Hagfish don’t speak Spanish

Last week’s post cancelled due to ignorance. It was something on the theme of the temporality of so much here and poverty, then I realized that nearly all I observed here could apply to poverty in the US, which lead me to wonder what, if anything, was different and what should my role be in that. I’m here trying to make a small change, why do I not do that in my home country? It all became too complicated for a weekend and I didn’t feel qualified on the topic. So the post remains in the draft box.

Today’s thoughts:

Five months in, how’s my Spanish coming along? I was so proud of my first efforts, my first fuck-ups. Full of hope and energy, I valiantly struggled to push aside the language barrier and exchange ideas with my newfound friends. No, not really. That’s how my ideal self envisioned the events, but there haven’t been many friends and the barrier falls over. My Spanish sputters along in the same old way. I teach English and live with English speakers. I use Spanish to communicate to the principal that I’m borrowing his calculator and ask if I’m really supposed to give the 9th graders extra points for the museum trip, offer one of the school cleaners a piece of cake, and request a pound of green beans at the market. I’ve learned the words for cash (effectivo), come in/move by (pase), and sloth (peresozo, the same as lazy). Flustered, I often mix up pensar (to think) and querer (to like), despite having known them for years. A month ago, when I was invited to one of my favorite homes with a fellow volunteer—a local favorite who became fluent in a year—I was reduced to observer, straining to understand their conversation for, no exaggeration, hours. Meanwhile, Vee travels in Guatemala for two weeks and returns confident and willing to barge in with broken Spanish at any opportunity.

Maybe language learning is for extroverts. More accurately, language learning is for people who are able to make small talk or say nothing, really, just for the sake of talking. It’s also for people who have confidence that others will want to talk to them. None of these are me. At a recent birthday party four of us attended, I was seated with two friends of the family, one of whom was the mother of a student. I would have enjoyed getting to know her, but it’s difficult enough to bridge that gap in English without self-awareness-reducing chemical aid like caffeine or alcohol, much less in a language I barely speak and when I’m unsure of culturally acceptable topics; and then my style of semi-intense probing might not be appropriate for a party. I’m more into the What makes you tick? conversation and less This music makes me want to dance, OMG this goofy thing happened to me yesterday you have to listen to it, Isn’t it funny how much the kids are obsessed with their phones? To each their own, I just can’t do it. If I were engaged by someone else, I would try, bravely, strongly, but it wouldn’t go very far because we’d reach the limits of my abilities or the topics I can ask questions for quickly. And generally the families assume we don’t speak Spanish, so they don’t try to engage.

When I chose to work with this school, I was afraid that this lack of learning would happen since I would be living with volunteers rather than a family, but I wanted the proximity and support of other teachers. The alternative was life with a family but possibly too rowdy for my sanity and with not as much support. There wasn’t an ideal situation, and I chose the one that would better promote teaching success rather than language learning success.

This is all a terrible way of looking at language learning and myself. I’m just disappointed that I’m this socially awkward hagfish that resists evolution, that I’m not someone else, someone who believes that she is worth talking to, even in another language, and disappointed that I can’t kick my ass hard enough to…to what? find little funny things to say? find anything to say? I’m rather negative about all of this, especially when I see how quickly my roommate is progressing, due to her newfound friends. Maybe I need longer calves.

Okay, I need to believe in the lights ahead. I do have a conversation partner at school I should utilize more. As far as topics of conversation go, I can always ask her how to navigate the cultural waters that divide us and appropriate party conversation. I could also accept my status as a perennially awkward seafloor-dwelling scavenger. We all have a part to play.

Yours in goof,


P.S. The cats at our school understand that it’s not what you say but how much sun and playtime you enjoy that really matters.


My first attempts to communicate

I’m starting this entry at 6:50 p.m. CST but would rather be sleeping. It’s been an exhausting day. Morning sounds included dogs barking, roosters sounding their scratchy bugle, and a bird making a sort of slide whistle call. Tonight’s sounds include dogs barking, three wheeled tuk-tuks, crickets, and children. The electricity was out at 6:30 a.m.; now it’s on. The water was on, then off, then on, now off. The internet shows a preference for certain websites one moment, for others the next. I’ve tried to download WhatsApp all day, with no success. At least the gas stove works and we have several tambos (jugs) and a pila (outdoor cement tub) full of water.

The primary barrier in my attempts to learn Spanish has been shyness (not to mention a lack of encounters with native speakers). It’s too easy to avoid the potential embarrassment of mistakes, hence, my forcibly living in a country where I have no choice but to risk looks that say, “¿WTF are you talking about, gringa?” That was later in the day when I attempted to help my roommate and fellow old lady (32 29), Vee, find plantain chips at a pulperia (small market where you order what you want through a grate). Plantains = platanos. Chips = ?, but surely if I ask for “dried plantains” the appropriate message will come across. “¿Tiene platanos secas?” Ummm, nope! Cue: mini-flood of shame. (Turns out the word we needed was tajadas.) And now I wonder if my directness was rude. Also, there was the encounter at the (semi)super mercado, where you can buy laundry soap, soy milk, and stoves, in which the clerk questioned my purchase of brown rice—did I have a medical issue? Not that I understood her question, spoken or mimed, and that’s where Vee and I make a great pair. Despite her lack of Spanish speaking skills, she understands okay; flip it for me. Thanks to Vee’s translation, I could stand my ground and declare my preference for brown rice, despite having no medical reasons for needing it, and proudly make my purchase with crumpled lempiras. I think some school boys asked if I was a dog.

But those were the only real bruises, and minor at that, as Vee and I wandered from the Small House (for the introverted volunteers. There is a Big House for the extroverts.) to el centro for flip flops, a hat, and groceries. A man behind us in line at an eatery explained Vee’s order to the clerk. The clerk at the pulperia across the road from my house patiently repeated multiple times just how the eggs were priced (5 eggs for 15 lempiras ~ US$0.75), and a produce vendor made sure I understood that the avocado (aguacate) should be eaten mañana. A smile to a passing stranger usually garners a smile in return.

Ta ta,


P.S. And…the water’s back on.

P.P.S. The internet currently works in 5 minute increments only.