Central America | Guatemala | Highlands | Quetzaltenango ( Xela) – Thoughts on Xela
As night fell, I arrived at my new home for the next few weeks, or possibly months. My first views of Quetzaltenango (commonly called Xela) came as I arrived by minivan with my new helpful Guatemala City friends. I couldn’t distinguish it from other cities we had passed along the way. It seemed to be somewhat of a commercial town surrounded by mountains. The four-hour ride itself had been uneventful, as I guiltily caught some z’s as we passed through rolling hills of sugarcane fields.
That first night, we had dinner at a small restaurant off the Parque Centro filled with a mixture of a few gringos and locals. As we left to catch a taxi, the Catholic mass at the nearby cathedral let out to the sounds of marimba music played by local boys and men outside. The marimba is a well-known Guatemalan instrument which resembles a xylophone. We briefly listened with the crowd in the cool night air to the cheerful sounds. I was inspired more to bounce, rather than dance – marimba music has a carnival-like cadence to it, with none of the passion or sensuality of the salsa rhythms I’ve become accustomed to.
Now, it’s four days later, and I’m still adjusting to my new home. I have begun my studies at a Spanish language school, where less than a dozen students have enrolled to take individual Spanish lessons and live with a local Guatemalan family. The goal: total immersion in Spanish. Yo hablo espanol un poco, so I am not quite starting from scratch, but it is certainly very challenging. I meet with mi maestro, Tito, in the mornings to practice conversation (which is fun) and learn and memorize verb conjugation and vocabulary (which is not as fun).
I am slowly starting to explore Xela. I’ve been to el mercado – walking through mud, fields, crowded sidwalks and around piles of garbage (waiting for pickup or already at their final resting place?) to get there with my teacher. He led me through outdoor booths and inside to the ‘Mayan mall’, squeezing past different crowded stalls selling shoes, clothes, raw meat, etc. We waited as a Mayan vendor collected the items Tito needed for a Mayan ceremony – the only things I could really recognize were the dozens of candles – each color with a different significance.
It has been somewhat difficult to make full use of the afternoons to explore more because it is the end of the rainy season, so there is mucho lluvia. My first venture out to do e-mail and buy notebooks was during a storm which lasted all afternoon and night. No one seemed at all affected by the lakes that appeared in the intersections of avenidas and calles, nor by the waves that were created. I had to pick my walking route carefully so as not to get swept away in a freak gringa drowning accident.
The highlight of my few days in Xela so far was my experience yesterday at una escuela in a small pueblo outside Xela called Xeca. I took a bus with two other students to help teach English to Mayan youth. The bus ride was a small adventure in itself – something akin to riding a lumbering elephant as it attempts to locate its center of gravity. That’s really just during the slow maneuvering of giant potholes in the dirt roads. The rest of the ride was just bumpy, and I was actually very reassured that the bus driver had no qualms about using his horn – loudly – to warn oncoming traffic of our approach. In this very spiritual and religious country, I’m glad they don’t leave everything in God’s hands.
The school itself was a basic, concrete structure nestled in corn fields in the mountains. We each had a one-page lesson plan to guide us for the 45 minute class. The class was split up and I wound up teaching los chicos. They were surprisingly well-behaved for preteen boys, although they did a bit of whispering, which with my limited knowledge of Spanish, I could not translate. I’m sure they were discussing how intelligent and skilled I was – that’s what all boys say behind their teacher’s back, verdad? For the most part, they were very attentive and eager to learn. I wanted to stay longer to laugh with them and watch their innocent facial expressions as they searched for the right words to answer my questions, but we had to catch the bus back to town. Luckily, the program is every Wednesday, so I will have the opportunity to return every week.
Little by little, I’m discovering Xela. Since everything is so new, I am in a constant state of observation and discovery. Tonight, I’m going dancing with some other students at the Casa Verde – which should be an experience to report back on! Tomorrow, the students and teachers have dinner together at the school, and then the students bailan again at La Frata (which I very much hope is misnomer).