionally poking our heads into shops if something in the window caught our eye. We went to the Kobe City Museum, which was fascinating. We got the English guides so that we could understand the exhibits. Afterwards, we made it to a coffee shop, warmed up a bit, and headed to China town. I guess we just couldn’t get enough of China, so we ate at a Chinese restaurant for dinner.

The next day I spent mostly alone in Kobe because Mackenzie and Carren had headed for Hiroshima and Tokyo, and I had decided to go in-transit with the ship to save a little (a lot) of money. It was a really nice day though; I made it back to the same coffee shop where I picked up some free wifi and chatted with some Japanese girls. They were really nice, but the day went by too quickly and I had to be back on the ship to travel to Yokohama.

The trip took about 36 hours, and it was wonderful because I was one of the few students on board, so it was nice and quiet. I got a lot of homework and studying done since finals are coming up quickly after Japan.

Mackenzie met me at the ship as soon as the ship docked in Yokohama and we took the metro into Shibuya in Tokyo. Shibuya street is a crossing where at any one time, more than 1000 people can be crossing the street. It was crazy! I don’t even know where they all came from. Several times we just stood there to see all of the people cross, and then two minutes later, there were another 1000 people ready to cross. We walked for fourteen hours straight, and Japan is such an expensive country that I felt like I was being charged just to breathe their air. We walked up and down the infamous Harajuku street and around Shibuya street. It was just fascinating to watch all of the girls walk by in their high fashion. I felt extremely out of place. We decided that we had had enough of the raw fish over rice meals, so when we found a T.G.I. Friday, we jumped at the chance for a western meal. It was delicious. Afterwards, we found a movie theatre and saw Harry Potter 7.

The next day we spent in Yokohama. We went to the Raumen Noodle Museum, which really wasn’t a museum. . . .It’s hard to explain, but as soon as you walk in the door, you go down a bunch of dark and scary stairs to this underground world of Raumen Noodles. There were nine restaurants down there, and the wait time was anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours to sit down and eat. They were all decked out to look like 19th century Japanese villages—image a  Wild West exhibit…only Japanese. The food was good, the gift shop was ridiculously expensive, but I still got some cool noodle eating utensils.

The exit immigration/customs/I don’t know what they were doing took forever. We had to get another stamp in our passport, have our eyes, fingerprints, and pictures matched again to our passport, have all of our bags searched for what we bought…it was a nightmare because everyone waited until the last minute to come on board. On-ship time was 6pm, and at 5pm, 800 people were trying to go through these lines. It was sad getting back onto the ship in my last international port, but I’m also really excited to be home. Next time my feet are on land, it’ll be American soil.

These few days from Japan to Hawaii have been miserable. The ship is rocking and rolling and the swells are anywhere from 8 to 20 feet. I was seasick the first few days, but now I’m just uncomfortable. Hopefully it’ll die down soon, or my stomach will get used to living on a roller coaster. Mackenzie and I have had to take everything off of our dressers, because it just falls off.

Last night the ship crossed the International Date Line at midnight. So, one minute it was 11:59PM on Saturday, November 27, 2010 and then the next minute is was 12:00AM on Saturday, November 27, 2010. I went from being 18 hours ahead of Central Time to being 6 hours behind! It’s weird, and really hard for me to wrap my head around. By the end of the voyage, I will have been in every time zone in the world. ☺

We’re five days from Hawaii right now, so text me on December 3rd!  My phone will work .  . . well, if I can remember how to use a phone after not using one since August!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hong Kong and China :-)

I’m in love with China. Actually, maybe I’m just in love with Asia in general. When I was boarding the ship in Halifax, there was a mother and daughter behind me, and the mother was telling me how her nephew had done Semester at Sea several years ago, loved China and decided to move there. Now, he is living full-time in Beijing. I really didn’t understand why he would want to do that. I couldn’t imagine wanting to live anywhere in Asia, let alone China, which was supposed to be dirty, supposed to only have squat toilets (which is true for the most part), and be too. . . .something. . . something I couldn’t put my finger on. I don’t know what I thought; I just didn’t want to live there or even vacation there extensively. I always fantasized about living somewhere in Europe, volunteering in Africa or India, moving back to New Zealand, but never, ever did I contemplate living in Asia. Now, I’m so in love with everything Asian. The people are so friendly; they just smile at you, even if you can’t find a way to communicate with them. There really is a sense of community in China. My favorite thing to do here was to get up early and sit outside the hotel on a bench and watch as all the elderly people congregated to do group exercises. After they finished exercising, they would eat breakfast together and then play card games all day. Usually, they would still be hanging out at the park when we got back to our hotel room in the early evening before dinner. They were kind of like teenagers, just hanging out and enjoying life, hiding from their overbearing children. I loved everything about China: the food, the people, the buildings and the atmosphere. It was all amazing, and needless to say, I can’t wait to come back. I’m still not sure if I could see myself living here for an extended amount of time, but I know that I want to come back as soon as I can because one week is definitely not enough time to experience China.

The ship pulled into Hong Kong harbor very early on November 11, and it was one of the most spectacular views that we’ve had coming into port. I was up there bright and early to see the sun rise, and we were off the ship soon afterwards. For the first time, we got off in a terminal, much like an airport that took us straight into a mall, where Mackenzie and I, of course, stopped for coffee and delicious pastries—so good after four days straight of the monotonous ship cuisine.

Carren, Mackenzie, Ken and Marty (a lifelong learner couple), and I took The Star Ferry from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon Island, where we caught a double decker bus up to Victoria Peak. We walked around the top of the mountain for a while, taking in all of the beautiful scenery before grabbing a leisurely lunch at a local restaurant. We took the cable car down, which seems like it would have been a pleasant experience, but it wasn’t. The trolley went down backwards really fast, and it was really scary, not to mention that I had to go to the bathroom, so it was just really uncomfortable. Afterward, we just walked around for several hours, visiting the (free) zoo and the botanical gardens. The temperature was perfect—about fifty-five degrees and sunny. As much as I was enjoying Hong Kong, I don’t think my calves appreciated it, since the entire city seems to be built on a hill. I’m not even kidding, I’m pretty sure we walked UP hill the whole day, and my legs were so sore the next morning.

The Hong Kong night market on Hong Kong Island is one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen. It is so busy. There were thousands of people on these two blocks of streets, crowding into little tents to buy knock-off north faces and uggs, Hong Kong souvenirs, everyday items such as pots and pans, seafood that was still alive and swimming in small kiddie pools on the ground, and everything else that you could ever imagine. I didn’t buy anything; it was just fascinating to be there and feel all the life that is in that market.

On the way back to the MV Explorer, the three of us passed by a movie theatre that was supposedly playing the movie Life As We Know It, which we had all been talking about seeing once we’re back in the US. So, we decided to have a movie night. I specifically asked the man in the booth if the movie was in English, to which he responded yes, and then he took us to the posters so that I could show him which movie we wanted to see. He told us the time of the movie, we paid for our tickets, bought some popcorn (which came with fish balls—gross), and then headed for our theatre. I asked the movie attendant which way to our theatre, and he told us that the only movie playing that night was the action film Unstoppable, and sure enough printed in capital letters on my ticket was Unstoppable. I went to the ticket booth to ask the man who sold us our tickets why he told us we could see Life As We Know It and ask for a refund since that’s not the movie we wanted to see, and he said, “no English, no English, no English.” Sure buddy. You could speak English ten minutes ago when you sold us the ticket to the wrong show. We didn’t get our money back, and I actually ended up making it through the entire film without getting too scared, but needless to say, I did not enjoy it. Oh, communication barriers, how I love you.

The next morning I left with a Semester at Sea planned trip to Beijing. We drove an hour or so from the ship to the airport, where we checked in, grabbed some lunch, and boarded our three-hour flight to Beijing. We were fed some sort of rice with chicken in a really runny sauce on the plane, but given no utensils—not even chopsticks. We couldn’t make the flight attendant understand what we needed, so we didn’t really eat it.

The Beijing airport is amazing. It just opened in 2008 for the Olympics, so everything in there is still practically brand new. The first thing that I noticed when I stepped outside the airport was the cold, and I loved it. Everyone was complaining about it, but I absolutely loved it. The air smelled like fires and Christmas and everything about home. I wasn’t prepared clothing wise for such temperatures, but I managed to layer up and stay warm for the four days that I was in Beijing. Our group split up into groups of two where we got into treshaws, which are little carriages pulled behind bikes with three wheels, and we were each taken to a different home and family who had volunteered to have us over for dinner. My homestay mother was Mother Bai, and she cooked the most amazing dinner ever for us and even taught us how to make meat and veggie dumplings. She must have made ten different dishes for us to try. My partner, Rudy, and I spent a couple hours at Mother Bai’s home, drinking tea and eating with her and her mother—Grandmother Bai—and her sister—Auntie Bai. Their home was over five hundred years old and had been passed through the family for more than twelve generations. They had running water and electricity, but the only warmth came from a single fireplace on the ground floor. After dinner, the treshaw driver took Rudy and I to the hotel where we met up with all the other people in our group.

The hotel was really nice. That is something that you can always count on during Semester at Sea trips: a nice hotel and delicious food. I’ve never, ever stayed in as nice of hotels as I have while on Semester at Sea trips. Rudy was my roommate, which was fortunate since she lives across the hall from me on the ship, and we were already pretty good friends. The next three days were just really nice. We had no partiers in our group, they kept the tours small, the weather was cold (it was so nice not to be sweating constantly like we have in the past ten ports), and the sights were amazing.

Saturday morning we had to be up by 6:30AM, because the bus left at 7. We visited the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Silk Market. I managed to buy a winter coat at the Silk Market for ten dollars. It’s not high quality, but as long as it lasts me through Japan next week, I’ll be happy (I mean, I’m just happy it kept me warm all week in China!).  The Forbidden City was beautiful, but it was also really, really, really big. Apparently, we only saw about 5%, but it still took us almost three hours to walk that little bit. Then, we headed to Tiananmen Square before lunch at a buffet restaurant. The guide actually gave us the choice between some free time or going to an orphanage about an hour outside of Beijing where he volunteered at often. All twenty of our group members decided to go to the orphanage.

I’ve been to a lot of orphanages on this trip and even some before on previous mission trips, but this was the most depressing one I have ever been to. I know that a lot of it was how cold and dreary the weather was outside, but the facilities that housed the three hundred children (all under the age of 12) were incredibly inadequate. They only had running water every other day, and even though the dormitories were heated, no other building on their campus was. While the Semester at Sea students were playing soccer with the children, I walked toward the back of the property where I saw three kids—two boys and one girl—crouched in a back corner; they were digging a hole in the dirt. I crouched down next to them, and they handed me a little hand shovel, so I started digging with them. The girl kept throwing in little bits of tree bark and wood. It didn’t really register in my mind what they were doing until one of the little boys, who was probably about 7 or 8, took a melted down dirty birthday candle out of his pocket, ran away for a minute and came back with a flame, that I realized what was happening. It was really difficult for me not to cry right then as I watched them warm their little chapped hands next to the fire that they had made. The entire time we couldn’t say anything to each other because I couldn’t speak Chinese and they couldn’t speak English. But then the Semester at Sea boys started a tug-of-war game, and the kids ran off to help their team, leaving me staring at the flame as it flickered out.

We painted a huge mural alone one of the brick walls in an attempt to make the campus look a little cheerier. It was actually a really fun mural, thanks to several artistically talented Semester at Sea students. I, however, just painted in the lines that they had drawn.

That night we had the famous Peking Duck dinner. It was. . . interesting. I always try everything that is served to me, because you never know when something that looks like duck web jelly might be amazing. In this case, it wasn’t so amazing, but at least I tried it. I did enjoy the rice pancakes that we filled with duck meat and then rolled into a little burrito though.

Some friends and I headed to La Viva shopping center after dinner to get some warmer clothing and some time away from the big group. I decided that I really needed to get some warmer boots, so I went into a nice shoe store, asked to try on a pair of UGGs in a US size 9, and then the shop attendants laughed me out of the store.   Apparently, the largest size they carried was a size 6.5… who even wears a 6.5?? A third-grader?...I was a little bit humiliated that they were all laughing at me, so I just left and went and bought myself a nice hat and scarf set. It’s pink and very cute, and softened the blow that the Asian women thought I had monstrous feet.

The next day was the day that I have been waiting for so long—the day I got to see the Great Wall of China. First, we went to the International Kungfu School, where Jackie Chan learned Kungfu and where The Karate Kid was filmed. It was really neat to see the Kungfu performance, and they we all got a one-on-one thirty minutes lesson (so, watch out: I know Kungfu now!). But I was antsy the whole time to get to The Great Wall. Finally, after a hurried lunch and a 2-hour bus ride, we were there. I could see the wall running along the mountains almost the entire time we were driving, and it was breathtaking. We had to hike for about 25 minutes (a very steep hike!) up to the gondolas; I actually rode in the same car as Bill Clinton did when he visited the wall a couple years ago. It was just kind of luck of the draw, because we could only have four people in each cable car, and we had to jump in as it was moving.

Walking along the wall was surreal and invigorating, especially just imagining what had happened there over the years. The temperature was perfect for wearing coats and hats but not being freezing cold—probably in the high 40s, low 50s.  I walked along the top for two hours with a couple friends before we tobogganed down. It was so much fun!

That night we saw an acrobatic show, went to dinner around 10PM (I was so exhausted), and then headed to bed. The next day was spent primarily traveling from Beijing to Shanghai, but we did go and visit The Temple of Heaven and participate in a tea ceremony before we went to the airport.

Shanghai was very much like Beijing, and I loved it, especially since the weather was just a tad warmer, which made it much more comfortable for walking around. Since I didn’t go in transit with the ship from Hong Kong to Shanghai, I had to turn my passport in to the Chinese port authorities on the ship to inspect and stamp. They said that it would take a maximum on 1 hour to complete. I waited to get off the ship for almost four hours that night, which was incredibly frustrating. Some people weren’t allowed off the ship again until noon the next day! It’s so strange that the Chinese seem to have a handle on everything, yet it takes so long to get a stamp in your passport. I found it frustrating considering I had been in mainland China for four days and gone through customs and immigration in Beijing, but c’est la vie.

Mackenzie and I headed out for a late dinner after I finally got my passport back and was cleared for debarkation. The food left a little to be desired, and the way the bones were in that meat, made me think that it probably wasn’t chicken….but I didn’t ask any questions, because I didn’t want to find out that I was eating dog. We walked around Bund street, the infamous Shanghai historical shopping district. It was so beautiful at night with all of the buildings and markets lit up. We walked along the river where the ship was docked, just taking in the beautiful city skyline.

The next morning, we were up early and spent the day wandering through little streets, visiting with the locals, and eating dumplings off the street. I’m not exactly sure what was in those dumplings, but again, I didn’t ask. They were delicious though.

I was sad to leave China, but I’m sure that I’ll be back.  I’m also really excited for Japan! Today, we sailed by lots of little Japanese islands—even one that had an active volcano on it. If we had sailed by at night, we would have been able to see the lava pouring into the ocean. It’s pretty cool to go to school on the ocean; I get out of class for the best things—volcanoes on the starboard side, a pod of dolphins off of port side, crossing the very center of the world, etc. You know, completely normal events. . .

 Japan is our last international port. I’m disappointed that my adventure is coming to an end so quickly, but at the same time, I’m so excited to be home, where things are normal and consistent. Riiiiiight. . .well, maybe not—but at least I’ll have my family and old friends and old routines for a while. . . until I start my next adventure. ☺

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Too Much To Do But Too Little Time in Singapore

Singapore is hands down my favorite country that I’ve ever been to, and it is definitely my favorite port on the voyage so far. Something about the way everything runs so smoothly and so quietly impresses me; everything is SO clean. I was never afraid to use a public restroom, eat from any restaurant, sit on any bus seat—it was amazing and a completely different world from the last few ports on the itinerary.

Singapore’s port worked a little different from every other one that I’ve been to so far. Immigration was after we got off the ship, so my friends and I were off by 9AM, the earliest we’ve ever been cleared for debarkation. The port terminal looks just like an American airport, complete with a food court, little shops, and drug dogs. Semester at Sea had organized a shuttle from the port to downtown Singapore, so for $6 we rode from the ship to Orchard Street, the places where everything is happening in Singapore. It is five kilometers of huge shopping malls and restaurants. The streets are clean and full of people eating ice cream sandwiches made by putting a scoop of ice cream on a piece of wonderbread. I didn’t actually try it, but it seemed like everyone had it. The Christmas decorations had just been put up along Orchard Street, and even though it was 90 degrees and humid, shop clerks were wearing Santa Claus hats and singing holiday music.

The shopping was so much fun—I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much Hello Kitty apparel in my life though. It was everywhere! For lunch, I had the best pad thai ever. I can’t even describe how amazing it was. At lunch, my friends and I sat next to Elvis, a 60-year old artist with a massive mohawk. He said it takes him almost two hours every morning to sculpt his hair! He wasn’t too keen on talking, but he gave us directions to a good place to get fun Asian hair accessories and good Bubble Tea. ☺

I had to be back to the harbor front by 3pm, because I was meeting a lady from Singapore who used to work for several different NGOs in Vietnam to talk about the project that I am doing for my Servant Leadership class. Most of my group was able to make it, and she had some very valuable information for us about cultural things to be aware of in Vietnam (like never use the term “human rights”), and she is going to make a few phone calls for us. I’m still nervous about our project, since we really don’t have one yet and we’ll be to Vietnam tomorrow…but hopefully it will all turn out okay. We’ve been working on it since the beginning of the voyage, but contact after contact either turned us away, stopped responding to our emails, never answered, or gave us a project and then decided they didn’t want us coming. It’s really hard because unless we are registered with the government of Vietnam, we won’t be allowed to do any manual labor for any organization, so we have to stick to other forms of service. Mai, the lady we met with, says it will be fine and that the Vietnamese NGOs just don’t really use email, so really we should just show up somewhere and ask to help, and more than likely, they will let us. But I’ll let you know how that goes after Vietnam.

My friends and I then got really dressed up and headed to the Singapore Flyer, the tallest ferris wheel in the world for dinner. The food was delicious. We had salad, shrimp with a mango sauce, some sort of chicken, some sort of lamb, delicious vegetables, and then a cream cake with raspberries for dessert. But the view was what was really incredible; from the very top, we could see the lights of Malaysia to the north and the lights of Indonesia to the south. After dinner, I went with a life long learner, Pat, to the top of the Marina Bay Sands Resort—the tallest building in Singapore. On top of the hotel, there is a restaurant, casino, and an infinity swimming pool. We had to sneak our way to the top, though, because we weren’t hotel guests, but we really wanted to see the pool. It was worth it too—the pool really did look like it was falling off the side of the hotel.

The next morning, Mackenzie, Carren, and I took a taxi over to Sentosa Island to go up inside the Merlion. The merlion is Singapore’s official emblem—a cross between a mermaid and a lion. It wasn’t really cultural at all, but we climbed to the top (15 stories) and we were able to see all of Singapore up there. We spent some time walking around the island before heading back to the port to do a little bit of uploading pictures to Facebook, and then suddenly it was on-ship time and we had to leave.

We definitely did not have enough time in Singapore. I feel like I barely scratched the surface of it (as I feel in every country), but I enjoyed it so much. I enjoyed just being able to relax and not having to worry about whether I would get sick from the food or get malaria from the mosquitoes or worry about the street children. It was just a really fun place to visit and get recharged for the rest of the trip through Asia.

This day in between Singapore and Vietnam was a reading day, so we didn’t have class. I seriously slept for more than 20 hours, only waking up once for about 30 minutes to eat a little something. I had no idea how tired my body actually was. In a few hours, we’ll be entering the Mekong River and traveling up to Ho Chi Minh City; I’m going to get up by four, because apparently, we’ll be seeing little fishing villages on either side of the river as the sun rises and we come into the city.  I’m excited for the next week in Vietnam and to get outside my comfort zone once again. ☺