Thursday, February 26, 2009


      Most people have never even heard of Namibia, and if you were to ask someone about it, they’d sooner think it was a disease than a country…but This Is Africa. The only thing that has really put Namibia on the world map is the adoption of a Namibian child by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Other than that, it doesn’t command much attention. Thus, I’d like to educate you about Namibia before detailing my travels there.

       Namibia is located in southern Africa on the Atlantic coast just north of South Africa. It is estimated to have a population of about 1.8 million people. With a landmass of about 319,000 sq mi, Namibia is the second least-densely populated country in the world after Mongolia, containing just 6.5 inhabitants/sq mi. Though the Europeans didn’t explore Namibia extensively until the 19th century, it became a German colony and was known as German South-West Africa, except for Walvis Bay (a major port city), which was under British control. Namibia was later occupied by South Africa’s apartheid government. In 1966, the South-West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) military wing, a guerilla group, launched a war of independence, but it wasn’t until 1988 that South Africa agreed to end its administration of Namibia. Independence came in 1990, and Walvis Bay was ceded to Namibia in 1994 upon the end of apartheid in South Africa. Namibia is one of Africa’s most developed and stable countries. SWAPO is the majority party in a stable multiparty parliamentary democracy, as it has been since it led Namibia to independence in the early 1990’s. However, Namibia has elections this upcoming November or December, and for the first time, SWAPO could be legitimately challenged. A group of SWAPO members have seceded from the party and have created a strong opposition that could win a majority. Even if they don’t, though, it is likely that support for them will bolster and they will become the main opposition party. The AIDS epidemic is a very large problem in Namibia, as the country’s infection rate of 20% is one of the highest on the continent, and Namibia shares a border with Botswana, which has the second highest rate of over 24%. The effects of HIV/AIDS have lowered the average age in the country to 16, and many children are orphaned because their parents either die from HIV/AIDS or are no longer able to care for them.

       Because Namibia is such a small and sparsely populated country, our arrival seemed like white-people imperialism all over again. We were a force to be reckoned with and we basically took over the country. Statistically, we boost the country’s GDP by 15%, and in the 3 days we were there, the 800 of us accounted for 10% of all the American tourists who will visit Namibia this year. Crazy, huh?

       When we docked in port, we had our first diplomatic briefing, which is where diplomats from the US Embassy in that country come and speak to us before we get off the boat. They tell us more about the country, its history and politics, current events, and also safety precautions. After this briefing, we were greeted by a girl’s choir that came all the way from Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, to sing for us. Not only did they sing, but they danced, played drums, and really gave us our first taste of African culture. They were all pretty young, some as young as 5 or 6 but none older than 13 or 14. Afterwards, they came onto the ship, which I know was a huge privilege and joy for them. I can’t verify this, but I heard that this was the first time they had seen the ocean. My friend, Maria, who is the coolest girl ever, saw them on the ship and gave them a tour. She bought them all ice cream and showed them her room. When they saw that she had collected instruments from different countries, the girls wanted to have a jam session. One girl in particular, Romencia, really touched her. Romencia comes from a disadvantaged background and her family doesn’t have the money to send her to college, but she’s really motivated, enjoys learning, and is driven to succeed. Maria was so inspired by her that she’s going to take out an extra loan for school and pay for Romencia’s education. I was so moved by Romencia’s passion and Maria’s generosity that I told Maria I’d either split the education cost with her or match what she pays. It may seem like a lot, but in the big scheme of things, it’s not. And, we have the money to do it, so why the hell not?

      In Namibia, I did a 3-day safari through a company called Wild Dog Safaris. In total, about 120 students from the ship were on the trip. We piled 14 people in a safari car and after a short drive around Walvis Bay, we headed up north to the Etosha conservancy on what we thought would be a 3-4 hour drive. Ha. It turned out to 8-9 hours. On our way, all 9 vans had to stop because one of the vans broke down. It was quite the site to see –100 white kids standing in the middle of the road, scattering when a car came, and then all doing the “blow the horn”sign every time a truck drove by. One car was nice enough to pull over and try to help us, but they weren’t able to. After what was probably an hour, we said, “screw it”and just took the people from the broken down bus and distributed them to the rest of the buses and continued on our jolly way. Now, I must say, we had A LOT of fun on our 9-hour bus ride. I mean, what else are you supposed to do to entertain yourself for that long? We played a lot of games, blasted music (especially the Lion King soundtrack over and over again), sang old school tunes, and danced in the aisle. If you see the pictures, our bus looks more like a dance club than a bus. Not only did we do some quality bonding, but it definitely helped pass the time. It was funny at one point because we were driving down the highway and this animal came darting across the road right in front of our van. Our driver had to slam on the breaks and everyone went flying forward and fell down. Don’t worry; no one got hurt. But it was pretty crazy seeing animals just fly across the road like that.

       Namibia wasn’t quite what I expected. It was sort of like Morocco where I expected one thing, but then there was just so much more than that. I expected desert and sand everywhere. When we left Walvis Bay, this was certainly the case, with a few mountains dispersed here and there. But when we got to Etosha, there was lush greenery and vegetation everywhere. We arrived in Etosha around 9pm, and by this time, it was pitch dark. It was raining too; not absolutely dumping, but raining hard enough. Trying to set up tents was a disaster. I had the hardest time setting mine up and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. At this point, everyone else had their tents up. It turned out that my tent only had 12 poles to make the frame instead of 16. Go figure. You can do it with one missing but not four. I ended up just bunking in someone else’s tent. I managed to stay somewhat dry so that was good. That night, our drivers, Elias and Matthew (who were awesome), made us dinner. We ate spaghetti and meat sauce the first night and lamb the second night. It was delicious.

       The next morning, we had an early wake-up. After a quick breakfast, we hit the road on our safari. This was my first safari ever, so needless to say, I was really excited. For those of you who may be confused, you don’t get out of the car during a safari to chill with the animals. You only do that on a hunting safari to kill them. One girl in our car didn’t know that so she kept asking to get out of the vehicle to take pictures with the animals. She got a resounding “no”from our drivers every time despite her efforts to bribe them. The dumb comment added to her list of “Karenisms”. After our start, we were lucky because we had quite a few sightings early on. The first thing we saw was a springbok. Of course, because it was the first thing we saw, everyone flocked to the right side of the vehicle and snapped a bagillion pictures. Little did we realize that springbok are EVERYWHERE. For this very reason, it became our drink of choice in South Africa. Later, we saw herds and herds of springbok. Someone remarked that if they saw another springbok, they were gonna kill it. Shortly after the first springbok, we saw a giraffe in the distance. Giraffes are beautiful animals. Not only are their colors and patterns beautiful, but they’re also very graceful. May sound weird, but probably one of those things you have to see to believe. Throughout the day, we saw herds of springbok, a family of giraffes, a family of zebras (they circled our car when we stopped on one of the roads), a few impalas, a warthog (Hakuna Matata), a few ostriches, and two lions (but they were really far from the car lounging under a tree). We saw two impalas get into a fight, which was really cool. They just kept locking their horns and pushing at each other. We almost saw a lion go on the chase for prey. He put his head up and he stared for a good 2 minutes at a springbok that was about 100 yards away. We tried to egg him on, but when he put his head down, there was a collective, disappointed “awww”. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any elephants. February is their summer, which is also their rainy season, and that’s when the elephants migrate farther north to warmer, dryer weather. I don’t really know what else to say about the safari. We saw lots of animals. On our drive back to the camp, the scenery was so incredibly cool. There were fluffy, white, popcorn-shaped clouds in the sky. Couple that with the green vegetation on the ground and you have the background for Windows ’
       That night at our campsite, we ate dinner and spent some time at the pool. It was really cool; I randomly met an American couple that works for the American Embassy in Namibia. I talked to the husband mostly and he’s been in the Foreign Service for 17 years now, 12 of which have been in Africa. He’s been in Cairo, Zimbabwe, Namibia and I forgot where else. We talked about the Foreign Service exam and what the experience is like. It’s definitely something I want to look into for the future. I thought you had to have a lot of experience and probably a graduate degree, but apparently they take people right out of undergrad if they’ve passed the exam. So who knows what’ll happen. That night, I also talked to our guide, Elias, about Namibia. They’re not supposed to talk about politics and whatnot, but I squeezed it out of him. I explained how our government works. He always hears about the Senate, but he never knew what it was or what it did. He also said that people are hopeful for Obama, but they fear the challenges he’s up against may be too great for him to solve, so they’re going to wait and see what he does. Namibia is also the best country in the world to stargaze. That night, we saw the Milky Way, Orion’s Belt, and the Southern Cross (but that was only after I “got outta town on a boat to the Southern Islands”…Crosby, Stills, and Nash anyone?).

       The last morning, we woke up early once again. After packing up our gear, a few of us skipped breakfast to climb the steps of a castle tower on the campground in order to see the sunrise at 6:45am. We were up there for a good 20 minutes, but we had to leave just before the sun peaked. I was so livid. I think that was the first time it really sunk in that I was in Africa. I mean, the giraffes and zebras started that process, but an African sunrise is distinct from all the rest. The sky was lit up orange and red from east to west. It was bliss.

       Our ride back was like the ride there but with a little more sleep, a little less debauchery, and just as much fun. We definitely got hooked on the ‘t go to the dunes in Namibia, which has the largest dune in the world called “Big Daddy”and stands at about 1,000 feet, but our stop made up for it, I guess. I also wish I could’ve gone ATVing (4x4) and spent time in Swakupmund, but those things will just have to wait until next time.

       Sorry this took so long but we were in Namibia, we had one day at sea, then we were in South Africa for 5 days, and we’re also in the middle of exams. But more is to come soon. If you haven’t checked out my pictures, I uploaded some on Facebook from the Bahamas, Spain, and Morocco. Enjoy!

Can’t forget a quick shout out to BUS #2! BUS #2!

“There is no passion to be found in playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living”–Nelson Mandela


Tuesday, February 17, 2009


       It’s official…I’m bald. This may not surprise anyone because I typically buzz my hair, but this time around, it pales in comparison. It’s like down to the bone. I look like Jay Buhner. Mom –this may be a “careful what you wish for”moment. When I was much younger and I went to get my hair cut at Hedman’s by a guy named Gary, he would, like many barbers, ask, “So what are we doing with it today?”My mother, thinking she was hilarious, would jokingly, yet somewhat seriously, tell Gary to buzz it. And at this point in my life, I hated the mere thought of it; it scared me. Why? Couldn’t tell ya, but it did. So I would sit in the chair and scream “Noooooo!!!”and she would just laugh. Well, the tables have turned, and I took your wish just one step further. Remember, careful what you wish for. Love you! ;)

      We celebrated Neptune Day, a maritime tradition that occurs when a ship crosses the Equator for the first time, which officially happened for us on February 10th at 3:25pm. Everyone knew about it from previous voyages, so there was much anticipation. What happens is sort of like what happens when pledges get initiated into a fraternity. When you’re on a ship, the story goes that King Neptune rules the sea, and we as “pollywogs”(the name given to those who have not performed the ritual) must go through a series of rituals and ceremonies in order to prove to King Neptune that we are worthy of passing through his realm of Equatorius and into the Southern Hemisphere. When we complete the ritual, we then become “shellbacks”.

      The day started when we were woken up early in the morning by a band of staff members dressed up in aquatic gear parading through the halls banging on drums. Everyone gathered around the pool on deck 7 where we were introduced (to the tune of that Alan Parson’s Project song “Sirius”) to King Neptune, embodied by our captain, Captain Jeremy. He was painted green from head to toe, had waist-length, white hair, wore a white, grass skirt, had a big, gold crown on his head, and held a trident in his hand. Additionally, we were introduced to his queen and his royal court. To start the ritual, each person who partook stood on the deck as they poured a smelly, gross, turquoise concoction on our heads. Then we had to kiss a fish and kiss King Neptune’s ring. After kissing those, we jumped in the pool and then once we climbed out, we kissed another fish, and finally got our heads shaved, which was optional. When people were shaving their heads on deck 7, it took a really long time because they only had one good pair of clippers. My friend, Carl, went down to his room to get his clippers and I ended shaving his head and two other friends’heads, Barney and Ian. Then everyone who was waiting in the big line assumed that I was shaving heads so they all started coming up to me and asking me if I would shave their heads. I felt bad saying no, so at the end of it all, I probably shaved 10 heads and touched up 4 or 5 more. It was actually a lot of fun. Probably a little less than half of the guys shaved their heads and maybe about 10 girls did it too. There were also a few girls who cut it really short but didn’t end up shaving it. A few days later, they took a picture of everyone in the Union who shaved their heads and let me tell you, 84 bald heads in a room together is not attractive.

      Back in the day, Neptune Day was a lot worse, or more fun, depending on how you look at it. They use to set up a tunnel across the entire length of the deck and pollywogs would have to crawl through it. But what the staff did is they collected the ship’s garbage for the whole week leading up to Neptune Day, and they dumped it on the pollywogs as they went through the tunnel. Then when the pollywogs got out, they were doused in chocolate sauce, doused in real fish guts, they had to kiss the fish, kiss the ring, jump in the pool, and then get their heads shaved. It was definitely more intense back in the day.

      All in all, Neptune Day was a lot of fun. We didn’t have classes and there was music playing on deck 7 and people were dancing and singing along. It was very festive and entertaining. Contrary to common belief, there is no line in the middle of the ocean to mark the Equator. There is also no sign, nor do you feel a bump, nor do you instantly notice the toilets flush the other way. Just thought I’d clear up some misconceptions. The update on Namibia is coming soon.

“The one who throws the stone forgets; the one who is hit remembers forever”–Angolan proverb

Friday, February 13, 2009

Morocco ? ?give you good price, good price!?

      Wow, documenting this voyage is like a full-time job. I feel like I spend every waking minute either writing this blog, or at least thinking about it. Morocco started off with a bang. When we left Spain, we headed down the coast to Gibraltar to refuel. After a few hours of staring at the Rock of Gibraltar, a tanker scooted up next to our ship to refuel it…or so we thought. Mind you, the tanker arrived in the early afternoon around noon or 1:00pm. It wasn’t until 9:00pm that night that we were informed that our ship didn’t get refueled because the waters were too rough and the tanker couldn’t connect its gas line to our ship. And because there was an impending storm, no one could say for certain when we would be able to get fuel and leave. So we just chilled in Gibraltar for the day and then we headed out the next morning, which was when we were supposed to arrive in Casablanca, so we missed a day in Morocco. Unfortunately, when we crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, the winds were very strong and we hit the roughest water of our voyage thus far. I ended up getting really seasick, which surprised me because I didn’t get seasick at all when we crossed the Atlantic. I’ll spare you the unnecessary details, but I didn’t feel so hot for some reason when I woke up. When I went to lunch, I could barely eat anything. I had to force a couple bites down, but only a short while later, it all came rushing back up. I bolted out of the cafeteria and made it to the bathroom just in the knick of time; I was pretty proud of myself. Let’s just say it felt really good to get it out of my system. I came back into the cafeteria to rejoin my friends and thrust my arms in the air as I shouted “VICTORY!!”as if I had just conquered the Roman Empire. It was like a Tony the Tiger moment; “It felt GRRRRRREEAAT!!”

       For Morocco, I joined an independent group trip through a travel company called “Authentic Morocco”. I was in a group of 24 students, and we came to the consensus that in order to have an authentic Moroccan experience, you must have at least 10 near-death experiences, which I think we did. We arrived in Casablanca and after scouring the port, we finally met up with our driver Younnis. From Casablanca, we drove about 3-4 hours to Marrakech, one of the biggest cities in Morocco that draws tourists to its history, tradition, and culture. We checked into our hotel, Hotel La Gazelle, before heading out to lunch. Our hotel room was on the third floor, so we had a great balcony view of the minaret located just off the main plaza. The minaret was beautiful, minus the fact that we got woken up at 5:30am by the muezzin who calls Muslims to prayer in the morning and throughout the day. Our hotel was located just down the street from the main square, Djemaa el Fna, one of the busiest squares in Africa and the world. The square hosts acrobats, storytellers, dancers, musicians, and snake charmers by day; by night, the square turns into food stalls, becoming a huge, busy open-air restaurant.

      After we got settled, Younnis took us to a beautiful restaurant that was above a store that sold rugs and carpets. The layout was really cool. It was open air and there was a big, raised platform in the middle that resembled a lounge. On the second floor, around the periphery, were multiple tables and couches for us to sit down. The chair I sat in was so low to the ground that I had to bend my legs inward so they’d fit under the table. We started our meal with traditional Moroccan bread. The best way to describe it is that it’s round, flat, and thick. After the bread, they brought a huge vegetable platter followed by a five-course meal including chicken, couscous, cooked vegetables, meatballs, chickpeas, and beans. It was delicious. We were all drooling from the mouth. To finish off the meal, they brought out sliced oranges sprinkled with cinnamon, nutmeg, and powdered sugar as well as hot tea. Moroccan tea is very sweet. We couldn’t get enough. After the meal, a tour guide met us at the restaurant and led us on a walking tour of Marrakech. On our tour, we went to the Bahia Palace, which was built in the late 19th century and was intended to be the greatest palace of its time by capturing the essence of the Islamic and Moroccan style. It was built for the grand vizier’s (a high Muslim official) personal use. It includes a vast court decorated with a central basin surrounded by rooms intended for his concubines. The palace also serves as a burial ground for members of the high family. You can figure out how important the buried person was by seeing how many layers/how high the grave is. Additionally, all of the graves point east toward Mecca, the Islamic holy city. After the Palace, we went to a spice shop in the souk and learned all about different Moroccan spices, ointments, herbs, and creams. We were able to get a few samplings and afterward, my hands smelt like that store called “The Body Shop”. We also sniffed some spices, and the guy assured us that it was Moroccan, not Colombian.

       That night, we spent the majority of our time bartering in the souk, which is the largest traditional market in Morocco, and it encompasses the main square. The souk was filled with vendors selling scarves, handbags, backpacks, jewelry, watches, tea glasses, desserts, soccer jerseys, t-shirts, music, shoes, and other souvenirs. It was a neat experience because bartering plays such a pivotal role in their culture and society. Socially, it’s a fascinating way of forming relationships and bonds between yourself and the people you’re interacting with. The Moroccan people were all very friendly and energetic. They loved talking about the United States and especially about Obama. I even tried to ask one shopkeeper for an Obama discount; it didn’t go so hot, but we both got a kick out of it. My proudest bargain was getting a Moroccan flag down from 250 dirham to 60 dirham. You do all of your business when you slowly walk away, and I executed it perfectly. At the end of the night, we walked away with some pretty cool stuff. After our shopping, we ate dinner in the Djemaa el Fna (main square). The food stalls were very lively. There were rows of them and every time we walked by one, there were multiple people nagging us to come to their stall. They basically all served the same thing, so we just chose one. I had bread, chicken kabobs, fries, and tea. Pretty standard. A little while later, we went back to our hotel for the night. Realize that Morocco is basically a dry country, so alcohol is difficult to come by. Not that we were looking for it, but it was just interesting being in a country where alcohol doesn’t play a role in the culture because that’s in stark opposition to American culture, especially college life.

       The next morning, we had an early wakeup to go ride camels. I think these camels woke up on the wrong side of the bed because some of them were not happy at all. They were grunting and being disobedient. Our driver, Younnis, and the camel trekker got into a huge fight because we had 24 people but they only had 14 camels. Some people ended up doubling up and it all worked out. It was quite a different experience than the one I had in Israel when I rode camels there. We trekked through an area that was filled with green vegetation and palm trees…not quite what I expected in Morocco. During the trek, it started raining, which only added to our “authentic”experience. At one point, one of the camels tried to eat me, literally. My camel, which we named Carol because she was really chill and mellow, led a group of other camels. There were two camels whose reigns were tied to either side of Carol, so I had camels on my left and camels on my right. It’s like that “Ignition”song; “I’ve got fellas (camels) on my left, honies (camels) on my right”…Anyways, the camel on my right was really hungry. It leaned over and nibbled on my arm, so part of my jacket was filled with slobber and nastiness. Yum. By the end, we were all drenched and our jeans had at least a little dirt and poop on them. And we were freezing cold.

       After the camels, we took a 3-hour drive high up into the Atlas Mountains to visit a Berber village and see the castle where the last Berber Prince lived. The Atlas Mountains were spectacular, absolutely magnificent and unforgettable. Words can’t even describe how beautiful they were. We stopped in a small restaurant on our way up the passage to drink some hot tea and warm up our frigid bodies. From there, we had a sensational view of the snow-capped mountains and the valleys down below. Continuing up, it felt like we were in the Rocky Mountains. The two-lane road was pretty windy and there were multiple occasions where we passed a large vehicle or truck and a car coming the opposite direction almost hit us. These instances accounted for about 95% of the near-death experiences in Morocco. They happened the whole way up AND down. The other 5% occurred in the side streets of Marrakech, but they weren’t near death for us, only the people walking in the street we almost hit. After a long drive up, we arrived at the Berber village. First, we took a tour of the castle. There were actually 3: one castle was built in the 17th century, another in the 18th century, and the most recent in the 19th century. It’s hard to describe a castle really. There’s a lot of stone, many rooms, and it has a great view of the mountains. I guess you’ll just have to see the pictures. After the castle tour, we ate a traditional Moroccan lunch, which was similar to the lunch we had the previous day. After our visit, we trekked another 3-4 hours back down the mountains and into Marrakech. That night followed a similar routine as the first night. We did more shopping in the souk, enjoyed some entertainment in the square, ate dinner at the food stalls, and then called it a night.

       The next morning we had another early wakeup call. Before we hopped in the van, we grabbed a small bite to eat on the street. We ate these delicious little crepes that contained honey and sugar in the middle. Morocco really gave me some good ideas for food when I get home. We got in the van and took another 3-4 hour drive back to Casablanca. On our way, we must’ve hit 3 different rainstorms. The weather changed faster than almost anywhere I’ve seen. Once we got to Casablanca, we ate lunch at a little restaurant. I had schwarma, which I hadn’t eaten since Israel over the summer, so I was due for some good stuff. After lunch, we went to the Hassan II Mosque, named after King Hassan II, who was King of Morocco from 1961 until his death in 1999. It is the second largest mosque in the world after the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. It can accommodate over 100,000 worshippers and its minaret is the tallest in the world, standing at 689 feet. It is only one of two mosques that are open to non-Muslims. Almost half of the surface of the mosque lies over the Atlantic Ocean, and part of the floor is glass so worshippers can kneel directly over the sea. The mosque displays strong Moorish influence and the architecture of the building is similar to that of the Alhambra and Mezquita in Spain. Unfortunately, tourists are only allowed in twice per day for hour-long guided tours and we weren’t there at that time. However, my friend Sahare, who is Muslim, was able to go inside to “pray”and she snapped some pictures for me, which are incredible. The mosque was a short distance from the port, so we headed back to meet the ship and embark for Namibia. It was pretty funny when we entered the port because the guards thought Sahare was Moroccan and that we were trying to smuggle her out of the country.

       Leaving Morocco was ridiculous. The MV Explorer has a stabilizer system to minimize the amount of rocking the ship does when the water is rough. The stabilizers look like airplane wings that extend out from the ship beneath the water, and they work very much like the elevator flaps do on the tails of airplanes. Sometimes when going in and out of certain ports, the stabilizer system has to be discontinued either because it’s too shallow or the port is too narrow and they’ll get damaged. Leaving Casablanca, such was the case. Realize that when the stabilizers are in place, the ship rocks. When they’re not in place, it ROCKS. So a whole bunch of people went to various parts of the ship where they could do some sliding on the floors. My roommate and I went into the Union, which is our main lecture hall. The floor was part wood, part carpet and there were a ton of chairs. I figured we’d be sliding across the wooden part of the floor in the middle of the room. When we started going, we literally tumbled from one side of the ship to the other. Not only were we sliding, but all of the chairs went flying across the room too. Some rolls were worse than others, but on the big ones, we’d go sliding across the room, pound into the chairs on that side, and then the other chairs would go sliding and pound into us. I have to say, it was crazy, but it was a lot of fun. To give you a better idea, a lot of the books in the library fell of the racks and onto the floor, as did the books in the bookstore. A huge floor-to-ceiling mirror shattered in the campus store. Furthermore, a whole bunch of merchandise fell off the racks and shelves and onto the floor. In my room, everything on our tabletop and nightstand ended up on the floor. Our beds went sliding across the room. My door was hard to open because it was being impeded by so much stuff that had slid all over. It was probably a preview for how it’s going to be around the tip of South Africa. Hopefully not, though. Now we have another 8 days at sea before we arrive in Walvis Bay, Namibia, though we will be stopping in Dakar, Senegal to refuel (again). More soon.

“The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning”–Ivy Baker Priest

Friday, February 6, 2009

Espana - 1 down, 12 to go

     We arrived in Cadiz, Spain on Wednesday, the 28th at about 6:45 in the morning. Everyone was filled with jubilation to finally see land after spending 8 straight days on the ocean. You could almost taste the excitement. On my way to breakfast that morning, I actually jumped up and down and yelled out loud when I first sighted land through one of the portholes. After disembarking from the ship, Blair, a friend I met on the ship, and I took a taxi to the airport in Jerez. There were about 3 points in that 30-minute trip that I thought I was going to die. The driver was going 150 kph, or about 90 mph, on the freeway. At one point we stopped for gas. We had been told a story about a student who had taken a taxi and when it stopped at a gas station, the driver turned around and offered him drugs. Right at that moment, a police officer walked up and was going to arrest him if he didn’t give him $500. It was a scam. But who picks up on that in the heat of the moment? So when we stopped for gas, everyone in the cab looked at each other and we immediately had this consensus. If that driver turned around and offered us drugs, we were ready to jump out and just run…run away as far as possible until we could find another cab. It was fine, though, and we ended up getting to the airport about 3 hours early. Needless to say, we had a lot of time to kill. I ate a baguette with cheese on it. That’s it. The Spanish aren’t very extravagant with their eating habits. It was hardly a Subway foot-long, chicken teriyaki on honey oat with lettuce, cucumber, green peppers, cheddar cheese, a little mayo, and salt and pepper. The only thing that could’ve rounded out the “meal”was a bottle of wine or a pitcher of sangria.

     The flight to Barcelona was embarrassing. There were at least 40 Semester at Sea students on the flight. It was basically an SAS-chartered Spanair flight. Not only did we completely take over the airport and the flight, but we totally overwhelmed all of the Spaniards. The SASers (a derogatory term used to describe the kids who just drink and party from port-to-port for 4 months) were so loud and obnoxious. No wonder everyone hates Americans. Well, when we landed, Blair and I darted off the plane to get as far away from them as possible. We took an airport bus into the city center, to Plaza Catalunya, one of the major squares in Barcelona (comparable to Dam Square in Amsterdam or Times Square in New York). We headed down La Rambla, which is one of the main streets in Barcelona that is centered within a lot of tourist sites, shopping, restaurants, and nightlife. La Rambla is also famous for its street performers, vendors, prostitutes, and scammers. Street performers we saw included Edward Scissorhands, a pink fairy, a golden queen, a beheaded convict, and many others. All of their costumes were very extravagant and some would jump out and scare tourists as they walked by. Every man standing on La Rambla carrying a 6-pack of Coke also tried to approach me and offer me something (I assume drugs). After a little searching, we found our hostel, Kabul, which was one block past the KFC and McDonalds. The hostel was awesome. We stayed in a 6-person room with two American girls from Minnesota, a Brazilian guy, and an Argentinean girl. One of the Americans had just finished two years in the Peace Corps in Morocco and currently lives there. She was really interesting and it was fun talking to all of our bunkmates. The hostel was comfortable, the accommodations were great, the staff was really friendly, and it had a great atmosphere.

       The first night, Blair and I met up with our mutual friend, Irine, who is studying abroad in Barcelona this semester. I know Irine from college and Blair went to high school with her. We went to a restaurant for tapas (a group of appetizers) and sangria. We tried fried crab leg, Russian tuna salad, potato and egg cake, and a few other dishes. The sangria was also really good. It’s different at every place, but there it was made with champagne as a base to give it a lighter and bubblier taste. After having tapas, we went for some drinks at a bar called Cyrona and met some of Irine’s friends from her program. Estrella is a type of cerveza (beer) that is tantamount to our Budweiser; it’s just the common, everyday beer. Afterwards, we went to a bar called Dow Jones. It’s actually the coolest bar I’ve ever seen. The prices of the drinks are traded like a stock exchange. If more people buy a drink, the price of that drink goes up. If fewer people buy a drink, the price of that drink goes down. Sometimes, if the price gets too high, the “stock”will crash and everyone will rush to buy that drink really cheap before the price goes back up. The outside of the bar had 4 clocks that showed different time zones where major world stock exchanges were located. The inside had a big Wall St street sign and a history of major stock exchange crashes on the wall. It was the coolest concept I’ve ever seen.

       The next day was our tourist day. We first visited the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family), which is the HUGE Gothic church in Barcelona, one of its most noteworthy attractions. Not only was this church gargantuan, but it was impeccably beautiful, intricate, and detailed. I would worship there and I’m Jewish. I could’ve stood there for hours and just gawked at it. The pictures I took don’t even do it justice. They’ve been building it for about 120 years now and it still isn’t projected to be completed until 2026. There are four massive spires that make the church so tall and apparently they’re building another one in the middle of those four that’s going to be twice as high. Ridiculous. The Sagrada Familia was designed by an architect named Antoni Gaudi, who is very influential in Spanish architecture. He worked on this project for 40 years and he dedicated the last 15 years of his life solely to this church. When asked about the extremely long construction period, Gaudi is said to have remarked, “My client is not in a hurry”. Gaudi also designed another building we visited called La Pedrera, an apartment complex that looks like it belongs in Whoville (from the Grinch). It’s beautiful and really interesting. The building is characterized by curvy and rounded borders and walls. When you go onto the roof, there’s an amazing view of the entire city. You can see the Sagrada Familia, the ocean, the hills, the soccer stadium, some huge palace off in the distance that looks like the Sultan’s Palace from Aladdin, as well as the Torre Agbar, a controversial skyscraper in downtown that just opened in 2005. It’s controversial because it looks like a huge penis. It’s the 3rd-tallest building in Barcelona and when asked in an interview, even the French architect described it as having a phallic shape. Then we went to Parque Guell, which was also designed by Gaudi and built from 1900-1914. To get up there, though, we had to hike and take a series of about 8 or 10 escalators. It was quite the trek. The park was originally intended to be a housing development, but when that failed, they turned it into a municipal park. It’s very peaceful and overlooks the entire city. Beautiful view as you can imagine. It’s also where one of the season finales of America’s Next Top Model was filmed, the one with the wedding gowns I was told. Maybe you’re familiar.

       That night we went to an Irish bar to grab a bite to eat and some drinks before heading to the FC Barcelona football (soccer) game. At the Irish bar, we ate margarita pizzas and had a couple of beers. At the bar, they had a “shot of the year”, which was an Obama shot. They also had “pop shots”for Britney, Beyonce, Rihanna, J-Lo, Jay-Z, Lil’Wayne, Justin Timberlake, as well as some other noted American artists. Then we headed to the game, which was insane. There were about 95,000 people there all screaming and cheering. It’s amazing how into their soccer the Spaniards are. Everyone was into it, from the teenagers to the old fogies who looked like they were ready to croak. It was also a really important game because they’re getting close to the playoffs in the Copa del Rey (Cup of the King or King’s Cup) and so every game counts. When we were walking around the stadium to try and find our seats, there were about 40 police officers all decked out in riot gear. They were protecting this mass of people who we eventually realized was the opposing team’s fans. The Barcelona fans were shouting expletives at them and giving them the finger, and they were dishing it right back. It was intense. Even inside the stadium, they had a section way up at the top, and they were surrounded by at least 20 cops in bright orange jackets. FC Barcelona ended up winning 3-2, but I started getting nervous because they were up 3-0 and then the opposing team, Espanyola, came back to score 2 goals. When the game was over, everything went crazy. Imagine trying to shuffle through 95,000 to get home in a crowded city; it was hardly a football Saturday at Michigan. We made our way to the metro stop despite the thousands of people on the street and hundreds of other people zooming by us on mopeds. The metro ride back to the city center was the ride from hell. We were literally pushed and smooshed onto the train. Transporting that many people ain’t no easy feat. Someone tried to pickpocket me on the metro but luckily I realized what was up, albeit it a little too late. Thankfully he didn’t get anything.

       Then after the game, we just went to this really chill sangria and beer bar. It was a little hole-in-the-wall place off La Rambla, and there was a good mix of Spaniards and Americans. The atmosphere was lively but the worst part was the smoke, which was actually the worst part about Spain in general. I couldn’t go into a restaurant, bar, or anything (even the stadium) without people lighting up all around me. My clothes reeked; they still do. It’s awful.

       The next morning, we flew back to Cadiz and we spent the last day just touring the old city looking at churches, monuments, statues, buildings, a park, the waterfront, and the ocean. It’s a very beautiful and historical city. One noteworthy site in Cadiz was the Plaza de Espana and the Monument to the Constitution of 1812. The Constitution of 1812 is regarded as the first example of classic liberalism in Spain and one of the first worldwide. It served as model a model for the Portuguese Constitution of 1822, the Mexican Constitution of 1824, and several other Mediterranean and Latin American countries.

       After our tour around the old city, I hopped back on the boat and waived goodbye to Spain as we headed out to sea once again and off to Morocco. More to come soon!

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind”–Dr. Seuss

Quote of the trip
Me (at an ATM in Cadiz): Hey, do you guys have euros?
Random SAS kid: No, I’ve got American Express.