Category Archives: Faculty perspective

Penn Alumni Travel: Adriatic Antiquities 2014

Author: Professor Ralph Rosen, Department of Classical Studies

We began our Adriatic Antiquities adventure (a Penn Alumni Travel trip) in Venice, where we boarded our ship, the Aegean Odyssey. The ship was relatively small, accommodating only some 350 passengers, and delightfully appointed with two restaurants, several bars and many decks offering spectacular views from all perspectives. We had a small group of 8 adventurous Penn alums plus my wife, Ellen, and about 60 others in our tour group from various other alumni organizations across the country. Other passengers on the ship included a huge group from Australia and Great Britain, which added to the continual liveliness and good cheer of the trip. Almost every day there was a lecture of one sort of another to attend, since the ship had two art historians of their own onboard, and there were two Classicists in our group—myself, and a specialist in ancient Greek politics and Athenian history from Northwestern University. I gave two lectures early in the trip on various aspects of Greek culture, the first on Greek concepts of beauty and ugliness, the second on traditions of early Greek scandalous poetry or satire. I had also sent everyone in our group a copy of Aristophanes’ Clouds in advance of the trip to provide some background to our visit to Athens, and we met one afternoon during cocktail hour in the ship’s lounge to discuss it. This fast-paced comedy addresses the ‘culture wars’ of Classical Athens, pitting traditionalists against a new generation of thinkers and educators, and inspired a lively and memorable discussion.

On our first day we took a vaporetto to mainland Venice to visit the Cathedral of St. Mark. We had a superb guide who walked us through the complex and fascinating history of this amazing structure. The Cathedral dates to the 9th century CE, though the current building can be traced to the 11th. The interior walls and ceilings are covered with gold mosaics of dazzling beauty, telling various stories from the Old and New Testaments, and about the saints important to the Cathedral, such as Sts. Mark and Clement. We learned that much of these were poorly ‘restored’ in the 19th century, and are thought to have suffered much as a result; but to the viewer from ground-level, these mosaics are simply breathtaking.

Venice1

That evening we were treated to a very special private visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. This museum, located in what was once Guggenheim’s private home along the Grand Canal, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, houses an extraordinary collection of modernist, surrealist and abstract expressionist artists. We rode back to the ship in small boats along the canal in the early evening as the golden Venetian sun made the Renaissance buildings on the land magically glow.

Venice2

From Venice we sailed directly across the Adriatic over night to our first destination in Croatia, Zadar, in the northern region of the Dalmatian coast. The early history of this entire area is one of continual tension between indigenous inhabitants and incursions from Greeks with an eye on colonization. When Rome became the dominant power in the Mediterranean in subsequent centuries, one finds archaeological traces of their settlements and Romanization as well. By the middle ages, the influence of Venice was ubiquitous among the cities along the Dalmatian coast, and we learned much about these many historical layers from our expert guides.

After Zadar, we made our way down the coast to the Croatian cities of Split, Dubrovnik and the gorgeous peninsula of Korcula. We sailed to Split during the night, and we awoke in the port as an intense thunderstorm was just beginning to break up, offering beautiful dark-grey cloudscapes interspersed with sunlight and blue skies.

Split

Our day in Split began with a visit to the palace of Diocletian, who built this massive complex as his retirement home in 305 CE. Diocletian was emperor of Rome from 284-305 CE, which was a particularly colorful and complicated political period. Diocletian had first appointed a co-emperor Maximian in 286, but for strategic reasons appointed two more co-regents in 293, Galerius and Constantius, dividing up the empire into four different sectors. This historical period became known as the ‘tetrarchy’ or ‘rule of the four emperors.’ Quite unusually, Diocletian actually abdicated his rule and then retired to the lavish palace complex which he had built for himself in Split. From the 7th century CE on, long after it had been abandoned by the Romans, locals moved into the structures, setting up homes and businesses. Domitian’s mausoleum, for example, was transformed into the Cathedral of St. Duje (Domnius) built over an ancient shrine. Built at the beginning of the 7th century, we were told that it’s the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world which hasn’t had to be completely rebuilt. The site reflects today all these many historical layers of use, re-use, re-purposing, occupation and now, tourism. Side trips in the afternoon brought us inland to two other Roman sites, Salona and Trogir. In Salona we visited a Roman burial site, where we saw some wonderfully preserved Roman sarcophagi, along with tombs and mausolea from later periods as well. Trogir was a modest little town, founded as a Greek colony in the 3rd century BCE, now rich in medieval and Byzantine architectural sites; we had time to visit the unusual and impressively well-preserved Romanesque-Gothic church dedicated to St. Lawrence (13th century.). I have to confess that simply sitting in the public square of this utterly charming town late in the afternoon with an espresso and biscotto was one of my favorite moments of the trip!

Trogir

Korcula was a magical place—we had to approach from the ship in small boats across shimmering blue-green water. At the coastline the water was crystal-clear and you could watch schools of fish from the docks going about their business. The Old Town was built in a fishbone pattern to maximize the flow of winds, thus creating a kind of urban air-conditioning—or so we were told by our genial guide. She also told us of the dispute about Marco Polo. Despite the fact that the handbooks all list his birthplace as Venice, Korcula claims him as one of their native sons. Whether or not this is true, every other street restaurant and guest-house in Korcula is named ‘Marco Polo’-something-or-other.

Korcula

Our next stop was Dubrovnik, said to be one of the best-preserved medieval walled cities in Europe. It had a touristic feel about it, but we still enjoyed its antiquities, particularly the Dominican monastery with its 15th-century cloister and the Cathedral of Our Lady, which has on display a painting of the Assumption by Titian.

We continued our journey down the Dalmatian coast heading for Greece, but along the way the ship’s captain made a detour to take us into the famous Bay of Kotor, a fjord-like inlet in SW Montenegro, situated between Croatia and Albania. The sea was calm and the sun shining brightly as we sailed around this breathtakingly beautiful part of the Adriatic.

Kotor Bay

 

The antiquities we visited along the Croatian coast were largely Roman remains and later, though most of the sites had been settled earlier by Greek colonists. The remaining sites on our trip were in Greece proper, and often reflected Mediterranean culture from even earlier historical periods. Most of our guides, however, were extremely knowledgeable about modern Greek history as well, and we learned much from them about the long and fraught occupation of Greece by the Ottomans, and eventual emancipation and independence in the 19th century.

Our first visit on Greek soil was the island of Corfu, also known by its Greek name Kerkyra, and to students of Thucydides, Corcyra (Thucydides famously documented the effects of factional strife there in the 5th century. BCE). We toured the Venetian fortifications, which afforded some amazing views along the coast, but more charming was the town itself—a bustling place inhabited by real people living real lives and not only for tourists. A few of us explored the old city in the afternoon, and even stumbled upon the Corfu Synagogue, where we met a caretaker who was happy to show us around. Their traditions (and building) go back at least 400 years, though the community is small, and reduced even more as a consequence of WWII.

Corfu Synagogue

 

Not too far from Corfu is a small port called Preveza, where we docked for the morning and took an inland excursion to the town of Arta.  The visit to Arta was spectacular. The famous ‘Bridge of Arta’ crossing the Arachthos River dates from the early 17th century,  but its foundations date to the Roman period.

Arta Bridge

According to local legend, a bird came to the original architect and declared that the bridge could only be completed if the architect would sacrifice his wife. While she was being buried alive, it is said, she put a curse on the bridge, but when told that her brother would be crossing the bridge she changed her curses to blessings. Near the bridge is the amazing cathedral Church of the Paregoretissa, built at the end of the 13th century. This is a beautifully preserved and well maintained example of grand Byzantine architecture, with spectacular mosaics decorating the interior. The central dome has a magnificent mosaic of Christ Pantokrator with angels and prophets, and interior walls are graced with grand religious frescoes from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Arta Church

 

From Preveza, we sailed down the western coast of the Peloponnese to Olympia, famed birthplace of the Olympic games. The Greeks have done a superb job with this site, creating a beautiful archaeological park with elegant landscaping, excellent signage and an inviting, informative museum of artifacts from their excavations. Olympia was internationally important from the 8th century BCE well into late antiquity, by which time it had fallen into Roman hands, but by the 6th century CE it was covered over by alluvial deposits, evidently the result of flooding from repeated tsunamis. It wasn’t re-discovered until 1766, and the first excavations only began in 1829. The site itself indicates an expansive array of buildings within a sanctuary, including temples to Zeus and Hera, and adjacent to this area are a hippodrome for horse and chariot racing and stadium for track events.

Olympia

Overnight we sailed from Olympia to the famous port city of Nafplio. This was a particularly busy day for our group, with two trips scheduled (the afternoon trip was optional, but we couldn’t get enough!). In the morning we made our way by bus to the famous site of Mycenae. What I found particularly interesting about this site was how remote and wild the area seemed to be today in light of the fact that during the heydey of Mycenaean culture, in the 14th century BCE, it was a major cultural center with a sizable population. The monumentality of this site was astonishing—huge ‘Cyclopean’ stone blocks, grand archways, brilliant gold masks and large intricately patterned pottery. This was clearly a rich and sophisticated society that left a huge mark on subsequent Greek culture.

Mycenae

After a restorative lunch in the town square of Nafplio, we set out again for Epidaurus, an area that rose to prominence in the Classical and Hellenistic periods of Greek history. Epidaurus has two main sites of interest, both iconic of ancient Greek culture. The first is the great temple of the healing god Asclepius. There were many healing shrines to Asclepius around the Mediterranean, but Epidaurus’ was one of the largest and most famous. People with a variety of afflictions would come from all around seeking a cure, and an entire micro-economy seems to have emerged around such sites. There was a whole industry of priests, shopkeepers selling terracotta votive offerings (usually representing whatever organ or body part needed healing), guest-houses, etc. The idea was for the sick person to spend the night sleeping inside the temple (for a fee, of course), so that the god Asclepius could appear in a dream and offer instructions on how to be healed. This process was called ‘incubation’, which literally means ‘sleeping in’. Many of the stories of these cures have come down to us on stone inscriptions publicly erected by grateful patients or publicity-minded temple administrators. These narratives often seem a little far-fetched to us today, but evidently there were many satisfied customers!

Epidaurus is also famous for its amazing theater, where Greek tragedies and comedies (and other dramatic forms) would have been performed. The remains of this theater date from the Hellenistic period; it’s one of the best preserved and most beautiful examples of theater construction. The theater could hold some 13,000 spectators in the classic Greek semi-circular form, with rows of seats rising steeply into a hill. The acoustics are uncannily live, as is continually being demonstrated by visitors who clap their hands or orate in the circular orchestra where the actors would have performed. In this theater there really wasn’t a bad seat in the house!

Epidaurus

 

Our last destination was, at long last, the glorious city of Athens itself. We pulled into the harbor at Piraeus in the morning, around 10 km from the city, and wasted no time in preparing ourselves for the trek to the Acropolis and its Parthenon—perhaps the single most iconic building in all of Western culture. It was hot and crowded with tourists, but we all made it to the top of the hill and stood in awe of the Parthenon and the spectacular panoramic views of the entire city. I think this was an emotional moment for all of us, and our expert guide added plenty of detail to complement our feelings of transcendence—its origins in fifth century BCE Athens as part of Pericles’ building program, its Hellenistic history, its fate under the Romans, its later re-purposing by Christians, and later still by Ottoman Muslims.

Parthenon

We left in a state of exhilaration, and relocated for our last two nights in a hotel in the center of the city. Our afternoon was unscheduled, so we all went in different directions. I made my way to the National Archaeological museum, where I met one of the other Penn alums, and we spent a wonderful afternoon exploring their incredible collection. There was room after room of all the choice artifacts from all periods of Greek history; I was quite overwhelmed, really, by the richness of this collection—rooms of archaic kouroi, huge Geometric-style vases, Cycladic art, and hundreds of black-figure and red-figure Athenian pottery, just to name a few of the highlights.

Our final morning was spent at the new Acropolis Museum, adjacent to the Acropolis itself, but at ground level looking up. The building only opened in 2009 after years of planning and false starts, but is now a marvel of architecture and city planning. Designed by renowned architect Bernard Tschumi, the museum houses all the artifacts found on the Acropolis, and itself sits on top of another archaeological site of Classical and Byzantine urban remains. Glass flooring at the entrance allows visual access to the excavations below and juxtaposes brilliantly the artifact and modern repository of artifacts. The top part of the museum is in parallel alignment to the Acropolis, affording the viewer both a window on, and a kind of mirror to, the object of its contemplation up the hill. This was an expansive, uncluttered and intelligently laid out museum, and a powerful testament to the aesthetic and political sophistication of Greek culture.

Our trip was unfortunately nearing its end, but we had time for one more excursion that afternoon, to the Benaki Museum, which was only a short walk from our hotel. The Benaki Museum might be considered Athens’ answer to Philadelphia’s Barnes Museum in that it houses the private collection of art and antiquities from a single collector with an idiosyncratic vision, that of Antonis Benakis. This elegant private mansion contains an extraordinary and eclectic collection of mostly Greek art, from antiquity to the 20th century. Since Benakis’ death in 1954 the museum has continued to add to its collection (unlike the Barnes), which now has more than 37,000 objects. After almost two weeks of continual exposure to ancient artifacts, I think most of us found it refreshing to see a deep collection of fine and decorative arts from the 18th through 20th centuries. They have an especially fine collection of cultural artifacts from the period of Greek independence (1821-1835). Among these is a marvelous portrait of the great English poet, Lord Byron, in traditional Greek dress, who was so committed to the cause of Greek independence that he even took command of a rebel army against the Turks in 1824. Unfortunately, he died of an infectious disease before the actual attack, but his inspirational passion for everything Greek made him something of a national hero after his death.

Benaki-Lord Byron

After a final gathering in the evening at the hotel to celebrate our rich and glorious trip together, and to say our sad goodbyes, we prepared ourselves for the return home. We packed an incredible amount of travel and learning into these two weeks, but I’m pretty sure everyone in our group was secretly wishing it would never end.

Professor Ralph Rosen with his group of Penn alumni and friends.

Professor Ralph Rosen with his group of Penn alumni and friends.

[Interested in joining a future Penn Alumni Travel trip hosted by a Penn faculty member? Click here to view our entire 2015 schedule. We will be returning to Greece and Italy on the following tours: Southern Italy and Sicily (April/May 2015), Ancient Greece and Turkey (Sept/October 2015), and Portrait of Italy (October 2015).]

Leave a comment

Filed under Faculty perspective, Penn Alumni Travel, Travel

Great Journey Through Europe 2014

Author: André Dombrowski, Associate Professor, History of Art

A few weeks have passed now since our return from a remarkable trip through Western Europe that took us through Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands, much of it spent onboard as we cruised up the Rhine River. The trip offered a range of experiences for both lovers of nature and culture: the Alps and the UNESCO heritage site of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley were interspersed with visits to charming towns and churches. It was a pleasure to meet the Penn-affiliated passengers on the trip who numbered 18 and who shared their memories of the university, which stretched from the class of 1959 to the law-class of 1989. My mother-in-law Joan, who accompanied me, would like to thank everyone for including her so warmly within our group. She said she had the trip of a lifetime!

Penn Alumni Group

Penn Alumni Group

When we arrived in Zurich, we were greeted by our charming Gohagan travel directors, Brian and Cory, who accompanied us throughout the trip and proved able entertainers with singers’ voices! It is hard for me to name the highlights of the trip. Lucerne (and also Bern) was especially appealing and our accommodations there just spectacular. Surely the visit to Zermatt was one of my favorites, reached by a slow Alpine train. On the day we visited, the Matterhorn’s peek was visible for long stretches of the day; unlike during my previous two visits…, just one cloud hugging its side. The snow in my hands in June felt good. After our time in Switzerland, we boarded the MS Amadeus in Basel and started our journey up the Rhine from there. I loved Strasbourg, such a charming town with so much to offer; Heidelberg was a favorite, especially the castle ruins, which I had never seen before; and also the impressive Niederwalddenkmal in Rüdesheim, built a few years after the Franco-Prussian War and in response to the German victory over the French in 1871, which I often study and teach in my classes. Finally, I enjoyed going up the Rhine through the famous gorge and see the Lorelei cliff from atop the river. Having grown up not all too far from there—a few hours away in North Rhine-Westphalia where my parents still live—this stretch of the trip gave me a whole new perspective on my own home country.

Lorelei cliff from atop the river

Lorelei cliff from atop the river

Two times during the trip I lectured to the passengers on the ship, one of a total of four faculty hosts who shared their research. My first talk was focused on architectural history. I had taken lots of photos along the way and wanted to provide everyone with some quick tools to understand the style of buildings—we covered baroque, rococo, historicist architecture and some aspects of modern art—and also their various functions, showing especially how both informed each other. My second lecture covered the artistic consequences—from impressionism to early modernism—of the conflict between France and Prussia/Germany stretching from the Franco-Prussian War in 1870/71 to the outbreak of World War I. I wanted to show especially the ways in which military victory and avant-garde expression do not always, if ever, go hand-in-hand.

Rhein in Koblenz

Rhein in Koblenz

 

Cologne

Cologne

 

Alpine Pass

Alpine Pass

The trip was one of the most memorable for me. I had not been to most of the places we visited for many years—sometimes for more than a decade—despite having grown up in Germany. Exploring this part of Europe with other Penn guests made me look at its special and varied beauty anew.

I will participating on the Paris to Provence trip in 2015, I hope you join me!

View all 2015 Penn Alumni Travel trip here!

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni Programming, Alumnni Education, Faculty perspective, Janell W., Penn Alumni Travel, Travel

Penn Alumni Travel: In the Wake of the Vikings

Author: David Wallace, Judith Rodin Professor of English

Most of us arrived at Glasgow airport for our Penn Alumni Travel trip across what were once Viking lands. We were then taken by bus to the headquarters of Gohagan, our tour operator, which is based in Glasgow. The company is housed in a beautiful building in the heart of the city:

Vikings1

Some of us chose to rest up in the lounge, and some decided to explore the city center. It was surprising to find a statue of the author Sir Walter Scott close by, since he is most famously associated with Edinburgh; a Glasgow pigeon expresses his opinion:

vikings2

The nearby Glasgow cathedral contains a chapel known as the Blacadder crypt, after Archbishop Blacadder (1483-1508); a roof boss seemed to cry out “bring out your dead!”

vikings3

We were transferred to our ship, Le Boréal, and were soon nosing out through evocative islands in beautiful weather:

vikings4

Le Boréal is the sister ship of L’Austral, on which some of us had travelled before, and accommodates some 400 people (passengers plus crew); it was captained by the handsome and youthful Erwan Le Rouzic, and included a French chef, a French pastry chef, and a French wine steward. The Penn group was quite big at sixteen, but we began getting to know one another at a dinner early in the trip. On 15 June we sailed into the Kyle of Lochalsh, viewing the bridge that now connects Skye to the mainland of Scotland:

vikings5

On Skye we visited Eilean Donan castle, a fortified castle since the thirteenth century and extensively rebuilt in the 1930s:

vikings6

The birdlife here is spectacular, and it got ever more interesting as the voyage continued. Some of us stalked this blue heron:

vikings7

A few hours later we were to see a quite different bird, at Armadale castle:

vikings8

The presence of this exotic peacock seemed entirely appropriate, since the gardens at Armadale castle were spectacularly lush:

vikings9

vikings10

It seemed miraculous that such a far northern Atlantic island could support such lushness, but one of our local guides informed us that in earlier centuries ships had visited Skye filled with ballast of rich soil. Thus Skye was gradually able to produce gardens that might rival those of Florida.

Our next port of call, following another overnight voyage, was Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. Penn alums John and Jean Donaldson had perhaps felt some special affinity for Skye, stronghold of the Clan Donald; on Lewis Eileen Dooling née MacLeod was able to visit an island where every second person seemed to share her maiden name. Eileen was in fact able to make contact with relatives, who recognized her as one of their own immediately, and while visiting the Callanish Standing Stones I received a phone call from the mother of my Penn colleague, Catriona MacLeod; we met for tea later, in Stornoway. The 3,000 year old stones are spectacular, and it was a pleasure to observe them close up rather than, as at Stonehenge, to be held back by a barrier. Here the Penn banner was unfurled for the first time, by Karen and Gary (Penn Trustee) Rose (left) and Charlton and Christa Carpenter (right):

vikings11

We then travelled to the Dun Carloway pictish broch, a residence for an extended family built circa 100 BCE.

vikings12

Jean Donaldson bravely decided to climb to the top of this ancient monument, from the inside:

vikings13

Following a visit to the Gearranan Blackhouse Village, where traditional crafts such as weaving and thatching were demonstrated, we boarded ship and set sail for the islands collectively known as Orkney. This afforded me the perfect opportunity to present my first lecture to the ship’s company, on Orkneyingasaga, an Old Norse account of the region. This is a strange text, since it contains the usual blood-letting, mayhem, and revenge killings that we might associate with Viking sagas, but halfway through we come across a young nobleman who refuses to fight in a sea battle: he simply lies down in the boat and reads his Psalms. He does become joint-ruler of the region, but is eventually betrayed and captured. Rather than allowing the cycle of violent rivalry to continue he takes the violence upon himself and is martyred; the man who kills and succeeds him, the saga says, was very popular, and a good ruler. Viking morals and mores thus remained mysterious to us as we approached the capital of Orkney, Kirkwall, and viewed its magnificent cathedral, built to honor St Magnus martyr:

vikings14

 

While in the cathedral I was looking for something that would support my claim, in the lecture, that Viking culture was able to support or carry over pagan or nature-worshipping motifs even after Christianization. Eventually I spotted a ‘green man’ at the top of a column in the aisle, spewing forth greenery without end:

vikings15

Our trip to Orkney also included a visit to the Highland Park distillery, the world’s northernmost whiskey makers, and Scapa Flow, home to the British fleet in both world wars and the site of a massive explosion that killed hundreds of young British sailors early in World War II. This explosion, amazingly, was heard by our local guide, as a young girl– she told extraordinary tales of how Italian POWs came to built stronger defences, and how they eventually crafted a beautiful chapel from spare parts and corrugated iron. It was at this point, approaching the chapel, that my camera lost its charge, but I had been able to take a picture of the San Giorgio (St George) erected by the Italians. Many of them have returned to review their handiwork over the years, and are good friends with the islanders.

vikings16

 

We also visited Skara Brae, home to successive waves of migrants over some 5,000 years. The Vikings came, adapted what they found, and then eventually left– like these Penn alums, trailing off into the mist by the edge of the Atlantic:

vikings17

Another night voyage brought us to the port of Lerwick and the Shetland islands, some fifty miles out from Orkney. In driving to the ancient archaeological site of Jarlshof, our driver made a stop at the top of a cliff road. From here we could observe sea birds wheeling in the currents. Most impressive of all were the fulmers, a miniature breed of albatross. They would hang in the breeze, apparently making no effort at all to stay aloft:

vikings18

Jarlshof, uncovered by a fierce storm during the winter of 1896/7, is an amazing site, with dwellings ranging from late neolithic to Viking longhouses. It also offers friendly refuge for Shetland ponies, and many of us were tempted into selfies:

vikings19

Later that day we were treated to some first class Shetland fiddling before we set sail for Bergen, Norway. The Penn alums gathered for a cocktail party before dinner, and many tales were exchanged. The most spectacular tale of all was told by Bill Pfeifer (M 68), who had recognized, in another alumni group, a long-lost buddy with whom he had served in a five-man MASH unit. Bill can be seen kneeling, far right. Penn alums have handy skills: Bill gave me the best advice on how to treat an ingrown toenail, and Pamella Dentler (immediately above the Penn crest, V 78) was great on cat care:

vikings20

In Bergen most of the group visited Troldhaugen, home to the composer Edvard Grieg for 22 years. There was plenty of time to walk the streets, admiring the handsome Hansa houses and contemplating the purchase of reindeer meat:

vikings21

The building at left in the background here, with the Gothic pointing, is home to Bergen’s new Starbucks. There was just time to take a nautically-framed picture of our handsome ship before heading back out to sea, for Denmark:

vikings22

It was only on this final leg of the voyage, en route to Copenhagen, that we experienced sea conditions that were anything like challenging. As we headed into the open water between Norway and Denmark, admiring the fjords, there was a swell of 10 metres. This sounds alarming, but the wine glasses in the restaurant did not move at all, even as the sea moved up and down past the window– the stabilizers on this modern ship did an amazing job. We did perhaps eat a little more lightly that night, but we all arrived in Copenhagen in good shape and fine spirits.

Lectures had been offered throughout our voyage, and as ever the attendance was amazingly high: lecturers like myself simply wish that we could bottle this spirit of active engagement, and then sprinkle it over our classrooms. For my final lecture I offered an illustrated review of and commentary on our voyage, and then ended it with a quiz. My threat was that the alums would not be allowed off ship unless they scored at least 60% (the mark set for my American citizenship exam last year). In fact, they collectively remembered everything, however obscure the detail. For example: why do farmers in Shetland use green plastic, rather than black, to wrap the bales of hay pushed out by their combined hravesters? Answer: because experiments have demonstrated that seagulls will attack black bags (associated with promising garbage) but not green ones.

Having scored 100%, then, the alums disembarked and went their separate ways in Copenhagen. Having travelled so far by sea, in favorable conditions, we left in greater awe than ever of the intrepid Vikings. I found this to be a terrific, highly varied groups of alums, and I hope that some of them might join me on another water-bound adventure: travelling down the Zambesi, in February 2015.

Penn Alumni Travel 2015 Full Tour Schedule

David Wallace, FMAA

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni Programming, Alumnni Education, Faculty perspective, Janell W., Penn Alumni Travel, Travel

Amazon River Expedition

Author: Anthony DeCurtis, Distinguished Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program & Contributing Editor for Rolling Stone

I’m not a specialist on South America to any degree whatsoever, so I was surprised – and delighted! — to be invited to be a faculty host on a Penn Alumni cruise along the Peruvian Amazon. I’m a distinguished lecturer in the creative writing program at Penn and my writing for Rolling Stone (where I’m a contributing editor) over the years about the likes of the Rolling Stones, U2 and Billy Joel has made me no stranger to wild life, though not the sort I was likely to find in one of the world’s most remote jungles. The advantage of my non-expert status, however, was that I fully shared the sense of wonder and adventure that characterized the redoubtable Penn alums on board. As soon as everyone understood that such questions as “How deep is the Amazon in this inlet?” were better addressed to our fearless and profoundly knowledgeable guides, Robinson and Juan Carlos, than to me, we all settled in to our journey and had an unforgettable time.

So what exactly was I doing on the La Amatista, the beautifully appointed small expedition river vessel that was our home on the Amazon? February 2014, the month of our cruise, marked the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Beatles in the United States, so one of my lectures focused on that peerless band and the ongoing impact and significance of its music. A second lecture recounted the equally long and riotous career of the Beatles’ great rivals, the Rolling Stones. Of course, this being a Penn cruise, the alums aboard requested a third lecture about writing strategies, which I was happy to provide – and I got a few tips myself! On the evening after my Beatles talk in the afternoon, our guides and other crew members performed a selection of Beatles classics on the top deck to a wildly appreciative audience. Any footage or photos that might conceivably emerge of me singing “A Hard Day’s Night” and “From Me to You” while holding a glass of tequila have been fabricated, I swear!

But before all of that transpired, we first flew into Lima on a Friday and stayed at the Casa Andina Private Collection, a superb hotel. After breakfast there on Saturday morning, we toured Lima’s colonial section, including Casa Aliaga, which was built in 1535 by a family who came to Peru with the Spanish conquistador Pizarro. That setting prompted a discussion with our local guide about the complexities of honoring the country’s colonial past. The Convent and Museum of St. Francisco, meanwhile, included a stroll through the site’s catacombs, which are filled with the bones of tens of thousands of local residents.

The following day we flew to Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, which can only be reached by airplane or boat. Iquitos grew enormously during the rubber boom in Peru a century ago, and the downtown area features a two-story building that was used as a warehouse by Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, the rubber baron who is the subject of German director Werner Herzog’s gripping 1982 film, Fitzcarraldo. On Monday we visited the thriving Belen market, which, among its many herbs, foods and native wares included aphrodisiacs that tempted some of the more daring members of the Penn crowd. On the bus ride afterwards to Nauta, where we would board La Amatista, we stopped to visit a manatee rescue center, one of the many sites attempting to preserve the hugely important ecosystem of the Amazon. We were able to feed some of the manatees, which was fun and quite moving.

Once we boarded La Amatista later that Monday, it seemed as if our journey had finally begun, despite all that we’d seen and done already. Each of the next four days we rose early and set out in two small skiffs that each held about twelve of us. Juan Carlos and Robinson were compelling guides – smart, funny, insightful and deeply appreciative of all the glories the Amazon contains. They spoke excellent English and shared personal stories of their upbringing with us in casual presentations during dinner on the ship – one of the absolute highlights of the trip. They taught us how to fish for red-bellied piranha – okay, they fished and aided us in the illusion that we were fishing, gently helping us to reel in our catch – and pointed out the endless appearances of squirrel monkeys, toucans, vultures and macaws. One lazy afternoon a group of pink river dolphins frolicked near our skiffs, and an ordinary day suddenly turned magical. Every sunrise and sunset was just breathtaking, the sky seeming the only possible sight that could draw your attention away from the magnificent river and trees.

The residents, called riberenos [Please note: tilde over the n], of the many villages we visited were uniformly friendly and welcoming. We would hike through the jungle and then sit with them to hear their stories and purchase their strikingly colorful goods. In one village a female shaman spoke to us about the mystical and medicinal qualities of many of the plants in the region. She then performed a cleansing ritual, which was riveting.

By the time we reversed our trip – back to Nauta, then Iquitos, on to Lima, and then, finally, home – we had received an invaluable education in one of our planet’s ecological treasures. As I’m sure you know, the Amazon is under siege by the demands of our modern world. Our last night on La Amatista was the occasion of a spirited discussion about the future of the rainforest and of the Earth itself. Problems abound, of course, but the conversation was inspiring, a vivid reminder that we are all custodians of the world’s treasures, whether we are at home in our houses and apartments or sailing on a river that runs deep into the very heart of our entire human history. The connections felt palpable, and still do.

 

Amazon Group

1 Comment

Filed under Academics, Alumni Programming, Alumnni Education, Faculty perspective, Janell W., Penn Alumni Travel, Travel, Uncategorized

Celtic Lands 2014

Author: Professor Rebecca Bushnell, Department of English

We arrived from different directions on May 28, but the Penn Alumni group all converged one chilly evening, in Greenock, Scotland, to embark on the SS. Le Boréal for our adventure in the Celtic Lands. Our ship at first looked tiny, docked next to the gigantic SS Queen Victoria, but it was to prove a comfortable and elegant home for the next nine days.

After the thrilling life boat drill in our stylish life jackets, a four-course dinner while we sailed down the River Clyde, and then a night of sound sleep (for those of us who had just arrived in Scotland that morning), we awoke the next day in what felt like another world, moored next to the tiny Isle of Iona, in the Scottish Hebrides.   Tenders took us to the ancient restored abbey of Iona, founded by St. Columba in 563 AD.

IMG_1214

We also visited our first Scottish village (in which I was charmed by my first Scottish cat).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From there we took the ferry to the Isle of Mull, where we boarded buses for a journey on “one-track roads” in our rather large bus across the island  to Duart Castle, home of the  Clan Maclean,  a great stone keep perched on a bluff overlooking an inland loch.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The weather was the first of an extraordinary stretch of brilliant blue skies with massive ever-changing clouds (many of us could not stop taking photos of the clouds). The bus then took us to our final destination of the pretty village of Tobermory, where I enjoyed shortbread and tea in the local bakery and bought the first of my little tiny bottles of samples of the local whiskey and brandies from our shore excursions (for my son-in-law, not for me).

IMG_1342

The next day, our ship took us to the Isle of Skye, the largest of the inner Hebrides, which looked almost metropolitan in comparison with tiny Iona and Mull (it had “two-track,” or two-way, roads).  We circled part of the island through magnificent scenery inhabited mostly by sheep (who were omnipresent throughout this trip—thousands of sheep!).

IMG_1361

We stopped for a visit to Dunvegan Castle, home of the Clan MacLeod,  still very active today: the castle had some pretty gardens not yet in full bloom.

There we took the first of our group pictures of what I would now think of as the Clan Penn (I can reassure you that our relations with the Brown, Dartmouth, and Northwestern clans on the ship remained friendly throughout the journey).

IMG_1373

That afternoon, as we left the Isle of Skye, I gave the first of my lectures, on “Shakespeare and the Celtic Lands,” discussing how ideas of England in Shakespeare’s time were forged in both conflict with and assimilation of the countries and people of Scotland, Ireland and Wales.  The sense of national pride  and independence that Shakespeare saw in these often rebellious peoples was evident today  in every place we visited – and it is clearly growing daily.

The next morning we awoke in a very different sort of place, in Belfast, a city with a storied past of shipbuilding now most prominently memorialized in the fabulous RMS Titanic Museum (obviously very popular because it was very crowded on a Sunday afternoon). We took a city tour of Belfast, which included not only the city monuments, but also the working class Republican and Loyalist neighborhoods, where the sense of the past is still very present. Memories of the “Troubles “were vividly depicted in evocative and sometimes disturbing murals everywhere.

IMG_1424

That afternoon, I gave my second lecture on “Shakespeare and World War II,” looking at Laurence Olivier’s film of Shakespeare’s Henry V  produced in 1943-44, on the brink of D-Day. For me, Olivier’s film provided an instructive way  to link multiple pasts to the present, and to look ahead to our destination in Normandy, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

That night all the Penn clan gathered together for a reception, and a more formal portrait: here you see us in one of the ship’s lounges, having put down our cocktail glasses for a moment.

IMG_1399

But our next stop was Holyhead, Wales, and a full day excursion, beginning with the extraordinary Bodnant Gardens, where many of us could have spent the whole day. It was raining lightly part of the time we were there, but it only made the gardens that more lush: water ran everywhere, in the dells and in ponds and streams. The roses were blooming, as only British roses can. Everyone was quite entranced

IMG_1517

We had lunch in Betwys-e Coed, and listened to a charming all male choir, who sang mostly in Welsh, and then charted our course through the magnificent Snowdonia National Park, a land of  rugged and desolate mountains, with some slopes dramatically strewn with slate.

IMG_1603

The day ended with a visit to Caernafron Castle, built by Edward I to contain the medieval Welsh rebels: it was an imposing structure, built to intimidate (and even confuse some of us, like myself, who got lost in its winding and slippery staircases and corridors that led nowhere).

IMG_1650

That night we headed west again, and docked in Dublin, and the Republic of Ireland. Some of us took a bus tour of the city, but since I had spent a long and lovely summer studying in Dublin and Ireland when I was in college, I took off on my own to revisit some old haunts of mine and just to enjoy the city, both what was old and familiar and what was new.

That night we set off on our full day at sea (at little rocky at first), when we were entertained and enlightened  by the various faculty hosts, and by  our special guests, Cecilia Sandys, Churchill’s granddaughter, and Penn’s own faculty member,  David Eisenhower, Dwight Eisenhower’s grandson. The two of them gave fascinating lectures offering personal anecdotes and insight into the historical events involving their grandfathers. Both were engaging speakers, and we felt very lucky to have them with us on the trip.

The next day, June 5, was certainly memorable, as we arrived in Normandy, France, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.  We began the day on the striking bluffs of Pointe du Hoc, where the brave US Rangers scaled the cliff under heavy bombardment: the landscape is still scarred by deep craters left by the bombs, and blasted German fortification.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We then traveled first to Omaha Beach and then  to the famous American cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer. Preparations were being made for the ceremony attended by 25 heads of state the next day, but we had a moment for our Penn veterans  to lay a wreath at the memorial.

IMG_1818

As we sang the National Anthem, a WWII vintage plane flew overhead. All of the sacrifices made that time 70 years ago seemed quite achingly present at that moment.

IMG_1828

The day ended with some of us visiting the D-Day Museum in Arromanches, and others in Bayeux to view the medieval embroidery of the Battle of Hastings.  Then our ship left France with us sobered by those memories, and headed for England and for Portsmouth, where we disembarked for the final time, and  visited the D-Day Museum there and Southwick House, where the decision was made to launch the invasion.

IMG_1890

David Eisenhower talks to a local camera crew about the D-Day invasion map at Southwick House.

 

Then it was time for us to go our separate ways. But we all knew we had shared something special on this trip, not only through the experience of amazing natural beauty, but also through so many moments in which the present touched the past. As my remarks above suggest, wherever we traveled we learned that memories in this part of the world are long, and that history matters.

So indeed, it was a journey that I am sure we shall not soon forget ourselves.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Faculty perspective, Penn Alumni Travel, Travel

Antarctica The Beautiful

Author: Irina Marinov, Assistant Professor, Earth and Environmental Science Dept.

The first thing you notice on an Antarctic expedition is that the Antarctic continent is very far away from everywhere else. For example, from Philadelphia you first take a 4+ hour flight south to Miami or somewhere like that, then you embark on a 10 hour flight to BuenosAires. Once in Buenos Aires, you need to get on another 4+ hour flight that takes you to Ushuaia (Argentina), the Southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia. In Ushuaia, you embark on your ship and spend almost two days at sea crossing the Drake Passage (sometimes a very bumpy ride) before finally seeing the Antarctic coast. And then, after you spend a few days along the Antarctic coastline you must follow the entire lengthy procedure again in reverse order to get back home. But the rewards are incredible. Even that first sighting of Antarctica is so spectacular, that it is well worth the 4-day trip to get there. Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation (around 1900m or 1.2 mi) of all the continents, with spectacular glaciers and snow-covered mountains emerging straight out of water.

But let me start this blog from the beginning. Our expedition actually started with one great (though rainy) day visiting Buenos Aires, including a visit to the balcony where Evita (or was it Madonna?) sang her heart out to the world, the Plaza de Mayo and the colorful and happy La Boca neighborhood where historically Genovese immigrants have arrived to Argentina. We also had time to mingle for one evening with newly made Penn and non-Penn friends, and taste some amazing Argentinian steaks downtown. The next early morning we took a very early flight to Ushuaia, Patagonia, the Southernmost town of the world. On our arrival we were guided on a bus tour of the nearby National Park. We were secretly told by our very funny local guide that a nearby – but far less known – town in Chile actually is technically even further south than Ushuaia. However, as advised, we promptly forgot the name of the Chilean town and proceeded to take hundreds of pictures of the world’s southernmost National Park, southernmost continental post office, southernmost lake and town, the southern tip of the Route 3 (a road that crosses all the Americas from Alaska southward) and many other southernmost such treasures.

 

Street sign in Ushuaia, Argentina

Street sign in Ushuaia, Argentina

Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, near Ushuaia, Argentina

Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, near Ushuaia, Argentina

Ushuaia (Argentina), the Southernmost town of the world, as seen from our Antarctic-bound ship “L’Austral”.

Ushuaia (Argentina), the Southernmost town of the world, as seen from our Antarctic-bound ship “L’Austral”.

I have a great distrust of tour guides. Or rather, after a few disastrous experiences in various parts of the world, I had completely sworn off tour guides and decided to travel to new places with a Lonely Planet guidebook companion instead. To my complete surprise, our local guides in Buenos Aires, Ushuaia, and on the ship, were extremely knowledgeable, professional and thoroughly pleasant and fun. The naturalist crew on the ship was also top notch, and composed of 6-7 young naturalists with extensive real-life and scientific experience at sea in the Artic and Antarctic environments. I will have to credit Gohagen, our organizing tourist agency that specializes in educational alumni travel, for their choice of naturalists and guides and a flawless organization of the trip.

My first talk on the ship (on Southern Ocean oceanography) was scheduled on our first day at sea, as we were passing through the Drake channel, the opening that separates South America from the West Antarctic Peninsula. As an oceanographer, nothing compares to the thrills of talking oceanography while cruising through the Drake Passage. This place is particularly exciting for oceanographers because here we cruise through a series of steep temperature fronts (e.g., the Antarctic Convergence and the Polar Front), a series of large drops in temperature that each occur within 30-50 km and are all related to important sub-surface ocean currents. The presence of the Drake Passage makes this the only place in the world where the Ocean can circumnavigate the globe, allowing for the presence of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current or ACC, the strongest ocean current on Earth, which moves Eastward following the powerful Westerlies winds. Luckily for us, the two-day crossing of the Drake channel was wonderfully and unusually calm, hence we all enjoyed during this time great science talks by faculty and by our naturalists on penguins, whales, stars, how the Arctic is different from Antarctica, ice-ages, or Antarctic geology. Impressively, I can report back to Penn that the Penn alumni were there bravely through all the talks (ok, almost all the talks …) and asked the most intelligent questions, naturally much more intelligent than either the Duke or Harvard alumni questions.

Then came the first sighting of Antarctic small icebergs, the first sighting of the Antarctic continent (what a thrill!) and then the first landings. Once close to the West Antarctic Peninsula, we spent the next few days driving back and forth to the continent and the surrounding islands in Zodiac boats, disembarking on shore and doing a few daily walks and hikes.

First landing on the Antarctic continent. Feb 4th, 2014. Penguins and our ship, the gorgeous “L’Austral”.

First landing on the Antarctic continent. Feb 4th, 2014. Penguins and our ship, the gorgeous “L’Austral”.

Antarctica the Beautiful. Notice the bloom of grey (from up close pink)- colored algae living on the glacier surface.

Antarctica the Beautiful. Notice the bloom of grey (from up close pink)- colored algae living on the glacier surface.

 

Glaciers on land form from snow that accumulates for tens of thousands of years and slowly move toward the ocean. Icebergs are large pieces of freshwater ice that have broken off a glacier or an ice shelf and are floating freely in open seawater because of their lower density. Icebergs come in many incredible colors (white, light blue, aqua-green), and in many sizes (smaller icebergs are called bergy bits and growlers). Ice is full of air bubbles that scatter all color wavelengths, giving ice its white appearance. If the ice is highly compressed, the bubbles are squeezed out and the blue light is scattered much more than other colors – making the ice appear blue. Algae often grow on the bottom of sea ice and icebergs, producing green stripes that can be seen when the ice rolls over and exposes the previously underwater sections.

Getting close to the icebergs in our little zodiacs can be scary, as some alumni observed whales a bit too close for comfort, while a few of us watched one day in amazement – and completely unexpectedly – an iceberg flipping over and wobbling for a long time, producing rows of waves that rocked our little boats. The flipping over started when pieces of ice from the top of the iceberg melted and destabilized the iceberg, which flipped over completely to find its new equilibrium, with the denser, smoother portion of under-water ice now on top. This flipping and wobbling creates deep striations that are visible on glaciers.

Here are some glorious glaciers of different colors and shapes that we saw on our trip.

glacier1 glacier2 glacier3

 

Below: assortment of icebergs next to the West Antarctic peninsula (photos by Irina Marinov and Dan Marks). Icebergs break off the continental shelf, and then float at sea and move with the currents, breaking into small pieces and melting as they move into warmer waters. Sliding on the continent before entering the ocean, followed by flipping and wobbling in water results in striations that we see on these icebergs.

iceberg1 Iceberg2 iceberg3

Other highlights of our week on the West Antarctic peninsula include mailing Antarctic postcards from Port Lockroy, a UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and British Antarctic Survey site currently inhabited year-round (population: two). This small base, established as part of a secret mission to report on enemy activities and provide weather reports during World War two, currently only reports penguin activities. Gentoo penguins and birdlife (blue-eyed shags and kelp gulls) like it here, as larger predators keep away from the occupied bases. We also passed a few Argentinian science bases, such as base Brown, and hiked in a beautiful harbor overlooking a large Antarctic “iceberg cemetery”.

Antarctic Treatytreaty2

British Base A, Port Lockroy, and penguins feeling at home at Port Lockroy. Below, Argentinian Base Brown, West Antarctic Peninsula. Can you imagine living here year-round? Note the grey dust on the ice to the left of Base Brown; natural weathering of rocks by wind and water on the Antarctic continent dissolves rock minerals in rocks; wind blows these around. Note a bloom of pink-colored algae on the ice to the right of Base Brown.

British Base A, Port Lockroy, and penguins feeling at home at Port Lockroy. Below, Argentinian Base Brown, West Antarctic Peninsula. Can you imagine living here year-round? Note the grey dust on the ice to the left of Base Brown; natural weathering of rocks by wind and water on the Antarctic continent dissolves rock minerals in rocks; wind blows these around. Note a bloom of pink-colored algae on the ice to the right of Base Brown.

“iceberg cemetery”.

“iceberg cemetery”.

Penn alumni Marsha and Mark Kozinn with me (pink hat).

Penn alumni Marsha and Mark Kozinn with me (pink hat).

 

On a few occasions we explored glaciers (soon to be icebergs) up close. Note the opening in the glacier in the picture above; this is how ocean waters penetrate below the glaciers, lubricating them from below. With climate warming, currents of warm waters will go beneath the glacier, melting the Antarctic glaciers from underneath, as recently measured by scientists in West Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier. This process can result in a global sea-level rise in the future, though projections of Antarctic contributions to sea level increase are very uncertain at this point.

zodiac

With Penn alumni and one of the naturalists (standing) in a Zodiac, preparing to disembark in Neko Harbor.

With Penn alumni and one of the naturalists (standing) in a Zodiac, preparing to disembark in Neko Harbor.

Happy Penn alumns and friends on the Antarctic continent (check out the penguins in the back).

Happy Penn alumns and friends on the Antarctic continent (check out the penguins in the back).

Happy hour on L’Austral with the Penn group.

Happy hour on L’Austral with the Penn group.

During the entire Antarctic trip we had a great time as a Penn group, had dinners all together and lunches in smaller groups, connected with each other and took many – sometimes awkward – pictures with the Penn banner. In the group picture # 2 below, I had to photoshop in the penguins behind us (just kidding, they really live there … J). My only disappointing moment was during the “swimming contest” in Neko Harbor, when no one from Penn dared to step up and go swimming (and mind you, it was a very warm day and the temperature of water was above zero! 0.7C, to be precise). I truly begged some of our alumni to jump in but got no response. So we deserve the shame: about ten Texas and Duke alumni jumped in, while (undisclosed) Penn alumni simply watched from the sides and took pictures. I have decided to not put these very cool pictures up here, to spare Penn alumni any further embarrassment…

re we are navigating the spectacular Lemaire channel in the evening (photo: Dan Marks)

Here we are navigating the spectacular Lemaire channel in the evening (photo: Dan Marks)

 

Somewhere on the Antarctic coast. Let’s hope at least we will get home safe, it looks like someone else did not …

Somewhere on the Antarctic coast. Let’s hope at least we will get home safe, it looks like someone else did not …

Usually ships try to stare clear of sea-ice, which can be quite dangerous. So imagine the thrill when instead, during our cruise in the Weddell Sea, we actually went searching for sea-ice! An absolute highlight of the trip for me, as an oceanographer, was (once the ship approached the sea-ice enough) getting in the zodiacs to see up close the sea-ice in the Weddell Sea, and disembarking on sea-ice. What a unique moment! This is particularly thrilling because most Antarctic sea-ice is not very thick as it is annual and seasonal, meaning that it forms each winter and then it melts each summer, in a continuous natural cycle. The Weddell Sea is the only place in the Southern Ocean where sea-ice can actually last through the summer, so the ice we are standing on here (see picture below) might be 2, even 3 years old. This is different from the Arctic sea-ice, which lasts through many consecutive summers. On average, sea-ice next to the Antarctic coast has been increasing on average over the past few decades (a consequence of the stronger Southern Annular Mode, a natural climate mode of variability). However, our climate models predict that sea-ice around Antarctica will decrease significantly over the next century as a consequence of global warming. This will have repercussions for and life (penguins and seals like to live on this sea-ice), ocean-atmosphere heat exchange and oceanic circulation.

Sea ice affects the movement of ocean water; in the freezing process of sea ice during fall and winter, most salt is left behind. The resulting very dense waters known as Antarctic Bottom waters sink to the bottom of the ocean and then along the ocean floor towards the equator feeding all ocean basins as part of the global “conveyor belt” circulation. The Weddell Sea is the main place where Antarctic Bottom Water is formed during winter. Current research (from work we have done with close collaborators at McGill) shows that future climate warming here will decrease this important pathway of global ocean circulation, with global consequences.

Standing on sea-ice in the Weddell Sea, with our ship “L’Austral” in the background.

Standing on sea-ice in the Weddell Sea, with our ship “L’Austral” in the background.

Sea-ice in the Weddell Sea, penguins and seals on sea-ice or going for a dip…. Penguins must swim quite far from the continent to get here. Sea ice is dynamic, is formed during fall and winter, melts in the summer, but also moves and is deformed by the winds. Blooms of pink ice-algae were sometimes visible. Photos courtesy of Dan Marks.

Sea ice 2 Sea ice 1 Penguin2 penguin1 seal1

Navigating out of the Weddell Sea we saw an enormous tabular iceberg calved from the Ice Shelf, at least a few km long and around 100 m above water. While we know that about 90% of the iceberg volume is usually under water, the shape of the underwater portion is impossible to guess, which is what makes glaciers dangerous for navigation (think the Titanic). The breaking of icebergs from the continent is a natural phenomenon, with pieces of ice from the Antarctic shelf breaking and entering the ocean, and moving with the ocean currents. Climate warming can increase the disintegration of the Antarctic ice shelf. For example, while the rest of Antarctica hasn’t changed much its temperature, the West Antarctic Peninsula has been warming over the past few decades, and the sea ice surrounding it has been steadily retreating. This is where the famous Lars Shelf-B collapsed a few years ago; this shelf disintegrated into many icebergs, which followed the ACC current eastward breaking into smaller and smaller pieces.

Tabular iceberg calved from the Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea. Some of these icebergs originate from the recent, climate-warming induced disintegration of the West Antarctic peninsula.

Tabular iceberg calved from the Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea. Some of these icebergs originate from the recent, climate-warming induced disintegration of the West Antarctic peninsula.

One other highlight of this trip was a spectacular hike on the Deception Island, part of the South Shetland Islands archipelago. The island is the caldera of an active volcano that has erupted at irregular intervals (the last few times in ’67, ’69 and ’70). What is visible now is the top of a much larger active volcano that collapsed below sea level in prehistoric times and is mostly submerged now. Once in the vicinity of the island, we got on our Zodiacs and managed to land under rather strong waves on Baily Head, a black sand volcanic beach, where we observed several hundred penguins marching to and from the sea. We then started up the mountain in a rather long, and very cold and windy hike, which felt like a true Antarctic adventure. The hike went up and down the caldera, through one of the largest colonies of chinstrap penguins (about 200,000 pairs of penguins). The penguins live in families, make a lot of noise, and are only mildly interested in people (a few times I had to watch not to step on them, they are truly unafraid of us). We braved the strong winds and hiked up and down the mountain, took in spectacular views of the ocean at Neptune’s Bellows, and finally arrive onto the black sand beaches at Whaler’s Bay, where we got picked up again by our ship.

hike2

Above: A very windy hike through a huge colony of chinstrap penguins (about 200,000 pairs) at Baily Head, on the volcanic Deception Island.

Above: A very windy hike through a huge colony of chinstrap penguins (about 200,000 pairs) at Baily Head, on the volcanic Deception Island.

On our way back, the crossing of the Drake passage was extremely turbulent, with huge waves for about 24 hours (ok, the captain was not impressed, but the rest of us were …). As an oceanographer, it is very embarrassing to be sea-sick, and I did my best to hide it from the far braver Penn alumni, but was finally forced by circumstances to move my science talk by one day. Luckily, Prof. Abbott from the Smithsonian stepped in and gave an engaging talk, all while holding onto a moving desk, and pointing to a moving screen, with half of us in the auditorium fascinated but barely alive … Later on in the day, tons of people were either hiding in their rooms or spending all their time in the restaurant on the lowest level, were the swell felt more manageable. By the next day the sea was much calmer, people were suddenly more joyful and present and my talk on “Climate change and the Southern tip of the world” went well. At least I think it went well, based on the many questions and conversations I had after the talk and the following day, including a few interesting ones from climate skeptics (whom I hope to bring to the climate-science discussion table). Iceberg sightings, bird watching, whale watching, chatting with our naturalists, science talks and talking to very interesting alumni kept us all very busy during this crossing, and made the sea-sickness more manageable.

In the evening of Feb 11th we returned to Ushuaia and slept on the boat, preparing for our flights back to Buenos Aires the next day. On our way back, some alumni opted to go on an extension to the impressive Iguazu falls, a beautiful tropical destination and Unesco heritage site at the border between Argentina and Brazil. Some stayed on to explore further South America. I ended up spending 3 days in nearby Uruguay on my way back to the US, crossing – during an awful 2 hour cruise that turned out to be far worse than crossing the Drake passage – the Rio de la Plata river separating Argentina and Uruguay, and exploring the towns of Colonia and Montevideo. I then flew back to Philadelphia via Miami, and had to report on the same day to my department. Full of excitement from my trip, I talked to students in my “Ocean-Atmosphere dynamics” class for hours about the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. While Antarctica is our least explored continent, the Southern Ocean is the least understood region of the world ocean because of its remoteness, sparcity of observations and our incomplete understanding of high latitude processes such as sea ice and glacier dynamics. I hope that some of my Penn students will grow up to be scientists and help preserve and understand our beautiful oceans. I hope that they will be all environmentally educated world citizens, who will get to travel in turn and appreciate our amazing natural world.

Expedition Map.

Expedition Map.

In conclusion: a thrilling adventure to a continent of unparalleled silence and beauty in great, great company! An expedition to remember a lifetime.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni Programming, Alumnni Education, Faculty perspective, Janell W., Penn Alumni Travel, Travel

Penn Alumni Travel: Cuba 2

Author: Professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Department of Art History

From the moment that our plane landed at José Marti Airport in Havana I knew that this Penn Alumni Travel trip would be very different from ones that I had accompanied previously to places such as France, Spain, Argentina, and Chile.  After having successfully passed through immigration and while waiting for our luggage, my husband and I were waylaid as a young women in an official brown uniform began to interview him about his reasons for traveling to Cuba.  She wanted to know what he planned to do while there and what things he had brought with him.  The questions were not particularly invasive, but they did seem to be endless.  As he submitted to this plodding interrogation in the middle of the baggage area, we waited and waited for our suitcases to come off the carousel.

The José Marti Airport in Havana

The José Marti Airport in Havana

After about 20 minutes, the airplane’s cargo began to slowly emerge from the behind the black rubber flaps of the handling area and onto conveyor.  Typical of many flights that I have taken to Latin America and the Caribbean, they included a large number of items that were swathed in the bright blue plastic wrap on offer at most international airports as cheap protection against both spillage and curious fingers.  In this case, rather than swaddling mostly soft-sided suitcases and duffels that are not easily locked, the plastic also covered all sorts of odd-shaped packages.   Some of these had funny protrusions that I soon began to recognize as canned food and other grocery items.  This piqued my interest and the novelty of it quickly distracted me from the banal questions with which the official was peppering my husband.  I began to look a little harder at the things that my fellow travelers were bringing into Cuba from Miami.

While we waited for our luggage to emerge, I saw several doors, a 60-inch television, countless boxes, and many enormous suitcases drop down on the conveyor. Most of the items that had once been wrapped tightly in the blue plastic had now been cut open so that the curiosity of the Cuban officials — or perhaps the United States officials back in Miami — could be satisfied that their contents were permissible.  As remarkable as this display of highly eclectic consumer activity was to me, it soon made sense when we arrived at our hotel in Central Havana and began to explore the immediate neighborhood.  There were only a few shops and the ones that we ventured into hardly had anything for sale on their shelves.

A shop in Havana

A shop in Havana

Street commerce

Street commerce

In the weeks leading up to our trip, I had asked friends and colleagues who had been to Cuba in the past few years about how much money they recommended I bring on the trip.  I was curious about this due to the financial restrictions that travelers from the United States encounter.  Under the current embargo, the Cuban government is not permitted to do any business with US banks — ATMs and credit cards issued by US banks will not work there — so one must bring cash in hand when traveling to Cuba. In addition to the query about money, I also asked people what sorts of things they had brought home.  They all remarked that they had purchased very little as there simply was not very much to buy, regardless of whether or not the items were “permitted” under the embargo (more on this farther down).  I did not fully understand what they meant until I saw the many, many empty shelves in the Havana shops. It was then that I began to understand the impact of the US embargo, what the Cubans call el bloqueo or the blockade, which not only makes everyday life incredible difficult for the average Cuban.  Unless Cubans have access to international travel and foreign currency, it is nearly impossible for them to buy many of the simple things that they need, such as the doors and canned food that I saw sticking out of those blue plastic wrapped packages at the airport.

Blockade sign outside Havana

Blockade sign outside Havana

One of the highlights of the trip for me was a guided walking tour of the UNESCO World Heritage site centered in Old Havana.  There we saw the city’s incredible colonial architecture, which dates back to the 1500s and is currently being restored by Habaguanex.  A national company run by the Cuban government, Habaguanex uses the profits from a group of hotels that it runs in Old Havana and Central Havana to fund the restoration and reconstruction of various buildings in the historically significant parts of the metropolitan area.  Prior to receiving the UNESCO designation and the accompanying funds it provided, many of the buildings in this part of the city were disintegrating into the barely functional ruins that today characterize much of the once-spectacular Cuban architectural landscape.

Detail of Old Havana architecture.

Detail of Old Havana architecture.

The key element in the spiraling disintegration of Cuban architecture, which began following the Revolution over 50 years ago, has been the arcane rules governing property in the communist state. The communist real estate laws that govern multi-family dwellings, which include most of the three and four storey apartment buildings in Havana, seem to make little practical sense (to me at least).  Under Cuban law, families are responsible for the upkeep of their own apartments, but nobody (except for the State, perhaps) is responsible for the upkeep of the building.  Therefore, unlike with co-ops or condominiums in the US, there are no superintendents on duty and little that goes wrong in the common areas, with the façades or the exteriors of buildings, is repaired.  While this is the situation throughout the island, its toll has been particularly acute in Havana, where an average of 3 buildings collapse each day.  This terrible situation makes the recent intervention of UNESCO both timely and welcome to both those who live there and to those of us who visit.  Since its founding in 1994, Habaguanex has facilitated the restoration of Old Havana using a two-pronged approach: 1) it trains youth in traditional construction and decoration techniques that have all but disappeared from practice, and 2) the renovations create a desirable tourist area, which in turn enables the process of restoration to proceed through the production of much-needed funds.  A win-win situation.

Buildings disintegrating

Buildings disintegrating

On the Malecon in Havana.

On the Malecon in Havana.

On our last night, after a week in Cuba, I began to repack my suitcases, neither of them were as large or unwieldy as the strange things I had seen coming off the belt when we arrived.  I had only a few books bought at the National Gallery, a couple of vintage posters from the used book market, and some CDs recorded by musical groups we had heard.  Unlike my experiences on other trips, where I sometimes have had to purchase an extra bag for my purchases (for example the Paris to Normandy cruise I took with Penn Alumni Travel in June of 2013 where a new summer wardrobe and several bottles of aged Calvados were acquired) this time it was pretty easy to fit these things in.  Such “informational materials” are the only items that one is permitted to legally bring back to the United States, and as the faculty host I was “playing it safe,” having resisted the lure of the myriad Che Guevara t-shirts and Cuban flag-adorned aprons and bric-a-brac.

At a contemporary dance workshop in Havana

At a contemporary dance workshop in Havana

Cuba is simply not the place to visit if you want to go shopping — Bermuda or the Caymans are the places for deals on Swiss watches and designer sunglasses.  However, if you are interested art, music, dance, and architecture, then Cuba is a revelation.  Thanks to the experts at Academic Arrangements Abroad, who organized our trip on behalf of Penn Alumni Travel, during our week in Cuba we experienced the very best of these things that the island had to offer.  I will leave it to Alyssa D’Alconzo, Director of Alumni Travel and Education at Penn, who also traveled on my departure to discuss more of the amazing activities we experienced. (Look for Alyssa’s blog on March 27th.)  Now, less than a month later, I am actively making plans to return to Cuba soon (perhaps with some Penn Art History students in tow) and see more of this complex and marvelous country.

Penn alumni and friends at the Havana cathedral.

Penn alumni and friends at the Havana cathedral.

[Interested in travel to Cuba? Penn Alumni Travel will be returning February 14-21, 2015. Email Emilie C. K. LaRosa at emiliek@upenn.edu to be added to a priority reservation list.]

Leave a comment

Filed under Faculty perspective, Penn Alumni Travel, Travel