The second largest city in Guatemala is officially named “Quetzaltenango”, but that’s a mouthfull for fast-talking bus driver ayudantes to shout to their potential passengers, especially when there are three other destinations to say, too. By the time they would have gotten that single name out, weary travelers would certainly have moved on.
So, drivers shout “Xela” (usually three times fast), which is the city’s official nickname. In fact, if you want to get technical about it (and, um, alternative left-wing solidarity-y about it) “Xela” is a more accurate name for the city, anyway. The K’iche’ name for the city, back when it was the capital of the K’iche’ kingdom pre-conquest (which, by the way, was after the K’iche’s conquered the Mams), was Xe lajuj n’oj, or “Under the ten wise ones”. The ten might refer to the peaks of varying size surrounding the city, or it might refer to the leadership of ten cofrades, or elders.
Xela is for short. And trust me, everyone calls it Xela. Don’t call it Quetzaltenango. And definitely don’t ever, ever call it “Quetz”. FYI: in most Mayan languages, the ‘x’ is pronounced like the English “sh”.
Not to make it any more confusing, but the department is also called Quetzaltenango (“place of the quetzal birds”, probably from a combination of a Mayan language and the Nahuatl “-tenango”, which is “place of”), and never abbreviated to “Xela.”
So, Doc and I arrived in Xela a little more than a week ago, eager to settle in to a semi-permanent (at least, permanent-feeling) residence and start reviewing K’iche’.
We got off to kind of a rough start.
The bus ride wasn’t bad– one flat tire, very little traffic, only moderate nausea and not even one close-call with a truck or other vehicle larger that us.
After five hours on the bus, though, we were ready to settle in. No such luck. First, the residence that Doc had reserved quoted us a higher price than they had promised in their emails, and the communal kitchen was a bio-hazard. Seriously. A literal bio-hazard. Contrary to popular belief, I can (and do) put up with crumbs and untidy roommates in the kitchen. But this was just beyond anything I’d ever seen before… beyond even the kitchen at NerdHouse the summer after my freshman year (where we observed the “no-second” rule, because if a piece of food falls on the floor at NerdHouse, it was guaranteed to have pubic hair on it. Yes, I just typed that.).
So, we got some food at the taquería on the corner and talked over our options. I voted for a move to the hotel I was fond of, with a private bathroom, TV, and clean shared kitchen. I called, and they promised a room with a private bathroom for the coming week.
When we got there, they claimed to not remember my calling. And there were no rooms with private bathrooms available. However, two anthro-friends of ours were staying there, so we decided to stay anyway. The dueña promised a room with a private bathroom would be available the next day.
That never happened. I have asked every day about the room change, and I am still in the crappy TV-less shared-bathroom room. I am fairly certain they are lying about the room, because there doesn’t seem to be anyone else in the hotel right now. It doesn’t make sense. And the dueña got worried that I was going to leave without paying, and made me pay several days in advance. Yes, I should have just moved. I’ve paid through tomorrow, and then I’m off to Huehue. It makes me sad, though because I ‘ve recommended this place to several travelers. Not anymore.
To calm some nerves that were starting to frazzle, we met Doc’s friend/ research assistant/ our K’iche’ tutor, Jaime, at el Cuartito, the local super-hipster coffee hangout for drinks. Yes, Xela has a hipster scene. Or maybe its a cross between “hipster” and “hippie”. El Cuartito also happens to have excellent mojitos.
Alas, they had changed the mojito recipe. Whereas before your rum, tonic, and simple syurp came steeped with whole mint/ yerba buena leaves, now they appeared to be ground/ blended to a pulp. So… when you took a sip out of your straw, you got a not-so-nice dose of green mush stuck in the straw rather than a refreshing trago. Nevertheless, we drank the entire pitcher. One must not waste rum, especially when one is nearing the end of one’s rope.
We consoled ourselves about the bad luck with the hotels and the mojito recipe with the thought of a delicious meal at the best Italian restaurant outside of Italy, where Doc is friends with the chef.
When we got there, the chef (Alfredo) was not in. We asked the server, and he said that Alfredo had left (for good) before he had started working there. He had no iea where Alfredo had gone. Doc wasn’t surprised… he pointed out that Alfredo was both something of a rolling stone and a dirty old man, and thus changed venues with some frequency. We again consoled ourselves with the hope that the sous-chefs were the same, and so the food would be reasonably similar in quality.
Quality, almost. Quantity, not at all. The portions had been cut roughly in half, and we both left feeling still-hungry. We set out to find some dessert, which is surprisingly challenging in this city.
Honestly, I can’t remember what we had for dessert. We went to Casa Babylon, but that’s all I remember. Oh, well.
One more sad thing before I drop the woe-is-me shtick: our second-favorite restaurant, makers of amazing homemade veggie burgers (with lentils and REAL vegetables! and a fried egg on top! and a homemade bun!!) and even more amazing sangria (a blend of wine, rum, gran marnier, and vodka, apparently, along with the requisite fruit), that had a beautiful courtyard seating area with flowering trees and twinkly lights… had closed. Now that space is home to a gringo bar.
Things began to look up, however. We spent quality time with our friends (a prof at WashU and his wife, who is a student at Harvard… who also happen to be collaborators/ good friends with my advisor. Small discipline.) getting Indian food for dinner the next night (the quality of which fortunately remained unchanged from last year). We arranged our K’iche’ schedule with Jaime, did some hiking, watched a movie, drank lots of mediocre coffee and excellent hot chocolate, had a small adventure, and went to Bake Shop whenever it was open.
When we arrived, the weather was unusually, and disconcertingly, warm and sunny. Now it has changed to a reassuringly steady, cool rain.
More, in detail and illustrated, to come.