June 27th: We had our final two lectures at University of Ghana in Accra. Women in Public Life in Ghana presented by Akosua K. Darkwah, PhD, Department of Sociology, University of Ghana. This lecture was conducted by one of only two women who provided lectures to us while we were here. Women contribute at high numbers to Agriculture (41.4% women and 48.2% men), Manufacturing (10.3% Females and 7.7% Males) and Services (28.0% women and 10.3% Males) in Ghana.
The second and final lecture was entitled, Agriculture in Ghana and was conducted by Dr. Naalamie Amissah, PhD. Ghana gained its independence on March 6, 1957, has a population of 30.9 million (2021), has a population growth rate of 2.1% per annum, the capital is Accra and the current President is Nana Akufo-Addo.
Principle Agricultural Exports include: Cocoa, Timber, Horticultural Products, Fish/Sea Foods and their Cultural Agricultural Imports include: Wheat, RIce, Chicken (frozen), Milk and Fish.
June 28th: Today we had a lecture on solid waste management, climate change, and environmental issues in Ghana. Afterward, we visited a waste management facility and watched videos on the processes that occur daily. The plant was under construction, but we were able to view a 3D model of it.
June 29th: Today we went to our site, Glowna. We worked with the children today on prime numbers. We wrote problems on the board and walked around and assisted them when needed and checked over their work. They came up and worked each problem out on the board in front of the class, to ensure they grasped the concept and were able to explain their answers. Lastly, we ended the day by playing a game of Uno.
June 30th: On Thursday, we went to the Art Center. We shopped till we dropped, the market was an amazing experience. It was very fun to look around and see all of the various items people were selling and getting to bargain. Then, we went to our volunteer sites for the last time. It was bittersweet, as we have formed bonds with the children.
July 1st: Friday was mainly our travel day from Accra to Kumasi. Five hours on the bus! We stopped at the Ghana National Cultural Centre. We learned all about the various tribes, former chiefs, the former currency used, tribal drums, and more. Very grateful for the chance to learn more about Ghanaian culture.
July 2nd: On Saturday, we spent the day in Kumasi. Around 8:30 am we left our hotel for a day full of activities. The first thing that we did was visit a Kente Weaving Village to learn about how kente clothing and cloth are made. We got to have a demonstration of how weaving is done and some of us also got to try weaving for ourselves. After we finished there, we went on our way to learn how people create clothing with traditional Ghanian Adinkra symbols by printing them on fabric. We saw a demonstration of how they make the dye that’s used to print the symbols onto the cloth, and some of us even got to give printing a try. After that, we went on our way to the Kumasi Fort and Military Museum for a tour. We learned about the Asante Rebellion and got to see some of the main military equipment and artifacts from the British-Asante war of 1990. And for our final stop of the day, we visited the Okomfo Anokye Sword Site to learn about the ‘immovable’ sword that was driven into the ground by Okomfo Anokye, the history of the Asante people, and why this sword is monumental to them.
A Beautiful Castle, Beach and History of Peñíscola, Spain
On the weekends, Tarjona language school takes some of its students on excursions to see different sites that we may not know about. On July 24th, we got on the 2 hour bus ride and headed to Peñíscola for the day. On the bus, a few students in our group were able to get to know other students from different countries who were from different Spanish classes. When we finally got there, I was so excited to see the amazing views. When we hopped off the bus we got to see a glimpse of one of the beaches, then started our journey up to the old castle. On our walk, we were able to see the beautiful roads filled with flowers, take pictures of the bright blue water, and pass by many little shops. When we got to the castle, we were able to see artifacts, the church, and if you went up the skinny steep staircase, then you would have seen the most amazing view of Peñíscola.
For my Game of Thrones fans out there, you would have noticed that many scenes were filmed here, which was really exciting to see in my opinion! We were able to take some pictures before heading out on our own for lunch or the beach. A lot of the restaurants were overlooking the water! At the end of the day, we all met up for some fun on the beach before getting back on the bus for another 2 hours. I wish we could have stayed longer in this beautiful city!
We have completed three weeks of language school and almost a month of being away from home. We’ve walked many, many miles – a couple students logged 30,000 steps in one day as they walked the entire riverbed park – La Turia – in Valencia. It’s been very hot as many countries in Europe experienced another heat “storm” and many of the buildings in Valencia have no air conditioning. As we all prepare to reorient ourselves to our families and friends, cooler weather and prepare for what comes next, we invite you to read a few of our final reflections.
– Shania Coleman
Discomfort and Adaptation
Wrapping up cross-cultural this week, I have been reflecting back on things I’ve learned about myself throughout the trip. First, I’ve learned how to be okay being uncomfortable and adapting to a new culture. I feel like traveling is one of the best ways to really grow and learn about yourself because every day is different with new opportunities. Traveling is not going to go smoothly 100% of the time, so learning how to navigate and handle those issues is a big lesson I have learned in Spain. Another thing I learned about myself on this trip is that I need alone time. I feel like when we are traveling in a big group and we all have roommates, it’s hard to get that alone time and regroup. I didn’t know how much I would need that until I came to Spain. Luckily, we have a great group of people in this cross-cultural group who have an understanding of people’s needs and are self-aware individuals. Overall, this trip has been extremely beneficial to learning more about myself. I think it was important for me to come on this trip and get out of my comfort zone!
– Hannah York
Reflections on Our Experience
I was given the hard task of wrapping up the entire trip into one blog post. When thinking back on this trip there were so many high points that I’m not sure exactly what I want to talk about most. Was it all of the museums, the bullfight, the complex history behind the architecture and the city, or was it something as small as being happy to see clouds in the sky, hearing cracked tile beneath your feet on the walk to school, finally being able to have a conversation in Spanish and understanding what was being talked about, or was it something else underlying that made this trip so exceptional?
Some of the best parts of this trip happened when we all gave into the culture and really tried to understand the similarities and differences between our culture and aspects of Spanish culture – when we weren’t afraid to use our Spanish and grow our vocabulary by talking to local people or when we learned how to navigate city transportation with only a few missed stops.
Being on this cross-cultural has provided every single one of us with opportunities to not only grow the skills we came into Spain with but also to learn new skills like speaking better Spanish, navigating a new city, and learning how to fit into a new culture all while discovering new things about ourselves that we will be able to bring back to the U.S. with us.
If you would have asked me before I left for Spain if I thought requiring cross-cultural was a good thing, I’m not sure what I would have responded with. After being in Spain for nearly a month, I can say with certainty that I will now always say “yes”. Although we were only here for a month, we made thousands of memories and learned priceless skills that will help us as we move into the workforce and back into our home communities. As we start our journey back to EMU, I can say that I am going to miss everything about Spain; its welcoming community, the laid-back culture, and the beautiful architecture are a few things that I can say I will never be able to forget.
– Abby Clayton
To Sweet Valencia:
Surfing the skies, Riding the trains, Walking the streets, And learning their names.
Welcoming every day faster than last, Glancing aback at the ghosts of the past, Learning her customs, her language, her ways, In the sweltering heat of the sun’s mighty rays.
Her people, her people, are her heart and her soul, The root of the good, the evil, the whole. For though we might struggle or draw a poor hand, Laura can laugh and yet understand, And in even the darkest and hottest of nights, Salva’s quick wit fans our spirits alight.
Though within our own group, some choice moments transpired, And it’s here that I’ll read off some quotes I’ve acquired: Ladies of the night were often invading, And biodegradable straws were biodegrading, Is it potatoes or the Pope that we’re baking? Does lactose intolerance improve decision-making?
Maybe we listen to Larry the Cable Guy more than we should, But it’s an established fact, his spit tastes kind of good Whether being too white to get a tan, Or milking someone for as long as we can, As we ready ourselves to fly off to the West, There’s no doubt our quotes are the best of the best.
For these are the memories, The new bonds we share, Forged on the streets Of that old city fair.
And though we’re eager to come home, Having appeased EMU’s intelligentsia, May we all someday return, To sweet Valencia.
On July 16th, around half of our group decided to go and watch a bullfight here in Valencia. It’s the centuries-old Iberian distillation of the most classic of conflicts: Man versus Nature. Recently, bullfighting has become taboo out of concerns for animal welfare. To watch an animal slowly lose blood and eventually be stabbed through the shoulders with a sword is not for those with a weak stomach.
Paradoxically, this statement of humanity’s triumph over a primordial fear of the natural world also demonstrates that we still deeply desire the risk of life which we strove to eliminate eons ago. None of us would have attended if there was no risk involved; indeed, many of us were at our most excited when one of the matadors was flung through the air by the bull. I and several others left the arena without fully processing the crossroads of ethics and tradition that is embodied by the bullfight. We are all trying to keep open minds to cultural differences between Spain and the US, and this is one Spanish tradition that we are having difficulty digesting. Is it ethical to continue a tradition that includes avoidable suffering? By watching this event, are we casting a vote for the preservation of bullfighting? What is the grand narrative that this tradition celebrates? We are still processing these questions and more.
“¿Qué tal vlogueros?” That means “what’s up vloggers?” in Spanish! It’s only one of many new words in my vocabulary.
We’ve been here in Spain for two weeks now. Today marks the halfway point in our trip. So let’s review it, shall we?
We got to Madrid on Thursday, July 7th and we hit the ground running. Kinda. After a long walk through the city, we got to our hostel and settled into our rooms. We learned how to operate the air conditioning in Spanish and that our key cards granted us electricity! After we settled in, we ventured out to grab dinner. Deanna and April led us to Plaza Santa Ana with many restaurants and many options. A bunch of us wanted to try the more traditional tapas. That’s where we met and fell in love with patatas bravas and calamari! Deanna gave us a list of foods to try while we travel and that was a great start. Afterward, we were free to walk around the city and explore.
The next day, we met for breakfast at the Santa Cruz Plaza at the Corner Café. That’s where most of us would go for breakfast each morning in Madrid. The waitstaff, especially Xavier, was so friendly and funny! We tried different foods each morning, including napolitana, pan con tomate, Spanish tortilla (eggs and potatoes baked together in the shape of a pie), eggs, café con leche, and other types of fancy coffees. So delicious!
Each day in Madrid, we had some kind of tour. On Friday the 8th, we had a tour around the city of Madrid! We found the oldest restaurant in the world, nuns who make yummy cookies, Felipe III, and the Plaza Mayor, and many others! That night, a group of us went to el Museo Nacional Del Prado — an art museum! With free admission! It was absolutely gorgeous, but we couldn’t take any photos. The next day, we went to the Royal Palace of Madrid. We got there early so we could see the changing of the guard and then had a digitally guided tour of the gorgeous palace.
The next day, we were off to Valencia! We took a train to travel and met our host families. Some of us explored the city, others of us just stayed home to unwind. We are staying with host families for the next three weeks here in Valencia and it is an amazing opportunity for cultural immersion, from food to conversation to learning about different family dynamics. We all had our own ways to prepare for what the next day entailed: first day of classes.
No matter what our level of Spanish was before this trip, or even our confidence in the language, we all struggled with the first few days of class. It’s all in Spanish for four hours every day. The days flip, one day we have morning classes with a free afternoon; the next day, we have a free morning (which most of us sleep in) and afternoon classes. Fortunately, we get 20-minute breaks between two hours of class and we all meet outside to say, “Wow. That was hard.”
But each day, it gets easier. We have been totally immersed in the Spanish culture here in Valencia. From the heat and lack of air conditioners to different foods and paying for water, the culture shock is real. We found comfort in the small things and stuck together to get through the uncomfortable feelings. Just two weeks ago, a lot of us were strangers to each other, but now it feels like we’ve known each other for a lifetime.
We spend our free mornings and afternoons in different ways: soaking up the sun on the beach — which is just 30 minutes away by bus, or by walking around Old Town, running in the park and trying to count the bridges, or catching up on our reading journals. We have been busy, busy, busy since we got to Madrid. Our vocabularies are growing more and more each day. Classes have gotten easier! We’ve each gotten used to our teacher’s way of teaching and they’ve learned where we are in our levels of Spanish. Whether we’re reviewing irregular verbs, trying to understand when to use subjunctive, or discussing Walt Disney, we all have been working hard in our Spanish classes. It makes our free time so much more valuable and we make sure to spend it well! From bullfights to museums to dinners of tapas and good conversation, we are enjoying everything we can that Spain has to offer us.
And there are many activities the school puts on for us, as well. Every Tuesday, we get together as a school for the paella parties. Paella is a rice dish with different meats and vegetables. On Sundays, there are adventures to different parts of Valencia, outside of the city. Just a few days ago, we went to the beach, enjoyed more paella in the birthplace (Palmera) of the dish, and took a boat ride through the rice fields. Some of us learned how to salsa dance! We’ve got more activities coming up that we’ll tell you all about next week! Thanks for following us along!
Monday: Monday was our first official full day in Ghana. We started off the day around 8 in the morning and had our first couple of lectures at the University of Ghana. The focus today was on the slave trade (from an African perspective) and religion and human rights. After class we went to a local restaurant for lunch then drove to the DuBois museum for a tour of DuBois’ Ghanaian home and burial site. Then we returned to our hotel for some dinner, and discussion time.
Tuesday: Our second Day in Accra, Ghana was a full day. Dr. Stephanie Afranie provided lectures around Child Rights and Protection Concerns in Ghana and we visited a Children’s home where we were able to interact with the residents who live and go to school there. In the afternoon we went to our respective placements for service with children with learning disabilities and children who are on the spectrum.
We capped the evening off with a little R&R and went to the Zen Garden for what is called the Jam Jam in an outdoor setting with live music.
Wednesday: Today we had a lecture on mental health in Ghana. We were grateful for the opportunity to visit the Pantang Psychiatric Hospital. We were able to take a tour of the facility and speak to a few clinical staff members who gave us some insight on the hospital procedures and how the wards are set up there. Afterward, we had lunch and then went to our volunteer sites.
Thursday: On Thursday, we went to the university for a lecture on Ghanaian theatre. We learned about the cultural dances from Ghana and then had a chance to learn some of the dances alongside students from the university majoring in dance. Then, we made the short journey to former Ghanian President John Kufuor’s home to chat with him and students who are a part of the Four Scholar’s program. We learned about his service as president and what he does now as a former president.
Friday: On Friday, we took a tour of Jamestown before making our way to the chief’s palace. At the palace, we were greeted by a beautiful display of dance with drumming to accompany it, as we awaited the chief. Then once we were inside the room listening to the chief speak, our very own professor translated for us, as we learned about his duties and the work he is involved in. Then to end off the afternoon we had an amazing lunch that consisted of fish, chicken, yam chips, and more.
24 hours from the time of writing, our group will be scattering: some of us will be camping out for a night in the airport before connecting flights, some will already be exploring other countries or continuing to explore Madrid, and some will be unloading our baggage into the EMU parking lot or our houses. Regardless of the physical location, all of us will be readjusting—to our recent adventures settling into memories, to bonding across states instead of across tables, to the doubts from our “real lives” shifting abruptly from procrastinated to present. Here are our final reflections.
As our time in Valencia came to an end, six of us decided to head up north to San Sebastián for a few days of free travel. A 9-hour train ride took us from 90s and humid to 70s and beautiful (though the 80° water temp in Valencia was preferred).
We spent our time getting sunburnt on the beach, eating burgers from Bar Pepe, climbing to the Sagrado Corazón, and drinking some of the best-looking cocktails you’ve ever seen. We wrapped up the trip by watching “Top Gun: Maverick” (thankfully in English), and even though the time was short, it was great to be able to share it with some awesome people.
After splitting up for free travel, it was wonderful to meet up again as one big group. We were hosted by Bruce and Merly Bundy in a lovely house where we could cook and play games together. In our place near Villaviciosa, we were in the countryside, which was refreshing for many of us after living in a city for a while. We had cars to get around, allowing us to have a variety of adventures. Two days we hiked parts of the Camino de Santiago, with people stopping whenever they got tired. Another day we went to a nearby beach, where some of us rented surfboards and taught ourselves how to surf (a few people had watched YouTube videos before, and that’s all you really need for most activities—right?) Another day we toured a sidrería (cidery), which is a large industry in Asturias since it is the apple capital of Spain. …For this reason it was also fitting that we sang Johnny Appleseed before a lot of our meals…
All the activities we did were great, but what made this part of the cross-cultural special was the group we were with. Due to COVID forcing a lot of other cross-culturals to be canceled, a good chunk of our group are seniors. As the trip is coming to a close, we seniors are feeling the sadness of knowing we are moving on from college, and moving across the country from friends. During the days in Asturias, everyone gave a final presentation on various aspects of the cross-cultural. It was obvious in the topics chosen and responses to others’ presentations that the friendships formed on this trip and throughout college are something special, and saying goodbye and heading separate ways from people will be hard for a lot of us. Asturias gave us the space to gather again as a group and share tears, laughter, late nights, stories, meals, affirmations, and love on each other a little more before the cross-cultural comes to a close.
This past week in Asturias has been a great way to conclude our six-week journey in Spain; it was awesome to be in a large house together after being separated by free travel. During our time at Asturias, one of our nightly activities was personal reflections. This was a space for each student to share and reflect on their time in Spain. Throughout the four nights of reflection, there were many happy and tearful moments reminiscing on memories from the past six weeks and our shared college experiences.
A common theme for many of these reflections was questions about our future. With our group having a majority of recently graduated seniors, the question of “what’s next?” was a common reoccurrence. Many of us are unsure about our future after Spain. While this can be an uneasy and scary feeling, it is reassuring to know we have a group of people that will support each other in our different walks of life.
Similar to others, I am also unsure about my future after Spain. While clarity about my future would be helpful, I have learned that it is sometimes okay to not have a set plan. Currently, I am seeking peace and contentment in not knowing answers about my future. I hope to reflect and see how my experiences on this trip affect my future life and career.
Throughout this trip I have taken a lot of time to get out of my comfort zone and try new things. From trying exotic foods like octopus and raw squid to even just exploring the cities by myself, I feel as though I have definitely achieved that goal that I had set for myself. One specific example that sticks out to me is when a group of us decided to surf at the Beach of Rodilles. Although it was harsher conditions and the waves were quite powerful, I found the courage to put on a wetsuit and try to tame the ocean with my rented surfboard. While I fell almost every single time I tried to stand during the first hour, I still persevered and had some great encouragement from my friends on the trip. For the last hour of surfing I felt much more confident and was able to consistently catch a wave and then stand up for at least a few seconds. While I will not be attending any competitions soon, I certainly feel as though surfing could be something I would enjoy doing from time to time when I have the chance to. If anything, this trip has taught me the importance of trying new things even when at first they might seem to be too overwhelming.
A Senior Farewell
As we come to a close on the journey through Spain, the group was asked to reflect on their time and experiences. Compared to a semester-long cross-cultural, six weeks seems like a blip in time but, holy cow, there was so much that happened in those six weeks. One of the unique things about this trip was the number of graduated seniors who attended. A pretty obvious question we asked ourselves on this trip was: what’s next? Some of us knew, others had an idea, a few left it to the gods, and some (myself included) came in with a plan but found it totally unraveled during the trip. It’s funny how people who are in a similar group and time of their life walk such different paths. Despite the differences in our walks of life, there is always one constant that we take for granted until it’s time to leave and that is our community. Community celebrates with us in our good times and supports us in our not-so-good times. The past four years, we have been building this community person by person, but now it is time to part ways. The best part is, it isn’t goodbye; just because we are parting physically doesn’t mean the support stops—we just have to be more intentional. So while Spain was a time to learn about a new culture, it also gave an opportunity for each of us who are parting ways to say, “I can’t wait to see you again.”
– Kate Zuercher
(Leader’s note: We are so full of gratitude for this group of 24 students who wholeheartedly lived into their 6 weeks of intercultural learning. We saw a lot of Spain, learned new Spanish words, ate some incredible food and shared stories together. As we wrapped up it was clear that, for many, the relationships nurtured and deepened during our time together is much of what will be celebrated as we move into our individual and scattered lives. One of our goals was to help everyone become better travelers. There is no question we are all better travelers and better humans for having shared these experiences.)
Putting down roots in Valencia—getting to know the city and its opportunities, our host families, and Taronja, our school—has greatly enriched these past few weeks. As we face our last week here, we wanted to share reflections on past moments, enjoyable activities, those who have been kind enough to open their homes to us, and the school we’ve been attending.
Finding Joy in the Most Unlikely Place
We left Madrid about two weeks ago and have been in Valencia ever since, staying with host families and studying Spanish. However, one of my favorite experiences from the trip so far happened in Madrid, so I would like to share a little bit about that experience (even if it is a little bit of a step back in terms of the timeline of our trip.)
This experience happened in, of all places, a laundromat, a day or so before we were slated to leave Madrid. It was later in the evening when I somehow struck up conversation with the only other person in the laundromat. He didn’t have enough change to start the washer so I lent him some so he could get his clothes started before going to get some change at a nearby store. He did so and came back with something to drink for both of us. We sat and talked for a while until two couples came in with the same problem. They both went to the store and got some change and came back to chat while we all waited for our laundry. It turns out that the first man is from Chile and one couple is from Brazil while the other is from Honduras—so six people from all over the Americas met up in, of all places, a laundromat in Madrid, and enjoyed time together.
I personally had a great time and think this is something that I probably will never forget. I think it goes to show how simple, unexpected, things like this can be some of the most fruitful and I’m encouraged to look for more experiences like it in the remaining three or so weeks of our trip.
This past Tuesday we had our weekly paella party where we were able to all have a meal together in the beautiful streets of Valencia. On top of that, there were many other students from Taronja, our school, at the dinner. After about 30-45 minutes of talking, relaxing, and drinking with those around us, the paellas were ready. After waiting in a short line, I received the Valencian style paella which included chicken, rabbit, and, most of all, rice. After eating one plateful of paella I was more than satisfied with the amount of food I ate. However, for those who wanted it, there was plenty of paella for seconds or even thirds. After eating, relaxing, and conversing with those around me, I called it a night as others had already started to trickle out.
This past Thursday, most of our EMU group signed up for paddle boarding. When I got there, I made sure that the first thing I did was lather myself in sunscreen. Immediately after I finished putting on the sunscreen they informed us we would be wearing these tight wet-shirts they had for us—essentially negating the sunscreen process I had just gone through. I soon got over the fact that I had wasted 2 euros-worth of sunscreen, and they taught us how to use the paddle boards. We made our way into the Mediterranean sea where the “waves” were slightly bigger than you would find in the Great Lakes—in other words, the waves were big enough to make paddle boarding challenging, but not impossible. I found it to be pretty easy to stand up on the board; however, I also found myself to be pretty challenged with staying on the board once I was standing. I fell many times, and found it impossible to stand up while going in the direction of the waves. If you were to go against the waves, attacking them head on, it was much easier. Seeing the waves come at you made the movements of the board predictable, enabling me to stand for longer than 5 seconds. After about an hour, me, Jackson, Jason, and Morgan decided we needed something more to do on our boards; therefore, we started attempting front flips off of the paddle board into the sea. As it turned out, it’s difficult to get much height jumping off of a paddle board, but it was fun nonetheless. We ended up being out in the sea, not too far off shore, for a little over an hour. Overall, I personally had a blast with our group and getting the opportunity to paddle board for the first time.
The next activity on Thursday was a tortilla-making class at the school—tortillas in Spain are much different than a tortilla you would find in Central America. The only ingredients in Spanish tortillas are potatoes, onions, eggs, olive oil, and salt. So immediately after paddle boarding I zoomed over to the school with 5 other EMU students (Jonathan, Kate, Zach, Laura, and Jonas) in order to participate in the class. Altogether, there were probably 20 students in this smallish room with a small kitchen in it. Chef Nando starts off by playing an intro song for himself as he busts out of the pantry. Chef Nando just had this unbelievable energy to him as he informed us about the Spanish tortilla and demonstrated how it’s made. After Chef Nando’s demonstration, he sat us all down in the next room around this large table. Chef Nando then explained that the best way to eat the tortilla is when it’s room temperature, with a slim piece of bread, and then a spread of tomato paste on the bread. When it is all put together, I can truly say that it tastes amazing. As we all ate, it was great to be able to intermingle with other people in the school and hear their stories. I was blessed with the opportunity to talk to Crystal, a student from Switzerland, for about an hour as we ate. It was fun to hear differences in our cultures, countries, and lives.
The last event we had on Thursday was a flamenco show in this not-too-small but definitely not-too-large bar. There’s a small wooden stage and tables full of people surrounding it. One by one the three flamenco performers came out from a back hallway. First was the guitar player who started the guitar a little. Next was a fellow who primarily does the flamenco tap dancing, and then finally came the singer who also performed a fair amount of tap dancing. They performed for about an hour, sharing a number of songs ranging from slow to extremely fast and quiet to extremely loud. I was quite intrigued throughout the entire show. The show finished up around 11:40 which left me with a short 42 minute walk back home. 🙂
Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Valencia (families and school)
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:
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 monumentoa 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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!
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.
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?”
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.
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!