As we mentioned in the previous post, last week Sunday (January 8th) we awoke in a hotel in Guatemala. Our task for the day was to drive to Lake Atitlan, which is surrounded by several little villages, and find our school and home for at least the next four weeks. We anticipated that it might take up to seven hours, although we knew that if the roads had been in perfect condition it would have taken maybe two. It took five. There were stretches were the roads were undoubtedly brand new and we sailed along, and then…
…there were those unlike any roads we had driven on in our lives. Potholed streets in the Midwest in April have nothing on these roads. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and simple lack of funds have kept some of these mountain byways in the worst condition imaginable. When the locals are driving as slowly as we were, you know it’s bad. There were literally miles where we didn’t crack 10 mph. Immediately after clearing one rough section of “road” (can one use that term when there really isn’t one?) we were presented with a brand new stretch of pocked terrain. There were holes in the road so big, Apollo and several of his amigos could have fit inside of them. There were dips and dives so profound a child on his own two feet couldn’t have scaled them without a helping hand. Dirt and dust were everywhere, and towards the end of our journey we had to contend with steep grades, both ascending and descending. The switchbacks on the final descent were so sharp, Joe, who was driving, needed Erik to crane his neck through the passenger’s window to check for oncoming traffic before daring make the turn, cranking the steering wheel as far as it would go while feathering the gas pedal. But to be honest, it may have been treacherous (although not necessarily dangerous for such cautious drivers as us) but it was also a little bit fun. Fun in s-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n.
When we arrived in our town, we weren’t greeted with clear signs pointing us towards our chosen school. There are dozens and dozens of Spanish immersion schools in this area, so we drove around the bumpy, rock-paved roads until we finally found a sign painted on the wall of a building encouraging us forward. With all the tuk-tuks and motorbikes whizzing by, Apollo and Maggi definitely looked liked the new kids in school – the ones dressed in the wrong style – on the first day. But we made it to our destination safe and sound. In an effort to more thoroughly embrace our new surroundings, Joe adopted a new moniker: Pepe. Erik, it turns out, is a very popular name in this area, so he kept his the same although now it rhymes with “hay-week.”
We chose this school for a couple of reasons, and after our initial entrance onto the modest grounds we could see (and feel) that we made the right decision for us. Initially we were planning to study in the larger city of Queztaltenango but then read about the Lake Atitlan region and decided that we wanted to begin our immersion in the Spanish language and in the people and culture of Guatemala in a quieter environment. There are several villages around Lake Atitlan, and all of them have populations less than 13,000. This school also allowed us to together stay with a local family who would provide all of our meals (except on Sundays). In addition, we can study together with one private teacher; that way it is easier for us to practice together since we will be on the same page at the same time – metaphorically speaking: there is no textbook. La maestra instructs and we take notes.
The school also provides additional activities to help students understand and participate in the culture of the region. During our first week we watched two films: one a documentary on the civil strife between the indigenous peoples and the government of Guatemala in the 1980’s, and the other a movie about two indigenous Guatemalans who risk their lives to travel north in the hopes of a better life (called El Norte). We also had a kayaking trip across the lake planned, but the strong morning winds cancelled that one. For the upcoming week there is a cooking class, an opportunity to work in the school’s garden, a course on natural remedies, and other fun and interesting activities.
The cost for all of this was, of course, a major detail in the planning of this adventure. But this is the cool part. We get 4 hours per day of instruction, room and board (3 meals a day for 6 days a week) with a local family, the options of extra-cirricular activities, free wi-fi, and other perks, for less than what the cost would be if we were just tooling around Guatemala on our own. We did get a couple of discounts because we are two students sharing one teacher and we agreed in advance to enroll and pay for four weeks. But still. We are learning Spanish and eating for less money than we have generally spent per week during the trip thus far. And we’re in Guatemala. And we wear shorts and sandals to class every day. And Apollo has a safe and secure place to rest while we are here.
The family we live with is a young couple without children. The two of us share a bedroom but we each have a double bed. The house is impressively large, with four rooms and a bathroom. The kitchen is covered but it is outdoors. There is hot water for the shower (never guaranteed in this area) but the bathroom sink isn’t functional so we have to wash up and brush our teeth in the outdoor sink. You get used to it. And the colder-than-cool but not quite cold water on your face in the morning is sharply bracing. Also, a little tidbit about Guatemala (and many other upcoming countries): the sewer system is not equipped and/or the water pipes are not large enough to handle toilet paper. Human waste is all that can go into the toilet. Used toilet paper is placed in the waste basket next to the toilet, and if you are courteous you make your waste package as neat and pleasant as possible. (Not everyone does.) Also, all the houses have water tanks on their roofs so the water is introduced into the houses via gravity pressure. We’re not entirely sure why yet, but that’s how it is.
Our school day starts at 7:00 with breakfast. Breakfasts are the least typical meals of the day, with regard to Guatemalan-style food. We’ve had pancakes one day, toast with jam another day, Corn Flakes (all Guatemalans eat Corn Flakes with hot milk, not cold milk), fruit a few times, and then one day we had sandwiches of some sort of processed lunch meat and processed cheese on white bread with our choice of condiments: ketchup mayonnaise, and a green chile sauce. It varies. At 8:00 we begin our Spanish class. Our “classroom” is a little casita outside with no door to close. We are surrounded by three sleeping volcanoes and only a minute’s walk to the lake. Every day commences with about half-an-hour of just talking (in Spanish, ‘natch) about whatever – current events, our meals, how we spend our time – anything that gets our brains and mouths working in Spanish. At noon class is over for the day and we return home (about a 30-second walk from the school) for lunch.
Lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and our host mom is a very good cook, although that term probably isn’t appreciate since she is younger than we are. Lunches and dinners are more authentically Guatemalan. For every lunch and supper she makes corn tortillas, the staple of the Guatemalan diet, from scratch. Every lunch and dinner. The couple is of Mayan descent, and that’s what the Mayan women do. Most of her cooking is done on the outdoor griddle, which is heated by wood. (Guatemalan tortillas are a little smaller and plumper than the white Mexican flour tortillas with which most of us are familiar.) They both speak their indigenous language in addition to Spanish (and are learning a little English these days). Lunches are sometimes vegetarian but can also include meat. For anyone on a low-carb diet: Guatemala is not the place for you. It is not uncommon for lunch to include rice and potatoes as well as the fresh, warm, soft corn tortillas. Today we had spaghetti with meat sauce. And tortillas. For lunch our host mom always makes a blended fruit beverage – literally a bunch of fruit (such as melon, pineapple, strawberries, etc.) thrown into a blender, and these bebidas, as they are called, are always soooo good.
After lunch we usually study, or go back to the school to use the wi-fi, or walk around the city. Part of the city is on an incredibly steep hill, so it’s good exercise. Good enough exercise that we don’t feel too guilty if we stop for an ice cream bar or a cookie. Dinner is at 7:00 and the meal is light, sometimes soup but frequently black beans (not from a can, thank you very much, and there isn’t a pressure cooker in sight) and eggs or something simple like that. And fresh, warm, soft corn tortillas. Most nights after dinner we stay in and study and try to speak Spanish to one another. Our hosts probably think we are boring nerds, but we came to learn Spanish and are taking it very seriously.
The weather here is enjoyably predictable. The mornings are always sunny and warm but not hot. It’s January, after all. Some clouds will roll in in the afternoon but not too many. This time of year tends to be a little on the windy side. The temperatures are usually in the 70s during the day and into the 50s at night. Our elevation is rather high so it is not as hot here as it is in other parts of Guatemala right now.
That, for the most part, is our day-to-day life now that we have arrived at school, and we are loving it. In the next post we’ll spend more time detailing with the sites and our activities while here in beautiful Guatemala. It’s a wonderful reward for having endured the border crossing last week.
Coming up: watching the Packer game on a Mexican television channel in a British pub in rural Guatemala and having to listen to the Spanish commentary…