For the last month, I´ve been learning Spanish in Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), Guatemala´s second city. Normally, when I travel, my routine is to visit a new place, see the sites, and then move on – so staying put for more than a week is something new for me. And normally, I come home with a camera memory card full of photos, the fading remains of a tan that I hoped would last but knew wouldn´t, and a liverful of the local alcohol – so coming back with a new language is another new experience for me. But the two things that I took away from my experiences on my hike in the Ixil region last month are: 1) don´t trek in the rainy season, and 2) learn some Spanish.
Despite living in Belize for three years, I never learned Spanish there – partly because I was busy with work (and partly due to good-old-fashioned character traits like laziness and procrastination); but also due to the fact that, as an English-speaking country, Belize doesn´t have any Spanish schools (even though it probably needs some – the current Prime Minister of Belize, Dean Barrow, went to Guatemala for Spanish lessons). The only places I ever heard of that were offering courses were embassies in the capital Belmopan, and it was never possible to finish work, get to Belmopan in time for class, and get back to Belize City on the last bus (which in Belize is always at some ridiculously early hour, like 7pm). So for three years my Spanish has consisted of asking for food and drink, enquiring where the bathroom is, and getting the bill. Which is surprisingly useful, but there comes a point where you want to have a proper conversation. With verbs and stuff.
Guatemala must be the most popular place in Central America for Spanish schools – they´re in every city, town, and village. Having eschewed the idea of studying in the Gringolandias of Lake Atitlán and Antigua (and having had two recommendations from fellow volunteers Emma and Katie in Belize), I opt for PLQE (Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Español) in Xela, one of over 30 schools in the city. Quetzaltenango is the name of the department – there are lots of places in Guatemala that end in `tenango´, and apparently it´s Spanish for `Place of´, in this case `Place of the Quetzal´, as the local Maya chief was wearing a headdress of Quetzal (a colourful local bird that was sacred to the Maya) feathers, when he went out to do battle with the Spanish conquistadors. Who admired his lovely attire, and then killed him and his people and burnt his city to the ground. And Xela is the name of the city (abbreviated from the original Maya name Xelajú) – fortunately, the locals use Xela, or I´d be spending hours just telling people where I studied.
Xela isn´t really a tourist town, and seems to attract those who are a little more serious about learning Spanish. It’s very much a Guatemalan city, and for me that was part of the attraction (although there are still plenty of cafes and restaurants frequented by all the students). Plus, unlike Antigua or Lake Atitlán, not many locals speak English, so every transaction or interaction will have me speaking Spanish. And, being in the middle of Guatemala´s highlands, there´s plenty of hiking to do among the nearby mountains and volcanoes (when it stops raining, that is). And last but not least, it´s the cheapest place in the country to study (five hours per day of one-to-one instruction, accommodation with a host family, and three meals per day, and all for US$200 per week).
Xela´s central park is surrounded by some grand but sombre-looking architecture, courtesy of the Germans (who, along with the Italians, started Guatemala´s now-famous coffee industry). Normally, it´s full of teenage couples snogging on the benches, while shoe-shiners and ice-cream-sellers ply their trades in front of the grey, gothic buildings. But on September 15th, the place goes crazy for Guatemalan Independence Day, which consists of long-winded speeches by local politicians, plus bands, parades (including some quite fascist-looking ones by the local police, with lots of flag-waving and goose-stepping), and beauty pageants (including everyone´s favourite, Miss Female Prisoner); and which ends with a firework display that has the locals either covering their ears or running for their lives (you would think that they would have had enough of loud noises that sound like guns and bombs, after living through a decades-long war, but apparently not).
And the cavalier attitude towards health and safety doesn´t end there. There´s also La Feria, Xela´s fair, which coincides with the week-long Independence celebrations, and which consists of rides with names like Gravitron and The Scrambler, plus a frighteningly-fast Ferris Wheel, all in various states of disrepair, and all overseen by bored-looking teenage boys who almost certainly don´t know CPR. The perfect activity after some tacos and a chocolate-covered apple (I´m happy to eat it, as it contains fruit, and is therefore one of my five-a-day). One of the rides is simply a rotating platform that throws the people into the air, smacks them into the sides, and then crushes them against each other – that´s basically every bus ride in the country, so why is it so popular, why do so many people want to pay money to experience that for fun in their free time?
Like many of the schools in Xela, PLQ´s colonial building has classrooms, a library, a computer lab, and if the weather´s nice you can even study outside in the patio. Guatemala´s language schools are also famous for their extra-curricular activities, and PLQ is no different, with most afternoons given over to trips to various local towns (including several where you can meet the rum-swigging and cigarette-smoking Maya `Saint´ Maximón); markets (where the locals sell outrageously-large fruits and vegetables, grown huge partly due to the volcanic soil but mainly to the liberal use of chemical fertilisers); churches (including the oldest one in Latin America); and hot springs (in a country of tepid water dribbling from limescale-encrusted showers, a bathtub with enough boiling water to drown an elephant in is heaven on earth).
And with five hours of study in the morning, lunch with the family, an afternoon activity, dinner (including the obligatory conversation with my host Mum about the weather), and homework (yes, there´s homework), my day as a student was busy enough to make each week fly by. And in the classes, when I wasn´t struggling to conjugate my irregular verbs, I was learning about how awful the USA has been in the history of Latin America, and explaining to my (ever-so-slightly brainwashed) teachers that Guatemala does not own (and never has owned) Belize…
The main problem with studying in a non-touristy city like Xela (as I found out on my first day of school) is that many of the teachers (and families) don´t speak English. This makes it quite difficult when you have questions (and I had many), because you have to ask that question in the language that you don´t know and have only just started studying. So I realized immediately that it probably would´ve helped if I´d known some more Spanish to begin with – especially after I tried to say that I was embarrassed by my Spanish and ended up saying that I was pregnant, and then later asked for a penis instead of a pen. It probably also helps if you´ve formally learned a language already, as then you might be familiar with some of the grammar, and the general process of learning (like most people who speak only their mother tongue, I never learned English through instruction, so the whole learning process was new to me). Luckily, Katie, my American friend from Belize (whose glowing recommendation sent me to the school in the first place) is around for the first few weeks. So I have someone to help me with my pidgin Spanish, dodge fireworks with at the various fiestas, and show me the best place to buy doughnuts (thanks Katie – just so you know, the doughnuts were the most important part!).
There are many schools in Xela, and they´re all very similar, but one thing PLQE does have that sets it apart from the others is the Mountain School (La Escuela de la Montaña). Set in an old coffee finca (plantation) in the mountains south of Xela, the mountain school is surrounded by the beautiful scenery of the highlands, and (if you´re the kind of person who likes to contribute meaningfully to the places you visit while you´re travelling/studying), the local Maya in the two villages around the school need the money far more than the relatively well-off Ladinos of Xela (having been left high and dry by their former employer, the finca owner, after he buggered off with their wages; sadly, an all-too-common story here).
The villages are a world away from cities like Xela (but again, that´s part of the attraction) – there are no cafés, no bars, and no thumping nightlife (no nightlife at all, actually). Just one small high street with a panaderia (cake shop), an internet café (only useful when there´s electricity, of course, and that´s not constant), and a few tiendas selling the basics. But the surroundings are as peaceful and rural as anywhere in Guatemala, and the locals are some of the friendliest I´ve met. And, much to my surprise, the food was excellent – it´s simple for sure, with plenty of rice, eggs, beans, and many, many tortillas, all cooked on the comal. But it´s all fresh, and comes with plenty of vegetables. And included on one night, the best chips I´ve eaten in three years in Central America – not piddly little French Fries like you get in Belize and everywhere else, but a proper chunk of a potato fried in vegetable oil. That, doused in spicy tomato salsa and wrapped in a tortilla, was worth the whole journey. And having very little meat (the locals can´t afford too much, so it´s something of a luxury for them) means I probably ate healthier here in one week than in three years in Belize, with all its deliciously-greasy fried chicken and diabetes-inducing cakes.
Having learned a few weeks´ worth of Spanish in Xela, I didn´t have to worry so much about language problems with the non-English-speaking teachers. So the only thing that bothered me was studying outside in the outdoor classrooms, with the rain and the mosquitoes and the sandflies. Well, that, and the Spanish language itself – whose bright idea was it to have two words that mean `for´, two words that mean `orange´ (one for the colour and one for the fruit), and a word meaning `to disgust with too much sweetness´; but no words for `weekend´ or `toe´? And what´s the deal with having a different ending to every single verb, depending on whether you´re talking about yourself, another person in the singular, a group of you, or other people in the plural? And don´t get me started on the genders – a table is feminine, but eggs (of all things) are masculine. Numbers are masculine, but letters are feminine. Crazy, weird language. I blame the Italians for inventing Latin…
So now, all that´s left is for me to do is practice my hideously-accented Spanish on the rest of Central America´s unsuspecting locals. Desearme suerte y buena suerte todo el mundo…