Posted from Quetzaltenango, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
Last week Sunday (March 11) we arrived in Quetzaltenango, which is more commonly known as Xela (“SHAY-la”), for two more (and final) weeks of Spanish language study. After eight weeks in San Pedro La Laguna, we thought a couple of weeks in a different city with a different school and a different teacher would be a good thing. And it has been….a different experience. To see photos from Xela, click here.
With an elevation around 7800 feet, Xela is the second-largest city in Guatemala, having had residents living here before the 14th century (although under a different name) and is filled with Spanish language schools (and foreign students) and volunteer opportunities, and is surrounded by more volcanoes. There are several good-sized street markets, a couple of McDonald’s and other American fast-food franchises, several Pollo Camperos – which is Guatemala’s very own answer to KFC – and, yes, a Walmart. There are over 150,000 people living in Xela, but it still feels surprisingly small. It’s another great town where having a car really isn’t necessary because most things can be found by walking or taking a chicken bus.
One of the nice thing about Xela is that is offers a good number of cultural options. There are restaurants that serve French, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, German, and Guatemalan and Mayan cuisines, vegetarian options (mainly for tourists), bars, cafes, etc. We even found a charming little cafe that serves the best cakes that we’ve eaten since leaving the States; we also found a charming little cafe that serves the absolute worst cheesecakes either one of us has ever eaten. (A slice of cheesecake shouldn’t wiggle like Jello on the plate, should it?) One evening we attended a fantastic concert given by a jazz quartet from Mexico, and every ticket was free. The lovely and old theater was packed, and although there were (not surprisingly) many non-Guatemalans in the audience, there were plenty of locals as well and the crowd was thrilled and incredibly supportive of this ensemble from another country playing in an idiom of yet another country.
Walking the Parque Central is always great for people-watching as well as for finding out what is going on in town that day. We visited the Parque almost every day. Our first day we came across the Sunday Lenten processional – twice, in fact, and both times by accident. This one was much more elaborate than the one we followed in San Pedro; here there were many more people, costumes, candles, and even a marching band complete with marching timpani and tam-tam. (The timpani were in a rickety cart being pulled by some poor guy who must have drawn the short straw.)
We attended a couple of school outings to neighboring towns. One village, Almolonga, is known as the agricultural center of Central America; just about everyone there grows vegetables and herbs on huge plots of land – and everything done by hand. There were no tractors or other farming machinery. The vegetables and herbs are exported throughout Central America and even to the U.S. It is also near a natural hot spring, which they use in their various hot bath locations. (You’ll have to check out the photos to really appreciate that tourist attraction.) Another day we rode a chicken bus to the nearby village Salcajá. It’s a small town known really only three things. The first of which is the first ever church built in Central America. Built in 1524, the Roman Catholic Church of San Jacinto. The outside is interesting the way old churches are, but the inside is striking for its architecture: there were no architects or laborers to build the church back then, but the Spanish sailors wanted a church; so… they built it like a ship, which they knew how to do, and then turned the entire structure upside-down. The second thing Salcajá is famed for is the handmade manufacturing of traditional Mayan dress. Half the houses contain tellars, which are like looms. The third thing is an alcoholic beverage made from fruits (which macerate in the liquid for several months, flavoring it) and hibiscus flower, which gives it its red hue and some flavor. We were able to sample it; although it was a little harsh, Erik thought it a moral imperative that we support the small business woman and purchase a small bottle. It’s…um…strong.
Very fortunately for us the classrooms in our Xela school, Sol Latino, are indoors. Because of the high elevation, the morning temperatures are usually in the 40‘s, but the days are usually sunny and in the 70’s. We liked this school but it’s very different than our previous one. In San Pedro, our teacher spoke wonderfully slowly and – as we are discovered later – used an somewhat limited vocabulary. Our Xela teacher was super fun, charming, personable, intelligent, and had a lot of energy and a repertoire of over-the-top gestures to help relay her anecdotes but spoke much quicker than we were used to. The first few days were tricky, trying to scrape out a few words here and there, but by the end of our two weeks we got better at keeping up with her pace – not perfect by any means, but better. But obviously it was great practice for the real world.
For homework, we were asked to write (in Spanish, por supuesto) crazy stories (ours almost always involved dogs and/or cake), describe our favorite song, write about our favorite scene from our favorite movies, and even write a recipe in Spanish (great practice for the Imperative Mood). For all intents and purposes, in our ten weeks of school, we have been schooled in how to more or less successfully create sentences (or phrases) in about 15 different verb tenses/moods. Imagine someone trying to cram a textbook into your skull and then your trying to figure out how to access and then use that information… you know it’s there somewhere but the pages are hard to turn. Now you may have an inkling of how we feel: we know how but that doesn’t mean we can – yet. Ah, poco a poco…
(Small world story: one of the other students at the school was a man from Bloomington, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, and the home of one of Pepe’s previous employers.)
Although it wasn’t our first choice, our lodging for these two weeks is a hostel. (For those of you who don’t know the joy of a hostel, click here.) This was a new experience for both of us. As hostels go, it’s a pretty nice one and a five-minute walk to our school. There is a cleaning lady who works every day, cleaning the bathrooms and common areas. But unfortunately it just was not enough. There are 21 rooms in this hostel, and each room houses at least one person. In other words, there are more than 21 people sharing one kitchen, three toilets, two showers, two sinks… there is almost no such thing as personal space. Other people’s conversations, cigarette smoke, computer noises, Skype calls, movies… we can hear them all. The good news at least is that we scored the room that is the farthest one away from everything. But for us and our situation, it was the best – and cheapest – option.
We did not hang out anywhere in the hostel except in our bedroom, which was barely large enough for us to both stand up in. We could hardly tolerate to even be in the kitchen because it was so filthy. (We did not cook there.) The blame for the never-ending filth lies with our hostel-mates, who came in all different ages and nationalities and who apparently have no clue how to clean up after themselves (especially in a shared space) from day to day. Coming upon a sink that is completely sprayed with water and contains a clump of long hair, you can’t help but wonder if this is actually a house for the blind… how can these people NOT see the disgusting mess they are leaving?
Pepe’s first shower was not only short on warm water, but it was short on water. That seemed to be a frequent occurrence, especially in the afternoons. That means that dirty dishes get left in the sink and you can’t fill your water bottle until an unspecified time later. To claim that the walls are “paper thin” would be generous. Hearing normal conversations in our neighboring rooms? No problem. Hearing people kissing in the next room? Oh, yes. And our most recent neighbor is apparently harboring dreams of being the next contestant on some talent show; he has an electric guitar, a saxophone, a flute, and a keyboard, and he practices them (sadly, not well). You want worse? We’ve got worse, but you, gentle and delicate reader, do not need to be exposed to it.
Hostel aside (and notice how we refrained from making a hostel/hostile joke?), we loved Xela and grew to love it more and more as the two weeks flew by. The narrow and numerous streets are a treasure trove of interesting things to see and restaurants at which to grab a nice and inexpensive meal. Returning to Xela in July when we revisit Guatemala wasn’t in our original plans, but because we enjoyed it so much we hope to work it in. It’s a great reminder of how many wonderful places there are in the world waiting for you to come upon them.
Coming Up: As we depart Guatemala for the first time (we’ll be back in July), we’ll offer our top 10 faves and not-so-faves about this culturally rich and always interesting country. Next stop: Mexico (yes, again). Border crossing is Monday – wish us luck!