Friday, January 28, 2011


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...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Esteemed readers of the OFFICIAL Central American Study Tour Blog,
we now feel obliged to offer up to you a platter, if you will, of tantalizing narratives from our fellow CASPmates in the midst of our general mundane updates. The first narrative comes from our very own, Megan J. Pintus; Devoted CASPIAN, Voracious Intellectual, Trendy Coloradan, Friend.

I have now been in Guatemala for almost 2 weeks. I can hardly believe that so much time has passed, and yet I already feel comfortable here...Everything about this culture is welcoming and gracious. I have found that every person I have encountered desires to talk, even if they can hardly understand my Spanish (which is improving slowly, but surely). Everyday I get to wake up early to the crisp Guate air and go to language school. I spend 5 hours a day with a private teacher discussing all topics ranging from favorite movies to the lasting effects of the 36-year-long civil war. My teacher is intelligent and patient. In the afternoons our group has different cultural activities, yesterday was salsa lessons! We have also learned how to make chocolate, cook traditional food, worked with children at an after school program, explored the city, had a lesson about theology from a former catholic priest, and traveled to a nearby city Panajachel that is located on Lake Atitlan surrounded by 7 volcanoes. All of us are being challenged greatly in every way... For me, one of the main challenges I have experienced is living with my Guatemalan family. I live in a house with 7 (sometimes 9) people. We have only one small bathroom, a kitchen, a sofa, and 4 little bedrooms. I have learned to feel nice and cozy with everyone. The language barrier is difficult to overcome, and I become frustrated with myself. However, we have found ways to connect without the need for words. For example, the past couple nights my housemate Annie, my host mom Nidia, and her granddaughters Steph (age 6) and Melanie (age 3) have been dancing in the livingroom after dinner. We do not need to talk to dance and laugh all night long... Every day is an adventure here. I feel so blessed to spend this time learning more about myself and the beautiful world in which we live.

- Megan

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hola from Guatemala!

Hola from Guatemala!

We are finally all settled into our home stays, know our way around the main part of Xela (the town) and how to get from home to school, and the students are in their fourth day of language school today. Monday and Tuesday were full days beginning with five hours of language instruction. Each student was introduced to his/her Spanish teacher, and then everyone dispersed to their classroom or work area (some of the students sat in the outdoor patio at small tables with their teachers while others had small classrooms in the three-story building). All of the students completed various grammar exams to help their teacher determine their starting point in the language, and a good portion of their time was also spent in conversation. It is very important to the language school that each of our students feel comfortable with their teacher, so that the one-on-one instruction method will be a successful partnership between the student and the teacher. I have checked in with the students, and everyone seems very excited about their first days of class, although the grammar testing was a little shocking for a few of them (which is good!). I perceive that most of the students are already beginning to feel more confident in their language skills, especially with the amount of conversation they have had with their host families. It is a big confidence booster for them to realize that they can have in-depth, meaningful conversations in Spanish with their families.

Our first few days here have provided some free time for students to explore the town, enjoy the coffee and hot chocolate in local Internet cafes, or just rest and work on homework for the program. We have spent some time in group dynamics sessions to unify the group now that we have all twenty students together (after three of them spent the fall semester at our Costa Rica center). It is clear that this group is very adaptable, open, and unified, and their months of preparation are being put into practice in practical, linguistic, and cultural ways every day.

On Tuesday half of the group went to observe a traditional way of making chocolate for drinking and they were also able to take part in actually mixing the ingredients and forming the chocolate bars. It is quite a process that involves lots of pounding mounds of chocolate with your hands on a big wooden table, using simple homemade metal instruments to shape the bars. Hopefully everyone will be able to prepare this for their families when we return! The other half of the group spent the afternoon with the language school's community service program (La Pedrera), where we worked with the children and youth at the neighborhood nutrition and tutoring center. We served the daily snack (which is often one of only two times per day that many of these children eat), and our students worked in teams with a small group of kids or teenagers to teach an English lesson, sing or play games, and organize a recreation activity (mostly kickball!).

Wednesday we shared a wonderful time of worship and devotion together, led by our awesome worship team, Ali, Andrew & Peter. We reflected on the theme of embracing whatever comes along the way in our path, in life and especially during this CASP journey. Afterward, we did a small group chat in Spanish about the people here who have made an impact on us so far. This was the students' first graded language activity, and everyone did very well!

Today (Thursday) will be the other half of the group's turn to teach and serve at the Pedrera youth center, and the other part of the group will have a cooking class to learn how to make two traditional dishes. The students should come home with some great recipes to make for family and friends!

This weekend, we will have an overnight trip to Lake Atitlan and the surrounding area. This will be a time for the students to observe a larger Mayan community and put their language skills to work as they interact with the people in the market, etc. We will write to you about our adventure next week!

The weather was wonderful during the day through Tuesday while the sun was out (probably 70 degrees), but yesterday and today have turned colder and overcast. In general, the mornings and evenings are quite chilly, so most of us are using our sweaters, fleeces, and jackets several hours of the day.

I am very blessed to be part of this group. Each student is contributing to our experience in very special ways, and I have seen the way that their support and encouragement amongst each other is having an impact on the experience of each person in the group, including myself and the other leaders. We have started this journey very well!

Thank you for your continued prayer and encouragement. We will continue to send updates.

Bendiciones (blessings),
Kim Hernandez

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Friends, concerned family members, and mildly interested acquaintances,

The CASP group has arrived in the city of Xela (pronounced Shay-la), better known as Quetzaltenango (for those frantically searching it out on a map).

Nestled in the mountainous southwest region of Guatemala, Xela sings of a culturally rich heritage. Walking through the cobblestone streets, one becomes aware of a fascinating history that pervades the modernity and globalization that is equally apparent. Over seventy percent of the population in XelaJu is of Mayan descent, and they proudly maintain the vestiges of their ancestry in dress, language, and richness of culture. In contrast to the Mayan culture and reality of poverty that can be found around the right street corner, Xela is known for its Spanish schools, attracting wealthy foreigners from all over the globe who wish to master the language with big cameras, expensive outdoorsy clothing, and lots of sunscreen. The safety one feels in this town is almost disconcerting (this is especially for you, Ma and Pa), as foreigners are a big part of the economy; they can be seen stumbling through the city asking directions to the nearest Banco or Bar on just about every corner. It makes for good entertainment, but does not always create a great reputation for those with a similar pale complexion, like the one we inherited from birth (Thanks once again, parental figures). This contrast between the poor and the wealthy class (us), which they often must serve out of necessity, is surreal and a little uncomfortable to say the least. However, we are content to be here practicing our language skills and preparing ourselves for experiences that may speak a little more of reality than our current state.

The language school we are attending is called Casa XelaJu, where each of us is receiving one on one instruction for five hours each day in the lengua castellana from our respective Guatemalan instructors from various backgrounds, including professors and other well educated and active members of the community. It is truly a privilege to learn from them. We are also told, by those with quite a bias of course, that Casa XeluJu was the first language school developed in Xela (and also the best). This of course is impressive, considering we pass over five other language schools on our way to class in the morning every single day. Each of us CASPians has been placed with a family with extensive experience giving a home and care to foreign and culturally infantile persons such as ourselves (my host mom has over 25 years in the business). Naturally, these people have gently guided us through our first few days of awkward moments of cultural ignorance in a surprisingly patient manner. CasaXelaJu is also connected to an after-school program for children of low socio-economic backgrounds called La Pedrera in which we will have the opportunity to get out of the classroom, play kickball with children, and give them a small meal for the day. This is really not a bad deal.

We hope you have enjoyed our first entry and that we can post more of our experiences and pictures for you soon! As the people in Xela say, ¡Que le vaya bien! (or that it goes well to you, respectfully). Or in other words, have a good day!


Stephen and Jennifer
CASP Blog Committee 2011