Tag Archives: Spanish school

‘Bad news sells’ shocker

19 May

Estelí, Nicaragua
[by Jeremy]

We’ve been back at Spanish school in Estelí, Nicaragua while we await delivery of the new transmission – yes, still waiting. Last we heard it was, allegedly, on a ship heading this way.

Meanwhile, in a desperate bid to avoid studying the present perfect subjunctive tense we’ve been playing around with some trip statistics. As journalists we know you can make statistics say whatever you want them to – if they don’t, you just pretend they don’t even exist.

View from our Esteli apartment during a rainstorm

Shall we postpone that shopping trip, dear? – it’s a bit drizzly out. Road turns to river outside our apartment.

Even knowing that, some of our stats make for some surprising reading – others less so. And there are a few conclusions we can draw from the geeky analysis, pie charts and databases we’ve consulted. Chief among those is the fact that you people are sick.

Actually, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to seasoned hacks like ourselves, but our blog reader stats show a massive spike from the day we broke down, to today. You clearly revel in the misfortune of others. Bastards.

More bizarrely, we’ve been monitoring the search terms people have used before arriving at our blog. It’s to be expected that, for example, ‘Baja camping’, or ‘Lago de Atitlan’, or even ‘stranded in Honduras’ would rank high among the searches.

But who is it that scours the internet using the terms ‘Mariah Carey’s hands’? And imagine the shock and disappointment when their search returns our blog. Or who searches for ‘physical star jumps’ and is pleased to get pictures of us arseing about on the beach? The person who sought information on ‘gay-friendly Xela’ would have read only about one drunken night we had in a gay bar.

Surely not what they were looking for.

What we’ve also noticed is that you’re not just sick, but nosey too. The thing most people want to know about – apart from how we handle not having a toilet in the van – is how much it costs to do a trip like this. A combination of savings, selling all our accumulated stuff before we left and doing some work along the way means we have a budget of a maximum of US$30 each per day (£20). So far – after 229 days on (and off) the road – we’re running at $29 each per day.

That includes all our petrol, food, accommodation/camping fees, drinks, water, laundry, internet, taxis, tolls, visas, propane, trips and souvenirs and a range of sundries from haircuts to maps, and toilet charges to bug spray.

Jeremy sampling the wares, cigar-making factory, Esteli

First the beard, now the cigar-smoking. Jeremy’s Che delusions continue to worsen.

And yes, I am sad enough to admit that every single one of the above is accounted for, down to the last penny.

It all adds up to a fraction of the cost of our life in London.

Statistics alert! Of that budget we have spent around 5% on trips, 17% on petrol, 20% on accommodation, 9% on drinks and water, 0.4% on propane, 0.7% on laundry and 18.5% on meals out.

So some other conclusions we can draw are, firstly, that we eat too much (and that meals-out figure is down from 22%). That’s no surprise. And, secondly, that we don’t wash our clothes enough (or maybe that having laundry done is very cheap, but that wouldn’t be as amusing).

Well, as they say around these parts, the adverbial pronoun waits for no man (or woman) so we had better get back to the homework and our dark thoughts of murdering the person(s) who invented grammar.

Before we do (see how he’s avoided the homework for a bit longer there? – ed), here’s a whistle-stop tour of the past couple of weeks. Bored of waiting for our transmission, we headed to Estelí and enrolled at CENAC Spanish school for a couple of weeks.

We’ve rented what might loosely be called an apartment. The fact that the walls don’t reach the ceiling is just one of its interesting features. The electrical wires hanging from the shower are another. But, as ever, people’s kindness has been overwhelming, more than making up for any relative discomforts. Our formidable landlady brings us cooked meals and random vegetables on a regular basis. Whilst we really don’t need it, it is much appreciated.

The rainy season is just beginning and our apartment has a balcony from where we can see the late afternoon storms brewing over the mountains and heading to town, where they unleash themselves in a deafening torrent on our tin roof. The unpaved street turns into a river within minutes, sweeping rubbish and – sometimes, we’re convinced – small children down with it (okay, that was a small exaggeration, but only a small one).

Swimming in Somoto Canyon, northern Nicaragua

Floating along in the Somoto Canyon, northern Nicaragua.

We spent an exhilarating few hours hiking, wading and floating down the Cañon de Somoto last weekend and had a heady trip to a handmade cigar factory – something for which Estelí is famous. This weekend we’re heading up to the Caribbean coast and the reportedly stunning Pearl Lagoon.

By the time we come back from there we hope to have better news about the van.

We couldn’t have any more bad luck with this – could we? After ordering the transmission we had it transported overland to the port at New Orleans. But they lost the paperwork and it sat for a week or so at a depot with no-one knowing where it was supposed to go.

Then, after we hassled, they located it and sent it to the port – by which time it had missed its shipping slot. So they sent it to another port but by the time it got there the container was full and it had to be sent back to the previous port.

Finally, two weeks late, it supposedly left on Wednesday, and is due to arrive with us in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in the next fortnight or so. But when we got the email from the shipping company, the measurements of the package were significantly different from those we gave them when we booked the shipping.

So who knows what we will get, or when. I know we’re not supposed to moan because we’re really, really lucky to be doing this, but can I just say all this waiting and uncertainty sucks!

And the sad thing about all this is that we know the part you will have enjoyed the most was that last bit – where everything goes wrong. Sickos…

Days: 229
Miles: Same as before
Things we now know to be true: There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

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Adios and hola!

6 Feb

PD, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala

Skool’s out. We’re back on the road.

We ended a month in Xela with a slightly raucous ‘graduation’ night at Spanish school (yes, we have a certificate to prove we Tried Very Hard), and lots of goodbyes – to our fellow students, especially Amy and Rob from New Mexico whom we hope we’ll see again some day, and to our host family Guisela, Boris and their much-loved dogs.

Paula near our house in Xela

Me heading to the launderette near our house in Xela


Shame my hangover on Saturday morning caused an even more confused babble of Spanish tenses than usual. As we drove off I think I told them we’d never forget them while we were on the road, but I may have said we’d have forgotten them by the time we got to the end of their road.

It was sad, but the end of school also signalled that a much-anticipated hello was on the horizon – to my mum and dad, who are winging their way to Guatemala as I write. We’re more than a little excited about spending three weeks travelling the country with them, and no doubt drinking a few glasses of cerveza and vino along the way. Roll on tonight.

After a bit of a mid-term slump in the Spanish-speaking stakes, the final week of school was an improvement for both of us. Partly because we accepted that it’s a long game and a period of confusion is a necessary stage of the process. The more we learn the more we expect of ourselves. PLQ is a fantastic school for many reasons, and we really feel they have given us the foundations and confidence to speak up and keep learning, as well as a wealth of knowledge about Guatemala. The homework doesn’t stop here.

Staying still and getting to know a place for a month was a luxury in itself. It was lovely to walk the streets of Xela, waving hello to familiar faces. The mechanics who fixed our van, the woman who cut my hair, the laundry guy, the bloke who cycled past us every morning on the way to school and shouted ‘buenos dias’ without fail.

Saying goodbye to our Xela hosts Guisela and Boris, and their dogs Dumpy and Pany

We even paid a visit to the football stadium to watch the mighty Xela play a league match (1-1), and Jeremy had a fix of five-a-side with the students and teachers each week.

And we got to know one or two bars. One night last week began with bumping into a couple of fellow students and heading for “a beer”. Four hours later we had crashed a birthday party in Xela’s only gay bar and were watching the birthday boy performing a Madonna song before pouring Mezcal straight from the bottle down the throats of all his guests. Those unexpected evenings are often the best.

Our final night in the city was that of our graduation. It’s a traditional Friday night thing at the school, where some of the teachers perform and sing and then all the students join in the with ‘school song’, a Spanish version of the anti-fascist Bella Ciao.

Then all the students leaving that day have to do a turn. I had to follow Amy, who is a professional singer and stopped the room with her incredible voice. And to top that off, she put in a performance like while suffering from malaria, having been diagnosed earlier in the week. Eek. I did a speech in Spanish, with quotes from Fidel Castro that had inspired me during a horrible time in our union at the BBC. Jeremy managed to mix humour, in Spanish, with a poem from Che Guevara. That’s my boy.

What we probably won’t miss about Xela is the cold at the beginning and end of the day. Bloody hell, it was freezing peeling ourselves out of bed and then sitting in the open-air school yard every morning. We realise it’s cold for many people reading this too, but we assume most of you have central heating. When I chatted to Guisela about most people in Europe not only having heating but having hot water taps in their kitchens and bathrooms she couldn’t understand the point of it – what a waste of money!

Paula, Jeremy, Rob and Amy on graduation night

More goodbyes, to fellow students and friends Rob and Amy Rakowczyk

We have now arrived in warmer climes. En route to a campsite near(ish) Antigua we picked up two skateboarders from Guatemala City who had hurtled down this terrifying hill and were looking for a lift back up. Turned out one of them had lived in (our part of London) Tooting Broadway when he was a kid. What are the chances?

After we left them we unknowingly turned onto the worst road we have encountered to date. Not really a road, just a pile of jagged rocks vaguely following the route to the place we were trying to reach. It was a terrifying hour or so, not least when we had to inch past a van that had tipped right off the road. As if they didn’t have enough to worry about, the men who were trying to haul their vehicle out of the ditch helped us get round them safely.

Most annoyingly of all, before that journey we’d got the van all washed and ready for mum and dad’s visit, and now it’s filthy again. My dad is a fanatical car-washer. We’re taking bets on how long it takes him to mention the van looks less than perfect.

More pics soon, but in case you missed this batch from Christmas, here they are again.

Flickr set: Coba to Campeche (Mexico)

Days: 126
Miles: 5961.8
Things we now know to be true: Just because there’s a road clearly marked on the map, you can’t assume it’s actually a road.

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.

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.