Quezaltenango (Xela), Guatemala

April 27th 2015, 1:12:00 pm

We arrived in Quetzaltenango, or Xela (pronounced sha-la) as pretty much every refers to it, quite late on a Sunday afternoon. Travelling in my usual manner, I showed up without having pre-organised my enrolment at the school, or a place to stay.

Rachel and Sarah had both pre-enrolled and were staying in a home stay organised through the school, Celas Maya, but being late on a Sunday I had my doubts about whether I'd be able to enrol to start the next day, but it turned out that wasn't a problem at all so we were all set to start the next day on most intensive class schedule I've done yet, 5 hours one-on-one a day, 5 days a week.

After my schooling was sorted I set out to find a place to stay. I ended up getting my own private room at a newly started hostel not too far from school, in an old colonial style house that had a big open courtyard in the middle.

I got an much earlier start the next day then planned, with a very strong earthquake hitting nearby at 5:30am that rumbled long enough for me to realise what it was, get out of bed and go stand in the door frame, and still have it keep shaking for another 15-20 seconds while I stood there in just my boxer shorts in the cold as everyone else in the hostel also appeared at their doors around the courtyard in various states of undress. An exciting start to Xela!

It was the middle of winter, and Xela is at a fair altitude, so mornings and evenings were actually quite cold, and the middle of the day would heat up and be almost hot, which meant I ended up dressing in layers and wearing zip off pants to deal with the big swings in temperature.

I got assigned a teacher named Joel, a friendly younger guy who was into photography, and would bring in photo books for us to look through and discuss the buildings and places he'd taken photos of. It was actually pretty cool.

At the start of the week we discussed the stuff I wanted to cover and worked out a basic plan for the tenses I wanted to work on and the areas he thought I should include, and then each day the lessons would be quite varied. Some days was entirely conversation, others I'd be working of a sheet of phrases and changing their personas and tenses verbally on the fly, another day he even had me listen to a song and try and work out the lyrics.

Rachel, Sarah and myself got permission to take our teachers with us to the market at San Francisco one day in place of classes so we could have a look around and ask questions.

We took a chicken bus there and then wandered around through the area where they sell animals and livestock. There was all sort of animals, pigs and piglets, sheep, cows, bunnies, cats, puppies, ducks, roosters and chickens and chicks. A lot of them were super cute, but it was a bit sad to see how some of them are handled, baskets full of chickens with a net tied over it to keep them in with there heads poking out.

We looked around the clothing and fabric section and saw a load of beautiful traditional Mayan fabrics in bright vibrant colours.

We visited a church that let us go up onto the roof to see the view. In the Central American way, there was no real safety or barriers; just us walking around on top of the big rounded rooftop.

We went through the food and produce section and saw the open sacks of grains and corn, often with big blankets covered in currently drying grains. Loads of delicious looking fruit, and questionable looking cooked seafood just sitting out in the sun.

I felt the more varied approach to learning at Celas Maya suited me way better than any of the other schools I'd been to, and that my Spanish improved more here than it did at any other point. It's easily the best school I've been to yet. By the end of the week though, I was feeling completely burnt out. Not so much by the challenge, but being an introvert and having to spend 5 hours a day having somewhat forced feeling conversation.

One afternoon, we went on an excursion with the school to some natural hot springs called Fuentes Georginas set high up in the hills. It was a beautiful site with lush green plants all around it, and the heat of the pools helped add to the mist that sort of hung over the place.

There were three pools of water, each a little cooler than the one before it. The hottest one I could barely cope with even just my knees in the water, the middle one was still too hot to be comfortable, and the coolest one was much better, but still too warm to stay in for long.

A lot of other afternoon I organised to take some private salsa lessons at a dance studio with a great teacher named Nestor. While other lessons I'd taken had focused entirely on actual dance steps, Nestor took the first lesson just to work on actual stepping techniques, balance and weight shifting and gave me some exercise drills to practice to try and develop smoother flow. It felt a lot more productive than than just being told "loosen up."

We did cover actual dance steps too, but instead of just teaching a sequence Nestor explained the ways to silently communicate to your partner what you're about to do. A gentle push to the hip here, raising a hand across their body, all sorts of subtle hints like that.

On the weekend we did two more excursions through the school, although Rachel, Sarah and I were the only ones who signed up so they were basically private tours.

One morning we met up at with our guide at school at 6am, and then got a colectivo over to the town at the bottom of the old volcano that contains Chicabal Laguna. We hiked up the long road through the forest to the rim of the crater were we had a lovely view of the Laguna.

We then went down a long flight to stair to get down to the edge of the Laguna and hiked around it before heading back up a different route and then back down the long road to town to get a colectivo back to Xela.

The other morning we were up at 4:15am to go and see Volcan Santiaguito, one of the most active volcanoes in Guatemala, often erupting every half-hour or so. We got a minibus to the start of the hike, then hiked for a few hours through fields surrounded by thick green forests to the lookout to Santiaguito.

It erupted quite soon after we arrived with a thick plume of smoke, and then after a slight delay there was a huge booming thunder as the sound of the eruption reached us. It was really quite impressive to see and hear from so close.

We waited for nearly an hour in the hope we'd get to see it go off again, but alas, it lay dormant after that first eruption, and we were all far too cold to want to hang around waiting much longer.