My editor (Justin Jones) is sitting behind his big fancy desk, made of solid mahogany and chewing on a fat Cuban cigar. He’s dishing out orders at a million miles an hour while minions rush around frantically carrying out his various commands. For those of you who don’t know Justin Jones, this is a man who, in his spare time, wrestles bears in the wilderness, who plays baccarat at the Monte Carlo casino. He can trace his pet falcon’s lineage back 400 years, and at least 6 Austrian ballerinas call him by his pet name… (Which is sparky, but don’t tell him I told you).
He looks at me from under his trilby….
“Burton! I need you in Antigua this week… get down there and give me 1000 words on what’s it’s like to study Spanish in Guatemala.”
With little money in my pocket and a swag on my back, I jump on the closest transport I can find and head south, to a land I know nothing about. 12 hours later I arrive at El Gato Negro hostel and I’m pretty stinky…. 12 hours on a small overcrowded bus, I’m not sure if the smell is mine or the little man next to me with the cowboy hat and the Nike trainers. Either way, it’s on me like stink on a monkey.
I put my bags down and check in, I make my way to my room and head straight for the shower, and I’m greeted with this sight:
I hesitantly get into the shower and realize I left my soap in San Cristobal. I’m now tired, stinky and genuinely fearful of being electrocuted to death. I make the most of the cleansing Guatemala water and just to spite me, as I’m getting out of the shower, it gives me a nasty shock as if to remind me that I’m a long way from home….
I get dressed and lay down on the world’s most uncomfortable bed. As I lay there I think about Justin Jones, sipping champagne at the Ferrero Roche ambassador’s ball, entertaining dignitaries with his stories of adventure and seducing beautiful French countesses.
I wake up (steal some Korean kid’s soap) have a shower and head to my new school, CDM Spanish my new home for the next week.
I’m greeted by a nice chap by the name of Erick. CDM is his baby and he’s got a staff of around 6 teachers working every day. He offers Spanish and English classes, both at the school, and via Skype video chat for when you go home. This is a small school in comparison to some of the others in Antigua but it’s definitely not without its charms, like most buildings in Antigua, there are various rooms set around a central courtyard/garden. Teachers and students sit at small wooden tables, arranged around the courtyard, all working away, trying to get their verbos irregulares down pat.
I’m Introduced to my new teacher I’ll be studying with for the next week, her name is Janet and she’s a little Guatemalteca who’s friendly and welcoming. We start chatting and before long I realize that she’s already started teaching me Spanish, at this stage I speak very little – Hola, adios. I’m not sure what to expect from these classes. Part of me thought it was going to be like school was, where I was the kid in the back of the class, farting and blaming it on the special ed kid.
But it’s different. It’s just 2 people talking. It’s not stressful, you learn at your own pace. One person speaks Spanish and one person listens, comprehends part of what was said and replies in broken Spanglish. Lather, rinse, repeat, until magically you find yourself understanding what your teacher is saying, replying to basic questions and performing basic conversation.
It’s magic, really, that in just a week you can improve your Spanish drastically. You develop a relationship very quickly with your new teacher, it’s the same for everyone, you will sit there for 4 hours a day every day, talking about your life, their life, and trading stories. By the end of the week, my new maestra knew more about me than many of my friends back in London. I even scared the hell out of her by telling her a few of the debaucherous stories from my travels. Later on I speak to my Spanish friend in Spain on Skype and we have our first ever conversation in Espanol. It’s obviously basic, but she’s amazed at the progress that I’ve made, my ego is stroked and I feel great.
The classroom is not only in the classroom either; it’s wherever you want it to be. It’s your money, so you can go wherever you want, you can go to any of the amazing cafes in the town to sip the famous Guatemalan coffee, you can have breakfast, wander around the markets or do your weekly food shopping, as long as you’re talking, and more importantly, listening to your teacher, you’re learning.
At night you stay with your assigned Guatemalan host family who feed you, and do their best to make sure you’re comfortable. They’ll provide meals, a bed, (sometimes) internet and sparkling repartee. They will be your family away from home and usually the mother of the family will want to adopt you as one of her own. It’s true that I’ve fallen in love with several 50-something Guatemalan women here in Antigua.
And the cost for all this: 20 hours of Spanish, all your meals, a private room and an experience you won’t forget… all for a lot less than $200? Pfff. I’ve spent more than that on a night out in London!