My bag and I were bundled onto a chicken bus bouncing out of Guatemala city with little ceremony and just a quick hug goodbye.
From the outside, the re-vamped pimped up US school bus was glorious. Inside there was barely room to squeeze along the aisle, never mind sit on a seat. I hopefully half squeezed myself on to the end of a bench. An elderly man sitting next to me held my arm to stop me flying off with every bump and bend.
We tried to chat. I understood around one word in fifty and from his puzzled looks I thought he was probably doing even worse. As the bus pulled into Antigua he pressed his phone number into my hand with a quick murmur softly spoken. Unfortunately I knew too few words to be sure whether his offer was kind or plain suggestive. I could only smile and wonder whether I should be looking shocked and outraged.
It seemed like time to take action, time to learn some Spanish.
I met a Dutch girl in my hostel dorm. She had me laughing by the time I’d put my bag down. That seemed like a good sign, so we enrolled for an intensive 20 hour course of Spanish and managed to persuade the tutor that teaching two would be no harder than one and much more fun.
First came the mind bending explanations of the two spanish verbs ‘to be’ and the lengthy explanations as to which is when and when… I have been dreaming the list of which, finding myself waking with a deep conviction that I should sell more blankets in order to properly express location. It is strange the tricks your mind plays when you try to force it to see the world in a wholly new way, force feeding yourself words and patterns with breakfast lunch and dinner.
And somehow between yo estoy and estamos, I’ve made a great friend and learned the ‘we’ form just as well as the singular. It has been wonderful to be surprised by a new format just as I’d got comfortable in making do with solo grammar.
There have been many surprises. In English my voice is mellow as wine. In Spanish I seem to squeak like a chipmunk. I am baby-talking my way into new worlds and I am not sure I have ever giggled so hard, felt so deliciously silly.
I have learned to laugh in this new language rich on my tongue, to hear ‘mucho busto’ when I am greeting an introduction with the polite ‘mucho gusto’. I have discovered that when I was looking for the man of my dreams I should have really been holding out for a blue prince or a half an orange. No wonder looking for love has proved such a puzzle.
I have found myself mixing in Arabic, French and German with abandon when memory fails, speaking horrible English when classes have stopped but my brain has not switched settings. I’m shamelessly adding ‘a’s ‘o’s and funny accents to English words in the hope that I might just stumble on Spanish and grinning with surprise when once in a while I find that my odd word child has come out ok.
I have walked the cobbled streets of Antigua singing ‘Yo no se manana‘ and wanting to rip off someone’s buttons just for the hell of it. I’ve loved the mimosa song even when I realised it was all about a mistress rather than a favourite fruity drink, surprised Mayan villagers with impromptu bootie waggles just I hear it waft from a radio. I’ve danced off step to Latin rhythms on English feet and settled for belting out the last word of the line when I am lost half way through the chorus.
I am a graduate of one week, fresh pressed and plain freaked out when I talk so people talk back, but when put on the spot I can speak.
I can express something, kind of, on a good day. I can talk a little crazy – explaining that the sun is my boyfriend, my true love, that my friend is frightened of clowns, that sometimes I want to kill my colleagues or be a butterfly.
My tutor almost always smiles and nods, encouraging me in broader sweeps of fiction and fancy, or maybe just hoping to give me the confidence to start making sense.
I sometimes wonder if my Spanglish sounds like Spanish at all. But I am glad to be garbling closer to something that sounds so beautiful, even when poorly spoken in mismatched words.