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.
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
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
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.