Before enrolling at Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco, it had never before occurred to me to do any kind of immersive language education. The idea to go to PLQ and learn Spanish was entirely Ben’s; and, having spent weeks with learn-Spanish-on-tape, and then struggling through our weeks in Mexico (despite rapid improvement), I was ready to spend some time systematically improving my language skills. I wanted the past tense. Fiercely. So we agreed to spend a week there together before continuing down the road towards Nicaragua. It worked out well with my other friend Shane, who I’d been sporadically in touch with while we were in Mexico; he’d arrived in Mexico City a week earlier and was going to be travelling down through Guatemala, and it would be convenient for Ben and I to spend a week in Xela and then meet up with Shane.
On Sunday, March 8th, Ben and I checked out of our hostel, loaded up Cochita with our belongings, and drove down to PLQ to be assigned our home-stay families. It all happened very quickly; Carlos phoned the families to let them know we had arrived, gave us both maps with our respective houses indicated with circles of black ballpoint pen, and then representatives from our families arrived. Mine arrived first – Gilberto – and I nervously welcomed him into Cochita’s passenger seat so that he could guide me to his house. He was a sixteen-year-old high school student, friendly and mild-mannered, directing me with clear Spanish to a house on the edge of town, underneath the great green hill named Baul. There was a garage area behind a metal gate and he held the doors open while I carefully backed Cochita in.
The doors closed behind her and that was it – I was in, safely deposited in my home for the next week, with a family who spoke only Spanish. I was nervous, but eager. I have never felt the kind of longing for language that I felt in my first few weeks in Latin America; never had I travelled somewhere in which so few people spoke English, and never before had I felt that learning another language was so POSSIBLE. So utterly within reach, if I could just remember a few more words, just get the hang of a few more verb tenses. So I mastered my anxiety and jumped out of the car quickly, smile plastered to my face, and marched into the house to introduce myself.
On my host-family-preferences form I had indicated that I would like to be put in a house with children, and indeed there were two little girls: Ayline, 5, and Alejandra, 9. They clustered around me, curious, as I was introduced to their mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, uncle, and cousin (Gilberto), as well as their pets: two dogs, and one cat. I spent the afternoon playing with the girls, but discovered to my dismay that they were more difficult to communicate with than the adults; they didn’t understand, at first, that I DID know some Spanish, but only very few words, and they would have to keep trying until they hit upon those words. “La gringa no habla Espanol,” I caught Alejandra informing her younger sister, authoritative in her purple glasses and ponytail. The white girl doesn’t speak Spanish. I was painfully aware that the halting fragmented speech of language newcomers makes us sound stupid, and that Alejandra and Ayline had no particular reason to believe that I was anything but. (This changed by mid-week, as I persisted in playing with them and learned many variations on “what does that mean?” “Can you say it again?” “I don’t know the word, but..” “More slowly please?” and so on.)
This was the layout of the house: Three bedrooms. One for me, one for the two girls and their grandmother, and one for their parents. Gilberto slept in a sort of half-open bedroom in the back, which was accessible only from the patio and was not part of the main house. A living room with, mysteriously, three televisions (only one of which functioned), which was almost always occupied by the grandmother, who either watched television or sat peaceably in the dark. A bathroom, with sink open to the hallway and the toilet and shower behind a closed door. As with all toilets in Central America, toilet paper cannot be flushed (small pipes??) and so there was a wastebasket next to the toilet for soiled paper. A small kitchen with a small dining room next to it, which is where I spent most of my time: eating meals together, and doing homework with the girls, as it was the only large and well-lit table in the house. Outside, there was a small walled yard/patio with chickens and a few plants, and a staircase up to the flat cement roof where the larger dog, Ojos, was tethered. The first morning I tried to do yoga on the roof, but wound up shivering in the cold mountain air.