Trickles of Spanish

I have often heard that being in a place where no-one speaks English is the best way to learn a new language–total immersion, it’s called. For the past six months I’ve been in a place where everyone speaks at least a smattering of English, and most of the people I interact with–other researchers, lab managers, even taxi drivers–speak fairly fluently. Still, many of them will at least try in Spanish first, as if giving me the benefit of the doubt, that even though I have repeatedly proven to be incapable of speaking Spanish, maybe this time the words will suddenly start flowing out, like the muddy brown streams suddenly rush down when they’re fattened by rain. I consider this to be a form of partial immersion, not the same as cannonballing in, perhaps, but at least the equivalent of dipping a couple toes into the water, and letting them stay there until they’re pale and wrinkled, and I’m fairly happy with the smattering of vocabulary I have picked up.

Of course there is the basic introduction: Hello. I am well, and you? Hola. Bien. ¿Y usted? I also know how to ask How are you? ¿Cómo estás? but usually the other person beats me to it. But more interesting is the set of vocabulary, scientific and food-related, that I’ve found most useful, important, or just fun to roll around in my mouth.

Trees are árboles, which was easy enough to learn because it sounds like the French equivalent. Bat is murciélago, a word I learned to pronounce before I could remember its meaning, because I thought it sounded so awesome. Leafcutter ants are zompopas, and these three are enough for me to spark elementary conversations about the forest.

At the dining hall I can understand a lot of the food-related words, but the ones I use most often are solo un poco (just a little), papas (potatoes), and un poco mas (a little more). Frequently sprinkled with gracias, these will get me through just about any meal.

Then there are the words that stuck because they were important to know immediately. Rain is lluvia, and okay to go out into the forest, but tormenta, storm, means its probably better to wait it out. Earthquake is terremoto, an adorably cute word for such a powerful event, and everything else can be covered by peligro, danger.

And lastly is Costa Rica’s equivalent of the sideways head nod, a saying that has no literal translation and therefore, with the right inflection, can mean just about whatever you want it to: Pura vida.


At 8:42 this morning, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake began 25 kilometers underground near the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. My graduate student and I were en route to our field site.

Not paying attention to the time, we were walking down the concrete portion of the trail, each of us lost in her own thoughts, when it occurred to me that my feet were not the only things moving on the trail. I stopped, and the first thought in my head was of a simulator ride, not a small jerky one at a low-budget museum exhibit, but a high-tech, smoothly gliding one, that was slowly moving in circles, and taking me with it. Then I looked up at the trees, the tops of which were rolling in even larger circles, and remembered that actually, this was really the forest, and it was moving.

Years of earthquake drills in school classrooms have ingrained particular reactions into my head–get under a desk and cover your neck; brace yourself in a doorway; move into a clear, open space; above all, get away from glass–but this was the middle of the rainforest. There were no glass windows, no desks or doorways, not even a nearby open space. It took me a few seconds to dish up the reasoning behind those instructions, and apply them to our current situation. We stayed on the trail, which gave up some clear space at the best and visibility at the least, near to a large tree that would hopefully break anything else’s fall, and waited to make sure the quake was over.

In a forest where rainstorms frequently bring down entire trees, not a single branch fell. Feeling somewhat excited, but not overwhelmingly so, we proceeded to our fieldsite and got to work.

An hour or so later, three of La Selva’s guards walked by on the trial. We were a little ways into the forest, but fairly visible and listening to loud music, so they saw us easily, and one of them called out to her.

We nodded and said hello, but they stopped and asked us to call Bernal, the lab manager, on our radio. One guard mentioned the earthquake, and I nodded yes, with a smile. Only after a few more minutes of explanations in Spanish did we realize that they were telling us to call in to confirm that we had survived the earthquake, that they were in facet here to look for us and the other researchers in the field, to make sure everyone was okay. After they left, it finally struck me that those few moments of un-simulated earthquake might have been a bigger deal than we’d thought.

When we returned to the station, everyone was talking about the quake. How they’d felt it, what they’d thought, and just how big it had actually been. Very fortunately, all of our friends were completely fine; in fact, the earthquake seemed to have done relatively minor damage across the country, and none at the station.

Even in our office, everything was in its place. The glass-fronted cabinet was undamaged, the bags of drying soil sat still up on the high shelves over our desks. Everything seemed fine, until I tried to close the door.

Our office door has caused us difficulty from the beginning. Because the wall and the door are not quite lined up, locking the door requires pulling it strongly and quickly shut at the same moment as turning the key. There’s a certain touch to it we’ve developed over the past few weeks, and now I can lock the door on the first slam. But today, no matter how many times I slammed, pulled, and twisted, the door would not come close enough to the doorjam for me to lock it.

After ten minutes of struggle, I asked the lab director for help; he discovered that the makeshift wall at the front of our office had shifted just slightly, and the extra angle made the door impossible to close. We could have easily been frustrated as we packed up our gear and equipment to move to another office, but all I could feel was grateful that after such a huge earthquake moved the station, the only thing broken was the office door.