Sunday, September 11, 2011

Traversing the Atlantic between Casablanca and Ghana

Blog Entry #13: Off Africa on September 11th

Sunday, September 11, 2011

It has now been 4+ days since we left Morocco, with the lights of the Hassan II Mosque guiding us out of the harbor at night.  Seas were rolling quite a bit that first night, and it felt strange to once again sleep in a gently rocking bed. 
Our position off Senegal on the evening of September 10, 2011

The ship's population seemed both excited and worn out by our four days in Morocco, and it took some effort to return to the more mundane business of classes.  A quite and noneventful first day, and the following morning we woke up anchored off of Las Palmas, Grand Canary Island, for refueling. 

Las Palmas skyline in the early morning hours of September 8, 2011

Cathedral and Waterfront of Las Palmas, Grand Canary Island
We spent most of the day anchored there, and so we had tantalizing glimpses of this Spanish protectorate – officially the farthest south and farthest west city in the European Union.  Tall high-rises along the waterfront and sailboats skipping along the harbor bear testimony to the importance of European tourism in the Canary Islands.  Las Palmas has over 385,000 people, putting it in the top 10 Spanish cities in terms of population.  The neighboring island of Tenerife -- largest of the Canary Islands -- also has Spain's highest point, volcanic Mt. Teide.  From Wikipedia:  Its 3718m summit is the highest point in Spain, the highest point above sea level in the islands of the Atlantic, and it is the third highest volcano in the world measured from its base on the ocean floor, after Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea located in Hawaii.[1] It remains active, with its most recent eruption occurring in 1909 from the El Chinyero vent on the north western Santiago rift.

It also seems to be a major refueling stop for shipping as many other ships were anchored near us, waiting
Refueling the MV Explorer off Las Palmas, Grand Canary Island
 their turn for the refueling barges to come along side to refuel.

Shipyard, Las Palmas, Grand Canary Island
As we headed south along the NW coast of Africa – seemingly always just out of sight on the eastern horizon – air temperatures began to warm noticeably.  Soon we were seeing small schools of flying fish leaping out of the water as we ate our meals on the deck – and “flying” along the tops of the waves, often for many yards before they dipped back under water.  They are an indication of warmer waters beneath us, as are the dolphins we now see occasionally playing in the ships wake.

The seas are noticeably calmer – almost glassy at times – and we often see small clumps of floating plants or seaweed, suggesting that land is not far away.

Floating Seaweed patch
Cloud formations continue to be stunning, gracing our sunrises and sunsets in an ever changing panorama.
Sunset over neighboring ship
And we now have a lot more company: after rarely seeing other ships during our North Atlantic crossing, we now are rarely out of sight of other large ships.

As we approach our next port – Accra, Ghana – attention in the shipwide Global Studies class has naturally turned to Ghana’s history in the infamous slave trade across the Middle Passage that was launched by the Portuguese from Ghanaian shores.  Pat and I hope to spend a day visiting two of the largest slave “castles” and dungeons – the Elmina or St. George’s Castle, built by the Portuguese in 1482 and the nearby Cape Coast Castle, built by the Swedes in 1653 and later taken over by the British.  One startling fact among many I am being reminded of during this terrible time is that by 1650 there were five African slaves in the Americas for every one European: the “conquest and settlement” of the Americas during these centuries was as much an African as a European event, though under very different circumstances for the “settlers” involved.

Waterfront of Las Palmas, Grand Canary Island
Today, of course, is the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil.  I am sure there is a good deal of attention focused on this in the U.S.  Here we are oddly detached, as we have no access to newspapers, television, or radios, and even our internet access is limited and sporadic. 

Yet reminders come in other ways.  For the students on the ship, 9-11 is a singular event much as the Challenger explosion was a generation earlier, or the assassination of JFK was for my generation.  Most of them were in grade school, in 4th or 5th grade, and they have grown up in the aftermath. 

Particularly poignant to me is the conversation I had with one of the students who joined me on the trek through the Berber Villages.  He grew up in Connecticut, and his father worked in finance in the World Trade Center in 2001.  That particular morning he happened to be called away to Boston for a morning meeting, so he was not in New York with the Twin Towers came down.  But 90 of the 104 people working in his company were in the office that day, and all lost their lives.  This student knew many of them as his father’s friends, and he knew a lot of their children as his own friends.  He spoke to me about how important it was for him to be meeting actual Muslim people and to be in a Muslim nation – to see them as ordinary people who love their children and families – because he and so many of his generation in the Tri-State area have grown up with fear and hatred toward Islam and Muslims because of their experience of 9-11.

I wonder often about the ethics of this kind of international travel for education, as I do each year as I organize my travel seminars to Central America.  Clearly it is a sign of our enormous privilege as citizens of the United States to do this, and our ecological footprint is not insubstantial.  Yet when I see the effects it can have on young people’s lives, and how it can transform their worldviews and actions, I am hopeful that the positive effects outweigh the negative.  Certainly it instills in me a determination to act responsibly and to do something positive with these experiences that I am gaining. 

Semester at Sea alumni have gone on to do some extraordinary things following their experiences – among SAS’s alums are ___ who went on to found Kiva, an internet-based microlending phenomenon, and Adam Braun, founder of Pencils of Promise, a social-network based NGO that is on its way to building more than 100 schools, nearly 100% funded by donations of young people.  For most of the students here the impact will be less dramatic, but no less important in the long term, I hope. 

Ghana in two days…

Sunset over Cargo Ship, Atlantic Ocean, September 10, 2011


  1. Dan, I so appreciate reading your blog. Thank you for taking the time to write such thoughtful, insightful posts--and for sharing so many spectacular pictures, too. Blessings!

  2. I couldn't agree more with Allison. Thank you for sharing your eloquent thoughts with all of us as we travel with you in spirit.

  3. And thanks so much for your comments! I am really enjoying putting together this blog and the narrative of our trip -- though it is a labor of love as uploading photos with our limited band width is V-E-R-Y S - L - O - W!! Glad you are enjoying it! Dan