The first day I arrived on the ship, it was nearly empty; the only inhabitants being faculty, staff, and their children. At that time, the space seemed sufficient. The cabins, soon deemed “cells” by my friends and I, weren’t particularly luxurious, but we decorated with pictures and magazine cut- outs and called it home. We couldn’t wait for the students to arrive. It was as if we were the first ones to arrive at a big party, and we couldn’t wait until things got started.
The next morning we got up early to visit downtown Vancouver, and mainly to stay out of the way of the swarms of college students dragging their suitcases down the tiny corridors. When we returned, full after a lunch of sushi and satisfied by a stop at the Cyber Café, the space was no longer sufficient. It was quite a rude awakening to find that the lounge chairs that my friends and I had dragged out on deck and positioned in the perfect spot were suddenly inhabited by strangers. It felt like an invasion, not only of space, but of privacy as well.
I got my last taste of privacy when the ship was preparing to sail. As hundreds of students crowded around the gangplank to say their final farewells to parents and friends, we sat in the almost vacant Harbor Grill and just watched. A young couple seeking a moment of peace to say goodbye was our only company. They didn’t seem to be saying anything, but from the girl’s face I could tell that she was crying, and the boy wiped his eyes a few times as well. For some reason the whole thing really got to me, and every time I see that girl I wonder if she’s thinking about him. It’s just one of those strange things.
We finally set sail, and as the boat slowly creaked away from the dock, the crowd erupted into screams and applause. Before the tears even had a chance to dry, they were celebrating. I, on the other hand, sat in silence until the land melted into the horizon.
The thought of being out in the middle of the ocean on a relatively tiny ship had never really intimidated me much. I’ve been on three seven day cruises, so the idea of looking outside and seeing nothing but water was not unfamiliar. The part I hadn’t counted on making a difference was the length of time this would go on for. In the past few days I have seen so much water that I’m never thirsty anymore. At first, I would stand on deck and feel the ocean spray and rave about how beautiful the whitecaps looked along with everyone else, but as time went on, I started to resent the ocean. There is definitely far too much of it between us and Kobe.
I learned somewhere along the line that there is no such thing as absolute silence. Well, it had always seemed as if the same principal applied to darkness. At least if I was outside. I had also always thought that at night the moon would light up the sky enough for me to see the water. All these assumptions were proved wrong in an instant last night. I walked out on a side deck to get a breath of fresh air away from all the people at about 11:30. It was the first time I had been outside at night. The freezing wind struck me first, and tried to steal every breath from my lips. The darkness hit next, it came from all directions as soon as the door was closed. It looked exactly as if I was standing at the edge of the earth. The railing was within an arms length in front of me, and everything stopped there. I was looking out into space. There was a tiny moon every once in awhile, and a blinding white froth where the ship sliced through the water, but a black abyss in between. It was the first time the power of the ocean really made itself present to me
What if something really monumental happens on September 22, 1999. I will be able to read about it and say that I didn’t exist that day. That is a pretty cool concept.
Nothing especially interesting happened today. The days seem to melt together and drag on like the end of summer vacation, only colder. The ocean still reaches to the end of the universe, and it seems like even if we could see land at the end of the horizon it would take much longer than five days to reach it. During dinner we saw another ship off in the distance. It felt like discovering that there was, in fact, life on Mars. Everyone in the little dining room rushed to crowd around the windows, yelling “Ahoy Maties,” and discussing the possibility that the passengers on the other vessel were doing the same. When the excitement died down, we all returned to our cold dinners.
Now would probably be a good time to give an actual and concrete response to assignment one, however possible that may be for me.
When I was first informed of the trip, I violently rebelled. I was perfectly content with the thought of remaining nestled in my own little corner of the world until the end of high school. The idea of leaving the comfort of my clique and our routine, meticulously constructed over the past few years, was completely terrifying. I decided that after spending my entire freshman and sophomore years building the perfect life for myself, I was not about to leave.
Of course, the whole situation threw me into a very long and painstaking process of soul searching. After reading about the trip, and hearing stories from past voyages, it finally dawned on me what I would be missing out on if I chose to stay at home. I now see this not as the opportunity of a lifetime, but the opportunity of one in a million lifetimes.
My expectations have changed rather drastically, even in the past few months. In the beginning, my biggest concern was to fit in with the students. The whole trip, in my mind, was suddenly transformed into a huge social event. It would all be okay if I could make friends. Quantity, not Quality, was the key.
Another period of deep reflection brought me to the conclusion that I shouldn’t be turning this experience into a popularity contest. It finally occurred to me how superficial I had been acting. I’m not exactly sure what triggered this change, but my best guess is that it was a mixture of an article I read from the Internet and some other miscellaneous tidbits of information. The article was a very vivid account of a girl’s experience in some country or another. It was a real eye-opener for me. I realized that what the trip is about is not partying on the ship and occasionally stopping to look at some famous structure just to waste film.
When I eventually found myself standing in the airport with my two suitcases full of the piece of my world that I could carry, I was completely ready to take what the experience would give me. I have no preconceived notion as to how this trip will change me, but I know that when I come home it will be from the other direction, in more ways than one.
I can feel Japan in the air. Someone said they could smell it, but however poetic that may sound, I can not claim the same. I can feel it even more in the people, excited chatter, smiling faces, and a common cause. It’s a ship full of six-year-olds on Christmas Eve. The glow that had slowly diminished over the past couple of weeks due to seasickness, homesickness, and a multitude of other unnamed ailments, had suddenly come back a hundred times brighter. The children played, unable to decide whether to stay up and savor the excitement or rush to bed so that Santa would come.
Those who decided to relish the suspense congregated on Prom Deck. Outside, we danced in the warm breeze with bright little colored lights swaying above our heads, the kaleidoscopic glow illuminating hundreds of flushed cheeks and twirling figures. The reality of tonight was a striking contrast to any previous experience I have had on the SS Universe Explorer. Every other night, I have walked downstairs and been bombarded by bright lights and a swarm of drunk students. The names they shout to me over the music and laughter blend together, as do their faces. The two elements are separated and tucked away in completely opposite sides of my brain, never to re-unite on their own. The funny thing is, that didn’t really bother me.
Tonight though, was different. A small group of students had gathered together with their guitars, keyboards, and drums, and formed a semi-circle around a little microphone that only worked to a certain pathetic extent. Hundreds of screaming fans were dancing crazily and blaring the songs along with the music. They were almost all songs I’d never heard before; songs of the last generation , but everyone else sang without missing a word. I’m going to be exhausted in the morning.
Arriving in Kobe yesterday morning was absolutely amazing. Anticipating the event, almost the whole ship full of students dragged sleeping bags and pillows out onto deck and slept under the stars. This would assure everyone “the first look” at Japan. One of my friends and I found a relatively quiet spot to settle in. We knew it would be a long day.
Wrapped up in my tight little cocoon, I resentfully listened to the ear-splitting wail of the ships whistle. A rush of freezing air and a flood of blinding light suddenly pierced my dark comfort as a head poked into my sleeping bag.
“Christy, we’re in Ja-pa-an!”
It was Geneveve.
Japan had sounded much more exciting the night before when I wasn’t so tired and cold.
After I was finally coaxed into reality, I was met by one of the most touching scenes I have ever experienced. Following the sounds of loud, upbeat marching music, we ran around to the side of the ship facing the gangplank. On the dock stood a small Japanese band, playing American tunes in their neat little rows of white uniforms. To their right stood three women, all in identical blue and yellow business suit style outfits and little matching hats. I soon decided that they were there simply to wave and make us feel welcome, and as the warm breeze gently tossed my hair around my face, my eyes began to sting with tears. I had never felt more welcome in my life.
As soon as the ship was cleared, my dad convinced my family and another family to run out to lunch before the welcome reception. He was determined to find a certain sushi bar, and we were equipped with only a name that was spelled out in English. We walked in and out of convenience stores, asking if anyone recognized the name with little or no luck. Finally, a woman on the street stopped and looked at our map and the word we had written down. She must have spoken as much English as I speak Japanese, but she took the time to translate the name into symbols on the paper, and attempt to explain how to get there. I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe she would be late for something after stopping for so long. The Japanese are supposed to be so punctual.
The sushi wasn’t especially good. They charged more for men than women;$10 for women and $15 for men at an all you can eat rotating sushi bar. I bought a three dollar peach soda. The hot water for the tea came out of little faucets that stuck out of the bar between every two people. I didn’t eat much, but I had fun.
Later, we returned to the ship for a welcome reception. The Union was swarming with Japanese students. My mom struck up a conversation with a boy sitting beside her. He had crazy hair and an abundance of facial piercings, but he spoke decent English and explained to us that he and most of the other students had just returned from a voyage similar to ours, but much shorter. The had visited something like 4 countries in a month, and had enjoyed it immensely.
We played games, chatted with the students, listened to Japanese speakers, and ate tiny cookies and sandwiches cut into quarters. I finally tried the iced tea; it’s not too bad with five or so packs of sugar.
Two Japanese girls performed for us. I’m not quite sure what it was they were doing, because the whole thing was in Japanese, but as one would sing, the other would dance, and then they switched. They wore beautiful Kimonos, and the songs were loud, low, droning chants. When they danced, they would walk back and forth, gesturing with their hands, while the singer sat on the floor behind them. Sometimes the dancer would stamp to the beat. Her tiny feet would lift up one by one, and the little white slippers would pat softly but quickly to the ground. After awhile, I felt my eyelids begin to grow heavier, and my breaths deeper. The performance ended, and we mingled for awhile.
I linked up with two other girls to try to find an Internet café after the reception was over. When we spotted the vertical blue sign that read “Net Surf” I felt a wave of nervous excitement. I had never been to an Internet café, and the idea of being able to access my e-mail from the other side of the world seemed absolutely absurd. When I logged in to my account and the familiar greeting popped up, followed by the list of new mail from my friends, I felt as if I was home for five minutes. At home, when I write to people on the other side of the world, I am not really conscious of the distance. Now that I am on the other side of the world writing home, I can feel every centimeter; I counted every mile.
Along the streets of New York City, the homeless sit against walls and beg for spare change. Along the streets of Kobe, the homeless sit against walls and sing for spare change. With all the merry energy of carolers, they strum their little guitars and sing at the top of their lungs. To me, this seems like a perfect example of some of the differences I have picked up in the last few days. The Japanese seem to feel obligated to do something in return for the few dollars that collect in the bottom of the hats they set on the street. Their eyes are always smiling; I never felt “guilted” into donating to them, and they give no dirty, scornful looks if you pass them by.
Tomorrow we are leaving Kobe, and I have a whole lifetime to catch up on before I forget it all.
My family went on the trip called the Nara/Kyoto overnight. We set off to stay in a traditional Japanese hotel, and visit famous shrines and temples. When they told me about it, they may as well have been speaking Spanish; it meant nothing to me.
After a long bus trip, stopping to visit the shrines and temples, (which were not the highlight of the trip for me) we pulled up in front of our hotel. It was surrounded by a tall wooden fence, so that the only glimpse of the tiny building we could get was through the gate. To get inside, you had to enter the gate and walk through a miniature garden leading up to the front door. We were instructed to remove our shoes before going inside, and the correct process of doing so was demonstrated. First, we removed one shoe with the heel of the other. We stepped up onto the red carpeted landing with the bare foot while we slid the other shoe off and let it drop to the floor. The instructor was the only successful participant, aside from those wearing slip-on sandals.
We identified our shoes by placing a card with a symbol on it inside one of them, and keeping another card with the same symbol to claim them later. A man carried them off into a back room, and we slid into the maroon and white slippers we were to wear while inside the hotel.
The rooms were assigned, and we went to check them out. Some of us remembered to remove the slippers before stepping off of the wooden floor and onto the woven mats. The room seemed very empty. There were sliding doors that could divide the room into sections, and there was a low table on the floor surrounded by cushions. A woman entered the room without knocking and poured us some green tea with little sugar cubes that were shaped and colored like little faces.
We drank the tea, and left for dinner, adorned in thin blue and white cotton kimonos. I ate one of the best meals of my entire life that night. Each table was given a tray full of raw meat and veggies. A skillet was brought out, and a woman cooked the food right on our table as we watched. When something in the skillet looked done, we would reach in with our chopsticks and pull it out, dipping it in raw egg before eating it.
We all ate entirely too much.
After dinner, we decided to look for the communal bath everyone had been talking about. Two other girls and I were the first ones to find it. Inside, there was a row of small wooden stools in front of spigots and hand-held shower nozzles. Below each one, there sat two large bottles, one of shampoo, and one of conditioner. We couldn’t read the labels to make the distinction between them. On the other side of the room, a large rectangular pool filled the room with fragrant steam.
The two other girls were very comfortable with the idea of taking a shower in the same room, and quickly stripped down and headed for the stools. I, more reluctantly, followed.
After awhile, more girls joined us, first in bathing suits, but after seeing the trend, became more “natural.” Surprisingly to me, I was only uncomfortable for the first couple of minutes.
Later on, everyone decided to go out in search of a bar. I found another non-drinker among the crowd, and we ventured in the other direction looking for somewhere to shop. On the way home, we got completely lost. After wandering around town for almost an hour, a little woman in a business suit offered to have her boyfriend take us back to the hotel in his car. I have never been so grateful for a favor before. It also made me think about what I would have done if the situation had been the opposite. I honestly don’t even think I would have noticed two lost foreigners, let alone go to all that trouble to help them out.
That night, when I crawled into my sleeping bag style bed that had been rolled out for me, I had a lot to reflect on.
The next day, we visited a museum, and some other shrine that I didn’t see because my friends and I decided to go to MckDonalds instead. They had served us Tempura for lunch-one of my favorite foods, but the portions were appetizer size. So were the MckDonalds value meals. I put the cheeseburger away in two or three bites; it seems to me that everything in Japan is tiny. The people, the food, the furniture, everything.
Nothing new has happened, but I thought of something I forgot to mention. The day after we returned from Kyoto, we went to Osaka and visited the Floating Garden Observatory. It was breathtaking; that city really does seem to go on forever in every direction.
I saw a couple who seemed to be about my age sitting at the top. The boy was talking to the girl and stroking her hair with a big smile on his face, while the girl sat staring at the floor with the most sullen look on her face. I thought it was the oddest scene, but I can’t really place why it struck me as so strange. I think it was simply the clash of facial expressions.
Tomorrow we get to Hong Kong. I am flying to Bejing the first day, and not getting back until the last day. I would much rather stay around the area; I heard there is fabulous shopping at a place called the Jade market, but also in Bejing there is something called silk alley. I also will have a chance to see the Great Wall in Bejing, so I am trying to keep an open mind about the trip. I will get to stay with a roommate at the University (Peking University). That should be an excellent way for me to meet a few new people, which I definitely want to do.
After the long process of customs with hundreds of foreigners, we finally got to the Bejing airport. We took our respective busses to the places we had been assigned to stay. On our bus, our tour guides, Chen and Monica, introduced themselves and presented us with Peking t-shirts, maps, and our itinerary. We first went to lunch at a very expensive-looking hotel. The banquet room was filled with large round tables and bright colored paper decorations in our honor. We were served multiple courses of delicious Chinese food, and at the end of the meal, they brought out a birthday cake for a student who was celebrating that day. They all seemed very eager to make friends with us.
After lunch, we went to the guest house of the University to check in. The accommodations were similar to that of a three or four star hotel; it was obvious they were doing their very best to make us feel at home. My roommate’s name was Molly. She had long, curly red hair, and a very natural look about her. She was very friendly, and the fact that I was in high school didn’t seem to bother her at all when I told her.
After a tour of the campus, we were taken to a restaurant, where we were served Peking Duck. I tried a bite, but I couldn’t eat it. Some people had no problem, and we all crowded around as someone swallowed the brains. The said it tasted creamy.
We returned to campus for a meeting with some of the Chinese students we would be spending some time with over the next few days. One boy took four of us to see his dorm room. It was a tiny room with three sets of bunk beds crowded in. There was little room other than on the beds, so the six occupants shared their sleeping space with most of their belongings. The building itself was a large cement structure. The halls were dark and wet from the leaking ceiling, and the smell of mildew was overpowering.
One of the girls had to use the bathroom, so a female student volunteered to take us to the girls’ dorm. The bathroom was wet and thick with a layer of black dirt. I stayed at the door, but was later informed that the toilets were not western, and they were filthy with the same black dirt. As we walked out of the building, I caught a glimpse of the shower facilities. A large basin sat in the middle of the room. Rows of spigots on either side were the source of water, and buckets were strewn on the floor. I could not even imagine living under these conditions.
Later on, we all set out in search of another Internet café. We found one quickly, but found it to be completely full. As I stood patiently, I glanced at the screen of one of the computers. Little planes flew through a pink sky, and explosions blanketed the ground below. I looked down the entire row, and found the same.
We waited about an hour and a half for them to finish playing, during which time we chatted with three other Americans we met. They were studying in China for a semester, and had been there over a month. They shared with us all of the best restaurants in the area, and told us how to order their favorite dishes. Finally, the entire row of game-players slid their chairs out and gathered their belongings, and we were free to use the Internet. We did so until about 1:30 in the morning, due to the slow connection time and a temporary server crash.
The next day, we ate breakfast and were off. The first stop was a Claisonne factory, where they were hand making Claisonne vases, dishes, and other trinkets. I was amazed by the skill of the factory workers, and the speed with which they could produce such beautiful pieces. First, they glued strips of copper to the shell of the vase in beautiful patterns. In just a few seconds, they could shape the wire into a perfect little panda bear. The vases were taken to another room, where more workers filled the spaces between the wire with a mixture that looked like sand and water. It came in a rainbow of brilliant colors, and they filled it in using large eyedroppers. The vases were then fired and glazed, and transported to a shop a few yards away.
Before lunch, we stopped at the Ming tombs, which did not spark my interest at all. The shopping was fun though, it was my first experience with trying to bargain. I think I got ripped off. We ate a meal that looked curiously similar to lunch the previous day, but it was excellent. A group of students arrived who had just finished climbing the Great wall, and they told us that we absolutely had to reach the top. It would take an hour going up, and half the time to come back down.
When we arrived at the Great Wall, I was surprised by what we found. Sections were only a few feet off of the ground, and I had expected it to be very tall. “Climbing” the wall turned out to be climbing the steps up the mountainside. It did take about an hour to reach the top, and when we did I was sore and exhausted from the sweltering heat. The view was not all that I had expected, but it was terrible to think of the labor it took to place every stone in that wall. The thought gave me a knot in my throat and a sick feeling in my stomach.
When we returned, we ate a fabulous dinner at our hotel. It was buffet-style, and the Chinese students we had met the night before joined us. After dinner, they had Karyoke and dancing, and we all had a great time with both. The last song was “Adelvice,” sung by one of our male students along with one of their female students. The words on the screen were obviously someone’s attempt of deciphering what was being said. The two sang “edelwise, edelwise” until the song ended in an eruption of applause.