Goodbye, Xelajú

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

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.

 

 

 

 

Bumping My Head on the Roof of Central America: Volcán Tajumulco, Saúl, and Saúl

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

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.

 

 

Xela: A New School, A New Home, and A New Accent

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

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!

My Farewell Discurso to San Pedro

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

My time at San Pedro Spanish School and in San Pedro La Laguna came to an end this weekend. The farewells began with a speech I gave to all the other students and teachers on Friday morning in Spanish. Each graduating student is “required” to give such a speech on their last day. I say “required” because you could technically say, “No, given my basic knowledge of Spanish, my speech will probably be boring, definitely useless, and most certainly embarrassing. I refuse to subject myself to this right of passage, especially considering this passage is leading me to nowhere in particular.” (Not that this in anyway reflects my own viewpoint. I am just using my imagination to I think about what other students may think about this bonafide honor.) In order to prepare for this speech, I spent the better part of an hour on Thursday evening writing down my experiences in San Pedro in Spanish, relying heavily on my newfound expertise with the Spanish language, my Spanish dictionary, and Google Translate (only used for Spanish language emergencies, promise!). After a final review by my teacher Chusita on Friday morning, I delivered the below masterpiece to the people of San Pedro School — which I have, for your convenience, translated into English via Google Translate:

My time in San Pedro studying at the San Pedro school has been a good experience. I met many interesting people, both students and teachers. I think I’ve made a lot of new friends.

I have lived with a local family. My parents were Elsa and Bartolo and my brothers and sisters were Elsita, Bartolito, and Juanita. I enjoyed eating and spending time with my family, especially after being with them my Spanish improved. My family is very friendly and hospitable.

My teacher is Chusita; she is a good teacher and I am envious of her next student. I learned a lot of Spanish with Chusita and discussed many interesting topics, such as Guatemala’s politics, United States policies, and my previous girlfriends.

During my free time in San Pedro, I enjoyed many activities. I climbed the volcano San Pedro, I took the salsa lessons, I traveled to Xela, and saw the sunrise on the Nose of Indio. Finally, for the past two weeks, I taught the children of the lake. This experience was difficult but it was also gratifying.

I will miss this place because I have loved my time here. Thank you all!

The highlight/lowlight of the speech was most certainly when I struggled to pronounce “improved” in Spanish when saying “my Spanish improved.” Unfortunately, in the split second after this mishap, I was not able to think of the Spanish word for “ironic”, and, instead, just blurted out in the King’s English, “That’s ironic!” I think one of the Spanish teachers chuckled at this comment. I think.

The goodbyes continued the next day, as I said farewell to my “friendly and hospitable” family. They offered to host me again whenever, citing that fifty to seventy-year-olds especially enjoyed their homestay — helpful information in case I start dating an older woman during my time here in Latin America that would like to swing through San Pedro. Despite the fact that our parting was a bit sad, a part of me lives on in my Guatemalan family’s household as Elsita — the four year-old daughter who spent most of her time at meals singing songs she had made up (I confirmed with her mother that the songs she sung were brand new to the Hispanic tradition), dancing (technically not allowed by the Conservative Christian sect of which they are a part but, seriously, God would have frowned if anyone shut down such undeniable acts of cuteness), and making faces at me — is now the proud owner of a teddy bear named “Richardito.” Before he was owned by this budding Latin pop star, “Little Richard” was a prize at a fair in Quetzaltenango that “Big Richard” won last weekend and then gifted to Elsita in exchange for the hours of dining table entertainment she provided.

Finally, I scattered goodbyes to my classmates and friends I met in San Pedro, who have provided excellent English-speaking companionship throughout my month here. These friends hail from all over the globe, except, oddly enough, the United States (I am doing my best to represent the homeland!). However, I hesitated to say true goodbyes to most of them as I imagine many of our travels will overlap over the next few months, and as stated in my farewell discurso, “I think I’ve made a lot of new friends” and friends, well, they stay in touch.

Some of the Highlights of My Time in San Pedro La Laguna:

I Am in a Relationship with a Guatemalan Woman, but It’s Platonic

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

Today marks the end of my third week here in San Pedro La Laguna, and I am happy to report that I am in a relationship with a local Guatemalan woman. Recently, Chusita and I have been spending as many as 4 to 5 hours together every day, struggling through the language barrier together (she only speaks Spanish). My conversations with Chusita have been quite interesting, as we have covered such wide-ranging topics as technology’s effect on society, a trip I took to Peru 7 years ago, Guatemalan politics, American politics, my sports career, gossip about other students and teachers in San Pedro School, bacteria found in Guatemalan strawberries that can give you seizures (don’t worry, you usually get better!), the local football championship match last Sunday (it was a barn-burner), the existence of God, where I can find a sturdy notebook in town, how to pronounce Spanish words, how not to pronounce Spanish words (which usually sound suspiciously like the sounds that have just come out of my mouth), the Guatemalan Civil War, the American Civil War, San Pedro’s history, chicken bus schedules, natural disasters (i.e. earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, chicken bus schedules), and countless other topics. This woman, of course, is my teacher at San Pedro School, and, as the click-baity title to this post gave away, our relationship is platonic (she is happily married and I am happily seeing where the wind will carry me in Central America over the next few months). However, we have forged quite a bond through our daily conversations these past 3 weeks.

In general, we start our daily four-hour class with a 2.5 – 3 hour discussion of various topics in Spanish, punctuated by roughly 10-12 coffee, bathroom, and Facebook breaks (Chusita is a huge Facebook fan). The last hour or so, she checks my homework, and then she teaches me a bit of grammar. In our discussions, we speak for roughly the same amount of time. It is important to note, however, that Chusita’s experience with the Spanish language allows her to express a bit more during her time speaking. To give you a feel for this, I recorded one of our recent conversations — which was about healthcare — and translated it into English below:

Chusita: “The healthcare system in Guatemala is a complex web of interconnected interests, needs, and responsibilities between the people, publicly-funded providers, private providers, and the government. Although Guatemalans are technically guaranteed free healthcare, persistent government underfunding (only $97 per person annually) and rampant government corruption have severely limited the capacity of publicly-funded providers to provide even some of the most basic aspects of healthcare to citizens. Therefore, Guatemalans are often forced to find care from private providers (which is generally unaffordable for the average Guatemalan) or go without proper healthcare. Adding to this complexity is the fact that 80% of the doctors work in one location (Guatemala City) while nearly 20% of the population only speaks in their indigenous tongue (some dialect of Mayan), which often makes it difficult for doctors to communicate properly with patients. In summary, the healthcare system in Guatemala is close to a disaster and in severe need of reforms and repairs. How would you describe the healthcare system in the United States, Richard?”

[15 second pause as Richard stares at ground, thinking.]

Richard: “Chusita, my great teacher, the people of the Unites States like the health. They need the health of the body. But, it is very difficult for many people.”

[15 second pause as Richard stares at ground, thinking]

Richard: “The health is difficult in my country. The government wants health. The people wants health. The government creates law of the health. But many people do not like the law of the health.”

[15 second pause as Richard stares at ground, thinking]

Richard: “The reading of health is popular for some people, is not popular for others.”

Chusita: “Reading?”

Richard: “Law. Forgive me, Chusita.”

Chusita: “Everything is good. Continue.”

Richard: “Trump does not want the law of the health.”

Chusita: “Trump! He is very, very crazy, the people of Guatemala do not understand him. I have many friends in the United States that are nervous about this new DACA legislation…” [END OF DISCUSSION ON HEALTHCARE]

As you can see from above, there are a few great things about Chusita. One, she is incredibly patient and willing to listen to my rambling, incomprehensible monologues across a vast array of topics (I imagine conversations with her 5-year-old son have given her some great experience in this department). Also, she has some well thought-out, informed opinions on a vast array of topics which has made the experience of learning how to speak Spanish with her quite interesting as I have learned quite a bit outside of just Spanish. Finally, she’s absolutely on-board for the whole taking breaks thing, an essential aspect of any daily, four-hour one-on-one teaching marathon.

Sadly, I will only be spending one more week with Chusita as my travels will be carrying me up into the highlands of Guatemala. Until then, I look forward to learning a bit more from the most significant woman in my life down here in Guatemala.

IMG_4967
Chusita is the one on the left

Hiking Volcan San Pedro: Start with a Tuc-Tuc, End with a Tuc-Tuc

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

Friday evening at dinner with my host family, as they asked me their normal battery of questions in slow, gringo-friendly Spanish, I mentioned that I was interested in climbing the volcano neighboring our pueblo (Volcan San Pedro) over the weekend. After uttering these words, mi padre Bartolo enthusiastically jumped in and asked me if I needed a guide up the volcano as he “knows a guy.” I nodded and said “Si,” primarily due to my enthusiasm that Bartolo actually understood what I said (proving that my unique version of Spanish makes sense to somebody, somewhere on God’s green earth). Given my assent, Bartolo replied with more Spanish at an increased velocity that left me on my heels and saying “Si! Si! Si! Gracias!” Immediately after this flustered replied, I realized I had agreed to pay the guide at a rate a full 50% above the going price unless I could muster four more (cuatro más!) gringos to come with me on this arduous, 6+ hour hike. Where could I find so many gringos on such short notice?

Luckily, my fellow students at San Pedro School are proving to be excellent compadres in my adventures beyond “Gringolandia” (the literal name given by the locals to the touristy street of bars and restaurants beside the lake in San Pedro). A motley crew of seven from the school agreed to tackle this Guatemalan volcanic peak with me at dawn on Sunday morning. With a group of this size, we were able to fetch a much more reasonable price from the guide (125 quetzals/person) and would present a formidable force against any potential bandidos on the slopes of the volcano. (For the record, Volcan San Pedro is relatively safe these days as the Guatemalan government has marked it an official protected wilderness area. But, still, bring it on, bandidos!)

Our guide, named Luismeijia (pronounced: “Mark-que-oh”, please don’t ask me why), met me at my host family’s house bright and early at 5:45 am. Full of smiles, handshakes, and Spanish words I didn’t understand, we confirmed the price, met one of my schoolmates, and then hopped into a “tuc-tuc” to fetch the other gringos. (Quick note on tuc-tucs: These are infinitely maneuverable, three-wheeled taxis that swarm the streets of San Pedro, regularly bleeping the sounds “tooc! tooc!” to clear the road ahead of pedestrians and other, slower tuc-tuc’s. These guys all have names, are tricked out, and provide a wonderful, built-in alarm clock for the residents of the pueblo as the sounds “tooc-tooc” begin to fill the streets of San Pedro starting in pre-dawn hours.)

Our tuc-tuc caravan climbed roughly 10 minutes outside of the city, bringing us to the entrance to Volcan San Pedro Park around 6:15 am. Our guide, “Que-oh” as he asked us to call him, began quizzing us on our names and countries of origin. After we had informed him that we hailed from the U.S., Germany, Australia, England, and Switzerland, he happily exclaimed, “Americans! Australians! Germans! VERY GOOD. Very generous. Very friendly. BUT, Israelis, French, and Spanish…VERY BAD. Bad people from those countries. Not friendly. Not generous.” Unsure of how to deal with this curiously Trumpian response to our countries of origin, the seven of us chose to ignore it and follow the guide up the slopes of the volcano.

The hike soon presented a couple of fantastic views of the lake, the village of San Pedro, and the surrounding mountains, as well as, surprisingly, a tire swing. We all gave the swing a go, although Antien, my schoolmate from Germany, certainly had the most fun on this mountainside surprise, exclaiming “una más vez!” (one more time) roughly 8-10 times in a row before shoving off for her actual “one last” swing. As we climbed beyond the swing, we ascended into a fog of clouds that, unfortunately, covered the top half of the mountain and prevented us from getting much of a view at the top. It took us roughly 3 hours to slug through the 3.5 mile (6 km) hike that ascended an aggressive 4,000 feet, peaking out at 9,908 feet (3,020 meters). The trail itself was well-maintained, switchback-heavy, and muddy towards the top. After an extended snack break at the top, where we stared into the whiteness of the clouds beyond, we descended.

During the descent, the spirit of our group certainly lifted, as evidenced by the impromptu, trail karaoke in which we indulged (my personal highlight was the “Bare Necessities”…in German). Roughly 2 hours after we departed from the top, we were at the entrance to the park, where Que-oh called us a few tuc-tuc’s and said his goodbyes (as his house was very close nto the entrance of the park and he would not be riding into San Pedro with us). In general, Que-oh proved to be a reliable, friendly guide, who was quick to help us with both our Spanish (“lodo” = mud, “resbaladizo” = slippery) and our Mayan (he really pushed hard for group adoption of “let’s go!” or “hohoho!” in Mayan). Another feature (or bug?) of Que-oh’s guide service is that he is a ladies man. He asked for a number of pictures with “solo las chicas!” (only the ladies!) and pointed out several times with a grin that there were “cuatro chicos, cuatro chicas, muy bien!” (four guys – of which Que-oh was included – and four girls, very good!). Oh, Que-oh…you dog!

The seven of us re-united for hamburgers and omelettes at El Barrio, a restaurant back in the comfort of “Gringolandia” in San Pedro. The driving rain that soon began to pound the tin roof of El Barrio reassured us that we had made a good decision with such an early departure for the peak of the volcano and lulled us into a drowsiness that would carry us back to our host families for well-earned afternoon siestas.

 

No Hablo Español

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

This morning, I opened up the new Spanish-English dictionary I downloaded on my phone last night and took a gander at the “Phrase of Day” feature. I figured the phrase might be something I could use to break the long awkward pauses at meals with my host family (that I do my best to smile and nod through) or something I could drop into the one-on-one sessions with my Spanish instructor (that I also do my best to smile and nod through). Instead, the phrase offered a perfect reflection of how I feel about my first two days of Spanish immersion:

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I closed this mind-reading app and headed to class, short one clever phrase to drop into a Spanish conversation today.

My first two days in San Pedro have been dominated by Spanish classes at San Pedro Spanish School. Classes run from 8 am to 1 pm everyday, with optional conversation practice from 5:15 – 6 pm. The classes are conducted in lakeside cabanas with a personal Spanish instructor (Chusita is mine) and include both grammar practice and conversation. (I say “conversation” but it’s more accurately described as me staring at Chusita with a furrowed brow as she speaks in a language I don’t understand about a country that is still largely unfamiliar to me. Occasionally, she stops and stares at me because she has asked me a question, unbeknownst to me. Once I realize that a question has been asked, I nod knowingly and say “Es diferente en Estados Unidos.” Surprisingly, this answer usually works). Conversation classes are with several other students at a similar level and include an instructor to guide the direction of the conversation. For now, I consider these sessions a victory if at least one other person understands at least one thing I say. I may actually be 2 for 2. (I keep “Cómo te llamas” in my backpocket).

Given my schedule, there has been some free time over the last few days, but, after a 6 hour onslaught of Spanish, I’ve found myself spending most of the rest of my time siesta’ing, reading (in English), and surfing the Internet (the English version of it). However, I did discover the local gym, Nufos, only a 3 minute walk from my casa, and squeezed in a workout this afternoon. The music blasting in the place was surprisingly solid (a mash-up of 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s rock) and the equipment consisted of some basic free weights and workable but somewhat rickety machines. I joined for one week (for 75Q or ~$10) and am thinking I might become a regular. (I was the only gringo in the place today, so I’m hoping “becoming a regular” will give me some more legitimacy amongst the locals).

Also of note is that this Friday is Independence Day in Guatemala, aka Quince de Septiembre! (Interestingly enough, when Guatemala gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the country consisted of present-day Chiapas (the southernmost state Mexico), Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras; those countries together formed the “Captaincy General of Guatemala”. This federation was dissolved two years later.) In celebration of independence, fiestas will be going on all week throughout the country, including in my pueblo of San Pedro. We got things kicked off this morning with a parade of little kids (niños màs pequeña, ages ~4-8) that walked through town, hilariously playing musical instruments, and, in some cases, dressed up as grown-ups. The little girl in my homestay family, Elsita, was an integral part of this parade and really gave it her all (as proven by the fact that she required an afternoon nap…but please keep this to yourself, she would be embarrassed if you knew).

Over the next few days, I’ll hopefully be doing a bit more bonding with my classmates (I have plans to get beers with a few tonight) and taking part in the Guatemalan independence day fiestas (I’m rooting for it to become my new favorite holiday). Hasta luego, amigos!