Monday, August 4, 2008


That's right, I'm in Guatemala, where it's pretty darn cold. Yes, I know that back home it's something like 105 degrees (which is something like 40 degrees in C, I think) but here it's in the 60s and raining. It's because we're at 7,500 ft (no, I'm not going to do the whole meters thing, thank you). I'm here with my daughter Ali and my granddaughter Kaya at spanish language school, Casa Xelaju. There should be an accent on the 'u' to let you know that that's where the emphasis goes, but this is a spanish language keyboard and I haven't gotten the hang of it yet.

Xelaju is the actual Maya name of Quetzaltenango. I'm not sure which Maya language, but one of them, anyway. The school is fabulous, giving us five solid hours of one-on-one instruction a day, plus room and board for $190 per week. Of course you DO have to get to Guatemala, and from Guatemala City to Xela, but still, it's a great deal, especially if you get to stay with a family like the one we're staying with, who feed us well, take great care of us, and live only a block from the school!

So far we have been to Antigua, which is a very cool town with a big ex-pat scene and bars that have a really good mezcal named Ilegal, which comes from Mexico. We were there for a couple of days visiting a friend of Ali's also named Wendy and meeting lots of new friends. The bus trip here was totally scary as you go up into the mountains and then down and then up again and then down into Xela. The roads are pretty iffy with great views, or 1000 foot dropoffs, depending on your point of view. I'm ashamed to say that the latter was mostly my point of view, but it probably had to do with the exhaust fumes and the smell of burning brakes.

We went halfway back to Antigua last weekend only the weather was pretty scary for this microbus trip. It was raining and foggy with 1000 foot dropoffs, only you couldn't really see them because you couldn't even see the road. We were going to the lakeside (Lago Atitlan) town of Panajachel, which is very touristy, but the tourists are from all over the world and it's really fun. We stayed at a quite nice hotel... $45 a night for 3 people in a room, Hotel Kakchikel, if you go to visit. It had a pool... It was a cold pool, but it was a pool and it was actually warm enough Sunday afternoon for me to dip my toesies in the water. I did a lot of shopping. I ate numerous bowls of fabulous chicken soup and ate baskets of freshly made tortillas and guacamole at Pajaro Azul. Friends from Antigua came, too, and made it a real sort of vacation... (Sitting in a classroom speaking spanish five hours a day is pretty hard work for some of us.)

I visited a chocolate 'factory' last week, too. They're kind of like the ones in Oaxaca, but a bit more primitive. The machinery was very cool. Electric, with long leather belts cobbled together with nails. The guy in the couple who worked there was just finishing putting a belt back together when my teacher and I arrived. They ground the cacao beans first into a metal tub with sugar in it and mixed the ground cacao, which looked like thick Hershey's syrup, into the sugar by hand. That tub was picked up and moved to another mill and ground again twice with some other stuff like vanilla beans and pine nuts. It is then patted down into plastic tubs - the heat of the hands makes it kind of melty - and given to women to form into bars in old metal molds. Yes, of course I ate it. It's delicious... Kind of grainy and completely unlike American or European chocolate. The little factory smelled like heaven, or what I think heaven would smell like, anyway.

Just a few quick things about the highlands of Guatemala...

- Houses are open to the air. They have windows and doors, but usually, somewhere, there's some place that's open to the outside. There's no heat or ac, because normally you don't need it. Occasionally people use space heaters...

- A lot of the streets in the center of the bigger cities are cobblestone and kind of one way (una via) and only for fairly small cars. There are maybe two or three traffic lights in this city, or at least that's all I've seen, and damn few stop signs either. There IS a fair amount of horn honking, and people actually look when they get to a corner, because buildings are built right up to the street and you can't see around the corners.

- There are some sidewalks, but they are also cobblestone and very narrow. Apparently the most common injury to students here is falling down on the sidewalks.

- Tortillas here are thick and small and made of corn, but tamales are made of cooked rice mixed with oil and wrapped in plantain leaves.

- You see lots of dogs here on the streets... Skinny dogs that live on garbage and handouts. So far I've seen three cats, two on rooftops and one at a vender in Pana. I bought a bedspread from him. It was very beautiful as was the cat.