What I did on my Guatemalan vacation

Cooperativa campus. Even though it's rainy season, every morning was like this.
Cooperativa campus. Even though it’s rainy season, every morning was gorgeous like this.

I had a wonderful time in Guatemala. As an inexperienced traveler, I hoped I would love the experience, but there was some doubt. I’m pleased to say that I learned a lot, got to see how other people live, and got out of my comfort zone. In fact, although there are a lot of places in the world I haven’t visited yet, I definitely want to return and possibly even retire there.

School

There are a lot of Spanish schools to choose from in Guatemala. A lot. In San Pedro alone, a town of about 15,000 people, I counted seven–Xela and Antigua have probably 12 each. I’m fairly sure I picked the best one, Cooperativa.

The thing is, there are a lot of free ways to learn Spanish–Duolingo and various other apps, learning out of books, stuff like that. But it’s mostly conversationally focused, which I found frustrating. I couldn’t crack the code. I wanted to know the reasons behind using, say, “por” vs. “para.” Well, my teacher came correct with the rules. It was difficult, but it helped me learn and understand in a way that I hadn’t before. And based on conversations I had with people who had experience with other schools, you may or may not get that at other schools.

We also had some really good programs. I can’t lie, I got a little weary of hearing about the atrocities of the Guatemalan armed conflict (it was the theme of both lectures and one of the films we saw), although it was important to learn about it. Salsa class was way more fun.  I guess they did a ziplining outing the day I left. I don’t have a lot of regrets about missing that one.

Cooperativa also has a mission to help poor families in the area. Every other Friday, students and their teachers visit these families (there about about 30 in total) and deliver basic groceries. And when I say poor people, I mean it–dirt floors, walls made of cornstalks, women who support 4-8 children on about Q10/day. It was emotional to witness, but like my teacher said before we went, the experience isn’t just bars and lakes and fun times. It’s the reality of Guatemala. And if anyone wants to question the wisdom of a social safety net that provides basic necessities to people hard on their luck, or who thinks that they make poor people lazy or dependent, you can go ahead and cram it, because I am not interested.

People

Everyone was just really friendly and welcoming and helpful.  This may be because I’m a middle-aged white lady, but still. I didn’t even realize it until I got to the airport in Guatemala City and was like, “Oh, yeah, lots of people are crabby and in a hurry.” Not much of that in San Pedro. People took the time to help me find where I needed to go, ask me where I’m from, say “Buenos tardes,” just generally be chill and friendly.  I think people there act like people in Minnesota would act if they weren’t so busy and distracted.

San Pedro has a lot of gross hippie backpacker types (as well as non-gross ones, but you know what I mean). Not surprisingly, lots of Australians and Israelis. (Apparently, there was a huge party on Rosh Hashanah, but I was too prissy to go out much at night.) That wasn’t my favorite part, but the less burnout types I made friends with were nice. I was a little insecure because I’m at least 10 years older than most of the students, but nobody made a deal about it except me.

Transportation

As alluded to above, flying is the worst. Does anyone like flying at all? I’d much rather take a chicken bus all the way from Guatemala to Minneapolis. And chicken buses are not built for comfort–they’re retired US school buses. The first time on a chicken bus I was pretty freaked out. I didn’t know where I was going or how I would transfer from Los Encuentros to Panajachel or if I’d get carsick (we were whipping around some corners pretty fast). By my second trip, I was feeling the chicken bus. We were packed in, but it was OK. Granted, I didn’t have to stand. But everyone was reasonably positive, you could ask for help and receive it, and I paid only Q5 for a 12-mile journey. Plus I saw a bus driver’s assistant open the bus door and climb onto the roof rack while the bus was moving at highway speed. Bus drivers’ assistants are the most fascinating people alive.

On my flight from Houston to Guatemala City, I sat next to an elderly Guatemalan couple. When the flight attendant handed out our customs forms, the wife looked at me and said, “No podemos.” I nodded and handed them my pen so they could fill out the form. “No podemos,” she repeated. I finally figured out that they couldn’t fill out the forms because they didn’t have enough Spanish. So I took their forms and passports and filled them out for them. I had never filled out the forms before, but I erred on the side of assuming that they were not carrying $10,000+ of cash with them.

Flying back was fairly uneventful, but long. Lots of fried chicken on the plane. Guatemalans love their Pollo Campero, and when they visit Guatemala and come home (or visit other places from Guatemala, I suppose), they buy some at the Guatemala City airport and bring it with them. I estimate that 1/2 to 2/3 of the people on my flight had big shopping bags of chicken with them. I don’t know. Apparently there’s a Pollo Campero in St. Paul, so I’ll have to check it out.

In conclusion

  1. Guatemala was wonderful
  2. I love the Spanish language
  3. I’m trying to say hello to people I pass on the sidewalk
  4. Airports are the worst
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