Category Archives: Guatemala, US/Mexico Border 2011

Holy Week in Antigua, Guatemala

An elaborate alfombra This last week, our FINAL week, we traveled out of Guatemala city and into the old, colonial capital of Antigua for Semana Santa festivities. During the week we stayed in the beautiful Lutheran Retreat Center run by an indigenous women’s cooperative. As we wrapped up this semester with final presentations we also ventured out into the city to observe all of the traditions of Holy Week. The packed streets were often covered with beautiful rugs made from colored sawdust, flowers, veggies, and other natural materials- these got more intricate and colorful as the week progressed. In addition, there were many processions sponsored by the local Catholic churches, symbolizing the mourning of the crucifixion. They consisted of men and woman (and for one, children) carrying giant floats of Jesus and Mary through the streets of the city for many hours. Most of us witnessed this amazing feat and saw the dedication of these people to their traditions. The fiesta climaxed the night of Maundy Thursday with a night full of the preparation of alfombras (rugs) and processions starting in the wee hours of Friday morning.

While many of us went and viewed the magnificent decorations, we alsoBrandon Waggy, Kathryn Ennes, Rachel Hershey, and Isabel putting together an alfombra outside our hotel shopped, took many pictures, relaxed, and soaked up our remaining days together. It was a week full of rich tradition and continuous Guatemalan culture- the perfect finale to our adventure here. Spending a little time debriefing, the realization of our homecoming became more evident. We have much appreciation, however, for this experience and what it has taught us and we are grateful for the opportunity we’ve had.

As we say “adios” to this amazing land and “hola” to home, we want to thank you for your thoughts, support, and prayers over the semester. We pack up with much anticipation of returning to share our experiences with all of you. As we are celebrating and traveling, please continue to pray for our safe arrival- we’ll be home soon!

Happy Easter!

– Kiersten and Erin

Salvador Urbina, Chiapas, Mexico

Mexico/Guatemala 12A break from the city, time to relax in a tranquil little town, and all the coffee we ever wanted to drink.  What a wonderful ten days our group spent in the coffee growing community of Salvador Urbina, Chiapas, Mexico.  While we spent a lot of time embracing local culture: sitting around, talking, and watching the world go by, and playing soccer, we also spent a lot of time learning.

The community we stayed in is part of the coffee cooperative Just Coffee or Café Justo.  The growers started the cooperative with the help of Mark Adams and Tommy Bassett in the early 2000’s, and now it fuels the economy of Salvador Urbina.  With Café Justo providing fair wages for its members, it has enabled a number of the community members to remain in Salvador Urbina, when in many similar communities people are forced to migrate to find work in the United States to provide for their families.  This lesson tied in nicely with the focus on immigration we started the semester with at the Arizona/Mexico border and had continued with during our time in Guatemala City.

While in Salvador Urbina, from Tuesday, April 5 to Friday, April 15, our group was led by Tommy Bassett. We stayed with host families, two to four students to a family, and had breakfast and lunch with them.  We used our Spanish skills to explain to our families what we have been doing all semester and why we wanted to learn about their community.  We always ate supper together as a group at the Café Justo warehouse or bodega.  One of the coffee cooperative members processing coffeeDuring the day, we often had lots of free time, but we also had some activities scheduled to learn more about the community.  On Wednesday, our first full day there, we went with two of the cooperative members to their coffee parcels to see what a real shade grown coffee farm looks like.  They explained about the many types of trees and everything about how they care for the plants.  All the trees were grown on steep hills and kept at a height where coffee pickers could reach them.  All of the harvest must be done by hand because every coffee tree is different and the terrain is not ideal for automating coffee harvesting.  The next day, we had a tour of the warehouse and all the machinery used to process the coffee before it is sent to the cooperative’s roaster in Agua Prieta, near the border of Arizona and Mexico.  We also attended a weekly meeting of the cooperative that evening.

On Friday, we went to Tapachula, the third largest city in the state of Chiapas.  We visited the Buen Pastor Migrant Resource Center that works with migrants who’ve been injured while trying to get to the US border.  Many have lost limbs as a result of using the rail system and the migrant resource center works with them to get prosthetics.  After the resource center, we enjoyed some free time in the central plaza of Tapachula and then went to some Mayan ruins close by.  Our weekend was free, but it filled quickly with plans of swimming and soccer.  Then, on Monday, we met with the mayor and then with Mama Joli, the mother of the mayor and many members of the Group enjoying a waterfallcooperative.  On Tuesday, our group took a truck ride to El Aguila to see a beautiful waterfall and swim at the base of it.  Then we went to see Adan Mendes, a member of the cooperative who lives in El Aguila and also runs a water purification system out of his house for the community of El Aguila.  Wednesday, we visited the school and got to see many of our host siblings in their classes.  Thursday, we visited the clinic and then the library.

We spent a lot of time reflecting as a group on what we had seen and learned.  We also had plenty of free time to reflect by ourselves, journal, visit the families of other group members, play soccer and card games, and explore the town.  While it was a bit more rustic than some of us are accustomed to, it was still a very pleasant ten days and a change from the fast pace and big feel of Guatemala City.  I really enjoyed getting to know my host family and getting to wander around to other group members’ families or just do nothing.  And many people in our group, including me, enjoyed the many opportunities to drink very good coffee.

-Suzanne Opel

Free Travel Reports from Guatemala

Mexico/Guatemala 11After 8 weeks of Spanish classes and living with host families here in Guatemala City, we had a week of free travel where we could go anywhere we wanted (within reason, of course). Our group of 20 students split up into smaller groups and most people headed to the beach, but my group of five people decided to do something a little bit different – we headed into the rural highlands, and we got to see a whole new side of Guatemala.

We started at an agro-ecology center, which is working to preserve the rapidly-disappearing cloud forests. We had a 3-day trek, parts of which took us through the beautiful cloud forest, and in other parts took us through what had been the cloud forest just three months ago but has since been destroyed. We spent several days in Semuc Champey, where we enjoyed the beautiful limestone pools, and ended back at the agro-ecology center, and came back to the city yesterday.

Highlights from the trip:

Our trek took us through many areas accessible only by foot, which meant that not many foreigners make it to that part of Guatemala. We were a spectacle in most of the towns that we passed. At one point we were coming up to a rural K’ekchi’ school, and as we walked closer we realized that all of the kids were coming out to watch us, and by the time we got to the school, all of the students and teachers were outside by the path. The five people in my group faced the large group of kids, and our K’ekchi’ guide told us that the kids wanted us to sing a song in English. We sang ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.’ They sang us a song, and they we sang ‘Father Abraham’ to them, complete with motions. They may have thought we were crazy, but we had a great time.

Our K’ekchi’ guide, Victor, became a good friend throughout the trip. He patiently taught us many K’ekchi’ phrases, which we loved practicing with the locals. The K’ekchi’ people often looked surprised when we greeted them with a K’ekchi greeting. We spent two nights with K’ekchi host families. One of these nights, two of the guys in my group played tag with some of the local kids who didn’t really know any Spanish, and it was really fun to watch them interact in a universal game of tag where it didn’t matter that we couldn’t all speak the same language. We spoke a lot of Spanish throughout the trip with other people, and more often than not Spanish was everybody’s second language, which was really cool.

In Semuc Champey, we had the opportunity to do a caving adventure one morning. Candle in hand, we entered the cave, walking through water and at times swimming, holding the candle out of the water. We climbed up and down several ladders and a waterfall, and had a great time. At one point the guide said we were 5 kilometers underground, although we were skeptical that we were that far under. It was really cool.

We had a great time, busy as it was. It was great to be out of the city and in the middle of the mountains. We helped plant some trees, played in a river, explored three different caves, trekked through the cloud forest, ate some good food, hiked through mud, conversed with some Mormons from the US, had crazy fun rides in the back of many pick-ups, spent time laying in the middle of (abandoned) roads looking at the vast expanse of stars, went swimming in beautiful natural limestone pools, and had many great views.

Next we’re heading to Chiapas, Mexico for a week and a half, where we’ll live with a coffee-farming community. Another chance to get out of the city for a while, which is okay with me, and more chances to make many more great memories!

-Melanie Sherer

Jenn Leaman and Erin Nussbaum cheesing for the camera “Rise up this mornin’, smiled with the risin’ sun, three little birds perch by my doorstep singin’ sweet songs, of melodies pure and true. Sayin’, “This is my message to you-ou-ou:”
Singin’: “Don’t worry about a thing, worry about a thing, ´cause every little thing is gonna be all right.”

-Bob Marley

If I were to summarize our week of travel with a song: that would be it. Our group (Ben, Lucas, Erin, and I) went in with hardly a plan at all, just a destination and the goal of relaxation. Our plan was to get to Utila, a tropical island off the coast of Honduras, and sit on the beach for a week. The atmosphere on Utila is so relaxed, though, that we couldn’t find a hotel in our price range that would take reservations, we would just have to find what was available. Don’t worry ´bout a thing, right?

So we took a bus to Honduras, spent the night in La Ceiba, and hopped a ferry the next morning for Utila. We hadn’t exchanged money at the border, so we only had U.S. dollars and a few Lempiras (the Honduran currency) and we arrived on the island on Sunday, so the bank wasn’t open, AND we hadn’t had a real meal since Friday supper, because we left at 3:30 AM and the bus only served snacks. So we were hungry, tired, running low on water, and almost penniless. We found cheap food, though, and even had enough money for ice cream. Once again, “Every little thing, is gonna be alright”.

The rest of the week was much less stressful after we exchanged money on Monday. We spent days on the beach and nights playing card games, journaling, and watching geckos. Tuesday we woke up early and went snorkeling for the day. We saw many colorful fish and coral, and even swam with a sea turtle! Hours were spent floating on top of the water, amazed at the world below, with only a few coral casualties and sunburns.

Overall, the week was as relaxing as we had hoped it would be though there were, of course, many small adventures on the way. Just a few of our adventures or memorable moments:

An ant infestation in my bed, a giant rat in the kitchen, cockroaches, an un-flushing toilet, a leaky sink that flooded the bathroom, no hot water, grapefruit juice in bags, hundreds of bug bites, LOTS of walking, LOTS of sweat, 800 lb. gorilla, bike crashes, eating a ½ gallon of ice cream in just a few minutes, the house shaking, strange native language, “philosophical on the beach”, coconuts, sunburn, and angry iguanas.

Bob Marley´s voice followed us all week, either through songs playing on the beach, or in restaurants, or our own singing during late night card games. And through all of our adventures, Bob Marley was exactly right, there were disappointments, unexpected twists, obnoxious hotel neighbors, and lots of bugs… but every little thing was, indeed, alright.

-Jenn Leaman

Stephanie DeHart enjoying a cup of hot chocolate while watching the sun rise over Lake Atitlan Free Travel Part 1: Rose Byler and Stephanie DeHart

Friday afternoon, we left for Xela on a Pullman bus where we would began a three day trek. We learned that the ¨Minerva Terminal¨ in Xela is actually a four way intersection of buses without any type of traffic signs. With a microbus, walking, and Rose´s map skills we soon found the Quetzaltrekkers.

At 6:30 Saturday morning, we met the rest of the group for breakfast. In our group there were 6 people from the U.S., 2 from Israel, and us. Our three guides were from the Netherlands, Ireland, and California. Needless to say, there was little Spanish on this trip!

We started the hike in Xecam, a town bordering Xela. We climbed up out of the valley; it was steep, but the vistas were worth it! Our day´s hike was filled with walking in a cloud forrest, having conversations within our group and with people we passed, seeing the farming communities up close, and drinking Israeli coffee with cardamom. That night, we stayed in the municipal building of Santa Catarina, a town deeply affected by mudslides.

The second day, we experienced more beautiful views, walked along a river, and ascended many more climbs. That night, we stayed with the indigenous family of Don Juan in Xiprian. In the morning, we left at four a.m. to hike to an overlook of the Lake of Atitaln, surrounded by volcanoes. There, we watched the sun rise and enjoyed our last breakfast before hiking down to San Pedro, where our trek ended. We returned to CASAS for a night before heading on to Belize for Free Travel Part 2

-Stephanie DeHart

Cody Walker by a handmade pizza oven, the Sundog Cafe Where do I even begin?  We left Saturday around 5:00 a.m.  Full of anxiety we left for zone 1 in two unexpected taxi cabs.  We arrived to this bus station where immediately our bags where thrown in the bus and we were rushed on the bus hoping that it would take us to our destination.  Thankfully we got on the right bus.  Along the way were two evangelicals preaching the bible right in front of our group, people selling things on the bus, and people getting on and off every 10 minutes or so until we hit the highway.  Then our first stop: Rio Dulce. In Rio Dulce we stayed at Bruno’s which has a beautiful view of the river.  Not much to do there but relax in the heat of the day, maybe take a quick dip in the pool or go out into the market.  When we weren’t browsing around or relaxing in our hotel, we were probably at the Sundog Café (owned by a man from Switzerland) playing card games.  Just outside of town though were waterfalls and old rundown castles to bring the whole family to.

On Monday we made our way to Livingston.  It might have gotten 10 degrees hotter when we arrived, or at least it felt like it.  There in Livingston the main tourist attractions were on this one long road.  But that wasn’t good enough for my group.  We got a tour from a very interesting old man to get to know the “real” Livingston.  Wow, outside of this long road is this whole separate land where the Garifunua people live.  Racism is very prevalent over there, but because of that they have a huge sense of community.

Belize on Wednesday!  This is where we spent most of our time.  We met up with another group for Kiersten Rossetto’s 20th birthday party!  Other than that, 7 of us (2 newly aquired members) stayed at Lydia’s Guest house that was about a minute walk from the beach.  Here the girls visited the beach while I wondered around Belize for a little bit.  We just relaxed until Friday when we went snorkeling.  That was my first time ever.  We saw a lot of sea life, shells, coral, and much more. We just missed the dolphins though. Though it was still amazing. Saturday we left for Punta Gorda to stay the night so we would have a shorter trip back to Guatemala City.

This trip was filled with laughter,  riding in the back of pick-up trucks, sunburn (except for me, of course), card games, boat rides, and most importantly getting to know each other as well as getting to know new faces.  This trip I will certainly never forget.

-Cody Walker


Poetry from Guatemala

Mexico/Guatemala 10

I am tired of not being allowed to study where I wish
And yet studying anywhere is a privilege
I am tired of not being able to decide what I eat
And yet having food is a privilege
I am tired of not being able to wash clothes, dry dishes or clean my own room
And yet many people would give a lot to have respite from these things
I am tired of not being able to communicate
And yet many people do not have a voice in their own country

I am amazed at my exhaustion, frustration, and sometimes counting of weeks here
It is a great privilege to be here, especially with a group and professors –
a very unique experience
My host parents make sure I am well taken care of
and every day the beautiful view from the third and fourth floor of CASAS makes me
pause and take notice again
It is an interesting balance: knowing how to take one’s feelings seriously
and then how to give perspective to them from a wider context …

– Stephanie DeHart

Rachel Hershey and her host parents

Power, desired by the world
The world, wanting more, bringing pain.
Pain, walls built, space between.
Is there a difference between the world and I?
Power, obtained through the money of the wealthy
The wealthy, exploiting, consuming, bringing pain.
Pain, money doesn’t bring joy.
Is there a difference between the wealthy and I?
Power lacking in the lives of the poor.
The poor, working, striving, falling, bringing pain.
Pain, the walls keep getting steeper to climb
Is there a difference between the poor and I?
Power, something I have.
I, wanting control of my destiny, bringing pain.
Pain, my plans fail.
Will we ever let go of power?

– Rachel Hershey

Ruth Maust with her host mom

Today I smiled at
The preoccupied woman
Who I pass almost daily
The preoccupied woman and the hurried student
One day
As I make my way to the bus stop
I will greet them both
Buenos Dias

This day twice a day and every day
Buenos Dias
To the guardia of my colonia
One day
I will ask
A veces le aburre su trabajo?

Some days
I run into neighbors
I chat with CASAS staff
I start conversations with my mamita in the hopes that
Some day
When I leave this place
Something will remain

– Ruth Maust

Kiersten Rossetto, Joel DeWald, Marta (their Spanish teacher), Ruth Maust, and Rose Byler after the final presentation


A million ants carrying
10 million leaves as
250 tons of cocaine is carried past
250 young soldiers.
Using a relative of cloves as
Mosquito repellant,
Campesinos harvesting palms –
Carrying Jesus into Jerusalem.

– Rose Byler

Jenn Leaman with her host family

Kaleidoscope Hope
Colors swirl, blend, and mingle.
Bougainvillea, bird of paradise, trajes, huipiles and dirty clothes alike.
The cloth, the flowers, the eyes, and the smiles.
Everything Guatemala seems brighter,
Except the history and perhaps the future.
Oppression, discrimination, corruption
All here too.
Glazed hungry eyes beg for food
While golden Quetzals sit atop a chandelier
And preachers fly in private planes.
Where is justice for them, other than their own
Doll-like hands?
When government officials and “men of God” alike
Are corrupted by greed and power?
The poor?  The children?
Where is justice now?
Cuidado nena, little one,
This kaleidoscope of bright color quickly turns dark.
Don’t give up hope, justice will come for you, and
Hopefully your hungry eyes will see that day.
Hopefully your dirty, doll-like hands will grasp tonight
And never let go.
Hopefully brightness fills your kaleidoscope future.
Hope.  Fully.

– Jenn Leaman


Guatemala – report from Lake Aititlan

Mexico/Guatemala 9Coming into the last 2 weeks of our time here with our host families and Spanish classes it seems that some of us are starting to get anxious for the end. For others it seems sad because they are just getting to really know their families and they already have to leave. It is so hard to believe that we have been in Guatemala for almost 7 weeks. I, for one, am very excited to be going on free travel at the end of next week and then after that heading off for Chiapas, Mexico for two weeks of living in a small rural community.

This past weekend we went to Santiago Atitlan right on Lake Atitlan and stayed in a hotel with an amazing view of the lake. We left early from CASAS on Friday at 11:00 a.m. and had a 4 hour bus ride up to the lake. On the way to the lake we stopped in at a coffee cooperative and they talked to us about what they are there for and all the different work they do advocating for change in labor laws and helping organize coffee workers on their land so they receive a better and fairer wage. We arrived in Santiago at around 5:30 p.m. in the evening and had a little bit of free time before dinner. As I mentioned earlier our hotel had an amazing view. We found ourselves on the roof of the hotel taking tons of pictures of the sunset and mountains/volcanoes around the lake. That night we had dinner at a little restaurant and after that the group split up and some of us found our way down to the docks and others went up the hill to the central park which was full of little stands with people selling everything you can imagine. You could buy anything from fried chicken, French fries and something that tasted kind of like Cracker jacks to mangos, used clothing, tamales, corn-on-the-cob with salt, mayonnaise, ketchup and lime, and lots of hot and cold drinks.

Saturday we got up bright and early and headed to breakfast back at that same restaurant. After breakfast we went up to the church and looked around and then learned about the priest who was murdered by the Guatemalan army during the civil war. Then we were taken on a tour of Panabaj which is a tiny little town outside of Santiago. Our guide worked with the ANADESA cooperative which is there to help the community and talk with the government to help get things done, especially after a devastating mudslide a few years ago wiped out half of the community. Many houses were buried and many people died. Slowly they are rebuilding their community. We ate lunch with them and then afterwards had time to buy natural shampoos, cleaning supplies and bead jewelry which they make and sell to produce income.

The group in front of Lake Atitlan.Sunday we were again up bright and early and off for breakfast. At 8:30 a.m. we got on a boat and headed across Lake Atitlan over to Panajachel. The boat ride took about 40 minutes and once there we had the rest of the day to shop on the main street. A lot of people wanted hammocks so Javier (the brother of one of the CASAS staff) took us out to try to get the best deal we could. At 12:30 p.m. we all met at the end of the street and loaded up the bus to head back to Guatemala City and complete an awesome weekend.

-Peter Labosh

The past and present in Guatemala

Mexico/Guatemala 8Throughout our stay here in Guatemala, we’ve been learning about Guatemala’s violent history. This week we had a lecture about human rights in present-day Guatemala, and we’re learning how the past is affecting present-day Guatemala. I have had a hard time comprehending the extent and intensity of the violence, but one experience last week helped me to understand this violent history a little bit better. We had the chance to visit the Forensic Anthropologists Foundation, which works to exhume bodies of individuals or of mass graves. The bodies are identified when possible, examined for trauma, and returned to their families for a proper burial. We were able to see a few skeletons currently under examination. Then we went to a storage room filled with boxes. Rows and towers of boxes stretched from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, only leaving enough room for pathways to pass through the room. Each box had an identifying case number, a date, and a place. Each box contained a skeleton that was waiting to be examined. Walking through that room was a sobering experience, and somewhat unnerving. Knowing what was in the boxes, it was difficult to walk through the room. I would have rather been somewhere else, but it helped me to better understand how the past is affecting present time. Guatemalans cannot forget or escape from what happened in the past. Thousands of families whose loved ones disappeared or were killed still to this day do not know what happened or where the bodies of their loved ones are resting, waiting to be unearthed and given a proper burial.

As a citizen of the United States whose family long ago laid roots in the US, I can assume that my ancestors have not endured much persecution, if any, in the last several decades or centuries. As a US citizen, I was born with rights and access to medical care, security, education, housing, and so much more. I have the right to have a name. I have access to capital. I have opportunities to study and travel, to spend a semester in Mexico and Guatemala. I can live in relative freedom and peace. I take these things for granted. These are things that some Guatemalans do not have.

To my knowledge, none of my ancestors’ towns or villages have disappeared. Unarmed communities were not attacked or bombarded. No one had to flee to survive, and no one disappeared. None of my ancestors endured physical or psychological torture. My ancestors did not have members of their community turn against them. They may have had to fight for some rights, but future generations reap the benefits, and forget any struggles that their ancestors may have endured. My ancestors did not live in fear of violence. They may have faced hard times, but most likely their lives were nothing compared to the lives of Guatemalans here who have faced these atrocities in recent decades. My ancestors did not have to live through a genocide. Unfortunately, many Guatemalans today have.

In the past, some Guatemalans were afraid to stay, while others were afraid to leave. Many were afraid to say what was wrong, and those that did may have faced persecution, discrimination, or torture. Life was not easy. However, life here is improving. It’s a process, but Guatemalans are discovering and using their voices. The indigenous are no longer invisible, and they’re becoming active in a society where Ladinos, or those of European decent, are much more powerful. Programs have been implemented in school to help the younger generations become aware of what happened. Some people today still don’t realize or believe the extent of the war, but more are learning the true reality of everything that has happened in Guatemala’s history.

Through reading books, visiting places here in Guatemala, and hearing lectures, our group is also learning more about what happened here. Sometimes it’s not easy to hear what happened. Even after being here for several weeks, it’s hard to fully understand how the violent past has affected present-day Guatemala. As I’m learning about what happened here, I’m taking the time to think about my own life, my country’s history, what my family has or hasn’t endured, but most of all, how fortunate I am. I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to live here for a few months, to study the language, but also for many more things including this country’s history. Most of all, I’m grateful for my rights, and I’m trying to figure out how to not take them for granted as I live in this country where many people are still fighting for their rights.

-Melanie Sherer

Visit to Tikal and reflections on the Guatemalan civil war

Mexico/Guatemala 7This weekend was a second one in a shoreline Paradise, as our group descended upon the mostly undeveloped rainforest region of Tikal in the northernmost part of Guatemala.  This past week we finished our first section of intensive Spanish and we will all be moving up a level and changing around classes in the week to come.  Tikal was a welcome respite before we start the new challenge of our second four week intensive Spanish courses.  We walked through the rainforest and visited excavated ruins of the once thriving Mayan empire of Tikal.  Huge mounds of dirt covered in trees and vegetation  are scattered all over this jungle region reminding visitors that only a fraction of these ruins have been excavated in the archeological process that has been going on since the 1950s.  Our guide told us that in Tikal there are more than four thousand ancient buildings right in the middle of the rainforest.  We met quite a variety of flora and fauna, my personal favorites being the spider and howler monkeys we encountered munching on trees and holding conversations with each other.  The proper description of a howler monkey is a mixture between Joel DeWald atop an ancient Mayan templea scream and a roar that continues without end for several minutes.  We witnessed two of these howling at each other, and my group mates commented ¨that can’t lead to healthy family dynamics.”

As I relaxed on the lake outside of our ecological hotel (complete with hammocks and mosquito nets) I was reminded of the title of one of our cross cultural group’s books ¨Paradise in Ashes¨.  This book details how not long ago in the 1970s and 80s poor Guatemalans without land migrated to another lush jungle region in the north of Guatemala to make a better life for themselves.  Not long after they settled a small guerilla force brought Guatemala’s 36 year long civil war to ¨Paradise¨.  We have been reading and discussing the harrowing accounts of the massacres and genocidal tactics of the Guatemalan government army during the 1980s that occurred in the northern jungle regions.

This war was one of the ¨hot¨ parts of the cold war and the Guatemalan government received full support from Reagan and the US government during the 80s to suppress the communist guerrillas who fought during the civil war.  The whole war was wrapped up in the poverty and social problems of this country.  An incredibly inequitable land ownership system, virtual slavery of the rural landless population, and an oppressive government that US based United Fruit Company helped install in a coup, drove many to sympathize with the guerilla movement.  When I try to put myself in the shoes of the rural poor who joined the guerrilla movement I have serious problems believing that it was because they believed in Marxist ideology.  Rather it was the burning of villages, destruction of crops, massive killings of civilians, ripping open of pregnant women, and rape committed by the military during the civil war that drove people to either flee the country or take up arms to defend themselves.

The label ¨communist¨ has been used here to do a great number of horrible things here in Guatemala.  Priests and pastors that worked with the poor, village cooperatives, and peaceful change movements were all likely to be denounced as communist and their leaders killed.  Peaceful change was impossible in this country and could get you killed, so joining the militarized guerillas did not seem like such a bad deal to many and the poor and oppressed often saw no other way than violent revolution to change their circumstances.  My host dad told me that people could still use his involvement in protest movements during this time against him to this day, decades after the peace agreement.

Our group thoroughly enjoyed the jungle of Tikal.  It is hard to image that only thirty years ago massive oppression and the most horrible cruelties known to man were going on in these jungle regions of Guatemala.  We have been struggling with the questions like, why does God allow such brutality to go on in our world? And what is our responsibility to our neighbor in this world?  Our group continues to grapple with the issues of poverty, oppression and migration that are our southern neighbor’s daily realities.

-Joel DeWald

Guatemala – a day at the beach

Mexico/Guatemala 6I can’t believe it has been seven weeks since our trip began. It has been exciting. Every day there is something new to learn to and to see.

Right now I am learning a lot of Spanish, a lot about Guatemala, and am getting to know my host family. I have a Mom, Dad, Grandma, and a sister who just turned seventeen. She is a lot of fun. I’ve never had a sister before so this a great experience. My family is very friendly, my mom is a great cook, and they all know a little bit of English. So that’s very helpful at times when my Spanish fails me.

I have never used a public bus system until now. I live about an hour away from the school and I have to take two buses to get there every day. It was a little hard to get used to at first especially when there is usually no room to move on the buses. But I am getting used to them and I don’t mind them as much anymore.

This past Saturday Ben Nyce’s host parents invited us to go to the beach for the day. Most of us were able to go and we all packed into one of the school vans and headed off. The beach was two hours away. It was beautiful and very relaxing. The sand here in Guatemala is black because of all the volcanoes in Guatemala. So it is really hot if you’re not wearing shoes. Ben’s mom, Betty, made us a delicious lunch which included “shukas”, which are otherwise known as hot dogs. On our way Cody Walker, Joel Dewald, Rose Byler, Peter Labosh, and Brandon Waggy en route to Antigua home from the beach we were going up a hill and the van broke down. We waited in the rain while Byron and Ben’s family tried to get it to start again. They were unsuccessful. So we had to get to Antigua which wasn’t very far away, maybe 15 miles. There we could rent another van to take us home. But we all couldn’t ride a bus to Antigua. So Ben’s mom waved down a pick-up truck and asked him he would take some of us to Antigua. He agreed. So Deanna and Dylan sat in the front of the truck and Ben, Peter, Rose, Brandon, Joel, Cody, and I got in the back of the truck. It had stopped raining thankfully and it was one awesome ride. I am sure we looked a little out of place to most people. Eventually we all arrived in Antigua safely and had dinner there. We found a van to ride home in and were on our way. It was a very exciting and memorable weekend.

So this week we are studying and preparing for our Spanish finals which are on Thursday and then on Friday we are headed for Tikal, which should be a lot of fun. On Monday we will begin our second round of Spanish classes. Blessings to you all and keep a look out for the next update. Hasta Luego!

-Audrey Hoover

Mayan spirituality and culture

Mexico/Guatemala 5This week our theme was Mayan spirituality and culture. We started out by hearing some of the history of the Mayans and how they’ve been influenced by Western ideas and practices. Even the people who do still practice Mayan spirituality have incorporated other doctrines and traditions. I never really knew much about Mayan spirituality, but something that stood out to me from what we learned was that they call their god Ukux Caj, meaning “heart of heaven” or “what is most important in all that there is.”

Later in the week, we visited the Mayan Language Institute, an organization that is working to preserve the 22 different Mayan languages spoken here in Guatemala. The man who presented there talked about how language is such an integral part of one’s worldview, but how many Mayans feel pressured to abandon their heritage and conform to the more prestigious ladino culture, including the use of Spanish. In some ways it reminds me of the legislation in my home state, Indiana, that is promoting the use of only English.

Ruth Maust and Suzanne Opel in front of Mayan ruins Over the weekend we took a trip to Chichicastenango, stopping to see some Mayan ruins along the way. The absolute peace of the ruins made it hard to imagine the war and conquest that once took place there. In Chichi, we stayed at the Ruth and Naomi Artisan Cooperative, one of the suppliers of absolutely beautiful bags and textiles to Ten Thousand Villages. We also visited a widows’ cooperative further out in the country where they weave and embroider scarves, traditional clothing, purses, belts, and so much more. The sheer amount of color was almost as amazing as the fact that these women have found a way to successfully support their community.

We wrapped up the week by attending a Catholic mass in Chichi. This was just one example of how Mayan culture has blended with other influences. Certain parts of the service are done in K’iche, the Mayan language of the region, and there are various altars around the church that have significance for Mayan believers. After church, we were set loose in the market. The colors, the maze of vendors, the persistent kids who followed us around, the people trying to shove through the crowd, and the bargaining made for a whole different experience. Each purchase felt like a victory, but at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder if the vendors were really getting a fair wage. After a full weekend, it was a relief to finally come back home.

-Ruth Maust

Report from Guatemala

Mexico/Guatemala 4This past week has been a nice chance to settle into the routine of our lives here in Guatemala for the next while.  Returning to the houses of our host families every night finally feels a little bit more like home, using the camionetas (public buses) is not as daunting a task as a week ago, and Spanish classes are off to a great start.  Every morning we study Spanish for 4 hours, and then after lunch our activities vary from day to day.  Here is a glimpse of our weekly schedule:

Mondays are our free afternoons, a nice chance to email home or catch up on that homework we put off until too late.  Tuesdays we take a class (in English) about topics pertinent to life in Guatemala.  Last week Professor Héctor Casteñeda took us on a quick trip through Guatemalan history, from the pre-colonial life of indigenous Mayans through the 30 year long civil war to current issues of continued structural oppression.  We spend our Wednesday afternoons in worship, prayer and reflection on our experience.  Thursdays we take a field trip! This past Thursday we visited the National Cemetery, and then visited the city dump literally right in the cemetery’s back yard.  What a contrast between the grand mausoleums of the wealthy, the wall of niches for the poorer, and the poorest working in the landfill in back.  Finally, Fridays are a chance to check-in with the larger group to discuss the difficulties of life in another culture and the adventures we have had.

Cody Walker enjoying a freshly roasted marshmallow Our weekends vary, but we usually take a trip somewhere.  This past week our destination was nearby Volcán de Pacaya, one of the active volcanoes in the area.  The hike confirmed for many of us that perhaps we have been neglecting regular exercise, but the beautiful views certainly made up for it.  Unfortunately, for safety reasons, we didn’t encounter any molten lava (in previous years this was a regular occurrence, but since a recent eruption eliminated the path to the rim of the volcano, current tours take a different, safer route), which disappointed some of us.   To make up for it, we brought marshmallows and enjoyed a mid-hike snack of volcano-roasted marshmallows.  The vents in the ground provided the ideal distribution of heat around the marshmallow, making for perfectly toasted sugary-gooeyness.

Even though we have a lot of fun climbing volcanoes and applying our developing Spanish skills, this trip is also a sobering one.  Almost every day I am reminded, either in class or on a field trip or in an assigned passage I read, of the oppression that is common throughout Latin America, and the gross human-rights violations that have happened and still continue through today.  Even more difficult to grapple with is the part that my own country has played in the drama of Latin America.  In the words of the late Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, “Looking at the movements of the U.S. from the perspective of this poor, helpless, and dependant country is a quite different experience than looking at it from within the United States”.  Though he was writing from his experiences in Bolivia 30 years ago, his words have an eerie applicability to the situation in Guatemala as well.  And though the civil war formally ended in 1996, it is difficult to learn that the peace accords are selectively applied, and many Guatemalans still deal with racism and extreme poverty.

We left the border between the United States and Mexico just two weeks ago, and yet here we are in Guatemala, facing even more subtle borders.  As we continue to immerse ourselves in the culture here, may we discover how we can cross these borders.  Perhaps then we will discover what it means to love our Guatemalan neighbors.

-Brandon Waggy