EMU Intercultural Learning

Spain 2022

 

Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Valencia
(families and school)

May 24

At the time of writing, we have been in Spain exactly two weeks—two weeks ago to the hour, we were en route to the airport, trying to imagine how we would navigate the next month and a half in new cities, a new culture, and for many of us, a relatively new language. So far, our experience has stretched, nourished, challenged, inspired, and encouraged us—here are some of our reflections on the first third of our trip: 

MADRID

 

During our time in Madrid, we got the chance to take a guided tour of the city’s landmarks such as Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, la Catedral de Santa Maria, and el monumento a Felipe IV. We also explored the city’s not-so-touristy streets and plazas in order to find bookstores, grocery stores, and restaurants that were more authentically Spanish. During one of our first few days in Madrid, we had the privilege of visiting Anxo Perez, an EMU graduate who was born in Spain, to learn more deeply about Spain from a local. He introduced to us new and challenging concepts such as the levels of consciousness and certain ways to be successful. “Always admire effort more than success,” he shared.

Meeting Alejandra and Nubia
Photo: Kenzie Gardner

Towards the end of our stay in Madrid, we met with three women that immigrated to Spain from Colombia and Romania. All three experienced similar, yet different, situations once they arrived in Spain. Any certification of any career they previously held was invalid because the government does not accept foreign certification. They felt helpless—the process of obtaining documentation takes 4 to 5 years with multiple obstacles that make it more difficult, similar to the process in the United States.

-Ruben Avalos Arroyo and Morgan Evans

TOLEDO

While we were in Toledo, we got a different experience than Madrid in terms of the feel of the city. Toledo had a lot of cool history including being a city that prided itself on fortification. There were 3 walls and a river that aided in protecting the city. They also had a complicated street layout to confuse enemies if they ever broke through the wall, but in 5,000 years, no one ever broke through. Toledo was also a city that lived in relative harmony. Within the city walls, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim people lived amongst each other in relative harmony which was symbolized in some of the pictures from hundreds of years ago. The one that stuck out to me the most was our tour guide’s favorite picture. He said, “There are 2 Jewish kings, David and Solomon, protecting a sentence from the Quran saying ‘in the name of Allah let there be peace’ in a 14th-century Christian church”. I found this to be very profound and a great representation of what the city was like back in the 14th century.

-Zach Bauman

CORDOBA

The old city of Cordoba is a place of incredible history, narrow streets through which cars can just barely squeeze as pedestrians flee to the side, and, during our stay, record-high heat. Upon arrival, we were given a map to navigate some of the winding streets. Really though, if you kept the Mezquita in sight with its attached bell tower, navigating ourselves to and from our hostel that first day was fairly simple—walk down the main street; once you reach the large old stone wall and see the courtyard with greenery and a flowing fountain, you know where you are. It is Cordoba’s Mosque-Cathedral, complete with air conditioning that blessedly pumped out into the 100-degree heat as we sat near its entrance awaiting a trek up the hundreds of stairs in the Bell Tower. The next morning we entered the main building itself, into a large echoing chamber reverberating the last music of morning mass. In the middle of the building, nestled behind rows and rows of the original Mosque’s pillars, is an ornate Catholic Cathedral. The building has passed hands from Muslims to Catholics resulting in a beautiful nesting-doll situation of an architectural marvel. 

-Elizabeth Eby

VALENCIA

You know how sometimes we think to ourselves, “how has my life led up to this moment?” Well, this thought was certainly circling through my head as I followed a middle-aged woman in a bright red dress through the streets of Valencia, Spain carrying my luggage and trying to communicate in Spanish over the sound of bustling people and honking cars. I had just met this woman and I was struggling to keep up, kind of like a helpless child. This was my first interaction with Rosa, my “host mom” as they call it. 

Morgan, Maddie and Kenzie at their host family dinner the first night in Valencia. Photo: Morgan Evans

We arrived at her apartment, a 20-minute walk from the school where we will be studying Spanish for the next three weeks. At dinner that evening, I quickly became aware of how much trial and error communicating to Rosa would entail. However, I felt complete support and freedom to speak in Spanish and began to realize that this is how people learn. I have taken plenty of Spanish classes during my academic years; however, nothing can compare to sitting down around a table, with a vocabulary the size of a conejito, and listening to a Spanish woman describe the full, in-depth historical context and complex political scene of the many rituals and festivals of Valencia. Let’s just say there was a lot of smiling and nodding.

After the first day, my confidence and comfort around Rosa increased and I pushed myself to communicate more with her. I found myself learning phrases and words that are extremely useful in everyday language that we don’t focus on in class, and became familiar with the overwhelming sense of accomplishment after having a successful exchange of sentences between us.

I don’t want to have expectations for where my Spanish will be at the end of these three weeks, but I am very grateful for this opportunity and for Rosa, who has graciously opened her home for me to be exposed to Spanish culture. 

-Theo Yoder

Jackson playing with his host family

Guatemala: Weekend trips, Halfway Mark & Hope

Guatemala: Weekend Trips, Halfway Mark, & Hope

With March upon us, it’s clear that time is flying by. While some days may seem long, the weeks truly are short. As we continue to attend the final days of Spanish classes during the week, the weekends serve as memorable and educational getaways, full of learning opportunities and memory-making. Coming into this semester study-abroad, we knew that a focus would be cultural immersion- or at least as close to immersion as we could manage during the pandemic. What normally would’ve been host family stays have had to shift to hotel or group stays together, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been observing and interacting with cultures different from our own. Every trip we take is uniquely significant. 

Lago Atitlan. Photo by Lucy Unzicker

The weekend of March 4-6, we traveled with Jack Lesniewski, MCC country representative for Guatemala and El Salvador, to Santiago Atitlan. We were greeted with friendly faces at ANADESA (Asociación Nuevo Amanecer de Santiago Atitlan) by Maya Tz’utujil women. There, we learned all about the MCC-accompanied organization that works to support indigenous women ages 20-40.  ANADESA provides a place for women to gather, teaches them self-sufficiency such as beadwork and business skills, and connects them with other women and social workers who make home visits and check in regularly to offer support in cases of abuse and other tough situations. ANADESA also works with children and adolescents to encourage, support, and assist their attendance and participation in school and schoolwork. Like almost everything else, due to the pandemic, school attendance has been extremely challenging. In Guatemala, distance learning is very much still prevalent, and a lack of access to materials, technology, and/or internet connection can make access to education nearly impossible for some children and families. ANADESA’s after-school tutoring program takes around 90 kids from the surrounding rural and more-urban communities and gives them access to technology and/or internet for school, vouchers for school supplies, and homework help at the center. 

ANADESA presentation, translations by Jack. Photo by Laura Yoder

The mere existence of ANADESA represents a symbol of hope; we talked a lot about what hope itself can look like that weekend. ANADESA was founded by Maya Tz’utujil women after they came together to assist surrounding communities that had been completely wiped out by mudslides caused by Hurricane Stan in 2005. Since then, they have continued their mission to empower others and offer aid to women and children. Jack offered lots of insight during our travels, mentioning that someone had once pointed out the unfinished rebar that stuck out of roofs on every block. That, he said, was hope. Hope of possibility, hope for the future with plans to continue to build and grow and develop. (Not that a bigger building means success or happiness, because we have recognized the cultural importance of closeness to others, especially family, and the sharing of everything and every space!)

Instruction of the making of tamalitos at ANADESA. Photo by Laura Yoder
Photo by Laura Yoder

After our welcome tour and introductions and a delicious meal, we tucked in for the night in a local hotel in place of what would’ve normally been host family stays. We rose with the sun on Saturday with a full day of learning ahead of us. We started the day with what is now a familiar breakfast; black beans, eggs, queso fresco, plantains, and of course, tortillas! Accompanied by the ANADESA women Concepción Esquina Damián, Mayra Magdalena Reanda Tacaxoy, Carmen Lourdes Petzey Chiviliú, and Josefa Damian Sosof, we walked in small groups to the local market to buy ingredients for our lunch. With our bags of fresh produce and herbs and other goodies in hand, we piled into the local form of public transportation: pickup truck beds. When we returned, a fruitful process of washing, chopping, slicing, grinding waited for us. With the direction of the women, we helped prepare a delicious traditional caldo of guisquil, carrots, potatoes, and chicken. It was a meaningful process, complete with getting on the ground and really working for the sauce, which required a volcanic rock grinding stone to really make it good. 

Presentation of Tz’utujil culture. Photo by Laura Yoder

After enjoying our lunch, we continued with our learning and strung beaded bracelets and listened to a presentation on cultural traditions and cultural shifts within the Maya Tz’utujil people. We ground corn for tortillas, and most of us wouldn’t hesitate to say that it was much more difficult to do than it appeared. We ended the night with a meal graciously prepared by the workers and then called it a day! 

 

Church of Saint James the Apostle in Santiago Atitlan. Photo by Laura Yoder

The next morning, we rose with the sun and attended mass at Saint James the Apostle Church, conducted in a mix of both Spanish and Tz’utujil languages. After perusing the markets and contributing to the local economy, we gathered our belongings, said our thank yous to ANADESA, and embarked on the return to Guatemala City and our host families. 

On Thursday, March 10, we bittersweetly celebrated our halfway point. How can that be? (At least that’s what I was thinking!) We have learned so much, seen so many new places, and met so many amazing people! It’s hard to believe that this semester abroad will ever end. But for now, we take it one day at a time! 

This past weekend, March 11-13, we headed to San Marcos with MCC for another learning tour. We stayed at the Catholic Diocese retreat center, a quiet little spot in town. Jack accompanied us once again, giving tips and sharing tidbits of knowledge that he has acquired along the way, having lived in Guatemala for a number of years. 

Friday night we met Ricardo Salinas, a friendly young man from Honduras who is currently participating in MCC’s 2-year SEED program. Ricardo told us about himself and the path he took to get where he is now, living in San Marcos and working as the facilitator for a youth program called Colectivo Verde. Colectivo Verde works with 20 “jóvenes” around the ages of 17-30 to promote social communication of topics like identifying and using natural medicine, the reclaiming of Maya traditional medicinal practices, and more. They work to unite their passions and share their knowledge through social media, especially their podcast, titled “De Cero a 42-20”. (Check them out on Spotify!)

Saturday morning, we headed out for a learning tour at a gold mine (owned by a foreign corporation) that has since shut down. We learned a lot about abusive power, environmental atrocities, and oppression among other themes. It’s hard to do justice to the ideas presented, but in short, a foreign mining company exploited indigenous land for years while simultaneously contaminating their environmental resources with long-term lead and arsenic deposits that have yet to be disposed of. And, what does “disposing of” the metals even mean? How did this pass through so many loopholes? Why was it approved? We struggled to grapple with the interconnected injustices presented in this situation. We pray for restoration, and healing, and peace, and, hope

We then visited the agro-parcel of Marcial Mejia, a local man involved with a program titled Pastoral de la Tierra that promotes sustainable farming, a program of the local Catholic church and supported by MCC. We were shown extreme kindness and generosity by Marcial as he invited us each to take 5 tomatoes from his little greenhouse. He later made sure we all took carrots. And after that, he asked for our hands to fill with seeds from different clay jars in which they were stored. This was yet another symbol of the incredible hospitality and generosity of those whom we’ve encountered. 

Pictured with the group are Freddy Fuentes, Margarito Florentin García López, and Marcial Mejia. Photo by Jack L. 

And while we did witness a total abomination of land earlier in the day, we saw life and hope sewed into the ground in the form of Marcial’s self-cultivated seeds. 

On Sunday, we got the chance to meet with some of the members of the Colectivo Verde! We exchanged introductions and played a few ice breaker-type games. We saw just how much of a leader Ricardo was, his passion visible. One of the highlights of our time together was a panel discussion consisting of Madilyn, Maria B, Ethan, and Micah from our group, and four from the Colectivo Verde (names listed below photos). They exchanged personal experiences and stories of life in their respective contexts, wrapping up the talk with Ricardo’s perfectly-fitting question of “What gives you hope?” 

On the panel are Susan Orozco from San Marcos, Angela Nohemí Marroquín from Comanticillo, Sergio Roblero from Sibinal, and Elber López Morales from San Pablo. Photo by Laura Yoder

As we gear up for the final weeks of Spanish classes, we carry a lot of the weight of the things we hear about with us. We hear about these problems, now what? How can we move forward in solidarity and continue to learn from the stranger while simultaneously being the stranger? 

It’s hard to sum up all of what I’m feeling, and I’m sure the others would say the same. But we continue to appreciate all the experiences we’ve had thus far, taking them with us day by day.

– Lucy Unzicker

All Group Photo

Guatemala Immersion

Now that we’ve passed the 1-month mark, settled into host families and Spanish classes, figured out the public transport system, gotten comfortable with our surroundings, etc., we’ve realized that we’re here to stay for a little while.

The honeymoon phase is a thing of the past and some days feel harder than others.

Some days consist of Valentine’s Day card-making in the beautiful garden at CASAS, followed by cookies and chocolates, and a group sleepover before boarding our sunrise flight to Northern Guatemala.

Some days consist of language barriers, frustrating cultural differences, noticeable machismo, group dynamic challenges, upset stomachs, and complete physical/mental/emotional exhaustion.

But most days, it’s all intertwined.

We are now in our final week of February, wrapping up our first 5-week session of the Spanish Intensive Program here at CASAS. We’re learning about the history of Guatemala and its Mayan roots and noticeably unjust wealth distribution and Megachurch movements. We’re digging deeper into the United States’ involvement with previous wars, and reflecting on our own privilege. We’re talking about justice and social resources and corruption and gang structures. We’re reflecting on our time spent in the Cloud Forest, learning about sustainability, K’iche’ culture/language, and education opportunities for females.

As we reflect on our time here so far, a highlight for most of us was this past week that we spent in Northern Guatemala. We woke up for a 4:15 am departure to get to the Guatemala City airport, and were amazed to see the beautiful sunrise as we took off. After our quick 30 minute flight, we proceeded to drive to the Tikal ruins where we spent the morning with our lovely tour guide, Luis. Luis told us everything he knew about the ruins and Guatemala and its history. He even showed us underground holes, in one of which Ben, Luke, and Madilyn found an incredibly rare and poisonous red snake. Following our morning climb, step after step at each site, and lunch together at the ruins, we made our way to Gringo Perdido, our new hotel/home on the water for the next few days! This particular day was the warmest, sunniest, most beautiful day there, and after a long day of walking in the sun, we were all more than ready to hop into the lake. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening swimming, having paddleboard wars, jumping off the rickety high dive, swinging on the wooden swing above the water, and just taking a moment to breathe. All was well.

As we settle back into life here in the city, we’re looking forward to the culmination of our first Spanish class, an upcoming trip to Lake Atitlan with MCC, and more opportunities to learn and immerse ourselves in the culture here in Guatemala City! We’re anticipating the good, the challenging, and all the in-betweens mixed into these coming two and a half months ahead!

-Emma Hochstetler

All Group Photo

Thailand Excerpts

Poetry by Lindsey White

September 16th, 2021

A constant struggle of silencing my own thoughts. 
This is the most consistent thing that lectures provide me with. Privileged to be in my 18th year of education and yet I still haven’t succeeded in the most challenging task of quieting the spinning thoughts. 
Sometimes I silence too much. 
Then there are no thoughts. Just static. Numbness. 
There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium. 
Shouting but never quiet. 
Static but never hum. 
This constant struggle of determining whether or not I should put effort into focusing on the lecture or if I should just let my mind wander is never easy. 
Do I let time pass quickly? 
Whipping thoughts in all directions. Whatever comes to mind tossing and turning until there’s no more time left in the lecture? 
Do I let time pass slowly? 
Crawling thoughts of General Mai and Chinese Wars over Communism?
I try to focus. I really do. Even with my mind fighting with all it’s ideas. I try. 
But sometimes according to academia, I fail and my mind wanders.
With that failure comes some of the most beautiful results. 
My curiosity and creativity flow with freedom unconstrained by tests or rubrics. 
How can anyone sensible possibly view this as a loss? 
In my mind I won. 
Even if academia doesn’t view it this way. 

—————

October 6th, 2021

Chatting as we pass across uneven sidewalks and weave through food stands pouring onto the street.
Wandering about for supper from street stands near our roundabout. Glancing over hopeful eyes.
Smiling through opaque masks.
Causal “sa-wa-de-kah‘s” floating in the air mingling with smells of food cooking along the grill. 
No ties. 
No close connection.
Then a deep feeling of comfort comes as I connect eyes with a woman selling soup. 
Her movements reminiscent of movements I’ve seen my entire life. Her eyes crinkle in a way I’ve watched since I was born. 
In another life this woman would be my grandmother. Selling soup on the street in Thailand. 
Of course it is. 
Why else would I feel the deep sense of security and longing? Comfort and nostalgia?
Of course it is her. Why else would I feel this way? Just in another life. 
Beads of sweat dripping down my forehead. 
Noisy traffic of morning commute surrounding me as my feet pound against the sidewalk along the north side of the old city. 
Conversation between Isaac and I had died down now that we are single file along this section of the sidewalk. 
Left with my own thoughts. 
My watch says we are a little under a mile into the run. 
An opening forms through traffic and we cross the street towards the inside of the old city. 
I hop up onto the sidewalk ensuring that my footing is secure.
There, a woman is walking towards us. 
This feeling rushes over me again. 
A familiar stranger. 
Quite possibly my mother in another life. I’m sure of it. 
As I run past, I turn my head to look at her closer as we have now passed her. 
She’s also turned back to look at me and our eyes meet for a brief moment. 
Then it is over. 
The day continues. 
Our lives carry on. 
Separately. 
Yet for a moment they were connected. 
A complete stranger. Barriers and layers of complication to separate our lives. 
Yet so familiar despite it. 
Stramiliar: a familiar stranger. 

—————

October 8th, 2021

A gentle soft greeting from our driver met with my jagged ungraceful one as we climbed into the rusty Rot Dang. 
50-4039
I made sure to check this time before telling the five others to jump in since my previous experience left us with the incorrect driver and a complicated situation. 
With only a few of us, I easily secured a spot standing on the back hanging onto the ambiguous bars welded to the main body. 
We swiftly moved from a bustling street of lively Friday night energy to quiet residential housing on back streets. 
The city came to life again as we moved onto the streets of the old city and gained speed. 
A wave to a fellow motorbiker.
A gentle nod in return. 
The dancing of shadows intertwines with the air moving around me. 
My hair alive with the delight of this adventure into the night. 
Though short, an adventure it is. 
Hundreds of bricks stacked upon each other remind me of the rich history these streets hold. 
Everything feels warm. 
Zooming towards a stoplight changing from yellow to red with no intention of slowing. 
Soon red is bold. Prominent about the intersection before us. 
Yet off we go. Right on by. Continuing. 
A turn onto another back street. 
Swift changes from scooter filled street lanes and bustling markets to shadow filled streets and stray cats roaming, speed slowing.
I begin to feel sad. Our adventure is over. 
We turn again. Another sign of a near ending. 
How can it continue past our arrival? 
What do we need to do in order to bring the adventure with us? 
Familiar questions I’ve asked myself as I think about this time in Thailand with the unavoidable return back to EMU. 
No answers to fulfill curious thoughts. 
One final turn into the YMCA. 
A clear end. 
One final gust of October air. 
A quick “kap-Kuhn-kah” to our driver before turning away. 
Now the fun part. 
The challenge of continuing the adventure. 
If I can master it here, I can repeat it for our inevitable return to Harrisonburg as well. 
I didn’t master it tonight. Not yet. 
But maybe the goal isn’t to master continuing the adventure but to reimagine what adventure looks like. 

—————

October 13th, 2021

Humming of the van engine fills the silence. 
Cascading light filters through the windows as we caravan back south.  The light of day is fading across the mountains and deep blue shadows fall across their slopes.
Their ridges smooth but jagged. 
They seem as though they could almost be the mountains I’ve seen my entire life. 
The mountains that raised me. 
For a moment I forget that they aren’t. 
The looming fog caresses their foothills just as it does at home. 
I forget these mountains aren’t my own despite:

-the passing of cars on the opposite side of the road
-thai conversation passing through the driver’s walkie 
-rising smoke trails from homes with mothers cooking supper for their families

A jagged outcropping comes into view with bright red clay in contrast to the sleepy blue slopes and I’m reminded that these aren’t my mountains.  Conrad’s voice breaks the hum of the engine.  Darkness engulfs the conversation as we venture through a country still so foreign to me. 
Evening dusk turns into streetlights. 
Pink hues fill the sky as the mountains begin to fall away into the shadows of the evening. 
No, these aren’t my mountains but they are still watching after me. 
Just as my mountains always have. 

-Lindsey White

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Thailand Explained

09 November 2021

For many, “Thailand is friendly and food-obsessed, hedonistic and historic, cultured and curious.” For me, Thailand is about getting really, really confused. A couple of nights ago I was holding onto my seat as I bounced over a dark, barely noticeable speed bump. My acquaintance was driving and I was on the back of his motorbike. He continued on the dark road, following two motorbikes ahead of him. Suddenly, and with off-putting synchronization, all three motorbikes began to slow. Normally this would have been fine. I would have just asked what was going on. But he speaks no English, and my Thai is in its infancy.

At that moment I had deja vu. I remembered a time four years ago when I was on a dark unfamiliar road in an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar acquaintance. That time had ended badly. A gun was pulled on us and we were robbed. 

I tensed. My knees gripped the bike as I considered my options. I could always drop my wallet and run. I could run pretty fast. Hopefully, they wouldn’t chase me if they got what they wanted. 

The bikes continued to slow. Soon, we were slow enough that I could have hopped off and landed on my feet. There was a bump. I looked down. It was a speed bump. That was why everyone was slowing down. I was spooked for nothing. I took a deep breath. We turned a corner. In front of us was an illuminated soccer complex with four fields and a bar at the center. We had arrived.

It makes sense for Thailand to be a place of wild interpretations. Even the language here reflects that. The word “ma” can mean come, grandma, horse, dog, or nothing at all. The only audible difference is the pitch or “tone”. Whenever I introduce myself as Isaac, Thai people usually giggle uncontrollably. I didn’t think much of it for a while. After all, Isaac does literally mean laughter. But after a while, I suspected something was going over my head. I looked up my name on google translate and it came up as NS******. All the asterisks made me suspicious. I asked my Thai friends Mark and Fahsai about it and they confirmed. I was introducing myself as “Bullshit”.

“Bullshit.” That’s what I called when some of the other students came back from their first Thai massage proclaiming the benefits of the transformative experience. “It’s just a glorified back rub, right? This is going to be easy.” That’s what I was thinking when I went to get my first Thai Massage. I even brought earbuds to listen to a podcast in case I got bored. I was expecting mediocre. I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

It costs 199 Baht for an hour massage plus a footbath before and tea after. That’s just under six dollars. I sat for a while drinking a pink drink with a flavor nobody can agree on. After that they washed my feet and led me to a room where I laid down on a mat on the floor. Too confusing for me, Jansen Miller had to tell me how to wear the baggy linen clothes they provided. My massager, a smiling Thai man, started with a prayer, and within the first thirty seconds had his hands pressed firmly into both sides of my pelvis. I’ll summarize the rest of the experience. It was painful yet gentle, awkward yet relaxing, intimate yet professional. They say that Thai massage is like visiting your chiropractor, acupuncturist, yoga instructor, masseuse, and meditation, all in one visit. I wholeheartedly agree. 

Time after time my mind is blown. One day I’m trying Thai massage, the next I’m savoring sugar apples (which taste exactly like mangos but look like scaly green brains). Sometimes it gets really, really confusing, but that’s cross-cultural – one strung-out social breaching experiment. I’m just grateful that the Thai people humor us in our unintentional bullshit.

-Isaac Andreas

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One Month in Chiang Mai

In Journal Snippets
-Kate Szambecki

September 18, 2021

I am currently sitting at the laundromat. It’s outside (covered) and you must take your shoes off. It’s very nice.

We flew to Bangkok, then Chiang Mai, and were greeted by YMCA staff and university interns, and drove to the YMCA. I napped, we ate, then went to the mall. I spent the first ten-ish minutes in my room thinking we had no AC or power, which was a bit of a panic moment, but we’re all good. Fooled by the key system. The room is much less luxurious than our Phuket hotel (to be expected) but I like it. It feels like a home. I’ll miss the water pressure, though. 

Walking through Chiang Mai to the mall felt like a dream. The air was cooler, I was with friends, and we saw so many little shops and restaurants with warm, inviting lights. I am so happy to be in a city with a safe, warm home with my friends, learning new things.

I can’t wait to make friends with the university students.

September 20, 2021

Yesterday was our orientation at the YMCA. I know some of it was exhaustion, but I found myself holding back tears several times while the staff talked about their excitement and our itinerary for the semester. I could feel the importance of our presence here for the YMCA (due to COVID, they have not had any groups like this in a long time), and the excitement of everyone to have us overwhelmed me. Also, the massive list of things we get to do here… I had no idea. I think my mouth was hanging open for most of the presentation—I was just so in awe of all the incredible experiences the YMCA has planned for us. How did I get so lucky?

September 22, 2021

Today we went to a massive market after class and lunch. I loved every minute. The fabrics and handcrafted items are all so vibrant and intricate. I also had a GREAT curry at the restaurant afterward. 

I’m struck over and over by the difficult nature of most interactions here, yet, I almost always enjoy them. I know that comes from a place of privilege—my interactions are never of dire consequence, legal or otherwise—and so I am still able to experience uncertainty in a safe way. I feel grateful for this and acutely aware of how different this is for immigrants, etc.

Something else I’ve been thinking a lot about is the culture of politeness/service in Thailand against my mental backdrop of feminist thought. There is so much discourse in the US about women taking up more space, being louder and more assertive, apologizing less, etc. in order to subvert patriarchal norms. I want to explore this phenomenon here, because it is so counter to Thai societal expectations for all genders. The Thai ideal of being as least burdensome as possible to others is the opposite of our American individualism.

September 26, 2021

Last night I was laying in Nicole’s room with a fairly big group of us, and I had a very euphoric moment. I was touched by our little family—everyone was chatting and laughing, splitting the food we had just ordered—and my heart swelled. While I know host families would have been a formative and wonderful experience, I am grateful for the closeness of our group that comes from living on the same floor. 

September 29, 2021

Today I had my first truly unsuccessful Thai interaction. I was trying to ask the owner of a tea stand if one of the drinks had caffeine. I was fumbling over the few Thai words I know and motioning with my hands, and he grew only more confused. Not my best moment. Got the tea, though.

It has also been a tough last couple of days, content-wise. We’ve reached some controversial chapters in the book we’re reading, and this, paired with an intense presentation on gender-based violence and human trafficking in Thailand, has led to a lot of introspection and discussion. We have a diverse group in terms of gender and sexuality, and the lenses through which each one of us ingests this kind of information will never be aligned. It leads to solid discussions.

I’ve been struggling with the idea that in Thailand, traditionally feminine qualities are much more respected across the board, yet gender discrimination is still rampant. It almost seems as if femininity is highly regarded, yet women themselves are not. This is only a broad generalization, however, and I’m interested in exploring this more. 

October 1, 2021

Today we saw elephants for the second time, and, unlike in Phuket, I did not full-on sob. I may have teared up a little when they wrapped their trunks around me, though. And technically I did cry when I later learned that the reason these elephants were swaying around so much was because they were stressed. My deep love of elephants has been quite a surprise. 

Yesterday’s hike in the rain was an unexpected joy. Once I accepted that I would be fully soaked, I could lean fully into the chaos. I had a really bizarre moment about halfway through, when I realized that my mind had been almost entirely blank for the last five minutes, give or take. I had achieved that few times in my life, and certainly not during our meditation sessions…

October 6, 2021

Last night after dinner, several of us went to a thrift night market. It was surreal. They have a massive courtyard filled with stands, some under small tents and some with goods just spread out across the bricks. There was music playing, string lights draped across the entire place, and young, hip people everywhere. The clothes were cheap and good, and I just wandered around by myself for a while. I feel like I found the pocket of Chiang Mai that I connect with most.

October 13, 2021

I really loved our two border trips these last couple of days. I’m not sure what exactly it was about them—the long drives or the views, the light rain and sun—but I felt blissful and grateful. I also felt as though I was seeing something important. The Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, is such a beautiful place but also a key part of Southeast Asia’s history.

I’m glad that we went after visiting the Opium Museum; that gave us important context to experience the sight itself. 

Maybe it was the brief trip to Chiang Rai (a four-hour drive north), or maybe it is just because we’ve reached about the six-week mark, but I’ve been feeling inklings of homesickness. I miss my parents and my friends, and I miss fall in Virginia. 

October 18, 2021

We’ve now been at the YMCA for exactly a month. We have visited a myriad of temples, a couple of villages, elephants, museums and MANY restaurants. We’ve learned about Thai cooking, Thai language, issues of deforestation, human trafficking, and gender and sexuality, Thai ethnic groups and culture, and Chinese history (thanks, Myrrl!). Tomorrow we learn about Thai boxing…

This place is beginning to feel like a kind of home. I feel comfortable going out in our free time to explore, and I have familiar places that I have already grown to love: the Korean BBQ across the street, the LaundryBar where we do our laundry each week, the grocery store only a few blocks away in the basement of a mall, the piano practice rooms hidden in that same mall, and the gym where I now teach (as a volunteer, don’t worry visa officials) a Zumba class to five or so locals—long story. We are looking ahead to presentations, some trips in smaller groups, and countless more adventures. I am so grateful.

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Quarantine on Phuket

Posted 14 September 2021

Today, we arrived in Phuket, and I write this as I hungrily wait for dinner. I am looking forward to sleeping in a bed because we had about 38 hours of travel. Driving through Phuket felt surreal. There were pineapple stands and little shops and so many people on motorcycles. I could not have possibly taken it all in at once. I noticed that there are many shrines for the king and the queen. Is there a princess? There’s also a lot of architecture and decoration relating to Buddhism. It is interesting to see how different cultural structures differ depending on the religion of the area. Quite frankly, I am exhausted and I write in this journal with the intent of keeping myself awake. I could easily fall asleep in this chair. It is hard to believe any of this is real, and I’m looking forward to the more academic side of this trip.

– Hannah Leaman, Senior

I can’t believe we made it! I will admit that getting here was so much fun; navigating the airport and long flights, staying up late, and covid tests (all negative). The Novotel is so beautiful. We are right on the beach, with spectacular views of the ocean and mountains. About a 20-minute walk is Kamala City where we have done our shopping, eaten delicious food, and explored the sights of life here. 

We have done a lot of fun things here while also taking Thai language classes and a History of China class. We have gotten to go around the island of Phuket to an elephant sanctuary, downtown Phuket, a shopping mall, seeing Big Buddha, and a private yacht for going to different islands and swimming in the ocean. Our classes are also so much fun. We are all interacting, learning Thai in the classroom, and then going out in the town implementing what we have learned. For example, we are learning how to get around the city, order food, and go shopping. 

I am definitely coming out of my comfort zone from trying different foods to trying activities. I am definitely enjoying myself with people and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead. 

– Partha Roy, Senior

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On Leaving Guatemala

3.31.20

“What does it mean to pack up your bags and go somewhere new? To leave family, friends, school, your way of living… and just restart in a new place, a new country perhaps? Well, these were my thoughts when we first left the United States in January, and I had similar feelings as we left Guatemala for Colombia this week.”

I started planning this blog post entry at the beginning of March.

Oh, how the tables have turned.

So, let’s restart.

What does it mean to be stuck in quarantine during a global pandemic? Not being able to see family and friends, an empty EMU campus, a quiet city, and confusion and worry throughout the world?

We are currently in unmarked territory, and of course, our cross-cultural group was in Guatemala when this all went down.

As of March 15, we officially knew our Colombia plans were cancelled because of COVID-19. The organizations thought it would be unsafe to have foreigners in the national capital, so we decided to change our plans and stay in Guatemala for the remainder of the semester. It was around this time that my free travel group changed our anticipated plans from Belize to Lake Atitlán within Guatemala because we feared that the borders would close within the week we were gone for Community Learning (March 17-21).

March 17 was a tough day. I said goodbye to my host family for the last time and arrived at CASAS sort of ready for a week of community learning. We were supposed to be joining Canadian Mennoite University for the service week, but their group decided to end their trip early and travel back to Canada due to COVID-19. Our EMU group decided to continue in the community learning week and we split into smaller groups and departed our separate ways Monday morning. I personally was travelling to Lake Atitlán. I was thrilled to get out of the busy cityand have some personal space from the group until Saturday.

Oh, how the tables turned yet again.

On our way to Lake Atitlán, our driver pulled over along the road and the CASAS leaders were talking quietly in the front. The rest of us in the van were confused about the unexpected stop.

“What’s going on?” someone asked. A few minutes later, we heard a response.

“President Giammattei had a national announcement this morning. The Guatemalan government closed its borders and the organizations at the lake do not want you guys coming out, so we are turning back around to CASAS” said one of the leaders.

“Oh.” That was all I could think of.

I just said goodbye to my host family, and now I’m not going to Lake Atitlán for the week? What’s next? There were a lot of emotions in the van on the way back. For me, I got that terrible feeling and that I denied the whole ride back to the city.

“We’re not going home. There’s not that many COVID-19 cases in Guatemala. We can still do other things for the next six weeks. This is my cross-cultural experience. I don’t want to leave now.” I kept telling myself.

We learned that afternoon that we were departing back to the states as soon as we could get a flight.

But I didn’t want to leave Guatemala. Not. one. bit.

Now, I feel heart broken. I keep asking, “God, why was my cross-cultural experience cut short?” or “Was this REALLY in your plan for me?”

Today is March 31. It’s the day we should have left for Colombia, but instead, we had our first cross-cultural Zoom meeting in our individual American homes. I was so happy to see my group friends and catch up with their re-entry experiences, but it didn’t feel completely right. I’m used to having meetings in the Guatemalan atmosphere. Are we really taking cultural learning classes through the computer for the upcoming weeks? When I first thought about writing this post, I thought we would be in Colombia now. I was not thinking THIS would be my reality.

“What does it mean to pack up your bags and go somewhere new?”

Change. A LOT of change. And I pray that God will be with us throughout this unknown journey and that he will guide our feet towards his light.”

-Andrea Troyer

Chichicastenango vendors

Guatemala: Joy in the Highlands

Feb. 24, 2020

We are told there is bad in the world. We are told of war, malnutrition, poverty, starvation. But to what extent do we truly understand how these bad things look in the everyday lives of people who are no different from ourselves? This weekend we got the amazing opportunity to live in the homes of an indigenous family in the Alta Verapaz which in turn allowed us to see a new way of life.

Eighteen white people standing in the back of a pick-up truck, driving through the mountains to arrive at tiny villages to be dropped off with complete strangers who knew little to no Spanish. Sitting at a table surrounded by people gawking at you and kids begging to hear you say the names of items around the room in English. Adults asking question after question, kids giggling at the word “puppy”, people requesting to take a picture with you. A whole swirl of emotions as you try to gain an understanding of the things around you. Dirt floors, no soap to wash your hands, bathrooms that are a hole in the ground, beds that are just wooden boards. And yet, there isn’t a single person to be seen that is not smiling or laughing.

We learn of the bad things, and then we assume that living in those bad things means you live a sad life. But I learned that people find joy in any and all situations. Happiness is universal and doesn’t have limitations. Everyone has the ability to smile or laugh no matter how they live or what challenges they face.

-Julie Crouse

Chichicastenango vendors