2004 Journey: Central and South America
Learning Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala
As you get closer to Guatemala City the quality of the roads improve. This is both good and bad. I have been on many bus rides in my travels, but few have scared me as much as the 5-hour ride from Coban to Guatemala City. My other interesting rides occurred in places like India, Nepal and Indonesia, but in those places the traffic moved much slower. They had a rhythm to the chaos of the road. But this ride was different; it was like a big race with everyone on the road, and the biggest truck wins the right of way. We would pass people going uphill close to the top, around curves, and with oncoming traffic if the driver felt three vehicles could squeeze together. I finally came to a point where I couldn't watch anymore, said a prayer, and buried myself in my guidebook. Afterwards, I checked my hair for signs of graying. A glance through the local paper confirmed my fear; every other page had a story and a photo of some type of accident.
Smog-bound and crowded, Guatemala City is the heart of the country with its commercial and administration centers. We spent just enough time to get from one bus station to the next, a 15-minute walk, with little desire to explore the city of two million inhabitants.
An hour later, a crowded bus brought us to Antigua, one of Guatemala's most popular destinations. Packed with colonial architecture and fine churches, Antigua makes a very interesting place to hang out for a while. Additionally, it is home to many language schools and accordingly is crowded with foreigners learning Spanish. So along with the other hundreds, maybe thousands of visitors, we signed up for a week long, and in my case, much needed Spanish course. A five-hour a day course for five days, including a home stay with a local family costs $150, a real bargain when compared to what it would cost back home. I'm convinced after a week of Spanish that I'm missing the necessary genes to learn another language. But all the same, I remain committed to learning Spanish and place it as a priority with my desire to chat with the everyday people. Progress is being made, albeit painfully slowly.
Easter is approaching and Guatemala is a fascinating place to observe the religious rituals associated with this event. Each Sunday in Antigua during Lent, purple-robed men accompanied by music and clouds of incense carry processions of floats. They march through the people-lined streets of Antigua for hours. This accumulates to a huge festival during Easter week, peaking on Easter Day or what they call “Semana Santa.” With the intoxicating smell of the incense, I followed the float topped by the colonial sculpture of the cross-carrying Christ. As they heaved and swayed the float from side to side through the street, it was soothing to blend into everyday life and participate in a ritual that has been practiced for hundreds of years. Well, as much as I could blend in, given that generally those around me were 6-12 inches shorter than me. After 45 minutes, I paid my respect, bowed my head and ended my participation in the procession. The procession would go on for another five hours, a grand and moving _expression of faith.
One afternoon, I had the opportunity to visit with the director of the Spanish school. Her name was Cathy, and she has been in charge of the language school for the past 22 years. It all began one day as she was working for the Peace Core as an office secretary. One morning the instructor teaching Spanish to the Peace Core volunteers quit, leaving only Cathy as a possible replacement. After a little fine-tuning to acquire some teaching skills in Spain, she returned to Guatemala and has been involved in the language field ever since.
We talked about the friendliness of the Guatemalan people despite the heaviness of its past. Recently, a new president has been elected in Guatemala, and hope abounds as they begin to pursue the outgoing officials on charges of corruption. It appears to be a pivotal point in history for Guatemala. If they do address the corruption and pursue justice to have individuals become accountable, it could be the start of a strong foundation and brighter future. Or possibly, the cycle of cynicism will continue, leaving people feeling powerless, sapping the desires of potential. For me it serves as a reminder of the importance that those responsible for the Enrons and Worldcoms of the U.S. are brought to justice or we risk the same consequences.
Cathy's message was this: "Here in Guatemala, we have so many different levels of society and an amazing mix of cultures. The Mayans with their colors and rituals combined with the Latinos and their passions offer many interesting experiences. The new government understands the need for safety. Please come visit. When you do, you help all levels of society by just being here." I responded by saying it would be good for all levels of society in the U.S. if they came to learn about and visit Guatemala.