Guatemala Part I: Spanish Classes and Cultural Immersion in the Central Highlands of Quetzaltenango (Xela)

After wrapping up our time in Central America, flying home to the U.S. for a visit, and immersing ourselves in Thailand for a month, then wanting to write about our more recent experiences first, it’s finally time to document our travel adventures in Guatemala! We spent about two full months traveling overland throughout this country, and it was the most challenging-yet-rewarding journey as Spanish students and backpackers. In truth, I have been avoiding blogging about our time in Guatemala, mostly because it has the richest amount of meaningful content. As such, covering Guatemala will be rolled out in two separate blog posts: This is Part I of II.

Our time in Quetzaltenango, or Xela as it’s called locally, was very special to us. We met our teachers, who are native Spanish speakers, and fellow students, became familiar with our surroundings, and experienced cultural and language immersion. We have such an affinity for our teachers, Claudia, Luis, and Selvin, and the people we met. We got to be comfortable in an apartment for an extended period of time, unpacking and taking a break from living out of our backpacks. The tradeoffs were, primarily, being regularly conscious of our surroundings, not venturing too far just the two of us or solo due to safety concerns, and for me, an intestinal infection that I ultimately needed antibiotics to rid myself of.

Arrival

This was our longest, most challenging overland travel day yet (nine hours, door-to-door)! It started in a transit van from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, to the Mexican/Guatemalan border. As explained at the end of our San Cristobal blog post, we had an alarming, rushed start to the day due to our driver unexpectedly arriving half an hour early (yes, in Mexico, where nothing else, in our experience, came early; good thing we had done most of our packing before we went to sleep the night before)! It took about a couple of hours to get to the border, once the driver picked up all of the passengers and stopped for a quick breakfast at a restaurant en route (which of course, we weren’t informed of in advance, so we had brought our own snacks for the day and didn’t have much left in the way of pesos to prepare for this meal we would have preferred — we ended up with a plate of sliced, fresh papaya, which was better than nothing).

Once at the border, we noticed a large, public gathering in the streets for what we discovered was to recognize and celebrate the Mexican Revolution of 1910. At first, having yet to cross a border overland and approaching so many people, we thought this could be a crowd waiting to cross the border (and could not even fathom how long it would take us)! We were relieved when we realized it was not the case. We piled out of the van to go through the Mexican border control process to exit the country. In the transit van, our driver had given everyone a head’s up that we each had to pay $900 MX (about $50 USD) to leave Mexico if we’d been in the country for a certain amount of time (which as it turns out, only applies to those who enter the country overland; since we had flown in, that amount was covered in the cost of our plane tickets). There was quite an engaging discussion about this in the transit van among passengers, about who was going to refuse to pay it and who was going to pay it. It’s notable that in preparation to leave Mexico and enter Guatemala, where there is a different currency in place (quetzales), most everyone had little left in the way of pesos. When it was our turn to meet with the border patrol agent, sure enough, he tried to insist that we needed to pay the tax. (All of this conversation happened in Spanish). We explained that we had flown into the country and thus had already paid it. He disagreed with us, insisting to see our plane tickets to prove this, which we, of course, didn’t have (and since our phone had been stolen in Guanajuato, we didn’t have an electronic version readily available to pull up). We showed him our travelers visas the agent we interacted with at the airport in Mexico City provided to us and instructed us to retain and produce upon exiting the country, which should have been enough documentation. After some back and forth and stalling on his part, he asserted that in the future, we need to provide our plane tickets, and then he let us go without pressing us to pay further. Unfortunately many of our fellow passengers had to pay, as they either entered the country by land or didn’t communicate effectively with the agent. Thank God for knowing (enough) Spanish and that he eventually decided to let us go without paying (really, we showed him what we were instructed to, so there was no need for him to see our actual plane tickets to prove further to him that we arrived by plane, which he could already see from that piece of paper and the entry stamp in our passports).

We physically walked ourselves and our belongings across the border as a group and entered the Guatemalan border patrol office to undergo their entry procedure. The Guatemalan border patrol office was empty when we arrived, to our pleasant surprise. We thought we’d get through and be on our way quickly. Prior to our arrival, Aaron had read in our guidebook that they would try to charge us a “tax” to enter the country (which the agents just keep for themselves, under the table), so to ask for a receipt. We were the first of our group to enter the office and hand over our passports for review, and when asked to pay, I asked for a receipt (again, our conversation was all in Spanish). In response, the agent communicating with us walked our passports over to another agent at a desk, and they held onto them, keeping us waiting, until most everyone else had their turn and had left. They then returned our passports to us, stamped, and sent us on our way (no further mention of the “tax” we supposedly owed). We felt pretty pleased with ourselves for getting through without paying the fake “tax”; the only other person in our group who wasn’t asked to pay the tax was an indigenous woman from Guatemala. One of our fellow passengers wasn’t as lucky, as he gave the last of his currency to the Mexican and Guatemalan border patrol agents at a terrible exchange rate.

We discovered we had to wait for a transit van filled with passengers coming from Guatemala to arrive, and for its passengers to complete their process with the border patrol agents to be able to leave Guatemala, before we could ourselves continue on our overland transit journey. Yes, we also found out while in the midst of this process (and not ahead of time) that our two vans would be swapping passengers (which makes sense given that the drivers are from Mexico and Guatemala, respectively, and wouldn’t continue driving into the other’s country). After waiting for over an hour as patiently as we could, our backpacks were tossed onto the top of our new transit van (yes, this was our introduction to our belongings riding above us rather than inside the vehicle with us, minus each of our handbags with our valuables, of course) and we were off.

Along the multi-hour journey, what stands out most in my mind are the curvy, bumpy roads (there were many potholes the driver had to swerve around, and there were periodic speed bumps we approached suddenly, as he was driving fast, and as a result, he abruptly applied the brake pedal to try to prevent flying us from over them). It was warm, and there were quite a few people in that van with us. My stomach issues (and resulting, not always making itself known with much advance notice, diarrhea) had resurfaced recently around this time in our travels, so my stomach was already feeling a bit off on top of becoming queezy from driving on curvy roads in the mountains; at least the driver stopped a few times throughout the day for rest and bathroom breaks! 🙂 Looking out the window, I remember seeing trucks we passed filled with people standing up and holding on in the truck bed. It truly stuck out to me like a sore thumb, as this is not something I’d been accustomed to seeing back at home. This appeared so unsafe to me, and I internally noted to myself that I would not be one of those people during our time in Guatemala (hahaha, oh, how the realities of overland travel in Guatemala became evident to me soon after we left Xela; I later realized that if I wanted to get where I was going, I had no choice in the matter, as the knowledge that I would be riding in the back of a pickup truck often confronted me in the moment with little advance warning). In Guatemala, however, this sight blends in, as it’s a normal, practical, cheap means of transportation; locals don’t seem to question or be phased by it.

The transit van from the Guatemalan border took us, hours later, to a random gas station near Xela, at which point, we were directed by the driver to get out and get into a car with a random guy, as everyone staying in the van would be continuing on to Antigua and San Pedro (Lago de Atitlan). It felt a little sketchy, but also like this is how things are with overland travel here, and we had no choice but to trust and go with it. This ended with about a 20-minute car ride with another couple also going to Xela (they were a really nice British couple going to Xela to take Spanish language lessons, too). I kept my window cracked to breathe in the outdoor air, as I still wasn’t feel too great after our long day cooped up in the van. We were thrilled to be dropped off right at the doorstep of our Booking.com accommodation for our first night in Xela, a guest house. After our nine-hour overland travel day, initial impressions were that we were tired, hungry, and looking forward to experiencing another consecutive destination with cooler weather (after San Cristobal), which is what we’d normally encounter back at home in the midst of November. Our plan was to shower and rest on our first night and then spend the next day finding a suitable apartment for us to live in for the following two (or more) weeks, as we had selected our Spanish language school but hadn’t yet secured a longer-term place, and we were fairly certain we’d want to extend our time (which we ended up doing).

In the early evening, we walked through the central part of town to Sabor de la India, a restaurant the guest house owner recommended to us. We stopped at an ATM on the way back to pull out quetzales for the first time at a grocery store we later frequented often. We laid eyes upon and walked through the small yet quaint Central Square, Parque a Central America officially, but also called Parque Central, for the first time. Afterwards, a warm shower and clean, comfy bed felt so good! We were in bed by 8:00 p.m. and enjoyed a full, 12 hours of solid sleep that night (our bodies must have really needed it to recuperate)!

The next day, we explored the main part of town near the park a bit more, including the adjacent Central Market (Mercado Municipal), and stopped by our likely Spanish school, of which we’d been communicating with representatives from via email, to obtain more information in-person before finalizing and introduce ourselves. It was clear they already had planned on us committing and invited us to fill out basic paperwork in advance of our first day the next day. As it turns out, they were going to have their weekly overview presentation of events for the week shortly after we’d arrived; willing to uphold the pricing we found on their website, and given their warm welcome upon receiving us (Gracias, Veronica!) and through this meeting, we were in!

As far as our apartment search, Aaron had done some research in advance and had a couple of potentials in mind for us to check out in-person that day. If those didn’t work out for us, we’d walk around and see what we saw near our school, ask for recommendations, or do more research. It was obviously ideal for us to have a place selected, and move in, before starting school the next day. We ended up choosing the first apartment complex we looked at after walking through several of their open apartments in various price ranges and sizes. We got a great discount by staying multiple weeks, but the tiered system made no logical sense to us: The first week was the equivalent of about $180 USD, the second week about $120 USD, the third week about $60 USD, and then a full fourth week would have jumped up to about $100 USD (we stayed for three-and-a-half weeks, so our pricing was funky for that last week).

Like our hoodies? We bartered for good deals on them at a local vendor market, Mercado Municipal (I got a slightly better deal on mine). 🙂 Here we are in our room at Casa San Bartolome, the guest house we stayed at for our first two nights in Xela.

Our apartment complex, Casa XelaJú, is also a Spanish school. It’s just a few minutes walking distance from SISAI Spanish School, where we took our one-on-one Spanish language lessons. This was HUGE for us, as it was the longest amount of time we’d spent in ONE place since starting our long-term travel journey in August 2016! It felt spacious and comfortable for our needs during our extended stay. To boot, our contact in the front office, Gilda, was very warm, friendly, and helpful. We appreciated her time and patience to communicate with us in Spanish and help further our development in the language with practical application during our time in Xela. On our first day of school, we walked across town from our initial accommodation at Casa San Bartolome, with our backpacks, and stored them there until after our lessons; we then walked over to our new apartment complex to get our keys, unpack, and get acquainted with it.

These chairs weren’t the most comfortable to sit in for prolonged periods of time, but we appreciated having them as a change from staying in recent places where we only had a bed to relax on in our accommodation. A couple of my favorite memories in our apartment are crocheting and watching TV in Spanish (especially little kid shows and movies, because I felt they were perhaps more at my level and generally easier to understand, although the speech was still pretty fast at times).

View from the small balcony outside of our front door
View from our kitchen window
Sunset view from our balcony

Spanish School

We improved tremendously in our Spanish language abilities through participating in our one-on-one Spanish classes. We are so glad we dedicated the time to it and only wish we would have done so sooner, as we were already a couple of months into our time in Spanish-speaking countries by the time we had arrived in Xela. We had initially planned to look into taking Spanish language classes in Mexico City, but when we did, they were way too expensive for our budget. We had heard from multiple sources that Guatemala was the best place to learn Spanish, not only for the more affordable prices, but because Guatemalans speak a bit slower, are more patient with those learning, and are easier to understand than Mexicans, for example, which we found to be the case in our experience, too. There is also a large Mayan indigenous population living in Xela, of which many (although not all) speak Spanish as a second language, so we found it fairly easy to interact and practice our Spanish with them. Finally, the quality of the instruction is clearly better in an individualized, versus a group, setting, and we were comparing one-on-one class instruction offered primarily in Guatemala to the group instruction offered commonly in Mexico.

Advance research went into which Spanish language school to choose, as there are so many, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the options and not know what to base the decision upon. I found a great forum with feedback and suggestions from others who had attended Spanish language schools in Guatemala and heavily relied upon it as a base for narrowing it down to not only the city, but specific schools, too. Essentially, Antigua, Lago de Atitlan (in San Pedro and Panajachel), and Xela appear to be in the top three as far as places. In fact, we could have committed to a school in any of these areas and found what we were looking for, as we ended up visiting all three areas and they are certainly all suitable environments for learning Spanish. (We actually went to a school in Antigua, Cambio Spanish School, to meet with individual teachers for a few hours one afternoon during our week-long visit). We chose Xela, mainly, because we thought we’d have the most opportunity for immersion outside of class, the most authentic experience. Non-locals typically go to Xela with the intent to study Spanish, volunteer, and/or hike volcanos in the remote Central Highlands; there aren’t many tourists, thus most locals we interacted with did not speak English and we needed to rely on our Spanish from a practicality standpoint. In contrast, Antigua and Lago de Atitlan are popular tourist destinations in Guatemala, and thus, most people speak English in those places, so got the impression that we’d have to be the ones to make the effort to speak Spanish for the most part (we later experienced this ourselves). Generally, the cost living and classes were less in Xela than in Antigua and Lago de Atitlan, and the vibe of Xela resonated more with us. Plus, for Aaron anyhow, there was the appeal of being able to get out in nature and do some volcano-hiking (for me, I thought it would be a cool, unprecedented experience living in a place surrounded by them as a backdrop).

Although we had such a positive experience the way we did it (renting a private apartment nearby and self-catering), we definitely see the benefit of staying with a host family the school can place you with (which some of our fellow students availed themselves of, and the school has separate packages priced that include homestay options, based on the number of meals you choose to have provided). It is truly total immersion if you stay with a host family, especially if you go as an individual rather than as a couple. Our learning curve was higher given that we stayed on our own and we mostly spoke English to each other in our free time outside of classes and school activities. BUT we did make an effort to speak only Spanish to one another at certain times of the day, and taking these classes in Xela — being the more local, non-touristy community that it is — we were forced to use our Spanish more often than we would have if we’d been living in Antigua or Lago de Atitlan.

We chose SISAI Spanish School because of the detailed, raving reviews of it on the forum I mentioned. Those who had gone with SISAI loved their experiences with the educated, fun teachers through the one-on-one lessons and the opportunities to learn about and be exposed to real Guatemalan culture and life (which we experienced through informational lectures and organized activities outside of class). The school has also been around for quite some time (since 1989). Perhaps we’re biased, but we think we ended up in the best school with the best teachers!

I was paired with Claudia, and Aaron was paired with Luis until our last week, when he then met with Selvin; we gave short notice about our intentions to continue the final week, and Luis was already paired with a new student. I looked forward to my time with Claudia so much! She and I had a lot in common (even our birthday!) and found conversation and sharing about one another’s lives easy and enjoyable. We became fast friends. She was a patient, comfortable, and effective teacher for me. (Te extraño mucho, Claudia!) Aaron and Luis seemed to be a good match and have a good time together as well, and the same for Aaron and Selvin (they’ve had similar experiences as government budget analysts and spent much time conversing about comparitive public policy issues).

Twice per week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, we took an (optional) break from our one-on-one instruction to hear a presentation (in Spanish – Wednesdays translated into English by a more advanced student, and Fridays without translation) about an interesting topic that relates to Guatemala. We learned about the history of the gangs (las maras), their presence in concentrated areas of the country, and their strong influence on public officials and private citizens. We learned about the education system. We learned about the celebrations leading up to Navidad in the Catholic tradition. We learned about immigration and emigration (into and out of) the country.

The school had more after-class events each week than we had anticipated, more than we initially wanted to participate in merely because we were already dedicating our time from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Monday through Friday (with a half an hour break) to our one-on-one lessons themselves, in addition to setting aside time to complete our homework outside of these hours. We thought there would be an extra-curricular activity a couple of times per week at most, but there was something every day except for Sundays! Since enrollment was a bit lower at the time of year we were there, we felt some pressure to participate in everything. But, we usually chose a few activities each week that were of most interest to us. They were all great opportunities to learn more about Guatemalan culture and/or sight-see together, often practicing our conversational Spanish more outside of class (the teacher responsible for leading the activity almost exclusively did so in Spanish, so we especially had more of a chance to develop our verbal listening and comprehension skills). Activities we participated in included a historical tour of the area surrounding the Central Square; a hands-on textile demonstration hosted by Asociación de Mujeres del Altiplano (AMA), which is comprised of indigenous women working in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, at Pixantheir fair trade textiles workshop and retail store; a hike on an inactive volcano, La Muela, which means, “The Molar” (you’ll see it resembles a tooth molar in the photos); a visit to the small town of Salcajá to see the church of San Jacinto, the oldest church in Central America, taste the home-produced alcoholic liquor, caldo de frutas, and witness La Quema del Diablo (The Burning of The Devil) tradition on December 7th; a local soccer match; a screening of the San Simon documentary; and my personal favorite, joining Luis’s dance group practice for a salsa and bachata lesson (this was my first time taking a dance lesson with Aaron, and Latin dance at that — I was thrilled)! We also helped prepare for and participated in the school’s annual “Mama Santa” event.

Historic Tour

Parque a Central America (Parque Central)
Catedral de Espiritu Santo – Part of it had been restored, which was a visual contrast from what was original
Museo de Historia Natural (formerly a prison)

Casa No’j – A cultural center for arts, meetings, and events
Teatro Municipal (Municipal Theater)

Textile Demonstration

Aside from a hands-on explanation and demonstration of a type of textile production, it was interesting to learn about traditional Mayan indigenous dress. Each piece of clothing has its meaning and purpose: The corte (skirt), faja (belt), head wrap or headband, and huipil (women’s blouse). The embroidery on a huipil tells a story of Mayan culture and tradition and represents a particular geographic area and Mayan language (of which there are over 20 in Guatemala)! These colorful trajes (outfits) are hand-made and detailed; they are easy to admire and upon close inspection, one can imagine and appreciate how many hours go into producing just one (especially after trying our hands at the process for making a scarf). While the focus was on women’s clothing, there is certainly traditional traje for indigenous Mayan men, too.

Afterwards, we browsed through their onsite shop, which in addition to scarves and headbands, displayed handbags featuring traditional embroidery. One of our fellow students even got measured for a custom-made corte. Unfortunately, because of how long and light Aaron and I are traveling, we were unable to make many of the handmade item purchases we wanted to in order to bring some gifts and souvineers home and support the work of these skilled artisans. We did pick up a jar of homemade jam to pair with some all-natural peanut butter we stumbled upon to make PB&J, which we hadn’t had since our cross-country U.S. road trip! (By the way, PB&J is totally an American thing; we shared what it was with our students in Tehuantepec, and they’d never heard of it but thought it sounded gross).

While Mayan languages, culture, and tradition are fascinating and a visitor to Guatemala will undoubtably, naturally notice and be drawn initially to their beautifully striking style of dress, sadly, it is also important to know that they have struggled a long and dark history of being massacred, forced to defend their land and preserve their customs and way of life. Although they make up about 40% of the population in Guatemala, they are among the poorest economically and still face political oppression today, fighting for basic human rights. (The majority of Guatemalans are Ladino, or those of Spanish descent, and Mestizo, or indigenous mixed with those of Spanish descent.) A major issue the indigenous people encounter within their community is the difficulty of communicating among their indigenous groups (remember, there are over 20 indigenous languages spoken, so if you are indigenous, unless you speak Spanish as a second language or have another common language with an indigenous person from another group, imagine the challenge in organizing, and furthermore, having your voice heard on a larger, public platform). Organizations like AMA and workshops like Pixan create a space for Mayan women to come together, start and grow their businesses, and provide them with the resources they need (e.g. outreach, marketing) to be able to earn a fair wage for their work to feed their families. 

Aaron giving the back-strap loom a try with Luis intently watching

La Muela Hike

Our hike to La Muela was a challenging one for me. It was my first go at physical activity while on the road to recovery from my intestinal infection, so my body and stamina were pretty weak and having difficulty keeping up with the rest of the group (I was the last one in the pack for most of the hike). That being said, I’m glad I went to participate in this activity with our fun and friendly group of students and Luis, as we enjoyed conversation with Lynne and Judith along the way. Aaron was thrilled to finally have a chance to get out in nature, as his attempts up until this point had been thwarted by (mainly) concerns about it not being safe for him to go out and explore solo, but also caregiving for his ill wife.

We met outside of our school and walked, led by Luis, to pile into a van, which dropped us off at a spot where we could catch the “Chicken Bus” (more on this later in this post). Once we got off of the bus, we began walking towards the trailhead and were stopped by a truck of police officers. Luis interacted with them and it became clear that two of them would be accompanying us on our hike. (We later learned this was arranged in advance, but in the moment, we were all thinking — except Aaron, who says he knew — that they randomly happened to be there, intercepted us, and wanted to come along for some reason, perhaps to make sure we weren’t making any trouble and were truly just hiking; they were actually there for our own protection and safety, as there had been recent reportings of robberies in remote areas such as this surrounding Xela).

We passed fields of farmland and flowers, walked through a soccer field, encountered a horse tied up (which one of the officers set free when we passed it again on our way back) near a traditional Mayan natural sauna, or temazcal, and climbed many steep rocks uphill. I had snot pouring out of my nose with no where to wipe it but on my own shirt. I felt, at many points, that I could barely catch my breath, and my heart was pounding so strong and hard that I could feel and hear it. I don’t like being last, lol, but I’m just glad I got through it and made it to the top to take in these amazing views with everyone.

La Muela — Note the molar-like shape

Photo credit: Lynne Haynor

It was on my short “bucket list” for our trip to hike a volcano in Central America. For various reasons — including falling ill; spraining my ankle and dealing with its pain, soreness, and delicacy in the healing process; and those accessible from our future travel destinations being beyond my perceived ability level — I did not get the chance to hike another. To be honest, I didn’t even realize this hike was to a volcano in advance! Was it inactive? Yes, but most volcano hikes tour companies offer do not actually take you to see a live eruption anyway (although lucky for Aaron, his did)! It will have to do and still counts in my book.

My Papou (Greek for “grandfather”) had passed within just days prior to our hike (actually, I believe it was the day before), so naturally, I was feeling contemplative and reflective about his life and its impact on mine. Where this hike led us, overlooking Xela from an above-the-clouds perspective, evoked feelings of peace and acceptance for me. I thought how neat it was that his soul had been set free from his body and mind, which was physically confined to his wheel chair because he could no longer support his own body weight and was very weak, and was suffering from dementia for the last many years of his life, often living and fixating on the realities he experienced in his mind and not able to grasp and remember much short-term beyond a few moments. He could now go wherever he wanted, watch from above what his living loved ones are up to. I hoped, and even felt, he was there with me in that moment, understanding for perhaps the first time where I am and what I’m doing as a part of our long-term travel journey, of which in multiple ways, I’m able to do because of him. I hope he’s proud of me for what I’ve chosen to do with my life opportunities, such embarking upon this once-in-a-lifetime adventure with my husband.

La Quema del Diablo

Apparently, at 6:00 p.m. on December 7th, as a part of the festivities leading up to Christmas, families who celebrate and local communities throughout Guatemala create a bonfire (usually of trash — which actually, happens all the time in Guatemala anyway) to signify burning Satan, the evil, lurking spirit, and cleansing their homes of him and resisting his influence. While we did not witness this, as we were a bit ahead of the time for it, we did experience the fun, locally-renouned tradition in Salcaja where young men dress up (and paint themselves) as devils (and other ghoulish characters) and parade through the streets. It was quite the spectacle!

Iglesia de San Jacinto

As you can see, many of those dressed up as devils really like to pose for their spectators!

Aaron loves to say that I was sadly unable to resist the temptation of the devil.
The aftermath – It was a messy clean-up later (I even had paint stuck in my ears!), and the distinct smell of that acrylic paint on my purse and water carrier lingered for quite some time! We bought the shirt and pants we wore from a local market specifically for this event, as we were warned this could happen (but I was, for some reason, the chosen one). 🙂

Soccer Match

Aaron attended this event solo while I caught up on some blogging. Here’s his account of his experience:

Fernando, the school’s co-director, took a handful of students to take in a soccer match at Estadio Mario Camposeco. The local soccer club, Xelajú, was taking on their rival, Antigua GFC. In Guatemala, as in most countries in the region, soccer, or fútbol as it’s known there, is the king of sports. During the season, much of the small talk, especially among the male population, is about how the local soccer club is faring. It was evident from the match we attended that the fans are well informed and passionate. They knew all the names of the home team players and shouted encouragement (as well as constructive criticism) in unison according to their performance on the pitch. They also knew the opposing players well, unfortunately for them. Hecklers seemed to know just the right line of attack for each opposing player. At one point, the star forward for Antigua was mercilessly ridiculed for doping allegations (evidently he had recently tested positive for performance enhancing drugs). Of course, general pejorative curse words were also sprinkled in liberally. My repertoire of Spanish invectives increased that night by multitudes. Overall, it was mostly good-natured fun in a lively and festive atmosphere. As a bonus, the home club prevailed 3-0 and everyone left in high spirits.

San Simon Documentary

While Elena was recuperating from her illness, I attended a screening of an excellent documentary produced by a former SISAI student called, “Maximon, Santo o Diablo”. The film examines the controversial Mayan deity Maximon, also known as San Simon. Outsiders tend to be fascinated by the superficial rituals surrounding San Simon. In particular, the practice of venerating his effigy, which resides in a different local residence every year, is noteworthy. His effigy, which is decorated with a cowboy hat, bandana, sunglasses, and other cowboy-style clothing, is presented with booze and cigarettes, as well as other more traditional offerings like candles and flowers. Personally, I was more fascinated by how the evolution of the deity was influenced by the interplay between the indigenous Mayan population and the conquering Spanish colonialists. The origins of the deity are shrouded in mystery and subject to various interpretations. However, most historians agree that the Maximon existed in some form before the Spaniards arrived. It also seems clear that the Catholic church undertook a bit of cultural appropriation in adopting Maximon as a saint (thus the origin of the name San Simon and his Ladino appearance) as a tactic in their strategy of converting the local population to their version of Christianity. However, much to the chagrin of the modern church, Maximon has not been fully assimilated into Christian traditions. For example, it is believed by Mayans what San Simon embodies both good and evil. As such, worshippers appeal to his powers for nefarious ends (such as cursing an unfaithful lover or rival business owner) as well as more noble pursuits (like curing illness). It strikes me that the history of San Simon is, in some respects, a microcosm for the broader tensions resulting from the amalgamation created when two very different cultures, the Spanish and the Mayan, collided to form the fabric of the modern nation state of Guatemala.

Latin Dance Lesson

It was neat to be able to take a salsa and bachata dance lesson from Luis! The class started with a warm-up of reviewing basic steps individually, facing the mirrors, to the music. We were then split into two different groups on opposite sides of the room: Luis’s dancers (so they could practice their own choreography and flare) and SISAI Spanish School students. We rotated partners throughout the class to mix things up and get a chance to practice with more than one person. My favorite memory was Luis observing Aaron’s moves, and being pleased with him getting the steps right, and commenting, “Siiiii, pero más sexy“, which translates to, “Yesssss, but more sexy”! Hahaha!

Mama Santa

Our Spanish school hosts an annual celebration for the kids whom proceeds from students’ tuition goes to support for their own education locally. This event happened to take place during our first week in Xela and at the school. We helped prepare for this event by wrapping and sorting donated gifts and hand-delivering pizza from the vendor making them in the alleyway next to the school. It was well-attended and a great way to spend our time just after Thanksgiving, or Día de Gracias (which is obviously not celebrated in this part of the world, but recognized), in lieu of being bombarded by commercialism in the U.S.

Full house
To kick off the event, “Mama Santa”, a prior student of the school from the U.S. who collects donations and returns annually to present them, makes her appearance!
Hot pizza, coming right up!

Navidad-Themed Celebration

Our last day of school happened to match up with the weekly Friday evening celebration they host for new and departing students. The theme was Navidad (Christmas), and we were asked to wear something festive. Since we had so little with us in our backpacks and didn’t want to purchase anything new, the best we came up with was wearing our red and green colors and beanies. Kindly, one of our fellow students gave me a paper snowflake necklace she made, too. Well, those who were not festive enough had to dance. Lucky for me, my favorite reggaeton jam of the moment, “Shaky Shaky” by Daddy Yankee, was played for Aaron and I. We boogied down!

We were a bit sad to say goodbye to our teachers and fellow students we had gotten to know. But we’re so fortunate to have had this experience and will remember it forever! We hope to be able to return someday to visit the school to catch up with our teachers, take more lessons, and participate in more activities.

Me and Claudia
Luis, Aaron, me, Claudia

Cuisine

Dining out wasn’t a highlight for us while in Xela. There are a handful of restaurants that come to mind that were okay.

Sabor de la India had decent Indian dishes, although the Naan had a more greasy-yet-dry dough-y consistency, and the dishes were sort of bland compared to what we’re accustomed to. However, it had been so long since we’d had Indian food (since visiting Canada back in September 2016, to be exact), so we were happy to have it available to us! This is where we enjoyed our first meal in Xela after a long overland travel day to get to Xela, so a warm, filling plate of comfort food was just what the doctor ordered! What we really liked about Sabor was that they produce and sold plain, take-away (what many places outside of the U.S. refer to as “to-go”) yogurt by the liter and half-liter, which we loved mixing with granola when preparing our own breakfasts at our apartment throughout our time in Xela.The second restaurant, which is on my list and not Aaron’s, is El Cafetal Altense. Particularly, their staff was extremely welcoming, friendly, and service-oriented, they serve a variety of chai milk teas that are the same brand I enjoy back at home, and they have a traditional breakfast dish I liked and ordered a few times (although I did have issues on subsequent visits with finding a hair in my food, the refried beans being cold, and just not liking it as much as the first time). There was also a neighborhood power outage on the Sunday morning of one of our return visits, so while they were open, our options were very limited (completely understandable and not within their control). In this part of the world, you cannot be too picky about food, other than making the best choices you can when it comes to it most likely being prepared and stored sanitarily (which, by the way, doesn’t always result in avoiding illness, but it’s also the reason we avoided eating street food altogether).

Refried beans, juevos rancheros (a style of cooked eggs; it had some kind of delicious salsa over the top that tasted a bit like a sweet spaghetti sauce to me), and fried platanos (a type of banana) with chai tea

We dined at Xela Green, which features vegetarian dishes (of which felt light and healthy, but not particularly filling), for lunch once. We also checked out Tan Lechuga Yo and enjoyed its fresh ingredients, although not too flavorful; there are only a few places to sit inside, so on our first attempt with no open spots, we decided to try another time (with success).

Mandarina, we liked mostly because the co-owner is an Australian woman who was very kind to us, communicating with us in Spanish to help us practice; however, we did enjoy having fresh wraps filled with produce and ended up returning for a few bags of granola to mix with Sabor‘s yogurt throughout our time in Xela for our breakfasts at home. We also appreciated her putting her chef up to baking a French baguette for us; though it didn’t quite turn out as we’re used to (it was pretty bad, actually), we had realized that the types of bread we crave are just not a thing in Xela [however, we were fortunate to find some decent pan integral (whole grain bread) at a café near our apartment, La Chatía Artesana]. We met her co-owner, a native Guatemalan who also owns TanLechugaYo (vegetarian restaurant mentioned above) and TanChulaYo, a small, boutique clothing store where I bought a lovely long sleeve flannel button-down for near U.S. prices (one of the few, additional clothing purchases I made and the only one I kept so I could take it home with me on our visit to Fresno back in February). I learned that many of the clothes in her shop incorporate designs using 100% Guatemalan textiles, sourced from weavers’ and artisans’ cooperatives at fair, ethical prices. I especially loved a black hoodie sweatshirt that featured this type of design in certain places and would have purchased it if I had room in my backpack to carry and take home such a uniquely special, yet heavy and bulky, souvenir.

Granola from Mandarina and yogurt from Sabor de la India is a winning combination!
Wearing my new flannel shirt from TanChulaYo – With the colder weather in Xela, it was nice to have another go-to long sleeve shirt (most of our clothing is for warmer climates)!

We actually had a craving for a burger, but we are not fast-food eaters and the local McDonald’s did not sound appealing. (Side note: We learned that McDonald’s is a middle-class novelty in Xela, and as such, it’s perfectly acceptable to bring a date to dine here in Guatemala). An opportunity presented itself at Champions Sports Bar, which claims to have amazing hamburgers. Well, it’s no Burgers and Brew, as the patty was clearly well-done, frozen and reheated. But hey, we’ve learned you can’t go into a situation like this — seeking out a non-authentic, local cuisine — expecting it to be what you envision based on what you’d get at home. If you do, you’re bound to be disappointed (and admittedly, because I was expecting a fresh patty, I was disappointed).

A traditional, Guatemalan dish is Pepián, which is essentially meat covered in a thick vegetable, nut, seed, and spice stew sauce. Fernando recommended Utz Hua to us for traditional food, so we went there. Aaron ordered the Chicken Pepián and I tried another entrée; he liked it, I thought it was okay. In my honest opinion, it’s not much different than Mexican mole we’d been eating recently (I know, how dare I compare these two dishes to one another when they are not the same thing).

Something became clear to us; most of the restaurants and cafés we tried are not local hotspots. In fact, I brought up some of their names to Claudia, and tried explaining where they were located, she hadn’t heard of them. I get the impression that most of the expats and gringo visitors frequent them. Claudia mentioned that a lot of the restaurants and cafés come and go over time, so perhaps that’s also why she didn’t know about the ones I had mentioned. We also got the impression that there isn’t a huge food culture in Guatemala, and that most Guatemalans cook at home for themselves primarily.

So, we did as we perceived the Guatemalans do; we often prepared our own food at our place. There is a supermarket near Parque Central, Despensa Familiar, which carries basic staples, while the Mercado Municipal features a plethora of fresh and good-looking produce to choose from, sold by indigenous vendors in traditional dress. There are also a couple of other grocery stores in the general area that we visited on occasion, but they weren’t conveniently accessible to us since we got around primarily by foot.

The key to cleaning and disinfecting fresh fruit and veggies for consumption is having a solution, such as Mycrodyn, to soak them in for 20 minutes first. Luckily, we still had some left over from our time in Mexico, because we could not find a similar product in Guatemala. We heard that instead, some people soak their produce in a diluted bleach solution, which we couldn’t bring ourselves to do, as the thought of ingesting a chemical, even if watered down substantially, just didn’t feel good to us. It’s worth noting that the water is not safe to drink in Guatemala, so it’s not as easy as running produce under tap water and you’re good to go like it is in the U.S. and many other parts of the world.

Among our typical dishes at our apartment were pasta, rice and beans, burritos, quesadillas, chicken, salads, and fakess (a lentil soup my Yiayia (Greek for “grandmother”) Voula used to make). It’s notable that Aaron did most of the cooking for a solid week, at least, while I was struggling through my intestinal infection and didn’t have much energy or appetite and was fairly limited in what I could eat for a period of time. As I result, I think he remembers being able to cook for ourselves more fondly than I do, and also enjoyed it more (the cooking and the eating).

A tomato-zucchini-onion-olive oil mixture I came up with and sautéed based on what I found at the local market
Dinner by Aaron
Making quesadillas with quesillo cheese, a Oaxacan-style of cheese, and my guac was a highlight!
Rice, beans, salad
Our most frequented vendor at the Mercado Municipal

Thanksgiving

The longest stretch I experienced homesickness, personally, was during November around Thanksgiving, and Aaron felt it, too. This was the longest period of time I’d consistently been away from home and the first major U.S. holiday we were removed from. We certainly missed our families on Thanksgiving, and it felt strange that no one around us was celebrating it, except for U.S. expats (but of course, we didn’t expect the locals to, and we didn’t personally see any expats celebrating — we’d only overheard that the Australian co-owner of Mandarina and her friends would be). We considered preparing a turkey, but the ones we found at Wal-Mart were too pricey and large for just the two of us (yes, we walked across town to Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving, which was oddly-yet-refreshingly not overwhelmingly crowded with people and overly promoting in-your-face Black Friday deals, like we’re used to experiencing in the U.S. during this time period). We connected with our families through video chat on Thanksgiving, which was really nice. We fully acknowledged this Thanksgiving holiday would be different for us, but that it would be the only one in the foreseeable future that we’d be away from family, and that it’s one we’ll look back on and remember being in the midst of our unique travel journey in Xela. Overall, we’re glad we worked through our homesickness and got past it so we were able to experience everything that followed.

Wandering Around Xela

We enjoyed having a leisurely amount of time in Xela to be able to take our time exploring. Although Xela is not very pedestrian-friendly (e.g. uneven, narrow sidewalks; dog poop left to dry out sporadically on the sidewalks — likely due to the many strays roaming around; lack of designated crosswalks; clouds of exhaust fumes billowing out from vehicles — especially “Chicken Buses” — because there are no emissions standards enforced), we had a good time getting to know our surroundings.

It’s beginning to look at lot like Navidad in Parque Central!
Puente los Chocoyos, a stone bridge built in 1882, near our apartment and school – This street was originally a canal, so the bridge was a way to get over it!
Street view (one side) from the top of the bridge
Above-the-ground graves at the local cemetery
Striking volcanic backdrop while strolling through the cemetery

Mercado La Democracia – A huge, mostly outdoor market, primarily for apparel – It can actually feel quite overwhelming!
Centro Comercial Montblanc shopping center festively decorated for the holiday month of December
Dia de La Virgen de Guadalupe (Day of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe) celebrations in Parque Central (December 12th)
Another view of Parque Central on December 12th celebrations
Parque Benito Juarez – People hanging out, kids playing, some vendors selling goods at booths – This park is just north of the Mercado La Democracia
Templo de Minerva, honoring the Greek goddess of education (I was excited to find something Greek in Guatemala!)
Of course, we went to the local zoo and observed the monkeys (Aaron was really happy)!
Parque Zoologico
Classic shot of a “Chicken Bus” – If you don’t have a car, you aren’t walking, and you’re not riding in the back of a pickup truck, you’re getting around in one of these 2nd class busses! Essentially, it’s a brightly painted, retired U.S. school bus. Fares are really cheap. You can get around on these inner-city or intra-city. There’s a driver and usually a helper standing on the steps, collecting fares, and yelling the name of the destination out the door as the bus approaches stops. You should see these guys climb onto the roof and hang off the side (as the vehicle is in motion!) to retrieve/throw baggage up there! Oh, and the name comes from the notion that passengers carry their chickens on-board, which we’d heard of, but never personally saw. The locals have another name for it, in Spanish, which does not translate to what it’s referred to in English.
Interior of a “Chicken Bus
Part of the walk to/from the Zoo, WalMart, and largest shopping mall (Centro Comerciales Pradera) and near the largest outdoor market in town, Mercado La Minerva, and bus station. I don’t like when Aaron takes surreptitious camera shots of other people, like this, in the moment, but I’m glad we have this now to look back on as a part of our experience.

We do not have a photo (sadly) to share the dirtiest street in Xela, or quite frankly, the dirtiest street we’ve ever encountered! We took a route on foot where most “Chicken Buses” pass through on their way to/from the bus station, most of them releasing their thick, black, smoky exhaust right onto us! We’re also talking garbage strewn and blowing along the streets and aromas of defication and urination. We thought about going back just to document it, as a description just isn’t quite the same as a photo, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it!

Day Trip Activities

Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs

We arranged for our first day trip to Fuentes Georginas hot springs through Monte Verde Tours. We met at their office, which was walking distance from our apartment, and our driver took us in his van to drop us off at this destination about 40 minutes outside of Xela. We passed some beautiful, hilly farmland on the way, which we occasionally noticed farmers tending to. This is the area where most of the produce sold at the markets in Xela comes from. We went first thing in the morning on a weekday, so it wasn’t busy, but that gradually changed as the morning went on! It was pretty cold, so the warm water felt good; it was especially hot in the main spring at certain spots near where the water was trickling out of the rocks, which we took our turn in and gifted our hotspot to a man nearby. There is onsite lodging for those who want to stay overnight, and an onsite restaurant, where we had a snack before leaving. There are also lockers to secure your belongings and changing stalls adjacent to the toilet stalls. This was a day trip activity arranged by our school that we had missed out on, so given its close proximity to Xela and that we hadn’t yet experienced anything similar to it and wanted to, we decided to check it out on our own after we’d finished our classes and had a few days to spare before moving on in our travels. Some believe that these natural springs have healing powers, and some even drink the water because of it. We witnessed a very old and frail-looking woman (with assistance from her loved ones) getting in and out of the water once momentarily, so we assumed this may have been the reason why she came.

Santa Anita Coffee Plantation Tour

Being from Sacramento, where the specialty coffee roasting culture is booming and we are consumers of it, we naturally were interested in learning more about the farm-to-cup process.  Guatemala and other countries in Central America are known for their coffee bean production, and in fact, many specialty coffee roasters in Sacramento, and throughout California and the U.S., source their beans from a variety of farmers and cooperatives in this part of the world.

We also arranged for this day trip through Monte Verde Tours. We learned the co-owner is originally from the U.S. and married to a Guatemalan woman. We were picked up at our apartment this time, and he personally drove us in the company van for about an hour and a half to Santa Anita Coffee and Banana Collective on the Pacific Coast. We enjoyed conversing with him about his path to becoming fluent in Spanish (he says he didn’t just wake up one day and realize he is fluent), the hurtles he’s faced starting and operating a business in Guatemala, and his knowledge about Xela and the surrounding area.

The Santa Anita plantation consists of a collective of 35 families who were a part of the guerrilla movement during Guatemala’s civil war. The tour included walking through the plantation with the Monte Verde Tours co-owner and one of the farmers there (he translated the farmer’s Spanish, although for most tours, we pick up and converse as much as we can in our developing Spanish, either because we prefer it or because there is not an English option) and learning about their production, harvesting, processing, and roasting. We also looked through historic artifacts and photos of the guerrilla movement in a small room on the property. After the tour, we had lunch in the home of a local and enjoyed conversation with the matriarch of the family who had prepared it for us. We learned that those who live on the cooperative share in this responsibility, as they rotate which home visitors come to for lunch in order to share the opportunity for additional income produced by the tours. It felt good to be able to directly support the local community while learning about and interacting with a couple of their members.

In Guatemala, it’s totally normal to follow a guy with a machete into a remote plantation!
Coffee plant
Banana trees provide shade for the coffee plants
Papaya tree – See the fruit hanging?
Various qualities of coffee beans drying out

Mural depicting the community’s history

Fitness Adventures

Gimnasio Shaddai – I took a Zumba class here in this multi-use space (it wasn’t my favorite; the instructor looked at herself in the mirror often, repeated a lot of the same moves in multiple songs, and didn’t have much energy, BUT she practically chased me out the door after class to chat and was excited to meet a fellow instructor!)
Zumba with Juan Jose at Energym – This was my FAVORITE class in Xela! He has such fun moves, so many people, so much energy, and such loud, pumping music the whole time! He encourages everyone to go all out with big movements and keep sonrisas (smiles) going throughout his class.
Open group exercise area at Energym – The space was used for whatever else people wanted when classes weren’t going on

I tried a Tae Bo® class that was scheduled right after one of the Zumba® classes I took (I experienced a few different instructors at Energym). I was excited to check out a live class of this format, as I remember doing the video workouts as a teenager in the living room at my Thia (Greek for “aunt”) and Uncle Dan’s house; it kicked my butt!

Sadly, I came down with my intestinal infection within a couple of days of taking the Zumba® and Tae Bo® classes back-to-back. Not long after we arrived in Xela, I had researched local fitness options and physically dropped into gyms to pick up their class schedules. I even went as far as to write down my options by-hand on a piece of paper to consolidate and organize them for each day of the week classes were offered. Luis invited me to teach a Zumba® class for his salsa group in lieu of his lesson, as he had a time conflict on one of the evenings I happened to be in Xela. I was so excited to have this rare opportunity, and I felt so bad to not be able to follow through with it. Due to my ill circumstances, I was in no condition to teach on the date we had arranged, and I only ended up at the gym towards the beginning and end of our time in Xela; on the bright side, at least I got to take a group salsa and bachata lesson from him, check out some fitness classes at the gyms, and exercise!

Food Poisoning

I won’t spend too much time talking about this subject I’ve already eluded to throughout this post. I’ve saved the details until this point in the post for a reason: It was not pretty. I woke up one day with severe, sharp stomach pain, the kind where even curling into the fetal position in bed didn’t alleviate my extreme discomfort much, but it felt noticeably better than any other position. I considered going to school, because I felt bad to bail on my scheduled lesson with Claudia at the last minute, but I just couldn’t concentrate on anything else. Essentially, I laid in bed for periods of time resting and got up when I had to go diarrhea. I’d had my share of chronic traveler’s diarrhea on our trip, but nothing felt near the level of this. Aaron bought and brought me some electrolyte fluids on his break from class to help me rehydrate. I barely ate because I didn’t have much of an appetite. Claudia was wonderful with helping to connect us to a local clinic and was genuinely concerned and offered her help. Aaron went with me to the clinic, which was thankfully walking distance from our apartment, as we tried to locate it; it took every ounce of my energy to get out of bed and walk there in the sun, which consumed me and I felt so weak and exhausted on this short errand. Unfortunately, I couldn’t produce a sample at the clinic, so we walked home with an empty sample cup. I could not muster the strength to go out again, so I am humbled to thank Aaron for carrying my shit in a container back to the lab for testing later that day. They processed it within a couple of hours and emailed the results to me (in Spanish), which showed “mucus with inclusion of bacterias” (we felt like we translated the report accurately,  but I sent it to Claudia just to make sure we understood correctly, given the serious nature of the situation). I emailed my doctor back home for medication advice, and was grateful for her response, as I’m no longer her patient at the moment while traveling for this long and living outside of the U.S. She and Claudia, who sees this type of thing often with her students, recommended Ciprofloxacin (Cipro). I was prescribed this prior to our trip as an only-if-things-get-really-bad option. Essentially, it hits the reset button on your system and, unfortunately, kills both good and bad bacteria. I did not want to take it and was determined to try the Treda®, a milder antibiotic we’d taken for our traveler’s diarrhea previously, which targets certain types of bacteria, first; although it helped somewhat, I was still experiencing the symptoms enough to start the Cipro treatment. That night, I had my worst episode that followed my stomach gradually growing more swollen and larger over the course of the afternoon and early evening (hurry to the bathroom for explosive diarrhea, stand up and turn around to vomit, sit back down for more diarrhea). I’d never experienced anything quite like this before! I even threw up my Cipro pill I’d just recently taken. We were growing worried that I may need to go to a hospital that night if this continued (thankfully, it didn’t), as my body was rapidly losing a lot of fluid and was I feeling very weak. Fortunately, that adage of, “It gets worse before it gets better” rang true for me in this situation, and I was steadily recovering within a couple of days on the medication. The rules were 10 days, two pills per day, no dairy or electrolyte drinks, plenty of water (I broke this a couple of times towards the end for quesillo cheese quesadillas and milk in my tea or latte; it was hard for me to stick to).

We had been careful about what to eat since experiencing bouts of traveler’s diarrhea in Mexico, but we received a local recommendation to try the ceviche at El Buen Camarón. (Truly, it was a local hotspot, as there was a long wait to be seated and people didn’t leave very often). Once seated, it took awhile for our food to come. When I received my ceviche, I felt funky about it. It included a mixture of imitation crab stick chunks, shrimp, and raw oysters. If I had to guess, it was the raw oyster that did it. I could be completely wrong, as it’s often difficult to pinpoint the exact source, but it makes sense given the couple of days that had passed before I started feeling strong symptoms, and it’s the only different and questionable item I could recall consuming. I later found out that although it’s her favorite restaurant and dish, it even made Claudia sick before!

The look on my face says it all
The likely culprit

Safety & Security

While we received conflicting information from locals, we aired on the side of caution. Upon our arrival, we were assured by our host at the guest house that the neighborhood and area is safe, that it would be totally fine for us to walk to and from dinner near Parque Central without worry. Then when we met with the school for the first time, we were strongly cautioned to not venture too far off from the school, as we would likely be targets as gringos (certainly a more alarmist approach). After that, I always felt a bit on-guard, especially if we were exploring the city beyond the central area and when I’d run a nearby errand or go to/from the gym solo. With the exception of a few occasions (on which I walked quickly and with a purpose), I was not out alone in the early evening after darkness had recently fallen. We were advised by our contact at the tour company, whom we told we wanted to check out the cemetery but had heard there had been robberies there, to go to the cemetery on Sunday morning when people would be visiting their loved ones after the service at the adjacent church. Aaron did not go on any solo hikes due to reading about accounts of recent muggings out in the remote areas. There is a major issue with las maras in Guatemala, but they are most heavily concentrated in Guatemala City; apparently they have tried, and are actively trying, to break into the Xela area but without much success because of vigilant reporting by locals.

The feeling we had living with this consistent, though usually mild, fear lingering within us and dictating our actions is not something we live with, anywhere near to this degree, back at home. We are fortunate to not really have to consider it in our everyday lives and surroundings. With it brings a newfound appreciation for being able to live pretty much free of it in our regular lives, something that up until starting our journey in Mexico, I had never really thought too much about and perhaps even took for granted a bit as a basic given.

Papou Passing Away

It was really hard being so far away from my side of the family and making the difficult decision not to go home for my Papou’s funeral when he passed in early December. The logistical travel journey from Xela to Fresno is challenging, especially with little advance notice. Essentially, it would have taken us about three days just to get there if all transportation schedules connected perfectly, involving hours of rough overland travel in an older van or bus, flying, and more overland travel (likely by Amtrak or Greyhound once in California), which would have gotten us there just in time, but at the mercy of whatever the expensive, rapidly rising holiday travel costs would have been (although it really wasn’t about the money) and being completely zonked out exhausted by the time we would arrive. I was recovering from my intestinal infection, which I had recently begun taking strong, harsh antibiotics to cure and was just starting to gradually feel somewhat normal again; we anticipated the aforementioned travel journey would be hard enough on us if we were both feeling 100% and would not be the best choice for me health-wise, as it would likely weaken my body further and cause me to regress in my process. Going home then, not being able to coordinate in advance with both sides of the family on our and their own time, would mean not visiting home later, in-between continents from wrapping up Central America and flying overseas to Thailand, and not seeing Aaron’s side of the family. Finally, given the difficulty of getting to where we were in Guatemala, Aaron and I both agreed that if we did choose to leave immediately and embark upon our long journey home, it wouldn’t make sense for us financially or practically to navigate back to pick up where we left off to continue our overland travel journey through Central America (we’d be foregoing it altogether). Aaron left the decision to me and expressed he would be supportive of whatever I chose, which meant a lot to me. On one hand, I felt so guilty and selfish for not dropping everything and going home no matter what it took, as my Papou was so important and influential in my life, and of course I wanted to be there with my family to grieve and pay my final respects to him with them. On the other hand, having passed, my family and I believe he’s able to be with me in spirit, wherever I am in the world (i.e. I don’t have to be in Fresno with his body for him to know I love, care for, and am praying for him). In discussing my options with my family, they had expressed they didn’t feel he would want me to go through what it would take for me to get there because of the travel and state of my health, and that considering it awhile ago, they didn’t expect I would return home if he passed while we were on our trip (in fact, we were fully aware that the last time we visited him shortly before leaving could likely be the last time we’d see him, given his rapidly declining health). Thankfully, we were able to interact with and support family remotely through video and voice chats and electronically through emails (thank God for modern technology that made this possible, and that we were in a consistent place with reliable WIFI)!

Aaron and I both experienced, for the first time really, what it felt like to know that our adventure, with everything we put on the back-burner and arranged in advance to make happen, could truly end at any moment (and actually almost did). In a matter of days, we could return home and not get back on the road. That thought was pretty sobering for both of us, as we were not emotionally ready to end our journey at that point and realized the importance of appreciating, embracing, and absorbing every moment of our time on the road. One of us could get seriously injured or a close family member could be diagnosed with a terminal disease and have a short projected amount of time left (both reasons why we would cut the cord immediately and end our trip altogether). Even when we encounter challenges, we work through them and know that they are all a part of the experience, of which builds character and will make for a story later.

It’s the Little Things

At this point in our long-term travel journey, we’d been on the road for about three months and had been living without many comforts of home. Here are some that I, or both of us, got excited about!

We found all-natural peanut butter at Al Natur, a specialty goods shop near Parque Central
Local kombucha find at El Cuartito
I was pleasantly surprised to come across my favorite chai tea I drink at Teazer in Fresno! Thank you, El Cafetal Altense, for eliciting my sweet return to home!
Traveling long-term, living life on the road, evokes feelings of gratefulness for many things, large but mostly small. Words cannot describe the degree of thankfulness I felt for the blowdrier provided in our apartment in Xela. It was a treat to have access to one at the time, especially in a colder climate. Things like this can be taken for granted at home, but going without it for long stretches, I had a newfound appreciation for it (and other items that I now look at as luxuries that may seem basic).

XelaWho, a local, monthly publication produced by expats living in Xela, was key in helping us acclimate and orient ourselves to our new surroundings! We were fortunate to have a stack of back-issues piled under our living room table. Within these, we found local maps, a walking tour with points of interest, cafés, restaurants, events, entertaining cultural immersion articles, transportation information, and more. In a country where most businesses do not have an online presence and where Yelp doesn’t operate, this magazine was very helpful (and entertaining to relate to in what we were experiencing while immersing ourselves in the local language and culture).

Sights, Sounds, and Smells

It’s our senses that will forever remind us of and transport us back to our time in Xela. Waking up to the sound of roosters (who say, “Coo-coo-roo-coo” in Spanish) bright and early every morning as the sunlight’s first rays of the day peak into our bedroom windows. Walking down the street and passing an electronics store as reggaeton music blares from its speakers in the middle of the day. Strolling the perimeter of Parque Central and noticing people of all ages gathered there, just hanging out, as a handful of touts peddle their items and pigeons flock to a particular section to be fed. Passing through the street food vendors clustered outside of the entrance to Mercado Municipal on our way to buy produce from the local market. Hearing the sounds of fireworks going off randomly at any moment, day or night (sometimes, startling us if it’s in close vicinity and/or very loud, but mostly just being used to it as normal background noise). The strong, distinct smell of burning trash filling our nostrils (not a pleasant aroma; I think it smells like plastic burning). The indigenous women in their trajes, colorful and pronounced, going about their daily routines around town. It’s everyday life happening around us that draws us in and captures our attention to what makes a place, and its people, uniquely what they are. Having the time to take notice and be receptive of these details, and look into the “whys” if it peaks our interest to, truly gives us the feeling that we are getting to know and understand a place deeper than what one would only scratch the surface of, or miss altogether, passing through in a day or two to chase the “must see” or “cannot miss” tourist sites and activities (another benefit of “slow travel”).

Wrap-Up Reflection

I am proud of myself for sticking with the rougher parts of travel to, and within, Xela to experience the unique cultural and linguistic beauty that exists there. It takes bravery, strength, patience, and a willingness to just approach the unexpected situations encountered with as much grace and openness as possible to travel through this part of the world. It is not for the feint of heart and is a more rugged backpacker experience, but it is well worth going, if only once in a lifetime. The takeaways are so meaningful and fulfilling. Truthfully, knowing what I know now, I would go back to visit our favorite locals from our Spanish school and live in our apartment complex, study more Spanish with our teachers and experience more cultural field trips with our school, and perhaps even volunteer (Aaron with Quetzaltrekkers while I with an artisan non-profit who works with the indigenous women to help facilitate fair trade ethics for their business, such as Pixan).

If you’d like to learn more about Guatemalan history, culture, and realities of life for many Guatemalans (particularly the indigenous), here are a few resources we’d recommend that we found interesting and engaging:

Next, Aaron embarks upon a two-and-a-half day/two-night hiking trek from Xela to Lago de Atitlan, while I soak up some solitude in my last couple of days in Xela before taking private transportation to meet him there. (Spoiler alert: I had the coolest driver who stopped along the way to show me gorgeous views of the lake as we approached it, chatted with me in Spanish, and shared his awesome reggaeton music with me, while Aaron got to see a volcanic eruption and watch the sun rise from up above the lake! To each, his/her own!)

Until next time,
Elena 🙂

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