Category Archives: Penn Alumni Travel

Penn Alumni Travel: Celtic Lands

Author: Emilie C. K. LaRosa

In May, I had the pleasure of joining a Penn Alumni Travel trip to the “Celtic Lands” with faculty host Professor Rebecca Bushnell (who wrote a lovely post about the tour here). The tour was a seven-day cruise to Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Normandy, and England- the Celtic Lands. In addition to Professor Bushnell, we were fortunate to have four other wonderful lecturers aboard from Brown University, Dartmouth College, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Smithsonian Journeys.

One of the unique qualities of a Penn Alumni Travel trip is access to these world-renowned scholars. Nearly every tour we run includes a Penn faculty host who not only gives formal lectures during the course of the trip, but also participates fully in the program and is available for conversation and informal discussion throughout the journey.

On this particular cruise, there were more scholars and more lectures than even the best alumni student could keep up with! As I noted, the theme of the tour was “Celtic Lands,” and so we had a wonderful lecture “Who Were the Celts” by Dwight Young of the National Trust. Professor Bushnell continued this theme with her theater-themed lecture “Shakespeare and the Celtic Lands.”


Rebecca speaks to lingering alumni after her talk.

Rebecca speaks to lingering alumni after her talk.

But that wasn’t the only theme explored on board our ship Le Boréal. We had several interesting lectures about transatlantic journeys from Professor Christopher Griffin of Smithsonian Journeys and, of course, there were many lectures about World War II and Operation Overlord. In addition to the scholars who joined us for the entire tour, we had two special guests at the end of the trip: D. David Eisenhower II, grandson of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Celia Sandys, granddaughter of Winston Churchill.

Both David and Celia joined the cruise just before we reached the D-Day beaches of Normandy on June 5, one day before the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. We heard fantastic lectures from both. David presented “Operation Overlord” and Celia discussed “Memories of my Grandfather.” Both talks were full of interesting details and personal reminiscences that brought that period to life for those on board.

When we arrived in Caen, France David joined our Penn bus and spent the day pointing out significant landmarks and discussing his own lengthy research about the battle and his grandfather.

David at the Pointe du Hoc with Penn alumni and friends.

David at the Pointe du Hoc with Penn alumni and friends.

David speaks to an American soldier at Omaha Beach. Many troops were in Normandy for the 70th Anniversary commemorative ceremonies. Photo courtesy of Penn alumnus Frederick Allen, C’60.

David speaks to an American soldier at Omaha Beach. Many troops were in Normandy for the 70th Anniversary commemorative ceremonies. Photo courtesy of Penn alumnus Frederick Allen, C’60.

It was a truly special moment for everyone on board. Our hope at Penn Alumni Travel is that every tour experiences moments such as these—unique insights into a culture, a people, or a moment—that will transform the trip into more than just an itinerary.

Next year we’ll be joining David again on a Celtic Lands cruise. For more information, click here.

For information on all our 2015 tours, click here.

We hope to see you on a future Penn Alumni Travel trip!

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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

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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.


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


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.


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).


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!).


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).


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.


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.


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


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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My 25 Year Penn Reunion: Living an “As Is” life in a world that only wants “So Perfect!”

Author:  Lisa Niver Rajna, C’89

Wandering on Madison Ave in Manhattan last week, I noticed paparazzi everywhere. After asking, a woman told us, with tears in her eyes, that JLo was eating lunch. I would have missed her. She did not look “So Perfect” but she is stunning. As I left New York City for Philadelphia for my twenty-five year college reunion, I have been thinking about what have I done and what do I want for the next twenty-five years!

In a life filled with product placement where JLo is lifting her Coca-Cola glass so many times per hour on American Idol, our lives have been given a structure that we might not purchase if it were not so insidious.

In As Is by Rachel Michael Arends, the story is told through several narrators and Arends is able to share deep perspectives about how people with different lifestyles lock themselves into their own cage about money, sexuality, and professions of what they think that want and should own and should do.

Through Arends’ intriguing characters, we are able to wonder and wander. Is it a good choice to be an artist? Is it okay to defer your dream to care for your father? Most of the interactions and characters would have accepted the decisions of their friend or family member if they had only been told. Fear made nearly every character in this book withhold their personal truth.

Hiding themselves made them seem like a cheap imitation of what they could have brought to the table. Choosing to be courageous and wish for what they really wanted and reach out to receive it often only comes after tragedy and hardship but hopefully Rachel Michael Arends’ novel gives you the hope to share your story and live a life painted fully without regrets.

Early in the novel, Gwendolyn says: “On television it can look glamorous, and perhaps some people would love this lifestyle. But I don’t,” I wondered what didn’t she like? And who was she really?

Wandering the parade and picnic at the University of Pennsylvania, I thought what would life be like if we did not pretend. Gwendolyn believes that Armand “actually enjoys being So Perfect all the time,” it gave me pause to think about who do I know who resembles that remark and do they feel like Gwendolyn that “it just seems wrong, incongruous, and unnatural,” and more of a cage than a life.

There were many buttons to wear at Reunion: “I met my wife at Penn,” “<3 Penn,” and “Don’t worry, I don’t remember you either!” Maybe several alums felt like Gwendolyn: “I find it scary and unnerving when strangers approach me as if we’re old friends. I don’t like to worry about what I wear, if my hair and makeup look good enough (according to Armand they never do), what I say, or how I say it. I prefer to stay at home behind our high fences, inside our security system.”

w/ Joyce Lim Twomey

w/ Joyce Lim Twomey


She has been told by Trey, her producer, “I’m lucky to have this job, that anyone in her right mind would want it.” At an Ivy League institution, in marriage or in many other settings, we are sold that line about being lucky. I went to medical school because I was smart in science. Like Gwendolyn I felt, “I don’t want to let anyone down…[but] I’m beginning to fear that I’ll be trapped in this mansion forever.” We sometimes become embroiled in a labyrinth or career and we seem to be stuck. Breaking out of the mold and consciously taking a different path can be a struggle but isn’t the freedom, to be who we really are, worth it?

When we become lost from our selves, we often need someone like Gwendolyn’s sister, Megan, to ask us: “What’s your plan? Are you going back there?” We all want to have someone in our life that we can tell as Gwendolyn does, “You’re like an island of sanity in the craziest day I’ve ever had.” It is possible we have those people already if we would only be honest with them about how we feel and what we need. Most of us keep our wounds and concerns a secret only sharing what we think looks “So Perfect” to the constant measuring up on Instagram and Pinterest.

When one character with a cane walks on a floor above Gwendolyn with a sliding sound, she muses, “It’s strange to think of carrying your damage on the outside where everyone can see it.” What if we shared our fears and foibles on Facebook and not just our fairytales that come true? Carrie, a character who is a fan of Gwendolyn on television but becomes a true friend in the story, shares, “The biggest thing I’ve learned over the course of this year is that life is one big surprise after another, and maybe I should loosen up and try my best to roll with it.” As I walked the parade on Saturday standing in between the two wonderful women who were my college roommates, I realized that I am so lucky in both an “as is” and “so perfect” way to have walked this road surrounded by people who know what I look life in real life and want to be friends anyway! Whether there are tears of joy or sadness, they have always run to my side, whenever I am ready to share this rollercoaster of life.

Arends’ character, Armand, realizes that “As Is,” could be his “motto for acceptance. Not an excuse to settle necessarily, but a reminder that at a certain point, you just need to say, OK, enough is enough! I’m sick of chasing the dream of perfection and that’s not a failure.”

Gwendolyn does believe in fate, as she says, “You have to. I just saw a falling star out the window and I wished for you. When I looked up, there you were!” In some ways like the movies, we want to say, “I wished for you” and for the person to appear. What if you are really wishing for yourself to stand up, take up space and live your dreams? I wish for you that you are inspired to pause and think about your own parade and find a path that leads you to yourself and the fulfillment of your best dreams.

w/Barbara Yorke

w/Barbara Yorke

About the Author: Lisa Niver Rajna (CAS 1989) was honored to walk in graduation on May 19, 2014 with her classmates from twenty-five years ago! Learn more about her journeys at and

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Filed under 25th Reunion, Alumni Perspective, Alumni Programming, Alumni Weekend, Campus Life, Commencement, Lisa N.R., Memories of Penn, Penn Alumni Travel, Penn Park, Reunions, Traditions

Penn Museum Lecture Series

Author: Emilie C. K. LaRosa

One of my favorite things about working for Penn is the access to world-renowned scholars. At Penn Alumni Travel, we find that that is also one of our travelers’ favorite things about touring with us: access to a Penn faculty host during the trip. With over 4,400 standing and associated faculty at the school, it’s difficult to narrow down our list of travel host prospects. Luckily, there are many ways to hear from and learn about a Professor’s work and research. The Penn Museum’s annual lecture series in one such way.

Every year, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology holds a thematic lecture series that takes place every first Wednesday of the month during the academic year. This isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about this lecture series (see my February 2013 post) and, over a year later, I’m still a fan. This year’s theme is “Great Voyages: Travels, Triumphs, and Tragedies.” (Last year’s theme was “Great Battles: Moments in Time that Changed History. I’m excited to find out what next year’s theme will be!)


The lectures take place in beautiful Harrison Auditorium and span such topics as Ferdinand Magellan, the detours of Ibn Battuta, and Gilgamesh. They are an excellent opportunity to learn about something new and hear from some of our best Penn professors in the fields of archaeology, history, and classical studies.

At a Penn Museum lecture earlier this winter.

At a Penn Museum lecture earlier this winter.

There are two lectures left this year: “Searching for the Golden Fleece with Jason and the Argonauts” with Professor C. Brian Rose and “Darwin’s Beagle Voyage” with Professor Michael Weisberg. Both professors are also hosting Penn Alumni Travel trips this fall. Professor Rose is traveling with our group to Turkey and Professor Weisberg with our group to the Galapagos.

If you have some free time tonight or on June 4th, consider spending it at the Penn Museum. I think you’ll find it was worth the effort to come to campus and return home a little later than usual. And, at $5/person, these talks are a great deal.  Click here to register for either Penn Museum lecture.


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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.


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.

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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.


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.



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Penn Alumni Travel: Travel Webinars

Author: Emilie C. K. LaRosa

Today, Penn Alumni Travel is hosting a free travel webinar on the British archipelago and Viking culture with Professor David Wallace of Penn’s English department The webinar begins at 12 p.m. EDT, and there’s still time to register- just click here.

Professor Wallace will be discussing some of the highlights of Viking exploration as well as the legacy of Viking culture in today’s society.

An example of Viking navigation.

An example of Viking navigation.

Our education and travel webinars are fantastic forums for interesting mini-lectures, lively discussion, and the chance to get your questions answered about the topic at hand. We encourage all our participants to come ready to engage with our Penn professor and other travel experts who join us on these hour-long webinars.

We have two additional travel webinars coming up this spring and summer: The Great Journey Through Europe with Professor Andre Dombrowski (May 15 at 12 p.m. EDT) and Turkey with Professor C. Brian Rose (August 27 at 12 p.m. EDT). Both webinars will explore the history and culture of the specified region and will follow with travel tips and an opportunity for Q & A. You can register for all these free webinars here.

The excavation at Troy. Professor Rose spent time digging at this location.

The excavation at Troy. Professor Rose spent time digging at this location.

If you’re itching for more than just an online travel discussion, perhaps you’re ready to join a Penn Alumni Travel trip where you can visit these sites in person while having access to a Penn faculty host’s expertise. Click here to view all our 2014 tours. And check out our site tomorrow when we reveal our 2015 schedule!


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Penn Alumni Travel Cuba 2: Part 2

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Author: Alyssa D’Alconzo, GED ’04, GRD ’11

As Faculty Host and Penn Professor Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw’s recent post suggested, Cuba was an economically, politically, and culturally fascinating country to visit. There was something new to see, learn, and experience around every corner, and we certainly made the most of our time in Havana. What follows is a brief overview of our day-by-day itinerary. The memories, feelings, and lessons we took away are difficult to articulate in a blog post, so I encourage you to experience it yourself on the Penn Alumni Travel 2015 Cuba departure!

Saturday, January 18: MIAMI/HAVANA

We had a fantastic group of Penn Alumni and friends on our trip.

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After convening in Miami, we flew to Havana and connected with the rest of the support team for the week.

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Front: Bus Driver Jaoquin; Center: (left to right) Tour Guide Yuni, Tour Director Ute, Professor Gwendolyn, Staff Host – me!; Back: Translator John

We checked in to the Saratoga Hotel

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for lunch and began the first in our series of lectures. Pepe, the former deputy minister of foreign affairs, gave us an introductory lecture on Cuba’s current economic and political reality and joined us afterwards for dinner at El Aljibe, a State-run restaurant.

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Sunday, January 19: HAVANA

Our first full day in Havana started with a lecture from architectural historian Miguel Coyula

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and continued with a walking tour of Old Havana.

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It was during Miguel’s talk that we learned about “fan lights”, arches filled with stained glass, which we saw all over the city.

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After learning why Miguel considers Havana a little piece of Europe in the Caribbean,

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our tour concluded with lunch near the cathedral. Moneda Cubana was our first visit to a paladar, a restaurant in a private home that operates with the special permission of the Cuban government.

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In the afternoon we visited the homes and studios of some of Havana’s leading artists. The arts have long presented Cubans with an opportunity to cautiously express their views on society, and we had fascinating conversations with Maria, Frank, Adrian, Alex,

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and Kdir.

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In the evening, most of our group took the opportunity to listen to and dance with the famous Buena Vista Social Club!

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Monday, January 20: HAVANA                                              

Our morning lecture on this day was by Maria Antonia Fernandez Mtinez who discussed rural and urban agriculture in Cuba.

We continued to the small, hilltop village of San Francisco de Paula to see Finca La Vigía, the house where author Ernest Hemingway lived for 20 years

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and saw, on the grounds, his fishing boat Pilar.

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On our way back to Havana, we stopped for a brief visit to the village of Cojímar, the setting for The Old Man and the Sea.

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We stopped on the drive back to Havana for lunch at a paladar, Doña Carmela, before returning to the hotel.

Rounding out a busy day was a private, after-hours tour of the Ceramics Museum,

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an incredible private classical guitar concert by Luis Manuel Molina, and dinner at a nearby restaurant, San Felipe.

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Tuesday, January 21: HAVANA

Our wonderful faculty host Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw was our lecturer today!

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After learning about art depicting Colonial Cuba, we journeyed to the Museum of the Revolution, which vividly describes Cuba’s history from Colonial times through the winning of independence to the revolution.

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With a bit of free time afterwards, some guests paid a visit to the Hotel Nacional, a historic hotel once frequented by famous actors, artists, athletes, writers, and mobsters.

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Later that evening we visited the Ludwig Foundation for the Arts for a presentation on Cuban Art.

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The Foundation President hosted a cocktail reception and homemade buffet dinner on the penthouse terrace, and we dined with young Cuban artists.

Wednesday, January 22: HAVANA / MATANZAS / VARADERO

Time to hit the road to see more of the country! Departing for Matanzas, we stopped en route at the Bacunayagua Bridge, the highest in Cuba, with beautiful, panoramic views of the nearby valley.

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Upon arrival in Matanzas, we toured the Castle of San Severino, which included rooms exhibiting Santeria (an Afro-Cuban religious tradition) and slavery as part of UNESCO’s project “The Route of the Slave.”

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We continued to the homes/studios of two artists, Daylene, a photographer, and Borodino, a painter,

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before enjoying lunch at the beautifully restored Xanadu, the former Dupont Mansion built in the 1930s.

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Finally, we arrived in Varadero to rest for a night before more sightseeing in Matanzas.

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Thursday, January 23: VARADERO / MATANZAS / HAVANA

Making our way back to Havana, we stopped at the Pharmacy Museum in Matanzas

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and attended a private, a capella choir concert.

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A visit to Ediciones Vigia, where handmade books are created, followed

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and preceded a stop at the studio of local sculptor Osmany Betencourt aka Lolo.

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Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw led a talk about the Havana Bienal on the bus ride back to Havana.

Despite being tired from traveling, some passengers visited the Tropicana at night!

Friday, January 24: HAVANA

Our last day in Havana came quickly but also brought one of the highlights of our trip — attending an informal rehearsal of the Contemporary Dance Company of Cuba at the Teatro Nacional.

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We spent the remainder of the morning at the National Museum of Fine Arts with a curatorial tour focusing on its Cuban art collection.

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In the late afternoon, we drove by classic car

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to attend a private concert by Ars Longa

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at the Church of San Francisco de Paula

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before our farewell dinner at another popular paladar, San Cristobal.

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Saturday, January 25: HAVANA / MIAMI

We bade farewell to our fabulous tour guide, tour director, architects, artists, museum directors, students, and each other and departed for home.

Our time in Cuba was spectacular! If you would like to experience it yourself, e-mail Emilie LaRosa ( to be placed on the priority reservation list for our next departure, February 14-21, 2015 with Professor Sharon Ravitch.

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And The Winners Are…

Author: Janell Wiseley

The fourth annual Penn Alumni Travel photo contest has come to a close. The votes are in and the winners have been notified!

The contest was open to all participants who have taken a Penn Alumni Travel trip. Photos were judged on creativity and quality, as well as relevance to the specific category.  All photos were judged by Alumni Relations staff, Penn Alumni Travel faculty hosts, and our 2013 passengers.

You can view all photo contest submissions here.

Penn Alumni would like to congratulate the following winners

Grand Prize Winner &1st Place in the Culture Category: Women Dying Alpaca Wool, Sacred Valley, Peru by Barbara Holland, L’86

Grand Prize Winner &1st Place in the Culture Category: Women Dying Alpaca Wool, Sacred Valley, Peru by Barbara Holland, L’86

1st Place People Category: Two Gentlemen of Trinidad, Cuba by Barry Keller, C’60

1st Place People Category: Two Gentlemen of Trinidad, Cuba by Barry Keller, C’60

1st Place Places Category: Machu Picchu just before Close by Margaux Viola

1st Place Places Category: Machu Picchu just before Close by Margaux Viola

1st Place Nature Category: Zebras in Tanzania by Sydnee Alenier, Penn Spouse

1st Place Nature Category: Zebras in Tanzania by Sydnee Alenier, Penn Spouse

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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 to be added to a priority reservation list.]

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