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.


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.


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.


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

Guatemala or bust

This is where I’m going, only grayer (rainy season ends in August).

Three weeks from today, I will be on my way to San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala. I think Guatemala is going to be my best bet re: affordable Spanish education, but the travel is going to be a real bear. I’m flying out of MSP at 5:15 a.m. and arriving in Guatemala City around 1 p.m., assuming everything goes smoothly. Then a bus ride. Google Maps tells me that it’s a two-hour drive to San Pedro, but the bus company says the ride is 4 hours. The way back will be even longer–three overnight flights, leaving GUA around 5 p.m. Saturday and not getting to MSP until 10:30 a.m. Sunday. I’m thinking of it as exercising my travel muscles.

I’ll be taking private Spanish lessons for five hours a day. The only person I’ve dealt with at the school speaks English, but he is apparently not fluent. Plus my host family will speak Spanish with me. Plus the people in the town. So if I can’t get my shit together Spanish-wise in two weeks of total immersion, I don’t deserve to have shit.

San Pedro la Laguna is a town of about 13,000. There are quite a few restaurants for a town of that size, including a French restaurant run by French ex-pats. A lot of the restaurants have free (English language) movie nights, and there’s at least one internet cafe and a place called Buddha Cafe that offers yoga classes. Plus the school offers lectures and salsa night. Between all that and the considerable amount of studying I’ll be doing, the weekdays should be well filled.

Lago Atitlán is about 50 square miles (a little more than twice the size of Lake Minnetonka, 1/4 the size of Lake Winnebago). It’s not considered safe to walk around the lake unless you’re in a group of 6 or 8 people and/or carrying a machete. But there’s kayaking and boating and parasailing. Plus–and this is really appealing to me–you can take a boat across the lake to Panajachel and see a wildlife preserve. With monkeys! The school organizes an outing every weekend, and, since there probably won’t be a lot of students there at this time of year, I’m planning to campaign for monkey boats.

I can also walk to other villages, walk up some of the inactive volcanoes, and/or take a bus to Quetzaltenago or Antigua. It occurs to me that I’ll have to find someone to go with me. I’m used to just doing my own thing, but it may not be safe to stroll around country roads. In fact, it probably isn’t. I wonder, if everyone else at school is super wack (not likely, right?), if I could hire a guide. And, ideally, not have the guide attack me. Hm…

I’m a little anxious about the travel logistics. I’m also expecting at least one emotional freakout about being in a place where everything is another language. But honestly, these are growth experiences. Remember when I was fretting about my personal statement for grad school and wondering what I’d write about re: exposure to another culture? Well, here’s an option.

Next step: Spanish

Baby steps to Spanish. (From What About Bob?, you guys. Remember that?)
Baby steps to Spanish. (From What About Bob?, you guys. Remember that?)

I am officially done with my classroom volunteering. I’m a little sad because I’m going to miss those kids, but since it ate up my only day off of the week, I’m glad to have a little more free time/time to make some more money.  And I’ll still be at Homework Hub, so I’ll get to see those kids, and maybe a few Wellstone kids, too.  So, what do I need to do now?

That’s right: learn Spanish. That’s going OK. I came into a little money and paid for 4 private lessons, and that’s been helpful. The main thing I need to practice is speaking out loud.

I’m also going to spend 2 weeks studying in Guatemala! This is huge. I’ve never been away from home for 2 weeks before. No, really. It’s about time, right? I’ll be studying at a school in San Pedro La Laguna (last night I dreamt of San Pedro…) and staying with a family that speaks Spanish and maybe another indigenous language, but no English. My brain is aching just thinking about it.

My sister the traveler (who has a delightful blog that you should check out) has been very helpful in planning this trip. In fact, she graciously gifted me the travel miles so that I could get there in the first place. She’s going to Spain, Uganda, and possibly Wisconsin in 2013, so she’ll get them back. She also studied in Guatemala a few years ago, albeit at a different school in a different city. But tips like “Don’t bring clothes you like because they will likely be ruined,” or “Know the money exchange rate so you don’t get ripped off” are helpful.

I’ve been saying all along that I need to take the proficiency test before I apply. Well, the notes I have, which I just reviewed last night, say that I don’t have to complete it until I start student teaching. But, I also have a handwritten note that says I DO have to have it done before I apply. So, I’m just going to do that. I’m sure it will make my application stronger, in any case. Maybe I should schedule it for shortly after I return from Guatemala so I’m fresh.  Plus, if I fail, I’ll have time to retake it before the December application deadline.  Oh, and I have to take ANOTHER written test, but that’s not until I’m in the program. I forgot about that one.

One step at a time. I finished the volunteer work, I made a lot of progress with my Spanish. Now I can focus on Spanish for maybe 6-8 weeks, then go HAM on my personal statements.


Duo the Duolingo owl says, "Tal vez no lo puedo."
Duo the Duolingo owl says, “Tal vez no lo puedo.”

If I’m being realistic, there is no way that I am going to achieve Spanish fluency by this autumn. And being realistic is the only choice I have.

Had I spent the last few months in a Spanish-speaking country, or working at a job where I spoke Spanish 8 hours a day, I could have done it. Maybe. Probably. That’s not what I did, though.

So I’m thinking I’m just going to apply to teach ESL only. Maybe I can add Spanish later. I’m going to keep studying (I pre-paid for 3 more private lessons, and them shits ain’t cheap).  The more Spanish I know, the better I can teach ESL–it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.

I’m still mulling this over. Mercury is in retrograde, and while I don’t believe in astrology, my brain is acting like it’s real. Also, I tend to get cranky and depressed in July (too hot).

I should write more about summer school volunteering and stuff like that. Maybe later this weekend. It’s just been hard to get my thoughts in order. I just banged this out in a few minutes because it has to be put out there.

Get in my brain, Spanish!

Duo the Duolingo owl says, "Si, se puede!"
Duo the Duolingo owl says, “Si, se puede!”

I had two meetings last Friday to put me closer to my grad school goal. Let’s talk about them, shall we?

First I met with my potential U of M advisor, MM. She reviewed my transcript and found it good. It looks like I won’t have any prerequisites to take. Awesome. And in fact, my undergraduate linguistics class might count for grad school, although I’m not totally counting on that.

MM also told me that doing ELL and Spanish at the same time is not that much extra work. In fact, she said, “you might as well take ELL at the same time.” She also told me that, if my volunteer experience goes well, I should have a competitive application.

But it’s not all smooth sailing from here. I have to learn the hell out of some Spanish. I have to take an oral exam (tape-recorded!) before I apply in December. I’m going to shoot for late September/early October, just in case I have to retake it.

So what do I do to learn Spanish? Duolingo is going well, when I do it consistently. Spanish language music is a good idea, although I can’t find anything I like beside “Elena la Ballena” (which, to be fair, is the jam). A conversational group, if I can find one that meets at a time that works for me (lots of them seem to like Saturday mornings, and I work or go to book club at that time). I may have to set one up myself. Movies and TV, if I can find something on Hulu Latino that doesn’t make me want to vomit out of my eye sockets. I downloaded Harry Potter y la piedra filosofia, and I can find other YA books in Spanish.

My second meeting was an orientation for volunteering in Minneapolis Public Schools. It went great! And this morning, I got an email from Wellstone International High School. I’ll start volunteering there next Tuesday. Success!

So the focus for the next 6 months? Spanish Spanish Spanish.

Espero que…

Sparrow Kay!
Sparrow Kay!

Got to make more time to learn Spanish. One thing that helps me learn is mnemonics. My Facebook friend Jill, who is also learning Spanish, is good at this. I still think of her “Llora con llaves en la lluvia” drawing when I need to remember the word llora.

Another thing is just to let my mind wander and play around with the information to absorb it. I did this very well when I was younger. But now two things have interfered: 1) My need to fulfill normal adult responsibilities (not as many as a lot of adults, since I don’t own a home or have kids, but nevertheless) and 2) My media consumption.

My inclination is to spend more time on Duolingo or reading Spanish or the like to learn Spanish more quickly, since I”m going to need to take a damn test this year if I want to teach Spanish. But I also need to spend more time just thinking. Thinking about the words, remembering what I’ve learned, just kind of being with the information.

And that’s why I made a sparrow with a name tag.