GUEST WRITER: Spanish school helped Rachel Cocker learn more than just the language in San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala. Things got spiritual…
By Rachel Cocker
I had a smattering of Spanish behind me and nine months more travel through Latin America ahead when I reached San Pedro la Laguna, a tiny town so laid back it was basically sliding into the waters of Lago de Atitlán – Guatemala’s unbelievably beautiful answer to Lake Como, but with fewer millionaire playboys and more dormant volcanoes.
If I was ever to get off the gringo trail, I knew I needed to master much more than ‘muchas gracias’. But although San Pedro is famed for its language schools, I wasn’t sure I was in the mood to knuckle down to more than a week of study.
A Tourist Trap?
I wasn’t even that keen on the town itself at first – it felt too touristy, a backpacker’s hub of foreign pubs, Thai grub and macramé-making hippies who’d forgotten to save enough for the flight home.
Older US and European ex-pats owned most of the prime waterfront property that hadn’t been claimed by the steady rise of the lake (you could kayak through what was once someone’s front room) forming a gringo ghetto at the foot of the town. Meanwhile, much of the Maya population lived in labyrinthine breezeblock alleyways winding high up the hill to the market.
There was no denying the ‘us and them’ feel in the air. Local women washed hand-woven clothes and waist-length hair in the lake, while we watched from cafés, listening to reggae and eating falafel while surfing the high-speed Wi-Fi. At night, the mayor had started sending the local police car to strictly enforce a new 11pm curfew – so sick of bars pumping drugs and bass into the night, he’d begun to bite back.
Back to School…
With four hours of classes starting at 8am, I didn’t mind the early nights. Luckily, the one-on-one tuition at Escuela Cooperativa wasn’t just cheap; it took place in a lake-view garden that seemed less classroom, more sanctuary. I’d been hoping that improving my Spanish would help me move on from San Pedro – here, I felt the first inklings it might make me stay.
I was surprised by how quickly I hit it off with my teacher, Clemente, a local guy who’d moved back to his family home after a few years and too many muggings in Guatemala City. We were both pushing 30 (although he looked a lot younger) but our lives were worlds apart, and I enjoyed slipping tales of London into my homework every afternoon that made him choke or chuckle the next morning.
By return, his lessons and local insights helped me bridge the gap with the other side of San Pedro. Between conjugating my verbs I began taking more and more trips up the hill.
The Real San Pedro
Every week, I accompanied the teachers who took basic food parcels to struggling families as part of the school’s social aid project. As my Spanish improved, I ventured further, finding an ancient seamstress with a hand-crank sewing machine to mend clothes that had lost their fight with the laundry, getting the lowdown on the local elections from the old men who sat for hours, surveying street corners, and sneaking my way into the back of evangelical church services that sounded more like soft rock concerts from down the road.
My lessons with Clemente began covering more and more Maya history (no, the end of the world is not nigh) becoming as much a cultural as a language exchange. Every Friday I signed up for ‘just one more week’ until suddenly four had passed and I was still in San Pedro, still at school and feeling less like an outsider, more at home.
When we reached the subjunctive, the tense that deals with dreams and doubts, I confessed I still had no idea what to do next – after school or after this trip, full-stop. So Clemente hailed a tuk-tuk and took me to San Juan, the next town along the lake, to meet the shaman who’d helped guide him into teaching when his dad had decided he was lacking direction.
Move Any Mountain?
He was the world’s most unlikely-looking holy man: dressed in a vest and sat in his backyard, surrounded by turkeys. Inside his dark, dirt-floored house he calculated the date of my conception (awkward), then consulted a well-thumbed book that established my ‘nahuals’, the spirits said to govern other significant dates in your life.
Some of mine, it seemed, were inauspicious, but he promised a cleansing ceremony would reverse both my bad luck and lingering coccyx pain, the result of an ill-advised leap into a rock pool six weeks earlier.
Changing into a traditional hand-embroidered two-piece, he began chanting in Tz’utujil – the local Mayan language of guttural sounds and glottal stops – over a blaze of incense, pausing only to swat me round the head with a swatch of pine needles soaked in sacred water, which he then threw in the fire.
What my future holds…
Translated into Spanish by Clemente, his pronouncements sounded somewhat less prophetic: ‘Good things will be waiting for you at home,’ and ‘When you’re sad, spend time with trees…’ It was only afterwards that I realised I hadn’t been mentally translating them from Spanish to English, but soaking them up, understood. And my pain in the arse was gone.
Later, I’d meet other travellers who sniffed they hadn’t thought much of San Pedro, and I could see where they were coming from. But then I’m not sure any of us had seen the half of it.
http://www.cooperativeschoolsanpedro.edu.gt/ is a community-minded cooperative of local teachers offering one-on-one Spanish classes and homestays in San Pedro la Laguna. A 20-hour week of tuition costs around £60, or £100 including homestay and three meals a day. A percentage of students’ fees go directly to the school’s outreach programme, providing food, housing and education for impoverished local families.