Saturday, April 11th, 2015, San Marcos, Guatemala 

Some good things from today: 
… Being able to (sort of) communicate with Raul, MCC's driver. My Spanish is that of a 18 month year old baby, but surprisingly, I can get by semi-easier than I thought…I definitely felt some joy being able to communicate and understand even if it's very little.

Saturday, May 9th, 2015, The Reverie Cafe, Wichita Kansas

Sometimes I feel as if I can barely function in my own culture (at least in public). Take right now, I am in this very hip coffee shop in Wichita. I came here to write. But I need to have my mac plugged in at all times. So here I am, awkwardly moving around the room trying to find 1. an outlet 2. oh, an outlet with a three prong adapter, 3., oh, that adapter won't come out of the wall? Oh. now what?

I managed to talk with 3 different people, get my computer chord stuck in a chair before finally landing on a couch. And all of this before my (massive) coffee was ready.
Not even kidding. 

But despite being awkward, at least I am speaking the same language as those around me.

Being in Guatemala was the 3rd time in my life thus far that I've been in a Spanish speaking country. (I was in Bolivia in 2012 and then Costa Rica in 2014). Each time, I never really needed to try speaking Spanish. Each time I was with my friends who are fluent in Spanish (because they are awesome and have been living in Latin American for years now). Oh don't get me wrong. I would try sometimes. And I was polite enough to say "gracias" to waiters and "perdon" to people I had to wiggle past. That was pretty much it.

In Guatemala, I assumed that my ability to speak Spanish would be about the same. After all, we would be traveling around with MCC staff who were fluent in Spanish (being from Guatemala and Honduras respectively). And yes, that was true.

But the thing about traveling around with a lot of Canadians is that they no know zero Spanish. And I mean zero. (Maybe Dora the Explorer never quite made it into their living rooms. There were several occasions where I helped fellow participants learn how to pronounce "vamonos").

Get this: out of our entire group (13 people strong), I was the one who knew the most Spanish.

Whoa. What?

Again, I have the language skills of a baby. I can point to things and say un-conjugated verbs. Let me tell you, Spanish 1 my Jr. year in high school was a really long time ago. (What was that, like 2003-2004? Geesh).

But being one of the "strongest" (ha) speakers in my group seemed to give me a lot more confidence to at least try more then I have ever experienced before. And tried I did.

My favorite person to try to communicate with was Raul, who is from just outside of Guatemala City but as been driving English speaking groups around for MCC for so long that he has picked up some English. (Raul was also maybe my favorite person in general. He was so silly and so caring at the same time. Even though we could barely communicate, he was a joy to be around. Even when our van was emerged in fog (and I mean zero visibility), passing a chicken bus on a small mountain road, I had no doubt that he would keep us safe. This is a big deal for someone with high travel anxiety).

My first language epiphany came during lunch (the same day as the journal entry above). Our translator/MCC Leader, Nancy, had gone to the bathroom. Someone at our table had asked Raul what city we were in. I was at the end of the table but we had all quieted down as we tried to use gestures to ask our question. Raul did not understand. Eventually, I piped up just enough to say "nombre" and "aqui" (since for the life of me, I could not remember how to say "cuidad" (or city).

See what I mean? Spanish at it's most primal state.

But Raul understood what we were trying to ask. And we thus learned that we were in a place called Quetzaltenango. (Although he had to say it a lot of times because, what?)
The restaurant in Quetzaltenango
He then asked me if I knew Spanish. I then told him that my Spanish as ugly and bad. But he seemed generally happy that I was trying. And that was enough for me.

It was like something clicked. For the rest of the trip I made more of an effort to Spanish then I ever had. I searched Spanish dictionary apps, I dug deep back into my subconscious to try and remember Spanish grammar rules (often coming up short though), I asked Nancy and Raul "como se dice….en Espanol." Don't get me wrong, my Spanish continued to be bad and ugly. But I was so happy to even try that I forgot to be overly self conscious. I tried. For once in my life, I tired!

The evening of our host family stay eventually came and proved to be another communication challenge. Our host family was Tzutujil (a indigenous Mayan group) and that was what our host mother spoke. Thankfully, her children, Maribel, Daniel, Lea Maria and Diego, knew Spanish because of school. I was definitely made very aware that my 18-month year old baby language skills were not getting us very far. But you know what? That was okay. We made it work. And I still did not lose my confidence to try.

I think there is a lot of beauty in trying to communicate with people in their own language, especially if you are coming in to a new culture as the white American. I will never forgot this part of my MCC Learning Tour to Guatemala. I will always remember how Raul patiently taught me how to say "vaca" or cow when I asked (even though it clearly was not pressing). He would stop what he was doing to come up next to me, look into my eyes and slowly annunciate the word until I (sort of) got it. I will never forget how, when Nancy wasn't around and someone asked Raul a question in English that he didn't understand, he would often look to me to translate. (Even though I would often come up short).
One of the participants, Emma, and Raul. Watching them communicate was always hilarious. 
When I think about all of these things I often think of the Spanish word contigo, or "with you." My fumbling language skills was what made my experience in Central America become even more alive. Being able to meet in some sort of messy middle and communicate together is an incredible thing.

Contigo. With you.

With me.


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