The next stop on our tour of Guatemala was a long one: a full week of Spanish lessons in San Pedro la Laguna. San Pedro la Laguna is one of the larger towns on the banks of the mystical Lake Atitlan and serves as the busiest backpacker hub in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. We had chosen San Pedro because it serves as an excellent home base for exploring the rest of the towns on the lake and it has a wealth of high-quality Spanish schools.
After exhaustive research, we landed on studying at Orbita Spanish School. Orbita had excellent ratings, a fair price, and a unique, homemade curriculum that sounded particularly interesting. We would each be studying one-on-one with a Guatemalan teacher for five days, four hours a day. We would also be staying in a Mayan family’s home for the week, eating meals with them and practicing our language skills.
The Sour Stomach Saga Continues
We arrived in San Pedro la Laguna on Sunday very excited for the week ahead of us. Alas, there was one dark cloud on the horizon: I was starting to become very worried about my stomach bug. More than a week had passed since I fell ill with food poisoning in Antigua, and my digestive track was still behaving badly.
I was beginning to suspect that it was time to talk to a doctor. Since nothing was open on Sunday evening, I decided to try one more home remedy before finding a doctor early Monday morning. An herbal medic in San Marcos had recommended I take a laxative to flush the bug out of my system. At first, I thought: my body seems to be flushing itself out perfectly well itself, thank you very much. But a few days later I was becoming desperate for answers. We stopped at a pharmacy on our way to meet our host family that Sunday and I bought a laxative.
When we arrived at our host family, the host mother Maria immediately began buzzing around in an attempt to help me. She insisted that I eat a spoonful of raw minced garlic to help my stomach (GAG); then she fed me some plain rice and broth and sent us to bed.
I took the laxative and laid down, exhausted and weak. I was so tired of feeling this way. What the hell was wrong with me?
One Very Frightening Night
Half an hour later, I started to feel funny. I began to feel a new sensation, separate from the omnipresent nausea of the past week. My stomach was aching with physical pain. I got up to go to the bathroom and fell back, surprised by how badly it hurt to move.
Michael looked at me with fear. “What’s wrong?” he said. I groaned in response as waves of intense muscle pain racked my abdomen. It felt as though my body was preparing for labor.
It only got worse from there: for the next few hours, I writhed in bed, my body convulsing with physical pain. I panted and moaned while Michael paced the room, fretting about what to do. There was no hospital in San Pedro la Laguna and the public boats didn’t run that late. If this was a real emergency we would have to find a car to carry us around the perimeter of the lake to a larger town on the other side.
Finally, we thought to look up the laxative I had taken. It was the kind of laxative they sometimes give you before performing surgeries on your intestines or stomach. It forces your body to violently contract your digestive muscles, pushing everything left inside you out. Since I had been running on a minor amount of food and liquid anyway, I was left simply shaking with contractions.
As infuriating as it was to find out that I had caused this experience, at least we knew what was happening. We waited it out, and after a few hours my pain started to subside and I fell asleep.
Lesson learned: always look up the name of a medication before you take it, especially if you’re buying it from a random pharmacy in a different language.
A Surprisingly Simple Solution
The next morning I awoke nauseous and exhausted. It was time to face the inevitable: I needed to visit a doctor as soon as possible. I was nervous about the process of visiting a doctor in Guatemala and upset that I would have to miss my first day of classes. Thankfully, I found a clinic in town fairly easily and went as soon as it opened.
I was shocked to discover how simple the process would be. A woman met me at the front desk and informed me that the doctor wouldn’t be there until that afternoon. However, they could perform the necessary lab tests on me that morning and the results would be in by the time I could see him. Twenty minutes later I had been tested and was on my way to classes, hopeful that I would be well soon.
That afternoon, Michael and I stopped back by the clinic. The doctor was available and saw me within minutes. He even allowed Michael to come in and listen our conversation!
The man was incredibly friendly and intelligent. He spoke flawless English and reassured us that my problem was common. My test results showed that I had a particularly unpleasant parasite that would require medication to treat. He talked me through the medications and wrote me a script. As we left, I filed my prescription at the front desk of the clinic.
That was that – no insurance or crazy paperwork or specialists or pharmacies needed. I spent half an hour in one building and walked out with exactly what I needed to get well. Can you imagine if medicine worked like that at home?
The best part? That day ended the sour stomach saga. After a week and a half of incurable discomfort, I was back to normal within 48 hours of starting the medication.
Now Back to Those Spanish Classes
I was thrilled to find that Orbita allowed me to make up the time I missed for visiting the doctor. When I arrived late to my first day my maestra, a sassy twenty-something Guatemalan woman, jumped into our lessons immediately. She stayed late the next day to make up for lost time. We had a lot of interests in common (read: music), which facilitated our conversation and definitely helped my progress over the course of the week.
Orbita is located near the lake and the classes took place on an outdoor terrace. This meant that our lessons were backed by an amazing view!
Prior to this week I had an uneven background in Spanish. I understood much as a result of speaking Italian and traveling in the region, but I was missing some key grammatical concepts. My maestra was very adaptive and switched up the curriculum to fit exactly what I needed. The Orbita branded workbooks were excellent, lightweight and easy to understand. I carried them with me for the rest of the trip and used them as occasional vocabulary and grammar reminders. All in all, I loved Orbita and I learned more Spanish in this week than in any other period in my travels.
Our Host Family
It definitely helped the learning process to be living with our host family. All four of them were hilarious and welcoming – mother Maria, father Francisco, grandfather Diego and daughter Fatima. Maria kept us stuffed with incredible cooking and was happy to engage us in slow, easy-to-understand conversation whenever we wanted. Michael liked her tortillas so much that she began putting out extra just for him, laughing as he put back eight or ten for every meal. (To this day, whenever we eat a tortilla, Michael sighs and says, “they just aren’t like Maria’s.”)
We particularly enjoyed getting to know little Fatima. At twelve years old, she was quite shy at first. However, she had a natural curiosity about the United States that eventually got her talking to us. She understood an impressive amount of English and sometimes translated for us when a particular word tripped us up.
One night she stunned us by quoting an English line in a perfect accent. It was a lyric from an Avicii song (“I’ll be waiting for love/waiting for love/to come around”). That’s when we learned an unlikely, hilariously charming fact: Fatima loved American techno. She introduced us to the artist Marshmallow and we played a few tracks for her mother, who seemed bemused that her daughter had developed such distant tastes.
Life in San Pedro la Laguna
San Pedro la Laguna is divided in an interesting way. The street running along the bank of the lake is almost entirely a backpacker’s town. This street is lined with bars, coffee shops, boutiques, and hostels catering to Western travelers. However, head uphill one street and the city transforms into a traditional Mayan town. Thankfully, our host family lived in the heart of this area. As such we had many chances to explore the old, authentic San Pedro.
That being said, it was fun break to go out occasionally in the backpacker’s shanty town by the water. One night, we performed at an open mic at Sublime, a popular music-centric bar. It was fun get onstage and revisit the music of our distant American lives.
We developed some friends in the group of students at Orbita and went kayaking on the lake one day. It was an excellent way to explore the shores and understand how how the lands and villages around Atitlan are connected.
We noticed one particularly interesting phenomenon while kayaking on the lake. Due to climate change and human development in the area, the water of Lake Atitlan has been slowly rising for years. It was shocking to witness the evidence of this.
A Short Walk to San Juan
Another day, Michael and I geared up for the half hour walk to nearby San Juan la Laguna. If I were choosing a place to stay on Lake Atitlan and not considering Spanish classes, I would choose San Juan. This little village is far less touristy than San Pedro but still has enough backpacker and tourism infrastructure to ensure a comfortable stay. The town is quaint and known for a unique, colorful style of weaving. We spent a few hours wandering through the shops and alleys. We particularly loved this main square and rustic church fronting a view of the mountains.
We watched the sunset from San Juan’s public dock, looking out over Lake Atitlan. It was easy to understand why this lake is a popular destination for Guatemalans and foreigners alike. With its dozens of unique towns, startling skylines, welcoming populations, and misty, spiritual air, Lake Atitlan feels like a world unto itself.
P.S. Also, there were puppies.
Hey Furiosities fans! I apologize that my updates have been spotty lately. Besides the craziness of the holidays, in the past month I successfully moved to New York City! I will be back up and running with regular updates starting in the New Year. For now, feel free to peruse my archives for any posts you might have missed. Happy holidays!