Back to school: learning Spanish and falling in love with Xela

Waking up early, rubbing the sleep out of your eyes while shovelling in your breakfast, flying out of the house just a couple of minutes before eight to sit half a day behind a desk repeating sentences in Spanish. True, these are not the first things that come to mind when we think about travelling. In Guatemala, however, that is the way. On the second day in this wonderfully diverse country, a boat tour seller called Mario tucked a little yellow card in my hand- a flyer for a Spanish school in Xela. I wouldn’t have ever thought that one day I would enter the very same school asking for information. But life and travel is fun in this way that you never know what will happen next.

Plans are changing

Guatemala is the cheapest country to study Spanish. A week of studying four hours a day plus room and board costs 273 euro for two people. This makes Guatemala a popular destination for those travellers who’d like to speak Spanish, improve their language skills or add some grammar to their vocabulary. Spanish schools exist in bigger cities and in smaller touristic places, making it easy for all kinds of travellers to find what they like.

We didn’t really plan to study the language. After leaving our little paradise Laguna Lachua behind, we were excited to get back to tourists’ favourite lake Lago Atitlan. Not because we didn’t get the change to see everything there. No, we had accepted a WorkAway position in San Marcos. We’d blog in exchange for a free stay in a nice hotel. But the state of things can change rapidly when you’re travelling. The WorkAway host wrote us a couple of days before – they couldn’t host us after all, because of renovation works. Apparently, the workers had finally shown up and we had to bury our plans to live and write in the shadow of our special volcano: San Pedro.

Sitting in that terribly unhygienic restaurant in Playa Grande, we wondered what to do next. We came up with a plan to do the language course- to put a nicer end to our experience in Guatemala.

The graveyard in Xela, with volcano Santa Maria in the background

“I hate cities!”

It was getting dark. We were on the way to Xela, the second biggest city in Guatemala, admiring dark blue volcanoes looming over the city lights.

The bus driver was crazy, accelerating like he tried to escape the police in GTA. Then, after noticing a passenger on the roadside, he stopped so abruptly that our heads bumped against the seat in front of us. We were happy to get out of that washing machine alive.

Tom was so sick and tired of the driving style that he refused to sit in another bus that would have taken us to downtown. So we walked. But in a city of 150, 000 people, walking to downtown can take some time. A couple of wrong turns can make the walk even longer. “I hate cities. That’s why I never want to travel in cities. Why did we have to come here?” Tom was not happy and I, excited to be in a bigger place, started to wonder if we had made a mistake. What if Tom would dislike it the whole time?

A street musician on Xela's Parque Central.

Rome of Guatemala

After a myriad of small towns, the big city was like a sea breeze in a desert. Big shops, chains, people rushing home after a day’s work, thinking of the warm meal on the table. Half an hour in Xela was enough to realise that this here was no cute Antigua.

We walked under some kind of arch of triumph, cars circling around it. On the left side, the drawings on the walls betrayed a zoo, a real tiger resting from the day full of visitors. On the other side of the road, there was a huge modern hospital. Having seen only small public clinics or tiny one doctor offices, my mouth fell open in awe. There was a wonderful Asian-styled pavilion not far from the huge hospital building where young people chatted and spend time. It was late, but the city was alive. You could feel it.

And then we reached the old town- a familiar grid of streets filled with low ancient buildings. But not all the buildings were small. At one point, we faced a huge classicist construction that reminded us of a Greek temple-all lit up. Where the hell did this come from? I remember I felt the same when I visited Rome, with amazing ruins, grandiose buildings or something else to surprise me on every street corner.

Xela felt very European. Its architecture was grand, streets were clean from trash and the people all looked like university professors rushing to their next lecture. We didn’t know it yet, but we had arrived in our new favourite town in Guatemala.

In the courtyard of Unipas, our Spanish school in Xela.

It took a lot of time, but finally, we found the perfect school. Here we stand in a school courtyard with our teacher.

How to pick a school?

Xela is a comfortable place for a language student to live in. Its shops are not overpriced, there’s plenty of cheap food options to choose from and you will not run out of activities to do in and out of the city. When you have had enough of Spanish, you can just chill and relax with so many other language students, expats and tourists.

The only thing that can be difficult for a future Spanish student who wishes to study in Xela is its abundance of language schools to choose from. Xela has around fifty language schools and if you have difficulties to make decisions, this will not be easy for you. Most of the schools have similar programs and pricing- so you cannot go wrong, but paying that much money you want the best, don’t you?

We met people who booked their course on the internet at home. That surely saves you some time. But what we learned visiting different schools was that the best way to make a decision is to trust the feeling in your guts. In the end, that was how we picked the school- we went to see them. Of course, we didn’t visit fifty schools, we did only five. But with only that one visit, we could downsize the number of interesting schools to two. We said goodbye to the other schools for different reasons:

Kamalbe

While the person we talked there was nice, he was wearing a puffer jacket. I understand that it can get cold inside, but why should I want to study somewhere cold?

Xelaju

There was no one to welcome us and show the school. One girl with long nails came to us and recommended to write an e-mail. Well, that was not why we decided to check it out personally.

Miguel de Cervantes Spanish School

A lady welcomed us in the middle of the room like a lamp post, giving us the all the info about the school in one go. All good, but maybe she could have offered us a seat first?

***

So, as you see, they were all small things, but you have to choose somehow. The schools we liked were Utatlan and Inepas.

Utatlan

It was the first school that came up when we googled Spanish schools. Their location was awesome- in a huge Indoor arcade with many bars, restaurants and even a travel agency.

The atmosphere was very welcoming- the person in their office showed us where we’re going to study if we choose their school and explained everything.

The biggest surprise was that he spoke English. It might sound logical that enrolment in a language school takes place in a language you speak, but not here. In Xela, it was still common that everything about the schools was explained in Spanish.

Utatlan was the first school we stepped in. So, despite the fact that everything sounded fabulous, we still wanted to see what else was out there. Seeing our hesitation, the school worker invited us to a potluck with the students so we could ask them directly how they liked their experience.

We decided to check it out and bought some drinks. The atmosphere was fun and lively. Surprisingly, I managed to practice more Spanish on that evening than during our whole four months stay in Guatemala. Of course, multiple glasses of red wine must have helped. And the patience of a kind Swiss girl who didn’t mind my very broken Spanish and still made an effort to understand what I wanted to say.

Inepas

In contrast to Utatlan’s liveliness and energy, Inepas welcomed us in a calm and reserved manner that straight away made me think- this school must take teaching seriously. When we told the directress about our Odyssey of finding the best school, she smiled and said that in the end, all that matters is a good teacher. Those words ringing in our heads, we finally decided to take classes at Inepas and were very happy about it. Yes, there were no other students, they didn’t offer as many activities as some other schools, but what we got was passion, fiery conversations about the political situation in Guatemala and a lot of new information about the Maya. We actually had a private lecture about Mayan culture in Spanish.

“How awesome is that?” asked Tom when we walked home after we had taken notes in the classroom for two hours. Yes, it definitely felt like our Spanish was getting better.

Our host family in Xela.

Birthday in Guatemalan style.

Should we live with a family?

The best way to experience a different culture is to live with a local family. Learning Spanish in Guatemala, we had that option. I was terrified at first. In Indonesia, I had lived with families who locked me out when I arrived home after 11 PM, didn’t allow me to wear shorts at home and sent me text messages that all the neighbours thought I was a prostitute. I was more than happy to move out of these host families and thought I’d never want to go near others again.

But the experience we had in Guatemala was totally different and it was the best thing to do. Since we were normally too shy to start a conversation with strangers, our daily dose of Spanish consisted of buying food and finding a room. The host family gave us the opportunity to talk about whatever we liked: cultural differences, dogs, best places to shop in Xela and so on. And the best thing about it: you couldn’t get away from Spanish. You listened to it and you spoke it and, when the dinner was over, you went back to your room and dove into your notes. Most probably you’ll find yourself speaking Spanish even with a dog.

Anete and Bella in Xela.

It was good to mention in our host family application that we love animals. We ended up living with three dogs. This one here is called Bella.

Luxurious life

All that luxury – a room and three meals a day, prepared and slid in front of you – came for less than €7 a day per person. Even if you didn’t care about Spanish, it could be great budget accommodation in places like Antigua, where hotels are generally more expensive. In Antigua, we got the room with the opportunity to use the kitchen. But that family could get a bit loud for our standards. The only child was screaming for attention, sticking his tongue out if he didn’t get it and playing football in a kitchen where we were boiling water in a huge pot.

The family in Xela was a happy place for us. It consisted of an always cheerful and chatty mum, Karla, who also cooked finger-licking meals and her 18-year-old daughter, Diana, whose dream was to become a children’s doctor. Around the dinner table, the conversation grew so lively that sometimes I started to doubt- was it real or was I transported into a Mexican telenovela? No, the telenovela was playing on the TV in the corner of the room. Sometimes, mum and daughter both quieted down. They stopped chewing their food, their eyes followed something in the distance and their minds were all of a sudden somewhere far, far away. Then we knew that something important was happening in this episode.

Crying on the kitchen floor

My favourite moments of this brief family life were the moments when Karla and Diana started to talk about their previous Spanish students. They had most certainly seen all the species in the human zoo.

In one of these stories, a magnitude-6 earthquake caused a power cut. Karla woke up in the middle of the night. Everything shook so badly that she thought that this was it – it was time to die. Opening her eyes the next morning, thanking God for being alive, she found the American student raging in the kitchen and demanding internet. Karla explained to her that not only her house was without internet, but the whole city. It must have been urgent because the girl didn’t calm down. She sat on the kitchen floor, crying, and even ran to school to demand internet. They had a myriad of funny stories like this.

It can feel scary to sacrifice a couple of weeks from your trip to stay put and live with strangers. But in the end, it was well worth it. Staying longer in one spot can be liberating. Especially if you travel fast and have to pack all your belongings every other night. You start to get to know the place, discover hidden secrets and start to feel like a local.  Living in a family gives you a lovely home feeling, something you don’t feel that much travelling from guesthouse to guesthouse. All in all, we were so happy that we did it that we now consider returning to Xela one day and spend there even more time.

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