6 Aug 2012
Centro de Estudios de Español Pop Wuj stands at the junction between the old Spanish part of Xela and new, modern streets. It looks deceptively small from the outside– the red, green, and white sign visible just to the right of a fork in the road. A long, straight staircase connects the main door on the street to the school that occupies the second floor. Immediately visible is the desk where the secretary, Isabél, sits. To the right is a waiting area with couches, a few small tables, and the school’s little library. Further in this direction is an alcove that houses four ancient desktop computers.
To the left of Isabél lies a heavy wooden double door. It leads to what once must have been a spacious dining hall. I imagine a large family once occupied these quarters. Four small tables are scattered, two by the windows and two pushed up against the far wall. The kitchen is to the left and is attached to a small open courtyard where stairs lead to the roof and an unimpeded view of the mountains that surround the town. At the other end of the hall there is a screen door that opens into what was the sitting room. Beyond it is a hallway that leads to five smaller rooms where I imagine the family slept. Each of these bedrooms has a screen or a chalkboard in the middle, effectively creating two separate spaces. Still there are more small tables. I later learn the small tables are where classes are held, one-on-one with a Spanish teacher.
On the day I arrive, I’m directed to the dining hall where chairs have been arranged for an audience. I sit next to a couple, David and Sarah from Massachusetts, who tell me that this is their first stop on their trip around the world. They are new today too. People continue to file in. Eventually we are called to attention by a Maynor, a middle-aged Guatemalan man. He welcomes us to the school and has everyone – teachers, students old and new – introduce themselves. Next he goes through how the school, a non-profit cooperative with different community projects, works.
Class is every weekday from either 8am-1pm or 2pm–6/7pm. Students in the medical program will study in the afternoon because clinic is in the morning. On Tuesdays and Fridays clinic is on-site. On Wednesdays the mobile clinic travels to different surrounding communities on a two-month cycle. The school also has a scholarship program, a daycare/family center, a “safe stove” project. Any student can volunteer at the center anytime they wish, and on Wednesdays they can elect to build stoves instead of having class. There is an optional activity almost every day – a movie, a lecture, a dinner, a field trip. Finally, the list of students and the teacher they will be studying with is read. I am to come back in the afternoon and look for Benedicto who is not here for the assembly.
I have the rest of the morning free. Tired from traveling, I elect to send a few emails then walk back to my host family’s house for a nap. Upon my return Benedicto is waiting for me in the small courtyard. He is shorter than I am, standing at about 5’2”. He is much older, with a grey beard and hair covered by a beanie that gives him the look of a kind elf. We walk to our table, which I learn is in the last room at the far end of the school. Benedicto has decorated it using a Mayan woven textile of deep red. We immediately get down to business with Benedicto drawing up a curriculum that spans grammar through discussion of Latin American culture and history. At the same time he is talking to me in Spanish, trying to assess my current level. I’m pleased to find that I understand most of what he says, though I am slow to form my responses.
In the middle of class Benedicto takes me walking. I’d like to get to know the town, and I need to buy my books and a local chip for my cell phone. After an hour I’m feeling pretty winded. I’ve become a terrible walker over the last month while studying for boards, and Xela is at altitude. We take refuge in a bakeshop, as common a site in Guatemala as Starbucks is in San Francisco, where I buy a strange sweet pastry for $0.25. During the last hour of class we read a book of fairytales that Benedicto pulled out of his locker. He learned of my penchant for children’s literature when I asked the bookstore clerk if they had Harry Potter in Spanish.
When I return to my family’s house Conchita, my elderly Guatemalteca mother, has dinner waiting. We are joined by her grown son Pepe and his 5-year-old Camilla. Camilla actually lives with her mother, but spends after-school evenings here. She pretends to be shy around me. Towards the end of dinner I ask Conchita if there is hot water. She makes fun of me for showering with cold water the night before, after she had left to go to evening mass. Turning on the hot water involves matches and burning and a large apparatus outside the house. I hope I avoid lighting myself on fire when I do this without supervision.
There is no wifi, no internet access at all in the house, so I’m not sure what to do with myself before bed. I decide on what quickly becomes my night-time routine: I read a little, I watch an American movie in Spanish on my iPad, I make a quick call to Rob to ask him to call me back on my Guatemalan cell phone as it’s cheaper for him to call me. When I turn off the lights I’m slumbering almost instantly. It’s a good kind of tired. In the days leading up to leaving the States, I alternated between excited and frightened. I am still anxious, keen to make the most of this but afraid that I won’t, and yet unsure of what tomorrow will bring. But as I fall asleep I feel exceedingly happy to be here, and very much looking forward.