Friday, April 15, 2011

From Managua to Jalapa: Nicaragua

On March 27, we took a 7 hour bus to travel from the Costa Rica Center
to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. Sadly, on Monday, as we were
about to begin the activities for the week, we found out that Peter´s
mom was in the hospital on life support. Our morning activity was
cancelled, as the whole group was shaken by this news. During the
afternoon, most of the students went to a museum in Managua, while
Peter waited on news about his mom. During the evening, we found out
that she passed away, and Peter left that night to return to the
United States and be with his family. Needless to say, the whole
group was deeply affected by this death and Peter´s departure. Please
keep Peter and his family in your prayers as they go through this
difficult time.

The next day, Tuesday, we began to follow the normal plan for the
week. In the morning, we visited a community made of members affected
by the agricultural chemical Nemagon. This chemical was used by large
U.S. agricultural companies such as Dole during the 70´s and 80´s
throughout the world, and it was known to have many harmful effects on
those who used it. The individuals in this community had all been
affected by physcially by the use of this chemical, yet have never
received compensation or justice. The next day we met with
individuals from PAC, a development organization started by World
Relief that continues to work in Nicaragua. Here, we learned about
PAC´s efforts to help farmers through financial services and training.
Additionally, PAC ensures that all their coffee producers are fair
trade certified, and they help with the exportation of the coffee.
That afternoon (Wednesday), we visited the U.S. embassy in Managua.
There, we discussed many different things with the embassy
representatives, including Nicaraguan politics, immigration, violence,
and free trade. On Thursday we talked with an official from the FSLN,
the political party that currently controls the presidency in
Nicaragua. We also met with an agency that promotes business
investment in Nicaragua, and a representative from an organization
working to stop the spread of AIDS in Nicaragua.

Following our time in Managua, we spent a few days living at a farming
cooperative near the city of Grenada. On our way there, we stopped at
a beach and had a talk with an important author whose son and brother
died under the repression in Argentina. She moved to Nicaragua at the
start of the Sandinista revolution in the 1980´s in hope of the change
that this revolution brought. At the farming cooperative near
Grenada, we learned about many of their efforts to combine sustainable
living practices with ecotourism. They also put on a cultural
presentation for us, and many of us spent hours dancing afterwards
with the people of this rural Nicaraguan village... it was truly a
moment of cultures blending together, and quite entertaining to watch.

We are currently staying in Jalapa, in the northern part of Nicaragua.
Jalapa is located at the foothills of a coffee-growing region, and
here, we are learning more about the work that PAC (mentioned earlier)
does in Nicaragua. Tomorrow we will be leaving for our next
destination... all this traveling is keeping the group busy and tired,
but we are excited to see new things.

--
Aaron Korthuis

Monte Verde, Costa Rica

The day after parent´s weekend, we left for Monte Verde and the small rural town of San Luis. We stayed at the University of Georgia campus in the beautiful cloud rainforests. Upon arriving, we immediately went on a hike through the forest to learn about the unique plants and animals living in the area. The next day we moved in with our host families in San Luis where we spent the next few nights. The families we lived with were all very welcoming, and it was very interesting to compare the differences in rural farming in Costa Rica with our Honduran homestays. It was amazing to see how attached people were to their host families even after a few short days.
Our time in San Luis was filled with lectures on environmentalism, ecotourism, and fair trade coffee. It was great to hear about a community that is working together to form a cooperative that emphasizes both social and environmental improvements, making the world a better place than it was the day before. A highlight for many people was definitely our trip up the mountain to go ziplining. The view from up in the trees was amazing, and we finished the day off right by ending with a Tarzan Swing. This meant we had to climb a wooden platform 26 feet into the air, be attached to a cable, and simply jump off, swinging through the air like Tarzan. There were definitely people who enjoyed this more than others! We then returned to the Costa Rica Center and only had a few days to enjoy our time there before heading out to Nicaragua bright and early at 4:00 in the morning.

Punta Mona, Costa Rica.....a life changing experience.

We went to southern Costa Rica, pretty much to where the road runs out. After a delicious Carribean lunch, we headed into the jungle with guides to take us to our destination: Punta Mona. While walking through the jungle, we saw snakes, sloths, HUGE spiders that crawled on our faces (dont´worry, they don´t bite). We ate termites, fresh coconut, and stinky fruit. After seeing the beautiful jungle and hiking for a couple hours, we boated in to Punta Mona.

Punta Mona is a permaculture farm eleven miles from the Panama border. We learned about the ins and outs of permaculture which means "permanent culture." In this movement that is beginning to take off, we learned about sustainability and how we need to take care of each other and the earth at the same time.

At Punta Mona, all of their energy comes from solar power. All of their water comes from rain run-off that is collected from a gutter system and then purified. All of their food is grown on their farm or bought from locals. This food was some of the best and healthiest food on the face of the earth. Really.

When we weren´t learning about permaculture and sustainability, we were digging ponds, swimming in the ocean, kayaking, hanging out in hammocks, or chatting with the wonderful chef Sarah. It was the perfect time of restoration after getting out of Honduras. Our group was able to spend time together and have some debriefing time of our Honduran experiences. We started to understand each other a little better and our relationships really started to deepen. This was encouraged by lots of free-style singing and the strumming of the guitar.

We got fake tatoos. We went searching for sea turtles. We slept under mosquito nets. We used composting toilets. We made chocolate. We ate weird fruit. We went on a medicinal plant walk. We laughed. We had a bonfire. We had a great time.

So basically, Punta Mona is awesome and we had a wonderful experience.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Honduras

Well, as many of you may know (no thanks to the offical blog), we are alive and well after a month in the hills of Honduras. After much deliberation, reflection, and persistent guilt tripping (thanks attendees of the parent's weekend), we are now ready to continue proporting our prolific and poignant ponderances to you, our esteemed followers.

The morning of February 4, 2011, we hopped off a bus in La Entrada, Honduras, not sure what to expect. We were soon shuttled off in various vehicles to different parts of the country, accompanied by the leaders of the NGO groups that had agreed to organize our homestay experience and monitor us in the case of complications. One by one we were dropped off in front of homes, the nearest CASP member up to an hours walk away. As most of us were more than slightly preoccupied concerning the coming month, we found that we had irrationally expected Honduras to be a desert wasteland, devoid of vegatation, common amenities, human affection, or any sort of happiness in general. We were surprised to find a beautiful panorama of green mountainous hills, coffee fields of high altitude and even higher quality, and a people with a general interest in making clumsy and interculturally inept gringos feel quite at home.

Maybe it was just the caffeine rush that came with accustoming oneself to drinking five or more cups of coffee on a daily basis, but many soon found the energy and willpower of the people in their communities contagious and began to form a niche for themselves in their respective pueblos.Some found themselves the agregiously unprepared educators of eager and energetic Catracho (Honduran) youth, working in the local schools as English teachers in an education system that at times is sorely underfunded. Other members of the CASP team worked long days in the coffee fields or spent even longer mornings milking cows. Some learned to make tortillas and baleadas, handwash clothes, prepare the days corn or beans while generally attempting to soak in the vast knowledge of a community much different than our own. Whatever the task, CASP members completed it with a wholehearted desire to speak Spanish, learn the culture, and grow in more ways than one.

As you may imagine, there are too many wonderful stories to be expressed in this humble blog. Every experience was unique, and this makes it impossible to generalize. We hope to be able to get a list of personal blogs of people on the CASP team up soon so that you all can get a richer perspective of the last few months if you desire.

What can be said- We gained new friends, family, and a wider worldview than any could have imagined previously. Through trials and triumphs we lived a month in Honduras - a month none of us will ever forget.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

el PLUNGE! Very, very late... :)

Hola todos!
Sorry this has been so long in coming – I actually started writing this when we were in Antigua and had the best intentions to post it, but didn’t have time to finish before we left for Honduras. I guess the Latin American concept of time is sinking in quite a bit :) Anyway, this post takes us back to one of our last experiences in Guatemala: "el PLUNGE!" For this weekend trip, our group of 20 was split into 5 grupitos of 4 people each. We met in Parque Central at 9 AM Saturday morning to say goodbye to Xela, find out our group members and receive money and the name of a town we were going to travel to. The goal of the weekend was to travel to the town, explore it, and return to Antiugua in a way that let the group members spend the least amount of money possible. While we all had wonderful and varied adventures, I'll share a little bit about what my group did, learned and experienced.
Stephen, Andrew, Laura and I went to Champerico, a little town on the southern coast of Guatemala. It was beautiful, sunny and HOT, with a black sand beach made that way from volcanic ash. We took a few buses from Xela to arrive there, and met the nicest people along the way. One of the friends we made on our first bus even bought us a book of maps and some oranges to eat!
Once we arrived in Champerico, we found a hotel and dropped off our stuff to get out of the heat. Soon we made our way to the beach, but heard from a variety of people not to go too far down to the left since it was the more dangerous part of town. The town is small and relies primarily on the fishing industry, although it does receive a few tourists from other parts of Guatemala. Very few gringos go there however, so it was pretty obvious that we were out-of-towners! The beach has horses that tourists can ride, and Champerico also hosts the national surfing competition each year. The water was wonderful, but the waves were big so we could understand why people go there to surf!
After spending a little time on the beach, grabbing avocadoes, bananas and tortillas from the market for dinner and returning to the beach to eat, we made our way back through town. We had heard that it was dangerous to be out past 7, and as we were going back to the hotel we were stopped by a young guy with a wife and little boy. He asked us in good English if we needed help, and we said no thanks but started to chat with him. We found out that Erick (the guy) had won a scholarship competition and had the chance to study in the states for two years through Georgetown University. He lived in New York and loved it, but came back to Champerico to be with his wife, 3 year old son and the rest of his family. Although Erick is extremely well educated, he hasn’t been able to find a job in Champerico for the past 2 years because of the economy. Even so, he says that aside from the lack of work life there is perfect. He was extremely friendly and after only a few minutes of conversation he had invited the four of us to his house for dinner. At the home he is renting we met the rest of his family – 12 and 13 year old sisters who are in school, a younger brother who fishes on the sea with his dad, and his mom. They were all extremely friendly and welcoming, and after a dinner of tamales and mangoes we left feeling delightfully full and completely blown away by their hospitality.
The next morning we met our friends for Catholic mass, and then Erick’s dad took us to the port where he leaves in and out to go fishing. He’s often out at sea for 2 days at a time, 4 days a week, and since he does not own his own boat most of the money he gets from selling the fish goes to pay rent. However, he does have a work visa to go to the US, and hopes to raise just enough money to buy his own boat so that he and his son can work for themselves and better support their family. After seeing the port, the family took us to the Sunday market. On the way there we passed by the circus that was visiting the town, and the girls kept on asking us if we had any plans to go. As a way to say thank you to the family we decided to treat all of them to a night out at the circus as a surprise, so we tried to be frugal with our money for the afternoon. We ate another lunch of tortillas and avocadoes, and found the BEST frozen tamarindo juice! We spent more time on the beach and eventually met up with the two girls again in the evening. On our way back to their house we treated the two of them to dinner – they chose a great taco stand – and then we came back to the circus with the fam. It was a really fun and memorable way to end our time in Champerico, and we all felt that by the end of these two short days we had formed rich relationships with our new friends.
The next day we traveled for 7 hours with 6 vehicle transfers to make it to Antigua. Although it was an exhausting day, it was great to finally be reunited with the group again and hear everyone else’s stories! For me the Plunge was an awesome reminder of the importance of relationships, as well as a great confidence-booster for Honduras. :) It was humbling and inspiring to befriend a family so quickly, especially since they had scarce economic resources but were so willing to welcome us into their home. I’ve been blessed to continue to meet warm, welcoming and loving people throughout my travels here, and am so grateful to have had these experiences.
~Annie / Anita

Friday, January 28, 2011

HOLA FROM GUATEMALA II – NOTE TO FAMILY & FRIENDS FROM PROF. HERNANDEZ

Well, we have survived (and thrived!) during the past two weeks in Guatemala.  It is hard to believe that we are done with our three weeks here in Xela today!

We spent two weekends ago about 3 hours from our town (Xela) at a lake called Atitlan.  It is very important and famous in Guatemala because it is where the Mayan tribes initially settled all around the lake.  Now there are little communities (mostly made up today of descendants of those tribes) which are named after the 12 Apostles.  Anyway, it is a volcanic crater lake with three volcanoes towering above -- very beautiful!  We stayed the night on Saturday on one side of the lake in a tourist town called Panajachel, which is one of the largest artisan areas in Guatemala (handcrafts - mostly woven goods).  The students had the afternoon free to shop, interview local people and vendors, explore and enjoy the view of the lake.  With a food allowance for the day's lunch and dinner, they also set out to explore their food options and a few were excited to be able to eat "tres por diez" tacos ("3 for 10 quetzales," which is about $1.50), although many chose Salvadoran pupusas or pizza.  There was also a lot of helado (ice cream) and choco-bananos consumed by all!  Some of them found places along the lake to hang out and read/journal.  Most of the students explored the market in small groups and put their negotiating skills to work with a few vendors.  It is a difficult balance between wanting to get a good deal and not wanting to take advantage of someone who obviously needs the money more than we do, while also being aware of vendors who just want to take advantage of us as gringos.  The students expressed that evening how they often feel like we are perceived more as walking dollar signs by many of the locals, but then we have also had a few very meaningful conversations with a few vendors (mostly women and children) who were just glad to have a sincere conversation with us.

After a short group meeting (all in Spanish!) with the students to debrief about their experiences of the day, we sent them off for rest in the hotel or nightlife.  Most of them went out to the same restaurant for pizza and pasta and returned by 9:00 pm to the hotel.  I heard that there were some great dice and card games, and I even joined in a for a lively round of ´Would you rather´ with the students, which helped us to get to know each other in a some interesting ways.

Sunday morning we took a 1 hour boat ride across the lake - amazing views of the volcanoes!  On the other side, we visited an important catholic church where an American priest had been killed by the army during the civil war in the 80s because he was helping the local people who were being oppressed by the government.  There is a special chapel set up in his memory, and we were also able to catch a few minutes of Sunday  mass and a baptism in the church -- beautiful music sung by a group of children.  A few members of our group went to see an idol that most of the country worships if they are of Mayan descent.  It is said that there was a Mayan priest who could do miracles for the people at the time that the Spanish conquistadors came to the area.  The Spanish didn't want him to be able to do anything that would give the natives an advantage over them, so they killed him.  The natives made an idol (a statue) to honor him and believed that if they prayed to him, they would still be able to receive his miracles.  Today, there are a lot of Guatemalans who are either catholic or evangelical (those are the two categories of Christians here) who do not believe in him, but there are still many people who do believe.  There are several of these wooden idols that travel around and are on display in different areas where people can come and give money to see and pray before the idol.  We had to pay 2Q (about 25 cents) to get into a little dark room in an alley to see him and then 10Q ($1.50) to take a picture.  It is a little awkward because it is mostly now a way for these groups of Mayan priests and local townspeople who get to host the idol to make money.  More students plan to visit the idol in another town close to Xela with their language school teachers.  It will be good for many different members of our group to describe this from their firsthand experience.

Last week was a full week with  many learning activities and fun outings.  On Monday we were treated to a short talk about religion in Guatemala with a language school teacher who is also a theology professor at a local university.  It was a rich discussion about the differences in Guatemala between the catholic and evangelical traditions, as well as some sharing about our personal faith.  Tuesday and Thursday of last week were devoted to our final visits up to La Pedrera to work with the kids at the youth center.  Lots more kickball, soccer, youth group type games, some English lessons, and great snacks.  We also finished our turns at the chocolate making and traditional cooking classes.  I can´t say for sure if we are all now experts in these arts, but we learned a lot and had a lot of fun in the process!  We do have one student who ended up preparing a type of wall plaster rather than tamale dough – but the Mayan woman who was teaching the class laughed a lot about it!  Wednesday was a ´hot´afternoon of salsa dance lessons, where the guys learned how to spin and dip their partners and the girls learned to twirl and strike a pose!  We all (including TAs and professors!) went out dancing at the local favorite salsa dance club that night to practice our new moves.  The group ended last week by going to some natural hot spring pools on Friday afternoon, where a contentious synchronized swimming competitions – boys vs girls – broke out.  You might be surprised to hear that the BOYS wons, hands down! 

Last weekend included two morning excursions.  On Saturday we hiked up and then down into a volcanic lagoon called Chikabal.  It was a fun 1 or 1.5 km hike up for the students (seemed like 5 km to Profe Hernandez!) and then 589 very steep steps down into the lagoon.  The lake is a sacred Mayan site of worship with numerous small altars and other monuments posted around the lake.  Families or groups of people gather at different spots around the lake to perform Mayan rituals on special days, and there are also Mayans who celebrate the Christian faith who gather to worship together.  As we walked the perimeter of the lake, we were able to witness an interesting mix of all of these.  Once back to our starting point on the shore, we spent some time of reflection in small groups sharing about what is ´sacred´in our lives and in our personal faith.  Saturday night most of the group went to the local professional soccer stadium to take in the first match up of the season between Xela (los Super Chivos) and Municipal (one of the capital city teams).  The scene in the stadium was exciting, with lots of fans setting off fireworks before and during the game (yes, right in the stands!), and of course lots of interesting chants and cheers.  It ended up being an exciting game with Xela´s Super Chivos winning 3-0 (which apparently is unusual!).  On Sunday morning we traveled about 1 hour away to the rural home of a family of Mayan artisans to learn the process of weaving.  We got to see the entire process from sheering the sheep and cleaning the wool, to making it into thread (on a 150 year old wooden spindle), to dying the thread with all natural substances (plants, rocks, insects, etc), and finally to watch the children of the family (from age 10 to 20) weaving on large wooden looms operated with a foot pedal.  The mother of the family also treated us to homemade tortillas over her wood stove (some of the students helped make them by hand!).  It was a very enriching experience for us to see how this family lives and works together.

Now we are finishing the third week of language school and activities.  The students seem to be doing very well with their classes, and all of them are showing noticeable improvement in their Spanish proficiency.   Monday night we gathered to hear about a local ministry with boys who shine shoes in the park and either live in a shelter or on the street.  It was a rich time to hear about the practical ways that people here are caring for these youth. (these are local Xela missionaries in their own community!)

The rest of our week looked like this -- we had a soccer game and dinner with the Inner Change shoe shine boys on Tuesday, a Mayan ceremony on Wednesday, and a group reflection time on Thursday.  The soccer game was a blow out – in their favor – but probably one of the most fun experiences of the month so far.  We did at least score a few goals!

The students are doing well, and are now very excited about departing for the Plunge tomorrow.  They will be traveling for the weekend in groups of 4 with only the name of a town and a small amount of money, along with a list of things they need to report back about next Monday when we all meet up in Antigua.  It should be an adventure!!

Please remember about the letter writing opportunities and the upcoming drop date in February.  Those first letters will actually be hand delivered by the professor who will be visiting each student in their Honduras homestay.  Since this is the only time on the trip when the students will be alone (for 4 weeks), it will probably mean even more to receive letters during that time!  If you are on campus, there will be an email announcement sent out in a few days with the letter drop instructions.  If you are a parent, you should have received this info in an email from Dr. Le Roy. 

Thanks for your continued thoughts and prayers.  Keep the emails coming to the students -- they love to know they are being thought of back home.

Saludos cordiales (cordial greetings to all),
Kim Hernández

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mayan Mysteries Revealed (Week 2 CASP)

Wow what a week it has been! I had no idea that we would be this busy but we have been busy with incredible experiences.
Last weekend we went to Panajachel, a town on the beach of Lake Atitlan, a Lake in the crater of an inactive volcano. It was about two hours away so we had ourselves a little mini vacation and stayed overnight in a hotel in the town. The city and the mountains were absolutely BEAUTIFUL and the city was beautiful as well. The market was so much fun, so much to look at, I wanted to buy everything and the only reason I didn’t is because I don’t have any room in my bag… Annie and I took a ride all around the town in this little red vehicle called a TukTuk and it was so much fun. We had a great conversation with our driver who was a 16 year old native named Jose. On Sunday we crossed the lake in a boat. It was a beautifully sunny day and the hour boat ride was unreal. We boated over to the island of Santiago and got to explore there and visit a huge church. There was a service happening and it was neat to see the religious differences in cultures. We had a mini lecture on Mayan and catholic religious practices and then we were given more time to explore. We all got choco bananos (basically the best thing ever, some of us think we should start a choco banano stand when we get back) and then returned by boat to Panajachel. We made it back to Xela around 8 and got ready for another week of school!
On Tuesday some of us got to learn how to make chocolate. We went Josefina´s house (also the home of Jen and Cat) and she explained to us the entire process and after we got to mold the cocoa, pound it into bars, smooth it out, cut it, and then stamp it. Oh my, it was so fun. We also got to try hot chocolate that she had made and it was possibly one of the best things Ive ever drank.
On Wednesday we had a salsa dancing lesson in the afternoon. It was so incredibly funny seeing the guys in our group trying to salsa.
That night we all went out salsa dancing at the La Parranda and my goodness it was fun! I danced with one of the salsa teachers there and I learned a lot!
Thursday some of us went with our teachers to the Museo de Traje Tipico, which was a museum full of typical indigenous clothing throughout the ages and the machines they use to construct them. We had a tour of the museum and we learned a lot. After school we hiked up to La Pedrera, an after school program for kids who need a place to be. I was working with the younger kids and I had the time of my life. We played kickball, did homework, and colored with crayons. At the end we handed out a snack we had brought them. For some of these kids this was the only food they would eat all day. Being there with those kids was such an eye opening experience and something I could definitely see myself doing in the future.
Friday my teacher and I went to the market. Never in my life have a seen so many fruits and vegetables. All along the street were mounds of fresh, locally grown fruits and veggies, bins of beans and rice and dried fruits and dehydrated fish and nuts. I could just feel the culture pulsing through my veins it was fantastic. I bought three huge mandarins, three apples and two plums for 15 quetzales. That is less than $2. It blows my mind that I can buy $10 worth of fruit for a mere two! And oh my the mandarins…de. lish. Friday afternoon we went to a hot springs in the mountains! It was like a big swimming pool but full of steamy water. I haven’t felt water that warm in weeks it was absolutely fantastic…
Saturday we woke up early and headed up to Lake Chikabal. We were all in the school bus driven by Don Luis. On our way up we had to drive up some pretty steep hills and the bus was having a very hard time. Finally it just came to a stop and Luis said ya no mas. No more. So ten of us got out and started walking so the bus would be lighter. The bus started again and was able to make it up but for ten of us the hike started early! The hike was absolutely beautiful. There were trees of every sort, bamboo, wild flowers, it was fantastic. We could see the volcano Santa Maria steaming in the distance and when we reached the summit we could see down into the crater where Lake Chikabal was located. Then we hiked down 589 steps (Kim´s sons counted) and arrived surface level at the lake. It was breathtaking. We could here voices singing and when we walked the perimeter of the lake we encountered several indigenous Mayan groups worshipping. That evening a bunch of us went to a professional soccer game at the Xela stadium. The game was between Guatemala City Municipal and the Xela Superchivos. Of coure we were rooting for the Superchivos and they won 3-0! Woohoo!
Sunday we went to Momostenango to the house of Telma and Luis. Telma and Luis come to Casa Xelaju (our school here) every day to sell their products to the students. We went up to their house to learn how they make everything, from shearing the sheep, combing the wool, spinning the thread, dying the thread and weaving the yarn into rugs, hats, purses, jackets and more. It was so interesting and I even got to spin some yarn! After we returned a bunch of us went to go get ice cream, we are trying to get our ice cream fix in before we are deprived in Honduras...

This weekend is the Plunge and we are all getting so excited, we have had so many adventures thus far but we have so many adventures yet to come...