Saturday, May 2, 2009
Moving out but not necessarily up.
Almost 10 years ago, Adrian and I went on our first big trip abroad. The destination? Buenos Aires. Way back then I figured growing up on American Sesame Street with it’s basic Spanish lessons and my 10 years of French would be enough to get by. As soon as I got in the cab at the airport I discovered just how wrong I was. Not only are Spanish and French as different as English and French, but Argentina Spanish sounds nothing like Sesame Street Spanish. It’s Spanish pronounced like Portguese by Italians. If you’re confused, you have an idea of just how painful my attempt to communicate with that taxi driver was.
After that trip I resolved never to travel without a basic grasp of the language. Before we went to Peru five years ago, I did a series of language tapes and that helped a bit. At least I could read a menu, order food and buy bus tickets. But I still had no idea what peope were saying to me. So in preparation for this trip I spent the last year teaching myself a first year university textbook. However, I still hadn’t done any speaking classes so now I understood what was being said to me but I had no way to answer. To fix that Adrian and I decided to take some Spanish lessons. We could have stayed in Antigua to do our lessons as many do, but we were ready to move on. Plus, I had read that they were slightly cheaper in Quetzaltenango,(aka Xela, pronounced Shay-la). And since I love a good bargain, Xela it was. But how to choose a school? Easy – only one responded to my email inquiries. For $150 each, Adrian were going to get a weeks accommodation and 25 hours of one on one instruction at the Miguel Cervantes Spanish School. But first we had to get there.
Once again I got up early and was treated to another hot shower. And once again I had the computers to myself. I found a great website that detailed the bus schedules and connections we’d have to make in order to get to the school before it closed at 1pm. It only required two buses and would take about 4 hours to get there. So as soon as breakfast was served we wolfed it down, said goodbye to Jesus and headed out to catch the chicken bus to Chimaltenango. We didn’t have to carry our packs far, as soon as we stepped out of the hostel, an almost empty bus drove by with the ayudante calling “Chimi Chimi, Chimi”. We flagged it down and got on carefully trying not to whack any of the other passengers in the head with our packs.
Chicken buses in Guatemala are similar to buses in Belize – uncomfortable old American school buses. But unlike those Belize, each driver has painted his bus in bright colours and christened it with a religious name. Our bus was called “Gracias a Dio”. I guess they hoped that a little religion let them safely navigate the mountain roads without using their brakes. Luckily, the road to Chimi was relatively flat and it was just over an hour to the Pan- American highway in Chimaltenango where the driver stopped and the ayudante pointing across the street to where we could catch our next bus to Xela. We followed two other gringos who seemed to know where they were going across the bridge and down the road where a slightly nicer bus was waiting. It looked like a regular coach but unfortunately for my bladder there was no toilet on board.
The highway to Xela was being widened or resurfaced making for a rather bumpy ride through the mountains. But at least that meant the driver had to slow down. Sort of. It was still three hours to Xela where we pulled into the main market/bus terminal full of crazy buses, crazy taxis and crazy stalls. Before I could deal with the craziness (photo above), I had to deal with my crazy bladder. I had to go so badly that I didn’t care about using the local market stall which was dark damp and stinky and without toilet seats let alone toilet paper (once again thank goodness for my stash). Then it was into a cab to the language school.
We got to the language school 15 minutes after 1 but the someone was still there to let us in. The school was an old colonial house around the corner from the central park. It had a communal kitchen, shared bathroom and about 9 bedrooms on two floors organized around an open courtyard. We were given the attic room at the top of a very skinny rickety staircase and the air was thick with dust. From one of our favourite hostel so far to this? Good thing it was dirt cheap and had wifi or else, actually I don’t know what else. We could have chosen the homestay but I don’t think staying with a local family would have improved our accommodations much. on to explore our new location and get some dinner.
Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala but it’s only about 150 years old so it was completely different than quaint little Antigua. The architecture was more ornate but still set up like every other Central American city with the central park surrounded by a cathedral, city hall and a couple of other important buildings. As we walked through the park, we were surrounding by a parade of Mayan women dressed in white and carrying signs for churches around the world like cairo and Athens. Oh wait that’s Athens, Georgia and Cairo, Ohio. So I guess they were from all over the US. I still have no clue what the parade was about.
After dinner, it was getting dark. And it was then that we noticed another difference between Xela and Antigua. It was actually cold enough for a sweater or, since I had forgotten to pack anything with long sleeves, a jacket. Oh boy, this was going to be along week. The combination of the cold and the dark, skinny, rickety stairs to and from our room has me worried that I may damage my kidneys from holding it in unless we get a room with a private bath soon.