Xela and my first Homestay experience
I arrive in Quetzaltenango, or “Xela” (Shay-la) as its affectionately called, after a gut-churning ride through the scenic mountains from Lake Atilan.
Xela, a cool mountain town just off the Gringo trail enough to feel authentic, is a breath of fresh air after the gypsy play land that was San Pedro de Atitlan. Most travelers who find themselves in Xela are different from the usual young partying backpacker or hippie gypsy types found elsewhere in Guatemala. Travelers here tend to be more serious types–actually wanting to learn Spanish in a city where few speak English (unlike Antigua), or seeking an ambitious hike with Quetzaltrekkers in the remote nearby mountains.
The city blankets a valley, providing nice views from the north and south sides, which surround a lower center part of town featuring a lovely, albeit strange, Greek-influenced Central Park.
At 2335 meters, it’s brisk when the sun goes down (or hides behind clouds).
My first two nights I stay near the central park, at The Black Cat Hostel. A classic backpacker institution, with free wifi, cheap dorms, a friendly bar and lounge and an impressive, and massive, free breakfast (always earns points with me). Here I meet Soo, a bookish, and older-than-she looks Korean-Canadian, who’s instantly pleasant and like-able.
We spend our first night wandering around the Sunday night street food stalls near the park–snacking on pupusas (not nearly as good as in their homeland of El Salvador), and my favorite–the Guatemalan version of an Enchilada (in no way resembling their Mexican counterpart) consisting of crunchy tostadas layered with any number of toppings–ranging from boiled beets, carrots and eggs, to chicken, to my addiction; cooked cabbage, onions, carrots over a thin layer of mayo. To warm up, we drink ponche–a hot fruit drink, complete with floating fruit chunks or a warm, milky, sweet corn drink mixed with a little rum.
As we walk past the twinkling lights of the government buildings, past venders selling warm scarves and hats, past young Guatemalans hanging out in the park, and past countless food venders selling all sorts of goodies I haven’t yet seen, I’m in a great mood. For the first time since arriving in Guatemala I feel like I’m somewhere real. Somewhere where I don’t feel like the whole city is putting on a show (Antigua), or somewhere where a safe western bubble has been constructed to satisfy, and entoxify hoards of travelers (Antigua and San Pedro).
We both express a minor interest in staying for a week with a homestay and taking intensive spanish courses. As that’s just what you do when in Xela. Pulled by our collective minor interest, we decide to check out some Schools. The first school we investigate, across from the Central Park, is $150 for 25 hours one-one lessons + 7 days Homestay including 3 meals/day, and activities. We decide this is too cheap of an opportunity to pass. We both sign up for a week.
Early the following morning, we show up at the school with our packs. We are instantly introduced to our teachers and begin classes. My teacher-Kerri, is a young Guatemalan woman, who can’t be much older than 21. Classes with Kerri consist roughly of two hours of grammar and verbs, an hour of vocab, an hour of reading comprehension and straight conversation. The conversation part is my favorite. Kerri, being young and cool, talks with about all sorts of stuff typically dealing with the differences between life in Guatemala and the States–ranging from birth control and sex education to the night clubs and the bar scene. English is never spoken because Kerri doesn’t know it.
This is the first time I have a teacher who speaks not a lick of English and this will be the major difference for why this program works for me and why others had not.
One day, my favorite, we have class in a cafe, followed by a rousing game of Spanish scrabble.
At some point, in the middle of each class, we have a break where we enjoy tea/coffee and pastries and can socialize with the other students and teachers.
After my first class I’m walked to my new home for what will end up being 2 weeks. I meet my Guataparents–Bilma and Jorge, an older couple, who are already housing two students from the school. Wilma is a warm, grandmotherly woman, formal and an easy laugher. Her husband Goerge, a small, boisterous red-faced little man, who clearly loves to be the center of attention, is always loudly telling, and dramatically acting out, jokes and stories–of which I only half understand. They have an overweight and hyperactive, blond dog called Timmi–clearly the recipient of our leftovers. He is my favorite; always so happy to see me. The other residents are two Korean-American girls, joined at the hip, studying at the school for a year. Also renting a room, a very quiet Guatemalan med student who prays devotedly before every meal and who I never once, in the two weeks I’m there, hear her say anything more than “Buena noche” or “gracias.” At home, we never speak English. I only ever see the girls at meal times and briefly in passing.
The house is very nice, on Guatemalan standards. Two stories high, with a usable rooftop terrace. Clearly they’ve done well for themselves and the extra money from the Spanish school no doubt has helped. They have a car, two TVs and a live-in hired girl to help with cooking, cleaning and laundry. It takes me two weeks to figure out where in the house everyone sleeps.
My private room is spacious, monochromatic, and decorated with an old Selena poster and a car calendar. My bed sinks in the middle and the fitted sheet never stays on the shiny, thin mattress for more than a few minutes. But still, the private room is a luxury I relish.
As with what I’ve observed in most of Latin America, more than anything in the world, Wilma & George are most bothered by the slamming of a door. Signs requesting a “gentle closing” hang on all doors, and both George and Wilma reiterate the fact to me shortly after I arrive. The memory of a taxi driver in Medellin angrily yelling at me after I shut a car door a little too hard pops in mind. This is strange to me as this is a part of the world where: music blares, roosters cock-a-doodle, street dogs howl, fireworks blast and motorcycles rumble–all hours of the night. But a door closing loudly, that’s unacceptable.
We never have an actual conversation, unless dictated by Wilma or George and always in the kitchen. We are called to the table three times a day by a loud bell, signaling the beginning of mealtime.
I start to feel like I’m apart of some strange, modern Pavlov’s Dog experiment.
The television always glimmers over the meal table, playing hilariously dramatic Telanovelas (Mexican soap operas), or–when Granddaughter Georgina comes by for lunch–badly dubbed Nickelodeon. For every meal the table is set with placemats and nice China, meals are served family style with traditional Guatemalan food. Tortillas, homemade hot sauce and a pitcher of filtered water accompany every meal.
When we finish our food, we say, “Gracias,” to which Wilma and Goerge respond with, “Buen Provecho Chicas!” Every single time. Then we all hurry upstairs to our private rooms, closing the doors gently behind us. My room is very cold, with poorly insulated windows, which let in outside air, but no sunlight. Im thankful for the wifi, books, Spanish homework, and early mornings. I’m sleeping by 10, every night.
With Poor water pressure and cold mornings, I have to give myself a motivational pep talk before jumping into the shower. After 7:30 breakfast –which Wilma sits and strangely, watches us eat (as she doesn’t eat herself), I make the 7 minute walk to the school. The school is cold, everyone wears jackets and scarves, complains about the temperature and continually drinks hot tea or coffee. I wear my hiking shoes everyday to keep my feet warm.
Wanting to fill my days with as much interesting things as possible, I participate in nearly all of the schools sponsored activities. On Mondays we have salsa lessons–taught by an older Guatemalan woman with giant frizzy hair, drag-queen makeup and skin tight clothes–who call swivel, grind and shake her hips as if all her hinges were loose.
On the weekend we climb the tough, though spectacular Volcano Santa Maria. We climb beside Mayan woman carrying heavy loads on their heads, making a sort of pilgrimage to the peak of the volcano, where they will spend the day with their heads to the ground weeping, chanting, praying.
At the peak, we collapse on the dry ground, soaking up the warm sun; gazing at the sky in front of us, hypnotized, as the clouds rapidly change and morph. From here we can see for miles and miles. It’s easy to see why this is a sacred place for the Maya.
Another day we visit a woman’s weaving cooperative and learn how the fantastic fabrics and tapestries seen and sold in the streets are meticulously made.
On Fridays we have a big group dinner, relax, reflect on our week and talk about our travels.
In my second week I get a new teacher. My new teacher–Shirley is enthusiastic and serious about her job as a Spanish teacher. She arrives early everyday and conducts highly structured classes complete with neatly and meticulously homemade conversation games. She slowly mouthes her words to me and writes much of her lessons on a white board, pointing with her elaborately manicured hands as she repeats verbs, and new vocabulary. She always wears bright eyeshadow which coordinates with her sweater. I like Shirley’s structure (and enthusiasm!), though miss Kerri’s entertaining stories and fascinating comparative conversations. What I really sought to improve here was my spanish conversational skills.
Toward the end of my second week I’m awakened in the night with stabbing abdominal pain, followed by vomiting, then diarrhea all throughout the night. All the following day I’m weak, with little appetite, and my stomach creaks and rumbles like an old wooden ship at sea. I cant eat much more than bread and rice. After 8 months on the road with no trouble at all (not since my first week in Peru), I had thought I was in the clear. I spend another day and an even worse sleepless night, waking frequently to run to the bathroom, with more intense stabbing pains, before I give in and buy Antibiotics (something I had stubbornly refused to do in Peru).
After spending many hours curled in fetal position, in my cold, private room, At the first sign of recovery, I’m anxious to leave Xela, and my Homestay (and the cold) behind.
I have one more breakfast with my strange temporary family before hurrying to catch the next bus to Huehuetenango–In hopes of making the rarely traveled, though spectacular (says Lonely Planet!) road from Huehue to Coban early the following morning.
I leave Xela feeling weak; my hands cold, my insides empty–but my Spanish speaking confidence is significantly higher and I have a renewed enthusiasm to keep exploring.