Stories from the Amazon

  • Carribbean Ocean
    The blue waters of the Caribbean Ocean off the north coast of South America.



    Meeting Interesting People While Teaching at Sea


    The water was the blue you imagined an ocean to be, but bluer, as the Explorer sliced through the Caribbean off the north coast of South America.

    The Explorer is a cruise ship converted to a floating campus, currently sponsored by the University of Virginia. It has semester-long programs and shorter enrichment programs squeezed in between.

    I’m presenting one of the short programs.

    On board, participants are free to choose and attend from a number of workshops and lectures.

    The Union Hall is used for major keynotes, presenters and entertainment. Scattered across the rest of the ship are classrooms and meeting areas of various sizes.

    It is small enough to feel cozy but large enough to find space to be alone.

    Every morning, I leave my small cabin of two twin beds to have breakfast and then return to find my bed made and room cleaned. This is definitely a change from when I backpacked around the world, and it’s something I deeply appreciate.

    In addition to the lectures I presented on the ship, I did a photography workshop titled Photography 101: The Basics.

    The intention of the workshop was to support people in taking better photos, wherever they were in their skill level.

    Sitting in the front row of my workshop was former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and her friend, Dr. James Todd, a lecturer from the University of Virginia.

    Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
    Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor gives a keynote presentation on the MV Explorer.



    The classroom was packed and a large number of people had to be turned away.

    I’ve conducted the workshop a number of times, but this time I was a bit nervous.

    During the hour, I covered basic principles of composition and the choices a photographer makes when creating an image. This included the general principle to not put subjects directly in the middle of the photo. I used my images to reinforce what was just discussed and invited participants to share their opinions.

    A few minutes later, I showed a photo of me where my cheek was next to a young camel in Mongolia and the subject was directly in the middle of the photo.

    Dr. Todd asked, “Is this your girlfriend?” That had the people in the room laughing.

    Then a participant piped up and questioned, “I thought you said not to put the subject directly in the middle of the photo.”

    I replied, “That’s correct, you want to avoid it. But once you understand the principles, you can play with it. It’s not against the law to put the subject in the middle.”

    “Are you sure?” It was Justice O’Connor who responded with her keen sense of humor and timing.

    Once again the entire class broke into a roar of laughter.

    Smiling, I replied, “Well, Your Honor, I’m not one to argue with a Supreme Court justice, but remember what I said at the start. If the photo makes you happy, go for it.”

    After my presentation, Justice O’Connor invited me to join her for dinner.

    That evening was a gift, a chance to sit down for a small window of time and listen to stories from a remarkable person.

    Justice O’Connor talked about growing up on the family ranch in New Mexico.

    “When I was young, one day my father brought home a baby bobcat that was so tiny he would fit into the pocket of my father’s jacket,” she said. “He looked for the mother but couldn’t find her, so he brought it home to me.”

    I asked, “What did you call him?”

    “Bob, of course,” she replied, smiling.

    “As Bob grew up, he started to disappear for days and occasionally return. He never bit me and I was never afraid. After time, some of the chickens started to disappear from the chicken coop. My father caught Bob one night in the chicken coop. It wasn’t long after I never saw Bob again.”

    She talked about the smell of rain after a long dry spell, or chasing the end of a rainbow with her father in his pickup looking for a pot of gold.

    “You keep up your great work with kids,” she said after our meal. “It’s important work.”

    “Yes, Your Honor.”

    Classroom aboard ship
    Robert Atkinson, an author from Maine leads a writing workshop aboard the MV Explorer.



    Fremont Tribune








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