From Mexico to Nicaragua, Part 5: Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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.