ISE to Sail Final Enrichment Voyage This Spring

The Institute for Shipboard Education will discontinue the Enrichment Voyage program following the upcoming Iron & Ice voyage, from May 18 – June 15, 2014. As a result, the Tropics & Transit Enrichment Voyage scheduled for December 2014 has been cancelled.

The discontinuation of Enrichment Voyages will allow ISE to refocus all efforts on its core business, the Semester at Sea program. ISE will continue to offer Continuing Education opportunities through the Lifelong Learning program on the Semester at Sea voyages. For more information about Lifelong Learning, visit:

We hope you will explore opportunities to sail with our Semester at Sea program as a Lifelong Learner or enrolled college student. Thank you for your support and enthusiasm for the Enrichment Voyage program.

Reflections on Passages, Exchanges, Friendships and an Unforgettable Voyage

This Enrichment Voyage was the first for some, the third for others, a reunion stand-in for SAS alumni, a family vacation, a major birthday celebration, a major anniversary celebration, an escape to warm weather, a desire to learn a little something while relaxing, a chance to unwind. Whichever the voyage, whatever the reason for coming on the voyage, people disembarked from the MV Explorer truly feeling a little bit more enriched. Here are some reflections from travelers on the Passages & Exchanges 2013 Voyage.


interview 1

Diane Vella of Rockport, MA

This is my first Enrichment Voyage. My daughter, Rasa Vella, did Semester at Sea in either 1999 or 2000 and my other daughter went to the Univ. of Pittsburgh. So, [SAS] has kind of been a part of our orbit for a long, long time. Rasa was on staff of the Summer 2007 voyage. She’s been saying ‘Let’s do this. It’s so fun.’ And so, here we are. I didn’t realize how absolutely fascinating and exciting and thrilling—and I’m talking about a peak life experience—it was going through the Panama Canal. I think some of that was due to Capt. Puckett because he prepped us so beautifully. And I was also reading David McCullough’s Book “The Path between 2 Oceans” at the time.


interview 2

Barbara and Ed Sobey. This is their first Enrichment Voyage. They sailed on the SAS Spring 2013 and Fall 2008 voyages.

Ed: We’ve sailed on commercial cruise lines and one of the things that stands out here is the number of people who are eager to go in and listen to a lecture or jump in to a workshop. The attitude here versus a commercial cruise line is ‘I’m on vacation and I want to learn something.’ One of the takeaways I encountered was in Tracy Ehlers lecture when she said ‘You can be a tourist, you can be a traveler, you can explore’ and then she went on to explain the difference. And it really raised a lot of questions in my mind about how people travel today.

Barbara: One of the things I’ve done has been the meditation in the morning with Bhante. I’ve really enjoyed that. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and I was very excited when I saw he was going on board. It’s been very good and something I hope I can continue. …I think there’s a higher percentage of travelers and explorers on this ship than there are on traditional cruise ships. We noticed that there were more people in ports going off and doing things on their own and getting away from the port.


interview 3

Galina Pappu. This is her first Enrichment Voyage. She works as a resident director at Santa Clara University

It’s been amazing. I love meeting new people so that has been fantastic. I love going to countries I’ve never been to.  The excursions have been really inspiring; I hiked a volcano and went on a Canopy Tour in Costa Rica. The community on the ship, I feel like I’m going to keep in touch with a lot of people. It’s been really refreshing.


interview 4

Rae’Johne Smith. Student with the Morehouse/Spelman group. This is her first time traveling outside the U.S.

I got an opportunity to study abroad for a full semester but I didn’t feel ready to do something that big and I thought that this [voyage] was perfect because you get an introduction to so many places in a short period of time; I thought it was perfect. The biggest surprise for me on this voyage is that I haven’t gotten lost or left behind in the countries that we’ve visited. Because we’ve been exploring on our own and that was different for me because I like safety and organization and having things planned out, but I’ve found that it can be very exciting to venture out when you’re with a group and you’re still safe at the same time but to me just exploring is OK.


interview 5

Judith Richmond. Administrator with the Morehouse group. This is her first Enrichment Voyage. Originally from Guyana.

It’s pretty exciting to be here and it’s a learning experience so I’m having a great time. I’ve had an opportunity to sit in on a lot of the lectures, which have been very enriching. I’ve also made a lot of friends. I had this preconceived notion that morehouse students were the youngest people on board and the only people of color and that was not the case so that was nice to see other people of color traveling on this trip.


interview 6

Kim Hess of Bend, Oregon. This is her first Enrichment Voyage.

My aunt and uncle sailed on the May [2013] voyage and said how much they enjoyed it. My mother turned 80 this year so we wanted to do something special for her so we kind of all came on it together to come on the voyage. There are 13 of us on here all together. It’s been nice and low-key for my mom. And I love it too. I’ve enjoyed the lectures. I’ve learned things. And my kids were really surprised by the Panama Canal, so they’ve enjoyed it.


interview 7

(l-r) Cindy Sanchez and Krystle Sanchez of Riverside, CA and Eva Rivera Forbush (Cindy’s sister and Krystle’s aunt) of Victorville, CA.

Krystle: There is a wide demographic here. It’s nice to meet some of the college students and some of the older people as well. But what’s been really nice is that everyone is here to learn and everybody’s interested in things that are going on in the world. I’ve just become more aware of what we do as tourists and our impact on the world. How important tourism is for some countries, some of the good things that we take to them and some of the bad things. I was really surprised with the lectures that were offered, some very interesting topics. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves through the self-empowerment workshops. We’ve learned a lor about every port that we’ve been to. Everything’s been interesting.

Cindy: I really enjoyed the field trips; it’s really informative to see what’s out there to see what these countries are really like instead of from a map or TV or a book. It’s really good to see it first hand. It’s our first time visiting any of these countries.


interview 9

Stella Chou was a C.Y. Tung scholar on the Fall 1982 voyage and returned with her family to have them see the ship and to celebrate her 25th anniversary. Chou lives in Hong Kong with her family.

This has been a really wonderful time for us. The children have enjoyed themselves with the art workshops and the lectures and I think now they understand more why I have talked so much about Semester at Sea and why I liked it so much. Maybe some of them will come as scholars one day.



Karin Bonding (left), a finance professor at UVa and Elise Guidoni (right) who traveled from France to join the voyage.

Karin: This is my third voyage. I said in 2011 and on the May 2013 [voyage] to the Baltic. I come back because I love the sea and I really get intellectually stimulated. It’s a wonderful combination of activities and lectures and it’s been a nice break from teaching and time to have a comfortable pace with good healing sessions and good lecture sessions.

Elise: I sailed on the May [2013] voyage. This [voyage] has been very nice. I love being at sea and I love the lectures. I really enjoyed Shelley’s lectures and Dr. Clarkson. I certainly would come back and I’ve been thinking now about doing a semester.



At left, Nancy Tait of St. Petersburg, FL and Marilyn Kessler of Washington state

Nancy: My friend, Gina, told me about this voyage. She’s a member of Friendship Force so I joined Friendship Force and signed up and it’s been wonderful. I’m so impressed by how well everything is done and how well everything is thought out. I find just the goodwill and the open hearts of all of the staff so wonderful and the lectures are so great. There’s just a high caliber of teaching and a real breadth and depth of lectures and workshops offered. If someone didn’t find something they were interested in I don’t know where they’re looking. It’s been so good I’ve already signed up for the Iron & Ice [voyage].


Jeremy Iversen. A SAS alum from Fall 2009 voyage. He attended a reunion voyage before the Enrichment Voyage.

Jeremy Iversen. An SAS alum from Fall 2009 voyage. He attended a reunion voyage before the Enrichment Voyage.

My mom lives in New York and I live in L.A. and we were trying to think of what we should do for Christmas and we thought this would be a nice way to spend the holidays together. So, I came with my mom and my friend who also did Semester at Sea. I’ve been traveling with a friend and we’ve tried to see all that you could possibly see or do in almost every port that we’ve visited on the voyage.  It’s been fun. I’d love to have more time in the ports, but the tours we did in Costa Rica were great because of the tour guide. And we did do about everything that you possibly could in many of the ports.

Karen Wofford of Santa Rosa, California. This is her second Enrichment Voyage.

I signed up for this voyage at the end of the voyage last year. But I don’t have any cartilage left in my knees so it’s very painful to walk. When I sailed on the last voyage last year I had a lot of problems getting around and I missed a lot of stuff. I went to the Galapagos Islands and I couldn’t go to the Charles Darwin station because I just couldn’t walk anymore. And I thought I need an alternate idea. I called ahead to see if bicycles could go on. This is folds up and goes in my suitcase and I can carry it by hand. And it’s been great for me to get around all of the ports and even from the port to the taxis and then in the cities. It’s helped make this voyage even better than I expected because I can really enjoy getting around in the ports. That along with what you have on the ship has made this a really good time for me.


Future Voyagers in the Making

Of the 811 voyagers on the Passages & Exchanges, nearly 50 are children, ranging in age from five months to 16 years. They have had about as many adventures as the adults, both on and off the ship. When not in port with their parents, they’ve participated in Kids Club with activities that have included life as pirates (which helped make Cartagena’s forts understandable and that much more cool as well as the history of pirates in the Bahamas), they’ve made pinatas in honor of that Mexican tradition and have learned the art

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of Huichol yarn kites. “It’s been a lot of fun,” one child said. Here are just a few photos of how kids aboard the MV Explorer have spent some of their time at sea and in port.


A Voyage of Learning, Exploration and Adventure

Over the past 16 days, the 811 voyagers on the Passages & Exchanges Enrichment voyage have visited seven countries and nine cities throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America and have learned a boatload along the way. Many accomplished a major bucket list item (transiting the Panama Canal), some improved their Spanish, others learned to love birds that much more, several found a way to quiet their minds with daily morning meditations with our resident Buddhist monk. It was a wonderful voyage that inspired a host of passengers to sign up for the May 2014 Iron & Ice voyage. Here’s just a glimpse of all we did, saw, heard, ate, and experienced during our time together.


A Bridge between Travel, Exploration and Academics

realfeatureimageEnrichment voyages aren’t just relaxing, educational vacation options for adults and families. The voyages are also an extension of the learning that takes place on Semester at Sea voyages. Each Enrichment Voyage—in the spring and in the winter—several college groups sail on the MV Explorer specifically as part of a special study-abroad and/or global interaction course.

“The voyage provides a great bridge between the academic programs of these universities and their travels to significantly enrich the learning that occurs during class. It is a true extension of what students also receive on Semester at Sea,” said Nathan Blessing, the Enrichment Voyage program director. “Plus, the Enrichment Voyage’s itinerary is a good introduction for students having their first study-abroad experience.”

Five colleges are sailing on this Passages & Exchanges voyage, with more than 100 college students in total. The biggest contingent of students this voyage hail from the Morehouse College program, which includes students from Morehouse and from Spelman College.

morehouseThis is the fourth straight year the historically black college has brought students to study onboard the MV Explorer. The 45 students are taking one of two courses during the two-week voyage in sociology or literature. Some students have returned for their second voyage because they enjoyed it so much. For many others, the voyage is the first time they have ever traveled outside of the U.S.

“This was my first time on a ship and my first time out of the U.S. so it’s been an amazing time for me,” said Rae’Johne Smith, a senior at Spelman College. “I knew I wanted to study abroad before I graduated and so I thought that this was perfect. Now it makes me wish I could do a full semester abroad.”

spelmanAll of the university groups take courses on either literature, culture, or history related to the countries visited and offered by their respective universities, and they all receive full credit. Classes are daily and while at sea for one to two hours. For some students, like those from Adelphi University in New York, the learning continues in port, where Adelphi students participated in service learning programs in four out of the five countries visited. In Guatemala they visited and helped paint a school. In Cartagena, Colombia they visited a nonprofit organization that helped teenage mothers.


“I’ve loved the experience to do service visits because we don’t get to do this in New York at school. And we got to meet people, like the girls we met in Cartagena and learn from how these programs are helping them be responsible mothers with skills to work,” said student Paolo Castrillon.

Students from SUNY Plattsburgh in New York are studying multicultural competence and, like their peers in the other colleges, take classes every day while the ship is at sea. This voyage is the third time the group has sailed. The first group explored the Amazon in 2011 and 18 students joined the May 2013 Enrichment Voyage.

“I love this voyage for the students because of the cross-cultural educational opportunities or them. It’s such a unique opportunity and they really do broaden their perspective after participating in this,” said group leader, Julia Davis.


Students from Piedmont Virginia Community College meet for two hours each day at sea to study Latin American cultures and civilizations also are required to attend workshops and lectures on the ship.

“The classes are very intense, but it’s a good balance because it’s one class and then with the lectures and all of these experienced people onboard the ship they are truly having a well-rounded academic experience,” said Jorge Gonzalez, the lecturer and director of the program.

While participants from each program are working within their curriculua, there are also opportunities for students to learn from each other and from their shared experiences. Students on this journey will most likely bring their Enrichment Voyage experiences back to share with their respective college communities, and their time on this voyage may also help them launch meaningful careers.


“Seeing the very things that we talk about in class literally materialize in port really resonated for me,” said Felicia Anderson of PVCC.

Diego Martinez of Adelphi University agreed. “To visit six countries in 16 days is absolutely something I thought I’d never be able to do,” he said. “It’s been an experience of a lifetime: one that I wouldn’t give back for the world.”



Lessons in Birds and Birdwatching

Prof. Charles Clarkson (center, pointing up) leads groups of bird enthusiasts on tours as part of his ornithology short course on the Enrichment Voyages.

Prof. Charles Clarkson (center, pointing up) leads groups of bird enthusiasts on tours as part of his ornithology short course on the Enrichment Voyages.

Charles Clarkson’s short course in ornithology has been one of the favorites among voyagers who’ve taken it, whether they are avid birdwatchers or curious newcomers.

“This is my second [Enrichment] Voyage but my first taking this course and I’m only sorry that I didn’t take it before. I’ve learned so much from him. It’s been a great part of the trip,” said Harry Howe.

Clarkson, a professor of ornithology at Roger Williams University, in Rhode Island, has held his ornithology workshops and lectured on several Enrichment Voyages on topics ranging from the evolution of birds to birds’ survival in their changing environments. On this Passages & Exchanges voyage, he’s led at least three excursions to find birds, searched for birds on the upper deck during the Panama Canal transit and explored a host of bird-related topics from fishing and marine life (yes, this does affect birds) to ecology, conservation and environmental science. Here are some facts from Clarkson about birds, their environment and their future.

A blue-crowned motmot spotted in Costa Rica and Guatemala.

A blue-crowned motmot spotted in Costa Rica and Guatemala.


Some of the most amazing birds out there in the world and why
As a group, migrating birds are the most amazing. What they do from a physiological standpoint is unrivaled in the animal kingdom. Consider this: All birds physiologically are walking this tightrope because they have the highest metabolism of any species on the planet and very high heart rates and they consistently have to search out resources to maintain this metabolism while sometimes traveling thousands of miles.

For example, hummingbirds, which are migratory, have a heartbeat of 1,200 beats per minute while in flight. Then, you’ve got this huge group of birds that migrate twice a year in order to find resources to help them raise offspring successfully. The longest distance migrant is the arctic tern that migrates from the North Pole to the South Pole twice a year—24,000 miles in one year. Shore birds will migrate 6,000 miles over the open ocean without stopping. So down here in the tropics, while birding we’re seeing all these resident species and amongst all of these birds were the migrants, like orioles and warblers, or the ruby-throated hummingbird—that spend the breeding season up in Canada and the U.S.

Harry Howe and his wife search for some birds during their visit to Guatemala as part of Clarkson's ornithology course.

Harry Howe and his wife search for some birds during their visit to Guatemala as part of Clarkson’s ornithology course.


Some interesting facts about birds

  • There are some albatross that, over their lifetime, will circumnavigate the globe as many as 10 times. Albatross are transient birds, which mean they return to where they hatched when they are ready to mate. It takes five to 10 years for them to reach sexual maturity. During that time they’re completely nomadic and spend that entire time flying over the open seas. Their physiology allows them to do that. They have mechanisms that allow them to glide over the open ocean—low heart rate when they glide, bones to lock when they glide.
  • Female birds do not sing. Only males sing. Females vocalize to fend off territorial intruders or to tell birds where they are.
  • The biggest threat color for birds is red. Some species of birds have evolved with red to use for distinctive purposes of aggression. So, for example, the larger the size of a bird’s epaulet generally means the larger the size of the bird. Males have these colors, not females. They typically show their red colors only during territorial encounters with another male. Researchers have outlawed the use of red bands to identify birds because that artificially creates more competitive and aggressive interactions directed at them.
  • Generally female birds tend to be attracted to large males because they can procure a site, find resources to feed offspring and protect that site against other males. However, there are some birds, such as sharp-shinned hawk, that select the smaller of the species because they are faster and thus can catch more birds (the food source for this particular species).
  • During mating time (in the spring) male nesting osprey will fly around for hours with a fish in their talons while the females sit in the branches of nearby trees and watch the show to determine who’s the better male with which she will mate. It’s extremely common during the springtime to see the osprey do this. They will catch the fish and then, while in mid-air, turn it so that it’s in an aerodynamic position and then examine it to see if it’s big enough. If it’s not, they’ll drop it and go back for a bigger fish. They’ll do this for hours and then fly around to try to impress the females. The biggest, strongest bird will be able to carry around the largest fish for the longest period of time.
  • Birds can see well beyond the UV spectrum, well beyond what we humans can see. So, things that are vivid and colorful to us humans are 10 times as vivid and colorful to birds.


A chestnut mandibled toucan

A chestnut mandibled toucan


Conservation: What We Should Know and What We Can We Do
When we remove resources from the ocean we not only remove resources for other fish we also remove resources for birds. That’s one reason for the decline in many bird species. The other is by-catch when we indiscriminately fish for all these fish species that are economically viable—and what we like to eat—and inevitably will catch birds in the process because they unknowingly are going after the bait on hooks, or they get trapped in nets. That represents a large number, over 300,000 birds collectively, that are killed every year because of the fishing industry. There are relatively easy things commercial fisheries can do to reduce this by-catch like tying brightly colored streamers to their fishing lines to deter birds.

The easiest way for us to fix this massive problem is:

  • Not supporting fishing industries that harvest fish in this inefficient manner that ultimately leads to large-scale death for these bird species.
  • Downloading apps or getting seafood guides from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch and look up fish that you consume to see if the fish is harvested unsustainably or fished that affects other species.


  • In our own backyards we can create or maintain properties or private lands that are more reminiscent of continuous tracts of forests and habitats that birds can utilize. So, plant more native plants and natural habitats. Try to maintain corridors where birds have an expanse of land to them. These birds are finding themselves in these new landscapes that are pavements or


What types of birds will people see during the Iron & Ice voyage
The tropics are the most bio-diverse areas in the world. So, we’re talking about thousands of species of birds over a handful of countries. So, we’ve been sampling that diversity. During the Iron & Ice voyage, in Iceland, for example, we’ll see the breeding colonies of hundreds of birds all nesting together. You’ll see large water birds, such as the northern fulmar and the puffin, all nesting on rocks and hundreds of them all nesting together.


Viva Mexico!


Puerto Vallarta and Ensenada entertained voyagers on the Passages & Exchanges voyage with art, food, whales, music and a few surprises hidden among the lush green mountains (of Puerto Vallarta) and in the waters of the Pacific that crashed on to the shore. In Puerto Vallarta, some passengers strolled for miles along the malecón, toured Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, meandered down the cobblestone streets, and caught a glimpse of some gigantic iguanas hanging out in the trees (see below). In Ensenada, passengers toured (and tasted) vineyards in Baja and sampled wines from the region, went horseback riding along the beach and visited La Bufadora, a popular spot hole that resembles a whale’s blowhole. “The days were quick, but the visits were fun,” one voyager said. We all say “Viva Mexico”!!!


A glassblower and designer shows off his craft at a store in Puerto Vallarta.



Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Puerto Vallarta.



A fisherman gets an early-morning start on the day.



A passenger shops for cigars, sniffing for the best in the bunch.



Oh, to be a mariachi.



Many voyagers took to strolling along Puerto Vallarta’s malecon for the day there.





Art by the Huichol Indians of Mexico’s state of Jalisco (and other nearby areas).






A Trip to Guatemala Brings Two Families Together


Four years ago, while at mass at their local church, Bob and Jean Hoffman listened to a priest from a nearby nonprofit talk about how people in the parish could help young children or the elderly in Central America.

It seemed easy enough: select a child from the information provided, donate about $1 a day (deducted from their credit card) that would go toward the child’s education, care and some clothing, and receive occasional notes about the child’s progress.

jean-and-melkinThey selected Melkin, a young boy from Yepocapa, Guatemala “because we thought it would be nice to choose a boy since everyone else was choosing little girls”. And each year since 2009, Bob and Jean have donated to the organization that helps Melkin. They never thought they would have the chance to meet the young boy.

But they did, during their visit to Guatemala on the Passages and Exchanges voyage.

“It was the true highlight of our time on the ship,” Jean Hoffman said. “It was a real delight to meet him. He was shy and his mother was too, but we had a really nice time with him. It was really nice to meet him.”

The Hoffmans were planning on signing up for an Enrichment Voyage at some point, but seeing Guatemala on this itinerary made the Passages & Exchanges voyage that much more enticing. Finally, they thought, it might be possible to actually meet and visit with Melkin after so many years.

“When our daughter visited Antigua several years ago we thought maybe she could visit Melkin, but it wasn’t possible so we’re really glad we had this opportunity,” Jean said.

Melkin, who’s now 15, arrived from his village three hours away from the port in Puerto Quetzal with his mother, a translator and two representatives from the organization. They brought gifts of doilies for the Hoffmans that Melkin’s sisters had made. The Hoffmans brought a series of gifts for Melkin and his siblings and parents: St. Louis Cardinal baseball cap, other caps, socks, sunglasses, and a soccer uniform.

“He loves soccer,” Jean noted.

bob&melkinThe group spent most of the day together sitting underneath the canopy at the entrance to the port’s embarkation site, talking about their respective families and lives. Melkin is one of six children, who now range in age from 12 to 24, and live at home with their parents. His father, a day laborer, died last year on his way home from work when he fell out of the back of a pickup truck in which he was riding and hit his head. Now, Melkin’s mother and sisters make tortillas to sell in town to try and earn a portion of the $130 a month that Melkin’s father had earned.

Bob and Jean brought photos of their kids and grandchildren and told simple stories about their home city of St. Louis. They brought Melkin on the MV Explorer for a tour and lunch where he politely ate his food and gobbled up chocolate ice cream. He also had his first ride on an elevator. “When he got back from lunch on the ship he said he didn’t want to eat black beans anymore so I guess he enjoyed [the lunch],” Bob joked.

The Hoffmans aren’t sure they’ll be back to see Melkin again. Jean said she’d would like to return to see him graduate from high school. But they do have a day filled with wonderful exchanges.


Exploring the Solar System with Shelley Bonus

Shelley-feature-imageWhat makes planets round?  How long does it take for light from the sun, moon or the other planets in the solar system to reach Earth? And, is there really life on Mars? Astronomer Shelley Bonus is exploring these and many other perplexing questions in a series of animated and informative presentations she is giving aboard the MV Explorer.

Bonus is the session director for the Mt. Wilson Observatory’s 60-inch telescope, teaches astronomy at UCLA Extension and has been studying the universe and the stars for nearly 30 years.

Her first true connection to the stars was as a child when her father showed her the constellation of Orion during a dark, starry night in New York City. “I thought it was the most magical thing I had ever seen, but I had no interest in science for a very long time.”

Bonus, 66, spent a brief, but successful career in the performing arts and Hollywood before turning back to astronomy. But the stories and the myths of astronomy and the sciences brought her back. At age 40, she started taking astronomy classes and hasn’t looked back since.

Her eccentricity and comic prowess turn potential dry information into entertaining, often funny and very informative presentations. Here’s a short podcast from one of her presentations on the solar system.


Port Reflections: Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala

IMG_1863Cassie Childers, a SAS alumnae (Spring and Summer 2003 voyages), lives in Dharasalam, India where she is the founder and head of the non-profit, Tibet Women’s Soccer. The organization allows Tibetan females living in exile to play in a soccer league. Since starting the nonprofit in 2011, Cassie has formed 14 teams, engaged nearly 300 women and hopes to form the first Tibetan women’s national team that will, one day, compete in the World Cup or Summer Olympics. Cassie sailed on the May 2013 Enrichment Voyage and had so much that she returned again for the December 2013 voyage with her family. She wrote about her day in Guatemala.

Guatemala is one of the top 10 poorest countries in the western hemisphere. The staff of the Enrichment Voyage prepared us well during the pre-port seminar to observe terrible poverty and social injustice in the wake of decades of political unrest.

I expected scenes of raw human suffering similar to my current home in India. But unlike India, it seems Guatemala has managed to construct a beautiful façade of tourist perfection to mask the hard truth of the status of its people.


Unlike the port in Chennai, India, where I first stepped foot on the subcontinent 10 years ago during my Semester at Sea voyage, the scene in Puerto Quetzal was lacquered with shiny new souvenirs, helpful tour guides and tropical music played live by four-man band.

The highways connecting Puerto Quetzal with the colonial city of Antigua were modern, clean and well-maintained. Antigua itself was a tourist’s playland, lined with shops and restaurants, and guarded by friendly tourist police on every corner. With just one day to get a taste of Guatemala, I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to experience the real thing. But if you look closely, you can see clues hinting at the truth, even through the shiny gloss of tourist perfection.


As we drove through the outskirts of the city, I caught glimpses of scenes of a shanty town down alleyways leading off the main highway. Lost in wisps of dust, they quickly disappeared. After enjoying a lavish lunch in a restaurant that serves typical Guatemalan food to rich gringos, walking through a back row of market stalls I saw workers squatting down on the pavement, eating the exact same stewed chicken dish I had just eaten, only served on a slab of Styrofoam in about one-quarter of the portion I was served.

If I looked and listened closely, I could sense the desperation as the craft sellers engaged in the bargaining game, quietly calculating in their heads if they’d make enough on the deal to feed their families that night. But really, it all remained practically undetectable.


It seems the Guatemalan government has made a huge effort to attract a certain type of tourist, set on bringing in the valuable dollars and Euros that its country so desperately needs. But at what cost? I guess that for most tourists visiting Guatemala, they

will never get a sense of what’s real. For most, Guatemala is a textile-shopper’s and guacamole eater’s paradise ringed with smoking volcanoes. And maybe some are satisfied with that.

But for me, I just kept thinking about India. Nothing was hidden there, and as I smelled horrible sludge, saw dying people on the street, and watched hungry children beg for food, I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life: The truth has the power to set us free.


As our brand new, air-conditioned minivan wound its way back down to the port, I vowed to return to the real Guatemala someday. I promised myself I’d find a way to meet its people in their own environment, talk to them on a personal level, and see how they really live. Revolutionary ideas, visions and movements can be born from authentic interaction, and I’m not giving up on Guatemala just yet.


One of the three volcanoes that are located near Antigua in the background as the boat that brought voyagers to Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan makes its way to land.



Fresh tortillas made on a wood-heated comal.



Coffee production started in Guatemala in the 1850s and has since become one of the countries main exports.



The MV Explorer awaits passengers on the dock at Puerto Quetzal.