I paced back and forth in the guest room as humidity pressed down on me from all sides. I desperately wished I could be back on the Swiss Travel bus with my Spanish club, but instead I was in a strange house in San Jose, Costa Rica. My best friend Seve was my only connection to a culture and language I could fully understand. As soon as I left this room my host mom, a kind and thoughtful woman who always wore fluorescent pink lipstick, would start asking me if I was hungry or needed another pillow. These gestures were incredibly generous as she had only met me yesterday, but I felt awkward accepting them.
It didn’t help that I had to ask her to repeat herself at least twice before I understood what she was offering. I was still embarrassed that the day before I had been unable to remember simple words like shower, “ducha,” and town, “pueblo.” Seve was speaking impressively from the start. As soon as we got in the car she began answering the questions of our host mom and dad. She told them about her mom, dad and brother, but when the questions were directed at me it felt as though my two years of Spanish were playing hide and seek in my brain.
I left it to Seve to tell them that we needed to leave tomorrow morning at eight and had been told to bring lunch with us. “Creo salimos a ocho, y necesitamos un almuerzo por favor.”
I felt so guilty for not being able to communicate with the people who were sheltering and feeding me for the next three days that I just kept repeating, “Muchas gracias,” over and over.
So here I was on my second night. That day I’d experienced white sand coastline surrounded by verdant rainforest at Miguel Antonio beach, one of the greatest memories of my life so far, and instead of thinking about how incredibly lucky I was I kept obsessing over a language barrier. I needed to offer something to the woman who was feeding me; I needed to take a leap more terrifying than any I had made before. And I did.
I smiled at Seve who was comfortably sitting in front of their flat screen TV, and poked my head into the tiny kitchen. “Necesitas ayuda?”
I’d used the wrong conjugation of necesitar! She didn’t seem to notice though. Although I couldn’t translate her next few words, she held up a wet plate from the sink and I understood she meant drying. I nodded and picked up the towel from the counter. She began asking me the same question I’d been too afraid to answer yesterday, but now something brilliant started happening. I still could only remember about half of my Spanish vocabulary, but between broad gestures and “Spanglish” we had an actual conversation. Suddenly I found myself telling her all about my friends, my mom, and my dogs. I explained why I disliked school and loved music. I asked her where the cups went without a second thought. The wall I’d built up in my mind between my host mother and I became pock-marked, then rife with holes, then no taller than my knees. In a final leap of faith I stepped over that barrier and connected with her.
In future years I know I’ll experience far more trying language barriers than Spanish to English, but I’ll never let that stop me again. I’ll just think of my pink lipped host mom and jump in.
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