Thursday, July 24, 2003

G'day Mates!

Semester at Sea, Port 5: Brisbane, Australia

How awesome is life? Every moment of this trip i just keep wondering what I did to deserve something this amazing. How can life ever get any better? This trip is absolutely incredible.

Australia is amazing. It’s beautiful, the people are beautiful, and I had the time of my life.

The first thing we did when we got off the ship was go to get our noses pierced! Three of us did it together and the woman who pierced us loved Americans, so she gave us a bunch of free stuff and treated us really well. (I have to mention, she was a stark contrast to some of the Australian’s I met. One, for instance, wouldn’t give me a key to the bathroom because I was American and Bush was our president! Seriously!) Anyway, I love love love my nose ring! So that trip was a success! (Unfortunately later in my Australia trip, I was at a night-club and got my nose ring caught on someone’s clothes and ripped out…. It never was the same after that.)

Next we were off to the Loan Pine Koala Sanctuary. I must admit I wasn't too excited about it. But, everyone wanted to go because they let you hold a koala bear there, so I figured... what the hell!

As soon as we got there, we got in line for the holding of the koala and it was a SPIRITUAL experience!!! Ok, maybe that’s a little bit of an exaggeration! But it was awesome. I could not wipe the smile off of my face for the rest of the day. Koalas are now my favorite animal. They are the most adorable creatures ever. Their fur very dense and they actually aren't as soft as you would think, but they cling to you like you're a tree and sometimes they will nuzzle you or put their nose up to you like they're kissing you. I held one twice, I just couldn’t get enough!

After that, we went to this huge penned-in field where they keep kangaroos and wallabies (which are basically small kangaroos). It was like a petting zoo in the states, but WAY cooler because instead of petting and feeding deer and goats, we were petting and feeding kangaroos! They were really soft and docile, and they look absolutely hilarious when they jump, it was awesome.
Next, it was time to hop on our flight to Cairns (pronounced cans) to go to the Great Barrier Reef. I went with Krystal and our friends Dannon and Chris. We all went out to dinner and went to bed relatively early (no partying that night!!) so we could woke up at 7 am to head to the reef.

We actually got an awesome deal, it was $288 to sleep for one night on a really nice boat, get all of our meals for two days AND do 5 scuba dives in the reef! On our way out to the reef, we laid on the top of the boat in the sun and all I could think about was how lucky I am to be alive, it was so awesome. The weather was absolutely beautiful, and the water was an awesome shade of blue. They told us it was the first sun they had in 3 weeks, so we were lucky!
About a 1/2 hour later, I was doing my very first SCUBA dive EVER in the GREAT BARRIER REEF!!! It was amazing. During the first dive my ears hurt so bad that it almost took over the whole experience. Breathing under water is pretty tough to get used to, it was a little scary to trust the oxygen on my back. All-in-all, I'd say SCUBA diving is just a weird experience. But the diving instructor, Damien, was AWESOME and he held my and Dannon's hands for a bit, and showed us sea cucumbers and stuff, so we both relaxed and enjoyed the dive.

After that dive, it just got better and better. Throughout my 5 dives I :

-Touched a sea cucumber and a pinapple sea cucumber
-Touched all this amazing coral... there is one that when you touch it, it retreats into its shell and you leave a hand print on it. It was so soft, it felt awesome to run your hands through.
- Pet a little Great Barrier Reef clown fish, like actually held the thing in my hands and pet it
- Swam IN a school of fish, there were a million yellow tail fusiliers (which are blue fish w/ a yellow tail) and I just went in the middle of them and swam in their school with them!!
- Saw 2 reef sharks (4 or 5 feet) and chased one
- Pet a couple sea turtles and swam with them
- Put my hand inside a GIANT clam (like 4 or 5 feet big) and it closed on my hand! Their muscles are sooo huge that they can't close all the way so my hand was squished between its muscels and it is sooo soft, its like velvet

AND -- I KISSED A FISH!!! There is this huge fish (4 feet) named Wally and he's so friendly, he's like a dog. If you put your hand in the air he will come to you and put his nose into your hand to actually push you through the water!! And, he loves to be petted and he's so soft, it was absolutely crazy. I took out my regulator while I was diving and kissed him on his HUGE FAT BLUE LIPS! It was awesome! -This is someone else's picture, but i just wanted u to see what he looks like and how huge he is! -

I saw so many amazing fish. They were all kinds of crazy colors that I never really thought existed naturally, it was breath taking. All in all, the trip was amazing. There was a nice small group of us on the boat, it holds 60 people and there were only 15 of us, so we all got special attention and became pretty good friends. [Commenting now 5 years later, I am still in contact with a girl named Stav,from Israel, who I met on this trip!]

I have to say that I am a lucky, lucky person to have done my first SCUBA dive ever in the Great Barrier Reef! My only regret is that I didn’t get certified before I went, because then I would have been able to go on a night dive, which sounded really cool. But the instructors were really lax and let us do almost everything the certified divers could do, so I really didn't feel like I was missing out at all.

Australia was awesome!

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Notes on Japan

Semester at Sea, Port 4: Osaka, Japan

Ok... so enough about what I did... here are some things i noticed about Japan

(1) Food: Japanese food is amazing. I am obsessed with it! Believe it or not, the best part was their convenience store food! I'm so serious. Every little store or kiosk had sushi and little rice rolls and noodles, it was AMAZING food. Its actually funny because there are a lot of 7-11 stores in Japan, but originally, they were doing really poor in the market because the food they had was crap. (like the food in our convenient stores in the states) So they actually had to put better food in their stores to stay in business in Japan because their “fast food” standard is so much higher than ours. Probably out of everything I ate, I could recognize about 1% of it, but I did not try one thing that I didn't like. (This picture is of my last meal that I got at a convenient store, it was freeking awesome)

(2) People: The people in Japan are so quiet, and very polite and welcoming. We were by far the loudest people there and we were trying to be quiet. I would have never thought a crowded subway could be that quiet. They are extremely respectful people.

(3) Beggars... o yeah they didn't have any! Japan is all about saving face, its about respect, honor, unity... they will never do anything to disgrace themselves or their families.

(4) Litter.... o yea they didn't have any of that either! Their city streets have about 1/4 the amounts of garbage cans in their cities and still NO LITTER, at all! It was amazing, we were always looking for garbage cans but no one ever saw any litter. In Japan they are totally all about loyalty to their emperor and their country, that is above all else and then family is RIGHT behind that, so they don't litter because they love and respect their country… what a novel idea.

(5) Models: First of all, there are NO fat people in Japan. But for how little the people are there, I mean TINY people, their swim suit models are bigger than ours.. now don't get me wrong, they still have perfect bodies, but they have bigger boobs and more curves than American ones... go figure.

(6) Japanese people separate themselves from the rest of Asia. There are Asians, and there are Japanese... Japanese people are not Asians. Interesting.

(7) Temples and Technology: One of the craziest things about Japan is seeing one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world and then everywhere you go you see traces of their ancient civilization. Right in between two sky scrapers, you can see temples and shrines built centuries ago. It hard to believe that it all coexists in the year 2003. It’s just amazing.

Finally two other fun things of note:

their main toilet design is basically a porcelain hold in the ground that you squat over. It is very weird to see a middle-aged (or older) woman come out of a stall and realize that she was just squatting over a hole... bizarre.

Also, you can buy beer out of vending machines!

Domo Arigoto Mr. Roboto

Semester at Sea, Port 4: Osaka, Japan
Konich E Wa ~ hello from Japan!!

Top Ten Best Things About Japan:

10) Night Life
9) Sake
8) The Australians
7) The Subway
6) Kabuki
5) Kanji
4) Shinto Shrines
3) Buddhist Temples
2) Convenient Stores

Japan was amazing and also a completely different experience than Russia. The best part about Russia was the people, I really spent most of my time hanging out with local people, and that was really awesome. I was lucky to meet some people who knew English and were studying to be translator so we didn't have too much of a communication barrier. On the other hand, my trip to Japan was definitely more touristy. There was a huge language barrier which made it a completely different situation. So we played the typical tourist role, going to seeing all the sights, etc. but it was amazing.

Japan is so different than the states. One of the first things I noticed was that it kind of reminded me of ocean city during peak tourist season... ok ok I know that sounds crazy, but it really did. There are just soooooooooo many people in Japan with soooooo little land that the entire country is just packed together. It looks like the beach where there are hundreds of houses trying to get as close to the shore as they can.

When we arrived in the port we were greated by a huge welcoming committee with a band and a fire boad that gave us a little water show. It was the most exciting docking experience we'd had all trip. Once we got on land, we immediately went to the subway station to get to Kyoto and see some temples and shrines. Although our initial experience with the Japanese subway was a little confusing, it ended up being SOOO easy to navigate. It was amazing how easy it was for us to get around the country. Literally, getting around Japan, knowing NO Japanese is easier than navigating New York’s subway system!

We arrived in Kyoto and found a nice restaurant and outside of it, there was a huge display case with realistic plastic replicas of all
of the dishes they serve there. So a waiter came out and we pointed to what we wanted and he took our order!! It was crazy, every restaurant in Japan is like this! (or at least has picture menus) But the food looks so real, its actually an art there and it makes it so easy to order. After we placed our order we go in the restaurant and sat at a low table on little pillows on the floor. Then I had my first sushi ever!!! It was amazing; I am completely in love with all Japanese food! I have to admit, I was a little startled by the tiny dab of wasabi that they put in between the fish and the rice! But I instantly fell in love with sushi!

This is a picture of my actual first meal in Japan

After lunch, we walked around the city to the largest wooden structure in the world, a Buddhist temple. The architecture is amazing and we took off our shoes and walked into a breathtaking, absolutely gorgeous, room. There were straw mats with people kneeling and paying homage to huge gold Buddha in the front of the room. After spending some time in the temple, Krystal, Keekan, and I decide to leave the rest of the group and take a bullet train to Tokyo!!!
The bullet train was very cool. The station was huge, like an airport, and so easy to get around. We bought some sake and got on the train. Once we arrived in Tokyo we went to Rapongi, a newer part of the city where a lot of backpackers go. We found a hotel for the night and headed out to checkout the Japanese night life. We partied ALL night and when we finally decided to go home we walked out of the bar and to our surprise and it was broad daylight!! We partied till 6 am!! I think that was actually the first time I partied until the sun came up. Good thing we spent the $$ on a hotel room!

So we slept for a couple hours and then woke up at 8 am and went to see kabuki theater, which was an amazing cultural experience. Kabuki is traditional Japanese theater. All of the actors are male (even for the female characters) and they wear traditional costumes with crazy makeup and play these old string instruments. The performance was four hours long with four individual plays. We stayed to watch two of them. I seriously left the theater feeling more cultured than I was when I went it. It was a really neat experience.

The next day we visited Hiroshima which was one of the most intense experiences I have ever had in my life. The first thing we saw when we arrived was a beautiful park filled with little monuments commemorating people or groups that died. We saw the A bomb dome. which is one of the only buildings still standing (reinforced to ensure that it would not crumble) and it was just breathtaking. And then we came to the memorial mound where the ashes of 70,000 unidentified and unclaimed victims are held... that is the first time it hit me. I can’t even describe the experience except it was difficult to breathe, it was just so overwhelming.

The picture here is of the main memorial and the Cenotaph, which holds the names of all of the people killed by the A-bomb and reads "Repose ye in Peace, for the error shall not be repeated." In the middle, you can see the eternal peace flame and the A-bomb dome. The arch over the Cenotaph represents a shelter for the souls of the victims. After we made our way through the park, we walked around the museum dedicated to the atomic bombing. If you EVER go to Japan you MUST go to this museum. It left a huge impression on me. I don’t think I will never be the same after seeing it. There are so many artifacts from the victims, stories of how people were so desperate for water that they drank black rain and had diarrhea for three months, people sucking the pus from their wounds, coughing up something black.... all of these little kids clothes and their stories, poems survivors wrote and pictures they drew... it was so powerful... I can't even describe what I feel even now just writing about it, it was amazing.

Its quite remarkable how peaceful the memorial is. There is no animosity toward the States or direct reference to how horibble the people who decided to do this to them were. It was just a focus on peace and making sure that this never happens again to any country in the world. While it was a very powerful and sad thing to visit, it also gave off a sense of peace and resolution to protect future generations from the same fate. It was really a beautiful thing to see.

That night we went to Kyoto, and were just walking around town when we stumbled on an amazing Shinto shrine all lit up with Japanese lanterns. There was no one around, so we could just walk around it and explore. Because I am taking a class on Asian Religions, I had been leaning about Shintoism and their shrines, so it was really cool to actually understand what I was looking at. We saw where they pray and their Kami mirror (which is the most sacred part of the shrine) and the bells that they use to summon the spirits.

The next day was by far the greatest day. We went on a tour of Kyoto to about 10 different temples and shrines.
The first stop was the Nijo Castle which had 'nightengale' floors. This means that when you walk on them they squeak to warn the emperor of intruders. Next, we saw Kinkakuji, the golden temple, which is a Buddhist temple completely covered in 22 karat gold leaf. We also went to Sanjusangendo Hall which has 1,0001 buddhas in it, all lined up 500 on each side with one HUGE Buddha in the center, probably like 10 feet tall. When you’re in these temples and shrines you can see why these people worship there, they are quite inspiring. They really bring you to your knees, it is just amazing. I don't even know how I can ever describe what I saw in Japan. Pictures will never do it justice. There are just no words to describe the feeling of being in the presence of something so old and sacred.