I am currently off the coast of Namibia (24 Degrees South, 13 Degrees 9 Minutes East) on my way to South Africa. We crossed into the Southern Hemisphere on Sept 26 at 11 minutes, 11 seconds past 11pm (11:11:11) - I have a picture of the map at 0 degrees latitude at that time, pretty cool huh?. From September 22 to the 25, I was in Ghana, Togo and Benin. It was one of the rare occasions that we get to leave the country - on a specifically sponsored Semester at Sea trip (the only other opportunity is in Vietnam, when I will go to Cambodia).
The first day, I stayed in Ghana, just explored Accra and saw what the city had to offer. We docked in Tema which was 23 km to the east of Accra. The shuttles to and from the ship took an hour in each direction because of the ridiculous amount of traffic and roads in poor condition. Actually, the roads the shuttles drove on were some of the best I drove on the entire time I was in port. Accra was pretty dirty, but had THE nicest people I've ever met in my life. Everyone was happy to meet the Americans - especially since Obama had just been there in July. People were genuinely happy to see us, unlike in Spain and Morocco where they were indifferent and unhappy to see us, respectively. Even the vendors in Ghana who we refused to buy anything from were gracious when we said no. They would say, "thats okay friend, one love," and sayings like that.
The second day I woke up at 5am to leave for my trip to Benin. The bus left at 6am and we made our way to Benin via partially paved roads. There is no such thing as a highway in Ghana, some roads are paved, but they are shared by pedestrians, bikes, animals and vehicles (Small cars, busses and enormous trucks). When we got to Benin, we ate lunch on the beach and relaxed for a little while. Then we continued to the Temple of the Pythons where I had a 4 or 5 foot boa constrictor put around my neck. After that we took a tour of a sacred forest and then visited the "port of No Return." It was a beach with an enormous monument to the salves who had been taken from Africa and dragged across the beach and thrown onto a ship bound for the new world. Then we checked into the hotel and ate dinner out on the veranda overlooking the lake.
The next morning we woke up and embarked on my favorite excursion and least favorite bus ride (thus far). We drove to the village of Ganvie, a 30,000 person village built ON a lake. The village was 8km from the shore and their houses were built on stilts and they conducted business and moved around on carved wooden canoes. We were on a wooden boat (with an engine) and toured the village. It was definitely the coolest thing Ive done so far, it was really incredible to see these people live literally ON a lake. My mom and I had visited a Target before I left and picked up little toys for the kids I met along the way. When I got back to land, two little boys stood at the dock and followed us back to the bus. I got on the bus, grabbed a handful of small rubber toy dinosaurs and gave each of them one. They went off and told two more boys and I gave each of them dinosaurs and then each of them told friends and within a matter of minutes I was swarmed by 20-30 kids asking for dinosaurs. I only had 8 or so, but luckily this other girl had stickers and when she started giving them out, they lost interest in me. I gave my last few dinosaurs out to those that remained and then I got back on the bus. Then we drove/sat in traffic back to the area around the hotel for lunch. What was a 45 minute (with traffic) drive TO Ganvie turned into a 2 hour drive back. Im not complaining about the bus rides, I was just upset because they SEVERELY underestimated the amount of time it would take, and things they planned for us to were completely cut from the program. For instance, that day, after we ate lunch we began making our way back to the ship at NOON. We cut out the entire afternoon where we were supposed to visit Lome, Togo and the fishing peir and fetish (voodoo) market as well as a bus tour of the city. Well because of extreme time restrictions between lengthy customs delays and poor roads with heavy traffic, we just went straight back the ship and arrived at 10:30pm. So including the 3 or so stops we made (none for food, all for bathroom), it was over a 10 hour straight bus ride. We sat at the border of Togo and Ghana for nearly 2 hours waiting to clear customs and apparently had to pay off the border officers in the end because some people didnt have the proper visas. (Sidenote, that wasnt the only instance of people having to pay off public officials - anyone who missed the last shuttle at 11pm from Accra back to the ship had to take a taxi and pay off the officers before getting into the port/ship). So we ate for the first time since lunch at 10:45pm after getting back onto the ship.
I went right to bed because the Field Office moved up my trip for the following day by 1 hour, so it was now leaving at 6am - meaning another 5am wake up. That day I visited Kakum national park where there were Canopy bridges 40M (120 Ft) off the ground. They were constructed out of wire, rope and wood and were extremely wobbly. But it was really cool to stand that high and look out over the treetops and be able to see down through the trees - a very different perspective from looking up through the trees. Then we went to Elmina Castle which was a Portugese slave fort - supposedly among the oldest in western Africa. It was very different from the port of No Return because there were holding cells for the people marked to be slaves. It was very sad to learn about some of the atrocities that occurred in that fort during the slave trade and once again a different perspective than just reading about it in a textbook.
Ghana was simply amazing. I really enjoyed everything I did and the people made the experience soooo much more enjoyable. I bought random items through the windows of the bus while sitting in traffic - people sold literally everything by walking up to cars stopped in traffic: candy, food, hats, sunglasses, electronics, drinks, yogurt, shirts, boxers, toilet paper (by the roll or case) ties, drums, jewelry... even a small table once. They carried the items balanced on their heads up and down rows of traffic and people would call for whatever goods they needed. Once, the entire bus wanted chocolate bars, so a guy ran along side the bus selling us bars as he jogged. Ghana was the first country I was legitimately SAD to leave, I felt like there was so much I could have done there and I really didnt want to leave. And I really want to stress Im not complaining about the traffic, I chalked it up as part of the experience and I will NEVER forget some of the things I saw along the way while stopped in traffic. It was truly an incredible experience - so different from anything I'd ever done, it was just amazing - Ive even found myself at a loss for adjectives to describe it it all.
Anyway, onto South Africa, Ill be there Saturday, Im visiting Robben Island and climbing table mountain that day and then going Shark Diving (hopefully) the next day. Then I have a 3 day safari to Kruger. I. CANT. WAIT.
Talk to you all soon, Andy
Blog from South Africa - October 2009
Well Ive been MIA for a little while because Ive been busy with midterms and "spring break" (our 3 day weekend in Mauritius). But its given me time to really think about South Africa and take in everything I saw... which was a ton.
I went into South Africa more excited than any other country and I was more upset leaving than any other country. I absolutely LOVED every single minute I was in that country and if you had to ask me which one I would most like to go back to, so far it would definitely be South Africa. Not that I wouldnt go back to the others if given the opportunity, but just that I really thought South Africa was that amazing. I honestly hope I do get the chance to go back at some point in my life. To make the most of my time in South Africa, I planned all six days independently and did not deal with a single SAS trip - the first time since Spain Ive done that. The difference was that I planned several excursions to different parts of the country whereas Spain was basically just Barcelona. For instance for my safari I took the longest (distance-wise) possible domestic direct flight in South Africa from the southwest corner to the northeast corner... about the equivalent of a Pittsburgh-Miami or Pittsburgh-Denver direct flight.
Anyway, I woke up at 6am the day we were coming into Cape Town to catch the sunrise and Im extremely glad I did, it was beautiful and I saw some seals and got some great pictures of Cape Town in the sunrise light. We docked just after 8am in BY FAR the most scenic and beautiful port we've been in so far. Ghana and Morocco were both commercial ports and Spains was nice, but we didnt dock in such a gorgeous waterfront location there. To put it in perspective, we docked literally right next to a 5star hotel considered among the best in the world - a cheap room was $600 USD a night. So the first day in South Africa, I stayed in Cape Town and took a cable car up to the top of Table Mountain and looked out over the city and surrounding area. I wanted to climb to the top but the group I was with and I were worried that we would miss our Robben island tour later that day if we climbed and those tickets were extremely hard to come by on short notice (we booked ours 5 days in advance and got the last tour of the day). And I was busy all the other days we were there so that was my only opportunity to go up to the top. The cable car was designed so the inner ring that tourists stood on would rotate 360 degrees on the trip – thus being able to get a full view of the surrounding area. The view from the top was incredible, words really can’t describe it, but you could see so far out and the weather was gorgeous.The base of Table Mountain was really hot that day, but the top was extremely comfortable and it was very clear out, I could see for miles in each direction. We went up on the best day I was later told by people who went later in the week. Later that afternoon we toured Robben island, we took the water taxi over to the island. Upon arrival we boarded a tour bus to go around the island and learn about the buildings surrounding the actual prison. One of the first places we saw was the house/prison of Robert Sobukwe. Unfortunately very few people know his name even though he was considered public enemy number 1 and a bigger threat (and therefore priority) than Nelson Mandela. No prisoner was ever housed in that building neither before nor after him. We also saw the lime quarry where the prisoners mined lime and devised plans for destroying apartheid. Robben Island served many purposes over the years – not just a prison; it was also a leper colony, a fort and a protector of Cape Town in case WWII ever spread that far south. After the bus tour we went on a guided tour of the prison led by a former political prisoner who showed us the difficulty of prison life. He told us the prisoners were treated differently both because of race and reason for imprisonment. The Blacks, Coloureds and Asians weren’t given shoes, jackets or socks and had to walk around in shorts, a t-shirt and without shoes – even during the frigid winter months. The guide showed us the yard where Mandela wrote and hid his book “Long Walk to Freedom.” He said that Mandela finished the book and made a copy that he entrusted to a departing friend to publish to the masses. The guards found the copy that was left in the prison and destroyed it – however, the other copy was published and the courier made into the Dept. of Transportation during the Mandela Administration. Then we saw the incredibly small prison cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life. The whole experience was incredibly surreal; it was tough to stomach the terrible conditions these men lived in for so long. Although the conditions were comparatively better than the slave castle dungeons in Ghana, prisoners were kept at Robben Island for extensive periods of time, 20+ times that of the stays of the people at Elmina Castle. We saw some seals lounging next to the dock when we got back and then we went back to the ship. That night I went out to a bar called Hemisphere which was at the top of one of the skyscrapers - it was definitely a cool experience as well because we could look out over the whole city, and I know its not something Ill be able to afford to do in the US when I turn 21. The next day I went shark diving - it was one of the coolest things I had ever done in my life up until that point. 5 others and I climbed in a cage strapped to the side of the small boat while the crew chummed the waters and threw fish heads tied to a line into the water as bait. Within minutes the sharks arrived. The crew would drag the fish head along the front of the cage and the shark would swim by (usually with its mouth WIDE open) trying to eat the dead fish. Then we would dive and watch the shark swim by underwater. While I was on the boat, one shark tried to bite the fish head, missed and bit the float attached to the cage instead - right in front of someone. They said they could see the shark stopped in front of the cage for a few seconds, but they couldnt tell why it wasnt swimming away because they said from underwater they couldnt tell that the shark had bitten the cage. When I was in the cage, a shark swam alongside the front completely underwater... but its right front fin was TOUCHING the front of the cage, meaning it was 6 inches away from my hand. I also had a shark swim at me with its mouth open, but it turned before it hit the cage. I have some incredible pictures and video from this event - thanks to my little sister Elise who bought a special waterproof bag for her camera and was nice enough to let me use it for the trip.
The next day was the trip I had been looking forward to for soooo long - the safari. I went up to Kruger park for 3 days and they were some of the best times of my life so far (I feel like everything I do has that statement applied to it). However, I will truly have some lasting memories of this trip because it really was that incredible. We stayed in THE BUSH in luxury tents with a thatched roof over our heads and a western bathroom attached. I watched a moon rise for the first time in my life and the food was some of the most amazing I had ever tasted (besides some of my Moms). I ate things I would NEVER have had the courage to try back in the US. I had ostrich pate, warthog and some traditional beef and egg dish that South Africans eat which was delicious (again, I have pictures of all of this). We ate South African doughnuts and ice cream for dessert and had palate cleansers (reminded me of italian ice) in between each course. The staff were sooooo friendly and extremely accommodating - we were the first group of college students that had come to that specific lodge since they could remember and I think they enjoyed our company. We had our tour guide cracking sarcastic jokes along with us. Our big joke with him was that we wanted a refund if we didnt get an opportunity to see the "Battle of Kruger." (PS if you havent seen it, go on Youtube and watch it... it took place a ways away from where we stayed, but it still took place in the park). The reason we had such high expectations with him (albeit jokingly) was because "less than 10% of all safaris see the volume and variety of animals in the time we did," according to our guide. In just 3 game drives, We saw not only the entire big 5 (Rhino, Elephant, Leopard, Lion and Buffalo - named because they're the hardest to hunt) but also zebras (one heavily pregnant), giraffes (to the point they were so common, we treated them as if they were squirrels - not really, but we saw a bunch of them), mongoose, bushbaby, blue-tailed skink lizard (one of my favorite animals when I was growing up) a baby rhino, lion cub, jackal (being chased away from a giraffe carcass by lions), warthog, tons of impala, kudu (type of very large deer) and vermit (sp?) monkeys as well as tons of others that are slipping my mind. One animals I feel the need to singularly mention is the aardvark because earlier on day two we asked what animals are the rarest to see (in our area) - he said Sable Antelope, wild dogs and aardvarks. That night we saw one crossing the road and our guide was flabbergasted. He hadnt seen one in over 2 years and couldnt believe we were there for 2 days and saw one. There was a couple there for a week and a girl who worked there for 4 months and hadnt seen either a leopard or aardvark. We really had no context to realize how lucky we were to see all those animals - in fact in some ways we almost expected to see the battle of Kruger because we had been so lucky to see everything else. Our camp was in the bush, but had tall electric fences to keep out the elephants and giraffes. But other than that, any animal (including lions and leopards) could wander into our camp. Luckily other than lizards and birds, nothing I know of wandering into our actual camp. However, that isnt to say they didnt try. A giraffe stood 15 feet from my porch the day we left, we walked around the outside and took some pictures 50+ feet in front of him, with my personal tent in the background. The whole experience was totally amazing and Im still in awe of what we saw and how excited my guide was about everything. It was my favorite big trip so far and we showed our satisfaction by leaving the staff a R1000 (nearly $150) tip. I only had one day after we got back from the safari and so I explored the mall area around the ship, but couldnt afford any of the Gucci or Armani I saw, so I just admired and enjoyed my time walking around the waterfront area. One other thing I did was for one dinner, I split a skewer of African meats with a friend. I ate Ostrich (cooked meat this time, not cold pate), Kudu, Warthog (again), a venison link (similar to pork - NOT deer) and crocodile. It was delicious and I enjoyed every bite.
I was originally planning to send a Mauritius/South Africa double email, but since this already took an hour and a half, Ill forgo the Mauritius until a later day (tomorrow maybe?)
Hope all is well and you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoying experiencing it. Andy
Blog from Mauritius/India/Vietnam/Cambodia - November 2009
So the last time I talked to any of you, I was telling you all about South Africa. Its been increasingly hard for me to keep up with all these updates, especially with less and less time in between ports (2 days from Shanghai to Yokohama). So this email will update everything Ive done in Mauritius, India, Vietnam/Cambodia. I dont have as much time to write about each individual country, so im just going to lump them into this email. The next one Ill send out after Japan (before Hawaii and it'll have Japan and China in it)
In Mauritius, I rented a villa with 21 other people, where we stayed for 2 nights, with our own private beach and lagoon. It was absolutely gorgeous there, I went snorkeling two of the three days - once from a catamaran and once from a glass bottomed boat. There were a ton of fish and a lot of variety, but the conservation efforts weren't quite up to par with US standards, they didn't have very many regulations regarding the reef areas. I saw a group of 3 humpback whales from the catamaran and had tons of delicious food.
Then I went to India. We docked in Chennai, where I spent part of the first day until I had to catch my flight to Delhi. It was over 100 degrees the entire time we were there - and dirtier than I thought was possible. Unfortunately, transportation is a very frustrating experience and it makes it tough to enjoy the country. Every single train we planned on catching was fully booked - we had already booked our flight from Varanasi back to Delhi but we were planning to take an overnight train to get to Varanasi. Since they were all full we had to get a last minute flight instead. In addition, the day we wanted to go to the Taj Mahal we showed up at the train station and all those trains were fully booked as well. So we hired a tourist taxi to drive us down to the Taj and back (4 hours each way - terrible infrastructure and very intense traffic). However, it was definitely worth the trip down there to see the Taj, although foreign tourists are charged 75 times as much as Indian nationals. Then we stopped at an ATM to get money out, the 3 others I was with got their money and then I was last. I put my card into the machine and the power went out. My card got eaten by the ATM and when the guy came to refill the ATM and get my card out - he told me I couldnt have my card unless I went to the bank and signed for it. So, it actually worked out we had hired the taxi driver for the day because he then took us to the bank and I waited for an hour for my card to arrive. I showed the manager my passport, and signed for the card - she told me my signature didn't match, so I re-signed and finally got my card back. On our way back to Delhi, we stopped to get snacks and then again to get tea for the driver. I was finished my drink and bag of chips, and got out to look for the trashcan - I asked the driver and he took the trash, threw it on the ground and said "Welcome to Delhi." By the way, you may wonder why we didn't book the trains ahead of time - well we tried, the first website was only for Indian Nationals and the only other one wouldn't accept any foreign credit cards. We would have had to go through a Travel Agency or find an Indian Rail office in one of the countries we visited. At this point I was not very impressed with India, I had been frustrated with having to change my plans so many times because of their rules, restrictions and culture. In no other country I had traveled independently in did I have so much trouble getting around. However, my impression of the country changed completely once I finally got to Varanasi. I spent two days there, we hired a guide and driver in the airport for both days. We went around Varanasi and Sarnath, 6 miles away, seeing the temple where buddha gave his first sermon, the temple Ghandi built called "Mother India" with a relief map of India inside and a few other Hindi temples in the area. I stayed in a guest house in Varanasi for 500 rupees ($10 for the room), between 3 people thats $3.33 per person for the night - it was nicer than most motels for $30-$50/night in the US. Most impressively though, I saw the Ganges, both at dusk and dawn. I saw the river that is the lifeblood of the Hindu religion - the source of their vitality. At night we saw the funerary pyres, burning the bodies of the recently deceased, and during the day I saw a body in the river 15 feet from a bathing group of people. People washed their clothes, bodies, and dinnerware in the river, the same river which they release ashes, bodies sewage and garbage into. Yet they seem to be unaffected by the polluted river and continue with their ritual cleansings. I saw so many people get into the river and then splash their arms in the water and the guide told me that it was to move the trash/debris away from where they were going to wash. The Ghats (the long staircases where people entered the river from) were teeming with life, everyone climbed up and down them to get to the river. And I havent even mentioned the sunrise - once again, and indescribable experience, but certainly not one I will ever forget. India was a very unique country, some of my best and worst moments on this trip so far happened there - if I get the opportunity to go back, I certainly will, but I would like to go to Darjeeling or somewhere away from the populated and touristy areas.
We stopped for refueling in Singapore on November 1st and then arrived on the 3rd in Vietnam. The first day I explored Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), got fitted for a suit and did some shopping. You got the feeling that the American dollar was worth more than the Vietnamese currency the Dong. EVERYONE accepted US money, albeit in smaller amounts, usually only 1's or 5's. I spent nearly every American dollar I had remaining in Vietnam/Cambodia, I even got more out because some of the ATM's gave money in US currency instead of local. But the dollar went a long way, definitely the best exchange rate so far - everything was comparatively cheap, name brand short sleeved polos for $2-$4, North Face jackets for $20, North Face backpacks for $10, printed T-shirts for a dollar and entire meals for $1-$4. However, those little things add up over time and I spent more money on "stuff" there than anywhere else... because it was so cheap. The preferred mode of transportation was motorcycle - for $1, I could get back to the ship from anywhere in the city. However, I spent the majority of my time in this port in Cambodia, which was my favorite country so far. We visited an orphanage run by an American, supported by some rich Europeans. My mom and I bought a bunch of little $1 gifts at Target like stickers, football cards and rubber dinosaurs. I brought everything I hadnt already given away, and gave it all out at the orphanage. I started with the football cards, and once they were gone, I started giving away ripped up portions of the sheets of stickers. And then finally, as my group was leaving, I pulled out the dinosaurs - the kids went nuts. Probably 15 of the them surrounded me, jumping in the air, trying to grab the bag. It was tough to decide who to give them to, so I just handed them to outstretched hands. They were very very happy and grateful, I hadn't seen so many smiles since Ghana.There were 3 SAS groups that went to that orphanage so Im sure they enjoyed our visits. After that we went on a river boat cruise to the Mekong and checked into our hotel in Phnom Penh. The next morning we went to the Genocide Museum, Toul Sleng and witnessed first hand some of the atrocities of Khmer Rouge and Duch, the leader of the torture prison. He is still on trial for his crimes, although the main criminal - Pol Pot died under house arrest over a decade ago. Although I was not alive during the Khmer Rouge times from '75-'79 I was fully immersed when I went to one of the 396 known killing fields. This particular one was the final resting place for over 15,000 of Cambodia's educated and wealthy. I quickly learned that what happened to the Cambodian people, the oppression and torture they endured was worse than what Hitler did in Germany. Yet, very few people (especially my age and younger) understand what happened, or even know it existed. Unlike the Armenian genocide which is barely, if at all mentioned in European history books, the Cambodians embraced what happened as a way of remembering those lost and to prevent anything like that from happening again. The killing fields had clothing and bones laying everywhere, if you didn't watch where you stepped you may have ended up stepping on some teeth, or worse. If a sight like that were in America, there would be strict borders and boundaries as to where you could walk and what you could touch. They would have had walkways, railings and the like, none of which were present in Cambodia. They had a monument/masoleum with skulls excavated from the gravesites. This was the most emotionally overwhelming place I had ever visited and Im glad we visited the current Kings Palace before lunch because there is NO way I would have been able to eat after going through that. At the kings palace, we saw the throne and looked at the surrounding buildings - one of which had a floor completely made of silver and a buddha made of solid 24k gold. The lock on the case of that Buddha was smaller and thinner than the ones on my backpack and I could not comprehend how little security there was around the treasures room and the palace complex in general. Later we flew to Siem Reap to visit the temples built around the 12th century without ANY slave labor. My favorite was Bayon or the temple of Smiling Faces. There were hundreds of Buddha faces carved into an enormous maze of a temple. Ta Phrom, a ruin temple in the jungle was one of the sites where Tomb Raider was filmed. And the most famous temple, Angkor Wat was a huge temple in the best condition of any of the temples. I loved all of them and I'll have to show you the pictures and although they dont really do the temples justice, they're much better than my words could ever do. I took 875 pictures in the 5 days I was in Vietnam and Cambodia. My last day in port was spent at the Cu Chi tunnels, used by the vietcong during the Vietnamese war, or American War as they called it. It was a very different perspective from everything Ive learned about the war because it was from the other sides perspective. I saw some of the horrible booby traps they used as well as paintings of them in use, with American troops as the subjects of the paintings. I crawled through one section of the tunnels, widened for tourists, but still quite small. While I was crawling in the tunnel, it was raining and thundering outside and I could hear several intermittent gunshots as well (I'll explain why later), but it made the whole experience feel really genuine to me. After I exited the tunnel, we saw an American tank blown up by a landmine and then came to a firing range where you could shoot some of the weapons from the war including an AK-47 and an M16. Having never fired a gun in my life (besides a paintball gun or bb gun), I was somewhat apprehensive, but I eventually decided to do it - after all how many people my age can say they've shot an AK-47 in Vietnam as the first gun they've ever shot. One of my friends fired a fully automatic M60 while I was shooting the AK at wooden targets way down the range. Then when I got back to Ho Chi Minh I picked up my suit (light black - maybe blue? its really tough to tell, but with faint blue pinstripes - with a gold silk inner lining. My friend got a purple lining and another got a red one) and got back on the ship for the BBQ.
Now Im on my way to Japan, Ill be there the day after tomorrow - 14 hours ahead of EST.