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Rápido! Rápido! Vamonos!” the man shouts as he hauls a boy up onto the bus. A tiny, weathered woman in brilliantly woven garments squeezes down the aisle, her face barely visible above the seats. The man sitting next to me nods off, his scuffed baseball cap nudging my chin. My American sense of personal space gone, I give in and lean back on the stranger.


The bus weaves through the urban maze of Guatemala City, pausing without warning at unmarked stops to pick up frantically waving would-be passengers. Understanding bits and pieces of the chatter around me, I remember the reason for this trip: I love the Spanish language. I could have enrolled in a class at home in Chicago. I could have opted for the European flair of Barcelona or Madrid. Instead I chose Guatemala, and finally, I had arrived.


The driver makes the sign of the cross and mouths a silent prayer as the bus climbs the mountains to Quetzaltenango, or Xela (shay-lah), as the locals call it. The second largest city in Guatemala, Xela is home to several reasonably priced Spanish schools. A week’s worth of lessons—five hours a day, five days a week and housing with a family that provides three meals daily—costs an almost-embarrassing $130. Most people in Xela don’t speak English, which makes it easier to practice Spanish. And it hasn’t been completely overrun by tourists yet, unlike its magical colonial neighbor, Antigua.


The classes are structured like private tutoring lessons. My teacher, Christian, is an earnest 23-year-old engineering student who teaches Spanish to earn money for college. We start taking daily walks around the city, talking about everything from movies to politics. My Spanish continues to improve through classes and conversations with my adopted family.


My school, like many others in Xela, organizes volunteer projects. One involves helping children from a nearby village find shoes from a slew of new and used gems sent over by a U.S. church. Everyone clamors for the Nikes, the Spiderman sandals and the patent leather slip-ons. For some of the kids, this will be their only pair of shoes.


Through school and my own exploration, I learn about and fall in love with Xela. The heart of the city is Parque Centro América, the main plaza that’s always alive with families and Marimba music. Surrounding the plaza are ancient churches and the Casa de la Cultura, a fascinatingly funky museum filled with military uniforms, taxidermy and other local artifacts. My favorite piece is the Diablito del Mar – the “little devil of the sea”—a clearly man-made construction of someone’s imagination. It seems to be constructed of leaves or seashells taped together to look like an underwater monster. It resides in a glass case beside skeletons and other presumably real antiquities.


After more than three weeks in Xela, I sadly bid goodbye to Christian and my family and set off to explore the rest of gorgeous Guatemala. Throughout the trip, I’m glad I set off down the road less traveled and began my journey in Xela. And though I still don’t claim to be fluent in Spanish, I will always love the language.

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