"Music tells me everything about a country," a male student shouted over loud speakers that were pounding "Caracas Caracas (Cadillac mix)" and "La Burra (classic version)" from a CD by the Venezuelan group Un Solo Pueblo. He was practicing salsa moves in the Student Union with three dozen other slow-footed friends the night before the ship was to dock in La Guaira, Venezuela.
Minutes before, the union was the gathering spot for a serious pre-port lecture. Before arriving in 10 ports during their 101-day voyage, Semester at Sea students will be prepped by instructors, country specialists and sometimes government officials. Today, they heard about Venezuela's petroleum-based economy, the shacks that cling to the unstable hillsides and President Hugo Chavez's controversial reign since 1999.
Kevin Lewis of the American Consulate in Venezuela warned students of the high crime rate in the capital of Caracas as well as the port and nearby coastal areas. "Avoid dark streets," he said. White taxis with yellow license plates were OK; "gypsy taxis" with clouds of smoke billowing from the mufflers were not. He told them to stay out of the crowded subways and buses where pickpockets could easily spot the rare American tourist. "Let me be clear," he said. "This is my weekend, and I don't really want to work."
Pat Robertson's recent remarks about assassinating Chavez were on everyone's mind. "How do you say 'I am a Canadian' in Spanish?" asked one member of the audience. Lewis assured the group that he hadn't noticed any animosity toward U.S. citizens from Venezuelans. In a monotone, he made a statement he had been repeating for days: "The remarks of Pat Robertson do not represent the opinion of the U.S. government."
To also prepare the students before they spent four days at their first stop, Max Brandt, an ethnomusicologist who lived in Venezuela and has a decades-long association with Semester at Sea, described the exotic mix of instruments in the national songs -- a harp, cuatro (four-string guitar) and maracas.
Then he invited students to teach one another other to salsa dance. With an unbalanced student body that has twice as many females to males, the small group that stayed to test their dance-floor moves surprisingly paired up evenly into couples.
Left right, right left. Beginners stomping heavily on the first beat looked like Frankenstein at first but slowly loosened up.
What would be the thread that ties these diverse countries together? The mandatory Global Studies course is centered on themes of identity, liberty and security. For some, however, the comparisons may be about religion, food or clothing. It will be music for one student who plans to collect an instrument and CD from every port. "Music," she said, "helps me understand the rhythm of the people who created it."
Next: Off-the-agenda adventures in tourists-sparse Venezuela.