There were hugs galore and more than a few tears shed as 20 students and their chaperones departed Payson High School Friday morning to return to their homes in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico.
The visiting Mexican entourage had just wrapped up an emotional week-long stay as part of the Hands Across the Border exchange program that partnered Payson High with the Institute Regional de Guaymas in Sonora.
During the students' stay in the Rim country, PHS Spanish teacher Bill Bowling, his students and some parents played hosts on tours around the state.
"We visited Green Valley Museum and Park, Lowell Observatory, Snowbowl and Sedona," Bowling said.
The Mexican visitors were also scheduled to visit Tonto Natural Bridge, but the trip was canceled due to torrential downpours and the danger of falling rocks near bridge trails.
The visitors also spent time on campus where they attended classes, met new friends and participated in a pep assembly that featured enthusiastic students, the Longhorn band, cheerleaders and the Sandoval family band.
During the assembly, the visiting students, their teachers and chaperones took to the stage to proudly belt out the Mexican national anthem.
PHS students, most of whom understood few words of what was being sung, stood in silent respect for their neighbors.
Following the anthem, Bowling lauded the visitors for their stirring performance.
"Do you know how much courage it took to get on stage and sing before people from a foreign country," he asked. "Believe me, it took a lot."
Payson High School principal Sue Myers was also impressed with the visiting students knowledge of the English language.
"They know so much more English than we know Spanish," she said. "That's why the exchange was so good for us, we probably get more out of it than they do."
During the students' visit, they and their parent chaperones lived in local family homes much like a group of Payson teens did during an exchange trip to Guaymas last month.
"That's the way Hands Across the Border works," Bowling said."They attended our school and we attended theirs -- which is a private one owned by Octavio and Mirna Serrano."
During the Payson teens' visit to Sonora, they toured a museum, an old prison, a typical Mexican marketplace and a pearl farm.
"The field trips were designed to help us learn more about their culture and their history," Bowling said. "The students loved the experience and said their Spanish improved immensely."
Myers, who visited the Guaymas-area school last fall as a member of a "discovery group" to lay plans for the exchange, found their culture different than that at PHS.
"It's a K-12 school, a lot of younger kids with older ones, and they wore uniforms -- ties and coats," she said.
When it came time for the Payson teens to leave Sonora and their new found friends, they did so reluctantly.
"Our hosts were so gracious and kind, we hated to leave," Bowling said. "It was emotional."
The exchange also provided an opportunity for Payson community members to step up and show their concerns for their friends from across the boarder.
"When their bus wouldn't start before a field trip Wednesday, Roy Haught and his mechanics came out to help," Myers said. "They put in a new starter and battery, did all the labor, and didn't charge a cent."
The Guaymas students' exchange wound down Thursday evening at a farewell dinner, at the LDS Church, catered by Cucina Paradiso, Pepsi Cola and a group of parents.
Mayor Barbara Brewer made an appearance to bid adieu to the students.
According to Myers, the HATB program will continue next year at PHS.
The value of the program, she said, becomes obvious when the two exchanges are completed.
"It's so valuable because the students develop such a greater understanding of the differences and similarities they have with one another.
"It's such a great experience for both groups."