Quetzaltenango aka Xela

Trip Start Oct 10, 2007
Trip End May 15, 2008

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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ahhh, the city with two names that has consistently evaded my friends and family.  Thus here is the jist:

Quetzaltenango is the Spanish conquistador name for the city however, Xela (sheyla) is the Mayan name coming from Xelaju (sheylawho).  Thus, for the ease of all people the city is widely known as Xela.

Xela has the usual full speed ahead road rules just with a lot of cars on somewhat narrow streets combined with sidewalks maybe wide enough for one person.  There seems to be an unspoken right of way which includes excessive honking as one approaches an intersection at a rapid speed to let others know that you will be barreling through.  Along with the fast mobile movement of the cars is the fast mobile movement of the people scurrying across the street to avoid getting hit by a car, bus, motorcycle, moped or bicycle.  Somehow the city still maintains a somewhat lackadaisical feel of other smaller pueblos in Guatemala.

Again, the sidewalks of Xela are particularly narrow.  However, they are also built at seemingly random heights and widths.  This was a complete mystery to me for quite some time and one I had to finally accept or I was in danger of falling on my face.  Adding to the mixture of cars, sidewalks and such are a few very small bridges that cover very narrow roads and are barely tall enough for all those camionnetas to get through.  Of course, that does not stop the camionnetas, they just scrape the top of the bus and keep on going.  As part of a school trip, I went on one of those city tours and eventually learned that Xela used to be a big lake, eventually rivers and now only during the rainy season.  Thus, the sidewalk mystery is a result of the varying degrees of flooding that happens during the rainy season.  Some people even build cement boundaries between their doors and the sidewalk.  Still don`t really get the bridge thing seeing that the rivers are long gone.

Xela is full of colorful buildings, historically old doors, frequent celebrations and is fully committed to Semana Santa.  I also learned that Christmas, also worthy of a fiesta, does not really start until midnight on Christmas Eve.  The story goes that this is when it is believed that Christ was born.  It is at this time that much food, drink, gifts, and family are celebrated until 4am or so.  The next day is quite subdued as all are sleeping, oh, except at about noon all those firecrackers that were not used the day before are thrown out of doors and set off.  So, try to avoid being blown up around noon on Christmas day.  Have I mentioned the sheer importance of firecrackers for everything.

Almost everyone was quite friendly to me.  Frequently when I initiated a "buenos dias" "buenas noches"etc. I was greated with a huge smile.  There is a much greater integration of Mayan people and ladinos here than I´ve seen elsewhere, not to say there isn`t segregation and discrimination.  Feeling it is worth acknowledging I have a whole entry donated to such issues.

Xela is not a terribly dangerous city in general, however, after doing it twice myself, I would not walk home alone after 10pm or so.  This goes for men and women.  Being a foreigner just makes you a target.  It sucks but it is the way it is if you´re going to be visiting developing nations.  Granted I also heard stories of people trying to cheat foreigners out of money.  Different reasons though.  And what sucks even more is the double wammy for foreign women.  In a nation that is fully part of the occurrence of international femicide, where 3,000 women were murdered last year with 1 maybe two men put to jail, it is just not the place to test your safety as a woman.  And any one who tells you that you are safe because you are foreigner has no clue as to the depths and seriousness of this problem.  The only difference is that the government may do more to recognize if a foreign women has been harmed, which, in itself is messed up that no attention is given to women from Guatemala.  

However, there are some fabulously powerful women´s groups fighting for women´s rights and recognition of such violence in Guatemala.  There was a presentation of Monologues Vaginas in español and I read these statistics in a variety of places including the major paper for Guatemala.  So something is shifting and changing just in which way it is unclear, I say this for the whole world, including the United States in terms of violence against women.

Moving on from the scary, Xela grew on me.  I found it to be a friendly city with many interesting cultures and people.  I loved my school, Educación Para Todos, and highly recommend it to anyone with a serious interest in learning spanish.  I especially liked my teachers Helen, Oscar and Mario.  I also loved the doors.

Xela is where I braved a host family for the second time.  My first family was the sister of one of the directors and has appropriately active children.  My second family I was with for much longer.  Flor, la madre, works for her family all day, she is the queen of her household.  She makes a true effort at making students feel at home and her whole family will take time to practice spanish with you.  In general, home-stays are not a perfect match at all times.  Most families are stressed for money and, if not, you may find it is assumed you have a lot of money.  Some places give people too much food and others not enough.  Some places look at you and decide how much food you need.  Thus, being the thin person I am, it was often thought that I didn´t need to eat much.  Trying to explain the high metabolism thing just seemed too difficult so I ate a lot of bread and 3 for 10Q tacos, still a good experience though.

In addition there are many surrounding Mayan villages, each with its own culture and flair.  There are continuous markets, I now know what dead animal smells like at least 10 stalls ahead of time, and lots of outdoor activities, volcanoes and such to climb.

I met many interesting people and made some great friends in Xela.  I am writing this after several weeks into México and feel as though a bit of Xela will always be with me.  When I need to master the subjuntivo I will return!!
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