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Practicing Spanish

by Rachael Phillips

How did I get myself into this mess?

I had just stumbled through the dingy customs area of the airport in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, Central America. The officer had taken one look at me, shrugged, and filled out the customs forms without my input.

But I can speak Spanish! I wanted to protest. At least, some. Uh, maybe a little. Foggy recollections of counting ducks in high school Spanish class, plus a few nouns from Taco Bell’s menu came to mind. By that time, my luggage and I had been deposited in a patio area where we faced a literal wall of people, all yelling (in Spanish, of course) and waving arms like tentacles.

The sun had just gone down, and I desperately needed to find a place for the night. While I am not a globetrotter, I have visited Mexico, Ecuador, western Europe and Canada. But I had never faced a foreign city alone.

Nothing like an airline ticket mix-up to create adventure.

“Okay, God,” I said, “I’m glad you’re bilingual. Somehow, you’ve got to get me to the right place at the right time.”

The right place, my Honduran, English-speaking seatmate had told me on the airplane, was not the modest-priced hotel I’d found on the Internet. “I’m not sure that is even open,” she said. “Tegucigalpa is a dangerous place. Last week they found dynamite in the school where I teach. You’re not wearing jewelry? Good. You’d better stay at this hotel; it emphasizes security and service, with people who can help you work out your ticket problems. Some will speak English.”

The right hotel was also the most expensive in town, but at that moment I would have mortgaged my pancreas to stay there.

“This hotel has a shuttle, too; you don’t want to trust Tegucigalpa taxi drivers to get you back to the airport,” warned my new friend.

Watching the random NASCAR race going on in front of the airport, I saw what she meant. I also saw the hotel shuttle with (thank heaven) both Spanish and English signs painted on the side. But he was leaving!

Screaming at the top of my lungs, I hauled my heavy suitcase toward him, determined to grab his bumper, if nothing else. A cortege of food vendors and indignant taxi drivers trailed after me. He threw his door open and said, “You have reservation?”

“No,” I answered in quiet desperation. “No, I don’t.”

“’S okay! Don’t WOR-RY!” he answered, face split in a huge, toothy grin.

I climbed aboard with the gratitude the last chimpanzee must have felt when she entered Noah’s ark. But I found the shuttle driver had earned his pole position; he, like all the other Honduran drivers, whizzed through the narrow, unpredictable streets like a meteor, ignoring the existence of all other vehicles.

“Warp factor two, Mr. Scott,” I said, clinging to my suitcase.

“Qué?” said the lovely, exquisitely dressed young businesswoman next to me. To my surprise, she responded to my few halting words of Spanish, then waited patiently for my replies. We had a delightful conversation, which distracted me from performing my own last rites and made me feel I was not cut off from all human contact. I made it alive to the excellent hotel, which sported three locks on the door and numerous satellite trash sit-coms like “Frasier” in English to make me feel secure. Between my Spanish and their English, the hotel business center folks straightened out my ticket and got me to the airport at 5 a.m. the next morning so I could finally rendezvous with my daughter in Roatan. Other good Samaritans rescued me during my trip: shop owners, hotel personnel, airline security people, the family with whom my daughter lived, and their friends, who endured my conversations throughout a day-long picnic. And one waitress in Trujillo, who resembled a prostitute from Man of La Mancha, probably saved our lives. She flagged down the only taxi available because we ignorant North American gringas stayed late to watch an indigenous Indian dance by the ocean in a less-than-safe neighborhood, with no way back to our hotel.

Kindness where I least expected it. Understanding despite the language barriers. After a week in Honduras, all things Spanish intrigued and excited me.

“I really want to learn more Spanish,” I told God enthusiastically. “I’ll look for opportunities to practice, and get really good at it.”

“Actually,” He said, “you’ve already had some opportunities to practice in Plymouth, long before you went to Honduras.”

“When, Lord?”

“Do you remember the Hispanic guy in the store the other day?”

I cudgeled my brain for a moment or two. Oh. The guy who wanted to make a phone call.

I had been shopping—behind schedule, as always. Several of us stood in line at the cash register, checking our lists and our watches. A thirtyish Hispanic man had stood without a word beside the clerk until, upset by his silence, she irritably asked him what he wanted. He pointed to the telephone.

“I’ll ask my manager,” she said.

The manager, a weary, stressed woman, clicked her tongue with impatience when she saw him. “Oh, no. No free phone calls! I get so tired of this—”

He held out a phone card.

“That’s right! Go use it at the pay phone. They speak Spanish. Go!” She more or less shoved him out the front door. He stood on the sidewalk. Stranded, probably. Lost. Alone.

I stood in line. Behind schedule. Embarrassed at my terrible Spanish. Afraid of accosting a stranger. Especially a male stranger.

I could have helped.

But I didn’t.

“The linguistic opportunities are there,” said the Lord. “Not to mention a few chances to be a Good Samaritan. Want some practice?”

Published in The Pilot News, Plymouth, IN, October 2002