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 three-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.
– Mao writes: Wednesday, Jan. 2
– Lister writes: Friday, Dec. 31
– Mao writes: Thursday, Dec. 30
– Lister writes: Wednesday, Dec. 29
– Mao writes: Tuesday, Dec. 28
– Lister writes: Sunday, Dec. 26
– Mao writes: Thursday, Dec. 23
– Lister writes: Wednesday, Dec. 22
- Mao writes: Tuesday, Dec. 21
- Lister writes: Monday Dec. 20
- Mao writes: Sunday, Dec. 19
- Mao writes: Friday, Dec. 17
- Lister writes: Wednesday, Dec. 15
Wednesday, Jan. 2
So it’s finally the end. Our last trip onto shore, and our second to last day at sea. It went by so quickly and at the same time I feel like I’ve been on this boat forever, and I don’t mind. We’ve made full-circle back to Mexico; this time we are on the Caribbean side on the island of Cozumel. It was here that Cortes first found La Malinche, who would be his translator for his endeavor into Mexico.
I was sick with gastrointestinal symptoms for a few days. About six students and a chaperone were all sick with the same. Nonetheless, nothing would get in my way of going out of the last trip. After a bit of a lateness obstacle, Chloe and I rushed out to join our group boarding a bus. We would be taking a bus tour of Cozumel and then stopping at Puntamarena beach for a break.
Our first stop was a little museum of the history of Cozumel and Mexico. Inside were native pieces of art and a video advertising Mexico. Outside, there was a pathway filled with miniature models of Mayan architecture and Mexican landmarks. Unfortunately, I had to go with a few other sick comrades to lie down near the bus as we were all feeling sick and missed most of the explanations. It was thankfully over quickly and we set out in the bus. The guide, Nacho, would narrate to us all the greenery or buildings we passed, and we stopped at the famous Lookout. Huge corals rose out of the ground in mounds near the ocean where the water had receded.
We ran around the area before Adam called me over to point out a blowhole in the coral. A blowhole resembles a geyser in the way it shoots up water, but the blowhole was caused by the waves coming in spewing out with a gust of wind. I’m not exactly sure how it works, but it was just fun to stand in front of the blowhole and wait for the water to explode out of the ground. We didn’t spend much time here; we moved onto a little shopping area quickly.
The goods were cheap at the tiny market, but Chloe and I were both out of money, so we went to a little playground behind the bus with seesaws and swings. Needless to say, I should not have gone of the swings with a stomach problem. But it was still enjoyable.
Finally, we reached Puntarenas. All the students were given free drink cards and Tayla, Kaylen, Chloe and I immediately hit the hammocks. After lying there for a good half an hour, Tayla and I decided it was time to try the water. Everyone else was already in, bodysurfing, boogieboarding, or just trying not to get carried away by the strong sweeping current. The waves were very large and strong, perfect for body surfing, but too small for real surfing.
The water was so salty it stung our eyes. We could taste the salt in the air. After playing around for a while, we returned to the sand for more relaxation. Tayla and I tried to play a little bit of beach volleyball, but it was just too much of a lazy day. All in all, it was just like another day at the beach, only better because it was Mexico.
It wasn’t anything relating to the authentic Mexican experience, but I think that at this point we were all worn out. It was fantastic to just relax for once.
As we all went back, it finally struck us that this really was the end. Our land excursions were over. We would not be exploring the world as a group again. These 31 other people that I had just began to experience new cultures with would once again go to their respective homes, and I probably wouldn’t see them for a while.
I can’t believe it’s done and I can’t believe that now, I’m back home.Home was the MV Explorer for three short weeks. Going out was going to a foreign country and experiencing new cultures and a new language. People on the ship warned us of “reverse culture shock”, or the shock a person feels when they return home and realize their everyday life isn’t as fast-paced and new everyday. I haven’t felt it yet, what with junior year and all, but I do miss everything about the trip very much. There was so much more to do, so much more to see, so much more to experience. But at the same time, I can’t even believe I did so much. I was so lucky to have been able to take this trip, regardless of the expense of catching up with schoolwork or missing the holidays.
A theme that came up throughout the trip was “no regrets”. Nothing captures the trip for me more so than that. Even though I was beaten down mentally by a hard-balling Guatemalan child selling me scarves, I don’t regret buying anything because it was a new experience and a new lesson learned. When everyone doubted if they should try a new food or drink, someone would just say “No regrets!” and we would all laugh and try whatever it was, knowing that each risk was worth taking. When any mistake was made, a lesson could be learned for the future. No regrets. I’ll never regret this trip, I’ll never regret traveling and I’ll never regret taking a leap of faith and doing something completely out of my comfort zone because I know that something good will come of it.
What could I say I learned? I learned that fresh tortillas are a hundred times better than bagged ones and monkeys will steal your ice cream. I learned that dance, music, soccer and money are all part of a vast universal language and that you don’t need to speak the same language to get along (although it does help). I learned that traveling is a key part of learning about yourself and others. I learned facts about countries and feelings that a scene could evoke in me. I learned a new lifestyle, a new culture and a new state of mind.
I’ll miss everything about the trip, but I’ll revisit my three week home, the MV Explorer, again soon enough. The full college Semester at Sea will be waiting for me when I graduate and I can’t wait to walk up the gangway and back into my second home.
Friday, Dec. 31
Today was our first and only day in Belize, as well as our second to last port before docking in Ft. Lauderdale to return home.
We arrived in the Union to meet up with the rest of our group bright and early and bid farewell to our friends who were going cave tubing and visiting the Belize Zoo.
Our group comprised people who had opted to visit Xunantunich, a Maya archaeological site about 80 miles west of Belize City.
Our trip began, as most of them have, with a bus ride. This one was especially long because we were traveling all the way to the Guatemalan border where Xunantunich is located. However, it seemed shorter due to evermore-crucial power naps and sing-a-longs to songs on Vivien’s iPod.
When we first arrived at Xunantunich, we were taken through a small museum that documented the history of the ruins, and honestly, I was less than thrilled; I had signed up for this excursion to see real Mayan ruins, not models of them. We did learn, though, that “Xunantunich” translates to “Maiden of the Rock,” which, like many archaeological sites, is a modern name because the ancient name isn’t known. The ruins were named because of rumored sightings of a female ghost in a white dress with red eyes.
When we finally got to walk up to see the actual ruins, I was in awe, to say the least. I knew that Xunantunich is regarded as a smaller Mayan ruin, so I did not know how huge the structures would be, or in what good condition they would be.
We started out by exploring the smaller squares. My friend Ana and I took off armed with our cameras, persistently snapping away. This was not like anything we would find back in California. The structures of Xunantunich were constructed completely out of stone bricks that long ago had to be manually maneuvered one by one in order to build everything we saw.
Although those painstakingly erected buildings were missing a few parts and now have a few plants growing out of them, the 3,000-year-old work of the Mayans is still sturdy and visible, which, in my opinion, is an amazing thing to witness.
Following our climb over and around the remains of the smaller temples, we made our way over to the main temple of El Castillo, which, at 130 feet, is the second largest structure in Belize. After climbing seemingly endless stairs (I skinned both my knees in the process), we discovered we had only made it halfway to the top. We continued to make our way up, avoiding trick staircases that lead nowhere and steadying ourselves with the stone walls to avoid falling like I already had.
The view from the top was breathtaking. I’m not afraid of heights, but I’m also someone who knows the difference between what’s safe and what’s not. Despite that, I inched closer and closer to the edge of the platform we were, even though every cell in my body screamed not to. And then I looked down.
Below me I could see my friends, teachers and chaperones on the ship as well as countless strangers, all no taller that an inch. Beyond them stretched out miles upon miles or rain forests, seldom interrupted by buildings, and beyond that, the Maya Mountains. In front of me was all of Belize, and behind me, all of Guatemala, which I left behind yesterday for the last time. It was strange to think about how my time with the lush green landscapes of Guatemala was over, after all the time I had spent there this trip. I may never get to visit again, I thought, and I would only have a couple hours left with Belize in front of me before I would be shipped back to Mexico and then back home.
The realization I came to was that a mere day is a heartbreakingly short amount of time to spend in a country. It’s just long enough to be excited by the culture and the history, but too short to immerse yourself in it. So there, on top of that Mayan temple, looking out across Central America, as corny as it sounds, I promised myself that I would come back to Belize, see more ruins and meet more people. I would find out all that this country has to offer.
The group of us stayed up there, admiring the two countries, despite calls from our teachers and tour guide, until the threat of being left behind actually started to seem real. At that point we quickly scampered back down the temple stairs to take our places back on the bus to travel to where we would eat our “marimba lunch.”
Over rice, beans, chicken and plantains, a meal we had become extremely accustomed to, we discussed our days. Mike, the cameraman who had been hired by Semester at Sea to make the advertisement for future pre-college programs, had had to pay off an armed military guard in Xunantunich so that his camera equipment would not be confiscated.
After lunch, we returned to the boat on a tender (a small, fast boat meant to ferry people short distances) to rejoin with the rest of our group for New Year’s Eve dinner. We were running a little late, but when we were within eyeshot of the ship, it was clear we would have time to make it to dinner. However, suddenly the tender stopped moving and slowly started to drift away from the ship. When it became evident that this was not going to get us back to the ship, people started getting restless and the crew reluctantly informed us that one of the tender’s two engines was broken. We were essentially stranded until the next tender came to ferry us back to the ship with its two functioning engines.
My friends in the pre-college program took this news surprisingly well. I guess I expected at least one person to have a meltdown or something, but Ana pulled out a deck of cards and we proceeded to play games for the next hour and a half until we were rescued.
I wish I could say the same for the rest of the passengers on the tender. Just from listening to some of the murmur that went on between people sitting near us, I really got the impression that a “mob mentality” was developing, and it scared me.
However, everything worked out in the end, or at least as well as it could’ve seeing as most of us had already missed our seating for dinner. When the last tender had delivered its passengers back to the ship, it came over to our tender. However, it became evident that there was no way to attach the two tenders to each other. As a result, each person had to be individually moved onto the functioning tender. We each stepped from the side of one boat to the other. I, for one, was terrified that some old woman on vacation was going to slip and fall to her death, but no such thing happened. When we finally made it to the ship, the captain was standing in the threshold to greet each of us.
Since we had missed our dinner, we were instead placed in the second seating and were only reunited with the rest of our friends afterwards for our new years “lock-in.” The event was essentially a slumber party for all of us to count down to the new year, play board games and watch movies on one of our last nights together. I think that was probably the first time it hit me how much I would miss these people. I had spent the past three weeks bonding with this group of 36 people with essentially nothing in common but the love to travel.
Now, I was faced with the prospect that there was a definite possibility I would never see some of them again. I did not at all expect to get this attached to the people on this trip. But I account how much I did to the impact each of them has had on me. I can honestly say that I have learned something from each person on this trip, from Nick, who survived a stroke in his freshman year of high school and didn’t let the fact that he has to walk with a cane stop him from coming on this trip, to Kaylen, who worked five nights a week at a movie theater to pay her way onto this trip. I can only hope I have impacted anyone I’ve met here as much as they have impacted me.
Thursday, Dec. 30
Guatemala is beautiful. Unexpectedly, amazingly beautiful. I honestly think I will return to Honduras and Guatemala as many times as I can. The Livingston Humanitarian Tour that we took today was nothing that we expected, but was amazing nonetheless. We started out later than most of the students; they had gone to the La Lenka Waterfalls. As we set out by water taxi, our guide, oddly enough, turned out to be the same guide who had toured us on the opposite side of Guatemala. Quickly arriving at the town of Livingston, we had expected to play the part of humanitarians by interacting with Guatemalan students at a poor school.
We had sailed for a good long while before we approached the school. Right next to the school, two spider monkeys were chained to the side of a dock. On cue, three children standing next to the monkeys recited together in English something along the lines of “Please help us out and give us money”. It was a little disturbing to be honest. They had clearly practiced this and used this phrase several times before. It was all too contrived to feel genuine.
When we stopped at the actual school, all the children were lined up on the steps. They seemed to range from 2 to 16 years old. It’s hard to say that I was not disappointed by what happened next. We all took school supplies from a big duffel bag and were walking over to hand them out when they attacked. Kids waved their hands in our faces yelling “Yo tambien! Yo tambien!”
whenever another kid got a toy. We saw children steal supplies from other children and run off to stash it in a secret hiding place. It was really upsetting. The worst part was right after the supplies ran out, all the kids just sat back down in the same way that they had been in when we arrived. We soon understood why as another boat full of generous tourists pulled up. There was no interaction; we just threw a bunch of things at them and left. It was clear this happened all the time. A little shaken, we continued down the Rio Dulce. It was easy to forget about the orphanage quickly when we saw the scenery of Guatemala. It was unbelievable! I can’t even describe it. Greenery was everywhere. It was as if we were in an enormous valley, only it was a river. Hills rose up on both sides filled with trees and teeming with bird life. Egrets, herons, eagles, you name it. Formations of birds flew by in time with us before veering off.
We stopped at a little hut built pretty much on the river. Right in front of it lay the beautiful Aquatic Gardens. White flowers, surrounded by lily pads grew straight out of the water. There were three huge clumps of this flora. But the gardens themselves were not the interesting part. Children were kayaking all around; at least seven kayaks floated nearby. As soon as we approached, the children began paddling furiously towards our boat. It felt like a zombie attack. They latched onto our boat with skill that clearly came from practice and shouted “ONE DOLLAR ONE DOLLAR ONE DOLLAR!” and other monetary amounts over and over at us while holding up shells, starfish and more. As we tried to talk to them, it was clear they knew no English but that one phrase. The guide told us not to buy anything because everything they were selling was harvested illegally.
With the limited Spanish I knew, I asked one girl how old she was. She was 5 years old. They hung onto our boat a little longer, but they soon realized no one was buying and as another boat was approaching, they released their grip and paddled towards the next boat.
We all disembarked the water taxi and headed into the open hut where we were to get tortillas. They were being grilled as we ordered, so all the tortillas were fresh. After adding beans and salt, almost all of us had seconds. In another corner, a man stood with a machete. Spread out below him were a plethora of coconuts, which he would hack into and stick a straw in for one dollar. The juice was sweet and fresh, and once I finished it, I brought the empty coconut back to the man who hacked it completely open so we could eat the fresh, white meat inside. The house was also selling some tourist appealing items, but no one really bought anything. We all boarded the taxi content and no longer hungry as we set off once again down the Rio Dulce.
Soon, we approached a natural hot spring. I had never been to one before, and we had not known about the possibility of going until that morning. Luckily, we had all brought swim suits. After changing, we got in. It was just a part of the river that was cut off by some rocks. We couldn’t find the heat at first, and it smelled strongly of sulphur.
Finally, we saw the hole that extended deep into the earth and emitted the heat. Get too close and it burned, stay too far and it was too cold. The heat would come in waves, washing out to about five feet around it. Our guide told us that the minerals were very good for our bodies.
When the smell and heat became too much to bear, the High Tech High chaperone Brandon, convinced us to jump into the cold side of the river. I gracefully slipped off the ground during my attempted jump, earning myself the wonderful nickname of “Vivien Grace”. Brandon describes it as running frantically through the air as I hit the water on my face. Finally, it was time to eat. We once again boarded the boat and sped down the river back towards where we would stop in the city to have lunch.
My table, Chloe, Camille, Adam, Michael and Sophie, almost all ordered fish. Once again we were served rice and beans along with our fish. I think I had rice and beans every day for at least two meals, but I’m not complaining. It was delicious. We also all ordered horchatas, or a sweet rice water drink. The food was delicious and was accompanied by the music of a native band who played a very loud punta, a traditional song and dance. When we were done, it was time to wander the streets of Livingston for a little to shop and see the city. Walking around was nothing special; Livingston was much like every other city we had been to. Bustling markets always trying to sell, run-down shops where the seller waited out front calling you in and skinny dogs running down the street with the children who played outside.
Michael, Chloe and I decided to brave the dangers of local food and approached a man standing with a huge metal milk carton, like the ones at carnivals one tried to throw balls into, and a flat metal spatula-like tool. He was selling some sort of ice cream, but couldn’t speak enough English to explain how it wasn’t typical. A few kids came up and ordered some, so we figured it would be safe enough. One dollar bought three small cones. The man reached down into the carton where we couldn’t see and scraped something at the bottom. He then wiped the ice cream onto the cone (this doesn’t sound very appetizing, but this is actually what happened) before taking a spoon and placing some kind of fruity syrup onto the top. The ice cream was yellow and the syrup was a deep red; we all looked at each other hesitantly before trying it. It was delicious! The ice cream tasted like icy frosting and the syrup complimented it perfectly. We thanked the man.
On our way back, Brandon and Nicole asked us how the trip went so they could give feedback to the program. The results were pretty interesting. It was nothing that was advertised. The ad promised we would learn the punta, interact with the kids and spend a lot of time being a humanitarian. We were not humanitarians at all. The small amount of time spent with the school was contrived and disappointing, and there was no other humanitarian part of the tour. We didn’t learn the punta dance, which was also very saddening for me. But, even with all this, I had a fantastic time. It was in my top three trips. I didn’t feel too much like a tourist and yet I still was able to do things that were typically Guatemalan. The Rio Dulce was so beautiful; the only place I can think of comparing it to is Glencoe Valley in Scotland.
In retrospect, this trip represented a lot of the general themes of the Semester at Sea trip. I had expected it to be amazing, and I got nothing that I expected, but it was still amazing. I guess it’s hard to plan a great time. Embrace the unexpected.
Wednesday, Dec. 29
We spent today on the island of Roatan, Honduras, and all traces of the undesirable weather have disappeared. For today’s excursion, we were split up into our “pods,” assigned groups consisting of a mix of students from each school. On the agenda was a visit to a government-run day care center and a zip line tour through part of the island’s jungle.
We had already visited an orphanage while we were in Costa Rica, so I thought Roatan’s day care facility would be similar.
I was completely wrong. The orphanage in Costa Rica seemed to be staffed by lazy and inattentive caretakers and run out of a house that seemed far too small to fit the amount of children that it housed. On the other hand, the Honduras day care center was large, modern, and well staffed by people who seemed to genuinely care about the children there.
When we first walked into the day care center, we were greeted by about 10 teenage girls, all of whom immediately stood up upon seeing us, taking us in their arms and giving us each a kiss on the cheek.
I’m not necessarily an affectionate person, so, at first, the custom caught me more than a little off guard, but soon enough the smiling girls made me feel comfortable, and I was greeting each of them with the little Spanish I know. We were then led upstairs, where the younger children, whose ages ranged from about four to 10, performed some songs that they had learned for us. Afterwards we were allowed to play with them for the time we had left before we had to go to the zip line.
I love children, and count this as probably one of my favorite experiences of the trip. With children, it doesn’t matter that you don’t share the same spoken language; the languages created by bubbles, soccer, frisbees and coloring are far easier and more enjoyable anyway. We got in some solid playing time, and I’m even now returning home with a drawing that a girl named Emily told me she wanted me to keep.
Next up was zip-lining, which is definitely something I would categorize as a new and different experience that I’ve had on this trip. At home I’m not usually one to do extreme or adventurous things like zip-lining, and it’s not something I would’ve signed up for given the choice. However, I’m more than glad that I wasn’t given that option because I had an amazing time. The trees became giant green blurs to either side of me as I sped past them on each line, until finally, I saw the giant expanse of turquoise ocean stretch out in from of me.
During the ride back to our bus, a few friends and I were allowed to sit in the back of a pickup truck. Although I was kind of afraid of falling out on the bumpy unpaved road, we really got to appreciate how beautiful a country Honduras is, laughing together with the wind whipping at our hair. Roatan has the quintessential island feel to it; everywhere we went, we could see and smell the ocean, and there was never a lack of foliage. Every local we encountered was laid back and cheerful. Several people on our trip commented that they would have no qualms about sticking around there a few more days.
We were allowed to stay in the port a few extra hours when we got back, so, as usual, we immediately embarked to find food. Yesterday we had been told that the dish the country is best known for is iguana, which was said to taste remarkably like chicken. So that was exactly what we set off to find.
We quickly found a restaurant advertising the fact that iguana was their specialty. I’m a pescetarian, but, not knowing where reptiles fall as far as things I can eat, I decided to stick to being adventurous for the day and order it.
Despite having enough bones to construct an entire iguana skeleton, being one of the spiciest dishes I’ve had in Central America and the fact that the lizard’s skin was served with the meal, I was actually quite fond of iguana.
As cheesy as it sounds, I think that’s a really good metaphor for this trip as a whole. Sure, there may be some bones, and it’s annoying when they come up. But all in all, it was an adventurous thing to try and it has been completely worth it.
Tuesday, Dec. 28
Today, we went to the other side of Costa Rica to Puerto Limon. After a disappointing letdown from the rain in Panama, all of the pre-college kids were excited to get out of the choppy waters of the Atlantic and onto dry land, or in this case, wet land due to the rain. We split into two groups to go to two different orphanages; in one bus was High Tech High International, and in ours was Derryfield, Hawaii Prep, and Connie, Sophie, Chloe, and me.
Our bus took us on a five to 10-minute drive to the orphanage. We pulled up in front of a run-down house badly protected from the rain outside. One kid stood on the porch waiting for us with a huge toothy grin. He looked about our age and beckoned us in and made noises, but nothing understandable came out. I would guess that he might have a form of autism, as Claire (from High Tech High International) told me later a kid with similar symptoms at her orphanage had autism.
We entered the small house and stood awkwardly for a few minutes, each holding a toy we had picked up to give to the children before we left.
No one really knew what to do. The guides looked around expectantly at us, as if hoping we would immediately interact with the kids. Finally, one of the guides began speaking in Spanish to the children and they began to introduce themselves. There was Alexis, 16, who was blind, Salia, a sassy little 9 year old, Edgar, 12, mischievous and athletic, and Juliet, 2. Though that wasn’t all, I can’t tell you all of the kids’ names. One 5 year old who was a little monkey only quietly introduced himself as something that sounds like Queso, but his quiet introduction was a facade to his lively self.
Constantly holding his hands up for someone to hold him, he quickly realized that the tallest guys, Alex and Max, were the most comfortable and fun people to climb on. He refused to be put down after that.
It really struck me, though, that the reason I don’t know more names was also due to the non-caring feeling coming from the caretakers of the orphanage. There was one girl in a wheelchair with what appeared to be a spinal injury, as she could not hold her head up. It lolled from side to side as she turned, her mouth perpetually open either yawning or attempting to make noise. Her bones were strangely thin and jutted out in every direction. My friend Tayla from Derryfield stayed with her almost the whole time, holding her hand and talking to her, even without a response. But even when I went to her and asked what her name was, Tayla couldn’t tell me because the girl hadn’t even been introduced. She was completely overlooked.
Later, Gabi, a student from Hawaii Prep, told me that in Spanish, a chaperone had asked why the girl in the wheelchair couldn’t be taken out. Apparently, the woman replied that she made too much noise and wouldn’t go back in the chair, and they didn’t want to have to deal with that. We thought about the attitudes of the caretakers later during pod meetings, but I think I can understand their annoyed attitudes and am pretty forgiving of it. To live in a place where you have 11 mouths to feed every day, try to make sure each of them grows up nicely and support all of them emotionally must be exhausting to say the least. It’s not acceptable for them to ever forget any of the children or feel they are nothing but a
chore, but the frustration of seeing another lost child you have no choice but to take in and feed, or the burden you have to carry for all those kids is huge! I didn’t know who to blame, but I don’t think there is
anyone to blame. Everyone is equally at fault.
Once we had given out the toys, every mingled and began to play. Most stayed inside, but I went outside to play soccer with Edgar, Max, and Mike Bradley. Edgar and I teamed up as we played in the road with a new soccer ball, and we easily defeated giant Max from Hawaii and Derryfield’s Mike.
After 20 minutes of kicking the ball around, we went back to see what everyone else was doing. Thinking back, they honestly had no place to play. I’d never really thought of kids playing in the road because they didn’t have a choice. Movies always have the poor children who play in the road, but this was real. It wasn’t a neighborhood where the children would come out to play with the other children on the block. It was quite sad to see three white children ride around right outside the gate on their brand new bikes as the orphanage children looked out.
I played soccer with a few more kids, including the autistic kid and Alexis, the blind kid, but it was much more difficult. I would always have to stop the ball from hitting Alexis or make sure he didn’t slip. It was crushing to see him wander around looking for the ball if he lost it, waving his hands near his feet as he shuffled around the concrete alley.
At one point, Alexis carefully walked to a shed in the backyard and pulled out a broom. Based only on feeling, he began sweeping the water out of the alley so we could play on dry surface. He had definitely done this before. Edgar quickly came to relieve him of the task. All the kids seemed to work together to help each other.
After a couple of hours, we ate lunch and left. It seemed to be far too little time to have made any sort of impact at all on these kids! There we were, eating pounds of their food, and all we had done was given these kids toys and played with them for a while. I wouldn’t have minded staying all day, and I think we should have. The little boy named something like Queso kept on saying “No! No!” as he clung to Alex, but he never actually cried. It was like they knew from the start that we wouldn’t stay, and they wouldn’t let it bother them at all. The guide told us that people stopped there about once every two weeks. Was it more of a set up? I’m not really sure. Nevertheless, it was something unlike anything I have ever experienced. I don’t think I can even begin to capture the feeling of that small trip; I’m probably only narrating the direct facts. But I can definitely say that it’s something that you need to experience on your own. I can’t tell anyone how I felt and have that translate.
The latter part of our trip was much more touristy: a jungle cruise much like that of the ride at Disneyland. We met up with the High Tech High kids at a river, and they were almost covered head to toe with mud. Like us, they had played soccer with the kids, but unlike us, they had a muddy field to play on, and they certainly took advantage of that. Calypso music played by a band pounded out upbeat songs and Kaylen and I jumped up to dance. We were joined by the two Powell children, Charlotte and Isabel, the daughters of the Derryfield chaperone. All the other students laughed at our ridiculous dancing and ate the fruit that was provided.
Soon, we went on the river tour. We saw lizards, sloths, monkeys and crocodiles as well as plenty of flora. Besides Father Young’s hilarious commentary, which I was lucky enough to catch sitting right in front of him, it was awesome, but not spectacular. I feel spoiled that I can do something like that and call it not spectacular. This trip has brought so many amazing things to light; so many excursions have been eye-opening.
When we got back, Kaylen and I got right back to dancing. This time though, we got the band to play the Macarena and soon everyone jumped in.
There was so much joy in the room, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so connected with a group of people that, in all honesty, I had just met. I can’t believe it’s more than half over. We all loaded back into the bus and returned to port. Just tying everything together in my head as I blog, I can’t even begin to express how much this trip has changed the way I see everything. I’m trying not to write too much, but there’s just so much to write about; I wish I could just ramble on and on about what ideas and what issues and what feelings the visit to the orphanage brought up in my mind. The ecotourism, the foreign influence, the culture and the lifestyle of Costa Rica are all things I can actually think about from experience and understanding. That is so strange to me. The connections I’ve made to people everywhere, whether it is a child I’ll never see again to a peer in a school across a country, will stay with me forever. I’m so glad I’m here.
Sunday, Dec. 26
Today marks the halfway point of our voyage and I think I speak for most of the people in the pre-college program in saying that feelings are very mixed about it. On one hand, I miss my family far more than I thought I would; although we adhere deeply to the Jewish cultural tradition of eating Chinese food and seeing a movie on Christmas, this has been the first time I’ve spent the holidays without them and it’s strange, to say the least. However, on this trip I’ve gone places I never thought I would get the chance to visit, and now have even more of an urge to explore the world. I can’t believe this is all going to be over so soon.
The night before, several pre-college students decided to wake up early in the morning and watch the sunrise, in lieu of having a Christmas tree and presents to wake up to Christmas morning. So, at 6:30 a.m., Vivien and I crawled out of our beds and walked groggily up to the seventh deck, where we found that we were part of the first few to arrive. However, slowly more and more of us congregated, salty wind whipping at our hair as we waited. Together we watched Panama come into view, and even though the sun rising over the horizon was blocked, I considered it a successful Christmas morning.
Seeing as it was a holiday, most of us who had woken up to watch the sun rise felt entitled to another few hours of sleep. Therefore, after we were well on our way to the country’s infamous canal, promptly went back to sleep.
We awoke again in a couple hours to a woman’s voice blaring out of the intercom speakers in our room; we later found out that the voice belonged to a woman that Panama had required the ship to have as our commentator as we passed through the canal.
After getting out of bed for the second time, we went upstairs onto the deck to watch the ship enter the first of the several locks we would have to go through in order to get to the Atlantic side of Central America.
I had heard the Panama Canal called things like “the most important engineering achievement of all time,” and I had honestly never understood why. However, after watching it function for hours on end, I can now say that I have quite a bit of respect for the people who made it. I was amazed by the complexity. Upon entering each lock, the ship had to be raised or lowered exactly the right amount each time by adding or removing water from the lock.
Today we docked in Panama, where we were scheduled to visit a village of the Embera Indians, a tour which we had been told was one of the best that Semester at Sea organizes. However, when we left the ship to board a bus that would take us there, we saw that a light drizzle from the day before had become a full on rainstorm. Nevertheless, we were told that our tour had not been cancelled, and, shielding our heads from the rain with whatever we had, ran to our bus.
About an hour into our ride, our tour guide informed us that he had just received a call that our trip had been cancelled. We were driving to a river where we would then take canoes to the village, and apparently the rain had made the water too tumultuous for anyone to enter or leave the village.
Looking outside, it wasn’t hard to believe. Nonetheless, the guide had to confirm that he was not kidding when someone asked.
Our bus turned around and drove us back to the port; looking out the window, we saw Panamanians carrying their shoes in their hands, trying to walk down the sidewalk with water up to their knees. At one point our bus stalled, and everyone on it held his or her breath for the 30 seconds until the driver got it started again. When we got back to the ship at port, we were informed that we would be able to take another tour if we chose to, one of the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal.
Our entire group chose to, and though it was interesting, it was short and definitely not the best activity of the trip. However, today provided me with two valuable lessons. First of all, I shouldn’t build things up in my head too much in case, like today, my expectations are disappointed. Additionally, especially when you’re traveling, things are going to go wrong that you can’t control and you have to make the best of it.
So, when we got back to the port, instead of going straight back to the boat like some people did, Vivien and I chose to stay and explore the little bit of Panama we could. We shopped for gifts to bring back for our families, and, at one point, found an authentic-looking café where we got a Panamanian fish dish that provided a nice change from boat food and continued us on our increasing trend of locating delicious food from each country we visited.
It was a lovely conclusion to our day. Even though it wasn’t exactly how we planned it, I’m still glad it happened.
Thursday, Dec. 23
We stopped today in Caldera, Costa Rica. Our pre-college trip split into two; one group went river rafting on the Corobici River and our group went on a tour of a cloud forest up on the Poas volcano and visited the town of Sarchi, famous for their oxcarts.
After a few stumbles along the way in the morning, I left the ship without a wallet or key in the morning and joined my group on the two and a half hour bus ride to the Poas volcano. It was a long ride, but it was interesting to see the difference in infrastructure in Costa Rica compared to Guatemala or Nicaragua.
There was a highway-like road with two lanes, which was something we had not seen on the trip so far. The rest of the roads had been broken down rural roads. Like Nicaragua, the country was greener than Guatemala. Our pre-port enrichment lecture told us that the people of Costa Rica are very proud of their environment, and it showed. The group that went river rafting confirmed our impression, observing that it was verdant and full of life.
When we arrived at the Poas volcano, it was a bit distressing to realize that we only had about 40 minutes there. The walk wasn’t really a hike; it was more of an already tame path. Nick, a friend of ours, slowed us down a little because of his wheelchair, and our guide was nervous that the cloud would set in because we waited too long. Luckily, we had nothing to worry about.
In under 15 minutes, we reached the edge of the volcano crater. It was breathtaking. The clouds that wafted towards us actually came out of the volcano itself. It’s pretty hard to explain what being there was like; it feels like nothing could do it justice. Even a picture wouldn’t be able to capture the freshness of the air or the crisp feel of the wind. It wasn’t anything I couldn’t do if I visited Costa Rica on my own, but it was spectacular nonetheless. The clouds soon increased and starting drifting towards us, and we all got a whiff of the sulphur from the volcano. Lister and I started singing and dancing for our own enjoyment and quite a few people stopped to film us singing with the backdrop of the
huge volcano crater.
After fooling around for a few more minutes, we all returned to the bus. I’ll sidetrack for a moment because I feel it’s worth hearing Nick’s story. It was pretty inspirational to say the least. He had escaped death three times. When he was a baby, he was diagnosed with meningitis and had a 106 degree fever. He survived. Then, during middle school, he got a concussion coupled with a brain virus which destroyed part of his brain.
Still, he survived. In freshman year, he suffered from a stroke. Still recuperating, Nick has been going through physical therapy and treatment for three years. His mind is quick, he is good natured and hilarious. Joking about it, he laughed about telling his story at the lecture “Inspire-palooza” to one-up the lecturer. In all honesty, he could have easily.
Soon, we pulled up to a beautiful green park where we were to have Costa Rican cuisine. There were ropes courses and canoes on a lake; trees of all ages were growing around the whole park and flowers of all kinds grew in organized patches. As soon as we stepped into the building, we could all smell the food. It was so tempting. Lining up, we were served mixed vegetable soup, rice and beans, chicken and beef. Lister kept telling us that rice and beans were the perfect protein, but we ate it because it was delicious. Finally, we all had flan. As a group of students headed outside, Lister, our friend Ana and I waited with Nick before heading out.
The weather could not have been nicer. It was sunny but not burning, a nice calm breeze rolled into the valley created by the park. Hydrangeas and marguerites lined the red clay path we strolled on. As we caught up with the rest of the students, they were standing on a bridge cutting through the large murky lake in the middle of the park. Odd, fuzzy kelp-like plants showed their tops in the water and a small school of fish floated near the top. After seeing a couple take one of the canoes laying out on the shore in for a ride, my friend Tayla and I wanted to pull one in as well. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time, but we came to the conclusion we would have flipped anyhow.
The last stop was the little town of Sarchi. The 40 minute trip was filled with philosophical discussion, which quickly got into a heated argument. Trying to lift the mood, the conversations turned to school and books.
Eventually we rolled up at a red church, all of us were surprised to learn that the church, which seemed to be made of a dull concrete, was actually completely metal. We stopped to admire it and its history; each metal piece was brought separately from Spain and reassembled here in Costa Rica. Although it was interesting, more interesting was the fact that not a single person really acknowledged we were there. They simply went on their normal routine, regardless of the loud tourists wandering around. It seemed to show such a large difference in culture between all the places we have been to, even though they are all around the same area.
Finally, we went straight to an ox cart store. Sarchi is famous for these bright, colorful oxcarts with stunning patterns and detail. The painters also paint wine bottle holders, pictures and umbrellas. After watching the painters for a while, we bought some gifts. It was odd because for the first time, we got receipts and paid tourist-like prices for gifts. In Guatemala, everything was extremely cheap. Here, I might have gone to Hawaii and gotten a hula skirt. Everything was in dollars. I suppose Costa Rica gets many more American tourists than the other places. After we finished, we went outside to enjoy some fresh local fruit: watermelon, pineapple and papaya. We had heard from our guide that the watermelon was famous around these parts, so I had some slices and I could not stop. They were so sweet and juicy; I must have had a whole watermelon.
The town of Sarchi itself was homey and quiet; no pushy peddlers came offering us their wares. The people smiled at us as we passed, but there was no real time to explore the city and interact with its people. Their landmark was a giant red oxcart with stunning designs. We circled around it in the bus before heading back to port.
All in all, it was a beautiful experience and I am glad I went, but it wasn’t really inspiring. I felt like a tourist, and I hated that. The only thing that made it better was that no one seemed to look at us condescendingly as those American tourists. It was definitely a worthwhile experience, but it didn’t really compare to the moving interactions with the Guatemalan families. Everything was fun and awesome, but it wasn’t really quite fulfilling. Nevertheless, Costa Rica is a beautiful country filled with beautiful scenery, something we got to enjoy on the bus as our friend and amazing singer Danny sang soft melodic songs for us the whole ride back to port.
Wednesday, Dec. 22
Today at 8 a.m. we docked in Corinto, Nicaragua and departed shortly afterwards on a bus to the city of León, where we had signed up for the “Art and History” trip.
After about an hour, we stepped out of the bus into a city vastly different than any we had been to so far. The buildings were colonial-styled and painted bright shades of pink, red and green. Six volcanoes circled the town’s perimeter in the distance, constantly puffing what Gabby, a girl from a boarding school in Hawaii, called “vog” or volcano fog.
We filed into what our guide explained was the house of Rubén Darío, who is called the father of modern Spanish literature, before launching into a lecture about his life and works. It was an interesting topic and the house was beautiful, but I felt like I would have enjoyed it more if I were there on my own learning, instead of having the information fed to me.
We left the house and walked down a couple of the small, quaint streets to what our guide claimed was the “best art museum in Nicaragua.” As someone who likes to think that they appreciate art, I was impressed by the collection; although it may not have been as big as, say, the Norton Simon or an equivalent museum back home, it was the largest collection of solely Central American work that I’ve ever seen, and I was very impressed with a lot of the pieces. However, I frequently felt as if I was being rushed past Picasso’s because I was on someone else’s schedule.
It’s not that I’m not grateful for this experience, but I have to admit, I hate feeling like I’m a tourist. When I go to a new place, I like to discover the sights and people for myself, instead of feeling like I’m having my opinion crafted for me by a tour guide.
Finally, we walked two more blocks to León’s Cathedral of the Assumption. After learning about the cathedral’s significance in the 18th century, we were allowed to ascend several flights of stairs all the way up to the roof. My favorite part of the day was very possibly getting to climb among the towers and see the panoramic view of the whole city, volcanoes puffing away in the distance and all.
After being told we needed to leave the cathedral, we wandered the town square until it was time for our bus to leave. Vivien and I stopped for a snack at a cart run by two girls who spoke close to no English, but told us that they were selling dulce de leche, which is basically milk caramel, over ice in Styrofoam cups. We decided that the adventurousness outweighed the sketchiness of the situation (we had been told to be wary of water in every city we had been to so far) and purchased two for the Cordoba equivalent of one dollar.
We then hurried to our bus, eager to try our food and equally surprised how long it had taken to negotiate for them, given the girls’ limited English combined with our equally limited Spanish.
Luckily, our treats were delicious and my stomach hasn’t suffered any repercussions so far. For me, instances like those have been the most successful so far: the times when I feel like I’m actually experiencing something authentic and learning about culture and people in a way I never could in a by writing a paper or listening to a lecture.
Tuesday, Dec. 21
Today, for the first time, I saw what the real Guatemala was like. It was the first real connection with the locals we had thus far and it was eye-opening. This is our second day docked in the port of Puerto Quetzal.
Yesterday, as Lister wrote, we explored the nearby city of Antigua. Today, we went on a tour called “A Tale of Two Towns”. All the pre-college students piled into two vans at 9 a.m. Our bus was led by Gus, the head guide, who introduced himself by telling us he was born in Guatemala, lived most of his life in New York, and has grandchildren in Paris.
Our vans stopped every so often along the road to see the local people in their daily actions. The first stop was a roadside stall where a family was selling fresh fish. Though the stench was incredible, even more so was the size of the fish they were selling. They held up an enormous fish, offering it to each one of us as we passed by. As we walked a little farther down towards a bridge which extended over a fishing river, it occurred to me that the amount of trash in the river and on the banks was much greater than any thing I had ever seen in the United States. And yet, these people were supposed to fish from these disgusting rivers. What a difference from the clear blue waters of
Cabo. The countryside and the tourist areas were like two different worlds.
Some fishermen threw their nets into the murky waters and waved to us as they waited. Most of the nets came up empty, but that didn’t stop any of the fisherman. Methodically and repetitively, the nets fell in again and again. Locals I talked told me that a fisherman would catch a ton of fish a day.
Back in the vans, we passed shrimp farms, which were now just cast impressions into the earth, as the farmers had dumped salt into the water to soak up the liquid, leaving only the shrimp. Every stall was selling shrimp for Christmas. Flocks of vultures circled above the dry land, picking up leftover shrimp wherever they could find one. Fields and fields of sugar cane and coffee flew by, some patches burning so close we could see the fire flickering around the edges closest to us. Fruit stands were piled high with bananas, oranges, and some strange, soft, bitter fruit that we were warned not to eat because we would have to deal with “Montezuma’s Revenge”, the common phrase for the diarrhea the Spanish suffered from when they first took over the area. The bacteria in the fruit was one that we did not have in our stomachs and would make us sick.
When two wooden shacks drew near, the vans pulled off the road. We lined up at the two houses, where a woman awaited. Here, we would learn to make tortillas, a key part of the Guatemalan diet. There were no stoves, no pans, no utensils. A wide, flat, metal circle was simply placed on top of a burning log. The woman simply used her hands to place or remove tortillas from the cooking circle; she never complained of the heat or used a spatula. Everything was the bare minimum. We took some already made dough and slapped it between our hands until it flattened.
From there, the flat circle of dough was thrown onto the makeshift stove and left to cook. The tortillas were about the size of a human palm. Once the tortillas had cooked, the woman gave us each our tortillas. We sprinkled them with a tiny bit of sea salt and ate them hot. They were amazing and simple, just like the process it had taken to make them.
As delicious as those tortillas were, it was not enough to mask the poverty that clearly befell these people. In between the two small shacks was a dangerous-looking set of wooden stairs leading down into shoddy rooms with no covering or protection from the natural elements. A pig waddled up towards us and a mangy dog came as close to us as it could with a rope made of cloth tied around its neck. A father and his two children sat on the top of the steps, watching us well-dressed, well-covered Americans pull out our wallets to buy more and more tortillas. A few friends and I approached them and said “Hola!” to the little boy and girl.
“Como te llama?” The boy shyly introduced himself with a wide smile as Alec and held out his hand to shake. His little tummy protruded out of his shirt as he stuck his torso forward and leaned back. Pulling his sister by her hand, he told us her name was Dulce. The cameras came out in a flash. Click click click! As Lister took some photos, he pulled on her shorts, silently inquiring about the camera. She knelt down and showed him the photos.
His eyes and smile widened with excitement as he saw his own face projected onto the screen. It seemed like that was the first time he had ever seen anything like it. Over and over again he would pose for pictures, then excitedly run over to each camera to see his own smiling face. His poses got more and more ridiculous as he eventually just lifted up his sister for the cameras although his sister was clearly not enjoying herself. Alec had probably never seen his own photos before. He was 9, and the tourists who came on the tour never bothered to show him any photos they took of him. His family was certainly much too poor to buy a $100 camera, or even a $10 one for that matter. To think that I had spent the same amount of money on my shoes as they had earned in 10 weeks was one of the worst guilt trips I have suffered from in a long time. I tried to justify myself by giving the father five quetzals, the currency of Guatemala, but it still wasn’t enough. We all returned to the van satisfied, yet humbled.
Soon, we pulled into the town or village of Iztapa. Traditional houses stood on their rickety foundations. The old Guatemalan houses were made all from wood, with palm leaves as the roof. Now they have changed to terraced roofing, but many of the old houses remain a model for the new ones. Our van pulled into the driveway of an “escuela”, or school, for first graders in Iztapa. Ranging from 2 years old to 13, the Guatemalan children were sitting on a low stone wall as we pulled up, fidgeting just as any American child would. They were on winter break, but they all came by to share some gifts and sing for us.
We stood in front of them in a line and traded questions. I met another small girl with an adorable smile named Dulce with a bandana around her head. When her mother removed for a minute to wipe her head, I was shocked to see thick black lines of stitches in at least three place around her bald head. Though I’m still not sure what happened, it seemed so out of place with her happiness and energy. She didn’t seem to be bothered, so I tried my best not to look. The children sang songs for us and ran back to their school to retrieve their handmade gifts. They returned with tissue paper kites of all different colors. Flying them as they ran, each child ran to one of the pre-college students and handed them a kite. Unprepared but grateful, we gave each child a dollar, which would equal eight queztals. That probably equaled about the same as one day of income for
One little boy, Felipe, sat in a dirty red and blue stroller and looked out silently but happily at the commotion. I approached him with my dollar and tried to speak with him using the very few Spanish phrases I knew. He was 7 years old and liked school. His favorite color was red. When I handed him a dollar, he almost glowed with excitement and waved it around until the woman standing behind him, possibly his mother, took it and said ”Shh, Felipe!” His joy was worth more than the dollar. To me, that sounds very cliche, but there’s really no other way to express it. The children were no different than any young child in America, they were only poorer and less fortunate. I can’t imagine returning home and spending $50 on a gift while a dollar means so much to one child.
Though the focus of the stop was the children, I couldn’t help but also notice the schoolhouse. I never took for granted the beauty of our campus, regardless of the stairs. Our campus rivals college campuses around the nation. Our several buildings filled with air-conditioned rooms and wide glass windows are amazing. The school standing in front of me looked like one of the traditional Guatemalan houses; the blue paint was peeling off the rough wooden walls and the windows were barred and about two feet wide and tall.
A rough and faded “Escuela de Iztapa” and two dancing Winnie the Poohs were painted onto the front of the school. There was no yard, just a small walkway until the path reached the stone road. The whole schoolhouse was probably smaller than our little bookstore. It was probably even smaller than one classroom at our school. Each of the tiny classrooms in the escuela in Iztapa had to fit over 35 students. Yet the children didn’t think about any of that. They didn’t know there was a better school, better town, better life. To them, this was how life was and always will be. Most families didn’t even have a television. It made me think back to what Archbishop Desmond Tutu said the other day about the massive amounts of money that go towards everything but where it should be going. Defense instead of education. A new phone instead of a new house. A small amount of money in the United States goes a long way in a town like Iztapa. But time passed quickly, and we reluctantly had to move on.
The next stop was an outdoor makeshift fishery in the town of Puerto de las Casas. As we stepped out, the same fishy stench as the fish stall immediately wafted by all of us. Holding our shirts over our faces, we walked down to the fishery area. On one side of the road, shark skins had been cut up and laid out to dry under the hot sun. The guide told us that the Chinese and Japanese would buy these shark skins and meat in mass quantities. There must have been at least 10 racks of stretched nets
holding the shark skins.
Continuing on, we walked down to the area where men were filleting the fresh fish and sting rays that they had caught today. The odor grew even stronger as we approached. The men all had enormous knives and were slicing, hacking, cutting away the skin of the sting rays. Each pile, one of the filleted flesh, one of the useless skin and one of the rays waiting to be skinned, rose to at least my knee. Our guides said that every day, each fisherman would take his catch of the day to this place and prepare his fish for the market. The careless splats of the slippery skins hitting the pile made several students cringe. There were four of these stations set up, and each had about two men working on it. We watched them for a while before leaving once again.
When the tour ended, we all went to Le Capitan to have lunch. They had recommended the fish, as it was clearly a fishing village. The restaurant had no air conditioning; it was simply a large roofed room with open walls. Opposite the entrance was a huge river filled with odd “four-eyed fish”, as the locals called them. The meal started with a fish soup, much like chicken and rice soup. After Lister and I got our new favorite drinks, “naranjada con soda”, we were served fish sticks with corn chips and fresh guacamole. The fish sticks we had were very fresh. The guacamole, however, was fantastic. The guacamole in Guatemala is different than the guacamole in the United States, but I can’t really explain why. The ingredients are simple and similar: lemon, a little onion, tomato, etc., but the taste is fresher? tangier? more flavorful? Needless to say, it was delicious. Outside, there were cages of toucans and roosters. Large, fat turkeys walked around free. All the students stared at the toucans as they hopped around and did a dance for my friend Adam. Across the round dirt driveway there was another cage with two spider monkeys. As Adam, Lister, and I all crowded around the cage, a little Guatemalan boy named Ilian ran up to the cage and began screeching and clicking next to us. He called “Chita! Chita!” to one of the monkeys.
Although none of us spoke Spanish, we tried to converse with him, asking him the names of the monkeys, why they were chained and more. He responded with rapid Spanish and we tried to figure it out by the few words we understood. After running back inside to grab some raspberry ice cream popsicles, Lister and I went back outside to play with and pet the monkeys. As I turned my head for a second to look at my wallet, all of a sudden I felt little furry hands snatch my ice cream away from me.
Shocked, I looked back up to see Chita eating my popsicle! He hung upside-down, avoiding any drips onto his fur. We all laughed as I pointed at him and said, “Touche, Chita, you got that one.” It certainly was new to me.
On the final ride back to port, we all reflected on what we had seen that day. We talked about the children and the fishermen and the families we saw waving at us from the road. The guide continued to pepper us with facts about the world so unfamiliar to us American students.
“In Guatemala, everyone wants to be a fisherman,” our guide said. “You wake up at 5 a.m., fish and prepare until noon, and then you are done for the day, so you can go to a bar and relax on a hammock.”
Being a fisherman was never something I had even considered and yet, in Guatemala, it was one of the best jobs you could have. These people didn’t dream of being CEOs and businessmen and government officials, but they weren’t settling for less. They were so fully grounded in reality that being a fisherman was what they wanted. At first, it seemed like they didn’t dream larger and didn’t see the bigger picture. But it struck me that they were just being realistic. Who was I to say that they should do differently? After all, if they didn’t stay realistic, they would not have the money to survive. Admittedly, living in such a way makes me pity the Guatemalan people of Puerto de las Casas, but I also admire them. It was a strange feeling to say the least. They simply smiled at us and continued their work. After all, vacationing Americans come to stare at them all the
At the same time that I appreciated the chance to see into and begin to understand the life of a poor Guatemalan fisherman and his daily life, something about being there made me a little sad. Maybe it was the fact that in order to even know that these people lived this way while I got to throw away food everyday, I had to go on a tour where we stared at them like they were putting on a show. Or maybe it was that I knew I would just go home and continue doing these fantastic things, like this trip, while they would continue their same routine at 7 quetzals a day. They didn’t even seem disappointed or regretful of their life. That’s just the way it is for them. Makes you thankful for your life, doesn’t it?
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.
Sunday, Dec. 19:
I have yet to hear any speaker quite like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His pauses, his laughs, the persona he injects into his speeches and the control he has over the energy and emotion in the room was enough to give you goosebumps.
This afternoon, our pre-college program was given half an hour to listen to the archbishop speak and perhaps ask him questions. Our pods, or random groups of students assigned to work together for the duration of the trip, had each come up with two or three questions to ask. I was the spokesperson for our pod and could not be more excited. A chance to speak with Archbishop Desmond Tutu was like a dream.
I have been passing him in the hallways of the ship for the past couple of days and doing everything I could not to run up to him and embarrass myself by exploding with excitement. Seeing his smiling face and graceful demeanor made me want to follow him all day and learn his ways, but I was biding my time, knowing I would get a chance to speak to him.
Nothing I had imagined could live up to what I got. The archbishop began by lecturing on family and togetherness. He spoke of the wonder of how God created everything with diversity because we could not survive without it.
“Why did God not make everyone white? Or black? Why are some people fat and some people stringy?” he jokingly wondered aloud.
Interdependence of diversity allows our species to survive, he said. He used evolution as an example of the planning and complexity that God has when creating. After all, creating did not take only one day. Everyone needs each other. Another analogy he used was an orchestra.
“With all those huge, loud instruments…,” he began before he broke into peals of laughter. His laugh spread quickly over the rest of us as he simply sat in his chair laughing at a joke we had yet to understand.
“With all those huge, loud instruments, there is always a little man in the back who plays the tiny, little triangle,” he said once the laughter had died down.
His acting out the “little man” caused another round of laughter.
Yet that little man helps to complete the orchestra. It would not sound the same if the triangle player did not play at the right time, just like everyone else. We are each important to others’ survival, Archbishop Tutu said.
After speaking to us for 20 minutes, he asked for questions. With my journalistic training intact, I almost shot out of my seat before he asked, even though I was the only one to raise my hand. The competition I had been expecting wasn’t actually there.
Laughing, Archbishop Tutu pointed at me and said, “Yes, ma’am?”
“Hi, Archbishop Tutu,” I said. “I was just wondering how you found it within your heart to forgive the leaders of the apartheid after fighting them for so long. You know, much like with the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa.”
He paused for a while before addressing my question.
“There are two types of justice,” he said. “Retributive justice and restorative justice.”
He explained the differences of a system which only punishes versus a system which works on restoring the bond and relationship between the victim and culprit. It was this idea of the effectiveness of restorative justice that made him understand that hating white people for their injustices was only detrimental to both sides. On top of that, he said, he was not really affected as much by the apartheid. It was those who were truly affected and learned to forgive that are the brave ones.
The archbishop listed several examples of the wonders of restorative justice with direct cases of victims of murders whose families actually connected with the culprits and established a relationship with those who had destroyed such a key part of their life. The stories moved some of the students to tears, such as a mother who told her daughter’s murderers that she forgave them, and hoped that they forgave her too, for she had wronged them as much as they had wronged her.
What Archbishop Tutu said was unforgettable and meaningful, but even more amazing to me was the way that he directly addressed me. Not once through his answer did he break eye contact with me. It was humbling and nerve-wracking to be locking eyes with a man as great as the archbishop. For half an hour I was unmovable, frozen by his direct gaze.
Time wasn’t noticeable, only his answer was. Not a single whisper or giggle interrupted his speech. When the archbishop spoke, everyone listened.
After the archbishop finished answering my question, he had spoken for 15 minutes longer than scheduled. However, following my lead, another student, Alex, raised his hand quickly to get in a question, though the time had elapsed.
“Thank you so much, Archbishop,” he said. “Archbishop Tutu, let’s say we reached this ideal world that you speak of. Well… what then?”
The archbishop once again paused to ponder his answer. The whole room was in suspense as we awaited his reply. Once he opened his mouth, idea after idea poured out of his mouth. He spoke of the humanitarian aid we could focus on if given the chance. We would live in a world where we would need no defense. The billions, trillions, of dollars spent on the defense budget could go towards building houses or gaining fresh, clean water, he said. We could focus on the environment, for after all, where will we live once we have destroyed the world we live in.
His focus was clearly on the young. For the first time in any speech I have ever heard, he spoke with optimism about the potential of the young in the world.
“I am displeased with the media,” he said. “They focus so much on the terrible things kids do. But truly, how wonderful your generation is.”
He said that when he was our age, they did not have internet, and had only marijuana as a drug.
“Nowadays, there is so much more! So many drugs, so much pressure, and who knows what you can find on the Internet. But no one focuses on how most of you do not succumb to the massive amounts of pressure put on you. We certainly did not have half as much pressure to deal with in our day,” he said.
The archbishop stressed the importance of the young taking a stand and fighting for what they believe in. We are, as he said, the biggest hope our world has. The way he spoke made everyone in the room want to step out into the world and change it. His motivation urged us to do something. By the time he had finished, only three people in the room had spoken in the entire hour.
His speech was, to say nothing more, inspirational. His accomplishments are too great to put into words. The way he has fought for his beliefs truly changed the world forever. But Archbishop Tutu knows that everyone can fight for their beliefs just like he has. There was one phrase he said that I will never forget as it seemed to sum up almost everything that he tried to instill in us.
“Do you curse the dark or light a candle? Most of you will be able to tell God that you lit a candle, so go light that candle.”
Friday, Dec. 17
Today, the pre-college program disembarked the boat in the beautiful port town of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. All 32 of us were to snorkel in the clear blue waters.
When we first descended, the weather stunned us all. Bright and sunny, the temperature seemed more fitting for a beach day in July than a wintry December morning. After splitting off into groups with our new friends from different schools, Chloe Lister ’12 and I explored the Arts and Crafts flea market.
Saleswomen and salesmen called out to us as we passed, each claiming to have a more authentic item to sell than the next. It was overwhelming; the ponchos and toys and artifacts seemed to be screaming for our money. Quickly, we learned the art of haggling.
“Five dollars for two bracelets!” one woman called to us.
“Eighteen for an authentic Mexican Poncho!” another yelled.
Our Spanish-speaking friend Claire easily emerged as our haggling leader.
“It’s too much,” she would say. “I got that same offer for $15 at the other stall.”
Claire reminded us that you must always sound interested, but claim you are not. That way, the prices will drop. Speaking Spanish was always easier.
We left the market with our hands full of bags filled with ponchos, drinks, bracelets and more. As we continued down the main boulevard, people carrying iguanas to take pictures with, tamales to eat and trying to sell drinks to all waved their hands at us and asked for our money. We searched every street for the real Mexican experience.
Soon enough, it was time to go snorkeling. Everyone from our program and many other adults and college students boarded the diving boat, Cabo Escape, and sailed out to sea. On the top deck, a group of us started basking in the sun. Music blasted from the speakers as the DJ on board played the Black Eyed Peas and more. Many students lay down on the cushioned benches and began tanning.
We passed El Arco, the famous naturally sculpted arch in the sea, and the boat stopped to let us take photos. The sea was as blue as could be and the waters were calm. We approached a beach and anchored about 20 feet away. Most of the passengers rushed to the edge of the boat with their life-jackets, grabbed masks and snorkels and dove right into the water. A few of us, including Chloe and me, waited behind for the next round.
This round wouldn’t need life-jackets and could therefore could dive down with the fish. As we waited around on the top deck, I asked a crew member if I could jump off the second story of the boat. I had expected a no. Amazingly, the crew member, Pancho, laughed and said “Of course!”
It was so frightening. Standing on the rail of the boat, I looked down 25 feet of nothing before I would hit the water. As the boat started a countdown of “UNO! DOS! TRES!”, I started to back down. Somehow, at tres, I forced myself to jump and fell down, down, down and hit the water screaming. As the boat cheered, the rest of the brave students lined up to jump. From flips to dives, passenger after passenger leapt from the boat.
It was like a scene from a movie I used to watch where I would think “I’ll never get to do that.” Yet, here I was, watching the excitement from the clear waters of Cabo San Lucas. It was awe-inspiring.
After a double jump for Chloe and me into the blue depths, we decided it was time to snorkel. Our friend Kaylen, Chloe and I all got in line to take the next round of masks and snorkels. As Chloe fitted on a life jacket, Kaylen and I submerged ourselves into the water.
“On the count of three,” Kaylen said. “One… two…. THREE!”
We both faced down. Within 10 seconds, we both shot up and yelled at each other in excitement. Underneath us, the water was teeming with fish. Hundreds swam close enough for us to touch. As we moved our flippers around, we would accidentally kick little schools of fish around. We floated every which way, staring down at the stunningly clear waters so filled with life.
The currents pushed us around, moving the fish towards or away from us. At one point I looked down to see a bright blue, spotted puffer fish floating towards me. All different fish swam about, from rays at the bottom to brightly green and purple fish near the top.
When it was time to leave, we swam back to the boat for lunch. The upper deck was even more filled. Entertainment was provided with dance contests, drunken competitions for adults and college students on board and drinks. Boats passing by us heard our laughter and come out to watch.
It was a day filled with experiences I will never forget. Cabo San Lucas is known as a party city and our whole program absolutely understands why.
The people I shared it with and the things that I did were completely new to me, and I would do it again as many times as I could.
I can’t believe this is only the beginning.
Wednesday, Dec. 15
At school at 6:45 a.m. on a Wednesday, it’s pretty hard for it to register that it’s the first day of winter break. Subsequent car rides to San Diego don’t help much either.
I only started to realize the type of trip this was going to be during the bus ride to Ensenada, Mexico. Between a rejuvenating power nap and David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” I missed most of the actual crossing of the United States-Mexico border. After my movie was over, I glanced out the window of our bus and started to actually see what was around us.
On the left of the bus were rocky hills, the only signals of human interaction being the road we were on, the graffiti that adorned several rocks, and the occasional billboard advertising a “gentlemen’s club.” On the right was a high-class pueblo-style housing development, complete with palm trees swaying in the breeze.
The only thing separating the two completely different landscapes was a ten-foot tall fence.
Now I know the US-Mexico border fence is a controversial issue, but it wasn’t the political or environmental implications that influenced me.
To me, that fence signified my departure from just about everything that I’m comfortable with: my friends, family, and basically my entire California lifestyle.
I can count the number of days I’ve been out of the country prior to this trip on my fingers, and the only other time I’ve been in Mexico was when I was 5 and stayed at a resort, so seeing the “real” Mexico – broken down houses, poorly paved streets – was different, to say the least.
In the days leading up to when we departed, I was regularly asked what I was looking forward to most about this voyage, and I think I’ve figured out my answer: I want to be impacted by what I see and do, just like I was by the border of those two countries on the drive to port. Whether that impact is positive, negative, spurs me to make a difference or not doesn’t matter to me nearly as much; I want a life experience that will change my exceptionally sheltered self, and whatever happens, I’m ready.