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I’m With Stupid – March 25, 2011

by Todd Hartley

A little over 20 years ago, I visited India as part of a program called Semester at Sea. While there I discovered a marvelous spirit called Old Monk Rum that I would go on to imbibe great quantities of over the next few weeks. I don’t know if it was any good or not, but it was cheap, and my friends and I bought lots of it while we were docked in Madras.

Semester at Sea, if you’re not familiar with it, is essentially 500 college kids drinking their way around the world for 100 days on a cruise ship, and for some reason their schools give them credit for it.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s an invaluable experience, but if you’re not familiar with it, I can see why you might question Semester at Sea’s educational validity. The best way I can counter that is to say you can read every word you want on the subject of India, but until you’ve been there and breathed it and smelled it and tasted it, you have no idea what India is like. I learned more about the world that semester than in all my other semesters of schooling combined.

More importantly, you form friendships on Semester at Sea the likes of which you’ve never had before and know you’ll never have again. In 100 days, everyone aboard goes from being a complete stranger to being someone with whom you’ve just shared the greatest time of your life.

It’s hard to adequately express in words the tightness of the bonds you form with some of your shipmates. They’re friends you’ll cherish forever, and you hope you’ll see them again, but you’re not sure you ever will, which brings me to the one worthwhile use of Facebook. A girl from my voyage started a Semester at Sea Fall 1990 group awhile back, and as a result I got in touch with some of my closest friends from the ship with whom I’d lost touch. Talk of a 20-year reunion began.

Ultimately, it was decided that we would try to get together in Carlsbad for a long weekend over St. Patrick’s Day. It seemed odd to me that we would choose to reune in a cave, but that was before I learned there’s a Carlsbad in California, too. Apparently that one – a beach town just up the coast from San Diego – was the one we were talking about. I flew from Aspen to L.A. to Carlsbad’s tiny airport and then caught a cab to the condo where the seven of us who’d committed to being there were staying.

It was a beautiful, four-bedroom place on the top floor of a three-story building built into a bluff overlooking the ocean, and it came complete with a beachside deck with a hot tub and a gazebo. We didn’t really need a gazebo, but it was nice to know it was there in case we changed our minds.

I have to admit to the slightest amount of trepidation as we gathered. I planned to just kick back and relax, so I had no agenda, but I was worried the reality of us as we are now wouldn’t measure up to the memory of us as we were then. I’d known these people for a few months half a lifetime ago. I had no idea who they’d become, and they didn’t know a thing about me. What if we didn’t like each other anymore?

I needn’t have worried. It was an amazing weekend, filled with the sort of warm, easy camaraderie that made us all so close 20 years ago. We reminisced about old adventures and made some new ones, including a wee hours game of street Whiffle ball and a death-defying climb of a sand cliff just moments ahead of the incoming tide. We soaked in the hot tub and played in the waves. I even took an ill-fated stab at surfing that nearly drowned me.

Oh, and we drank. We downed copious amounts of wine and beer, and we even had a surprise beverage.

Remember how I said it was hard to express what we all meant to one another? Maybe this’ll do: Years ago, my friend Sue’s husband was sent on a business trip to New Delhi. She made him vow to return with a bottle of Old Monk Rum, and then she waited 12 years hoping she’d finally get the chance to drink it with the rest of us.

I still don’t know if it’s any good, but I’ve rarely tasted anything so sweet.

Todd Hartley now has a lot less hair on his head and more in his ears than Todd Hartley then.

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