Abierto! Cerrado! A cartoon character opening and slamming a door repeatedly. A crowd of children reciting numbers in unison: uno, dos, tres. . . Luis, in a tattered shirt crawling through the burning sands of a fake desert under studio lighting, gasping, "Aaaaaagua!"
Sesame Street. It's my answer when people ask me why I want to learn Spanish. I swear it was the hours I spent as a five-year old watching PBS with a PB&J in my hand. I kept the textbook from a couple of lame years of high school instruction and occasionally I would see a movie in Spanish and get all worked up about teaching myself for a week or two. A friend, tired of all the talk, finally told me to get on with it and gave me a pamphlet for a program in Mexico. But I knew there had to be a way to do it for less than $1000 a month. And that's how I ended up in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
The streets of Quetzaltenango are narrow and dusty, lined with simple but colorful concrete houses and storefronts. Old, brightly painted Blue Bird school busses exiled from the U.S. rumble past on regular public routes, spouting clouds of diesel. Over the rooftops, the mountains seem to close in on the town like fingers around a palm, and at night the house lights on their slopes are nearly indistinguishable from the stars. During the day the sun is strong, and at night the mountain chill sets in. At an altitude of almost 8,000 feet, the sky is deep blue and the lush green mountains and stony volcanoes pierce clouds so white that one must squint to look at them. The Maya are no less impressive, dressed in vivid colors, with rainbows of wool draped over their bodies and infants swaddled to their mothers' backs in intricately woven blankets. It is a city of 250,000, the second largest in Guatemala, but with a feel of the country. Everyone refers to it by its Mayan name: Xela.
Many schools are already on line and some sources such as XelaPages.com pull a lot of links together (though not all the good ones can be found there). A sucker for free internet time, I chose Celas Maya. Like many typical schools, Celas Maya hires many university students and trained teachers. They offer homestays that include a simple room and desk, three meals a day and the atmosphere of family for anywhere from $110 to $150 per week.
Although afternoon classes are offered, most choose to study in the morning and check out Xela and surroundings in the afternoon.. I walked to school every day at eight a.m. and had a personal instructor at my disposal until one p.m., Monday through Friday. We sat in a sun-filled courtyard with a trickling fountain, a variety of colorful flowers and clear morning skies. The grammar, exercises, and yes, homework, quickly got the wheels turning. When I went home to my family for lunch chicken and fresh corn tortillas or Guatemalan tamales (called paches), maybe some fresh-squeezed OJ. I had a group of supportive adults and children ready to practice with me. Fellow students immediately took to referring to their hosts as family: "I can't meet you at seven unless I tell my mom I won't be home for dinner."
The great thing about one-on-one study is the flexibility. Let's face it, some people take in language the way Homer Simpson drinks beer. Others are breaking a sweat just to say thank you in a way that doesn't sound like "grassy ass." With the personal instructor, everything is tailored to your learning curve. Alejandra, my teacher for three weeks, would make sure I had something down "Entiendes? Seguro?" and then move on. We covered all of the major grammar within those 21 days. Personal interests can be met easily as well. One student spent most of her time learning medical terminology, while another found a business student to talk finance with him for the week.
Each week schools offer activities outside the instruction period. Sometimes a trip to the hot springs or out to Salcaja to watch local weavers ply their trade or to buy some illicit fruit wine, caldos de frutas. Each week offers a movie and a conference hosted by a local expert on a historical, cultural, or political subject,. My second week, a salsa instructor came to the school to show us all how to get down at the local discoteca. Ciomara, a prominent figure in Xela, confidently whirled us around the conference room. We started out stomping like drunken elephants, but after two hours of intense practice were able to stomp like sober ones. I did my best to keep my eyes level and resist the gravity of our teacher's legs and cleavage, but dammit, salsa is sexy and so was she. Afterwards, a female student, Michelle admitted, "God, even I couldn't stop looking." We learned a few basic spins and went out dancing at Casa Verde, the local hot spot. The true test of nerve with a new language: ask a stranger in a crowded, dimly lit and thumping disco if they'd like to dance.
Xela is not as touristy as Antigua, the former colonial capital, and therefore is a bit better suited for language immersion. As most students speak English, it's easy to fall into your native language, but in Xela, you can disappear into Spanish only land, duck into a quiet cafe or hop a chicken bus to neighboring village.
Which is not to say you should avoid your fellow classmates. The students are as much of an asset as the local culture. Not only are they potential study partners, but as they hail from around the world, they bring a rich range of ideas and languages and perspectives. On Fridays at the school, everyone gathers for graduation, a meal for those whose time is up. One week was local food, the next week students prepared the meal, an international menu concocted of whatever ingredients were available at the open market. We toasted, we made farewell addresses. Some wrote poems or made gifts for their instructors.
Federico, the school's director, asked me if I was going to chupar that night. I frowned and had to go to the pocket dictionary for that one. "To suck." I looked at him with confusion and perhaps a touch of alarm, and the Guatemaltecos around me broke into laughter. It also means getting smashed at the local bars. In language immersion, the lessons are where you find them, in and out of the classroom.
Photos (top to bottom) by: Kevin Revolinski and www.spanishguatemala.org
The Low Down
Program Cost: $120/week
6ta Calle, 1455, Zona 1
telfax: 502 761 4342