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 (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. 


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. 


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 (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/


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 (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

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 (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/



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 (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ 

Brazil 001.jpg

            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