Living with Mom Magda

Trip Start Nov 27, 2009
Trip End Oct 26, 2010

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Flag of Guatemala  , Western Highlands,
Sunday, April 18, 2010

After our experiences in Guatemala City and not being able to understand anything on Volcano tour we decided that we were in serious need of some Spanish lessons. We found the Jabel Tinamit Spanish School in Panajachel on the internet and it seemed like a good deal, so that was our next stop. Pana is the largest town on the crater lake, Lago Atitlan, and we organised to stay with a local family while we learnt some Spanish. The first few days were a bit random and communication with our host family was difficult before we learnt any Spanish. However, once we got the hang of it, it was great to almost be part of the family and it turned out to be one of our favourite and memorable experiences of the entire year.

The school was in the owners house and most of the time we had lessons under umbrellas in the garden. Our teacher for most of the three weeks was Josť, he was pretty good, with a cheeky streak, but enjoyed a good chat and did get easily distracted – not that that was a problem because it was how we learnt the most about the real Guatemala. For a few days we had Gladys as a teacher, she was also good and a bit more focused than her husband, Josť. We started with 5 hours of lessons in the morning but after two weeks dropped to 4 – we ended up just chatting for most of the last hour anyway. It's definitely the best way to learn a language because it is completely focused on speaking and you are forced to use it.

We stayed with Magda and her family about a 15 minute walk from the school in what looked like a township. When we first arrived in the rain and walked past all the shacks we really thought 'what on earth are we doing here’ but Magda’s house was really nice and we had our own room on the roof. Magda was great and such a mom. Chatting to her at meal times was one of the best parts and she was really good at helping us learn – that is definitely when Kate learnt the most! By the time we left she cried when we said good-bye and gave us a whole speech about how much she enjoyed having us and was so proud about us. We chatted about her family, about life in Guatemala and what it was like in the past with the war and huge earthquakes. It was great because through this we could really get an understanding what it was like to be a Guatemalan and aspects of the culture that we would never have seen as normal tourists.

It was also interesting to see how the family dynamics were so similar to any ‘typical’ family at home despite being in a totally different country and culture. Johnny was the oldest son, quiet and definitely the responsible one. Carla was a typical teenage daughter, nice but quite offish to the rest of the family and more interested in her own things. Andy, the youngest was the loud and naughty one that Magda pretended drove her crazy but who she actually spoilt completely. There was also Spike the cute, fluffy black dog who couldn’t quite decide whether we were friends or not.

Magda cooked for us 6 days a week and could whip up the biggest variety and most delicious things with only eggs, chicken, rice, beans and tortillas. We had pancakes, soups, omelettes, chicken and always accompanied by an interesting flavoured juice or tea. On the way to school we had to pass a delicious smelling bakery and ended up buying pan de banano (banana bread) just about every second day.

Panajachel as a town wasn’t much but it had basic shops and a busy street of restaurants and touristy shops. It could be dirty and crowded and the lake nearby wasn’t nice to swim in but further along the shore the brilliant blue water of the 280m deep lake was amazing. On a clear day it was picture perfect with the volcanoes rising out of the lake on the far side and we found a fantastic beach in a nature reserve which also had spider monkeys and coatis.

We visited some of the towns across the lake on the bouncy little boats that criss-cross the water. San Pedro sits at the bottom of one of the volcanoes and is very similar to Pana. San Marcos was one of the strangest places we visited with a very hippy, earthy, alternative vibe and absolutely no order. We stumbled upon one of the many celebrations including processions, costumes, bombas (fireworks that only make a bang) and dancing. The Sunday market at Chichicastenango was another day trip from Pana and this time we caught our first chicken bus. The bus trip was quite an experience as we belted along the steep and windy roads and there were actually chickens on the bus too! The market itself was impressively chaotic and colourful and full of all sorts of things for sale, but we could only handle the crowds for a few hours.

It was definitely worth spending a couple of weeks learning Spanish. Apart from the major help that it would be for the rest of the trip and it being such a bargain we learnt so much that we would never have discovered by ourselves. To be ‘part’ of the family was great and to learn about the lifestyle, religion and culture first hand was an unforgettable experience.
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