When I finally got on a plane to Chicago, after four hours sleeping curled at the edge of a friend’s bed, having missed two flights, been rescheduled three times, taken an emergency $70 cab ride, and lost my bag (again), I was exhausted. I sat down, pulled my hood up, and checked my emails one last time before take-off.
There in my inbox was a message I’d flicked past the day before trying to get to confirmation numbers. A few last minute details, from my Dean, about embarkation. And suddenly I was wide awake:
Holy crap, guys. I’m going to sea for four months.
I’ve known this was happening for quite a while now. As a possibility since March, when my friend Lauren told me that Semester at Sea was looking for a TA. As a strong likelihood since June, when after taking a cruise with my family to celebrate my grandmother’s 96th birthday, I told the Dean that no, it had not in fact put me off ships entirely. And as a certainty since October, when I finally signed a contract and looked, bewildered, at the list of 13 ports.
But knowing about something and planning for it aren’t the same. Especially if you’re me.
So I left everything last minute. I paid fees through the nose to get two visas and an extra set of passport pages in two weeks flat. I left inoculations so late that they did five at once, three down one arm, two in the other, with the result that I couldn’t move my arms above 45 degrees for days. I rented a storage unit 15 minutes before appearing with all my things, and then ended up driving the last of my possessions there at eight o’clock at night, in the dark, on my own. Which at least means that my “most likely to get myself murdered” moment of this voyage happened in Virginia. I also, in retrospect, left a startling amount of my possessions just lying around for my roommate to deal with. Sorry Tom.
And as for what I’d be doing once I got to the ship? Well I left thinking about that to that flight to Chicago, when at 7am I remembered with real, true and startling clarity that I am terrified of the ocean.
So here I am, four days into the last voyage of the MV Explorer (Semester at Sea is selling the ship, and are currently in the process of leasing a new one). I feel incredibly lucky. Lucky to be seeing 13 countries, 11 of them new. Lucky to be stuck on a boat with 70 faculty and staff members who are, to a person, intimidatingly accomplished and mostly better at yoga than I am. Lucky to be surrounded by 628 students who, as of yet, have proven themselves to be nothing but engaged, smart, and surprisingly community oriented. Lucky to be gazing out at miles of relatively calm blue seas. Lucky I haven’t been eaten by a shark, gone down in a terrible ship wreck or fallen overboard. Lucky, most of all, that after the first day they stopped announcing ocean depth at lunch.
The MV Explorer calls itself a floating campus but it is more like “a place that until very recently was quite obviously a cruise ship.” All of the deck maps etched in glass by the elevators clearly indicate where the casino and shopping arcade are. The casino is now a library. The cigar bar is just a classroom with elegant glass cabinets embedded in the walls and a fireplace. Some classrooms are set up in such a way that if Global Environmental Politics were to devolve into, say, a round-robin of bridge, everyone would be ready.
But I don’t want anyone to think this means it’s pretty.
The ship was built by a Greek cruise line in about 1989 and shares a sense of mellow style and understated color with Bayside High. There’s a lot of turquoise. My carpet has polka dots. Frosted glass everywhere.
The one exception to this is the faculty lounge, which has the dark and swanky palate of a mid-rent cocktail bar in 1980s LA. If it had toilets, I assure you everyone would be doing coke in them, just for accuracy. A real upside of this is that when sitting at the low-backed high bar stools I feel like I might at any moment be mistaken for a high-class hooker. It really adds something to the faculty meetings.
Our students come from something over 400 colleges and universities (they told us, but in addition to planning, listening at orientations is not a strong suit of mine) and 44 countries (again, 44 sounds familiar, but honestly, I could be making it up.) In addition, we have a contingent of Life Long Learners aboard – adults who come on board as partial participants. They’re a congenial group of pleasantly wealthy people; I’ve had two conversations about skiing and one about hotels in Paris. They have very strong feelings about board meetings and the best advice on where to buy liquor.
We haven’t reached our first port yet – that’s Hilo, Hawaii, the day after tomorrow. But so far we’ve completed two cycled of classes (we don’t have weeks, just A days and B days). The students have set up a million clubs. The faculty have had somewhere between ten and a hundred conversations about how bad the coffee is. Everyone has agreed to the importance of peanut butter.
I, myself, have been lucky with seasickness. I did get a bit dizzy and apparently pale (our British Academic Dean, Mark Thomas, aka One of my Favorite Humans Alive, stopped me on the stairs the first night and ordered me to bed for looking “sickly enough to put [him] off dinner.”) but otherwise have gotten off lightly. Seasickness’s earliest symptom is just extreme sleepiness. But then the medicine that combats it has a primary side effect of causing extreme drowsiness. Never one to turn down free pharmaceuticals, I took the pills they leave sitting out in baskets like mints, and slept 12 hours yesterday, plus however long it was between when I opened my mythologies text and woke up just in time to catch the tail end of dinner. I have also discovered that, because I am my parent’s daughter, wine helps.
Hilo is coming soon, and until then we’re all caught in a state of quiet anticipation and anxiety. And for me, sitting in the quiet 80s glamour of the faculty lounge, I am just dripping in smug. The sun is out, I’ve made it through the full day awake, and in two days time, I get to buy real coffee. It’s nothing better than a lucky accident, but somehow, guys, I’m going to sea for four months.