Thursday, July 15, 2004

Guatemala May-July 2004

This letter is adapted from a letter I sent to some friends and family while I was in Guatemala. Take a step back in time with me to when I was in Guatemala for a detailed description of my life during my stay

Dear Friends and Family,

My experience here in Antigua has been challenging, but also very rewarding. What follows is a brief description of some of the highlights.

The Routine

First of all, there is a definite defined routine here unlike I've ever had in my life. Every morning I wake up at 6:30am to get ready for desayuno (breakfast) at 7am. After breakfast and the inevitable talk about the World Cup, i head off for Spanish classes that start at 8am. At 1030 we have a descansar (a break) where a woman serves various things to eat. Always really good and spicy. After the break, more Spanish until 12, for the siesta and almuerzo (lunch). I usually use this time to run errands, check email, and sometimes take a nap. Lunch is served promptly at 1pm and classes resume at 2. At 430, classes are over for the day. Afterwards, I usually walk around the town, sit in the park, or head back to my house. I've also spent a considerable MBA to work! Cena (dinner) is served at 730, and usually lasts until 9 or 930 amount of time helping a local travel agent with their business strategy. Putting my (sometimes later!). After cena I usually study or read. Then the next day I do it all over again.

My House and Family

As you can probably tell from the above description, the family and my house are an important part of my experience here. Thanks to a connection from UNC business school, I have an incredible family. Oscar, Maritza, and two of their children, Nancy 18 and Alam 20, live in the house. Oscar is an incredibly nice guy and a boatload of fun. Cena every night turns into a 2 or 2.5 hour affair because Oscar tells jokes, stories, and entertains all of us. In the house, there are 3 other students. There has been some new students in the 3.5 weeks I have been here but a few of the students have been here the entire time. It is an incredibly fun, relaxed and family environment in the house.


My entire day is spent speaking Spanish. Whether it is at the school with my teacher or at the meals or in the streets I am speaking (or trying to speak) Spanish. All of Oscar's jokes are in Spanish of course, so I am also learning some of the 'local' language. I study with my teacher 6.5 hours a day, which is a lot. The good news that a lot of it is simply talking, telling stories, or walking through the town. In three weeks I have learned alot, but I have also discovered how deep and expansive a language can be. It is frustrating not to be able to communicate my real thoughts. In order to communicate I have to choose from the words and phrases I know. It's hard to tell you how it feels to go days on end stuggling with the ability to speak. However, I have improved dramatically over 3 weeks, and can understand and converse with someone who speaks slowly enough. At this point, I have about 4 weeks left to study, so I am hopeful to increase my speed and vocabulary.

The Food

The food here has been great in general. I am not able to tell you names of the things I have eaten, but I can tell you that I'm eating lots of random fruits, vegetables, and strange concoctions of meat and rice. One thing that is worth noting is that the tortillas and eggs here are amazing. Hard to describe, but very tasty. Also, like most Central American countries, they love their chilis here. I have eaten some salsa and picante that literally knocked my shoes off (when I kicked the table from the heat). One other thing worth noting. There is an amazing bakery here that makes fresh banana bread at 4pm everyday. It only costs 2 bucks, so it has become a staple in my house. Antigua, Guatemala is a small, very historic town, but it has seen an influx of brand names recently. McDonald's, Burger King and even Dominos can be found here if you look hard enough. But the best food to be had is at home.


Is it cheap? Yes. No doubt about it. I am paying $75 a week for an large room, with a private bathroom (a luxury due to my UNC connection) and all of the meals are included. I've found a good place for ice cream that costs 7 quetzals (less than a dollar). This internet cafe costs only about 1.25 per hour. So it all is very reasonable, but certainly the costs can add up if you spend everyday. One of the things I wanted to solve was how to call home. I found the best solution here was for me to buy a cell phone. A few weeks ago, I bought a cell phone, from Bell South, for less than 50 bucks and it came with 175 minutes of free time to call the USA. Any minutes after that are about 12 cents. The best part is that calls to me are completely free.


I have taken a few trips to some pretty cool places. Hard to explain without pictures, but some of these towns are definitely the farthest I have ever been from civilization. I've seen bizarre religious rituals (including a chicken sacrifice) and I've seen natural hot water springs. Of course to get there, I had to take chicken buses, which are essentially converted US school buses. This past weekend I went on my biggest trip yet, to a town called Rio Dulce in east part of the country. It was beautiful and interesting.

Volcan Pacaya

The coolest thing I have done so far was just this past Tuesday when I climbed an active volcano. It was a brutally difficult climb, and probably the hardest thing I have ever done physically. At one point towards the top, I was taking only 2 or 3 steps every minute. The altitude at the top was 8000 feet, and it was hard to breath, especially because of all of the sulfur gas. I stood on the edge of the crater with nothing to my right, left or behind me. It was incredible and very scary! The volcano erupted last week, so the fumes obscured the lava. At the top, the earth was very hot to the touch. The climb down was more like skiing because the ash and rocks are so slippery and the decent is very steep. All in all, it was very worthwhile, but I wouldn´t recommend it for everyone.

Poverty and Economy

There is an incredible amount of poverty here and I have seen some things that I wish I hadn't (especially involving children). At the same time, there is money here, and there are plenty of nice cars in the streets and thriving businesses. I think this is a bit different than I expected, and it is clear that places like this have opportunity for growth. One example is the well known chicken restaurant called 'Pollo Campero.' This business is thriving in Guatemala, and they have recently in the last month opened a store in Los Angeles. Apparently, the day they opened there was a line around the block. Antigua has a lot of tourists and students, so it is not surprising to see lots of internet cafes, travel agencies and the like.


There is no doubt that I am in a 3rd world country. The good news is that if you take precautions, think before acting, and use general common sense you can avoid the dangerous spots. The first week I was here I was constantly worried, but now I don´t feel as much at risk. However, there are plenty of things to look out for and plenty of people I know who have been robbed. After 10pm at night, I can't walk the streets here without a group of people. There are also places that I avoid altogether, and on trips I wear my money belt under my shirt. Antigua has so many tourists that you can blend in well. This certainly wasn't the case when I went to some of the other small towns, such as San Andreas Ixtapa. I've also decided to avoid some of the known places for trouble, for example I'm going to stay away from Guatemala City.

Other thoughts

My second week was by far the hardest of the first three weeks both from a language perspective and the need to adjust to the fact that I wasn't going to be home for a while. The good news is that Jess and I were able to find an inexpensive airfare and she is coming for a vacation at the beginning of July. We are planning on doing a little traveling to see the country, and she'll get the opportunity to experience the family and town. Obviously, we're very excited! My decision to study Spanish for the summer was defintely the right one, and I am certain that I picked the best possible place for me. I am really enjoying my time here, and am extremely challenged by the pace and amount of Spanish I've learned. The best way to describe it is to imagine that you are thirsty and you are drinking from a firehose. That's how it feels. I guess the other thing I have discovered is that learning a language is like baking a cake. If the cake needs 20 min at 400 degrees, you cannot bake it at 800 degrees for 10 min. It's clear to me now that learning Spanish will be a life long pursuit. However, I think I am off to a pretty good start.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this. I look forward to talking with you soon.

Matt Douglas

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