Cape Town, South Africa
It’s been 105 days since I left the MV Explorer. I have now been away from Semester at Sea for as long as I was on Semester at Sea. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. Many people, including myself, wondered if the impact of Semester at Sea would stay with us, or whether the memories would fade, the pictures lose their breathtaking quality, the memories stop inspiring, and life to move on like usual. I feel like today is an appropriate day to address whether that has actually happened or not.
Like most things, it’s not as cut and dry as either remembering SAS or not remembering SAS. Of course, simply put, I remember SAS. How can a person ever forget jumping off a skyscraper in Macau, or jumping on to a ferryboat in India? The events that unfolded will stay with me. Obviously, the subtleties have faded. I reread my blog posts and remember the price I paid for lunch in Mauritius, or how many sunglasses I bought in Accra. My mentality on larger themes of Semester at Sea hasn’t changed at all though.
I have returned to appreciating the material comforts of home. My cell phone has once again become an appendage to my body, and on weekends I wallow about in my full size bed in my private bedroom. However, thinking on a larger scale, I still benefit from the independence and flexibility I gained from my semester abroad. When my iPhone dies in rural Massachusetts and I don’t have a charger, I don’t fret in the slightest. If plans change and I need to spend the night somewhere I didn’t plan on sleeping, it’s not a crisis. The confidence and resourcefulness that I gained from traveling independently overseas remain vital life skills.
My discontent with the world’s inequality has also remained with me. The difference is, instead of being upset to see how little people have overseas, remembering how much people at home have, I am now upset to see how much people at home have, remembering how little people have overseas. I have been fortunate enough to benefit from some awesome experiences this summer, for which I am very gracious, however, the contrast in ways and means between different groups of people bothers me. I don’t assign much blame to individuals besides those who I believe are champions of policies that increase inequality, but I do feel frustrated with “the system.” Semester at Sea has inspired me to do much more to help others, both here and abroad, to achieve the freedom and quality of life that I myself enjoy.
Although the sensations of the humidity in the Amazon and the fragrance of cherry blossoms in Kyoto has faded in my memory, my sense of these places remains with me. The “World” section of the New York Times is no longer full of unheard of cities and far away continents that exist only as an abstraction in my mind. Instead, these are places just like the ones I’ve traveled to, or in many cases, places I’ve actually been. The difference this makes between skimming over a seemingly irrelevant article and getting involved in a global cause is profound. I can no longer put my head into the sand or stay within my bubble. I have permanently become a member of our global society, and although I might be distant from the troubles and triumphs of faraway lands I now recognize what a interconnected planet we live on.
Part of my newly realized life in a interconnected world is embracing different viewpoints. I’d like to think that I was never “close-minded” or I wouldn’t have undertaken such a diverse and wide-reaching adventure in the first place, but Semester at Sea has definitely given me a new-found appreciation for diversity. 105 days after Semester at Sea, I am more compassionate about the shooting in a Sikh temple and I am more disdainful towards Chick-fil-a than I was before my voyage. On Semester at Sea I witnessed so many different styles of living and although I am no longer awoken by the Muslim call to prayer at dawn and my tongue has fully recovered from the scorch of Vietnamese cuisine I have realized that we cannot continue as collective world undermining the choices each of us make about how to live our lives.
My lust for travel has not wavered since debarkation. Since then I’ve done my homework and I realize it isn’t feasible for me to spend another semester at sea (darn it), but I am pursuing other channels through which to see the world. This fall I will apply to spend the Spring 2013 semester in Hyderabad, India, and it is my hope that I might be able to supplement it with either some backpacking over winter break or an internship overseas after the semester is through.
In terms of my Semester at Sea family, the outcome has been as I had expected. There are a few people that I remain in regular contact with, and there are also others that I remain in touch with occasionally when I happen to be in their area or they in mine. The Semester at Sea alumni tree has already borne fruit for me, as I made a new SAS friend at the New York City welcome home/ bon voyage reception. Semester at Sea draws together a group of similarly open minds, and even if you do not benefit from the experience of a voyage spent together, the common interest in becoming a global citizen can easily serve as a sufficient platform to build a new relationship.
My connection to Semester at Sea continues to thrive, not only through my friendships but also my continued involvement with the program. During my voyage I benefited enormously from the financial support of alumni who came before me, and although as a college student I am not able to support others in the same way I was supported, I am giving back my inspiring future voyagers through the Global Ambassadors program. Global Ambassadors is also keeping my SAS memories alive.
And so 105 days later, long after the clothes have been put away and pasta and potatoes have become appealing again, Semester at Sea lives on inside of me, and I’m willing to bet if you check back with me in 1,005 days I will feel the same way.
The ocean crossing from Japan to Hawaii felt very different from the ocean crossing from Brazil to Ghana. This is because although it was an even longer passage, with many days but nothing but the open ocean, it was our last. When we departed Brazil and headed towards Ghana we only had a taste of things to come. The Bahamas had been fun, Dominica was quick, and so Brazil was our first “major port” and we were eager for more. We didn’t yet recognize the full importance of our floating campus. Sure, we all couldn’t get over the fact that you could lie by the pool between classes, and people regularly commented on what they’d be doing if they were at their home university right then, but besides that, crossing the Atlantic ocean was just holding us back from Africa.
When we left Japan though, there was one port on the Horizon, our one day in Hawaii, and I don’t think anyone was wishing that we would hurry up and get there. Occasionally people commented on how many days we would be stuck on the ship, but I think most people considered these final days precious. Hawaii would give us enough time to stretch our legs. It was like getting out of the car at a gas station during a very long drive. But it would only last twelve hours, then another week at sea and then it would all be over.
Academically, the ship was chugging at full steam across the ocean. Classes were wrapping up and final papers and tests were prevalent. I felt guilty at my luck, my finals were very simple and so my semester’s end was stress free. I spent my days swapping photos and hanging out with whoever wasn’t studying or writing a paper. Then eventually we made it to Hawaii.
First we pulled into Maui, however we would not be disembarking here. We would process US customs and then sit on the ship. Although there was plenty of frustration that we weren’t allowed to get off the ship, it was still a good day. There were no classes and it was a beautiful, sunny day in Hawaii. The pool deck was crammed with people studying or not studying. The biggest thing that Maui brought us, though, was cell phones.
From the time we were close enough to land to pick up a cell tower, people started pulling out their American cell phones and turning them on. At first it was only a few people when I woke up early in the morning to watch us approach the shore, as I regularly do. By the time we were alongside and breakfast was served, every person was either talking on the phone, looking at the phone, or at the least had the phone on the table, waiting for a text reply. Maybe I was just jealous because my cell phone didnt work yet. I suspended my service til we arrived in San Diego so I wouldn’t have to pay for unused service during the rest of our sea crossing. I’d made it this long without my phone, another week would not kill me. For most of my shipmates, though, you would think it would have.
I called home regularly throughout the voyage. This was to ease my worried mother’s mind and to recount some of the tales of my voyage. My calls were not exhaustive; I did not call everyone I was close with and I didn’t spend hours telling them everything. I picked the most important people and the most important details. I’d say most people on the ship were the same way. Our time in each country was precious and we didn’t want to spend too much of it on the phone. Hawaii was a completely different story. Everyone call the whole phone book and recount all the gossip that you’ve missed out on during the past three months at sea.
This comes down to a difference of opinion. Some people saw this as an ideal opportunity to spend the day on the phone because we couldn’t get off the ship so why not? I take fault with that logic only because at this point our sea days were precious too. How many more opportunities will you have to hang out with these amazing people on this amazing ship, conversing with them, being present with them? Not at lot. In fact, the weather between Hawaii and San Diego was foul, so this was actually our last beautiful sunny day aboard the MV Explorer, and a lot of it was focused on the novelty of cell phone reception.
Anyways, the day came and went and we were headed towards Hilo, where we would be allowed off the ship for the day. Seeing as public transportation is lacking in the United States, especially on the island of Hilo, I decided to organize something with a tour company. For $100 a person, Ikaika, our UFC-loving native Hawaiian would be our tour guide for the day….
to be continued
After the baths we showered. Ironically, this part of the ritual is less communal than it is in the United States. There are stalls where you sit down in front of a mirror on a little wooden stool and you shower yourself with a shower head. There’s even liquid soap, shampoo, and conditioner for you to use. Next we headed back to the locker room where we’re finally allowed to use our towels. They had everything in this locker room you could need; hair gel, razors, shaving cream, toothbrushes, hairdryers, etc. After getting cleaned up we left the locker room feeling relaxed and clean. Next we went to the foot baths; a separate area for men and women that’s actually outdoors, set in a tranquil garden setting.
The footbaths were nothing special but they did have one feature that interested me: skin eating fish! These little guys nibble away at the dead skin on your feet while you sit on the edge of a kiddie pool thats filled with hundreds of them. Although I saw them in Cambodia for only $2, I didn’t try it and I wasn’t going to miss my second chance. We paid with our barcodes and sat on the side of the pool. Bob and I were the only ones there so all the fish swarmed towards us the moment our feet entered the water. It was the most bizarre sensation I ever felt. There is nothing that I can think of which feels similar to having a hundred teeny tiny fishes nibbling at every millimeter of your feet. Bob and I busted out laughing. It was like a weird vibrating tickling sensation as the motion of these little fish moving their fins rubbed against me. I had to pull my feet out a few times at first because I couldn’t handle it but eventually I calmed myself and kept them in there, letting the fish do their thing. Soon a Japanese man came and joined us and we got to watch him writhe and giggle from the sensation. Eventually our time was up and we exited the foothbaths, our feet now silky smooth.
Having exhausted all the activities of the bath complex it was time for us to depart. We repeated the check-in process in reverse, paying for our barcode purchases with real money and returning to the now rainy streets of Tokyo. We took the subway to Roppongi, the area with the most happening night life in Tokyo. Bob was exhausted and ready to head back to the ship, but seeing as this was my only night in Tokyo I had to make the most of it. Bob and I parted ways and I walked around, exploring Roppongi. Roppongi has probably the greatest density of clubs, strip clubs, bars, and restaurants of anywhere in the world. Every building in the area was full of them on multiple levels. Most of them were accessible via elevator which was sketchy because there was no way to just pop your head into a lounge and see if it was your kind of scene. No, here’s how it works instead. On the street there are dozens of black men (not being racist; they were actually all black) trying to get your attention and befriend you so that you will come into their lounge or club. If you agree, then you must board the elevator, take the awkward ride to the top of the building and step out. Then, if you like the place you stick around (as we did with the Reggae Bar). If you have a look around and its just you, a bunch of white couches and a room full of eager strippers (possibly prostitutes), then you must make your slow, awkward retreat (as we did with one place which actually had boob or tit or some variation of the word breast, in the name of the establishment. we should have known but we went for the novelty anyway). These places are all small. I didn’t see any super clubs, but I liked it because it meant you could probably come to Roppongi for a couple of months (maybe years) and try a new place every night.
Anyways, SAS being the beautiful thing that it is, it wasn’t more than half an hour before I found some friends to hang out with in Roppongi. They were already intoxicated and were headed to the convenience store for some more cheap alcohol. They led me to another place with a lot of SASers, some of whom were staying the night in a capsule hotel down the street. I wanted a place to crash, knowing that I was staying out late tonight and not going back to the ship. Some people were going to do that and just party until the early morning, but given previous experiences of that nature, all-nighters sound really fun, right up until 3AM when you’re simply utterly exhausted and have a few more hours to go until the next day begins. Thus, I decided to check into the capsule hotel, drop off my stuff, and head back to the party.
capsule hotels are unique to Japan (as far as I know). Real Estate is expensive, space is at a premium, but people need a place to sleep. The solution is clearly do away with all the fiddle-faddle of a hotel room and keep nothing but the beds and a tiny little television. Each capsule was about the width and length of a college twin-sized bed. The height was enough for me to sit up in but obviously not stand. The capsules were in two rows and spanned the length of a long hallway on both sides. My capsule came with a locker in the locker room so I ditched my bag and returned to the party.
back on the scene, we picked the reggae lounge and headed up there for the one hour unlimited drinks package (tequila shots and draft beer. nothing fancy). I feel bad for bartenders that work in places where it’s all-you-can-drink and there’s no culture of tipping. It adds up to a lot of work for no extra compensation, especially when it comes to college kids. For me, I treat an fixed price all you can drink special like a treat a buffet restaurant. I have as much as I care for, but I don’t over-do it. Food isn’t as satisfying if you eat so much that you feel like you need to puke. The same goes for alcohol. Unfortunately we didn’t all feel the same way. Oh well, we were in the party capital in Tokyo and this was our last night in port for the entire voyage. It was a meaningful occasion, and I’m not surprised that some people decided to go all out. For me it was one last hurrah. We club-hopped after the drink special ended, finding more SAS kids wherever we went. The rain came down but nobody cared. This was our last night together on land and we weren’t going to let a silly thing like inclement weather interfere.
Most of the night followed the same pattern that other SAS port nights did. The trends include being surrounded by your friends and people that will look out for you, even when you’re in a strange and foreign place, drinking a lot, traveling to a number of different entertainment venues in one night, listening to loud American music, and standing around outside hot and packed night clubs, enjoying the evening air and having genuine conversations with your SAS friends. To me, I only noticed a critical difference at the end of the night. It was the end of the night at the end of Japan, which was the end of our main ports. There’d be one day in Hawaii, but its only a day and its America. For all intents and purposes, the essential reason for going on a semester at sea was over. I felt overjoyed to be surrounded with all my friends, and it didn’t feel sad because we had more than a week at sea together to look forward to, classes, finals, Hawaii, etc. etc. The ending didn’t come all at once, but one of the many instruments that blended together to make the beautiful symphony that is my Semester at Sea, was finished playing.
Once I was exhausted I returned to my capsule hotel. I skyped with my dear friend Kelsey, probably the person whose absence I felt the most during the semester, and seeing her face reminded me of the good things I had to look forward to at home. After we talked I rehydrated expensively (3 evian waters in a Japanese vending machine) and passed out until 630AM. I returned to the ship and then set out again, going shopping and eating, and squeezing out the very last of my international experience, like a toothpaste tube that you refuse to throw away until there is absolutely not a single smidge left.
The ship arrived in Yokohama, a smaller city that lies half an hour away from Tokyo. Although it may hold some appeal if I were spending a considerable amount of time in Japan, it was obviously completely overshadowed by Tokyo on my Japanese to-do list. Tokyo had a lot to offer, and fortunately I had a pretty well-structured plan of attack.
Wikitravel, one of the best community-driven travel websites on the internet, has a great article that outlines a complete day in Tokyo; all the places to check out and things to do if you’ve got one day to see it all. My best travel buddy Bob and I decided we would follow its suggestions and see where they led.
First we headed to the Edo-Tokyo museum for a bit of historical context. The city of Tokyo was called Edo up until the Meiji Restoration, the game-changing period in Japan’s history when things became less isolated and more global. The museum taught us about life in Japan through the ages, about Edo’s tragic earthquakes and fires that eventually led up to the super modern city that Tokyo is today. A very helpful volunteer guide led us around the exhibits, telling us all about them in English. This was an amazing contrast from China that I definitely appreciated. Although the average Japanese person today doesn’t seem to speak English (at least in my experience), there is definitely a thorough effort to accommodate foreign travelers in Japan. Whether its the bilingual signage on the street or the guides that spoke every major world language at the museum, Japan felt far more accessible than did China.
After the museum we stopped into a sumo-themed restaurant nearby and then jumped on the train to Harajuku. We bought Passimo cards which enabled us to breeze through the turnstiles at every form of public transportation with japanese yen pre-loaded onto our cards. At the Takeshita exit (giggity) we alighted from the train and walked towards the Meiji shrine There was a long and wide dirt road that led through the trees and into the shrine. Despite its central location in Tokyo, it was very serene, enshrouded in plant life. Then we returned to the busy streets towards Harajuku. We walked down a pedestrian-only street that was full of clothing stores. Japanese fashion, in my limited experience, seems to be very diverse. In the US, there are many brands of clothing, however they all sell a similar style and go for a certain kind of look. I felt that in Japan it was a little more broad than that. That’s what I think gives people the impression that it’s funky and odd, because it’s all so eclectic. I think it also draws an interesting contrast because in terms of Japanese culture, there is a great emphasis on conformity to laws and norms. People don’t jaywalk, they won’t walk and eat at the same time, etc. These customs are pretty strictly followed amongst everyone. But in terms of the fashion world, it seems to be an outlet for Japanese youth to break out of this. There’s also a lot of emulating America. I would have found it easier to find clothing with the American flag on it than I could any with Japanese writing or a flag. I found this especially ironic with regards to clothing that had branches of the US armed forces written on it. I guess it’s okay to have US Air Force written on your sweatshirt in 2012 even though a few decades back they blew two of your county’s cities back to the stone age.
After getting a sense of the fashion scene (and buying some totally rad space-age sunglasses) we headed towards Shibuya, which felt a bit like Tokyo’s Fifth Avenue, with lots of cool, expensive stores. We ended at Hachiko, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. This is where every time the lights turn red, hundreds of people cross the street, in what looks like chaos, but then 20 seconds later the signals change again, the intersection clears, and traffic returns to its normal flow.
Next we took the train-bus-monorail to the artificial island of Odaiba. First we just walked around and checked out the super modern architecture of the Fuji TV building and the mini statue of liberty that’s randomly there. Then we had our most uniquely Japanese experience of the port. We went to Oedo Onsen Monogatari, a bath complex set up to look like old Edo. This was a very interesting experience. First, we entered the building and removed our shoes. We went to the first set of lockers where we put in our shoes and got a key. Next we went to the reception desk that was like that of a hotel. Here we received locker keys with barcodes on them. Next, we picked out a yukata bath robe (available in many colors and styles!). Then we went to a second set of lockers and put in our valuables. Next there was the men’s locker room where we stripped down to our underwear and put on our yukatas. Finally, we exited the locker room and were in the main area of the complex. It was like being in a Japanese version of the Venetian. There were stores and restaurants and everything was set up to look like Tokyo back in the old Edo period. We were amongst a multitude of Tokyoans, walking about in nothing but their bath robes as they bought dinner or did some shopping. It felt bizarre.
After a long day we were very hungry and decided to eat first. Since everyone’s just wearing a bath robe you use the barcode on your locker key to pay for things in the complex. The cashier just scans your barcode and you’re paid up. There were a dozen restaurants in the food court all serving a different kind of Japanese food. Bob and I bought different things to eat and drank the complimentary tea they had. There were these awesome tea dispensing machines that had two different kinds of tea and would brew it either hot or cold. I definitely think these should be brought to America because it was delicious and easy.
After eating we wondered around for a bit. There’s a relaxation room with massage chairs and television screens. There’s a capsule hotel where you can spend the night. There are even vending machines selling hot food if for some reason the selection in the food court isn’t to your liking. I took this time to try out one of Japan’s fancy electronic toilets. Japan has these crazy toilets with all sorts of buttons that do different things like heat the seat and spray water. Given that all the buttons are labeled in Japanese, it can be a little nervewracking to expose your derrière to this gizmo and hope for the best. However, after this first-hand experience I can say that the intimidation factor is not necessary. The warming sensation is comforting and the gentle stream of water leaves your bum feeling fresh and clean.
After my delightful time on the toilet Bob and I headed into the most important part of the bath complex: the baths. This was another multi-step process. We entered the men’s locker room and received two towels: a wash cloth and a bath towel. We each found a locker (our fourth so far; shoes, wallet, clothes, now robes) and put our robes inside. Instinctively I prepared myself like I would for any bath; I put the towel around my waist and removed my underwear. However, that’s not how its done here. The bath towel is for drying off at the end. You leave it in your locker. During the bath you have nothing but your hand towel. Some men were using it to cover their manhoods, leaving their rumps exposed (the towel was clearly not big enough to wrap around anyone), and others just carried the towel and bared it all. I decided not to half-ass it (literally and figuratively) and so I walked proudly in the buff towards the baths. Inside was a giant steamy room with dozens of naked Japanese men all in different baths. Each one was a different temperature; most were very hot like a hot tub. There were a couple of cold ones and one with something in it that made the water milky. We tried them all out, bouncing from bath to bath. The whole nudity thing was pretty liberating I must say. I feel like this would never work in the United States because we’re such a shallow culture. All these Japanese men, young and old, fat and muscular, were just here to use the baths giving no regard to how their naked bodies would be viewed by their fellow bathers. It took a lot for me to shed all my clothes and participate in this part of Japanese culture but I’m glad I did.
to be continued…