Where in the World is Katie O’Brien

Katie O'Brien

I’m the kind of person who likes getting lost. I seek out opportunities to venture off the beaten path and explore new places and speak with new people. I’m a strong believer that the only way to truly learn is through experience and I’m the kind of person who looks for experiences that I can’t recreate.

When I decided to study abroad, I knew I couldn’t see myself spending four months in places like London, Paris or Rome. European cities are beautiful and culture-rich places, don’t get me wrong. But I wanted to do something a little bit quirky, a little bit weird, something not a lot of people have done before. I wanted to come back feeling fulfilled.

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A Hawaiian woman, part of the "kupuna," or elders, cleans tea leaves to be braided into necklaces.

This semester, I am circumnavigating the globe with a program called Semester at Sea. We start in Ensenada, Mexico, travel across the Pacific Ocean and end in Barcelona, Spain, focusing specifically on broadening students’ global perspective. Students live and take classes on a cruise ship called the MV Explorer, sail 106 days, visit 12 countries, and 16 ports.

Today we left the first stop on our journey, Hilo, Hawaii. I had the opportunity to attend an authentic luau, where the “kupuna,” or elders of the Hilo community shared aspects of indigenous Hawaiian culture with my group.

I know what you’re thinking. Grass skirts, loud drums, and girls shaking their hips. However, what I experienced was very different. The kupuna taught us the significance of the hula dance and explained that it is a celebration and spiritual connection to the earth.

The second day in Hilo, a group of friends and I traveled to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park where we hiked a portion of Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes.

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The hardened lava in the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is from the Kilauea eruptions in the 1970s.

I saw the black, crackled and dried lava flow from eruptions in the 1970s and felt an eerie sense of discomfort, the place was almost completely silent aside from the wind and clicks from our cameras. At first glance, the landscape was haunting and seemed bleak and endless. The only thing in sight for miles were the layers upon layers of volcanic rock that swirled and crinkled in on itself.

However, I remembered a story that the kupuna had told us a day earlier. Kilauea is home to the Hawaiian volcano goddess, Pele, and is a sacred place for Hawaiians. Although the area at first seemed daunting, through the cultural context of Hawaii, it is beautiful.

Life in Hawaii is so much more than resorts, beaches and vacations. The stretch of islands has a rich culture that can only be explained by talking with locals and getting a tangible sense of life there.

I’m hoping Hawaii will be a stepping-stone to becoming less of a “checklist traveler” and more of a culture-seeker while I sail around the world.