No Comprendo! Yo Soy un Gringo Estupido!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1996

No Comprendo! Yo Soy un Gringo Estupido!

For the linguistically impaired, a south-of-the-border survival guide
By Randy Wayne White

Recently, I attended a two-week Spanish course at Conversa, an intensive language school located a few miles outside San José, Costa Rica. For eight days I conjugated verbs until I got finger bloat. For eight days I stared out a gloomy classroom window, trying to train my tongue to make foreign sounds. For eight days I sat meekly in my seat, feeling dumb as tire tracks, until I enjoyed a sudden awakening regarding my own limits. I used to think I was too stupid to learn another language. Now I'm smart enough to know better. The reason I can't speak a second tongue is that I'm just too American.

It's true. All our qualities of greatness are balanced by the unfortunate reality that, except for a few lucky recent immigrants, Americans are a multilanguageless people. It's not our fault. Over the centuries, the chunk of the American brain that controls foreign speech has gradually withered to the size of a muscat grape in autumn.

There are several popular theories to explain this: bad vibes still lingering from that idiotic Louisiana Purchase; the mass inhalation of flax during the Industrial Revolution; Prohibition; nuclear testing; acid rain; those bastard aliens who, even though the government refuses to admit it, are beaming us up a piece at a time and then reassembling us, Tinker Toy fashion.

But I'm getting off track. The point is, most of us don't possess the circuitry to learn a foreign language. (The few Americans who do claim to be bilingual are probably just lying. How would we know?) Does that mean we're doomed to spending our travels communicating in a grotesque pantomime?

Nope. Not any more.

At the Conversa school in Costa Rica, I finally realized that as an American, I had to attack Spanish with the same spartan two-point philosophy I apply to packing for a trip: (1) Survival isn't surviving unless it's fun. (2) Take only what you need to survive.

After that, I was OK. I left the school, of course, and spent the remainder of my time traveling around Costa Rica, hiking the rainforests, dodging that country's noxious transit police, all the while compiling a list of Spanish phrases that we, the linguistically challenged, need to survive. During quiet evenings, I also drew on past experiences in places such as Nicaragua, Panama, and Cuba to add important phrases.

Was my decision to bolt Conversa a condemnation of all language schools? Not in the least. If you're serious about mastering a language, submersion is unquestionably the most efficient way to learn.

But is it imperative to take intensive language courses prior to roaming around Latin America? Not if you read the rest of this column, it's not.

What follows is perhaps the first genuinely practical guide to traveler's Spanish ever published. Let's be honest here. Those ludicrous language primers available in bookstores are worthless. Worse, if we were to speak the inanities they teach, the locals would be well within their rights to slap us goofy.

"Will Hortensia watch television at her home on Wednesday?" Gad! What kind of boob would ask such a question? Since we don't know Hortensia, where and when she watches television is none of our concern. And if we did know Hortensia, we probably wouldn't admit it.

"Orlando is wearing new pants." Do you wonder why travelers sometimes die unexpectedly while touring Latin America? It is my suspicion that many of those deaths are directly related to fatuous non sequiturs such as this, most of them parroted from language primers. Avoid such books at all cost. Not only are they useless, they're dangerous.

The Out There School of Survival Spanish, however, is both safe and effective. There's no need to learn the stock phrase "I don't speak Spanish," because Latin Americans will automatically know that you don't speak Spanish from the vacuous glow of your eyes. Give these people some credit.

Something else you don't need to worry about is conjugating verbs. It's been my experience that Latin Americans are first-rate cryptologists. Don't be afraid to grab a verb and shoot from the hip.

Same with nouns and adjectives, which for no good reason that I know of indicate gender. But think about it: The person to whom you're speaking already knows whether he is a man or a woman. And it probably won't take him very long to figure out whether you are a man or a woman.

Because the countries of Central and South America suffer the same problems with con men and crime as the United States, I've included the kind of hardscrabble language you may need (or hear) in a tight spot. Always keep in mind that if you say something in Spanish, there's a real possibility that you will be answered in Spanish. So stay on your toes.

Speaking to Airport Taxi Drivers
How much do you charge?
Cuánto cobra?

Let us negotiate a price before you take my luggage.
Negociamos el precio antes de que me lleve las maletas.

Your uncle's hotel sounds very nice, but I have reservations at the Holiday Inn.
El hotel de su tío debe ser muy lindo, pero tengo reservaciones en el Holiday Inn.

Please slow down.
Más despacio, por favor.

At high speeds, I get carsick.
A altas velocidades, me mareo.

This window doesn't work. May I break it?
La ventana no funciona. La puedo romper?

Mother of God, pigs!
Madre de Dios, cerdos grandes!

Yes, the crazy animal deserved to die. But must he ride beside me?
Si, la bestia loca mereció morirse. Pero es necesario que esté sentada junto a mi?

I will change the tire, but don't expect a tip.
Cambiaré la llanta, pero no cuente con una propina.

At the Hotel Desk
I would like your least expensive room.
Quisiera la habitación más barata.

I would like a better room.
Quisiera una mejor habitación.

Please explain the rope's function.
Por favor, explíqueme para que sirve la cuerda.

I would like any room not damaged during the recent earthquake.
Quisiera una habitación que no sufrió daños en el temblor reciente.

The river is lovely, but I prefer a room with a shower.
El río es muy bonito, pero prefiero una habitación con baño.

Don't lie to me. I know the difference between a piranha and a carp.
No me miente! Reconozco la diferencia entre una piraña y una carpa.

At Local Markets
I would like to change my American dollars.
Quisiera cambiar mis dólares americanos.

Your currency is very pretty. Who's the guy with the top hat?
Su dinero es muy bonito. Quién es el hombre con la chistera de Monopoly?

No chicken hearts today, madam. Do you sell peanut butter?
No a los corazones de gallina hoy, señora. Se vende crema de cacahuate?

The people of Taiwan are excellent craftsmen!
La gente de Taiwan son artesanos excelentes!

No, thanks. The sombrero impairs my vision.
No, gracias. El sombrero me bloquea la vista.

Will you throw in a couple of mangos?
No puede regalarme un par de mangos?

A Night on the Town
My compliments to the chef. The peccary is excellent!
Felicitaciones al cocinero. El jabalí está riquísimo!

The rum is good, but I prefer the local beer.
El ron es bueno, pero prefiero la cerveza de aquí.

The local women do what to cause fermentation?
Las mujeres de aqui hacen qué cosa para causar la fermentación?

Keep those brewskies coming!
Siga trayendo mas fermentarskis!

I don't question your abilities, but I am already married.
No dudo sus habilidades, pero estoy casado.

My apologies. I thought you asked me to dance.
Discúlpame. Creí que me invitó a bailar.

My friend is drunk, and I am lost.
Mi amigo está borracho, y yo estoy perdido.

My friend is lost, and I am drunk.
Mi amigo está perdido, y yo estoy borracho.

At the Hospital
I am sick.
Estoy enfermo.

Relax! That is not gunfire; that is my stomach.
Cálmese! No son balazos; es el estómago.

Everything was working fine when I left Miami.
Todo funcionaba bien cuando me salí de Miami.

If I break the pill in two, may I take it orally?
Si rompo la píldora en dos, puedo tomármela por boca?

I prefer to believe that I was infected by a mosquito.
Prefiero creer que me infectó un mosquito.

Damn your oath! I've got things inside me that need to be killed!
Al demonio con su juramento! ÃTengo bichos adentro que necesitan ser matados.

I was never asked to do that in the United States, and I am not going to do it here.
Yo no lo hice en los Estados Unidos, y no lo voy a hacer aquí.

If you've got the medicine, I've got the cash.
Si tiene la medicina, tengo el efectivo.

In a Fix with Guerrillas, Thugs, or the Costa Rican Transit Police
Have I broken a law?
He violado una ley?

May I offer you a gift of money?
Puedo ofrecerle un regalito de dinero?

I love your uniform!
Me encanta su uniforme!

Your automatic weapons are so clean!
Sus ametralladoras están tan limpias!

Did I say American? I meant Canadian.
Dije americano? Quería decir canadiense.

Once again, those French bastards in Quebec have screwed up!
Otra vez, esos bueyes franceses en Quebec lo han jodido todo!

You can have our women, but leave the plane tickets.
Pueden llevarse a nuestras mujeres, pero dejen nuestros boletos de avión.

Don't shoot! We are rock stars!
No disparen! Somos los Beatles!

Over the River and into the Woods
I would like to rent a canoe.
Quisiera alquilar una canoa.

Sharks ate most of the crocodiles? That's very reassuring.
Los tiburones comieron la mayoria de los cocodriles? Eso me contenta.

I would like to rent a gun.
Quisiera alquilar una pistola.

The rainforest is beautiful.
La selva es muy hermosa.

What is the name of that bird?
Cómo se llama aquel pájaro?

What is the name of that snake?
Cómo se llama aquel serpiente?

A hamburger for me, and some antivenin for my friend.
Para mi una hamburguesa, y para mi amigo un poco de antitoxina.

At Border Crossings/at Customs/in Jail
Note: Key words and phrases for which you need to be alert include Pinche pendejo! Disparen ahora! Arreste a los gringos! Don't worry about translations. When the big crunch comes, the less you know the better. It's like dealing with a bear: play dumb. But if you hear any combination of the above, let panic be your guide.

Yes, I have a receipt.
Sí, yo tengo un recibo.

I have a prescription for that. Really!
Yo tengo una prescripción. Sincero!

Did I say $20? I meant $50!
Dije veinte dólares? Quise decir cincuenta!

I have a powerful friend at the American embassy.
Yo tengo un amigo importante en la embajada de los Estados Unidos.

Assassinated? Then my work is done here. The capitalist pig deserved to die.
Asesinado? Bueno! Bueno! El puerco capitalista mereció morir.

Nice jail you got. Better than my hotel room.
El cárcel es magnífico. Mucho mejor que mi hotel.

Copyright 1996, Outside magazine

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