Barbados to Fort Lauderdale — The Last Hurrah

This is it…the final blog post! I’ve been avoiding writing it, mostly in a vain attempt to pretend like SAS isn’t over, and I haven’t left the MV Explorer for good. But more than a full week later, I’ve finally sat down (with inspiration from the lovely Dawn Myers!) to put into writing my thoughts on our last two ports and the end of the voyage. In a further act of avoidance, I’ll start with the ports and put off the sure to be emotional voyage reflection until the end.

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First, Barbados. Rihanna’s homeland is a bit of a blur to me, to be honest. We had three days there, but it easily felt like the fastest port. This might be because it followed our eight days in Brazil, or maybe because it was so close to the end of the trip, but either way, it flew by. I had my last field lab, for Travel Writing, on our first day in Bridgetown. It was also the second or third rainy day of the entire trip (how lucky are we?!), so I wasn’t too disappointed at spending a majority of the afternoon on a tour bus. We visited an old, historic plantation house and enjoyed a local rum and food presentation in the backyard – turns out popcorn chicken and plantains are a great combo. Also, shots of rum are acceptable at 10 a.m. When in Barbados…

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The highlight of the port was the catamaran Shannon, Sterling and I went on during our last day. We spent the afternoon lounging on a yacht sailing along the west coast of the island, swimming with sea turtles, and snorkeling over shipwrecks. Not the most cultural of activities, but it sure was fun. We also found a vegan restaurant near the beach that was a much-welcomed change of pace from the multitude of fried flying fish on most menus in town.

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Last but not least came Cuba. I could write pages and pages on Cuba and still not fully explain the intricacies of what we saw, learned and heard. Another student, or maybe professor, put it best when they said they left Cuba with far more questions than when they came. To come to Cuba, we had to be there for a legitimate educational purpose, so on the first day all 600 and some odd students, plus our professors and staff, caravanned to the University of Habana in a long line of tour buses to attend lectures. When we walked off the ship we were greeted with camera crews, also present at the university. It was at this point, looking up at the crowd of probably 100 Cuban students standing on the school’s front steps—on a Saturday, mind you— when I realized what a huge deal it was for us to be there.

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We were also met with fliers offering information on the Cuban Five placed into our palms as we exited the tour buses. The Cuban Five was a recurring topic during our time in Cuba. I’m embarrassed to say I had no idea who these people were before coming to Cuba, and for that reason don’t feel fully qualified to express too much about it, but I will say it was incredible to hear people talk about them essentially as heroes. It seemed as if the people we met and spoke to thought that we as American college students had direct influence on the matter (Update: not that it was needed…amazingly, hours after I first posted this blog and just weeks after we were in Cuba, President Obama announced the release of the remaining three, as well as Cuba’s release of American prisoner Alan Gross, and plans to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries). There were huge banners posted on the outside and inside of buildings on campus saying things like “Obama give me five,” which students told us are not usually there, but rather were erected for our visit. I felt a strange mix of awareness and naiveté coming from the people we met in terms of the how their government acts and what they tell citizens, and also in my own opinion of Cuba. There was absolutely pronounced poverty and propaganda present, however the people we met weren’t desperate to leave; if fact, of all the people I asked, not one said they wished to move somewhere else. Whether that’s just the opinion of the people I interacted with or a more widespread view, I can’t say, but it was definitely not the answer I expected.

The highlight of Cuba (aside from the very inexpensive meals and $2 mojitos), was participating in the Global Grins effort to deliver toothbrushes to those in need. Founded by two SAS alumni, the non-profit will send a box of 100 toothbrushes, for free, to anyone who wants to bring them on a trip or to distribute locally to people in need. It’s truly one of the simplest ways to help, and the need is everywhere – I urge everyone to check out their website, globalgrins.org, to learn more and get involved. Todd and Joselyn Miller, the founders, came on board in Barbados to sail with us to Florida, and told us there were around 25,000 toothbrushes on board the MV all semester that were meant to be distributed in Ghana and Senegal. Because of the itinerary change, the toothbrushes were forgotten, but the Millers’ pulled them out in Havana after joining the ship (Todd is also an ISE board member). Shannon, Katie and I went to one of Todd and Joselyn’s lectures and very much wanted to be involved, so we grabbed three boxes and set out to the streets beyond the touristy part of the old city. At first it felt awkward; who were we to gauge whether or not some random person on the street was in need of a toothbrush? Once we got going though, we quickly realized the need was there. Some people simply said thank you, others asked where we were from, a few engaged us in full conversations. Many asked for a couple for their children, some asked if we also had other things like shampoo or soap, but every single person gave us a smile of gratitude.

During the rest of our four days in Cuba, we spent a lot of time wandering (a recurring theme, no?). Katie, Shannon and I took a city tour in a pink convertible, drank daiquiris at the Floridita alongside a Hemingway statue, and went into the hotel where he stayed and wrote A Farewell to Arms. We befriended boys from the British Naval ship docked next to the MV, and went on their ship for a welcome reception where we rubbed elbows with North Koreans and Cuban officials, as well as diplomats from a slew of other countries. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to say the least. I learned (read: awkwardly attempted) to salsa dance in the main square with Cuban students, had an unfortunate fall near the water, learned more about the embargo (and the propaganda surrounding it from both sides) than I thought possible, got food poisoning, drank many a mojito, and ate guacamole for the first time in way too long. Cuba had some very high highs and one or two strong lows, but it was the perfect last port, and definitely one of my favorites overall.

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Which brings me to the end…our last five days on the ship were jam packed with finals, the alumni ball, packing up and saying our goodbyes. I made new friends days before debarkation (new day new face—the motto of SAS), ran around like a crazy person signing maps, savored iceberg lettuce and potatoes for the first time ever, looked up at the stars every chance I got, and managed to write a final paper or two (or three or four). And then, all of the sudden, Peggy’s voice was telling the Arabian Sea to head to Tymitz Square and Shannon and I were off the ship. I was not prepared to leave the MV Explorer, and even more unprepared to say goodbye to all the beautiful, adventurous, crazy-intelligent and passionate people I met onboard. Luckily, I had a bit of an easing out period, with Katie, Zac and Shannon staying at my house for varying lengths of time. Not six hours had passed before the four of us and Sterling returned to the MV on our way to the airport for one last look at our new home. It’s very strange to know soon it won’t be the same ship anymore, and that we’ll never be back onboard with, or even in the same space as, all the members of our shipboard community at once.

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It’s hard to put into words the impact SAS has had on me, largely because I myself haven’t really comprehended it yet. What I can say with certainty is that the 108 days I spent on the Fall 2014 voyage will forever be a part of me, and that the students, the professors, the staff, the lifelong learners, the interport lecturers, and the people we met in port have all inspired me to live the fullest, richest life possible. There are the facts—108 days, 4 continents, 16 countries, 16,000 nautical miles—and the Instagram-worthy memories—standing under the Eiffel Tower, zip-lining in Portugal, walking along the gorgeous cliffs of Howth in Ireland, hang-gliding in Rio, riding a camel in Morocco—but what I will miss most are the little things, the undocumented moments. Sitting in the piano lounge in the dead of the night with Zac, listening to Paul tell us about his life; spotting a whale with Brad Brown during dinner on the sixth deck; visiting Ehlers’ cabin on the last day of class and thinking back to how scared I was of her on the first day. Countless hours spent in the fifth floor dining hall; living two minutes from my best friends and anything I could need; the excitement of pre-ports and a new green sheet in my hands. I’ll miss the people, and the Atlantic crossing, and never knowing what day of the week it was, and even the repetitive food and oddly green oranges. Given the chance, I’d jump back on the MV in a heartbeat.

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