Monday, November 30, 2009

"The Taj Mahal: a testament to love'

As explained to us by our guide Mr. Singh.  A Mahal is a palace, throughout India there are many Mahal’s the crown jewel of which is the Taj Mahal.  I am sure you are aware of the story of the Taj Mahal.  It is the gorgeous palace built by “Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.  In 1631, Shah Jahan, emperor during the Mughal empire's period of greatest prosperity, was grief-stricken when his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their fourteenth child, Gauhara Begum. Construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1632, one year after her death.  Despite her frequent pregnancies, Mumtaz traveled with Shah Jahan's entourage throughout his earlier military campaigns and the subsequent rebellion against his father. She was his constant companion and trusted confidant and their relationship was intense. Indeed, the court historians go to unheard lengths to document the intimate and erotic relationship the couple enjoyed. In their nineteen years of marriage, they had thirteen children together, seven of whom died at birth or at a very young age.
Mumtaz died in Burhanpur in 1631 AD (1040 AH), while giving birth to their fourteenth child. She had been accompanying her husband whilst he was fighting a campaign in the Deccan Plateau. Her body was temporarily buried at Burhanpur in a walled pleasure garden known as Zainabad originally constructed by Shah Jahan's uncle Daniyal on the bank of the Tapti River.  Today, the Taj Mahal stands as the ultimate monument to love and homage to her beauty and life”. (Wikipedia, 2009)
Or to put it in more crass terms, as one of the t shirts (that I should have bought) advertised "it’s the greatest hard on a man has ever had for a woman."  But honestly it is a standing monument of beauty that is immense and not only beautiful, it is breath taking.

On October 24, 2009 we arrived in Agra and checked into a hotel 10 minutes from the Taj Mahal, in the morning we would take off before dawn to see the sun rise there and return in the late afternoon to see the sun set.  I was so excited.   I hardly slept or so I thought, when my alarm went off at 4am, I quickly prepared and dressed for the day.  My colleague PL called me to confirm I was awake and we agreed to meet on the bus.  As I left my room I hoped onto the elevator and there was a couple already on there, they looked a little distressed but I didn’t think anything of it.  I saw that the Lobby button had been pressed and watched the doors close.  For the next few minutes I came to learn firsthand why the couple had looked distressed.  We rode the elevator for the next 10 or so minutes stopping on other floors (none of which we pressed, or that there were people waiting for an elevator).  I started to get anxious.  I was going to miss my bus.  I was sweating and close to tears when finally we arrived to the lobby and I ran out of the elevator into the lobby and ran into the parking area to see the last of our tour busses pulling away.  I chased it down only to realize another bus was waiting just outside the hotel gates.  Knowing it was not my bus but one of the busses from our tour, I hoped on an apologized to the SASers on their bus.  They understood told me to take my seat and off we were to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise.

We arrived just outside the gates and were told we would have to walk a few minutes to then wait in line outside the gates.  As I walked to the gates in the dark with members of our ship community I thought wow I can’t believe I almost missed this.  I arrived to the gate to see my bus mates waiting for me, PL seemed relieved, when I told him about my elevator ride he sort of laughed.  We waited and watched as dawn came and started to lighten the sky then we were let in.  After a quick search of our bags and a brief frisking we were on the grounds of the Taj Mahal.  We walked towards and arch way and could see its grandeur almost busting through the arch way.  

As we came through the archway the Taj seemed larger than life.  The sun rising to its east reflecting its rays made the dome seem pink.  It truly was a wonder to see.  I cannot do it justice, as a matter of fact, any picture that I have seen or taken of it cannot do it service.  It is much more magnificent and beautiful than any captured picture of it can portray.

We walked around the Taj, impressed by it architectural beauty, its aesthetic brilliance, and dedication of one person to another.  Everything about the Taj was magnificent.

We returned to the Taj, in the late afternoon to witness the evening sun setting around it. The number of visitors seemed to have increased by the thousands, in the early morning it seemed like we had it all to ourselves in comparison to the hordes of people now present.  Nonetheless we still appreciated its beauty and splendor.  This time we were with thousands of other visitors and a gang of monkeys as well.  

To think, I almost missed this due to riding the elevator.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


October 23, we arrived in Chennai, India.  As usual a group of us waking up to see the sunrise over our newest port.  This sunrise in particular was special.  One of our colleagues would be leaving us in India and returning to the US after visiting her family.  Our sunrise was bitter sweet.

Upon our arrival while still in the waterway before 6am we could hear the traffic.  Horns blowing and just vehicle noise.  This should have prepared us to the congestion and amount of people we would encounter in India, the vehicles, rickshaw, farm animals and pedestrians all part of the traffic pattern.  We were also greeted in the harbor by these large lavender and crimson colored jelly fish.

 I had somewhat anticipated India to be filthy and smell horribly bad, worse than Morocco even, but that in fact is not the India I experienced at all (not to say it does not exist). 

Our first day in port a group of 6 of my colleagues and I wandered into Chennai we took a taxi to the port entrance past an inspection point (which is a story and blog which may cause some ethical concerns and international incidents, therefore I have decided that in order to protect the not so innocent I will blog about it when the voyage is over) to The Sheraton Chennai; an oasis among the busy dusty street in Chennai.  a guard and gate informed us that not even the parking area was open to all.  We walked into the hotel itself and was stunned by its beauty.  We decided that instead of just asking for directions, we would have our lunch at a restaurant in the hotel, we then had a fabulous lunch of local authentic Indian food, which the waiter ordered for us.  He would ask us if we liked, lamb, or chicken, or this or that and we would nod our head in approval.  Now anyone that knows me knows that I don’t like hot spicy food, but even I gave this a go.  It was all amazing, the smells, the taste, the atmosphere.  We ended our lunch with a dessert and coffee, which I watched the chef concoct for me.

After lunch we ventured into the streets in search for this “saree mart” for a low cost on those beautiful outfits the Indian women wear.  We walked and walked and walked the streets of Chennai for like an hour.  It was hot, the sidewalks mostly unfriendly (constantly in disrepair), we could see why people walked in the street and were part of the traffic pattern.

We finally arrived to the store we were looking for and made our purchases and opted to walk around to visit and experience the street vendors.  Our group of 6 breaking up into pairs as some opted to return to the ship while others opted to continue shopping. After a long day of walking and shopping ED and I decided to take a rickshaw back to the ship, well we were in for quite an adventure as the rickshaw (a motorbike with a covered seat in the back) bobbed and weaved in and out of traffic, cutting off cars, barely stopping at traffic lights, dodging cows and people.

By the time we arrived to the port gate we were happy to be getting out of the rickshaw.    What a first day experience in Chennai.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Falling on my ASSets

Having for the past 4 years been the primary person responsible for overseeing the University of RI Challenge Course and a challenge course facilitator trainer I thought it would be a good experience to go to an adventure park while in Mauritius.  My adventure began as we boarded our tour buses and traveled about an hour into the mountains of Mauritius.  We were able to see some beautiful landscapes along the way and finally arriving in the Chamarel region realized that we were nestled in the side of a mountain with a breath taking view of part of Mauritius: as was the adventure course.   The description on the Adventure Park Chamarel website is as follows:

Discover new outdoor activities in the heart of a unique 12 hectare tropical forest, in Mauritius, with Parc Aventure Chamarel.
Regardless of athletic ability, the young and not so young can roam from trees to trees, and path to path, attached to a lifeline (safety equipment). In order to fully enjoy the site’s fabulous views, kiosks have been placed overlooking the Chamarel valley.
A lot of fun of these outdoor activities resides in their ability to give you a fright, without ever putting you in danger.
...Parc Aventure Chamarel…Adventure at your fingertips…”

I was excited to participate but immediately knew I was in for a challenged, having learned a while ago how to read between the lines I knew this was going to be challenging: anytime you read “Regardless of athletic ability” you should question that in part because it is very difficult to build something that will challenge your experienced and athletic participants and not be too much for your first timers.  Also, “attached to a lifeline (safety equipment)” should be a warning to you that there is some risk whenever you have to don a harness with carabineer, which at times may be the only thing preventing you from falling on the ground, which I learned first-hand.  And lastly, “their ability to give you a fright, without ever putting you in danger”, this line alone makes me raise my eyebrow and should have been a huge red flag.  But I digress; let me continue to what happened when I visited the adventure park.

As we arrived we were fitted with the ever so attractive harness and ropes with attached carabineers.  We were then led down to our first bridge, which seemed safe enough, we were instructed how to attach our carabineer’s to the support cable and then safely cross the ladder bridge which was only about 3 feet off the ground, the rungs or steps on this ladder bridge were about 1 foot apart from each other which added a challenge but it was ok.  I watched as mostly all of the students some faculty and an elderly life-long learner went across the bridge with minimal effort. 

The next bridge crossed part of a ravine which at its deepest had about a 10 foot drop, and increasingly the challenges became a little harder, the steps a little more far apart from one another and the heights increasingly higher, until we came upon a bridge with nothing to support your hands, it was a straight bridge with steps about one foot from each other and at times 2 immediately next to one another but nothing for you to grab.  It was quite challenging, it was then followed by a steep hike and then another bridge with nothing more than a couple of ropes hanging from the support cable and each step about 3-4 feet apart from one another. 

I thought I was going to die from an increase in blood pressure, the drop below the bridge was only about 4 feet, but as anyone who has done these type of challenges before can tell you when you are 5 foot 5  a four foot drop looks like a nine foot drop.  Anyway I pressed on to meet my next challenge which I thought I was ready for. 

This next rope cave as I like to call it would be my undoing I approached it as all things looking at it strategically and deciding where to place my hands and feet.  Let me describe this to you, completely made of rope tied into squares it came up my right side, across over my head and down my left.  It was probably a distance of 10 or so feet.  The objective: start at point A and get to the end.  Well I placed my hands grabbing the rope and then gently placed my right foot and then my left, immediately before I got my left foot off the safety platform I felt myself go into what I describe as a Russian split(each of my legs in opposite direction) and then I lost my hand grip and immediately fell to the ground only scraping each side of my body as I fell.  I landed with both arms through the 2nd to the last rung on the rope and my right foot on the ground, left foot still in the rope rung.  I was hurt but more embarrassed than anything else.  I immediately jumped up onto my feet assessed the bruises and applied hand sanitizer to the one on my hand and realized the ones on my arms were more rope burn than bruises.  I kept going and finished the course with the zip line and felt I had accomplished something. 

Overall it was a great experience.  I enjoyed the bridges and the hikes, but mostly the amazing views.  It was only the next day that I realized how bad I had been bruised.  My arms looked bad.  The bruises are gone now but the experience of the day is forever embedded in my memory and helps me to laugh at myself and not take myself too seriously.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mauritius: I didnt know you before but I know you now

Before embarking on this voyage around the world I had no idea where Mauritius was or what to think about it.  I honestly didn’t even look it up.  The only thing I knew for sure was that it was off the coast of Madagascar. 
“Mauritius, officially the Republic of Mauritius, French: République de Maurice is an island nation off the coast of the African continent in the southwest Indian Ocean, about 900 kilometres (560 mi) east of Madagascar.  The island of Mauritius is renowned for having been the only known home of the dodo. First sighted by Europeans around 1600 on Mauritius, the dodo became extinct less than eighty years later.”  (Wikipedia, 2009).
During my visit to Mauritius one of the guides on a trip I was on said, “Mauritius is about as big as the state of Rhode Island with about 1.3 million people” I was delighted that she even knew about RI, later when I told her I was from RI and asked her about it she just stated, “Oh I just know it’s the smallest state in the US."  Thank you for deflating my balloon.  Anyway here is the recount of my Mauritius adventures.

Blue Safari

From the ship I took a guided tour bus to Peyrebere Beach where the group listened to a conservationist group talk about the efforts that Mauritius is trying to make in the past 4 years to conserve their coast line and beach areas.  The government and these conservationists are not on the same page with their efforts and much of the problem comes from unregulated tourism (scuba diving, snorkeling, and other water sports) and the construction of resorts and hotels right on the coast line.  

After our educational piece we were shuttled to where we would board a small boat out to the ship where we would board the 10 person submarine.  Our trip to the ship was about ten minutes long; while we were en route to the ship the captain slowed down to allow a school of about 20 dolphins to pass by.  I finally got to see my dolphin in the water.  

Once we arrived to the ship  we were instructed how to board the submarine,  aboard the submarine we were informed on some of the things we would see, more importantly how we should make the submarine surface in the event that our pilot passed out or become distressed.  I paid close attention to those instructions.
While in the submarine we dove 30 meters to an amazing coral reef where we saw some interesting tropical fish, an old anchor completely covered in coral, a sea anemone with clown fish (of course) and a small octopus (by small I mean his head was as big as my head and tentacles were as long as my arm).  

We were also taken to see a ship that was submerged in order to grow a coral reef and were able to see all the great under water life that is now dependant on its existence there. 
About an hour after we had gone down below we surfaced and I suddenly had a major headache.  But it was well worth the experience.

Sunset at Flic en Flac

Upon my return from the Blue Safari, I asked one of the tour agents where is the best beach to see the sun set.  She informed me “Flic en Flac Beach” and then directed me on how I should get there.  I took a city bus (an adventure in and of itself) for a 45 minute ride to Flic en Flac.  I sat quietly and watched the people board and disembark the bus at times without the bus even stopping.  

Flic en Flac is a beautiful white sand beach with coral and sea shells strewn about on the shore.  I ate dinner sea side, ordered form one to the vendor trucks; it wasn’t a fancy meal but it did allow me to sample some authentic Mauritian seasonings.  After I ate I walked along the beach for about 15 minutes before “the show” started.  The sun made its appearance. It was a very overcast evening, but the sun did appear to answer its curtain call in an equally magnificent manner as if there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  The pictures do not do it justice

After the sun set I was prepared to hail a cab and pay $35 US dollars to get back to port.  But as I approached the street the bus appeared and though we had been warned not to take public transit in the evening.  I threw caution to the wind and hoped for the best; after all it can’t be as bad as riding a NY City subway after midnight.  I arrived safely to the port having enjoyed my full day of safari and sunset.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On Safari in South Africa

There are 3 things I have been looking forward to on this voyage around the world.  Visiting the Great Wall of China, visiting the Taj Mahal in India, and going on Safari in South Africa.  October 6, 2009 was the day that the first of these three adventures would begin.

That morning I woke early to get on a bus that would take 30 or so of the Semester at Sea community to the airport where we would fly to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport, we arrived safely to the Mpumalanga area and were immediately whisked away to our resort; Sabi River Sun.  We arrived to our tropical oasis and quickly checked in to the hotel and freshened up and were quickly shuttled to Kruger Park for our first safari run.  We broke up into groups of 9 per safari vehicle, HM one of my colleagues and I were in the same safari group.   I selected the vehicle who’s guide had only one leg, yes one leg.  I figured if he is working in this field with only one leg he has to be good.  Anyway, we got into our jeep and rode in to the park, we first had to register our group, as our guide took care of the registration I looked on this board outside the registration office.  Pictured on this board was where the Big 5 and a few other popular animals had been spotted on that day and the day before.  I thought wow, this is cool, we just may get to see the Big 5 today.

What are the Big 5?  They are the Lion, Leopard, Cape Buffalo, Elephant, and White Rhino.  You may think well you are going into this park where they live, so you are bound to see them all.  Well that’s like saying you are bound to see a shark in the ocean.  I can assure you I lived in RI 35 years of my life, and have swam in the Atlantic Ocean at least once each summer, add to that I have been on a ship since Aug 24 (70+ days at sea to date) and I have yet to see a shark.  There are no guarantees.

Well I tried not to enter with any expectations so as not to be disappointed.  The first animals that we saw were some buck, and then Zebra, then Kudu (the Kruger park mascot) and then the most dangerous animal in the park, Hippos (not the answer you were expecting) come to find out hippopotamus are the most dangerous animals in the park; due in part to their territorial nature, sharp teeth and immense size, as well as them not seaming as being a threat. The entire safari experience was wonderful.  I won’t bore you with the day to day details, after all I was on a three day safari.  But I will tell you about the few highlights of my experience.

The Leopard
We were on the road on our way from watching the hyena in the watering hole when we came upon some traffic in the road, and cars vying for a better view.  When all of a sudden I stood up and saw what they were looking at.  It was a beautiful leopard laying low from the afternoon heat.  Eyes looking like yellow jade.  just laying there in a ravine, cool as a cucumber.

The Lioness and her boys.
On day two (the only full day of safari) our guide was informed that there was a lioness with 2 adolescent males near a watering hole, so off we went on a drive for several miles to view this .  When we arrived our guide had to maneuver the vehicle to find us a good viewing spot.  Then there they were, three lions, a female and two adolescent males lazily laying around the concrete container of water which fed the “natural” watering hole.  Just a few feet from them was some Antelope like animal, alert that the lions were in the vicinity.  It was so surreal.  We watched for about a ½ hour then moved on. We moved on about our day to see Giraffe, a hyena keeping cool in the midday sun, Elephants, warthogs, and crocodiles.  We were en route to another spot to see Elephants crossing a road when all of a sudden our guide spotted something, he turned into a little shady spot and there they were, perhaps the same three lions from earlier today.  A lioness and two adolescent males just strolling through, the guide stopped the vehicle and turned off the engine as these amazing creatures walked by us.  At one point the lioness was about 10 feet from our vehicle and she just sat down and yawned (as if posing for pictures) it was incredible.  We watched for a few minutes more when they just gathered together and crossed the road into some dense bush.  We were squealing with delight.  Though we had seen the Cape Buffalo and Elephants, this is what we really came to see, and we got to see them up close.  It was great. 

Elephants Crossing
About an hour later I saw a sight that was the highlight of my day, a pack of about 20 elephants walking through the dense brush and then they decided to cross the street in front of us.  They were enormous.  Then we noticed what seemed to be baby elephants, and again were delighted.  Seeing baby animals was a whole other feat.  Towards the end of the elephant parade, we watched and noticed there was a momma elephant with the smallest baby any of us had seen.  The guide said it was probably only a few weeks old, it stood only about 3 feet high, it seemed so tiny in comparison to the rest of the herd, as it ran almost underneath its mother.  It was truly a delight to see

Hyena Feeding
That evening we participated in an evening safari.  Most students were looking forward to seeing a kill, I personally thought they were aiming too high.  We saw a quick peek of hippos walking through the dense brush and some other animals (night animals) we had not seen before, and of course some Kudu, but the highlight of the evening was as our night safari was coming to a close, we were in the homestretch about 200 yards from the border of the park when our guide pulled over to the side of the road and flashed the spot light on two mother hyena’s with cubs attached to their teets.   It was the most tender thing I had seen in a long time.

Rhino’s and lions
On the last day of safari we were after two things seeing a male lion and the white rhino.  We had yet to see a white rhino up close.  So as the day was winding down our guide got news that an even rarer sight was to be seen, he took us to the top of a hill got out of the car and went around a bend in search of a rhino, he came back with nothing.  Then as we were traveling down the hill, there we saw about 250 yards down on the savannah a black rhino.  It was great.  We watched and watched as it moved from one tree to another just pulling at the leaves and cracking the branches as if they were twigs.  We then went on a quick drive as he got news of a pride of lions on a rock, we arrived and saw a scrawny pride; a male with a mane and three female lions just lazily laying atop of a rock, they barely moved when our vehicle approached.  From there we went on to leave the park and came across the White rhino about 20 feet from our vehicle.  

My safari experience had been full.  It was just great.