For a long time now I’ve wanted to improve my Spanish. I took Spanish classes in high school and over the years I’ve visited a lot of Spanish-speaking countries, but my skill has never progressed much beyond the “Hello, how are you?” stage. My ear for languages is pretty terrible and I’ll never be fluent, but I’d like to be able to at least have a decent conversation.
Marie feels similarly, and lately she’s been using a Spanish language learning app that she says works well. Considering that I have a lot more free time than Marie, however, I thought I might as well jump in with both feet and study Spanish in Latin America.
I read that Ecuador, Peru, and Guatemala were all good places to learn the language. Apparently people there tend to speak relatively clearly and without a strong accent. Guatemala appealed to me the most, given that I’d already spent a lot of time in Ecuador and Peru but only a couple days in Guatemala (when Marie and I made a quick side-trip from Belize to check out Tikal).
Antigua, Guatemala popped up as the prime candidate. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with quaint cobblestone streets and old colonial buildings. Volcanoes loom over the southern and western horizon, making for what I hoped would be some good landscape photos. And the city is full of inexpensive language schools with flexible schedules. Antigua also happens to be as touristy as Guatemala gets, but correspondingly clean and safe, too.
So I bought a plane ticket to Guatemala City, reserved a week of classes at the Don Pedro language school in Antigua, and booked a room at a hotel. If things went well I’d stay for up to a month, and if not I’d head home sooner.
I arrived in Guatemala City on a Monday morning in early August and caught a ride straight to Antigua. My hotel room was pretty basic, but the view from the rooftop deck was five-star. From that vantage point I could see the Don Pedro school (only a block away), the San Merced Church, the striking Santa Catalina Arch, and three volcanoes: Agua dominating the southern horizon, Fuego to the southwest, and Acatenanga just north of Fuego. Most days I climbed to the roof for sunrise and sunset.
On my third day in Antigua I started class. I studied one-on-one with a teacher for four hours each morning, 8am until noon, five days a week. My teacher, Gladys, was about my age and commuted to the school from her home in a nearby town, where she lived with her husband and two adult sons. Gladys turned out to be relaxed and patient, thankfully, given that I was not an ideal student. “Did you study your verbs?” Gladys would ask (in Spanish) at the start of most classes.
“A little,” I’d reply sheepishly.
Guatemala’s reputation in the U.S. isn’t great these days. The news has been filled with stories of refugees fleeing violence and poverty. And it’s true, the country has serious problems. But the people I met were warm and friendly, and I always felt safe in Antigua. On my first night in town I stupidly left my wallet behind after paying for a bottle of water. As I started to walk away the clerk called out, looked at me like I must be an idiot, and pointed to my wallet sitting on the counter.
Despite Gladys’ best efforts I learned slowly. My vocabulary improved incrementally, and after a couple of weeks I could speak a little in the past tense, something I’d never been able to do before. But I kept making the same mistakes over and over, and speaking never felt comfortable.
After class each day I still had the whole afternoon and evening to kill, and once I’d walked all over the city I started running out of ideas for ways to stay busy. On my first weekend I hiked up the Pacaya volcano, where from a safe viewpoint I watched yellow-red patches of lava hiss and bubble. I thought about visiting Lake Atitlan, but Gladys made it sound like it’s been polluted so badly it’s not worth the effort. As the days passed I spent more and more time on the roof of my hotel, especially before dawn, trying to capture some of Volcan de Feugo’s small eruptions.
I could, of course, have just used my free time to study. But four hours of Spanish each morning left my brain tired and full. I grew frustrated with the language. Why do nouns have to have a gender? Who decided that weather is male and tables are female? With no specific learning goal (other than to speak well enough to get by while traveling in Spanish-speaking countries), I struggled to stay engaged. Increasingly restless both during and after class, I decided three weeks would be enough and booked a flight back home.
Antigua was a great choice of locations, and I’m very glad I gave it a try, but I was a poor student. No aspect of class felt natural, and the small progress I made each day never seemed to offset the frustration of being such a painstakingly slow learner. Maybe I should follow Marie’s lead and try an app next. If I ever decide to take classes in Latin America again, I’ll have to come up with a better way to keep myself motivated.
Before heading out on my next real trip – a couple of weeks in Myanmar with Marie – I made a quick run to Yosemite for a night of camping. Most of the waterfalls in the valley weren’t flowing, but good old Vernal Falls never disappoints. And I managed to catch some nice sunrise light on Half Dome as I started back towards home the next morning.