THE NEW YORK TIMES
Learning Spanish in Life's Classroom
July 7, 2002
By MICHAEL BENANAV
SOMETHING in my Latin American travels had always been missing - that rich sense of place bestowed by intimate conversation with local people. Uninspired by the prospect of studying at my hometown community college, I had long pledged to take a Spanish immersion course south of the border. Enthusiastic reviews from friends finally led my girlfriend, Karen, and me in January to the Eco-Escuela de Español in San Andrés, Guatemala.
Situated in the Petén, Guatemala's lowland rain-forest region, San Andrés is a humble town of pastel-colored houses stacked on a lakeside slope. Chickens and pigs and battle-scarred dogs freely roam streets that are cobbled or, in places, just dirt, and women shuttle between houses with tubs of masa (corn dough) balanced on their heads. It's a half-hour by boat from Flores, a popular destination that is the base for trips to nearby Tikal, the ancient Maya citadel whose stone pyramids tower over a jungle canopy alive with howler monkeys and tropical birds. Though tourists swarm in Flores, serene Lake Petén-Itzá insulates San Andrés from their influence.
At $175 a week for one-on-one classroom instruction, including food and lodging with a local family, the Eco-Escuela is expensive by local standards. But its promise of housing with Guatemalans and its community volunteer projects convinced Karen and me that it was what we were looking for. We made reservations for a two-week stay from home by e-mail.
We crossed the emerald waters of Petén-Itzá in a lancha (a narrow wooden boat with a canopy and outboard motor) on a Sunday afternoon, the sky a quilt of stratocumulus with sunlight seams. After landing in San Andrés, we checked in at the school and were escorted to our assigned home.
Our room was a simple, free-standing casita, covered by a traditional palm-frond roof, with ample space for two double beds, a dresser and a desk. Vistas of the lake, framed by banana trees, greeted us whenever we opened our door. Like most Guatemalan homes, it had whitewashed walls adorned with calendars depicting pastoral European scenes. Prepared for life in a developing country, we were not dismayed by sporadic losses of electricity, or the cold-water shower and the well-kept outhouse used by the whole family.
For the Quitz family, our hosts, the outdoor kitchen was the hub of daily life; the stove was a table of packed earth upon which a low fire was perpetually burning. Black beans soaking in enamel pots perched on wooden bancos. Corn tortillas were freshly cooked for every meal.
Lucidia Centurión, the 62-year-old matriarch of a family consisting of her husband, José Quitz, their three sons and one daughter, and two grandchildren, had mahogany-bark skin and a nearly toothless grin. She took undisguised pleasure in watching us adapt to her way of life, whether we were mangling tortilla dough with our inexperienced hands or helping to cut and carry firewood. The family had been host to students for six years, and two of Lucidia's three sons were training to be teachers. They practiced their fledging techniques on Karen and me while we dined family style on eggs, pasta, chicken or deep-fried cauliflower in salsa. Purified water and fruit juice were served in plastic pitchers.
Classes began Monday morning at 8, in a spacious one-room schoolhouse, with sunlight pouring in through a wall of paneless windows overlooking the lake. Idle ceiling fans hung above rows of identical wooden tables, each flanked by two hard chairs and an erasable white board.
Fifteen other students from the United States and Europe milled about the lime-green room, adhering to the standard traveler's dialogue while waiting to meet their teachers.
I was introduced to Elga Tut, a 25-year-old instructor, and shown to one of the desks. Before long, every student had a teacher and was settling into a workstation.
Elga slid a 45-question assessment exam my way. I was baffled by the first blank.
"Fecha?" I asked.
"The date," she replied, using two of her few English words. After fumbling through 10 questions, I looked up pleadingly and managed to muster a complete sentence: "No comprendo nada."
Elga mercifully put away the test and began with the basics. Like all the instructors, she was a high school graduate and had a teaching certificate and additional training in teaching Spanish to foreigners.
I found myself swept up by the palpable swell of concentration in the classroom. The chorus of student-teacher pairs produced a chantlike hum, laced with laughter. Elga's easygoing style and playful personality coaxed me through an avalanche of verb tenses. Though I copied the words and phrases she wrote on the board, we spent most of our time talking, compelling me to use the vocabulary I was learning.
By the time class adjourned each day at noon, my brain was supersaturated. I needed not to think about Spanish for a few hours. Fortunately, the school-sponsored volunteer activities, which began after lunch with our host families, were a complete contrast.
Students who chose to participate - no more than six volunteered from our group on any given day, it turned out - were sent into nearby forest preserves with machetes to clear weeds from trails. Not, I thought, the most valuable contribution we could make to the community, but great for exercise and the thrill of swinging a lethal blade. Students with functional knowledge of Spanish can help out in the village's clinic, primary school or children's library.
Friendships formed while we hacked at the unruly jungle, and I became acquainted with a Dutch accounts manager, a Swedish college student, a businesswoman from San Francisco and a Colorado environmentalist, among others.
Samuel Ribera, our crew boss, a flat-faced former chicle harvester, knew the trees like cousins. He led us through the woods, pointing out plants and explaining their medicinal and commercial uses. Plucking and crumpling a leaf, he invited us to sniff. It was pimienta, or allspice.
Samuel was proud of his job with the school, which uses profits to maintain the hundreds of acres of forest preserves surrounding the town. "I used to cut the trees," he said in Spanish. "Now I protect them."
The Eco-Escuela, in fact, has fostered positive changes in San Andrés since its founding in 1992. Jobs created by the school, now owned by residents of the community, mean that fewer people in this town of about 6,000, whose hardware store stocks five styles of machetes, need to eke out a living as field hands or woodcutters.
Women, who run the households, supplement their husbands' wages by being hosts to foreign students, so their own children, once fated for menial jobs at young ages, are now more likely to graduate from secondary school.
Profits from the Eco-Escuela buy school supplies for youngsters in the community and finance the cheerily painted two-room public library, its shelves stocked with Spanish versions of popular American children's books.
Rather than join the volunteers, Karen often commuted to Flores, where she stayed in touch with her business back home on the Internet. Other students made the trip when they craved fancier cuisine or more bustle than San Andrés offered. But to me, Flores felt too much like an Epcot pavilion.
If I needed a break, I wandered over to the secluded Ni'tun Eco-Lodge, where I relaxed and swam at the clean, peaceful lake-front dock. A mile down the shore from San Andrés, the simple but classy hotel can accommodate up to 12 people in four separate cabanas with polished hardwood floors under beautiful thatch roofs. The open-air bar and kitchen, offering espresso and dishes such as seafood paella and chicken Milanese, are rarely crowded.
Some afternoons I participated in the school's extracurricular activities, such as cooking demonstrations by local women or field trips to experimental farms. But usually I preferred meandering around San Andrés, fascinated by vignettes of daily life. Women scrubbed clothing by hand in outdoor sinks or in the lake. Children kicked soccer balls and played with firecrackers. Men struggled beneath huge loads of firewood. Gardens of flowers and fruit flourished between homes and trash piles.
Since San Andreseños, who speak almost no English, are easily approachable and endlessly patient, the town itself became my classroom. Dictionary in hand, I posed questions to everybody I met and received some surprising answers.
Monkeys, said a woman who owned one, prefer tacos to bananas.
Marriage, I was told, requires no paternal permission, but the courtship ritual demands that a young man visit with the family of a young woman on Sundays, rather than take her out.
An 84-year-old hammock weaver warned Karen about El Duende, a supernatural midget with a giant white sombrero who abducts women and chains them to a wall in his secret cave, where they spend the rest of their lives guarded by an enormous serpent.
After he described a few more evil beings, I asked if any beneficent spirits lived in the area. "No," he said, "There is only one good spirit - Jesus Christ."
By the end of our second week of study, Karen and I were able to form sentences, conjugate common verbs and grasp most of what was said to us, if spoken slowly. After our schooling, we spent three weeks traveling on the cheap in Guatemala. We traversed the rutted roads of the highland states in the back of pickup trucks, on horses and in overcrowded, flamboyantly painted old school buses, seeking out remote villages before ending our trip in the vibrant Spanish Colonial city of Antigua Guatemala.
Along the way, we chatted with shepherds tending flocks high in the mountains, laughed with women selling produce in the markets and learned firsthand about the terror of Guatemala's civil war, which ended in 1996, from those who had lived it. Though our grammar was flawed, Guatemalans were forgiving, and our dictionary became dead weight in our bags.