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.


  1. Love it. Perhaps my favorite quote here was:

    "He acts like he’s teaching us about dust or.. .Binary numbers"

    LOL. That sounds MISERABLE. Regardless, you sound like you're having a wonderful time. I am so, so, so proud of you for claiming your rightful place as president of the Harry Potter Club. Well done, sir.

    Anyway, I miss you, but I'm really happy you have this blog. Please continue what you're doing :)

  2. I think you found your perfect mix of things to write about. I enjoyed this very much :)

  3. I would label you as an amazing, wonderful human being. I am so proud of you Craig and your blogs are fantastic. I actually feel like I am there with you. Enjoy your voyage, have wonderful new adventures, make new friends and remember that everyone back home is looking forward to hearing about every one of them