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Antigua, Guatemala

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AntiguaChicken BusesEric by the ruins of a Church

Eric and I have been here in Antigua for the last few days. Antigua is a perfect place to slow-down the trip and relax for a while. The quaintness of this town reminds me of Sienna and Florence in Italy. Enchanting cobblestone streets, old-world villas and grand fountains, make it feel more like Tuscany than Guatemala. Antigua is a mere hour away from gritty Guatemala City, yet seems worlds away. There is a very romantic feel in the air here, and it’s not uncommon to see couples making-out on street corners. I also noticed it seems to be the fashion for Antigua women to show their cleavage, and the town gives all appearances of being for lovers.

There is also the perfect park here, located right in the center of town. Eric and I often while away afternoons sitting on benches, watching the main fountain where water flows from the breasts of stone mermaids. Children dance beneath soap bubbles, shoeshine boys persistently offer their services, and vendors sell delicious ice cream for pennies.

We have spent the last few days relaxing and looking into Spanish language schools here. Many world travelers visit Antigua due to its reputation as being one of the best and least expensive places to learn “total immersion” Spanish. After doing a fair amount of research, we decided to take classes from a school called La Union. It only cost $70 USD for five, four-hour classes. We also learned about the unique opportunity to stay with an actual Guatemalan family that would provide room and board for a mere $70 more. It almost sounded too good to be true. . . .

On Monday morning we checked out of the hotel we were staying at and walked across town to the school. We were given a quick tour of the facilities before being taken to our new home. A gentleman named Fernando greeted us, and we began following him. As we walked I began to imagine the perfect Guatemalan casa, complete with grandma making tortillas in the kitchen, mom and dad sitting on the couch chatting pleasantly, and children playing in the courtyard.

After arriving, we were led to a small private room with two beds. The room was “basic” at best, with walls painted a peeling, bubbled, and patchy sky-blue. The condition of the room didn’t seem important at the time; what was important was the family and the chance to get an insider’s view of the Guatemalan culture. We were soon taken to the kitchen where the woman of the house, and a girl I assumed to be her daughter, had prepared us a quick lunch of stir-fried noodles, veggies, and chicken. The meal was tasty, but an awkward silence hung in the room due to our inability to communicate.

After the meal we walked back to the school and started our first Spanish lessons. Keep in mind that neither Eric nor I have ever taken a single Spanish course in our lives, and that our present Spanish vocabulary consists of maybe 30 words that we learned from Mexicans at our work. Needless to say we face an up-hill battle, and the task of learning the language seems daunting. All classes are taught one-on-one, and my teacher’s name is Carlos. He proved to be an excellent instructor and, after four long hours, I felt I was well on my way to at least knowing the essential basics of the language. Eric’s experience was similar, and we left our classes feeling mentally fried, yet optimistic about the classes.

After returning to our new home, we found the family wasn’t there. There was, however, a Canadian guy lounging on the couch. We entered into conversation with him and found out he had been staying there for over a week. When we asked him what time dinner was, he replied, “Whenever you want, it’s in the refrigerator.” We went on to inquire what it was, and he replied, “Dinner is always the same as lunch.” Of course we found this a great disappointment, but it was far more disappointing when he told us that the “family” wasn’t even there at night, and that they had a separate house somewhere else in town. We also learned that the little girl, who helped the lady of the house prepare the meal, wasn’t even her daughter but a seven-year-old maid. My image of the perfect Guatemalan casa began to crumble like so many colonial churches here in town.

What had formerly seemed like the perfect situation, soon looked like a mere scam. The place wasn’t a real Guatemalan family’s casa, it was a cheap flop-house. After using the shared bathroom, I saw the largest cockroach I have ever seen in my life. It was about the size of a silver dollar and it scampered across the shower with its delicate legs, feeling its way forward with its antennas. This was the final straw.

Eric and I discussed the bleak situation and decided, come hell or high-water, we were not staying there another night; let alone an entire week. After hearing mention of bedbugs from the clueless Canadian, we slept in our clothes and woke up early the next morning to pack our bags and leave. We headed to the school, bent on obtaining satisfaction. We noticed the receipt said “No refunds,” so we were prepared to do battle.

Thankfully the woman at the reception desk was incredibly nice and understanding. After the mere mention of “las cucarachas grandes,” she immediately offered to send us to another family. We declined her offer and demanded a refund for the home-stay. She complied and was very apologetic; hoping our bad experience hadn’t tainted our otherwise positive image of the school. We assured her we loved the classes but just preferred to stay in the hotel we were previously in.

With our refunded money in hand, we went back to our beautiful clean hotel, feeling as if we had just returned home after spending the night in a Guatemalan prison. Our room here is spotless, and we have our own cockroach-free bathroom. In addition to being one of the nicest places we’ve stayed, it costs a mere $6.50 a night each. The classes are going well and provide us with plenty to study. We plan to visit Lake Atitlan this weekend during a break from our classes. I have plenty more to write, but I’ll save it for later.

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