Posts Tagged With: Semester at Sea

Until we meet again, España

Spain has been listed on my travel bucket list for as long as I’ve had one. Although I can only speak extremely basic Spanish (even after studying it for all four years of high school – thanks Barno Brothers) it was the culture of the country that I found so alluring. I found that the more I learned about the people and their music, dance, food, ethnic and religious traditions, architecture and history the more my desire to travel there intensified. So when I saw that España was on the itinerary for this voyage I was absolutely ecstatic.

When we finally arrived in Seville, Spain after our six hour bus ride from Lisbon, Portugal, we made the decision to walk to our hostel so that we could stretch our legs after sitting for so long.  Shortly after beginning our journey by foot, we started to hear the thunderous sound of pounding drums coming from the streets ahead of us. Curious as to what the noise could be for, we did not stray from the direction in which we were headed but were quickly stopped short when we hit a massive crowd of people parading in the street. At first we were worried there was some kind of protest but when we got closer we saw what was leading the procession: a beautifully ornate statue of Mother Mary. When we tried to make our way through the slowly moving crowd, we noticed that there was a full marching band, altar boys with incense and policemen who were keeping people out of the way of the float with the statue on it. It was truly remarkable that we happened to stumble upon such an awesome event within our first moments in Seville.

Religious procession honoring Mother Mary

Religious procession honoring Mother Mary

When we finally made it to our hostel, we were pleasantly surprised to see that some fellow SASers were staying there but were even happier to see how awesome the hostel was. Since there were five of us, we were given a full room to ourselves which was complete with three sets of bunk beds and a bathroom. I immediately called one of the top bunks, which was a total throwback for me to all the times that I used to sleep over my cousins house as a child since I would always plead with her to sleep on her top bunk. As happy as that made me, the public areas of the hostel were also something to smile about, since it was complete with brightly painted walls, fun decorations, and even a sign on the wall that announced that hugs from the staff were free! There was also a pretty rooftop area and a few computers to use in the lobby. However we were delighted even further when we were making our way out for dinner and were stopped by a staff member who told us about a pub crawl they were having that night. Excited to join the group later that evening, we took a map marked with the pub crawl locations on it and told him that we would meet up with them at their first stop.

Our phrase for that evening was “tapas on top of tapas” because that’s exactly what we ate. We could claim that we ate so much because we were hungry from traveling all day, but that wouldn’t be the complete truth because it also had a lot to do with how absolutely fantastic all the food was. We were quickly falling in love with Sevilla even though we had only been there for a few hours. However, our Spanish experience in this tapas bar was even further enhanced by the loud screams of all of the locals as they cheered for Real Madrid, whose match was broadcasted on every television in the place.

Once we finally decided it was about time to leave the tapas bar, we made our way to the first location for the pub crawl. We were warmly welcomed by the staff running it, bought our tickets, took our free shots and mingled then with all the awesome people who were there. We certainly met some characters throughout the evening including one hilarious guy who recently moved to Sevilla from China, an Italian woman and the group of Spaniards who were with her, as well as a group of English guys with whom we had some hysterical conversations. At each of the bars we went to we were offered a free drink or shot, so the price of the ticket basically had us covered for the whole night. The last stop for the pub crawl was a discoteca (dance club) where we learned just how true the song Loca People by Sak Noel is because Spaniards undoubtedly do party “all day, all night.” In fact, we got to the club at 2am and left at 4am only to see that there was still a long line of people outside waiting to be allowed to enter.

The next day we wandered around the city and tried to go into the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede but it was closed for Sunday mass, so we were only able to go into one of the beautiful side chapels. Our main goal for rest of the day was to try to buy tickets for the bull fight that was that evening, but it just so happened to be the last one of the season so the only tickets that were left were over 100 euros. I left the ticket stand feeling defeated as I shared the news with my friends, but as we left I made a promise to myself that one day I would return to see one. Not being able to go was probably for the best anyway, since we didn’t realize how formal the dress code was for the bull fight. We would have totally stood out next to all the men in suits and women doused in perfume.

The side chapel in Catedral de Santa María de la Sede.

The side chapel in Catedral de Santa María de la Sede.

Outside the bull fighting ring

Outside the bull fighting ring

Not wanting to miss out on a Spanish culture experience for the evening, we decided to go to a Flamenco show. As sad as we were to be missing out on the bull fight, we were completely content with the change in plans, especially because the show ended up being absolutely amazing. The performers exerted such astounding passion as they stomped around the stage, posed with fierce facial expressions, tossed around the skirts of their beautiful dresses, strummed their flamenco guitars, snapped their castanets, and shouted to one another in encouragement. I sat in the audience in awe thinking about how much younger I was than the dancers on stage and how I would never be able to stomp my feet as violently and quickly as they could and make it look as graceful and dance-like as they had. Unfortunately, the audience was forbidden from recording any of the performance (but I did take a picture of one of the male dancers!). After the performance, we decided to go back to the first bar from the pub crawl the night before, but found it to be completely overtaken by SASers with unfortunately no locals in sight, so we settled for dessert at a nearby café and then went back to our hostel.

Flamenco show

Flamenco show

Our third and final day in Sevilla we began by meeting up with our friend John from Pace, who was studying abroad in this amazing city for the semester. He showed us around his university campus and took us to the gorgeous Plaza de España all while we caught up and learned about each other’s study abroad programs. He also introduced us to his Spanish friend, who told us a lot about the education system in Spain. However, he impressed us the most when he shared with us that he can fluently speak FIVE different languages! When they had to leave for class, we said our goodbyes and walked to Alcázar Castle. I could not get over how absolutely breathtaking the whole property was and even though we spent hours there, I could have easily spent many more exploring all of the rooms, garden mazes, and tiled courtyards.

Plaza de Espana

Plaza de Espana

AlcazarPond  Inside the Maze Garden Courtyard Tile Art Garden    Garden MazeAlcazar

Courtyard Tiled Stairs

When we finally left the castle, we stopped in a Dunkin (which they actually call Dunkin Coffee) and saw that even though they did sell both coffee and donuts just as we’re used to, they did have quite a few different flavors on their menu. In our then limited time left in Sevilla, we decided to go to the top of the Metropol Parasol, or the large mushroom-like structure, where we relished in the sight of the beautiful city below. We then stopped to eat lunch, where we unexpectedly witnessed quite a spectacle. There were these two little girls who were running around and giggling with one another as what seemed to be their grandmother watched them from a nearby bench. Then all of the sudden they started running up to us. They tried to be sneaky and would run up behind us, touch one of our bags, and then run away. The weirdest part was that when they would run away from us after successfully touching our bags their grandmother would give them a cookie as though she were rewarding them! After seeing this happen three different times the only conclusion we could come to was that they were trying to mimic or were being encouraged to learn how to pick people’s pockets. Of course we don’t know if this is true but we were warned that in many countries children are most likely to pick pockets because they have tiny hands, move quickly, and they’re innocent so most people would never expect them to commit such a crime. We quickly left the area before the little girls had the chance to actually steal something from us, picked up our bags from the hostel, and hailed a cab to take us to the train station.

Dunkin Coffee

Metropol Parasol

Metropol Parasol

Overlook of Sevilla from Metropol Parasol

Overlook of Sevilla from Metropol Parasol

Boarding our train to Cadiz was bittersweet because we didn’t want to leave Sevilla, but we were also happy that we would at least have one more day in Spain before we had to leave the country entirely. That next morning we attended a market tour and tapas tasting event, which was quite enjoyable. During the market tour we saw countless types of raw fish, fruits, meats and cheeses and learned all about the way in which these foods are prepared and even were able to try some of the foods for sale. We tried Spanish churros (which are much lighter and are salty instead of sugary as they are in the US), a few cheeses, olives, juicy plums, and various slices of jamon from the pig legs that hung from the ceiling of some of the stands. We then made our way to a tapas bar where we had a glass of wine with our tastings of grilled vegetables, gazpacho, scorpion fish pate with crackers and even shark! We left the tapas bar as soon as the event was over so that we would have enough time to shop in the local Carrefour super market for necessities before we left Europe for Africa.

Fish for sale in the market

Fish for sale in the market

And the award goes to...this guy for being the ugliest fish I've ever seen.

And the award goes to…this guy for being the ugliest fish I’ve ever seen.

Fruit Stand

Our tour guide described to us that there is an acorn taste in the meat from the pig's leg because they were raised as free range pigs where acorns became a major part of their diet.

Our tour guide described to us that there is an acorn taste in the meat from the pig’s leg because they were raised as free range pigs where acorns became a major part of their diet.

When it was time to board the ship, the longing to stay in this remarkable country was inevitable but of course I knew that there were much more adventures on this voyage to be had and that they would be ones that I would not want to miss out on. However, what really made me feel better is that I had resolved to return to España sometime in the very near future.  

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Don’t Rain on my Parade, Portugal

Up until Portugal, we had definitely taken the weather during our port visits for granted. However, unfortunately in the two days that my friends and I spent in Lisbon, we found ourselves wishing for any ounce of sunshine and a break in the high winds and frequent downpours. We tried not to let it affect us, but it was certainly a ruling factor in how we spent what little time we had there.

The MV Explorer in all it's glory docked in Lisbon

The MV Explorer docked in rainy Lisbon

In our first day, we did a lot of wandering and somehow managed to find our way to a wine tasting. It not only provided us with a shelter from the weather outside but also turned into quite an enjoyable experience. We quickly learned that when we were repeatedly told to try some Portuguese wines, there was quite a fine reason for it. Afterwards, we began our ascend of the central hill in the city of Lisbon. On our way up the narrow and steep streets we admired all of the beautiful tile work and even stopped to look at the intricate designs and murals that covered some buildings. In the background as we passed by stores, restaurants, and even some houses was the melancholy yet dramatically stunning sounds of Fado music. I recognized the sultry vocals of Amália Rodrigues, who I learned about in my Global Music class before we arrived in Portugal.

My wine tasting card

My wine tasting card

Praça do Comércio - one of the main squares in Lisbon

Praça do Comércio – one of the main squares in Lisbon

Fado Street Art

Fado Street Art

When we reached the top of the hill, we entered the area where the entrance to the Castle of Sao Jorge was but decided not to pay to go inside. Instead, we sat down to rest our feet for a while as we admired the beautiful view of the city below. In the rest of that first day we befriended a wine bar owner who was extremely nice to us and ended up indulging in the local custard desserts that can be purchased almost anywhere in the city.

For our second and last day in Lisbon, my friends and I signed up for a scavenger hunt field program through SAS. I have a history of doing well with scavenger hunts (just ask my best friends from home about our victories at Camp Kresge’s Father Daughter Weekends!), so I was ready to take on this challenge with my friends and was ready to compete against the two other teams. However, shortly after we were given our instructions the inevitable rain began to pour down on us. Our first instruction for the scavenger hunt was to take one of the iconic tram cars across town, but after waiting for it in the rain the tram simply passed by us because it was already full of passengers. My friends and I, now joined by our scavenger hunt guide, climbed the central hill of Lisbon by foot for the second time. Our guide was there with us to make sure that we were going in the right direction, help with the language barrier, and was supposed to provide us with hints to the answers for the required questions in our scavenger hunt booklet.

During our trek uphill, the mixture of rain water on the smooth cobblestone streets under our feet with the extreme incline of the hill created a dangerously slippery mess for us. This slowed down our pace, but when we finally made it to the castle we were happy that we hadn’t paid to go in the day before since our admission was included with the scavenger hunt. The view from the overlook area inside the castle was incredible but we didn’t want to waste precious competition time so we took a few pictures, found the information we needed, and exited the castle to meet up with our guide again. Only when we arrived at the spot where we agreed to meet him, he was no longer there. We quickly realized just how short-lived his help would be and knew that from then on we would be entirely on our own.

The castle at the top of the central hill in Lisbon

Castle of Sao Jorge

A view of Lisbon with rainclouds overhead

A view of Lisbon from the Castle of Sao Jorge with rainclouds overhead

We struggled trying to find the streets that the directions told us to take mostly because we were in a very residential area of Alfama, so some of the “streets” were actually more like pathways and there were even some that were just sets of stairs. We stopped to ask locals for directions many times and got lost on multiple occasions all the while trying to huddle under our umbrellas in shelter from the heavy rain. As it turns out, we ended up being the last team to make it to the end and I ruined my reputation as a scavenger hunt champion when we received our certificates naming us as the team in last place.

Since we got back later than expected, we rushed onto the ship to grab our bags and then left to catch our bus to Seville, Spain since we were going to overland to the next port. Over the span of the voyage there were a few ports where overland travel was allowed for SAS students, and Portugal to Spain was one of these instances. What that means is that we were allowed to journey on our own from one port to the next without having to travel on the ship. The desire to see more of Spain than just Cadiz drove us to do the overland and spend some time in Sevilla!

In the end, even as we were leaving the country of Portugal we couldn’t escape the wrath of Mother Nature. By the time we were finally able to hail a cab, we were completely soaked by the rain. When we arrived at the bus station, we jumped out of our cab into the warm beaming sunshine as people stared at us confused as to why it looked like we just jumped in a swimming pool with our bags and all. However, boarding the bus was a sigh of relief for us. Although we had a six hour ride ahead of us, at last we felt as though we could relax. I took in the beauty of the Portuguese countryside outside of the bus window which was carpeted with cork trees. (Fun fact: Portugal produces about 50 percent of the cork that is harvested each year worldwide!) But when I saw a double rainbow in the skies above those fields, I officially had a smile on my face and was reminded of where I was. I was out living my dream of traveling the world, seeing and learning about places that I had only ever read about or seen pictures of, as well as being on my way to Espana! I looked down at my soggy outfit and laughed because all I could think about was how life couldn’t get any better than this.

Double rainbow over the cork tree fields

The double rainbow over the cork tree fields

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Where’s the Craic, Ireland?*

Even before I embarked on this SAS journey, I had a strong desire to visit Ireland. I know numerous people who have been there and have heard so many wonderful things about the country and its people that I had high expectations for this port visit.

One thing that I was especially excited for was a field program that I had signed up for our first day in Dublin, which was kayaking on River Liffey. Kayaking is one of my favorite activities to do when I’m home especially when the weather is nice, so I was beaming when the moment finally came and we put on our lifejackets before climbing into our kayaks. It was difficult paddling upstream against the current, but we took a break after we passed every few bridges to listen to our guide who told us a little about the river, the bridges, and the different buildings on the riverside. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, but the best part was flowing downstream on our return trip because I was able to better observe my surroundings and take in the beauty of the area since I didn’t have to focus on paddling as much. Before we left, our guide gave us some awesome maps that he had marked with all the best places to eat and drink in the area, which of course came in handy during our travels in Dublin.

We ate at a lot of delicious restaurants during our time there including O’Neill’s near Trinity College, the Ruby Duck for breakfast, a seafood place in Howth, and some places off of Grafton Street. But of course one cannot truly experience Ireland without spending some time enjoying a few beers in a genuine Irish pub! Therefore, we spent multiple nights out going from pub to pub in the Temple Bar area, where we met many locals who greeted us with a welcoming smile and friendly conversation. The sound of live music surrounded us as we entered each new bar and even in the streets as we passed by performers outside in the crowds of people. I heard plenty of great music every night we were there including a lot of U2, some traditional Irish songs, Wonderwall by Oasis, and a few of my favorite classic rock songs. I couldn’t help but smile and tap my feet as I sang along with the performers and other audience members in each bar. The sheer happiness of everyone present was both palpable and contagious.

But of course, as with all of the other countries we’ve visited, there was so much to see in so little time so we spent our days going from one thing to the next. In our time in Dublin, I saw the Spire of Dublin, the Molly Malone Statue, Trinity College, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, shopped Grafton Street, crossed many of the iconic bridges over River Liffey, and saw the Dublin skyline from the Skybar at the Guinness Factory.

The Spire of Dublin

The Spire of Dublin

St. Patrick's Cathedral

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Grafton Street

Grafton Street

The view of the Dublin Skyline from the Skybar at the top of the Guinness Factory

View of the Dublin Skyline from the Skybar at the top of the Guinness Factory

Although I was originally looking forward to visiting the Guinness Factory because Guinness just so happens to be one of my favorite drinks, the self-guided tour and various information sessions turned out to be much more educational and all around more fun than I had expected them to be. I drank more samples than I could keep track of throughout the day, definitely living up to my dad’s favorite phrase: “if it’s for free, it’s for me.” But I also really enjoyed walking through the process of how the drink is made, learning how to properly drink one (hold it at an equal level to your face – never look down on a Guinness! Then take a deep breath in through the nose, let it out through your mouth and swallow a swig to get the full effect of the flavors.), snacking on and learning which foods compliment the taste of the beer the best, and collecting multiple recipes to use including that for Guinness pot pie and Guinness chocolate mousse cake. However, my favorite part of our day there was learning step by step how to pour the “perfect pint.” So if any of you are in need of someone to pour you a Guinness, I’m your girl. 😉 Haha I even received a certificate to prove it! But before we left, we climbed to the top of the building and took in the beauty of the Dublin city below from the view of the Skybar and then practically bought out the entire factory store.

Guinness Factory

Inside the Guinness Factory

Lovely Day for a Guinness

I'm certified to pour a perfect pint of Guinness!

I’m certified to pour a perfect pint of Guinness!

However, one of my favorite adventures in Ireland was hiking the coastal cliffs in Howth. My friends and I took a train from the Dublin city area to Howth and spent the day in the beautiful seaside area. We triumphantly hiked the steep slopes to the top of the cliffs and enjoyed the amazing view of the town below and the blue ocean in the distance as the wind blew at us from every direction. I felt like I was on top of the world!

The beautiful scenic port of Howth, Ireland

The beautiful scenic port of Howth

The view from the top of the oceanside cliffs in Howth

The view from the top of the oceanside cliffs in Howth

A collage of my hike up the oceanside cliffs

A collage of my hike up the oceanside cliffs

Throughout our time in Dublin, I observed a few things about the local culture. For instance, we happened to be there for a match of Gaelic Football where the Dublin team played and won. The pride that the entire city had for the home team was obvious, as the streets were covered in people sporting blue shirts and various accessories. The game was playing on all of the TVs in every restaurant, pub, and store and loud cheers could be heard from the streets whenever the Dublin team was doing well. Even being an outsider, it was impossible to avoid taking part in the excitement. I also noticed a few differences in Ireland from many of the other European countries that we had already visited. For example, the Temple Bar area was the first time on this voyage that we were carded so some of us were caught off guard without our driver’s licenses on our first night out since we were so used to not having to have anything but our SAS id on us. Also, we were happy to find that there is somewhere in Europe where you don’t have to pay to use a restroom! Furthermore, I was surprised by how easily they seemed to notice that we were American even more so than other Europeans were able to. One instance when I particularly noticed this was when I was walking down a sidewalk with a small group of my friends – we weren’t even talking to one another nor were we doing anything touristy like taking pictures – but right away this Irishman looked at us and said “God Bless America!” I’m still curious about what gave us away…

In the end, the day we left Ireland was sad enough, even though I plan to return one day to see more, but now reliving our time there through writing this post has made me miss it even more. Well, until we meet again Ireland…just know that it shouldn’t be too long from now. 🙂

Enjoying the perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself :)

Enjoying the perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself

*Craic (pronounced as “crack”) is a common Irish term that refers to gossip, news, fun, entertainment and enjoyable conversation. It is often synonymous with the word “party” and generally means “to enjoy oneself” or “to have a good time” in Irish culture.

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Paris, je t’aime.

Although it was a cold and early Sunday morning when we debarked from the ship in Le Havre, France we were shocked by the complete emptiness and lifelessness of the town. It was almost eerie walking through the train station where no one was in sight and not a single store was open. However, we didn’t waste any time wandering through the silent town, as we promptly boarded the first train to Paris and began our journey.

We arrived at the train station in Paris without quite knowing where to go from there, so we asked for directions to our hotel address at the information desk and were shortly thereafter on our way again. When we reached the metro, we weren’t sure which ticket to buy on the machine so we went up to the counter to purchase them from a person. The woman working there did not speak much English and quickly grew impatient with us. She tried to tell us that she didn’t have change for our large bills but all she was doing in order to communicate that to us was shaking her head no when we tried to hand her our money. We became confused and when we finally figured out why she was refusing our money and combined our small change instead, she made hand motions as if she were sleeping and pointed at us in a mockingly way . I realized that she was probably calling us stupid for not being able to understand her, but let it go and continued through the gates to the metro tracks. I started to wonder if the language barrier or the fact that we were Americans would mean that that type of encounter was going to become a trend for us…

When we exited the metro station at our stop, we realized that the next direction was to take a tram with the ride duration of one minute, so we decided to ask someone if they could point us in the direction so that we could walk instead. The man that we asked told us it was “too complicated” to walk and recommended that we buy tram tickets and do as the directions instructed. As it turns out, the tram only took us a block away so we were bummed that we listened to the guy and spent money on unnecessary tickets, but at least we learned that we didn’t have to do it again!

After finally arriving at our hotel, we swiftly dove into our list of things to see. We planned out the best way to travel to each of the sites and quickly became accustomed to taking the metro. In that first day, we went to the Lourve where we saw the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and much more, walked to the Eiffel Tower, purchased berets and other souvenirs, and saw the Arc de Triomphe and Moulin Rouge. That evening, we walked quite a distance away from these touristy areas in order to find a less expensive French place to sit down for dinner. We managed to find a small but charming hole-in-the-wall restaurant where we were blessed to have the most amazing waiter. He went through the ENTIRE menu, the drink list and the dessert specials with us translating everything from French to English. After hearing one delicious meal description after another, we asked him what he suggested. He promptly recommended the duck and advised us on which glass of wine would go best with the dish. We immediately ordered what he suggested, which turned out to be a decision that we would not regret. It was SO scrumptious that it will probably be a dining experience that I will never forget (and coming from a girl who loves food, that surely means a lot). We finished off the meal with a crème brulee that was to die for. To say the least, that waiter received quite the tip from us that night!

The Lourve

The Lourve

Inside the Lourve

Inside the Lourve

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa

Venus de Milo

Venus de Milo

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower

Arc de Triomphe

Arc de Triomphe

Moulin Rouge

My fantastic dinner as recommended by our amazing waiter

My fantastic dinner as recommended by our amazing waiter

Crème Brulee

Crème Brulee

We woke up early the next morning to go to Notre Dame de Paris and to walk Pont de l’Archevêché (which is more commonly known as one of the padlock bridges in Paris). The four of us chipped in and bought a lock together, which we signed with a pen at the register and placed on the bridge as a representation of our lasting friendship (we know that it’s usually just lovers who put locks on the bridge and it may sound cheesy for us to do it as friends, but it only seemed right to participate in the tradition. After all, each of us are on this Semester at Sea voyage now as a result of the help and encouragement that we received from one another, so it made sense to memorialize the fact that we were there together). Then we ate a mediocre breakfast and proceeded to the local post office where we once again managed to cause a scene. We tried to ask the woman working there how to purchase stamps for our postcards but she simply motioned us to the machines that were all in French. I tried to explain to her that we could not understand the machines and asked if she could just show us how to pay for one. After much deliberation and frustration, she rushed through the steps on the machine and hurried away from us in irritation. By that point everyone in the post office was annoyed and had witnessed at least part of the fiasco, so we high-tailed it out of there as soon as we could unsure of whether or not our postcards were ever going to make it back home.

Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris

Pont de l'Archevêché where my friends and I added our padlock to the collection as a sign of our friendship

Pont de l’Archevêché where my friends and I added our padlock to the collection as a sign of our friendship

During our travels, I tasted my first macaroon and was surprised by how much I liked the pistachio flavored one (even over the chocolate and coffee flavors). We were also startled as we walked through the streets of the large city because we were repeatedly called out by street vendors who referred to us as “Lady Gaga.” To this day I’m not really sure why they called us that, but my best guess is that they were trying to make a pop culture reference to the US in the hopes that it would grab our attention. It was just strange how so many of them chose to call us Lady Gaga of all things…

My first Macaroons!

My first Macaroons!

Once we finally returned to the ship in Le Havre, I was beyond exhausted from all the walking we did and exhaled a sigh of relief when I sprawled out on my cabin bed. Looking back now Paris feels like such a blur, but it was still an awesome experience. Though we endured a few problematic situations, I can certainly say that I thoroughly enjoyed making the most out of what little time we had in France.

My visit wouldn't have been complete without a selfie with the Eiffel Tower in the background haha

My visit wouldn’t have been complete without a selfie with the Eiffel Tower in the background! haha

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If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium*

In all honesty, how could I have possibly had a bad experience in a country that is notorious for its waffles and its chocolate? Needless to say, I was beyond looking forward to indulging myself in these local delicacies. However, after spending a few days in Belgium (in both Antwerp and Brussels), I can definitely say that even though the food was a major factor, it was the places I saw and the experiences I had that placed Belgium on my list of favorites.

During our first day in Belgium, I traveled with two of my SAS friends on an hour train ride to Brussels. We spent much of our time wandering the city by foot and saw some truly beautiful buildings, monuments and parks. There was one park specifically that I loved, where we found an adorable gazebo and a gorgeous water fountain. I also found this park rather humorous because it was where EVERYONE went to run – I saw little kids, men and women my age, and some exceedingly older people running the path on the outer perimeter. It was what I would imagine a completely unorganized marathon to look like.

Brussels Town Hall

Brussels Town Hall

A Courtyard in Brussels

A courtyard in Brussels

A gazebo in the park in Brussels

A gazebo in the park in Brussels

Only a few of the many runners I saw in this pretty park in Brussels.

Only a few of the many runners I saw in this pretty park in Brussels.

We also stumbled upon a quirky street market where locals came to sell handmade goods. There were stands with jewelry, ceramic animal figurines, and customized wooden pens and pen cases (so random!). But it was also in Brussels that I began to realize just how delicious the food is in Belgium. I devoured my share of waffles (drizzled in Belgian chocolate with fruit and vanilla bean ice cream of course), Duvel, Stella Artois, and fries – which are a Belgian creation not French! After all, there’s no calorie counting when we’re in port! Haha

An authentic (and extremely delicious) Belgian Waffle

An authentic (and extremely delicious) Belgian Waffle

Duvel

The parents of one of the friends that I was traveling with actually lived in Brussels for a period of time before she was born, so while we were there, the three of us set out to visit the neighborhood in which their old house still stands. It definitely made her day to go there, but I also enjoyed seeing a section of suburban Brussels complete with small cottage-like houses.

My friends and I walking through a suburban neighborhood in Brussels.

My friends and I walking through a suburban neighborhood in Brussels.

While in the port city of Antwerp, which is where our ship docked, we journeyed through a maze of charming narrow cobblestone streets that were lined with cute little shops and cafes. We also ventured to the oldest zoo in the world and walked past shiny store fronts of many diamond merchants. Just as in Germany, the use of bicycles as a mode of transportation was prevalent. We also found out very quickly that many people in Belgium speak English, so with the lack of a difficult language barrier (such as in Russia), it was easy to communicate with locals. But one thing that we had to get used to was the widespread acceptance of smoking cigarettes in public places such as restaurants and bars. Although we had a few drizzly days in Antwerp, I was prepared with my trusty rain jacket (another thing that I’m grateful my mother insisted that I buy for the trip) so the rain didn’t affect my time there. 🙂

Belgians sure do love their bicycles

Belgians sure do love their bicycles

The rain didn't affect the beauty of my Belgian surroundings.

The rain didn’t affect the beauty of my Belgian surroundings.

On one of our nights out, we went to a nightclub named Noxx, where we had SUCH a great time. There were many SAS students there (when we come to town, we take over) but there were locals there too. They mostly played American music but much of it was older songs. We could not stop laughing when Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song sounded through the speakers because it was so strange to hear at a club, but we loved it just the same. The only thing we weren’t crazy about was that the European concept of paying to use the bathroom was even commonplace inside the club! Although Antwerp also had a red light district, it was very different from the one that we saw in Germany since it was strictly strip clubs and brothels with women posing in windows. Therefore, we did not spend any time there.

The metro systems in Belgium were also very easy to use. The Antwerp lines were based on an honor system (just as they were in Germany) but they were also only two or three cars long, which was weird for us to see when we’re so used to the long trains in the NYC Subway system. Nevertheless, we got a taste of home with the Brussels metro, where we were required to swipe our tickets through a turnstile before making our way to the trains below.

The ornate inside of the Antwerp Train Station

The ornate inside of the Antwerp Train Station

All of the experiences that I had in Belgium truly amounted to an amazing time, which is why (as I mentioned before) this country has made it to my list of favorites. 🙂

*If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium is a 1969 romantic comedy about a group of Americans that take a guided tour through Europe. We watched this film on our cabin televisions before we arrived in Belgium. The craziness that took place during the film and the main theme song left us laughing for days after viewing it and has since then became a silly memory for my friends and me from the voyage.

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Guten Tag Germany!

My travels in Deutschland definitely amounted to a pleasant and enjoyable experience on the voyage thus far. Our ship docked in the beautiful city of Hamburg where we spent much of our time, but I was also blessed to have been able to journey to the country’s capital of Berlin during our port visit.

On our first day in Hamburg, my friends and I took a city tour where we were able to see just how scenic the area is. We walked around the affluent neighborhood by Alster Lake where there were trendy lakeside houses and adorable sailboats bobbing along in the water. The picturesque landscape made me stop and think about how lucky I was to be standing there taking in all of the beauty. I couldn’t help but smile and imagine myself living there as I took pictures in the sunshine, desperately trying to capture the moment.

Welcome to Hamburg

A beautiful house near Alster Lake

A beautiful house near Alster Lake

The gorgeous Alster Lake

The gorgeous Alster Lake

We ended the tour in St. Michael’s church where we sat and listened to an organ concert. Then we signed out and decided to take on the streets of Hamburg ourselves. Without a map and relying solely on the directions of the locals that we stopped to ask, we found ourselves walking through the Reeperbahn area, home of Europe’s largest red light district. Although such places are usually known for strip clubs and brothels, this area of Germany is also where many of the best bars and nightclubs are located. We ended up spending two of our nights there enjoying the club scene and meeting locals.

St. Michael's Church

St. Michael’s Church

The organist playing in St. Michael's Church

The organist playing in St. Michael’s Church

As for Berlin, we trekked three hours on a bus to arrive at our hotel, where we stayed for one night. While there, we spent a wonderful afternoon walking along each side of one of the largest remaining sections of the Berlin Wall. In the background, live music from street performers played as we admired the graffiti and street art. It created the ideal atmosphere for viewing the striking and metaphorical murals.

The section of the Berlin Wall that we visited

The section of the Berlin Wall that we visited

Me and the Berlin Wall

One of my favorite murals on the Berlin Wall

One of my favorite murals on the Berlin Wall

Musicians at the Berlin Wall

Musicians at the Berlin Wall

We were also lucky enough to have been in Berlin at the same time as one of our SAS friend’s fathers, who was there on a business trip. He invited us to dinner at a lovely restaurant where we ate delicious traditional German food while we shared stories about our experiences on the voyage so far, our studies and majors, and our families. The next day we traveled to the main gate area of the wall (as was suggested by our friend’s father) and enjoyed the street fair that was organized as a part of the Berlin Music Festival.

The street festival at the main gate area of the Berlin Wall

The street festival at the main gate area of the Berlin Wall

However, these adventures also amounted to quite an expense. The German economy is currently thriving which is certainly great for the people who live there, but is definitely a pocket pincher for tourists/visitors. We weren’t thrilled about the required fee to use public restrooms or the extra charge for condiments in restaurants. However, we were happy to find that their metro works on an honor system, which means that you are expected to buy tickets but you are not checked for them or required to scan them for every ride. Needless to say, we took a chance and went on a few free rides.

Regardless of the prices, it was still an awesome experience and fun port visit. I ate plenty of schnitzel and drank a few German beers (which they even sell in some of their McDonald’s locations!). I also scratched my head at the length of some German words and became used to quickly jumping out of the way when I heard a high-pitched “ding, ding” of a bicycle bell behind me. I genuinely had a great time and would love to return to Deutschland in the future. 🙂

Yummy Schnitzel

Yummy Schnitzel

A German Radler (Mix of German Beer with Lemonade)

A German Radler (Mix of German Beer with Lemonade)

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From Russia with Love

I was filled with excitement for our first official port arrival in St. Petersburg mostly because I am 25% Russian and had made a goal to visit the country at some point in my life. My Russian roots come from my maternal grandfather, who unfortunately passed away before I was born. Therefore, I grew up not knowing much about Russian culture and traditions even though it is part of my heritage. It felt like the perfect place to begin the voyage: wandering around the homeland of several of my ancestors.

However, feeling a connection to this country didn’t make me feel any more prepared for the visit. I knew that there would be a language barrier since the Russian language isn’t even remotely close to English, especially since Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet. We were also heavily warned during our pre-port presentations that Russia was NOT the place to mess around and were told to be exceedingly cautious. This made us a little nervous but after we spent some time in the city, we realized that they were really just preparing us for the worst.

Cyrillic was easy when I recognized the company logo, but otherwise I was lost with the language barrier.

Cyrillic was easy when I recognized the company logo, but otherwise I was lost with the language barrier.

In the four days that we were given in St. Petersburg, we only took the metro once! We preferred the cheaper and healthier alternative of traveling by foot. Even though it took longer to walk, we were still able to visit all the places that we wanted to see including: the Hermitage, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Nevsky Prospekt, the Galleria Mall, and the Vodka Museum. However, one of my favorite experiences was an SAS field program that my friends and I attended. We spent an evening walking through the Erarta Museum after hours. Guided by flashlights and the sound of our tour guide’s voice, we walked through each floor of the museum occasionally stopping to hear interesting descriptions of and stories about the most significant modern art pieces. I was pleasantly surprised by the deeper meanings for each of the pieces and by how much I genuinely enjoyed the event. I was so happy that we decided to go with the SAS group because the museum would not have been the same if we had simply gone during their daily hours of operation.

The Hermitage from a distance

The Hermitage from a distance

St. Isaac's Cathedral

St. Isaac’s Cathedral

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

A beautiful canal that crosses Nevsky Prospekt

A beautiful canal that crosses Nevsky Prospekt

An interesting souvenir for sale at the Vodka Museum

An interesting souvenir for sale at the Vodka Museum

The Erarta Modern Art Museum after hours

The Erarta Modern Art Museum after hours

However, our travels in Russia would not have been complete if we had not observed the many cultural differences between their lifestyle and ours in the US. One example would be their overwhelming military presence. I do not think there was a single occasion when we were exploring the streets of St. Petersburg and did not see some sort of man in uniform at post on a corner, sitting in the park, or standing by a parked military vehicle. These men were rather intimidating as they watched all the groups of people walk by, so we were thankful that we did not witness them in action. Another cultural difference was in the Russian people’s behavior and dress. Most of the Russians that we saw were very well dressed. Women were quite fashionable and almost always sported a pair of high heels, while many men wore suits. It didn’t seem like a casual outfit existed in their wardrobes. However, one of the major differences in their behavior was the fact that no one smiled. My friends and I had a conversation with a local who explained to us that according to their culture, it is considered “silly” and “ridiculous” to smile as often as we do in the US. He even told us that in some cases, smiling at another person can be taken as flirtation, so we really had to watch ourselves and make sure that we weren’t giving out the wrong signal to locals.

In addition to that conversation, we conversed with a few other locals during our time in Russia. One night when ordering drinks at a bar, we were asked by two women where we were from. We were not at all expecting their reaction when we responded with “New York.” They began squealing with excitement, attracting the attention of everyone in the bar as they exclaimed “It is our DREAM to go to New York!” It was fascinating to see how highly they regarded Manhattan, which is somewhere I visit at least once a month while at school. Another conversation occurred when we met a father and his baby while we stopped for a bathroom break in McDonalds. After speaking with him for a while, the father recommended a local bar for us to go to called “The Wild Duck.” We followed his suggestion and walked to the local bar, but were not at all prepared for what we would see there. We walked in and headed towards the back of the bar to find a table where our group could all sit together. But once we turned the corner, we immediately stopped short…there was a REAL LIVE DUCK waddling towards us right there on the bar floor! It was so unexpected that we could not stop laughing about it for the rest of the night. Finally, as we were leaving The Wild Duck, we were confused when a man yelled to us “good luck” in passing. Afraid that he was trying to tell us that the streets were unsafe at night, we asked him why he was wishing us luck on our way home. He explained that that is a common phrase said in farewell and told us that the proper response would be “not at all!”

Our feathered friend from The Wild Duck

Our feathered friend from The Wild Duck

To say the least, Russia was a learning experience for us. This first port definitely set the tone for the voyage: to be open to others’ cultures and to be aware that there is always something new to discover.

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Greetings from the Atlantic!

Life at sea is honestly unlike anything I could have expected. In my first few days on the MV Explorer, I learned that there was going to be much to get used to in these next four months.

Semester at SeaBoarding the MV ExplorerThe World is Our Campus

This was my first time on a cruise ship and I must say that the excessive amount of warnings that I received this past summer about preparing for motion and sea sickness were extremely useful. I was completely shocked at how much the ship rocked when we left the port of Southampton. It became a regular occurrence in those first few days at sea that I, as well as most other students, would lose balance, lean into walls, and be completely unable to walk in a straight line. It was actually quite humorous staggering down the halls on each deck and seeing just how unsteady we all were. Although I did not get sick, the motion of the ocean did not take it easy on my stomach either. The only reason I have for avoiding such agonizing illness was the preparedness of my mother, who bought me a full supply of Dramamine and Sea Bands to wear onboard. (Thanks Mom!)

At orientation, we learned all the ins and outs of the ship and were introduced to the faculty, staff, and some crew members. Although I refer to the ship as a “floating campus” there are so many extra rules, lifestyle habits, and miscellaneous details that make life on the MV Explorer significantly unlike living on campus at Pace University. One example of this is the food and meal times. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack time are all served in a specific time slot. This is entirely different from Pace where I can get food at almost any time of the day based on when I’m hungry. On the ship, it’s best to be hungry when food is served because if you miss a mealtime then you’re either not eating or you can charge your shipboard account for whatever you select to munch on at the snack bar. To be honest, the food on the ship isn’t that great, (one can only be excited to eat a meal of salad, pasta, potatoes, and fish or mystery meat so many times) but at least that makes the ethnic food that we eat in port taste that much better!

No need to read the descriptions, we already know what's for dinner.

No need to read the descriptions, we already know what’s for dinner.

Alternatively, there are some obvious variations between campuses that make all the difference. For example, the view from any of the windows or outside decks is something that I will probably never get used to. Who else can say that they watch other ships sail by, schools of jellyfish swim through the water or the peaceful movement of the Atlantic Ocean’s waves as they sit in class? Also, there aren’t any beach chairs to study on at Pace that come complete with the sea breeze and warming sunshine.

Got Dolphins Outside Your Classroom Window?

Got dolphins outside your classroom window?

Deck 7 - A Place to Enjoy the Sun whether it be for studying, relaxing or simply for the sake of soaking up the sun.

Deck 7 – A place to enjoy the sun whether it be for studying, relaxing, or simply for the sake of soaking up the sun.

I've definitely seen some of the most gorgeous sunsets while on the MV Explorer.

I’ve definitely seen some of the most gorgeous sunsets while on the MV Explorer.

Additionally, I’m in love with all of my classes. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I’m taking Global Music, Gender and Society, International Marketing and Journalism History and Ethics. I’ve had my share of amazing, awful, unfair, and straight up boring teachers in the past, but I sincerely think that the teachers on this ship are absolutely fantastic and have an extreme passion for the subject content that they are teaching. The enthusiasm that my teachers have makes it that much easier to pay attention and be engaged in what we’re learning. I’m also thankful that I’m taking the classes that I am while traveling because they’re helping me to observe more than usual while in port. For instance, in my Gender and Society class we have to write a number of port observations where we analyze gender roles in the countries that we are visiting. This assignment requires me to pay more attention to human interaction, portrayal of men and women in the media, the values held by the people, etc. Therefore, Semester at Sea is truly bringing everything full circle for me which only makes this experience that much worthwhile.

Nevertheless, the best difference of all is that I’m not in the state of New York as I have been for every other college semester I’ve had so far. I’m STUDYING ABROAD! (I hope that you can feel as much exhilaration in that statement as I do in writing it.) Traveling is one of my passions, which is why this voyage unquestionably means the world to me. (pun intended)

Never thought I'd be sitting in the Captain's Chair

I never would have guessed that studying abroad would have given me the chance to sit in the Captain’s Chair!

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From a London Eye’s View

Our first experiences in London occurred late in the evening on August 21. It was quite a struggle for the four of us to make our way to the hotel from the airport. Each of us had two pieces of luggage and a carry on, which we loaded into a train car and then packed into a van-sized taxi. Our taxi driver was like an angel from heaven, because even though he got lost and drove around in circles for a while, he lifted all of our bags in and out of the car and charged us less than the meter stated because of his mistake.

At about 10pm, we were checked in at the hotel and no longer had to drag around our luggage, but we were inconceivably hungry for dinner. Being used to NYC (“the city that never sleeps”), where you can find places to eat at almost any hour, we expected food to be easy to find. Unfortunately, we were sadly mistaken. We walked block after block, desperately pulling on locked doors to restaurants and asking bartender after bartender if their kitchens were still open hoping that maybe we’d find SOMETHING. Two hours later, we walked by a man who had a Burger King bag in his hand. We must’ve looked like swarming vultures when we asked him where he got it from. He directed us towards the tube station and told us that there were multiple food stands inside. We RAN into the station, quickly weighed our options and then settled for burritos. Yes, we spent our first night in London dead tired, sweaty, and gross sitting on a bench in the Victoria tube station eating spicy beef, guacamole, rice and cheese in a tortilla and drinking Coke that had the main ingredient of vegetable extract. We were not at all ashamed.

However, our first full day in London was much more of a success. We left the hotel early in the morning and purchased tickets for a hop on/hop off bus tour. As touristy as it sounds, I would recommend it to anyone who is only staying in London for a short time because it was the easiest way to cover the most ground and learn the most about the city. We saw the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben, the London Bridge, the Tower Bridge, the Globe Theatre, toured the Tower of London and saw the city from a London Eye’s View. We also passed by the childhood home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the area where J. K. Rowling lives. Our tour bus ticket even included a boat cruise on the River Thames! (which was fun despite the constant on and off rain)

The London Eye A View from the London Eye Guards in the Tower of London The Tower Bridge The Globe Theatre Buckingham Palace

As for food, I repeatedly ordered fish and chips once I realized just how plain English food is. I was not a fan of their ham bacon or their popular side dish of mushy peas (eww). Overall, we were surprised to find that just like our first night in London, it wasn’t very easy to find food! Many restaurants stop serving dinner around 7pm and even after all of our exploring, we only walked by a grand total of TWO grocery stores. The portion sizes were also noticeably smaller than they are in the US – no wonder why our country has such major problems with obesity, diabetes and other dietary related health issues. Maybe we should make food less available like the Brits…

Other cultural and lifestyle differences that we noticed included how often Brits love to tell jokes regardless of whether or not you think they’re funny. They also continuously speak in a sarcastic tone…“was that a joke or was he being serious for once?” Additionally, even though we weren’t driving, it was still strange to see how different the roads were since they drive on the opposite side than we do in the US. We definitely witnessed some serious road rage too. Another thing that I had never seen before was that some public restrooms required payment before being allowed to enter and use the facility.

With all these differences, there were many similarities too. For instance, since there was no language barrier it was simple for us to communicate and travel around the city. Also, for the most part the tube system was almost exactly like the subways in the city or the Metro North. However, the interior of the trains in London were BEAUTIFUL when compared to those in New York.

Overall, though our time in London was short, it was still an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

An Iconic London Telephone Booth

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Semester at Sea: 115 Days, 17 Cities, 15 Countries

While searching for colleges during my high school years, one of my main questions during campus visits was, “What options do you offer for studying abroad?” At most schools I received a satisfying answer complete with examples of numerous students who studied in any given country where they emerged themselves in the culture while taking fascinating classes. Filled with excitement at their traveling accomplishments, I always wondered where I would decide to study abroad once it was my time. However, I was under the impression that I had to choose ONE country. That was before I knew that Semester at Sea existed.    

Once my friends and I learned more about the SAS Program, we were sold. It didn’t take long for us to finish our applications and eventually receive our letters of acceptance. From that point on, we’ve been preparing for TOMORROW: the day we board the MV Explorer. We can assure you that it wasn’t an easy process (applying for visas, getting vaccines, filling out forms, paying for expenses, exchanging currency, and packing up our lives into two suitcases to use for the next four months). But, we’re convinced that this program will be worth all the stress, planning, money, and anticipation.

Why do we think that? One major reason is the list of countries to which we’ll be traveling:

  • ¨       Southampton (London), England
  • ¨       St. Petersburg, Russia
  • ¨       Hamburg, Germany
  • ¨       Antwerp, Belgium
  • ¨       Le Havre, France
  • ¨       Dublin, Ireland
  • ¨       Libson, Portugal
  • ¨       Cadiz, Spain
  • ¨       Casablanca, Morocco
  • ¨       Takoradi, Ghana
  • ¨       Tema (Accra), Ghana
  • ¨       Cape Town, South Africa
  • ¨       Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • ¨       Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • ¨       Salvador, Brazil
  • ¨       Havana, Cuba
  • ¨       Fort Lauderdale, Florida USA

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We couldn’t have asked for a better itinerary for the Fall 2013: Atlantic Exploration (50th Anniversary Voyage!). This journey covers more ground than I ever thought was possible to do in a semester, yet from August 24 to December 16, 2013, we’ll be seeing places I’ve only ever visited in my dreams.

Tomorrow, my dream ends and reality begins. My friends and I will board our “floating campus” and start a voyage of a lifetime. The MV Explorer, or our “floating campus,” includes the basics that any college campus on land has: classrooms, a cafeteria, a library, a gym, a bookstore, and much more. However, our schedule will be exceedingly different from the usual five classes taken during a 5-day weekly schedule at most college campuses. On the ship, all SAS students are required to take four classes that alternate on a 2-day schedule for every day at sea (except for the occasional study day).  Once the ship reaches a port, all students have free time to explore or participate in field programs and to have fun in a new location.

The four classes that I will be taking are: Journalism History and Ethics (for my minor), Global Music, Gender and Society, and International Marketing (for my major). Each of these courses’ materials relates to the port cities and/or countries on our itinerary and includes one field lab in one of the aforementioned stops.

It’s these details and many more that have amounted to the pure excitement that my friends and I, as well as a few other hundred students, have been looking forward to for quite some time. I’m sure I’m speaking for most people when I say I’m ecstatic, nervous, mostly prepared but at the same time not at all sure what to expect. Tomorrow, all that will change as my friends and I will finally begin this globetrotting adventure. Wish us luck! 🙂

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