Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Semester at Sea: A Reflection

When the reality sunk in that I would actually be sailing on Semester at Sea, I made the effort to talk to some SAS alumni. When we first started talking, the reaction was always the same. "It was an amazing experience," they would start. "It absolutely changed my life."

I always get a little frustrated at people who make vague or overly dramatic comments like those in any situation. However, I learned over the past two and a half months that those statements were not overly dramatic. There is a reason everybody describes it the same way-- there's no other way to describe the dozens and dozens of incredible experiences that occur during a voyage.

Neither my words nor my pictures can do any justice to the story that has unfolded this Summer. In this blog, I've used words like "amazing," "incredible," or "beautiful" countless times but they don't really have the effect I'm looking for. I can talk at you for hours but It is impossible to truly convey the impact and influences of this voyage. This is why SASers (including students, faculty, and staff) become so close; we bond through the ups and downs of the journey.

While there were some "downs," they were significantly outnumbered by the "ups." I laughed, I cried, and I grew tremendously. Academically, there is no experience that parallels walking the grounds of a Moroccan Psychiatric Institution with your professor or applying that abstract Global Studies lecture on the fall of the Byzantine Empire by looking out at Istanbul's Golden Horn. Socially, I blew away boundaries of my "comfort zone." It paid off; I made some amazing friends and we shared some incredibly fun times like watching World Cup matches in Spain, dealing with the "experience" of a 9.5 hour sketchy overnight train ride, aimlessly exploring Bosnia, competing in the Sea Olympics, or simply feeling the silent power of others' presence while stargazing or admiring the beauty of a sunset at sea.

SAS prides itself on offering a truly "global perspective." My knowledge of world culture and current events is no longer limited to what I've read. It is now supplemented by the unique understanding that can only result from experiential learning--the study of politics, arts, conflicts, identity, and memory in (note "in" not "of") some of the world's most special places. I feel truly blessed to have had these profound opportunities. Despite the differences of the diverse cultures we were "injected" into, I gained a better understanding of how we are all human with the same basic nature and needs. It sounds like a load of mush, but it's true. I can tell you this because I've been there; I can now say that I have walked the "rough" streets of Barcelona, interacted with troubled kids in an Italian orphanage, observed the physical and emotional damage a war-torn nation, admired the homes and worshipers of the Islamic faith, seen a primitive Nubian village, and walked among the people of the impoverished outskirts of Casablanca.

One of the big lessons this summer was that of open-mindedness and flexibility. We were told countless times during the initial days at sea that flexibility is key on any SAS voyage. This was certainly the case; not everything went as planned and last minute changes changes requiring a little improvisation were common. This mostly applied to trips in port but played a big role in the "shipboard community" as well. Due dates for assignments were flexible, sea-sickness was an excuse to miss class, we had to conserve water, and peanut butter had to be rationed (oh no!). It was a great lesson when things didn't go as planned; everybody learned to work together and make the best of the situation because that's all you really can do. This adaptability is a great lesson and tool to take back into "real life."

The end of this voyage marks a return to reality. While I'm physically exhausted from this Summer, I'm more ready than ever to face the challenges of the future. My experiences the past 68 days have only increased my motivation and drive to work with and understand people in deeper ways, express the human condition through music, increase my knowledge of the scientific world, and continue my work as an "aspiring physician." These things I can accomplish at home but my travels are far from over as the infectious travel bug has inspired me to make sharing and learning abroad a priority in the future.

The end of this adventurous voyage is bittersweet. I have bid farewell to close friends and the MV Explorer, but it's time. I'm in California being greeted by my incredibly loving family and friends. It's fun abroad, but there's no place like home. Soon it will be back to school and I must now must face the intense transition and challenges that lie ahead. The voyage of a lifetime: Semester at Sea, Summer 2010.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Day 68: Norfolk & Disembarkation

There's nothing like a 24 hour travel day to conclude an epic journey. The day started at about 5:00am as I met Daniel, Lacey, and Mindy to stake out a spot on deck 6 for the sunrise and entrance into port. We had good intentions with the sunrise thing but unfortunately the muggy skies of Virginia didn't let us see much. The ride though some of the rivers into the port terminal was pretty exciting. Apparently SAS is one of the higher profile ship arrivals that Norfolk gets. Customs actually brought people in and did a decent amount of prep for our arrival. We also had a 3 boat escort into port which was kind of cool. As we got closer, the decks filled with people eager to see family and the sights of our final stop. A lot of my friends had family come out so it was fun to see the excitement on both sides as family eventually had visuals on students and vice versa (I still think I got a better deal by meeting my parents in Egypt...). We pulled alongside and sounded the horn as the excitement died down and we got to start the fun customs clearance waiting game.

We were released from the ship in groups by our sea/color and around noon I officially disembarked the MV Explorer. We went into a large storeroom where our bags (loaded the day before) were available for pickup. I had my main large duffle and a smaller black duffle filled with a few clothes and all my souvenirs. I found the large bag easily but wasn't so lucky with the smaller one. After an hour of combing every corner of the warehouse, it was officially declared missing. SInce it was a very generic looking bag, the most likely scenario was that somebody mistakenly took it. The ISE reps said this is fairly common; I got the name and number of a likely suspect because a similar looking bag was left behind. It was a little frustrating and made the day a bit more hectic than it needed to be (I was hoping to distribute weight between both but since the larger one was overweight for flying I had to layer on some clothes and toss the mouthwash at the airport). I got a message from my dad during my 30 second "layover" in Dallas that somebody had called having picked up the bag by mistake and would UPS it tomorrow. That's a nice thing to know.

Following the bag incident, I got the chance to meet the parents of Lacey, Mindy, and Kyle. Along with Daniel, we all decided to do a group lunch at the CPK within walking distance. We checked bags into a nearby hotel and had a really nice lunch. It was really cool meeting the families, they're friendly and great people. The time for goodbyes came as I had to cut out a little early to get to the airport. It's sad to say goodbye but I'm confident that the relationships established are strong and will remain so into the future. I got my bags and snagged a taxi. It was nice having a driver that spoke fluent English and even though the guy was a bit insane we had a great conversation en route. As I mentioned before, everybody in Norfolk knows about SAS because 800 traveling college kids invade the city twice a year. My flight to Dallas was about 90% SAS people (the TSA hates us) and was a pretty dreadfully boring 3 hours (although there were some great views from above the thunderstorms). The flight ran a bit late so a few of us made a fun little mad dash board the connecting flight. Dallas to LAX was rather slow as well, at least I got to enjoy a lovely dinner of diet coke, almonds, crackers, cheese, and a box of raisins. We finally arrived about 11:00pm (felt like 2:00am...) and it was great to see my parents excited and waiting.

Bittersweet is a great word to describe the past few days. Saying goodbyes and walking down the gangway for the last time was tougher than I thought it would be. The journey from fantasy to reality was aided upon arrival home by the waiting coleslaw and applesauce. Sleeping in my own bed (and one that wasn't moving with the roll of a ship) offered a great rest. I'm now among my family, friends and the familiar California landscape. I'm home, and it feels great.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Day 67: Convocation

67 days ago as we first boarded the ship, I never imagined how fast the time would fly.  I simply can't believe that tomorrow morning I will be back in the US.  People will speak English, the floor won't move, I'll have a cell phone again, and I'll be forced to settle back into reality.  Virginia is only a few hours away.


Today was the infamous cargo loading day.  We had to be packed by 10:00am and each of the seas was called over the PA to take luggage to a designated location where it would be transfered to the cargo hold.  Even though only about a hundred people were called at a time, it was complete mayhem in the halls.  They're narrow as it is; take 100 people with luggage the size of a small vehicle and it's rather crowded.  After the luggage fiasco, the shipboard community convened for the closing Convocation.  There were a lot of speeches, most with the same general themes of reflection on the dozens of incredible experiences this Summer, and quite a bit of faculty/staff/admin team recognition.  The ceremony closed with a really awesome video by our voyage videographer.  He did an great job and I was able to snag a copy, so I'll let you borrow if there's any interest.


After picking up our passports, we had our final logistical pre-port.  There was some good information about customs and whatnot but the majority of the meeting was a parody of our typical past pre-ports (culture and crime/saftey concerns, etc).  At every pre-port it was always heavily stressed that we must go to any means to guard, protect and not lose our passport.  The quote of the evening came from the Executive Dean who matter-of-factly stated that after we get though customs, the admin team "doesn't really give a s**t" about what we do with our passports.  Overall, it was a really funny event and also served as a good way to bid farewell to the staff that makes this all happen.  After pre-port we went out to admire the stars and moonlit ocean one last time before grabbing our final late-night snack and calling it an evening.  The goal for tomorrow is to get a very early start (hopefully after at least a few hours of sleep) and see the sunrise before our entrance into Norfolk.


While I'm really going to miss the environment and community here, it's time to head home.  I can't wait to see my parents, sisters, nephews, and friends.  It's been such a long yet quick 2.5 months.  That's all for now; USA, here we come.

Day 66: Re-entry & Reflections

I awoke this morning to the interesting sound of water seeping and dripping from the ceiling of our cabin onto the floor. Leaks on board are pretty common; there's a lot of flood damage around and they always tell you to not store electronics on the ground. Even though there was some splashage onto the desk, nothing was damaged. I called it in and the plumbers took care of the leak.

Other than the excitement of a leaking ship, today has been pretty uneventful. I've had lots of time to work on organizing pictures and made the final trip to the gym this morning (good riddance...I can't wait to run on actual land that doesn't move) . We have to be packed by tomorrow morning so I've made some good progress and it's actually been a lot easier than I thought it would be. There were a number of sessions regarding "re-entry and reflection" throughout the day. I went to one entitled "Caught the travel bug?" and it had some good info and tips on future travel and how to do it cheaply, for free, or get paid (basically, the answer was to stay in school or go into academia). I'll state the obvious: I'm hooked now. The travel bug is a full blown infection. Anyone want to go to Vietnam with me next Summer?

I need to make good on my promise to offer some specs and info about our ship, the famous (or infamous?) MV Explorer. Enjoy.

Built in 2002 by the well respected Blohm & Voss shipbuilders of Germany
Described by Maritime Telecommunications Network "as one of the safest ships afloat"
U.S. and international health and safety ratings in the 99th percentile
One of the fastest passenger ships of its kind in the world (haha...right, too bad we run at less than quarter speed to make time for classes)

Tonnage: 25,000 tons
Length: 590 ft. (180 m)
Beam: 84 ft. (26 m)
Draft: 24 ft. (7 m)
Outside Deck Space: 30,000 sq. ft. (2.800 m^2)
Passenger Decks: 6
Pool Area: 7,500 sq. ft. (700 m^2)
Swimming Pool: 1
The Union: 380 seats
Dining Hall Deck 5: 470 seats
Dining Hall Deck 6: 210 seats
Outside Dining (Deck 6): 110 seats
Faculty and Staff Lounge: 138 seats
Classrooms: 9
Piano Bar: 104 seats
Passenger Capacity (double basis): 836

That's all for now, I have to go figure out the US Customs paperwork.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Day 65: Finals & The Alumni Ball

The morning started early with a final in Infectious Disease.  Since there's essentially no time for profs to grade, the test was nearly all multiple choice and wasn't too bad.  The Abnormal Psych exam also went well.  A little before noon, I was officially done with the summer semester.  After lunch I began the process of packing.  I didn't accumulate a lot of "stuff" compared to most people but it's still a daunting task to fit everything that I originally took (when I had the time/space to figure out how to squeeze every free inch) and some of the new acquisitions.  I made some decent progress so hopefully I can just look at the rest and it will pack itself.

The Alumni Ball was the big activity for the evening.  At the conclusion of every SAS voyage, the ball is a formal program, dinner, and dance to celebrate the conclusion of the voyage and our declaration as SAS alumni.  It was fun to walk around about an hour before the program/dinner started because there were only guys out and about (a rare sight when the ship is over 75% female) because all the girls were going through the normal pre-event freak-out routine downstairs.  The program was comprised of a long slideshow, entertainment and a very strange roommate version of the newly-weds game.  Since everybody was all fancied-up we took pictures with the captain and made our way to dinner.  It was actually like a real cruise for once; the food and service was really quite impressive (not to say the crew doesn't normally a nice job).  Dessert was a huge and well stocked buffet which provided a great way to conclude the "psh...this is sort of like vacation, I can eat horribly" mentality that most have used throughout the voyage.  After desert, the dance was held up on the pool deck.  Those of you who know me well would be very impressed; I lasted quite a while and actually attempted involvement.  Overall, I have to admit that the evening was kind of fun.

We gained another hour last night putting us on Eastern Standard Time.  Yet another reminder that we're getting closer.  Thursday is designated as a day for re-entry prep and reflection with a few sessions that focus on the whole reflection bit.  That's all for now, I should probably get back to thinking about packing.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Day 64: Study Day

I had originally planned to postpone this post until tomorrow morning but the current situation of a rocking ship, loud creaking stabilizer outside, and a snoring roommate led me to reconsider. Today was a productive and relaxing study day. There was nothing overly exciting; I mainly used the time to brush up on info for tomorrow's Infectious Disease exam and the final Abnormal Psych test. There was also a trip to the gym and a nice nap. I spent a decent chunk of the day helping out some others with some research for final papers that are due tomorrow. Looking up political and economic stuff can be kind of fun (yes I know I'm weird) and makes for a good study break.

There was yet another beautiful sunset this evening. While we're 0 for 3 on seeing the green flash, it's still a very cool view. Since it was a lot less windy today, there were quite a few students and faculty out to enjoy the sunset which made for some good final photo-ops. I've begun the process of picture exchange with some people. It's a bit more difficult than it sounds due to the vast amount of pictures people have and the general lack of storage mediums to transfer them with. My computer now has over 30GB of pictures on it from this trip (most not mine) and tomorrow after finals I'll start the wonderful task of sorting through them all.

I'm looking forward to getting the two tests out of the way tomorrow. It will be a relief to be done with the classes but also a little hectic as the process of packing starts. Tomorrow evening is also the Ambassador's Ball, the formal dinner and dance. It's not my first choice on the list of things to do, but I'll attempt to keep a positive outlook. That's all for now, I'm going to reattempt the whole sleeping thing.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Day 63: Global Studies Final

This afternoon we took the Global Studies final.  It was a little rough but not too bad.  The class presented a lot of information but, unlike many social science or history courses, you can't do essay tests with that many students.  For this reason the final was comprised of multiple choice questions asking details about names and terms (and there were roughly 300 to choose from).  Fun stuff.  I have two more exams the day after tomorrow and them I'm done with school for the Summer (only to start again a week later...).

Other than the exam, most of the day was spent resting and reading.  Every time there's been a Global test the seas seem to get rougher so that's always fun.  I'm waiting for the day I lose my balance on the treadmill and totally eat it.  There was an absolutely beautiful sunset this evening.  We were outside awaiting the green flash (missed it due to cloud cover for the second day in a row) and it was cool to admire the beautiful sky surrounded by ocean and insane wind.  While awaiting tonight's meeting on disembarkation procedure, Daniel, Lacey, Mindy, and I somehow got into a rather intense discussion about Croatian and post-Yougoslavian "war image" politics.  Even though we still really have no idea what we're talking about it feels so cool and intellectual to try.  Our disembarkation meeting this evening covered some of the basics for arrival in Norfolk in a few days.  If all goes according to plan I'll be off by noonish and will have a few hours to kill in Norfolk before catching the shuttle to the airport.  Depending on what's around the port I might be spending a good 5 hours at the airport so if you're bored the afternoon of the 21st give me a call (wow...cell phones will work again; what an amazing technology!).

I have a relatively fee evening (and an extra gained hour to kill) so I think I'm going to go borrow a movie from somebody.  How exciting.  That's all for now, g'night from middle of the Atlantic.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Day 62: Last Day of Classes

Today marked the last official day of classes.  It seems like we started so long ago but there has only been 22 days of actual class.  Tomorrow is the dreaded Global final which has many people pulling a pretty late night tonight.  The day after is a "study day" followed by our finals in other classes.  It's a relief to be almost done with school for the Summer but it plays into the overall bitter-sweet feeling as we near the end of the voyage.

Classes today focused on conclusions in terms of a "global perspective."  It sounds like a bunch of academic mush but it really makes all the difference when you get to apply a lot of this cultural reading and lecture to the actual ports (as we did the past 60 days).  I know I complained a lot about the many FDP papers and "reflections" but they are such an integral part of the program as it really gets you thinking.  Especially in the Summer where everything moves at warp speed, it's good to reflect on some the really profound things we've seen and done.  The afternoon was pretty typical; I hit the gym and did some studying.  I've been experimenting with group studying a bit more here; some of the history stuff is good to talk out a bit.  The evening was spent working thought the Global Studies curriculum with Mindy and a few others.  As time progressed and study burnout kicked in it was rather entertaining to see what strange tangential discussions arose, especially with the addition of caffeine.  My "sea" had a milk and cookie social tonight.  It's amazing how hard it was to find a decent cookie the past few months.

One of the things that has been a bit difficult through the voyage is keeping up musically.  I have my old marching clarinet here and have been getting it out occasionally to keep with with some technique, but I really miss the R-13.  I never realized how therapeutic regular practice was.  There's a bit of a void without the fun of chamber music and just being around a good music scene in general.  There's a few musicians on board I've talked with but it's so hard to find the time, resources, or location to put anything decent together.

I received my shuttle bus ticket from the port to the Norfolk Airport today and it was a surprising reminder of how we only have 5 days left.  It's going way too quick.  That's all for now, I should probably be well rested for a final tomorrow.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Day 61: The Simpsons and Religion

"C21," a typical class day, has drawn to a close.  Before we left in June I thought it would be really strange to have class on Saturdays and Sundays.  I don't really notice at all; to be honest I had no idea it was a weekend until I looked at my watch five minutes ago.  Time does strange things when there's no reference.  All went smoothly with classes today and I'm very happy to finally be done with papers.  Now the focus is memorizing 200+ names and terms for a Global Studies final in two days.  For a class with 750 students it's impossible to do anything besides a multiple choice final which is actually a bit harder when you're dealing with a history/social science class due to the details.  There has been quite a bit of dissatisfaction among students and faculty with the way Global Studies has been taught and tested this voyage.  I've heard a few snippets about the folks at UVa not being particularly fond of the situation either.  It will be interesting to see what, if anything, plays out regarding final grades and whatnot.

The ship sailed at full speed today (all four engines running full as opposed to one normally) for about 20 minutes.  The official purpose was to do some calibrations with the engines but I also think there was an urge to show off how fast this sucker can go.  We were going between 30 and 40 knots (right now we're cruising at 14) so it was fun to head outside and watch for a bit.  It wasn't anything overly dramatic but cool nonetheless.  This evening I went to a session about "The Simpsons and Religion."  It was a presentation by our Global Studies professor about a paper he published a few years ago.  His basic argument was that the show is essentially the only example on television that portrays religion and religious issues on a regular basis.  There was quite a bit of character analysis and the idea that parody is really only successful when you present a topic that society has a decent amount of familiarity and comfort with (i.e. religion) was presented.  I've often see The Simpsons used in classes as examples of satire.  When you look at the writing it is packed with some great intellectual wit.  He had an interesting argument and commentary on popular culture that probably does have some merit if you really look into it.

A late night snack/study session has again pushed my blog composition into the the early morning hours (hence the grammatical errors that are likely present on a lot of these posts), so I'm pretty beat.  Luckily we get an extra hour again tonight.  It's quite nice having 25 hour days, I could get used to it.  That's all for now, it's time to hit the sack.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Day 60: A Final Family Dinner

Most of the dense fog that surrounded us the past few days has lifted so we now have a nice view of wide open ocean.  Day three at sea went well and was pretty uneventful.  Our water consumption has decreased dramatically compared to the past two days.  The night of departure from Morocco and first day at sea saw us using about 101 gallons of water per person; an absurdly high number (average at sea is about 50-60 gallons per person).  I think that's a good indicator of how dirty Morocco was.  There were some longer showers just to get the grime off (it was probably our hottest and most sweat producing port also) and some people were coming back from the 4 day showerless trek around the rural Berber villages.  It's interesting to see that the water use correlates.

Classes are going smoothly and professors are trying to cram everything into the last few days.  Students are busy now and will be the next few days with papers and finals but the real challenge is for teachers who have to get everything graded before disembarking.  This evening we had our final official "extended family" dinner.  It was again good to talk and there was a lot of heavy reflection on the voyage; we were in the dinning room for over two hours.  Jim and Leslie treated us to an ice cream cake, which was very nice (I think that's the largest slice of cake I've ever eaten...).  I really hope I'm able to keep in touch with my "parents" and "sisters" after we disembark.  This voyage has been the first time that I've had so many meals in the "European style" where we just sit, eat, and talk for hours.  It's very refreshing and a shame that it won't work very well with the time constraints of reality (i.e. on land).

Last night's meteor shower was very cool but a little anemic.  We were out there for a little over 2 hours and saw about 3 "fireballs."  With all the ship's exterior lights off the night sky is absolutely stunning and the meteors we did see were pretty awesome.  Apparently the tail end of the shower is tonight so I might venture out a little later on.  RA training officially started back at Cal Lu today.  It's weird not being there with the staff but I'm going try to keep via email.  The transition home and back to school is going to be rather quick but given what I've accomplished this Summer it's a small price to pay.  That's all for now, I have to take advantage of late night snack while it's still around.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Day 59: Classes & Prop. 8

It's back to the normal routine of a typical class day.  All went went well today; we're behind schedule in all three classes but that's to be expected when you try to cram a semester into 23 days.  The morning was spent discussing Malaria and our little blood sucking friends in Infectious Diseases, sitting through an extremely exciting talk about Colonial North Africa in Global Studies, and listening to a wonderfully uplifting lecture on suicide in Abnormal Psych.  The afternoon was spent working on papers with Mindy and a visit to the gym.  Once all this reflective essay nonsense is finished it'll be time to start thinking about finals.

This evening Daniel and I attended a very interesting lecture/discussion about CA's Prop. 8.  It was lead by our Executive Dean who is a law professor and great source because he's actually read all the opinions and whatnot that have come out.  I really enjoyed his presentation because it's the first time I've had the chance to hear the saga from a completely legal (NOT political) perspective.  The entire process is hideously complicated; I'm glad I have a decent Civics/Poli Sci background or there would be absolutely no chance of following.  He went through the recent decision by a federal judge and the timing couldn't have been better as we got word that it was stayed until next week during the talk.  I don't want to get too into it, but it's fascinating from a legal perspective and interesting how significantly different this is from the arguments we often hear.  The guess among legal academics is that the 9th Circuit will probably affirm the constitutionality of same sex marriage (the most recent opinion) and it will eventually make its way to the US Supreme Court.  So, we're looking at 4-5 years.  Of course, this being our wonderful legal system, there's about 100 other little exceptions or techniques that makes essentially anything possible.  What I found even more interesting was how many of the people present (half students, half professors) were not from CA (including the dean) but had very thorough knowledge of the situation.  I guess this is one of the more heated and significant legal battles brewing now so most of the country is watching.

Other than that excitement, the evening is going well as I organize my laundry and try to find something to do.  We have a lovely 25 hour day today so the extra rest will be nice.  That's all for now, I'm off in a bit to watch a meteor shower; it's clear outside and with all the ships lights turned off is supposed to be pretty awesome.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Day 58: Study Day

Today was officially designated as a "study day" and it was very nice to have the day off.  There is, of course, always the opportunity to study and write some papers which is probably what the free day was actually intended for.  I got a decent amount of work done and, after a few revisions, will be done with the mess of reflective papers that are due. 

As I was walking into the dinning room for lunch today, the head waiter stopped me and asked it I would like to have lunch with the captain.  I figured my usual lunch group could do without me for one day and took him up on the offer.  On occasion, the captain will come down to his reserved table and four or five students will be asked to join him, so the opportunity was pretty cool.  Everything here is usually buffet style but I discovered you get served well when dining among the ship's leadership.  There was the expected usual conversation and he shared a few stories from the years at sea.  It wasn't anything spectacular but was a fun experience nonetheless.

Today was the start of our "shipboard drive" which is basically a large fundraising effort.  SAS is a nonprofit and I can see how our tuition probably doesn't cover a lot so there's a large push for donation.  The big events today were a silent and live auction.  I was planning on making some type of small donation (under $50) so a great opportunity arose when a little bidding war broke out between Daniel and I over two packets of those floss-toothpic tools that somebody donated.  We went back and forth for a while which seemed to provide a decent amount of entertainment to those passing by (it was fun to play along and make comments like "what idiot would spend $25 on toothpicks?").  The clock winded down and I eventually was victorious and bought myself some "Pic-n-floss" packets for $32.  Hey, it's a donation.  The live auction was much more entertaining.  There were actually some decent items available and a lot of money being thrown around.  Girl Scout Cookies went for $150, a chance to steer the ship for $400, a bubble bath in the Executive Dean's bathtub for $200, field passes for the Stealers for $650, 3 day trip to Italy for $800, a professor's sweatband for $120, etc.  It was fun to watch, but that's a lot of money.  I guess it goes to a good cause.

Classes start up again tomorrow and start our final four class days before exams begin.  We're back in the fog and feeling the familiar roll of the Atlantic.  It's weird with course evaluations and things already starting to wrap up.  That's all for now, I'm off to do some reading for tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Day 57: Ibn Rushd Univ. Psychiatric Center

As I write we are pulling out of our final port on the way home.  I have to say, today was a pretty typical SAS day and a good way to spend the final hours in port.  The "typical SAS" part comes in as we departed for the Psych Hospital an hour early so the whole "flexibility is key" motto came into play as we made a quick detour to the Hassan II Mosque for a visit.  There was no reason other than to kill time.  It was actually kind of nice because I got a chance to see a bit more of the interior since a different door was open. 

After arriving at the Hospital we were led through some rather daunting looking gates onto the campus and eventually to a conference room with mint tea waiting (a sign of Moroccan hospitality).  The professor/psychiatrist, Driss Moussaoui, gave a short talk on the history of mental healthcare in Morocco and there was active discussion for a good two hours.  It was an incredibly interesting visit.  Upon his arrival in 1979, there were only 2 psychiatrists in Morocco and he essentially built the "public" mental healthcare system from nothing.  The reason "public" is in quotes is because there has been such little financial support from the Moroccan government and the facilities are almost all built with private donations.  His story is very intriguing and one that is still continuing.  Under his lead the system has come a long way but is still far from sufficient (there are only 1000 psych beds for a population of 32 million).  Despite a bit of arrogance (which is probably deserved considering what he's accomplished), Moussaoui is definitely one that has devoted his life to "fighting the good fight." 

The institutionalized patients themselves are usually very severe and since there is really no support staff (the nurse to patient ration is 1:40) there's a heavy dependance on family.  Many times the family cooks meals and buys medication to bring into the hospital.  I could go on and on about the discussion; it was a great experience.  Afterwards we had a chance to do a quick walk around the facilities which were in surprisingly good condition.  There was so much information presented it's hard to soak it all in (even with my 8 pages of notes).  We left the hospital in the early afternoon and my extended family mother, who was also on the trip, offered to treat me and a few others to lunch.  We walked to a cafe close by and had a fun little lunch with some pretty heavy discussion about healthcare policy and the role religion should play.  Yes, this day has been very philosophical.

After lunch I realized I had over 40 Dirham in coins left (coins are unexchangeable) so I swung by a shop on the way to the ship.  The past few days I had been comparing prices for a Guenbri; an Arabic string instrument.  I handed the storekeeper all my coins trying to indicate that this was my last day and I needed to get rid of them and he smiled and let have the Guenbri, so that was pretty cool.  It's probably not the most authentic but still has rather decent tonality.  I got back to the ship in time to beat the final port rush.

It's hard to believe we're departing our last port.  Morocco was a lot of fun and an interesting place; I don't think I would describe it as that tourist friendly and it definitely presented the most difficult language situation of any port we visited (my pathetic French has improved a bit).  As I look around the ship I think most people feel the same: we're tired and ready for home.  It might just be the insane heat here or the "last port" mentality but the ubiquitous exhaustion is pretty evident.  Thankfully tomorrow is a "study day" which will offer some opportunity for rest.  That's all for now, I'm off to the the post-port reflection.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Day 56: Casablanca Souks & Rick's

The original plan for today was to do Rabat on our own.  While working on the game plan last night Daniel, Lacey, Heather, and I talked with a few other SASers who made the journey that day.  The general consensus was that the trip was not really worth it due to the similarity of Rabat to Casablanca and Marrakech.  Had I known other people willing to go I probably still would have gone just to get out a little more but we had a good day here also.  After two really long days we were in need of some rest so we took it pretty easy in the morning.  I was still up early but hit the gym and did a bit of tweaking to some papers before we met up to go out.

Most of the late morning/early afternoon was another Casablanca walking adventure.  We got a chance to spend some more time in the Medina and Souks (basically a bazaar) where I perfected my people watching and bargaining skills.  I don't know if I'd actually call it bargaining "skills" but I have devised a pretty effective method the past few countries.  They give me a price, I laugh and say exactly what a want to pay, they retort with a higher price, I laugh again and walk away.  I'd guess about 75% of the time they call me back and take the original price.  It works especially well since I don't buy anything big and what I do get I could usually do without and have no regrets walking away from.  I'm sure there are much more effective methods out there but it works for me.  Other than the souks and some of the commercial area outside the port there's really nothing else to do in Casablanca (at least within walking distance for us) that we didn't already hit on the city orientation.  An interesting random observation: there seems to be more Mcdonald's here than in any other country we've been to.  The locals pronounce it "Macdonald's" with a heavy French accent, it's rather entertaining.

We went back to the ship for a little while and then ventured out again for dinner.  We decided to splurge a little bit and do a nicer dinner since it was our last evening in port.  Of all the recommended places the only practical/walkable/safe one was Rick's Cafe again.  SAS people have taken over the place every night here so I'm sure they appreciate the business.  The food was good, not overly impressive, but the atmosphere was a lot of fun.  We ended up sitting near a Canadian professor on vacation and had a good time talking American politics for about 45 minutes before moving on to more appropriate travel swapping stories.  The evening concluded with the necessary Moroccan mint tea (way too sweet me for) and our journey back to the ship.  Tomorrow I have my FDP to the local psychiatric hospital so I've been trying to read up on the state of mental healthcare here.  It should be a really interesting experience.  That's all for now, I'm about ready to call it a night.

Day 55: Marrakech

"Didja know we're riding on the Marrakech Express..."

Well, we didn't get to take the Marrakech Express (probably a good thing, I've already heard about some interesting times on the Moroccan railway system), but did get to enjoy a 3.5 hour bus ride from Casablanca to Morocco.  I think it's safe to say that we hit the climax of insane traffic in Egypt, but it's still pretty wild here.  During the trip we got some standard Morocco info from the guide and made the obligatory gas station pit stop.  I often wonder how the owners of these little shops in the middle of nowhere feel about being bombarded with rabid tourists every few hours.  Despite how annoying we can be, I'm sure we provide some good income.

Upon arrival in Marrakech (among the impoverished desert villages and groves of palm trees) we stopped at the Majorelle Gardens for a little while.  I don't think it was originally part of the trip but I'm glad we made the stop.  Marrakech as a whole can be described as kind of hot, dirty and crowded but the gardens were the exact opposite.  There was quite a bit of really beautiful desert landscaping in a very tranquil atmosphere.  It was another view or Morocco and very nice to visit.  After departing we drove by the original adobe city walls (with their famous 7 gates) we stopped for a visit at the Bahia Palace.  The palace used to be home to top ranking appointed leader for Morocco when Marrakech was the capitol (the historical name escapes me at the moment and I can't decipher my notes...it'll be nice to get real internet back in a little over a week).  The building is a great example of Moorish architecture with some gorgeous plaster work and fine mosaics.  Each room has a unique ceiling design and mosaic floor.  We walked through the gardens and each of the four wings before continuing to the Dar Si Said Palace.  The palace is not in great condition and was converted into a museum.  A quick walk though revealed quite a few Berber and Arab antiquities. 

Following the museum, we walked to a restaurant close by for lunch.  As usual for these trips, it was a set menu so I was really excited to try some authentic cous-cous.   It came on a giant platter for our table (thankfully we had silverware and didn't have to "authentically" eat by hand) and was unlike any other cous-cous I've had before with lots of whole veggies, tender beef, and an interesting sweet sauce.  It was excellent, quite delicious.  After lunch we had a few hours of free time in the Medina.  The hundreds of shops give it a very Turkey/Egypt bazaar feel but the salespeople weren't nearly as aggressive.  It's been hard to find decent pens in the last few countries but I think I came up with a few.  Other than that, the shopping wasn't too useful for me since I have no need for fake leather or a tarjine.  We ended the day by winding up at the Jemaa el Fna Square.  When you think Morocco, this is the image that probably come to mind.  There were all kinds of people with monkeys, snake charmers, acrobats, storytellers, and so on.  It was pretty crazy.  It was fun, but I have to admit that the experience would have been a lot better had it not been so "stressful."  We didn't stay in the square too long because every time you turn around somebody is handing you an anesthetized snake or a monkey is jumping onto your shoulders.  These would both be fine with me if there weren't 4 Moroccan men surrounding you asking for photos and money at the same time.  We got out relatively unscathed; Daniel had to pay a little over a dollar for a decent monkey picture.  The game plan then turned to taking covert pictures of the activity from a distance (thank you 10x zoom), some of which turned out surprisingly well. 

After our excitement in the square we boarded the bus for the trip back to the ship.  As always, the three hours seems to go much longer when it's dark and you're tired/hungry.  We got some dinner back on the ship, did a little planning for the next day and called it a night.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Day 54: Casablanca

I'm not sure whether I'm disappointed or relieved to say that our journey though the storm last night wasn't nearly as rough as expected.  We hit some strong waves but nothing like we were told to brace for.  We arrived to an overcast industrial port in Casablanca this morning.  There's not too much cruise traffic here so the port authorities seem a tad confused about how to handle 750 college kids.  We had a really interesting Diplomatic Briefing this morning before the ship cleared.  It was probably the most straight forward and politically informative one we've had so far; it was actually quite enjoyable.  After clearance, Daniel and I decided to go explore Casablanca on foot for a few hours before our city orientation departed in the early afternoon.  We actually ended up being the first two SASers off the ship and into port so that proved to be a little adventure.  After the 20 minute walk out of the Casablanca's enormous commercial port we found ourselves in town.

I think the best way to describe the streets of Morocco would be very dirty but interesting.  Daniel and I walked around the Mechouar Bazaar, through a local "market," and eventually ended up at the Hassan II Mosque.  We then followed the coastline back to the port.  Jumping right into the streets of Casablanca was a great cultural experience.  We saw a lot of local interaction, live chickens for sale on the street, huge slabs of meat hanging from stores (most covered in flies), feces in the middle of the road (unknown whether human or animal), eel and fish layed out for sale on the sidewalk, and multiple folks urinating on the sidewalk on which we were walking.  The most memorable part was the intense and strong odors.  It wasn't just one small of "nasty" but alternated between rotting fish, diesel, urine, cooking spices and incense among many others.  The way I'm describing this it probably comes off as a really gross experience but I didn't really think of it that way.  Yes, it was rather filthy but seeing the people made it really fascinating.  Their dress, mannerisms, interaction, and reaction to us was really great to see.  I guess that's one way to get a good feel for the culture.

After grabbing a quick lunch on the ship, the city orientation departed for the Hassan II Mosque.  While we didn't get a chance to view the world's third largest mosque from the inside, just seeing the exterior was amazing.  It's considered a "modern" mosque having been completed in the 90's and the Moorish architecture is quite intriguing.  The mosaic fountains are beautiful and the square is enormous; it can hold over 100,000 people (and will be filled to capacity in a few days as Ramadan begins).  After admiring the "Great Mosque" we departed for a drive around some of Casablanca's neighborhoods.  Later we stopped at the Lady of the Lord Cathedral, the largest of 7 Christian churches in the 99% Muslim city.  It was a unique design that had a ton of really intricate stained glass.  Next, we took a walk around the many shops and Central Market of the "New Medina" area before spending some time at the Palace Mechouar.  The palace is very pretty and still in active use by the king but serves a more symbolic role used primarily for diplomatic summits.  We had another stop in the Mohammed V square for a quick photo-op before our final walking tour though the UN Square and some of the bazaars closer to the port.  There wasn't a ton of time for shopping but this is probably a good thing as the merchants are pretty aggressive (we've learned that large groups and pretending to be mute usually fends off the many "guides" offering assistance).  We eventually arrived back at the ship.

I found an observation that Mindy made to be really interesting.  We didn't see anything on our city tour that was constructed before the 20th Century.  There are  definitely older sites out there, but after inquiring a bit we learned that the Moroccan Government doesn't really promote tourism to these sites because they are trying to cast a more modern view of the country by encouraging tourism to more contemporary areas.  It's an interesting tactic.  After dinner on the ship a few of us went out for a little walk to Rick's Cafe (Casablanca the movie, anyone?) for desert.  The cafe was opened by a retired US diplomat to replicate the one in the movie.  It was actually a really fun experience, especially since I recognized many of the subtle nuances having seen the movie a few days ago.  After the walk back to the ship and a quick ping-pong match it's time to get some rest.  That's all for now, I have to prepare for tomorrow's journey to Marrakech.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Day 53: Morocco Pre-Port

As I write we're currently passing back through the Strait of Gibraltar making our way around the northwestern tip of Africa.  Today we anchored near the port of Gibraltar and "bunkered" (aka refueled).  It's good to know that, 7000 tons of fuel later, we're ready to make the trek back across the Atlantic.

My test in Infectious Disease today went well.  It's weird to think we only have four class days left.  Its hard cramming a semester into 23 days, but it's been a fun ride so far.  I went to the inter-port student presentation this evening and got some good info (mostly food recommendations).  After that was our final logistical pre-port.  I might actually miss sipping a chamomile tea and listening to those hour long sessions filled with sarcasm that pound the dangers and specifics of each country into our heads.  After the ship clears tomorrow I have a city orientation of Casablanca.  Sunday I'll be on a day trip to Marrakesh that was originally supposed to be on Monday.  Due to the last minute change, I had to give up my trip to Rabat (Morocco's capitol) and now have a free day Monday.  There's been some talk of doing an independent trip to Rabat for part of the day on Monday but we'll see where that goes.  Tuesday, our final day in port, I have an FDP (faculty directed practicum) to a psychiatric hospital in Casablanca.  That should be a really unique visit and is probably one of the things I'm most looking forward to (besides the food of course).

We were given a warning earlier in the evening that we'll soon be entering a heavy storm off the coast of Morocco.  There's really no way to avoid it and get to port tomorrow morning so we're in for a rough night.  The recommendations included securing any lose items in the cabin or they'll start flying.  I'll be sure to let you know how all that goes.  That's all for now, I have to go figure our the dollar to dirham exchange rate.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Day 52: Crew Appreciation Day

Since the day was devoted to appreciating all the work the crew does for us, one of the suggestions was making our bed this morning (usually the stewards do it when the clean the room).  I know it doesn't sound like it should be that complex, but it's a rather complicated bed and took me about 20 minutes to actually get it looking relatively decent.  The other suggestion was that we bus our own tables.  This was a good idea but with everybody putting stuff in the wrong places it probably ended up making more work for the crew.  Otherwise it was a normal day of classes.  We have one more class day tomorrow before arriving in Morocco on Saturday.


The afternoon was comprised of finalizing the Global Studies paper due tomorrow and a trip to the gym.  The treadmill is getting a bit tedious (I did five miles today, you can only stare at the annoying red-dot display for so long) and it doesn't help that you're in a tiny room filled with mirrors.  To occupy some time the other day I tired having a staring contest with myself but it didn't work out too well.  This evening we had to signup and request seating for the upcoming Ambassador's Ball (supposed to be a rather big deal, don't tell anybody but I'm already dreading it) so it was pretty chaotic as I joined about 400 other students descending upon a few table setup in one of the more inconvenient locations on the ship.  At least I have a table with people I know.


I just got back from the special event tonight, the crew talent show.  The crew is from over 30 different countries and there was some really clever and interesting acts, mostly music and dance.  Of course we had to close by singing "We are the World."  Tomorrow we arrive in Gibraltar and bunker (refuel) for most of the day.  I'll keep an eye out for some Gibraltar monkeys.  That's all for now, I should probably think about that Infectious Disease exam I have tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Day 51: Midterm

We had our second Global Studies Midterm this evening.  The first one was a rather interesting experience and it resulted in a bunch of committees eventually deciding heavily scale the scores.  Today's test was much better written and organized so I felt pretty good after finishing it.  Otherwise it was another day of classes.  The saga of TB and eating disorders continue.

The seas were a big rougher today.  For folk like me who don't really have motion-sickness issues it's kind of nice because there's no line at meals.  This evening there was a screening of the film Casablanca in the Union.  I've always been told it was a classic and must-see.  It wasn't really what I expected but interesting and probably good to finally see.  It was also a nice little break after the midterm.  Sorry there's not much else exciting happening here on the MV Explorer.  That's all for now, tomorrow is crew appreciation day so I should probably go buy a gift for our cabin steward. 

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Day 50: Talent Show

Since we're at sea for multiple days, there's really nothing exciting occurring so I'm going to bore you with the mundane details of my life.  So, consider this an advance apology.  We're working though TB in Infectious Disease right now and learning how a third of the world's population is infected made me remember the statistic that nine out of ten medical students at USC-LAC Hospital will test positive for TB by the time they finish their third year.  The joys of what I have to look forward to.  It's also very comforting to know that our professor spotted a "likely case of progressive TB" on our TurkishAir flight from Izmir (yes, the same one that blew a tire, seems to be one doozy of a flight).  I think I'll get another skin test when I get home.  In Global Studies we listened to a lecture about honor killings.  I was hoping it would be a bit more optimistic than yesterday's lecture on the contemporary slave trade in the Mediterranean, but this wasn't the case.  We have a midterm tomorrow night so just about everybody has gone into study mode.  In Abnormal today we watched an episode of Oprah from the 70's (an interesting experience itself) on eating disorders.  Interesting but again slightly depressing.

The afternoon was filled with paper writing and a trip to the gym.  This evening we had the voyage student/staff/faculty talent show.  It was actually really entertaining.  I think the highlights included the two deans acting out "We're on a Boat" (youtube it if you need to, it's worth it) and some of the faculty dancing to MJ's Thriller. The harmonica playing and "rapping magician" acts were pretty good also.  I got an email from my parents a few hours ago and they successfully scaled Mt. Sinai this morning.  It's good to hear they're doing well and after a few more days in Cairo they should be back in the US.  Since we're now sailing westbound, today is our first official 25 hour day.  After losing a bunch of hours earlier in the voyage, it'll be nice to get a little extra sleep now.  That's all for now, I should probably join my peers in that whole midterm "study mode" thing.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Day 49: Laundry & Ice Cream

Well, after a day of Olympic excitement it's back to classes.  We're at sea for another four days and all of them will be busy trying to fit in papers and study for exams.  Since teachers have to turn in grades before departing the ship, many assignments are due soon to leave time for grading.  I have three pretty significant papers that it would be nice to churn out before Morocco so a decent amount of the afternoon went into those.  We also have an upcoming Global Studies midterm in two days so I just spent the majority of my evening among the tales of Mehmed "the conqueror" and Suleiman "the magnificent."

In celebration of our pathetic 8th place finish yesterday, my Baltic Sea had an ice cream social this evening.  It's nice to get some decent ice cream since we really haven't had gelato since Croatia.  Today was also a much needed laundry day so hopefully a bag of nice clean cloths will appear soon so I actually have something to wear tomorrow.  Other than that, the day was pretty uneventful.  I hear the fires are pretty bad back in CA so I hope all gets better there.  That's all for now, I should probably get some rest.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Day 48: Sea Olympics

The Sea Olympics is an event that has occurred on every single SAS voyage and today marked 102nd SAS Olympiad.  Each floor of cabins on the ship is divided into a "sea" community, sort of like a residence hall.  For example, I'm a member of the Baltic Sea and down the hall is the Caribbean Sea.  Each voyage there is one day at sea without classes where members of each sea unite and compete in a number of strange events.  It's actually a rather big day with the entire shipboard community participating (including the faculty and staff as members of the "Diploma Sea").  The opening ceremonies were pretty wild.  Each sea has it's own chants and practically everybody stuffed into the Union screaming, dancing, etc.  I was told I actually looked enthusiastic and I don't think they were sarcastic so apparently I'm getting better at this acting thing.

I was a sub for the Global Studies Jeopardy but wasn't needed too much.  Later in the day I competed in the relay race and had to spin around, do hopscotch, run up some stairs to my teammates.  Other big events I went to go watch included dodgeball, "extreme" musical chairs, synchronized swimming, and the infamous lip sync.  People got really enthusiastic and creative about the whole thing.  It's amazing what a bunch of college students cooped on a ship can come up with.  There was a lot of very spirited people and noise throughout the day and it was a fun way to take a break from the normal routine.

The final overall ranking of seas determines who will get to leave the ship first in Norfolk.  I just came back from watching the closing ceremonies and my dear Baltic Sea placed 8 out of 10 (hey, we put in a decent effort) so we won't be off too early but it's not a huge deal since there's nothing overly exciting to see in Norfolk anyway.  As I mentioned, today was solely devoted to the Sea Olympics so that's where everybody's attention has been.  Tomorrow we're back to classes and reality for a few days until Morocco.  That's all for now, I have some papers that should probably be written.