LIVE BLOG: Semester at Sea (Tuesday, Dec. 28)

Chronicle Staff

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.

Mao writes:

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.