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.
After learning about the genocide we had lunch and went to another museum, then it was off to Siem Reap. We took a turboprop plane for another quick ride to the land of Angkor Wat and then headed straight to our luxury hotel, the Angkor Paradise hotel. We entered into a spacious, marble-floored lobby and were handed our welcome drinks while we sat down on the oversized couches and waited for our room keys. Our room was on the second floor and had a balcony facing inwards towards the garden and the swimming pool. The swimming pool was deep and long; the kind you cannot cross in a single breath. Angkor Wat was hot and humid so the few of us who were either clever enough to research the hotel in advance and knew there was a pool, or just brought a suit for the hell of it, headed straight there.
Justin, Erik and I were all doing flips, cannonballing in, running into a dive, just having fun. Two girls, whose names I do not even know, gave us a hard time for it. “I don’t want to rescue you when you get hurt.” They’re both lifeguards back home so they felt it gave them carte blanche to tell us what to do in Cambodia. I told them not to worry for me. I wasn’t expecting a rescue from them if I messed up, to which they retorted that they’re legally obligated to rescue me because they’re trained lifeguards, after which I reminded them that we were at a hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, not back home at the rec center pool. I was sure to make my jumps extra reckless after the exchange. The bartender came outside to the pool and took our orders, and it was another surreal Bunda moment. Poolside pina colada in Cambodia with my friends (and a few random overzealous lifeguards). Somebody pinch me, this is not my semester abroad.
After prancing around the pool we headed to dinner. SAS brought us to a giant buffet megarestaurant, along with the four other SAS trips in Cambodia. Again, I don’t know how they contend that they’re trying to make us travelers instead of tourists when they bring us to a walmart-sized restaurant full of fannypacks and knee socks. A handful of us bailed after dinner and walked into town to go to the night market. We saw a sign that pointed towards the night market, but it led us down this sketchy, unpaved uniluminated road. We joked that the sign was laid out as a trap and that at any moment we were about to get robbed. It did make me uncomfortable but seeing as there were four of us guys I figured we were fine. A couple of blocks later we returned to the developed world and found the fully illuminated night market. It was humming with activity with lots of market stalls, restaurants, and massage parlors. There was an outdoor massage parlor where customers lay on cushioned chaise lounges and receive massages fully clothed, with one exception. This adorably fat baby was having a full body massage completely in the nude, right on the street. Things in Cambodia are cheap. Massages are as lower as $4 and you can get a t-shirts and ray bans for $2-3 each. My friend bought a couple of knockoff rolexes and I bought some goodies for the folks at home. I’d tell you what I got but I don’t want to ruin the surprise 🙂
Originally the plan was to do a little shopping and then call it an early night by 10 or 11. Our next day started before sunrise so we thought it prudent to not go out for the second night in a row. However, that plan rarely pans out. We made it over to the pub street and I found some other SASers who were ready for round two. My compadres were ready to head back to the hotel, so they graciously delivered my shopping bags back to the hotel so that I could hit the town unencumbered. The hotspot in Siem Reap was the Angkor What? Bar a party bar with bucket drinks and neon graffiti walls and backlights. You’re allowed to take a sharpie and draw on the wall, so of course Semester at Sea had to leave its mark. The funniest, most entertaining moment of the night, though, occurred not in the bar but on the street out front. The bars and clubs were open air and the music flowed out into the street. Out in the street there were numerous children trying to sell things. It was a Monday night after midnight and these children should be asleep, going to school the next morning, but they probably aren’t. By buying things from them the cycle is only perpetuated because it stays worth their time, better than being in school. I didn’t buy anything from them, but one little girl who looked like she was about 9 or 10 years old saw me dancing around and wanted to battle, and so this little Cambodian girl, about half my size, and I were embroiled in a fierce dance competition, our Siem Reap street reputations on the line. Numerous bar hoppers began circling around to watch and the spectacle went on for a few minutes. The dance went on until a Cambodian guy snuck up behind me and put his arm between my legs so that suddenly I looked down and saw a hand coming out of nowhere. Obviously this surprised me and everyone laughed. It was a cute moment with the locals.
The night continued in the same fun, carefree fashion. One guy who went to UConn Law spotted my shirt and let me know. I met a girl from one of the many small towns in Connecticut that sends half their graduating class to UConn every year. She said she’s studying abroad in Singapore this semester and was visiting Cambodia for just a few days. These people made the world feel strangely small, to think that I was in a foreign country on the other side of the world, a place that I would imagine ranks very low in terms of how many travelers from Connecticut it receives, and yet there they were.
After we were all partied out some decided that they wanted to eat before returning to the hotel. I came along, not because I wanted food but because I was the token male at this point and some of these girls were too intoxicated for me to trust their judgement. There was a “restaurant” right on the street that consisted of street food served at card tables on the sidewalk. Its not the place I would have chosen but it was not a choice that was left to me. Originally I didn’t want to partake, but the food was hot and smelled delicious so I ended up tearing right in. This second dinner was a taste of the real Cambodia, a taste that SAS would never give me. We had a delicious meal that probably amounted to no more than $5 for the whole table and then we were in a rickshaw on the way back to the hotel for a four hour nap before sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Vietnam was a unique port for me. Way back in December, I had to decide whether I would book any official SAS trips during pre-sale. Semester at Sea allows you to travel independently in each of the countries that we visit, but they also offer guided trips in each and every country. They urge us to sign up for their trips because they are safer and are guaranteed, unlike independent travel. My reason for opposing semester at sea trips is because they are expensive and because they ironically turn you into a tourist.
The most important reason I have done minimal official semester at sea trips is because they turn you into a tourist. On each trip you are shuttled around on air conditioned coach busses, which in many cases actually say “TOURIST” right on the front of them. There is no negotiating the itinerary. You must follow the group to the predesignated locations at the predesignated time. This is especially ironic because Semester at Sea’s philosophy in part focuses on the fact that this is a voyage, not a cruise, because we are travelers, not tourists.
The second reason builds into the first but is also important on its own. Semester at Sea trips are expensive. I traveled around India for less than half the price of the Semester at Sea trips, with a more inclusive itinerary. Why are their trips more expensive? Part of it is for very legitimate reasons. They use more reputable forms of transportation, they eat at more upmarket, sanitary restaurants. However, a large part of the added expense is that they place you in the lap of luxury. One night in India we crashed with a group of SASers on a SAS-led trip. They were staying at the Royal Plaza, a five-star hotel complete with marble lobby and Rolls Royce Phantom in the carport. We are college students. We have no need for this level of luxury, nor do we really have the disposable income to bear the added expense. Is a fancy hotel any more reliable than a cheaper one? I contend that the answer is no.
The third reason is that SAS forces you to commit to its trips unreasonably far in advance. The very first day of the voyage you must book all your trips for the entirety of the voyage. First off, why is this necessary? During this sale they were still selling trips for Dominica and Brazil, the ports we would visit in less than a week’s time. With this short notice they were still able to book plane tickets and hotel rooms for Rio de Janeiro. Thus, why must Hawaii trips be booked nearly 3 months in advance? My guess is that this is a sales tactic. “Now or never, people! Now or never! You must either sign up and pay for these trips right now or you will miss the opportunity entirely.” It worked on a lot of people. Obviously I think it’d be better if each port had its own deadline. The biggest problem for the student with booking this far in advance is that you have to make your travel plans independent of what other people are doing. This is the first day on the ship! You haven’t made friends yet! You don’t know who you’re going to hang out with in Singapore when we haven’t even left Nassau. So you do it blindly and then have to awkwardly make friends with friends throughout the voyage around the inflexible exoskeleton of SAS trips that you built on the first day.
Those are my three core reasons, but I didn’t fully understand them before I embarked on my Semester at Sea. Yet still, I didn’t sign up for SAS trips because I spoke to multiple alumni of Semester at Sea beforehand and asked them the same question:
“Name one thing you could change about your Semester at Sea.”
“I wouldn’t have done any SAS trips.”
I need to include one caveat, though, instead of just purely ragging out on SAS trips. SAS trips are great for certain people. There are certain people that cannot plan their own travel. This is either because it stresses them out to much or because they don’t know how to do it and aren’t willing to learn. They would much prefer to have someone else be in charge of their destiny, and let the proverbial A/C coach bus take them where it will.
Anyways, I like my independence and I’m not made of money so I don’t take SAS trips. With one exception. HCM05: Phnom Penh & Angkor Wat. Why this one exception? Because SAS makes one exception.
The book that explains all the many ways that you can get yourself sent home early from Semester at Sea, also known as the Voyagers’ Handbook, states that you cannot leave the country that SAS makes a port of call in. Meaning if we dock in China, you can’t decide to pop into Russia for the afternoon. The reasons for this I feel are mostly bureaucratic given that it means you are allowed to travel to the most distant corner of China by yourself, but to take a quick taxi out of Singapore to the Malaysian border is out-of-bounds. You can debate how much this rule keeps people safe, but not now. There is an exception, though. As long as you are in custody of a SAS trip, you are free to leave the country. There are two trips that do this, one from Vietnam to Cambodia and another from China to Tibet. I decided to take the SAS trip to Cambodia. My reasoning was that I wanted to experience just one more country. Why not Tibet then? Well this is kind of embarrassing, but I didn’t realize Tibet is an independent country. Call me a chinaman, but I thought Tibet was just a region in China. Thus, I signed up only for the Cambodia trip for the first three days that we were in Vietnam.
A few days before we arrived in Vietnam I received an email with our itinerary. It also included a list of all the people on our trip. Our itinerary was meticulously detailed, accounting for every 15 minute interval. The trip roster contained lots of names that I was familiar with but had never traveled with before. Again, the disadvantage to picking a trip for March in December. The advantage was, though, that the night before we arrived in Vietnam was the most peaceful sleep I’ve had before arriving in port. Why? Because instead of the gears in my brain churning out plans for my time in-country, I knew the first three days I was spoken for.
However, the trip wasn’t leaving until 1PM. I could have 4 hours in Vietnam, and I don’t waste a single hour in-country. I hopped off the boat with no intentions. A lot of people had plans to get custom suits and dresses made in Vietnam. I only have one suit and I’ve never had one custom made before so I decided I’d try it. First, we set out from the port. In front of the port there was a busy four lane road. In Vietnam there is a perpetual stream of motorcycle traffic and rarely a stop signal to halt it all. Google “crossing street vietnam.”
The way one crosses the street is to confidently step out into traffic and cross with a confident, steady pace. This allows the hundreds of motorcycles on the road to weave around you effortlessly. However, it’s rather nerve-wracking to the uninitiated and also very counterintuitive. If one were to cross the street in the United States and see a motorcycle coming, that person would say, “there is a motorcycle coming. I should stop crossing the street and wait for it to pass.” If you do that in Ho Chi Minh City though, that is to say, if you stop in the middle of a street or try to run across or retreat in the opposite direction, theres a good chance you may end up as one of the city’s 30 daily traffic accident casualties. During our five days in Vietnam there were numerous cases of road rash and one extreme case of a broken femur. the strongest and thickest bone in the body.
I thought that the idea of stepping into traffic was exhilarating and we had been reassured that if we crossed it correctly, we would escape the traffic unscathed. I boldly stepped into the busy intersection, giving only a slight look at the traffic before doing so, just to ensure there wasn’t a truck coming (they tend to have a harder time weaving around pedestrians), soon I made it to the midpoint, and soon I was on the other side of the street. I turned around and I had not caused a massive pile-up either. Mission accomplished.
The next cultural experience was taking out money from the ATM. Vietnam uses the Vietnamese Dong. This, I’m sure you can imagine, was the subject of many jokes (“I’m long on dong and short on time”). But the low value of the currency was also laughable. 20,700 VND is $1 USD. Thus, in order to take out roughly a hundred bucks, I punched the number two million into the ATM. I was a dong millionaire. We hopped into a cab and headed to the tailors, Adam, Pamela, Allie and I. The taxicab driver nonchalantly turned on the meter. That’s right, he did what a normal cab driver does, and he turned on the meter when we entered his cab. Oh happy day! Gone were the days of berating taxi drivers for trying to charge me the Westerner premium. Sure, the meter read 25,000, which looked scary at first, but we knew it was a fair price and that we would pay it. Remember, I’m a millionaire in Vietnam. I can afford this. Thank goodness we had the address written down, though. The driver did not speak a word of English and I would soon discover that most of them do not.
We arrived at the tailor and I selected my fabric and was measured. All inclusive, the price was $120 for a two piece suit. The price of a suit in Vietnam varied greatly, and when it comes to tailoring, all things are not equal. I willingly paid the price because this tailor owned two stores and was featured in numerous magazine articles. Plus, Bill Clinton’s daughter shopped there. That’s got to count for something. After our fitting we hit the market. I bought a bottle of D&G light blue and another one of Abercrombie & Fitch Fierce, the combined cost being about $25. Then I bought a pair of Adidas hi-tops and a pair of Nike Airs for about $65. So far Vietnam was being good to me. We stopped into a local restaurant for a bowl of pho, my first exposure to the Vietnamese staple dish, and then I dashed off in a cab to go back to the ship. Back at the ship I frantically dropped off my shopping and headed off to join my group for Cambodia.
I was scolded for arriving at 12:54. The trip departed at 1PM and I was told we were supposed to report half an hour early. I don’t see the point in that, though. Tell me the time we are leaving, and I’ll make sure I am there before we leave, which I was. Anyways, a few minutes after 1 we loaded into two separate coach buses. Our group consisted of 55 tourists; we couldn’t all fit onto one bus. I was nervous that with such a large group we’d often end up waiting for someone at each stop on the trip. Kyle, the trip leader, assured me that he would run a tight ship and leave people behind if need be. Our trip to the airport was smooth and we found ourselves there two hours before boarding time. I guess SAS decided to leave plenty of time for traffic. I was bummed that it meant 2 hours to kill in the terminal and 2 less hours exploring Vietnam, but one person was particularly grateful we were there so early. We were half an hour into a 3 day trip and already one girl had left her money belt with her important articles back at the ship. She left to hop in a cab, return to the ship, and come back to the airport.
Nathan and I had lunch and then I walked around to the various stores, killing time. Prices in the airport were all in USD, which confused me because although there are American travelers to Vietnam, it didn’t seem like sufficient motivation to make it the airport currency. After wasting a few hours in the departure terminal we boarded our Vietnam Airlines flight. We began our ascent and in a few minutes the captain announced, “Flight attendants prepare for landing.” The flight was over just as it began. Cambodian immigration curiously included electronic fingerprinting, which I haven’t seen anywhere besides the US (which frankly, faces different immigration issues than Cambodia). I went to the ATM in the airport so that I could withdraw enough Cambodian Riels to last me the next three days, but the ATM prompts were for USD, and the machine dispensed US currency. What was this? As it turns out, even though Cambodia has its own currency, they don’t use it except for giving change. Everyone transacts business in USD, only resorting to the piddling Riel when they’re giving change. Had I known this I would have brought with me the large number of singles I had brought with me on the ship, but instead they were safe back on the ship and we had to find ways to break large bills in a country where a beer costs 50 cents.
From the airport we went to a Cambodian orphanage. To be honest, this felt exploitive. Our itinerary had us at the orphanage for half an hour. What can you do in half an hour? You can’t help teach the children English or repaint a classroom. All you can do is pose for photos with adorable Cambodian orphans, that way you can tell people (and provide photo proof) that you went to an orphanage while you were in Cambodia. Regardless, I hung out with a few kids, tried to get them to tell me about their lives, saw their facilities. Then, before we knew it, we were being whisked away again on the A/C coach bus. This time we were off to dinner. The restaurant had a very natural feel to it. There was a wooden interior and it was open-air without glass windows. Innumerable potted plants covered the restaurant. The food was Cambodian, which came in numerous courses including little bowls of fish constructed out of banana leaves and rice cakes with a beef chill on top. After dinner, Nate and I walked down the street to a convenience store to buy sodas. At the convenience store I paid less than $1 for a two diet cokes and a red bull. Meanwhile, inside the restaurant they were charging $1.80 a soda. When the going rate varies that much from the market price, you can tell you’re in a tourist spot and not one where the locals spend their money.
Soon the bus left and we made our way to the hotel. It was decided that we would check in, get settled, have a few drinks, and then head out and explore Phnom Penh at night. An hour later, 15 of us night owls were crammed into one hotel room. The scene in that hotel room reminded me too much of college. Here everyone was, just sitting around, talking and drinking. I decided I’d stay for ten minutes and then I was leaving, regardless of who came with me. There were a few people in the room who were sympathetic to my cause and when I began to leave enough people came along that we reached the critical mass: the whole party was heading out. In front of our hotel we flagged 3 rickshaws. The rickshaws in Cambodia are different. In Vietnam and Cambodia everyone has a small 50cc motorcycle. The rickshaws are not built as rickshaws, but rather as two-wheeled carts that are mounted to a motorcycle. The cart has two benches, with one facing forward and the other backwards, and there is a roof. I was shocked that we could load up to six passengers in the cart and these little motorcycles could still bear the cargo load in addition to the driver. Obviously (and thankfully) we didn’t put on too much speed. But still, those little motorcycles are mightier than they look. We asked the driver to take us to the most popular club in Cambodia: Heart of Darkness.
Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, night clubs in Cambodia and Vietnam are rather strange. They’re both very popular clubs despite the fact that the book and film that they make reference to each portray these countries in a very negative light. Many of us likened it to if there was a nightclub in Germany called “Shindler’s List.” Although there were a number of foreigners in each club, there was also a considerable contingency of locals. It was a Sunday night and the club bumped and jumped til the early hours.
The next morning we all woke up in time for our 7:30 departure from the hotel. It was very apparent who had gone out last night and who had gotten a good night’s sleep. No one was energized and enthusiastic at this early hour, but some were looking out the window, absorbing our Cambodian surrounds, while others tried to drown out the tour guide’s voice with iPod earbuds and return to sleep. Our first stop of the day was the Royal Palace. The Kingdom of Cambodia has a sprawling compound in the middle of Phnom Penh, with a different elephantine and ornate building for every function of the king’s life. We learned a bit about the king of Cambodia. The man does not even have a high school education, although he did study ballet and photography in Slovakia. I’d say that this was just our tour guide messing with gullible American tourists, but it’s too strange to be fiction. Although we did not see the king, he was in residence that day, as indicated by the flags hung outside a particular building. Half of them were Cambodian flags and the other were a flag I did not recognize. These unknown flags represented a head of state that was visiting the palace at the time.
In addition to the utilitarian rooms in the palace complex we also visited the somewhat superfluous ones that serve no purpose except to house all the riches of the royal family. This is no different than the royal jewels in London, however, I did ask the tour guide how local Cambodians felt about the excessive wealth that was held at the palace. Given that Cambodia is the 133rd most developed country (i.e. it is impoverished), did anyone feel it was wrong to keep this much of the country’s wealth in glass cases at the palace? However, as in London the royal palace is a point of national pride. Never mind that within a stone’s throw of the complex there are people struggling to get by. We had some time to stroll the grounds. I met a group of monks who were touring the palace, coming from a different region in Cambodia. I introduced them to the fine art of taking pictures while jumping in front of landmarks.
The next station on our itinerary was the Killing Fields. I was pretty ignorant to this fact but there was a genocide in Cambodia in the 70s called the Khmer Rouge. A group of communist dictator crazies seized power and started killing everyone they felt was intelligent enough to oppose them. This led to mass killings of pretty much anyone who wasn’t just a simple farmer. Here at the Killing FIelds we saw their mass graves and learned about all the atrocities of the genocide. There was a large glass mausoleum that was full to the brim with victims’ skulls. Upon closer examination one saw the three way crack in the back of the skull. This is the site where each victim was blown in the back of the head with a blunt object, killing them. In the dirt and grass around the fields below our feet there were fragments of bone that were resurfacing after being buried for decades. Various sites around the fields were marked. There was a sign indicating where babies were held by the feet and slammed into a tree. One site marked the mass grave of 166 victims without heads. Another tree is where loudspeakers were hung to drown out the moans of those about to be executed.
Toul Sleng was the next stop on our grim tour of the Khmer Rouge genocide. This was a high school that during the genocide was used as a torture camp. We toured the classrooms, where blood still stained the walls 30 years later and artifacts of torture were on display. To be in that room and think of the anguish and subsequent deaths that took place in that same space was chilling. Learning about the Khmer Rouge genocide also raised larger questions in my mind.
Why is it I knew so little about this genocide? How could it be so recent in history and yet so widely unknown? Where was America during the Khmer Rouge? We are well known for our propensity to intervene in other country’s affairs. Why not Cambodia’s? Why did we choose to sit back on this one and let a few crazed revolutionaries murder thousands of innocent people because they were intelligent enough to be a threat? I still don’t know the answer.
We returned to the ship by around 2AM. Seeing as I was going shark diving in less than two hours, there didn’t seem to be any point in going to bed. I went to the piano lounge to hangout with people. The piano lounge is always an interesting scene on nights in port. During days in port this place is absolutely dead. Why would anyone be on the ship while you’re in port is one question. But even worse, why would you be in the piano lounge? However, from about 1-4AM this place becomes habitable again. It’s the only spot on the ship where you can buy food 24 hours a day and its generally everyone’s first stop when they bring their tired/drunken selves back to the ship. Everyone swaps stories and gossip; who went home with who, who got robbed. To make a Wedding Crashers reference, the piano lounge is also a spot for extra innings. Just in case the service and the reception wasn’t sufficient to close the deal, the piano lounge is your third swing. It’s an interesting sight and probably the only time when I don’t feel bad for the poor crew members who have to man this station 24 hours a day.
I told everyone that I was going shark diving in another couple of hours so thats why I wasn’t bothering with sleep. A handful of people asked if they could come too and I told them the answer was most likely yes. What originally was supposed to be a full trip was probably going to have about ten free spots. I don’t know how these shark diving companies make money. They start their trips before first light (aka heavy “I was too drunk” “I slept through my alarm” risk) and no one pays in advance. Throughout our time in SA people were bouncing around from trip to trip. There was a group of kids I wanted to go with. First, they were going with one company, then they switched to another that gave them a better price. Then, the night before we supposed to leave they told me their switching to another company that would give them their money back in the event they didn’t see any sharks. I switched the first time but the second I decided not to. None of these kids even bothered to let the companies know they weren’t going anymore.
So, I let the piano lounge know that I was going and that they were free to come along because there would be open spots. Seven kids took me up on my offer. Bob cracks me up. I told him that he could come but that we were leaving in half an hour. He said he was going to go get ready and leaves. I come back half an hour later and Bob is reclined in a lounge chair, talking to some people. Bob looks at me and smiles and doesn’t realize a thing. “Bob, it’s time to go.” He gives me a puzzled look. “Time to go shark diving?” He jumps out of his chair and takes off in a sprint towards his cabin. Soon we were off. We met the shark diving crew in front of the port. Greg, a handsome stocky South African man of about thirty thanks us for actually being on time. There are three vans in front of the dock and so far there’s only about enough people for one van. We wait around for ten minutes and no one else joins us. It’s decided that one van will head off and the others will go if and when they fill. Again, I don’t know how there’s any money in an enterprise like this. We head off into the deserted Cape Town streets. Greg seems like he’s still a bit buzzed from wherever he spent his evening partying. Bob and Adam, too, seem to still be riding last night’s wave. The van is about divided half and half between just wanting to go to sleep and still wanting to party. Greg decides that we should make a detour. We stop in front of a night club and Greg goes inside so that he can get a bottle of “tee-kee-lah” Five minutes go by and everyone thinks this is hilarious. We’re in South Africa, at 4AM, on the way to dive with great white sharks, but first we’re getting a bottle of hard liquor. Ten minutes go by and now we’re wondering where Greg is. Fifteen minutes go by and now we’re pissed because we just want to go shark diving and don’t care about the stupid tequila. Finally, Greg comes out, Jose Cuervo in hand, and we’re off to the races. They pass the bottle back and fourth between the willing participants. The bottle is passed towards me and I give it back. I’m about to go swimming with great white sharks, my interest in tequila shots is less than zero. Still, it was all in good fun and after a little heckling they accepted I wasn’t having any. I did get a kick out of it though when the sun crept up behind table mountain. Here in South Africa, a true tequila sunrise.
The van swiftly passed through the outer suburbs, the streets completely deserted, and up a mountain (not Table) towards Gansbaai, the great white capital of the world. The view of Cape Town sleeping below was almost as pronounced as it is from an airplane as all the orange street lamps outline the city streets. Once we finally passed over the summit and away from the city, the lights on the country road ended and above us was a clear, starlit sky. By this time everyone had passed out except for Bob. I told him to open his window and take a look above us. It was another moment I’ll remember.
Inertia woke me up when I felt the van stop. We were at a gas station. Everyone was using the bathroom. But where was Bob? Out behind the gas station puking in the bushes, of course. That Jose Cuervo. He’ll getcha. Bob got it all out of his system and bought a recovery snack and drink and we were back on our way. We were nearly to Gansbaii. Everytime Greg would give our black driver some direction he would call him “nigga.” I thought to myself, “wow, racism is really obvious here.” I later, on the return trip, asked Greg why he was calling our driver that and he explained that in South Africa the word is not discriminatory in any sense. I was surprised by this but it did make sense considering our driver never seemed to take any offense to it. Still, I wasn’t about to start calling people nigga. “The further away from home one is, the better one ought to behave.”
Soon we arrived at the beach in Gansbaii and were rushed through breakfast on account of the quickly receding tide. We were late and had to board quickly or else we wouldn’t be able to get off the shore. It was still early morning and the air was cold. The ocean water was probably the last place I wanted to be. We boarded our boat. It was about twenty feet long with twin outboard motors. It was special fitted with all sorts of beams and winches for this giant steel cage we were lugging out to sea. Once we were ready they opened up the throttle and sent us out into the breakers. The boat jumped over the waves like an oversized jet ski. It was fast and it was fun. After a ten minute boat ride we were out in the deep but still close to shore. The crew dropped the giant steel box into the water and swung it around the side of the boat. This whole time another crew member had been pouring fish gut water into the sea. The sharks were coming. We were instructed to get our wetsuits on. The wetsuits were damp and cold. Putting them on was miserable but within a few minutes mine started retaining my body heat and then it felt rather toasty. I was outfitted with a weight belt to keep me from bobbing up to the surface of the water. The captain called for the first group of brave souls to approach the cage. We would dive in three groups of seven. I was scared and I wanted someone else to go first so I could see how its done, but at the same time I wanted to face my fear and lead the group. I volunteered to go first. The instructor told us how to enter the cage, where to position our feet, where to position our hands, and where not to position them if we wanted to retain them. I was confused because the cage by this point was in the water and I couldn’t picture all these bars, ropes, and positions he was mentioning. My body was shaking as I plopped into the cold waters of the Atlantic. The instructor helped me assume the proper position. I was ready to dive.
We clung to the yellow bar and waited for the command to submerge. The buoys attached to cage prevented me from seeing the activity occurring on the surface of the water, but I knew we were close. “DIVERS DOWN!” he yelled, as I took my knees off the bar and ducked beneath the water. At first I saw nothing and then a shark the size of a cow passed in front of the cage. It was awesome. We hung out in the cage for about half an hour as this procedure repeated itself. We got some better views from the front and from the side. Then it was time to switch out. Sharks swim near the surface of the water, so the experience out of the cage was almost as cool as the experience in it. I was, however, envious of the third group that had one smack up against the cage. “I TOUCHED IT!” one person said as he returned to the surface.
They cast off the cage, leaving it floating on the surface for the next group they would bring out to this spot later today. We started jetting towards the shore. It was only nine in the morning. How weird it was that we had traveled so far and accomplished so much and yet it was still 9 am on saturday morning, a time we’d normally still be asleep. Carpe diem. We had some warm homemade soup and bought some souvenirs and then piled back into the van and headed back towards Cape Town. On the way back we stopped at a few scenic points. I snoozed on the way back, which was delightful because legitimate sleep was still a long way off. We got back to the ship and felt strangely sad to part with Greg and our driver. Even though we had been together for only five hours it seemed like far longer. Bob and I had some burgers on deck seven, I called home, and then I was ready for my next thrill.
That afternoon that was supposed to be a rugby game and then later that night a soccer game. I met up with a couple of friends who were trying to go to the rugby game, which started in about an hour. Everyone was saying that this game was going to sell out and I was pessimistic about showing up less than an hour before kickoff and trying to get tickets, not to mention the stadium was a good 20 minute drive from the port. I suggested we try for the soccer game but I was overruled, and in the end, thank goodness I was. We made it to the stadium and headed straight for the ticket window. There were still seats together for sale. We each bought a ticket for 120 ZAR and then split up. A couple people left the stadium area to grab some food and three of us went out to this lawn area where everyone was having beers, listening to music and enjoying the saturday afternoon sun. After fighting our way to the front of the crowd and securing a couple of beers, we sat down at a picnic table and chatted with a very friendly, slightly intoxicated South African guy. We took our time and made our way into the stadium slightly after the game’s start.
I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that our seats were center-field field-level. We got a great view of the action, which I must say was very impressive. I’ve never been to a professional rugby game before, or an amateur one for that matter, but it’s intense. They don’t wear pads but they’re still just as physical and brutish as in American football. I think the only difference is that they’re more tactful about their physical contact and don’t just slam into each other willy-nilly. They also display an impressive amount of finesse. For example, in order to catch a ball high in the air, they’ll toss one another high above the ground like a cheer leading squad. It’s a very fast-paced, impressive game. The home team’s colors are blue and white, which are two colors I’m rather fond of clothing-wise, so I was sure to pick up a jersey on my way out.
After heading back to the ship we decided to get dinner at V&A waterfront. It was a warm Saturday night. The sounds of live music coming from different restaurants mingled. The mild din of hundreds of diners chatting over dinner complimented the gentle glow of candles of tables everywhere. I wanted to hit the mall food court because I realized how much money I had already managed to spend in South Africa. Bob and Melissa didn’t agree with me so we compromised on a Joe’s Crab shack type of restaurant called “Seabasket” I had a big variety of fried seafood and it was all reasonably priced I suppose. Our only complaint was how slow the service was. On one hand I was sympathetic because it was a Saturday night and the restaurant was packed, but at the same time , there’s no one forcing them to seat that many tables. Anyways, after dinner I was debating whether to go out tonight or not. I could have been easily swayed into rocking through another night in a caffeine-fueled euphoria, but neither Bob nor Melissa agreed and I didn’t want to have to regroup again, so I went back to the ship and actually slept for once.