Sunday, February 5, 2012

First Weeks in Guatemala

I've been in Guatemala almost three weeks now. Wow, those weeks went by very fast. I guess experiencing so many new things and staying so very busy will have that effect.

The first few days were quite stressful. New customs, new city, new people, new family, new food, and very few English speakers all made me feel really isolated. Additionally, the first days of school were something of a crash course to help me transition through the sink-or-swim phase. I think I learned (or tired to learn) 250 words and some random grammar in those first 3 days. I was literally dreaming about vocabulary words when I slept at night. It was good; I needed the intense immersion, but all of those things combined left me a bit frazzled.

Where would I be without flashcards? 
Of course it wasn't all stress and heartache - there was also the excitement of being in a new place with opportunities for new experiences, and especially for me, the excitement of trying to learn a new language and culture (things very different from the math and physics that I'm used to). Challenges are good.

A Typical Day

After those first few days things have mostly settled into a routine. I typically wake up around 6:30 or 7 and read the news or study some vocabulary before breakfast at 7:30 with my host family. Breakfast usually consists of black beans (often puree), a fried or scrambled egg, and some kind of very light roll. Occasionally we have pancakes and sometimes cereal with milk. After breakfast I walk down the street to school, I.C.A., before class starts at 8. Class runs from 8 to 1 with a 30 minute break at 10:30. The morning temperatures here in Xela are in the 40s or 30s. It warms up to the 60s or 70s in the afternoon, but since almost none of the buildings have any kind of heating or cooling, those first few hours of sitting in class can be a bit chilly. I'm glad I brought some of my Alaska clothes.

 The language lessons are one-on-one in small, simple rooms with two chairs and a small table. Class consists of some new grammar or vocabulary mixed in with a lot of time practicing conversation by talking about events of the day or the day before (I have yet to learn future-tense verbs so I'm just living in the present and past for now). The instructors are really great and the five hour days tend to go by pretty fast.

After school, I go back home to have lunch with my family around 1 pm. Lunch is traditionally the biggest meal of the day in Guatemala and can be a wide variety of dishes. Usually some kind of meat (often chicken), some kind of sauce, rice, and maybe a vegetable, and everything always comes with a side of small corn tortillas.

The rest of the afternoon after lunch is generally a mix of studying at home or at some internet cafe (it's hard to say no to 2$ fresh-fruit smoothies and free internet). Some days there is an activity with the school or some of the other students such as a hike near town, a walk around the city, or a short trip to a neighboring community for some kind of cultural event. Afternoon is also a great time to walk around the market in search of any snacks or odd items I might need. Markets are very interesting. I'll have to dedicate an entire blog post to just them alone. For now it's sufficient to say they're very different from what we're used to in the US in many ways. They're also a great place to practice some of my Spanish - especially numbers and negotiating.

Dinner with the family is typically around 7 or 8 though I'm pretty sure some families don't eat dinner at all - more like a couple light snacks during the evening. At our house it's often beans, eggs, maybe some leftovers from lunch, and (of course) a side of corn tortillas. There is a notable lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in their diets here, which seems particularly strange since so many fruits and veggies are grown nearby. They're both very cheap by US standards (~1.20$ for a dozen small to medium sized bananas) and easy to find in the numerous markets around, but I've been told the fruits are a bit too expensive for many families. I can only guess that they just don't like vegetables because they are even cheaper.

All things considered, the meals at home are very good. They're nutritious and clean (unlike some of the street food). Meal time with the family is also great because it gives me time to practice talking to people other than the instructors and an inside look at a 'typical' Guatemalan family. My family is really great. They're friendly and talkative and, most importantly, patient. They like hosting students, and the house is very close to the school.


Volcanic hot springs near town.
I volunteered one Saturday morning at a reforestation project planting seedlings that will later be planted in other parts of the highlands that have lost their trees for one reason or another
We went on a trip to a coffee plantation to learn a bit about the cultural and economic significance of Guatemala's coffee and fruit exports. These are some coffee flowers.
The other students and our instructor at the coffee finca watching the coffee beans dry and learning about the "bitter fruit" called the United Fruit Company.
Some of the high-tech 50's era electrical wiring and belt-driven machinery (top right) for roasting the coffee.
A day trip to the beach at Champerico.
I had a little encounter with the sand while I was swimming in the waves. It looks worse that it was, and it's almost all healed up now.
Learning to make tortillas one night at the school.  
Weekend trip to Lago Atitlan with some of the other students and one of the professors. We visited a couple cultural sites and took the chance to spend a couple days in some warmer temperatures. 
The lake and a couple volcanoes in the background. Too bad that guy was standing there ruining the photo.  


  1. Love reading your blogs and the photos were excellent! You've become a great photographer.. and enjoyed reading about your days, school and some "outings"! Thank you for keeping us posted!Aunt Karon

  2. Living in South Texas, it is very common to see cars on Hwy 281 (running north-south to San Antonio) overloaded with what can only be described as "stuff." 20 year old trucks, beaten up sedans, etc - all filled to bursting with clothes, furniture and aging electronics. People run these to ports in South Texas and Mexico, and these goods are transported to South and Central America for further use... long after those of us in the US have determined they are obsolete. I wouldn't be surprised if that Subaru had a similar story.

    Keep up the posts, Thomas!

    1. There is a store here in town called Mega Paca. It's famous with the locals for having pretty cheap clothes. I was surprised to see they advertise "100% imported products." It's full of second hand clothes from the US. Looks just like a thrift store or salvation army from back home. Maybe even things that they couldn't sell at the SA. Now you know where all of those trucks are headed.

  3. Excellent!! Very interesting stuff. Thanks for the updates. John B. GPB

  4. Wow, what an interesting place! You're so lucky to be so fully immersed. This is the stuff of life. How stones become polished. Let the world take you to your greatest possible adventure!

  5. This all sounds fun and exciting but where do you buy beer? :)
    On a more serious note... Is everything you study in spanish, are you "allowed" to speak english in school? Any similarity to your language learning experiences in Germany?

  6. looks great Tom Tom! I can totally empathize on the immersion frustrations of learning the local language...sort of :) it looks like a great quality of life, albeit entirely different...maybe not so much a good quality of life, but more simply a fantastic treat for all of the senses!

  7. I'm very much enjoying your blog Thomas, keep writing and learning your spanish. I only know essential spanish. dos cervezas más, por favor

  8. Lago Atitlan pic- that place looks beautiful!
    Thanks for starting this blog so we all can have an idea of what you are up to in Guatemala.

  9. Sounds like you're living a simple life packed with culture. Hot springs, beach, and parrots! Are you finding any inspiration for sustainable living ideas?

  10. Yay! :) awesome glad you are doing what so many people want to do, but just don't! :) Cheers, Amy