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Back to School

Written by Jared on February 14, 2012

Jessica covets her new pair of boots.Start: January 31, San Miguel Escobar
Finish: February 6, San Miguel Escobar
Birthdays Celebrated: 2
Pairs of Boots Purchased: 1
Hours Spent in School: 20
Vehicle Malfunctions: 1

After one week in Antigua, today marks the longest time we've spent in once place since our journey began over four months ago. We haven't done any traveling or sightseeing, and yet this week has been the busiest in quite some time. It's a good kind of busy, we're learning a lot, volunteering and enjoying the fact we don't have to make and break camp every other day.

Our day starts with an early (for us) breakfast at 7, followed by a harrowing bus ride into Antigua and four hours of Spanish lessons. Then it's back home for lunch, and off to the Global Visionaries office to do volunteer work in the afternoon. We spend our evenings eating simple and delicious Guatemalan food prepared by our host mother, and if we still have the mental faculties, studying Spanish.

The main street of Ciudad Vieja.

This is a shot of the main street in Ciudad Vieja. Technically, we're staying in a town called San Miguel Escobar, which is part of Ciudad Vieja. I have a hard time telling the two apart - I guess you could think of San Miguel Escobar as a district within Ciudad Vieja. In either case, we're only a five minute drive from Antigua, so if anyone asks, just tell 'em that's where we are.

Ciudad Vieja is a small town compared to Antigua (which is tiny compared to Guatemala City). Lonely Planet lists its two major industries as repairing buses and building coffins. Eep. Regardless, we've walked through the streets a good number of times by now and everyone is incredibly friendly and helpful.

It has that small-town feeling. Everyone knows everyone else, and outsiders are treated as a welcomed distraction. Our choice to stay in San Miguel Escobar was definitely the right one, if we'd chosen to stay in Antigua we'd be just another trifecta of gringos who have come to gawk at the sights.

Riding in the chicken bus.

Parking in Antigua is expensive, and can be a bit risky, so the bus quickly became our best bet for getting to and from school in the morning. We have been warned about the chicken buses in Central America, but it's safe to say that we were not ready.

It's something you have to experience to understand. I spent a year and a half riding the T in Boston. I've been on subways in New York, London, Paris, Chicago and a dozen other cities. I took a 23 hour bus ride from Amsterdam to Krakow and have been in countless other buses, trains, trolleys and tuk-tuks around the world. Nothing comes close.

Ever wonder what happens to old school buses from the US? They don't die, they go to Guatemala to be "retired". Calling these buses retired would be like calling your grandmother retired if her weekend pursuits involved roller derby and professional wrestling.

Even Guatemalans call them "chicken buses", rather than "camionetas", the proper Spanish word. Why chicken bus? It has something to do with locals transporting livestock (predominantly chickens), much to the shock of visitors from other countries.

Jared tries to fit in the chicken bus.

What could I be pondering, you ask? Could it be the Spanish rap blaring over the radio? Or the breakneck speed at which the driver pulls away from each stop? Maybe I'm reviewing yesterday's Spanish lesson in my head?

Not a chance. I'm thinking about what it used to be like to have kneecaps. The price of being six feet tall in Guatemala, where more than half of the population is indigenous Maya whose average height is 4'9".

Jared and Jessica walking to school in Antigua.

After we flee the bus, and I begin to regain some feeling in my lower extremities, we head out across Antigua to our Spanish school, La Union. It's a ten minute walk to our school, along the way we pass the central square and several of the many colonial churches in the city.

A shot of a street in Antigua.

The entirety of Antigua has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is great for tourists, like us, but it can be stifling for residents and workers in the city. All of the streets are cobblestone, not your average small European village cobblestone either. This stuff is mean, it's like river rocks glued together randomly without much thought to what it might do to passing pedestrians or vehicles.

If Antigua wishes to maintain its UNESCO status, it can't change much. It's like the city is being artificially trapped in a time bubble for the enjoyment of foreigners. It's good, as tourism and cultural immersion programs are the largest sources of income in Antigua. But if you ask a Guatemalan resident of the city, odds are they won't be entirely thrilled about the road conditions and the lack of new development.

All that said, other than our daily stroll through the city, we haven't had time to explore much of Antigua. Expect to hear more from us about this charming town in the weeks to come.

The front of our Spanish school, La Union.

This is a shot of the front of our language school - La Union. We show up here a bit before 8am and leave just after noon. Many thanks to the Global Visionaries folks, especially Sandra and Aurelio, for referring us to La Union and helping us get started.

Studying Spanish in La Union.

Our classes are all one-on-one. Each of us has a teacher, and each teacher has their own approach to teaching us the language. It works out for the best, we can compare notes and swap vocabulary when we study at night.

The lessons usually involve a conversation in the morning: How was your weekend? What did you have for dinner last night? etc. Then we dive into grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary lessons. Much of our time has been spent with verb conjugations and a few grammar rules.

Grammar is the trickiest part. Nouns have gender and verbs change based on the pronoun. Not all verbs follow the same pattern and in many cases learning the gender of a given noun can only be done through repetition and memorization. It's a bit mind numbing, but we are all making good progress.

The chicken bus that was donated to GV.

In the afternoons we volunteer at the Global Visionaries office. One of our potential projects involves retrofitting this chicken bus. The vision is to create a mobile classroom to teach locals about sustainable agriculture and reforestation. Mudslides are a serious problem in Guatemala, and it's hard to keep the mud on the mountain when there are no plants.

Unfortunately the project is off to a slow start. Funding has been hard to come by, and the bus is parked 40 minutes away from the office and needs some engine work before it can be moved closer. If any of our readers would like to contribute to this project, please drop us a line!

The bodega (warehouse) in GV's office.

Meanwhile there's plenty for us to do at the office. This is a before-shot of one of the rooms, termed "la bodega" (warehouse), where all of the donations received by the Guatemalan office are stored before they are distributed to people in need.

Jessica measuring some boards, I think.

Our goal is to build shelves around the edges of the room to help organize everything, and to make it easier for our fellow volunteers to get to what they need.

The work in the afternoon is a welcome change from our Spanish lessons in the morning. By lunch time our brains are fried, and working with our hands is about all we're good for.

Our toolbox consists of three drill bits, a cordless drill, a corded drill, four hand saws, a set of screw drivers and a couple dozen hammers. Plus a stash of old wood out in the shed.

In total, it's just enough to do the trick.

One shelf built.

Shelf one of four complete. It might not be pretty, but it sure works!

A shot of our car's wheel covered in oil.

Around the time we went to visit GV's chicken bus we noticed that Blue had a fluid leak. Oil in one of the rear brakes. Never a good thing.

After a bit of research, Kobus diagnoses Blue as suffering from a case of leaky rear axle seal, apparently a common ailment for 3rd generation 4Runners. Fortunately there are four or five Toyota dealerships in Guatemala City, and our friends at GV are willing to help us make calls and line up a mechanic. More on this story as it develops...

Jessica's birthday part at our home in Ciudad Vieja.

Sunday was Jessica's 30th birthday. Our host family surprised her in the morning with a cake and the singing of the Spanish equivalent of Happy Birthday to You. The three of us were a bit hungover after the previous night's party on the rooftop of our casa in San Miguel Escobar so this all remains a bit of a festive blur.

The streets of Pastores.

Once the wine had run its course, Jessica and Kobus headed off to the nearby town of Pastores to shop for boots. We drove through this town a few days before, on our way to see GV's bus. Kobus and I had to physically restrain Jessica from jumping out of the car at the sight of so many stores selling handmade leather boots.

A pair of boots Jessica checked out.

The story of the boots and the amazing place they are made is a tale for another day. Needless to say, a pair of handmade custom leather boots have been ordered and will be picked up in a week.

A restaurant in Antigua we went to for Jessica's birthday.

Later that night we drove into Antigua to have dinner at a restaurant that was recommended. Kobus and I shared a big plate of grilled meat and Jessica had stuffed grouper. It was more meat than I'd eaten all week - the table fare at home is simple (but delicious) and usually doesn't involve red meat.

Our host mother's birthday dinner.

Monday, the day after Jessica's birthday, was the birthday of our host mother Faviola. To give her the night off, Kobus and I prepared a delicious dinner of grilled veggies, potatoes and steak with our famous chimichurri sauce. As usual, it was a hit and was obviously much appreciated by Faviola and her daughter Andrea.

A chocolate museum in Antigua!

Up next: another week of school, and hopefully some time to explore Antigua. First on our list, the chocolate museum. Who wouldn't want to learn all about Mayan chocolate, make three types, and take the results home?

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