Image: A view of San Marcos on the shores of Lake Atitlan from a viewpoint on the hike up to the volcano of San Pedro.

nueve dia (el sabado, el cuarto de febrero)

My body clock overrode the San Pedro alarms at 4:48 am. We had to be at the school by 6 am to set out as a group of 13 students and 2 guides for our hike to the top of the volcano at San Pedro. Laurel and I made our way down a dark alley and our favourite stony staircase to be the first ones to arrive at our school.

The 20-something guides do the head count and herd us into the back of a small pick up truck set up with a frame so we can hold on to. Most of us stand up and take in the view and fresh air during the 10-minute ride to the base of the volcano. After Martin registers the group and pays our fee, we start our climb. Laurel and I slowly fall to the back of the line. The climb is steady – I check afterwards that we ascended 1000 feet in less than 2 km in just over an hour (I still think my phone is conservative in its estimate and so does Laurel!). A mighty challenge for someone who endures a hike in order to hang out at the alpine for a few days rather than summit and return the same day! I am holding back Mingo (the second guide) and apologize. He is the sweetest kid and encourages me that we’re almost at the view point. The rest of the group has been there for 25 minutes and they move on. Laurel wants to push herself but I decide not to. Not only are my lungs challenging me (which is normal), I notice some light-headedness as well. I wonder if it’s the after effects of my fall on Day -2 or the intense week of Spanish lessons. I manage to convince Mingo and Martin that I will wait at the view point, which was only a third of the way up.

I take in the cold air, enjoy the view and become the welcoming party for hikers stopping by for the next 30 minutes. Mucho Canadiense – over 70%. Of course no one has heard of Valemount so I have to defer to Jasper to help identify my home. A group of 12 students from the Canadian Mennonite University at Winnipeg stream in with two guides. They range in age from 18 to 21. One of the kids is particularly open to sharing what their trip is about – self-discovery through understanding god, service, immersing in a poorer culture and outdoor adventure.He asks me if I have been bargaining at the markets and I say – not really. I feel too privileged as I am here as a tourist. If I had been living longer like a local, I would get into it, like I do in India. I would have liked to chat more but they are ready to keep going. One of their guides tells me staying at the view point is not a good idea because I will soon be cold without moving. One of the girls is hurt and could do with some company returning back to the base. I say yes in order to feel useful and continue the conversation, although with Shelby. The kids are in Guatemala for 14 weeks. They recently built a home for a poor family. I tell her I am intrigued with religions since I consider them to be different languages for different people to have conversations with God although they have all been tainted by the introduction of social norms.

I ask if they reflect on their experiences to connect it to their understanding of God in some way. Shelby tells me that they have learned a bit of history of Guatemala – about the Spanish invasion, and been comparing some of the extreme poverty in Guatemala to their own comforts. She says, “We ask – Where is God when the invasion took place. Where is God among the poor?” “And what conclusion did you come to,” I was curious. She softly responds, “We’re not sure.” I kindly explain that although I have lived in Canada for over 19 years, I travel to India almost every year and am still challenged when I come face-to-face with poverty. I feel guilty that I’ve run away from it but decided that whether in a poorer India or in a more comfortable Canada, all I can do is be my best self and act and share what I have to offer.

We reach the park gates and I text my school coordinator Mynor to contact my guide Martin and tell him that I am on my way back and not to be worried for me.

Shelby and I share a tuk tuk into town, when I realize Laurel has the house keys. It’s close to 10:30 am and I decide to give in to more writing and reflecting over chai at Shanti Shanti. In the last few years, writing has become a useful tool to process new experiences and self-reflect. But this Guatemala trip seems to bring out the need to process even more. I realize I am going to have a lot of time on my hands, so text Mynor again if I could have an extra classe de espanol. After some texting back and forth, Mynor tracks my teacher Antonio, who was picking coffee beans, and confirms a leccion at 2 pm.

I know my host comes back to our place around lunchtime as her own home doesn’t have a kitchen. I luck out when I get there around noon. I practice mas espanol before class as I want to have a better day than my last one. Before I head for class, I strike a couple of shotokan karate stances in front of a full length mirror to psyche myself to be ready for combat – more with myself than anything or anyone else!

The school is empty and I apologize to mi maestro for the last minute request. He was on office duty that afternoon and so the stars had lined up again for me. To his opening “Como estas” (how are you), I respond with “Muy Bien” (very good) and add – Ajuesto mi actidud (I have adjusted my attitude). After my poor emotional performance on Friday, he graces me with a kind smile and says in espanol, “I understand. I am a perfectionist myself.” He pulls out the turmeric-ginger tea bag I gifted him the previous day and he says, “Now, I get to try what I’ve watched you enjoy all week.”

It was a productive class as Antonio manages to tie together the lessons of the past week. He has to leave now and then to attend to office inquiries and has me working on exercises. Some concepts stuck, others did not and I am doing my best to be kind to myself, but still struggling. I mutter at myself for stupid mistakes. When Antonio praises me with excellent after an exercise, I tell him – “That was too simple. Don’t praise me for that!” I notice I am reverting to more English in comparison to my first day. I apologize and say I am tired (cansado-tired was the most used word that day). (When I debrief with Laurel later I conclude that mental workouts are no different than physical marathons and I should have paced myself better in the first three days than given it my all.)

Antonio has always spoken in espanol in our classes, adding an English translation whenever he introduces a new word. He is teaching me a few new concepts and I see him translating words I already know. I tell him – “Please don’t translate unless I ask you to.” I am down but not out!

In one of the exercises, I have to recall something from my second class, that I deliberately didn’t write it down because I thought it was too much and / or I felt I wouldn’t need it. Antonio asks me to refer to my notes and I tell him the bad news. He admonishes me with, “Why do you think I have been writing on the board all week?” I couldn’t resist laughing loudly and explained in English that this reminded me exactly of a dance I do with my beloved staff person Monique when I teach her new concepts or programs on the computer, except I am less kind!

The lesson that I did record or rather capture!

We end the class after three hours because unlike other days, we’ve only stopped for bathroom breaks and tea-refills. But I am feeling more positive about my capacity to learn Spanish. Mi maestro (because it sounds cooler than ‘my teacher’) advises me to go through my notes, review concepts and practice. We part ways with a brief gracias and good luck, as I am not one for lengthy goodbyes and I had already used up my weekly emotions quota the day before.

As I sprint up the stone staircase from the school to our temporary home, I recall from the list of verbs and conjugations that all we’ve covered this week is verbs in the present tense. How is this going to be useful for conversations the next two weeks? I stop myself. Hey, there’s another lesson in this – The Universe is reminding me (again and again) to stay in the present!