Overland to Guatemala: a little Spanish school for everyone

Since before we left on this epic trip, Michu and I had been planning a week of language school for the whole family. A lot of different places offer high-quality language instruction, but when we arrived at Chiapas and heard from a fellow cruiser about the great experience his wife was having in Guatemala, we decided the time was ripe for a field trip. Leaving the boat well cared-for at the marina, we hopped a bus to the mountain city of Quetzaltenango—aka Xela (“Shay-la”).DSC_2801

Up close with a chicken bus

Up close with a chicken bus

Guatemala does not enjoy a particularly great reputation for safety, so we were cautious about our planning. The bus we took was not a classic chicken bus, but a direct, private, air-conditioned coach with about a zero-percent chance of being hijacked (as has been known to happen to the chicken busses). We were met at the bus station by one of the teachers of the school, and ferried directly to the home of a trusted host near the center of town.

We were the only people on the bus!

We were the only people on the bus!

The area leading up to the mountains of Xela is know for its agriculture; a patchwork of vegetable plots line the valleys between the mountains...

The area leading up to the mountains of Xela is know for its agriculture; a patchwork of vegetable plots line the valleys between the mountains…

...and up the steep hillsides as well.

…and up the steep hillsides as well.

Produce truck. And don't think Guatemalans are so poor that all the veggies are organic, because they can't afford the pesticides; we saw lots of guys carrying sprayers on their backs, spraying the fields by hand.

Produce truck. And don’t think Guatemalans are so poor that all the veggies are organic, because they can’t afford the pesticides; we saw lots of guys carrying sprayers on their backs, spraying the fields by hand.

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Road construction is a marketing opportunity; selling to cars slowed at a bridge.

Road construction is a marketing opportunity; selling to cars slowed at a bridge.

We arrived mid-day Sunday, and had a few hours to walk around the city. Xela is pretty big, but our house was only a few blocks from the central park area, and the first Sunday of the month is market day.DSC_2658

DSC_2665Not only were the streets filled with market stalls, there was some kind of huge ceremony getting underway by the cathedral.

Team All-Purple gets ready

Team All-Purple gets ready

Yer a wizard, Harry!

Yer a wizard, Harry!

Lining up

Lining up

Not just for grown-ups

Not just for grown-ups

Our teachers later explained that it was the 100th anniversary of a religious service group, and they had invited all of the other surrounding groups within the Catholic church to participate in a parade.

On their way to the final line-up

On their way to the final line-up

Street art made of sawdust. We think the processional walked through it at the end.

Street art made of sawdust. We think the processional walked through it at the end.

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Fancy banner, rococo Cathedral

Fancy banner, rococo Cathedral

It's not Catholic without incense.

It’s not Catholic without incense.

Here comes the main event!

Here comes the main event!

The climax of the procession involved carrying a huge, heavy litter from the cathedral around the main square. Every hundred yards or so, the people carrying the float would support the structure with dozens of metal crutches, and a different group would take up the burden. The outfits distinguished the different groups—some all in black, some all in purple, with different shaped hats and fantastic banners declaring their names and when they were founded. And lest you think it was all men: the first group out of the gate were women, garbed in traditional Mayan skirts.DSC_2738

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Firecracker aftermath. It's a tradition in Xela to wake people up on their birthday with firecrackers; we heard them go off every single morning of our stay, between 5:30-6:00. We suspect the gunpowder industry needed an outlet post-civil war.

Firecracker aftermath. It’s a tradition in Xela to wake people up on their birthday with firecrackers; we heard them go off every single morning of our stay, between 5:30-6:00. We suspect the gunpowder industry needed an outlet post-civil war.

We had requested a home-stay, and were happy to be placed with a woman who ran a hotel out of the front of her house and a series of rooms in the back in her home. She cooked for us three times a day, and gave us a better understanding of the food of Central America—bigger breakfasts than a typical weekday for us (although she cut back when she saw we couldn’t eat it all), main meal of the day around 1:30, and a lighter supper around 7, with lots of beans and tortillas at all times. On our last night, she made tamales for us out of chicken and rice, wrapped in a leaf instead of a corn husk. Home cooking, Mayan style.

DSC_2776The school itself was pretty intense. We were each assigned our own teacher—kids, too!—and worked five hours straight with our instructor, with only a half-hour break at 10:30 to take advantage of local vendors in the courtyard selling tostadas, empanadas and other snacks. The classes were a mix of grammar instruction, review, and conversation. So, just imagine: here is a person you have never met in your life. Please talk to them for five hours. Go! Immersion school is not for the shy—or, at least, it’s much more tiring for introverts, as T and I quickly found out.

Don't they look excited?

Don’t they look excited?

My teacher, Veronica, gearing up for another two hours of chatting and verb conjugation

My teacher, Veronica, gearing up for another two hours of chatting and verb conjugation

The kids needed a bit more flexibility, so we sent them off to the zoo or for ice cream with their instructors for the second half of the morning; we also got a rest during mini-lectures after break twice during the week, learning about Guatemalan music and the specific Maya-influenced culture of Xela. Still, it was pretty exhausting for the whole family, and there were times when I felt like my grammar was worse than it had been on arrival. Do I use the predicate or the imperfect here? Is that verb irregular in the third person plural? I don’t remember! And this is the 5,000th error I’ve made today!! So the school was occasionally dispiriting in a break-you-down-to-build-you-up kind of way, but the staff were extremely nice and professional, and we all came out speaking better Spanish.

Outside the piñata store near our casa

Outside the piñata store near our casa

Xela itself was a great antidote to our experience in Puerto Quetzal. The town is a real, functioning city, with ancient stone streets in the center and a regular commercial perimeter. Tucked into the mountains, the cool air was a huge contrast to the tropical humidity we’ve become accustomed to, and we busted out our fleece and jeans for the first time in almost a year.

Mountain view from our room

Mountain view from our room

4 Comments on “Overland to Guatemala: a little Spanish school for everyone

  1. That looks SO awesome! I just can’t believe you guys have been gone for over a year, tell Michu we miss him here at CCH. Denise and I were just talking about how we’ve adapted to not having goofy Michu here to brighten our day. I love reading your blog and seeing the culture that you’re experiencing!

  2. Wow, great photos! Guatemala looks amazing- kind of makes me wish we had decided to meet you there instead of Baja :) How does it feel to be off the boat for a while? Has the high altitude affected you?

    • Alex, I think you’re going to win for Top Blog Commentator. Prize TBD, may involve tequila. Being off the boat always makes coming back really wonderful; we are so happy we chose to travel by boat instead of a long road trip. And yeah, the altitude change was tough, after a year at exactly sea level! We came home with a souvenir virus, just like back-to-school sniffles in Wisconsin.

      • Awesome! What an honor. I’m cool with tequila- or chocolate (probably can’t last till march).
        Hope the virus is short-lived and you are all feeling better soon.
        Viajes seguros!

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