A Reflection on Semester at Sea

Like all great endings, my semester around the world comes to a close with the promise of a new beginning. As I prepare to journey home in just two short weeks, I am grappling with how to process all I’ve seen and done, and what my answer will be to the unavoidable question: So, how was it? It’s an answer I’ve been chewing on since January, a kind of laundry list scribbled on the back of my hand, a compilation of each impressive landmark I’ve visited with corresponding pictures to prove it. That’s the easy answer – I could rave about the immensity of the Great Wall of China, contrast real Indian chicken curry to the takeout restaurant down the street, or describe how to take a bucket shower in a remote Ghanaian village. I could recount all I’ve seen and set aside how it made me feel. The easy answer is found in a picture slideshow and souvenirs, it is found in thorough itineraries and travel routes, it is the what, where, and when without the why and the who. But as the rest of the semester dwindles in front of me and my calendar runs out of blank space, I am starting to realize that the who and the why in my Semester at Sea story has made all the difference. So, how was it? It was unforgettable, humbling, challenging, enlightening, imperfect and real. It was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. I circumnavigated the globe on a ship, stopping to port in Hawaii, Japan, China, Vietnam, Myanmar, India, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, Morocco, and Germany in the span of just under four months. I traveled to eleven countries, but more importantly, I interacted with eleven unique cultures, coexisting with the most dynamic, vibrant people I’ve ever known. It took traveling around the world for me to see that the most interesting part of any place, of any life, is the people in it. When I look back on my semester abroad, I know the smells and tastes of each destination will start to fade, just as my pictures will eventually seem a distant memory in another life. What won’t fade is how people around the globe made me feel, how they looked at me and how I learned to look at myself through their eyes. I won’t forget the pushy Chinese vendors squawking at me from inside the black market, nor the little Burmese girl with the impossibly curly eyelashes who tugged at my t-shirt, studied my freckly face, and wondered aloud: Where do you come from? I won’t forget Felicia, my Ghanaian mother with her full hips, who opened her home to me and gave the best hugs. I won’t forget Johnson, my Indian tuk-tuk taxi driver, and his proud, toothy grin when I bought my first sari. I won’t forget the South African wine connoisseur who spoke about olive oil and red wine as one speaks about falling in love. I learned, in bustling Tokyo intersections, on idyllic Mauritian beaches, and in cozy Vietnamese book shops, that happiness, adventure, and growth can be found in conversation. There is no replacement for genuine human interaction – it was during my most awkward encounters that I gained an unexpected confidence. It was when I slammed into the thickest of language barriers that I learned how to laugh at myself. I learned the power of a name, of a smile, of a gesture, and of silence while surrounded by those vastly different than myself. I painted a new model of beauty in my head, one that deviates from those in the magazines back home. Introducing myself to someone new every day pushed me to more fully answer questions I’d been wrestling with my entire life: Who am I? What is my story? It was not enough to simply leave home – I found that change was only possible when I looked for home in strangers’ faces, and learned to see myself within the colorful collage of identities around the world. “Ubuntu,” a beautiful African worldview, means: I am because we are. I am who I am now, three and a half months later, because of who we are as a global community. I am because I learned to include myself in the larger “we,” to see family not as a last name but as a feeling. Throughout the semester, I left little pieces of myself in places where I may not ever return and formed friendships with people who won’t remember my name – and that’s okay. Oftentimes, we dip into each other’s lives not to make waves, but to leave behind a subtle ripple. My time on the MV World Odyssey may be in its denouement, but my odyssey around the world is just beginning. It was a rare privilege to witness such variety of life, and it was an unparalleled opportunity to discover that we are, in fact, all reaching out for the same thing: each other.