“I am sweating!”
The park ranger and I called this phrase to each other in Spanish as we waved goodbye.
My recent trip to Panama was a collection of palabras, of words.
“Estoy sudando” or “I am sweating” was one phrase I eagerly collected as I made conversation with a guard at Parque Natural Metropolitano in Panama City. He spoke no English. I was on my first day of an 11-day language learning vacation.
As I lingered with the ranger, waiting for a taxi, all I wanted to say was that I was very sweaty after my hike through the park. Hard as it may be to believe, the word “sweat” was not one I knew in Spanish, so I tried to use my somewhat limited vocabulary to describe the word I was looking for.
“Como se dice cuando hay algo como agua en tu piel? Porque hace calor?” I asked. “How do you say when there is something like water on your skin? Because it is hot out?”
A blank look.
“Cuando hace calor y es como agua… Y tu piel es rojo…” I continued, motioning at my arms and face, making a fanning motion. “When it is hot and it is like water… And your skin is red…”
My attempts at circumnavigating the word fell flat until I raised my arm and made a circular gesture at my armpit to indicate where most people showed off their best sweat stains.
“Ah! Sudar! Estás sudando!” he exclaimed. And so my first new Spanish word was collected.
A Different Kind of Trip
I came to Panama to take Spanish lessons at Habla Ya, a network of Spanish schools in the country. I studied Spanish in high school, but I hadn’t really attempted use of the language since my South America trip in 2009.
While language immersion was the focus of my trip, I didn’t expect it to affect my approach to travel as much as it did.
The trip started out the same way as most solo trips do. Landing in an unfamiliar airport in a new country, where everyone is speaking a different language, I always feel nervous. Stepping through customs, I become aware that my time as a passenger is over, and the rest of the trip is on my shoulders.
Getting from the airport to the hostel is perhaps the part I hate most. I had decided I was going to try to take an Uber, to save myself some money and confusion, but the wifi at the airport wasn’t working. Eventually, I gave up and gave in to the persistent “Taxi? Taxi?” hawkers at the airport entrance.
My young Panamanian driver began speaking to me in English. I nervously clung to my native tongue for a few minutes. Why hadn’t I at least done a little review, a little Spanish practice before I came?
Finally, I casually mentioned that I was in Panama to study Spanish.
“Then we must speak Spanish!”
I fumbled my way through a few halting sentences, trying to adjust to listening for different words and sounds. After a few requests to “Repite, por favor,” I felt something click.
Soon I found myself deep in conversation with my driver. We quickly discovered our closeness in age (“Cuantos años tienes?” is a gold standard beginner Spanish question), which led to interesting conversations comparing and contrasting our lives.
Even with my basic knowledge — words and conjugations slowly coming back to me — we were able to maintain a solid conversation for the entire half-hour drive. We covered family, food, and even the crazy tidal patterns of the bay.
It was a stark contrast to my trip to Puerto Rico last month, where I’m not sure if I even spoke a sentence in Spanish. I have always been a bit shy about using my Spanish. Even when I was traveling in South America, I rarely carried on long conversations in Spanish.
Because the purpose of my visit was to take Spanish lessons, I found myself more talkative than I have ever been.
Already, in my first hour in Panama, I felt my Spanish returning to me in full force. The conversation left me energized and determined to keep practicing.
“Estoy estudiando español” (“I am studying Spanish”) became my new go-to line. Most conversations began with “Why are you in Panama?” or “How long are you here?” so this was easy to lead with. Once I threw this out there, most people were eager to speak to me in Spanish — and usually try to teach me new words, which I greedily stuffed into the pockets of my mind.
Related: The Perfect Weekend in Panama City
The afternoon after my “sweaty” encounter with the park ranger, I had my first Spanish lesson. A placement test had put me in a mid-level class (B1), but I was nervous about jumping in, so I had a four-hour private lesson to help me catch up.
It was perfect. I knew that if you put a worksheet in front of me I would probably do OK — it was the speaking part that I really needed to work on. I shared this with my teacher, and after some review, we spent nearly the entire lesson in conversation.
Not only was this a huge confidence boost — I was exhausted after four hours of brain strain, but I made it through! — but it was immensely interesting. My teacher and I were also close in age, and conversation flowed easily between us. We talked about our childhoods, families, pets (mascotas – another new word for me), and shared stories.
When I traveled to Bocas del Toro to begin my group classes at Habla Ya, I felt prepared. Every morning I learned new words and different nuances to the language. Every afternoon, I’d be thrilled to come across these new words or meanings in real life conversations and interactions.
While it was nice to take breaks from Spanish here and there, many students were very dedicated to practicing, and we often spoke to each other in Spanish outside of the classroom. In the classroom, we had a lot more bookwork than in my private class, but we also spent chunks of class telling stories and having conversations.
Our teacher, Lineth, shared aspects of her life with us and encouraged us to have important, meaningful conversations. Topics ranged from cultural festivities to the availability of education for students with disabilities, from discussing politics to sharing travel stories. (Believe it or not, I managed to tell my crazy “Story of the Theft” in Jordan entirely in Spanish!)
My class of six represented a variety of ages and nationalities, allowing for different perspectives and interesting discussions. I wasn’t just learning Spanish, I was seeing the world through other people’s eyes.
Memories Through Palabras
By the end of my trip in Panama, I had done more than improve my Spanish. Instead of collecting souvenirs, I had collected words that were tied to memories and people. Through every conversation, I learned about Panama and about the lives and the passions of the people I met.
From teachers and students to taxi drivers and park rangers — they now live in the words they taught me.
Want to Study Spanish In Panama?
Habla Ya has three schools in Panama, located in Panama City, Bocas del Toro, and Boquete. Classes range from $175-$395 per week, depending on whether you are in group or private lessons. Most classes last four hours per day, though many students choose to combine group and private lessons.
The school can also arrange accommodation in a homestay or at a hotel or hostel. Each week the schools offer various activities and tours that students can participate in for a small fee.
Many thanks to Habla Ya for hosting me during my lessons in Panama. All opinions are my own.