Friday, October 20, 2006

Spanish 101: Sex, drugs and masturbation

I’ve said things to Latin Americans this year that I would never intentionally say to anyone. I was fooled into thinking I could speak Spanish very early on in my altogether six-month trip throughout the region. As there was no shortage of encouragement and enthusiasm from the locals, my conversational confidence quickly surpassed my actual ability - a dodgy dynamic.

The following three anecdotes, in chronological order, will demonstrate how people with a little bit of knowledge can be more dangerous than those with none.

On asking an elderly woman first for drugs, then sex*:

My first significant blunder occurred my first solo day in Mexico. Determined not to be shy about speaking Spanish lest I get lonely, I went to the local market in search of souvenirs and unwitting practice partners. Starting with simple interactions intended to build my confidence, I stepped into a bakery and smiled at the elderly woman seated behind the counter. She threw me a familiar look that I now recognize as a mixture of amusement and dread – a common response to novices of the language. She'd correctly assumed I was about to blabber gibberish and expect a response.

I’d read of a delectable regional specialty, little coconut squares, but had forgotten what they were called. As I began to describe the dessert the señora’s jaw fell and she leaned forward to examine me. The look of amusement-dread contorted to total disbelief. At the time, I had no idea why.

Weeks later, as my skills had improved, I recounted the tale to Mexican friends in hopes of shedding some light. My pronunciation, they explained, was the culprit. Apparently, within seconds of entering the shop, I accidentally asked the señora for cocaine. Delicious sweet squares of cocaine that I’d read about in travel books. I love sweet cocaine, I told her, and I would like to learn how to make some myself.

Realizing I had no idea what I was saying, the señora began to laugh. Gaining momentum, she laughed until tears flooded the deep pockets of folded skin beneath her eyes and flowed over her cheeks, landing on the front of her blouse. That sort of laughter is contagious, and having acknowledged that I’d said something wrong, I adjusted my pronunciation through my own nervous chuckle.

True to my memory, I repeated the dialogue for my Mexican friends to help me understand where I may have gone wrong. Not so delicately, they revealed to me that I had stopped asking the señora for cocaine and asked instead for a vagina; a sweet square of vagina. Except, the way I asked for it wasn’t even that polite.

With this request, the señora surrendered to hysterics and, unable to catch her breath, laid her head on the counter, her face behind her arms. She could no longer speak. Tears streamed from her eyes; eyes that have seen 90 years of history pass, and still, I had the feeling I was the most ridiculous person she’s ever met. Her head still on the counter, she blindly waved me out of the store. Still clueless about the details of the interaction, I saw the coconut squares on my way out, and decided to pass.

*Those of you familiar with Mexican slang may be able to guess the words to which I refer.

On cross-dressing:

It was no secret. This Mexican bad boy from Tijuana was into me. It was also obvious that he would have been into me no matter what I looked like, smelled like, or said. I was a novelty. We’d met him and his friends earlier, at a town fiesta, and were, at this point, lounging on the beach. He spoke no English, and I still struggled with Spanish. Still, his intensity was unsettling and, since we’d planned to stay with the group for the rest of the day, I felt the need to break the tension and perhaps cool the train his thought was on.

Quick inventory of my limited vocabulary and key phrases left me with little to work with. I decided not to ask him where the bathroom was, not to ask him his name (again), and definitely not to ask him for another cerveza, por favor. Asking if he had any rooms or beds available wouldn’t serve my purpose either, so I decided to claim I was hungry. It was all I had left. The first time I said it, he just squinted and continued to invade my personal space. So, I said it again, thinking perhaps I’d pronounced it wrong. He chuckled a bit, and I think he asked me to repeat it. I tried my best, over and over. "I am hungry," I said. "I am hungry. Hungry. Me. Hungry."

He looked very, very confused. I patted my belly to get the point across. "Hungry. Me. I am hungry."

Abruptly, he launched himself away from me. I had not anticipated the effectiveness of my hunger tactic and was shocked. The bad boy looked terrified and stared at my bikini bottoms in disbelief.

The word for hunger, you see, is “hambre”. The word for “man” is “hombre”. For the record, the verbs are confusing, too. Here is what happened:

Tengo hambre means, “I am hungry.”
Soy hambre, mispronounced, means, “I am a man.”

I’d convinced the homophobic bad boy he’d been hitting on a man, and that man was me. Reversing the damage was likely the most uncomfortable act of miming in modern history.

On asking a classmate about masturbation:

I want to tell you that by the time I made it to Argentina, months later, I stopped embarrassing myself with incredibly inappropriate language mix-ups. But, I’m no liar.

Fellow North American and language student, my last victim was enrolled in my Spanish class in Buenos Aires. He was a little shy and lacked my, albeit pitiful, mastery of the language, so I tended to dominate the conversation. On this particular day, we were learning how to use more complex verbs; and how to use these teeny, tiny little words in front of those verbs that can change the entire meaning of what you say. I thought I understood and, to practice, began to ask the shy man questions about his hobbies and pastimes.

Finally finding the words to explain that he was learning to play guitar, he looked nearly discouraged when I posed another question. I asked him how often he played. This is where it gets complicated. The verb in Spanish, tocar, is used to describe the act of playing an instrument and also means “to touch”. And, when one of those teeny words I mentioned earlier gets in the mix, well, the context changes quickly.

The instructor’s face turned crimson and I realized what I’d said. She tried to find the politest possible words to explain the difference to me and to the student, who, although he didn’t understand the mistake exactly was already instinctively blushing.

I’d inadvertently asked the shy novice, “How often do you touch yourself?”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Nicaragua is coming

Prepare for a tale of unauthorized weapons [in the author's hands], surrender and, of course, mojitos and active volcanoes.