This is our longest crossing of the voyage, 12 days at sea. We’re on our way from Mombasa at 4 ºS to Aqaba at 34 ºN. We’re on our way out of the deep tropics and heading back to desert latitudes. We’ll be in Jordan from Feb 12 – 16 and then head for the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean.
There’s a strange rhythm to a Semester at Sea voyage. We settle into ship life and the march of our class days, meals, homework, evening activities, and sleep cycles. It becomes a way of life that is quite distinct from our “normal” lives back home, but after a while it’s just a new normal.
Then we land in a country, and everybody scatters to the four winds. Some fly off in airplanes. Others do organized field programs. There are no classes for a week or so, and every day is different. Culture shock. Surprise. Discovery. Delight. It’s beautiful and exhausting.
And then all of a sudden, bang! We’re back at sea, with nothing but the blue expanse all around us for days and days.
Life at sea is completely different from what we do in the countries we visit. It’s a routine. It’s college. It’s work. We don’t keep days of the week, but rather we have A days and B days, with different class schedules. We don’t have weekends, although today we took a day off from teaching to break up the 11-day crossing.
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There are 510 students on the voyage. Every one of them takes Global Studies (two sections), and then each student typically takes three other classes from a catalog of 73 total courses. As usual, 80% of the students are women.
I tend to go to bed early and wake before dawn. I go out on deck and look at the stars, then grab coffee from the dining hall and bring it back to the cabin. Then we usually go out and watch the sunrise. We always see other early risers out for the sunrise.
We shower and then walk up for breakfast outdoors on the stern. Some days as we sailed northeast off Somalia the headwind was too strong to eat outside. But other than that the weather has been just lovely.
After breakfast Jennifer goes off to work at the front desk and I go downstairs to teach Global Studies in the big auditorium in the ship’s bow.
Three of us share the stage for GS. Kelly is a historian. Lori is an intercultural psychologist, I’m the “Blue World” specialist, meaning I cover the oceans but really it’s the whole natural world through which we voyage. We trade off, but on the average each of us teaches about every other day.
We teach 250 students at 8:30 and another 250 at 10 am. I always play two music videos on the big screen before class, as the students come in and get settled. The sound system in the big auditorium is huge and it’s fun to see the students react to the music. I try to match the music to the countries we’re talking about in class, or the subject matter, or at least have an ocean theme.
After Global Studies gets out at 11, I usually go back to the cabin to regroup for a bit and then we meet for lunch up on deck. The food is good but not great. Cafeteria style. Nutritious and balanced but not fancy. Pretty monotonous after days and days, though it’s great not to have to shop or cook or do dishes. We sit with friends and catch up.
Jennifer takes a class on A days after lunch, and then works again in the afternoons. I have meetings with the GS team or with students. Then I usually retreat to the cabin in the heat of the afternoon to prep for the next days, grade, do email, etc.
I like to go back outdoors in the late afternoon when the sun is lower and it’s a bit cooler. Students are out in droves at that time, and I always wind up in conversation with somebody.
As the sun goes down, people gravitate to the bow or stern and stand around watching it. It never gets boring, though I imagine people who see my social media posts see endless sunrises and sunsets that look just alike. Sometimes we hang out with other faculty in or outside the bar at the stern (where students aren’t allowed) during the golden evening hour.
After sunset we get dinner and then usually attend an evening seminar. These are mostly presentations by faculty on a topic of their choice, open to all but not required of the students. Sometimes they’re wonderful, sometimes not. But we always learn stuff and it’s a fun social outing.
Students have all manner of social stuff after that. They have residence life meetings. They have clubs. They have movies and dancing and two nights a week they have very limited alcohol. They buy paper tickets for drinks. I think they can only get two per week. Their bags are searched when they come aboard to prevent them carrying alcohol and drugs. But they do seem to have a great time.
Jennifer and I usually just go back to the cabin and read, or sometimes watch a movie. Then we’re asleep by 10.
We participate in a “ship family” program in which we’ve “adopted” seven students and do special stuff with them. We had dinner with them tonight. We’re doing stargazing in the bow with them day after tomorrow, and we’re doing a special movie night after our time in Jordan. It’s nice to get to know a few students better, especially because on this voyage I don’t have a small class, just the gigantic Global Studies with every student on the ship. We still keep in touch with our adopted “kids” from our previous voyage. I’ve written letters of recommendation for some of them to grad school or for jobs.
During our previous transit from India to Kenya, we crossed the Equator. This is celebrated as “Neptune Day” with a ritual that is a friendly version of the “line Crossing” hazing experienced by naval sailors. We are careful to keep it gentle, noncoercive, and fun. Students seem to love it. I got to pretend to shave their heads and Jennifer got to hold the fish for them to kiss. Everybody enjoyed a hot day without classes and now they have graduated from “pollywogs” to “shellbacks.”
Sometime in March we will do “Ship Olympics.” This is another day off from classes when students and faculty compete in silly sports, trivia, and other games.
Today we bade farewell to the Indian Ocean by sailing through the narrow Bab-el-Mendab and have now passed into the Red Sea. After a week at sea it was exciting to see land! We passed about a mile from an island and could see beaches and houses and mosques. The strait is less than 10 miles wide and separates Asia (Yemen) and Africa (Djibouti). Lots of people came out to watch. We passed a small boat and everybody waved from both vessels.
We have excellent wifi and access to local servers on the ship to handle classes, grading, etc, but the local network isn’t connected to the internet. To reach the outside world we log into a different wifi network where we’re allowed 100 MB per day of traffic via satellite. If we run out we can go down to the library and wait in line to use their machines that aren’t limited in this way, but there are only 4 PCs in there.
While we’re at sea it’s almost like we forget what it’s like to live any other way. The days just blend into one another and we get our work done. And when we’re on land, it’s like we forget this weird blue emptiness that comprises most of the world.
Anyway, enough for tonight. Tomorrow Lori is teaching GS, so I can kind of take it easy.
Five more days sailing north in the Red Sea to Aqaba!