Losing My Words

This is the third post in a series about studying Spanish in Mexico that starts here.

And so I arrived in Cuernavaca, Mexico, to drench myself in Spanish language and culture for a week.

Through this company, Amerispan, I had bought a cheap package that included my classes and a homestay. I had splurged and spent an extra $40 or something for someone to meet me at the bus station and take me to the school. I made that call after seeing that the school was called Cemanahuac. What?! That didn’t sound Spanish, and I had no idea how to pronounce it. Now I see that they’ve added a helpful transliteration to their website: sem-ah-NOW-ock, and I can tell you that was the name used by the Aztecs to refer to their world.

For the umpteenth time I apologize for my lousy photos:

Cemanahuac PoolCemanahuac Hut

If you live in Indonesia or El Salvador or anywhere else that is tropical, you won’t think anything of this place. But to me, coming from a cold, drab grey Minnesota winter, it was paradise. I could hardly believe that I was going to spend a week studying here. I would have been happy to skip the studying and spend the week lying by the pool with a book.

Amerispan no longer lists Cemanahuac as a language school choice on its website. That’s sad, and I wonder if it’s due to all the drug gang violence, or something else?

I wandered around the school, probably with a dazed smile on my face, until someone called my name: “Anna Mah-eeeertz?” I don’t know how long they had been calling it before I realized it was me.

I knew from studying up on the Amerispan website that someone from my host family would come to take me to the home, but now I had left English behind—completely. That was their philosophy, total immersion.

But it wasn’t too hard to figure out that the secretary of the school was introducing me to a woman whose name was apparently Mierda. I could see the other office employees behind her, laughing up their sleeves. I would learn eventually that Mirta was Cuban, and that Mirta was a Cuban name. But she pronounced it Mierda and in Mexico and elsewhere Mierda means shit.

Mirta seemed oblivious to this, and as I got to know her better over the course of the week I found she was one of those happy, smiling people who just ignore bad things. Mirta was about 60. She was plump in a matronly way, with dark red hair, and she was dressed like my grandma used to dress in the 70s—in polyester elastic waist pants and a button up shirt—both in pastel colors, and sturdy black shoes.

She pointed toward the exit and said what sounded like, “Yabba da dabba da blabba de doo.”

All I could do was smile and nod; I didn’t even know to ask, “Que?” and even if I had I couldn’t have understood the answer. I followed her out into the street.

She walked so fast I had to hop skip to keep up with her. We reached a corner and she pointed to a bread store and said something. Then we turned, turned again at the next corner, walked about three more blocks, and while she talked and pointed to things along the way. We came to a crazily busy intersection where she stood for a while talking and gesticulating some more, until a mini bus arrived. She pointed to above the windshield, and I could make out a number and what I assumed was the month of Noviembre. Why would a bus route be named a date? I followed her on to the combi and she showed me the coins I had to pay, which meant nothing to me.

This was my introduction to the wonders of combi décor. There were several small statues of the Virgin Mary glued to the dashboard, the rest of the surface was covered in orange fake fur, and there were holy cards suspended above the driver’s head. We needed all the good-luck juju, for sure, as the bus lurched out into the stream of traffic.

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