PD, Xela, Guatemala
I’m not saying learning a new language is frustrating. All I can say is that yesterday the front cover of our Spanish-English dictionary was mysteriously ripped off its hinges in a freak incident. These things can happen.
The last two and a half weeks at school have seen the full spectrum of emotions. We have lurched between total jubilation and utter despair, excitement and frustration, sickness and health, drunkenness and sobriety. I think research on language immersion has proved that learning this way can feel like swings and roundabouts. There have been days where by the end of lessons one or both of us has felt like lying across the lunch table and weeping uncontrollably. How many verb conjugations can a person take?
A few things are certain though.
First, we lucked out by being placed with a lovely couple, whose home we are living in for the whole month. They cook great food for us, are keen to converse, and are willing put up with our mangled toddler-style Spanish at mealtimes. Boris and Guisela are of similar age to us, with three dogs, one parrot and no kids. Bueno. They are kind and welcoming, and when we fell sick Guisela – our ‘madre Guatemalteca’ – nurtured us back to normal with a dietary solution for every stage of our ailments.
Second, we love the city and the school. And even if some days it doesn’t feel like it, we have learned a lot. After two weeks our confidence in speaking has grown markedly. We understand an ever-increasing proportion of the conversations around us. And we are mostly keeping up with the theory – of which there is plenty – even though all the explanations of grammar and structure are given in Spanish.
Despite all of the above we mostly still feel that when we open our mouths, what emerges resemble a dog’s dinner. We live in hope that one day our brains will begin to more efficiently connect with the tongue part.
Our five-hour one-to-one lessons can be pretty intense. As well as the more formal teaching part, there is a good chunk of conversation each day. We choose the school partly for its left-wing political slant, which is obvious when I look at some of the vocabulary I noted down on my first day. I knew how to say ‘the missing’, ‘the displaced’, ‘dictatorship’ and ‘poverty’ before I was told how to say ‘my name is Paula’. And so it should be.
School activities include sight-seeing trips as well as screenings of political films and documentaries, conferences on social issues and testimonies from friends of the school such as ex-guerillas and political campaigners. Last week we heard from a former member of one of the armed resistance groups in Guatemala. She spent much of the 36-year civil war retrieving injured compadres from the mountains and treating their gruesome wounds at a secret safe-house, despite having no medical experience.
Each week ends with a graduation night for those who have finished their course. The catering alternates between students doing ‘pot luck’ international food one week, and the school providing a typical Guatemalan meal the next. Let me just add that we have met many excellent fellow students at the school, and I don’t wish to point the finger at anyone in particular. But following all the dire warnings about water and food hygiene in Central America, I find it ironic that my first bout of sickness almost certainly resulted from the food cooked by the foreigners!
This led to a pretty disastrous first weekend off school for us. We’d decided to take a little trip away in the van, and soldiered on with the plan even though I awoke on Saturday feeling awful, mistaking my symptoms for a hangover.
I’ll probably spare you the full details. Let’s just say the last thing you want is to be driving down a winding mountain road while suffering from a stomach bug, and having nothing to vomit into but your vegetable storage box. Upon arrival the last thing you want is to camp in a place with no toilets or running water. And having suffered all that the worst thing you could imagine happening would be a spillage incident involving the portable toilet. Wouldn’t it?
On the upside, we got to see the beach. And it was deliciously warm on the coast compared with Xela, which has shockingly cold mornings and chilly evenings.
Happily, weekend number two’s excursion was a total contrast. We travelled to nearby Laguna Chicabal – a volcanic crater lake – with two friends from school, Rob and Amy. En route to our destination we failed to notice an earthquake that registered 6.2 on the Richter scale. Oops!
The road to the laguna’s trailhead was hairy to say the least, and was really only suitable for 4x4s. We pushed the van to its absolute limit, and at several points Rob, Amy and I had to exit the vehicle to lighten the load, while Jeremy went slip-sliding up the steepest dustiest trail we’ve yet attempted. We made it! And celebrated with some improvised satay noodles, wine and tequila, and a few games of cards in the van.
Next morning we got up early to walk to the laguna before the daily mist and clouds descended. After a freezing night we climbed out the van to a magical scene of low mist and sparkling frost, which soon disappeared as the sun warmed the slopes. A steep climb was followed by a sharp 600-step descent to the lake, which was ringed with flower-laden Mayan altars.
It’s hard to find the words to describe it. But then words are not really our friends at the moment.
Things we now know to be true: Banging your head on the table doesn’t improve your language skills.