Yolkobsens find themselves in Antigua Guatemala facing six months with very little Spanish language at their disposal. Time to learn this sainted language, pronto. Mrs. Y begins her formal Spanish lessons this week, but has a distinct advantage over other beginner students. We have Juan, the guardian, gardener, cleaner, angel of mercy and general custodian of our rented house. He doesn’t speak a word of English. (Okay, we’ve taught him to say, “good night,” but clearly both sides have a long way to go on the linguistic front.)
“!Que bueno!” for me that we have this patient and kind man looking after us.
Every day I have to work to converse with him in my pigeon Spanish; it’s not even at what you could call a rudimentary stage of development. The other challenge? Juan is Maya and we’re from Toronto so we have not only language issues to surmount, but cultural ones as well. For example, we tried to convey that he should determine the cleaning products and other items (mops, brooms, etc.) that the house would require and we would give him money to go and buy it. He threw up his hands and told us emphatically (no need to be a genius polyglot to get the message) that he was not comfortable with this arrangement. I “grocked” he felt this would be a presumption on his part. Slowly, but surely, we are getting the supplies and utensils he needs to stay ahead of the dust (lots of dust-kicking chicken buses go by our door) and daily cleaning upkeep.
He’s been the guardian of the house for a couple of years while it was being built and finished and has eight children and a wife in Chimeltenango, about an hour’s bus ride from Antigua Guatemala. We’ve been able to understand that the only job for him there is in agriculture, which is very hard work for very little pay.
When we first rented the house (we are the very first tenants) our thoughts were to get a woman to come in a few times a week to keep this beautiful four-bedroom colonial style home tidy and clean. But Juan prevailed upon us to keep him and insisted that he was prepared to take on what is normally “woman’s work,” at least by Guatemala and most North American standards. He even went so far as to go to his friend who runs the nearby tienda and got him to write a note in English, “I want to work with you.” Of course, we said yes.
He talks in a rapido stream of Spanish that most often I cannot begin to penetrate. He does his best to speak slowly, but we are finding our respective charades skills advancing towards Academy Award performance levels. We use Google Translator when we’ve exhausted our acting talents and limited vocabulary. This is a vital and wonderful tool, but it is not fool-proof. It doesn’t always pick up the cultural nuances.
For example, yesterday I typed in English: “Please make sure you take at least an hour for lunch every day.” Somehow the translation came out from Juan’s perspective as something like: “Please take your lunch at 1 o’clock (una hora) twice a day.” How Google came up with that is not for us to understand. It took 15 minutes of charades to explain that we did not expect him to eat in the middle of the day and in the middle of the night. Out of that exercise, we both laughed and I learned to say, “Es gracioso,” which means, “it’s funny”.
It is obvious that technology will only take us so far and sometimes not where we want to go. “Yo necisito aprendar mucho espanol pronto.”