Monday, February 28, 2005

SAS Email 5 - Hong Kong & Vietnam

***I know these are ridiculously long and probably contain a ton of extraneous info most of you don’t care about, but if you’re reading this far then at least you’re interested in some part of my trip… While I write these partially to serve as a journal when the voyage is over, another purpose is to hopefully evoke similar responses from you. I’m halfway across the world but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about your lives, so please take some time out of your day once a week or even month and write me a detailed update on how your life’s going… I’m interested and miss ya***

“Certainly travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on deep, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”

Well I know it’s been a long time since I’ve written, and the amount of things I’ve done and seen since my last email would be impossible to fully recount. I’ll try to condense Hong Kong and Vietnam into this one email, but in the process I’ll be leaving out a lot of the details I usually like telling people about (and hearing in other people’s stories too)… I guess I’ll start with my highlights from each country, this way if anyone goes to either of those places they can use this email as a travel reference.

Hong Kong- Although HK wasn’t my favorite actual location of the ports we’ve been to, I had the most amazing days there… it just seemed like everything I did ended up being something incredible, like the cosmos were perfectly aligned for me to have a blast. I was expecting an impressive skyline from my little background knowledge of HK, but I was overwhelmed with the skyline on Hong Kong Island… it seriously puts mid-town Manhattan to shame. My first day there was spent walking the streets of Kowloon (urban area… not as city-like as HK Island), taking the Star Ferry over to HK Island and taking that all in, visiting the incense-filled (so smoky the people who work there wear doctor’s face masks) Man Mo Temple, taking a sampan ride in Aberdeen (a must-do in Hong Kong… Aberdeen is basically a floating village with fishing boats, restaurants, etc all on the water), and then one of the most fun events of my life happened… As usual I was with my buddy Dennis (the kid with the long blond hair in the pics that my brother said “looks like a funny dude), and we were trying to get into the HK Cultural Center but couldn’t find an entrance. We ended up walking through this back glass door that had a velvet rope on the inside (but the door was open, and open doors are meant to be walked though).

The place was massive and really impressive, but totally empty. We were on the 3rd floor, and were shadily walking around the place. The only people we could see were wearing tuxedos and catering uniforms, and after talking to an usher we found out that in 30 mins they were hosting a gala/reception to kickoff the Hong Kong Arts Festival, with a 300 person guest list consisting of every major politician and player in Hong Kong… we snuck around the place for the next 30 mins, hiding in the bathroom for a little while, just so we could witness this major event w/o being kicked out (keep in mind we’re in shorts, t-shirts, sneakers and I’m wearing a backpack)… then we realized somehow we were on the inside section of the set of stairways. So we could technically walk down the red carpeted staircase to the main reception area where the press was surrounding the major players in their formal wear, sipping on cocktails and eating joir’devours (I know I’m butchering the spelling)… I don’t know why, but I felt this compulsion to walk down and join them, act like I belonged for some ludicrous reason and hopefully get kicked out… I just kept thinking you only live once, and how many people are given a golden opportunity when they’re 21 to crash an event like that in Hong Kong… so we got into character- We were part of a delegation of American college students hand-picked to be sent across the world from country to country to promote diplomatic relations with foreign nations… hahahha…10 mins after the gala started, maybe 15 people were in the velvet-roped press-surrounded section, and we walked down the red carpeted grand staircase. Grabbing a cocktail and roastbeef joir’devoirs (Ron Burgundy style saying “Oh this is delicious! You gotta try this.”), we walked up to the nearest couple and started a convo… … we said our ship was badly damaged to the point we couldn’t get to our suitcases so that’s why we were in such sloppy clothes… and after 15 minutes we had the business card and were good buddies with the General Consulate of Poland to Hong Kong… We said we’d talk to him later, turned around, and we were promptly escorted out of the area by security… definitely one of the most fun events of my life… the next morning the Arts Festival Gala was on the front page of the SE Asia newspaper.

We came back and played basketball at a nearby park with a bunch of pretty good Asians, then went out to Lan Kwae Fong (the crazy bar area.... a cross-section of streets with nothing but fun bars) and had a great night partying from bar to bar, highlighted by an all-Asian band playing American rock covers (Sweet Home Alabama, Ride Sally Ride, Bon Jovi, etc)… and yes they had a cowbell player in a see-through fishnet shirt. So that was just Day 1 in Hong Kong, so you can tell how much happened everyday there and how things just seemed to work out. I’ll spare you the extreme details of the rest of the days… Day 2 I took the hour bus ride to Kam Tim, a remote town with a 16th century walled village still in tact with people living there. The bus stopped by an elementary school so we went and played soccer and basketball for an hour with 12 local kids… then we walked through the narrow streets of Kat Hing Wai (the walled village), the entire mini-city probably consisting of 2 acres. Day 3 I went to Lantau Island (after morning classes) to see the Big Buddha, which is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. It’s a 114 ft tall bronze Buddha, on top of the mountains of Lantau Island. I don’t know why I’d never heard of it before, it’s like a Hong Kong Statue of Liberty, but I loved it and was actually able to meditate there with a friend of mine on a grassy patch right next to the Buddha at the peak (The next day when flying to Vietnam I asked jokingly if there were extra 1st class seats and the flight attendant bumped me up… one other student out of 380 on the flight was in 1st class too, the girl Haley I’d meditated with next to the Big Buddha… crazy proof that good karma does exist!). We then toured the surrounding Po Lin Monastery, which fortunately wasn’t crowded by tourists like most other famous monasteries, and that was pretty amazing at well. I spent the rest of that day alone, which was nice to finally have time to myself, and checked out the HK skyline from Victoria Peak and picked up a few presents at the “night market” on Temple Street. The next morning we flew to Vietnam, and I fell in love.

I didn’t expect to find love on this trip, but I found it in the form of Vietnam. Until this trip Vietnam wasn’t a place, it was a war. When someone said they were in Vietnam, it meant they were in the war… I’ll never look at it that way again. The country is so beautiful and diverse and interesting, with the people being some of the most friendly I’ve ever met. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), and I spent the first day there just walking around, trying not to get hit by motorbikes (they’re EVERYWHERE) and taking in the city. Then I went on a field program to Hanoi (the capital at the north end of the country) and Halong Bay (a 4 hour drive from Hanoi… a bay with over 3000 limestone islands). Hanoi was like Saigon, except not as bustling (like Boston to NYC) and had much more of the French influence in its design and architecture. We visited the Temple of Literature, Museums of Vietnam History and War, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (the more I learn about him the more impressed I am… from what I know he seems to be one of the best leaders of the past century), massive caves/grottos in Halong Bay (the Grotto of Heaven was a 150 meter, 150 foot high cave that looked felt like being inside a Disneyland ride), a traditional water puppet show, the 36 Streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and the amazing rice fields of North Vietnam. We’d drive for 4 hours and the entire time be surrounded on both sides by nothing but rice fields- perfect rectangular sections dotting green fields, drenched in shin-high water, with one or a few Vietnamese farmers in their traditional hats, working the land. They were out there all day working alone and so hard, it was just incredibly humbling to see.

After three days I returned to Saigon, where I spent one day at the Cao Dai Temple (amazing, unlike anything I’ve ever seen) and the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels were some 200km long, dug in dense soil and used by the Vietnamese throughout the war to demolish the Americans… it was really scary to see and the war hit home pretty hard when in the jungle and crawling through the tunnels, plus there’s a shooting range at the end of the tour where people can fire AK-47’s for a dollar per bullet… so as you’re walking through the jungle, seeing the tunnels, viewing spike-laden traps, I’m hearing gunfire ringing out and bullets whizzing through the air! That definitely added some authenticity to the experience, and furthered my already hyper-pacificist viewpoint on the world. Haha, I know a bunch of you will ask me if I fired the gun like most students did, but I didn’t, it just seemed so wrong to be recreationally firing shots on the sacred ground where so many people died gruesome deaths for the wrong reasons. But I do have a hysterical video of my friend Reed firing the gun while I’m standing next to him shaking my head and the loudness of the shot causing me to almost fall over. The next day we took a day tour to the Mekong Delta, which visually is what I imagined Vietnam to look like… colorful fishing boats, muddy waters, small islands, green vegetation, etc… It was an amazing day; if anyone goes to Vietnam make sure you take a boat tour of the Mekong Delta. Now we’re back on the boat and headed towards India, the country I’m looking forward to most out of any on the trip. That’s the roundup on my daily travels, here are my observations and insights (Although I lost my notepad I wrote a lot of them down in, I’ll try to recount as best as I can):

Hong Kong Observations-
The most contrasting place I’ve ever been to, towering skyscrapers rest on the waterfront next to colorful fishing boats and villages, while lush green mountains roll in the background… extreme rich live two doors from extreme poor
People don’t cross the street during the day until the crosswalk light goes green… even if no cars are around.
It was British for 99 years, so they drive on the wrong side of the road.
Best public transportation system ever, take the bus, subway, ferry, etc… they’re efficient and great.
Don’t spit anywhere, and if you throw out gum make sure you wrap it up… or else a $200 US fine
Very moral people- subway system expects you to tell them where you’re going and pay fee according to distance you’ll travel but they don’t enforce that
They love Bon Jovi, guys feel cool playing the cowbell, and fishnet shirts on men are apparently “in”

Vietnam Observations-
Motorbikes are everywhere, probably outnumbering cars 50 to 1
XXXL clothes are fitted for people that are 5’8”
There’s no regard for traffic regulations, everyone drives on either side of the street regardless of vehicles approaching… it’s like existing inside of a bee hive… its scary as hell at first but fun to watch
You can bargain for anything, most things are dirt cheap, and they accept American cash everywhere
The currency is called “Dong”… the corny jokes are unending
Children will wave and say “Hello” or “What is your name” everywhere you go… from bridges, windows or sitting on the front of motorbikes
The country is like a national dollar store
They all really do wear those straw hats, and prostitution and “massageee” are as big as rumored
Crossing the street is like playing a live game of Frogger
They have knockoffs of everything… DVD’s are 15,000 Dong… that’s $1
The food is soooo good, but never eat off the street… you’ll end up spending way more time with the porcelain g-ds than you want
Yes I did have a woman say “me love you long time” to me… and yes I even puffed on a cigarette for the 2nd time in my entire life just so we could say when we get back “Damn I haven’t smoked a cigarette since Nam”… and yes I’m a fool.

Finally, picking one travel story/insight would be really difficult because several incredible things happened over the past 10 days. One was the horribly deformed 18 year-old girl I saw walking by dragging her bottom on the ground (in a catcher’s squatting position, she couldn’t stand, that was her life-position and the disabled in Vietnam have no government benefits/aid), sliding her left foot forward a few feet and then pulling her right forward with her right hand because she had no power in that leg. After staring from behind her for 30 seconds frozen in shock and empathy, I decided to walk over and smile at her because I figured everyone usually looks away when passing her and I wanted her to see me smile as if things were okay, and hopefully smile back because I assumed she must be so sad. As I walked up from behind her I heard something… it was the girl… she was singing. I was just blown away, I walked 25 feet ahead of her, stopped as if I was looking for something, then walked back past her, smiled at her as she sang and she stopped to flash a true smile back at me… that one really shook me up.

The second was my night in Halong Bay, when I wasn’t particularly close to anyone on my field program so I wandered the streets alone for an hour or two, stopping in markets and makeshift stores. Eventually on my way home, a block before my hotel, I stopped at a small stand where three people were sitting. I wanted to buy a cool Vietnamese traditional wooden pipe they had, so they sent out a guy on a bike to get me one and told me to wait 5 minutes… he came back, but I had realized this was a stand where people stopped by and this woman served them tea and a smoke before they went on their merry way… I bought her a pair of gloves because she only had one, and she gave me tea and a bottle of wine that I insisted we share with everyone around. That turned into an hour of fun with the locals, they probably knew a combined 25 English words between 15 of them, but we somehow made communication work and laughed the entire time. Two SAS girls who were walking by had joined us for the last 15 mins, and overall it was a great great night. I wished them all goodnight round 11pm and gave the woman who ran the stand (she was 26 but looked 35) a big hug goodnight… and then she invited us back to her home to meet her family… 10 minutes through pitch-black dirt roads and we arrived at her home… it was one room, with her husband and 1-year old son, and her parents living in their own one room home nextdoor…

They brought out their best- bottled water in tea cups. We spoke and played with this adorable baby for an hour, they even offered me the only laminated picture they had of him (I had to refuse though), and invited me back the next night but I was leaving for Hanoi. These people had almost nothing, their walls were barren and they had one room with a bunk and regular bed… but they were so happy with their lives, so welcoming to me, and offered me nearly everything they had. That was definitely one of the most amazing nights of my life, and taught me things I can’t really put into words. All I can tell you is that when you travel, see the sights, but don’t travel places without getting to know the locals. Travel to meet the people, not just to view the locations where they live.

Lastly, at the Mekong Delta on the first island (Unicorn Island) we went to there was this ridiculously cute 6 year-old girl who greeted us at the entrance gate by waving at us for minutes without expressing anything on her face… completely stoic. She wouldn’t smile or talk, just waved. When we sat down to eat we realized she was at the gate outside the eating area, standing and still waving. We ate and a small musical ensemble played, and she remained at the gate waving expressionless. I tried to talk to her but she wouldn’t change her facial expression or say anything. Eventually two of my friends got her to say “Cintao”… hello… after they gave her their LiveStrong bracelet. I grabbed our guide and asked him to ask her my question, “If she could have anything in the world, what is the one thing she’d want.” Her friends were around now, and she was silent until he asked her friend the question… all of the sudden she exploded with chatter and laughter, pointing at Dennis, Jaret and me. The guide said “She wants to know, what is heavier- A kilo of cotton or a kilo of iron?” Hahahha, we exploded laughing, told her they were the same, and she nodded laughing and did a little dance in a circle. He then asked her the question for me, and she said a couple things before settling on her final answer. The guide told us, “She says if she could have anything, she wants her parents to have good health so they can take her out and play.”

We were all shaken up by that, agreed we wanted to adopt Vietnamese babies, haha, and eventually she ran off playing with her friends. As we left the island, our guide said he’d been at that island everyday for years. The girl always greeted everyone at the entrance and usually followed the tours around, waving without expression from the gate… this was the first time he’d ever seen her speak a single word.

If I’ve learned one thing on this trip, it’s to travel to connect with people…they’ll teach you more than any museum or book.

Be safe and stay classy,

Friday, February 18, 2005

SAS Email 4 - China & Hong Kong

Well I know it’s been a while since my last email, but I’ve literally been going so hard since we arrived in China I haven’t had a free moment to write … I haven’t even had the time to get the hour-long massages for 6 bucks! Before I get to describing China, and a brief foreshadowing of my next email on Hong Kong (where I currently have been for 3 days), I’ll finish up on Hawaii.

We were on Honolulu for a few more days after my last email. More great times were had there, but the best part was the day before we left. I went with three friends on the bus system (amazing public transportation system in Hawaii… so reliable) to ManaWilly Falls (prob spelled very wrong), which was a pretty remote place about an hour outside the Waikiki area. The hike was really beautiful and cool (walking across small rivers, up stairs, down hills) and we met this crazy old local man named Dr. Dizon (claims to have worked for Time, Life, Newsweek and Playboy magazines… and is the only person in the world to know exactly how to have a boy or girl… which he told us the secret of) that cracked us up for 15 mins. The best part was at the end we came to a 30ft waterfall and the small pond it fell into. We were told there’s a way to climb up the rocks and do a 25ft cliff dive, but we apparently climbed up the wrong side and ended up about 45ft up, towering above the waterfall… It was pretty damn scary, and the footing was awful, but one of the guys I was with is a completely crazy bastard, so obviously he jumped and we followed the mantra of “You only live once” and jumped too… it felt like you were falling for 10 secs but so much fun, haha, and we ended up jumping a bunch of times. So if you’re ever on the big island in Hawaii, do the ManaWilly Falls hike and no matter how scared you are, jump off the highest cliff. It was definitely one of the top three highlights of my 12 days in Hawaii.

So next we flew to San Francisco on our way to Beijing (one of my favorite cities in the world… so clean and cool and just different), and had a 9 hour layover starting at 4am. We left the airport and went down to catch sunrise at Fisherman’s Wharf, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. That was pretty beautiful and fun, and we also checked out all the sea lions on Pier 39, Lombard Street (the really steep one), and some local cafes. Then it was the 13 hour flight to Beijing (some people went to Beijing and others to Shanghai… all depending on field programs and expected travel), and my field program was basically touring the city’s major sights with a group led by students from the Beijing University of International Business. Everyone was so excited to finally get to Asia, the vibe was really positive, and it was so strange to say “I’m going to get some Chinese food”… and realize EVERYTHING IS Chinese food.

Our itinerary was really busy throughout the stay, and our guides were great. The first morning we went to Tian’anmen Square, which is just enormous. It’s 100 acres in its entirety, and thinking about the massacres during the student protests made us all feel a sense of historic significance in being there during our college years. We next went through the memorial building for Chairmen Mao, who is completely worshipped there… His picture is on every currency bill and they sell t-shirts and watches with his face on them like hot-cakes. His body is actually displayed in a glass chamber in the middle of this one room that you have to walk on the outskirts of very quickly, and some say it’s actually him, others say it’s a wax figure, and real wack-jobs say it’s just his skin on a fake body. Either way it was really eerie and weird, but kinda cool at the same time. Across the way was the Forbidden City, proving with its 9999 rooms that Emperors in early China really lived the good life. No other building in Beijing was allowed to be taller than this one “Emperor’s Building” in the Forbidden City, because no one was allowed to look down on the Emperor. There were massive plazas, at the end of which were huge buildings colored mainly in red and green with names like “Hall of Heavenly Purity”, “Hall of Earthly Tranquility” and “Hall of Preserving Harmony.”

After that we went to the Temple of Heaven, which was even bigger than the Forbidden City (to show that G-d was always above man in his grandeur). There’s one special circular plateau with 81 stones on the outside ring, 49 on the next, then 25, then 9, and one taller round stone in the middle. It’s believed this stone echoes onto G-d’s ears, so people all take pictures on it and say a quick prayer… but in China lines are not practiced, they just don’t’ do them, they mostly just create a mass of people and first to the destination point wins. So on the stone people are bumping and shoving each other all over the place, so if you ever get there be prepared to get physical. Later that night we saw an acrobat show at the local theatre, something similar to Cirque de Soleil, which was cool and mind-blowing and overly flexible at the same time. The best quote of the night was when someone criticized an act, my roommate Matt on the trip goes “Yea, they act like they’ve never turned their bodies inside out while balancing seven dinner plates before.” After that we went to a standard local restaurant for dinner, ended up buying lots of beer, and these Chinese men in their late 50’s (who were hammered with their families there) starting coming over and toasting with us… before we knew it the place was a mad house, beer was flying all over the place, chugging and cigarette smoke O-blowing contests led to huge cheers, and basically every one had an amazing time. Leaving the place all of us keptlooking at each other and saying “That was just awesome.” From there we went to a local bar with a live band playing Chinese and American covers, and I’ve kept a streak of going on stage at every club or bar we’ve been to so I went up and sang a song with the lead singer.

The next morning we drove to the Great Wall of China. The twist was that it was snowing, so people were slipping and sliding everywhere. It was pretty amazing to think I was actually on the Great Wall, and the snow made it incredibly majestic. After the Great Wall we went to the Summer Palace… it’s incredible, I got lost in there from my group for over an hour… definitely my favorite place on the trip. Being lost was the best part too, cause it made me see all these towering temples and go to desolate spaces away from the tourists. The adventure of being lost in such a cool and crazy place, and I was alone with someone I’d just met that day, made for a great time. After that we saw the dorms of the University, which was by far the biggest taste of culture shock. What would stand for a single at Brown was inhabited by 6 students! They had their computers, and books all on their beds, no room whatsoever, no hot water in the dorms, and showers were in another building a quarter mile walk away. I became pretty close with the two male student guides we had, we a couple great conversations, and they considered this living arrangement to be “so-so.”

That night they took us to a really popular night club, called Rock and Roll Disco… it was insane. Hundreds of Asians in this upscale club in the middle of the dance floor, dancing their faces off to throbbing techno beats with flashing lights and lasers everywhere. Most of the American kids left cause they didn’t know what to do in that environment, but I figured “When in Hong Kong” and joined the middle of the dance floor (eventually ended up on stage for most of the night) and it turned out to be one of the most fun nights of my life… the music was so good, and no one cares (cause they dance like they’re in The Sims… all crazy body contortions and head shaking and stuff… hysterical to just sit back and watch) how you look or dance… it just about self-expression and a release. The following morning we did some shopping at the Yaxiu Clothing Market, and they flew to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has been incredible so far, some of the most memorable events I’ve ever been a part of have already happened. I feel like everyone should see Hong Kong once in their life, it’s just a place of greater contrast than anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s a metropolis that seriously puts mid-town Manhattan to shame, but the skyline is surrounded by rolling lush green mountains, extremely impoverished people, and exotic colored fishing boats in places like Aberdeen… it’s just so different from any place I’ve ever seen, and you need to witness it with your own eyes to understand what in the hell I’m trying to feebly describe.

So here’s the list of my major observations on China:
1- Yao Ming is everywhere in China… he’s marketing gold
2- Chinese don’t smile in their pictures, they almost always give stone faces… a testament to the self-reservation practiced via Confucianism
3- You can bargain for ANYTHING in China, and everything is dirt cheap
4- They have the worst toilet paper ever, the stuff just doesn’t rip straight at all… the real Chinese water torture is the process of using the bathroom
5- People are everywhere in China, everything is in mass too
6- Chinese people have a great affinity for Americans… they’ll stop you everywhere you go and ask you to get in their pictures with their family… it’s hysterical… would you ever stop a Chinese guy when you were at a museum and say “Get in all my pictures with my family! Thank you thank you so much!”?
7- They LOVE to pose in pictures with the palm-out peace sign… it’s like a national requirement
8- David Hasselhoff in Germany is to the Backstreet Boys in China… if you love the Backstreet Boys in China you’re the coolest
9- The youth study very hard, and party almost never… our trip was the first time both our 21 year old guides had been in either a bar or club… when I asked where they go to party they said “We don’t.”
10- The TV show Friends is a huge hit there… when my guide and I became close he told me he had a serious question for me. He said “I love Joey from Friends, he is very funny. You know how he says “How you doooing” to all the girls.” I said “Yea..” and he goes “Does that work?”
11- They all somehow have English names, but it’s obvious that they’re conversions to whatever sounds closest to their real Chinese names. One guy I met said his name was Oscar, another was Eugene… I’m thinking “There’s no way in hell you’re real name is Eugene Tokanowa.

From my amazing night at the Chinese disco club I came away realizing something really ironic about our two cultures. Americans celebrate individualism and confidence, but when we go out we either dance in a uniform way relying on another person (grinding) or if we’re dancing by ourselves it’s usually in a circle of people so everyone can make sure they don’t look too bad and can evaluate or even replicate those around them. China promotes collectivism and self-reservation, but when they dance no one grinds or circles up. It’s like each person is in their own little world bubble, not caring at all what anyone else perceives them to be, dancing alone and so hard you’d think their backs would break. It’s just really paradoxical that we dance so differently from our cultural mentalities… I know that probably means nothing to any of you and you think I’m rambling on something ridiculous, but it just struck me as strange… plus I still can’t get over the scene at the club that night…

Lastly I’ll share the usual anecdote from the trip. As we were leaving the Forbidden City, we had to wait about 15 minutes on the street for our bus to arrive. While our group of 60 American students stood on the sidewalk being harassed by locals to buy postcards, scarves, and dragon figures for something like 50 cents, we all wouldn’t open our wallets for a second. Then an elderly limping man walked around our crowd of students, dressed in a dirtied soldier’s uniform with his head down. His face was completely withered, and his eyes expressed a sadness that I can’t really explain. He wasn’t asking us for money, he was just walking by… but strapped to his back, as he struggled, was his baby son. His face was also dirtied and in poor shape, but this boy was beyond cute and still smiled with curious eyes at us. I think every student in our group gave the man some money, helped him to sit down, and he kept muttering “Sheishei Sheishei”… Thank you Thank you. We gave his son Oreos, and the man gave us the thumbs up, a small smile, and pulled out an old photo of him dressed in uniform when he was probably 25. He was still wearing that uniform, now walking the streets with his baby strapped to his back, but displaying the picture with such pride and vigor. I was mesmerized by how sad his eyes looked, and how oblivious he was to how curious his son’s eyes were in contrast… Two individuals, deeply connected but at the opposite ends of the spectrum in life.

We pulled away from the Forbidden City on the bus, as he still sat there on the ground, his son’s face now covered in black Oreo. He gave us the thumbs up through the window, the son playing with the picture of the old father as we pulled away. We all felt good about ourselves for helping him out… then I thought about the fact that tomorrow, that man returns to the same life. We go on to see the Great Wall and travel around the world, but he returns to walking the streets possessing nothing but a love for his baby son. Somehow he went from a strapping soldier to a charity case, but the only thing he couldn’t lose was his love for his family.

So we leave in two days for Vietnam, which is probably the country I’m looking forward to seeing second most on the trip after India. We’re also meeting the ship there in a week, so I’ll have more frequent access to the internet and try to respond to some emails.

Take care and stay classy,

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

SAS Email 3 - Hawaii

Hey everyone,

I’m still in Hawaii for a few more days before we fly to Shanghai, China (the boat’s meeting us in Vietnam) but I figured I’ve been here for a while so I might as well send out an update before I leave. My last update I sent out just before I touched land for the first time in 15 days, and the feeling of elation leaving the boat was just great. Everyone was so happy, obviously we all got laid as soon as we got off the boat, and most students hit the bars real hard that first night (myself included). I got a hotel room with 4 buddies in Waikiki and had a blast the first night, shopped a lil after waking up late the 2nd day, then headed to a Luau that was thrown for all members of Semester at Sea. That was really cool and interesting, the food and drinks were amazing, and the cultural show had some great Polynesian dances and this one huge guy did some sick stuff with a flaming bow. After the 6 hour Luau we came back to Waikiki, and instead of doing the usual bar-hopping a bunch of us decided to get some 40’s and just head down to the beach. We found a secluded area and just talked (reminded me of “the blacklight sessions” for those of you who know) for a couple hours, and 3 of us ended up going swimming around 2:30am in the beautiful Pacific. The 3rd morning a few of us woke up early to see the Pearl Harbor Memorial. It’s very simple, basically a mini-museum, you watch a short video, and then you’re boated out to this little floating walkway that floats above the sunken SS Arizona below. Some think the place is very weak because it’s not an overwhelming physical structure, but when realizing that you’re standing on such historically significant ground, and that 1000 bodies are entombed in the ship below you, it can be very very powerful. The ship still leaks about 2 quarts of oil each day, so around you in the water are reflective oil patches. Apparently they wanted to clean the oil tank out so it would stop polluting the water, but the veterans refused, saying the oil represents the tears shed by the fallen soldiers in the waters below… which I think is pretty beautiful. Immediately after that I grabbed two friends of mine and we decided to catch the 30 minute flight to Maui and meet up with some other friends who were already there…so it was off to Maui…. (by the way, when I said we all “got laid as soon as we got off the boat” before, I was obviously referring to the Hawaiian custom of natives placing a lay over our heads…. sickos)

For those of you who have never been to Maui, GO! It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, whether the weather is good or not. It’s just so majestic, that’s really the only adjective I can think of that can do it justice. Serene and gorgeous apply as well, but majestic fits best… it’s the type of place that makes you wanna be on a honeymoon just by being there. The three days in Maui were three of the best days of my life, but I’ll just give you the highlights- When we first arrived it was slightly overcast so I walked with the two guys I went there with about 15 mins along the beach to meet up with some other SAS friends at this big rock formation called “Black Rock” off this hotel nearby. We swam about 100 yards in the beautifully clear and warm water to the rock formation, then climbed the sharp rocks to the peak which was about 30 feet above the water… then being the idiots that we are, we obviously did dives, pencils, flips, cannonballs, and one AWFUL unintentional belly-flop off the top. That in itself was awesome, then that night we had a great dinner and had a blast drinking, dancing, and meeting locals at this tiny near-empty jazz club. The feel of Maui is far less touristy than Honolulu and Waikiki, much less inhabited and has a far more indigenous Hawaiian/Polynesian flavor to it. The next morning three of us went scuba diving, saw some amazing sea turtles swimming with us and heard whales calling to each other underwater, then I had one of those moments that just changes you… which I’ll describe a little later. That night we went to dinner at a place called Sunsai, if you go to Maui you HAVE TO EAT THERE, it was some of the best food I’ve ever tasted, and on Thursdays (which is when we went) they had half-off food (sushi and everything else) and KARAOKE after 10pm… of course we sang “Caribbean Queen” by Billy Oceans for our waitress and “Can’t Get enough of your Love” by Barry White, haha. That night we slept on the beach, but it rained round 3am so we crashed in a friend’s cottage. The next morning the three of us took a cab to Iao (only word I’ve ever heard of with all vowels?), which is a small 10 minute hike up stairs, but has unmarked trails all behind it. So we decided to just go and hike on the unmarked trails, make our own paths, and adventure a little in the Ferngully-looking forest around us. We eventually came to a beautiful stream, took a dip and some pictures, then hiked back. We had an amazing lunch at this little Hawaiin cafĂ©, then caught the cab back to the airport and flew back from Maui...

We were all on a natural high from how great Maui was, so that night I went out with 4 of my closest friends here (the first 4 friends I made on the trip basically, which includes my roommate) and had a an amazing time at this total dive bar. The highlight of the night came when I got my roommate Jaret to take a “strong man” shot, which involves taking a tequila shot but doing it in a very very unconventional way (some of you may know it)… it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen (and I have the video to prove it). The following morning I hiked Diamond Head, which is the largest crater in Honolulu, where you can basically see the whole island from the peak. We took a bus straight from there to Haunama Bay, which is one of the most gorgeous beaches in the world, and a premier walk-in snorkeling site so we snorkeled there as well. That day also happened to be the great Bob Marley’s birthday, so there was a Reggae festival as a tribute at a place about 10 mins walking distance from our boat. Obviously I had to go there, saw some really good reggae, and capped off the night talking with some friends till bout 5am on the back deck of the boat. For the Superbowl, I went to TGIFridays (Cocktail shoutout) with four friends… congrats to the Pats on the win; my Jets will rise again in 2005-2006. The last part of being in Hawaii I’ll tell you bout is this unreal place we found two nights ago, it’s a Japanese style Karaoke bar called GS Studio… you pay for a tiny room, and you can fit bout 10 people per room and it consists of two couches, a table, two TV’s, and two microphones… from there you basically select songs and go crazy. I can’t even describe how much fun it is; most people think you have to be drunk to do karaoke, but in a small room with just your friends and everyone singing their hearts out, I’ve had an incredible time there the past two nights dead sober (for those of you who have experienced this, it’s like the last 10 minutes of a good power hour (shoutout to Minden and the Deuce7) extended for 2 hours). Highlights from the past two nights included “The Sign”, “Jack and Diane”, “Tiny Dancer aka Tony Danza”, “Livin on a Prayer”, “The Lion Sleeps tonight”, “No Diggity”, “Stayin Alive”, “You’ve Lost that Lovin Feeling”, “Don’t Stop Believin”, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Lets Stay Together”. I really think the idea of bars with individual karaoke rooms needs to be franchised and proliferated across the US, so I implore anyone to try (Matt Wiggins) and I’ll buy the year pass.

Now that you’ve been caught up on the events of my time in Hawaii, here are a few observations on Hawaiin culture… The way of life is very very laid back. The term “hang loose” is clearly the mantra for these islands, although Waikiki is very Westernized and tourist-driven. (As you can tell by how active my days have been, the mantra I keep repeating to myself is “You can sleep when you’re dead”) The people are mostly friendly, although some of the local surfers are pretty territorial and don’t like intrusions by tourists. They are also incredibly strict on underage drinking and fake ID’s, apparently because of all the underage marines stationed in the area. The original Polynesian culture is clearly fading and meshing with mainstream American culture, which is a shame because it’s so interesting. Even the Luau was clearly sensationalized, and digressed greatly from the origins of the culture, most notably when one of the dancers came out and starting doing the Harlem Shake and Crip Walk,hahahaha… some of the Midwestern kids who’ve never really seen newer hip-hop dances were actually like “Wow that’s so cool, Hawaiin dances are awesome”, hahahahhaa. The landscapes are truly breathtaking; the contrast of open blue waters, white cloud formations and soaring green mountains create incredible vistas from any angle. Each sunset is great too; they in themselves are worth waiting the whole day to view.

Lastly I’ll just tell you about two events that happened to me that I was left breathless by. The first occurred at the Luau- There was a little Hawaiian girl, she was no older than 6, and one of the cutest kids I’ve ever seen. She kept dancing on the table, talking to all the SAS students, and generally loved being the center of attention in an adorable way. A lot of students on the trip are doing one “thing” in each country (bottlecaps, masks, hats, shot glasses, tiny instruments, etc), my shtick is that I want to make a huge picture frame with a picture of a local child of the same age in each country and next to that have a piece of paper where they wrote their answer to the question of “If you could have any one thing in the world, what would you want?” It should show a reflection of the desires/mentalities of each culture around the world. Plus I’m gonna have each child write it in their native language, so obviously several of them I won’t even know what they wrote, but hopefully they’ll be revealed to me in due time at a random point when maybe the response contains a message that will be pertinent and helpful at that point in my life. Anyway, when I asked this beautiful little girl to write down what was the one thing in the world she wanted, I was expecting her to respond with a Barbie doll or a pretty dress… her response is in one of the pictures I attached to this email (Called 05-2-1 Emily) so you should probably look at it now… What she wrote gave me the chills, I was simply blown away. Of all the things one could have in the world, she wanted this one thing, and only the innocent and pure mind of a child could make such a beautiful request…

The second event I’ll describe was what I earlier referred to in Maui- After scuba diving we had some down time so I decided to go out to the beach and meditate on the comfortable sand… Yes, I’ve been meditating almost everyday on this trip, although I’m a total novice I love what it brings to my everyday mental state (the ships doctor is a Buddhist who has been somewhat of my mentor with meditation and helped me learn how to do it in ways I’m comfortable with). It cleanses my mind and I awake from my meditations feeling so mentally sharp and physically invigorated… I know that sounds somewhat ridiculous and clichĂ©, but for me I really enjoy it that much and I highly recommend it to anyone that wants to try. So I went to meditate on the beach while no one was out there, and it was right before sunset. I noticed the sun was hidden behind a massive cloud front so I realized I wasn’t going to really see the sun set, which I was a little disappointed by. But after my 10 minute mediation I felt great and the serenity of the beach, ocean and mountains ahead of me was really calming. So I decided to do another 10 minute breathing meditation, again assuming I wouldn’t see the sun go down anyway so I wouldn’t be missing anything. This second meditation was probably the best I’ve had yet, my mind was totally cleared, and when I opened my eyes I was greeted by the most breath-taking site I’d ever seen.

The sky was emblazoned with reds, purples, pinks, oranges, whites, yellows and blues. The sun had dipped below the skyline but reflected up against the clouds, and I was beyond shocked with what I was viewing. I sprinted to the cottage and came back to take pictures, then just sat on the beachfront as the colors danced across the sky above me. It evoked a feeling unlike anything I’d ever had, I guess the best way to describe the feeling was absolute and consuming awe… awe for how amazing the world can be and awe for how something could have created a place with such potential for beauty. Later that night I kept thinking about that sunset incessantly and realized the more profound metaphor in what happened to me- I stopped looking for something (a sunset), expected nothing, and only then was I able to experience the most amazingly profound sunset I’d ever seen. I began relating it to other parts of my life, things that I’ve wanted so badly and searched so hard for unsuccessfully (because I expect them to happen immediately for me) and realized the message was to simply stop looking or expecting to find them in front of me. This is the foundation of Taoism, which I understood the basic concepts of but didn’t fully grasp until this Maui sunset event… You can’t force things in your life to happen, you can only live the best way you deem possible, and hopefully you will be rewarded when the time is right. To find the answers you have to stop looking for them, and sometimes you’ll find they’re right in front of your face… The only way I saw the most beautiful sunset of my life, was by closing my eyes.

Take care and stay classy,