A semester at sea
On my plane ride back to Houston, I reflected on my 68-day journey around the globe. How would I explain what my favorite port was? How could I package a two-month long study abroad program to eight different countries well enough so that someone could imagine a bit of all that I experienced? After all, the Bahamas, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and Morocco are all significantly different from each other, but more importantly, from the US.
On June 17, none of the 700 students aboard the M. V. Explorer could have predicted the immense experience awaiting us — the stressful class days in which we crammed three weeks worth of schoolwork into three class days between ports, how disorganized and unrealistic our mandatory global studies class would be, trying to find study space in a small passenger ship nearly filled to its capacity, nor how horrible the former vacation cruise line’s food would be.
But we also didn’t expect to make lifelong friendships, to appreciate the homes from which we came, to experience some of the best college professors of our lives, or how excited we would become to see the first sight of land — even if that land was not our own.
In retrospect, there is no way I could have known that I would feel more comfortable among foreigners than walking the pavement of my own university.
I didn’t have to travel far to be treated as an equal, either. Although it only lasted two days out of my 21 years, I cherished the days I spent in the Bahamas. They were days in which I wasn’t treated like a second-class citizen or dressed and laced with derogatory stereotypes. In Spain, Italy and Greece I became one with the natural Mediterranean wonders. They stood in sharp contrast to the many Greek protestors I would meet who made me realize that my economic hardships in no way compared to those of the starving children I saw on the streets.
In Croatia, I studied how a people could seemingly recover from a genocide within a decade. From my friend Dario, who had been orphaned by the Balkan wars of the 1990s, I learned that this recovery was only on the surface. The emotional damage caused by the wars was ever-lingering beneath the newly remodeled buildings — now marked by orange roofs rather than bullet shells. I learned that the only thing that would bring back the happiness of these people was to reunite former-Yugoslavia under something I had always been taught was evil — communism.
In Bulgaria I met the most generous, caring, hospitable people of my life. Ironically, they were people that I had always been warned about — the Roma. I learned of the hardships they endure as a minority group in Europe. I learned about how no one would hire them, how schools refused to educate their children, and how they were always accused of being disease-infested thieves. After living among them for just a day, I will never again refer to the Roma people as “gypsies.”
In Turkey, I found that I took being an American woman for granted. After being forced to cover my legs and arms, being sexually harassed, and witnessing how the professional women of Istanbul were fighting to end honor killings of rural Turkish women, I developed a new passion for helping women around the world.
In Morocco, I was welcomed by descendants of my ancestors. Passing through the Atlas Mountains on the way to the Sahara desert, I confirmed misconceptions of North Africans being non-Black. Hasan, the tour guide who became a dear friend to me, educated me on the true origins and ethnic backgrounds of the Berbers, Arabs, and Moors of his country, leaving me with a new perspective on my people and myself.
It is difficult to summarize a journey so crucial to my experience on this earth, but hopefully the untied ends of this story may serve as a representation of the ends I am tying as a method of re-entry back into this world — a world that hasn’t changed. But I have changed, grown with knowledge of the world outside of what used to be my own, and gained knowledge of who I truly am.
If you want to develop cross-cultural skills and are willing to learn for yourself, rather than believe everything you’ve read and seen your entire life, I urge you to study abroad. Although you may feel like a prisoner being released into society, and a slow re-entry process may be necessary, you will have become a citizen of the world. No one will ever be able to take that away from you.
Lindsay Gary is a senior history major and may be reached at [email protected].