It was the 4th of August. 24 hours earlier, i’d been on the face of Acatenango volcano, and now I was off to meet the family that i’d be living with for the next four weeks. Such is travelling in Guatemala.
The shuttle from Antigua to Xela involved taking a collective van to a petrol station right in the middle of nowhere, and then three of us getting into another ‘shuttle’ (actually a car). Just 45 minutes after changing transfers, we started to see more urban pavements and a ‘Welcome to Quetzaltenango’ sign. We had arrived.
I’d been feeling very antagonistic in the car. What if they don’t like me? I wondered. What if I can’t find the house? What if I forget all my Spanish and understand nothing?
I was greeted my Marta at the doorway of my new home. She had a huge, warm smile that echoed her words ‘Bienvenido a mi casa’. My Spanish back then was rusty to say the least, but she patiently waited for me to look nearly every other word up in the dictionary and muster what I wanted to say.
And so the next four weeks of my life started.
After a couple of days, I settled into life at Marta’s place, and learnt the ability to express what I wanted to say, even if my Spanish still needed improving. It sometimes took a few interpretive actions – and at a last resort, google translate – but even in the first week, I made great friends with Marta and could sit all evening chatting about our days and sometimes evolving to more obscure topics, such as the rarity of spotting a duck billed platypus in Australia.
I still don’t know what ‘duck billed platypus’ is in Spanish – that was communicated via the form of drawing.
During my third week in Xela, there were huge protests in the city, campaigning for the corrupt president to resign (which he eventually did, to every Guatemalan’s joy). Marta provided me with a first hand insight to all the social struggles of this politically complex country – which still has some unhealed wounds from the civil war. She explained what happened on election day, September 6th; and what the Guatemalans wanted to happen. She donated such an amazing amount of knowledge that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.
This is the beauty of a homestay; you learn more than a language. You learn a country.
You feel the country too. The political problems in Guatemala have a very visible affect on everyday society. For instance, the overcrowdedness of hospitals and costs of healthcare in the country are real issues, as is the corrupt police system. When I was made aware of the plight that some Guatemalans frequently experience, I really felt empathy and concern. I’ve certainly developed an emotional attachment to Guatemala as a nation and certain Guatemalan people who i’ve befriended.
But it’s not all bad news; by living with a host family, I experienced the astounding Guatemalan optimism and cheerfulness. Despite earthquakes, illness and a certain level of crime, Guatemalans are fully aware that they live in a beautiful country with a unique culture. They know that Guatemala frequently hits the top of any travellers ‘favourite place i’ve been to’ list and they’re proud that they come from the country. They have the outlook that sure, things might not be perfect; but they could certainly be a lot worse. The people of this nation get along with things with a smile and with a focus on life’s positives, something that I feel Western culture can really learn from.
During my four weeks at Marta’s place, I learnt a huge amount of Spanish, but also a great deal about Guatemala as a country and a fair bit about life, too. I discovered the uselessness of worrying about the small stuff and the importance of loving those around me right now. I’ve left richer in my linguistic skills, but with an invaluable amount of calmness and peacefulness with the world around me too. If everything’s ok at the moment, then that’s all we need to concern ourselves with.