I ended my third and final week of Spanish class at PLQ on Friday (seventh overall including my time at San Pedro School), and for a moment on my last day of class, I believed that I had reached a true Spanish language breakthrough. The moment came during the weekly “Que Pasó in Guatemala” roundtable where students and teachers meet for an hour to discuss Guatemalan current events — in Spanish, of course. Amaro, a school coordinator who was leading the conference, kicked things off by asking if students had anything they would like to discuss. The several seconds of painful silence that ensued proved too difficult for my extroversion to handle, so I piped up and said “La economía de Guatemala.” Amaro turned his gaze towards me and asked, “What about the economy?” I mentioned that I had read an article about the state of the Guatemalan economy earlier that week in the Prensa Libre and thought we could, maybe, discuss that. Amaro replied that he had not read that article, so it would be great if I could explain in detail what I knew about the current state of the Guatemalan economy. At this point, considering the entire exchange was occurring in Spanish, I realized I was probably in over my head. However, I could not think of a better way out of the situation other than to dive headfirst into these murky, Spanish language waters. I began speaking and was surprised by how quickly and easily the words tumbled out of my mouth. Over the course of two, maybe three minutes, I summarized the general state of the Guatemalan economy, rattled off several factors that were barriers to Guatemalan economic growth, and offered commentary on each factor. At the end of this impromptu speech, I let out a long breath of self-satisfaction and thought to myself, “Wow. Just wow! I am great at Spanish, basically fluent. Everyone here just must be so impressed!” However, it was only then that I noticed the silence. And then the confused look on Amaro’s face. And then the blank expressions on the faces of the other students and teachers in the room. I then asked Amaro, hopefully, “Do you understand?” Amaro’s confused look then changed into one of amusement, and he replied with a chuckle, “Umm…a little bit,” indicating that his incomprehension was due more to the ridiculous version of Spanish I had just spoken rather than my superior technical knowledge of Guatemalan economics. Amaro’s in-depth, follow-up spiel on Guatemalan economics — accompanied by head bobs of comprehension all around the room — confirmed that my “breakthrough” was not in Spanish, but, rather, in my own, unique language that sits somewhere in the great abyss between English and Spanish.
Despite this somewhat humiliating experience, PLQ still allowed me to graduate Friday evening at the weekly graduation dinner. Every Friday evening, PLQ hosts this graduation dinner for all students and teachers. The dinner has been one of the highlights of each week here as it includes piles of food (students and teachers alternate weeks that they bring food), an authentic Guatemalan mariachi band — made up of PLQ teachers and friends — to lead us in rousing communist anthems, and plenty of Gallo and Cabro (the Guatemalan national beers). All departing students are invited to give a speech or sing a song, so, given it was my last dinner, I once again risked public humiliation and stood up in front of forty of my new best friends to deliver a short speech that was, thankfully for the listeners, prepared beforehand as to align more closely with the actual Spanish language than the speech I had given earlier in the day. Two other students who have become my compañeras in adventure, Marije and Jasmine, also delivered well-prepared speeches. However, another speech stole the show. It was delivered by Ron, a Catholic missionary in his 60’s or 70’s from New Jersey, who quickly had become a fan favorite among the students given his cheerful, grandfatherly demeanor and his enthusiastic participation in all student activities (including soccer, post-soccer beers, volcanic baths, and chicken bus rides). In his speech, Ron described his misadventure this past Wednesday during a school trip to Zunil, a local pueblo built into a mountainside near Xela. During the trip, Ron got separated from the group on the way back from the cemetery, which is located at the highest point in town. Ron walked all the way down the mountain alone, and when he did not find the rest of the group at the bottom, took a tuc-tuc back up the mountain. However, during this ride, he missed seeing the group coming back down the mountain and then, seeing that the rest of the group was not at the top either, in a panic, ran back down the mountain into the arms of a worried group of students that immediately began cheering his return. Ron could barely contain his delight in recounting this story in his first-year Spanish at dinner, and as peals of laughter rolled through the students and teachers, Ron went off script to describe the current size of his corazón.
In addition to the graduation dinner and Spanish language speeches, my final week in Xela also included a trip to Volcano Chicabal — a nearby volcano that features a lake on top and a drunk, blabbering local at the bottom — and Zunil — the local pueblo mentioned above whose cemetery was a colorful, spirited site to behold on Día de Los Muertos on November 1st. Finally, I played hooky from class for a few hours on Monday to take to the streets to to witness Stage 8 of the Vuelta de Guatemala and root on Manuel Rodas, Some of the pictures below capture these last few days in the Guatemalan Highlands.
As my time in Xela (Xelajú in full Mayan form) has come to a close, I am looking forward to transitioning from a “dedicated” student to a wandering, Central American traveler, doing my best to convince locals that, despite physical evidence to the contrary, I know a bit of Spanish and would prefer the Spanish as opposed to English version of the menu, please.
Next up, New York City comes to Guatemala for a nine days in the form of one of my best friends and travel companions, Newman Granger.
This week, I settled into my new temporary home here in southwest Guatemala, Quetzaltenango (literally the “the place of the quetzal bird” but better known by its Mayan name of “Xela”). My plan is to remain here for at least two weeks studying some more Spanish, checking out Guatemalan city life (Xela is the second-largest city in Guatemala), and hiking the several volcanoes that surround this highland city, situated at 2,330 meters (7,640 feet).
On Monday, I enrolled in the local Spanish school Proyecto Linguistico Quetzaltenengo (“PLQ”) — a school run by a number of local human rights’ activists and former left-wing guerrillas that, in addition to teaching students Spanish, educate students on the politics, history, and economics of Guatemala. Given this mission, it was not too surprising to find a more serious breed of student here than in San Pedro. Of the students I have chatted with, it is common to hear people talking about their length of time studying Spanish on the order of months rather than weeks. Also, whereas most students in San Pedro School were learning Spanish primarily to jumpstart their travels throughout Latin America, students here generally seem to have some more concrete practical application in mind with their Spanish, such as social work on the U.S.-Mexico border, the fulfillment of a graduate school requirement, or public health work in Latin America. Therefore, on my first day of orientation, when I told the group of new students my reason for studying Spanish was to “not sound like a complete gringo when traveling through Latin America,” a slight tug of self-consciousness urged me to add, “and possibly volunteer with Hispanic-speaking communities back in the US.” Although this is not a complete lie (this has been a potential use for my Spanish that has been in the back of my mind), this has hardly been an outspoken desire of mine until this group of socially-conscious lefties motivated me to speak to the more selfless side of motivations. Also of note is the fact over half the students in the school are Americans. After seeing only a half dozen Americans in my first six weeks in Guatemala, this was actually a bit of a shock. It definitely feels nice to be around some more of my fellow countrymen, but, at the same time, I miss the variety of perspectives that a more international group provides.
One feature of PLQ that I appreciate is the fact that teachers rotate every week, a pretty good idea as the number of conversation topics one can cover in broken Spanish with a single human are admittedly limited. My teacher this week was Heber, a 36-year-old Quetzaltecan who spent the first twelve years of his life on a farm in the highlands, which provided the backdrop for a number of the stories he told me throughout the week. These stories usually involved some near-death experience related to climbing trees, dueling with child-weaponized tree branches, or racing on top of goats. This week, Heber was on a mission: shake the gringo out of Ricardo’s Spanish accent. Every few words I spoke, Heber would with interrupt with a playful smile and the words, “No…repite, por favor.” I would then “repite,” trying extra hard to roll my r’s, not pronounce my “h’s”, and lean into my tilde’s with a Don Quixotian flourish. I was rewarded by this effort when the father of my host family announced after my response to one of his questions this morning, “¡Tú Español es mejor después de tus clases esta semana!”
This brings me to my new host family in Quetzaltenango, the Riveras. Lorena and Edwin head the household, which also consists of a daughter in her mid-twenties, a son in his early 20’s, and a grandson of four (embarrassingly enough, I have yet been able to understand how to say their names — I am hoping I can get by for the next week or so without this fact slipping!). The Riveras are not quite as religious as my host family in San Pedro which was in the habit of attending church four times a week. When I asked Lorena and Edwin if they go with their family to church every week, Edwin vigorously responded “Si, si, si!” while Lorena’s mouth dropped open and her head began shaking in playful agitation at this blatant lie. After some more explanation, I discovered that Edwin is Catholic and Lorena is a Protestant, leading me to chalk up Edwin’s response to the universal phenomenon of Catholic guilt. Throughout my stilted Spanish conversations over meals with the Riveras, I have also learned that Edwin worked in Los Angeles for several years as a car mechanic (also his current profession in Xela), which has armed him with several phrases in English. His favorite phrase is, “No pay-en, no gay-en!” which he has never failed to recite to me over breakfast after the morning weightlifting routine in his bedroom. At one point, a weightlifting discussion with Edwin led to a discussion about which foods have protein — something my humble level of Spanish could handle as I quickly rattled off “huevos (eggs), frijoles (beans), and bistec (steak).” After my list, Edwin, grinning from ear-to-ear, responded in English, “Thang gew, my teachurr.” When I initially did not respond, Edwin followed up with some more English, “It’s a yoke, mang!” Since this conversation, Edwin has referred to me (in English) as “my teachurr” and has continued to hit me with “yokes.”
One of my primary motivations for studying in Xela, beyond a desire to explore how far left the socialist winds may blow me, is the fact that there a number of volcanoes to explore nearby. I conquered the first of these — Santa Maria — on Saturday with a group of four other students. Santa Maria peaks out at 3,770 meters (12,375 ft) and was the site one of the largest eruptions in the 20th century in 1902. The climb itself is pretty tough (3,000+ feet) and took us nearly five hours as two of my compañeros struggled with the altitude, slowing the pace to a crawl as we approached the top (quite literally in some points, as the pitch kicked up aggressively enough to require a scramble). Throughout the climb, we were treated to brilliant views of Xela and the plateau below but were disappointed to have a blanket of clouds obscuring the view once we reached the top — on a clear day, apparently you can see eruptions of the neighboring volcano known as Santiaguito. On the peak we also had company in the form of charismatic Christians scattered across the peak. The yelps and wails coming from this group provided an odd bit of background noise as we munched on the lunch that would fuel our descent. After this several hour descent, we returned to Xela in a chicken bus, bouncing our way back to civilization and hot meals with our host families.
Next week, I will be back to my studies with a new teacher and, hopefully, a crisper Spanish accent. Over the weekend, I’ll be looking to tackle another volcano —Tajumulco — the highest point in Central America. Until next time!
This past week I tackled a 60 kilometer trek through the Guatemalan Highlands that started in the remote Mayan town of Nebaj, wound its way through a diverse array of natural environments, and ended in Todos Santos, another remote Mayan town. The trek was led by Quetzaltrekkers, an all-volunteer non-profit in Quetzaltenango (“Xela”) that donates 100% of its profits to a local school and a home for street children in town. This organization sports a whopping five out of five “circles” on TripAdvisor, and it would do nothing to tarnish that reputation on this trek. The trek was six days long, including four days of hiking, three nights on the trail in local villages nestled in the Cuchamatanes Mountains (the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America), and two days of traveling to and from Xela. Joining me on the trek were three other alumni from San Pedro School (the “Eens” -> Eline, Nadine, and Antien), seven more clients hailing from across Europe and North America (Tom – England, Melanie – Switzerland, Ayala – Israel, Eitan – Israel, Max – Austria, Andrea – Venezuela/Miami, Michel – Quebec) and our four guides (Spencer – Portland, USA, Grace – New Zealand, Stéphany – Quebec, and Maria – Spain).
The first day of the trek, Tuesday, was spent mostly in transit from Xela to Nebaj, which involved a three hour ride in a chicken bus and then two hours packed into a private shuttle. We arrived in Nebaj mid-afternoon in time for a quick lunch at Popi’s Hostel — our home for the evening — and a stroll through the small town. Popi’s was a bit dark and dingy and featured a circuitous route to my bunk that required a walk through the trash room. However, despite its lack of accouterments, the food at Popi’s exceeded expectations (especially the apple pie) and provided an excellent venue for cards, beers, and a dinner that included a stop-in by a choir of local girls. These young Nebajans serenaded us with a variety of local classics such as “Twist ’n’ Shout,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “Love” by John Lennon. This mini-concert was quite adorable, but the balding American man in his 50’s or 60’s with gapped teeth, a portable keyboard, and a creepy smile was an odd choice to lead this choir. (The guys
Day 2, the first day of legitimate hiking, introduced the group to “Storytime with Spencer.” Spencer, the lead guide on the trip, has an extensive knowledge of the history of the people in the highlands, who are almost exclusively indigenous, and several times a day, he would stop to explain significant events that had occurred in and around the areas we were hiking through. For the most part, these stories covered the struggles the Mayans have faced since the Spanish – led by Pedro de Alvarado — arrived in Guatemala in 1524 and began subjugating the people to Spanish rule. Especially heartbreaking were the tales of violence the Guatemalan government carried out against the people in the Highlands in the 1970’s and 1980’s as it worked to root out guerrilla revolutionaries. These atrocities included kidnappings, murders, and the destruction of several towns through which we walked (that have since been rebuilt).
After hiking through several villages and a stop at, oddly enough, a cheese farm, we ended the night at the tiny pueblo of Xexocomb, where we would spend the night on the floor of the local school building. Before dinner, a few of the locals opened up their temazcals (Mayan sweat lodges) for us to bathe in. As my temezcal buddy (Tom) and I were waiting for our turn to sweat, we began chatting with one of the local boys whose primary line of questioning focused on whether or not England also has farm animals (yes, England has both chickens and goats). After temezcals, we enjoyed dinner served in couple of local families’ houses. These dinners, included, as is the norm here in Guatemala, heaps and heaps of tortillas. (I’m convinced the question “¿Mas tortillas?” is either rhetorical or a joke as this is always asked as a smiling Guatemalan is already dumping stacks of tortillas in front of you.) In the house where I ate, we were joined by a wall full of pictures of relatives that are illegally working in the United States; interestingly enough, all of these relatives are doing some kind of rapper pose in various suburban Texas parking lots. Although we never discovered the significance of these rapper poses, they certainly became a popular pose option for group pictures throughout the rest of the trek.
Day 3 began absurdly early — 3:30 am — as we raced the creeping dawn up 87 switchbacks and 600 vertical meters in order to make a sunrise breakfast. Shortly after arriving at the top, the partly cloudy skies greeted us with a brilliant sunrise, and as we munched on oatmeal and sipped on coffee, we commented on how the view was well worth the limited sleep. After breakfast, we ascended a few hundred more meters to reach the altiplano, the mountain plateau (~3000 meters high) that features coniferous trees scattered across rocky landscapes. As we hiked across this unique landscape, the group conversation took a several hour diversion into the world of riddles and brain teasers, which helped to keep our minds off the mounting fatigue in our legs.
Just about an hour from the day’s stopping point, Antien became the first of five in our group to fall sick with a fever and stomach bug. (She would be evacuated out to Todos Santos the next morning, where she would be joined early the next day by two other casualties). Each person that got sick had dinner at the same house in Xexocomb (we were divided into two separate houses), so this seemed to be the explanation. In addition to the trip’s first casualty, the last hour of the day’s hike also presented an ungodly muddy trail that descended to our mountain home for the evening. Although most of the us fell down at least once, the prize for best fall went to Nadine who began slipping, then sliding, then — carried by the weight of her backpack — falling into a headfirst roll off of the trail. As Nadine disappeared off the trail in front of them, Ayala and Michel, who were hiking directly behind her, had a curious split second where they were wondering whether or not Nadine had tumbled all the way down the mountain. However, these fears quickly dissipated as Nadine popped back onto the trail a second later, unscathed except for the mud that caked her pants.
After the muddy descent, we arrived at our local accommodations for the evening (an empty house), where we spent our time mostly trying to avoid a driving downpour that began shortly after we arrived and would end shortly after we went to sleep. However, during breaks in the rain, we squeezed in some friendly competitions in our “yard” that were closely observed by the 7 or 8 villagers (mostly children) that stared for hours unapologetically at this collection of gringos that had assembled in the middle of their humble pueblo. Only Carlos, age 11, was bold enough to join us in a game.
Day 4 began at a more “reasonable” time — 5:30 am — and we spent the first hour and a half hiking down to the river at the base of the valley below. Shortly after beginning this descent, a Guatemalan man walked into the road in front of us, halting our progress. Given the number of stories I have heard about robbers on hiking trails in Guatemala, I was relieved to hear his request: his digital watch did not show the correct time, but given its controls were in English, he had no idea how to adjust it. Spencer deftly set the watch to the appropriate time and informed the man, in his nearly fluent Spanish, how he could change the time in the future. I asked the man where he got the watch in my well-less-than-fluent Spanish to which the man, surprisingly, responded, “Alabama.” Long way to go for a watch.
After breakfast by the river, we ascended the ridge on the other side of the valley, serenaded by a lone speaker that blared some truly horrific-sounding music from the window of a house out across the valley. This cacophony played in the background even as we paused for a session of “Storytime with Spencer” that focused on how the U.S. CIA successfully organized a military coup to overthrow the popular Guatemalan president in 1954. (American motivations included the Guatemalan’s government’s socialist leanings and the fact that it was forcing the American-based United Fruit Company to sell a good chunk of its land in Guatemala back to the Guatemalan people. A highly recommended book on U.S. involvement can be found here.)
We kept ascending until lunch, which took place in an empty house under construction in a desolate-looking local town. This squatting was enthusiastically sanctioned by the pack of unsupervised local children, who claimed that this house was their “uncle’s” (local children gathering in packs to observe us at every stop was now becoming a token occurrence). Despite this dubious license to squat, we figured questions would only prolong the rumbling in our stomachs and took this claim at face value. As we finished up lunch, a local man in a pickup truck rolled up to drive us five kilometrers over a road to our next location. Amazingly, we fit all 13 people, 13 loaded packs, and the driver into the one pickup. Playing off of a tune from the first evening’s mini-concert, Eitan, crammed in the bed of the truck with eight others, began singing a song that would serve as this 20-minute cramped truck ride’s anthem — “This leg is my leg, this leg is your leg…” (sung, of course, to the tune of “This Land is Your Land”).
The final push on foot for the day was a walk over “Terror Hill” — whose peak sported fantastic views of the countryside below — and into another local village to meet a shuttle that would carry us to our night’s accommodations. The green, rolling hills of this last section of the day’s hike reminded me of parts of the English and Scottish countryside; however, I was quickly jolted back into the reality that I was in Guatemala, as, when we were walking through the street of this local village, three little niños poked their heads over a fence adjacent to the street and promptly proclaimed in unison “GRINGOS!” My fit of laughter provoked by this cute, fly-by racial epithet quickly turned into a fit of coughing as a truck sped by us on this unpaved road, filling my lungs with exhaust and dirt. Yes, I was, in fact, still in Guatemala.
We “slept in” on Day 5 to 6:30 am as all that remained was a climb up La Torre, the highest non-volcanic peak in Central America at 3870 meters (12,700 feet). We were guided up this peak by the previous night’s host, Don Jeronimo, a sixty-year-old ox of a Guatemalan man who did the hike in his full traditional Mayan regalia, pantalones and all (see picture below). At the top of La Torre, we celebrated our accomplishment by polishing off a few cheap, Brazilian beers — Don Jeronimo included. (These beers are known as Brahvas in Guatemala but Brahmas everywhere else, as “brahva” in Guatemala apparently means “gay.” In a practical marketing move, Brahma has tweaked its name in order to successfully sell beers into this country where machismo culture still thrives.)
We spent our final afternoon and evening in the town of Todos Santos, trying our best to remain inconspicuous as we snuck pictures of the men and boys decked out in their colorful, traditional outfits. (Literally all the men here still wear these eye-popping costumes.) After dinner, however, we quickly shattered this low-key profile when a Bluetooth speaker and some Quetzalteca (the local, cheap rum) led to an impromptu dance party and a limbo competition in the comedor of our hostel that, embarrassingly enough, was clearly visible from the street. Once again, the token niños showed up to stare and laugh at the funny gringos doing gringo things.
We awoke yesterday morning, with satisfyingly sore legs and less-satisfying sore heads, and hopped onto a private shuttle that carried us the four-hours without incident from Todos Santos to Xela. After a lunch at the Quetzaltrekker headquarters, we shared goodbyes before scattering off in different directions throughout Guatemala and Central America.