Sunday, 2 June 2013

Back at school, Guat the f*ck?

It feels odd writing this post knowing that my next one could very well come from the same location. It doesn't sit well with me that we will be stationary for so long on our travels as it doesn't take much for the cabin fever to creep on but I think we will be kept busy enough here in Guatemala's second city of Quetzaltenango, or Xela (pronounced Shay-la) for short. After all, we are here for 2 key things:
1.      To attend Spanish school
2.      To spend our free weekends trekking and climbing volcanoes

Crossing from Belize into Guatemala was probably the most simple and straightforward border crossing that I am ever likely to have - England into Scotland et al do not count!
From our bed in San Ignacio to the border it was a quick and easy 30 minute bus ride followed by taxi for the remaining 2 kilometres. In the front of the main building that would see us leave one great country and enter another new exciting location were a large number of currency traders all carrying bundles of notes in their very trendy bum-bags circa 1990. Once again proving that I really must do some research I was about to commit a serious schoolboy error by refusing to trade my remaining Belizean dollars for Guatemalan Quetzals at what was clearly a dodgy exchange rate with the intention of changing them in Guatemala. Funny that I was well chuffed with their exchange rate when they rightly informed me that I could not exchange Belizean dollars over the border! Phew, because we would have been stuck with a couple of hundred useless dollars!!

Just for information - the Quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala but we have yet to see one. Based on the pictures that we have seen we need to catch a glimpse of one though.

We passed through the doorway into an empty room and paid our exit fees. From this room we walked into the next and over an imaginary line into Guatemalan territory and what that meant was that a number of taxi drivers could approach unwary travellers with lies that you must take a taxi to the next town as there were no buses for miles around. Knowing that this was crazy talk - central America would not function without a bus or collectivo (shared minibus) we laughed in their faces and walked up to the immigration desk to be stamped into country number 5 of the tour. To officially enter the country as such we then left the office and walked over a bridge away from drums of the Garifuna and back into silky salsa beats of Latino America.

The first thing that I registered about Guatemala were the guns - everybody is carrying and the weapon of choice appears to be the shotgun. I asked my Spanish teacher about this and she said that it was for security, however I can't see the justification for armed security for a stationary shop or the unloading of a lorry carrying sugar! Apparently everybody carries a gun from the supermarket security guy, the petrol attendant to the man or girl on the street. Today we saw a female traffic warden with a machine gun - it doesn't matter that it was a female but it certainly makes you look twice.
Maybe there is a link with this and the extraordinary number of coffin and headstone shops here in Xela? 

From the non descriptive border town of Melchor de Mencos we conveniently hopped into a imminently departing collectivo with a few but not too many Guatemalans ie. we had a seat each; and set off for the 2 hour to Isla De Flores.
Isla De Flores, translated Island of Flowers is definitely as beautiful as the name suggests, although there were a serious lack of said flowers.
Situated in the north of Guatemala, Flores, connected via a causeway from the mainland is surrounded by the Peten Itza Lake, Guatemala's second largest lake, a huge body of water that is 32km long and 5km wide.
The town itself can be circumnavigated in about 15 minutes and is a collection of restaurants and cafes along the lake's edge with the hostels, hotels, tour agencies, language schools and general housing all jumbled together in the interior making their way upwards to the central square sitting proudly on the top of the hill.

We stayed in a relatively expensive room overlooking the lake (it cost us about £5.50 each a night) and in terms of day to day activities in the town it really is a case of sink or swim. There is nothing to do except to eat or jump off the pier into the lake to cool down and escape the humidity and heat of the day that encompasses this part of the Guatemala.
The reason that a huge amount backpackers pass through this lovely part of the world is to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal; yes we went to visit another site.
As the premier attraction of the region there were no shortage of offers for trips to Tikal but we still felt the need to shop about. (I say we, but it really was me because there is always a deal to be had and I only wanted to get a general idea from 3 vendors - what sort of financial analyst would I be if I didn't?)
All in all it paid off and we saved ourselves 40% - although mostly by luck rather than by design.

To get the most out of a visit to Tikal (and not to melt) you need to be there for sunrise which means getting up at 4am to catch your 4:30am ride - frankly a crazy time to get up to check out your 8th ruins.
We caught our lift along with Franz and Carolina, a Dutch / Venezuelan couple who we would travel with over the next few days.

There were 2 options for the tour of Tikal, pay for the all inclusive return trip and guided tour of the ruins or just pay for the transport. We didn't feel the need to have a guide for 2 reasons:
1.      What new stuff were we going to learn at site number 8?
2.      Tikal is famous for its wildlife sightings and we didn't think that a large, noisy group would be conducive to this

We arrived at Tikal for 6:30am and were promptly ushered into a café with about 20 other people to wait for our guided tour - no one was allowed to walk off on their own for fear of getting themselves lost amongst the untamed jungle that surrounded us. Our plan was to set off with the tour and then just walk off once we were on the trail and follow the very clear map that we had bought but after 5 minutes of walking along with the very informative guide we both looked at each other and decided to stay on for what would turn out to be a really interesting morning. We were trying to do the honourable thing and walk off as we hadn't paid for the tour but that soon changed when we realised the worth of having trained wildlife spotting eyes with us. At one point the guide sat beside us and asked for confirmation that we had paid for the tour? "Yes" I replied before he went on to say that he wasn't fussed anyway as he got paid no matter what.

So Tikal was a great trip for a number of reasons:
  • As mentioned, the guide had a very keen pair of eyes and we got to see toucans, paca's (a large rodent), coatimundi (similar to racoons) that would go about their business and pay no mind to us, as well as spider monkeys
  • We got close up and personal with a tarantula that the guide had coaxed out of its den and gave anybody who wanted to a chance to hold it - AJ bravely did but I just couldn't do it (weak)
  • Whilst at the main plaza we were able to go off for 20 minutes and stand under the jungle canopy awe struck as we looked up at and listened to the infamous howler monkeys calling to each other. The call of the howler monkey is indescribable and if you didn't know what it was you would be scared sh*tless that there were real monsters on the loose. The call is so loud that it can carry for 3 miles through the dense jungle! Fact.
  • We got to look around some very impressive buildings and plazas as well as climb the tallest structure in the Mayan world
  • Climbing the tallest temple was not only just that, it also enabled me to get a geek fix - standing at the top of this temple looking out over the jungle in all directions with the peaks of 3 other Mayan temples poking up above in the sunlight I stood in the exact position as a rebel fighter in Star Wars: A New Hope as he watched the Millennium Falcon come in to land at the rebel base - now that is cool!
By 10:30am we were done and were very happy to be 2 of the first 11 people from the group who could catch the earlier bus back to Flores and not have to wait around until the second bus at 12:30pm. 4 hours is enough but 6 hours is overkill.
The rest of that day passed me by as I had a nana nap and then took a moonlight dip in the lake in my pants because I was hot after dinner and couldn't be bothered to go back to the room to change and because I could!

With Tikal ticked off the list it was time to move on and early the next day we set off to Lanquin and the natural wonders Samuc Champey. The only way to reach Lanquin in one day and with as little pain as possible was to take a tourist minibus with 26 other backpackers. Having brought our ticket from the same agent as the Tikal tour we knew we had gotten it cheaper than most so didn't expect to be travelling in style but there were some on the bus who had clearly been fed a few porky pies about how they would be travelling and they had paid at least 50% more than us. I did feel for them (a little) but that was until the driver had negotiated through a particularly tight space and the majority broke out into a round of applause and a few whoops. You know what nationality they were.

The reason that travel in Guatemala takes so long is not because some of the roads are unmade, which can be uncomfortable if you are sitting above the wheel rim, it is because there are speed humps on every road, even the 'motorways'. Guatemalans do love a bit of speed but is it not more dangerous for them to slam the brakes on and then speed up as much as possible in between each hump, let alone the impact this has on the environment?
Anyway; 8 hours later we rolled up to the edge of what can only be described as a canyon, left the man made roads for good and began our journey down a mini version of Bolivia's death road. Everybody was transfixed as we slowly made our way over 11kms of rough and very thin trails overlooking the misty jungle covered canyon and cliff faces. Not a bad view at all.

This part of the journey came to an end just outside of the isolated mountain town of Lanquin where a number of very enthusiastic hostel owners cajoled us into their 4x4 vehicles with promises of good WIFI, food and beer.
We had left it all to chance so decided to tag along with the very organised Franz and Carolina. We did chuckle to ourselves when we set off standing on the back of the 4x4 truck and viewed who from the minibus was going where. The twenty-something youngsters were all heading to one of two places, those in their thirties and forties were all in our 4x4! However, given where we found ourselves marooned for 4 days I have no qualms at all about possibly missing out on the real parties.

Having just completed 9 hours of travel I wasn't expecting another hour of proper off road driving to our hostel but as we were in the jungle surrounded by 400 metre tall vine covered cliffs with the sound of the roosting birds hovering above the rumble of the truck I wasn't complaining.
We had made the trip here so that we could visit Samuc Champey as well as take a tour of the Lanquin Caves and by the pure luck of following an informed backpacker we found ourselves within walking distance of both attractions, making life very easy indeed.

How to describe where we stayed?
The El Portal Hostel was anything but a hostel. Set on the side of one of the canyon wall above the gently moving Cahabon river that divided the land we could sit in the open sided dining area with the jungle and nature all around, as well as above and below us.
Away from the central dining area the accommodations were spread out amongst the maintained 'gardens' and ranged from dorms to luxury bungalows. Given that we are bang in the middle of the backpacker budget range ie. we don't do dorms if we can help it (plus I don't need the hateful looks for my snoring) and we are not on holiday so we can't really justify the luxury we opted for the private room with shared bathroom. Our room was in the thatched attic of the luxury semi-detached rooms and we got into it by climbing a ladder and sliding the door open horizontally - quite a challenge in the dark with your hands full. The room itself was spacious, but not spacious enough for me not to bang my head everyday on the timber beams that supported the roof and we had a four-poster bed complete with the all important mosquito net, all the more essential because one part of one wall was completely open to the world outside. For some this may be an issue but how can it be when you are looking out over the river and the canopy alive with hummingbirds, butterflies and lizards of all kinds?

We stayed here for 3 nights and could have easily stayed for longer, which apparently does happen to a lot of travellers. We had everything we needed to survive; great food, interesting company and plenty of beer. The WIFI was intermittent but who really cares and the electricity was only on from 6pm to 10pm whilst people ate and drank. Other than that it was just the people and the elements - ideal.
Getting to and from the hostel was also always interesting to watch as the odd vehicles coming would need to cross a steel framed bridge which had horizontally laid planks that were not screwed into place for a road.
This bridge also served as a halfway stop for the multiple tour groups that tubed down the river everyday as part of their day tour of Samuc and the caves. There was only one reason for the groups to stop at the bridge - to jump off it.
The drop itself was probably only about 5 metres into the river below but the reason that we didn't do the jump (and I honestly wanted to do it) was that there was only a metre wide part of the bridge to make the jump from and if you didn't get the exact point you would land on the submerged rocks! Don't get me wrong quite a few people made the jump but every single one of them complained about either touching the bottom of the river or coming into contact with a rock, plus they had the security of a guide. We have a year left of travel, I need my legs.
For our first night at El Portal we got to know our fellow travellers a little better as well as celebrate Carolina's 31st birthday.

As mentioned, there was a full day tour to take in all of the surrounding sights and activities but given that Samuc Champey was literally around the corner and we weren't in any rush we decided to visit it ourselves and spend the entire afternoon there.
Samuc Champey really is a natural beauty, a 300 metre long limestone bridge set within the heart of the canyon under which the Cabahon river gushes down from the mountains via a number of waterfalls and through the caverns underneath. The draw for the backpackers is the limestone bridge itself that is made up of a number of stepped turquoise pools which are interconnected via smooth and very slippery rocks that double up as slides.
Before succumbing to the temptation to jump right into the water we made the midday hike a few hundred metres up to the lookout point, which was well worth the effort.
Once that was out of the way we rushed back down and spent a good 2 hours frolicking in the pools. A very nice local guy took it upon himself to be our unofficial tour guide and took us from the top to the bottom showing us the best slides to take. He also took us to the more adventurous parts that involved us swimming under the water into hidden caverns where there was literally just enough room to get your head out of the water to take a breath. We are both strong swimmers but I can't say that I plan to get into any sort of cave diving - it is quite disconcerting to know that your only way out was to follow the correct path or else you are stuck under a submerged rock ceiling.

Another bonus of the pools were the many fish that were only too happy to nibble away at your dead skin akin to the fish foot scrub I had in northern Thailand. It was quite funny to watch Arancha jump and shriek when a couple of the larger fish popped up for a go on her leg.

The next day we joined up with a tour group for the afternoon part of their day trip - a tour of the Lanquin Caves. Now this was a brilliant trip and one of those 'backpacker' things you get to do in far flung places with no health and safety to close it down.
The tour consisted of a group of us following a guide for 2 hours into a cave network with just a candle each for light. Sounds ok so far, but when parts of the caves are submerged and you have to swim and tread water with one arm aloft to keep your candle alight it gets a little more challenging. I don't think there was one person who succeeded in keeping their candle alight for the entire time.

This wasn't the only challenge - we also had to scale subterranean waterfalls via a rope with the candle in our mouths as well as drop down into the inky black through holes that were just wide enough for the average sized person.
I heard that a number of backpackers do not know what to fully expect when they sign up for the tour and quite a few people have embarked upon the trail who can't swim. Granted they are given life vests but it must be terrifying for them as it is not easy.
When we reached the end point before heading back there was the opportunity to climb up a rock face and leap into the pitch black oblivion. As I hadn't done the bridge I was determined to risk myself at least once in this part of the world and was one of five that gave it a go. Erm, it was dangerous.
It wasn't so much the leap of faith, it was the climb to the ledge. It was very slippery, I had to balance on jagged rocks to make the jump (one slip and something would've been ripped open) and you had to sort of crouch to make the jump because the ceiling was right above you.
Arancha wouldn't watch me and turned away but it was all good. My heart took quite a while to stop hammering in my chest.
Apparently a couple of people have died in those caves - we didn't know that until afterwards!

After the thrill of the caves we were able to relax as we tubed for 1.5 kms down the river. It wasn't really relaxing for me as I became the entertainment for the group because for some reason I just couldn't balance on my tube. More often than not I ended up turning myself over into the river before unsuccessfully trying to get back on.
Overall it was quite boring and slow and we were keen to get out once the loudest thunder clap and fork of lightning flashed overhead.

That evening we sat within the open sided dining area as the storm of all storms hit. Rainy season is on its way in Guatemala and this was the first real downpour that they had had in 4 months.
Whilst admiring the chaos of the tropical storm Franz told me about another of his travel adventures and in a way I am a little annoyed that he told me because this bad boy is now on my to do list.
I was telling him about the various travel-cyclists that we have met during our travels and how I would really like to give it a go and he just dropped in that he undertook a similar thing when he cycled 12,000kms from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa.
I have yet to do Africa (I have only been to Morocco but that isn't really Africa) so he gave me the website of the tour company that he travelled with.
I don't know when it will be (probably once we have kicked the kids out) but one day there will be blog posts here regarding our 4 month epic ride from the north to the south of Africa!!

We awoke the next day to see that the rain had stopped during the night but it had left its mark. The river was swollen and the current looked dangerous so no idea whether Samuc or the caves would be accessible to the continuous flow of tourists arriving. All I do know is that the tubing would be a damn sight more interesting.

Today was the day that we would be moving on from this little oasis and along with Franz and Carolina we jumped into the back of a 4x4 at 5am to make our way to the connecting minibus in Lanquin. Within 10 minutes of our journey we could see that the rains had also caused a lot of issues with the tracks. We sat stationary for 15 minutes as the occupants of one of the local buses got off and tried to push and pull it up the loose scree as the driver revved the engine to the max and wheel-spinned the sh*t out of it.
As well as being an interesting spectacle we also enjoyed the chance to take a moment to watch the mists that enveloped the mountains rise and disperse in the breaking dawn.
Eventually the bus gave up and rolled back down the slope so that we could pass. For the rest of the journey into town we then became the unofficial public bus.

This day was also another of those long travel days but as we had started at 5am we were happy to arrive in the town of Antigua by 2pm. What should your priorities be when you arrive into a new town with your bags and nowhere to sleep?
Go straight to the pub to watch the 2nd half of the Champions League Final? Correct answer.

Once the game was finished I left Arancha with the other 2 as I went in search of a suitable hostel – much easier to do without a big bag on your back.
It was here that I ran into Paulo who would be somewhat of a shadow during our stay here. He was only a young lad working as an agent on the street for a tour company and a Spanish school and I let him find me a hostel in return for agreeing to view his school.
That was agreeable with me as although we knew that we definitely wanted to study Spanish we still hadn’t decided in which of our 3 choice locations it would be, but Antigua was one of them.

If you have never been to central America and need a soft entrance then Antigua is the place. Think Diet Coke as opposed to full fat Coke. No doubt that it is a beautiful colonial town with its cobbled streets and many shops and markets selling all manner of textile and carved goods that the tourists go crazy for but for me it was a little too touristic and just felt a little too Disneyland, with as many white faces on the streets as there were tanned.
Don’t get me wrong, if it had stopped raining for at least 5 minutes and cleared so that I could see the 3 huge volcanoes that loom over the town, Antigua being the centre of this fiery triangle then it is quite possible that I would have fallen in love with the place and I would now be writing to you from there instead of Xela.
For the reasons listed above Antigua is a very popular destination when it comes to the many people who wish to study the Spanish language so on our second day we met up with Paulo and went to visit the school.

In order to maximise our learning capability our plan was also to partake in a homestay with a Guatemalan family so that we would be forced to speak Spanish both day and night. This particular place doubled as both the homestay and the school which did not bode well. You wouldn’t want to sleep at the office would you?
We sat through the hour long sales pitch and we were definitely excited by what we heard, it was just that this wasn’t the school for us. We left with a lot of things to think about and we went back to our hostel to do some more research.

Having already done some reading a few weeks before we had always been leaning towards our current location of Xela purely because being a city it would be a little more ‘real and gritty’ than the UNESCO town of Antigua, plus it was more off the beaten track where tourists were concerned. We had read that one of the major disadvantages of learning in Antigua was that after class you just revert to speaking English because there are so many backpackers and tourists to interact with. There was also the temptation to spend many an evening in one of any number of bars geared towards us travellers. No good when you are literally out on a school night!
But what made my decision final was seeing Arancha walking wide eyed around the streets and markets; granted the fair trade ones had both some good stuff as well as being ethical with regards to the local indigenous folk but 3 weeks of studying here with hours to spare in the afternoons would be lethal for my little shopper – she loves it!

We were in Antigua for 3 nights and apart from dodging the ever present Paulo hassling us about the school we didn’t really do a lot. It constantly rained for our entire stay so there really wasn’t a lot to do.
It goes without saying that on the day we headed to the bus terminal the skies were clear blue and we got our first glimpse of the Volcan De Agua that dominates your view from every angle. I couldn’t believe how low the clouds must have been to hide such a beast of a volcano from our view for a full 3 days, it was enormous.
Another reason to get out of Antigua was that being a tourist town everything was inflated price wise. The cost of the 4 hour tourist minibus to Xela was £30 each and by the time we had gotten ourselves to Xela via the pubic route it had cost us a total of £3 each!! Still, Arancha has told me that next time we ARE taking the tourist bus and after this journey I hatefully am inclined to agree.

We boarded the chicken bus in Antigua, internally they were similar to those in Belize except Latin melodies had now replaced Bob Marley, but externally they were works of art and all painted in a variety of colours and styles. The first leg of the trip was a straight forward 45 minute ride to the town of Chimaltenango where we would change buses for another that would take us directly into the heart of Xela.
At Chimaltenango we were dropped at the side of the road and a very helpful lady kindly pointed us in the right direction to catch our connecting ride. Our timing seemed perfect as the bus ‘conductor’ ran up to us, confirmed that we were heading to Xela and chucked our bags up on the roof – which always makes me a little uneasy in backwater towns such as these. However, we had no choice but to go with it and quickly headed around to the front of the bus to board.

I was first on to the bus and just looked ahead of me in dismay. Essentially what I saw was the shell of the bus packed with humans like some sort of hellhole cattle truck. We have both been on packed buses in Asia but there always seems to at least be a seat. The driver then ushered us towards the interior of the bus, something that looked quite impossible from where we were stood, but like the polite tourists we are we began our assault course of clambering over the mass of human limbs and squeezing through a throng of bodies as the bus headed off and threw us all over the place.
We eventually got towards the back and luckily there was enough space of one seat for me to perch on one bum cheek. As I was first I couldn’t offer it to AJ, there simply was no room for manoeuvre so for the first 20 mins she had to stand and brace herself – the drivers here are Formula 1.
This particular bus trip lasted for 2 hours as we headed up to 3,500 metres, around a volcano and back down to 2,200 metres to Xela. The mountain roads that we took were very windy (as in a lot of corners) but you would’ve thought that we were on a straight given how fast we were going. I am not joking, as we went around the corners the driver had one hand on the wheel and the other holding onto his window for support as he leaned with the bus.

The good thing about being on these buses with 3 people on each seat and one standing in between is that on these corners you can’t slide anywhere because there literally is no room. It also serves as a decent work out as you hang onto the seat trying not to crush your fellow passengers with what minimal movement you are afforded.
So this all sounds like a bitch of a journey doesn’t it?
Well it was and it wasn’t, but one thing that I did not like was being aware of something a little sticky on my big toe. I looked down to my flip-flopped foot to see a blackened lump of chewing gum stuck between my toe and the said flip-flop. I tried as hard as I could to get a hand down to my foot but only succeeded in removing the main body of the gum, the rest had to wait until we got to Xela.
Well at least my right flip-flop was going nowhere without me.

I have no idea how this was achieved but at various stops an assortment of food vendors still managed to board the bus and make their way through the crowds to sell their goods which we were only too happy to buy as we were starving. This is one thing that will always be superior to our western countries – the amazingly tasty street food that you get your hands on whether it be on a bus, on a train or on the side of the road.
I understand that some travellers are wary and just see a week of stomach troubles sitting in front of them but seriously you don’t know what you are missing out on.

Amongst all of this we had one of the happiest people in the world on our bus. He sat there singing and playing his imaginary bongos along to the pretty catchy tunes that filled the bus and told us that the band was their version of the Rolling Stones.
During the trip he befriended us and it was a good job too because unbeknown to us we would need to catch another bus and a separate collectivo before we would reach the centre of town.
He was a really interesting guy to get to know. In Xela he was a bit of a face for being a famous boxer back in his youth, he then moved to America where he worked in construction for 26 years before he fell from a building and smashed his elbows to pieces (he showed us the scars). From the insurance pay out he then returned home where he was able to buy 9 houses and now lives off of the rental income.
As he escorted us from one bus to the next and then walked us to the collectivo via a brief meet and greet with his wife he epitomised everything that I have loved about the people of Guatemala so far; he was happy, he had a huge smile, he was so helpful and he was just a bloody nice bloke; like everybody else we have encountered.

The journey from Antigua to the centre of Xela felt like it had taken a day but in fact had only been a mere 4.5 hours and so we found ourselves in our new and temporary home by early afternoon.
Being Guatemala’s second largest city we expected a mass of traffic, busy and noisy streets and I guess some dirt; a tourist we had met had told us as much, but she have been a country bumpkin because what we found and are discovering more every day is a very pleasant provincial town with its European style edifices that sits within a valley surrounded by green countryside with the peak of the Volcan Santa Maria visible in the distance to the south. The town itself has a character all of its own largely due to the remnants of recent earthquakes, it has a café culture (we have found a great organic café that serves multiple flavours of hot chocolate made from locally produced Guatemalan cocoa) and it also has the best bakery in the world.
There are a number of Spanish schools here but walking around you rarely see a white face so apart from meeting people at the school it is a full immersion experience for us which is just what we wanted.
We didn’t waste any time once we had arrived. We found a brilliant hostel which served the best complimentary breakfast so far on my travels and doubt it will ever be beaten and it was a shame to leave after 2 nights and by the end of our first afternoon we had enrolled into the Utatlan Spanish School and would begin the next day.
We had done some research with regards to schools and Utatlan stood out from the beginning – the location is perfect, its reputation was solid and outside of classes there are daily activities on offer such as salsa classes, movie nights and cultural trips such as local cocoa producers and a fair trade cooperative of Mayan women who make and sell their goods.
As mentioned we also wanted to stay with a Guatemalan family and this was also something that the school arranged for us on very short notice.

So; back to school!!
So far we have had 3 classes. We are studying for 5 hours a day, 5 days a week and learn with a tutor one on one, which is perfect as you can move at your own pace as you try to grasp and understand the concepts of another language.
To date we have thoroughly enjoyed our classes even though it is hard (I am so glad we had a few private lessons in London before we left as it is a great base to build upon) and I can’t believe how much I have retained in only 3 days. Don’t get me wrong, I am sh*t but I am confident that in 3 weeks we will both be talking with a good level of fluidity and not just to ask how we can get somewhere or what we would like to eat. Every day we are encouraged to practice via chatting about current affairs or the general news so our vocabulary is increasing all of the time and my aim is to be able to sit down in a bar and at least try to have a chat with a local if the chance arises.
Last night at the homestay I was able to hold a broken conversation about football and my self and Arancha told them about our travel for over 30 minutes – but I guess it is easy when it is a subject that you love.
Ok it wasn’t anywhere near being perfect and we were slow to respond but there is no way we could have gotten across what we did only 3 days ago.
The only negative about school is the daily homework, but it isn’t too bad!

It’s also funny how quickly you can slip into that Friday feeling and after only our 3rd lesson we headed straight to the pub to celebrate the end of the school week!!

Yesterday was Saturday and our first full day with nothing to do. There are plenty of things to do around Xela and over the next couple of weeks we will be busy but for yesterday we were content to walk around the weekend markets, visit a couple of cafes and spend the day eating good food and drinking tasty drinks.
At one point we did stand there and watch a young girl with a baby on her back (far too young to be a mother) dig around in a fountain, pull out a piece of chewing gum, squeeze out the excess water, test it with a little nibble and then put it in her pocket for later. Yum yum.

As for our homestay experience we have actually complained and will move families today. The whole idea of a homestay is to sit down with a family at meal times and interact with them What we found ourselves in was a family home that doubled up as a hostel of sorts which hosted another language student and a couple of young Guatemalan students – so our meal times are spent with them and no family in sight.
And then there is the food, or lack of it. The first night we were served huevos y frijoles (eggs and refried beans – a typical food in these parts) on a side plate and I rubbed my hands with glee that we were getting starter and main course. I couldn’t believe it when the other student gulped his down, said his thanks and then disappeared back into his room – that measly serving was it!
No lie, we looked at the family dogs’ dinner bowls and we were jealous of what they had to eat!

Over the following days the food hasn’t improved and I can't tell you how difficult it is to eat spaghetti bolognaise (still on a side plate) because a) it is cold and b) the spaghetti were like straws so trying to suck it up resulted in a mouth full of air and a messy face.
Also, how much does porridge cost? So much that you should get a bowl full of milk with 5 teaspoons worth hidden underneath? It was tasty though.
All in all the food is crap but that isn't the issue, we are just not getting the contact time that we want, expect or need – so hopefully this move will turn out for the best. Oh we are also both not fans of fleas, AJ is covered in bites and flushing our own toilet via lifting the cistern lid to pull the lever that is at the bottom of the full tank because there is no handle.

So that’s it for now. 2 weeks of Spanish school will follow plus a volcano climb and a 6 day trek into the north-western highlands – so tune in next time!

Hasta luego

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