I loved saying I was going to Guatemala, it sounded faraway, unknown and kind of exotic in a strange way.
The smooth and rhythmic sound of “Gwah-teh-maah-laa.” was music to my ears.
I really had little idea what to expect and I wondered what it was really like?
Now I can say living in Guatemala for 2 months was an incredible experience I wish I could repeat in every country I ever visit. The word “Guatemala” is now more pleasing than ever to my heart.
A long while ago I decided that if we were to spend any length of time in Spanish speaking countries we should learn Spanish, or at least try and Des agreed.
I set off in search of the best Spanish Language School. The one school that kept coming up in the top 10 all the time was Celas Maya in Quetzeltenango (aka Xela)
Where on earth? … oh it’s Guatemala.
I thought – I don’t know about going there… isn’t it dangerous?
After asking around a good bit more, everyone it seemed recommended Xela, and in particular Celas Maya as a perfect place to take intensive language courses.
Ignoring any so called danger, I plotted the supposed first stop in our world journey to be Guatemala’s second largest city of Xela (pronounced Shayla) nickname for Quetzeltenango.
I say ‘supposed first stop’ because we had a so called stopover in Mexico which actually lasted 3 months. (Yep, we fell in love with Mexico too)
Xela is a town inhabited by locals and built for locals, not necessarily a pretty city but one with a wonderful heart as you will see.
Surrounded by hills and volcanoes Xela lies in a fertile valley at 2330 m (7645ft) above sea-level. While the days are comfortably warm, nights are cooler and the perfect temperature for sleeping.
The town’s oldest area, where we lived around El Parque Central features narrow, cobblestone streets and graceful, rugged architecture. Plenty of local style cafes, pubs and restaurants also hang out here.
And so it was, here in Xela we started our life in Guatemala after a 10 hour shuttle bus ride from Mexico.
As Xela is off the tourist path and people that we met here were studying and volunteering, they were not your typical ‘tourist’ whatever that means to you. There were certainly no handbags and heels amongst our groups which was so refreshing.
Everyone was here for a purpose, some were just traveling like us, some were medical students, some were teachers, some were mums and kids, some were priests. Best of all they were interested in the local culture and language learning rather than looking for a ‘western tourist type experience’ in a foreign country.
Originally the plan was to stay here with a local family for total Spanish immersion, however after 3 months in Mexico, we came to understand how much we liked and needed our own space.
To be in a single bedroom with no ability to cook just didn’t appeal – add to that trying to understand our new family speaking Spanish to us before we even started learning sounded like a recipe for disaster.
In hindsight it was a good move, school was hectic and we always seemed to be pressed for time even in our own apartment. Where we call home is pretty important to us and our house complete with washing machine was perfect for us.
Those that chose the home stay option were pretty happy also and this is especially good if you are travelling solo. It’s also an economical option costing about $40 a week per person for a homestay in addition to your school fees.
Set in beautiful courtyard and gardens with excellent teachers, Celas Maya has a welcoming atmosphere. Federico, a delightful smiley Guatemalan and owner of the Celas Maya School introduces himself and buys us coffee.
I never remember a school principal buying me coffee at school before, but this is Guatemala and it’s different, delightfully different.
Everything was professional, relaxed and nothing was a problem. This felt really good.
At an age, where other people think probably more about golfing and other relaxing activities, I dared to challenge my brain with this new sweet language.
Fortunately I didn’t feel a moment out of place, and easily hooked up with young people from all over the world. I connected with a great teacher and wonderful staff, who helped me every moment and took away my uneasiness of speaking Spanish.
Poor Jairo…I was a complete beginner, my Spanish was non existent apart from Gracias and Por Favor, so the one-on-one classes were absolutely necessary.
Spanish School life was pretty fun, socialising with our new friends, afternoons relaxing in the Hot Pools, Bike Riding around the Villages, Climbing Volcanoes and partying every Friday night at school. Homework time was indeed hard to find.
Yes, every single day and every weekend the school put on student trips and activities. These included visits to various landmarks, indigenous cooperatives and markets in the Xela area. As well as archeological sites and hot springs. There was a small charge for these as the school also runs a ‘travel’ business alongside the school. All the trips were very reasonably priced and totally worth every penny.
If that wasn’t enough – there was free weekly cooking demonstrations, photography classes – Des even conducted one of these classes to the delight of many, plus movie nights, salsa lessons, shared dinners and Friday night parties.
They are optional of course but most students enthusiastically participated as it was a great way to get inside the rich Guatemalan culture and the opportunity to bond outside of class and practice your Spanish!
Talk about busy school life.
Starts at 5.30am with a violent earthquake magnitude 6.9. That’s right we’re living in a place surrounded by volcanoes and we can expect these. I hadn’t thought about that until now.
The school day begins at 8am which meant pretty early starts for us.
Jairo started first up teaching me how to ask questions and give answers in Spanish.
I was so excited later in the day when on the chicken bus a local lady asked my name and I could reply to her in Spanish. I felt like a 5 year old, I probably sounded like one too. Yay.
And so that was the start of the first day of what would become 5 hours a day 5 days a week for 4 weeks. I had the best teacher Jairo, a young bright soul who put up with me for 4 whole weeks!
By Day 5, I feel am progressing well, Jairo has me off on a ‘field trip’ to the fruit and vege market for shopping and practicing my Spanish. I am pleased with my attempts. Although I don’t really care how much the veges are, I can now ask cuanto cuesta? or como la libre? and understand the response.
“There’s to be no more English spoken from now on” says Jairo.
Argggh… sometimes I get lazy and every time I speak in English – Jairo tells me ‘yo no comprendo’ which means ‘I don’t understand’ – he just glares at me and waits for me to speak spanish.
By Day 15 I’m exhausted and have to take a week off before finishing my 4th week later. Des continues on and does 5 straight weeks.
In the end after 4 weeks the result for me is – I can understand or get the idea of what is spoken, but cannot always respond correctly.
I can also make myself understood which I am pleased about. I love this sweet language and look forward to practicing more in the coming months as we travel through South America.
Des on the other hand is still a little bamboozled by it all.
Hasta proxima vez Xela – Until next time Xela…