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Learning language and love in Guatemala’s highlands


This was my ninth time to Guatemala, a country I dearly love. I had visited Guatemala for yoga retreats, for Spanish classes, for archeological sightings, and for volunteerism. This time I wanted to do all of these, plus one more: I wanted to explore the country’s rich Mayan culture and indigenous pueblos.

Antigua, less than an hour’s drive away from the capital’s airport, is a calm and beautiful provincial city. The Central Park’s marimba bands jiggle away any worries from back home. Banana bread from Dona Luisa rivals the chocolate from Museo de Chocolate, just a few doors away. Fresh fruits and vegetables explode in the markets; whoever heard of four avocados for a dollar? No need to feel a bit homesick with the ex-pat gatherings and non-stop sports channels blaring at Mono Loco. Fiestas and parades pop up almost year round, with floats and marchers of all ages plopping over flowered alfombras. Cooking schools enhance one’s language skills as well as cooking abilities, with Frijol Feliz offering gourmet preparation and Guatemala Food extending a welcome into a typical home in the suburb of Jocotenango. (More information can be found at info@frijolfeliz.com and www.guatemalafoods.com) And the Spanish schools – they’re hard to beat in any other locale. Mainly, they offer one-on-one instruction so your mind can’t wander during verb conjugation. Some schools cater to youth and college age students, offering credits to their schools back home. “Atrape la pelota” (“Catch the ball”) can be heard ringing out from other schools that specialize in immersing children into language and fun. Many offer homestays where the families welcome their guests into their homes and spoil them with delicious homemade meals. Certainly in Guatemala, pollo (chicken) can be prepared a hundred different ways. This year I up-scaled my stay and language school experience in Antigua.

school grounds of San José el Viejo in Antigua

School grounds of San José el Viejo in Antigua

I stayed at a beautiful school, San Jose el Viejo, directly adjacent to the ruin with the same name. I opted for a casita, complete with private bathroom, kitchenette, exquisite furnishings, swimming pool/Jacuzzi, tennis courts, and tropical flowers of every kind decorating the property’s acreage. The staff provided breakfast daily before my 8 a.m. class with Paola. For four hours, she plodded away at correcting my errors, reminded me to insert articles, taught new vocabulary, played tour guide to museums and fiestas, and became a good friend, no matter what language one uses. San Jose el Viejo lies only three blocks from Central Park so it is easy to mix language lessons with cultural experiences and, another plus, it is only half a block away from a chicken bus stop where I would catch the bus to volunteer with Special Needs children I adore at Albergue Hermano Pedro in San Gaspar. (More information about the school and accommodations can be located at spanish@sanjoseelviejo.com. More information about volunteer opportunities at Albergue Hermano Pedro can be found at www.alberguehermanopedro.org/contactenos.html)

After spending a luxurious week at San Jose el Viejo, I took a three hour shuttle bus to Lago de Atitlan where I stayed at the village of Santa Cruz for the next week. Now, I would get a feel for the area’s Mayan culture. I still continued with Spanish classes in the morning at Santa Cruz Spanish School, staying at the hotel next door: Hotel el Arc de Noe. But I had the tour office downstairs from the school arrange activities in the afternoons that incorporated learning about the pueblo’s Kiche people and their language of Kaqchikel. My instructor, Luis, told me many stories of his parents and grandparents, the latter only speaking Kaqchikel. One day I shaped tortillas and filled maiz for a delicious almuerzo with Karina and her family. Two other afternoons I weaved a bufanda (scarf) under the loving guidance of her sister-in-law, Rosa. The patio chickens clucked at my work, her children wondered why it took me so long, and Rosa patiently smiled at my feeble attempts and ever-so-often re-wove a section or two to correct my flaws. (More information can be located at www.santacruzspanishschool.com.)

Amigos de Santa Cruz has greatly improved the lives of the indigenous people there over the past decade. Education is alleviating poverty and empowering people, and community members are taking responsibility for improving their communities. The women are noted for their beautiful crafts, displayed at the pueblo coop that sits high on the hill and jets outward to give an inspiring view of the lake. Upstairs from the store lies the restaurant where salads are pieces of artwork and the memories of the carrot cake entices me to return.

Another pueblo, about twenty minutes away via a lancha (lake boat) and highly recognized for its weaving coops is San Juan. Here, one finds incredible weaving products, from the long hand-woven skirts worn by the Mayan women to the huipiles (tunics) intricately embroidered in a rainbow of colors. San Juan is home to 35 weaving cooperatives consisting of anywhere from three to 75 women each. Most of them belong to the Mayan Tz’utujil people and were established to help preserve this art as well as provide a sustainable income. Girls learn to weave from their mothers from the age of eight. Demonstrations are held regularly at the cooperatives and take visitors through the process from preparing and spinning the cotton into the dying process and weaving onto a traditional back strap loom. San Juan also has a multitude of art galleries and coffee plantations, rich in the vibrant colors of the Mayans. And, of course, chocolate shops decorate the streets. After all, the Mayans worshipped the cacao tree and called chocolate the “food of the gods.”

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

At the opposite end of Lago de Atitlan sits the village of Santiago, the lake’s biggest and least-visited town. It takes a bit of effort to get there from Santa Cruz because it involves taking a lancha to Panajachel’s private dock, walking about six blocks to the public dock, and catching another lancha there for Santiago. But, it’s worth it. Maximon, the Mayan/Christian deity, plays a dynamic role in Santiago. His deity moves from house to house each year. Visitors can locate his whereabouts, especially if they come decked with cigarettes and booze to leave as an offering.

At the end of the week, I returned to the lush casita of Antigua’s San Jose el Viejo for more Spanish classes and cultural immersion. Then I joined the ALDEA’s Anniversary Celebration to venture into Mayan pueblos. My final day in Guatemala was a comedy of errors. It poured relentlessly. Our van had a flat tire. Our driver had to place tree branches on the muddy ground and shuffle passengers to the rear of the van to give sufficient friction to make it up village hills. And, yet, it was a tender day, filled with memories of hope and love. We visited groups of women who are taking empowerment into their own hands, with the guidance of ALDEA. They are instructing one another about nutrition, sanitation, pre-natal care, breast feeding, agricultural training, and spacing of their children. Illnesses are warded off because these pueblos are gaining clean water systems, water filters, sanitary latrines, goats for fresh milk, and vented stoves. Women in the pueblos elect providers to train one another, and they become the change agents and emerging leaders in their communities. (More information can be found at https://aldeaguatemala.org/)

When I was in Santa Cruz, I asked my teacher, Luis, to teach me a few words in Kaqchikel, knowing that I would be visiting the Mayan pueblos of Choantonio and Xesajcap. Appropriately so, he taught me “utz” for “food;” “xsegar” for “good morning;” and “matiox” for “thank you.” I shared these simple phrases with a few women who nodded. But one lady particularly holds a dear spot in my heart. It was in our last pueblo. She held her two children tightly in her arms and provided our group shelter in her small home from the pounding rain. I had an extra sandwich that I offered to her. My motions persuaded her that I truly wanted her to have it and so she accepted the gift. We shared smiles, sang to her children, and cradled them in our arms. When we left, I heard her say something that Luis had not taught me. I had to look it up as soon as I reached Antigua. Humbly, she muttered, “Rat ri qa Dios.” Translated, it means, “We’ll go on thanking you eternally.” This was her expression of gratitude to ALDEA for providing a means for her and her family and community to have clean water, nutrition, education, health, income opportunities, and a say in their future.

Indeed, travelling doesn’t get much better than this. Guatemala, in spite of its corruption and poverty, offers its visitors a wealth of opportunities to come to know its people, all the way from speaking Spanish to dabbling in one of its twenty-one Mayan languages. A dollar goes a long way to help its people learn to help themselves; and a smile and a hug enables us to call one another “family.” I reminisce upon this sweet mother who looked upon the sandwich as a banquet. For the tender memories she gave to me, I echo “Rat rig a Dios.”

Guatemalan woman with children

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