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Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Importance of Good Spanglish Skills

Out of respect for the Mexican culture and my love of the Spanish language, I tried to learn a bit of the vernacular prior to my first of many trips to Mexico. My cousin let me borrow her computer and I bought course books and tapes to practice speaking in a foreign tongue.

The sentence that I seemed to have absolutely no trouble at all remembering translates to, “Can you tell me where there is a hotel?” Now – being that I booked a package tour, I didn’t know when I would actually get to use that phrase, but it actually did come in handy on the Monday after my arrival. I had met another solo traveler on the ride from the airport to my hotel. Kevin had contacted me to get together for the day to shop, and go to lunch. We were to meet at his hotel, the Calinda Beach. I started walking, and kept walking, and kept walking. I didn’t think that I had passed his hotel. I kept asking people – in English – if they knew where this hotel was. They all pointed me in the direction that I was already going. So I kept going.

About an hour had passed. I asked one more person, “Excuse me. Do you speak English?” This time the response was, “No.” The only sentence that I could remember from my self taught Spanish lessons was about to come in handy. “Puede usted decirme donde hay un Calinda Beach hotel,” I asked. So he told me, that it was about cinco minutos. (Everything on vacations seems to be five minutes away. Whenever I ask, that’s the response I get.) Several friends had thought I was nuts to remember that one phrase, yet it was one of the only times that I truly needed the language.

Generally speaking, the people in Cancun had a much better grasp of the English language than I did of the Spanish language. Mind you, I did tend to spend time only in the hotel zone and booked excursions to tourist areas. It was on one of the excursions that I had what I would call an interpretational faux pas. My tour that day included Xel Ha, which is a 10-acre marine park. It was here that I learned to snorkel. I put on a life jacket and headed out toward the bridge where the guide told us we were most likely to see barracudas and stingrays. Now, here I am, normally frightened witless of water, yet mention to me that there are large pike-like creatures with razor-sharp teeth that swim around the surface and can travel upwards of 36 mph, and I’m game! The water is 10 to 20 feet deep where we snorkeled. Though I had somewhat of an urge to see the giant fish that was directly underneath me and causing quite an uproar with the three women around me, I unfortunately could not see the barracuda and I calmly swam away.

With the intense Caribbean sun reflecting off the water and beating down directly on my head, I started to feel a little woozy, so I headed in to shore. Upon returning my snorkel equipment, I read a poster that indicated that jewelry should be removed while snorkeling as barracuda locate their prey by site and may mistake a shiny object for the glint of a fish. It may have been nice to know that prior to wearing my gold medallion necklace into the water.

After lunch, I headed back to the air conditioned luxury of the tour bus to await the trip back to Cancun. The driver and I were the only people on the bus. I asked him, “Habla inglés?” He didn’t speak English, so we tried to converse in Spanish. Let me rephrase that. I tried. He on the other hand, had a perfectly good grasp of his native language. We exchanged pleasant hellos. Then he, like every male I’d come across in Mexico thus far, complemented me on my amarillo hair. I was a yellow-blond on that first trip to Mexico, and on my first day there I had felt like the most beautiful woman in the world because the men were much more attentive to me than those in my home country of Canada had ever been. I thanked the bus driver, who then said something that I did not understand. He then did something quite strange; he pulled down the zipper on his pants. I’m not quite sure if he was trying to show me that the hair on his carpet matched that of his attic, but all I could think of saying was, “No entiendo!” That ended that conversation, and the zipper at half mast, was now in its proper place. I never really felt like I was in any danger. But, to this day, I still wonder which of my Spanglish words he mistook for, “Please undo your pants for me, Senor Bus Driver.”

About the author: Louise Schutte is a freelance writer with a passion for travel and a lust for learning about other cultures. In regards to the excerpt above, she has since found out that when she thought she was explaining to the bus driver, “I am hot,” what she actually said was, “I am horny.” She has since taken Spanish classes, and no longer makes that mistake!