Our Man In Guatemala

Hola desde Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

by Brian Miguel Foley


March 22, 1999

Hola mis amigas y amigos,

I am writing you from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, known fondly as Xela (pronounced Che 'la) by the locals.

After an all too brief stay in Eugene, Oregon I left on Tuesday the 9th of March (extended by one day - soon after boarding the train I realized I hadn't packed my passport and dinero where I thought I had - oops, but better to get the problems over with at the beginning of the trip, right?) blazing thru Oregon and California on the Starlight Express.

Felt kinda guilty not stopping in Cali to visit with friends along the way. Amtrak is a cool way to go, with an onboard entertainer, dining car, plus bar, and cheap if you don't mind sleeping sprawled across 2 seats with nice leg rests (if you've got the dough you can take the sleeper car with wine tasting in the afternoons).

Spent a night in a hostel called the Banana Bungalow in San Diego, took a trolley to the border and walked into Tijuana. Missed my flight to Mexico City and waited a bit for the next flight.

Got into the City With Too Many People and went straight to the bus station and was southbound within two hours on a 18 (mas o menos) hour bus ride to Tapachula, Chiapas, near the Mexican/Guatemalan border. Along the way thru southern Mexico was much road damage still being repaired caused by Hurricane Pauline in 97.

Took a collectivo Saturday morning to the border at Talisman and walked across the southern Mexican border. Money changers were hawking big wads of Quetzales, the Guatemalan currency, where taxi drivers were trying to get $40 quetzales for a ride that ended up costing $3 quetzales ( $1US = $6.7Q) in a collectivo.

Buses here in Guatemala resemble dressed up school buses with a bit of a Partridge Family flavor to the paint jobs, and they fit about 3 people per seat. But the people here are about the size of 5th graders in the States, so its not as bad as it sounds. And the people here are very friendly. Plus, I gotta mention, it don't cost much.

Got to Xela in the afternoon, and was picked up at the busstop on the edge of town by a nice young couple that were trying to recruit students for their language school. I didn't end up choosing their school, but they gave me a kind introduction to the town and we shared a beer in the courtyard of their casa/school. Xela is Guatemala's second largest city, but it still retains a small town feel.

In Xela, everyone acknowledges you on the streets as you pass with a "Buenas Dias" or "Buenas Tardes", that is except for the other traveling folks here studying Spanish. Oh well. That part isn't much different than Seattle. And did I mention the sun has been shining, and though I'm at 7500 feet above sea level, it's warm? Spring has sprung early for me.

I've found an excellent little new school (I'm their third student) to study Espanol at, run by a collective which is focused to be a learning center for local Mayan people, and we're trading lessons for website design. Woo-hoo!!! There are probably 30 different Spanish language schools here in Xela.

The family I'm staying with is really sweet - Santiago is the father, a weaver, and works with his son Manuel making intricate, ornate blouses and tops. Felicia is the mother and laughs easily. She is quite taken by my digital video camera that puts pictures into my laptop so quickly. We'll get her some prints yet. Within a couple of weeks I'll get my new domain up and running so y'all can see the pics yourselves. I'll send an announcement when it is up and alive. At this point I'm still in image collection mode.

Other than that, my tongue is fumbling it's way thru the motions of learning a new language, I've had my first bout with food poisoning (not too pleasant and don't know what it was that I ate that caused it, possibly a slice of pizza. But it is really amazing how people you've just met will talk about their digestive systems down here - many fellow travelers from all over the world have congregated here) and its turning out pretty darn well so far. I've met more than a few very nice Guatemaltecos. My Spanish maestra is patient, pregnant and someday will be a lawyer, the school is progressive (today we got a lecture on Guatemalan Constitution reform - cross your fingers for them that it passes) and Xela is muy tranquillo (very cool). Saturday we take a bike ride to the hot springs!

Happy Equinox,


PS - Since this is getting sent a few days after I wrote it I might as well mention that the springs were wonderful but the 25 km bike ride kicked my ass. It is sore. Sunday I went to the market day in Chichicastenango. Lots of colorful things for sale at good prices, but I didn't buy much. Checked out some of the Quiche Maya doing rituals on the steps of the Iglesia de Santo Tomas for the equinox and was hit up for quetzales every time I clicked my camera. Luckily, I ran into one of the guys that runs the school I am attending, and since he's Quiche, I gave him the video camera to get some good footage... hope he got something good. ;)

Brian Miguel Foley can be reached at bfly@scn.org