Guatemala, parte dos

So I wrote recently that I’m going to Guatemala for a few months, but I don’t like that post, so I’m pretending it doesn’t exist and will give more specifics here. (Lots more specifics, it turns out. But I cut it from 900+ words to exactly 600. You’re welcome.)

Right after girls’ camp in July, I got a very strong impression—not that I needed to do something, but that I would do something. You are going to Guatemala for the fall to improve your Spanish. I think I stopped, head tilted, considered it for a few seconds, and then thought, “Oh! OK then.”

Why Spanish? Well, I’ve spoken sort-of-decent Spanish since college, but I’ve never made the relatively small effort required to become fluent. The truth is I never really wanted to learn Spanish. I took it in college because I could start in Spanish 102 instead of 101. However, I felt some hesitation; I’ve long been a Europhile, and Spanish wasn’t going to lead me to Europe. (Yes, Spain is in Europe. For some reason that didn’t count. It turns out that by “Europe” I meant “Sweden” or “Germany.”) So after Spanish 202 I let the language fade, even though it would have useful countless times.

So why now, and why Guatemala? Mostly because the impression came and I’m going with it. I’m excited to finally (finally!) learn another language fluently, something I’ve craved for decades (though apparently not enough to actually, like, do anything about it), and it will be useful—my stake has three Spanish branches. Timing-wise, it’s easy to find a subletter in the fall, and I’m only working part-time at the moment. As for Guatemala, not all of it is hot and humid (read: intolerable): Quetzaltenango (or Xela [Shay-la], which is less fun to say), in the western highlands, is temperate. Additionally, several friends have strong ties to Quetzaltenango, which is known for its Spanish schools. I’ll be studying 1:1 with a tutor for 4-5 hours a day, going on afternoon and weekend activities/excursions, and staying with a Guatemalan family, all for less than Cambridge rent.

I leave in 14 days (!!). It’s a little stressful (understatement)—previously when I’ve skipped country for a few months I’ve had more lead time, and England and Germany required less preparation. I’ve bought plane tickets, researched 25 schools, registered with one, studied ways to overcome digestive maladies (ugh), ordered massive quantities of prescriptions, procured a slightly battered-looking suitcase (dilapidated = unappealing to bandits), and finally vanquished that damn stack o’papers on my desk. I’m studying verbs while I run and occasionally translating my thoughts into Spanish (which, given my limited vocabulary, is a multi-lingual game of Taboo). I’m eating my remaining food—even the who-knows-how-old Brussels sprouts—and sorting clothes by utility (the rabid minimalist in me is TOTALLY psyched about living on almost nuthin’ for four months). I’ve found a subletter, the search for which led to a Truly Fantastic Experience (stay tuned), and I’m researching further trips—Tikal, Lake Atitlán, Honduras-El Salvador-Belize-Mexico. I made sure my insurance company covers life-flights (note: I am not expecting to require one) and called a consulate to ensure Immigration won’t deport me if I can’t prove I plan to leave within 90 days.

One drawback is that sleeping has become a bit difficult; even Victor Hugo deconstructing convents in excruciating, narrative-suffocating detail for 44 pages (SRSLY!) isn’t entirely effective. But at this time two weeks from now, after 15+ hours in transit (four on a bus), I’ll be at home with my Guatemalan host family.

Sometimes life freaking rocks.

4 thoughts on “Guatemala, parte dos

  1. Sometimes life totally freaking rocks. I am so excited for you! I did this same thing about five years ago and it was AMAZING! I lived in Antigua with a family, studied one-on-one with a teacher, and did all the tours and trips. I stayed for about 3 1/2 months and felt fluent by the time I came home.

    I still had trouble reading tough stuff like Garcia-Marquez and couldn’t exactly communicate full-speed but I could communicate! If you want to talk about it, feel free to give me a shout anytime. I had a great time and would love to give pointers.

    So excited for you!

  2. Scott, I had no idea–that’s fantastic! I’m assuming you know Mary’s and my friend Sasha, who has gone to Guatemala three times on similar trips (though she was in Quetzaltenango twice and once in a tiny town across the lake from Flores). You’ll have to tell me what to see and do in Antigua, since I plan on taking a trip there at some point. 🙂

  3. Absolutely! Antigua is a nice home base town (much like Xela-hu, I imagine). There is a nice market. The biggest draw of Antigua is the architecture. It has many of the old colonial buildings, a big plaza, and a famous bell tower. It is also relatively small. If you had your walking shoes on, you could circumnavigate the city in a day and still leave yourself time to explore shops and eat at cafes.

    I would also highly recommend checking out Semuc Champey. It is far out of the way (though not as far as Tikal) but well worth it. It may be the prettiest place I have ever seen. There’s a famous hostel in Lanquin where young travelers from all over the world come together to sleep in hammocks.

    Monterrico is nice if you have the time. I would put it lower on the list. It’s a volcanic black sand beach but the composition of the beach and the waves mean that it is not swimmable. The beach runs steeply down to the water and there is a VERY strong undertow. It is pretty scary to swim in.

    I went to Copan, Honduras for one weekend and it was very nice. There are big ruins there and, from Antigua at least, it is much more convenient than Tikal. I did not go to Tikal (seriously, it’s so far away) but I was satisfied with the ruins I saw.

    I regretted not taking a weekend to head to the beach in El Salvador. There are little trips down there all the time and are easily scheduled through the local shops. I ran out of time doing other things and when will I ever have such an easy opportunity to go to tiny little El Salvador?

    Atitlan is a must. I’d even put it ahead of Semuc Champey, especially for Mormons. I stayed in San Pedro (bus to Panajachel and boat across the lake) and enjoyed it. There are a lot of expat hippies there but a lot of Mayans, too. I stayed for a week and lived with a family in some pretty humble circumstances. We had a rooster. My Spanish teacher didn’t speak English, only Spanish and Tz’utijil. I was glad that I had a few months under my belt at that point.

    As for your classes, I would encourage you to speak Spanish as much as possible. Duh, right? But seriously, there will be a lot of other students there, and English is awfully tempting when all you want to do is form a coherent sentence and there is somebody that would understand it in English. Make a pact with any traveler friends that you will only speak Spanish. My Antigua family made fun of my poor Spanish when I first moved in but they helped me learn, too. I watched futbol with my homestay dad and helped my homestay mom cook. Just get out and meet people and practice, practice, practice. You’re going to stand out, especially in Xela, so embrace it. Locals will appreciate that you are trying to learn and will let you fumble and correct you as you go. It’s like the whole country was bred to teach Spanish to Americans.

    Guatemalans are SO SO nice. If you put yourself out there, they will be cool.

    At the same time, be careful with money. Prices at shops and markets are tremendously inflated. I wouldn’t suggest buying anything at all for the first weeks at least. You will have plenty of time for gifts and souvenirs and the more you see of Guatemala, the more you will realize what you really want to bring home and what true prices really are. You will also be more comfortable with your Spanish, which will make haggling exponentially more comfortable. The shopkeepers will try to push things on you because you’re a girl so you will have to be strong, but I don’t think that should be a problem for you!

    You’re going to have so much fun! Oh, one more thing. Take pictures. Don’t take so many that you miss out on the experience but you will want something to look at after you come home. I have exactly four photos from my trip (all of which can be found on FB–the oldest pics in 2009) and I wish I had so many more.

    Let me know if you have any questions! I had a great time and (obviously!) could talk about it for ages!

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