Friday, June 19, 2009


Oahu, Hawaii.

I was getting a little worried. I’d expected to love Japan; it had fascinated me, but I definitely did not love it. Then we got to Hawaii, or more precisely to the island of Oahu, and again I found myself out of love. This pattern began to worry me. I had never heard of anyone who wasn’t wild about Hawaii. Was I getting jaded? Tired of travel? Was too much travel a possibility? Even asking the question made me cringe. I knew that shortly I would be at home, sitting on a rickety lawn chair in my back yard on Long Island, wondering what my next adventure might be---a trip to the 7-ll.

But the fact was: I didn’t much like Oahu. It was physically stunning. We took a day-long tour of the island, and saw beautiful beaches, aqua blue water, palm trees, coral reefs, blooming flowers, and the scene at Waikiki. But everyone walking along the street was loud and large; everyone was American. We were spending dollars again, and lots of them. The entire island was devoted to the pursuit of pleasures that I don’t take much pleasure in: eating meat, drinking alcohol, baking on a beach, surfing. After months of being in foreign environs, of struggling with other languages and different ways of life, we were suddenly back on U.S. soil, even if we were floating on an island in the middle of the Pacific. The consumption was conspicuous. I wasn’t ready to be home.

One morning, we went out to Pearl Harbor to see the memorial to the USS Arizona. It was moving, although after Japan, my mind was full of the war memorial at Hiroshima. All I could think about was how surgical the strike on Pearl Harbor had been. How solicitous the Japanese had been of civilian lives, and how cavalier we had been when we took our revenge. 140,000 civilians were killed by the bombs in Hiroshima; most of the city was wiped out. At the USS Arizona Memorial, we only mourned the loss of 1,100 or so American sailors who’d been trapped beneath the sea; only 68 civilians were killed. Those numbers seemed small to me. The fact is we care more about dead American sailors than dead Asian civilians. Just as we rail against the 4,000 plus American soldiers killed in the Iraq war, we ignore the fact that over 80,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. Is it human nature to privilege the deaths of our own? Is there something wrong with my nature?

Memorial at the USS Arizona.

Our last port was Guatemala. Between Hawaii and Guatemala, we had ten days at sea, with back-to-back days of classes, final exams, and for me, over 300 papers to grade. The weather was wet and grey; the ship was rocking and rolling. Without much else to do, we hunkered down and amused each other. Many events, many drinks together, many dinners lingered over, music made, scrabble played, yoga classes shared---the usual day-to-day life on the ship. Jo and I made plans to travel to Antigua for a couple of days with our friends Bill and Joan, and our friend Joan Walters. Our pre-port preparation for Guatemala was a spate of admonitions: don’t wear your jewelry; don’t carry your lap top or your expensive camera; don’t carry your passport; don’t carry much cash—and don’t use the ATMs. We were braced for a disparity of wealth that we’d not seen before. The US embassy representative told us that Guatemala was a country threatened by an alarming level of crime and violence that the official security forces seemed at a total loss to contain. Tourists were routinely robbed at gunpoint. Semester at Sea trips to Tikal and Copan would all have body guards on board the buses; we ought to be back in our hotels after dark, and to avoid Guatemala City altogether. The prospect of staying three days in this lawless place seemed daunting.

Street scene in Antigua.

The warnings were appropriate. We were shocked by all the young men who walked the streets with rifles slung over their front chests, standing outside of stores, guarding banks, or just hanging around the Parque Central in Antigua. Some Semester at Sea kids were robbed; others had to pay off taxi drivers to deliver them safely to their destination. It was a tough, rough lawless place to be, and sometimes downright scary.

The ubiquitous rifle.

But absent from the pre-port preparation were warnings about the beauty and lushness of Guatemala, its steaming volcanoes, the charm of its colonial architecture, the stunning handicrafts, particularly the embroidery, the fascinating interaction between the indigenous and persistent Mayan culture and the Spanish colonial influence, the eager, kind people. It was a poor country, and one that seemed battle-weary from its years of civil war, but I saw much beauty there. I saw much to fall in love with. I could actually say: I want to go back to Guatemala, to visit the Mayan ruins I didn’t see on this trip, to go to Lago de Atitlan, to hear the rush of the waterfalls at Semuc Champey, and to dip my feet into its cold lagoons. Guatemala restored my faith in the joy of travel. My ennui had lifted, and I was capable, once again, of finding wonder at not being home.

We spent most of our time in Antigua, the Spanish colonial capital of Guatemala, and now a designated World Heritage Site. Most of the architecture in Antigua is eighteenth century. Even though the city was founded in the middle of the sixteenth century, a great earthquake destroyed it in 1773. Its focal point is the broad, tree-lined Parque Central, a broad and beautiful plaza with many wooden benches from which to watch the Antiguenos, the tourists, the hawkers, the artists, and the Spanish students strolling in or through the park. In the center is an outrageously tacky fountain, a 1936 reconstruction of the original 1738 version, complete with concrete nymphs sporting breasts that spewed water. On the east side of the park is the Catedral de Santiago that has been demolished, damaged by earthquakes, wrecked in the last eighteenth century, and then partly rebuilt in the nineteenth century. It looks best lit up at night, as is true of many old, decaying queens. Three blocks away from the park is the Arco de Santa Catalina, built in 1694 to enable the nuns to cross the street without being seen. There are many other churches in Antigua, ruins of monasteries, remains of 16th century convents and the like. Many of these buildings that were once gilded, baroque treasures are now romantic rubble, having suffered from too many earthquakes and not enough money to restore or maintain them.

Scenes of Antigua.

Walking the cobbled streets of Antigua, you feel very much the presence of history, of an earlier regime that once had power, and gold, and military might, and the crushing weight of the Catholic Church. Only the ruins and the artifacts of that regime remain---and the language. Those whom the Spanish conquered, the Mayan people, persist. They are nominally Catholic, but their religious beliefs were never stamped out, but appropriated, or hidden beneath the surface. Most of the Mayan women selling their textiles in the Parque Central, and the small shops of Antigua, came from the highlands, and they were poor. Very poor.

Mayan women in the market.

Antigua had many pleasures for the tourist, however: wonderful restaurants, art galleries, internet cafes, coffee shops and bakeries, bars, jade stores, and shops full of amazing handicrafts---masks, Mayan dresses, huipiles (Mayan tunics), silver jewelry, and textiles, textiles, textiles. Bill led us on a long walk through the local market where we were the only gringos, weaving our way through dark labyrinths of make-shift stalls, and through fruit stands, pineapple bars, and Mayan vendors who sold everything under the sun, pink plastic basins, baseball caps, underwear, chickens (dead and alive), T-shirts with corporate logos, hair brushes, flip flops, all spread out on blankets on the ground.

The local Antiguan market.

We stayed in a lovely three-story 18th century mansion with tile floors, tall ceilings, roughly hewn beams and wooden windows that opened out onto an inner courtyard. We were able to open those wooden windows which for me was an intense pleasure. One of my few gripes about ship life was the lack of access to soft breezes. I lived in a room hermetically sealed off from the world, with a window that looked out onto the sea and the sky, but with no fresh air. When I sought fresh air on the deck, it came with a blasting, blinding sun and a wall of wind that blew me away. I realized in our room in Antigua how much I was missing a soft breeze, with slanting rays of sunlight on my bed, the sound of a barking dog in the distance, the tinkle of my wind chimes, hanging on the tree outside my bedroom. It dawned on me in Antigua: I was missing home.

Our hotel (and Louise's feet looking out her wooden window).

And home we are. We’ve been back for about a month, and I’m amazed at how easy the transition has been---a little rocky the first few days, missing Semester at Sea friends and students, missing the movement of the sea, missing the ship, and our little life there, ephemeral, and now gone. But it’s lovely to be on terra firma again, and in our little red house in the woods, Jo back at school with all of her friends, me back at work with all of my friends. We’ve acquired a new kitten for Gray who did very nicely with our cat sitter, Ali, in our absence. Her name is Sidney, and she’s driving us crazy. (I’d forgotten how much fun kittens are, and how much work.) I bought a cotton rope hammock for reading in under the pine trees. Long Island is lush and green in June, and the air is fragrant with the scent of honey suckle. The azaleas are outrageous in their oranges and their hot pinks. My hair is growing back in.

And so, our Semester at Sea adventure has come to an end. Having been home for awhile, and adjusted to the familiar grooves of our lives, the trip begins to take on a surreal quality---all those foreign places, in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central America, all those tastes and sounds, those languages, those strange coins, the deserts, the mountains, the horn-honking cities, all that sun and sea, all those wonderful new friends, now here, now gone. It’s hard to know where to put so many memories. I can’t seem to squeeze them into any convenient corners of my mind. Maybe over time, I’ll package it up; maybe I’ll never succeed. Who knows what Jo will make of the whole experience, but of this I am certain: She’ll never be the same.

People have warned me that Semester at Sea can become an addiction. Once is not enough. I believe that. Jo’s already rooting for 2013. I say: we’ll wait and see. But the truth is we’re already plotting. We’re already planning. Half the fun of travel is anticipation.

Someday I expect to be a very old woman, no longer able to navigate the world, and I’ll have the comfort and company of three doting daughters in their middle-age, with little red houses in the woods and children of their own. But Jo and I will always share something that no one else will be privy to---the memory of this remarkable trip. Even now, just one month home, I find myself driving her to school in our Subaru, thinking that we need gas, worrying about whether I’ll be late to work, remembering that I need to pick up milk on the way home, and then I’ll suddenly look over at her and say with dubiety, “We did sail around the world, didn’t we?”

And she’ll nod and give me a secret smile. “Yes, Mom, we did.” And because she says so, I believe her.

LH and JJ

Jo and Louise back home on Long Island.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Processing Japan

Cherry blossoms in full bloom.

The ubiquitous old ladies of Japan. On the streets, in the marble malls, on the trains, and in the parks, they were everywhere, teetering around in Minnie Mouse shoes, wearing woolen suits with long, slender skirts, and matching tailored jackets, printed silk blouses showing shyly at the collar. Many sported hats, some elegant with silk flowers demurely attached to a satin ribbon that circled the base, some utilitarian and discordant with the rest of the sartorial splendor, oddly reminiscent of what my father used to refer to as “old man fishing hats.” Their faces were perfectly painted, with ruby lips creating a bow, salmon-colored cheeks, covered with white powder; they looked like apparitions. Frail, thin, these old ladies of Japan looked as if the smallest breath of spring wind might blow them away. They reminded me of the fragile pink petals that had already pulled off from the sap of the cherry tree, waiting for a nine-year old boy to shake the branches just to watch the velvety snow to fall.

That is one thing I noticed immediately in Japan: there are lots of old ladies, and very few children. Indeed, the birthrate is very low; one of our guides told us that each woman might be expected to produce only 1.3 children. She also told us that many professional women in Japan choose not to have children because they impede the development of their careers. Many of those same professional women end up living in apartments with their aged mothers. Housing is brutally expensive in Japan, and their aged mothers need them. I saw those duos everywhere: a middle-aged woman wearing a dark business suit shepherding her mother through the crowds. One of her arms was burdened with a briefcase, and the other with a wraithlike mother, turned out to perfection. A sturdy crow in designer glasses, with an elderly, delicate sparrow on her wing.

Kimonos of Kyoto.
Japan seems to be obsessed with germs and cleanliness. I couldn’t get used to all the white crinoline face masks that many people in Japan wore. When asked, a variety of answers came my way, all of them related to one form of pollution or another. One answer: the people in face masks have bad colds, and don’t want to spread their germs to others. Another: the people in face masks are worried about getting bad colds, and don’t want to breathe in the germs of others. Another: Too many cedar trees were planted after World War II, and the people in face masks were suffering from cedar allergies. Whatever the reason, it gave the population in the streets, in the trains and train stations, even walking in the parks, a distinctly ghostly, non-human appearance. I saw one young couple in Kyoto, strolling under the cherry blossoms, hand in hand, both wearing white crinoline face masks. I wondered how they kissed. Do they kiss? He stopped and posed the object of his affection in front of a particularly splendid tree, and she removed her mask for the photograph, and then promptly put it back onto the front of her face, arranging her hair deftly around the stretchy elastic that held the mask on. Hand in hand, the noseless, mouthless creatures disappeared from my view, their faces an odd combination of furrowed brows, dark eyes, and an expanse of smooth, sterile fabric that looked like a codpiece.

The toilets in Japan were utterly wild, and not only carried out this theme of cleanliness, but suggested a national obsession with private functions. In the hostel that we stayed at in Nara, sleeping in a communal room on tatami mats with some Semester at Sea friends, there was a toilet that was so high tech, I had to fetch Jo to show me what to do. The seat was heated, and had a dial that regulated how hot you wanted to bake your butt. (This feature was terrific; how primitive our chilly toilet seats on the ship seemed when we returned.) There were two different sprays of water that one could select, depending upon what geographical region you were aiming for---a whale spout effect from down below, and then another stream of water that came at you directly from the rear of the toilet. These too had dials that regulated the strength of the streams. Then there was a dial for what turned out to be the equivalent of a hair dryer for the general region, presumably to evaporate all the warm water. (This feature was alarming.) When you were duly dried, you were supposed to push the button that said, in English and Japanese, “Super Powerful Deodorizer,” that blasted you with some sweet smelling noxious chemical that I disliked enough to start pushing all the water spray buttons once again. My favorite of all, however, and a feature in almost every public toilet I used in Japan, was a button that masked the sounds of one’s elimination with either a faux flushing sound, or the sound of a rushing waterfall.

I was totally fascinated and repelled by Japan. The cities were ferociously dense in population; the train stations teemed with well-mannered, well-groomed, efficient, restrained, obedient, hard-working, and distant people. Of course, I generalize. Many acts of kindness, complete with full waist bows, were showered upon the bumbling, illiterate Americans who couldn’t figure out the Byzantine railway system. Courtesy abounded, but Japan offered none of the warm embrace of India, none of the sweet, shy curiosity of the Thais, none of the open-heartedness of the Vietnamese, even any of the rough and ready---but always friendly---brusqueness of the Chinese.

Tokyo from on high.

The streets of Tokyo.

Perhaps it was the documentary I’d seen the week before on the Hikikomori children that colored by perceptions of Japan. The term “Hikikomori” means “withdrawn,” and applies both to the social condition and to the people who suffer from it. The Hikikomori are adolescents, usually male, who collapse under the pressure to succeed in school, to be the best and the brightest, to fulfill their family’s high expectations---they fall apart and refuse to leave their bedrooms for months, sometimes for years. They sit in darkened rooms, and surf the internet and play computer games. Our Japanese lecturer on the ship told me that she knew two Hikikomori who haven’t been out of their bedrooms for over a year. One of the families is so ashamed of their son’s withdrawal from society that they have told everyone he’s studying in the United States. He is violent towards his parents, and only comes out to go to the bathroom; they feed him by leaving trays of food at his door. The other child has been living for awhile in a half-way house for Hikikomori, slowly coming out of his self-imposed exile. There are some instances of Hikikomori in Korea and in China, but it is mostly a Japanese phenomenon. As I walked past groups of young Japanese men in the train station, wearing tight jeans and black leather jackets, their hair dyed red or blonde, in a style reminiscent of Rod Stewart of yore, I’d ask myself: Who are these children? And what kind of culture creates a social category like the Hikikomori?

Part of my problem with Japan was me. I’m not a big fan of shame, and in Japan, the avoidance of shame motivates a great deal of behavior. I would see commuters on the train, perched circumspectly, anxiously on the green velvet seats, and I wanted to lunge across the aisle, grab them by the lapels, shake them, and yell, “Smile! Whatever it is, it’s not so bad. You’re doing just fine, or at least good enough. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Stumble on a little joy. Have some fun!” Of course, I just sat there in silence, but my repressed outburst worked its way down into my very core, and before you knew it, I’d be sad and depressed. I’m not sure Japan and I could spend a lot of time together.

We did have a magical day in Nara. The weather was splendid---a little chilly, but sunny, and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. A whole group of Semester at Sea families arranged to travel a few days together, and we generated our own fun and our own joy. The first capital of Japan, Nara is famous for its free-ranging deer who stroll through the city parks, begging for food, and posing for photographs. It was molting season, so their coats were uneven and patchy, but they had such sweet, trusting faces, and I loved the confidence with which they walked among us. We did most of the sights in Nara, but my favorite was the Todaiji Temple, the largest edifice in Japan, and one of the oldest, having been built in 743 C.E. Perhaps it was the sweetness of the deer faces, but for some reason in the Todaiji Temple, I was feeling very sad about the loss of our cat, Sweetie, right before we left for Semester at Sea.

Our Semester at Sea friends.

The deer at Nara.

Jo feeds a deer.

You may wonder how the loss of a cat relates to Japan, but it does. Sweetie had been with us for about ten years. She was never an easy cat. Beset with medical issues, a constantly snurfling, snot-laden nose, obsessive compulsive licking, the shivers and shakes, Sweetie was a trial. For a decade, she dominated our household, with her bed on the sofa, her kitty heat lamp, her constant supply of hot water bottles because she was always so cold. But that said, Sweetie was the only grateful cat I have ever known. Cats usually approach the world with a sense of entitlement, but not Sweetie. She knew that she was a burden, and she lavished affection upon us. It was impossible not to love her. And then one day in October, she took a stroll out onto the driveway, and disappeared. Nan and Jo scoured the neighborhood, put up flyers, registered her at the pound, but to no avail. Sweetie had vanished into thin air. The vet opined that a hawk had taken her. Hawks were in the neighborhood that week, and had made off with a number of small pets. We were utterly devastated.

Anyhow, the deer in Nara reminded me of Sweetie, and I was feeling blue. Then our friends, Bill and Joan, told us about a program at the Todaiji Temple. The priests were raising money to replace the roof, and for ten dollars, you could buy a roof tile, and with a brush dipped in black ink, dedicate the tile to whomever you pleased. Bill and Joan were going to memorialize their beloved dog, Sabaii, a soft-coated Wheaton Terrier who had lived with them for fifteen years, and had died in 2007. We loved the idea, and decided to claim the tile next to theirs so that Sabaii and Sweetie could hang out together in pet heaven---surely located somewhere in the eternally blooming cherry trees above the roof of the Todaiji Temple. It was our way of saying goodbye to Sweetie, and we signed the tile “Louise, Nan, Kate and Jo” for the sisters who were also mourning her loss. Sweetie was a very maternal cat, and would surely lick Sabaii’s head, and he would, we were assured, valiantly protect her. I would never have anticipated that we would lay Sweetie to rest in a Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan, but we did.

A priest at the Todaiji Temple in Nara.

Our memorial to Sweetie in the Todaiji Temple.

We did so many other things in Japan in the nature of seeing sights: Kyoto, also in full cherry blossom bloom, and Tokyo. The former was lovely; the latter overwhelming. We took a full day tour of Tokyo, and aside from a visit to a really stunning Shinto Shrine built in the 1920s, the Meiji Shrine, it was too new, too shiny, too fast, too impersonal---too much for me. I did grow very fond of the Shinto shrines in Japan. Usually located right next to a Buddhist temple, the Shinto shrines house the indigenous, local gods---the kami---who inhabited Japan before Buddhism was introduced in the sixth century C.E. The shrine itself is almost always surrounded by a quiet woods and pebbled paths; you enter through a large wooden gate without a door known as a torii. The torii marks out sacred space from the mundane, and is meant to purify you from the top down; as your crunch through the pebbles, you are purified from the soles of your feet up. Before you enter the Shinto shrine, you stop at the purification trough and wash yourself in an elaborate cleansing ritual. You clap hands loudly before you go in; you clap hands loudly as you finish your prayer, all to let the kami know that you are there. I loved that the kami had jurisdiction over the day-to-day problems of life: getting a new job, becoming pregnant, doing well on an exam. Nothing was too small to bother a kami with, unlike the Buddhist temple usually looming nearby that was devoted to death and eternity. Shinto shrines were all about the business of living, and we saw many Japanese couples bringing their newborn babies to be introduced to the kami. Outside the shrine, you could buy amulets and other trinkets blessed by the priests. At the Meiji Shrine, I bought a medallion in a white silk bag to ward off evil, and for all the administrators at Touro, I bought a “success pencil,” guaranteed to bring good luck to its wielder. Everything was open in the Shinto shrines; you could never tell if you were outside or inside, or somewhere in between. That was true of much of the architecture. Subdued, elegant, organic---the aesthetic was the best feature of Japan.

The wash basin outside a Shinto temple.

Priests inside a Shinto temple.

I wish I had loved Japan more. If I understood why I didn’t love Japan, I might know more about myself. My response wasn’t due to any lack of beauty, that’s for sure. Maybe some day I’ll return, and be able to see Japan through new eyes. Maybe I’ll find something there to compel me, or to pull at my heart. Nara---now there’s a place I’d love to visit again, and of course, I’ll have to go back to pay homage to the spirit of Sweetie, and her faithful companion, Sabaii. LH

Jo in Yokohama.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

At Sea

Morning view from Deck 7.

I am ensconced in my little cave. As I lift my eyes from my laptop, my window is cut in half: below, an endless expanse of restless, pewter water; above, an endless sky of billowing, brooding clouds. The relationship of sea to sky changes with each sideways roll of the ship. From my vantage point, my window is a receptacle that fills up with grey sea; we tip backwards, and the sea drains out. Suddenly there is more sky, more clouds; we tip forward, and the receptacle fills up with grey sea again. I’ve grown used to this rhythm, this rocking and almost imperceptible rolling, so much so, that when we get into port, I miss it. Indeed, I don’t suffer from any sea sickness at all, but when my feet take those last steps off the gangway, I am land sick. My inner ears are still at sea, my legs are full of lead. Too much gravity.

Most of the time, I love sleeping on the ship. My theory is: Before birth, we were all rocking gently back and forth, up and down, sea horses adrift in a maternal sea. The ship, on a good night, repeats that lulling motion, although I like things a little bit wild. My favorite nights are when the ship is rolling enough to lift my arms off my body as I lie in bed. I do have my limits. My least favorite nights are when there’s a storm, and the ship has gone beyond rolling, and is lurching, up and down, and then a crash, up and down, and then a crash, up and down, and then a crash…This particular rhythm is not soothing; no one sleeps well on those nights for fear of falling out of bed. A nocturnal visit to the bathroom---only about fifteen steps away---can be perilous. One gropes. One hangs on. One bruises. I wonder: do some babies in utero also sail in choppy seas? Do they spend nine months, lurching, up and down, and then a crash, up and down, and then a crash? Odd to think about journeying as in inchoate, vulnerable, water-born creature, although that’s how it feels, drifting off to sleep at sea.

This blog is about our life at sea. Most of my writing has been about our ports, and with good reason. That’s where the travel is---the Hindu and Buddhist temples, the muddy rivers, the sprawling Asian cities, the delicious food, the funky hotels, and all of our adventures. But the fact is more than half of our time is spent at sea. Semester at Sea is an academic community, crammed into a very small space, not unlike a hotel, and we eat together, drink together, study together, hang out together, make music together, play cards together, whine together---you name it, we do it together. It has all the accoutrement of a campus: a Union where the entire community convenes; a library; a book store; coffee shops and bars. But the space is small, and there’s no escaping students, night and day. I would advise anyone who thinks they’d like to teach in this program: you absolutely must love college students. If you don’t love college students, you may as well walk the plank. Teaching at Semester at Sea is akin to those early, unremitting stages of parenthood: your young are huddled around you, and they don’t go away. I happen to love college students, but if I didn’t, I’d have gone round the bend. A few have.

Students leaving the Union.

The library the day after the final Global exam.

Students, faculty, administration, staff, crew---about a thousand of us are on the M.V. Explorer, and at the moment, we’re surrounded by water with nothing on the horizon. When we’re at sea, classes are held; there are no weekends on board. Because we have no school when we’re in port, we teach every day in order to make up a semester of classes. That means no one on the ship ever knows what day it is. Monday or Thursday? It doesn’t matter at all. What matters is whether it is an “A” day, or a “B” day. On A days, I have two classes, Biomedical Ethics at 8:00 a.m., and History of Immigration Law at 10:45 a.m.; on B days, I have Classical Asian Philosophy at 8:00 a.m. Every day, we all take a course called “Global Studies,” in which we study the country we’re about to explore.

Classical Asian Philosophy Class.

Here’s my routine on board. I’m up by six, and go right to Deck Seven where the weights are, and where you can walk on the deck, although not romantically all the way around the ship as I’d dreamed it would be. Imagine this: hamster peddling mindlessly in her wheel. I stride back and forth, forth and back, the small expanse of Deck Seven devoted to what is called the “Wellness Center.” (Gag.) In my Long Island life, I swim at the Y every day, but here I’ve had to settle for a regime of weights, stationary bicycle, and mindless hamster peddling. There’s a frigid pool of salt water the size of a postage stamp that I got into once. (Twice, if you count Neptune Day when Jo and I, holding hands and covered in fish guts, jumped in together.) When I’m done working out, I treat myself to ten minutes of tai chi on the uncovered portion of Deck Seven. That’s my favorite time of day: there is nothing in my life but an empty expanse of deck, sea as far as I can see, wind blasting in my ears, a sunrise that never fails to surprise me, and the slow meditative movements of tai chi.

I grab a quick breakfast before class. There are two dining rooms: the Garden Lounge on Deck 6 which has an outside deck, and some pretence of elegance; and the Fifth Floor dining room that is dark and cavernous. After classes, Jo and I meet every day for lunch in the Garden Lounge at 12:30, and if weather permits, we eat outside with the same movable feast of friends: Joan, the ship nurse, Ann, the ship doctor, and her husband, Dale, the dependent’s school coordinator, Dee, a marketing professor, Jodie, a communications professor, Joan, a retired government administrator, a “life long learner” (someone who travels independently with Semester at Sea), or if the weather’s bad and we’re inside, we might eat with Nassim, an Islamic scholar, and his wife Nilo, or with Beth, the librarian, or with any random combination of faculty, students, or staff who might be around. The afternoon, at least for me, is spent preparing for class or writing; Jo studies for her Advanced Placement exams. A nap must be had every day. Then often around 5:30, I often go up for drinks with our good friends Bill and Joan, both faculty in sociology and education. On their deck, a motley crew---always the same, always different---drink wine, eat weird little crunchy Japanese things, gossip, complain, watch the sun set, and listen to the tenor lap, lap, lap of the waves against the hull of the ship. Two nights ago, three huge boobies were soaring around right next us, and we tried feeding them some dried wasabe from the balcony. That didn’t work.

The Garden Lounge.

Beth and Nilo in the Garden Lounge.

Dinner is always on the Fifth Floor, this time with a totally different set of friends, our Dinner on the Fifth Floor Friends---Bill and Joan, Joyce who teaches history, and Bob who does audio visuals and IT, and sometimes Jodie. On rare occasions, there’s a mingling of the Outside Deck of the Garden Lounge Lunch Friends and the Dinner on the Fifth Floor Friends, and then we have to squeeze around one of the larger tables. Jo and I almost always eat dinner together, and then she goes off to have her social life, and I go back to my cabin not to have mine.

After a day full of people, I desperately need solitude. In my cabin at night, I get ready for class, or work on my article, or watch wonderful movies they put on TV, or write nasty little short stories, or mess with my blog, or catch up on my email. Sometimes, there’ll be a program in the Union at night. A faculty member or “life long learner” might give a talk on something that amuses him or her---the importance of the Battle of Midway, the genesis of the Gregorian calendar, the engineering of the Panama Canal, recognizing the correct fork with which to spear your shrimp cocktail, the latest teaching of Guru Somebody-or-Other. Being an education junkie, I almost always go. Jo almost never goes; she’s seventeen. The evening is her time to socialize, sometimes up at the Pool Bar, sometimes in the Garden Lounge Bar, but more often in a college student’s cabin where they hang out at night in groups of ten or twelve, crammed in on the beds and the floor like the seals on the shore in Walvis Bay, sleek skin to sleek skin. Monica, Molly, Erin, Erica, Michael, another Michael, Peter, Holly, Heidi, the list goes on. Jo and I sometimes see each other across the Garden Lounge later at night, when I am filling my hot water bottle for my freezing feet, and she’s with her herd, waiting for the snack the kitchen puts out for the students at ten. (I swear, college kids EAT all the time.) She waves at me across the room, and I wave back, but we don’t speak. I can’t imagine how it must be for her to have the her mother intruding on the fringes of her social space, but as with all adversities, Jo bears it with grace.

Louise's little monk cell--Cabin 4091.

Then I go to bed, and it all starts up again. I’ve just re-read this description, and it sounds like a very little life, some might say, a monotonous one, repeating itself over and over again, clouds and sea, exercise, tai chi, classes, teaching, food, friends, students, writing, emails, naps, drinks, hot water bottles, movies, sleep, more clouds and sea. That’s about it. Note also what is not in this description: no traffic, no commute, no making the bed, no trash to put out, no lines to stand in, no cooking, no grocery shopping, no bills, no money, no cell phones, no news, no meetings---the list goes on and on.

Life at sea drives some faculty crazy. They can’t stand having nothing on the horizon, or living in a close community. They’re claustrophobic. They’re sea sick. They’re tired of pasta and ice-berg lettuce the color and texture of ivory alabaster. They’ve lost patience with the energy, the noise level, the persistent, cheerful foolhardiness of the young. Why can’t the students be more serious? Why do they spend all of their time on the deck, half naked? Why aren’t they more interested in things that matter? Why aren’t they more interested in me? What makes Semester at Sea a fabulous experience for them is their time spent on land---the sights, the sounds, the tastes, the smells of foreign ports of call.

I too love those foreign ports of call, but for me, there’s no greater thrill than the rumble of the ship starting up her engines. She shudders, she lets loose the ropes that tie her to the land, and we head out of the harbor for open sea. Jo and I are both convinced that we must have sailed in a former life. We’re too good at it, and we love it too much, for this to be our first time living and working on a ship.

I’ve also learned this on this voyage: I like a very little life, a close community, and nothing on the horizon. If I just had a cat with me… LH

Jo and her friends outside of the Garden Lounge.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Hong Kong and Shanghai

Hong Kong from the Peak.

For me, Hong Kong was not new. Touro’s summer law program spends its first few days in Hong Kong, so I’ve been four times before, most recently in May 2008. On that trip, I had Nan with me; on this trip, I had Jo with me. The way I figure it: I now owe Kate a trip to Hong Kong, under the perverse logic of sibling parity.

We decided to sail for three days with the ship from Hong Kong to Shanghai. By sailing with the ship, Jo was deprived of a trip to the Great Wall of China, but for the two of us to have made that journey would have cost more than a thousand dollars. I’ve been to the Great Wall four times already, one of them last summer, and while it is a great Great Wall, I was more interested in the two days in Shanghai where I’d never been before. Neither of us had ever been to Japan, and our friends were lobbying for us to join them in Nara and Kyoto. So we spent two days in Hong Kong, had a quiet three days sailing on the ship with the hundred or so of us too broke to fly around China, and then had two days in Shanghai.

Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities. This was also the first time I’ve ever been to Hong Kong when it wasn’t dreadfully hot. In late May, the tourist is dependent on Hong Kong’s over-achieving, and ubiquitous, air-conditioning. Walking outside of your hotel in the morning is like moving from a freezer into a bowl of pea soup; your glasses steam up. On this trip to Hong Kong, however, it was early spring, cloudy and grey---sweater weather. The air-conditioning was gratuitous, and sometimes not on at all. It reminded me of when Eileen Kaufman and I made our first trip to Delhi in December, having been there many times before, but always in June. In June, the night air in Delhi is like a tandoori oven. In December, the night air in Delhi is cool and crisp, and full of the fragrance of jasmine. What a difference 30 degrees Fahrenheit can make.

Jo and I made a deal in Hong Kong: she’d go her way with her friends, and I’d go my way with mine. The poor thing---four days alone with her very sick mother, trapped alone in a hotel room in Bangkok, has probably scarred her forever. Besides, since February, she’s part of a protean group of college kids, and I knew that she’d have more fun exploring Hong Kong with them. I spent my first day with our friends Joan and Bill, both faculty members, and we did all the touristy things since Bill had never been to Hong Kong before. That was fun for me, and truth to tell, I hadn’t been up to the Peak on the cable car since 2000. The view was still stunning, but the entire area around the Peak has been enclosed, and made into a multi-storied mall. This meant that you couldn’t get outside on the Peak without purchasing a second expensive ticket, so we decided to eat in one of the high-end restaurants that had a view. Just what Asia needs, we grumbled, another multi-storied mall?

Bill and Joan dining on the Peak.
But let me say this about the malls of Asia: you have to see them to believe them. Some of the other faculty on Semester at Sea are critical of our students who visit the malls of Asia, but not me. Malls are the market places of our century, and if you want to see the Chinese enjoying their leisure time, and the fruits of their capitalistic labor (which they have embraced with a vengeance) then you go to the mall. If you want to see the Japanese out and about, strolling, eating ice cream, drinking coffee, with their children and grandmothers in tow, then you go to the mall. We’ve also discovered that the malls of Asia have fabulous, ambitious food courts offering delicacies from around the world, and the price is a third of what you might pay in a restaurant. Many of our best lunches on this trip have been eaten in the malls of Asia.

Aesthetically, the malls of Asia put ours to shame. They have eight and nine stories, shiny marble floors, polished brass railings, glass-encased, neon-lined escalators, indoor fountains and creative landscaping, and pristine bathrooms with an amazing array of hand-drying machinery. I suppose too, there’s shopping. Actually, we didn’t shop in the malls of Asia because we can’t afford to. Jo and I used the malls as palatial pit stops, and perhaps for the urban Chinese in particular, the mall is a kind of palace---except in this case, the palace is not Forbidden; it is open to all. All are free to window shop at the mall, and in the muggy summer, to enjoy the air-conditioning. Indeed, that may just about sum up the individual freedoms in China. Don’t get me started…

Ok, just to be clear: I am not proposing that our students should only visit the malls of Asia, but they can be a lot of fun.

On our second day in Hong Kong, Jo and her friends took off for Stanley Market, and I spent the day alone, my second day of blissful solitude in almost four months. I walked up and down Nathan Road, had lunch in Kowloon Park and watched geriatric tai chi, and spent most of the afternoon at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. I never miss a visit to this museum because it has one of the best book stores in town. (I’m usually on the hunt for books in English on Chinese art and culture.) On this trip though, I lucked out with the art. The exhibit was of the paintings of Ding Yanyong (1902-1978). Ding was from Guandong, but had studied modern art in Tokyo in the twenties, and later became a part of the western painting movement in Shanghai, adopting a style reminiscent of Matisse. In the 1930s, he became interested in traditional Chinese art, and from that time on, his work synthesized the art of the West and the East. I particularly loved his ink on paper scrolls, and the playful one-stroke paintings that he did as an old man. The museum played a film on a loop from the 1970s of Master Ding performing these later paintings, and interacting with his students who were oozing filial piety. I watched it three times, all alone in a dark room, collapsed on a museum sofa. His personal life was tragic. Ding migrated in 1949 to Hong Kong, leaving behind his wife and four girls; he was never reunited with them. All of his art work in China was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution; his family was sent to re-education camps as “feudal bourgeoisie.” Living a bare-boned existence alone for years in Hong Kong, he was alienated from his country and from his family. Even Ding’s humorous, satirical pieces---of which there are many---betray a palpable loneliness.

Here was something new in Hong Kong: at eight p.m., there’s a laser show between and among the sky scrapers on Hong Kong Island. Our ship had a fortuitous mooring spot---I could see the Star Ferry from my window without lifting my head off my pillow. While we waited to set sail for Shanghai, we sat on deck seven with a gaggle of students and watched huge flood lights scan the darkness and green laser beams zig zag from building to building. It was like watching someone play a computer game across the Hong Kong skyline. I love the way the Chinese understand the dynamics of light. It was whimsical. Why can’t New York City muster some whim?

Hong Kong's laser show.

The MV Explorer at night.

After two quiet, cloudy days on the ship, we came into the harbor of Shanghai. As we chugged up the Huangpu River, I leaned over the railing with two colleagues who were in a state of shock. They hadn’t been to Shanghai for over twenty years. We were gazing at the urban panorama of the area called the Pudong. Twenty years ago, the Pudong had been boggy farmland. Now it was Shanghai’s bustling financial district, with the most amazing and eclectic cluster of skyscrapers and architectural anomalies, including the Oriental Pearl Tower that looks like space ship on a tripod. Later in the day, Jo and I and another faculty family took something called the “Bund Sightseeing Tunnel.” It connects the city with the Pudong via a train that conveys tourists through a tunnel of pulsating, spiraling lights, with a god-like, booming voice in the background announcing the various themes, “Now we are in volcanic lava….now we are in heaven…now we are in hell.” We had three kids with us, ages 17, 12 and 9, and they were enthralled. (Well, ok, I was enthralled too, but I have a weakness for neon and flashing lights. It’s one reason I love China.)

The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel.

I only have Beijing to compare Shanghai to, and let me say this: Shanghai is not Beijing. Beijing is laid out in a predictable, rational design; Shanghai is not. It’s difficult to navigate, and none of the city maps makes any sense whatsoever. Beijing is international and cosmopolitan; Shanghai feels more parochial, and is distinctly Chinese. Its population is far more homogenous, and I was impressed by how big the people were, many over six feet, with broad-faces and eyes that looked quite different from the eyes of Beijing. Beijing has many stunning tourist sights, but the rest of the city was torn down to make way for rows and row of monotonous, shiny glass boxes. Shanghai has very few stunning tourist sights, but has preserved its historical heritage. The Bund, and the French Concession, are stunning, and south of the Bund, you can find something that no longer exists in Beijing: an Old Town. We spent several hours in that Old Town, walking through the maze of narrow lanes, ducking under laundry hung in front of and between the closely packed houses, dodging bicycles, our eyes stinging from the smoke of small, local temples and open fires where food was cooking right on the street. I much prefer Shanghai to Beijing, and look forward to spending more time there. If I never went to Beijing again, it would be just fine with me.

Shanghai's Old Town.

On one of our afternoons in Shanghai, I took a small group of students to a neighborhood center that provided a wide range of services to the community----health care, music and dance for senior citizens, public education, and family planning services. We met with two sturdy, middle-aged women who ran the family planning clinic. Our translator, a young man of about 25, did his best to translate the questions and answers about China’s One Child Policy. (In China, since 1979, an urban couple is only allowed to have one child; second children must be paid for. The policy is relaxed somewhat in the country, and the ethnic minorities are not subject to it, but in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, most couples only have one child, and more than likely, that one child is a boy.) Our translator got flustered on more than one occasion. I asked him whether the clinic offered the “Morning After Pill,” and the trio was clueless. I had to tactfully explain the circumstances under which a woman might take such a pill, and he had to translate into Mandarin, “After the night of unexpected, or unplanned-for intercourse.” That wasn’t as difficult as having to explain to us: “The young women are taught the time in their menstrual cycle when they should not be having sex.” It was a challenge for him. They were mystified when a student asked whether free birth control was also available to unmarried women. Apparently the thought of an unmarried woman needing birth control just wasn’t part of their mental sky.

Representatives from the community center.

By and large, the two women were forthright, although I’m fairly sure that we were not only getting the party line, but that the neighborhood center was something of a showcase for westerners, evidence of enlightened social policy. Upstairs, we watched a very elderly group of musicians playing Chinese traditional music, although when they discovered their audience was American, they played a rousing rendition of Jingle Bells. In another room, a group of elderly women were rehearsing a somewhat flamboyant dance that entailed flapping fans in unison, and dipping and bending in ways that I no longer dip and bend. They also sang for us, and then demanded we reciprocate by singing a song to them, so we performed our own rousing rendition of Row, Row, Row your Boat---in a round, mind you. Luckily, we’d all been to camp.

I was sad to spend only those few days in China. China has grown on me. The first time I went to China and lived in Xiamen for a month, I found it fascinating, but it did not call my name---not the way India does. India is a large, rowdy democracy where anything goes, and often does. China is a totalitarian state. Censorship keeps their population ignorant of their government’s policies, and few feel free to speak out. On a tour of Tiananmen Square, one of our students asked how many were killed in 1989 in the military’s forcible---and deadly---dispersal of student protesters, and the young tour guide responded, “Oh, not so many as they say, only a few. Most of those photographs you see are ‘photo-shopped.’”

That answer makes me weep. The Chinese government has “photo-shopped” their recent history, their record on human rights, their appalling excuse for a criminal justice system, their planet-threatening pollution, their repression of religious groups who threaten their authority, their rampant consumerism and energy consumption, their myriad intrusions into the lives of their citizenry---uh oh, you got me started.

But I’ll stop. The truth is: Regardless of how I feel about the Chinese government, I still have a deep affection for the Chinese people, for the perpetuation of their ancient culture under extreme adversity, for their industry and tenacity, and at least in my dealings with them, for their great kindness.

The students at Semester at Sea have experienced a lot of anti-American sentiment as we’ve traveled around the world. We’ve talked about it repeatedly in our “Post-port Reflections.” To have someone in a foreign country blame you personally for our war in Iraq (which you didn’t support) or for dropping a bomb that killed 90,000 civilians (when you weren’t even born yet)---those accusations hurt. Some of the students have responded with anger; some with shame. Here is where travel educates. You learn to distinguish the people from the government. It’s possible to love one, and not the other. By someone covering you with a careless stroke of a brush, you learn to paint your own canvas with more care. LH

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Thailand and Vietnam

Jo and Louise feed a tiger cub in Thailand.

Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok is a blur for me. On our first day, we took a tour of a tiger zoo, and crocodile farm, and while sitting on a wooden bench in a large amphitheater, a phe, or spirit, climbed onto my back, and took possession of my body. I started to shiver and shake, and the next seven days were spent in a feverish haze. The doctors on board the ship seem to think that I had dengue fever. I must have picked it up in India from a mosquito.

Jo and I had reservations at a hotel in Bangkok, and I decided, perhaps foolishly in retrospect, that I might as well be sick there as on the ship. I thought that I just had a virus, and that the fever would pass in a day or two, but I was wrong. It lasted about a week, with spikes and low ebbs, night sweats followed by teeth chattering chills, terrible headaches, aches and pains like a truck had run over me, bleeding gums, no appetite, and utter misery. The fever was not inconsequential, almost 104 at night, and I was totally wiped. It’s been over with for two weeks now, and I am definitely on the mend, but it made for a bizarre four days in Bangkok, with most of the time spent in the hotel room trying to stay warm. Poor Jo. I don’t think it was much fun for her. It made me think of the many cemeteries in Africa and Asia we have seen along our travels, full of the bodies of colonists from northern Europe who had fallen prey to the grip of a phe. (I kept telling Jo, if I die, you and your sisters are actually better off financially---you can sell the house and go to whatever college you want. She kept saying, don’t die, please, not yet.) One of the doctors on the ship visited a tropical medicine hospital in Chennai, and reported that most of the patients were being treated with dengue fever. Some died of it, but they had started out the illness in a debilitated state from a life of poverty. Life in the tropics can kill you---but not me, not this time. Let’s hear it for being a well-nourished, healthy specimen, the product of good medical care and a privileged existence.

We did get out every day, at least for a few hours, and saw the Grand Palace which is a remarkable, absurdly gaudy extravaganza. We made our pilgrimage to the Emerald Buddha, and to the golden Reclining Buddha, and moved around the city, sliding in and out of one hot pink cab after another, driven by the sweetest people I think I have ever met. At night, we took walks around our hotel which was in an older section of Bangkok, and enjoyed the night life on the streets, with family groups eating and cooking outside of shops. There was music playing, and children and dogs running up and down the alleys, and old people sitting on low plastic stools, slurping noodles out of huge bowls. It was hard to navigate.

The reclining Buddha in Bangkok.

I love the way that Asia pours out onto the streets at night, and turns their front stoops and store fronts into an extension of their homes. Anyone who is willing to wind their way through the cheerful chaos is invited to the party. I love the smells of cooking food, the clatter of pop music, the sounds of languages I don’t understand, the smiles and nods, and sometimes the looks of surprise that we foreigners were still with them after the sun had gone down. At night, no one is interested in selling me anything. It’s family time, eating time, relaxing time, laughing time, and I suspect, story time. I never get tired of roaming the streets of Asia at night. Never.

Semester at Sea sponsors overnight trips, most of which are prohibitively expensive, but the cheapest one on the menu was an overnight trip that went up and down the delta of the Mekong River on a variety of wooden boats. I didn’t think I could figure out Viet Nam on our own, the price was right, so Jo and I signed up for the trip. Our group consisted of 18 young people, and aside from one Resident Assistant, who was all of age thirty-one, everyone on the trip was 22 years old, or younger. They were just the ages of my two friends who had been drafted into the army to go to Viet Nam over forty years ago, Bill from Kansas, and Will from Columbus. Both had come to the Mekong Delta to fight a war that neither of them believed in. I remembered them from the days after the war when they had come home to college in the early seventies, shattered, battered, and old beyond their years. Bill carried with him the painful memory of having killed an elderly, bearded Vietnamese man who wore a coolie hat, and Will, who was in law school with me, had woken up in a hospital bed in Saigon, the only one of his unit who had survived. Neither of those Williams was ever quite right again. Both of them lived among us, but at distance, far away from those of us who had not gone to Vietnam, but who had sat out the war in our respective universities, protesting our government’s policies.

Houseboat on the Mekong Delta.

I carried those two young men around with me in the Mekong Delta, listening to the chatter of the Semester at Sea kids as they talked about their majors, their boyfriends back home who were too possessive, their mothers who loved them and called them on their cell phones too often, their fathers who were hoping they would get summer jobs even in a lousy economy. We went up and down the muddy Mekong River, took pictures of the floating markets, bought ice cold sodas from a little boy in a small wooden boat who rowed up to our boat, offering his wares. We chatted, we dipped our hands in the brown water, we took off our shoes and socks, we drank coconut juice from coconuts that had been macheteed open by our guide, we felt the hot, dry wind evaporate the sweat off our heads, we swatted at mosquitoes, and took too many photographs.

Floating down the Mekong River.

The students eventually forgot that I was there, and I was able to perch silently on the edge of their youth. I listened to their worries, and observed their flirtations, and witnessed the silly things that made them laugh. Their laughter made me laugh even though I almost never saw what was funny. They were---they are---so gloriously and so un-self-consciously young. They do not even know that they are young---and in the midst of all their glamour and blonde pony tails and baseball caps sitting on their heads backwards, surrounded by their enthusiasm and innocence, I thought about my two ghost boy passengers from the Midwest whose youths had been stolen from them.

Having tea and fruit with SAS students.

I felt sad and sorry about the war. Our guide, a young man named Kha, had lost his three older sisters and his father at the hands of the Americans. This he told me quite matter of factly, staring out across the muddy water of the Mekong River, sipping on a coconut, and instructing a young man from Semester at Sea to keep his arms inside the boat. And so I added the older sisters of Kha, and his dead father, to my ghost load, and they rode around in the back of the creaking wooden boat with me, along with the frightened, lost boys named William, who probably still haunt the heads of two sixty-plus-year-old men living somewhere in Kansas, somewhere in Texas, men who have wives battling weight and grandchildren they love, and plasma TVs. This was how it felt to be in Vietnam.

The outings didn’t always hang together all that well. In the morning of one of the days, we went to the Cao Dai Temple, a religion founded in South Vietnam in the early 1920s that purports to be a synthesis of Buddhism, Daoism, and Catholicism. We were fortunate to visit during one of their services, and watched from a balcony as prayers were chanted through a haze of incense, and traditional Vietnamese music poured out from a band of twenty or so musicians. The huge hall was packed with devotees dressed in white robes, kneeling in tidy rows, underneath the brilliant pink pillars encircled with writhing black dragons. It was ethereal, and mesmerizing.

The Cao Dai Temple.

Then we headed off to the Cu Chi Tunnels, perhaps one of the oddest tourist destinations on this voyage. It is about 70 kilometers northwest of Saigon, and consists of a 200 kilometer cobweb of underground tunnels that housed hundreds, maybe thousands, of Vietnamese villagers and guerilla fighters beneath some of the most hotly contested areas during the war. We first had to watch a propaganda film that was virulently anti-American, and then the white devils were led around the tunnel system, stopping for tea and fruit in the middle of the tour, and for time to purchase Cu Chi Tunnel souvenirs at the gift shop where ice cream and bottled water and alcohol with dead snakes coiled in the bottom of the bottle were also for sale.

The Cu Chi Tunnels.

It was over a hundred degrees, and I just couldn’t put the whole scene together in my muddled mind. I had a gaggle of ghosts in a cart that I was dragging around behind me, and they were extremely confused and upset, and I was weak from a week of dengue fever, and overall, it was bizarre and distressing. And the jungle was so very hot. In the background, you could hear the shots of guns where for a few Dong, tourists were allowed to shoot at the outline of black cardboard guerilla fighters. We were drenched in sweat, and the mosquitoes were following us around in menacing clouds. (Perhaps I was feeling a bit paranoid about the mosquitoes, but I made one student who was puffing up with multiple bites wrap herself in a green hemp hammock that she had purchased at the Cu Chi Tunnel gift shop.) I am told that My Lai has also been turned into a tourist destination, and our fellow Semester at Sea travelers who had ventured up to Cambodia had walked across the Killing Fields, stepping on human bones, as they were led up and down the backdrop of former horror by courteous, opaque young tour guides in white shirts, most of whom had the remains of family members beneath their feet. Irony was nonexistent. The war had simply become a commodity. Now we stop here for ten minutes, to use the toilet, to buy a souvenir. It’s just the way things were.

The ghosts on the Mekong River.

On our last day in Vietnam, Jo, Beth, the ship librarian from the University of Virginia, and I had a glorious, frivolous day of shopping in Saigon City. Aside from the traffic, which was by far the scariest I have ever experienced anywhere in any of my travels due to the rivers of motor bikes that pulse through the veins and arteries of the city with a fierce, perilous energy, Saigon is a modern, beautiful city, with trees, and broad avenues, French architecture, designer shops, cool, glittering malls, ice cream parlors, and trendy stores with the most amazing objects to buy---shiny lacquer ware, leather, red paper lanterns, silks of the most startling hues. We didn’t spend much money, but a little money could buy you a marvelous cluster of plastic bags full of lovely treasures. The city is booming, and on the move, mostly from an influx of capital from Singapore and Taiwan. We ate a sinful lunch in a small, cool dark room, of individual pizzas in thick, cast iron pans, with extra cheese, and fresh pineapple chunks, and then went for a foot massage on the fifth floor of the Rex Hotel that started off with a ten minute soak of our feet in a wooden bowl full of warm, cinnamon flavored water. For an hour, listening to soft, plinky plink music, and resting in a lounge chair under a light blanket, a smiling, young Vietnamese woman massaged my feet and my legs with peppermint oil, and worked her thumbs into my sore pressure points. My ghosts got bored, and decided to go home.

Traffic of Saigon.

I don’t know what else to tell you about Vietnam. Both Jo and I loved it, probably the most of all the places that we have been to so far. (Excluding India. I don’t count India in the mix. I love India above all; she knows that well.) Still, Vietnam was incredible. I will forever remember those many hours going up and down the muddy waters of the Mekong River in little rickety wooden boats. The food, the greenness of the rice-paddies, the water puppets (I forgot to tell you about the water puppets!), and most of all, the kind people we met---and their generosity of spirit. In a country where we might have been shunned, we were greeted with open arms, and open hearts. We loved Vietnam. LH