Local family finds adventure, community on high seas
Photo by: 

Often, the best education doesn’t come in a classroom, but in life experiences gained from exploration and travel. That’s what the Talbert family was banking on as they headed out for a three month journey this past fall on the open sea.

Not only did John and Coli Talbert, and their two sons, Roy, 10, and Heath, 8, gain a global perspective, they learned that “community” is born from common experience — despite age, culture and nationality.

The Talberts participated in a program called “Semester at Sea.” The program immerses college and university students in multiple-country, interdisciplinary course work which is intended to give them hands-on experience as they engage with communities globally. But the learning wasn’t limited to just the older students.

The more than 100-day voyage takes students to 10-12 destinations in four continents as their ship — a floating classroom of sorts — zigzags over more than 20,000 nautical miles. During this time they are offered a wide variety of coursework from more than 20 fields of study.

“They would import lecturers for the college students, and special speakers, we would have those people come talk to the ship kids as well,” said John. 

But to accomplish this kind of experience, Semester at Sea must staff its ship to meet the students’ needs for the three months — including medical personnel. When Coli — a practicing physicians assistant — learned about the opportunity to work on the ship, she applied in fall of 2017 for a voyage that would not take place for another two years.

“I was at a medical conference and met a woman and we were talking about how much we like to travel, and at the time we were trying to figure out how to travel without a great deal of expense,” said Coli about how she learned of the program. “But it’s not about travel with kids. The most impactful stuff is (the bond formed) with the shipboard community.”

The Talberts set sail in early September. Coli worked on the ship during the day, while John homeschooled Roy and Heath in the mornings and explored each port in the afternoons. The first port where the ship docked was in Gdansk, Poland. From there they traveled to places such as Lisbon, Portugal; Cádiz; Spain; Casablanca, Morocco. They trekked through countries such as Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Ecuador and Costa Rica, and sailed through the Panama Canal back to their final port in San Diego on Dec. 23.

Not only did each destination offer the Talberts a look at different cultures, but some exciting experiences accompanied those lessons.

For example, John described the visit to Ghana — one of the major ports through which slaves were shipped — as an “intense'' experience because of the history of the place. But while in Ghana, Roy and Heath were encompassed by a school yard of children who took them by the hand to play. It was in Ghana where the Talberts assisted in painting a school and had an encounter with a wild boar.

After their stop in Brazil, Coli described a medical incident which involved Heath — something that she had never encountered. Heath developed a wart-like callus on his hand. When Coli examined and attempted to remove the callus, an egg sac from a sand flea was discovered. And while many families might be horrified by the discovery, the Talbert family took it in stride as yet another life lesson.

But the Talberts said some of the greatest learning occurred as they experienced unique languages and cultures — they saw what “different” really means. While at sea, both Roy and Heath formed bonds with other children on the ship, and even with the college students. One of their friends was a child with Down Syndrome — which their parents said taught the boys that not everyone is the same, and friendships can span those differences.

The boys also grew to appreciate how special the family’s hometown of Gunnison is, John said, because of personal freedom they enjoy. John shared one incident where the boys were scolded publicly for bouncing a basketball during rest time in Spain.

“They were shocked to find out they couldn’t just walk down the street to a soccer field,” John said. “And in every country they got yelled at. Gunnison isn’t ‘normal,’ it’s special and unique.”

Coli agreed, noting their sons' reaction to seeing children running barefoot in Ghana, and seeing what other civilizations make a priority. She said she believes that understanding that not all things have to be the same will aid them in navigating through life. 

“People just live differently. Other people have other means of doing things. They think differently.” she said. “The whole world isn’t trying to be like us. There are different cultures, different food, and different thoughts.”


(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at editor@gunnisontimes.com.)