Of all the ways to study Spanish-books, tapes, classrooms–the best way to learn is by actually being in a place where the language permeates communication much as warm air permeates life in the tropics.
Take for example what one would expect to be a simple bus journey. You arrive at the terminal early in the morning after downing a piping hot cup of Nescafé. My wife, Kim, and I did exactly that. We were excited. We were leaving Chetumal, the ultimate whistle-stop without a train. Mostly buses, trucks, and more buses and trucks stream endlessly through Chetumal going north into the Yucatán Peninsula, south to Belize, or west towards Mexico City. Now a free port, this border town has grown around the intersection of the sea and two main roads, perhaps ancient Mayan footpaths eventually paved over with commerce, transit, and time. Near the heart of the intersection, near the heart of the city itself, was our point of departure, the bus terminal (which has now been moved 3 km out of town).
The place was packed. Not only with people, but nearly everything imaginable, and then some, including noise and fumes, in addition to buses. A nearly infinite line of buses, diagonally parked, under and beyond the short unpainted corrugated metal awning. The buses were all different, obviously different to those who spoke Spanish, yet looking frightfully the same to those of us who didn’t. There were no signs. Well, not exactly-the buses themselves had small faded placards indicated a destination or part thereof. We were bound for the archaeological site of Palenque, perhaps the most beautiful of all Mayan ruins. It wasn’t far, just a bus ride away, and well worth the journey, we were told.
We apparently looked as confused as we were, and a sympathetic gentlemen approached, and speaking slowly and simply, offered his assistance. In my best attempt at Spanish I asked for the bus to Palenque.
“I’m sorry Señor, there is no bus to Palenque,” came the response.
I looked at Kim for a moment, then remembered my training watching Jeopardy as a child, and rephrased by inquiry: “How can we get to Palenque?”
“By bus is a good way,” came the answer.
“Well then,…hum…(as I contemplated the apparent and sincere contradiction),…Which bus?” I asked.
The man looked at me kindly, not quite believing the question, but then, comprehension flashing in his bright dark eyes, answered: “Why the bus to Villahermosa of course…there you will find your bus to Palenque.”
Ah-Ha! Now we were really getting somewhere…”Bueno, then where can we find this bus to Villahermosa?” “Which one?” the man kindly inquired. (I found out later, there were, in fact, several.)
I was determined not to yield to exasperation but my language skills and patience were beginning to wane. “The next one to leave here for Villahermosa,” I answered, not even thinking to think over the question.
He flashed a broad smile filled with comprehension, gold capped teeth and goodwill, pointed confidently down the nearly infinite line of buses, and said, “Down there, just ask for the bus to Villahermosa, the next one should be leaving pretty soon.”
Kim looked at me and asked with a nebulous smile, “What did he say?” Summarizing as best I could, I repeated his gesture, and said he said: “This way.” With our bags in tow, we slowly wound our way through the loading docks, densely packed with large families, larger bundles, bound and tethered animals, and quiet children, all patiently awaiting the imminent departure of the respective buses. I kept far enough ahead to ask, every now and then, “Villahermosa? Villahermosa?” and then repeating the answer and gesture (always the same) with assurance to Kim. By the time we finally arrived at the bus marked “Villahermosa” I experienced an unexpected sense of achievement, I was learning patience, practice, persistence, and Spanish, and we were going to Palenque. I asked the man selling tickets when the bus would be leaving.
“When it is full,” he said simply. We happily purchased two tickets, wondering if these were the last two available.
When is a Mexican bus full? It depends on how well you speak Spanish. If you are a novice to this most beautiful of tongues, the bus was already full. Very full. Perhaps it was full even before you had your Nescafé. If you have some experience in the language, then you know the bus has only recently been filled. But, if you have mastered the nuances of the meaning of full in Spanish or, some would say, the full meaning, then you realize there is still plenty of room on the bus.
Full, for a Mexican bus, has nothing to do with the number of seats, or the amount of floor space available for chickens, or the number of babies draped across shoulders, or the square footage available on the roof for loads of bananas and everything else that can be passed up 14 feet, or the air pressure in the tires–not to mention those clinging to exterior surface: side rails, backdoor, spare tire. True masters of Spanish understand that a Mexican bus is never full. Full is a function of tolerance, and Mexicans are very tolerant people.
So some lingual novices might have thought our bus, a reincarnated American schoolbus, was full, as we headed out across the base of the Yucatán peninsula from Chetumal towards Palenque. Indeed, it was full, crowned with humanity and recycled cardboard luggage bound with twine and faith. Like the buses of Mexico, cardboard luggage never dies, it just gets reinforced at roadside refueling stops and occasionally in-between. No one minded the squawk of a chicken or two as we settled into the torn and taped vinyl-covered narrow bench seats. Each seat held two and a half derrieres–the half that had no bottom support found stability by leaning against its counterpart from across the aisle. Everyone who spoke Spanish instinctively knew that the famous Mayan corbeled arch had nothing on us.
We rattled and we bounced and we shook and all seemed to be going along quite smoothly until a new noise joined the chorus resounding from the overburdened mechanical beast. At first the sound was barely discernible, a new clink joining numerous other clanks. But the repetitive hammering, feeling perhaps somewhat ignored amidst the other sounds, began to sing more plaintively, until it rang out, a solo voice against a veritable symphony–the brass section, the cast-iron section, the sheet metal section, the fan belt section, the radio static section. Was our vehicle noisy? Ah…no, noise is a function of functioning, a noise is only a noise when it impedes progress.
Even before the concert reached its crescendo, the driver’s helper, riding side-saddle on the roof rack aloft and baseball cap to the wind, the one responsible for loading and unloading the multitude of parcels, began one-handed applause against the rear of the vehicle. Slap. Slap. Slap. The driver, seemingly oblivious to everything else, had his ears well-tuned for this sound. We began to decelerate and soon were overtaken by our own dust.
The slap, slap, slapping, slowed as we did. Only the churning dust maintained its former speed. Kim returned my inquiring glance, with equal unknowing. Oh good, a chance to learn Spanish! The driver climbed out his window, the roof helper rappelled off the rack, and they conferred, speaking with occasional kicks to the rear tires and tired frame. We held position inside. Few seemed curious about our unscheduled stop. No one was restless. The driver climbed back in, through the door, the helper ascended once again to his perch, and off we went…in a wide arc, turned around in a large flat place, and circled to an unmarked Mayan hut set back from the side of the road. And we stopped, engine still running. The bus now pointed back towards Chetumal.
No words were spoken, yet everyone somehow understood. What language was this? Decisions are a function of consensus.
Only the chickens stayed behind. Everyone slowly got off the bus. As though by unspoken command, “Women and children in the hut, men meet at the stern,” I joined the men, who formed a casual semi-circle at the back of the bus to contemplate our situation. With a loud creak and groan, punctuated by flourishes of undulating rusted metal, the driver lifted the hinged engine cover. There, gently pulsing, grunting, groaning, moaning, hissing, wheezing, and not seizing, packed in dust, dirt, grime, and oil of the ages, was the engine, apparently sounding fine and dandy. A murmur went round the crowd, hands speaking softly amidst punctuating voices and the occasional knowing laugh. The driver slipped the bus in fear, slowly letting out the clutch. Yes, the noise was there. More murmurs escaped from the gang.
A man emerged with a large wrench from the hut, and crawled under the bus. Only his scarred and torn tennis shoes remained visible. Bang, bang, and he called out in terse, rapid phrases. This elicited a few smiles and companion grunts of accord from the group. An even larger wrench came forth from the hut carried by a small boy further dwarfed by its size, and then a heavy rusted bar. More crawling around, bang, bang, bang, more murmurs amongst the team. Finally the man, the wrenches, and the bar, all sporting a fresh coat of ancient oil, dirt, and grime emerged. Our speculation: the size of the problem was a function of the size of the wrench.
Was the bus broken? A Mexican bus is never broken, no matter how broken a newcomer to the language might think it to be. Repair time is just a function of tolerance, both of passengers and of automotive parts. Anger serves no function. In Mexico one is never promised something by a contrived hour–it’s never the laundry will be done by noon, it’s more like laundry will be done later, when laundry is done. And when you travel, no one is encouraged to rely on arrival by a certain time. The tickets even try to tell you gently–you shall go from point X to point Y–but the time your journey will take is discreetly omitted. One of the great lessons of travel and its most profound joys to the initiated is that traveling takes as long as it takes–no more and no less.
The unmarked Mayan hut, it turned out, was the local mechanic’s workshop. It was also his family’s home, and impromptu restaurant/café. The interior echoed a sincere and basic lifestyle, cleanly swept dirt floor, wooden benches worn smooth over the years by countless posteriors, and an area reserved for tools (few) and spare parts (many). Miscellaneous used spare parts, everything from engine blocks, to alternators, from brake drums to extra cracked windshields, camshafts, transaxels, timing chains, exhaust manifolds and even a few spare hubcaps were stacked, strewn, and generally piled in corners, both inside and out. Here was a collection of automotive prosthetics designed to fill even the most obscure improvisational need. Unfortunately, we were in a bus, not a car, and the issue of scale could not be ignored. The wife was serving coffee, soft drinks, and rises to anyone wishing. Families had set up camp inside, and were sharing cookies, crackers, frijoles, in fact entire multi-course picnics intended for the journey. All were being set up on red checked, blue flowered, or cartooned plastic sheets and given graciously to anyone even remotely expressing an interest. We couldn’t avoid the hospitality. We were immersed in it, and as a consequence were learning first hand both culture and Spanish, its sounds, its flavors, and its generosity.
The mechanic sent his youngest son scampering down the dirt and dust lane. He returned standing astride the back of a pick-up truck which he rode like a bronco bustin’ cowboy, black hair pulled back by the wind, eyes glistening. By the time he arrived, the drive shaft, the differential, or some such part had been extricated from the bowels of the bus. It was hoisted onto the back of the pick-up truck with great care by its attendants, like a patient onto a gurney. To those who did not speak Spanish it resembled more a corpse on a slab. But weknew, those of learning Spanish knew, that the pick-up truck served as a flat-bed paramedic racing off to the operating room rather than a beaten, battered hearse on a one-way trip to the morgue.
In good time the truck returned and all hoped the patient had made a miraculous recovery. The part was soon re-installed with the benefit of much supervisory assistance. The moment of truth had come. The driver climbed back into the bus, inserted the llave into the ignition, and turned it. The engine sprang to life. Everyone listened. But above the engine noise, not a sound could be heard. The supervisory team heartily congratulated itself on a job well done. The mechanic then crawled from beneath the bus, brushing off his newest coat of ancient oil and grime. He cracked a quiet smile, and then a beer. Everyone was soon collected from the Mayan hut, all the picnics packed away, all the babies returned to shoulders, all the farewells and thank-yous said and with all the bodies settling back into place, our bus rolled off into the night.
Did we get to Palenque on time? Time is a function of wisdom. The Mexican people are wise enough to know that one should not expect anything by a contrived hour…”on time” translates to “in time, “in due time.” We arrived in Palenque and time was still with us, it was there to greet us. In fact, we had the time of our lives.