Spanish Classes at Bio Itze in San Jose, Guatemala

10 Nov

I’m the only tourist here. Friendly smiles and curious eyes confirm it so. It’s late October, and I’m in San Jose, a small lakeside town nestled in the low lands of northern Guatemala.
I’m staying with a host family. Their house is just a few steep meters from the center but their means are modest. The walls are bare and grey with exposed cement blocks. There is no ventilation in my room and at times it feels like an oven.
There is no living room and a plethora of kids crowd around a tv in Marie’s, my host mother’s bedroom. She lives next door to her sisters, cousins, and mother; each home surrounding a sandy courtyard. The children are on vacation and watch tv all day. Marie says she prefers it that way as it keeps the children indoors and out of trouble.
When the adults tune into soap operas, the kids filter out to play soccer on the street. Marie’s family does not have any soccer balls, but they improvise with various plastic objects.
Although everyone in town seems to be equal, there are subtle differences. Of her sisters, only Marie has electricity. She is also the only one with a shower. The rest of her family bathes outside with well water. The mayor sits considerably better than everyone else. His vast house with a bright blue exterior and sun patios and decks overlooks the lake.
He’s been reelected four times and is surely corrupt. But as he’s secured his own riches, he has also helped the town. San Jose doesn’t have any natural industries and sits just outside of the reach of tourist traffic.
Twenty years ago the town was a dusty spec on the map with no roads and little electricity. Then the improvising mayor built a water park to attract weekenders from neighboring towns and developed a small town square that would eventually be filled with stores and restaurants. The construction boom put hundreds of men to work and the standard of living improved almost immediately.
People seem to be hard working here, providing for their families however possible. Those who dropped out of school have to resort to blue collar jobs like driving a cab or filling gas. Most people have worked in a number of different jobs. My spanish teacher’s husband is an electrician, a taxi driver, a construction worker, and a fisherman.
Luckier ones whose families have a bit of money to spare (or family members in the states) go on to become teachers, doctors, lawyers, and administrators. It’s a clientisitic system in the government and the mayor employs mostly family members and close friends.
Over dinner one night, Marie explained to me that she didn’t like the mayor much because he didn’t distribute jobs throughout the community. She used to be a primary school teacher but she quit because it took her two hours every morning to commute to a distant mountain village in order to work. Teaching is a common profession in northern Guatemala and unemployment is high as teachers vastly out number schools.
Marie’s husband David was the major bread maker for the family. He was a gas attendant with a 20 day on, 10 day off rotation. I didn’t see much of David as he would rise at 5 in the morning and return around 10 o clock at night.
Most of my meals in turn were spent with Marie and their eight year old boy Cesar. Marie didn’t talk much during our meals. She was friendly and answered all of my probing questions, but when I didn’t have anything to say, neither did she.
The portions were small. Sometimes it seemed like Cesar was still hungry after the meals too. When he didn’t ask for seconds, I could only assume that there weren’t any.
Some of the dishes were truly terrible. The thought of an egg broth soap with a floating fried egg on top still makes my stomach turn. One warm, corn based chocolate and mint smoothie elicits a similar feeling.
The rest of the meals were better. A typical dinner consisted of eggs, black beans, and several tortillas. Most dishes were also finished with a bit of hot sauce and farmer’s cheese. There was not much meat or poultry served. They saved them for holidays and birthdays.
Super sweet coffee accompanied every meal. I had to purchase my own water as Marie only had sodas and sweet juices. The children, as young as two and three also drank the coffee. I wasn’t sure why Marie would actually caffeinate already energetic toddlers but I suppose coffee is cheaper than milk.
Diabetes is a problem in San Jose. There is a hospital being built this year (another initiative from the enterprising mayor) but while healthcare is free, medicine is not.
Until then, there is one clinic in town. When I developed a rotten blister on my foot and had hypochondriasque fears of tetanus, I paid the local doctor ten bucks to check out my foot. He told me I should keep the blister hot – then in the same breath said I should get ice and keep it cold.
Unfortunately there was no ice in hot and humid San Jose so I opted for the keep-it-hot option. Marie and her sister-in-law held burning branches of wood to my blister later that night. I had been running around barefoot playing soccer with the littles ones and it took less than half of an hour to get the most painful blister I’ve ever gotten. The piping branches helped burn the skin and seal the blister.
Marie’s sister in-law lived a few paces away. She married Marie’s brother when she was 16 and has had three kids since. Girls are often forced away to run away from home when their disapproving mothers attempt to dissuade them from marriage. It is common to hear of parents literally dragging their daughters back home. Sometimes these episodes turn violent too. Recently there have been some laws instituted to protect women from these types of situations.
Most men and women do not stay single in their twenties. As a twenty five year old man, it was considered odd that I didn’t have a wife and kids. These days, most people have less than four kids. Just one generation ago, it was nothing less than normal to have six, seven, eight children. Many had more.
The town is lively for a kid growing up. He would have a dozen cousins his age to play with. There is a dock on the lake where everyone goes swimming – a lake which truly resembles an impressionistic painting. Music flows from most houses. One house played the Macarena.
At night the tranquil town of San Jose shuts down relatively earlier. By 10 there is absolutely nothing that is still open and soon after I would fall asleep – which was just fine as I had Spanish classes at 8 in the morning.
My Spanish teacher soyla embraced me with open arms and did her best to make me feel at home. She showed me around town, introduced me to her family, and even took me fishing. Her spanish classes on the other hand were a test in patience at times. There are two Spanish schools in town and I was taking classes at Bio Itze in San Jose. It was a decent refresher course though and at the end of the day, a decent place to have waited out the hurricanes.

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