Lessons in Spanish

21:28, Oct 28 2012
TRADITIONAL TEXTILES: Guatemalan women from the mountain villages sell their beautiful hand woven textiles on the cobbled streets of Antigua.

This wasn't in the script - a hair-raising, high-speed and helmetless scooter ride over rough cobblestones through the narrow streets of Antigua, dodging tuk-tuks, stray dogs and brightly coloured chicken buses.

The Spanish lessons we are in Guatemala for don't start until tomorrow so my pitiful vocabulary doesn't extend to "Slow down!" or "Is there a helmet?"

Terrified, I close my eyes, hold on tightly and hope I survive yet another bizarre ride in a Third-World country. We're under the smoking peak of Mt Fuego, the Central American volcano that has been playing up recently, but it's not volcanos we're here for - it's Spanish lessons.

AWESOME ANTIGUA: Beautiful colonial buildings, churches and arches line the cobbled streets of the Guatemalan city of Antigua which is surrounded by volcanoes.

Having sailed to Spanish-speaking Venezuela, Colombia, Honduras and Guatemala last season, we found our halting Spanglish didn't get us far. With Mexico and Cuba on the itinerary this season, we decided it was time to get to grips with the language that is the third most widely used in the world, after English and Chinese.

The beautiful colonial city of Antigua, surrounded by lush, green mountains, seems the perfect place. It's a popular spot for Spanish students, with more than 30 language schools, and it's not far from the Rio Dulce, where we have left our yacht Bandit for hurricane season.

David and I go for joint lessons, for support as much as anything, although one-on-one lessons are most common.


Accommodation choices in Antigua include hotel, self-contained hostel, private apartment or total immersion with a local family.

We opt for the last, hoping for lots of interaction - hence, the scooter ride. School director Julio insists on taking us to meet our family, by scooter.

Complete with backpacks, we take off through the maze of streets that is Antigua to a tranquil spot on the outskirts where the wealthy live.

From the road, it's just a wall with a gate, but it opens to a lovely courtyard garden with fountains and rooms opening off it.

For $250 a week we get a room with a private bathroom and three meals a day.

It starts off great, but after a few days we find the hoped-for interaction dwindles as the family obviously loses interest in us.

Tiring of a diet of black beans, rice and tortillas we switch to a local hostel, where the language interaction with fellow students is fantastic, the bed is far more comfortable and we can buy fresh fruit and vegetables at the nearby market.

Spanish lessons go from 8am until noon each day and we quickly progress, learning dozens of new words and phrases, then practising them on each other, fellow students and long-suffering locals. A week of two-on-one lessons costs $150.

Teacher Gabby refuses to speak to us in English, so it's a case of sink or swim. We kind of float in an in-between sea of confusion, but it slowly starts to make sense.

When we have coffee on day five, we manage a reasonable conversation with Leo, the local barista. He is delighted to meet someone from New Zealand ("mucha leche" - much milk) and is happy to engage in basic and slow Spanish.

His coffee, as good as any flat white we've had in New Zealand, sells for $1.80.

With our brains not quite as quick as they were 35 years ago, we find we must constantly study and practise. The day we enjoy the most is the Wednesday "conversation" day. After several days of intense grammar and written work, it's wonderful, although challenging, to just chat

There are plenty of laughs. I proudly tell Gabby we live in a cow (the words for boat and cow are similar), while David says he used to farm 10,000 bees. It's only when Gabby asks about "miel" (honey) production, we realise perhaps he has mixed "abeja" (bee) with "oveja" (sheep).

Every afternoon, the school organises free activities, during which only Spanish is spoken.

They include trips to the macadamia, coffee and chocolate plantations, salsa dancing, visits to the local textile and food market and villages. It's a great way to discipline ourselves to concentrate on what is being said and attempt to understand it.

After a week, we decide our brains need a rest, so we head to the mountains to a traditional lakeside village. We're delighted when we manage to find and check into a hotel using only Spanish.

Our grammar and accents are probably not pretty, but the attempt attracts plenty of smiles from the owner. It encourages us to keep studying.

The Marlborough Express