Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The monotony of day to day life.......but in Guatemala

Hola chicos y chicas

How goes it back home, wherever that may be?
In what feels like my home of Xela it goes well but we are more than ready to get back on the road. By the time we depart we will have been in this one city for about 1 month and that is far too long for itchy footed backpackers such as ourselves.
I can prove that we have been here too long because each morning on our walk to school we pass by the same medical student going the other way and say 'Hello', on the walk home from school we say hello to Oscar the tailor and I get a 'Hola Adam' in return. I know Jose in the local gym, we know the guys who work in the coffee house and all of this is without our various school mates milling about.

Don't get me wrong, Xela has served its purpose in being a great base to learn and study Spanish, it is a beautiful setting and once we leave there will be lots of fond memories from our time in Guatemala's second largest city, but time to leave it is. We still have many thousands of miles to travel and the lure of South America is now getting too strong for me to rest - we need to get going.

A view of Xela
Xela's Parque Central

However, we do still have a few days of study left which we need to savour because I know what we have learnt will be invaluable for the coming year and we have a couple of adventures ahead of us before we exit the country for good.

Today it appears that for once I have a break amongst the endless study and homework so I thought I would take this opportunity to update you on the previous couple of weeks. Amongst the monotony of the Spanish classes, Monday to Friday, 8am - 1pm there has been a wealth of daily activities on offer but before we talk about those I should spend a little time talking about the Spanish; after all, it is why I am here!!

So; school. As you will know from my previous post we had begun our schooling in earnest and were relishing the challenge of trying to master as much of the language as we could in a mere 3.5 weeks of study - frankly an impossible task.
I don't know exactly who reads this blog but I am sure there are a few bi-lingual / multi-lingual readers amongst you and I take my hat off to you.
Learning a language so that you are comfortable using it in any given day to day situation to hold a conversation on any topic and to be able to convey your thoughts in a grammatically correct and coherent manner is how the language is taught here and it is hard. The sheer amount of rules and exceptions to these said rules plus the numerous conjugations of the verbs; the verbs of which can be regular, irregular or reflexive and must be said correctly depending on who the subject of the sentence is and in what time period / tense you are talking in makes for a very challenging time.
In 3.5 weeks with very little base knowledge what can you honestly hope to achieve?

Well given what I have listed above it would not be unreasonable to throw your toys out the pram, throttle the teacher and go to the pub, and there have been times amongst most of us students when we have been very close to doing just that but the full-on immersion of 5 hours Spanish per day plus living in a Guatemalan homestay has seen us learn quite a lot. Currently we are suffering from information overload, each day is a review of the previous day via our homework and then it is onto a new element of the language that is inherently linked to what we have already learnt. It is really tough but I know that once we move on, get our notes in order and practice as much as we can with each other and with the locals that we encounter I think we will be surprised with how much we can actually say, read and write and no longer just rely on our tourist / survival Spanish.

Myself and Maestro Jorge
As for my actual maestro (teacher), his name is Jorge and I like him a lot. Even though he has only ventured out of his country once to visit Mexico (which is a privilege) he is very worldly and has a wealth of information to share, especially about the Middle East which he is fascinated with.
Over a coffee we have had many chats (in Spanish because he refuses to speak English with me) about all sorts of topics from prostitution to drugs. It has been fun!!

To prove that my money has not been wasted here are my favourite Spanish words etc:
  • Favourite fish is Monkfish - 'Rape' (Pronounced rap-eh, but who cares?)
  • 'To bother' is 'Molestor' - makes sense 
  • 'I order' is 'Pido' (Pronounced pee-do)
  • 'I put on' is 'Me puse' (Pronounced me-pus-eh)
  • Plus there are the actual bad words such as 'Puta' (bitch) and Hueco (homo) and I have already put these to public use but more on that later
Like I said, once we leave and look back on what we have done I think we will be happy with our month spent here!!

In the previous post I also talked about our crap homestay and how we were moving to a new one. Well I am pleased to report that our new homestay turned out much for the better and will have ensured by the time we depart our time will have been comfortable, really funny at times and not at all famine like!
Our Guatemalan mother is Leslie, father is Luis and sister is Luna but they aren't really our mum and dad as Arancha is older than both of them (I'm not) and Luna isn't really our sister because she is a dog; but the craziest and most pampered dog that I have ever met.
Leslie and Luis are great and have a good sense of humour plus there is the added bonus that they can speak some English so can help us out when we really are at a loss as to what is being said.

We also share the house with 2 other students - Kyle and Jenna from Melbourne, Aus; its not like one Aussie was enough for company!
Immediately the 4 of us got on well and it wasn't long before the situation of living in a house in a foreign speaking country resulted in a number of 'in-house' jokes, mainly about the dog and its treatment.
To summarise:
  1. She is fed from the table by hand
  2. When the owners are out the TV in the bedroom is left on so that she can lie on the bed and watch cartoons - she actually does this
  3. She is 1.5 years old and has yet to be neutered meaning that when she was recently on heat and being a good sized Husky she about took me out as she attempted to hump me
  4. Still on the 'heat' topic - her vagina was swollen to the max and she dripped blood all over the house. Yuk; but I do have a photo for those who wish to see it. Ha ha. Remember, she allowed on the owners bed to watch TV and wipe herself clean on the pillows!
All of this provided much entertainment and disgust in equal measure but it has been funny, even when I walked in the house and to avoid the shit on the floor found myself stood in yellow wee in my flip-flops.

So with all of the Spanish, both at school and home, plus the crazy dog, the daily activities provided by the school have been a blessing, and even better they were all complimentary apart from the cost of getting there. Here is a run down of the good stuff that we have been up to amongst the tears and frustration of being a Spanish mute:

Luckily for us during our time here a lot of the same people have remained at the school so each trip / activity has been like an outing with mates. In the group there is:
Me - Hello!
AJ - G'day
Kyle - AKA Clark Kent because he once went to the bar in his hostel and was questioned by the owners about who he was and what he was doing there. He wasn't wearing his glasses when checked in and now was - what an amazing disguise!
Jenna - AKA Wordsworth because she knows every Spanish word - jealous!
Angela & Dan - a Canadian / Kiwi couple who are studying and working here for a few months
Bob - AKA Pastor Bob, a great gringo (Latin nickname for Yanks), an actual pastor and here to learn Spanish for the sake of his students back in Indiana
Daryl - fellow Englishman on the same path south
Shane - 21 year old Irish lad who for some reason has decided to do a 3 month Spanish study stint whilst on summer break from uni
Christie - doesn't have a nickname but should have because although she is a very nice Yank she is as intense as driving along death road in Bolivia. Limiting conversations to 5 minutes is a must
Rachel - another Brit who upped her kudos by obtaining a mis-matching shellsuit from a Xela clothing outlet when it had 80% off. The discount meant that it cost about 20p
Shun - a Japanese language master who at the mere age of 21 yrs is now proficient in Japanese, English, Spanish and French. What's more annoying is that he is really nice.
Leo - Leo, another Ingles (English) who isn't actually a student but is worth a mention. He is teaching English at the school and literally lives each day as it comes mainly because he has no dosh left. He claims he entered Guatemala with 20Q to his name, the equivalent of about £1.70 and has been getting by ever since. He is a top bloke and certainly encaptures the adventurous spirit needed to enjoy these parts of the world.

I think that is the core element listed. There are others of course but it has been these people that are around us the most.

To the activities:

Every Monday night is Salsa class at a local salsa school:
Given that we will be in Latin America for the next year it is imperative that I learn the to salsa:
A) I don't want to look like a nob on the dance floor.
B) I am not having Arancha twirled away from me by some tall, dark Latino stranger - she will have to accept she's with me.
Salsa is great fun but I didn't realise how difficult and intricate the moves would be (if you want to do it properly). The teachers are brilliant and it is not often that a woman of shorter stature than me can take the lead and literally chuck me about the floor to demonstrate how I should be leading AJ! We will only have had 4 lessons by the time that we leave but will have the basics together for 10 separate moves.
I think that Salsa classes are an investment of time and money all of their own, so this is something we will need to continue to do as we travel.

San Andres Xecul:
One of the resident teachers come guide Mario took us on our first afternoon activity to the hillside town of San Adres Xecul. Getting there was another test of how many people can you possibly squeeze into one form of public transport.
This time it was a minibus. I counted 26 people on a vehicle that seats 12 and this included a number of old ladies hanging out of the open sliding door and a woman with her boob out breastfeeding - I was sat opposite her and smiled politely; meeting her eyes!
Next was a short trip on a chicken bus before 12 of us students jumped into the back of a pick-up truck to take the winding 5km road up to the town. As always seems to be the way on these trips, Mario took his comfy seat in the front of the vehicle.
San Andres Xecul is worth a visit for a number of reasons:
1) It is home to a famous red and yellow multi-coloured church that lies in its centre and is featured on the front cover of this year's Lonely Planet Guide to Guatemala.
2) Higher up the slopes there is a mini version of the same church with burning alters alongside that reminded us of the cremation Ghats in India and Nepal.
There was a sheep tethered close to this area but Arancha having performed a Pet Rescue, Rolf Harris stylee by untangling the sheep's legs refused to believe that it was an offering to the gods.
3) The views out across the valleys and fields with the high cliffs of the surrounding mountains were worth the trip alone.
4) San Andres is the home of San Simon.
As you might expect Guatemala is a very religious country. Of course there are a high percentage devoted to the Catholic faith and surprisingly there are quite a high number of devotees of the Evangelical persuasion and the bands and singing that emanate from the surrounding churches into our bedroom testifies to this; but in San Andres the residents pray to San Simon - the Saint of Smoking and Drinking!
Yep, that's right. If you want your prayers answered here you had better come with offerings of fags and beer.
We were warned beforehand that we must show respect ie. do not laugh at the model of the Saint.
Walking into the chapel (in some geezer's back garden) we all stifled a laugh as we lay eyes upon the 'man' himself - a mannequin sat on a candle lit throne dressed in a sombrero, leather jacket and sunglasses with a fag hanging out of his mouth.
How could we not show anything but respect??
After taking a few snaps and listening to a follower make his daily devotions we left via the shop where you could by various potions, some for love and some to dominate women!

After AJ fed a starving dog we all got into the back of another pick-up truck and made our way back to the highway which was just as much fun as before but with the added elements of the back end swinging out as we rounded a corner too fast as well as being chucked about as we took a short cut through a field.

The infamous church
The one, the only San Simon

Xelaju FC vs Guatemala City:
I had heard that the Super Chivos (Super Rams) were due to play and I was planning to go the match on my own but I was well chuffed when the school announced that the Wednesday activity would be to attend the game.
The match itself was an important one as Xela had reached the end of season play-offs and were one of 8 teams vying for the championship.
This match was the first leg and they were up against the Man Utd of Guatemalan football.

We all met up at the school and took the 15 minute walk up to stadium. At that point we could've been on our way to any stadium in 1980's England. It was dark, it was pissing it down with rain and once we had queued for our tickets and entered through an old school turnstile we took our places behind the goal on the standing terraces.
The stadium was very basic and we were in the Kop style stand that housed the 'real' supporters and the resident band.
Under the stand itself were numerous food and drink stalls and general rule of thumb was that the blokes could take a piss wherever they wanted - which I did with some other Guatemalans on a grass bank.
Apparently it is a legal right in Guatemala that a man can take a leek wherever he so wishes!

We were in the stadium 90 minutes before the start of the game but with the aid of a little beer, a lot of different people to look at and some very handy ponchos to deflect the teeming rain the time soon passed and the game began.
In Guatemala there isn't such a thing as spectator respect for the opposition players and I had to laugh as each time a substitute would try to warm up a fan would run up to the fence and throw his beer over him.
Foul language is also common, as it is at every sporting event around the world and this was my chance to put what I had learnt into practice.
Of course it is wrong but you have to laugh when an opposition player comes close and the crowd goes wild shouting "Puta" (Bitch!) or "Su madre" (Your mum!).
However, the best of all was when the opposition goalkeeper took the goal kicks. At Leicester City matches (my home town) there is an age old tradition of building up an "oooooooooohhhhhh" before shouting "you're shit aaaggghhhhh" as the keeper kicks it, hopefully slicing the ball. Well it was similar here but as he kicked it everybody shouted out "Huecooooooooo" (Homo!). Brilliant.

As mentioned we were in the 'fans' section and we were treated to a feast of music, song and colour. If English fans could take one lesson from here it would that these fans carry on supporting the team no matter what. When the opposition opened the scoring you wouldn't have known it as the song being sung continued on and on until it reached its natural conclusion and not because the team has just conceded.

At half time a number of guys walked through the crowd to disperse sparklers and at the right time we all had to light them and then throw them as far as we could over the fences and onto the pitch at the journalists. I just couldn't bring myself to throw it knowing that I could mess it up and hit someone so I kept mine and wrote my name with it.

As the second half began the first of many fireworks and flares were lit in the stands, right next to us. It is the first time I have had the pleasure of being stood directly behind a lit flare but I am not complaining. Ok it didn't taste good but the fireworks combined with endless songs that we could all dance to mixed in with the glowing red and blue smoke was a fiesta that I long to repeat.
As for the actual game, Xela lost 2-1 but at least I saw a goal and joined in with the manic celebrations. AJ didn't because she was in the queue for the loo - why is it that girls always miss the best bits of the footy?
Even though it was a loss I left more than contented with my first football experience in the loco Latin America and can't wait to get to games in Argentina and Brazil if the chance arises.

One more note on the match - when we left the away team were still in the centre circle waiting for the fans to leave so that they could get to the changing rooms safely. That didn't happen as the fans all decided to run onto the pitch and kick the shit out of the team.
Don't say they don't take the game seriously here!!

Perhaps it is time for a haircut?

Fuentes Georginas:
This was an afternoon trip to the local volcanic hot springs - seriously such pampering is required and justified after hour upon hour of studying a foreign language. For once we had the luxury of private transportation and about 12 of us made our way through the surrounding countryside, passing little villages and up into the foothills that make up the base of the many local volcanos.
The actual springs themselves consisted of a number of interlinking pools that varied in heat as the water descended. To give you an idea of the heat in the main pool I had to change pools after only a few minutes as I was sweating profusely and became dizzy - it was steaming hot. (for me)
After more than an hour in the mineral packed waters we were suitably prune like so we felt it best to dry ourselves off and enjoy a cool beer whilst watching the mists descend into our own little crevice in the mountains.
The pools were a worthwhile trip but for me it was the state of the land that we drove through that captured my attention. Of course the imposing perfect cone shaped Santa Maria Volcano will always draw the eye as it continuously disappears and then reappears from behind the dispersing clouds but it is because of these volcanos and the nutrients and minerals that they have spewed all over the land that it is so rich and fertile. Never before have I seen fields so abundant with food and crops. Every inch of usable land is farmed, even patches at near 60 degree angles (which would clearly be too difficult for our farmers to work with - we like our land flat) and the result is row upon row of cabbages, corn, grain, beetroot etc. It seems like a basic thing but to look out over rolling valleys that are green, yellow and purple is quite a sight, especially when we only have to pop into the supermarket to get our fruit and veg.
The food here some of the best organic and fresh food I have ever seen. It really is a gem of a country.
The steaming volcanic hot springs
Lush surroundings with the ominous Santa Maria

Every Friday night at the school we are all invited along to eat and drink together. Fortnightly the programme changes between a 'Hotpot' where the students all bring a different dish or a complementary dinner courtesy of one of the school coordinator's mother.
On this particular Friday it was the latter of the two and we had been promised great things until we found out that the mother was also the mother of the owner of our first homestay, ie. remember when I told you that the dog's dinner looked better than ours!!
As expected the food was shit but it didn't matter as we got well and truly hammered. The dinner was followed up with a night out with everybody in the local 'gringo' bar and a good night was had by all, especially Arancha and her free pour gin and tonics.

The post dinner night out meant that the Saturday was a bit of a write off. All we managed to do with our day was to go out for fried chicken with Kyle and Jenna, which Arancha subsequently chucked straight back up.
You can imagine how thrilled we were that evening to then have to head out with our Guatemalan parents for pizza and drinks in the town.

Laguna de Chicobal:
Bright and early on the Sunday morning we dragged ourselves from our slumber to meet with some of the other students and Mario at 7am to make the climb up and into the mystical Laguna de Chicobal.
The Laguna itself is a naturally formed lake that sits within the crater of a dormant volcano and is accessed via a 5km walk straight up before a very slippery and risky kilometre descent into the bowl of the caldera.
The Laguna is also of huge cultural significance for the indigenous population and is revered as a holy place that combines both the old (Mayan) and new (catholic) faiths.
Sitting on the banks of the lake you could purely understand its reverence as the mists continued to flow up and over the lip of the crater to encompass us all in its dense grip, sometimes leaving us with nothing to look at.
To give you an idea of how large this volcano once was it took us about 40 minutes to circumnavigate the lake - that is a big exit hole for an eruption of lava!

Combining the Mayan and catholic faiths

This school trip to the nearby town of Salcaja was important for 2 reasons:
1) We got to visit the first church to be built in the whole of Central America - the second being in Xela itself. Erm, it was ok but nothing special.
2) Salcaja is famous for the production of its own alcohol which is made from fermented fruit and can only be legally produced and sold in this town.
We walked up to some random house, rang the door bell and then sat in a bloke's entrance room tasting the actual fruits and sampling some of the finished product.
The fruits were really potent so we thought it only right to buy a bag for dessert for that evenings dinner. A large bag was the equivalent of 30p.

The first church in Central America

Salcaja 'whiskey' and fruits
On a separate note, 2 days after we had visited Salcaja there was a massacre in its quiet suburban centre. Apparently the cocaine trade is picking up in these parts and the recent arrest of a drug baron resulted in some serious payback. The local cartel took it upon itself to break into the police station, murder 8 police officers and bust the baron out as well as take the police chief hostage.
Needless to say that there has been a lot of shock and concern here because although there is a lot of drug violence in the capital and nearby Mexico, this part of Guatemala usually remains peaceful and devoid of such troubles.

Cementario General:
Now you wouldn't think that a trip to the city cemetery would be that interesting but with regards to Xela's you would be wrong. The first thing you notice is the sheer size of place and the next thing is how elaborate some of the tombs and mausoleums are, followed by the array of colours decorating the mass of graves, some of which are in the earth and some in vertical 'apartment blocks' as Arancha so eloquently put it. Inherently, as is in actual life here, segregation also shows its ugly face in death and there are clear areas set aside for the rich, those of certain ethnic backgrounds and those with particular beliefs. The 'poor' section is a huge plot of land but the quantity of the 'poor' that have died over the years means that that these graves are literally on top of one another - but not quite like the apartment blocks!

Make you wishes for love
By its very nature the cemetery has an interesting history and many stories to be told. A former president of Guatemala is buried here and his mausoleum is suitably grand, there is a German and Italian section and there is also the grave of Vanushka. This is a story of lost love and a broken heart. Vanushka was a Russian gypsy who fell in love with the son of a Guatemalan politician. For a time they were happy until the father found out and forbade his son to see her again (they don't agree with the mixing of races here). He was sent away to Spain to study and later came back to Guatemala with his new bride. Upon hearing this Vanushka starved herself and the legend goes that she died of a broken heart, but she didn't, she starved to death!
Anyway, the grave is now an attraction for teenagers looking for love and they will come here, especially on a Friday night to leave a rose and write their wishes to meet that somebody special all over the tomb.
Buried in the shadow of the volcano
Post death 'apartment blocks'

The latter half of our second full week in Xela was a bit of a write off as first Arancha, then myself followed by Jenna all came down with a 24 hour bug within 4 hours of each other.
That Wednesday night / Thursday morning saw the girls vomiting whilst I was walking about like some sort of decrepit Michael J Fox due to my uncontrollable shivers.
On top of this our stomachs were destroyed and I am not sure how we all avoided each other on the way to the bathroom.
Eventually the majority of our ailments disappeared and we could get back to our daily routines but we still need to be careful when it comes to venturing too far without a loo close by. It should be a laugh when we head off next week for a 3 day trek.

Enjoying a spot of dinner

Apart from the above we have been milling about, hanging out in the various arty cafes that adorn the streets whilst completing our piles of homework and going out for dinner and drinks with friends.
The day to day school effort is hard and I am well and truly ready for the off but this town really is a desirable place to live and I think the Guatemalans who live here realise how lucky they are.

The volcano that still eludes us

We still haven't set foot on an actual volcano but that WILL be put right this weekend as we finally make our long awaited trek minus the temptations of a night out or illness.

My next blog will definitely come to you from another country but it remains to be seen whether that country will be Honduras or Nicaragua?
Who knows!

Hasta luego.

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