When I was 21, I moved to Honduras. I took a job managing the water programs of a non-profit organization, where one of the requirements was fluency in Spanish. It was one of those moments when you look at a job description and think, “I’m sure there’s some flexibility on the ‘fluent’ part.” And so I wrote that I spoke Spanish well. What else did my four years of high school Spanish and two more semesters in college give me?
But the truth was, I barely spoke a word of Spanish beyond the classroom. I grew up in New York and nearly all of my friends were American-born, native English speakers. There was rarely a need to flex my foreign language skills.
Nevertheless, three months after graduating college, I got on a plane, weighed down by the bulk of my entire life stuffed in two duffel bags, and moved to Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital. Standing in the customs line, I was suddenly overcome with a paralyzing fear. I had no clue how to speak Spanish. When asked, “¿Su pasaporte, por favor?” I blanked. Four simple words and I was at a loss. After mumbling my way through the exchange, my passport was stamped and my year-long stay in the country was official.
My friend Ben picked me up from the airport and his gruff Maine accent immediately calmed me down. At my request, we stopped for lunch at my favorite restaurant, Pupusas Miraflores (read: the only restaurant I’d ever been to in Honduras). I thought, “Okay. You can do this. All you need to say is ‘dos tacos de pollo.’ It’s simple.” But again, when asked what I’d like, I froze and looked to Ben who, having been in the country for a few months already, took the helm and ordered our food.
The rest of that first week was a blur of blank stares and silent pleading to my American and English-speaking co-workers for assistance whenever someone spoke to me in Spanish. I made no attempt to respond to questions I thought I understood for fear of using the wrong conjugation or noun. Worse, I feared being the outsider in a place I so desperately wanted to feel at home.
After a week of so-called acclimating to the city, Ben invited our department’s third member, Joel, to drive the two hours together to Zurzular, one of our communities. Joel grew up in a small community in eastern Honduras, much like the communities we were going to be working in. He had worked his way through the government-run water district and was a huge resource to have for our projects. But he spoke no English.
That first car ride was painful, probably more for Ben than for me. I grimaced at Ben each time Joel said something in what I came to know as his standard energetic and slightly off-beat dialect. Joel seemed to be so excited about whatever he was saying, but my reactions were delayed as I patiently waited for Ben to translate. At no point during this ride did Ben question the white lie on my application.
After a dusty and awkward car ride, we were greeted by members of the community who ran out of their homes as they heard our truck pass. We stopped at the home of Don Antonio—Zurzular’s appointed leader and owner of the brightest, cheesiest grin I’ve ever seen. He shook my hand and offered an emphatic “Mucho gusto.” I responded timidly, clearly overwhelmed but trying to make a good impression. Moments later, Don Antonio’s wife came out of the house and handed the three of us a glass of peach colored juice. “Maracuja,” she said. “Mar-a-whatta?” I repeated in my head. Ben, sensing my confusion, turned and told me it was passion fruit juice. I must’ve drunk it in one sip (if only it contained language-giving powers).
We left Don Antonio’s house to survey the proposed water source for the community. Nobody warned me this meant hiking nearly five kilometers uphill. Fortunately, silence was totally appropriate here. On the return trip, we stopped at the home of another community member, whose yard would host one of the water system’s valves. The family invited us in to stay for coffee and a snack of rosquillas— hardened, donut-shaped cookies perfect for dunking in strong and sweet Honduran coffee.
Joel and Ben had gone outside to the car and I was left with the family. Slowly, the woman spoke up. Her intonation was careful and slow—characteristic of most rural Hondurans. She asked where I was from, how old I was, and if I had any children. I’d quickly learn these were the country’s unofficial getting-to-know-you questions. I mimicked her slow pronunciation and asked a few simple questions of my own before we returned to a shared silence.
This awkward stop-start conversation became my ritual those first few months in Honduras as I practiced the Spanish I lied about knowing. I spent as much time in the kitchens of these communities as I did in their mountains building water systems. Over coffee and those tough cookies, I learned to become comfortable making mistakes, to find a common language of snacks and stares and slow, steady drawls.