A Moment of Meditation


Breathe in, breathe out.

The heat from the campfire warms my skin. The smells of nature and roasting marshmallows hug my nose.


Breathe in, breathe out.

The multicolored lights loosely hang from the branches of our Christmas tree and illuminate our family room. Carpenters Christmas is playing in the background.

Breathe in, breathe out.

The soft grass tickles between my toes. My hands are reaching for the sky as the warm sun paints the inside of my eyelids with bright shades of orange, yellow and red.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Green is everywhere, and I’m dancing with myself to the music in the air.

Breathe in, breathe out.

My hands and feet are warm and tingly. The giant ball of positive energy hovers in the room.

I’ve never experienced meditation quite like I did tonight while sitting in a plastic chair for almost two hours in a small classroom with about 25 other people whom I’ve been living with on a ship for only about three months.

In the matter of seconds, my body sank deep into relaxation and my mind took flight. It was liberating, and I cannot wait to do it again.

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Mauritius Monday


Mondays get a bad rap.

Well, I guess I can say that because days of the week aren’t significant on board the MV Explorer. My calendar consists of alternating A and B class days, when I’m not in port traveling in different countries. I’ve barely been able to keep up with the date let alone the day of the week this semester.

However, today I found it particularly fitting to be a Monday because I spent it kayaking through the mangroves and snorkeling in the coral reefs in Mauritius, a small island off of the coast of southeast Africa.

I held a squishy sea cucumber and a sticky starfish, and swam with some tropical fish and spiky sea urchins. To top it all off, I enjoyed some delicious, smoky barbecue chicken and fish that was prepared by the locals.

Life doesn’t get any better.

But it does because now I’m heading to Cape Town, South Africa where I’ll be swimming with sharks, hiking in the mountains and soaking in every blessed moment.

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India


The girls and I surrounded by bushes of tea in Munnar.

One of many Christian churches in Munnar.

Hills of Munnar.

Little girl waiting at a bus stop in Munnar.

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Photos from India


Security at the Port of Kochin.

Straw mats on which I sat for many hours doing yoga and meditation.

Mrs. Hamsapriya, the yoga teacher, and I.

A tuktuk, or rickshaw.

Cow.

Local market in downtown Munnar.

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Incredible India


Kerala, India
We arrived to the Port of Kochin on March 6 and stayed for five days. The port is located in Kerala, a state in southwestern India. Kerala is one of the most progressive states in India. It’s literacy rate is 92 percent and life expectancy is 74 years. I found the situation surrounding Keralan women to be interesting. They outnumber the men, which is hard to believe because I saw many more men than women. I would assume this is part of their culture; that it’s more socially acceptable for men to be walking in the streets and hanging around at the restaurants and the markets. However, I learned from a Indian professor of human rights that the Keralan women “enjoy more equality.” I found this to mean that they are allowed to go to school and to further their education, but that the roles still remain the same. Most of them are not employed. They finish school and get married and start a family. This concept seemed unusual to me at first because I saw the logical next step after education to be getting a job. As I step back to rethink this I can look at it from their perspective. Maybe they prefer marriage and family because their values are different. American culture is based on more individualist values that often put education, a job and money ahead of settling down.

The Art of Living“Sooooo oooommm… soo, oom, soo, oom… so om, so om, so om, so om… sooooo oooommm…” This is called Sudarshan Kriya, a type of yoga that focuses on rhythmic breathing to alleviate stress. For two days in India, I spent a total of 16 hours sitting cross-legged on a straw mat, meditating and doing Sudarshan Kriya. My back ached, my legs tingled, my butt went numb, and the harder I tried to grab hold of my thoughts the more they wandered. All the while, the relentless heat mocked my pain and efforts. I researched the Art of Living program before participating, so I knew it was geared toward relieving stress, but the longer I sat in silence with my eyes closed trying to control my thoughts, the more frustrated I became. I couldn’t see where the stress relief would come. I wanted to give up. But I continued hoping to experience something.

Unfortunately, I didn’t. I know that’s pretty anti-climactic, but I can’t lie. Sudarshan Kriya is not the yoga for me. I like to meditate and I agree that breathing is very important in every day life, but the rhythmic breathing didn’t do it for me. Although I’m sure it would have more of an effect if I did it for longer than two days, I don’t think my body could handle it. Nonetheless, I’m glad I experienced it. Plus, I learned how to eat with my hand, the Indian way.

Also, had I not been gone to this program, I wouldn’t have gotten to know a couple of cool girls with whom I traveled in India for the rest of the week.

Munnar

After the Art of Living, a couple of new friends Amanda and Keeona and I packed our bags and headed to Munnar, a city five hours east of our port in Kochi in in the state of Kerala. It’s known for rolling hills and mountains of tea plantations. We prayed for the beauty that the photos promised, and our prayers were heard.

The rows of vibrant green tea bushes stretch for miles along the mountains and valleys. Amanda said they resembled green clouds that tempted her to bounce from one to the next. The whole time we were there the sky was bright blue and the sun was shining, but the temperature was comfortable. We took a tour of the plantations with a guide named Vincent. He drove us up the winding roads of the mountains. We ran into monkeys, too.

While in Munnar, the girls and I decided to get Ayurvedic massages. Ayurveda is based on traditional practice of alternative medicine in India. It uses specific oils and massage techniques. My body was begging for a therapeutic massage after two days of meditation and a long, hot and crowded bus ride. Our tuktuk (taxi) driver took us to a local spa known for the “best Ayurvedic massage” in Munnar. We set up our appointments and eagerly waited.

“OW-urveda”
I entered a dimly lit room where I met a wooden table. Immediately I wondered what I was getting myself into. My masseuse was a tiny, quiet 23-year-old woman, but she didn’t look any older than 17. She wore an apron over her flowery dress. Her skin was the color of toffee and her long dark hair was pulled back in a lose braid. She greeted me with a shy smile and instructed me to undress, watching me as I peeled off my sweaty clothes. There I was, standing naked. Completely exposed and slightly uncomfortable, but she appeared unaffected. She tied a cloth coverup over my bottom half and told me sit on a red stool as she vigorously scrubbed warm oil into my scalp and slapped her lose hand against the top of my head. I realized I wasn’t going to receive the therapeutic massage that I was expecting.

After my head, she told me to lay face down on the wooden table. She poured warm oil all over my body and rubbed her hands up and down my back side creating friction and heat against my skin. My bones crushed into the table with each stroke. To sum this rather painful story up (and save you the rather embarrassing details), the same thing was done to my front side. When it was over, it looked as if I went swimming in a bath of oil.

It’s an experience I’ll never be able to forget.

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Hope for Myanmar


This morning I drank coffee and talked with Aung Lin Htwe, one of U Ngwe Thien’s students. Aung runs his family’s cafe while studying and working toward a future in trade. He hopes to export rice to Singapore and Japan. U Ngwe Thien is teaching Aung about business management and marketing. He’s also helping Aung learn English.

Aung is 37 years old and has lived in Myanmar his whole life. He has a wife and a 5-year-old son who is in kindergarten. Aung supports the power of education and sees it as one of the best ways his country can become more developed. There hasn’t been much difference since the government began transitioning from a dictatorship to a democracy, but it’s going to take a while, Aung said. In the meantime, educating the population is key. Many of the Myanmar people are taking advantage of the textbooks and workbooks. They are learning how to speak English. More parents are encouraging education and sending their children to school. Some kids don’t even have parents, but are still going to school.

I met three siblings at the Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon this afternoon. The oldest brother is 20 years old, the second brother is 17 years old and their sister is 13 years old. They live and sell postcards by the market during their summer break from a monastery school run by the government. The two brothers speak English pretty well while their sister is still learning. They wandered around the market with me, and I bought them some lunch before heading out. Despite their situation, their faces light up when they smile.

I made some good friends in Myanmar. They will also be in my heart and on my mind. I have hope for their future and the future of their country.

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Education is Power


Su Thi is 17 years old. She lives in Bago in the northeast part of Yangon. She isn’t in school because she sells packs of postcards for 2000 kyats (about 2 dollars) at the reclining Buddha. I realized just how privileged I am to be able to not only receive an education, but to study abroad.

It’s hard to imagine having to choose selling postcards for money over going to school, but that’s how it is here. The priority for survival is to make enough money for food and shelter, and often that means the kids have to give up their education to help support their families. For Burma, the government banned education for many years, so kids didn’t really have a choice between school and sales. However, the government has eased up recently as they slowly transition from a dictatorship to a democracy. More Burmese are trying to teach themselves and their kids. Su Thi, for instance, spoke remarkable English. It turns out she taught herself, which is what many Burmese people are doing now.

Hundreds of books line the side streets and sidewalks. Anything from novels to encyclopedias to Myanmar-to-English dictionaries and grades 1 through 7 workbooks. It’s so apparent that the Burmese want to learn and are doing what they can to catch up.

I was drinking coffee at a local cafe in Yangon when a man sat and began talking with me. His name is U Ngwe Thien and he’s a teacher of business and marketing management at the local university. He also translates English texts to Myanmar because he wants to help spread the knowledge to the Myanmar people.

He strongly believes in education and it’s power to uplift the people. He said that the government instilled fear in the people for many years. No one would dare talk to each other. The government fed off of this fear. It’s been keeping all of the wealth while the people suffer. For too long reading and learning were almost entirely forbidden. The people might have been afraid of the government, but the government feared an educated population because it would mean more confidence among the people to speak out.

U Ngwe told me an analogy about the Burmese/Myanmar government: it’s in the driver’s seat, but doesn’t know how to drive so it’s always getting into accidents and hurting its passengers. In other words, those that make up the government need to learn as well. They need to learn how to drive its passengers safely to their destination. And he has hope that this learning will come and with it suffering will lessen and the people of Myanmar will be living better.

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Journeying into the Unknown


Today I will step foot in the poorest country in Southeast Asia and the second most isolated country in the world.

I’m excited and nervous and curious to explore Burma. I have no idea what to expect, but that’s what makes it beautiful.

I imagine…
ancient pagodas growing from the earth and reaching toward the sky;
sacred Buddhist temples filled with the smoky smells of burning incense;
robed monks with soft eyes and gentle smiles living a life of piety;
dirt roads winding through trees and bushes that dot the thirsty land;
brown huts decorated with strings of laundry hanging out to dry;
tiny women cradling their little ones and boiling water to drink and cook;
sweaty men working in the fields or lumber yards;
young adults replacing their childhood with work to help feed their families;
humble Buddhist followers praying, chanting and offering to the Buddha.
I imagine…
a quiet land without industrialization, technologies and electricity;

a primitive culture untouched by globalization and the modern world;

a happy community content with living in poverty;
a subservient population hidden from the outside world and robbed of their voices;

I imagine all of these images coming true and all of them shattering into millions of pieces.
I imagine the beauty juxtaposed with the suffering of its people.
I imagine struggling to understand their acceptance of this suffering.
I imagine learning their perspective about the present and their hope for the future.
I imagine feeling overwhelmed but grateful for having the incredible opportunity to visit Burma.

Some background about Burma:
(based on what I’ve recently learned from professors, guide books and Wikipedia (sadly my only Internet source)

It’s in Southeast Asia and bordered by Thailand, Laos, China and India. The Bay of Bengal meets the west coast. It has many natural resources, but the U.S. and the European Union imposed trade sanctions and cut ties because of reports of human rights violations including the use of child soldiers and genocide. Recently, the U.S. has eased up on those sanctions because the Burmese government is making efforts toward reforms for a more liberal democracy.

The military junta controlled the government for nearly 50 years. The economy suffered under the dictatorships of two tyrannical generals during this time and the UN deemed it one of the least developed countries. The National League for Democracy won the free elections in 1990, but the junta refused to give up control until it was finally dissolved in 2011.

The culture in Burma is almost entirely untouched. The way of life today is very similar to the way it was centuries ago. Most of the people are very poor. A meal a day is decent while two or more are considered feasts fit for a king. Less than one percent of the country has Internet access, and electricity is unpredictable or not available.

There are eight ethnic groups and over 130 different languages. Buddhism is the primary religion and it plays a huge social role. Followers believe in reincarnation and that their suffering is because of something they did in a past life. Therefore, if they lead a life of purity and consistent meditation, then they will either be born into a better life or escape the cycle of reincarnation altogether. As a result, most Burmese people are happy and kind. They believe in karma: if they do evil, evil will return to them, but if they do good, good will return to them.

Burma has only recently started letting people in again. The last time Semester at Sea visited was in 2006. This country is going to be new for most of us on the ship, so stay tuned for some interesting updates.

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Photos from the Mekong Delta, South Vietnam


Maja and I ready for adventure in our new hats.

Two young boys making crafts.

Vietnamese woman paddling through the river in the Mekong Delta.

View of the Mekong Delta from the river boats.

Maja with the honey bees.

Our cozy bungalow in Can Tho.

Frying sweet potato and mung bean spring rolls.

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Homestay in South Vietnam


There is so much that I can say about my week in Vietnam, but only one experience stands out.

Maja, Ammie, Case and I shared the same feelings about spending more time in another city. Ho Chi Minh is less industrialized than Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong, but it caters to foreigners and economically feeds off of tourists. We wanted to get away from the tall buildings and fancy shops and see something, anything else.

We found an agency and booked a two-day homestay in Can Tho, a village in the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam. It was a great decision even though it didn’t turn out to be what we had in mind. It was a structured tour of the small villages in My Tho where a guide showed us and other tourists where and how coconut candies and rice noodles are made. They provided us with honey tea, snacks and lunch. And we got the chance to ride rusty bikes around the village before heading to Can Tho.

The neighborhood in which our hosts live in Can Tho appeared relatively affluent. The houses were of decent size and in good shape. I noticed that many homes in Vietnam are open and without doors or screened windows, so I was able to see right into the houses as we passed by. It was amazing to see the sparkling embellishments, shrines and big screen televisions in plain sight. We were warned about the prevalence of theft before coming to Vietnam, but I wonder if this only applies to tourists or if the Vietnamese steal from each other as well.

Fortunately, I am practicing an open mind because that is the best way to travel. With that said, I did have a preconceived idea of what our homestay would be like. I imagined that the four of us would be meeting and staying with a family and sharing a close dinner together. Instead, it was more of a communal homestay. Our hosts Mr. and Mrs. Hung’s home is set up similar to a campground or a hostel with little bungalows and a main dining area to serve guests.

And they didn’t eat dinner with us. We were able to help stuff and fry sweet potato and mung bean spring rolls, but they already prepared a big meal before we arrived. It included rice, steamed elephant fish, seasoned green beans, fried tofu and goi cuon (fresh salad rolls). Despite my unmet expectations, it was still a great experience. The food and company were beyond amazing. I underestimated the impact that the other travelers whom I met would have on me.

Jamie, Lauren and Jay were on the tour in My Tho. Jamie and Lauren are from Australia and were traveling from North Vietnam to South Vietnam when they met and picked up Jay along the way. He’s a boxer living in Thailand. He gets several months off from training during which he indulges in cake, his ultimate kryptonite.

I also had the pleasure of meeting our bus driver, his wife Nga and their son Lao. They live in Ho Chi Minh City. It was Nga and Lao’s first time in the Mekong Delta. Nga works as an accountant. Lao is around 7 years old and quite rambunctious. He has a spunky personality and loves making faces.

I had an experience with an older Vietnamese woman while listening to traditional Vietnamese music and eating fruit during our tour. She was astonished to find out that I was 22 years old. She couldn’t speak English, but Nga translated for me. Not only did the woman peg me as about 10 years old, but she thought Maja was my mother…

When I arrived to the Hung’s home, I met two girls from Lithuania who study and work as English tutors in China. And Andrea is from northern Italy. She is studying for her masters in international relations, but took her couple of weeks of vacation time to travel independently from North to South Vietnam. Her next stop is the Philippines. I had the privilege to get to know Andrea on the bus ride to Can Tho. We talked about school, the Semester at Sea program, our families, our friends and our life philosophies.

The girls, Case and I enjoyed eating, talking and laughing together that evening. We had a few shots of rice wine, and laid in hammocks underneath the clear night sky. The stars burned as bright as the moon. It was breathtaking. After stargazing, I passed out in a comfortable bed protected with a pink mosquito net.

We headed to the floating market the next morning. Along the way, we passed through a street market where there were fresh fruits, vegetables and meat being sold. Many vendors keep their stock of fish alive. Upon purchase, they knock the fish over the head with a rock and proceed to descale it. This wasn’t a pleasant sight, but it was interesting to watch as the women skillfully went about the daily task. Most of the vendors are women because it’s common for them to be the “business brains” who make the money and cook for the family while most of the men lay around in hammocks and play cards. There are exceptions, of course.

The floating market is comprised of many boats selling produce, coffee and even bowls of pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup dish with rice noodles, vegetables and beef or chicken in a broth spiced with cilantro, Thai basil and chili pepper.

After the floating market, we had lunch at a local cafe in Can Tho as we waited for our bus to bring us back to Ho Chi Minh City.

Overall, my experience in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam was exactly what I needed. I successfully traveled outside of the city with a few good friends. I met people from other countries and I got to see the more rural culture in South Vietnam.

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