LIVE BLOG: Semester at Sea (Tuesday, Dec. 21)

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. 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

each family.

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?