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A Few Key Words You Must Know

January 11th, 2007

I learn Spanish from the people around me. I quit lessons awhile ago because time went to the kids. But, I continued to learn so much in a day from the children and the people in my life.
There’s a list of words you must know, of course, before traveling. Water – agua; bathroom – baño; those two are a cinch. But consider learning this word too….toilet paper. I advise any traveler to learn the word. It’s not an easy one, in fact it’s two. And, it makes no sense – that is – until you know the story behind it (sorry, pun intended).

Paper towels for the kitchen are called papel de cocina – kitchen paper, which makes perfect sense. So, toilet paper would be called…..papel de baño. Wrong. Language makes sense until it doesn’t. Toilet paper is called papel higiénico. The second word means sanitary and is pronounced…ee hee-aan ee co (the first h is not spoken and don’t forget to emphasize that é)…not an easy word.

According to my sources (a very lovely bunch of Ticas), toilet paper – papel higiénico – was coined when the product came out. People used the daily news as the paper of the bathroom. Can you see where this gets a little sticky?

“Lots of people had a problem with the ink,” my nanny said, “You know….,” her voice trailed off. She squished up her nose and pointed to the seat of her pants. So, when toilet paper hit the markets, it was important to educate people – especially in the country – that they needed to use the sanitary, safe papel higiénico. Newspaper was only to be read in the bathroom!

While traveling around Costa Rica, bathrooms are much better than even five years ago. But, once in awhile, they’ll come up short. When you need to request toilet paper, you’ll probably get by with the term: papel de baño. Costa Ricans are really kind and forgiving when travelers and ex-pats mess up the Spanish. Charades help a lot. But who wants to mimic bathroom routines at the table in a restaurant. Come to think of it, you may want to throw some wet wipes in your bag, just in case.

3 Responses to “A Few Key Words You Must Know”

  1. Diz on January 18, 2007 1:47 am

    Agreed. On the entire blog.
    What a relief to know what it is that you need, WHEN you need it.
    I have found that ‘Esta’, ‘Si’, ‘No’ and ‘Aqui’ have worked well in combination with many hand gestures.
    BTW ‘Aqui’ means here, but if you point alot, they know you mean there.

    Confusion. I know.

  2. Nikki on May 12, 2007 3:40 pm

    I’m a wilderness guide in Alaska and I work with international clients. Many times I go on immersion trips alone with three or four speakers and only one partial interpreter.

    While this may be reasonable on a raft trip — I’m also an adventure dogsled guide ! Lots to communicate and sometimes in great ‘haste’. Even so, I have been oft complimented as the ‘best translator they met who didn’t know the language’.

    Well — my second language is Sign Language. Even more universal than english.

    This works incredibly well since EVERYONE knows a LOT of sign language ! Most people simply don’t realize how much they do know. It’s often said all you have to do to communicate with a deaf person is to — TRY ! They can handle the rest.

    It’s also impossible to lie to a deaf person BTW. About as much luck as sneaking out of the house without your dog figuring it out. Deaf folks are OBSERVERS !

    Another tip I have is what I called ’empathetic emulation’. Basically, if you can return english to a foreign speaker with THEIR accent, you will succeed far more.

    Once after returning from a five day immersion trip with French Adventurers, to my spouses surprise I “apparently” became completely fluent ! What I had learned was all the idos of the language and hand gestures (French speakers for example say Poof instead of Ummm). That was enough to convince non-speakers that my gibberish was authentic !

    Years later I got to hear the english version while listening to a group of parrots as they were replicating ‘conversation’ rather than words. If you are around speaking parrots, listen. It’s a hoot. (sorry, but I couldn’t resist. Not too often you come across a good cross-species pun).

    Be well all — see you in Costa Rica someday !

  3. Susan on May 13, 2007 1:30 pm

    Great story – yes see you in CR. Both my kids know a bit of sign language!