We crossed the border from Mexico to Guatemala on Easter Sunday. That afternoon, waiting for our transport to be arranged, since buses weren’t running on the Guatemalan side of the border, we ate fried chicken and gingerly added green sauce- a condiment we had come to respect in southern Mexico. A metaphor for things to come, the green sauce, which had been incredibly potent in Mexico, was blander than milk. Things were decidedly different south of the border.
Not only was the food and culture different, but also our way of travel. We settled into what became the closest we’d come to a permanent expat life in Quetzaltenango (Xela). My desire to learn Spanish before we continued, and Danny’s to brush up on his Spanish skills brought our travels to a halt at the Spanish school he had studied at six years before.
My first reaction when I think of Xela is cold! Perhaps it was unseasonable while we were there, but Xela is very high in altitude and although it was April, the temperatures were downright frigid. Fortunately every street corner had a second-hand clothing store and I scored a brand new North Face Fleece for only $5. A true bargain!
Studying Spanish gave us a bit of a routine and a new appreciation for eggs, rice and beans. Eggs, rice and beans for breakfast. One-on-one Spanish lessons in the morning. Back home for lunch- sometimes eggs and beans again, but occasionally pasta with ketchup or hot dogs. Then back out for the afternoon. Salsa lessons at school or studying at the random German café in town. Home again for dinner (eggs, rice and beans- you got it- maybe chicken) and time with the family. You get the drift. When we left I never wanted to see another black bean again.
Since I’d previously studied French and Italian, my Spanish lessons advanced rather quickly. My first teacher, who I spent two weeks with, ran me through a series of vocabulary and verb exercises, but my second teacher focused only on conversation. We wandered through the markets each day, chatting about Guatemalan politics (corrupt), the dual class society that existed, the economy and often her asking me pointed and complex questions about life in the United States. We made fun of Danny (she had him as a student six years prior) and somehow I learned Spanish.
Xela has somewhat of a sizeable Western expat population so we got into a bit of a social routine as well. We had trivia nights to attend, expat bars, English language book stores, groups to go to the hot springs with and even people interested in summiting a volcano by moonlight. A steady stream of students looking to learn Spanish, volunteers and non-profit workers and travelers kept the place interesting and we couldn’t help but find comfort in our routine.
That’s not to say life is easy in Xela. It certainly isn’t. Guatemala is plagued by crime and violence. A corrupt political system (the President was accused of murder while we were there, later exonerated), serious economic issues and memories of its decades long civil war haunt the country. Infrastructure is outdated at best, and the shower at our host families home electrocuted me ever so slightly every morning when I bathed. There’s that memory of being cold again!
So Xela, how do I sum it up? I was cold and always eating rice and beans!