Guatemala city - It's after midnight when the plane touches down. The streets are empty, and the taxi driver circles past motels with names like Kama-Sutra where rooms rent by the hour and come with private garages to hide licence plates from prying eyes.
The moon rises high above the jacaranda trees and silhouettes Volcán de Pacaya, from whose cone drift wisps of smoke. The much larger Volcán de Agua is just a looming shadow as we near my hotel in the town of Antigua.
My plan is to take a crash course in Spanish, and I've chosen Antigua because it's close to Guatemala City. Tuition will be $140 a week, plus a book donation, for 20 hours of personal instruction. It isn't the cheapest, but I like the fact that it's a non-profit institution that provides libraries for village children.
The next morning, I meet my teacher, Lucrecia, who assesses my Spanish and adjusts the training plan.
"I've been teaching here for six years," she says, "and after one week, if you work hard, you will get to here." She points 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 diligently complete my homework. Scouting the premises, I see about 20 pairs of students and teachers seated at individual wooden tables in the courtyard. I try a few words of English on some students and get blank looks. Most are from Germany, Switzerland or Poland, so our common language is Spanish. A piece of paper flutters - it's the list of student activities, including salsa dancing classes, cooking lessons, movies and excursions to coffee plantations. I'm glad I didn't sign up for the seven-hour-a-day instruction plan.
I catch up with Kaitlin, a fellow Canadian, who's been in the remote highlands of Guatemala assisting a village cooperative make grinding machines from donated bicycles. Her employer, an NGO in Vancouver, has paid for 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. There's no hot-water tank; instead, a heating element is built into the shower head. By coincidence, we're in the same hotel, Posada La Merced, with 26 clean rooms, two garden courtyards and, once they discover I'm a student, my very own desk. Private bath, hot water, dinner by candlelight - all for $30 a night.
Later, I spend the afternoon exploring the town. At the north end is La Merced Church, a confection of golden-yellow 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 towers over the city, I notice other language schools hidden behind crumbling 17th-century facades. Most offer home stays or volunteer experiences.
Rigoberto Charuc, our school's director, says their fleet of library buses reaches over 5,000 children in areas where 50 per cent of the rural population cannot read.
"Book by book, Guatemala will change," he says. "Students are welcome to help out in the community libraries once they have mastered the basics of the language," he adds.
The week passes quickly after an excursion to Monterrico, where leatherback turtles lay their eggs on the black sandy shore. Soon, I'm leaving.
As I turn the corner, I take one last look at Volcán de Agua and catch - and understand - a few words of Spanish carried on the wind through an open doorway.