The lessons go beyond learning Spanish

In deciding where to take a crash course in Spanish, I have chosen Antigua, the former colonial capital, because it is close to Guatemala City and tuition will be $90 a week (plus a book donation) for 20 hours of one-on-one instruction.

But more important, this is a school with a difference. Probigua (Proyecto Bibliotecas Guatemala) is a nonprofit institution that provides mobile libraries for children in villages where there are no books. A portion of my tuition will be allocated to one of those six libraries or to scholarships for children to continue school beyond sixth grade.

In a country where half of the population in rural areas cannot read, I like the idea that my tuition can make a difference.

I head to the school and meet my teacher, Lucrecia, who assesses my Spanish and then adjusts the training plan. "After one week, if you work hard, you will get to here," she says, pointing to the future tense in my workbook. "But if not, you'll get to here" - the past preterite.

Not one to live in the past, I vow to complete my homework diligently. Within the courtyard I see about 20 pairs of students and teachers, seated at individual wooden tables. I try a few words of English with some students and get blank looks. They are from Germany, Switzerland, and even Poland, so our common language is Spanish.

A piece of paper flutters - it's the list of student activities: salsa dancing classes, cooking lessons, movies, and excursions to coffee plantations. I'm glad I didn't sign up for the seven-hours-a-day instruction plan.

I catch up with Kaitlin, a fellow Canadian, who has been living high in the remote highlands of Guatemala, helping a village cooperative make grinding machines from donated bicycles.

Her employer, an NGO in Vancouver, British Columbia, has paid for her hotel stay and three weeks of Spanish study. "This is luxury," she says. "At home [the village] we get running water only between 4 and 6 and it's cold."

I'm impressed. I'd struggled with the shower that morning - instead of a hot water tank, there is a heating element built into the showerhead. By coincidence, we're in the same hotel, Posada La Merced, with 26 spotless rooms and two garden courtyards. Private bath, hot water, communal dinner by candlelight - all for $30 a night.

I spend the afternoon exploring the town. At the north end is La Merced Church, a confection of golden stucco and glossy white trim, built in 1552 with a four-ton statue of the Black Christ inside.

As I walk south through the Arch of Santa Catalina, toward Volcán de Agua, which looms large over the city, I notice many language schools hidden beyond crumbling 17th-century facades. Most offer homestays or volunteer experiences.

I talk with Rigoberto Charuc, director of Probigua. He mentions that their fleet of library buses reaches more than 5,000 children in remote areas and offers a lending library as well as encyclopedias and computers. "Book by book, Guatemala will change," he says.

The week passes quickly with an excursion to Monterrico, where leatherback turtles lay their eggs in the black sandy shore.

As I'm leaving, I turn the corner and take one last look at Volcán de Agua. As I do, I catch - and understand - a few words of Spanish that carry on the wind through an open doorway.

For more information, write Academia de Español PROBIGUA, 6a Av. Norte #41-B 03001 Antigua, Guatemala, or see http://probigua.conexion.com

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