Guatemala, Yikes! I said about ten times a day.
I was going to Guatemala out of love. My husband was studying Spanish and loving it, so for his 83rd birthday, I gave him a present of two weeks at Miguel Angel Asturias, an intensive Spanish school in Xela, Guatemala. Since I knew he'd never get around to going by himself, thereal present was that I, who wasn't studying Spanish and had no desire to learn it, would go with him.
Perhaps more accurately than love, I was going to Guatemala out of honor. I had given him the present for his birthday the previous year, his 84th now come and gone while I continued to argue with myself.
It was merely an I.O.U. Who would come after me if it remained unfulfilled?
Not my husband, who was better at remembering what I wanted than keeping track of presents already given but not yet delivered. His I.O.U. to me, "Good for stringing lights on the tree in the front yard," showed up on so many occasions I finally said--a little testily, I confess--"Maybe instead of writing it out each time, you should just have a card printed up at Staples."
I knew it wouldn't kill me to lay down some new brain tracks, but the thought of investingmyself for two weeks in something I had no interest in was aversive. I'd never been quick with languages. I didn't want to leave my work. I was worried about how Roger would react to the 7500 feet altitude.
Though the psychic price of the present was high, the literal price was unbelievably low: Two weeks of one-on-one instruction five hours a day at the school plus homestay with a Guatemalan family for $150 apiece a week!
That sounded like a lot of black beans to me.
With unprecedented ease, I was able to get frequent flier tickets, that improbability practically putting a divine imprimatur on the trip.
Everyone kept saying, "What an adventure!"
I nodded, noticing they weren't going.
The final push was my husband's growing excitement, not to mention, oh why not, he was roaring up on his 85th.
In an act prompted by painful self-knowledge, I said Adios to work, emails, and online newspapers, and left my computer home.
Guess what? If our stay had ended after the first week, it would have been the perfect vacation. Everything was new and vividly interesting. Much of the indigenous culture of Xela, short for Quetzaltenango, including the traditional Mayan dress, was still intact, as were the narrow cobblestone streets. With a little pacing and occasional pause, the altitude and steep hills weren't a problem. On my birthday, the father at our homestay played guitar, singing a duet of Feliz Cumpleanos with his wife that was so sweet I welled up. At school the teachers and students surprised me with a birthday cake, clapping their handssetenta y tres times in a song that accelerated as fast as my years had.
My memorable birthday not withstanding, the one-on-one instruction was no piece of cake, but still easier than I had anticipated. When you sit across a table two feet from your teacher, you can't hide (although I did take bathroom breaks hourly, let him think I have weak kidneys.) Rony with a rolling Rrrrrrr started me at rock bottom with the alphabet, harder than you might think, progressing to numbers, uno,dos, tres, while Roger happily zoomed along with his teacher, Alvaro, a taskmaster pushing him relentlessly. Rony spoke excellent English and politically we were simpatico--see how fast I was learning Spanish--and we often fell into discussing Guatemala's tragic past and the U.S. involvement en Ingles, until I'd say Well, we better get back to Spanish, cuatro, cinco...
At 1 PM, we went home for our big meal of the day--fresh veggies prepared in inventive ways, warm tortillas, chicken mole... We had lucked out with the best cook of all the homestay families.
Xela was sunny during the day, in the high 60's, but at night it plunged to the low '40's. The first phrase I learned was Hace frio, It's cold, the second, Hace mucho frio. Our home, much more upscale than I had expected, had neither sunlight nor central heating. Our room too chilly to study in, we whiled away afternoons in cozy cafes, doing our homework, seis, siete,ocho, in between sipping excellent Guatemalan coffee.
Our room was also dim with only a tiny bulb in the ceiling fixture. The moment our light meal at 8PM was over, we hustled into our long underwear, jumped under four wool blankets, and read by the flashlights we had providentially brought, I riveted by "The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?" by Francisco Goldman, a non fiction book that plunges you into Guatemala's chilling history, Roger next to me studying vocabulary. A good book and body heat: you can't beat it.
On the weekend, we took a justly earned holiday, riding some hours on "the chicken bus"--colorful, modified buses that inexpensively transport people and live animals--to Lago Atitlan, the deepest lake in Central America that, for good reason, many think the most beautiful in the world. Surrounded by volcanoes that strike a deep primeval chord because they're active, we visited villages by boat and tuk tuks, poking around cemeteries and 16th century churches with their fascinating mix of Mayan and Catholic parts. We took long hot showers, and Roger shaved several times,especial treats since our homestay had only cold water.
Monday in Xela brought a rude surprise: Our teachers had been switched and I got Alvaro. I held myself together until the cafe, where I burst into tears of stress, "There's no way I can get all this homework done!"
Then it came to me.
I'm 73. What are they going to do? Not give me a ride to the airport? I can do nothing--NADA--just sit there while Senor Tough Love piles it on--and So what?
Alas, I'm much too American (translation: competitive) for So what?
Although the halcyon days were gone, Alvaro determined to teach me verbs, especiallyirregular ones, I gave it my best shot. He was always chapters ahead of me, but I moved along sprightly. Once I even looked across the table at him passionately reciting conjugations, soinvested in my learning, and thought, I'm so lucky to have this experience.
The difficulties of the second week were exceeded by deep gratifications that blew way past the simple challenges, simple pleasures of the first week. Roger continued to flourish, rattling off Spanish conversation in all tenses with our non-English speaking family during meals. Even while I stared rapt at him like Callista at Newt, I was simultaneously amazed by how much Spanish I understood.
Another unexpected pleasure was being off grid for 16 days. No email, news, You Tube, Facebook, and oh my gosh, no Groupons: I was serene as Buddha with more quetzals in my pocket.
At the end of two weeks, they gave us diplomas and a graduation potluck supper. At the ceremony, we both made speeches. En Espanol. Roger's was off the cuff; I wrote mine out, running it past Alvaro for correctness. Basically, I said that while it was true Roger wouldn't have had this experience without me, it was equally true I wouldn't have had it without him. The present I had given him ended up also being a present for me. Maybe that was some kind of weird metaphor or recipe for a 50 year marriage.
Everybody cheered. I was pretty doggone proud of my command of Spanish in the present tense.
After, the students, English, German, Canadian, Australian, all pierced, tattooed, and in their 20's, swept us off to a club, the spinning colored lights playing over all of us while they bought round and round of beer and Roger played bass with the band. A hunky Australian student with a small silver ring in his eyebrow clinked my glass. "Roger is the coolest," he said.
"Si," I said without a moment's hesitation.
For more info about Miguel Angel Asturias school, see http://www.spanishschool.com/