When the reality sunk in that I would actually be sailing on Semester at Sea, I made the effort to talk to some SAS alumni. When we first started talking, the reaction was always the same. "It was an amazing experience," they would start. "It absolutely changed my life."
I always get a little frustrated at people who make vague or overly dramatic comments like those in any situation. However, I learned over the past two and a half months that those statements were not overly dramatic. There is a reason everybody describes it the same way-- there's no other way to describe the dozens and dozens of incredible experiences that occur during a voyage.
Neither my words nor my pictures can do any justice to the story that has unfolded this Summer. In this blog, I've used words like "amazing," "incredible," or "beautiful" countless times but they don't really have the effect I'm looking for. I can talk at you for hours but It is impossible to truly convey the impact and influences of this voyage. This is why SASers (including students, faculty, and staff) become so close; we bond through the ups and downs of the journey.
While there were some "downs," they were significantly outnumbered by the "ups." I laughed, I cried, and I grew tremendously. Academically, there is no experience that parallels walking the grounds of a Moroccan Psychiatric Institution with your professor or applying that abstract Global Studies lecture on the fall of the Byzantine Empire by looking out at Istanbul's Golden Horn. Socially, I blew away boundaries of my "comfort zone." It paid off; I made some amazing friends and we shared some incredibly fun times like watching World Cup matches in Spain, dealing with the "experience" of a 9.5 hour sketchy overnight train ride, aimlessly exploring Bosnia, competing in the Sea Olympics, or simply feeling the silent power of others' presence while stargazing or admiring the beauty of a sunset at sea.
SAS prides itself on offering a truly "global perspective." My knowledge of world culture and current events is no longer limited to what I've read. It is now supplemented by the unique understanding that can only result from experiential learning--the study of politics, arts, conflicts, identity, and memory in (note "in" not "of") some of the world's most special places. I feel truly blessed to have had these profound opportunities. Despite the differences of the diverse cultures we were "injected" into, I gained a better understanding of how we are all human with the same basic nature and needs. It sounds like a load of mush, but it's true. I can tell you this because I've been there; I can now say that I have walked the "rough" streets of Barcelona, interacted with troubled kids in an Italian orphanage, observed the physical and emotional damage a war-torn nation, admired the homes and worshipers of the Islamic faith, seen a primitive Nubian village, and walked among the people of the impoverished outskirts of Casablanca.
One of the big lessons this summer was that of open-mindedness and flexibility. We were told countless times during the initial days at sea that flexibility is key on any SAS voyage. This was certainly the case; not everything went as planned and last minute changes changes requiring a little improvisation were common. This mostly applied to trips in port but played a big role in the "shipboard community" as well. Due dates for assignments were flexible, sea-sickness was an excuse to miss class, we had to conserve water, and peanut butter had to be rationed (oh no!). It was a great lesson when things didn't go as planned; everybody learned to work together and make the best of the situation because that's all you really can do. This adaptability is a great lesson and tool to take back into "real life."
The end of this voyage marks a return to reality. While I'm physically exhausted from this Summer, I'm more ready than ever to face the challenges of the future. My experiences the past 68 days have only increased my motivation and drive to work with and understand people in deeper ways, express the human condition through music, increase my knowledge of the scientific world, and continue my work as an "aspiring physician." These things I can accomplish at home but my travels are far from over as the infectious travel bug has inspired me to make sharing and learning abroad a priority in the future.
The end of this adventurous voyage is bittersweet. I have bid farewell to close friends and the MV Explorer, but it's time. I'm in California being greeted by my incredibly loving family and friends. It's fun abroad, but there's no place like home. Soon it will be back to school and I must now must face the intense transition and challenges that lie ahead. The voyage of a lifetime: Semester at Sea, Summer 2010.