My Story

More than a plea­sure cruise, our round-the-globe trip was a pro­found voy­age of dis­cov­ery

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Con­tents - BY JEAN HANFF KO­RE­LITZ

Jean Hanff Ko­re­litz is a novelist, play­wright, the­atre pro­ducer and es­say­ist. Her book Ad­mis­sions was made into a fea­ture film of the same name in 2013.

WHAT KIND OF RIGHT-THINK­ING PER­SON takes off in the mid­dle of her life to travel around the globe on a re­fit­ted cruise ship with 750 stu­dents? That would be me, or, more ac­cu­rately, me, along with my 12-year-old son, Asher, and my hus­band, Paul. A poet, Paul had been hired to teach for Se­mes­ter at Sea, a pro­gramme that takes uni­ver­sity stu­dents and in­struc­tors on ocean voy­ages.

I’ll ad­mit I went re­luc­tantly. I did not want to take my son out of school, or be away from my par­ents (in their 80s) and my daugh­ter, at­tend­ing uni­ver­sity. But long ago, a more in­trepid teenage ver­sion of me had gone to Maine on an Out­ward Bound course, where I rowed through frigid wa­ters and soloed on un­in­hab­ited is­lands. Now the les­son of that ex­pe­ri­ence came back to me: ships may be safe in­side the har­bour, but that is not what ships are for. So when of­fered the op­por­tu­nity to voy­age around the world, my only pos­si­ble re­sponse was: yes.

We boarded our ship in Fort Laud­erdale, Florida, with a hand­ful of ex­otic visas and an arm­ful of ex­otic

in­oc­u­la­tions, bound for San Diego, Cal­i­for­nia, the long way around. Our stops would in­clude Do­minica, Brazil, Ghana, South Africa, Mau­ri­tius, In­dia, Sin­ga­pore, Viet­nam, China and Ja­pan. While Paul taught, I would work on a novel and bully Asher through a list of books I’d paired with our ports ( Lord of the Flies in Do­minica, Cry, the Beloved Coun­try in South Africa, Hiroshima in Ja­pan). I hired a stu­dent to tu­tor him in maths, and he would au­dit classes in chem­istry, film and an­thro­pol­ogy. Paul and I would share a tiny cabin, with Asher in an even tinier one nearby.

‘This is not a cruise; this is a voy­age of dis­cov­ery’ is Se­mes­ter at Sea’s un­of­fi­cial motto, and that state­ment, al­though trite, was true. The stu­dents em­barked as cheer­ful Amer­i­can kids, open-minded and up for ad­ven­ture, even as the fac­ulty tried to pre­pare them for the cul­tures they’d en­counter.

“You con­sume ten times as many re­sources as the av­er­age cit­i­zen in most of the coun­tries we’ll visit,” one pro­fes­sor said. “You may not be aware of the dis­par­ity. But they are.”

By the time we left Africa, most of the kids were reel­ing. At a de­brief­ing af­ter leav­ing Ghana, stu­dents de­scribed a pro­found level of dis­ori­en­ta­tion.

One group, who vis­ited a vil­lage, told us how the women walked kilo­me­tres to fetch wa­ter be­cause the well was out of ac­tion. The amount needed to fix it turned out to be pocket change – the stu­dents paid for

the re­pairs with what they had in their pock­ets. “So I didn’t buy a sou­venir,” one young woman said when she de­scribed how the vil­lage el­ders had em­braced her in grat­i­tude. An­other stu­dent had al­ways thought of her­self as poor. “Now I don’t know what I am,” she said.

I’d had my own dis­ori­ent­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in a taxi in Ac­cra, Ghana’s cap­i­tal. Fran­ti­cally look­ing back and forth be­tween the map in my hands and the streets fly­ing by out­side, I saw that the two ver­sions of the city had al­most noth­ing to do with each other. I had no idea where I was. I felt com­pletely un­teth­ered from the fa­mil­iar, pro­pelled into a place that was not log­i­cal. It was a pro­foundly un­com­fort­able sen­sa­tion, but I thought, If you’re not will­ing to give up some small mea­sure of con­trol, you might as well not go any­where.

And so I sur­ren­dered. Dur­ing my 100 days, I sub­dued my arachno­pho­bia long enough to board a boat trav­el­ling up the Ama­zon, where I spent two nights sleep­ing in a ham­mock, lis­ten­ing to the rain­for­est. I toured the mes­meris­ing and ap­palling slave cas­tles on Ghana’s coast; camped in the tea plan­ta­tions of Mun­nar, In­dia; and hiked on a re­mote, un­re­stored sec­tion of the Great Wall of China. In South Africa, I lis­tened to a for­mer pris­oner de­scribe his life at Robben Is­land with Nel­son Man­dela; in Cam­bo­dia, I heard a guide de­scribe wit­ness­ing the death of his sis­ter as his fam­ily tried to es­cape the Kh­mer Rouge. I watched the sun set over Cape Town and rise over Angkor Wat.

Near­ing San Diego, one pro­fes­sor told me that he had never felt ‘more present’ than he had on our voy­age. I had to agree. And while I may not have re­cov­ered the bravery of my younger self, I was amazed by what I had done. I’d cir­cum­nav­i­gated the globe and re­turned home, full of sights and ex­pe­ri­ences from places I’d never thought I’d visit.

Some­times we are out­ward bound for rea­sons that aren’t par­tic­u­larly coura­geous, but bravery isn’t the only at­tribute worth hav­ing. Say­ing yes to an ad­ven­ture, for what­ever rea­son, brings its own re­wards, and it’s never too late to re­learn some­thing I’d for­got­ten: ships may be safe in­side the har­bour, but that’s not what ships are for.

The au­thor with her hus­band and son at Ta Prohm, Cam­bo­dia

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