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Two moms take six kids to Guatemala for Spanish-immersion adventure

In February, a friend and I pulled our kids out of school for a month and took them to Guatemala to learn Spanish. While our husbands stayed in Salt Lake City to work, we two moms and our six kids, ranging in ages from 2 to 8, journeyed to Antigua, Guatemala, where we attended Spanish immersion school and soaked up cultural and life lessons.

On the first morning of our adventure, we set off to explore our temporary home. The scene of two moms and six kids under 8 walking in a semi-orderly fashion on cobblestone streets that had at least 300 years on us collectively reminded me of Mrs. Mallard walking her ducklings across Boston in the children’s book "Make Way for Ducklings."

From the back of the line, I watched our group feeling sheepish and proud. Anyone might wonder how I found myself standing in the streets of Guatemala in such a situation — with all of these kids, my dear friend and without either of our husbands. So now is a good time for me to explain — but I'll have to start from the beginning.

Five years ago our two families — with all of our kids in tow — started traveling in Central America together. Typically, these were 10-day trips on which we did cultural and touristy things: we ran wild in the Mayan ruins of Honduras, saw the sea turtles nesting in Costa Rica, caked ourselves in the black sand of Nicaragua, and watched the Easter Passion procession wind though the charming colonial cities of El Salvador.

Each trip had its moments of craziness, such as the magnitude-7.3 earthquake that shook us out of bed in the cloud forest of Honduras, but also truly amazing experiences. The trips have exposed our kids to other cultures and other languages and to good people from around the world.

Those experiences both fulfilled our need for adventure and diversity and whetted our appetite for more. The more we traveled, the more we wanted deeper connections to the places we visited and to the language. We as parents felt this was especially important for our children, who don’t exactly live in the height of diversity on the east bench of Salt Lake City. So last spring, standing at the foot of a volcano in El Salvador, the two sets of parents agreed that we should do a Spanish immersion program with the kids. And the planning began.

First, of course, we shared big talk, grand ideas and excited what-ifs. Then some panic set in; this could be a really hard undertaking. Our nights of talking led us to conclude that the best way to do an immersion trip involved the moms taking the kids while the dads stayed home to work (and pay for the trip).

So we went back to talking and running various scenarios. After a couple of months, we realized that we could talk for years and never actually do anything. But, more importantly, we realized that there would never be a perfect time, never a perfect age with our kids, never a perfect situation with work. We simply had to make it happen.

We knew we wanted to have our immersion experience in Antigua, Guatemala. Both families had visited this unique colonial city and wanted to return. It is the perfect blend of modern and antique, with streets cobbled in stone and peppered with historic churches in various states of decay and use. It is easily accessible, just a short 45-minute drive from Guatemala City, and is small enough to evoke feelings of coziness and safety.

With the help of Mosaico Travel Services, a Salt Lake-based travel company specializing in Central and South American destinations, we divvied up responsibilities. My friend looked for houses to rent, and I researched Spanish language schools. Our biggest problem with housing was finding a big enough place for our combined family of eight. We wanted a rental that had security but no pool. After a few failed attempts in which houses were snatched up by others because we didn’t move fast enough, we found a four-bedroom house on VRBO (vacation rental by owner) and quickly made a deposit. The rental house for the month was about $1,200.

My initial Google search yielded a ridiculous number of options for Spanish language schools. It was difficult to sort through the various possibilities, but what became clear through the process was that we needed a school that offered one-on-one instruction and a set curriculum. Based on these requirements and a recommendation from Mosaico Travel, we settled on a school near the heart of the city.

Correspondence with the school was easy; I handled most of the arrangements via email, and we were able to take our placement tests online. The school was eager to accommodate our mixed group of adults and children. Each adult had one teacher, and the children were split into two groups, the oldest two with one teacher and the middle two with another. The two youngest, age 2, didn’t attend school. We selected our own schedule, opting for four hours of instruction each day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Most of the other morning students at the school started at 8 a.m. Price vary by the school. For the half-day, one-on-one or two-on-one instruction, the price varies from $120 to $185 per week.

Each morning, the four oldest children and we two mothers would walk the 12 blocks one way to Spanish school, passing brightly colored stucco facades and ornate garage doors and being passed by dozens of vibrant and loud commuter buses. Locally called “chicken buses,” the kids instead referred to them as “stinky school buses” because they were repainted, recycled school buses that emitted enormous plumes of particle-filled smoke as they passed us on their way to collect passengers from outlying pueblos. Most mornings, we’d stop at one of the many small snack shops to buy chili-lime plantain chips or some other local snack for our 10-minute break at school.

Once at school, we’d launch into Spanish. For the adults, the days were filled with Spanish-only conversations, grammar lessons, vocabulary, conjugation drills and the occasional Bananagram game. The kids too had grammar and vocabulary drills but focused more on learning through play during their crash Spanish course. Often they would take their lessons to the streets of Antigua, visiting churches to see Lent celebrations or ordering ice cream in Spanish.

Originally, we tried to enroll the younger two children in a bilingual or even Spanish-only preschool. I made initial contact with a school that seemed promising about four months before our trip date. But when it was time to make final arrangements closer to our departure, I couldn’t get the school to respond. Taking the lack of response as a signal that we should refocus our efforts, we decided to look for a local nanny instead. As Mormons, we turned to our church’s international community and reached out successfully to the local Antigua congregation for recommendations. We paid a nanny $15 per day to care for them.

Our afternoons outside of school were spent on extracurricular school field trips to places like an organic macadamia nut plantation and a Mayan women’s artisan cooperative, playing in Antigua’s central park, swimming on a day pass at a local hotel or cloud gazing while surrounded by the lush vegetation of our rented home.

The moms took turns shopping multiple times a week at the local Bodegona, which is more food labyrinth than grocery store, supplementing that stock with fresh fruits from the local fruit-and-vegetable mercado. Loaded with eight or nine sacks of groceries — the locals would have one or two sacks — we’d ride the eight blocks home in a three-wheeled, covered tuk-tuk taxi for 15 Quetzales (a little more than $2).

The evenings then consisted of homework. The indoor courtyard and other parts of our rental home were filled with people in various stages of doing schoolwork. Everyone had daily assignments from Spanish school; we moms had to work on ours after all the kids were settled in bed, which meant we didn’t start until after 9 p.m.

The kids also had their U.S. schoolwork to do. The older kids attend public school but were required to un-enroll because they were going to be absent for more than 10 consecutive days. Despite this, we were committed to keeping our children on par with their peers at home. We worked with their Utah teachers before the trip and got thick packets of language arts and math work to be completed while we were away. In Guatemala, we regularly emailed our students’ progress and even Skyped on occasion with the teachers and classes back home. And while there were more than a few homework-related fits and tears, the kids did their work — all of it.

Meltdowns weren’t exclusively reserved for the children; I had a major one myself. It was Friday afternoon of week one. I had spent nearly 20 hours sitting across the table from my Spanish teacher working diligently to recover the language I had studied in my youth. Some of it was coming back, but progress was more slow than I’d hoped. It turns out that more than a decade and three kids later, I’d lost a lot of vocabulary and couldn’t remember how to conjugate verbs in the preterite.

So as I sat there winding down my lesson for the day, hot tears welled in my eyes and spilled involuntarily down my cheeks. My teacher looked perplexed and concerned. “Quó pasÓ?” she questioned. But all I could do was produce more tears and a little snot. After 60 seconds of childlike sobbing, I finally explained myself: I was completely and utterly frustrated. I was frustrated with myself for not practicing my Spanish when I was in college; frustrated that it wasn’t coming back more quickly, and frustrated that I hadn’t somehow become completely fluent in a week. “Poco a poco, little by little,” she replied gently.

Over the next weeks, whenever I felt frustrated I tried to remember those wise words. Because isn’t that how anything gets done — little by little? You don’t raise a perfect child overnight, have the ability to run a marathon instantly, or perfect a language in a week. It’s all a series of small steps that take you somewhere big in the end.

Years ago, when my family took our first international trip to Guatemala, I was seven months pregnant with my second child. People regularly remarked, “You’re crazy,” or asked, “Why don’t you just go to Hawaii for something tropical?” Don’t get me wrong: Hawaii is an amazing place, but it’s not the only place out there. And traveling internationally with kids isn’t as hard as you may think. In fact, I think the seven-hour flight to Hawaii is harder with kids than the two three-hour flights to get to most Central American destinations.

Our international trips over the years have all been rich, but I suspect this Antigua trip of 2012 will forever hold an esteemed place. We forged friendships, tasted the stinky school bus grit, pounded the cobblestone streets into our souls and existed somewhere in between tourist and resident. And while my family is not yet completely fluent in Spanish, we took the first step. We started “poco a poco,” and so can you.

Kat Dayton is the mother of three wild little boys. A former political and nonprofit fundraiser/event planner, she now saves her skills for more important projects like school box-top drives and church activities. Her email is