Around the world on a traveling campus
The beginning chapters of Mark Twain's Innocence Abroad made me reflect back on my spring semester of freshman year when I participated in the study abroad program Semester At Sea. It was on January 17, 2010 that I embarked on the MV Explorer, the ship that would be a traveling campus and a home to me and over 600 other students from around the world for the following four months.
I had only heard of the program in November 2009 and once gaining a very speedy and last minute admission from the Institute of Shipboard Education and the University of Virginia, I had only a couple months to clear this with my university and to get something like nine visas and 20 vaccination shots. I was extremely determined and managed to get everything cleared with even a couple weeks to spare, but still this was an enormously short period of time to digest such a huge experience.
From January to May the ship sailed from Ensenada, Mexico (We drove down from San Diego) to Hawaii, Japan, China, India, Vietnam, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, Brazil, with a final destination of Florida, USA--crossing the equator four times and the international date line once (I never experienced February 21, 2010). I did not know anyone else on the voyage before meeting the ship in Ensenada and my mind was definitely racing with a lot of thoughts. I never second-guessed my decision to go, but there were definite moments that day driving down to Mexico, alone and surrounded at the same time, that I thought to myself, "you are fucking nuts. What are
you doing?" Like in Twain's experience, most people around me were older than me with a few in the middle, but like Twain I liked these people. (I realized soon after being accepted to the program that because all the paper work was so last minute they have not realized I was a Freshman).
(Started in Ensenada, Mexico and ended in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl, USA)
The experiences Twain writes about during his first week or so on the ship at times seemed almost too close to my own to be true. As we left North America behind, we soon hit some of the roughest seas the ship's crew said they had seen in years. My room was at the very bow of the ship so when we crashed down over a wave, my roommate and I always got the most air while we tried to sleep with our belongs and furniture duck taped to the ground around us. I actually didn't mind the stormy Pacific Ocean, but as in Twain's narrative, almost majority of the ship was horribly seasick, including my roommate. I do not know if I necessarily agree that I enjoyed seeing others be sick while I was no, which is how Twain described feeling, however, I was absolutely happy as hell to not be running into walls to get to the health center to get a shot in order to keep from dehydrating, which tons of students were doing during that week. I managed to run ito some walls too though.
Even if many of these first few days were rough, we did have a whole ten days before reaching Hawaii. In this time we began to very quickly adjust to our new lifestyle and soon waking up to a window next to the crashing ocean seemed almost normal, still amazing, but more normal. And even though on land I am very much not a morning person, I soon began to get up for breakfast because who would not want to see the ocean at that time of day, without even a bird in sight because land was way too far off. Getting up early helped me adjust to the early dinner schedule as well, which matched Twain's almost exactly. I do not know why we ate so early but after and very early breakfast and an early lunch, dinner at 1730h or 1800h ended up seeming appropriate. Without phones or internet, much of the activities we did on the ship were the same as activities Twain and his shipmates practiced; we read books and wrote papers and attended classes, but in our free time there are only so many movies one can re-watch on his/her laptop so we played cards and board games, wrote in our jounrals (which nearly everyone kept) and played lots of music, and even put on events like Twain's mock trial and a "Sea Olympics" that is SAS tradition. The coolest may have between when between some students, professors, and some professors' children the ship had a 12-person string band! The ship was a moving community out.
Twain ultimately criticizes his shipmates for an array of things that ultimately paint them as ignorant western exceptionalists for the most part. In Bennett Kravitz's "There's No Place Like Home: Geographies of the [American] Mind in the Innocents Abroad", Kravitz writes that, "despite Twain's claim that the journey will be "'a royal holiday beyond the broad ocean in many a strange clime and in many a land renowned in history!'" (17). All too soon it becomes apparent that the travelers are not on their journey to learn anything about their or the world's origins, but rather that they seek to reconfirm their preconceived notions of the way the world was and is" (Kravitz 53). And despite many parallels between Twain's experience and my own, this one was different. Because we were a group of students who had applied for this program to spend a semester going around the world on a ship, despite many, many differences amongst us, we all shared the something in us the made us want to spend a semester studying around the world on a ship.
During the time we were at sea we each were taking four to six classes that we chose from a list of courses that covered an impressive amount of topics. It was through this class and the guest lecturers from around the world, mixed with the various other preparations the University of Virginia and the Institute of Shipboard Education took to prepare students the best they could before entering into these foreign countries alone or with a few friends for a week a time. We learned helpful language phrases, history of leaders, largest problems the has county faced in the past and is facing today, the country in the context of its continent and the world, it's relationship with the U.S., the people who make up the country, food, clothing, customs, traditions, somehow the course found a way to fit it all in and in a way that students were able to digest.
(Ate the delicious food)
The required global studies course is challenging and the exam days were an entire ship effort, but there is no doubt that we all showed an certain type of interest in the material that could not be compared to a group of students in another academic setting. Students were eager and excited about the material in way that was unparalleled because at the end of a section we had a week to see for ourselves and to apply what had learned first hand. The course also helped shaped students plans on how to travel and where to travel while in the coming ports.
(hiked and camped out on the Great Wall)
(Made the local paper for joining a comunnity dance in the park)
While out of 600 and some students there are bound to be some who do not fit what I am describing, but I do not remember one person who did not show a strong desire to be going where we were headed and moreover to be taking full advantage of the opportunity to actively participate in the culture in order to understand it. I do believe that at times many, if not each of us, hindered or own experience by giving in to previous notions we consciously or unconsciously held about certain cultures and people, however, I believe the ship community encouraged us to become aware of what we were doing in order to approach our experience differently which I think we all made an effort to do everyday. So much of what our professors were trying to teach us and what I believe many, if not most, students were able to get out of the experience was that we as a human race are in fact the same and in order to protect our greater home, the earth, we have to accept and embrace that we are the same. In the end it was the people we met both on the ship and off that shaped our experiences sailing around the world and I do not think this was the attitude or feeling Twain and/or his shipmates came with and/or were left with at the end of the day.