APRIL 23RD 2000 - THE NORTH SHORE NEWS
GUATEMALA’S COLONIAL JEWEL
Being from the Northern climes and seeking a more cerebral alternative to lying on a sun soaked beach sipping pinacoladas and worrying about skin cancer, I fought the driving rain and headed to the Guatemalan Consulate to inquire about the language schools of Antigua. The pretty receptionist handing me brochures was almost brought to tears as she described a Colonial jewel filled with romance, flowers, and a climate of eternal spring. Five days later I was off.
A fixed price minibus for the half hour trip from the airport in Guatemala city avoided the problem of negotiating with the hordes of taxidrivers held at bay like vultures at the starting gate. My co passenger Karl was a footloose East German with a pinched undernourished face and long dank hair. We were happy to be dropped at a hotel of the drivers choosing. It was midnight.
After a healthy breakfast of muesli, fresh fruit and yogurt across the street in a 60’s style restaurant, I set off into the sunshine clutching a short list of Academies gleaned from the more than thirty available. I followed the narrow cobbled street towards the Volcano that stood guard chillingly over the previously earthquake ravaged City. The last in 1773 caused most historic buildings to now lie in ruin recalling a splendid past as the old Capital.
The guard outside the A&W fiddled nervously with his machine gun reacting to my curiosity. Armed guards grudgingly dispensed permission of entry to the long lineup at the Central Bank. Government offices traditionally set behind collonaded arches surrounded the Central Square which was fast filling up with hawkers, tourists and locals passing the time of day.
I interviewed my first school, The Projecto Linguistico Francisco Marroquin. It bustled with serious students seeking fluency in the shortest time possible. Business students. Aid workers. No laughter here. At the Acadamie Sevilla the atmosphere was quite different. The mornings were for study. The afternoons were for cultural pursuits. A bike ride to some ancient ruins. An underground video taken during the recent civil war. A walking tour of the city.
The students were busily creating paper kites to fly at the Day Of The Dead Festival in nearby Santiago where armies of optimistic men decimate the local graveyard trying to coax monolithic kites, some as much as seven meters in diameter, into the air on a windless day. This, to release the souls of the dead from their agony – and of course to have fun.
I enrolled at the Sevilla and was taken to the colonial home of Julietta, an urbane attractive woman in her early fifties. My room was off a long skylit hallway filled with orchids gathered illegally from the mountains nearby. The US$80 per week had been quoted nervously by Carlos, my School Principal. He hastily reminded me that my middle aged comfort requirements had included private bath, maid service, and three meals a day. Dinner proved to be the high point.
My fellow residents included Greg, the exuberant young American, Frederic the earnest 21 year old German and Louisa the retired schoolteacher from Quebec, always quick to enforce the Spanish only rule at mealtimes with the authority of her long held profession. Julietta and her lover Domingo observed and assisted our struggles with great amusement.
At school my personal teacher Lauro selected a table near the entrance to the flower filled courtyard.. He arrived promptly by bicycle at 8am, his face an encouraging smile, his clothes neatly pressed if slightly worn. The four hour lesson began. I taught him about the
world he taught me Verbos Irregulares. The US$4 an hour I paid for him seemed a bargain. .
The local economy is built on the Spanish Schools and the international students who attend them. Fine restaurants and a lively night life provide a happy blend of a Latin culture with a Western influence. Class and accommodation turnover is weekly. Your Travel Agent can doubtless arrange a package if time is of the essence. Weekend trips to the colorful markets, spectacular Lake Atitlan and the Mayan ruins of Tikal are an optional part of the agenda.
The receptionist at the Guatemalan Embassy was right. Antigua is indeed a Colonial jewel.
IF YOU GO:
VISAS: Can be obtained at Guatemala City airport or any other point of entry.
SAFETY: Whilst the city is generally safe due to extra local security, care should be taken when venturing beyond ie. climbing the local volcanoes or visiting Lake Atitlan. Always hire a guide from a local Travel Agent or go with your school. Street touts selling tours can tip off their friends of your arrival.
USEFUL GUIDE: Rough Guide.
EXCELLENT WEBSITE: www.inguat.net/ingues/rtlrnspanish.html