The Experience of a Lifetime
In 2014, I chose Guatemala for its strong indigenous presence, particularly the Mayan culture, which is still alive and visible throughout the country. After a little research, I settled on Quetzaltenango, which is named after Guatemala's famed rare green bird, the Quetzal. Locals, however, call it Xela (pronouncing the "x" as a "sh"). There, I stayed with a host family and took Spanish classes at the Celas Maya school.
Xela was fun to explore, and I met a lot of interesting travelers from many different countries, some of whom I still keep in contact with. The host family was also great to talk to, and dinners with the extended family were delightful. The family was so large that I had to ask each person how they were related, and I ended up drawing an entire tree diagram. Getting around was easy--all you had to do was find a "chicken bus," one of those old American school buses painted and refurbished to make a city bus. (It's not uncommon to see locals riding these buses carrying chickens, hence the name).
The school was also large and there were always people to meet and go out with, sometimes as a large group. I was surprised by the amount of classical Greco-Roman architecture in Xela; for example, the Templo de Minerva, which looked like a mini-Parthenon, and the circular structure with columns, which the locals simply called "El Kiosko." A stroll through a colorful cemetary was also thought-provoking.
As I continued to study, I learned that the Celas Maya school also taught classes in K'iche', one of Guatemala's indigenous Mayan languages. So, very promptly, I switched my course of study to K'iche'. My K'iche' teacher, Jaime, was raised by grandparents who taught him traditional Mayan ways, including the study of the stars and planets. He also aided me in planning visits to pyramids and other ancient sites in order to better understand the K'iche' Mayans. If they were anything like the Jalq'a of Bolivia, I imagined, I could gain spiritual understanding through their art, language, and history.
Equipped with a basic understanding of K'iche' and a feel for the indigenous presence, I set out from Xela on a chicken bus opening my heart to the experience of a lifetime. I was surprised and inspired by how much K'iche' (and other indigenous languages) I heard spoken throughout Guatemala. I even learned that the name Xela comes from the K'iche phrase Xelajuj No'j, meaning "under ten wisdoms" or "under ten rulers." Some have also translated it as "under ten mountains" because the word no'j can mean wisdom, ruler, or mountain. Languages (and the people who speak them) are so fascinating!