At What Time Washes the Door?

entrance to new rooms at the Piamonte HotelIn my recent scouting trip to Panama, my Spanish language skills were tested to the max.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit it’s not a high hurdle. I figure my Spanish is at about the level of a bright two-year old’s. All my verbs are present tense and my vocabulary is severely limited. Think, “See Spot run” and you’ll have a good idea what my skill level is.

Armed with a pocket Spanish-English dictionary and lots of brazen self confidence, I figured I could manage.

On the whole, I did pretty well. I used the dictionary — a lot — and most people were patient and willing to work with me as I struggled to make myself understood.

What I hadn’t counted on, though, was how difficult it was for me to understand them! The rapid conversational Spanish I heard in David and Las Tablas was nothing like the slow, careful speaking I’d heard in class, on my Pimsleur tapes, and online.

Sometimes I had to admit defeat. “No entiendo,” I would mutter, turning my face away from them in shame.

My husband was no help.

It’s not only that he doesn’t speak any Spanish beyond “hola” or “buenas” or “gracias.” It’s a much bigger problem than that.

You see, my husband is a philosopher and he loves to discuss deep, complicated issues. Not for him the superficial pleasantries and small talk.

“Tell him I really admire the way people here do X or think about Y,” he’d instruct me to say to a new acquaintance.

I tried explaining to him that there was no way, with my limited skills, I could mediate the kind of conversation he enjoys. Finally, in frustration, I turned to him and said, “I speak like a two-year old. How would a two-year old communicate that concept?”

How Do You Say, “Misunderstanding” in Spanish?

Then there was the conversation I had with the ladies at the hotel reception desk in our Las Tablas hotel.

We stayed in the Piamonte, a block away from el centro. Part of the hotel is one one side of the street, and they have a new block of guest rooms upstairs across the street as well. (The ground floor is a cell phone store.)

One of the ladies had patiently tried to explain several times where our room was located. She finally gave up and walked us across the street, through the tiny doorway, up the stairs and down the hall to our room.

A while later, we began wondering if the street door would be locked at night. We tried our room key in it and discovered it didn’t fit, so we stopped by the reception desk to ask.

I was going on and on about “la puerta” (the door) and the key, and the women were staring at me in total incomprehension. Finally I asked my husband to give me the key, one of those old-fashioned big keys attached to a six-inch piece of wood so you don’t forget it in your pocket.

I took the key, I pointed to the door across the street, I mimed turning the key and threw up my hands. “A que hora?” (what time) I asked.

The light dawned, they beamed. Midnight, they answered. Maybe one in the morning.

“Gracias, muchas gracias” I thanked them.

Later I pulled out my pocket dictionary, trying to figure out why they hadn’t understood me initially.

There are two similar verbs in Spanish. There’s “llaver,” to lock. There’s also “lavar,” to wash.

I had been asking them what time the door washed itself at night.

Doh. . .

Needless to say, I think I need more language lessons.

Spanish Study in Panama

There are several Spanish schools in Panama.

Habla Ya in Boquete offers private lessons as well as group and “mini-group” classes. Group lessons have four students, mini-groups have two or three.

They offer a Basic Spanish for Travelers Crash Course, as well as a variety of classes with differing intensity.

While you’re studying with Habla Ya, they can arrange a homestay with a local family for a total immersion experience, or you can arrange accommodations in a local hostel or hotel.

Languages in Action has schools in Panama City and in Boquete. They offer individual and group classes, as well as combinations of the two.

They can also help you arrange a homestay experience.

Spanish Panama is directed by Canadians, and provides Spanish language instruction for employees of the Panama Canal expansion.

In addition to group and individual lessons, they offer a special orientation package for newcomers and retirees called “Panama, My New Home.” It combines an orientation to living in Panama with a survival Spanish course of one, two or four weeks.

A quick online search reveals other schools as well.

An immersion language class, besides helping you understand the local people, can give you a good introduction to your new country when you first arrive.


  1. What a fun story!

    Good thing you have a sense of adventure. 🙂

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