Tuesday, April 28, 2015

12 more days at Sea...

12 more days at Sea, whatever are we going to do??

After leaving India, the voyage was going to slow down considerably, on paper at least.  The itinerary called for 12 days at sea between India and Cape town which sounds like an eternity to most people on board.  Truthfully however, the time FLEW by.  There were a number of pretty fun events planned, but really, it was a great feeling to be back on the ship, with all of our friends, for an extended period of time, not recovering from one port while frantically preparing for the next.   As ill write about later, life on board the ship truly was the most amazing part of semester at sea.
            After two days at sea, we were awoken around 7 am to the sounds of pots and pans banging, and people parading through the halls.  Generally on ship, being woken up to loud noises is bad thing, this howevere felt different.  The banging was in a playful rhythm, and was quickly approaching our cabin.  I peeked my head out the door, to see the crew, in ridiculous costumes parading through the halls.  This could only mean one thing, Neptune Day:
            Neptune day is a centuries old maritime tradition in which one  transforms from being a lowly pollywog to a trusty shellback the first time they cross the equator on a ship.  The custom was designed as a test for seasoned sailors to ensure their new shipmates were capable of handling long rough times at sea.  Today was the day the MV explorer would cross the equator for the first time, and thus, the day gabby and I would become trusty shellbacks.  This process is cruel, unusual, and requires a very specific chain of events to be completed.

Step 1. Get violently woken by the sounds of metal pouding
Step 2. Get covered in fish guts and rotten food waste
Step 3.  Submerge yourself in King Neptune’s pond
Step 4. Convince the royal manger that you are ready for the transformation
Step 5. Show your loyalty to the sea by publically displaying affection for its fauna
Step 6. Prove your loyalty to king Neptune by kissing his green slimy belly
Step 7. Complete the ultimate and mandatory sacrifice by ridding yourself of your most precious locks

Now, after years of Jewish mothers complaining about hazing, lawsuits, and the occasional bride complaining about their bridesmaids showing up to the wedding soon after semester at sea with nearly shaven heads, this process has transformed considerably.  It looks for like this these days… 

Step 1.  Gently be awoke by the jovial sounds of your trusty crew playing ‘Under the Sea’ with pots and wooden spoons
Step 2. Change into a bathing suit, then have an alum (shellback) pour warm water with green food coloring in it delicately over your head.
Step 3. Hop into the pool to wash off any remaining greenish tinted water
Step 4. Have the academic dean help you up the ladder to exit the pool
Step 5. Kiss a fish (it was a big nasty looking barracuda, so this part hasn’t really gotten any better)
Step 6. Kiss a ring that King Neptune (the executive dean painted green and wearing a toga) is wearing.
Step 7.  If you want to, shave your head.  Most of your friends will probably do it, but really, no pressure.  Also, girls, if you don’t want to go all out, just go for the Skrillex look, and shave a tiny square just above your ear.  You can totally tell your friends later that you are a bad ass and shaved your head (p.s. some women on board did shave their head, and though a bad ass thing to do, is something they will likely be regretting for at least a couple of years while their hair grows back).

So yah, that’s why I shaved my head.  That and its really freaking hot near the equator, so the breeze is nice

Two days after Neptune day we stopped to re-fuel in Mauritius.  Mauritius is somewhere that I had never heard of until last year, but once I heard about it, it just kept coming up.  Mauritius is a tiny Island about 200 miles off the coast of Madagascar, and Madagascar is a giant Island off the east of Africa.  Like the Pixar movie, yes.  And the second one, yes.  And maybe the third, one, I don’t think I’ve seen that one.  We first learned about Mauritius when we were researching places for our honeymoon last year.  Our travel agent said it was exactly what we were looking for, though I ignored her advice at the time, I know she was right.   Mauritius is a tropical paradise, not too dissimilar to many islands you would find in the Caribbean.  Sadly, we would only be docking in Mauritius for 8 hours, just long enough to refuel.  Past voyages have stayed longer, though after an unfortunate Semester at Sea Students getting drunk and inadvertently burning down a hotel incident, the Mauritian government kindly denied Semester at Sea’s attempts to dock over night.  8 hours in paradise it was. 
            We weren’t going to waste any time.   We both knew we wanted to get under water so along with a faculty member and his wife, we arranged for a dive shop to pick us up at a nearby beach.  We had an amazing afternoon diving.  The water was beautiful, the fish were spectacular, and best of all, Gabby, who has had trouble with her ears, and being able descend in the past (conveniently, the wife of the professor we went with had the same problem recently), was able to get down with no problem, and had a great time.  The dive masters literally held each of their hands the entire dive, and I couldn’t be more grateful.  After such a great day diving, I knew Gabby would have no fear in getting back in the water with me in the future (spoiler alert, the next time we got in the water, there was a lot more fear, stay tuned…)
            A few days after leaving Mauritius was the long anticipated Sea Olympics.  This event separates the student body into 7 different ‘seas’ based on where they live on the ship.  Each sea was assigned a color, and essentially a color war in sued.  The faculty and staff comprised an 8th team, that we named the ‘Sea-lebrities’, cause well we’re kind of a big deal around here.  I’m still not sure if I appointed myself, was or was appointed the team captain, but well, I assumed the role quickly.  Those of you who know me best know that I like dressing up in costumes, making fun of others shortcomings, and dominating and menial tasks and worthless trivia.  This day was tailor made for me.  We assumed the tag line of “if were not last, were first, cause well, if a rag tag group of old people and children can beet even one group of well fed testosterone laden sexually frustrated college students, we’d take it as a major victory.  Turns out we didn’t come in last, in fact, we came in fourth.  We were pretty excited about it.  Events throughout the day varied from classics like tug of war and volleyball, to synchronized swimming (a fan favorite), lip sync contests, musical chairs, and even a 24 hour film competion.  It was a blast.  I almost got thrown out of the volleyball competition for arguing with the ref, but a blast none the less.  We had fun, we ended in a respectable fourth place, and gained a Sh%t ton of street cred for the students.  Not sure how, but I ended up at the choreographer for the synchronized swimming competition.  Imagine your geology professor, your psychology professor, your physician, or your father doing then gangnam style and Haka in speedos.  It was a sight to see, trust me.  We sailed on, and soon Africa would come into view.  We would soon turn the literal and metaphorical last corner, around the cape of Africa, on our way to the finish line…


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Kerala “God’s Own Country”

For the majority of the voyage we have looked forward to each port with eager anticipation. Every port, except for India. We were concerned about the heat, the “intense smells” that everyone had warned us about, and most specifically the spicy food. As some of you know,  Jesse has a very strong aversion, some might even say allergy, to spicy food.  As soon as he takes a bite of anything with a spicy pepper in it, immediately his face goes numb and the crown of his head begins to sweat. For all of these reasons we were concerned. 

 I write this while floating on a houseboat in the backwater of Kerela,  slowly gliding  down canals surrounded by palm trees and banana trees. The coastline is speckled with small huts filled with people doing their daily chores of washing their clothes in the river and wrangling their goats and cows.  We are sharing this house boat with 5 other friends who all sit and relax while we watch the view slowly pass us by. We all chat and eat amazing meals cooked by our private chef that includes local cuisine including crab and tiger prawns from the market we bought along the way. Jesse is actually really enjoying the Indian food (shhhh, don’t tell anyone).

So far Cochin, India has been my favorite port. I am sure it is some combination of my minimal expectations, my intense distain for the idea of getting on four flights in 5 days to be able to see the Taj Mahal (instead we decided to stay close to the ship),  the amazing experiences and people we have experienced along the way, and us getting better at traveling in general.  As soon as we stepped off the ship we were hounded by people trying to sell us goods or ride in their tuk tuk for the day. We quickly realized that tuk tuks are the best mode of transportation ever. Not only are they fun to ride in and provide a nice breeze to the riders, they also provide a unique opportunity to get to know some of the people that live in that area. Many of our friends picked a “tuk tuk guy” who for $10 a day would be waiting for them when they woke up in the morning, drive them any where they wanted to go, and sit and wait while you shopped or went to dinner. Our best tuk tuk experience culminated in us tuk tuk racing the Executive Dean (both of our boss) and his wife home from dinner one night. Luckily we got the “party tuk tuk” that night which included party lights, a sound system, and leather seats complete with a console and cupholders. We took Bob and Abby down, veering into the wrong side of the road, taking turns at crazy speeds, and catching air as we went over speed bumps. While obviously unsafe (sorry mom) it was the most fun I have had on the voyage thus far.

I also was able to take a yoga class while in India. For 300 rupies ($5), I got a two hour yoga class and a vegetarian meal. The yoga class was taught by someone that could have no other career except to be a yoga instructor in india.  Long black hair, tied in a pony tail; long white beard, skinny, no shirt, wearing pajama pants. He taught with a thick indian accent which was hard to understand in and off itself but even harder with the sounds of India behind it (goats crying, trucks backfiring, birds chirping, and frogs croaking). He then preached on about how we are all members of the cosmos and that we need to be prepared to leave this body behind and only be our consciousness which is what we will take with us into our next life. We focused on the breath, we focused on stretching, and focused on poses that he bent our bodies into what would be very illegal in the united states for fear of being sued. After the class, all 15 of us riding our “we are one with the world” yogi high, went downstairs into his living room where his wife was making us dinner. We all took off our shoes and sat in a circle on the floor. The teacher had us all “ooommmmm” and “shanti shanti” and then gave us instructions to silently mediate while eating. My inner monologue went something like this “ok we are going to mediate now, breath in breath out, wow this food is really good, wait meditate, right, breath in breath out breath in breath out, wow I am bad at mediating, wait no one can be bad at mediating, that is a judgment, breath in breath out, wow it is really awkward that no one is talking right now and we are all eating quietly, I wondering if anyone else feels awkward (look around) yup the other three people that came with me from the ship feel awkward, ok don’t laugh, stop laughing, breath in breath out….”


On our third day we rented scooters to travel up the coast 30 km north to a nearby beach town. We google mapped a route which, looked simple enough.  A short ferry ride, to a highway, turn right when you come to the only right turn, then 10 more Kilometers north on beach road.  Like we’ve come to learn in India, nothing is quite as simple as it seams.  Getting 4 people and 2 mopeds onto the ferry was no simple task in of it’s self.  After queuing up single file amongst a large number of motorcycles and other more powerful machines than what we were riding to board the ferry I knew something had to make this process more difficult, this is India after all.  As soon as the ferry landed, and the hoards of people coming over to our side stampeded off, the crew ushered a number of cars on to the ferry in a relatively orderly fashion, allowed all pedestrians to find a spot on the ferry in the shade, , then, to the tune of revving motorcycle engines, unleashed the gates of hell.  In signaling the motorbikes that they were allowed to board, what was once a single file queue quickly transformed into whirling chaotic race to the death to board this ferry.  There were horns, there were yells, there were screams, and then there was me, slowly pushing my little mo-ped on board.  It was something.   When all was said and done, they ferry ride its self was no more than 4 minutes, the loading and unloading on either end was no shorter then 15.  It was pandemonium.  Upon scooting off that ferry, we looked for what we thought was a highway on google maps.  In 1927 this may have been a highway, but today, I’d go with, let’s say, smallish kind of paved road through a town with no stoplights.  Yup, that’s a better description than highway.  After finding what was the only right turn, we turned, though quickly encountered the road ending into a giant hole.  As it turns out, the road didn’t end there, a small 6 inch wide path had been carved between the giant hole and the lake beside us.  Luckily the two people walking by made the assumption that the only reason white people would be on this road would be to go to Cherai beach so they shoed us along, simply saying “cheari, cherai” and pointing the direction we were headed.   When this road eventually ended, we turned onto what google maps had labeled ‘Beach Road’, but should have labeled “A Beach Road”.  The word ‘beach’ was fitting, the word ‘road’ was not.  This was a sort of designated path with sand, stones, goats, and cows blocking the way.   You know, India.  A few kilometers down the ‘road’, we made it to Cherai Beach, and well, lets just say that Beach towns in India are missing something from what we have to expect in a beach town.  The little shops selling floaties were there Ice cream vendors as far as the eye could see. Lifeguard towers, Check.   But looking down the beach you realized two staples of the beach were missing.  One: Beer.  Kerala is a nearly dry state, with only 23 licensed alcohol vendors.  Apparently Cherai beach didn’t make the cut, because no matter how many restaurants we stopped into, nary a beer was to be found.  Secondly, bathing suits…  not a single person on the beach was wearing a bathing suite.  It was strange.  The women (though very few) were going into the water in their full saris, and never for more than a few seconds.  The men were in the water either in jeans and a t-shirt, or just their underwear.  I can’t tell if a boutique Indian bathing suit line would be a million dollar idea, or a complete bust, either way, the jeans in the ocean just didn’t make much sense to us.  It was India after all, I guess we just needed to stop asking questions.      

O, yah, and for the first three days I had a Mustache, then I started to get startled every time I would look in the mirror or a see a picture of myself.  So I shaved it.      When in India…

we were there during Holy, which is the holiday where people throw paint at each other. Someone walked by and "holied" Gabby's face



Thursday, April 16, 2015

You’re safe with us (Myanmar Part II)

So much more happened during our time in Myanmar that I didn’t want to short change the rest of the events by throwing them in at the end of the previous blog post. 

After spending time with Unan, who I now, unbeknownst to our friends whos monk he really is, will refer to as our monk (Sorry Jeff and Catrina…), Gabby and I headed up to a city called Bagan.  Before describing our time in bagan, the adventure getting there and back is well worth describing, get excited…
 2014 wasn’t the best year for aviation.  I’m pretty sure Malaysian Airlines lost half of their fleet, planes were shot down, planes went missing, and planes crashed.  When signing up for an overnight program in Myanmar, I wasn’t exactly excited that the program required domestic flights, but I thought, meh, its ok, Semester at Sea wouldn’t book us on any shady airlines, they’ll stick to the big international carriers that they can trust.  Turns out the big international carriers that they can trust don’t operate in Myanmar.  There are four airlines, each owned by the same person, none with more than 5 airplanes in their fleet.  This was going to be interesting…
            Our first flight was on an airline called Yangon Airways.  I told myself, ok, its named after their capital city, it can’t be that bad (yah, that makes no sense, I know, but I was really trying really hard to make my self feel better), then I found myself saying things like ‘they have a permanent ticket counter’, and ‘oh, their logo looks well established’, (yes, I was really reaching here), but it was working (ok, well that and the constant stream of Xanax I was feeding myself at this point), I was feeling better about our chances.  Then I saw the airlines slogan, and no amount of self-soothing or xanax could talk me down from this one.  Yangon Airways, you’re safe with us.  The only time anyone ever tells you that you are safe with them is when it is so clear you are not safe with them, that they feel obliged to remind you.  A doctor tending to you after having a massive heart attack would say “ you’re safe with us”.  A stranger trying to lure a child into a van with no windows would unquestionable say “you’re safe with us”. No, asshole, were not safe with you.  Feeling safe with an airline is the default.  If you have to say it, it means it’s not true.  We are not safe with you...   Turns out we were safe with them, and at least they used the correct spelling of ‘you’re’, though I cant guarantee that at this writing (about a month after the fact), that the airplane we flew in is still in service. This airplane was old, like really really old, like flight attendant being the most prestigious job in the world old.  But we were safe. 
The trip home was different, but adventurous nonetheless.  Our program ended a bit early, so we headed to the airport, where we figured we could get some food, relax, and maybe catch up on e-mails before our flight.  Spoiler alert, NONE of those things happened.  We arrived at the Bagan airport 3 hour before our flight was supposed to depart.  This airport was small.   One main room where makeshift ticket counters were set up, one giant air-conditioning device (like the size of a VW Beatle) was on full blast, a lady with one of those slide open ice-cream coolers, some severely tattered airport chairs, and an area that was called security, though something must have been lost in translation, as there was nothing secure about what they were doing.  We were initially upset about the lack of food options, we were disappointed by the lack of wi-fi, and finally a bit irritated when they announced our flight would delayed by an hour.  Ok, not great, but not the worst thing in the world.  And then the power went out…   it’s 97 degrees outside and quickly this main room turns into a convection oven.  The western facing wall was glass, and the late afternoon sun was pouring in.  As soon as the power went out the giant air conditioner stopped, the ceiling fans came to a halt, and suddenly I was baking to death in the Burmese oven.  I felt like Hansel or Gretel.  It was getting hotter and hotter, and I was doing all I could to keep my self from losing it.  Then I remembered the lady with ice cream cooler….   Have you ever gone into some sort of a negotiation with absolutely no leverage what so ever? Here I was absolutely drenched from head to toe in sweat, carrying a large backpack and all I wanted was some ice cream.  I asked how much for an ice cream, she looked me up and down, and told me a price that was 3 times what I’m guessing it was before the power had gone off.  Feeling as though I was getting swindled I went on a rampage, explaining that in about 5 minutes all she was going to have left were bags of chocolate milkshake to sell, and soon after that it would be bags of rancid milk.  She didn’t look too concerned.  That’s when I realized this was probably not the first time this had happened, nor was it probably the first time that her ice cream had melted, gone bad, then refroze around the stick.  I turned and walked away, and was still ungodly hot. 
The strangest part about the power outage was not the ungodly heat, but that it didn’t seam to effect air traffic at all.  Planes kept coming and going.   You’d think a power outage at air traffic control would cause flights to be delayed.  It wasn’t, so uhh, what on earth caused our flight to be delayed????  When all was said and done, we were at the airport for nearly 4 hours.  Finally, just before we boarded our flight the power came back on, the air conditioner whirrrrred back to life, lights in the restrooms came back on ( I probably peed by Iphone light three or four times), and they were able to call our flight over the P.A.  I was so miserable the entire time that I had forgotten to be anxious about the sub-par nature of Burmese airlines.  We were about to board another flying death trap, when I noticed it was a different airline.  Was it a bad sign that their slogan wasn’t reassuring us of our safety?  In Myanmar does that mean we were not safe? I really didn’t know, and frankly, I was too sweaty to think about it.  To my delight however, the plane we were boarding was brand–spanking new.  So new in fact that where the no smoking light usually appears on the overhead compartment, a different imagine was covered by the red circle and crossed out, that of a laptop and an Iphone.  Myanmar really is a country of paradox!  

Now back to Bagan…

   Bagan is the ancient religious capital of the country, and at one time was home to over 10,000 stupas.  Questions 1: whats a stupa? Great questions.  A stupa is a religious sight, often containing a relic of Buddha, or one of his followers.  It’s like a Pagoda, but with differences that are completely irrelevant to this story (and I didn’t really listen that well when they were explaining the differences to us).  Question 2: 10,000 sounds like a lot, how many are left today?  Also a great question.  Nearly 2,500 stupas are still standing today.   Before going, and even after google imaging it, I really couldn’t grasp what I was going to see.  We drove by a number of the stupas, and while it was pretty cool, I still didn’t quite understand all the buzz about how spectacular it was.  The next morning we woke up before sunrise, e-biked (it’s a thing, look it up), to one of the tallest stupas (about 150 ft tall), climbed to the top, and patiently waited  (along with about 100 other people) for the sun to rise, and for me to understand all the hype.  The sun rose, it was pretty, I tried convincing myself that this was such an amazing experience, but clearly my heart was just not it.  It was great, no question about it, as it got brighter more stupas came into view, but a must see travel destination in the world, nah, I didn’t think so.  Then, the hot air balloons started to rise over the landscape, and BAM, I don’t know what it was, but somehow the scene became magical.  Stupas started to appear out of thin air, and the slow moving hot air balloons transformed the landscape into something completely surreal.  I know its an old cliché, but pictures (or youtube clips for that matter) just really don’t do it justice.   

Sadly, the rest of the day would be a bit of a blur.  After returning to my hotel I received an e-mail from my father that my Grandma Flo had passed away.  Grandma Flo lived a long fulfilling life, successfully raising 5 kids, and living to the ripe old age of 94.  It was her time, but that did not make being so far away any easier.  I’m just incredibly grateful that I got to see grandma Flo one last time when I was in Cleveland in October.  The rest of the day was strange. We had a full day itinerary, and were supposed to fly back to Yangon to meet the ship later that night. I was supposed to be on an ox cart ride 20 minutes after getting the e-mail.  It was strange.  I saw some sights, road an ox cart, and really thought a lot about what it meant to be so far away.  It was hard.  Then we were stuck at the burning hot airport for hours.  It was a day that I was happy to see end. 
            In the days that followed it was amazing how my newly formed community on board really rallied around me.  A couple friends prepared a service for the day of my Grandma’s funeral, and nearly 20 staff members attended.  I wanted more then anything to be able to attend the funeral at home, but here we were, smack dab in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  It truly was the only time on this entire voyage that I wished I was somewhere else.  It was a hard couple of days, but the out pouring of support really showed me what Semester at Sea is about.  Just like the ship its self, everything in life must move forward, and so we did.  Rest In Peace Grandma Flo.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Myanmar, or Burma, or whatever you want to call it, was the one stop along our voyage that I was completely confused about.  A of all: I had NO idea what to expect when stepping both feet into it, and B of all: I didn't even know what to call it.  We would be docking in a city called Rangoon, or Yangon? I think they were the same place, I really didn't know.    All I knew about Myanmar before coming on Semester at Sea was that it was the least developed of the southeast asian countries, until a few years ago zero tourists were allowed in year year, and lastly, that something bad had been taking place there for a long time.  I expected it to be a sad port, with sad people, and sad sights.  I expected to have a melancholy experience, feeling repressed by the government that for the first time on the voyage would actually restrict where we could travel (tourists are only allowed to go to three places that make up the ‘tourist triangle’).  
Before embarking I downloaded an episode of Anthony Bourdain Parts unknown where he traveled to Myanmar (Burma).  Now, having been, I must say that  he did an amazing job trying to describe a country that is just completely indescribable to someone from a developed country.  The rolling black outs, the gaping holes in the sidewalk exposing open sewers, recognizing that he was 19 hours into a 10 hour train ride, such things are truly too foreign for us to understand without seeing.  Above all of these issues however, he stressed the warmth and the generosity of the people in Myanmar (Burma).  And really,  He couldn’t have been more right.  The restaurants we ate in regularly lost power, I almost fell, more than once, into gaping holes in the sidewalk, and although we avoided the trains at Anthony’s suggestion, those who did endured the most bone wrenching, eye opening (literally eye opening. Though many people spent nearly 20 hours on a train from Yangon to Bagan, they were unable to sleep due to the incredibly warped and turbulent train tracks that were built in the 1920’s, and last rehabbed before WWII), train ride of their lives.  We opted to fly this route, and well, that was an experience in it’s self ( I’ll explain below).  Above the tell tale down sides of visiting a developing country (and this country was literally developing before our eyes.  The ships docked all around us were bringing in new (used) cars from Europe by the thousands), our greatest take away from Myanmar was the warmth and generosity of its people.  They were kind, they were generous, and more than anything else, they were curious.  For the first time in months, people were approaching us out of curiosity or the desire to practice their English, not the desire to scam us out of a couple bucks.  Once we let our guard down, it was an amazing shift.
Myanmar was a place of paradox (no boat pun intended).  Not only does the country and it’s capital each have two names, the old and the new, but everywhere you looked, your brain couldn't quite fit the pieces together.  The architecture in the capitol city Yangon was nothing like I had ever seen before.  The buildings were elaborate, once upon a time decadent British colonial masterpieces, now crumbling before our eyes.   Buildings were plastered with warning sighs from the government that they were not safe to inhabit, though without fail wet laundry hung outside nearly every window.  Bright white pillars that once exemplified British royalty were now grey and decaying.  In one of the poorest countries on earth, rural streets were lined with solid gold pagodas soaring sometimes hundreds of feet in the Air.  Shwedagon Pagoda in the heart of Yangon has an 80 karat diamond on the tip of its spire.  This diamond is worth twice the GDP of the entire country.  It just doesn’t make sense. 
Walking down the streets of Yangon it is extremely evident that this city, stunted by years of war and military rule, is finally blossoming into the powerful city it can become.  In time Yangon may become a great Asian city, it may follow in the footsteps of Ho Chi Mihn city, or even Bangkok.   For now however, Yangon is stuck in its awkward phase.  The number of cars are far too many for the streets to handle, electrical wires are Gabby’d (This is a verb.  It means to tangle things well beyond what one would think is possible.  In addition to being tangled beyond the realm of possibility, it often includes getting things tangled together that have no business being tangled together in the first place.  i.e. : today when looking for a computer charger, Gabby pulled the computer charger out of her beach bag.  In addition to the computer charger, Gabby also pulled out nearly an entire spool of yarn that had intricately wrapped its self around the cord in a series of perfect and Jesse proof knots that resulted in nearly 15 minutes of unsuccessful de-Gabby-ing the cord/yarn, followed by 15 seconds of cutting the yarn everywhere I possible could to free the enslaved computer cord.  What were a computer charger and yarn doing in Gabby’s beach bag??  Gabby’d…) on the side of nearly every building, and sewers are open on the side of each street, creating an imposing mote like obstacle to exiting any sidewalk.  New age restaurants are popping up all over the city, with kind of funny New York City clubby names like Gekko and Vista.  The food is fancy, the decorum sheik, but without notice they lose power just like the rest of the city.
Of all of the strange paradoxes that Myanmar presents, the hardest for the brain to comprehend is that of the modern day monk.  Myanmar is an extremely religious country.  Nearly 90% of the population is devout Buddhist, and of this 90%, all must at some point in their lives join the monastery.  Some stay for a week, some stay their entire lives, but all must join.  For a first time visitor to Myanmar, this results in a very unique scene.  While there are people walking around town dressed in normal (for developing SouthEast Asia) attire, most both young and old are dressed in the standard issue saffron monk robe or pink nunary get up.  It’s pretty shocking to see at first.  The first monk I saw, I awkwardly followed close behind snapping candid pictures.  After fully circling this poor monk, I realized that most people around him were wearing the same thing.  I took some pictures, ok, a lot of pictures, before realizing this was going to be a thing, and that I didn’t have to snap a picture every time a monk took a step or kneeled in prayer.
But then it happened…  We were on a field program visiting and learning about Shwedegon Pagoda (mentioned earlier, with the 80 karat diamond on top),  the largest Pagoda in Myanmar, when I saw what was turning into the quintessential Burmese photo opportunity (or so I thought).  I framed the shot just right.  I had a monk, in full monk regalia in the bottom corner, staring up at the beautiful Shewgadon pagoda extending to the heavens above him. I focused the camera just right, started to click the shutter, then, to my dismay, the monk started to turn around.  Damn it I thought, I missed the framer, the picture that was forever going to appear blown up and framed on my wall!!  Not so much.   The monk turned 180 degrees to face me then reached into his saffron robe, unzipped a hidden pocket,  his hand re-emerge gripping an Iphone-6.  He raised his arm, lined up his shot, then Boom, a Monk Selfie.  I couldn’t freaking believe what I was seeing.  I caught it all on film, and nothing could possibly have captured the spirit of Myanmar better then this #MonkSelfie.  Just like Myanmar, it was magic. 
While in Myanmar Gabby and I were afforded an opportunity that well, I never expected to have.  Short(ish) back Story: Some friends of ours on the voyage  had traveled to Myanmar 16 years earlier, and, while watching a sunset in Mandalay were getting harassed by one particularly persistent Monk.  This Monk kept approaching them, not asking for money, or collecting alms, but saying rather Bazaar sentences.  Sentences that while my Spanish literacy is minimal, sentences that I know how to say in Spanish, and well, Hebrew for that matter.  “Hello, How are you? What is your name? My Name is____ .   From where are you? I live in ________? Where is the Library”.   He was persistent, and after being asked time and time again “from where are you?”  our friends finally gave in and told the persistent monk from where they were.  This short conversation turned into 3 days spent together.  This monk wanted more than anything to practice his English, and well, knew his way around town, so our friends obliged him.  He told our friends that he goes up to that spot every night, where the tourists watch the sunset to practice his English.  After 3 days together our friends parted ways with their monk.  Our friends exchanged information with their monk, he hoping one day to visit the America, they, loving that they could now refer to someone as ‘their monk’.  This relationship grew over the years, and started as pen pal style letters addressed simply to

Unan (his monk name)
Mandalay, Burma

Somehow these letters always found their way to their monk.  Sometime after sending a letter, our friends would receive a hand written letter back, often written in Shakespearean English.  These letters got fewer and farrer between, but they (ironically) would send a Christmas card every few years to “Unan – Monastery – Mandaly, Burma”, and without fail would receive a letter soon there after.  Our friend was delighted to one day receive a friend request on Facebook from ‘Unan”.  That’s right, just one name, like Madonna, but a monk, Unan.  Their friendship had gone electronic.  Soon after being hired to come on this voyage, our friends contacted their monk (how freaking cool is it to have an ‘our monk’) to let him know they would be coming back to his homeland, and that they would love to see him.  He said great, Ill take the 37 hour train ride down to see you, that would be wonderful (or something similar, probably written in a more Shakespearean  manor), and with great anticipation, after 16 years our friends anxiously awaited the arrival of their monk.  Getting him on board the ship was a bit difficult to say the least.  He had no drivers license, his passport had expired years back, and the ship was docked nearly an hour outside of town, but after hours of waiting/searching, they found their monk, and they got him on board.
            In the days to come, I learned a number of things from hanging out with ‘their monk’.  To save space, as this is already an outrageously long blog post, I will list what I learned in bullet point form:

·         Monks do not eat after noon, it distracts the brain
·         Unan was a self proclaimed international monk
·         Unan was a city monk, and did not understand “How rural monks did it”
·         The smaller the monk (Unan was exactly 1.0 Gabby tall, and had 1.0 Gabby surface area as well), the larger the cell phone/tablet they stash in their robe pocket (his phone put the Iphone 6+ to shame)
·         Monks have cellphones/tablets
·         Monks have robe pockets
·         Monk robes are incredibly complex and can be used or worn during nearly any situation
·         Monks do not eat for pleasure, they eat for sustenance.
o   (this point requires a back story) 
§  After coming aboard and receiving a full ship tour, 11:30 rolled around, and Unan needed to eat before noon (see point 1). 
§  We took him to lunch…
§  We had not considered the possibility that he had never before seen a buffet. 
§  He saw a buffet
§  He lost mind
§  He was unable to wipe the smile off his face no matter how hard he tried
§  I asked him why he was trying so hard to wipe the smile off his face
§  He told me he thought people would think he was weird or from the country if they saw him get so excited by a buffet
§  I thought it was weird that monks worried about these things
§  He took a selfie with the buffet (I guess monk selfies are a thing)
§  People in the lunch room lost their minds
·         Turns out he was right, but regardless, suddenly there was a monk, in full monk garb, taking a picture on a cruise ship in front of the lunch buffet, it was weird, but in the most amazing kind of weird way possible
§  He didn’t know how to serve himself from the buffet, so our friends piled a mountain (I mean a mountain) of food on his plate.
§  He ate it all (he cut a dinner role with a fork and knife, which was one of the cutest things I have seen in my entire life)
§  Our friends excitingly asked “so, what was your favorite thing?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!)
§  A look of confusion filled his face
§  He was silent for a minute
§  He then said “for me, this question is hard, I do not eat for pleasure”
§  We all then remembered we were sitting with a monk, not Buddy the Elf from Elf
§  Monks don’t eat for pleasure, but they sure like roasted potatoes
·         Monks are given monk names when they first join the monastery
·         Unan did not remember his given name, his family simply calls him ‘monk’
·         Monks only require 4 hours of sleep, because when they are asleep their minds are truly at rest
·         Even monks get upset by the incredibly slow internet connection we have on board
o   At one point Unan gritted his teeth and said ‘ I want to throw this thing overboard when it does this”
o   He showed us the spinning wheel of death on his phone/tablet
o   We lost our minds
o   I’ve never felt more validated in my entire life…
·          An unfocused mind lacks dignity…

I now recognize that this did not save space, and well, has caused the exact opposite of my desired result.  Oh well.

Ok, after writing 3 more pages, I have decided to break this blog post into two parts.  It would just get too long, so, uhhh, stay tuned for part II coming soon.  
 The first Monk I saw

 Shwedegon Pagoda



Gabby seems to be dressed as a monk...

 Unan and me

Friday, April 10, 2015

If I only had a brain…

If I only had a brain…

While sailing out of Singapore a strange thing happened.  A few of us both staff and students were standing on the back deck watching as Singapore quickly faded away in the distance.  But like really quickly, like much much more quickly then the 7 or so ports before it.  While a few of us discussed this, we noticed something else weird going on below us.  While the set up of the ship is hard to describe, just imagine that we are standing on a deck on the back of the ship, looking down onto a deck below us that is for crew members only.   So heres what we saw, and here was the conversation the followed.  We saw what can only be described as a Guantanamo Bay-esque Prisoner torture situation.  We saw two crew members dragging along what we believed to be a person wearing an orange jumpsuit, one holding this person up, while the other was tying their wrists to the banister over the edge of the ship.  For obvious reasons, this drew our attention… A student looked over at me and asked “Uhh, whats going on down there”, and well, being the smart ass that I am, and without having any clue what was actually going on I responded “ Since we are still in Singapore waters, we have to, according to local law, publically cane any student who were late getting back to the ship, rather than giving out DockTime” (Docktime is the standard, and far less corporal punishment given when students are late for the time they are due back on the ship.  For every 15 minutes late, they must stay on this ship for 2 hours at the next port etc…).  This student literally spit out the water she had just sipped when I told her that.  As it turns out, what was actually going on below us was even more ridiculous than the idea of crewmembers caneing Semester at Sea Students. 
            As we pulled away from Singapore, we were heading through the most pirate infested waters on earth.  Not in the Caribbean you ask sarcastically? nope, its not 1823.  Not in Somalia? Nope, We’ve seen captain Phillips also, Somali pirates are so 2007.  Currently the most pirated waters on earth are in the Straight of Malaaca.  Why didn’t we avoid these waters in the first place you ask? Don’t worry, the captain had a plan, and that’s what was goin on  below us.  A ScarePirate.  That’s right, a Mother F^&king scare pirate.  A 92 million dollar vessel we are on, and their defense against pirates? An orange crew jumpsuit stuffed with linens, the hood pulled over a  fake head, binoculars glued to a fake face, and a blond wig.  Oh, and don’t worry, 4 hoses, one tied to each corner of the ship. (See pictures below).  I’ve thought through in my head how these items would defend us against Backbeard, or the main guy who won an academy award for Captain Phillips, and well, I’m just happy we were moving fast, really really fast.