Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lecciones Aprendidas (Lessons Learned)

I remember when learning Spanish, one of the first things taught was how to say the Spanish alphabet.  Isn’t the Spanish alphabet the same as English, I thought, this is not Russian.  Totally disregarding the lecture, my ears perked up when the instructor gave the example of having to spell your name.  All my life I’ve had to spell my name, first and last.  You would think with a simple name like Kathy this would not be a problem but then, the K can be a C and the Y an I or IE and thus I’m usually left spelling my name.

So I listened to the lesson a little more intently:

K is “ka”

A is “ah”

T is “te”

H is… ha… no… is “hache”

Y is…. Say again… “e griega”

Over the years I’ve gotten the hang of this, although I still struggle to remember the H and Y.  But mostly I had forgotten the whole alphabet thing figuring, I could always write out my name.  This was until my most recent adventure of getting replacement prescription sunglasses here in Cochabamba.

Cochabamba at roughly 8000 feet has a brighter sun and amazing weather.  After having been here for two months and having experienced only a single day of rain, and few clouds, my super-glue repair job on my old sunglasses was looking a little weak.

And thus one night, always have my strokes of brilliance in the middle of the night; I thought, well if a taxi ride is only $1 and a complete lunch, soup and desert included, only $2.20 it stands to reason that prescription sunglasses should be cheap as well.  This was a theory, which at a minimum, needed to be tested.  With “insurance” I pay $400 or more for my sunglasses in the US, I couldn’t lose by trying.  And so the next morning at breakfast I approached my Bolivian “house mom” Julie about the idea of getting sunglasses.  No problem she said.  She was busy that evening, but the next night we could go out and see what we could find.  

An odd phenomena for us from the US, but as many of you may have experienced overseas, all the vendors of a particular item will be grouped along a single block or couple of blocks; all the furniture stores in one area, all the office supply in another, and kitchen supply in yet another.  It can make simply buying a frying pan a nightmare if you don’t know what part of town to look in.

I’ve never understood this grouping idea.  How am I supposed to pick one store over the other?  Julie showed me how.  It’s called dogged persistence.  We started at one end of the block and went into every store.  I tried on frame after frame (which was another story in that I learned I do not have a Bolivian face – I had a difficult time finding a single frame in a store, where nearly every frame looked great on Julie).

And so there we were, up one street and down the next.  Frame after frame; store after store.  How much is this frame? How much is that one? Does it include the eye exam? Does it include the lenses? Oh too expensive! I was exhausted.  I think Julie was energized.

And thinking we had visited every store in the area, the next morning on Saturday, there were still more.  Finally as it would happen, we ended up in almost the first store we had started with.  They were “muy caro” and Julie explained that having visited every optical store in Cochabamba that the price had to come down, and it had to include the eye exam and the lenses or we were ready to move on.  I was ready to pay.

After many ohs and ahs, and retreats to the back room to discuss what could and couldn’t be done (I felt like I was buying a car) Julie and the sales lady struck a deal.  I had hardly understood a thing, other than the fact that Julie would shoot me stern looks indicating that I was not to say a word and play total ignorance.  I played my part well.

And that’s when it was time to go see the optometrist.  Julie entered the dimmed optometrist’s room with me, just in case I didn’t understand a question.  The doctor took my current glasses and measured them to get an idea of my prescription.  After she handed them back to me, it was only then that I saw the eye chart across the room.  But, it still hadn’t quite hit me that I was about to be asked to read the chart… in Spanish.

The doctor was fiddling with the little round lenses and putting them into an old-fashioned holder so it was like having large spectacles on my nose.  There was no fancy machine with a giant arm swinging around having all the lenses magically inside.  Balancing the spectacles on my nose, the doctor blocked my left eye, and asked “Please read the chart starting wherever you want.”

And that’s when it hit me; this was more than an eye exam.  This was payback for not paying attention in 1st year, actually 1st week Spanish.  Taking a deep breath, I thought, I can do this.  But then the first letter was a G.  G? G is not pronounced in Spanish.  Why would the Spanish eye chart start with a letter no one pronounces?  All I could think of was “jota” which strangely I knew was J, but not G. 

Breaking the ice, I said “En español o inglés?”  I was thinking perhaps I can say the letters in English Julie can translate them for me.  Ugh.  They both laugh and the doctor says “Lo que quieres” - whatever you want.  I say G in English.  Then I’m back to Spanish, after all I’m not going to be beaten by an eye chart.  I struggle through the I’s that in Spanish are E’s and E’s that in Spanish are A’s only to be hit again with an used letter, X.  There are only two or three words in the whole language that have X’s in them.  I had no idea what X was in Spanish.  Beaten, I reverted back to English.

This is a story for my friends who are Spanish teachers out there and need some extra justification when they see their students sleeping through the alphabet lesson.  Yes, it could happen to you!

For those who are curious, it turns out G is simply “hey” and x is “equis”.  Which I would have known if in times past, I had paid more attention and drunk a few more “dos equis” beers.  And the sunglasses, without insurance, but including the eye exam, lenses, and Bolivian negotiation services, cost $125.  My hypothesis substantiated.

Me sporting my new sunglasses at Tiwanaku outside of La Paz.