One Day in Xela

The sun rises, the alarm sounds. I hesitate to turn in the rickety bed, noticing the chill that has enveloped my nose. Cars rattle by on the rough cobblestone street below, ensuring me that it is another day in Xela. The exposed wires that run to the shower head to heat the water no longer give me second thought. If the power is anything like the water pressure, it would likely give a little tingle and no more. A delicate balance is found for the pressure and temperature, which usually lets the water flow at little more than a trickle. I wash and layer up for the cold morning walk to school. It is not freezing, but I have yet to adapt to an environment where the temperature permeates everything. When it is cold outside it is cold inside.

I enjoy my morning cup of Nescafe, and the eggs that are always awaiting me for breakfast; I love the fresh orange juice. I stutter a few broken words with my head down and then make a hasty exit in order to be prompt at school. If I am not going to be a proficient learner of Spanish than I least should be there on time. The streets are often quiet as I walk the backroads. I fade to the northern side of the street and walk along the narrow, choppy sidewalk in the rich glow of the morning sun. I don’t consider myself out of place, but in my place.

Karen, my loyal teacher, has figured out my efforts to arrive early, so is often the first teacher to arrive at school. If nothing else, in two weeks I have become confident in my ability to say hello and initiate the friendly greetings. My teacher has a quirky smile and tilts her head just so. I think she is enjoying the easy part of the day and mocking the challenge that awaits. Foreign language teachers deserve their place just below parents for having extraordinary patience.

I grab hastily for some coffee from the large carafe that has not finished brewing. It forces a gag and a cough as I walk to my private classroom. Karen is adjusting herself at the small table. On it there is a small dry erase board that passes all the unknown Spanish vocabulary and grammar. It is supposed to end up firmly ensconced in my head for quick access and use; instead it gets copied to my notebook, repeated by me, and then slips aside for the next lesson. Easy sentences become dramatic puzzles for me to untangle and reorganize in English. If I comprehend, or feign to, then I have to craft an elementary English sentence to disentangle and repuzzle in Spanish. Two weeks and I think this has gone correctly less than a dozen times. I can’t see the whole puzzle when it is just pieces in my head, but you can’t finish a puzzle until you have the separate pieces. I write small in my notebook, aware that I am incorrectly transcribing Spanish, but more so because I can no longer remember how to spell in English (not that I ever could).

We spend time laughing at me. I say things incorrectly, but I also just shrug and start spitting out words. I am frustrated. I can’t get the grammar organized, and I don’t entirely care. Two past tenses intertwine like drunk lovers; there are no rules for that. More so, with so much passing in front of me I can’t keep the simple stuff either. I look quizzically as she ask if I understand, “intiendes?”, or if I like something, “te gusta?” I vaguely understand, and I don’t like it.

It is Friday, and we are going on a field trip. I need time away from the incomprehensible scribble on the dry-erase board. I buy us coffee across the street, and she looks on pleased. We saunter; foreigners walk too fast. I stab at some sentences, pretend to understand past tense, and always rest confidently on my ability to say “yes” to everything. I use it as my crutch on these cobbled streets. We pass the Theatre as we amble towards the market. When we reach the Bake Shop, half the other students are there, and the rest of the town’s foreign population. I don’t make it in the door the first time before drool drips down my chin. I see fruit pies, loafs of whole grain bread, doughnuts, and jars of peanut butter. I joke about buying them out of peanut butter. I can’t act the language, so I act the foreigner.

She chuckles as we leave. She has seen this all before. We walk down the street market. People buy; people sell. People laugh; people barter. I accumulate the ingredients I need to make salsa for dinner with friends at school. Karen offers to help, but I insist I can buy some jalapenos and tomatoes. I am asked if she is my girlfriend by a lady with a row of golden teeth selling us onions. I reply that she is my teacher and then she laughs, teeth shining from a weathered smile. Aware of my love of peanut butter, we make our way into the bowels of the market and find a smoothy stand. She orders two peanut milk shakes and enjoys watching me lap it up with childish pleasure.

I stand at the counter dicing my ingredients. First come the onions, little red ones. When the tears come, as they always do, fingers point and we all laugh. I try to joke that it is the telenova on the TV behind me, but since I don’t speak the language they know the truth. I hope it stands as the funniest thing a gringo has done in their house for a while. It would make me proud. It might make me cry.

The streets get noisy as the day winds down. Cars with poor shocks shake and shuttle their way across town. Buses honk, and the helpers solicit fares. Kids get a ride on their parent’s shoulders. Youth linger. Dogs bark. Dark descends and the volcanoes disappear. Night in Xela is here.

One Response to “One Day in Xela”

  1. Martha says:

    What a delightful post! Well written, funny, engaging. I feel like I’m there. This is definitely one of your best writings. Can’t wait for more.

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