“Soy habla un poco Español,” I said in unaccented, broken Spanish. The man behind the counter just looked at me and nodded, continuing to speak in the rapid-fire language I couldn’t understand.
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time traveling through Central America. Thanks to immersion and Duolingo, I’ve picked up a good amount of Spanish. My pronunciation is terrible and I only understand about one in five words, but I can communicate on some level with most people I encounter.
While in high school, I studied French. This choice made sense at the time, but was a terrible idea. I live in Florida and have visited Spanish-speaking countries more than a dozen times. I’ve spent two total days in a French-speaking country.
After my sophomore year of high school, two years of French under my belt, I traveled to Costa Rica with my church. We spent most of the trip in downtown San Jose repairing a school, but spent two days visiting Volcano Arenal for fun and relaxation.
Arenal is a beautiful place with a small, resort-style village found in the middle of farmland and untouched jungle. Our group of thirty high school students and adults stayed in a small hotel with 48-hours of free time to enjoy the countryside.
What do high school students do with free time in a foreign country in a small village? Find a cafe and try to order food.
Sitting down and being handed menus, my friends and I immediately realized we were out of our element. Between my French, one friend’s German, and another’s Latin, neither of us were prepared to communicate in Spanish with the waiter. He smiled and gave us time.
Thankfully French and Spanish share a root. A few words on the menu were familiar. I could read papas fritas and pollo — French fries and chicken. This is about as American as you can get.
Opposite our hotel sat a small travel agency. A friend and I entered and greeted the purveyor of the store with a passionate and mispronounced hola. The walls of the shop were covered with pictures of smiling gringos on horses near a waterfall. With a day and a half of time to kill, a horse-backed adventure sounded wonderful.
The only problem was the language barrier. My friend and I spoke little Spanish and the horse monger spoke no English. I smiled and said, “Soy habla un poco Español.” My terrible accent combined with the man’s confused look rocked my confidence and made me doubt I conveyed my intended phrase, “I speak a little Spanish.”
Trying to communicate, I pointed at pictures on the wall and used one of the few Spanish phrases I knew with certainty, “cómo se dice?“, or “how do you say?”. I pointed at an object and the owner replied in Spanish. I came to rent a horse and ended up with a Spanish lesson.
After twenty minutes of back and forth, my friend and I negotiated a three hour horseback ride to the waterfall in the photos for $20 USD. We somehow communicated to the man we would tell the group and be back with the money.
Deciding as a group is never an easy process. Everyone wants to be heard and have input. There are always questions you don’t have answers for. We brushed off most, but went back to the store with one question that needed an answer: Do the horses have saddles?
None of the pictures on the wall showed a horse with a saddle. There was nothing to point at using the trusted “cómo se dice?”. I tried, “yo necesitó sientese“ which I thought translated to, “it is necessary that I sit” but actually translates to, “I need you to sit down.” The man, sitting on a stool, looked perplexed and smiled.
I tried to use my hands to mime a saddle. The shop owners smile turned to confusion. My friend and I looked like crazy people and the owner was probably starting to worry. Then I had an idea.
I told my friend to get onto the ground. I pointed at my friend and said, “caballo”, or “horse.” The man laughed. I became the teacher. I sat down on my friend’s back. The man laughed harder. I used my hand motions and again said, “yo necesitó sientese”. This time the owner understood. Through hysterical laughing, the man said, “si, silla.”
“Silla” was the magic word we were looking for. I got off my friend’s back while the horse man returned to speaking in rapid-fire Spanish through his laughter. While I couldn’t make out most of what he said, it was clear the horses would have saddles. With our questions answered, my friend and I handed over a stack money to rent thirty horses.
The next morning, the horses thundered up the hill to the man’s small shop. A fleet of guides helped us all onto the backs of our selected horses. Each one had a saddle.