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