“Perrrrrrrrrrrrrrrro,” I stuttered, failing completely to roll the r’s as my seven-year-old daughter laughed with glee.
“No,” she said, “it’s perro,” in a perfect Spanish accent. “Like this.” She twittered like a bird demonstrating how to do it. “You need to practice.”
“Do you think I can learn?”
“Yes. Practice all the way home.”
So I did, spewing spittle left and right as I tried to trill my r’s to my daughter’s delight. All the way home, which meant about a ten-minute walk, I was a blithering idiot cut loose from some overcrowded psych ward, but Érne loved it. She couldn’t wait to tell her sister and mama.
My attempt to learn to roll my r’s using the Spanish word for dog had less to do with my desire to speak Spanish and more to do with my daughter’s love for animals—at the moment, the dogs of Puerto Vallarta. There was the fluffy mutt whose head appeared through the bars of the balcony railing on the second floor almost every time we passed, day or night. There was the nervous poodle that hung out in a doorway and usually had a yelp and a growl for us as we lowered hands for her to sniff. And there was the family of Chihuahuas about as small as dogs can be at the combination piñata shop and home of a couple seemingly old enough to have ridden with Pancho Villa.
We couldn’t walk past the open doorway on Aquiles Serdan without stopping to pet the mama, daddy, and pups that lived in a cardboard box under a chair just inside. After several days of our getting to know the neighborhood of Colonia Emiliano Zapata where we were staying, the ancient couple inside smiled in recognition. Their faces wore the ruts of a long, hard life, dark and brown as the parched Mexican soil. Their fingers never ceased working with the colored crepe paper they fixed to forms to create the piñatas that dangled from the ceiling—burros, sombreros, stars, bulls, other creatures large and small. Our conversation through the open façade couldn’t travel beyond “hello, how are you?, nice dogs” because of my pitiful Spanish, but it was a lesson for the children (and a reminder for me).
What could they have told us about their long lives? Had they always lived here, in this home open to the street, making piñatas for the neighborhood families? Did they settle here late in life after other adventures, struggles, pursuits, dreams? Was this a longstanding family business or something more recent? How did they view the world from this vantage point, inside a cool room open to the heat and noise and smells of the street and the sea breezes?
Of course I couldn’t get answers to these questions without speaking adequate Spanish. I was a tourist, on a short vacation with my family, and none of us were prepared to get beneath the surface of things.
“It’s nice that the houses are open and children play outside with each other all the time,” Érne said early in our visit. “I wish we could do that at home.”
Things were different here, and the girls were noticing.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to talk to them?” I said.
“But we don’t speak Spanish,” Érne replied.
“You’re learning in school. That’s where you learned to say ‘perro’.”
She giggled. “Not like that, like this.” And she rolled her r’s perfectly again.
“Perrrrrrrrrro!” I sputtered, and we made our way up the street looking for dogs, cats, blackbirds with giant boat-like tails that squawked all day in the trees, practicing all the way home.
Larry Habegger is a writer, editor, journalist, and teacher who has been covering the world since his international travels began in the 1970s. As a freelance writer for more than two decades and syndicated columnist since 1985, he has written for many major newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Travel & Leisure, andOutside. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and in 1993 founded the award-winning Travelers’ Tales books with James and Tim O’Reilly. He has worked on all of the company’s more than 100 titles and is currently executive editor. Larry’s safety and security column, World Travel Watch, has appeared in newspapers in five countries and on internet sites, including WorldTravelWatch.com. He regularly teaches the craft of personal travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco.