Category Archives: Guatemala & Cuba 2018

Independent travel in Guatemala and Belize

Free travel was supposed to be a well-earned vacation from learning; I was expecting to saunter off into the Guatemalan jungle and render my mind blissfully empty of deep thoughts. Yet, in the aftermath of our week-long adventure through the mountains of Cobán and the steamy lowlands of Lake Izabal, I’ve realized that I accidentally learned a lot:

Lesson 1: Friendship can be found in unexpected places, like at street food stands or in a packed microbús.

Lesson 2: God appears in unexpected places. I’ve seen God in the majesty of hidden jungle waterfalls, in the kindness of generous strangers, and in safe bus rides along dangerous mountain roads. (In the last case, there were moments where I really did wonder if I was about to meet my Maker.)

Lesson 3: “Barriga llena; corazón contento.” (Full belly, contented heart.) Always travel on a full belly, lest you subject your travel companions to the wrath of a hangry heart.

Lesson 4: A pretty place is nice to look at, but true beauty is found in friendship. Thanks to my travel buddies, to our hosts, and to the many, many people who fed us and welcomed us into little-known corners of this incredible country throughout the past week.

-Kat Lehman

-morning boat ride on Lake Izabal-

I could see the curve of the Earth,

smell the immensity of the horizon

with the 6am stubble of mountains

way way way across the way


the water was gently shifting porcelain

warm to the touch

studded with seabirds and floating green gardens


the sky hummed with blues and grays

and the intangible promise of a new day

just over my shoulder the sun peeked

through a crack in the clouds

and it was all yellow


I smiled at our guide, his hand on the tiller,

his bare feet dangling


and his one silver tooth caught a glint

of the rising sun

when he smiled back

and pointed out a small family of monkeys

breakfasting in the coastal trees

Lessons Learned on Free Travel

  • You don’t need to have a plan to have fun. Spontaneity=gaiety
  • Feed yourself regularly. You can get hangry even if your stomach isn’t registering hunger.
  • Take every possible opportunity to fling yourself naked into a body of water.
  • Bus rides through Guatemalan countryside are really fun in you don’t mind catching some air.
  • Eat every mango you can lay hands on, for who knows when it shall be thy last?
  • Donde caben dos, caben tres (o seis o diez). Aka, a bus is never truly full.
  • It’s scary to climb a waterfall, but also, once you’ve done it, you’re on top of a waterfall…so, worth it.
  • Talk to anyone and everyone. Your Spanish is good enough.
  • Travel with people who aren’t afraid to wander slowly and aimlessly because that’s how you stumble upon the best hidden treasures.
  • Take in everything with wide eyes and an open mind; don’t be afraid to slow down and marvel.
  • Not all chihuahuas suck.
  • Sometimes scorpions lurk in backpacks and you have to catch them in your water bottle and stare at them for a while. Do not benevolently release them into the wilderness because they will sneak back into your room and attack you in the middle of the night.
  • You can hop in the pickup truck of a total stranger and come out alive. Stranger danger is not always a thing. Trust people.
  • Guatemala is a beautiful country filled with wonderful and kind people (but you already knew that).

-Elizabeth Nisly

I have never seen mountains like Guatemala’s before. They breathe green into every corner of my sight and astound me with the steepness of their reaching slopes. I could stare and stare and never get enough of their majesty.

– Megan

Our group of three spent three days in Rio Dulce and three days in Lívingston, choosing to save money and spend less time traveling by staying in Guatemala. Although if you think about it, the money we were given for free travel wasn’t just handed to us – it was originally ours that we used to pay tuition for this semester. Still, it felt like Byron and Lisa were just giving us money to travel.

I can’t write about grand adventures or discoveries, but I can write about what the three of us felt so strongly throughout the week; the restorative power of doing nothing: of sleeping in, of reading novels on a roof or by a pool, of not having scheduled times to eat or sleep or be in Spanish class or to be somewhere. For the first time all semester, except for a few days in Arizona, we had no planned activities, and it was glorious. Combined with the scenery, we could not have asked for a better, more relaxing week out of the city.

-Jenna H., Anali & Nathaniel

We were very thankful that our first two days of travel to Placencia, Belize were not an indication of how the remainder of our free travel would go. Traveling in Guatemala posed more challenges than we would have had while traveling in the United States because we were not able to plan much in advance. We could not look at bus and boat schedules online leading us to always take the earliest bus/boat to make it to our next destination just so that we could sit and wait a long time for the next one to leave. Making it even more difficult, we had to keep track of three different currencies (Quetzales, USD, BZD), two different languages, as well as our group and the other two groups. And, on top of all of that, we had to deal with Guatemalan time. This means that nothing leaves or arrives on schedule and there is no rush.

The most stressful part of our travel was an hour boat ride from Livingston, Guatemala to Punta Gorda, Belize that took up the largest portion of our transportation budget during the middle of a storm. We were sitting in a 20-passenger boat that was open on all sides, and thrown around by the wind and the waves. The torrential rain started when we could no longer see any sign of land. We stopped to refill on gas during this downpour and we were convinced that we were lost. However, we started moving across the open ocean again and finally caught sight of land. The rain stopped, the sea calmed, and we no longer had to huddle under the tarps, praying and holding hands. All of these struggles made the beaches of Placencia more beautiful and enjoyable. 


We spent the next 5 days 40 feet from the beach, enjoying the luxuries of air conditioning, warm showers, speaking English, and independence in our food and activities. One of our highlights was eating Tutti Frutti gelato almost every night. We loved the small town feel of Placencia and the ability to walk everywhere. Most of the shops and restaurants were located on the main sidewalk that provided easy access to the beach and the whole town. Despite our traveling difficulties, we all agree that Placencia was well worth it. We would all love to go back another time to experience everything we did not do and to re-experience some of our favorite memories.

-Ginny, Rachel, and Madeline

Our group, like a few others, was lucky enough to explore the beautiful, tropical country of Belize for our free week of travel. From the very first day, our trip went so smoothly it felt too good to be true. We left at an early 2:30am and took a variety of transportation to reach Puerto Barrios, Belize, where we ate pizza and had a relaxing night on the balcony, looking out over the ocean. Throughout our journey to Placencia, Belize, our final destination, we walked, took 3 taxis, 2 boats, and 2 busses. This long journey made Placencia even more enjoyable upon arrival. After getting off the boat, we were all surprised to be welcomed in English, a nice change from the ongoing Spanish we had been hearing and studying in the city. We were greeted by our gracious and hospitable host, Analise, who provided us with a house located right on the lagoon and included a rooftop pool, kayaks, tubes, bikes, and a beautiful lounging area where we spent most of the week. Analise and her boyfriend even cooked us a delicious barbeque meal during our time there.

Placencia is a small lively town located on a peninsula where the tropical air, bright blue oceans, and unique restaurants and bars welcome many tourists from all over the world. Unlike Guatemala and Mexico where we had previously visited, Belize offered a different atmosphere and culture. Placencia provided us with a sense of community, safety, and an overall island vibe that was thrilling to explore. During our time in Placencia, we visited the beach, made our own meals (mostly consisting of pasta), lounged at our pool, and sun-tanned. On the last day, we were able to take a boat out to a secluded island to snorkel! We saw schools of fish, a rainbow squid, and multiple stingrays. We felt so free swimming and scanning the coral reefs that reside under the Belizean blue waters. Until our travel day back, every aspect of our trip was perfect. On the way home, we ran out of gas on our boat, which caused us to miss our bus back to the city. This was quite an experience, but we all made the most of it and embraced the unpredictability of travel. Overall, our trip to Placencia was an unforgettable adventure, and turned out to be the perfect, much-anticipated break we needed.

-Laura, Katie, Clara, Jenna, Seth

During our weeklong adventure throughout Guatemala, we stopped in Semuc Champey for a couple of days. This is one of Guatemala’s most famous and most beautiful national parks, and it is preserved perfectly. It consists of a river flowing into naturally formed pools with a small waterfall cascading into each pool. The water was extremely clear and very refreshing to swim in. But the swim was not without a price, the rocky path to the pools were both sharp and slippery. Somehow, none of us took a spill and despite the danger, the view from the pools was absolutely worth it. From the water, we could see down the river valley into the sunset over a distant mountain range. All in all, it was a fantastic trip full of conversations with interesting people, beautiful scenery and long, long, long bus rides.

-James, Sol, & Lucas

Guatemala & Cuba 2018

Guatemala: Poetry

Hola m’hija
Ahorita llego
De platicar con un ciego
Pero voz fijo
Su corazón de fuego

Perdió su visión
En el año ochenta y siete
Por un accidente de cohete
Creando una fisión
En ambos ojos y la mente

Escuchame, me indicaba
Es el trigésimo primer año
De vivir así cotidiano
Pero lo que me perjudica
No es aquel daño

Lo que más me ha dañado
En estos treinta y un años
Es que cada ser humano
A quien he escuchado
Le toma la visión por sentado

-Adam Moyer

Dirt floor and hanging corn
Lush carpet and ceiling fan

Candle light and wood fire
Flipped switch and microwave

Wooden bed and shared room
Mattress pad and closed door

Tortilla making and mountain climbing
Eating out and five cars

Eight siblings and roaming chickens
Nuclear family and backyard

Outhouse and outdoor spigot
Flushing toilets and hot water

Playing catch and manual labor
Toy room and studying science

Worn clothing and no education
Full closet and college degree

Below poverty and pure joy
Middle class and …

-Madeline Mast

Poems are freaking hard
Harder than living abroad
We’re already halfway done
Time flies when you’re having fun
There was AP, Douglas and Tucson
Guatemala City and Coban
And I almost forgot Atitlan
My Spanish still sucks
But who gives two ducks
(I write kid friendly poems)
I have experienced so many cultures
And seen the basurero with vultures
I have slept on planks of wood
And where people were massacred I have stood
The people here have beautiful souls
They’ll keep giving you food when you’re full
While they eat so little
And have so little
The lucky ones have opportunity
And the rest live in poverty
Yet they all wave and smile
While this gringo says “buenos” and passes by

-Lucas Miller

Where is the oxygen
Not in my lungs
My throat burns
Straining my legs
My back
My whole being
These children
We would label them poor
And yet here
In this context
I’m the poor one
Lacking strong lungs
Legs that don’t ache
When I pull myself
Up the mountain

Where is my knowledge
Of using this bathroom
And sleeping on wood
I am poor
I have nothing
That is useful here
In this context
I am forced to think
A different way
For to me they’ve
Been poor
Because poor is just
About money
But being here
My money means
And poor is about lack of
Knowledge and
And language

-Jenna Heise

Guatemala & Cuba 2018

Guatemala: Alta Verapaz

We’re back from five breathtaking days in Guatemala’s Alta Verapaz, where we stayed with the organization Community Cloud Forest Conservation, led Rob and Tara Cahill, along with teachers and staff from the surrounding Q’eqchi’ communities. CCFC is working with the conservation of the rapidly diminishing cloud forest, as it intersects with the lives and well-being of the people who live there. The work of this organization is far-reaching. There are two main community programs: Kids and Birds, which is a summer-camp-style environmental education experience for children, and Women in Agroecology Leadership for Conservation (WALC). Through WALC, young women learn life skills and leadership, but also plant agroforestry plots, as an alternative form of agriculture that both repairs degraded forest areas and can be a source of nutritionally dense food. CCFC is addressing both social and environmental issues holistically, and coming up with some wonderfully creative solutions.

CCFC – Photo by Alex Rosenberg

During our five days in the cloud forest, we spent three nights in the CCFC facilities, which are filled with windows, light, and wood. The facility was built with careful attention to resource conservation. We got to experience composting toilets, showers heated in pipes that ran through wood cook stoves, and meals featuring ingredients like cloud forest spinach. It felt like there was no boundary between “indoors” and “outdoors.” We got to spend a lot of time outside in the cloud forest. We hiked through the forest two different days, both times reaching caves that were historically places of Mayan worship.

Our other two nights were spent with host families, which we all agreed was one of the most difficult things we’ve done so far on this cross-cultural. We were living in houses perched on the edges of the mountains, in the community of Sebob. While there, we ate meals cooked around a fire, interacted with the intergenerational families who were hosting us, and played a lot of soccer. We wheezed up steep hills (our host siblings nonchalantly sprinting ahead of us), slept on boards, bundled in all of the clothes we’d packed, and tried our best not to cough as billows of smoke from cooking fires hit our faces. Even in writing that, I am cringing a little bit. We all know how incredibly privileged we were to be there, how hospitable our host families were, how little we have to complain about in our daily lives. As we walked down that mountain for the last time, I wrestled with feelings of guilt at the bit of relief I felt at returning to the CCFC buildings, with their hot showers and soft beds. These mixed feelings of gratitude and guilt linger with me, as I return to life at school in the city.

That week gave me a lot to think about in regards to how we talk about conservation and issues of environmental stewardship, since this is one of CCFC’s main areas of focus. Because I am an Environmental Sustainability major at EMU, I was particularly interested in seeing the intersection of culture and environment from an angle other than that of the United States. Our relationship with the environment, and how we respond to environmental degradation, are so dependent on where we were born, who our families are, and what our surrounding culture says about environmental stewardship. I saw a lot of similarities between the U.S. and Guatemala in our environmental concerns: the ways that so many of us take for granted our natural resources, our rapidly dwindling forests, climate change as a life-altering force in all of our lives, the cultural significance of agriculture. Continue reading

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 & Cuba 2018

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


Guatemala & Cuba 2018

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