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March 27, 2007

The learning process never ends, even on vacation

From: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - Pittsburgh,PA,USA - Mar 27, 2007

By Megan Bode
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

I didn't expect a weeklong spring break in the Bahamas to be a learning experience. In fact, I initially figured it would be just the opposite: a chance to more or less turn off my brain in an attempt to fully relax. As it turned out, my beach vacation had several lessons in store.

My worries started about a week before the trip. It was my first time out of the country, and I wasn't sure what to expect. What would the food be like? What would the prices for meals, drinks, and other necessities be like? Would I be able to call home? How would my seven friends and I keep track of each other in the absence of cell phones? Though older generations might laugh at this last query, for twenty-somethings unaccustomed to functioning in a world without the convenience of constant communication, it was a serious concern.

Upon arrival, I quickly discovered that adaptation wasn't such a scary prospect. Our hotel had a Sbarro, where I could always go for an American snack -- but my friends and I had a great time trying several different Bahamian specialties, including their "mac-and-cheese loaf" and their fried conch-fritters. And though the prices for certain items ran high, I found that it wasn't difficult to do without what I was used to; I simply found substitutes that were reasonably priced. As for calling home, the cost was outrageous. Even at 21, I still call my mom nearly every day just to say hi -- I'm close to my family, and hearing her voice is a reminder of home and of unconditional love. But in the Bahamas, with a daily check-in impossible, I realized that my boyfriend and my friends provide more than enough companionship and support: they, too, have become a part of my family, sources of confidence and unconditional love.

Our lack of cell phones strengthened our bonds. For a week, we learned about making plans in advance, about showing up on time, about the importance of commitment to one another. Our e-generation's access to technology nearly has erased those values from society. With a few typed letters, a quick text message or a cell phone call, my generation is able to easily opt in and out of plans. We can meet up with one another on a whim, or ditch plans without worrying that a friend might be left somewhere, waiting. During our week without access to cell phones or computers, my friends and I were forced to think ahead and keep promises to one another -- and it was surprisingly simple, and a bit refreshing.

My most important experience, however, had nothing to do with personal adaptation to an unfamiliar environment. On our first day in the hotel, we met a group of deaf kids across the hall. One of them, David, had some hearing, and was able to tell us that they were college students at Gallaudet, a school for the hearing-impaired. He taught us the American Sign Language alphabet, so that we had a rudimentary means of communicating. Clumsily using our hands, we made friends with the kids across the hall -- inviting them over for drinks, playing games, and hanging out at clubs.

Because I'd never been exposed to the deaf community, I had misconceptions. I thought that these kids would have difficulty functioning in the hearing world, and figured that it would be hard to forge friendships, given that they couldn't hear us, and we didn't understand ASL. I was wrong. Our deaf friends had ways of getting along in the hearing world -- no extra assistance necessary. And both groups wanted to play around in the water, tan in the sun, have drinks and go to clubs at night. It sounds cliche, but we weren't so different: I learned a lot about making assumptions through these new friendships.

I came home from the Bahamas a little tanner, a lot more relaxed,and a bit worldlier. The old adage "you learn something new every day" had never seemed truer. I may be about to graduate from college, but I think as far as learning goes, I still have quite a journey ahead.

Megan Bode, of Upper St. Clair, is a senior at Duke University in North Carolina.

© 2007 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review