Morocco

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Sitting here on deck five, watching the sun go down and seeing nothing but ocean around me, I am reminded of how lucky I am to be sailing around the world…and how much I never want to leave the MV Explorer. To have left Europe, gone to Africa, and now be heading back to Italy…it’s insane! The spring voyage is looking better and better (mom and dad, I see why you stayed on the ships as long as you did).

This post will likely be a lot longer than my usual ones; we squeezed in more than I thought possible in our four days in port. To put it in the most clichéd of terms, Morocco was an eye-opening experience. Until this port, we had been in lots of cool places, many of which I hadn’t envisioned traveling to before, but they all had many of the comforts of home. Almost every previous port was filled with English speakers, and while we encountered poverty, it was nowhere near the level in Morocco. The first day, on the bus to a field lab for my Education and Economic Systems class, I was struck by how quickly our surroundings changed as we went from the port terminal, with a newly built train station just outside it, to the, for lack of a better word, sketchy area the university we were going to was located in. Police escorted our bus in, just to be safe. Once inside the university though, I felt like I was in any Florida indoor/outdoor school. It reminded me of Sawgrass Springs Middle actually. (That is, until I went into the bathrooms and was transported right back to China, squat toilets and all. Not ideal.)

Despite the somewhat unnerving drive to the school, our time at the university offered the first of many great interactions with locals. After presentations from three Moroccan educators, who talked candidly about the shortcomings of their education system and how they’re working to reform it, we ate lunch and had tea with university students. I sat with a 19-year-old named Muhammad, who asked me and my classmate questions about what kind of classes we can take, how big they are, what our political views are, whether boy-and-girl interactions are really like what he sees in American movies. He in turn told us all about his school and customs. One of the most interesting things he said came up when we asked how often foreigners come to visit his school; he said he meets foreigners fairly often, and they are so kind, gentle, and respectful that he can’t believe they are not Muslims. It was really interesting to hear, especially in contrast to how Islam is often portrayed or viewed in the west. My other favorite takeaway from Muhammad was his laughter when I said my ex-boyfriend was allowed to come over and hang out at my house…he said in order to date a girl, he would have to tell her father he intended to marry her!

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Belgium, Amsterdam, France

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Four cities in six days…this was easily our busiest port yet. We had our fair share of road bumps, with a missed bus, a struggle to find a place to stay and a less than ideal hostel, but all these problems were well worth it and as always, part of the adventure. I LOVED all three countries and wish we had more time in each…if SAS has taught us one thing though it is to the make the most of whatever time we have.

Our first day in Belgium we found the train station, wandered in and out of cathedrals and museums and ate the first of too many Belgian Waffles (I’ll never eat an Eggo again). We went to a printing museum and saw tons of old manuscripts, typesets, printing presses and documents. My favorite was a very old map from when the world was believed to be flat; South America is shown as a small oval and Antarctica takes up almost the entire bottom third of the map.

The next day we walked through the city center again and down to a big park that had lots of university-age students hanging out and reading. We went for round two of the waffles (mmm) and later that night had Belgian fries…the Belgians tell us they are the real inventors of fries, not the French! Belgium was by no means our healthiest port, but we told ourselves all the walking balanced it out.

On day three, we took a train to Amsterdam. It took a little longer than expected to get there because of delays, but we made it around lunchtime and had a super delicious lunch along one of the many canals in the center of town. I’m still dreaming of the bacon-wrapped dates and goat cheese Shannon and I ordered. Afterwards, we made our way to the Anne Frank house. I was surprised at its location…I imagined it in a more residential area of town, but it was on a fairly busy main road and looked like it could be an office building from the outside. Inside, the walls were filled with quotes from her diaries, videos of her father and the people who helped hide her family, and the history of the period. It was an intense experience to climb all those stairs and imagine what it must have felt like to be climbing them knowing you couldn’t leave, and spend day after day in the blacked-out rooms.

In a different but also disconcerting experience, we walked through the red-light district on our way to dinner…definitely a strange bit of culture shock. At the suggestion of a local who took our picture, we went to a noodle place and afterward, an ice bar. Our group had been trying to find one since Russia so we were very excited to finally go. It was -12 degrees Celsius inside, so despite the giant puffy coats and gloves we were given, we only lasted long enough to finish our two drinks (served in cups made of ice!) and take a few pictures.

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Sept. 20, 2014 — Four ports later

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Four ports later, I’m jumping back into the blogging game. It’s crazy to think I’ve already been to six new countries…the journey is flying by! It’s been so hectic that I haven’t had much time to write posts, but I have been journaling, so the details aren’t lost yet.

Tonight we had an interesting and sad experience on ship, as we had to say goodbye to the first student to leave. His passport was stolen on a train from Paris, and because he’s from Egypt, he would need a new visa for every country we would visit. That process would take a few months minimum, so very unfortunately, he has to go home. He gave a really beautiful speech saying goodbye, sharing what he’s learned on SAS, and teaching us a bit about his country, culture, and religion. His words definitely reminded me of the true purpose of this trip, as well as how fortunate I am to be here. It also really brought the shipboard community together, though I wish it could have been under better circumstances.

So with that reflection in mind, I’m backtracking to my (unexpectedly) favorite country so far. I had zero clue what to expect when we arrived to Gdansk, Poland, but I could not have enjoyed myself more. During our pre-port information session, a professor on board spoke about his parents experiences in World War II as Jews living in Poland. We learned how utterly destroyed Poland was during the war, which left me with a heavy heart debarking and an uncertainty in regards to what people would be like. After all, their country had been through so much. But everyone we encountered was so friendly, warm and eager to interact with us.

We toured an amber museum, went on another Ferris Wheel (I can never resist), visited many beautiful churches, had DELICIOUS sausage, sauerkraut, smoked salmon and cider, and found a new home in an always empty underground restaurant at the end of the main strip.

We went back there four times in the two days we were there, and made friends with the bartender to the point where it was sad to say goodbye on our last visit there. One morning we came across a farmers’ market with the most delicious, colorful fruits I’ve ever seen. We tried kiwis, strawberries and nectarines…boy were they good. The next afternoon we had hot wine…much better than it sounds, I promise!

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Aug. 30 – Sept. 1 — St. Petersburg, Russia

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                 Van Gogh pop-up exhibit                                Church of the Spilled Blood

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                 Hermitage Museum — Russia’s version of the Old Well?  #gdtbath 

As I type this blog, the MV Explorer is on its way to Gdansk, Poland!! The last three days were incredible, and already a bit of a blur, so forgive me if I get a bit longwinded here. St. Petersburg was absolutely beautiful – I really had no frame of reference for the landscape prior to arriving, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much water there was! It’s similar to Venice, with canals and bridges everywhere, and the port always nearby. The buildings by the port were so colorful…pinks, greens, blues, I loved it.

Some streets reminded me of any other big city (London, New York) with high-end stores and lots of traffic, but then I would turn a corner and see a massive cathedral, palace or museum and be struck by the history and beauty of the city. We explored a lot, roaming around attempting to make sense of the maps while dealing with the language barrier, and got lost once or twice, but it definitely added to the fun of being in a completely foreign city. The people were so friendly; even though the majority of whom we stopped on the street to ask for directions did not speak English, they pointed us in the right direction and would trace on the maps for us exactly where to go. To be honest, we were all a bit nervous when we initially stepped off the boat…we had heard Russians think Americans smile too much, for one thing, and weren’t sure how we’d be received, but almost everyone we came across was very kind and helpful.

On Saturday, our first day in port, Shannon and I made our way to an awesome Van Gogh pop-up exhibit that we found in a hotel tour book. It was held in a huge tent and had a dozen or so movie-size screens with Van Gogh’s work projected on them, as well as quotes from letters he had written and music playing to go along with the different periods of his life. The Starry Night and Almond Trees sequences were by far my favorite!

Other highlights of our few days…the Hermitage, which we toured with SAS, was insanely beautiful and grandiose. Also called the Winter Palace, it was built by Peter the Great and is room after room of gorgeous architecture, artwork and chandeliers, thrones, artifacts, clothes, you name it. We walked through it for maybe three hours and still only really saw a small fraction of it. Everything inside is original, including paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo sculptures. Crazy!! Interesting fact we learned…during World War II, the Hermitage served as a hospital. We also visited the Peter and Paul Fortress, Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral…all larger than life and crazily ornate, to say the least.

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August 29, 2014 — En route to St. Petersburg

 

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 Seeing as tomorrow will be my first day on land in seven days, I thought it was time for my first blog post. The last week has been filled with new experiences, and lots and lots of new people.

To backtrack a little, Shannon and I spent two days in London before boarding the ship. While it was a short trip, we got to see a lot of the London we had in our heads – most of the big touristy spots – and explore more local areas as well. I LOVE Ferris Wheels, so going on the Eye was a must. We walked across a big bridge to get there, which felt a lot like walking across the Brooklyn Bridge funnily enough. The Eye is set in a cool fair-like park, with street performers, musicians, a funhouse and more. The views from the top were amazing…Big Ben, the palaces, the Thames River and more.

We also visited Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace…how insane to think people actually live there!! They were massive. There were also surprising number of cars going in and out, and not a huge amount of security, at least openly. We walked into Harrods’s, a crazy big department store that looks like a palace from the outside and has everything you could imagine and more inside (including a full grocery store). My favorite activity was tea at Harvey Nichol’s, another big department store. The restaurant was on the roof, and tea was served on a three-tiered dish filled with scones, finger sandwiches, etc. Parent Trap, anyone?

Aside from those visits, much of our two days were spent wandering and walking into random bars and restaurants to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi and lowered drinking age (it took us a bit to figure out our hotel Wi-Fi)…I learned I’m a big fan of pear cider. We ate a lot of great food, and I got my long-awaited London Indian food. The samosas and Chana masala did not disappoint.

On the ship, I’ve been adjusting to sea life and a new schedule – so far we’ve made it to one breakfast…7:30-8:30 is just a tad early for our liking. It’s definitely strange to be away from Instagram and Snapchat and sometimes see absolutely nothing but open water around you, but those aspects pale in comparison to the incredible views any time I pass a window or step out on deck.

Though the community on board is definitely majority American, there are students from almost every other continent too. It’s been so interesting to hear them share their opinions in class and lectures, of which there are many. Semester at Sea does a fantastic job of keeping the evenings full of things to do. In my travel writing class, where we are focusing on what makes a city livable as we go to different ports, the topic of class came up. Students from Egypt and Colombia talked about the complete lack of middle class in their countries; if you’re born rich, you’re rich, if you’re born poor, you’re poor. There’s no room for movement, they said. Hearing them talk definitely gave me more insight into and appreciation for the “American dream,” something that I think is easily forgotten.

We’ve had a lot of prep for Russia, including cultural and historical talks, and lectures in my classes on the education and economic systems in the country, so I’m very excited to get off the ship tomorrow morning (!!!) and explore.

Thanks for reading!