It was a long, hot, and hazardous walk from the house to the Spanish language school that made the home-stay arrangements for me in Granada, Nicaragua.
I had researched where to study online while back in California, and sent a deposit via Xoom. I was determined to combine my “sandals-on-the-ground” research-for-retirement trip to Nicaragua with some serious hard work in beginner’s Spanish.
I arrived at the school out of breath, sweaty, with a racing heartbeat, and exhausted. In other words, not at all fresh and eager to learn Spanish! I had traveled to Nicaragua during the rainy season, wanting to know how bad it could get. Being accustomed to dry heat, I felt I needed to experience for myself the wetter half of the year in Nicaragua–hmmmm!
Inside the school, I was introduced to a slender young man who would be teaching me Spanish for a total of three weeks, with a break after two weeks for a trip to San Juan Del Sur, and another Spanish school and home-stay. My teacher rapidly ascertained that I knew very little Spanish—I’d listened to thirty sessions of Pimsleur on the drive home from work over the past months, and that was about it. We started off with verbs, had faltering conversations with much use of the dictionary on my part, took coffee/water breaks to socialize with other students and enjoyed the breeze from fans scattered around the classroom. And so it went, four hours a day, five days a week. My learning was complicated by my less-than-expert knowledge of two other languages, both studied many years ago. I’m convinced that the way my brain operates when I’m searching for a word is to command “Retrieve not-English!” and then dig around my memory for whatever word in whatever language is most accessible. This made for some pretty interesting, if useless, sentences in two or three different languages, with Spanish words usually being the “fillers” around the important words in the wrong language(s). My teacher may actually have picked up a smattering of French along the way, which wasn’t exactly the object of the exercise!
After a couple of days of stumbling along over uneven sidewalks dodging horses, bicycles, taxis and buses to Managua and Costa Rica to get to the school promptly at 8:00 a.m., I caved and began taking a cab myself, costing all of 40 cents. It was more than worth it to arrive rested and ready to learn.
Like most Spanish schools in Nicaragua, this one has business relationships with families with whom it places students requesting home-stays, and I was staying with a single mom and her five-year-old daughter, with the goal of having an immersion experience and accelerating my grasp of Spanish. After a few initial missteps over what I could and could not eat, mostly through translation provided by another Spanish student staying in the home, I was provided with pretty healthy food and, despite her complete lack of English and my hopelessly inadequate Spanish, I could tell that my hostess was trying hard to ensure that I was comfortable and happy in her home. It was an excellent way to experience how the majority of Nicaraguans live and a much better, as well as more affordable, choice, than staying in a hotel, with the frequent opportunities to practice my Spanish.
Again, like most Spanish schools I researched online, for a small additional fee we had the option to embark on some afternoon field trips. I was happy to visit a chocolate factory and the nearby ceramics museum in Granada, where, among other ancient pieces of exquisite pottery we saw dozens of pregnant belly-shaped vessels, some displaying such sculpted details as fallopian tubes, in which the remains of the dead were placed, in the hopes that they would thus be reborn. (See my post about this here). Later, I declined another, more strenuous, outing that involved hiking up a steep hill to a lookout point, but others took this trip and had a lot to say about it upon their return, none of which made me regret missing it.
Two weeks later, equipped with my somewhat improved Spanish, I headed to San Juan Del Sur and a home-stay with a large extended family with a constantly changing cast of characters, including two very talkative parrots in cages and a 6-year-old boy who played drums on everything, all the time, with great passion and skill. No trouble getting from home to school with this placement—the Spanish school was right next door.
Classes here took place on a brightly painted outdoor patio area overlooking the little river on the far side of the unpaved street, each student sitting at a table with his or her instructor. I really hit it off with my teacher here and she worked me hard to get me more comfortable with conversing in Spanish, bringing in specific topics each day that were pretty much guaranteed to hold my interest and get me digging through the dictionary for specific terms I wanted to use in my responses.
This school had a modern, air-conditioned van that took us on a field trip/Spanish practice day (written about in more detail here), first to a ceramics-making family in one of the pueblos blancos (“white towns”) where the clay for the pottery is literally found under their feet, waiting to be shaped and fired, to the enchanting little town of Catarina, specializing in plant nurseries and overlooking the Laguna de Apoyo (a beautiful lagoon in a volcanic crater), to the visitor center/museum adjacent to the Masaya volcano—where we saw a relief map of Nicaragua that showed its many volcanoes, strung across the country like a necklace from the Caribbean to the Pacific coast—and then up to the mouth of the volcano itself, spewing clouds of odiferous grey and white smoke.
After visiting the volcano, we went shopping at the Masaya central crafts market before heading to a different location with an outdoor food market, where we dined on delicious “street food” (except for the yucca. I could live without yucca for the rest of my life and never miss it). We finally headed back to San Juan Del Sur as the sun was setting. On another day, we rode in an old school bus down a dirt road, passing chickens, a family of pigs, and other domestic animals, as well as side-roads leading to new housing developments, to one of the local beaches, and had a delightful afternoon surfing or playing in the waves and drinking smoothies. A week later, I returned to Granada for a final week at the first Spanish school, with a considerably larger vocabulary, a somewhat better grasp of the language, a ton of grammar handouts to keep me learning once I returned home, and a lot more confidence in speaking Spanish, mistakes and all.
In Nicaragua there seem to be Spanish schools everywhere and the best way to choose is probably either to visit them in person before picking one, or do your research online, read the tripadvisor reviews, map the locations, and then jump in with both feet. The good/bad of choosing a school from afar is that you pay a little less for each additional week you commit to studying with the school, whereas if you decide to commit for only a week in case it doesn’t suit your needs you pay somewhat more. If you’re planning a home-stay in conjunction with each school, trying different schools might also be somewhat more tricky to arrange, although I understand that the schools are sometimes able to make last-minute arrangements. I’d suggest looking for schools whose teachers are trained Spanish teachers, not university students looking to earn a little extra cash, and to ensure that the language-practice field trip activities, if you’re interested in taking them (anything from a visit to a local railroad depot to zip-lining, a boat tour of the islands in Lake Nicaragua, and exploring bat caves), suit your tastes and activity level and are reasonably guaranteed to take place.
After this month-long experience, I would like to try some other Spanish schools in Granada, and would return to the school I attended in San Juan Del Sur in a heartbeat—in fact, I was able to make arrangements to continue my Spanish studies with the same teacher I appreciated so much, via Skype, so I will, hopefully, be much more fluent by the time I return to Nicaragua on my next trip. There is certainly a huge benefit to studying Spanish in-country, as life there presents many opportunities to practice in the afternoon what one learned in the morning, and people seem to appreciate your efforts, even if you make lots of mistakes. My personal goal is fluency and comfort with the Spanish language, and while I know that will take time to achieve, so far, I’m enjoying the process of getting there.