They talk fast here. Las palabras bump against me like so many fish. I am lost in a sea of words.
More specifically, we are lost on Highway One in Central America. My husband pulls over our rented Daihatsu Terios mini-SUV and I approach un hombre outside a café (only they call them sodas here). My fledgling Spanish takes a flying leap: “Por favor, ¿donde esta Limonal?”
The man peers at me through his glasses, points north and says a bunch of words.
“Oh, Limonal is that way?” I have run out of Spanish.
Thankfully, my new roadside savior keeps it simple: “San Gerardo aqui,” he says, pointing down.
“Ah, aqui.” This is San Gerardo. We have not yet reached Limonal where we will turn west toward the beaches. It is hard to know these things because the road signs here do not say where we are, only where we’re going.
Saint Roadman says something else and I am reluctant to say I don’t understand for fear he will explain using more Spanish and it will be awkward. So I look at him until he is done talking, say gracias and return to the car.
At Limonal, Donald and I stop and have lunch at a soda. My chicken taco has more chicken than I can eat. How do I ask to take the rest with me?
“Yo tomo los pollos a mi casa,” I stutter, forming my hands into what I hope looks like a container for my food.
The waiter, inexplicably named Kenneth, responds in English, “To go?”
“In English: ‘to go.’ In Spanish, we say ‘para [blah blah],’” he explains. Para means “for” but the rest I don’t know what he’s saying. It’s an aural blur. But Kenneth is looking at me expectantly so I try to say the phrase. It is not right. He says it again. I try again. And again.
Kenneth pulls out his pen and writes down three words for me, but the middle word looks like a fraction: 1/c. He seems to pronounce it “che.” Could it be “yc”? And the last word looks like “bar.” I am more lost than ever. Finally the waiter releases me, his inept pupil, giving me the slip of paper with the algebraic code for take-out food.
Back in the car, I look in my Spanish-English dictionary for every permutation I can think of for “to go” or “take-out” and find nothing. Nor do I find any Spanish word spelled “yc.” Bar simply means bar or pub. I may have to stick to hand gestures.
Donald and I get our room at Hotel Cantarana and go to the beach to catch the sunset. A tropical pink sun touches the Pacific as we arrive on the wide sands of Playa Grande. Surfers tuck their boards under their arms and head for home, silhouetted against the pink sky. I stand in the ocean, waves pummeling my knees and shells bumping my feet.
Thus ends our first day in Costa Rica and our first day ever in a Spanish-speaking country. I pick up a little unicorn horn of a shell and take it with me. To go.
Note: both my daughter Emily and fellow writer Peggy Wolff tell me that the waiter’s term for “to go” is para llevar (to carry). Perhaps Kenneth was trying to write it phonetically for me. Thank you to patient Spanish-speakers everywhere!