Or how to speak Spanish in less than a year.
Panama After Dark gets several thousand visitors a month. On average visitors linger for nine minutes. Long enough to ask questions like:
“What’s there to do in Panama?”
The problem with questions like these (besides that I’m writing about Panama and all you need do is read), is that I don’t know you. So I can’t advise you.
Do you want to tour brothels, or historical landmarks? Are you looking for a five star restaurant, or do you prefer to spend your days hunting for a good doctor to identify that burning sensation you feel when you urinate?
I know some of you picture me as a tropical Tenzing Norgay eager to lead you into the heart of Panama’s dark paradise. Sure, I know some things. That hardly makes me an expert.
I’m a simple man living a simple life. There’s a vibrant night life in Panama City. I know nothing about it.
There’s a tropical rainforest minutes away from me. I’ve never set foot in it. My knowledge has limits. For future reference it’s best not to think of me as your all-knowing sherpa.
In truth, I’m just another fat reptile dozing on the muddy banks of the Chagres River, waiting on a snack (Re: Paypal). You best keep moving. Don’t stop and ask for directions, or you might lose a leg.
That said, there is one question I can answer, the oft asked “What’s the best way to learn Spanish?” My preferred response has always been “go to school you lazy bitch.” But is this sound advice?
Spanish language schools have become the touristy thing to do. It’s easy. You just pick up a few classes on your way to the bar or beach.
That’s a good thing. It means you remain sober for at least half the day. But do these schools really do anything besides empty your wallet and soothe traveler’s guilt? Can you really learn Spanish sunburned and hungover?
When I first came to Panama I wanted to connect with people. It frustrated me that I couldn’t speak the language. I needed to learn or go mad.
I began taking classes. I started in Bocas Del Toro at Spanish Language By the Sea. Probably the best thing about this school were the classes on their balcony.
I liked feeling the sea breeze, watching the birds in the trees. Every day I’d hike up the street from the Hospedaje Sagitarius and study for a couple of hours. It was easy, relaxed fun.
My teacher was an attractive Dominicana. She was pleasant, spoke good English. Not a teacher by trade. She was a former dive instructor.
The class was basic. At the time (now 8 years ago), Spanish By The Sea was the only language school in town. It was always busy. It was difficult to get classes. I wanted more. I fled to Panama City.
My next move was to drop in to Spanish Panama. It’s located in Cangrejo about a twenty minute hike from the Hotel California. The prices were reasonable.
I liked the neighborhood. I had often eaten at Trapiche around the corner. I was thinking of buying an apartment nearby. I enrolled.
The classes were indoors. The cubicles spartan, hot, stuffy. This was exacerbated by my teacher.
He was a formal, briefcase-carrying Panamanian. When he wasn’t teaching me, he was teaching wealthy business men. He claimed to be a teacher of advanced learners.
My rudimentary skills seemed to frustrated him. Or perhaps he was, as Panamanians like to say, antipatico. He was always annoyed, and never smiled.
I recall our final conversation vividly. I had studied with him a couple of weeks. He knew by then I had a Panamanian girlfriend. He arrived late, harried, and began by complaining about foreigners marrying women from Panama.
“No es justo” he said.
“Ellos se casan con nuestro mujeres pero mujeres extranjeras no quieren hombres de Panama.”
This was all random. He was pissed. I rolled with it. I explained that while I had only been in Panama for a few months I had already met a couple of gringas who’d married local men. He cut me off.
“What do you expect”, I said in English, “virtually every Panamanian woman I meet has bad things to say about Panamanian men.”
That got his attention. Normally, I don’t criticize my hosts. It’s rude. But I was paying good money for the class. It was hot. I was probably hungover.
I didn’t need the attitude. I’d met so many angry women in Panama. I felt obligated to speak up. I pulled my journal from my bag and recited some of the phrases I had recorded.
“Mucho mujeres in calle, no le gusta ayudar, le gusta beber mucho, mucho fiesta, no trabajar duro, le pega a las mujeres, no trata bien, deja la familia, macho.”
That was the last class I ever had with him. Naturally I cried for days. But there was an attractive female teacher I had my eye on. “Maybe” I thought “she could ease my pain.”
She taught the same days I was there. I asked about a switch. “No hay problema,” I was told. Turned out she was busy for the hours I preferred.
Did I want to take an earlier class? Hmm, an early class in a hot, stuffy classroom. She’d have to hand out coca leaves and teach naked to make that equation work.
I ended up working with an older Peruvian man. He was a lighter spirit with the nose of an Inca warrior. Like me, he was a foreigner in love with a local.
So we had that going for us. He spoke no English. But our sessions were filled with laughter and easy communication. He was an excellent teacher. I worked with him for several months.
If you’re bored, or need a jump-start, these schools are good places to start. The Bocas school had the better environment. The Panama City school had better teachers. (They also have no frills rooms to rent if you’re on a tight budget).
Did I learn Spanish? Hell no. Unless you’re committed to paying for several years of study, or have a photographic memory, you will not leave these schools speaking Spanish. The average vacation is not long enough.
Did I improve at all? At Spanish Panama my Peruvian professor would tell me I was way ahead of his advanced students. While they knew more, tested better, and had studied for years, I could speak better. Why? I’d been speaking Spanish every day, all day, with my girl friend.
Turns out my advice was bogus. You don’t need school to learn Spanish. You’re better off with total immersion, time, daily practice.
I believe the best way to accomplish this is to find a Spanish speaking partner. Preferably someone who doesn’t speak any English. I owe my girlfriend a huge debt. Our daily communication has been has been the best teacher of all. Much cheaper than three years of schooling.
Oh, I hear what you’re saying; you don’t want to complicate your life with love, sex, or a relationship. You’re a purist. You just want to pay your money and learn. Bueno, there’s an alternative. The home-stay.
Of course home-stays are not for everyone. If you’re the type who wants to remain solo, stay in a hotel. If you want to give money to Colombian drug lords, or Panama’s wealthy elite, stay in a hotel. If you want a room that tens of thousands have fouled with their sticky fluids, stay in a hotel.
However, if you’re different. If you really want to learn Spanish. The second best way is to rent a room from a local. A home-stay gives you the chance to get acclimated, practice Spanish daily, effortlessly, without the torpor of a hot classroom.
You get to experience Panama. You get to know its people. “What’s there to do in Panama?” A homestay is the surest, cheapest way to find out.
-Cojito @ Panama After Dark.