In Kyoto, Learning Things

Whew! A little downtime, and who knew Japanese baths could be so relaxing! We landed in Yokohama the day before yesterday, and made it to Kyoto late yesterday evening. We took the Shinkansen (“bullet train”) which made for a very smooth and swift ride.

Last night we stayed in a Buddhist temple, which was a simply fabulous experience. A few others of our SAS family were with us, and we enjoyed a wonderful hot pot meal together I
this tiny family restaurant. The proprietor had a guitar, and so we made am evening of it, singing American folk songs of the 60s until all the food was consumed.

This morning we participated in a meditation session, followed by a tour of the temple. According to Rev. Kawakami, the Vice-Abbot of the shrine, there are three main principles of Zen Buddhism: focus on the now, the middle path, and compassion. His exposition of “focus on the now” sounds a lot like what we in the West would call systems thinking, and bears looking into.

Still Steaming Along

Well, not exactly … we’re burning bunker fuel in an internal combustion engine, vs. the steam engines used on ships in earlier times.  I presume the former is more efficient than the latter, but as both rely on fossil fuels, they throw a fair amount of carbon dioxide into the air.  As one might expect, there’s been some discussion about our ship’s carbon footprint.  At first blush, it looks pretty bad, at least according to this chart, prepared by the GOOD website folks.  However, when you consider that we’re voyaging around the world in a traveling hotel, and add in all of the activities (e.g., driving that we’re NOT doing), the calculations get a bit more complicated.  Then, too, we’re not just traveling by ship.  For example, the flights from our home in Virginia to San Diego ran up a carbon dioxide tab of 833 lbs per person, according to  Many of us have purchased rail passes for Japan, and will be making pretty heavy use of the trains.  As our journey continues, we’ll need to refine our calculations.

Ecosystem Services in Hawaii

The course I’m teaching, “The Business of Saving Nature,” focuses on ecosystem services – the benefits humans receive from nature – and how business activities and concepts might affect them (for better or worse).  As part of this class, I was able to arrange a faculty-directed practicum (FDP) with the Hawaiian chapter of The Nature Conservancy our second day in Hilo.  We assembled very early outside the ship for our ride to meet our guides, Eldridge, Shalen and Laura, who then led us to a parcel of land they were managing in the Ka’u Nature Preserve.  rainforestTheir key activities involved fencing the land to keep out ungulates (hooved animals) whose activities were threatening native species.  Hawaii is home to many endemic species, i.e., plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, and their numbers are threatened by the actions of wild pigs, cattle and goats.  These animals not only consume rare plants directly, but they also disturb the ground with their rooting and snuffling and digging, allowing invasive species to gain a foothold and outcompete native species, which really whacks the highly-specialized and coevolved food webs.  The rain forest we visited was near-pristine at its upper reaches, and our guides were helpful in interpreting the many services it provided to mankind, e.g., water purification, erosion control, food and fiber, medicines, and the like.

After hiking through the rain forest we descended to the shores of Punalu’u black sand beach, where we discovered two green turtles basking in the sun and were treated to an interpretative presentation on the endangered hawksbill turtle.  greenturtle Our presenters were two young women associated with a turtle protection program, who sleep on the beach in shifts throughout the hawksbill breeding season to insure their nests remain undisturbed, and to assist the young turtles in reaching the sea, if needed.  The talk was very informative, but things don’t look very good for the hawksbills – there aren’t very many of them left, and they face pretty tough competition from mankind (development pressures and pelagic fishing practices).

We rounded out our romp through the Big Island’s ecosystem services with a brief visit to Volcanoes National Park to see Kiluea, the world’s most active volcano and home of Pele, the volcano goddess.pele We also walked through the Thurston lava tubes, large tunnels left behind by molten lava as it streamed down the mountain.  In the distance we saw Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest mountain in terms of actual height, if one were to start measuring from the bottom of the sea floor.  The entire area was shrouded in “vog” – volcanic fog composed of large amounts of sulfur dioxide arising from the volcanoes.

Hilo Town

After six (rough) days at sea, land was a welcome relief for us all.  Although our first port wasn’t a very big stretch culturally, for many of us, it was the first time visiting Hawaii, and there were a lot of things to see and do.  hula3Some of us participated in the on-ship faculty-directed practicum (FDP) on hula immediately after docking in Hilo.  It was an extremely engaging and informative presentation facilitated by a professor from the University of Hawaii – Hilo and five of his students.  UH-Hilo is renowned for its Hawaiian and Polynesian studies programs, and the students demonstrated the various hula steps, which came in handy later that day at a luau hosted by UH-Hilo.

candyshopIn between times, the family explored the town of Hilo.  There wasn’t much to it, really, which was a little depressing.  Like so other many cities, Hilo’s downtown area is in decline, with just a few scattered shops catering to the tourist trade.  The movie theaters have been re-purposed, there’s no large department store, and once-proud buildings with plaques announcing the year of their construction lay vacant or house transient commercial enterprises.  The major center of economic activity appears to be the Wal-Mart complex a few miles from downtown, which is home to numerous big-box stores.  It got a lot of business from the shipboard community, thanks to its free shuttle service.

Learning on Semester at Sea

I think there’s a lot of learning going on, though it’s hard to tell.  Certainly the lounges, dining rooms, and sun decks are filled with students reading – much more so than I’ve ever observed at the University of Virginia.  However, I don’t live in as close proximity to students as I do on the ship, so my sample may be totally biased.  I can affirm that students are learning a lot about each other; though the majority are second- or third-year students, it’s like first year all over again, with a new school and new people to meet.  The atmosphere has been friendly and welcoming since we boarded, and smiles are the rule as we pass each other on the decks and gangways.  The one class in which we’re all together is Global Studies, which is being offered in two sections this semester, at 9:30 and 2:00 PM.  I’ve spoken a few times in it, and it’s a challenging venue.  The physical layout is less-than-optimal (it’s held in the old ballroom, with poor lines-of-sight and inconsistent acoustics) making it sometimes hard to focus on the presenters and what they’re trying to say.  The best sessions have been those in which students have had a chance to reflect among themselves, like this one in which they examined the Population Data Sheet for evidence of vodka.  (It shows up in the discrepancy in life expectancy for males and females and Russia).

Initial reports about individual courses also seem to be positive, thus far.  Students in Dan Sprau’s “Water for the World” class were identifying sources of the ship’s water yesterday and were smiling as they completed their groupwork in the late morning sun.  The ship’s potable water comes from the sea – it’s desalinated and treated before being delivered to the community.  Not everyone’s particularly fond of the taste, but it’s safe and healthy, and presumably has a lower economic and environmental impact than carrying supplies of fresh water, as was done on ships in former times.

Binge Blogging

I’ve never been very good at keeping a timely journal, and this electric format doesn’t seem to have helped things very much.  Once I sit down and start writing, it’s not that difficult to draft a few paragraphs, but finding the time to do so has been challenging.  One of my colleagues has characterized this style of communication as “binge blogging” – I think that’s meant as a pejorative, and I envy those who are able to post more frequently!

Time Keeps on Slipping, Slipping, Slipping into the Future

Life moves VERY fast on the ship.  We don’t lack for things to do, and our voyage has been anything but leisurely.  Classes meet every other day while we’re at sea, and most students are taking three of them plus Global Studies.  There’s a fair amount of assigned readings, and thus far, students seem to be pretty diligent with respect to class preparation.  The evenings are filled with Explorer Seminars – one-hour talks by faculty, staff, students and life-long learners – on various topics.  Last night, in addition to Don’s international dateline talk, we had presentations on sustainable energy technologies around the world and the Disaster Relief Corps.  Previous seminars have included explanations of Hawaiian volcanoes, the hula, marine biology and ikebana (Japanese flower arranging).  They’ve been an important part of our academic program.

The Day that Never Was

We crossed the International Dateline a day or so ago, with nary a bump to indicate its presence.  The Dateline’s a tricky concept, as evidenced by the multitude of explanations offered at last night’s Explorer Seminar facilitated by Don Gogniat.  After covering the basics of Earth geography (l-O-ngitude lines run n-O-rth/south; latitude lines run the other way) he invited members of the shipboard community to try their best to explain why the calendar shifted all at once from February 2nd to February 4th, with no February 3rd in between (a most disconcerting fact to at least one voyager, who’s 14th birthday would have fallen on that day, had it existed).

A multitude of explanations were offered in various forms ranging from poetry to haiku to rap to storytelling.  The winning explanation had something to do with the earth losing/gaining a day and an anole lizard named Carl whose tail went through a similar transformation.  I didn’t follow the entire story – I’ve always thought the Earth was resting on the back of a giant turtle – but Zach’s insights resonated with the crowd, and he went home with the grand prize – a Semester at Sea t-shirt.

Rough Seas

In addition to the general swirl of activities – one never lacks for something to do on Semester at Sea! – the seas have been pretty rough the past few days due to a massive storm system passing just to the north of us. Apparently, it hit the California coast pretty hard, and it hasn’t been a picnic on board, either.  We were rocking and rolling pretty well the first four days at sea.  The night before last was the worst.  Nearly everyone slept very poorly, as the ship navigated through 15-20 foot swells.  Our bed isn’t attached to the wall, and it slid back and forth from one side of the room to the other the ENTIRE night. Granted, it only moved only about a foot each time, but that was enough for some serious discomfort.  The nature of the sea and swells is that you know once you’ve moved to the right, you’re going to move to the left really quickly thereafter.  I’d like to say it took some getting used to, but we haven’t yet.  Even the crew have commented on the length of time we’ve been experiencing this rough weather.

There’s been a lot of seasickness, some injuries from falls, and elevated stress levels all around.  It’s amazing to me how well everyone is behaving towards each other, because honestly, when one’s brain is fully occupied with the management of basic motor functions, e.g., maintaining balance and walking, it’s pretty difficult to remain congenial and cordial to a host of as-yet-unmet new friends.  For some of us, reading and writing were impossible – our brains are just too small. Fortunately, last night was much better, and today’s looking good (so far).

Lucky Little Bunnies

Our voyage seems to have gotten off to a good start.  I’m writing this entry on Day A3, our fifth day of classes since the voyage began, and a nice rhythm seems to have developed.  Students on the ship generally take four classes, or twelve credits worth of work.  One of these classes is “Global Studies,” which meets more-or-less daily and is a required course for all members of the shipboard community.  It serves as the “voyage narrative” and is facilitated by Don Gogniat, a well-experienced cultural geography professor who has taught the course several times before.  He begins each session by welcoming “fellow adventure-ers” and noting our latitude and longitude.  It’s my hope to provide a little more timely reports of the things we’re learning in his class, but let me recap what’s stuck with me so far …

poprefsheetBefore he even introduced himself, Don taught us the names of the ten most populous countries with an intriguing mnemonic device.  You really had to be there, so I’ll just report the list (because it’s likely to change in the next few years!):  China, India, USA, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Russia, and Japan.  Don’s quite the engaging lecturer and a masterful teacher.  He holds learners’ attention, and has a way of encouraging folks to ask themselves the big questions.  For example, he noted that attending Global Studies is “our job” and observed that there’s another group of young people sailing around the world right now, as well, to do their jobs.  We owe it to ourselves, and our country to do our jobs out of respect and appreciation to them – the 18-20 year-old new recruits on their way to Afghanistan and Iraq.  We are, as Don says, “lucky little bunnies.”