In charge of a floating, flying, free-form classroom

Times Staff Writer

MANY life-changing events happen in a flash without warning. Mine is coming with a detailed itinerary and enough time to pack.

I leave Thursday to cruise the world for 101 days and teach writing to college students enrolled in Semester at Sea. The 42-year-old academic program transports young Americans from their fairy-tale lives into settings straight from the pages of National Geographic and, sometimes, U.S. News and World Report. We will fly in hot air balloons over Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve and wander through a cloud forest in Venezuela. But we will also see poverty, experience political tension, read censored newspapers and witness ways of living drastically unlike our own. I’ll share these experiences, the good and the bad, on my blog, beginning later this month.

This is no Pizza Hut tour of Europe but a journey few tourists could duplicate. With iPods and malaria pills, the 700 students aboard our floating campus, the 590-foot Explorer, will visit orphanages, stay overnight with villagers and receive cautionary warnings on how to act before entering 10 countries.

Making this trip unforgettable: Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa will join the group in Salvador, Brazil, and travel with us as we prepare for our five-day stay in Cape Town.


During my time away, I will be remote and afloat. No cell phone, bills in the mail, filling up my gas tank to commute on the 405. I’ll be leaving behind everything familiar, everyone I love, everyone who makes me laugh as well as my jobs as a single mother, journalist and gym dweller.

In return, I will be substituting Trader Joe’s jasmine-scented white tea for a cup at a real Chinese teahouse, Wahoo’s fish tacos for some on a Brazilian beach and 24-Hour Fitness yoga classes for those taught near the Taj Mahal.

The timing is perfect. My only child, Eric, has moved to San Francisco to attend law school. He’s launched. Now the spotlight is on me. What do I want? It’s a big question but one I don’t need to answer until I return in December.

Like my students, I am willing to shake off my hesitations and my need to have all my resources at my fingertips and always feel safe.


I’m an adventurous traveler, with some of my past excursions feeling more like fact-finding missions with the CIA than relaxing vacations. I was behind the wall in Berlin in 1985; in Cuba in 1991; Belfast in 1999. But the longest I’ve been away from my Southern California home base, except for college, has been four weeks. This time, I’ll be away almost a third of the year. I will not be with my friends and family to celebrate Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, a few of their birthdays and my 30th high school reunion.

Instead, I’ll have time to know the people who live in the places I only read about. When Lilly, a manicurist at Elite Nails in Villa Park, asked me where I was going in Vietnam, I told her Ho Chi Minh City. “No,” she said, looking stern for the first time. “It’s Saigon!”

Living remotely, I’ll be keyboarding my way through online banking, booking travel and communicating with loved ones. Will some of my single friends become engaged? The older ones stay healthy? The younger ones stay on the right track?

I’ll have to wait and see. I’m packed and ready with a passport and six visas. I’ve had 10 shots and filled five preventive prescriptions. I have a wallet of “starter” currency to pay for transportation from the port to a nearby city. I’ve reduced my household holdings to things that don’t need a human touch.


My life will change. I’ll keep you posted.