Studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala

Taking Spanish classes in Antigua is a rather pleasant affair. There are many schools to choose from although they seem to be quite simialr in methodology and price.

Most schools offer one teacher per student. They converse, study the necessary grammar and sometimes go out to visit local sites. Most students do very well with this method, but I wanted something a little different since I already speak quite fluently. My aim is to advance my Spanish to an academic level, with the idea that, in the future, I might study (perhaps Women’s Studies) in a Spanish-speaking university.

After one month of classes, I am still searching for the ideal teacher. I need to read in Spanish more quickly, and write with more sophistication. With these goals in mind, I have accepted to meet with a university prof two afternoons a week which means giving up my volunteer work.

That is a pity really because I have enjoyed working with the NGO, Ninos de Guatemala. They have built three schools for children from poor families where they are taught the regular curriculum in a caring environment.

During the first three weeks I stayed with a Guatemalan “family”. The woman, Bertha, lives in a rented house where she rents five rooms and cooks three meals a day six days a week. She has three grown-up children who no longer live at home. There were two Guatemalan high school students from neighbouring towns, and a variety of other students: a German girl, a French guy, and then three Americans from a religious boarding school who were in Antigua just for a few days helping to build a house (something like Habitat for Humanity). The house was quite modest as were the meals. I found the landlady to be very frugal and fussy. After looking at some other home-stay options, I opted to rent through Airbnb. This lovely home is owned by a university professor. I can cook for myself and enjoy all the comforts of home: laundry facilities, lots of hot water, comfortable furniture, and a lovely garden. A couple of pluses I don’t have at home are: a second floor balcony with a view of three volcanos (one quite active), and a gated community with a doorman!

On weekends I relax, walk, browse in the shops, get my nails done, visit museums, or other places of interest such as the huge organic garden up on the mountain which serves great drinks and food, or the park which incorporates wonderful works of art. This past week, a lovely German woman studying at the same school as I, has been a nice companion.

I am looking forward to another month here before heading north through Guatemala and Belize and back into Mexico for a few more diving excursions before heading home to work in my own garden.

Two weeks travelling in Guatemala

These past two weeks, Eduardo and I have visited some parts of Guatemala. We met in the capital, Guatemala City, and headed out the next day to Antigua, a beautiful colonial city with cobble stone streets and well kept buildings. There are some old churches that have been destroyed by earthquakes; they are not restored, but fortified so they do not deteriorate further and are lovely as ruins. Many foreign and local tourists come to Antigua. It is a favourite getaway for folks from the capital, just a curvy downhill ride of about one hour.

While here, we enjoyed staying in a rather luxurious suite (or master bedroom) in a newer condo built like the old colonial houses. It is large with 2 or 3 other rooms, a huge kitchen, dining room, living room and central patio all located within a gated and guarded precinct. Every day, we walked the streets, visited local sites, museums, stores, cafes, and restaurants. It was a lovely way to start our holidays.”

Then we took a local bus to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan, a rather large lake with 12 towns and villages on its shores. From this rather dreary looking town we took a ferry across to San Pedro. This town caters to tourists. Although we did not see any first class places, there are many economical hotels and hostels. The town is filled with young people, many looking like hippies from the 70’s. Some have set up businesses of their own, offering food, accommodation, massage and all other kinds of alternative remedies, restaurants, and bars.dsc04491

Over the next few days we visited five of the villages, each with their own charm. Every town has its own traditional dress. The men, in most villages, do not wear traditional clothing, whereas the women do, although most seem to mix and match quite freely, no longer adhering to the colours imposed upon them by the Spanish colonizers in order to know what village each person came from. Maybe a more astute eye can still identify some tell-tale style or colour, but it seemed like a mishmash to me (except in Santa Catarina).DSC04649.JPG

Finally we went back to Panajachel where we stayed with a loving Guatemalan family in a separate little apartment they rent through Airbnb. Cirilo picked us up in his tuktuk (pronounced touque-touque) and drove us across town away from centre into a very modest residential area. The apartment located at the back of his property, was nicely built, furnished, and decorated. Apparently he was able to build this apartment because a little old American woman befriended him and had it built there where she planned to live out the rest of her days. She then returned to the States for health reasons, and he rents it out in order to buy it back from her. Sunday, we hopped on the local chicken bus (That is what they call the local milk-run buses that stop anywhere to pick up or drop off people and their chickens, presumably.) to the famous market in Chichicastenango. The many stalls of brightly coloured woven materials was overwhelming. We wandered until we found a young woman selling delicious, piping hot tamales. We sat at their booth and ate them messily right from the banana leaves they were wrapped in. On our last day, Cirilo took us in his tuktuk to the prettiest village of them all, Santa Catarina Polopo, stopping along the way to take pictures. We had breakfast at a restaurant overlooking Lake Atitlan and its surrounding mountains and three volcanos.dsc04601

Our next stop was Quetzaltenango or Xela (pronouced Chela) which is the original Mayan name for the place. Xela is the second biggest city in Guatemala and I found it to be dusty and very polluted. It was bitterly cold in the mornings and evenings going down to minus 2 but warm, even hot during the day. This combination brought on some serious allergies and cold-like symptoms in both Eduardo and me. We stayed at another Airbnb with a lovely young couple who seem to have inherited a semi-hotel come boarding house. We had a small, cold room with a tiny bathroom, but the couple made up for it by kindly suggesting many interesting places we could visit and telling us the best way to get there.

Therefore, everyday, we would escape from Xela on a chicken bus out to different places of interest.

Day one we explored the city a bit then went to the hots springs called Fuentes Georgina in the afternoon as the clouds were descending over the mountains. Sitting in the hot waters of the springs was magical as the vapours rose out of the water and mixed with the descending mist of the clouds swirling around the almost tropical greenery hanging from the surrounding mountains. Fortunately we got talking with a local woman who was entertaining guests from her church in the United States. They kindly offered to drive us almost all the way back to Xela. We did not realize how quickly night descended and how early the buses stop. They usually don’t run after 5 or 6 in the evening as many buses and other vehicles have been stopped and robbed by local thugs.DCIM100GOPROGOPR0790.

Day two we climbed up to a sacred lake located in the crater of an ancient volcano. It is called Chicabal. It was a fairly long, arduous walk up to the look out, then we went farther up to another look out before descending to the edge of the lake. From there we could see local indigenous people resting of the other side of the lake. As we walked around the south end of the lake there were various places where altars had been built for Mayan religious ceremonies. We chatted with some locals who had come up to the lake just for the pleasure. I asked one man what this place meant to him, and he seemed to be pleased to explain that it is a sacred place where they don’t swim or fish out of respect. He recounted a story about some people who did try to take a small boat out into the middle of the lake which isn’t even a kilometre across, and who got caught up in some kind of a vortex and were never seen again. He did however, eat a fish from the lake once. It had jumped out of the water practically at his feet and was still breathing, so he cooked and ate it. Before leaving, we saw a few young men with fishing lines who were going to try their luck, so I am not too sure about the taboo on fishing.dsc04685

Day three, we slept late under heavy blankets. In the afternoon, we visited the neighbouring towns of Totonicapan and San Andres Xecul where the church has a gaudy bright yellow façade covered with various colourful statues.dsc04714

It was a restful day to recuperate from the walk up the mountain and to rest up before visiting the Olmec and Mayan ruins called Takalik Abaj where the oldest ruins have been found (predating Tikal by a 1000 years). This is a national park, with very few tourists; although it is very well kept, and the guide was well informed about the history of the ruins, the fauna and flora of the park. Again, although it was not late, no bus or public transport came by while we waited for over an hour. When we finally decided to walk four kilometres to the village, a little half-ton truck came by and collected us; along with many locals, we stood in the back holding on to the frame. I was surprised how tired I felt when about thirty minutes later we descended into the village of Retalhuleu (Reu for short). The people in the truck got the driver to stop in front of a popular eatery. (I overheard them discussing where we should eat.) Anyway, it was delicious. I had a sizzling hot plate of barbecued pork ribs accompanied by a baked potato filled with melted cheese and a salad, and Eduardo had a huge filet of fish with all the trimmings. We then bussed back to Xela.

Eduardo’s last day before returning to Ottawa was spent travelling in a first class bus to Guatemala City where we stayed in another modest room in the home of some rather interesting people. The man and his wife have spent many years of their professional lives exhuming the bodies of victims of war, not only in their home country where people are still discovering human remains from the recent civil war, but also in many other countries around the world.

Markets and Artesanía

Artesanía translates as handicrafts, crafts, craftsmanship, or mastership. Where does the art come it? How do we differentiate between art and crafts? These questions have been niggling away while I visit the beautiful markets and shops of Guatemala.

For many items, it is obvious that commercialization has taken over. Some things are made in factories, maybe even factories outside the country. Some items are made over and over again in the same manner and same colours and size. To me this is craftsmanship (a rather sexist term, especially considering that most crafts are done by women). Craftsmanship demand a great deal of skill and is often confused with our modern version of crafts which often lovingly hangs on our refrigerator doors.

The Spanish word, artesanía, however includes the word ART. Much of Guatemala’s artesanía involves a huge amount of art and craft.

A visit to a Guatemalan market is a feast for the eyes. And if one goes into the food area, the array of food is tantalizing. Although I usually avoid street food, one item I consider safe is tamales because they are cooked the same day and are served piping hot. Yesterday was no exception. Eduardo and I clumsily ate two huge tamales wrapped in banana leaves right in the market stall. (Dough was made from rice and corn masa) It was the locals turn to stare!

Saturday market in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala

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Discovering Guatemala

Travelling with my husband

Eduardo couldn’t have thought of a better way to get me back on track. He suggested we meet in Guatemala, a country we both have wanted to visit for years.

So after two weeks of diving in Cozumel on my own, we met in Guatemala City. From there, we went to the lovely colonial city of Antigua.

Strolling about the city, we visited a textile museum, and various language schools where I think I might study for couple of months after Eduardo goes home.

Presently we are located on the shores of Lake Atitlan which is surrounded by high hills and three volcanos.

A new generation of hippies have discovered the villages and crowd the streets, visiting, selling their own wares alongside the local Guatemalans, and offering various other services such as hotels, health spas, health food stores, and probably others that I haven’t discovered yet.

Clear mornings and misty afternoons with warm spring time weather make this an ideal place to get away from winter.

Lovely Cozumel

Lovely Cozumel

Cozumel is a great island just off the Mayan Coast. It is especially noted for its wonderful diving. The town is small and safe, and the hotels are out of town which is just fine with me.

The reefs and beaches are on the on the east side facing the mainland and the west side has lovely deserted beaches because one cannot swim in the rough waters. When there is a north wind, it is rough everywhere.

To pass the time during my recovery from blocked middle ears, I rented a car and drove around the island spending a time sunning on the beach, and eating great ceviche in a restaurant perched on the highest point of the island while I studied for my exam on Enriched Air Diving.

Here are some pictures.dsc04391dsc04406dsc04410dsc04434

What do I do now?

What do I do now?
January 6, 2017

Sometimes life goes along as planned,, sometimes it doesn’t. It can reserve big surprises and obstacles. Everyone of us has experienced some.

These past few months, my projects and plans have not gone as I anticipated.

Last spring/early summer, I applied to volunteer with CUSO. Although the organization accepted me as a candidate, none of the local organizations in Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia chose me for the job they had advertised. I suspect “ageism”, but who knows?

Then I was accepted to crew on a sail boat with a dream itinerary. Unfortunately, neither the boat nor the captain were sea-worthy. This reversal caused me and the other crew members major inconvenience. Not only did I spend quite a bit of money getting to Houston and then out of Houston, I also bought an entire set of diving equipment which I am still hauling around. I bought reference books for the boat which a friend will forward to me when I get back home. My bags are still heavy with sailing gear, and an extensive medical kit. Every time I move, someone has to help me with my luggage. How embarrassing, and rather costly too.

In Cuba, I got a bad virus which the doctor chalked up to stress.

Getting from Havana to Cancun (only 60 miles apart) took me over 12 hours rather than the measly one hour it should have taken.

And now that I am happy in a paradisiacal diving centre, my ears get bunged up, so I have to take anywhere from 3 to 5 days off!

At each turn, I have improvised, and tried to make the most out of the situation, but it is rather discouraging, wouldn’t you say?

There are many ways of minimizing these set-backs:
1. Realizing that they could be worse.
2. I am lucky I didn’t go out to sea with an incompetent captain.
3. There is always something else one can do, suffice to keep an open mind.
4. It is better to be stuck in paradise than in a snow bank.
5. My luck is bound to change… hopefully soon.
6. I should count my blessings rather than my difficulties.
7. Etc., etc.

And I will, but right now, I am feeling rather defeated.

New Year’s Eve

Saturday, December 31, 2016, 8:30 am

The last day of the year! What am I doing in Cancun?

It certainly has changed since our first visit in 1984. It is still a tourist city, but only much bigger and busier. The same is true for Isla Mujeres where I visited the beach yesterday. I had been told there are many sailing boats there and nursed a hope that I might find one needing crew. Well, either someone was mistaken or they have all sailed away to more pristine beaches and quieter villages.

The north beach was less crowded, and I enjoyed a dip in the ocean, a cold Mexican beer, and a chat with a couple from L.A. Charles, American, and Sue, Korean are visiting Mexico with her three teenaged, Korean grandchildren.

The sun was shining; the wind was refreshing, and a coconut tree provided enough shade for my delicate, freckled skin.

Chichen Itza, a World Heritage Site, is now a major tourist trap with literally thousands of people selling the same thing to the 1.4 million people who visit it annually.  Fortunately, the ruins are still the same and one can from time to time find  a space where it looks as if you are the only visitor.

I am trying to read An Embarrassment of Mangoes by Ann Vanderhoof, but her mini adventures and observations of the Caribbean along with her adaptations of local recipes are not captivating me. I should download one of the novels recommended to me by Melanie et al.

Well, I wish you all a very happy new year: good health and enough money and time to enjoy all the experiences that come your way.

A few pics of men dressed in “traditional costume” for picture taking at a cenote where I did not join the crowds.