31 July 2004

One China.

Taiwan was the port I knew the least about, and was thus the least excited about, but it turned out to be one of my favorites. I'd always only known of Taiwan as 'that place where the Nationalists fled when the Communists took over in 1949,' but it was so much more than that! I was surprised by how friendly the people were, considering we don't officially recognize their country. They were friendlier than the Mainland Chinese, and didn't have that peculiar habit of taking pictures with every American they saw, which was rather refreshing. On the first morning, we had a visit and speech from an American working at the American Institute in Taiwan, what would be the embassy or consulate if we recognized the country diplomatically. It was interesting to hear from him, and made me want to take the Foreign Service exam someday and end up living in some exotic country- always something to consider!

We docked in Keelung, a major port city only 45 minutes from Taipei. Both of the cities were astoundingly westernized, more so than anything we've seen so far. Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Dominoes, KFC, Circle K, and even a Red Lobster Seafood Restaurant (no relation to those in the US, however). Just like at home (except of course in Gainesville!), there was a 7-11 on every corner. From several places in Keelung, I could see 3 stores within one block of where I was standing. There are over 3000 in Taiwan- a tiny little island the size of Maryland and Delaware! There are also 11 million scooters, for 22 million people- crossing the street is a death defying cultural experience in itself!

Taiwan is also one of the most environmentally conscious countries we've seen yet- every restaurant has a minimum of two trash cans (one for trash and one for recycles), and some had as many as 4- one each for trash, paper, plastic, and metal. There was even a garbage boat in the harbor that sailed around collecting floating debris. The environmentalist in me cheered, especially after the questionable standards present in Vietnam.

On the first day, I spent the morning wandering around Keelung. We found a friendly English-speaking tailor, and I got measured for a tailored suit for all those interviews and other occasions coming up in the near future. It turned out beautifully – the two women were amazing and they had it finished in less than two days. We had lunch at our first Western restaurant over here, KFC. It was surprisingly good- far better than those in the states. We returned to the ship for our Taipei city orientation. First, we visited the National History Museum, which had a beautiful collection of ancient Chinese scrolls and calligraphy and other artifacts.

After the museum, we continued to Chiang Kai-Shek's memorial hall, which resembles those of Mao and Ho- the building was enormous, with 80 steps to reach the second floor. Our tour guide emphasized that his body was laid to rest in one of his favorite parts of Taiwan, (rather than preserving him like those godless Communists was her unspoken message!). Instead of his body, there is a huge twenty-foot statue of Chiang sitting in a chair, a bit reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial. The statue is flanked by two guards who stand completely still for one hour each before the ceremonial changing of the guard. The guard position is extremely competitive and prestigious- the men have to be at least six feet tall, in good physical condition, and must train and condition their bodies to stand still before assuming the actual position.

The first floor of the memorial is a museum about the Nationalist Party in Taiwan, complete with an eerie wax sculpture of Chiang in his office- they didn't preserve his body, but him sitting up at his desk was equally creepy! Next we visited a temple in Taipei- it was full of people worshipping and asking questions and advice of the gods, which was interesting to watch. Finally, we went to a Mongolian BBQ restaurant, which was delicious! Mongolian BBQ consists of thinly shaved raw meats and many vegetables and sauces. You go down the line, pick out all of your meats and veggies, and add the combination of sauces you'd like, then hand it to a chef at a large flat grill, and he stir-fries it right there for you, in less than a minute. There was also a large buffet of cooked foods like dumplings, pot stickers, noodles, rice, and fresh fruits. It was definitely one of our favorite meals to date! After dinner, we visited one of Taipei's numerous night markets, where the famous Snake Alley is located, before returning to the ship for the night. There are numerous restaurants serving snake meat, organs, and blood, and they often display the dying and living snakes outside the restaurants. Some of my friends tried the snake blood, but I decided to pass on that one. Drinking the water was enough of a gastrointestinal adventure for me.

On the second day, I took a trip led by the ship's museum expert to the National Palace Museum, the Lourve of Asia. It holds all of China's greatest historical artifacts, which were packed up when the Japanese invaded China in the 1930s, and moved to Taiwan by the Nationalists in 1949 when the Communists took power on the mainland. Although part of the museum was under renovation, there was still more than enough to see. There was an amazing jade collection, and even more impressive scrolls than at the National History Museum.

After returning to Keelung, we went back to my tailor to see if they knew of a men's tailor, and her son, who spoke excellent English, ended up leading us through the market to another tailor instead of just giving us directions. We talked with him about school and life in Taiwan versus the US. He stayed as a translator to help Justin order a suit, then walked us back to the market and insisted on buying us some street food sandwiches to try. Although they were less than delicious (mayo, ham, egg, and cucumber on fried bread?), it was extremely nice of him, especially after herding us around all evening. He just reaffirmed our conviction that the Taiwanese are ridiculously generous. We stopped at the Internet cafe nearby (a mere 60 US cents for an hour!) and went to Pizza Hut for dinner – a little taste of home (very good, but a bit pricey compared to the rest of the city).

For the last two days, I took an overnight trip to Sun Moon Lake and Lukang and Taichung, two smaller Taiwanese cities. According to our field program guide, we were supposed to visit an Aboriginal Cultural Village, which sadly turned out to be an amusement park, and a bad one at that. The village turned out to be fake houses, and a horribly commercialized dance show. The park even had a "Space Mountain" and other cheap rip-offs of Disney rides. All in all, a major disappointment, even for the people not from the tourism capital of the world.

After the theme park, we traveled to Sun Moon Lake, a beautiful natural area of Taiwan protected as a national "scenic treasure." We visited two temples overlooking the scenery before we left, and continued onto a restaurant for a below par dinner before going to our gorgeous 4 star hotel, complete with big fluffy beds! The second day was much better than the first- we started off with an impressive breakfast buffet at our hotel before leaving for the drive to a nearby Taiwanese University, where we saw the chapel designed by IM Pei in the 1960s. It was a giant triangle, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially after seeing his skyscraper in Hong Kong.

We continued onto the city of Lukang, where we wandered around the meat and produce markets, as well as the ordinary markets, before visiting the Folk Culture Museum, which housed a collection of artifacts like clothing, pictures, household items, games, and several varieties of puppets. They had some of the shoes for women with bound feet, some only 3 inches long- it was painful just to look at them! After the Museum, we returned to Keelung via Taichung, the pottery and ceramics center of Taiwan. There were plenty of shops selling gorgeous plates, bowls, vases, and other ceramics, and very affordable compared to what they would cost in the US. After Taichung, we got back on the bus for the long drive back to Keelung, where I went back into the city for ice cream and the Internet before we had to be back on the ship to sail for Japan. Considering it was the port I was least excited about, it ended up being one of my favorites. I would love to come back and see more of this tiny island country/rogue province.

Some news from the ship. We took the second exam in the core class, Global Perspectives, after Vietnam, and now most of the ship is up in arms because a lot of people failed, even though they "did all the reading and went to every lecture!” Everyone's running around complaining about the professor, the test, the class, and the ship in general- lots of drama! I'm kind of detached from it all, as one of the small group who's done well on both exams. Thanks to my scores, I was selected as one of two students to participate in the welcome reception held in our honor when we arrive in Kobe. I'm excited, it should be interesting! Also, the "Sea Olympics," the competition between the students (divided by floors) and the senior adult passengers will be held tomorrow- Justin and I are both competing in the Scrabble tournament (surprise, surprise) for our respective seas. There are many other interesting events, among them a synchronized swimming competition (in the Union, not the pool!), a mashed potato sculpture/eating contest, and a blindfolded two-person PB&J sandwich-making contest. I'll be sure to let everyone know how those turn out! We arrive in Kobe, Japan, our final port, on August 4th for our 6 day stay- I can't wait, but I also don't want it to come because it signals the beginning of the end of this amazing trip!

25 July 2004

Good Morning Vietnam.

We just left beautiful Halong Bay, Vietnam. It was nothing like anyone expected, and was definitely one of my favorite ports. The bay is filled with huge limestone rocks covered with trees emerging out of the water, with caves inside. We were so unprepared for all of the serene natural beauty in Vietnam – you’ve probably seen pictures of Halong Bay, but never associated it with Vietnam (I certainly hadn’t!). Unlike all the other ports, we were able to get into the port early, and had an extra half day the night before we were scheduled to arrive, which was a nice surprise. It was drizzling when we arrived, and we discovered that it had been raining for the 3 days prior as well- our textbook describes Vietnam's climate as "monsoonal," so I suppose that explains it!

That first night, we walked around the market, restaurants, stores, and karaoke bars lining the beach. There were quite a few young children with bicycle-mounted popcorn cookers, filled with bags of what turned out to be the best kettle corn I've ever had. Five bags for a dollar! The entire trip, everyone was telling us to "wait until Vietnam" to buy things, because everything is cheaper. It's true- we were all millionaires for 5 days (and billionaires if we checked our account balances!) since the exchange rate is around 15,000 dong to the dollar. Sometimes we couldn't even bargain since prices started at 2 dollars! We didn’t even bother exchanging our money since the dollar is the preferred currency for most things.

On the first day, I participated in a field program about the Vietnam War. We took a bus into Hanoi and visited Ho Chi Minh's Memorial (sadly, since we left Halong late, it had closed for visits by the time we arrived, so we didn't get to see him) and former palace. Ho lived in the palace for a short time before deciding it was too large for an unmarried Communist leader, and moved into a small apartment, which we drove by later that afternoon.

Next we visited the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," the Vietnamese prison where American POWs were kept during the Vietnam War. It is now a museum, and it was particularly interesting to read their captions and descriptions on artifacts and photos. The museum focused on the French use of the prison against the Vietnamese, and when it mentioned American POWs, there was emphasis placed on how well the men were treated, with sport games and recreation to keep them fit, and sweaters and blankets in the winter, and how no revenge was enacted against them, despite their role in the south's "puppet government." Definitely a bit of a contrast with what we've all been taught in school, and I know of a few veterans who would beg to differ!

We stopped for lunch at one of the nicest restaurants in Hanoi, and had a delicious lunch of soup, beef salad, banana and prawn spring rolls (surprisingly good!), fried fish, calamari, chicken, bok choy, rice, and cr̬me caramel for dessert. The French influence in the city is everywhere, from the architecture to the pastries! After lunch, we visited the Vietnamese Revolutionary Museum, which featured stories and pictures from the Vietnamese war against the French in the 1950s, as well as the Vietnam War, which they call the American War. This museum was even more one-sided than the prison Рafter studying the Vietnam War in depth from the capitalist/American point of view, it was exciting to see how they describe it. Many references to the Vietnamese working together in the "war of their salvation" and recovering from the bomb damage left by the "imperialist" Americans. We ended the trip with some shopping in downtown Hanoi before taking the bus back to Halong Bay, where we ate dinner at the nice hotel restaurant in Halong- $17 bought four courses each, including filet mignon for $8!

On the second and third days, I visited Cat Ba Island and National Park. We left from the ship on a junk boat and sailed through the bay, stopping for a visit to an enormous, multi-roomed cave in one of the islands before returning to the junk for a fresh seafood lunch (very tasty, but somewhat creepy since everything was still looking at us!) and swimming in the warm bay. It had been drizzling all day, and by the time we got to Cat Ba Island, it had started to really pour. We took a bus to the "nicest hotel in Cat Ba," which was about on par with a La Quinta Inn in the US- I guess the Vietnamese have different standards than us! We wandered the town a while, but most stores were closed on account of the rain, and the outdoor market was flooded. We had a disappointing dinner at the hotel, and amused ourselves watching HBO and Vietnamese MTV for a while before going to sleep.

On the second day, we took the bus in the morning up a winding mountain road in the pouring rain to the National Park on the island. When we arrived, we watched a brief video on the wildlife in the forest- Cat Ba is home to the only wild population of a certain type of monkey, but they live on cliffs, so they're hard to find. We planned to hike through the forest to a cave and the mountain peak, but because of the rains, the hiking trails were flooded, and we were only able to walk around the ranger station until the bus came back. Our guides caught a frog to show us, and some other people spotted deer that turned out to be fenced in. We were supposed to visit the local market as a substitute activity, but it had also closed on account of the flooding. We came back to the hotel for an early lunch, and boarded our junk boat for the trip back to the ship, stopping again to go swimming. Overall, the trip ended up being a bit of a disappointment due to the rain, but the boat rides were certainly fun!

On the fourth day, we went with a group of students into Halong City, and took the ferry across to the other half of the city- the ferry cost around 5000 dong for five of us, about 6 US cents per person! We walked around the shops along the main road in the city, trying to find a tailor to have a suit made cheap. It turned out that none of the tailors took credit cards, and most of the people had never seen one before until Justin showed them his. We tried to find the market, but we weren't aware that it was enclosed, so we missed it. We had lunch at a local restaurant, where we ordered food by casually wandering the restaurant checking out other people’s food, then pointing to whatever looked the best. It turned out pretty good- we're not sure what we ate, but it was delicious! It turns out the Vietnamese have adopted the Spanish custom of the "siesta," and they nap for several hours after lunch, closing all their shops, so we took the ferry back to Halong, and went to the market there since we were able to find it!

The last day, I went on a kayaking/boat tour of the bay, stopping at a local beach to pick up our kayaks. The group spent several hours exploring the crevices and tunnels in the rocks, and capsizing each other's kayaks and swimming in the bay. A bunch of Vietnamese families and students were out kayaking in the bay with us, since it was Sunday. Justin and I accidentally collided with one of their kayaks, and it turned out the three people were tour guides who spoke fluent English, so we stopped and chatted a while about school in the US and Vietnam. We went back to our boat for another fresh seafood lunch and more swimming before the trip back to the ship. We went into Halong again for last minute shopping and a trip to the Internet cafe before the ship sailed.

Vietnam was nothing like I expected, but I loved it all the same! I wish we could have spent more time in Hanoi, or gone down to Ho Chi Minh City to see the tunnels from the Vietnam War- everyone who saw them said it was one of the high points of their trip. Most of the ship went crazy shopping for silk products in the major cities- you can have clothing tailored for less than it would cost to buy it at home! Vietnam has been my favorite port so far, and I would love to come back one day- there was so much to see, I feel like I hardly did anything in 5 days. We only have two ports left, Taiwan and Japan, so I'll be seeing most of you soon- no offense, but I wish I had more time on the ship and a few more ports to visit. I'm getting more excited about Taiwan everyday- it was the port I knew the least about, but since we've had a few lectures on it, I can't wait to see it!

20 July 2004

Capitalist Enclave.

Hong Kong is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Two days was nowhere near enough time to see the city, but we got a good impression. I stayed with Sarah Kirk (THANK YOU!), who showed us around the city for two days. In the morning before meeting up with Sarah, we went to the enormous mall near the pier for lunch at the best food court I've ever been in (gelato anyone?). We took the famous Star Ferry across the harbor to Hong Kong Island where we visited the jade market. Although of questionable authenticity, there was a lot of interesting jewelry and Mao antiques. Commie chic is definitely in fashion.

After the market, we took the world's longest covered escalator to Hollywood Road and visited the Man Mo temple, one of the few temples in Hong Kong not for the sea god. We walked along Hollywood Road window-shopping in the various antique shops and stalls. Later, we took the cable car to the top of Victoria Peak for a fabulous dinner overlooking Hong Kong. We went out on the observation deck, and although the typhoon had just left, it was still a beautifully clear night. We took a cab back to the Kirk's high-rise apartment, and watched some English news and read American magazines for a much-needed update on US current events (Kerry named a running mate? News to me!).

The next day, we slept in and took the shuttle bus down to Hong Kong, and walked around downtown on our way to the Banana Leaf Curry House, a fabulous Indonesian/Thai restaurant. They used to serve food on banana leaves, but I think the health department has since intervened. Even thought the food was only on plates, it was still delicious! After lunch, we took the double decker trolley car over to Stanley, where we had dessert at a cafe overlooking the beaches before walking through the "wet" market (fish and such) to the famed Stanley Market, where we shopped around for a little while before heading back downtown. I caught the Star Ferry back to the Kowloon side, and had dinner before rushing back to the ship for departure. Hong Kong was an amazing city- it's so different from anything I've ever seen!

Two news items that may reach home – The typhoon was anticlimactic- Hong Kong ended up with just over 1 inch of rain, and no damage. The seas were a bit rough, so that's why the ship couldn't dock until late. The group that was supposed to fly out before us got delayed, but they made it in around 10pm that night. The ship finally made it to the dock around midnight that night- everyone on the boat missed his or her first day in Hong Kong. Also, I don't know if this is on the website or made the news, but while in Beijing, a student fell seriously ill and delirious, and was rushed to a hospital, where it was discovered that she had a very large, inoperable brain tumor. Sadly, she passed away two days ago in Beijing, after seeing the Great Wall and Beijing, one of her life dreams. The ship had a beautiful memorial service last night for her. I just wanted to make sure everyone knew what happened in case it made the news back home. We've decided that some of the fundraising we do on board ship will go to a scholarship in her memory for future students on Semester at Sea.

17 July 2004

Red China.

Finally setting foot in Beijing was even more exciting than Russia – finally standing on the site of so much history. On the first night, I went to another acrobatics show after our flight arrived. It had a few different acts than the one in Shanghai, and was generally not quite as impressive, but still far better than I could ever hope to do. The next morning, we went to climb the Great Wall at Badaling. Although packed with people, it was still one of the most exhilarating and memorable parts of the trip. The view was incredible, looking across the mountains and other sections of the wall. When a group of us stopped to take a picture, we were mobbed by Chinese tourists who wanted to take their picture with a group of American girls. Although we stand out naturally, my group was particularly special looking. Cassie has blonde hair and bright blue eyes, Julia has olive skin and tightly curled black hair, and then there’s boring old brown haired, pale-skinned me. With the Chinese tourists, we all probably looked like a college view book! The Chinese people have very different ideas about how to respond to different looking people- they tend to point, laugh, or run up and ask if they can take a picture with you. It was a bit disconcerting, but definitely a cultural experience! We spent almost 15 minutes taking tons of pictures before we were able to escape- it was flattering though- we felt like celebrities! The Great Wall was absolutely amazing, no question about it! Something to check off the list of things to do before I die.

After the Great Wall, we went to the Summer Palace, the enormous grounds of the Imperial Emperor's summer home. The grounds and buildings were gorgeous, but not as impressive as the Great Wall! We also saw the famous marble steamboat of the Empress Cixi- thanks to her extravagance, the Chinese lost badly in the Opium War, and the British gained control of Hong Kong. After the palace, we had dinner with students at our host school, The University of International Business and Economics. They all spoke wonderful English, and it was fascinating to talk to them about the differences in our schooling. We visited one of the dorms of the students- four graduate students in a very small room- undergraduates have six in a room! They asked about my housing, and I was almost ashamed to describe my spacious four bedroom, two bath apartment from last semester.

After dinner, some of the students took us out to a local karaoke bar- it was humiliating, but very fun! The Chinese students had had a lot of practice, and were surprisingly good on the English songs. They take it VERY seriously – it’s not the drunken revelry it is in the States! Since the students had an 11pm curfew at their dorms, the night ended early.

On the third day, we went to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen is so much larger than I could ever imagine. Mao's mausoleum is enormous, but it is dwarfed by the square. The Forbidden City was stunning- we had the audio tour, so it was especially interesting to hear the stories about the buildings, narrated by Roger Moore of James Bond fame. I passed by the Starbucks inside, but didn't stop – why perpetuate the myth of good coffee!

After the Forbidden City, we went to a big commercial street for lunch, but I decided to walk back to Tiananmen to see Mao, since the tour didn't leave enough time. Unfortunately, the mausoleum closed around noon, so I walked through a poorer market area and the commercial area before catching a taxi back to the hotel. There’s something disarming about standing in the vast expanse of Tiananmen Square, then wandering two blocks away to heartbreaking poverty. Children begging from all directions, horribly disfigured veterans laying in the streets, people little more than stumps dragging themselves around on skateboards. I’m almost ashamed of how quickly I became numb – it just became easier to stare straight ahead than to deal with the emotion. With that many people living like that, it’s hard to even know where to begin “saving the world.” If I’ve learned nothing else thus far this trip, I’m definitely joining the Peace Corps after graduation.

On our last day, the group went to the Temple of Heaven, but I decided to go visit Mao in the morning instead. The lines rivaled anything I’ve ever seen at Disney World! We finally made it to the entrance and into the mausoleum. It was intense. Mao looked like a tanned wax sculpture- it was extremely eerie to look at. Especially creepy was the spotlight focused on his face, making him appear to glow. Vendors stationed around the line outside sold flowers to bring in as offerings, and at the entrance of the mausoleum was a box to put them in. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were recycling the flowers – quite a money making scheme! The cult of Mao is alive and well, even in the virtually-capitalist atmosphere of modern China. It’s difficult to tell how much is genuine (I’m guessing not much) and how much is state mandated. All in all, it was worth the wait in line, and definitely up there with the Great Wall in terms of memorable experiences. I just have to see Ho and Lenin, and I can check the triad off my list.

We rushed back to the hotel for our Peking duck lunch – it was good, but I’m not sure it lived up to the hype. Despite the typhoon (see below), our flight left on time and we made it into Hong Kong that night. The ship wasn't able to dock all day, so the 300 students coming in from the various Beijing trips went to the Hong Kong YMCA for the night. While there, we watched some English television, and almost keeled over again when I saw a jingle extolling the virtues of condoms to protect against HIV – on primetime network television even! Say what you want about political repression, but the Chinese definitely have sex education figured out.

15 July 2004

Shanghai.

On our way into Shanghai, we spent over an hour coming up the Yangtze River to the port- the river bears a closer resemblance to the Gulf of Mexico than the St. John’s River! Our ship docked along The Bund (waterfront); the famous Shanghai skyline- even with the yellow smog hanging over the city, it’s still beautiful. On the first day, I did an all-day city orientation, visiting most of the highlights of Shanghai. We started off with a huge lunch at a hotel restaurant- China's Chinese food is very different from takeout Chinese in the US, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily in a good way. It was a lot more recognizable than most of the Korean food, which was comforting in some respects, but disturbing in others (chicken feet in the soup, anyone?).

After lunch, we took a bus through the city to the Jade Buddha Temple, which features a 6-foot tall white jade statue of Buddha. After the temple, we walked through a market to the only Chinese garden in the city- most are on the outskirts of town to leave room for urban growth. The gardens are composed of four elements- water, tree, stone, and pagoda, and thus are very different from the Western idea of a garden with flowers or vegetables. It was arranged in a maze-like fashion, with lots of small walled areas with gates separating them. Although it was warm and crowded, the garden was still beautiful. After the garden, we took the bus to the Bund museum, featuring a collection of old pictures of the skyline- it changes drastically every year, with new buildings being built and others destroyed constantly. After the Bund and dinner, we went to the theater at the Ritz Carlton for a Chinese acrobatics show. It was similar to Cirque du Soleil, only ten times more impressive. Contortionists, acrobats, jugglers, a magician, and many other talents I don't even have a name for!

The next day, I participated in a field program called "Tasting the Everyday Life of a Shanghai Citizen," which ranks as one of the best trips so far. We started off with a visit to a kindergarten, where we played with the kids, and they put on a cute song-and-dance routine for us. They were young and hadn’t learned as much English as the kids we met in Korea, so they were a little shy, but they warmed up eventually. After the school, we visited the meat and vegetable market, which was quite an experience, in a disturbing sort of way. There was an enormous selection of fruit and vegetables, many of which I'd never seen before. The meat stands had every part of cows and pigs on display and for sale- everything from the tails to the feet to the liver! There were also live frogs, turtles, snakes, eels, fish, other sea life, and scorpions for sale – hopefully not for eating, but sometimes it’s better not to ask questions. The poultry area was especially disturbing- cages crowded with pigeons, chickens, ducks, and quail, and geese tied to the tops. If you're in the market for poultry, you only have to point to your bird, and they kill and skin it right there for you- it was a bit nauseating to watch, especially for the vegetarians in the group!

After the market, we visited an elder Community Center. The center provides a place for elderly people to go during the day, and organizes many activities for them. In the computer room, a young student was teaching the elders how to use the Internet, and in another area, a prom-like dance was being held. Our senior adults on the trip said they wished the US had programs like it. The sex-educator in me almost passed out when I saw condoms in the bathrooms at the center – in the women’s room nonetheless! Even the Chinese have jumped on board comprehensive sexuality education, so why is it such a foreign concept in the United States?

After the center, we went to a residential area and divided into small groups to have lunch with a Chinese family. At the house I visited, she served us 17 different courses, from a variety of meat and seafood to fruits and vegetables. Our host's mother was slaving in the back of the kitchen for half the meal – we didn’t even realize she was there until she came out carrying an enormous tray of homemade wontons for soup. We stuffed our faces for over an hour- it was all amazing! She showed us around her home, which, like in Russia, was small but beautiful. In place of pictures on the wall, the Chinese people often hang calligraphy, and I can understand why- it's so much more beautiful than paintings!

After lunch, we departed from the traditional lives of the Chinese, and visited an upscale shopping area, complete with a Starbucks, before returning to the ship in the afternoon. That night we went to a massage parlor, where we had one-and-a-half hour massages for about $18 American- I love the exchange rate here! We walked around downtown and went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. The menu was entirely in Chinese, but included pictures for about 20% of it, so we picked from the pictures. Turns out “bite sized” pieces of chicken result from taking a cleaver to an entire chicken, so you’re supposed to chew the meat off the bones and then spit them back out into a pile on your plate. Call me a snob, but I think I prefer the American takeout Chinese de-boning technique.

10 July 2004

Pilsung Korea.

We arrived in Busan, Korea early in the morning on July 6. I slept out on deck with a group of people to watch the sunrise as we pulled in to Busan, but we woke up to a thick fog all around. The pilot who steers us into the port couldn't get to the ship, and the immigration officials also couldn't reach us. Because of the fog, the Port of Busan closed for most of the day, and we were stuck on the ship. We finally got off the boat around 8pm, and went into the port area for dinner and exploration.

We wandered into a local restaurant down the street from the 7-Eleven, where you take off your shoes and sit on the floor. The waitress spoke two words of English- menu and coffee. Turns out, the menu is a sign on the wall, entirely in Korean. I attempted to explain my aversion to beef by mooing, then shaking my head empathetically. To further clarify, I squawked and flapped my arms like a chicken, followed by a fervent thumbs-up. I was humiliated, she was amused, but the language barrier remained intact. Banking on the notion that vegetarian dishes are the cheapest in the US, we pointed to a random 6000-won option. The tables had a burner in the middle, and the meal included a large metal bowl with soup that cooked on the table, a bit like fondue.

Forgetting that Busan is a port city, and the restaurant was literally feet from the ocean, our random meal turned out to be seafood soup, with shrimp, octopus (which turns from pale pink to purple when cooked!), and a few other unidentifiable meats. After consulting with the biologist back on the ship, we concluded at least one side dish was probably jellyfish. (Bearing a disturbing resemblance to flan in both color and consistency). It could have been worse- others witnessed sea cucumbers making daring escapes from certain death. Pity took over, and we decided that anything wanting to live that badly deserved to not be eaten alive. Barring the eerily recognizable seafood items on the menu, the food was excellent. Spicy as all hell, no doubt, but if you could take the heat, you reaped the rewards. Scientists are now theorizing that the spices in kimchee (pickled cabbage) spared the Korean people from SARS, so at least we’ll survive China.

The second day, I visited an elementary school in the morning. The school was amazingly high-tech, with computers in every classroom, and a big screen TV linked to the teacher's computer so everyone could see. In the English class, a computer program with cartoons of English conversations was entertaining. We practiced English with the kids, and had to sign their worksheets after we finished the dialogue. The kids went on a signing frenzy, asking us to sign anything- it was cute to see their excitement over anything English (although, considering we felt the same way about their Korean, we shouldn’t have been surprised). We visited the gym and cafeteria, and the special-ed room, which was as incredible as the regular classrooms. In the afternoon, we went to the Busan Cultural Center, where we watched a traditional theater/dance show, and a drumming performance. A smaller group of five drummers wore hats with long ribbons, and danced around drumming and twirling the tassels making patterns- absolutely hypnotic!

After the show, we walked through the UN Cemetery in Korea, dedicated to those who died in the Korean War, and the only cemetery managed by the UN. It was beautiful, but incredibly sad. That evening, we took a taxi into downtown Busan, and walked around shopping in the stores and markets. The downtown section of town was crazy! It looked like New York's Time's Square, with flashing lights and signs, only 10 times bigger. The western influence is strong in South Korea- in addition to the 7-11 and Pizza Hut, we saw an Outback Steakhouse, Bennigan's, McDonalds, Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, and Baskin Robbins.

On the third day, I took a trip to Hainsa Temple, a Buddhist temple situated in a beautiful national forest, with a river running along the long road to the temple. Hainsa is famous for its wooden library, a huge collection of Buddhist tenets carved into wooden books. After the temple, we had a traditional lunch in a small village by the temple, which, like dinner, was unidentifiable, but good. After lunch, we drove to Daegu, a big city due west of Busan. We visited the herb museum, where we learned about the traditional Korean herbal medicine practices, and walked by some of the herb shops where the medicines are custom-made for your ailment. Sadly, we didn't get to purchase anything because of the size of our group, but it was still interesting.

Finally, we went to a large park in the city, and explored the free zoo for a little while, before getting back on the bus for the drive to Busan. It was great to see different parts of Korea, especially since we didn't get a chance to get to Seoul or visit the DMZ. Those who did said Seoul was amazing, even bigger than Busan, and the DMZ was intense. On the last day, we spent all day exploring the huge International Market and adjoining Fish Market. The market was absolute chaos- people everywhere, lots of designer fakes, and fabulous street food. Instead of restaurants, we ate from street vendors all day, and it was the best food we had in Korea! We ate two different kinds of dumplings, fresh noodle bowls (sitting on overturned buckets in front of boxes of mysterious edible animal parts), mysterious bakery items, and some delicious fried dough pancakes filled with a cinnamon-sugary goodness. Once again, we're not sure what anything is, but some things are better left unsaid. The fish market was an experience- different kinds of fresh fish- live, dead, and filleted, eels, squid, octopus (live and dead), and many other sea creatures we'd never seen before, in oceans, zoos, or restaurants!

02 July 2004

Behind the Iron Curtain.

After years of studying the Cold War, I’ve finally seen the (former) Soviet Union! Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski (PK), Russia, was surprisingly beautiful. It's one of the most geologically active places in the world, so it's surrounded by beautiful mountains and gorgeous scenery. On the first day, we were delayed getting off the ship for a few hours while the Russian immigration officials scrutinized everyone's passports and questioned a few people.

When we finally got off the ship, I walked around PK for a bit before returning to the ship for a field trip. The city is a bit dirty and chaotic, but definitely exciting. Locals kept stopping us to ask us where we were from, what we were studying, and how we liked PK, and just generally practicing their English. Everyone was extremely friendly, contrary to most people's expectations of stoic Russians. There are still a lot of remnants of Soviet Russia, including a giant statue of Lenin in the middle of the town square. The buildings are simple, plain and utilitarian, and look straight out of 1984, except a few of them have been painted over in gaudy colors in an effort to brighten up the city. Interestingly, the Kamchatka Peninsula recently elected the Communists into power, and the general consensus from most people is that life was better under Communism because the government provided everything, and now everyone is focused on making money. Definitely not what anyone expected!

An interesting note on post-Soviet women: since Communism valued androgyny and productivity over femininity, the concept of make-up and fashion is relatively new. As a result, women have “hyper-feminized” themselves- dyed red hair (or platinum blonde), heavy make-up, stylish clothes, and mile high stilettos (on crumbling sidewalks, nonetheless!). The men, on the other hand, don’t seem to be as excited about modernity. Open container laws haven’t caught on over here, either – it’s not unusual to see a man walking down the street at lunchtime in his business suit with a large bottle of beer in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Alcoholism is also a big problem among adult men here – perhaps there’s a connection?

My field trip was a fishing tour of Avachinskaya Bay, headed by the biology teacher. While touring the bay, she taught us to identify murre, cormorants, and puffins, which was educational. We went fishing in the bay- no fishing poles, just spools of wood and fishing line with sinkers and hooks. We caught a few little halibut, and ate a lunch of fresh fish, sandwiches, and Russian chocolates.

The second day, I visited a home in a Russian village, where we ate a huge traditional lunch of roasted potatoes, homemade sandwich meats, cheeses, and bread, fried fish, smoked salmon, Russian crepes and homemade jam, pastries, candy, homemade juice and berry wine, fresh milk, and Russian tea. Her home was small, but beautifully decorated with care, and we got to meet and talk to her son and daughter, and her mother brought over the fresh milk from her cow. It was an amazing experience, and definitely reaffirmed yesterday's observation that the Russians are a friendly people. All in all, I loved Russia, and was sad to leave, especially since we had five days at sea afterwards! Seeing PK made me want to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg to compare the two lifestyles.