Proyecto LingГјistico Quetzalteco de EspaГ±ol

Final Thoughts on PLQE and Guatemala

Xela, from the roof of PLQE

Xela, from the roof of PLQE

I’m sure it’s obvious, from all my recent posts, that I had an amazing two weeks in Guatemala. I had such a wonderful time that I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to settle in and stay in Xela for another month or two.

If you’re interested in taking a Spanish-learning trip, I couldn’t recommend PLQE more. I learned more Spanish in two weeks there than in my whole life, combined. Sure, I still have a long way to go to achieve proficiency. But before I went, I only knew the present tense and the basic future (ir + a + infinitive). Now, I’ve learned the pretirite and the imperfect, and can actually talk like a real person (well, like a total Spanish newbie)—but at least I don’t have to talk about the past using the present tense! I’ve also found that I can understand much more now than three weeks ago.

And this is going to sound so cheesy, too—cue the sappy music—but the whole time I was at PLQE, I was really inspired by everyone around me: My teachers, who taught me a ton and shared stories about their own hardships. MyВ host family in Xela, who were so warm and welcoming that I felt at home there, even though it was just for one week. My host family at the Mountain School, who always gave me lots to eat, even though they didn’t have much, themselves.

And my fellow students. Like me, most were in their late 20s to late 30s and at transitional points in their lives, between degree programs or careers or relationships (or some combination of those). Each person had an interesting story of why he or she was there. But unlike me, most were staying longer—which I was very envious of!

When I first came to PLQE, I was dreading the graduation ceremony where I’d have to present—in Spanish—something to demonstrate my newfound language prowess. And though I was super-nervous, my presentation went well. I made a list, entitledВ “10 Maneras Para Saber Si Tu Eres Un Estudiante de PLQE”В (“10 Ways to Know If You’re a PLQE Student”) and comprised of inside jokes about the school. Thankfully, people laughed.

PLQE set up for the weekly graduation ceremony

PLQE set up for the weekly graduation ceremony

Everyone else’s presentations impressed me—their talents were so diverse! One woman salsa danced (really well, I might add), one guy freestyled in Spanish and English, another performed a dramatic monologue. Others told jokes, read poems or played the guitar. Admittedly, I spend so much time in my ballet/writing world, that I’m always awed and very appreciative when I see other peoples’ passions on display—especially when they’re in a language they just learned!

Carlos, PLQE's director, giving out diplomas

Carlos, PLQE’s director, giving out diplomas

I’m not a spontaneous person, but I booked this trip on a whim. I didn’t research any other schools and only did a quick Google search on Xela to make sure the city hadn’t been hit by some natural disaster before buying my ticket. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. It was really one of the most rewarding trips I’ve ever taken.

A Week at La Escuela de la Montana

the mountain school

After a week in Xela, I bid my host family goodbye and headed off to La Escuela de la Montana, PLQE‘s sister location, about an hour away. Before my trip, I was pretty nervous about it. As a city girl, I knew I’d be fine in Xela, since it’s Guatemala’s second-largest city with lots of stuff to do: restaurants, cafes, shops, etc. But a week in the mountains? I was scared of bugs. And snakes. And weird birds. And strange nature sounds. And criminals who target people in remote areas. And—mostly—of going stir crazy.

Of course, soon after arriving via chicken bus with two other PLQE students, Jenny and Kathy, I learned that my fears were un poquito loco. It did take me a day to adjust to the ways of the Mountain School. But it was truly a rewarding experience and I’m so glad I went.

In addition to the school being way out in the middle of nowhere, the lifestyle is completely different from PLQE in Xela. The students live, dorm-style, in the school. Jenny and I shared a room that was meant for four people; it was fine with the two of us, but I think it would have been tight if the room was filled to capacity!

my room at the Mountain School

My room at the Mountain School

the library

The school’s library was right outside my room

Classes were four hours a day in thatched huts on the school’s property. Whereas Arecely, my maetra in Xela, drilled me on Spanish grammar every day, here, my maestra, Flor, was more of a conversationalist—and a great story teller. I learned a lot just speaking with her. We traded tales of working as shoe salespeople (her in Xela, me at Bloomingdale’s) and she told me about her nutty neighbors who have several cats, dogs and more than 50 chickens. (I so would not go into that house!) In more serious topics, she also told me about a cousin who smuggled his way into the U.S., via coyotes, through Mexico, when he was just 16, to escape a gang that was after his family here in Guatemala. (Hearing stories like that—and I heard many during my time there—was so humbling.)

classrooms at the mountain school

My “classroom”

After classes, we could study on the front porch or on el mirador, a perch with a great view.

el mirador

the view from el mirador

The view from el mirador

The Mountain School is adjacent to three small communities: Fatima, Nuevo San Jose and Santo Domingo. Each was created when groups of families moved there from coffee fincas where they had been exploited and denied wages. Today, the communities are still very poor. Fatima, for example, is just one unpaved block long. The houses are one-story structures with tin roofs and plain cinder block walls. Many families in Fatima and Nuevo San Jose derive part of their income from the Mountain School: The women cook for special occasions, do students’ laundry and provide students with meals on a rotating basis.

I ate all my meals with a host family that lived in Fatima. Elsa, my host mom, was just 39, but had eight kids and grandchildren, who all lived in the house. Unlike in Xela, where meals were a family occasion, here, families didn’t always eat together. The men often leave the house super-early to work as day laborers in other towns or farms—and the women get up even earlier to cook for them. I always ate at a small table by the door while one or two family members sat and talked with me. Often, it was 17-year-old Elida, the second-oldest daughter, and her son, Hamilton. Other times, it was 4-year-old Jony or 2-year-old Pablo.

I took these photos on my last day there. Most families in the communities don’t have cameras and Mountain School students are often their only means to getting family snapshots. Elsa asked me to send them to her after I was back in the States.

my host mom, Elsa, and her grandson Darvin

My host mom, Elsa, and her grandson Darvin

Jony, dressed up for Independence Day, and Pablo

Jony, dressed up for Independence Day, and Pablo

Hamilton and Elida

Hamilton and Elida

tortillas and a tamale

Meals there were simple. I loved the tortillas Elsa served with each meal—so much that I often had three, in addition to whatever the main dish was. She was a good cook, too, and I was a huge fan of her soups. But there were a few instances when I found myself craving more fruits and vegetables (like after a meal of just hot dogs and tortillas), which were a little hard to come by in the communities.

Throughout the week, I learned more about Guatemalan history and culture. On Tuesday, a local woman named Floria spoke to us students about her time in the guerilla. In 1983, the Guatemalan army killed her father and her family fled to Chapais, Mexico. But Floria wanted to avenge her father’s death, and returned to Guatemala to join the guerilla when she was just 14. She remained part of it until the peace accords were signed in 1996.

Later that day, Jorge, a longtime school employee, took us on a hike up a nearby mountain to a plot of land where he grows black beans. We also caught a glimpse of a waterfall. As we walked, Jorge told us about projects the communities are planning to bring in income: candle-making, empanada-making and, eventually, opening up a panadaria (bake shop).

Jorge on the plot where he grows black beans

Jorge on the plot where he grows black beans

coffee plants

Coffee also grew on the mountain

waterfall

The waterfall

the view from the mountainside

The view from the mountainside

Thursday morning, all of us students and teachers piled into the back of a pickup truck for a field trip to Colomba, a nearby town. This is a typical mode of transportation in Guatemala. Even though I rode in several, I never felt quite safe—I’d always try not to think of what would happen if another car hit us! Still, it was a fun way to get from place to place, especially because you had unobstructed views of the scenery.

riding in the back of a pickup

riding in the back of a pickup

riding in the back of a pickup

the view from the back of the pickup

The view from the back of the pickup

In honor of Guatemala’s Independence Day, September 15, local schools had set up exhibits in Colomba’s central park, showcasing industries, food and dress unique to different towns. It was here that I first tried arroz con leche (a sweet porridge-like dessert made from, obviously, rice and milk) and pollo pepian, which is a delicious brown sauce made from sesame and pumpkin seeds and other spices.

independence day display in colomba

independence day display in colomba

It turned out to be a food-filled day. Later that evening, much to my delight, a local woman named Josefina taught us how to make pupusas with cabbage slaw and spicy salsa. They were delicious.

Mateo grating cabbage

Mateo grating cabbage

Jenny and Kathy chopping veggies and herbs

Jenny and Kathy chopping veggies and herbs

josephina frying pupusas

Josephina frying pupusas

pupusas

Hungry, yet?

The Mountain School’s weekly graduation ceremony was on Friday afternoon. We could either cook or pay a local family to cook for us. (I chose the latter.) All of our host families came and it was like one big party. Just like at PLQE, those of us leaving that week had to share a few words of thanks, read a poem, sing a song, etc. in Spanish. I spoke about my irrational fears about the Mountain School, what I learned from my time there and just how rewarding the week had been. Then, we served our host families food. It was just a smallВ gesture, but I hope it conveyed the gratitude I felt for all their hospitality over the past six days.

My Host Family in Xela

Catalina and me

Catalina and me

For the week I was in Xela, I lived with a Guatemalan family. My host mom was more like a host abuela—Catalina was an older woman who had several adult children and grandkids, most of whom lived nearby. She’d been hosting PLQE students for more than 15 years.

Her house was on Diagonal 2, a few blocks away from PLQE. Besides her and myself, two 20-something Guatemalan guys lived there: Eddie, who worked in a bank, and Gaspar, a med student.

Diagonal 2

Diagonal 2

I loved the layout of Catalina’s house and wished my NYC apartment resembled it more. Four bedrooms, a bathroom and kitchen flanked a small, central courtyard that was bright and airy during the day, when the sun streamed in. The focal point of the courtyard was the pila, the green, table-like structure on the right. It has a basin in the center for clean water, and two surfaces on either side for washing dishes and clothing.

My room was small and basic, but comfy enough.

my room in xela

I came home for every meal and felt super-lucky to have Catalina as a host mom. She was an amazing cook and never served the same dish twice. Breakfast was usually eggs (my fave!), beans and the amazingly delicious corn tortillas that Guatemalans eat with every meal. Lunches and dinner were often rice, chicken or pork with veggies and more tortillas. Catalina’s dishes were such a nice change from the oatmeal/eggs/avocado/bagel/soup diet I subsist on at home in NYC.

lunch

Plus, those meals were another opportunity to practice Spanish—though, admittedly, I couldn’t really follow the conversations unless someone spoke directly to me in slow, basic Spanish. And then repeated everything twice. Gaspar spoke English quite well and (even though I guess it was cheating, a little!) sometimes helped me out by explaining words and phrases in English.

Gaspar and me

Gaspar and me–it literally took Catalina 15 tries to take this photo with my iPhone рџ™‚

Before I came to Xela, I notified PLQE that I was allergic to cats and dogs and couldn’t live in a house with either. But it didn’t occur to me that families would have other kinds of animals.

On the first day I met Catalina, I nearly freaked out when I saw her pet—a plump chicken named Paloma. I am deathly afraid of birds. That afternoon, she started to walk into my room, but ran out when I gasped and jumped on my bed. After that, she stayed away from me (smart bird!) and only tried to come in one other time.

paloma

I never told Catalina I was afraid of Paloma because I a) didn’t want to be an inconvenience to her or PLQE and b) because I thought I should face my fear and just deal with it. That tactic kind of worked—I got used to living with a bird and, after a few days, stopped cringing when I heard her making bird noises outside my room. Eventually, I didn’t even have a problem eating chicken while Paloma sat in the next room. I suppose that’s part of what this trip was about anyway—learning and self-growth.

On my last day in Xela, Catalina gave me a notebook in which all her former students wrote her a note, along with their contact information. It was interesting to see where everyone was from (mostly different cities in the US and Canada) and how good their Spanish was (most seemed way better than me). With only one week of Spanish under my belt, I needed a dictionary to write my letter, but I thanked her for her hospitality, patience with my Spanish and, of course, for her delicious cooking. And I apologized for any errors!

Off to Guatemala!

Xela a noche

I’m about to depart onВ my end of summer trip–two weeks in Guatemala to learn Spanish! I’ll be studying atВ Proyecto LingГјistico Quetzalteco de EspaГ±ol (PLQE), spending one week in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second largest city, and one week at La Escuela de la Montana, their other location on a coffee farm in the mountains.

Earlier this month, I felt a little nervous about going–mostly about the mountain school. As a city girl, I’m never quite at ease in rural areas. I feel safe in big urban areas where there are lots of people and noise. When I’m surrounded by nature and the unfamiliar sounds that come with it, I’m always a little on edge. Even suburbs kind of creep me out!

But now I’m just so excited to go. I’m really looking forward to meeting my host family and fellow students, improving my Spanish and exploring two new places. (I only wish that Mal were coming with me–and already can’t wait for the next trip we’ll take together!)

(Photo of Xela at night by Harry Diaz)