Letters (emails) from the Voyage

This is a selection of email travel-letters that I sent to family and friends as I travelled from port to port. It includes many personal impressions from the voyage and is by no means an academic review of the voyage. I never really finished the voyage for those who relied on these emails to keep track of me. Suffice to say, I made it back to Seattle in one piece and back to Elizabethtown. The titles of the letters indicate from where these were sent. Thus the letters include details of previous ports and maybe the current port.
Greetings from Nassau

Greetings from Cape Town, South Africa

Greetings from Kenya and India

Greetings from Malaysia and Vietnam

Leaving Japan

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Greetings from Malaysia and Vietnam

Author Note: This is an all-purpose greeting from me to a bunch of friends ... to let you know how the time is passing. Please do not respond to this email, as I do not have email on the ship. I only have email for a short period of time when I visit an Internet Cafe in each port to send these missives. Thanks for understanding. I look forward to seeing you when I return to the States after 25 April.

Ok, ok, I'm a little behind on these mass emails. Since leaving India it has been difficult to keep up the writing because the time between ports has been short and the time in the ports has been packed with activities. Forgive me, but I can!|t remember everything I said about India. So I am moving on to Malaysia and Vietnam. I tried to send email from Vietnam, but the systems were so slow that I gave up and decided I could hold this until Hong Kong.

Here I am in Hong Kong ... by far the fastest Internet connection yet and free cookies/biscuits and drinks at the Internet cafe. Can't beat that. We have very little time in Hong Kong. We had a city tour this morning into the afternoon. Did some shopping. Now I'm here. I'll get to have some dinner with friends before we head back to the ship. Tomorrow we have only a half day in Hong Kong. Not much time to see anything. We sail by 5 p.m. On to Shanghi. It will take 2 days to sail there. We have 3 days there. Hope to see some theater while there. Then on to Japan. I will be visiting Hiroshima. Those of you who know my research work on the Enola Gay will know that this is an important stop for me. Then it's straight ahead home. Only a few short weeks.

Here's a quick snap shot ... hot, hot, hot ... tropical climate. Great malls ... I know, how American of me to say that. But I have been dying for a new bottle of perfume (go figure, I ran out after about 50 days) and I needed a good dish of ice cream ... Hagan Daz ... mmm. The coffee was strong ... loved that. And the food was spicy ... lots of satay.

I had a very good stay in Malaysia. As a field program with some of my students, we visited the newsroom of The Star ... the largest English language newspaper in Malaysia. We met in their Penang regional offices. The students and I enjoyed a lively discussion with two editors and a reporter. The students toured the newsroom and production facilities while the reporter interviewed me for an article about Semester at Sea. It appeared in the newspaper the next day. I couldn't resist doing a little public relations work, too. I facilitated an interview opportunity for the reporter to tour the ship and meet with some SAS administrators the next day. Another article is expected. Hopefully, a copy will be sent to Pittsburgh and I can get a copy at a later date.

While in Malaysia, I lead a small group of students to Kuala Lumpur (KL as it is known colloquially), the capital city. Any of you who saw the Sean Connery movie Entrapment will recall the twin towers ... the Petronas Towers. They are a site !K and I had a beautiful view of them from my hotel window and the KL Tower (an observation tower similar to the space needle in Seattle). As a group we took a motor coach ride from Penang to KL. It took about six hours !K but we stopped along the way to visit a Buddhist cave temple, an Islamic mosque, a sultan palace, and have a traditional lunch. We drove on a nice toll road ... very well kept ... and passed many fruit plantations and tin and rubber works. Lots of limestone and cement. KL is currently the capital city of Malaysia ... although a new capital city is currently being built and many government entities and business entities are moving there. KL is a busy place. Since Malaysia is a mix of many cultures (Malay, Chinese, Indian, and more) and considered a Muslim country as its state religion, you can imagine the variety of people represented here. It was a great adventure to walk the busy streets and browse the Central Market. Our second day in KL was occupied by a city tour with our guide, which included time to visit the Islamic culture museum and the national museum; then we had the adventure of a commuter flight back to Penang.

On the passage between Malaysia and Vietnam we traveled through the Straits of Mallaca ... an area notorious for pirate activities. This is such a serious threat that Captain Ryan, the captain of the SS Universe Explorer, organized a pirate watch composed of passengers and crew. The pirate watchers were stationed at strategic locations on the ship ... night and day ... equipped with fire hoses to blast any unwanted intruders that might try to board the ship. The pirate watch participants received some special training and were always paired with crew members. This sound like silliness, but it was quite serious work. We passed the dangerous area without incident.

On to Vietnam
In the short three days that we as a shipboard community had to study Vietnam, I was very disappointed in the faculty of this voyage. They became preoccupied with the past and really did not prepare our students for the current state of the country. Luckily we had a visiting professor from Vietnam on the ship during the passage between Malaysia and Vietnam. While the U.S. faculty on the ship chose to lecture the students on the history of Vietnam and America's involvement in the war, the visiting professor from Vietnam tried to balance out the coverage by talking about current economic and political issues in the country. But the emotional material of the U.S. profs really did overwhelm the students. I don't think they really got a good handle on the current state of affairs in the country. I'll know better when we set sail on Thursday morning and I can talk to my classes about their experiences in this port.

There's no doubt about it, Vietnam has capitalized on its history both with the French and the Americans. The Vietnam War of the American War, depending on whom you are talking to, is the topic that dominates the tourist scene in and around Ho Chi Minh City ... formerly known as Saigon. But in talking to the visiting professor and locals that we met ... as well as the consular ... the people of Vietnam are past that and would like visitors to focus on the here and now ... the today and tomorrow of this region and now just the past. I have the same hope.

The first day in Vietnam ... the ship motored up the Saigon River from the Gulf of Thailand. Our ship dwarfed the junks and fishing boats that we passed as we made our way to Ho Chi Minh City where we docked for our nearly five-day stay. The first thing that it impossible to miss about Vietnam is that it is terribly hot and humid. It!|s the humidity that does one in for the day ... or at least for me. Sticky, sticky, sticky.

I shepherded a group of students to the War Remnants Museum and later to visit with a former Vietnamese UPI photographer. First the museum ... it's hard to describe ... I'll try. Have you ever visited the Holocaust Museum in the States? If you have, you know that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize that people can be so cruel to one another. But there is also this cognitive dissonance that allows you to rationalize and be thankful that it didn!|t happen in the U.S. and the U.S. didn't do that. You can walk away moved but distance yourself from the pain. Now walk into the War Remnants Museum in downtown Ho Chi Minh City (formerly named the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes and the Museum of War Atrocities). It is not a place for those with a weak stomach. It is a complex of eight buildings ... eight exhibits ranging from photojournalism from the war to weapons displays, tanks and other military vehicles, and replicas of the Tiger Cage detention cells. The captions under each piece in the collection are listed in French, Chinese, Vietnamese and English. It is very one-sided. The language is very opinionated. But there is no denying the part that the U.S. played in this conflict. And it is not pretty. It is very unsettling ... the same way that the Holocaust Museum is unsettling. Except for one proviso ... you got it ... the U.S. is the bad guys here. Some students found it hard to handle and had to walk away. Others tried very hard to put it in perspective. We even had this very conversation about comparing the Holocaust Museum to this museum and the dissonance it created for us. It was difficult, but I!|m glad we visited there. For me, the most memorable part of the museum will be the exhibit of photojournalism and the stories of the photographers that died covering the war. The field notes of these journalists were also part of the exhibit. I can't begin to describe how I felt as I looked at the photographs captioned with the name of the photographer and his field notes ... only to find at the end of the series of photographs, that what I was viewing was the last roll of film the man had shot. To learn that his camera was pried from his dead stiff hands by another soldier or photographer was numbing.

For the remainder of my stay in Vietnam, I did independent travel. Not hard to do in the city and around the area. Curfew each night ... set my the Vietnamese government not the SAS program ... was 11 p.m. I'm not sure I would have wanted to be out later than that anyway. The food has been great. The French influence is very evident there ... since Vietnam was occupied by the French as a colony for a long time before the war ... it was a war of independence ... we sometimes lose sight of that. In the central market, it bought some wonderful cookies and breads. The Vietnamese cuisine is good ... very good ... very filling. Silk is a great buy here. In fact, there are all these silk shops where you walk in, choose a dress or shirt off the rack, choose the fabric you like and the seamstress measures you for a personalized item. So you know, I bought a silk dress ... it took about 48 hours for delivery.

While many of my friends chose to take field trips to the Mekong Delta, the Cu Chi Tunnels and Cambodia, I chose some sites closer to the city. I wanted to see the Cao Dai temples. So the Caodai Great Temple was my other great excursion while in Vietnam. It's difficult to explain, and I'm still trying to piece it all together myself, but Cao Dai is a constructed religion that encompasses religious philosophies from the East and the West: Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Vietnamese spiritualism, Christianity and Islam. The main tenets of Cao Dai include a belief in one God, a belief in the existence of the soul, and a belief in the use of mediums to communicate with the spiritual world. I'm still trying to figure out how Victor Hugo fits into the mix.

One afternoon, a group of us spent a few hours and the last of our local currency enjoying cocktails at the rooftop lounge of the Rex Hotel ... notorious as the officers club and the media hang out at the time of the fall of Saigon. From that location, there was a great view of the downtown area.

Trivia of note ... in Malaysia traffic drives on the left like the Brits. In Vietnam, traffic drives on the right like in the U.S. The water quality here is very poor and the ship continues to use water rationing methods of short showers and restricted hours of shower operation. I did tempt the fates here ... I had ice in my drinks. I figured the alcohol would kill anything in the ice. So far so good.

Until the next time ... probably Japan.

This page was created by Tamara L. Gillis, Ed.D. July, 2001. Copyright 2001.

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