Updated on November 17, 2017
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”).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.