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!
A constant struggle of silencing my own thoughts. This is the most consistent thing that lectures provide me with. Privileged to be in my 18th year of education and yet I still haven’t succeeded in the most challenging task of quieting the spinning thoughts. Sometimes I silence too much. Then there are no thoughts. Just static. Numbness. There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium. Shouting but never quiet. Static but never hum. This constant struggle of determining whether or not I should put effort into focusing on the lecture or if I should just let my mind wander is never easy. Do I let time pass quickly? Whipping thoughts in all directions. Whatever comes to mind tossing and turning until there’s no more time left in the lecture? Do I let time pass slowly? Crawling thoughts of General Mai and Chinese Wars over Communism? I try to focus. I really do. Even with my mind fighting with all it’s ideas. I try. But sometimes according to academia, I fail and my mind wanders. With that failure comes some of the most beautiful results. My curiosity and creativity flow with freedom unconstrained by tests or rubrics. How can anyone sensible possibly view this as a loss? In my mind I won. Even if academia doesn’t view it this way.
October 6th, 2021
Chatting as we pass across uneven sidewalks and weave through food stands pouring onto the street. Wandering about for supper from street stands near our roundabout. Glancing over hopeful eyes. Smiling through opaque masks. Causal “sa-wa-de-kah‘s” floating in the air mingling with smells of food cooking along the grill. No ties. No close connection. Then a deep feeling of comfort comes as I connect eyes with a woman selling soup. Her movements reminiscent of movements I’ve seen my entire life. Her eyes crinkle in a way I’ve watched since I was born. In another life this woman would be my grandmother. Selling soup on the street in Thailand. Of course it is. Why else would I feel the deep sense of security and longing? Comfort and nostalgia? Of course it is her. Why else would I feel this way? Just in another life. Beads of sweat dripping down my forehead. Noisy traffic of morning commute surrounding me as my feet pound against the sidewalk along the north side of the old city. Conversation between Isaac and I had died down now that we are single file along this section of the sidewalk. Left with my own thoughts. My watch says we are a little under a mile into the run. An opening forms through traffic and we cross the street towards the inside of the old city. I hop up onto the sidewalk ensuring that my footing is secure. There, a woman is walking towards us. This feeling rushes over me again. A familiar stranger. Quite possibly my mother in another life. I’m sure of it. As I run past, I turn my head to look at her closer as we have now passed her. She’s also turned back to look at me and our eyes meet for a brief moment. Then it is over. The day continues. Our lives carry on. Separately. Yet for a moment they were connected. A complete stranger. Barriers and layers of complication to separate our lives. Yet so familiar despite it. Stramiliar: a familiar stranger.
October 8th, 2021
A gentle soft greeting from our driver met with my jagged ungraceful one as we climbed into the rusty Rot Dang. 50-4039 I made sure to check this time before telling the five others to jump in since my previous experience left us with the incorrect driver and a complicated situation. With only a few of us, I easily secured a spot standing on the back hanging onto the ambiguous bars welded to the main body. We swiftly moved from a bustling street of lively Friday night energy to quiet residential housing on back streets. The city came to life again as we moved onto the streets of the old city and gained speed. A wave to a fellow motorbiker. A gentle nod in return. The dancing of shadows intertwines with the air moving around me. My hair alive with the delight of this adventure into the night. Though short, an adventure it is. Hundreds of bricks stacked upon each other remind me of the rich history these streets hold. Everything feels warm. Zooming towards a stoplight changing from yellow to red with no intention of slowing. Soon red is bold. Prominent about the intersection before us. Yet off we go. Right on by. Continuing. A turn onto another back street. Swift changes from scooter filled street lanes and bustling markets to shadow filled streets and stray cats roaming, speed slowing. I begin to feel sad. Our adventure is over. We turn again. Another sign of a near ending. How can it continue past our arrival? What do we need to do in order to bring the adventure with us? Familiar questions I’ve asked myself as I think about this time in Thailand with the unavoidable return back to EMU. No answers to fulfill curious thoughts. One final turn into the YMCA. A clear end. One final gust of October air. A quick “kap-Kuhn-kah” to our driver before turning away. Now the fun part. The challenge of continuing the adventure. If I can master it here, I can repeat it for our inevitable return to Harrisonburg as well. I didn’t master it tonight. Not yet. But maybe the goal isn’t to master continuing the adventure but to reimagine what adventure looks like.
October 13th, 2021
Humming of the van engine fills the silence. Cascading light filters through the windows as we caravan back south. The light of day is fading across the mountains and deep blue shadows fall across their slopes. Their ridges smooth but jagged. They seem as though they could almost be the mountains I’ve seen my entire life. The mountains that raised me. For a moment I forget that they aren’t. The looming fog caresses their foothills just as it does at home. I forget these mountains aren’t my own despite:
-the passing of cars on the opposite side of the road -thai conversation passing through the driver’s walkie -rising smoke trails from homes with mothers cooking supper for their families
A jagged outcropping comes into view with bright red clay in contrast to the sleepy blue slopes and I’m reminded that these aren’t my mountains. Conrad’s voice breaks the hum of the engine. Darkness engulfs the conversation as we venture through a country still so foreign to me. Evening dusk turns into streetlights. Pink hues fill the sky as the mountains begin to fall away into the shadows of the evening. No, these aren’t my mountains but they are still watching after me. Just as my mountains always have.
For many, “Thailand is friendly and food-obsessed, hedonistic and historic, cultured and curious.” For me, Thailand is about getting really, really confused. A couple of nights ago I was holding onto my seat as I bounced over a dark, barely noticeable speed bump. My acquaintance was driving and I was on the back of his motorbike. He continued on the dark road, following two motorbikes ahead of him. Suddenly, and with off-putting synchronization, all three motorbikes began to slow. Normally this would have been fine. I would have just asked what was going on. But he speaks no English, and my Thai is in its infancy.
At that moment I had deja vu. I remembered a time four years ago when I was on a dark unfamiliar road in an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar acquaintance. That time had ended badly. A gun was pulled on us and we were robbed.
I tensed. My knees gripped the bike as I considered my options. I could always drop my wallet and run. I could run pretty fast. Hopefully, they wouldn’t chase me if they got what they wanted.
The bikes continued to slow. Soon, we were slow enough that I could have hopped off and landed on my feet. There was a bump. I looked down. It was a speed bump. That was why everyone was slowing down. I was spooked for nothing. I took a deep breath. We turned a corner. In front of us was an illuminated soccer complex with four fields and a bar at the center. We had arrived.
It makes sense for Thailand to be a place of wild interpretations. Even the language here reflects that. The word “ma” can mean come, grandma, horse, dog, or nothing at all. The only audible difference is the pitch or “tone”. Whenever I introduce myself as Isaac, Thai people usually giggle uncontrollably. I didn’t think much of it for a while. After all, Isaac does literally mean laughter. But after a while, I suspected something was going over my head. I looked up my name on google translate and it came up as NS******. All the asterisks made me suspicious. I asked my Thai friends Mark and Fahsai about it and they confirmed. I was introducing myself as “Bullshit”.
“Bullshit.” That’s what I called when some of the other students came back from their first Thai massage proclaiming the benefits of the transformative experience. “It’s just a glorified back rub, right? This is going to be easy.” That’s what I was thinking when I went to get my first Thai Massage. I even brought earbuds to listen to a podcast in case I got bored. I was expecting mediocre. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It costs 199 Baht for an hour massage plus a footbath before and tea after. That’s just under six dollars. I sat for a while drinking a pink drink with a flavor nobody can agree on. After that they washed my feet and led me to a room where I laid down on a mat on the floor. Too confusing for me, Jansen Miller had to tell me how to wear the baggy linen clothes they provided. My massager, a smiling Thai man, started with a prayer, and within the first thirty seconds had his hands pressed firmly into both sides of my pelvis. I’ll summarize the rest of the experience. It was painful yet gentle, awkward yet relaxing, intimate yet professional. They say that Thai massage is like visiting your chiropractor, acupuncturist, yoga instructor, masseuse, and meditation, all in one visit. I wholeheartedly agree.
Time after time my mind is blown. One day I’m trying Thai massage, the next I’m savoring sugar apples (which taste exactly like mangos but look like scaly green brains). Sometimes it gets really, really confusing, but that’s cross-cultural – one strung-out social breaching experiment. I’m just grateful that the Thai people humor us in our unintentional bullshit.
I am currently sitting at the laundromat. It’s outside (covered) and you must take your shoes off. It’s very nice.
We flew to Bangkok, then Chiang Mai, and were greeted by YMCA staff and university interns, and drove to the YMCA. I napped, we ate, then went to the mall. I spent the first ten-ish minutes in my room thinking we had no AC or power, which was a bit of a panic moment, but we’re all good. Fooled by the key system. The room is much less luxurious than our Phuket hotel (to be expected) but I like it. It feels like a home. I’ll miss the water pressure, though.
Walking through Chiang Mai to the mall felt like a dream. The air was cooler, I was with friends, and we saw so many little shops and restaurants with warm, inviting lights. I am so happy to be in a city with a safe, warm home with my friends, learning new things.
I can’t wait to make friends with the university students.
September 20, 2021
Yesterday was our orientation at the YMCA. I know some of it was exhaustion, but I found myself holding back tears several times while the staff talked about their excitement and our itinerary for the semester. I could feel the importance of our presence here for the YMCA (due to COVID, they have not had any groups like this in a long time), and the excitement of everyone to have us overwhelmed me. Also, the massive list of things we get to do here… I had no idea. I think my mouth was hanging open for most of the presentation—I was just so in awe of all the incredible experiences the YMCA has planned for us. How did I get so lucky?
September 22, 2021
Today we went to a massive market after class and lunch. I loved every minute. The fabrics and handcrafted items are all so vibrant and intricate. I also had a GREAT curry at the restaurant afterward.
I’m struck over and over by the difficult nature of most interactions here, yet, I almost always enjoy them. I know that comes from a place of privilege—my interactions are never of dire consequence, legal or otherwise—and so I am still able to experience uncertainty in a safe way. I feel grateful for this and acutely aware of how different this is for immigrants, etc.
Something else I’ve been thinking a lot about is the culture of politeness/service in Thailand against my mental backdrop of feminist thought. There is so much discourse in the US about women taking up more space, being louder and more assertive, apologizing less, etc. in order to subvert patriarchal norms. I want to explore this phenomenon here, because it is so counter to Thai societal expectations for all genders. The Thai ideal of being as least burdensome as possible to others is the opposite of our American individualism.
September 26, 2021
Last night I was laying in Nicole’s room with a fairly big group of us, and I had a very euphoric moment. I was touched by our little family—everyone was chatting and laughing, splitting the food we had just ordered—and my heart swelled. While I know host families would have been a formative and wonderful experience, I am grateful for the closeness of our group that comes from living on the same floor.
September 29, 2021
Today I had my first truly unsuccessful Thai interaction. I was trying to ask the owner of a tea stand if one of the drinks had caffeine. I was fumbling over the few Thai words I know and motioning with my hands, and he grew only more confused. Not my best moment. Got the tea, though.
It has also been a tough last couple of days, content-wise. We’ve reached some controversial chapters in the book we’re reading, and this, paired with an intense presentation on gender-based violence and human trafficking in Thailand, has led to a lot of introspection and discussion. We have a diverse group in terms of gender and sexuality, and the lenses through which each one of us ingests this kind of information will never be aligned. It leads to solid discussions.
I’ve been struggling with the idea that in Thailand, traditionally feminine qualities are much more respected across the board, yet gender discrimination is still rampant. It almost seems as if femininity is highly regarded, yet women themselves are not. This is only a broad generalization, however, and I’m interested in exploring this more.
October 1, 2021
Today we saw elephants for the second time, and, unlike in Phuket, I did not full-on sob. I may have teared up a little when they wrapped their trunks around me, though. And technically I did cry when I later learned that the reason these elephants were swaying around so much was because they were stressed. My deep love of elephants has been quite a surprise.
Yesterday’s hike in the rain was an unexpected joy. Once I accepted that I would be fully soaked, I could lean fully into the chaos. I had a really bizarre moment about halfway through, when I realized that my mind had been almost entirely blank for the last five minutes, give or take. I had achieved that few times in my life, and certainly not during our meditation sessions…
October 6, 2021
Last night after dinner, several of us went to a thrift night market. It was surreal. They have a massive courtyard filled with stands, some under small tents and some with goods just spread out across the bricks. There was music playing, string lights draped across the entire place, and young, hip people everywhere. The clothes were cheap and good, and I just wandered around by myself for a while. I feel like I found the pocket of Chiang Mai that I connect with most.
October 13, 2021
I really loved our two border trips these last couple of days. I’m not sure what exactly it was about them—the long drives or the views, the light rain and sun—but I felt blissful and grateful. I also felt as though I was seeing something important. The Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, is such a beautiful place but also a key part of Southeast Asia’s history.
I’m glad that we went after visiting the Opium Museum; that gave us important context to experience the sight itself.
Maybe it was the brief trip to Chiang Rai (a four-hour drive north), or maybe it is just because we’ve reached about the six-week mark, but I’ve been feeling inklings of homesickness. I miss my parents and my friends, and I miss fall in Virginia.
October 18, 2021
We’ve now been at the YMCA for exactly a month. We have visited a myriad of temples, a couple of villages, elephants, museums and MANY restaurants. We’ve learned about Thai cooking, Thai language, issues of deforestation, human trafficking, and gender and sexuality, Thai ethnic groups and culture, and Chinese history (thanks, Myrrl!). Tomorrow we learn about Thai boxing…
This place is beginning to feel like a kind of home. I feel comfortable going out in our free time to explore, and I have familiar places that I have already grown to love: the Korean BBQ across the street, the LaundryBar where we do our laundry each week, the grocery store only a few blocks away in the basement of a mall, the piano practice rooms hidden in that same mall, and the gym where I now teach (as a volunteer, don’t worry visa officials) a Zumba class to five or so locals—long story. We are looking ahead to presentations, some trips in smaller groups, and countless more adventures. I am so grateful.