About Me

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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.

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. ☺