Author’s note: This post was originally published on March 16, 2012. For some reason, it had attracted daily spam comments for one year straight so I moved it to drafts. I’m experimenting now by republishing the post to see if the crazy spanners from all across the world find it again. I enjoyed this post and want to keep it on my blog as it documents my week doing a home stay and Spanish immersion in Guatemala. Here it goes again!
I arrived in Quetzaltenango, or simply called Xela (pronounced “Shay-la”), as the sun was setting across the lush, volcanic valley. I was exhausted from the day’s travels and the total immersion into a new country with a new language as a solo traveler. It had been a long time since I’d traveled completely alone. Yes, I had spent a few days alone here and there before my previous volunteer trips in Morocco (April 2011) and Costa Rica (April 2010) the past two springs. Yet, I was always welcomed a few days later by an entire volunteer crew of English speaking friends. This time was different.
I would be spending the week in Xela, Guatemala’s second largest city, in a home stay with a local family. There would be no english spoken whatsoever and I had never met them before. All I knew were their names and their address. That was it.
Thankfully I had the entire week arranged by my son’s Elementary School teacher, Ms. May, back in Minneapolis. Ms. May is married to a Guatemalan and although they live in Minneapolis, they have ran the language school program at Casa Xelaju for 25 years. I had a good, trusted contact. That was all that I needed to give me the push to go.
I was really looking forward to spending time in Xela as it is known as the true Guatemalan experience. Located in Guatemala’s magical Highlands, Xela is surrounded by verdant volcanoes, lush vegetation and spectacular farmland. The city itself is home to many universities, cafes and beautiful architecture dating back to the days of the Spanish conquistadors. Xela is also known for her lovely, vibrant indigenous culture as the area is highly inhabited by the Mayans and you can see their gorgeous colorful clothing in almost every cobblestone street of the city. It is not well touristed and the perfect place for the serious traveler who has their mind set on immersing themselves in Guatemalan culture and spanish, while enjoying the multitude of volunteer opportunities and adventurous endeavors.
I arrived at the bus stop and out of habit searched the crowd. Why I did this was strange to me as I didn’t know who I was looking for. I only had a name on a piece of crinkled paper. Luis Enrique, the brother-in-law of Ms. May who was going to pick me up and deliver me promptly to my family for the week. I waited and waited. There were no bites.
After ten minutes the crowd cleared away and I was left standing on the curb in the dark with my big red suitcase. I went into the bus depot where the friendly, helpful staff knew exactly who I was waiting for. Apparently even in a town of 200,000 everyone knows everyone. They gave him a call and told me he was on his way. I smiled and said “gracias” kindly and played with a little girl who was holding on clumsily to her young mother.
Within five minutes, my ride was there and I was greeted warmly by Luis Enrique and thrust into conversation using my tired, broken Spanish. We arrived at the home in Zona 1, the central district of Xela and the heart of the city, only a few minutes later. There, he rung the door to a green-colored house and a moment later it opened.
I took this picture the next morning since I arrived in the dark. My home away from home is the pastel green one pictured above. The family ran a cafe outside of their garage where they served Sondra’s fabulous guatemalan cuisine. The layout of the home was misleading. The front opened up to a small apartment, a living room and kitchen in back. Next to the kitchen was a bathroom and my room. Next was a courtyard, which is traditional in most Central American homes, followed by a larger house with many rooms that housed 8 people.
Next are views from the street, Diagonal 5. It was a gorgeous street conveniently located about four blocks away from Parque Centro America, the center and heart of the town. I loved the close location and the beautiful cobblestone streets and alleyways weaving around the house. Here are some of my favorites:
I loved it because everyone said “Buenos Dias” to you each and every morning and looked you in the eye. It was such a close-knit community!
And of course, there was a freshly made tortilla stand only a few buildings down from the house! in Guatemala, you eat tortilla with everything and I fell in love with their fresh, warm, delightful taste. I can taste and smell it now…..Mmmmmmmmm!
They call Guatemala the “Land of Eternal Spring”! Ahhhh….it was so lovely.
Xela is also very hilly, just like San Francisco. I loved the views from the hilly streets! I sure felt like I got my workout! (No, I didn’t do my daily runs. I’m not that crazy. But between the hills, the mountains and the cobblestones, I did burn quite a bit of calories and got to indulge each night in Sondra’s delightful Guatemalan cuisine.
This is my favorite picture of the post. I love the brilliant contrasting colors of the house and the fact that the woman was wearing red made it even better. I tried to wait for her to turn and open the door as I think the picture would have been so much better but I think she sensed my presence.
Stay tuned….I’m leaving you with a cliff hanger and not completing the story on purpose! What was my host family like? You’ll have to wait and see to find out! I love telling stories! Hasta luego!