In January 2014, 21-year-old Canadian Rebecca Isaak boarded a ship in San Diego, California, eager to start what would be a five-month journey around the world. She was embarking on a Semester at Sea – a program where university students live and learn while stopping in ports across the globe – just like her mom did in 1981. And in many ways, she set sail expecting to have a very similar experience.
“I wanted to hug the same statue she did in China, get a little too tipsy in Japan, make the same lasting friendships,” Isaak said.
But as she voyaged across the sea, she realized that her journey was bound to be very different.
A personal moment at the Taj Mahal
One of Isaak’s most memorable stops was India. As she slipped on her protective white slippers to enter the Taj Mahal, a realisation dawned over her.
“At the time, I was very conscious of the fact that my mother’s one regret from her travels was not getting to see the Taj Mahal,” she said. “And here I was.”
The palace looked just like it did in photos, but the experience was nothing like she imagined. The environment was chaotic as people stood outside and tried to sell trinkets to her. “They yelled and pushed, and grabbed your arm,” the Canadian student said. While listening to families scream and shout around her, she felt overwhelmed and “not at all serene” as she had presumed she would.
The interior of the structure was a surprise as well, but in a more aweing way. Isaak recalls seeing all the intricate and delicate details inside of the memorial, like the stone carved pattern found on the walls. She remembers thinking that the building massive, and quite ornate as she walked across the marble floors.
However, Isaak was more impressed by the other parts of India. She preferred immersing herself into the country and experiencing the liveliness found in everyday people. In fact, Isaak said, it was her interactions within the community that had the greatest impact .
On her first and only night in New Delhi, India, a funny and earnest tour guide showed Isaak and her friends around a Sikh gurdawara. The guide stayed late to show Isaak and her friends the “holy place” where Sikh scriptures are kept. Followers go to the building for ceremonies and to hear readings, or to share meals with people of all denominations in the soup kitchen. They planned on staying for five minutes, but didn’t leave until an hour later. The students were learning about the gurdawara, but the tour guide also had the opportunity to learn about their respective cultures.
“It definitely stands out for our time in India, probably because I had the chance to authentically interact with someone from the country,” Isaak said.
Meeting the locals
Making an effort to interact with the locals became a theme for Isaak. Without some element of that, she felt like she was missing out on a core part of the experience. “I think it made me feel like I hadn’t actually experienced the country, I had just seen it,” the Ontario native said.
In Vietnam, another country her mother had never been to, Isaak discovered Couchsurfing, a website that connects travellers with locals that are looking for cheap accommodations and new friends, Isaak said. She spent three days in Ho Chi Minh City, just learning about her surroundings from the people who actually lived there.
First, she met a local English teacher. He took her to the first McDonalds that was built in his native country, and they sipped iced coffee on the side of the street. Isaak then returned the gesture by attending his class. “I had thirty Vietnamese students nervously and hilariously ask me questions about Canada and how I feel about Vietnamese boys,” she said.
She met two girls—best friends—who also took the initiative to show her around. Isaak thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but also became nostalgic for her friends back home. Ngan, another new friend would let Isaak stay at her home for two nights. She introduced the Ontario drama student to her housemates, showed her around her university and played badminton with her in the alleyways.
“I would run back to the ship to shower, drop off things – but I felt like I lived in the city,” Isaak said. Her program highly suggests that students do not embark on excursions by themselves because those experiences wouldn’t be covered by their travel insurance. The program also wouldn’t push couch-surfing or riding motorbikes, but Isaak revels in the fact that she “did all three”.
The boat would also stop in Myanmar for six days, another place Isaak’s mother did not visit on her voyage. A civil conflict had plagued the region for decades, which probably disallowed her mother from visiting, she said. Instructors made sure to remind the students that the country was still adjusting to having outside visitors.
Some friends joined Isaak and visited the ancient city of Bagan for four days after docking in the capital of the country, Yangon. The Semester at Sea program allows students to enjoy “in-port” time, giving them the opportunity to explore the country as long as they return by a specific time.
During this particular trip, they would “find the pagodas with wide open tops and dangle our legs over the side to watch the sunset”, she said. In moments like this, Isaak remembers feeling as if something was “burning into her soul”, because she was overcome with emotion. “I [felt] joy at the overwhelming beauty, and a comforting sense of peace,” Isaak said. “Like somehow this beautiful moment could settle all the worries I had ever had.”
She and her friends would have small interactions with the community, but it was more of a bonding experience for the group of students. Vietnam will always be special, Isaak said, simply because she treaded a new territory all on her own.
“No other country rivalled Vietnam for me,” she said.
Replicating another’s amazing adventures
Over the course of the four months, Isaak would also visit China, Hawaii, Japan, Singapore, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana and London. The Semester at Sea program taught her how to step outside of her comfort zone, and be okay with being frightened about the unknown.
“Slowly, I began to realize that even if I was traveling in my mother's footsteps, her shoes don't fit my feet,” Isaak said. She needed to start living for herself – not in her mother’s shadow.
Before her semester at sea, Isaak had set expectations. But the trip revealed to her that she was different than her mom – it was time to live her life, and have her own adventures.
“When I arrived home, tan and quite bald, and hugged my mother, I knew that I had stories just as wonderful and unique as hers,” Isaak said. “And the best part is that they are all mine.”
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