Blog: Semester at Sea (Saturday, Dec. 30)

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: Wednesday, Jan. 2 – Mao writes: Saturday, Dec. 30 – Mao writes: Tuesday, Dec. 28      

– Mao writes:
 Thursday, Dec. 23 

– Lister writes: Wednesday, Dec. 22      

- Mao writes:
 Tuesday, Dec. 21 

- Lister writes: Monday Dec. 20

- Mao writes: Sunday, Dec. 19

- Mao writes: Friday, Dec. 17

- Lister writes: Wednesday, Dec. 15

Mao writes:

Saturday, Dec. 30

Guatemala is beautiful. Unexpectedly, amazingly beautiful. I honestly think I will return to Honduras and Guatemala as many times as I can. The Livingston Humanitarian Tour that we took today was nothing that we expected, but was amazing nonetheless. We started out later than most of the students; they had gone to the La Lenka Waterfalls. As we set out by water taxi, our guide, oddly enough, turned out to be the same guide who had toured us on the opposite side of Guatemala. Quickly arriving at the town of Livingston, we had expected to play the part of humanitarians by interacting with Guatemalan students at a poor school.

We had sailed for a good long while before we approached the school. Right next to the school, two spider monkeys were chained to the side of a dock. On cue, three children standing next to the monkeys recited together in English something along the lines of “Please help us out and give us money”. It was a little disturbing to be honest. They had clearly practiced this and used this phrase several times before. It was all too contrived to feel genuine.

When we stopped at the actual school, all the children were lined up on the steps. They seemed to range from 2 to 16 years old. It’s hard to say that I was not disappointed by what happened next. We all took school supplies from a big duffel bag and were walking over to hand them out when they attacked. Kids waved their hands in our faces yelling “Yo tambien! Yo tambien!”

whenever another kid got a toy. We saw children steal supplies from other children and run off to stash it in a secret hiding place. It was really upsetting. The worst part was right after the supplies ran out, all the kids just sat back down in the same way that they had been in when we arrived. We soon understood why as another boat full of generous tourists pulled up. There was no interaction; we just threw a bunch of things at them and left. It was clear this happened all the time. A little shaken, we continued down the Rio Dulce. It was easy to forget about the orphanage quickly when we saw the scenery of Guatemala. It was unbelievable! I can’t even describe it. Greenery was everywhere. It was as if we were in an enormous valley, only it was a river. Hills rose up on both sides filled with trees and teeming with bird life. Egrets, herons, eagles, you name it. Formations of birds flew by in time with us before veering off.

We stopped at a little hut built pretty much on the river. Right in front of it lay the beautiful Aquatic Gardens. White flowers, surrounded by lily pads grew straight out of the water. There were three huge clumps of this flora. But the gardens themselves were not the interesting part. Children were kayaking all around; at least seven kayaks floated nearby. As soon as we approached, the children began paddling furiously towards our boat. It felt like a zombie attack. They latched onto our boat with skill that clearly came from practice and shouted “ONE DOLLAR ONE DOLLAR ONE DOLLAR!” and other monetary amounts over and over at us while holding up shells, starfish and more. As we tried to talk to them, it was clear they knew no English but that one phrase. The guide told us not to buy anything because everything they were selling was harvested illegally. 

With the limited Spanish I knew, I asked one girl how old she was. She was 5 years old. They hung onto our boat a little longer, but they soon realized no one was buying and as another boat was approaching, they released their grip and paddled towards the next boat.

We all disembarked the water taxi and headed into the open hut where we were to get tortillas. They were being grilled as we ordered, so all the tortillas were fresh. After adding beans and salt, almost all of us had seconds. In another corner, a man stood with a machete. Spread out below him were a plethora of coconuts, which he would hack into and stick a straw in for one dollar. The juice was sweet and fresh, and once I finished it, I brought the empty coconut back to the man who hacked it completely open so we could eat the fresh, white meat inside. The house was also selling some tourist appealing items, but no one really bought anything. We all boarded the taxi content and no longer hungry as we set off once again down the Rio Dulce.

Soon, we approached a natural hot spring. I had never been to one before, and we had not known about the possibility of going until that morning. Luckily, we had all brought swim suits. After changing, we got in. It was just a part of the river that was cut off by some rocks. We couldn’t find the heat at first, and it smelled strongly of sulphur. 

Finally, we saw the hole that extended deep into the earth and emitted the heat. Get too close and it burned, stay too far and it was too cold. The heat would come in waves, washing out to about five feet around it. Our guide told us that the minerals were very good for our bodies.

When the smell and heat became too much to bear, the High Tech High chaperone Brandon, convinced us to jump into the cold side of the river. I gracefully slipped off the ground during my attempted jump, earning myself the wonderful nickname of “Vivien Grace”. Brandon describes it as running frantically through the air as I hit the water on my face. Finally, it was time to eat. We once again boarded the boat and sped down the river back towards where we would stop in the city to have lunch. 

My table, Chloe, Camille, Adam, Michael and Sophie, almost all ordered fish. Once again we were served rice and beans along with our fish. I think I had rice and beans every day for at least two meals, but I’m not complaining. It was delicious. We also all ordered horchatas, or a sweet rice water drink. The food was delicious and was accompanied by the music of a native band who played a very loud punta, a traditional song and dance. When we were done, it was time to wander the streets of Livingston for a little to shop and see the city. Walking around was nothing special; Livingston was much like every other city we had been to. Bustling markets always trying to sell, run-down shops where the seller waited out front calling you in and skinny dogs running down the street with the children who played outside. 

Michael, Chloe and I decided to brave the dangers of local food and approached a man standing with a huge metal milk carton, like the ones at carnivals one tried to throw balls into, and a flat metal spatula-like tool. He was selling some sort of ice cream, but couldn’t speak enough English to explain how it wasn’t typical. A few kids came up and ordered some, so we figured it would be safe enough. One dollar bought three small cones. The man reached down into the carton where we couldn’t see and scraped something at the bottom. He then wiped the ice cream onto the cone (this doesn’t sound very appetizing, but this is actually what happened) before taking a spoon and placing some kind of fruity syrup onto the top. The ice cream was yellow and the syrup was a deep red; we all looked at each other hesitantly before trying it. It was delicious! The ice cream tasted like icy frosting and the syrup complimented it perfectly. We thanked the man.

On our way back, Brandon and Nicole asked us how the trip went so they could give feedback to the program. The results were pretty interesting. It was nothing that was advertised. The ad promised we would learn the punta, interact with the kids and spend a lot of time being a humanitarian. We were not humanitarians at all. The small amount of time spent with the school was contrived and disappointing, and there was no other humanitarian part of the tour. We didn’t learn the punta dance, which was also very saddening for me. But, even with all this, I had a fantastic time. It was in my top three trips. I didn’t feel too much like a tourist and yet I still was able to do things that were typically Guatemalan. The Rio Dulce was so beautiful; the only place I can think of comparing it to is Glencoe Valley in Scotland.

In retrospect, this trip represented a lot of the general themes of the Semester at Sea trip. I had expected it to be amazing, and I got nothing that I expected, but it was still amazing. I guess it’s hard to plan a great time. Embrace the unexpected.