Ten years ago, at the age of twenty-two, I took a trip around the world on a ship called the MV Explorer. Semester at Sea as the program is known, is a study abroad program founded in 1963, now managed by the Institute for Shipboard Education in Charlottesville, Virginia. Undergraduates from more than 1,500 colleges and universities have participated in the program since its inception. Through Semester at Sea, students circumnavigate the world, traveling to various countries and learning about cultures foreign from the ones they grew up in. In the summer of 2005, during my Semester at Sea voyage, I visited nine countries, Spain being one of them. Here therein is a journal entry I wrote while aboard the ship. One lesson, I repeatedly learned during my months aboard this ship was that miscommunications when in a foreign country make for great stories!
August 6, 2005
I found out on my first day in Spain that a little knowledge of a language can have hilarious outcomes. My friends and I were walking around Bilbao and came across a coffee shop. Or what we thought was a coffee shop because we saw what we thought were coffee beans displayed in the window. One of them wanted to buy coffee as a present to give to family back home in California, so we ventured inside. Once inside the store, we realized there was no coffee to be found, but there were tea packets lying on the shelves. The two girls I was with decided they would buy tea instead to give to their families. Only two of us had a limited amount of knowledge of the Spanish language, but we put that knowledge to use as we tried to translate the ingredients in each tea we looked at. After we translated all the words we knew, there were still many words left we did not know how to decipher. So the two girls buying the teas took a different route in order to determine what the best tea would be. They started to smell the packets.
While the smelling of the packets ensued, we noticed there were small packets and bigger packets. On the smaller packets, the names of the teas were clearly labeled in Spanish. Some of the names of the teas I could read were green tea, red tea, and black tea. Basically, I could decipher all the colored teas. In contrast to the smaller packets, the bigger packets did not have the word tea written in the center of the packaging. Since these bigger packets were next to the smaller packets; the three of us assumed these packets had to be tea as well. After my friend Becky decided she liked the scent of one of the bigger tea packets, she went to the sales counter to purchase the item.
After Becky asked the sales clerk how much it cost in Spanish, and the sales clerk responded with the amount, he asked her another question in Spanish. My friend did not have the foggiest idea as to what the sales clerk was asking her. What made the situation even more challenging was that the sales clerk did not speak a word of English. All of a sudden, the sales clerk left and a couple minutes later re-emerged with another sales clerk who also did not speak English. However, the new sales clerk did have a brilliant idea of looking up the ingredients in a plant encyclopedia they kept at the store. The encyclopedia had Spanish and English translations. Apparently, the two sales clerks were trying to show Becky what an ingredient in one of the teas was, at least that is what she gathered from their gestures. After reading the definition of one of the ingredients in the encyclopedia, she decided against purchasing her big packet. One of the ingredients appeared to have goat bladder in it. The sales clerk helped Becky choose one of the other smaller packets of teas, and after she purchased it, we left the store. About twenty minutes later, Becky stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and thumped her head with her hand. She finally realized what the sales clerk had been asking her. Apparently, the bigger packets were teas one would purchase if one had a bladder infection and the sales clerk had asked her if she suffered from such an infliction. And to think Becky was going to buy bladder infection tea to give as a present to someone back home. How thoughtful indeed.
Mariya Taher is currently pursuing an MFA Degree in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She received her Masters in Social Work from San Francisco State University and her B.A. from the University of California Santa Barbara, where she majored in Religious Studies and double-minored in Global, Peace, and Security & Socio-cultural Linguistics. Prior to attending Lesley University, she worked in the gender violence field for seven years at W.O.M.A.N., Inc., The Women’s Foundation of California, and San Francisco State University. She aims to combine her passion for social justice with her passion for writing to bring about change by sharing stories of challenges faced by vulnerable and marginalized communities. She has contributed articles to Solstice Literary Magazine, Global Voices, The Express Tribune, The San Francisco Examiner, BayWoof, and a piece on Female Genital Cutting that was shared on Imagining Equality Project put together by the Global Fund for Women and the International Museum of Women. Her first short story was published in 2013 in University of La Verne’s literary journal Prism Review. She received the 2014 Graduate School of Arts & Social Sciences Dean’s Merit Scholarship from Lesley University. This award is given to a person with a strong academic background, demonstrating leadership skills, and a commitment to the field of education, the arts, social services, the environment or counseling.