My Spanish classes are in the morning and my school holds cultural activities every afternoon. A favourite of all students is the visit to a family-owned artisanal chocolate maker. It's in a house only 1-2 kilometres from Antigua, but the traffic and narrow roads make it a 20 minute trip in a chicken bus. The teacher leading the tour explained that the prices here are way below market rates and begged us not to try to bargain for bulk discounts. One of the family explained (in Spanish) that chocolate comes in pods of about 40 cocoa beans. She showed us the raw beans and the much darker roasted beans, then crumbled the skin / shell off the bean and crushed it into nibs. These are apparently really nutritious and tasty when added to muesli or in cooking. I can confirm that they're quite tasty on their own because she crushed a few more and passed them around. We then saw a demonstration of the nibs being ground with water in a machine in the main room, but I assume there's a bigger machine out the back somewhere. They then added raw cane sugar and honey to the resulting chocolate paste, and explained that lots of other flavours could be used. The shop used cardamom, chilli, coffee, mint, cinnamon and even rice to flavour the chocolate. I'm not sure how it gets from the runny paste we saw to the next stage, but we were taken to another room to observe a group of people pounding about 40kg of chocolate into shape on a reed mat. They were behind glass, which I hope was to ensure a sterile environment, but the pounding was done by
I'm not in Latin America for a holiday or even just to learn Spanish. I'm here to find a new life. My dream is to find somewhere affordable to live, pick up some work that will allow me to contribute to the local society and meet people. In my experience, everyone has fascinating stories to tell, and I'd like to be able to collect those stories and share them with the world. Having lived in Australia, Asia and Europe, Latin America is my first choice for my new home, but my Spanish is nowhere close to useful, so I have come to Guatemala to correct that. Learning Spanish and staying in a homestay also provide a routine and a ready social network that reduces the anxiety I fear I'd have just turning up entirely without a plan. My plan, such as it is, involves following my instincts, letting the wind take me from town to town, focusing on learning Spanish, but keeping my senses tuned for opportunities to use my skills and for people or organisations that need help. You can imagine how happy I was to stumble across a flyer for an NGO presentation in Cafe Rainbow, a great local café, in my first week. The presentation was by New Dawn to generate support for a Mayan community who are trying to improve education for their kids and to preserve the local Mayan dialect and dances. The children performed a number of traditional dances, which included activities such as making tortillas, sneaking away for trysts at the water hole and ceremonies honouring the cardinal directions. I spent some time after the presentation talking to Vicky from New Dawn, who was extremely welcoming, inviting
Driving off the bitumen main road into Antigua is like stepping back in time. Antigua means 'old' and it was the capital of Guatemala before Guatemala City. As a UNESCO site, Antigua has kept the traditional feel, right down to cobblestone streets and Mayan colour scheme, which is based on natural elements. The town square is almost dead centre and the streets run north-south (avenidas) and east-west (calles) throughout most of the town, with tall, narrow footpaths on each side. The cobblestones are treacherous under foot, and extend the time it takes me to walk to class each morning, but they add bolsas (bags) of charm to the place, and when they're drowning under the deluge of the afternoon rain, the sight is truly special. The local churches are largely still being restored from a ruinous state so the facades are much more impressive than the interiors, but the Iglesia de San Francisco and the Iglesia de Merced are well on the way to completion. My hosts are actively involved in the church of San Francisco, and I attended on my first Sunday in town to hear them sing with the choir. I've also found Amanda, who runs the homestay, with the churches ledgers spread out over the dining table, making sure everything is in order. Looking beyond the town, you'll quickly see volcanoes in every direction, and some of them are very active. I plan to climb Acatenango next weekend. From the top you can watch Fuego spewing lava that quickly settles on the sides. Others who have already done the trip tell me it's the best thing they've ever done. It will have to be spectacular to beat Cappadocia, but I'm hoping
I've always wanted to speak five languages. It's an arbitrary number, but if you include English and Japanese, which I already speak, Spanish and perhaps Arabic and Mandarin, you could go almost anywhere in the world and be able to converse with locals. This week, I started on the path to Spanish fluency by enrolling in classes at Antiguena Academy in Guatemala. I was recommended to start in Guatemala because the people speak slowly and clearly compared to other Latin American countries, and Antigua because it's such a quaint, friendly city. I'm not sure whether Antiguena is the best school, but it's cheap, they arrange daily cultural activities on top of the lessons, and my teacher makes the classes interesting. In one week, we've covered all present tense verb forms and a number of useful phrases. That may be fast because I've studied Spanish before (then lost it learning French while living in Belgium), but it seems to be the standard curriculum. Best of all, the classes are held in a private garden on the edge of town, with fifty teacher-student pairs scattered throughout. It's ringing with laughter, yet otherwise tranquil. Tostadas and other local dishes are available very cheaply during the morning break, when students gather on the garden's lawn to catch up and plan their weekends. I plan to spend a few weeks here, but am open to studying in other towns in Guatemala or further afield. Do you know of other Spanish schools worth trying in Latin America? What's good about them?
My new home is on the northern edge of Antigua, hidden behind a metal workshop and surrounded by greenery. The open-air home is walled well enough to keep out the dust of the town, but the raised roofs allow fresh air to flow down from the rooftop patio, past the dormitory-style bedrooms to the kitchen and living spaces on the ground floor. I’m currently sharing the first floor with the owner’s brother and two other students, which leaves four free rooms. The family sleeps in similar accommodation on the ground floor. For US$85 per week, I’m provided with 3 meals a day, 6 days per week and plenty of opportunity for practising Spanish. I start lessons tomorrow, so my attempts so far have been pretty poor, but last night we worked through my story of drinking mice in Peru.
We all have our cures for hiccups that work with varying reliability. Some drink a cup of water upside down. Others swear that a fright works. I usually try holding my breath until the hiccups stop. Patrick, our guide, told us that Mexicans have the only guaranteed cure, and we saw it work when we went to his house for lunch one day. It was my favourite day of the trip, because Patrick was in his own environment and utterly relaxed. His girlfriend, Gabi, made lunch for us while we sat on the balcony of his bushland home. Patrick spends his spare time coaxing birds to his property and talking at schools, trying to encourage kids to enjoy birds rather than using them for slingshot practice. He was particularly proud of a rare variety of hummingbird that frequented his feeders and wanted me to get a photo with my camera. He named each breed that appeared, including various types of hummingbirds, a Bluejay family and some magpie-like pests. I spent a couple of hours with my camera trained on the target bird's favourite haunts, trying to get the perfect shot. While I don't share Patrick's fascination passion for ornothology, I really enjoyed being part of his world for a time and I did get some great amateur shots. Lunch was served in a room with windows on three sides. Gabi explained that the habanero sauce for the chicken and corn soup was extremely hot, then stirred two teaspoonsful into her bowl. The corn must have been a variety we hadn't tried yet because the kernels were more like chic peas. The soup was delicious, but as I wondered if I should add a little more
Our Mexico trip was a way for Fiona to avoid her 40th birthday. By being in a time zone 15 hours ahead of our own, she could pretend that local well-wishers were too early, and when she got messages from Sydney they were too late. She never really had a birthday at all. I think that logic was spoiled by the fact that she had such a great day. While we were eating breakfast, the hotel staff put on some Mexican music and brought out a heart-shaped muffin with a candle. Then they sang La Mananitas, which is traditionally sung to wake up a loved one on their birthday. This is the first time I've heard a birthday song that wasn't just a translation of the English 'Happy Birthday', and I love that they maintain this expression of their own culture. We spent the morning learning to cook a number of Mexican dishes, including a corn chowder, a sweet potato salad, papadzules 'food of the gods' and a dessert made from squash. Our teacher, Kippy Nigh, was an American who has lived in Mexico for 40 years, has her own vegetarian restaurant in San Cristobal and writes Mexican cookbooks. She was the perfect person to introduce us to the art of cooking real Mexican food. When we were so full that we thought we'd struggle to get back into the car, Kippy brought out a Polish apple cheesecake and she, her local assistant Rosy and Patrick sang the same Mexican birthday song while Fiona sat beaming. Before we left Australia, we booked a special restaurant for Fiona's now unnecessary birthday dinner, which turned out to be a short walk from where we were staying. It
Zinacantan men specialise in growing flowers and the women specialise in weaving. We visited a weaving workshop with a number of rooms covered wall-to-wall in bright coloured shawls and table runners and the women delighted in dressing us up in their traditional garments. Fiona wore a skirt, belt and a vibrant blouse that was soon covered beneath a bridal shawl. I was given a simple woollen shirt and a hat, beneath which my western clothes were clearly visible so that I felt half dressed. One of the older women demonstrated how they weave using a hammock-like loom attached to the wall and looped behind her back. To my eye, it was exactly the same method that Bhutanese women use, though the patterns were different. The walls of one room, in the middle of the workshop, were bare of displays. This room alone showed that the building was a real living space in the traditional style. Here, a younger worker was making tortillas over a fire pit, set up so the smoke could escape through holes in the roof. Rather than being made with government endorsed genetically modified corn, these tortillas were made with freshly grown high-quality local corn and we could taste the difference. We were offered a piece each, hot off the fire, and the bread was tasty enough that we didn't need a filling to enjoy them.
The Mayan sun adorns the front of the church in San Juan Chamula, sharing space with Christian symbols. This mixing of religious symbols is common in Chiapas. When the missionaries arrived with the Spanish, they were surprised to see a cross as a religious symbol among the Mayans, assuming that Jesus had appeared in the Americas as well. They soon learnt that the Mayan cross represented the sacred Sabre tree with its long straight trunk and horizontal branches. Clever missionaries realised that they could use the Mayan symbols to convert the people to Christianity, so they merged the two crosses in the locals' minds and incorporated other local symbols in churches. Patrick, our guide, points out the mirrors on each of the representations of saints. They reflect the evil of the darker of the twin brother gods (who are compared to Cane and Abel). A few saints, who miraculously survived a fire that burnt down their church, are without mirrors as punishment for (in the locals' minds) failing to do their duty. Locals prostrate themselves to the saints, afixing red, white, yellow and black candles to the floor in front. The candles represent the four main varieties of corn (food for the gods) and the four cardinal points of the compass. Patrick points out a man waving a chicken in front of a sobbing woman. He's a shaman, trying to exorcise the spirit that's causing her grief, and to capture it in the chicken, which will then be killed and buried so that it can't affect anyone else. The whole process can take hours, but as we watch, the shaman grabs the chicken's neck and twists. I'm not sure that I feel lucky to have
Hundreds of people cross the town square at San Juan Chamula while I drink my Mexican tangerine soft drink and Patrick explains about the church on the other side. Most of the people going about their business are Chamula, one of the ethnic groups descended from the Tzotzil Maya. Even we can identify the Chamula women by the black woollen skirts they wear under woven tunics. The indigenous people have great pride in their traditional clothes that are unique to each community and we have been introduced to a massive collection in the Santo Domingo convent and in Sergio Cantro's burns centre. Sergio, who has built contacts with the indigenous community as he volunteered his time to treat burn victims, told us that each ethnic group has their own business speciality and the square is surrounded by shops selling fruit and vegetables. Patrick, our guide, assures us that no Mexican would buy imported groceries when they had access to fresher, tastier and cheaper Chamula products, so this is one place where corporate farming is struggling. As we watch, two groups of men cross the square from opposite sides, one in black coats and one in white. Both are made from wool in the same way as the skirts, but the coats signify authority. Civil leaders wear white and religious leaders wear black. Unfortunately, we were unable to take our own pictures because most indigenous Mexicans believe that they lose part of their soul in the process.