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 (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.


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.


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