“The Night the Police Pulled me Over in Panama…”

The highlight of my journey in mastering the Spanish language came on a night out in Panama when I had to negotiate my way out of trouble with the police.

My husband, Clyde, and I moved to Panama from South Texas in 2011. Before leaving we had invested in a Spanish-language program and by the time we got there we had enough knowledge to get by.

We then spent one month in an expensive, intensive immersion program that progressed us even further and have since been studying with a Panamanian woman who gives private Spanish lessons to expats. The past year with her has been the most rewarding and finally we’re able to converse with the locals in short spurts. We’re three years into learning Spanish now and still have a long way to go…but my encounter with the police was encouraging.

Clyde and I had been out dancing to the rock ‘n’ roll sounds of Poco’s Loco’s Band one night at Picasso’s Bar and Restaurant in Playa Coronado. Since he had one beer too many he asked me to drive home. This wasn’t planned so I didn’t have my license with me. We had the bad luck to run into a police check-point and I had to muster up all my Spanish reserves to start explaining the situation.

The policeman was able to look up my license number on his portable computer to verify that I did indeed have a valid Panamanian driver’s license…and I was able to convince him that it was much safer for me to drive because I had not been drinking alcohol.

I was so excited that I was able to talk my way out of a ticket in what might have been a tricky situation.

It was a far cry from the early days.

Living in a Spanish-speaking country and not understanding what’s being said around me, I felt lost much of the time. We knew enough Spanish to get our point across but it ended there. And although my husband’s knowledge of the language was no better than mine, he wasn’t afraid to speak it.

I had to stop worrying about looking stupid and be willing to just try. Panamanians, I discovered, are warm and welcoming to foreigners as long as they attempt to speak their language. They love to help us with our Spanish and correct us whenever necessary.

Mind you, we’ve had many mishaps along the way because of our lack of Spanish. One time in a restaurant we thought we ordered and ate pollo (chicken) but after we finished the waitress asked us how we liked the food. What she said didn’t sound like pollo, it sounded more like pavo (turkey) or pato (duck). To this day we still don’t know what we ate…but it tasted like chicken.

People seem to think all that’s necessary to learn a foreign language is to move to where it’s spoken and magically it will seep into your brain. Nothing could be further from the truth. You have to make the effort. But learning Spanish has given me freedom and makes living in Panama a whole lot easier. I enjoy being able to chat with our neighbors, go into a government office, pay a bill, do banking, shop, and speak to a police officer during a traffic stop…especially when I have to talk my way out of trouble.

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