Monday, January 31, 2005

SAS Email 2 - Hawaii

Wow where do I even begin… I guess the most important thing to inform everyone is that I’m completely fine and safe. I assume most of you heard on the news about the turbulent times this Semester at sea ship/voyage went through a few days ago, but obviously I’ve had no access to any national/international media outlets so I don’t know that the news reached all of you… after speaking to my mom about an hour ago, she told me to make sure this email was as detailed as possible to answer any questions people might have-

First off, while semester at sea might want the media to think we turned around because of rough weather, the truth is that it was pirates… I’m sure the real story will leak to the media once all the students get off the boat in a few hours and get to land, but I wanted ya’ll to hear it from me first. We were passing through the Pacific calmly when last Thursday night a series of pirate boats attempted to commandeer our ship around 3am. Luckily the crew was able to beat them back with these superstrength hoses all major ships are outfitted with, but the ship incurred a fair amount of damage and the majority of people onboard demanded we turn around and return to the closest land mass- Hawaii.

Haha, obviously I’m just playing… that was just to get a rise out of the few people who before I left told me I should be legitimately scared of pirates abducting our ship (you know who you are). The reality is that the entire first week and a half was filled with nonstop turbulence on the ship, which I think I detailed a fair amount in my last email. This came to an apex on the 27th, the night after I sent out that last email. We crossed the int’l date line and went from the 25th to 27th, then that night we went to sleep with the usual minor rocking and rolling. It was really strange for me cause I’m such a light sleeper, and I had a huge migraine that night (most of you know I get really mad migraines before huge storm fronts) so I took this prescription strength sleeping pill I got freshman year of college and maybe use twice a year. I woke up at 6am to find my room in shambles, my bed had slid about 3 feet to the other wall, my roommate Jaret’s bed was in the middle of the room, everything on the shelves was on the floor, my table stand had flipped over and was completely across the room against the front door, and it really looked like someone tried to tear our room apart. I couldn’t figure it out how I’d slept though it all, but I later realized that sleeping pill just knocked me out. Apparently around 3am everyone went out into the halls cause the turbulence was so bad, everyone but me, and Jaret got locked outside the room in his boxers and no matter how loudly he pounded the door I wasn’t waking up so he had the crew let him back in…

Anyway, I wake up around 6am to find the room a total mess and the boat is truly rocking. I realize there’s no way I’ll fall back asleep and that these waves are even bigger than the 40 footers we’d been encountering the past week… it turns out we were caught between two huge pressure fronts and the wind/waves combined from each side to create somewhat of a super-wave area I guess… Around 6:20am “the voice” came over the PA system and told everyone to put on their life-jackets and remain in their rooms, but he didn’t say it in a calm manner whatsoever like he usually does with the daily announcements. He sounded panicked, scared, and completely out-of-breath. At that point people started to truly feel something was wrong, even I was thinking “Holy shit this is the real deal.” Ten minutes later he came back on and told everyone to get to the 5th floor or higher, and then true fear broke out in most everyone. I went to put on the requisite long sleeves and pants, and grabbed at my sweatpants (most comfortable) but decided not to wear them and opted for my only pair of light khakis because I truly thought to myself I might be swimming today if this boat goes down, so I should put on my lightest items of clothing (that’s how serious it was). A few guys had been congregating in my room to watch the waves out of our porthole, and before walking outside we all agreed that we had to put on a very confident front because there were about to be 450 petrified girls around us. We walked outside to find a sea of orange lifejackets, with girls crying and peoples faces looking as morbid as ever.
In most areas the women and children were put in one space with the men around/behind them in case we had to be evacuated to lifeboats (“women and children first… seems real fair), but I was kind of assigned to wait at the top of the stairs and help people up. For the next 6 hours from 7am-1pm we basically sat in the same area, (I was at the top of the stairs on the 6th floor) and rock-and-rolled as the ship swayed from side to side. When big waves hit you’d literally watch 20 people slide across the floor and crash against the lower side of the ship, then they’d go sliding back the other way and you’d grab em to make sure they didn’t get away. You had to hold on to walls, poles, or each other for support. After that initial feeling of fear when the announcements to go upstairs came though and then an hour of the rocking, I, as well as most people, felt confident that we were gonna pull through it all. Our captain is this AMAZING guy named Buzz, he’s probably in his early 60’s, and every single one of us felt completely secure with… if it was anyone but him I’m sure the sentiments on the ship would have been really different. The crew was amazing too, a few were praying by themselves in corners and saying in 25 years of working on ships they’d never been through anything like this, but most were walking around with smiles, passing out food and water to students. You could hear the sounds of crashing broken glass from the dining room every time a big wave hit, but after a few hours even that became normal. We had to stay upstairs in whatever area we were placed in for what seemed like forever. In my area we eventually just started playing games like the movie game or trivia to pass the time. In other areas on the boat they got into a circle holding hands and this kid I know started reading passages from the Tony Robbins book to crying girls, hahahhaha. Over time the waves subsided somewhat, and we returned to our rooms feeling we’d survived something miraculous. When everyone came back upstairs around 3pm, you could see people were in shock. They were quiet, had blank looks on their faces, everyone was writing in their journals, discussing with each other what we’d gone through, and the only person who wanted to play a game was immediately shot down when her friend goes “Are you crazy! Of all the times to play Battleship, you want to play now?!” haha…later that night during a community wide meeting we found out what had happened to us-
We were in 120 mph hour winds, and a 55-60+ ft wave approached the ship and hit us head on. The captain’s bridge is on the 6th floor, and this monster wave completely covered the bridge and was so powerful it shattered all the glass protecting the bridge and flooded the area. All electrical navigational and controlling equipment for the boat was knocked out at 6:19am, that why “the voice” made that immediate and panicked announcement. We lost all power to the engines, so we basically were a sitting duck getting pounded by the waves. Eventually partial power to one of the engines was restored, and the captain was able to navigate us away from the storm somewhat. Glass was broken throughout the ship, the library looked like a bomb had gone off in it, several people had broken bones and one concussion, my public speaking teacher actually fell and cracked a rib which partially deflated her lung!, a lot of students had various bruises from being tossed around, tables and chairs were broken everyone, the grand piano in our student union was flipped over, and probably the most scary aspect is that many of the TV’s on most peoples’ top shelves flew off and were broken. When we returned to our room, our TV had flown off the shelf, landed on Jaret’s bed where he’d been sleeping only hours before (it could have easily landed on him earlier), and was shattered on the floor.
The executive decision was made by Captain Buzz that we didn’t have the fuel supply and more notably that the ship was too badly damaged with a lot of indeterminable damage to continue battling the remaining storms ahead on the way to Japan/Korea. We decided to turn around and head for the closest land, which was a naval base at Midway Island. Then they realized Midway couldn’t accommodate a full 1000 person ship, so we changed course to Honolulu, Hawaii, which is where we arrived at 3 hours ago. Internet was just restored on the ship, which is why I can write to you now. One of the craziest parts is that the ship was steered over 1000 miles from the point where we turned around to here via a hand-held compass!!! We didn’t have electrical equipment, so they used a handheld compass, AND the rudder lost electrical power so they had a series of guys in the engine room that would push the rudder to change the direction of the ship!
So now we’re in Hawaii, ecstatic to see land after 15 days away… when we turned around we crossed back over the int’l date line again, thus going back in time, so we had the 25th, 27th, 26th, 27th, 28th in that order. The way I figured it, we’re some of the only people to have ever gone “Back to the Future”, which is pretty damn cool. The ship-wide joke is that we did the 27th twice cause the first time was so crappy, and now all we know is that we’re definitely missing out on Korea and Japan (most people are REALLY upset about missing Japan, it was supposed to be one of the highlights of the trip… I’m somewhat disappointed in that too, but we’re lucky to be alive for one and secondly this trip is still amazing in it’s itinerary even without those two locations). They’re going to assess the ship’s damage while we’re in port here for the next 4-5 days, and then hopefully we’ll continue the trip with Shanghai, China as our next port.
It’s amazing what the power of optimism and hope can do to people. The entire shipboard community has been so positive throughout, immediately after the waves of the storm subsided a mass of students were upstairs helping in the cleanup effort, we always give Captain Buzz a huge ovation when he talks to us, and two nights after “The Storm” we had a big dance in our union and even though there was no alcohol served that night, most people went and had a blast. At one point Captain Buzz showed up so they put on the Jamiroqai song that Napoleon Dynamite solo dances too at the end of the movie…. And Captain Buzz went crazy dancing in the middle of this huge circle of cheering students for bout 5 mins, it was definitely one of the funniest and best things I’ve ever seen. This morning I woke up and went upstairs to find a beautiful sunny day with a temperature around the high 70’s. Literally I felt like I was on a different boat, everyone in sunglasses and bathing suits, eating outside with an amazingly positive vibe. The vibe until today was great too, but today I felt like I was on a tropical Carnival cruise instead of the Semester at Sea feeling I’ve grown accustomed to over the last two weeks. Everyone cheered as we pulled into the port, and we’re all ecstatic to touch land and explore Hawaii.
I just wanna thank everyone who sent me caring emails and thought about me during this whole dilemma. About 25 students are leaving the trip because of what happened, but I look at this as an amazing experience that I’m fortunate to have gone through. This may not have been the itinerary I signed up for, and I desperately wish I could have seen South Korea and Japan, but even without touching land this trip has already changed my life. When you really have to fear for your life, especially in such a confined community, you truly see how amazingly people come together and evaluate the value of your personal faith. After that initial moment of panic when I realized the gravity of the situation, a settling calm overcame me and it was completely based on this inexplicable feeling that G-d didn’t want me to die in that way. Like I said before, I didn’t doubt that I might have to swim in the middle of the Pacific, and I didn’t doubt the minute possibility that the entire ship might go down along with tons of people in it, but I knew deep down that it just wasn’t my time. And if I happened to be wrong, and it was my time, then I was okay with that…. I wish I could explain it to you, but it was an experience that connected me with this ethereal feeling, and that feeling brought about inner peace and acceptance. I realized it’s true that every day should be a good day to die, and I don’t mean that in a pessimistic way, but that we should live every moment fully so that if we were to die at that instant we’d never look back wishing we enjoyed the moment more. It’s a Buddhist belief that the only constant in our lives is suffering, but we can get outside that suffering if we let ourselves die to all our desires and attachments. On the surface this sounds terrible, but if you think about it for a moment in a non-westernized “me-me-me” attitude, it’s truly beautiful. If we live our lives attached to our surroundings and desires, we live life fearing death because it will remove us from these attachments we depend on for our happiness… but if we simply let ourselves die to those attachments, there is no more fear of death, and there is nothing left to do but LIVE and immerse ourselves in our experiences and emotions to connect with them on even greater levels.
So the trip goes on, now with each of us on the ship adding so much more value to the things we’ll see and do, greatly anticipating the touch of solid ground beneath our feet and the chance to visit cultures outside of our tightly-knit shipboard community. I hope this email finds everyone having a wonderful and safe semester or day, and I can’t wait to hear from all of you.

Be safe and stay classy,

PS: I’ve posted most of the pictures that I’ve taken on my Webshots address so if you want you can check those out at-

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

SAS Email 1 - Pacific Ocean

Hey everyone… just to give you some type of preface so you understand what this email is, you’re part of my mass emailing list (even though some of you didn’t realize I put you on it) so I can keep everyone updated while I’m on Semester at Sea through the end of April. We have very limited internet access so it’s a lot easier for me to send out a series of highly-detailed mass emails (most likely after each port), but if you want to be taken off please let me know and I’ll remove you…

First off, the ship is incredible. I really lucked out cause after having the same ship for bout 20 years, the semester at sea program just upgraded to a new ship this academic schoolyear, and it’s just beautiful. I had no idea it was gonna be like this, I actually almost feel bad sometimes, after coming from the aesthetically-challenged Brown campus I walk round this boat thinking “college def isn’t supposed to look this nice.” My room is pretty small, just me and my roommate Jaret, a junior from Oklahoma who goes to Oklahoma State and is a great guy. I literally couldn’t have asked for a better roommate, he’s real chill, great sense of humor, def has the mid-western mentality but it’s a great change and we both already can tell we’ll learn a ton from each other throughout the duration of the trip. I’m traveling South Korea and Japan completely independently (not through a Semester at Sea (SAS) field program) with him and 2 or 3 other people. He lost his dad three years ago and became pretty religious (Protestant) after that life-altering event, so we’ve already had some great religious discussions and given each other a book or two to read. The 650 students on the boat come from over 250 different colleges (everything you can imagine, state school, community college, private universities, etc), and pretty much everyone is real friendly. It’s like the beginning of freshman year all over again (except most people know even less people than they knew at the beginning of college), and instead of everyone being 18 they’re 19-23 and confined to one small area for the first 13 days while we cross the Pacific Ocean.

The night before we left from Vancouver most kids were in this same hotel, so the lobby was obviously a mad house. I went to a bar/restaurant to eat alone, sat at the bar and happened to be next to a guy going on the trip who’s originally from Trinidad. We ended talking for bout an hour, then I met some people in the hotel, then we all bar hopped the rest of the night and ended up at this one club that was throwing a “Semester at Sea Bon Voyage Party.” Vancouver is a beautiful city, if anyone has a chance to go there I’d highly recommend it. I really wish I’d gone up there earlier and spent a few days/nights to get more comprehensive view of what the city has to offer…

Since boarding the ship its mostly been meeting new people, a couple major meetings and classes (they have one big room called the “union” that accommodates prob 150-200 people, then there’s rooms throughout the ship that have TV’s where the events held in the union are broadcast via satellite over to, so everyone can basically see the same thing and it’s also used so everyone attends this one class (Global Studies) that everyone has attend every morning). The food is surprisingly decent, maybe cause I’m coming from Brown’s “Ratty” standards, which doesn’t say all that much I guess. People are also speculating that it’s like college orientation or parents weekend where schools bust out all the good food early to impress everyone, so I’m kinda anticipating a drop in food quality real soon. My classes are solid and my Intro to World Music class has an amazing professor that’s a brilliant ethnomusicologist and a self-proclaimed “free-spirit” who apparently taught a semester or two at Brown a few years back. He plays tons of cool and esoteric cultural music for us to discuss during class, so I probably look forward to that class more than any other. I also occasionally try to sit in on this one Intro to Asian Religions class that was full so I couldn’t get enrolled, but the professor is this fiery old guy who I just had to take a class with… I’ll give you an excerpt from one speech and you’ll understand why. His opening the other day was “I’m here to teach you about Confucianism and Buddhism, but my background is that of a Texas tent-revival evangelist. I worked the tents of Texas to reform the sinners! I was a Jesus Cowboy in the Holy Ghost Coral!!! Armed with my Old Testament on one hip and my New Testament on the other, I used those six shooters to exorcise the devil within and boy-oh-boy was my aim was deadly!!! I’ll say the same thing to you, because Satan has corrupted the hearts of many. He is the D-E-V-I-L, take out the D and you still have Evil! Take out the E and you still have vile! Take out the V and you still have eel! Take out the I and you have L, which is exactly where you’ll be going if you think Jesus doesn’t see your sinning ways!” Hahaha, so needless to say I love going to his class whenever I can or just talking with the professor.

We’re traversing the North Pacific for 13 days to get to South Korea, and the waters definitely have not been kind. The first day after we left I walked outta my room and most people looked so sick. Everyone had either Dramamine, patches, acupuncture wristbands, or some remedy for seasickness but I’ve fortunately been okay (Most of you know Pepto gets me through anything). Our third night on the ship we were in a decent size storm and had waves of 30-35ft around us, so we had to tape our drawers shut and still our dresser got flipped over a couple times throughout the night. The weather has been anything but friendly, in our first week we’ve faced winds of over 100mph and waves over 40ft according to the ship’s captain. The weirdest part of being on a boat is the continuous sway, something we still haven’t gotten fully accustomed to. It’s strange to open your bedroom window in the morning and see nothing but water and clouds as far as the eye can see (def not the same as the New Dorm Quad), and walking down the halls of the boat can sometimes make you feel like you’re in a video game if the waters are really rough. Dishes will fly off tables in the dining halls, kids get ejected from their seats and are slammed into walls, yesterday my entire music class simultaneously fell out of our seats to the right cause of the ship’s leaning, so you always have to be on guard and be aware of your body and surroundings. Attempting to workout is almost a joke in these waters; depending on whether the boat is swaying up or down can make it feel like you have 25 lbs in your hand or 100 lbs.

Still though its been a really fun first week or so, without the incessant presence of TV, internet and movies we’ve pretty much learned to entertain ourselves with what I’m sure my sister would consider primitive forms of entertainment… card games, board games, interactive games like mafia, lots and lots and lots of reading (I finished “The Alchemist” yesterday, it’s a very cool and uplifting book if anyone is interested), and tons of just hanging out and talking with new people. I guess pre-1980 forms of entertainment aren’t “primitive”, but they’re still somewhat dif from what I’m used to… either way, I really like the forced change. We also have “pub nights” most nights we’re on the ship where you can drink up to 4 beers over a two hour period, so obviously very few people are getting drunk but the general atmosphere at pub nights is def a good time.

Because we’re traveling so much we change a time zone everyday and set our clocks back one hour each night, but tonight we cross the international date line and basically jump from the 25th to 27th. It’s weird to think, but I’m literally not experiencing Jan 26th, the 21st bday of my boy Lonnie Hill, so I’ll take this opportunity to give him a shoutout- Everyone make sure you wish him a happy 21st on Jan 26th cause I technically won’t be in existence that day to do it myself. It’s a strange concept for me to grasp that we just skip a day in our lives, but its kinda cool at the same time…

One last experience I’ll share with all of you happened during breakfast two days ago. I looked out the dining hall window and saw two small white birds flying just above the water together. At first it struck me as normal, but then I realized we’re 625 miles from the nearest land mass! These two tiny birds had somehow flown 625 miles together without stopping on solid land once, and clearly needed to at least replicate that distance to get back to terrestrial soil too. I can’t really explain how or why it was so inspiring, but it sent such a profoundly metaphorical message… it’s not about the destination in our lives or knowing when we’ll arrive… it’s about the journey; having the courage to travel unknown waters even when the comfort of land is no longer in sight, and building bonds with others along the way.

I’ve gotta run but I’ll probably send out another detailed update after my 4 days in South Korea. Feel free to respond and let me know how you’re doing. It’s doubtful I’ll be able to respond to everyone individually, (internet use is limited), but I’d love to hear from you nonetheless.

Take care and stay safe,