EMU Cross-Cultural

Palestinian Neighbors

10 February 2015

We’ve concluded our final week in Beit Sahour. This week has been full of last times: last time walking to the ATG (Alternative Tourism Group) in the morning, last Arabic class, and last meals with our host families. We started out the week watching a film called The 18 Wanted, a comedy/documentary about the people of Beit Sahour resisting Israeli Occupation via nonviolent actions. The film is artistic, entertaining, and has a strong call for justice. It is definitely worth watching. Other highlights include a visit to the Badil Center in Bethlehem to learn more about Palestinian refugee issues and legal status, going to the city of Nablus in the northern part of the West Bank, seeing the Pools of Solomon, stopping at Jacob’s well, and visiting a Samaritan community and learning about their religious and cultural practices today.

For many of us, our day at the Tent of Nations was one of the most powerful times of the trip. Tent of Nations is a farm that has been run by the same family since the time of the Ottoman Empire. All around the farm, Israeli Settlements are being built and the family is continually being pushed off the land that is legally theirs. On repeated occasions the family’s trees (apricot & olive) have been bulldozed during the night by Israeli soldiers, but the family lives by the motto “we refuse to be enemies” and instead of reacting in violence, they vow to plant two trees for every one the Israeli forces plow down. We as a group had the opportunity to help dig holes and plant trees on the property. It was a day of hard work but a welcomed sense of being able to do something, however small, to resist the oppression we’ve spent the last three weeks learning about.

-Rachel Bowman, junior


I’m sure I can speak for a lot of us when I write about how I personally feel leaving Beit Sahour. I’m ready to begin the next part of the journey, to be on the move and feel like a traveler again. But at the same time, I’m hesitant about leaving the many ways this place has been a comfort for me the last 3 weeks.

I’m going to miss the stability of a fixed schedule. Arabic class in the morning, lectures in the afternoon, and the occasional field trip to places of biblical or contemporary significance have been our typical daytime activities. But in the late afternoon when we split to walk home, whether we’re exhausted or contemplative or confused or wired as a response to whatever we learned or experienced that day, we had homes to go to. Families to nurture us in body and spirit, to help us verbally process or even sit in comfortable silence around a TV.

The Palestinian culture is one grounded by the concept of family. This definitely isn’t limited to blood relation – while any given person has many relatives in the area, the way in which they act toward anyone on the street makes them feel as though they might as well be one too. The people we’ve met serve as a perfect example of loving your neighbor, strange or familiar, as one of your own.

ATG has done a marvelous job at helping us experience this firsthand; too many tourists visiting the Bethlehem area hop off a bus, capture pictures and leave again without getting to know the people who live here and have lived here since the time the famous baby Himself was born, but the organization has provided an alternative approach to such visits. We’ve seen how this loving community is slowly shrinking and separating by the hands and the walls of the occupier, and we struggle when we think of what can be done to stop such blatant injustices.

Today, we leave our makeshift home that is the community of Beit Sahour. We cross the border all too smoothly to the side of the “other”, who we will get to know and hopefully love instead of subconsciously hate from the shielded viewpoint of those who are suffering. Deepening complexities will continue to challenge our idea of “comfort”, but I hope and pray that we’ll continue to find it not tied to location, but instead to the hearts of humanity – through these seemingly miniscule instances of love that exist in every one of us. And I think I can speak for all of us when I ask you to do the same.

-Sam Swartzendruber, junior

The Birds

8 February 2015


I envy the birds that fly across
The wall that divides means and men
The birds don’t see the anger of years
That break old hearts and bring new tears
The wall that splits friends and foes
The wall that cuts highs to lows
I wish the birds could tie a string,
wind me up and there to bring
So I could go and see up high
How the wall creates a lie
“They hate us” or “We hate them”
“Always an enemy, never a friend”
No, listen! Open your ears!
Clear the page, erase the smears.
Wait, see! Open your eyes!
Notice the pain. Comfort the sighs.
We together, come once more.
Take down the wall, open the door.
But I sit and stare up at the wall
And watch the birds that seem so small
Way up there wild and free
How both sides truly wish to be.

-Ruthie Beck

This week in the news: Palestine

2 February 2015

Hebron – the first glimpse of the conflict on the ground, and a major reality check. How is it possible that neighbors would have each other arrested, or throw their trash on each other? I stood on one side of a wall that divides the city and half an hour later I was standing directly on the other side thanks to my American passport. I stood on the road originally created for Palestinian use but taken over by Israeli settlers. I watched a dog run down the middle of the road and I thought about the irony of freedom – a dog travels freely, but a Palestinian cannot. My spirits fell as I walked past doors welded shut, a symbol of a once bustling market, now completely deserted. The bone crushing atmosphere in Hebron was distinctly lacking of all hope. But yet in Palestine, hope remains.

We found hope at Bethlehem University, a university made up of young Christians and Muslims both male and female. We admired the greenness of campus and the vivacious life we found in the students. We played basketball (and table tennis) with our Palestinian brothers and sisters. And when we asked them what we should tell the folks back home about what we saw, they said, “Tell them we aren’t terrorists.”

Arabic classes continue to be entertaining and yet simultaneously the bane of our existence. While challenging and applicable, they are also frustrating and demanding. Our teachers tell us, “Use the back of your throat!!” I didn’t even know that throats could make that sound. But along the way, we’ve also picked up the wisdom of our teachers. In the words of charismatic teacher Abdullah, “to learn the language of your enemy is to make them your friend.” From the smiling faces of the local shopkeepers as we greet them with a simple ‘Marhaba!’ we are learning this for ourselves.

The hike through Wadi Qelt took us outside of the classroom and straight into the pages of the Bible. The beautiful scenery and precarious paths took our breath away and also our feet from under us (5 documented wipe-outs from the day). We read Psalms 23 as we sat beside still waters in the (legitimate) Valley of the Shadow of Death. King David’s words have never seemed so real, as we imagined ourselves to be shepherds on the very hills where the boy poet David roamed. Not to mention that we got to stand on the ruins of one of King Herod’s many palaces.

This week has been a flurry of information, images, and activity. It seems that we learn without even trying. With one week left here in Beit Sahour, we want to take in everything we possibly can. The things we have seen and experienced will travel with us even as our time here draws to an end.

– Alena Yoder, junior
– Malachi Bontrager, junior

New learning in Guatemala

2 February 2015

Throughout the big transition from the U.S./Mexico border to Guatemala, we experienced many different emotions. Coming off of such a full and difficult two weeks, we felt we had seen so much but hadn´t done anything about it to help. One evening we talked to a Christian border patrol agent, who challenged us with the thought of whether or not it is legal to be a Christian. We didn’t want to forget what we’ve experienced at the border, but at the same time wanted to be present in Guatemala with our host families and at CASAS.

Waiting for Spanish class assignmentsThe first full day at CASAS was new and exciting, yet a little intimidating because we had our Spanish placement tests and our first Spanish class. Most classes have only two students, with the largest having four, so we have pretty personal attention. We have 3 1/2 hours of Spanish class every morning, usually a class or fieldtrip with the entire group in the afternoon, and the evenings are spent with host families. It has been fun to come to school each morning and tell each other how our evenings went, because each person’s experience is completely different.

Some educational highlights have been our trips in the afternoons. Monday afternoon the group went to the Central Plaza and toured the green National Palace, which is where the President has his meetings. It took up an entire block and held a lot of history inside, with murals depicting Mayan and Spanish conflict, statues representing peace treaties, and the fingerprint of a president in the handle of every door. We also walked around the area a bit to learn about different historic places. On Tuesday afternoon we went to the National Cemetery, which also helped us learn about the effects of many different countries and cultures on Guatemala, including the Chinese, South Korean, and German. The richer families are able to buy a plot and build a structure for the entire family, but the poorer people rent out a grave stacked above ground, with their families paying a certain amount every year for fourteen years, and after fourteen years the remains are moved so the spot can be rented to someone else. Adjacent to the cemetery is the national landfill, where many men, women, and children work (and used to live), sorting through the trash for recyclables to sell, most only making around 10 Q. per day (about $1.25). We learned how several people have died doing this dangerous work, but they have no choice.

The second half of the week was full of physical discomfort, and consequently a few free afternoons, as nearly every single person in the group strangely got sick over several days. It turned out to be a bonding experience, but we´re all still trying to recover from that. Most of us, however, were feeling well enough to hike the Pacaya volcano on Saturday. Though it was a Pacaya lava fieldsteep climb up (and was a little harder because of the altitude and the fact that many of us were still a little weak from sickness) the view of the crater, the valley, and the neighboring volcanoes was well worth it. We walked on the hardened lava and saw the effects of the huge 2010 eruption as well as the one just last year. We experienced Mayan makeup, many native plants, and roasting marshmallows from the heat of the volcano. Overall we’ve experienced and shared laughs, tears, hugs, and unforgettable memories this week, and wouldn’t trade them for anything.

I have learned so much this week about myself, the group, and the Guatemalan culture. Guatemala City is absolutely beautiful, but I still find it strange how it very suddenly changes from a gorgeous green wilderness to very urban. I learned that safety is also very relative to culture. My first weekend and week with my host family felt very overwhelming because I couldn’t understand much at first, and translating everything in addition to a full day of learning and seeing new things, learning the bus route, and doing homework drained my energy quickly. I’ve already noticed, however, a significant improvement in how much I understand and know, and my list of new vocabulary words is ever growing.

To sum up my week in the form of senses, here’s what I noticed: the green valley amidst the rushing traffic, the warmth of the sun, the look on many homeless people’s faces when we passed, the stares I’ve gotten because I stand out, the feeling of a much-needed hug from friends, my baby brother’s smile, dancing, and funny gestures, the loud and abrupt song of strange birds, the roar of the buses, the strong smell of someone’s cologne, the shouts of people in the street, the loud voice of a man proclaiming the gospel on the bus, the sounds of Spanish songs, the taste of good food, feeling weak and tired, the smell of the smoke of a volcano, and the feeling of being so overwhelmed I want to go home but battling through it and seeing how God was carrying me through it all.

– Amanda Helfrich

All We Need Is Love…and maybe some equality

25 January 2015

Good evening from Beit Sahour!

On Monday, we spent the morning at the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) headquarters where we heard from Shareen, a lawyer that works often with abused women, share about her life and work.

And never have I ever been so thankful for my father and opportunities as a woman. In Middle Eastern culture, it is shameful for a woman to go to court against her husband. Verbal abuse is simply something you deal with and physical harm is only serious if you require medical attention. In essence, women’s rights here are only on paper – not in practice. Shareen’s job is to represent these women in court to get divorces and alimony. Not only so, but she also performs awareness sessions for men and women to learn how to better interact and to reveal the wrong, abusive tendencies of fathers and husbands.

Shareen shared her story on how her father did not support her following her true passion to practice law and study in the university. After she applied and was accepted into law school, her father didn’t talk to her for six months. Compare this to my father, who never told me any dream was too big or any bar too high. My gender was not something that defined nor hindered me. “Because you’re a girl” was never an excuse for not completing a task. He taught me through word and action I am a person of great value and also great strength.

I like to think I am the woman I am, largely [because] of my father, so it’s hard to imagine becoming myself in spite of him, like Shareen did. I wish you all could have been there to hear her story with the other 27 of us huddled around her in a small room to listen intently. Some may get annoyed with feminism but I don’t think we should get annoyed with equal rights – because isn’t that what we all should be striving for? Male or female: we are all created in God’s image. Equal rights and equal opportunities only make sense.

But how do you change a culture? Shareen contests we start at the roots. We raise boys who respect their sisters and mothers. We tell little girls they are strong and they have the freedom to be whatever they want to be. That’s what my parents did for me – and I am grateful for that. More than I was before. And I hope that I do the same with my children.

On Tuesday, we crossed the border from Jordan into Israel where our passports saved us from waiting an hour or maybe even more – All because my passport says United States of America.

We were asked very minimal questions and our bags were not scanned. Does anyone spy some inequality there?

We are currently living with host families in Palestine . As I was talking with my host dad, he mentioned how he cannot go to many Arab countries because he is from Palestine.  Because he is seen as a threat, someone to be feared. After living with him for a few days, I know he is anything but. And maybe people would take a different opinion if we got to know each other – if we tore down the walls, both literal and metaphorical, that keep us from deep human connection and understanding.

On Wednesday, we had our first glimpse of the wall that divides Palestinians from Israelis. This wall zig- zags through the land, including as many resources as it can, leaving little for the Palestinians. Some have had the wall built straight through their backyards, losing land and livelihood. Many people have olive trees here, but if the trees end up on the other side of the wall, they simply go to waste at the hands of the Israelis.

The wall is covered in graffiti with moving images that will wreck your heart. Some moving thoughts were:

“Repair the world.”

“Warning! This is illegally occupied land.”

“Take one: freedom of movement, water, equality.”

And several scenes done by the artist Banksy. (look him up – he’s awesome)

I found myself fighting back tears as I walked by this wall. I have never been smacked in the face with injustice like this before. Is this really the human reality in 2015? But, may we never forget there is hope. For a little over 2,000 years ago a baby was born into occupation much worse than what we see now.  And he rocked this world to its core. And who’s to say something as radical couldn’t happen again?

Just to compare the two sides of the wall:

  • Every Palestinian home has a water tank on top of the house and water is a limited resource.

Israeli homes? Water is a non-issue. In fact, I learned Israel takes up to 80% of Palestinian water, leaving the remaining 20% for the rest of the population.

  • Palestinians are not free to move among Arab countries.

Israelis? They can travel freely.

  • Palestinians have special IDs that forbid them to drive on certain roads.

Israelis? Any road, any time.

Let’s talk more about this wall and inequality:

One of our guides made an astonishing point to us about signs around this wall. In English and Hebrew signs read, “Do not damage the wall or risk your life” or something to that effect. In contrast, in Arabic (the language of Palestinians) the signs say “do not touch.” I think even those of us who aren’t English nuts see a pretty clear distinction between the two. Now this is all to be taken with a grain of salt, because I am currently living the Palestinian reality. In three weeks I will cross to the other side, hear different stories, and be challenged even more to reconcile two sides of that wall.

Thursday was our first Arabic lessons. We will be having nine, three hour sessions these three weeks. We are split into two groups which is helpful. My teacher’s name is Jala, she is a sweet middle aged woman who once taught English at university. She is very relaxed and understands Arabic can be a difficult language to learn but excited for us to be able to interact with our families.

For those of you keeping track here are the Biblical sights of the week:

– Lot’s Cave

– the Dead Sea

– Mt. Nebo (where Moses went before he died)

– the Shepherd’s Field (Luke 2)

– the grotto where Jesus was born (The Church of the Nativity)

Assalamu alaykum.

Peace on you.

– Lydia Tissue

Beit Sahour

25 January 2015

Entering into Israel and Palestine has brought a whole new mixture of challenges, emotions, and incredible experiences. After a very smooth border crossing into Israel we headed towards our new homes for the next weeks in a small Palestinian city in the West Bank right outside of Bethlehem. Our group was separated out into groups of twos and threes to live with Palestinian families for our stay. Here we will study Arabic, have numerous lectures on Palestinian culture, history and conflict, and go visit various biblical sites and cities.

The first day we saw multiple sights that inspired two very different emotions in me. Our guide showed us a fence that is a part of the wall separating Palestinians from Israelis that goes through a Palestinian olive tree farm leaving more than half of the olive trees on the other side of the wall. Because of this no one has been to harvest those perfectly good olives. We then went to the church of the nativity and saw the supposed place where Jesus was born. Right after that neat experience we saw the actual large solid wall which cuts through this holy land leaving very little land and resources for the Palestinians. This made me think how Jesus was born into the world to teach peace and loving your enemy and ten minutes away from his place of birth there is a large wall separating two groups who can’t find a way to live harmoniously together.

It has also been an incredible experience living with a family in a completely different culture from my own. They have been so hospitable and accepting by feeding me delicious food, giving me tea constantly, including me in conversations even if they have to translate, teaching me Arabic and letting me participate in their daily lives. However, it makes the weight heavier in my heart to know how loving and accepting they are despite their current reality. Even though it’s been a whirlwind of emotions, life in Beit Sahour has been an awesome experience so far and I can’t wait to keep learning about this wonderful culture.

– Martha Bell

Exploring immigration on the border lands

20 January 2015

Isaac at El ComedorOur group arrived in Tucson, Arizona on January 8th shortly after midnight, and we spent several days in a hotel there while beginning our study of immigration issues at the US/Mexico border. Our first activity on the morning of the 8th was crossing the border to visit El Comedor (a soup kitchen just across the border in Nogales, for newly deported migrants). We also heard migration stories from several women being protected in a woman’s shelter there in Nogales. For being our first day, it was flooded with a lot of emotional heaviness.

The next few days included visits to two different detention centers in Arizona, where a few of us got to speak with the detainees, a beautiful hike in Saguaro national park AZ sunset(where the biggest challenge was avoiding the Jumping Cholla cactus), and some much-needed relaxation time at the hotel. Sunday morning after church and lunch with members of the humanitarian project “No More Deaths”, we set out for Agua Prieta, where we spent a week in a community center just a short distance from the wall, which we visited several times. We experienced shopping on a maquila (factory) worker’s salary and cooking dinner and breakfast together, visited a drug rehabilitation community, heard from several passionate speakers on border issues, and participated in a vigil for those who have died crossing the desert in Cochise County. We visited a border patrol facility at the end of the week and heard their perspective as well. Our time at the border included a lot of U-turns, bathroom stops, and Spanglish as our group starts to get to know each other and figure out the sometimes chaotic schedule of each day together.

The biggest lesson I have learned this week is that I have grown up with an immense amount of physical comfort, and that what I have to go back to in the US is a privilege. I’ve never been out of the country before, and having a toilet that flushes every time and a sink I can drink and wash my hands from are things I’ve taken for granted for the last twenty years. I’ve also been privileged to live my whole life in the safety of Harrisonburg, and this week my sense of security has been challenged, too. Early Wednesday morning, a couple of us woke up to [what sounded like] machine gun fire nearby, and I had trouble falling back asleep, even though Agua Prieta is pretty safe during the day.

I’ve definitely been appreciating all of the prayers and support being sent our way. We will be heading to Guatemala mid-week to begin the next part of our trip, and I think we’re all looking forward to meeting our host families and developing a more steady and relaxing routine there.

-Kari King

Into the desert

19 January 2015

Marhaban – Hello from the Middle East 2015 group! This week has been a whirlwind of new sights and experiences, smells and sounds. From the Bedouins calling out to us, encouraging us to buy their wares, to the enticing dishes at each meal, we have arrived in a new world. Over the next semester, different students will have the chance to share their thoughts on this blog- we hope you enjoy our words, and thank you all so much for your support!


“Our two days in Wadi Rum (Jordan) are hard to describe in words, but I’ll do my best. After arriving at the visitors’ center, I thought we were close to the camp. However, to our surprise, we got to ride jeeps the last hour of the trip. In the back of pickup trucks, we drove through the open desert until we finally reached the Bedouin camp. Our hosts were unbelievable. They provided food, fire, and plenty of entertainment, which included music and dancing with the locals. It was so nice to sit in the tents, around the fire, and to sit and enjoy each other’s company– no wifi, no phones, only conversations, laughs, and plenty of stories and stargazing.

On Saturday, we woke up in our tents with the excitement of getting to ride camels. We rode through the desert for about three hours on our camels. Even though they weren’t the most IMG_0002Rcomfortable, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The Bedouins were so hospitable, offering us tea, fire and friendship the whole stay. What an unbelievable and unforgettable couple of days.”

-Ruthie Beck, Junior, History Ed.



13 November 2014

She stomped onto the bus, long, loose red curls swinging from side to side, framing her weathered face. With a gruff expression, she brought us to attention with a shout of “hello.” She leaned against the side of a seat, resting momentarily. After gathering herself, she stood up straighter, emboldened, and shouted forth what information she deemed critical for us to know: “let’s get one thing straight: I am not a missionary, so don’t call me that.”

This proclamation was bold, and instantaneously, I loved this woman.

Despite her disassociation with the term “missionary” the work Sylvia devotes herself to is bringing forward the kingdom of God. She moved to Bulgaria and has loved and been loved by the people for the duration of her time here. She is an anomaly: after her organization failed to provide her adequate funds, the Bulgarians supplemented her salary and supported her. This is completely unheard of and testifies to her work ethic and cultural sensitivity. Currently, she is working at one of the few Syrian refugee camps. For two days, she briefly allowed us into her world.

When we first entered the camp, everyone was forced to acknowledge a spirit of despair that permeated our beings. Our surroundings reinforced what we felt intuitively: the sky was dark, full of foreboding clouds, our feet sank into the soggy ground, and the land was stacked with rows and rows of temporary housing. The air was slightly damp and I noticed how quickly my fingers and toes seemed to turn to ice.

We stood at the gate, freezing, gaping at our surroundings for what felt like an eternity. Finally, our group was herded into another building to meet with the camp director. The residents at the camp had been informed that a group of Americans were coming and had formed a large group, waiting to see us. We marched through the clump of people, holding one another close. I looked up occasionally, stealing glances that I had been warned against. My eyes met blank faces of young men, older men, children, mothers. I remember the collective large, dark eyes. They did not look at me expectantly nor defensively, I was merely being observed and I have never felt more vulnerable.

I found myself ushered into a classroom reserved for the camp administration. The room had buzzing fluorescent lights, gleaming desks, and our muddy shoes squeaked as we trod over shining linoleum tiles. Enticed by the prospect of a view, I wandered toward the window. Looking out, I saw the large group of residents slowly making their way back into the grid of temporary housing, smoke billowing up from trash fires; I saw the wall that separated the camp from the city. On the horizon, I could see the outlines of communist block buildings. All I could see was oppression– current and historical traumas. And none of it felt real.

The week before, our group was exploring the city of Veliknovo, Turnovo. While in Turnovo, we had the opportunity to meet with several different men who shared ideas and perspective with us at the university. I felt particularly impacted by Marian’s discussion. He adamantly insisted that humanity is at its best when it is engaging in relationship.

As Westerners, we can find ourselves wrapped up in our individuality – thinking only of ourselves in a cyclic and destructive way. After establishing the prominence of this tendency, Marian asked us, in the most gentle and unassuming way, “what is the cost to love?” Our simple answer was a whispered response of, “nothing.” Marian continued, and telling us of the beauty that abounds when we break out of these cyclic mentalities. The most basic reward of relationship is to have the eyes of another, acting as mirrors for us to see ourselves. As we engage further, synergy of people and energy is produced. We learn how to give and be given to. The synergy molds us, changing us for the better.

I could not escape Marian’s words that day in the camp. I could not escape the vacant stares. I was nervous to engage with the residents.

Our group was organized into two before we left the classroom. A handful of us assembled groups of shoes to be dispersed to family groups. The rest of us spent the day slushing through mud, dragging metal bed frames from one building to the next, then assembling the beds.

Initially, we were watched as we carried the bed frames from building to building. The residents were curious about us, but withdrawn. An hour into the process, several young boys had enough of simply observing us. They joined in, happily running through the mud, meeting us as we emerged out of one building, taking the bed frames from our loaded arms, carrying the weight themselves. The boys were ecstatic — invigorated by the work and the opportunity to simply do. Each time they met me with expectant, outreached arms, eager to shoulder the burden of the heavy metal frames.

The next day, our group organized games and activities for the children in the camp. We found ourselves in a similar classroom as the day before, one that felt completely surreal and entirely unused. We threw down crayons, markers, face paint, balloons, and candies onto the shiny, unblemished desks. Children and mothers flooded in, and in moments, the room was transformed. The room, once stale, now housed squealing children, proud mothers, and all of the resultant joyful noise. I thought of the synergy that Marian spoke so passionately of — here, I could see it blooming.

For the hour, I painted faces of the residents. I was given the opportunity to give all of my attention to each child in the seat right in front of me. I tried to give safety and affirmation to each person as I traced simple hearts onto pure cheeks. The smiles I received in return made me swell with affection. I will cherish those exchanges for the rest of my life.

Throughout, I considered the paradigm shift that I experienced. I moved from fearfully stealing glances and seeing vacant stares to learning how to maintain meaningful eye contact. Before establishing relationship with the residents, I hated my reflection in their eyes. In that mirror, I saw my privilege and felt nothing but guilt. As the relationship evolved, so did the reflection. I began to appreciate the ways that I could give and be given to. I hope that my eyes mirrored back the beauty that I saw, the resilience, the hope.

I will also never forget Sylvia’s initial greeting: she does not proclaim to be the sole giver. She engages in relationship. She stands beside the hurting. She makes room for synergy by not claiming superiority. She is not found in vacant classrooms — she will be found trekking through the mud, delivering shoes, exchanging smiles, giving meaningful squeezes. Within Sylvia’s synergistic relationships, she is constantly moving, constantly changing, constantly learning. She is constantly giving, constantly engaging in relationship, constantly learning how to love more fully.

-Hanna Heishman

Learning Bulgarian time

5 October 2014 DSC_2282

Time flies.

Our first assignment once we had settled into Bansko was to head out into town, find a cafe, order a drink, and sit for at least 2 hours. Andrew stressed the importance of this assignment: in the Balkans, afternoons are leisurely and time is understood relatively. Here, productivity was not measured in activities completed, but rather, in relationships maintained and bolstered by quality time. Elated, many of us were convinced that we had just been given the easiest assignment. We trotted down the cobble road in pursuit of a cafe, loudly and obnoxiously excited, breezing past the locals seated on benches along the road.

The challenge of our assignment became apparent 20 minutes after ordering our drinks, when quite caffeinated, we twiddled idle thumbs and tapped our feet, anxious to move once again. After all, the reality that we were finally in Bulgaria had just set in — and we were ready to go, to explore, to document. Somehow, we persevered, sitting through our allotted time, before dashing off on the next adventure.

Eventually, we were able to appreciate the leisure, but not before being sufficiently frustrated by it. To name a few testing moments: We have had dinners at 10:00 at night, had waitresses forget about us, and learned to sit in traffic. Slowly, but surely, our eyes began to register the beauty of the minutia events; people watching and journaling became favorite activities, and waiting lost its excruciating pinch.

I knew that our group had embraced Balkan time when one afternoon, I passed by Amber, seated with two babas on a bench. The babas had enveloped her in their arms, whispering to her. Amber was immersed in the interaction, smiling and squeezing the women’s hands, affirming their words, but doubtlessly not comprehending any of their Bulgarian wisdom. But no matter, she was creating relationship and engaging her present surroundings.

Nearly always, we are given the opportunity to soak in the sweetness and goodness of the present. All we are asked is to tune in and engage. This revelation transformed my experience, and I am confident that this narrative is shared amongst the group. Together, we have been actively seeking out the divine and the lovely, which we discover in both the ordinary and the extraordinary.  God has revealed Godself to us as we are overwhelmed by natural wonders, but we also sense God in smaller moments. Conversations with waitresses, taxi drivers, and housekeepers have left us amazed. In broken Bulgarian – English, we have pieced together life stories, full of both joy and suffering.

Now, a month into our cross-cultural experience, the first few days in Bansko feels worlds away. But we carry with us our significant learning, and are eager to apply it to our new context: Plovdiv. The city dwarfs meager Bansko, offering endless activities and excitement. For the first few days, we scurried round the city, trying to do everything that the city offered, before realizing the impossibility of this effort.

We are asked now to be intentional about how we spend our time, where we engage, how much energy we put forward. In a city, with opportunity around every corner, we have to be intentional about taking time to appreciate each activity and interaction to the fullest extent. We are continually learning how to slow down, how to open our hearts to the present, how to listen for God. For now, we are encountering the divine in silly moments with host families, in the creativity of street art, and the energy of the bustling city.

We are milking each moment, loving it entirely.

-Hanna Heishman