On my last day of vacation, the day before yesterday, I sat on a ledge overlooking San Juan, Puerto Rico’s Condado Beach, with the intent of deepening my tan before heading to the airport. The sun didn’t come out that morning, but an overzealous tourist did. She slowly walked down the makeshift boardwalk toward me, having to use both of her hands to carry a paparazzi-style camera. I tried ignoring her, but she would have none of it. After snapping some photos of waves lapping against a bed of rocks, she sidled up to me and asked if I was meditating. In addition to that outrageous camera (and leading off with a question like that), she had a thick Southern accent and was dolled up in cabana wear. I knew I was stuck with a real talker.
After telling me all about the flight she had just taken from Charlotte (by way of Miami), she revealed that she was looking for fun things to do in the San Juan area. She asked if I lived there and could give her some recommendations.
I had been getting this all week, from all fronts. I’ve always been mistaken for Hispanic, but never to this extent. Everyone thought I was a native Puerto Rican or at least a native of some other, nearby Spanish-speaking island, including the joker who made himself comfortable at my sidewalk-café table one afternoon. Once I finally convinced him that I really don’t speak Spanish and am not one of his neighbors, he reluctantly switched to all broken English. At first, I thought he was offering to buy me a beer. But, instead, he was explaining why he thought I should buy him a beer.
Day after day, night after night, the tourists asked me for detailed walking directions and bus-route information. The locals thought I was one of theirs, and many of them cornered me to complain about the tourists, and to air other grievances that I couldn't decode. I’ve never wished I knew Spanish more in my life – I could tell by some of these people’s confessional tones, facial expressions, and emotionally-rendered gesticulations that they were giving me the down-low about something juicy, or at least hilarious, and I would have loved nothing more than to have actively taken part in the snarky griping.
In total, I know about 11 words of Spanish, almost all of which I learned from Maria and Luis on Sesame Street. All 11 of them came in handy on the streets of San Juan, and it became thrilling to utter them. I’ve been back in New York for about 48 hours, but not in spirit. At Starbucks this morning, I said gracias to the cashier who handed me my change. She loved it. Minutes later, I buenos dias’ed someone who smiled at me on the street. And she buenos dias’ed me right back. Why shouldn’t she have? It’s a beautiful language – so much better than English. I look forward to touching down in the Dominican Republic, and eventually Cuba (without having to go through a “3rd country”), in the near future, so now’s the time to start expanding my repertoire. At the very least, I need to be able to tell a few off-color jokes in Spanish by the time I pack for Santo Domingo.
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