Saturday, December 10, 2016

Living in a Spanish speaking country

Life in Luperon, Dominican Republic
We're meeting a lot of cruisers headed west through Puerto Rico & onto the Dominican Republic.  This is the advice we share.  (Forgive my poor Espanol.  Look up all the proper words in case I'm LOCO!)

I took four years of Spanish in high school but never put it to use (Nada for El Capitan, but it quickly became a competition).  I made several visits to Mexico for work, but my "Hola" was always greeted with something I couldn't understand, so intimidated, I quit trying.  As we headed south from the Bahamas, I started brushing up.  Even using Rosetta Stone for a time.  When we arrived in Luperon, Dominican Republic (from now on, DR), our first customs officer spoke perfect English.  It went downhill from there.  None of the other officers spoke English (but clearly understood our questions).  "What?" was answered with handwritten pesos!  

In school, the first thing they teach you is "Buenos Dias.  Habla Inglis?"  Which will always be answered with "No, no Inglis."  (You will, however, use "Donde esta el bano?").  Our "boat boy" in the Luperon (provided our mooring for $2/day, delivered water, took my laundry into his Madre), Papo, spoke English so I started practicing on him.  I would greet him in Spanish.  He would greet me in English then correct my pronunciation or teach me the proper Dominican word.  Tip #1:  PRACTICE!

From the book, Spanish for Cruisers (above):  "Your mission is to amuse the locals with your attempts to speak Spanish."  I may not always communicate what I'm looking for, but we frequently make people smile!  Here's what we learned:
  • Yes, many people around the world speak English as a second language.  I believe in being courteous and at least learning the basic hello (Buenos Dias or Hola), thank you (Gracias--they'll respond with De Nada--you're welcome), good bye (Buenos Dias) and what is your name (Come se llama?--this tends to come at the end of a conversation, with someone who has become particularly patient with us, followed by Gracias).  A little effort goes a long way.  Don't stress about using the proper tense or pronoun.  That will come later.  Honor their culture by at least making an effort.  (They will quickly tire of your poor Spanish and switch to English.  See below).
  • Spanish speakers tend to be very outgoing.  They seldom wave or say hello and keep walking. A conversation should start with "Hello", then "How are you" (Come esta?), which people answer in length and honestly.  This tends to overwhelm me and halts the conversation so I skip it, but be aware, as Americans, we are rude for at the minimum, not starting with "Buenos Dias or Perdon, por favor (excuse me, please)".  Yelling out "Where is the" considered beyond rude in their culture.
  • They are as bashful about their English as we are about our Spanish.  (This is our mantra.)  We carried our "Spanish for Cruisers" everywhere and memorized key nouns for the day:  bank (bancaria--don't be alarmed but they tend to have armed guards), grocery (supermercado), gasoline (gasolina), water (agua), french fries (papas fritas) along with where (Donde), I need (Necesito), I would like (Quiero), I have (Tengo) and when (Cuando--stores are never open when you think they should be.  The response will probably be manana which is a joke, really.  Tomorrow could be later, tomorrow, day after tomorrow or next week.  They are casual about their schedules here--much like cruisers).  We all else fails, attempt the English word with a Spanish accent.  Some words are close (or maybe they don't understand your English accent).  We were surprised to learn our efforts resulted in the Spanglish Bruce Van Sant spoke about in his book, "Passage South".  When communications broke down, suddenly our comrades would start speaking in halting English.  (Or in Luperon, halfway through our meal after the English-speaking owner came out to say hello, our waitress suddenly was prodded out of the kitchen and began speaking to us in halting English!  Which made us smile). And even if they understood our English, they would teach us the Spanish words that we didn't know (The owner of a DR restaurant teaching us the Dominican word for frita/fried plantain--sorry, I forget!)
  • Speak slowly, clearly, and don't use slang while speaking Spanish OR English.  Memorize a couple different versions of a word (ie. grocery is supermarket) because the Spanish language changes from country to country (and sometimes region to region).  In the DR they speak "informal" Spanish ie. "Hola" is an appropriate greeting instead of "Buenos Dias" (Puerto Rico).  
  • Spanish for Cruisers also notes the general dialect differences including Puerto Rico drops their "s's" so Buenos Dias is Bueno Dia (sounds like Buen Dia).  The Puerto Ricans also speak MUCH faster than the Dominicans usually leaving me lost.  "Que?"  A local went further to explain that they translate their fast Spanish to FAST English so you need to learn "slower, please" (mas despacio).
McDonald's in Puerto Rico
  • We're fluent "restaurant" because this is important!  We used this more than anything.  "Menu" (la carta, por favor--in the DR, many restaurants have a daily special, so "Are you eating?" Usually results in the waitress leaving and coming back with a plate of food.  These were some of our best meals).  The waitress may ask you "bebidas?" (beverages?) then for the daily special "pollo or carne?" (Chicken or beef).  You will also need "How much?" (Cuanto cuesta), "check, please" (la cuenta, por favor--because in the DR, a meal can last hours--they won't bring your check until you ask for it!), rum punch (ron de frutas), beer (cerveza or El Capitan "Cerveza fria, por favor!" Always gets a smile).  Rice (arroz), fried (frita), potatoes (papas), flan (yummo!), no bread (no pan), coffee (cafe).  Para El Capitan, no eggs (no juevos) and our vegetarian amigos--no meat (no carne).  While trying to order breakfast at a restaurant where there was no menu & no English, I said, "Dos cafe.  No pan (pointing to me).  Quiero juevos.  Y no juevos (pointing to El Capitan).  Quiere Papas?"  I got scrambled eggs and he got mashed potatoes!  "We're not eating out for breakfast anymore!"  It doesn't always work out but a great story!
A daily special in the DR

A menu from the Malecon.  Ponce, PR
  • "Come se dice?" is a great ice breaker.  I point to things on a map, on the menu, on a shelf--even after we've switched to English and ask, "How do you say?" as an effort to learn their language.  Our favorite bartender in Samana, Dominican Republic taught us "doggie bag" and when I arrived the next day, he quizzed me with a smile!!  "Como se dice doggie bag?"(Whoops!  I already forgot).  Perdon ("excuse me" always gets a smile in a grocery store or when asking directions).  Many times they may respond in English & Spanish--they are trying to teach you & get you to repeat it back in Spanish!
  • Sometimes the lack of communication isn't your Spanish, but the request:  "A McDonalds in Puerto Real, after crossing the Mona from DR was a real treat.  El Captain hoped to order his favorite number!  "Tres, por favor!" But they don't use the number system!  I ordered "cheeseburger no bread" (hamburguesa y queso, no pan) & "ice coffee no sugar" (cafe fria no azucar).  Someone in line behind me finally translated, using four times as many words as I thought necessary (no the employees of McDonalds in Puerto Rico don't always speak English!).  Apparently, it wasn't my Spanish, it was--they couldn't understand why I didn't want bread or SUGAR!  (They loved their coffee with milk & sugar--cafe con leche, por favor)
  • Another tip we picked put from an American waitress in Culebra, PR is the Spanish-speaking use their tongue more than English speaking--sounds are frequently made with the tongue touching the front teeth.  I've picked this up slowly.
  • LOTS of hand gestures.  Observe the locals and you will see they ALL talk with their hands.  This is where I excel past El Capitan.  Waving your arms & pointing with broken Spanish usually gets a response!
  • SMILE, which you can forget while formulating a sentence in Spanish in your head...breath, smile, talk SLOWLLLLLYYYY.
  • Our boat name in Spanish is Oh, th-een.  Very sexy!  It took the employees at Puerto del Rey a little while to learn our pronunciation, but by the time we pulled away from the dock, we had picked up their pronunciation, which they loved!  (Spanish for Cruisers, Consonants:  "D has a bit of the soft th sound of the word this.  The th sound is most noticeable when d appears between vowels").  The name "Craig" also isn't always understood (especially in the DR), thus his Spanish moniker of Gregorio.
  • We know we've broken through the barrier when El Capitan gets a hearty Dominican handshake from a sailmaker who spoke NO English or when a local says "Como esta?" on a return visit (Bien, gracias).
  • Again, don't assume they don't speak English just because they didn't respond to your attempts.  I've observed cruisers speaking a little too freely, and as a result, not been in the good graces of the marina dock hands.  There are ears everywhere!  (A vet tech in Fajardo, after two hours finally said "Nice to meet you" as I walked out the door!)
  • Of course, you also need some numbers (nombres--we learned the "hundreds" while converting pesos in the DR!  I had a little conversion cheat sheet which I tried to hide--so I didn't look like such a tourist--but waitresses liked it because they could point!  It was usually passed around the table.  However, they did help convert to & take US dollars before we got to the bank, and were happy to realize not one waitress or store clerk took advantage).
The next blog will be "Driving in Puerto Rico" and will include the Spanish words that you will need, if you are THAT brave.  (We also drove in DR but they don't have ANY signage, so no Espanol required!)

  • Passages South by Bruce Van Sant
  • Spanish for Cruisers
  • Spanish for Cruisers website includes a crew list cheat sheet
  • Google Translate can't hurt if you have internet in town (Luperon, DR).  Our boat buddies used it by passing it back & forth to the locals.
  • A Spanish/English dictionary in either print or iPhone (offline version)


  1. Nice job. Well written. Lots of information, as usual!

  2. Very educational and entertaining, as usual, Bonnie. As you might know, we have completed the Great Loop after 9,800 statute miles and are back home in Punta Gorda, FL for life ashore for at least a few months. Stay well!

    Duane and Diane
    m/v Diva Di

    1. Duane, what an amazing accomplishment! It's amazing how many people we meet that are dreaming about that same trip. I'll go catch up

  3. This is a great post! I'm starting to try to learn some Spanish. I have "Spanish for Cruisers" which seems like it will be a really great resource.

  4. "Spanish for Cruisers" is amazing. Be sure to check out their website also. There are also some great apps out there. I started trying to add words to every day conversations (at least in my head). Rosetta Stone really works, if you have somewhere to talk out loud. I quit doing it once we got on the boat!