The itinerary: 250 participants between the ages of 18 and 30 from eleven different countries living together, sailing across the Pacific on a vessel called the Nippon Maru. Onshore training for two weeks in Japan, followed by the next five on the ship, making stops in Vanuatu, New Zealand, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands
Today is a holiday. That means there’s no tedious lecture to attend. Despite being one of the younglings on the boat, the lectures aren’t challenging. They provide no real tangible information on how to make the world a better place and the verbiage used is spiritual jargon that always fails to resonate. I was warned that Japan was an overly polite country but looking around the room and seeing everyone else with their heads back, snoring, makes me opt to head back to my cabin and get some quick shut-eye. By the end of the trip I’ve probably attended less than three lectures, so it’s fair to say I don’t have an accurate representation of what SWY was all about. But nonetheless, it remains to be a life changing experience.
I go from a matcha tea ceremony to a coffee café to an Egyptian party all within three hours. Waking up from a nap, I head to my judo class (which was apparently also sumo class but nobody told me that when I signed up) and then walk outside onto the deck to catch the sunset trickle over the ocean before I venture over to the buffet dinner. Did I mention the ice-cream bar was all-you-can-eat as well? It was a life of luxury.
Yet at times, I can’t help but wonder why I am here. The Canadian application process had been quite easy. I worked diligently on my answers because I wanted it real bad but compared to Egypt who had three interviews and thousands of people apply, us Canadians only had to fill in an online form and compete with 200 people for the twelve spots. There is often times where I feel like we are just a bunch of kids, partying in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with the guise of a leadership program masking all our antics.
National presentations are electrifying. Ross uses the word “synergy”. After every performance, the crowd bolts up from their seats and they dance and cheer while submerged in a pool of culture, fluorescent drippings everywhere. My jaw drops and doesn’t close until the performances are over. My cheeks ache from smiling so much. To witness the unity, the flawlessness, to watch people display integral parts of their identity on stage; it is impossible not to be moved. And it wasn’t just the bold dance moves or the glitter and glam of their costumes. When you give someone your full attention, you realize their depth. You get a glimpse of the layers that make them who they are. Stage presence can make somebody you’d ordinarily dismiss seem utterly fascinating. You become a hungry explorer, wanting to dive into their stories. This newfound feeling lingered.
Everyone wanted to engage in conversation and nobody was dragging their bodies around in a deadened environment anymore. We were mingling with different countries outside of our own and allowing our curiosity to lead the way. Artful expression that brings people together, such as photography and dance, flourished in the ship. There was a dance party at every possible occasion, from ones at night outside on the deck until 4 a.m. or in the rain after leaving the port of New Zealand. When your body moved to the rhythm of the waves, seasickness ceased to be a problem.
I admired his simplistic way of seeing the world. It’s not about what you do, it’s about what you think about what you do, he said. She told me how friends dying was a common occurrence back at home. She had forgotten how to cry. To allow herself to feel would be to linger on the verge of a breakdown. I don’t want to be strong, she said smiling, with tears in her eyes. He drank in his cabin alone some nights, thinking about the recent death of a friend. Revolution was just a word in a history textbook for me. I can’t imagine their pain. He told me he prayed for me. I couldn’t digest it, that this man that I had immense respect for thought of me when I wasn’t around. The Tongans are the happiest people on earth, an alumni told me. His hugs felt like I could sink into them. Hungover mornings became more than bearable with him, awakened by how effortlessly his sarcasm bounced off mine. I sit with him in the lobby at 2AM and listen to the story of how he met his girlfriend. We discuss coincidences being much more than just that. Before I go back to my cabin, I stop by the corridor at the end of the hall to say goodnight to the Japanese boys. They are an inviting bunch and always make sure to speak English when I’m around. I learn about what makes them special; he yearns to live differently, he grew up in the islands and has worked hard to become a firefighter and the last one is to inherit a huge hotel chain but the toils of romance on the boat are racking his mind.
It’s Valentine’s Day. I sit at Pier 3 on a port in New Zealand, waiting to head back onto the ship. Our next stop is Fiji. It’s the halfway mark of this adventure. I catch her outside, admiring the sunset. She amazes me. There are no words to describe the magnitude of her effect on the community within this boat. She graduated from law school but then decided to become a full time activist, living on sacred space so they don’t build on top of it. She doesn’t try to inspire people and I have yet to hear her yell or get angry. All she does is live and speak her truths. Such a simple thing but look at how that inspires everyone around her. “How do you handle all the overwhelming praise?” I ask her. It must be exhausting to be put on a pedestal for simply acting on what you believe is right. “I practice gratitude” she replies. The sun is setting; chiseled clouds and orange hues surround us. Our black manes are caressed by the wind. The universe hugs us so.
The stories are countless. A Costa Rican telling me the exact moment he saw his country for the “first” time, how the experience was the final lift out of a solemn depression. How compassion often lies underneath pain. A Kenyan soldier justifying his cold demeanor on his training. “You beat the man up and only after that do you turn around to your sergeant and ask why you did that”. Listening to David Gilmour underneath a star stricken sky, feeling ethereal. Sitting on a bus beside an Ecuadorian, listening to her tales of love with a musician. How she gave it her all and the love was abundant until he cheated on her. How she’s found sustenance and balance in her new partner. Sitting beside an Egyptian on the bus, sharing how startup culture differs between our two countries. Dreading the fancy reception because adulting and PR suck but somehow losing track of time when immersed into a one-hour conversation about coffee culture with a barista who lives in Tokyo. Conducting an interview in a blazer and collared white shirt while she sports a sexy red dress. Realizing how powerful femininity can be. Appreciating how he has all the wonder of a child despite being a 30-year old social worker who has not only seen it all, but been through it all. Being wrapped in hugs that made my insides curl up like rotini pasta. People not only exuded warmth but a feeling of home.
She is passed out at the end of the corridor, refusing to move. “Leave me alone” she barks. It is clear she does not want to be helped. But he won’t have it. She needs to go back to her room, he tells me. I try for another half hour and give up. It’s almost 4am. Let her sleep here if she wants. “You’re good at telling stories. Tell her a story” he begs me. I am baffled. Such a childish thing…to engage her in a story. Yet I know it will work. Stories breed connections. I go to her and tell her about my own depressive episodes. I tell her I understand. She still doesn’t move but a tear slides down her face.
I tell him I don’t believe in love. Three weeks later, it’s the last day and everyone is bawling. It’s the last time we will see each other. My eyes are stinging. He comes up to me and says into my ear “If this isn’t love, then what is?”
Leaving my cabin at 8AM and being wrapped up in Egyptians hugs in the breakfast line. Walking past the Tongan and Fiji delegation and having them invite you into their Bob Marley sing-along with open arms, tossing you a beer. Sitting with the Kenyan girls, discussing education and then jamming to tunes with the Kenyan guys playing DJ. Laughing with the Indians as they tease each other. Talking to Costa Ricans about the beauty of their country. Being inspired by how the New Zealanders value and respect their indigenous people. Understanding not only the humility of Japan, but the complexity of it. Witnessing the proactivity of the Brazilians, watching them leap at opportunities and make the most of them. Feeling relieved when the Ukrainians shed their political agendas yet in awe at how they maintain their energy as they contemplate their goal in the program. And most importantly, finding family in each and every one of the Canadians.
It isn’t the classes or teachings that make SWY so special. And as amazing as it was to witness intimate cultural sites and rituals in the countries we visited, that wasn’t the best part either. The best part is the people. It’s the community that we build when we have no internet connection as we float from country to country, embarking on adventures together. We were able to experience each other in tears, in sheer happiness, in anger and in flamboyant drunkenness. We got to know all of each other in such a short time span.
I’ve barely captured half the people that made an impact on me on this two-month program. Without them, I would not have woken up everyday feeling as empowered as I did. On a boat in the middle of the sea, because of the wonderful people surrounding me, I was reminded how freedom lies in putting an authentic foot forward.
“In those five weeks, the spirit on the Nippon Maru had been one of communion, one of support and caring. That spirit shows itself in simple acts of kindness, small gestures of support or understanding by another person”.
“Now it’s part of us. And it was very happy moments. And we must try to make all our lives like this.”