Frying Empanadas in a Guatemalan Home: An Unexpected Experience
by Nadine Verhoeven
(Utrecht, the Netherlands)
My guidebook says there should be a Spanish school in the nearby village: San Andrés.
Perfect, because I need to get out of Flores, the town where I am staying now. To me this town seems like a tourist trap, where hotels and hostels have taken over and tour agencies are trying to sell their Tikal tours at every corner of the street. Besides that, my hostel owner is offering me Spanish lessons after his working hours, while repeatedly asking me for my phone number; thanks but no thanks.
On Sunday I decide to take the bus to San Andrés, which is only one extremely crowded minibus ride away; it is market day, I should have known. At a little corner shop I buy some lunch. They ask if I want to sit down and start to arrange a chair for me in the middle of their kitchen. The food tastes bland, but I tell the ladies it is 'delicioso'.
I use my tactic: buying something so I can ask questions. ‘Hay escuala de Español aqui?’ A little discussion among the four ladies follows until one says ’Si, abajo, la policia’. I hope they understood me right and don’t send me to the police station instead of a Spanish school, but I start to walk down. There I see it, a police station, and a few meters next to it a school which is definitely closed. Again, I could have known, it is Sunday. I almost turn around to go back, but at last minute I decide to ask the little shop next to the school.
There I go again: ‘Perdon, hay escuela aqui?’. ‘Yes!’, she answers in broken English. ‘Julia can teach you, mira la casa alli, the yellow house, alli está!. Again I consider turning around, the woman pronounced Julia in English, will she be an American? I was looking for a local school. However, I decide to follow my own travelling rule: if in doubt between doing something or not, and as long as that something is free and safe, just do it! So there I go, knocking on the door of the yellow house. ‘Hay escuela aqui?’, I ask for the third time. ‘Si si si, adentro chica!’
Before I know I sit down on the couch in a colorful Guatemalan living room with a hammock hanging in the middle. I immediately get invited to join their daughter’s birthday in the afternoon. Julia tells me the school burned down eight years ago but she can still teach me Spanish, just along the lake or in the nearby park. She will teach me four hours a day, five days a week, for around 125 dollars, including a place to sleep and three meals a day. But, ‘no lavamos tu ropa!’, she jokes, they are not going to wash my clothes.
It seems like a really good deal to me so I tell them I will come back tomorrow. ‘You will only stay for a week?’ they ask. ‘Si’, I say. ‘You are sure you won’t come to the party this afternoon, there will be a big cake and lots of candy.’ ‘Si’, I say, ‘hasta mañana!’ It feels good and I am excited. Besides that, the price is a quarter of what I paid for my eco-school in Nicaragua.
The week that follows is amazing. From the first day on they make me feel part of the family. I get up at six, eat breakfast at seven, talk with Julia and go over some grammar until twelve o’clock. We enjoy a delicious lunch after which I go for a swim in the lake, do homework and read a book. Then we eat, sit around, and tired of the warmth and speaking Spanish I wish everyone ‘buena noche’ at nine.
There is one other student, sleeping at the neighbors’ house. He met this family the exact same way, asking around and then being send to Julia by Goyita, the little shop owner. I am glad he is there to share experiences with, and it feels relaxing to speak English with somebody. Despite our age difference we bond, just because we are the only gringos (that’s what they call us) in this village. We discuss the crazy stories Julia tells us and talk about how this family seems to laugh everything away.
Julia tells me about how she got her first child at 19, how her husband travelled to the States through Mexico while hanging on the bottom of a truck and how many years ago a European couple entered their village and kidnapped some children. There is probably a good amount of truth in these stories, though perhaps not everything.
This family likes expressions, and repeat these regularly. When I come back from the lake they ask: ‘Estás fresca?’ When I say ‘si!’, they say: ‘como una lechuga?’. ‘Si, como una lechuga!’ I say and everyone laughs. Fresh like lettuce, from swimming like a mermaid; everything is worth laughing loudly at. ‘Nadinloca’ they call me, just as they call the grandma Carlottaloca and their little niece Hannaloca.
After the first week I tell them I don’t want four hours of class anymore, but I don’t want to leave either. I share with them that I am interested in teaching English. ‘Oh chica, you can do that here, I know the English teacher at the nearby school, they can always use someone who actually speaks English!’. ‘Todo es posible en San Andrés’, Julia says.
Next day they drop me off at the local high school, where I will be helping a teacher named Victoriano with his three afternoon classes. Days turn into weeks and weeks turn into a month. I join the family in most of their daily activities: shopping, preparing meals, selling food at the university, and selling cheese on a scooter with Sandra, a dear friend of the family. I get taught how to clean beans, fry empanadas and get my white socks clean by scrubbing them over my hands. They laugh at how clumsy I am, those silly Europeans.
Aunt Milvia cuts my hair (a chair and scissors is the only thing she needs) and when more family comes over we dance around the living room after Sunday lunch. Twice we manage to get up at five o’clock in the morning - just before sunrise - to go for a run along the lake. The English teacher invites me to join the car parade for the contest of the yearly chosen ‘best girl of the school’. This turns out to be a huge party when I go on Friday evening, wearing a skirt they give me which is a little too tight in my opinion, but I guess that’s how Guatemalan girls dress up. The party is a cultural experience to me again; loud music, colorful clothes and speeches that are definitely not written by the girls themselves.
‘Why don’t they write their own speeches?’, I ask the English teacher later. ‘They can’t, he says, ‘teachers need to do that’. Interesting, its seems as if children here are only taught to copy or repeat, instead of to create things themselves. Another interesting cultural insight. However, despite all those little differences I feel at home in this town, greeting the guy from the internet café, the tuktuk driver and the supermarket owner, chatting with the neighbors, watching soccer games, and talking to the two kids fishing fresh pescado to sell at the market.
The Sunday before I leave we have a goodbye lunch for which the grandma slaughters two chickens. I had seen that vendors sell cages of chickens at the market, so when they asked what I wanted for lunch I jokingly said we should buy one. After all, I hadn’t been eating in line with my vegetarian habits that month and I think that when one eats chicken, one should at least be able to see it slaughtered. We did and after grandma twists their necks, I learned how to clean and cook them.
When my time has come to leave I pack my bag, secretly shed a tear in my room and hug everyone goodbye. Julia, Aunt Milvia and Grandma Carlotta get up to wave me goodbye at four in the morning. There I go, hoping to return someday, realizing how this experience has given me everything I went traveling for. I lived the Guatemalan life, improved my Spanish, got teaching experience and the money I spent went to a local family 100%. There was no wealthy director gaining half of the profit, like at most tour agencies and expensive Spanish schools.
During my travels I figured that often the cheaper the product - whether it is food, a museum or a hostel - the more locally owned/interesting. After all isn’t that why we all go traveling, to experience local culture? I have seen the opposite happening throughout Central America: tour agencies with shuttles that bring you to touristy places and party hostels popping up everywhere. They tell you local buses are dangerous while their own bus drivers drive extremely crazily. Their expensive tours only pay their guide one tenth of what they receive. Local museums are hardly visited while backpackers are too busy with their waterfall tours. Tour agents tell me there is nothing to do in a town while there is a free local festival going on. Even a hostel owner got almost mad at me for not participating in his bike tour, say what?!
So where does all the profit from the tourism industry go? I guess a lot of it goes to flight tickets of these European and American do-gooders; after all they also want to see their family once in a while. This is understandable, but prevents the country from earning their fair share of profit. Besides that, their precious land is increasingly in the hands of foreigners. This is why I advise every other traveler to talk to the people on the street, don’t be afraid and take your time while travelling. Avoid tours, fancy restaurants, shuttles and party hostels. Stay calm when you are alone and you’ll meet the nicest people. Travel open-minded and unplanned and more realistic experiences will follow.
And lastly, if you ever go to Guatemala; go to San Andrés, knock at the door of the yellow house opposite the police station and ask ‘Hay escuala aqui?’