We had a two and a half hour van ride to Chichicastenango (from now on, just Chichi!) from Antigua. Chichi has Guatemala’s largest “Sunday” market. On Sundays, everyone goes to church, and while they are at their church in town, they visit a Sunday market to do their weekly shopping. It is a festive occasion; besides worshipping and shopping, there is a whole lot of socializing going on. The ride to Chichi itself was pure entertainment. Whole families were out in their Sunday best, heading for churches and smaller Sunday markets in the towns we passed. They were out walking, waiting for – or crowded into – brilliantly painted school buses, or jammed into “tuktuks” – motorized covered bikes. Some men were in white shirts and black pants, women were wearing colorful embroidered shirts and skirts, and the little girls in their ribbons and braids were just too cute. You would not believe how many people can stand in the pack of a pickup.
All manner of things are sold at the Sunday market. There is not only produce, but raw chickens, dead and alive. Ladies making tortillas with white, yellow or black corn, and cooking them over a fire. Colorful booths full of traditional clothing, table covers, all kinds of woven fabric goods, home goods, anything you could imagine. And in the middle of a tightly packed crowd, there may be a religious procession making its way through the market. Guatemalans like processions.
Chichicastenango has one of the largest Mayan populations in Guatemala. Our guide for the day was a Mayan named Sebastian. He took us to the church of St. Thomas, which was part Catholic and part Mayan, built in the 1500’s. The Mayans had their candles lit on the floor down the center aisle. Outside, they would light fires for worship: sugar first, then bundles of sticks, corn, 4 eggs north south east and west, and candles stuck in the coals. Many market stalls were selling the necessities for the fires.
Part of a week long stay while learning Spanish in Antigua is the stay with a Guatemalan family. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was questioning my sanity in deciding to do this: would we have to use outside facilities? What if we had to eat rice and beans all week? What if the family wasn’t nice, or there were other students, young and more advanced, who would be conversing in rapid Spanish all the time?
I didn’t give too much ear to my worries, and I’m glad I did not: we were extremely lucky. The owners of the home, who I’ll call Senor and Senora, were retired. He had a little coffee farm to keep himself occupied, and went there every day while Senora kept the home. One of their daughters lived with them together with her husband, a 7 year old boy, and their very adorable little one year old girl. The only time we saw the family was at meal times.
The home, like most others, was behind a wall and two or three other residences. It was built in what formerly was the open courtyard.
At night, everyone’s cars lined up in the driveway with only enough room to walk by. I always wondered how they decided who was going to be first one out in the morning!
After you walked all the way down the long drive, a turn to the right took you to a small yard where the entrance to the kitchen and dining room was, and then steps up to two small rooms, each with a bathroom, so Linda and I each had our own rooms. The view from our little concrete deck was amazing, as you can see in the top picture and in the others below.
We were so excited to wake up and see a smoking volcano! We took pictures of it every day because the view was always changing. Our joy at this became tempered with the realization that this was none other than Fuego, the volcano that cost so many people their lives and did so much damage in June of this year.
There were other things to look at off the deck, too, besides the ripening of the oranges that you see in the tree in the above picture.
Our hosts, sometimes just Senora, would eat with us and converse through every meal. They were warm and welcoming. Yes, we most often had beans, rice and tortillas, but it was always served with other foods, deliciously prepared, never too much or too little. We learned the names of the foods we were eating and all the fruit served at breakfast: banana, watermelon, cantaloupe, papaya, mango and pineapple. Most of it is available year round in Guatemala. My sister enjoyed Senor’s coffee, fresh from his farm.
I will admit to one flaw in the whole thing: I am a shower-in-the-morning person, and I like my showers HOT. Most were tepid at best, cold at worst. But everything else being what it was, and my little room so cozy, it was not much to complain about. Except at 6AM!
What do you do when you decide to take your language learning to another level? For me, the answer was to go learn it in another country, and I concentrated my search on Central America. For the next part, I enlisted a companion traveler: my sister, who is also a learner of Spanish.
An Internet search led me to Don Pedro Spanish School in Antigua, Guatemala. Two websites were great for this: I found Don Pedro on Guatemala365.com. And Trip Advisor verified for me that the school was legit. Lots of people had had a good learning experience. I also liked Don Pedro because they ran an after-school program for children as well, providing lunch, dinner, homework assistance and other activities. One of the first things we did upon arriving in Antigua was to locate the school, which turned out to be just a short walk from our “casa”, the house and the Guatamalan family with whom we were staying for the week.
The doors on the streets in Antigua generally opened to courtyards, and so it was at Don Pedro. It was enclosed upon entering, but opened up onto a “courtyard”. There were tables and chairs on the sides under a tin roof, trees and vegetation in the open area, and several resident turtles.
For less than the cost of a round trip plane ticket, I could study at Don Pedro one-on-one with a teacher for 4 hours every morning for 5 days. There were activities in the afternoon that I could join if I wanted to. And I’m including in this cost the week’s stay with a family, which covered all meals except Sunday.
I learned much from my teacher Helida. Besides reviewing everything I have learned so far, we also enjoyed good conversation about our lives. I strained to translate as she spoke and also tried to watch my grammar as I conversed with her. She quickly discerned my weak spots and reviewed everything I had learned (and should have remembered) to that point. I received a blank notebook to write in, and there were no texts except from books she would pull from their office for specific learning exercises. Unfortunately, a week is really only enough to get one’s feet wet. By the end of the week, I felt like we were finally ready to move on to some new learning. My sister, Linda, who is a faithful Duolingo student, also felt that her Spanish improved through the week. Over dinner conversation, our family told me that at my level, one month in Antigua would have been necessary for fluency. For someone with no Spanish background, it would take 3 months. And people do stay that long.
Linda and I volunteered one afternoon to work with the children in the after school program. As part of that, we assisted in making the tortillas to go with their lunch. I turned out to be a pretty good tortilla pat-ter. It maybe would be a super power for me, if I needed to make tortillas every day.
After lunch, we both assisted students with their homework. I helped a young man with his English homework and also tried keeping a little girl focused on her writing project. I was rewarded with a big grin when she had it completed.
Antigua in particular, and Guatemala in general, is rife with Spanish learning schools. Antigua was downplayed by many people for the fact that it is a tourist town, and you may not get a full immersion experience. My experience was that if I wanted to speak Spanish all day long, I could. And, if you’re not happy with a school, you can (and many people do) just go find another school in town, or travel to another town that has one. I would love to return, and if I do, I would not hesitate to return to Don Pedro.
Stay tuned for next time: A Stay with a Guatemalan family