WEEK 1: Escuela de la Montana

I had a couple of jobs to do this morning in town – like obtaining some quetzales from the ATM which proved to be a bit of a challenge as the “good” ATM wouldn’t accept my card. Finally got sorted with an inferior ATM which charged Q40 ($8) for a transaction fee – super expensive! Anyway, I got money and I was ready to find my way to the Escuela which was to be my home for the next month. The first leg of the journey was to the bus station – which involved taking an old converted school bus which I had to flag down from the side of the road. It took a number of tries to find the bus which was headed in the correct direction, and once I found it I just had to jump right in without it stopping, hand my backpack to the conductor and find a seat as best I could – as quickly as I could, trusting that the conductor had control of my backpack! Finally I made it to the Bus Station – which was just a bunch of Chicken Buses all parked on the side of the road. After a bit of asking around, I was directed to what I hoped was the correct bus, I handed up my big pack to be put on the roof for the journey and took a seat inside. A bunch of vendors hopped on and off the bus whilst we were travelling through the streets of Xela hoping to pick up more passengers. It took us about 2 hours to travel the 25km to the Mountain school. The roads in Guatemala are terrible, and getting thorough the small streets of the towns on the way to pick up people took ages! Eventually I was dropped, with my bag, seemingly in the middle of the road with just a short walk down the road to the Mountain School. 

First impressions were that it was simple and rustic, in a very secluded area. Upon meeting Amelia, the School Coordinator, I was immediately taken down to the local community of Fatima to meet my host mother Roselia, who would be preparing me three meals a day for the first week of my stay here. Roselia seemed lovely and we had a little bit of a chat as she prepared me lunch on her wood-fired stove in her rustic kitchen. The food was plentiful and delicious, with lots of vegetables which was awesome because they’d been a bit light on so far through Mexico. As the afternoon wore on, more of the students who would be attending school throughout the week arrived and we were given an orientation to the school and some information about its mission. My teacher was to be Julisa in the afternoons for 4 hours from 1pm until 5pm for the first week at school. Lessons are held from Monday to Friday and the school organises weekend excursions for students on Saturdays, with Sundays free to relax or shop in the local town of Colomba. After dinner with Rosalia and her family, there was some time to meet the other students and then it was early to bed and time to get ready for the busy week ahead. 

I'm loving the school and learning a new language which is really challenging. Julisa is a great teacher and we laugh a lot, mostly at my ridiculous pronunciation of Spanish words!  The staff and other students at the school are great – it is a shame that most of the students are only staying for one week, it will be strange without them all around. In particular, my roommate Meg from upstate New York has been great company, great spirit and really willing to try and get out there and practice her Spanish which has been a great influence on me. I have been playing soccer in the street with the children from Fatima which has also been really fun! 

On Saturday we did an excursion to Laguna Chicobal. The climb was really tough but it was beautiful at the top and down inside the crater by the lake where we were able to watch the clouds roll in while we ate our lunch. You aren’t allowed to swim in Laguna Chicobal as it is a sacred place. The story goes that there used to be another sacred lake, but the people didn’t respect it and one day it dried up. Then shamans needed to search for months before they found a new lake, way up in the mountains in a volcanic crater.  So now the locals take the lake very seriously and take good care of it to make sure that they don’t lose it again. 

WEEK 2. Escuela de la Montana

Small group of students this week at the school – there were only 6 of us and one of the students Nick was living in a homestay so we didn’t see him very much. But that was OK because he was a bit weird. Stefan arrived – he would be staying at the school for his second stint of 6 weeks. This week I was studying with Maria-Jose who was lovely and also very patient.  We had a great time, lots of laughs. I didn’t much like my host family for the week. Her name was Susanah and she didn’t spend much time at all talking with me – she left that job to her children who were also not very interested in hanging out with me. It was a really strange week because on Tuesday a young man from the community was shot dead on his way to work in the finca (farm). He was a scholarship student and his death hit the community really hard, particularly Amelia and Tito. But the school needed to keep on running so it was a strange vibe. There were lots of police cars in the street, particularly on Wednesday, which was supposed to be the day of the funeral, but the coroner arrived to take the body for an autopsy against the will of the family. Apparently usually the family has to pay for an autopsy if the coroner requests one and it is very expensive. In this instance the family were able to negotiate so that they didn’t have to pay for the autopsy, but it was still a really stressful experience. It was a relief when the body was returned in time for the funeral on Thursday. It was a different experience to say the least. The family and the whole community walked up the street (the family were in the back of a pick up with the coffin) towards the cemetery. The cemetery was where the service occurred, and the people stood around listening to the words of the pastor. There were vendors selling icecream (it was hot) and after the service, glasses of 'Big Cola' (the Guatemalan version of coke) were handed out to everyone present. The family were very vocal in their grief, which is different to what I have experienced in Australia. The whole week was a bit sad and strange. On Saturday, we took a trip to the Finca San Cristobal.  The trip there was the most incredible bit – through some amazing Guatemalan rural scenery. The finca was given to the community by the government after the civil war. The people live quite well here, collectively growing fruit, vegetables and coffee to survive. We had a tour around the finca from a lovely woman who showed us the different types of fruit and explained their growing processes.  We met a group of French people who were assisting the community to build a new coffee drying platform. It was inspiring to see such a thriving community and to see what the Guatemalan people could accomplish if only they were given the the opportunity.

WEEK 3. Escuela de la Montana

Nice group of students in the school this week. A couple of girls from Denmark – Maewenn and Lena who were lovely. Layla moved into my room and we had a great time, although she spent most of the week stressing about her tattoo which she thought was infected. I was studying with Rony this week which I didn’t really enjoy – he was far too relaxed for me and not really interested in teaching me any grammatical rules which I found really frustrating. He really enjoyed telling me all the gossip about the workers and staff at the school – this bit was a little interesting I’ll admit! We had a walk up to see the Shaman in El Carmen but he wasn’t home so we had an interesting chat with his wife instead who was the midwife for the local community. That would be a very stressful job! We had at student called Jonas staying in the school and he played some lovely music at each break on his ukulele which I loved!

Over the weekend, we visited a finca called San Anita. This finca is run by some ex -guerrillas who bought the land (using a huge $300,000 loan) after the war (20 years ago ish). It’s in a beautiful area, and we took a walk through the coffee plantations – through to a couple of viewpoints with amazing views down into the valley and to the river below. There were also a couple of huge waterfalls that we were able to walk right up to. Lots of Pepsi bottles on the ground, but otherwise not too much rubbish which was interesting! Our guide spoke really mumbled Spanish which was pretty difficult for me to understand, so I didn’t get too much information about the coffee making process for this finca, but it seemed as though the community worked together to produce and sell the coffee for a good price. Unfortunately the price of coffee worldwide has been decreasing over a number of years, and so the people at Santa Anita are struggling to make enough money to pay back their loan which is making life pretty difficult for the whole community. They have asked the government to forgive their loan – like they did in Santa Cristobal but to no avail. So things are difficult in the community and they really like it when tourists like us come to hear their story and participate in the community. After our tour, Jonas and I had a nice vegetarian lunch with one of the local families which consisted of a really tasty soup and some chuchitos – delicious corn treats with some potato inside and wrapped in a “palm” leaf. We also had an inspirational talk from a woman named Vilma who was an ex-guerrilla and who had been a commander in the rebel forces when the local people were trying to take some of the power and wealth from the rich land owners and the corrupt government. Her stories about gender equality in the guerrilla and how she was able to learn how to read and write during her 8 years in the mountains were really inspirational. I was really happy that I was able to understand a lot of what she was saying too! Progress!

On Sunday I took a small trip into the town of Colomba – bought some of the delicious cookies and some fruit for myself and my family for the week. At lunch I met my new family – the Senora is Juana and she is an older woman who lives alone with her lovely husband Gustavo. They have four children but they all live in Guatemala City so I think Juana appreciates having people over for a chat – even beginner Spanish students like me! We have been getting along really well, and having conversations about all sorts of random subjects like childbirth, the weather, our crazy dreams etc. Her cooking is also really good – but not as good as Roselia – she is still my favourite. I took Roselia some honey to replace the mountain I ate last week with my pancakes and also a pineapple and some mangoes and avocados. I think the families appreciate getting gifts of food in the weeks when they don’t have students because they usually don’t have much money to buy the things we like to eat such as cheese, milk, fruit avocados etc. Usually their diet is a lot more restricted – less vegetables and more potato, rice and tortillas.

WEEK 4. Escuela de la Montana

Today we had a conference with Jorge where he explained the uses of medicinal plants which are heavily used in the first instance in the rural areas where people don’t always have enough money to buy chemical medicines. He had recipes and instructions on how to make a number of different teas to cure and assist with anything from an upset stomach to diabetes. I wrote them all down and hopefully I can use some of these remedies when I get back home as they are mostly really easy to prepare! Unfortunately, Jorge’s remedy was the final straw for Layla and she booked some flights to Mexico to try and see a skin specialist about her tattoo. This was really sad, but hopefully we will get the chance to catch up again on our travels! 

Yesterday was the community day at the local church in Nuevo San Jose. There had been celebrations in the week leading up to it, but Monday was the official day. There was a huge church service in the Catholic Church which I attended, and afterwards the local women had cooked up huge pots of chicken and rice with coffee for everyone in the community (who was Catholic) to eat and share. It was really cool to see all the familiar faces from the local community (Fatima and Nuevo San Jose and Santa Domingo) together in the one place.  There were little children running around everywhere – they were so cute, all dressed in their best clothes for church! Rony was telling me that the priest – who was a pretty young guy, has to travel around to a large number of rural communities and so Nuevo San Jose will only have him in the church once every couple of months, and at other times the local elders will give the sermons. 

I’m really liking my teacher this week – his name is Tito. He is really fun just like Rony but is also very encouraging and really knows his stuff inside and out. I think he is a really inspirational teacher and I’m learning a lot this week and having a lot of fun too. I’ve decided to stay on for an extra week for Semana Santa to see what Easter is like in the local community, I’ve heard that they have some really interesting celebrations all across Latin America. 

On Friday, Abelino took us in his pick up to Xela. I think we all needed weekend break from the school and the food! Also this weekend there were student parades all throughout Guatemala where students have the opportunity to protest against the government. These parades were so colourful and it was inspirational to see how these students really care about making their country a more equal playing field for all. We ate some amazing food at Sabor de India and had a few too many beers. Saturday was a little tough and I couldn’t even enjoy my breakfast at the Black Cat. After breakfast it was time to say goodbye to Maewenn and Lena which was really sad, they were continuing their journey further south. After lunch we also had to say goodbye to Jonas so it was a really sad day. Stefan and I were heading back to school together and we decided to take a look at the Cemetery, my favourite place in Xela. It turned out to be a bit of an adventure when we decided that we didn’t want to double back to the entrance gate and instead jumped the fence at the back of the cemetery. I put a couple of holes in my pants which I was not impressed about.  It was pretty funny though and a good hangover cure. We finally made our way to the bus station and back to school in time for dinner. It was really fun getting to know Stefan a bit more. He’d been pretty quiet up until this point but I was discovering that he was a very funny and interesting guy!

WEEK 5 – Escuela de La Montana (Semana Santa)

Studied this week with Anny – she was a great teacher and really got me talking about my life back in Australia which was really great. I think I might ask to study with her again for my last week here! It has been an interesting week here with the Semana Santa celebrations. We had a group of guys in weird masks and cloaks come to the gate on Tuesday – they were singing songs and Tito gave them some bread, although I think they might have wanted money.  The significance of the costumes is that they are trying to banish Judas – the guy who betrayed Jesus.  I found out later that the community doesn’t much like these groups of young guys because they can’t see their faces and they might be a part of a gang. In the afternoon we took Abelino’s pick up into Columba to check out more of these Judas burning processions but we had a really heavy downpour of rain and all the shops and the markets were shut which was a bit of bad luck – I was saturated! 

Yesterday, Ruben took us on a walk to the waterfall again which had a bit more water in it this time! We got some nice photos of Ruben and I standing right up near the waterfall. The walk there is a little bit further on from our usual morning walk.

Thursday afternoon was strange because all the students except for Stefan and myself left the school for the Easter long weekend – there were no classes on Friday. So it was really quiet in the school but fun because we had the opportunity to participate in a number of different activities in the community. On Good Friday we headed down to Columba after breakfast to have a look at the Alfombras – brightly coloured sawdust carpets that the locals make as offerings to god. The detail and precision of their designs is incredible – and it was so amazing to see the effort that they had put into the designs. We even had the chance to help one of the families with the creation of their carpet which was super fun, but quite a bit of pressure not to stuff up too!  We didn’t head to the families for meals on Friday so Stefan and I cooked up a feast of fish for dinner, and Amelia, Ruben and Gustavo came over for dinner too which was really nice. Stefan taught me to play “Leaving on a jet plane” on the guitar.    Saturday was a really quiet day – lots of time for study and relaxing. I spent quite a lot of time playing with the children in the street. Lots of family members had returned from other places such at Guate to be with their families for Easter so there was heaps of action in the street and it felt like a real party! On Saturday night we had another guitar jam session with Ruben and Gustavo which was really fun! Sunday lunchtime it all started again, with new students arriving for the following week, we had a group of nine so it felt like a full house!

WEEK 6 Escuela de la Montana

Studied with Tito again this week and really enjoyed it. It was a strange week in the school, with some interesting personalities. We had three students from PLQ in Xela who knew each other really well and were a bit clicky, a pair of older ladies from Canada, one of whom was really fussy about food and very judgemental of her family – which I didn’t like. Also a student Charlie from the USA who was lovely but very intense. We also had a nice family from Denmark who kept to themselves mostly. So it was an interesting week at the school, and not my favourite mix of people, but a good chance to focus on my study.  We had a nice walk to the cascada, this time with Jorge. Unfortunately, the Danish guy Wilhelm twisted his ankle and we had to take some time to get him out of the track which was pretty painful for him. On Saturday, we took a trip to the beach – called Champerico where we took a little longboat out to a small community with a lovely black sand beach. We ate lunch at a nice hotel with a pool – I got to eat a delicious ceviche (raw fish salad) once again which was incredible! The black sand beach was beautiful and clean, although there was a pretty strong rip. The sun was much stronger than I had expected and I got really really sunburned, particularly on my bottom lip, the usual target! We stayed at the beach until dusk, then Abelino gave us a lift back to the school in his pick up. He’d also had the best day at the beach – he said it was his favourite weekend excursion.  Sunday was spent recovering from the sunburn and doing a bit of study ready for my final (really this time!) week at the school!

WEEK 7 Escuela de la Montana

Final week of study. I was planning to study with Anny again for my final week but her father was ill so I decided to study with Tito again for my final week, my other favourite teacher. We had a super nice group of students in the school this week which made everything that much more fun. We took another walk up to see the Shaman in the town of El Carmen, and this week he was home which was good. I got my horoscope read which was interesting – kind of. It was difficult to understand all of what he was saying though and I’ll need to use the internet to get the full story. We performed a Mayan ceremony though which was awesome and burned some candles to bring us luck for the future – hopefully they work, anyway the candles smelled awesome!  Charlie and I attended some bible study classes in the evenings during the week – actually, we discovered later that these meeting were to support Gustavo and his family who had lost a child at 8 days old in January. It was really a privilege to be a part of this community and witness the support that this family were given. On Friday, it was really sad at graduation, saying goodbye to the teachers and reading a speech, even though I have plans to return to the school soon! On Saturday, we decided to take a viaje to Laguna Chicobal again. This time it was much easier to climb up, clearly the time acclimatising at the school has really helped, even if I haven’t had much of an opportunity to exercise! We had rain on the way down and a downpour while waiting for a bus to take us back to the school which was not pleasant! On our final night at the school, Stefan and I decided to make some chocolate chip cookies for the children in our adopted community of Fatima. It was a bit of a process! In the first batch Stefan misread the recipe and we put 1tbs of baking soda into the mix instead of 1tsp – they were interesting tasting that’s for sure, and poor Stefan was really upset about it which was actually the funniest bit!  Luckily we got the second batch back on track and ended up with enough good cookies to make the experience worthwhile. We also had another jam session with Ruben in Amelia’s house and then drank some beers in the hammocks until late in the night. It was a great final day at the school – bittersweet!