A Travellerspoint blog

December 2007


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Here's wishing all of you the best in 2008! Stories to come....

Posted by mpho3 10:32 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

The Ultimate Melting Pot

December 29 – Victoria Harbor

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I start this post by apologizing for the disjointed nature of these posts. There’s so much going on that I would like to share, and it’s difficult to keep things separate as I would prefer to do. In future posts, I may try to use headers within the post themselves, but this is all a crapshoot right now!

For one, there's life on board the ship and the social setting, which includes my fellow program staff, the hotel/cabin crew (a mixture), the food service crew (mostly S.E. Asian), Royal Caribbean’s crew – mostly Greek, although there is at least one Honduran, one Nicaraguan and one Black American - who actually “drive” and maintain the ship (in fact, we’re flying a Greek flag), and soon there will be students! This is truly a melting pot, and everyone’s background and story is amazing.

Though the staff and students are skewed towards Americans, which is something they’d like to address, most of us are nomadic souls in one sense or another. There are people who’ve been in the U.S. Foreign Service, the Peace Corp, a woman who teaches but is a Human Rights Attorney from Maine but has been involved in cases that required her to live in Lithuania for six months, and Armenia for a couple of years; there are first generation people like myself – an Iranian woman for example and an Egyptian woman who grew up feeling like the odd ball duckling in their lily white communities in the United States and have had to grapple with the same identity issues that I’ve had being Black and African and American but not feeling like a Black American. Some people have been in the military or were military brats. There’s a Canadian guy who lives on a sail boat somewhere in British Columbia during the summer breaks and then sails to Vancouver to teach during the semesters, riding his bike to and fro, and then sails back to his secret place; he’s also sailed around the world by himself. The outgoing Onboard Life Director is “New Mexican,” (which I know will rankle at least one person reading this) and the incoming one is a Black South African. Most everyone is well travelled, many people having studied or worked abroad and/or lived in more than one country for significant amounts of time. Many people, though not all of us, are polyglots. The ESL teacher is actually an Italian guy from Rome.

One particularly surprising story is that of a young Black American staff member, who told us that she has lived all of her life in Boston. She has more than ten siblings and something like 56 cousins, and all of them live within 1 mile of their grandmother. Though she is one of the younger ones, she is the ONLY person in her family to have graduated from high school and gone to college. She admits that when she was younger, she was headed down the familial path and destined for trouble, but while still in grade school she had a teacher who helped her see that if she continued as she was – getting kicked out of schools every four months or so – that her life would go nowhere. Believe it or not, she ended up going through Landmark Education, and she credits that for being the other catalyst that changed her life. Those of you who know the reference probably also know that I am of the camp who fully believes that Landmark is a cult or very close to one - it even has a very small tie to Scientology - therefore, it was an eye-opener to meet someone who has genuinely benefited from it in a positive way. (And to be honest, I like that. I like having to reconsider or rethink a firm belief even if it doesn't change my overall opinion. I think that will be a regular occurrance on this trip and of the beautiful things about travelling). Anyway, she eventually ended up getting accepted to the [Bill] Clinton School for Public Service in Little Rock, but one of her mentors encouraged her to apply for this program. She was a student on the previous voyage, and she was so successful that they invited her to stay for this semester with a staff role – now she’s the Mixed Media expert.

The age ranges of the staff members vary – I’d say that most of the Onboard Life people are in their 20s and early 30s. Most all of them have Masters Degrees already. Most of the faculty are in their mid-40s to late-60s. The administrative staff runs the gamut from 20s to +60. Apparently the student ages last time around ranged from 17 to a couple students in their 40s. This time around there will be at least two students in the their 60s.

I also want to share things about life off the ship, and about the TSS program itself, and specifically about my job. Ideally I’d like to write about one aspect or another, but it’s jumbled for me, and I don’t have much time to write, though fortunately I type pretty fast : )

Another caveat: the technology aspect of things has been and will be a challenge. Though the ship is wifi outfitted, our service comes via satellite and is expensive and slow – slower than a dial up connection – not to mention the bandwidth is extremely narrow. There are two “staff” computers and two “research” computers in the library, but there are strict restrictions on usage. All of us have laptops. Most of the students will bring their own laptops and those who are without will be given loaners. But if the connection has been this slow and tedious with just 30 or so of us, I can only imagine what will happen when another 200 people are added.

That’s another thing. The program is intended for 600 students, but their recruitment numbers have been much lower, probably due to the cost. The tuition for this semester is over $US20k. They do provide some financial aid and some scholarships, including full rides, but that’s a daunting figure for anybody let alone a student, even from the United States. However, I think this would be an exceptional opportunity for any undergrad or graduate student who is certain of entering into international business, international relations, or international communications.

Back to tech piece though: staff members get 250 free Internet minutes. After that we have to pay 50 cents per minute to use the Internet. Similarly, we can make phone calls, but they are $3/min. I’ve been able to write so much these past few days simply because they’re not charging us at all – not even cutting into our free minutes – until Jan. 2, so we’re all frantically trying to communicate as much as we can in the next few days. At the same time, we’ve been doing training sessions more than eight hours a day, so I don’t know how often I’ll be able to post or how much I’ll have time to record once we get going. I think it will probably also be difficult to share picture and videos, but I’ll see what I can do at the various ports. I’m sure all of us will be making a beeline for whatever Internet cafes may be available.

Now, besides the fact that we all know I have a pretty hardcore Internet addiction that is clearly not going to be fed on this trip, I think what’s most daunting is that my forte is Internet Research. That’s going to be difficult to do without a reliable Internet connection. The other thing at which I am particularly good at is knowing how to get information that I can’t obtain directly – I usually know who to call or who to email, and I can follow the trail and get things that way. But again, that’s gonna be tough to do. These are pretty much the only aspect of librarianship that I enjoy. Yes, I am worried. To add to the challenge, the physical collection is woefully inadequate. On the one hand, it gives me a fall back in that we just won’t have access to an overwhelming amount of information, which means that in some instances I’ll only be able to say, “Sorry, but I can’t help you.” On the other hand, I want to be able to fulfill my role, and I do want to be able to help people. So, I’m not sure how this is going to play out, and I’m already feeling a disconnect from my “supervisor.” I’ll leave it at that because I don’t want to make any negative predictions.

The one thing that we all share from a professional standpoint is that this is a work in progress. The program is still new and we’re all operating with an unusually high degree of uncertainty. For example, some of the faculty members are only receiving their textbooks this week. They have to teach from the curriculum set by Maquarie, so they have no choice in which texts to use. Imagine knowing that you’re going to be teaching two or three courses and you’ve never seen the books! In addition, they’re all used to being able to provide ample supplemental materials. The LRC, as I mentioned, is sorely lacking in materials directly related to the specific courses. We’ve got the Encyclopedia Britannica and the World Book, but beyond that the collection is scarce! Our best electronic resource is Wikipedia, which is downloaded in its entirely on the intranet. I'm not as skeptical of Wikipedia as many others are, but I would never use it as my primary citing source. We have access to some databases, but connectivity is an issue so even aside from the Internet itself, it’s gonna be hard to get people the information they need – faculty as well as students.

This is true of every aspect of the program, which is extremely complex and ambitious. It’s almost like trying to organize a big dinner but the tables haven’t arrived and the menus are misprinted, but everyone is eager to be together and chow down. The scope of this thing is incredible and there are so many pieces that are incomplete. At the same time, I’m extremely impressed by how successful they have been so far, and how responsive and reactive and committed to the iterative process. Every day in these sessions we makes suggestion after suggestion about how to do this, how to do that, how to change this, how to change that, and the suggestions are very very seriously received.

I think that if they can get their enrollment numbers up, this could end up being a formidable experiential learning program. I would really like to see it succeed and know that I was a part of helping it get there. It feels like trying to build a family business.

Lastly, I just want to add that I don’t even have time to proofread this things, so sorry about any typos. And I apologize that I can’t prettify the pages with more photos and stuff – at least not yet. That’s it for now. I, and most others, have been exhausted. Tonight, I didn't even go to dinner because I as soon as I went to my room after the last session, I konked out for a few hours. I'm writing this at 2am, but I have to be up in not many hours. I hope that the schedule will ease a bit once we start up, but that's truly wishful thinking. All of us have determined that this is going to be far more work than anticipated - yet, I still believe relatively speaking, I'll have the easiest lot. Nonetheless, I don't think it's gonna be a cake walk. P.S. They served the best flan the other day - YUM!

Posted by mpho3 09:39 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Freedom, Terrorism, Shopping and Water

December 28, 2007 – Victoria Harbor

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I woke up at 5:30 so I could workout and shower before my 6:55 a.m. drug test. We were all tested and have been told to expect random testing throughout the journey. I’m viewing it as an annoying ritual that is one of the small prices I have to pay to be here. I have no desire or plans to do anything that would be an issue, but I find it intrusive nonetheless. Our rooms are also subject to random searches by crew members when we’re not present, i.e. I could be elsewhere on the ship or totally off the ship. However, I am apparently a whore for this opportunity, so I’ll let them rifle my underwear drawer or pee in a cup whenever they ask.

After my workout, I had just enough time for a quick shower. I lathered and rinsed and tried to turn off the water, but no matter which faucet I turned, the water kept raining down. The shower has four knobs, which I later found are actually two for the tub and two for the shower. I couldn’t navigate that though, and for a moment I felt like I was drowning even though I was standing upright and the drain was open. I hopped out, dressed, and left the shower going. I found it ironic moments later that while my shower was unable to stop giving, my “inner well” was rather low. However, the medical staff administering the urinalysis accepted my scant “donation.” I was dehydrated from my workout – shrug. I found the cabin steward, and he gave me a quick lesson on operating the shower. So much for my having a college education.

Speaking of H20, we’ve got plenty of it onboard, but the drinking water on the ship is awful. I haven’t had water this bad since I was at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan – home of some notoriously brown, bad tasting water. We’re drinking and showering with water that is desalinated right here on the ship, which is equipped with a reverse osmosis facility and an evaporation tanks as well. While I think it’s pretty nifty, my palate can barely tolerate the heavy iodine taste. In fact, I tried to make a cup of yerba mate, which has an extremely strong flavor of it’s, and it tasted like I’d dredged the bottom of the Detroit River and strained out all the body parts and rusty tires. All the coffee drinkers are giving up coffee, so you know it’s bad. However, I’m doing my best to grin and bear it, downing 64 oz. of it a day. I guess I’ve an advantage in that I don’t like the taste of “regular” water anyway, and though there’s definitely a difference between plain water and really really bad tasting water, I’m still drinking something that turns me off.

While on the subject of beverages, I may as well tackle food. I must say that it’s not as good as I’d expected or hoped for. It’s not awful, per se, but I never really eat my fill because not much of it is truly that appetizing. While I’m not starving by any means, I have had some meals where I felt compelled to assess whether I was getting enough calories. The dining hall is buffet style, but the food and service staff attend to us as if we’re paying passengers. They push in the chairs of all the women, they refill our cups if they look empty, they clear away our plates at the slightest hint that we’re about to get up and do it ourselves. I will say that by and large everybody seems uncomfortable with this, and that makes me like my companions all the more. So far, nobody seems to feel entitled to anything. This could change as we “stop being polite and start getting real,” and I’m absolutely sure that some of the students will be little bitches.

At breakfast, I made a beeline for a new arrival – M., who it turns out is a Black American who lives in Germany 8 months out of the year and Houston the other 4, which is the compromise that he and his German wife have carved out. She is on her way but arrives tomorrow. He told me that they always fly separately because they have kids, and he’s superstitious. This may be very forward thinking, but it’s also a bit macabre. Anyway, he was a delight to talk to for a while. He’s going to be teaching three courses, including one on Political Terrorism. He has a lot of interesting perspectives, but by the end of the day, I began to think he might be one of the wildcards. He’s got a grumbly spirit, like me, but I’m really trying to let that drain out of me, whereas he seems like he’s just waiting for the right moment to let it out in his own enactment of interpersonal political terrorism. I’m not sure I want to associate with that, if you know what I’m saying. Still, his presence kind of made the first half of my day.

Later in the day we had another new arrival. Like waiting for the other shoe to drop, C. is the person I’ve been awaiting. She’s a new faculty member, and she has an extremely aggressive, intense, almost confrontational personality. I knew that everyone here couldn’t be as chill as they’re coming across. So, while I don’t enjoy her interpersonal style, I applauded myself for knowing that there’ve got to be a few people who can be counted on to disrupt the apparent serenity that’s been established so far. I figured someone so belligerent – here I’m about to betray one of my prejudices – must be Germanic, but it turns out she’s Israeli. I thought back to the excellent film Munich about the Israeli response to the 1972 Olympic hostage crisis, and I remembered how fierce this people are. Believe me, I will not be crossing her in any way! Even the TSS Executive Officer, a Moroccan guy, and the Vice Dean of Academic Affairs, an American woman, were more tolerant of her behavior than I wanted to see and everyone has been abuzz about her, which is interesting because this doesn’t strike me as a particularly gossipy group. However, I must concede that for the most part she raises very good issues, is extremely knowledgeable and focused, and I think ultimately will be an extraordinary asset to the program.

Honestly though, she ruined my afternoon because we were divided into faculty and Onboard life folks for a three-hour breakout session with no break. I technically fall under the faculty rubric, which sucks for me because it’s mostly the older people – nothing wrong w/ that, but I wanted to get to know the younger folks whom I had clicked with the day before. Also, the issues of the faculty-proper don’t genuinely concern me and academics can be a tough crowd to deal with because they all consider themselves experts. Just like they say that doctors make the worst patients, I think tenured professors make for poor students. They had questions about the grading system, the curriculum, and specific questions about their courses and general policies and procedures, all of which are dictated by Australia’s Macquarie University. (TSS has formal relationships with universities around the world, including Fudon University in Shanghai, the University of Ghana, the University of Cardim-Wales, UC Berkeley, and two universities, one in Mexico and one in Morocco).

Anyway, I was simply trying not to drool on myself during the breakout session, but the Israeli woman badgered and pestered and harassed everyone until the hair stood up on the back of my neck, and you can imagine how difficult a feat that must be for my hairs. In the end, she initiated a monotonous and rather moronic debate about how the students should address the faculty. Most people said they had no preference, but she kept insisting that the Asian students will be offended if the other students are allowed to call any of the professors by their first name. Most people said that either they did have a preference in one direction (to be called by first name or to be called Dr. So-and-So) or that they didn’t care one way or another. This woman kept raging about how it was wrong to offend the Asian students by allowing other students to be less formal. One guy in particular said that part of experiential learning is to experience different mores. While nobody is deliberately setting out to be offensive towards anyone, it’s not such a bad thing to expose someone to something that may push them out of their comfort zone. But no matter what anyone said, she wouldn’t let it go, and she kept it up for 45 minutes. It really killed my energy.

During the “great debate,” I examined the rest of our training schedule, and I have to say I wasn’t too thrilled with it. We’re extremely busy from now until Jan. 2, and that’s when the students arrive. I won’t have much opportunity to explore Hong Kong at all, but I don’t think this will be true at the other ports. Part of the issue here is that we’re not actually docked at the port, so we have to adhere to the tendering schedule. However, at the rest of the locales we will be docked right at the port, so there will be much more flexibility about coming and going. For that reason, I’m glad that Eric wasn’t able to join me in HK after all. We’re still hoping to connect in Shanghai, and I think that will end up being for the best. Meanwhile, G., to whom I report, arrived today. We had a brief talk about the state of things. I’ll get into that more later, but it appears that while we’re at sea, I’ll be working from 8 am to 2pm and she’ll take the 3pm to 11pm shift, per her preference. That’s fine with me. For the most part, the LRC will be closed when we’re at port, so from the sounds of it, I’ll be free* or at least have a great deal of flexibility. But again, I’ll know more in the next several days.

  • It will be interesting to see how much “freedom,” I’ll have because there’s an effort to integrate each and every staff member into the overall experiential learning aspect of the curriculum. Two days after writing this post, I am to discover that each of us is assigned to a Learning Circle, which, as I’ll explain, comes with a fair amount of responsibility throughout the journey and particularly when we’re in ports. Each of us is also assigned to at least one Academic Field Program (essentially a field trip), which means I will be playing chaperone at least once. However, most of the AFPs sound intriguing as they are three-day trips off the ship that tend to require overland travel and overnight stays.

The executive staff decided to give us an early break today because so many people are still jetlagged, so a big group of us opted to go back ashore. I ended up tagging along with a bunch of people who were going shopping. Someone needed a laptop; another person wanted a kettle to boil water in her room in hopes of killing the taste (I opined that boiling it won’t help because the tea I had this morning and the coffee everyone is complaining about are made with boiled water, duh); and various other people wanted various other things. We started out as a clump of about eight people but in the end I wound up in a trio. M., in particular, - the young woman from Mexico -is a lovely, lovely person. A. cracks me up. She might live in NM, but she is truly Northern Cal at heart. We’ve already discussed our plans for Amsterdam (wink). We mainly hovered in the Nathan St. area of Kowloon, which was so brightly lit that it seemed like daytime. Hong Kong’s denizens love to shop!

The ferry ride to and from TSS presented an AMAZING skyline. HK is crazy! The Christmas season is renowned for elaborate neon light displays that are spectacular at night – imagine your childhood Lite Brite the size of a skyscraper. It is really something else. Also harbour itself is one of the busiest stretches of waterway in the world. Here you can find the last of the genuine sailing junks to be found in China. Unfortunately my camera takes horrible night shots, and I didn’t have my new camcorder with me (shame on me), but I didn’t grab it because we were going shopping. I’m hoping to have it with me when we go out for New Year’s Eve. We have the option to stay on the ship, which will provide a unique vantage point for the fireworks, but I lament that I won’t have had a chance to explore the city as thoroughly as I would have liked so I’m gonna go out and about for sure.

I really like the energy of the city to the extent that I’ve been able to experience it. HK seems like the perfect melding of East and West. I guess I’ll just have to come back one day. It seems outrageous to say since I’ve experienced so little of it, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it feels like a place I could live; I have the same feeling about it that I did after my first visit to SF some years ago. I don’t know how easy or difficult it would truly be to integrate oneself here, find work, etc. but from an energetic level it speaks to me. It has the city part that I connect to, but it also has easy access to nature and natural settings that I loved about SF, too. Though it’s crowded it doesn’t feel crowded to me. Plus there’s the water, which is important for one who is used to living near big lakes or being in biking distance of the ocean. And there are lots of cultures to encounter. It has a rich history, and from a practical standpoint, most everyone speaks English. If I could find a gig here, I would definitely consider it. I’d have to visit again to confirm, but my preliminary sense is that it could be great.

Posted by mpho3 09:32 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Star Ferry

Addendum to "Congealed Congee and the Beast of Loch Ness"

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Star Ferry, by the way - which I took from my hotel to get to the pier to catch the tendering vessel to get the ship - has been operating between Kowloon and Hong Kong since 1888, and is a venerable HK institution. Even though there are rail and road tunnels beneath the harbour, many commuters are loyal to the ferry from which you can see the towering skyscrapers and the jungle clad hills behind them.

The clocktower that I also mentioned earlier is another well known landmark or institution. It’s a vestige of the Kowloon railway terminus, and back in the day it was the last stop for trains from the mainland, including the famous Orient Express.

Posted by mpho3 09:25 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

All Aboard

December 27, 2007 – Afternoon – Kowloon – Victoria Harbour

sunny 69 °F
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December 27, 2007 – Afternoon – Kowloon – Victoria Harbour

The tendering vessel ferried us to Royal Caribbean’s Oceanic II, now The Scholar Ship. If my ferry trip of the morning was unexpectedly brief, this second journey was longer than I expected, lasting about 25 minutes. Basically we travelled to the “back side” of Hong Kong Island, and we all got psyched when we saw our little big ship! It’s definitely not one of the biggest cruise ships out there, but it is impressive nonetheless. We were all a little bit giddy and pleased with ourselves, but that was before we navigated the actual getting on to the ship. The smaller vessel basically pulled up alongside the bigger ship, to which was teathered a floating platform located below the gangplank jutting out from the ship and hovering about 15 feet above the water. Both ships were rising and falling with the tides, and the gap between the ships was about 12 inches. This would be daunting for a newbie under any circumstances, but we had our luggage in tow. I envisioned my suitcase of vitamins glug glugging its way to the bottom of the sea after taunting me by staying afloat for just long enough to give me hope that it could be fished out. Yet despite my own worries, I almost cracked up when the woman in front of me almost took a nose dive into the drink. I was next, so I immediately sobered up. I decided not to look down. I grabbed hold of the first rung and waited until both boats sank down at the same time, and then I hoisted myself as if sharks were on my ass.

We trooped into the reception area, and for a moment I had to remind myself that I was on a ship. It looked just like hotel lobby. We checked in at the “reception” and then were taken to our rooms, and the giddiness returned. I’ve got a private room, with two twin size beds and two fold down twin size bunks, ie. a room that could accommodate four people though its about the same size of the room I’ve been living in at Shannon and John’s for the past four months. I’ve got a port hole. I’ve got a television, not that I think I’ll be using it much, but who knows. I’ve a refrigerator. And I have a private bathroom with full tub and shower. Though we do pay a nominal fee for laundry, we don’t pay for having our rooms cleaned daily, including the bathroom and receiving fresh linens. Niiiiiiiiice.

We received a tour of the ship, and it’s awesome. Truly. Three swimming pools. A sauna (glory be to God!). A spa with a full array of bodywork services (most hour-long massages are $65/hr.). Two fitness centers – one all cardio and the other cardio and weights (in Kilos). Two bars. Dining halls. 5 Decks. A medical facility. And the Learning Resource Center is actually bigger and much less claustrophobia-inducing than I expected. Everyone speaks highly of G., to whom I will report and several returnees have said that they think we’ll get along really well because we both seem to be laid back. I have not yet met her because she took some time off between the two voyages, the preceding one having ended on Dec. 23 – not much of a turn around time.

Oh – and the subject of returnees – a lot of people are doing a double stint, which appears to be a policy change from what I was told. When I was hired, I was told that staff and faculty could only apply for a position once every four years. However, this is very much a work in progress so I’m guessing that they seen the wisdom of having some continuity. It’s just an interesting thing for me to keep in mind as I evaluate my own experience. There’s a possibility that I could do another stint, perhaps even in a different role. But I haven’t a clue as to how well suited I will be to the whole shebang.

So far, everyone has been great, though. I feel like I’ve struck up a good camaraderie with a few people, including M., an Intercultural Residence Advisor (IRC) from Mexico; D., an IRC from San Diego; and there are more people to come. We’ve got a few more days to ourselves before the students arrive and a somewhat rigorous training schedule until then. The main groups of staff members are the Academic Staff, i.e faculty and associated staff such as myself; Onboard Life, inc. the eight Intercultural Residence Counselors, the Rec guy and the Psychologist, a lovely Egyptian woman. The IRCs are young people from different countries, kind of like RA’s in U.S. universities and colleges; and Academic Support/Port Programs (the people who help establish the shore side relationships for the Academic Field Trips.

Some people have brought their children, though there aren’t too many. Some people have brought spouses. The overall staff make up seems to be pretty diverse, so it should be interesting.

Posted by mpho3 19:55 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged preparation Comments (0)

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