The reason I first came to Guatemala was to learn Spanish in the least expensive place I could find. I was familiar with Mexico but the Spanish schools in Guatemala were even less expensive. I had heard it was a bit dangerous and remembered something about a “civil war” not too long ago. I was 43 and ready for a break after several tough years involving Alzheimer’s and my mother. My wife was key in helping me to go, and I was excited about a new adventure. I signed up for 3 weeks immersion at a school in Quetzaltenango, a town known to everyone in Guatemala as Xela (shay-la), its Quiche Maya name.
I arrived at the Aurora International airport in Guatemala late on a September night in 2003. The school arranged for me to stay at a private house in the city that night then get delivered to a bus station for the 6 hour ride to Xela at 6 the next morning. As you come out of the airport terminal you are greeted by a crowd of people waiting for their loved ones arriving on a flight. This will be your first taste of the stunning colors and intricate patterns in traditional Mayan dress. There will be professional people in business suits and people dressed the same as people from their villages have dressed for centuries. If nothing else Guatemala is a high contrast country, in the colors of its clothing, diversity of Mayan languages intermixed with Spanish and income levels or lack thereof.
Along with limo and shuttle drivers holding name cards was Luise my host for the night, holding a sign with my name not quite spelled right. We got in an old Datsun B210 and drove 15 minutes to his house, past McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Pollo Campero, fast food was as big here as any city in the states. Guatemala City is a large impoverished city with a high violent crime rate, tin shanty slums and exclusive wine shops. The house was in what I suspected was a “middle class” neighborhood, heavy bars on all the windows of not only their house but all of them. If the bars weren’t unsettling enough, I could also hear gunshots!! It seems funny to me now, but I was really a little freaked out. I didn’t know then that fireworks, the louder the better, are something which the Guatemalans love dearly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone new to the country asking “are those gunshots?”, usually they are not.
Luise and his wife Rosa spoke no English and my Spanish at that point was limited to social greetings, directions and maybe a dozen food words. It was all quite friendly with a lot of gesturing. I’ve discovered that people can talk in separate languages, none understanding the words of the other, yet with some facial expressions and gesturing almost anything can be reasonably effectively conveyed, unless it all goes horribly wrong, which it didn’t. I was shown the bathroom and with some matter of fact visual instruction shown all toilet paper must be thrown in the little waste basket next to the toilet. Next, in gesture, he explained that if I threw paper in the toilet bowl apparently a volcano of water would suddenly erupt and flood the whole house under a sea of sewage. Then I was shown the shower with two poorly taped wires coming out of the shower head powering a little heater in it, these are lovingly referred to as suicide showers. Trying to adjust the shower head, or even accidentally touching it, can have some real shocking results. They come on with water pressure when you turn on the water. The trick is to keep the shower water volume turned as low as you can, without having the pressure so low the heater turns off. A luke warm drizzle is often the best result you can hope for in cold weather. It was at this house that I also first discovered the miracle of milk that doesn’t need refrigeration and has a shelf life of several hundred years. It tasted fine on my breakfast of Corn Flakes, instant coffee and really sweet simulated orange like beverage. Lying in the bed that was about 6 inches too short trying to go to sleep to the sound of what I thought were gunshots that night, I had no idea I was on the beginning of a voyage of renewed discovery that would last until this day.
Here’s some tips for flying into Guatemala;
- Have a most recent copy of a good guidebook, Lonely Planet and Moon are my favorites.
- Try and arrive before it’s very late, the earlier the better.
- If you can be on the road before 8pm, figuring about an hour and a half for baggage and migration, book a hotel in Antigua. It’s a beautiful Colonial City and is a much nicer destination than Guatemala City, only an hour away in good traffic.
- If you are arriving later at night stay in the city, all of the better hotels have free shuttle services, once again book this in advance.
- Don’t walk out of the airport or around Guatemala City at night, use a shuttle to get wherever your hotel is.