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.
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.
In my sleep I heard singing. I awoke, at first thinking I was still on the ship. In a moment I realized that actually I was in India and the singing I heard was the Muslim call to prayer. It was not even five o’clock in the morning. I put earplugs in and tried to fall back asleep. Then, in what felt like an instant, my alarm clock went off. It was 5:30AM and time to wake up for sunrise laughing yoga. My body objected and insisted that I fall back into bed and return to sleep. I laid in bed and debated whether to go back to sleep or not. I had a long day ahead of me, I needed my rest, but we only had one day to experience Kolkata, and when else could I experience laughing yoga in India? In a few moments my mind overpowered my body and I rose from the comfy bed. I woke up Sydney and Jane and fifteen minutes later we were on the street, hailing a cab. Each time one stopped I told them we wanted to go to Rabindra Savkar, the park. Each one named a price, at least Rs 150 ($3), to which I replied “meter!” They would each refuse to use their meter and drive away. After about five minutes and three refusals we decided just to pay the asked price. The principle of not being taken advantage of was not worth missing sunrise in the park. We hopped into an ambassador and sped towards the park. There was very little traffic as people were only starting to wake up and start the fire for breakfast. Upon arriving at the park the cabbie asked for a tip, which we ignored and walked into the park. It was not clear where the yoga group met so we just walked around the park in a giant circle. The sun rose in a spectrum of yellow and orange, reflecting upon the lake. There were many people in the park, some walking to school, others stretching and meditating, many just taking a leisurely morning stroll. I was grateful that at least at 6AM in the park Kolkata was not completely hectic.
We had nearly completed a full circle around the park when we found a gathering of Indians in their 70s. They were standing in a circle performing exercises. Sydney and Jane kept their distance but I grew closer to watch them. A moment later one of the men in the circle invited us to join them. We filled in their circle and one man would call out the exercise for all of us to perform. “Elbow circles. One, two, three, four, five, SIX! seven, eight, nine, ten. Switch!” The exercises included all muscle groups and parts of the body, including the lungs. We did quick, short laughs, long belly laughs, and all sorts of variations, each coordinated with its own arm movement. We jogged in place, stretched our limbs and an hour later we were finished. Then, to conclude the meeting we tightened the circle and prayed for world peace. After exercise there was time for fellowship. They told us that they are a laughing club, there and laughing clubs all over India, and that they meet every single morning to start their day. They are all retirees, and from my perception, seemed to be middle class indians. One told us his son worked in New York and lives in New Jersey. We told them about our journey around the world and our plans for India and they proffered their own suggestions for our short time in their country. Then they told us which way to the metro station and we parted ways. It was after seven at this point and the subway station was empty, which was perplexing. Where were all the thousands of Indians I saw last night on the way from the airport? Why weren’t they all on their way to work? Soon the train came. It was an old subway car, but still more modern and clean than some of the subways in New York. We took the metro for a few stops and got out at the Park Street Station. In front of every subway station there is a police officer checking bags. We asked him for directions to our hotel and we began walking in that direction. Soon things looked familiar and we found the street it was on. There were a number of hand rickshaw pullers on the corner. Kolkata is the last city in India that still uses hand pulled carts to transport human beings. I had to experience this dying form of transportation. Knowing how cheap they are, I figured we would each take our own, but the driver had all three of us pile into one. The carts have three foot tall wagon wheels, making for a smooth ride and an interesting vantage point. During monsoon season the roads sometimes flood and these raised rickshaws become the only way to fjord the flood waters. He pulled us for 3 minutes before we arrived at our hotels. I handed him Rs 50 and he looked disapprovingly. I gave him another 100 for a total of Rs 150 ($3). Although this is probably the amount of money that he makes in a day, I was glad to overpay this time. These pullers are the poorest of Kolkata city dwellers and usually sleep in the streets under their carts.
A night at the Hotel Intercontinental VIP includes complimentary breakfast. I ordered something Indian and the girls ordered boring old scrambled eggs and toast. This was generally the theme for our meals in India. I don’t know what I ordered each time, I simply tried to discern whether it was poultry, fish, or vegetables, and left the rest to chance. We went upstairs to our room and showered and soon our breakfast came. Apparently I had ordered some sort of bread with a yellow potatoey sort of soupy substance. I scooped the yellow with the bread. It was the best breakfast food I ever had. Full of flavor, but not spicy, it was superior to all the boring bland breakfast foods available at home. The tea was also delightful, sweet and milky but still strong in taste. I called mother dearest at home while everyone prepared themselves for the day. We found a cab that agreed to use the meter and asked for “Chinatown.” Particularly we wanted Damzen Lane, the site of homes carved out of a garbage dump and other humbling sights, but the driver was not familiar with this street. By this point it was 9:30AM and Kolkata was alive again. The traffic was thick at certain chokeholds, so much that the driver would turn off the engine and we would sit and wait for the congestion to clear. I don’t mind sitting in traffic too much in foreign countries. Although I despise it at home, the street life that is mundane to someone who lives their daily life in Kolkata is fascinating to someone there for only twenty-four hours. Soon we were in Chinatown. We weaved through dirt streets too narrow for cars to pass. Sewage ran in the street beside unpainted, crumbling, cement walls. There were numerous spray paintings of hammers and sickles with the caption “cast your vote on this sign.” There were fewer people in these back alleys and our unfamiliarity stood in more dramatic contrast than on the crowded streets. I think this is what they people mean when they say that India can feel like another world. I don’t think I can articulate well enough how strange these backstreets felt. On one block, a man was butchering a cow in the open air. It’s head sat on the ground. On the same block, there was a man selling cell phones and cold coca-cola.
After walking around absorbing our surroundings aimlessly, we began looking for this Damzen lane. A police officer told us it was just around the corner and to ask again and anyone would know. We did so and no one knew. One man with better English than the rest consulted our map and let us know that we were actually in the wrong Chinatown. The Chinatown we were looking for was on the other side of the city. He gave us directions to get there via the city bus and we left immediately. The inner-city busses in India are a spectacle. They follow a predetermined route but the actual bus stops are pretty informal. The bus slows down and one simply hops on while it is still in motion. You don’t pay upon boarding. Instead there is a “conductor” who navigates the crowded bus, selling tickets for Rs 6 a piece. He has a bouquet of low-denomination bills in one hand so that he can quickly give change to people. Somehow he remembers all the seemly indeterminate faces and knows who has already paid the fare. We hopped on one bus and I asked the driver if it was the right one to Delowsi. He told me no, we were on the 24a bus when we needed the 24 bus, and pointed to the right bus, which was going in the opposite direction. We jumped off and shuffled through the insane traffic, coursing through rickshaws, taxis, and trucks, and hopped into the other bus as it drove away. This bus was going to take a while before reaching our destination. No matter, it was simply an opportunity to take in more of Kolkata. Eventually we reached New Market and got off, passing by the old style colonial architecture that stands incongruous in BBD Bagh to the rest of the city’s buildings. The search for Damzen Lane seemed never-ending but eventually we found it. Again, this Chinatown was similar to the first; narrow lanes and the spectacle of poverty and modern civilization contrasting. There were men bathing in the street by a water spigot and women washing dishes by a pipe gurgling up from the sidewalk near the gutter.
We decided we had time for one more spectacle, then we’d head back towards the hotel, have lunch nearby, check out, and proceed to the train station to meet Adam and Giovanni, our other two travel companions. A man led us to the subway station and we boarded a downtown train headed for the Maidan. The Maidan is a 3km-long park that was made from a flattened village in order to give Fort William’s cannons a clear line of fire. It reminded me of the National Mall in Washington DC, except with fewer trees and grass and also a number of malnourished horses chomping dirt and scrubby grass. Sydney dubbed it “pony park,” and I was amused by the contrast of horses, without saddles or hitches, just grazing in the park, with high-rise buildings behind them. We walked down the park to the Victoria Memorial. “It’s a vast, beautifully proportioned confection of white marble domes set in attractive, well-tended parkland. Think US Capitol meets Taj Mahal.” I’d say the guidebook gives it an accurate assessment. It was only Rs 4 to stroll the grounds but substantially more to visit the interior, and besides, our time was limited, so we strolled around the building and its reflection pools. Here a number of young indians wanted to have their picture taken with us, which was unusual seeing as we had received little attention all day. Around the city, little children would say “hello” to us, but at the VM they wanted their pictures taken. The three of us pondered the reason behind it without coming to any firm conclusion. Soon a Kolkatan himself would add insight into the situation. After touring the grounds and stopping for a few more photos we headed for the hotel, stopping to admire the horses along the way to the metro station. On the way back, Sydney spotted a McDonalds. She insisted that we stop in to have a look. The McDonalds was clean and well decorated like the McDonalds in Times Square. They asked if we could eat there, having experienced enough culture shock for one day. I insisted that we sample the Bengali cuisine that would only be available in this part of India and promised that we would experience Indian McDonalds at another point in the trip.
Entrusting me to keep my word, they consented and we headed for Rupasi Bangla. It was a clean, air-conditioned restaurant with glass and wrought-iron furniture. I ordered a Bengali fish item with a mango lassi. When the food arrived, I regret to say that I did not really notice the difference between Bengali and Indian food, but then again, I am uninitiated and haven’t spent my whole life eating it. Later I would find out that there is a lot of differentiation between Indian food in North India versus Indian food in South India, but to me it was all the same. We ate our food and headed to the hotel. Fortunately our bags were untouched since we left them earlier that morning. I knew they’d be fine but there is always the slight sense of unease from taking such a risk. We paid for our room and hopped in a cab to Babu Ghat. A Ghat is a staircase that is built on a riverbank. It’s used for accessing the river, either for prayer, washing clothes, washing dishes, bathing, and all the other fun things Indians do in a river. We went to Babu Ghat to take the river ferry across to Howrah Train Station. I was hoping that by taking the ferry we’d get a good view of the flower market underneath the Howrah Bridge. Unfortunately, the ferry did not travel near the market, but I still got a good view of Howrah bridge. At the other side we walked up the riverbank and immediately found Howrah train station. From the outside the station looks beautiful with terra-cotta tiles and a nice desert color. On the inside, though, it is hell. Imagine Home Depot, a giant, wide open warehouse. Now remove all the aisles and make it a wide open space. Now lower the ceilings. Now remove some of the lighting to make it more cavernous. Now add a million indians either walking about, running for a train, or sleeping on the cement floor without even a blanket. Now add a PA system that is so loud you must shout to overcome it, so garbled that you can’t discern a word the voice is saying, and so persistently making announcements it literally never stops. Hopefully you have a pretty good idea of Howrah train station. Originally we told Giovanni and Adam that we would “meet them at the station. Worst case scenario, be at the ticket counter an hour before the train leaves.” As soon as we saw the station we realized the impossibility of our task. How would we ever find two people in this massive crowd? We couldn’t! Especially when you consider that they are probably walking around looking for us while we’re walking around looking for them, making it entirely improbable our paths would overlap. In terms of our backup plan there were a number of ticket counters scattered throughout the station. Adam also had our tickets, making it impossible to know which train to get on without him. I was nervous. We walked about, trying to find our travel companions. I approached a station employee and tried to see if there was a way to look up our reservation using our names and passports. Nothing was working. What would we do? Finally, Giovanni called my cellphone. He told me he was by the ticket counter. I asked him which. The ticket counter he described was the one I was standing at and he was not there. I told him to meet us in front of the taxi stand in front of the station. He agreed and hung up. I realized that I should have set a backup plan. What if there is more than one taxi stand? What if I still cannot find him? We walked in front of the station and went to the taxi stand. Sure enough, down the street there was a second taxi stand. I instructed Sydney and Jane to wait for them here while I walk down and check out the other stand, and under no circumstances should they leave that spot and fragment the group even further. They weren’t at the second stand so I walked back to the first. Adam and Giovanni had found Sydney and Jane. My anxiety was instantaneously relieved.
The group was together, Adam had our train tickets, and all was well in the world. We had an hour or so till our train so we set out in search of a place of refuge from the train station. We were unsuccessful. There was one bar adjacent to the station but they would not let us inside, for what reason they would not say. Jane was nervous because it was approaching nightfall and the area around the station was seedy, so we returned inside and sat down at a restaurant within the station where Adam and Geo had waited for us earlier. It had been a long and busy day in Kolkata and a sleepless night before that. Now that my nervous energy had subsided I was instantly zapped and wanted to go to sleep. A few minutes before its scheduled departure the train pulled up to the platform. It was an old diesel-electric engine with coaches that with the standardized Indian Railways styling, it was indeterminable whether they were new or old. As the train pulled in hundreds of passengers scampered to be the first in front of the door. These coaches were unreserved, and he who does not get their first might not get a seat, being forced to stand or sit somewhere uncomfortable for many hours. Seeing as our berths in 3AC were reserved we walked to our car. We stepped inside and were impressed by the modernity. There was an aisle down the length of the coach. To the right of the aisle there were numerous compartments. Each compartment has 6 beds that are arranged perpendicularly to the aisle. The 6 beds are bunked, 3 on each side of the compartment. On the left of the aisle there were two bunk beds that run parallel to the aisle. Thus, we walked down the aisle until we found our compartment, then turned right, facing the interior of the compartment towards the window. There were two benches, one on the left and one on the right, where we would sit until we went to sleep. When it was time to sleep, we’d bring down beds that were folded up into the wall. The compartment is only separated from the aisle by a curtain; it is not a physically separate compartment. This didn’t cause any particular problem because soon the entire coach quieted down as people were settled, and we chained our luggage to a railing so that it could not be taken in our sleep. Each passenger received a brown paper bag with clean linens and a wash cloth. We had to swap seats with some people but without much trouble we managed to get all five of us into a six person compartment. Thus, there was only one Indian with us. We talked for a little while after the train left and went to bed before 10PM. Ironically, I fell asleep easily on my fold-down middle bunk, far more peacefully than the night before, the motion of the swiftly moving train rocking me to sleep.
WARNING: The following is the story of an epic journey through India. Experts agree that it was extremely risky, and that the participants only made it happen because they were extremely lucky. Or was it karma? Regardless, don’t try this in India.
In typical Byron fashion, I started planning India a week before we arrived in Cochin. It sounded like most people were headed north, most to New Delhi, then onward to Agra (the Taj Mahal), some onward to Varanasi (the Ganges), and a few to Jaipur. It seemed, though, that everyone was traveling to the North, and then from west to east. I don’t like traveling in herds with other SAS kids and also I heard that many of the trains in this direction were full, so I assessed the possibility of traveling from east to west. In the Northeast lies Calcutta, the third largest city in India. The SAS bible, known to most by its pen-name, “Lonely Planet Guidebook,” mentioned Kolkata as a highlight of India. I figured that if I went there, I could do the tourist circuit in reverse, from Kolkata to Varanasi, onwards to Agra, then to New Delhi and back to Cochin. As usual, I sent out a Byron email blast to see who wanted to go with me. Five days before we arrived in Cochin, six of us each booked two plane tickets; one from Cochin to Kolkata, and another from New Delhi to Cochin. Our plan was to travel between cities by overnight trains, and booking these trains from outside of India proved virtually impossible. The Indian Railways website required an account, which requires an SMS code to activate, which requires an Indian cell phone number. Thus, we needed to book train tickets once we arrived. Things remained relatively calm until we pulled into Cochin besides my growing anxiety over India itself. People always told me that India was the place in the world to go if you want to feel like you’re on another planet. I was intimidated. The night before our arrival I hardly slept, my mind filled with uncertainty. Already things were not going according to plan. Gracie, one of the six members of our group, was no longer coming with us. In fact, she was entirely leaving the Semester at Sea program. For some sort of health reasons, which she would not discuss, she had to go.
The next morning it took far longer than anyone expected for us to get off the ship. Originally we were supposed to clear immigration by 8 or 9 am. Instead, we weren’t permitted to leave the ship until close to noon. I didn’t think it was possible but India has way more bureaucracy than the United States, and who knows which piece of red tape was holding us back. Eventually we made it off. Four out of the six of us voyagers disembarked for the train station in order to book our tickets. Gracie was no longer coming and Giovanni was on an FDP. He and Adam would fly to Kolkata tomorrow and meet me, Sydney, and Jane at the train station. As usual, outside the port gates there were a number of taxis waiting for us. However, unlike in other countries there were also auto rickshaws, three wheeled taxis that are in every city in India. We had no perception of prices in India yet, but none of the drivers would use their meters, which in any country means you’re being taken advantage of. Regardless, the ship was a considerable distance from where we needed to be, so eventually we hired a rickshaw. We told him we needed to book tickets and he informed us that doing it at the station would take very long, so instead he brought us to a booking agent. Already a group of SAS students was in the office, booking tickets for their own journey. We split the group in two, half of us waiting to book our tickets, half of us leaving in search of an ATM. Interestingly, there are no ATMs in banks, but rather they are freestanding only, each enclosed in its own little air-conditioned room. Many of these ATMs even have their own personal security guard, hired just to protect the machine. I guess that speaks to the low cost of living in India, where a high tech ATM costs more than a security guard’s cost of living. We got our rupees. I took out Rs 12,000 ($240), unsure how long that would last me. We made it back to the booking agent, who was able to only secure our passage from Kolkata to Varanassi. We would have to book each leg of our trip as we went. Trains in India always run full and there are blocks of tickets that are set aside on each train, tickets for emergency last-minute bookings within 24 hours of departure, a quota just for foreign tourists, or a quota for government officials. It was 12:30PM and our flight was at 4PM. The afternoon traffic was murderous and we were unsure how long things would take at the airport, thus we were anxious to leave. Adam stayed at the booking agent and finalized the tickets while Sydney, Jane, and I left in pursuit of a cab. The drive to the airport would take an hour and the auto rickshaws have a top speed of about 30km, so we wanted an actual cab. We walked for a few blocks with no success, then we found a government building with a number of sedans posted in front of it. We asked for a taxi and one of the drivers answered the call of duty. I’m pretty certain this guy was a private driver for some government official and just took us to the airport because he had nothing to do for the next couple of hours and wanted to make some easy money. He asked for Rs 900 ($18) which was a third more than the guidebook suggested this ride would cost. I tried to negotiate but he wouldn’t budge. Considering we felt crunched for time and didn’t see any alternatives, we agreed to his price and got in the car.
Indian drivers are insane. There is no section of the road where it is unacceptable to overtake another vehicle. The take a two lane road and squeeze four vehicles across it. They use their horns almost as frequently as they use their accelerators. Blowing the horn is used for everything from “move over” to “speed up” to “I’m passing you.” Meanwhile, no one says a word while they’re driving. It’s nothing personal, either. Sometimes they’ll even hold down the horn, something that when you do in the USA is the ultimate affront, but no one takes it personally. Despite the cacophony of horns, especially the blaring truck air-horns, everyone remains calm. Our driver had moves, and as soon as we saw a sign for the airport we relaxed a bit in our chairs, knowing that we would make it there in time. We arrived with time to spare and entered the airport as soon as we passed the men with automatic guns. I’m not sure if these are police or military but there is a lot of security in India. All the stores have private security guards. All the transportation hubs, train, airplane, bus, and ferry stations all have guards. The most extreme was at New Delhi where there was armored shelters and sandbags in preparation for a skirmish. None of them gave us much trouble, though. Discrimination is either legal or socially acceptable in India. We entered stores without using the bag check, we passed through security at the mall without being frisked, and we stood in the ladies only subway car without being asked to move. I guess they realize that we are not a threat, just a group of American travelers, and thus they do not waste their time.
There were a number of other SASers at the airport, all of us traveling on the same flight to Mumbai. Mumbai is the hub of India, from which SASers were either staying or traveling on to Delhi, Jaipur, or Kolkata. We relaxed in the terminal given that we had plenty of time to spare. I had a chicken tikka sandwich and grumbled to myself that we could have taken our time and had lunch instead of sitting at the airport. Regardless, we were here now and definitely not going to miss our flight, so I suppose the peace of mind was valuable. Eventually we walked out to the tarmac and boarded the plane. The plane was a standard Boeing 737. I remarked that at least their was one thing made in America and imported to India as opposed to to the other way around. There were a few noticeable differences though. We were flying the budget airline of India, and yet they still served a meal even though the flight was only 2 hours long. Also, we were the only young people on the plane. Most others were businessmen. Only a select few Indians travel the country via planes. I felt overly important amongst amongst the upper crust of India. Jane was still hypervigilant watching her bag though. I slept on the way to Mumbai, trying to make up for my lack of rest the night before. Right before landing I woke up so I could watch us fly in over the largest slum in India. It spanned for miles right below us, like one continuous drab structure, just like Slumdog Millionaire. In Mumbai we had a short layover, which I used as an opportunity to check my email and Facebook on the free internet terminals. Then it was onwards to Kolkata. Again, another meal and more business people. The plane arrived in Kolkata. The airport in Kolkata was noticeably dreary in comparison to Mumbai or Kochi. This was foreshadowing for the city before us.
We didn’t have a hotel reservation (of course) but we did have a guidebook, which told us that all of the backpacker hotels are in an area called Sudder Street. Thus, our plan was to take a taxi there from the airport. We hopped on line at the prepaid taxi booth. I’m not sure if these exist anywhere in the US, but in India at most transportation hubs, they have an awesome institution called a prepaid taxi station. You tell them where you are traveling to and they give you a fixed rate. You pay this person at the booth and they give you a ticket with a taxi number assigned. You get into this taxi and he takes you to your destination. Upon arrival, you give the taxi driver your ticket, which he takes back to the airport to receive his compensation. Why is this middleman so meaningful to me? Because by virtue of our foreignness, we don’t pay the going rate on hardly anything in India. If the price isn’t already written down, expect to pay double or triple what an Indian pays. Most of the time the difference is trivial. It means getting charged the equivalent of an extra $2-3. However, its the principle that we’re being taken advantage of, just because we have the money to pay the difference and everyone is doing it, not to mention it adds up when it happens everywhere. Thus, any place, restaurant, taxi, or store, if it said the word “fixed price,” I was giddy. We found our cab outside the airport. It was a Hindustan Ambassador. Ambassadors are the crown victorias of india. They’re used as cabs and police cars everywhere and they run forever. The only difference is that the styling has hardly changed since 1958. Their old-fashioned, British-looking, and everywhere in India. Some day I want to import one to Australia. We jumped in and headed into the city. Even before we left the airport vicinity, I could see the difference between Kochi and Kolkata. There was a woman rummaging through a pile of garbage, searching for anything of value. As we entered the city it grew denser, more crowded, and louder. Hundreds of people everywhere, on foot, auto rickshaws, motorcycles, in cars going their separate ways. People in the street, cows in the street, dogs in the street, goats in the street, People selling food, cooking food, eating food. Washing dishes in the gutter, sleeping on the sidewalk. Bare lights dangling by a wire, big lights illuminating a fancy hotel. The smell of spices, the smell of urine, the smell of food, the smell of damp clothes. Sounds of horns, engines, people talking, yelling, music blaring. It was a total sensory overload. The dirty old cab was our refuge. I wanted to lock the door but I didn’t know how so instead I just sat there and looked outside. Eventually the cab arrived at a quiet street in front of our chosen hotel. We went inside but there was no vacancy so we left for another one supposedly around the corner. It was after dark and so I was on my guard, walking on the street, not the sidewalk, to avoid people. We struggled to find the hotel and had to double back a few times, making it apparent that we were lost. We asked somebody and then found the hotel a block away from where we were looking for it. At the Hotel Intercontinental VIP, there was space available but only in the executive room. It was more than we anticipated paying ($17/night/person) but they just wanted to stop for the night so we took it. The girls settled into the room while I registered at the front desk. Again, I experienced the extent of Indian bureaucracy. Getting a room was like an interrogation. Where were we coming from? Where were we going after checking out? When did we arrive in India? How long were we there for? What was my local address in the United States? Passports, photos with a webcam, everything, as per mandate of the indian government. I asked the guy where i could buy a SIM card and it so happened that there was a vendor right next door to the hotel and he was still open at this late hour. He set me up with a new AirTel phone number. This was an even more bureaucratic process. Passport and visa copies, father’s name, home address, separate photo in addition to passport photo, signature in a dozen places. I couldn’t tell if I was buying a SIM card or taking out a mortgage. Regardless, within an hour I was making phone calls to New York for less than 4 cents a minute. Meanwhile back up in the hotel room, the air conditioner was not cooling down the room. I complained once and they thought they fixed it. An hour later it was hotter in the room than it was in the hallway. I complained again and told him that we could not stay there if the air conditioning didn’t work, and that he must move us to another room. There were no other rooms available except for the executive suite, but that naturally cost more money. I told him that we had already agreed to a price for the night, that it was already nearly midnight and thus the room would most likely not be sold tonight anyway, thus he must give it to us. He capitulated and we moved to the top floor for the nicest room in the house. Here the A/C was nice and icey, and even though the girls were originally too easygoing to care, I think we all appreciated the nicer room. We made plans to wake up at sunrise the next morning and go do yoga in the park the next day. The girls immediately fell asleep but I laid awake thinking about the rest of our trip. Tomorrow Geo and Adam were supposed to meet us at the station. We had no way of communicating with each other. I had sent a text to Geo but received no response and was not sure if his italian iPhone received my indian text message. I called the ship and left a message, instructing them to call me on my new number before they flew to Kolkata. I then tried to rest, my mind swimming with thoughts and anxiety, and after a couple of hours fell asleep.
We had survived our first day in India. There were considerable challenges ahead of us, namely meeting up with the others and making the rest of our travel arrangements, but all I could do for now is try to relax.
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….