The world is my classroom.
Wow, six years (SIX YEARS!!!) have passed since that fateful day when we sailed out of Vancouver and into the adventure of a lifetime. For the next one hundred days I laughed, cried, wondered, wandered, ate, drank, climbed, slid, rode (planes, boats, cars, buses, trains, horses, ferris wheels, sleds, cable cars, and god knows what else), walked, ran, and stood in frozen awe through ten countries. They told us early on that SAS would be trip of opposites, and it surely was.
I was privileged enough to see monuments of great power, like the Great Wall in Beijing, and great weakness, like the townships outside Capetown. Memories of a painful war at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, and a hopeful peace along the lonely sidewalk where the great Gandhi took his last steps in Dehli. My breath was taken away at the wonder of what man can build when I looked out over the vast, crowded cityscape of Hong Kong...and equally lost when I took in the stunning, untouched wilderness of Kenya's Lake Nakuru. I'll always remember the warmth of the Rio Negro as it flowed into the Amazon River near Manaus, and the cool mist in the cloud forests outside Caracas. I can still feel the blinding, overwhelming brightness of the sun on deck seven as we floated around near the equator, and the absolute darkness when they turned off the the ship's lights in the middle of the Atlantic and we were blanketed with stars.
Semester at Sea drop kicks you out of your comfort zone and it is an incredible, unique, fantastic experience. I doubt you'd find a single person from our voyage who regretted a minute of it. I've said it a million times, and I'll say it once more: I'd do everything again in a heartbeat, Wave Day included. I love how Larry Meredith puts it when he says that the "titanic wave baptized us into a community." We are all cemented with a bond forged in high seas and driving rain. By those few notes that played at the beginning of the announcements as "The Voice" came over the loudspeaker, the fear so easy to hear just under the surface, and told us to put on our life jackets and sit in the hallway, and later as Captain Buzz told us the worst was over. We are bonded by the few simple words: We Survived Spring '05.
And not only survived it. We flourished! We learned (definitely from other voyagers and those we met...questionably from classes, haha), and exchanged stories, hopes, fears, advice and e-mail addresses. We made connections that would serve us in the future, and had experiences that can never, EVER, be duplicated (no matter how badly we wish it to be true). In last year's SASiversary entry, I shared a bunch of quotes from the journal I kept after returning home from SAS. This year, I'd like to share the words of two great men, both of whom are arguably the smartest and most well traveled person you'll ever meet.
The first is a speech delivered by Dr. Larry Meredith, one of my heroes, and a teacher of comparative religion classes on the ship. Some of my favorite memories involve Larry, and I do not exaggerate when I say that the Christmas letter I received from him this year signed "Stay SASsy" made my week. This speech was shared as part of the graduation ceremony on the ship for those who were missing their graduation ceremonies at home, or were simply seniors. I have highlighted my favorite parts below.
University of the Pacific
The Last Lecture – April 16, 2005
As far as I know, there is no course taught anywhere…in any university or any country…that is quite like this one. You have heard from a lot of different lecturers…representing many different disciplines. History. Economics. Music. Sociology. Political Science. Oceanography. Anthropology. Theater. Religion. Biology. What kind of course is this, anyway? What kid of course talks about the temples of Angkor one day and ocean currents the next? Female circumcision and media and haiku and Hinduism and Ho Chi Minh? What kind of course tries… in one semester…to enrich your experience…not only of the world, but of ten specific countries?
No, wait, scratch two…add another one. Wait…Hawaii’s not a country. Zigzagging around the dateline. January 25th…January 27th. What happened to the 26th? A hole in the space/time continuum. Smack. The gods are angry. Wham. Waste baskets and televisions bouncing off the walls. Furniture tumbling over people…but don’t put your feet on the furniture! Wait. Where are we now? Fly non-stop to Shanghai. Okay…one stop. Wait some more. Over the dateline again. Where are we now? Does anybody have any idea what day it is? What a long strange trip this has been.
I knew from the beginning that there was no way that we could do everything in Global Studies. I remember telling the faulty that we could easily spend the entire semester on any one of the topics that I was asking them to present in 30 minutes. The history of China…Apartheid… Buddhism…in 30 minutes? So what was it all about? What was this kaleidoscope of information intended to do for you?
Let me take you back to that first session of Global Studies and repeat a few of the things that I said to you then. Anyone who has been around the world should not come back unchanged. You can do it, of course. People do. They travel around the world and stay in Western hotels and eat at Western restaurants and watch CNN. They may hear that India has a caste system…they may see the Candomble women with their colored necklaces. But all they come back with is a lot of pictures and video. They’ve seen the sights.
But as you know, the experience is very different when you know why the Candomble women wear those necklaces. When you know what it means. And when you understand how the caste system developed…and how it is intertwined with India’s history and religion…and how it affects relationships and politics and everything else in India. That was one of the aims of Global Studies – to help you see below the surface. To help you understand the underlying dynamics so that your experience would be richer…deeper…more profound. To help you become a “world traveler”, not just someone who has been around the world.
Global Studies was also designed to give you a concrete experience of how the academic disciplines interrelate. You have learned that the theater of South Africa cannot be separated from South Africa’s history and politics. You have learned that you cannot fully understand the music of Brazil without understanding the slave trade…and you cannot fully understand the slave trade without understanding colonialism and economics and African religion and so on. Each academic discipline has given you a slightly different profile of what is in fact an interrelated whole. And you have learned that the more you know about one discipline, the more you need to know about the others.
There was not enough time to do it all…but Global Studies was never intended to do it all. Only to assist you in getting here…today…with a greater global awareness.
Back at the beginning of the voyage I talked to you about the difference between individualism and collectivism. You had just come on the ship…650 of you…from different backgrounds, different schools, different religions, different countries…with different interests, different dreams, different hopes, different plans. And in those first few days you were trying to get your sea legs…and just beginning to get to know each other. There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm…mixed with some apprehension about how the voyage would unfold…about what it would be like to travel around the world with all these strangers.
Look at you now. Shipmates. Friends. Many of you have found yourselves talking to people you never would have approached at home. Many of you have made friends with people you didn’t know you could be friends with. Slowly…so slowly that you can’t quite put your finger on when it began to happen…650 individuals became a community. The diversity is still there… maybe even more so than it was at the start. You are shaved and braided. Beaded and saronged. But you have learned to live with that diversity. And you have learned to be incredibly accepting and tolerant of each other. Want to shave your head? Okay. Don’t want to shave your head? That’s okay too. Guy wants to wear a skirt? Doesn’t bother anyone. Professor wants to wear a skirt. Yeah…whatever.
And it has been more than simply learning to accept the diversity. You have learned to appreciate the differences…to appreciate what each individual brings to the whole. It takes threads of different colors and textures to make a tapestry. It takes tiles of different sizes and shapes to make a mosaic. This is a collective society and each of you has your place in it. Not one of you can be removed without all of us losing something. Seniors and kids. Staff and students. Family members and crew members. Happy people. Cranky people. Serious people. Silly people. New Yorkers. Californians. South Americans. Canadians. Sky divers and poets. Myopics and mystics. Scientists and surfers. Philosophers and fools. Poker players. Preachers. Atheists. Smokers and weight lifters and drummers and sunbathers. Each of you belongs here. Not one of you can be removed without all of us losing something. Not one of you can be removed without disturbing the “wa”.
And we have achieved that in less than 100 days. Learning to look out for each other. Leaning to take care of each other. But most of all, learning to listen to each other. Social scientists have shown that the only way to break down the walls between people…or between groups of people…is to put them together in a situation that allows them to get to know each other…to get to see what they have in common. From the outside, it is too easy to make judgments about those who are different…to hold stereotypes. Us and them. But when we sit down together, the differences in our values…in our beliefs…in our assumptions…that looked so divisive from the outside, begin to be seen more as interesting variations…because we discover that there is so much more that we share.
We have shared a lot on this voyage. Some of it exhilarating. Some of it frightening. Some of it very funny. Some of it tragic. But all of it…enlightening. And those shared experiences have brought us together. Back in that first class I told you that you would have many new experiences on this voyage. Not one…not ten…not a hundred…but wave after wave of amazing experiences. To much to process all at once. Do you have any idea how much we have been through together? How much we have seen and tasted and touched and smelled?
Lunatic rickshaw drivers playing bumper cars in the streets of Chennai. Children without homes. Beggars without limbs. Open sewers and open sores. Neon nights in Hong Kong. Lion kills. Shantytowns. Dolphin and dong. Flying fish and flying pianos. Buddhism/Hinduism/
Caodaism/Confucianism/ Shintoism/animism/Feminism/Socialism/Communism/Capitalism/ Nationalism/Colonialism. The smell of popcorn in the Piano Lounge. A legless man crawling toward you across the sidewalk. A masseuse…with wandering fingers. Candomble. Germaine’s Luau. The untouchables. Babies holding babies. Midgets on tiptoe. Table Mountain. Rolex knockoffs. Dock time. Hidden orixas and inner fetuses. Rough seas and cubed cheese. A dead bicyclist lying on the pavement. Tiger beer and Tusker beer. Suck and blow…and the Panda Hotel. The Rex…the Voice…the bistro…the Bantu. Vagina monologues and Abba interruptions. 45 degrees to port…45 degrees to starboard. Samba…sunsets…street mimes and Swahili. Poverty and paper shortages. Life boat drills and laundry day. Lantau Island. Robben Island. Larium. Imodium. Clogged toilets. No toilets. Head wobbles and thumbs up. Rain forests and rhinos. Polygamy and polyrhythms and pasta who-knows-what? A surrealistic Alice-in-Wonderland voyage where clocks are retarded and sweatsocks are bartered and doctors shampoo tangerines.
(Come on…this is audience participation. All you soccer fans, let’s try it again)
I knew you knew that. And that’s my point. It is our shared experience that brings us together as a community and which makes our differences much less important.
I was in a jewelry shop at the Waterfront in Cape Town with my wife. She was looking at rings. And there was a black African couple there. The woman was trying on earrings…and the salesgirl was oohing an aahing about how fabulous they looked. The woman’s husband was standing back a few feet…and for a split second we caught each other’s eye…with a look of mutual recognition. In that brief second, there was no black or white…just two clueless guys who both knew we were in danger of spending a great deal of money on little sparkly things whose allure we did not understand at all. It was a “guy” moment. And it was great.
I hope you have had moments like that. I think you probably have. Maybe it was a moment when someone smiled at you. Maybe it was a moment when language differences stopped being a barrier and you found yourself communicating. Or when you quit worrying about being ripped off and just started talking to a street vendor. Or when someone taught you to dance a new dance …or play a new instrument…or sing a new song. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect the world to change easily. But I do know that the only way it can change is by finding the common ground. The smiles…and the “guy” moments.
You now know, more than you have ever known, that you are privileged. Sure, some of you have more money than others. But each of you has more money than most of the people in the world. More money…more freedom…more education…more opportunity. You are privileged. And in addition to that, you now have a global awareness. Don’t buy the myth that one person can’t change things. Whether you become a CEO or a lawyer or a Peace Corps volunteer doesn’t matter. You are in a position to do something…and a far better position than you were in three months ago. I don’t care if you spend the rest of your life in Kansas…you will always have a global awareness…an enriched understanding of your place in the larger whole. Make good use of that…and the voyage will never end.
Find a cause. Something you believe in…and work for it. It doesn’t have to be some big sweeping world movement. In fact, one of the things you have learned on this voyage is that small local projects…like the Grameen Bank…are often far more effective and productive than large decisions made high above or far away by people who may have good intentions, but who don’t fully understand the local implications. It may seem trite to say, “Think globally, act locally”…but small community-based and community-designed projects work. And small changes are real changes.
We are all in favor of the big things, like World Peace and the abolition of hunger. Those are things that are easy to believe in, but very difficult to do anything about directly. That’s the reason why people throw up their hands and say, “One person can’t do anything”. Well, one person can. You can. You’re smart…you’re free…and you are a lot more independent and confident than you were three months ago.
You have communicated with people from different cultures, different backgrounds and different languages. You can figure out how to get from here to there in India, just because you want to. You can bargain with the best of them in Beijing. You have skills. If you can cross a street in Saigon, you can do anything.
This voyage has been an incredible gift. It has changed you. And now you’re going home. No you’re not. At least…not to the home that you left in January. When you get off the ship in Ft. Lauderdale, you are going to know that. You already know it in your head. But when you get off the ship in Ft. Lauderdale you are going to know it in your bones. You are going to feel it in your skin. The world that you left behind isn’t there any more.
There is a story that I like to tell my students about a fish in a fishbowl. There is a way in which a fish swimming around in a fishbowl knows nothing at all about water. Because water is so much a part of the fish’s life. It is surrounded by water. It is embedded in water. In that sense, the fish does not really know water. If you want the fish to really understand water, you have to take the fish out of the fishbowl and say, “Look, that’s water.” Now…if you put the fish back in…the water never looks the same again. Well, in a certain sense, we’ve all been taken out of our fishbowls. You have been out of your fishbowl for 3½ months. Now you have to go back.
It may not happen to you immediately. Caught up in the excitement of seeing your friends and your relatives…it may take a day. Maybe a week. But sooner or later there is going to be a moment. It might happen to you at the airport. It might happen to you in your hotel room. Maybe not until you get home. But sooner or later there is going to be a moment when you realize that the world just doesn’t “fit” the way it fit before.
Many of your friends…even your good friends…are going to seem suddenly, strangely… stupid. You’ll want to talk about India. And they will say, “Yeah. Right. Sounds great.” And somehow that is just not going to be enough. And you’ll say, Yes, but I was in Varanasi…let me tell you about the colors and the smells and the people…and the bodies! Let me tell you about the burning bodies!” And your friends will say, “Uh huh”. And you will watch their eyes glaze over as they smile and nod and glance over your shoulder. So you’ll try Vietnam. “You know, I was in Vietnam. Saigon. Well, really it’s Ho Chi Minh City, but everybody just calls it Saigon. And they have the most unbelievable traffic! Hardly any traffic lights…and no one pays attention to them anyway.” And your friends will say, “Oh.”
And then your friends will suddenly get enthusiastic again when they begin to tell you all the great things you missed while you were gone. Like that big party…where everyone threw up on each other. And that really great episode of “Desperate Housewives”. And they will start telling you some of the lines…and getting excited as they are telling them to you. And you will be crawling out of your skin.
And you’ll say, “But I saw beggars. I saw children begging. Did you know that parents sometimes actually maim their kids to make them better beggars?” And your friends will say, “Awesome”. And you’ll know that they don’t get it. In fact, you might even begin to wonder if some of your friends really know what itmeans for something to be…awesome. Standing on the Great Wall of China and seeing it zig zag off across the mountains into the mist, that’s awesome. Waking up in a hammock on a small boat chugging up the Amazon River, that’s awesome. Floating in a hot air balloon over the Serengeti Plain at dawn, that’s awesome. The big party you missed while you were gone, isn’t.
And you are going to hear yourself sounding pretentious. You won’t feel pretentious, but you are going to hear yourself sounding pretentious. You know, here on the ship, if you are sitting around with one of your friends or your roommate and you start a sentence like, “One night in Saigon I was taking a rickshaw back from the War Remnants Museum…” That doesn’t sound odd, here. But can’t you just see your friends back home rolling their eyes? You are going to have to choose between sounding pretentious…and being silent. And you are going to long to be back here with us…where you can be normal.
And maybe you have a relationship back home. An important one. One that seemed really comfortable and promising…last January. Oh boy. All those emails you wrote? Or didn’t write? Some of them maybe feeling a little forced as you wrote them? That relationship might not feel right any more. Like an old pair of jeans that’s comfortable…but no longer your style. And you think, “I just can’t do this any more.”
Many of you have become independent on this voyage. Much more genuinely concerned about the world. About other people. Stronger. Braver. Better than you were last January. And the life that you had planned for yourself might not seem big enough any more. You might be thinking about changing directions. A new major. A new career. Maybe even a new country. Who are you going to talk to? How are they going to understand?
There are a thousand little ways in which the world is just not going to fit any more. And a thousand little reminders that it doesn’t fit. Television commercials are going to look really stupid. Houses and cars are going to be obscenely big. Restrooms are going to be disgustingly sanitary. Salespeople will look at you like you’re an idiot when you try to bargain. And everybody is going to have so much…stuff.
Even words aren’t going to seem the same. You’ll hear the word, “Shanghai”. Shanghai is a place…it’s not just a word. Cape Town. It all comes back. It’s not just a word any more. How could you possibly have imagined, back in January, that you would spend the rest of your life getting chills whenever you thought of the words, “Put on your life jackets and get into the hall right now!” With the steady haunting moan of the fog horn in the background. Who else will ever understand that? The world is never going to be the same again.
So what do you do? Well, I think one of the things you have to do is to forgive your friends. Looking at the pictures…listening to your stories…it’s not the same as having been there. You know that. You’ve looked at people’s vacation pictures before. You know that pictures can’t capture the same experience. They are going to be looking at it and listening to it…you’ve lived it. It has changed you…it hasn’t changed them. So you have to be a little patient with them… you have to be a little forgiving if they don’t quite get it. But I think that you can only do that if they are willing to let you be the person you have become. It is not the places you have been to …and it is not the things that you have done that have to be shared. It is who you have become that has to be shared. You don’t have to find people who have been around the world to understand you, but you have to find people to understand you. And if your old friends won’t let you be the person you have become, make new friends. There are a lot of people out there. You know those foreign students on your home campus? Those strange people with the accents? You see them wandering around confused and not knowing what building to go into. Been there. Done that. Go talk to them.
There are a lot of people out there who can confirm who you are…and who you are becoming. Even if that is not clear to you now. In many ways, the person you will be six months from now is still developing right outside of consciousness. You don’t know yet how much you have changed. And you won’t know for another six months or a year. It isn’t a good idea to make any major life decisions before then. You might want to…but give yourself some time.
Earlier I suggested that you might want to find a cause…something that you believe in…and work for it. I think that’s a good idea. But I’m not worried about you. I don’t think that you have to be urged to do that…you don’t even need to be reminded to do that. I think you are going to have to do that in order to feel at home. If the world doesn’t fit any more, then you have to create a world for yourself that does fit. A place where you can feel at home.
I have been on previous voyages…and gone home. So has Dean Wright…Dean Hansen… Kenn…Adrienne…and some others. We’ve all been taken out of our fishbowls and put back in again. And I think I can speak for all of them when I say, “Come on in. The water’s fine.”
And I'll just leave you with a toast, also provided by Larry Meredith: