My semester at sea: Mauritius and life at sea

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Mauritius, a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, has a few claims to fame. It was the former home of the dodo bird, its capital, Port Louis, is the richest city in Africa, although many people don’t count it as part of Africa, and it’s a favorite vacation destination for Indians and semi-adventurous Europeans. I think there actually is a pretty rich culture there. It’s a blend of African, French, Indian and Chinese cultures that forms a unique atmosphere that is characteristic of these island nations. Unfortunately, my trip only stopped there for about eight hours, so I didn’t get to explore very much of it in depth. On top of that, it rained the entire time, so even our plans for the beach and snorkeling were not really feasible. I did get to see some amazing mangrove forests, a couple of dolphins and a little bit of the city, but my visit was not too memorable. But from what I saw, I’m sure it would be a beautiful place to spend some time and relax.

Other than that, the last two weeks have been spent entirely at sea. Although there are certainly downsides to living on the ship and I wouldn’t want to live here for too long, it’s been an incredible experience so far. The sense of community is extremely strong, especially because we all have amazing travel stories and revelations to share with each other. There aren’t a lot of situations in which a group spends so much time together in such a small space. People had told me about the strong bond that forms among everyone on the ship, but I hadn’t really felt that until these past couple of weeks.

The simple fact that everyone  students, professors, retirees, even young children  lives together in a confined space. That means this is not like a normal campus experience. Everyone is familiar. Having a conversation with your professor over lunch is common, and rumors spread like wildfire. Even though most people feel a strong sense of relief when we finally step off the ship into a new country, there is an equally strong sense of coming home at the end of each country’s travels.

In the last two weeks, we had several community events that brought everyone closer together in the best way possible. We had two talent shows: one for the students to support one another’s many talents and one for our incredible crew to show us who they are when they’re not making sure we are comfortable and happy in every hour of the day. These evenings were not only tremendously fun, but they also changed the way we looked at each other in a very positive way. We also celebrated the centuries-old tradition of Neptune Day, the day we crossed the equator at sea for the first time. Everyone participated in secret rituals, dancing and taking time off from school and work. We even had King Neptune come aboard (although he looked suspiciously like the wonderful astronomy professor).

The other uniquely Semester at Sea tradition is the Sea Olympics. The ship community is divided into seas, based on where we live on the ship and who our RDs are. But on this day, our sea became our home country, and we participated in many different games and events, including dodgeball, tug-of-war, the Eastern toilet squat, lip-syncing and backward spelling. Just like the real Olympics, this event fostered an incredibly strong feeling of support and community. I’ll never forget the image of everyone sitting in the auditorium dressed in his or her sea’s color, separated into groups and then the eight colors mixing together so beautifully throughout the day. We are all enjoying this amazing, life-changing experience together, and that makes it all the more special.

Although the most important part of this semester is clearly the foreign countries we visit, there is something really special about having a home and community with us along the way. We all may complain about the bland food, the lack of privacy or any number of things, but I think the entire community is incredibly grateful whenever we return and see the ship waiting for us. Alumni of this program have told me about that feeling, but I hadn’t expected it to be so strong. I don’t know how many of us would be able to enjoy almost four months of traveling around the world without that home base to keep us grounded and secure.