Xela Who?

Quetzaltenango, better known as Xela, is Guatemala’s second city and exemplifies the intersection of its colourful indigenous and ladino cultures. It was and remains a home away from home for me and plays host to an interesting variety of NGO’s, Spanish schools, and progressive intellectual and political personalities. It also sits in the ominous shadow of Volcan Santa Maria, a dormant giant that has nevertheless left an indelible mark in the minds and bodies of OGG’s participants.

Our crew arrived on Sunday evening, cautiously parading, in good gringo fashion, through the city’s shadowy streets from Xela’s Terminal Minerva to our new accommodations, two adjacent, brand spankin’ new apartments, in the city’s centre. After, playing a sometimes heated game of “corners”, participants settled (or rather snuggled) into bed side by side. The following morning, despite heavy heads, participants rose early to begin the first of five 5hr intensive Spanish classes at Escuela La Paz, a not-for-profit school run by 3 sisters which provides benefit to a number of local women and community organizations. Each participant was paired with a maestra in good EHarmony style, according to their interests, hobbies, and compatibility, with whom they would be spending the week. Unfortunately, afternoon rains prevented us from making it to Escuela de la Calle (EDLAC is school just outside of Xela servicing local underprivileged youth) to help paint murals with the children. But some participants relished the pequeño descanso to catch up on emails or simply relax while others took the opportunity to visit the city’s Centro de Desportes and rock climb with Jay. On Tuesday, after facing another 5hr’s of Spanish with varied results, participants got to put grammatical formalities aside and collaborate with the students of EDLAC on a spontaneous mural project. Amidst a joyful chaos, 40 technicoloured kids spewed their creative juices on the exterior walls of the Centro de Actividades using OGG’s donation of paint and paintbrushes, and with the helping hands of our participants and the Centros permanent staff of local and international volunteers. By evening, EVERYONE’s clothes bore signs of the afternoon’s fun and EVERYONE’s hearts the beginnings of memorable friendships.

Jay, Porschia, and María at the Centre de Actividades

Tuesday evening brought the group back to Escuela La Paz to hear Alberto recount the unofficial or forgotten history of Guatemala. A sweeping tale of 500 years of exploitation and repression told in a strong and articulate voice, which was immediately reduced to something as erudite as Green Eggs & Ham by my clumsy translation. Nevertheless, everyone seemed intrigued by the radical retelling of Guatemala’s past and pressed Alberto with questions. Wednesday began again with Spanish lessons at Escuela La Paz, before one of the Maestras, Ana, accompanied the crew for a Tipico lunch and tour of the public Universidad de San Carlos, and its revolutionary murals depicting the school’s student solidarity and radical activism during the civil war, and more recent feminist mobilization. In the evening the group gathered with OGG partner Quetzaltrekkers, a volunteer based trekking company and non-profit social enterprise that provides directs 100% of its revenues to support the Escuela de la Calle (EDELAC) and the Hogar Abierto, providing free education to 225 children and accommodation and assistance to 15 additional at risk youth. Together, we set out at midnight beneath a veiled full moon to climb the 3800m cone that is Volcan Santa Maria. A 5hr ascent up steep switch-backs, that tested resolves, and pushed physical limits.

Allison, Ali, and Ben after conquering Volcán Santa María

Japleen writes:

“Many of us encountered the most physically challenge task of our lives (so far), climbing a 3700m volcano at midnight. Totally difficult but totally rewarding! We began meeting up at Quetzaltrekkers (the group in charge of the trek) at 10:30 PM to gear up and carb up on potato-curry soup. After a short ride in the back of a truck we reached the base of the hike. We started hiking a few min after midnight. The climb had many challenges but it was nothing that our group couldn’t accomplish. After 4 hours of burning calves, sore thighs and runny noses we reached the summit in time to settle down, snuggle up and watch the sunrise. Watching the sunrise on top of a volcano is something out of this world. The rising sun looked like as if it was ripping apart the dark night sky. Once the sun had risen and the sky filled with daylight we were surrounded by the most amazing views. We were up above the clouds and had to look down upon them. Mountain tops peeking through the clouds looked liked little hills. After squeezing a few hours of shut eye we loaded up breakfast and made our way back down the mountain.”

The epic Sunrise at 3800m atop Santa Maria
To this I need only add a brief anecdote about an OGG innovation that occurred as a consequence of trekking Santa Maria, the vertical spoon. Similar to the traditional spoon it involves 2 or more people laying front to back, however, on the exposed summit, cold winds, frigid temperatures, and the restrictive rocky real-estate required a little bit more ingenuity. This led to 7 of us seeking shelter in each other’s warmth, one on top of another in a vertical pile of spooning bodies. While the manoeuvre may have stemmed shivers, shakes, and shudders, the weight of 7 snuggling (pronounced snoogling) OGers pancaked the new sleeping pad that lay beneath them, a $150 dollar piece of now flattened fabric.

The Vertical Spoon

But what goes up must come down. And the slippery slope back to Xela didn’t facilitate a quick descent with OGG getting back well after 1pm (14hrs after departure). But there was to be no rest. A micro bus quickly whisked the group away to visit a nearby community and pay homage to San Simon, a Mayan deity decked out in Ray bans, Nike’s, and a cowboy hat, that calls the town of Zunil home. But just as thoughts of mutiny began to circulate the ranks, Jay and I brought the group to Fuentes Georginas, a natural, volcanic hot spring in the hills above Zunil. Groans soon turned to moans as aches and pains melted away in the steaming torpid pools.

After a surprisingly late night, we all dutifully attended our last Spanish lessons and bid a fond farewell to our maestra’s who had so patiently endured a week savage gringo grammatical butchery. In the afternoon, we visited the PLQ to hear about the current political situation and prospects for the upcoming elections. The speaker, a local political activist, provided a fantastic but hurried lesson (complete with PowerPoint presentation) on the oligarchic and commercial domination of the country’s electoral politics before the group had to rush off for an evening of dancing, dinner, and more dancing. First, a salsa lesson with an old acquaintance of mine left almost everyone clinging desperately to the last half chewed scraps of their pride (I still hadn`t recovered mine since my last lesson in 2007). But saved by the bell the group hurried off again, this time back to Escuela La Paz for some dinner theatre with Pop’vuh, a local indigenous dance troop that performed a number of traditional boogies before treating us Kak’ik,a tipical Mayan soup, with chicken, coriander, achiote, and chillies. Finally, it being Friday night, the group unanimously voted to hit the clubs, try their new found moves, or perhaps stick to the old ones, and let loose before beginning the full day`s journey to San Marcos the following morning.