Spanish School Part 2: Quetzaltenengo, Guat

Trip Start Aug 09, 2007
Trip End Jul 29, 2008

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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Friday, September 28, 2007

So after our most dramatic bus ride yet, we arrive to the mountainous town of Xela - which basically looks like a metropolis compared to what we´ve seen so far (Xela has 120,000 people more or less).  When we arrived, looking out you could see tons and tons of lights - a rare phenomenon down here.  The city itself is built within a valley of 10 volcanos.  The city was originally inhabited by the Mam culture but then the Quiche tribe (both tribes are Mayan) came and kicked them out and named the place Xelaju meaning ´beneath 10 peaks´in Quiche.  Soon after, the Spanairds kicked them out and renamed the city Quetzaltenango meaning ´place of many Quetzals` (the national bird). 

We checked in with our Spanish School and met our host family for the next 3 weeks and both the school and family are awesome.  We are living with a lady named Monica and her family of husband and 5 kids.  Once Monica met us she immediately gave us nicknames, she called Sarah ´Sarita´ and she called Nik ´Niko´. They also have an awesome little chihouwa dog named Chester. They are really thoughtful, kind and funny and she loves to cook delicious food that we also love to eat.  The first night that we were with them, we all piled into their friend`s car and did a tour of Xela checking out the sites - theatre, soccer stadium, some beautiful churches, main square and so on until we climbed up this mountain to this lookout called Él Baul.  From here, we looked out over the entire city, all the volcanoes, saw the sunset and all the clouds settle in over the town.  Really beautiful and really thoughtful of them - they themselves have`t been up there in over 7 years! The next Sunday, Monica and her son Dayto and daughter Karen, both teenagers, took us to the fair in town (celebrating independence from Spain - Sept. 15).  We walked around all the rides which are basically the same as those in Canada but with absolutely no safety features at all!! So, for example you have to wait for the ride to swing by in front of you before you walk under it and stuff like that.  We had a big bumper-car tournament with the family which was awesome - I think we went like 10 consecutive times and Nik and I absolutely rocked these sweet little people(no one messes with the Niklaus)!! Super fun!!

Our Spanish School is really politically minded and focuses a lot on the social and political history of Guatemala which is basically tainted by US intervention...A short summary is something like this:  After Spain had been warring in Europe for 300 years, they were extremely poor and therefore came over to Guatemala and claimed this land for themselves.  Spain used the Guatemalan land to ´pay´ Spanish people and as such, the land useage was taken from the Indigenous and given to the Spanish, very similar to Canadian history at this point... The Spanish and other European land owners formed the upper class, the Indigenous the lower, and the mezitos (Spanish and Indigenous mixed people) the awkward middle class.  This middle class was not welcome in the European cities or in the Indigenous rural areas so they went to the city limits and learned trades etc to live off.  European land owners sold some land to other foreigners - other European´s for coffee fincas and to Americans. 

After a long history of monopolizing Puerto Barrios (the only shipping port for Guatemala), the railroad to it, the land of both coasts and most in between, the United Fruit Company secured it´s US grip on Guatemala.  It paid no taxes - only bribes - to the government and fully exploited the indigenous workers on it´s fincas.  In fact, it was the government who exploited the people by forcing free labour from it`s people and allowing about 70% of the land and 80% of the businesses (electricity, entertainment, agriculture, transportation) to be owned by about 2% of the people, Americans.  Needless to say, Guatemala was very important to the US.  The Guatemalen people were forced to import everything despite their fertile land because it was all being used by US landowners (UFC) for export.  Again, because the UFC owned the port, the UFC determined the cost of this imported food as well. 

Their President around this time was Ubico who was ruthless and murdered many many people, instituted the scorched earth policy among other horrific events.  He was ousted by Ponce who was ousted by Arevalo who served 6 years and Arbenz who served 4.  In this time, Arevalo and Arbenz instituted land distribution reforms taking idle land back from rich land owners and re-distributing it, created education programs, labour laws, minimum wages and began to tax the foreign landholders.  This was between 1945 and 1951 - right around the cold war - so these apparently radical reforms (ie-taxing foreign companies) were viewed as anti-US and therefore as communist actions.  As such, the CIA was commissioned to overthrow the Arbenz government and institute a democratic (read: dictatorship) government to satisfy US interests in the land and governmental style.  This not only irradicated all progress to date but threw the people into a 30 year civil war from which they have just started to recover.  At present, the current presidential candidates are an ex-military general from the School of the Americas and a professional drug trafficer.  The people here do not get a break in any sense - they are poor and will be kept poor by their own government since that seems to serve the world´s interests better than them receiving education, health care, land etc.  So much to say on this and such a common theme...But, the people here are not down or depressed at all.  They are wonderful and friendly and extremely hard working and find the best in every situation.  We both love it here and would recommend it to anyone!

We spent our first week at school volunteering in the mornings for a reforestation project called Chico Mendez.  A project that has been going for 10 years now, but, it is extremly unorganized.  So we would leave Xela with a bus of Teachers and then head about 20 min. out of town.  We got dropped off in front of a church where other foreigners were studying and then walked for another 15 min. to the project.  We did this for about a week.  We met the organizer and Will, this dude from Vermont that lives in a makeshift tent made out of a tarp and rope.  He has lived there for about 3 weeks.  We were told about the project, how the reforestation is supposed to help the water table return to normal.  Currently it has dropped in this town (Pachuk) and some drinking water fountains have dried up.  So, the goal is 70,000 saplings of 4 varieties of trees common to the area.  We spent a few days picking weeds from around the saplings and then 1 day Will and Nik made a barbwire fence to keep out the chickens, dogs and cows.  

Now, we ususally study in the mornings from 8am -1pm with a 30 min. break.  We switch teachers every week and also get meals from the home stay family (3 squares a day).  Usually the school does outings to the country side and also to cool looking churches or to volcanos.  The school tour guide is an ex-gorilla who fought from the Guatemalen jungle for 3 years in the 90´s with 70 other men.  His family lived in Chiapas at this time...He told us he lived for 3 years in the jungle with just a pack and said it was incredible hard - it´s just amazing what people go through down here for basic rights like freedom and access to clean, publicly owned water. 

One of this excursions we took was to a place called Salcaja which was the first catholic church built in Central America.  Pretty neat, we took a chicken bus there and about 45 min. later we walked around the church.  We got a history of the church surrounding area and then went to this house where 2 dudes were on weaving machines making intricate and beautiful clothes - one skirt for example takes 8 weeks to weave, they are amazing.  Pretty cool place - the little shack where they were weaving had the walls plastered with Sunshine girls, girls in bikinis and half naked girls.  We then left and went to another house where they make this reddish liquor made from fermented fruit (5 months!) from the area (strawberry, cherry, some other fruits) we bought a bottle and then bought another bottle of local liquor that is yellow (egg, cinimon, some other stuff).  We both really liked the yellow liquor, it was really sweet and delicious.   

The other outing we did with the school was to a place called San Andres.  This place has a wicked yellow painted church.  It is super colourful and is one of the pictures that we added.  Nik had heard of a saint in this town that is a hybrid of Mayan and Christain beliefs, Santo Simon.  There are only 4 families in Guatemala that have this Idol in their homes, scattered all around Guatemala.  There is nothing physically written about the saint, it is all story and history by word of mouth.  But, as saints go this one has been dubbed the ´Santo of Cool.´  This saint is supposed to be the saint of health and realationships.  So the idol which is human size is sitting in a chair and has a sombrero and sunglasses on, drinks rum (bottle in hand) and smokes cigarattes.  Our host mom wanted us to light a health candle for her (blue) so we did.  And then you can also buy about 5 shots of rum for the saint to drink (about $1 CDN).  I bought some rum for him and this little mayan woman put it in a mini watering can.  She then poured it into a hole in the wooden idols mouth.  I have heard that all the elders of the town on certain days collect all the rum in the stomach of the idol and drink it.  Good times had by all leaders.

Another one of the midweek outings/confrences was a free salsa lesson - super fun!! Though waaaaaaaaaaay more difficult for the guy (ie-Nik) than the ladies.  They also have parties every Friday nights for all the students.  Either they provide the food and us the booze or vice versa.  What is constant, however, is that Latino Elvis is there rain or shine decked out in his full-on Vegas attire and pumping out the very-non Elvis Guatemalan tunes.  He is awesome!!  Actually, all the teachers also perform for a little bit - each one with an instrument and they all sing traditional songs and we either sing or clap along - I seem to be better at clapping then singing in a foreign language....It`s tons of fun and usually leads to the local gringo-salsa bar... 

On Wednesday the 26th, we went out with a group called Quetzaltrekkers to hike one of the highest active volcanoes in this region, Santa Maria.  The best part is that this was a full-moon hike, offered only once a month.  Quetzaltrekkers is also a non-profit organization so all of our money goes directly to supporting rural schools and programs for kids who otherwise couldn´t get to school.  So about 20 of us met at QTs around 11pm where we collected some extra warm clothes and had some soup and then piled into the back of a pickup truck.  About 10 per truck bed standing up and watching the perfect cone-shape of Santa Maria approaching slowly but surely - it was lit by the moon and the peak covered in clouds - really beautiful!  Though it was raining for a couple of hours before we left, we were really lucky and spared any rain at all!!   The group set out walking around 12:30 and for the most part, we didn`t need our headlamps at all, it was very clear and very warm as well - perfect conditions!! We trekked for just over 1 hour to our base camp where we regrouped and had another snack.  After this, we started the fun part of gaining 1200 meters of elevation in about 2.5 hours hiking.  We were in fairly dense trees so we needed our lights a bit since the terrain was pretty demanding - lots of scurrying up rocks, under and over trees, slipping and climbing again, constantly up and up again over rocks - a bit of a scramble - and everytime you looked behind you you could see an ocean of clouds and amazingly bright stars and a moon that was incredibly clear and bright.  It was an incredibly motivating climb.  We drank a ton of water and weren´t too affected by the elevation luckily - we ended at around 3700 meters or so.  The group was full of great people to talk to and the time flew by.  Near the top of the climb the trees cleared (amazingly here the trees grow to about 3500 meters!) and it was really bright - we quickly got to the top around 4am just in time to view the first eruption of the crater just next to Santa Maria.  This dark cloud rose up in the sky and just filled it entirely spreading out like a mushroom cloud.  We raced over for a better viewpoint and sat under blankets with the group to watch the 2nd eruption about 30 minutes later.  There is a loud boom sound and then you see the lava breaking apart and starting to flow and then the sulfur cloud starts rising and it just climbs and climbs and climbs - it is absolutely amazing!!  

Right after this the sun started to come up just to our right and it illuminated all the other volcanos in the region - against the sky we could see 3 perfect cones and then the centre one erupting too and the plume it cast out.  The colours were incredible - so red, orange, yellow, blue and all the meanwhile eruptions continued and clouds poured in.  The clouds were amazing - they looked exactly like Niagra Falls, an ocean of them spilling over into the valley below.  It was absolutely freezing until the sun made its way completely out around 6:30 am when we all had some delicious coffee and snacks.  We enjoyed the scene a little longer and saw the largest eruption yet from the crater.  We were just shy of the highest peak in Guat (maybe of Central America, 4220 meters) and could see it easily from where we stood.  The shadow of our volcano spread out over the whole valley and to the other volcanoes as well.  It was such an amazing and new experience all around.  Nik had a shit fight with one of the guides from Spain - it´s where you put cow shit on a stick and whip it at another guy.  Wily Nik slipped free and the guide went after him with a fistful next, hilarious to watch and glad nothing connected.  Back to town at 11am to catch the tail end of our Spanish lessons and show some amazing photos!!  

Today is Friday and we are going to go to another school graduation/party.  We are supposed to bring the food, actually we are supposed to make the food.  But, I think we will be classy and order Domino´s Pizza delivered right to the school.  Tomorrow we are going with a bunch of peole from PLQ to a mayan ceremonal lake, Chicobal.  It is a lake that has formed in the crater of a volcano. 

That its for now, write another entry soon and we won´t make it as long.

As an extra, please change over Sarah´s email from hotmail to gmail - Hotmail really doen´t work donwn here!! Thanks in advance! 

Us. xoxo
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