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Published: November 11th 2007
After having woken up at 2.00am in Washington in order to make our early flight to Guatemala (via Miami), we arrived in Guatemala City completely disoriented and exhausted. It seemed as if the whole of Guatemala City was at the airport and if we hadn't been met by someone we may have turned around and gone home right then! We were taken back to a little bed and breakfast not too far from the airport and we spent most of our first afternoon in Guatemala sleeping.
The following morning we got up early again and were put on a bus headed to Xela. The trip took 5 hrs and was all of 210km but at least the trip offered some interesting sites and was a good first glimpse of life in Guatemala. We arrived in Xela (the Mayan name for Quetzaltenango) in the early afternoon and got a taxi to our new home. We met our host family - Lili (mum), Giovanni (dad), Melanie (12 yr old daughter), Giovanni (5yr old son) and Stella (great-grandmother). They all seemed really lovely but can not speak much English and they are not allowed to speak English to us anyway because of the
immersion Spanish course we are taking! We sat down to lunch with the family and the other students that were staying at the house for our first 2 days. The other students spoke fantastic Spanish and we didn't speak any, we were still exhausted and completely overcome by the whole experience. It was at this stage that we realised that turning up in a country and just ´learning the language' may be a little harder than we had first imagined! So we decided to start Spanish classes immediately even though the following day was El Dia de los Muertos
(the Day of the Dead) which is a public holiday in Guatemala.
Our first lessons at Juan Sisay were good - teachers are used to people that are unable to speak any Spanish, and we found that we could understand them pretty well. We spent the morning session learning basic Spanish vocabulary and then they took us to the cemetery for El Dia de los Muertos.
El Dia de los Muertos is a huge festival in Guatemala. Everyone goes to the cemetery and puts flowers on the graves of their family members, they fly kites, eat lots of
Dia de los Muertos
We couldn´t believe how many people were there!
food and generally have a good time. In Xela the cemetery was packed with people and there were so many flowers, bands, kites, people etc. Outside the cemetery was a huge market which had food, games, and flowers filled to the brim with people there to celebrate the lives of their loved ones. We ate ice creams while meandering through the cemetery, as Lara's teacher Mario said it was necessary for the spirits because they still live in the cemetery and they need people to share their food with them!
The following day we had more Spanish classes....in between classes all we really managed to do was sleep and go to meals. We were still a little jet-lagged, and not quite used to the altitude of 2,300 metres. And then it was the weekend - the benefit of starting classes on a Thursday! Our first weekend in the region and on Saturday we decided to join the school trip to Fuentas Georginas
, hot springs about half an hour outside of Xela. By this time we had made some friends with other English speaking people who were on the trip with us and had stopped feeling quite so intimidated by
the whole situation! Fuentas Georginas was lovely...the baths were unbelievably hot, enough to give you a head spin when getting out. We spent the day in and out of the pools and had a lovely lunch there. We also sampled the local beer Gallo
(rooster) which is not bad at all. We returned to the house, and slept....again! Being on holidays is very tiring!
On Sunday we decided to explore a bit of Xela, we went to the Mercado Democracia
, a large market selling everything under the sun, we walked past the Teatro Municipal
and wandered back through the Parque Centroamericano
, which is the centre of Xela, surrounding it are banks, restaurants etc and a beautiful old church built in the very traditional Spanish style. In the afternoon we headed to a mall on the outskirts of Xela to watch movies with some of the other students. We copped out and watched a movie in English with Spanish subtitles, thinking that our 2 days of Spanish classes may not be enough to endure watching a Guatemalan war movie. As it turned out the students who had been studying for awhile still had no idea what happened!
the new week of Spanish classes with new teachers. It is one-on-one intensive English, so everyone has their own teacher which is great as you can learn at your own pace and in your own way. After class we went to the mall again to get a Guatemalan SIM card and to buy a cake for Al´s birthday which was the next day. By this stage Al was feeling pretty fluey, Xela is hot during the day but cold at night which leads to many of the students being struck down by colds and coughs during their stay. Unfortunately he didn’t make it out of bed on his birthday and after opening a few cards and pressies he spent the rest of the day sleeping and reading while Lara was slaving away in Spanish class.
By Wednesday Al was back at school and feeling well enough to participate in the school activity, volleyball being played in the afternoon. Lara managed to sprain her wrist (an old injury which began when wringing out hand washing in the Philippines - how very tough she is!) and wore a bandage for the next 3 days. On Thursday we went to an unusual
church, San Andres Xecúl in a small village a short drive from Xela. It is bright yellow with tigers, saints and vines painted all over the facade - it wa fascinating! From the church we hiked up the hill to a Mayan Altar and visited a Mayan saint, San Simon
who is a very colourful character thought to be a combination of Mayan Gods, Pedro de Alvarado the Spanish Conquistador and Judas. The Mayans make offerings of cigarettes, rum and candles to him and it seems as if he is not always the nicest of saints.
Friday night is Graduation Night and there is a party for all students finishing school that week. We had to make food from our home country so we made lamingtons, well we bought vanilla cake and covered it in chocolate icing and coconut anyway. It was a pretty big hit, and actually tasted like a lamington. We also had to dress as Conquistadors which involved a lot of alfoil and a bowl as a helmet, plus plastic swords - completely realistic! It was a pretty funny night with all the teachers dressed up and music that seemed to be from our own year
9 formal. Does anyone remember 2unlimited? They are still huge in Xela!
On Saturday we headed down to the coastal region to a hotel with some other students studying at Juan Sisay as well as one of the teachers Rene. The hotel is known for its lovely gardens and we spent the day by the pool which was a lovely change from the colder mountain temperatures. We saw our first hummingbirds which was very exciting. On our return we headed out to see the nightlife in Xela. We have discovered a love of mojitos (and they only cost $2 a pop) and spent a lovely evening bar hopping with a great Irish couple, Ed and Yvonne .
Sunday we went to see the local football team, the Xela Super Chivos play. The crowds were great, really enthusiastic and colourful. There were bands and songs, fireworks and lots of yelling Spanish swear words. We got really sunburnt but the atmosphere made the sunburn and the average football all worth it.
Our second week of Spanish classes we didn't get involved in as many activities as we had in the previous week but we obviously continued with our Spanish
classes - and we can actually tell the difference. We can speak to people and understand things (I'm not sure if we are understood but we try!) and can actually hold conversations with people. We did participate in a few of the school activities and a few other things.
On Monday afternoon we visited a women’s shelter, Nuevas Horizontales
(New Horizons), which is a refuge for women who have been victims of domestic violence. It is the only one like it in Guatemala and it has been running for 18 years. We took them some essentials like soap and rice, and a few toys for the children living there. We got to play with the children which was really lovely and they were adorable kids. Al loved it when he got lollypop rubbed all over his jumper by a particularly naughty little girl. It was hilarious.
We also attended a benefit for a local school. They were raising money to allow the children who are required to work all the time and help support their families, to learn some English and have some fun with painting etc. We got to eat a whole lot of tipico
we do have regularly in the house. On Friday we went out and had pizza and beer with Ed and Yvonne. We kept thinking 'We didn't come to Guatemala to eat pizza and drink beer' but it was Guatemalan beer at least! We can also justify it as out meals with the family are all extremely typical Guatemalan foods.
Our school activity for the weekend was a trip to the ruins of Zacaleu and the nearby market town of Huehuetenango. The Mayan Ruins are Mam Ruins from 700 AD (if my Spanish is correct) and are fairly small compared to most renowned ruins in the region. They were lovely though, no thanks to a bad repair job by the United Fruit Company in the 1940's. After spending a bit of time looking at the ruins we had some lunch in Huehuetenango followed by a walk around the large markets in Huehue. It is a market town and people from many outlying regions come into the town to sell their wares. There were all sorts of things - from live chickens, fruit and veggies, tea, spices, and all sorts of meat. It was fascinating but definitely turned you vegetarian, at
Conquistador School Party - La & Al
We didn´t try very hard with the costumes... does it show? (Lara is trying to look like a mean conquistador)
least for a few hours!
And Sunday was spent sitting in the park and watching the world go by. It was lovely to have a day off from everything as studying and doing homework can be pretty full on. Another 4 weeks of classes to go before this chapter of our trip comes to an end.
Apart from not having had water for 5 days the following week went by pretty quietly. One of the town's water tanks fell over and half the town (100,000 people) didn't have any running water. After the third day, the government started bringing around trucks of water and everyone went out and filled up all the containers they could find. We washed ourselves with buckets of water heated on the stove by our host family and aside from that life went on as usual.
We went to school, participated in the school activities such as attending conferences and watching "Maria llena de Gracia". By Wednesday we were able to shower again which was very exciting after having had dirty hair for a week! On Thursday after school we climbed La Muella
('The Molar' in English) which is one of the
mountains that surround Xela. It was a tough scramble up the slope followed by some actual rock climbing. In any other country we would have required ropes and harnesses but we all survived and the view at the top was worth it! We walked back down in the darkness and got to see hundreds of fire flies and traditional Mayan farmers finishing up for the day. It was well worth the danger and the effort.
The following day was the graduation party, the theme was 'Cocktails and Juegos' and everyone had to make cocktails in groups. We made a Martini de Profundo Mar Azul with our teachers which was pretty good and then we played games. While playing 'hot potato' Lara had to dance on the table! We then went to a crazy nightclub called Kokolocos
and played pool and danced the salsa until early in the morning.
We had a pretty quiet weekend, going out for Indian and trying the local fried chicken chain Pollo Campero
- our host father is a huge fan and likes to tell everyone how much better it is than KFC. Al devoured a few whole chickens which he then needed to
walk off and we spent Sunday morning hiking to Laguna de Chicabal
, a beautiful crate lake at the centre of Mayan Cosmovision. On the walk we got to see a volcano erupting in the distance and a Mayan ceremony being performed on the lake. The lake is surrounded by lush rainforest and beautiful flowers. And apart from the altitude causing a bit of havoc it was a lovely way to spend a Sunday morning.
Our Spanish studies will continue for the next few weeks and we will keep you up-to-date with our adventures.
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