From the very beginning of our RTW adventure we believed that when we had the opportunity to live in one place for awhile that time would slow down for us, but honestly our month+ here in San Pedro, Guatemala has past by quicker than any other. It isn’t supposed to work that way, is it? What gives? I mean who wants to leave a place like this:
San Pedro, is one of several quiet little pueblos surrounding the shores of Lake Atitlan. Each of these little towns has its own character, but San Pedro is the most well known hub for travellers wanting to pick up a little español. Within a couple hours of being here, I knew this place was going to have the tranquil vibe that was going to make it very difficult to leave. After leaving Antigua however (possibly the ‘prettiest’ town in all of Guatemala), it took Shawna a few days longer to be convinced (she is allergic to dead-end backpackers who try to lengthen their holidays by selling pot – harmless, but admittedly useless), but once she found a gym and a running path she was sold as well!
So it was decided then – our home for the month of May – San Pedro, Guatemala!
While here we had an opportunity to kayak to the other side of the lake and visit the uber-”new-age-y” San Marcos. We also volunteered for the 1st Annual Lake Atitlan Marathon. But our favourite experience from our time here in San Pedro was the Spanish lessons we took from the Cooperativa Spanish School.
Now it’s been a long time since either of us have been in school… (a reeeeeally long time for one of us), so we didn’t exactly know how we were going to handle it. But, we did want to give it our best shot and really come out of this experience having learned a little Spanish. We agreed to dedicate ourselves to some fairly intense instruction, each committing to four hours of class each day, Monday to Friday, for four weeks. We were hoping 80 hours of study should at least give us the basics.
Nestled in the centre of San Pedro, between ‘gringoland’ and the ‘real’ San Pedro where the locals live, Cooperativa sets you up with a pretty incredible environment for learning. Teaching is done in a beautiful garden setting, with each classroom consisting of a small grass-roofed, open air structure. We were there in the rainy season, so sitting under our ‘tent’ while the rain poured down around us only added to the coolness of the experience. Being surrounded by all of this nature and greenery is sure to provide your brain with more than enough oxygen to keep you awake. Our classroom was also home to hummingbirds, frogs, flowers, and tigers. Teaching is always done in a one-on-one environment which is definitely the only way to go. It means that you have your teachers 100% undivided attention for the entire class…and it also means that you can’t slack off and let someone else ask all the questions!
I’m only kidding…there were no tigers.
Shawna and I were paired with Luis and Antonio respectively. We could not have asked for better instructors. Not only were they both educated and entertaining Spanish teachers, but they were great people who were able to teach us about life in Guatemala, Mayan culture and heritage, and an enormous amount of local history. Like many Central American countries, Guatemala has had some pretty tough years, and both Antonio and Luis were young boys while this was taking place. It was very interesting (and extremely sad) to gain their perspective on what it was like to grow up as a young boy in Guatemala during this time period.
The Community Involvement
Cooperativa Spanish School currently sponsors twenty-two local families, providing them with rice, beans, eggs, soap, & flour on an ongoing basis. Every second Friday we went with our teachers to deliver the goods and meet these families. Not surprisingly the living conditions were abominable. Sad to see, but necessary to be a witness to it. (Apparently while we were there, one of the students didn’t think this was a good use of his time, which to me is brutal.) In addition to the food support, the school is also involved the construction of seven new homes for families in need within San Pedro. Cooperative actually donates ten percent of the tuition they receive towards helping these families. It is nice to know that while you are spending Quetzales to cultivate your mind, you are also assisting the local Mayan people in the community.
A couple of times a week, the school presented us with eye-opening documentaries about the much-too-recent civil wars, Mayan culture, and how the locals are working together to prevent ‘the man’ from exploiting all of their resources. In addition, for something a little less serious, every Wednesday night we took a free salsa lesson after class. Shawna’s teacher Luis was the instructor, and of course he turned every woman he danced with into putty…my wife included. Alternatively whenever Shawna and I tried dancing together, we changed into our steel-toed boots and threw nasty insults at each other.
For the first two weeks in San Pedro, we stayed in the Hotel Villa del Lago. Our bedroom was lakefront with the most incredible view. We paid 65 Quetzales/night ($9 CDN) for this lake and mountain scenery that would cost us a couple of hundred for anything similar in Canada or the US. We became good friends with the local family that managed the place, and so we were both a little sad when we left to go stay with our homestay family. That sadness however, only lasted a few seconds. From the moment we met Lorenzo, Andrea, and their kids Fransisco, Elena, and Lorenzo pequeño, we new our last two weeks was going to be just as fulfilling as the first.
Lorenzo (the father, not the six-year old) was actually the coordinator at the school while we were there, so it was a little like living with your high school principal, providing of course that your high school principal was really cool. It was so awesome being a part of their family for these two weeks. As a part of the homestay, we were fed and watered three times a day, six days a week. The food was great: homemade tortillas, made fresh for every meal, tons of veggies, beans, and rice. Breakfast consisted of fresh fruit and yogurt or pancakes for a treat!
We were always being entertained by little Lorenzo, whose class-clown antics and eternal energy kept us on our toes the entire time. The entire family made us feel incredibly at home. From the moment we stepped inside we felt like we belonged. We loved our time there, and felt very fortunate to have had this experience.
By being in one place for as long as we were, we really were able to get ourselves into a routine. We had the options of taking classes in the morning (8AM – noon) or in the afternoon (2-6PM), and we chose the latter. This allowed us to get up in the morning and enjoy the sunshine, while sipping our Guatemalan coffee at one of the cafes or eating breakfast with our family. We would then typically head off to the gym for a good workout before settling down to get our homework done. By the time we had completed our verb conjugating it was lunch. Then we would do any last errands for the day, grab a chocolate peanut-butter bar, and head to class. The rain rolled in between 1-3PM every day, which never bothered us since we were in class. After school, we took part in our after school activities before heading downstairs for dinner. After that we might just sneak in a glass of wine or a dessert before returning home and heading to bed.
That’s Sounds Great, But…. Puede Usted Hablar Español?
For all intensive purposes, Shawna and I could not speak a lick of Spanish before taking our courses. During the Camino de Santiago in Spain, we did pick up enough “survival Spanish” so that we could order a coffee or find a dorm room, but that had long ago been forgotten.
During our lessons at Cooperativa we covered verbs and the conjugation of them, basic vocabulary, numbers, the alphabet, sentence structure, how to ask a question, and how to speak in both present and past tenses. We haven’t perfected any of it, but we think we both know enough to survive the rest of our time in Central and South America. We spent time learning to read it, learning to write it, and of course learning to speak it. We were able to have basic conversations with our teachers and other locals in San Pedro. We have kept all of our notes and have vowed to continue studying them. Perhaps there will even be a second round of Spanish lessons in our near future! All in all, I think it is fair to say that we both believe we are leaving Guatemala with the beginnings of a new skill.
Of course when attempting any new language, there is always bound to be mistakes. Shawna once took the opportunity to tell her teacher that she “saw the birds fly”, when in fact she was telling Luis the she “saw the bullshit fly”. I on the other hand was quite proud of myself when I was able to announce to Antonio that “I was hungry!” Sadly, what I was actually confirming translated to “I have a man!”
Nos encantó nuestro tiempo en San Pedro con la Escuela Cooperativa español. Nosotros les recomendamos un centenar de veces. Gracias por todo!