Learning Among the Ruins — Maya Equinox Cruise

Royal Olympic's Annual Eclectic Adventure to Central America

By Hugh A. Mulligan AP Special Correspondent
Associated Press—Wednesday, June 16, 1999

AT SEA ABOARD TSS STELLA SOLARIS (AP) - It was a heaven-sent, brochure-promised, glorious day in the Gulf of Mexico.

Not a cloud in the sky. Hardly enough wind to churn up a whitecap or the stomach of a queasy passenger. In our bow wave, flying fish by the hundreds skipped across the turquoise waters in an iridescent arc, fleeing the menacing fin of a hammerhead shark.

Yet the decks of the Stella Solaris were strangely deserted. No one was about, save for a sailor chipping paint and a late-rising couple seeking the solace of hot bouillon after greeting the dawn in the discotheque. No sun-worshippers by the pool, no bridge players in the card room…

Where was everyone?

Down in the theater, deep in the bowels of the ship near the anchor chain, listening as a team of lecturers headed by historian Daniel Boorstin held forth on the mysteries of the Mayan civilization.

After a siesta-inducing lunch, most of the 465 passengers forsook the inviting deck chairs and crowded into the lounge to hear anthropologist Rebecca Storey of the University of Houston discourse on the human skeletons exhumed at the Copan ruins in Honduras.

The next day almost the entire passenger list and a goodly segment of the cruise staff piled into 11 buses for a 31/2-hour ride to ruins at Chichen Itza, Mexico. Here the mythic “feathered serpent” would descend the north face of the great pyramid on the day of the vernal equinox, as thousands of enraptured Mexicans cheered and beat tin-pan gongs.

One best comprehends the impact of 11 tourist buses in a row by viewing the line outside the women's room at the first pit stop. Yet in the name of culture, there were few to complain.

Going to sea to get learned rather than sunburned is one of the fastest-growing segments of the cruise industry. Travelers no longer just transit the Panama Canal. They absorb its history and details of shipping and lock maintenance from experts like historian David McCullough.

Sailing up the Amazon or off Australia's Great Barrier Reef or in the path of St. Paul's journeys across the Mediterranean now means more than postcards and boring the dinner guests with slide shows. These are opportunities for in-depth exploration and on-site learning at graduate level under the guidance of expert lecturers.

The trend toward cruising as a cultural quest parallels the rapid growth of Elderhostel, a nonprofit organization that arranges educational voyages for seniors that take in everything from Antarctica to Zanzibar. Harvard, Fordham and many other universities now have their own alumni travel and study programs, using faculty members as guides and lecturers.

Even Club Med, former purveyor of ooh-la-la topless sand and sea vacations, now enlists poets, authors and editors to provide cultural enrichment at some of its sun-kissed villages around the world.

In 11 days aboard the 18,000-ton Stella Solaris, flagship of Royal Olympic line, the seagoing scholars visited other Mayan temples, pyramids and sacred wells in Belize, Honduras and Guatemala.

Accompanied by vacationing university lecturers, they debarked at obscure ports, off the beaten tourist path, where loading bananas onto container ships sustained the local economy more than duty-free shopping.

The faculty without exception found their shipboard audiences more attentive and better informed than the cream of their college classes.

“Older passengers in particular, 50 and above, have an intense hunger to cruise someplace and learn something, instead of just eating themselves to death in the dining room,“ said Dr. Anthony Aveni, author and professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University.

Eager late-learners kept the faculty on its toes long after classes were out. Aveni was out on deck every evening explaining the phenomenon of the green flash caused by the sun sinking into the sea. And later, sometimes arrayed in the tuxedo that is de rigueur on formal nights, he was on the darkened lido deck pointing out the constellations to those passing up the midnight buffet.

“Retired people have not retired their brains. They want more out of life than just recreation,” said planetarium scientist and NASA consultant Ted Pedas, who launched the concept of astronomy-theme cruises more than two decades ago. Cruise lines at first were cautiously reluctant to market enrichment over entertainment, but many have since come aboard and seek out big-name professors as eagerly as they do top cabaret acts.

In addition to pioneering annual Equinox cruises to the Mayan ruins, Pedas in 1993 organized a Mediterranean voyage to view the Perseid meteor shower. He now serves as project coordinator for Royal Olympic ships, which fly the Greek flag.

Come August, like a fleet admiral, Pedas will dispatch five ships into the Black Sea to witness the last complete solar eclipse of this millennium. Astronaut Scott Carpenter heads his lecture team. Dozens of competing cruise ships will be deployed along a 70-mile wide band stretching from Land's End, England, to southeast Turkey to catch the Aug. ll solar eclipse.

Why would so many travel so far to chase two minutes and five seconds of total daytime darkness?

“An eclipse is much more than a learning experience. It's a celestial event that Europeans have been waiting four decades for. Not since 1961 has the shadow of the moon touched their continent. In North America this will not occur again until the year 2017,” said Pedas, who has been fascinated by solar eclipses since first seeing darkness at noon when he was 12 years old.

“Ships at sea are the best observation platforms for a solar eclipse,” he enthused. “They have access to immediate weather information, can maneuver into the best viewing position and enjoy 360 degrees of visibility, from horizon to horizon, unimpeded by dust or light pollution from land. Camera nuts will have a filming frenzy, and everyone will want to drink up knowledge, then some of the captain's champagne, when the sun shines again.”

With water, water everywhere but few on deck to care, the thirst for knowledge among our shipmates approached the cravings of Coleridge's parched “Ancient Mariner.”

Five times as many passengers flocked to Dr. Boorstin's closing lecture as attended the final jackpot session of ‘Snowball Bingo.’ The shuffleboard tournament had to be canceled for lack of interest - actually, because of greater interest in learning the Mayan alphabet.

Even the Romanian magician who could cough up a dozen pingpong balls was spotted between floor shows reading up on magic and blood sacrifices among the tribes of the Yucatan.

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E-mail:   Ted Pedas — mpedas@ix.netcom.com