Homestays, Salsa Lessons & Lagoon Hiking in Xela

By Paige Harris

Buenos dias from Xela!

We’ve had a very busy week learning Spanish and continuing to immerse ourselves in Guatemalan culture. Prior to our departure from La Escuela de la Montaña, we had the unique opportunity to tour La Florida, a cooperatively owned, self-sustaining permaculture farm. Our guide led us around the plots of land owned by various local families, pointing out bananas, macadamia nuts, cacao, and the occasional coffee tree. The bananas were sweet and perfectly ripe. Annie, Julian, and I reflected on how nice it was to be able to enjoy a banana without feeling guilty about supporting a company that was complicit in the slaughter of thousands of native Guatemalans (for those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the book Bitter Fruit by Stephen C. Schlesinger provides a detailed history of Chiquita Banana and the CIA’s bloody involvement in Guatemalan politics).

We also had the opportunity to sample some of the deep red cacao pods hanging from the trees. Most of the pods were out of range of even Elliot, the tallest in our group. Not one to view this as a setback, Hanna simply scrambled up the tree like a monkey and grabbed a ripe pod with ease. Even our guide was impressed with her climbing skills, jokingly offering her a job picking fruit on the farm before expertly cutting open the fruits of her labor with a machete. Inside, the clusters of fleshy white cacao seeds bore a somewhat off-putting resemblance to the tail of a lobster. The taste was equally unexpected – despite the fact that cacao is used to make chocolate, the seeds themselves are tart and sweet, like a mango. Of course, we couldn’t eat the actual seeds, only suck on them for a little bit before spitting them out. With the fleshy coating removed, the seeds were then ready to be roasted, the next step in the chocolate-making process. After a delicious lunch, we rode back in Abelino’s pickup truck, reflecting on the afternoon while Chloe regaled us with tales of famous serial killers.

Upon returning to Xela, everyone had the chance to meet their teachers and their new host families. Unlike last week, we wouldn’t be living all together. Instead, we would live with our host families and one other person from the group, coming together in the afternoon for Spanish lessons. Lessons are five hours with a half hour pause in the middle. When not in lessons, everyone has been taking full advantage of our free time to explore Xela. We’ve been going thrift shopping, eating street food (more tortillas!), chilling in Parque Central, and just getting to experience the unique culture here.

One of the most memorable parts of the week was a Wednesday morning outing arranged by PLQ (Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco), our language school. Having woken up early, we piled into a chicken bus (a modified school bus used to transport people and goods throughout Central America) and headed off to the Fuentes Georginas hot springs. Halfway through, we switched vehicles to a smaller pickup truck. As our pickup cruised through the countryside (and by “cruised” I mean “bounced over potholes and through puddles, jostling us against the iron bars of the truck bed”), we were treated to a stunning view of the countryside. Farmers worked plots of land on the steep hillsides to either side of us, harvesting beets, cabbage, and carrots as we passed. The hot springs themselves were equally breathtaking. The water, full of sulfur and other minerals, flowed naturally from the rocks above the pool. We noticed some native Guatemalans rubbing the water on their skin and even drinking it. The former seemed like a good idea, but we all agreed to abstain from the latter. We spent over an hour soaking in the wonderfully hot natural pool, emerging wrinkled, relaxed and smelling faintly of sulfur. The hot springs were the perfect thing to lift our spirits and soothe our tired muscles.

As I type this, the group is taking salsa lessons with PLQ. Tomorrow, we plan on hiking to a laguna before we say our final goodbyes to Xela on Sunday. This week has been a welcome challenge of cultural immersion and intensive language study, but I think everyone will be very grateful to head to Lake Atitlan for our yoga retreat!

Grace with an opened cacao pod.

Annie enjoying a beautiful vista from the pickup.

Hanna monkeying around in the cacao tree.

Spanish lessons at Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco in Xela.

A visit to the beautiful Fuentes Georginas hot springs.

Better than a chicken bus.

Paige, Hannah, Julian and Angelo enjoying the pickup ride.

Salsa lesson at PLQ.

Charla at PLQ with an ex-guerillero about his time fighting in the mountains against the military dictatorship.