Xela, Guatemala – Finally learning some Spanish

Hmm where to start. It’s been almost a month and a half since my last post and the journey has been going full speed.

From Medellin airport finally successfully flew to Panama City. In Panama City relaxing and chilling at a friend’s apartment for a week then a day stop in Costa Rica then to Mexico. Mexico was condensed excitement because I was accompanied by a friend from Japan here for only 2 weeks so we zipped through Mexico City, Guanajuato, Guadalajara, San Cristobal. Then after her departure, I decided on making my way south to Guatemala.

So this blog, I want to start with Guatemala and I’ll get to the others a little later, I hope.

I always decide my next destination based on what I hear from people and my decision to go to Xela, Guatemala was inspired by one Japanese girl I met at San Cristobal. I was waiting for inspiration to hit because I had no idea where I wanted to go next, and then you just meet someone and it’s decided. I love that feeling. She told me about studying Spanish in Xela and I said, that’s it. That’s what I’ll do. And that is exactly what I did.

Now my Spanish level, after 6 months of travel and minus 1 1/2 months in Brazil for Portugese was 4 1/2 months. I learned through conversation and using iphone apps (+Chegg flash cards) and I had the confidence to get by traveling. I can ask where to go, what I want, give a quick summary on my background and my travels. But anything deeper was challenging. But with the help of gestures and expressions, I thought I was doing pretty good in communicating. I just had no proper grammar or sentence structure, I was just throwing words out there, like “I, want, go, bus, station. Very, hurry, please”. Well I’m a traveler and I think people applaud me for the effort, but it was starting to get embarrassing when you’ve been traveling for 6 months.

So now was a good time to get this properly sorted.

Guatemala is actually a very popular spot for foreigners to learn Spanish. It is an exotic location and for the immersion in Spanish you can get for the affordable prices. (5 days of classes (5 hours/ day) + 1 week of home stay including 3 meals is around $180 – $220!)

Xela, formally known as Quetzaltenango is the 2nd biggest city in Guatemala and is a popular choice to learn because they say that there are fewer foreigners and is rarely safe.

A beautiful town that sits in the middle of a valley surrounded by volcanos.

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The cobblestone streets.

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Bustling markets and Chicken buses

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A 8 hour bus ride from San Cristobal through the green valleys and mountains and I landed in Xela.

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The first thing I did was research schools. There’s a ton of schools here and its really hard to judge just by the internet. I wanted to see for myself the atmosphere of the school, the people, the students and the activities they had. Usually it is 4- 5 hours of classes then in the afternoons, the schools offer activities for the students to learn about the culture or just to have fun (like chocolate making classes, Guatemalan movie viewing, city tour, hikes etc.)

I looked at 8 schools in total asking the same questions and taking the atmosphere in. Since it was low season (not summer or spring break when the students flood in) so having a group of students to do the activities with was important to me. Some schools only had 1-3 students in this low season.

I could be a dork sometimes, I rated and ranked the schools that fit me and decided on Sol Latino. It was cheap and it had a lot of students and the atmosphere seemed fun.

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For the next 2 weeks, I would go to classes from 8am – 1pm, 1 on 1 classes with a Guatemalan teacher then communicate with my host family breakfast, lunch and dinner and do activities with fellow students.

In my first class, I took a exam and was so shocked and my ego hurt to be classified Primary I. That’s a total beginner. Embarrassed that I’ve been traveling this long and thinking I was doing quite well communicating the truth was, but I hadn’t even got to first base…Oh well. I put my ego aside and decided to start from scratch.

My teacher Sheny, a lovely Guatemalan lady with years of experience teaching Spanish. and the view from our school (volcano erupting).

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We would have conversations about everything, from politics to economics to men to food to culture of Guatemala and Japan to guess what I did yesterday?! It was all part of getting used to speaking and applying what I’ve learned. It felt really good to be able to have insightful and deep conversations as well as talking and venting about whatever we wanted to talk about. Almost like an every day therapy session (for me and for Sheny) but in Spanish. I enjoyed the conversations but hated the grammar.  Especially the verbs with its multiple “irregulars” popping up everywhere! I would whine to Sheny with “Porque necessito? Porque? Porque” (Why do we need it?) but she would just shrug and say, I don’t know, that’s the way it is.

The more I learned, the less I could speak because I would have to think in advance if the word was a male or female, or if the verb was for me, you, he, we, they and conjugate accordingly making me more conscious of what I was saying and less confident. I was definitly more confident before the classes just throwing words out there however I pleased.

5 hour classes everyday was pretty intense, especially if you haven’t been in school for over 10 years… I would have to take an afternoon nap to rest my brain and then whip myself to study what I’ve learned. Respect to students. Its exhausting.

In the afternoon, I tried various activities planned by the school like chocolate making, a tour through the cemetery, visiting the indigenous weaver and movie night. There are other activities like salsa dancing or cooking.

Chocolate making! Peeling the skin off the roasted cacao beans and pounding the cacao powder to form chocolate.

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Visiting an indigenous family for weaving. We learned the process from cutting the sheep fur to threading, colouring, and weaving. They also treated us to tortillas in their kitchen. What a precious experience!

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The other wonderful aspect of the 2 weeks was home staying with a Guatemalan family. The mother (Ana Maria) and her 22 year old son, Manuel welcomed me warmly into their home. They’ve been hosting students for years and it’s an essential part of their income. Manuel tells me that he’s there’s been students in the house ever since he was a baby. What an interesting influence to have growing up. The mom cooked for us every day 3 times a day while jugging her work and house chores.

Eating together was one of the best experiences for me. Being able to try home cooked means and asking what was used and how it was made. Typically a Guatemalan meal consists of frijoles (beans), some sort of eggs and tortillas almost always. The frijoles can be arrange to be solid, pureed or as a soup, and the eggs in scrambled, sunny side or as an omelet. Also, dinner was typically really light, with frijoles, eggs and tortilla, maybe a soup or some vegetables.

Frijoles, Eggs and rice.

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Other meals with vegetables and meat. Typically the biggest meal was at lunch.

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My mom even showed me how to make frijoles. Which was actually pretty easy, sort out the beans, wash, add garlic and onions and put on pressure cooker for 1 hour. No wonder it comes in every meal.

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Another day, I showed her how to make Omu-rice, which is a ketchup rice omelet dish in Japan.

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It was a lovely living from home rather than from a hostel for a change, having your own room, being able to spread your things out of the bag and in dressers. I don’t think I could home stay for long term but it it is definitely a cost effective and an experience rich in learning about the culture and customs.

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2 weeks went by really quickly but with a lot of gain. I have absorbed the basic understanding of Spanish but have a long way to go in terms of applying it and using it in normal conversation. 2 weeks is not nearly enough to get to that level but I feel happy that I now I have a foundation. I will continue my studies while I travel and hope to join a Spanish school again somewhere.

My last day of school. They gave me a diploma and cake and I made a speech of appreciation.

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I will miss all the people that I met, my teachers my school mates and my Guatemalan family.

Thank you and hope to see you guys again!

Now beginning my trip again and headed for the lake for some downtime!

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