When we crossed the border into Mexico on November 11, 2022 it had been over thirty years since I’d spoken Spanish to any extent. Sure, I grew up spending time in Mexico with my family and shopping in Tijuana and later, as an adult, had my own extended forays camping in more off-the-beaten-path areas. In most places little English was spoken but I managed to get by fine with a combination of bad Spanish, a Spanish/English dictionary and a pen and paper (I’d ask non-English speakers to write down addresses or numbers that I could not understand).
In my 30s I actually took 3 college level courses in Spanish and was all prepared to really dig in, spend some time in Mexico, and actually gain some fluency….then I moved to Illinois and then Oregon and never made it back to Mexico again. Until now…
And my son spent a lot of time in Baja when he was growing up but never really had enough exposure to gain a large vocabulary. BUT he has a better ear than I do and also is better at reading body language, so together we are able to navigate most situations with occasional assistance from translation apps, etc.
How We Navigate Spanish In Mexico
So now, here we are. We jumped straight into the deep end with both feet. We tried studying a little bit ahead of time using online programs like Duolingo but like so many other things, we can research, plan, talk to other people and then when we in a situation we find it’s completely different than anticipated.
For example, we are pretty well-versed in grocery shopping and navigating a the situations at restaurants. But, we had to learn some situational Spanish phrases to explain the challenges of filling up our older RV at the gas station and also for dealing with officials when we stopped to get our visas and vehicle import permit. We constantly run into unexpected situations where we find ourselves short on vocabulary to explain ourselves which sends us off in the evenings to memorize and practice a few new phrases.
We’d recommend learning a good, useful vocabulary in Spanish ahead of time, to make your life easier if you are traveling to Mexico. And sure, learn to conjugate vowels if you have the headspace for it but situation Spanish phrases are really where it’s at.
Here’s a few useful words and phrases we’ve picked up:
- Por llevar (to order food to-go)
- Llenarlo con regular (to fill it up with regular at the gas station)
- Llenar el tanque lentamente (to fill our RV tank up very slowly)
- Recargar datos Telcel (to add data to our phone)
- Chip para telefono (pronounced “cheep”–to buy a SIM card for your telephone)
- Buena suerte (good luck–when Chris is fishing locals often say this)
- Provecho (enjoy your meal–courtesy to other diners when entering or leaving a crowded restaurant)
- Con Permiso (“excuse me” or “may I pass” when navigating a crowd. It basically means “with permission”)
I’ve found it surprising and rewarding when the correct phrases just come out of my mouth. Lessons learned from bygone trips to Baja or my college Spanish lessons. I’m always grateful that I knew some Spanish in those instances.
Sometimes if the non-English speaker is willing I’ve actually been able to have a bit of limited chit-chat about all manner of things. When we were in line at the Walmart in Mazatlan there was a Mexican woman behind us who had a beautiful traditional embroidered blouse on. I felt a little shy but I know if I wish to get better at Spanish it’s not time to be shy. So I turned around, and said, “Tu camisa is muy bonita, señora”. I was rewarded with a smile.
The Mexican people are so friendly and we find that often when we are on the beach (particularly when Chris is fishing) or when we have run into the same locals multiple times they want to know more about us. Younger people sometimes just wish to have an opportunity to practice their English and other people have been to the U.S. or worked there and wish to chat about that. I think we are a little unusual in that most tourists and expats here are Canadian.
One RVer described this way, “Retired people in the U.S. go to Florida. Retired people in Canada go to Mazatlan”.
And Those Numbers In Spanish
We realized we sucked at larger numbers A LOT. This is generally in conjunction with shopping and paying for things. In many places prices are posted and this makes it easy. But there are 3x as many situations where prices are not posted and there I am, in line, people waiting behind me, and I cannot quite grok what the cashier/bus driver is saying and my brain skips a few grooves. (Fortunately, we now know that bus fare is 13 pesos (on the Green Bus, anyway) so we’re good to go, there…)
My son is actually better at “hearing” these numbers and then he repeats them to me so I can translate. But it’s always a bit uncomfortable and we really need to find some way to brush up and make our lives easier! (Flash cards, anyone?)
How Mexican Money Has Changed Since the late 1980s
Imagine my surprise to find that Mexico actually changed their coin money since I was here… Centavos were phased out. They were like the US before: 25 centavos was 1/4 of a peso, etc. But as 1 peso became worth less and less it just did not make any sense to have currency that was less than a peso.
Now paper money commonly comes in the denominations 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 pesos. Coins are in denominations of 1, 2, 5, & 10 pesos. Well, after getting over that shock I’m now feeling pretty fluent in the currency…as long as I can understand the price that is being spoken, anyway.
Stay tuned for Part 3!