Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Quetzaltenango a.k.a. Xela - Hospitality, Language Learning, and Memories

  Nine years ago, I left my life in Oakland to study Spanish, work on organic farms, and live somewhere warmer.  I didn’t know how everything would evolve, but I knew I was ready for a change and an adventure.  I began my new life with a four-week stay in Quetzaltenango a.k.a. Xela where I lived with a Guatemalan family and studied Spanish at Juan Sisay.  Within my first week there, one of my greatest fears came true.  On a solo walk back to my new family’s home, I was attacked, pushed to the ground and then groped and thrown again by a man who must have watched me coming from his car with dark tinted windows.  The experience lasted less than three minutes.  It was incredibly scary, but I learned that I CAN yell when I’m in danger, I CAN run, and the instinct to protect myself and my body is incredibly powerful.  The day after, I got very sick, my body sore from the attack and my stomach turned inside out from the new and different food.  I debated…should I return home?  Should I give up this hoped-for journey?  Not only did I have a very bad experience, summer in Xela is like June in Oakland (COLD!), and three months before I left, I’d met a wonderful guy who I was missing terribly.
  I decided to stay; I’d worked so hard to get there.  Crime happens everywhere and I was just unlucky.  I immersed myself in Spanish.  For four hours a day I sat in a cubicle with my teacher, huddled with a blanket wrapped around me to keep warm.  I took salsa-dancing lessons.  I listened to sappy Spanish love songs.  And I exchanged daily emails with my new love where we shared and learned more about each other and crafted the possibilities of a future together.
  That new love is now my husband and there have been many adventures since my time in Xela.  This past week we had the opportunity to travel to Guatemala, and specifically Xela, for my husband’s work.  I was anxious to see how it would feel to be back.  We ended up having incredible hosts who fed us fantastic meals, toured us around, and welcomed us into their home.  I had time to explore and was happy to find great coffee and eclectic restaurants.  It’s the same crumbling colonial town it was nine years ago, with locals, indigenous, and extranjeros sharing the narrow sidewalks, perhaps with a bit more traffic than before.  The trip was a great chance for me to transform my memory of Xela from “the town where I was attacked” to “the town where I ate great food” and from “the town where I learned to speak Spanish” to “the town where I shared rich moments with my husband and his colleagues, with our conversations easily weaving between Spanish and English”.

Here are some highlights:

Mushrooms growing in the attic as a project for finding additional means 
for undernourished communities nearby.  We got to try these cooked in red wine. 

Homemade Spinach Empanadas

Homemade Chile Rellenos - Red Peppers stuffed with Soy, 
“carne de soya”, and Carrots. 

Visit to a local farm just outside of town!  
Rows of peach trees and lots of corn, I was in heaven.

Las Cumbres Eco-Sauna y Gastronomia Sibal Ulew Thermal Spa 
I got really relaxed here.  After a sauna we had some coffee and delicious giant-sized whole-wheat hot cakes (sorry no photo!) served with a papaya smoothie.

Sabor de la India 
There are no Indian restaurants in El Salvador that we know of so this was a thrill.

Café R.E.D. - a cool and revolutionary place. 

Bonifaz Pension - a great hotel right on the main square.

Juan Sisay Spanish School - friendly, welcoming, and right-on.


  1. Lovely story. It says so much about overcoming fears. Thanks!

  2. Thanks Margie! I think there's something unique that happens when we DO face our fears (there's a book "Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway"). I was incredibly lucky to have the support of the school, my friends and family, during that time. I couldn't have persevered without that support. And it's interesting being here in El Salvador where there are persistant fears that arise. Perhaps there's some fine line between putting yourself in danger and living your life. Traveling is good for expanding your horizons, but also for testing your limits. Big hug to you from El Salvador! Zaira

  3. Thank you Ms Z for confronting your dark recollections so openly. A healing moment for sure!