I have become suddenly semi-literate; for a month, my partner and I have been traversing Costa Rica, and although the guidebooks say “most people in Costa Rica speak English” we find this largely untrue. I know a little bit of Spanish—I took it in high school, but that was, uh, some time ago. This sudden onset of illiteracy has been a great learning experience. For instance, Hemingway’s “bullshit detector,” as he calls his demand for precise, true language and nothing else—nothing namby-pamby or fatuous, nothing baroque or decorated in any way—is of imminent importance for us as I listen to people respond to my questions. Of course, my own questions have been indubitably pared down to terse toddler-like demands. “I would like decaf coffee,” believe it or not, is out of the question. Our Spanish phrase book, first published in 1959 and apparently not updated for the 1994 version, contains handy translations for “I would like to buy a dozen hankerchiefs and a cigar case” or “I want a roll of movie film for this camera” but it does not contain the translation for “decaf coffee” or “ I am allergic to…wheat.” Neither does our Spanish-English dictionary, which proclaims itself to be “the most up-to-date dictionary of its kind.” Although we have the translations for “Is there an English speaking priest here?” and “No, I do not want my tooth extracted, can you fix it temporarily?” we, thank the traveling Gods, have not had to use them.
So, we wander the countryside without future tense, or past tense, and we find ourselves forced to practice the important lesson Harvard professor-turned-mystic, Ram Dass became famous for: BE HERE NOW. Without the language for the philosophic, our attention stays in the moment, at the level of verb & noun. But the philosophic level of the mother tongue and the survival-oriented crash course level of the newly acquired language are both equally important and satisfying.
When we go about life in our own comfortable niche, following the safe “predictable” (or so we think) schedule of our everyday lives, we tend to forget that nothing is assured. In many ways, this is a mindgame: I can just as easily be utterly astonished when I leave my home in Port Angeles, Washington and make it the mile up the road, through a stand of woods, and down a cliff-side trail to end up on a desolate beach as I do here, where we leave the house, catch a taxi, a bus, and end up on a desolate beach. But the astonishment inherent here is great, because I have no expectations that my final desired destination is a given. It makes me incredibly grateful for the language I have, however limited or half-forgotten my Spanish lexicon happens to be. Our “routine” and our mother-tongue is only as predictable as we make it. The main difference with being unfettered as travelers is that suddenly, understanding the bus driver’s growling response feel as weighty as enlightenment. Well, besides that, on occasion, you look up from a hammock and see monkeys in the coconut palms.