One of the stories that is most often “wow-ed” at from my round the world trip is my time volunteering teaching English at a monastery in Nepal. It’s really quite fortunate that people are so interested in stories of my young monks, because I love talking about them!
Volunteering in both Cambodia and Nepal are two of the most memorable and rewarding parts of my past travels and I was really eager to find similar volunteer opportunities in Guatemala.
So with the percolating and warm memories of all of the kids I’ve bonded with all over the world (and knowing that I couldn’t stay in fantasyland of Antigua’s pretty little streets indefinitely), I sought out a two week volunteer program. After asking around a good bit, essentially everyone recommended Xela as a perfect place to not only volunteer but to also take intensive language courses. I pointed my compass north toward Guatemala’s second largest city and prepped for a bit of a grittier experience. Just exactly as much as Antigua has developed for tourists, Xela is a town inhabited by locals and built for the locals, something actually weird to find after so long in Antigua.
The Parque Central in Xela (actually nickname for the Quetzaltenango – thank the heavens for the nickname right?!) was my first clue that this is a unique town with a completely different identity from the other Guatemalan cities. Xela’s central park nixes the young children walking around selling scarfs and the ice cream vendors lazily rolling out a murmured “helado, he-laaaa-do” as they pass and trades in these park regulars for your average fare of loafing high-schoolers sneaking cigarettes and Guatemalan couples necking on the benches.
And as I hunted down a nearby comedor for lunch there was not a single lick of English spoken to me, a marked change to not only Antigua, but Flores and the other touristy Guatemalan towns as well. So I settled into my veggie plato tipco and hunkered down with my Lonely Planet in search of a good Spanish language school.
The description of Pop Wuj struck me right off because the school really focus on immersing students into the local culture through several (free) volunteer opportunities so that students can without any reservations or specific or long-term time commitment.
After visiting the school I was sold, they had two fantastic volunteer projects for me – one at a guarderia, an after-school care center, and another far outside of Xela building stoves in rural villages. (Their third volunteer project is a free clinic run by the foreign medical students taking the specialized track of medical Spanish classes). The company’s strong focus on giving back to the community sold me on Pop Wuj so in addition to the volunteering programs I signed up for a week of one-on-one instruction for five hours each day – which sounds insanely long for Spanish lessons but is actually incredibly efficient for learning the language, and the teachers do break up the time with games for beginners.
This time in Xela marks a change in my traditional backpacker routine of visiting a place, seeing the sites and then moving on – and I think I like it. Setting up shop for a few weeks will allow me to really dig in, teach some kids and fine-tune my Spanish. The only real drawback to these three weeks is the fact that Xela just feels a bit grittier and not quite as safe…the city just has a different vibe that kept me on guard as I was walking around, especially walking home at night alone.
So Why Xela and Not Antigua or the Lake or Other Touristy Spots?
I loved my classes at Pop Wuj and my teacher was stellar. One of the best reasons to learn Spanish in Xela instead of other cities in Guatemala is the attitude here. No one in Xela will voluntarily speak English to you. It’s all Spanish.
And at Pop Wuj, although every teacher understands English and can speak it, I only head English spoken once by the teachers the entire time I was there, and that was to me, by request, as I sobbed out my story of my stolen money and canceled debit card, and how I couldn’t pay them for classes yet and won’t they please let me stay anyway.
They did let me stay, by the way. :-)