the floating librarian

the floating librarian

Thursday, November 27, 2014

On heading home and Things

Things I haven't done in 3 months

  • Cooked
  • Washed dishes
  • Cleaned, vacuumed, scrubbed
  • Made my bed
  • Washed laundry
  • Driven a car
  • Mowed the lawn
  • Kept an electronic calendar
  • Watched TV
  • Attended library meetings

Things I haven't missed in 3 months

  • All of the above

Things I will miss after Semester at Sea

  • Waking up in a new place every day
  • The ocean. Every day.
  • Colleagues working quietly in Glazer Lounge
  • Colleagues dancing riotously in Glazer Lounge
  • The happy sounds of college students in the halls (until 11 pm)

Things I look forward to at home

  • Waking up in my own bed every day
  • Walking in the woods
  • Alone time
  • Hugging my own son and daughter
  • My cat padding down the hall


Although I didn't write full posts about Rome and Brazil, I used some Rome photos to accompany other musings, and summed up a few thoughts about Brazil. While I have internet on this early morning before arrival in Cuba, I am uploading all the photos I can. We may be incommunicado from Nov. 29 through Dec. 3 due to Cuba's lack of infrastructure. (Well, it is now the next day, and the photos didn't upload so fast, so here's my post on Barbados instead.)

In Barbados FOMO (fear of missing out) got me again, but briefly. We arrived on the 2nd full day of rain, an unusual but much needed event for the island. As we gathered under the port terminal's tin roof amplifying the sound of a downpour, we were told that our trip to the botanical gardens was canceled. Even if our bus could get through flooded roads, we would not be able to walk the muddy and washed-out paths of the gardens. So I spent the afternoon with several friends, walking around Bridgeport in somewhat lighter rain.

The next day I had an afternoon trip to Harrison's Cave scheduled, so didn't get in on people's morning plans. It turns out a group hired a van and driver to take them for a day tour of the island, including the gardens we'd missed and scenic Atlantic-side beaches. That was one trip I really regretted not getting in on, in spite of my self-reassurances that you can never do it all. 

But after the cave, I went for a brief swim at the nearest beach, and caught perhaps my best photo of the voyage while ambling back to the ship with friends. I also got in some very relaxing beach time at the more touristy beach on our final day in port. Yes I did go to the tourist beach, where the fine white sand and  clear aquamarine water are nirvana akin to Hawaii. The disconnect is that it's named Accra, for the point of departure in Ghana of many slaves bound for Barbados. Given the educational theme of our Atlantic voyage, that was in my mind, but I'm told it's also named for a present-day connection to a vibrant city in Africa.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Preport reflection

Tomorrow we arrive in Salvador, Brazil and commence the frenetic rush to do and see as much as we can in port! I have learned to prioritize and pace myself, somewhat. Today is a nice, rare rainy day in transit with about one third of the passengers on board. The rest are traveling overland between Rio and Salvador, many via an Amazon adventure. 

So quiet! On the ship we usually have preport lectures to prepare ourselves, and postport reflections. Today is the right atmosphere for a preport reflection.

Suddenly, it seems, we have less than a month left, and people are starting to envision for the first time during the voyage what life back home will be like after SAS. I am dreading how boring work will be in comparison, but also looking forward to the comforts of home, and dancing and singing with my friends again. And now I have two more singing friends to get together with while in Charlottesville--Michelle Kisliuk and Allison Pugh.


I hate to approach a new place with trepidation, but the diplomats and the local student ambassadors tell us that Salvador, Brazil is more dangerous than Rio. They have all been robbed. In Rio I spent only a little time in the city, and never felt scared, but the surroundings were sketchy enough for me to be wary. Two of our crew members were robbed at gunpoint one evening. I took the safe daytime experience in Ipanema and the biggest risk I took was getting a hamburger whose meat was "freshly diced at knifepoint." This is not to make light of our crew's experience. It is a sad situation when the expectation of violence is routine.

Brazil is in the middle of preparing to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, on the heels of their incomplete preparations for the World Cup earlier this year. Even the ambassadors and tour guides who put a positive spin on it have an underlying uncertainty. Some say the bay water in Rio will not be clean enough for the water sports no matter what they do, and some countries who have inspected it will not participate in those sports. Brazil promised that the Olympic athletes' village would become low-income housing but reneged, saying now that they will sell the apartments as luxury condos. You can understand why many citizens are angry at the government for spending all this money on infrastructure that will not benefit them or make a dent in the poverty of favelas dominated by drug lords and/or police.

Four days after starting this post (four days with absolutely no internet, a curiously nice respite) I am back on the ship having visited Salvador. I actually liked it better than Rio, and found the Bahia culture very interesting. I hear there were some incidences of theft from our passengers, but I am either lucky or don't present as a target. Stay tuned for stories of candomble, bale folklorico, fish stew, and more, with a more positive attitude than I began with :-)

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Rooftop view from Casa Battlo
Port landmark
Although I'd been to Barcelona before, it was not a deep disappointment to go again when it was added to our itinerary. There is something about the Catalunyan independent spirit, and the beauty and whimsy of this city that speaks to me. It is a city where anything goes if it's fun and harmless, and bullfighting is outlawed. The Catalan language is a mix of mysterious and familiar, similar enough to Spanish and French for me to decipher some words and let others softly roll on by my ears.

Everywhere you turn, you spot a building where you can recognize Antoni Gaudi touches. According to our guide, the Catholic church is going to canonize Gaudi, who became a mystic in his later years. I realize that I have been adoring his architecture for its creativity and fantasy, but he had a serious religious purpose as well. The natural elements of his buildings were 'prayers to the architect of nature' e.g. God. Gaudi intended Sagrada Familia to be an expiatory chapel, where people atoned for their sins and gave offerings to support it. His vision was that there would be positive energy in each stone paid for in this way. It is sad that now the ongoing construction is supported by Asian companies (according to our guide) and tourists.

 I want to live in this sea-like house.
Sagrada Familia and ubiquitous crane

In contrast to Gaudi, the port is dominated by a landmark statue of 'Colon' aka Christopher Columbus, who returned to Barcelona after his first voyage to America. The base of the statue is full of other figures looking heroic. We also toured a 14th century cathedral with later layers of architectural styles, including neogothic. (I can see where Duke got its influences in a lot of the cities we've visited.) Another contrast is an obviously phallic monument by Miro that is called 'Woman and Bird.' Our guide shrugged with a wry smile.

Other experiences in Barcelona, the bullet point version:
  • A gorgeous hike in Montserrat, after being disgusted by the ugly tourists taking flash selfies with the black Madonna statue during the boys choir service
  • Tapas lessons: chorizo del diablo is not only caliente, it is literally set on fire. And pulpitos are tasty with olive oil, parsley, and lemon, if you don't think about how cute they are.
  • A visit to the gift shop of the Catalunya history museum near the beach, where the sales woman helped me to identify local music and gave me a free CD of the most important Catalunyan musicians
Mont Serrat

The Saldana, national Catalunyan dance

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Portugal and Cadiz, Spain

Written October 27, 2014

As promised, I'm backtracking to share my experiences in Portugal and Spain. Rome will be next, as I reminisce while crossing the Atlantic to Brazil. Today probably marks the last time we will see land for 10 days. We are stopped off the coast of Gran Canaria island for refuelling, a very important task!

We did not have much time in Lisbon, unless one chose to dash madly across Portugal and Spain while the ship sailed between Lisbon and Cadiz. I chose the more relaxing route, spending the night in the lovely beach town of Cascais and returning to the ship for the trip to Spain. It was a nice respite and my birthday gift to myself. Also, it was a sweet connection with my daughter Sally, who discovered the PerfectSpotLisbon hostel/ bed & breakfast last year. I really enjoyed talking with Rita and Jon, the owners, who remember Sally well and fondly. As a bonus, I found strong enough WiFi and a good time slot to talk with Sally too.
Perfect Spot in Cascais

The sidewalks in Cascais were not conducive to gaining land legs.

Boca Del Diablo, Cascais
Cadiz (accent on the first syllable) is another lovely coastal city, but with beautiful historical architecture and a little more bustle than Cascais. I walked along the coast through parks filled with tropical plants and parrots (and one children's park with a dinosaur pond and waterfall). Some of us climbed the tower to see the whole city, whose all-white buildings gleam in the sun like sand castles. There was also a camera oscura where the guide played with the pedestrians we could see, and showed us our own dear barco in the harbor. As I posted to Facebook at the time:
"Dear Duke: I'm afraid I may miss the ship leaving from Cadiz, Spain. Don't worry about me, though. Just send my retirement funds and I can buy a condo for 85,000 euros."

From Cadiz we went to Casablanca, Morocco (see my post about 20,000 camels) then to the port nearest Rome (post TBA) before heading to our second port substituted for West Africa -- Barcelona -- which deserves its own post, coming up next.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


We have now passed the midpoint of our voyage, and the emotional doldrums we were warned about may be setting in. Passengers are homesick, exhausted after excursions into port, irritated with others' quirks, impatient with the inconveniences of travel, tired of being tourists in foreign lands, and weary of being in the contained environment of a ship. Think of it as Hump Day to the nth order of magnitude.

Apparently this is nothing new in history, as evidenced by the art I've been seeing in my travels.
detail, exterior of Orvieto cathedral

pigeon holes, Orvieto

random reaction in Rome
Rome metro

Yet this is a good community of people, mostly finding the positive in experiences and proactively seeking solutions. We are wary of the upcoming long Atlantic crossing, and planning diversions from academics and sea sickness. I’m looking forward to Neptune Day, Sea Olympics, an ice cream party for our library student assistants, perhaps some open mics and singing.

on the wall of a great hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Rome
Ostia Antica teatro

riding the dolphin, Ostia Antica

Lifeboat Exercise

Today I spent an in-port day on the ship, and saw a curious sight. These strange-looking little orange boats were circling around the MV Explorer. They were our lifeboats, being taken out for a test drive!

I didn't realize how much manual labor is involved in lifting them back on the ship. There are motorized hoists of course but the crew must sidle up to the hooks, grab them, secure and tighten them—both the orange hooks for the hoists and the other hooks that presumably hold the boats in place once they’re up.

My assigned lifeboat had a little trouble maneuvering alongside the hooks, but she made it back safely. I also got to watch #5 rise up next to my cabin window. I could see inside and straight through to the port of Civitavecchia. This is the view of the top of the lifeboat as she rose.

A crew member told me they were practicing for a drill to be held in Barcelona.

Monday, October 13, 2014

20,000 Camel Bride

I'm behind on posting, but I'm going to skip Portugal and Cadiz, Spain for now to give you the more interesting stories from Morocco.

Morocco is definitely a land of contrasts for an American who has never been to Africa or Asia. In Casablanca I went with a group of friends to see the mosque built by King Hassan II for his 60th birthday. It is spectacular, shining in the sun on the rocky coast. It holds 25,000 worshippers inside, with an outdoor plaza to accomodate 80,000 total. It is constructed with mostly Moroccan materials, plus a little marble and titanium for good measure.
Hassan II mosque

Later in the day we walked past the mosque along the coast, trying to get to the lighthouse. Almost literally within the shadow of the opulent mosque, we happened upon slum dwellings made with clay, wood, and corrugated tin on what would be considered prime beachfront property in the US. On the next street over, or even a couple of blocks up, there are expensive tourist restaurants with all the comforts and an ocean view. But if you look closely, the tide line is marked by plastic trash, and there are fishermen on the rocks until the last moments of sunset. And everywhere there are dust, trash, and unpleasant smells.
In a souk

I also took an overnight trip to Marrakech and the Oureka Valley, where I experienced medinas (ancient town squares) and souks (labyrinthine marketplaces with dark stalls crowded with merchandise); and visited a women's co-op that makes argan oil, and a Berber family that makes their living hosting tourists for mint tea and lunch in their home on a hill. By the way, fellow Durhamites, the currency here is the dirham, so I had no trouble remembering it.
Woman making argan oil

There is too much to report here, but suffice it to say this is a land of sensory overload--sights, smells, heat, dust, sounds of hawkers calling to you and the 5-times-daily call to prayer for the Sunni Muslims that comprise 99% of the population.

Personal space is not at all what we’re used to. The sellers are friendly and joking but aggressive—they will grab your arm and pull you into the stall to seal the deal, or start putting a henna tattoo on you and then tell you how much you owe them for it. They try buzz phrases in many languages to see what makes you turn your head, then try to create a bond by guessing where you’re from.

My favorite was an artist in the Casablanca medina who put his arm around me and offered 20,000 camels to my male companions for their wife, since they apparently had three wives between them. They did not accept the offer, because we can't bring camels on the ship ;-) so I am still single and traveling with Semester at Sea.

Send your camels to bed

Monday, September 29, 2014


I finally made it to Ireland, land of my mother's ancestors (Vaughan and Kurtz or Curts). I didn't make it all the way to the western part of Counties Cork and Clare, but did go south through Cork City to Cobh, and got a feel for the countryside.

I also spent 1 1/2 days wandering Dublin. I saw the Book of Kells behind glass in a very dark room, followed by the Long Hall (special collections) at Trinity College.

Then I visited the 'real' library and chatted with the Duty (Reference) librarian. They close the desk for 1 1/2 hours at lunchtime, and only staff it until 7 pm. No online reference, except that he sometimes answers quick questions via Facebook and twitter. He is kept pretty busy helping students at the desk. The library is much like a US university library in an older building, but unlike Duke they are pretty strict about talking, food and drink, and photos. There is a security guard at each entrance.

On the last day in Dublin I walked a long ways through regular folks' neighborhoods to the Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin's first Catholic cemetery and final resting place of Michael Collins and other rebels. It was filled to the brim with beautiful monuments and headstones, plus a very touching 'Old Angels' green space where the poor and babies were once buried in unmarked graves. It is surrounded now by engraved markers and mementos of babies who died in the 1950s and 1960s.

Cobh ("cove") is a beautiful little seaport on the southern end of Ireland, built into a steep hill. It was the point of departure for many fleeing the potato famine, and the last port the Titanic stopped in. They have a Heritage exhibit that's very good at evoking the sights and sounds of those days. It was also a luxury for me to stay in a hotel room with a great view, free WiFi, and a bathtub! I got to Skype with my son Jake for the first time since leaving the US on August 19.

"Will they know their lost little children?" Tim O'Brien song 
I realize that I spent most of my time talking with locals and tourists from other countries, rather than visiting the sights. I listened to trad jam sessions; had Jameson's whiskey, Smithwicks ale, seafood chowder, brown bread, and fish and chips; met local librarians, a bartender, a family with the last name Faughan (not related to Vaughan), tourists from South Africa and Australia, and an old Irishman taking advantage of the free public transportation for pensioners to ride the train to Dublin for a lecture on Byron. Many times on the tram or streets, I heard people speaking Gaelic which has a nice slushy sound. All the signs are in both Gaelic and English, but I cannot understand how they get 'Smithfield' from something like 'Margedh Faerme.'

On the last day, riding the top of the double decker bus back from the cemetery, I saw hordes of people dressed in the jerseys of either Tipperary or Kilkenny for the All-Ireland hurling championship. A man told me that it's the Super Bowl of Ireland, and we must root for Tipperary, the underdogs. (Later I found that some Vaughans used to live in Tipperary.) Alas, Kilkenny won again.

Every Irish person I met was friendly and tried to be helpful. It was a degree beyond the courtesy shown tourists in the other countries we've visited. But there was also some blatant prejudice voiced in jokes about immigrants and Scots. I guess there's that kind in every country, including the US, who fear and hate those who are different. My ancestors were probably farmers, just regular people, with their faults as well as points of pride.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Being Here Now

Mon Monet: Paris en la pluie

There are so many things to see and do in each port, including leaving that city to explore more interesting ones in the area. From Antwerp, people went to Brussels, Bruges, Amsterdam, The Hague, even Paris. And from our most recent site, LeHavre, there is of course Paris as well as Giverny, Honfleur, the D-Day beaches of Normandy, etc.

I am learning to make peace with my choices and the impossibility of doing it all, or anywhere close to it. It also strikes me that we spend so much time taking pictures to document our presence at a place, that we don't really experience it. The students bent over phones, sending their selfies immediately into cyberspace, are the extreme example of missing out on real life, but aren't we all distracted and not present to some degree? I realized how addicted I was to taking pictures when my camera battery died in the middle of Monet's gardens. Deep breath, and then I could see more colors and details, and feel the atmosphere. And of course I bought a photo book to remember the big picture : )

I've heard an ugly American tourist complaining because no photos were allowed in the Musee de L'Orangerie, where due to just this rule you can sit in blissful peace surrounded by Monet water lily murals. And I've heard of a complaint that the one-minute Hawaiian chant performed only on the first morning in each port spoiled someone's video of the view of the harbor. Don't we (including myself, often guilty) realize that postcard views aren't reality? What about your own, real experience, with all its quirks and frustrations and perceived flaws, and laughing them off? Why not embrace and record that? Isn't that what you want to remember?

So, once again, I will share a random assortment of imperfect photos. I had about 7 hours in Paris, and here is what I did:
  • ·         Ate a 10-euro fast meal of bruschetta, Coke, and tarte de pomme while talking to Australians
  • ·         Filmed some good live music on the street; went back later to buy their CD but they were gone
  • ·         Took the batobus up the Seine to Notre Dame
  • ·         Climbed to the top of Notre Dame to pet the gargoyles, and heard thunder roll; looked around for Iago
  • ·         Got back on the batobus in time to enjoy the thunderstorm on the water
  • ·         Visited the aforementioned Musee de L'Orangerie, just the right size for limited time
  • ·         Strolled the Jardins des Tuileries, pausing for a hot dog with spicy mustard on a baguette, near a pond
  • ·         Bought a pain au chocolat to take back for bedtime snack
  • ·         Found my way from the metro to the train tracks with the help of a Frenchwoman who appeared to be a commuter
  • ·         Spoke French all day and was understood, and mostly understood the replies in French
  • ·         Took the train back to Le Havre with several students and had an interesting conversation about Bosnia with students from there
So that was my Paris experience, and I'm happy with it. I also took a tour of Monet's gardens and house in Giverny, and we stopped in Honfleur on the way back. Did you know that the founder of Quebec came from Honfleur? (bonjour Jean-Pierre!)