A Tour of Xela and the First Week

The tour bus bumped and jostled over cracked streets with arrow signs that read “una via”, one way, posted high up the corner buildings. There are not road signs on every corner and often the street would curve right or left until it seemed like we were several streets over from where we started, but I would finally see a street sign on a corner house and it would be the same street we had started on. The broken pavement turned into cobblestones. Modern looking concrete houses sat shoulder-to-shoulder with old and run down mud brick house with a brightly painted chipping concrete façade facing the street. A crooked brick chimney was perched on a tin-roofed house like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Huge wooden double doors with fresh stain were cozied in beside doors boarded up with plywood to cover gaping holes. There was a neatly painted black and yellow house with white cast iron window boxes full of red geraniums reminiscent of Spanish style architecture. Two houses down, the red paint looked water damaged, exposing the whitewashed cement wall underneath.

The new teachers had all met in Parque Central Monday morning, under the looming pillars of the “kiosk”, for a tour of the city. The kiosk is modeled after Greek architecture, with ten Ionian pillars standing in a circle around thick benches and, besides for the war memorial, is one of the highest points of Parque Central. The park is several giant steps up from the street already, and takes up nearly a whole block. Several gardens are planted in the center, cut out of the cement and situated several feet below the park’s plane. Four taller pillars mark the edge of the park to the north; six more mark the south side. The guide explained later that ten in a special number to those in Quetzaltenango because of the ten volcanoes that surround the city.

Across the street from the park on the south side, a columned building with French and Swedish flags wrapped around the front pillars stands tall. It is now a natural history museum, but was once a prison. The street separating Central Park from the museum used to be the main cemetery of Xela, but after a diphtheria epidemic long ago, combined with a lot of rain that season, they had to move the cemetery. They moved the prison, too, because those inside said the building was haunted.

One of the first catholic churches in Guatemala, Catedral del Espiritu Santo, is located just behind the original façade to the east of the park. The church burned down and was rebuilt behind the still-standing front wall. Statues of saints rest inside alcoves beside and above the doors. The pillars built into the front are elaborately carved with a crisscrossing pattern and any flat place on the church front is carved with geometric designs.

Xela is settled at the base of Santa Maria volcano, which erupts about every two weeks or so. It was founded in 1524 when the Spanish conquered the K’iche Mayans and renamed the Mayan capital of Xelajú to Quetzaltenango. In 1838, Xela became the capital of the independent state of Los Altos, which, as the director Mr. McNabb put it, was “kinda like Texas” in its independence. As Los Altos, Quetzaltenango had its own currency, and a train from the coast to the highlands—one of the first electric trains in Central America in the 1930’s. According to our guide, Guatemalan president Jorge Ubico was jealous of Xela’s economic prosperity and destroyed the train only three and a half years after it had been built so that Los Altos would go bankrupt and have to join the rest of Guatemala. Part of the railroad track was built into the kiosk benches in Parque Central.

The bus passed Banco Industrial, which took up the whole front of the north block across from Central Park. The guide pointed out presidential houses, government buildings, and the theater and we went from Zona 1 towards Zona 3. We stopped at St. Nicholas’s Cathedral, the only gothic style cathedral in Xela. It’s spires and flying buttresses contrasted starkly with the clean block lines of the buildings across the street. From the outside, the grey concrete building looked like a miniature European cathedral, even showcasing a circular window and bell tower with a cross on the utmost spire. On the inside, it was anything but miniature. The vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows over the altar, giant organ situated above the door with pipes to the ceiling, gold-dusted columns with angels perched on the top, and somber-looking statues of saints around the church left us all staring open-mouthed and heads back in the middle of the auditorium.

Across from St. Nicholas’ is another park, Parque Benito Juarez, where a circular statue stood that was given as a gift from Mexico, and a bustling market filled the streets. Fruits, vegetables, trinkets, souvenirs, all were lying out under umbrellas directly on the road or on small tables. Carts of more trinkets and food lined the curbs. Many of the women wore the traditional dress of Xela with embroidered collars and sleeves, aprons, and dark patterned skirts. We continued our tour past the Xela soccer stadium and eventually passed a massive temple to Minerva, which seemed dropped into the middle of the road, creating a “Y” around it. Our guide said Guatemalan president Manuel Estrada Cabrera wanted to build ten temples to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts, but only completed six. The columns were much sparser, without fluting on the pillars or the added embellishment to the capitals of the Greek styled columns in Parque Central. The pillars were smooth, with simple square capitals to hold up the roof—it looked very pragmatic, even for an eccentric temple.

There was a Wal-Mart somewhere over a distant hill, and a zoo and a circus nearby. To get to the school, we passed under grey arches with the words in Spanish: “The hate of tyrants make martyrs, but the love of freedom makes heroes.” We drove over a one-lane bridge with small children directing traffic. They stood in on the bridge like sentries, waving cars on and over. The bridge is one-lane not from original intent, but from structural damage where one side has fallen in. We were told that the city had tried to shut the bridge down, but the people complained and the city couldn’t keep it closed. It was not a comforting thought when on the bridge’s pinnacle looking down to the muddy river ten feet below. This is the fourth bridge that has had to be built here.

The bridge was soon forgotten as we reach the school grounds. An armed guard let us through the tall chain link fence. We drove past the middle school building and cut back and forth up a hill to where the administration building is situated. As we got out, we could see all of Xela below the school and the top of Santa Maria in the far distance. Clustered with the administration building are the computer lab, library, teacher lounge, cafeteria, and resource center. Below that are the kindergarten rooms in a building by themselves. Nearby are the elementary building for the other classes, and the high school building. The outsides of the buildings are all yellow and the new buildings have tiled floors. The library has over 18,000 books in it, ranging from pre-k fiction to high school literature, to teaching resources, to theology, and everything in between.

At an elevation of 8,000 ft., the hike down the campus hill to the middle school building and back up left all of the teachers breathless. I’m pretty sure even at sea level, I would still have been out of breath. For summer camp, the students had created a zip line, the remains of which hung above our heads as we trekked from the top of the hill to the bottom.

The teachers were given keys to their classrooms, and after several orientation workshops, were set loose to arrange and decorate, or in my case, simply stand in the middle of my room, and imagine the fullness that ten kindergarten students will bring with them. It seemed much more real looking over the tiny red chairs and tables stacked against one wall. I thought in wonder of how I even got here. The cool mountain air and afternoon showers in Xela cut out the need for air conditioning; there is no heating either, but I imagine the liveliness of a class of kindergarteners will cut out that need, anyway. There is a closet full of resources the last kindergarten teacher left to use, as well as two black trash bags full of posters with the words “Beginning of Year” sharpied on a piece of masking tape and stuck to the front of the bags. I counted the cubbyholes near the door and thought of the little coats and backpacks that will fill them soon.

The teacher bus came at five o’clock and took us from the school to our stops around the city, concluding the teaching duties of day one at IAS.

In the following days, Autumn and I tried to find the despensa, a grocery store near Central Park, and ended up walking around the natural history museum square, into a building full of shops and out again without successfully finding the despensa. We were given directions by our housemate, Martin, who is originally from Korea, and is studying Spanish at Kie Balam, one of the schools in Xela. He told us the despensa would be very easy to find, “Just keep going straight, and it is right there, down the street on the side of the square closest to us.” Autumn and I found ourselves in a new part of Xela trying to follow his directions. We passed under Puente de los Chocoyos, or Parakeet Bridge, a walking bridge over 15 Avenida. I later heard a legend that two lover’s from rival families in Xela died of broken hearts after being forced apart, but their spirits take the form of parakeets at night and meet at the bridge. But I didn’t know that story as we walked under the bridge and up and down several large hills trying to find the grocery store.

Anna Maria’s son, Manuel, plays guitar in a band. On Wednesday, after a full day of curriculum training and new teacher workshops, we went with him and Martin and Classia, another housemate from the Netherlands, to Cadjos, a newly opened restaurant, to listen to them play. The restaurant is high up the mountainside overlooking Xela. Manual drove his car and the bass guitar player, Pablo, joined us. Thankfully, we didn’t have to walk up the steep incline. The switchbacks were sharp nearly 180-degree turns back and forth up the mountain. At one point, another car needed to get by and Manual had to stop on what felt like a 50-degree ascent. The car lurched when we started, but after only rolling slightly backward, it caught the gear and began up again. Cadajos is two stories tall and the sides are open to the air. Strings of lights hung from the roof and the owner lit a candle on our table. From our vantage point, all of Xela was spread out below us like a lake of lights. It was lightning in the distant hills, but the rain never reached us. Far across the city, rivulets of light ran up the opposite mountainside. The band played very well, although I understood very little of what is being sung. Near the end of the concert, the lead singer, Paulo, sang several songs in English.

A custom that I will have to get used to is being kissed on the cheek. I am now a bit more broke in, but I may have panicked a bit the first time I was pulled in for a kiss at Cadajos. I decided to be brave when we arrived, and I introduced myself to Manuel’s band-member I hadn’t met, who happened to be Paulo. I held out my hand, blithely saying, “Hola,” thinking, You got this, you can introduce yourself in Spanish, it’s not that hard. Paolo took my hand and pulled me towards him, saying “Mucho gusto,” with a kiss on my cheek. Instead of saying mucho gusto as he had done, I froze and just told him my name. He said, “Ok,” in a very confused voice and I felt quite a bit foolish.

Ah, cultural learning curves.

Over the weekend, Anna Maria showed us where to find hangers at another market not far from our house. Autumn and I had all but given up on the Despensa. The storefronts where Anna Maria took us have roll-doors if they are large, and look nearly indistinguishable from houses if they are small. We went with Anna Maria a little bit later to buy corn tortillas and walked into a store that looked like a home—except for the sign that said, “Tortillas –8am-3pm.” There was a woman near a flat-topped stove, patting away tortilla dough. Rows of tortillas were already cooking atop the stove. There were shoes for sale on a stand beside her, too. Anna Maria told her how many tortillas she wanted and paid for them, but we kept on walking, back to the market by where we bought hangers. She bought cilantro from a basket under an umbrella, and gave the stall owner a few quetzals for a bunch. We picked up our bag of tortillas on the way home. When we arrived, she added the cilantro to the vegetable soup she had made.

There was a soccer game on Saturday that most of the first and second-year teachers wernt to as well. Xela hasn’t made it to any national tournaments, and after an hour an hour and a half of sitting on concrete stadium benches without a single goal, it was easy to see why. An hour and a half in, the other team scored, sending Xela fans into fits. The Xela team got more boos, angry yells, and whistles of disbelief than they did any actual cheering, despite their supportive band playing the entire game.

On Sunday, after walking half an hour to and from church and eating a hearty lunch, we went to the Cemetario General with Martin. It is the largest cemetery in Xela and took us an hour to walk around. Before the entrance of the cemetery was a busy flower market with buckets of flowers under the eaves of the church nearby and out in the square under umbrellas. The cemetery was divided into sections based on the plots people can pay for. If the family cannot keep up on the payments that are required, the grave is abandoned and the city moves the bodies out to make room for new ones. Near the entrance of the cemetery were large crypts ranging from family burial sites in rectangular structures ten wide and five deep to decadent pyramids and columned presidential crypts. To the right of the cemetery, against the wall, there were the middle-class crypts, with one on top of the other with no differentiation as to families besides the bright colors around the door of each person’s tomb. Tall and gnarly trees lined the main road through the cemetery and small stone markers with numbers painted on them indicated the row number off that road. Trails had been worn through the grass down the different rows. Past the massive tombs were small stone markers for those who can’t afford a crypt. The tombstones were brightly painted, as was the cement block lying over the burial site. Some can’t afford even this, and there were instead flowers covering the grave. We stopped at Vanushka’s gravesite. The base of the long tombstone was pink and the statue of the woman lying on the lid was white. Her tomb was covered in flowers and people had written on the statue prayers for love. Things like, “Help me find love,” in English, or names of lovers were penned all over her tomb. Martin explained that Vanushka was separated from her lover and died of a broken heart. If it is the same story I heard, she was a gypsy woman in love with an affluent Guatemalan. Her Guatemalan lover’s father did not like the match and sent his son to Spain and she subsequently died. The legend goes that if a lover comes to her tomb at midnight and presents flowers with a prayer for love, she helps reunite the separated lovers, or blesses the lovers, or something like that. It started raining as we walked and the clouds dropped low over Santa Maria and the distant mountain ranges. The thunder sounded loudly over the crypts and seemed magnified in the mountain acoustics.

It’s raining again, and the Wi-Fi has gone out. The city looks blue in the twilight mists from my window. Heavy swathes of dark clouds ghost across the mountaintop I can see and the rain falls heavy on the tin roof above my room. There are no fireworks or dogs barking now, per usual, but there is the rhythmic beat of a bass guitar from somewhere down the street. Martin is making Korean soup tonight, and curriculum for lesson plans wait in a pile on the desk in my room. The desk is an old Singer sewing machine, but the closed top moonlights as a desk and is now covered in papers and the jar of chocolate swirled Cookie Butter my dear friend Morgan got for me as a survival necessity before I left. I may have to open it, as lesson plans for the first week are due this Friday, and I am not ready to admit a week has already gone by since I landed in Guatemala City. The city has grown on me since I have been here, and I see every child I meet on the street with a hope that he or she will be in my class next week. To think that next Monday my class will be full of dark-eyed children looking to me to teach them things! I pray that Truth and Love will reign in my classroom and each little heart will be receptive to learn and grow.

Thank you for your prayers and thoughts, and thank you to everyone who has encouraged me through a card, an email or a comment. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to each and every one of you.

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3 thoughts on “A Tour of Xela and the First Week

  1. Sue Johnson says:

    Thank you, Tanessa, for today’s blog….do you ever consider becoming a tour guide?(smile) I feel as if I’m there with you. “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, shall receive many times as much, and shall inherit eternal life.” Matthew 19:29

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Christine Taylor says:

    Beautiful…..You’re wording has a way of incredibly describing the things you are seeing, you have a way of making me feel as if I am there seeing these things with you. Thank you for sharing your journey with all of us. Staying tuned for your ongoing story

    Liked by 2 people

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