Life in Xela

I’ve had a few days to settle in to Xela now, so here’s some info about life here.

Xela is Guatemala’s second biggest city, but it is a distant second to Guatemala City, with only 120,000 residents. It has several universities, so it is rumored to have the benefits of a university town. I did notice a flyer for a tofu store last night, so I guess that’s one of the benefits (?) of a university town. However, it is still a big city, which turned out to be a real shock to my system. I knew it was a city when I decided to come here, but I didn’t realize how accustomed I had become to rural Guatemala. The city is dirty and noisy and drove me crazy for the first little bit. I might still flee.

My house is comfortable, but the food had two problems: there was too little, and it was really bad. Lunch the first day was a small bowl of chicken soup. So I figured dinner was the big meal for this family. But dinner was one egg and about 100 grams of beans, with this horrible local version of Wonder Bread. The family never eats tortillas, just this really fake tasting bread and these things they call tamales. Tamales (in this house) are corn flour cooked in a corn husk like Mexican tamales, but without anything inside. They are supposed to be like tortillas, but they are heavy and not very useful for making dinner interesting. Breakfast the next morning was the exact same as dinner the night before: one egg and 100 grams of beans. I decided to see what was for lunch, then talk to the director of the school to find out if these four meals were considered normal and acceptable. Lunch turned out to be vegetables boiled in water with egg, rice, and guacamale. This time there was enough, but it wasn’t really very good. I ate out in the town yesterday morning in order to get enough to eat.

I asked the director about the food and he said it’s normal that a family has to adjust to each new student. (But since this family has been hosting students for over 8 years you’d think the issue of starvation would have come up before.) He asked what I wanted, and I gave some ideas (2 eggs for breakfast and dinner, a full meal with meat at lunch, tortillas or rolls, fruit with breakfast). He then decided to call the family for me. That was really nerve wracking, because it felt like I was “telling” on mi madre to her “boss” without talking to her first. When I got home that night I explained that I had gone to the director because I didn’t know what food was normal here in Xela and did not expect him to call her before I had a chance to talk to her. That little white lie went over Ok, but the madre definately had her feelings hurt some. Arrgh.

It’s a difficult situation because while I’m not expecting to be waited on hand and foot, I am a customer. I am paying for room and board, and I chose that option because I felt the amount I’d pay for food would be fair compared to the amount I would spend in restaurants if I were staying in a hotel. Having to eat in restaurants to supplement what I get at home was not part of the deal.

My teacher is OK. She’s studying to be a lawyer, and is clearly pretty experienced at teaching Spanish. She sometimes talks full speed and I just look at here like a deer in the headlights and she remembers and starts again, pero despacio. She is reviewing stuff I learned in San Andrés, which is frustrating because I cannot see forward progress as measured by new stuff written in my notebook. But it’s clear I don’t really know the old stuff yet, so there’s no point in piling on new stuff, I guess.

In general I was really discouraged and ready to leave on Friday by the end of the day yesterday. The food situation has improved some in terms of volume, and breakfast had no beans, two eggs, better bread, and some watermelon. I’m hoping lunch will knock my socks off, but I don’t really expect it to.

I have one main job remaining here in Guatemala before I can start heading north towards Mexico City, which is to investigate several volunteer opportunities I’ve come across. I’m coming to the conclusion that it would be much better for my Spanish education and my budget to work here for free than to try to work in the US in a Spanish language environment. It all comes down to the cost of living, which is so much lower here. If I can find the right job and the right city, I think it would be a fine way to spend 2 or 3 months. But it seems likely that Xela is not the right city.

There are places to study Spanish north of here in Oxaca, and I thought about hitting the road and going up there. But I still want to talk to Ben from Planet Online and see if working for them makes sense. He and I plan to get together the weekend after next, which means I need to stick around here in Xela for a while longer.

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