Saturday, December 17, 2005

Eurotrip Update 5- Beergardens and Koreans

Email sent August 2, 2005:

At the behest of Sir Dennis Hurley Stratton, the following email will be written from the third perspective... At the limitation of this german keyboard, I will not be using the enter button- Prague was a great time for the two young bearded backpackers as 5 shots of absinth (post several hours of beer drinking) laid a massive dump on the fragile mind of one Lucas Tedaldi the First. The city was fantastically beautiful, with intricate architecture and the viewing of an opera in the national museum. After several days of fun in Prague, where sex was offered and refused at every corner after 6pm, the boys travelled to Munich... They checked into their fine Wombats hostel, and found two polite koreans in their dorm room. The 50 year old seemed kind enough, until the morning came... at that point he woke up at 7am and proceeded to make more noise than any human possible... hocking loogies in the shower, crinkling plastic bags for hours, cutting pears, and being generally rude. Braun's skin was crawling as was Tedaldi's, at which point Braun heard Tedaldi rip a massively long and rude fart in protest of the noise being made by the elderly Korean. Braun silently chuckled and applauded his friend's display of protest, as he was unable to fall back asleep for the next 3 hours due to the sounds of rudeness. Later that day Braun brought up the enormous exhibition of flatulence that Tedaldi had pulled off, and upon telling him how proud he was of Tedaldi, the response was "Dude that wasn't even me! For no reason that asian guy just decided to rip ass! That was the rudest fart ive ever heard!"... Since then Munich has been a great time. Our first day we did go to Dachau, the first concentration camp which i cant really put into words how moving it was (walking though a gas chamber and crematorium is something I only need to do once in my life to feel the hatred of the nazi regime and the cruelty some people possess... which is still prevalent in many parts of the world... damn sorry i broke 3rd person)... the next day the two Brunonians travelled far outside Munich to the Neuwhalty castle (horribly mispelled), which is the inspiration for the Disneycastle/logo... Imagine the disney castle being real, larger, and in the mountains, and you will understand the spectacle of Ludwig II's famed castle. After Tedaldi slugged a liter of fine german beer, he and Braun passed a souvenir shop where they saw an absurd German traditional liederhosen-outfit hat... He immediately bet Braun 50 euro he couldnt wear that hat throughout the duration of the trip (11 more days), and a bet was had... at this very moment, the insanely stupid looking hat is perched on Brauns head. It really wasn't that great a display of rudeness for the mangy 21 year old backpacker, seeing as how he had worn the same outfit EVERY single day of the trip. While reading this his mother turned her head from the screen with a look of disgust for him wearing a t-shirt and shorts for 27 straight days, but it wasnt until now that she grasped that it was the same exact t-shirt and pair of shorts that had been adorned each fine morning... at this point the t-shirt smells of musk, sweat, beer and a small tinge of passionfruit.... some would say it stings the nostrils. The following days in munich were spent walking at least 8 miles a day to see every major site, including the fantastic beer halls and gardens where they saw a man carry 15 glass 1 liter mugs with just two hands, each filled with beers. Upon further questioning, this man informed the boys that he was the world record holder for liter-of-beer carring, with his best being 23 individual litres. Braun retorted that Tedaldi could chug an entire liter straight, to which the beerman replied that a local man easily did 3 in a row and had drank 15 LITERS of beer many a nights... Tedalid's testicles instantly shrank into raisins, so he then chugged a full liter to return them to grape form, and in his attempt not to vomit it back up Braun laughed himself to tears along with the Swiss couple sitting at the table... Yesterday was highlighted with a walk through the English Garden, a park twice the size of Cerntral Park, to the Chinese Tower beergarden where the scene consisted of hundreds of people sitting at picnic tables while drinking liters of beer and eating fine delicacies like fully roasted cornish hens (what?). Earlier that afternoon the boys passed a cafe where they saw a 4 year old girl draining her own PINT of beer next to her parents, who were sipping on pints of their own. It was highly distrurbing, so when the boys ventured to the beergarden they found it necessary to prove their testicular fortitude by slugging several liters of heavy heavy german wheat beer. After becoming pretty "ein-schtobened", they wandered to the nearest park bench and patch of grass and passed out for 3 hours like common hobos... again their parents back in the states were extremely proud.... So the adventure continues as tonight the weary boys take the overnight train to Amsterdam, where they hope to survive 4 days of whatever it is that people do in Amsterdam................................... The two young men deeply miss all those back home, and hope each of the people who read this update will find themselves happy and healthy with a hearty smile on their face. Be safe and stay classy, Adam.

Eurotrip Update 4- The Eastern European Swing

Email sent July 25th, 2005:

Okay, well Im not really sure where I left everyone off but I know I last wrote from Budapest... The city was really cool, very eastern european feeling, and we had a blast walking for hours and taking it all in. Our final day we went to the Gellert Thermal Baths and pool, which included pool size jacuzzis, an open air pool, beautiful decorations everywhere, and far too many naked elderly men. It was a great relaxer though, except when way too many large european guys in their 50s entered the steamroom immediately after luke and I entered... and right before that this old creepy guy wouldnt give us a towel to enter until he literally watched us take off our shorts and change facing him... all I could think of was American History X and there was no chance i was getting invaded in a damn hungarian steamshower, so I got the hell out of there immediately... from there we went to the crown jewel of this planet- Bratislava, Croatia.

Luke and I planned out our eurotrip to include what we thought were the coolest and/or most beautiful cities in Europe that we hadnt previously traveled to.. that said, we really picked some great spots. On our first lengthy train ride though, we were randomly reading through the Lonely Planet Europe Guidebook and came across Bratislava, Slovakia, which it kindly described as the shittiest place on earth. We read about its depressing nature and lack of anything worth seeing, so we immediately decided we needed to go there for a night... i believe it was aristotle that said "you cant smell the roses if you never smell the poo", and ive heard he was pretty smart so that was the mantra for the visit to bratislava... from that point on we talked about bratislava incessantly (or as its name evolved into for us, (said in the thickest russian accent possible)... "The Brautishlaiv"))... it truly became larger than life for us, and everytime we'd see something horrible somewhere we'd describe it as the most beautiful thing that could possibly happen in the brautishlaiv... so we took our 4 hour train ride there and arrived at 11:45pm, in what most sites on google describe as the worst train station in europe.. this is taken from the first site i found on google:
Worst Train Station: Bratislava
Whoa boy. This is a tough one. Eastern European train stations tend to be filthy, depressing places, so it's hard to finger one as worse than all the rest. That said, Bratislava's pretty much got it all. You can't buy English–language reading material or change money after hours at the Slovak capital's dark, dirty railway station, and the waiting lounge reeks of passed–out winos.

This is a gross understatement... Bratislava is the type of place where high fashion includes 60 year old men with all 4 headhairs combed over, wearing capri versions of grey dress slacks and 1982 Reebok hightops, with their distended stomachs screaming out from their button down shirts that have not a single button done... not because they dont want to button their shirts, but because that would make them a part of the hated aristocracy of "people who have anything resembling clothing that looks normal"... we swigged our bottle of wine from the hungarian wine tour (the only way to handle a place that smelled that awful and was that depressing was to get drunk and laugh our asses off) and walked the mile into town and began searching for a hostel... the entire city was desolate on a wednesday night, no people, no cars. Eventually a nice guy helped us find a "orange hostel", which upon our entrance we were so delirious and buzzed that we decided to tell them we'd been jumped on our way there but because luke was a taibo instructor who'd trained with billy blanks we were able to fend them off... they had sympathy for us showing up at 1am, and gave us a "nice room" as they described it... google reviews described our hostel as "Ugly and dirty, not recommended at all. The staff woke me up at 09.30, telling me to get out because they were going to disinfect the room (creepy...)." Again, a gross understatment.. we decided to pee in our own sink because somehow that made our room actually cleaner.

So luke and i were beyond pleased with our bratislava experience, it turned out to be the exact shithole we expected and so much more... from there we went to vienna for 3 nights where we had an amazing time... great hostel, good food, unbelievably cool city. This email is already long enough so i wont detail vienna much, but its definitely our favorite european city thus far (although dubruvnik wasnt a city so it cant be compared) so if you go to europe def get to vienna... we just arrived in prague, city of absynth and absynth.

K, i hope everyone is having a great summer, staying healthy and happy. As always, id love to hear from all of you.
Be safe and stay classy

Eurotrip Update 3- The Homeland

Email sent July 20th, 2005:

I dont know how many of u know this, but im mainly hungarian... many people guess im italian or israeli or spanish, but the sad truth is im a hungarian... a man of (as someone once gracefully explained to me by reciting verses from Encyclopedia Britannica in a Laurel Avenue living room) Madyar descent, and my father was actually born in the fine city of Budapest... thereby making him a completely foolish immigrant on all matters American... he may have come to New York City at the age of 3, but his ability to speak trash about me at the dinner table to my grandmother in hungarian and his overt affinity for all things related to a dish called "coos-coos", make him a dirty immigrant in my jingoistic eyes... and yes i just used the word jingoistic...

so after leaving the ridiculously beautiful croatian coast for hungary, luke and i decided it would be wisest to take an overnight bus from Dubruvnik to the croatian capital of Zagreb (a small poopstain on the landscape of eastern europe), then take a train to budapest... what we didnt realize was what that entailed... heres the story: the 9pm bus from dubruvnik to zagreb is an 11.5 hour bus, so we were excited to find a somewhat empty back of this busride which would pay for itself by saving us overnight accomodation fees... at the first stop 4 late teenage croatian kids got on and took the rest of the backrow luke had claimed and their other friend sat in the empty seat next to me in the next to last row... i was reading away at the phenomenal Daniel Quinn book Ishmael (everyone should read it, its such a simple read with such a well crafted and profound premise) but after a few hours i looked back to find Luke stifled into the back corner, sweating profusely with the croatian teen doing that hysterical sleeping head nod and tapping onto lukes shoulder before getting off... then diong that over and over and over again... my teen did the same and it drove me crazy too but i woke him up and he stopped... fast forward 7.5 hours to a rest stop at 3:30am, and my fully bearded and mustached travel partner, had been inexplicably transformed into one of my favorite movie characters of the early 90s... TEENWOLF... and not the crappy michael j fox teenwolf who swished every 3pointer and was 5foot2 but somehow dunked on everyone a la wesley snipes in white man cant jump.. he was the boxing teenwolf... eyes bloodshot, sleaves rolled up, sweat dripping, full beard and head of hair frazzled, and his first words to me were "if there is hell on earth, this is it... im freaking out"... for the next 20 minutes i laughed uncontrollably while he convulsed at the knees, staring straight ahead and saying nothing while listening to his ipod... the kid apparently continued falling alseep on his shoulder in the back where he had to pee, was nauseous from the gross salami sandwiches wed made at teh supermarket, was sweating up a storm, and absolutely bugging out... his only words when we got off were "i never wish bad things on anyone but i hope that kid falls in a puddle of horseshit and dies... oh im sorry i didnt realize my shoulder was your fucking pillow, next time why dont u make my knees a fucking legrest!" ... the situation was so absurd i became delirious as well, and the fact that immediately after that ride we walked right onto a 7.5 hour train ride to Budapest in a cabcar filled with 13 year old socialist croatian kids who had a fixation with slamming their armrests throughout the car made things far worse... i laughed myself to death while luke freaked out and pulled a cromagnum man eye twitch... it was amazing...

last night we slept the days travels off cause we obviously slept about 2 hours each in our 19 hours of travel, and today we went on a winetasting tour in the countryside where we both got blasted and i lost it again when the 3 elderly women on the tour got into a fullscale debate about whether Richard Gere was a classically Broadway trained dancer... after that we went into a casino briefly and i felt i was on fire from the wine and fun of the winetour so i started throwing 5 dollar bets on black and other major bets for roulette... and walked away 75 dollars richer, which led to a fantastic reward of a steak dinner... thats it for now, random thoughts to follow

be safe and stay classy

Eurotrip Update 2- From Croatia With Love

Email sent July 17, 2005:

Okaz... so the zs and ys are still reversed cause now were in croatia (no apostrophes either) so bare with me... a lot has happened since the last update but ill condense it as much as possible-

we ended up going skzdiving that daz i wrote the last email... 45 second freefall partiallz through clouds in the swiss alps; amaying to saz the least... from interlocken we went through milan to bologna spain... manz of zou know mz eating habits, so giong to the home of pasta bolognese was a form of paradise for me... thats all i ate, and i ate it smiling the whole time... the citz itself was verz cool, authenticallz italian and old world... we walked the citz our first night, chilled in a park the next morning and basicallz visisted all the main attractions... we walked the 498 steep steps to the top of the citzs old tower (all with our massive packs on cause wed checked outta the hostel) and the view was breathtaking, we stazed up there talking for 2 hours... the citz was so beautifullz condensed and the red roofs looked so cool... bologna has more porticos than anzwhere else in the world... and for those of zou who dont actuallz know what a portico is... its simplz a portico

that night we took the train to the coastal citz of ancona where the lonelz planet guidebook (travelers bible) said manz backpackers slept in the ferrz terminal... which we attempted to do until some guz masquerading as an authoritz figure cause he had a huge ring of kezs booted us and said no one could sleep in there... its was 11pm and too far to walk anzwhere nearbz... so we decided to sleep on the street... so we slept on the street outside the train station... the fight of flight adrenaline response def took over a bunch... anztime somewhat sketchz approached us it was on... definitelz an experience to saz the least

the next morning we took the ferrz to split, croatia... croatia is so unlike mz mental images... beautiful beatiful beaitful... in its beaches, and especiallz the women.. ive never seen anzthing like it... split was a reallz cool town... a combo of capetown-miami and old world communist russia... imagine a beautiful beach zou get to bz crossing grafitti-laided train tracks with incredible blue waters, but theres no sand its all stone and fences... dirtz communists

so after a night in split where we saw an irish folk band jam... i think thez were named the artist formerlz known as shaun mcnamara... the next daz we came to dubruvnik, where weve been for 2 dazs (of course our bus broke down on the waz here).. .and its the most beautiful place ive ever been to in the world... look it up on google and see some pics, ull get the idea... the adriatic sea is also one of the most beautiful bodies of water ive ever seen, crzstal clear with aquas and greens... croatia looks a lot like how id thought of greece i guess... just with rubble in random places and beautiful 15th centurz palaces in other places... weve basicallz been beach bums in dubrovnik during the daz, adn todaz we even frequented the nudie beach for a while... when in croatia, do as the romans do... this place is great, everzone should come here if thez are in eastern europe

so thats the scoop for now... a few of u expressed disappointment after mz last email that i didnt include some tzpe of thought outside what we were doing... obviouslz on long bus and train rides u have a lot of time for rumination, so heres one things i thought bout.. please email me back and respond... id love to hear zour input: most people i know believe in some conception of heaven... most people i know also believe heaven is onlz for humans, not for animals like lions and tigers... lastlz, most people i know also believe in an evolutionarz theorz wherebz we evolved graduallz over time from primates into humans... if thats the case, at what exact moment did we become candidates for entrance into heaven, as humans and no longer mere animals?

k... enough of that stuff... mz few observations are these... the french are reallz not kind but actuallz gaz and repressing their sexualitz bz eating croissants all daz... the italians can cook a mean pasta... italian men have absurdlz bad bodz oder... croatian women look like the women in south beach miami minus the makeup and silicon... mz mind and nose often disagree on whether its a daz for a shower... no matter how far awaz something is, in croatia thez all will tell zou its 200 meters awaz... the irish are everzwhere... european men love capris, its on fire here, male capris in europe are like the american von dutch hat... 99% of the people on nudist beaches should not be nude

as alwazs be safe and staz classz... i miss all of u and drop me an email if u have the time

Eurotrip Update 1- Croissants and Chocolat

Email sent July 11, 2005:

ok these kezboards in swityerland are kinda weird and have the ys and zs reversed... plus i cant find the apostrophe so bear with me... heres the update so far and ill be brief

we arrived in paris and tried to book an immediate train to interlocken but thez were full so we got one for the next morning and spent the night in paris... of course on the flight there i ordered the free champagne, luke and stared deeplz into each others ezes and i toasted to "well alwazs have paris"... no were not gaz... oh zea, and i also ate a croissant as soon as i got to france... it was delicious... but instead of enjozing the last bite i placed it on the ground and stomped on it... go USA

so the first night in paris we checked out notre dame and i swear i saw a hunchback swinging from the flzing butresses onto the bell tower... but then i realiyed it was this kid named clzde that i used to go to high school with who we all called quasimodo on the bball team... from there we ate dinner at an indian hookah bar... and zou all know how i deal with indian food, so i went with a fine meal of hookah...

the next morning we left for interlocken swityerland but got on the wrong connecting train and ended up going to montreax were thez have one of the top jayy festivals in the world that we caught... it was sick... i saw crosbz stills and nash perform a duet with talib kweli and the roots...

im totallz kidding bout that... instead we saw a g-d amongst men... PIERO... this italian indz pop rocker who looked like a cross between michael jackson and jonnz depp circa 1992, had the stage presence of bono and the voice of axl rose.. and he plazed songs from probablz 15 genres... opera, rock, pop, rapped, beatboxed, acoustic ballads, latin samba, metal... changed wardrobes to match the genre of the song, at one point putting on a white frock mid-song!!!! hahahaha, luke and i were dead sober and freaking out, seriouslz it was one of the most fun shows i think ill ever see.... even his own band coudlnt take it all seriouslz but it was amaying... later though the whole roots band walked bz us while we were having a few pints at an outdoor cafe and queslove gave me a peace sign... i smiled

so now were in interlocken where we did an amaying waterfall hike zesterdaz and signed up to go skzdiving this morning but its rainz so hopefullz well be able to jump tomorrow... skzdiving in the swiss alps is supposed to be unreal... were eating incrediblz well, last night our dinner was 2 bags of potato chips, a half bar of chocolate and 4 pints of Uder Frau dark ale

all is all weve gotten lost a lot, met a ton of hzsterical characters like the girl who worked at our hostel and spoke english with a swiss-new jersez accent... and when i complimented her on her english she seriouslz goes "yea i know its good... fyi to get into the WILLAGE its to the left"... hahaha, luke and i lost it... k thats it for now, please write and share stories from home... and checkout if zou get a chance (shameless plug), its changing the world

be safe and stay classy

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

SAS Email 10 - Venezuela

Okay, well as many of you know by now, I’m back in the US. We docked and disembarked in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on April 28th, and it’s been a slow readjustment period since then. But first let me detail my Venezuela experience, before I forget any of it…

So April 21st we woke-up in Laguaira, Venezuela. The view from the 7th deck off the back of the boat was breathtaking, as it fully displayed the entire city with its congested housing scaling up the countryside hills. Laguaira isn’t the nicest city and doesn’t have that much to offer the international traveler, so I went with three friends on the hour cab ride to Caracas. The ride itself was actually really cool, as we saw the diversity of Venezuela’s countryside. Some parts were barren, while other areas would have small colorful houses basically piled up on top of each other. In Caracas we ate a great lunch in the Las Mercedes area, shopped in a mall for a little while but couldn’t find a single thing we liked, then took the shadiest cab ever (the radio was a small cassette player strapped to the old drvier’s hip, and I broke the metal door handle in half when I pulled it to enter the cab) to the Chacaito area. There were a bunch of small indoor/outdoor markets in the Chacaito area, but because of it’s intense congestion there is a lot of petty theft. After coming from some of the Asian markets we’d been to, the truth is this Venezuelan one was pretty weak. At one point as we were walking through, a shop owner I started speaking to told me that at that very moment we were being targeted because we looked like Americans and that we were probably gonna get robbed soon. He told me to always stay alert, and not make a right out of the market to this other market because it was more dangerous than going to the left… so of course we went to the right to checkout that market, haha. Everything was fine although we still couldn’t find a single item to buy, and around 4pm we returned to the ship in Laguaira to meet up with friends. It was my roommate Jaret’s 21st bday, so it was celebration time.

Thirteen of us got semi-dressed up (the guys wore ties with shirts untucked while Jaret wore a full suit) and hired this clueless cab driver with a 14 passenger van to take us around. We found a nice place to get dinner that had a keyboardist and singer, ate a great meal, had the whole restaurant sing Happy Birthday in Spanish to Jaret, drank some good Sangria and beers, had Jaret do another “Strong Man Shot” (if you’ve forgotten what it is, please revert to my Hawaii email), and headed to a club. We searched for nearly an hour for “The Loft”, which was supposed to be the best hotspot and when we finally found it there was a huge line. Since I was the only one who spoke Spanish I was kinda leading the night, so I figured we should all get into character (it’d worked everywhere else and was pretty fun). I called over the main bouncer (guy with earpiece, suit, looking real serious) and told him in Spanish that I was at the club with 12 other people. I pointed to Jaret in his nice suit and said he was the son of the US diplomat to Venezuela, and I was only a friend of the family’s but because I spoke some Spanish I was asked to take him out tonight. Obviously we were here unannounced because of political security, but because it was the diplomat’s son’s 21st bday I took him here for a good time… Within 5 minutes the bouncer got us all in, free of the $25 cover charge, and once inside we were offered a private table. There was some crazy hip-hop videoshoot/show going on in the club that was pretty cool, and once we accepted our private table (we had to buy one bottle of liquor as a stipulation, which was only $40!) they took us to the rooftop where we could see the city lit-up in front of us. Around 1am, something weird starting happening and then we realized it… the roof was retracting! The roof completely retracted so it was open air and we could see the entire city all around us… just an amazing night and fortunately Jaret had a blast on his bday.

The next morning we flew to Managas, Venezuela to begin our “Orinoco Delta” field program… fortunately two of my best friends on the ship (Reed and Dennis) signed up for the trip with me, so I knew we’d have a blast. After the 1.5 hour flight, we had a 2 hour bus ride down to the delta, then boarded ships and took an hour speedboat ride to where we were staying. On that ride through the Amazon (the Orinoco delta is an extension of the Amazon) we saw monkeys in the trees and river dolphins in the water. Our lodging was on a small island with waterfront wooden cabanas on stilts, and the three of us got our own cabana on the water itself… plus for some reason they had a caged jaguar and puma on the island, with the puma being our next door neighbor. The first night we arrived late from a flight delay so we basically ate a great dinner, had some drinks (full bar at the lodge, and once the bartenders starting talking to us they got hammered and couldn’t stop handing us free drinks), relaxed by the waterfront, and passed out once Reed had pushed all three of our beds together to make what he called “the world’s best and biggest California king.”

The next day was one of my favorite of the entire voyage… in the morning we were up early, boarding our 15 person boats, and went for a jungle walk. This was no hiking trail, we just stopped by a random entrance to the jungle and got out of the boats. Our main guide Mario (think Venezuelan Crocodile Dundee… this guy was rugged) and our Orinoco guide Raphael (only spoke Spanish, small smiling guy with 6 fingers… all of his fingers except his thumb were completely gone from one hand… we all speculated he chopped it off with his machete but he later told me he lost it in a farming accident) led the way, with Raphael just cutting down trees or brush with his machete and walking ahead. They’d stop every so often to show us cool stuff like a tree root that contained water, which they cut up and we drank from, and a tree that when you cut into it literally started bleeding this red blood-like liquid. After the hike we had a delicious lunch of fresh-made pita bread, some tuna concoction, cuba libre (rum & cokes) and many many beers. Once we were pretty liquored up, we went back on the waters and sped around on the boats for a while taking it all in… the Amazon was just incredible, with the indescribably sights, sounds, and the way these local Warao people lived was amazing. The children wore almost no clothing, had pet tucans next to them at times, and families lived by themselves on wooden-stilt huts on the water.

We stopped in one large village, which basically meant it was a bunch of open-air wooden stilt huts on the water with a 500 foot boardwalk connecting them. We spoke to some of the locals (they had their own dialect but a few spoke some Spanish), played with the kids, and after an hour were off… but it began to rain, and rain hard. At first we covered ourselves with plastic tarps, but realized it’d be so much more fun to get wet so we took em off and basked in the rain while speeding around in the boat. There’s just this feeling when you’re in boat, traveling across the water while warm rain is drenching your body, and I can only describe it as elation. Once the rain stopped after 15 minutes, the intense sun came out to dry us as we went through this one narrow pathway to search for anacondas. Unfortunately we didn’t see any, but from there half the 40 person group went back to the lodge while the rest of us stayed to go swimming in the Amazon. After a few flips, pencils, and splash contests, we just chilled on the boats while witnessing a tranquil blue sunset with a full moon ahead of us.

That night at the lodge was a blast as I befriended this bartender named Ricardo who was obsessed with chess. I’ve probably played chess ten times in my life and this guy was studying to be an official referee, so during our first game after one of my moves he’d suddenly start putting the pieces back in their original positions to start a new game. I was in shock, asking him what the hell he was doing and he just goes “I resign to you, I want this game to be fun, this one will be mas-sac-ray”… I’m like “what the hell is mas-sac-ray, why’d you restart the game” and he just writes on the napkin “massacre”, and laughs and goes “it would have been av-a-lancha”… Hahaha, so I laughed and agreed I’d probably done something that would have led to him pummeling me, although I had no idea how, and then he proceeded to whip me handily the next game. A few cuba libres and Polar beers later, Dennis and I were playing for a huge Pride Dollar, and I’m proud to say the victor was yours truly. We also had this delicious beef dinner, and through a little Spanish charm I got a 2nd plate from the cook. I was feeling pretty good so I ate the 2nd dinner alone with just fingerless Raphael and over this 45 minute Spanish conversation he told me all about his life, his family, the Amazon, the people and Venezuela itself. It’s simple things and connections like that that I take the most from on this trip, more so than anything I could see in any museum.

The next morning by buddy Dennis was pretty damn sick, probably a combination of overexposure to the sun, dehydration, drinking, and maybe something he ate. Of course, he was in the tiny bathroom (our shower was literally a faucet head, with water coming out like it was a hose) making use of two out-holes simultaneously so Reed and I decided to snap off a bunch of pictures. You can find one posted as my last picture in my online Venezuela album, which his family apparently had framed and was sitting on his desk when he returned home. The morning consisted of a few short boat rides, meeting a fisherman floating in his boat which was a hallowed out tree trunk, and then we fished for piranhas in the river for a while. That was really cool, although frustrating because they’re smart fish and would eat just the bait but rarely take the hook… although we probably caught about 15 piranhas in all and my buddy Reed somehow managed to hook a small fish by its tail. We then took the boat, bus, and airplane rides back to the ship and boarded at 9pm… from there we sailed back to the states… thus concluding my in-port experiences.

One thing I haven’t detailed much, if at all, are my experiences on the ship. While this may be the case, they were just as amazing and integral to the trip as the in-port events. My classes on the ship were highly educational, three of my professors were outstanding including one who is by far the best lecturer I think I’ll ever witness (Lawrence Meredith… buy his book called “Life before Death”), and I had countless unforgettable days and nights on the ship (themed pub nights, dances, open mics, the talent show, the Ambassador’s Ball, jams on the 7th deck, improv shows, movie filming and screening, etc etc etc).

The morning of April 28th at 6:45am I was awoken by the PA system, but there was no voice or announcements. “Coming to America” was simply played in its entirety, and then the PA went off… It was the perfect wake-up call, and once I went up to the 5th deck after breakfast to lookout on the crowd I spotted my grandmother (Ma) in a classic purple jumpsuit holding two large red balloons, which read “Welcome Bugika!” I know I’ve done observations on several ports, but my list of observations upon returning to the US could go on for pages, and it’s one of those conversations I’d love to have with people face to face. I’ll just say this, the largest culture shock I received on the trip was neither India nor Africa, it was returning to the United States. In terms of my usual insight, I think I’m gonna address the trip experience as a whole.

Before coming on this trip, I saw a lot of great travel quotes by various philosophers, politicians, and other famed figures. I used personal quotes like “You can sleep when you die”, “When in port…” and “Don’t be a tourist, be a traveler” as mantras throughout the voyage. It seemed like just when I needed a certain motivation during the voyage I would find some inspiring quote from a song lyric, novel, textbook, professor lecturing, movie, engraving at a site, or anywhere else that I least expected it. I’d never really enjoyed quotes that much because I thought they were so cliché from hearing many speeches (hence my Africa email quoting the brilliance of Lonnie), but now I realize how perfectly fitting some can be. So allow me to share my opinions relating a few of my favorites…

Proust said “The real voyage of discovery exists not in new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

For so long I loved this quote, especially during my moments of discovery on the voyage. I felt myself changing; thinking and seeing things from a completely new perspective. But upon returning to the US, and the strange disorientation that I felt in a place I thought I was so uncomfortable with, I’ve realized the error in Proust’s quote… While the real voyage of discovery may lead to an altered perspective, it does not result in new eyes. Inside I am still the person I was when I left, and there is no way that I can lose the pre-voyage experiences and views I’d held. Together those views are still a part of me, but they consisted of only one angle. I looked at the world through a single eye, which as most know leads to only a two-dimensional view. This voyage has given me a second perspective, one which is completely different but still complementary to my old views. To extend the metaphor, with this second eye, the world can take a three dimensional view and flat shapes become raised objects. It is not fresh new eyes that should come out of a voyage of discovery, but having two eyes to created a three dimensional worldview incorporating the experiences and ideologies of both past and present, East and West, That is why I encourage all of you to travel to places outside of your comfort zone, like India, Vietnam and South Africa, where you will be forced to accept a worldview containing all three dimensions.

And I hate to bring religion/spirituality into this because it’s always a touchy subject, but I think it’s a necessity after all the things I’ve been fortunate enough to see and learn about… Many of you are firmly entrenched in some religious tradition, which may be your greatest strength and confinement at the same time. That’s what my religion was for me for a very long time… I know others put me in a box because I’m Jewish and I put myself in a box as well, thinking that I could only believe what my religion allowed for and never questioning that edict. I also didn’t look intensely into any other religions except Christianity and Islam, and in doing so was completely ignorant to many of the beliefs of others… Now I realize that neither Buddha nor Muhammad were ever to be revered or seen as G-d but as merely mortal men, that there are an estimated 30,000 translation errors alone in the King James translation of the bible from the previous Hebrew version (as told to me by a reverend), that there is no reliable written record of the Torah in Hebrew until the 10th century BC… I urge you to ask questions about each great faith- Why are Christians and Muslims so inclusive, wanting everyone in the world to join their faith? Why are Jews so exclusive, wanting no one but born Jews to be a part of their faith? Why are Buddhists neither? Each religion contains several great truths, but if you are willing to make such a large commitment to one religion I suggest you at least learn about the others. And I’m not limiting that to saying Catholics should know about Protestants, Jews should know about Muslims… You should learn about the Suffi mystics, Hindus, Sikhs, Caodaism, Taoism, Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Baha’i, Christianity, Islam, and the list goes on. Huston Smith said “If you know only one religion, you know no religion”, and I couldn’t agree with him more. There is so much beauty and so much to learn from each religion, and we tend to stigmatize certain religions into a few stereotypical beliefs… don’t do that, learn about them as a whole, and ask critical questions. Still keep your religion close to your heart, but try considering the validity of others. The thing that hit me really hard, was when I thought to myself that if G-d is such a great and positive force, why would most of the world believe so firmly in some religion that was completely erroneous? Most of the world does not have the same religious beliefs as you, so either G-d wants to trick most people on Earth to be completely wrong except you, or maybe there’s something bigger going on here… maybe they each contain a correct piece to the puzzle…

Lastly, Professor Meredith in his commencement speech proclaimed, “Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but I say the unlived life is not worth examining.” That’s my mantra for the future.

For those of you that read through these pseudo-journal entry emails of mine, I hope you enjoyed them. Please feel free to write, call or tell me how you felt about them, especially if you have some counter views which I’d really like to hear about. Sorry for making them so long, but now that they’re complete I’ll have something to look back on in years to come.

As always, be safe and stay classy,

Sunday, April 17, 2005

SAS Email 9 - Brazil

Hey everyone,
Greetings from the Atlantic Ocean, it's nice to finally be back on
this side of the world. First off I want to send out a belated happy
bday to my long-time friend and future legal representation, Harrison
Whitman… And to those of you who've written me in the past week or so
(you know who you are), thank you so much for keeping me updated on
your lives, you have no idea how nice it is to hear from those of you
back home that I've missed… We're now only a few days from Venezuela,
and 9 days from returning home to Florida. Today is our "study day"
before the next two days of finals, so the answer is yes to all of you
that ask if I have classes. I just figured most of you would be more
interested in my in-port experiences than the lectures I attend,
although some of them have been really great… But I digress, now onto

There's a unique vibrancy to the nation of Brazil that's unexplainable
to those who haven't been there but incredibly palpable as soon as you
touch Brazilian soil. The culture and people are just so rich with
life, and it's a truly contagious feeling. We docked in the city of
Salvador, which is a pretty diverse place of development and lack
thereof. The first morning I walked around the Pelhourino area, which
is the more traditional, older part of the city. Imagine cobblestone
streets, small cafes, great little restaurants, art shops everywhere,
a few street vendors selling handmade crafts… I felt like I was in
Spain somewhat. Crime is a pretty big problem in most of Brazil (a
friend of mine had his camera stolen out of his hand within 30 mins of
getting off the boat) but I was fortunate that I never encountered any
of it. So I walked around with a few friends, through this great
market called the Mercado Martel, saw some Capoiera (the sweet martial
arts fight-dance of Brazil), ate a great lunch, and did some solid
shopping. The prices are relatively cheap in Brazil, but not quite
like Vietnam, China or India… after that morning spent taking in
Salvador, we went to the game.

We were so lucky in our timing, because the morning we arrived there
was a huge soccer game between the state of Bahia (where we were) and
Vitoria, two of the top teams. A bunch of us paid this tour company
$15 for a ticket, transportation and a beer. At the game, beers were
75 cents each… a real stretch from the $6.50 at MSG or Fenway. So
needless to say, we got pretty liquored up, and made our way into the
heart of the craziest Bahia section we could find… I have some videos
of it that I'll show people when I get back, but let's just say it was
bananas. The first half had no scoring but I still had so much fun.
The second half though, we (Bahia) scored first and it was absolute
madness… Our section was going crazy, drums playing, shirts swinging
over our heads, everyone jumping, chanting, singing, it was just
awesome. Vitoria struck back though, but soon after that we scored a
sick goal that led to the biggest eruption I've ever witnessed at a
sporting event. These guys around me seemed happier than they'd ever
been in their lives… I swear some of them woulda given up their first
born for a Bahia goal. Unfortunately, Vitoria scored in the final two
minutes of the game and it ended in a tie, so the Bahia fans weren't
too happy with the conclusion, but the game as a whole was one of the
true highlights of my trip… A Brazilian soccer game was one thing I
didn't think I'd get to experience, but sometimes things just work out
in your favor.

The rest of the night was spent having a great time in Salvador,
crashing at the Hotel Ibis, and the next morning I did some more
shopping and chilling. I ate a great meal at this beachfront café,
and watched the sunset on the sandy beach be low. The view was
slightly obscured by the two 50 year-old guys in speedos who decided
it was time to do their callisthenic stretches and pushup sets. Just
try to picture this beautiful Brazilian sunset in front of you;
patched clouds with pink and white hues, sounds of Portuguese
conversations and samba music, a group of guys playing soccer-style
volleyball to your right (volleyball with no hands, only feet, chest,
head, etc), beautiful women in thongs to your left… and two hair dudes
in speedos doing hip swivels for fifteen minutes right in front of
you… Ahhhh, Brazil.

That night I jumped on a small tour at the last second to a Candomble
ceremony… Candomble is a religion only found in Brazil, it's similar
to the Santoria of Cuba… it's a hybrid of Nigerian animism (brought
over by the slaves to Brazil) and Catholicism (many missionaries were
sent to Brazil from Portugal and Spain)… The ceremony itself started
off pretty boring, as everyone there was wearing white (including our
small group of students) and we just watched these 20 women and one
man do simple dances to the intensely rhythmic drums while slowly
walking in a circle. After literally an hour of these small dances,
they took a break… I will admit the drumming was pretty intoxicating,
but I was hoping some men would come out and do some more exciting
dances or something… when the women and one man returned after a 10
minute break to do the same dances I was pretty disappointed, and then
after about 15 minutes of the dances, it happened. The guy got
possessed! He started shaking, convulsing, had to be held in place,
then his eyes closed and he started doing the dances but with this
incredible passion. And when one of the drums or bells would be
rattled he would stand erect and convulse in this eratic dance (think
a combination between Elaine from Seinfeld and Carlton from Fresh
Prince). It was really crazy, because his eyes were shut he almost
crashed into us seated around the main floor a few times, and then all
the sudden one of the elderly women (she was probably 75) became
possessed too! She started shaking also, her eyes shut, and she began
the dance as well. We all just sat there in awe, and then after 15
minutes of watching them dance, there was a stirring in the audience…
About half of the 40 people watching the ceremony were locals, and one
of the local woman got possessed too!!! Her head was down, her arms
shaking uncontrollably, and a few other local woman had to slowly
escort her out of the room. We left after about two hours, with my
mouth wide open in half shock, half awe. Unlike my roommate Jaret
(who told me he'd had the Holy Ghost enter his body and spoken in
tongues before), I'd never seen anything like it. My brother and I
sometimes watch BET on Sunday mornings for fun to watch the preachers
touch people's foreheads to make them go nuts, but seeing someone get
possessed in person and especially in a Candomble ceremony was
something that just blew me away… Some of the other students were
skeptics, and although my personal religions beliefs don't lead me to
believe there were orixas (Candomble spirits) actually entering their
bodies, I don't doubt that they entered a trance like state and that
they're physical reactions were geniune… The whole event just
reaffirmed my feelings about the incredible power of our mind, and how
our bodies are merely slaves to the incomprehensible powers of the
mind… After the ceremony I quickly packed a bag and headed to the bus
station with 10 friends to catch the 11:30pm bus ride to Lencois.

Okay, now I know in my last email I said that Capetown was my favorite
city in the world. But as any of that know me well know, I have a
small habit of referring to everything as the greatest, best,
favorite, etc. So, I have to make a small amendment to that statement
from the previous email. Lencois equals Capetown in my eyes, although
they couldn't be more different places. I've decided this is how I'd
put it: If I could live anywhere for a few years it would be
Capetown, but if someone told me I had just one month to spend
anywhere in the world it would hands down be Lencois… The six hour bus
ride there from Salvador was a great start to the trip, as it was a
perfectly clear night and the dark sky out the window was blanketed
with beautiful stars. With that omen, I knew Lencois would be
special… We arrived at 5:30am, and went immediately to a small hospeda
(Hospeda de Arvoles… basically a small hostel) where we napped for a
few hours… Lencois is a very small town in the heart of the interior
of Bahia (Northeast Brazil). There are only a few small main
cobblestone streets in the center of the town, basically no crime, and
the people are so great. They're all kind of like Brazilian hippies;
completely fun, kind, loving, all do capoeira, hike, rock climb, and
basically enjoy life… The entire town even has its own handshake too,
how sick is that!

So we got our guide Luan that morning, and she took us on a 9 hour
hike. We just set out walking from the center of town outwards to the
trails, and the hike consisted of really diverse terrain, beautiful
vistas, lots of lush green, waterfalls, huge boulders, stopping and
swimming in the river/pools, and a few stops to rock climb (as in
harnesses, clips, ropes… real rock climbing). It was a great day that
neither words nor pictures can really describe, and that night we had
a ridiculously good meal… In Brazil most dishes at restaurants are 2-3
people, so when I saw chicken parmesian (which I hadn't had all trip)
my eyes lit up. Luan told me to get a half order, and then when my
own full plate showed up with 4 chicken parms she bet me I couldn't
eat the whole thing (Mom you woulda def laughed at that one). So I
proceeded to eat all four chicken parms, had room on the side for some
steak after, and won a nice gift from Luan on the next day's hike.
After dinner though, we went to the small main street in town and
bar-hopped between the two tiny bars, drinking on the street and
listening to some great music. I had a few conversations with some
locals and other international travelers in
Spanish/Portuese/Spanglish, which was cool as hell. Around 1am almost
everyone had gone back to the hospeda, and there were 20 total people
left out on the street when this local guy began singing and playing
the penny whistle. He led us in clapping rhythms which he'd sing,
play and dance over… it was pretty funny but had such an authentic
feel to it… again just a really cool thing I was able to be a part of.

The next day's hike was really tough. It took about 10 hours, and
consisted of some incredible waterfalls, rainbows, natural pools,
boulders, trails, jungle-feel, etc. The first long leg ended in this
huge waterfall, which is supposedly the biggest in all of Bahia. We
did some cliff-diving too, and I had a really cool meditation with two
friends on this small rock ledge about 50 ft up directly across from
the waterfall. We tanned on the rocks, ate lunch, and headed back.
After the hike all the way back we continued on to the natural rock
slides… The one slide we went to had a few places to cliff dive, where
of course we jumped off. The rock slide itself was this natural slope
with fast-flowing water over a rock formation. We would walk up the
side of the rocks until we were about 100 ft up, edge our way onto the
middle of the rock slide, sit down, and go for the 100 ft ride that
ended in the pool below. A few people bruised up their butts, but all
in all it was incredibly fun. After an hour or so on the rock slides,
we headed back, had a nice meal at a streetside café, and then took
the 11:30pm bus back… Luan and her boss offered me a job to return and
become a guide, which I doubt I'll take at but I know I'll definitely
be returning to Lencois at some point for a longer period of time.
They have this one 5 day hike where you sleep in caves every night,
and one cave is inside a waterfall! So if any of you are in Brazil,
definitely make your way to Lencois 

The final day was spent doing more shopping and touring of Salvador
and the Pelhourino area. I got two cool paintings, and walked alone
through three museums briefly (Museu Udo Knoff, Museo Eugenio Texeira
Leal, and the Afro-Brazilian museum). After one final delicious meal,
we headed back to the ship. I can honestly say I would have loved to
have spent another 2-3 weeks in Brazil, and if you're spending time in
South America you should make it a top priority to see Brazil… the
vibe there is just unreal.

Brazilian Observations:
- Brazil imported 3.5 million slaves during the slave trade era,
that's 7 times as many as the USA… so the people of Brazil have a
strong African heritage, influence, and look.
- There's all this hoopla about the women of Brazil and how gorgeous
they are… its not true… they're actually even hotter than people say.
- This was the country where language was actually the biggest
barrier. Everywhere else English was spoken by many, but here it was
all Portuguese and some Spanish… thankfully some of Senorita Sbrizzi's
lessons came back to me.
- Brazilian women are, in the words of Pat Powers, "fireballs"
- Men in Brazil don't really find it necessary to wear shirts in
public or on the streets… and they're tan and many have longer dark
hair… I swear I thought I saw Jesus jaywalking three or four times.
- According to my friends who went to Rio, it's like "Manhattan on steroids."
- They love the samba in Brazil, and the inability of white Americans
to do the samba is probably why they love it so much.
- I hate to say the same thing multiple times and be redundant and
repetitive, but Brazil has pretty women

Finally, my time spent in Lencois involved a lot of personal
reflection. When you're on a 9 or 10 hour hike, you can't help but
collect your thoughts as you walk the trails. Obviously this happened
to me, but as I was rummaging through my various thoughts on the
second day's hike I realized I was staring down the whole time. I was
looking at my feet, rarely up at the trail. Part of that comes from
my paranoia about further damaging my ankle, but most of it is just
the natural reaction to hiking. That realization got me thinking
about the concept of hiking on a trail, and how analogous it was to
walking the steps of life… I was missing the views around me because I
was so concerned with planting my foot on solid ground. Maybe I
needed to look ahead of me instead, enjoy the surroundings, and trust
my feet to guide me to safe footings. That concept in itself I could
write about for pages, but then I also started thinking further… Many
people explain their personal ideas about fate by equating life to a
trail with roadblocks, forks, obstacles, etc. "We are walking on the
path of life". "I'm on the path to enlightenment" and "There are many
paths to choose from…" are all common phrases when describing not a
hike but life as a whole. So that led me to start considering the
fact that thousands of people had probably done the same hike that I
was on at that very moment. They had walked the same grounds, sought
the same destination, but no single person had taken the same exact
route as I had. And if they had taken the same route, maybe it was
the very step I was taking at that instant that was separating my
route from theirs… So every single step, no matter how small or large,
could be the one distinguishing step that defined the rest of my hike…
And on the hike we found moments of beauty in the rainbows, moments of
fatigue when we thought we couldn't take another step, moments of
solitude, reflection, social engagement, laughter, elation, boredom,
and frustration, but each of them could have been determined by any
one of my earlier steps. No single step was any more important than
any other, just like how each of life's moments is no more important
than any other. They are all so interconnected that no one can happen
without the others… We only look at the bright light bulb that's
illuminated, but equally as important are the thousands of tiny wires
leading the electricity to that light.

Then at one point we came to a river crossing, where we had to walk
through the water on wet stones. It was pretty hairy, but in order to
cross we took off our shoes and socks… To make sure I wouldn't slip, I
needed to grip and feel the rocks with my toes. When the river got
deeper, we removed our backpacks and shirts… So when we came to a
major obstacle, when the path was no longer clear and uncertainty
permeated the air, we changed our current state by removing the
excess… we let go of the physical materials we thought we held dear,
and were stripped to the bare essence of our bodies… it was so
blatantly symbolic that when we faced that obstacle, we let go of what
we thought we held dear and only relied on our true selves… At the
end of the long hike there was the huge majestic waterfall, a reward
well worth the hike. But then it dawned on me that it wasn't the
waterfall that made the hike special… if I had stepped outside my
front door to see this waterfall, it wouldn't have been such a great
experience. It was the hours of hiking that was the true treat… like
my mom told me before I came on this trip, "Life is not about reaching
the destination, it's about experiencing the journey." I don't think
she could have been any more correct.

And for my final piece of advice: To alleviate suffocation, breathe normally.

We arrive in Venezuela tomorrow, and then I'm back in the states at
the start of May… I can't wait to see you all.

Be safe and stay classy,

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

SAS Email 8 - South Africa

Before I begin to explain my experience in South Africa, I need to preface this email with a celebratory note- LIKE I’VE BEEN TELLING EVERYONE ALL YEAR, MY UNC TAR HEELS WON THE NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP! ALL YOU DUKE FANS (including my future Dukie sister and bandwagon father) WILL BE HEARING BOUT THIS ALL YEAR LONG. GO HEELS.

Also, I have a ton of April Birthday’s that I’ll be missing, so let me just say now to John Chernin, Big Sam, Liza, Dad, Noah “Well-well!” Marwil, Tedaldi Nation, Patty Goo and anyone else I’m forgetting, HAPPY BIRTHDAY.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, how can I begin to describe South Africa… The land of Nelson Mandela, apartheid, Afrikaners, Capetown, “The Power of One”, Johannesburg, and the passionate artist/architect/mango-fruit simply known as Richard Moss. I assume most of you know a little about the apartheid situation there, which was officially ended in 1994 with the release of Mandela from a 30 year imprisonment and the African National Congress taking over the government. While the situation is clearly improving, there is still so much progress that needs to be made. The contrasting white and black worlds of Capetown were plainly evident to even the common tourist, with some parts seeming so modern/developed and others out of a remote 3rd world nation.

With that said, I absolutely loved Capetown… It’s now my favorite city in the world, and I hope to return there for an extended period of time after I graduate from school. The waterfront where we docked was absolutely beautiful and full of life- shops, cafes, fine restaurants, a mall, jazz bands, all-male African township choruses (like the group Paul Simon popularized, “Ladysmith Black Mombazo”), musicians of all backgrounds, a performance amphitheater, an aquarium and a market all adorn the waterfront. The city then ascends up the small hills to the base of Table Mountain, which towers majestically over the entire city with its completely flat top. There are gorgeous beaches, extreme sports of all kinds, towering peaks, marinas, various faiths, friendly people, and pretty much everything I could want from a city. I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled to a lot of places in my life, and no waterfront area that I’ve seen has been as contrasting or beautiful as in Capetown.

This stop was also the first country we’d traveled to where most people spoke English, and had a similar feel to anything back home. After disembarking, I immediately set off with my five closest friends on the ship to hike Table Mountain. We went up a trail through the incredible Botanical Gardens, which if any of you are ever in Capetown is definitely the route to take. The hike itself was one of the most diverse I’ve ever had; over 5 hours we encountered a jungle feel, rock climbing, dirt paths, ladder climbing, gardens, face scaling, flat plains, pebble hopping, small wooden steps, and other terrains. Upon completing our ascendance after 2.5 hours, we all climbed this massive irregularly shaped rock that was just so cool it can only be described with a picture. We chilled on top of the rock for a while, and watched in hysterics as two of my friends feared for their lives when climbing down this one tiny face. They were literally screaming in fear about a 4ft drop because they couldn’t see the small landing beneath them. Unfortunately the Cable Car wasn’t running because of the wind conditions, so we had to book it down the mountain by foot. After walking across the entire length of flat top of the mountain, three of us basically ran down the Platticup’s Gorge trail, which was a steep gorge with rock steps. We covered several thousand feet of vertical in 45 minutes, so my legs have been damn sore for days since.

That night I went on a SAS field program called “Township Music.” It was pretty cool and fun, the highlights included playing in a 60 person drum circle with locals, a homecooked meal at a township restaurant called Masande, and visiting a township’s pub where we drank, danced, and chilled with the people of the township while a great local band played a mix of funk, jazz and soul. From there we went to Long Street, which is where most of the bars are, and met up with some friends at a bar called Cool Runnings.

The next morning I jumped out of a plane at an altitude of 11,000 ft above ground. Yea I went skydiving in South Africa, and it was one of the biggest thrills of my life. The place we did it though had two small planes, one with room for 6 people (3 tandem jumps) and one with room for 4 people (2 tandem jumps). I went with three buddies, so we put out the odd finger to see who would jump with whom, and as usual it was me and my friend Dennis stuck together. When it came time for us to go up, we went to the end of the runway to wait for the plane, and as we walked out there Dennis looked at me and said “Hey if the parachute doesn’t open at least it’s a painless death, and that’s the worst case scenario”…. Nice confidence builder… When the plane arrived the pilot jumped out and started mumbling something about how he’d never fly the damn plane again… They took it back to the hangar for repairs, and we waited for an hour in suspense… Now my confidence was just sky high- I think I nearly sharted. Finally the plane was ready and we went up, I ducktaped my camera to my hand to take a video, yelled “Cannonball!” into the lens, and jumped out of the plane for a 30 second freefall. I won’t even waste time attempting to describe the feeling, I’ll just say you have to do it to yourself to understand the ridiculous rush.

That night I had such a good dinner at this great Italian restaurant called Hillenbrande’s on the waterfront (still relatively cheap though), and went to The Houseparty. I capitalize those words because we didn’t attend a houseparty… we threw a houseparty. My friend Jason had been talking about renting a house by the beach in South Africa since the start of the SAS voyage, and by emailing rental agencies was able to find one at a reasonable price. We had it for three days, and about 20 people chipped in $50 per night that we planned on staying there so we could pay for it all A big party was advertised for the 2nd night in the port, with drinks, a dancefloor, pool and live DJ. When I arrived at the party though, there wasn’t a DJ spinning the usual American hip-hop I expected. Instead, in the kitchen there was a live South African marimba band of locals! Hahaha, it was incredible, Jason had seen them(a bunch of guys about 20 years old called the St. Michael’s Marimba Band) playing on his township visit earlier in the day and offered to pay em to come and play that night at our party. There were three marimba players (huge wooden xylophones), some bongos, conga drums, and shakers. They were seriously jamming out; the music was so cool and energizing, as everyone was dancing to the melodic sounds. I realized they had a set of big conga drums that weren’t being used, and the lead player (he was insanely talented) motioned for me to join them, so I went up to play a little and ended up becoming a part of the band… I played with them for an hour and a half, until my arms felt like they were gonna fall off. Finally around 1:30am we stopped playing, the DJ began spinning, and the party felt Americanized… but all in all that night was one of the most fun of my life.

The next day was pretty relaxed, I spent some time at the mall and waterfront areas listening to the jazz bands, trumpet players, marimba groups and male singers. As dusk fell I was able to attend a nice service at a local temple, and converse with some locals for a while. That was followed by a great seafood dinner with about 10 friends, and the night ended at The Green Dolphin (jazz bar) watching a jazz quartet. The following day was a busy one. We found a relatively cheap day tour company that took four of us with a private driver to Cape Point and the Winelands. We stopped at Seal Island to sea a few thousand seals lying on rocks, saw a lot of the unbelievable coast during our drive around Chapman’s Peak, found out tons of cool info from our local driver Andre, saw where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet at Cape Point, chilled by some penguins in the beach, toured the quaint wineland town of Stellenbosch, took a wine club tour of the refinery, had a wine tasting (ate my first piece of pure cheese… it’s still gross) and then returned to the waterfront. After a quick shower, we went to meet up with others to go to Vicky’s Bed and Breakfast.

For me, the experience at Vicky’s was the highlight of the entire SAS voyage thus far. Bathing in the Ganges was unforgettable, the sunset in Hawaii was breathtaking, the techno club night in Beijing was entrancing, being taken into the woman’s home in Vietnam was so moving, the red carpet in Hong Kong was a blast, but the night at Vicky’s exceeded each of those in some indescribable way. Perhaps it was because I had no idea about what Vicky’s really was beforehand, maybe it was because I experienced the very best and worst of South Africa at Vicky’s, I honestly am not sure… but it was something I wish everyone could go through. I’ll finish the email with a few stories from Vicky’s, but first let me finish detailing the last day.

After my night at Vicky’s I returned to the waterfront, where I sat in contemplation for a while. I showered on the ship, then went to the Two Oceans Aquarium alone where I walked around for a few hours and sat in front of the massive predator tank for a solid hour and a half. Listening to music, zoning out, thinking, napping, writing, I loved every second of the serenity in watching the tank. From there I went to the Capetown Synagogue, which is the oldest temple in South Africa, and was able to attend a Friday night Sabbath service… the service was really interesting because the cantor was accompanied by a powerful male choir of men and young boys, which was far more reminiscent of a Roman Catholic service than a Jewish one…. Clearly the European influences from colonization were still prevalent in all aspects of South African life… From there I returned to the ship, and decided I had to return after I graduated from college.

South Africa Observations:
-While English is the predominant language, in the townships and squattercamps they speak Xhosa too… which is one of those great languages with a clicking sound in the middle of many words
-Capetown and Johannesburg are huge rivals… it’s like Boston to NYC
-Descriptions of wine are the most absurd and ridiculous things I’ve ever read… “This quaffable mint julep rose petal arouses the senses in a zesty chocolate and banana-peel dream”… What the hell is this, fermented grapes or sex in Willy Wonka’s Factory?
-Even those who live in townships or squattercamps are very proud of their one-bedroom shacks as homes
-The music of South Africa is so great, everyone should try to get some CD’s of their music
-South Africa is the 2nd most murderous country in the world, and has more reported rapes than any other

Now onto my stories and insights. Obviously a lot happened at Vicky’s Bed and Breakfast, so I’ll explain what it is first. Vicky’s is “the smallest hotel in South Africa”; it’s really just a woman’s home in a township (therefore it’s basically a scrap metal shack) with two bedrooms for guests. She takes guests into her home, which is in the heart of the Khayalitsha township (1.5 million people in shacks, the largest township in S. Africa, it has a 50% AIDS rate). She’s rallied her community around the effort to ensure the guests’ safety, and when we arrived it was like a full community event. Children immediately ran up to us and asked our names, played with us, wanted to show us their homes, etc. We were in the epicenter of the place we’d stopped by earlier in the day to get a picture of because it was such a ridiculous sight to see hundreds of thousands of metal shacks so congested, and were welcomed so warmly by the locals. We all thought we’d be going to a small bed and breakfast hostel, probably near or even in a township… No no no, this was a normal shack in the middle of the township…. We were served a homecooked meal, drank and talked with locals, and spent the night bonding with young children, guys our age, and several elders. We taught each other handshakes, played each of our cultures’ music (some kids had brought guitars and small hand drums), and stayed on the unlit streets until 2am. The guy I had spent an hour laughing with as I taught him handshakes, ended up steeling some of our beers. The women of the community scolded him sharply although he never admitted to the crime, and I began to see past my initial naiveté. As four SAS students and four 18-20 year old local boys, we sat on a bench drinking and sharing stories all night. One local man then attempted to rob my friend, and again I saw the best and worst of the townships. Our group banded together to walk my friend home in the dark so he wouldn’t come under harms way, and then the local boys walked me back too.

When I returned to my shack where I was to sleep in a room with Dennis (so typical, Vicky randomly selected from the group of 20 and we end up in a room together) on a double bed with pillows that were embroidered with the words “Romantic”, there were four boys around 10 years old sleeping in blankets on the floor. We’d spent the evening with them, and told them to sleep on the bed while we took the floor. They smiled in appreciation, packing all four across the double bed. In the middle of the night I heard a zipper move, decided to get up and move my backpack closer to me. When I arose at 7am for breakfast, the streets were silent except for the local woman sweeping. Soon the children were everywhere, I spoke to Vicky about her situation for some time, and Dennis came to talk to me. In the night, the very boys who we let sleep on the bed, who had spent the entire previous night with us, who were to take us on a walking tour of the township and nearby squattercamp that morning, had stolen the cash (just $5) he had in his money belt. He was understandably bothered, but we didn’t tell Vicky because we knew how much trouble they’d get in. More than that though, I didn’t blame them… it was a product of their situation. A few people are murdered every single weekend in that township; survival is more than a catch-phrase for them, it’s truly a way of life… and taking $5 from the perceived rich white Americans is a part of that survival. It’ll be a long time before the problem is truly rectified, and it obviously begins with education, but they lack the educational resources. How many intellects are willing to teach or start a school in a township with almost no money and an AIDS rate of 50%? Vicky told me they had a library for 5400 families, guess how many computers were available to those 10,000+ people? 1. Until people are willing to extend a true helping hand to these people, I can’t find fault in some of them acting in that way… I would probably do the same if I was in their shoes. For us $5 is a sandwich at a local deli, for them it’s a full family’s meals for several days.

The township experience at Vicky’s was something that opened my eyes so much. The people were so welcoming to us… I’d be naïve not to realize it was partly because we had money, but their kindness was still so genuine. In the morning the boys took me around the township, over to the squattercamp where thousands more lived in 10 x 10 ft shacks, one room, with no water, electricity, or heat. The preschool was a one-room shack, the teachers made a little less than $100 per month. The townships were created in 1948 when the Nationalist Party was elected into the government and instituted legal segregation and racial degradation… aka “apartheid.” 85% of the land was given to the 10% white minority. Blacks were specifically taught in schools to underperform and learned only unskilled labor, and the best place they could live in were “townships”, which were densely populated areas of minimal land that were in close proximity to the major areas of work. 10 years after liberation from apartheid, the townships are still growing and densely populated. My friend Welcome (yes that’s his name) from the township told me if I was to walk down the street at night, I’d definitely be robbed and maybe shot. I didn’t doubt him, but at the same time I felt safe being with him and the other friends I made around the neighborhood of Vicky’s… It was Vicky who created all of that, by involving the entire community, making the township experience available to travelers like myself, and speaking with her was really the first time in my life that I felt I was in the direct presence of a transcendent person. I don’t want to demean those who have inspired me before, but Vicky had a presence that was astounding. She radiated inspiration, and not in a didactic manner but through her passion and sincerity. It’s because of her, and the things I was able to experience during that night and morning, that the visit to the Khayalitsha township will probably be the ultimate highlight of my SAS experience. I can easily write about it for days, but when I get home I’d be happy to talk to any of you about it in greater detail.

Okay, the last thing I’ll describe was what I realized while sitting in front of the massive predator tank at the aquarium. There were several hundred fish in that tank, effortlessly floating in their underwater world. As I zoned out while watching, I began to notice tiny subtleties. I took in the gestalt (sorry I wanted to be a psych major once) of the tank, and it all started to make sense. The hundreds of small and large fish were all swimming clockwise, most of them at a moderate pace. Obviously this was no big deal, until I noticed that there was one species consistently not swimming in that direction. There were five large sharks in the tank, and each of them was swimming slowly in the opposite direction of all the other fish. The tortoise switched between directions, often going up to the surface too for air, but it was only the sharks that swam against the grain at all times. Although I was in South Africa, I still had the Eastern philosophies on my mind mixed with the symbolism in nature from the Kenyan Masai Mara, so instinctively began searching for the deeper metaphor in the tank. I came to an initial conclusion, which I think you’ve probably reached by now. If you haven’t come up with the analogy of how the tank’s species relate to human life, reread this paragraph until you have one before scrolling down:

Is it that something to the affect that the dominant sharks swim against the masses?… That it’s those in life who go against popular conformity, who dominate their contemporaries, who are willing to swim against the grain, that climb to the top of the food chain. Is it something similar to sharks representing leaders in life and how leaders are those who go counterclockwise when everyone else is going clockwise? That’s what I came up with at first too, and I was satisfied with that. I too wanted to be a shark in life… But then I got out of my ethnocentric Westernized view, and tried to look at the tank from an Eastern standpoint. Instead of individualism, I examined collectivism. Isn’t the shark probably very lonely? Yes, he can eat the rest of the tank and enforce his will on them, but what about the fact that they’re all swimming along with companions while the shark is in solitude? Which one would I rather be? Moreover, aren’t the other fish far more important to the tank’s success than the shark? If the fish don’t create a system of uniformly swimming in the same direction, there is no organization. The tank doesn’t flow with serenity; it’s anarchy… chaos with fish swimming in all directions. It’s the fish who should be venerated, not the sharks. Yes, the sharks have the courage to swim against the grain, but without the intelligence and organization of the fish there is no harmony, there is no grain. By conforming to the group, they formulate the tank’s successful balance. So who would I rather be, a fish or a shark?... I sat on that thought for another 20 minutes, until it struck me. The answer was neither. It was the tortoise. The tortoise swam in both directions, assisting both the harmony of the tank and still striking out on his own path when necessary. When he approached the shark from the opposite direction, he simply altered his trajectory slightly and glided above the shark with ease. He avoided conflict, maintained the balance, remained an individual, and most importantly… was the only species to periodically go up for air. Even in the active world below the surface, every so often, the tortoise left that world behind to alone travel upwards for some oxygen. He never lost sight of the most important part of his life, the ability to look upward for help and get that breath of fresh air. I wanted to be a tortoise.

Be safe and stay classy,

Sunday, March 27, 2005

SAS Email 7 - Kenya

I know a lot of people like to start off emails, speeches, etc with profound quotes, so please allow me to stifle all originality and creativity in favor of class…

“If I had all the money in the world, I’d be in Africa son! With the babies!”
-Lorenza Hill, 2004

My esteemed colleague could not have spoken truer words when he exclaimed them from the passenger seat of a musty SUV on a foggy Providence Wednesday night last year… His breath may have reeked of the feminine martini he’d consumed earlier at Rira, but his words had an endearing quality as they triumphed over the radio sounds of throbbing base and cries of “Blah! Blah! Como Regetone!” Luke Tedaldi had been laughing hysterically behind the wheel along with myself in the back seat, but the primal cry of “Danzaaaa” we then heard pierce the night air furthered my desire to be amongst the animals freely roaming the plains of the Kenyan Masai Mara… Well people, last week that dream became reality.

We were sailing within 200 yards of Kenyan land around 5pm on March 17th, and as we meandered along the coastline tons of locals stood on the shoreline waving to our ship. It was a great welcome, which was further enhanced by the fact that Toto’s 1983 hit song “Africa” was blasting into my ears… A child of 1983, I was in Africa listening to Africa from 1983… sometimes I think the cosmos just align. Around 8pm I was told that the parents on the SAS-run “Parent Trip” would be boarding the boat at 9pm, so I was basically hit with the info that after 65 days away from my parents I’d be seeing them in an hour… I tried to brainstorm of ways I could screw with them (wear crazy clothes, glasses, fake piercing… anything to throw them off), but nothing came to mind in my limited timeframe so I figured I’d just let them off easy this time… Apparently not so… When my parents finally boarded the boat in promptly late fashion at 9:30pm, I saw them walking up the empty hall to the dining room where I was waiting. My mom was leading my dad (yes he’s just a puppet government installed by her to externally seem like the family leader) so I walked toward her smiling. For some reason she wasn’t making eye contact with me, just looking all around nervously and excited. I walked closer and she continued to look behind and around me, but not at my face. About 5 feet from her I stopped and yelled “Mom?!” She looked at me startled, her eyes widened, and the first words my mother said to me after 2 months apart was “Oh my g-d, you look like Ghandi!” Hahahah… I was neither completely bald, wearing a white robe, emaciated, nor peering through glasses… but somehow she got Ghandi… musta been the linen pants.

So I showed my parents around the ship and introduced them to a bunch of friends, gave them a few of the presents I’d bought them (Yes Erv just had to wear his double-sided Chinese silk robe all around the boat). That night I watched two movies with a bunch of friends to prepare me for the sites of Africa… Lion King and Baraka of course (PS- Rafiki is in both) The next day we toured the city of Mombasa with my four closest friends on the ship (My buddy Dennis has fair skin and long blond hair that he had in cornrows. That combined with his light-blue Indian corta shirt led to every local yelling at him “Beckham! Beckham!). The first thing I noticed in Mombasa was the heat, which was immediately followed by the overpowering smells. India had some unbelievably strong smells, the worst of which I can only describe at old cow poo mixed with stale garbage… but the smells in Kenya were just as potent. Some might even say “oooh, they burned the nostrils” (Scooter shoutout) The best description I can give of this one smell was like heated goat urine… it was just crazy. But the city of Mombasa itself was really nice, so we checked out Fort Jesus and then went to my parents’ hotel to hangout for the day. The highlights there were when my Dad and I went kiteboarding in the Indian Ocean and caught a few good rides, as well as my playing soccer on the beach with a bunch of locals. I got ridiculously lucky and scored my first soccer goal since the 5th grade when I played for Team Paraguay, and of course acted like a fool by doing the airplane and a few cartwheels in the sand. The locals laughed at me and joked in Swahili to themselves, I think the loose translation was “We should ship his ass to Mozambique.”… The next morning we flew to the Masai Mara, where we began our 4 day safari. I’ll just preface the safari details by saying that the Bronx Zoo will never possess the same majesty it once had…

The Masai Mara itself is a set of massive plains inhabited by every animal you’d expect in Africa. The “Big 5” that are most desirable to see are lions, rhinos, buffalo, leopards and geese... Over those 4 days we went on 9 game drives (6 of us in a landcruiser with our awesome driver Sammy (everytime we’d come to a crazy set of bumps or whatever he’d turn around and say “Okay, one more hold on!”) on a drive for 2-3 hours). Over those 9 drives we saw so many animals I can’t count, but the highlights were the giraffes, zebra, buffalo, warthogs, a leopard, several cheetah, a grouping of over 100 baboons running around us, a pride of 24 lions with a bunch of cute baby cubs playing all over each other, a dead elephant with it’s head already completely gone and body still being eaten by hyenas and vultures, a zebra carcass with it’s ribs picked perfectly clean but face still intact (minus the eyes, the vultures ate those), getting out of the car and walking next to three gigantic rhinos, and my personal favorite, the hyenas… They just remind me of a middle child; they do most of the dirty work but never getting the credit or fame of the mighty lion (older brothers) and never receiving the oogles of cuteness like the monkeys (younger sisters). So I’m deeming hyenas as future kings of the animal kingdom. They just look like animals ready to kill, which is the only thing I unfortunately didn’t get to see (an actual kill). My roommate on the ship told me they saw two lions mating (upon completion the male lion literally fell over, haha), and on his trip the Masai let them drink goat’s blood straight out of the neck, so I was a little jealous of that too... I’ll just have to wait to get home to ask Sam and Cornelio what it tastes like…

My personal favorite part of the trip was entering a Masai Village, which was mind-blowing to say the least. During the game drives we’d see a single Masai warrior walking alone along the plains with nothing but a spear, miles from any village. The village itself was probably half an acre, with about 15 circular huts made of cow manure mixed with thick mud. They had no artificial lighting, were the size of a dorm single, and the small window inside the hut brought in little to no light at all… It was definitely the least affected culture by modern society that I’ve ever seen. The people all wore beautifully colored outfits with ornate jewelry (most of which were necklaces, bracelets, and beads on their super-elongated ear lobes). They performed some songs and dances, and the men have a tradition of standing in a singing line while taking turns walking in front and jumping as high as possible while exerting the least effort. The man who jumps the highest in the village is usually rewarded with some of the most beautiful woman in the village, so my AAU days finally started to make sense to me… Also, when you see the videos on TV with Sally Struthers talking about sending food to children in Africa so she can personally eat it, and the children have flies all over their faces, that is not a misrepresentation whatsoever. I’ve never seen so many flies on the faces of so many people, especially the babies; it was absolutely nuts. As our group was supposed to leave I noticed a small cluster of five young kids (probably 8 years old) standing next to a hut, staring at me. I smiled, and they smiled back. I knew they didn’t speak any English (although some of the others who were in their teens had learned English pretty well through schooling) but I really wanted to connect with them in some way. I walked over, pulled out my iPod, placed my earbuds in the ears of two of the kids, and began playing some music… Their faces lit up. Eyes widened and teeth exposed, one of them began bouncing up and down to the music. Pretty soon I had a group of about 20 kids crowding around as I took turns placing the earbuds into their ears. I put on some older funk jams with hard baselines like Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage” and some George Clinton, and pretty soon we were all bouncing up and down to the music. I swear I’ve never had that many flies on my body in my life, but it was well worth the aggravation. I don’t know how well I’ll remember the animals I saw in the years to come, but the memory of those kids listening to my music should stay with me for a while.

The tents/lodges that we stayed in were really nice, and basically on the bank of the Mara River. It sounds so peaceful, but in the Mara River just 20 feet below my tent were hippos and crocodiles, along with baboons on the other side of the bank so that our “Safari Club” had two resident baboon hunters… What would you think if you met some guy at a bar, asked him what he did and he said “Well, I’m a baboon hunter”? I know I’d buy him a beer… It was especially crazy that around 5am the hippos would get all restless and start getting incredibly loud, so your 5am wakeup call came from the hippos every morning. My suitemate Phil once told me for some reason, “You shan’t be needing an alarm clock” and something about 7am, but that was nothing compared to the hippos.

Another highlight of the trip was on the 2nd night of the safari when we caught a mesmerizing sunset on the plains where you could actually see a confined rainstorm on the horizon. Right as the sun dropped and darkness fell, the storm moved toward us and it began to pour. We rode the rest of the way back to our safari club in the darkness, knowing full well that we were surrounded by wild animals and received the occasional flicker from flashing bolts of lightening. I really felt like I was in a movie, but the aspect that really enhanced it all was the music I was playing in my headphones… it was almost like a soundtrack. I’ve learned on this trip that music can completely change an experience, so when traveling I’d highly recommend getting the music of the local cultures to really get a full grasp of the places you visit. Plus, when you return home all you have to do is put on that specific song or album and you’ll be immediately transported back to those surroundings and memories.

In terms of my usual over-analysis of a personal anecdote, it’s difficult because there is one main event that sticks out but it’s a little to personal to share via email. What I will say is that it was pretty amazing to realize the harmony and balance of nature itself. For all that we try to force and impose on ourselves and the world to create some form of balance, it is nothing compared to the simple balance achieved by the natural animal kingdom. The way the animals work together AND in opposition to fulfill their distinctive roles was something I’d never truly appreciated until I was there to witness it in it’s purest form, and I think a lot can be learned from that. I wrote this short verse which I believe sums it all up:
From the day we arrived on the planet, and slowly stepped into the sun, there’s more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done. There’s far too much to take in here, more to find than can ever be found, but the sun rolling high in the sapphire sky, keeps rising small on the endless round, it’s the CIRCLE OF LIFE, and it moves us all.

I blessed the rains down in Africa.
Be safe and stay classy,

PS: The last of the Big 5 obviously isn’t geese… but I guarantee Josh Cohen now thinks it is…
PPS: One night a girl on my trip apparently made a toast thanking her parents in front of everyone. Like all good parents, my parents informed me of this over dinner the next night. I never really got a chance to do that, but I guess I can still toast my parents via email right? So thank you for helping to send me on this trip, for caring enough about me to meet me in Africa, and for being the loving parents that you’ve always been. One day hopefully my kids will be as successful as your oldest child, as impressive as your youngest child, as tall and kind as your adopted children, and as appreciative as your middle one. You’ve given me so much, and if there’s anything you ever need from me you know I’ll be there.
PPPS: I can’t make the family vacation this summer.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

SAS Email 6 - India

Attempting to write this email is probably going to be one of the most
difficult things I've ever done, so brace yourself cause it's gonna be
long. During my six short days in India I pretty much experienced
every emotion in the book. The sights, smells, sounds… the life of
India are etched so indelibly in my mind but attempting to describe it
is basically impossible. It's like explaining to a man who's been
blind his entire life what the color blue looks like, it just can't be
done. So I'll just run through the incredible events of my time spent
in India and hopefully that will motivate all of you to visit her on
your own so you can create your own unique Indian experience too.

The night before arriving in Chennai I decided to sleep on the top
(7th) deck of the boat. All students are free to do it at anytime
and there were probably 30 or so of us up there that night. Obviously
I didn't sleep too much from the excitement, plus the fact that we
could SMELL India over the ocean when we were 1.5 days away was enough
to keep anyone awake. So I fell asleep around 3am, and was awoken by
the sounds of a foreign language at 5am. It was just so cool and I
wanted to prolong my first taste of India, so I kept my eyes closed
and tried to take in the sounds of these Indian men's voices around
me… after about five minutes I opened my eyes, only to realize that
all along it had just been a couple Phillipino members of the crew
playing hackeysack next to me. Haha, after that though I was pretty
awake and was fortunate to watch the complete sunrise from darkness to
daylight as we steered into the port of Chennai… The sun over the
Indian ocean is unlike any I've ever seen… it has the capacity to be
this perfectly defined circle that you can easily stare at without
discomfort. The intensity of the pinkish orange/red hue is so deep,
but it's confined to this perfect circle and it literally mesmerizes
you into submission. The best part of that morning was that the sun
was behind the clouds the entire time so you really couldn't see it at
all, but around 6:30am when most people had left to eat, a small
divide in the clouds began to open. Pretty soon, there was a really
small circular rift, and at that very moment the sun perfectly
intersected that rift and shined through. It was really crazy to
watch, and it only lasted for maybe 45 seconds, but for those 45
seconds the sky was absolutely stunning and it felt like "the heavens"
truly came together.

When we disembarked from the ship a few hours later, the total assault
on my senses began… The first thing I noticed was the intense heat,
which was followed by the even more intense smells. Literally every
20 feet I was overwhelmed by a new odor, most of which were unlike
anything I'd ever encountered. Then came the visual stimulation, as I
saw the city streets and people. The colors of India are so plentiful
and vibrant, and they're mainly seen in the architecture and women's
saris… I had always thought that the saris were a very traditional
dress that some Indian women wear, but nearly every woman of every
socioeconomic status wears one all the time. The designs and colors
and so unique, and they definitely accentuate the beauty of an already
gorgeous population of women… literally I'd be walking down the street
and be frozen by the beauty of some of the women, but the amazing part
was that it wasn't always the aristocrats. At one point a woman in a
train station was begging me for money and I instinctively didn't look
at her (if you make eye contact then they take that as assurance that
you're going to give them something), but after a few minutes I looked
her in the eye to tell her I didn't have anything for her and couldn't
speak because of how stunning she was underneath the dirt covered
sari… Okay so now that I've gone on a huge rant, let me stop
digressing and try to describe the events of my trip.

So the first morning I toured the Chennai streets with two friends,
mainly taking rikshaws (these scooter-taxi vehicles that are
everywhere in India) and stopping in a few markets. After a few hours
we returned to the boat to meet up with some friends, and decided to
rent a car and take a day trip to Mamallapuram, a town an hour south
of Chennai. On the way to Mamallapuram we passed the beach where the
tsunami attacked (we were driving on a road that it swept over) and
after 30 mins of driving we kept passing these groupings of makeshift
wood huts. We eventually asked our cab driver what the huts were, and
when he told us they were tsunami refugee camps, we decided to go into
one. So we pulled over, and the eight of us went into the village and
spent about half an hour talking with the elders and playing with the
kids. It was so sad to see how little these people had (the village
was 800 people), but so refreshing to see how happy some of them were
because they hadn't lost any loved ones, and it definitely made me see
how little you really need to live a happy life… in terms of materials
they had nothing, but they were rich in spirit. One other really
interesting part of the visit was when I was talking to an adult in
the community, and when I asked him if they needed money for housing
and food he said no… he said what they needed most was fishing boats
and nets, because they could make their food and homes, but they
couldn't remake their livelihoods without fishing supplies.

Mamallapuram itself was so much fun, it's this cool village littered
with ancient stone carved temples and monuments. We spent hours
walking around this one massive stone park, and saw another amazing
sunset. The main attraction is this massive Shore Temple right along
the beach, but we spent so much time in the stone park that the Shore
Temple was closed by the time we tried to enter and didn't even get to
see it. But the 15 minute through the village to get to the temple
itself was great, as there were all these cool vendor shops, friendly
people, and random cows or other animals crossing the unpaved streets.
Walking through there with one friend at dusk seriously made me feel
like I was in some movie about India during the mid 1800's… We ended
up eating dinner at a seafood restaurant called Moonrakers, where they
sat us on the roof and served us a feast that cost us a grand total of
$9 each including all our drinks. Dinner lasted about 4 hours,
because we got into all these great conversations with locals, the
highlight of which was when the owner sat with us for an hour and gave
us an inside perspective on India itself and the tsunami experience…
here was a guy who strapped his valuable possessions and family on his
moped and rode away from the rushing wave at 9:30am, then returned
only to have to flee even harder when the 2nd wave struck a little
after noon, and was giving us a passionate recounting of it all… it
was really something special to witness. He spoke of how his business
was getting crushed because he was used to Indians vacationing in
Mamallapuram and eating his seafood, but the Indian seafood industry
has been decimated since the tsunami… the reason- because many people
lost loved ones in the waves and feel that those who perished in the
waves became food for the fish, so by eating seafood they'd be
indirectly eating their loved ones! So we returned home around 1am,
and ride itself was pretty powerful; people were sleeping on the
streets everywhere… on bridges, sidewalks, under trees, in parks,
under awnings, even on the actual rode… the masses of people in
poverty were just everywhere. It made me wonder what it must be like
in the city of Calcutta, where 500,000 people live and sleep on the
street every single night...

The next morning at 4am I left for my field program to Delhi, Agra and
Varanasi. My roommate Jaret had been deathly ill with an awful fever
during the days leading up to our arrival in India, and he definitely
passed the bug on to me. While in line at the security check-in at
the airport, I had to sit down from nausea and general disorientation.
When I finally tried to get up and go through security, I fainted for
the first time that I can remember in my entire life… from then on I
had just an awful fever for the next few days, but fortunately I'm
over it now and completely fine. So we flew to Delhi and luckily had
a really light first day because I was pretty much feeling like my
head was gonna explode. We toured the city via bus, stopping at major
monuments and landmarks. We also spent some time at the MK Ghanhi
museum, which I personally loved (got to see his actual glasses,
meditation garden, and the place where he was assassinated while
walking to meditate) and thought was a humble but perfect tribute to
such an inspiring man. After that we saw this Baha'I Temple, which is
a really cool universalized religion with a temple that reminded me of
the famous Sydney Opera House. After that we returned to the hotel,
where I slept from 6pm to 4am.

The next day we took the 2.5 hour train to Agra, and I pretty much hit
the worst of my fever. We visited three main locations, the first of
which was the palace of King Akbar called the Fatehpur Sikra. King
Akbar was the first of several great Indian Kings, and while he had
every material possession he couldn't produce a son. So some holy man
blessed him, his wife had a son, and in 12 years with 32,000 workers
the king built these incredible palatial city called the Fatehpur
Sikra. All of the palace is made with a red stone, except at the
center of the main mosque plaza is a small building made entirely of
white marble, which serves as the burial tomb to the holy man who
blessed King Akbar. The next place we visited was Fort Agra, which is
where King Sha Jahan (Akbar's grandson) was jailed by his own son King
Auranzeb. Sha Jahan is the one who actually commissioned the building
of the Taj Mahal as the burial place for his wife (who died giving
birth to their 14th child), and when his son Auranzeb ascended to the
kingship he jailed his father in Fort Agra, where he could look out
during his final years and see the Taj Mahal where his wife rested.
Auranzeb was the youngest of four boys, and also happened to send the
head of his oldest brother to his father while in jail… nice kid.

The last place in Agra we visited was the Taj Mahal, which is simply
the most perfectly beautiful architectural work I've ever seen.
Looking at it is like staring at a picture, it just doesn't even seem
real. It's entirely constructed of white marble, with incredible
symmetry and simplicity to it… It was the only thing I've ever felt I
couldn't take a bad picture of, although I'm sure Lonnie Hill and
Donnie McGrath would claim they fall in the same category. We spent
about three hours there, and I felt like I could have stared at it for
days if my eyes weren't burning out of their sockets from my fever.
After our time spent at the Taj we returned to the Agra train station,
where we had to wait for 45 mins on the platform before taking the
late train back to Delhi… During that time we all gave tons of food to
the begging men, women and children, but it did nothing to change the
look of desperation on their faces. It was only after we began
showing them photos of themselves on our digital cameras, having the
children model for sketching pictures, and asking them to write their
names on pieces of paper, that those faces of sadness changed. It
taught me that emotional sustenance can be far more valuable than any
physical gift… it wasn't the food we gave them for 35 mins that caused
them to smile, giggle and wave while yelling "byeee" when we left, it
was the fact that we showed a genuine interest in them and
subsequently formed a bond…the next morning we flew to Varanasi, the
place I'd been waiting to see all trip…

If I was given the option to spend a day anywhere in the world, I
would have said Varanasi before the trip started, that's how badly I
wanted to see this place. It's the holiest city in Hinduism, the
place where the g-d Shiva and Ganges River (which itself is believed
to be a great g-dess) lived. Bathing in the Ganges (which
biologically is probably the dirtiest water on Earth, and I'm not
saying that as an exaggeration whatsoever) is considered one of the
holiest acts a Hindu can perform… dying in Varanasi is a desire of
every Hindu, because having your body cremated along the river
guarantees entrance into heaven. So there are nightly prayers
attended by thousands right on these steps leading to the river, and
every morning thousands of Indains bathe in the river and say their
morning prayers while immersing themselves in the water. Two years
ago I watched the movie Baraka for the first time with my boy Adil,
and there's a scene in the movie that takes place in Varanasi, and its
all I could think about for weeks after… since that moment I knew I
had to see the city and the river with my own eyes, and I feel so
fortunate to have had that dream come to fruition… not surprisingly,
my time there also exceeded all expectations.

The first place we went to was Sarnath, a small town 6 miles from
Varanasi, which is extremely holy to Buddhism because it's the site of
the Buddha's first actual sermon. We went to that exact place where
he delivered his first sermon, which was so cool when you stepped back
and thought about it, and saw the small temple and monument dedicated
to the event. My fever at that point was starting to wane but
definitely still present, so instead of spending thirty mins in some
archaeological museum I asked our tour guide if I could go somewhere
to sit down, rest, and meditate. He said sure, and pointed me towards
a set of gates and said "Go in there, it's the next stop for the
group, just tell them you're with SAS and they'll let you in and
you'll find a lot of grass." So I entered what was some type of
archaeological excavation site with a bunch of stone ruins, and found
a quiet spot under a tree in the grass to meditate. After a solid 12
minute session, I felt somewhat better and the group was entering
behind me so I went up to our guide and asked what this place was… he
told me, "This is the ancient temple site, where the Buddha came and
told his disciples of his enlightenment around 300BCE. It then became
a place where he taught his students, and is also where the Buddha
himself often meditated." I hate to use profanity here, but HOLY
SHIT! That one sent chills throughout my whole body- I'd just come
and meditated on the same ground where the Buddha had meditated
several thousand years ago… and of all the ways to do it, I sat under
a tree, and the claim is that Buddha attained enlightenment when
meditating beneath a tree... Obviously I'm no Buddha, but that series
of events led to a major "wow" moment.

The day progressed on, and as evening came our guide offered to take
us to the evening prayers. We took rikshaws through the downtown area
of Varanasi until it got too congested, and from there we walked
through the crazy streets. I can't even explain what it looked like,
with shops, colors, holy men, beggars, prodoce, animals, it was just a
site that only exists in that one place in the world. When we got
down to the steps that led to the waterfront, the prayers were just
beginning. We all got into small boats and floated out into the water
to better observe the rituals, and again I can barely describe what we
saw. There were two main platforms with 4-5 holy men leading a throng
of thousands clapping and chanting Hindu prayers, while the holy men
performed synchronized ritual movements with their hands/bodies and
eventually with these candletowers. But when we took the boats
several hundred yards down the river, the cremations were going on
with people gathering around small wooden bonfires that contained
human bodies. The smell of the Ganges, burning wood and flesh,
incense, India… it was all just something so powerful. After spending
about an hour and a half on the boats watching the cremations and
prayers, we walked back through the city and returned to the hotel
where I talked with our guide all night about India, Pakistan,
religions, his life, and my desire to bathe in the Ganges.

A few hours later we were back up before dawn, and heading back to the
Ganges for another boat ride to witness the morning bathing, prayers
and rituals. Luckily we were in Varanasi on the day of Shivaratri,
which is the anniversary of the g-d Shiva's marriage, so thousands of
people were descending on Shiva's holy city to pay homage. 50,000
people were expected to bathe in the Ganges that morning, so we had to
go to a less concentrated area from where we'd been the night before.
I told our 2nd guide (the local, Varanasi expert) that during the
night I'd felt a strong compulsion to bathe in the Ganges, and he
smiled and told me I had good Karma. He said "There is something in
you that wants to feel G-d's water, the rest of them are afraid but I
see that you know it will not harm you. This is good, if you want to
I will make time for you to bathe in the water." So we toured up and
down the river for two hours and watched the sunrise, but this time
the river had a very different feel. The night before had been much
more ascetic and somber in tone, while in the morning it had a more
celebratory, lively and almost divine feel (For those who are Jewish,
it was like comparing Yom Kippur to Rosh Hashanah). With Indian
voices singing over megaphones, the innumerable colors of the local
clothing, and the fervor in the people's actions, I just knew I had to
be a part of this unbelievable tradition. So as our boat ride came to
an end I took off my shoes, (I'd worn bball shorts to swim in), got
off the boat, and walked down the steps and bathed in the river next
to several locals. I said my prayers while immersing myself in the
water for 3-4 minutes, and simply got out, and that small act created
a big controversy on the ship…

Explaining my full reasoning for doing it requires a lengthy
face-to-face discussion but the shortest explanation is that although
I am firmly Jewish, I also believe there is an essence of G-d in the
most foundational elements of each major religion. I believe they're
all here for a reason and with some message from G-d, (like a stained
glass window each religion is a distinctly different color window
pane, completely unlike the others. And while the light on the
grounds ends up being red, blue, green, etc, it all comes from the
same original white light which is G-d) and through the various
narratives each religions possesses, that original message has been
somewhat corrupted (even in my religion). But at their core each
major religion has some essence of G-dliness, and if a core belief of
Hindus is that the Ganges River is G-d's holiest water, and they enter
it each morning with the intent of celebrating G-d, then surely the
water must be a part of G-d and I was fortunate to have the
opportunity to enter it beside these people when saying my prayers.
And yes the biological fact is that the water is disgustingly dirty,
but I really felt that if I entered it with the right purpose and
intent in my heart, then I would be completely safe (although I wasn't
intending for it to accidentally get into my mouth, haha). I hope I'm
not coming off as some religious zealot here though, I'm not trying to
preach at anyone nor claim that what I'm saying is right, but because
I'm sure many of you will be critical I'm just trying to explain my
reasoning for getting in the Ganges, which simply stems from faith in
no religion but G-d as religion himself.

Upon returning to the ship, all these people I barely know have been
asking me about it and apparently talking about it amongst themselves
(friends relay stories), and most of the people are critical because
they claim "oh the water is so dirty, you'll get soooo sick." But
over the past three days since we set sail for Africa I'd say almost
half the ship's been sick in some capacity (mostly the notorious
"Delhi Belly") while my fever and cold are gone and I feel great.

Oh! And when I got out of the water and was putting back on my shirt,
this cute Indian boy and girl stood in front of me laughing and
mocking me because I was a little cold and shivering. I made some fun
back at them, and we started talking a little. They ended up holding
my hands as we walked though the back streets of Varanasi for the next
20 minutes, something that absolutely made my week. I showed them a
few magic tricks and pretty soon I had a small posse of eight-year old
Indians walking around with me… Eventually I gave them a few pens and
bought them some fruit at a stand before exchanging hugs goodbye…It
was really cute and definitely fulfilled one of my fantasies, cause I
felt like we were the Newsies of India, hahaha…. (sorry for that
story, I had to be an idiot at some point in this email)

My last day in India was spent going to the Balamandir children's
orphanage for a few hours, which was so much fun. Six of us arrived
together and were immediately brought to a room of about thirty
five-year-old kids (no Josh Cohen, that's not 35 year old kids, it's
30, 5 year-olds) who were in a crazy mood from just finishing their
finals. We played games, sang songs, performed dances, etc. with them
while they crawled all over us. It was so cool how much communication
and enjoyment was passed between us and these children, without either
or us even being able to speak a word of the others' respective
language. Later that day I attended a short field program to one of
the "relocation slums" on the outskirts of Chennai, where we heard a
few lectures on the urban population growth problems of India and then
walked the streets meeting the people. They all asked for pens
(something you should always bring as gifts to 3rd world countries,
they LOVE them) which we gave away, and the children loved seeing
themselves on our digital cameras. Again, these were people who had
close to nothing, but by bonding together as a community were able to
find happiness in each other and their relationships.

INDIA OBSERVATIONS- Probably half the people aren't wearing shoes
ever… the woman are some of the most exotically beautiful I've ever
seen… men all wear some type of collared shirt no matter where they
are in societal rank (includes beggars) and some can grow ear hair 2-3
inches off their lobes! It's nuts!... cows are revered as holy beings…
animals, beggars, people peeing and showering on the streets,
rikshaws, are all everywhere… men hold hands when walking as a sign of
affection although not gay… nearly every woman wears a colorful sari…
traffic is crazier than in Vietnam, there'sjust no respect for rules
of the road… although the country is 80% Hindu and 16% Muslim, there's
still a strong historical Muslim influence all over… teeth are not a
high priority.

The best description I've heard of India is that with any one thing
you can say about India, its opposite is also true… They have the
poorest and the richest, the cleanest and the most dirty, the most
beautiful and most wretched, the brightest and darkest, and the list
goes on… The country is so diverse I feel like I could spend a year
there and still barely know it, but I urge all of you to go there at
some point in your life and see just how amazing India really is. It
was the port I was most looking forward to, and every expectation I
had was met and exceeded.

Please email me and let me know how you're doing,
Be safe and stay classy,

So now we're heading towards Africa with Kenya as our next port, which
will have such a different feel from the past few weeks I've spent on
the Asian continent… Today was actually Neptune Day, which is the
official day when a ship passes over the equator, so we had no classes
and went through the various Neptune Day rituals… I won't spoil the
secrets for those of you who will one day go from a lowly "pollywog"
to a revered "shellback" like myself, but I will say that my head was
shaved today. A few hundred guys did it, and over 30 girls too! But
the best part was that we all had absurdly rude haircuts for the days
preceding our heads being shaved, so most people had awesome mullets
while I attained my lifelong dream of growing a small beard and having
the same haircut as Bad Attitude Barakis aka MR. T… Yes Scott, the
A-Team lives on… dada dada da da, da da, daaaaa….