I arrived in Quetzaltenango, or more affectionately Xela, in the early evening on a crisp Sunday in July. In true mountain fashion, the weather got chillier, and the transition from day to-to-night was as brisk as a runaway train. Before arriving, I didn’t know much about Xela, or Guatemala for the matter. I knew about the violence in Guatemala City, I knew about its Spanish colonial past, and I was armed with a long list of foods to try from a food-obsessed Guate - American girl I met on a walking tour in Athens the month prior.
I was told that Xela, a 4-hour bus ride away from the capital, was a safe-haven away from the violence that engulfed Guatemala City. In the thick of the night I was nervous, not sure how “safe” it would be. I opted to eat something quick from a street vendor selling fried chicken and French fries out of a window-front shop on the most well-lit part of the road near my hostel.
It has been a long day of nearly missed flights, lost (then found) and delayed luggage, and a long bus ride through the mountains. I felt slightly disoriented, unable to communicate accurately, but I also felt a good feeling - like this would be the best learning environment for me, and the week of classes at Pop Wuj hadn’t even started yet.
I began learning basic Spanish in elementary school, and studied it all through middle and high school, but I never took it very seriously. For years I told myself that I would learn a second language, but like a lot of U.S. citizens, I took the easy path and just relied on my English, knowing that it is one of the most universal languages in the world. It wasn’t until I graduated with my Bachelors in International Affairs, and started looking for jobs, did I truly start to take language learning more seriously.
The catalyst was making it to the final round of interviews for perfect first job, but not being chosen because my Spanish wasn’t good enough. I reached out to one of my professors from Eastern Michigan University, Rich, and asked for tips on how to secure the position.
He recommended Pop – Wuj Spanish School, because he had students who had attended, and it was also a very competitive; yet affordable price. After doing my research, studying Spanish with a private tutor for 4 hours a day and flying to Guatemala, was more cost effective than taking group and private lessons in my home base Philadelphia. Additionally, a home-stay with a local family was included in the tuition.
I was, by wonderful surprise, paired with my private tutor Mynor, who also happened to be the co-founder of the school. Through orientation, and having personal time with Mynor, I learned so much about the organization. Pop – Wuj is a community non-profit that uses majority of the profit to fund developmental programs throughout the local area.
These projects include providing much needed scholarships for local children, running a community health clinic, a family center, and much more. I went there to learn Spanish, but I came home feeling like I was a part of something bigger than myself; something impacting so many, in system that is largely failing its indigenous peoples and more vulnerable populations.
I was very nervous and filled with lots of questions on first day. I wasn’t sure if I would find the school, if I would I get to interact with the other students, or how much I would be able to learn in just one week of Spanish lessons. I arrived at the school just before 8 am, to find a note with my name on it taped to the door, with instructions of what to do next.
I was then greeted by Scott, a friendly employee, who had just moved to Xela from the U.S. to be a coordinator at the organization. Every person that I met that first day, staff and students, were incredibly gracious and warm. After a brief orientation, and a cup of coffee, I started working with Mynor. At a sunny table near the window, with views of the city and mountains, I worked for the remainder of my time there.
In one week, I knew that I could not even begin to learn everything, but I did want to gain more confidence in speaking and work on building more vocabulary and grammar. Instead of doing a written test, Mynor began by starting a conversation with me about my life, travels, and interests.
Although, it was difficult because my Spanish was a bit rusty, it helped him gauge my level of Spanish and decide what to focus on for the rest of the week. I felt so lucky, and delighted, to have a course tailored for me; This type of approach is what is lacking in U.S. public school Spanish classes. Not to mention, there is an option to spend time learning hands-on; by walking through the town, learning fruits and vegetable names in the market, and negotiating prices for textiles in local shops.
We set up a routine, once I arrived in the morning, in Spanish we would talk about what I did the day before, then work on grammar for 2 hours before walking through the streets. One of my most prized memories if from the day when all the students, along with their teachers, took a hike to Cerro el Baul for an afternoon.
As a trade off for a fun activity, our instructors only spoke with us in Spanish during the outing. The view from the sweeping mountain took my breath figuratively and in real life; I was ambitious to hike up the hill on my first full day without getting acclimated to the elevation.
Nonetheless, it was worth it, and the group was incredibly encouraging. Most of the students there were in the medical Spanish program, which requires they stay at least 4 weeks, so most of them had a better grasp on Spanish then I did, but I took on the challenge.
I would need translations at times, but overall, I had a fully immersed experienced. During my stay, not only did I expand my vocabulary, get a better handle of my conversational Spanish, but I also volunteered with Pop-Wuj’s Safe Stove Project, and did a half-day trip to a volcanic sauna and glass blowing factory; I even learned how to blow glass!
I had an incredible stay with my host family, in which I was provided 3 meals a day, as well as a location that was a 2-minute walk away from the school. Xela, is a vibrant, colorful, quaint mountain town with rustic colonial architecture and big-hearted people. It’s nothing to be afraid of and everything to fall in love with.
Although I only had one week there, I will return again in the near future; once I start nursing school, I want to take the medical Spanish course! I not only learned about the important things the organization is doing in the community, but I actually got to get my hands dirty, and help build a safe stove that will last a family up to 2 decades with the proper maintenance.
I saw the direct impact of my tuition payment, which not everyone contributing to a cause is able to do. Xela, Mynor, the Pop-Wuj staff, and the students I met, will stay with me for the rest of my life. I have begun my long journey of learning the Spanish language, but I am grateful to have started the most meaningful part at Pop-Wuj.
Here are a few tips for those of you who are interested in Studying at Pop-Wuj: You will receive this information in your welcome email, but do arrive in Guatemala City during the day, if not, stay in one of the recommended hostels in Guatemala City, and then travel the next morning.
Exercise your caution always. Although it is safe in Xela, there are ways to make yourself less of a target; use the same streets smarts you would exercise in New York City or any place you visit that is unfamiliar.
Buying a bus ticket is relatively easy, but get there early because they sell out, and they are numbered; so if you buy late, you may end up next to the toilet just like me.
The exchange rate you get in Xela is wayyyy better than what you can get at your local bank or any of the exchange places in airports.
No matter what level of Spanish you have, you will be just fine, but it is best to practice in the weeks leading up to your arrival; especially the basics like greetings, numbers, directions etc.! You can use free, or very cheap, resources like Duo Lingo or Babel to get you in shape!
For more information about the organization, structure of the course, or anything else, visit pop-wuj.org
Brittany is the CEO + Founder of Everyday Globetrotter. She is a reformed travelholic and nomad, who now loves HGTV, and hosting dinner parties at home. You can follow her on IG @BrittanyGlobal