My sister and I arrived in Guatemala last Monday and took the bus from the capital to Quetzaltenango.
We arrived rather later than anticipated due to a lost suitcase, which I only recently recovered, only to find that it was damaged beyond further use. We are staying with a host family a less than two minute walk away from Guatemalensis Spanish School. We eat all three meals with them. Only one woman and her daughter live there, but some of her family joins her for part of the day. It’s a great opportunity to get a peek at Guatemalan life, try the food, and work on our listening and speaking.
I’m really enjoying the school. The directors and teachers have been very kind and helpful, both in familiarizing us with the city and language and in persistently trying to get my bag back. We have class every weekday from 8 to 1, with a break in the middle. They also organize excursions for us to learn more about Guatemala and practice our Spanish.
As some of you may know, I have not officially studied Spanish before. I knew bits and pieces of vocabulary and grammar from various looks at the language, handy bilingual signs, and helping my sister practice. But I would not say I knew the language. Apparently I knew more than I realized, and the constant immersion and practice is making me put all those pieces together and actually use the language. I am far from elegant, and sometimes it turns out that I am actually speaking French, but I at least can get my point across and understand when the teachers speak slowly.
So far we have had three excursions. The first was to the center of the city, where there is a very old cathedral, a central park, and several government buildings, most of which have gardens in the middle. The cathedral and some of the columns in the park have been affected by earthquakes thanks to the volcanoes. I find it amusing that I went from Oklahoma, with fracking induced earthquakes and tornadoes, to Guatemala with more earthquakes and volcanoes. Even my teacher was familiar with the tornadoes in Oklahoma.
We also walked through one of the city’s markets, La Democracia. It is a large market located both under a permanent structure and in the streets. They sell everything from fruits and vegetables to clothes and candles. I enjoy learning about new types of fruit, such as the five types of mangoes. Some of these are quite huge. Quetzaltenango trades its vegetables for fruit from the coast, where it is more tropical.
Last Thursday, we took a trip to a nearby village, San Andre Xecul, which is home to the oldest church in Central America. Like many of the villages, it is primarily inhabited by the Maya, and the mix of religions was quite obvious. The designs on the church included both God, Mary and Jesus and the jaguars that are part of the Mayan creation story. Higher up, another church from the same time period sits next to a Mayan altar. Even the name is a mix of cultures: San Andre was added by the Spanish, and Xecul is from two words meaning low and blanket, referring to the clouds that blanket the mountain.
Also in San Andre Xecul, we visited a home where a family dyes cotton thread. Dyed thread is one of the main industries of the village. The colors are very bright: red, orange, lime green, sky blue. The whole family works there. In fact, it is primarily the job of the brothers of the lady who showed us around to dye the thread, since it involves a lot of strength. They work early in the morning, from 4 to 8, so the thread can dry before the afternoon rains. The thread is packaged and sold in the city and in neighboring towns.
In talking with the director, who lead our excursion, we learned both about Guatemala’s past and present. Under Spanish rule, the Mayans were slaves. During this time, the markets started. Before that, the Mayans used a bartering system. But they needed money to pay taxes to the Spanish, and the Spanish wanted to buy things instead of working. The taxes were eventually the downfall of the Spanish, since neither their descendants nor the Mayan leaders wanted to keep paying them and joined together for independence.
The area of Guatemala surrounding San Andre Xecul has seen many people immigrate to the United States. Many men and women leave carrying only a small backpack. Many of these die along the way, and others return because of the difficulty of life in the US. Others are captured and sent back, while still others stay for years before returning, if they ever do. This is obviously extremely difficult for the families. The Guatemalan government erected a statue to these immigrants, particularly those who die during the journey. I was particularly struck by how many are deported: 30,000 last year and two planes each week this year. After hearing immigration discussed so much from a US perspective, it was interesting and sobering to hear about it from a Guatemalan perspective.
While it is somewhat overwhelming to be completely immersed, I am enjoying learning so much about the language and culture.