From Mexico to Nicaragua, Part 5: Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco

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Hallway at PLQ

Each morning I would wake up in my small bedroom (yet probably larger than any of the other two bedrooms), organize my things, and groggily head out to the kitchen, where Noeimi, the grandmother, would put food before me. Both parents would have already left for work, and Alejandra and Ayline would be in their school uniforms. One morning we ate cornflakes with milk and sugar, and Ayline set a small bowl for the cat, filling it with cornflakes and placing it on the table next to hers. The cat – thin, elegant, orange-and-white striped – jumped up and sniffed at the cornflakes but was not impressed, despite his frequently-demonstrated love of tortillas, and so Ayline asked very seriously if he would like milk, and poured the bowl half-full. Satisfied, the cat deigned to eat with us.

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On my way to PLQ in the morning

After breakfast I would walk for five minutes down cobbled streets to the school, shuffling along the narrow sidewalk beside its long yellow wall and then pushing open the large, metal-framed wooden doors. Typically of Spanish colonial cities, the building containing PLQ is bland and featureless, fortress-like, from the outside; but the thick walls encircle a graceful colonnaded courtyard, ringed by high-ceilinged classrooms. Opening the main doors to such a building is like entering a secret paradise, particularly to those of us raised in different architectural surroundings, where a long blank cement wall probably indicates a boring collection of cement boxes lit by buzzing fluorescence, rather than a gorgeous private garden and elegant archways.

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The courtyard cafe, PLQ

After entering this beautiful place I would sit in the courtyard at a small pupil’s desk with my teacher, Domingo. The classes were one-on-one and lasted from eight until one, with a break at 10:30 for coffee and snacks. I sat down at the desk on the first day buoyed by my success with my host family, and exhilarated at the prospect of being back in school – a place, despite my disastrous experiences in pursuit of a master’s degree, that I still feel excited by and at home within. Domingo straightened his books and papers and folded his arms in front of himself on the desk, looking at me with level dark eyes. He wore a white tunic with embroidery around the neck. “So,” he said in Spanish, “Jennifer. Tell me about yourself.” And so I commenced speaking Spanish, uninterrupted, for five hours, for the first time in my life.

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Ben and his teacher

We talked about many things, including why I love the study of evolution, whether or not facebook is the devil, and how fucked-up American intervention in Central America has been. PLQ has a strong leftist bent (at the “graduation” dinner at the end of the week, we all belted out the song “Bella Chao,” whose chorus includes the declaration SOY COMMUNISTA!) and tends to attract students who have interests beyond travelling and holidaying; my classmates included volunteers with organizations back in America helping undocumented immigrants, volunteers with medical and humanitarian organizations in Latin America, doctors working in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods in New York, and two hipsters from a bicycle cooperative in Minnesota who also had a largely Hispanic clientele. Then there was me: just driving through, man. Just staying a week. No plans. Never studied Spanish in my life. Passing through, passing on.

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An interesting collection of fellow students

We all became friends during the 10:30-11:00 a.m. coffee break/recess, when a bell would ring and we would all look up from our books and scramble for the little round café in the middle of the sunny courtyard. Inside there would be carafes of coffee and a huge basket full of approximately six types of sweet, airy breads, and we’d sit outside talking and balancing handfuls of the insubstantial pastries on our laps. I would unwrap my Tibetan shawl from my shoulders – the mornings were mountain-cold in Xela, but by the coffee break the air would have warmed up. Domingo and I usually moved our desk into the shade before resuming our lessons.

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Schedule of extra-curricular activities

In all, it was remarkably SCHOOL-LIKE. There was a wildly bearded man from Seattle who told me he’d never liked school before in his life, but finally, at PLQ, he was getting into it. “This is what it should have been like all along, man!” he enthused.

From Mexico to Nicaragua, Part 4: Arrival with my host family in Xela

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.

 

From Mexico to Nicaragua, Part 3: Welcome to Xela (a.k.a. Quetzaltenango)

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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.

From Mexico to Nicaragua, an aside: Notes on Roads

A word about the differences between traffic in Guatemala and Mexico.

While camping in Oaxaca, beneath the palapas of a particularly friendly and sweet family that I hope to revisit on my way back up North (lord only knows when that particular adventure will happen, if ever, but you know, intentions for the future and so on), we complained to them laughingly about the excessive number of topes (large, ubiquitous, SERIOUS speedbumps) in Mexico, and asked whether Guatemala had many topes. The topes, it must be said, had become a running joke among us: the vast taxonomy of topes, from “shadow topes,” which are concealed by the lines of shadow that trees cast across the road, to “ghost topes,” which are topes that have been indicated by a sign and yet never actually manifest, to simply “oh fuck” topes which scrape horrendously along Cochita’s undercarriage and tailpipe. But when we asked our new friends about the tope situation, they replied in complete and concerned seriousness: No, there are not very many topes in Guatemala, and in fact it is a great concern and an indication of the inferiority of the country and its disregard for safety; how can roads be safe without topes? Guatemala, if it knew what was good for it, would invest as swiftly as possible in a sweeping program of tope reform. Topes for all!! Chastened, we dropped the subject.

At any rate, whether due to the topes or – more likely – to the increased poverty in Guatemala – the traffic over the border was immediately and profoundly more chaotic, mostly in the wild diversity of vehicles on the poorly-maintained single-lane roads. Everyone! Motorbikes (ranging themselves from powerful bikes with single riders, to rickety contraptions loaded down with multiple passengers plus a cargo of sugarcane or straw or towers of empty plastic bottles), pickup trucks with their beds crammed with people and luggage, lorries with bits of their overflowing contents flying off the top, cars of every shape and size and condition, wildly painted chicken buses, cartoon-like mini-buses on tiny wheels proclaiming LOVE JESUS on their windshields, horses, the occasional donkey cart, agricultural equipment, and every single vehicle scrambling aggressively to pass the rest of the traffic along twisting, dangerous mountain roads.

It wasn’t as bad as India, but actually, it was as bad as parts of India. And as beautiful: jungle now lining the roads, the traffic more dangerous but also more colourful, from the sunset mangoes cresting the top of a truck’s container, to the spectrum of t-shirts of passengers packed into pick-ups, dangling off of chicken buses, and clinging to the backs of motorbikes. Occasionally the mountain road would give us a slice of the view, hazy hillsides dense with forest.

Jane was driving, and she took it like a pro, gunning Cochita’s 1.6L of power to stay on the tail of passing cars, zipping past tractors and bicycles and snail-paced huge trucks then ducking back in the face of oncoming traffic. We drove all the way to Xela, without stopping, climbing to that beautiful mountain town where the streets are cobblestoned and precariously sloped and as narrow as the alleyways of Paris, forcing all of the cars to park with two wheels on the curb and two in the street and a prayer that the mirrors don’t get knocked off. Not that we didn’t encounter wild driving in Mexico as well, but it was mainly confined to the cities, where lane markings are regularly ignored in favour of cramming in an extra lane-and-a-half of traffic. (Truly, this seems to be a beloved tactic in most countries on earth – someone should get wise and maybe just paint narrower lanes.) And the cuotas (toll roads) of Mexico are fabulous, expensive but in better condition than many American highways, populated by fast cars that cost many times more than Cochita. Guatemala’s roads were the first taste of how deeply impoverished Central America is in comparison to North America (a continent which very much includes Mexico, in more ways than just road quality), and just how different each of these marvelous countries are. Mexico and Central America! Eight countries previously lumped together in my inexperienced mind as a vaguely Spanish-speaking mixture of jungle, beach, tacos, and a sprinkling of drugs and murder. You know, of course, that they’re all different. But you don’t really know, until you see for yourself.

 

From Mexico to Nicaragua, Part 2: The Guatemalan Border Crossing

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Welcome to Guatemala

 

We woke early and drove to the border crossing at Ciudad Hidalgo, the most southern of the crossings between Mexico and Guatemala. It was a curiously cryptic border; there was an assortment of confusing signs as we approached Hidalgo, which led us straight into a tangle of crowded, labyrinthine streets in the center of town. We asked a number of people for directions, which was sometimes helpful and sometimes not; asking for directions within cities have proved to be a confusing endeavor, in which our imperfect Spanish mixes with people’s imperfect knowledge of which streets we should take, as well as the often-idiosyncratic nature of the directions, necessary in places where streets are not always named, or may be known by names other than what’s written on the signs. Directions wind up a perplexing mélange of references to landmarks, stores, cardinal directions, and the occasional hopeful bullshit when they simply don’t know the answer. Our border-crossing is particularly complicated because of the car, and usually takes this form, roughly:

  1. Locate the permit-cancellation office, which may be many kilometers from the border, and have our permit for the current country cancelled.
  2. Locate the office (sometimes) where the cancelled permit must be inspected, usually right at the border.
  3. Visit the customs office for exiting, and have our passports inspected and stamped.
  4. Cross the border
  5. On the other side, visit the customs office for entry, and have our passports inspected and stamped.
  6. Possibly have the car fumigated, and receive a fumigation certificate (this is a literally poisonous-seeming affair in which we drive the car towards a gas-masked man with a backpack full of pesticides and a sprayer, roll up all of our windows and turn off the air intake, and sit nervously while the car is drenched in chemicals, then pay three dollars and receive a piece of paper.)
  7. Go to the car-permitting office, where our cancelled permit is inspected, and many new documents are produced, stamped, written on; the car is inspected; photocopies are required, then stamped; the new, stamped copies must be copied again and returned to the office; fees are paid; and eventually Cochita is declared legal to enter the country and we drive away.

All of this is accompanied by a frenzied crowd of touts who offer relentlessly to “help” you through the process for a fee, tearing documents from your hands and running them around the various offices, demanding preferential treatment from harried border officials. We have become better at avoiding these men. Once they fade away, they are replaced by the calmer crowd of currency-exchangers, usually older men waving enormous wads of cash in every colour of the rainbow (albeit a very dusty rainbow), offering their rates in various languages. The rates are always bad, but as we’ve discovered, it can be very difficult to change a Quetzal (the Guatemalan currency) anywhere but the border.

After a Kafka-esque round of being shuttled back and forth over a pedestrian bridge near the border, with the city and an official, military-looking encampment on one side, and the office of the Banjercito (the Mexican public bank which manages car permitting) on the other, we finally wound up at the desk of a patient, competent older man who explained what we had to do and sent us on our way. We found the border crossing itself hidden at the end of an innocuous city street, difficult to access because of road construction cutting off Cochita’s path. A couple of grinning, relaxed guards beckoned us over the narrow entrance, studded with vibradores (big metal hemispheres, another species of speed bump), and we were through.

On the Guatemalan side, a calm and well-mannered middle-aged man named Isaiah shepherded us through the permitting process, his fee almost worth it to me because I managed to have my first real Spanish conversation with him while we were waiting for the various officials to process my documents. I learned that it is the general opinion of Guatemalans that Nicaraguans are “very poor,” and “have nothing,” and also that the word for taxes is “impuestos” – ten or so people were lined up at the customs window waiting to file their taxes, which phenomenon remains basically a mystery to me. Why file taxes at the customs office? And was it tax time in Guatemala? In which case, why were there not MORE people? Regardless, we processed Cochita’s permit with relatively little difficulty, the border crossing was charmingly peaceful and relaxed, and we drove off into the maniacal traffic of Guatemala having invested approximately two hours in the border-crossing effort.

Cochita Siempre!

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We are in Guatemala!* This means that Cochita (as we have now named the car; it means, approximately, “little female car”) has travelled the entire length of Mexico, from the frontera at Piedras Negras (Eagle Pass, TX) through the states of Coahuila, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Puebla, Oaxaca, and Chiapas before reaching the frontera at Hidalgo and passing into Guatemala. In all, it took us exactly two weeks: we left the United States on February 21st, and crossed the border into Guatemala on March 5th.

Let me tell you, first-hand, that two weeks is a very short time to drive from one end of Mexico to the other. The country is BIG, the road and traffic conditions are variable (though generally excellent), and there is so much to see. But we were racing against the clock to deliver Jane to the Guatemala City airport on March 6th, and so we hauled ass out of Austin at 5AM and catapulted ourselves south, leaving a trail of Freon in our wake and acquiring more and more broken español. Our glorious madcap rush found us barreling along the cuotas (toll roads) at 140 km/hr, easing Cochita over innumerable topes (enormous, mind-blowingly effective, undercarriage-scraping speedbumps), and careening around the curvas peligrosas (dangerous curves) of the mountain roads of Oaxaca. In two weeks, we stayed in the same place for more than one night only once: when we camped in a beautiful, deserted meadow in the mountains near El Capulin, at one of the sites where the monarch butterflies overwinter after their great migration. In total, we spent six nights staying in hotels of wildly varying quality and expense; five nights camping, all for free; and two nights staying in hostels, where the uniformity of the international backpacking community was further confirmed.

There were times at which I felt vaguely guilty for dragging Jane and Ben along on the trip. We had hatched the plan back in November, while I was visiting Jane in Illinois. In approximately the amount of time it took to drink two beers, they decided to drive through Mexico with me. It was a rash decision. I had advertised the trip as “tons of fun.” And now, instead of making lifelong friends on a delightful local bus, or flying from Chicago to the Yucatan in the blink of an air-conditioned eye, or even drinking whisky in the comfort of their own homes in Illinois, they were crammed into a tiny two-door Honda Civic, munching on off-brand Fritos and tolerating my fondness for Taylor Swift.

The fateful November conversation had gone something like this:
JENN: So, yeah, I’m driving to Nicaragua. I’m going to spend Christmas with some friends in New York, head down the East Coast, go to Miami, visit my grandmother in Mississippi, and then get to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. After that, I think I’ll pretty much head for the border.
BEN: Oh, sweet, I think I have some friends who are going down to Mardi Gras.
JENN: You should come too! I think Mardi Gras is going to be awesome.
BEN: Yeah, totally.
JENN: And then, ha ha ha, why not just jump in the car and come to Mexico!
BEN: Ha ha ha!
JANE: Hey, that sounds like fun!
BEN: And actually, I won’t have a job right then…
JANE: And I kind of want a holiday before maybe going back to school…
JENN: … Wait, for real?

And without much more discussion, really, I acquired two travelling companions for the Great Mexican Road Trip of 2015. Did they regret it? I wondered, especially during the first week of the trip, in which Jane and I both suffered greatly from a severe case of the flu. Did they wonder why the hell they were engaging in this arduous test of endurance, without even enough time to take full advantage of the opportunities car travel affords (exploring areas not easily accessible by bus, etc.)? Did 6’1” Ben’s knees just want to murder me dead? Did they flip through the Lonely Planet looking at the bus fares and comparing them to the thousands of pesos that flowed through our fingers at the Pemex stations? Certainly there were times when I wondered, myself, whether I shouldn’t have just left the car with my grandmother and booked a one-way ticket to Nepal. Why the inexorable desire to drive a four-wheeled advertisement of gringo wealth through a half-dozen countries all strongly warned against by the state department?

The road trip, though. The road trip. That’s the why. The romance and independence of the road, and the family-trip camaraderie of the backseat, yes, but so much more as well. There are things that you experience when you travel by car – or on foot, or by bicycle, or any other means in which you cross every single kilometer under your own steam – that are not experienced when you step inside a magical carriage and wake up the next morning in a totally different place.

Air travel, of course, completely occludes the areas in-between. Bus and train travel can be wonderful, and present their own unique rewards; the days I spent criss-crossing India in the sleeper cars of sardine-can trains were some of the most interesting days of travel I’ve ever had. When you drive, though, you see the transitions between places. The slow changes, the ways that one region blends into the next: in America, the way that New England gives way to the tri-state area, blending slowly through Washington DC and Virginia into the deep South, with the outliers of Miami and New Orleans keeping their own counsel. We blasted through Texas pretty quickly, but the whole border region with Mexico is like a third country. Then the north of Mexico with its endless desert and cartel domains, the influence of the United States very strong; the enormous throbbing heart of Mexico City; the vibrant culture of Oaxaca, and then the long journey over the cool, foggy mountains, descending endlessly to arrive at last on the beautiful coast.

To experience the geological and ecological shifts of the continent of North America has been incredible, and I would love to do this trip again but starting much further north, seeing the taiga thicken into forest and thin out again into prairies and deserts. Though the beaches of Chiapas are a far cry from Edmonton at -20 Celsius, I find that I’m left with a strong sense of the continuity of North America, rather than its fragmentation. Diversity, of course – inspiring, remarkable diversity – but commonality as well.

For now, Ben and I are beginning a week of immersive language school here in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala, at the Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Espanol, and thus I will have regular internet access (hurrah!) until the 13th of March.

The MAP has been updated with all of our stops in Mexico; in places where we camped, I have done my best to put the marker exactly where we were, so zoom in if you wish. I’ve also added a list of car troubles to date, which you may find amusing. Pictures coming soon!

* At the moment, “we” includes myself and my friend Ben; my friend and former college roommate, Jane, was travelling with us through Mexico but she flew home to Illinois yesterday morning.