Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Semester at Sea: The Final Note (…take two)

Our life experiences are what shape our beliefs, ideas, values, and how we describe ourselves as people. Semester at Sea offered a unique experience for each participant on the voyage that has and will continue to shape me. That is what has made this voyage so special. My impressions of each country varied from my roommate's and classmates' opinions. My experiences are mine and although I can relate to many of the experiences others had, they are what shaped this voyage to make it my own. This opportunity has provided me with useful communication and life skills. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, my goal for this voyage was to "Discover" and I feel that this experience greatly exceeded my expectations. It is still quite overwhelming to fathom all that has occurred in the last month, but I feel like it has been a constant source of enrichment of both information and culture from people and places that I had least expected. I consider and will cherish my interaction with both locals and participants on Semester at Sea as the highlights of my voyage.
Human nature has a funny way of offering quite a bit of insight into how a person lives their life. Additionally, it is difficult to put into words the feelings I have towards each country. Some countries gave me the sense like a thicker cultural barrier existed, such as they saw me as a source of income, rather than a person. In other countries, I felt like I was immediately welcomed and they saw me as a human. These countries are the ones where I feel like I would very much like to return when I get the opportunity. The manners and ways I was approached seemed to vary from country to country. It's amazing that in such a geographically-congested space that so many customs and greetings would be distinct to each country. The way people carried themselves in various countries provided an significant impression on how I interpreted their quality of life. The Costa Ricans have been reported as among the happiest people in the world, and it was obvious in their overall demeanor. The Guatemalans waved at us as we made eye-contact with them. These were the only countries where I also got hugs and kisses from locals and invitations to return and visit locals. And for having the lowest GDP of the countries, the Hondurans were still happy to discuss the few fortunes that they do have. The willingness to smile with their eyes and spark a conversation with me was what set these three countries apart. In fact, there was something else that I notice they had seemed to have in common: They seemed to make due with what resources and time they had available and were able to enjoy the simple joys of life. (On another note, I also had done service visits in each of these countries, which provided me with that community involvement for that I had yearned during the voyage.)
The locals in Trinidad and Tobago, Panamá, and Belize seemed to rely too much of tourism for their income. The distribution of wealth seemed pretty extreme in these countries and these were the places where locals tried to help me on the street, expecting a "thank you tip" in return for their services. The body language and glares on their faces made me feel like a foreigner, like they did not want me to be there. I felt a lack of trust in these people, where I feared they may have had ulterior motives. They were generally less laid back and constantly asked me if I needed a ride somewhere or what I was doing. This persistent method of trying to recruit me as a customer was a quick turn-off for me to take an interest in their services. Although this was my overall impression of both Panamá and Belize, please understand that I did encounter several kind people in these countries, but they were (based on what I observed) less abundant. I had enjoyed both hostel experiences that I had in Belize and Panamá and they have, honestly, provided me with the greatest adventure that I had on the trip. Trinidad and Tobago set itself apart from both Belize and Panamá because the locals were kind to interact with me, ranging from people that I spoke to on the street, to the people that warned us where to walk in the interest of our safety, and the little boy that touched my hand in the store. I should also mention that Trinidad and Tobago is where I had the best tour guides that demonstrated the greatest pride in their country and nationality (of being known as an extremely diverse country and population). I do not feel that I can group Trinidad and Tobago with Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala because that was where eight people had asked me for money.
It is very hard to rank these countries because I found unique attributes of each culture and country. Overall, Costa Rica and Guatemala were my favorites, where Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago follow, concluding with Belize and Panamá. So my personal ranking goes like this:
1.     Costa Rica
2.     Guatemala
3.     Honduras
4.     Trinidad and Tobago
5.     Belize
6.     Panamá
I did not include the Bahamas because I did not spend much time outside of my hotel, the airport and ship terminal. This is a very subjective ranking because I choose to only base this off of my experiences and opinions of each country, in which I spent less than 72 hours. Semester at Sea offers a wonderful comparative experience where you visit a lot of countries in a short amount of time and gain a "feel" for each country. I saw so many different things and participated in a myriad of activities/adventures that I don't feel it's possible on any other program to experience a wide variety of opportunities that each specific country can provide. Moreover, while this experience was wonderful for all that it offered, I wish I could have gone beyond that status of "visitor" in these countries. I wished to be treated like a local, but obviously that takes more time when you look and behave differently. Time was, however, not on our side. Many of us, as we were directed, remained in groups which made it even easier to identify us as tourists.
In case you're wondering if I would be interested on going on another Semester at Sea voyage, I would gladly go on another one. However, I'm not sure if I would go in a heartbeat. The reason being: I missed the entire immersion experience that I had in Germany. (I have found this voyage to be completely different from my experiences in Germany, so I don't feel that they experiences are really comparable. I wish to see them as two chapters in my life that need not be compared…although immersion was the aspect that I missed the most.) I hope to use my experience and what I have learned on SAS to jump into a community, with which I was introduced on the voyage. You can think of SAS as a "sample" and now I'm using the "tastes" I've acquired to figure out which country/community I would like to have served as the "entrée". The aspect of the voyage that did not dawn on me until I was in the ship was I would be experiencing it with an entire group of Americans. From my travel experience, I am accustomed to being in small groups of American and/or international students or being alone. I had a sort of "traveler's shock" in the sense that I did not feel like I am the typical American traveler. While it worked for the time being, I did not always enjoy having to cater to other wishes/fears of other individuals. I still managed to take leaps of faith and try new things (and these instances truly were the pinnacles my trip), but it also really aggravated me when SASers made comments along the lines of "Why can't they be more like America?". First of all, we were still on the continent of America (doesn't matter whether North, Central or South), and the USA does not necessarily do everything "the best." I tried to appreciate observing the differences as learning opportunities.
Another learning opportunity I had was to live on a ship. I was fortunate not to get seasick. I felt the land moving underneath me in Trinidad, but that was the extent of my symptoms. The longest I had spent on a ship before was a week for a cruise. Four weeks seemed like much longer than actually was. I was able to form friendships with people and get to know them better than I would in only a week's time. The academic setting also provided a different crowd than the typical vacation-goers. Some disadvantages of the could be the tight living conditions, the lack of personal space, the only opportunity to escape this group of people would be to get lost in port or jump overboard, the freezing ship, and the repetitive food offerings. In my opinion, the close quarters are worth the experience to explore so many countries. I chose to make lemonade by chatting with people and trying to be a friendly, kind individual that wanted to listen, just as much to share. The individuals that I found annoying or I differed from their views gave me the opportunity to gain more experience to understand how people see things differently. Fortunately, there was always someone I could connect with, so jumping overboard was never really an option I gave myself. The ship is cold for the purpose of mildew control. Lastly, I was glad to always have an idea of what to expect for dinner, knowing that I was going to enjoy the food. The buffet-style meals accommodated the palettes of everyone very nicely.
Something that was a pleasant surprise that I feared as a hurdle was the internet. I received 2 hours of free internet for the entire program. This did not include e-mail service and access to Wikipedia.com, but it was certainly not a superfluous amount. I also did not have a cell phone, and to be honest, it was extraordinary to be free of the burden that technology can have. I was worry-free about staying in touch because I could use my room phone to contact someone on the ship; otherwise e-mail worked well. I was free of Facebook for 4 weeks and it was great having one less social stress. Many SASers expressed similar enjoyment not having cell phones and Facebook around. It might be hard for some to believe, but life will go on without Facebook, and quite frankly, it seems to be more enjoyable without having to worry about it!
As I conclude my written reflection, my personal observations, understanding and appreciation for all that I experienced will continue to evolve. I feel I will never stop learning, nor do I wish for that to cease. There have been a few skills/traits that I have been able to improve during this trip, including: my Spanish skills, bartering, patience, and tolerance. These places made me feel different because it was outside the realm of Western society, in other words, it was much harder for me to fit in, which I don't think I ever successfully accomplished on this voyage. Being a stranger in the eyes of the locals taught me how I ought to interact for someone to feel more welcomed in my presence: body language is key. This voyage taught me most about human interaction and we should be more conscious of how we treat others. I feel that I had fun through experiencing new things and gaining a rejuvenated perspective on the world. I'm proud to be a global citizen, and I hope I have helped carry out my duty by reporting through this blog. My advice for anyone reading this would be: try to enter a new endeavor free of preconceived notions or judgments before you gain a deeper understanding for why something may be the way it is. There may be a cultural reason or something else, with which we are unfamiliar. Listen! (You have two ears, but only one mouth for a reason.) Try to be an open-minded individual who sees each experience, obstacle, or challenge in your life as an opportunity to grow and learn.
Although I was abroad for a month, my family was quite adept at home as they welcomed people into our family that really changed the dynamic. This month has proven to be a significant month for all of us through trial-and-error, triumph, misfortunate, and acceptance. I doubt it's possible to be(come) an expert on life, but this experience is another example of how enthralling it can be to explore and find what is out there. Life is good, and I plan to keep pursuing experiences abroad to wherever I can. I wore a bracelet that says "Carpe Diem" and that was what I considered to be my motto on this voyage. I have yet to remove this bracelet, so I will continue to "seize the day," each and everyday. I hope to return to the places that I have already visited, but I'm excited to see and experience more! 21 countries in 20 years is very exciting and a blessing for me. I thank you again for joining me along the ride and reading this. I would also like to particularly thank my family and friends that supported me through this entire voyage. All in all, it has certainly been smooth sailing!
¡Adios! & Bis dann!
Matt
P.S. I felt like I had left some parts out of the original "final note," so I added them in "take two."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Semester at Sea: The Final Note

Semester at Sea offered a unique experience for each participant on the voyage. And that is what has made this voyage so special. My impressions of each country varied from my roommate's and classmates' opinions. My experiences are mine and although I can relate to many of the experiences others had, they are what shaped this voyage to make it my own. I came on this voyage to "Discover" as I wrote in an earlier blog post, and I feel that this experience greatly exceeded my expectations. It is still quite overwhelming to fathom all that has occurred in the last month, but I feel like it has been a constant of enrichment of information and culture from sources that I had least expected. I have cherished my interaction with both locals and participants on Semester at Sea as the highlights of my voyage. Human nature has a funny way of offering quite a bit of insight into how a person lives their life. Some countries gave me the sense like a greater cultural barrier existed, such as they saw me as a source of income, rather than a person. In other countries, I felt like I was immediately welcomed and they saw me as a human. These countries are the ones where I feel like I would very much like to return when I get the opportunity.
The manners and ways I was approached seemed to vary from country to country. It's amazing that in such a geographically-congested space that so many customs and greetings would be distinct to each country. The way people carried themselves in various countries provided an significant impression on how I interpreted their quality of life. The Costa Ricans have been reported as among the happiest people in the world, and it was obvious in their overall demeanor. The Guatemalans waved at us as we made eye-contact with them. These were the only countries where I also got hugs and kisses from locals and invitations to return and visit locals. And for having the lowest GDP of the countries, the Hondurans were still happy to discuss the few fortunes that they do have. The willingness to smile with their eyes and spark a conversation with me was what set these three countries apart. In fact, there was something else that they had in common: They seemed to make due with what resources and time they had available and were able to enjoy the simple joys of life. On another note, I also had done service visits in each of these countries, which provided me with that community involvement for that I had yearned during the voyage.
The locals in Trinidad and Tobago, Panamá, and Belize seemed to rely too much of tourism for their income. The distribution of wealth seemed pretty extreme in these countries and these were the places where locals tried to help me on the street, expecting a "thank you tip" in return for their services. The body language and glares on their faces made me feel like a foreigner, like they did not want me to be there. I felt a lack of trust in these people, where I feared they may have had ulterior motives. They were generally less laid back and constantly asked me if I needed a ride somewhere or what I was doing. This persistent method of trying to recruit me as a customer was a quick turn-off for me to take an interest in their services. Although this was my overall impression of both Panamá and Belize, please understand that I did encounter several kind people in these countries, but they were (based on what I observed) less abundant. I had enjoyed both hostel experiences that I had in Belize and Panamá and they have, honestly, provided me with the greatest adventure that I had on the trip. Trinidad and Tobago set itself apart from both Belize and Panamá because the locals were kind to interact with me, ranging from people that I spoke to on the street, to the people that warned us where to walk in the interest of our safety, and the little boy that touched my hand in the store. I should also mention that Trinidad and Tobago is where I had the best tour guides that demonstrated the greatest pride in their country and nationality (of being known as an extremely diverse country and population). I do not feel that I can group Trinidad and Tobago with Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala because that was where eight people had asked me for money.
It is very hard to rank these countries because I found unique attributes of each culture and country that it is difficult to judge them, especially since it is so subjective. Overall, Costa Rica and Guatemala were my favorites, where Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago follow, concluding with Belize and Panamá. I did not include the Bahamas because I did not spend much time outside of my hotel, the airport and ship terminal. This is, again, a very subjective ranking because I choose to only base this off of my experiences and opinions of each country, in which I spent less than 72 hours. Semester at Sea offers a wonderful comparative experience where you visit a lot of countries in a short amount of time and gain a "feel" for each country. I saw so many different things and participated in a myriad of activities/adventures that I don't feel it's possible on any other program to experience a wide variety of opportunities that each specific country can provide. Moreover, while this experience was wonderful for all that it offered, I wish I could have gone beyond that status of "visitor" in these countries. I wished to be treated like a local, but obviously that takes more time when you look and behave differently. Time was, however, not on our side. Many of us, as we were directed, remained in groups which made it even easier to identify us as tourists.
In case you're wondering if I would be interested on going on another Semester at Sea voyage, I would gladly go on another one. However, I'm not sure if I would go in a heartbeat. The reason being: I missed the entire immersion experience that I had in Germany. I hope to use my experience and what I have learned on SAS to jump into a community, with which I was introduced on the voyage. You can think of SAS as a "sample" and now I'm using what "tastes" I've acquired to figure out which country/community I would like to have served as the "entrée". The aspect of the voyage that did not dawn on me until I was in the ship was I would be experiencing it with an entire group of Americans. From my travel experience, I am accustomed to being in small groups of American and/or international students or being alone. I had a sort of "traveler's shock" in the sense that I did not feel like I am the typical American traveler. While it worked for the time being, I did not always enjoy having to cater to other wishes/fears of other individuals. I still managed to take leaps of faith and try new things (and these instances truly were the pinnacles my trip), but it also really aggravated me when SASers made comments along the lines of "Why can't they be more like America?". First of all, we were still on the continent of America (doesn't matter whether North, Central or South), and the USA does not necessarily do everything "the best." I tried to appreciate observing the differences as learning opportunities.
Another learning opportunity I had was to live on a ship. I was fortunate not to get seasick. I felt the land moving underneath me in Trinidad, but that was the extent of my symptoms. The longest I had spent on a ship before was a week for a cruise. Four weeks seemed like much longer than actually was. I was able to form friendships with people and get to know them better than I would in only a week's time. The academic setting also provided a different crowd than the typical vacation-goers. Some disadvantages of the could be the tight living conditions, the lack of personal space, the only opportunity to escape this group of people would be to get lost in port or jump overboard, the freezing ship, and the repetitive food offerings. In my opinion, the close quarters are worth the experience to explore so many countries. I chose to make lemonade by chatting with people and trying to be a friendly, kind individual that wanted to listen, just as much to share. The individuals that I found annoying or I differed from their views gave me the opportunity to gain more experience to understand how people see things differently. Fortunately, there was always someone I could connect with, so jumping overboard was never really an option I gave myself. The ship is cold for the purpose of mildew control. Lastly, I was glad to always have an idea of what to expect for dinner, knowing that I was going to enjoy the food. The buffet-style meals accommodated the palettes of everyone very nicely.
Something that was a pleasant surprise that I feared as a hurdle was the internet. I received 2 hours of free internet for the entire program. This did not include e-mail service and access to Wikipedia.com, but it was certainly not a superfluous amount. I also did not have a cell phone, and to be honest, it was extraordinary to be free of the burden that technology can have. I was worry-free about staying in touch because I could use my room phone to contact someone on the ship; otherwise e-mail worked well. I was free of Facebook for 4 weeks and it was great having one less social stress. Many SASers expressed similar enjoyment not having cell phones and Facebook around. It might be hard for some to believe, but life will go on without Facebook, and quite frankly, it seems to be more enjoyable without having to worry about it!
As I conclude my written reflection, my personal observations, understanding and appreciation for all that I experienced will continue to evolve. I feel I will never stop learning, nor do I wish for that to cease. I feel that I had fun through experiencing new things and gaining a rejuvenated perspective on the world. I'm proud to be a global citizen, and I hope I have helped carry out my duty by reporting through this blog. My advice for anyone reading this would be: try to enter a new endeavor free of preconceived notions or judgments before you gain a deeper understanding for why something may be the way it is. There may be a cultural reason or something else, with which we are unfamiliar. Listen! (You have two ears, but only one mouth for a reason.) Try to be an open-minded individual who sees each experience, obstacle, or challenge in your life as an opportunity to grow and learn.
Although I was abroad for a month, my family was quite adept at home as they welcomed people into our family that really changed the dynamic. This month has proven to be a significant month for all of us through trial-and-error, triumph, misfortunate, and acceptance. I doubt it's possible to be(come) an expert on life, but this experience is another example of how enthralling it can be to explore and find what is out there. Life is good, and I plan to keep pursuing experiences abroad to wherever I can. I hope to return to the places that I have already visited, but I'm excited to see and experience more! 21 countries in 20 years is very exciting and a blessing for me. I thank you again for joining me along the ride. All in all, it has certainly been smooth sailing!
¡Adios! & Bis dann!
Matt

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Who says you can’t go home?

My Semester at Sea voyage is complete. 26 days of learning and adventure. There were good times; there were challenges; there were moments I hope to never forget. This has been a unique opportunity that less than 60,000 people have ever done. Considering the world has over 6 billion people, that's a miniscule percentage.
It was, of course, to have to say farewell to my new amigos (and way of life) of Semester at Sea. We all have Facebook, but I imagine it'll still be a challenge to stay in touch as we re-immerse into our lives at home. I was lucky to meet some great people from all over the world and have an awesome roommate. Excursions, adventures, and human interaction are what really make my experience worth it, not to mention I learned a lot in class.
Today has been flashing by. I had breakfast, gave a lot of "good luck and I wish you the best" hugs. Many didn't want to say "good-bye," rather "I'll see you later" or "Let me know when you're in the area, we'll get together!" I was off the ship before 10am, so I had some time to kill in Nassau. I tried a Kalik, the Bahamian beer, which I received in a brown paper bag. I waited about 5 minutes, which felt like 20, for her to fetch the brown paper bag…it was the slowest bar I had ever been to. It was refreshing, especially considering the sweltering heat, but I'd prefer to adhere the German phrase, "Kein Bier vor Vier." (No beer before 4pm, which in Germany, at that time it was 4pm ;). I piled in a taxi with 6 other SASers and fortunately the taxi was much cheaper than when I arrived. This taxi driver took about 25-30ish minutes for a 45-minute ride to the airport. Fortunately we made it safely. The airport was fine, some of the security officers seemed rather annoyed…I guess it was all of the SASers that went through customs before my group. The customs officer showed me a picture of my suitcase on his computer screen, asking if it belonged to me. Makes me wonder if technology is sometimes too good. I'm currently on a flight to Atlanta and I set my personal TV screen in German, but the map is in Spanish.... Delta's programming seems to be offering a multilingual experience. Despite about an hour long delay, this flight went smoothly.
The memorable story begins with my second flight. I did not expect to have much time to eat because of the delay, so I jammed a sandwich and donut down my throat as I hastened down to the next gate. I was joined by Deborah and Grace who had later flights. Unluckily, a storm arrived just in time for my flight. They kept postponing the departure time for about 40 minutes. During this time I spoke to my parents and said my good-byes to Grace and Deborah. After that was a false alarm, we went to get a snack. When I got back to the gate, I was the very last person to board the aircraft. I thought I was lucky, but we ended up sitting on the runway for 2 hours, and then were required by law to return to the gate. During this time I was on the phone, so the time passed by quickly. We unboarded the plane, arriving at a different gate from our original. This time we waited attentively for more information about if the flight was going to be cancelled or not. I got some baked ziti, which did a great job of curbing my hunger, because by this time (around 11pm), I should have been home by then. At midnight, we were ready to start board the aircraft again. The process moved very slowly as many people were aggravated with the travel delays and cancellations. We eventually filed in and I claimed a double seat to myself in the back of the plane. I sacrificed the quieter part of the plane for my wiggle room. It started to rain again, as it took another hour of waiting behind multiple planes on the runway, but we finally made it into the air at 1:25am. The flight was scheduled to depart at 7:29pm. I got quite lucky because my SASers have been left stranded or in more difficult situations with their flights being cancelled. I think our pilots were great with their determination and honesty about the situation that was at hand.
I arrived in New Jersey at 2:54am and after a hassle-free luggage pick-up…my Dad picked me up. We sat in traffic on the turnpike for 30 minutes because of a morbid accident, involving what looked like two motorcycles were involved. My Dad commented, "What's one more delay till you get home, Matt?" I finally made it home safely with all of my luggage at 4:45am. (I know I'm a lunatic for posting this before going to bed.) I hope my fellow SASers that are stranded make it home safely tomorrow!
I guess I'll be sleeping in tomorrow…to catch up on some much needed sleep. I don't feel like I panicked or was stressed out in this situation because I knew I didn't have any control of what was going to happen to the flight. I saw others get very frustrated, and honestly, it seemed to only worsen their mood and had no effect on improving their circumstances. Almost everyone else is sleeping on the plane, but I'm probably going to crash when I get home…probably around 4am. Just another funny story to share while travelling from Semester at Sea! Oh… and I should mention things will work out like they're meant to. :)
When I've had enough sleep, I will provide more insight to my overall opinion of the Semester at Sea experience that I had.
Bis bald,
Matt

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Back in the Bahamas

Finalizing everything for my class is what consumed most of my time yesterday. I wanted to finish the blog post about Belize prior to doing any work and after over 2,000 words had finally completed it. We did a group project and I wrote my course reflection. The assignments offered the general stress of getting it done in a time crunch, as well as aggravation of the writing process taking too long…yup, just like almost every other essay.

The highlights of yesterday were Seminar and the Alumni Dinner. In Seminar, the winners of the Engineering a New Tomorrow project were announced and presented their ideas. One group focused on environmental sustainability, another on education, and the third on gender equality. In the gender equality presentation, they did the activity that we had done in class where they asked the men to sit on the floor (lower than the women) and did not allow the men to talk…the Dean had suggested the activity to them. I wasn’t too happy about that, but overall I really enjoyed the presentations. My personal favorite idea was a book that this group planned to sell, which would promote reading in the US and proceeds would be sent to a fund to supply uniforms to students in developing countries that cannot afford them.

The Alumni Dinner was great! I had a generous 8 minutes to get ready in between Seminar and the dinner. Everyone looked great as we were all dressed up. It was a 4-course meal, and my entrée was Chicken Supreme. I inhaled it, and managed to avoid getting food on my clothing! (Kudos!) After dinner, I took a bunch of pictures with my SAS friends. Soon afterwards I feel back into work mode, and finished my work around 1:15am (it would have technically been 12:15am if we didn’t lose an hour because of the time zone.) Yep! I’m back in the Eastern Standard Time zone.

I fell asleep and woke up early for my 8:30am for my presentation for class. The presentations were enjoyable. It was interesting to hear about the other experiences and insight that my peers had on our FDP in Costa Rica. The class certainly ended on a high note, with us stating a goal that we set for ourselves. My goal is to stay involved with at least one of the communities I have visited during this voyage. One of the Lifelong Learners bought us cookies, which like all the other desserts on this ship have been: extraordinary! It was sad to have to bid farewell to my class, but I’m glad everyone was optimistic about the time we had.

After my final, I had to briskly pack so I could hand over my checked luggage over to the crew, so I don’t have to lug it off the ship. (Let’s just hope it’s under 50 lbs.) At 1400, we had our convocation. The Deans and some keynote student and faculty representatives spoke. The Dean had done an exercise during her speech where she asked the women in the room (The Union) to scream “We need the men, too!” It was nice to feel like my voice was heard. Following the Convocation, I joined an English-speaking (my first full English one!) conversation circle. I was glad I could contribute with the AFS phrase that “everyone’s experience is unique to them.” My SAS family had one final dinner, and it was just as great as the others. I have laughed and smiled the most at these dinners; I’m really going to miss our “post-port family dinners.” I concluded my evening with pre-port orientation of the Bahamas and a few rounds of good-ole Bananagrams, which becomes ridiculously complicated when you play with engineering majors. In pre-port, they thought it was funny comment that areas we should avoid while traveling home are: New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, and all of New Jersey. Actually, it was pretty funny. :)

Most of the day, I have been saying farewell to many people. Some wanted contact information, but other than that I’d like to think that I’m content with everything that I’ve done on this voyage. It is a lot to process, but this blog has been helpful to reflect upon all of my experiences. Many of the people that I have met on this voyage have been fascinating. They come from different backgrounds with diverse opinions and perspectives on various issues. I’m grateful for having this opportunity to learn and I feel that this SAS Maymester group has helped change me for the better. (I like to think of the song “For Good” in this instance.) I hope to use what I’ve learned on this voyage to help and inform my community because I know my global perspective has not only been enriched but also altered while on this experience. Just because someone is living in poverty, doesn’t necessarily mean they are unhappy. We sometimes forget the phrase “less is more.”

Tomorrow is going to be a hectic day with travelling and disembarking the ship. I’ll be getting off the ship in Nassau around mid-morning (if all goes according to the plan) and arriving in New Jersey around 10pm. It’s hard to believe that I’ll be softly rocking to sleep only for one more night. Time is a paradox at times when you feel like time is standing still, but in retrospect, it flew by. I feel like I have known these people and been on this voyage for much longer than 4 weeks, but I cannot believe I’ll be back in New Jersey tomorrow. I’m certain tomorrow will be an emotional day for some and/or an exhausting one for others. I can only be happy with another blessed experience and opportunity. I just imagine the next challenge will be adjusting solid ground and be able to move around parameters much greater than the MV Explorer. I’ll start by relaxing, having faith, and taking a few deep, cleansing breaths.

¡Hasta pronto!
Matt

P.S. I can’t make any promises, but I’ll try to work on a blog entry at some point tomorrow. But I can promise a final post will most likely be a few days after I return home. I’m particularly excited to see my family and friends tomorrow and the next few days after having limited communication on the ship.

Monday, June 13, 2011

unBELIZEable!

It has been an adventureous past two days in Belize. Lots of worries and loss of sleep due to the lack of time and that I tried to fit in as much as possible. I couldn’t complete the blog post last night because I was so exhausted that I couldn’t stay up and type. Anyway, I would definitely describe Belize as my most spontaneous port. I believe I would describe myself as a planner, although sometimes I welcome spontaneity. Belize was a time where I made a few of those atypical (for me) split-second decisions.

So I got off the ship on the first tender and we were off to the service visit at the Leo Bradley Library. The plan for the visit was to interact with children and encourage them to read. We arrived over an hour eariler than the children, so in meantime we received a tour of the library. Afterwards, the real work started. The librarians asked if some of us could help organize books, while others interacted and read with the children. I spent the entire time with a boy named Kirk. He is 9 years old and likes to do everything (read, do math, play soccer, etc.). I think we read 6 books, the best being Tarzan where I did horrible, but also obnoxious Tarzan-like sound as I read aloud. I’m pretty sure the whole library heard me twice. We spent the rest of the time drawing and coloring. We took pictures and Kirk found it amusing as I showed him that I can clap with one hand. On a more interesting note, Kirk also shared that he wants to fight in war as a part of the Belize Defense Force when he’s older. That was what concluded the visit and we returned to the port.

I didn’t return to the ship with a tender after the service visit. Instead I explored with Grace, Carly and Deborah the area around the port: Belize City. The locals came off as quite pushy. Wherever we went, locals were offering us “deals” or “taxi rides.” Although some of them waved, it was upsetting to me when (in one instance) a little boy on a bike rode by us asking for a dollar. It made me feel like that this touristy area just expects tourists to come and deliver money. Belize City was not spectacular. There was more litter on the streets than I am accustomed to seeing. There weren’t any bizarre smells like in Honduras and Guatemala. The downtown area was not well-adapted to tourists, given that there were only local restaurants and shops. For that they have Tourist Village (that is the actual name of it), where the tender dropped us off. We went to lunch at a local place. We came across a few other SASers that were sitting with two locals. These two locals were very loud extroverts. They kept asking about our money; fortunately, in this instance, they were looking out for us. The rest of the crowd was locals, so we stuck out. It was extremely difficult to understand the waitress, even though she was technically speaking English. It was particularly difficult to explain to her how I wanted the bottlecap with my beer because I have been collecting them on this trip. One of the locals sitting with us explained in Creole, in order to get my point across. The Creole that they speak in Belize City is extremely hard to understand; I forget the origins of their language, but it was easier to understand Trini.

After a few hours in the sweltering heat, I went back to port to pick up a few souveniors. On the way, I ran into the group that I had met in Panamá City. They were planning on going to San Pedro. I was invited, and after a few questions and contemplation, I said sure. I had never heard of San Pedro beforehand, nor did I know anything about it, such as its location. The reality quickly started to sink in about to what I had just agreed. We were taking a water taxi to an island about an hour away from Belize City and spend a night in a hostel. The prices were all reasonable, especially considering the exchange rate ($2 Belize = $1 US). I had enough time in between the time of ticket purchase and time of departure to purchase my much-desired souveniors. I had packed in case I wasn’t spending the night on the ship, so I was good to go. We boarded the water taxi at 5:30pm and we were off!
In the water taxi, I was with a group of nine SASers and we were accompanied by the local who “got us the deal.” After my experience in Panamá, I was rather skeptical of this character. Did I mention when I asked his name, I was told “Righteous”? I experienced a lot of anxiety on the way to San Pedro because I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting myself into. I was concerned about my excursion in the morning and how I would get back. The taxi ride was actually 1.5 hours, not the 45 minutes like I was told. And when we arrived to San Pedro, I did not know what to expect about the hostel. Pedro’s Inn was located on the outskirts of town, but otherwise a very nice hostel. It wasn’t the Hilton, but I had a bed and there was running water. Everyone except for us were British. Many were about of the Bomb Squad, they were being trained in the jungles of Belize. They were celebrating having survived and I doubt they remember me anymore (since they had consumed so much alcohol in celebration). I was starving, but we didn’t eat until a few hours after we arrived. Everyone was settling in and preparing for a night out on the town. Righteous had intentions of spending the night in our room, but he did not pay. Fortunately the hostel owner had strict rules for non-registered guests; Righteous was then forced off the property. Righteous hang around us for the evening, but we avoided him as we returned to the hostel.

We finally got around to eating. I started to loosen up as my hunger was quenched. We ran into three other SASers on the way into town and they brought us to a local restaurant. We ate outside and because it was already 9:30pm, they were only making one item: Pupusas (For description: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pupusa). I ordered six of them and I think they should offer these in the US! We moved onto a bar and later went to a club. It was an eventful night with lots of dancing and excitement for being in such a magnificient environment. San Pedro was a gorgeous area with the beach. It was not swarmed by SASers, so we had more interaction with the locals. By the time we wanted to leave (sometime between 2 and 3am), we got together, but one person went missing. After looking and waiting outside the club for about 30 minutes, we went back to the hostel. We found him there, but he had walked alone and had been robbed. It was a sad incident to end a great evening. I got less than 3 hours of sleep and caught the 7am water taxi back to Belize City.

Fortunatley everything went smoothly! I was able to make it back to port in time for my excursion. The reasoning for my anxiety from previous evening was because I was most excited for my Cave Tubing and Ziplining excursion…I would have been severely upset with myself if I had missed it. After prayer and having faith that it would all work out, it did. When I got on the bus, I hoped that I hadn’t anticipated too much. This excursion greatly exceeded my expectations. The tour guide was so chatty that a few people asked him to stop. He was very energetic, but many were sleep-deprived and just wanted to nap rather than listen to him. We started with the cave tubing part of the trip. We took a 30-minute hike to reach the caves and floated/paddled downstream for nearly 2 hours. The caves were by far the highlight of my time in Belize. We received helmets with lights, life jackets, and bright orange tubes (just like the ones at any American waterpark.) Since we were in the water, I couldn’t bring my camera, but I wish I had. The caves were absolutely remarkable. We came to an opening in the cave roof in the middle with a spring, which was just magical. We saw the bats hanging from the top of the cave. The last part of the path was outside the cave, but it was cool to see the rain forest, in which you can find this cave. Overall, if I had to sum up the caves in one word it would be: AMAZING! (Lower case letters don’t even come close to doing the cave justice.)

We had an opportunity to change clothes during lunch. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that pasta and pineapple actually go well with each other. Moreover, ziplining was the part of the trip that I was looking forward to the most. The time literally flew by and ziplining was much more of a workout than I expected. It was awesome to be swinging through the trip tops. It was scarier for those afraid of heights, but I had a blast. Too bad I couldn’t go a second time! Ziplining and cave tubing are two activities that are very difficult to photograph while doing them. So after ziplining, we drove back to the ship. I hadn’t been on the ship since the first tender left the previous day, so I am proud to say that I spend literally all of my time in Belize. I was thoroughly exhausted by the time I was back on the ship. I even napped a little on the bus ride back.

We had a BBQ for dinner, which provided everyone with some motivation to get back to the ship ontime. In addition to being the first Maymester voyage in SAS history, we were also the first voyage, where no one received dock time. Dock time is basically the “time-out period” or punishment that an individual receives if they do not return to the ship on time for departure. The BBQ was a lot of fun. It was so packed that the line was length of half the ship and it was hard to find a spot to eat because everyone was outside. The sunset was gorgeous as it set in the horizon. It is really cool to say that I have been able to watch the sun set off into the horizon virtually everyday on this voyage. My evening concluded with the conversation circle. I was in an English one but when the Spanish professor arrived late, I switched to that one because I, for some odd reason, had a greater desire to talk about my experiences in Spanish. I get the fact that I’m not your average American 20-year-old. But during the conversation circle, it was exciting to hear that the professor also works at the Middlebury Language Academies.

In conclusion, Belize was a country that left me with some mixed feelings, but I had a wonderful time in this “treasure of the world” like they so humbly call themselves. First impressions can sometimes be misleading. My initial of interpretation of Belize differs greatly from my leaving impression. They came off as very pushy and more interested in my money than me as a person. They were quite loud and abrupt in their mannerisms, which put me on edge. The country, geographically speaking, is pretty homogenous. As we drove through the country (by land and sea) the landscape did not vary much, but the caves and rain forests made up for Belize in that sense. I got the sense that the Belize people were very relaxed and live a very easy-going lifestyle. Many enjoy fishing and swimming. I couldn’t blame them since Belize is one the best places to snorkel (with the 2nd largest coral reef in the world) and the water and beaches are simply pristine. The country of Belize is able to offer a mix of what it’s surrounding countries offer (Mayan Ruins, rain forests, caves, water activities, etc.) Belize is a beautiful country and great to visit if you don’t really speak Spanish. I think if I return to Belize, I will be sure to schedule a snorkelling trip.

Finals are starting today. Elijah is done with his already. Mine is tomorrow morning. I have write an essay and make a presentation during the final exam period. Less than 48 hours left. I’ll try to update either later today or tomorrow. I’ll be typing away most of the day. We also have our last seminar today.

Bis später,
Matt

Friday, June 10, 2011

Beautiful Waters in Belize

We arrived in Belize today around lunch time. We are already cleared to disembark the ship, but they discouraged us from swimming to port. The Belize City port is too shallow for the MV Explorer, so we will be using tenders (transport boats) to get back and forth to port, starting tomorrow (Saturday). The water has been very calm thus far, so let’s hope for smooth waters, so that the tendering runs smoothly.

Today was dandy overall. I slept in till 10am. It started off very relaxing with an enjoyable lunch (tacos) and not having to stress about last-minute homework. Class was aggravating today because I wasn’t able to participate much. I literally could not get a word in. It seems like the class has forgotten about the lesson on contextual listening. It was our final class, so on Tuesday I have my final exam, which is a 6 to 8 page course reflection essay. We will also be presenting on our FDP from Costa Rica discussing the happiness of the community we interacted with. Although I have certainly learned a lot, I’m glad the class is concluding. Seminar included our Interport Lecturer who discussed climate change. After dinner, I attended a Seminar on the Peace Corps. Directly followed that, we were briefed about Belize, so everyone is getting excited about our final port!

I bought a last-minute ticket to a service trip tomorrow at a library. And on Sunday I will be ziplining and cave tubing. I’m hoping to explore Belize City for a while too, so I’m looking forward to the beautiful country as Belize has been described. This also marks the 21st country that I have visited in my 20 years of life.

¡Hasta luego!
Matt

Grüße aus Guatemala!

Greetings from Guatemala! I feel like I left my heart in Honduras, but whatever I had left is in Guatemala now. I started off on a service visit to a School for Special Education in Puerto Barrios. I acted as a translator with the group of students and SASers, with whom I worked. The teachers and students were all extremely friendly. And before 9am I began to profusely sweat. We constructed bracelets with the kids, took pictures (all the kids became instant photographers when they got a hold of our cameras), and went on a walk with them. They actually cut the walk/stroll a bit short because we (the SASers) were looking like we were going to pass out from heat stroke. (I’m not exaggerating about the heat at all.) Afterwards, they offered us water (packaged in plastic bags) and cookies that were similar to Oreos. We spent the morning with these kids, and despite a language barrier, they still interacted with us like we were long-lost friends. Children have a wonderful ability to see someone as a person and solely wish to play with them…sometimes it’s sad that we lose that judgement-free mentality as we age. The smiles and laughter at the school were very reminiscient of Special Olympics. And fortunately, my brain clicked with Spanish yesterday. In fact, one teacher invited me to come back, saying I could stay with her and volunteer at the school. I gave her my e-mail, so we’ll be in touch.

The school was the highlight of my time in Guatemala, although the rest of the experience was definitely meaningful. The group had expected the service visit to be over by noon, but we were informed when we arrived at the buses, that it was going to be from 8:30am to 5:30pm. I felt like there was a reason for me to spend the entire day doing this service visit, and I truly did enjoy the entire day, but it still put a bit of a damper in my original plans. That was a pretty major type-o on the part of SAS. We had lunch at a restaurant, which included a homemade rice-water drink and fajitas. I never really expected that I would like Hispanic food so much, and it hasn’t really been spicy like I had perceived it. We had almost a two hour block of time for lunch, but we moved on to an orphanage in Puerto Barrios. We had anticipated meeting about 23 children, but in the few months from when this visit was initially planned, 15 had been adopted. Through the Rule of Subtraction, the orphanage was down to 8 children, most of them with some sort of mental, physical, or behavioral disability. Our group of 25 was a bit overpowering, but we created a garden and planted seeds to help them grow vegetables such as cucumbers and peppers. I didn’t really participate in the garden project, except for the one piece of litter that I picked up. Rather, as one of the stronger Spanish speakers, I communicated with the children, all of who were in their teens. It was interesting to hear that some of them work instead of attending school, but the boys really took pride in playing soccer. The girls worked more on crafts, which included constructing a puppet set (dolls, stage, etc.), and the garden. Many tried to stay in the shade, since it still felt like 105º, plus humidity.

The reality of the orphanage was difficult to cope with. The living conditions were humble and even depressing, when you realize that they don’t have any or much family nor a support system. The building was deteriorating; the beds were in poor shape, and the place gave me a big feeling of vacancy and emptiness, like it had reached its pinnacle long before we arrived. The orphanage does not receive (much) funding, and the conditions were not the best. One woman has dedicated the last 25 years to this orphanage, while another volunteer helps run it but does not reside there. It was hard to think of these humans, these unique individuals, as unwanted. They are the children that no one wants to adopt. I felt helpless in the situation because what could I do in such a short period of time? I did what I thought I could do best (and avoid overheating)…talk and listen. It’s amazing to understand how different their world is. One boy had never heard of New York. I felt like it was a blessing for me to be able to understand them and to communicate because some many SASers wanted to but lack the Spanish background. In situations like this, I like to think of the song “For Good” from Wicked, when it says, “Because I knew you…I have been changed for the better.” Because I have spent time with these two groups of extraordinary individuals, I have a new appreciation for my opportunities in life, and I wish to do more for those that do not have such lucky circumstances.

Despite witnessing the poverty in Guatemala first-hand, they were the friendliest country that I have visited thus far. Considering Belize is the only country remaining, Guatemala is guaranteed to be in my top 2 for being the friendliest. Outside of the port, many people waved and greeted me or the group I was with. After the service visit, I walked through the town of St. Tomás de Castilla at night. The “downtown area” was extremely hectic, where the hustle and bustle (also referred to as hubbub and madness) reminded me on how I imagine India would be…to a lesser extent though. I got Coke at a kiosk, and as we walked through the town (now in a quieter area), Charu (an SASer from India) wanted to look inside a church (it was her first time entering a church). Still feeling thirsty, I then got a Pepsi. So after consuming approximately 854mL of soda in less than an hour, I was wired. Charu met some people in a restaurant (connected to the Kiosk where I purchased a Pepsi), who offered to teach the group the Merengue. This rush of sugar brought me to a laughing hysteria. I was very close to crying I was laughing so hard; I also lost my breath while dancing! Despite my failure to actually learn the Merengue, I did have a good time. On our way back to the ship, we stopped by a little restaurant…the ultimate “Mom and Pop place”! I got fried plantains. I didn’t realize that I had also accepted an offer to have some coffee, in case you didn’t know, I’m not a big coffee fan. The lady was a real sweetheart and offered us “Pan Dulce” which is a sweet bread. The meal was just cozy and enjoyable. I really felt like the locals had embraced our arrival, which made me feel very welcome, even walking through the town at night.

Today was the fourth consecutive morning, where I had to be up before 7:30am. In terms of a college student, that is like asking a farmer to wake up at midnight. I went on an SAS excursion to the Afro-Caribbean village of Livingston. This village is unique in Guatemala, because it is only accessible by boat. I found the water taxi to be a fun ride, both heading to and from Livingston. Although I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, Livingston was not at all what I thought it would be. I imagined a more indigenous-looking village. Instead it was much more modern than I thought. We got a bland tour that went on to explain the interesting history of the village. However, the village did not seem any different other than it’s water-only accessibility. It was quite hilly with colorful shops, homes and stands. The tour concluded with a native, tribal dance. The music was great, but it felt like the performance wasn’t so heartfelt. I imagine they commonly have to perform for tourists that are uncertain how to react to this unique form of music. For the last song, I was pulled up to dance, so I was glad that someone pulled me out of my comfort zone, because that made the experience worth it.

We got some free time to roam the village of Livingston. A highlight for me came as I was looking at some stuff for sale. The person responsible for the stand was talking with a familiar accent. After asking where he was from, I was ELATED to hear “Germany” as his response! Who needs a German Shepherd, when I’m around, to find the German in the crowd?! We conversed in German, but after he complimented my German (thanks to Barbara, Claude, Marie-Claire, and Domi), I instinctively responded with “gracias.” I guess my Spanish is trying/starting to dominate my German although I anticipate that will still take a while. I walked around Livingston with my fellower SASer, Carly.  The people appeared very similar like another other Central American village…some buildings in better condition than others; many people walking and gathering outside. Guatemala is especially notable for bikes and mopeds. I have never seen so many in my life, and they weave effortlessly through the labyrinth of people walking all over. I was almost hit a few times. (Please make a note of the word “ALMOST” in the previous sentence.)

This time, we arrived back to the ship at the anticipated time. I had lunch on the ship. And after a little bit of air conditioning, I ventured out with a group to explore St. Tomás de Castilla. It looked completely different in the daylight. We returned to the little restaurant that we had encountered last night. The lady was excited to see us and vice versa. She reminded me a lot of Chepita, for being so kind and hospitable. This time I tried a Fresco, which is a homemade drink with a miscellaneous fruit (I had never heard of the fruit that she used, but it was delicioso!) After stopping there, we continued along the same path (that we took last night) and paid a visit to the local market. Today I got quite good at bartering, a skill I wish I acquired/improved a bit sooner on the trip. I’m glad I was able to acquire a few “goodies/souveniors.” And even though, the town looked completely different in the daytime, it was still full of hubbub and madness. Today felt even hotter than yesterday. I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating in saying that I sweated around four pounds of water weight. The town of St. Tomás de Castilla gave me a good impression of what I feel is a typical Guatemalan town, since it was not a major city. The people were, again, very friendly and willing to stop and chat with us or answer our questions.

I was back on the ship around 5pm. A local music and dance group came to wave us off. The played music and performed traditional dances as we boarded the ship. My SAS family had a formal dinner tonight. My SAS parents treated us (all 6 of their kids) to a five-course dinner, and each course was better than the previous. The dinner had a few trade-offs, I missed the conversation circle and the Crew’s Talent Show performances, but it was worth it. It’s always heart-warming to feel the sense of belonging to a group. And I’m very excited to feel like our SAS family took it a step further and genuinely took an interest in each member during this voyage. We’ll probably be having only one more meal together on the ship before we head our separate ways in less than a week. It’s a blessing to have had the opportunity to meet such extraordinary people, both on and off the ship.

Honestly, I did not know what to expect from Guatemala, but I was blown away by the kind, warm-hearted people. They do not seem to have much, but they are very grateful for the little that they do have. The people, with whom I spoke, were genuinely interested and eager to speak (as well explain things to me) in Spanish. I felt confident in speaking with them, and it was a pleasure to interact with people of all ages, especially the students at the school. I know I said how I had enjoyed Honduras a lot. Well, multiply that by 100 and that might help give you an idea of how well I feel like I had connected with the Guatemalans of the Puerto Barrios and St. Tomás de Castilla communities. Their country has a diverse history with proud, gentle people of the Mayan and Spanish cultures, which has currently been overpowered by the recent drug-related murders, including the Petén Massacre. These unfortunate events are evident in virtually any country. It is our choice, whether we choose to focus on the negative or positive aspects of a society.

On another note, I just received the notice about the final exam schedule. That’s right…finals! We have one more country: Belize, before the disembarckment in Nassau. It’s mind-boggling that I have been fortunate to experience so much in what has now been three weeks; it feels like it’s been much longer. Tomorrow is the last day of class, and our projects for Engineering a New Tomorrow are due. It’s hard to fathom that this voyage is nearing completion; overall, the (good and bad) experiences have made this trip completely worth it. Elijah and I are rocking out to Andrea Bocelli’s smash hit, “Con Te Partiro.” I’ll be going to bed soon. I’m looking to sleeping in after four intense days in two ports. I just took my last malaria pill on the voyage, so I guess I’ll be quite chatty tonight…we’ll see in which language, Elijah will report to me sometime tomorrow.

Have a great Friday and weekend! Enjoy Prom, Brian!
Matt

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Honduras and Copán Ruins

I was really excited when I saw the rainbow the first morning in Costa Rica. However, my hope quickly washed away as I looked out my porthole yesterday morning and there was torrential downpour. I was fearful that this was a sign—and I didn’t think it’d be a good one. Because of the rain, the excursions were delayed by about two hours; mostly because people in Central America move a lot slower than Americans and the rain just made it move even slower.

Despite the delay, everything seemed to move slowly. The FDP went smoothly overall. A lot of time was spent on the bus, watching American movies and observing the scenery and areas, through which we drove. I wasn’t anticipating such a long bus ride to arrive at the school, and we needed to walk through the town because the bus did not fit on the rural streets. Fortunately, the roads were in much better condition than in Costa Rica. The bus ride offered unique insight where the visual interactions I had left me perplexed. I sat in an air-conditioned bus looking out at these people and their streets, homes, buildings, and overall infrastructure, but I wondered, were they having more of an impression on me? Or was I having a greater impression on them as they peered back at me? Walking through the town of the school we visited, Trinidad (ironic, I know!), I noticed that many people would stand at their front doors or windows and stare at us. It was a peculiar stare, that I had never really witnessed before. Many stood with their arms acrossed their chests, but they smiled and were outwardly friendly when I would shout “¡Hola!” I guess their body language (the stares and eye contact, the smiles, the glares, the gestures, the stances) had confused me. Elijah mentioned, it must be bizarre to have a group of 50 tourists walking down the middle of your quiet streets taking pictures of everything in sight. Although the feeling of being in the down was rather welcoming, I still felt a sort of invisible cultural barrier.

Part of this cultural barrier was due to the language or the simple fact we were going to go our separate ways in a matter of hours after being introduced. I was very impressed by the school, called “Cruz Alberto Madrid (1972)”. It was on a school yard with about 6 separate buildings (one for each grade) and a recess area in the middle with a stage. The students put on a theatrical presentation for us, about the peer pressures that students get about attending school. Some join gangs at young ages, but fortunately the rural area of the Sula Valley that we visited doesn’t have this common issue. After the show and presentation, the class broke the group into 3 smaller groups and conducted their lessons. My professor was not very decisive about what I should do (I am not in the class, for which this FDP was designed, hence I did not participate in making a lesson plan.) So I wandered between two groups and shared the silly bands and tattoos, which were both a huge hit! (Thanks, Mom!) It was a great experience to be about to work with the primary school kids and practice my Spanish. Unfortunately, it was a bit rushed because of the rain and travel delays. However, these kids are a group with lots of hope for the future and I hope to be about to help contribute in some way to this community. I should also mention they had a few treats for us (tajados and empanadas) which were delicioso! After what felt like too short of a time at the school, we returned to the bus and headed to our hotel at Copan Ruinas.

The town of Copan Ruinas is situated next to the Copan Mayan Ruins. I enjoyed the cobble-stoned roads in the town, which reminded me of the city centers in Germany. Hotel Yaragua was rather modest, but very comfortable to spend the night. It was annoying to hear some people complain. I got my own bed and pillow, so I was as content as a clam. The dinner was good, and I got to sample two of the local beers. SalvaVida has been much favorite beer thus far, but not because of taste, but I really liked its logo. Another pleasant surprised in the town was the costs of the souveniors. Many t-shirts are created in textile mills in Honduras and exported. Everything was extremely cheap…that was a big shock to me. I had a relatively quiet night, interacting with some locals (Luis) and some SASers. After so much time in the bus, we were all exhausted by 10 o’clock.

This morning, we had breakfast and walked to the Copan Ruins. We got a glimpse of the town in the daylight. It looked drastically different than at night. The walk to the Copan Ruins was longer than anticipated, which naturally led to bickering about having to walk. The German in me wanted to say, “Suck it up, and enjoy the fresh air!” But the American in me kept quiet. I’d like to also mention that there a special aroma in the air, which was similar to farm lands. Moreover, we got a tour of this huge ruins complex. It was fascinating to see how nature has both set the Ruins in a beautiful area, as well as is slowly deteriorating this ancient civilization’s remains. There was lots of walking involved, plenty of stairs, and I took a ton of photos! I don’t feel like a description could do it justice. But the Mayan history is very interesting, and I feel like the structures at Copan were very similar to the structures at Tulum (in Mexico.) (The picture at the top of the blog is from Tulum.) The symbolism and intelligence of the Mayan civilization is mind-boggling! They were able to construct these massive structures for living, worship and recreation. Additionally, they were scientifically-advanced, especially considering their calendars are still relevant in modern-times. We concluded our visit of the Ruins with lunch. I inhaled a chicken burrito. It was a 4-hour car ride to return to the ship. Looking on a map, we literally drove through the entire country of Honduras (from Puerto Cortés to Copan Ruinas). I have watched 5 movies in the last 36 hours, and still managed to take nearly 300 photos. I almost forgot to mention that Elijah was on the trip too (he’s in the class for which this FDP was designed), although I had another roommate in the hotel.

And I must say I have enjoyed the food the most in Honduras! I had some great conversation and interactions with locals, and I would say based on my impression of Honduras, they are a very content people. Their demeanor never seemed to reflect their political and economic issues, but then again, I was there for less than two days. Honduras, however, touched me in a way that no other country has thus far that is difficult to articulate. I felt this yearning of wishing to relate to them more, or at least spend more time with them to understand more. They seem simple and have a different way of life. They are free of constant electronic interaction and seemed to be just as happy as any American kid. They smiled and played outside. I found everyone to be very cordial. The way they carried themselves stood out the most to me, and would like to interpret further. Maybe I’ll post a picture or two to better explain how their stance was so unique, in my eyes. It’s not very easy to explain through words.

Although there weren’t any rainbows, everything went smoothly in Honduras, and we’ll be landing in Guatemala in a matter of hours. I better rest up! I have a service visit tomorrow in Puerto Barrios.

¡Hasta pronto!
Matt

P.S. I surprised my hotel roommate as my sleeping alter-ego was quite chatty.

Monday, June 6, 2011

It's a Harsh Reality

This Maymester voyage is centered around the Millenia Development Goals for 2015 that have been formulated by the United Nations. These goals face the harsh reality that life is not perfect. A lot of the topics that are discussed in these goals are quite depressing to me.American society is living the dream that many people, that I have encountered thus far, can only dream of having a fraction of that dream. It is hard for me to cope with the fact that I was the lucky one who hit the “lottery at birth”. It’s scary to imagine myself in a life in China or Panama, where I don’t have the freedom that I have known for all my life. I realize how much of a blessing this opportunity is for me…and my life in general.

Moreover, my class has also been extremely draining on me. In other words, I go to class feeling better than when the class is over. I feel like students just talk, but don’t really listen to each other. My professors are quite passive and allow a lot of side conversations that get us off topic. My excitement for the subject has since died down a bit; everyone is starting to worry about the final papers and projects. Through time management, I have been able to manage the workload, but I am really looking forward to getting an academic break in Honduras and Guatemala. While the people that I have met are extremely positive people, I still feel like the reality of Central America is quite overwhelming to me. We are going into Honduras tomorrow, which has the lowest GDP of any of the countries we will be visiting. I’m looking forward to the interactions in the community and making human connections are usually more fulfilling than listening to and discussing issues in a cold classroom. I’m looking forward to a change of scenery tomorrow. I anticipate it will be another hectic four days because we are visiting Honduras and Guatemala back-to-back (so 2 days in each country.) On a happier note, the seminar lecturer said today, “Turn into the wisdom of the people you meet.” This is the approach I’m going to try and have in the upcoming ports. The quote was just striking, in my opinion.

On another note, I’ve come to realize one particular funny habit that quite a few people have on the ship. That would be the use of the word: sketchy. In virtually every description of any activity that happens in a country, the word “sketchy” is used, especially if there is a bar, taxi, or independent excursion involved. I feel like this word is becoming quite overused because the entire world could be described as “sketchy” considering it is extremely foreign to the plethora of sheltered Americans that you find on this ship. (I should also mention that it is the first time many of them have been out of the country.) I just thought I’d like to mention how some words seem to lose their significance if they are used too much.

Honduras in the morning! I’ll be doing an overnight trip, where we’ll be visiting a school and the Copan Ruins the following day.

Bis später,
Matt

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Life on a Ship: A Typical Day at Sea

Although I have created a routine for myself on sea days (a.k.a. class days), I have failed to share this routine with you. As creatures of habits, humans (myself in particular) tend to find comfort in regularity and a schedule. Usually I’ll skip breakfast in the morning to do some sort of work out. For example, today I ran around 4 miles. I’ll usually relax and shower afterwards, or maybe finish up homework, if I didn’t complete it the previous night. Lunch starts a 11:30, so I’m usually starving by then. This is the time for me to catch up with my shipboard friends before we return to our work or go to class. We’ll mix it up between the 5th indoor dining room and the 6th outdoor deck dining. This is usually the only time I’m outside on a sea day. I’ve been avoiding getting sunburn (although my farmer’s tan is looking good) and I don’t have much desire to hop in the tiny swimming pool…that’s how I get in the off season of swimming. I have class between 1:30 and 4pm. I’ll usually hang out in the computer lab or library till Seminar starts at 4:30. After seminar, I go to dinner, and then the rest of the night is free. I will usually attend either a[n optional] seminar or social event. There is snack time around 10pm, and after that I’ll either blog or do homework till the early morning in my cabin. Thus, I choose to sleep in and skip breakfast. This is my routine in a nutshell. Please keep in mind, I’m usually more active on the days we are in port, especially since our time on land is only a couple of days.

I wouldn’t consider today to be anything out of the “SAS” ordinary. I worked on a reflection notebook assignment that I need to have completed for the last day of class. My goal is to be done before I get to Honduras, so I don’t have to worry about it. Working on that when I got the chance started to make my hand cramp, so I couldn’t write anymore. In class today, we had a visitor, the Honduran interport lecturer and his daughter. Our professor translated because the lecturer did not speak English (but he can however speak French, Russian, and Spanish.) We learned about the difficulty that Honduras faces, and the near future seems rather grim for this poor country. (It is the poorest country that we will be visiting.) In comparison to Costa Rica, education in Honduras is really suffering. We also got our papers back (the one they sprang upon us at the last minute), and I was pleasantly surprised with my grade. Also on a brighter note, the Seminar was extremely engaging today. The lecturing professors put on a funny skit and their presentations were succinct, interesting, and fun! Afterwards, I had another SAS family dinner. The whole crew showed up and we were actually photographed by the ship photographer (not sure if she was the video grapher?...one or the other.) So I’m super glad to have been official photographed as a participant of Semester at Sea. 

Today concluded with a fun-filled talent show and dance. Many talented individuals performed skits, danced (one with hula hoops), read poetry, sang, and the main attraction was the sea chant competition. Instead of floors, the decks on the ships are called “seas”. So  I live on the Aegean Sea. Other seas include the Mediterranean Sea, Bering Sea, and Caribbean Sea, among others. The winners earned the privilege to be the first to get off the ship when we land in Nassau, which is apparently a big deal! We got 2nd place, so we will be the second sea that will be able to leave the ship. It is bittersweet to think about how quickly this voyage has been. We still have 3 more ports to visit, so I’m still looking forward to the upcoming experiences, but I’m also grateful to have this opportunity in the first place. A lot of these students have quite extensive and impressive résumés and I’m very honored to be apart of this community. I’m also starting to feel the pressure of finalizing all my work for class. My assignments include a course reflection as my final paper, a notebook that reflects on our readings and class discussion, and a project related to one of the Millenia Developmental Goals for the Engineering a New Tomorrow (ENT) Seminar. And I’ve also been reflecting on this whole experience with ya’ll in this blog. I think if I do any more reflection, I’ll start possessing a few mirror-like characteristics. Well I’ll be working on the ENT project tomorrow morning, so I’m going to bed soon.

¡Buenas noches!
Matt

Saturday, June 4, 2011

¡PURA VIDA!

This has an incredible past few days. So much has happened, that it’s hard for me to fathom that it all transpired in less than 72 hours. One of the first things you are introduced to in Costa Rica is their way of life, or simply put: pura vida (pure life.) The phrase was adopted from a 1940s Mexican film, which represents this country, which is among the happiest in the world and you can just feel it. This became very apparent to me as I participated in my Field-Directed Practicum (FDP) to Earth University for my class, The Practice of Humanitarian Engineering.

The day started off normally. I tried to sleep in as late as possible, so I got to jam breakfast (French toast, fruit, and potatoes) down my throat so that I wouldn’t be late. The bus was spacious because the FDP had not reached full occupancy, but the ride was extremely bumpy. The tour guide talked the entire time, and as I diligently listened to her, the rest of my class fell asleep faster than someone using anesthesia before an operation. We arrived at Earth University after a 90-minute ride. Known as “Earth” for short, it is a private, non-profit university that focuses on educating students representing 26 countries (the USA was not represented), where Earth students demonstrate leadership qualities and have the intention to return to their home communities and make a positive impact, environmentally and economically. Earth University has about 400 students that do work in both the field and laboratory. We watched a presentation and then visited a banana plantation. These plantations provide a significant amount of revenue for Earth. I learned that bananas grow from a plant, not a tree. We toured, going from the plantation to the processing plant to see how they prepare and export the bananas. It takes about two weeks for the bananas to arrive in supermarkets around North America.

As my stomach rumbled, we got back in the bus and proceded to the next part of the FDP. We visited the local community, with which Earth works closely. The community is called La Argentina (I’m not sure if I can technically say that I’ve been to Argentina). These families received several acres (~10) from the government and were given a 15-year period to make their plots profitable and sustainable. This community has been around for about 30 years at this point. Everyone on the FDP divided up into different groups and we were given “host families” for the day. My family came last, and that was at the highest point in the community. Each farm had a name and the one I visited was named “Finca La Virgen” (The Virgin Farm.) I was in a group with another girl, Allison and the tour guide, Fernando. Our host was named Chepita, which is a nickname for Josefa. (Coincidentally, one of my German grandmas is also Josefa!) Chepita explained that Finca La Virgen signifies “something new” to her. After a quick tour of her modest home and an introduction of the family and pets, we sat down for lunch. It was  Casado (very similar to the one I had the previous day, but instead of plantains, one of the sides was squash…or something like it.) All the food was either grown or raised on the farm…that means the chicken, the vegetables, the juice, the cacao, etc. It was delicious! We had some simple conversation, and the tour guide was pivotal in explaining/translating some aspects. It was a spectacular feeling for me to take in the setting, in which I had been placed. The views from the kitchen were breath-taking. This kind woman, living extremely humbly invited me into her home. She also had a “stranger” (I’m referring to a non-relative) from Nicaragua (Nicaragua and Costa Rica have a relationship similar to the US and Mexico in terms of immigration—Many Nicaraguans are illegally coming to Costa Rica) who has lost his leg to diabetes, staying with them until he could get his situation straightened out. It became very obvious that she had a heart larger than the size of her family farm (10 acres). After the Casado, I got to sample fresh pineapple and bananas.

Chepita, then, took us around her farm. The farm could be described as having several areas that produced various goods, which included charcoal, 7 types of cacao, chickens, vegetables and fruits. They consume these goods themselves and sell the surplus. The only thing she didn’t have was cows to produce milk, cheese, etc. I learned how to make charcoal and got a glimpse that this work is extremely strenuous. For example, it takes between 5-6 days of round-the-clock monitoring to create charcoal from wood. Chepita really included Allison and myself in this tour. We tried fresh cacao beans (I chewed the first one by accident. You’re supposed to suck on the sugary coating and spit out the seed.); we toured virtually every square inch. We also met Chepita’s husband (a man in his early 70s) working in the charcoal area. It was also explained that energy is very expensive for them. (She mentioned her electric bill cost about $10/month, and water is about $4/month.) I guess it’s all relative.

Upon returning to her house, Chepita had a little arts-and-craft project for us. We painted a little basket constructed of banana paper from the farm. Mine looks like a 4-year-old made it, but it will act as a momento of a spectacular day in the life of Costa Rican farmers. Towards the end of the visit, Allison asked Chepita what made her so happy. The response gave me goosebumps and I feel shed some light on a different appreciation for life. In short, she was happy that everyone around her was content. Her husband enjoys and likes to be busy with what he does on the farm, and she finds the simple things in life most enjoyable. She enjoys her housework, and the sense of community and religion was also something very positive in her life. We snapped a quick photo after that and the time came for us to leave. Although we met Chepita for only about 3 hours, I felt this immediate connection and appreciation for the sheer kindness that Chepita portrayed. She gave us each a big hug and kiss as we said adiós.

The ride back to the ship concluded my FDP. I bought a few souveniors in town and went out to eat with Emily. I got rice and beans and went out to a bar later. The nightlife didn’t seem much different from anywhere else that I’ve witnessed. I was exhausted after a full day. This FDP introduced me to a few people that I hope to never forget about and hopefully stay in touch with.

Today (Friday) was a bit more touristy. Another early morning, and we hopped on the bus on our way to the Cacao Trails and Sloth Sanctuary…but there was a twist. We were informed on the bus by the tour guide that we weren’t going to the Sloth Sanctuary. I was momentarily devastated that I was not going to see my favorite childhood animal. However, we were not informed that they itinerary had changed. Instead of the Sloth sanctuary, we were going to a Jaguar Retreat in Puerto Viejo.

Everything was ‘smooth sailing’ today. We took the scenic route on our way to the Cacao Trails. The two-lane road took us through parts of Limón, and we drove along the coast most of the way, passing Cahuita on the way. My group was introduced to our barefoot tour guide. I was dressed in long pants and shoes because we were walking through the “woods.” He was a great guide and encouraged us to try everything we passed by on the tour…I’ll explain in a moment, but I can say that I had a few firsts on the tour of the Cacao Trails. I learned the process of how chocolate is made. The samples that they made in front of us were unlike any chocolate that I ever had…it was better! Did you know that it takes about 5-6 days to get cacao from the seeds to the powder form? Did you also know that it is the American idea to have cacao with milk and sugar? Many Costa Ricans have cacao with hot water, which is also supposedly much healthier. After sampling some chocolate, we walked around the rest of the area, which included a banana plantation and a plethora of medicinal plants. I’ve have already forgotten quite a few of the names of the plants, but it was quite thrilling to try leaves, fruits, and sugarcane directly from the trees and plants. I had one leaf that tasted like lemon. I also tried a Noni fruit, which made me gag…but I took the plunge and tried it…twice. Only on the second time, did I successfully swallow the fruit.

After the tour, we had lunch. Can you guess what I had? It would be obvious that we had CASADO again! Maybe on the fourth day I’d complain, but nevertheless, it was super delicious! I met a few new people while on the tour, and the conversation is usually good when randomly paired up with people for a meal. Afterwards, we continued onto the Jaguar Retreat. Now before you’re blood pressure goes up, please take a deep breath. There were not any jaguars at this animal refuge. Instead, there were howler monkeys, sloths, deer, hawks, owls, a wildcat, frogs, snakes, etc. This rescue was started by an Italian man and his wife, who is from Spain, who help injured animals to recover and return them to the while after a certain point of time. We got to pet the monkey, and I took quite a few pictures to try and get a still photo of these fidgety animals. The frogs jumped on some of the visitors; and the frog was easy to photograph, relatively speaking. Also, I did witness a snake consuming one of the frogs. That is something that I have never seen. My favorite animal had to be the sloths. We got to see the 2-toe and 3-toe sloths. Their faces look like they are permanently smiling and they were simply magnificient. The Jaguar Retreat was a great place with inviting people that genuinely care about the animals in their environment and are working hard to educate others.

The excursion brought us then to a resort, where we were served fresh fruit and [fruit] juices. We had the opportunity to lay on the hammocks for a little and get pictures on the beach. We got a glimpse of Puerto Viejo, which is one of the main tourist spots in Costa Rica. The beaches were cool because they had black sand because of the high concentration of iron in the ground. (The beach is conveniently called “Playa Negra”.) The ride back was smooth. After returning to the ship, I spent the last of my Colons. The exchange rate is $1 to ¢500 (colones). So it’s fun to say that we spent almost ¢30,000 on dinner one day. I picked up a few granola bars at the supermarket, since I wasn’t prepared in the snack department. I had no idea that one could get so hungry in between meals while on a ship.

Costa Rica has by far exceeded any expectations that I had. Costa Rica has also been the best stop thus far. I have never seen such a green country…yes, in my opinion, it’s greener than Germany! The people were friendly and helpful. Did I mention only one person asked me for money? My experiences definitely were positive and I would gladly return to Costa Rica in a heartbeat. I think I’ll start eating more bananas and cacao in support of the Costa Ricans. The people just seem to be happy and less preoccupied with some of the petty things in life. The majority is proud of their country and have faith in their government. I think it’s important to point out that you don’t need to have the most or be the wealthiest in order to be the happiest…you can easily observe this in Costa Rica.

We will be at sea till Monday. I have 3 more days of class. I’m starting to feel the crunch to finish all my work, but it’s going to be interesting to see what experiences I’ll have in the upcoming countries.

Bis dann,
Matt

P.S. Elijah has informed me that I was talking in Spanish the other night while sleeping.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Coke in Costa Rica

Today, Elijah opened the porthole and we saw a gorgeous, full-arch rainbow. Reflecting on my day, it was a good omen! We started today by walking around the port city, Limón. It was a bustling area with a local market. We wandered around and into a few shops, which was nice, but nothing spectacular. We also visited a Cathedral which was primarily constructed out of concrete, so the design of the church was rather unique. Spanish also came in handy the entire day. :)

After touring Limón, we got down to business. A group of four (Emily, Grace, Kyle, and myself) was deciding between Veragua Rain Forest Park or the town of Cahuita. We ultimately chose Cahuita, which worked out to be a phenomenal decision. I bartered with a taxi driver, but we felt the price was too high. We looked into taking a public bus to Cahuita. A nice gentleman showed us the bus terminal. Our timing was great; we hopped on the bus and went. Less than $3 for an hour bus ride (which it cost more for me to take a tram or bus to school in Germany. ~$3.17) The buses resembled older-looking  coach buses; they were very comfortable with the windows open, thus air conditioning was not necessary. But I have never been on such bumpy roads. We were warned about the Costa Rican streets; they weren’t exaggerating. Our bus could have potentially hit each pothole. But still, the ride was pleasant and hassle-free.
Cahuita is an old tourist spot that has now been overpowered by Puerto Viejo, which is about 20 minutes South. It was great for us because it was quiet, quaint, and just perfect for our day. We walked around this very modest town, which was about the area of 9 square blocks (3 x 3 blocks). We had lunch when we arrived. The local open-air restaurant was awesome; it was fun when the stray dogs walked through as we ate…they were behaved though. I had a Casado con Pollo (Chicken Casado http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casado) and tried the Imperial Beer (which is one brand of Costa Rican beer.) The meal was extraordinary. We were relaxed, enjoyed each other’s company, we laughed, chatted and couldn’t get over the fact that we were in COSTA RICA. I felt like it was the true laid-back setting that you imagine when you think of the Caribbean. We strolled over to the National Park that was located adjacent to the beach. We spent most of the time in the ocean, which was very relaxing. There was people on an excursion with SAS who we ran into. On the way back, we walked through a path in the Cahuita National Park. The beach and park with pleasantly nestled in the corner of Cahuita and tourists were scarce. That was a real treat to be away from the hustle and bustle today. The town was placed in extremely green scenery, unlike anything I’ve seen before.

So probably the highlight, the funniest moment for sure, came as we were about to get on the bus to head back to Limón. I was bummed because I didn’t find a t-shirt that I wanted to buy. (I know, I still have two days to purchase one…I ultimately calmed down.) To overcome my fatigue, I stopped at the convenience store in the bus terminal to buy a coke (as in Coca-Cola). I have been collecting bottle caps from this trip, so I was anticipating to be able to add this cap (the bottle was glass) to my little collection. As I was reaching in my wallet to get the money to pay the cashier, she opened the bottle and DUMPED it…into a plastic, ziploc bag. As I exchanged the money for the coke, I was utterly dumbfounded. Emily also bought a coke and the same thing happened. After a moment or two, I asked how I’m supposed to drink soda through a ziploc? The lady tied it for me and told me to suck through a corner of the bag. Well, in a way this reminded me of breast feeding. We got a huge laugh out of that and it was a hilarious conclusion to our day. We took the bus back. It was again very bumpy, but we made it back safely. And now I can say that I have consumed 250 mL of Coca-Cola through a ziploc baggy.

Although we intended on going out tonight, we stayed on the ship and ate outside. We caught up with some people that had their own adventures. Exchanging stories was fun, and now I’m just exhausted. Tomorrow is my Field Directed Practicum (FDP), which is a requirement for my class.  We are going to Earth University and we will be gone for 11 hours tomorrow. The next two days will probably be very hectic, so I’ll probably be updating you guys when we’re at sea again.

Bis später,
Matt