Title: Studying Spanish in Xela Location: Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
After my whistle stop tour of a few countries in Central America I decided that I was time to settle down and relax in the central highlands of Guatemala in the second largest city of the country. The city is named Quetzaltenango, (literally, "the place of the Quetzal". The Quetzal is the national symbol of Guatemala. It's a beautiful bird with an amazingly long tail. Renowned throughout Central America, it appears on the flag of Guatemala and even gives name to their currency. However, in one of life's more bitter ironies the Quetzal is fast disappearing due to deforestation and consequently the destruction of its habitat. Hence there are no Quetzals in "the place of the Quetzal" but I will diligently report back if I happen upon any) however, perhaps in recognition of the sad plight of the Quetzal most people refer to the city by its Mayan name of Xelaju or just plain Xela (pronounced shayla). In the past few years Xela has become renowned for its Spanish schools and as I am always heavily tempted by every nerdy pursuit I enrolled in a Spanish immersion school for 2.5 month. The spanish school I chose appealed to me because of its heavy political focus. Not only does the school provide Spanish language instruction it also offers an in-depth perspective of the struggles in the daily lives of Guatemalans an of the bitter civil war that lasted for almost 40 years which only came to a nominal end in 1996.
The school is involved in projects to better the living conditions of whole communities of Guatemalans and also employs several former guerillas who were active during the years of the war in resisting the systematic oppression and slaughter of Guatemala's indigenous and indigent peoples.
The teaching is 5 hours a day one-on-one and is intensive to say the least. I'm pleased to report back that my Spanish has improved in leaps and bounds during my time at the school.
Part of the experience with the school is living with a Guatemalan family and learning what day to day life is like for a normal (albeit slightly well off) Guatemalan family. My experiences with the families have been quite enlightening. My first family was indigenous Guatemalans who (it appeared) were ruled by a matriarch. They were very welcoming and also very keen to talk about Australia and the benefits of living there. Strangely, within my first week of being there I had to explain the Federal Government's Baby Bonus Scheme to the family as one of them had heard a rumor that the Australian Government paid large sums of money to people if they have babies. Once I confirmed that this was the case the whole family was hell bent on moving to Australia to enjoy the benefits of John Howard's social engineering.
The other thing that was interesting about this family was that they were Mormons. This made for some interesting conversations - during which I discovered that they all wanted to travel to the USA but only, and I mean ONLY, to visit Salt Lake City. They also had difficulty believing that I didn't have a religion (the second question I was asked - after "what do your parents do?" - and how do you explain to someone in broken Spanish that your folks are barely reformed hippies?) After about ten minutes of probing about where I went to church and what I believed in, I gave up and told them I was a member of the first church that popped into my head - consequently one family in Xela think that I am a lapsed Lutheran (whatever that means!).
Unfortunately during my stay with this family the son of the matriarch of the house died of cancer. This proved to be a difficult (and interesting) time in the house where I was privy to the grieving processes of Guatemalan Mormons (something I never, ever thought I would gain first hand experience of). In Guatemala they bury their dead very quickly and consequently within 24 hours of the son dying they had the funeral and buried him. This meant that as I went away for a weekend on a Saturday Morning all was fine in the house but when I returned late Sunday afternoon the son had been buried and I was now living in a house of mourning. I expected to see lots of flowers and cards around the house but none appeared. In fact everything went back to a fair degree of normality after just a few days.