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Speaking My Language

November 3, 2011

Hohhhh-huh  vaya pa’ afuera” – Go outside! If you sat silently next to an Ngäbe woman, you wouldn’t have to wait long for her to use this phrase. She will most likely be shooing a dog or some chickens out of the house.  Pronounced sharply, as if pushed through the nasal, “Hoohh-huh” is a universal expression in the Comarca used to convey annoyance.

A year ago on November 1, my cohort of volunteers arrived in our sites and spent the first three weeks submerged with our host families, trying to navigate the new culture, language, and location. Despite a rule that new volunteers should stay in site for three months without taking vacation, we got permission from the Country Director to attend the annual Thanksgiving Day festivities organized by volunteers toward the end of the month.

Thus, after three weeks, we emerged for the first time smelly and muddy, yet still bright-eyed newbies that couldn’t wait to echar cuentos (tell stories) of our experiences. It was during this first reunion that us Comarca volunteers conferred to discuss the idiosyncrasies of our people:

One asks, “Do your people have an alarming fear of snakes?” We collectively respond “Yes!”

Another questions, “Do all the kids stare at you while you eat?” – Yes.

“Do you only listen to the Evangelical station on the radio?” – Yes.

“Does everyone in your site put plastic bags around their hats and purses when it rains?” “Yes! So silly, yet effective.”

“How do they manage to trudge through the mud without getting a speck on themselves!?”

Finally, one says, “I swear my host mom spends 50% of her time shooing the animals out of the house…. HOHOOOHUH VAYA PA AFUERA!” We bust a gut in recognition of the common tendency across the Ngäbe spectrum to use the same phrase.

It was a relief to know that we were all in the same place, witnessing the same attitudes and culture and acquiring the same vocabulary base to express ourselves in the campo (countryside).

And we have come a long way since those first moments. We now are well-versed in new idioms and know how to start a conversation and get people to feel comfortable around us. We all know that the best way to get an Ngäbe to laugh is to make fun of ourselves or talk about not having husbands and wives. We have also learned that comedic interchanges and quality conversation is an underlying trait of successful volunteer.

We’ve even integrated the new vocabulary into our way of speaking. At this point, our dialogue with each other is so peppered with Panamanian words that it could be considered its own dialect. Here is a helpful chart:

Spanglish or Ngaberinglish:                                             Conventional English:

Brän, pues                                                                                          Let’s go

He has no pena                                                                                 He is not embarassed

Ouu-wah                                                                                             Hello/I’m arriving

I need to limpiar my patio                                                            I need to trim the grass at my house

This chiva is demorar-ing                                                              The bus is taking forever

I just ate a rico guineo                                                                    I just ate a delicious banana

The quebrada is cochino                                                               The creek is dirty

My gente were animados during the reunion                     My people were engaged during the meeting

He was bravo and regañar-ed the chi                                     He was mad and scolded the kid

It gives me pereza                                                                            I’m lazy

The evolution of our language from university graduates to volunteers that speak an imprecise combination of Spanish and English demonstrates our inadequacy at expressing ourselves using only one language. Only by mixing both languages can we fully recount a story in its full glory. If you have talked with me on the phone at all in the past year, you would note that I have trouble turning it off and sometimes pause between words to remember how it is said in English.

This is natural for all expats abroad, which is likely why we find such comfort within our expat communities. I always found it vague when volunteers said that there were close friends with other volunteers because they “understand what you’re going through.” I don’t feel like I’m ‘going through’ anything – no identity crisis, no existential crisis, no crisis of fate or the meaning of this world. It is more accurate to say that we literally understand each other, like the actual words that come from our mouths, and actually find interesting the dumb stories about what we did last week. In world that moves at a sloth’s pace, we have to indulge in the small stuff.

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