Taking a Look

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Journey Home

“I heard and I forgot. I saw and I remembered. I did and I understood”—Confucius

A change of clothes sits on my bed next to a half-opened backpack and three large duffle bags. The wall is barren, all of the post-it notes my friends and I wrote to each other all summer long are collected in my journal. The room is quiet.

Yesterday, before our rather sophisticated Alumni Ball, the administration held a seminar to speak with us about Re-Entry into the United States and a phenomenon most of us have been dreading: reverse culture shock. The ship psychologists were on hand to provide us with a number of different strategies on coping with the effects of returning to the United States after 65 days abroad. They stressed that, despite what people at home might like to believe (and perhaps what some of us onboard still believe) we are not the same people we left as in June. The sticky part of the situation is that the problems, relationships, issues, and responsibilities of home still are the same, and we will be returning to these things as completely different individuals, with new perspectives on how to handle our problems and a different way in which we want to live our lives—the kind of things we want to do, the people we wish to surround ourselves with. We were warned about encountering frustration at being unable to convey just what this summer has done for our lives, and bewilderment and confusion at the American way of life for awhile. Eventually, we began to understand that re-entry is going to be an incredibly difficult process. Physically, we have no choice. Emotionally, we are willing the ship to turn around and head back to the Mediterranean. Mentally, we are forcing ourselves to realize that we have become stronger, transformed people, imbued with confidence to take on the issues we left behind, and yet we are also forcing ourselves to realize that our lives at home are soon to be tested by our newfound understanding of the world. And the results are uncertain.

The return across the Atlantic has been one of intense self-reflection. Many questions have been asked, with few answers provided. “How will I convey to my friends the impact this summer has had on my view of the world?” “Will my loved ones appreciate the lessons I have learned?” “How do I explain this? How will I ever describe that?” and so on. How do I tell you all that the people I have met this summer are not my friends? For, through travel, they have become my family. How will I ever accomplish this?

I do not know if I can. I do not know if I will. I do not know if it is possible. But I do that I have gained a new perspective with which to look at the problems I face. I do know that seeing the world is a priceless experience, and I will continue to travel for as long as I am able. I do know that I have learned more than I ever could have hoped to over the past two months. I know that the voyage ends, but the journey continues.

And so, I will leave you with the following piece of writing, a piece that I have been working on all summer for my Travel Writing class, and I shall let you take from it what you will.


Depression is like quicksand. The more that you struggle, the farther down you sink. To survive, remain calm. Then you can reach out for help.

Assuming anyone is there to take your hand.

First day. New room. Covered with mirrors. At the desk. On the wall. Above the sink. They make the room look larger than it is.

When opportunity knocks, you have to answer the door. Otherwise, the pounding will drive you insane.

I left school on the last day of March, intent on making a new life for myself. A life without loneliness, fear, harassment, anger, depression, hurt, abandonment, jealousy, and broken hearts. If such a life exists.

This ship is full of doors.

Behind, crying myself to sleep. Heavy breathing. Asking for help. Ahead, a night under the stars. Inhaling Vesuvian air. Enunciating “Hvala.”

Sometimes a liberal arts school isn’t as liberal as you thought.

I can see the writing on the wood. It was bright red. Almost neon. There were six, long, fat letters and they ruined everything. Well, not everything. Most things.

My parents and sister carried my bags for me, as far as they could. I got a hug from my dad, a kiss from my mom, and a high-five from my sister. Then they waved goodbye as I stepped through a door.

A promise that I won’t be the same person in two months.

A fear that I will.

Five gay suicides. Students jumping off bridges. Students who sank in the quicksand. Thirteen year old Seth Walsh. Thirteen year old Asher Brown.

Someone once told me that God can heal a broken heart, but He just has to have all the pieces. The trouble is collecting all of the pieces to give to God.  And making sure He has enough super glue.

Two months filled with doors. In Spain, in Italy, in Greece.

I like the rocking of the ship. It helps me sleep at night.

Pennsylvania can be a cold place, especially in the winter. Lots of snow, not a lot of sunlight. That’s not a good mix for someone with a lot of depression and not a lot of friends.

I believe in the power of words. Before, I used to just say that. Never really meant it. Then you experience a word. An awful word. You experience it twice in big, bold, red letters on your door. Then, you understand the power of words.

Depression. Is like quicksand. Getting saved, requires reaching. Out.

Wish that your enemies might be alone, but never lonely.

Video after video. “It Gets Better.” Story after story. “It Gets Better.” Song after song. “It Gets Better.”

When you hear something over and over and over and over and over. It becomes true. Or you think.

A dinner in Spain. A mountain in Italy. An island in Croatia. A camel in Morocco.

When you’re at the bottom of a mountain, the only place to go is up.

When you’re isolated in a single room, the only way out is the door. Is there writing on it?

“Hi, nice to meet you. Where do you go to school?” Fixated face, engaging eyes.

I’ve always enjoyed meeting new people. That way, I get to hear their stories, and I like stories. So I create them, I read them, and I listen to them. They inspire me, entertain me, challenge me, revive me.

People at home, always: “What’s wrong?” I tell them. “I have to go.” Well, now I have to go. Spain, Italy, Greece.

So I left. Said my goodbyes, packed my things, and walked through the door.

Don’t befriend me, because I will care too much. Don’t date me, because I will love too much. Don’t support me, because I will disappoint too much.

Oh, Alice, you seemed to have lost your muchness.

Mirrors are windows into the soul. That’s bullshit about eyes. You can train your eyes to lie. The mirror; that shows who you truly are.

Can a heart heal a broken God?

First day. They taught us how to use the life vest. So we don’t sink.

Billy Lucas. Tyler Clementi. Didn’t get life vests.

Dubrovnik is called The Pearl of the Adriatic. It sits on the coast, surrounded by a crumbling, ever ancient wall. In the wall, a door that bears no writing welcomes people inside. When you walk inside, the fairy tale becomes reality. Perhaps more exciting, reality becomes a fairy tale.

People giving advice: Being bullied is a rite of passage. We all endure it.

Why does that make it ok?

Try looking at the world. Try looking at the world through the looking glass. If you can’t handle it, you shall lose your head. Nonsense is sense in the mirror. Dream is truth. The roses are red.

“Can I talk to you?” They say Of Course. “Ok. Lately, I’ve…”

A woman hands me a leaf and bids me well. I can give her nothing in return, save silence. Her gift is a symbol of vitality. My gift is quiet. Like a closed door.

Can you be in the closet when the closet is labeled?

In port, I sleep from exhaustion. On water, I sleep from rocking. No nightmares. But a dreamless sleep can haunt in its own way.

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir, because I’m not myself you see.”

If you get sun burnt, does that mean that the sun likes you or hates you? My skin remains untouched.

In the main square of Athens, a woman with a microphone speaks to a large crowd. Her words are filled with discontent.

Thirtieth day, list your accomplishments. Climbed a mountain. Kayaked an island. Walked through doors. Spain, Italy, Greece.

The school promised me. They would do everything they could to find the person with the red paint. Investigations are not as fun as they appear in movies. Not an accurate reflection.

The ship glides on a broken mirror from country to country.

Upon reaching the peak of Mt. Vesuvius, I sat to rest. My heart was calmed. With it, my mind and spirit settled. I tasted air for the first time in months. Surrounded by light and ash. Perhaps I am a phoenix.

I called my mom in the late afternoon. She answered in the early morning. From different sides of the mirror, we shared stories.

Quicksand is like depression. It refuses to let you go.

At St. Peter’s, there is a door that is opened once every ten years. A special key is required. Only the Pope may open the door.

They say that time heals everything. If you are seven hours ahead, do your wounds heal seven times as fast?

When opportunity knocks, you have to answer the door. Otherwise, the pounding will drive you mad.

But we are all mad here.

We cross the Atlantic once more. Sunsets guide the way. On our third night, the ocean is draped in a black veil. It is in mourning. The moon reveals itself. Silver bends in the light. My soul meets its glow.

But the sun returned the next morning. For it had to. The veil is dark, but never permanent.

The beaches of Bulgaria are soft and white. Toes sink in the sand. I pull them back out before they are burned.

I am told that I look good in red.

On a starless night in Croatia, I dance with a man my age at a club. A woman approaches us and her eyes are fire. Despite the language barrier, her words cut like glass. A blink and she is air. I breathe in, and dance.

Raymond Chase will never learn to dance. Thirteen year old Ryan Halligan learned only to tie knots.

“Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”

Words were typed. They traveled through the looking glass and were read. In a moment, he had knocked on death’s door.

Or perhaps the words were red.

Sixtieth day, list your accomplishments. Rode a camel. Dined in Asia. Looked in the mirror.

Breathing on my reflection, I wrote a message in the fog. I myself cannot pass through yet, but my words can.

Thus, without sound I spoke.

My silent self and myself silent.

“I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? 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?’”

It takes a life to learn how to live.

Depression is like quicksand. To the trained eye, you can see it ahead. Take caution to step around, and you will be safe.

Like the sun, I have come out again.

They say that when God closes a door, he opens a window. A window into what? I think that I know.

If Dubrovnik seemed to whisper like a mischievous lover and loneliness like dew evaporates, and Athens seemed great agitator and forceful mirror beside, home seems far less end than another port.

The voyage ends, but the journey continues.

A promise fulfilled. Curiouser and curiouser.

There is no telling which side of the mirror I live on. Or how many times I have followed the rabbit.

There are wonderful things about home, too.

The soft purr of Dinah.

Like Keats, I shall be. “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

Or I prefer written water.

When you knock, opportunity has to answer the door. In Spain, Italy, Greece. When you become a traveler, you are a traveler for life. There is no climbing up the rabbit hole. The mirror your friend. Dream your lover. Truth your own.

I have learned to dance. More importantly, I have learned to breathe.


Alice has returned to Wonderland.


Hope you enjoyed. Thanks for reading this summer.

“If my ship sails from sight, it does not mean my journey ends; it simply means the river bends”—J. Enoch Powell

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Casablahblah (and Other Moroccan Tales)

Let’s imagine that there are three kinds of people in the world.

1)      Those unwilling to step outside their comfort zone
2)      Those willing to step outside their comfort zone
3)      Those willing to jump outside their comfort zone

If you are going to travel to Morocco someday, you must fit into the third and final category. One and two will not cut it. Morocco is, and will be for any foreseeable future, an incredibly conservative, Muslim country. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if you wish to experience the rich culture and somewhat arcane lifestyle of the Moroccan people, then you must be willing to go against all instinct, to make yourself vulnerable, and to open your mind. But I promise you, I promise you, if you do, the rewards are infinite.

Casablanca is, much like Civitavecchia in Italy, a gateway city. Aside from the Hassan II mosque, built quite recently, and an exact replica of Rick’s Café from the classic movie, there is not much else to see or do in Casablanca. It was the first city we visited that did not have a commercial port; instead we had to dock in the industrial port, which was two miles from the city itself. Now, waking up the first day in a new port is always an interesting experience. You never know what the view outside your window will be. It could be lush, rolling hills in Dubrovnik, a black stoned castle in Naples, or even the Hagia Sophia across the bay in Istanbul. In Casablanca, I pulled up the shade on my porthole in the morning to find dust, half-completed construction projects, giant steel boxes, and a crane that was probably more rust than metal. And I couldn’t see a single building from the city itself.

Initial reaction? “Screw this.” I had just sat through a two hour pre-port the night before in which they had warned us we were about to disembark in the most dangerous port on our itinerary and that the threat of being assaulted, robbed, scammed, and apparently blown to bits by anti-American Muslim radicals was incredibly high. And then, peace! See ya! Have fun, hope you come back with all your limbs intact.  Awesome. So with all of those lovely death facts in mind, and the view of the African Compton outside my window, I was about ready to curl back up in bed and sleep Casablanca away. But I didn’t do that. I didn’t give in to my first instinct. This was the final stop. I had to make the most of it. I had to trek those two miles into the city. Luckily, I discovered that a free shuttle ran from out ship to the gates of the port so, ready to undertake our final stop by the horns, I hopped on with my friends, took the ten minute ride, still somewhat cautious about the abandoned port buildings we kept passing, and got dropped off in the dust. No, literally, the dust. Stepped off the bus into a nice old patch of dusty dust. Alright.

Past the port security guards lies the main street of Casablanca. According to a map we were smack dab in the middle of the street and could choose to go left, right, or straight. Both Rick’s Café and the Hassan II mosque were off to the right, a block or two apart from one another. In order to make sure we had something to do on our last day in port, however, we agreed to save both for later in the week. Thus, the first day in Casablanca involved a whole lot of nothing, aside from free Wi-Fi in a nearby hotel lobby. Sitting in an air-conditioned hotel bar, drinking Fanta (no alcohol during the day, because it’s Ramadan), and Facebook chatting with friends from home was both relaxing and unnerving. As seasoned travelers by this point in the summer, it was completely against our nature to twiddle our thumbs and just sit when a whole new city was right at our feet. It was entirely against out instincts. But when we spoke to some of our fellow voyagers later, we were assured that we made the right decision. No one did anything that first day. Because there was nothing to do.

But that’s ok! Because the next morning I was on a bus with some friends on an SAS sponsored trip to Marrakech, a large city four and a half hours away from Casablanca. Marrakech is one of three cities in Morocco you definitely want to spend your time in, the other two being Fez and Rabat, the capital. Arriving in Marrakech, we checked in to our hotel and were quickly whisked outside the city to a quaint Moroccan village where we ate a traditional lunch of eggs and meatballs, couscous, vegetables, cinnamon oranges, and mint tea. The whole ordeal proved to be rather humorous considering Moroccans generally do not eat with silverware.

After lunch came the crux of the trip, and perhaps the event I was most looking forward to this entire summer: the camel trek. For an hour and a half, through the palm groves and desert that lay outside Marrakech, we rode single file on the quirkiest animals I have ever seen. I chose my special friend, whom I dubbed Albert, as soon as I saw him. He was quiet, decently groomed, and practically unhinging his jaw as he chewed on God-knows-what. Which is a hilarious sight, by the way. Albert and I had quite the bonding experience as he carried me through the fields and slopes of Marrakech, and despite the 112 degree sun that bore down on us, Albert pushed forward and for that, I salute him.

During my jaunt through the desert with Albert, I picked up on a few camel riding tips that I believe now make me an expert on camel riding. If anyone out there wants to disprove me, then you can go to Marrakech and ride a camel yourself and we’ll compare notes. Until then, listen up. The first thing I learned about riding camels is that these odd little creatures do not get up with their front legs first, like most other animals. Instead, they hoist their hind legs up first, then the front legs, which means that when you are sitting on your friendly neighborhood camel and have only a flimsy metal bar to hold onto, it can get a little tense and panicky when you are lurched forward and feel yourself slipping off mid-rise. Most people tend to react by flailing their arms or kicking their legs repeatedly to keep balance, and I can tell you that this method of reassurance ends up being not-so-reassuring as all the people who employed this method fell off and had to climb back on, this time red in the face and covered in dirt. What you have to do, though it feels about as strange as turning around on a roller coaster, is stay completely still. The camel knows what it’s doing, and as long you don’t move, you won’t fall.

Successful camel riding tidbit number two essentially reverses this principle for when you are actually riding the camel. All you really have to sit on is a giant carpet with a metal hook attached to hold on to, so balance becomes a key component to confidently maneuvering your camel ride. It’s tempting to remain as stiff as possible once the camel actually starts moving, because you feel as though any slight movement that will disrupt your initial balance will send you toppling, and all of a sudden this intense image of your head getting trampled by giant ass camel feet is stuck in your head. But if you keep that tense frame, then be prepared to let your brain get squished. Letting your arms and limbs fall as loose as they can, and relaxing back into the hump of the camel, actually makes the ride much more comfortable and enjoyable. Thinking about your balance is no longer a conscious effort, it just flows. Which gives you more time to take silly pictures of your friends doing ridiculous poses, or of the girl in front of you, whose pants are getting nibbled on by her camel.

That first night in Marrakech, after the excitement of the day’s Arabian adventure had worn off slightly, my friends and I decided to  journey into the city to catch an ethnic show that our tour guide for this three day trip promised would include belly dancing, snake charming, horse riding, and a free drink. For the price we were offered, all of this seemed like an incredible deal, if we could actually find the place where the show occurred. Evidently, it was on the other side of Marrakech from out hotel, and walking at night, being the Americans that we are, is not a great idea unless your destination is only five to ten minutes away. Kindly enough, the hotel manager arranged for a van to come pick us up outside the hotel. The evening proceeded as follows:

9:15 pm: Dinner ends in the hotel dining room. Six of us agree that attending the aforementioned show would be entertaining, worthwhile, and would beat sitting around the hotel playing cards all evening. Inquires made as to the location of this show.

9:30 pm: Location revealed, through desk clerk, as “Too far. You walk, you die.” Plan to attend show called into question.  Agreement made that staying shank-free is top priority this port (and life in general). Hotel manager overhears the dilemma, insists that he will call a van service for us, free of charge. The likelihood of any shank related events occurring decreases.

9:35 pm: Bathroom breaks followed by six successive withdrawals from the lobby’s ATM machine. Moroccan dirham given to hotel manager to pay for our tickets. Moroccan dirham deposited into hotel manager’s pockets. Questionable looks ensue.

9:47 pm: Couches become a more appealing waiting venue.

9:58 pm: Solitaire begins on various smart phone devices

10:12 pm: Hotel manager spotted whispering to man in jumpsuit while gesticulating in our direction. Group arches eyebrows and exchanges suspicious glances.

10:22 pm: Agreement made to forgo plan for the evening in eight minutes due to lack of transportation.

10:30 pm: Aforementioned van arrives at the hotel gates. All six of us pile into the plain white vehicle and take note of lack of seatbelts and one window. Driver shuts the slider between front and passenger sections of van. A single light is turned on above our heads. Likelihood of shank related events increases slightly.

10:39 pm: Van passes a sign in Arabic that group concurs says “You are now leaving Marrakech.” Drive down a dirt road without lights, buildings, or signs commences. Likelihood of shank related events increases dramatically.

10:55 pm: Van rounds a corner and passes under a gate that materializes from nowhere. The sign reads “Ali Baba’s Fantasia Tourista.” Despite sign, there is noticeable lack of any building, structure, or breathing individual. Likelihood of shank related events enters weird limbo stasis.

11:00 pm: Van deposits cargo at sudden entrance to Fantasia. Likelihood of shank related events decreases extensively. Group proceeds inside and is seated underneath gigantic canopy.

11:05 pm: Moroccan beer ordered.

11:10 pm: Moroccan beer consumed.

11:25 pm: Relocation to stadium seating surrounding a strange dirt field. Costumed performers stand at one end of field.

11:30 pm: Show commences, involving one belly dancer performing one move to one song one time, several men firing several guns on several horses several times, a narrative spoken in Arabic the entire time, a boy on a donkey, acrobatic tricks performed by acrobats on acrobatic horses (?), a parade of aforementioned costumed performers, and a magic carpet. Group concurs on mass confusion, as well as mass entertainment.

12:30 am: Aforementioned show ends. Group reloads into plain white seatbeltless van.

1:00 am: Group returns to hotel on other side of Marrakech. General consensus that ignoring instincts in bizarre situation proved beneficial. Goodnights administered.

And thus, another typical SAS night came to an end, and gave way to another typical SAS day: an all day tour of Marrakech featuring botanical gardens, dead people’s tombs, a giant palace, and the Most Irritating Marketplace on Earth.

The Most Irritating Marketplace on Earth can be found in the center square, or medina, of Marrakech. An elaborate series of alleyways also filled with shops and boutiques surround the square so that you are enclosed on all sides by vendors. The marketplace is nowhere near as striking or impressive as Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, but it does the job well enough. And in an entirely different manner. In Turkey, the salesmen are pushy and quick-witted, but if you kindly reply “No thank you” to their advances, they respectfully bow their heads to you and allow you on your way. In Morocco, all bets are off. When you step into the medina, you are like raw meat in a shark tank. Which is why you’ve got to go in with a cage to protect yourself. You must know what you are up against.

 What you are up against is the following:

A man with a monkey on his shoulder runs towards you. “Please, please, my friend, here, here…” you protest slightly, you think holding the monkey would be awesome, but you know they will rip you off. “Please, please, my friend.” Suddenly, the monkey is on your shoulder. Suddenly, two monkeys are on your shoulder. Another man has evidently jumped down from a flying carpet and is now arguing with the first man about which monkey you should be holding. A third man taps you on the back and you delicately turn, keeping on monkey cradled in your arm and the other balanced on your shoulder. The third man holds a tray with an assortment of trinkets and knick knacks. “My friend, my friend, where you from? Where you from?” You feign confusion. “Please, please, where you from? States? Ewnited States? Obama? Spice Girls? I know your cousin. I live with him six years.” Somewhere in the chaos, you manage to get your picture taken. But wait, all of your female friends suddenly have Henna tattooed up and down their arms and legs and short, hunchbacked women are holding out their hands for money. The two men with the monkeys are suddenly demanding payment, a ridiculous amount of dirham. You offer to pay half of that, a generous offer in and of itself, and they proceed to act incredibly insulted, curse America, and threaten to call the police.

And all this happens at the entrance.

I know that doesn’t sound like the most pleasant experience, and at first it isn’t. That’s because one’s first instinct is of intense irritation. Some people give in and end up screaming at the locals who forced Henna on their arms or put a cobra around their neck (somewhat justified). Some people meekly pay the ridiculous prices in order to avoid further confrontation. But neither of those roads has to be taken to survive the Most Irritating Marketplace on Earth. All you need to do is suppress your initial reaction of annoyance and fear, and fight back. Don’t worry, it’s entirely customary. Once they threaten to send you to jail (which is merely a bluff) respond with something clever. For me, I chose “Then I guess I’m taking your monkeys with me.” Watch closely, because you will catch your adversaries smile. You have entered the game now. Lots of witty banter ensues in the Most Irritating Marketplace, and with it reduced prices. As long as you negotiate and fight back long enough, the vendors will give in and charge you the appropriate price, often times giving you a pat on the back as they leave or blowing you a kiss as a sign of appreciation for giving in to their custom of “aggressive negotiation.”

This tradition is not easy to do by any means, because every few feet a similar situation happens again, and you must repeat the entire process over again, which in turn makes the medina the Most Irritating Marketplace on Earth. But a hell of a lot of fun too.

My time in Morocco was book ended in Casablanca, where I returned for our final night in port. For our last hoorah, we suited up (somewhat literally) and reserved a dinner at Rick’s Café, which was so strikingly similar to the set from the 1942 film I wouldn’t have been surprised if Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman sat down next to us. The following day, Friday, we went to visit the Hassan II mosque, which sits on a cliff overlooking the ocean, aware that since it was the Islamic holy day we would most likely be denied entrance. We were, but rather than leave as our first instinct told us, we stuck around and I eventually had the good luck to be taken down into the baths beneath the mosque by one of the mosque’s imams, who showed me how to properly wash my face and hands as if I were a Muslim preparing for prayer. This intimate experience is one I am eternally grateful for. After walking around the baths for awhile, the doors of the mosque were opened in preparation for the noonday prayer and we were allowed to stay and watch, just outside the doors, as a small Muslim family proceeded to pray. A part of me felt that it was wrong to watch them perform such a deeply personal act, but I could not turn my head away from how perfectly in sync and lithe their bodies were as they kneeled, stood, and raised their hands in silent reverence.

Leaving Morocco was a bittersweet experience. Boarding the MV Explorer for the last time and bidding farewell to the final stop on our itinerary took a lot of effort. My in-port experiences were over, and who can predict when I will return to any of the countries I was fortunate enough to visit, if ever? On the other hand, Morocco had drained me physically, mentally, and emotionally. I was looking forward to eight days at sea, for the ocean is nature’s great healer. Standing out on deck, watching the Moroccan shoreline dip into the horizon, a content smile found its way across my face. How glad I was to have left my comfort zone, and how eager I was to do it again.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts”—Mark Twain