To travel is to move from one place to another. But what is a place? A place can refer to a physical location, but it can refer to any sort of location as well, whether it be a perspective, a state of mind, a point in time or even a point in cyberspace. Of course when we say that we are traveling, we usually mean to say that we are moving from the physical place in which we are currently residing to some other physical place for a certain period of time. When you travel to a new place, you experience its geography, culture and society. Conversely, to experience the many facets of a culture and society is to travel towards a new understanding of the world even when you aren’t physically moving.
But enough of this theoretical postulating, now that I have clarified what I mean when I use the word travel, I can proceed to tie it in to my main point: Semester at Sea offers us a unique opportunity to participate in a kind of travel that involves sheer physical displacement. Indeed the idea of circumnavigating the globe in a single semester is one that would have made Jules Verne himself giddy. This travel by sheer displacement offers unique opportunities for the student, but it also presents certain limitations.
What are the opportunities? Having been on the Fall 2006 Semester at Sea voyage, I can say that the experience is certainly an eye opener. Many US college students have never been to Asia or Africa, even if they have traveled outside of the US. Before Semester at Sea, I had traveled widely in Europe and North America, but my knowledge of the world’s cultures and civilizations was largely confined to the “Western” world. To visit Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and India for the first time was my first step towards an understanding of the human experience that was not tinged by a single cultural or social framework. That is, if our culture and society act as a lens through which we view the world, our perspective is broadened when we realize that there are other lenses out there. Of course this realization is coupled with a barrage of new information about the world. The opportunity to be given access to this information is a great privilege that very few people can enjoy.
If Semester at Sea offers us the opportunity for travel by sheer physical displacement, however, the limitation is that this displacement occurs within a limited time frame: roughly one hundred days. Essentially, we are being offered the opportunity for a whirlwind tour of the world. How can you really come to understand a new cultural and society in the five days you have in each port? Contrast this whirlwind tour of the world with a semester or year abroad in a single country and you can easily see what I am talking about. If you study abroad in only one country, your voyage consists of much less mileage, but you have more time to explore the depth and diversity of its culture, society and geography. I am referring here to the different kind of non-physical travel that I was describing above.
This said, what is really occurring is a trade-off between the different kinds of travel, each with its corresponding benefits. Imagine that you wanted to know the flavors of all the fine wines in the world in all their wonderful complexity. Since each wine has a very complex flavor, you must taste it many times to appreciate and understand this complexity. Imagine that a semester is equivalent to a litre of wine. I can either give you a litre of a single wine to taste many times, two half litres of two different wines and so on, until you reach a point where you are given a single taste of a great many wines.
On Semester at Sea you are not offered much more than a single taste of each of the ten or eleven countries that you visit. But the point of the voyage isn’t to understand the full complexity of the world’s cultures (indeed that is impossible), but to just be humbly aware of it. Even if you cannot understand this complexity, it doesn’t mean that you can’t appreciate it. The wonderful thing about this voyage is that it leaves you with a newfound thirst for more knowledge and understanding of the world. Knowledge – like wine – is delicious. And even if you only have one hundred days for the voyage, this is no limiting factor at all when you realize that you have your whole life ahead of you to travel (whether it be physical travel or any other variant thereof). Appreciate the near-infinite complexity of the world and always strive to reach a greater – albeit still incomplete – understanding of it. In my view these are some of the most important lessons Semester at Sea can offer.
– Jose Bolorinos