After a few easy hours of busing from San Pedro we found ourselves back in Xela, where we’d previously enjoyed a week of studying Spanish. We were excited to be there and would stay for two weeks this time; it’s a cool city, if a bit gritty and vaguely unsafe feeling after dark. We’d enjoyed our earlier visit a lot, but our home-stay had been a twenty minute walk from the center and we hadn’t felt comfortable walking to the plaza or back home after it got dark, leaving us a little stuck during the evenings. This time we decided that we’d stay in a hostel type place close to the center; the one we had in mind was called Miguel Cervantes and was less than two blocks from the plaza.
We didn’t have a reservation so we were pleased to find that they had one of their six or so rooms available. It was a nice historic building with some decent places to hang out, a shared kitchen, free coffee and a wonderful gas heated shower. That’s a big deal in highland Guatemala, where it gets chilly and most showers are heated by a sketchy electrical coil right at the shower head that doesn’t usually work that well. All in all it was a sweet place run by some cool people, for the grand total of about $56 US per week for the both of us. It was also a small Spanish school and we decided to keep things simple and take classes there too; tuition was another bargain at about $75 US per person per week for 20 hours of private instruction.
Cuaresma, aka Lent, aka the forty days leading up to Easter, was in full swing, and there were a bunch of food and handicraft stalls set up in the Parque Central the night we got in. We gorged ourselves on fair food: ears of corn slathered in mayo, ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, and dried cheese; bad nachos; various fried things; and our favorite, ponche de leche. It’s milk simmered with cinnamon and sugar and other spices, then served hot with a shot of rum- delicious!
We celebrated being back in Xela by going out to our favorite local restaurant, Sabor de la India, for some of the best Indian food this side of the subcontinent. We also bought some of their delicious unsweetened yogurt to go; the yogurt you can buy in most stores down here is so sugary it’s only semi-edible. Diabetes is on the rise in a big way in Guatemala, and I’m sure it’s being helped along by the incredible over-consumption of sugar. Everyone puts at least three heaping spoonfuls in her cup of coffee, and in general sweetening is just out of control.
We liked our little Spanish school a lot, the place maxed out at about a dozen students giving it a very relaxed feeling and we made some friends. Our teachers were good, and it was also really nice being able to wake up just before class and stumble down the stairs to go to school. Compared to our previous schools Miguel Cervantes was a little lacking in after-class activities, but we didn’t mind too much as we felt we could do most typical outings on our own at that point. They did schedule a cooking class that we were looking forward to, but canceled it because we were the only people who expressed interest, which is the downside to a small school I guess. We had a fun potluck lunch after class one day and the school coordinator showed us how to make pepian, a famous and delicious traditional Guatemalan dish made with a sauce of toasted seeds and a bunch of other good stuff.
We did a fair amount of cooking on our own, taking advantage of our nice kitchen and Guatemala’s wonderful selection of fresh and cheap produce. But it was hard to beat the many restaurants around the center that sold quality lunches for about $2.50 US, complete with soup, drink, and a big main course. We also found ourselves tempted more than we should have been by the very tasty- and very greasy- street food.
On Fridays and Saturdays during Cuaresma there were large somber Catholic processions through the center of town. Long lines of men wearing black or purple robes would file past, followed by a brass band, boys swinging incense burners spewing out copal incense, and a giant religious parade-type float carried by sixty or so people. The processions were always quite a show, even more so when the organizers gave in to the national fetish for using fireworks. One evening we bought a hot chocolate at a third story restaurant overlooking the plaza while a procession was happening, and we watched them setting up a bunch of mortars and strings of firecrackers right below us on the street. When they lit the fuses it was quite a spectacle, with mortars exploding right above us (we were thankful for the cafe umbrella we were sitting under; it protected us from all the falling ash and embers!), and hundreds of firecrackers exploding below us. We found ourselves plugging our ears it was so loud, but we had the best views of anybody and it was a lot of fun.
During this time the Huelga was also going on, a traditional yearly student protest that really just seemed to be a big party. The tradition started many years ago as a more serious protest against government misconduct. Students dressed in colored robes with masks and rather KKK-like pointed hats would assemble in the park, speak in a microphone for a while, than start dancing wildly and lighting off firecrackers. It was pretty fun to watch but we never really knew exactly what was going on, although I’m not sure anybody really did: one night a guy dressed as Batman was right there in the middle of things on stage, dancing away.
In the evenings we’d hang out in the park and walk around a bit if there were people out and about. Sometimes there would be a concert or some kind of event going on. A few times we went to a local cafe that showed newish DVD movies to get our Hollywood fix, and we went out for beers every now and then with friends from school. During the afternoons we explored the town, checking out the markets and different areas, both on foot and using the collectivo vans that make up the bulk of the public transport system. There’s a lot of them, and for 10 cents or so they’ll take you anywhere in town pretty quickly. It’s a fairly efficient system once you figure out how everything works, but can be a bit daunting at first.
We also got caught up on our dental work, visiting a wonderful local dentist who spoke perfect English and had studied in Connecticut. I needed a root canal from an old filling that had gone bad, and it cost me $110 US; that’s ten to twenty times less than it would have cost in the states. We both also had our teeth cleaned and Denae had a cavity filled for a very reasonable fee. We’re enthusiastic dental tourists.
Denae had her birthday during our second week in Xela, and I sneaked out during class and bought a birthday cake and had everyone at the school burst in and surprise Denae with it and sing happy birthday; it ended up being sung in three languages. That night we went out for more delicious Indian food, and then for some drinks and a Cuban cigar.
We also visited some other towns and markets in the area, but we’ll write about them on separate posts. Before we knew it, our two weeks in Xela were up and we were catching a bus to Guatemala City and connecting through to Flores. This was the end of our Spanish classes, having taken seven weeks of them in total. We’d improved our language skills significantly, but were still nowhere near where we’d like to be. As we left we were already talking about returning the following year to continue our studies.