20 Hours To Great Spanish

Monday, November 30, 2009

I won’t sugar coat it; the ride from Semuc Champey to Coban was... not nice. The views were spectacular, the sun was shining, but with a bit too much to drink the night before many of us were not feeling particularly up for twisting and turning in the sun. I focused on the view and was, perhaps luckily, the first one to find the washrooms at the gas station outside Coban. After that, a Snickers bar, a bag of popcorn (I was craving something salty), and a Gatorade and I was 100%. Feeling great and, like everyone, with two seats to myself, this was better than I could’ve hoped for considering the sardine can we rode in on. Not to mention that I didn’t have to pay a cent for it. I think the driver and I may have been the only ones awake for much of the beautiful drive towards Antigua. We passed through busy Guatemala City in the day and it looked decent enough, but I’ve heard enough stories about the nighttime to know better. We definitely didn’t dally and soon were on a random street in Antigua wondering which way to go. Jez (our English friend) and Jaelle (the Israeli day bartender at El Retiro) were going to Jungle Party, so we went too, found it to be fine (a bit pricey, but not if you factor in breakfast) and we had ourselves a spot in Antigua. The next step was to find a school where we could study Spanish for a week or two.

Arriving, as Phil and I seem prone to, on a Sunday has its ups and downs. On the plus side, you definitely aren’t missing anything exciting while you sit on a bus. On the other hand, everything is closed. We wandered towards Sevilla, a school that had been recommended by our roommates at El Retiro. It was closed but the doors were open because the director’s family was having an event unbeknownst to us. The director still took the time to chat with us and give us a price, and he also grabbed a relative who was a doctor to have a look at Phil’s ear. I thought this was pretty nice but Phil had picked up a bad vibe because the director was very anxious to get us committed to starting school in the morning and both of us felt uncomfortable not having shopped around or checked prices. Being Sunday, it turned out that there were street vendors aplenty so we ate quite well (I had a few chorizo tortillas, some hot fruit punch, and enjoyed both thoroughly). And it’s a good thing, because we needed that sustenance to find our way back to the hostel. No exaggeration, it probably took us an hour and a half for what should’ve been a 5 minute walk. Everything looks the same as it is, especially at night, and it didn’t help that many of our navigational landmarks were duplicated in the exact same style elsewhere. At one point, we later discovered, we’d stood 15m from the hostel without realizing it and setting off again in an entirely wrong direction thanks to the guidance of a local Tourist Police. He probably had a good laugh. It also didn’t help that the hostel is entirely unmarked, with only a red rope to signify its existence.

We eventually returned to the hostel and watched Catch Me If You Can with some of the other rather quiet backpackers before turning in. The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, Phil and I set out again, first to the ATM and then to do some more school hunting. The ATMs here, it turns out, not only charge you from $3-$5 per transaction, but they rob you blind on the exchange rate. Quetzales for US dollars are currently 8.24:1. The US dollar is pretty much on par with the Canadian dollar at the moment, and yet the exchange rate they give you is at or below 7.5:1. Meaning, taking out $100 in Q costs $9 in currency exchange plus the ATM fee. Ouch. The next stop was finding a school. Phil was dead-set against Sevilla and I felt a bit endebted but otherwise indifferent, and in any case I wanted to check out the options and prices, so we wandered through any number of schools. The two that most appealed to us were San Jose, which has an absolutely edenic setting in a verdant courtyard with fountains and so on, and Ixchel, where Phil’s friend had studied, which also had a decent setting and most importantly, someone we felt was there to make sure we were happy with our program. The price at Ixchel was a bit high, but San Jose didn’t provide a homestay option and seemed a bit, perhaps, stodgy. By the end of a day of hunting, we discovered that we could study at San Jose for $90 and get the homestay elsewhere (stay with a local family, and three meals six days of seven) for $60. We took that back to Ixchel where we managed to get them down to $100 for the school (4 hours, 5 days) and $70 for the homestay. Having pushed as hard as we could, we knew that was their lowest offer, but we did manage to convince them to throw in a free day of study at the beach IF they had three others going. I only report these numbers because when we were trying to research elsewhere on the net we found nobody quoting prices they paid. And I’ll add, for the record, that you can definitely study cheaper but we were comfortable here and bit the bullet. You win, Aliz, you win.

It was our last night at the hostel and we met some cool people on a tight timetable and managed to convince them to visit Semuc Champey, which wasn’t hard once Phil and I got reminiscing. And the next day, school was in. We started everyday at 9 AM and would finish at 1 PM, which would give us afternoons and evenings free (aside from homework) to explore Antigua. Each student has a separate teacher and I managed to get Luis, who is probably one of the best teachers they have not only from my own experience but also according to the receptionist (Aliz) and the family we stayed with. We have a little palapa with a whiteboard and a desk and spend some time conversing and practicing speech and the rest working on grammar and vocabulary. The first day started with a conversation which, I think, was mostly to gauge my level of comprehension. My “Learn Spanish in 20 Days” book clearly paid off as I was able to hold a grammatically barren conversation and, at the very least, skip some basics. Luis was great. He didn’t waste my time doing things I could do on my own at home, we would only work on, say, conjugating ‘ir’ verbs until he was satisfied I understood the concept and then we’d move on. Our conversations were a lot of fun, too, he has a great sense of humour and we joked all sorts of things. One day he brought a 40-page tome of “vulgarities” in Spanish for me to have a peek at. Now that’s education! I realize now, at the end of the week, he was letting a lot of terrible grammar slip until I had learned the rules to speak better. Obviously it’s better to let me practice using words and putting together sentences solely in the present tense than nitpicking about things I don’t understand.

Anyway, the school was great. The teachers were all friendly and seemed quite qualified, and we got what we’d wanted, which was some basics in Spanish. I think that a few things could be done to facilitate mingling between the students and encouraging social programs. They have lots of activities but nobody ever goes on them, it seems. Free but unadvertised was a 5.2 on the Richeter Scale earthquake after classes, though we had no idea it was happening. Of course activities are secondary and anyway, we had our hands full studying. Our homestay was, though not in the safest feeling area, equally great. We had a wonderful family with great food and they were always trying to continue our education at the dinner table, not to mention more joking around. Llourda made some great food and was always happy to accommodate – how her spine is still straight after all that bending-over-backwards I’ll never know. Marla (her aunt) teaches Spanish and was happy to turn her grammatical knowledge loose on us all hours of day and night. And Hugo, Llourda’s husband, was a riot. The man cracked us up consistently, which is no mean feat considering that he would often have to explain, word-by-word, his jokes. That we’d still be laughing afterwards is impressive.

As well, we shared the house with six Koreans. I was reticent at first, as I imagined a situation where they’d all talk amongst themselves and we’d be left out, but this was not the case at all. They were boisterous (especially Chino... por FAH-vor!), friendly, and spoke Spanish as much as possible. Some were pretty quiet, definitely, and Pablo was borderline antisocial as he was struggling to finish a book that was to be published in South Korea, but we had a lot of fun with them. Sure, they ate like it was a street cart in Shanghai, by which I mean loudly, but different culture, different habits, and they were too nice to get annoyed. We went out with Helen one night to Riki’s, a little bar where the sole remaining member of the Buena Vista Social club still croons and drums as people everywhere salsa, and she was far more entertaining than I’d expected since she was quite quiet around the dinner table. We went with Chino another night and bought five litres of beer then sat around the table joking. Phil and I lost it when we were being taught that muy mono is a way of saying ‘cute’ and Fabian was trying very hard to keep up pouring through the dictionary like a mad man. You may have had to been there or at least know Fabian, but the sheer concentration on his face as he pieced together and said to Hugo, “Tu.... es.... (long pause) mono” which translates to “You ... are a... (long pause) monkey.” The timing was just right as Hugo paused then gave a dismissive “Nnnnnno.” Yeah, I guess you had to be there but man did we laugh. Not at Fabian, of course, for in truth our Spanish is probably less than his, but because of the effort and Hugo’s response.

In the evenings and afternoons, we’d wander the streets and explore a bit, or we’d stay in and study, trying to balance being a visitor and working. On the weekend, the Koreans were gone to Tikal (and we missed them) and Phil and I climbed Pacaya Volcano, an active volcano not too distant from Antigua. For security and simplicity, we went with a group which meant 15 of us slogging along uphill at a rather slow pace. I would’ve been more annoyed except that my stomach was not exactly loving life and my own pace wouldn’t have been much faster. We left Antigua at 2 PM. Or more correctly, we were picked up at 2 PM, left around 3, and arrived around 4:30. We should’ve bought marshmallows or at least a stick but sadly we didn’t. We set off with the group making our way first through forest, always with a spectacular view of clouds below and Volcan de Agua looming in the distance like Mount Doom. Eventually we reached the black cinder top, ash and sharp-as-nails rock and pebbles which were more tricky to climb. Soon, we noticed that the rocks we were walking on were giving off a pretty impressive amount of heat. And then, over the rise, a river of molten lava spurting out the middle of a rock and flowing down the mountainside. Obviously lava is hot, but the amount of heat it was radiating was incredible. Trying to get close enough for a photo meant enduring air that was probably around 60 C – just hot enough to not immediately withdraw. This was from a distance of maybe 5 metres away. Closer than that was not bearable, certainly not long enough to take a proper photo. Some people had sticks that were spontaneously combusting without ever touching the lava. Others, marshmallows. I wanted to buy a marshmallow from a girl that had a bag but without a stick it was pretty futile. So we watched, postured for photos, and waited to hear “Pantera!” meaning our group was going down.

The descent was at dusk and passed into night. Having a headlamp is definitely recommended. We saw some people just beginning the hike up, presumably to stay the night and see what would’ve been a fantastic sunrise. I’m sure the lava would’ve been incredible in the dead of night, too, and maybe they were going to get closer to the top than we did. Pacaya, it seems, is more safe than we’d originally thought but what can you do? We went out that night to Monoloco which is a bit more pricey but we were talked into staying by a fellow Canadian at the bar that is opening up a very cool-sounding surf hotel/hostel called “The Salty Beaver” in Sapiaco. He offered us a lift down there but we’d then miss Atitlan and Xela, not to mention Phil’s ears prohibit water for a week or so more. There was also another character that was quite drunk and mostly funny though toward the end annoying “I’m a surfer!” he’d exclaim and then show us a tattoo. Sure, fine, great. “Don’t laugh, I’m American” he’d then say in a very broken English which, to be fair to us, is kind of funny. “Peeets-boorg!” And eventually he was escorted from the bar as the belligerence:humour ratio grew too high.

Sunday was market day and Phil and I strolled around looking at various crafts, shirts, and so on. I bought a sweater for Xela (turns out it gets quite chilly at night) for 60Q ($7) and Phil bought a bunnyhug and a few other things as well. 5:30, the Riders were in the Grey Cup game and we were determined to find it but destined to be disappointed. American satellite will show Women’s College Volleyball, Billiards, Lawn Bowling, and worse but we couldn’t even find mention of the Grey Cup. ESPN, you’ve just made the list. Don’t laugh, DirectTV. You’re on it, too. We seriously searched for an hour, flipping through satellite channels in the six-or-so bars that have satellite in town. Dejected, we grabbed some street food, amazed at the number of people in the streets and not knowing it was a Christmas celebration in the Central Square. So we returned home to keep an eye on the game via a really slow internet connection, gave up assuming we’d won with so little time left in the fourth quarter, only to discover the final score. Montreal won and I can’t imagine how mad I would’ve been to watch this, especially a penalty for too many players on the field. To quote Phil, though it’s hard to get the intonation quite right in writing, “Really?”

Our last day of school came and went in a flash. We said our farewells, stopped by the post office to mail our first round of postcards, and came home for lunch with the Koreans now returned. It was a lot of fun to have them back, and they were happy to be here, seemingly having been starved and abused on their weekend trip to Tikal and Rio Dulce. After dinner, we invited everybody out for a drink including the newly arrived American professor and Aussie chica. To show you how cool a family they were, Hugo and Llourda even came out with us for beer and tequila. And schenanigans. It was a really fun night and I was surprised how quickly I had become attached to them all. As always with travel, you have to try to appreciate that you were fortunate enough to meet (much less spend a week with) such great people rather than dwell on the fact that you probably will never see them again. Antigua would be a great memory, but still more great places, people, and stories lie on the road ahead. Next stop, Lake Atitlan.

Antigua Photos

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