As soon as our ship docked in the harbor, we could see a row of Vietnamese women wearing red traditional tunics and pointy round hats, holding a sign that read “Semester at Sea, Welcome to Vietnam”. The air was thick with heat and moisture and that humidity made it more unbearable than any of the hotter, dry countries we had visited before.
The streets of Singapore are filled, literally filled, with motorcycles and bicycles. Women and men don helmets, gloves, long sleeves , pants and surgical masks, for both pollution purposes, and to keep from getting a tan. Pale is in, so they cover up from head to toe. Sometimes it would be a single person on a bike, and sometimes a family of five, with little ones of their parents laps or squeezed between them or hanging precariously from the handlebars. Every stoplight yields one unrelenting wave heat from the motorcycles to another, and standing on the street makes you sweat harder than you were before.
Fortunately, stepping inside a cool Buddhist temple gives you a break from the heat an noise, although incense smoke clouds the air and there are plenty of locals chanting in prayer. People place their incense into large brass colored pots in the center of one of the rooms, there are well wishes written across pink ribbons covering several walls, and as usual, an alter in which gleaming gold statues stare back at you from their thrones.
We moved on to water Puppet Theater, an art form that Vietnam is apparently famous for. Beautiful wooden dragons rise out the water behind the mist and dance to traditional Vietnamese music. It was probably more of a thrill for the children, than the people our age, but the easy-to-interpret Vietnamese folk tales made the whole experience worth it. After the performance, we spent time in an artists village market and I bought two hand painted postcards with beautiful vintage scenes.
Our last big stop of the day was the historical, political epicenter of Ho Chi Mihn city. We explored their version of the White house, complete with tanks in the front yard, large conference rooms where decisions were made by the Vietnamese government during America’s war with them, and the actual underground bunkers/war rooms, that felt something like a submarine and were stripped of anything of beauty. The rooms were all metal and cramped, often an army green or grey in color, and with the amount we were underground, no natural light.
After such a long and busy first day, Jamie, Mari, Lauren and I decided to partake in one of the phenomenon that Vietnam has become so famous for- the spas. We all went to get a pedicure and to experience the “service culture” for ourselves. We drank relaxing tea, and gazed out the windows at all the cats hiding in the trees. (they had a lot of stray cats)
My next day was a trip to a school, where we’d get to play with and give gifts to the kids. They performed songs for us and colored with us, and despite the complete lack of language-based-understanding, our interaction with the kids was easy based on body language and all the crazy faces we could make. The kids were so sweet, but typically kindergarten aged, so they didn’t always want to share the crayons we brought them.
Following our visit, we went for lunch on a rice farm. We watched as they made rice paper and left it out to dry in the sun, and then we ate all manner of foods, the best of which was a small eggroll wrapped in a crisp, fresh lettuce leaf.
Down the block we walked and came upon a beautiful temple. This specific temple combined Confusism, Buddhism and Taoism, so there were so many colors and murals and idols lining the walls. The ceiling was painted like a sky, with blue and clouds, and the pillars were covered in vines and flowers. The mosaic tile floor must’ve taken a decade, because this temple was easily the size of a football field inside; Walking around the whole temple took 20 minutes at least! As we were milling about, admiring the carvings and statues, a ceremonial prayer was beginning. We filed up to the balcony so that the floor could be taken by those apart of the prayer. Lines formed, men all on the right and women all on the left. They filled in every inch of room until the halfway point, where one man and one woman (the leaders of the prayer) sat just slightly ahead. They left almost half the temple open to welcome the holy spirits to join them in the prayer. The music began and a ritualistic bow began to make waves in the religious people below us. They all wore white, and it just made the effect all the more so impressive. I’ll try to include a short video of the prayer to follow.
The next day, Mari, Jamie, Lauren and I went to explore the Cu Chi tunnels. This tunnel system is the underground serious of passages that the Viet Cong used during the war to surprise attack US soldiers. The guide showed us through the 4 foot high tunnels, and it was hard to crawl under at a rapid pace. There’s also bats living down there now, so its more than just the small size to contend with, and several members of our party could be heard screaming down in the tunnels from surprise bats around their heads. Holes poked out of random parts of the ground and small peeking spots out of what appeared to be a big rock. There were all sorts of booby traps and with the thick brush around you, it wouldn’t be hard to fall into a pit of spikes disguised by a few leafy branches. Our guide kept making comments about “stupid Americans” and laughing, often boasting about the superior intelligence of the Vietnamese. His attitude offended more than a few on our tour, but really made me think about the role we play in the world as American citizens and how much we really know about how we’re seen.
I’m pretty sure I spent the remaining time in Vietnam eating. Okay, so eating and bartering wildly at the night market for goods. Well actually, eating, shopping AND going back to the spa once for my very first massage. Lets just say that massages work better when you can communicate that they’re going a little too hard, and you then you don’t end up with a few bruises on your back.
Depending on how you accent and pronounce the Vietnamese word Pho, it can mean: street, soup, four, or prostitute.
Upon arriving in Singapore, you immediately realize how strict they are. Before getting there, everyone was talking about how you could be heavily fined for spitting, selling or spitting chewing gum, J-walking, littering, and a million other things. They’re strict for a purpose, however, and despite the seemingly insane attention to mundane offenses, Singapore is just protecting its beauty. Everything is preserved and kept clean more than anywhere in the world.
Singapore is known for its cultural fusion, and with influences from India, China and Malaysia, you know the food is going to be incredible! Unlike so many other countries that we visited, Singapore’s strict rules make food carts on the street safe and clean enough for foreigners. We gorged on spinach pastries and chicken satay and un-identifiable goodies. Each mouthwatering food was crisper or sweeter or creamier than the last and no matter how full we felt, nothing could stop us from taking another bite… nothing, except for money, of course, because Singapore was quite an expensive place.
Mari, Lauren and I decided to save ourselves some money and take a tour with our shipmates. We stopped at famous landmarks and beautiful gardens, the giant mall and the ethnic neighborhoods. In the spirit of adventure, I decided to get my nose pierced on the street in the Indian district, so a little Indian woman marked my nose with a small purple dot, and promptly rammed a small stud into my ear. Needless to say, the nose piercing didn’t last long without proper cleaning supplies.
The three of us decided to get a hotel for the night and locate the one and only gay bar in the city. We shopped in markets and visited temples, and overall truly enjoyed our visit.
Asia was an absolute blur, not to mention the fact that I never finished flushing my notes out into viable reading material. I’ll do my best to give some recaps, but I’m afraid that memory fails when there is so many new experiences in such a small amount of time.
On April 2nd we woke up early to the sound of banging pots and pans as a gang of crew members shouted and drummed and stomped their way around the ship at 7 am. They were dressed in warrior garb and told us that all Scallywags needed to report to the deck.
Once we all gathered, our captain, painted completely in green body paint and wearing only shorts and a grass skirt, announced that in order to become a Shellback and stop being a Scallywag we needed to complete one of three tasks. Kiss a fish, be showered in fish guts or shave our heads.
I spent the rest of the morning videotaping and taking pictures of Lauren getting her head shaved, as well as several other friends.
Later in the day, my Indian Singing class performed a concert. We sang our Hindustani songs and sat cross-legged in our Saris and Indian regalia. After an hour of singing and sitting on the floor cross-legged, my legs were completely asleep, so when my teacher asked us to stand at the end of the concert to bow, my jello-legs bent awkwardly and slipped on my silk sari causing me to land directly on my butt, on the stage, in front of everyone. It was a ridiculous end to a crazy day.
The first day in India, I was already enamored. Jamie, Mari, Lauren and I took a rickshaw to go shopping, and as Raja (our driver’s name) took us out Mari and I sang some Hindu songs. We whizzed by the strange smells- some nice, like jasmine and curry, and some awful- like garbage and pee. There are old, broken down buildings next to modern ones, destruction with creation. There are women in brightly colored saris everywhere, because a colorful wardrobe leads to a colorful life. The traffic is outrageous and no one follows the road signs or lines and basically you have to be an Indian to drive in India. The shopping is incredible- you ask for a scarf and they bring out at least 30, different colors, hand stitched, and display them all on the counter. They try to charge you 3,000 rupees for a scarf and then give you a discount to bring it down to 2,900 rupees. You have to bargain it down to 1,800 rupees and then re-think the item causing them to bring the price down again. Yes, shopping in India is very, very fun.
On day two, Lauren and I went off for our home stay, along with Alyssa. We met our mother and sister, Priyanka, on the street. We headed to their car, a silver mini-van, and their driver helped us with our bags. Its not uncommon in India for people to hire drivers, especially since driving is so difficult. We immediately began talking about what to do with the rest of our night and we decided that we should start with lunch at our “dad’s” restaurant. On the way, we picked up our little “sister”, Juwaala from school.
Our “dad’s” restaurant was a super nice place, and we got to sit in the private room in the back so we could all talk and get to know one another. Our new family ordered us more food than the table could hold, because Indian hospitality is so much that its better for your guest’s stomach to explode from fullness than to ever let their plate empty. We ate incredible chicken and mutton biryanis (rice) and dishes of prawn and curd and baskets and baskets of naan (bread). We had a yogurt drink, a bottle of water, a bottle of orange soda and Pepsi for each one of us. It was ridiculous and at the same time incredible. We learned to eat with our right hands, and although we began as typical American novices, forgetting that left hands DO NOT belong on your food (right hands are for eating, left hands are for the “other end”), but over the next few days we became experts at right-handed eating. By the end of the meal I felt pregnant with an alien I was so full.
After eating I used the restroom and to my surprise, I came face to, well, not face, (but you get the idea) with a hole in the floor. It wasn’t a Western-style toilet, but a HOLE in the FLOOR. Yep. With no toilet paper. It was a new experience for sure.
After we left the restaurant and said goodbye to our “dad”, our “mother” and “sisters” took us to a nearby Tamil Nadu cultural Artist village. We explored with our “sisters” and saw the lifestyle of ancient India.
That night we went to a meeting with all the other SAS home-stay students and Rotarian members and got to watch a performance of folk dances. The dancers were great and super energetic, so when they had finished their dance, and we got up to dance with them, they danced in circles around us. They also had a full buffet, which I could not fit into my stomach, although I did manage a few bites so no one would be insulted.
After we got home our little family held a concert. Our “mother” was a classically trained dancer and did a dance for us. Next, Juwaala did a “Western-style” dance to Mambo No. 5. I sang a song I had learned in my Indian singing class and then Alyssa did a Chinese song. We learned our “dad” liked to race. And when asked to perform their talents, both Priyanka and Lauren claimed to have a talent in background stuff and watching us perform.
The next morning we headed out with the rest of the SASers and Priyanka to Mamalapuram, where giant ancient cave temples stand, fully decorated with carvings. We went from site to site seeing some beautiful and intricate cave walls. Our friend Candace, an awesome black girl, shared with me that her host family seemed to be ignoring her and paying more attention to her white roommate. We talked about racism in India and asked Priyanka about how Indian’s view Africans, concluding that amongst some people there is still a large amount of racism mostly created, or at least enforced, by British colonialism in both India and South Africa. Priyanka, being the awesome girl she is, offered to take Candace into her house and add her to our family, which we quickly made happen with the people in charge.
After a fun girly-sleepover style night, with mats on the floor and 5 of us in one room, we woke up to eat a huge Indian style breakfast and head out to go shopping. We went to a gigantic store, Saravana, that was 7 stories high and seemed to me like Walmart on crack with an Indian flavor. We started at the top to work our way down. You could barely cut through the crowd in some parts of the store and about half of the people seemed to be working there. One teenage girl followed us around to carry our bags and help us pick out the right size. In each isle there were 2-4 more shop girls there to help, although it seemed like they spent their time pointing and laughing at customers, especially our little group. Picking out a top required shoving past the giggling shop girls, digging around for the style you like and hoping the size was right and then holding it up, evoking further laughter from the girls. It was hard to tell if they were laughing at us in our faces, or just really amused that we were different.
When my sisters and I went to look at bags, four shop girls came over to help. They pulled them out to show me and then our girl would hold the ones I liked until we went through them all. One woman came over and started holding up bags too. She asked which I liked better. Lauren said, “I think she’s trying to help too.” I pointed to the bag she held up that I liked better and she said “Okay” and proceeded to take the bag over to the counter to buy it for herself. As I stared after her, our “sister” Priyanka explained that a lot of Indian women only ask for your opinion when they want to buy it just to make you jealous, even if they don’t like it themselves. I decided to keep my future opinions to myself.
We spent the rest of the day shopping, got henna on our hand on the street and spending the day with our “family”. When they came to drop us off at the ship at the end of the day, we got to bring them on to show them our “home”. They saw our rooms and classrooms and cafeterias and we took pictures everywhere. Finally it came time to say goodbye. We all hugged and said our goodbyes and our “mom” began to cry. It was sad for them to leave, but if we ever went back to Chennai, we’d have a “family” to go see.
Our final day in India, Mari, Lauren and I decided to go to Spencer’s plaza, a gigantic mall filled with vendors that had moved up in the world, but were still willing to bargain and haggle for goods. We bought lots of little things and ate our last Indian meal and stopped at Sri Krishna Sweets for a few baked treats and desserts.
Overall India was an incredible place, that I’d so love to go back to. There is so much to see, so much to buy, to eat, and to smell that a week is just not enough time to do it all.
In case you’ve been waiting with baited breath to know that I’ve survived, I am alive.
Clearly its been months since I’ve posted… and at this point I’ve returned home, gone back to school and began to miss my trip. I started looking at my blog and realized I just stopped posting in the middle of the adventures…
In my journal, I had a few entries that I just never posted and I can try to remember everything else, probably piecing things together with the help of my hundreds of pictures and wonderful traveling buddies.
Let me promise right now that I will not fall of the face of the earth again anytime soon and I will safely bring this all home…