OAXACA CITY, Mexico — The first morning at the Spanish language school I proved just how much I needed to be there.
In my stumbling Español I had asked for directions to the “baño” — any traveler who’s been in a Mexican airport knows the word for bathroom — and had been directed toward a door in deep shadows at the end of a hall.
As I washed my hands, a woman came in and stepped into a stall. Ah, unisex, it must be a cultural thing — I was cool with that. Only when a second woman entered and shot me a quizzical look did I catch on.
Quickly stepping to the door, I looked on the outside and saw the word “Damas,” which hadn’t registered with me on the way in. (The light was poor, I’ll say in my defense.)
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I scooted down the hall. Just to confirm, I looked up the word. Yep, I’d been in the ladies’.
Embarrassment aside, it was true to the concept of Spanish-immersion education, for which I had come for a week to the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca. Take away interpreters, toss in a gringo and see if he can swim.
Or if he can find the right restroom.
Getting a taste
Other than what I’ve picked up in years of travel in Mexico, my Spanish education amounted to one year in the seventh grade.
That was a long time ago.
A week of classes wasn’t much but my goal was to get a taste for the school and take the first step toward learning more Spanish for my travels.
I succeeded at that, and also enjoyed one of my less-expensive travel weeks ever. Spanish-immersion schools, a popular fixture catering to visitors across Mexico, typically offer inexpensive home stays as a supplement to the language experience. This trip: $18 a night, including breakfast.
My first morning at Señora Amelia’s breakfast table, a five-minute walk from the school, was the start of my immersion challenge: Her English consisted of the word “breakfast.” Other than that, we pointed at things and smiled a lot that first day.
I had augmented my immersion by forgetting to pack my favorite, dog-eared Berlitz phrase book. So while my widowed hostess prepared the first of a series of wonderful “desayuno” dishes, I madly pored over the bulky Larousse Spanish-English dictionary I had crammed into my luggage.
“¡Jamón! (Ham!) ¡Delicioso! (Delicious!)” I uttered with a distinct economy of words.
The first step at the school was to take a short written test to determine at what level I would study.
OK, matching pictures of everyday objects (table, window, etc.) with a list of Spanish words wasn’t too hard; the Latin root is often the same. Easy enchilada.
Answering open-ended questions? Not so much. “Tell a story based on this picture,” I managed to figure out. But my answers got very short.
After that, a five-minute oral interview with a smiling woman at the admissions desk confirmed that I was hopeless at answering questions posed in rapid Spanish. I hadn’t a clue what she was asking. Luckily I knew how to sheepishly say, “No comprendo.”
She wrote down my class assignment: Cynthia in Salon 3. I was with the novices.
Plenty of choices
The website 123teachme.com, devoted to Spanish-immersion schools, lists eight in Oaxaca, also a popular destination for its food culture — aah, the mole — and crafts, including masterful rugs and unique carved-animal figures called alebrijes.
I chose the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca based on online reviews noting that, among other things, it was good for beginners.
Another plus: the beautiful campus at the far edge of downtown, a spreading hacienda belonging to the Topete family, which runs the school. Outside the walls rushes the busy Pan American Highway. Inside, royal palms dot a lawn in front of a tiled patio under a graceful arched entry where students gather for lunch or conversation.
Some online commenters complained about being “locked” inside the walls all day with a bunch of other Americans, which might be the experience at times, but my fellow students were more diverse: Ingeborg, an 18-year-old on her first solo trip out of Norway; 40-year-old Isik, on a sabbatical from her finance job in Istanbul; Ayumi, a 28-year-old from Osaka, Japan; and Tucker, 20, whose slight drawl reflected his North Carolina home.
That diversity manifested itself in interesting ways during our lessons. As we learned to use the Spanish verb “disgustar” (dislike) by describing problems in our hometowns, Isik talked about democracy’s growing pains in Turkey. I dissed Seattle’s traffic. Tucker griped about summer humidity in Raleigh.
A fun backdrop
As a place to test my skills after my daily 9 a.m.-to-noon class, Oaxaca was a stimulating, visitor-friendly setting.
Ordering in restaurants is good practice, so I set out to find the city’s best mole. My visits ranged from friendly “comedors” (diners) in the public markets to the white- tablecloth Restaurante Los Pacos Santo Domingo, where the Mole Combinado (combination platter, about $12.50 U.S.) stole my taste buds with three sweet moles and three savory, their spices and flavors including chocolate, cinnamon, onion, chili pepper, peanuts and more. On the side: tortillas, pickled vegetables, lime wedges and a range of salsas.
My heart, however, was stolen by the friendly faces and good value at Comedor Maria Teresa, one of a score of little sit-down food counters in the Mercado 20 de Noviembre (named for the street it’s on). Just 40 pesos for cocoa-spiced mole negro, or about $2.85 U.S.
And I knew to politely ask, “La cuenta, por favor,” when ready for the check.
Oaxaca moments that stick in my mind include buzzing through downtown, three on a motor scooter, when I asked new friends where to find a camera store. (“¡Vamanos!” they said. “Let’s go!”) I clenched knees and elbows in tightly as we zipped between speeding trucks inches away.
Wandering the Mercado Benito Juárez, I ventured down the meat aisle to review words such as “pescado” and “pollo,” but the drone of flies, stench of fish and long rows of yellowing chicken feet sent me fleeing to the flower (“flor”) stalls.
As is typical in Mexican cities, life revolved around the downtown square, the zócalo. One evening, a man under a tent bellowed into a microphone about the controversy of privatizing PEMEX, the state-owned oil company, while not 50 feet away people bent their ears to a tootling mariachi band, while 50 feet in another direction an elderly busker played the trombone (badly) with occasional pauses to belt out folk songs.
It’s a madcap, happy scene that goes on every day and night with what must be half the world’s supply of SpongeBob and (unlicensed, no doubt) Buzz Lightyear balloons on sale from scores of vendors all across the park.
“El zócalo es muy animado (the square is very lively),” I told my classmates the next day.
I felt more and more at home, thanks to coursework that entailed filling out a work sheet with names of public buildings and quizzing fellow students. Is the banco next to the escuela? No, the banco is next to the hospital. (But all conversations were strictly “en Español.”)
Much was simple, tourist-oriented vocabulary. But lessons were serious. We had quizzes and homework. And there were enough grammar lessons to force the realization that in my Mexican travels heretofore I had relied on the Spanish equivalent of pitiful baby talk.
I’ll study more before I go again. Or take more courses.
After each class, my group adjourned to the veranda for an hour of Spanish conversation — or we played games, such as the Spanish version of Uno, a popular card game. I can make this claim: My pronunciation is good. But I got flustered at Uno, trying to put blue 8s on red 7s. (“¡Prohibido!” Cynthia scolded with a prim smile.)
My classmates, some of whom had been at the school for weeks, gave it good marks.
“They have structured teaching methods and (the instructor) is very good and friendly and you don’t get bored,” Isik said. “Using the language outside school, too, and with a family, forces you to learn.”
And I learned to locate the right toilet, with the best of them.
Brian J. Cantwell: email@example.com. Blogging at blogs.seattletimes.com/northwesttraveler. On Twitter: @NWTravelers