The Stepping Stones and the Spaghetti

Today I sat adjacent to a group of Japanese students at lunch. Alone in my thoughts I tried to enjoy my lunch but was distracted by the din of slurping spaghetti. Amongst the Japanese students no one was fazed. From my experience I knew that this is custom for eating hot noodles in Japan, but not Connecticut. I contemplated switching tables or even intervening, but then I remembered the stepping-stones in Kyoto.

On a rainy day months ago a group of SASers walked through the gardens of Kyoto, admiring cherry blossoms in full bloom. We came across a chain of stepping-stones leading across a pond that was closed due to rain. I, reasoning that I would not return to this garden again, decided to flout the roadblock and cross the pond. I stepped across the stones unscathed, but when I returned Professor Lunsford scolded me. I told her that if I risked slipping into the pond I jeopardized only myself. She explained to me that my behavior is what might be referred to as being an “ugly American,” a pejorative term referring to perceptions of thoughtless and ethnocentric behavior of American citizens abroad. “If I want to put myself at risk I am at liberty to do so” is an American concept, based in a culture that focuses on personal rights and liberties. Japan as a collectivist culture has a strong deference for authority, and if the path was closed, the path was closed.

At the time I didn’t really understand what the fuss was about, so I shrugged it off and didn’t think of it again. It wasn’t until months later in McMahon Dining Hall that my annoyance over something as benign as slurping noodles led me to understand why what I did in Kyoto was wrong. If it were not for my Semester at Sea I would have continued to sit there, stewing in my contempt for these slurping international students, but instead I empathized. I mistakenly applied my American mindset in Japan, just as they were applying their Japanese mindset in America. Semester at Sea taught me that culture is relative; that there is no universal “right” or “wrong,” and that I should do my best to respect local customs and beliefs wherever I go, instead of just applying my own standards. With this epiphany I peacefully returned to my teriyaki chicken amongst the chorus of slurps.

Japan Begins

By the time we reached Japan I was mentally exhausted from traveling so instead of my usual whirlwind of planes trains and automobiles the week was a little more subdued. We arrived first in Kobe, Japan, a smaller city an hour West of Kyoto. I read through the travel bible (Lonely Planet) and didn’t find much that interested me besides their legendary beef. I stepped off the ship with Adam, Allie, and Pam and we headed first for a very unlikely destination. Pam and Allie were desperate to find a laundromat because they were without any clean undergarments for our six days in Japan. The tourism desk pointed us towards a laundromat that was only a ten minute walk from a legendary steakhouse, Mouriya. You know my mindset had changed since our earlier ports when I agreed to tag along to a laundromat. Before I would consider this a complete waste of port time but today I was willing to run the errand.

Japan made a great first impression on me. Kobe was clean and well organized. The trains ran on schedule and all of the signage was in English. Although most Japanese people did not speak fluent English, it was far easier to work with them towards an understanding than it was in China. In China, locals were dismissive of foreigners for the most part. They knew you weren’t Chinese and that you didn’t speak English, therefore they saw little incentive for them to make any effort to communicate with you. The Japanese that we interacted with would smile and patiently try to be understood despite the barrier. Although we had to do a bit of wandering in Kobe just as we had in China, the going was far easier. We found the laundromat and the ATM and an hour or two after getting off the ship we were in the restaurant. Typical of Japanese cities, the restaurant building was tall and narrow. Our table was on the third floor of the restaurant, each floor only having less than a dozen tables. The restaurant served both Kobe beef and Tajima beef, Tajima being another type of top quality Japanese beef. Even when the waitress explained that the Tajima was of comparable quality but a fraction of price of Kobe I dismissed it. I was in Kobe, Japan once. I was having Kobe beef. There were two grades of Kobe, A4 Tajiri or A5 Shigekanenami. Again, it was time to go big or go home. I ordered the 130g Special Sirloin for ¥9,500 or about $116, the most I have ever paid in my life for food. Let me tell you, though, it was worth every yen. How do I describe the sensation? This steak was so tender that I could cut it with my front teeth. It was cooked on the hibachi grill and sliced into pieces that were about two bites each. There was no knife so I picked up the steak with my chopsticks and divided it effortlessly with my incisors. I cannot describe how tender and flavorful this meat was. There are simply no words to describe the taste. It was more than I could appreciate.

The euphoria lasted a while longer even after paying the bill. Our next destination was the Hamakatsura Sake Museum. We were worried we wouldn’t make it there before they closed so we hopped in a cab. It was incredibly clean. There was a meter and even a security camera on the rearview mirror. The driver wore a tie and white gloves and was very courteous. All of this, including the $20 fare, was a culture shock from all the other ways we’d gotten around all semester. The museum consisted of various dioramas and videos in English, outlining all the major steps in the brewing process. After learning all about it we went to the museum store where we sampled various kinds of sake. Sake has a lower alcohol content than other liquors and it also comes in various flavors. The sake master was generous in allowing us to sample each one as many times as we pleased. Slightly buzzed, we headed back to the ship to prepare for the evening. On the way into the pier two guys were handing out fliers for a club in downtown Kobe that was offering a special for SASers. We weren’t sure if we wanted stay in Kobe for the night or venture over to Osaka, a bigger city about 20 minutes away from Kobe on the train. Given that I was planning on staying on the ship between Kobe and Yokohama instead of taking the option to go over land, this was my only night I could be away from the ship, thus I wanted to spend it experiencing Osaka instead of just having more Kobe time.

After switching clothes and crews we were headed out to Osaka. Osaka was supposed to be pretty hectic at night and we arrived in the city without a particular destination in mind. I realized then that it was kind of silly to expect to get off the train station and just be in the heart of the action. Thus, a little wandering was required. Fifteen minutes later we found this pedestrian only alley that was full of bright lights, bars, arcades, and restaurants. It was bustling with activity and noise. We walked down the promenade looking for a compelling stop. Everything seemed a little expensive and nothing particular caught my eye. The group morale was fading, Katie wanting to return to Kobe and head to the ship party at that local club. I didn’t come all the way to Osaka just to turn around, though. A little further down, a guy in a Yankees jacket who actually spoke a little english tried to get us to come into his restaurant. It was ocean themed with blue colors and aquariums everywhere. He explained to us in his broken English that for ¥2000 ($25) it was all you could drink plus one food entree. We were persuaded and headed upstairs. After being seated, confusion ensued. The waitress did not speak English. We needed to make sure that we understood the deal correctly. We had been told horror stories of the $50 burger and fries meal and other ensnarements that were the result of a language barrier. The going was tough as we tried to use simple words and gestures to communicate the deal that we had been offered below on the street. The timid amongst us were petitioning for us to escape while we still could, but us intrepid travelers trudged onwards, finding the words somehow. After a good ten minutes we discovered the deal was actually $25 for the drinks plus you had to buy one entree. We were still satisfied with this arrangement so we accepted, and so the drinks began.

We had our own little enclosed booth with an aquarium where you take your shoes off before climbing in. There was a button to get the waitress’s attention like a flight attendant call button. We were having fun. Then, the fun police reminded the group that at midnight the last train would leave for Kobe. Knowing that the fun around here didn’t even start until 11, I suggested we live this last foreign port to its fullest and stay out all night, disregarding the last train. However, the majority was against me and it was determined that we couldn’t stay too late. In fact, everyone wanted to leave the restaurant before we even finished our two hours. When the bill came it was much higher than expected. Panic ensued. The bill was written in japanese but the numbers were arabic numerals. We could account for the food and for the alcohol, but what was this other mystery item that cost about half of what the alcohol did? Everyone wanted to just bite the bullet and make it out of there; they didn’t see any hope in trying without speaking Japanese to figure this out and contest the bill, but I did. I approached the cashier and discovered the extra money was for this weird little grainy pudding that we were served as an appetizer. No one ordered this pudding, in fact half of us didn’t care for it and didn’t even eat theirs. This weird, uninvited pudding was the answer behind the mystery charges. Now, how to explain that we didn’t order it and we weren’t paying for it? Well, I listed to the waitress all the things that we asked for, all of our entrees and our drinks. Then I told her that we didn’t ask for the weird pudding thing, and using my gift I managed to get my point across. She took the check back, went back to the computer, and took it off the bill.

By this point, everyone else was in front of the restaurant waiting for me. Given that they had all forgone the extra money that I had saved us, I figured it was only fair that I be compensated with a return ticket to Kobe. The group consented and we moved onwards towards the station. Despite the anxiety we made it to the platform with plenty of time to spare and were soon Kobe-bound. Back in Kobe it was after midnight and the monorail was closed, so we enjoyed a leisurely hour walk back to the ship.

Long street and the longest day ever

After a light lunch at Rocca we had to head back towards the ship because some people had FDPs. I wandered about the ship for a while, looking for my next activity. I ran into my friend Jenni and we decided to head back into town. This time we went towards the city center. Cape Town can be rather deceptive. The city is so clean and there are many well organized, tall buildings, with wide streets and good flowing traffic. You wouldn’t imagine the amount of crime that takes place here. There are police everywhere but regardless, numerous people from the ship were mugged. I try to keep my wits about me and I haven’t had any problems, so far.

Anyways, we walked into town, down Long Street where all the bars and restaurants are. We checked out the Grandaddy Hotel, which has a airstream trailer park on its roof. We then passed down into Green Market Square and decided to settle down for a breather at a restaurant called Capo I believe. Multiple SASers passed by the square. I told Jenni that my feelings about seeing other SAS kids has changed since we started the journey. Originally when the semester began I took comfort in finding other Semester at Sea students. It made each country feel less threatening, knowing that there are other students in the same boat all around me. As we pass from port to port, though, I find myself needing that safety net less and less. By the time we got to Ghana I felt repelled by areas that I knew would be swarming with kids from the ship. I have nothing against them, but in each of these countries I want to have as authentic an experience as possible. When you cling to the known, to the comfort of other Americans, you lose that.

After our beers we perused the market. I was delighted that here the vendors were far more courteous than elsewhere. Yes, they offered “a special price. just for you,” but when you expressed disinterest and moved along, they took no for an answer. It was great feeling that you were free to explore the market stalls without feeling pressured to buy. I didn’t make any purchases because I’ve developed a routine of souvenir shopping on my last day so that I can use up my remaining foreign currency. After the market, we continued walking around the city and returned to the ship feeling that we had thoroughly examined the center of the city.

Once I felt freshened up and had put on my evening clothes it was time for dinner, this time with a third group of people. Five of us piled into a cab, an old diesel mercedes, and headed back towards long street. Our cab driver gave us his speech, telling us that even though we were quoted 70 rand outside of the cab that he would take us for 50 rand, the official price, and that we were not to tell the other cab drivers, because he is an honest man and the rest are there to cheat you, and that if he came to our country, he would expect to be treated with respect, and thus he is treating us with respect. I sensed something was rotten. This was our first cab ride in the country so I wasn’t experienced yet but when I made the same journey in a legitimate cab with a meter it only ran us 30 rand. In fact, this whole cab problem is actually more than just about being ripped off.

My friends living in South Africa called me a cab one night from a reputable company called Elite. The cab driver told me that in South Africa there’s a problem with “pirate cabs,” people buying yellow “taxi” signs for the roof of their car and buying counterfeit taxi permits that are really just photocopies. These drivers can rip you off, or worse. My friend Dave is 6’ 3″ and weighs a ton. How much? I don’t know. He played D-1 football for UC Boulder and was a linebacker so I’ll let you just imagine. He was at a nightclub in Cape Town one night and felt like heading back to the ship. He piled into a cab in front of the nightclub with two other people he didn’t know. A few minutes later, while the cab was in motion, the driver turned around and pointed a gun at them. The two other passengers bailed out. Dave put his hands in the air and was robbed of his wallet and his digital camera. If it can happen to Dave it can happen to anyone.

Anyways, back to the story. Our pseudo-Robin Hood cab driver dropped us of at Mama Africa, one of the most popular restaurant in town. Mama Africa is an authentic african culture restaurant. The decor is all bushland style. There’s a live band featuring drums, wooden xylophones, and a brass section. For food I had an African mixed grill consisting of alligator, ostrich, warthog, springbok, and kudu. Some were delicious, others not so much, and sadly I was not able to keep track of what was what therefore the next time I see warthog on the menu in Connecticut I won’t know whether to order it or not. But, it was a lovely experience, and if I couldn’t go on safari in South Africa, at least I got to eat as though I had been hunting in South Africa. Towards the end of dinner three more girls showed up. These were friends of the girls I had come to dinner with. They were all obviously intoxicated and it was not clear what they had done or where they were coming from. Regardless, they were with us now. We finished up dinner as quickly as possible to avoid making any more of a scene. It was Friday night and the restaurant was full and now we had three drunk girls standing around our table because there were no extra chairs to be found.After settling the bill the girls went over towards the band and started jamming out with them. I shrunk back and listened from the bar. I loved the music. For those who know me, I’m pretty eclectic in my selection. But it had been a long day and I was far too sober to be dancing around in front of the african jam band. The men, of course, got a kick out of my friends’ enthusiasm so it was all kosher.

After a while I was ready to move on with the evening and hit a bar or a club. The drunk girls were becoming progressively more obnoxious (one randomly ran into traffic off by herself. The other one acquired a “boyfriend,” a black guy less than five feet tall that was more than happy to be the recipient of a drunk American girl’s affection. I obviously did not envy their lack of grace but I was thirsting for a drink. The Mama Africa experience had a price tag to match the quality experience so I had drank only tap water (That’s right, guys. Tap water in Africa. I did it.) We made our way down Long Street, which at this point in the evening was slowly warming up. In front of a loud and crowded place we noticed a bunch of SASers so the crowd entered that venue and I went across the street somewhere a little bit quieter, alleviated of any burden to babysit drunk chicks.

Here across the street I found a few friends. We discussed the day’s events as they finished their pizza dinner. The night was young and I needed to rally so I saddled up to the bar to find something that would compensate for my lack of sleep. Everything in South Africa was inexpensive, but I ended up spending more extravagantly than a normally would, resulting in a net zero effect. I ordered a triple shot of vodka and red bull for 65 ZAR ($8.75 USD). Normally this drink in the US would probably run at least $20 but then again back in the US I would’ve ordered just a couple of beers, so there ya go. Net zero effect. Anyways, the drink had its desired effect and now I was ready to brave the masses back at bob’s bar. Back at Bob’s everyone was having a good time. The drunk runaway had now reached a new level of intoxication. I watched as she tumbled over onto the floor, falling flat on her back. Instead of lifting herself up and playing it off like nothing happened, she decided she’d just hang out on the floor and proceeded to engage in some cross between dancing and snow angel making. The bar’s bouncer had to come scoop her up and get her back on her feet. I could take this occasion to explain why this level of drinking is a) bad for you b)dangerous in a foreign country and c) an embarrassment to our country/ the SAS program, but I won’t because it’s obvious.

Anyhow, Bobs was overcrowded and not that interesting so a few of us decided to roll down the street and see what else Long Street had to offer. By this point in the night, Long Street felt like I imagine Bourbon Street feels like. There were throngs of people of all walks of life; blacks, whites, indians, teenagers, adults, the drunk, the less-drunk, the rich, the begging; all types. There were bars for every type. The space-themed club, the irish bar, the jazz spot, everything. We decided to stroll down till we found a place that struck our fancy. Looking up, I noticed my Resident Director standing on a balcony. We decided to join him, and proceeded up a flight of stairs to a place with a DJ and a great balcony overlooking all the action on the street below, but most importantly, it wasn’t overcrowded. There was a comfortable crowd. Everyone wanted to stay here. We talked, drank, danced. I interacted with a few locals, the crowd pleaser, a man less than 5 feet tall, head of hair and mustache like einstein, probably 80 years old with a case of disco fever like it was still 1968. I also debated with one guy my age over whether Cape Town was like Sydney, I felt myself dragging again by about 130 in the morning so I tried the same spell and the magic worked just as well. We had been in the same spot for over an hour though and I knew there were other cool spots to check out so I convinced the group to continue our pub crawl. Walking down the street I slipped into a convenience store and tried to chug a liter of water to make up for my dehydration all night long. I soon felt terrible and decided I should head back to the ship as soon as possible. We slipped into a restaurant that was open all night where a table full of SASers were finishing up fourth meal. Some of them wanted to go home and some wanted to stay so we regrouped and went our separate ways. This is one of the moments where the abundance of familiar faces is a good thing. We made it back in a taxi without incident.

Although Monday night blended into Tuesday morning because I went shark diving the next day at 3;45AM and literally got zero sleep, this point of the evening was the break in the action and thus the natural pause in my story of what is otherwise a 36 hour day….