Her name was Lili de Leon. Lili was one of the most experienced Spanish teachers at Casa Xelaju, having taught there since its opening over twenty five years ago. She was assigned to be my individual teacher for my entire week at Casa Xelaju, all for the meager cost of $190 (which also included room and board at my home stay).
When I first met her, I was a little taken aback. She did not at all look like what I had envisioned her in my head the night before. Instead of dark, thick black hair Lili’s hair was almost as blond as mine which was a rarity in Guatemala. Her shoulder-length hair was neatly combed back in complete perfection despite the windy conditions, and her wonderfully tailored coat and slacks made me feel like a total slob in my $5 Target t-shirt, washed out jeans and sneakers. She greeted me with a warm, enthusiastic smile and I instantly knew that I’d like her. Usually I have a good intuition on people and normally I am proved right.
We headed up to the third floor of Casa Xelaju, a beautiful, spacious building that not only hosts several individual teaching rooms but also offers fully furnished, clean apartments for rent at insanely cheap deals (a fully furnished, two bedroom apartment with kitchen and bathroom ran about $150 for two weeks). It was a quite week at the school as there were only about four students at the moment. At the height of high season, they can have dozens or more.
We entered Lili’s classroom on the third floor and I was very pleased to see it was beautifully decorated, full of lively colors and pictures, and best of all, had an enormous window looking out over the next door neighbor’s chicken coop one direction and a fantastic view of the city in the other direction. It was facing east which meant the morning sun would rise and light up the room with brilliant sunshine each day. I knew it would be the perfect place for me to crack open the books and start learning Spanish.
Photo above of Lili’s classroom which screamed happiness.
View outside the window overlooking the neighbors backyard and chickens. I could hear them cock-a-doo-dle-doo all day long!
The first thing Lili had me do was a quick evaluation to see where I was at with my Spanish. Since I hadn’t really taken any serious coursework in over eight years I knew that my level was not good. I had tried to study my Spanish over the last two months at home but found myself easily distracted and frustrated. I knew that I had some knowledge of it somewhere, deep inside my forty-year-old brain. Stored with over 27 years of French, many memorized facts and lots of lifelong memories and thoughts. But it was harder than I imagined to dig it out.
Ah, if only I was like my kids! I pondered. Children are such sponges and can soak up anything while adults find it much harder to learn new things.
I took my time on the evaluation, searching the depths of my memory for the proper verb conjugations and the correct genders for each noun. I realized that there was a lot I had completely forgotten and I had to leave the answer blank. That didn’t feel good to me one bit as I have always been an obsessive student who rarely got the wrong answer in school. But my school days were long over. I was a mother of two children not a college kid anymore so I had to suck it up and turn in a crappy exam.
Lili took her time reviewing my work while I grabbed my first real cup of coffee of the day. My host family had run out of coffee in the morning which was a killer for me! Although I only drink one strong cup of java a day, I need my coffee to function. Over the course of the week, Lili came up with the hilarious phrase that my coffee was “mi gasolina“. Yep, sometimes the truth hurts. But it was obvious that Lili could read me like a book.
I returned to the classroom to see Lili deep in concentration. I sat down quietly looking out the window and waited. It was such a beautiful day that I had to take some pictures. Lili looked at me and smiled. ”Buen trabajo!” she beamed enthusiastically. With that, our lessons began.
Around 10:30, my head began to throb. It had been two and a half hours of non-stop Spanish and I was starting to mix it up by adding in some French. I had no idea how on earth I would ever make a full five hours non-stop of one on one Spanish lessons when I was saved by the bell. A loud bell sounded and Lili told me it was time for a break. We had thirty minutes to have a quick coffee and a rest. Thank god!
Not wanting to sit around (I can’t sit still for a second unless I’m writing or reading!) I opted to take a quick walk around the school and check things out. I went out the front door and here is what I saw….
My first Mayan friend, a joyous woman named Maria, doing traditional Mayan weaving right outside our doorstep. Here she is working on a table runner that she estimates will take an hour and a half to finish.
I talked to Maria and was so excited to see her work that of course I had to buy a memory of it all. I bought this gorgeous little table runner to put upstair on my desk. I love the vibrant colors! I also felt good about supporting a traditional art that hopefully will be around for many years to come.
A display of Maria’s wares. Wow. I could have gone absolutely crazy but I knew that I already have so much of this stuff from Nepal and other travels. Mayan textiles are absolutely gorgeous. All the women weave their own clothing and each village in Guatemala wears different colors. It is truly a work of art and I was sad that I didn’t have any more time or money to see and buy more!
I asked Maria if I could take her picture beside her work. She happily agreed. Does she not look like an incredibly happy and proud woman? I think so!
The bell rang again promptly at eleven and it was time to return. I hid the table runner inside my backpack thinking no one would know that I bought it. However, the moment I returned into class Lili asked me what I bought. I was spied on. I showed her my merchandise and then next she asked me what I paid. I fidgeted a bit before telling her, feeling slightly uncomfortable. Ah, you should have gone down at least 20% she said rather manner of fact. Oh well. For me, what was $6. Nothing. But for Maria, it was a good sale and food on the table. I changed the subject.
We jumped back into reviewing the present tense regular and irregular verbs. I loved Lili’s style. She was patient, encouraging, enthusiastic and passionate about her job. She loved to teach Spanish.
“So”, Lili said. ”You are looking rather tired. Would you like to take this class on the road?” Does the pope wear a funny hat? Of course I did!
Lili and I spent the next two hours strolling around Xela stopping first at El Parque Centroamerica, the heart of the city which is graced with some of Xela’s most spectacular neoclassical architecture and reminds you of her Spanish past.
Lili was an excellent tour guide and teacher on the road. We talked on and on in Spanish and she continually encouraged me and gently corrected my mistakes. Being outside exploring the world around me was the perfect classroom and Lili’s love of learning and teaching Spanish was utterly contagious.
We spent the rest of the week together doing half our studies inside the classroom and the rest in the real world. We went to Guatemalan cafes, special bakeries, the open-air market, and were lucky enough to witness the unbelievable El Dia de la Mujer (International Women’s Day which I already wrote about here). It was an amazing week and I could see my Spanish improving daily.
Looking back now, I’m still amazed at how much I learned in only a week. It was the most intense language immersion ever. Since English was not an option, I was forced to learn Spanish as quickly as possible and once I began, I didn’t want to stop. It opened doors to experiences and cultures that made this trip so incredibly special.
Lili with the clowns on El Dia de la Mujer celebration.
And me with the clowns….
A few more photos of the streets around Casa Xelaju….
This bridge was my landmark which told me where to go to find the school.
I loved my week at Casa Xelaju. It was an amazing experience, one that I hope to someday do again. Getting completely out of your comfort zone is what makes international travel so incredibly memorable and rewarding. I can’t wait to do it again!
Stay tuned…next post will talk about the volunteer opportunities available in Xela.