We arrived in Xela tired, road-weary, creeping up through the looping cobblestoned streets like a limping animal. Ben had spent several weeks in Xela before, studying Spanish at Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco (PLQ), and so he led us through the streets by cautious memory towards the Black Cat Hostel, walking hesitantly up and down the lanes as familiar corners and signs triggered bits of his long-term memory that hadn’t been accessed in years. He was like a blind person whose sight is gradually being regained, needing to touch the landmarks one by one until the sense of it was revealed anew. “This way – no, this way. Uphill, I think. This looks familiar – no, no it doesn’t. One more street. Maybe two. Ah! I can’t remember!” But surely, surely, he led us straight to the Black Cat, and we checked into a private room with two beds – our first beds in days, locked into a clean private room in the beautiful highland coolness of Guatemala.
Xela is nestled among volcanoes and mountain ranges, a beautiful colonial city of 224,703, which makes it the second-largest city in Guatemala after Guatemala City (2.3 million metropolitan area; approximately tied with Managua for largest city in Central America). The country is mountainous in the middle, with beautiful chains of highland towns strung through the mountains one after another, emerging into view as you drive through the winding roads. It reminded me of careening around the precipitous curves of the Palani Hills in India, when I was a teacher in the hill station of Kodaikanal; the mad old buses crammed with passengers, the thick dusty vegetation, and each turn revealing another village nestled into a valley or spreading in white and red and yellow up a gentle hillside. As in India, you descend the mountains into great heat and humidity: south and north of Guatemala’s mountains there are sweltering tropical lowlands.
Xela is also notable for its indigenous population – 61%, ten percent higher than Guatemala’s overall 51%. In fact, Guatemala’s population has the highest proportion of indigenous people in the world, after Bolivia (55%). These figures depend somewhat on who’s taking the census, but regardless, Guatemala’s population is very heavily Maya, with Spanish spoken only as a second language by many people. The streets of Xela were full of Maya women in traditional dress, beautiful local crafts, a blend of Spanish and many different Maya languages, and a gentle, celebratory spirit. At night, perched on a hostel balcony above the compact bowl of the city, you could hear music blaring out from various corners: marching bands, pulsing reggaeton, American top 40 pop mangled with Latin beats and mysterious remixes. There’s something lovely about being able to stand on the high edge of a city and behold with all your senses its beating heart, spread out below you in lights and breezes, aromas and music and engines and laughter.
The day we arrived, after checking into the hostel, Ben and I walked to PLQ. It was a Thursday. “Do you have room for two students to start on Monday?” we asked, bypassing the online application and weeks of planning and anticipation of most of the other students. “Do you have families we could stay with? Can we just walk in the door and become a part of your world?” And Carlos, the tranquil, silver-haired coordinator of the school, paged briefly through his register and, looking up with a smile, told us yes.