Tag Archives: Semester at Sea

SEMESTER AT SEA Study Abroad: Ship Life

SEMESTER AT SEA SERIES

If you’ve never lived on a ship for nearly four months, you would think I’m crazy when I say I prefer “ship life” to “land life”, but it’s true.

They can’t keep me away. After sailing as a student on the Spring 2011 study abroad academic voyage, I then sailed again on the May 2013 Enrichment Voyage around Northern Europe last year!

I am a Semester at Sea fanatic and my hope is that by sharing my knowledge and experience with SAS, I can convince some of you to sail around the world too.

Ocean view from the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via ZaagiTravel.com

A big part of the Semester at Sea experience is SHIP LIFE.

The MV Explorer, the current ship in use by the study abroad program known as Semester at Sea, has been transporting students around the world since 2004. The current ship is the fifth floating university since the program first began 50 years ago in 1963.

MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via ZaagiTravel.com

While the ship is not the most massive cruise ship you’ll ever come across, it is a perfect size for international travel. For example, we were the largest ship ever able to enter the Amazon River, a milestone that occurred for the first time during my Spring 2011 voyage.

The ship is made up of six accessible decks (Deck 2 – Deck 7) with the bottom three decks being strictly residential.

A Deck 2 Outside Cabin on the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via ZaagiTravel.com

View from a Deck 2 Porthole on the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via ZaagiTravel.com

Here is a brief description of Decks 5-7.

Deck 5: Dining room (a large buffet dining setting with inside seating only); Tymitz Square (a good meeting area that is equivalent to a student center — with an activities desk and Purser’s desk); Staff offices (like the Executive and Academic Deans).

Deck 6: Garden Lounge (a casual buffet dining setting with inside and outside seating); Two campus stores (one with SAS-themed attire and the other with school supplies and hygiene products); Library; Computer lounge; Piano lounge (a hang-out spot for students); the Union (a large lecture hall); and a dozen or so classrooms.

Deck 7: Pool and recreation deck; outside fitness center with free weight machines; inside fitness center with treadmills, bikes, and ellipticals; wellness center that offers (for a fee) hair & nail services, massages, waxing, a sauna, and more; Glazer lounge (the faculty lounge off-limits to students during academic voyages).

MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via ZaagiTravel.com

The ship itself is impeccably clean both inside and out. It is taken care of by the incredible crew, which is managed by V.Ships, the largest supplier of ship management in the world.

I truly have nothing but praise for the endless hard work that is showcased by the MV Explorer’s crew, who are usually seen with a big genuine smile. Shout-out to my favorites — the Jamaicans, Peter and Jerry!

My favorite crew member, Jamaican Peter, on the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via ZaagiTravel.com

Extracurricular Activities include…

– Intramural sports (like basketball and volleyball)

– Group exercise (like yoga, zumba, P90x, and more)

– Musical groups, dance groups, theater groups

– Spiritual and religious services

– Model UN

– Greek clubs (fraternities and sororities)

– LGBTQA club

– and a LOT more…

Basically if you have a skill or interest you would like to share with others, you can create a club or meeting. For example, Cherie King of the Travel Bee, was a deaf student from Idaho during my voyage and she taught American Sign Language to students interested in learning.

Students onboard the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from the Spring 2011 Semester at Sea Study Abroad via ZaagiTravel.com

There are always many things going on around the ship. Daily announcements are made by…

“The Voice”: a selected staff-member that reminds the shipboard community of activities and usually with a corny joke thrown in there for good measure. I can’t believe I actually miss being woken up by the ding-ding-ding-ding each morning.

Preport: A meeting held in the Union (and also broadcasted on the TVs in each cabin and some public areas like the Piano Lounge) that covers useful information for each port the evening before arrival. An example of what pre-port covers would include: helpful phrases in the local language, currency exchange, location of highlights to see and explore, cultural norms, history as well as recent news in the country, etc.

A world map from the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via ZaagiTravel.com

Sea Olympics: This fun day takes place during a day-off from classes usually taking place around the time the ship crosses the equator. The residential areas of the ship are split into seas — Aegean Sea (the best), Mediterranean Sea, Baltic Sea, Red Sea, and so on.

The Aegean Sea at the Spring 2011 Sea Olympics of Semester at Sea via ZaagiTravel.com

A committee, which you can join early on in the semester, organizes the variety of competitions to be held throughout the day. Some students even choose to shave their heads in celebration of crossing the equator, a tradition established by the Navy.

I participated in the Synchronized Swimming event and had a total blast making a fool of myself with 5 of my friends as we choreographed a dance to 90s hits like Britney and N’Sync. Our 6am practice for over a week paid off and we came in 2nd place.

SAS Sea Olympics onboard the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via ZaagiTravel.com

Extended Families: Nearly the entire ship community signs up to be placed into dozens of “families”. The groups organize events like family dinners, in-port activities, after-port reflection and discussion, etc.

Part of Bonnie Fletcher's Extended Family on the Spring 2011 Semester at Sea voyage in Stellenbosch, South Africa via ZaagiTravel.com

I have remained close with my “SAS-mom”, Bonnie. We have gone to see the Backstreet Boys in concert, to Disneyland, to Semester at Sea events toether and more. The Extended Families program introduces you to new shipmates you may have never met otherwise and I definitely appreciate the relationships I formed through participating.

Education: Oh yeah, that thing we all came here for. The academic opportunities offered by Semester at Sea are incomparable. Being that SAS is sponsored by the University of Virginia, the academic aspect is top-knotch.

Classroom on the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via ZaagiTravel.com

Classes are intimate, with most containing less than 40 students. Class is only held when the ship is at-sea, never when the ship is in-port. Time in each country is reserved for field-practicum, Semester at Sea trips, and independent travel. You literally never stop learning from the moment you step on the ship.

Highlights of my academic journey…

I experienced an overnight with a South African family in their township home.

I learned about the history of China while standing ON the Great Wall.

Alexa Rae Johnson on the Great Wall of China during the Spring 2011 Semester at Sea voyage via ZaagiTravel.com

One afternoon I stared up in disbelief at the Taj Mahal. The next morning I watched the sun rise from a boat on the Ganges in Varanasi, where I observed Hindu pilgrims bathe themselves in their holy water.

A boy rowing on the River Ganges in Varanasi, India taken during Spring 2011 Semester at Sea voyage by Alexa Rae Johnson via ZaagiTravel.com

I waved back and forth with tribal locals on the Amazon, rowing in their canoe-like boats while trying to keep up with the speed of the MV.

I held the hands of Ghanian orphans while we taught each other games and songs.

I learned how to barter at Cambodian and Vietnamese markets.

You simply cannot beat the education you will receive on Semester at Sea. It provides knowledge that is just not accessible through a textbook or hour-long PowerPoint in a classroom at your home campus.

 

Lastly, you need to know the official RULES to being a member of the shipboard community:

1) It’s a VOYAGE, not a cruise.

2) It’s a SHIP, not a boat.

 

If you’re a Semester at Sea alumni, what was YOUR favorite thing about ship life?

And if you’re a prospective student and have any questions about ship life, feel free to ask them below!

Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Ghana, I’m Yours (Part Two)

In the spring of 2013 I attended a meeting for my mom’s knitting and crocheting club, the “Knit Wits”. They had taught me to knit and crochet many years before and some of them I’d known for my entire remembered life.

The group of about ten women meet on Fridays and are often working on various service projects; their most recent project had been making hats and scarves for the homeless.

The Idea

As a Semester at Sea alumna I frequently spend my free time recruiting students for the without-a-doubt-best-study-abroad-program-in-the-world. When I learned that my friend Christina would officially be taking part in the Spring 2014 Semester at Sea voyage I began considering what I could send with her to take to the orphanage I support in Ghana.

It would be a win-win for all involved if we could work something out. Christina would experience a well-run orphanage environment while in Ghana, the children would get visitors (something they thoroughly enjoy), and I would get to give something back to the children that taught me what joy really is.

The Proposal

Well, in short, I came to the Knit Wits meeting and kind of just threw the idea out there. Not really expecting them to agree to crochet 50-something blankets in less than a year, it was pure awesome when they announced they would do it!

The Project

Blanket crocheted for the Egyam orphanage in Ghana, West Africa by the American Knit Wits Group via ZaagiTravel.comAnd so it began. We all crocheted our hearts out.

Blanket crocheted for the Egyam orphanage in Ghana, West Africa by the American Knit Wits Group via ZaagiTravel.comMonths and months of work went by. I emailed back and forth with Daniel, manager of the Egyam orphanage, and he sent me the boy/girl ratio. We ended up making a few extras which can be used for incoming children whenever they arrive.

By late December the blankets were finished.

Blankets for the Egyam Orphanage in Ghana, West Africa being delivered by Spring 2014 Semester at Sea Voyage via ZaagiTravel.com

The Ship

Getting the blankets physically onto the ship was it’s own adventure.

During the weeks leading up to when the MV Explorer would be in the San Diego harbor I spoke with numerous Semester at Sea employees about the best way to get the blankets on board. All told me that it would be best if the two students (at this point I had now adopted another friend, Taylor, into my orphanage-visit team) could transport the boxes with them the day they boarded the floating university, officially and affectionately referred to as the MV Explorer.

I knew that Taylor and Christina would have their hands full with their own luggage and be busy trying to navigate the hectic and intensive first day — including crossing the Mexican border by shuttle and going through security in Ensenada. It didn’t seem like the best way to me.

January 9, 2014

The day before embarkation came and my plans were still not anywhere near final or concrete. Weeks previously I had bought a ticket to the TEDx talk that Semester at Sea was hosting on board the ship. After loading up my car with the two boxes and a dolly, I decided I would just drive up to the port and hope for the best.

As I began the two-hour drive from my hometown down to San Diego I prayed and prayed that things would go smoothly.

The MV Explorer before the Spring 2014 Semester at Sea Voyage via ZaagiTravel.com

In short, this is how things played out:

I parked.

Two nearby construction workers helped me get the boxes from my car onto the dolly.

I walked the 50 or so feet from my car to the TEDx check-in table.

Without even saying anything, the Semester at Sea employees I had previously spoken with told me to wait a moment while they checked if I could get approval to load the boxes aboard the ship.

A few minutes later they returned to give me approval. WHAT?! YES!

I got my badge and started the trek from the port entrance to security, where Port of San Diego workers cut open the well-taped boxes, unloaded the vacuum-sealed bags and put each bag through the metal detector.

Boxes of blankets for the Egyam orphanage in Ghana, West Africa being delivered by the Spring 2014 Semester at Sea Voyage via ZaagiTravel.com

While going through security I met a couple attending the TEDx talk. They were each alumni of the program, although from different semesters, and had met at a reunion event. Decades later and they were excited to see the newest SAS ship. As we began talking the husband of the duo offered to pull the dolly through the ship and into the storage room. I thanked him and offered to give them a tour of the MV Explorer in return — something I do annually for the Open Ship events, including one I had volunteered for during the week prior.

We easily put the boxes into place and off we went exploring the ship.

Then, during a break in the TEDx talks I went into Tymitz Square (a central location/entryway) where different companies and sponsors were tabling. I spoke with the founders of Global Grins who, without a second of hesitation, passed me four or five handfuls of toothbrushes to stuff into the boxes that would be given to the children at Egyam! Seriously?! Is this real life?!

I then spoke with a representative from TOMS shoes, a well-known retail company whose business concept is to donate shoes for those in need, equal to however many shoes they sell. We discussed the possibility of donating shoes to Egyam (shoes are actually what the orphanage needs the very most) during the Fall 2014 semester. This potential offer is something I’m now currently in the process of securing.

I couldn’t believe the way this entire day played out. But it kept on getting better and better.

Once back in the storage room I started counting the toothbrushes to see how many there would be. Even if there weren’t enough for every child some would be better than none.

Toothbrushes from Global Grins for the Egyam Orphanage in Ghana, West Africa being delivered by Spring 2014 Semester at Sea Voyage via ZaagiTravel.com

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15…

16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30…

31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45…

“Uh oh. Looks like it’s just a few short. Darn”, I said out loud to myself.

46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51……….

The exact amount of children at the Egyam orphanage.

In that moment I felt like I had been personally hugged by God, met fate or destiny, all the stars aligned and apparently, the universe was feeling particularly generous. I’m not too sure how I came to be so blessed. All I know is that this project is nearing full completion and I am so unbelievably grateful for every person that helped make this idea a reality. Beginning with yarn and ending with a box of blankets traveling across the world to 51 beautiful souls.

A years worth of a labor of love. Securely in place. On it’s way to Ghana as we speak. Today, February 9, 2014, the ship is arriving in Hong Kong and soon heading toward Vietnam.

The blankets will be hand-delivered by students of the Spring 2014 Semester at Sea voyage in April. Pictures, videos, and statements from the students and Egyam children will make up Part Three of this blog series. It will surely be my most favorite blog post of all time. I can’t wait to share it with you.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Ghana, I’m Yours (Part One)

Children at the Egyam Orphanage in Ghana, West Africa

It was Fall 2010 and I was preparing to sail on the Spring 2011 Semester at Sea study abroad voyage — in other words, obsessively memorizing every word of the Semester at Sea website and every blog I could find about the SAS experience.

One day, an article popped up about an independently organized trip to an orphanage in rural Ghana. It described how a student, Emma Smith, had contacted the Egyam Orphanage through her church and brought with her donated shoes that she collected from her fellow shipmates.

I creeped around on Facebook until I found Emma’s profile and sent over a message while she was still traveling. When she returned home she got me in touch with the orphanage director, Daniel Payne.

A few months later and I was on the MV Explorer ship myself, trying to recruit students to come with me to visit Egyam.

The morning of the visit arrived. I had gathered a handful of students to join me.

Our journey began with carrying boxes of donated school supplies and toys (left on the ship by Emma) through the Deck 2 gangway. As we were exiting the ship we ran into Brittany App, the voyage’s professional photographer. Brittany was heading into Takoradi, a nearby city in Ghana, but paused as she overheard us discussing our plans. She was interested in the story and asked if she could come along; I replied with a resounding YES YES YES!

We found a couple taxis and started the 45 minute drive to the village.

Over the course of our visit, we met with the founder Thea van den Bosch, of Holland, who was a gracious host. Thea did not speak fluent English but her kindness and warmth was an inspiring comfort for everyone who met her. She took us through the village of Egyam and served us tea and pastries on our return.

Children at the Egyam Grotto Village in Ghana, West Africa

We learned that Thea felt called to open an orphanage in late 2005 after volunteering at local hospitals in Ghana. She realized the disturbing amount of children that were without families and dying in these hospitals all alone.

She really has done an incredible job in creating Egyam. They have over 50 live-in children and around 20 or so children they support in the village. Before and after photos on their website show the impact Egyam has made in their lives.

The highlight of the visit (and a highlight of my entire life) was spending time with the children. I can genuinely say that they changed my life. My heart grew 50 times in size and it began feeling love 50 times deeper and stronger. Their joy for life and abundant happiness despite having so little is absolutely overwhelming.

Children at the Egyam Orphanage in Ghana, West Africa

I particularly felt connected to one of the boys, whose identity I’ve decided to keep private. The second we made eye contact he took my hand and didn’t let go. I mean, really didn’t let go. He had a smile that shined through his eyes, through the pores of his skin.

I spent my entire internet minutes on the ship researching if there was a way that I, at 19 years old, could adopt him. I emailed my parents about it, asking if they could help. I quickly learned that it would not be possible; Ghana has strict laws regarding eligibility for international adoption. Three years later and I still think of him every single day. I’m now just waiting for the moment I’ll see him again, whether in Ghana or here in the United States.

In all honesty, it hurts to write this blog post. I’m on the brink of tears. The thought of leaving all those children frustrates me like no other. I can’t move on and forget them. This is why I started organizing projects to assist in any possible way I could.

Since 2011 I have been recruiting Semester at Sea students to visit the Egyam Orphanage. This year I attempted a massive project that will be completed in April 2014. Students from the Spring 2014 voyage will be hand-delivering boxes full of one-of-a-kind, hand crocheted blankets for each child at the Egyam Orphanage.

I will be posting again this week with more information on the blanket project (and upcoming projects) so keep an eye out! If you’re interested in contributing to future projects you can email me at ZaagiTravel@gmail.com.

That One Time… I Jumped Off a Moving Train in Africa

That One Time… I Jumped Off a Moving Train in Africa. South Africa that is.

This blog post is coming to you due to popular demand. And by popular demand I mean the handful of people that have shown some kind of intrigue when they hear I survived jumping off a moving train.

I wish I’d written this all down when it first happened nearly three years ago. But I’ll do my best to tell it to you here and now.

It is (somewhat) a story of survival. Or near-death. Whichever sounds cooler.

All jokes aside, I feel that I really do owe it to Jonathan and Rachel for helping me get through the experience.

Wait, who are Jonathan and Rachel? Well, you’re about to find out…

I met Rachel first. Only a couple days before. We were paired together for an overnight homestay in a township outside of Capetown. Sleeping overnight in a township is enough to blow the minds of many a South African. But that’s really how we met.

We stayed with the Sandlana family — a mom and dad, 8 fully grown daughters and 5 grandchildren, all living together in a 2 bedroom home. That experience alone deserves it’s own blog post. So for now, just know that Rachel and I bonded over being eaten alive by mosquitoes while we laid in our beds that night.

The next day, once we returned to the ship, we quickly raced to “the 5th deck dining room” of the MV Explorer to grab some lunch. There, I met Jonathan. I’d seen him around the ship before but we’d never spoken.

Before I knew it the three of us were on our way to the Capetown train station, bound for Simons Town — a beach community where penguins migrate to escape the chilly cold of Antarctica.

Fast-forward to that evening… we had seen the penguins and were on our way back to the ship.

This is how my memory serves me:

We boarded a train sometime around 7:30 in the evening.

I was wearing a soft, purple Northface zip-up jacket, khaki capris, a white v-neck t-shirt, a thin purple scarf, and champagne colored Havaiana flip-flops with rhinestones in the shape of a heart beside my big toes. I had a black backpack with me. And I was tired. We all were. It was our fourth day in South Africa and every one of us had been sacrificing sleep in order to experience as much as we could.

So, we board the train. Time passes, stop after stop, waiting til we arrive in Capetown. Around 9:00 we make another stop. Rachel thinks we’ve arrived in Capetown, stands up and gets off the train.

This all happens so fast.

The three of us argue for a brief moment. Jonathan and I urge Rachel to get back on. The train jolts forward. Jonathan follows, yelling “We can’t leave her!” as he jumps onto the platform.

I stop, contemplating in lightning speed whether or not I should stay on the train. Weighing my options.

If I stay on the train I know I can figure out how to get back to the ship. But alone, in the dark, in a country I’ve only been in for four days?

I look back at the people in the train car. 20 or so local men. I think I must have made eye contact with one or a few of them. Something told me to jump. I really didn’t want to, because the few seconds it took for me to make up my mind also meant an increase in the train’s speed.

We’re not exactly sure how fast the train was traveling when I finally jumped.

I do know that I went right foot forward, the movement flung me back up, twisting in mid-air, landing hard on my side and preceding to roll probably a dozen times before coming to a stop.

When I opened my eyes I could see Jonathan and Rachel above me. When I tried to stand up I noticed my toe. That’s where the pain first hit me.

I could barely see it, it was so dark. There was an obvious open wound across my big toe and a fair amount of blood. Drops of it hit the pavement. I looked around, no lights as far as the eye could see.

I remember asking Jonathan and Rachel if it were possible to contract HIV from something on the dirty ground. They assured me I was okay, but I could see the worry on Rachel’s face. The open wound on my foot upset me too. I didn’t want the wound to come in contact with anything.

Then I noticed the soreness in my upper arm and hip. A heavy, dull aching.

Quite some time later I became aware that I was bleeding just below my right elbow. The Northface jacket had been ripped open to expose my dirty, bloody mess of an arm.

My head started hurting. I felt pain all over my body. I was more scared than I could handle.

We walked for what felt like… hours. I truly don’t know how long it was.

We didn’t come across any people, any business, nothing. We were in the middle of nowhere. A couple blocks before we finally stumbled across something, I felt like giving up. My body was tired and it hurt to move an inch. I was both physically and emotionally exhausted. I didn’t give up though. Jonathan and Rachel talked me through it, helping carry much of the weight of my body as well as my spirit.

The business we came across, I want to say it looked something like an internet cafe. The people inside were very confused to see us strolling in — myself, covered in blood and dirt and tears.

I know I sat down on their couch. I know they wouldn’t allow us to call for help. I know a man came forward, Michael. He was from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He held my hand and comforted me and called his friend, a taxi driver in Capetown.

Time passed, another hour maybe. The friend arrived. I said goodbye to Michael, who I like to think of as an angel. Or sent by one. I’m not sure what we would have done if he had not helped us.

And as we drove I stared out the window, concentrating on the lights and colors, trying to stay calm and distract myself from the pain and panic. An hour later we arrived at the ship. I burst into tears when I saw it. The relief I felt, seeing the ship floating on the water in the harbor. Knowing there would be nurses and Dr. Bill to fix me up. And eventually, my bed. I was safe. I was going to be okay. I walked up the 5 flights of stairs, supported by Jonathan and Rachel.

Home. I was going to be okay.

Penguin Colony at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town, South Africa

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town outside of Capetown, South Africa via ZaagiTravel.com

I’d first heard about the penguin colony in South Africa via Pinterest. You’re probably thinking… wait a second, is that even real?! Do penguins really hang out on the sunny beaches of AFRICA? Turns out it is very real. Penguins have been migrating to these particular southern shores since the 1980s.

Naturally I had to go see for myself.

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town outside of Capetown, South Africa via ZaagiTravel.com

(Heads up: excuse the less than fantastic photos — these were taken with a sad little point-and-shoot nearly 3 years ago)

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town, South Africa via ZaagiTravel.com

So this is how the beginning of the day went:

On my one free day in Capetown during the spring of 2011 I made plans with my new friend Rachel to take a train out to Simon’s Town in search of those adorable, tuxedoed Antarctic natives. Rachel and I had met only a couple days before when we were put together as “sisters” for a stay with a host family at a township outside of Capetown.

While we were grabbing breakfast onboard the MV Explorer we ran into Jonathan, a guy I had never met before but who was interested in seeing the penguins also, and we felt it wouldn’t hurt to have a guy apart of our group — it turns out this serendipitous meeting would later become one of the best things to ever happen to me, because Jonathan helped save my life this same evening, but more on that later.

The three of us started out at the Capetown train station where we bought round-trip tickets to Simon’s Town.

Timetable at Capetown Train Station in South Africa via ZaagiTravel.comWe boarded the train and off we went, on our quest to be as close to the south pole as any of us had ever been — not that we were close, but we were in the southern hemisphere and that itself was cool.

Out the window of the train we could view breath-taking landscapes at every turn.

Out the window of the train heading to Simon's Town, South Africa via ZaagiTravel.com

We arrived and began leisurely walking towards Boulders Beach, stopping to get ice cream and look inside shops along the way.

After crossing the street and strolling along the wooden boardwalk we came to a viewing area where we could see the penguins, who shook themselves free of water and waddled toward us.

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town outside of Capetown, South Africa via ZaagiTravel.com

We turned and walked back the way we came to see if we could find another place to view these little guys.

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town, South Africa via ZaagiTravel.com

Down one of the paths we came across a protected beach which required an entrance fee. We paid the fee, bought ourselves a South African “Iron Brew” soda, and started down the walkway towards the sand.

Drinking an Iron Brew Soda While Penguin Watching at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town, South Africa via ZaagiTravel.comI rolled up the ends of my jeans and waded into the water. With a few quick maneuvers I climbed up onto a rock next to a group of the penguins and sat there for ten minutes, enjoying the view and the good vibes.

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town outside of Capetown, South Africa via ZaagiTravel.com

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town, South Africa via ZaagiTravel.com

After leaving the penguins we headed back to the Simon’s Town train station in order to catch the last train back to our ship in Capetown…

Walking back to the train in Simon's Town, South Africa via ZaagiTravel.com

We were completely unaware that I was about to encounter a near-death experience — check back later this week for that story!

An Afternoon in Saint Petersburg, Russia

 

Russia…

It still hides behind a mysterious cloud. Only in fairly recent history have outsiders been allowed to visit and yet many still don’t — possibly due to the difficult visa process — amongst other reasons.

One way around the annoying visa situation is arriving by cruise ship and taking the cruise line’s offered trips, which is how many visitors to Saint Petersburg go about things.

But do I do that? Of course not. No, I have to be difficult. I have to pay WAY too much for an approximately 4×3 inch piece of paper that allows me to frolic around Russia without a tour guide because I tend to try way too hard to embrace the free-spirit side of my personality. Was it the best decision? Maybe. Maybe not. Both sides have their pros and cons.

If you are doing Saint Petersburg independently, here are some suggestions for how you could spend an available afternoon (or morning).

1. Sip a hot chocolate at Cafe Singer in the Dom Knigi bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt.
Cafe Singer at the Dom Knigi Bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com Located across from the Kazan Cathedral, the Dom Knigi bookstore towers over pedestrians below.

Cafe Singer at the Don Knigi Bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

On the second floor resides Cafe Singer with it’s decadent pastries and a vast variety of both cold and hot drinks to sample. It’s not the most affordable place in town but the view is incredible, the food and drinks are delicious, and there is free wifi. Need I say more?

2. Admire beautiful Russian architecture at the Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood.

Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

Just down the road from the Dom Knigi bookstore is the Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood.

This stunning piece of Russian architecture, located beside the River Neva, was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was murdered in 1881.

Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

The church, which was closed due to political unrest for a significant part of the 20th century and then under restoration for decades, only opened back up to the public in August 1997.

Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

TIP: My friend’s DSLR camera lens was stolen right off her body as the camera hung from her neck while we walked towards the church. A group of men ran by and hit her arm with a small book as a distraction. Seconds later the lens was gone and she was devastated to say the least. Don’t become a victim. You can prevent this by keeping your camera directly in front of you and holding on to your lens at all times. Same goes for your bags. Keep your purse or backpack in front of you and keep a hand on it. Also keep an eye out for anyone/anything suspicious. Being aware of your surroundings could save you a lot of heartache — as well as time, money, and your safety. Prevention is key.

Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

The interior of the church, which holds Russia’s largest collection of mosaic art (several thousand square yards) is beyond impressive and truly breathtaking.

Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

3. Grab some pierogi pies a few blocks away at Stolle.

Eating Pierogi Pies from Stolle in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

West of the church, a few blocks away, is Stolle. I had heard about this place from many people in the months leading up to my trip. It was difficult to find at first (due to the street names in the surrounding area being so incredibly similar) but once we did find it we returned for a total of 3 meals in 3 days. It was that good (as well as inexpensive — key for a traveling college graduate’s budget).

TIP: If you see a place called Barcelona, keep going, it’s just around the corner. If you spot red awnings you’ve found it!

Strawberry Pierogi Pie from Stolle in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

For my first visit to Stolle I tried a slice of strawberry and a slice of green onion. There are two sizes to choose from, small — shown here — and large, which is about double the size of small. Depending on availability, Stolle offers pies in: cranberry, cowberry, apricot, apple, lemon, sweet cheese, cabbage, rabbit and mushroom, green onion, herring, mushroom, chicken, fish, meat, salmon, and more.Green Onion Pierogi Pie from Stolle in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

As you can see, the girls clearly enjoyed their first taste of Russian pierogi pies! Look at those clean plates and big smiles!

Eating Pierogi Pies from Stolle in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.comAre you interested in traveling to Russia, why or why not?

Have you been to Saint Petersburg? What would you recommend to someone with only a day or two to spend?

 

 

The Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany

Elephant at Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

What if I told you that the best zoo I have ever been to is located just outside of Hamburg, Germany?

What if I told you that I am a former resident of San Diego, a city known for it’s zoo, and I still think the Hamburg Zoo is better. And not just by a little bit. By a lot!

Elephants at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany via ZaagiTravel.comElephants at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

As you enter the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany you are almost immediately greeted by a herd of friendly elephants. The big, gray, muddy animals are happy to hold out their long trunks in order to receive snacks from visitors, who are allowed to feed them.

Elephants at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany via ZaagiTravel.comElephant at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

I could have spent all day with these fascinating giants, but the girls and I decided to venture out and chose to take a counter-clockwise approach to exploring the park.

Heads up… these photos were taken with a DSLR camera, but without any zoom lens, just the standard factory lens that it came with.

Flowers at Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comThe park itself is massive. It maintains a natural landscape that I have never seen at any other zoo. Green grassy fields sprawl out on either side of dirt walkways; tall trees frame the different exhibits making it feel like you’re really out in nature with the animals.

Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comOne exhibit that looked a little less natural but still beautiful nonetheless was this futuristic looking dome where a group of orangutans were hanging out, some of them literally.

Orangutan at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

As we left the orangutan exhibit we crossed an optional foot bridge with (fake) crocodiles swimming beneath us.

Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comDown the main dirt pathway we came across a peacock that paused long enough for us to grab a quick photo.

Peacock at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comNow just because we’re grown, have graduated college, and are beginning our own careers doesn’t mean we’re too old to have some fun at the kids playground, right?? The five of us piled onto this swinging contraption without hesitation and had ourselves an awesome time. You know you would do it too!

Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comLike the grown-up kids at heart that we are, of course one of the highlights of the entire zoo was the gated goat petting area. Being that it was late spring during our visit we got to see many baby goats, including this little guy below.

Baby Goat at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

The girls and I enjoyed loving on the baby goats.
Petting Zoo at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comObvi.

Petting Zoo at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comThe goats enjoyed the attention also.

But I think it’s important to mention that goats are very aggressive, however in a non-violent way. Maybe persistent, stubborn, or tenacious would be more accurate terms to describe their personalities.

TIP: Put any papers away, like your map, before going inside the petting area. I saw some teenage boys feed their map and a tissue to a pregnant goat. It annoyed me enough to say something, and even though they didn’t speak english you can bet they knew I was angry. Just because goats will eat nearly anything doesn’t mean they should.

Goat at the Petting Zoo at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comTIP: grab some nutella crepes (the stand is located across from the goats) after being inside the petting area, as to avoid having the smell all over our hands while trying to pet the little guys and gals. If not, you’re asking to get your fingers nibbled on.

Same with the ponies.

Pony at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

Take it from someone who nearly had their finger chomped off by a pony at age 5. Animals don’t often mean to actually bite you, they smell or see what they think is food and before you know it you’re wishing it was Charlie that had bit your finger instead.

A couple minutes down the road we discovered this sassy seal. He/she put on a good show for us, repeatedly slipping in and out of the water, but not without lounging like a Victoria’s Secret model mid photo shoot. Minus the bikini. Scandalous.
Seal at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comTo protect the seal’s privacy I’ll refrain from publishing those indecent pictures. You’re welcome, seal.

Seal at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

One of the kid favorites was the walrus, probably because of the face-to-face interaction.
Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

Walrus at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

I have a theory. Humans are intrigued by marine animals because underwater life is so foreign to life on land. Or what I like to call Reverse Little Mermaid syndrome.Whale tail at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comMaddie and Rachel played marine biologist before we went off to find Rachel’s favorites, the lions…

Lions at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

Lions at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

Lions at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comAwww, look at how happy she is.

Spending a few hours at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo was by far the best way to spend time in Hamburg. I highly recommend it to anyone passing through the area. It is accessible by public transport; we took the metro system — exit the red Metro line 2 at the Tierpark Hagenbeck stop — which drops you off just around the corner from the entrance.

The park also has an aquarium connected to it — but you are required to buy a separate ticket for entrance. Inside the aquarium you can see fish, sharks, snakes, spiders, and the best part… there is a Madagascar room! Over 10 lemur monkeys climbing around a space the size of my kitchen, if my kitchen had a super high monkey-filled ceiling. We took pictures with the lemurs on our shoulders, heads, and backs.

I can hardly think of a better way to spend a day in Hamburg. Do yourself a favor and go!

In Search of the Big Buddha: Lantau Island, Hong Kong

The giant Buddha and monastery on Lantau Island near Hong Kong is a captivating sight. It’s easy to feel entranced by the misty allure that surrounds the meditating statue. The Buddha sits on top of a lush mountain bordered by velvety emerald water; his open-facing palms deliver a message of balance and tranquility.

I had a mere 24 hours to spend in Hong Kong. Visiting Buddha was an obvious choice. Getting there… now that was a different story.

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It was the first day of April. I struggled to wake up after one of the roughest night at sea. I’d been living on the MV Explorer for nearly three months, sailing around South America, Africa, and Asia on a study abroad program called Semester at Sea.

Sitting up, I stretched my arms up above my head leaning side to side and glancing out the porthole.

Outside stood an army of high-rise buildings, swimming in misty fog.

Good morning, Hong Kong.

I threw on a pair of jeans and a cozy sweater and ran out the door, down the hall, and straight to cabin #2003. I pounded on the door with both fists until the door swung open seconds later. My shipmate and friend, Anna Christina, smiled back at me. She was ready to go.

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As we bought our tickets for the Star Ferry that would take us across Victoria Harbour we met up with Jonathan, the guy who helped save my life in South Africa weeks prior (don’t worry, I’ll address this in a future blog post).

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It was quite the complicated journey. We began in Kowloon, where the MV Explorer was docked. First we took the Star Ferry to the MTR subway. Then it was on to Tung Chung station. Then, after a 45 minute wait, Jonathan, Anna Christina and I boarded a Ngong Ping 360 cable car.

TIP: If you’re not deathly afraid of heights request a cable car with a see-through floor. It offers another extraordinary view of the island and surrounding water.

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Gliding over the water towards Lantau Island felt like a dream. We were slowly being drawn towards the large Buddha statue somewhere in the distance.

DSC02137DSC02141We kept our eyes focused on the horizon, waiting to see the bronze statue appear before us.

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Finally, we saw it.Buddha on Lantau Island via ZaagiTravel.com

Anna Christina and I jumped for joy. Literally.

DSC02158As we walked through the Ngong Ping village we poked our heads into shops and restaurants. A combination of foreign languages and the scent of tea filled the air.

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Soon we found ourselves face to face with the largest seated bronze Buddha statue in the world, the Tian Tan Buddha.

DSC02173 The statue, which took 12 years to complete, has been watching over China since 1993. It stands over 110 feet tall and sits at the top of 268 stairs.

DSC02175The top of the stairs offered a vast view of the valley below.

DSC02186Even though finding it wasn’t as simple as we had anticipated, I’m glad that we spent the day trekking around Hong Kong in search of the big Buddha. I would do it again in a heart beat.

I hope to one day return to Hong Kong and have more time to spend exploring some of the other treasures hidden in that misty fog.

Have you been to Hong Kong? What would you recommend to see and do? Comment below and let me know your personal insights.

 

 

Honey, Kvass & Tea: The Central Market & Apsara Tea Room in Riga, Latvia

As we descended from the fifth deck of the MV Explorer I had no expectations. I did not know much about Latvia. All I really knew was that it had relatively recently found independence after being occupied by both Nazi Germany as well as the former Soviet Union.

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I suppose I expected a place still obviously recovering from such a harsh and painful history. Instead, Latvia blew my mind and stole my heart.

 

It was a surprisingly quiet sun-filled Saturday morning in June when we finally found the massive Central Market in Riga, the capital of Latvia. The popular marketplace is housed inside of five old German Zeppelin airplane hangers from WWI.

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Before entering I stopped at a wagon with a bright blue awning reading KVASS. I smiled at the female vendor that looked about my age; she smiled back lowering her eyes as if apologizing for not knowing any English. I hadn’t had time to brush up on my Latvian either (not serious) so I bit my lip and lightly laughed while holding out Latvian change and she picked up the appropriate coins from my palm. We smiled at each other again. In that moment I wished I could have offered her more than an english “thank you” as she handed me my cold, chestnut brown drink. We waved goodbye.

I had heard about this strange but supposedly delicious drink from friends and could not resist trying it. Kvass, a common eastern European non-alcoholic drink, is made from fermented rye bread. It’s actually quite good — or at least I think so, as you can see here.

 

I bought another cup as we exited and was given even more kvass by my friends who did not admire it as much as I did. It kind of tastes like the little brother to beer. Slightly sweet and earthy, a bit tangy and tart… I’m beginning to realize how difficult it is to describe. But I do recommend trying it if you get the opportunity!

 

A couple booths away we stopped to buy a giant basket of deep crimson cherries. We used a water bottle to wash them, letting the water fall into the street at our feet.

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We walked through all of the hangers — I don’t have many pictures inside due to my double-fisting of the kvass. However, we encountered entire buildings filled with honey, nuts, meat products, seafood, fruits, vegetables, handmade knit goods.

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Outside the hangers were numerous booths selling inexpensive clothes, shoes, and souvenirs. All of us bought miniature bottles of local honey, a Latvian speciality. I kept mine in my luggage for over a month, planning to bring it home for my parents to try. Sadly, the cranky man at Heathrow Airport took mine away (after he searched my entire carry-on which nearly made me late for my flight). Thanks, dude.

 

Alright rant over, back to the loveliness of Latvia. It really was. Lovely is the perfect word to describe it.

 

Lovely. Like the local, wrinkled old women buying and selling items around the market as they peered at us curiously from behind the tied scarves around their faces. I wish I’d had the nerve to ask them for a photo. That’s something I need to get better at — learning how to take pictures of people, especially ones I don’t know. I haven’t mastered that science. It’s difficult to break the ice especially with a language barrier.

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Us girls decided to venture on and discover another part of Riga. Without an idea of where we were going or what we would find around the next corner we crossed the street using the underground pedestrian walkway.

 

Down the road a little and to the left on Raina bulvaris we stumbled across an odd shaped building perched along a river that calmly coursed through a deep green park, shaded by soaring trees. Apsara Tea Room, a Latvian chain of tea houses, was circular and small, but with large windows allowing for plenty of natural light brightening the vibrant wooden interior.

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On the inside, a rustic blue and white staircase twirled upward to a second level where striped multi-colored plush pillows lined the floor in a circular shape. A giant black metal chandelier hung in the center of the second floor, eye level with those sitting facing the windows.

 

The view, which oversaw lush green lawns and the Pilsetas Canals lined with waddling ducks, created a feeling of serenity and peacefulness. As we entered we were greeted by a bubbly blonde woman behind the counter. Her voice was high-pitched, but in an endearing way, like a Disney cartoon character I would have loved to sing along with as a child.

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The counter held glass jars full of sweet treats like Sokolades Cepums (heart-shaped chocolate chip cookies), Mandeli Cepums (square almond shortbread cookies), and Riekstu Cepums (horse-shoe shaped sugar slazed cookies) for only $.25 Lats each.

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The walls contained endless assortments of exotic teas, and various tall slices of cake with layered fillings showcased in a glass refrigerator to the left of the cookie jars.

 

Two large black chalkboards were hung overhead and displayed the teas and their prices ($1.20 – 3.50 Lats) in handwritten white chalk. Iced teas came in two varieties, red and green, both were amply sweetened as well as absolutely delicious.

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A version of “Someone Like You”, sung by a male voice, played in the background. The six of us girls sat down on the striped cushions upstairs and faced the windows. We barely spoke for ten minutes. I relished in how good it felt here. The Tea House. Riga. Latvia. Europe.

 

It felt homey, in both a comfortable and brand new way. I was with good friends in a very beautiful place. A place that felt exclusive, secret and undiscovered. It’s easy to run around and hit all the typical, tourist hot spots.

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But this. This was special. This was the feeling I chase. The reason I fly, sail, and ride around the world. Latvia, I can’t wait to return to you.

 

There’s a quote by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. It’s meant to describe people but it now reminds me of Latvia.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

Look for the Part II posting of my time in Latvia coming soon!