As soon as I read about PLQE (Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Español) I knew it was the school for me. It has a philosophy that surrounds the learning of Spanish with developing an understanding of the social, economic and political situation of modern Guatemala, which really appeals to an old lefty like me. It’s run as a worker’s cooperative, meaning that the teachers are the best paid in Xela (as the locals call Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second city). A portion of the fees also goes to support various good causes in and around the city, and the opportunity exists to volunteer at some of these too.
It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea (I know I’ve bored many a person in the past when talking politics), but I found it fascinating. The week starts off with a lecture about the (very sad) history of Guatemala – covering first the oppression of the indigenous peoples by the Spanish conquistadores, followed by continuing exploitation by the rich landowners (which they defended by declaring independence from Spain before they could abolish slavery), right through to the thirty year long civil war that saw various leftist guerilla groups fighting for a better deal for the vast majority of the population. The war has been over for a decade now after the government negotiated for peace, but the dreadful situation continues – a tiny elite of around twenty families still controls the economy, and despite Guatemala being richer than its Central American neighbours, thanks to the extreme inequalities the majority of the population are the poorest in the Americas after Haiti (and most of those poor are the indigenous peoples, descendents of the Maya, who make up over 60% of the population, also the biggest proportion in the Americas). Aside from all the problems caused for the people of Guatemals by their ruling elite, the country also gets a pretty raw deal from nature, what with more active volcanoes than any other Central American country, earthquakes that three times devasted the original capital and in recent years have killed thousands of people, and yearly hurricanes coming in from both coasts that have frequently wreaked devastation.
Many of the teachers at the school are either former leftist guerillas or had some involvement in the movement, and my teacher, Luis, is one of the most political. This was great for my Spanish – I arrived having a basic grounding of grammar and rather limited vocabulary, but after a week of five (very tiring) hours of one-to-one lessons every afternoon, in which Luis and I spent much of the time talking in more detail about the country’s history, my confidence had improved no end – it’s much easier to find a way to talk when you’re talking about something you’re really interested in. Admittedly, thanks to the topics of conversation, I realised later on that I now knew the Spanish words for things like ‘oppression’ and ‘worker’s struggle’ and ‘massacre’ and hasn’t got round to learning basics like ‘leg’. But I’m sure those will come in time, and at least I should be able to impress my captors if I get kidknapped by FARC in Colombia this July. (Don’t worry mum, I have no plans to go anywhere near FARC-controlled ares while I’m there)
It’s been nearly thirteen years since I was back in class, and the whole process was shattering, especially as my lessons were from 2-7pm every afternoon – thinking that hard for that long really drains you, but it was worth it every time I made a breakthrough. Sadly the tiredness wasn’t helped by the fact I was almost permanently hungry. Part of the immersion experience is that you live with a host family for a week, who provide a bed and a desk, and three meals a day. Unfortunately for me, the food was very basic indeed, and in pretty small portions – I’m fully aware that Guatemala is a lot poorer than my own country, and I certainly wasn’t expecting gourmet food, but just speaking to other students at the school, I soon realised I’d drawn the short straw and got a host mum who just wasn’t a great cook sadly. I could have asked to be moved, but they were a lovely family so I just topped up with stops at the lovely local panaderia (and the occasional trip to McDonald’s – don’t tell my teachers that, they wouldn’t approve).
The school’s philosophy attracts a really cool crowd of students too, in my week all from the US or Canada apart from me, which made the experience really fun too. Xela is a fantastic city to study in too – very few tourists visit the city (unlike much of the rest of the country), despite it being the country’s second-biggest city. It’s not the most obviously beautiful city, but the more time I spent there the more I fell in love with the place, it has a really friendly atmosphere, and it’s much easier to meet and mix with Guatemalans than in some of the other places I visited.
You can see all my photos of Xela here.