Xela: The new Athens of the West

DSC03118Today we drove about 3 and a half hours through the countryside to Quetzaltenango, or Xela (Shay-la) as the locals know it. At a population of about 250,000, Xela is the second-most populous city in Guatemala. We’re at about 7,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains.

Curt tells us that Xela is the only city of any size in Guatemala that retained its native name after the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors.

Traditional dress in the market at Xela
Traditional dress in the market at Xela

They continue to be a center of Mayan culture in the country and perhaps the whole world. Many women wear the traditional traje (dress) even to business meetings and in positions of leadership in the government. Beyond a nearly 60% indigenous population, it considers itself mostly Italian rather than Spanish, and somewhat set apart from the rest of the country. It regularly experiences uprisings of young people starting secessionist movements.

The view from our room
The view from our room

We tried to check into our hotel and found out they had messed up our reservations. In the bus ride afterward, Curt explained the Guatemalan concept of Figase (Fee-HA-see), or making excuses, that is an inherent part of Guatemalan culture. He said as you begin to get used to Guatemala, you can see conversations where figase takes place: someone’s shoulders slump, as I suppose they are the “figaseree” or the “figasered.” He said he’s been tempted to use the concept of figase in their grant reports:

“Thursday’s meeting had a 60% figase ratio.” Sounds good to me.

We didn’t sweat the hotel stuff, but instead went to lunch with the Quetzaltenago Rotary Club and heard about how they’re supporting Semilla Nueva. I need to mention here that we have two adolescent boys who are able to sit through a 90 minute Rotary meeting, mostly in Spanish, eating roast chicken and a dessert of fried plantains stuffed with sweetened black beans. That kind of thing has to buoy me through endless wrestling matches on a 20-person bus over the next couple of days.

After lunch we toured the city and the headquarters of Semilla Nueva, which is a four-person apartment with a rooftop patio that’s used as a test garden. The staff of Semilla Nueva is a group of 20-somethings living off of nothing much and very excited about it. Tomorrow we get a glimpse of what all the excitement’s about as we travel from the Seattle-esque climate of Xela to the tropical rainforest flat lands near the coast.

DSC03147After our tour, we meandered through the crazy-busy street markets of Xela and had dinner at an Indian restaurant, then returned to our hotel, which has figured things out and secured rooms for all of us. We’re now sharing a suite with a couple of other ladies. It’s not bad, but compared to last night, the hotel is a little creepy. High ceilings, spotty internet (well, that’s not new) and paper-thin walls.

Just now, I’m guessing by the racket in the streets and firecrackers outside our window (we’re overlooking Central Park) that a Guatemalan team just scored a goal in a soccer game. They’re broadcasting it from loudspeakers on the streets.

I’m glad I brought earplugs.

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  1. Glad you AND the boys are having a good time. I loved the part about the Figase! I wish I had planned for earplugs in Honduras. We were there when they won an olympic futbol match!

    Keep writing and enjoy that bus!


    1. \”figasel\” Great concept! You and your family are such troopers. I hope Curt translates some of the Guatemalan Rotarians comments; I\’d love to hear all about them. Enjoy the campos today! Mostly, thank you so very much for writing this.