Saturday, May 30, 2009

Life in Xela

It's good to know that Burger King is alive and well here in Guatemala. It's just what the people need to eat. That, Coca Cola and Lays Potato chips. Truth be told, Lays makes a chip that has less fat than the locally made chips, a tick in their favor.... But Burger King? McDonalds is here also. They have a great marketing a hamburger and some french fries, and get 30 min of free internet. For this area, it's a brilliant idea, I can't say the same for what they're serving though.

Half the people here, especially the rural dwellers, seem to have half their teeth (if that makes sense). This in part thanks to the corporations that push the suger, Coca Cola mainly, but there are others just as
aggressive and successful here. I noticed the same thing when I was in Bangladesh. Coke was pushed almost like a religion there. But in this business model, education regarding dental hygiene is not factored into the equation and the people either don't know, or can't afford a toothbrush (most likely just don't know). The end result is the lack of teeth of an entire society.

Is it idealistic to hope that a company would want the best for it's recipients, or is it someone else's responsiblility to ensure (ie. the govnmt.)? I'll get off the soapbox......

So these past 3 weeks have been a whirlwind. Every day we are preocupied with studying and getting from place to place. From house to the school, from school to the house, with short errands in between. We don't see each other as much because we have opposite school schedules - Michelle has school in the morning, and me in the afternoon, but it's OK because we're so focused on studying Spanish. We're also on a set food schedule now because we are living with a local family, so we have to eat when they're expecting us. This has been interesting for us to adapt to because as some of you may know, we like deciding things..... anything, including food, at the last minute. So, I guess you can call this an opportunity to grow in our ability to be more structured! Through this schedule, we're eating 3 square meals a day so that's a good thing and the family has been very accomodating when we need to change the times so it's working out well.

Backing up a bit, after we arrived, we immediately started looking for the perfect school. Quetzaltenango or Xela (pronounced "shey-la") boasts over 50 schools of language so we had our work cut out for us in picking the right one. Our first morning in town, we needed a good breakfast to replenish our 4 days of malnutrition at the lakes in Mexico and in transit here. I think our expectations for food were too high, and so... we kept looking for the right place to eat in between looking at schools. Ultimately we ended up completely low on blood sugar. The midafternoon came and we still hadn't eaten.....and now our search for a school felt more like a panic. It was Friday, and we had to arrange a school before Monday, preferably before the weekend.

What we found out the hard way is that you just can't figure Xela out in one morning. In order to find those special places to eat, have coffee, find books, etc., you have to look for or get a recommendation from someone, because they are spread out and they all look the same, slightly grungy, and they are not located in one central area. Xela doesn't really have a downtown shopping zone or boardwalk so to speak, although it does have a really impressive parque central (central park) which boasts european looking buildings and a really neat roman looking arch in the center. Apart from that you have to find the little nooks or special places on your own, and then learn their hours. For example, many places just aren't open in the mornings, as we found out this rough day. Then they may open for a few hours before closing again for 2 or 3 more hours for the afternoon siesta. The evenings are usually a good bet for most places to be open but not too late. I think you get the idea. We've totally adapted to the schedule by now, but it took a few days. We did finally get food on the first day out of desparation, but the portions were pretty wimpy. In the next few days we would discover the great little nooks and crannies to have food or just hang out.

We did not find a school that day, but rather continued asking people at our hostel, and others that we would meet. We eventually chose a school "Madra Tierra" which had a beatiful European style courtyard that was formed by huge old blocks of stone and we began school that Monday. We attended for a week, but neither of us loved our teachers. The following weekend we got a tip from another extranjero (foreigner) regarding a great private tutor. We called her on that Sunday and met in front of the iglesia (church) in the parque central. The meeting went well, and we agreed on a price and a location for the next day, Monday. That day, she came with 2 other women, and told us that she couldn't tutor us, but that these other two teachers could - we got the hand off basically but in a really nice way. We proceeded with these teachers for the week and the classes went great! There was a small problem with the fee at the end of the week because they ended up asking for more than was agreed upon. This really effected Michelle because of the bond that she had formed with her teacher. It is a very vulnerable position to agree to learn a language from someone. You do have to put yourself out there, and as a result, Michelle decided not to return to them and instead began another school called "Eureka". I decided to stay with one of the two private teachers, but switched to Michelle's teacher because she seemed a little more structured than mine even though mine was equally good. My theory with the money problem was that changing prices is normal everywhere, and the bottom line for me was, were they able to provide me what I needed at the price I was willing to pay. There was nothing personal about it, but I completely understood Michelle's dilemma.

Since that time, Michelle has continued studying at the same school, and she absolutely loves her new teacher and I love Michelle's previous teacher, so I'm keeping her....she can't have her back!

Regarding learning Spanish......If anyone is looking for a perfect book to slowly start understanding the language, we can highly recommend "Practice Makes Perfect Complete Spanish Grammar". This book is truly incredible and easy to learn from. It's over 400 pages long, and includes really entertaining excercises that you can fill out in in the book. Each chapter slowly builds on what you have already learned. If nothing else, I think a few chapters completed will give you a handle on the structure of the language so that you can understand people better, even if you have a hard time saying anything. In addition to this, you will need the Langenscheidt pocket dictionary (because it is equally amazing once you figure it out), a notebook to write your answers, and 2 pens, a blue and red. Blue for work, Red for your corrections. That's it, and with a little work over time, the Spanish language is yours. Good luck!

In our spare time, we visited a really neat above ground cemetary where Michelle found her very own personal little church to attend. This must have been the tomb of a very wealthy family!

We also took a day trip to the oldest church in centro america about a half hour away. I think it dated in the 1500's. After this we visited a weaving cooperative in the area, and also a house where they make a special liqueur made out of various fruits. I guess the area surrounding the church is know for this special type of liqueur.

We hiked to some local natural steam saunas, which we thought were hot springs, but turned out to be vapor coming out of the earth. It was neat to sit in a room with heat rising out of the center of the earth and eucalyptus leaves emitting that wonderful smell. It reminded us of our sweatlodge experience in Mexico, but here, we could exit when it got too hot, one nice difference! On the downside, I ended up with a fungus from the chair, so if you are ever in a place like this, use a towel or shorts, that's all I will say about that! The picture is in the holding room after the full hour of steam heaven.

We witnessed a torrential rain where the storm drains couldn't handle the volume, and this is what happens. There was actually so much pressure coming down from the mountain that it popped the top off of the storm drain covers, and water gushed into the air. This is right around the corner from our house. Before I went and got the camera, the water spout was close to 4' high.

We also found that perfect little mini van for those quick trips to the market! You never know when you just might need some sugar or butter! I'm already thinking about the next vehicle to buy........what will it be?

For my birthday (35 yeh!), Michelle planned an awesome trip to the top of Volcano Tajumulco which is also the highest point in Central America. It's just under 14,000 ft, but we were able to start the ascent at 10k, so it was very manageable in one day. Here are some pictures of this great adventure. The wonderful thing about both of our birthdays is that we pretty much love doing exactly the same thing, so birthdays end up being a treat for both parties. It's always been that way, and it's a guarantee that we get at least two mini weekend vacations a year!

The hike up was pleasant and in just over 3 hours, we made it to the summit. At the top, Michelle had arranged to have some firecrackers go off as a surprise. Our guide handled the lighting off of these fireworks. He had to coax me over to the area where they had been placed because I was really happy just sitting where I was (after 4,000' of vertical). It was a neat surprise, and I learned that it is customary to wake people on the morning of their birthday with these same fireworks. Also the earlier the better, for example 5: or 6: is a good time. The earlier you do it, the more love you have for that person, I hear. Now I know why I keep hearing fireworks in the mornings. We used to think that people were just obsessed with firecrackers, but aparently there's more to it. It was the same in Mexico.......

Hey thanks for reading our blog! One of these times very soon it is going to be Michelle's turn to write.

Ciao for now........


  1. Great post Mark. Thanks for the tip on the steam room benches...

  2. I am so glad you are discovering Guatamala, one of my favorite places on earth. I love hearing about your adventures, thank you for sharing!!