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.
Another week of Spanish school here at PLQ in Quetzaltenango is in the books, and I can now add a new teacher to the list: Saúl. Saúl, a single Guatemalan man in his mid-50’s, brings a unique, freewheeling style to teaching, which, at the very least, must keep himself entertained throughout the 20+ hours per week he spends having conversations with people who have anywhere from a two to eight-year-old’s grasp of his native language. To break-up the five hour sessions, Saúl included numerous spontaneous walks to wi-fi friendly areas of the school in order to look-up historical facts about Guatemala, comb through images of paintings (Saúl is a big Andy Warhol fan after I introduced him to this great American), listen to songs in Spanish (highlighted by “De Que Sirve Querer by Malacates Trebol Shop — the Maroon 5 of Guatemala), and poke around on Facebook. In addition to our Internet browsing sessions, Saúl also provided a bevy of unsolicited advice on how to win the hearts of my female classmates, a personal guitar solo and serenade (he gave me the lyric sheet so I could sing along with him — to which I am only slightly embarrassed to say that I did), a slow clap after I finished each grammar exercise, and a laundry list of ridiculous personal stories and anecdotes that blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Some stories, as they grew in absurdity, clearly were completely made-up. For example, one morning as I walked into class, Saúl was standing with his backed turned to the classroom, gazing out the door into the courtyard. When I asked him how he was doing, he remained with his back turned and dramatically responded that that he felt particularly “alive,” more “alive” than he had ever him. Then, spinning around, he explained that this deep feeling of vitality was because of strong connections he made with spirits in the cemetery the night before. When I pressed him on some more details, he explained that he had encountered the spirit of Marilyn Monroe, who had given him a 45 second kiss. This kiss was the best he had ever had. However, Saúl’s voice took on a somber tone as he described how he became suspicious of Marilyn after she told him he was preferable to John F. Kennedy, who was too in love with Jackie to give Marilyn his full attention. With such a beautiful woman throwing herself at him, Saúl wisely became suspicious and consulted the spirit of Dracula, who tipped him off to the fact that she was likely a vampire and wanted him for his blood. I could see traces of what looked like genuine fear in Saúl’s eyes right before his head kicked back as a deep laugh rolled out of him; after a few bellowing guffaws, his head dropped back to eye-level, and he leaned over to offer a high five and a fist pound which I took, laughing. This story, of course, was completely made up. However, this was just one of many stories, and others left more questions than answers. Is he really a clown every Sunday at church? Has he really had relationships with three different women in the United States that all ended because he could not bring himself to leave his beloved Guatemala? Did he really serenade his New Zealand girlfriend over his flip phone for her birthday this past Monday morning? For these stories, the truth remains, and will forever remain to me, a mystery.
After my week with Saúl, the teacher, I would bizarrely spent the rest of the weekend with another Guatemalan man named Saùl, my guide up Volcán Tajumulco. Volcán Tajumulco, standing at 4,220 meters (13,845 feet), is the tallest peak in Central America and has been on my “to do” list since I got to Guatemala nearly two months ago. With only one weekend left in the Xela area (the typical launching off point for Tajumulco treks), I made a point to book a trip with the Guatemalan guiding outfit, Adrenalina Tours, for an overnight ascent. Three other brave students — Marije from the Netherlands, Anna from Montana, and Jasmine from Colorado — enthusiastically signed on as well (teacher Saúl, of course, offered me several high fives across his teaching table after I revealed the male – female ratio of my upcoming trek).
The trek up Tajumulco began on Saturday morning in a quite, private shuttle ride from our school in Xela that was interrupted rudely by the chaos of Minerva Bus Stop, a crowded, hectic chicken bus stop across town. As soon as we stopped, Saúl (the guide) dumped sleeping bags, tents, food, and other supplies in the middle of the street, barking orders in Spanish about who should pack what while simultaneously negotiating our travel arrangements with the ayudantes that had swarmed our shuttle, lobbying us for our business. (Ayundantes are assistant chicken bus pilots that frenetically herd people and supplies on and off of these buses.) In a matter of minutes, our backpacks and supplies were on top of a chicken bus headed to the town of San Marcos, with us improbably inside. This chicken bus was particularly crowded — each seat was packed with three people that were spilling into an aisle that itself was full of standing riders. (As chicken buses are just former American school buses, I recalled that three to a seat is bus-packing arrangement that I grew out of sometime around 3rd grade.) This nearly two hour journey could not have been over soon enough, and the next chicken bus, which took us on a winding, mountain road for a little less than an hour before reaching the trailhead, mercifully was not packed to the brim.
The 9 kilometer (~6 mile) hike up Tajumulco started at an altitude of roughly 3000 meters (~9,900 feet) in the pueblo named, appropriately enough, Tajumulco. After spending a few minutes adjusting our packs, our five person party began ascending a cobble-stoned road through the beautiful, green countryside of San Marcos (the Guatemalan state in which Tajumulco lies). As we ascended, the road turned into a dirt trail, sweeping vistas opened behind us, and thick, grey clouds ominously obscured the higher reaches of the trail in front of us. Saúl set a slow, plodding steady pace up front (“despacio”,”despacio”). After about an hour, he paused as a light rain was beginning to fall. Saúl has mastered how to configure two large sheets of plastic over his pack and head, respectively, to keep the rain off, and he used this brief pause to school us in this art. Saúl’s lesson was well-timed as only moments after the plastic was in place, the light rain turned hard and steady, which would keep our heads fixed down on the trail immediately in front of us for the remainder of the climb. We arrived at the campground, 200 meters below the summit, a little after 2 pm, registering a little over three and a half hours for the hike up. The campsite itself was half-flooded and surprisingly busy — by nightfall, there would be a dozen or more tents crowded together in the dry spots of the campground. The clientele was primarily Guatemaltecan, so the campsite buzzed with Spanish. One exception was the English couple camping beside us that was led by Saúl’s friend, Carlos. Carlos, a friendly Guatemalteco that knew quite a bit more English than Saúl, paid us a visit during dinner in Saùl’s tent (the menu: heaps and heaps of spaghetti) and suggested that we mix our cheap, horrendous-tasting Guatemalan rum, known as Quetzalteca (approximate price per liter: $3), with hot tea. Against all odds, this mix actually tasted worse than Quetzalteca on its own; as Anna and Marije did their best not to spit the hideous concoction all over the tent, I offered Saúl a cup. He declined on the grounds that he is an Evangelical Pastor, his wide grin belying this claim. Laughing, I then handed Carlos cup. He took a sip, smiled, and proclaimed, “¡Es perfecto!”
Anna, Marije, Jasmine, and I were hunkered down in our tent for the night by 7:30 pm, hoping to catch a full-night’s rest before our 4 am wake-up call and summit push. The cold air (temperatures approached freezing overnight) and hard ground prevented this, and most of us had already been awake for hours when Saúl chirped an “¡Hola!” from his neighboring tent promptly at 4 am. We dressed quickly and made it to the frigid, windy summit a little after 5 am, with little more than a dull glow on the eastern horizon. For the next hour, Saúl huddled under his NYC Post-Marathon warming blanket (purchased at a secondhand store in Xela) while the four of us tried a variety of warming tactics to stave off the cold wind. As sunrise approached, clouds and mist obscured the horizon and views of the valleys below, and we braced ourselves for disappointment. However, just after 6 am, the mist and clouds lifted enough to expose the summit — an incredibly interesting martian-like landscape — and the stunning views of the surrounding volcanoes, mountains, and countryside. From the top of Central America, howls and whoops lifted into the air as the now relatively crowded summit of Tajumulco came alive. Over the next few hours, the five of us would explore the summit, the volcanic crater behind the summit, and the peak of Tajumulco’s sister volcano, Concepción, snapping one incredible photo after another. The ample dose of cloud cover added to the beauty, providing spectacular cloud formations that billowed up from the lower elevations and cascaded between mountain ridges.
By 8:30 am, we were headed back down the volcano, racing to beat a rain that would never come. Instead, the race was for the 10:30 am chicken bus which arrived at the trailhead just as were sprinting down the last few meters of the trail, waving and yelling “¡Espera! ¡Espera!” Unfortunately, this would not be the last race we would encounter on our journey home. Shortly after boarding the connection in San Marcos back to Xela, we found the road home blocked off for Guatemala’s premier cycling event, the Tour of Guatemala. For the next 45 minutes, our chicken bus took a meandering detour throughout the surroundings of San Marcos like a chicken with its proverbial head cut off, picking up Guatemaltecos from the side of the road until the bus was, like the previous morning, bursting at the seams. Once the bus finally found its way, we had a bumpy, two hour ride across 30 miles of road before the four of us arrived back in Xela, exhausted but satisfied with having reached the roof of Central America.
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.