Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Guatemala: Xela (Week 1)

I feel kind of like I am writing early in a mission... (oh, and by the way, dont judge me for not writing with apostrophes--the keyboard is super annoying and it the effort to put in apostrophes is sucking my will to live, so Im abandoning that project). 

So Ive been in Quetzaltenango (Xela for short) for two days now.  I got into Guatemala City on Saturday night after two short flights (approx 2.5 hrs each) and a 9 hour layover in Dallas.  The school had someone meet me at the airport, and I stayed at his house that night.  Then the next morning he put me on the bus to Xela.  It was a 4.5 hour drive that was kind of crazy and very beautiful.  Guatemala is an incredibly beautiful place.  There was a woman with me who was also going to Xela -- at first it was nice to have someone else along for the ride, but eventually I realized she was neurotic and super high maintenance (for example, she about had an aneurism when she found out that there was no bathroom on the bus). 

We got to Xela and my host family without any problems.  The family is an older couple (probably late 60s); she stays at home and cooks all day, and he is a presbyterian minister.  The house is a traditional house with all the rooms entering into a central courtyard full of geraniums and ferns (its amazing), and I have my own room with a bathroom on one side of the courtyard.  It isnt fancy by US standards, but its clean and solid and I have a feeling that by local standards it is very nice.  Amada and Fito (the couple) are very hospitable and friendly.  Amada cooks me three hot meals a day and is more than willing to speak spanish with me, tolerating my very poor skills right now.  Judging from conversations with other students, I think I really lucked out with my family situation.

Sidenote about the Mormons:  Turns out that there are really only three religions in Xela, one of which is the Mormons.  Already Ive found two big LDS chapels (including one that is probably a stake center about a block from my school).  Havent seen any missionaries yet, though, and the church was closed on Sunday when I stopped by.

The weather is mixed.  We are in the mountains, so the temperature varies significantly between day and night.  In the morning its foggy and chilly until the fog burns off around 8am.  Then from 8 until about 2 it is the most beautiful weather imaginable -- honestly, it really could not be better:  the sun is warm, the air fresh, with a light breeze, perfectly clear blue skies, not too humid or too dry, etc.  Im guessing the temperature is in the low to mid 70s.  The downside is that perfection lasts only until about 2 when the clouds roll in and it becomes cloudy and chilly for the rest of the day.  Its chillier than I had expected (probably gets down into the low 60s or maybe even the high 50s), so I end up wearing all my layers most of the time (except in the morning when the sun is out).  So far what I have has been enough, but I may end up picking up another sweatshirt if it gets cooler as the month progresses.  In any case, once I head to the tropical part of the country it will be in the 90s and Ill get to wear my summer clothes.

The school is good; in fact, its better than I expected.  It is definitely one of the better schools in town and has been very professional and well organized so far.  I have a good teacher.  We meed one-on-one for five hours every day.  The first day was a real struggle for me -- I had forgotten just how exhausting it is to learning and listening to and understanding another language in a different country with different customs and etc.  And unlike the mission, where I could at least seek refuge in some English conversation at the end of the day with my companion, there is no respite at home because dear Amada wants to sit and talk over long dinners every night.  Its what I wanted, because it will force me to learn more and practice what I learn, but it IS exhausting and sometimes overwhelming.  I have to remind myself that I have only been here for two days -- and all things considered, Im doing fine.  I will be happier, though, when things smooth out a bit. 

My French is both a blessing and a hindrance.  A blessing because there are so many similarities in vocabulary and grammar that Im able to fake my way pretty well. I can also understand the majority of anything that is said to me.  Its a hindrance because with all the faking, people think I know more than I actually do.  I had to remind my teacher today that although I grasp words and concepts quickly, I dont actually know anything and so we cant skip to the harder stuff without learning the basic stuff (like how to count) first.  Also, there are some things that Im just really resistant to, coming from the French background.  For example, I feel like they leave out so many words!  No articles, no pronouns, not nearly as many prepositions. To my French sensibilities, I feel like Im talking like a caveman and its taking me a while to feel confident that what Im saying actually makes sense.  Also, I can see what people say about the Guatemalan accent.  It is not beautiful.  Sometimes its downright hard to understand--seems more like mumbling.  Its kind of sad because I really like to model my accent on what I hear.  At least with French I could hear really beautiful accents all the time, and it was really fun to emulate.  Here, Im still trying to sort out which accent to model myself after.  In any case, Amada tells me that Im doing pretty well with clear enunciation, and my teacher (Magdalena) said on the first day that she was surprised when I said I was from the US becuase I didnt speak like an american.  She asked me right away if I spoke other languages and was vindicated when I said French--she said I formulated my sounds like a European much more than an American. 

Its definitely a third world country down here, and its definitely different from anywhere Ive traveled before.  I havent felt unsafe yet, and I have been fine with the food (today Magdalena took me to the market and forced, er, taught me to haggle with this little Mayan woman over the price of this really delicious purple banana--it was fun).  I do feel a tad like a fish out of water, though, so Im glad to have a few weeks to get my bearings before launching on more serious travels.  I kind of wish the sun were out in the afternoon so that I could tan darker and be less obviously white (although I suppose my clothes and height will always be dead giveaways no matter what).

Oh, and a sidenote for Mom:  You would not believe the geraniums here!  I've seen plants that are 5 or 6 feet tall, with flowers a good two inches across (and I mean the individual flowers, not the whole head of flowers).  They´re really more like bushes than the little bedding plants that we have in the US.  And the great thing is that the plants themselves are no different--they just get bigger when they have a continual growing season. 

Alright, thats it for now.  I'm going to go find a place to review my vocabulary from today and put together my presentation for tomorrow.  I hope you are all well!  Ill write more when I can!

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