Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Shanghaided: to be put aboard a ship by force often with the help of liquor or a drug

We are currently at sea. Most people went to the Great Wall and will meet the ship in Shanghai. There are only 175 faculty/staff/students on board and it has been quiet and peaceful.

I was certainly not forced to stay on board as we sailed away from the grandeur of Hong Kong, though the title of my blog may imply so. But there has been some liquor passed. My friends and I had a party on the balcony in one of the cabins, as we watched the skyline fade into the distance as we sipped our drinks. And as for the drugs- I am still taking the Malaria pills, some Meclazine for the choppy seas, and some Vicodin to go hand-in-hand with the liquor aforementioned. (Just kidding on that last one).

Seriously, it has been wonderful. There are 40 new crew members on board. My cabin steward, Edwin parted ways with us and my new steward is Rey. He seems sweet, but he doesn't fold my clothes and arrange my toiletries the same way Edwin did. My favorite waiter, Ponciano also left, but Ishmael replaced him and he had my black coffee waiting for me.

I just re-read that paragraph....geez! What am I going to do in May when I don't have these folks catering to my every whim? I am ever so grateful for these luxuries and their kind warm-hearted care.

Tonight we had what the crew calls a "special dinner". We were seated and served. (Normally it's buffet style in the dining rooms.) I had steak. I love when there are so few people on the ship! I'll get this again when we sail between Kobe and Yokohama, as most people are off the ship then too.

Hong Kong was breathtaking, but we were only there for two quick days. We were docked in Kowloon, which is like "Jersey City" to Manhattan. Not Jersey City by character, rather Jersey City by space and the view across the river. I had a beautiful view out my cabin window of the skyline and I felt right at home, as it reminded me of my beloved New York. Except much bigger. Much brighter. And with Victoria Peak serving as the backdrop. It is also very easy to navigate. Here are Dougie and I navigating:

I am such a city person. I feel comfort among the tall buildings and harried pace. I feel a soothing calm with the sounds of traffic and the bright lights. Don't get me wrong- I loved my rural trips too (like in South Africa and Vietnam and India), but I feel a a certain zen with the background noise and the harmony of car horns.
We pulled into the Kowloon port, which is directly connected to a huge shopping mall. And the weather was pleasantly cool and comforting. After sweating in the past four ports, it was a refreshing break to be in 60 and 70 degree weather! We took a Hong Kong City Orientation on the first day. Then I had dim sum, which was really yummy! Here are Lisa, Kate, Andrea, Shirl, me, and Janetta after our ride on the Victoria Peak Tram:

The second day I had a workshop called "Healthy Living Hong Kong style", where we did some Qi Gong and then they served us all this "tonic food" like chicken broth with ginseng and Jellyfish. I pretty much hated it. When we had free time, I ducked into a McDonalds and ate a Big Mac value meal. (I know, I know. But I did have the dim sum and I loved that, so leave me alone here.) The funny part is that I was hiding behind a Buddha statue, sitting on a bench, shoveling it in and one of the students came up and said "Umm, Laurie?!??? What time do we have to be back at the bus?" Poor girl was frightened by my rapid food shoveling.

On a more sad note, last Fall when the voyage was in Hong Kong a student was intoxicated and ran out into some traffic and died. It was an emotional day for some of the staff and crew who were on that voyage. It amazed me however that on THIS very voyage, in Hong Kong, many students came back completely drunk and another student was found face-down in the mall outside of the port at 5 AM by himself, passed out drunk. Then he finally woke up and started shouting profanities at the Security Guards and staff who were at his side helping him. The Semester at Sea "powers that be" made it *very* clear that students should always travel in groups late at night and never leave drunk students alone. What did these kids not get about that message? And about the incident from Fall Semester? It saddens me a bit that students can be so irrespponsible and then so cruel to those who are at their side saving their lives.

Good thing we have some excellent crew and staff to save their lives and shanghai these kids all the way to Shanghai. Speaking of which, I'll be there the day after tomorrow. Stay tuned...

Friday, March 27, 2009

And I heard the banging of hearts and fingers.....

War is stupid
And people are stupid

And love means nothing
In some strange quarters
And I heard the banging

Of hearts and fingers
After the bird has flown

He walked ten thousand
Miles back home
Culture Club, "The War Song"

Before I begin, I have to explain the quote that I chose for the beginning of my blog. On the ship's GPS channel which shows our longitude, latitude, speed, map, etc. there is background music. And the background music is the same loop over and over again, all 80s music. Some of the songs I keep hearing over and over again. Like this particular song. To be quite frank, I'm not even sure if it's about the Vietnam war. But every time I hear it, images register in my mind of US soldiers and the blood, sweat, and tears they shed in the battlefields of this foreign land that I just visited. Images of men in camouflage battle defense uniforms. Images of hippies forming their fingers into a "V" and hoping for peace, hoping that their lovers will return to them. Images of soldiers in the trenches, behind giant tanks, with lines of tired worry around their eyes.

Many went willingly and bravely. Most did not even understand why they were there. But they went with their heads held high. Some came back home to the loving arms of their families. Some never returned.

My own father was drafted in his early 20s to be part of Chiến tranh Việt Nam. When I was a little kid, I remember my dad turning off all the lights in the family room and showing us his Vietnam slides. (Please see my blog archives....I have shared some of these in a blog I wrote in October 08). When I was a child, I didn't really understand what we were looking at and even as an adult I never quite understood. My parents think I ask too many questions. The running joke among my parents and me is that after 7:00 PM they are tired, and no good for conversation and my questions are answered with a rolling of their eyes. (They are morning people.)

But my dad graciously agreed to respond to some of my questions via email. We have been exchanging emails about Vietnam for the past month or so. I keep thinking of more questions, even as I write this very blog. Here is some of the dialogue between my dad and me:
Q: Where in Vietnam was your base? I am going to the Mekong Delta, which I believe is pretty far away.
A: While in Vietnam I was in Quang Tri, which at the time was in the most northern region of South Vietnam called I Corps. Quang Tri Combat Base, which was my base camp, was about 10 miles south of the DMZ. The Mekong Delta area is way south of where I was. Your Vietnam trips sound fascinating - I wish that I could be there with you. I really never had a desire to return until I knew that you were going. Now I am excited for you. I still cannot believe what a great opportunity that this entire experience must be for you. Your grandma V is also fascinated by your blog and pictures! She can't wait to read each one!!!

Q: Why
did I get drafted?
A: After I received my BS degree, I worked for a year to earn enough $$ to go to grad school. Because I was no longer in school I lost my deferment and was drafted. Actually I received my draft notice about a week after I received my letter of acceptance to attend The University of South Florida, where I planned to study Marine Biology.
Q: How did you become an MP?
A: Very lucky, I guess. During basic training, they gave us a lot of tests and for whatever reason my results indicated that military police work was what I was best qualified for in the army.

Q: Why were we in Vietnam?
A: We were always told that it was our (USA) responsibility as the world leader to stop the spread of communism. At the time there was a popular belief in what they called the "Domino Theory", which stated that if one nation is taken over by communism all of the other countries in close proximity would also become communist controlled. Thus, the thinking was that we needed to step in and save South Vietnam from the bring defeated by the communist ruled North Vietnam.
Q: Do you think that it lasted so long because LBJ and Nixon just wanted to win? Did we win?
A: Difficult question. Although the US won every major battle during the 12 years or so that we were in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese were very strong willed and would not give up. It seemed like that each time that they were defeated in a battle that they would retreat and come back stronger and more determined to win the next one. LBJ and Tricky Dick Nixon saw the "handwriting on the wall" but were both too egotistical and stubborn to pull out thus admitting defeat. Consider that: 58,000 US soldiers lost their lives; as soon as the we left S.Vietnam the North Vietnamese invaded the took over south: and that Communism eventually prevailed. US propaganda still somehow call this a US victory. I beg to disagree.
Q: How did you feel when you were there? Did the "powers to be keep you in the loop" about what was going on?
A: At first I believed in the cause: that we there to support the S. Vietnam takeover by the communist North. As G.I.'s we were seldom informed about anything that was going on relative to the war. I learned about the war by having my mom send me newspapers from home. I was there for 14 months and about the 7th month I started to get discouraged and have my doubts about our involvement in Vietnam. By the time for me to come home, I realized that this a very "political war" and lost my enthusiasm and trust in our government.
Q: Did you know people that suffered post traumatic stress?
A: A very close friend came home with PTSD. He actually never recovered. Nightmares, Drugs, Alcoholism, Homeless, Depression, Low Self Esteem, Defeated, Worthless, No Reason To Live - characterized his life after Vietnam. Until around 1990 PTSD was not recognized or classified as an sickness. It was not until 1995 (24 years after returning home from Nam), my friend was diagnosed as having PTSD and awarded a settlement from our government. He has never been able to hold down a steady job and has not been able to get over the Vietnam war experience.
Q: How would you describe the Vietnamese people and their attitudes about the war? What do you remember about the Vietnam culture?
A: Most South Vietnamese people that I met and worked with were very friendly and said that they appreciated us being there and fighting for their cause. Many of course lived off of the "black market", which did wonders for the Vietnamese economy during the war years. What I remember most about the culture is the poverty and the terrible living conditions: Grass houses, dirt floors, no running water, no indoor plumbing, no shoes, children begging for food, clothes made from rags. Transportation was almost exclusively motor scooters and mini busses. There were no cars up north where I was. Rice was the main course of every meal for those that had food. Crime, drugs, and prostitution were the norms. The Buddhist temples and catholic churches stood out as the most well constructed and only beautiful buildings. You could easily tell that the people had a hard life - they always looked tired, wrinkled and hungry. I can't even imagine what life was like in South Vietnam after the US troops pulled out and the communist north took over.
Q:who was responsible for the bad decisions.....Lyndon B Johnson or JFK or both or neither?
A: JFK, LBJ, And Tricky Dick Nixon all share responsibility. However, LBJ and Nixon are the main culprits. They lied and misrepresented the war to the the American public for years. Countless lives (55,000 American soldiers) were lost due their selfish, egotistic and political agendas.
Q: What was Agent Orange? Why was it called that?
A: Agent Orange is the code name of a powerful herbicide and defoliant used by the U.S.military in what they called the Herbicidal Warfare Program. The object was to destroy the plant based ecosystem of an area for the purpose of disrupting agricultural food production and/or destroying plants which provide cover to the enemy. Vietnamese exposure to this dioxin is said to have resulted in an estimated 400,000 deaths and disabilities and 500,00 children born with birth defects. We (G.I.'s in Vietnam) were told not to worry and that the chemical was harmless.Many American vets who served in Vietnam were also exposed. Agent Orange was given its name by the color of the 55 U.S. gallon orange-striped barrels that it was shipped in.
I went to the War Remnants Museum my last day in Vietnam, after I returned from the Mekong Delta (see previous blog). I had asked my dad about the museum and here is what he had to say:

Hey Laur,
The Vietnam War Museum that you refer to is actually called the The War Remnants Museum.They say that it is the most popular and sobering museum in the city.I have done the virtual tour. It is not a politically balanced museum. The photos of the injured and dead are haunting and sickening. It paints a very negative picture of the US involvement in Vietnam. I agree with some of the points they make but strongly disagree with others. Go if you can and pick up lots of goodies for me. I am especially interested in pictures, postcards, a museum program and any other memorabilia from the Vietnam war years. Enjoy Bangkok, Be Safe, Love DAD

This museum was indeed jolting, the images were gruesome, and my visit there reeked havoc with my emotions. The museum was previously known as The Museum of American & Chinese War Crimes and then the Museum of War Atrocities, but they changed the name so American tourists would still visit. There were fetuses floating in formaldehyde, dead before birth because of Agent Orange. There were replicas of "Tiger Cages", which is the term used to describe the place where Prisoners of War were held. There was an infinite number of gruesome, disturbing pictures of death in the trenches. I took over 70 photos. (Dad, I'll email them to you.) I totally agree with my Dad's sentiments about the museum. You know, I always have believed there are two sides to every story, however- this museum really made Americans out to be tyrants.

During my trip to Vietnam, I was also able to visit the home of a former UPI (United Press International) photographer, along with a group of 25 students. The photographer's images appeared in magazines and newspapers across the world. He was a very kind man and he graciously showed us around his home and shared his photographs with us. He explained to us that he had dodged death by very narrow margins on several occasions, which made him fearless. He was imprisoned after the Vietnam war because of his war publications. But he didn't complain and he was one of the nicest Vietnamese people I met.

I do want to share a few of these images from the museum. (Note, these are *not* the images from the Photographer I visited, rather from the War Remnants Museum.)

Please note: the images appearing here do not do the museum justice. My words do not do it justice. The feelings evoked cannot really be explained by words, nor pictures.

Damn. I'm getting teary-eyed again. I don't know why I do this to myself.
But alas, there is one thing I do know for sure.
Photography: JPV and LBV
Content: JPV and LBV

Other people who made this blog possible: "Tricky Dick" Nixon, JFK, LBJ

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tiger Beer, Dragon Fruit, and Rice Hats

Gooood Mooorning, VIETNAM!!!!!! (I've been wanting to say that for awhile.)

My first day in Saigon was admittedly a bit stressful. I was hot, hungry, and tired. The exchange rate is confusing. $1 USD equals $17,500 VMD (vietnamese dong). Not something you can quickly calculate in your head. Fortunately they quote prices in and widely accept US currency in Vietnam. However, one of my friends from the ship kept "high-balling" me. Like for instance, a Vendor would say $15 and I would say $5 and my "friend" would say "How about 12?" I think she thought she was trying to help me, but this got extremely agitating.

The vendors kept saying "LA!" which means "NO!" After Morocco, I thought I had perfected my negotiating skills, but it was hard to practice with another person cramping my style.

Also the "thing to do" here is get a dress custom-made in Vietnam. So I went to get measured, and I felt very rushed and the price was not as cheap as I thought it would be. I will go to pick it up tomorrow. When I told them I'd be picking it up 4 days later, the Tailor sounded agitated with me, even though I had just paid them a pretty nice amount of money for this elusive dress which is supposed to fit me like a glove.

The last frustrating part of the day was that my colleagues on the ship organized a dinner. Eighteen people planned on going, but then they got lost and couldn't find the restaurant. They were wandering around for about a half hour, back and forth with all of us in tow. I finally just bailed to find the first place I saw that served cold Tiger Beer. Three of my other friends followed me, after being equally frustrated with the disorganized planning. The four of us had a great dinner and lots of ice-cold Tiger beers, which immediately made me feel better.

Usually I am pretty "roll with the punches", but I think the heat in Vietnam does something to my calm demeanor. After my frustrating day, I was ready to get out of Saigon.

And it got MUCH better, as I led a group of 20 students on a three day trip to the Mekong Delta. We had a fantastic trip and fantastic tour guide. Our guide's name was Thien, with a little ^ above the e. He was absolutely amazing, funny, and knowledgeable. He is one year older than me, and he told me that our generation doesn't speak much of the Vietnam War. He grew up in a town near Quang Tri, where my dad was based during the war, but he said this generation of Vietnamese people tend to love Americans and they know little to nothing about the war.

So Thien, with the ^ above the e's focus was simply on modern day Vietnam and the Mekong Delta. It was an action-packed tour with a boat ride through the Delta, transfer to a smaller sampan, and a lot of driving by motorcoach. I think the sampan was my favorite part, though. There were only 2 or 3 of us on each sampan and there were these strong ladies who paddled for us. Now I understand why people used to buy "rowing machines" to exercise.

There were mosquitos and it was HOT. We were told to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts. We were all sweating, and I still got a few mosquito bites, even with the sleeves. Oh, and I also thought I should also probably wear a boa to make my outfit complete:

For part of the trip, we also rode bicycles. I hadn't ridden one since I was about 10, but now I see why they say "it's like riding a bike"....you just don't forget how! It was probably the most peaceful and relaxing part of my trip. Butterflies fluttered across my path, roosters and ducks ran out into the street, and bright beautiful coconut trees and banana trees were growing at the side of the road. I also rode past a pineapple plantation. I momentarily forgot there were 20 students cycling somewhere behind me.

Then we went to a market where we were the *only* tourists. This was not a touristy place, just Vietnamese people. I wandered on my own a bit to feel the full Vietnamese immersion. It is strangely soothing to be alone in a foreign town, surrounded by strangers who don't speak my language. I can't explain it, but it just feels very liberating and brave. (Even though our tour bus was waiting for me about 10 blocks away!)
After the market we took a small sampan to Mr. Tiger's fruit farm. Mr. Tiger is this elderly Vietnamese man who grows all of these crazy fruits (dragon fruits, jack fruits, durian, lychees, watermelon, and some others.) He also makes his own "moonshine", this really strong, yet fruity whiskey, which burned from my tongue to my throat to my stomach.

We also got to try all of these yummy fruits. Cam on! (That means "thank you" in Vietnamese!)

The first night in the Mekong Delta we stayed at a cottage house on stilts. The entire house was open-air, and it belonged to a family. They basically operate a bed and breakfast, but a bit more rustic. It really was pretty, and here it is at dusk:

There were mosquito nets surrounding the beds. I am not much of a camper, and this is about as "outdoorsy" as I get. Those blue things are the mosquito nets. You untie them and they surround your bed as you sleep so that the mosquitoes cannot get through. It was actually pretty fun!

I slept really well.......until about 4 AM, when the local Rooster began his "cock-a-doodle-doo" ritual. This continued every ten minutes, until about 7 AM, which was when we were supposed to have awakenend. I think almost all of us were awake with the first cock-a-doodle-doo, though!

The second night we stayed in Can Tho, still not exactly a touristy place, but there was a hotel which was quite nice and comfortable, and most importantly: AIR CONDITIONED. I also got a massage there which cost $6 USD for one hour. Amazingly cheap! And they used hot stones and oils and everything. It was fantastic. Just what the doctor ordered!

One of my favorite things to do is visit grocery stores. They always sell such neat foods that we don't have in the US. I come back to the ship with armloads of food like "lemongrass and chicken" flavored potato chips. Or Lychee soda. In addition to the cool grocery store, I was also able to visit another unique supplier of food in Vietnam: the Floating Market. Boats are all over the place and they pull up next to you and sell their produce.
This little boy was quite the salesman. He latched onto our boat and gave his banana sales pitch in pretty decent English:

Tomorrow I am going to the War Remnants Museum. I expect it to be emotionally jolting, shocking, and macabre. I will take many photos and post a blog when I return tomorrow evening. Additionally, my Dad has agreed to be a "guest contributor" to my blog. I have emailed him a few questions about his service in the Vietnam War and he has responded. Stay tuned....

In the meantime, I'm tired. I think I'll take a siesta. This lady has the right idea:
Good night, Saigon.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Happy Ending

Tonight is my last night in Bangkok and tomorrow at 1 PM I catch the bus back to the ship. It's been a relaxing, yet action-packed visit and my fingers have been anxious in anticipation of writing this blog. I would describe Bangkok as large, clean, friendly, oriental and fun. My friends don't quite think "clean" fits the bill, but after India this place is immaculate in my book! I would even go as far to say it's cleaner than New York. I didn't see any litter on the streets anywhere. The city didn't smell like urine. And I don't think I saw one single homeless person. It's just like New York. Same same! ("Same same" is a famous Asian phrase that people use when selling you their junk...most likely a tshirt that is two sizes smaller than the size you would like. But it's still "same same") They do that in Chinatown too, back at home. Same, same! And it gets just as hot in NYC as it feels here right now. In fact, the only difference between New York and Bangkok is the language. And there are orchids absolutely everywhere here in Bangkok. They are really quite lovely.

Other than that, I feel right at home. Same same!
Dara and I have had a wonderful time. I was so excited to see a familiar face from home, I almost cried! I greeted her "Sa wa di ka!" and she did likewise.

For some reason it is still astonishing to me that two people can travel to the exact opposite side of the globe by two different modes of transportation, and still find each other in a big crazy mess of a city. We are staying at the Shangri La, which is very plush and comfortable. We've spent a lot of time at the pool, which has been time well spent in my opinion. After being Trip Leader for many Semester at Sea trips, I've been really looking forward to this break. Don't worry, aside from taking a break at the pool, we've also seen some sights (and what sights we have seen, oh my!) First of all, we visited the Reclining Buddha. "What fo?" you may ask.....the answer is "Wat Pho"! What Pho is the name of the reclining Buddha. He's HUGE. Here he is: And here are some shots of the grounds around Wat Pho. I was apparently practicing my "jazz hands" in the second shot. We've also managed to have at least one massage per day. I think on average they are about $16 for 90 minutes. And these Thai folks are not messing around. The best massage I've had has been this tiny woman who couldn't have been but 4' 10" who stretched and contorted my body every which way. I had been in pain since India, after children reached out to hug me and instead lifted their legs off the ground, so I ended up using my upper back muscles to pick them up. But I've got to tell you, after these daily Thai massages, I've had no upper back pain whatsoever. However, I'm a little confused....I still can't figure out if I was molested or not. This tiny little waif of a woman had her feet and her elbows on my arse cheeks and she dragged her knee against my stomach and I *still* can't really figure out what she did to my ears....All I do know is that Thai massage is like no other. I also feel like I may have been beat up. It's fun here. In addition to daily massages, we've also eaten McDonalds regularly (and by regularly I mean twice). As you know, I love trying local cuisine and new food from other countries. McDonalds was just that. There were tuna pies and corn pies. Don't you fret, we've sampled some Thai street treats as well. Like a big fried corn tortilla filled with some sort of sweet marshmallowy- coconut goo, fish, chilis, and anice. (Okay, I would be lying if I told you I liked that "treat"....actually had to spit that one out.)

The highlight of Thailand has definitely been a ride with the elephants. They are such sweet, docile creatures.
They had a seat on their backs, but Dara and I each had a chance to move up, so we were almost on the elephant's neck. Our elephant's name was Cherry and she was 17 years old. We walked through a river for part of the trek and she kept gathering water into her long trunk and lifting it up and squirting back to cool her (and us!) off!!!! The elephants were all so friendly and we fed their trunks bananas. They ate bunches and bunches, peels and all! It is amazing how all of their faces looked very very different up close. Like humans. No two elephants were the same.

I'll post some videos below, at the end of the blog. Also, here are some photos. Look how my hat kept falling in my face! Finally I just took it off.
And there were these people who were so incredibly rude to our tour guide, who was the sweetest little guy ever. She said "I not like other people. They told for me I have private car drive me and my husband. Not car with foreigners."..... Nice to meet you too.... Later on I asked the husband where he was from and he said "UAE" and I told him "good, I'll be sure NEVER to visit there. Dubai is off my list." And then his wife started yelling at him in arabic because he was talking to me and she told me "I not like women talk to husband."

Tonight we ventured into the Bangkok night scene. There is the Patapong night market, with vendors selling their wares. There are jazz clubs, karaoke bars, and go-go clubs. Certainly not "same same" as New York. So we go to check it out and perhaps have a drink.
Lo and behold, we found a "deal"! Some guy lured us into his venue and it was no ordinary venue. He told us 2 Tiger Beers, 100 baht each. (Okay, not bad. 100 baht is like about $3 US). So we go. And in there are naked Thai women dancing on poles. Ummm....How did we get here again? So we hurried up and drank our Tiger beers so we could get the heck out of there. Some "Ladyboy" sits down next to me and "she" (he? he/she?) has a weird looking blue drink in his/her hand. It didn't look like a drink, though. It looked like antifreeze. He/she then tried to offer us some other "fun games'" and we repeatedly told him/her no until he/she went away. Was she a man or was she a woman? Same same??? He/she would not go away, so we got up to leave. And the bartender tried to charge us 3000 baht. 200 for the beers, 800 for the "lady's drink" and 2000 for the "show".

I explained in my best Thai (I speak it fluently, don't you know!), that was certainly not a drink and that absolutely was not a lady! So we said no way and the go-go people ran to the door to block us, and I thought they were going to close it and lock us in there with the naked Go-go dancers! I pulled Dara's arm and told her to RUN! Fortunately they were luring some more people into the naked Go-go club just as we were escaping. We ran into the Patpong night market and then we went directly back to the Shangri La, laughing and breathing sighs of relief all at the same time.

How do these things happen to me?
At least it was a happy ending, after all. Probably not the happy ending the Go-go dancers and Ladyboy anticipated though......

Saturday, March 14, 2009

One Night in Bangkok makes the hard man tumble.

One Night in Bangkok makes the hard man tumble? {Crumble? Stumble? Humble?}
- Murray Head, “One Night in Bangkok”

I love this song, but I am never sure what that line says. I could see each of these words making total sense.

This is the first port where I’m not planning a Semester at Sea sponsored trip.

And for good reason…my best friend flew in!

I can feel an angel sliding up to me.

Land of the Reclining Buddha, sticky rice, coconut candy, 20 cent orchids, and $8 massages, here we are! She arrived by plane and I arrived by boat. And today we will meet. The port (which is called “Laem Chabang!”) is about 2 and a half hours from Bangkok, so I am dying here until I can finally board the bus. We will spend all five days in Bangkok and take a few day trips. Dara is staying a few days after our ship leaves. We’re hoping to visit the Elephant Village where one can scrub down a baby elephant, and perhaps the Tiger zoo where one can bottle-feed a baby tiger. This will be the longest I’ve been away from the ship and I’m excited. It’s a vacation from my “vacation”. (I use that word loosely the second time in the sentence, since I am working here!) ☺

I think I am most excited about the massages which cost about $8 USD for two hours. We’ve been warned to be extra careful, because some massages come with “extras”, which I am not looking for.

You’re talking to a tourist, whose every move is among the purist.
I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine.

Did I tell you how much I love that song? These quotes just flow so easily…

These past five days at sea have flown by. Yesterday marked the halfway point of our voyage and my friend “Biscuit’s” half-birthday. Biscuit always wears her hair in a Mohawk, so in tribute to her, we all mohawked our hair. (Which made perfect sense, since the Mohawk is halfway in the middle of our head.) I also adorned my forehead with a Bindi from India, since it goes halfway between my eyes.

We were bunkering (fueling) in Singapore the other day. I really wanted to get off the ship. Singapore is supposed to be the cleanest city in the world (quite the opposite of India where we just came from). Singapore just sounds so exotic and wonderful….. Ah…..another place to add to my list…….

I am now waiting for Customs Officials to stamp our passports and clear the ship. It seems like such a long process sometimes. Soooo close to getting off the ship, soooo close.

Not much between despair and ecstacy.

I am getting antsy. Can’t wait, can’t wait, can’t wait, can’t wait!
One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free You'll find a god in every golden cloister A little flesh, a little history.

Indeed, the world is my oyster.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A World of Contrasts

Days 1, 2, and 3 exhausted my emotions, but days 4 and 5 exhausted my entire soul. In a good way though, don't you fret....

Day 4 and Day 5 were complete contrasts, but both were nothing short of amazing, astounding, spectacular, miraculous, and eye-opening.

*I made a mistake in the last blog- the visit was called "Child Labor in Rural India" and the one I will describe in *this* blog is the Disabled Children's Home.

But let me start with the day I met Nupur. Nupur and I took a class together, though Nupur took it via correspondence. Our class all worked together on group projects, and each day we exchange gratitude lists, now that the class is over. Quite ironically, Nupur also did Semester at Sea!!! She was a student on a voyage in 2000, so we also had another cool connection. On Sunday I met Nupur face-to-face.

First we met for "Sunday brunch" at Murugun Idli. I love Sunday brunch Indian style! There are no mimosas, but there is complete deliciousness. Food in India is always served on a green banana leaf and you eat the food with your hands! Even the rice! Even the sauces! My friend Mary was telling me about her young toddler eating and he is at the age where he doesn't want to be fed, so he feeds himself and has it EVERYWHERE! This is what that reminds me of. It looks something like this (a lot more food arrived on that banana leaf though!)
Nupur's family came to lunch as well, and I brought five friends from the ship. (Nupur is in the back on the right). Nupur's father bought all of us brunch, which was an unexpected treat! Thank you so much Mr. Goenka if you're reading....you are very generous. My friends/colleagues from the ship and I took two Rickshaws (tuk-tuks) to get there. This was kind of a cool shot that Becca took. Here is my reflection in the rearview mirror:
After lunch, Nupur and her family went back home. Nupur had been at a wedding in Sri Lanka and had just returned that morning, so my poor friend was exhausted. But she gave us a list of cool places to go and invited us back to her home for "tea and biscuits" at 6 PM.

My friends (John the photographer, Becca the Field Office Coordinator, Mark the Communications Coordinator and Sarah- another LLC and her husband Nate) and I went to an outdoor market and then to Elliots Beach, where there is a sacred Hindu temple on the beach. People were going in and getting their red dots. The red forehead dot reminded me of Ash Wednesday. I don't think I posted this- but on Ash Wednesday on the ship the Catholic students and staff received ashes from the ship's incinerator. (It's all about being creative here!) Desmond Tutu's assistant Levinia who is on this voyage had received Rev. Tutu's blessing via email and shared that with us.

....but that is just an aside....this post is about India.

There are my friends walking....Mark, what the heck do you have in that huge back pack???
Last time I checked "tea and biscuits" was a small snack. Nupur had a whole MEAL for us when we got back to her home! Indian deliciousness! There was bread, there were chutneys, there were sweets. There was wine. There was tea. She has staff in her home who served us and her home looks like an art gallery. She has gorgeous paintings and her home is decorated so tastefully. There are large windows overlooking banana trees and cozy furniture, and each room has beautiful lighting. So of course before leaving, we took lots of photos! The first one is Sarah, Becca, Nupur and me in front of a painting in her living room.
Here is Nupur, her sister-in-law and me:
And here is our whole group (sans Mark, because he had to return back to the ship).
After our "tea and biscuits" (I laugh when I say that!) Nupur's driver took us back to the ship. He could only get us to the gate and after the gate it is about a 1K walk to the pier. I was on duty and I was already about a half hour late (oops! Hope the Deans aren't reading this!) Well, lo and behold there was this HUGE semi truck going to the pier and the driver told us to hop in! So we climbed about 6 feet into the cab of the semi. It was so bouncy and so dirty in there. And the driver spoke no English. I couldn't stop giggling the whole time. And the funniest part is the fact that my chest was resting on the gear shift because it was so crowded and I had nowhere else to go. So more or less, I got groped by the driver. He saw this as an invitation to try to kiss me, when we got out, so I practically PUSHED Becca out of the truck and she almost fell 6 feet! I was still laughing hysterically, but so happy to get out of there!

Hilarious way to end the day.
Okay, this is where the post becomes more serious. So if you're laughing at my anecdote above, start crying instead.

I am very grateful that I didn't go to the Taj Mahal with 75% of the others on the ship, but instead chose to do service visits and to see my friend.

On my last day in India I went to a disabled children's home. Oh my gosh, I totally understand now why Mother Theresa was given Saint status. (This was not her orphanage by the way, but I'm sure it is quite similar).

The floors and walls were filthy. In one room I saw blood splattered on the wall. (It is also a hospital). There was a "playground" outside which just consisted of a field with some dirty sand and there was litter and plastic all over the ground. I even saw a random goat wandering around. The children take classes and there were some very scant and basic classrooms that had seen years of wear and tear.

We broke into small groups and my group of students and I went off to play with the ADHD class. Oh my gosh, these kids had everything from ADHD to Autism to Aspberger's to Klinefelter's syndrome. Many of them were non-verbal and then on TOP of that there was the language barrier.

There was one little girl who had Polio and could barely move, but she kept crawling across the floor and reaching out her arms so I could pick her up. She was heavy and covered in sand. And the food she ate for lunch was all over her hands, but I kept picking her up, because she kept reaching out.

I had to keep reminding myself, these children are happy at this home. If this home didn't exist, they would be on the streets and their parents would be exploiting them for charity hand-outs in the train stations.

I'm getting choked up trying to describe this, so I'll just post some pictures now. I didn't take many this time, because I was trying to be "in the moment" with the children. But I did take a few.

Okay, Laurie. Breathe. Inhale.....2.....3.....4....5....Exhale. 2....3......4....5.....6....7......