BLOG: Semester at Sea (Sunday, Dec. 26)

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.

Lister writes:

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.