COLUMN: Failure to communicate falls on us

Tourists need to learn the language of the countries they visit.

If our family is going to be spending winter holidays annually in Mexico, the time has come to get with the program and learn some Spanish.

Our recent trip to La Paz, on the Baja Peninsula, was our first time not in an all-inclusive resort where speaking English is generally not a problem.

But renting a home with two other couples, buying our own groceries and making our way around the town or sight-seeing, was an eye opener in terms of communication.

Knowing how to say please (por favor), thank you (gracias), good morning (buenos dias), beer (cerveza) and where is the bathroom? (dónde está el baño?), just doesn’t cut it when you’re on your own in Mexico.

We were lucky the property managers where we stayed not only spoke English, but had also lived in Nanaimo before moving south to a warmer climate.

They gave us a tour of La Paz on the drive in from the airport, pointing out the places to get the best cuts of steak, the freshest strawberries, which restaurants to eat at and which ones to avoid, and where to buy our groceries.

They explained that La Paz is a friendly, safe city and we should have no problem on our visit.

But we soon discovered that  English-speaking residents were few and far between.

The first situation arose when we went to get groceries. Yes, we had an idea where the store was, but made the mistake of not memorizing the name of it – only remembering that it had a statue of a cow on the roof.

After a bit of time walking up and down the streets, trying to recall what we were told on the little tour we received, we decided to ask for directions.

Well, the words “cow” and “grocery store” didn’t get us anywhere, mimicking a cow with a couple of moos only got us strange looks and placing my hands on my head like horns was even worse.

Finally I found a young lady in an art museum who spoke English and pointed us in the right direction. In our defence, we were only off by about three blocks.

But it was enough to get me thinking that a lack of English-speaking residents was not the problem, but our lack of Spanish.

One woman in a another shop noted a puzzled look on my face and helped me out, later apologizing that her English was not very good.

I told her to please don’t apologize. We travelled to her country for a holiday, not speaking a word of Spanish, and expected people to converse in our language.

That seems a little arrogant. It was I who needed to apologize to her (which I did).

We were also unprepared for taxi rides around town, knowing the name of only one street that could get us home, but lacking the words for “right”, “left”  and “straight” when giving directions. It didn’t help we were pronouncing the name of the address wrong either.

One poor driver had to put up with us using hand signals until he realized where we wanted to go.

Fortunately, we met Pascuel, a taxi driver with a van who spoke English and the six of us used him for the majority of our excursions.

Understanding a language not only helps in every day situations, but also should an emergency  arise.

Visiting a beach 20 kilometres from La Paz, my wife stepped on a stingray in the shallow water and got stung.

She was instantly in pain and unable to bear any weight on the foot. We were all at a loss of what to do. But a vendor renting kayaks spoke English and said she could go to the hospital and get a shot for the pain, but it should go away by itself in about two hours.

We decided to stay at the beach and he was right; two hours later the pain was gone.

But, if he wasn’t there, speaking our language, I’m not sure what we would have done.

Spanish lessons anyone?

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