My American adventure: at home in Guatemala

View from the top of Volcán San Pedro (Lago de Atitlán)

Hola mis amigos

I am now living in Guatemala.

Yes, Quetzaltenango (more commonly called Xela after its original Mayan name), Guatemala’s second largest city, is where I am calling home for a while. I have rented an apartment here with amazing views of the city and the surrounding mountains. While the city can look run down at first glance, its character will suck you in, as has been the case for me.

When I left Ireland I wrote “plans change, I’ll see where the road takes me”. Well the loose plan I left with has become even looser.  I have embraced life here in Xela and the heavens have paid me back in spades with everything falling into place better than I could have hoped for.

First of all, my Spanish is coming along well, helped by the fact the city has remained relatively off the beaten path for gringos. I have got to know some lovely people here. I have a new football club with a passionate group of locals who love their football. I joined a boxing gym where I am getting trained by a local boxer (at high altitude, 2400 metres, the training is even tougher). I have even bought a guitar and I am starting lessons next week. It has been just over a month since I arrived, but it is fair to say I am immersed!

It has been a busy month since I wrote my last blog, but let me try and give you a glimpse of my experience so far.

Guatemala: la lucha continua (the struggle continues)

As you are probably aware, Guatemala is a very poor country, plagued by generations of exploitation by external forces. I have chosen not to write on the struggles of Guatemala as I would not  be able to do justice to what is a complicated history. It is something I am learning more about from locals. One thing that is clear, is that the challenges faced by much of the population in Guatemala today – poverty, lack of education, immigration, endemic corruption etc. – have their roots in the country’s colonial past and a history of suppression. The indigenous have suffered the most. Peace was agreed in 1996 but the struggle continues. Still, deprived of education it is hard for the people to ever achieve the democratic revolution needed to wrestle power away from the few to change the fortunes of  the many.

Bienvenido Vicente

 Xeka – run down but it has a lot of character.

The arrival in my homestay family was a little bit of a shock to the system. I had braced myself for basic accommodation and food and the multiple generations of the one family in the house, but it was the snoring adult son that I could not deal with. The walls were literally shaking. We had an earthquake last week, 6.9 on the Richter scale; I am not sure which was worse.

The first night this guy kicked off – after I was a few days in the house – I knocked on his room door and in my best Spanish told him to sleep another way because I could not sleep in my room next door with his snoring. In fairness, he took the interruption well and I managed to get some sleep that night. However, the following night he didn’t even wake to my knocking. His elderly mother did however and again the 2am exchange in Spanish was interesting. It was Larry David type stuff! (Fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm will know what I am on about)

With only 2 hours sleep learning Spanish is impossible and so I high tailed it out of the homestay. I secured a move to another house, with some good intel from another student, where the mother of the house prides herself on the food she serves her students. The old couple who hosted were a bit pedantic – the most interesting moment was when I was scolded for wanting to take a second shower one day after my boxing training – but they were nice people and I was well fed for the just over two weeks I spent with them.

Spanish learning – poco a poca, pasa a pasa (little by little, step by step)

For the first three weeks I had five hours of classes five days a week in the Sol Latino Spanish School, starting at 8am. Five hours of one on one lessons is intense but as I learned more Spanish the classes became more heavenly weighted to conversation. The school was fine but I am now getting private lessons outside of the school which I prefer. This and the fact I have my own apartment means that my schedule is more flexible and so I feel more like I am living here than just passing through.

At times the Spanish can be frustrating. There are moments when I think I am making great progress and then all of a sudden I am lost for words in an exchange. Without fluency every interaction requires some level of thinking to arrive at the correct words, sentence construction and even pronunciation to convey your point. Therefore, your brain has to be actively engaged just to speak, which is tiring. I have a new found respect for all those people learning English in Ireland!

“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see” – G.K. Chesterton

As is the case with learning any new skills it is effectively about building a database of knowledge that you can draw on with minimal conscious effort. It is only through practice can you refine and expand this database and more importantly reduce the time needed to access it, i.e. where you are effectively on auto pilot and little thinking is required to say whatever you want to say.  That is my goal with Spanish and I remain convinced being immersed here in Latin America is one of the best ways to achieve it.

Of course even though I want to learn as fast as possible patience is important with any new endeavour. As I was reminded by one teacher: ‘poco a poco, pasa a pasa’ (little by little, step by step). You can’t rush the learning process too much.

Football – the universal language

While my Spanish is a work in progress I have connected with the locals through football, a universal language across the globe. After one of teachers got the okay from the owner of his football club, he helped me register with the local football association, a surprisingly official process. The same day we went to the sports shop of the club owner to buy some boots, another interesting experience.

The owner was welcoming and after confirming that I was a “delantero” (a forward) and a friendly interrogation on my football ability, they brought me a few pairs of boots close to my size and I settled on a nice pair of white Nike ones, the best fit. When it came to paying I was told ‘you pay in goals’. Welcome to Guatemalan football.

CIFUENTES – my new team in Xela!

That Saturday I headed up to the football pitch with the excitement of a child at Christmas. I love playing football and it felt so random to be going play for a soccer team in Guatemala. I was buzzing. While the pitch didn’t look great it was nice to see a stand full of locals. As I walked out for the warm up there was a few shouts, ‘el gringo’. It was great. I stood out a mile but I felt part of local life, not just a tourist

I could dedicate pages to my experience on the day but I’ll leave that for my book. It was just surreal, the team talk, the introduction, the warm welcome from all the players, the game itself, the locals cheering, all against this wonderful mountainous backdrop. I have played at a better standard in the past but it was all about the experience. The icing of course was getting four goals in a 6-2 win. Everyone was delighted afterwards. Chente, Chente, cuatro goles! Chente is short for Vicente here. I love it. It makes me think of Che Guevara.

We have since played another game and I got another two goals in a 5-1 win. The cheers when I scored were brilliant and it is definitely the first time I have heard people sing my name. Afterwards I joined the team for drinks and food back at their local and we had a great day of it. The rum was flowing and I must say Guatemalan hospitality is hard to beat. I was well looked after.

The big game is Saturday, a quarter final against the team who won the league last year (the league here ends with a playoff) and ‘they pay their players’ I am told. Stay tuned.

The places – discovering more of Guatemala

As well as the many places to see around Xela it is also a great place to use as a base to explore more of Guatemala. I have spent 3 of my 4 weekends outside of Xela exploring new places, visiting Chichicastenango, Lago Atitlan (Atitlan Lake) and most recently I spent 3 nights in Antigua.

Almonoga – “Vegetable Basket of the Americas”

Chichicastenango is a traditional Mayan town famous for its Sunday market, the largest indigenous market in Guatemala. Lago de Atitlan is a beautiful lake surrounded by three volcanos and Mayan villages. Apparently the Lonely Planet Guide has called it “the closest thing to Eden on Earth”. Between chilling on the lake in a kayak and the climb of Volcan San Pedro (3,020 metres), I got to fully appreciate the spectacular views the lake offers.

Antigua, a famous colonial city and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is worth a visit but for me it was just too touristy and 3 nights was enough. I had planned on studying in Antigua but I am happy with my choice to make Xela my home here, a city that feels much more like Guatemala. I think Spanish immersion would be much more difficult in Antigua, the most visited city in Guatemala.

The investment angle – Impact Investing

During my stay in Antigua I took the opportunity to meet with Julio Martinez Anderson, Director of Acceleration at Pomona Impact. They are a firm that specialises in impact investing, a rapidly growing investment segment that is considered to be a subset of socially responsible investing. Ponoma Impact look to invest in ‘for-profit companies in a number of countries in Central and South America, commercial viable with sustainable growth prospects and that are really out there in terms of social impact’.

Beyond the jargon, what is impact investing? It is effectively the concept of investing money with a much more explicit consideration of the social impact of where that money is allocated, i.e. job creation, impact on the community and the environment etc. You would think that all money would explicitly consider such factors, but the overarching objective of most companies is to maximise shareholder value. There is no room for all stakeholders in the boardroom of a traditional company.

The chicken bus experience!

The anecdotes from locals on the activities of foreign companies here in Guatemala are a reminder of the dangers of the profit first objective of many companies. I’ve heard about the Canadian mining companies and their destruction of the local environment and the indigenous communities who live near sites where resources are being extracted. I’ve also heard about the treatment of workers in Chinese factories here, the 12 hour days with one small break when you can use the toilet. While I’ve just heard information second hand a quick google search would suggest these anecdotes are not fictional. Human rights are a second thought for many foreign companies.

So naturally given the stories I had been hearing I was intrigued to meet Julio to learn more about impact investing and whether there are some good guys out there trying to further the development of Guatemala in a fair and sustainable manner?

In Latin America, the vast majority of impact investments are structured debt, i.e. a form of lending to companies rather than equity investments which would typically carry more risk. The interest rates the likes of Ponoma are charging is in the region of 20-25% which was a surprise to me given the Good Samaritan image portrayed by these new breed of investors with their “social conscience”. When I pushed Julio on this he said these companies often have no other access to capital and when they do, the rates traditional financial institutions are charging is in the range of 30-35%.

One success story he shared with me was that of Wakami – – a company that Ponoma invested $100,000 in 2011 when nobody would give them money. In 2014 Ponoma made an additional $150,000 investment. In 2016, the success of the company meant they could access additional funding sources on more favourable terms and hence Ponama were paid back in full. According to Julio, Wakami has added significant employment to the local indigenous community with fair working conditions and pay. It also has a social arm to further the development of the local community, with education an important focus.

While the meeting was extremely interesting and Julio gave me some great insights into the world of impact investing, the more I read about this rapidly growing category of investment the more questions I have on the true intentions of so-called impact investors. Julio seemed to be genuine in terms of helping his fellow Guatemalans but I have my doubts about the wider category and the actual social footprint many of these investors will leave on countries in Latin America.  I remain sceptical but it is something I hope to pursue further here in Guatemala and on my travels.

A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving – Lao Tzu

My last big travel adventure (Oct 11 – Aug 12: China, Southeast Asia/NZ/OZ) was more of the traditional backpacking approach of hitting many different countries along a relatively fixed plan. It was a great trip but on this adventure I specifically wanted to embrace the unknown and let my experiences dictate the pace of my travel. The only clear objective I set when I left was to become fluent in Spanish.

View from my apartment in Xela at night.

As it happened, I really like Xela, the people and the life I am living here as I learn Spanish the immersion way. I love starting my day with an amazing panoramic view of the city and the mountains from my apartment, making breakfast listening to Spanish radio, followed by the walk to school along the cobbled streets and the friendly “Buenos dias” from the locals. The trips to the food markets bartering with the locals, fresh avocados like you wouldn’t believe! That is just some of it. It is about the general vibe of living here and soaking up a new and very different city.

I don’t know how long I will stay. I’ll go with the flow and when I feel like the time is right to move on to another country I will move on. It could be a month, it could be six. Either way, having no precise plan or a fixed path is a nice feeling.

No Hay Prisa.


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