Now is an exciting time for the people of SAS Fall 2013. Financial aid has been handed out, classes have been picked, and tuition has been paid. Things are getting real; this is actually happening. I’m just as excited now as I was before the Spring 2012 voyage. The only thing that I don’t feel this time around is anxious.
From a probability viewpoint, the first time you do Semester at Sea is almost certain to be the last time. Thus, no one wants to mess it up. Every week there’s a different country that we might not see again so we can’t waste those precious days making mistakes. This is the mentality of a lot of SASers and it can definitely cause some pre-voyage anxiety. I know it did for me in 2011. I tracked down the SAS alumni at my home university and asked if I could take each one out to lunch. I grilled them, asking them about what to pack, how to make travel plans, where to go in each country, etc. etc. But then I asked them “What do you wish you knew before you started your Semester at Sea?” This question had some of the most interesting answers and so here is some tried and true advice for those about to embark on a voyage of a lifetime.
Research the ports before you go…
A little background information makes everything so much better. In each six-day port there is enough to see and do to fill six months, and so its best to figure out your priorities. What does this country have to offer? What do you HAVE to experience before getting back on the ship? Knowing these things will make your time in port much more successful.
…but don’t overplan.
You’re guaranteed to have a good time even if you just walk off the gangway, backpack on your back, and just see where the city takes you. The point of background research is simply to make sure you’re not that guy at dinner the night we leave the port, saying “You did what?! I had no idea you could do that!” The point of research is not to put yourself on a scheduled itinerary that leaves no room for spontaneous adventures. The coolest SAS stories are the ones that start with a one-way plane ticket, or a taxi driver that didn’t speak any English. Planning for a port is like writing the outline to your story. If you actually fill in the outline, you ruin the surprises.
Don’t buy too many SAS trips..
Everyone has different levels of comfort with the great unknown, and for some people Semester at Sea trips are ideal for them. You pay one lump sum in US Dollars before you even board the ship, and then when you get to the port everything is taken care of. They load you onto your air conditioned coach buses, herd you to and from the various tourist sites, then at night they tuck you in, safe and warm, at your four-star hotel. It’s entirely worry-free because it’s entirely predictable. You know exactly what you’re getting yourself into from the moment you click “buy.” Here are the downsides to Semester at Sea trips:
…because they’re expensive…
All that safety and luxury doesn’t come cheap. Oftentimes people use a SAS trip itinerary as an outline and do everything the trip does, on their own. These people experience the same things for half or a third of the price that the SAS trip costs. SAS trips are not college-budget friendly.
SAS trips are open to everyone on the ship, including lifelong learners and dependent children. Thus, you might be traveling with a group of 50 people, in which case at every museum, temple, or restaurant you visit, the group can’t go till everyone’s ready. Also families and older people do not have the speed and the stamina that college students do. It’s nothing against them, it’s just what happens when 70 year-olds and 20 year-olds travel together.
…but most importantly you don’t grow from them.
A lot of Semester at Sea students have never been abroad before SAS. They board the ship cautiously, money belt and fresh, crisp passport in hand. By the time they leave 3 months later, they’re seasoned globetrotters. Besides what you learn in the classroom SAS will teach you so much because of the situations you get yourself into. When you get hopelessly lost, get sick from street food, or miss your plane, you grow from it. Traveling abroad is going to throw so many obstacles in your path that you would never encounter back in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and it’s going to make you a more resourceful, resilient, independent person. But SAS trips aren’t going to help you in this category because their purpose is to eliminate these obstacles. So buy a couple trips, do some cool things you don’t think you could pull off on your own, but don’t overdo it.
Use the voyage Facebook group…
The voyage Facebook group is a great place to make a first introduction and to share ideas with others. We’re all in the same boat (ha) so it’s great to see what other people have found and what their ideas are for the voyage. It’s a great resource pre-SAS.
...but don’t make your new best friends online.
Everyone is excited for the voyage and they want to share their excitement with you, but be careful before you whip out the credit card and start booking tours for Port #5. The first few ports are like a condensed version of freshman year of college. The experience is new and everyone is interested in meeting new people; it’s a time for exploration. A month later, once you’re settled and getting into the rhythm, you might still be hanging out with the kids you met on day one, or you might be rolling with a completely different crew. If you make too many plans ahead of time you lose the flexibility to travel with people you meet on the ship. There will be plenty of time to make solid plans once you’re on the voyage, so don’t get too locked into traveling with other people before you’ve even met in person.
SAS friends will be some of your closest college friends…
The bonding you experience on Semester at Sea is unlike any other college semester. You learn so much more about people from backpacking through Ghana than you would by hanging out at the student union. People really do change and grow over the course of the semester, and that shared experience is deeply meaningful. In fact, the Spring 2012 voyage has been over for only a year now and I already know three couples that met on the voyage and are planning on getting married. That’s not to say that you’re going to get hitched on SAS, but you will meet people who become a part of your life forever
…so don’t let your home life hold you back.
A big concern that people have with studying abroad anywhere is that life will go on at their home school and that they will be forgotten. Plain and simple, it’s not true. Your true friends will still be there when you return from your world tour and the only people you’re going to lose while you’re away are those loose acquaintances you barely knew in the first place. That being said, don’t waste precious hours of your SAS life staying up half the night skyping friends from home, or emailing daily to hear about the latest gossip. At first, living without a smartphone and Facebook is a little painful; we all go through withdrawals. But then, being disconnected feels awesome. To quote Bailey Gerber,
This ship must be the only place on earth where five college kids can have a three-hour dinner without being interrupted by text messages or Facebook notifications. Those long dinners will forever be among my most precious memories. Whether we were planning our [Vietnamese] weddings or trying to process India, I always felt most at home during dinnertime. May we always remember the freedom of being unplugged and out of touch and the magic of living in the moment with the people sitting around us.
So keep in touch with friends and families so they don’t think you fell overboard, but remember that SAS is a fleeting moment and home will still be waiting for you when it’s over.
Document everything while you can…
Most of us don’t take pictures of ourselves brushing our teeth in the morning or walking to class because these things are routine and we’re used to them. Nothing about Semester at Sea is routine. Even things that seem routine, are not, in fact, routine. You might get into a routine of sitting out on Deck six aft and having lunch while you watch the ship’s wake fade, but that’s not actually routine. You do not usually eat in a cafeteria with a 360 degree panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean, and when the voyage ends you’re going to wish you did. When we’re on SAS we get used to being awestruck and it takes more and more amazing things to really give us pause. We adapt to the awesomeness of SAS and it’s only after its over that we fully realize how good we had it. Thus, record everything. Blog, journal, photograph, videotape everything that you can, because although you might get used to amazing sunsets, dancing with foreigners, or cab drivers that drive way too fast, one day you will snap out of it, and it’s every moment- standing at the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio and studying for midterms by the pool- that you’re going to want to remember.
…but do it for yourself, not others.
Recording your voyage is really important so that you can preserve your memories for your lifetime, not so that you can get the most likes on Instagram. Our friends are all happy for us and they’re going to want to know what we’re up to, sailing around the world while they’re sitting at home, but they’ll have their limits as to how long they can listen to you talk about SAS. So upload some albums, send some snapchats, maybe record a vine or two, but try not to over-do it.
Get out of your comfort zone…
In each port we’re faced with a lot of decisions. You can choose the KFC or you can choose the street vendor. You can choose the Holiday Inn or you can choose the guest house. You can sip a beer or you can try a shot of Ghanaian moonshine. It’s important to stay safe but its also good to push your limits occasionally. It’s how you grow and it often leads to the most unconventional experiences.
…but don’t be stupid.
SAS doesn’t mess around with their policies. Throughout the Spring 2012 voyage numerous kids had to leave the voyage because they made really bad decisions. We’ll visit some countries where the rule of law isn’t very strict but that doesn’t mean you’re invincible. Nothing could possibly be worse than having to speak to your parents and tell them you’re getting sent home early, automatically failing all your courses and with no refund.
Make the most of every single day…
The Fall 2013 Voyage of Semester at Sea will begin and end in a short, 115-day period. That may seem like a lot of days, but it won’t when you realize how much will occur in that time. Semester at Sea is like a barrel of fruit. At first you might say to yourself, “I’ve got plenty of fruit! there’s a whole barrel of it.” but eventually the fruit will be gone. So make sure you squeeze every lime and eat every grape- even the wrinkly ones- until the bitter end.
When we’re in port, try not to sleep. We’re in port for 5 days. You can make it for five days. I don’t literally mean don’t sleep, but just because you have a 6AM flight the next morning doesn’t mean you can’t go out clubbing. Speaking of clubbing, hangover days are not allowed. Time is too short to waste it recovering from a bender or not remembering the night before because you were blackout drunk. Nightlife is a valuable element of culture but keep it together. The next day, get up early. Watch the sunrise or experience a fishmarket. It’s really interesting to see the way different cities wake up.
Our time at Sea can be just as valuable as time in port. Time at sea is not waiting time in between countries. First, it’s recovery time from the last port. Catch up on sleep, do your homework, blog about the last port and upload your photos to your computer. Most importantly, reflect. We see and do so much in port and when you’re at sea you finally get a moment to process the sensory overload that just occurred. Time at sea is also preparation time for the next port. Try to get a rough idea of what you’re hoping to accomplish in the next port. Find out who is coming with you. The morning we arrive in the next port, wake up early and watch us approach land. You’ll probably never arrive in this country again by the sea, so take it in. Make sure that by the time the Dean announces on the PA, “The ship has cleared,” that you’re ready to go. Time at sea is a time to relax, but that doesn’t mean Seinfeld re-runs. There’s too many awesome people onboard to waste a single day. In the moment, sea days might seem boring and meaningless but when you’ve only got a few of them left in the semester you’ll true appreciate being stuck on our floating home.
…get ready for the experience of a lifetime.