We arrived around 7pm into Quetzaltenango. It’s Xela to the locals. And that’s pronounced Shel-Ah. As part of our package with the Spanish School Sol Latino, we are living with the Santiagos. We’re in a Xela home stay. It was dark, but our homestay was less than 100 metres from a landmark, the Puente de Los Chocoyos and so easy to find.
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On this street, there are narrow steep pavements. There’s on obvious view of the houses behind the barbed wire topped walls. Gates bearing messages exhorting you not to park in front of them are closed. There’s no sign of life. Anywhere. Luckily there is a number next to the metal gates.
We rang the bell. And waited.
After a short while, the gate opened. “Buenas Noches, se llama Nigel”, said Nigel and we were welcomed in. Our host Senor Santiago shook our hands, showed us to our room, across the small courtyard area, showed us the bathroom and how the show works. “Solo Caliente, ” he said, turning the tap on. And then he left us.
We are staying with the Santiago family. Our primary interactions are with Eunice, the mother of the household. We’re sharing the house with her, Senior Santiago, who’s name we haven’t learned yet and their small dog Cosita.
All our interactions have been in Spanish. Stumbling strangled broken Spanish. On that first night, we understood enough when Eunice arrived that she would make us dinner and that breakfast would be at 730am the next morning and that she would walk us to the school in the morning.
Eunice is a grandmother – during the course of the week, we met two of her grandchildren, Joshua and Angela, Josh almost blushing as he tried out his English on us.
Xela Home Stay – Nuestra casa (our house)
The house if typical of this area. There’s a courtyard, where the cars are parked overnight. The house backs onto another and is completely enclosed by a high wall with razor wire on the top. As well as taking in students, Eunice runs a laundry, so there are washers, dryers, and lines in the courtyard. The house comprises a kitchen, a room where we eat at the dining table, and three bedrooms. The bathroom can be reached either through our room or through the courtyard.
Our room is about 3 metres by 4 metres and contains two small tables. There’s a TV on one table, but still, space to use part of the table. There are two single beds. One is high and narrower, the other – mine – is lower and wider. There’s just enough room between the beds to walk down. One at a time. We have sheets and two blankets. We’re also using our travel silk sleeping bags, for warmth more than anything. Along the length of one wall runs a two story wire shelf, our backpacks are on one shelf, our clothes on the lower one. Our window looks onto another room, which is almost an ante room to the bathroom. We have a locking door into the bathroom. It’s small but functional.
The bathroom is similar to other homestays and to the hotel that we stayed at in Antigua. There’s a basin (cold water only), a toilet (used paper goes in the bin, not in the toilet) and here at Familia Santiago, a huge shower area with a curtain.
Showers here in Guatemala (certainly in budget accommodation and in homestays) have a single tap. The water is heated by means of an attachment to the shower head. The attachment is electric and has a variety of wires coming out of it. Touching the wires isn’t something we consider. The heat of the water depends on the pressure. Too much and it’s cold. Too little and its, ahem, warm. Just right and it’s enough to wash the shampoo out of your hair.
Our family, the Santiago’s are fabulously friendly. Our fellow students at the Sol Latino Spanish School here in Xela are having a similar experience.
Home Stay Helps with Learning and Our Budget
Each day we have a conversation with Eunice – and more recently her brother Fernando, who will be living here for a while. We get the added bonus that Fernando is not only a Latin Dance instructor but a Spanish/English teacher. Already in our first week we’ve had conversations about religion (the Santiago’s are evangelicals and Fernando is a pastor), politics and family.
I was worried before we arrived that the homestay environment wouldn’t be for us. But I love it. As part of our package with Sol Latino – which costs us US$125 a week for 4 hours a week of lessons – we also get our accommodation with the Santiagos and three meals a day – desayuno, almuerzo y cena. Sometimes, like today, we’ll let Eunice know that we’ll be out of the day and won’t want lunch or dinner, but so far we’ve only missed one meal.
Xela Home Stay Food
Some previous students have complained that they didn’t get enough food, but we have no such complaints. Portions are smaller than America or some European countries, but heck, we’re sitting in a lesson 4 hours a day, then doing tarea (homework) for several more hours, then studying what we’ve learned. We’re not exactly wildly active and neither are we hungry.
Eunice is feeding us extremely well. I love her corn tortillas. I love the tamalitos. Her frijoles are fantastic and the sopa with pasta and meatballs we had one day last week was amazing. She also makes a salsa (and by that I mean, not just a sauce, but a spicy sauce) that I’m going to have to learn the recipe for. Just today for dinner she made us a Quetzaltenango special tamale – the cambralle. It’s cooked in a banana leaf with a savory chicken and dates. Oh, I love this home cooked food.
We have breakfast at 0730 (0800 at the weekend) and it’s usually coffee, with either cereal and some fruit, or porridge. We eat lunch around 1330. Lunch is the main meal of the day here in Guatemala. Eunice makes a variety of dishes, from chicken in sauce with rice to amazing meatball with pasta soup, to yucca fritas with frijoles. We haven’t had the same meal twice in a week, although I have a request in for the meatball soup again. And frijoles every day. We have a small basket of two corn tortillas each with lunch and dinner. I already know, after a week, that I’m going to miss this when I leave the area. Dinner is generally more of a snack. Scrambled egg. Frijoles and Huevos. And of course the tortillas.
Speak, Speak, Habla
We combine dinner with a chat. Tonight’s chat was the longest. I know Eunice was being kind to us, but it was a real conversation. I think she mostly understood us. We mostly understood her. All week she’s been saying to us “ Todos dias, un poco mas” and she’s right. We know a little more each week. Staying with her is giving us the confidence to start conversations, even though we know we have no real hope of getting very far with them. Hearing other people talk and attempting it is half the battle.
To Homestay or Not?
Yes! do it. You can always move out if it’s not for you. Other options are the guesthouse at the school itself, or a hostel or hotel in town. Only one of the students we’ve met has opted for the hostel.
We’re one week into our homestay and it is the best. Sure I’d love a double bed and a more European shower, but, the friendliness and the chance to learn about life here in Guatemala beats it all. We’ve signed up for another week at the school and we plan to take at least three more weeks of lessons. Our only problem is the cold. Xela is warm. Sure it gets hot in the middle of the day, but out of the sun and once the mid afternoon hits, it starts to get pretty chilly. Today we had to buy another sweater each, as our fleeces will need washing and it’s definitely too chilly to go without!
We’ll keep you posted on how our Xela Home Stay and our lessons at Sol Latino go, as we’re adding another hour a day of lessons next week. This of course means more tarea (homework) and thus, more studying too. We sleep well!!
- Our language school – Sol Latino
- How we found our language school
- How we got to Quetzaltenango from Antigua
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