Sunday, October 24, 2010

Only in India...

On October 22nd I arrived in Chennai, India.  Aveni's cousin who she had not seen in ten years acted as our tour operator and organized all of our transportation for a weekend to the Taj Mahal.  We flew from the Chennai Airport to Dehli on Spice Jet (a three hour ride).  The evening we stayed at a hotel which was run down and had no showers.  The 12 of us had Indian food ordered to the hotel and although rather spicy the Naan is delicious (bread that comes buttered, garlic, or with cheese).  Afterwards (meaning 4 am) Aveni's Cousin offered to buy me beer so we each had 3 40's and I politely accepted the offer since it would be rude to decline even though I do not like beer.  We could not communicate, yet he seemed to enjoy the company and I ended up going to bed around 6am, only to be awoken by the receptionist at 7am.

The second morning I piled into one of two taxis and drove  from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.  Not including stopping for the lunch, the drive took 5 hours each way.  This structure is not easily accessible but highly worth the wait.  Upon arrival our tour guide took us in a tram car to the actual entrance.  The Taj is enclosed in a large courtyard structure with several other buildings, palaces, & guest houses.  The Taj itself took 17 years to complete and the surrounding structures an additional 5 years.  The Taj is a devotion to love from the King to his favorite wife and they are both buried inside the Taj, which is a tomb.  Our tour guide got us tothe front of the line to enter though security and then again cut through to the front to actually enter the Taj (instead of waiting an hour in the line that wrapped twice around the tomb).  I was surprised we did not get in trouble but he kept pushing us along and took all of the cliche photos of us jumping in the air in front, and holding the taj with our fingers, and many other snap shots which you normally have to pay for but all was pre-organized so we did not have to worry about hiring a tour guide and a photographer.  After watching the sunset over the Taj we had dinner where I ate more Naan and Sweet & Sour Chicken, completed different than in the US, it is spicy and grilled, not fried, and comes in a soup bowl.  We then drove 5 hours back to Dehli where we stayed in another hotel and I caved the following morning and took a bucket shower (so gross but I survived).  Also the water is not potable so you even have to brush your teeth with bottled water.

The following morning, Aveni left with her Cousin for Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India (I declined his drink offer the second night because I did not want to go sleepless for another 24 hours).  I went to the market before heading to the airport.  The Dehli airport is incredible, just like a major US airport.  There are luxury stores, and plenty of coffee shops and food outlets, including Pizza Hut.  I drank a caramel frappuccino and ordered food while Ali, Lindsay, & I waited for our flight on Jet Airways.

Transportation in India is mostly through Rickshaws.  They are automated three wheeled carts that cram as many individuals as needed.  Three comfortable but we did 6 with luggage when needed.  They are relatively cheap and convenient because they can go through traffic and therefore cut your transportation time during rush hour drastically.  Unfortaunately no one can be trusted and the drivers continuously stop and will take you to their friend's stores which are always open while they claim other stores and the markets are closed.  You have to be direct with them or they will continue to take advantage of you.  Ultimately, never believe anything they say and come prepared with your own itinerary and do not side track.

I made it home, back to the ship, safely and took a shower as soon as I unpacked.  It felt so good to clean the dirt off of my skin and face and hair.  After showering last night and this morning I feel back to normal but each time I step outside in the dirt filled air I immediately feel gross.  There is trash everywhere on the streets and nothing is sanitary.  As with many countries there are squat toilets, no toilet paper, and certainly no soap.  It is crucial to always carry tissues and germ-x with you at all times.

Until I depart on Wednesday I am going to go to the markets and enjoy Indian food and cultures.  Overall I love India but am anxious to see the rest of Asia.

Rickshaw: the only form of transportation.  Fits 6+ luggage

Fried Cheese!

The most beautiful symbol of love.

Me at the Taj <3

The Dodo prevails long after extinction

I arrived in Mauritius on October 14th for two days.  I visited the Shree Vishnu Temple where the gentleman gave me a tour of the temple and explained all of the God & Goddess shrines.  I participated in the service and learned about several Hindu traditions & rituals.  Hinduism is popular there because 80% of Mauritians are Hindu.  All of the souvenirs are Dodo Birds even though they went extinct in the mid 1600s after British Colonization.  From t-shirts, to key chains, to postcards, everything is about the Dodo Bird.  After visiting the market I returned and got ready to go out for Tuyeng's 21st birthday!  We had dinner on the harbor front where I had kalamari.  After enjoying drinks and the weather we went to the casino which turned out to be a men's club so we left and ended up going bar hopping and dancing until heading back to the ship via water taxi.  We had to take water taxis, really run-down boats that the locals drive, from the ship to the actual harbor since we were at the industrial end but it was fun.

The second day, Ali & I went to a cafe on the water and bought real coffee since the ship's coffee is syrup mixed with hot water.  We then went to the international convention center which holds large Bollywood events, political conferences, and car shows.  The previous night was a 1000 person wedding so they were still tearing that event down.  The convention center was massive and the tour was led by the sales executive since the general manager, Kalaish had a last minute meeting (I met him last January at Cornell).  Ali & I then returned to the harbor and went to the craft market and I got a calzone and martini for lunch before boarding the ship for Asia.

The Shree Vishnu Temple

The Posse at 1st Restaurant in Chinatown

The main hall of the International Convention Center

View of the Harbor

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Turning over a new leaf in South Africa

I have had an adventurous four days in Cape Town and am sad only have 48 hours left.  On our way to Cape Town from Takoradi we crossed the center of the world (0,0): The intersection of the Equator & Prime Meridian.  An old maritime tradition, Neptune Day, ensued.  Faculty poured fish guts (green slime) on students who then plunged into the pull and climbed out the other side to kiss and real fish (no joke) to signify that they had crossed the equator.  Next came hair loss.  Around 100 students shaved their heads, much of which was donated, to continue celebrating the tradition. Of the 100 students, the majority were girls.  I did not participate in the tradition but watched as many of my friends partook in the tradition.

I arrived in Cape Town at 5am on the morning of Sunday October 3rd.  I awoke at 5am to watch us pull in and see the sun rise over the cape.  Our port location is the best yet, we are docked at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront which is home to a 350 shop mall, countless restaurants, a gorgeous 5-star hotel.  We are a short walk to downtown Cape Town, through the harbourfront and past the Wheel of Excellence (The Ferris Wheel).  The town is quite developed and there are many recent additions including a massive block man made out of coca cola cases (probably 60 feet high), because of the World Cup that took place only a few months ago. Since crossing the equator I am now experiencing the beginning of Spring in South Africa and the weather is crisp in the morning and warmer in the afternoon.  Before disembarking we had to listen to a diplomat for an hour as he gave us stories of robbery, homicide, and rapes that have recently occurred.  South Africa as a whole as the highest crime rate, HIV/AID, and unemployment in the world.  However, the waterfront and surrounding wine lands are spectacular and I have not encountered a single incident *knock on wood.*

Seven of my friends & I departed the ship Sunday morning and found Felix, our tour guide for the day, who drove us to two wineries and an amazing Brai (BBQ).  Neethlingshof Estate was our first stop where we sat at a white wooded table outside, overlooking the vineyard and tasted six wines.  My favorite was the Malbec which is a red wine with plum and chocolate.  Afterward, we went to  Asara where we sampled chocolate at their Confectionery along with wine.  The sun shined the entire day and the temperature was perfect for sitting outside tasting South African wines.  The Brai had several stations and the entire restaurant and seating was sprawled outside beside a park.  Later that evening we got dolled up and painted the town red for Ali's 21st Birthday!  We bar hopped down Long Street where we danced with the locals and managed to not be at the same nightclubs as the rest of the SASers (Semester At Sea Students).

After a second night of only 4 hours of sleep I awoke bright & early to partake in a historical tour of Cape Town (This tour was supposed to go to Robbin Island for the day but the ferry broke so they took us on the worst field trip ever.  We went to the Castle of Good Hope which acted as a fortress and to warn residents of incoming ships to which they would sell their local produce since the ships were often stopping at Cape Town on their way to Europe or Asia and needed to restock.  We then walked to the District 6 Museum which acknowledges the areas segregated past since 60,000 blacks were forced to leave the neighborhood during Apartheid.  Then we saw the Parliament Building and enjoyed the most randomly assorted boxed lunch, in the park.  The two hours following lunch was the worst.  We received a two hour tour of the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Cape Town which is a single room with pictures and plaques but no artifacts.  The elderly Jewish lady in charge led our tour and even though she knew we only had an hour, continued to give us fabricated stories of the people's lives in the pictures (the pictures we random still shots, not ones depicting specific individuals).  But she insisted and continued.  Since she took so long we were unable to see the Nelson Mandela exhibit at the Slave Lodge in Cape Town which is far more important to Cape Town's history.  The Cape Town Holocaust Museum was also an incredible disappointment compared to the elaborate display at the Holocaust Museum in DC.

The third day I commenced in yet another day of wine tasting.  This SAS trip was by far my best, they are really hit or miss.   We drove in a large van with 20 bikes attached to wine country.  There we walked around a quaint town filled with local art shops and restaurants.  Afterward we hoped onto 24-speed mountain bikes and cycled for 13 miles through countless vineyards as the mountains laid as the backdrop of our journey.  You may think you hate physical activity but you could be wrong.  I thoroughly enjoyed bicycling all through wine country until I reached the final destination of Solms Delta, a gorgeous vineyard where we partook in a wine tasting & food pairing with 6 wines, shrimp, salmon, beef, mussels and more.  We then drove to the town of Stellenbauch (another wine region) which boasts a college, coffee shops, and local artists.  I purchased a piece of art from an artist who was in his shop painting.  The gallery was filled with brightly colored pigs, penguins, and ostrich eggs.  South Africa is known for having a variety of animals but the Cape Town region is known for its penguins and ostriches which you see everywhere.  I was hoping to go Ostrich Riding but the closest place is a 7-hour bus ride so I had to pass.  Later that evening I enjoyed appetizers and drinks with friends at a habourfront restaurant.

Today I surprised myself again by completing a 2 hour hike up Table Mountain.  The Mountain is the backdrop to Cape Town and makes a presence at over 1000 Meters high.  After hiking practically vertically for hours I reached the top with Ali and the view was well worth it.  You can see the intersection of the Atlantic & Indian Oceans.  The top is massive and consists of additional hiking trails which provide panoramic views of South Africa.  Ali & I enjoyed lunch overlooking the Cape at the Mountain Top Cafe.  The initial ascent to the top along with hiking around the top and eating lunch took up most of our day.

View from the ship onto the waterfront and Table Top Mountain in the distance.

Wine Tasting in Stellenbauch.

The passionate Jewish lady who led our holocaust tour.

After hiking Table Top Mountain.

Tomorrow I am going to Green Market Square where I hope to purchase an Ostrich Egg and then am going wine tasting again at a winery that has cheetahs so that shall be interesting.  I also hope to get to Boulder Bay before leaving Cape Town which is where hundreds of penguins reside along a beautiful sand beach.