Category Archives: #Antigua

Antigua, Guatemala

The city of Antigua is unlike any other place in Guatemala – there is a fair amount of money here.  The vast majority of the 13 million people who live in Guatemala are poor, but being in this small town of about 60,000 people is like being in an entirely different world.  Let me paint a broader picture of the people of Guatemala.

Guatemaltecos can be classified into 3 primary groups:  (1) indigenous people, which is by no means a homogenous group, for there are dozens of different indigenous groups here, each with their one language and customs, (2) direct descendents of the Spanish Europeans who colonized this country starting 500 years ago, and (3) “mestizo” people who are a mixture of the first two groups.

There is a wide gap between the rich and the poor in Guatemala.  It is estimated that about 25 families of European heritage control more than 80% of the fertile land here.  Another stat indicates that 10% of the people receive more than 50% of all income in this country.  The super-rich are a tiny minority that not only have most of the money, but they also hold most of the power because they control the political and governmental systems.  Antigua, which is known world-wide for its Spanish language schools, is also one of the playgrounds of rich Guatemaltecos who come here on the weekends to escape the hustle and bustle of the capital Guatemala City (which is only 40 minutes down the road).

There is also a small percentage of middle-class families here, it includes those who have been fortunate enough to get through school and find professional employment, and those who through sheer tenacity have worked themselves out of poverty.  The families who host Spanish language students are an example of the middle-class, and this income is vital to their livelihood.  By the way, no language school would prosper here without having middle-class accommodations for language students, anything less would simply not be tolerable for many of the North Americans and Europeans who come here to study Spanish.  But having said that, there is even a significant gap between the middle-class here in Antigua and the middle-class in Xela (4 hours west of here) where I spent the month of October.  Here in Antigua the accommodations are very close to what I am used to in the United States, but the accommodations in Xela were somewhat spartan by comparison.

Most of the rest of the people who live in Guatemala are poor.  At least 80% of the population live in poverty, and about one-third of those are considered to be living in “pobreza extrema” or extreme poverty.  A person who is extremely impoverished likely has no job, has no education, might be in poor health, and is fortunate to eat one time a day.  Thus, if I have my stats correct, well over 3 million Guatemaltecos are living in extreme poverty.  But I don’t need stats to prove to me the level of poverty here, for I have seen it with my own eyes.  I have been to Guatemala City and also spent a month in the Xela area, and it is painfully obvious to me that there ain’t no place in the United States – including Appalachia – that is anywhere close to as poor as the majority of Guatemala.

Education can be a ticket to a better life, but the school system here suffers from lack of funding and enforcement, and is also viewed with suspicion by much of the population.  The largest percentage of the population is the indigenous poor, and many of them think that the school system is designed to erode their indigenous culture.  Moreover, they need their children to work in the fields, and thus even the children who are enrolled in school often miss classes and/or stop school altogether after completing only a few grades.  It is estimated that the literacy rate among indigenous women is around 30%.  Another problem is that a good education is supposed to provide graduates with more opportunities and better jobs, however even when kids advance through the school system very often they cannot find work afterward … thus, people in the community see these poor results and think, “Why should I even send my kids to school?”

People wonder why my wife and I would want to come to Guatemala for vacation.  Let me just say that we could have gone to Hawaii or Europe or Australia or many other places in the world for vacation, thanks be to God we are very fortunate and can afford to splurge occasionally.  (Admittedly, a trip to some of those other places would have had to been considerably shorter to be affordable for us).  But we came to Guatemala in part for the quality of the Spanish instruction, but also to invest our tourism dollars in a country that could really use the tourism income.  Actually, the hardest part about coming here has been ensuring that as much money as possible gets to the people who need it the most.  I don’t want to pay some tour company raking in tourist dollars to take me on a tour to show me where the poor people live, I would much rather hop on a chicken bus and go there myself.  If you come here and feel like helping the less fortunate, you could take the money that you plan on spending on a tour, change it into a bunch of one quetzal coins, and walk down the dirt streets handing a quetzal to everyone you see.  Occasionally we see someone sitting on the sidewalk here in Antigua with their hand out seeking a little help, and when you give them a one quetzal coin they are delighted and very appreciative … they might even be able to eat for a day on one quetzal.  Yet one quetzal is worth only about one U.S. dime – how the hell hard is it to walk around giving out dimes?

People also wonder about how safe it is here in Guatemala … they rely too much on exaggerated news coverage, and imagine that there are gangs of thugs wandering all over this country ready to pillage.  Granted, it is somewhat safer to be in the United States than it is to be this country, and granted one must take precautions, but in reality there is a very small difference in the degree of relative safety between the two countries.  Many times while in Xela I walked home alone at night down poorly lit streets past many people I did not know, yet I did not once feel fear or have any problems.  The people I passed at nights in the streets of Xela were people just like you and me … a woman walking home alone after her shift at Dominoes Pizza … vendors from the market walking to their trucks … kids walking home after school activities … a man walking into town to have a few beers at the sports bar … couples returning home from dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant … teenagers going to the soccer match (“fútbol” here and in most of the world) … some lady walking to the beauty shop to get her hair done … a family on their way to Wednesday night Bible study … an elderly woman carrying on her head a basket of fruit that she was not able to sell on the street corner … and some gringo Spanish student heading back to his host family’s home after spending a few hours at the internet café.

Also posted in #Guatemala, #poverty

Serendipity and Loss

Sheri left Salt Lake City late Tuesday night on a flight to Los Angeles, and after a two hour layover she took a redeye flight that arrived in Guatemala City at 4:30 AM Wednesday. I was at the airport waiting for her with the taxi cab driver who had picked me up in Antigua at 3:50 AM. Sheri was a bit travel weary, but also very happy to be on vacation with me. And of course I was very happy to be with my Sweetie again after being apart for a month, by far the longest stretch we have been apart since we first met nearly 13 years ago.

We quickly settled into our home stay with a Spanish speaking family. Ruth lives in the home with her son who just finished high school, but two older daughters frequently stop by for a meal and to speak Spanish with the Spanish language students staying here. This is a beautiful and very large home with an interior courtyard (characteristic of the homes in Central and South America), where the family lives on the first level and the Spanish language students live on the second level. Ruth has had as many as 15 guests staying here at one time, however 5-10 is the norm. Ruth has been hosting students for nearly 20 years, and she is very good at what she does – this is her primary source of income. To begin with, Ruth is warm and gracious and funny. Secondly, she is an excellent cook who prepares for us 3 delicious and healthy meals every day (except Sundays when we are on our own). Another bonus is that Ruth is an excellent Spanish teacher, who not only requires that we speak Spanish in the house, but patiently corrects our mistakes while helping us to speak Spanish better. Finally, Ruth is a dog lover, and we have enjoyed getting to know her two boxers Rocky and Ruffy. Sheri and have our own room with a private bathroom here at Casa González, and we feel very fortunate to be staying here. Latinos often welcome family, friends, and guests into their home by saying, “Nuestro casa es su casa” (Our house is your house), and that is certainly the spirit in this place because Sheri and I feel very much at home here.

We’ve enjoyed several serendipitous moments since being here, and those moments always make me feel like I am just where I need to be. However, being where I need to be does not necessarily mean that everything is going my way, as I will explain a little later in this blog. Here are some of the fun chance encounters, coincidences, and moments of serendipity that have come our way: First, I kept running into the same fellow student from Xela during my first few days here, I bumped into Stella 4 times over 2 days and each time in a different part of the city. And the other day Sheri and I were wandering through the grocery store looking for granola when we bumped into another fellow student from Xela. Second, I went to a concert here before Sheri arrived and sat next to a couple who just happened to be studying Spanish at the same school where I had planned to start the next day (and there are dozens of Spanish schools in this city). But what’s more, Elena and Mark live in Canada not far from my home town of Toledo … and Elena’s birthday is in November (as is Sheri’s) and Mark’s birthday is in December (as is mine). Speaking of birthdays, a Third coincidence is that I share a birthday (December 20th) with the cleaning lady at our home Casa Gonzalez. (Oh, and Oscar my Spanish teacher in Xela was born the same day that Sheri and I were married, January 8th). Fourth, and back to the subject of my home town Toledo, the name Toledo has been popping up around here regularly … there is a meat distributor here in Antigua named Toledo … one day we met a man from Michigan with his young son, and we learned that the Toledo Zoo is one of their most favorite places to visit in the whole world. Fifth, a few seconds after saying goodbye to the man and boy from Michigan, we looked across the street and saw a residence named Casa Toledo … residences are often given a name here, and often the name is painted on a large square piece of tile that is affixed to the outside wall. Sixth, speaking of tile work, my first day at school I was explaining to my teacher that I dropped my given middle name Anthony when I got married, and that the name Anthony came both from my Grandfather and from the Catholic Saint Anthony of Padua … well, no sooner had I said the name Anthony of Padua when I looked up and saw a multiple-tile piece of artwork on the wall of the ancient convent that is now a Spanish school, the artwork was a painting of – you guessed it – Saint Anthony of Padua. Booga booga. These are all of the coincidences, chance encounters, and serendipitous moments that I can remember right now, but it seems that we have been saying, “Oh my gosh!” and “Can you believe it?” ever since we arrived here.

But sometimes I think that God has to bring us back to earth so that we don’t get too full of ourselves. We get to experience the excitement of serendipity and the feeling that everything is going our way … but we also get to slog along on occasion, to feel that we are swimming upstream, and to think that nothing seems to be going our way. The reality is that all of life is blessed, and we would all do well to accept whatever comes our way knowing that nothing in this world happens that God does not either cause or allow. Even so, we don’t have to wallow in pity feeling that the world is against us and that there is nothing that we can do to change our circumstances … rather, it is far better to do whatever we can to redeem the tough circumstances, to turn lemons into lemonade, to make the most of every circumstance we encounter. So I said all that to say this: Just when it looked like everything was going our way on this trip, that everything would go our way for the entire month we are here, that we had found the eternal spring … we had a tough day yesterday. It actually started out pretty well, we went on a fabulous tour of the city, the tour guide was knowledgeable and funny, and the tour was well worth the money we spent to participate. But then we went to the local sports bar to root for our beloved Utah Utes in their big game against TCU, a game that had national title implications. We got a prime seat right in front of a big screen TV, and proceeded to watch the Utes get slaughtered at home by TCU 47-7. What a bummer. But worse than that, one time when I could not bear to watch the game any longer and was looking for things to do, I went to the bathroom … and promptly dropped our digital camera in the toilet. Big time bummer. The camera is dead, and it does not appear to be coming back to life again. Not a huge loss, I purchased it used for only $80 specifically for this trip, we left our better camera in Salt Lake City. Nonetheless, I had big plans for the camera we brought with us, such as high resolution pictures of the nearby volcanoes (one volcano is active), pictures of this historic city, pictures of the people and markets bustling with activity, pictures of my lovely wife and I having big fun here, pictures posted to the web and shared with family and friends all over the world, etc., etc., etc. But now that there will be no more digital pictures of our trip here, you’ll just have to believe everything we tell you about this place and about what we are doing here. And true to my philosophy on life, I believe that dropping that camera in the toilet is the best thing that could have happened to me at that moment.

One last thing for this week … today we celebrated my lovely wife’s 50th birthday. We’ve had lots of fun today, we started the day at a fabulous breakfast buffet, went to church, had a nice lunch at a local restaurant, and after I finish blogging we are on a way to a have thali at an Indian restaurant, and afterward we are going to play Spanish bingo. So if you get this message, be sure to wish my Sweetie a happy birthday!

Also posted in #Guatemala, #learnspanish, #Xela

Guatemala

If you want to learn Spanish … and learn it inexpensively, go to Guatemala.

Spanish language learning has grown tremendously in popularity over the last 20 years or so. And the concept that is the most talked about, that seems to be the most effective, is called “Spanish immersion.” In other words, go somewhere to eat, sleep, hear, speak, and study Spanish all day, all the time.

There are literally dozens of language learning programs in each of the Latin American countries (and in Spain as well), in all of the biggest cities within each country. Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, Honduras, etc. – wherever you want to go, you can find a school that will teach you Spanish.

There is a web site www.123teachme.com that allows you to select a country, and then a city within the country to learn how different language learning schools rate. I believe that the ratings are based solely on student feedback.

The schools in Guatemala are prized for some of the following reasons: (1) They tend to be less expensive than schools in other countries, (2) Guatemalans tend to speak Spanish more slowly, thus it is more palatable to gringos, and (3) the Mayan culture in Guatemala is very interesting.

In Guatemala, the 3 most popular areas for Spanish language study are Antigua, the LakeAtitlán area, and Quetzaltenango (the official name, but locals call this city by its Mayan name Xela).

From what I have read, Xela is the best place to go to learn Spanish. It is the least expensive of the 3 most popular areas in Guatemala, and there is very little English spoken in Xela. Thus, the opportunity to cheat and speak English is very limited. You are literally forced to speak Spanish. It is a large city, the second biggest in Guatemala. Twenty hours of language learning 1-on-1 with your own private tutor, including room and board with a Guatemalan host family, will run you about $160 per week.

The Lake Atitlán area is the medium priced option. Some friends of ours told us that this area is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Lake Atitlán is a large endorheic lake (one that does not flow to the sea) that was formed by volcanic activity thousands of years ago. There are various villages around the lake, the biggest of which is probably Panajachel. There is a lot to see and do in this area besides learning Spanish, such as the twice-weekly market in Chichicastenango where there are many Mayan vendors selling their beautiful and colorful handmade items. Check out the market by going to www.virtourist.com/america/guatemala/index.html, click on Chichicastenango, and then page through the photos taken at this Mayan market.

Antigua is the most expensive, and the most tourist friendly area in Guatemala for Spanish language learning. It is a small town, but one with lots of gringo conveniences, lots of English speakers, lots of restaurants and boutiques, but still Guatemala … in other words, a poor city by comparison to most U.S. cities. Twenty hours with a private tutor including room and board with a Guatemalan host family is about $250 per week in Antigua.

Let’s go to Guatemala and … aprender a hablar Español!

Also posted in #Guatemala, #LagoAtitlán, #Xela