Tag Archives: studying Spanish in Quetzaltenango

Learning Spanish in the Guatemalan Highlands

After spending a week studying Spanish in Xela, I made a last minute decision to switch to PLQ’s sister school up in the mountains. It hadn’t been part of my original plans, but on speaking to some of the students who’d studied there it really sounded like an experience not to be missed, and so was very glad to find last minute places available.

La Escuela de las Montañas (the Mountain School) is situated about 10km north of Xela, in the surrounding highlands, one of the finest coffee-growing regions in the world, although it takes an hour to get there because of the winding roads that lead up into the mountains. It very much shares the same philosophy as its sister school, but the key difference is it’s actually situated right next door the communities it helps, meaning you really get a better understanding of Guatemalan village life that most travellers probably don’t get to see.

Cows on the streets of Fatima

Cows on the streets of Fatima

The neighbouring communities of Fatima and Nuevo San Jose are both made up of families who formerly lived and worked on nearby coffee fincas. After the collapse of world coffee prices in the 90s, the owners of the fincas simply stopped paying the workers for two years. The situation got so desperate that eventually children died of malnutrition, and the children missed out on school for the whole time as well. In both cases the workers took the owners to court, and won. In one case, they eventually got some of the money they were owed after this; in the other the owners still failed to pay up, and in frustration the community eventually took the owner hostage until he paid up. With the money they gained, they were able to buy some land and build houses. However the situation is still pretty desperate, with very few of the people in both communities having regular jobs – instead most of the men get up at 4am every morning to get a bus into town to look for casual work, which is by no means guaranteed. What work there is is often well below the minimum wage (which is very hard to enforce in Guatemala).

So the mountain school was set up to teach Spanish and use the profits to help out both communities financially, both by paying families to provide meals for students, and by providing funding for the communities’ special projects fund. At the moment, they are also trying to find the funds to help build a library and computer centre for the children of both communities, to help their education, something which is expensive for families with very little money.

It’s a rather over-used word, but eating three meals a day with my host family was quite a humbling experience – after staying with a middle class family in Xela with a big house, it was quite a contrast to be eating in a tiny dirt-floored shack made of corrugated metal, just one pretty small room divided by a curtain, serving as a home for a whole family, with the bed in one half and the cooking area in the other. There’s no electricity, running water or toilet in the house – those are all shared with other neighbours, and cooking is simply on a makeshift wood-burning stove. Despite these difficulties, I actually ate more and better than I had with my family in Xela, and every breakfast I was entertained by Jessica, the family’s two year old daughter who chatted away to me in incomprehensible Spanish while I ate. Everyone in the village is incredibly friendly too – with up to fourteen foreign students turning up every week, and only around forty families in both communities, they are quite used to our strange ways, and the kids are always running up to you demanding you take a photo of them (which they always love seeing), or even just to stop and play games or dance in the street with them.

Friendly local kids

Friendly local kids

The school itself is a little oasis of calm – the main building (where we all sleep) is surrounded by a huge garden, containing banana and coffee trees, a traditional medicinal herb garden and a carp pond. All lessons also take place in little palm-thatched cabañas in the garden, which is a lovely way to study (if there is such a thing as a lovely way to study). There’s also a little mirador (look-out), where you can sit and read, or study, or just chill out, overlooking the valley and the adjacent mountains. The terrace of the school also has hammocks for relaxing too, and there’s a kitchen as well just in case you are still hungry (or you can do what we did and get a friend to visit from Xela with pizza). Being in such small place, there’s little to do of an evening but chill out, chat, and play cards outside over a beer or two, listening to the rain and watching the skies light up with the tremendous electrical storms that happen every evening at this time of year. The house also has two lovely cats and three adorable dogs guarding the place (they bark at every passing vehicle, but unfortunately living in a humid and rainy climate they are bit too smelly – despite regular baths – to really play with).

My classroom

My classroom

As well as all the classes, you also get more of a feel for the community by the various other talks the school organises – one night the village midwife came to give us a talk about how she works, and the difficulties she faces, one lunchtime we had a talk from a local who is involved in running the local community radio station that has a crucial role in providing information about health and education, and most fun of all was the night one the local mothers came down to teach us how to make platanos rellenos (stuffed bananas), which involved boiling up bananas until soft, mashing them up to make a dough, rolling them out to make banana tortillas, and then stuffing them with pureed sweetened black beans, and then deep-frying the whole thing and serving with sugar – great fun and absolutely delicious.

Making platanos rellenos

Making platanos rellenos

The whole thing has been a magical time, so relaxing and enjoyable I barely feel like I’ve been studying, and getting the chance to experience at close hand the realities of how the majority of Guatemalans live is something I’ll never forget. It’s a shame I have to get on because I’d love to stay here for several weeks, slowly improving my Spanish (many students do just that).

Cheesy graduation picture

Cheesy graduation picture

If you’re thinking of studying Spanish in Latin America, I really can’t recommend this place highly enough (you can find out more about it here), I genuinely can’t think of a better place to do it, plus you get the chance to help an extremely poor community.

Advertisements

The coolest Spanish School in Guatemala

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.

Xelas Parque Central

Xela's Parge Central

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.

Colourful crumbling building in Xela

Colourful crumbling building in Xela

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)

Xela Market

Xela Market

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).

Cool building on 13th Ave

Cool building on 13th Ave

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.