Monday, March 28, 2011

Guatemala – San Pedro la Laguna

Full moon rising in San Pedro la Laguna
Nearly two weeks in Guatemala: a bit of progress in our Spanish skills (due to necessity as so few people speak English) and wonderful impressions of our trips to the markets in Antigua, Chichicastenango, and Solola... This is the summary of our trip so far. We have spent most of the time walking, eating fabulous (rich) food and done some good amount of relaxing too. We did want a nice break after crossing the entire globe to get to this part of the world.

But to all good things, come an end – It's definitely time to get more active and adventurous again!

We left Panajachel and the lazy life, a short 30 minute boat (or lancha) ride across is the small, but hip town, of San Pedro la Laguna. This medium sized village lies at an altitude of 1610 meters, (about the same as Zermatt in Switzerland) and has become a favorite destination for travelers that either seek good Spanish schools in a beautiful setting, or those that compete in hammock swinging between party sessions. What a contrast! You might have guessed right (we hope) that we belong to the former group. We haven’t swung in a hammock since our diving days!

Prior to our arrival, we had already arranged a school which includes a local homestay, so there was not even the slightest temptation to join the hammock camp :-) as we headed straight to boot camp.

Streets of San Pedro
Our school is called "Corazon Maya" one of the oldest in town. It's owned by a local Mayan family that is engaging in community projects. Our first choice was "La Cooperativa" a local co-op that got rave reviews on the internet, but they did not have availability at the time.

We arrived on a Saturday at the school; classes start Monday, so we had time to explore the town and surrounding area over the weekend.

We went to the touristy town of Santiago on Lake Atitlan, this little town was hard hit by the civil war in the early 90's where the army killed at least a dozen local that were simply inquiring about their missing relatives as over 100 people that disappeared during this horrible period. This was unfortunately not the only such massacre in Guatemala, but the only one in an area that was at that time frequented by tourists. Santiago was also the site where a long term resident missionary priest from Oklahoma was killed in 1981 by an ultra rightist death squad.

Billabong ...
Maybe because of it's troubled past, maybe because we've seen other places in Guatemala, either way: we didn't particularly like Santiago and headed back to San Pedro after an hour or so.

... or Mayan tradition?
But the one thing we noticed was that Santiago must be the place where the designers of Billabong get their creative inspiration for the style of their shorts. The traditional Mayan dress for men bares some resemblance. Question is: Who was first?

We moved into the brand new house of our Mayan host-family where we would live, sleep, and eat for the next week. The family is of the local Tz'utujil Mayan tribe and have lived here their whole lives. Two of their three kid’s still life at home, the oldest son studies engineering in Guatemala City.

The two parents, Maria and Pablo, are both teachers in the village so we are lucky to have well educated hosts who also can speak Spanish well. Although they mostly speak with each other in the local Tz'utujil language, which doesn't help our Spanish skills. Tz'utujil sounds a bit like an Israeli trying to speak Portuguese: Singsong with sharp guttoral "ch's" and "k's".

But fortunately they speak Spanish with the two kids Juan and Jessica. The conversations in our presence was mostly in Spanish. So we could practice and learn more Spanish in a 100% real world environment.
We had our own private bed room, and shared the bathroom with the family and one more student. We mostly interacted with the family during dinner when we all gathered at the kitchen table to eat and chat.
Dinner with the Host Family
We truly enjoyed having this experience to share a week with a local family. Although we were somewhat disappointed by the food. During our previous research, we read so many reviews that mentioned the awesome and plentiful food at the homestays. Especially the local dishes that are not often served in restaurants were what we were most excited to try.
Well our first "local dish" was Hamburger and french fries. Although we have to add that this was prepared by Richard, the other student at the house, on specific request by the family that he'd prepare a meal from his home country. I guess the burger could pass as "local" if we call it by it's local name: Hamburguesa al la Estados Unidos.

Back to the big and tasty meals that we anticipated.... Well we were not exactly hungry after the meals, but also not what we would call full and satisfied. It was a bit like a week at weight-watchers camp. Especially the dinners were simple and small. One night we got a plate of frijoles (black beans), an half of a plantain and some tortillas… a good snack and probably good for folks on a diet (not the Atkins kind though). The good news is that we managed to lighten up our backpacks, after the 4th night we used up all the chips, cookies and other calorie sources that we had with us.

Smokin' Joes' BBQ
need we say more!
Thankfully we also fattened up a bit the day after we arrived: The family has a rest day on Sundays, meaning that homestayers need to eat out. We've seen lots of ads for "Smokin' Joes' Sunday BBQ" and, after a recommendation by a resident Gringo, we indulged on the biggest filet mignon ever. It was accompanied by heaps of potato salad, beans and other goodies. Because the portions looked so massive, we decided to share a plate (not yet knowing that we would be on an involuntary diet for the week to come).

Mid week we decided to change our travel plans and leave San Pedro a couple of days later, so that we could indulge in Smokin' Joes' BBQ once more! Yes, it is that good! Even if you haven't been at the weight-watchers the week before, it’s muy popular.

Normally, we don't eat that much. Often we would only have a light snack and one big meal each day. But in San Pedro, we just craved food constantly... Maybe we just had more appetite than normal.
Our "classroom" at Corazon Maya
It must have been all the brain activity that we engaged in during the day: 4 hours of one-on-one Spanish lessons, 5 days in a row was definitely intense but brought our Spanish skills to new heights. Our 20 hours of intense teaching were in a beautiful garden setting with small individual cabanas, just a few meters from the shore of Lake Atitlan.

Julane and her teacher, Flora

Julane decided to go for afternoon lessons: those of you that know her, don't have to guess why ;-).

Her teacher Flora is a 22 year old local girl that dresses in traditional clothing and is proud of her traditional Mayan lifestyle, and in recognition of that, even once was crowned as the local Queen. She spoke zero English, so Julane had to speak and understand everything in Spanish, and thankfully she had some head start back from high school where she studied Spanish for a semester. She made a lot of progress, even studying past tense after just 3 days. Spanish is not as simple as the past conjugation for Chinese or Bahasa or even German.

Patrick with Vilma
Patrick opted for morning lessons, still holding on to his habit of rising early. Vilma, also a local girl in her twenties, is more of what Guatemalans call "Ladina": dressing in western clothes and following a mixed lifestyle: part traditional, part western. She studies psychology and is in her first year at the University in Solola. Vilma speaks some English, which was very helpful for Patrick. He started with almost no Spanish knowledge under his belt, and the little Italian that he knows did more harm than help. It was a benefit that she could tell the meaning of words in English, or teach the Spanish phrases to him when he had specific questions.

In the course of the week, he focused mainly on vocabulary and all the verbs in present tense, plus a bit of "futuro simple"... Who cares about the past anyway ;-). He made a lot of progress in his week and just like in the good old MBA times spent most free time studying.

The schools afternoon activities.
We're not sure if Ping Pong really helps
our Spanish skills or understanding
of the local culture.
We had very different experiences in this week: Julane focused on conversation and even visited a local museum with her teacher as opposed to structured lessons at the school. Patrick vastly improved his vocabulary and basic grammar knowledge. Both of us are very happy with the teachers. The school was ok too, quite simple, but sufficient. The afternoon activities were not really attractive and Patrick decided to skip all but one (which was a visit to the Playa Dorada 'golden beach', with black sand... Go figure). We had hoped for some salsa classes, or cooking classes, or traditional exploration into medicine, weaving, etc.

Patrick preferred walking through
town, taking pictures as his
afternoon activity.
We visited the grounds of "La Cooperativa" and liked their setting a bit more than at our school (Corazon Maya), Cooperativa also had a lush garden with small cabanas but the location was nicer as each cabana classroom was perched on a hill overlooking the lake. Overall, they seemed a bit more professional esp with their media and library facilities.

No Tuc Tuc's?
They are everywhere!
But our clear opinion is that it's all about the teachers, not the school. A fellow couple, that we met here, also shared this view. They studied a week at a school in Antigua and a week in San Pedro.
Chances are that the older schools and the ones with the good reputation also attract the better teachers. We heard some stories of many teachers switching schools. Remember you get what you pay for. If the school is a bit more expensive it can mean that their teachers get paid more, or the director drives a fancy car.

Old and new transport options
After our week of school and homestay, we moved back into a hotel, and spent the time eating, and catching up on our Blog (at least Patrick is doing so).

Are theses chicks really
sold as dog food?
We also strolled through the small streets of San Pedro’s center, with is up the hill from Avenida 7, the unofficial center for the Gringos. But the most fascinating sights were as usual not where the tourists hang out, but where the daily life of the locals takes place. Despite the large amount of foreigners in San Pedro it manages to retain what appears to be a normal village life, uphill from Avenida (Gringo) 7, that is.

In our first post from Guatemala we talked about ATM safety. We thought that this picture is a good example of how an ATM should not look.
Would you get cash here? We actually did, because there is no way an additional card reader can be attached, although the many screw holes are witnesses that this machine may have had a troubled past. Why did we use this one, the other machine has someone inside with a long electrical cord and making a big commotion inside. Perhaps, he was fixing it or “upgrading” it for illicit activities. We didn’t want to wait around to find out the answer.

Now this is a BIG filet mignon

On our last day in San Pedro, we of course also went back to Smokin' Joes' BBQ. This time we really dug in. Julane ordered Surf and Turf, a filet mignon plus a tuna steak. Patrick tried the Jack Daniels marinated filet mignon… and of course it all came with heaps of side dishes.
Awesome BBQ!

It was so big that we had to throw in the towel and get a doggy bag, the first time this week that we felt really full.
We give Smokin' Joes' BBQ a Makansutra "Die die must try!" rating (our Singapore friends will know what we are talking about, others can check out this webpage

On Monday early morning, we leave Lake Atitlan after 2 wonderful weeks here. It is definitely one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.
... Our next stop Quetzaltenango.