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Guatemala: Bucket List

Bucket List for Guatemala:

✓ -Watch a volcanic eruption from our classroom window

-Hike a volcano and roast marshmallows at the top (this coming weekend!)

-Take a moto (motorcycle) ride around the city

✓ -Barter down prices at the central market

-Have a conversation with a stranger in Spanish

✓ -Attend Catholic Mass (one with indigenous flair)

✓ -Visit “the most beautiful lake in the world,” (Atitlán)

-Climb the palaces and temples of Tikal

-Zipline through a Guatemalan forest (free travel?)

-Ride a chicken bus to Antigua

✓ – Squish a lot of people into a small amount of space, transportation-wise

-Bake snickerdoodle cookies for my host family (and figure out how to work the oven)

I find simple pleasure in coming home after school around 5 or 5:30 and sitting down in the living room with my host mom and abuelita, talking about anything from weather to shoes to food to family to the traffic, the depth and subject matter expanding the more Spanish I learn. But along with those times of contentment come frustrations of living in a family with a different religion (Neo-Pentecostal megachurch attendees), different customs (watching sermons on tv (see “religion”) while eating dinner), different ideas of health (don’t sleep with your hair wet or walk barefoot on the tile – you’ll get a cold), and many, many communication difficulties.

Just two days ago, I came home from school and wanted to go on a run. We had talked about it the day before, and I reminded my family, thinking I was conveying it well, before I went upstairs to change. When I came back down, both my host mom and abuelita were ready, too. Apparently they were coming, too, and were excited to join me on my “run,” which was now a walk to and from the park down the street. I was disappointed, wanting some time to myself and to get some real exercise after eating mostly processed foods the past week. However, walking through the neighborhood close to dusk, many families were out, strolling to the little tienda nearby to get a staple for dinner, passing each other with friendly waves – there was this small town feel nestled in the midst of a sprawling city, and I didn’t realize how much I had missed greeting acquaintances with pleasantries, like on EMU’s campus.

I live in a colonia, or a gated neighborhood, and while I knew I should appreciate the safety measures surrounding me, I felt caged most of the time. I realize, without the walls and gates, I wouldn’t have experienced that small community feeling of Monday night, but overall, we are still surrounded by imposing “safeness.” Stores are guarded by men with guns and rifles. CASAS is surrounded by walls. Most houses, mine included, are surrounded by walls, within the larger wall of the community. “Con cuidado,” is my host mom’s parting words to me every day when I leave for school. I experience the cognitive dissonance of living in Guatemala City with the knowledge and many warnings from my host families that the city can be very dangerous, while experiencing nothing more harmful than wolf whistles from passing motos. I count our group blessed that we haven’t encountered worse, and maybe it’s because we are white people from the US. Maybe I don’t find it dangerous because I am not the main target population for gangs, and we’ve been wisely kept from the “red zones” of the city, but when I read an article last week that claimed Guatemala City to be “one of the most dangerous cities in the world,” I wondered if that was true, and if so, dangerous for whom?

I have always lived near cities, in towns and suburbs with large populations, but they did very little to prepare me for Guatemala City. Every day, a bombardment of the senses accompanies the walk to the microbus – the smells of baking bread from panaderias, diesel, trees and flowers, masses of people, and the sounds of whistles, honking, engines revving, fireworks, dogs barking, roosters crowing, “singing” (screaming) birds, and again, masses of people. Traffic causes most of my sensory overload: the number of cars on the road, the poor conditions of some roads, the traffic laws (and lack thereof), and both extremes of speed – way too fast when there’s a free 100 meters of space in front of the car and not moving at all during rush hour(s) – it’s all a bit overwhelming. The idea of driving a car here puts me into a cold sweat. However, I haven’t seen a single accident, yet, so it must work for them.

Those are just some of my thought processes of the last few weeks here. It’s lovely. I’m happy and sometimes homesick. See you in 2.5 months, US!

— Anali North Martin

Guatemala: Privelege and contrast

Last Tuesday after classes, everyone loaded into the CASAS minivans on an unusual tourist excursion. We were not headed to the national museum, nor to the presidential mansion, but to the cemetery: a resting place for some of Guatemala’s wealthiest elite that also happens to overlook the city dump.

We arrived to elaborate cast iron gates set in a high stucco wall that insulated the cemetery from the noise and bustle of the city. Inside, we found cyprus-draped roads lined by magnificent mausoleums, crumbling monuments, and elaborate marble statuary boasting the remains of some of the city’s best-known generals and politicians. The silent streets were in a surreal state of leisurely decay: gothic spires crumbled after years of neglect, joining the ruins of the long-forgotten Mayan tombs over which the graveyard was constructed in the mid-19th century. Only the monuments of the immortally wealthy—such as the massive [Egyptian] pyramid built in tribute to the Castillo family—escaped the general atmosphere of deterioration.

I wandered down the empty streets with the rest of the group, listening to our guide explain the historical and symbolic significance of the memorials we passed. As we neared the fringes of the cemetery, the decadent, crumbling mausoleums gave way to chaotic walls peppered with tiny marble placards, photographs, and faded silk flowers. Thousands of tiny crypts within these walls held the remains of those who lived by a humbler standard than the elite whose tombs we had seen earlier. But, even these memorials represented a relatively wealthy population: anyone who wished to be buried here had to arrange for an annual rent to be paid postmortem—otherwise their remains would be “evicted” and their crypt would be leased out to someone else. Continue reading

Guatemala: Daily rhythms

Last Thursday, I woke up early and stepped outside into a gorgeous, sunny, Guatemala morning. It was our first day at CASAS. After a long day of airplane rides and a late night arrival, it was refreshing to finally begin the second part of our journey. The group was surprisingly animated for a short night’s sleep, probably due to anxieties surrounding our upcoming events: our first day of Spanish classes and the introduction to our host families. A walk through the beautiful flora and fauna of the CASAS courtyard helped to put our minds at ease.

It has now been week since we first arrived. The excitement and anxiety surrounding our recent arrival has subsided, replaced by the comfortable consistency of routine. Every day, I wake up around 6 a.m. to quickly take a shower before my host brother, Jacobo (35), gets out of bed. My breakfast, a bowl of cereal and a cup of instant coffee, is waiting for me on the table thanks to the hospitality of mi madre, Gladys. My sister, Andrea (25), left the house before I got up and won’t return until I am already asleep since she works during the day and goes to the university at night. She barely sleeps.

Jacobo takes my two friends, Anali and Elizabeth, and me to CASAS every morning. We arrive about an hour early so we have plenty of time to relax in the courtyard, drink some coffee, do some homework and talk with the rest of the group members as they slowly trickle in. Spanish classes start at 8:30 and go until 12:30 when we have an hour break for lunch. The afternoon activities vary depending on the day. Early this week we visited the city dump where hundreds of people dig through the trash to find things to recycle for a paycheck of 10 quetzales a day (about $1.40). It’s the 4th generation of workers that has been born and raised in the dump. We also visited a gorgeous outdoor mall that would rival some of the nicest malls in the U.S. which was a stark contrast from the dump we had been the day before.

After school, Elizabeth, Anali and I are either picked up by one of our family members or ride the bus back home. I knock on the big metal door that guards the entrance to my family’s house and mi madre greets me at the door. I sit for a while and converse with her and the family friend Narda about our days. My siblings arrive at various times throughout the night. Monica (32) comes home from her job as an architect around 6:30 and Jacobo comes home around 8:00. My other brother Manolo (34), gets home on his motorcycle around 8:45 and we spend some time together conversing, playing games or watching T.V. I crawl into bed around 10:30, exhausted from a long day of dual language conversation.

Despite the lack of sleep, I look forward to waking up every day to watch the group grow closer, understand the language more clearly, and encounter new experiences in unfamiliar contexts.

-Sol Brenneman


Delhi Reflections

We landed in the capital city, Delhi, at around 1 a.m. local time on Monday morning. Half-awake and disoriented, we scrabbled to find our checked bags, hopped onto a bus, and arrived at a hostel just after 5 a.m. This put us at around 30 hours of traveling from when we left EMU at noon on Saturday!

The following morning, we got up respectably early to fend off the jet lag and tour the more modern section of the city called New Delhi. This was an effective introduction to India as we immediately faced poverty, the chaotic traffic, and street vendors trying to get us to buy their products. Furthermore, New Delhi is accustomed to tourism so we were able to ease into being a minority in such a large city.

It wasn’t until Wednesday – when we visited the more archaic section of the city called Old Delhi — that many of us began to feel the culture shock that India presented. Motorcycles, rickshaws, and compact cars packed the streets as we staggered through the metropolis to tour Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, and eventually eat at a popular Muslim restaurant called Karim’s. The smell of the urine, feces, and pollution wafted through the air, and at one point, I was certain that every square foot in front of me was occupied.

Personally, one of the most shocking aspects of touring Old Delhi was watching the poverty pass us by after gorging ourselves at a local eatery. We crammed into Karim’s and ordered kabobs, buttered and garlic naan, delicious buttered chicken, and other mouth watering Indian foods. However, when we finished up our feast, thoughts were swimming in my head as we walked past the homeless. How could we just ignore these beggers after filling our stomachs with more than enough food? What could I do to help? Where do these people find shelter?

I look forward to processing these questions with my peers in the future and digging into the issues surrounding modern-day India. The trip has blown my mind already and we haven’t even been here for a week!

-Ben Zook

Delhi Reflection

into the noise
and bustling crowd
I am walking
faster than my aching heart

journeys so distant
drawing closer
in moments amidst the blur

each alley
each space
bound in new color
weaving and breathing
with human life

– Luke Mullet

Guatemala & Cuba: Two sides of our wall

“This wall is not Trump’s wall. This is our wall. This is how we as a country choose to mark our border.”

I know my words cannot do justice to the week we spent at the U.S./Mexico border, so I figured I might as well start with someone else’s. This was said by Mark Adams, one of the coordinators for Frontera de Cristo (Christ’s Border), upon our arrival in the border town of Douglas, Arizona. Our first stop in Douglas was the wall, a towering 23 foot structure that plunges 6 feet below the ground as well. The wall is constructed of tall metal bars spaced far enough apart that border patrol agents can see what’s happening on the México side.

Mark asked us to go around and share what we have heard people in our hometown area say about immigration. It turned into a political analysis, with many of us citing our own family’s left-leanings in contrast to our town’s more conservative politics. We thought we knew what we were talking about: liberal=pro-immigration, conservative=pro-wall. It turns out it is way more complicated than that.

The wall has been a bipartisan effort for a while now, starting back in the Clinton administration. The wall is 23 feet tall in the town, but out in the desert it peters out into a low vehicle barrier. The Clinton administration hoped to use the lethal deterrent of the desert landscape to lower the rate of illegal immigration. It was lethal, but it wasn’t a deterrent. I’m trying to wrap my mind around the fact that our country’s official policy is that we would rather have migrant people die in the desert than live in our country.

We spent the week crossing back and forth between Douglas and its sister city, Agua Prieta, México. We stayed in a church on the Agua Prieta side, and spent our days visiting people, the desert, the wall, listening to stories, asking so many questions.

We spoke to a woman who was held in detention for three months, unable to communicate with her children or even know if they were okay. She was pulled over for speeding and didn’t have her papers.

We learned about what the migrant people are fleeing from: gang violence, economic ruin. We learned that people wouldn’t leave their homes if they didn’t have to; and we learned about our own country’s hand Continue reading

Israel-Palestine: the Jesus Trail and alternate narratives in the West Bank

Walking the Jesus Trail –  Lindsay Acker

I loved the Jesus Trail. It was really hard physically and at times I wanted nothing more than to fall over and stay down. When we sat down for lunch or at ruins, it was so hard to stand up. It was more physically draining than anything I’ve ever done. But the spiritual renewal was incredible.

First of all, I had no idea my body was capable of that. God truly does amazing things. He has created incredible beings and he gives us amazing strength we don’t know of. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as empowered as I did on the trail. Ever. God is great!

Second, I have a spiritual connection to the Galilee now. It’s not because Jesus walked there. It’s because I walked there.

This drew me closer to Jesus not because I felt his presence, but because I connected to the same land he connected to. We love the same hills. We walked the same-ish paths. We ate the same-ish things. And we took shelter in the same-ish places. I’m sure he was just as relieved to reach Cana at the end of his journey as I was that first day. I feel like my friend shared something they love with me, and we are closer for it.

Highlights of the Jesus Trail – members of the EMU team

  1. Visiting Nazareth Village and staying in Fauzi Azar Inn with all of its stone arches and beautiful painted ceilings.
  2. Reading the Beatitudes while sitting on the Mount of Beatitudes (we hiked to three possible sites where Jesus may have given his Beatitudes sermon)
  3. Visiting the Synagogue in Migdal, the town which is the birthplace of Mary Magdalene and the most verifiable location of a place where Jesus actually sat and talked about the Torah.
  4. Hiking to the Horns of Hattin (these may actually be the real Mt of Beatitudes)
  5. Staying overnight at the organic, vegan Yarok Oz Goat Farm. We spent a night there and it was peaceful and quiet and the food was amazing!!
  6. Hiking down the cliffs of Arbel, which resembled a movie set from Lord of the Rings
  7. Swimming in the Sea of Galilee 

Our Guide on the Trail –  Ethan Mathews

Besides the vast beauty of the area we hiked in, our guide also added to our experience on the Jesus Trail. He was a twenty-eight-year-old Israeli who had decided to take the path less traveled by not going to university after his military service. Instead, he decided to travel and become a tour guide, and in my eyes, a pretty good one.

When we first met our guide he told us that he was a secular Jew. I know, a secular Jew teaching us about where Jesus walked? He did an amazing job respecting Christianity regardless. Our guide was an interesting guy to hang out with and talk to as well, even when some of the conversations had to do with the conflict. After he was brought up to speed on our dual narrative trip, he was very open and honest about his point of view on this conflict. He was also willing to listen when an idea that he didn’t exactly agree with came up.


Sharing in Community Work in Bethlehem – members of the EMU team

Service is an important part of cross-cultural learning.  It is hard to truly see local culture while being a tourist on a big bus. Sometimes, our big white bus feels like an alien ship landing in little villages. While we have stopped at many places for short visits, there is something really nice about unpacking our bags and living in a place Continue reading

ISRAEL-PALESTINE: Three Weeks in Bethlehem

Let’s talk about car horns

In the US, a honking horn almost always expresses anger—get out of my way, you cut me off—that sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, that happens in Bethlehem as well, but a honk can mean so much more here:

  • Warning, I’m behind you on a small street
  • I want to merge in front of you
  • I’m going to merge regardless of whether or not you want me to
  • Don’t try to merge, I’m not letting you in
  • hurry up and merge, I’m letting you in
  • Thanks for letting me in
  • Move over!
  • Why have we stopped!?
  • Please come out of that store and move your car, it’s in my way
  • Come out of that store, I’m here to pick you up
  • I’m going around you
  • Hey, I know you, how are you?
  • Oh, I’m doing well, how about you?
  • Do you need a ride?
  • From taxi drivers: Where are you going? Want to go to Jericho? Hebron? Dead Sea? Tel Aviv? Beit Sahour? Beit Jala? The Nativity?
    • The last one is usually when I am about 1/4 mile from the Church of the Nativity. I don’t know where they wanted to take me or how, but my backpack and white skin immediately identifies me as a “lost tourist” no matter what I am doing.
  • Go!
  • Stop!

The list goes on.  Slowly, we stopped jumping in shock at the sound of honking and learned that the person is most likely not angry and is just driving behind us on the cramped street and wants to let us know they are coming through. When this happens, we casually move closer to the wall, praying there is enough room for the person to scrape by without hitting us. The nuance of a car horn really is amazing. I think we have deciphered the message within the length and number of honks—so we are really learning three languages here—Arabic, Hebrew, and car!

The only one that still really bugs me is the long, blaring honk in stopped traffic. We get it, you are not moving . . . but continuing to hold down the horn for twenty seconds isn’t helping you move either!


A Visit to Um Al Khair

On the morning of October 2nd, our group drove from Bethlehem to the Bedouin village of Um Al-Khair, unrecognized by the Israeli government. An unrecognized village receives no services, meaning no connection to water, electricity, or sewers. As we approached the village from the main road, the contrast with the settlement next door was astonishing. Um Al Khair is a small village with pieced-together houses of scrap metal, wood, and plastic,  while the settlement of Carmel has nice houses, green grass, street lights, and running water. We were in Um Al Khair to help tend their olive trees and learn about how and why the Israeli government has issued demolition orders on their homes.

Before the establishment of Israel, Bedouins moved around the land herding their sheep and goats. But after 1948, they were given a choice: either serve in the Israeli military or leave their land. This community chose to leave their land, which had been located near the city of Arad. They were moved to a remote and unoccupied part of the desert. They built small tin and mud brick shacks and remade their lives. Now they are surrounded by Jewish settlements and new developments of Western-style houses. The Israeli government tells them that even though they recognize that the Bedouins have legal ownership of the land they were moved to in 1948, they do not have permission to build anything on their land. No new houses, no house additions, no mud ovens to bake their bread, no major repairs—nothing! Continue reading

ISRAEL-PALESTINE: Desert life and reflections

Why aren’t more people using THESE alternative energy sources?

Throughout our time at Kibbutz K’tura the group has listened to several lectures and participated in a variety of Kibbutz activities. Perhaps the most memorable for me was the visit to K’tura’s “Off the Grid” village. As an initiative stemming from the strong emphasis on environmentalism and research, Kibbutz K’tura has created a village to simulate various possible “off the grid” devices.

We began the session discussing the three stipulations that categorize any location as “off the grid”: No connection to state-provided water, sewage, and electricity. Of course these three resources are essential to a healthy life and instead of focusing on living without water, sewage and electricity, the village provides innovative ways to provide the three conditions through inexpensive, renewable energy sources that do not need to be connected to any national system. We began in the village garden which receives water from a well attached to a portable solar panel pump sending water up to a retention basin (giant bucket) three feet off the ground. The portable solar panel pump was designed by Engineers Without Borders to ensure mobility and efficiency at a low cost. The garden uses a low-pressure drip system to trickle water out slowly but constantly.

In order to truly be considered “off the grid”, the village would need to be equipped with composting toilets to eliminate any sort of sewage system. Unfortunately, K’tura’s village does not have any restroom accommodations, however, they currently have a solar-powered water filtration system to ensure the recycling of water for continued use. Our guide pointed out what looked like a satellite dish pointing up towards the sky. Water is pumped into this dish and pushed through filter pipes that are heated from the sun. The process distills the water so purely that the water actually needs to be re-salinated and mineralized before being used on crops or it will actually pull salt from the ground and ruin the crops. Unfortunately, because of where the Arava desert sits on the sun-radiation scale, this water purification system can only be used during the winter months because the dish gets so hot that it would melt the metal pipes that carry the water through the purification process. However, in most other parts of the world (where it isn’t 114° Fahrenheit in the summer) the system would be able to work year round.

Next we toured three different “huts” built to represent varying climate conditions and needs around the world. We began in a wooden structure fitted with one solar panel to provide electricity for light, phone/computer power, and a fan. The most interesting feature was a solar oven. In several pictures you can see what looks like black lights but instead are double walled glass tubes with vacuum space in between and a tube of black aluminum in the center. The sun comes in as light and goes through the first layer of glass, the vacuum, the second layer of glass and then gets turned into heat when it reaches the black aluminum. The heat, which cannot travel through vacuum space, remains on the inside of the glass and creates a miniature oven inside the tube. Although it is small and would require lots of time to cook a complete meal, the ingenuity is incredible. The oven can heat to 300° C in full sun, and was deemed fully functional by EMU students after testing its power by baking coconut cookies (see photos).

There were two other notable gadgets; the first were sky lights made from filled water bottles inserted into the roof. Second, a compost bin used water and organic materials to create methane. Patented under the name “HomeBioGas”, this system is noteworthy because it can be taken to any place where people will have organic waste, and the methane can be used as a free source of cooking gas. Places struck by a natural disaster or facing large quantities of refugees could benefit immensely from having essentially free cooking gas that does not necessitate continual use of wood or coal or other polluting burnables.

It was refreshing and inspiring to spend some time exploring the gadgets that are being created in response to our unstable resource bank and surroundings that bend to nature. After three days discussing environmental degradation and resource depletion, it was fun and comforting to eat cookies baked by the sun while brainstorming ways that we as humans can adjust our habits to use less while still enjoying life and community. It has been challenging on this trip to not grow weary from negativity and burgeoning awareness of the complicated issues that face the Middle East and the world. Day after day of peacebuilding lectures can be overwhelming, however, visiting the off-grid village put my heart at ease knowing that there is still good in the world. It was a reminder that every step I take as an individual makes an impact, and perhaps with continued awareness, the efforts of another individual will become the efforts of many and the results will be evidenced through a lesser need of violence and conflict in our world.

-Adrienne Derstine


Kasui Sand Dunes – Spirituality in the Desert

It was over 100 degrees at 5pm when we began our hike up the rocky Kasui Mountains. If it weren’t for water/sweat evaporating so quickly, we would have been drenched before we reached the top. After the 15-20 minute hike to the top, we were greeted by shade, breathtaking views and very soft sand. We received a short explanation of the mountains, the sand and “spirituality in the desert” from Sara Cohen of Kibburz K’tura. She gave us time to run, roll, jump, etc. in the sand, up and down the dune. After our “play”, she requested that we go to a nearby spot, away from another member in our group, and sit in silence, listening to the sounds of the desert and thinking about why it has called so many prophets. Then we wrote down our thoughts and feelings of those moments.

Being from the tropics (Florida) I’d never experienced an extreme desert environment, much less “spirituality in the desert”. As I chose my spot at the top of the mountain I couldn’t help but notice God in every bit of the land and sky — the beautiful pallet of colors as the sun set, the change in color of the mountains, the howl of the wind as it made sand waves on the dunes (and covered us and our belongings in sand), the shapes of my friends as they took it all in too. And most important, the serenity in the midst of it all.

When we finished, we gathered under the stars for a dinner of freshly baked pita bread, hummus, veggies, and falafel. When our bellies were full we split into two smaller groups and shared our experiences. Some wrote poems about the landscape, others talked about their thoughts, some reflected on their past and families, and a few discussed their time with God.

Then, some stargazing.

I think we would all agree that this time in the desert has been one of the highlights of our trip so far, and something we won’t forget for a long time to come. Regardless of where each of us are on our spiritual journey, there surely is something to be said about the desert and what comes from it.

-Alice Maldonado


A Desert Heartbeat  –  A poem by Andy King

The constant roar of wind drowns out all but the silence

Millions of sand particles fly from dune to valley, never still

Sunlight dances through shades of crimson and violet, giving a final bow to the stars above

Brave beetles wander through an endless ocean of erosion

I am here; roaring, flying, dancing, wandering—thriving.


Here are some more rejected blog titles:

  • We’re a Complicated Family
  • “Let’s Not Burn Down the Desert” – Uncle Bill
  • “Anyone Up for a Game of Avalon?” – Ben Beidler aka Papa Tank
  • “Buddy is eating all of our sins!!” – Levi during the Taschlich ceremony on the dunes where the dogs eat the bread (sins) cast on the sand dunes (usually water)
  • “Those EMU students are so polite we almost feel sorry for stepping in front of them in line” – several Kibbutz members about our inability to move forward fast enough in a food line


We will pack the experiences from Kibbutz K’tura and carry all that we learned here about Zionism, Judaism and the environment. Next, our travels continue four hours north to Bethlehem, Palestine. Inshallah, we will not forget our Hebrew as we switch our studies to Arabic! Our group will be divided to live with ten different Palestinian-Arab Christian and Muslim families throughout the city. Onward in the Holy Land! Expect to hear from us relatively soon. Shalom. Salaam.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE: Warm Desert Greetings

(“warm” = 100°+ degrees)

Hu is He, He is She!

Hello from the Negev Desert! It’s hot. Last week it was 100 degrees at 8:00pm and they told us “a heat wave is coming”.  It got up to 114° two days later… a bit much for a Kansas girl.

Bleary-eyed and exhausted from the first four days exploring Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Haifa, Akko, and Jericho, our group stumbled out of our bus onto Kibbutz K’tura on Wednesday, September 6th. We were greeted with fresh fruit AND cold water! Glory be! We had been going almost nonstop since the moment we put our feet on the ground in Tel Aviv, then five days ago (now 20+ days ago when I’m writing this).

This place, at first glance, appeared to be a place of rest and refuge, an actual oasis in a desert, a body of green and trees after a long drive through arid, sandy mountains and flatlands.

To answer your first question: what is a Kibbutz? Originally, a Kibbutz was set up as an intentionally socialist society. All of the income from the members of the Kibbutz (whether working on Kibbutz or off) goes into one pile o’ cash. No job is more important than the next (Head of Kibbutz gets paid the same as the date picker). They eat in a common cafeteria, their kids go to the same school and originally slept away from their parents in “children’s houses” (sharing common caregivers so the parents could work more). Cars are shared between all members of the Kibbutz (20 cars for 200+ adults), etc., etc., etc. These Marxist influences made their way to the desert via European Jews making their “Aliyah” to Israel (fulfilling their birthright to return to the land that was promised to the Jews by God in the Bible).

Jews emigrated to Israel from far and wide who were passionate, imaginative, incredibly dedicated to being Jewish, and, in my humble opinion, a tad bit crazy. They came with practically nothing and decided to settle in a desert. Just to give you an idea of the heat, it’s nearing the end of September and we’re lucky if the temperature doesn’t spike over 100° F every day. Luckily, they have a pool! There are many incredible stories about each individual Kibbutz and how it specifically was started, but we mainly heard the stories of three Kibbutzim: K’tura, Yahel, and Lotan.

First and foremost, K’tura. This lovely Kibbutz has been our home base and is the host of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where we have been studying for the past two and a half weeks. We are all so incredibly grateful for their wonderful hospitality. Many groups only stay here for a couple of days, maybe a week. Some just stay for a meal and a tour of the off-grid village (more on that in Adrienne’s post).

A typical day here on the Kibbutz looked like this:

7:30 Wake up (our leaders and Levi tend to wake up an hour or so earlier)
8:30 Breakfast (yes, they get to breakfast before us as well)
9:30 Lecture #1
10:30 Lecture #2/Group check-in/Another kind of outing/extended lecture #1
12:30 Lunch
2:00 Lecture #3/Hebrew on some days
4:00 Break (a.k.a. nap/sleep/read/journal/frisbee/pool/play Avalon)
5:30/6 Dinner
7:30 Hebrew(?) or Evening off or lecture or meeting or other Shabbat/holiday programming

Let me tell you about Hebrew class.  Hebrew class was a very, very unique experience. Our wonderful teacher, David, burst into the room on the first day, didn’t speak a word of English to us, started playing the beat of “We Will Rock You”, and jumped in front of my face and shouted “SHALOM! ANI DAVID!” (This really happened). I almost screamed. There were countless funny moments that can only be found in a language learning setting. One of my favorites was the time that David stood up while attempting to teach us pronouns and proclaimed, “hu is he, he is she!”. The comment was met by silence and then crazy laughter. And none of us will forget him climbing into the laundry shoot to pull out a blue t-shirt so he could explain the word for “blue”. We have learned so much from this crazy energy-filled man in the past two weeks. We will always remember him and his deep love for the Hebrew language. Continue reading

ISRAEL-PALESTINE: First Steps in Israel: Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jisr Az Zarqa, Jericho

Sore Feet

Saturday, September 2, 2017: Tel Aviv, Jaffa

Shalom! Here we are in Tel Aviv, Israel. Our feet have carried us for 29 hours in this exotic city. My first impressions of this land: The sand is hot, the sun brilliant, the skin leather. I feel as if our foreign presence is obvious. We walk around dripping with sweat like everyone else and we squint from the overbearing light – just like everyone else – but the lingering stares from the locals feel heavy (I think it is because of our Chacos, water bottles, and backpacks!).

Group with Tel Aviv cityscape

Now, I hesitated to substitute the word “locals” with “natives” because of Israel’s distinct and complicated history. In Tel Aviv, it is different because every religion, style of dress and language is welcomed with open arms. However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ever-present. To put it simply (and pleasantly), Arabs lost their homes when the Jews arrived, yet the Jews fulfilled their prophecy to acquire the Holy Land. There seems to be a silent tension when the conflict is discussed from a one-sided perspective. I have been feeling as if the people that speak to us about their opinions are not spilling all that lies on their hearts. Instead of being open minded, it seems to me that most people we have encountered maintain their stagnant, silent attitude and avoid discomfort at all costs. When our group walked down the coast to Jaffa – a one hour walk south of Tel Aviv – it felt like were the only people in the streets.

Our guides, Elad (Moroccan Jewish) and Alaa (Palestinian, Israeli citizen and a graduate of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding program), explained in a careful tongue that Old Jaffa holds burdensome Arab Palestinian history, which entails a negative connotation for the Jewish Israelis. Despite this, most Palestinian homes in Old Jaffa have been repurposed into boutiques that overflow with vivid paintings, jewelry, spices, and napping street-cats. It hurts me to know what happened to the Palestinians who used to call these places home.

Even in the most shadowed corners of Old Jaffa, the winding stone walls still prove capable of absorbing the brilliant heat. It is a port town, aging close to 5,000 years. Each stone path is chipped with biblical history. On our first full day in Israel, our feet have carried us across sand where the disciples once walked. We have waded in warm Mediterranean waves, stuttered our newly-learned languages of Hebrew and Arabic, and seen the house of Simon the Tanner where Peter slept after he raised Tabitha from the dead, and where he had a vision from God commanding him that “what God has cleansed you must not call common” (Acts 10:15).

Our feet ache with heartbeats of a new adventure, and our mouths still fall agape at the sight of this beautiful land. I feel overwhelmed with this unfamiliar place, its deep internal conflict, the languages, and the stares. I do not have much to say about our first week in Israel. My mind, however, proves opposite of my mouth. It has become feral like the Israeli street cats – constantly stirring and pulling up emotional garbage – and I can’t seem to twist my thoughts into comprehensible words. Regardless, I have an immense hope for the good that could come from this diverse desert. The friendships I am forming hold a sense of genuineness I have rarely felt before. I will move onward, Insha’Allah (Arabic for “if Allah allows” or “God willing”) to tomorrow, where our feet will further carry us in the Holy Land.

-Larissa Graber


Sunday, September 3, 2017: Tel Aviv, Neve Tsedek, Jisr Az Zarqa

Walking through the streets of Tel Aviv we hear a different narrative from the day before. Our guide, Abraham Silver, a long-time resident of Israel with American Jewish roots presents the story of a youthful city with a history of only 107 years, started mainly by people in their teens and low 20s.  Yes, 60 families, mostly made up of people our age helped to build the first Jewish city in what would become Israel. Abraham shows us a picture of the families, on a sand dune, with a barren landscape behind them, waiting to be tamed.

Walking through Tel Aviv we look up into glass buildings that reach new heights. We walk on sidewalks that cover old sand dunes. The “New York of Israel” is a success story woven with the pain and fear of a thousand years of living in ghettos and fleeing pogroms. We feel the effects of massacres in Rome, Spain, Kishinev (Google it), and across Europe. All is cross-stitched with the bravery, imagination, and the stubborn (blind) determination only present in teenagers. Israel was founded by young adults with nothing to lose. Moving to the U.S. would have been the responsible choice, with job opportunities, family, and pre-existing, thriving Jewish communities. Israel was the dreamer’s choice. The end result is a victorious fairy tale that overshadows all else. Our guide stood in the center of Neve Tsedek, the first neighborhood of Tel Aviv, proudly singing the song of a found people.

The tale continues to be one success after another. We see the houses where the founders of the modern Hebrew language took a biblical tongue not spoken for more than prayers in 400 years and developed a colloquial language so that the eventual nation (already dreamed of by this time) could have its own language. We stand in the middle of a metropolitan sprawl looking at a tiny cappuccino kiosk, what had originally been the very first building of Tel Aviv. We sit in front of the first Jewish school for girls, one of many examples of the revolutionary Israelis. Finally, our guide tells us, “The Jews have a home. Finally, we are safe.” But there is a lot more to the story that we find out later.  For instance, that picture of those first 60 families, standing on a sand dune, with nothing but empty space behind them.  We later find out that had the photo panned to the left or the right we would have seen the Palestinian villages that already existed in this “empty land”.

Who do we believe? How can we get the full story? That is what we are here to do. And it is hard work . . . if it is even possible.

The contradictions continue as we learn about different types of peacebuilding efforts by Israelis and Palestinians and organizations made up of both. The Shimon Peres Institute for Peace and Innovation (started by Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister and President of Israel) swears that relationships are the keys to peace.  But their building is built facing the seafront, blocking the view of Palestinians living behind it and very close to a Palestinian cemetery. Zochrot, the second institution that we toured, vows that there cannot be peace without justice – allowing Palestinians the option of returning to the land they were forced to leave. They have created a map that shows the Palestinian villages emptied or destroyed in 1948 during the “Nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe”) when Israel became a nation.

Jaffa – Our guides, Alaa and Elad


The third institution we saw, Beit HaGafen, works with the shared humanity of art. Then we visited Jisr Az Zarqa, a poor Palestinian city in Israel, where recent development and tourism attempts show potential to bring better economic conditions to this town of 40,000 people.

Next to this, we hold within us frustrations over the language barrier and the joys of having fun with friends. We are still college students learning what it means to live in this world. We are sleepy and excited, exhausted and rejuvenated. We have more questions than answers, more processing in the works, and we all share a deep sense of something. When we figure out what it is, we’ll let you know.

-Lindsay Acker


Indiana Jones was Just a Movie

Wednesday, September 6, 2017: Jericho

Tuesday night we said goodbye for a few weeks to our guide Alaa after a day’s tour of his home city of Akko. Wednesday morning we left Haifa on our faithful modern-chariot [bus with air conditioning] for the old and new city of Jericho.  We pulled into a quiet gas station just outside of Jericho and if not for the signs being in Arabic and Hebrew and the presence of several camels, it would be hard to tell that we are not in the American Southwest. After refueling and picking up our new guide, a local man named Hamudi, we drive into Jericho. Before crossing into the city limits (which are controlled by the Palestinian Authority), we must first part ways with our Jewish guide, Elad,. Regardless of how badly we want him to accompany us and vice versa, it is illegal for him (and all other Israeli Jews) to enter Jericho, which is part of the Palestinian Authority known as “Area A” (for more information on who controls which part of the West Bank, click here). It is with heavy hearts that we must continue without these two guides, who have quickly become friends. This is one of the first tangible lessons of the conflict. Shortly after leaving Elad we get our first true glimpse of the “Palestinian State”.Jericho is a cluttered canvas splattered with shades of grey, beige, and off-white. In some places it looks like a public service announcement about the developing world and in others a modern city. One of the most obvious signs of tension between economic development and stagnation is an “Oasis Hotel” and a casino – a massive, beautiful, modern building with doors locked tight and only “guests” allowed to enter. Unsurprisingly, the potential for explosive conflict is bad for the once growing business and has driven away much of the casino’s former clients, providing an even more powerful reminder of the stranglehold Israel has on Palestinian territories.

After a lunch of delicious shwarma (meat wrapped in a pita with various sauces and vegetables) or falafel (fried balls of chickpea and spices, wrapped in pita with various sauces and vegetables) we head to the tree that Zacchaeus the tax collector climbed to see Jesus as he passed by in Jericho. Today the tree is like so many other sites in the modern Holy Land – a tourist trap. A local vendor hawking his wares stopped to tell us the story before immediately returning to enticing us with scarves and trinkets. As thanks for the story, a few of us bought head scarves or other small items. I was personally pulled aside by a man selling dates and after some intense negotiation, I passed on his product which I knew was overpriced. I have to this point left out an essential character in our story, Ibrahim, our long suffering bus driver. Ibrahim is a man of few words, speaking only softly and seldom. Despite being quiet, his driving is anything but. After boarding the bus again, Ibrahim takes us to an overlook below the Mount of Temptation, and displays his skill behind the wheel that would make Mario Andretti blush. Through a combination of grit, determination, and what I’m certain were a few Arabic curse words, our bus makes its way slowly up the steep and winding gravel-strewn slope to the overlook of the valley. Above us built into the cliffs is a large monastery belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church. Below us spread out across the valley floor is a tapestry of brightly colored patches of garbage that looked as though the sun has melted a million boxes of crayons. As lovely as the image might sound, it was far from beautiful. The vibrant realization was that the source of color was just human-strewn trash. After a few minutes of melting ourselves in the sun, we boarded our bus and Ibrahim once again showed his talent on the way back down the mountain.

Finally, we arrived at our last sight-seeing destination in Jericho: the archeological excavation of the old city of Jericho. It was at this moment my inner child (and inner Indiana Jones) was set loose. My joy, however, was short lived. Despite the ongoing excavation and restoration, the current site of Jericho is far from the lost cities and ancient temples Harrison Ford came upon. In part, this is due to the logistical challenges of excavating a place where temperatures typically exceed 100° Fahrenheit, electricity and water are spotty, and the conflict makes it difficult for archaeologists to get permission for new digs. I still found the walls and tower to be impressive, and the portions of the site that have been renovated are even more incredible when you consider that Jericho is more than 10,000 years old. Layer was built on top of layer, but the original stones and bricks that make up its early walls are easy to distinguish from the renovations.

Whether or not the site is accurate to the biblical Jericho or whether the story of Joshua and his famous battle has any truth is up for debate but I found it to be undeniably awe-inspiring. The longer we spent walking the grounds of the site the more my initial disappointment faded. This was the remains of the ancient city of Jericho! While there was certainly nowhere to practice my Indiana-Jones-bullwhip-skills or hidden passages to explore (thanks to ropes and chains surrounding all excavation pits), my childhood dreams of seeing the wonders of the ancient world were rekindled. As we left the town behind us, I reflected more on what it was that made me fall in love with history in the first place. It wasn’t some vain idea of being a “world adventurer” it was the idea of seeing the places where people had lived their lives and to have the opportunity to walk in their footsteps, experiencing their holy places, and perhaps most importantly, meeting people like Hamudi who told their stories and kept their myths and legends alive.

We read the Biblical stories of Jericho aloud as we headed to our next destination.  It was a good closer for the experience.

Rejected blog titles:

While we have not actually settled on a blog title, we have developed quite a list of rejected titles. Many are inside jokes, so you will have to ask us for the story.  We hope you enjoy them.  We will add to the list as more are proposed and rejected:

  • Armageddon has a gift shop (and we really only stopped to pee)
  • We cried at Chinese food (and a dog)
  • Hey Andy look at the cat!
  • Uncle Bill’s paying
  • There’s an essential oil for that
  • It’s Hot (pronounced with phlegm)
  • Uncle Bill, why can’t I put sunscreen on your back?
  • “It’s 100 degrees at 8pm and they tell us the heat wave is still coming!”
  • ANI DAVID !!!!!

Next week, keep following our adventure for thoughts about Kibbutz Ketura, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, and various other things that fall on our minds.

-Owen Musselman