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Study in the Wilderness

Learn Spanish and Conservation in Guatemala

By Tim King

In Antigua you will find that the common tortilla is as rare as quetzal birds, while cappuccino is as common as the tourists that flock to this Santa Fe of Guatemala. Prospective students can choose from an array of Spanish language schools. One even advertises itself as “The School With the Pool.”

In San Andres there is one school and no pool.

The School

The owners of this neat and bright schoolhouse perched on the rocks above Lago Petén Itza in northeastern Guatemala are the 18 teachers, the homestay families, Antonio and Ingma of the cleaning staff, and Samuel, the student volunteer coordinator.

My teacher Alitza’s method of teaching is simple and direct: We chat. I ask questions. We chat some more, usually about politics, the weather, and local traditions. She shows me words in the dictionary. This goes on for two hours. Then we launch into grammar and verb conjugation. One day we go to the community library that the school has established with its profits. We talk about her favorite authors (Isabel Allende, Jorge Isaac) and study a map of Petén and its various Mayan ruins.

My teacher in my second week is Yolí, short for Yolanda. She, like Alitza, doesn’t speak English. We discuss the divorce rate, literature, the Guatemalan civil war. She keeps me talking and listening for four hours.

The Forest

Huber Cano, an Eco-Escuela teacher and lifelong San Andres resident, is young, unusually tall, handsome, and very smart. During my first week at Eco-Escuela, Huber gave the evening lecture, entirely in Spanish, in which he explained the purpose of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, part of the western hemisphere’s second largest contiguous forest. He explained that the reserve is organized on the simple principle that humans can live in harmony with nature.

A few days later Huber, Carlos, and Alitza, along with two other teachers and five students, head toward the forest to see some of what Huber is talking about.

When we leave the hilly pasture and enter the forest it’s like entering an air-conditioned building on a hot August day. The forest breathes.

“The earth smells like compost,” I suggest to Martina, a German tropical ecologist and fellow student.

“It is compost,” she replies.

We ford a small stream and stop to rest. Alitza and Doris, another teacher, produce small plastic bags and begin gathering snails to cook for dinner.

“This is the ceibo tree,” says Carlos pointing to a slender 120-foot giant. “It’s the national tree of Guatemala. The ceibo is the male tree. The female is called ceiba.”

He hands me a leathery and dark green leaf. “This is for stomach ache,” he says.

The leaf tastes like spearmint and cinnamon. I give it to Dan who also takes a bite.

As we start out again, vines begin to tangle the path. Carlos goes to work with his machete. One vine, thick as a cable, disappears into the tree tops. Carlos’ machete chimes and water gushes from the thick plant. Carlos holds it like a garden hose. Three of us drink nearly a quart of water from the severed plant.

We ford another stream, climb a steep hill, and come out into the sunshine. In the clearing there are turkeys, chickens, puppies, and a palm-thatched hut. The owner has just killed an armadillo and he’s cooking it over a wood fire.

As though he had been expecting us, he leaves his armadillo stew and shinnies up a 50-foot tree. From near the top he throws down grapefruit to Maritza, a teacher. Another teacher gathers tiny orange chiles from a 6-foot shrub, somebody else produces a bag of salt, and we have lunch.

That’s the way it is for my two weeks in San Andrés. Whether in the school house, in the forest, or at meals with the families we live with, we are carefully taught Spanish vocabulary and grammar while simultaneously being shown how the forest will provide more standing than it will if cut down and turned into lumber and paper.

The Family

Bertilda cooks three square meals a day, most outside in a courtyard on a wood-fired stove. Sometimes, in the early evening I’ll sit on the one piece of furniture in the courtyard and watch her cook in the orange fire light and dark shadows. Eight-year-old Greysi is stringing red and green ribbon, with her friend Monika, around the thatch covered ramada that covers part of the earth and stone courtyard. Her mother will soon tell her to take it down.

Lucas, the 5-year-old, is off at his cousins’ and 11-year-old Gabriel has just returned from the lake with a bucket of silvery fish.

This family has been boarding students for nine years. They accept them—Japanese, Swiss, and Americans, young and old—with an easy and comforting grace. The students get regular nourishing meals (meatless if you ask), a flush toilet, a cold shower, plenty of pure drinking water, a private little sleeping room, opportunities for questions and conversation, and the easy friendliness of almost a member of accorded to the family.

Other students seem uniformly pleased with their families. The routine complaint is, “They feed us too much.”

The Weekend

Weekends in San Andres are long and uneventful. The adventurous thing to do is catch the bus to the Mayan ruins of Tikal or hire a guide through EcoMaya and take a 3-day trek into the scarlet macaw preserve deep in the forest. I took a water taxi across the lake to Flores, which has a great coffee shop called La Puerta and plenty of Internet cafe terminals. There are some good places to have a meal or sip a beer and stare out at the lake.

TIM KING writes from Long Prairie, MN.

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