Cease Travel, Sink into Culture – first week in Quetzaltenango (Xela) Guatemala

Arriving here in Xela (shay-la) this week, all the hopes and fears of the last two months are put to rest.   Xela has the essence I had hoped it would.  Narrow one-way streets wind around the center square, which hosts the Spanish architecture Cathedral, banks and other ancient colonial buildings now housing commercial offices and restaurants.  Couples and families sit on the stone benches surrounding small flower gardens, and enjoy an ice cream cone.  Teenagers meet their friends in the square’s centerpiece, a large Greek-columned gazebo.  As a confirmation of its 6 universities and more than 30 Spanish schools, Xela has nice a college town café culture.  Small cafes are tucked into most corners around the old town center.  Walking through town, American or European students appear fairly often, and are recognizable by their sunglasses and floppy shoulder bags. 

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I had this notion for the past few weeks that Xela would be my Galway of Guatemala.  After finishing a work visa in London, I decided to stay in Europe a while longer and added on a short work visa for Ireland.  I landed in Dublin and immediately the traffic annoyed me, the hostel annoyed me, I didn’t see myself belonging there in any way.  A friend in London had recommended earlier that I give Galway a try.  I checked out of the hostel early the next morning, and took a cross-island bus to the Gaelic capital of Ireland.  On the highway, I instantly felt better.  The green wet landscape slid by.  My senses could stretch all the way across the hilly horizon rather than be squelched by a cramped city.  Finally the bus pulled up the train station just off the main square of Galway.  Throngs of drunk, happy tourists and colorfully dressed performers careened down the town’s cobblestone main street.  I had arrived during the city’s primary annual attraction—an arts and music festival.  And even though the whole city didn’t contain a single free bed, and I was forced to spend a cold night under a tree near the river, I knew I had found my Ireland home.

Minus the cold lonely night outdoors, my transition to Xela from Guatemala City did feel very much the same.  Comfortable on my “first-class” bus (comparable to Greyhound at its best) I endured a few slow miles of potholed streets and angry bus horns, until finally we rolled past the edge of Guate’s stacked and broken cityscape, and into the open mountain farmland.  The driver put a rotation of Mexican music videos on the overhead TVs.  The mother of an American family in the front of the bus turned around in her seat toward her daughter to comment on the changing scenery.  She did this often, and every time she whipped her blond head around, she locked her eyes with mine for a second, maybe deciding whether to breach contact with a fellow foreigner.  I never gave her the chance.  I was enchanted in my directionless, language-less state, and I didn’t want to break the spell.

Being directionless, my memory of the bus ride scenery has blended into a single image of hills, trees, roadside shacks.  I remember

Road to Xela

women in colorful woven dress with bundles on their heads, firewood bundles on their backs, or children slung to their hips.  I think I might have caught the last glimpse of Lake Atitlan bowled by perfect triangular volcanoes.  After 3 hours, the bus pulled into a rest stop near Cienega Grande for a brief meal break.  The passengers were happy for a quick warm meal and a stretch in the mountain air.  A group of college kids sang along with their resident guitarist, a pattern of Spanish songs with Bob Marley, Maroon 5, and Sam Cooke.

We reached Xela a pleasant, music-video-less hour later.  A member of my host family met me at the bus stop.  It didn’t take language to tell that she and her father were sweetest family I could hope for.  As we juggled a small car through a maze of one-way streets toward their house, the two did their best to make small talk with my broken Spanish—broken and unrepaired since 2001.  They pointed out landmarks I couldn’t distinguish, and fun facts I couldn’t quite understand.  In my own absorption, I noticed first off that Xela lacks an obvious corporate chain presence—Guatemalan or international.  There is the odd McDonalds and Wendy’s, and the ice cream service Sarita, but this characteristic was so distinct from the US culture I’m used to that it struck me as the most foreign quality.

I was lucky enough to meet another American resident in the homestay, who is a teacher rather than a student.  She invited me mass at her church the next morning for the Semana Santa service.  Sensing my interest in the religious events, the homestay grandfather also offered to escort me to an evening procession as it passed near the house after dinner.

The procession that night—though less structured and much smaller–was even more beautiful than the massive procession I saw in Guatemala City.  A solemn brass melody from the band drifted forward as boys in black robes carted the altars of previous processions—Jesus tortured, Jesus dying.  Two long lines of boys and men bearing candles followed them on either side of the street, ushering in the thick of the procession.  The altar of Mary shined with the light of hundreds of electric candles, and it floated

Incense cloud shrouds Semana Santa procession

down the street like a Dixie Queen steamboat in the black Mississippi.  Next in the procession, white-robed children swung metal balls filled with burning coal and incense, and Mary swayed high behind smoke clouds.  As the altar approached, I could see the women beneath, balancing the scene (at least 10 feet long) on their shoulders.  They were pressed to one another, supporting the structure back to front without a gap.  And as if that weren’t unnatural looking enough, they rhythmically slid their feet forward in a slow, eerie march.

After the weekend’s festivities came to a rest, I fell into my weekday schedule.  5 hours of Spanish at 8am can really take it out of a person.   I break for lunch and then head out for 3 hours of volunteering in the afternoon.  They are full days, but they feel well spent.  I have a few hours in the evening to take advantage of the city’s café culture, but I am sure to get home before dark.  I haven’t ventured much into nightlife, as there are some safety concerns (but that’ll be a whole different post.)

The past week has been a momentous cultural immersion for me.  I know now that it’s an accurate phrase because, much like being submerged, I feel that I can’t hear what anyone’s saying and no one can hear me.  I’m confined to a mute and deaf environment.  And today, I realized that I will spend my entire trip still trying decode the people I’m living with and the place I’m living in; still trying to adjust to Guatemalan culture.  More disconcerting though is that I’m now in the addictive, adrenaline-producing survival mode that I travel for, and I haven’t yet considered how I will be able to adjust when I come back to the boring old U.S.


Guatemala City

On April 5th, after 12 hours of airports, security scans, and Dramamine-induced slumber I landed in the sprawling shanty-encrusted valley that is Guatemala City.  After hours upon hours of nothing but sea, I grew enchanted with Guatemala as soon as we slipped over its thin beaches along the coast and into the vastly green and then vastly volcanic terrain.  However, I descended into clarity as we were lowered over the capital.  I began to make out miles of tin roofs and cracked concrete, and the city grew more reflective of its ugly name contraction, “Guate,” (sounds like squat.)

I passed through customs, made my way outside to a rapt audience, most already looking past me, but others lifting their hotel name picket signs in greeting.  I waved to a young man holding, “Hostal Los Volcanes.”  Hostal Los Volcanes was a pleasant 5-minute walk directly from the airport.  After I checked in and handed out appropriate tips, I fell into bed feeling like I’d arrived at some sort of home, but also feeling that home was a distant pinpoint 12 hours away.  In nostalgic moments, distraction is my best comfort.  I got up, grabbed a taxi and headed toward the most dependable site in any city, which is not coincidentally the only Spanish I can piece together: “parque central.”

I stepped out of the cab and into a lively square of street food stalls, wandering trinket vendors, and loitering crowds, bordered by

Spanish architecture—the center-piece being a three-towered cathedral dressed in purple banners and a poster of the child Jesus.  Many men and boys were dressed in  purple and black robes similar to the cathedral decor.  Groups of women and girls walked in groups wearing long textile skirts and ornate blouses.  The center was abuzz with preparations for an important religious holiday, Semana Santa.  Leave it to me to arrive during one of the biggest holidays in Guatemala without the slightest clue.

But I was fortunate for it.  The real life of a place is often kept separate from the tourist façade.  Here was an entry for me to fall in step with the heartbeat of Guatemala City.  A procession of solemn robed men led in displays of Jesus and Mary to a corner of the square.  A marching band started up

a jaunty tune.  I wasn’t getting stared at for snapping photos of seemingly ordinary things now.  I was one of the many frantic for a shot of bloody and emaciated Jesus propped up on an elbow, reaching out for help.  All of a sudden this wasn’t the shanty carpet of the mountain valley I initially saw.  This city and these people were beautiful.

I woke early the next morning to catch a 4 hour bus to Quetzaltenango where I’ll be based for the rest of my stay in Guatemala.  I was lucky to hail the only cab in sight, but then unlucky as I began to understand that the bus station ticketer was trying to explain that there was no bus today to Xela, the casual name for Quetzaltenango.  I wanted to explain that he must be mistaken.  I had made a reservation online.  The woman ticketer beside him shook her head and pointed to a phone: better to call.  As my stomach slid down towards panic, I rummaged through my handful of accessible Spanish, and turned back to my cab driver, “Otro bus?”  He picked up the meaning right away, and we headed off to another station, and another, all closed off to Xela for the festival day.  At my last resort, I asked to check the minibus lines.  It turned out there was a bus headed that way, but I took one look at the minibus–also called chicken bus because you’re likely to sit by some chickens or other livestock–and I decided it was possible, but not worth the extra adventure today.  Like any American at the beginning of her budget, I opted to stay one more night in city I was growing to hate again.

Guatemala Travel Tip of the Day:  Watch your step!  Most of the sidewalks in Guatemala city have missing or un-sturdy concrete blocks.

Decorating the streets for the festival.         

What I Ate

Jack’s Place

Jack’s Place

I was almost seduced by street food, but instead stuck by my memory of stomach troubles in Mexico and found the most Americanrestaurant in Guatemala: Jack’s Place.  This is a Jack Daniels themed (or sponsored) pub-style restaurant.  Open seating and pleasant atmosphere.  They have an English menu with a mixed selection of American and Mexican food.  Happy hour and beer specials are available.

Roque Rosito

Roque Rosita

Italian café—built on a legacy of early 20th century Italian immigrants–serving desserts and GOOD COFFEE.  And they have actual décor.

Los Cebollines

Mexican restaurant right on the main street, 6a Avenida.  Great food, and obviously foreigner-friendly.  Bar up front and restaurant in back.  Ask about drink specials: I saw one table milking from a large beer-filled tube.

Where I Stayed

Hostal Los Volcanes

Hostal Los Volcanes is awkwardly located in a gated and guarded block near the airport, and seems to be far from any good food or night life.  This place is on the pricey side for its basic accommodations.  $25 for a single private room with TV.   The hostal seems to be run by a group of young men who are friendly and helpful, but will try to pin a $10 shuttle ride to town on you.  A cab to Zona 1 should cost $5, or 40 quetzal.  This would be a good place to stay, though, for a late arrival or early departure since it’s about a 5 minute walk from the airport.

Pension Meza

Pension Meza

At my cab driver’s recommendation I stayed my second night at Pension Meza in Zona 1.  Five blocks from the central park, this is a good location for restaurants, sites, and getting cabs out to other tourist spots in Zona 10 and 13.  The place is shabby around the edges, and is truly the Central American experience I’d always dreamed of (see shower photo.)  I didn’t realize the roof was tin until the afternoon shower began to bullet spray above me.  However, there is a definite hostel vibe with the young clientele, including a few English-speakers, wifi and on-site computer access, resident bunnies, and staff is friendly.  60Q for a single room.

*Ask me if you want the exact location of these places, I have the details down here somewhere.