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Swimming My Way Around the World

Prof. Elaine Leeder has sailed on three SAS voyages and has found her way to pools in many of the countries she’s visited. She also has swum in the MV Explorer’s pool (pictured here) using swim bands. (Photo by SAS photographer Bryan Koop)


Some people like to shop their way around the world. I prefer to experience ports by swimming and finding pools in as many ports as I can. This solution has served me well in more than 24 ports and three voyages (S’92, S’99, F’13) and accommodates my swimming obsession. It is also my way of having a cross-cultural experience in the countries that we’ve visited on Semester at Sea.

For example, at a hotel, in Mahabalapurim, India, during the Spring 1999 round-the-world voyage, I found a small pool at a hotel. I quickly made my way out there and was greeted by orange peels in the water. I could not tell why they were there, but I was undeterred, fishing them out and diving in for my swim. Others around me looked at me as if I were crazy, but I knew this was an experience I would never forget. A dozen local folks watching me swim applauded when I got out of the pool. I was touched by their kindness and generosity of spirit. The experience of such welcome spurred me on to try other places.

On that same voyage, in Ho Chi Minh City, I found a French colonial hotel with a lovely rooftop pool. I hadn’t intended to swim, but since I always carry my suit and goggles I asked if I could swim and was allowed to do so. The setting was idyllic: palm trees growing out of pots, Vietnamese music playing in the background, the stars out in the night sky and the city sounds receding into the distance. I was honored to be in a place near where many Americans and Vietnamese had died and where I was now welcomed as a friend.

In Kobe, Japan, I found a local public pool and an introduction to Japanese culture and etiquette. To get to the pool, I had to walk through not one, not two, not even three showers. By the time I reached the pool I had seven showers; I knew I was properly clean by Japanese standards. Not long into my swim I was urged out of the pool by the lifeguard, who insisted that I join the other 20 swimmers in calisthenics. Thus, I found myself doing jumping jacks, touching my toes and other physical exertions—a full Japanese pool workout experience. On the way out, I had to take three more showers before I could exit.

Among the pools in which Elaine Leeder has swum and explored during this Fall 2013 have  been (from left to right) Dublin, Ireland; Casablanca, Morocco and Cadiz, Spain. (Photos courtesy of Elaine Leeder)

My current voyage, the Fall 2013 voyage, is equally fascinating. I have found pools in Hamburg, Germany; Dublin, Ireland; Cadiz, Spain; Casablanca, Morocco and Cape Town, South Africa. The pools in Ireland and Germany surprised me the most with our cultural differences and swimming etiquette, and where I discovered that I am more prudish than Europeans. The locker rooms for men and women are only separated by a corridor with doors left open, affording little privacy.

Other cross-cultural comparisons lend themselves to observation as well: Swimmers usually swim circles if the pool is full and a lane has to be shared. Some countries follow that rule and others do not. In Germany I was hit many times by swimmers circling and I had to protect myself when I saw someone coming. In Ireland, the circle rule did not apply, however, I could never figure out how I was supposed to share a lane as people swam in every direction. So, I just watched out for myself.

I have enjoyed swimming in Cadiz in Casablanca and in Cape Town the best on this 50th anniversary voyage. While language was a barrier in both places, it was not insurmountable. The kindness of strangers was true in both countries and reassuring to see as a traveler to places where one is not always certain of how you’ll be received.

In Cadiz, I was fortunate to meet an English-speaking gentleman who helped me and a friend get through the bureaucracy to get a day pass. The pool was excellent and I swam to my heart’s content. We were even able to find our way back to the ship with a public bus! In Cape Town, I took a taxi to a public pool in a township. The pool was recently built by the government and showed the beginnings of some change coming to South Africa. It gave me some hope for the country’s future, and for the future of the people of these townships, to see such a state-of-the-art facility for those denied it in the past.

I will continue to swim my way around the world, seeking adventure, a challenge and a great workout and making new discoveries about the countries we visit on SAS and about myself as a traveler. One is never to old to learn and I couldn’t ask for more.

  • Culture

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