Wow. Just 6 days until stepping foot onto the Iceland Air jet, walking to my pre-determined squished space after saying “excuse me” and trying desperately not to end up bumping rear-first into about a hundred passengers faces as I squeeze down the impossibly tiny aisle. Then, I will have knocked at least two passengers square in the nose as I attempt to hoist my barely passable carry-on sized backpack into the overhead storage.
Not until I finally sit down after a lengthy war for the window seat, will it sink in that I am not going to step foot in America for over four months. Up until this point I will have been running frantically around, packing, forgetting my toothbrush, unpacking, and then repacking, and then repeat about a hundred times. I will have probably forgotten one crucial item that I can’t just get in another country, but at this point will have decidedly pushed it to the very corner of my mind in resignation.
This summer has been month after month of excitement leading up to this point—getting all my required visas, freaking out when my passport didn’t come in on time, making list after list of to-do, researching tirelessly all the places we’ll be going and trying to plan my voyage while toeing the line of being overly prepared and horribly under prepared.
Living in New Hampshire this summer (I’m a CT girl, born and raised) gave me the opportunity to experience being in a different environment. Although this move was nothing compared to what living on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean will be like, at least it taught me that I can in fact thrive in a place unfamiliar to me.
I had a wonderful time working as a Website Development Intern at Harris Family Furniture store in NH and learned all about the inner workings of a small business. I got the chance to have plenty of adventures this summer like exploring Portsmouth, hiking Mount Washington and getting stranded due to my ancient VW bug, celebrating Fourth of July in Portland, Maine, running almost every day, kayaking in beautiful places, swimming at such typical picturesque New Hampshire ponds. Visited Boston a few times, saw the incredible touristy Lakes Region, took a walk down Memory Lane with Mom and Shan in Northern NH at Lost River Gorge. Got to see my gorgeous talented awesome younger sister graduate high school—and is off to join me at UConn! Made incredible memories with Byron (who cooked yummy food for me every day since I cringe when asked to use a stove, and looked out for me when I do silly things, and so much more). Had my two BFFs Kayla and Brittney join us to bring some good ole fashioned East Hampton fun.
So, I think I’ve been a pretty lucky girl considering the summer I had. And now, off to see the world!
Semester at Sea Travel Journal - Full
After pulling an all-nighter of fitting my life for the next five months into ONE duffel bag and ONE hikers backpack, it's time. This bag has been packed, unpacked, repacked, unpacked, and repacked again just to make sure nothing's missing (not even exaggerating). So, running on no sleep, filled with caffeine and a Subway sandwich we are all ready to go and embark on our adventure, first stop JFK and a flight to Reykjavik, Iceland. And if I forgot anything...not much I can do now!!
ICELAND – Land of the Vikings
Day One: Thursday
It’s been a little over a week out of the country, yet this whirlwind of constantly doing things makes it so it feels like ages since I was frantically packing for this trip. I feel like every day has been a bright and early start, nonstop activity throughout the day, and then a late late bedtime, no matter what. Finding time to sleep has become difficult, but like many other SASers say, you can sleep when you’re back home, but for now there are just too many amazing things to be experiencing.
After getting to JFK on August 15th with plenty of time to spare before the flight, we breezed on by security. I’ve noticed even though I have absolutely nothing to worry about in my luggage, I always get this pang of nervousness and anxiety walking through the x-ray machine. Same thing when a cop turns on his lights and I panic just to realize I’m still cruising leisurely at ten miles below the speed limit. However, as always, we were waved right along into the Duty Free shop and the McDonalds where my last American food was devoured. Big Mac and fries was a wise decision.
Aside from getting stuck next to this girl from California that recounted every plane horror story she ever heard about and saying ohmygodohmygodohmygod every time we hit turbulence, the flight was fine.
Landing around midnight local time, Keflavik airport was pristine and practically empty. The airport was originally built during WWII as an American army base, but has since been converted into an international commercial airport. Conveniently, its only about an hour’s drive to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and biggest city.
After checking into BUS Hostel on the outskirts of downtown Reykjavik, bumping into all the other beds in the dark 14-person room, and forgetting where we put everything in our giant duffel bags, we were starving. Yet, there’s not much to eat on the outskirts of town at 2 in the morning in Reykjavik, Iceland (population of Iceland: 320,000. Population of NYC: 8,336,697). I’m still grateful for the 24-hour gas station food we succeeded in finding. But, in typical hostel fashion, the microwave was broken, the oven didn’t exist, and I can’t work a Panini grill, which encouraged some cooking creativity. You can imagine how well I slept that night.
Day Two: Friday
Hostel rooms with fourteen other guests are not so conducive to peaceful sleeping, but you get what you pay for. If someone isn’t snoring, then someone else is probably deciding that 3am is the prime time to unzip, zip, then unzip again whatever enormous duffel bag they’ve probably crushed your bag with. Then there’s the kid that, I swear, stands next to the door and opens and closes it on cue with your eyelids opening and closing as you try desperately to fall asleep. But enough complaining, its cheap and clean and a place to lay your head and meet some cool people. AND they had complimentary toast and jam for breakfast, with crunchy Skippy peanut butter (the only acceptable kind in my honest opinion).
This trip was the first time I had ever been in a hostel, so the whole experience was pretty new. The most overwhelming feature that stuck out to me was how friendly everyone was. Even just sitting around the breakfast table, standing in line for coffee, or reading a book by yourself, people would come up to you and start talking and swapping travel advice and stories from their own adventures. The weirdest thing is that there is an acknowledgement that you probably will never see this person again in your life. Yet, the conversation is so valuable because of all the things you can absorb from their experiences, and hopefully in exchange their encounter with you will prove beneficial for them. Conversation with the purpose of learning can be so much more exciting than conversation that merely fills time. For example, I’m never going to see Tobias, the traveling German with a great knack for storytelling, unless by some bizarre circumstance, yet I learned so much by listening to his adventures in Germany, Australia, local tips on Iceland, and especially hearing his political and social views on America and American tourists in general. Seeing an outside perspective of America was invaluable and something I could only gain by talking to people outside of the USA. And, thankfully, I learned that Europeans are happy to see American tourists because there are few of us that leave the safety of our red white and blue flag to study abroad and learn, when in comparison to other countries.
Instead of spending exorbitant amounts of money on city buses and tour guides, Byron and I would pick wandering around and getting a feel for a location by foot any day. Finding all the nooks and crannies of downtown Reykjavik meant walking miles and miles in all directions, using what has become my personal bible, OffMaps. This lifesaving app can be downloaded onto Apple devices and it allows the user to access hundreds of city maps using GPS locating services. Here’s the best part: it uses NO data on your plan. Seriously. It gives you an exact pinpoint where you are and then a search feature showing you exactly where all the popular destinations are.
Our self walking tour took us to all the quaint colorfully painted houses, shops, and street art, then down to the water and finally to a huge shopping mall Kringlan. This mall was so similar to American malls, you wouldn’t have even realized you were in Iceland. That is, until we got to the attached grocery store where we dined on Icelandic cheese, salmon and shrimp spread, and crackers for lunch. Not to mention my first legally purchased beer. Don’t get too excited though—Iceland is extremely strict about alcohol regulations and only sells light 2.2% beer in supermarkets, making it slightly more exciting seltzer water at best.
Since Iceland is known for offering some unusual delicacies, Byron and I made it a goal to try as many new foods as we could manage—not only for Iceland, but I think everyone should try to keep this sort of goal on any trip (check out the Yum blog page on this site…still in progress). In order to accomplish these food goals, it requires a little bit of flexibility when it comes to cost, I mean you can’t just order whale steak at any old restaurant on the strip. So we got all dolled up and strolled downtown for dinner at a fancy restaurant called Grillmarket.
I’m sad to say we never got to eat at the restaurant that night.
On the journey to downtown, I kept getting all these stares from locals and other tourists and realized that I was the only one in a dress with my legs exposed and no tights or leggings (Icelanders take their leggings quite seriously and have several shops dedicated just to this). So here I was in the middle of my fashion faux pas desperately searching for an open store, dragging Byron all around until I found a pair. Success.
We passed a skate park downtown with the most creative and vibrant graffiti I've ever seen, but the local teens chilling there were a little bizarre. I’ve never seen eleven year olds rock a Macklemore "thrift shop" styled fur coat and hair quite like these kids. Probably a hipster Icelandic thing.
We had the hardest time trying to find the restaurant. We would see our little pinpoint on the map app, hovering right over our destination’s address on their busiest street Laugavegur, yet could not find it for the life of us. Very Platform 9 ¾ for those Harry Potter fans out there that can relate. Yet after discovering the secret passage through Narnia to find this restaurant, the haughty maitre d’ declared that they were unfortunately booked and the only spot we could get was tomorrow at 10:30pm. So we took it.
Our dinner did not end in complete disaster though since we wandered around downtown, saw all the locals at the clubs and bars on their “runtur” (Icelandic version of a college “pregame”), and ended up at a Vietnamese noodle shop for dinner.
However, the highlight of the night for me was stumbling across a bar named after my favorite movie, The Big Lebowski. Probably the last thing I was expecting to see that night, but it turned out to be a night filled with disco dancing, Icelandic traditional Brennivin schnapps (the “Icelandic Death”), Aretha Franklin and some killer movie décor. Another amazing sleepless night in Iceland.
Day 3: Saturday
After waking up a mere three hours from falling asleep, with my head pounding as a reminder of the night before, we went through a frantic dash of getting ready for the tour bus that was scheduled to pick us up. This flurry of packing included cramming all of our clothes (far from the neatly rolled shirts they once were), calculating the walk to tonight’s hostel, desperately trying not to forget some crucial item, slapping peanut butter haphazardly on a stack of bread and calling it breakfast, hoisting our luggage down the seemingly endless flights of stairs and into the communal storage room, and sprinting out the door to the patiently waiting tour bus outside the hostel.
I wish I could say that this pattern of stressful departure was the only time it happened, but I'd be lying.
Finally catching our breath and apologizing for whatever trivial quarrelsome things we said during the rush out the door, we relaxed into our cozy “Bustravel” seats and munched away on our feast of peanut butter toast. The drive out of Reykjavik’s urban setting brought us into the rural countryside of Iceland, with landscapes so unbelievably open that I had a feeling of smallness and awe.
We were taken past Icelandic horse pastures, which we learned were crucial in the equine business due to the Icelandic horse’s advantageous gait. Other than horses, thousands of wandering sheep and the occasional bird, Iceland has very few animals. Even better, they have no animals that pose a threat to humans. With the lack of predators, the people here enjoy caving, hiking, climbing and other extreme activities since they have the confidence that no other animal could harm them. What they do have to worry about however, is the constantly changing nature.
The land is so radically diverse from any other country. This is due to the volcanic activity that was and still is a major influence on the geography. For example, you can drive past flat green pastures with little rambling streams and farms, then look in the distance to see a gargantuan volcanic mountain (still active!) covered in glaciers and snow. Look to your left and you’ll see the coastline, past mile after mile of black volcanic ash and sand, with the far off outlines of several tall islands barely in sight.
Drive for another hour and you’ll drive on your teeny tiny road in between enormous cliffs and mountains that are about to swallow miniature mythical-looking towns consisting of breath taking waterfalls, a church, and possibly four or five houses with brightly painted roofs. Oh, and those fuzzy little cotton balls climbing bravely (or foolishly?) up to the tippity top of the cliff to join one or two other daredevil sheep. We later learned that the sheep that climb to the top are looking for the tastiest grass, but I still say they’re being nonsensically suicidal.
Drive for another hour and you’ll feel a sense of barrenness as you pass through miles and miles of lava fields. These are comprised of moss-looking solid volcanic material that stretches out infinitely in every direction. Certainly not the place I’d want to have car troubles.
Trying to understand the type of lifestyle these remote villages had was extremely difficult for me. I kept thinking of the things I would miss, like the Internet, neighbors, shopping, or the mobility of my car. No grocery stores, no schools, no bars, no cable TV. However, this complete isolation definitely had its benefits and simplicity.
After five hours of being glued to the window, we finally arrived at our destination: Glacier Lagoon. Everyone immediately woke up on the bus and stared out the window at the first site of the icebergs. We knew what we were supposed to see from the picture on the brochure, but it is a totally different experience standing on the edge of a lagoon being just a few meters away from massive glacier pieces taking all kinds of natural shapes and decorated in stripes of color in white, blue, and black. “Jökulsárlón” literally means glacial lagoon and is located in southeast Iceland. The boat ride on the lagoon gave us an even closer look at the icebergs, informing us that the icebergs are constantly tipping over, forming, and changing shape and color by the hour. Even though science facts are important, I personally was excited to find out that the James Bond Die Another Day chase scene on the ice was filmed at this same lagoon and required an entire dam to be made in order to freeze solidly.
Sadly with the trends of global warming and salinity levels, the amount of glaciers is shrinking—glad I got to see them while they still exist!
The long journey back to the city comprised of snoozing, a quick stop at one of the few restaurants along the seacoast for traditional Icelandic lamb soup, and stops at two of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss.
After begging the bus driver to drop us off at our next hostel, he kindly let us off at KEX hostel, saving our bodies the extreme pain that surely would have come from walking across town with our barely-rolling duffels.
KEX was…interesting. Having no elevator (a definite trend in Iceland), we dragged our impossibly heavy luggage all the way to the top floor by use of stairs. Considering we booked our two beds months in advance, we expected to see two empty beds in our assigned room. But no, instead we were greeted by a boisterous British girl informing us that no, these beds were already taken and there was only the small top bunk in the corner that was vacant. To top it off, the only light bulb in the room had been broken for days and seemed like it was going to continue remaining broken, leaving us to trip and grab whatever was closest to prevent falling…only to come to the realization that you had accidently grabbed a complete stranger’s hairy left leg in the complete darkness.
On the bright side, we made it barely on time to Grillmarket for our 10:30pm dinner reservation. Inside the restaurant, beautiful looking people sat down at beautifully hand crafted wooden tables, and gave their orders to the beautiful waiters and waitresses, who then brought their beautiful looking dinners up the beautiful spiral staircase, all while smiling beautiful radiant smiles. Even the bathrooms had naturally carved wooden waterspouts; giving the customer the feeling that they were washing their hands in none other than the famous waterfalls of today’s excursion.
Keeping with our goal to eat as many exotic foods as possible, we dined on a Mink Whale appetizer accompanied with bread, butter, and black volcanic salt. The main entrée consisted of horse, tasting much like any other steak, but delicious nonetheless.
After an extremely full day, we trudged our bursting stomachs to the hostel, somehow wedged the two of us into the teeny tiny top bunk, and slept the best we could.
Day 4: Sunday
As always, we woke up late for the tour bus that was patiently waiting outside to take us on another outdoor nature adventure. Thankfully, our awesomely chill tour guide Bjorn was kind enough to pull the tour bus over (consisting of just Byron, me, and a Swedish girl) at a gas station for yet another delicious convenience store meal.
Since Iceland seems to have no shortage of waterfalls, we stopped at Faxi waterfall just in time to catch a rainbow, hovering right over the water. Every picture you take here could be postcard worthy; it’s that beautiful. The next waterfall, Gullfoss or “Golden Waterfall” was the closest thing to Niagra Falls I’ve ever seen. The power of this waterfall is incredible, yet Iceland already has so many resources with their thermal energy (from the volcanic activity) that they don’t even need to harness the power of the waterfalls. The best part of the waterfalls is the legends associated with them. They always involve a man wanting to hide his gold or silver behind the falls so no one could find it, or two lovers being united when one of them miraculously makes it across the water. Iceland folklore is everywhere and still embraced to this day.
No more waterfalls for the day, which was fine by me. Instead, we drove for hours into the highlands of Iceland on a dirt road barely passable on an ATV, let alone a small tour bus. We made a few stops in the dry desert we were passing through, first to follow the tradition of kissing a stone and throwing it into a pile for good luck. Again with their folklore. You would never expect to see such a dry desert in a country with so many green areas, but our guide explained that vegetation took up less than 30% of the land, and only about 1.5% of that was trees. Erosion is continuing to creep across the existing vegetation, resulting in these massive open landscapes.
After riding on the bumpiest road you can imagine, I became slightly aware of the fact that we were in the middle of no where and my bladder could not handle one more bump (again, there are basically no trees in Iceland). But just when you think you’re in the middle of no where, an old Icelandic Ski Lodge pops into view and your tour guide explains this will be our lunch stop. Frozen in the 1950s, this lodge was built when there was actually enough snow to ski in these mountains. Sadly, the snow hasn’t returned since about twenty years ago, so this structure serves as a pit stop on the way to hiking our main destination: Kerflingerfjold.
My adrenaline was already pumping due to the almost vertical winding roads that lead up to base of our hike. My confidence in our tour guide’s driving skill was questioned when we talked all about the times he’s gotten stuck up on these roads. But he definitely had our backs when he brought out a bag of hand-knit woolen hats, mittens, and jackets since us tourists were hopelessly unprepared for the harsh wind.
The next two hours of hiking up and down slippery mud leading past bubbling pools of muddy sulfuric water, climbing up a glacier, taking in all the colors of the rainbow embedded into these chemical deposits in the mountain, and dipping my feet into snow surrounded hot mountain springs was indescribable. Nothing I say in this post will be able to capture how overwhelmingly amazing this experience was, just to be surrounded by an environment so foreign from anything on the world. I’ll try to post a few pictures to try to convey some of this, but other than that you need to see this. By far the coolest thing I’ve ever done.
On the drive home we learned all about the official “Geysir”, which all other geysers were named after. Sadly the original Geysir is no longer erupting, but its twin next door “Strokkur” gave quite a performance and erupted three times for us. Since there were so few of us on the tour, Bjorn took us to some extra sights and let us take our time wandering the UNESCO World Heritage site Þingvellir National Park (no, I have no IDEA what that letter at the beginning is) and taking all the long mountain roads home, giving us the best sunset view I’ve ever seen. I would have paid twice as much as I did for this tour, it was that great.
To top off the already jam packed day, we rushed off to a local restaurant Bjorn recommended and pushed our gastric braveness to the limits. Fermented shark already sounded pretty nasty to me, but when the smell of the shark cubes assaulted my nose, it took some serious courage to eat one. Bad decision. The best I can describe the taste is somewhere between cat pee and Windex. Blech.
Puffin tasted a little better, kind of like roast beef. The thing that threw me off with the puffin was the fact that it looked like beets. The sea bird dish was right on my level; somehow tasting like a steak from a cow that liked eating birds. With a cornucopia of animals in my tummy, I was stuffed and ready for bed.
Day 5: Monday, August 19
I think it’s actually statistically impossible to be late to every single thing we planed, but somehow we almost missed our tour bus AGAIN. But, this one was definitely my fault. We walked across the street to grab some hearty fast food for breakfast, spotted a tour bus in front of the hostel and I panicked and thought it was our tour bus (Reykjavik Excursions and Icelandic Excursions are pretty easy to mix up). So Byron sprints out of the Aktu Taktu restaurant while I’m in the middle of ordering, sweet talks the bus driver to wait for us to sprint up the four stories of stairs, grab all of our bags, pray we didn’t forget anything, check out, and hop on the bus. So after all of that situation, we pull into the transfer bus station, they look at our ticket and they tell us that we’re with the wrong travel company. Great. So then all the bus drivers are talking in Icelandic about what to do with us silly tourists and they decide to drive us to the other company. It actually ended up working out in my favor since they forgot to charge us the ride. Booyah.
Our stressful morning was revived when we stepped out into the sun and into the naturally blue-green hot water of Blue Lagoon spa and resort. Its always a bit of a culture shock for me when I walk into a female locker room and see all sorts of ages and body types strutting around completely naked, but you learn that looking at the floor on your walk through to the pool entrance is advantageous.
The pool was filled with solid green blue water that was warmer than a swimming pool, but colder than a hot tub…as in PERFECT temperature. We enjoyed a lazy morning and afternoon here, floating around, using the sauna and steam room, and of course plastering our faces with their “healing mud mask”. Definitely a great way to spend your day right before stepping into Keflavik airport and dealing with security and customs.
After trying to spend off all the rest of my Icelandic Kronas in the souvenir shop and hoping on the plane, it was a short two hours until London popped into view (yes, I got the window seat this time). I wish I could say I had the same pleasant experience on the Tube, but that was actually hell and I don’t recommend anyone try to take any metro when you have three bags of luggage, each weighing a comparable amount to a third grade child. Also, when buying luggage feel free to splurge when it comes to rolling wheels.
One way or another we ended up at our hostel, Saint Christopher’s Village, met some other SAS kids for the first time in our 22 person shared room, and unpacked our bags for the hundredth time. Other kids wanted to go out and experience the nightlife of London, but since we’d been traveling for the past week, we needed to eat, sleep, and blog desperately.
Day 6: Tuesday, August 20
The first morning in London we were pleasantly surprised by the spread of breakfast this hostel provided compared to the meager peanut butter and toast the others offered. With full stomachs and coffee pumping through my body, we joined a few other SAS kids and went on a Free Walking Tour of London. Our energetic tour guide was full of fun facts that he listed off as we walked past The London Eye, Parliament, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace (just in time to see the changing of the guard), Trafalgar Square and so much more. By the end of the tour, we had made friends with all the other foreign travelers, some from Australia, some from Germany, and a smattering of other countries. To top it off, the tour ended at a traditional London pub, straight out of a movie, where we indulged on fish and chips, bangers and mash, and of course warm ale.
That night we took part in a Grim Reaper Tour of London, which was well worth it. Not your typical historical tour of London, but it gave a taste of all the gritty things that the guidebooks leave out. We learned about the prostitution in the East end, Jack the Ripper’s victims and crime scenes, all the poverty in the city, and all the twisted executions and crimes that went on within the British royalty. Our tour guide was this woman measuring no higher than 5 ft. tall, but she had the loudest personality, making the tour even better.
We tested our bargaining skills for dinner that night on Brick Lane. This area is known for its delicious curry restaurants and more for the owners that stand outside and entice you to come into their restaurant. This process turns into a back and forth of arguing for the most amount of food and drink for a good price. We had some local insider advice, so we bargained our way into a several course meal for cheap. Exhausted from walking all day, we settled into bed as soon as we got back to the hostel.
Day 7: Wednesday, August 21
So I’m writing this on the ship right now and its September 10. I’ve just been so busy that blogging has become a back burner item, so to catch us all up to speed a little bit I’m just going to give some brief summaries of London. I have a terrible memory and would probably forget about half the things I do if I don’t write them down.
By this time the hostel was PACKED with SAS kids. I’m pretty sure the other hostel guests were just about done with us since we traveled in packs and asked everyone that came through the front door if they were doing Semester at Sea. Its funny seeing what groups started to form this early on too. I can say with certainty that some of theses groups solidified and still hang out today, but most of them dissolved as soon as we got to the ship and expanded our friend group.
For not really having any set plans for London, we ended up having a great time and bonded with other SASers at the same time. We paled around with a group to Camden, which is apparently the “trendiest” part of London at the moment. I’d say it was definitely an interesting scene, filled with hipsters, ripped stockings, multicolored hair, and then people on the opposite spectrum looking average in their shorts and tees. The streets are lined with shops and vendors, all offering pretty much the same thing competing with each other on who could sell the most union jack tanks. It was loud, packed, busy, had great greasy food, and was awesomely alive with people and activity.
Going to Piccadilly Circus later that day was quite a transition from the loud youthfulness of Camden as this area is home to more of the ritzy expensive designer stores. Even though none of us could dream of affording to shop here, its still a fun walk down this area, past Buckingham Palace, and through Green Park and Hyde Park. A SAS girl Merin (yes there’s a Merin, Karen, 5 Erins and an Aaron on the ship…) and I went shopping at Primark, one of my all time favorite stores that unfortunately doesn’t exist in the USA.
I suggested we all have dinner at the Hard Rock Café since I had gone two summers ago with family and it is the original restaurant that all the other chains around the world started from. Therefore, it also has the coolest rock and roll memorabilia and an entire museum next door containing artifacts like John Lennon’s glasses, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, and so much more.
Byron and I planned a roof top get together with all the SAS kids we had met so far, which turned into a huge amount of people trying to squish onto the crowded patio space. It turned out great and I doubled or tripled the number of kids from the program that I knew. We all went out together and tried to find a hyped up Ice Bar and that fell through (a trend you’ll see throughout the voyage…Ice Bars simply don’t work out) but ended up at a few other venues and had a really fun night together, learning how to do an Irish dance from a local, getting ripped off by a bartender (and later winning the argument), dancing, and all piling into a cab at the end of the night.
Day 8: Thursday, August 22
One of the best and worst parts of hostels is the people. You’re gonna meet some of the most interesting people that make you want to listen for hours and hours about their life. And then, you’ll have loud obnoxious San Diego kids in your hostel that decide 5am is the prime time to shout and have an unspoken competition of who can be louder while packing their bags. At breakfast, which we almost missed (would have been devastating) we got the scoop on everyone’s stories from the night before until we had our fill of gossip.
Byron had really wanted to go to the Imperial War Museum, and even though it wasn’t the top thing on my list, I joined and figured I’d learn a thing or two. The spy exhibit was well worth going after seeing all the old fashioned spy gear, like a camera that claimed to be “the smallest camera” back in the mid 1900s and its about three times the size of an iPhone.
I still hadn’t gotten the chance to show Byron Soho, so we made our way to Canaby Street, and I played the role of tour guide telling him all the places that famous rock stars had played, recorded songs, or had rowdy fights (Wardour Street, The Ship, Trident Studios). He was less than amused but humored me nonetheless. In honor of British tradition, we had high tea at Camellias Tea House, right off of Canaby. We dined on buttery scones, exotic fruits, and little sandwiches as we sipped our fancy tea out of dainty porcelain cups. I’d be okay with teatime every day back in the States; these Brits have the right idea.
The company that put on our great walking tour also sponsored a Pub Crawl of London. We figured it was a good deal and it gave us entry into several bars and clubs and was a good way to meet up with some other SASers that had the same idea. There were so many Semester at Sea kids, and it makes sense that they’d do the pub crawl since none of us know the city’s nightlife whatsoever. We had a good time, stayed out until the Tube shut down, and finished the night off with a delicious street side lamb kabob.
Day 9: Friday, August 23
Knowing that my belongings were bursting out of my luggage threatening being left behind, I woke up mad early, dumped the contents of my two pieces of luggage in the hallway and repacked everything. Definitely got some weird looks from other hostel members, but you stop caring what people think when you realize you wont see them ever again. I placed my padlock on the roof patio of the hostel, with the Shard right in the background.
I met up with Sydnii, another work-study girl from SAS, and we lugged our bags through the Tube station, onto the Tube with a few transfers, and finally to the front desk of the Hilton Hotel where Semester at Sea was waiting for us. I will never be cheap when buying luggage again after that trek of getting the wheels jammed, ripping the zipper in several places, and failing to find a way to drag it and not walk like I’m in Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. But we got there, which was the most important part.
The anxious energy was thick in the air, coming from all 60 work-study students during the two-hour shuttle to the ship, docked in South Hampton. We kept seeing tops of big cruise ships and everyone tried to guess which one was ours until we pulled up next to a giant warehouse adjacent to the most beautiful ship in the harbor sporting the blue Semester at Sea logo.
A quick security check was the only thing that stood in the way of the gangway and me. It was hard not to sprint up the tiny steps of the gangway and down the endless mazes of hallways and cabins until I finally arrived on the third deck. “Room 3117!” I heard somewhere down the hallway. I recognized the number immediately since it was the same one printed on my new shiny ID card.
Jillian from Texas was to be my roommate for the semester and we shared the same excitement as we opened the heavy door and explored our cabin and claimed beds. We had barely enough time to drop bags on the bed before we had to head upstairs for work-study orientation. They wanted us to help with the check in process for the “Parents Banquet”. All types of parents came, but it was clear that they had to have some money to be here, halfway across the world.
There was already a sort of bond made between the work-study kids, and we decided we were going to spend the night exploring what South Hampton had to offer. This turned into a long looong walk just to get out of the shipyard and then another forty minutes of getting to know each other, joking around, and looking for a place worthwhile to go into, other than our necessary pit stop at a grocery store to supplement the night. The camaraderie between us was solidified over a round of drinks bought by our new Egyptian peer, Ramy. The good vibes continued throughout the night, bringing us to a venue called Pop World. It’s probably exactly what you’re picturing a place called Pop World would look like. Bright disco dance floor, lights everywhere, and cheesy sunglasses sold at the bar. Apparently everyone else had gotten the memo about wearing your most ridiculous costume out that night, which entertained us to no end. After being convinced to stay “just ten minutes more” about 3 times by my new friends, I finally decided to leave with another SASer named Erin on the huge journey back to the ship. Surprisingly, we didn’t really get lost. Off course our feet were ready to fall off and it took us about an hour and we took a wrong turn in the shipyard and followed the wrong boat that turned out to be separated from our MV Explorer by water and we realized we were fenced out until some nice old British guard let us in. This was the first, and far from the last moment thinking wow that ship is home sweet home. Getting into my crisp hotel-like sheets on MY bed in MY cabin on MY ship was the most amazing feeling in the world.
Day 10: Saturday, August 24
All the other kids moved in today, so it was our job to help out with the embarkation process. Being the Communications Assistant for my work-study job, I had an early morning breakfast meeting with the Comm team: Tom from UConn, Bryan the Photographer, Lucille the Communications Director, Clay the Videographer, and Alexander, the Video Assistant. Since something had fallen through with the Photography Assistant, they asked us if anyone had experience. No one jumped at the chance, so my summer experience with photography was enough to get me the position.
My first assignment consisted of running frantically around the ship trying to get pictures of students as they trudged up the gangway, arms loaded with their semester belongings. In between getting weird looks from people that I had just taken pictures of, I was assigned to go around interviewing people, asking them their first impressions. Thankfully I had a few willing souls that took time out of the frantic move-in process to answer my questions.
After lunch with Kevyn and Kaitlin and the entire Schuchardt family (there’s 8 children!!) I finally found Byron in the last wave of students. The rest of the night consisted of packing, calling mom and dad on the phone for probably the last time, and capturing the bubble blowing ceremony as we pulled away from shore to start our journey. This whole time everyone is introducing themselves and hundreds of names go in and out of your mind trying to remember who you’ve met and who you haven’t. After a safety drill and an introduction speech, my head was nodding and it was time for bed.
Dublin Welcomes Us with Open Arms:
Article in the Irish Times:
Day 11: Sunday, August 25
I’ve learned that writing about days at sea aren’t always enthralling pieces of literature and more sound like “Dear Diary, Today I woke up. I ate a waffle. I yawned.” So I’ll spare you some boring details and feel free always to read ahead until I get to the next fun place on the itinerary.
A routine morning consisted of a breakfast meeting with the Comm team to pick my schedule, and then all day Byron and I watched the various orientation speeches in the Union on the live feed broadcast to each room’s TV. (Perks of dating an experienced SASer that knows these little tricks). The speeches were about safety, the crew, the teachers and a bout a million other topics that you'd find at any typical freshman orientation. Except we're on a ship...
Since the ship encourages a similar extracurricular feeling as universities back home, they planned an involvement fair where students could sign up, or start their own clubs. I decided the best plan of attack was to sign up for everything and decide later what I actually wanted to do. Byron started his own club, the Sigma Alpha Sigma BS Chapter (SAS) as a fake frat and we’ve had way too much fun poking fun at greek life (all in good taste of course!), while at the same time actually getting to hang out with each other.
Being in an environment with so many other kids constantly socializing can be hard to keep up with. I’ve been really good about trying to spend as little time as possible in my room, always saying hi to people and trying to sit down with new faces. I think tonight I was finally a little run down from all the socializing and I had also felt frustrated since I had listened to the same stories and advice people would ask Byron for (since he’s sailed before) about the security guards, classes, etc. to the point that I could recite them almost exactly. A good nights sleep turned out to be all I needed.
Day 12: Monday, August 26
With the first day of classes, I realized this was going to be a great semester. When signing up for classes, I had the option of taking all Communications classes and doing all kinds of intensive work towards my major. Yes, this sounds like the right thing to do, but even my advisor back home told me that I only get to take classes on a ship once in my life, there was no need to stress myself out with a rigorous schedule in which I couldn’t enjoy my time on the ship. Luckily I’ve been working my butt off for the past few years in college and will still be able to graduate a semester early even if my classes on the ship can hardly be considered three credit’s worth.
That being said, my courses are Photography, Travel Writing, Journalism and Global Music. You can even tell that some of the teachers are in the same mindset as the students and respect the fact that we’re on a ship traveling to countries every three days and classes will not be a priority for any one of us.
Photography consists of putting up photos we took in each port onto a big projector screen and hearing our professor go on and on about what the frame, structure, and artistic qualities your picture has. Even if the picture is god awful, this is one of those professors that won’t say one bad thing about it. To our own enjoyment, we’ve gotten into the habit of just snapping pictures without looking into the viewfinders, swinging our hand around to see what we get. We know he’d be able to pick out the architectural lines to compliment the tension and dynamics that you purposefully tried to illicit. Sureeee.
Travel Writing is similarly easy and our responsibilities consist of writing “Dear Diary…” every few days and following that with 250 words about what we did that day. This counts for my assignments. Meanwhile, I’m doing all of this writing on the top deck of the ship next to the pool while people are lathering on sunscreen and tanning oil soaking up the sunrays. It amazes me everyday while I’m looking out over the railing at the trail of green blue water behind our ship that this is actually school. Its incredible to think that this counts just as much as a credit I could be taking back home at good ole UConn.
It’s easy to take things like this for granted when you’re used to waking up to the sunrise over the ocean each day. I try to remember how lucky I am and take in every moment because I know when its deep into the winter and I’m freezing in my car trying to get the engine to start in order to get to class, I’m going to be wishing dearly for those lounge chairs on Deck 7.
Day 13 and 14: Tuesday, August 27
Before getting to each port, Semester at Sea wants to make sure we’re totally prepared to survive the country. Considering our first country was Russia, we were in for a bit of a culture shock. We had only been on the ship for a few days and were going to be plunked into a country where very little people spoke our language and had very little patience for Americans. This was going to be challenging.
We were lucky enough to have a Russian professor named Dmitry on board with us for the few days from London to Russia to give us a little taste of what we were in for, but his charming personality and loud passionate lectures were nothing like the actual grim faced Russians we were soon to meet. However, through his loud singing and piano playing that could be heard on all decks was quite a treat. He explained to us that the Russian people have reason not to smile after all the harsh conditions they’ve lived through—dictators, warfare, extreme cold, poverty, and more. So even though I didn’t find the Russian people particularly nice, I did understand some of the reasoning behind their hostile attitudes.
Cultural pre-port, which is a presentation given two days before we enter a new country, gives lessons on what the people are like there including what they wear, basic geography, and tips on how to act. With Dmitry and our Russian student Kiera teaching the presentation, their direct and loud style of talking immediately clashed, turning the talk into a comedy of back and forth dialogue arguing over the name of one insignificant statue. Quite entertaining.
Logistical preport is a bit more serious, although just barely as the doctor, Dr. Dave, got up to the podium and taught us “Tips on How to Get Drunk”, educating us about the “frou frou” drinks he advised us not to drink unless shared with a friend. By definition, a frou frou drink is one tha “If you have to wear sunglasses while looking at the neon color. If it is served with a fancy umbrella, or if it is in the shape of a fish bowl.” Dr. Dave automatically became the ship comedian.
Day 15: Thursday, August 29
It was a tough moment lying in my bed after abruptly being woken up by my 6am alarm, debating whether it was worth it to walk to the chilly top deck and watch us sail into port, or stay in the comfort of my snuggly warm bed. I decided that chances were, I would never be able to sail into the port of Saint Petersburg again, and would most likely have countless more opportunities to sleep in, so I pulled on all my warmest layers, grabbed my camera, and headed to the top deck.
There wasn’t much to see at this hour since it was so foggy and dark, but more and more yellow lights started popping up into my view as we slowly moved past little scraggly islands into the port. I figured I might as well snap a few photos while I was there, and then retreated to my cozy cabin until the sun rose.
This time it was much easier to wake up since I knew it was only a few hours until I’d be stepping off the gangway and on my way to explore the city. Knowing I wouldn’t be getting another free meal for several hours, I filled up on a hearty dining hall breakfast and headed to the Union for our Political Debriefing.
I had no idea that the G20 Summit was going on in Saint Petersburg and Obama was going to be a mere twenty minutes away! It seems like right now Russia has been at the forefront of news with the reactions to Russia’s attitude towards gays, or more recently Russia’s alliance with Syria. That morning was the first time we heard about Obama’s decision to put the decision to Congress on whether or not the United States should take military action against Syria, and some students were definitely worried due to Russia’s ties to Syria. However, the diplomat assured us that none of this would affect our trip.
Being without a steady stream of news has been one of the biggest differences from back home. Living on a ship in the middle of the ocean with little to no Internet access means news doesn’t get to us very quickly. I’ve just signed up for email news updates to at least get a taste of what’s going on back home and around the globe.
After adding another stamp to my passport at the floating customs office, I tucked my valuables into my awkward money belt and Byron and I set off to see the city. Right when you step off the ship, there’s an exquisite cathedral decorated with large domes and gold reflecting off of every surface. I was amazed right away and thought this was one of the most beautiful churches I’d ever seen. Little did I know that by the end of the port stay, I would have seen enough cathedrals to last me a lifetime. Yet, if this inconsequential cathedral were in the United States, it would have been such a major tourist focus due to our lack of ancient beautiful architecture.
First on our agenda was booking our train tickets to Moscow. This seemingly easy task took us wandering around the city, trying to find a travel agency or train station. The hardest part about Russia is the fact that their language is based off of the Cyrillic alphabet, not Roman like ours. Not only does this leave me without a clue as to what words mean, but I also can’t even pronounce or read the letters since they don’t exist in our alphabet. Instead of reading street signs, we resorted to counting the number of turns in roads, how many lefts past the river with the McDonalds next to it, or how close something was to the giant dome of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral that served as an extremely convenient landmark.
Eventually we found three out of service ATMs, a closed train station, and finally a travel agency and booked the tickets for an overnight sleeper train to Moscow, third class. Mission accomplished. Although, that poor travel agent was probably ready to strangle us with the number of times we asked her to look up a price for a certain combination of times, dates, and class for each train.
I was not expecting Saint Petersburg to look as colorful and European as it did. We learned about Peter the Great and his vision of a European styled Russia, and his influence can be seen everywhere in the architecture. My first impression was that it looked extremely similar to the buildings that line Le Seine in Paris. I also learned that the colorful buildings found in all shades and intensities of color, were to deter the gloom that is inevitable for Russian winters. Second observation was the smell. I don’t know what it is, but every corner of the city seemed to have extremely pungent odors wafting around. Third observation – huge military presence. Everywhere you turn there’s a man dressed in some sort of military uniform, not doing anything in particular, but there nonetheless.
Now we could relax and explore the city at our own pace, which meant strolling to whatever giant cathedral popped into few next, and there were plenty of them. First was the Church of Spilled Blood, which is so iconic Russian with the candy colored spiral domes that can be seen for miles around.
To get the most of touring Saint Petersburg, all you really have to do is walk along Nevsky Prospeckt. The main street will bring you around to all of these major places I just mentioned as well the Winter Palace and the Hermitage. More than that it is the best place for some heavy-duty people watching. Russia isn’t too diverse, but at least you’ll see all different characters, like the ones rushing off to work in their business attire, or the tourists that stand out with their cameras slung around their neck and maps in hand. If you stayed only on this road for the duration of your stay in the city, you would be close to any type of restaurant, bar, club, hostel, you name it.
There are a few things that I can say Russians do a bit differently than Americans. For one thing, traffic and parking laws don’t seem to exist. I thought I was bad when I received my 20th parking ticket of the year, but these guys give zero cares. They park right up on the sidewalk or halfway up a curb. It looks like they were driving around, saw a bare patch of sidewalk and thought to themselves, hmm this looks like a splendid parking spot, yes great choice, I’ll park here, right smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk. Their driving is not much better, as evidenced by the dents and broken headlights on the cars.
Normally Byron and I try to eat the local cuisine, especially if it is something that we can’t get back home. However, Russian food is expensive, and quite frankly not that good. Besides, even the Subway put a few Russian twists on their sandwiches. And to our surprise and delight, they serve beer at Subway straight out of a tap—genius. Thanks to Subway beer, I was able to fit in some culture and try Russia’s most popular beer, Baltica 7.
Since neither of us really have a deep appreciation for art, we walked to the Winter Palace that houses the Hermitage, but didn’t go inside. It was enough for me to walk around the courtyard and see the gardens and fountains. And stray cats. Russia was full of wild cats, enough that people just treat them how others would treat squirrels.
To add to our attempt at local cuisine, we had a Russian ice cream Popsicle from a vendor. To be fair, it did taste like no other popsicle from the states, combining orange creamsicle with mint chocolate.
Another random observation of Saint Petersburg is the insanely high numbers of weddings we witnessed. At every major attraction there were at least two brides, and then all along the river they lined the banks with photographers, bridesmaids and the whole gang. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said I saw 25 weddings in the past 4 days. A tour guide explained that Russian weather is horrible for most other times of year and this is the peak season.
After a very long and painful trek back to the ship (don’t ever wear heeled boots for exploring, silly silly mistake), a tiny outdoor bar right in front of the ship saved the day and provided respite from our day’s adventures. Some other SASers had the same idea, so we shared a few drinks together before planning the evening activities.
At dinner on the ship that night, you could not walk around without hearing the word Ice Bar mentioned at least three times. This was to be the grand destination of all SASers, lead by a group of three that swore they knew where it was. One major problem. There are no Ice Bars in existence in Saint Petersburg. However, we would not find this fact out until an hour and a half later of walking in circles listening to them say, “I swear it’s just around the corner”.
Once a few of us caught on to the fact that this group was utterly clueless, we wandered back down Nevsky Prospeckt looking for somewhere to go that wasn’t only populated by old Russian men. Our walk took us to a great Irish Pub called O’ Hooligans that was packed with locals. Sampling their wide-ranging beer menu and experiencing a flaming drink of absinthe, the locals found us quite interesting to watch. We even befriended a Russian girl, who told us all about politics, religion, and none other than their shirtless leader, Putin.
The remainder of the night consisted of a long walk back to the ship and a nice sit on the pier with a few of our friends, observing several SASers stumbling onto the ship, moments away from the dreaded “drunk tank”, or “Observation Center” where Semester at Sea sends the highly intoxicated students to, along with promises of a large fee and dock time. No tank for us though. There’s just no point in getting to that level of intoxication and then missing out on a country that you’re only in for a few days because you made a poor decision.
Another unique challenge about Saint Petersburg is the bridges. The city is divided by the Neva River and connected by several drawbridges. These bridges go up every night at one in the morning, and don’t open until 5am. This turned the process of getting back to the ship into a bit of a game of who can run back to the bridge before it opens and strands you on the wrong side of the river until morning.
Back on the right side of the river, we trudged onto the gangway and off to bed.
Day 16: Friday, August 30
It was a struggle bus kind of morning. Walking on heels the day before resulted in an enormous blister and a very strange gait I adopted to avoid putting pressure on it. We were both exhausted but rallied and started our walk out to Peter and Paul’s Fortress.
Our slow pace was interrupted by a few brief stops to check the status of my foot situation, one of which was in a park right on the Neva River. Tourists walked around taking pictures of all the monuments while actors dressed up as Russian royalty from the 1700s sat on a bench talking on their cell phones. Quite a bizarre sight seeing Catherine the Great on her iPhone!
You could feel the love in the air, balloons floating into the sky, long veils trailing on the pavement, and photographers galore. It was wedding season and by gosh these women made full use of it today. The best part was seeing a couple getting married in front of the statue of Peter the Great on his horse and a swarm of Asian tourists surrounded them, snapping pictures, shouting, and trying to take their picture next to the Russian bride. Interesting that they treasure this moment so much and want to be documented as being a part of it.
Peter and Paul’s fortress contained content people, strolling around in the late morning sun. We decided not to pay the money to go inside the actual structures and gimmicky reenactments since it was enough just to experience the buildings from the outside. Sadly the gorgeous weather didn’t last for long, so we ducked inside one of the gift shops for some seriously over priced “authentic” Russian food consisting of “Chicken Kiev” (glorified chicken nugget) and Russian salad with beets, potatoes and peas.
We continued on a quest for legendary Russian donuts that you can only find at one little shop in Saint Petersburg that is written in the most Cyrillic looking word possible. Never fear, for we devised our own system of matching foreign symbols to what we kind of interpreted the symbols on our guidebook to be. Boy was it worth it when we walked up to the counter and brought a steaming hot plate of donuts and two mugs of cavity-inducing sweet coffee to our table. I would say I was ashamed with the number of donuts I ate…but I’d be lying. Best donuts I’ve ever tasted.
Waddling out of the donut shop, we were passed by an adorable pug dog to which we commented “cute dog”! We weren’t expecting the response in perfect American English, such a foreign sound in a country like Russia. This American that we met gave us some insight into Russian economy how they work off of system of “white” and “black” salaries, one of which you report to the government, and the other that goes “under the table”. She also explained the system of bribery that occurs all too often in the police force. Her helpful directions lead us straight down Nevsky Prospeckt to a multi-level supermarket.
Searching for hotsauce, shampoo and conditioner proved to be much more challenging than we thought, but with some motioning and the help of two Russian students, we left the store with 3 bottles of what we hoped to be what we needed.
All of our guidebooks talked about this beautiful “Kusnechy Market” just a few blocks away from the grocery store we were at. The search for the market was a bit of a quest since I was picturing this big, open, outdoor market with tents and vendors. Wrong. The Kusnechy Market that we finally stumbled upon was tucked away inside an indistinct warehouse, lacking signage. Inside was a different story filled with fruits and vegetables brighter than any photo could capture and do justice. The people here were locals, bargaining to buy a few pounds of fresh cheese or various animal body parts (including tongues, brains, and cow horns) for cooking dinner that night.
Feeling proud of ourselves for mastering the bus system, then realizing we got off way too early and still had to walk a few miles, our tired feet brought us up the steps of the gangway and into the dining hall. Not long after that it was time to pack for our excursion to Moscow, hop on the overnight train and attempt to sleep in teeny tiny bunk beds next to 30 other Russians. Finding our compartment was easy, but we struggled for a good half hour figuring out how this whole bunk bed situation worked. The Russians seemed to all work on the same brain wave and they knew exactly what they were doing. They all expertly set up their beds, found their linens, and went to bed at the same exact time. Even the babies knew when to be quiet! We learned by observing what the locals were doing and finally got the hang of it, hoisted ourselves up into our little bunk beds, still wearing all of our valuables close to our bodies.
Day 17: Saturday, August 31
“Erin. Erinnn Wake up.”
Bright light flooded my vision as Byron reached over and peeled off my sleep mask, trying to ease me out of my slumber. That Zzquill I took right before bed really did the trick, maybe too good since I looked around and saw that every other person on the train was already out of bed, dressed, sheets folded and luggage ready to go. Thankfully we had 15 minutes until the train coasted into the Moscow station, the Russian Anthem blaring through the tinny speakers in all its glory.
I felt everyone's eyes on me. Everyone stares here and I think it's because we're so obviously foreign. I garnered even more stares since I slept so much later and was rushing to get my stuff put away, almost losing two fingers in the process of folding my bulky bunked into the wall. Reunited once again with Lauren, Sarah, Kayla, and Megan at the front of the train, we tried our hand at navigating the Metro. This really turned into a game of “Guess which squiggly line and symbol of what may be a word is the correct turn to take”. Fun times.
I had the worst struggle for the next hour fighting the Zzquil with all my might since it hadn't worn off. So hard. But after taking on the metro, or rather having Byron navigate the metro after the machines and ticket office women spoke zero English, we ended up miraculously in Red Square and found a good hot breakfast at a McDonald's up the street. Just like home. Except yummier.
Ordering at the counter was a struggle, but trying to communicate with anyone here is a struggle since we're so horribly lacking in any Russian language competency. However, I didn’t need any Russian language to observe the real (yes REAL) eggs on the griddle in the back. My sausage egg and cheese, or at least I think that’s what the picture I pointed to was…provided the much-needed nourishment to wake my mind up and defeat the Zzquill-induced haze.
I had a bit of an awkward moment in the bathroom when I walked downstairs, stood in front of two doors that had red dots near the handle (I thought these were occupied indicators and it would turn to green) and stood there for a good three minutes waiting for someone to come out of the "bathroom". A guy had been at the sink and mirror in the corner of the room staring at me until I stupidly realized I had been standing in front of a locked closet door. I, embarrassed as ever, found my way to the door on the other side of the room with the female symbol. THEN I was putting my contacts in at the bathroom sink and an elderly babushka was grilling me the whole time like she had never seen anyone put in contacts before. If I've learned anything about Russians it’s that they don't smile. Ever. And they like to stare at you for long periods of time with a stank face.
A Russian student looking about our age came up to our table and commented that we were foreign and asked us where we were from. Our conversation with Nikita was slow, choppy, and pieced together, but eventually we were able to learn that he was in University learning English for his International Business major. We fascinated him, as he did to us since up to this point, no Russian had shown the least bit of interest in us.
He delighted in teaching us all the dirty words he knew, just like in middle school French class when we first were introduced to the word “merde”. Bellies full, caffeine pulsing in my veins and Facebook connections made, we were ready to experience Moscow.
The washed out sky cast a gloomy light on the Square, accentuated by the fact that it was void of any other people. The guards at the entrance to the Kremlin harshly communicated that it was not open yet. Definitely not trying that again…you’d think we were trying to walk into the place with an arsenal of weapons the way he reacted to us.
Instead we wandered the park outside the walled fort and witnessed a military drill consisting of crisply dressed soldiers attempting to march in line and in step. They had to be newbs since they were joking around, smiling, and definitely were not the picture of Russian Military Might. We learned later on that it was a big festival going on in Moscow the next day, so they were only practicing for the parade.
Walking around the perimeter, we found ourselves at these sketchy winding stairs (of course we took them) that opened up into a wealthy street that ended in the Red Square. The Game of Thrones theme song was emanating from the square, so of course we wanted to know what was going on. We witnessed the last thing on earth I would have guessed was happening. Horses were prancing around a gated area doing synchronized dance moves to the music. The riders skillfully guided the horses in perfect rhythm to Mission Impossible, Pirates of the Caribbean and James Bond. We stayed and watched for several rounds of their rehearsal since it was so fascinating and bizarre.
Once we pulled ourselves away from the dancing horses, we took in the so quintessentially Russian architecture of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Built in the 1500s, it amazes me that the incredible detail of the domes are still standing, with bright candy-like colors and decorated like the top of a cake. Inside the high ceilings make you feel incredibly small (which was the goal of the builders) along with the intricate paintings of Bible scenes covering every surface. There was a gift shop inside, which seemed weird to me in such an ancient sacred place.
Out in the square again, we witness marching band practices, a few other SASers, and then one really old dead dude. Yupp, Russians have a 90 year old body on display as a tourist attraction for all to see. Lenin’s Tomb was dark and heavily guarded by solemn men with weapons that shh you if you do so much as to sneeze while next to the body. Essentially, you just walk past a pasty white dead man that gets bathed in hundreds chemicals every few days.
On that happy note, we moved on to the Kremlin, saw all the enormous cathedrals inside (really though, do you need that many cathedrals for one complex??), and the entire walled in city. The white washed walls and golden domes on top of the cathedral towers, painted with rich colors and golden designs looked very different from what I’d seen so far in Russia.
The next few minutes are what I think about when I think of Russia and I’m not particularly happy about it, but I think it says something about the place we were in.
We were waiting outside of a Mcdonalds when a large disheveled drunken man bounced into me against the railing. Two guards steadied him by draping both arms around the railing and then left. Within ten minutes the incoherent man swayed and fell flat on his back. His eyes rolled back into his head and the sweaty sheen on his forehead glistened as the contents of his stomach bubbled out of his mouth, covering his entire face and body. His body started to seize up and shake while he was coughing on his vomit; his mind was clearly not with us at this point. Byron and I are on high alert and start yelling for help to everyone in the overcrowded area. No one will listen. He gets out the picture dictionary and points to the symbol for ambulance and still no one listens. Its worse than that though. While we’re trying desperately to get help, the Russians walking by him were laughing, some even kicked him or poked him as they passed. I can’t take it anymore and run as fast as I can to the guards in front of the Red Square. They don’t understand what I’m saying, but a Russian student gets the point across. They shake it off and say they’ll deal with it eventually. I try to stress the fact that this man may be dead within a few minutes, but still they don’t care. Three guards stroll over taking their sweet ass time and stand in a circle hovering over the drunken man, still shaking and vomiting and unconscious. They too laugh at him, roll him around, poke him, and find extreme humor in the man’s weight. There’s nothing I can do here. It’s not my country, I’m no medic. But this stuck with me because I know for a fact that this would not happen in America. People would be much more helpful, paramedics would have been there within minutes, no one would be poking and laughing at this guy, and he would have already been arrested for public drunkenness. It left me with a weird uneasy feeling about Russia.
Day 18: Sunday, September 1
Another solid night of sleep on the Russian train brought us back to the Saint Petersburg train station. We walked the dark early morning streets to the MV Explorer with only the company of rats and pigeons while the city’s inhabitants snoozed. Our first shower in days was glorious as was the free hot breakfast we snagged from the dining hall before using our few last hours in Russia in search of Wi-Fi.
The waitress at our café gave us menacing looks after we had mooched their Internet for a few hours. Figuring we had wore out our welcome, we warded off the glares by purchasing a bottle of beer every hour we stayed.
Skype-ing with mom back home was a treat and we used our time productively to book German hostels and transportation so we didn’t have to arrive in our next port with no plans whatsoever.
Asking locals where I could buy a postcard proved extremely fruitless and agitating, especially after I even wrote out “postcard” in Russian writing and was ignored entirely. Not only did they not help me, but they scowled and acted hostile.
Luckily there was a conveniently placed souvenir shop next to the port tailored to Americans with free liquor samples, prices in US dollars, and hallelujah—postcards!
Back on the ship, I was happy to be back with people that wouldn’t stare and scowl at me, but was still appreciative of all the history, experiences, and people I met in Russia.
Day 19: Monday, September 2 (At Sea)
The first few chords of Led Zeppelin’s Fool in the Rain, sounded from a guitar in the Piano Lounge. The guitar playing was joined by a drum player, and then the mixed vocals of several of the boys on the ship added in. You never know what you’ll find in the piano lounge, whether it’s the normal homework crew, epic games of Cards Against Humanity, or a random jam sesh, just to name a few.
This impromptu music circle comprised of typical college kid musicians, all knowing what to play during their epic medley including Katy Perry covers right into Oasis, then into Disney’s Mulan songs, over to Gnarles Barkley, Jason Mraz and Adele.
It was such a casual memory out of all my time on the ship but it was a good feeling to see people that hadn’t known each other for longer than a few weeks being able to play so many great songs for anyone happening to pass through the lounge. Everyone was talking and laughing having a blast just being together on our little floating home out in the middle of the ocean god knows where.
Day 20: Tuesday, September 3 (At Sea)
Even when you’re on a beautiful big shiny boat cruising the world with people all your age, you can still have your ups and downs. The pressure to be social all the time can wear you down, or missing home and the comfort of having people that know you and love you already, or even not really having your own space to unwind in. But, there’s no point in wasting your time being blue when you only have a little more than 100 days traveling the world in this incredible kind of environment, so that’s when you throw on a nice dress, straighten your hair, spend a little extra time on your make up and start the day right with a delicious dining hall egg sandwich.
Day 21: Wednesday, September 4 (At Sea)
Sailing from Russia to Germany had been chilly. No one wanted to eat on the outside decks and trying to walk around on the top deck proved treacherous due to the heavy wind. Yet, on the last day of sailing until we got to Hamburg, Germany, we had radiating sun shining down on us.
We had turned off from the open sea and spent all day squeezing narrowly through a river with the help of a few lock systems. There was so much to see on either river bank—small fishing boats, rich green pastures, cows mulling around, winding paths following the river bend, cars, and civilization! It’s a great feeling to be surrounded by life after being at sea with no other people to see other than our own ship.
You know those lazy river attractions at water parks back in the states where you float around in a circle with all these other tourists on inner tubes? Instead of plastic inner tubes we were on a gigantic ship and instead of urine-chlorine pool water, this was the meeting of salty and fresh water of this beautiful river, the lazy attitude was the same. We all laid out in our lounge chairs on the back deck, pretending to do homework while getting all the sunshine we could soak up before our bodies rebelled in the form of a painful pink burn.
Day 22: Thursday, September 5 (Hamburg, Germany)
After my attempt at going to bed early (which ended up being around midnight anyway), I woke up and could not get back to bed I was so excited. Being able to sail through the Kiev Canal was such a treat since it gave us a little taste of the German countryside before arriving in the urban port of Hamburg.
Leaving the ship consisted of a massive line of excited students and faculty, snaking all the way up to the 5th deck staircase. Finally we stepped foot onto the gangway and into the harbor.
Our stroll to the starting point of our Free Walking Tour brought us past wealthy residential areas, boutiques, beautiful parks, huge ritzy storefronts, and cute little bridges that connected streets intersected by rivers. The signage was one of the first things I noticed that added to my overall impression that Germany was extremely foreigner-friendly. Not only were the signs easy to read and the streets simple to navigate, but there was also a huge presence of pedestrians and bicycles. The number of people riding bikes outnumbered the people driving cars. Our tour guide later explained that there aren’t any hills in the city of Hamburg, making the area ideal for green-friendly travel.
Another note about Germans and their travel is the fact that NO ONE wore bike helmets, and after being in Germany for a few days, I can see why. I didn’t see a single car with a dent in it, nor any accidents, or even horns honking. These people are very defensive in their driving, making it safe for pedestrians and bikers to cross streets and use the roads simultaneously and never worry about getting hit. Quite comforting compared to fearing for my life every time I stepped foot on a street in Russia.
While waiting for our tour to start, I decided to work on my “must-eat” list for Germany by starting my morning off right with an Alsterwasser. For those who don’t know, this is a German beverage that is a mixture of beer and lemonade. Much better than I expected and a great breakfast beer. Yes, breakfast beer. Welcome to Deutschland.
The tour started in front of the Rauthaus (city hall), in a square shared by food vendors, souvenir shops, and street performers looking to make a euro or two off the tourists. Our guide Ralph educated us about the history of Hamburg and took us around to all the key parts of the city. Since Hamburg has mostly always been a prosperous city, the history wasn’t all that interesting and there aren’t many destinations, but the city overall had a great atmosphere. Major stops on the tour included a few cathedrals, old city hall, and the building of the company responsible for providing Cyclone K to the Nazis.
After walking around for three hours listening to historical facts listed off by the guide, whose presentation was similar to an actor struggling to remember a script, we were ready for lunch. I had Weiner schnitzel and sampled another German beer, adding to my German cuisine experience.
This area was extremely peaceful and lazy feeling, which was the exact state we were in. Prying us from our patio seats was difficult, but the appeal of free Wi-Fi inside was effective motivation. I went online and checked my Facebook, replied to a few emails, but then I realized that I didn’t miss the Internet hardly as much as I thought I would. I couldn’t think of anything else that was worth my time and struggled to come up with something. That was actually a good feeling, knowing that I could detach myself from social media and be just fine without it.
After a little bit of a panic when we couldn’t find Byron’s backpack, the police showing up, and the owner freaking out, we wandered around the commercial streets in search of a new camera. Don’t worry about the backpack either, a member of SAS spotted it and brought it back to the ship before any thievery could occur.
Although dining hall food doesn’t even compare to local German food, we’re students on college budgets and save money by eating on the ship whenever we can. We weren’t on the ship for long before it was time to get ready to experience the Hamburg nightlife on our pub crawl, organized by the same company that offered our Free Walking tour earlier in the day. It wasn’t hard for us to convince at least ten other SASers to join us on the crawl considering you pay 12 euro and get entrance into 3 bars, 2 clubs, and a drink in each location.
On our trek to Reeperbahn in St. Pauli district (also known as Hamburg’s Red Light district), the presence of drag queens, scantily clad women, and neon lights increased with every step closer. Although it is home to prostitution, burlesque shows, and other entertainment along these lines, it also is home to Hamburg’s nightlife. I was grateful we chose to do an organized pub crawl because I got the feeling that you could walk into some venues that would give a bit more of an experience than I wanted.
The area was filled with bright lights and all types of people walking around. It was such a lively place and so bright that it gave the same effect a casino does where you lose track of time due to the lights.
All of the venues that the crawl took us to had good music for the most part, decent drinks, and dancing. It was a great way to hang out with the other SASers in a setting other than class. After getting worn out after 4 of the stops on the crawl, we decided to call it a night. Our feet were not in the best of shape after dancing and walking around all night, but we made it back to the ship successfully, armed with greasy street vendor pizza.
Day 23: Friday, September 6 (Germany)
Three hours of sleep was not enough, but we had booked at train to Berlin for 7:30am, and there was no way we were missing that. Thank goodness we packed the night before and dragged our sleep-deprived bodies out of bed, off the ship, and on a brisk walk to the train station that seemed so much closer on the map. Realizing that it was near impossible to walk to the station, a friendly security guard guided us through the process of buying S-Bahn (metro) tickets. Again, the people here are so approachable and helpful to foreigners. I didn’t get the scowls that were so prevalent in Russia when I spoke.
Finding the station and our track was extremely easy with all the clear signs posted around the area. Not only was finding the train easy, but German public transportation is all very clean, smooth, and new looking.
After a failed attempt at sleeping on the train, we got off two hours later and walked to the starting point of the Berlin Free Walking Tour at Brandenburg Gate.
This area was filled with activity from all sorts of people. Dressed-up actors walked around enticing tourists to pay to have their picture taken in front of the gate. Local musicians played from the curbside. Every few minutes the police would ride around on their official looking motorcycles in a motorcade containing some important person. Locals with giant tubs of bubble soap entertained children and tourists. Several “deaf” individuals came up to people asking for donations to an institute for the deaf, using hand motions and acting desperate. It would have been much more convincing had the girls not turned to each other in a moment of slow traffic and giggled and gossiped together. Apparently scams like this are pretty typical in this part of Berlin.
Our Aussie tour guide (I’ve met a shocking majority of Australians traveling) brought us around to sights of importance with a huge emphasis on the history of East and West Germany. Reminders of this divide and the conflict during WWII and the Cold War are everywhere. We saw buildings with bullet holes, the holocaust memorial, Nazi Party buildings, Soviet Russia buildings, and the ultimate symbol of the conflict—the Berlin Wall.
The most fascinating part of this to me is the fact that these barbaric events occurred only a few decades ago. A unified Germany is only around twenty years old, making all of these sites relevant. Seeing how drastically the wall impacted life was eye opening because you don’t realize how ridiculous a wall through this city is until you see it. Students that went to school in the East and lived on the West no longer had a university. Same with workers and families that had ties in both regions. The wall was the last thing the people wanted whether they were on the wealthy Allies side in the West, or the repressed Soviet dominated East.
Three hours of walking and absorbing information left us in need of a good lunch. Our tour guide led us a few blocks away to one of his favorite restaurants. We assumed that he was just being nice and walking us there, but then he grabbed a seat at our table, recommended several dishes and beverages and talked with us the whole time. One of the things I’ve learned from the voyage so far is how friendly and helpful people can be. I’ve seen it time and time again in every single country.
Since we had great experiences staying at the Saint Christopher’s Inn chain in London, we chose the Berlin location and were yet again impressed. This chain of hostels is geared towards young twenty-somethings looking to travel the world for cheap. Its decked out in music posters and pop art graphics and the reception desk doubles as a bar. The rooms have a lot of people in them, but they’re extremely clean, plenty of showers and bathrooms, and the people are super friendly. Even the locals hit up the Saint Christopher’s bar (Belushi’s) since it’s so popular.
Even though I always say that I shouldn’t waste my time in port on sleep, I was dead tired and needed a nap. I treated myself to a half hour nap and rallied for the night’s activities. While you’re on the ship, there’s not much need to get dressed up. So, when you’re in port you go all out and get as fancy as you want to.
The rest of the night consisted of currywurst dinner at Belushi’s with some SASers and strolling the city in search of something to do. There are some people on Semester at Sea that have no problem with spontaneity and you can always rely on them to be down for any adventure. On the flip side, there are SASers that need to have everything planned out and have a very low tolerance for the unknown. This second group frustrates me to no end. That night there were three of us that knew that there may not be any bars or clubs worth going into, but the walk itself would be enjoyable enough. So, while others stayed behind, we got to see what the city looks like at night, sampled some of the Jager (when in Rome…) and had a wonderful walk with no particular destination. We even ran into some other SASers strolling the city, also just content with walking around. Early bedtime at eleven was much appreciated.
Day 24: Saturday, September 7 (Berlin, Germany)
Breakfast at Saint Christopher’s Berlin chain is taken very seriously. These Germans feast on meats and cheeses, cereals, fresh rolls, fruits, and coffee. Definitely not your typical hostel breakfast and we took advantage of every bite.
We bumped into two other SASers, clearly wearing clothes from the night before who had spent the night on the lobby couches of the hostel. Apparently their previous reservations at a different place fell through and by this time it was so early in the morning that they were out of luck finding anything. I think it’s a great thing to be spontaneous and flexible, but I’m so glad I had the comfort of my hostel bed that night. Sleeping in train stations or lobby couches is one experience that I think I can go without.
We spent the day at a concentration camp just about an hour away from Berlin city center in the town of Oranienburg. Sachsenhausen Concentration camp was used for political prisoners from 1936 under Nazi control and then again after World War II under Societ command. We walked around the camp and observed the structures and tools that made this place as horrible as it was. The cramped spaces and the horrifying stories about the mistreatment of prisoners leave a very somber feeling in visitors.
The intensity builds as you walk past the all-seeing guard towers and the tracks that prisoners were forced to test heavy army equipment on hour after hour. The most eerie part of the whole camp is walking through the execution trench (specifically separated from the camp so prisoners wouldn’t hear the gunshot) and the building that was formerly used as the crematorium. There are partial remnants of the ovens used to burn the bodies, and the rest is described on the plaques.
I had to ask myself, how can such a beautiful quaint town like Oranienburg be home to such an atrocious place? Walking through the town on our way to the camp was so peaceful, filled with vibrant flowers and cute shops. Once you pass through the gates of the camp, the tone is immediately dark and haunting.
Oranienburg’s restaurants lined the main street, making it hard to choose between them. Since we had tried all of the quintessential German food, we settled for a huge kabob for lunch and then delicious Vietnamese noodles for dinner.
Fast-forward a few hours to one of the weirdest but most memorable experiences of Berlin. Laser lights flashing everywhere, all kinds of unfamiliar people, and loud base pumping through my body, I was observing the local night scene in East Berlin. Earlier in the night we were trying to figure out our evening plans and our best idea was to go to a club that was highly recommended in one of my guidebooks. A night following this path would’ve been a great time, but it would have been with all of the SAS kids that we already knew and we realized we hadn’t befriended any locals. Standing outside of our hostel and chatting up a few Australians was the best decision we made that night. Turns out they’ve been living in Berlin for a few months, love the city, and not only recommended a great place to go but offered to go out with us for the night. Yergen, our trusty Aussie friend, took us on the metro, got us slightly lost on the Metro while in search of a free bathroom, but he redeemed himself when we stepped off the train in East Berlin and looked over the biggest compound of clubs I’d ever seen. This place consisted of countless concrete buildings, all covered fully with graffiti of all colors. Being approached by a drug dealer was a little unnerving, but our friend guided us through the crowd, past all the locals, and into a club called Suicide Circus. It was as wild as the title and jam packed with people, music and lights. I was so overwhelmed with how nice Yergen was, ditching his night plans, escorting us tourists to one of the best local spots, and exposing us to such a real experience. He was full of Berlin information and answered every single question I kept asking about Australia. From what seemed like a tame typical night with SASers to jumping out of my comfort zone and meeting locals, I gained so much more. If you ever travel to other places, make it a goal to befriend at least one local; you’ll be glad you did.
Day 25: Sunday September 8
Three hours of sleep proved to be a bad idea, but we packed up our stuff and zombie walked to the train station and hopped on our journey to Hamburg. By the time we reached our port city I was in bad need of coffee and some food and who else but McDonalds to save the morning.
Once showered and revived, we went to Hamburg’s Miniature Wunderland. Its this repurposed factory building that was made into one of the biggest exhibits of model train villages. The detail is ridiculous to the point that you can see inside the homes, lights on the mini cars, and an airplane that actually takes off and lands. Its definitely something worth seeing, but since I have a short attention span and you can only look at teeny tiny things for so long, we moved on to our quest for Wi-Fi.
We looked at the clock and realized we only had one hour to plan our entire time in Belgium before we had to sprint back to the ship before getting dock time. We frantically searched travel websites and were successful in booking a bus to Amsterdam, hostel accommodations, and a bus to Paris. We did some good work and made it out of breath into the line of students piling into the ship right on time.
Day 27: Tuesday, September 10
I sprinted as fast as I could, two steps at a time from my deck to the Deck 6 Dining Hall—I was NOT missing breakfast. I had let myself sleep until 8, which was absurdly late for me after having some bizarre SAS dreams that we were all putting on a play, but I had to sing in the chorus (I have an irrational fear of singing in public) and it was my turn next. I hadn’t even started my malaria medication and my dreams were already weird as hell. Thankfully I made it to breakfast and haven’t missed it once since then.
The nice thing about Semester at Sea is that you can sit at any table you want to, no matter who else is there and they’ll talk to you and invite you in on their conversations and won’t look at you as if you had three heads for sitting down at “their” table like kids would at any university back home. With so few kids all in the same boat (oh the ship jokes), you can talk to anyone and its totally normal. So I sat down with 4 guys I kinda knew and the next thing you know we’re joking about creating Sea Olympic competitions involving those sit-scooters from kindergarten in a rough seas duel. It’s going to be hard going back home not having that feeling that everyone is your friend, but it only starts if you’re friendly to begin with.
Day 29: Thursday, September 12
Right at this very moment of writing this I’m sitting at the Cafe den Billekletser drinking some Belgian beer (de Konnick of course) and sampling some delicious Belgian chocolate, not salted, no yucky white chocolate, but just how I like it. The smoke from cigarettes swirl around and add to the already smoky outdoors atmosphere, occupied by a few other Belgians. The feel is so very European: smoking, eating chocolate bon bons while enjoying a nice European brew.
This morning started very early since students were let off the ship as soon as 6am. We had a nice free breakfast on the ship and stepped off into the port of Antwerp, Belgium. Byron led the way with our printed out walking guide—weaving us through the streets past churches, the Brabo statue, a castle, the famously long underground pedestrian tunnel, and the huge town hall with a fountain in front of it.
As always members of our group were on a quest for Wi-Fi in order to book buses and hostels, but the town was eerily empty until 10am. I could definitely get used to staying up late and sleeping in.
The shops and restaurants sit close together on cobblestone streets and are so untouched by modernity. The streets look frozen in time.
We made an obligatory stop for delicious Belgian waffles with whipped cream and cherry flavored beer. Those waffles are just as good as they say, perfectly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside—soggy with the chocolate and cream.
Wandering with renewed sugar-fueled energy, we did a bit more sight seeing but found ourselves walking more in circles around the interconnected streets. When in doubt, food is always a good destination, so we stopped for frites. They were drenched in mayo and "American sauce", and definitely too soggy for my taste.
As if we hadn’t had enough food, we went back to the ship for free lunch and printed our train tickets. With our heavy backpacks ready for Amsterdam and France, we went back into town and killed time by enjoying more food and people watching.
Waiting at the café until our bus is ready, all I hear are French speakers sounding like they're aggressively debating and church bells in the background. A man silently sits at the table next to me thinking and observing his surroundings. Ivy covers the whole exterior of the bar, giving it extreme character. The street we’re on is filled with vendors, second hand stores, and so many scarf shops, bars, cafes, and chocolate shops. So very European. I also hear the sound of a scooter going down the cobblestone while a woman's heels clicks on the same stones. I don't see many people our age...mostly just people in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s.
We made the walk to the Eurolines office right next to central station, which is hugeeee. We were waiting to find Shannon and Corinne since their bus tickets got sent to the wrong email...but finally they hurried inside from the pouring rain and we were all set to board our bus (which was horribly late) to Amsterdam.
The bus ride also took an hour longer than it was supposed to, but we kept ourselves occupied by making Byron play makeup artist for Corinne and making lists of things just as nasty as the bus bathroom. We decided the marshes of Mordor were pretty damn close.
The stroll through downtown Amsterdam and the Red Light District to get to our hostel was quite an experience. Seas of neon lights above our heads, glimpses of the infamously scandalous red light district, and the smell of marijuana infused into the air.
The hostel was incredibly sketchy and the stairs were the steepest and narrowest they could have been while supporting my weight. Byron and I went into our room and the girls into theirs. Lucky them, with their cute young Australian boys sharing the room while we were so pleasantly aquainted with our roommate Tommy from Los Angeles—covered in tattoos, most notably the tear drop under his right eye, a known symbol signifying his murderous past. Nice guy though. Then we look for our beds and there's this punk just sitting on top of our bed smoking a fat j. Trying to play it cool and hide our surprise we said, “Ummmm is this your bed?”
“Nah dude,” was mumbled while the kid removed his dirty shoes from the bed and hopped off. Weird. We felt like we were in some twisted crack house mafia house.
We got dressed for the night and locked up everything that could have possibly been stolen and sold by the likes of our roommates. Thankfully, Amsterdam’s nightlife dress is casual and the jean-wearing locals would have laughed at any tourist attempting to march down the cobblestone streets in stilettos and tight skirts. I think it’s partially to distinguish themselves from the abundant prostitute population.
Sober as a nun and tired as ever, we headed out to conquer the Amsterdam scene. Normally we like to supplement our bar drinking by buying a cheap bottle from convenience stores and drink it on our way to the bar since we’re on meager college student budgets and European countries don’t really have open container laws. However, Amsterdam did not have any convenience stores, gas stations, grocery stores or kiosks open so we had to suck it up and pay the pricey drink costs dictated by the bar tenders.
Byron and I thought we should pop into an Amsterdam Saint Christopher's hostel for some advice on where to go since hadn’t done any research beforehand. He and I walked in and thought Shannon and Corinne were right behind us. We searched for as long as we could, but when you’re abroad and have no cellphones or means of contacting people, you have to just go with the flow and know things will all be okay. Since we were alone for the night, we headed off to experience the Red Light District.
It is just as wild as you’ve heard. Doors line the cobblestone sidewalks adjacent to the canals with clear glass keeping you (the customer) distanced from the barely dressed girl twirling and dancing to get your attention (your product). Don’t think because you’re a woman you’re free from their attention, they’ll dance and call out to you just as much.
We hadn’t come this far just to walk by and not experience the culture, so we did like the locals do and sat in on a very risqué uncensored show and got more than an eyeful.
The pushy prostitutes kept haranguing us to open their glass door and join in on their fun. Everyone knows however that once you go inside, they’ll just rip you off and try to get as much money from you as possible, along with your dignity.
We survived the Red Light District somehow and made it back to our charming hostel, not feeling much safer here than in the streets.
Day 30: Friday, September 13 (Amsterdam and Paris)
I woke up extremely tired from the previous night’s activities. Showering helped a bit, but I was still trying to sneak around and not really get into too deep of a conversation with any of our roommates. Tommy pointed out that apparently we were both coughing up a storm all night, so he went out and bought cough syrup and gave us each a spoonful. Yes, I did check that it was actual cough syrup not some sketchy drug from an LA gang. Told ya he was a nice guy.
Finally reunited after losing the girls the night before, we shared stories from the night, struggled to wake up and fight the urge to crawl under the covers, and got some really awful McDonald's coffee and breakfast sandwiches. Taking advantage of the hostel Wi-Fi, we booked a train from Paris to Le Havre, figured out the enormous sum of money I still owed Semester at Sea for tuition, and hurried to Dam Square for the start of our Sandemann’s Free Walking Tour.
Our guide was the cutest little British girl named Stephanie, who had us jump up and down for our group photo. She showed us the old church right next to Red Light District and explained that the Old Church used to make money off of sailors after their night of debauchery by selling “indulgence” passes. Then, to make even more money, the church began selling “pre-indulgence” passes, which meant you paid because you knew that you were going to commit a sin in the district. What a scam. Fun fact: Prostitution was legalized in 2000.
Taking us through the Red Light District, Dutch East India Trading Company headquarters, past secret Catholic Churches, Newmarkt, and hundreds of “coffeeshops” she explained that it's not legal to smoke weed here, but the government just doesn't punish people for it and instead uses the funds that stores are fined for selling weed to fight off the harder drugs. Actually, Amsterdam has one of the lowest hard drug usage rates. No one has been arrested for 30 years for smoking weed.
The streets were chaotic with bicycles whizzing past us, not slowing down at all, but instead frantically dinging their shiny metal bells affixed to their handlebar. Even the people had their own ways of making their presence known, which we learned when an old man scared us half to death doing his impersonation of a fog horn in order to clear the path before him.
Stephanie walked us past the old palace of the royalty, onto the widest bridge in Amsterdam, and past houses purposefully built crooked in order to put hooks on the top floor and hoist goods up to be stored hanging off the front of the house (the farther the goods leaned, the less damage the house endured).
She also showed us the skinniest house in Amsterdam, measuring 6 meters wide. This was because Amsterdam used to tax homeowners based on the width of their house. She scurried inside a famous cheese shop and brought us samples of amazing Amsterdam cheese. The tour ended at the Anne Frank house, where her and her family stayed hidden in a warehouse for about two years.
As always, the tour was invited to a recommended restaurant for a late lunch of Amsterdam food. Byron and I had pea soup with ham or sausage in it, a dish of mashed potatoes and veggies with gravy poured over it, and then my favorite was a giant pancake with bacon cooked into it with molasses syrup drizzled over. So unhealthy. We do walk a lot…but still. So unhealthy.
Killing the rest of our time with some shopping, we bought plenty of souvenirs, some presents for people back home, and an actual bath towel so I wouldn’t have to steal the ship towel and fear getting in trouble. We walked along storefronts and coffee shops, bridges and restaurants until we ended up at the Waterlooplein Market. It was a mix of new stuff you'd find at fairs and then flea market things ranging from used junk to vintage heirlooms. I found a store entirely dedicated to cats and questioned the Amsterdam people on their obsession.
Dinner at California Burrito was heavenly and I was in need of some good old greasy Mexican food. And of course they had Wi-Fi, which we used to the max Skype-ing loved ones back home, updating statuses, and uploading pictures showing how awesome we were. Once we had visibly wore out our welcome, we ended up walking through the Red Light District again (I swear all roads lead there) and realized that the prostitutes in the doors earlier in the evening are not as attractive as the ones during prime time.
We accidently started talking to an enthusiastic couple outside of this huge exclusive club that had just opened that night and featured over a dozen arcade games plus a bar. Great idea. Customers drinking were taking advantage of the one promotional free night of games. They invited us in for a tour with their A-listers, you could tell how excited they were so we went along with it.
While making our way to the metro, I saw a flash of paper on the side of the sidewalk near a bar and recognized it as several euro notes, shouted “MoneyMoneyMoney!!” and ran and picked it up. I had heard of scams before with this kind of thing, so yelling “Money!” probably wasn't the best idea, but I tucked it up my sleeve and walked briskly away until I could safely discover that I had found forty euros! I figured this money had probably been tucked in a stripper’s g-string, but hey, money is money.
Since our Belgian Eurolines bus didn’t require any check-in process, we figured we this bus to Paris was the same. Wrong. The guy behind the desk was a raging French jerk who yelled at us endlessly for being late for “check in”, saying he could give our seats away right now. His American insults were brutal saying how we Americans think we're better than everyone else and we’re always late and then asked the crowd if there were any other entitled Americans that wanted to step forward.
Welcome to France.
Luckily he found it somewhere deep down in his tiny black heart to honor our tickets and let us on our overnight bus ride.
The next 8 hours on that bus were hell. First priority was using the teeny tiny bus bathroom before we left before tons of people had used it. Already it looked like a battle scene. The door didn't lock, it smelled like the marshes of Mordor times ten, and it required the most impressive of hovers to not fall in. On top of that it didn't flush and if you placed your hand on the sink ledge, you ran the risk of grabbing onto the ashes of forbidden cigarettes from past riders. Next priority was taking out my contacts, gathering articles of clothing to ball up into a pillow and then finding a seat that reclined slightly more than a wooden dining room chair.
I settled into my seat and tried to sleep, rotating into every position imaginable and not finding one single position that didn't hurt my neck, back, or legs. Awesome. Then when the bus stopped in Brussels around 1 am a ton of people came on to the bus. I woke up to a scarfed Pakistani woman staring at me, gesturing in an unfriendly way that she expected me to give up my personal seat and sit with the other people in my group. Okay….
The only thing worse than trying to sleep on a bus without seats that recline, or a blanket, or a pillow, with total strangers, is doing all that in a seat shared with someone, which limited my acrobatic options of sleeping arrangements.
Ten thousand years later and maybe half an hour of sleep, I opened my eyes found myself in a Paris bus station.
Day 31: Saturday, September 14 (Paris)
For only getting about half an hour of sleep and sitting restless and cramped on the bus, I felt somewhat alive. Sadly, I lost my voice entirely and it was reduced to this bizarre honking noise that my throat would make when I put all my effort into communicating. This was a minor issue since I was the only one that had been to Paris before, had the print out guide, and spoke a bit of French. Oh boy.
No worries though since we got by just fine and somehow bought our metro tickets and shuffled onto the train towards our hostel. It was 6 a.m. and pouring rain, making it a bit hard to navigate, but I proudly lead us to the front doors of Saint Christopher's Inn.
Our luck improved when they let us in, gave us temporary cards that let us use the showers and facilities, and best of all got to eat their breakfast. The shower was amazing and much needed, the Wi-Fi was glorious and breakfast was superb. Best Saint Christopher's yet. They had cocoa puffs, coffee, tea, OJ, baguettes, ham cubes, cheese cubes, and little packets of hazelnut spread. I feasted and had no shame. The tea felt great on my throat and soothed it for at least half an hour.
After feeling pampered in hostel-style luxury, we stored our giant hiking backpacks at the hostel and made our way to Saint Michel to join the Paris Sandeman’s Free Walking tour.
There was a huge group of us and it was pouring buckets, but our trusty tour guide Nancy from Britain did a great job playing sheepherder, keeping us out of traffic’s harm while educating us on the history of France. It was weird seeing all these places that I had seen before on the family vacation to Paris a few years ago. I felt like I knew exactly where I was, giving me a comforting familiar feeling. I also didn't feel the pressure to take a million touristy pictures this time since I had identical ones back home.
Highlights on the tour included Pont Neuf, which has faces carved into the bridge that the King made based off of sketches of his drunken friends at a party. Of course I had to place my lovelock on the bridges of Paris overlooking the Seine. Other stops were the Ile de France, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Obelisk, Champs élysées, Grand Palais, Jardin de Tuileries, Arc de Triomphe, Orangerie and so much more. It's still a shame that it rained because so much of the charm from Paris comes from beautiful sunny days.
We were going to follow our tour guide to their recommended restaurant for a late lunch, but Paris is so dang expensive and we were in need of a good nap, so instead we hopped off the metro at Crimee and navigated our neighborhood effortlessly until we passed by a street of delicious savory smells coming from several small Asian restaurants. Yupp. I was in France, a country with some of the most highly regarded dishes but all I wanted was a nice greasy plate of lo mein. Go figure. I attempted my French and some how we ended up with the right food. My victory was short lived after I couldn't remember the word for fork. Really? Six years of French and I can’t even ask for a fork? But it's all good, we managed and it was delicious.
We walked from there to Saint Christopher's again and were able to officially check in and nap for an hour before having a few beers in the lobby and chatting with a few Australians (and by chatting, I mean I was desperately trying to honk out conversation with my nonexistent voice).
Next on my agenda was a quest for cough medicine. My failure in speaking French made me think I should really work on learning the language, like actually work hard at it, since there's no reason for me to limit myself to one language. In most other cultures, people know at least one other language if not three or four! I think the USA needs to seriously improve with this.
Anyway, my butchering of French led me from one store to the next with me pantomiming the word for cough until a pharmacist gave me package I was hoping was cough drops. Turns out they were, but they didn't help one bit.
I had been talking to my friend from back home, Kailey, who was studying abroad for the semester in Paris. We went back and forth trying to arrange a time to meet up, which proved difficult considering I only had Wi-Fi every few hours. We all got dressed up for a night out and braved the rain, expertly navigating the metro to the Montmartre area. Supposedly this was Paris’s version of the Red Light District, but after experiencing Amsterdam’s Red Light District, this was nothing. The rain gave the whole area a disorienting look with the red neon lights of the Moulin Rouge dimmed behind the dreary cold raindrops.
It was so bizarre but great to see Kailey, a familiar face from home that I've known since I was 3, in a foreign city halfway across the world. Neither of us had changed one bit so it was more than easy to just pick up where we left off in the States and hang out like the old days.
We settled for some cheap Indian food (again, not eating the French cuisine) and caught each other up on all the gossip we had missed out on. I was struggling to talk since at this point my voice was gone entirely and attempting to say even two or three words was so incredibly painful, but my friends hopped in and chatted with Kailey for me.
My throat couldn’t handle one more second of talking, so I walked into McDonalds and was on my way to the front counter when a man in a worker’s uniform ushered me to the center of the restaurant in front of a led screen with the menu on it. Confused, I tried to ask what I was supposed to do, but my terrible French and lack of voice failed me. After some trial and error of pushing buttons, I was able to order my milkshake from this screen, pay for it, and then wait at the counter just to get my food when it was ready. The states have got to get on the ball and use these. So high-tech.
The rain was a bit of a bummer, but we decided to continue the night with the Paris Sandemanns Pub Crawl and add it to our list of other Sandemann’s events. It looked doubtful that anyone else was going to join the pub-crawl other than our group, but to our relief a whole group of people joined at the last minute, making the night quite memorable.
The first bar was an Australian themed one with sand on the floor and a bathroom from hell. Actually though. Worse than anything I’ve ever seen. Since it was early in the night, there were very few people, but this was a good thing since bar-talk was a struggle on my voice. I was happy when the pub-crawl guide declared it was time to move on to the next bar.
The next one was also lacking in a swarm of customers except for a random birthday party that had kids running around underneath the bar taps…not a sight you’d see in the States. Again, I was happy when the guide said it was time to move to the next bar because finally things started to liven up.
The third bar was a bit better and at least had good dancing music playing and patio seats so Kailey and I could sit and chill I didn't have to shout. Typical Kailey and Erin style we decide to be cheap and save money by buying a bottle of wine beforehand and used two used empty glasses abandoned at the table, performed a sanitation procedure of wiping the rim with our sleeves, and poured our bottle into the glasses. We thought we were so sneaky until the owner came over and communicated via broken English and signing that we were not two clever girls but two stupid American college girls and demanded we give him the glasses. To be fair, he generously took a lap around the bar, giving us time to hurriedly empty the contents of the cups upon return.
Byron led me in dancing around the room to the swing music they were playing. Thank goodness he’s patient with me and doesn’t mind a few accidental stomps on his foot.
The fourth and final bar was an "exclusive guest list only" club called O'Sullivans. We all had a great time dancing until it was time to take the metro back before it shut down at 1am and get some sleep back at the hostel.
Day 32: Sunday, September 15
I woke up with even less of a voice and backaches from not sleeping too well. Thankfully a steaming hot shower can cure just about everything and brought me out of my miserable state into a much revived state ready to take on the day. This happiness was almost crushed when I found out the devastating news that I had missed breakfast, but Byron came to the rescue by stealing me a roll and Nutella. Such a good boyfriend.
After checking out from the hostel Byron and I ventured off to the Eiffel Tower, but were thwarted by hundreds and hundreds of marathon runners with uniforms supporting breast cancer awareness. We waiting until a second’s break in the runners and made a mad dash across the lanes, safely meandering over to the park underneath the tower. Sadly the park was fenced in, unlike when I went a few summers ago, but the same mesmerizing effect was present. It’s such a simple structure and one that serves very little purpose other than to carry an antennae signal, but it still makes you feel very small and in awe of its size. We took hundreds of pictures until we got the right one (thank goodness for the inventor of the second iPhone camera, making selfies easier than ever).
Not wanting to get stuck in the endless lines of people wanting to climb to the top, we walked to the other side of the Seine and gorged on a cheesy croque monsieur. These are essentially grilled cheese sandwiches, but they have a slice of ham on the inside and the cheese is melted on the top slice of bread, making consumption of the sandwich a very greasy ordeal.
On our way to the Arc de Triomphe, we passed a group of Semester at Sea students that were on a trip planned by SAS. We always stay away from these trips since they charge an outrageous amount for activities that we find we can always plan for cheaper. On top of that, this group’s bus was an hour late and they were only going to have one hour of free time in the city before they had to pile on their air conditioned coach bus back to the ship. In my opinion, I can get a better idea of a country by travelling on a backpacker’s budget and not staying in the five star hotels and taking private transportation. I think they hold your hand through the entire process and ends up limiting the experiences you can have.
The croquet monsieur did not hold us over and our stomachs were complaining as we walked down the Champs Elysees, over a bridge, past the river, and finally picked a restaurant to finally have my quintessential Parisian meal. For the first time in my life I had beef tar tar, escargot, authentic French wine and a sampling plate of goat cheeses. I was in a gluttonous heaven and decided it was going to take quite some convincing to move from my street-side wicker chair, enjoying the breeze and people watching. My tranquility was only interrupted when a Volkswagen Beetle drove past our table, resulting in a swift punch to my arm. “Blue punch buggy no punch back.” Dammit Byron. I vowed to get him back.
On our way to the train station we walked to Notre Dame for a quick peak and then climbed onto our sleek looking train to Le Havre, where the ship was docked. Not once was our ticket collected, making us think that we probably could have gotten away without paying for one at all.
It was pitch black in Le Havre and the wind had the force of a serious hurricane, smacking us into each other. With the help of a local that spoke minimal English, we walked through the eerie harbor yard, looking like the scene of a horror movie with the industrial machines and chains banging against each other in the violent wind. Barbed wire was looped over the fences and metal clanking noises were emanating from all around us. Screeching animal noises were just the icing on our creepy cake, breathing heavy sighs of relief as we trudged up the gangway and into our cozy shipboard home.
Day 33: Monday, September 16 (Le Havre, France)
It was a windy, dreary, grey, rainy and overall nasty sort of day. Especially nasty if you’re supposed to go on a Field Trip for a Photography class. Our teacher insisted we go out anyway and capture “the bleakness and despair” of the day because it was “art”. We thought that snapping without looking through the viewfinder would be a good way to capture the essence of the moment in an abstract way and submitted several blurred photos of indistinct objects. We were miserable in the rain and our precious cameras were getting wet, so we insisted that going into the shopping mall would allow us to also capture the “hustle and bustle” and “art” of shopping. He gave in and let us wait until the rain let up enough to run from location to location.
With no real plans for the day, our teacher led us around the city and wandered past gloomy buildings and the monotonous design of the post 1940s architecture. Le Havre was bombed badly in the war, which meant they had to rebuild fast. In hopes of promoting equality and sameness, the town sprung up with buildings looking all the same with rows and rows of evenly spaced windows, each building with a slightly different tint of pastel paint. It was depressing and I already felt myself hating this city. There was no one walking around, shops were closed, and a feeling of emptiness was present everywhere you turned.
The day improved when we stopped for lunch at a fancy restaurant for a three-course meal. Yes, this was still part of my field trip. We stretched out the meal as long as we could, dreading stepping back out into the dismal city. Two hours later, we snapped pictures of the waterfront and beach, which at least provided some sort of happiness in comparison to the gloom and doom earlier. The wind was still outrageous and cut through any jackets we wore. By this point our teacher was just as worn out as we were and insisted we stopped for coffee and croissants at a pastry shop before we walked back to the ship. Not bad considering that day counted for 20% of my grade in that class.
Byron and I finished the night by watching Midnight in Paris on our last day in France. Typical cheesy Owen Wilson style, but a cute way to end the trip, especially after I learned that this was the last time I’d get to hang out with Byron for days.
Day 34: Tuesday, September 17 (At Sea)
Byron was not acting like himself at breakfast. He’s never a morning person, but he barely said a word and only put one piece of toast on his plate. I knew something was wrong since he normally piles his plate high. He said that he had stomach pains all night and couldn't sleep no matter what position he tried the pain wouldn't go away. He said he was going to miss his class and go down to Dr. Dave. I didn’t worry too much and figured it would be nothing.
Around 9am I got a brief email from Byron saying "They're taking me to the hospital in Le Havre to do some tests on my appendix and gall bladder since if it got worse at sea, that wouldn't be good. Hopefully ill be back tonight, just wanted to let you know."
So that freaked me out a little but I figured they'd do a few tests and he'd be right back on the ship with some antibiotics, good to go. I struggled in class with my lingering sore throat and tried hard to keep up with the work my bosses kept piling on that day, running around sick and sniffling while writing news articles and hunting down kids to get quotes and information. I was not in good shape.
Finally relieved from work, I retreated back to my room with no appetite for socializing, getting more and more upset about Byron. I emerged from my room for dinner and everyone was more than sympathetic and reassured me that everything's going to be okay.
I had emailed him several times by now and was just hoping to hear a tidbit of info about what was going on with no avail. Dr. Dave said there were confidentiality rules in place but that the tests were taking a long time. They accidentally brought him to the wrong hospital at first, and language barriers were causing issues.
Thanks Dr. Dave, I can always count on your reassuring advice.
Hours and hours passed and still nothing while I tried to do homework to take my mind off of it. Finally I got a call from Dean Eddie asking me to meet him at Byron's door. His roommate and I waited; trying to figure out what the hell is going on, confused and concerned. His RA passed us in the hallway and told us that she was on her way to the hospital to spend the night and then fly with him to meet the ship in Dublin.
Upstairs Dean Eddie, Dean nick, and Dr. Dave were all huddled around discussing plans and they gave me a paper with things Byron wanted me to pack for him. They told me I couldn’t go and see him or know anything about what's going on due to confidentiality. On the brink of tears, I went to his room and tried to pack everything he asked. Flustered and upset I forgot his sneakers. I gave the backpack to the RA and cried on my way back to my room. It was so hard and scary not knowing anything and having the info kept from me. I just wanted to know that he was okay. It was looking like I wouldn’t know until a few days from now when the ship docks in Dublin. My roommates were good at reassuring me and trying to make me laugh. I received emails from friends sending their love to both Byron and I and that they were there for me.
My friends were so sweet, but the administration could have done better on that front. Dean Eddie was on the phone with him in front of me and still wouldn’t do a thing. I fell asleep hoping desperately for a fast recovery and some information.
Day 35: Wednesday, September 18 (At Sea)
Strange dreams filled the entire night, causing me to wake up with a disoriented feeling. I trudged around all day, on the verge of tears whenever I thought about Byron in a foreign hospital without knowing what was going on.
I wish I could say the day improved, but I would be lying. After dinner I walked away from the dining room and slipped on something, caught myself and kept on walking. Everyone was staring at me with their mouths open in disgust. I heard the word “puke” and turned around with horror as I realized I had slipped in someone’s vomit and it was now squishing in between my toes in my flip-flops. I sprinted down the stairs as fast as I could and shoved my foot in the shower, somehow missing my foot and getting the rest of me drenched. Today was just not my day.
Day 37: Friday, September 20 (Dublin, Ireland)
For the third night in a row, my body wouldn’t allow me the privilege of sleeping longer than four hours. There could be hundreds of reasons why my insomnia was acting up, but I attributed it to the constant rocking of the ship and missing Byron while he was far away in a French hospital. Feeling anxious for his return, I tried to make the clock move by keeping myself busy straightening my hair, doing an extra thorough job on my makeup, and as my last resort, organizing my room. Finally, I decided it was time to venture upstairs for breakfast after leaving a note on his door to find me at breakfast as soon as he got on the ship.
All breakfast I was monitoring the hallway, waiting for him to walk into the room and be once again, reunited. It seemed like ages and several coffee mugs later, but finally I heard, “Oh my god, he’s back!” prompting me to run from my seat to give the biggest welcome back hug, nearly knocking him over. The dining hall filled with clapping hands, happy that their fellow SASer was back and fully recovered.
It turns out his time in the foreign hospital was relatively uneventful as his only ailment had been an upset stomach. Two hotels, numerous cab rides, one flight and three days later here he was, tummy ache cured.
In the matter of a few minutes time, we sprinted downstairs, packed a backpack for the day, and attempted fruitlessly to locate our Travel Writing class. I pulled up the email we were sent saying “Meet in Classroom 3”, yet the students occupying the room were totally unfamiliar. After wandering around and asking staff members for help, we finally found the class patiently waiting in the inconspicuous Classroom 7 on Deck 6 as they proclaimed, “Oh HERE they are.” How did everyone magically know where to meet??
We left the ship and boarded directly onto a shiny coach bus waiting just for our class. Here we were introduced to our trusty guide who had a very round head with wisps of white hair trying very hard to cover the inevitable shiny baldness that lay underneath. His charming accent and warm friendly eyes were exactly what I would expect from an Irish grandfather. As any good tour guide would, he pointed out all kinds of historical facts as we made our way to the Irish Writing Center, with a keen focus on bridges. We were treated to information about a bridge in the shape of a harp, bridges dedicated to famous writers, the first bridge in memory of a female, new bridges, old bridges, ugly bridges, and pretty bridges. Okay, we get it. The River Liffey has a lot of cool bridges.
With dozens of facts swimming in our head, we arrived at the front doors of the Irish Writing Center. The smell of ink on paper brought me immediately back to the tiny neighborhood library in my town where I would spend hours after the elementary school bus dropped me off. It takes a certain number of books in one place to create such a smell and I’m always curious how many books it actually requires to produce the musty, but somehow pleasant odor.
The friendly manner of the receptionists at the front desk lead us to believe that everyone we would meet in the facility that day would be equally as pleasant and chipper. Wrong. They herded up the royal blue carpeted stairs to an ornate conference room to meet the source of my anxiety for the next hour and a half—Theo the author.
Tables of different heights were jumbled together with mismatching seats arranged to produce a setting in which this one man sat at the very head of a long table containing all of us students. The power dynamics were already at play.
Harsh black eyebrows intensified his intimidatingly long eye contact while his low, measured way of speaking demanded our attention. When Theo talked, the room was dead silent. You knew this guy meant business and expected you to lap up every word that came out of his mouth. If you didn’t, rest assured he would call attention to you and perhaps even invite you to take a seat of honor right next to him, an honor bestowed upon a few of my classmates.
“Write one sentence that we’ll remember 24 hours from now”.
Dammit. I am so bad at coming up with things on the spot that I start to look around, tap my pen, search the room for some escape out of this menial task. I jot down an equally dull sentence having to do with travel. Other students were clearly just as stumped, revealed through their half-assed sentences on par with mine. Theo, unimpressed by the majority of our sentences, latched on to the least expected example, “I have to pee.” He broke down his selection piece by piece applauding the student for their concise, unusual, and memorable example. To be fair, I still remember this student’s sentence, far exceeding the requirements of the task.
“What makes a sentence memorable? It stays in your memory.”
Well duh. Thanks Theo for your wise enlightenment on that. One second I wanted to ignore his pompous statements, but the next he would win my support back by giving reason for his condescending nature, proving he was right the whole time. His nit-picky approach to writing was a source of annoyance to us all, making us jump through hoops describing the ship’s gangway down to the color of the hair on the mole of the security guard’s face, standing at the top of the stairs. Okay, just kidding, but I’m only exaggerating by a small bit. He described the exercises as “atomizing the process”, but I’d say it was more a process of him taking our examples, ripping them to shreds, and then explaining in detail why we sucked and were poor excuses of writers.
The mood of the room lifted when he admitted that he’s a much more agreeable person when teaching a workshop over a continued period of time. For the purposes of our two-hour session, he needed to be direct. He was not here to make friends with us. That’s for sure, I thought. He did, however, succeed in telling us a sentence that was memorable after 24 hours.
“Take me there.”
This last tidbit of writing advice has stuck with me almost a week later.
Two hours later, shoulders relaxed, hands unclenched, and chatty dialogue resumed as we passed through the doors of the Irish Writing Center at the conclusion of our charming visit with Theo. Back to the safety of our tour bus away from the author’s critical eye, we made our way to Trinity College.
Some would say the highlight of visiting Trinity College is the opportunity to see the ancient Book of Kells. I would alternatively describe the situation as standing in a long line outside, being herded into a dark display room back to back with smelly tourists, then standing in another line inside…all to look at some really old pieces of paper with ink on them. I claim full historical ignorance on the artifact since I know nothing about it, yet my attention was drawn instead to the “Freshers Week” Activity Fair going on outside the enormous library we were shuffling through.
Back in the busy quad of Trinity and no longer breathing in the musty book smell, we strolled along the rows of booths, each one dedicated to a certain extracurricular activity of the school, boasting why the new “Freshers” should join their club. There were Jazz Bands, Spanish clubs, kayaking clubs, and even chess clubs—well represented by the students touting their cause. You can travel all the way around the world and some thing will never change. The nerds will always be in chess club, the band geeks always in Jazz Band, and the outdoorsy bros will always be in the Kayaking Club. It’s almost a comforting feeling knowing that people can be so similar regardless of the thousands of nautical miles separating us.
Walking into the Café en Seine brought me immediately back to the lavish cafes of Paris that we were sipping fine wine and sampling buttery escargots in merely a few days ago. The motif was a gaudy French style with high chandeliers and brass furniture. To me it looked more like a thrift shop filled to capacity with an abundance of memorabilia from the twenties and thirties.
The waitress came over and asked if we were ready to order. Oh, right. Most of us had been too excited by the free Wi-Fi the restaurant had to offer. Typical of every place we go, one person will log on, but then once the word spreads that there’s free internet, our eagerness for uploading photos and checking notifications creates a network traffic jam, rendering the internet useless for all. We have yet to come up with a solution to the situation.
Everyone was brought the exact same plate consisting of miniature delicate sandwiches with varying ingredients of egg, tomato, mozzarella, and chicken pesto. With our enormous appetites it only took a matter of minutes to scarf down the sandwiches, slurp down the mushroom soup and have time to spare for a nice stroll in the neighborhood before our next planned activity.
When I say the phrase “Literary Pub Crawl”, I have a feeling there are several different ideas you may conjure up about what this sort of event may entail. For those who have never heard of a pub crawl, no it does not mean crawling on all fours from pub to pub (although this is an occurrence I’ve witnessed before from pub-goers who have had a few too many). It also doesn’t mean you read books from pub to pub as the name may suggest. At the very least, you would most likely assume that a drop of alcohol might accompany the occasion.
For any other average adult of the legal drinking age in Ireland, you would be correct in that assumption. You would have the privilege of following around two Irish actors as they performed famous works of literature, acting as tour guides from famous pub to pub with the experience enhanced by Ireland’s finest brews.
As students under Semester at Sea’s watchful eye, we do not fall under the category of average legal drinking age adults. We are scholars of a fine institution that when given a drop of alcohol, could turn into raving lunatics and tarnish the good name of Semester at Sea. Or so they think.
Okay, enough complaining about the lack of beverages. Our actor started us off in traditional Irish song, engaging us in a call and response fashion in a dimly lit upstairs room of Duke’s Pub.
Him: “What’ll ya have?”
Us: “I’ll have a pint!”
No, but really though, please give us a pint.
The height of his performance was when he reenacted scenes from Ireland’s legendary writers, such as scenes from a Samuel Beckett play, or excerpts from Oscar Wilde’s account of his escape from death accredited to his high alcohol tolerance. These enactments brought me out of my distracting people watching tendencies and into the stories. My attention would waver again when he would fall back into his less audible monotone voice and recite facts about Joyce or Yeats.
We mostly likely would have gotten the same experience even with the absence of awkwardly shuffling through a few bars, confusing the locals that had decided 5 o’ clock was too long to wait for the night’s first Guinness. However, come that evening when we were released from our academic duties, I prided myself if knowing the names and locations of Ireland’s best pubs, which turned out to be quite helpful.
I did retain one interesting term from the tour and that was the “Snug Room”. This room was a standard in most bars and its purpose was to hold all the female drinkers in a separate room so they wouldn’t “corrupt” the male patrons. Talk about a change in perspective from today’s bar dynamics. A woman is lucky to exit a bar at the end of the night without receiving one uninvited conversation, blatant stare, or handsy gentleman customer.
The list of scheduled items on the itinerary were now exhausted, meaning it was time to meander back to the coach bus and up the gangway. The gangway was located high up on the fifth deck and had equally spaced stairs crafted of a light aluminum material. The tired blue carpet on the ramp ushered us up each rattling stair as we grasped the cold metal railing until we reached the top step, coming face to face with the black hair on the mole on the face of the security guard.
You’re welcome Theo.
With dining hall food in our tummies and heeled boots on, we were ready to take on Dublin’s infamous Temple Bar, a section of the city located on the South Bank of the River Liffey. Cobblestones line the street, adding to the timelessness felt when walking past rows and rows of bars and restaurants.
The first pub graced by our presence was O’Neil’s. If I could name the rest of the bars we went to that night, I would but quite frankly every pub in Ireland is named O’Hooligan’s, O’Reilly’s, or O’Sullivan’s or some variation of the three, making it very difficult to keep them straight.
Partaking in local culture, we slurped down frothy pints of rich dark Guinness and conversed with locals about the upcoming Irish Rugby Match that had the city buzzing with excitement. In true Irish hospitality, our local friend treated us all to a “Baby Guinness” (Guinness mixed with Kahlua, I think?) and insisted on being our tour guide for the rest of the evening. We were twelve students strong so our safety didn’t seem to be threatened by taking him up on his offer.
Last year back at UConn I became close friends with two Irish students from Dublin that worked as poster salesmen for one of our radio station events. They promised that they’d show me around the city since I showed them around UConn. All day I tried messaging them to meet up at a pub to catch up, but since every damn bar in Dublin is named the same, these plans were never accomplished.
However, a memorable night was had by all—meeting local after local, learning from fellow travelers from all over the world, and embracing Dublin culture.
Day 38: Saturday, September 21 (Dublin to Galway, Ireland)
We had all intentions of waking up early and doing all these grand things in Dublin, but since the shuttle bus running from the ship to the city’s downtown area only ran on the half hour, it was a hopeless fight with the driver to let us sit on laps or in the aisles on the jam packed bus.
Instead we had a nice brisk walk through the shipyard (which all looks the exact same, making it quite hard to navigate) and half an hour later, we were finally at the center and it was almost time for lunch. There was a lot of talk on the ship about escaping metropolitan Dublin and experiencing the rolling green fields of the countryside. My enthusiasm for cities was exhausted after being in so many European cities all merging together in my mind with their quaint fountains and boulevards and squares and mas transportation. It was time for some nature.
The bus to Galway was supposedly three hours, that is, three hours if you manage to get on the right bus and not the one that stops in every damn town in between Dublin and Galway, regardless that the population of said towns have three families, thirty sheep, and a horse or two. Stonewalls meandered over hills, ensuring the various animals inside stayed within their lush green fields. Hour long expanses passed in between “towns” that consisted of a pub enthusiastically advertising Guinness and Heineken, sandwiched in between rows of two-story shops in a creamy stucco hue. This row of civilization lasted for a block or two and then petered out in exchange for thatch roof houses, bales or hay and more fields. Always more fields. Byron gave an impromptu recitation of Robert Frost’s Mending Wall to compliment the mood.
Five hours later we groaned our way off the bus trying to revive any feeling in our cramped legs. The chilly wind carried a sticky saltiness that made me want to escape inside and take a bath and sit by a warm fire. Instead, we miles away from the B&B we booked with three other SASers and had no idea which direction to turn.
I hate taxis. I think the tight budget that I have can be better used on things that I actually want. I’m under the idea that I have legs and can use them to get where I need to be. Kayla and I, after much debate, somehow managed to convince our friends with more means to follow us on the great quest for the B&B on foot.
“Could you please help us find this address?” we asked a harmless looking woman in her thirties.
“Of course! I’m from Sweden, but I’ve lived here for years so I’ll get ya there. So where are we now? What street is this?”
This was not a good sign. If she didn’t know where we were, I have no idea why she was under the impression that WE, the foreigners, had a clue.
Turns out we were just a block away and trudged into the seaside house chilled and aching from carrying our monstrous backpacks for hours. Guess we’ll take the taxi next time.
Our friendly concierge, Sam, was a Romanian in his mid-twenties with an avid distaste for his job. It was the eve of his birthday and he was stuck taking care of us and the group of elderly folks enjoying a lovely weekend by the sea. Don’t feel too bad for him though, we saw him out partying in town, abandoning his post at the house.
The image of five of us leaving our tiny room must have looked an odd sight to the elderly patrons, but it was way cheaper for us all to smush together in the room than stay in a hostel. Besides, we entered the room and were pleasantly surprised by mints on the pillow, a tea pot ready to go, fluffy white towels, and endless “digestive biscuits” (Irish cookies), we were living in luxury.
By this point it was way past 8 o’clock and I could have easily just had a cup of that charming looking tea and snuggle under the covers until morning. Our stomachs wouldn’t allow such a thing, so we strolled into town and found a cheap AND delicious traditional Irish pub. Kayla went back to the B&B but I decided to push myself to go out regardless of how tired my body was. Bad idea. I stepped into the bar with the three others in the group, they started dancing and I couldn’t do anything else but stand there dead tired. I convinced them I would be okay walking back by myself, which is something Byron neverrr lets me do (thank goodness because I can be way too independent) but I promised to carry everybody’s jackets back and was soon on my way.
It was freezing cold and dark. I knew the way fine and just walked as fast as I could, avoiding eye contact and ignoring the various comments of people as I passed. Finally at the front door of the B&B, I realized I didn’t know the passcode to the alarm system. Locked outside, cold (until I started layering their jackets on), exhausted, and feeling frustrated I waited an hour looking out at the ocean a bench outside the front door until two drunken Italian guests thankfully knew the passcode and let me in. I can’t say sleeping in a double bed with three people was such a good idea, falling asleep somewhere around 4 or 5am.
Day 39: Sunday, September 22 (Galway to Dublin, Ireland)
Waking up four hours later was rough, but a hearty breakfast of instant coffee and digestive biscuits got me ready to take on the day. In the downstairs parlor ornamented with lace doilies and Victorian era lampshades, I started chatting with an older couple. The man lived in California and had been a pilot in China and Pakistan and had all these stories to tell about his missions sneaking past borders and smuggling cargo. Every time I decide to open my mouth and talk to other travelers, I’m amazed by the stories I hear. Turns out the world is filled with some pretty awesome people.
Minutes after minute passed as we waited by the curb in front of the B&B waiting for our tour bus to retrieve us and carry us to The Cliffs of Moher. Byron paced back and forth while Kayla and I optimistically tried to offer excuses as to why the bus was so late.
On the phone, the bus driver vehemently insisted that we were not standing directly in front of the pick up location at the time that he drove past and he was miles away. After much back and forth, he reluctantly agreed to come back for us. After that rocky start, the day could only improve.
I try to avoid experiencing a location via a big obnoxious shiny tour bus, but sometimes it’s the easiest option. My pictures of ancient foundations of stone churches, tombs, and castles were tinted dark and had glare from the window, but with the bus we were able to cover the entire Doolin region of Ireland, winding past both the sea coast and the high mountains.
Before this voyage, I had little to no knowledge about the warfare between greater Ireland and Northern Ireland but there’s even still an animosity felt between them. Originally the two were split by loyalties to either Britain (the north) or to the people of Ireland. It turned into a religious divide between the Protestants from the North and the Irish Catholics in the rest of Ireland. Now, Northern Ireland is under Britain’s control and may become a separate independent country some day, but for now travelers can pass freely between the countries but generally the two don’t mix. Our guide told us that a yearly Irish music festival that is normally held in greater Ireland was held in Northern Ireland for the first time this year. Because of this change, so much tension was felt between the two regions that attendance plummeted. Northern Ireland operates on the Irish Pound for currency and in most functions is entirely disconnected to the rest of the island.
After every bend in the winding cliff road I expected to suddenly see the prominent Cliffs of Moher that spanned part of the Irish coastline hundreds of feet above the frothy blue and green ocean water. Finally after so much anticipation we arrived and ran around taking in as much as we could in our allotted hour and a half before climbing back into our respective bus seats. No guardrails, no safety nets, no fences at the edge (the only fence was to keep the cows from jumping off in a suicidal dive), no warning signs, and no guards. I would be hard-pressed to find a three-foot cliff in the United States without heavy fencing ensuring us clumsy Americans didn’t accidently fall to our death. Not in Ireland.
The overcrowded pub erupted in cheers as Dublin scored a point in the big football game, broadcasted onto every screen in the building, while we dined on traditional Irish stew and local brews for lunch. I had no allegiance to Dublin, yet at the same time I felt a desire for them to win after spending what little time I had there.
The long bus ride back took us to other less impressive cliffs, more ancient Irish churches and medieval castles, horses, alpacas, and more all along the sea coast route. Along the drive a tour bus driver from another company heading towards us in the opposite direction made a complete fool of himself. According to our driver, all the tour companies have an agreement that they only travel on the seacoast route on the way back from the Cliffs due to the narrow nature of the road. Therefore, when this noob tried to nose his way past our bus, he looked like a complete moron and narrowly missed clipping our bus while holding up traffic for half an hour. After he tightly maneuvered past our bus, he had twelve tour busses behind us to mock and embarrass him further. I was grateful for our choice in Tour Company even after this morning’s debacle.
After the little setback that other bus driver caused us, we panicked thinking that we weren’t going to make it on our bus back to Dublin in twenty minutes. Back at the bus station we saw the ticket man standing in the doorframe of the bus turning away people and we thought that was it and we were stuck here for a whole other day. Thank god we rushed on before he could say two words to stop us, waved our tickets, and squished into the back row seat for the seemingly endless ride back to the city.
I always have all these grand ideas that no matter how tired I am, I’ll just rally and go out until the wee hours of the night. Most of the time, however, by the time I get back to the ship and unpack and get back off, I’m exhausted. Instead, we decided to get back in touch with our American-loving taste buds and have some juicy burgers and wings at TGIFridays. Enough culture for me.
Day 40: Monday, September 23 (Howth and Dublin, Ireland)
By some miraculous power I managed to convince Byron to wake up at the ungodly hour of 8:00am in time for breakfast on the ship in the hopes of catching the 8:30 shuttle to the center of the city. We had some elaborate plans for the last day in Ireland and I was determined to fit it all in, from hiking cliffs to touring a beer factory, to fitting in last minute souvenir shopping. By this point in the voyage, I was a pro travel planner. Of course the shuttle was packed to capacity the second the shiny hydraulic doors slid open. Trevor, Kayla, Byron and I wouldn’t let this put a damper on our itinerary and traipsed on through the shipyard, intrigued to find a memento from the night before leaning against a signpost, the small amount of clear liquor remaining in the glass bottle indicating a good time.
It doesn’t take much to escape the monotony of city life when in Dublin. A speedy ride on the metro to the last stop will take you to a leisurely harbor town known as Howth with picturesque beaches, cliffs, hills, and homes. Without a map or any idea what was in the town, we walked along the harbor until we happened upon a boardwalk bordering a grainy beach ten feet below.
Jumping wasn’t an option, but sliding our way down to the beach on slippery, seaweed-covered boulders, narrowly escaping a long fall did the trick. Probably not the best beach for surfing or swimming. Not really the best for making sandcastles. Definitely not meant for tanning. The only thing left to do was climb along the rocks sandwiched in between the cliffs and caves and the chilly water creeping closer and closer as the tide came in.
Climbing out was one thing, but after half an hour of laboriously clinging and jumping on rocks, I was all for finding an alternate route back. A decaying cement staircase protruded out of the cliff, inviting us to climb precariously up, gripping the rusted railing and praying it would hold. The stairs ended in a tangled mass of vines and thick bushes obscuring a cement block with an ominous message scrawled across in spray paint. “Do not enter. DANGER. NO EXIT.”
Any rational human being would turn around hurriedly and never look back. We’re not scared away so easily. We forced our way through the vegetation and carved out a path that dumped us into a backyard fenced in on three sides and blocked by the house on the fourth. We were stuck and started hearing yelling from the house. “You’re NOT allowed here, get out! Turn around!” This prompted us to turn around hurriedly and never look back. The juice was just the right mix between bitter and sweet. Amazing, considering these raspberries were growing wild on the side of the path to the top of the hill. I wouldn’t usually recommend eating wild fruit in a foreign country, but we couldn’t walk ten meters without stopping to grab the juiciest berry we could find.
We managed to pull ourselves away from the raspberries long enough to see the incredible view at the top of the hill. Behind us a sea of green grass and purple and orange flowers rose and fell with the curves of the land. To my left, Howth lay still with quaint streets winding around and culminating in the harbor of sailboats, masts reaching towards the cloudless sky. The open ocean sprawled in front of me, interrupted by random fifty-foot-high boulders and the occasional fisherman. The meandering path we climbed up stood to my right, reminding me this incredible view came at the cost of walking all the way back down. Well worth it—it always is.
We crossed back into the metropolitan world and navigated the Dublin streets next to the river (if you ever get lost, just follow the river) and ended up at the front gates of Ireland’s pride: The Guinness Storehouse. I was ready to learn.
Definitely one of the best “museums” I’ve ever been in. The interior of the building is meant to feel like you’re in a pint glass in which you go from level to level learning about the history of Arthur Guinness’s endeavor (he signed a lease for the Storehouse for a million years!), how to make beer, the progression of Guinness advertising, and then the museum ends at the very top of the building in a “Sky Bar” with glass windows on all sides giving a full view of the entire city and a bar in the middle serving up complimentary Guinness pints. If only all museums were like this. With only a little over an hour until we had to get back to the ship, we sprinted along the river, stopping to get last minute souvenirs, and made it back on the ship for special BBQ dinner the crew had waiting for us in the dining hall.
Day 41: Tuesday, September 24 (At Sea)
Back at sea, and I FINALLY slept.
Day 43: Thursday, September 26 (At Sea)
So I come home tomorrow and my journals are still in September, but I’m gonna keep going no matter what and get this all written.
Today was a special day because I was invited to Special Dining by Byron for our anniversary celebration. On the ship, they have an option to pay $30 each person to have food served to you in one of the classrooms converted into an upscale restaurant and it’s a 4-course meal with steak and appetizers and champagne and this whole ordeal with our usual waiters going above and beyond to make sure we’re satisfied. I had no idea what to do for our anniversary because guys are the hardest people to buy gifts for and I didn’t want to just get something he would throw away, so I decided to make a poster with pictures of us on our travels and “I love you” written in all the languages of the countries we were visiting.
Dinner rolled around and I was quite happy I had a light lunch since it was more food than I had eaten the entire voyage. It was all just so good, so I tried to eat every bite, forcing down spoonfuls of banana split at the end. Just when I thought we were finished, Byron said, “Wait, there’s one more course.”
There was no way my stomach could hold any more food. But, instead of food, he told me to close my eyes and hold out my hand. I felt something drop into my hand and I opened my eyes to find a teal blue box resting in front of me. The bold black letters “Tiffany” stood out and I couldn’t believe it. I had never gotten Tiffany before in my life and was so shocked. I opened up the box to reveal a chain with two hearts, one engraved with my initials. I think a few tears might have escaped as he put it around my neck. He had brought the necklace with him this ENTIRE time. It was with him when we left Connecticut and in his luggage during the whole time we were in Iceland with me rooting through his bag the whole time. I took out my poster and handed it to him, feeling like there was no way it could compare to the amazing gift he had just given me.
With his reaction, you would think they were just as valuable. He said he never had someone make him a poster before and spent time looking at every photo. With a year full of adventures, we were here traveling the world together and that was a pretty incredible thing to say.
Day 66: Saturday, October 19 (At Sea, Neptune Day)
Knock, Knock, Knock. BOOM. CRASH. Knock, Knock, Knock. DING. BOOM.
What the hell was going on? I ripped my warm cozy blankets off of me and stumbled in the dark to find the door handle and found Byron standing on the other side of the door with a huge giddy grin on his face as he shouted, “Get up! Get up! Get up! It’s Neptune Day!!!” Down the hallway behind him was the entire crew dressed in medieval looking outfits with bed sheet togas, construction paper gladiator helmets, and strips of cloth and shiny paper giving ornamentation to their costumes as they marched past each one of our doors, banging on the closed ones with vigor.
Loud drums, blaring horns, crashing cymbals, and shrill whistles complimented their march—all to jolt us out of our peaceful slumber. We rushed around the room trying to throw on bathing suits and flip flops, cameras, and contact lenses before the band came back with more vigor. We rushed upstairs for a quick breakfast and then staked out our place around the pool—a highly coveted spot.
Whispers of excitement were all around me while the driving base from our adept DJ Sammy’s speakers laid the beat for our enthusiastic dancing. Assistant Dean Rita’s voice blared over the loud speaker inviting all the shipboard community to make their way to the pool deck to meet with King Neptune and his charming wife.
Shouts and applause rose as our dear Captain Jeremy stepped up the stairs to the pool deck, covered in green body paint, a grass skirt, and his rightful crown. An entire royal court accompanied King Neptune with Dean Eddie as the beautiful Queen with her golden locks adorned with seashells and streamers. Our teachers and Lifelong Learners made up the rest of the King’s crew, all dressed in togas and outrageous make up.
“Are you land lubbers worthy of the sea? Do you respect all that live within these waters? Prove yourselves!!” said Dean Nick, also dressed in the court’s garb.
One by one we lined up in the pool underneath the buckets of green slime that the crew poured over our heads. To “cleanse” ourselves, we then had to jump into the pool, climb out of the water, kiss the mouths of two slimy, smelly dead fish, kiss the rings on the fingers of our royalty, and finally be knighted by our dear Rita’s cardboard sword and we were officially no longer inexperienced “pollywogs”. Our passing through 0 Longitude and 0 Latitude gave us all the impressive title of “Emerald Shellbacks”, a title that even some Naval officers have yet to achieve.
Freshly shaven bald heads began to pop up as more and more people volunteered to have their hair shaved by teachers and then donated to locks of love. Some brave girls shed tears through the process of hearing their long locks being buzzed off by the school’s music teacher. Most of us couldn’t be convinced to part with our precious hair.
Sammy’s music kept us high on adrenaline, dancing until we couldn’t fit on the pool deck anymore, scaring all the security guards as we moved our dance party to the tiny pool. Our bodies were packed into the water shoulder to shoulder and suddenly someone was passing our favorite faculty’s child from one side of the pool to the other, hands raised in the air in a way you’d be more likely to find in a hard rock mosh pit than in a pool on a ship floating along the equator. Everyone agreed it was their favorite day on the ship with everyone bonding and taking pictures, dancing, hugging, laughing, crying, and just appreciating the fact that we were all we had in the middle of the ocean, our homes thousands of miles away from us in far-off places.
Day 73: Saturday, October 26 (Cape Town to Johannesburg, South Africa)
My body just refuses to let me sleep. Maybe I was super excited to be sailing into Cape Town, or maybe the waves were bad, or maybe it was perfect sleeping conditions. Anyway, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning in pitch-black darkness. Rita’s voice came over the intercom around 6:30am announcing that our entire immigration process was changed and we all were required to stumble out of our beds, into the hallways, down the gangway, and past the South African immigration officials for a face to face meeting. Then we all filed back up the gangway with our passports stamped. Not much point in going back to bed at that point.
Instead I packed for the next four days I would be spending off the ship, using my giant hiking backpack. If you don’t own one of these, I highly suggest investing in one and using it instead of tacky rolling luggage or unwieldy duffels.
With the few hours we had before catching at bus to the Cape Town Airport, we wandered around the V&A Waterfront. I was suddenly in Newport, Rhode Island. The wooden pier teemed with white middle-aged couples, donned in crisp white pants, pastel sweaters tied neatly across their shoulders, and two brown paper shopping bags in each hand printed with various designer’s names. The brightly lit mall with bold shop signs in English, the mammoth-sized yachts tied up to the wooden posts along the docks, and the abundance of seafood restaurants lined up with their clean white tablecloths and well shaven Caucasian waiters were not what I was expecting. It was comforting to be so familiar with the place, yet it almost felt phony and contrived. This was not the Africa that I had experienced and read about.
Palm trees lined the streets that were neatly laid out and crossed by convenient pedestrian bridges and walkways. Even when a pedestrian crossed the street, traffic stopped on the dime and courteously allowed them to pass by. Table Mountain formed a wall in the far distance, isolating and protecting the city from the rest of Africa—the real Africa that this city seems to ignore. This sense of safety and ignorant bliss is only apparent when the sun is high in the sky. At night one would have to be crazy to walk alone along the dark streets scattered with the other half of Cape Town that barely scrapes by to survive in the poverty stricken areas. Muggings and theft are a huge problem in the city due to the huge gap between the upper class and the lowest class due to the historical roots in apartheid.
The bus to the airport took us away from the paradoxical paradise and past the dilapidated corrugated tin roofed shacks that make up the townships surrounding the city. These townships were where the blacks were forced to live during the apartheid. Even though the apartheid ending and Nelson Mandela was elected as the first black president of South Africa in 1994, the townships are still inhabited by the same people that were forced here due to their inability to elevate their position in an unequal economy and society. Barely any electricity, outhouses, hundreds of people living in squalor on top of each other, you can only try to imagine the quality of life. I was glad to have been able to see this part of Cape Town too so I wouldn’t have as much of an ignorant tourist view of the city.
We breezed right on through airport security with zero issues. Liquids? No problem. Cell phone in my pocket? Sure thing. Leave my shoes and belt on? Of course! In all of the countries we’ve flown in, its amazing to see how lax they are in comparison to the States.
We ran into two other SASers, Stephan and Hannah, and since they had no reservations for Johannesburg they tagged along with us and stayed at our hostel in a suburb of Joburg called Kensington. Our flight attendant cracked joke after joke about mothers needing to pick their favorite child in an emergency, and if you smoked in the bathroom they would put the fire extinguisher on them and force them to hop off the wing. I’d never experienced a comedic flight, but it certainly kept your mind off the fact that you were thousands of feet above the ground.
Our hospitable hostel manager, Graham, picked us up in his maroon Mercedes coupe entertaining us by telling us all about the history of Johannesburg and his favorite places. We passed tiny houses with barbed wire and spikes on top of the fences and pulled into a driveway in front of a maroon house. Walking up the stairs elevated us high above the city, giving a great view of all the skyscrapers and rooftops and vibrant purple trees.
Inside we upgraded to get our own private room for only three dollars extra, and I'm so glad we did. The house was beautiful and I took plenty of pictures to get inspiration for my dream house I keep planning in my head. Graham showed us the cozy living room, huge kitchen, inner courtyard garden, sauna and then out to the pool.
The glacial water stopped my heart for a millisecond as Byron and I jumped in holding hands on the count of three, before sprinting out moments later. It was refreshing to say the least. We laid out our towels and Stephan led us in one of the best yoga sessions I've ever had. Some of the positions I remembered from when I used to do DVD yoga but it was the perfect challenge level and perfect pace. The South African sun warmed shined and warmed my body while appreciating the panoramic view, complimented by the far off voices giving the call to prayer emanating from Mosques below. During my meditation I vowed not to forget this tranquil moment that took away my headache and fever and left my body feeling good and relaxed and strong. Definitely going to join them on the ship for yoga.
We ended with a quote, "It's not what you say, it's not what you do, but how you make someone feel that determines who you are.”
Graham drove us to the part of Kensington where the restaurants and bars were after giving us another tour of his favorite overlooks of the city. The German pub looked the liveliest, so we sat down next to the locals; eyes glued to the TV set broadcasting the Stormers Rugby game. We dined on chicken liver, pork knuckle, pork tongue, Spatzle and several rounds of castle milk stout, my new favorite beer.
During a spout of torrential rain and hail that accompanied the violent looking lightening, we moved tables and met Patrick, a man that had lived in Johannesburg for 21 years running the hair salon next door. This guy held my attention all night excitedly discussing everything ranging from Breaking Bad, to electronic dance music festivals, to the corruption in the police force of South Africa. We were all equally fascinated by each other and our cultures. He taught us a few phrases: Have a Jol (similar to “great craic” in Ireland), Get pickled or Lamp basted (means drunk), Pozi (means home). His puns were so bad that we couldn't help but laugh like, "What did the newspaper headlines read when a psychic midget escaped from jail? ‘Small Medium at Large.”
Graham was nice enough to pick us up from the bar and drive us all back to the hostel, all 6 of us smushed in the back sitting on top of laps just like in UConn carpools. After a healthy dose of Wifi and Skype, I attempted and failed at trying to sleep. I really hope this gets better. However, overall this was a great day. Highlights were that incredible yoga sesh and absorbing so much info from Patrick.
Day 77: Wednesday, October 30 (Cape Town)
I woke up with fever-like aches and an aversion to any food I tried to eat at breakfast before meeting my class for our Field Lab. I pushed through my ailments and before long my excitement for going to Bush Radio made me forget all about it. Getting the opportunity to visit a radio station in South Africa is basically the only reason I even signed up for this Journalism class in the first place. Once inside I compared everything to my radio station back home; they even had the same smell! We were introduced to their news group, a few DJS, and other members of their staff at the community radio station. I was being “that kid” and asked question after question while everyone else in my class looked bored to tears because I spend a majority of time back home at the school radio station. I thought they were going to be outdated, but they’re actually ahead of my school in their process of converting CDs and LPs to a digital format. Radio in South Africa has a much more prevalent role than my college radio station since they provide a voice for all the politics going on in Cape Town, specifically Cape Flats with their poverty and racial conflict inflicted history. They even have an internship program and I’m tempted to get some more info just on the off chance I decide to up and move to Cape Town on a whim.
As part of the Field Lab we were taken to a modern restaurant with a view of the entire western cape, multicolored roofs providing a sea of colors. They served us a dish bouti (I think?) and it’s like a casserole and a coconut covered fried ball of bread. Much better than any smushed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I used to bring on field trips in middle school.
Next on the agenda was to visit Cape Times, Cape Town’s left leaning newspaper. Since the class was all trying to get back to the ship in time to see Desmond Tutu’s talk, we asked as little questions as possible to our teacher’s dismay. During our Q&A with the newspaper staff, news was happening right outside of the window with protesters assembling on the steps of the Provincial Government Building from groups such as the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters. Their shouts, drums, whistles and chants were drowning out anything our lecturers were saying, so they tailored their lesson on the protest. They explained that the protesters were fighting for better sanitation in the townships surrounding Cape Town and were going to dump contents of toilets on the front steps of the building. We had to be escorted from the newspaper building to our bus, heads down, briskly walking out of concern that the rioters would harm us.
Our timing was perfect and I walked into the packed full room of the ship’s Union just in time to see Desmond Tutu laughing and giving his words of wisdom. Students asked him general questions about apartheid that kept him rambling for minutes, yet I clung to every word he said trying to save them in my horribly sieve-like memory. His casual attitude was complimented with his laughter and jokes (well, we thought he was joking around but you could never tell what he said exactly, especially when he compared religion to brushing your teeth) and it made you want to just give him a hug. He did have some serious advice revolving around treating everyone with respect and working to continue the process of reconciliation and changing inequality. I’ll admit that I knew who Desmond Tutu was, but didn’t know the details of his involvement in Truth and Reconciliation and the entire apartheid period in South Africa. However, being on Semester at Sea means that even though we should all know these bits of history before this age, at least we’re being exposed to the information now; better late than never.
With the hustle and bustle of Desmond Tutu and the disembarkation process, the ship was running around in a frenzy trying to hand in their passports before they could get “dock time” for being late. Instead of making it easy, South African immigration requires the entire ship to get off, go through a face to face process with an immigration official, get your passport stamped again, go through the first metal detector, stand in one line, stand in another line, climb up the stairs, swipe your ID card, and pass through the second metal detector. So you can see why some kids did get “dock time” they’ll have to serve for the first few hours we have in Argentina.
With my last few minutes on my international phone, I called mom and dad to let them know that no safari animals ate me and I was about to me on the open ocean for twelve days. I can’t imagine how parents deal with knowing their child is somewhere far away in the world.
Day 78: Thursday, October 31 (At Sea)
Semester at Sea was nice enough to give us a break with a Study Day to catch up from all the activities from Cape Town. Everyone was so pumped to sleep in until lunch. Yeah Right. Captain Jeremy’s voice brutally woke us up out of our dreams and into his speech on the lifeboat drill he decided was going to happen within the next fifteen minutes. We all groggily stepped into line, cursing the captain for taking away our precious sleep, and munching on our cereal packets we stole from the dining room. The day could only improve.
Byron invited me to Deck 7 breakfast, which is where the ship has a food bar serving food slightly better than dining hall food for just a couple extra bucks. With a cheesy croissant, a cup of tea, and a can of Mountain Dew, I was ready to use my Study Day to the fullest. And by that, I mean scrapbook all day and watch movies with Byron because my stomach still felt iffy from the waves. So much for studying.
Day 79: Friday, November 1 (At Sea)
A huge wave knocked into the ship. All the windows made horrifying crashing sounds as the glass broke and fell to the floor. All of a sudden the ship was window-less and the waves were flinging us high into the air and then hard back down. We had to find the closest land and were taken off in lifeboats. They set us up into a refugee camp-like environment trying to figure out when we would be reunited with the ship again. My eyes shot open and I woke up in a sweaty scary state of fear. Thank god that was only a dream. I decided I should probably stop watching intense action movies right before bed. My sleep had gotten quite erratic. I’ve never been able to get a consistent good night’s sleep for years, but this trip has exaggerated this with the waves and so much going on. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep, sometimes I wake up at 4 in the morning and can’t go back to sleep, and forget about any type of napping.
I had slept through my alarm and sprinted upstairs to breakfast and treated myself to a pancake and plenty of syrup. On my sugar high I typed out the paper that was due in an hour and sat through class with a pounding sinus headache. I think my body was trying to give a message that it was time to sleep and start treating it right.
Day 82: Monday, November 4 (At Sea)
From here on, my journal is just random notes of things I remember:
Day 90: Tuesday, November 12 (Buenos Aires)
Walked around the city with Dani, Lauren and Shannon with grand hopes of making it to the start of the free walking tour. So much for that. Instead we did our own tour of stopping in cafes and the abundant wine shops (Winery) that offered endless free samples. They were conveniently located at points all along our walk that day, making for a very pleasant afternoon.
Walked miles through sketch areas for forever to La Boca. Witnessed a protest and sketchy gatherings in a garage with people holding sawed off coke bottles. Walking past sketchy homeless park to refill our bottles.
La Boca. Trying to find the 33 bus. Little girl giggling after asking us what our nationality was. Getting on the bus for free because we were ignorant American girls. Not knowing what stop to get off at. Man on the bus with halls mints and trashy jewelry passing them out, then going around the bus trying to collect money for the items he put in our laps. Actually making it back to the ship, turning right back around since Byron was coming down the stairs. Shan’s teeth were stuck in the sink, causing a slight delay. Walked around Puerto Madero, too expensive for dinner, Shan and I versus the group, wandering up to Reconquista and find California Burrito for dinner. Took subway to Palermo, road sodas (just Shan and I) went to the bar, met guys from Argentina with the stickers, chilled in the circle with French people and people from the USA studying abroad, go to Kika Kika and its like SAS city. Handsy Argentinians, Shan and I running away, dance until 5am and get back to the ship as the Patagonia trip is leaving, breakfast, sleep.
Day 91: Wednesday, November 13 (Buenos Aires)
Missed ship breakfast, so we ate on 7th deck nursing our headaches. Finally worked up the strength to get off the ship with Byron in an attempt to find bikes to rent and see the city. Failed at finding bikes after walking around and around looking for 752 and kept passing this little stand of bikes that were made of bamboo and were super expensive and we finally found the city bikes that were free for use but you needed your passport to use them, so we walked all the way back to the ship but at this point I had already told Shannon that I would meet her back at the ship at 3 to leave to go camping in El Tigre with friends. Byron had no desire to go camping after much attempted persuasion on my part and I was bummed because I still really wanted to go biking but I decided to not go biking and go camping instead and I’m so glad I did. I packed for an hour and tried to nap for a little while and met up with Shannon and tyler and becca ready to go find the train station after failing a few times, paying 60 US cents and finding out squat seats on the crowded train. It wasn’t so bad, especially if you weren’t hung over but the fact that I got maybe one hour of sleep made keeping up a conversation and standing upright a very difficult thing to do. Finally we walked off the train about an hour and a half later and found ourselves amongst palm trees and happy looking people in the early summer/late spring carefree kind of mood right before school ends. We spotted a mcdonalds and booked it over there for dinner and wifi. Next stop was beverages and some food to sustain us (cereal and Pringles). Next on the agenda was finding the campsite that the other SASers were supposedly staying at and then figuring out which river taxi would take us there. This sounds easy enough. However, all we had to work with was that the SASers were staying at something that sounded kinda like “bramas” okay… We said this to the man behind the ticket counter and he had no idea. Tried to ask one of the river taxi guys and he had no idea. Our Spanish was practically non existent. We asked again and he said river ramas? Oh jeez. Maybe. We had literally no idea. We asked if they had seen some kids looking like us earlier. Nope. Finally a woman that worked at the tour agency next door that was closing up late saw us struggling and explained in English that all of the campsites were closed to tourists. It was far too late for us to book anything, let alone make the last water taxi out of the marina, let alone find a tent since the water was too high, let alone find the same camp that our friends were at. We were crushed. We had winged it so I guess it was only ourselves to blame as she listed off the three hostels that were in the city that we had no interest in going to. She could see the disappointment on our faces but there was nothing she could do. “How do you spell bank?” a man in the same building asked us. He spoke in English so we explained that bank was spelled bank and not banck like he thought. He saw we were in some sort of predicament and asked what we were looking for. After ten minutes of trying to explain our situation and pointing to a map, he recommended all of these campsites to stay at and suggested places that our friends might be. Finally after minutes and minutes of talking he mentioned that he happened to be a tourguide and had a house that he rented out and could take us there tonight in his boat. It sounded really sketchy and we had a little group huddle while we tried to maintain smiles and reassure him that we weren’t questioning him and offend him. He showed us his page on trip advisor, which served to give us a bit of relief. We figured we had no other options and this was at least something different than a hostel. It was going to be an adventure.
We walked out of the back of the terminal expecting to walk down the docks and into a boat. Instead he took us across the street and into his two-door 1990s coupe that he expected us all to squish in. This was not looking so good and Shannon and I had a hard time trying to shush becca’s complaints and worries. We figured it was all going to be okay. We nervously got out of his car when it rolled to a stop in front of a marina surrounded by homeless mangy dogs, a rusted out abandoned car, and a shipyard containing anything ranging from dingys to full scale fishing boats. Fer’s boat was taken out of the warehouse by forklift and I nearly laughed. It was an inflatable raft with a motor on the back that looked like it might sink if two people sat in it let alone five adults and four extremely heavy bags of luggage. Here we go.
The ride was incredible. The river was a muddy light brown but he assured us that the water was quite clean because the pollution in Buenos Aires water flowed in the opposite direction and this water was filled with good mineral rich sediment leaving the skin enriched and healthy. We turned off the main river onto a smaller narrow river bordered by a camp on one side and river houses and boats on the other. He slowed to a stop in front of a run down staircase emerging out of the water and leading up to one of the old looking camps. He told tyler to run up and look to see if other SASers were there and see if we liked the place better than his place. We were so surprised that he offered to stop and potentially give up his customers to this other place. He stopped a few more times when we didn’t find any Sasers, which made us feel pretty good that he wasn’t going to rob us or kidnap us or anything worse. We finally just agreed that we might as well just trust him and go to his place since he was being really sincere, so he drove us off in the boat past reeds and muddy water and market boats and so many houses and docks just sitting right on the water with no access to roads or stores or civilization. It was so great. We pulled up to our home for the night as a cute boy Tommy crawled down the docks and left in his own boat. We were definitely disappointed that fer’s younger travel guide wasn’t staying the night with us. We walked up the stone path surrounded by palm trees and ferns and our own pond and two cute dogs that kept us company. Fer humbly apologized for his humble abode while we’re floored by how lucky we were to get such a nice place at such last minute just by being in the right place at the right time. Chatting and wine with Fer, lots of interesting conversations, Fer left, some deep talks with the group, crashed in bed, Tyler spending the night in the zebra chair
Day 92: Thursday, November 14 (Buenos Aires)
- Woke up at 6:35 just as Fer said with the birds and sunshine, tried to float on the river with the zebra chair, flipped in. Laying in the sunshine, playing cards for hours while hoping Fer would actually come get us and we wouldn't be stranded here forever.
Day 93: Friday, November 15 (Buenos Aires)
Day 94: Saturday, November 16 (Buenos Aires)
Day 95: Sunday, November 17 (At Sea)
Day 96: Monday, November 18 (At Sea)
Day 97: Tuesday, November 19 (At Sea)
Day 98: Wednesday, November 20 (Rio)
Explored Centro, everything was closed because it was a holiday, so downtown was abandoned and kinda lame and by that time we were deathly hot and tired so we went back to the ship for lunch time to regroup and get our energy back to go out again and head for Copacabana. Half the group we were with decided to take taxis since they were lame and rich but we decided the metro
Beach bummed, caiprinhas, bathing suits, so many Brazilian butts, beach vendors selling caiprinhas, bathing suits, food, back for ship dinner, Caitlin's necklace stolen, wait forever for Byron to return with Caitlin since he had my ID, missed dinner and pool deck was closed, cereal and hard cold noodles, went to the bar next to ship, Florida? Beer towers and cachasa. Back to the ship for once of the rockier points of our relationship and then finally us deciding the relationship is worth the struggles.
Day 99: Thursday, November 21 (Rio)
Byron had his field lab, so I went with Shan and Dylan and Tyler and Caitlin and hiked up sugar loaf after navigating the subway. Caitlin and I hike back down, then we walk to the subway, spend some time on the beach with some caiprinhas and head back to the ship for dinner. Meet back up with byron and get ready for the night. Pregame at the sketchy bar next to the ship with homeless people selling nuts and beer towers and the weather picks up to hurricane-like winds. we taxi it to Lapa next to the white arches and start going down the street and see plenty of SASers at all the bars and enjoy some beverages and find cheaper bootleg drinks down the street as Shan and I stick together as always.
Day 100: Friday, November 22 (Rio)
Overslept and the alarm didn't go off since we were supposed to meet at our apartment at 9:30 and we were already late so we scrambled and managed to get off the ship. It was going to be just me Byron and Caitlin and I did not know how that was gonna go. We taxi over to the address since we had all of our belongings and met Enzo to discuss the apartment and sign contracts and we weren't even get charged a late fee. Apartment was a studio layout and the kitchen and living room and bedroom all in one and the bathroom where you sit down and the sink is in your lap. But it was right next to the beach, so I can't complain. We couldn't figure out the key and thought something was broken so I guarded the house while they left to go grocery shopping and I used tons and tons of wifi to upload all my pics since London basically. They came back and we ate lunch and Dani emailed asking if she could come with us and I was so happy. She came over and since it was terrible weather, the beach was no good so we walked around the lagoon for hours and hours, grocery shopped for dinner and made some frozen pizzas before going out to a bar.
Day 101: Saturday, November 23 (Rio)
SASer's penthouse, the mall
Day 102: Sunday, November 24 (Rio)
Soccer game on the beach, Casa Rosada - amazing dinner and dancing and live music - magical
Day 103: Monday, November 25 (Rio)
lunch in the favella, finding those beautiful tiled stairs
Day 104: Tuesday, November 26 (Rio to Salvador)
Sugarloaf in the pouring rain
Day 105: Wednesday, November 27 (Salvador)
Beach, caiprinhas, Market (bought coconut hammock)
Day 106: Thursday, November 28 (at Sea)
Day 107: Friday, November 29 (at Sea)
Day 108: Saturday, November 30 (at Sea)
Day 109: Sunday, December 1 (at Sea)
Day 110: Monday, December 2 (at Sea)
Day 111: Tuesday, December 3 (at Sea)
Day 112: Wednesday, December 4 (at Sea)
Day 113: Thursday, December 5 (at Sea)
Last Day of A-Classes
Day 114: Friday, December 6 (at Sea)
Last B Day Class (Hunter S. Thompson Presentation)
Day 115: Saturday, December 7 (at Sea)
A Day Study Day
Last Dinner with Extended Family Heidi
Day 116: Sunday, December 8 (at Sea)
Dropping off the Life Long Learners in the Bahamas
A Day Finals
Day 117: Monday, December 9 (Cuba)
Finally we were in Cuba and we couldn’t be more excited about it. In order to be able to come to Cuba, we had to go through all these educational processes. We all gathered together on buses and were brought to the University of Havana and were greeted by news crews, locals, and students. They gave an entire speech and presentation welcoming us and then invited us to climb the main stairs to the university all together, playing Imagine by the Beatles to symbolize Cubans and Americans united together. It was definitely a memorable moment. They invited us to attend different lectures and I went to the one about the relations between Cuba and the US and it was really interesting to hear the perspective of a Cuban about the embargo, which is basically that it’s pointless and is hurting both nations. After the lectures, the students put on all these performances of dancing and singing for us until it was time to pack back into the buses and head back to the ship for a late lunch. Not wanting to miss out on time in Cuba, we scarfed down lunch and were right back off the ship to wander and stay out for the night. We wandered the barely lit streets and found a small bar where we tried the drink of Cuba: mojito. We talked to some locals who recommended a cheaper place to go, which lead us to Obsido street. Here, we found a street store that sold 3$ bottles. Exactly what we wanted. We bought a few and enjoyed these while we walked the streets and were called out to by a man from a restaurant and encouraged us to come in and hear a legendary piano player. We ordered drinks here, and then this guy’s friend Juan Carlos came over and acted energetic and somewhat crazy and said we were all beautiful and he couldn’t even look at as because we were so pretty and that he loved USA and had family that had sailed over and he had lived there and made lots of money. He led us to his buddy’s apartment and we sat on his couch as he displayed an array of cigars for us to choose from. They were extremely cheap and even though the ship said that we couldn’t bring back cigars unless they were bought in the terminal, we figured we would just risk it and figure out the rest later. We all went in on a box and headed back to the ship to bring them on. Shannon walked on without any trouble and when they asked me to open my bag, they said “what is this?” and I said it was from the port, which apparently was a good enough answer because they let me right on. After getting the cigars on, we ran out, got the rest of our friends, and got dinner on the seventh deck pool bar and then got back off the ship and sat out on the pier. We wandered around some more, lost Byron, found him again. It was weird because all of our teachers were out drinking at the same places, so it was normal for us all just to be hanging out and drinking together, which is only acceptable on SAS. Headed back to the ship and basically got zero sleep since Byron is an unfortunately loud puker.
Day 118: Tuesday, December 10 (Cuba)
-made it off the ship early enough to stroll around before the Baseball Game
-walked with shannon and bryan (who were a recent fling), wandered past homes and street vendors, people on their way to work, schools with kids playing, tourists taking pictures of old churches, walked deep into the city past the museum of revolution and onto the main street along the hotel inglasio. Walked to the water and sat on the wall for a while looking at the old slave castle across the river and talked about life, and were going to pregame the baseball game, but decided lunch was more important, grabbed ship lunch, and packed onto the 17 buses that were lined up to take over 400 students and faculty to the baseball game. We were escorted by about 15 police on motorcycles to stop any traffic just for us during the hour long ride.
-game, food, no beverages, rush the field, pictures with baseball players, napped on the ride back, dinner on the ship, then out in the pouring rain, rain that just soaked everything in two seconds. We had umbrellas and weren’t gonna let any rain ruin our last night in Cuba unlike other people. We ventured into the streets and they were complete lakes since there isn’t any drainage system in the streets so the puddles were about thigh high in some places, but I was wearing flip flops and couldn’t care less. We walked amongst SASers from bar to bar until we ended up around hotel inglasio, some people were getting sick, and it was somewhat of a mess, but we were having a great time. We walked back in the direction of the ship, found some cheap cheesy bread labeled as “pizza”, Byron made friends with this sweet old woman about half his size, we chatted with Cubans and tried to talk Spanish with them, Byron let me pet street cats and he normally wouldn’t let me do that, we ended up by the pier and the boat and laid out talking about life and how great everything was after having exploring the streets and enjoying daiquiris at a rooftop bar to avoid the rain. One person from the ship ended up peeing their pants since they had way too much to drink, which was entertaining for our group (who know their limit). Unfortunately Shan, who was definitely not Dimitru's favorite, was put in the tank. We were protesting it because she passed the balance test but Dimitru was on a rampage that night threatened to put us in the tank for waiting on the second deck for her. I ran away and came back to the tank and kept her company and gave her all my things but it was about 3:30 in the morning, so it was time for me to try to even get a little bit of sleep.
Day 119: Wednesday, December 11 (Cuba)
For the last day in Cuba, I fought struggled to get up, but powered through. So many cups of water and getting down some solid food helped and I knew this was my last day to be in Cuba for a very very long time and I had to make the most of it. Byron was chipper as ever and acted as my cheerleader as I got ready and fought my headache as we walked off the ship. We wandered around on foot and bought a few souvenirs, I had to buy Shan’s souvenirs since she wasn't allowed off the ship. We found this small bookstore and looked through old posters and magazines and postcards until we found a few we liked of old Che protests and maps and pins. We walked along past the Florida bar (apparently famous for something?) and past the main road that has a really broad sidewalk down the middle of the street looking at the domed building on one end and the old fort in the water at the other end. We were constantly asked to buy things and go on trips by people that would come up to us, start chatting, then offer to sell things to us. People were surprised when we said we from the United States but they all had people that were in the states like family that had come there or friends they’d visited. They’ve all had really positive reactions to Americans, which I wasn’t expecting.
-walked along the water with Byron
-wandered looking for patches and souvenirs, walked through the streets that looks like slums and ghettos and falling apart but they felt so safe
- bought ice cream from this street door and it was in the CUP, which is the local money and it ended up being so incredibly cheap.
-headed back to the ship for lunch because I was starting to fade in the hot hot sun
-had some plain spaghetti and it revived me and got a group together to go ride in one of the old convertible taxis that will take you on an hour long tour of the city for a certain price. We hoped in a ’57 Ford pink convertible and our driver, Juan Carlos, spoke English and took us all around to places that we wouldn’t have normally found.
- International Hotel, along the water front, past the university, down wide streets with me sitting on the back of the convertible no seat belts, no cares. Revolution plaza with the Che and Fidel monuments and the star monument in the middle of the plaza, a nature reserve and past the rich areas, through the area of all the international ambassador houses and offices, parks with statues, and then back to the ship to the jealousy of all the onlooking students.
-took pictures with the car
-went out to Obsido street to spend some last pesos
-searched for a t shirt and found a cheap one with a stain at the museum, two pesos left spent on cheap bucaneros and met up with Byron who stopped at a restaurant with other SASers to grab a few classier drinks and enjoy some cigars. We found out we were in the newspaper and bought a copy, the other sasers left and claimed that they had paid their portion of the bill but when the waiter came over demanded for our money we didn’t know what to tell them, so he called the Cuban police and meanwhile this is all in Spanish so Byron is trying his best with the Spanish he learned in high school and they’re all yelling and we literally have no money left to even cover for them, so thankfully, the Spanish teacher walks by and saves us and pays the bill. Stupid SASers. Of course later on they denied having any responsibility to the bill.
-byron went back to the ship and I went the long way back by the water to drop off my love lock
- met a young man talking with an 86 year old woman and he called out to me and we started chatting about how I was here and what we can take away from the country and from the elderly people because they have so much knowledge and wisdom and how students are great to learn things and then explained that this old woman had a lighter that was broken and without asking me for one, I took out my cheap lighter I bought at a dollar store back home and gave it to her without thinking twice. This woman uses her lighter to cook and the smile on her face was the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen. Her wrinkles dominated her face and her smile contained two teeth but her eyes glittered with how happy and thankful she was. The man translated for me that she was saying how beautiful and wonderful I was and thank you thank you. It was the most meaningful experience I had and it was only 5 minutes of time randomly. It was amazing. For my last two Cubans to meet, they made a huge impact and made me feel a huge amount of warmth towards all Cubans. I placed my love lock on the pier on a wire fence right next to the ship so I had the ship in the background of my love lock picture and it was great. I hurried back to the ship, already afraid that I was going to be stuck in line and late, but I made it right in line and breezed on through and took a much-needed shower. The rest of the night was one of our last ship dinners and bedtime.
Day 120: Thursday, December 12 (at Sea)
Can’t say I did anything productive today on the B Day Study Day. I made it to breakfast because I always do and then just scrapbooked and didn’t really study for my final since I knew it would be easy.
Day 121: Friday, December 13 (at Sea)
B day finals, didn’t really study beforehand and then studied an hour before the test and aced it, felt so good to put down my pen and just be done with classes. Packed basically all day until it was finally done, trying to figure out the cigar situation, then soon it was time to start getting ready for the Alumni Ball, picked a dress, got ready in like half an hour with Shan while most girls were getting massages all day and hair appointments and being girls, we just threw on dresses and make up and straightened our hair and that was it. Took pictures on the balcony and overlooking the Bahamas background with the SAS logo in the back and it all felt like prom again. Went down to the 5th deck dining hall and sat at our table with Shan, tyler, Byron, Jeanette, Stephanie, and Caitlin. We had a couple courses of food and one complimentary glass of champagne and our ration of two glasses of wine, as per SAS guidelines. After dinner Shan and I refreshed in her room, took more pictures until the music started and everyone began dancing—half the ship definitely seemed to be on something or another. Party ended at midnight, but I stayed up until 3:30am doing more packing, scrapbooking, Cuban cigar on the deck with friends, and just waiting to get sleepy.
Day 122: Saturday, December 14 (Bahamas)
wait around for our cabin to get searched and get a disembarkation pass once our RD saw that we were packed. Stepped off into the Bahamas and saw the Senior Frogs and that’s it. Rainy and windy, walked off the ship and wandered out of the port, found a closed restaurant along the coast, walked back in the pouring rain and were told there was nothing in walking distance. Huddled under the pavilion and went with a group of sasers in a big taxi, no one had any clue where we were going but the taxi driver had a whole speech that he had rehearsed hundreds of times for the normal tourists hopping off the huge carnival and royal Caribbean cruise ships wanting to feel like they’ve absorbed some culture after learning what the country bird, song, and color was. He dropped us off in an area called Lucaya where all the rich people go and it has a casino, a market with all kinds of touristy things, a million liquor and cigar shops, and American restaurants like Subway, Dominoes, and Starbucks. It almost felt like being home again. For a Saturday morning it was pretty abandoned and the resorts were like ghost towns. We wandered around with Trevor trying to get a feel for what there was to do and the rain finally let up and we were able to meet up with other SASers, buy a case and tortilla chips and chill on the beach. Well stocked and content, we tried to soak up as many rays as possible on our last port day. There was basically every saser that existed on that beach being drunken college kids. We were all splashing in the water being rowdy and having a great time, jumping on trampolines and falling off and getting sand everywhere. We ordered a chicken pizza from dominoes and life was great. It was a ridiculous sight to just see hundreds of college kids randomly on a beach together but everyone was having fun and I ended up talking to people I hadn’t talked to all voyage until this moment, now that we were all magically best friends celebrating together. This was all good and dandy until about 5pm when people started getting sloppy and we had to take the role of mom and dad and help our less functioning friends by propping them up on volleyball net poles, and grabbing whatever we could to wipe their faces clean. The police started coming and the worse-off kids made scenes yelling at the police. It all fell apart as RDs started coming and ambulance started lining up to take people back. We started carrying friends away from the beach (over the rocks, and sand backs, through the waves and surf that were trying to knock us over) the dead weight was difficult to drag. Thankfully we all made it off the beach and to a taxi that promised to take us as long as the drunk ones sat next to the window and promised not to puke inside. I was so done with people. Byron and I were fighting. I had to put up with drunk people. People I had never even talked to came up to me to say they noticed us arguing. Basically, I was over everything and jut wanted to sleep. So, when we got back to the ship, I passed out in my bed and didn’t talk to anyone. It was sad that it was the last night in port with all the kids on SAS and this was how they decided to spend it (almost thirty drunk tanks and 3 hospitalizations) but oh well, that’s SAS for ya.
Day 123: Sunday, December 15 (at Sea)
Everyone frantically packing and bringing their luggage down, byron’s luggage ripped and I frantically looked for a sewing kit, grabbed some stuff other SASers couldn’t fit in their luggage, debated the best way to smuggle in our Cuban cigars, picked up our passports, signed maps, met with Leigh and Coburn for our extended family for the last time, basically just pandemonium and people just now realizing that it was the last day on the ship
Day 124: Sunday, December 16 (Florida)
Planned on staying up all night but we got to a point of crazy exhaustion, tried to sleep but my stomach hurt from too much coffee, went up to the top deck and saw tiny glimpses of florida in the distance, everyone started gathering, going into the teachers lounge, wind was blowing people over (girl’s map flew away), we got closer and closer and the captain started playing Wake Me Up by Aviccii as we pulled in and everyone started crying, someones parents came out to us in their boat with signs, parents lined the port entrance, the gates, and the parking garage with signs and flowers and balloons, I didn’t have family there but shared the moment with the friends that did have the family there
Day 125: Monday, December 17 (Miami, Florida)
Eating everything American, using US Dollars, staying in our beach-side hotel room. Walking beaches
Day 126: Tuesday, December 18 (Miami, Florida)
Exploring Key Biscane on the scooter and the light house
Day 127: Wednesday, December 19 (Miami, Florida)
Day 128: Thursday, December 20 (Miami, Florida to Hartford, CT)
flying in to the sight of snow.