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Ryan’s Great Adventures

Volume 13: Sat Jun 29, 2002

I took this picture because the building had the flag of Guatemala at the top

It is I once again, reporting in from Quetzaltenango, aka Xela (pronounced 'shay-la'). It's a bustling metropolis with a population of about 100,000 people making it the second largest city in Guatemala, second only to Guatemala City.

I last wrote from Guatemala City. At the time, Amanda had left for the airport in the hopes of catching a flight back the United States. As she was flying standby, she didn't know if she'd actually be able to get any flights out (she did), while I wandered the streets of Guatemala City. Despite my initial bad impression while driving through on my way to Antigua, it wasn't really a big deal. We stayed in Zone 1, primarily because that's where our bus dropped us off and there were perfectly acceptable hotels a couple of blocks away. Amanda's guidebook said something about Zone 1 being the 'seedy' part of the city which makes it far more interesting than the rest of Guatemala City, which wasn't exactly a discouragement for people like us either! =)

There's a sign on this church welcoming Pope John Paul to town, but it's too small to read from this distance

As for the hotel, we really went high end with the hotel this time. Even had CABLE! Yep, cable. It was wonderful! On Amanda's last night in Guatemala, we watched Galaxy Quest with subtitles in Spanish. The hotel actually had an armed guard at the front that would unlock and lock the door for us whenever we wanted to come in or go out in the evenings or early mornings.

There was also an unusual rule I discovered as I walked out of the hotel to explore the city Saturday morning. The manager came out running after me, saying I had to leave the room key at the hotel. "But I'm staying another night," I replied, "so I'll need the key to get back into my room!" But no, he insists, I can pick it up again at the front desk when I return. But why can't I just hang onto it and skip the middle man?! So after that, whenever I wanted to leave the hotel, I had to leave my room key behind and pick it up again at the front desk whenever I returned. Very strange, and I never did really figure out the reason for that. So I can't go out and copy the key? So I can't lose it? I may never know the true reason....

There are a couple of rather interesting looking buildings, one of which was a cathedral sporting a sign welcoming the pope to the country. (He's supposed to visit late in July.) At a park, I saw a large group of people clustered in a circle around something that I wasn't able to see. Curious, I wiggled my way into the group to discover a snake charmer,I guess you'd call him, although I didn't see him doing much charming. In fact, if I didn't know any better, I'd think he was going to enormous effort to piss off the boa by squirting water into its face! Then he walked around in circles around the snake, talking to the audience with a microphone. He was speaking too fast for me to understand what he was saying, and finally I left bored watching him do nothing but squirt water into the snake's face every now and then.

This looked like some sort of government installation, but I have no idea what. I just liked the look of the turrets on the building. =)

And, later in the evening, I finally got to see Spiderman, or El Hombre Araña, as they call the film here. This was my first opportunity to finally watch the movie since the film has eluded me everywhere else in Central America. However, unlike most movies that are still in English but have Spanish subtitles, this one was deemed big enough to actually dub in Spanish. Originally, I wasn't going to watch it since I figured I wouldn't understand most of what was said, but finally decided to see it anyway thinking that I already KNEW the story, so how important could the words really be? Man gets bit by spider. Becomes a superhero. Catches bad guy. Convinced I didn't REALLY need to understand all the words, I paid my ticket, navigated to the correct screen (more difficult than you'd imagine, since they were scattered around seemingly at random on three different floors and in no particular order), and sat down to watch the movie.

I was correct in the thought that I really didn't need to understand all the words to enjoy the movie, although I discovered I could pick out a surprisingly amount anyhow if the sentences were short and simple. Regardless, I'll have to watch it again someday either when my Spanish is better or in English after I return to the states. =)

And, Sunday morning, I boarded a bus heading to Quetzaltenango. It was a five or so hour rather uneventful trip. When I arrived, I immediately went off in search of the school I was planning to attend, hoping someone would actually be there on a Sunday afternoon to arrange the homestay for me. Unfortunately, that was not the case and I checked myself into a cheap, nearby hotel called the "Oriental Hotel". And sure enough, it was a bunch of orientals running the hotel. Not sure how that happened, and their Spanish seemed as bad as my own. It was a very cheap hotel. It looked cheap. It felt cheap. But it had one thing which amazed me: Cable TV! For that, I would have expected to pay a lot more than I actually did, so I'm not complaining. Don't remember what I watched that time, except that it wasn't very good.

Monday morning, I report to the school bright and early. I immediately like it more than the school in Antigua primarily because it's a very small one with three other students besides myself this week. It's also cheaper too. While in Antigua I was paying $150 for 20 hours of one-on-one instruction, here I was paying $125 for 25 hours of one-on-one instruction. (This includes the homestay in both cases.)

Quetzaltenango is much cooler than anywhere else I've visited so far due to its high elevation of over 7,000 feet above sea level, but like everywhere else, it generally rains once a day for a short period in the evening and mornings appear clear and sunny (though a bit chilly). The city is surrounded by beautiful, towering volcanos, one of which is said to be the highest in all of Central America. Perhaps I'll climb it while I'm here.

A typical street scene in Guatemala City

Later in the week, somehow the discussion of the empire called McDonald's come up with my teacher where we both made mock gagging sounds regarding the taste of their hamburgers. I was complaining that I couldn't find a Burger King to buy a strawberry shake (along with more gagging sounds to show my impression of their actual food) when my teacher told me that there were no Burger King's in Xela, only McDonalds. Which is when we went off on the McDonald's tangent. Anyhow, to make a long story short, we then started talking about other fast-food establishments—both local and from the United States (yes, there are local fast-food establishments too!) and I discovered that a TACO BELL was lurking in my presence!

Yes, I crumble at Taco Bell. I love the Mexican pizza, the burrito supreme, cinnamon twists, and so forth. In all of my travels throughout Honduras and Guatemala, I had never crossed paths with a Taco Bell, a luxury I had done without for over two months. And I learn, purely by accident, there was a Taco Bell lurking in this small part of Central America. I had to see this place. I had to eat here. "Where was this Disneyland of Guatemala?" I ask my teacher.

She tries pointing it out on a very bad map, and later that afternoon I went in search of it. Sadly, I failed. I found two McDonalds, a Dominos Pizza, but no Taco Bell. But I knew I was getting warm, because I found three discarded cups sporting the Taco Bell logo while wondering around the streets of Xela. I've never been so happy to see a piece of litter before in my life. My heart fluttered.

The next day, I told my teacher of my failure and that she HAD to take me there, RIGHT NOW! I needed this. It was a matter of LIFE AND DEATH! So off we started walking, discussing sights we'd see along the way in Spanish since—after all—I was actually paying for Spanish lessons. Turns out I had gotten pretty near the place, but not QUITE far enough, to discover a large indoor shopping mall, much like you'd find in the United States. And tucked in it, way in the back, was a Taco Bell. I found it!

And it was CLOSED! *rolling eyes* It was a horrible joke. It seems it was too early in the morning and they hadn't opened yet, although there were people behind the gate preparing for its opening that day. So we sat in the food court while I continued practice speaking Spanish with my teacher for the next half hour or so, and at long last, the store opened.

Naturally, I was the first person to jump up and order. I got the Mexican pizza, burrito supreme, and a regular Pepsi. Typically, either the Mexican pizza or the burrito supreme is enough to fill me up, but I just couldn't decide so I picked them both. I'd have ordered other stuff too, but I knew I'd never be able to finish it all, even as big as my eyes were at the time. I also bought a chicken taco for my teacher to show my appreciation.

It was bliss. =) Tastes just like back at home. Except for some reason, the people in this country refuse to use any cheese that's yellow, so the food did look a little different, but it tasted the same. (It's pretty normal for most countries not to color their cheddar cheese yellow, like we do in the states.)

Cheese often is sold wrapped with leaves, with different leaves used to provide a different flavor

I've only eaten at that Taco Bell once so far (although I'll certainly go back on occasion to indulge myself!), but speaking of that white cheese.... They do really weird stuff with their cheese I've been learning this past week.

I've been eating this cheese the entire time I've been out here, but at the homestay I'm at with now, I discovered how they actually buy the cheese. It's rolled up in large leaves. That's right. From right off a tree. I was puzzled at first when the mom of my family (Maria) started unwrapping a package wrapped with what looked like large maple leaves, and it turned out to be cheese inside. I asked Maria why it was wrapped in leaves—kind of a good idea I thought, being VERY biodegradable unlike the plastics used in the United States—but she said that's done to help flavor the cheese, and the cheese can be bought in different leaves for different types of flavors. The next day, the cheese was wrapped in leaves I didn't even recognize. Very fascinating, this thing with cheese.

This is one of the daughters of the family I stayed with, playing with the new puppy they got this week. (Those are my feet by the puppy, in case you wanted to see more pictures of me.)

As for my homestay family, they're a wonderful group of people. There's the mom, two daughters (17 and 18), a brother (I think—he wasn't really clear about his relation), a nephew (6) and the father (again, not sure—could be the brother of the mom). The guys always leave everyday—to work, presumably—so I don't really talk to them often (except for the small boy) while the girls are around the house all day cleaning, cooking, talking and playing games. There's a Nintendo there, which I found myself playing with the mom and one of the daughers yesterday for large amounts of time. Super Mario Brothers. Haven't played that since I was a kid! The mom treats me just like—well, a mom. Always asking if I'm getting enough to eat and feeling well. The girls are trying to sucker me into embarrassing myself by going out to dance somewhere. The boy (Jose) seems to find anything I do highly amusing, especially if it involves accidentally spilling a bowl of oatmeal on myself.

And that's been my week in a nutshell! =)

Until next week, farewell!

— Ryan

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