Blog: Semester at Sea (Friday, Dec. 31)

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 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.

Lister writes:

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.