Studying Spanish in Lake Atitlan


Before Class

“Hola Maria! Buenos días!”

Nash and I skip down the stairs of our three-story concrete home in the center of San Pedro La Laguna. We find our places at the kitchen table while exchanging the usual morning pleasantries with our host mother, Maria, as she brings us a pitcher of filtered water and our breakfasts.

“¡Ooo, panqueques! ¡Piña! ¡Bananos!” I exclaim. I find myself shouting the names of food a lot, along with animals and other basic nouns.

“Con permiso,” Maria excuses herself, before hollering up the stairs, “Norma! Norma!”

Her middle daughter comes down, tired after another late night studying for final exams. She’s almost done with another semester of her Saturday classes at a university several hours away, where she’s studying to become a social worker. On weekdays, she works as a secretary at her uncle’s Spanish School. And she still musters the patience to explain everything to us in a comprehensible level of Spanish.

The eleven-year-old, Angela, is sleeping in. Ten years ago, winter vacations from school would have meant long days helping the mother in the house or the father in the fields, but now she spends them in a way familiar to most Americans – watching Disney channel, playing with friends, and occasionally racing around the house with a basketball. She also plays a mean game of memory.

We push back from the table and head out into the streets. At 8am, the town is just stirring to life, vendors setting out their wares and tuk tuks whizzing by.

During Class

Our school, La Cooperativa, is about halfway down the hill to the lakeshore. It’s an oasis in the hustle and bustle of San Pedro, away from the exhaust-thickened air and trash-littered cobblestones.

Nash and I fill our mugs with tea and part ways to the individual banana-leaf thatched palapas scattered throughout the garden. Our four hours of private Spanish lessons, from 8 to 12 Monday through Friday, pass with only the thrum of hummingbird (colibri!) wings and the scuttling of lizards (lagartos!) to disturb us.

I have the advantage of years of high school Spanish rusting away in my brain, so the curriculum just needs to be refreshed and practiced. Therefore, my teacher Diego conducts our lessons more like a conversational cultural exchange, punctuated with brief reviews of grammar.

At nearly twenty-two years old, Diego has lived through a period of even more rapid change than the typical American millennial – after all, less than fifty years ago San Pedro didn’t even have electricity or concrete. His life story represents the shift between Mayan tradition and the technological revolution.

At birth, he was examined by a Mayan priest for signs of an innate gift for healing. For centuries, these healers have learned their art through dreams and operate on a donation basis.

Diego swears by their efficacy, especially the local bone setter who once passed a piece of bone imbued with ancestral power over his broken limb. It healed within days. And when his cousin went into shock following an accident, a shaman performed a ritual to return her spirit to her body. She was back to normal the next morning.

However, reliance on these traditional healers is lessening as access to modern medicine improves. Since most mothers now give birth in hospitals, Diego doesn’t know any young people preordained with the healing gift.

Diego’s parents also made the increasingly uncommon choice to only speak Tz’utujil as he grew up, meaning he only learned Spanish as a second language once in school. There are still twenty-one Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, but their usefulness is fading now that commerce and social lives extend beyond ethnic boundaries. Most of the children we encounter chatter to us in Spanish.

There are also the more visible changes – as a male, Diego now only wears San Pedro’s traje tradicional on special occasions, borrowing the clothes from his deceased grandfather’s wardrobe. Diego describes the loose and colorful belted pants as thick, hot, uncomfortable and difficult to wear, though that doesn’t stop all the women from donning full-length skirts of the same material every day.

Public education is now available for all children, but Diego describes it as a flawed and frustrating system. Controversial topics like the recent civil war are glossed over and students are not allowed to speak or ask questions. A foreign-run after-school program changed Diego’s life, teaching him how to hold discussions and think for himself.

Now, he’s talkative, enthusiastic, and intensely curious about the world. And the internet is his primary window to that world. He spends much of his free time on Youtube – watching documentaries, getting caught up in conspiracy theory videos, and keeping up to date with the popular Latin America channels, such as HolaSoyGerman and Luisito Comunica.

As a result, he’s developed an interest in video editing and now owns a GoPro and a laptop (despite the prohibitively high cost of imported technology). He’s helping a friend start a Guatemala tourism website, which is now taking him beyond Lake Atitlan.

After each weekend, he comes back with photos and tales of firsts from visits to Guatemala City – his first time at the movie theaters, his first trip to a zoo, his first encounter with artificial snow, etc. And he intends to keep collecting these firsts, from riding in an elevator to flying in an airplane. I’m just as excited to see what he discovers.

In return, I describe what it’s like living in a booming West Coast city on the cutting edge of technology, where people always push themselves to work harder, beat the competition, and earn more money.

“I’ve heard that Americans own a bunch of stuff they don’t even use – is that true?”

I burst out laughing, thinking of the days Nash and I spent trying to declutter his brother’s house before we left. “You have no idea how true that is,” I say. “Weirdly, it’s how our economy works.”

As if to reinforce the guilt of that excess, during our 10:20 am break on this particular day (after a refill of tea and a snack of chuchitos from the market) we grab bags full of pasta, eggs, and other basic foodstuffs and head out to the streets to deliver them to families in need.

This is one of five charity projects the school participates in with the help of our tuition money. The others include building houses and providing kids with scholarships, school supplies, and sports equipment.

We’re joined by Nash and his teacher, Ligia. Diego claims she’s always been the shyest of the teachers, and Nash has told me how serious she can be. (He spent one of his lessons trying to explain how death can be funny, since dark humor apparently isn’t culturally universal.) But since meeting Nash, Ligia laughs and socializes more.

“¡Aquí están tus huevos!” Nash announces as he enters one family’s stick home and hands over his bag. The recipient of the eggs doesn’t speak a word of Spanish, but Nash’s enthusiasm is still felt and she thanks him in Tz’utujil: “Maltiyoox”.

After Class

In the afternoon, we’ve taken to skipping the included lunch at home in favor of a smaller meal and more relaxed schedule. Nash and I head to BIG BURGER down by the lake, our favorite Mayan owned gringo restaurant. It’s empty as always (except for that one time a hellion little mullet-boy was there and threw a knife over the fourth story railing).

As we sip on tea and sodas, we enter the day’s new vocabulary into our flashcard application and start trying to meet all our learning goals in the Memrise app. Whenever I get overwhelmed during the 100-word-long Rapid Rounds, I switch to reading my book. It’s hardly a break, since it’s also in Spanish.

It’s about this point in the day that mental fatigue sets in. Our tempers grow short as headaches take over.

Nash, always eager for a deep conversation, is increasingly frustrated at not being able to express complex ideas in a foreign language. It doesn’t help that we have no real reason to learn that language beyond my insistence that it’s fun and helps with travel.

We switch to speaking in English among ourselves, but my silly brain still tries to translate everything. I end up getting distracted and shutting down conversations before they can take off.

Language immersion is really freakin hard.

Fortunately, there’s nothing like manual labor to calm the mind. Back home, after a stop at a bakery to pick up a bread roll and a 12-cent chocolate covered frozen banana, we shove all our dirty clothes in a drawer and climb the treacherous concrete stairs to our bathroom on the roof.

We take care not to close the door behind us, lest we find ourselves in another locked-on-the-roof incident wherein Nash has to ninja his way over a wall and into the stairwell to free us.

At the sink, we stand side-by-side in blissful silence, scrubbing away at each article of clothing and clipping them on the lines to dry. We try to be mindful not to use much water – the Rotoplas container is only refilled a couple times a week when water is trucked up from the lake.

Dinner at 7 revolves around the basket of corn tortillas in the center of the table, which I use to scoop up some of the vegetables on my plate. Guatemalan cuisine has little in the way of fat and spices, but Maria’s vegetarian dishes are still filling and healthy (and delicious!).

At the far end of the table, Maria’s Tzutzujil-speaking father smiles quietly and pours chilis over his plate. He’s the only permanent male resident in the house, since Maria’s husband Miguel works at a recording studio for a Central American television station across the lake and only visits on weekends.

Angela pauses her animated chattering and cell phone gaming to hoist her baby cousin, Diego (not to be confused with my not-a-baby Spanish teacher), into her lap. He’s deathly serious, his expression never quirking into a smile despite being the target of tickles and silly faces.

Meanwhile, Norma and Nash exchange song recommendations. Nash turns up his phone volume and throws his voice into a perfect imitation of Juanes – “Para tu amor lo tengo todo…”

Baby Diego watches Nash with big, unblinking eyes, but he’s the only one that keeps his composure. Maria, for one, bursts into giggles and gazes adoringly at my boyfriend.

“Katie, tienes mucha suerte,” she says. As if I needed the reminder of how lucky I am – I’m swooning too.

After dinner, we fall asleep whenever we can, often during the quietest hours between midnight and 2 am. Sleep is precious – after all, you never know when you’re going to be woken up at 4am by a rogue mariachi band (more on that in another post).

At the end of three weeks of classes, our Spanish has certainly improved. But more importantly, we’ve been able to use that language to get to know a group of friendly, fun-loving individuals whose lives would otherwise have been a mystery to us – even if sometimes the conversation is reduced to discussing our likes/dislikes, what our families are like, and reciting the names of food.


5 thoughts on “Studying Spanish in Lake Atitlan

  1. What an awesome experience for you and Nash. It is obvious the people you met were wonderful. Thank you for sharing their culture and way of life with us. So excited to see the world open up. Peace and prosperity to all. Keep up the sharing!!!

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience. I am planning on travelling to Guatemala for 3 weeks to learn Spanish and came across the cooperative school. Do you think 3 weeks is enough to time to get the basics down and be able to communicate while travelling? Also, what about the safety of the environment? I am a female solo traveler so want to make sure that it is safe. Thanks again!

    1. Hi! Both my boyfriend and I had the advantage of high school Spanish to give us a boost – three weeks is enough to see plenty of improvement, but we still have trouble understanding people speaking at a natural pace. Since the lessons are so conversational, I feel like the more Spanish you know going into it, the more you can get out of them. Any practice you can do ahead of time and between lessons will be helpful. I recommend Memrise or another flashcard program to build basic vocabulary and to familiarize yourself with grammar (the Cooperativa curriculum is similar to what’s found on this site). Then you can discuss specifics and topics you’re interested in with your teacher. Even though you’ll be far from fluent after three weeks, people are very friendly and will help you communicate and get around. The Lake Atitlan area feels very safe, I felt no danger walking around alone and even carrying my phone in the open. There are specific areas of Guatemala City that are less safe (just like any other major city), but you can book a shuttle to Panajachel from the airport. Good luck and enjoy your trip!

  3. Ahh I’m jealous of your high school Spanish! We only had the option of German or French in my school, and I paid very little attention to either haha. We just started Spanish classes over in Xela, and it really is like being thrown in at the deep end. Hopefully I’ll come out of it with a few basis at least to help with the rest of my central america trip over the next few months.

    1. Totally, if I’d known how useful high school language would be I would have kept it up to date! Buena suerte with your classes and travels. Even the basics can serve wonders in making connections and getting around!

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