Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sailing the Seven Seas - Weeks 6-7 - Cape Town to Port Louis

South African Penguin in a Rabbit Hole?!?

Trek up Table Mountain with SAS Friends

Videoconference with Pinelands Students

Videoconference with LoveLife, HIV/AIDS Education NGO in Langha Township

Visit with Pam and Friends at the Children's Devotional Gathering in Delft

Visit with Grassroot Soccer in Cape Town

Cape Town: “Mountains Beyond Mountains”


“I never knew a morning in Africa when I woke that I was not happy.”
–Ernest Hemingway

The title of this week’s blog seemed appropriate – it comes from a Haitian proverb to illustrate the many curve balls or challenges that are thrown our way in life. For example, once you scale the top of one mountain, you reach a view point where you can see even more hills and mountains much further away – i.e., there’s an infinite number of uphill battles and valleys of victories to experience in this life if we choose to try to make a difference in the world. I have often felt that way during this voyage, but I certainly don’t mean to be suggesting that I have made any impact on anyone during Semester at Sea. It’s more food for thought. However, I saw a lot of hills and mountains during my brief stay in Cape Town, so the quote came to mind.

“How’s it?” Thought I would begin this week’s reflections with a South African greeting. I loved every minute of my time in this city of stark contrasts. Cape Town is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. In fact, the Western Cape has its own unique floral kingdom, and I saw so many different kinds of flowers that are not found anywhere else. Also, it was interesting to see Calla Lilies growing wild all over the place! It’s interesting to note that these lilies are a ubiquitous part of wedding bouquets in the U.S. (including my own), but “Arab Lilies” are used at funerals in South Africa and Latin America.

Right now, we are sailing past Durban, South Africa. I am a stone’s throw from land on my left (less than five miles), and I saw a whale breaching to my right – amazing. I can see now why sailing is a passion for so many. I am in awe of the world’s oceans and its animals.
The theme of this first blog posting is “UBUNTU.” UBUNTU is a South African concept for “unity” or “community” that I saw and felt during my six glorious days in Cape Town. Since this was my third visit to this beautiful city, I could see how some things had changed, while others had remained the same since 2002. A friend on the ship described Cape Town like an onion with many layers. At the top layer is this beautiful, breathtaking, picturesque city with a spectacular waterfront that overlooks Table Mountain that could rival any other like it around the world. But, as you peel off this layer, you see how apartheid has affected this rainbow nation by systematically separating communities and families vis-à-vis the color line, and pushing the majority of South Africans into sub-standard, shantytown/townships (some are nicer than others, but I saw numerous tin-roof/cardboard houses). I had the immense privilege of visiting two different townships, which I will write about soon.

Even though apartheid ended in 1994, the effects are still felt today, especially since the population still describes itself in four different ways: Whites; Colored (Mixed-Race); Asians; and Blacks. People are integrating (namely via schools), but it is slow going. One thing that I find very interesting – and disturbing – is the mass exodus of the White South African Diaspora since apartheid ended. Over two million Whites have emigrated to the U.K. Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. (and elsewhere) for myriad reasons, but it has caused a huge amount of “brain drain” and attendant anger for the country, which has resulted in a higher rate of violent crime in certain parts of the country. I am not blaming anyone - it is not my right to judge, but it really hit me to hear those numbers. If I was in fear for my family's safety, I am not sure what I would do, if faced with the same circumstances. In fact, I personally know people who have been shot and murdered in South Africa, but it has not changed my love affair for the country one bit – crime, sadly, happens everywhere, since our world is so out of equilibrium on so many levels, especially with regards to an inequitable distribution of the world’s resources.

I spent my first few days in Cape Town exploring the natural beauty of this city on the Western Cape. I climbed to the top of Table Mountain (audible huffing and puffing was emitted by yours truly) ( on a clear, cloudless day, and could see the whole outline of the Cape from the top! The views were spectacular. I have not scaled many mountains in my lifetime, and I felt very proud when I reached the top! On the second day, I went cycling through the picturesque winelands (South Africa’s are world famous) on a mountain bike, and rode the equivalent of about 25 miles – both uphill and downhill. It was a great workout. I am happy to report that I was keeping pace with the students! I don’t think I have ever been on such a beautiful bike ride in my life! Even though I had visited twice before, I had never explored the countryside via cycling, so I was thrilled that I had time to do it. Nevertheless, I ate my way through Cape Town, so I hope my time as a “weekend warrior” paid off during the week!

The next day, I was fortunate enough to join a small group of students, faculty and staff that went on a private tour of Robben Island ( (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned) with a noted peace activist named Terry Crawford-Browne ( He is has been at the forefront of nuclear non-proliferation efforts in South Africa. His wife has been the personal assistant to Archbishop Desmond TuTu for over 20 years, so Terry also has a close relationship with the Archbishop. I told him of my brief encounter with Desmond Tutu, and it made him really happy. The title of the tour was “A Pilgrimage to Robben Island.” Terry helped to spearhead the refurbishment of Church of the Good Shepherd on Robben Island. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Anglican Church has committed itself to peace and reconciliation in a post-apartheid South Africa. What made it special was that we went over to the island with the staff ferry before it officially opened, and then we got a personalized tour with Terry. We read quotes, based on religious themes, at different points during the tour. Then a tour guide, who was an ex-prisoner on the island, gave us a tour of the prison, and we saw the cell where Nelson Mandela lived for 18 years. Very sobering experience. The island is one of the most eclectic and unique places I have ever seen. For example, rabbits were introduced to the island by the British in the 1700s, and now they number over 30,000! Rare African penguins also inhabit the island, so two vastly different animals live practically side by side, like a weird sci-fi film. Unfortunately, the rabbits and penguins are also competing for the island’s resources, and the rabbits seem to be winning.

As always, a prominent highlight of my all-too-brief stays in these countries are the interactive, cross-cultural videoconferences. Cape Town was so exception. Global Nomads Group (GNG) worked with an awesome high school called Pinelands, one of the first fully integrated high schools in post-apartheid Cape Town. The students were phenomenal! Soooooooo sharp!! They certainly kept their American peers on their toes. Topics of conversation ran the gamut, from fashion to politics and everything in between. To illustrate, a South African student asked about how human trafficking is practiced in the U.S. She explained that a lot of girls and women are being trafficked for the Soccer (Football) World Cup in Cape Town next year. On a lighter note, a girl from a high school in South Florida asked how young people date in South Africa. Two students, a young boy and girl, from Pinelands (who happen to be a couple) went up to the microphone holding hands and declared, “This is how we date.” However, the South African girl then went on to say that her beau’s parents were a bit bothered by the relationship because they thought that the girl might be too big of a distraction for the boy. This answer elicited laughter from the Floridian students. Afterwards, a girl from Pinelands came up to me and said, “These conferences have changed my life.” It’s so fulfilling to play even a small part in someone’s coming-of-age to find their place in the world.

The second day of videoconferences was spent in Langha Township with an HIV/AIDS NGO called “LoveLife.” ( We were fortunate enough to meet an awesome AIDS educator who was sailing with us for a week on the ship named Bulelani, who works with this NGO. He arranged for us to meet his colleagues and some local peer educators from the township. It was an awesome conversation between the U.S. and South African students and staff from LoveLife. We hosted it in one of their Youth Centers. What struck me the most was the sheer honesty that was shown amongst the students from both countries, which is always some of the best education – self-actualization. At one point, a student from a school in southern Florida asked one of the students from Langha about dating and peer pressure. The guy responded by stating that he would not be considered a “real man” by his friends unless he was sleeping with his girl. Another South African girl admitted that she was proud that she was still a virgin, but was nervous about how long she could remain that way. I did not hear such remarks from the U.S. students – perhaps they had never had the opportunity to be that honest and open in a public setting. This is one of the great lessons that I have learned from my short stay in Cape Town – the gift of voice, amidst life’s trials and tribulations. Silence equals complicity which can equal death, especially in the face of HIV/AIDS.

Speaking of townships, a few of my SAS friends and I had the honor and pleasure of attending a children’s multi-faith devotional gathering in another township called Delft. It was arranged by the local Baha’i community. I have to tell you, Facebook is amazing!! I re-connected with a beautiful “old” friend named Pamela who I had not seen in more than a decade (at least), and she invited us. She piled us into her small VW, along with her three children, and we arrived to find ourselves swarmed by 100s of children who wanted to play with us and be held. At one point, I was holding a girl on each hip, and they were clinging to me for dear life. I could have held them for hours – had I been stronger! This particular township is mixed (both ethnically and religiously), but the Hindus and Muslims were not getting along. The children of different faiths used to throw stones at each other and try to beat each other up when they would pass each other on the street. But, the Baha’i community started hosting these simple devotional gatherings and related virtues classes, and the children are now getting along and are friends! They eagerly look forward to these weekly gatherings, and it is usually the only time they see people from diverse backgrounds. It made me cry, the power of spirituality, from wherever it may come. If only you could have been there – well, you would not have fit in the tiny, two room house, but you get my point. The children from the neighborhood, ages 3 – 12, were singing, drumming and dancing to prayers from different faiths – without any of their parents present. It was a very powerful experience.

The last day, we briefly visited another wonderful NGO called Grassroot Soccer ( that uses soccer to help teach AIDS prevention to thousands of students in several African countries. It was started by professional soccer players. In fact, they will be working with many of these soccer players during the FIFA World Cup in Cape Town next summer. Global Nomads Group hopes to work with them at some point in the future. Wow, what an amazing week – an understatement.

Okay, then – on to Mauritius, a beautiful, volcanic island in the Indian Ocean, near Madagascar (I was hoping to see some cute lemurs with Disney music in the background, but I saw monkeys and turtles and beautiful birds instead – I don’t think the lemurs ever made it to Mauritius, but the penguins could have flown them – he, he – I loved the Madagascar films). We only stopped there for few days, but I will write more after I FINALLY post this blog from Cape Town. I could have written A LOT more – Cape Town is just one of those places – and South Africa in general – that takes your heartstrings and your soul – twists them inside out, and expects you to make sense of it later. I do know that South Africa may be on its way to racial healing and true reconciliation far sooner than the U.S. – because people are choosing to talk about it and deal with issues in an honest and open manner, despite the “mountains beyond mountains” of difficulties that they continue to encounter in the process. Please remember; these are only my own personal views, built out of my reflections. I know that others may feel differently.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sailing the Seven Seas - Week 5 - Tema/Accra to Cape Town

Begging to Become a Shellback at King Neptune Day!

Participants and Teachers at GNG Videoconferences at GIMPA
(Distance Learning Center in Ghana)

Cape Coast Slave Castle

GNG Videoconference with Kwesi at Cape Coast Castle

Plaque at the Cape Coast Slave Castle

God is Good Electrical Shop in Accra

Accra, Cape Coast and Tema – A Life-Changing Sojourn

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
-Maya Angelou

AKWAABA to Ghana!

This word, that means “welcome” in Twi, one of the several languages spoken in Ghana, was uttered by the wonderful Ghanaians that I met during my short time there. I was treated like family by so many amazing people that the word is very symbolic of how welcomed and cared for I felt during my entire time in Ghana. AKWAABA was also written on all of the billboards that announced President Obama’s visit last July, so it seemed appropriate to begin this week’s installment with this great declaration:

AKWAABA to my blog!

Poster commemorating President Obama’s visit to Ghana
(This one does not say AKWAABA)

So many things about Ghana made me happy, namely the many marvelous Ghanaians that I met. However, I particularly loved to read the placards for the local businesses during our numerous road trips in Ghana. I saw similar signs in Tanzania, but Ghana won for the most businesses named after Biblical references (I even took a picture of the “God is Good” business, as seen above). Some of my favorites were:

- God is Good Electrical Shop
- The Blood of Jesus Sewing
- The Lord is My Shepherd Auto Parts
- He has Risen Bakery
- God’s Grace Beauty Salon

Goodness, we are nearly at Week 6 at Semester at Sea (SAS), and I am just getting caught up on Week 5! So much happens, both on the ship and in port, that I don’t think I will ever truly be able to adequately describe all that has happened, but at least I can try to provide some highlights, especially for those who have never visited Ghana (or been part of SAS). My mother is so funny – she wrote and told me that I fall in love with every country I visit! I guess that’s the “curse” of global citizenship – a gift that my parents gave me at a very young age. My first teddy bear was named U.N. (I got it at a U.N. Children’s Day) – go figure! Sadly, I lost him in Costa Rica, but I am over it. The same held true of my time in Ghana. I leave part of my heart in every place that I visit, and gain so much more in the process.

Before I start sharing some stories from my time in Ghana, I’d like to write about some cool and crazy things that I did on the ship this week:

Last Saturday morning, we crossed the Equator, and celebrated King Neptune Day, where the Captain of the ship, dressed as Neptune, gave us permission to become shellbacks (pollywogs who have crossed the Equator), after going through a nutty initiation ceremony. It consisted of a slimy pink/brown concoction that was poured on my head (which was supposed to resemble sea sludge, but looked more like the slime at the Teen Choice Awards), after which I jumped into a disgusting swimming pool filled with said slime. The last two initiation rites were to kiss a dead fish and be “knighted” by one of the King’s Sea Knights before kissing the Queen’s ring and bowing before King Neptune (i.e., “Dean Bob” from the University of Virginia – see the photo above of my humble pleading to become a shellback. Dad, you should have paid for the drama lessons – I still don’t have an adequate place to put my ‘hamness’ – these poor SAS’ers!! Bro, maybe you can help, but probably not! I think my hubby could, actually.). Normally I don’t follow the pack mentality (especially if you had seen the pool when I jumped in), but it was an old maritime tradition, and 100s of SAS faculty, staff and students were doing it, so I thought, “Why Not?” As you can see, it was great fun, but kinda gross! Some of the girls were so into it that they shaved their heads! I know you only live once, but you have to have a really nice-shaped head to shave all of your hair off, in my opinion. To each her own!

Another cool thing that happened this week is that I got a tour of the bridge of the MV Explorer. It’s a very sophisticated operation up there. The ship often runs on auto-pilot. I was fascinated by all of the equipment. I even got to sit in Captain Jeremy’s chair! Don’t worry – he did not look like the Incredible Hulk that day!

A third experience that I’d like to share is that I heard a talk by one of the Living/Learning Coordinators (i.e., Resident Directors) called “Hurricane Katrina: A Survivor’s Story.” The woman who spoke is a disaster relief specialist with a background in public health. She and her parents had to take refuge in a church in Mississippi during the hurricane. It was so moving to listen to her – she is an incredibly good speaker. It’s one of the best talks I have ever heard in my life, hands down. I learned a lot more about the aftermath of the hurricane and how people lived (and are continuing to cope) through such a harrowing ordeal. Sadly, this woman lost everything from her home in New Orleans, and had to start over in many ways. I feel privileged to know her.

Now I am blogging from one of the signature courses at Semester at Sea called Global Studies. The professor has tried to distill countless facts and figures from several countries down into hour-long lectures. I think he has done a good job – what a challenging task! Actually, I would love to teach a global studies course one day – right up my alley. Today, in preparation for our arrival in Cape Town on Saturday, the prof spoke about South Africa in a post-apartheid age. He shared a very cool personal story with us. He co-taught a course with a South African member of parliament named Barbara in the mid-90’s. Well, during their teaching, Barbara had heard that newly-elected President Nelson Mandela had picked someone for a cabinet post that she did not agree with at all! So, during the course of their joint lecture, she proceeded to call President Mandela directly, and told him how she felt! The professor was amazed, as you can imagine, that she had a direct line to Mandela! He assured her that this person needed to be there, as they had been a large part of the African National Congress movement to end apartheid in South Africa.

Now I’ll share a personal anecdote from one of my favorite experiences at Teachers College. In 2003, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was speaking at our Masters’ graduation ceremony. I was honored to be asked to pick him up from a private airport in New Jersey and personally escort him to the campus. Well, when the driver and I got there, we arrived at the wrong hanger, and I had a short panic attack. I did not want to call the External Affairs office to tell them that we had lost the Archbishop!! So, finally we located him at a different hanger. When I met the honorable Archbishop, I was quite nervous, but he reached out and gave me a big hug and thanked me for coming to get him! I asked him if he would be my grandfather, and he told me “Yes, I have many grandchildren around the world.” We rode back to campus, pretty much in silence, but he was kind enough to ask me about my life, family and schooling. I did not ask him much in return, because I could tell that he wanted to sit in quiet contemplation. We did not even play the radio during the hour-long drive. It is an experience that is very dear to my heart that I shall never forget.

As many of you know, South Africa is one of the most diverse, multicultural countries in the world with a tragic past and, at times, shaky present, especially with the advent of the AIDS pandemic. One of the South African students on the ship gave a workshop called “1 in 3” – meaning one out of three South Africans has most likely contracted HIV. I have been to South Africa twice, and was enamored by the striking geographic beauty of Cape Town, as well as the amazing people I met. I was laughing to myself, thinking about a story that an old American friend shared with me when we were roommates in Cape Town in 2002 for a graduate course.

It went something like this:

Roommate: “You won’t believe how clueless some of my friends are! When I told them I was going to South Africa, one of them asked, ‘Is that a country?’ Then, another friend told me to have fun and try to pet some baby Bengal tigers, like Sigfreid and Roy. I told them that tigers are found in Asia, and lions are found in Africa.”

Me: Dead silence. I was too shocked to say anything. Then I said, “No way!” Then we burst out laughing.

We were not making fun of anyone, but it was pretty funny the way she relayed it to me! I am sure I have had many moments of cultural incompetency like that in my own life. Actually, I used to call Afghans “Afghanis,” which is the local currency. I was kindly corrected by an Afghan.
Anyway, I digress. Back to my time in Ghana.

The Tema port was quite far from the main port gate, and Tema is about an hour from Accra, so we spent a great deal of time in taxis and buses getting to and from the videoconference programs (which were held near the University of Ghana), some of which are local mini-vans called “tro tros.” The tro tros reminded me of the mini-vans in Tanzania – I am sure that many African countries have similar modes of transportation. It was great to ride the tro tro. We were certainly a source of curiosity for many of the Ghanaians, but we wound up having great conversations as a result. In fact, even though Ghana is in the West, and Tanzania is in the East, these two nations have some things in common, especially with regard to fabrics. Case in point, I was wearing a Tanzanian blouse made out of kitenge cloth, and one of the Ghanaian teachers gave me a big hug and thanked me for wearing a Ghanaian top! I told her it was Tanzanian, and she smiled even more, learning that many of the dyed cloths were the same.

Speaking of videoconferences, the cross-cultural conversations that were shared by the U.S. and Ghanaian youth were some of the most powerful I have ever witnessed in my short tenure at GNG. Since English is spoken quite fluently by most Ghanaians, the students really understood one another. They went beyond formalities and connected at a much deeper level. Students spoke of racism, globalization, immigration, popular culture, among many other topics. Students even sang their national anthems for each other! I told the U.S. students that we had a lot to learn from the Ghanaian young people, because the rendition that the American students sang was in about 10 different keys, and the Ghanaian students sang as one, and sounded like a beautiful choir. The final videoconference, between a high school in New Jersey and a high school in Accra was truly remarkable. The Ghanaian students took the time to write down the names of the students from New Jersey so that they could ask direct questions of individuals. A Ghanaian student even asked about cheerleading and popularity, because she had seen cheerleaders in American films. The cheerleader from NJ was shocked that her Ghanaian peer remembered her name that it took her a moment to answer. She was so touched that it looked like she might choke up. A Ghanaian young man also spoke about President Obama’s visit, and how it changed his life forever, along with millions of African youth. He said that he believes now that he can accomplish just about anything, if he works hard and applies himself.

At the end of the session (that went much too quickly) students from New Jersey asked the students from Accra what they might like for a gift, and the Ghanaian students responded by saying that although they might like a lot of things personally, they were representing their school, so the gift should be sent to benefit the entire school. Students from Accra asked the same thing, and a student from New Jersey asked for some local Ghanaian “high life” music. I believe that the students will try to stay in touch, and we hope to facilitate more virtual conversations with them soon.

As powerful and positive as those videoconference sessions were, our visit to the Cape Coast Slave Castle hit me to the core of my soul and I found it difficult to breathe. I cried and mourned with tears that would not come, which has never happened to me before. It’s because my soul was sobbing from the inside. When I was down in the male slave cell, I saw a bunch of wreathes that were placed to honor the ancestors. I can’t tell you how I felt when I saw the Obama Family wreathe. Our tour guide told us that we were walking on the remains of our ancestors, which I physically felt. I won’t be able to write much about the effects it had on me personally – being in those cells, because there is too much to wade through on so many levels, especially emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I do know that social justice – in all of its forms – is at the top of my list. Suffice it to say, I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that every American, at some point in their life, either virtually or physically, should learn about these Slave Castles and make their own sojourn to see them. The reason why (in my opinion) is that each person experiences their visit to the Castles in such an individual way, depending on their background and history. Since every American was affected by 100s of years of slavery, either directly or indirectly, these Castles – and their role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Route - should be spoken about much more in high schools. I know sooooooooo much is lacking in U.S. history courses, but hopefully things are changing. I regret that I did not learn more about the Slave Castles earlier on in life, other than hearing about them briefly in school and from friends who had been there. None of them could really talk about it, and I can now understand why. I believe that America’s future could be brighter if every American took it upon themselves to learn more about our collective history, with the Castles acting as a catalyst or symbol of a devastating and painful past. It was hard for me to hear when I heard later from some SAS’ers that they had felt nothing by being there, but I am not going to judge. Sometimes it takes a while to grasp the profundity of a situation – some people have to take a step back in order to reflect upon things. That’s the beauty of being human – no two people experience something in the same way.

Regarding the Cape Coast Castle, GNG was honored and fortunate enough to broadcast a live videoconference from the Cape Coast Slave Castle with a brilliant museum educator named Kwesi. He had given the Obama family their own personal tour of the Castle when they came in July. I asked him how it was to meet President Obama, and I really liked his response. He said that he had read “Dreams from My Father,” to learn about Obama as a man, and not just as a President. Therefore, they had a lot of heart to heart conversations because Kwesi interacted with him at a much more personal level. What an insightful man. Let me tell you, this videoconference with Kwesi, a school in New Jersey and a school in Canada, was in the top 10 of all videoconferences ever hosted by GNG. Kwesi is an erudite scholar who has been giving tours of the Cape Coast Castle for 10 years, and has even written a book about it. So, you can imagine that his responses to the students’ questions just blew us all away. We had a clear shot of the castle via the satellite, which made it all the more real for the students. Their questions to Kwesi were right on point as well. We could have gone on for hours, but the satellite cut off after only about a half hour, much to our chagrin. We’ll post a link to the conference soon on GNG’s videoconference archives so that you can view it. The Director of the Castle told us that he was inspired to see how they might get a virtual museum education program off the ground in the future, as a result of watching the students interact with Kwesi. It really was a surreal experience to spend the day at the Castle and with Kwesi. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same, but I can’t tell you how I might change, because I am waiting for my soul to catch up to my heart and mind in order to fully process the experience.

Here is a link to the Castle Museum:

Phew - not sure if I should write anything more. I do wish I could have stayed in Ghana longer! I think I will end here with my writing and just leave all of us to ponder the following plaque that I saw at the Cape Coast Castle - which is found at the top of the blog.

We arrive in Cape Town on Saturday, October 3rd.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sailing the Seven Seas – Week 4 – Casablanca to Accra

Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

GNG with FatiShow and Reda

Videoconference at the American Embassy in Rabat

Videoconference between U.S. and Moroccan Youth

Ramadan "Breakfast" (Moroccan food rocks!)

Reflections of GNG Videoconferences in Rabat and Casablanca

“Therefore search and see if there is not some place where you may invest your humanity.”
- Albert Schweitzer


I have an addendum to add to my last blog post. My father, Gil, was kind enough to send me a photo of my great-grandfather, Jesus Muro (above), which shows our indigenous, Mexican roots. I love this photo. Thanks, Dad! Now, onto the next country - Morocco (I am surely going to have Semester at Sea (SAS) withdrawal after all is said and done – I got “bitten” very badly by the SAS bug):

Bonjour, Salaama and Hello!

It’s amazing that most Moroccans can navigate their way through three very different languages. Most Americans are proud if they can butcher a second language in foreign countries. Case in point: I studied French for a year when I was a student at McGill University in Montreal (circa when the earth was cooling), and somehow I could get by. I certainly provided amusement for Moroccans when I tried to recall said French language instruction.

I could write pages about this amazing visit to Morocco (it was a proverbial feast for the mind, body and soul), and I find that my blog posts get longer with each layer of experiences during this sea adventure. I know this blog is a bit self serving, but I will try my best to talk about my work more than my feelings and reactions to it. Sometimes it’s very difficult to separate myself from my work at GNG, though, because I am so passionate about what this little NGO that could tries to do. I was supposed to learn this skill of being a reflexive researcher in graduate school, but I obviously I have a long way to go.

Before I begin reflecting about GNG’s work with Moroccan youth (it was our first time to broadcast from this country), I am beginning to realize that there are a shipload of cultural misconceptions that run rampant amongst the faculty, staff and students, the majority of whom are North American. For example, I was eating breakfast the day we arrived at the Casablanca port. A family was sitting at the next table, and a mother was describing to her young boys about what to expect in Morocco. She told them that everyone would want to steal their things, so they should hold on tight to their backpacks and not smile or talk to Moroccans. Then she went on to say that Moroccan men treat their women very badly, that husbands do not let their wives leave the house, work, or go to university, etc. The real clincher was when she told her boys that she is very grateful that they live in the U.S., because if they were in Morocco, her husband (their Dad, who was at the table) would not let her do anything. I was starting to fume, but was not sure how to handle the situation (they were having a private family conversation, and it would appear as if I was eavesdropping, which I was). I am definitely going to talk to the mother at some point, to find out how the trip went for them. I definitely would have said something if I was actually dining with them.

Another cultural faux pas that I noticed was the ubiquitous use of the “F” word amongst the SAS students and some staff. It has become a part of American vernacular that I don’t even think students realize that they are using it for every part of speech – this f’in food (adjective); I’m f’ed (verb), etc. According to our Moroccan friends, the “F” word is much more vile when translated into Arabic, and is never used in public. It’s probably just as bad in English, but many of us have become so de-sensitized to the use of it. Anyway, I was in the souk (market) with some SAS students, and one of them was using the “F” word all over the place, as some passerby’s walked past with stunned looks on their faces. Not sure how to tackle this one.

GNG’s first stop in Morocco was the city of Rabat, the government capital. Moroccans compare Rabat to Washington, DC, and Casablanca to New York City. Rabat feels like a small city with wide, palm tree laced streets, but it is smaller than Casablanca and a lot more laid back. GNG was very well taken care of by a local NGO called MEARN (Moroccan Educational Resource Network). They set up everything for us with the American Embassy, who had a videoconferencing unit. We broadcast our first videoconference in Morocco at the American Embassy on Friday, September 11th. We all observed a moment of silence at 8:46am (U.S.), and it was surreal to be in a U.S. embassy at the time. Since a few of the youth spoke about the Casablanca bombings on May 16th, 2003, it provided a unique circumstance for U.S. and Moroccan students to discuss terrorism, etc. The U.S. and Moroccan students kept remarking that they were really young when September 11th happened, so they felt a bit removed from it all. However, Moroccan students do worry about another terrorist attack happening in their country.

Therefore, the majority of the virtual dialogue was spent on getting to know each other. Students discussed their own cultures, as well as issues of globalization via emigration and immigration. More importantly, Moroccans view themselves as moderate Muslims who only want peace (salaam). They also feel a special affinity with the U.S. I learned that U.S. – Moroccan relations go way back. In fact, Morocco was one of the first countries to view the U.S. as an independent nation. It is also interesting to point out that Moroccans are very proud of their country and their king, Mohammed VI (who they see is more of a reformist), and don’t really see themselves as African. Instead, they referred to Africans as Sub Saharan, and they just refer to themselves as Moroccan. I guess it’s the same for U.S. citizens – I certainly don’t say that I am North American, nor would a Canadian, unless I was explaining the geography of North America. Furthermore, since Moroccan students are currently observing Ramadan and are fasting, GNG tried to keep a symbolic fast, since we did not want to eat in front of everyone. It was a bit of a challenge in the heat, but I believe that you can acclimate to just about anything if you do it long enough (maybe I’ll get used to seasickness after all). If you would like to watch one of the videoconferences, please click here:

Speaking of eating!! Moroccan food is so tasty, but very rich. One of the great Moroccan youth, Rabha, took us to a local restaurant at 6:45pm for “breakfast” – literary breaking the fast. It was so delicious. There is a ritual during Ramadan where everyone breaks their fast with a date in their right hand and a kiss up to Allah. Then everyone eats a hardboiled egg with salt and cumin and various types of local breads and cookies with a chickpea and pasta soup. One of my favorite breads is dilwe. It’s a bit like a fluffy chapatti or paratha. We saw them being made in the local market called a souk. We also drank the most amazing Moroccan mint tea. I am still craving it. Rabha roomed with me for an evening, and she proceeded to have “dinner” at 11pm, and then another light meal at 4am – just before the Call to Prayer. Since fasting is part of the Baha’i religion, I could relate to Rahba’s experience on a very personal level. However, Baha’is eat before sunrise and after sundown. Speaking of Rabha, she worked with GNG as a local youth news correspondent, and helped to interview some immigrants from Nigeria who are trying to make their way into Europe. One of the foci of this Currents program is to trace the path of immigration from most of the ports of call, with local youth acting as roving reporters.

The second night we were in Rabat, a wonderful Moroccan family invited us over to their home for another breakfast. We were so touched by the kind invitation. When we arrived at their apartment, all of the women were cooking up a storm. I asked to help, but they shooed me away. The meal was similar to the one we shared the night before, except that there were more sweets and breads. I was in gastronomic nirvana, eating my way into oblivion, when a Moroccan gentleman turned to me and said that I was surely on my way to becoming fat (as I was stuffing a cinnamon, almond cookie in my mouth). I know he meant it in jest, but after nearly fasting all day, I was ravenous. And, anyone who knows me knows that I have a major sweet tooth, just like my father’s. The table was filled with so many honey-dripped sweets. I get giddy just thinking about the Moroccan food. Moderation in all things, though!

What can one say about Casablanca? I definitely had a romantic view of it from watching the old classic with Bogart. Casablanca has a different vibe than Rabat – much larger and more cosmopolitan. We passed KFC and McDonald’s as well. Not sure that means anything, but we did not see these bits of Americana in Rabat. Since it was Ramadan, people were out very late, even children. We also saw a plethora of cafes, which made me think of Paris. I guess that’s what happens after 50 years of French influence. The Moroccan pastries are delish – there I go again, talking about food! It’s good we left Morocco when we did, or my waistline would have had the last laugh. GNG also found its way into a local “Shisha” (fruit tobacco smoked through a pipe) bar, and enjoyed hanging out with local Moroccan youth. It was nice to see some large groups of both men and women. The tobacco almost smelled like licorice (anise) and left a wonderful odor on my clothes after we left.

The night before our last videoconference from Casablanca, we met with a young, female, Moroccan Hip Hop artist named FatiShow, and her boyfriend Reda. She was featured in the documentary called “I Love Hip Hop in Morocco” ( She is a true trailblazer, since she was the first known female rapper in all of Morocco in 2005 at the age of 17. A few other girls have come onto the music scene since then, after being inspired by Fati. She is a very special person, and an old soul at 21. She is working on getting a record deal. Her dream is to perform with Carlos Santana at the World Music Awards one day – let’s hope she gets there! We heard her do some free styling rap in English, and she rocked! GNG hung out with her and Reda at a local café, and had more of that amazing mint tea. Afterwards, Jon and I invited them to go to Rick’s Café, a tourist hot spot modeled after the café in Casablanca. It was very nice inside, and we were happy to treat Fati and Reda to a soda, since they had never ventured inside. We ran into a number of SAS students who wanted to take a photo with Fati, since we all had watched the documentary on the ship.

GNG broadcast our second videoconference from the back of the ship, with Fati as the guest speaker. Some of the SAS students joined us as well. We opened the videoconference by focusing on a shot of the famous Hassan II mosque – the largest in Africa, and the third largest in the world. (I went to see it just before we set sail again, and it was a breathtaking sight near the water – 1,000s of Moroccans attend, especially during Ramadan.) Then, students from two different high schools in the U.S. (New Jersey and Virginia) asked Fati questions, and she followed suit by asking some of her own. She relayed to us that she really loved the experience. It would be so cool if we could hear her perform in the U.S. one day! There are actually some really good Moroccan Hip Hop artists that you should check out, including Fnaire and H-Kayne. I bought both of their cds, and am really enjoying the music. Some of it is Arabic/Hip Hop fusion. Fati and Reda are so kind. I casually mentioned to them both that I love the Police, and the next day, they brought me an original Police album! I was floored. Too bad I don’t have a record player, but I will cherish this gift.

The long and short of it is, I HEART MOROCCO! I can’t wait to return one day, but I should learn some more French (and learn to pace myself with the food). It would be great to study Arabic as well, even though Moroccans don’t speak classic Arabic; rather their dialect is Darija.

Now we are sailing around the western tip of Africa for a week until we reach Accra, Ghana. One highlight of this leg of the journey, though, is that I saw a group of dolphins swimming next to the ship! It made my day. GNG is so excited that some of the students and staff will be joining us on the ground at a local university in Accra where we will broadcast the videoconferences between Ghanaian and American youth. We are also going to broadcast live from the Cape Coast Slave Castle – the most egregious injustice of man against man.

President Obama’s words about his visit there really struck me:
"And I think, as Americans, and as African Americans, obviously there's a special sense that on the one hand this place [Cape Coast Slave Castle] was a place of profound sadness; on the other hand, it is here where the journey of much of the African American experience began. And symbolically, to be able to come back with my family, with Michelle and our children, and see the portal through which the Diaspora began, but also to be able to come back here in celebration with the people of Ghana of the extraordinary progress that we've made because of the courage of so many, black and white, to abolish slavery and ultimately win civil rights for all people, I think is a source of hope. It reminds us that as bad as history can be, it's also possible to overcome" (Time, 2009).

P.S: I am in the faculty/staff lounge during Happy Hour, and elevator music is playing – I really am on the Love Boat! Can’t wait to run into Vicky, the Cruise Director, for a game of shuffleboard off the Lido deck. Whatever floats your boat – no pun intended.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sailing the Seven Seas - Week 3 - Cadiz to Casablanca

The Global Nomads - Kim, Joanna and Jonathan

Apes in Gibraltar

Me at the Rock of Gibraltar - Meeting of the Atlantic and
Mediterranean, Africa and Europe

Cadiz, the Coastal Town

Carmen, My Flamenco Teacher

Cadiz, Gibraltar and Sevilla – In Awe of Andalucia

“There is much time for study and for meditation at sea…A person capable of useful application may employ their time to as great advantage as on shore. The objects which excite attention are concentrated without the bounds of the vessel; the rest of mankind for the time seems to be inhabitants of another planet. The prosperity of the voyage consists in the paucity of incident, and the less there is to be told the more there is to be enjoyed. This life is not tedious to those who can make for themselves occupation. But its uncertainties, its perpetual changes, its anxieties, and its concentration of interest upon the fluctuations of wind and wave constitute its principal hardships." - John Quincy Adams

Right now, I am staring out at the Rock of Gibraltar – we are berthed (docked in “Seaese”) while we re-fuel and set sail for Casablanca. I can also see the tip of Africa from my bedroom window. Amazing! This is the only place in the world – the Straits of Gibraltar - where you can see two continents and two bodies of water at the same time – Africa and Europe, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

This is the note that we received from the Dean’s office in our interoffice e-mail today:

“We are currently berthed 0.7 nautical miles from Gibraltar, and expect rough seas off Morocco tonight. Please secure your belongings.”

Well, for those of you who know how I handle motion sickness, I am a little concerned. Batten down the hatches, we’re in for a rough ride tonight! Oh, well. It builds character to become accustomed to hardships (from wherever they come), to echo the words of my mother.

Spain evoked a panoply of emotions for me, especially with my Latina ancestry, which inevitably traces back to Spain. I really wanted to go visit the town of “Muros” in the North – one day. I must admit, I fell in love with this multi-cultural mix of Christian, Jewish and Moorish architecture, food, sights and sounds in Cadiz and Sevilla. Gibraltar is another story altogether – more on that in a moment. Everyone I met thought I was Spanish, and I am happy that I did pretty well getting around in Spanish, although my vocabulary is not what it once was when I lived in Costa Rica many years ago. I often wonder who the first Muros were in Andalucia, and why they headed to Mexico. Were they artisans? Adventurers? I also get a twinge of sadness, thinking about the part of me that has indigenous ancestry from Mexico, since Latinos are all truly “mestizos” (Spanish/Indigenous Mix). Were those ancient ancestors conquered? How? My great-grandmother was mostly Indian – Mayan, we think. My uncle Steve lived with her when he was young. I remember hearing that she was a very sweet woman who made a mean tortilla – just like my grandmother. Nothing like piping hot, fresh flour tortillas with a little butter and salt. Speaking of food, I ate well in Spain! Jamon serrano (cured ham) and cheese on fresh bread with olive oil – que rico (how yummy)! I also had fresh fish, and a local Cadiz specialty called tortillera de camarones (shrimp tortilla). It was tasty, but the little shrimps’ black eyes kept staring at me through the fried concoction.

The city of Cadiz is a delightful Southwestern, European coastal town with a rich history. The town planner also planned out Havana, Cuba, so the seawall is similar in both countries. Since we were unable to meet with Spanish high schools (due to the Spanish holiday period), we filmed one of our educational webmentaries about the beautiful Spanish folkloric dance called Flamenco. In fact, GNG filmed me taking my first dance lesson from a great teacher named Carmen. She taught me entirely in Spanish! Later that evening we saw the real thing with a local dance troupe at an old, 17th century theatre. The dancers were accompanied by a live singer and Flamenco guitarist. It was a pleasure for the senses. The male dancer practically brought me to tears with his intensity and passion for Flamenco.

The next stop in my Spanish travels was a day trip to Gibraltar. What can one say about this fascinating, unique place – not quite British, not quite Spanish – not quite sure what to make of it! The rock juts out of the ocean like a science fiction film with hoards of apes roaming freely (one almost made off with our tripod bag). Spain and the U.K. are still in talks about who should ultimately own this 3K stretch of land – the British first took hold of it in the 1700s. The 30,000 Gibraltarians (a mixture of British, Moroccan, Portuguese and Spanish) are very proud of their blended heritage and want the right to self-determination. I took the cable car to the top of the rock, and I stood there, staring out into the ocean for a while. The Straits of Gibraltar have seen countless souls wend their way between continents, in search of economic opportunities. I met one such young man in Cadiz, who was originally from Senegal. He told me that he was “trying to make his life” in broken Spanish.

I rounded out my time in Spain with a visit to the beautiful city of Seville (Sevilla). It is one of the oldest Western cities, dating back to over 2,500 years. Some friends from SAS gave me a free double-decker bus tour, so I really enjoyed hearing about the history of the city. It was a good break from the 107 degree heat. We passed by an art museum where Christopher Columbus stayed – it always makes me realize what a young country the U.S. is when I am traveling outside of North America.

Tomorrow we will arrive in Casablanca, and hit the ground running. We will travel to Rabat to coordinate our first videoconference at the American Embassy with Moroccan high school students and two U.S. high schools to discuss issues of cultural exchange and globalization. We will also be speaking with a young, female Moroccan Hip Hop artist named Fati Show on Monday. I have to go and prepare – and make certain that no items will fall in my room this evening – including myself!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sailing the Seven Seas – Week 2 – En Route to Cadiz

Dinner with delightful Captain Jeremy and his wife Apple

Isn't the Atlantic Ocean amazing?

"Study Hall" - Ocean Style

View from a Port Hole

Faculty/Staff "Office" - Good Times.

Life on a Ship

“The Love Boat, soon we’ll be making another run…” Let’s see who remembers that theme song! I used to love watching this cheesy show from the 80’s, but I know I am really dating myself with the reference. My friend and colleague Joanna has never seen it (she is a child of the 90's), so I guess I am going solo on this one.

Ship culture is very interesting, to say the least. For example, let’s take the faculty/staff lounge, which is where I am blogging from at the moment. It used to be the ship’s nightclub, so it is pretty funny to see the SAS faculty and staff working diligently from barstools as they prepare for their classes. I keep expecting someone to get up and get jiggy with it to a tired rendition of “Celebrate Good Times.” I am sure that day will come. At any rate, you can’t beat the view of the Atlantic Ocean – the lounge looks right out onto the front of the ship, with the deep, blue sea surrounding us…

I’ve had an interesting week aboard the MV Explorer. Classes for the students began on a Sunday – ship time is all relative. Our intrepid GNG team of three has visited numerous classes to give presentations about our work in the ports of call. Some students have expressed interest in joining us in the field, which will be great. What do I mean by the “field?” I mean the videoconferences we will be broadcasting from various cities – SAS Ports of Call. For example, we will be traveling from Casablanca to Rabat to meet with Moroccan secondary school students at the American Embassy, thanks to our partner, iEARN Morocco. [Oh – just noticed that “Casablanca” is playing on the T.V. – I swear I did NOT plan this aside.] After that, we will be speaking with students in Accra and Cape Coast, Ghana. It will be quite profound to conduct a videoconference from the slave castles, especially since I am nearing the end of my sojourn across the Atlantic Ocean in another direction, and for very different reasons. On a personal note, I found out that there is a town called “Muros in the north of Spain – wish I had time to go and visit it.

Keeping active on the ship requires some creativity. Right now, in fact, I am watching one of the resident assistants “jog” around the small deck in front of the boat. It is only 100s of feet from side to side. I wonder how many times he has to run back and forth to reach a mile? The gym is packed all day and all night long, since 700 people have to share a handful of machines. However, I have managed to get there, but you won’t catch me on the treadmill – my balance is just not that great.

One highlight of my week at sea was having dinner with the delightful Captain Jeremy, his wife Apple, and some of the senior staff. I sat next to Anatoly, the MV Explorer’s Chief Engineer. He is from Odessa. I asked if he had ever seen the film the “Odessa Files” with John Voight. He looked at me oddly (he obviously had not seen it. I am surprised that no one had ever asked him that question before.). He was quite charming and interesting, though. I found out that the ship’s crew is from 27 different countries. The Captain is from the U.K. – he claims he’s the only one without an accent. The joke was funny the first time, but he has said it countless times now. However, he is the master of his domain, so I guess he can say whatever he well fancies.

Tonight I saw the full moon over the Ocean, and it gave me pause. This is the last night of the Atlantic crossing – incredible. Tomorrow we are off to explore Cadiz and make some educational videos for our YouTube channel. In fact, we have already posted a few, one of which is quite relevant for this blog post:

It will be great to step onto dry land manana! Buenas noches!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sailing the Seven Seas – Week 1 – Sailing from Halifax to Cadiz

Students watching the ship depart from Halifax

Excited but anxious about crossing the Atlantic

MV Explorer - SAS Ship

View of Halifax from the seaport

Official schedule on the ship

Jon and Joanna in action in Halifax

View of downtown Halifax

Public Garden in Halifax
Ship's Ahoy! I am not fluent in "Shipese," but I think my room faces the port side.
Time is flying, despite the fact that we are chugging along to Cadiz, Spain. We left Halifax on Friday. I really enjoyed spending some time in this quaint Canadian city. Joanna and I made our way to a beautiful public garden, and ate some Canadian delicacies – beavertail (fried dough with toppings) and poutine (French fries covered with gravy and cheese curds). We split everything, so I did not feel as guilty about partaking. The photos above are of Halifax and the official start of the 100th voyage.

It’s hard to believe that the first week of this adventure is nearly over, and that I am sailing across the Atlantic, along with approximately 900 other crew, faculty, staff and students of all ages and cultures! Talk about a unique experience with an experimental community. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would embark on such a journey. It is a journey of self discovery in many ways, especially while staring out at the vastness of the ocean. It’s quite humbling.

We have been involved with the students’ orientation for the past few days, as well as plotting out our game plan for our upcoming videoconferences. Our first live broadcast will take place on Tuesday, September 8th – location TBA. There are some Spanish professors and students on the ship that we hope to work with at a local school in either Cadiz or Seville. Since the theme of the voyage is globalization, all of the courses involve global education, so I am right at home here.

We will be on the ship for a whole week until we reach Spain, so I am adjusting to life at sea with this motley crew of cool people! I ran into both people and walls when trying to walk down the hall today, but it’s all good. It certainly helps in striking up a conversation.

Today we sat in on a documentary film class where we will be guest lecturers. I feel like a poser when I was referred to as an accomplished filmmaker, but I can talk about the GNG programs, at least!

Other than feeling dizzy and missing family, life as a seafarer is nice. The shipboard community is quite active, and faculty and staff hang out every night in the lounge, (a former night club with cheesy strobe lights and all) so I am getting to know people little by little.

Signing off for now - gotta go outside to look at the horizon to help steady myself.

Would love to hear from you, though. My Semester at Sea e-mail address is Since bandwidth is quite limited and very slow at sea, this is the best way to reach me. I promise to write back!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sailing the Seven Seas - Week 1 - Halifax Ho!

Photos of the MV Explorer and our 12 bags!!

GNG Team

Getting My Sealegs...

Greetings from the MV Explorer, the official Semester at Sea (SAS) ship! Global Nomads Group (GNG), where I work, has partnered with SAS during its 100th voyage as an educational outreach partner. I am so excited to be part of this historic voyage!

I just finished Day 3 on board the ship, and am having a fantastic time so far - except for the seasickness and missing my hubby and puppy. I am trying to focus on the ol' mind over matter technique, but it's not really working - oh, well. At least we reach Halifax tomorrow. I've been told by my awesome colleagues, Joanna and Jon, that I will get used to it and will even miss the rocking when I disembark the ship for good. Speaking of Joanna and Jon, it's great to be working with them on so many levels, especially since they both did previous SAS voyages.

My room has some sweet amenities, like a fridge in the cabin, a TV that shows movies, a desk, a bathroom and window, so that I can look at the ocean. The ship itself is outfitted really well with a gym, full service salon, three large buffet meals, etc. - sounds like I am roughing it, eh? I am happy to report that I actually went to the gym today - it's a funky feeling to be swaying to and fro while trying to work out.

My days have been filled with faculty/staff orientation meetings, and I could not have asked for a nicer group of people to spend a few months with - score! We also made a short webumentary about getting used to life on a ship which we will put on our YouTube channel soon.

For those of you who do not have a clue as to what I am doing aboard the SAS ship, I thought I would briefly share that GNG is going to be broadcasting live videoconferences with secondary schools in each of the countries where SAS sails, along with schools in North America. The videoconferences are based on the manifold issues surrounding globalization and the flat world - the theme of the voyage. We will also be documenting a service learning project called the $100 Solution. We are thrilled that the faculty wants to work with us by attending our videoconferences, etc.

Since this is my first attempt ever at blogging, hope you enjoyed my ramblings...Joanna is a pro at blogging, so I have followed her lead. Hope you like the photos!

Hasta Halifax! It will be my first time in the Atlantic time zone.