The mystery disease

The news came at a late afternoon meeting of students, faculty and staff. After a couple of days of e-mails and calls between Captain Andersson, the executive dean, Ed Gladfelter, the SAS office in Pittsburgh, the ship’s owners in San Francisco and the Centers for Disease Control, the decision was made to cancel our stops in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Hong Kong because of the spread of the mystery disease SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

The 22nd 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 (2019) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

According to early reports, the disease was first identified in southern China in November 2002 but the Chinese (with their tradition of state secrecy) didn’t tell the rest of the world about it. It spread to Hong Kong and other areas of southern China, and then through travelers to Vietnam and other countries. 

SAS had planned a 10-day layover in dry dock in Hong Kong for repairs to the Universe Explorer. No one knew if we would be able to dock at another Chinese port and perhaps run some of the scheduled field trips, or whether we would go on to Busan in South Korea, the next port after Hong Kong. There aren’t many available dry docks around; as Ed wryly remarked, “You can’t just pull this thing up on a beach and work on it.” 

Speculation over where we would next land was rife and provided a teaching moment. Students scanned maps for possible ports, gaining a new understanding of the geography of East Asia. Perhaps Taipei? Manila or another port in the Philippines? My money (or perhaps it was a repressed desire to use my language skills) was on Vladivostok. Meanwhile, the whole class schedule was thrown into confusion. One of the first questions from students was whether the next global studies exam would be postponed. As Ed said: “We’re at war in Iraq, there’s a mystery disease rampant in Asia, and you’re worried about an exam?” We felt sorry for our colleague Kent Guy, who was teaching the History of China course, and was due to lead several field trips. Indeed, we had several East Asia specialists on board who had a lot riding on China.

My situation wasn’t as complex. I was scheduled to lead two trips in Vietnam, but neither was crucial to my courses. Still, I had to revise assignments and due dates, and not for the first time on the voyage. One of the ship’s two computer servers had been down since Salvador so students could not use the library’s online catalog or articles database. Research was reduced to scanning the stacks for relevant works (there were fewer books than in a small public library, so it did not take long), asking faculty if they had materials, or going online at 50 cents a minute.

On March 25, the Universe Explorer dropped anchor in Singapore to take on diesel fuel from a tanker ship. We gazed out at the city skyline and wished we could have gone ashore, at least for a good Chinese meal. In late afternoon, the ship weighed anchor and headed north to the South China Sea. We had no idea when and where we would next set foot on dry land. The only consolation was that we were living the SAS motto, “a voyage of discovery.”

Next week: Nagasaki, mon amour