Chichicastenango. Huehuetenango. Quetzaltenango. City names in Guatemala were wacky sounding to our American ears. Having spent decades in Arizona, we were tuned in to the sound of Spanish being spoken, though neither of us are Spanish speakers ourselves. This was the reason for our journey – to study Spanish for two weeks in an immersion style program, while living with a host family. Why go through the hassle of studying the language in another country, you ask?
Well, (and here’s the big reveal), in seven months time, Steve and I will be embarking upon a grand adventure! A big boy adventure, as it were. In the early hours of September 30, 2018, we will hop astride our loaded Suzuki DR650 motorcycles and head south.
Until we reach the very southern tip of South America: Ushuaia in Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina. By our calculations, it will take us five to six months to complete. Unbelievably, when it’s all said and done, we will have crossed the borders of twelve or so countries throughout Central and South America. I know, I know. This is a huge endeavor. Not only in terms of riding the 12,000+ miles but in the actual planning, too. Talk about a logistical challenge! Every country has its own currency, laws, culture and customs. Even the Spanish spoken in each country is slightly different than the one before it.
In Guatemala, we found that the Spanish was a bit different from the Northern Mexico/borderland Spanish we were familiar with. In this case, the difference is likely due to the influence of the twenty-two indigenous languages still spoken by the Maya in Guatemala, the descendants of an ancient people that thrived here in Central America well before the conquistadors of Spain made their way across the Atlantic.
Fortunately for us gringos, the two places we visited during our two weeks in country were easy to pronounce: Guatemala City and Antigua. For the record, I believe it’s my civic duty to tell you that Guatemala City is nowhere you really want to be. It’s big. It’s chaotic. The traffic on the roads is enough to curl your toes. Buses, motorcycles and cars zip in and out of lanes at high speeds, cutting each other off in aggressive fashion, narrowly avoiding disastrous accidents time and again. Our reason for subjecting ourselves to such a nightmare was simple: an international airport. As luck would have it, we experienced the ruckus not as drivers, but as shuttle passengers from Guatemala City to Antigua. An argument could easily be made about which was worse, being a driver or a passenger.
As a driver, if I was in control of a vehicle in that melee, responsible for my life and those in the car with me, it would have been incredibly anxiety-provoking. On the flip side, not being in control of the vehicle (let’s say, as a helpless shuttle passenger), watching the chaos unfold out the window just inches from your comfy bench seat, was not any better. With your life repeatedly flashing before your eyes, the frazzled nerves would be abundant.
Ah, Antigua though. Situated an hour outside the City, it’s a whole different world. Rustic, colonial Spanish buildings, ancient cobblestone streets, Mayan women dressed in colorful garments gracefully carrying baskets of fruit and other merchandise on their heads…this place is what one imagines when one thinks of Guatemala.
We studied at a wonderful language school called PLFM, or Proyecto Lingüistico Francisco Marroquin. I cannot recommend it enough! This is THE place to study Spanish. Every single person employed by the school is extraordinarily friendly – from the instructors to the front office staff to the girl who maintained the cleanliness of the small outdoor kitchen where hot coffee, tea and fresh water were available all day long. The instructors conduct lessons in a beautiful garden, beneath old stone church arches and amongst colorful flowers and avocado trees. Instruction is one on one. The most amazing thing to me was the progress made in the two weeks we were there. The instructors do not speak English, so you are kept on your toes from the minute you begin class. By the end of our time at PLFM, we were able to converse on a basic level and understand conversations with success (provided those involved spoke slowly enough).
Even though we were immersed in Spanish for two solid weeks, Steve and I have a long way to go in becoming proficient. Practice, back at home, is a MUST. I have confidence, however, that by the time we leave the U.S. at the end of September for all points South, we will be linguistically suited for living in Latin America for six months as we make our way to the bottom of the world.