Thursday, December 15, 2011

Final Thoughts on Four Months at Semester at Sea… For Now

Blog Entry #58: Final Thoughts on Four Months at Semester at Sea… For Now

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dan addressing the student group in Vietnam
Pat & Risa Shirade in Tokyo

How to begin to sum up these four amazing months that Pat and I have spent circumnavigating the globe with Semester at Sea?  There have been so many memorable experiences and critical issues that we will need to “process” in the weeks and months ahead.  Yet perhaps ahead of all the amazing places we have been and seen, from the Taj Mahal to the Great Wall of China, it has been the people we have met along the way that most stand out for us.  What follows are some of these people and the impact they have had on our lives and how we view the world.  Many of them are the excellent guides we have had, who not only introduced us to their countries, but also opened themselves to us.  Others are students and friends we had known before and met again in their home countries.  Whatever the circumstances, we are grateful for they ways their lives and ours intersected, and we hope we will be able to continue to connect with many of them in the future.
Dan & Pat with Mohamed
Mohamed Maachou & L'Haucine Ikiloumach
In Morocco, our Berber guides, Mohamed Maachow and L'Haucine Ikiloumach, trekked with us through Berber villages at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains, and taught us much about both Berber culture and life in a Muslim nation.  As I wrote earlier, both Mohamed and L'Haucine are examples of Morocco’s emphasis on building a tourism industry, and hence people who might otherwise be employed in professional sectors instead work in tourism. Highly intelligent and hardworking, Mohamed attended law school and L'Haucine has his degree in physics.  Both found they can support their families much better through working in tourism, and they plan to start their own adventure travel and trekking business to take advantage of growing interest in this area.  We wish them all the best in this endeavor.
Stephen Kpogoh in Ghana
With Jackson (center) and his drumming buddies, Accra
In Ghana, our guide for two days, Stephen Kpogoh, fits the pattern we saw with Mohamed and L'Haucine, and was among the most engaging, intelligent, and insightful people we met in this energetic and warm country.  On our return from a powerful day visiting the slave castles, I asked Stephen about some of the economic issues we were seeing in Ghana. He answered with a trenchant analysis of the role of the IMF and the World Trade Organization in liberalizing Ghana’s economy, which had led to the devastation of Ghana’s domestic agriculture sector, particularly its rice and chicken.  This became an important theme in my globalization class throughout the semester.  It turns out Stephen had worked in Cairo for five years with the European Union and was very familiar with the economic development issues facing Ghana.  We also met Jackson, a musician and drum maker from the northern part of Ghana, who led Pat and me through an impromptu drumming lesson in the Accra marketplace.
Desmond Tutu speaking to students on the MV Explorer
With Isobel & John de Gruchy in Volmoed, South Africa
How does one think of South Africa and the fight against apartheid without recalling the work of Nobel Peace Prize winner, Bishop Desmond Tutu?  Meeting him in person, and then listening to him inspire the students for an hour was one of the highlights not only of the voyage, but also our lives.  But it was also wonderful to spend time with old friends John and Isobel de Gruchy in their lovely community of Volmoed, themselves also tireless foes of apartheid.  We first met at Holden Village nearly 30 years ago when the end of apartheid seemed an impossible dream; wonderful to reunite with them in a free South Africa.
Morgan in the Rock Carvings in Mamallapuram, India
Dilip with stone carvings
In India, we met Morgan, the stone carver, whose stone carving school and small shop allows a new generation of stone carvers to learn a skill while earning money to attend school, as in the case of Dilip, who showed us his wares while talking about his dreams of getting an education.  We also had the good fortune the week prior to India to have Nisha Agrawal on board the ship.  Nisha is the CEO of Oxfam India, and the work of Oxfam, especially in sustainable agriculture and poverty reduction, was some of the most hopeful development work we saw during the voyage.
With Nisha Agrawal, CEO Oxfam India, and M.C. Tsoi, Oxfam Hong Kong
Thiet & students in Ho Chi Minh City
With Huong at the Tea Ceremony
Vietnam brought a meeting with over 30 university students who are members of, the international movement to combat the deadly effects of climate change.  With so much of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta only 1-2 meters above sea level, climate change and sea level rise have become literally life and death issues for these young activists and their families.  Thiet, a graduate student in forest ecology, spoke to our students on behalf of his group, and Huong – who had visited the University of Montana in 2010 – hosted us at the end of the day in a traditional Vietnamese tea ceremony.
Vichet telling his family story about the Khmer Rouge genocide
With Vichet Preap in Phnom Penh
Perhaps our single most moving day of the voyage was the day we spent in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, looking at the legacy of the Khmer Rouge genocide there from 1975-79.  Our guide, Vichet Preap, was born in 1975, and he movingly told us his family’s experience during this terrible time, and the legacy of a traumatized people that lost most of its educated class trying to recover in the years since.  Driving back from the Killing Fields while Vichet quietly recounted these years remains indelibly embedded in my memory.
Dan with Man Cheong Tsoi 
Eva in front of her Hong Kong home
In Hong Kong, our most memorable person was actually a member of our shipboard community, “MC” Man Cheong Tsoi.  MC enrolled in my Greening Religion course, and was one of the loveliest and most diligent, hardworking students I have ever had.  MC has been retired in recent years, and very active in development efforts, particularly with the Hong Kong Oxfam chapter.  A recent convert to Christianity (and baptized last year in the Jordan River!), MC always addressed me as “My Beloved Professor,” and signed his emails with “God Bless Us All!” J I also had a wonderful student from Hong Kong, Eva Lam, who proudly showed me the building she had grown up in when we sailed into Hong Kong harbor.
Jenny Chan in Shenzhen at Foxconn Factory Zone
When we ventured from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, China, we had the very good fortune to be hosted by Jenny Chan, a former director of SACOM, Scholars and Students Against Corporate Misbehavior, who monitor workers’ living and working conditions in the industrial factory zones in one of China’s fastest growing cities and a critical component in its growing export economy.  Jenny is now a doctoral student in sociology at the University of London where her dissertation work is focused on labor conditions in China’s export factory zones.  I will never forget the afternoon we spent with her as she walked us through the residential area where tens of thousands of Foxconn workers live 6 to 8 in small 2-room apartments behind barred windows – the price of cheap labor in the global economy.
With Liu Fuchen at the 2008 Beijing Olympics venue
In Beijing, China we were hosted by Tsinghua University for our three-day visit.  Liu Fuchen, Program Manager for the Center for Overseas Academic and Cultural Exchanges at Tsinghua, was a quiet, dignified many who gave up his weekend on short notice to accompany us and introduce us to everything from the Great Wall of China and Tiananmen Square, to research programs on environmental sustainability at Tsinghua.
Risa Shirade with her mother, Makosa-san
Our five days in Japan brought a reunion with my former student in Environmental Studies at the University of Montana, Risa Shirade, and her mother, Makosa.  Risa showed us several wonderful sites in Tokyo, but the most powerful part of our visit was staying in their small apartment and hearing Makosa tell us about experiencing the devastating tsunami in their hometown of Sendai.  Trapped for four days with a household of elderly Japanese villagers, she kept all of them alive without food or water until they were eventually rescued.
Most recently, returning to Costa Rica a week ago for a long-anticipated reunion with my old Costa Rican family brought rich time with friends Yusa Jarquín Jacob and Carlos Antonio Paniagua Jacob.   Friendships that have now lasted nearly thirty years and the birth of a new generation, I hope we will be able to continue for many more years to come.
Yusa & Carlos Antonio in Costa Rica
Finally, we had a phenomenal ship’s crew for our entire 4-month voyage.  It was a bit strange that, while we were studying the dynamics of the global economy, we were living it out in microcosm on our ship: in addition to the roughly 500 students, 36 faculty, 70 “life-long learners”, and another 35 or so Semester at Sea staff, the ship itself was kept going by a dedicated crew of around 200. 
The majority of our crew were from the Philippines, reflecting the fact that nearly 11 million Filipinos work outside the Philippines each year, sending home more than $10 billion each year to support their families, making the Philippines fourth in the world in the “remittance economy”, behind only China, India, and Mexico.  Our crewmembers typically are on the ship for 8-month contracts, and then home for 2-3 months between contracts. 
Much like global economy, the actual operations of our ship, the MV Explorer, were hidden from us, the privileged passengers.  We had our laundry done for us and our bed linen changed every day, without ever seeing the laundry workers or facilities.  All our meals were prepared for us, but we never saw the kitchen or the cooks.  We lived in cozy but comfortable cabins, but never saw the living conditions of those who make the ship actually run.  And all of this was fueled by burning fossil fuels, leaving a visible smoke trail every moment of the day and night, even as we worked with the students to study the effects of climate change, global warming, and sea level rise in each country we visited.
Darwin & Dante at breakfast in Capetown
One contrast to the global economy, however, is that we did get to know many of the members of the crew with whom we had regular contact, especially the stewards who cleaned our rooms and the dining room staff, as well as others with public roles such as the members of the Pursers desk and the ship store.  It was fascinating to get to know some of them and hear their stories.
Yvonne in the ship store
Perry in the dining hall
Perhaps Pat’s and my favorites in the dining room were the friendly Filipino trio of Darwin, Dante, and Perry (wonderful names!), who greeted us warmly each morning with “Good Morning, Sir Dan!  How did you sleep, Sir Pat?"  Darwin and Dante both have young families at home in the Philippines that they send money back to support.  Yvonne in the ship store is from Jamaica and works on the ship to support her younger sister so that she can attend university.  Nancy and Guarda staffed the Purser’s desk and greeted us as we walked past their 5th deck office.  Many additional staff members provided incredible support for us, the largely hidden machinery that made possible the educational mission of Semester at Sea.  I never failed to be impressed with how hard they all worked, and how dedicated each is to support loved one at home, even as they spend months at sea separated from them.
Nancy & Guarda at the Purser's Desk
Lewis awaits our homecoming!
So now we turn our sights toward home, and reuniting with our own family and friends (and our wonderful dog, Lewis!).  Thank you to all who persevered in reading this blog; I hope it has been helpful in connecting you to some amazingly beautiful places and people in our increasingly globalized world.  I know it will feed my teaching, research, and personal ruminations for years to come.  I remain deeply grateful and humbled to have been able to participate in this once-in-a-life time opportunity, even as I reflect on my colleague Jim Huffman’s charge to the students at our closing convocation: paraphrasing the bible, Jim reminded us, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”  May we be worthy of this amazing experience!

1 comment:

  1. Again, thank you so much, Dan, for gifting us with your insights and analysis, and providing this virtual trip around the world through your photos and stories. I've loved it! (I'll miss it!) Enjoy your time at home with family and friends. Hope to see you one day-- Happy Solstice, Happy Christmas, Happy New Year!