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The Ups and Downs of Puebla

By Andrew Kniss
Posted in Guatemala/Mexico 2014
April 14th, 2014

After leaving the hustle of Mexico City, we were pleasantly welcomed by the more relaxed atmosphere in Puebla. As soon as we arrived at the Spanish Institute of Puebla, we had a brief orientation to the Institute, then if was off to our new host families. In contrast to our host families in Guatemala, we were 2 or 3 students to a family. This helped to ease the transition, and took some pressure off of our Spanish skills.

We are spending our mornings in two very different types of Spanish classes. The first is with an individual conversation partner. With these “guides”, we have visited museums, explored the black market, and toured centuries old churches. We get a new guide each week, so there has been a good mix of meeting new people and being comfortable enough to make Spanish mistakes and be corrected. This time with the guide focuses on conversation and vocabulary. The second type of class is a formal classroom setting, with 2-3 students and a teacher from the institute. These are more focused on grammar and application of grammar to conversation.

One exciting thing here was the Puebla vs. Leon fútbol game at the local stadium. It is quite the experience to be surrounded by 42,500 soccer fans. It was also exciting in a not so great way when a bucket of glass beer bottles was accidentally dropped onto two of the students by a vender. The medics were quick to arrive and after some glass shard removal, we were able to enjoy the second half. Puebla managed to score a goal, which is quite an accomplishment for them as they are far from the top of the league. It was very impressive to hear the stadium go into an uproar just after they scored. Everyone instantly jumped to their feet, and the volume went from a 7 to an 11.

We have all appreciated the increased freedom. It is much safer to go out at night, which is a big contrast with our time in Guatemala. We also have the afternoons unscheduled, which leaves time for exploring the historic center where the Institute is located. There is a central plaza, called the zócalo, which is only 5 blocks from the institute. Surrounding it are restaurants, coffee shops, small tiendas, newspaper stands, shoeshine chairs, and balloon venders. We have all enjoyed getting a coffee, coke, or just sitting and watching people go by.

This past weekend, we toured Africam Safari. This is a driving safari where you can see animals from all over the world right out of the bus window. Following the bus tour, we went to the adventure section. There was a reptile house, a butterfly conservatory, a high adventure circuit, and a very popular opportunity to have your picture taken while holding a lion cub.

We are looking forward to another weekend packed with activity. This coming weekend we will be going white water rafting and zip lining. As we are winding down our time abroad, we certainly have no shortage of activities to occupy us.

-Andrew Kniss

Jerusalem and the Galilee

By Melissa Jantzi
Posted in Middle East 2014
April 8th, 2014

13445984425_d85ca739c2_zAfter a week of various independent travel experiences, all 30 members of our cross cultural made our way back to Jerusalem. Coming back to a now familiar city almost feels like returning home after a semester of almost never returning to a place twice. However, this week we had the new opportunity of lodging in the historic Ecce Homo Convent in the Old City. The ancient Roman road of the Via Dolorosa, the road that Jesus walked on to his crucifixion, runs through the basement of the convent, the victory arch made by Hadrian is built into the chapel, and the roof has a beautiful view of the Dome of the Rock. There really is nothing comparable to living in the heart of the Old City of one-of-a-kind Jerusalem.

Our focus for the week was learning more about Judaism, studying a bit of Hebrew, and of course visiting some more of the countless historical and Biblical sites in Jerusalem. This was the first time that Janet and Linford sent us off on quite a bit of independent exploration in the city. As great as our group is, it’s also nice not having to maneuver through crowded marketplaces with a group of 30 people. Some of the highlights of these explorations include walking the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, 13445808283_09fdcb405c_zvisiting the Garden Tomb, walking on top of the walls of the Old City, and finally getting a chance to visit the Temple Mount after waiting in an impressively long line. Also, throughout the week we had about 9 hours of Hebrew lessons from out amazing teacher, Sarah. She taught us the entire Hebrew alphabet, quite a few words, and lots of songs, which have been stuck in many of our heads ever since. One of our more somber afternoons in Jerusalem was spent visiting the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem. While this wasn’t the most energetic of days, this museum definitely helped us to better understand the past of many Jewish Israelis in a meaningful way.

Eventually (March 23rd to be exact), the time came for us to leave Jerusalem, the city that became many of our group members’ favorite city on the trip so far. We headed back out to the Galilee, where we had briefly visited with JUC already, but this time came to stay at a kibbutz in Hannaton. A kibbutz is an agriculturally based intentional community. Some have completely shared resources among members, while others like ours have more independent families. This week in the Galilee region was planned and led by our guide Lori, a Jewish American who immigrated to Israel just a few years ago. Our schedule included a wide variety of lectures and “mifgashim” (face to face interactions) with everyone from Israeli college professors to descendants of Holocaust survivors, to soldiers fulfilling their 2-3 years of service in the Israeli army. These “mifgashim” were some of the highlights for me personally. Israeli young adults are some of the most articulate people I’ve ever met, and I learned so much about their individual beliefs as well as the beliefs of Israelis as a whole. And I think that all of us in the group have gotten pretty good at explaining both the purpose of our trip as well as who Mennonites are, after having to explain these so many times.

Our week in the Galilee ended with a free day to explore the coast city of Akko before we headed to our next and final location in Israel, the town of Nazareth. This semester has kept us moving right along through locations and information, and even so, we are still just skimming the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning everything about this fascinating part of the world.

-Melissa Jantzi

Independent Travel

Posted in Middle East 2014
April 7th, 2014

April 5, 2014

Spring break came a week later for those of us across the pond, but it brought the same feelings of joy and freedom.  After completing an intensive course in biblical history at Jerusalem University College, we appreciated the week of independent travel. Small groups of travelers departed Jerusalem for Tel Aviv, Eilat, the Galilee, Bulgaria, and Turkey without the leadership of our faithful professors Linford and Janet.

Ind.travel in front of Hagia SophiaFor the group who went to Turkey, we were met with yet another new culture in our adventurous semester.  While I enjoyed Israel, it was nice to see something fresh. We landed in Istanbul and spent most of our time in the Sultanahmet area with the most famous sites the city has to offer.  The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia loomed nearby and captured our attention throughout the week. A rainy afternoon was a good time to explore the grounds of the Topkapi Palace which included numerous exhibits of Ottoman artifacts. Finally, the Grand Bazaar provided plenty to do in between. We carefully navigated the scores of shops, hunting for the best possible bargains. In all of these experiences, I felt the rush of adrenaline that comes with witnessing the magnificent.

Even though we appreciated the more touristy aspects of the city, we managed to get off the beaten path and even connect with local Turkish people at times.  In this way, our independent travel served as a microcosm of the whole semester. Our apartment manager, Batman, showed us real hospitality by providing us with the best toruist information and keeping our house clean. I cherished the time we spent together as a group playing cards, reading and hanging out together. By the end of the week, we really appreciated the nearby bakery with its fresh loaves, the local Doner sandwich shop, and the many supermarket owners we saw on a regular basis. These connections in a small part of town away from the crowds made us feel like a part of the community even for a brief time. We certainly had a different experience than the tourists staying at the nearby Best Western. Our last full day in Istanbul was a perfect way to end the week. We hopped on a ferry and headed for the Princes Islands. Because no vehicles are allowed on the island there was a peaceful and relaxing vibe. As we have returned to Israel, reconnected as a group and shared our variety of stories with one another, we hope to let the good times roll in the rest of the trip.

-Ben Bontreger

Marvels of Mexico

By Rebecca Cardwell
Posted in Guatemala/Mexico 2014
March 31st, 2014

As the plane began to descend we saw just how vast and colorful Mexico City is. Some were sad to have departed from their lives in Guatemala City, others were ready for a new adventure, but no one knew what to expect here.

Group Mexico CityWe arrived at a Quaker guest house, Casa de Los Amigos, exhausted and hungry from our long expedition to Mexico City. We were welcomed with warm hospitality as we found that we would be eating chili and corn bread, a more westernized meal, after eating beans, eggs, and tortillas for the past couple of months. That evening, some went to the revolution monument that is lit up with red lights at night. We watched a beautiful fountain of lights while being serenaded with typical music of Spanish guitar and flutes. We all were content with not having a strict schedule there, which allowed for a better transition to Mexico.

The next day we explored the city and all of the locura that it embodies. While walking down the street we saw an entertainer with floating balls, and a flash mob take place. We made our way to the famous Zocolo where we visited the Cathedral and the Palacio Nacional. The Palacio Nacional is filled with murals of the famous artist Diego Rivera. We had a guide explain to us the rich Mexican history from Mesoamerican times until the time of the Revolution, that Diego Rivera incorporated in his paintings.

After the palace, we ventured up seven flights of stairs to a restaurant where we got Rivera muralto see a great view of the Zocolo and taste the picante of authentic Mexican food.

We then took public transportation to Coyoacan, birthplace of Diego Rivera’s wife and also famous painter, Frida Kahlo. Some decided to stay and visit her home which is now a museum of artifacts from her life. Others went to the plaza where there was un chorro of people relaxing and enjoying their weekend.

I personally decided to go to the Frida Kahlo Museum. After doing several projects and learning about her, she has become an inspiration for me. Never in my life did I think that I would get to go to her Casa Azul in the corner that I first learned about in 8th grade, and yet there I was, filled with excitement. In a time when women didn’t have a say, Frida spoke her opinion and went against the current. She experienced so much pain in her life from Polio, and an accident she had when she was a teenager. She expressed this pain through paintings, mainly of herself. She embraced her suffering and found a positive outlet to express it, which is something admirable. She was an outspoken woman of courage and talent and I am pleased to say I got to cross something off of my bucket list by going to visit her house.

Also in our time in Mexico we took a double decker touring bus all around the city to sight seeBallet Folklorico and learn a little history about where famous events took place. One night we dressed up and went to see a Baile Folklorico, or a folkloric dance in the Palacio de Bellas Artes. We watched in awe the women in their colorful traditional dresses accompanied by men in their sombreros float around the stage as they tapped and danced to Mariachi music. None of us wanted to blink in fear of missing out on the amazingly beautiful dances.

After four wonderful days in the city, it pained us to leave, but we were ready for our next adventure in Puebla, Mexico.

-Rebecca Cardwell

The Bible in context

By Natalia Derstine
Posted in Middle East 2014
March 19th, 2014

Again time has elapsed. We have just finished a two week intensive course at Jerusalem University College which mostly consisted of extensive field trips to biblical sights. The focus of this program was to look at the influence that geography, archeology and history have on biblical interpretation.

Our time at JUC has been so rewarding. The stories of the Bible and especially Jesus’ ministry are so much richer with the historical and cultural context which has been explained to us. It is incredible how much context matters and how much more elaborate the story becomes when placed alongside the cultural context of its day. It is so refreshing to see myself and my classmates learning so naturally outside the typical classroom.

We spent some time towards the south of Israel/the Negev, at the Mediterranean and nearby sites, then did a two day trip to the Dead Sea area where we visited Masada, Ein Gev, and Kumran, the location of the Dead Sea scrolls.

13011209903_b100fcb93e_zFollowing that we did a four day, three night trip to the northern part of Israel, the Sea of Galilee which was central to the ministry of Jesus. Galilee, due to its location is this “cosmopolitan hub” where the international community is connected through trade, so it is a lot more secular than other regions in Israel, like Jerusalem which is more isolated and therefore more conservative. I find it so fascinating that this is the location that Jesus chose for the majority of his ministry. It just goes to show how strategic Jesus was in placing his ministry in this geographical region where it could spread so easily. The message wasn’t only for Jewish people, it wasn’t restricted to a gender, or race, or tribe, or anything! It was for everyone, no exceptions. Jesus took his message and life to the crossing point of the world at that time, and that’s huge! I love it. For me this is a sort of confirmation that we are called to a radical life of being uncomfortable, of going out into the unknown, into the most worldly places to interact with people who are different than us; a place where we can share the good news of Jesus and continue His ministry to the ends of the world.

With JUC now behind us we are passing swiftly on toward further darkness, but we’re also moving toward a new sun. We’re getting pretty good at this transition stuff, and with each passing one we come closer and closer to the end of this journey. I can only speak for myself when I say that the beginning of the end is coming all too quickly! I have been so privileged to have this experience and am saddened that it is drawing to a close.

Time has definitely not been on my side this trip– there is simply not enough of it!

Thank you all for your prayers, I know our God is listening!

-Natalia Derstine

Middle East 2014-2

Posted in Middle East 2014, Photo Gallery
March 17th, 2014

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

GuateMexico 2014-6

Posted in Guatemala/Mexico 2014, Photo Gallery
March 17th, 2014

Eyes and ears open

By Morgan Kratz
Posted in Middle East 2014
March 17th, 2014

Judean wildernessIt’s been a busy couple of weeks over here in Israel. Throughout our three weeks in Beit Sahour we took Arabic classes, which helped us to interact with our host families and people on the street in a new way. We were no longer just tourists. When we would try out the new words we learned people would break into a surprised smile and respond in Arabic. We were reminded that we are still “in school” when we had to take our Arabic test, but I think overall we did pretty well for only having seven sessions.

It was difficult to say goodbye to Beit Sahour. After three weeks we had become comfortable with the small town atmosphere and it had started to feel like home after having moved around so much in Egypt and Jordan. We got to know our host families well, and it’s always hard to say goodbye to people who have so quickly become friends and family.

We spent a night in Jerusalem before going to the settlement–Efrat–as a way to prepare and take a breath from being so busy. As we walked through the city streets the differences were startling. In just 8 miles we experienced two very different cultures and lifestyles.

While it was good to be in Jerusalem for a night as a buffer, there is only so much Angela at Efratpreparation you can do for our upcoming culture shock. We needed to just jump right in. And we did. We only had three days in the settlement of Efrat so we kept our ears open in an attempt to learn as much as we could. We had a tour of the settlement and had the opportunity to hear from multiple esteemed people in the community. This was a challenging experience for all of us, as it forced us to take on multiple perspectives. I think the best part for all of us was the conversations we had with our host families. Personally, I found my host family to be very open and willing to answer any questions I had about Judaism and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Also I think we all really appreciated the conversations that we were able to have with some of the young people one evening after watching a short film about checkpoints.

We are all taking in so much and trying to process everything which is close to an impossible task, but for now I’m satisfied to follow the advice I received from my host dad: constantly keep your eyes open to observe and your ears open to hear, if you get more confused you are on the right track. There are no simple answers to this conflict, and although we’ve experienced so much we are not experts and will not be able to solve the problem. This humbling realization is what we carry with us throughout the rest of our adventures.

-Morgan Kratz

Response to a February 2, 2014 Washington Post Article on Immigration Court in my reading journal…

By Savanna Lester
Posted in Guatemala/Mexico 2014
March 6th, 2014


Judge Lawrence Burman – average of 7 minutes per case, 57 immigration courts in country, deportation system backlogged with 350,000 cases, 40 % appear in court without representation.

“Like doing death-penalty cases in a traffic court setting,” one immigration judge said in testimony before Congress about the job.

This is hard to read and I felt like I might cry, especially after meeting families that have been in these situations.  There are so many stories like this one I’m sure.  So many families broken apart.  I can’t even imagine but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying.  I don’t want to [return home and] act like I don’t know what I do know.”

-Savanna Lester

Beneath the Surface of Lake Atitlán

By Emilie Raber
Posted in Guatemala/Mexico 2014
March 6th, 2014

On February 28, our group left our Spanish classes early to get a head start on our weekend trip to Lake Atitlán.  After a warm and humid bus ride, we stopped at a cooperative called Campesino Committee of the Highlands.  While walking to the storehouse, Rebecca was happy to see a group of children playing soccer in an open building with a sign saying, “Se prohibe jugar fútbol.”

Once inside, many of us were surprised to see the logo of the cooperative superimposed onto chalkboard-sized, professionally printed tarps with Hugo Chavez’s face and the phrase “Continuemos la lucha!”

The politics of the coffee cooperative goes back to the Spanish, and later Ladino (non-Mayan) control of land.  In the 1950s President Jacobo Arbenz attempted to redistribute the land in Guatemala so that the lower class could have access to one of Guatemala’s greatest resources: farmland.  The redistribution would have greatly hindered United Fruit Company’s economic exploitation of Guatemala, and shortly after the United States staged a coup.  By 1960, and all the way until 1996, Guatemala was the grounds for a civil war between the US-backed military and guerrilla fighters hoping for land reform.

After seeing the cooperative’s strong principles of independence and care for the land, we continued on the way to Lake Atitlán, arriving in Santiago in time to explore the town before dinner.  Later that evening, the town plaza was alive with vendors selling pineapple cider and atole de platano, with young men playing soccer, and with old men leaning against the wall wearing indigenous clothing and broad-rimmed hats.

The next day we did a walking tour of the town and surrounding area with an MCC SALT volunteer and the president of ANADESA Community Development Organization.  We saw the sight of the military’s massacre of indigenous civilians, new houses the government built but later declared to be in a landslide zone and thus uninhabitable, and men carrying 100-150 pound loads of firewood on their backs.

During the tour, I asked the president of ANADESA, Juan, why so many men in Santiago still wear indigenous clothing; in most parts of the country I had only seen the women doing so.  Earlier I assumed since the men were out of the house more, they felt more pressure to take up Western dress and thus protect themselves from the government by appearing to be less of a target.  Most of the groups massacred by the military during the war were indigenous.  My guess was wrong and the story much more complicated.

During the armed conflict, 75% of the guerrilla fighters were Ladino.  Although Ladino means non-Mayan, this group is often Mestizo, or mixed race, and includes those who are racially Mayan but have taken up Western traditions.  When men changed to Ladino clothing, they were actually making themselves a greater target, but they did so because the government forced them to change when the government recruited young men from indigenous communities.  Their alliance would then be identified by the “jefe’s” list rather than their dress.

After the massacre in Santiago, the community successfully pushed the army out the town, one of the greatest indigenous successes of the armed conflict.  That is why so many of the men continue to wear their indigenous clothing.

The view from the roof of the hotel was gorgeous.  We were surrounded by several volcanoes, one rising right out of the lake, and a sunset beautified by the air pollution.

The next day, our last  in the area, we crossed the lake by boat to spend the morning in Panajachel.  The tourist market was down on the lake, and a few of us ventured up the crowded “normal” market uptown.  One of my own highlights of Panajachel was asking for a tortilla-making lesson at a tortilleria.  The women guessed that they made 400 tortillas a day each; it took me 10 minutes to make one lopsided tortilla.

We ended our time in a pizzeria, enjoying pizza with fresh pineapple and the shouts of people watching Real Madrid versus Athletico Madrid on the TV.  Back in Guatemala (the nickname for Guatemala City), we arrived tired and ready to be reunited with our host families.

-Emilie Raber