Cultural Experience | Lisbon

There’s No Right Way to Travel. 

The Most Important Lesson I Learned From Semester At Sea

After studying with Semester at Sea, I could endlessly praise the enormously successful study abroad program. Semester at Sea is completely transformative; it took me from a reserved individual to one that thrives off of adventure. I spent that summer aboard a cruise ship making friends, studying tourism and travel writing, and exploring each port. I could recite all that I’ve learned over those sixty days, but the most important lesson came at the end of the trip.

Lisbon sunset portugal semester at sea study abroad image

Sunset overlooking Lisbon, Portugal

An Irish adage called Murphy’s Law states that anything that can go wrong will. While this is not a universal experience, at nineteen, I had this intense fear that I wasn’t soaking in what I was supposed to in each port. My regret of not seeing every major monument, museum, or “authentic” experience began to take a toll on me after skipping the Sintra Palace in my first port of call, Lisbon. I grew anxious that I wasn’t travelling correctly and that I was missing out on something important that I “had” to see. What I had done, however, was both travelled into the countryside and explored the gargantuan Lisbon aquarium. While these experiences were rewarding in themselves, I still felt as though I was missing something.

More: The Suitest Life: 10 Reasons why Semester-at-Sea is the Greatest Study Abroad.. Ever

In my tourism class, we learned about the intense fear Westerners have of wasting time while travelling. We have a fear of missing the most important thing about a location; and of not having the “right” experience. The most important lesson I learned from Semester at Sea was that there is no such thing as the right experience, and sometimes the best destination is anywhere.

In my first trip to Ireland, I had signed up for a field trip to go to Galway City and the Cliffs of Moher. I was most excited about the Cliffs, as I’d seen pictures of them my whole life from trips my family members took in their travels to Ireland. When the day arrived, the fog was so oppressive, I couldn’t see my hands in front of me in some areas. There was no visibility, except for thick fog that enveloped all of County Clare. At the time, this was devastating to me. I’d sat for four hours on a bus from Dublin so excited to see the Cliffs of Moher. 

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland, Semester at Sea, study abroad image

My First (Unsuccessful) Trip to the Cliffs of Moher

However, after dwelling on this for an hour or two, I came to the conclusion that being this disappointed was wasted effort. Instead, I became passionately motivated to come back to Ireland one day. Two years later, I was back at the Cliffs of Moher, posing for pictures and smiling in the Irish sunshine.

More: Semester at Sea: How I Saw the World

cliffs of moher, ireland, semester at sea, study abroad image

The Cliffs of Moher

In a week following my trip to Ireland, the ship docked in Oslo. I took my first trip to an island full of museums, an art gallery, and even enjoyed some Norwegian pancakes on my own. My friends spent the day shopping, or at the Hard Rock cafe connecting to WiFi. My day traversing through Oslo was the first day entirely spent by myself, and even after one day, I felt a surge of confidence that I’d never had before. It’s important to focus on what you want to see when travelling. While it’s easy to succumb to the pressures of a group, adventuring in your own style is a truly life-changing experience.

The next stop after Oslo was the quintessential Scandinavian city of Stockholm. At the time, I knew very little about this port, only what I’d imagined the pleasant city of Stockholm to be like. After a solo adventure in Oslo, I felt more confident and less shaky exploring a new city on my own entirely. The first day was spent petting baby reindeer, eating ice cream, and walking along the cobblestone streets of old town. Instead of going shopping or falling into the major tourist traps, I found myself able to see the beauty in the small things in doing what was best for me over the pressures of appeasing some friends.

Stockholm, Sweden, Semester at Sea, study abroad image

View of Stockholm, Sweden

Ignore what the guidebooks are telling you. There are no real must-sees or things you absolutely can’t miss in any destination. While yes, some tourist attractions are popular and spectacular, seeing something off the beaten path, or a bit out of the ordinary, is just as valuable. While, I did not see Sintra palace, I learned a ton about Portuguese fish, and took a behind the scenes tour of the aquarium. There’s no wrong way to travel. As long as you are learning, enjoying yourself, and developing independence along the way, there’s no incorrect way to do it. Traveling is the most revitalizing experience you can have while in college, and it’s important to do it as you please versus how someone else tells you to enjoy it. 

Semester at Sea truly altered my perception on travel, on life, and of myself. Even in neglecting a must see attraction, travellers will learn a lot more about their values and what’s most important to them by seeing what they want independently. No destination is incorrect, and there is absolutely no correct way to travel. Enjoy your time abroad, it goes all too quickly!

Experiences, Semester at Sea, study abroad image

The Most Important Lesson I Learned from Semester at Sea

Mary Sheehan

Elon University | 12 stories

I am currently a senior at Elon University studying creative writing. I participated in Semester at Sea in summer of 2014, and spent my junior year abroad in Dublin, Ireland. I enjoy reading, writing, and of course, traveling.

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