Friday, February 22, 2013

venice, CA 2013

“What started out as an exercise in what we think about when we travel, slowly morphed, with only minimal faculty input, into a fascinating meditation on liminality (the state of being neither here nor there) and whether travel is an opportunity for us to escape our true selves or whether it reveals them to us (Patrick S. Broadwater, “The Death of the Lecture?,” Bucknell Magazine, Winter 2013, p. 26).”

I feel like that sentence accurately describes the entire Semester at Sea experience for me. I’ve put off writing an epilogue to the voyage for reasons of distraction, confusion, a medical operation, and perhaps more important than any of those, fear. I was afraid that if I wrote about the experience from this purview, I would inevitably stop living in the voyage and start reflecting on it. I just didn’t think I was “there” yet, or maybe I didn’t want to be there, in a place that would mean I was no longer living it.

Let me just say, it’s not like I was returning to the land of the lost. This is my view on a lot of mornings.


I think about lessons learned during the 2012 fall semester almost daily…and I’m not even a student, at least not at any university. I’m a seeker, curious about life to a degree that makes me realize it’s time I learn to set priorities. Perhaps needless to say, one of the down sides of recognizing the importance of everything is recognizing the importance of everything; there simply isn’t time in this world for everything.

I love the idea of simultaneous worlds, because it’d mean I could stop having to prioritize one thing over another in my life. Sure, it’s possible I exist in multiple planes, however I’m only aware of this one, and its liminal quality—that of being neither here nor there—is something I know all too well. I have a foot in opposing worlds at most times. As a Gemini, it may be my birthright, but in the world of résumés, interviews, and plans, this sort of thing—I can only imagine—may not work at all.


This brings me right back to the idea of whether travel helps me escape from my true self or reveals it.


In my case, it did both. It also made me realize that I carried that self everywhere with me. All the planning, or I should say the over-planning (because I’m that sort of person) for this adventure had led me straight into the belly of the beast, which turned out to be located in myself and not in the engine room of the MV Explorer. My character flaws, apparently, were more than willing to come along for the ride.


What writer doesn’t know about procrastination? My guess is, very few. I have to say, however, that putting off putting words on a page paled in comparison to the fun I had putting off dealing with my character flaws. In this respect, Semester at Sea blew everything I thought I knew about myself out of the water, for the simple reason that I was unsteady and out of my element for most of it.


From this, I have to say, I learned that I could find my own stability in the oddest places--a rocking ship, a bull pasture in England, on a volcano in Spain, or clinging to vines on a steep mountainside in Ghana--the knowledge of which gave me the tools I needed to understand that my character flaws were simply that: unstable ground. Whatever my challenges, I had to remember that I could work with them. They weren’t the enemy. Inside, I had an equilibrium I’d somehow forgotten I owned, even though I teach my PT clients again and again that any change to their bodies has to start with stabilizing their core, the place from which all motion (and perhaps emotion) should begin.


It took thousands of miles of water travel and who knows how many more on the ground and in the air to realize, not that I should have had this wisdom all along, but that I had grown. I would return to my life on land in a different luminous place and—as T.S. Eliot wrote—know it again for the first time.


These days, I’m writing about home: as a concept, a challenge, as fiction, and as a place to blend pathos and humor. As my friend D’Lo’s Sri Lankan mother says, “Sweet Home Sweet.” More than the flip-flop of a second language, it is, after all, the sweetness of home that overwhelms us when we are away from it, the longing for that sweetness that makes us return, and finally, it is the mystifying twist of sour and sweet that makes us see home as transformative.


Our true selves are always in flux and are revealed to us repeatedly. On good days, we find a way to make every experience a step on the path toward self-knowledge. We find a way to return to ourselves different and to give that self a long and healing embrace. We escape the self we knew only inasmuch as we build on it constantly and change because of it. In turn, we reveal that new self to others, and this spiral is what we call living.

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So what did I learn from Semester at Sea? Look inward. Look outward. Give. Receive. Welcome curiosity.

“In the modern Western world,” writes Jared Diamond in The World Until Yesterday, “we have come to take the freedom to travel for granted, but previously it was exceptional.” Given my experience, I would say that it still is.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

roseau 2012

I wasn’t going to write an entry this time. I thought I was too conflicted and too busy preparing to disembark in three days to give myself the space to write. Then I read my partner’s blog entry and thought, writing is one of the ways I take care of and share myself, so I wanted to try.
Dominica (Doh-men-EE-kah) was our final port of call before heading back to the United States. Beauty radiates throughout much of the 290-square-mile island. It’s the youngest island of the Lesser Antilles and is actually still being formed by geothermic volcanic activity. This was in evidence the first afternoon, when we went to a thermal hot baths. This field trip was a particularly laid-back adventure, unlike many we’ve had previously. It felt like just what I needed. We started with a panoramic view of Roseau, the capital and by far its largest city, from the overlook known as Morne Bruce.


We then stopped at the Botanical Gardens, where we saw a variety of plants and trees as well as a caged Sisserou (aka, the Imperial Amazon) Parrot, Dominica’s national bird and an endangered species.
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Next, we headed for Wotten Waven, a small village with fewer than 300 people, where we had close to an hour to enter five sulphur springs, that progressively got cooler.


After some locally grown fresh fruit, we dried off and headed back to our home, the mighty MV Explorer.

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Sadly, this is where I learned that the port of Dominica, in spite of its beauty, had become the site of our ship community’s worst nightmare.  Because my partner is one of two psychologists on board and because the other one had been on the field trip with us, we were met on the dock with news that a student, Casey Schulman, had been seriously injured in a boating accident. The word came not long after that Casey had been killed. What happened next was an incredible coming together of our shipboard community.

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I’ll refer you to my partner’s blog because she has worked many hours with those most affected by the tragedy and has written an entry of hope and healing:

I will say that I had known Casey briefly through a writing group for a global studies project and can say first-hand that we have lost a bright mind, kind heart, warm smile, and an exceptional young woman. We were lucky to have sailed with her, and anyone who met her, surely felt the same. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time looking out, first at the island and then at the ocean. I’ve seen albatross, flying fish, spinner dolphins, and a whole lot of crystal blue salt water, as well as the sunset that night, which lacked nothing except the presence of one of our own.

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I can only say that we think of islands as alone, because they are surrounded by water, but what I saw for the first time was that being surrounded by water is not only both dangerous and healing, being surrounded by water is an embrace. We are both alone and a community. We hold beauty and tragedy in the same mind and somehow, we reconcile its contradictions.

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Knowing that many of you will hear about this from the news, I wanted to put out a reminder not to get lost in that aspect of it. I was reading a book recently that concentrated on the need both to live in a story and to stand back from it. The following quote is not just directed toward this need but also to honor a person who seemed capable of embodying and growing from these very contradictions. May she rest easy.

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“Our current failure may lie right there; we have become addicted to facts. To feed our habit, we continue to make false choices between the familiar and the strange, the true and the untrue, the worthy and the worthless. We have lost the ability to both surrender to a story and separate ourselves from it, to live in both grief-stricken reality and the grace of imagination, to both wait for spring and wonder whether it will arrive (J. Edward Chamberlin, If This is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?).”

Sunday, November 25, 2012

manaus 2012

Sailing north on the Atlantic for four days and west on the Amazon River for two, we eventually docked in the city of Manaus, the most populous area in northern Brazil. Most of us had no idea what to expect. Even the trip up the more than two-and-a-half million square mile Amazon was full of surprises, not the least of which were schools of pink dolphins.

Also, even though the river accounts for nearly one-fifth of the world’s total river flow and spans up to thirty miles across during the wet season--which this is not--we sailed close enough to shore to see it. I’m actually looking at land right now because we’re on our way back down the Amazon, out of the largest drainage basin in the world.

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So let me just say, forget what you think you know about the Amazon River, jungles, rain forests, and yes, even piranhas, because what I learned these past few days is that most of what I thought about the above came from, can you believe it, films, including but certainly not limited to You Only Live Twice, The Jungle Book--yes, I know it takes place in India--and Fitzcarraldo.

I can definitely say that most people on the ship enjoyed the port of Manaus. I heard a lot of crazy stories, but most of them ended with, “Still, this was the best experience I had on the voyage.” In looking back over my photos--at this point, to create space by eliminating the blurry ones--I can easily recall where I took them, what the day was like, and how each experience felt: each hike, each view, each cloud, moon, star, wave, sunrise, sunset, person I met, street I explored. Even each push-up, each pull-up, each time I walked up or down the ship’s stairs. This trip, I’ve found, allows space for me to feel around in the moment for whatever the moment is going to be. I don’t have a single “best” experience here; I have a voyage full of them.

I said to someone last night, “I’m having an organic reflection.” What I meant was that while we have opportunities built into ship time, such as “post-port reflections” in which we’re consciously thinking about the trip, I’ve had an increasing number of moments lately when I think something along the lines of, “I appreciate this, I’m going to miss this, I’ve grown because of this, I look at this differently, I am more because of this.”

This entry isn’t a round-up, however, so let me get back to Manaus. I spent the first day in port walking around the city center, the area relatively near the dock. Manaus is fairly large--4,402 square miles--so it’s not like I covered all that much of it. In addition, it was hot. Not hot like the desert hot; hot like a tropical inferno hot. In other words, moist. Sticky also comes to mind. Staying hydrated involved replenishing not only hydrogen and oxygen in that magical combination known as water, but also glucose. Two fruit drinks got me through about four hours.

The city center was an area full of twists and turns, with a map that was grossly out of scale. Street vendors lined the sidewalks selling soaps, auto parts, watches, and of course, sunglasses. We watched as people boarded river boats, which get used as landlocked people use taxis, and stood amazed as a line of men tossed watermelon after gigantic watermelon from a truck into a market. We passed other men carrying at least a hundred pounds of bananas on their backs. These were not football players either. Unlike in northern Europe, I didn’t feel like the shortest person out there.

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Watermelons and bananas are common enough in the U.S., but there were other fruits in the Amazon that were new flavors in my mouth, at least in so pure a form, fruits such as açaí (ah-sigh-EE), guaraná (gwer-ah-NAH), and cupuaçú (cuh-pooh-ah-SUE). All great flavors, all really good for you.

That night, a large group of us went to the 700-seat Amazonas Opera House to hear the house band, aka the Amazonas Philharmonic Orchestra. The theater was built between 1884 and 1896, during the rubber boom, a time that was great for rubber barons and unsurprisingly bad for the indigenous people forced to work on the plantations. We learned more about this on a later trip in Manaus, where we got to see and feel the latex sap harvested from a rubber tree. These trees can reach 100 feet in the wild, so I think the little ol’ ant would have some problems moving it, no matter how high his hopes.

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Like the ant, the town had high hopes for the theater. In addition to its 198 Italian chandeliers, its European bricks and French glass, the opera house features a roof decorated with 36,000 painted ceramic tiles, which the mayor promised to replace with gold. The continued profits from the rubber boom, however, went bust not long after Englishman Henry Wickham smuggled seeds back to the Royal Botanic Gardens, where they germinated. Nevertheless, the roof of the opera house is quite stunning as is. The concert was amazing, too, definitely worthy of the standing ovation we gave the orchestra and conductor at the end.

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The next day, I was ready for a trip to the town of Presidente Figueiredo, about two hours north of Manaus. We began at Cachoeira do Santurário, where our guide somehow spotted a small brown frog--yes, I got to hold a frog in the Amazon!--and we hiked to a waterfall. A bunch of us jumped in and swam right up to it. Obviously, this waterfall had nothing on the huge Iguazú Falls, part of which is also in Brazil, but the current was strong enough that I had to work to keep myself underneath it.

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Thanks to Ali Guglielmi for taking the shot of me under the waterfall!

After the falls, we walked into caves and hiked through water that was almost up to our knees.

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After the caves, we had an amazing lunch at a local restaurant and then went zip-lining over a river. It was my first time on a zip line and one of the students told me how to flip myself upside down, which more or less, I did.


The guy below was charged with stopping us before we zip-lined onto shore. It looks much tamer on his side. Going the other way, the guy usually wound up jumping into the water to jerk the rope when our leg-dragging seemed like it wasn’t going to stop us in time to avoid a spectacular crash into a wooden dock. Everyone made it just fine and we then took a swim in the river, drank coconut juice, and ate açaí ice cream before taking a nice, wet, air-conditioned bus ride back to Manaus.


The next day, we’d thankfully planned a more mellow adventure: the Meeting of the Waters, an almost four-mile section where two rivers—the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões (Sah-lee-MOJS), which is what the Amazon River is called at this point—run side by side without mixing, a phenomenon that occurs because at 1.2 mph, the Rio Negro runs half as slowly and at 82 °F is 10° warmer than the Rio Solimões.

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Boarding a river boat, we headed down the Amazon, a sight in itself. Along the way, we got to see palafitas, houses built on stilts to accommodate the water level rising drastically during the wet season.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to stop at one of these, which may look like just another boat but is actually a floating gas station. There were a number of these on the river.

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Our next stop was Terra Nova, a very small fishing village and rubber plantation, where we saw a rubber tree leaking its sap-like latex, the primary source of natural rubber. We also got to watch a demonstration of the transformation to rubber, and when our guide threw the vase-like object--which one of the students, Jean Ouye, is holding--to the ground, we were all surprised when, instead of shattering, it bounced!

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The village also depended on visitors buying locally made crafts. Our group gladly purchased a lot, although blow darts, knives, and mounted piranas are not on the list of items that pass security on the ship. Students in other groups learned this the hard way: the ship’s crew incinerated many a blow dart and fish head before we left the port.

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This does, however, give me a perfect opportunity to dispel the myth about piranhas. Locals swim in areas teeming with piranhas. No one gets eaten; no one even gets bit. If you’ve got a large gash, made by say, a slippery machéte, then yeah, maybe you want to stay out of the water, but for the most part, it’s live and let live. For the most part. I didn’t need to test it out, believe me.

After all this, the morning still wasn’t over. We took a hike to see some giant lily pads and I got to hold a baby sloth, which I can only hope was returned soon after to his mother. As soon as I reached for him, he turned right into me and held on for all he was worth. He screamed when I had to pull him away. It was heart-wrenching, actually, and days later, I still think about this little sloth, who moved, sure enough, so slow I could have floated across the river on a lily pad before he completed a head turn.

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Finally, here are some other honest-to-goodness real Amazon crawling and flying things.

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As we close in on the Atlantic, we’ll exit the 50-mile wide mouth of the river and enter a 150-mile wide estuary that’ll put us back into the ocean and on course for the island of Dominica (Doh-men-EE-kah). Final port before the United States. Really? Already?! I’m sure I’ll have more to say then. Meanwhile, as usual, I’ll let the sun, clouds, ocean, and another flying creature do the talking.

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Yes, I really was this close to an albatross.