Back to School, Xela Style
After having gone to school from 3 to 30, I thought I was done with it forever. But nope, at age [eerrrrrr…..input error!] I became a student again for 2 weeks in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Aye-yi-yi, mi cabeza!
Guatemala seems to be the place to take Spanish classes, because of the low cost (even by Central American standards), the incredible settings, and supposedly the Guatemalan accent is among the clearest. From reading up on the possibilities and speaking with other travelers, it would appear the top three places to learn Spanish are Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and Quetzaltenango (a.k.a. “Xela”, pronounced “shay-la”). We read that the most “serious students” tended to go to school in Xela, as it is less touristy than the other regions and, thus, gives one more opportunity to practice Spanish. Believing ourselves to be students of the “serious” variety (ha!), we decided to give Spanish classes in Xela a go.
When we mentioned to people that we were going to Xela, locals and other travelers alike almost always replied “but it is so cold there”. Coming from Scotland, we thought this was rather laughable. Cold in Guatemala?! Our summers are probably colder than their winters! Wimps! Well it turns out they – and we – were both right. Xela is in the Western highlands of Guatemala, over 7500 feet (2300 meters) above sea level. November through February is essentially their winter (the dry season), with the average daytime temperature reaching 22C (about 72F; much warmer than Scotland’s summer average!) and the nighttime temperature plummeting to an average of 4C (40F). So while the daytime temp was ideal in the sunshine, one day after school Toby and I made a special excursion to the local Megapaca to buy ourselves a spare hoodie, as we “misunderestimated” how cold we could be in Central America. Another lesson learned.
Returning to school…We signed ourselves up for 5 hours a day of one-on-one tuition at Utatlan Spanish School, not quite sure what we were getting ourselves into. Classes started at 8 am, with a 1/2-hour break from 10:30-11am, and they ended at 1pm. At the break the first day Toby and I came back together to report to each other that our heads already hurt. And we still had 2 more hours to go. Oh dear! And so it was day after day: hurt heads, minor successes (yay, I still remember a ton of vocab from high school Spanish! and direct and indirect objects are easy to distinguish!), and major failures (why oh why are there so many irregular verbs? and what the heck is the imperfect past for??). In short, we were absolutely knackered after each day of classes. Most days, it was all we could do to achieve much more than lunch, internetting at a local wifi cafe, then returning home to make a Scottish-American version of Guatemalan food for dinner. Oh yeah, and we had homework each night too. Whooppeee!
But it wasn’t all serious studying in Xela. The school also organises afternoon and weekend activities to encourage students to engage more with the local culture and, of course, to practice our Spanish. Monday evenings were usually salsa nights, which Toby and I excused ourselves from (anyone who has seen Toby “dancing” will understand why), and they also tended to have a cooking class/demonstration one day each week as well. One afternoon we took a couple of “chicken buses” (who needs roller-coasters?) to visit Salcaja, home to the oldest church in Central America. Whilst there in town we were also invited into the home of a local man to taste – and be persuaded to purchase – some of his homemade liquor, called caldo de frutas. It reminded me of the plum gin Toby and I made at home: super sweet and fruity. I was tempted to buy some, but in respect of my stomach and not being entirely confident about the sanitary practices this man employed (we saw the barrels where the stuff was stored), I managed to restrain myself. On the other hand, maybe I should have bought some! It couldn’t have hurt my stomach worse than the strawberry milkshake did that I had later in the week (I’ll spare you the details).
Another day we visited a sauna (again by chicken bus + a ride in the back of a random person’s pickup truck) that was ostensibly powered by one of the local volcanoes, but no one was able to tell us which one. The English-language sign in the sauna reminded me of Silence of the Lambs, a la “It puts the lotion on its skin…Now it places the lotion in the basket.” Slightly creeeepy, but we enjoyed having a relaxing afternoon after the intensive one-on-one tuition in the morning.
Yet another day we went with a group of students to the volcanic hot springs known as Las Fuentes Georginas. Most of the pools were comfortably warm, but one of them was…well….extremely hot. I managed to put my toes in for maybe a second or two, whereas Toby got in all the way. A few times. Mind you, he was bright red for about an hour afterwards. That’s the price you pay for bravery or, um, whatever you want to call it.
By the time our two weeks of school started to come to an end, we were really getting into the swing of things and, despite the pain in our brains, felt we had made some solid progress. Xela is a very livable city, with lots of restaurants and cafes (they even have a “little France” area; huge savoury and sweet crepes can be found here), outdoor markets selling everything under the sun (the array of colours in the fruit and veg sections, and enormous piles of shoes and bras, never failed to impress), a fantastic bakery run by local Mennonites, and friendly people, even including the men armed with shotguns standing outsides banks and tiendas, with whom we exchanged greetings every morning (“buenos dias!”) and afternoon (“buenas tardes!”). We enjoyed our time here immensely, despite the aforementioned chill in the nighttime air, the briefly mentioned stomach issue, and the surplus of guns.
We hope one day to return to Xela, perhaps even to take more Spanish classes. Hurt heads or no.