Oranges, Chickens And The Reason I Signed Up For Spanish Classes
On our last day in Pedasi, a Pananamian fishing town 200 miles from Panama City, 4 people from the multi-generational family who lived next door stood in my kitchen. There was the lady of the house, her 11-year-old daughter, a man I had never seen before and a visiting, out-of-town aunt. I showed them the bits of food we had left and they nodded. They would take it all. The tightness of the visiting aunt’s embrace and the wideness of her smile as she thanked me seemed disproportionate to our meager offering. She said something I did not understand and because I knew almost no Spanish, all I could do was smile.
Our limited Spanish had created few barriers for my husband and me during our month-long stay. Pictures on food tins and the Spanish translation application on my phone helped us navigate the grocery store. Most restaurant staff spoke some English. They were used to serving a small ex-pat community and the tourists who visited this out-of-the-way, laid-back town to surf and to fish in the Pacific waters of the Tuna Coast.
We joined the locals on their evening strolls when the setting sun and gentle evening breezes eased the heavy heat of the day, a heat we welcomed as a break from the cold Canadian winter we had left behind. We exchanged greetings with families walking to the town square or spending time on their front porches. We communicated with hand gestures, smiles and the odd words of Spanish and English we both understood. Our inability to speak and to understand Spanish kept us on the fringes, but we managed.
We developed a nodding and waving relationship with the family next door. Grandpa spent most of his day sitting on the front porch and the rest of the family joined him in the evenings. Abutting cement walls separated our houses and our lack of language created a thicker divide. Smiles and “holas” as we walked by were the extent of our communication.
“I’m going to write them a letter,” Rick said. “Tell them something about ourselves and let them know we are not anti-social. We just don’t know Spanish.”
Using a small phrase translation book, the internet and a few lingering remnants of an introductory Spanish class taken years before, he began to write. While he spent most of the morning composing the letter, I walked to the bakery and bought sweet rolls. When Rick had completed the letter, he delivered it and the sweet rolls to our neighbors. Half an hour later, the 11-year-old girl brought us a basket of fresh oranges, an acceptance of our overture.
I hoped they had not felt obligated to give us something in exchange for the rolls. I doubted they had much to spare. After the exchange of the letter and oranges, wider smiles and more exuberant waves greeted us when we went out and when we returned home. But we still did not have words for a proper conversation.
A few days later, we sat and read on our front porch, the spot offering the most relief from the late afternoon sun. Our front door was open as was the back door at the other end of the hallway running along one side of the house. An electric fan near the front door whirred. It was our attempt to catch any wisp of a breeze that might cool the house. A chicken scurrying through the gutter in front of the porch stirred us from our books. Chickens and dogs ran freely in town. We were used to seeing chickens along the side of the road and we had become accustomed to roosters crowing throughout the night, but a chicken had not been in our yard until now.
Before we could register what was happening, the 11-year-old girl raced by in pursuit of the runaway. The panicked chicken made an abrupt turn and ran through the open front door. After a motionless moment of disbelief, the girl’s eyes widened as she gasped and then giggled. She and Rick chased the chicken down the hallway, closing doors behind them. They cornered the chicken in our walled backyard where the girl quickly recaptured her chicken. Although we shared wide-eyed expressions, gasps and chuckles, we exchanged no words during this incident. A few minutes after she took her chicken home, the girl returned with more oranges.
In the following days, activity and an aura of expectation filled laid-back Pedasi as the town prepared for Carnaval. Men built stages. Women on patios sewed colored feathers together. Float statues filled living rooms as families repainted, refinished and refreshed the decorations. Carnaval arrived and people flocked to town. Tents popped up in empty spaces. Houses, including that of our next-door neighbor, burst with out-of-town relatives.
The next four days were loud and festive. Music everywhere. Bands in the square. Powerful speaker systems in trunks of cars parked on the street. Ghetto blasters on front porches. Until this point, the only sound we had heard from the porch next door had been barely audible voices. Now their porch vibrated with music. Grandpa’s continual smile covered his face. He became sprier and younger as he swayed to Latin rhythms.
Our quiet street bustled with activity. People stopped in front of our neighbor’s house and began lively conversations. Many recognized us from our travels through town and waved. We smiled and waved back, but could not join in the banter. Without a shared language, we were observers, not participants.
Carnaval marked the end of our stay in Pedasi. After four days of noise, parades, fireworks, elaborate costumes, water shortages and power outages, we packed up and gave our remaining food to our neighbors. The morning after Carnaval, wearing backpacks and pulling wheeled suitcases, we walked the block to the taxi stand at the side of the town store. We planned to take a taxi to Chitre, catch a bus from Chitre to Panama City, and fly home to Canada the following day.
There were no waiting taxis and no one else in the taxi queue, but the queue of people at the stop for the Las Tablas bus was long enough to fill several buses. The visiting aunt from next door was in that line. After a disheartening hour’s wait, during which only two out-of-service taxis drove by, I became hopeful when I spotted a taxi stopped on the main road. It stopped on the main street for what seemed like ages.
The visiting aunt left her spot in the bus queue, walked to the vehicle, talked with the driver, and returned to the queue. The taxi turned the corner and stopped in front of us. Before we loaded our bags into the vehicle, the visiting aunt hugged me. As we drove away, she waved.
We had formed a connection with our neighbors in spite of our limited Spanish. Perhaps the wall created by our lack of common language was not as thick as I had thought. When we were back home and the next session of continuing education started, I signed up for Spanish classes. The language wall will be paper-thin the next time I visit Pedasi.
Donna Janke is a writer from the Canadian prairies. She loves exploring the world near and far and believes every place has stories. You can read about her travels at Destinations Detours and Dreams.