Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ms. Elder's Class: In and Out of India

Dear Students: Please excuse me for being so late on updating this blog for you. We has a great time in India although I had to go to the hospital on the last day to figure out why my right leg swelled up to the size of a watermelon. It turns out that I developed a small blood clot and it was great to find out that the Indian hospitals are every bit at good, perhaps better in some ways, than our own hospitals in the United States.

First off, you should know that India is BIG. Some people call India a sub-continent meaning that because of the way it sticks out like an ice cream cone under Tibet and China and because it is to large that it should be considered it's own continent. Take a look at a world map and let me know what you think. We arrived in India and docked at a very busy port in Chennai (can you find it on the map?). Chennai is huge and has more people than Los Angeles. It is also very noisy as the streets are filled with hundreds of thousands of motorbikes, cars, cows (yes, cows are allowed to go onto any street they like and people just drive around them), and to make it even nuttier there are lots of three wheeled taxis that are built around small motorcycles. I've included a picture that will give you an idea of the really crowded streets.

We saw some great sites, including the Taj Mahal that is a beautiful mausoleum (know what this word means?) built by a local prince to honor his dead wife. I've included a picture of the Taj Mahal as well and you may want to ask Ms. Elders about this great and beautiful building that is considered a Modern Wonder of the World. You may not know what I mean by calling it one of the Modern Wonders as most people learn about the ancient wonders of the world, like the pyramids in Egypt, and people are now voting on what they think are the modern wonders of the world. Do any of you have ideas on what would be a good candidate as a modern wonder of the world?

We flew from Chennai to New Delhi (which is the capital of India)and also took the trains and a bus to see the sites. The train stations were incredibly crowded with both passengers and lots of poor people, including some very poor people who were sleeping on the concrete floors wrapped in rags. I was leading a group of college students and adults and several of them were very shocked to see so many poor people living in such terrible conditions. At the same time we saw lots of well off people with big cars, cell phones, and very nice clothes. India is a country of great contrasts as its people can be very rich or very, very poor and mansions can be located very close to slums where people pick through the trash cans for something to eat.

I think that there is so much to see and learn about India that it would take months to get a real feel for the country. While we were there just under a week I will never forget the great noise of the streets, the beautiful color of the saris (women wear these beautiful wraps), and the very spicy food and huge crowds of people everywhere. I will write you again soon and send me your questions and comments.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Big Five Say Hello to Ms. Elder's Class

Dear Students: Thank you all for your notes and I'm almost ready to return to the equator to shave my head per your notes to me but the ship is now heading to Mauritius; can you find this speck of an island off the coast or west Africa?  I would have shaved my head but at this point in my life every hair counts but if I were the age of the students on this ship I would have done it knowing that it would grow back in a short time.

I want to share some things with you about South Africa and I hope you can easily find it on the map. We had a GREAT time in South Africa and the most exciting adventure we had was visiting the world's largest animal reserve, Kruger National Park. This wildlife reserve was created in the 1920s and is huge--it is as big as the state of New Jersey. This reserve also had the most wild animals in the world, including the Big Five: Elephant, lion, rhinoceros, leopard, and water buffalo. We saw four of the big five pretty up close. In fact, we saw a female lion right after she had just killed a small water buffalo and the lioness was breathing pretty heavy. She was also dragging around big chunks of her "kill" to keep the vultures from eating her dinner.

I think all of you would have loved the trip we took to the reserve. We were part of a safari that included about forty people from our ship and we drove around in some very cool jeeps that kept us up high and protected from the animals. We spent three days in the reserve and saw herds of elephants, lots of rhinos (including one taking a mud bath), several types of monkeys and baboons (do you know the difference?), and lots of giraffes and other animals. It was a great adventure and we want to return to do more of it. We put two pictures in we took; one of a lion that had just killed a water buffalo and the other of a rhino that was taking a mud bath--hope you like them.

We spent almost a week in Cape Town which is a beautiful city and the biggest city closest to the South Pole. We took a little drive around the coast and were able to visit a colony of penguins and we were told that this is one of the only penguin colonies that live outside of Antarctica. We also went to a coastal town named Hermanus where we saw several whales swimming so close off the shore that we could see their flippers when they turned over and I think they were blowing us wet kisses.

We loved Cape Town as it is located on a beautiful bay with a mountain (called Table Mountain) that seems to guard the back of the city. Cape Town will host the World Soccer Cup next year and the South Africans are very proud of this event as they will be the first sub-Saharan nation to every host this very big and important event--any of you soccer fans?

We left Cape Town a few days ago and have been at sea and it has been very rocky. Did you know that the southern passage around Cape Town and along the coast is probably the most dangerous in the world for ships as more ships have sunk here due to storms than anywhere else in the world. While we have seen and felt some pretty big waves we have been OK although more than a few students missed classes the last few days as they were not feeling too good.

This is a very cool ship and let me share some things about it with you. First off, we have three separate dining rooms; two of them can seat about three hundred people each and both of them have outdoor tables/chairs on the deck where you can eat while trying to spot whales, dolphins, and other mermaids. We have spotted plenty of whales and the dolphins sometimes seem to be racing alongside the ship but no mermaids so far. We also have on the seventh deck (the highest deck) a small outdoor cafe where you can order pizzas, hamburgers, and other stuff but you have to pay separate for those items. When you are a student or teacher on the ship your tuition pays for three regular meals in the two big dining areas but the pizzas and other food served on the seventh deck cost extra.

We also have a small work-out gym but because there are so many of us you have to sign up in advance to use the exercise machines. We also have weights on the seventh deck so you can work out while watching the ocean and there is also a basketball court and a ping-pong table where the students try hard to beat each other. The ship also has a big conference room and we have had some great events there, including a student talent show and a mis-matched party where students wore all types of clothing and weird stuff that did not match. The students are having a great time and while this is not a huge ship it is big enough so that there are lots of events going on all the time.

Well, it's pretty late and time for us to turn in. The students just finished a dance in the middle of the ship and it was great to see them dancing although they have a big test coming up so they all had to end the fun around 11 PM. I will write you all again and let me know what’s on your mind.

Down to Cape Town

South Africa blew away our expectations although the truth is that we did not know what to expect as we had no prior frame of reference other than the old classic movie Zulu where Michael Caine and his band of English soldiers were almost wiped out but were saved at the last minute by the begrudging respect of their noble adversaries. We woke up before dawn to catch the sunrise and the mighty tug that would guide us to port. The omens from the very first were wonderful as we were escorted by several porpoise pods into the harbor; odd how it felt as if they were looking at us in our steel encased terrarium and that we were the objects of their curiosity. Our ship gently settled into Jetty 2 that put us less than fifty yards from the Queen Victoria hotel and a host of pubs, restaurants, shops, and other conveniences and in the background loomed Table Mountain shielding all of Cape Town.

The short story is that we indulged ourselves greatly in South Africa. I led a field trip with eighty students on our first day in port to visit two of the most progressive wineries in South AfricaNelson Creek and Backsberg. Our goal was to ask the heads of these wineries what they were doing in the areas of sustainable development, innovative production processes, new international market strategies, attention to biodiversity, etc. We also probed and enjoyed several small pours to better understand the rationale and nuances of Pinotage and their other varietals versus the familiar vintages of our great California homeland. Of course I prepared the students while en route via the bus with tales of my own long history and indulgences with wine—they actually paid attention although I told them that their attention would have no impact on their course grade.

On day two of our South African visit we woke up at 5 AM to make our airline reservation that took us past Johannesburg to the Kruger National Park for our three day/two night “safari”.  Kruger is the “mother” of all African reserves as it was made a National Park in the ‘20s and has been an ecological/biological/environmental “jewel” of South Africa ever since. We stayed at the Sabi River Inn which was located about 30 km outside of the park although the Inn also had its share of wildlife, including a group of hippos hanging out near the 18th hole (the Inn had a well groomed golf course with pretty reasonable rates) and a couple of lazy crocodiles digesting some of the fish and other wildlife that were foolish enough to pass by them during meal times.

We arrived mid-afternoon and barely had time to put on our safari outfits and immerse ourselves in bug repellant before jumping into some very cool looking Toyota jeeps that were equipped to handle us eco-touristas. Within a few minutes of entering through one of the south side gates our mouths fell open as we spotted all manner of wildlife, including a several elephants, mini-heards of kudu and antelope, and about another thousand species that we had only seen in books or in National Geographic/Discovery Channel programs. We were literally overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of biodiversity and while the landscape looked a bit trampled and worn it obviously manages to sustain the wildlife to the point where the elephant population has growth from about 5,000 to more than 12,000 and the lions don’t have to work as hard to find/make their kills and the other predators and the hunted seemed to be in abundance. All of this on the first day with a return to the Inn where we had cold beer, good wine, and an outdoor dinner with grilled meats and plenty of food to satiate ourselves.
We rose again at 5 AM to prepare for our first full safari day; ready to go after a couple of very good ginger snaps and a cup of tea (coffee only available via Nestle cylindrical packets). We boarded the jeep and were in the park as the sun was rising and immediately saw a herd of water buffalo and several small groups of giraffes. It was a magnificent day and we were blessed with bunches of wildlife, including several small bands of elephants and scores of little wild things that were unnamed until we bought a booklet with photographs and a listing of the wildlife in the reserve. The high-point of the day when we spotted a lioness that was about thirty yards off the road and was panting heavily after making a kill. Alicia was able to use her spiffy new camera to get a close-up of the lioness as she was dragging the hind of a water buffalo into the shade and to protect it from the vultures that were waiting patiently on the nearby trees. After dragging the hind quarter to the tree she (lionesses seem to do all the heavy work) returned to the carcass where she took a couple of chunks out of a whole side or ribs. We finally spotted the male lion who was dozing nearby but our eyes were still on the lioness who was still breathing heavily while dragging chunks of the kill to different areas for later repasts.

We saw a good deal more on the safari but the photos on Alicia’s photo site tell a much better story. As we had one full unscheduled day to enjoy we got together with two other couples and rented a van with a driver to take us to see a penguin colony located on False Bay, several whales vacationing at Hermanus, a world class vineyard/winery at Stellenbosch, a local hardware/appliance shop to let me buy a French press coffee pot, and a drive through some of the most “drop dead” beautiful coastal area we have ever seen. We also stepped for lunch at a phenomenal restaurant perched over a relatively new wine growing area located in a valley that emptied into Hermanus. I had some of the best dang ribs ever and the others all said that their meal was terrific although after eating shipboard food nonstop for several weeks I think raw seaweed would have been tasty. We ended the day by going to a couple of stores/shops along the water front to buy survival food for those days when we could not face another boring ship meal.

On our last day in Cape Town we went on a FDP (Field Development Program) to visit a township; townships are all black communities that are generally located outside of the regular cities.  We learned that while the overall unemployment rate in South Africa is almost 50% we were also informed that the unemployment rate in the townships hovers around 95%.  Given this sad statistic we expected to find a “depressed” community when in fact we found a pretty vibrant community filled with people that were dedicated to helping each other. We walked around the township and it was at first unsettling to have both old and young people walk up to us to shake hands and ask where we were from. I think we got over it pretty quickly when we figured out that they were just reaching out to let us know that they were glad to see that at least some “Americans” were willing to venture into their community. We ended out township visit with another phenomenal meal at a dining hall that was run by a local female entrepreneur and had built onto one of the modest homes. The food was both familiar and foreign with several types of sweet potatoes/yams that were mouth watering sweet, chicken in a local chili sauce that had literally had been walking around the back yard a few hours earlier, some humongous meatballs that obviously had deep Dutch roots, and a variety of curries, meat stews, and other food savories that would have given the ethnic Iron Chef cookout a run for the money. All of this and a five piece local marimba style band performing both regional music and some well-known favorites, including Over the Rainbow.

Cape Town was truly a “godsend” and we left the Cape with regret although well stocked with several bottles of wine, a new coffee maker, bags of chips, cheese, and assorted foodstuff to save us on those days when we could not face the overcooked beef or dry chicken.  I’ve written this piece on South Africa as we round the Cape with some pretty powerful wave action and frequent escorts of whales, dolphins, and incredible vistas of the South African Coast.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ghana Update for Ms. Elder's Class

Dear Students: My lovely wife tells me that you guys are following her photos on "Shutterfly" which is great although I will gladly answer any questions you might have about the countries we have visited or will be visiting. I'll use this update to share a few comments about the students on board this ship.

We have more than 500 students from over 200 universities and colleges throughout the United States; we also have several students from other countries, including France, Mexico, Spain, and a few other nations. There are slightly more girl students than boys but they are all having the time of their lives. Many of them worked several jobs over the summer and after-school to pay for this educational adventure. While a few of the students have traveled with their families or on their own to other countries the majority of the students have not traveled much and a few have never been out of their home state until now. My hope is that some of you will get the "travel" bug and consider enrolling in a program like this when you attend college; these programs are called "study abroad" and they are perhaps the most exciting way to see and learn about the world.

The students on the ship take from four to five classes and the classes range from theater to business to astronomy and geology. The students generally share rooms and have between two and three roommates and they seem to get along pretty good considering that they are all new to each other. Since we all live together on this ship we are always bumping into each other so they call this a "living-learning" community. It's very neat to see and talk with students both in and out of class as we share different ideas when we are outside of the classroom.

The students split their time between taking classes on this ship (in fact, every day we are at sea) and then doing field trips. Some of the field trips are adventurous, such as taking a canopy walk in the Ghanaian jungle almost 75 feet off the ground (see the photo). In Morocco, several of them camped out under the stars in the mountains and rode camels. Others took the trains to remote cities and others visited rural villages to learn about the way the Moroccan people live.

I am teaching three classes, including one called Sustainable Development, which looks at how we currently live on this planet and what we should be doing to ensure that there is a good planet for all of you to live on tomorrow and into the future. I love this class as the students all care about the planet and want to learn how to preserve the planet so that you can enjoy it when your time comes to help take care of it.

I know you are all pretty busy in Ms. Elder's class but send me a note if you have any question. Professor Dan

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Morocco Almost Ready to Rock

This is a belated posting as I put it together a few weeks back and just today had the time to return to it as I can only access the Internet at certain locations on the ship and the students manage to find me and ask questions that they say which will take a minute but end up taking us into the late night; Alicia and I actually love these "interruptions" as it's cool to hear about their cultural experiences, insights, and to waltz with them on questions on their progress and grades.

Morocco was a blend of old and new, familiar and weird, tasty and then odd (especially the big eel fillet smothered with caramelized onions and almost recognizable vegetables). We docked at the industrial port of Casablanca as it was cheaper but a long way from the gate leading to the city. Thew ship was surrounded by container cranes that surrounded us like sentinels. Casablanca sure looked a lot better in the Bogart movie than it did when we sat foot on the eroding streets that were jammed with motor bikes, scooters, and maniacal cab and bus drivers--not a place to rent a car unless the death wish is winning over common sense. On our first full day at port I co-led a student field trip to the largest Coca-Cola plant in Morocco and the second largest in North Africa where we met with the General Manager who was a well educated Moroccan who spent several years in Atlanta and answered some great questions posed by the students, such as how they rationalized using so much water to make their products in a land with severe water shortages. It turns out the Coca Cola started off when the US Army built a bottling plant in North Africa to provide thirsty soldiers during WWII with a taste of home.

In any event, we took a couple of field trips to Marrakesh and then to some "real" Moroccan cities along the coast. Marrakesh reminded me of Mexico City around 1960 with the streets filled with people, many of them recently from the country, and scores of mini-shops selling everything from hand-made shoes to sheep heads and stalls filled with an incredible assortment of spices next to shops selling all types of herbal/local cures. We did the "tourista" thing and visited the Mosque (which we disbelievers were not allowed to enter), the Palace, the souk, and the Medina. The Medina was incredible as it reminded us of the Zocalo in Mexico City as it was filled with people selling their wares and entertaining tourists with monkeys on leashes, snake charmers (think they were charming the local version of garden snakes rather than cobras), women ready to henna and sprinkle glitter on "ancient" designs configured on wrists and arms, all of this happening concurrently.

We left Marakesh the next day on a bus and traveled along a two lane road to the coast and the trip should have taken an hour but took almost three as the roads were in either totally disrepair or being repaired. Along the way we learned about the unique Argon trees and their fruit that is harvested via goat droppings and which is converted into elixirs with great curative powers, from diarrhea to cancer to dandruff to bad breath. We held out from the sales pitch but enjoyed watching the female "co-op" workers grind the nuts into a paste and then an oil. We finally arrived at Essaouira which was a beach side community where Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens did their thing a couple of generations ago. That's where most of the students rebelled at eating fresh eel but I managed to have a BIG chunk. After lunch we headed to the waterfront to see the men unload their fish and literally fight over prices and freshness--great to see the local color.

We shared a last meal at Rick's cafe (some enterprising French woman opened this over-priced but sort of cool place) where we had an OK meal and enjoyed a very nice jazz quartet with ex-pats ranging in age from 20 to 80; they played pretty well and it decreased the pain of paying premium meal prices for "Planet Hollywood" fare.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Viva Espana!

We landed in Cadiz, Espana, on September 5th after a week at sea and it was great to land at Europe's oldest settled city to experience land, wonderful seafood, and good to great wine. We woke up before dawn on arrival to watch the tugboat nudge us into the pier that literally led us into the old part of the city. After checking out the local mercado and munching on some sinfully tasty chicharrones we took a couple of tours; the first being a pretty interesting city tour by bus and foot that took us to some wonderful museums, churches, and historic buildings. We found out that Cadiz was first settled by the Phoenicians and that it became the primary commercial center for trade with the Americas after the river route to Seville silted up. The second tour that evening took us to a small town outside Cadiz where we were "entertained" by a fourteen year old matador intern who did a pretty good job of irritating a two year old bull. Then we had a high energy flamenco program that was very entertaining and where we probably took a hundred plus photos--and you can see some of the "good" ones on Alicia's shutterfly album.

The next day we took a trip to Arcos and Ronda which are two of the famous "white cities" and were lucky enough to see the end of the week long annual celebration in Ronda that commemorates the birth of bull fighting. These were wonderful cities and it was fascinating to hear how these Phoenician born cities were made great by Rome and taken to even great heights of art and science by the Moors. It was one heck of a second day in Cadiz. The next day we took the very efficient and fast train (it got up to about 100 mph and makes our inefficient Amtrak look like an anemic sister train) to Sevilla where we walked the city in hundred plus heat. Still, we enjoyed seeing the cathedral, the Alcazar, and the old Jewish
Quarter where we had a darn good paella and some luscious white wine from a varietal that was new to both of us. On our last day in Spain I co-led a field trip to a wind farm and a solar installation that looked like the set from a science fiction movie. The wind farm produces about 120 megawatts, enough to power a mid-sized city and actually makes electricity at a competitive rate--the wind powering these behemoths started off in the Sahara and picked up force crossing the straits of Gibraltar and was blowing so strong at times that they had to lock in the blades to prevent equipment damage. Then we went to a solar farm where the energy produced cost ten times more than the wind farm but at least they are trying to test and make use of this technology. Our guide for the wind and solar farms is a "bud" of Al Gore, a nuclear physicist, and the author of the most current text on global climate change in Spain. Wow, it was like a year of experiences in a week in Spain and now we are heading to Morocco after spending most of the day refueling in Gibraltar.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Attention Mrs. Elder's Class

Dear students of Mrs. Elder: I promised Mrs. Elder that we would keep you posted on our trip around the world. We left Norfolk, Virginia on August 24th and spent three days following the US coastline to Halifax, Canada (can you find it on the map?). Halifax is a wonderful seaside city and we spent an afternoon climbing up a small hill to the Citadel which was a fort built by the English at the request of the Queen of England (know her name?). It took twenty-eight years to build the fort and it never fired a shot as it was considered impregnable and would have easily wiped out any attacking French or Indian forces.

Alicia (my wife; that's her in front of the ship just before we left Norfolk) and I left Halifax on August 28th and have now completed a full week at sea. During that entire time I saw one container ship and maybe spotted a whale but hard to tell given the distance we were from whatever it was. This is a BIG and DEEP ocean and at one point our ship traveled over some ocean canyons that were almost twenty thousand feet deep. The water is incredibly blue and fairly cold as each day they tell us the temperature; yesterday it was 68 and today it was almost 70 but still too cold to enjoy a swim if we were to fall overboard. Speaking of which, on a cruise last year on this ship one of the students was partying too much and fell overboard at two in the morning and it took the ship more than thirty minutes to turn around and it was a miracle that one of the students spotted him furiously swimming towards the ship. He was picked up and was "expelled" although I suspect he will never forget that swim.

Well, I should have began this message to you by noting that I am a teacher, like Mrs. Elder and that this ship has over five hundred college students from more than two hundred colleges from throughout the United States. This should be an exciting, fun, and great educational learning adventure for every student and I hope that some day you could join in for a similar adventure.

Tomorrow we reach our first port in Spain and it is Cadiz which is the city that the Spanish galleons came to loaded with the riches of Mexico and South America in the 1600s and 1700s. The people of Cadiz brag that Columbus is buried in one of their cathedrals, but plenty of other cities also say the same--maybe they divided him up?

After Cadiz we sail for Casablanca, Morocco, and I will try to keep you all informed of our adventures. We will finish our sea adventure in mid-December so stay tuned for more updates. Please send us your comments and questions and I promise to get back to you but it may be tricky at times as the Internet on the ship is linked to a satellite and when the weather is bad we can't send or receive messages. In the mean time please be good to each other and pay close attention to Mrs. Elder as she is probably the world's greatest teacher. Regards, Teacher Dan.