Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Long Time No Post...China and Japan

It's been awhile since I've put any post up  but it's just been to busy to do it.  China and Japan seem like a blur now, we had only 3 days between Viet Nam and China and then only two days between China and Japan.  Since Japan, I've had a ridiculous amount of work to finish here on the ship, between exams and projects and papers to write.  To add to that, we're down to just over two weeks left of our voyage.  It seems like just other day we were crossing the Atlantic to Spain, its incredible how quickly these three months have flown by.  That being said, I cannot wait to be home to see friends and family, but I'm just as excited to keep seeing the friends I've made on board throughout the coming year.
I don't really feel like nor do I have the time or really the memory to break down each day in China and Japan, so this will be a little different, maybe even a little better.
I was able to hit the 3 major cities of China within 6 days:  Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai. 
Hong Kong was the best, and I'm going to go ahead and say it rivals Rome for being my favorite city.  We made it up to Victoria's Peak in Honk Kong, which had incredible views of the entire city.  It's a mountain peak that stands taller than all the skyscrapers, and gives a great cityscape.  We took a walk along a walkway which winded and hugged the top of the mountain, giving different views every few feet or so.  We had Dim Sum for lunch that day (not spelled right), which is the traditional Chinese style of eating.  Servers just cart around different foods and you pick what you want, as soon as you sit down the kind of swarm the table.  We were at a really nice place, reminded me of somewhere the business elite in New York would go for lunch or something.  Needless to say it was delicious.  I'm a huge fan of pork buns now!
Hong Kong had a feeling of character to it, and by just walking around and exploring the city you could really pick up on that.  The Star Ferry took us a few times across the river where our boat was docked (beautiful location by the way) for a very cheap price.  The boats they use now had been around for over 50 years, and the ferry docks look like they have as well, it kind of reminded me of New York or Chicago subways in their antiquity.  Before going out that night to the LKF area (best bar district I've ever been in), we stayed on the ship to watch the light show.  A lot of the buildings on the opposite side of the river have crazy light schemes going, with lasers shooting off the tops of the buildings and giant white lights, it was pretty cool.
The next morning I began my trip with the China Guide, an independent travel agent that was taking about 200 SASers up to Beijing and the Great Wall.  A lot of my friends were on it, and we were able to choose who we wanted in each tour bus so we ended up in a group together.  The trip was a lot of fun.  The Forbidden City in Beijing was initially a let down.  I only had a faint idea of what it should look like, and we went in the back way and I was thinking "this is it?"  As we moved our way forward, suddenly we came up to the front side of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which is the main building where the emperor would sit in and such.  It's the classic view that you'd recognize instantly.  There was such a massive crowd pushing it's way towards one of the four open doors that you could look into and see the throne chair (only look, you could not go in).  But for the first time in my life I wasn't worried about getting to the front, because I towered over everyone else that was trying to see it!  I love being tall!  As we kept moving forward to go out of the Forbidden City through the front gates, we saw more and more impressive gates that I was thinking I would see initially.  It definitely didn't turn out to be disappointing at all.
We came out of the Forbidden City through the Tiananmen gate, onto Tiananmen Square.  The gate is the one with the picture of Mao Zedong's huge portrait on it.  Our guide pointed out that it was changed once a year, and the same artist had been hired for life to paint the paintings each time.  The square had some impressive buildings on it but overall nothing crazy.  The one really interesting thing about it was that we, as foreigners, did not have to go through security to get into the square.  All the Chinese citizens did have to go through security....China's a little worried about repeating the past I believe...?
So eventually we made a two and half hour drive out of Beijing one day to a remote section of the Great Wall of China, the Jinshanling section.  We got there at night and had a dinner at the base camp area, (drinks included, necessary since it was about 20 degrees out and we were camping).  So we all took our bags up to the wall, we were given two sleeping bags a piece, and we set up camp.  It was very cold, but how many people can say they slept on the Great Wall of China?  This wasn't the touristy section either, lots of it was broken down with loose rocks and such and steep slopes where stairs use to be.  Kind of like the Sahara Desert in Morocco, it was amazing again to be able to see so many stars in the sky that night as we fell asleep, and I was able to stay pretty warm in the end.
The next morning I finally woke up, remembered where exactly I was at, and jumped up and out of my bag.  As far as I could see, the Great Wall of China stretched all the way to each horizon, snaking its way across the top of the hills into the mountains in the distance.  What a way to wake up!  We made a 3 mile trek that morning along the wall, which just as breathtaking.  It was great to explore the place, going through all the watchtowers, taking in the scenery, and just being alive and experiencing something I will remember for the rest of my life.  Did you know the wall is the worlds longest graveyard?  Workers who built it were buried in it if something happened, and peasants around the wall wanted to bury their dead in the wall, since it protected the bodies from being snatched up by animals.
We got back to Beijing later that day and were able to check out the Olympic village, and see the bird's nest stadium and the Cube.  They were cool, but the area around them was such a waste of space now.  After stopping in the public bathrooms, you could really see how rushed the contruction of the area was and how it was designed just for that one summer (cracks everywhere).
That night we took a sleeper train to Shanghai which was an experience.  It was pretty comfy, you had 4 people in a cabin with bunk beds on each side. I was decently rested the next day when we awoke and made our way back to the ship, now docked in Shanghai, again at another beautiful port.  Shanghai is a HUGE city, the skyscrapers seem to just keep going and going.  The riverfront was a pretty area, but overall I didn't do too much here except hang out with friends and walk around the town.  Very international place, we were nothing like the only foreigners in the city.  Shanghai is planned out pretty well, where Beijing just seemed to be a sprawling and dirty city.  While I could see the smog as our plane descended into Beijing, neither Beijing or Shanghai affected me much pollution wise.  I was told later Shanghai's pollution is actually less than Los Angeles.
But that's a quick blurb about China.  So much to do there I'll have to go back again, someone around spoke English most of them time which is always helpful.  I'll definitely be going back to Hong Kong someday, it would be amazing if I was able to find a career that could get me there for some considerable time.  By the way, our first night in Beijing was the opening night of the Asian Games which was happening in Guangzhou, China.  Never heard of the games or the city?  Because I hadn't either.  Nor have I heard of the Commonwealth Games which were just wrapping up in India before we got there, but these are HUGE deals in Asia and the British Commonwealth.  But Ross and I were watching the opening ceremony of the Asian Games, and without a doubt, they completely out did Beijing's opening ceremony for the Olympics.  It was a huge spectacle, we sat there amazed just watching the television screen.  The only thing I said was "wow, so this is the culture our kids and grandkids will be growing up under".
But Japan was just around the corner.  I did Japan completely independently with 4 friends, and it was a great time, though I could easily spend a month in Japan exploring, and we probably could of used a little more planning in regards to seeing everything we wanted to see.  Each of us bought Japan's rail pass, so we had unlimited travel on their bullet trains.  The trains were the easiest way to get around, they showed up right on time, and stayed in a station for maybe 2 minutes tops and were back on there way.  They were clean, comfortable, and very fast.  We didn't have to purchase individual tickets or anything, just had to show up just before the train left and walk on.
Our first city was Hiroshima on the first day, and since we didn't get in until later in the afternoon, we didn't have much time.  Japanese customs took forever clearing the ship, and the line to get through immigration was about 3 hours.  So by the time we got to A-Bomb Dome and the Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum, much of the day was behind us.  It's a pretty huge park, and it's as pretty as the A-Bomb Dome is erie, and the museum was pretty heavy.  It was an incredibly unbiased museum, showing both Japaense and Allied forces atrocities from the war.  It's main message is that all nuclear weapons need to be destroyed and any testing halted, and even though I only had an hour to rush through it, the museum taught me a lot about the build up to and the actual dropping of the atom bomb, and the effects is still has on people whose parents were exposed to radiation on that day.  It was really erie to walk around and be in the area that was completely flattened and where so many people were killed on that day, but Hiroshima is now a bustling city, you would not even have known something so terrible had happened if it wasn't for the peace park.  We happened to find a little diner along a side street for dinner, and the main cook (possibly the owner?) spoke broken English, and we were able to communicate enough that we wanted Japanese noodles, with chicken, and egg was fine.  It was one of the best meals of the trip!  I've learned by now it's always the random hole in the wall place thats going to give you the best local food for a great price.
Immediately that night we headed off to Kyoto, and the next day we went off to explore the city.  Somehow, during that day the only place we ended up at was the Imperial Palace (really don't know how that happened).  But the Imperial Palace was pretty cool, had some really nice garden areas and had the whole traditional Japaneses look to it.  The palace is where the Emperor even today is still crowned, since Kyoto is the historical capitol of Japan.  There was a festival going on outside of the grounds of the palace, some kind of Farmers Market type thing, and lucky for us they were giving away a lot of free samples.  Lots of sweets, some were good and some were a little strange.  But overall, it was a lot of fun.  That night when we met up with another friend by her hostel, we foudn she was located in more of the historic area of Kyoto, and there was even Geisha's walking around!  We also got to experience an interesting time at a Japanese karoke bar, so Kytoto was pretty cool.  Our first night there we had booked a hostel, but we had no plans for the second night.  Luckily our hostel had one spare room, located right next to all their computers.  It was tiny, with just rolled up sleeping mattresses to sleep on, and a thatch floor, so it felt very traditional.  Lucky us, the sleep wasn't that bad either!
We made it to Tokyo by early afternoon.  All I can say is, Tokyo is HUGE..  They had umpteen different subway lines (shut down at 12:30 each night, how annoying) and the city NEVER sleeps.  Shibuya was a crazy area, home to the largest crosswalk in the world (which we walked several times) where 1,000 people cross every couple of minutes.  Our hostel was located right next to one of the more famous temples in Tokyo and a long market in front of it in the Asakusa district of Tokyo.  There was an amusment park right out of our hostel window, and one of the streets that took us to our hostel on Sunday was littered with people in costumes doing random shows.  There was even a three story stage, right on the street, with actors doing some martial arts show, people rappelling all the way down from the top, jumping from the 2nd level, it was crazy!  And this was happening every 20 feet or so, just right on the street!  Conveyor belt sushi was delicious,, and we were able to see some crazy Japanese fashion styles and some of the fashion districts that sell those styles. 
One night in Tokyo stands out as a good way to describe all of Japan and the fact that sleep was just not a priority there.  We started the night by heading out around ten to the Roppongi, the nightlife district.  We went into the first club that tried to get us in, it was a hip hop club, and we were the only ones in it ha.  No surprise, it was early, but the drinks were only 500 yen (like 6 bucks), so we figured it was a deal.  After being there for awhile, we went looking for another club, and got invited into a club with no cover and free shots for the ladies.  While the bouncer took us up, he talked to us about what we were doing and such, and turns out he was from Nigeria.  So we told him about out time in Ghana, and when he asked how we liked Ghana, I told him that we had all loved Ghana, and sure enough, guys got free shots now too, and he capped all the drinks at 500 yen for us there too!  So it worked out great.  Stayed there for awhile longer, and decided we needed somewhere with dancing.  Even though it was Sunday night we found a place pretty quickly, and by the time it was 3:30am, we needed some food or some sort of break.  So we headed to McDonald's (the only place open!), got some interesting Japanese McDonalds food, and hanged around there for 45 minutes or so, waiting for the subway to open again. Why did we do this you ask?  Oh yea, main point of this night was to get stay up all night to get to the Tsukiji Fish Market, which is the largest in the world or something like that.  So just before 5am the subway started running, and we made our way to the market.  The tuna auction is the most fabled event at the market, but only 140 tourists are allowed in each day, so we didn't make that.  The wholesale market doesn't open to tourist until 9am, but, nobody was there to stop us at 5am!  So we walked around inside of there for a couple of hours, giant tuna, crazy fishes I've never seen, and just everywhere you look, fish being cut up, fish on display, people moving everywhere, crazy seafood, fork lifts shooting around, it was madness (espeically in my slightly buzzed state).  It was so huge we got lost and when we actually wanted to leave, it took us several attempts to find the way we had come.  I will say it was weird going into the market at dark, and coming out to total daylight.  Needless to say, we made our way back to our hostel and by 8:30am our night was over.  It was a crazy night, especially since I left out just about everything that was actually crazy about that night, but thats just for your imagination.
Yokohama was actually a really really nice city.  Coincidentally, Commodore Perry landed here with a fleet of American warships in 1854 and forever changed Japanese history by opening it up to American commercial interests. 
But besides all that, it's streets were full of trees that were changing colors with the season, and it just had a very pleasant feel to it.  On top of that, the day I spent there (we left on the ship the night we arrived) was the one day when everything worked out to a T.  We knew what we wanted to do, and it worked out just fine!  We hadn't seen a garden yet, so a few of us when to visit a garden we were told about in Yokohama called Sankei-en, which is a traditional Japanese-style garden.  The weather that day was perfect, low 70s, and the garden was in the middle of fall, so all the leaves were gorgeous.  There was 17 traditional Japanese buildings from all over Japan brought to the park long ago, so it was very picturesque.  A huge lake was surrounded by trees with bridges going across it, a pagoda rested on top of a hill overlooking most of the park, and the buildings were nestled back in the woods.  We ended the day in our very last foreign country by grabbing some sushi at a grocery store and hustling are way back to the ship.
Japan was a nice start for our transition back to America.  It is a Western influence, and for the most part felt like home.  I can say this though, and I feel like I've said this about every country, and I hope its the same for foreigners who visit the States, but I felt so welcomed and was surprised by how nice people were.  The chef from our dinner in Hiroshima was happy to hear how much we enjoyed his noodle soup.  When we went to exchange our vouchers for our actual rail passes, a man got in line with us to answer our questions, found out a little about us, helped us speak with rail clerk, found out what subway we needed to get to the other station, and then walked us all the way over to the subway station!  In Hiroshima, an older man saw us looking at the streetcar platform a little perplexed, he came over and asked us "A-Bomb Dome?" and we said yes!  He pointed to the platform we needed, gave us the car numbers, and then, since he didn't speak too much English, pulled out a card which had English written on it saying "You pay for the ride at the end".  Have you ever visited anywhere and had someone help you this much out of the blue, not expecting anything in return?  And this were just casual people walking by, not some tourist police (who protected tourist from traffic in Viet Nam) or something like that.  I understand we stand out more in a foreign country, but it was crazy and humbling just how nice people can be.
So we now have three days to Hawai'i.  I can't wait, most people say it's the most beautiful place in the world.  I won't lie though, it's incredibly sad to be back in America.  Leaving Japan was hard since we all knew it was the last foreign country.  Luckily this week has been going by pretty fast with all the class load weighing down on us and trying to hang out with every one as much as possible before we disembark.  In a future post, probably blended with Hawai'i, I'll try to put into words what this voyage has done.  One of the professors on board this morning called it "Quick Global Consciousness".  I think that sums it up nicely.  I can't wait to see what I'll do in the future because of this experience, I know the impact of SAS has barely yet to sink in even. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ha Long Bay

Viet Nam

I was really excited to be going to Viet Nam.  The way a lot of us thought of it was to think that someday, our children may find themselves traveling to Iraq.  Viet Nam was before my lifetime, but I've learned plenty about it through school and the infinite amount of movies on the subject.  So we started pulling into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at around 4am, and I was sure to be up to the top deck at 5am to watch the sun rise up and see us making our way up the river to the port.   It was about a three hour journey to get up there, and it was beautiful to see the sun come up over the dense tree line.  There was a lot of little fishing boats out on the water, most of the fishermen just waking up and getting to the boats.  The weather was pretty humid and warm, especially for that early in the morning. 
Gradually as we got closer to the city we could see skyscrapers popping up.  What I thought was the downtown area was quickly overshadowed by what emerged from the haze a little further down river, a downtown area with one huge, very cool looking building.  It was built in the last year, and it's the tallest building in Viet Nam, but will only hold that title for another year.  Viet Nam's economy is growing, and they have a crazy construction boom going on right now.  The skyline was dotted with construction cranes everywhere.  We docked basically right in the downtown area, and started getting right to set off into a communist country! (Well hybrid communism, a market economy doesn't really follow communist ideals).  Viet Nam turned out to be one of the more educational countries that I have visited so far.  And it's full of cheap knock off brands!
Day 1
Nothing really scheduled for this day, so it turned into being a pretty nice relaxing day.  The had a bus taking us from the port entrance of the city up to the Rex Hotel, which is a little more central to the city, but the port itself was actually pretty central.  So we took the bus up there and started wandering around.  We stumbled upon a place with some cheap DVDs, and by cheap I mean 80 cents for movies that are still in theaters!  Needless to say we loaded up.  We were thinking about getting a massage or something, so as soon as a promoter for one a spa came up, we jumped on the opportunity.  Except me and the other guys decided a massage was just too personal, and I was afraid I'd be laughing or something during the entire thing.  So I'm not ashamed to say we ended up getting pedicures and manicures, and a nice foot scrubbing.  It tickled.  And the lady I had doing my foot scrubbing put on plastic gloves?  What a jerk.  But I guess I have been walking and running for 23 years without any care to what the looked like.  I did feel pretty clean afterwards, and apparently all the for under 10 bucks and an hours worth of work is quite the deal, so I was happy.
After this we were all pretty hungry so the group headed off to find pho, which is kind of like Viet Nam's national dish.  We went to a cafe at the top of a little hotel, and I had pho with spring rolls as an appetizer.  The pho is basically a beef noodle soup, and it's delicious.  A chain we ate at later in the week is called Pho 24, it started in Ho Chi Minh City but they're actually popping up in the US now, so I strongly recommend it if you have one nearby.. I think my whole meal here was 5 bucks, including beers as well.  No complaints here!
After this we headed over to the Ben Thanh Market nearby where we spend most of the afternoon looking at all the stuff inside.  I wasn't really in a shopping mood (I never am) and was amazed I spent as much time in there as I did.  They had everything you could imagine, all knock-offs.  Rolex watches for 10 bucks, Lacoste polos for 4, all the t-shirts were 1 or 2 bucks.  Quite the place for your budget to go far!
We went back to the ship to meet up with some more people and a nice sized group of about 12 of us had reservations that night at the Rex Hotel's rooftop bar and restaurant.  The hotel is pretty historic, and this restaurant was historic since this is where the 5'O Clock Follies were everyday at 5.  All the Western reporters gathered here and received updates on the war and listened to any announcements from the command in Viet Nam.  It's a nice place today, and they had some guy singing Frank Sinatra songs and similar things, so it had a Copacabana feeling to it (I think, I'm not really sure what that is).  It was a fun start to a fun night, as Ho Chi Minh City had some great options for a really fun night (thanks to Michael and Susan for dinner!).
Day 2
I never sleep anymore, so it should be no surprise that this was a 3:30 in the morning start for my last SAS trip (crazy to think about).  I was headed to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, so we had an early flight out of Ho Chi Minh City up to Hanoi.  We landed in Hanoi around 8am, and I was officially in northern Viet Nam, exciting.  Our tour guide was great,  his nickname was Mango, and he knew a lot about what we were interested in hearing and was willing to talk about anything.  I should mention hear that despite the past, Viet Nam is a very welcoming country.  Never did I feel any animosity towards Americans from the people.  Two/thirds of the population of Viet Nam as born after the fall of Saigon, but even the older people were nothing but welcoming and helpful.  They're excited to have Americans visiting Viet Nam.  You also really don't feel too much like you're in a communist country.  Capitalism is everywhere around, and the cities were quite lively. 
It took about an hour to get into the city of Hanoi from the airport, but outside the city you could see all the large Canon factories and all these other name brands that are made right here in Viet Nam.  They actually had stores all over the cities catering to tourists called "Made in Viet Nam".  Just like Ho Chi Minh city, Hanoi is going through a huge construction boom and everything seems new or has construction cranes hovering around everything.  When we got into our city the first stop was to the Temple of Literature, one of the first Universities in Viet Nam.  We had the chance to move around and explore it, there's an area that has graduates named etched into stone (it started about 1,000 years ago).  In one area there was a group playing traditional Vietnamese instruments, and it was actually a great sound, and the instruments were really unique and seemed pretty difficult to play.  Hopefully I can get a video up of it sometime soon.
Our next stop was very interesting, the famed Hanoi Hilton.  Years ago the site was considered excellent for an office tower, so the prison was demolished except for a small section of it which was turned into a museum.  This section included walls and cells, and the original gate to the prison, which you can see if you ever saw the video of John McCain and the other pilots leaving the prison after they were freed.  
It was really cool to actually be in this prison and looking at the cells, and it was really different to get the anti-American view of it.  Think want you want, the fact is that to the Vietnamese, they slaid the goliath and won the "American War".  The prison was originally constructed by the French, so the first part of the prison was all about the Vietnamese revolution fighters who were tortured and killed here, and about some of the successful escapes they made out of the prison up until the end of French colonialization in Viet Nam.
The second part was very interesting, it was dedicated to the role the prison played in the American War.  Our guide explained before we went in that they would highlight how well the Americans were treated by the Vietnamese in the prison, which was obviously not quite the case.  Inside they had John McCain's flight suit from when he was shot down over Hanoi, along with a lot of other prisoner's possessions on display which was weird to be looking at it.  They had a movie playing in the same room that showed the affects of the American's bombing Hanoi, and the destruction it left behind.  The Vietnamese were always portrayed as fighting for their freedom and their country, and it wasn't too hard to see why.  They had just gained freedom after 100 years of French colonial rule, did we really think they'd be happy to see another country jumping in their country?  The fun fact is that Ho Chi Minh (Vietnamese revolution leader) pleaded with the U.S. to help them in their struggle for independence, since he and many Vietnamese people were inspired by our struggle for independence from the British.  But the US was silent and would never jeopardize it's friendship with France, so Ho Chi Minh turned to the Soviet Union for help.  Quite understandable if you ask me.  
But anyways, the prison was very interesting.  After the prison we headed to a nice lunch that had a lot of different Vietnamese foods on the menu and pretty delicious, as always is the case with SAS trips.  After lunch we headed out to the bus for our 3 hour drive out to Ha Long Bay, where we were staying the night.  Along the drive we were out in the countryside where the rice fields were and our guide explained a lot of about what was happening in the fields.  It was awesome to see the workers out there with the rice hats on it, just the exact image you have when you think of rural Viet Nam.  The towns were cool to see, since land isn't too cheap, people build smaller, narrow homes that go up for 5 or 6 stories.  I can say that the poverty in Viet Nam was not too prevalent, at least compared to many of the other countries I've been to.  In my entire time in country, only one time did someone come up to me and ask for money.  And I do not think this has anything to do with the government keeping the poor away from tourist areas or anything like that, people in Viet Nam are pretty free to move about, and national debates abound on various topics and even politics (just don't publicly criticize the government ha).  Halfway through the drive to Ha Long we stopped at a government run art shop for disabled people.  They had some beautiful artwork there that was wayyyyyy overpriced, but it was fun to look at it.
We finally got into the city of Ha Long and checked into our hotel, the Grand Ha Long Bay Hotel.  It was nice and our room had a great view of the ocean and the bay, except that it was very foggy out.  So we got situated and everyone headed down to the night market which was nearby (it was already getting dark out) and went to put our feet into the ocean and just hang out for awhile.  We then gathered up and went to dinner at a pretty good restaurant that had a seafood specialty ( we were right next to the ocean).  The fish and the shrimp all still had their heads on!  But it was all very good, especially the steamed vegetables.  Some of is went out that night and had a pretty good time, but we had an early morning boat ride the next day.
Day 3
We had a four hour boat ride on a Vietnamese junk boat out into Ha Long Bay that day.  It was a little hazy out but that made in all the more interesting to see the hills come out of nowhere.  To get an idea of what Ha Long Bay was like, just google search "Ha Long Bay" and click on images to see some pictures.  Huge rock mountain coming straight up and out of the water, many covered with trees and just looking stunning.  These are everywhere, so from the water sometimes you'd have two or three or even four lines of hills behind each other, creating a pretty stunning scene.  We moved around here for the morning and just enjoyed the views.
They had divided the the group all trip between into two buses and now into two different junk boats.  One group was the students who had parents come to Viet Nam on Semester at Sea's parent trip, the other was the group of students on the trip who didn't have parents (we called ourselves orphans).  The strange thing was when our junk boat pulled up next to the other junk boat to swim in the water, we found that the students only junk boat was full of quiet people sipping juice and sodas, whereas the parent and student junk boat was full of people drinking beer and wine and having an all around good time, which was pretty funny.  But oh well, things changed fast, most of them had been in bed at 10 the night before anyways, which is lame ha.  But the water was perfect and they let us jump off the second deck of the junk boats which was fun.  Coming close enough to the island itself I was able to touch the bottom, which was full of mud that you'd kind of sink into up to your ankles, so it was weird, but hey, free mud bath right?
After the great time out on the junk boats, we headed back to the buses for our drive back to Vietnam.  A little disappointed as I could have spent the whole day out on Ha Long Bay, I really wished I had more time to kayak or swim into the grottoes that are everywhere out in the bay. 
We arrived at our hotel in the middle of Hanoi, and I had some time to go out and explore the city.  The city still has much of it's French colonial feel to it, and all the streets are lined with trees that give it quite a charm.  I just walked through the city, saying hi to a lot of people and walking through a park.  At one point I passed a secondary school that was just ending its day, so I kind of wandered into the main grounds of it, not getting stopped by anyone as I though I might.  A couple of the students came up and talked to me for a little bit so it was pretty fun, but I don't think tourists are as uncommon in Viet Nam as the are in other ports we've been to, since they tired of me pretty quickly (or, rather, they hopefully were just really anxious to leave school).
This is a good point to mention how rediculously crazy the traffic is in Vietnam.  In the diplomatic briefing before we were allowed to leave the ship, the diplomat briefing us told us the biggest danger in Viet Nam was traffic accidents, especially if you're a pedistrian.  He said while he was in the Foreign Service school in D.C., the video that was playing in the background while they were briefed on crazy traffic around the world was from Viet Nam, and after I saw it person, I realized that this was just beyond crazy.  Laws are merely suggestions, and crossing the street happens where ever.  The advice given by everyone:  Walk at slow yet deliberate pace into the street, cross without hesitating, and allow the traffic to move around you.  It was so fun!  About 90% of the traffic was motorcycles or scooters, so this made it easier, but if you ever looked at the traffic you'd think for sure you were about to be hit by one.  In Hanoi, there was never a gap in the traffic.  I had a lot of fun crossing those streets all the time, though not everyone felt the same about it.
We headed out for dinner that night at a very nice restaurant, which had more great food and some seafood.  I wish I was writing down what I was eating more so I'd remember!!! Oh well, that's what texting everyone after the voyage will be for ha.  After dinner we headed to see a water puppet show, something farmers in the rice paddies invented along time ago.  Basically its a puppet show, and the puppets appear to float on the water, under the water is the sticks and strings that control the puppets.  I was a little scared that the puppets would give me nightmares, but luckily that hasn't happened yet.  The music was nice, almost too nice as it started make me very sleepy, and the show was interesting.  Can't say I'll be in line for the next one, but a little culture never hurt anyone.  After the show we had a fun night out in the city, including a stop at the Funky Monkey and the Pub, that ended with me buying a shirt telling people to keep their hands on there dongs (dongs is the Vietnamese currency to avoid any confusion there).
Day 4
Last day in Hanoi, we had a busy morning schedule but then a three hour break in the afternoon to explore the city.  I actually received my only feeling of being in a communist country that morning.
We headed up to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which is where his body is on display.  We went through some heavy security, and they take in groups of probably about 40-50 at a time.  The mausoleum sits on Ba Dinh Square, which is where the military parades happen.  Think of the images you always see of North Korea's military parades, and this was what it looked like, with the mausoleum taking center stage.  We walked in a line, two abreast, through the square with military guards escorting us, doing the crazy military walk where they kick there legs out and swing their arms in unison.  No talking, hands out of pockets and rested on your side, no shorts, basically nothing disrespectful, and they take your cameras before you can go in.  You never stop moving, you walk right in, up the steps, and into the room where his body is eerily preserved despite being dead for over 30 years (maybe its 10 percent him, 90 percent wax by now?).  The mausoleum actually closes every year for 3 months for his body to be sent abroad and fixed up, and his crystal coffin has gas pumped in regularly to preserve him.  In the room is a bunch of guards and a huge marble wall, which has a marble version of the flag of Viet Nam and then another flag with the hammer and sickle, the classic symbol of communism.  You walk straight out and its all over!   
So right next to the Mausoleum is many of Viet Nam's governmental buildings that administer the national government.  We walked by the Presidential Palace, where the President works, but of course doesn't live, for he lives in a common house like everyone else (oh sure).  Nearby this we walked to Ho Chi Minh's two homes where he lived while he was President.  The first was a small and humble french home, but at the urging of Stalin he moved later to a house across from the pond where they constructed a traditional Vietnamese house for him, called the house on stilts.  The bottom floor is just an open meeting area where he conducted meetings during the American War with the top level advisors and such, completely open to elements.  Up stairs is a study room, and next to that a bedroom.  No kitchen or toilets in the house...our guide explained that the Soviet Union and Viet Nam's communist party wanted to uphold the image that Ho Chi Minh was a god, and therefore a God does not eat or need a bathroom.  So he had to walk to his old house anytime he needed these.  Nearby was a small bedroom nestled into an artificial hill where Ho Chi Minh slept if there was threats of possible air raids by the U.S.  This room led to a secret bunker where he could quickly escape to if the bombing started.  Mango, our guide, told us how the bunkers are still not open to the public, but back when they were built the men who constructed them were all invited to a big celebration party after the construction of the bunkers.  Guess what?  None of them ever went home, and none were ever seen after that party again.  Woa communism!
Mango was five when the war finally started, and he told us here about his only memory of the war.  He lived outside of Hanoi with his family in a suburb, and he remembers all the children of the village being sent away to live in the mountains away from the city.  I believe he was up there for two months while the heaviest bombing from the U.S. basically destroyed all of Hanoi, civilian or non-civilian (huge propoganda material for all the war museums in Viet Nam these days).  He remembers driving back home to his village and about every 30 yards or so another giant crater from a bomb, scattered everywhere.  It's amazing how much of Hanoi is rebuilt today.
After Ho Chi Minh's homes and such, we walked right up to the One Pillar Pagoda, which (surprise!) is a pagoda built on top of one pillar.  It was kind of cool, you could walk up and see the shrine to Buddha (I think it was Buddha after all).  We then went out to Hoan Kiem Lake, which is a huge lake nestled in the middle of Hanoi.  Right next to this lake is Truc Bach lake, which has a memorial commeorating the shooting down of a US plane into the lake in 1967, and on the stone you see that John McCain was one of the airmen.  Back to the big lack, a predestrian bridge takes you a little ways out to a little island that has a tall Buddhist pagoda and temple located on it.  It was actually really pretty, and I'm guessing McCain could of seen it and at first wondered if this really was the communist country he thought it was (I'm sure he's expectations were fulfilled shorty after).  We spend a little time there then headed back to the water puppet theater which is on the edge of the old city of Hanoi, which is really a French inspired area, with narrow streets full of trees and just a lot of charm. 
For lunch a smaller group of us went to the restaurant Cha Ca Long Va.  This restaurant is so famous that the street is named after the restaurant, NOT the othe way around.  It is a very local place, and has an old rustic field to it, and it's been serving it's one dish for over five generations, fried fish in grease, poured over rice noodles, and a little bit of vegetables to season.  SO GOOD.  Second best meal I've had on the trip, after chicken tangiers in Morocco.  Don't believe me?  Anthony Bourdain (Travel Channel's No Reservations) listed it at as one of his top 1,000 places to eat before you die, so you know it was legit.  Very local food, it was amazing!  We spent a little more time walking around the area, talking to some people, and just enjoying the older feeling of that area of Hanoi.
We headed back to the airport to Ho Chi Minh City shortly after that, concluding a really fun trip that showed me two different sides of Viet Nam.  The south is a little less conservative, and the north definitely clings to it's communist ideologies.  Even residents of Ho Chi Minh City like to still call it Saigon, and our tour guide said that was kind of homage to it's past resistance. 
Day 5
The last day in Viet Nam was just a day to kind of relax and get some lasts sights in.  I started the day early again, and went for breakfast, a western style breakfast that was desperately needed (thanks again Michael and Susan!).  Picked up some gifts throughout the city, and ate lunch at Pho 24.
I also took a couple of rides on moped instead of using the shuttle bus or a taxi, it was awesome.  One dollar gets you anywhere in 15-20 minutes.  Zooming around through the traffic and pedestrians, drivers being crazy, it was hilarious if not a white knuckle ride.  It really wasn't that bad, but everyone likes to exagerrate right?
I also made a stop to the War Remnants Museum, dedicated to the Vietnam (American) War.  Very anti-American, and it did highlight many of the atrocities done by Americans, including the devastating effects on children of Agent Orange victims, and some of the rogue attacks carried on civilians by Americans.  Its crazy how terminology used can change the image of something, such us Americans rounding up civilians for interrogation camps and concentration camps.  It was eery to see all of this presented, and I actually learned a lot.  Main thing I learned?  War is the stupidest thing humans do, and I don't think I'll ever support another war in my life unless under extreme situations.

I really enjoyed my time in Viet Nam, and like I said originally, I learned a lot.  I had some great nights out, and saw some pretty interesting things.  
Tomorrow I'll be pulling into what I think is going to be our most beautiful port yet, Hong Kong.  We dock in the middle of it all, and I'm very excited to get to the top of the hills and see the views, VERY EXCITED.  I'm just excited to be getting off this ship again.  I'll be staying the first night in Hong Kong, then going on three day trek to Beijing, where I'll be sleeping on the Great Wall of China!!! Who'd of ever thought?  After that I'll be heading to catch the ship in Shanghai and then off to Japan!  Japan I'll be spending a day in Hiroshima, two nights in Kyoto, and two nights in Tokyo.  Should be an amazing end  with amazing friends to an amazing voyage.  Wish me luck!! (Especially since night time temps will dip into 30 degrees on the wall!)
Also, almost less than one month until debarking in San Diego.  :(  I already have nightmares....

Monday, November 8, 2010


I just scanned through the blog posts I sent thus far, and noticed I had been sending way more in September, and have slowed down a lot!  But time on the ship is pretty slim these days, and all my classwork is adding up (papers and projects).  Things on the ship have just been hectic and really off since we left Viet Nam.  But this post is just covering Singapore, I'll write about Viet Nam in the next few days before we pull into Hong Kong.
Singapore was a place I knew very little about.  I think I knew it was a city-state, but I can't say for sure.  It is that, I think it's only about 24 miles long and not much wider.  About 5 million residence, and basically just like a big city in the United States.  About 40-50 years ago it was a developing country, now its basically the gateway for the rest of the world into Southeast Asia.  It has tried over the years to position itself diplomatically and economically as a country that can act as a middle-man for the world.  It's been pretty successful.  Don't make more than $75,000 a year?  The government puts you in a nice apartment, furnished, resembling a highrise flat in Manhattan or something like that.  Nothing like US government housing.  Their education system is fantastic, crime is virtually non-existant, and it's a shopping mecca.  Literally you leave one mall and fall right into another one.  Everything about the city is crystal clean.  The highways are lined with neatly trimmed bushes and palm trees and flower beds everywhere.  I'm not just talking about one bush lining the road either, I'm talking about a carefully landscaped display that makes you feel like you're driving up to a casino in Las Vegas or a mansion in Beverly Hills.
But this all comes at a price.  While voting does take place, Singapore has had one ruling politcal party ever since it's independence.  The US diplomat did say it was strange picking up the newspaper and finding out everything was "perfect".  You do not talk ill about the government, and it a few of Singapore students on the ship have said it can feel incredibly oppressive, and thats why many of its citizens work abroad.  The laws are incredibly strict, you may recall the US citizen who was caned in the 90s for disturbing the peace or something along those lines.  Selling gum is illegal, as is eating or drinking on public transit.  Cameras are everywhere, and the drug laws are incredibly severe.  Most cases it's the death penalty.  One of the Life-Long Learners on the ship worked here in the 80s when 3 kids were caught with marajuana.  Despite one being a member of some countries royal family, the three were all executed three days after they were caught.  So yea, you obey the laws in Singapore.
But I still had a fantastic time.
Day 1
On the first day a group of us headed out to explore the city.  Our ship pulled in and we could see the skyscrapers dotting all over the city, and we made our way into the cruise terminal.  From here we walked through immigration and right into mall 1 of 10,000 on this tiny island.  The subway system was beautiful, and could get you everywhere in the city, so we hopped on this to first go to Singapore's Chinatown and Little India.  These areas really weren't any different from ethnic neighborhoods in the US, and I quickly realized that Singapore's culture was very much a Western culture for the most part.  We were in Little India for maybe 10 minutes despite the fact that a huge festival was going on in that area.  We all just realized that we were just in India, and we didn't quite have enough of a break to be so quickly dropped back into all of those smells and crowds...haha.
So we headed up to Orchard Road, the big shopping strip in the area.  It had all the huge name brands, 5 story tall Gucci stores and the like.  We were looking for restaurants and ending up finding one some time later since we didn't want to want to eat at a place that we had back home (all the name brand restaurants were in Singapore).  After lunch we headed over to the Raffles Hotel, and went to the bar in the hotel that invented the Singapore Sling.  So maybe I didn't know of that drink before I got here, but I know now that it's a famous drink.  Unfortunately, Singapore also has huge sin taxes, so this one drink cost me $29!!  An average drink on the island cost about $10-15...not cool!!
Anyways we also walked around the downtown area that day, which really was beautiful.  There was a rowing competition in the harbor which was fun to watch, each boat had a drummer on it keeping the rythm.  The architecture and the planning of the city really was stunning.  I had some cool pictures taken of me in front of the Merlion Statue, and behind that the downtown skyline.  The Merlion is the mythical animal that is the symbol of Singapore.  It's a lion's head and mermaid's bottom.  You could see from here the Marina Bay - Sands Hotel, which I really wished I looked more into staying at.  It has three skyscrapers next to each other in a line, and on top is connected by what looks like the bottom of a boat, and up there is bars and some beautiful pools, including an infinite pool that goes right to the edge!  A picture of this beauty will come at some point.  Another cool thing on the harbor was the soccer stadium.  At first I though it was some kind of huge watershow stands.  You know the boat shows with skiers and everything the have on lakes?  It looked like that but with stands on the water that probably hold 15-20,000.  Eventually we realized this was a soccer stadium, with the soccer pitch literally floating in the water a little ways out into the harbor!  How cool is that??  Like I said, its a crazy modern city.
That night I was able to do the Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo (number one in the world) with some friends (thanks Marilyn and Steve!).  We took buses up to the zoo, and had some amazing food at this huge buffet.  On the buffet was Chinese foods, Indian foods, and Malaysian foods, all delicious.  Those three ethnicities also make up Singapore's population as well.  But after dinner we hopped on the trams and did the Night Safari.  It was great, the animals are in any kind of cage, rather their environments are designed with natural barriers, but a number of non violent animals are free to roam.  And since it is night out, the were very active animals!  The hyeinas pacing back along with our tram was awesome, as was the elephant getting ready to charge us it seemed and the tigers sleeping 10 feet from us!  The other great thing about the night was that this was Halloween night!  The entire zoo was decked out, and along the pathway of the tram was a haunted tram ride basically, with people dressed up and popping out of the trees to scare you and such.  Some of us dealed with the scary aspect of this tram ride better than others, but I'll just that I could of made that tram ride way more scary than it was ha.
That night we had a fun night out in the city, despite uttering this terrible phrase as we went in one bar.  "Nine dollar beers?  That's not bad at all!"
Day 2
I got up early this day to go get some breakfast off the ship since I had an FDP with SAS to do in the afternoon all the way up to on-ship time.  We went over to the Sentosa Island, which is basically a huge new development in Singapore with resorts, Universal Studios, and every touristy thing you can imagine (wind tunnels, luge racing tracks, Segway rentals, just a few of the things I saw).  We didn't know much about the island, but it was very pretty, and we ended up eating at a restaurant that the New York Times rated as one of the 100 best in the world.  While it was only breakfast, I can say that Sweet and Sour Chicken I had was very good, probably the best I ever had!  I ran out of time quickly there, and had to head back to the ship for my trip.
My trip was an amazing visit to the National University of Singapore, probably one of the few universities in the world which enjoys huge government support in the terms of funding.  The facilities are unbeileveable, the are committed to globalizing and supporting there students, and they basically borrow the best parts of university systems from around the world.  It's currently ranked #30 in the world, but I promise you it will move up, they just have some unbelievable things happening there.  If I could get in, I'm totally going to do graduate school there (and if they have my degrees). 
That was a short and sweet description of that University and that day, but its late on the ship, I have to get up early, and there's just not enough time for everything!
I'm home in almost a month!  Bittersweet...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Sorry it took so long to get this up.  I've been writing it over the past week, Singapore got in the way (new post later on that).  Right now it's 120am, and soon we'll be going up the river into Ho Chi Minh City.  I seem to say this for every country, but in all honestly, since we have fought (and lost) a war here, I can say that I really felt like I was never going to be in Vietnam.  But enjoy my story of India!
I scratched a tiny tiny surface of India.  With 1.1 billion people, its impossible to think that I could find out more than just a tiny part of the country.  It's diverse as can be with 22 different languages and multiple religions, it is probably just as if not more diverse than Europe is.  The caste system (though outlawed) can still be seen throughout the country, especialy outside of the big cities.  We had two interport students this time, both who were very talented and introduced us to the culture of India (I love the music now, very relaxing). 
A majority of my time was spent on an SAS trip, so I was in a kind of protected bubble but did manage to escape that at times.  Six days here in India just made me realize how little Westeners know about India, even though it's been around for 5,000 years.  I don't even know if writing about it will convey much of what it was like to be there.
It was humid and hot in Chennai, southern India whereas up north it wasn't as humid.  The crowds are EVERYWHERE though.  You truly do just have to get use to seeing more people than your use to no matter where you are at.  Hinduism is the dominant religion in India with about 1 billion followers.  We visited several Hindu temples, as well as Buddhist stuppas and such, more on each later in this, including the Hindu wedding that left me sick for 2 days :), but I was at a hindu wedding, which was totally worth being sick after.  Hindu temples come across at first as quite tacky, at least to me, but once you learn more about the religion you find out that all the statues and colors are used to convey the hindu story.  Some people see hinduism as a crazy religion with millions of gods, and while there are many different interpretations of it, our guide put it in one light that I liked.  He mentioned how it started with one supreme god, but seeing that a large majority of Indians at the time were illiterate, the many different gods were created in order to tell different stories and pass on the lessons of Hinduism.  Others think of it as the many gods being different aspects of the one god.  I could be partial to these just to because of my ideas of religion and such.  ANYWHO.....lot of stuff to talk about in one blog post, let's try it though....
Day One
The first day we rolled into Chennai where we were docked.  I counted 15 ships outside of the port waiting for the pilot boat to bring them in!  Tons of little boats around us as well, but we were definitely the only passenger ship pulling in.  Oh and as we headed outside onto the 7th deck to get some views of India, who do we bump into doing his morning walk, shirtless I dare say?  The Arch of course.  Fistbump for Kaeleigh, and just moved on with my day acting like I didn't just nonchalantly fist bump the Chairmen of the Council of Elders.
Once we got off the ship (which took forever here) a group of us rounded up some rickshaws to head out and get lunch.  RICKSHAWS ARE THE GREATEST FORM OF TRANSPORT ON EARTH.  Why these don't exist in the US is beyond me, besides the obvious safety problems.  I can remember many times when I thought I was going to die on one of these.  They're three wheels, and while they are designed to hold 2 passengers in back with the driver in front, we could get usually 4 passengers total, but we definitely saw some Indians who seemed to have 15 people in one rickshaw, it's quite the art.  So we were zooming our way to lunch and realized traffic laws do not exist in India.  We'd go down the wrong side of the road for awhile, then have 6 rickshaws abreast in the same lane, etc etc.  We finally got to some area for lunch.  As soon as we kind of walked into the place, which was an open air cafe type of place, our whiteness gave us away and we were quickly ushered into an air conditioned room in the back for lunch.  It turned out to be really good, nothing too spicy, so a good start to Indian food.  I really cannot remember any of the names of the foods that I ate, so I won't be able to say much about them on here.  All I know is during the whole trip I never had anything I didn't like. 
After lunch we just wanted to walk around and experience the city, which was very difficult to explain to our rickshaw drivers.  They had waited for us to eat lunch and were trying to get us in the rickshaw to take us shopping (they get commission wherever they take us, make our lives just dandy).  Literally the followed us for a several blocks but oh well.  So we went through a train station to lose them.  This was where for myself  I saw some of the first poverty of India.  A little girl was taking a bath in the sink that said drinking water on top of it, and next to the tracks were tons of trash and some tents set up down along the path where people would sleep.  More on all the poverty later. 
We mainly just walked around and took in the sights and the smells of the city that day.  People were overall quite friendly, asking where we were from and welcoming us to India.  English is the language used in school so a lot of people, especially in the cities, speak it.
For dinner that night we went to a restaraunt called Kabul.  It was really good, everyone ended up sharing our dishes with eachother.  Nan is the bread used in India and Indian food, its delicious.  I used it to soak up the sauces, or get really creative and make some sort of wrap with it, putting the meat and sauce on the nan and wrapping it up.  So good.
We headed back and I started getting ready to pack for my SAS trip, called Taj Majal and Varanasi.  The trip was divided into three groups, A, B, and C.  I had thought for the entire trip I was in B, leaving at 930am the next day.  I did a last minute check at about 11pm that night, to find out I was group A, leaving at 4am!  I was that close to missing the biggest SAS trip on my itinerary! 
Day Two
Started so so early.  We were on our bus by about 430am, heading to the Chennai airport.  When we got into there and got my boarding pass I realized that the beer I was drinking at dinner the night before was the airline I was now about to fly on.  Can't say I felt to comfortable about that, think of it as hopping on to the Fly Budweiser Airline.  But it turned out to be really nice, tvs in every headrest, the works, etc.  Another different thing in the airports is that whether in Varanasi or New Delhi or Chennai, the airplane doesn't park at the gate.  When you board at the get, you get on a bus that takes you out to the plane.  It was a different experience, especially to see it at the big airports.
So we landed in New Delhi and boarded our buses.  As we got onto the bus the driver gave us huge leis, which apparently are not just Hawaiin things.  We headed from the airport through New Delhi, and went up the street that has a lot of Embassies along it.  We saw the American embassy and a bunch of other embassies scattered about along the street, on our way to Ghandi's Ghat.  A ghat is a place where someone is cremated, so this was a memorial on the place where Ghandi was cremated a day after he was assasinated.  There was a lot of Indian's there visiting the place, he is called the Father of India after all.  The trees that line the walkway heading up to the memorial have all been planted by different visiting heads of state to pay their respects to Ghandi.  Our guide, V.K., actually showed us the spot where Obama will be planting his tree when he visits India in the next few weeks! 
After being at Ghandi's Ghat, we went to a type of banquet hall to have lunch.  This was of course delicious sauces and such, which was perfect for being soaked up with the nan bread.  After lunch, we went to go check into our hotel, Le Merdian.  By far, the nicest hotel I have ever stayed at in my life.  Hardwood floors in the rooms, modern decor, a 20 story atrium, restaurants and bars, including a chocolate bar.  It was five stars all the way, it in no way gave any credit to the fact that we were in India.  It was great to stay at a place like that, but we all were a little flustered by the fact that we obviously were not in the real India, but oh well. 
After checking in and dropping off our bags, we moved to a few more sites in New Delhi.  Our first stop was the Indian Gateway, a giant arch that was recently constructed to commemorate all the Indians killed in war.  It sat on a large area where the national capitol rested on one end, and museums and such were scattered all along it, basically it was just like our National Mall in Washington, D.C.  A lot of people liked to take pictures with us, usually with their own cameras but sometimes with ours, I guess the just like to have a picture with a white person.  (Sidenote, it's going to be very weird being in the US again and not being a minority, I think I'm going to miss it quite a bit). 
After the India Gateway we moved to Hyumen's Tomb, which we knew nothing about except that it inspired the Taj Majal.  It turned out to be a very beauitful building, and you could easily see the resemblence.  It was set back in a huge garden area, and you could really climb all around it and explore all its spaces.  It was made out of red sandstone so it was great to see it at sundown.  We explored the area for awhile, trying to get as many different views of it as possible.  Some other tombs around the area let us climb up on walls and get some pretty cool views of the sunset over the city of New Delhi.
Dinner was back at the hotel, which was kind of dissappointing that there was actually no Indian food on the buffet!  It was all western food!  But that was okay, we later found out another one of the groups actually had Domino's pizza delivered to their hotel for them haha.  But like I said, the hotel was rediculously nice and we had a few drinks at the bar (expensive drinks) and tried to crash pretty early since we had an early morning the next day.
Day 3 (Taj!)
Up just as early to grab a few bites of food at what turned out be a delicious continental buffet, we headed off in our bus towards the rail station in Delhi.  The railstations are definitely not modern or anything compared to the airports, and they are full of a variety of people.  Unfortunately you did see a lot of children begging for food around these areas which was hard to see.  We were taking an express train to Agra, luckily it was first class, which meant air conditioning.  It really didn't seem like first class at all, it was pretty basic, but air conditioning means a lot in India.  It was a two hour train ride into the city of Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located.  It was for some time the capitol of India, and is part of the Golden Triange of New Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.  We got into the city right around 8am and we got on buses that took us to a hotel where we were served breakfast (again, mainly a western breakfast...boo).  On the way to this hotel our guide told us to look left, and to get ready to look down the small kind of narrow valley that was coming up.  So we did, and that was our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, from a far difference, but I was pumped at that point.
We were to see all three of the UNESCO World Heritage sights that day, so we headed to Fatehpur Sikri, which was about a 30 minute drive outside of Agra.  It was a fort built with all red sand stone, so it was really cool looking, and had a lot of palaces in the complex.  It was from the 16th century, and the fort was built as the capitol of India.  It took about 8 years to construct, and the capitol was only there for 15 years!  They had to move out due to water shortages I think is what our guide said.  It was a cool place to explore, but it was hard totally focus on these places knowing that the Taj Mahal was later in the day!  Seriously, I never expected to be at the Taj Mahal, and it still feels totally surreal that I was there.  So after Fatehpur Sikri we stopped at the marble art shop, where they showed us how the marble in the Taj had been decorated.  It's basically them cutting away parts of the marble and putting carved colored marble into the cuts to make designs and writings.  One tabletop of these costs around $8,000!  After this we went back to the same hotel for a lunch, full of delicious Indian food and even more delicious ice cream.
The next stop was to Agra Fort.  Another 16th century fort, it was also built with red sand stone (sometimes its called Red Fort), but is much more like a fort than Fatehpur Sikri with huge walls, defensive structures, and even a moat around it.  It was another cool place to explore and look around, and part of it is closed to visitors because that is where the Indian army's barracks are located, so the fort is actually still used by the Indian army!  Just like the other place, too, it was where some of the Mughal emperors lived, so it was the capitol of India.  You could get some incredible views of the back of the Taj Mahal, where you could see the river the Taj rests on and the fields all around it.  Finally after what seemed like forever, we got ready to go to the Taj.
The Taj is thought to be one of the top targets for terrorist in the world, so the security was kind of high.  We had to walk for part of the way because most cars are not allowed anywhere near it (probably a pollution thing).  We made it to the Taj around 5pm, and had an hour (only one damn hour!  why did we have to stop at the stupid marble place??!!?).  So we got to see sunset on it.  After you get through security your in a red sandstone building area, so your walking through it, lots of high walls.  Then you come to a giant old gate structure, and you walk through this to see the Taj.  It was amazing to walk through this and suddenly see the famous view of the Taj Mahal, right in front of you, with the pools of water and the Taj Mahal just seeminly floating right there in front of you.  I took a good amount of pictures, no worries.  It was very crowded since it was Sunday night, but I just tried soaking in the experience as much as I could.  We slowly made out way up to it, and walked are way around it.  Unfortunately the line was too long to go inside of it, but I heard the inside is nothing special (I'll be back there someday anyway).  But I made sure to actually go up and touch it several times.  There's two buildings on either side of it, on the left is a mosque, and on the right is just the answer to the mosque, an identical buildin built just to keep everything in symmetry.  It was a great time there, sunset gave an orange glow to the whole building, and I definitely was not ready to leave when we had to.  It really was a beautiful building and grounds area, you can't help but just be in a state of wonder looking at it.  Disney totally used the Taj for the palace in Aladdin, and we realized the city in Aladdin was called Agrabad, so they're not really trying to hide it.
We headed back towards the train station then.  We had to eat dinner on the train so we were given boxed dinners, big boxes packed full of food for each one of us.  I can't believe they thought to do it this way, as we all walked up to the station with tons of kids begging for food.  Just about everyone opened their boxes and started handing out most of their food to the kids, but it killed me to see these kids living like that.  Most were not older the 8 years old.  I lose my voice anytime I try to describe what it was like to see the kids violently rip apart a box and start fighting with each other over the contents.  You just felt totally helpless and overwhelmed, it was one of the worst things I've ever had to see in my life.  I didn't open my box to give anything out, I remembered when we got off the train earlier a couple of kids squeezed there was on and grabbed any food trash people left, so I wanted to leave my box there.  I just ate the banana out of it, and felt better about the world when I saw the a kid snatch up the box after we got off the train in New Delhi.
Day 4 (Varanasi)
"Benares (Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of
them put together"  - Mark Twain
Up even earlier this day to catch our flight to Varanasi (again aboard Kingfisher Airlines, aka Budlight Express).  We checked out of the hotel, and the flight took about an hour and a half.  Varanasi was immediately unlike Delhi and Chennai, as it wasn't nearly as developed.  We went our hotel, The Taj Gateway, which was rediculous.  In the middle of this ancient city, another 5 star hotel, this one was in the middle of its own Garden, so there was huge lawns spread out around it, you just didn't feel like you were in India, let alone Varanasi, whatsoever.  Any Indian I had spoke to previous before going to Varanasi said that Indians themselves experienced culture shock at Varanasi.  It's been continually occupied for over 5,000 years!
So after checking in and grabbing lunch, we headed to Sarnath, one of the holiest sites in Buddhism.  The ruins of the very first Buddhist temple and monastery are here, and the Buddhist stupa contains relics of Buddha and marks the site where Buddha gave his very first sermon to the five discpiles.  A lot of Asian tour groups were here, making the pilgrammage stop.  It was cool to see the Buddhist monks as well moving around and about.  The museum near by here was neat as well, it contains the original sculputre of four lions creating a pedastal, and this is what is used as the official symbol of India, and you see it everywhere, associated with anything official or governmental.
We left and made a quick stop at a silk factory, and saw the weavers making the final products, which were pretty elaborate.  Outside of the factory we all hopped into rickshaws, two to one, to make the trip down to the Ganges River to see the evening Aarti, or prayer, on the ghats.  These were not auto rickshaws like from before, but bicycle rickshaws.  We whizzed our way through the heart of Varanasi, dodging traffic and people alike.  Now this time I truly thought death was right around the corner.  But these rides on the rickshaw down towards the river was the best part might have been the best part of trip.  It felt like I was a part of the culture, and I could see the life of the people happening all around me.  So MANY people everywhere.  Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians (though you can't immediately tell these) everywhere.  The city itself truly had this ancient feel to it.  But it wasn't the "old" feeling I'm use to.  I can easily go to Rome or somewhere else in Europe and be like, oh, this is old.  It's hard to describe, but old in India just has a different feeling to it.  I mean, its freakin India!  But anyways, this amazing ride ended and we had to walk down to the ghats.  The ghats in Varansi are large steps that go down into the river, and basically take up the whole bank, as there are tons of temples lining the river, and each has a ghat going down into the river.  The river is considered holy, it stems from the Himalayas where the Hindu gods live.  The river itself is thought to be an extension of the god Shiva's long crazy hair.  For this reason, bathing or drinking the water of the Varansi is done extensively, and since there's no prescribed ritual, everyone does there own thing here.  But we would see all of this the next morning.
The Aarti was beautiful to see.  There was a huge crowd gathered on the ghats to watch it, and a lot of boats full of tourists/pilgrims in the river up close to watch it as well.  There was 6 platforms set up, and each had men on the platforms doing identical rituals, such as burning insense, and eventually having this large christmas tree shaped candle holders with lots of candles on them.  Music was played as well.  We went up to the roof of a nearby building to get the best view, and it really was enchanting to sit and watch this thousands of years prayer happen right in front of us.  We all kind of sat there mystified by the whole ceremony.  Hard to write about it.
After these ended we walked back up towards the street to take another awesome and stunning rickshaw ride back to the buses, where on the way our driver decided to go down the wrong side of the street at one moment, play chicken with an auto rickshaw, which ended up actually tipping towards as it veered out of our way at the very last possible second..  We finally got back to our hotel for dinner.  We walked out of the hotel and across the grounds to this random building in the gardens for a delicious dinner in this beautiful dining room just sitting out in the middle of the gardens.  Just to give you an idea, President Obama will be staying at this hotel when he is Varanasi soon.  I think it's crazy and awesome that he's even coming to Varanasi, I'm sure the secret service cried a little when the started researching this city, or India itself for that matter.  I had some fun later that night chatting with a German tour guide at the hotel bar whose career is taking Germans around India....sounds like something I could get into...hm...
Day 5
Earliest wake-up thus of the whole trip, and longest day.  We got up and immediately headed back towards the river.  The buses took us further than the last time but we had to walk out way towards the ghats.  The evening/night was so much more livelier than the deserted streets were at that moment.  We got down towards the river and immediately saw the people bathing themselves in the river everywhere (not naked).  Everyone had their own rituals, most though just dunked themselves in the water over and over.  We took about an hour and half ride in a row boat up the river and then back down, close to the banks to see the pilgrims and their rituals.  Two old men were our paddlers, and I felt a little bad for all the effort it took them to get us upstream especially.  But it was great to watch the sunrise over the river and see the rituals.  Then we got towards the other end of the river, where the death ghats were located.  Basically some older hindus come here to die, be cremated, and have their ashes put into the river.  The pyres our set up right next to the river, and we could see bodies wrapped with shiny and colorful wrappings waiting to be put on the burning pyres.  At one point, we saw a body actually unwrapped and put onto a pyre.  All of this happening with kids playing in the water and pilgrims praying just a little ways down river.  To have your ashes put into the river is a way for a hindu to transcend out of the cyle of reincarnation.  It was very intense to see this happening right in front of you.
We headed back up to our buses through some narrow alleys and crazy turns that showed again just how old Varanasi was.  At one point some of us had to run back into another alleyway and others hid in door frames as two cows came walking through.  Everyone knows that cows are considered holy in India, so their purpose is unknown to me still.  If one dies on your land or near your home, its considered extremely bad luck.  The cows basically wander where ever, even our bus had to go around a cow or two plenty of times, and walking down the street a cow would just be sitting right in the middle, blocking everything.  No one moves them, no one bother thems.  The don't eat them or drink the milk.  I usually saw them either sitting and starting, or moving between piles of trash and eating all the trash straight from dumpsters or the street.  Weird.
After a quick shower and breakfast at the hotel we headed back to the airport and took the flight back to New Delhi.  In New Delhi we stopped at a Hindu temple where Ghandi laid the cornerstone brick, and was the first temple to let anyone of any caste into it.  It was pretty and huge, still different for me though to see a religion that has all the statues and gods everywhere in the temple.  After this temple we went to a market for shopping, and I actually HAD to go to McDonalds.  It's part of my Anthropology class, comparing the way McDonalds adapts to different cultures.  It was a bummer though when I got yelled at for taking pictures, for some reason they did not allow that inside the restaurant.  The only thing I could think of was the possiblity that was a response to back in the day when McDonalds would get heavily vandalized from anti-globalization groups.  Towards evening we had tea at restaurant with some delicous ice cream, then headed to the airport for flight number two of the day, back to Chennai.
Finally at about 2 in the morning, we were back on to the ship, exhausted.  But I still had one more day in India, so I knew sleeping in was not going to be an option, so I set my alarm for 8am, which turned out to be.....
Day 6
....the best idea ever.  I grabbed breakfast on the ship, and a group of friends decided we wanted to head out and go to the Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva.  It was different than the one in New Delhi, as southern temples are different from the temples in the north of India.  Going on right in front of us there was three weddings however!  We continued watching one, and the guests kept trying to push us closer and closer and giving us the best of views.  It was crazy since eventually we were clearly being told to take the place of family, which we wouldn't do, shaking our heads and saying no with a smile, then trying to put the family members back in their rightful places!  Some people helped us understand what was happening, and a few of us befriended the bride's brother. 
The bride and groom were fully decked out with many flowers, and we could catch onto some of the rituals and the jokes and games the priest was playing with the two of them.  They actually changed outfits halfway through the ceremony as well.  One of my friends asked the grandma of the groom to dress her with Sarri she had just bought, which is the traditional clothes Indian women wear.  So a group of about 10 girls it seemed all took her back behind a part of the temple and dressed in the Sarri, one lady even gave, and refused to accept back, a pearl necklace for her to wear with it!  Honestly everyone in the wedding kept welcoming us, so glad to have us there and watching.  My friend took photos with her huge SLR camera, basically becoming the wedding photographer (she's sending the photos she took to them).  Many of them had their own cameras and someone was videotaping the whole ceremony (he kept pointing the camera at us, we'd point towards the bride and groom ha).  We even found out that this was an arranged marriage, and this was the first time the bride and groom had ever seen each other.  The girls found this particularly crazy, but on the ship we had been talking about this for awhile.  Outside of western culture, marraige is an economic and sexual union, love is not a part of the factor, it's expected to develop over time.  While arranged marriages are fading in India, it's still not uncommon.
Finally at the end the brother invited all 9 of us to the wedding reception for lunch!  We quickly accepted, and ended up walking (still barefoot since shoes are not allowed in the temple and we didn't want to lose this opportunity) towards a nearby hotel.  Once at the hotel, we hung out with the family a little more (the bride and groom were still at the temple) and then went in to eat.  The room wasn't big enough for everyone to eat at once, so rotations were made.  We sat down, and a giant palm leaf was put down and the food started getting put onto it.  The food was delicious!  I tried taking my cues from the guy sitting next to me, who tried helping me and show me how to eat with my hands, but ended up laughing mostly at my attempts, and then again at my watering eyes due to the spices.    He was cool though, and like I said, the food was delicious!  One minute the brother of the bride would tell me I was eating too fast, the next he'd say I'm eating too slow!  Finally we finished, folded up our palm leaf, and headed out to wash our hands.  We took a few last minute pictures with the family, who refused to take any payment for the lunch, and seemed to be truly honored to have us join them.  I'm now thoroughly convinced hospitality does not exist in Western culture! 
We left the hotel to ge tour shoes completely stuffed and ready for the rest of the day.  We did some shopping here and there, I picked up some pirated DVDs for a few bucks (movies that I didn't even know existed yet in theaters are already here for 2 bucks).  Little did I know that was my last meal for a few days, that I was going to have an awesome fever, and that nothing solid would be coming out of me for the next two days.  But I will say without a doubt it was totally worth getting TD for that experience :)
So that was India.  Like I said, I feel like going there for six days just exposed me to how completely ignorant I am of life on that subcontinent.  I feel like I now just know there is more that I do not know, if that makes any sense ha.  I think my next great adventure could be backpacking through India (no more 5 star hotels).  Who knows.  I can say that I had 6 full days, and I think that it will take me a lot longer than the few days I've had to digest what I saw their.  Stay tuned for Singapore!