Long ago, in a galaxy far, far, away, I was driving home to Atlanta on a Friday afternoon from The University of Georgia to visit my then-girlfriend Cynthia. I was anxious to get there so I chose to take a more direct short cut route rather than go out of the way to get to the freeway. Snow had fallen the previous day but the roads seemed fine. Nevertheless I was driving cautiously "just in case."
As I rounded a curve "just in case" happened. The car kept going straight and went down an embankment, doing a slow 360 degree roll before stopping back on its wheels. Shaken but unharmed, I squeezed myself out (the roof was of course crushed down), climbed the hill, hitched a ride with a kind stranger who had seen the incident and stopped, and finished my journey on a Greyhound bus from the next town.
I was reminded of that incident because of several occurrences this week. When you're living in a foreign country and you've settled in a bit as we have, most of the time you cruise through your days with little or no problems. But if you unexpectedly hit a patch of "black ice," you're "goin' off the rails on a crazy train" (from that great 20th century philosopher Ozzy Osbourne), and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.
It's easy to believe that life isn't all that different from back home, and in fact the basic framework of daily existence seems and feels quite familiar. Roads, buildings, cars, people, roosters--well, pretty darn familiar anyway. Inevitably though, "stuff" happens (cleaning up the language of a popular bumper sticker from awhile back). And when it does the illusion disappears, you're totally out of your element and you realize you've got no game.
There's always the "language thing." I was vividly reminded of this recently when we went to some Cuencano friends' home for dinner. Eight people were in attendance--7 adults and 1 baby. The kid ended up in my lap and we were getting along famously. While the adults conversed junior and I happily stuck our fingers in each other's mouths and made silly faces. It suddenly occurred to me that our bonding was based on the ease of our non-verbal communication compared to the struggle I would have endured attempting my fractured Spanglish (a little Span and mucho Glish) with the others. Wow, instead of Spanish classes I need to enroll in Mother's Morning Out??
The added wild card is the cultural difference. The people here not only inconveniently speak the wrong language, they also have the nerve to do things differently. Why in the world can't they understand how, how wrong they are??? (written with tongue firmly pressed against cheek).
So first our brand new microwave quit working after about a month. In the States, no problemo. You take it back to Best Buy or WalMart with your receipt, get a replacement, and take it home. I was actually naive enough to think that's what would happen here. Silly me.
We had our local lawyer friend go with us to interpret because in spite of my blind optimism I wasn't stupid enough to think I could navigate those treacherous verbal waters solo. Even with her doing the talking it was obvious from the body language that we wouldn't be leaving with a new appliance that night.
Or even the one we came with. No, first a technician had to evaluate the problem and they would call first thing "manana." Have I mentioned the frequent use of this word before? At the risk of repeating myself, let me digress for a moment. Cynthia and I are diligently working on our Spanish, and we thought it was clear from our studies that "manana" means "tomorrow." Not so. What it really means is "not today." Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe never---but definitely not today.
So two mananas later I asked my friend to follow up. She was told the diagnosis may take several more days. Upon hearing this my skin started turning green and my shirt began to split across my back. Seeing that I was about to "Hulk" right there in front of her she got back on the phone and suddenly we were all on our way to the store for a "meeting with the manager."
After lengthy and sincere discourse the real truth emerged--they didn't have another microwave like the one we had purchased and locals hate to disappoint. They resort to what Americans would label as outright lying, but here it's just a polite way of buying time. The manager said he would get one from their store in Guayaquil (4 hours away) and we would definitely have it by Friday. It's Saturday and-----well, you know. (Sigh)
Instance #2. We're still not in our permanent residence upstairs--don't get me started; too many mananas about that to even go there. So we're having to use a local dry cleaner/laundry facility to wash all our clothes. Well, in the last load one of our pillow cases came back with a grease stain on it. We've all had a dry cleaners screw something up, and you know it can sometimes get a bit tense if the store doesn't want to take responsibility.
We weren't at all worried about that. The girl that works there is so sweet but she doesn't speak a word of English, and with our toddler-level Spanish we weren't totally prepared to say, "Apparently your machine caused this grease stain on our pillow case, so we would like for you to please clean it again at no charge." Let's see, in that sentence we could have said "Your this on our so we like for you to please it again no."
It didn't seem like that was going to get the point across, so it was time to play----- "Championship Charades!!" And here's your host----E-d-d-d-d----Sta-a-a-a-a-ton!! If, God forbid, there was a video of my behavior during those next few minutes any judge viewing it would pronounce me a maniac and call for the straight jacket. I was jumping around, wildly gesticulating, making exaggerated faces, drawing pictures, even resorting to the old tried and true tactic of talking louder.
Bless her heart After my virtuoso performance she smiled and indicated she understood. What a relief--it worked!! Then she proceeded to write me up a new ticket to have the pillow case dry cleaned for $3. (Double Sigh)
Finally comes the cell phone shenanigans. I haven't had much need for phone communication thus far, so I buy pre-paid minutes. Wednesday a week ago I apparently ran out so I stopped by a pharmacy (these minutes are sold everywhere) and bought $5 more. A week and one phone call later I was out of minutes again. H-m-m-m-m. I think the company maybe sent some text messages warning me but I of course couldn't read them so they went unheeded. Still five bucks for one call seemed a bit steep in a country where a filet mignon dinner costs $8, so I stopped by a company store for an explanation.
First let me tell you about this phone. I got the cheapest one because all I want to do is make and receive calls. Young people want to be "connected" all the time; I prefer to be "disconnected" as much as possible. Cheapness can manifest itself in mysterious ways. It didn't appear my phone had voicemail, but I've discovered it has a rocking little flashlight on the end.
I can envision the product development guys sitting around a conference table. "OK, listen up, guys. This is an inexpensive phone so we've got to make some decisions. What do you think---voicemail or flashlight? Flashlight? Good choice--let's do it!"
We walked in this store and an attractive young woman smiled politely, took a breath and unleashed a barrage of auctioneer-speed Spanish so stunning that Cynthia and I just stood there with our mouths open staring like Beavis and Butthead. The only thing she said that I understood was the name of the company--if there was even a "buenas tardes" in there I completely missed it.
Thank goodness one guy there spoke English. He explained that when you buy $5.99 or less unused minutes expire after one week. One week?? Well, he said, they don't really expire-expire. When you buy additional minutes the old ones are added to the total. Until they expire again a week later. And so on and so on---------.
But if you buy $6 or more you get your minutes for 30 days plus triple bonus minutes. I wanted to say, "So why didn't someone explain this to me when I bought this phone?." I wanted to say, "If I pay for the damn minutes why does it seem like I'm just renting them for a week or a month?."
I said, "I'll take $6 worth." He showed me that I really do have voicemail after all.