February 8, 2017
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the one’s you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain
I’ve always been a traveler with a specific plan. Last spring, when I went on Cottey’s international trip to Paris, I boarded the plane with a printed copy of my full itinerary – complete with a daily schedule consisting of times, addresses, and maps with directions. For Semester at Sea, I had been told by past voyagers that it’s best to wait until I board the ship before I make any big plans, because they were guaranteed to change. I didn’t listen, though, and went with my natural instinct to plan, plan, plan. I purchased a few field programs planned by SAS , researched various tour companies, and made lists of many key destinations I wanted to visit in the port countries. However, like past SAS students stated, I quickly began to make new friends when I boarded the ship. Now, I am over 30 days into my voyage, and my original plans have completely changed.
I went into Japan knowing only that I had one field program, and I was meeting a family friend in Tokyo for a couple days. Other than that, my schedule was open, and I was excited to explore and discover the country and culture of Japan. In China, I had a similar mentality, as I only had one field class scheduled during my six-day stay in Shanghai. This lack of structured planning defied everything I am accustomed to when traveling, but I honestly believe that it made my first three ports so incredibly memorable.
By going into each port with only a rough list of destinations that sounded intriguing, I was able to choose each morning where I would go. For the first two countries on the SAS itinerary, I have stayed primarily in the port cities, rather than flying around the countries to check key tourist destinations off of a list. By doing so, I have been able to focus on my individual experiences and embrace the more personal aspects of my voyage thus far.
I have observed many students who are focused on visiting each major tourist destination in all of the countries where we will be traveling. I soon learned that part of Semester at Sea is prioritizing and selecting which aspects of each country are essential to my voyage, and which I can pass over or save for a future trip. When I was in China, I would have loved to have visited Beijing to walk on the Great Wall or explore the Forbidden City; however, it simply did not work out. Because of the Chinese New Year celebrations taking place throughout the country, transportation was either booked or incredibly expensively. Between that and the threat of battling ridiculous crowds, I decided that this was not a trip for Beijing. Instead, I embraced Shanghai and the unique culture and history surrounding the port city.
Though it is still early into my voyage, I have learned not to become too focused on making it to every top destination in each country, and that I shouldn’t be disappointed if I don’t get to hit every major tourist stop during my jaunt around the world. After all, I am going to school on a ship that is sailing across many oceans, transporting me to three new continents, allowing me to experience the cultures of 10 countries. That in itself is a remarkable opportunity of a lifetime. By being so focused on getting to a specific destination, I am afraid that I will miss everything else around me. I have had some pretty incredible cultural experiences so far that I know I wouldn’t have been able to experience had I been jetting from city to city to capture crowd-filled photos of the “necessary” tourist stops.
I have been so thankful for the fact that I have allowed myself to simply explore and discover. I’ve sailed away from my own “safe harbor,” moving past my comfort zone and finding uncommon opportunities in the process. Had I stuck to activities within my comfort zone for Japan, I wouldn’t have walked around Tokyo and visited temples in a traditional kimono, nor would I have tried as much raw fish as I did (and discovered how much I like squid!). In China, I found myself sitting with two friends in a park and listening to a man play upbeat music on some sort of string and key instrument as we watched two little girls sing and dance along. It wasn’t long before we were being waved over by the locals to join in. We spent over an hour in the small, quiet nature park observing the tai-chi masters, the card players, and the musicians, placing ourselves into the day-to-day life of the local Shanghai people. Not only did we get to see a small part of their daily culture, but also were invited to take part in it. Though clapping along to a small child dancing to music, or singing the lyrics to a familiar song being played doesn’t sound as exciting or incredible as the Great Wall of China, it became a highlight of my stay in China.
I don’t want to miss the extraordinary moments and experiences surrounding me in port by focusing on a specific must-see tourist destination. I don’t want to let these opportunities pass by, so I am continuing to remind myself to slow down and focus on the most important elements around me. I would like to see the big tourists sites if I can, but I will not make them my number one priority. If I had, I would have missed many memorable, impactful experiences in my first three ports. Rather than traveling with a checklist in hand, I will embrace every opportunity that comes my way.