Semester at Sea has two different types of voyages — Around the World or Atlantic Exploration — and when I started researching Semester at Sea, I knew I wanted to do a around-the-world voyage. I was interested in seeing Africa and Asia in particular, so having an itinerary that was conducive to that was important to me!
I started applying for the program about 8 months ahead of time and went through the process quite quickly. I heard about my acceptance within a few weeks of getting everything turned in, and then came applying for the visas. For Ghana, India and China, students need to get a visa ahead of time, so I sent in my passport to a visa processor to get them all done at one time. Thankfully the Fall 2010 voyage met all of my expectations!
Check out what the 12 countries I visited on my voyage!
- Halifax, Canada
- Cadiz, Spain
- Casablanca, Morocco
- Takoradi, Ghana
- Cape Town, South Africa
- Port Louis, Mauritius
- Chennai, India
- Singapore, Singapore
- Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam
- Hong Kong, China
- Shanghai, China
- Kobe, Japan
- Honolulu, Hawaii
Since I kept my family & friends updated about my journey via email rather than blog, I’ve summed up my highlights from My Semester at Sea Voyage in this blog post!
As our first port, Cadiz in Spain was a highlight simply because it was first! We spent 2 full days walking around looking at the architecture and tanning at the beaches of this coastal city. I also visited a few other towns in the Andalusia regions including Sevilla, Agros, Ronda and Cordoba. I loved exploring Sevilla’s Alcazar which is an old palace that dates back to the 10th century. Its walls are engraved with intense detail in a distinctly Moorish style. I also enjoyed Cordoba’s Mesquita, an enormous mosque that was converted into a cathedral. I found it incredibly beautiful and historically fascinating with hundreds of arches from its original Islamic construction made of red and white sandstone.
Another highlight from Spain was the food! Tapas, small plates of appetizer style food, are the primary way Spanish people eat at restaurants. The Andalusia region is known for its ham and Manchego cheese, so naturally, I had to try both. They were both incredible! My favorite spot was at this adorable little bistro in Cadiz that was ran by a husband & wife duo. Spanish meals are also incredibly long, so it’s normal for a lunch or dinner to eat for at least 2 hours, complete with Sangria.
Overall, I really enjoyed Spain! From the architecture to the personalities of the people, Spain is an incredibly diverse and intriguing culture that has so many layers due to its long history. I found it to be much more diverse and historical than I expected. The influences from years of conquests are wildly apparent on the streets of the old cities and the peoples pride in their heritage.
This was my first exposure to North Africa and an Islamic country, so I had no idea what to expect on arrival. Hearing the call to prayer in the morning and seeing women in headscarves is certainly a big adjustment from the tanning beauties we saw on the Spanish beaches.
One of the highlights in Casablanca was visiting the Hassan II mosque which was only built a few years ago. It is actually the largest mosque in Africa and has the tallest minaret in the world. The tile work on the outside of the mosque is absolutely stunning with beautiful blue and green tiles which were individually laid in these ornate mosaics. The inside is more simple but a cavernous space. Non-believers are not allowed in the mosque during prayer times, so it was empty during our tour. But still really impressive to imagine several thousand people all praying in here together.
Another highlight was Marrakech, where I did an ATV ride through the Saharan palm groves and a camel trek in the same area. The camels were all fitted with a saddle but even still, the ride was pretty bouncy, but getting up and down was definitely the funnest. They are such awkward animals. And finally, we went to the world famous Marrakech market, which sells tons of different local and diverse goods. This market also has a ton of streets performers and gambling games, where you can see snake charmers, monkey tamers, and magicians, making it a central nightlife area of the city.
My favorite part though was the Moroccan food! It was so incredible and I loved it soooo much. There is a lot of vegetarian dishes, like couscous with dates and vegetables, and also cold vegetable slaws. Lots of food is cooked in clay pots & dishes called tajines, which are funnel shaped pottery that you cook in a fire pit or stone oven. When cooked in this method, the meat and vegetables are extremely tender.
A former a British colony in West Africa, Ghana has a long history of slavery, oppression and racism after Ghana gained its independence, it set an example of stability and democracy that many of the other African nations have tried to emulate. To understand this country’s history a little more, I went to Elmina Castle which was an old slave dungeon. Elmina was the most active dungeons during the Transatlantic Slave Trade and historians estimate that about 2 million Africans slaves came through the castle during the 1600-1700s. We went into the actual cells where slaves were held, which was one of the creepiest feelings, because the cells were purposely designed to be dark with little fresh air flow in order to keep the slaves weak and unable to revolt.
I also went to a dance and drum workshop where a group of performers showed us some AMAZING Ghanian dances from various regions around the country. They danced to drums and various other unique African instruments, which they then taught us how to play. I learned a few different beats on the bongo drums.
Another highlight was the dense rainforest National Park — Kakum. The park is famous for its natural beauty but also the rope bridges that are strung over the forest canopy. There are 7 consecutive bridges you walk on, and the whole time you’re over the tops of the trees in the forest. Such an incredible view! At some points you could see the forest floor from way up in the air. The bridges were really rickety and they were about 60 meters up in the air, but the views were totally worth it.
I felt as though I’ve truly experienced the culture of Ghana while also seeing the natural and historical wonders it has to offer. I loved my time there so much mainly because of the people. Ghanaians are known to be extremely friendly, talkative and welcoming. On top of their warm nature, they also really like the United States and everyone from it. It was quite a contrast from Morocco, because people everywhere waved to us, smiled, asked us about President Obama, and were just genuinely friendly. Prior to that port, I didn’t feel like I really connected with any local people but there, I felt much more in touch. There was a small arts and crafts fair near the ship, and all of the vendors were so kind to us. They talked to us about what they thought about the US and Ghana, took us on a tour of the town, and showed us good restaurants and bars.
I didn’t explore much of South Africa outside of Cape Town, because the city itself was so incredible! Our ship was docked in the center of downtown at the Victoria & Albert waterfront which is a hugely modern area that the government spent millions to renovate a few years back. There wa so much to do in Cape Town, and being right downtown made it so easy to find exciting things to do.
One highlight from Cape Town was hiking up to the top of Table Mountain with some of my girlfriends. The hike was much more steep and strenuous than I expected, but the view from the top made it so worth it. The weather the day I climbed couldn’t have been more perfect and clear, so you could see the entire city below as well as Robben Island and the surrounding beaches.
I also visited this adorable beach town called Simon’s town that is about an hour out of Cape Town. It is home to the largest land born colony of penguins in South Africa. I saw hundreds of penguins running around on the beach, swimming, and sunbathing. They were so adorable! Much smaller than I thought, but such a fun experience to see them in the wild.
A final highlight from Cape Town was when I went shark cage diving! We drove out to Gansbaai Beach and then took a small boat out into the Atlantic Ocean. We went out to an area we went out that is known to have the highest population of Great White Sharks in the world because of the close proximity to seal breeding grounds (their main prey) as well as the semi-warm water. A large metal cage that holds about 7 people is strapped to the side of the boat, and the viewers climb into it from the boat by opening the top of the cage.
We were given wet suits and snorkel masks to wear while in the cage. The workers entice the sharks by throwing large pieces of bait/fish into the water. When a shark comes near the cage, you hold your breath and duck under water to see the shark. While I was in the cage, I got to see 3 different Great White Sharks. They come very very close to the cage which is incredible to see close up. These creatures are massive, but they are such graceful swimmers. When you see then attacking the bait, you realize the true strength of these animals. They are pure muscle!
With only 48 hours in Mauritius, we didn’t do too much exciting stuff. However, this is the only place the Dodo Bird was ever sighted before it went extinct, so there are pictures of it everywhere. It’s a national symbol! Even though this wasn’t the most “cultural” stop on the voyage so far, I didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the gorgeous weather and chance for some R&R. Me and some of my girlfriends rented a room at what we thought was just a normal hotel, the Intercontinental. Turned out it was an almost brand new resort that was right on the beach. It was so inviting and luxurious!
The first day at the hotel we went out sea kayaking which was really relaxing. The island has a lot of jagged rock formations due to its volcanic nature, and the sun was shining right on them, so we got some incredible views. The second day we went snorkeling. The boat we took out had a glass bottom, so the whole drive out you were able to see the ocean floor and reefs below. We spotted lots of coral and small fish, but the most exciting thing we saw was an octopus! The coral there was surprisingly colorful and vibrant.
The first thing I noticed in my culture shock is the roads. I don’t know how a foreigner can’t notice them. They are rickshaw drivers that absolutely swarm you and are just trying to convince you to go with them. Me and some of my friends hopped into some rickshaws right off the ship and had an amazing day driving around in them. They zoom in and out between traffic, constantly honking, slamming on their breaks and yelling at other drivers.
I was in the rickshaw with the other UW-Madison student on my voyage, and the two of us could not stop laughing out the whole experience. The streets are absolute chaos. There are rickshaws, trucks, motorbikes, pedestrians, stray animals, cars, bikes, animal towed vehicles, literally any mode of transportation you can imagine. And they all communicate to each other via honking. There’s the light honk, long honk, repeating honk, angry honk, honk and yell combo. It’s insane. The streets are the noisiest I’ve ever experienced in my life.’
The next day I visited 6 different Hindu temples around the Chennai area (Kancheepuram and Mamallpuram). It was a really long day, but I’m so glad I did it. I learned a lot about the various gods in Hinduism, and their different reincarnations, meanings and importance to the people. There were several different styles of temples that we saw, all from different eras in Indian history. My favorite was carved into the side of an enormous rock. It depicted various stages of Shiva’s life, who is the primary god for Hindus.
After the first two days in and around Chennai came 4 days of rigorous traveling. Our first stop was in Varanasi (north India), which is considered the holiest city in Hinduism. It sits at the mouth of the Ganges River, which the Hindus believe is the river of Shiva, and thus, is extremely important for prayer and rituals. The first day we were there we toured several important temples. The first sat on this large plot of green land and is believed to be the first place Buddha ever gave a sermon. It was such a peaceful and beautiful environment to be in. We even got to watch Buddhist monks lead a meditation and chanting ceremony which was really powerful.
The next morning at sunrise, we went on a river boat down the Ganges river to get the full experience of rituals and prayer for Hindus. Since this is the holiest city, people are constantly making pilgrimages there to bath and pray at the river. It is estimated that 100 thousand Indians come to the city a MONTH! We arrived at the river around 5:30 am, just in time to see all the people entering the river and preparing for prayer. Hindus are supposed to start their day with a holy cleansing in the river. We boarded are small little boat that was pushed by 2 men and started down the river.
The entire river bank is built up with temples and stairs, and people litter the entire thing. Men, women and children all bathe together on the steps of the river, even though the river water is SUPER dirty and full of trash. Hindus also believe that if you die at the Ganges River, you will automatically skip future reincarnations and go straight to a state of enlightenment and nirvana. So, all along the bank and in the city, there are very sick and dying people just waiting for their time. It was really sad to see so many old, sick people just sitting on the street, waiting to die at the holy river. The whole city just felt melancholy, waiting for their time to come.
In addition to cremations, poor people who cannot afford to be burned are disposed of in the river after they die. Our group saw a dead body as well as a dead baby. That was an even more powerful moment for me. I was literally speechless. I couldn’t believe what I was saying. While some might see this is as inhumane or disgusting, this has been the way Hindus have dealt with death for hundreds of years. This was the most powerful few hours of the trip for me thus far. It really opened my eyes to cultural & religious differences regarding life and death. Almost the entire boat ride I sat in silence, just trying to take in the experience. Feeling the spirituality around us and watching the religious rituals was an experience that will forever stay with me and will remind me to value my life and all that I believe. I am an incredibly thankful that I went to Varanasi and saw the heartbeat of Hindu religion and Indian culture.
In an entire change of pace from my other, more heavy experiences in India, the Taj Mahal was our other major stop on our whirlwind tour of India. And boy what a site it is! I can understand why it is a wonder of the world. The Taj Mahal is a tomb/memorial for a queen from the Mogul dynasty and took 20K men per day for 12 years to finish building it. It’s sort of surreal looking at it because it is exactly as you expect it to be, but also so much more. And it’s pristine white tiles is in such stark contrast to the dusty, dirty, brown streets and brick we’ve been seeing in the rest of India. The entire site really is incredibly clean, which you notice immediately as different from the rest of the region.
We spent about 2 hours there, and I was in awe by the beauty of the building the entire time. Truly an amazing piece of architecture. The tilework is so detailed, with incredible marble inlay and carvings. The reflection pool was also so cool to see. It made the Taj look so much bigger than it actually was, a planned optical illusion. Me and Jess took about a zillion touristy pictures while we were there, doing all kinds of goofy poses.
An interesting stop on our voyage, Vietnam was a challenging one for me. I stayed mostly in the cities (except for Ha Long Bay which I talk about below) which are not pretty and are very busy. The streets, like many other developing countries, are so chaotic. Vietnam has the highest per capita number of motorbikes, so they are zooming around EVERYWHERE. On the sidewalk, in the street, through the marketplace, on the river bank, literally anywhere. And even though everyone wears a helmet, they get so dang close to each and there are so many people packed on the bikes.
The history of the Vietnam War is still very much alive and is on the minds of many Vietnamese. I went to the war remnants museum, which was a much different kind of museum than expected. Vietnam is still a socialist country, so all the history in the museum was extremely bias against the Americans. The war is called the American War or the war of American aggression. Every fact, picture and sign at the place was skewed to highlight the extremely negative parts of the American intervention. Some might say we need more museums like this in the US, but it was really a disheartening sight to see Americans painted as faceless aggressors who just have a thirst to kill Vietnamese.
Hay Long Bay was by far my biggest highlight from Vietnam. It is one of the most peaceful, mystical and mesmerizing places I’ve ever visited. It is an ocean bay that has little mountains and hills that seemingly pop out of the water. Geologically speaking, it was a small mountain range that was eroded over thousands of years, leaving hallow and strangely shaped mountain-like structures. It’s typically foggy so as we were riding through the inlets more mountains would just appear on the horizon. The multitude of forms and changing dynamics of the environment was truly an amazing sight to see. The channels would all of a suddenly twist around the base of a mountain as it shot up into the sky. I was truly in awe!
Since this was my 3rd trip to China, I wanted to do something a little bit different. I decided to do a backpacking trip with my friend Jason. We just hopped from train to train and made our way up the country from Hong Kong.
Our first stop was Guangzhou, which was conveniently hosting the Asian Games the week we were there. It was the opening ceremonies while we were there, so we got to see all the chaos and hustle. It reminded me so much of the Olympics with all the volunteers, signs everywhere, and advertisements for various events.
Next, we took a 4 hour bullet train almost 1000km to a city called Wuhan, which is in central China. It has about 5 million residents, which by Chinese standards, “is fairly small”. It was clearly not a popular tourist destination for foreigners, because there was absolutely no English. Even though we had trouble communicating most of the time, it was so much fun to experience language barriers. While we were in Wuhan, we visited a Buddhist temple and Yellow Crane Temple. I absolutely loved Yellow Crane Temple. It has this old Pagoda with a big park all around it, and all the leaves were changing colors.
The final city I visited was Hangzhou, which is about 4 hours outside of Shanghai. Even smaller than Wuhan, Hangzhou only has about 1 million people and it was such a homey city. In the center of the city is West Lake, which is a famous in China. One of the most scenic and peaceful places I have ever visited, there were walking paths all around the lake so I rented a bike to see the whole lake. It was such a nice way to see the lake, because I just stopped at all the small pagodas or secluded gardens around the lake. I even got to feed some swans!
As our last international stop on the voyage, I wanted to make the most of my time in Japan. I planed a train tour through the country with my friend Jess to see several stops — Hiroshima, Kyoto, Nara, Mt Fuiji and Tokyo.
The first stop was Hiroshima. Now a fully developed city with about 1 million residents, the city has left the iconic ruined building just as it was after the bomb was dropped. Only about 300 meters away from the epicenter of the bomb on the bank of the river, the ruins were an old bank that survived the blast. All the windows and copper dome are gone, but the structure of the building remains. It was a really eerie place to be but definitely an important historical marker that I am grateful to have visited.
Our second stop was Kyoto. The famous old capital of Japan, the city was filled with lots of temples and we actually happened to be there during the full moon autumn festival. There were so many domestic tourists around and all the leaves were changing colors. We toured a temple and went up the hillside to spend some time in the forest and get a good look of the whole city. It was fun being surrounded by so many Japanese people who were so excited about the holiday. And seeing all the temples lit up at night by the moon was truly an incredible sight!
Next up was Nara! Apparently famous for its deer park, Nara houses somewhere like 10,000 deer. They just roam around the park and people feed them. Now deer aren’t very exciting to me being from Wisconsin. But boy, was it entertaining seeing all the Japanese people run around, getting so excited about the deer.
The next day we headed to Hakone, which is a city at the base of Mt Fuji. Sadly, it rained the whole time, so we weren’t able to see the summit of Mt. Fuji summit, but we did go to a traditional Onsen (public bath). We went to one that was a natural outdoor hot springs situated on the mountainside. We could feel the cold rain on us while sitting a steamy hot natural rock pool. It was really awkward at first getting butt naked in front of a bunch of random Japanese women, but after the first few minutes, you just relax and enjoy the natural hot springs and calming surroundings.
One of the largest cities in the world, I knew Tokyo would be an experience all on it’s own which is why we saved it for last. We made our way to Shibya Crossing, which is the famous pedestrian crosswalk that goes diagonal across the street. It was so cool to people watch from the coffee shop above and just take in the sheer amount of people around you. Then we headed off to the famed Harijuku Street. It was basically the young people’s neighborhood of Tokyo. One description I read was “somewhere where people go to see and be seen”. It’s a street full of shopping, costumes, crepes and crazy dressed young people. Again, the people watching was fantastic. All kinds of crazy things to look at and do!
There were a lot of reasons why I decided to enroll in Semester at Sea, but I think the biggest one was just the adventure of it all. Being a student on a global campus that never stays in one place more than a week is exciting. It’s unique, and I am usually drawn towards something a little different. Plus, I liked that it was completely separate from my university — I was one of two Badgers to go on the voyage in Fall 2010. People ask me all the time which country of my voyage was my favorite, and I can’t really choose one. They are all different, special and unique in their own way, and I feel like each country taught me something different about myself or the world. I couldn’t be more grateful to have had the Semester at Sea experience because I truly feel I have returned a global citizen and a totally different person than when I started this journey!