Thursday, December 15, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Home Again

I got off of the ship in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and disembarked feeling many things. When I agreed to be a part of this voyage I knew the limitations. I knew I had to return home in December. I knew that whatever I saw, heard, and felt would end. I knew assimilating back into my life would be both difficult and comfortable. Even still, I didn’t feel ready. I wished I could take many things about my time on the ship with me or that I could bring my home life onto the ship.

When I disembarked I had to say goodbye to a lifestyle. Each day I had the privilege of being a short walk away from one of the most beautiful sights and peaceful experiences. There is something remarkable about viewing the ocean from the middle of the ocean. There are no buildings to obstruct your line of sight. There is no sand. You don’t need binoculars. You are right there. On the water, part of it. When it sways you sway. More importantly, if it’s still, you are still.

I don’t know what’s in my future. I don’t know what my next year looks like. All I know is that I’ve learned. I’ve grown. I’ve seen. I’ve felt. I’ve tasted. I’ve cried. I’ve laughed. I’ve laughed some more.

It was an impressive journey. It was fascinating to be at the mosque in Morocco during the call to prayer. Speaking to the young artist in Ghana as he proudly showed me his artwork inspired me to have a more youthful pride about my gift. Climbing Lion’s Head Mountain in South Africa taught me the benefits associated with completing a challenge. Relaxing on the beautiful beach of Mauritius with beautiful company reminded me of the importance of comfortable silence.

The complexities of India illustrated that I can and should accept my own complexities. Listening to a cover band in Malaysia showed me the impact that music has on creating a common experience across cultures. Learning to cross the busy streets of Vietnam illustrated that I cannot take for granted even the most basic life lessons. Standing on the Great Wall of China reminded me of the strength and fortitude we all have within us. Being personally escorted to a train by a friend’s mother in Japan showed me kindness in its most genuine form. Feeling the uncomfortably hot, dark sand under my feet on a Costa Rican beach allowed me to experience nature’s power. Sitting in a kayak off of an island in Honduras being soaked by a downpour prompted me to think of the humor that exists when we step outside of our usual.

All of these lessons are important and will remain with me. However, one of the most influential experiences didn’t occur in some exotic location. The time on the ship was just as valuable as the time I spent exploring off the ship. When I got off the ship in Florida I also had to say goodbye to people who were a part of my every day for a significant part of my life. Due to the extreme situations we faced our time together felt a lot longer than what the calendar revealed. When you are separated from all of your comforts and thrown into intense travel experiences that four month block of time expands into much more.

What was my favorite place? The place where I felt safe and secure enough to be vulnerable. What was my most memorable moment? Each moment that I trusted those around me enough to be authentic. You may think that place of safety and security or moments of trust should occur often, but on day one we were introduced as strangers. On day one we didn’t know one another’s names, let alone who would be welcome in or deserving of that space. On day one we set out to see the world, but we ended up seeing one other. By day 110, I’d developed safety, security, and trust with some amazing people, and that alone was well worth traveling around the world for.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Honduras

Seven of us got off the ship in Roatan, Honduras, and headed to Marble Hill Farm, an eco-lodge tucked away on the eastern side of the island. I was immediately struck its beauty. Bright variations of greenery surrounded and filled the property. It was lovely. Panoramic views from several vantage points overlooked the property and a beautiful bay. The ocean slowly rolled which helped to emphasize tranquility and its sparkling shades of blue.

Our group decided on Marble Hill Farm partly because of its beauty, but also because it offered kayaking. I had never kayaked, but thought it would be fun to try. Travel seems to suppress my inhibitions. We got into our kayaks and headed toward the reef.  As soon as we reached a good pace it started to rain. I don’t mean drizzle. It was a downpour! The harder it rained the harder we laughed. We were getting soaked, but we were so amused by the ridiculousness of it that we sat out on the bay for a while. When we returned to the lodge some fellow travelers told us that our laughter traveled across the water. They got a kick out of hearing us laugh during the deluge. I’m sure as I reflect on all of my travels my first kayaking experience will stand out as one of my favorite memories.
The next morning we were treated to another benefit of Marble Hill Farm. They make their own jellies and jams so we had a tasting for breakfast. Fruit and freshly baked bread accompanied the jelly and jam explosion. It was not only delicious, but it was also fun to start the day sampling so many flavors. There was guava butter jam, hibiscus jelly, apple banana butter, plum jelly, key lime pineapple jam, mango orange jam, and a few others. My favorite was probably the guava butter jam.

The weather was less extreme so we headed back out into the bay. Some snorkeled. Some kayaked. One of my friends found a huge starfish that she named Henry. She carefully lifted him out of the water and we all held him. He was gorgeous. It looked as if someone painted and polished him. As I sat in that kayak on day two I was flooded with peace and gratitude. It felt great to sit in the midst of such quiet splendor and simply breathe. I will fondly remember Roatan for its magnificent colors, calming breezes, roaming geckos, and radiant peacefulness. Next stop, United States.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Costa Rica

I arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica after dark and as I traveled to my hotel, I knew the scenery was gorgeous. I couldn’t see it, but I could sense it. Varying shades of darkness revealed when I was riding alongside a mountain or near the ocean. Bursts of scents signified when we passed wild flowers or were getting closer to the water. Even in darkness Costa Rica is an intriguingly beautiful place.

When I woke up the next morning I could see the gorgeous mountains, the emerald trees, and the sun’s reflection swaying on the ocean. A simple car ride provided postcard perfect views. Costa Rica was a visual breath of fresh air and that’s exactly what I needed.

The group I traveled with decided to venture to Jaco Beach. We took a forty-five minute ride through the luscious mountains. When we arrived on the main road near Jaco Beach I was immediately pleased with our decision. Quaint shops and restaurants lined the laid-back road. It didn’t take us long to explore shops and have lunch at Taco Bar Restaurant. This adorable restaurant specializes in gourmet fish tacos. I had a shrimp taco and a red snapper taco. Both were flavorful and did not disappoint. In addition to the tasty food, I loved that the restaurant had swings at the tables. They were a nice touch and made me smile.

Following lunch we headed to the beach. The dark sand on Jaco Beach on a sunny day is blazing! The sand feels as if it’s been sprinkled on top of an electric blanket. My sandals remained on my feet nearly the entire time. We left the beach in search of shade and refreshments. Within one block we located the perfect place—a sports bar that was showing NFL games. After rehydrating we decided to do a little shopping and head back to the Caldera port.

Prior to the end of the night our cab driver recommended a wonderful restaurant to us. We asked if he would join us, but he declined. He told us his wife made him dinner. Knowing he couldn’t take us back to the ship he led us into the restaurant and spoke to the owner. We thought he was arranging another cab for us. After experiencing food euphoria, we were told that our ride was ready. The restaurant’s owner’s daughter drove us home.

The next day I headed to the city of Puntarenas. The first thing on the agenda was lunch so based on a recommendation from a faculty member, we ventured to a restaurant that was a little further than the main strip. I was extremely pleased with my garlic lobster tails and fresh vegetables. It was delicious!

We walked through a street market and picked up a few gifts before stopping at a vendor cart for a shaved ice treat. I opted for orange flavoring, but it was the condensed milk topping that was brilliant. My shaved ice resembled the same flavor as an orange creamsicle. I happen to love creamsicles so I was pleased.

As quickly as I arrived in Costa Rica it was time to say goodbye. Thinking back to my time on Jaco Beach and in Puntarenas will conjure up images of beautiful landscapes where ocean and mountains create breathtaking views. I will remember the scents that flooded the cab during my night ride. I will remember all of the fantastic flavors that sent smiles to my taste buds. I will remember the kindness we were shown by so many. I will remember and always be grateful that Costa Rica was everything I needed. Next stop, Honduras!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hurt and Healing

Two days ago I returned to the MV Explorer after being gone for twenty days. I’d been up and down the gangway countless times between sailing on reunion voyages and sailing as a staff member on this voyage. However, this embarkation was vastly different.

The last time I’d been on the gangway was a day my life shifted. Someone else was handling my luggage, but I’d never felt so weighed down. I was leaving the ship, the place that had been my home since August. I was leaving the comforts associated with traveling in close quarters with new friends. I was leaving behind life as I’d known it. I wasn’t taking some fabulous excursion to an exotic destination. I was heading back to the United States because my dad had passed away.

Following the funeral it was important for me to return to the ship. My last memory wasn’t a pleasant one and I didn’t want such an incredible experience to be overshadowed by the last conversation I’d had on the ship. As I took a plane to Costa Rica to join the voyage again I was filled with questions. Had I stayed home in August would my father and I have had more time together? Did I want to leave home because home wasn’t the same and never would be ever again? Was I returning to the ship to avoid adjusting to living without the most influential man in my life? Would I spend the rest of my life avoiding that adjustment?

On the way to the port, the ship came into view and I broke out into a huge grin. Just seeing it gave me comfort and I became anxious to rejoin a community that had been my family since August, including the day that I heard the news about my dad. As I looked at the beauty surrounding me and felt the sun’s rays embracing me, a sense of peace and joy melted my doubt and apprehension. I knew that at that moment, I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

I still have questions. I am still scared to face life without my dad. I miss his presence immensely and I know that I will for the rest of my life. Yet coming back to this ship has helped me to understand that even in the middle of my heartache, I can miss my father and still be in a place of beauty, comfort, and love. It is possible to hurt and heal at the same time.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Use Ambition Wisely

My dad and I often had conversations about goals—mainly because I often talked about the need to set new ones. The last time we had this discussion my dad told me that he set three goals in his life: graduate from college, get married, and have children.

I have always been ambitious. I imagined myself doing amazing things. In class I would sit next to one of my closest friends—another ambition addict—and talk about life post-high school. I will spare you the details, but please believe that our discussions were fabulous.

Ambition is good if it encourages forward movement. It is not intended to dishearten you or lead you to feelings of inadequacy or apathy. I will always encourage people to set goals and dream dreams, but it’s also necessary to maintain balance. When we only prepare ourselves for the next phase we are not present. When we incessantly reach for more we may fail to appreciate what is directly in front of us. When we constantly chase we never renew.

Being ambitious has led me to wonderful and fulfilling life experiences, yet one of the many things that my dad taught me is that some of us are not chasers. Some of us know exactly what we want out of life and seek it out early. My dad was not a chaser. He fulfilled the goals he set for himself and spent the last thirty years of his life enjoying what resulted from his hard work. My dad set his goals, achieved them, and lived a life that not only he loved, but everyone who knew him admired. I will always be grateful to my dad for teaching me to use ambition wisely.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Japan

I had high expectations for Japan. I’d traveled to Osaka in 1999 and remembered its impact on me. I was amazed by what I’d considered a futuristic city. I couldn’t believe the children walking around with tiny cell phones when at home the only thing I had resembling such was a large, fairly stationary car phone. I couldn’t believe the vending machines that contained ice cream that I could—and often did—consume whenever I wanted. I couldn’t wait to experience 2011 Japan, and it did not at all disappoint.
My friend and colleague (now affectionately referred to as ‘frolleague’) is from Japan and she graciously agreed to take a few of us around her hometown. Of course the first thing on our agenda was food. We headed to lunch and enjoyed all the Kobe beef we could handle. Afterwards, we went to a 100 yen store. The best way I can describe it is a far more impressive version of America’s dollar store. There were so many interesting and fun items on the shelves. We all admitted to being overwhelmed.
That afternoon we visited the international school that my ‘frolleague’ attended. My favorite part was the conversation we had with her tea teacher. She was so welcoming as she showed us around the beautiful classroom space she uses to teach traditional tea ceremony practices. The day continued with a home visit where we met my friend’s mother, grandmother, and great-aunt. I was honored to sit down in her personal space and experience a splice of her home life.
What’s a trip to Japan without sushi and karaoke? We headed to a fast-food restaurant and experienced conveyor belt sushi. Plates of food and desserts slid around the tables. Whatever we found appetizing we simply grabbed. After conveyor belt sushi we headed to a karaoke bar. Even typing this puts a smile on my face. My friends and I laughed more than we sang—and we did some singing! It was a great time and I am sure that the mere memory will bring me joy many years from now.

The last time I was in Japan I regret not visiting Tokyo so Tokyo was most definitely on the agenda. After being personally escorted by my friend’s mother, four of us took the bullet train from Kobe to Tokyo. We arrived at the Tokyo train station and was met with option overload. Tokyo’s subway system has more than 250 stations! It took us some time to locate the train that would take us to the station nearest our hostel, but eventually we found our way.
We checked into our hostel which required all guests to remove their shoes at the entrance. This took some getting used to, but our accommodations were so adorable that we didn’t mind. Not only was our hostel great, the neighborhood was lovely. We were extremely pleased. We were located in Asakusa, an area that is deemed to have a more traditional Japanese flair than most in Tokyo. We were just around the corner from shops, restaurants, and historical sites. It was a perfect blend of modern and traditional culture.
We were prepared for how expensive Tokyo would be, but we were not prepared for how difficult it would be to get our hands on yen. Each ATM we visited rejected our cards for not being national cards. We had to make our dinner decision based on which restaurant would accept our credit cards. Of course, this became a source of laughter for us (probably because it doesn’t take much for us to laugh).
Noticing that we hadn’t watched any sports in over three months, we visited a sports bar so that we could get a football fix. While there we met several Americans. One couple was just visiting, but four of our new friends had relocated to Tokyo over ten years ago. It was great listening to them talk about their love for their home.
We spent our last evening visiting one of Tokyo’s most famous entertainment districts, Shibuya. Think Times Square in New York City minus the noise, litter, and unruly crowds. There were massive groups of people, but everyone is so orderly in Japan. Even if there are no cars approaching, no one crossed the street until the light instructed pedestrians to cross. Big, bright lights advertised everything from popular brands to boy bands. I could feel the energy of the city as we walked down the street. I loved it.

On our last morning we decided to visit the Imperial Palace and I was thoroughly impressed with the use of city space to create an oasis. As we approached, I was amazed at the level of peace I felt in such a cosmopolitan area. In the midst of large skyscrapers and government buildings there was lush grass and gorgeous fountains. It was beautiful and breathtaking.
We caught the train to Yokohama and as we reached the port where our ship was docked, I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave Japan. Even having the gift of experiencing such different facets of sections of Japan, from the 100 yen store, to the international school, to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, to the bustling Shibuya district, and the glorious Imperial Palace, I knew there was still so much more. I hope that wasn’t the last I’ve seen of Japan. I want more. Next stop, Costa Rica!

Try-Umph Travels: China

My time in China was a bit of a whirlwind. In six days I visited Hong Kong, Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai. I traveled by boat, bus, and via airplane. When my six days ended I was tired and extremely grateful to return to the ship that’s been home since August. Still, if you asked what I would have changed about my hectic schedule I would tell you not a single thing.
The ship docked in Victoria Harbour on a gorgeous morning. Hong Kong’s skyline is beautiful, inspiring, and unbelievable. As we waited for the ship to be cleared by immigration, I stood in awe of the little island with enormous impact. The skyscrapers were mountains of prosperity. Boats of all shapes and sizes floated by. I took pictures, but none of them capture the fullness of what I felt looking out over the harbor.

I got off the ship and headed on a tour of Hong Kong. It wasn’t long before I was in a cable car heading to the top of a mountain taking in the view of the entire harbor. After spending time getting a top-down view, I headed to the bottom of the mountain and boarded a small boat that would allow me to tour a floating fishing village called Aberdeen. I left the small boat and boarded the last handcrafted traditional Chinese junk built in Hong Kong. A Chinese junk is a sailboat. The one I boarded had red sails which made it regal. Seeing the Hong Kong skyline at night from the Chinese junk was incredible. Once again, none of the pictures I took could adequately convey how magnificent Victoria Harbour was at night. It was amazing.

The next morning I headed to the airport for Beijing. The first major attraction I visited in Beijing was the Great Wall of China. This marvel is 5,500 miles long! As I carefully walked the unbelievable man-made structure, I couldn’t imagine the fortitude, patience, and physical strength it must have taken to build such a massive piece of history. Its mere presence reminded me of the sheer willpower we all possess when we are determined and focused.

My day continued with a visit to the Summer Palace. I loved the views of this royal garden, especially having Kunming Lake in its backdrop. The next day was filled with visits to more historical sites. The Temple of Heaven is lovely. It’s a park that has temples and is filled with open green space and trees. When I arrived there were groups of people dancing, exercising, and playing cards, chess, and dominoes. It was refreshing to see so many people outside enjoying life.

A couple of Tai Chi instructors gave us a quick lesson. I copied their physical movements, but what will stick with me far longer is what an instructor said. He shared that our exterior should be soft, but our interior should be strong. After leaving China and it’s magnificent structures I thought about the concept of a soft exterior and a hard interior. This isn’t meant to inspire weakness or an inability to stand up. I understood this teaching to push me toward maintaining more strength, commitment, and power in the area that matters most. It is far more logical, important, and necessary for me to be strong in mind and heart. As the years pass and I continue to look over my pictures of the beauty of China I will always remember the importance of interior strength. Next stop, Japan!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Vietnam

In order to reach the port in Ho Chi Minh City, we had to travel through a narrow waterway. It was a sunny, balmy morning, and a lot of us were standing on the deck, watching our approach. We passed fishing boats, houses, and fields. As we got closer to the city, though, the skyline appeared. High-rises came into view and I realized how cosmopolitan some aspects of Vietnam had become since I’d visited in 1999.

My first two days in Vietnam were spent experiencing Ho Chi Minh City. My friends and I went to the well-known Ben Thanh market. There were so many arts, crafts, clothes, suitcases, bags, and jewelry. Every stall was filled. It was souvenir saturation! Near the center of the market there were food stalls. The freshly made dishes, combined with the smell of fresh fruits and burning incense created an interesting nasal experience.

We left the market to explore the city and visited a ridiculously adorable coffee shop. We sat outside and enjoyed coffee, fresh fruit juices, and blueberry cake. It was relaxing, fun, and made me smile each time I reminded myself that I was sitting in Vietnam.

We discovered a movie theater on the top floor of one of the shopping centers we visited so we purchased movie tickets for 40,000 dong each, got some slightly sweet popcorn, and saw Hot Boy Noi, a film that is scheduled to be shown at the Toronto Film Festival. The film was shot in Ho Chi Minh City so we recognized many of the locations on the screen because we’d just walked through the city.

On the third morning I boarded a plane with two friends and we headed north for Hoi An. Hoi An is a quaint city on the coast of the South China Sea. I loved it! The city is laid-back and filled with culture. Shops outlined the streets and there was so much color! Buildings were yellow, orange, red, and turquoise. The vegetation was a lush green. The water was several shades of jade. At night, lanterns of all hues illuminated. It was beautiful, breezy, and exactly what I needed.

My last day in Vietnam was spent back in Ho Chi Minh City where we declared it Food Extravaganza Day. We began with a visit to the most adorable restaurant. It was located on the second and third floors of a clothing boutique. There were colorful couches and cushions everywhere. The sunlight was spilling into the room. It was perfect. I ordered breakfast sushi. It was a rolled up omelette that had been cut and served like sushi. Not only was it pleasing to look at, but it was tasty, too. My favorite, though, was the dessert we ordered. Banana wontons served with coconut icing should follow every breakfast.

After breakfast we bought coconuts from a street vendor and walked to the War Remnants Museum. This was a sobering experience as there were graphic photos and descriptions of the impact of war on Vietnam. As I took in the photographs and read the stories of people’s lives after war I wondered why war is ever an option. I looked at the weaponry on display and questioned why we build such things to destroy one another. It was a staggering, but necessary visit.

My six days in Vietnam couldn’t have been planned any better. I had amazing food every day, shared great laughs, and created wonderful memories. I crossed many intersections without getting a Saigon kiss, saw water buffalo on the side of the road, visited the beach, was part of a scavenger hunt for local students, saw a Vietnamese film, had cupcakes from a bakery's grand opening, and admired a culture that is often misunderstood at home. Although my bank account disagrees with me, Vietnam was a priceless experience and it was even better the second time around. Next stop, China!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Perfect Timing

I’ve often thought about how timing seems to unfold in a way that is nothing less than perfect. My four month time-out from life has been no exception. It came at a time when I absolutely needed to walk away. While I knew that the timing was perfect for me going in, I failed to recognize how the timing of this trip would coincide with the lives of the people I would meet. Now that I am more than halfway done with my adventure I am starting to understand why certain people are here right now, with me.

On this trip alone I have heard many versions of the same scenario. One minor detail and this person wouldn’t have been able to come. One slight change and that person would have committed to another job. A phone call a week later and one of my favorites wouldn’t be here. Timing has been instrumental in determining who shares this experience together and who does not.

Our lives are not independent. Our lives are interconnected. Those who are not willing to listen inwardly for your own sake should consider how your life path influences the lives of those around you. If we don’t do our part individually it can negatively impact lives that are intertwined with ours. We not only need to take care of our personal business for our sake, but also because there are other people depending on us in order to grow.

Consider the relationships you’ve developed in seemingly random circumstances. Think about the friends you have gained when you weren’t even trying to. Your life is not accidental. It’s not haphazard. There is deliberate timing involved and a large part of that is influenced the relationships you invest in and the people you grow with. Make sure you are doing your part because what you do influences the paths of others.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Malaysia

Shortly after docking in Penang, Malaysia, I got into a cab to head to the airport. During the cab ride I heard Beyoncé and Rihanna playing on the local radio station. It was a bit odd trying to reconcile that I was actually in Malaysia while hearing American songs on the radio. I wanted to ask to hear something local, but when the music stopped and the commercials started I knew I was listening to a local station.
The twenty minute flight to Langkawi Island was filled with wonderful views during our approach. I could see the island I was visiting and some smaller islands nearby. Plus, the weather was perfect so the clouds added another element of beauty to an already amazing view. 

I got into a cab and on the way to the hotel one of my friends began singing Kokomo by The Beach Boys. It wasn’t long before the rest of us joined in. I smiled recognizing that sometimes the only appropriate response to such beauty is a song. 
The first night we went to a night market which was one of the most eclectic markets I’ve visited. There were stalls for t-shirts, shoes, fresh fish, fruit, watches, toys, and all kinds of food dishes. There was chicken satay, noodles prepared in the biggest cast iron skillets I’ve ever seen, a thin waffle with creamed corn in the middle, a combination of noodles, meat, and an egg packaged in clear plastic bags, fried potatoes served on a giant toothpicks, and some things I didn’t recognize. I didn’t sample any of the food simply because I’d just eaten dinner. I filled up on ginger squid, prawn fried rice, and a glass of one of my favorite drinks—ice lemon tea—at Jai Island Café.
The next morning I had the ‘pleasure’ of a wake-up song, courtesy of two of my traveling companions. Their song of choice was one we often hear on our closed-circuit channel on the ship. I laughed and dragged myself out of bed. The plan was to have breakfast, but we quickly discovered that the restaurants near our hotel didn’t open until 9 a.m. We hailed a cab and ended up going to the airport for breakfast. After grabbing breakfast, we headed over to Seven Wells Waterfall. 

The climb to the top was made more difficult because the air was so heavy. Fortunately though, the sun wasn’t out so the temperature remained bearable. After reaching the top and taking a few photos, our group decided to continue on by walking a trail. What I have appreciated most about this experience is having the freedom to create memories I normally wouldn’t. As I get caught up in my day-to-day routine at home I don’t always permit myself to participate in activities that break from my normal mode. I don’t hike trails at home. I don’t even seek out opportunities to hike, but while in Malaysia I felt like it was pointless to think about. When else would I have the opportunity to hike in Malaysia? I actually enjoyed walking through the trail, singing songs (Hakuna Matata made the list), and appreciating the beauty that exists when we take the time to step away from life’s usual comforts. Walking along the trail I could hear the relaxing sound of the stream flowing beside me. It was peaceful and calming—except when we heard the occasional screech from an animal we couldn’t identify.
On the way back down we decided to go for a dip in the wells. After that climb and trail hike the cool water was especially refreshing. The rocks were extremely smooth so we were able to slide down a few of them. They were also slippery so standing barefoot was almost impossible. I had to be extremely careful to ensure that I didn’t land face-first on a rock.
What I anticipated would be an uneventful walk back provided me with a memory that still cracks me up. As I was coming down a set of stairs I saw two little adorable monkeys. I put my hand on my camera, intending to take a photo, but then I heard this primal snarl. Standing even closer to me than the little cuties was a big one and he was not amused by my admiration. I grabbed my friend’s hand and we both stammered up the stairs. I don’t know why being scared is so funny, but as soon as we made it past the bodyguard monkey I laughed really hard. I remembered my reaction, my friend’s reaction, and how we funny we must have looked trying to get up those stairs. I wish we had that on video.
After leaving Seven Wells Waterfall it was time to do lunch. We stopped at a restaurant and I saw the biggest prawns ever! They were the size of lobsters...until we ate them. After lunch we walked the streets of Langkawi Island to visit some shops. After shopping, we walked the beach back to our hotel and then spent some time in the pool.
For dinner we discovered Kung Fu Restaurant and that’s how we met Leow. Leow was outside of the restaurant so we chatted with him. By the end of our meal Leow was posing in pictures with us and sent us to Eagle Rock Café for a good time. He was so right about Eagle Rock Café! There was a live band performing and they were amazing! The three vocalists were fantastic, but the former musician in me was fascinated with the guitar player and the drummer. Loved them! They rocked Maria Maria by Carlos Santana.
As I reflect on my time in Malaysia I can’t help recognizing how much music played into my visit. During my cab ride to the airport I experienced how connected music makes the world. While riding to the hotel in Langkawi I was reminded how music can be the best and only way to express beauty and emotion. When my friends woke me up in song I realized that music has the ability to generate humor. As we hiked the trail at Seven Wells Waterfall the songs we sung were rejuvenating. On our last night, listening to the live band was fun, but it was more than that. Sharing that experience created a memory within us that we will always attribute to the beauty we saw, the appreciation we have for one another, and the laughs we shared while in Malaysia. Next stop, Vietnam!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: India

As soon as I headed to the gangway I was welcomed to India by humidity and heat. I knew immediately that I would smell like sweat, sunscreen, and mosquito repellent for the next five days. Still, I was excited about experiencing the country often described as ‘an assault on all the senses.’ I’d visited India previously, but it was nearly twelve years ago and I was just twenty years old. India had changed since then and so had I. I was very curious to see how we would be reacquainted with one another.

I visited a community home for a group of people that society has shunned. We were told that we were visiting with people who were either born male and castrated as children or who were born with both sex organs. It wasn’t exactly clear if that was the case with all of the people we met, but I’m not a fan of classifying people so it’s just as well. As a group, they have been shunned. Society deemed them unworthy of gaining employment. Family members deemed them unworthy of having relationship. Even our interpreter started by referring to them in a manner that was very ‘us vs. them’. As she listened to them and started to see them as individuals, her speech changed. It only took an hour for me to see a change in her. I wonder what would happen if we all gave an hour to listen to someone we’ve judged.

I looked around the room and knew each one had a story. I wanted to know all of them. I wanted to know how they got there. I wanted to know how they survived. I wanted to know how it felt to be forced to form your own community and family. I wanted to know so much more than one visit would permit.

What I found most telling was their perception of the United States. They assumed that in ‘the land of the free, the home of the brave’ we treated people like people. They were very surprised to learn that Americans can be cowardice and insensitive. On the ride home I wondered what the next classification of discrimination would look like. I wondered when we would learn to treat people like people.

One of my favorite activities was going to watch an Indian film at a movie theater. We arrived at the movie theater and noticed immediately how posh it was. Instead of theater numbers, each theater had a name. The film we saw, Vedi, was shown in Plush. We assumed it would cost a small fortune to see a film in the Express Avenue Mall because of the appearance of the theater. We were pleasantly surprised to find that it cost 120 rupees (equivalent to $2.50) to see a movie and 165 rupees for popcorn and a soda.

The movie was in Tamil without subtitles so we didn’t understand everything, but we were able to decipher the plot. An ex-cop was avenging the death of his father and father-figure while trying to find his sister and being actively pursued by the woman in the film that every other man wanted. The film would fluctuate pretty evenly between an action-packed fighting sequence and then bursting into song. I loved it! Sometimes I wish life operated more like a musical. How much fun would our days be if we had spontaneous song and dance routines?

I cannot talk about India without talking about Indian cuisine. I wish I could remember all of the delicious eats I encountered, but there were so many! My personal favorites were the garlic naan, spinach paste, ginger/chili chicken, and the chai tea. As for my favorite restaurant I must tell you about Barbeque Nation. As soon as we walked in the door, wonderful smells told me that I was in the right place, but I was exceptionally pleased with something else. I love a good mojito. I was intrigued immediately when I saw the jal jeera mojito on the menu. I never imagined a drink infused with Indian spice, but I was so curious. I ordered it and it was wonderful! Who knew one of my favorite mojitoes would come from India?

Shortly after we received our drinks two grills were inserted into the table. Skewers of vegetables, chicken, shrimp, fish, and tofu were placed on the grills. Before we could taste all of the skewers, several servers came around and placed coconut rice cakes, tandoori chicken, and lamb on our plates. Everything was bursting with flavor! It was like a spice festival for my tastebuds and I loved it.

As a table, we decided there would be no more rounds of deliciousness. We looked at the flag on our table and surrendered by turning it down. (Yes, there was a flag on the table to signify when you could no longer handle more food.) Our server approached and to my surprise he asked, “Are you done with the starters?” Starters? There was more! We all said we couldn’t eat another bite, but each one of us eventually wandered over to the buffet area. There were noodles, rice, crab masala, and even desserts.

There were more great meals, but there were also many other moments that are worth mentioning, specifically my encounters with the beautiful people of India. I met a man named Khan who made me laugh with his unique sales pitch. In a store where everyone wanted to give you a lengthy show-and-tell of their products, Khan pointed to his crafts and simply said, “Just touch it.” He didn’t need a spiel. We laughed and talked with him for nearly an hour.

Our rickshaw driver, Danna was with us almost all day for four days. We ate at restaurants based on his recommendations. We shopped where he advised. He didn’t talk much, yet he was very communicative. The first day back at sea I found myself missing his mannerisms. I wanted someone to answer me with the same head nod that Danna gave us so often. I know part of the reason we had such a great experience was because of Danna.

I will also remember a young child I saw on the street. She sat on the floor having lunch. When my group approached she stood up and held out her hand. It was clear that she was asking for money and any child begging is difficult to see. What stood out even more is that she looked no more than four, but she was extremely savvy. She approached each one of us, looked us in the eye with the confidence of an adult, made her appeal, and then moved on to the next person. It was calculated. She had been trained and at that young age knew exactly what to do and how to do it. I will probably never forget her face.

I will long remember the children who visited the ship on our last night in India. As I stood in line to go up the gangway I noticed how dirty the ground was at the port. I thought about how filthy my shoes would be until I looked up the gangway and saw about four children walking up the gangway with no shoes. It was a harsh picture for me. I no longer cared about my dirty shoes. I was saddened by the reality of seeing children walking around without what I consider to be a basic necessity.

A short time later I was asked if a few of those same children could visit my room. I will long remember the near shame I felt thinking about the shopping bags that were sitting on my bed. I ran to my room and threw the bags into a closet. I was embarrassed by my excess.

In order to make this entire experience more meaningful I have often asked how I can make this larger than me. It took me several days to sort out all that India presented to me and confronted me with. No where has it been more pressing for me to seek answers than India. I had a wonderful visit and enjoyed it as a tourist, but I am more than a tourist. I saw more. I experienced more. I felt more. I will be impacted for much longer than the six days that India graciously hosted me. Next stop, Malaysia!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What Are You Accepting?

Every single day we are given the opportunity to begin again. We may wake up in the same home, take the same route to the same job, and have the same three restaurant options for lunch, but our choices dictate the course of our lives. What we accept for ourselves and from ourselves determines how we live.

Acceptance is a powerful concept. Obviously if you are asked if you want something and you say yes, you have accepted it. Yet if you are presented with something and you don’t refuse it, that is also acceptance. Let's say you have a job that is not maximizing all of your skills and talents. Remaining in that job over an extended period of time indicates that you have accepted that job...until you take steps necessary to move forward. Likewise, if you remain in a relationship that is not emotional beneficial to you then you have accepted that relationship as a part of your life. What you accept for yourself determines how you live.

Some find satisfaction or feel better not making a decision, but choosing not to act is also making a decision. Not making a decision is choosing to accept your life as it is. Don’t be an inactive participant in your life. It’s yours and it's the only one you have!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Beauty of Today

While sitting with a group of coworkers I glanced out of the window and noticed a gorgeous sunset. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence since I'm traveling the world by ship, but I still got up and ran outside. While I am thankful to have a camera to record a limited representation of what I see, pictures cannot express the emotions I feel while watching the sun dissolve into the ocean. That feeling is what led me out of my seat and onto the deck. I never want to become so comfortable with seeing the sun set on the ocean that I no longer acknowledge its impact. When we fail to recognize the glory that exists in our every day we choose to ignore what should bring us the most gratitude.
During that same week of the sunset that I ran out to see, I was sitting in my room. I wanted to devote some time to journaling, yet hadn’t written a single word. I looked at the clock and knew that it was a prime time to run into a few of my coworkers. I considered continuing my staring contest with my journal, but thought about my life following this trip. I pictured myself sending emails or text messages to coworkers saying how much I missed the days we could simply go up or down a flight of stairs and be in each other’s company. I realized that my every day life is happening right now. Journaling is great, but not at the expense of living. I needed to remind myself to be present on this journey. All I have is today.
We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be so consumed with life that we fail to recognize the beauty of today. If you see an amazing sunrise or sunset take a moment to appreciate it. If you drive by a park and notice the myriad of gorgeous colors brought on by the fall season take a moment to admire it. If someone you love adds some sunshine to your life express your thanks. It is only when we’re present that we can fully experience gratitude. Fully experience each day you're given because today is the only day that matters.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Mauritius

Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of Mauritius before I found out that I would be stopping there. I wasn’t sure what to expect of this small island located east of Madagascar. As we prepared for this port, we were shown views of incredible beaches. Some might assume that looking at water would get old after living on a ship and seeing nothing but ocean for miles, days at time, but that assumption would be completely false. I was excited about sitting on the beach and doing absolutely nothing.
A group of us left the ship and took a cab from Port Louis to Flic en Flac, a beach village on the west coast of Mauritius. As soon as the cab turned off the road we faced a stunning white-sand beach. It was inspiringly beautiful.

We split up for breakfast. I had a freshly baked pastry that was stuffed with coconut. It actually reminded me of an almond croissant—which I love—so I was pleased.  Following breakfast I spent some time taking in one of the most relaxing and beautiful scenes. As I watched and listened to waves gently rolling onto the shore, I couldn’t help but feel extremely grateful. I actually asked what I’d done to be so blessed. I could breath unassisted. I could see the contrast of blues from different depths of the ocean. I could smell the light scent of local eateries in the air. I could feel the breeze on my face. I could hear gentle waves of water. It was one of those moments that transcends time and will remain with me long after the day ends.

I didn’t see much of Mauritius since we were limited to one day, but it reminded me to be grateful. As I sat on that beach I thought about how far I’ve come. I thought about the times when life was less than kind. I thought about the years when I didn’t know if I had enough in me to do more than simply exist. As heartbroken as I was then it doesn’t compare to the peace I felt. I am grateful for such an impressive and beautiful reminder of the power of gratitude. Next stop, India!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: South Africa

I spent six lovely days in the amazing city of Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town is ridiculously beautiful with its ocean and mountain views. Even as we sailed away I remained in awe.

On the first day I took a sunset hike to the top of Lion’s Head Mountain. I had no hiking experience and didn’t know what to expect. The hike up was tiring for me and made me nervous. When we reached solid rock I noticed how close I was to the edge. If I tripped or misjudged a step I thought for sure I would end up being a headline in the newspaper. It was a long way down! I had to tell myself to stop looking over the edge several times. As exhausted as I was, I am so glad I did it. The view was incredible and I am very proud to say that I hiked up 900 feet. That feeling of amazement and accomplishment will remain with me for many years to come.

After seeing one of the most beautiful sunsets, the next day a group of us took a cable car to the top of Table Mountain. The view of the city from there was as stunning as the sunset I’d experienced the previous night. I remember feeling extremely grateful to take in that scene and all the feelings that came with it.
I didn’t spend all of my time with my head in clouds. There was lots of food involved as well. When I saw a Thai restaurant I was so excited! I hadn’t eaten Thai food in over a month and for me, that is unusual. After getting one of my comfort cuisines I decided to try new dishes. I’ve eaten Cape salmon, an ostrich steak, and grilled crocodile. I wasn’t disappointed. Which one would I eat again? Probably all of them. What I didn't want to try was warthog. Yes, that was an option. Each time I looked at it on the menu I kept thinking about Pumbaa from The Lion King. I just couldn't eat Pumbaa!

One of my favorite mornings came when a group of us visited the University of Cape Town. I love being on a college campus because of the energy and willingness to learn. We spent quite a bit of time walking around, chatting with people, and I enjoyed my group's company. Part of the allure of Semester At Sea is developing relationships with people experiencing the same types of joys, pains, and reflection at the same time.

On the last day in Cape Town a special guest embarked on the ship. Archbishop Desmond Tutu met Semester At Sea faculty and staff during a reception in his honor. He is nearly 80-years-old, but maintains a youthful sense of humor and presence. Following the reception, he addressed the entire shipboard community. His message of interconnectedness and dependence on one another was inspiring. It reminded me of my place in this world as well as the place I should continue to hold for those I am blessed to have in my life. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Reflections of Cape Town, South Africa

My initial trip to Cape Town occurred when I was twenty-years-old. I prepared to set foot on African soil for the first time filled with a lot of questions and uncertainty. I saw the city—one that didn’t look much different from many cities I’d visited in the States—and wasn’t certain what to make of it. I didn’t recognize it as Africa. It wasn’t the Africa I’d learned about in school or saw on television. I saw excess. I saw commercialism. I saw lush vegetation. I saw a mountain that signified power, strength, and longevity. It was a long way from the dirt-covered, fly-infested, safari-filled Africa that the media and my school books shoved in my face. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was I supposed to be pleased that Africa was more than what I’d been presented? Or should I have been upset by the one-sidedness that I’d been exposed to?

Cape Town, South Africa is an incredibly beautiful, seemingly fictional place. Located on the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by majestic Table Mountain, it is hard not to be distracted by its breathtaking natural beauty and lush greenery. In addition to its stunning physical allure, the city is filled with an international flare of people. As magnificent as the city and its people are to behold, neither compare to the beauty I’ve found in something far more influential.

I tried to take Cape Town for what it was. I accepted the beauty. I appreciated the sense of familiarity. However, there was something very odd lurking in the seemingly perfect African city. In this picturesque, gorgeous backdrop the remnants of something evil and ugly was hiding that carried about as much weight as Table Mountain. In 1999 apartheid had been over for nine years, and while it was over, the impact was apparent. I’m positive that the residue of apartheid had been lost on some of my fellow classmates, but it was clear to me that I existed in a world that operated differently than what I saw. None of the consumers looked like me. None of the people living near the attractive and charming area that the 600 American students were plopped into looked like me either. I saw people with my complexion, but they were not consumers or residents of the Cape Town I walked around. People who looked like me were behind counters, selling items, or living in areas that required us privileged American students to take a faculty-directed practicum trip in order to see. People who looked like me were not active participants in the economy on Cape Town’s preferred, show-to-company side of town.

I wanted to experience as much of Cape Town as I could, but I wasn’t sure where I fit. Should I shop as the American privileged student and show South Africa that it was possible for someone like me to be an active participant? Should I be ashamed of having the means and more importantly, the audacity to expect that I could walk around in that pristine area with my head held high? What was I to make of the township visits? Were they supposed to show me where my kind belonged? Or should I have looked at it and simply been grateful that I wasn’t born here?

Fast-forward to 2011. I didn’t know how I would feel about Cape Town post-Mandela’s presidential term. Had anything changed? Would I feel as conflicted as I had during my first visit? Once again, I stepped off of the ship filled with uncertainly. I was pulling for Cape Town, though. I was hoping that twelve years had done more for the city than I’d even witnessed at home. I wanted Cape Town to show me that it was serious about revolution. I needed to see what that looked like.

I got off the ship this time and the picture-perfect area that our shipped was docked had expanded. It remained stunning and breathtaking, especially with Table Mountain huddled over it like a proud parent. Economically, I knew that the last twelve years had been good. As I ventured out I looked at the people around me. I looked for the people who looked like me. I saw them. They were behind counters and selling items. Yet they weren’t the only ones behind counters and selling items. Even more encouraging, the people who looked like me were also in line with me. They entered the same stores, ate at the same restaurants. They were a part of Cape Town in a way that I hadn’t seen prior. It made me smile.

I’m not suggesting that all of the work is done or over. There is still a major disparity between rich and poor. Townships still exist. Children from townships still aren’t being educated at the same levels as children who aren’t from townships. However, I can see the progress. In twelve years, improvements have begun. When the manifestation of change is evident it means that the movement has momentum.

I love Cape Town because nearly twenty years after the end of apartheid I can see signs of progress trickle down to the masses. I love Cape Town because it is not afraid to have the difficult, uncomfortable, race-related conversations. I love Cape Town because the student union at the University of Cape Town is named after anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. I love Cape Town because in the twelve years since I visited, I feel improvement. While I am grateful to have some comfort in the ease of navigating the culture, I love its willingness to transform. While I am in awe of Table Mountain, I love the strength of the people it oversees. While I appreciate its beauty, I love Cape Town so much more for modeling forgiveness, restoration, love, humility, and humanity.