Quetzaltenango-Rough Around the Edges; And Some Personal Reflections on Coming Back to Guatemala

Strong pangs of doubt began to nag at me during my three week hiatus in Los Angeles and New York in December before I was due to return to Guatemala in January. Why was I going back? Why was I learning Spanish? What was I trying to prove? What was this really all about? I struggled to search for answers but none were easy. My friends, family and partner were scratching their heads. I tried to fight off these feelings but they persisted. Should I change my mind and not go? Somehow, I kept pushing forward towards returning. It was literally a tug of war.

I guess I didn’t want to admit that although the last three and a half months in Guatemala had been enriching, interesting and filled with great experiences, it had also been stressful, difficult and challenging. I was trying to adjust to living here at which I thought I was doing pretty well. But there were conveniences at home that I took for granted that certainly didn’t exist in Guatemala. And the chaotic environment, the need to be very careful while walking on the uneven sidewalks and streets, the danger of living in Guatemala and making sure I was not out late a night, not understanding the language and at times, the culture, the frequent firecrakers that kept me jumping and other things were a constant source of concern and stress. Of course, this was the experience that I signed up for. I’m not complaining, just reporting. Also, my Spanish lessons were very difficult and frustrating. There were times I just wanted to throw up my hands and say “I’ve had it,” but somehow I kept going. Fortunately, my teacher was very pleasant, thankfully patient and reassuring. It didn’t help that I put a lot of pressure on myself to excel at Spanish when things were not coming quickly enough for me. I literally had to tell myself to “lighten up!” which I did but sometimes it’s not easy being me. Again, I’m not complaining, just reporting.

Despite my resistance to come back to Guatemala, I felt compelled to return because I knew there were still lessons to be learned about why I had chosen this adventure to live in another country, experience a different culture for a prolonged period of time and to try to learn another language. Something apparently was going on and I felt that I needed to try and find out what it was. Also, I felt that I had gained some momentum in learning and speaking Spanish and three and a half months of being in Guatemala was simply not enough time. So I pushed myself to come back and somehow I found a way within me to do so.

Unfortunately, two days before returning, I began to feel sick as if I was coming down with some kind of bug. We had just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York City and I was exhausted. Either I had an actual virus or my body was rebelling because of all the junk I ate in New York along with our nonstop activities. I was wondering whether I should delay my trip briefly until I felt better, fearful that I would get worse and be In a country with questionable healthcare. But typical of my personality, I pushed myself anyway to get on that overnight flight as scheduled. Which is what I did. And if I got worse, I would figure it out.

I had a fitful sleep on the plane and woke up around sunrise about a half hour before landing in Guatemala City. The scenery coming into Guatemala is spectacular. Guatemala is full of volcanoes and their peaks rise high into the sky, sometimes through the clouds which is amazing to see. And usually, one or two are erupting. The site of all this as the sun was rising was clearly breathtaking. By now, I know to sit by the window seat on the right side of the plane, preferably in first class, to see the rows of volcanoes as we fly into Guatemala’s La Aurora airport.

Volcano Erupting as Seen from the Plane Coming Into La Aurora Airport, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

While I was busy photographing the gorgeous scenery, feelings of dread crept over me as the plane neared the airport. I was still feeling rundown and I was not sure if I was up for the challenge of living in Guatemala once again. I had no idea what Quezaltenango (it is more commonly called Xela- pronounced “shayla”) was like. And I would be living with a new family that I knew nothing about. The school had arranged the logistics of getting me to Xela which is not an easy trek and involves a four-hour bus ride from Guatemala City. Thoughts of turning around and coming home flooded my head. But then we landed and it was time to get off the plane so my thoughts turned to other things.

I hadn’t eaten much in the previous two days so I was a bit shaky getting off the plane. I was managing two heavy suitcases, a stuffed backpack and a travel guitar which all seemed a bit overwhelming at the time. I don’t know why I wrestled with the idea of having a porter help me with my luggage but I ultimately did and fortunately, we breezed through customs.

As I was exiting the airport, I was eagerly searching for the hand-held sign that was supposed to have my name on it being carried by the taxi driver who would be taking me to the bus station. I walked all around the airport’s exit looking for my name but found nothing. Fortunately, I had a contact phone number so we were able to find each other. We met and just about hugged. The driver only spoke Spanish and I thought he told me that the early bus to Xela was full and had already left so the next bus wouldn’t be until 10:30 a.m which meant a three and a half hour wait at the bus station which I dreaded.

As luck would have it, when we arrived at the bus station, the bus was still there and it was not yet full. I had just enough time to buy my ticket, go to the bathroom and find a seat. The bus was a Greyhound style bus and I seemed to be the only one on the bus that was not from Guatemala or Central America. I sat next to a woman from Xela who seemed annoyed that I chose the seat next to hers, especially when I confirmed with her that this was the correct bus going to Xela. She certainly did not seem annoyed however, when I helped her get her things down from the overhead rack when she needed it. I do not recall her thanking me not that I needed to be thanked. When another woman noticed I had helped the first woman, the second woman also asked me to take down her things as well for which she seemed appreciative.

We had a rest stop about half way to Xela. Fortunately I had some food with me since there was not enough time to eat at the restaurant. It was in a mountainous location with nice views of the farmland nearby. I spoke to some friendly people from the bus after one saw me standing alone and called me over. He was from Xela and another couple was from Costa Rica. We had a fun and friendly conversation – all in Spanish. After that, the bus sped along the very windy mountain roads as we all slid back and forth in our seats from the force of the turns. I’m sure that also annoyed the woman sitting next to me.

We arrived in Xela around 11:30 a.m. The guy from Xela that I met at the rest stop asked me if I wanted to meet for a beer later that day but I politely declined. I was still feeling lousy. The bus station was run down and in a sketchy area. I had arranged to be picked up. There were several taxi drivers there, one of whom was calling out the name of someone but it did not sound like mine. Nonetheless, I asked the taxi driver to see the name on the paper he was holding and fortunately it was me. He drove me in his dented and rusted taxi along the bumpy roads to the Spanish school that I would be attending, and someone there was supposed to take me to the home of the family that I would be living with. Unfortunately, the school was locked. I rang the bell and knocked a few times but there was no answer. The taxi driver and I then walked around the side of the building and found an entrance but no one seem to know what was going on. A woman inside the school made some calls and I was told that the mom of the family would be picking me up shortly. In the meantime, I was given a tour of the school which seemed a little worn but I thought it would work out fine.

View of Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo of Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Roughly 20 minutes later, the mom showed up and she seemed guardedly friendly. She is a heavyset woman and looked a bit disheveled. She drove me to their home where I was greeted by a couple of young women, a younger 11 year old boy and the dad, a friendly pleasant looking gray-haired gentleman who promptly introduced himself. Everyone seemed to rush to the car to help move me in. I was shown to my room which is fairly large, rustic looking and fortunately has its own bathroom (one of the few amenities I requested) which is also fairly large. The bedroom has an old but beautiful tile floor and an unpainted wood beam ceiling. There is some writing on the walls so it looks like kids or teens had used the room at some point. And fortunately, it has two windows that look into the garden.

Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

The dad then wanted to show me around the house. The house itself is an old colonial style house, rustic, yet has great character and features, and a lovely garden which seems to be the passion of the dad. The dad told me that the house and property has been in his family for over 100 years! The house is built around a central pretty courtyard that has a traditional tiered fountain in the middle. I’m not sure if the fountain still works but it looks nice. The garden area is lovely with some mature trees and other plants and flowers that seem well taken care of. There is another huge rear yard that is also a beautiful garden which used to be the area where they kept horses and cattle. The stone troughs are still there and the dad uses them for planters as part of his garden. Also, he took an old metal bed and converted it into an interesting planter. The garden is adorned with some antique tools including an old hoe that would have been pulled by horses, and some old saddles which give the garden a lot of character and seemingly brings it back to an earlier time. It was obvious that the dad takes a lot of pride in his home and his garden areas and he works hard to maintain it.

Old Metal Bed Planter, Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Unfortunately, I still was not feeling well so I found all of this fairly taxing. I went to unpack and I was told that lunch would be ready shortly. I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay as my hesitation started to creep back. Soon, it was lunchtime. Lunch was mostly vegetables. We ate at a large dining table inside the kitchen which is rustic with overflowing shelves and cabinets. There is a stove hooked up to a propane tank which sits next to the stove, a refrigerator and a toaster. Apparently, Xela does not have gas lines under the streets (neither did Antigua) thus the propane tank.

After lunch, the mom wanted to show me how my shower worked. The house does not have electric water heating showerheads as they have in many parts of Guatemala. Instead, there is a small corroding tankless water heater around the side of the house in the laundry area. In order to take a shower, I need go outside to light the pilot and then turn the lever all the way up to “maximo.” Apparently, when the water is running, the small heater kicks in and warms the water. However, the water needs to be running fairly slowly to get heated so there is very little water pressure when I take a shower. And if someone else is watering the lawn or using water, my shower becomes an unusable trickle. But I do get a fairly hot shower! When I’m done, after I get dressed, I need to remember to go outside to turn off the pilot so it does not waste gas. Again, the water heater is connected to another propane tank sitting nearby in the laundry area.

Tankless Water Heater, Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.

The nights and mornings here in Xela are very cold usually in the low 40s or high 30s. The house has no heating so my bedroom usually gets down into the low 40s at night. That means that I spend the evenings usually layered with a flannel shirt, a sweatshirt with the hood over my head, along with a down jacket. I sleep with four blankets. Since it is so cold in the mornings, I wait until the afternoons when it’s warmer to take a shower. Otherwise, I would need to get dressed, go outside in the cold to the side of the house, light the pilot, turn the lever to “maximo,” wait a few minutes, take my shower in the ice cold bathroom, dry off, get dressed and go back outside to shut off the pilot. Given the logistics involved in just trying to take a shower, in reality, I only manage to shower every other day. Yes, being here feels a bit like I’m camping.

Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.

After lunch, I unpacked a little more but I felt so unsettled, I was still questioning whether I was going to stay. I was still feeling poorly. I had no energy and very little appetite. And lunch was a bit disappointing making me wonder whether this was how the food was going to be. I decided to take a walk to find the Spanish school that I would be attending the following Monday. I went through el parque central (the central park) and walked in the central historic district of the city, about a 10 minute walk from the house. I saw the main cathedral which was very large, beautiful, imposing and impressive. But overall, I found the city fairly uninteresting and it seemed dirty. Lots of things were closed on the weekend. I couldn’t even find a nice bakery or restaurant to check out. I did have an ice cream at a local chain.

Catedral de Espíritu Santo de Quetzaltenango (Holy Spirit Cathedral), Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

There were very few, if any tourists, walking around which I actually liked as I had wanted to feel immersed in the Guatemalan culture. I felt like I had finally reached hardcore Guatemala. Nonetheless, my first impression was not a good one. The city seemed harsh and unfriendly, certainly rough around the edges. There seemed to be no charm. In short, I just didn’t like it and I wondered how long I could actually last here. I was also out of breath a lot since Xela is over 7,600 feet in altitude but I figured I would get used to it.

But then I thought that maybe being here was actually a good challenge for me and maybe this was more of the type of experience that I was looking for. I was here for a reason. And I knew it was too early to decide what I was going to do and I figured my early perceptions were probably being tainted by how poorly I was feeling and how tired I was from my red-eye flight. I came back to the house and took it easy the rest of the day trying to settle in and figure out my routines. But I still didn’t completely unpack just in case.

Parque Central, Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Dinner was a tasty vegetable soup which went down easily. I had a nice friendly conversation with the mom and dad, both of whom speak no English. It was getting very chilly as everyone had warned me. The house is next door to a church and the parents told me that the following day, Sunday, January 15th, was going to be a huge celebration and fiesta of the Cristo Negro (the Black Christ). I had no idea what that was. That explained the rusted dilapidated kiddie rides literally right outside the front door of the house. The parents then warned me that there would be firecrackers at 4:30 a.m. and church bells ringing by around 5:30 a.m.! This didn’t make me very happy not to mention my dislike of firecrackers. With earplugs deep in my ears, I went to bed on the early side with my suitcases still partially packed.

This story continues in my article entitled “Xela Who?”

Kiddie Rides Outside Our Front Door, Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Tulips for Sale, Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
View of the Cathedral, Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.