The road curves through mountain side up and down with heavy and loud traffic, old colourful “chicken buses” couching black smoke to reach a top of a climb and then again speeding as we go downwards when Leaving Guatemala City airport and heading towards old capitol Antigua. Only about 30 km west of current capitol Guatemala City, Antigua has quicly become a popular place to study Spanish language. Guatemala, especially in Antigua, has a variety of officially credited schools that offer language studies for various levels and lengts. Antigua itself is a beautiful colonial pittoresque UNESCO site surrounded by three volcanoes, which also play a big role in what the city is like today.
Images: Beautiful colonial Antigua reminded us greatly of Trinidad in Cuba! Only this little town has three volcanoes around. Otherwise similarly shallow colorful buildings (here due to earthquakes) and Spanish colonial style. Another difference: people here were noticably friendly and smiling – greeting you on the streets and shops.
Language studies in theory and practice
People go study the Spanish language in Guatemala for different reasons. Guatemala and especially Antigua is very popular due to not only cheaper prices but also for the easily understandable way Guatemalans pronounce Spanish. Reasons for studying Spanish vary: some include a course as part of other studies. Others come for work – if Spanish in needed in a work project or tasks. Many come for volunteer or charity work that requires some level of Spanish. Then there are always those like us who just want to be able to understand and speak Spanish for an interest in foreign languages and travelling.
Classes are mostly intensive one-to-one sessions with a local teacher. Classes are held either in the morning or afternoon hours- usually four hours a day 5 days a week consisting of grammar, exercise & discussions. Private schools offer facilities and extracurricular activites such as those related to Mayan or Guatemalan traditions and culture. Or free group discussions on top of you private sessions.
Teachers take the students sometimes to fieldtrips – in a larger group or individually. After a while you start recognizing teacher-student pairs walking on the streets of Antigua and studying the language in practice. At the same time you learn a lot about your whereabouts, history and cultural aspects of your location. Fellow students are important – to practice your Spanish with or just to communicate with other foreigners. Most students travel solo, thus making friends is important.
We studied Spanish in a one week intensive course with Apple Language School which offers courses in several countries. We had a great privat teacher Veronica who taught us beginners’ Spanish from 8 to noon every day for four days. Our son Leevi did his own schoolwork during our classes, which were held in the school’s garden under banana and avocado trees and overlooking Agua, one of the three volcanoes.
Images: Intensive studies under banana and avocado trees =) The school cat “Bigotes” (“Whiskers”) checked on how we were doing .
On the fifth day we participated in a field trip to a Mayan pueblo and continued to a visit to a Macademia farm with a group of students. What an interesting journey to the current lives of the Mayan descendants and cultivating their heritage! Taking a packed local “chicken bus” to a mountain village through coffee plantations and hilly roads some 10 km outside of Antigua is an experience itself! We participated in an ancient Mayan ritual to thank gods for lending us land and giving good harvest. We also participated in cooking of traditional Bebian and corn tortillas as well as learned from traditions in weddings and other festivities. Where else would you learn better than experiencing it right there?!
Taking a language course comes with a possibility of choosing an arranged homestay while studying. This is a great way to support local private people, but first of all, to be able to discuss and dine with the locals to learn about everyday lives and of course, practice your Spanish. Often homestays have several rooms which means several students in one home at the same time. You really get to know other interesting people this way – and maybe make lifelong friends.
We stayed in a homestay at aunt Hilda’s – our whole family and with full board. And there were three other students too + the family’s own kids and relatives. Hilda cooked overwhelming amounts of basic homecooked food and local Guatemalan meals for us. She had been a kindergarden teacher before, so her Spanish was very understandable too, as she spoke no English. Had we known Spanish better, we could have engaged ourselves into very interesting and long discussions with her and the other students! Even mostly just following conversations was excellent practice, though. Hilda and her family had three little dogs so our son Leevi surely made some friends too =)
Rough history, but life goes on
Antigua was once the capitol moved to its current location in 1524. Prospering not long the whole city was destroyed by a massive outburst of volcano Agua in 1541, or rather, an enormous water mass that followed the burst and completely ruined the city. Thus the name Agua. Some 50 000 people of the city’s all 60 000 inhabitants were killed in just some seconds in early morning hours. There are 27 remarkable ruins still in this historic city.
Capitol was constructed again to a location about 8 km from the current site; however, that too suffered from severe earthquakes and volcano bursts over the years. After some 200 years the administrative capitol was removed to what today is a modern and hectic metropol of Guatemala City, just some 30 km away. Antigua again, has built back to prosper out or tourism, language schools and agriculture, especially coffee and chocolate. Building new, but ‘not so great’ according to locals, since an everholding threat of another massive earthquake or volcano burst is present.
Images: must see visits when in Antigua: chocolate museum, Jade factory with a Mayan history museum and handicraft markets! Gotta love them!
Guatemala has had its natural, military, political and drug trade turmoils in its history. Issues over a territory still exist with Belize – even with recent military confrontations. Guatemala went through a tough and long civil war that only ended in only 1996. The country is still suffering from internal conflicts and it takes years to build a reliable democracy in a highly corrupt country. Former president is in jail for massive money laundering and said to pull the strings still from behind bars. Current elected president – previously a comedien and tv-star – has apparently changed a lot for the country over the past couple of years, but a corrupt and developing country cannot change overnight. Direction is apparently right this time.
Images: Fuego is an active volcano puffing some ash clouds & thundering every now and then. Guatemalan chocolate makes one of the worlds finest. Riding a chicken bus is surely an experience… World known chains exist but fitting nicely in the outline…
Knowing some of the past recent history of the country you can guess how surprised and a bit shook up we were the first night in Antigua when loud bombing and shooting sounds just kept on going and going all day and night long near our neighbourhood! Took us a few days until we learned that all kinds of fireworks are still heavily used as part of the catholic church ceremonies in Guatemala!
Long road to equality and development
When you travel to Antigua or even Guatemala city as a tourist you do not necessarily realize how undeveloped the country actually still is in the countryside. Of course poverty and problems that come with poverty are visible. Tourism brings great income to the country, so tourists are mostly offered much better services than some locals ever see. But as for locals, there is a great deal of poverty all over the country, and especially in mountanous rural areas. There are no jobs and no equal rights for men and women. For example, women do not have equal rights to men on schooling.
Pueblos, little villages in the mountains are full of families, that simply don’t have money. There are families with 8-10 children, that live in houses, or rather huts, with no running water and on dirt floors. Especially girls don’t get to go to school – their help is needed in house work. Boys are needed to cultivate land to harvest for families food or any extra income.
Those with decent jobs and regular workers pay taxes; however, they hardly see anything provided or built with tax income. There are no proper public services such as hospitals or schools. Or if are, there are no doctors, no nurses or even adequate equipment. Big part of the people are completely dependent on volunteer and charity organizations who help those with no or little mone. International charity organizations together with some national cooperatives help people on many levels – such as bringing families food and clothing, or together building proper floors and running water to family houses. Women cooperatives teach other women to cook, home chorus and to make meals and handicrafts to sell for at least little extra income well needed.
Experiencing this so close makes you think of even the small things you can do to help.
Images: a visit to the Public Mercado is interesting. There is probably nothing this market would not have! Just next to it is a large handicraft market. Visiting macademia (special kind of a nut) or coffee plantations make interesting excursions too.