LIVE BLOG: Semester at Sea (Thursday, Dec. 23)

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:

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.