Tag Archives: Quetzaltenango

Mood swings and roundabouts

25 Jan

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.

School days: Jeremy grapples with possessive pronouns... or something

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.

Que?: Even the dogs at our house can't understand a word we're saying.


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!

Guisela

Guisela whips up another delicious batch of tamalitos.

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.

Days: 105
Miles: 5789.2
Things we now know to be true: Banging your head on the table doesn’t improve your language skills.

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Bienvenidos a Guatemala

8 Jan

PD, Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala

Hello country number two.

We finished off three months in Mexico with a few days of spectacular stuff in Chiapas. Spectacular mountain scenery, lakes and waterfalls, some spectacularly bad weather (and some good) and a spectacular near-miss involving a falling tree.

After new year we set off from San Cristobal to check out a few of the more rural parts of the region, starting with the “turquoise lakes” of the Lago de Montebello area. We drove through torrential rain and misty mountains – it felt like the sky was almost touching the van at times – and pulled in to a place on the edge of Lago de Tziscao in the late afternoon. The camping area was by the lake, which – judging by the fact that some of the waterside cabins were half-submerged – looked like it had risen rather a lot in recent weeks.

We pulled up and dithered for a while about stopping nearish to the edge of the water. But it was raining hard and we were worried about getting stranded in mud, or ending up in the lake, by the next morning. We pulled back about 20ft and settled in to hide from the weather for a while. A nice wee cuppa and a relax for a bit, ahh. Our peace was interrupted when about 45 minutes later a 40ft tree crashed to the ground right across the spot we’d originally parked in. We stared, looked at eachother, looked back at the tree, looked at eachother again and laughed nervously. “That’s where we were parked wasn’t it?” I said. “Yes”.

Tree falls in front of van, Lago Tziscao

Crash! Jeremy ponders what might have been

We turned around and drove back up to a concrete parking area, away from the trees. Good decision, because the next morning two more came loose in the soggy ground, creaked, groaned and slammed to the ground. Oh!

The lakes were beautiful, not really turquoise in that weather, but more like moody Scottish lochs in the winter. After visiting them we drove on the next day to a gorgeous little community eco-tourism place, Las Nubes, built around a gushing river and dramatic waterfalls. Jeremy swallowed his vertigo and bravely crossed the very wobbly bridge traversing the most dramatic canyon and falls.

The skies cleared, sunshine again! It was so lovely we stayed an extra night, walked, and dried out. The friendly night guards were fascinated by our van and came for a long hard look inside. Some people seem to find it hard to believe we live in there. When we ask for a space to “camp” for the night in our “casa movil” (mobile home) they often look around as if to say “ok, but where is it?”.

We have been through many routine and military checkpoints on our trip so far, and when the vehicle is searched there is usually more interest in our little “casa” than a serious quest for contraband. We are always careful to be polite and sensible though, as you never know if the conversation is going to take a turn.

One of the more thorough military checks was while we were in Chiapas, an area known for political tensions, so we wanted to give a good impression. Jeremy got out and answered the officer’s questions, showed our paperwork and whatnot. After it was over we pulled away. Jeremy looked down at his feet and realised he was wearing two different shoes – a Converse boot on the right foot, a walking shoe on the left. Those kooky Brits! I’m not going to explain why, you can make up your own theories.

Our last night in Mexico was perfect, pretty much summing up the friendliness of the people and the beauty of the country. We were cutting it a bit fine again, trying to find a camping spot before dark. We followed a sign off the road, near the Guatemalan border, to a laguna we hadn’t heard of. As we pondered over whether to park in a public car park area, an old woman appeared from behind a little shop and beckoned us to drive in behind their gates. At the back of the shop was a little lakeside area, with basic rooms plus palapas, tables and BBQs for daytrippers. For £1.50 we camped there, safe and sound, birds tweeting and bats swooping, with the laguna right in front of us, shining in the moonlight.

P has a rinse at Lagunas de Colon

Quick head rinse in the Laguna before we leave for Guatemala

Next morning we said goodbye to Mexico. The old lady said: “Can’t you stay another day?”. But we couldn’t, we had to get to Guatemala, we had school on Monday!

The border crossing was mildly chaotic and confusing, but we were prepared for it and survived the hoopla of paperwork, getting through in a couple of hours. As we pulled off, having completed everything, we were directed towards a detour around the village which took us down, around and then back up, one of the most terrifyingly steep and narrow streets we have yet encountered. Could this really be an international border? For the umpteenth time we thanked our lucky stars that we had chosen a small vehicle with a bit of oomph to it.

So here we are in Quetzaltenango, more commonly known as Xela. We have booked one month of Spanish classes, and have opted to live with a local family. We will register and be taken to the house later today, and then start classes at 8am tomorrow.

The school is an non-profit organisation which uses its surplus to work with human rights groups and social projects. As well as learning Spanish, students are also taught about the economic and social problems in Guatemala.

It might be a tough four weeks for our ageing brains, but we’re really looking forward to it and are determined to make the most of the experience.

We’ll let you know how it goes. Hasta luego.

Days: 97
Miles: 5597.4
Things we now know to be true: Just because we’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean the trees aren’t all out to get us.