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!