A group of Harvard-Westlake students, accompanied by chaplain Fr. J. Young, are testing the waters of the Semester at Sea program, which is opening up to high school students. The group is part of an inaugural two-week Panama Canal cruise over winter break. Usually, students would spend an entire semester at sea. The group left on Wednesday, Dec. 15.
Chloe Lister ’12 and Vivien Mao ’12 are two of the Harvard-Westlake students who are trying out a two-week version of the Semester at Sea, which is going to be opened to high school students for the first time. They are blogging for the Chronicle about their trip.
Monday, Dec. 20
Today was the first of two we’re spending in port at Porto Quetzal, Guatemala. Originally we were scheduled to spend some of this time in Acapulco, Mexico, but due to recent problems with crime there, the city was deemed “too dangerous” by the Semester at Sea staff, letting us choose an extra activity for our additional day here. Vivien, Sophie, Connie and I chose to go with Father Young and his wife, Cindy, as well as a few others from the pre-college program to the city of Antigua, where we were allowed to wander the city on our own to experience the local culture.
After some alarm clock troubles that caused Vivien and me to miss breakfast, we boarded the bus for an hour-and-a-half ride from the port to Antigua and watched miles and miles of coffee fields pass by, surprised by the occasional untended burning patch of land, which our guide explained was perfectly normal to keep the crops fertile.
Eventually, we reached Antigua. As soon as we exited the bus, women and children holding textiles, flutes, necklaces, bracelets, and other souvenirs bombarded us. As soon as any of us made eye contact, one would exclaim, “hello miss!” and tell us that they would give us a “very special price” for whatever it was they were selling. After repeating “no gracias” and “maybe later” several times, we decided to go out and wander the streets of Antigua apart from Father Young and Cindy, under the condition that we would meet back at the town square periodically.
While walking the streets of the Guatemalan city, we were continually surprised by how pushy the locals were to sell their goods. Along every street, people stood outside stores handing our cards to advertise or beckoning to pedestrians to come inside. When a man tried to convince us to purchase something from his store, The Jade Factory, our friend Kaylen instead told him we would come back if he told us where we could find some authentic Guatemalan food, seeing as all the food we had encountered so far had been distinctly American.
The man immediately led us away from the main street and down a side street; half our group broke off to go the opposite direction because they “weren’t hungry;” they later confessed that they were anxious about being murdered. Even I’ll admit that I instinctively tapped into the knowledge I had gained from all the self defense classes my mom made me take in middle school and mentally scanned the area to see how many other people were around and what escape routes were available.
However, before I was able to fully estimate if Vivien, Kaylen and I would be able to overpower this man, we turned another corner and the man pointed at a restaurant, explaining that it was the best in all of Antigua. Gazing at the meats, salsa and guacamole displayed in the storefront, we eagerly tipped our guide and proceeded to sit down, ready for our breakfast.
We quickly realized that nothing on the menu was in English, and, when we asked for assistance, that no one working knew any English either. Seeing as I don’t eat meat, determining what was safe ended up being the hardest part; once our waiter realized that both “carne” and “pollo” were out of the picture, he pointed to an item that, with the help of Vivien and Kaylen, I decided didn’t have any questionable substances, so I ordered it.
What I was brought was unquestionably the best meal I have had on this trip so far. I’m still not entirely sure what went into it other than eggs, tomatoes and peppers, but it was delicious and unlike anything I’ve had in Los Angeles.
Afterwards, we asked our waiter to take our picture, and he asked us in fragmented English if we wanted to go up to their roof. We quickly agreed, and soon could see basically the entire town of Antigua from above. The view was beautiful, and Kaylen said that it was completely worth her initial fear that we were being led to a “rape chamber.”
It was a surprising meal, to say the least; I definitely realized the limitations of the little Spanish I know, and that even though you have to always be careful and alert, not all foreigners are rapists and murderers. It’s a racist mindset that clearly a lot of people possess, and I plan on working hard to abolish mine in the next two weeks.
For our next destination, we decided on the market to purchase gifts for our friends and family. As soon as we stepped into the area where the vendors were located, several different people again called out to us.
After the solid practice I had haggling in Cabo San Lucas, I thought I was ready to scout out some bargains from the Guatemalan merchants. However, I don’t think I realized beforehand the guilt that would accompany that haggling; I could feed the family of the person I was buying from depending on if I chose to pay and extra $5 or $10. Although it was hard to ignore the nagging knowledge that I was vastly overcharged for a few of my purchases, I did genuinely feel like by not being so stingy I had made a small difference in someone else’s life.
We bought some snacks to take back to our rooms and visited one of the several chapels that were built in Antigua in the 16th century. We then decided to relax in the town’s square, where a swarm of children selling textiles and jewelry descended upon us.
“Miss, you said you’d buy from us in the morning,” one would say. “Why did you go to the market and buy things instead of from me?”
Vivien had it the worst. She had told one girl, Lilly, that she would buy something from her when she came back to the bus later. Lilly had remembered her, and as soon as we sat down began trying to sell her scarves. She began with $5 for one scarf, and slowly worked her way down until she was asking $1 for three scarves.
“Wait, really?” Vivien said. “Okay, done.”
“Five dollars for one,” Lilly replied.
Things continued on this way for quite a while; Lilly called Vivien a liar, cheap, and somehow still convinced her to buy a scarf for $3.
Tired and content, we returned to our bus and then back to the ship. Currently, I’m sitting in my room with Vivien, working, until 2 a.m. when we will be allowed to break curfew to watch the total lunar eclipse, an event that only occurs every few years.
It reminded me of this trip; it’s fleeting experience, and one that may not come along again for quite a while, and whether or not I take advantage of that is up to me.