Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bahama Mama, the MV, ship life, and oh yeah... school


       It's been ten days since I last posted from the ATL airport, and so much has happened. It feels like an eternity since the ship floated away from the dock in the Bahamas. I arrived in Nassau without complication and was greeted by tropical music as I proceeded through customs. I stayed at the Paradise Island Harbor Resort, an all-inclusive hotel on Paradise Island, just minutes away from the Atlantis. As our taxi drove over the bridge to the Island, I caught a glimpse of our ship. At first, I saw two huge Carnival ships, and I thought our ship was the big one next to it. Someone had to point out, to my disappointment, that it was actually the one on the far side that was half the size of the rest. Nonetheless, it was a beaut. After checking into the hotel, I took a much needed, 3-hour nap to rejuvenate and get ready for the festivities that night. I met up with a couple people staying at the hotel for dinner. From there, we decided to grab a couple drinks at the bar by the pool. The plan was to later go to Senor Frogs, which is a Semester at Sea tradition the night before embarkation, but we never quite made it. Drinks were free at the hotel, we didn't have to pay for a taxi, and there was a solid group of 10 or 12 people. So we danced on the pool deck, sang along to Stephanie’s iPod while her parents creepily snapped pictures of us from the bar, and had a jolly good time. Connor decided to jump in the pool with all of his clothes on. This snowballed, so before the night’s end, almost everyone was in the pool, including yours truly. The water was cold, but it was worth it. That night was also Ben's 21st birthday. Ben and I had talked previous to meeting in Nassau because my Aunt Debbie is a water aerobics instructor and she trains Ben's dad. Small world, huh? Needless to say, that night was a lot of fun. I bonded with a really great group of people who I hang out with on the ship and know I'll be friends with for a long time.

        The next morning (Monday, the 19th) was my day to embark. After a short taxi ride from the hotel, Max and I arrived at the port, where the MV Explorer awaited us. (Max goes to Michigan as well and we roomed together in the Bahamas). There was a ton of people at the port. We waited in line for 2 hours to check in. It was pretty hot, so dragging my luggage through the huge line became tedious and tiresome, but patience was necessary. It was funny watching Max because his ginormous, soft duffel bags didn’t have wheels. I actually felt sorry for him. Whenever someone made a comment about how big his bags were, he was like, “I have my textbooks; it’s my textbooks...” No one bought it. We finally got to the security check-in where we went through a metal detector. Our luggage went through an X-ray machine and was also physically searched for prohibited items (alcohol, drugs, hair straighteners, tape, etc.). Let’s just say they don’t mess around. Alas, the wait was over. After I turned my passport in, I walked up the gangway to board the ship on deck 2. I proceeded upstairs through another check-in process. Here, I received numerous forms, blah blah blah. I then went to my room.

        Yes, it’s a ship, so no, my room isn’t a deluxe suite at a 5-star hotel. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable and spacious it actually is. When you walk in, there is closet space on the right, a bathroom on the left, and two beds separated by a nightstand in front of you. There’s a small desk at the foot of the bed on the left and a chair at the foot of the bed on the right. A mini television sits on a shelf that is visible from the beds, and it continuously loops movies and shows our ship’s location on a map. The closet and nightstand provide more than enough room to neatly store all of our clothes. Our room is on the 4th deck, which is the highest deck where student rooms are located, and it is in the bow (front) of the ship on the starboard (right) side. Because it’s an inside double (as opposed to an outside double with a window), the room is pitch black when the lights are off. Additionally, because it’s in the front of the ship, there is considerably more rocking compared to the stern (back) of the ship where there is more engine noise and rumble. They both have their pros and cons. Our beds are perpendicular to the direction that the ship is moving. So when the ship rocks from side-to-side, my bed rocks from head-to-toe. When I’m trying to go to sleep and the boat is rocking, I either feel like I’m floating on cloud 9 or bearing the weight of a ton of bricks.

        My roommate’s name is Brandon. Coincidentally, he goes to the University of Washington. He grew up in Yakima, which is on the eastern side of the state, but lived in Seattle last summer and will likely stay there. He’s a junior majoring in sociology. I had no idea I’d be rooming with someone from the Northwest, let alone Seattle. It turns out we actually have some mutual friends in common. The rooming situation has worked out really well. We get along great, he isn’t psycho, and… yeah. We’re also not in our rooms very much besides sleeping because there’s so much going on around the ship.

        So after getting settled into my room, we did an evacuation drill, which is required before leaving port. We all looked really spiffy in our bright orange lifejackets. It was a blast… and I have 3 more to look forward to ☺. At promptly 5 o’clock sharp, the boat started to push away from the dock. As the gap got wider and wider, everyone huddled around the railings on decks 5, 6, and 7 to waive goodbye to friends and family and sail into the open waters. An unexpected blasting of the horn scared the crap out of everyone, but at least we got a good laugh out of it. As we headed out to sea, the waves got bigger and the Atlantis got smaller. Soon enough, dry land was only a thing of the past.

        Getting adjusted to life at sea was pretty difficult for some. Luckily, I didn’t really get seasick, but my roommate didn’t have it so easy. He felt really nauseous and threw up twice. The first two days in the Atlantic Ocean were very choppy. Not only did the waves get increasingly larger, but there were big whitecaps as well. This surely didn’t help the adjustment process. There was one day, though, where we were at an orientation lecture and I was sitting on the far side of the Union, which is the main lecture hall in the front of the ship on deck 6. This is where the most motion occurs. As I looked at the opposite window, I would see all ocean and then all sky. All ocean, then all sky. It was horrible. And I couldn’t sit in my room and focus on my computer for the first two days. But since then, things have calmed down a considerable amount. Even though it’s still choppy, there aren’t any whitecaps, just big rollers that come through every now and then. I can’t wait for the water around South Africa. That area has the second roughest water in the world following the tip of South America. They’ve already scheduled that day as a wave day and cancelled classes because they know it’s going to be bad. So not only did the motion affect people internally, but it also affected everyone’s legs. I’ve adopted what are called “sea legs”, a term referred to a widened posture when walking in order to prevent falling over as a result of the ship’s motion. Realize that the ground is never sturdy, so you kind of have to pre-empt any rocking so you don’t fall over or run into a person, pole, door, window, or wall, the latter of which has happened to me. I can’t wait to get back on land. Everyone is going to have such a hard time walking normally. Another adjustment that I never even considered, but which has been really difficult adjusting to, is the time change. Because we’re heading from west to east around the globe, we lose an hour every time we cross a time zone. Then we gain those hours back when we cross the International Date Line on April 12th, which happens to be Easter (woo hoo, I’m sure you can imagine my excitement. Do I get an extra Passover cedar?). You would think that because we’d be making up lost time on sleep, they would give us the day off to rest, but no. I’m so jealous of the voyages that go the opposite way around the world; they gain an hour every time they cross a time zone.

        There are two main cafeterias on the ship. They’re both in the stern (back). One is on the 5th deck and the other is on the 6th deck. The food is pretty good. Some meals are better than others, but that’s typical. Dishes range from cereal, pancakes, French toast, bacon, eggs, omelets, potatoes, Danishes, and yogurt in the morning to pasta, steak, chicken, fish, soup, salad, seafood, and potatoes in the afternoon and evening. I’ve actually never eaten so many potatoes in my life. The pre-meal rolls are also really good; it’s a personal weakness of mine. The much-beloved PB&J is also always an option. Breakfast is from 7-8:30, lunch from 11:30-13:30, and dinner from 17:30-19:30 (yes, the ship operates on a 24-hour clock). A late-night snack is also served at 22:00. These windows are not approximations; they are absolute. If you’re in line for breakfast at 8:32am, you will not get food. It was a hard lesson that many had to learn on the first day. Other than that, the crew is extremely friendly and helpful. Our housekeeper, Crispin, is awesome. Not only does he make our beds, clean our bathroom, and change our linens and towels, but he’s hilarious. He tells the most random stories, and he almost made me sing the national anthem as a token for letting me into my room when I locked myself out once. Crispin is also Asian and his English isn’t perfect, so it can be fun communicating with him sometimes.

        Class is class, but the way it works is much different on the ship than on a normal campus. Because of our crazy schedule and how much time we spend in port, we have class every day that we’re on the ship. There are a few days throughout the voyage when we don’t have class because of some event, such as Neptune Day or the Sea Olympics (more to come about that later), or there’s only one day in between ports so we need to do all of our pre-port meetings and preparation on that day. When we have class, there is an A day and a B day. All of my classes are on the A day, except for Global Studies, which is everyday, so on the B day, I have time to do work, sleep a little extra, and just lounge around. The classes I’m taking are:
        Global Studies (required)
        U.S. Foreign Policy
        International Management
        The Theory and Practice of Money and Banking
For the most part, they’re pretty good so far, but I’m still feeling one or two of them out.

        In the evenings, there are always activities going on. Sometimes they show movies in the Union, either for entertainment or education. I watched “The Dark Night” a couple nights ago (Heath Ledger actually was really good in it), and then last night they showed a movie called “Faceless”, I think, which discusses women’s rights and abuses and details how people throw acid on women’s faces in Cambodia and other parts of SE Asia. They also showed a movie called “Haze”, which is about the intensifying extremes of college drinking. Really interesting movie. When they’re not showing a fun or depressing movie, there’s either some sort of dance lesson (salsa, merengue, swing), an open mic night, or some sort of lecture, such as “Food in Spain”. People also like to lounge near the Piano Bar and listen to students play music and sing. There are a lot of really talented people on the ship. There’s also a “pub” on the 7th deck by the pool. On most nights from about 21:00-23:30 or 0:00, people go up there, have a couple drinks, and just hang out before eventually going to bed.

        Everything has been amazing so far, but now that I have over 3 pages written in a Word document at 2:00am, I think you get the picture of what’s been going on thus far. Tomorrow morning, we will be arriving in Spain!!! Everyone is so excited to be in our first country and finally be on land. Besides the rare sighting of a whale or another ship, cruising in the Atlantic Ocean and being surrounded by water 24/7 has gotten a little boring and lonely, though it has rendered some magnificent sunsets and sunrises. We’ll be in Spain for 4 days, have a short, one-day break, and then port in Morocco for another 4 days, so it’s likely that I won’t be posting for another while, but stay tuned because the best is yet to come!!

“Every so often let your spirit of adventure triumph over your good sense!”

Q: Where did the ship go when it got sick?
A: The dock.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

T-24 Hours and Counting...

Wow. I can't believe it's finally here. Words can hardly describe the excitement, eagerness, and anticipation I'm feeling right now. I still can't believe I'm about to embark on this incredible journey around the world. This has been a trip long in the making. Studying abroad has always been a priority for me, but when discussing different countries with my mom earlier this fall, I said, "Mom, I think they're all amazing. I can't decide where to go." So the obvious answer was to see them all. Thus, Semester at Sea.

487 years after Ferdinand Magellan successfully circumnavigated the globe for the first time, I will do the same. What took him 3 years will take me 108 days. We will embark from the Bahamas on Monday, January 19 and travel to Europe, Africa, SE Asia, Latin America, transit the Panama Canal, and arrive in Florida on May 6.

This will be a life-changing experience. We learn best when we're outside of our comfort zone and the familiarities of daily life are gone. I'm going to learn so much about myself, but also about other cultures, ways of life, mindsets and ways of thinking. Furthermore, with a new President and a new direction for our country, it will be interesting to see the transformation America undergoes from an outsider's perspective. We are the most beloved, hated, envied, and despised country in the world all at the same time, and I'm excited to figure out why.

I'm currently sitting in the Atlanta airport. After a long, red-eye flight with little sleep, I'm waiting for my connection to Nassau, where I will be staying at the Paradise Island Harbour Resort for the night before boarding the ship tomorrow. A lot of people are meeting at Senor Frogs to get acquainted and have some fun. You'll hear more about that and embarkation later.

A quick shout out to Natasha Lekwa. She did SAS in the fall and was extraordinarily helpful throughout my whole planning process for this trip. Thank you for putting up with all my phone calls, text messages, and millions of questions! You really made this process as smooth as it could've been.


E-mail me at mbwald@semesteratsea.net

"A traveler without observation is a bird without wings." - Moslih Eddin Saadi