Category Archives: Guatemala & Colombia 2017

Unexpected Greatness

It’s crazy to think that just 3 months ago I was back in the states getting ready for a trip I never thought I would have done. While packing up my suitcase and backpack I was thinking about all that might come out of an experience like this.  The new Spanish I would learn, the new family I would hopefully grow close to and the new city I would need to call home for the next few months of my life. I also couldn’t stop thinking about the people I was going with. I would ask myself “Will I grow closer to the friends I already knew or would I end up branching off and growing closer to others while possibly growing farther away from my current friends?” I remember the morning we left, the butterflies all of a sudden showing up in my stomach as I looked through the slightly frosty windows at the friends wishing me off as the bus drove away.

As we arrive in Guatemala I remember noticing the graffiti everywhere in the city, almost as if it was something the city decided to do to give it some character. I also remember noticing all the barbed wire, the men carrying shotguns on every block, the worn down road, and the customized school buses to help give it some personality, and the insane amount of cars. It wasn’t long until I noticed how crazy the drivers are here. But I can’t help but notice that the locals here in Guatemala are some of the best drivers I have ever seen on the road. In the USA we have awful drivers who follow the rules (or attempt to), whereas here in Guatemala we have amazing drivers who think of the rules as a suggestion. And then we have the people. Oh man, the people. Americans could really learn a thing or two from the people who live here. Most people will genuinely say “Buenos dias” as you walk by them in the street on your way to wherever you are headed. People will go out of their way to help you if they think you might be having trouble, and if you ever have a question you can ask just about anyone and they will be willing to help you out.

As for my EMU group, I feel blessed. Going on this trip I don’t think I could have expected to have such a fantastic group of people. Before we left I could say I was friends with maybe 5-6 people. But if you were to ask me now who my friends are on this trip I would have to say there isn’t a person here I wouldn’t consider a close friend. These people are some of the most caring, open-minded, intelligent, fun-loving people I have met and it has really made this trip enjoyable. We have had super deep conversations, insanely hard laughs, and great reflections. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to go to a foreign place with. Thank you all for being so great!

Going on this trip, I would have never guessed that I would learn so much and be pushed so hard. I couldn’t be happier with what I have achieved while being here for 3 seemingly short months. This place is beautiful and full of experiences. I would encourage anyone planning on doing a cross-cultural to pick this one.

-Kieran O’Leary

Group Photo at National Palace

International Women’s Day

8 March 2017

In honor of international women’s day, we did the only logical thing to celebrate: and that was eating cake. With much glee, we sang and celebrated the birthdays of those from February and March, in addition to celebrating women and the women in our lives. After our cake break, the guys so kindly offered to wash our dishes. Considering there are only 5 guys in our group plus Jim, we women had some time to kill until the guys were ready to return to Spanish class.

As we climbed the stairs to our classrooms our teachers (the majority of whom are women) decided to start an impromptu dance party with all the ladies. The boom box was brought out and we laughed and danced and sang. As I looked around at all the women around me, I couldn’t help but be incredibly grateful for the smiles, laughter and being of each woman. I am grateful for each woman for being who she is. As I have struggled with the machismo culture that is very much a part of everyday life in Guatemala, it was so healing to see women laughing and enjoying time in fellowship. I am so grateful for our teachers who have so graciously adopted us gringos as their students and patiently helped us to increase our Spanish speaking abilities in addition to teaching us much about life in Guatemala. This joyful event gave me hope. Hope because even in the midst of injustice there is hope, there is joy.

I will forever be grateful to Guatemala and for the people in Guatemala such as my beloved host family and teachers for showing me a different world, for showing me how much joy there is in learning new things, in diversity. Sometimes this makes one question their own culture, or question the ideas from a new culture, but that’s okay. It is okay to ask questions. Keep asking and exploring. There is so much to be learned from people different than you. To all the women, thank you. You are valued, loved, and important. Keep being you.

– Mariah Denlinger

Group Photo at National Palace

Frequently used phrases

1 March 2017

Frequently Used Phrases

When I first thought about learning a new language, I thought the most difficult thing would be the grammar. While grammar is tricky, I’ve found the hardest thing to be the vocabulary. You can understand how the grammar works all you want, but it is meaningless when you don’t know the words. Considering I am quite new to learning Spanish, my vocabulary is limited, which provides a space for repetitive phrases. I wanted to provide a list of some of those phrases with an example to go along with it.

  1. Estoy lleno (I am full): After a giant plate of beans, several tortillas, a couple pieces of bread for my first serving, and maybe some pineapple, my mom will ask, “¿algo más?” In which I usually respond with, “estoy lleno,” because if I eat another bite, I’d probably explode.
  2. Si (yes): The word I usually use when asked a question.
  3. ¿Que? (What?): The thing I ask when I realize it wasn’t a yes or no question.
  4. Otra vez (another time): When I need to hear a question or answer another time.
  5. Buen provecho: a phrase you use before a meal, during the meal, when you pass people eating, and to dismiss yourself from the table. It is similar to “bon appetite” or “enjoy your meal.”
  6. Perdón (excuse me/sorry): Used when you have to shove your way off the seemingly impossible packed buses. Also used when you don’t understand a word or phrase even though you desperately want to communicate.
  7. Entonces (Then/So): The Spanish equivalent to “like” or “um.” Used often when you’re trying to think of the next word to say.
  8. Mi estómago me duele (my stomach hurts me): Usually used when someone is infected with giardia or amoebas and needs to tell their family that you’re vomiting or having diarrhea but can’t communicate that properly to them.
  9. Buenos días/tardes/noches (good morning/afternoon/night): When you pass someone on the street you say one of these things… but it’s always a mystery what the proper times are to say which one.
  10. Muchas Gracias (Thank you so much): Any time someone does something good for me, which is a lot. Like everyday when my family puts a delicious meal in front of me or when my host mom helps we get through my sickness. When the man in front of me at the panadería purchased me a pan de agua without ever speaking to me. Or when my host dad in the K’ekchi village showed me awesome photo locations and when he presented me with a hand woven book cover. And those don’t even count for the times it hasn’t been said, but am incredibly thankful for. Like all the times I laugh with my family, whether it is laughing at a mistake I made in Spanish (like saying I cut up a horse when I meant to say onion) or playing a high-tension card game. Or the fact that I feel like I have a real relationship with my teacher here and can talk to her about anything. Even the old woman that smiles at the five gringos walking past her every morning, saying buenos días, I am grateful for.

Despite the language barrier, I have seen, time and time again, the love and compassion of the people here. It has truly been an eye-opening and awe-inspiring experience.

-Riley Swartzendruber

Group Photo at National Palace

The Q’eqchi and reflections on culture

27 February 2017

In between our two three-week semesters of Spanish classes in Guatemala City, our group had a 10-day trip to Alta Verapaz and Peten. These are departments in the north of Guatemala. During this time, we experienced three different cultures and activities. We began our week with a host stay in a Q’eqchi village called Xucaneb. The Q’eqchi are indigenous Mayan people and live a very simple lifestyle. The second part of our journey was at a place called the Community Cloud Forest Conservation, which focuses on education for indigenous women and children, conserving the cloud forest in the mountains of Guatemala and sustainable living practices. The third part of our journey was to the lowlands in Peten, where the climate is very warm and the scenery is different than the village and highlands of Alta Verapaz. We visited Tikal, which are ruins of an ancient Mayan city-state, as well as relaxed for a day on Lake Peten Itzal.

After our time in these three places, Jim and Ann gave us a journal prompt to think of a bigger question from each of these experiences. These are some of my reflections from my time in the village.

This experience brought up many questions for me. I was blown away by the kindness and generosity of my family and all those in the village. There is so much they gave to me. However, while at the Cloud Forest Conservation Center, Rob Cahill (our host) said something along the lines of “There is beauty in culture but there are also parts of culture that are toxic. We can recognize that and try to start from there.”

While beautiful and absolutely heart warming, I keep pondering what parts of culture are toxic in the village? It was difficult to feel like myself there. One, because it was harder to communicate. Two, because I knew there were certain expectations placed on me because I was female. So there are two parts to my reflection. The first is: what did I feel made me uncomfortable in the village and what parts that I think should perhaps be changed (as a Westerner and not knowing a lot of their culture)? The second is: What are parts of my culture that are toxic and should be changed?

In the village, I felt uncomfortable with three main things. There were other things that definitely pushed me, but these were in good and growing ways. The first that I have been reflecting on is the difference in age between my host mom and my host dad. While I really enjoyed my family, their clear age difference made me sad. He told me he was older than her and she looked like she was only a few years older than me. They didn’t tell me if their marriage was arranged but it could have been. (This being said, I was very much in awe of their relationship. My father treated my mother with respect and kindness, all while participating in what I view as traditional gender roles.) Who knows. It made me think about the future of my younger host sister. Will she marry young? Will she be able to choose her future?

The second thing I felt uncomfortable with is the economic situation of our village. My host father explained to me that the broccoli industry and company (from the States) has done wonders for the village, as has Christianity.  However, this village is dependent on this company now. Yes, there is a market, but what if one part of the chain collapses? Would the farmers be able to switch back to subsistence farming? Would the soil be too used to do so? What happens when a community is solely dependent on one economic income? In my readings and studies previous to this, it always helps to diversify.

I was also uncomfortable with the continued discrimination. I realize and own that I have deeply seeded egalitarian beliefs. However, between the things I observed based on gender, I felt disturbed by the lack of value placed on different people’s lives. To be fair, in the greater Guatemalan society, there is less value placed on indigenous lives. But that does not justify women being mistreated and not given opportunities. I was startled by the segregation of gender in church, with women on one side and men on the other. I also was surprised at how few of the girls (in our EMU group) were taken to the broccoli fields. I wanted to see them and understand more, but my father said I wouldn’t have been interested in his work. Maybe it’s too judgmental to say they don’t place value on women’s lives… It is a different kind of value than I am used to, to be sure. It also pains me to know that the treatment of mentally ill people in these villages is so… uniformed.  (Two of our group members saw this first hand). Mental illness is still so foreign and shameful for communities and families. I think there are many parallels between that and how people in the USA disregard those with disabilities. This was just a wake up call and a way to see very clearly the treatment of those who are different. There was value on the mentally ill person, but our group has concluded that we don’t need to agree with the way they placed value on her.

All this being said, I am questioning what culture is and how to recognize parts that would be beneficial to change. (I have a long reflection about what parts of my personal culture I think would be beneficial to change, but for length’s sake, I have left it out.) The village and the people showed me so much beauty. I felt so full and gratified by my time there. Even though I disagree with some aspects, I still hold an immense respect and gratitude for my time with my family. Yet this is a reminder to never stop questioning what makes me uncomfortable- wherever I am- be it in the States, my family in the city, or in a Mayan village, there is always more to analyze and ponder than what meets the eye.

-Katrina Poplett

Group Photo at National Palace

I will miss this country

24 February 2017

I will miss this country…

I will miss my host family. Who took in a foreigner and accepted me so graciously into their home. Demonstrating so much love in their hearts, caring for me and feeding me, and sharing their culture so willingly.

I will miss the food. The simplicity of rice, beans, eggs, and tortillas, seasoned to perfection, given to us daily, but yet still never seeming to get old.

I will miss the incredible scenery that surrounds the city. The mountains and the ambiguous crevices of the earth, and watching the volcanoes, spewing out steam if you’re lucky to catch it.

I will miss the greetings. Being able to walk into a house, hugging and kissing everyone without feeling discomfort, expressing how happy and excited I am to see them, even if I have never met them.

I won’t miss the crazy hustle and bustle of the city. Of pushing and shoving my way off the bus each day, to waking up to the constant beeping and honking of horns at 6:00 a.m.

I won’t miss the poverty I witness each day. Watching young kids selling things on the streets for a little extra cash, or beggars with lost limbs walking up to the windows of cars or sitting on street corners, and families working in the basurero.

I won’t miss the catcalling, the whistles and the constant stares. The uneasy feeling that arises in my stomach when I walk somewhere alone, always being alert and aware of my surroundings in any scenario.

I won’t miss seeing men with shotguns on the streets. Which make me feel even more unsafe but are apparently there to make people feel safer.

But through all these things, both good and bad, I have felt such a genuine love from these people I have learned so much, and yet there is still so much to learn. But my eyes have been opened wider, and Guatemala will always be a place close to my heart.

-Kayla Sauder

Group Photo at National Palace

The Symbolic Universe of Guatemala

22 February 2017

Some of the most important things are invisible and impalpable. Love has no color. Freedom has no taste. Hope has no smell. Peace has no texture. Respect has no sound. For this reason, we have developed symbols. Hearts represent love, for example. But the symbols we use are by no means the objectively correct symbols, so they are therefore free to vary by culture. In the United States, our flag represents freedom, and the eagle carrying an olive branch represents peace.

When we visited the cemetery in our first week of study, our guide, Joel van Dike, explained that to truly engage with a culture, one must enter the “symbolic universe” of a place. To understand Guatemala, one must understand Guatemala’s symbols. In the United States, the number 1776 signifies independence. Here, that number is 1812.

The image attached to this post is of a painting I saw in the Cloud Forest Conservation Center. I will use this to provide an introduction to Guatemala’s symbolic Universe.

The entire image looks roughly like a quetzal in flight. Indeed, the feathers are those of a quetzal. The quetzal is the national bird and also the name of the currency. (Why don’t we do that? As in, gasoline costs 2.50 eagles per gallon; I have ten eagles in my wallet; minimum wage is 7.25 eagles.) The quetzal is mostly green, but it bears many colors. It has elegant tail feathers and is extremely rare. It cannot live in captivity. It follows, then, that the quetzal symbolizes freedom and beauty. Continue reading

Group Photo at National Palace



Are we comfortable?
Being so far away from friends and family
Not understanding half of what is going on
Struggling to communicate what we are thinking?

Are we comfortable…
Staying with families who don’t have hot water and others who do
Living in a gated community with guards
Getting catcalled in the street?

Are we comfortable…
Seeing kids working in the dump to earn $3-4 a day
Eating at a McDonalds that is nicer than the ones in the states
Having an indigenous maid our same age

Are we comfortable…
Saying no to the kid who asks for a few coins
Walking in the street after our phones were stolen
Enjoying hot springs after a breathtaking hike up a volcano?

Are we comfortable…
Sitting on the toilet for the 7th time in a day with a trashcan in front of us
Sticking out no matter how hard we try to fit in
With the countless effects our country has had on Guatemala


Are THEY comfortable?
With our awkwardness
The history of our country
Our money, our power?

Are they comfortable…
Hosting someone they hardly know, a stranger
When we need so much help and attention
When we just don’t get it

Are they comfortable…
With our Spanish blunders,
Sharing life with us,
Inviting us into their family?

Are they comfortable…
Talking to a bunch of look-like-tourists,
Having people take pictures of their ordinary life,
Sharing their lives and stories with people they will never see again

Are we comfortable here?
Are they comfortable with us?

-Sarah Beth Ranck

K’ekchi Village
A Weekend in a K’ekchi Village

The civilized are just like us
The uncivilized are just like us
We find ourselves the same place
Enjoying the same things: conversation,
Food, and fellowship, the presence of laughter.
We are brainwashed with the reality
Of wealth and happiness, yet we can
Never stop or even slow down and enjoy
The various presences of each other and
Our qualities.

We create the stigmas and stereotypes, but
When a pure two year-old screams at
Your sight, you realize the almighty white person
Was a stigma all his own.
WE pushed them to the margins
Without listening or seeing.

They have JUST as much to offer.
Probably more.
We just need to slow down.
Strip away the electronics, brand names,
The English language, and the stigmas.
In this moment, when we are no more
And no less than them, we realize
We are all the same.

-Emily Clatterbuck

Group Photo at National Palace

Exploring culture with host families and hard realities

31 Jan 2017

By now, we’ve finally gotten accustomed to our new families and new routines. At first, of course, everything was unexpected. Before we left, we had hours of orientation to help us prepare mentally and emotionally for the culture. But every family is a culture unto its own. Every zone in the city is a different culture and the city is different from the rural areas. How could we have been prepared for that?

My host family consists of my sister, our two parents, and my mother’s mother. This, of course, is discounting extended family that we sometimes visit. My father is from Belize and my mother is from Guatemala and they met in seminary. My dad and sister can speak English fluently, but they never do because they want to help me learn. We go to a Mennonite church that runs a literacy program that both my parents teach at. We all hold hands and pray before every meal and we listen to Christian radio in the car on the way to school. My dad teaches Spanish at CASAS and my sister is the receptionist. My parents don’t like it when I ride the bus because they fear I’ll be robbed (a legitimate fear).

But all our families are different. Some have hosted students before, some haven’t. Some eat pizza and burgers and other U.S. food while others eat more traditional food. Some families have servants, some party hard, some have friends over constantly, some live in gated communities (called colonies), some have pets. But should this be surprising? Don’t we have such diversity back home?

Several of us have expressed discomfort regarding the issue of servants. My family doesn’t have a servant, but my aunt’s family does. When I first went to the house, I was introduced to everyone but the young indigenous girl in the kitchen. Before the meal, everyone was invited to the circle of prayer, even a baby, but not the girl with shorter stature and darker skin. At home, we have a strong value of egalitarianism, so seeing someone treating someone else as inferior made me (and others) deeply uncomfortable.

Not only are we in a different country, but we are in a different city, a different neighborhood, and a different family. It’s only been two weeks, but I’ve built relationships with my host grandmother, mother, father, and sister that I hope will last past this experience.

-Robert Propst

An Ethnocentric Moment

On Thursday January 26th, four of us were walking to the local store. Before we got there, however, a man with a gun stopped us to steal our phones. We are all physically fine, but we’ve now been introduced to one of the realities of Guatemala. After the incident, countless people shared their similar stories with us. What might’ve been meant for comfort turned into fear and anxiousness for me. As a cross cultural experience should do, my eyes have been opened to a harsh reality here. As the weekend passed, I had time to even reflect on the man who ripped away our security. Something in his life has brought him to the point where he can morally justify his actions; that’s the real loss here. Our phones can be replaced, and our security will again return, but the hardships (from various avenues probably) in this mans life will be with him (mentally and/or physically) for the rest of his life.
-Emily Clatterbuck
Group Photo at National Palace

CASAS – Getting Started

Hello readers of EMU, who hope to read about our adventures! You should be excited to know that we landed safely in Guatemala and are currently with our host families. First a little bit about our trip over. We flew from Dulles Airport to San Salvador in a flight of nearly 4 hours.  From there another half hour flight to Guatemala City, to pass over the mountains that would have made a car ride even longer.

When we arrived in CASAS (Central America Study and Service) to spend a couple nights before being introduced to our host families. On Friday we were given a diagnostics test to find out in which level of Spanish we would be starting out. We took a test and were given a sample of what a day of class would be like. The sample of what class was like surprised many of us, realizing that we were to be using our Spanish a lot sooner than we thought. While that stressed some out, others were relieved to start classes sooner than expected. After a quick trip to the mall to exchange money and buy some essentials, we rested up for the next day when we would meet our host families.

Saturday started with moving out of our rooms, signifying the new transition that was about to occur. We started with a history lecture about Guatemala, which included current issues of what needs to be done today, and why Guatemalans were stopped when they tried to change. We then headed out to Zona 1, where the National Palace and National Cathedral are. We took in the energy of what this had to offer with stores, both traditional and modern, and a large plaza to explore. Then returning to CASAS, we waited nervously as our host families approached us, before we were introduced to them. We joined them at their house and were introduced into our home away from home. Sunday was to be with our host family before returning to CASAS for classes Monday morning.

-Jonatan Moser


Group Photo at National Palace