Neptune Day

I received a certificate yesterday as I graduated from pollywog to shellback. This rite of passage was earned by 600 of us onboard while crossing the equator. The ritual included being slimed with blue fluids (fish guts, they said), jumping en masse into the pool and kissing not only Neptune’s ring, but also the lips of a flounder. All of which I did happily.

I left the head-shaving piece to the young’uns, many of whom are wearing scarves and caps today.

At the start of the festivities an onboard administrator announced over the PA system, “We have now passed over the equator. Did you feel the bump?”

It’s taken me awhile to get my footing on the high seas. I knew no one when I climbed aboard in Kobe, Japan on February 1. I had opted out of 20-day crossing of the Pacific so that I could wrap up with my clients and groups. The students, faculty and staff began the voyage in California in mid-January. I knew I would miss those early bonding days. But as an adult, I figured that most travelers would be open-minded and generous and that I would fit right in. It took me longer than I’d predicted.

I got seasick immediately. Semester at Sea (SAS) is my third ship voyage. The past two rides were on super-sized liners where motion is barely detectable. Not so the MV Explorer, my current ship. I swallowed a couple of ginger pills to stave off the nausea and went about my business.

Within a few hours, I was lying across my bed after involuntarily emptying my stomach of its contents repeatedly that first morning. I then slapped on a seasickness-prevention patch, took a long winter’s nap, and rose in time for dinner. Once the patch’s healing chemistry got into my system I was fine and have been ever since.

During one shipboard session for LifeLong Learners (LLLs – my category) a professor on the ship, offered all of us an assessment/test (a la Meyers/Briggs) to help us see how travel-friendly we were. It was a way to measure our personal comfort zones. I opted not to fill out the questionnaire, which was already a strong indicator of how narrow my comfort zone might be.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I passed the professor in one of the ship’s many corridors where she personally invited (i.e. peer-pressured) me to find out my level of intercultural flexibility. I agreed. Turns out, not surprisingly to me, that I’m not terribly adventurous.

But that sparked something in me as she encouraged each of us to go outside our comfort zones, even if was only by an inch, as a means of increasing that intercultural muscle. I wanted to meet that challenge. I always want to self-improve. Why not use this journey for that purpose?

Now, I want to say that even embarking on this journey would have been incomprehensible many years ago. My scores would have been rockbottom back then. It wasn’t that I was afraid to leave home back then. More, I couldn’t embrace what the big deal of travel was all about. Limited beliefs and limited imagination. I wanted to grow in these areas.

As a result, I’ve had two major transformative moments on this voyage. Neither, when written, appear to be of great consequence. But for me, they were definitive.

BTW, this blog entry is not intended to be a travelog. I’ve seen incredible beauty: the Taj Mahal, Crocodile Lake, and the beauty of women in their native make-up in Myanmar. I’ve covered seven countries and thousands of miles on land and at sea. You can look up my itinerary online if you’re interested.

It’s the inner journey that’s been most significant.

After arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (aka Saigon) I boarded the tour bus provided to give our members a quick overview of the city. I signed up for this so I’d feel more comfortable walking there on my own over the next several days.

We had been told about the chaotic traffic in the city. Hearing about it is one thing. Experiencing it was another. We crossed one street as a large group with a leader holding up her hand to halt the zillions of motorbikes that fill the roads. Even with her assistance, crossing was challenging.

The next day, on my own, there was no escort. Imagine crossing the equivalent of a six-lane boulevard of Times Square proportions with no traffic lights. The advice we were given was to decide when you’re going to cross, make your move, and just keep going. The traffic will find its way around you. The better advice I received and followed was: when possible, walk between two Vietnamese who are also crossing the street. (This advice was actually given in China, but I applied in Vietnam.)

On one particular street I was alone and the street was wide. Moving my foot from the sidewalk onto the road represented my commitment to go outside of my comfort zone. I crossed successfully though not without fear. Once I’d accomplished that feat, it made asking for help with a menu item, negotiating with a woman in the marketplace or seeking permission to take a photo of a vegetable stand easier.

They don’t give certificates for street-crossing in Vietnam, but if they did, I’d have claimed mine. I didn’t mention that not only are these motorbikes coming at you from all directions, they may also surprise you on a sidewalk when you least expect it.

The second transformative experience I had also involved my getting around on my own. This time it was in India. The first days of our stay there were filled with a guided excursion to see the Taj Mahal. Once back in port, I was on my own. I was scouting around for a plan for the day. We couldn’t walk to anything from the ship, and there were dire warnings to not trust the tuk-tuk or taxi drivers. There are large crowds of these men circulating around our port area hassling everyone to take their little vehicles into town. BE CAREFUL! and “don’t travel alone” were the mantras of this port.

I had my own itinerary in mind for the day and no obvious travel buddy. I took a leap of faith and hired a driver, Sajith, to take me around for 4 hours for $15. That’s the equivalent of a one-way, 15-minute ride from my apartment in NYC to Grand Central.

I told him I wanted to see activities of everyday life in the area of Fort Kochi. I was extremely nervous as he began driving me away from the city and onto narrow, residential roads. But when he took out his phone and showed me photos of his sons, I knew I was safe.

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Sajith

Sajith showed me the coolest things–guys fishing in the Arabian Sea, pulling the fish out of the nets, cleaning them off in a wheelbarrow full of water, then taking them about 20 feet away to a make-shift tent where customers were waiting to buy the fresh catch of the day.

He drove me to see how they still do laundry in some areas–very old guys flogging wet clothing, hand-wringing it, then hanging it on massive clotheslines to air dry. We saw how they iron without electricity.

We passed school girls with perfect braids and in blue pinafores walking near their school. I loved it all.

Wherever he drove me, there were cows, dogs, goats, cats, etc. amongst all of the usual vehicular traffic, and no one looking twice.

I wanted an ayurvedic massage. Sajith brought me to a small, but lovely center where I got a 60 minute treatment (while he waited) for $25.

I treated to lunch at a place he chose called the Hotel Seagull–rustic, clean and wonderful. I was led out to the patio area where I was the only customer. Ten minutes later a couple from the ship peeked out onto the deck to see the place and ended up joining us for a really fun and delicious time.

On the way back to the ship, I asked Sajith, my driver, if I might use his cell phone to connect with my friend in India. She’s been living in this country for over three years, and we’d arranged that I would call her that day if I were able to get hold of a local phone. No easy task.

I dialed the number she’d given me, but my call went unanswered.

That evening six of us had a lovely dinner at a Taj hotel a short walk from our ship. When we were walking back to our dock, there was the usual crowd of vendors and drivers vying for our attention. I form a mental bubble around myself and ignore them all.

But one of them seemed intent on getting my attention and I realized it was my driver. My friend in India had returned the call to the unknown number which came from Sajith’s phone. He wanted to let me know that she’d tried me a couple of times, then dialed her up for me and invited me to sit in the dock area using his phone for my conversation with her.

Sajith’s act of generosity was the finest moment of this trip to date.
I’m stretching. I’m moving out of my comfort zone, and I’m able to feel the bump.

The date was March 17.

Three years ago on March 17, I received a different document. That one marked a different rite of passage: divorce. Nowhere on my horizon was the life-changing opportunity I embarked upon in February.

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