Taking a Look

Sunday, June 26, 2011

What's the Word I'm Thinking Of?

The very first thing that happens once you step onto the MV Explorer is a hurried greeting from one of the oh-so-friendly faculty members: “Hi! Welcome to the ship! Can I see your ID? (Pause) Great! So you’re in cabin 4035 on deck 4, starboard side, why don’t you take these stairs up, and then head into midship. There’s a meeting in the Union after we embark, and until they you are free to wander about the ship. Just stay clear of the forward section.” Uh. Ok.

They’re very big on terminology here, which is understandable. Since the captain and the crew speak a certain way, it’s a smart idea to let the rest of us know what the hell they’re talking about in case we pull a Titanic or something. So, if you happen to be a student on Semester at Sea, you will quickly learn that the front of the ship is called “forward”, the back is “aft”, and you can simply call the middle section “midship”; we don’t “leave” a port, we “embark,” and rather than “arriving” we “disembark.”  Of course, left is port and right is starboard, all of the floors are officially “decks,” rooms are referred to as “cabins,” and likewise your roommate is your “cabinmate.” If you are lucky enough to get a window like me you’re to call it a “porthole.” But the biggest terminology rule EVER, the one rule you should really follow above all the others, is: we are on a SHIP, not a boat.

Neptune forbid you should refer to the MV Explorer as a boat. I think they would chuck you over the railing in six seconds flat and keep right on sailing (By the way, we “sail,” we don’t cruise). As they explained during a 12-hour orientation on the second day, boats go ON ships; ships do not go on boats. This does make sense, but it’s hard to switch your vocabulary. I heard a couple of girls complaining the other day about how strict the crew and faculty get about the whole ship thing. “Why does this matter? I’m on a boat biiiitches, hahaha.”  Now, I think it’s equally hilarious to randomly start singing lines from “I’m on  Boat” whenever I’m out on deck, but their comments did get me thinking about the importance of words, and the meaning behind them, something I’ve been very attuned to in recent months.

So for the past ten days, as I’ve been sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, I’ve struggled with words: speaking out in class after having been absent from the college environment for so long, figuring out how much to share with new friends, deciding what is essential enough to journal about, determining what is of interest to people at home for this blog, spitting out details and stories in e-mails, and of course working on how I want to define myself. What I am doing here? What is this? I keep hearing people refer to this experience as a “trip.” Ok, fair enough, I suppose it is. Other words floating around include “voyage,” “journey,”  and “adventure.” I would agree with all of those too. 

So what does that make me? An adventurer? An explorer? A voyager? A tourist? Maybe you’re thinking “You’re all of them.” Well, not exactly. There are some subtle differences between those words, and those differences might not matter to most people--maybe they don’t matter to anyone--but they matter to me.  I think what we label ourselves is important, because there are people out there who will choose to label us according to their own views, and we can’t counter their assessment of us unless we actually have something to counter with.

Thus, I have been attempting to riddle out the label I want to use for myself in this story; the right words to carry the meaning of what I’m doing. It’s been a long process. And what have I been doing during this process? Well I’d be happy to inform you :)

Life on the ship is like looking at a Picasso painting. You really don’t know what the heck is going on, but you know it’s important. The classes are demanding, but worth the effort once you put it in. Since I find one of my classes to be worthless, I clearly need to put in more effort.  Everybody on the ship has to take Global Studies. EVERYBODY. That’s students, crew, staff, faculty, children of faculty, mistresses of faculty, whoever. Everyone has to get themselves to Global Studies once a day, every day at sea, so we can all get educated on each of the countries we are visiting. It’s interesting to a point. I have a lot more on my list of things to see and do now, I know how to identify different European architectural styles, I can label every major city on the Mediterranean in less than two minutes, and I can give you a rundown of Spain’s current political climate without missing a breath. King Juan Carlos himself couldn’t do that better than I can. (Bet you didn’t know Spain still had royalty did you?)

My problem with Global Studies lies in the fact that we are given way too much reading to do. There is too much to cover in too little time: history, economics, art, culture, food, etc. We even have extra seminars on all of these things  to compensate. The more I think about it, the amount of reading we are assigned each night isn’t actually all that much more than what I was used to at Allegheny; what  makes it frustrating is having class every single day instead of every other day, so it’s a real pain reading 120+ pages every night. I might as well start working my way through the encyclopedia instead.

Such things like this often lead to reduced amounts of slumber, which is NOT good when you are crossing the Atlantic from West to East, because you literally lose an hour EVERY DAY. Freaking time zones. Who came up with this nonsense? I’ll tell you: someone who clearly never traversed the Atlantic by ship. At least not this way. The other way, going from Europe back to the U.S., is going to be glorious, because we will be gaining all those hours back every night. Alright.

My sleepless nights aboard the ship are not due to Global Studies, however. They are the effect of being an English nerd. I’m taking this class called Travel Writing and every day I go there it’s like someone is giving me a small chocolate cake and I’m the only one who is allowed to eat it. Generally, I detest writing nonfiction. Detest it. I’m not a big fan of the real world, so I use my writing to escape it as often as possible. But travel writing is something I could definitely get into. And according to my professor, based on the two assignments we have completed so far, I have a knack for it. Always good to know in case I need a back up career. Or a first up career. 

And now for the Mecca of all useless classes: History of Italy (and the Mediterranean) during the Renaissance. No. No. Stop thinking about how interesting that would be. Because you are wrong. I deserve some sort of ophthalmological award for how long I manage to keep my eyes open during those lectures. Who do I contact about that? I will concede this, though: the information is incredibly interesting. That time period was honestly (**history nerd alert**) one of the most fascinating periods of human history; but it’s the way that the professor presents the material that is forcing me to chug Mountain Dews from the snack bar before class. He acts like he’s teaching us about dust or.. .Binary numbers. And he may as well be. In yesterday’s class he spent 45 minutes talking about docks. Medieval docks. Awesome. Where’s my political intrigue? Where are the scandals and the suspicious poisonings and the Medici’s and the Borgias and the new movements and the corruption and all that? Oh, that’s right. It’s bulleted in size 10 font on the last slide of his PowerPoint. Awesome.

But really, I can’t complain too much. I’ve just sailed across the entire Atlantic Ocean after all, and not a lot of people can say that. Being constantly surrounded by water is a feeling I can’t quite describe. It’s almost as if you are stuck in time, because what you are seeing never changes. There is a seductive pull to the water, though, the way it laps against the side of the ship and how you look from horizon to horizon and watch it flutter like silk in a breeze. At night, the ocean is glass. This is when I want to jump in and break it. To trade seven years of luck just to feel the watery depths surround me. It would be such a relief, such a jolt of ecstasy to just let the current take you.

Though I suppose, the current does take us where it wants to, even here on the ship. You can never go too long without feeling the gentle shove of the ways. People are tilting to one side in the hallways in order to maintain balance when we bob up, then feel that moment of jittery free fall like being released from the Sky Coaster at Kennywood, and then glide back down into the waves.  I like the feeling—a giant rocks me to sleep every night. Two days ago I finally got hit with sea sickness. To my credit, the waves were particularly rough. I live on the fourth deck and our window was getting splashed from the height of the waves. 

That was also the only day the sky wasn’t thrown open in welcome to the sun. No, the sun was uninvited to the Atlantic that day. Instead, ominous gray thunderclouds hung over our heads all day, to remind us that Nature was still in charge here. No tanning or swimming or pool bar that day. The wind would probably swoop you up and carry you off to some spit of land where no one would ever find you.

All you really have to do to combat seasickness is lie down. You would think that the rocking of the ship would make seasickness worse, but it actually calms you, for the most part. Not that any of us really have time to sneak in power naps, because when we are not in class we are attending different seminars and club meetings. There is always some sort of activity going on. One night I psychoanalyzed myself by taking the Meyers-Briggs test (I’m INFP), the next I’m running around the ship with some friends trying to piece together clues in order to win the Amazing Race. The next night could be a showing of Inception, while the following evening finds us all attending a Dining Out in Spain seminar to learn what to eat, where to eat it, and (perhaps most importantly), what not to eat. There is always something to attend on the MV Explorer. Not to mention clubs. Picking and choosing those has been difficult, but I did establish myself as President (aka Gryffindor Prefect) of the Harry Potter club. I might be traveling to some of the greatest cities in the history of the world, but make no mistake, I WILL set time to see Deathly Hallows Part 2 before I leave.  Luckily, we’ve already found English speaking theaters in Croatia and are in the process of reserving tickets. Mischief managed.

With all of this going on, and socializing, eating, and occasionally resting, it’s hard to get back to that thinking I was discussing earlier. Because, like this blog, you start with one idea and are then preoccupied with all these other things you have to do.  So what am I doing? A voyage, or a trip? What is the difference, if there is one? Is it distance? Is it duration? Perhaps it’s danger. I’d say the real difference, when it comes down to it, is in packing. A trip is a one suitcase affair, give or take a purse or a backpack, and a voyage, well, that requires preparation for all possible scenarios. That’s why I had two extra bags to check at the airport compared to my family. 

So yes, I would say that I am on a voyage, and not a trip. Which leads me to make another distinction, and provide myself with another label: I am a voyager, or a traveler, and not a tourist. I take comfort in this because when I think of tourists I imagine those actors in Disney World commercials: map clutched firmly in one hand, Mickey Mouse water bottle gripped in the other, fanny pack around the waist, binoculars around the neck, Ride All Day bracelet cutting off circulation on the wrist, and of course (though you have to imagine this part) the hidden money wallet to protect funds from “scary foreigners.” I don’t want to be this person. I want to be a traveler, someone whose items they carry tell a different story.

It is hard to separate myself from the tourists though. The divide comes in our motivations, I believe. I am not going to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to take pictures (though I will, promise). I am not journeying to the Mediterranean to see sites (but of course, I will view and enjoy plenty). I am not traversing an entire ocean to bring back meaningless shot glasses and cheap souvenirs (though I will hopefully find valuable keepsakes). I am coming to the breadbasket of civilization to learn and to experience culture. I’m here for the people, and the places are simply supplementary. Wonderful supplements, yes, but supplements nonetheless.  I am here to expand my worldview, understand new and old issues on a global scale, and learn more about myself; and how I want to relate to the world, how I see the world, how I label the world, and how I label myself. 

There is a lot of “I” involved there. This is probably the greatest distinction between a trip and a voyage I can think of.  Trips are wonderful experiences in and of themselves—I can think of no better way to grow closer with my family—and I am not discounting them at all. There are huge aspects of this experience that resemble a trip, but one crucial piece is missing. People I know. Family. Friends from home. Therein lies the difference between my trip and my voyage. And that is ok, I had my trip with the people I care for, but it ended ten days ago when I walked through a door into a long line of individuals all wondering the same thing: “What have I gotten myself into?” And that thought is how I know what label I should use, that is how I know I am not just a tourist. For, trips I make with loved ones; voyages I make alone.

“Part of the urge to explore is a desire to become lost”—Tracy Johnston 

 Yesterday, we refueled right under the Rock of Gibraltar (above) and so we floated for awhile in that tiny strip of water between the south of Spain and the northern part of Morocco, aka I could see one continent on one side and another continent on the other.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bermuda, Bahamas, Some Other Words I Don't Know...

So the first chapter of my little jaunt around the world begins at the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.  It’s not actually a scheduled stop for Semester at Sea but my parents decided we would schedule our family vacation here so they would be able to send me off from Nassau, which is where the M.V. Explorer embarks from. I felt kinda spoiled getting to go on both a vacation AND a two month study abroad experience all in one summer, but I have since decided to consider it the universe’s way of repaying for me all the mega SHIT that went down over the past seven months. 

It’s been quite the nice repayment too, even after a rough start. No more than three or four hours after I posted that first blog were my parents fighting at the airport. I can’t even remember what it was about now, because it was so trivial, but it did involve storming away, the silent treatment, a few choice curse words, and what can only be described as an adult temper tantrum. Like really? Now, I love my parents to death, but they are supposed to be parents. In the early morning hours of June 11, 2011 they were anything but.
Luckily, all that passed by the time we landed in Washington, D.C. for our connecting flight to Nassau. Which I slept through. That whole “I’m staying up all night to pack and write blogs and hallucinate a purple elephant on top of my dresser” energy I had totally vanished by the time I sat down on flight #2. This was fine, because when I woke up I was in the Bahamas. Stuff like that should happen more often.  

My week in Atlantis was a lot of fun. There was just enough to do so that you weren’t bored, but also enough down time to relax. And I got to build up a base tan for Semester at Sea. I tan really well too. Yeah, be jealous about that one. One of the definite highlights was getting to go on the 50-foot water slide in Atlantis’s built-in water park, Aquaventure. The slide was appropriately titled “Leap of Faith.” My sister, Angela, and I had to coerce my mom (whom I affectionately refer to as Miss P because of her incredible fierceness) to take the near vertical drop, and she is usually the adventurous one in the family. Maybe her fear had to do with the height, maybe it had to do with the screams people bellowed as they plummeted down, or maybe it had to do with the fact you plunge into a pool filled with sharks.* I guess that’s something that makes you think twice about jumping. 

There was also an enormous amount of really good food. We had everything from Mexican to Bahamian to good old fashioned American. My favorite dinner, though, was our meal at Carmine’s, the Italian restaurant at Atlantis. They serve family style portions of all the food, and our appetizer dish of zucchini fries literally consisted of more zucchini than I had probably consumed in my life up until that point. Then we had ravioli that rivaled the size of Texas and meatballs as big as my fist. Now, I like balls (haha, Craig made a gay joke about himself) but when you practically need a pitchfork to handle your food things can get a little intense. But it was fun and hilarious, just like all our dinners in the Bahamas. 

I love traveling, and I especially love traveling with my family. All of our lives are so hectic we barely ever get to have dinner at home with just the four of us. Someone is either going out or not home or whatever and we all just end up eating alone at random times, which sort of bums me out. Knowing that you have a limited time to live at home really makes me want to spend as much time with my parents and sister as I can, so I always get excited for vacation. We have a great time, laugh constantly, bicker lovingly, and rehash all sorts of old memories and stories that won’t get spoken of again until the next family vacation, so it’s sort of cool.
The weird part about this vacation was knowing that I wouldn’t be on the returning flight. I wasn’t exactly sad per say—I had that moment a few days before I left after some friends from home threw me a surprise going away party—I just felt very off. Like I was unhinged from the vacation in a way. This crazy two month journey I had worked and fought so hard for was looming and I was so nervous and I was running through all these final details in my mind all the time, and to be honest at some moments it really ruined the vacation.  At the risk of sounding completely bat shit crazy, I will admit that ever since my depression returned I’ve that this Voice in my head. I’m working on a separate post to elaborate on this further, but in a nutshell the Voice is always trying to bring to me down and freak me out at the worst possible moments—like when I’m on vacation. So there were some down moments in Atlantis, but luckily not many.

Well now that I’ve introduced that little teaser and everyone at home is looking up different psychiatric institutions they can commit me too, I’ll end this post on a high note. My vacation in the Bahamas was just what I needed. I got to ease into my world travel with my family by my side, I had adventure, good food, relaxation time, and even something I thought only happened in movies: a little vacation “fling.” I contemplated talking about it in the post, and telling you about the guy, but in the end I decided to keep the moments private. A few people out there already know about him and some of the cool stuff we did, and I’m happy to talk about it a little, but not too much. Cause how often does that happen? The answer, if you are wondering, is “not that often.”

So that was time in the Bahamas. Typical family fun, getting sun burnt, digging your feet into the sand, burying your face into fresh, fluffy pillows every night, and buying six million dollar photos of yourself swimming with a dolphin named Icaro**.  Now I’m sitting in my cabin on the MV Explorer talking about how hilarious it is when people fall over in the hallway from the rocking of the ship. It is not, however, funny, when you yourself do this. Especially when you are walking to the very first meeting of the voyage and everyone watches it happen…not that that happened to me….

*You don’t actually plunge into a pool filled with sharks. Well, you do, but you’re encased in a glass tube and the sharks just swim around you. Still, the glass wasn’t that thick…

**The photos of us with the dolphin did not actually cost six million dollars. That was how much the dolphin paid to get a photo with me

“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to leave the shore” –Andre Gide

Friday, June 10, 2011

Off My Rocker..and Into the Sea

In a few short hours, I will be taking the first step in the craziest journey of my life thus far. It seems almost unreal. After enduring some pretty bad months the worst months of my life, it didn't look like I would be making it for this trip. But sometimes, the night actually is darkest just before the dawn. 

The past two days have been insane, to say the least. Thursday night, I was the definition of a hot mess. Next to nothing was packed for a two month trip, I had a To-Do list that seemed never ending, and I kept freaking out about everything that entered my mind. I ended up having a panic attack, which I've been prone to since I slid back into depression. Oh yeah, I'm depressed. Like, actually depressed. Got pills and everything. But that's a blog for another day. A story for a different time in my life, when I'm ready to talk about some things I still need to work on, some demons I still need to confront, and some events I'm still in disbelief even happened.

But what's happening now is something exciting, something new, something scary, and something good. No, something great. I finally get to experience something great. And I'm so kid-who-gets-picked-to-be-the-line-leader-in-first-grade excited that I really want to share this experience with people back home. So, per the requests of many individuals, and because of my own interest, I will do my best to keep a running blog of where I go, what I see, who I meet, and why you should care. Oh, and what I eat. I feel like that will be entertaining to discuss, since I'll try anything once.

Tonight, my insomnia is good insomnia. There's no dread of going to sleep, there's just lots of anticipation. Some of it is nerves and anxiety, a problem I can't quite control yet, but most of it is general excitement. It's a nice change from how I was feeling twenty-four hours ago; when I was so stressed out I was unable to breathe properly, I could practically see my  heart straining against my chest, and I had to lay flat on my back in the middle of deck at 1:00 in the morning just to get my head to stop spinning. No, tonight, I feel great. Sure, I said goodbye to a lot of close friends today, and that sucked in the moment. And it will suck again soon. But I also got all (ok, most) of my packing done, I kicked that To-Do List's ass, had a healthy breakthrough on one of the issues I'm dealing with, and I even mustered up enough courage to ask a question I was afraid to ask, and tie up a loose end I was dreading taking on this trip with me. And it totally turned out ok! 

All in all, tonight is a good night, and hopefully is a sign of good things to come. And hopefully I'll be able to regularly communicate those good things! I'm totally open to any suggestions on things to blog about and what to include and once I start talking about things that are actually interesting I'd love comments and feedback (doesn't that sound like I'm only saying it because I feel obligated? I don't. Ok, I do. But it's still true). 

Alright, now I'm going to load up my carry-on and sort out these butterflies in my stomach. It's like that feeling you get when take a deep breathe right before you make the conscious decision to do something you've always dreamed of doing and finally get the chance. Or when you're waiting in line at Target and a cashier opens up a new check-out lane. One or the other. Haven't decided which yet.

"I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is, 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!" --Alice