‘Do ya speak any English?’ The room goes quiet. I look up. A little old American lady, floral shirt, thick glasses, grey hair tied up in a bun, is loudly addressing the female staff member standing behind the counter of the Santa Elena café.
It isn’t what she says that catches my attention so much as the tone of her voice, the condescension it contains.
Not just, do ya speak English, but, do ya speak any English? As in, are you smart enough to understand a single word that I am saying? Learning English, apparently, is the barest courtesy you can extend to customers and passers-by. Even here, in Santa Elena, Costa Rica, where Spanish is the official language.
‘No, sí… sí, a little,’ the girl behind the counter replies. The girl, in black skirt, black V-neck top, long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, is flustered, unsure of herself, wide-eyed, a deer in the headlights, aware a car is speeding towards her but unable to take the steps needed to move out of its path.
‘Ya do?’ The elderly American is surprised, pleased even; she’s misjudged this girl. ‘Good, Jim’s waiting outside in the truck and I need to get some directions real fast. We’ve been driving up and down these here back lanes all morning looking for a friend of ours’ place but you know we can’t seem to find it. It’s a little house called Nest in the Treetops, in Santa Elena, you know it? It’s next to a gas station or a hardware store or something.’ All delivered in single outpouring, no pauses for breath.
The girl’s eyes widen further. A winter hare, cornered by a hungry wolf. How much of that did she understand? A tenth? A hundredth? I’m not sure I understood it completely.
‘Nest in the Treetops?’ She’s caught the one important detail in the American’s flurry of words. ‘Sí, I know.’
A pause, each waiting for the other to continue.
I divert my eyes to the far side of the café, where a second staff member, another young female, short hair dyed blonde, matching black skirt and top, is sitting beside a coffee roaster. She’s been sorting the beans by hand, but has interrupted her work to watch the exchange.
‘You know it? Well, good, can you show it to me? Have you got a map or something?’
‘I… I… no…’ The girl pulls on her ponytail. ‘I…’
She gives up, takes four or five steps towards the door of the café, arm extended, pointing at one of the roads leading out of town.
Both disappear outside.
The blonde-haired staff member returns to her task. Spotting a dud bean, she picks it up, flings it into a bucket. A bus rumbles down the street outside the café, a shuttle transporting tourists from Santa Elena to one of the zip-line adventure centres located outside of town.
The two women are still conversing outside, the elderly American is smiling, but it’s not a smile of pleasure; she’s frustrated, frazzled, disgruntled. The request for directions hasn’t gone as planned.
I’m not sure what she expected? This is a Spanish-speaking country. A few people here speak English fluently, and there’s probably a decent percentage that can speak a basic level of English, like the girl behind the counter, but the vast majority of the population just speak Spanish. There’s no obligation for them to learn English either. I would be inclined to think that it is up to the tourist, the visitor, to try and make themselves understood by the local population, rather than the other way round.
The door opens; the women walk back inside. I catch a little more of the conversation.
‘And then we went up that street, that street I was showing you, because we thought we saw a gas station on it, only it wasn’t a gas station, it was a bus terminal or something. We kept on heading down that road awhile, just to be sure, but after a few miles we decided that wasn’t right and we turned around and came back to town. That was when I said, “Jim this is no good, we’re chasing our tails here, we need to pull over and ask someone for directions.” ’
The American still doesn’t get it. Or maybe she does; maybe she just has an insatiable need to prattle.
‘Sí, sí.’ The girl with the ponytail is nodding her head. She returns to the counter and gives the American a cautious smile.
‘Alright then, I better be on my way. Thank you so much for your help. Hopefully we’ll find our friend’s house this time. If we don’t you can be sure we’ll be coming back here again for more directions. I know where you live. Ha!’ She puts one hand on the counter, leaves it there.
The disappointment returns. The American expected more of a response than that.
‘Alright then.’ She takes a step backwards, frowning, her hand still on the counter, before turning and exiting the store.