Archive | February, 2011
February 23, 2011

Guatemalan Firsts: Spanish Lessons (2 of 3)

Guatemalan Firsts: Spanish Lessons (2 of 3)

During my four weeks in Guatemala I had lots of “firsts”. In this next series of posts, I’ll be taking a look back at these experiences. I didn’t cover a lot of ground, but I do feel that I got a pretty authentic experience and learned a lot about Guatemalan culture and a little more Español than I knew before.

My first post in the series is about my experience riding Chicken buses and eating too much fried chicken. This post is about my time spent at the Minerva Spanish School and Culture Center in Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela).

My School - Xela, Guatemala

Don Julio and his son greet the students each morning.

I’ve never taken one-on-one language classes before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the five-hour-a-day sessions. On top of this, I would be staying with a family who spoke little or no English. I’m not new to the idea of a host family. I’ve stayed in plenty of homes on choir tours in college, through CouchSurfing, etc. But, I can usually communicate fairly easily with my hosts. This time would be much different.

Sound a little scary? It was.

I met my host, Ana, on a Sunday afternoon. Needless to say, my Spanish hadn’t really improved during my week of sight-seeing in Gringo-filled Antigua and Lake Atitlan. Communicating with her was not easy. I still only knew how to speak very limited, present-tense Spanish. It didn’t help that my host was missing a few front teeth which made her pretty hard to understand.

I really couldn’t hold a conversation. Ana and I tried to exchange a few pleasantries as she showed me around the house, but she figured out pretty quickly how little I was comprehending. When she left me alone in my new bedroom, I freaked out a little. I took a few minutes to hyperventilate and ask myself why on earth I did this. I’d already paid for one full week, so I knew I was on for at least that long and felt a little trapped.

I pulled myself together and whipped out my Spanish-English dictionary with a mission. I began to try to compose at least one coherent sentence and re-learn some basic verbs. With a little difficulty, I made it clear to Ana that I was going to go out and take a walk. (It probably sounded more like “I go walk to see city.”) She told me that dinner was at 7:00 (I actually understood that part.) and my Spanish experience began!

Studying! - Xela, Guatemala

My first day of class only added to my anxiety. It was INTENSE, to say the least. Most of the teachers at the school were young and spoke a little English. Mine was a little older and spoke no English at all. I was not confident about my skills or optimistic about my prospects for improvement. Then, we took our first “tea break” and I met the other students.  They were a very fun group of girls that I got along with right away. My spirits rose a little.

Mis Amigas (y Champion) - Xela, Guatemala

Grace, Lindley, Bekah, and Mary. My Spanish school classmates.

By the end of the day I began progressing a little and got into “the zone” and I was in much higher spirits by the end of my first week. I’d been hanging out with my new classmates, salsa dancing, eating pupusas, drinking lots of coffee, and studying by booty off. It was good to hang out with other English speakers and share our experiences and apprehensions. We tried to practice a little, but mostly socializing with them really helped me to relax.

My teacher, also named Ana, seemed to think that I progressed pretty quickly, so in my second week, we stepped it up a notch. I started learning past and future verb tenses. I only spent two weeks studying at Minerva, but feel I got a very good “refresher” of the Spanish language.

I also loved my friendly host mom, Ana. She made some great food and took good care of me. Once I got over my initial apprehensions, I really enjoyed my time in Xela. With a little help from my dictionary, I’m even able to read the Sherlock Holmes story “The Redheaded League”. I never would have been able to do that a month ago. I’m still not great at conversing, but I can read and write enough to continue the progress on my own.

Senora Ana y Kim - Xela, Guatemala

I highly recommend this type of program to anyone who wants to learn Spanish. Guatemala was a great setting. The people are super-friendly, there are a plethora of schools to choose from, and it isn’t expensive. Quetzaltenango feels much more “real” than Antigua, so I really enjoyed studying there. There are fewer Gringos and you can really immerse yourself here. Just bring a coat. It’s freaking cold!

Thinking of studying Spanish abroad? Have you had a similar experience? Feel free to e-mail me or comment below with questions or tips!

February 13, 2011

Guatemalan Firsts (1 of 3): Pollo Loco!

Guatemalan Firsts (1 of 3): Pollo Loco!

I’m spending my last day in Guatemala in Antigua. Tomorrow I fly to Miami to meet Clark!

During my four weeks in Guatemala for about four weeks and had lots of “firsts”. In this next series of posts, I’ll be taking a look back at these experiences. I didn’t cover a lot of ground, but I do feel that I got a pretty authentic experience and learned a lot about Guatemalan culture and a little more Español than I knew before.

This first post is about something very near and dear to my heart…Chicken (both the fried and bus varieties).

First Pollo Campero

Pollo Campero - Antigua, Guatemala

This is the KFC of Guatemala and EVERYONE loves it (including me). The menu is pretty much the same as you’re average Church’s or KFC. But, the chicken is higher quality, incredibly juicy, and MUCH less greasy. (Sorry, Harold’s, I’ve found a new favorite!)

Pollo Camepero is the largest fast food chain in Latin America and can also be found in the U.S. in some Wal-Marts and even Disneyland! I probably ate there more times than I should have during my stay. They offer a pretty cheap sandwich combo-only 25 Quetzales (about $3) will get you a crispy chicken sandwich, fries (that are kind of soggy) and a drink. Not bad! I definitely recommend giving Pollo Campero a try!

If you want to avoid a fast food chain, there are also LOTS of local fried chicken options. I wasn’t aware of how popular this “dish” was in Guatemala. There is a little old lady frying chicken in the street on every other corner or a brightly colored Pollo Campero rip off on every block. Yum!

Fried Pollo y Papas - Antigua, Guatemala

Pollo Place - Antigua, Guatemala

First Chicken Bus

I’d heard so much about Chicken buses that I was very excited to jump on my first one as soon as I got into the country. Luckily, I didn’t have to go it alone, as that might be a little dangerous. I joined up with a Peruvian girl at Quetzalroo Hostel and we made the hour journey from the city to Antigua together.

Chicken Bus

The bus was a lot more comfortable than I expected. The drivers actually take pride in keeping their buses clean and freshly painted. Most of the people riding with us were families or workers heading out to “the burbs” after a hard day in the city. I didn’t feel unsafe. I did, however, keep my bag with me by my feet. I’m not quite ready to chuck it up on top of a bus yet.

Fried Bananas & Chicken Bus - Antigua, Guatemala

My second chicken bus ride was a little more eventful. Some of my fellow Spanish school chicas and I decided to spend the weekend at Lake Atitlan. (Yes, I returned to Hippielandia.)

We jumped on a chicken bus and thankfully survived the gut-wrenching two and a half hour ride. The incredibly winding through the mountains were tough to handle. Our bus driver could teach a thing or two to any Indian driver. I was amazed that our tires were staying on the ground as we took winding curves at 65 or 70 miles per hour.

Only one of us almost threw up…

Chicken Bus - Antigua, Guatemala

We also had a great “cultural” experience. Sitting directly behind me was a man who was chewing tobacco and spitting it out of the window. His tobacco infused spit then blew directly into the open windows behind him and onto the women sitting there. They complained, yelled at him, and even got a little physical.

He retaliated by calling them a variety of derogatory words and spitting as often as he could manage for the remainder of the ride. He also insisted on leaning over the poor little old lady next to him to talk to another guy across the isle. At one point a fight nearly broke out as one woman began slapping him in the face repeatedly and yelling at him. She moved as soon as she could.

I didn’t quite understand everything that was being said, but it was obvious that this guy was not popular with the entire back of the bus. While the shouting match and slapping was going on everyone turned around to stare. No one jumped in to defend the girls or old lady though. He was kind of a big guy.

At one point, we also heard the word “Americanas” and he presumably was speaking about us. Luckily, none of us had enough Spanish to understand what horrible things he was saying.

When he got off the bus about an hour and a half later, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and smiled at each other. We even high-fived the poor girls who kept getting spit on on their way out. It was bonding experience.

I highly recommend taking a chicken bus in Guatemala at least once. Especially if you only need to go an hour or two away. It’s totally worth the cheap price and lively experience.

However, the Chicken bus is not always safe. While I had no bad experiences, I have heard first hand accounts of robberies and even shootings on Chicken buses, even in some touristy areas. I suggest sticking to the quick, easy routes that you know are trafficked by many tourists. For instance, Guatemala City to Antigua is short and easy. If you keep your eyes open and are aware of your surroundings you’ll probably be just fine!

Chicken Bus - Antigua, Guatemala

Chicken Bus - Antigua, Guatemala

February 5, 2011

The Pursuit of Hippie-ness

The Pursuit of Hippie-ness

When I was planning my route from Antigua to Xela (Quetzaltenango), I asked the advice of fellow travelers and was told again and again that I must stop by Lake Atitlan. Two villages on this scenic lake were continually recommended to me: San Pedro and San Marcos.

After spending several, consecutive nights partying with backpackers, Habitat for Humanity workers, and Peace Corps volunteers, I was ready for some tranquility. After looking into both towns and hearing the opinion of lots of different people, I decided to go with the peaceful village of San Marcos. I only had a few days to kill before I had to be in Xela for class, so I thought I’d relax by the lake for a bit.

San Marcos La Laguana - Guatemala

The bouncy shuttle took me through tiny villages, winding roads, and up and down lots of hills until I finally reached the little town of San Marcos la Laguna. The view coming down from the mountains to the lakefront is absolutely beautiful. I’d heard that this is the place to go to relax, do some yoga, and meditate.

That was an understatement.

San Marcos is one of those places that oozes peace, love, and happiness. Everyone is wearing billowy pants, dangly jewelry, and flowing cotton. There was someone sporting dreadlocks or playing the guitar at every turn. In summary, Sarah Palin’s nightmare.

Around each corner is a business that specializes in meditation, healing crystals, yoga, massage, or rebirth. Many of the cafés and hotels have names like “Moon Fish”, “Unicorn”, or the word “Holistic” somewhere in the title.

San Marcos La Laguana - Guatemala

San Marcos La Laguana - Guatemala

Honestly, it was a little too “Dharma Initiative” for me. I like Bob Marley as much as the next girl, and I loved “60’s Day” in high school. I can down tofu and chug soy milk with the best of them, but this place was, like…far out.

I believe in shampoo. None of my shirts contain even trace amount of hemp. I enjoy yoga for the health benefits (my chi is just fine, thank you). I wear deodorant. I pluck my eyebrows. I’m traveling with a laptop, SLR camera, Kindle, iPod, and hair dryer for God’s sake!

Obviously, I stood out among the sea of dreadlocked, puffy pantaloned, incense sniffing longhairs. No offense…

Don’t get me wrong, each and every one was very nice and helpful. I even met a guy that looked just like “The Dude” who showed me the best photo spots around the lake. I got all kinds of great advice on how to get from one town to the next, which ATMs are the safest, what color soup one should eat to boost your positive energy, and what size crystal best aligns your Chakra. Useful stuff.

In all seriousness, I should probably keep an open mind about these things, and I’m sure I have offended a couple of our free-loving readers with my “evil chi”. I have decided I am either too cynical, or my healing crystal is too small.

Later that night, I ran into a few people I knew from Antigua, and we had a nice chat over mojitos. We listened to some live music and watched a fire dancer. They were also feeling rather “un-Dude” and were moving on soon.

San Marcos La Laguana - Guatemala

After my second night, I took the ten-minute boat ride to San Pedro. There was a little more happening across the lake, and the incense fog had lifted.

Even though the hippie scene wasn’t for me, no trip to Guatemala would be complete without Lake Atitlan. I would recommend both cities, depending on what you are looking for. San Pedro and San Marcos are both great bases to explore the other villages by boat.

The region is really beautiful and has a little bit for everyone. You can take weaving classes, watch fresh coffee being roasted (and then drink a cup, of course!), take a week-long meditation class, play pool with the locals, or finally have your Chakra aligned.

This is one groovy lake, baby.

Lake Atitlan - San Pedro, Guatemala

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