Learning Spanish in the highlands of Guatemala (2013)

The rain started to come, the droplets spattering the window of the bus as the light of the day began to fade. The already dreary feeling of the evening was heightened by being only halfway through a 16-hour bus ride, and we wearily trundled on into the night.

My 3 and half weeks in the Bay Islands of Honduras had come to a close, and I had decided to take a 100 hour, month-long Spanish course in the Guatemalan highlands in a quaint city named Quetzaltenango. (Often simply referred to as Xela, and this is what I’ll call it for the rest of the post. Quetzaltenango is a real pain to type every time!)

I had been studying Spanish by myself using a combination of literature, media and the internet for the last couple of years, and my knowledge was basic but usable. As I continue weaving my way through the rich tapestry that is the world, it is becoming more and more apparent how passé being monolingual actually is. Especially in my line of work, and the hobbies that I have, which involve interacting with people from all over the world daily. And so it was while sat on my friend Juan Pablo’s balcony of his rented apartment in Utila, that I decided to do a month of Spanish classes.

I had met an Australian guy 3 weeks previously on the mainland of Honduras during the wait for the ferry to Utila, and it appeared to me as if he had a decent grasp of Spanish. He was enjoying interacting with the locals, and they seemed to enjoy talking to him. He told me that he had spent 3 months living in Xela studying Spanish, and, having arrived there with only a handful of words, he now had a high working ability of the language after only 3 months. He also told me it was a very cost-effective way of living. $200 US a week would see him housed, fed and with 25 hours of one-on-one Spanish classes too.

They say word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool, and sure enough, a few weeks later I find myself hopping off the bus near the Honduran/Guatemalan border and handing my passport to a stranger to ‘go get stamped’. We had already been riding the bus for over 8 hours, and this border stop gave me a chance to stretch my legs.

“Want something to eat?” Laura asks me. Her faint German accent not at all hiding her excellent English.

“Sure” I reply, “Let’s see what they have.”

We enter into the waiting lounge where there was a cafeteria. I wasn’t massively hungry, but the prospect of another 6 – 8 hours without food was a little too much to bear thinking about, and so a microwaved slice of pizza and a coke it was. Laura was my travelling companion for this journey. I had met her in a Utila a couple of weeks previously, where she had done her Open Water Diver course, and she was now headed down to Guatemala for a meditation retreat, so I decided to join her. It made sense to have someone to talk to during the arduous bus journey.

Despite earlier concerns, our passports came back to us, and we were on our way. We arrived into the capital of Guatemala around 2 am, and were driven to a hotel by a taxi driver who was clearly in cahoots with the hotel owner. 250 Quetzales later (of which we saw a visible exchange of a proportion of it go to the taxi driver) and we have our prison cell to lay our heads. Except I am led to believe prison cells have windows, and we even had cast-iron bars over the door to complete the look. What was even more concerning was that the door locked from the outside. “For security, Señor”. 

The next morning, having bid farewell to Laura, I head to the bus terminal and get onto the bus bound for Xela. I decided to pay for what’s known as a Pullman bus. Although not precisely new and air-conditioned, at least each passenger gets a seat to themselves and luggage gets locked down below and not on the roof. Chicken buses were a luxury I was yet to discover. The journey was amazing, with incredible views as we wound our way along the length of the southern Guatemalan highlands in which the majority of the country’s population lives. The highlight was passing the famous Lake Atitlan with its standing guard of mountains, and nestled among their feet sat little quaint Mayan villages built of a combination of colonial and traditional building materials.

Pulling into Xela and stepping down off the bus meant pulling on a pair of jeans and a hoody. At 2330m (7,655 feet) above sea level, this is not a warm place despite being in the tropics. Clearly ‘richer’ than many other parts of Central America, Xela could be confused quite easily for a southern European city with its narrow cobbled streets and bustling market squares. The heart and soul of the town lay in Parque Central, a large open space with a modestly sized marketplace and surrounded on all sides by impressive colonial architecture. Think tall greek-style columns next to gothic German styled buildings left over from the German immigration rush a century or two ago.

A real highlight is Mercado Democracia further north about a 20-minute walk from Parque Central. This is where to see authentic Guatemalan highland cultures blend together in an impressively large outdoor market spread out over 4 blocks of the city. Expect to be able to buy everything from corn on the cob, CD’s and Videos, cellphones, tamales, impressively made fake branded clothing, any vegetable you can think of, and brightly painted chicks. As in baby chickens! Later, during my time in Xela, I asked the vendor why they get dyed, “Para Los niños.” (For the children) Came her response. Fair enough!

I have to admit that buying a pair of jeans that looked at felt like real Levis for the equivalent of $5.00 was rather tempting. However, more importantly, was to treat myself to a decent pair of shoes after living in flip flops during my time on the coast. I had actually lost my real shoes somewhere along the way, so I was now walking around this frigid, high-altitude city wearing my flip-flops. With socks. Not my finest moment!

Local traders come to the market each day wearing the traditional Mayan dress of brightly coloured, woven fabrics, balancing a basket on their head from which they vend their wares. Often they have only a limited grasp of Spanish, preferring instead to speak their indigenous tongues. There is a multitude of native languages in Central America which are mostly grouped under the collective banner of ‘Mayan’. However, by far the most commonly spoken one here in Xela is a language named ‘Q’iche.’ (Pronounced kee-chay)

After being buzzed through the doorway, I entered the Spanish school in which I would be spending my next 4 weeks. I was greeted by heavy wood flooring, a fireplace complete with high-backed leather chairs, and bookshelves full of English and Spanish literature and movies. This was going to be a good month! It may seem odd, but being sat here in this library which surrounds a colonial-style courtyard dedicated to quiet study and contemplation, once again woke the old man hidden deep inside me.

Sometimes it happens to me when that an old Victorian man comes to the surface and makes himself known. Show me a man who hasn’t dreamt back to the good old days, when to be an adventurer all you needed was a top hat, smoking pipe, hobnailed boots and a tweed jacket. Look at vintage black and white photos of Everest conquerors and South Pole trekkers, and you will see what I mean – no Goretex here!

The idea of spending my free time in this library sounded fun. Hours poring over stained maps and travel journals, drinking Guatemalan coffee right from the source, and planning hikes and treks through the jungle and over volcanoes all sounded fantastic. Now, where is my pipe?

I would be living with a local family, and so I was met by one of the young guys who walked me to my accommodation. This turned out to be a family-run restaurant, and I would be living upstairs in a charming room with en-suite bathroom. Also, there was a bar downstairs with beers on sale at a dollar each, and so my hopes of calm personal study and reflection were destroyed by the inevitable imbibing that was going to occur.

Living with the family served a purpose in that it was much cheaper than a hotel, and it also meant I would be surrounded by Spanish speakers all the time. The option of getting tired in the evenings and resorting back to speaking English didn’t exist. This is known as full immersion.

Monday to Friday mornings were spent sitting at a desk one-on-one with a teacher. The vast majority of the teachers spoke no English, and so lessons were conducted entirely in Spanish. I felt lucky that my Spanish was at a good enough level where I could communicate and interact with my teacher well enough to have useful lessons. However, I felt sorry for many of the beginners who spent the first couple of days being talked ‘at’ by their teachers without having a clue what was being said. Still, I have to admit I was impressed at just how quickly everyone developed a good level of Spanish, by week two, everyone was making fantastic progress.

Each session started with a casual, day to day style conversation with my teacher as a warm-up. My teacher often got carried away, however, and we would sometimes spend two hours talking about everything from politics, poverty, Siberian Huskies, Travel, SCUBA diving and more! Discussing SCUBA diving was of particular interest to me, and it was amazingly useful to have the opportunity to speak in Spanish to someone that had not even the faintest clue about diving. As a SCUBA instructor, the ability to convey lessons to a complete beginner in a foreign language is a massive strength and my continued practise of this will define much of my free time for years to come.

The second half of the lessons were spent doing the more traditional style of learning. Understanding grammar and learning vocabulary, not to mention the ability to use them both correctly and effectively. Each week began with an assessment to gauge my current level and understanding, and then a plan was drawn up to outline the goals and activities for the week ahead. By Friday, a second assessment would be carried out to see exactly how successful the week had been. Unfortunately, I am not the traditional type of learner, and within an hour of book study, my eyes would begin to droop, and regular trips to the coffee machine were in order.

However, my teacher was extremely accommodating and had a real knack of understanding learning styles, and instead allowed me to have more freedom in my learning. Although at this school, a student has the option of changing teachers each week if they wish, I opted to stay with mine throughout the month as we had developed a rapport. The lessons were benefitting me immensely as she knew exactly my strengths and weaknesses.

I had initially planned to spend a few more weeks there, and aim to complete my DELE examination to get a certificate of Spanish learning. This is an officially recognised qualification and demonstrates the holder’s ability with Spanish. The exam would have taken place in late August, but by mid-July, I had found work in Nicaragua, and they needed me as soon as possible. I, therefore, decided not to extend my stay in Xela, but with promises to myself and my new friends there that I would return again in the future.

I did a semi-official evaluation on my last day in the school and was placed at what is known as a level C2 fluency. I am not totally sure of the ins and outs of the various grades, but I am told it means that I can hold my own! I know that C1 level fluency is the highest level so I cannot have done too poorly.

Like any learner of a second language, I have fallen into the mostly un-avoidable trap of becoming a linguist and not a speaker. That is to say, I pretty much understand and can explain all the working rules of the language and have very high knowledge of the language itself. But, to become a genuinely fluent speaker, one must be able to communicate clearly and effortlessly with native speakers in a real-world style. For me, it will be valuable in the coming years to not get too bogged down in the names of tenses and grammatical rules, but to keep practising as much as I can to achieve my goals.

If anyone would like to do an immersive course in Spanish and think Xela would be a good option. I can very highly recommend Celas Maya as your school!

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