I started taking Spanish class in third grade. My teacher was Mrs. Dominicis. She was fabulous, fiery, and loved to dance— a legend. As I stood in the lobby of the Great Backpacker’s Hostel in Banos, Ecuador, last week, I thought of how disappointed she would be if she saw me standing silent next to Meri. Meri completely handled our check- in. I would say that I picked up about every fifth word because of context clues. I could tell from observing her that we were good to go with our room. Patricio, the handsome man who worked at the hostel, had already started to fall in love with my friend who he called “Merisol,” I thought it was cute.
This was the first full length conversation in Spanish I witnessed since arriving in Ecuador six hours earlier. I wasn’t distraught at my inability to understand. I was groggy from a pair of flights and a four hour bus ride. I chalked it up to exhaustion.
The next morning I woke up exhilarated by my surroundings. Mountains dwarfed the the town, and everywhere you turned clouds appeared close enough to touch. Back in the lobby, we ate breakfast, and again, I creeped quietly behind Meri as she asked Patricio how we could get to Casa Del Arbol, home to the swing off the edge of the world. From their conversation, I understood that we had to catch a bus in town, so we thanked Patricio and made our way out.
As we walked down the street I admitted to Meri how impressed I was at her Spanish. Despite having studied the language for upwards of ten years, I realized that I was horrified to use it with a native speaker. My mind buzzed through a slough of possible scenarios I was likely to face over the next nine days of travel. Meri could see my growing despair and reassured me that I would be okay. She insisted that I knew more than I thought and would have no trouble talking to people.
We walked a few blocks, and Meri asked some locals for directions. She seemed to make friends with each person we saw, forming an automatic connection with everyone we encountered. We came to the corner where we thought we could catch the bus. We looked around and decided the convenience store on the corner was our best bet to confirm where we were going. We stepped inside and it was a small store. The counter was about five feet away from the door. I suddenly felt nervous.
I entered in front of Meri and was face to face with two workers from the store. They looked eagerly at us and I stepped forward to ask some clarifying questions. My internal voice said, “Questions. Right, I need to to ask a question, using words, expressing thought.” I actually said, “Umm … El Bus?” I pointed out the window towards the top of the street. They stared back politely. I continued, “El bus…esta en esta calle?” I held my breath.
“Si! El bus. Esta alli.” They smiled and we all laughed a bit. Wow. That was shockingly smooth, easy even. I hadn’t made a fool of myself, and the men even seemed charmed.
In that moment, I released my fear to communicate, to connect to another human being, to admit with a shrug of the shoulders or a quick laugh that I didn’t know a word. I wasn’t shunned or mocked. I was encouraged and engaged. I gave myself a moment to think about what I needed to say, took a breathe, and spoke the words that came to my mind. I remembered that as a person, I can’t really help but communicate with those around me. We are programmed to do it if we can just get out of our own way. I couldn’t help but think how proud Mrs. Dominicis would be of me today.