Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Vlota Eco-Adventure Part 2

Following a day of hiking and waterfalls we went to Tafi Atome, a village that has created a tourist attraction and thus economic support for itself thanks to the monkeys that live there. Before we went on our monkey hike we walked to a school just across a small field where with the help of Sam our amazing guide we sang our Ewe song for the students and after the first time through the song the students joined us. Not so surprisingly this was one of the greatest moments of the tip for me and even writing about it gives me goose bumps.

We went on our way allowing the students to get back to class. With just a short walk into the forest monkeys came right to us and took bananas out of our hands. If we held on tight enough the monkey would just peal the banana and take a chunk of it before climbing back up in the tree and enjoying the snack. It was a lot of fun and the students got some great pictures.

Walking out of the forest we went through the village where we saw two men making kente cloth. It was interesting to watch and the long strings come together to make beautiful patterns. Back where we started we once again came to the school allowing for great interactions with the young people of the community. We learned that school age girls all must shave their head and keep their hair short, a way to level the economic playing field in the school via hair care methods. Additionally the students wore uniforms. With that it was back on the bus to begin the journey back to the ship. We stopped for a nice lunch and made it home problem free.

That evening I went into town with Shira, one of the psychologists on the ship. We had a great time walking around town looking at the shops, having a drink and dinner. While having drinks a man in a wheel chair approached us trying to sell jewelry. We spoke for some time and told him about the ship and that he should go to our shuttle point where students were being dropped off every hour. I saw him the next day and he remembered me and thanked me for the suggestion saying that he sold a lot of items to the students.

Accra is not a normal cruise ship destination but SAS is not a normal cruise ship. I heard that the arrival of our ship brought the largest number of white people that Accra had ever seen at any one time . While I don’t know the validity of that nugget of information it is interesting to consider.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Volta Eco-adventure part 1: A crappy situation.

Wednesday morning was another early start as we boarded our bus heading to the Volta Region for an eco-adventure tour. While the bus ride was longer than anticipated I was on the small 15-passenger van as opposed to the other 50-passenger bus and our guide Sam was amazing. He taught us a handful of words in Ewe (one of the many different languages of Ghana, although English is the national language, a result of being colonized by the British) as well as a traditional song. On our way to Mount Afagjato, we stopped at a small village while the large bus stopped someplace to pick up our boxed lunches. The village was exactly what I felt I had missed out on in Morocco, a genuine cultural interaction. Curious children walked up the hill to greet us and slowly the adults joined as well inviting us down to see their small fishing village along side the river. Children ran around and some almost jumping into our arms along the way. The children loved having their pictures taken and seeing it after.

A short time later we were back on the bus approaching the location of our hike. The rainy season has just ended in Ghana and the dirt roads show the damage of the season. While our driver Moufaw was excellent we got stuck in the mud at one point so we all had to jump out and help push. The large bus behind us seemed to unload as well with fellow SASers taking pictures and offering their pushing power. With a few strong “Heave Ho’s’ we were out and without any damage besides one very muddy shoe (not my own). The situation was a fun part of the adventure and actually served as a nice team builder for us (Yea, I said it)

Not long after we arrived to Mount Afadjato we realized that the hike was more strenuous than we were anticipating. The field guide description only said “climb to the highest point of Ghana, without the need for climbing gear.” Ok, so maybe gear was not need but rope handrails were provided in multiple locations. A number of our students struggled and I heard one student who was not wearing appropriate shoes say that she didn’t even know we were hiking. I wanted to punch her in the face, but more on her later. At that point I was very thankful for the fact that we did not have any life long learners on our trip. It was pretty hot and most of us worked up a very good sweat by the end of it. Taking my time to support the students who were struggling along the way I had to check my ego as I finally reached the summit and students were congratulating us for finally making it up and some already on their way back down.

The view was nice and in the distance we could see the waterfall that we would soon be standing under. On the way down I had some nice conversation with Bridget and MacGarret, two other LLCs about our next job opportunities and our experience so far on the voyage. The student who wore the bad shoes had some trouble as her body fought back against the lunch she had eaten. While we hiked a bit down the mountain to give her space to take care of things she yelled down to us “Can we keep this a secret?” As didn’t respond to her request I don’t feel guilty sharing this story but don’t tell anyone I told you.

When I thought the hike could not get anymore amusing the guide’s cell phone began to ring. His ring tone, My Heart Will Go On, and no it was not just cheap digital ringtone, it was the Celine Dion Oscar winning, downloaded ring tone. 1- I was amazed that he has service in the middle of nowhere Ghana and 2 – this huge Ghanaian brick house of a guy actually had My Heart Will Go On for his ring tone! MacGarret and I were fighting back the laughs so much so that we almost faced the same ugly fate as our previously mentioned student.

Back on the bus and after a short drive to the waterfall we had another 45min walk through the Agumatsa Forest Reserve to the Wli Waterfalls. Bridget and I again found our way at the back of our group and took our time taking photos and having great conversations along the way. When we finally made it to the falls the students were already making the most of it, climbing the rocks and standing under the 1,600 foot falls. It was a wild experience walking backwards into a waterfall while shielding my eyes trying to keep any visibility I could. The spray was hitting me with quite a bit of force and felt like I was being sand blasted. Some compared it to being in a hurricane or a monsoon but it seemed that everyone agreed that it was a great way to cool down after the hot and exhausting hike.

Back to the bus one last time on our way to the hotel, day quickly turned to night as being so close to the equator they don’t have any day light savings time business. The sun rises around 6am and sets around 6pm, no ifs and or buts about it. Without fail I existed someplace between asleep and barely coherent on the bus ride. We finally arrived to our hotel and had dinner much later than expected but it was a great meal. I spent sometime journaling and watching BBC world news before falling asleep after a great day.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ghana, who knew?!

After leaving Morocco a week prior and sailing down the coast of Africa the MV Explorer approached Ghana Tuesday morning. As per usual Ana, Eddie and I met in the faculty lounge to welcome the sunrise as we approached our new city. Similar to Morocco the weather was not on our side. When we stepped outside at 5:40am we were met with a wall of fog, we could not even see the water in front on the ship. We went back inside and waited for the morning coffee and tea service as a few other staff members joined us.Slowly the fog burned off and we could see the sun already making its way overhead although we could not yet see the city.

As the ship made progress and land came into view the number of students, faculty and staff increased. Our inter-port student Nii was with us and as we approached, he was looking at his home country from the sea for the first time and he had tears in his eyes. Captain Jeremy worked his way through a mess of cargo ships and fishing boats when suddenly we took a sharp turn and went back out to sea. We actually circled three times and I said that Captain Jeremy was just doing donuts in the parking lot. Over breakfast many jokes were heard about what a great time we had in Ghana, how time seemed to go by so quickly and that we had forgotten to let our student and faculty guests from Ghana get off the ship. Finally almost two hours late we finally made it to the port. It was another industrial port, similar to Morocco and it was less than welcoming.

That afternoon I took a SAS city tour and enjoyed myself quite a bit. We saw a lot of the big landmarks in Accra including the memorial for Ghana’s first president and the one time home and now museum for W.E.B. Dubois, the founder of the NAACP.
President Obama visited Accra not too long ago and a handful of welcome billboards were still up around town. We saw the outdoor venue where Obama spoke at which is not far from the football (soccer) stadium. The memorial for the first president Nkrumah is pretty impressive. His grave is in a structure that represents a tree trunk symbolizing the life of Nkrymah that was cut short. The W.E.B. Dubois home featured a number of his artifacts and mementos of his wide array of accomplishments.

Traffic in Accra while not quite as challenging as I found Casablanca’s was still a sight to see. Unlike the scooters, bikes, and occasional horse carriages of Casablanca, Accra was much more vehicle heavy. Cabs seemed to rule the city. Marked with yellow corner panels, they didn’t seem concerned with traffic lanes or leaving a safe space between cars. It was do what ever you needed to do to get where you were going. I would never survive driving there. Before returning to the ship we made a short visit to a market area to allow for some shopping. Upon my return to the ship I joined some of my colleagues for a very amusing dinner where we processed our first day in Ghana and then it was off to bed early preparing for a long two days ahead.


Monday, September 21, 2009

We'll always have Marrakech: Part 3

As the students arrived to the camp and dismounted their camels a group of nomads dressed in white went out to welcome them with Moroccan music. It was immediately reminiscent of our experience at Chez Ali the evening prior but these people looked far more interested in being there in comparison. Some Berber tribe/nomadic people set up the camp. This camp was a mixture of 3 large dining tents and 30 smaller tents each sleeping 6 people. It was literally a small village for about 200 people. They even set up a bathroom/shower area right outside the camp.

As the sun began to set many of us went to the hill just outside of our camp to take photos and enjoy the experience of a true Saharan sunset. The crew broke their daily fast and had their dinner before we were served a fantastic meal seemingly made out of nowhere.

Following dinner we again found our way on to the carpets in the center of the camp and continued to enjoy each others company while the nomads performed and eventually encouraging us to join them in dancing. When it was time to get some sleep many of the students decided to pull the mats from the tents into the center of the camp or sleep in the large tents on the couches. It almost seems strange to me that I can say I slept under the stars in the Sahara but it was truly beautiful. While I can’t say that I had a peaceful nights sleep it was all a part of the experience and sooner that I would have liked it was time to get up for sunrise.

After a simple breakfast of bread and honey the students got back on their camels while Ana, Eddie and I stayed back to make sure that things were taken care of at camp. With the all clear we got in the crew jeep and were driven back to the buses to await the pack of students. Fortunately my dear Louaine also had the same idea and took the jeep back with us. Back on the bus it was another 9-hour drive back to Marrakech with a few pit stops and a lunch break.

I was excited to get back to Marrakech and check into our hotel for a hot shower that turned out to be a fair bit less than hot but at least I was clean. It wasn’t long before Eddie, Steven and I got a call from Ana and our faculty trip leader Cindy who were down stairs ready for dinner. We found this restaurant that looked pretty simple on the outside but inside looked like the Garden of Babylon. It was beautiful. We had a wonderful dinner and enjoyed the local red wine, of which I purchased two bottles of the next day. I ate duck for the first time and I am proud to say that I cleared plate. After a long diner and great conversation we headed back to our hotel feeling exhausted but at the same time energized by our experience in Marrakech.

It all seemed strange that just a few days prior I was in Spain enjoying all the sangria I could and then I had just spent a night in the Sahara after riding camel back. Having our first two ports back to back was a bit disorienting in some ways. Perhaps as we continue we will ‘rebound’ faster but after 4 days in Spain, 1 on the ship then in jumping right into Morocco it was daunting. Many of us were still processing our experience when we were thrust into a new one. I guess that is just part of the journey.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Running on the ocean: Photo edition

A while ago I wrote about running on the 7th deck. Ana got some pictures of me the other day so I thought that I would share them you you all back on land.

Friday, September 18, 2009

We'll always have Marrakech: Part 2

The morning began sooner than I expected as I was awoken by the call to prayer an unfamiliar sound but something I figured out pretty quickly. Being in an Islamic country during Ramadan was a unique experience. Our tour guides followed the Ramadan custom of fasting from sunrise to sunset. Our tour guide Mulay’s voice was strained by the middle of each day as he spoke a lot but could not sooth this throat with water. I felt guilty sitting next to Mulay for the 9-hour bus ride as I occasionally took a sip of water from my Nalgene.

The 9-hour bus ride was not as bad as one might imagine, at times it was exciting, other scary and thanks to my well-honed skill of falling asleep in cars, sometimes restful. Driving through the Atlas Mountains making hairpin turns and blind curves reminded me of the Mullholand Madness ride at California Adventure. Being in the front seat often made it feel like I was hanging over the edge of the cliff knowing the tires were still a few feet behind me safety (as I kept telling myself) on the road.

We arrived at a restaurant for lunch and took over the entire second floor of the restaurant when another LLC, Ana pointed out the time to me. While I had previously given thought to the day, September 11th, I did not try to compute the time to east coast time. It was approaching 9:20am in the east coast. Ana asked if she should ask for a moment of silence when a student at our table realized what she was asking and said, that we should. Ana stood up and addressed the 170 SAS participants on our trip. I could see the emotion in her face and hear it in her voice as she called for everyone’s attention and stated that the time was approximately 1320 or 9:20est. All side conversation halted as students realized what she was doing. She asked for a moment of silence to remember those who were no longer with us and for all those affected. A minuet later she thanked everyone and students went back to their conversation and waited for what would be another great Moroccan meal.

Back on the bus we continued along our way, passing small towns and wishing that we could stop allowing us to get some photos of the people and communities. There were many moments that I wanted to capture along the way. The landscape was equally beautiful. If you have ever seen the movie Babel the opening scene with the bus traveling along, we were on that road. Nonetheless the drive continued and then almost without warning the bus pulled of the road and a small pack of camels waiting for us. My bus was the first to arrive and I knew that things were about to get interesting.

My bus alone held 43 passengers and as I have said multiple times we had 170 total in our group. It was then confirmed what was previously chatter among the students that there was 1 camel for every 2 people. So it was up to us to decide with a partner if we would ride the hour to the camp today and walk out tomorrow, or split up both ways allowing both people to ride each day. Now, remember the Life Long Learners I mentioned in Part 1. My poor LLL Louaine used a cane and also needed assistance to step on and off the bus. With the news of camel sharing I was suddenly preparing myself to walk both ways in order to allow at least one LLL ride the entire way.

Ultimately I rode for a bit and had a great time and plenty of laughs with the students around me. Along the way the SAS photographer Steve got a few good shots of me and then I switched with him. While I had assumed that Louaine would ride the entire time thus was not the case. She was complaining about being uncomfortable and she wanted to walk. Fantastic! So, I watched my group journey into the sunset as I slowly walked with Louaine as groups from the other three buses passes us by. Eventually camp came into sight and one of the tour guides called us over as the rest of the group was making an extra loop buying the crew some additional time to finish setting up for us. I will say, once walking Louaine never complained and really was a trooper but I was happy to get to the camp and take a few moments to myself after the long bus ride and slow walk with Louaine before the rest of the group arrived.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

We’ll always have Marrakech Part 1

After a great time in Spain we said adios and set sail for Morocco. It was a very short trip, only one day and most of it was spent off the coast of Gibraltar to refuel. Preparing for the forewarned rough seas entering Morocco, we were all reminded to remove heavy items from desktops and not to stand in doorways for fear of swinging doors and severed fingers. I went to bed expecting to be woken up due to the tossing when at 5am I was startled awake by water splashing against my window with great force. ‘Here we go’ I thought and jumped to look out the window only to be greeted by the window’s cleaning sprinklers and calm seas. A bit anti climatic if I say so, but I quickly went back to sleep for a while longer before going out for sunset.

The arrival to Morocco was nowhere as enjoyable as Spain. It was cloudy and it rained briefly as Ana and I stood outside waiting for the city to come into sight. We had been told that Morocco was an industrial port and that we would have cranes and shipping containers all around us. I don’t know why I thought the admin team was exaggerating but as the ship approached the port it became very clear that the admin team had actually been kind with the description. Not only were we between shipping containers and cranes but also the entrance to the port and gateway to the city was a good half-mile walk. While SAS did provide a shuttle to the port entrance I was told the service was questionable at best.

While the ship found its final position I being somewhat disappointed ran back to my cabin to get the rest of my things together for my 4 day/3 night trip to Marrakech and the Sahara. A quick breakfast and then it was time to gather with the 170 other people who would be joining me. We picked up our passports and a boxed lunch and made our way to the buses. I received my roster of students I would be somewhat responsible for as a bus leader (each trip as 1 trip leader and then bus leaders should numbers require it) and I quickly I had a few concerns. My students were great but I had 3 older life long learners. I thought that a camel trek and camping in the Sahara might be a bit of a challenge for some of them. I tried to stay positive until one woman walked off the ship with a cane. More on that later.

The first portion of our journey was a 2 hour bus ride to Marrakech during which our tour guide Mulay told us about the 5 pillars of Islam, and various facts about the area including that they usually only have rain 20-25 days a year. Pulling away from the ship I was I relived to be on a SAS excursion as I was intimidated by the conditions of the area and less then welcoming feeling even from the comfort and safety of my tour bus. I looked with concern as I saw some of our students standing at the port gates looking back and forth before crossing the streets that were anything but pedestrian friendly. Lanes were just an idea and stop lights a suggestion. Scooters, taxis, and semi trucks filled with who knows what zipped back and forth.

Happy to get off the bus upon our arrival in Marrakech we were taken to lunch just outside of the ‘famous’ Jemaa el Fna Square in the old part of town. The meal was really quite good and my ever-prevalent food fear was put to ease for at least one more meal. After lunch the sky looked dark and I realized that once again living in southern California had made me forget about weather. I did not bring an umbrella or raincoat on this trip. I pictured them hanging in my closet on the ship and just shook my head hoping for the best.

Walking through the souks or markets of the square we were invited in to each shop by eager owners hoping to make a sale. Ana, Eddie and my favorite computer-lacking student Lucas who clung on to us were in the back corner when the winds picked up and the sky turned black. Looking down the isles to the outside dresses, scarves, and ropes of hanging shoes began to flail about. It was a bit scary as we tried to get out and under some substantial structure as apposed to the haphazard draping of various tarps and flags over the souks. Street venders with henna tattoos, snakes and various types of food also ran for protection as their umbrellas previously shielding them from the harsh afternoon sun had gone cart wheeling across the square due to the high winds. The rain came down in sheets and at the same time the afternoon call to prayer and ended and what seemed like hundreds of men spilled out of the mosque as we all crammed together hoping the rain would quickly pass.

Hearing different languages being shouted back and forth, smelling fish and various other meats, spices, incense, while being crammed in the mosque entry was pretty overwhelming. I looked at Ana, Eddie and Lucas with big eyes trying to take the experience in. We eventually had to make a run for it in order to make it to our bus on time. Pretty wet and feeling pretty nasty we arrived to our hotel and we had a few hours before we met again for dinner.

Dinner as described in our field book was as follows “a Moroccan dinner with folklore show and horse fantasia at Chez Ali.” Dinner as I describe it was the worst of Epcot Center at Disney World and Medieval times combined. All 170 of us are paraded through this manufactured little town as packs of performers danced, sang and played instruments expecting money after students took photos of them. We eventually were taken into our dining room where throughout the evening what must have been a dozen groups of musicians and dancers walked through to perform for us all while looking dead inside and truly hating their life. At least at Disney they have learned the art of the fake smile. The food was great, in-between the musical interruptions every now and then.

We were then escorted back outside to find our seats around the area for the horse fantasia. Words cannot do this production justice. It began with a parade of people, who I will call the cast, including all the musicians and dancers we had gotten to know during our dinner. The music I’ll assume was traditional Moroccan music. Then a sort of float/platform/stage was brought out to the center of the ring and a belly dancer performed followed by a fire performer, a group of guys doing tricks on horses to the music of Star Wars, guys shooting rifles and the big finish was a short fire works show set to O fortuna – a classic piece of loud intense opera, you would recognize it if you hear it. We all left wondering what we had just experienced. Returning for our hotel I was eager to get to bed knowing that we had an 8 hour bus ride to the Sahara the next day.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Spain, day 4

It was our last day in Spain so a group of us went out to purchase stamps, gifts and a few general groceries. The grocery had just put out a bunch of fresh rolls so we took the opportunity to have a cheap and easy lunch. Picture it, case of soda, a few warm rolls, a package of ham and group of Americans right outside the store. We all had a good laugh knowing that the locals must have thought we were ridiculous.

Hanna and Ann decided to go to the beach but Ana, Grant, Eddie and I continued our exploring. I’ll let you guess what we did next. No, not a bullfight, ok yes we people watched but that’s not the answer I was looking for. We got a final round of sangria before heading back to the ship to begin staffing the re-embarkation process. To take an excerpt from my co-worker Bridget’s blog:

Nothing compares to the versatility of Student Affairs folks. As a Living/Learning Team, we expect to be a part of any process, procedure, event, or issue. We rarely question late nights, we loathe early mornings because of the late nights (but we'll do it anyways), and the best part of it all is that we are damn funny and have the best stories. We're in the trenches, so not only do we have our fingers on the pulse of what's happening in students lives, we are part of the heartbeat. We set the rhythm and serve as the pacemakers. We can speed you up, slow you down, and if necessary pull the plug if it's just not working.

Based on feedback from previous voyages the hours before all passengers must be on the ship prior to setting sail is a mess for the security team. All bags must be searches and all passengers are patted down leading to pretty long lines. Tom our SAS security officer is determined to make this, the 100th voyage better than those before hand. So, two hours prior to on ship time, the LLCs got into place and like we did in Halifax further developed our skills as future TSA baggage screeners. We did our best to welcome students back with a smile as we diligently searched for any contraband. This time we included to our list of those items previously mentioned any twist off beverage bottles and packaged meat. While students were encouraged to try the ham in Spain, we could not allow them to bring it on the ship for health and safety reasons. Some students were disappointed but none of them gave us much of a hard time. A few even took the opportunity to open the packaging and devour the entire package before boarding and to be honest the staff took care of the rest.

No one was late and we set sail as scheduled. The waters were pretty rough last night and they are warning us of another bad night ahead tonight. The entry to Morocco was so bad for the summer voyage that they were delayed an entire day, and had to cancel all the first day excursions. I really hope this is not the case tomorrow as I am scheduled to leave for my Marrakech and Sahara camel trek excursion tomorrow.

I hope all is well back in the states. Thanks for following along,


Spain, day 2 & 3

After a quiet night of duty it was off to Seville! A bunch of the LLCs, and a number of students were on the 11:00 train. The station was right next to the port so it was an easy walk from the ship but being my fathers son, I wanted to leave the ship at 9:40. Arriving at the station with PLENTY of time I got some Euros from the ATM and looked at my map of Seville. The two hour ride was nice and allowed some of us to see the outlying areas between town and others to read and fall asleep.

When we arrived Grant and I took a cab to our hotel and were pleased that they let us check in a bit early. We dropped off our things and took to the streets to explore. A word of caution, Seville is a pedestrian friendly city, but not so navigationally friendly. Maybe having grown up in a town that was a square grid system with each mile simply named by its mile number, set me up for failure. I usually think I am pretty good with directions, N.S.E.W, using a map and the such, and Grant made it clear from the beginning that he would be close to useless in this area. However, I was THAT GUY looking at the map at nearly every intersection. I got frustrated looking for the Cathedral so Grant provided the only support he knew how by suggesting we stop for some Sangria. I headed his advise without question. After a nice break we made a second attempt to find the Cathedral. Practice makes perfect.

In our journey we tried to do our part in the economic support of Spain making a few small purchases of post cards, a fan and things. As in Cadiz, the jean cargo man Capri pants were quite popular along with the mullet as Augustine said they would. I regret to inform you that I did not take the chance to photograph this phenomenon but I’ll keep my eyes out for fellow travelers who may have captured and evidence.

When in Spain we wanted to do as the Spaniards do, so we went back to our hotel for a siesta or a disco nap as a few friends back in LA call it to prepare for our evening out. Around 9:30 we went for dinner and I was pleased to see the menu was tourist friendly by having the items listed in three languages. After a few glasses of sangria (if you haven’t already picked up on it sangria will be a reoccurring aspect of my time in Spain) and a great dinner we made our way to a sidewalk café where we responsibly enjoyed, you guessed it, more sangria!

Prior to leaving the states Grant found a regular Sunday drag show so that was our goal for the evening. The show was fun and the music all in Spanish was passionate but impossible for me to understand. (Sorry Senora Nicho, my Spanish has only gotten worse from its already terrible skill level back in high school.) Grant feeling a little more linguistically inclined tried to order me a Vodka cranberry but I quickly learned that ‘vodka y cran’ wasn’t right and that I should not trust Grant. I got a tall glass of straight caramel vodka. I spent the evening sipping on it until I got myself a glass of soda and mixed them. If I remember correctly Grant asked for a mohito but I do know he did not get what he expected. At 4:30am the show came to an end and the bar quickly cleared so Grant and I called it a night.

The next morning Grant and I, no worse for wear after our evening of mystery drinks, checked out of our hotel walked around a bit more, got ‘lost’ a bit more, did some more shopping then made our way back to the train station for our ride home. Just like the ride there we had a number of students on our train and Grant and I both spent the two-hour trip reading.

Back in Cadiz I took some time to catch up on some journaling at a small café along with a glass of Sangria (its just that good) and enjoyed a quiet evening.

My cabin!

Welcome to 4055!

Spain, day 1

After a great night with our pre-port staff party, I was up dark and early to watch the sunrise as we made our way into the port of Cadiz. Ana called at 6:30am and soon after I met her on a very blustery Deck 8 forward. Some students were already there and many others quickly joined as we began to see the lights of Cadiz appear in the distance.

The moon was still holding court when we got up at 6:30am to celebrate our arrival in Spain.

Approaching every port Captain Jeremy steps down and allows a port pilot to take over. These specialized pilots know all the nuances of the port; the ocean floor, the currents, the tides, the docking positions etc. It’s like having valet parking every time. In something that looks like a stunt out of a James Bond movie the pilot boat comes towards the ship, flips around along side our ship and the pilot jumps on board just before the small boat turns and peals away from the edge of our much larger ship. We have been told that it is always neat to see but when the water is rough it can be down right nerve racking.

Not a techincally great photo but I still love it.

Slowly the sun began to set the sky on fire as if fighting the moon for its position still high above. Second by second Cadiz reveled more of its self to us the; cathedral’s dome and spires and monuments in the center of a square a few blocks in. The ship found it final position for the next few days and the immigration crew stepped on board and began to review all the passports while Ana and I made our way to the cafeteria for our first breakfast ‘in’ Spain. Conversations buzzed with talks of the various itineraries; flamenco show, Barcelona, Seville, Gibraltar, exploring Cadiz, and of course many students excitement to go to the clubs. Having been prepared for a potentially long clearing process, some times taking up to 6 hours before anyone is allowed to get off the ship, I made my way back to my cabin to catch up on the sleep I missed.

The MV Explorer's lights turn on to indicate its arrival in Cadiz!

I was not even in my room for 15 seconds when over the ships announcement system the LLCs were asked to report to the fac/staff lounge to distribute passports. This was news to us, and not well received news by a number of my colleagues who were woken up by that message. Of course we did what we had to do but afterwards I went back to bed for a few hours before meeting a student to go get a new computer.

Lucas’s computer crashed on the 2nd day of the voyage and came to me the prior evening after our pre-port meeting in which students reminded of general travel safety including the standard ‘do not walk alone’. Well Lucas had planed to go purchase a new computer on his own but came by to check if it would be ok. Sensing his concern I offered to go with him, as I had no real plans other than walking around the city that day as I was on duty that evening. Well I meet Lucas and we take off. I expected Lucas to be prepared with a map, directions, and a plan in general. When I asked where we were headed he said that he wasn’t sure, he just planed to ask the cab driver. I then told him that I didn’t have any Euros, of course nor did he. We begin walking. He asked for directions three times and we finally made it to the store. Not so surprisingly all the computers and Spanish keyboards. Ultimately he chose not to buy a new computer. Seriously. He is just lucky I made it back to the ship in time for lunch.

That afternoon I met up with some students and Steven our SAS photographer for a bit of a casual walking/photo tour of Cadiz. It was nice to explore a bit as well as get to know a few more students all while getting some nice photo tips. I had to return to the ship for duty so I left the group began the walk back through the small streets. I was a bit anxious about the first night of Port Duty but confident that I would be able to deal with whatever came my way. I'm pleased to say that I did so flawlessly as I didn’t get a single call.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Power, Privilege and Pre-port parties

Being a staff member on Semester At Sea gives us (some, all-be-it limited) power. With power comes privilege, and one of those privileges is the faculty staff pre-port party. First some back story, in an effort to encourage students to use the most of their time in port, SAS does not do student beverage service (formerly known as pub nights) on the evening preceding arrival in a port (providing one of the few nights that the LLCs can all gather together. The faculty and staff however have both happy hour and evening beverage service in our lounge every night, even while in port!

A returning faculty member, Agustin, mentioned previously, told us that it is tradition to have a fac/staff pre-port party following the logistical pre-port meeting. He said the evenings usually go on far longer than the bar tender is serving and thus we go to our cabins and bring up our own beverages at that point. The disco lights are on and the music is more lively than usual. Being the young group of the staff the Living Learning Coordinators wanted to make sure our presence was known.

Boy did we let our presence known! Many of us quickly found our way to the lounge after the logistical meeting and were ready to celebrate our successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean and completion of the first ‘week’ of classes. It started off harmless, a few people at the bar, and pockets of people at tables here and there. As we had high winds last night, the typically open public area on deck 7 outside the fac/staff lounge was closed for safety reasons. At one point, allegedly brought in by a faculty member, four students came in to see the full moon and the beautiful reflection on the water. A hush fell over the crowd as we realized our sanctuary had been infiltrated. Luckily the students were quickly whisked away, our heart rates returned to normal and peace and joy were restored to our little fac/staff village.

The drinks continued and Agustin went to get his iPod to play some great Spanish music to ‘set the mood’ for our days ahead. It didn’t take long for the dancing to begin and sure enough, all but one of the remaining faculty members, besides Agustin of course retreated to their cabins. Grant soon took it upon himself to figure out how to use the fog machine and the fun continued. The last call bell rang; we placed our final orders and continued to dance through the evening as we made our final stretch to Spain. Sure enough, a few choice beverages were brought up from some of our cabins and the celebration stretched into the early morning hours.

We all had moments of appreciation for the opportunity to work for SAS, to have such a fun group or colleagues, and excitement for the first port tomorrow. As I returned to my cabin where my pillow was in a pool of moonlight that was so perfect it could have been a lighting set up on stage, I knew the 6:30am call for sunrise would come earlier that I would like. It was however entirely worth it.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Cultural Pre-port: Cadiz

The two nights prior to each port the entire shipboard community is encouraged to squeeze into the Union and have a crash course on the culture of the country/port city we will soon experience first had. I’ll do my best to share some of the highlights of each pre-port.

Cadiz, Spain
- Even vegetarians should try the ham.
- If you meet someone you are interested in, don’t try to shake his or her hand, do the double kiss.
- If you want to look like a tourist, wear white socks with sandals.
One of our students from Spain shared this valuable piece of info - In Spain you go stay out until 5:00, 6:00, even 7:00 in the morning, drink to have fun, don’t drink to get drunk, you won’t last.

One of the professors from Spain, Agustin and his American wife Tammy did a great activity of Spain vs. US stereotypes. Where he encouraged the students to shout out different stereotypes they have heard of Spain, he and his wife could address them and then he would share a stereotype of Americans from the Spain perspective. A few of the best were that all young US men wear baseball caps and adult men where cowboy hats. Another was that the most important thing in the US is football and beer (many of our students seemed to agree with this by the applause he received). On the flip side, our students said in regards to Spain, ‘they have crazy hairstyles’ Agustin said ‘yes, you’ll see a lot of mullets, I don’t get it.’ Then the best laugh of the night was when a student said “All the men from Spain are really attractive” and I’m sure winning big points, Tammy quickly grabbed the microphone from Agustin’s hand and said “Yes, yes they are”

Running on the ocean

After an admittedly lazy running summer I started running again yesterday. The ship’s cardio room is pretty small and only had two treadmills that are constantly in use and the ship does not have a way to run a full loop on the ship like many larger cruise ships. After feeling a little cooped up and pretty lazy I decided to try running back and forth on the 7th deck outside the faculty staff lounge. Having been running on the beach for the last 5 years I thought that I really had it made, but this is even better. It is amazing to be running and see the ocean spreading out all around you for as far as the eye can see.

The ocean breeze potentially giving the faculty and staff in the lounge a view more than they had anticipated as it tosses my shirt and running shorts about, the ships tipping giving me a bit of an incline and the sunshine giving me a healthy dose of vitamin D. I’m going to try and have a friend take a few pictures as I run back and forth. I think it might become one of my favorite things. Also, I usually go around 4:30 thus keeping me out of the staff bar for happy hour – that’s a good thing.

"Attention Ships Passengers, Attention Ships Passengers"

A neat part of the SAS shipboard experience is the bridge tour. In a relatively small group of 15 people we are taken into the back stage area of the Union and then via key pad entry (which was not nearly as impressive as I had first thought when I realized that the magical sound that occurred when the crew member entered the code was actually just Ana turning on her annoying loud camera) we are taken into the Bridge – the main control station for the ship. As we walked in the first thing we noticed was that on one was sitting at the Captain’s chair. Should we be concerned?

The crew member told us all about the systems, from the high tech to the very low tech. He asked what the most important piece of equipment in the room is and being a smart ass of course I said the coffee maker. Obviously there is THE Captain but the ship has a crew of 30 who work the bridge from the mappers (probably not the technical name) to the mechanical guys. He showed us the satellite phones, the GPS, the radars, the ship-to-ship instant messenger type thing, and the night vision capabilities.

As I had heard before, he told us that our ship is the fasted ship of its kind in the world. A wife of a faculty member asked about what sort of defense the ship has against pirates (ARRRRR!) and the crew member said with a smile and the push of a button on the computer showing four huge engines (only one of which is usually used) ‘we would just outrun them’. He told us that if we went full speed we would have made it from Halifax to Cadiz in 4 days instead of the 7 we are taking to allow time for classes. However in our last days of travel the Captain will ‘let it rip’ and push to all 4 engines towards San Diego so we can experience it. A few of my co workers were joking today that the Captain would come on and in his awesome British announcer voice say “Attention ship’s passengers, attention ships passengers. HOLD ON”

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Rocking the boat and chasing the clock.

Our first day at sea with the students had a few rocky moments. The sea was not rough at all by seasoned sailors standards but there were multiple times while looking out my window all I saw was water, then sky, then water, then sky, then water, then…well you get the point. My dresser drawers flew open and the juice on my shelf slid into the catch bar (those ship engineers really knew what they were doing). It was as if I was riding one of the big pendulum pirate ship rides at the fair.

It’s a strange enough to loose an hour each spring but for the past three days in a row we have been loosing one hour each night. Tonight the captain has given us a break but only for tonight, tomorrow and the day after its back to the 23 hour days. However after Cadiz we will gain two hours in one evening before reaching Ghana, only to lose an hour for two nights in a row when we leave. It makes my head spin and I can’t even imagine trying to figure out what time it is now back in LA.

Cheers, P

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What a week!

Greetings from the MV Explorer sailing through the Atlantic Ocean.

The past week has flown by but somehow it seems as though I have been on the ship far longer than a week. When I last wrote I was about to leave my hotel to board. So lets begin. Last Monday Eddie and Bridget, who shared the hotel room with me, had so much stuff they took a cab to the port. Grant and I packed very light in comparison so being stubborn and cheap we both chose to walk the 8 blocks or so. I found my way to my cabin on the 2nd deck and quickly began to unpack. My porthole was larger than I had expected it to be and the circular window indeed gave it a fun nautical feel. There is a heavy steal plate that can be closed in the event of rough waters. We began our ship orientation a few hours later which included introduction of the Ship captains as well as introductions of the executive dean, academic dean, dean of students (my supervisor) and the rest of the faculty and staff. Our training is organized by main office staff who all work in Charlottesville VA, so they will sail with us to Halifax. After our first meeting we all made our way up to the 7th deck for our welcome reception. Our lounge is a great space and I know that I will very much appreciate our hideaway.

Before we could set sail we had our first lifeboat drill. Being the only person on the 2nd deck at that time, I made it to my muster station and realized that I had an entire lifeboat to myself. I like those odds. Soon after we gently pushed away from the port of Norfolk and passing over the Chesapeake Bridge we set off for the Pacific Ocean. The ship is impressively stable while docked at port and gave many of us a false sense of stability so it was not long before we were bumping into walls and grabbing for handrails while we tried to develop our sea legs. The sky quickly darkened turning into night and we soon lost sight of the lights on land bringing an end to our first day. As I got into bed and shut off the light I realized another perk of being on the bottom deck. The moonlight reflects off the white crashing waves and creates a sort of light show on my ceiling. An ever-changing wave of light lulled me to sleep that night as thoughts of the journey spun through my head.

The ships medical team and captain are very concerned with the likelihood of a swine flu outbreak on the ship. As we have much lower numbers, nearly 200 lower than usual we have a number of empty rooms. SO after many conversations between the admin team and the main officer in VA, they decided that the second deck should be cleared and held for quarantine. As a result, I packed up and moved up to the 4th deck and my students were dispersed between the various spaces on the 3rd and 4th deck. Upgrade!

Training is now a blur and it already seems like weeks ago when we arrived to bagpipes in Halifax and our students boarded. The LLC (Living Learning Coordinators) team is the catchall crew. Because of this I have discovered a potential career should I leave student affairs. Working for the Canadian TSA was an experience to say the least. Understandably students’ baggage went through scanners and one of my favorite co-workers Ana and I worked at the carry on scanner. With direction of Rhonda and Jill, the official Canadian TSA staff (Hi R & J) Ana would ask the student to open their bag and show us the questionable item. The items in question include the usual; drugs, weapons, knives over three inches, open containers of liquid, and tape. Yes, tape. We only use magnets on the ship. 75% of our cabin is metal and the tape damages the walls. One of my favorite things to confiscate was curling irons and straightness that did not have an auto shut off switch. While Ana and I were the third round of inspections we still found quite a few, maybe two dozen to be exact. Additionally, students are not allowed to bring alcohol on the ship and staff and faculty can only bring on two bottles at each port, and we must be subtle in caring the items on. We found two students who must have gone to great lengths to replace 5 bottles of water in the middle of a case with vodka. Before this discovery our ship security would open one or two bottles per case, and not delicately either. The guy would rip the box or plastic right open and pull out a few bottles, open them, smell them, even take a sip in a few case. Once we found vodka twice we went on red alert. We opened EVERY bottled beverage that was brought to the ship. It was a mess but ultimately I think it will make our life easier, at least for this first crossing.

Following a second lifeboat drill, for which I received numerous complements on my ‘serious voice’ instructing students, staff and faculty in my new muster station to remain quiet the entire time, the MV Explorer blasted it horns three times signaling its departure. And with that, the 100th voyage was underway. The students had two long days of orientation and have now had two days of classes. We arrive in Cadiz, Spain on Saturday and then I’ll be heading to Seville with one of the other LLCs, Grant for a nice student free trip.

Some pictures will be posted soon.