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The rhythms of shipboard life

We sailed out of the Baia de Todos os Santos on the evening of Sunday, February 9, with spectacular views of the skyline of Salvador and the islands of the bay. Ahead lay a nine-day voyage to Cape Town. By now, I had become accustomed to the daily rhythms of teaching (if not the time changes).

The 12th in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

It was a full-time occupation, with classes, preparation, reading, grading and office hours. I found myself constantly moving between classrooms, the cabin and public rooms, hunting for places to hook up my laptop. Because of the confined space, working in the cabin was difficult but if I set up in the Union or out on deck, I was constantly interrupted by students stopping by to talk. I tried to designate office hours, but on a ship you’re essentially on call all day. 

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After three weeks at sea, we had developed our sea legs. The first skill you learn is to walk with your legs spread further apart than normal, as if you just got out of a saddle. This prevents you from losing balance as the ship sways from side to side. You do not lean on doors, because they may swing back suddenly, catching whatever part of your body is protruding. At mealtime, you carefully arrange your plates and glasses, so they don’t fly off the table. Everything on the Universe Explorer ship seemed to be slightly askew. The floors and decks sloped down to the port and starboard (for drainage) so wherever you sat, you were usually leaning to the right or left. In the theatre, where I taught every morning, a sudden sway would send the stage curtains rattling across the runner, suddenly and dramatically obscuring the screen, only to swing open again a moment later. There was nothing to do about it, except to laugh or silently curse whoever was steering the ship. 

My day began with breakfast at 7:00, then an 8:00 class—Theories of Propaganda on A days, Media Criticism on B days. This was followed by the Global Studies course, required of the whole shipboard community. It was an introduction to the history, geography and culture of the next country to be visited, in the broader contexts of colonialism, globalization and other issues. In terms of preparing the students, it was essential, but logistically it was a challenge.  Students and faculty were packed into the Union, the largest room on the ship, and three classrooms with a video feed. Some students were likely still sleeping in their cabins, but there was no way to take attendance. If you showed up late—as I often did because there was only a five-minute break between classes—I had to step over sleeping students to find a spot on the floor (all seats were taken by 9:45). After Global Studies, I found a couple of seats with a sea view and held office hours. After lunch on A days, I sat in on a class on the economics of development, then taught Communication and Development. More office hours were followed by the hallowed happy hour in the Navigator’s Lounge, above the bridge with sweeping views of the sea ahead. This was the only place reserved for faculty and staff and it was a pleasant relief from the daily bustle of the Union, dining halls and classrooms. During the day, you could stop by for coffee or tea, read the international news digest and the Dean’s memo. At 17:00, the bar opened, and faculty and staff relaxed before dinner. There was plenty to do in the evenings—Community College, where faculty and staff shared their interests and hobbies, student dances and talent shows, and movies on TV. Some nights were “pub nights” when students could buy beer or wine (no spirits). 

 For the first seven days of the voyage across the South Atlantic, we were blessed with pleasant weather, calm seas and a favorable wind and current. Two days out of Cape Town, we hit what one ship’s officer described as the “African rollers.” We were happy to disembark in Cape Town and be on dry land again.

Next week: Operation Hunger, Cape Town

Upriver to colonial Cachoeira

We took a one-day tour to the countryside northwest of Salvador, ending up in the old colonial town of Cachoeira (waterfall in Portuguese), founded in 1650 on the Paraguaçu River.

The 11th in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

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This is one of the most productive agricultural regions in Brazil, where the Portuguese established sugarcane and tobacco plantations, shipping their produce down the rivers that flow into the Baia de Todos os Santos where it was loaded onto ocean-going ships. Today, agriculture is more mixed, with maize, rice and a wide variety of fruits (mangoes, papayas, oranges, bananas, jackfruit, cashew fruit) grown. Bamboo, originally imported from Southeast Asia, became not only a cash crop, but a local weed, growing wild along roadsides and in fields.

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Along the road we stopped at a cooperative farm—an example of what agrarian reform can achieve. The land was repossessed by a bank when the landowner defaulted on his mortgage payment; then the bank itself went bankrupt, and the government seized the land to pay back taxes. It distributed it to about 150 landless families, each of which has five hectares, a house and a garden; they contribute labor and part of their income to the community to support a school and other services and sell the rest of their produce.

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Cachoeira is a sleepy country town with gorgeous colonial architecture that recalls its history as a major river port and commercial center. With funds from UNESCO and foreign donors, some buildings have been restored. After lunch at a pousada, a country inn in an 18th century house, we visited the cigar factory where Stephanie learned how to hand-roll a cigar. 

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Our other out-of-town trip was by schooner—a replica of the ships that traded between ports on the bay in colonial times—to the small Ilha dos Frades (the Island of the Friars), and the larger Itaparica Island, where middle-class Salvadoreans have weekend homes. The beach at Frades was idyllic, with white sand, and clear, warm water. After lunch on Itaparica and a quick tour of the town, we enjoyed the 90-minute trip back across the bay with good views of the old city.

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Next week: The rhythms of shipboard life

The old city of Salvador

Salvador, founded as a fortress in 1549, was one of the first Portuguese settlements in Brazil. It offered a natural harbor—a large, deep bay, protected from Atlantic storms, which the Portuguese named the Baia de Todos os Santos (the Bay of All Saints)—and an easily defensible position, high on a bluff.

The 10th in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

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It was the colony’s first capital, a center for slave traders and sugarcane exports. The old city, with its cobbled streets, dates from the 17th century, and its squares, colonial houses and Baroque and Rococo churches are remarkably well preserved. The new city, where the ship docked, is on a narrow strip of land by the bay; it’s a steep climb to the old city, so most people take the elevador (a public elevator) or the older funicular.

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Salvador attracts tourists from other parts of Brazil and Latin American countries because of its history, beaches and rich Afro-Brazilian culture. The streets of the old city are lively and colorful; oil painters and wood artists display their work outside small shops, drum troupes and dancers perform in the squares.

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The most spectacular performance is a mix of dance and martial art, the capoeira. Slaves secretly developed capoeira, and it became a cultural symbol of resistance to oppression. Two combatants sinuously weave through a routine of acrobatic kicks, arm movements, cartwheels, headstands and back flips. A split-second error in timing, and you’ll floor your opponent with a body punch or kick; the art is to miss by a whisker. Capoeira is performed to the percussive beat of congas, pandeiros—a tunable hand-frame drum with metal jingles on the rim, like a large tambourine—and berimbaus—a single-string musical bow, of African origin. Capoeira is as much a part of the culture of Salvador as samba in Rio. We saw it performed by two professional troupes, by students from capoeira schools, and even seven-year-olds in the favela school. 

The only sport to rival it in popularity is, of course, futebol. I came a little closer to my goal of seeing professional games in as many countries as possible when the two local Serie A clubs, Bahia and Sporting Club Vitoria, met in one of the first games of the new season. It was a small crowd—probably no more than 10,000 in a stadium that can hold almost 50,000. The derby has a history of fan violence, and we were told that was why people stayed away. A tight first half, fought mostly in midfield, ended with Bahia grabbing two opportunistic goals. Vitoria put in a fine attacking performance in the second half and scored one, but despite lots of near-misses could not manage an equalizer. It was high-quality football—precision passing, good wing play, and intelligent defense. The other entertainment came from the rival fans, who beat drums, set off firecrackers and hurled Portuguese expletives at each other. The police, in camouflage outfits with sticks and dogs, looked more menacing than the fans.

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Eating out in Salvador’s old city was always an adventure. We avoided the tourist places and chose restaurants where Brazilians were eating (even if we couldn’t read the menu). Many dishes are based on the staples of beans and rice, with interesting flavors. We enjoyed feijoara, a spicy beef stew, other dishes with ham and chicken, and good seafood. The freshly made street drinks—iced, crushed sugar cane, and coconut water sipped through a straw from the fruit—were refreshing. We needed to keep refreshed, because the heat was intense. Not as hot as in Rio where students reported that the temperature reached 112 degrees Fahrenheit one morning.  And not as humid as the Amazon, where students said they went through three or four shirts a day. But hot enough for us.

Next week: Upriver to colonial Cachoeira

The favelas of Salvador, Brazil

Salvador, about halfway down Brazil’s 4,600-mile Atlantic coastline, is the country’s fourth largest city. It has grown rapidly from a population of about one million in the 1970s to about three million today, close to that of the capital, Brasilia. Although some growth was natural, most was fueled by rural migration. Brazil’s greatest social and economic problem is the uneven distribution of land and wealth.

The ninth in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

Economic growth and government programs have lifted almost 30 million people out of poverty since the turn of the century, reducing the poverty rate to less than 10 percent (about 16 million people). Yet the rich continue to benefit the most: between 2001 and 2015, the richest 10 percent accounted for 61 percent of economic growth. Brazil’s six richest men have the same wealth as the poorest 50 percent of the population, around 100 million people. To illustrate the wealth gap, OXFAM projected that if those same six men pooled their wealth (which they would never do) and spent one million Brazilian reals (around $319,000) a day, it would take them 36 years to spend all their money.

 Salvador, the view from the funicular railway

Salvador, the view from the funicular railway

The roots of the wealth gap lie in Brazil’s history as a Portuguese colony, a source of raw materials, minerals and cheap food. Landowners imported slaves to work the sugar cane and tobacco plantations; the center of power and wealth was the casa grande, the manor house where the landowner lived with his family, servants, concubines (and a resident priest, to insure divine approval). Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery in 1888; by that time, an estimated four million slaves had been imported from Africa, 40 per cent of the total number of slaves brought to the Americas. Most land is still owned by a small group of mostly absentee owners, who employ laborers or rent it to small farmers. Under Brazilian law, a person who has occupied land for 10 years has the right to stay on it, so landlords routinely evict tenant farmers before they can claim the right. Since the mid-1990s, a grassroots political movement calling for agrarian reform and redistribution of land has gained strength.

In October 2002, Brazilians elected a former trade union leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula), as the country’s first leftist president. Lula promised to narrow the wealth gap, improve social services, and begin land reform. However, he faced a daunting task, given Brazil’s huge foreign debt, economic problems and pledges to the International Monetary Fund to restrain government spending. The US White House branded Lula as a Marxist during the election campaign, warning of a Latin American “axis of evil” of Cuba’s Castro, Venezuela’s Chavez and Lula. With his election, the Bush people had to moderate their tone, but there’s no doubt that their public comments led to doubts in the international community and a dramatic drop in the value of the real. Lula faced opposition from a conservative legislature and the moneyed interests in Rio and Sao Paulo. 

Under election law, all those of voting age are required to vote; those who do not can be fined, so election turnout is usually close to 100 per cent. Because of poor education and low literacy levels in some areas, political appeals are often simple—wall paintings with the name of the candidate, the party color and a number. Lula was elected with widespread support from Brazil’s working poor. Many were first or second-generation rural migrants who had moved to cities such as Salvador to find work, building rough houses on public or unoccupied land. These are the favelas, the shanty towns that dot the hillsides of Brazilian and other Latin American cities. The favelas have grown up higgledy-piggledy, with densely-packed dwellings, unpaved streets and open sewers. Houses cling precariously to the hillsides; a heavy rain can wash away the shallow foundations, burying homes and their occupants under mudslides. 

I joined the SAS group that visited Calabar, one of the oldest favelas in Salvador. People started building there in the 1950s, and they’re still building. On almost every street, someone was adding a second story to a home or making another improvement. Despite the poverty, people were proud of their homes and community, and wanted to make it a better place to live. The favela has several small stores, a community center, a school (partly funded by Brazilian and international donors), and an active community association that lobbies city government for better services. Today, Calabar is surrounded by a high-rent district of upper middle-class apartment buildings; it’s close to the university and popular beaches, up the hill from the exclusive Spanish Sports Club and the Holiday Inn. Apartment dwellers and business owners complain that the favela lowers property prices, but residents have long resisted plans to move them to newer favelas on the outskirts of the city. Many make their living as street and beach vendors. It would cost them time and money to commute into the city. As with most property questions, it’s about location, location, location. The Calabar favela is in the right place.

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Calabar offers an interesting example of community communication. The favela “radio station,” a small room with a mixer and CD player, is staffed by volunteers who “broadcast” through loudspeakers on the streets (and in some homes)—an eclectic mix of music, news and community announcements. It serves as a community bulletin board. “Rafael Carvalho is working on his house today. He needs to hire two people to mix cement and lay bricks.” “The Santos family is worried about their daughter. She didn’t come home from school today—call the station if you see her.” At all times of the day, people drop in to deliver messages, and often go on the air. With minimal resources, the station helps the 3,000 or so favela dwellers stay in touch with each other and with the world outside. An hour before we arrived, the DJ announced that a party of US students would be visiting, bringing a box of supplies for the school. “They come as friends--please don’t steal from them,” he urged. We had a hassle-free visit. In a city where street crime is common—at least two students were mugged near the ship dock—the favela, one of the poorest sections of Salvador, was the safest, thanks to community communication.

 Community action in Calabar

Community action in Calabar

Next week: The old city of Salvador

Is today a B-day?

My three courses were all at the maximum enrolment of 35 students. This had less to do with the punchy copy I wrote for the catalog than with the fact that almost 100 students--about one in six—were communication majors. Dean Koehler had told me SAS normally hired two faculty members in communication but decided to go with one for this voyage. That may have been a miscalculation.

The eighth in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

One drawback of traveling east around the world is that the working day keeps starting earlier, at least until you hit the International Date line in the Pacific when, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, it was going to be April 29th, then April 29th all over again (both were scheduled class days, so there was no rest for the faculty). Along the way, there were 21 time changes. As a late addition to the faculty, I had no choice on schedule, and two of my three classes began at 8:00 a.m. That meant constantly setting the clock forward and getting one hour less sleep. The first time change came on the third day of classes. There was no system for announcing changes well in advance, because the ship might change course to avoid bad weather and not pass into a new time zone. You had to rely on the daily shipboard newsletter called the Dean’s Memo, which came out late in the day. The night before the first time change I asked the administrative office to make an announcement over the PA system. A straw poll of students the next morning indicated that at least one third of the class would have missed if it hadn’t been for the announcement. I resigned myself to a routine of time changes and lost sleep. Later, in the Indian Ocean, the ship made a speedy passage across two time zones in a 24-hour period. The captain was happy to be running ahead of schedule. His sentiments were not shared by those of us whose working day started at 6:00 a.m.

After a week or so at sea, your sense of time and space seems to drift away. Perhaps it’s the rolling of the ship, and the endless horizon. After we left Havana on January 25, we followed the northern coast of Cuba, then passed north of Haiti before cutting south through the passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. We took a southeasterly course, staying on the western, more sheltered side of the Leeward and Windward islands before heading out into the choppier seas of the Atlantic beyond Barbados. Then we again turned southeast, passing Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana and the Amazon estuary in northeast Brazil.   

It became difficult to remember (without checking the calendar) which day of the week it was. On board the Universe Explorer, there were no days of the week and certainly no weekends. An A day was followed by a B day, then another A day, another B day. You soon started talking that way. “Your first assignment is due in class on B9, etc., etc.”

The announcements over the ship’s PA system were delivered by the Assistant Executive Dean, often tongue-in-cheek in the style of Radar O’Reilly’s in M*A*S*H. “A10 at 21:00 hours in the Union, the Tacky Tourist Dance. Be there or be square.” Of course, there was serious business too. With 700-plus people on a ship, safety is important, so there were special announcements for emergencies—from the standard Code Blue (medical) to MOB (man overboard). A couple of years earlier, a student attempting to re-enact the Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslett bow scene from the 1997 movie Titanic took a dive into the Red Sea at night in the fog. Another student saw him fall and threw life preservers over the side to mark the area. A cruise ship does not turn on a dime, so it was 40 minutes before the Universe Explorer made it back to the area marked by the preservers. Miraculously, the student was rescued.

The captain, an imposing Swede with the unforgettable name of Anders Andersson, delivered serious safety lectures. After leaving each port, we had a lifeboat drill, required under international maritime law. The rules were strict: you had to wear a life jacket, long pants and a shirt, a hat and close-toed shoes (because of the risk of sunburn in an open boat). Andersson marched up and down the deck inspecting faculty and students, quietly pointing out irregularities in dress code. At six feet five, in his white captain’s uniform, he cut an imposing figure.

Stephanie and I were in the first group of faculty and staff invited to dinner with Captain Andersson. It was an elegant affair, with white table cloths, wine, waiters, and excellent food. We were seated next to the Polish chief engineer, who had interesting tales of growing up in the communist era and working in the shipyards of Gdansk—the birthplace of the Solidarity movement under Lech Walesa. It was an international group of officers, including a Canadian, Venezuelan, Taiwanese and Ukrainian. Most of the crew were Filipino, with a few from the Caribbean; our cabin steward, Glenford, was from Jamaica.

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We crossed the Equator, with appropriate pomp, circumstance and nonsense, a couple of days before arriving in Salvador (Brazil). I joined students and faculty in going through the time-honored ritual.  King Neptune, a.k.a. business faculty member Jim Barry, sporting a painted face, robes and crown, and his court (a scurvy crew of faculty and staff members) assembled on the aft deck by the swimming pool. I lined up to be doused with a sticky mixture of flour and salt water; by tradition, the dousing is with fish gut, but SAS residence staff were concerned about the unintended social impact of warm bodies stinking of fish. Then I climbed down into the pool where a crew member blasted me with a hose to wash off the gooey stuff.  I climbed out, kissed a dead fish (previously kissed by several hundred others), then proceeded to the court to be proclaimed a “citizen of the sea.”

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More than 100 people (including three faculty, and some of my students) went for an additional ritual that did not wash away: they had their heads completely shaved. I was just getting to know the names of some of my students. Now I had a bunch of almost indistinguishable cone-heads.

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Next week: The favelas of Salvador, Brazil

Aging kings of the road

For Americans, the most familiar and surprising sights in Havana—apart from the former parliament, the elegant Capitolio, an almost exact replica of the US Capitol—are the old American cars. Fords, Plymouths, Studebakers and many more, most from the 1940s and 1950s, are still going, if not always going strong.

The seventh in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

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During the Batista era, when there was heavy US investment, most cars were imported. After the revolution, trade ceased, so for decades Cubans have tried to keep their aging cars—tailfins and all—on the road. Cuban mechanics must be among the most inventive in the world, constantly retooling old parts or fashioning new ones in small machine shops. From the 1960s, Soviet-made cars including Ladas, Moskvichs and Nivas, started arriving, and many are still on the road; so too are Russian-built motorcycles with sidecars. Now Cuba is importing European and Japanese cars. But it’s the aging American giants that still add an air of faded elegance to the city’s roads. 

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Next week: Is today a B-Day?

Revolution, race and religion in Havana

In Havana, the signs of the revolution were everywhere. On the first morning, we wandered into a small museum featuring mementos from the revolutionary brigades of 1959. Military vehicles—from tanks and armored personnel carriers to the Granma, the ship on which Castro sailed to Cuba from exile in Mexico—form the main outdoor exhibit at the showpiece Museum of the Revolution. Indeed, military vehicles are scattered all over the downtown area in parks and monuments, as ubiquitous as Lenin statues in the former Soviet Union. Some plaques note that the vehicle was used in the struggle against the Yanqui imperialists—a reference to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

The sixth in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

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Street and place names evoke revolutionary history. The port terminal is called the Sierra Maestra, the mountain range where Castro assembled his guerrilla army before advancing west. Boulevards are named for socialist heroes, such as the Chilean president Salvador Allende. What was more remarkable than the official propaganda was the unofficial stuff, most likely the work of ordinary people who believed in the revolution—a hammer and sickle scrawled on a wall on the Malecon, “Viva Fidel” on a guardhouse at the university, elaborate wall paintings, simple graffiti, posters in the doorways of homes.

In the Plaza de la Revolucion, reminiscent of communist-era public squares I had seen in Central Asia, the monument and museum to Jose Marti, the intellectual leader of the movement for independence from Spain, faces a giant mural of Castro’s lieutenant Che Guevara, the revolutionary martyr who attempted to export the Cuban revolution and was assassinated by Bolivian secret police, probably on orders from the CIA. Although Castro remained the living embodiment of the Cuban revolution, Che was a stronger visual presence and symbol, his bearded face and beret adorning wall paintings, billboards and paintings in state museums. In an ironic historical twist, Che, the romantic revolutionary who died too young to be corrupted, is also the most common (and tacky) symbol on all sorts of souvenirs—T-shirts, mugs, key rings, wallets, even dolls. In post-Soviet Cuba, with the economy in trouble and the country burdened by foreign debt, Che is chic, too hot a commodity to be ignored by Cuba’s new entrepreneurial class.

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On our second day, we took a field trip to Regla, an industrial and fishing community across the bay from Havana. This is where descendants of African slaves settled and preserved their traditions. Many follow a religion called Santeria, a mix of Yoruba and Roman Catholic practices, in which saints are given African names, live animals are sacrificed as offerings, and drumming and dancing are as important as the mass. We toured a church with a black Madonna and the municipal museum with its display of a Santeria home shrine and religious ornaments. At a dance performance, the characters of the orichos (deities) were represented in weaving, trance-like movement with accompaniment by traditional instruments. The mix of African and European cultures is evident throughout Havana—in the people, the food and the music. 

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Race in Cuba, one of our lecturers explained, is a complex issue, with many gradations based on skin color and physical appearance. She told us there are at least 100 different ways to differentiate between races. We saw no clear evidence of racial divisions, with Cubans of all colors meeting, drinking and eating together. It was an inter-racial scene at the baseball game we attended, the home team, Industriales, taking on Cuidad Avila, from Central Cuba. The stadium was fairly modern with good lighting and the tickets were cheap, but no beer was sold. It was an exciting game, with the home team scoring early and holding a two-run lead until Avila scored in the 5th; Industriales put the game away with a flurry of runs (including two homers) in the 7th and 8th and the home crowd went home happy.  A group of students and faculty surprised the home crowd during an improvised seventh inning stretch by enthusiastically singing “Take me out to the ballgame!”

Next week: Aging kings of the road

Old Havana

With only three days in port, Stephanie and I decided not to take any trips outside Havana but take the time to explore the city.

The fifth in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

It’s easy to imagine how it used to look before the 1959 Revolution when its nightclubs, restaurants and casinos were the playground for the American wealthy classes. Huge mansions line the Malecon—the main road along the seafront which looks out on the forts the Spanish built to defend the harbor. Many are in a dilapidated state, with crumbling plaster and peeling paint; with the city’s severe housing shortage, some have been subdivided into multi-family dwellings. In Old Havana, the business and administrative district built in the Spanish colonial era, the narrow streets are lined with hole-in-the-wall shops; in the apartments above them, laundry hangs over revolutionary signs and posters. 

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In principle, there were no private businesses in Castro’s Cuba, but from the late 1990s the government accepted tourism—mostly from European visitors—to bring in much-needed foreign exchange; after a few years, tourism replaced sugar as the largest sector of the economy. At first, the government licensed restaurants in houses, then allowed bars, restaurants and clubs to open in the tourist area near the harbor terminal. Officially, Cuba developed a dual economy: the state owned and operated most enterprises while a small private sector served tourists. Unofficially, there was a larger, dollar-denominated informal economy, and a thriving black market in imported goods. Most Cubans, including government workers, doctors, engineers and teachers, earned meager salaries in pesos, and shopped with their ration cards at state stores. Those who could not—or did not want to—survive on state salaries went underground, earning dollars by working as drivers, guides and maids in the tourist industry, or trading on the black market. Like other Soviet bloc countries, Cuba placed a heavy emphasis on education; literacy levels were high, and professional training (in engineering, medicine and other fields) was excellent. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the withdrawal of subsidies, there were few jobs for professionals. They were forced to leave the country, work two or three jobs, or try to earn dollars in the tourist industry. The change marked the beginning of a return to the economic and class inequalities that the Cuban revolution had sought to end. 

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Cubans we met seemed genuinely divided in their attitudes to Castro and the revolution.  At the opening reception at the University of Havana, the leader of the national student federation delivered a fiery speech packed with references to revolutionary history and invited us to ascend the 88 steps to the campus where generations of students had fought for the revolution. On stage in the central university courtyard, a professor welcomed us as comrades and urged us to oppose the Bush administration’s warmongering policies. However, the economics professor who lectured on the state of the country following the collapse of the Soviet Union was more sanguine, pointing out that Cuba’s heavy dependence on Moscow for subsidies and high prices for sugar and cheap oil had set the stage for economic collapse in the early 1990s. 

Next week: Revolution and religion in Havana

Fidel Castro speaks ... and speaks

There was a buzz of excitement in the main lounge where students and faculty had assembled for a day-long pre-arrival briefing on Cuba. One of the two professors, both Cuban exiles living in the US, told us there was a good chance we would be treated to a Fidel Castro speech although we would not know for sure until we docked in Havana the next day.

The fourth in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

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Because of the embargo on trade and travel, few US citizens had an opportunity to visit Cuba. As an educational group, SAS was granted a special entry permit, and the president had been informed. For Castro, the arrival of more than 600 undergraduates and their faculty provided an opportunity to speak to Americans directly and counter the anti-regime propaganda of the Bush administration. “What will he talk about?” one student asked. “Will we be allowed to ask questions?” asked another.  No one asked the question in the back of my mind: how long will he talk?  Castro held the Guinness Book of Records title for the longest speech ever delivered at the United Nations (four hours, 29 minutes) in September 1960. His longest speech on record in Cuba was in 1986--seven hours, 10 minutes at the Communist Party Congress in Havana. If there was to be a speech, I knew we would be in for the long haul.

            A few hours after our arrival, the news arrived: the next evening, we had been invited to a speech followed by a reception at the Communist Party convention center. A convoy of buses shuttled us to the center, in an upscale district of Havana where many diplomats had their residences. In the hall, where there was seating for close to 2,000, we were joined by Cuban university and high school students. Castro spoke extemporaneously for more than three hours. According to the Cubans, this was a concession to his foreign guests; some had heard five or six-hour speeches. Although the simultaneous translation was good, it’s difficult to summarize the speech because it ranged widely from the achievements of the Cuban revolution in health care and education to colonial history to the US embargo (Cubans call it a blockade) to a critique of global financial systems and institutions. Castro said he wanted questions from the audience but took only one on the situation in Venezuela and took 45 minutes to answer it (although he used the opportunity to discuss other issues on his agenda). Some of us stifled yawns. We’re simply not used to the long political speeches that are a tradition in communist political systems. However, it was a bravura performance. At age 76, Castro demonstrated that he not only had stamina but was well read on many subjects, including US history, and had a remarkable memory for names, facts and figures. But he made no concessions to the sound bite culture of Western media. 

The speech was followed by a reception at a government house, with food (including, Castro claimed, American chicken), an open bar, a band and dancing. Clearly, Castro was trying to impress his new American friends. The question “Is it ethical for the Cuban government to throw a party for American students when Cubans are short of food and medical supplies?” proved to be an excellent discussion point when shipboard classes resumed two days later.

Next week: Old Havana

A little bit of Britain in the tropics

In Nassau, we docked next to a Disney cruise ship with Mickey Mouse ears on its funnels. The next morning, it was replaced by a Fantasy cruise ship, as large as any of the liners we’d seen in Miami. At least the Universe Explorer was not the smallest vessel in port; nearby, a rusty tramp steamer, the optimistically named Ray of Hope (registered in Belize) languished, paint peeling from every panel. 

The third in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

While the students—all 639 of them, along with several hundred tons of luggage—boarded, Stephanie and I set out to explore Nassau. Beyond the dock was the first line of tourist traps—cab and limo drivers, ready to whisk the unwary and their open wallets to the beaches of Paradise Island and the ostentatious Atlantis casino, a group of entrepreneurial hair braiders, and a steel band that invited you to pose for a photograph while pretending to play the bongos. The city’s main east-west drag, Bay Street, is lined with stores and restaurants, selling at tourist prices. Yet a few blocks away are graceful old colonial buildings, with verandas, in gorgeous shades of pink, yellow and green.

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In 2003, the Bahamas, with more than 700 islands spread across a large area of ocean north of Cuba, had a population of just over 300,000, one third of whom lived in Nassau. It was still, despite an ongoing current constitutional debate, officially the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, with Queen Elizabeth II as the nominal head of state. The trappings of the colonial era and 300 years of British influence were everywhere—red postboxes, blue police station signs, cricket pitches, pubs with Bass on draught, narrow lanes where two cars could barely pass.  Bahamians drive on the left but most cars are US imports, with a left-hand drive. However, everything moved at a pleasantly Caribbean pace, and drivers always stopped for pedestrians. Nassau had a pleasant, laid-back, provincial feel, in contrast to the noisy tourist resorts that have replaced sugar as the staple of the Bahamian economy. If you can imagine a British seaside town with great beaches and wonderful weather, that would be Nassau.

            While the students checked in (concealing, as we later learned, pouches of liquor in their underwear), the faculty took a short excursion to Fort Charlotte, one of three colonial-era forts on the island, to practice their field trip routines. This consisted mostly of counting bus passengers as they disembarked and boarded, and figuring out how long to wait if the count came up short.

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Although the tour guide gave us the official version—that Fort Charlotte was built to stop pirates from raiding British ships—a historian in the group told us that King George III and members of the Privy Council had commercial interests in sugar plantations, so as much personal economic interest as national interest was at stake. In the late 18th century, the Bahamas was a hardship posting for troops and colonial administrators. Indeed, so many British soldiers perished from yellow fever that they had to be replaced by troops recruited from the African slave population—a decision that raised racial tensions. This was where Lord Dunmore ended up as governor after things went sour in his previous posting—as colonial Governor of Virginia during the American Revolution.

The next morning, as we sailed for Havana, I taught my first class. The three courses were at maximum enrolment of 35 students. This had less to do with the punchy copy I wrote for the catalog than with the fact that almost 100 students--about one in six—were communication majors. Dean Koehler had told me SAS normally hired two faculty members in communication but decided to go with one for this voyage. That may have been a miscalculation.

With the students on board, the open spaces disappeared, and a ship that had once seemed large suddenly felt much smaller. As I was losing space, I was also losing time. One drawback of traveling east around the world is that the working day keeps starting earlier, at least until you hit the International Date line in the Pacific when, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, it was going to be April 29th, then April 29th all over again (both were scheduled class days, so there was no rest for the faculty). Along the way, there were 21 time changes. As a late addition to the faculty, I had no choice on schedule, and two of my three classes began at 8:00 a.m. That meant constantly setting the clock forward and getting one hour less sleep. The first time change came on the third day of classes. There was no system for announcing changes well in advance, because the ship might change course to avoid bad weather and not pass into a new time zone. You had to rely on the daily shipboard newsletter called the Dean’s Memo, which came out late in the day. The night before the first time change I asked the administrative office to make an announcement over the PA system. A straw poll of students the next morning indicated that at least one third of the class would have missed if it hadn’t been for the announcement. I resigned myself to a routine of time changes and lost sleep. Later, in the Indian Ocean, the ship made a speedy passage across two time zones in a 24-hour period. The captain was happy to be running ahead of schedule. His sentiments were not shared by those of us whose working day started at 6:00 a.m.

Next week: Fidel Castro speaks ... and speaks

Ugly Duckling

The S.S. Universe Explorer didn’t exactly fit my image of a cruise ship. Arriving at the port of Miami on the bus from the airport, I looked out at a skyline dominated by multi-deck cruise liners, palatial floating hotels that do the seven-ports-in-seven-days-shopping-eating-drinking-and-gambling jaunts around the Caribbean and coastal Mexico. Sandwiched between two of these colossuses, like a little ugly duckling trying to hide from sight, was our ship, the Universe Explorer.

The second in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

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Built and launched at Pascagoula, Mississippi, in 1957, it had already had a long and eventful life, and more nautical miles on it than its glamorous neighbors. It had sailed under seven different names—Brasil, Monarch Sun, Enchanted Seas, Queen of Bermuda, Canada Star, Liberté, and Island Sun—and had been registered in the Netherlands Antilles and Panama. SAS took it over in 1996, renaming it the Universe Explorer, after its previous ship, the SS Universe, broke down on a round-the-world voyage. Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, the Universe’s engines started failing, slowing the ship’s speed, and leaving faculty, staff and students adrift for almost a week. The captain placed water cannon on deck to deter pirates, and eventually the ship limped into Singapore. The main lesson learned was that regular maintenance is a good idea. Our itinerary included an extended 10-day stay in Hong Kong for the ship to go into dry dock, have a thorough mechanical overhaul, oil change and lube or whatever you need to do to keep an aging cruise ship sailing. Of course, we had to make it across two oceans first.

We checked into our cabin. At first, it looked spacious enough, but by the time we had spread out our luggage—several suitcases, boxes and plastic storage containers—it felt cramped. Cabins were allocated on a seniority basis with faculty who had done previous voyages claiming the larger ones, some with two or three portholes. At least our one-porthole cabin was on an upper deck where the swell would not be felt as strongly as in the student cabins on the lower decks. We stashed as much as we could fit under the bed, and placed a printer, files, books and a VCR on a narrow counter alongside the 12-inch TV connected to the ship’s cable system. Stephanie planned to make quilts during the voyage, so our luggage included a sewing machine and several boxes of fabric.

This cabin was to be my office for the next 105 days. There was no table, so I placed a sheet of hard cardboard across two boxes of fabric to serve as a desk. Our main concern was how to secure everything when the seas got rough. We had packed 20 feet of rope and bungee cords, and spent an hour developing a routine to lash down moveable objects. We were warned that the 10-day passage from Havana across the Southern Caribbean into the Atlantic to Salvador (Brazil) could be choppy. Ahead lay the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa, where the waters of the Atlantic and Indian oceans swirl together. Just thinking about it made me want to reach for the Dramamine.

The Universe Explorer sat at dock in Miami, overshadowed by its larger cousins, for two days. I spent most of the time in meetings. Meetings to introduce the faculty. Meetings on residence life. On safety and security. On medical services. On computer services. On grading policies. On field trips. On the core global studies course. SAS had set up a small floating campus, with classrooms, audio and video equipment, a student union, a bookstore, a library, a computer lab; there were staff for residence life, field programs, recreation, student activities, financial aid. For those two days, and a smooth 14-hour passage to Nassau, we got to know each other and became used to uncrowded decks, hallways and stairways, short lines in the cafeteria, and open space outside the confines of our cabin.

Next week: A little bit of Britain in the tropics

Am I seaworthy?

The call came on a chilly evening in mid-October 2002. I was loading logs into the wood burner. Stephanie was snuggled on the recliner under a layer of cats. I was thinking I’d rather be in a warmer place than our beloved, but draughty, 19th century farmhouse in rural southeastern Ohio.

           The first in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ 

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            In the innocent age before caller ID and robocalls, I always answered the phone. The caller had a deep voice and brusque tone. “Peter Koehler, University of Pittsburgh. Academic dean for the Spring Semester at Sea Voyage. We have an unexpected faculty vacancy for communication courses.” He asked about my experiences traveling with students, then listed the 10 countries on the eastward, 105-day voyage around the world—the Bahamas, Venezuela, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, India, Vietnam, China, South Korea and Japan. “Can you be in Miami by January 17?” he asked. I threw another log into the wood burner and started thinking about cocktails under palm trees.

            I was tempted to say “yes” immediately but decided to consult my cat-wrapped spouse and my department chair before making a commitment. “I’ll call you by the end of the week,” I promised. “I need to know as soon as possible,” Koehler replied. I sensed he was working through a list to fill faculty slots and would not give me much time before calling the next prospect.

            It’s more than half a century since California’s Chapman College pioneered a program to increase students’ understanding of global issues by packing them on board a small cruise ship and sailing around the world for a semester, with classes on board and field trips in ports of call. The University of the Seven Seas (also the name of the first ship) became the World Campus Afloat and then Semester at Sea (SAS), a name that stuck and become a marketable brand. The university management has changed hands several times, with Pittsburgh having the longest tenure, from 1981 to 2006. In 2003, I joined a team that had more than 20 years’ experience running a complex program. They needed all that know-how on a voyage where world events upset all the best-laid plans.

          I had learned about SAS from my former Ohio University student, Val Culp, who had done the voyage in Fall 2001. On her end-of-voyage evaluation form, she was asked to name faculty at her home institution who would make good SAS faculty members. She named me. SAS wasn’t looking only for teaching experience. It wanted faculty who were flexible and culturally sensitive, who could deal with crises and inspire students to learn about different countries and cultures. At Ohio, I had helped found the Global Learning Community (GLC), a two-year undergraduate certificate program. With colleagues, I planned and led trips to Hungary, Ecuador, the Czech Republic and Thailand, where we partnered with local universities for students to work on projects for businesses and non-governmental organizations. I wore many hats—as teacher, counselor, travel guide, negotiator, disciplinarian and problem-solver. If I could deal with binge drinking in Bangkok and Brno and an erupting volcano in Quito, GLC student Val figured I could handle a round-the-world voyage with undergraduates. She may have overestimated my abilities.

       I had applied to join SAS for the Fall 2003 voyage because of Ohio’s academic calendar. With an August departure, I would miss only Fall term. Leaving in January would take me out of teaching for both Winter and Spring terms. My department chair encouraged me to accept the invitation. She said she would use my salary to hire adjuncts and plug the hole in an operating budget that had just taken a hit. In other words, the department would benefit from my absence. It was a win-win deal for everyone.

       I selected three courses. Propaganda and Persuasion and Media Criticism were already in the Pittsburgh catalog; the third course, Communication and Development, was offered under a special topics number. My syllabi and readings had to be approved by a curriculum committee. In academe, this process can take months, but the SAS folks knew how to fast-track the paperwork, and the syllabi were soon approved. The challenge was to design the courses around the countries to be visited, rather than by themes and topics. When you’re looking forward to a trip up the Amazon, a safari in the Serengeti, or standing on the Great Wall of China, how important is it that your course has covered the whole gamut of propaganda theories? I decided that the best approach was geographical—to study how propaganda is used in Venezuela and Vietnam, to look at media consumption and culture through football in Brazil, community radio in South Africa and the Indian movie industry, to study how communication is used for development through visits to NGOs and relief agencies.  

       It wasn’t easy to prepare because the itinerary kept changing. Venezuela was the first to go, following an oil industry strike and street protests against President Hugo Chavez. SAS did not want students caught up in demonstrations where police and army units were firing rubber bullets and tear gas grenades. In late November Islamic militants attacked an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, killing 13 and injuring 80, and launched two surface-to-air missiles at an Israeli charter plane as it took off from the airport. Kenya was now off the list. A new itinerary was announced, adding Havana, Cuba, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. Stephanie and I knew things could change again. War was looming in Iraq. In North Korea, Kim Jong-il was in a bellicose mood.

Next week: Ugly duckling