Honesty is always the best policy, so “Hablo poco Español” quickly became “No hablo Español” while travelling. But only after some awkward situations whereby my perfecto accent had clearly fooled and I’d panic in the wake of a string of Spanish dialogue. It seems a vocab of hello, good bye, please, thank you, sorry, toilet, apple, dog, cat, milk and water doesn’t count as ‘a little Spanish’.
For the months leading up to my trip, I researched Spanish courses. They were pretty $$-y so I gave Duolingo a crack. I even printed a list of phrases and stuck them beside my computer at work. I had great intentions. While my morning walks had me blending in to the West End ‘furniture’, I eventually for bored of matching pairs and learning a gato (cat) from a pedro (dog). And although declaring “Salud” became much more fun than “Bless you!” at colleagues’ sneezes, the list became a casualty of 3 weeks of hot desk-ing before my trip. In a last ditch effort, I grabbed Lonely Planet’s Fast Talk Latin American Spanish: Guaranteed to get you talking phrasebook the night before I left and turned up on Danica and Yosef’s doorstep with little to say for myself.
Spoilt is the best description of my first four days in Mexico. Personal translators, menu selectors and tutors. If there are two people who have mastered the art of broken bi-lingual conversation, it’s Danica and Yosef. They put Google Translate to shame. But Mexico City or Ciudad de Mexico, the largest Spanish speaking city in the world, was my first foray into Spanish self sufficiency.
I’ll give you a heads up: what the Parisians are to non/little French speakers, is what Chilangos are to English speakers. Snobs.
My 48 hours in CDMX can be best summarised by my Español skills, or lack thereof.
One of the best things about travelling by yourself, or perhaps without a certain younger sister rolling her eyes, is exploring galleries and museums at your own pace. Behind this sharp witted fashionista (jks!) is really just a big nerd. And I could spend all day gathering new facts for the random collection of rarely useful (except for the old specific trivia question) info stored in my head.
Enter stage right: Museo Nacional de Antropología.
Possibly one of the coolest museums I’ve been to, I journeyed through ancient artefacts and life size ruin replicas from various Mexican eras. The frustration? Only about 10% of the museum was translated into English.
“Was it safe?” asks everyone of Mexico City. “Well considering I was staying in the Surry Hills or New Farm of Mexico City, yes.” And the bonus of good Airbnb research is finding a good host, and that I did. Staying in Condesa Roma, the rising gentrified ‘colonia’, great bars, cafes and restaurants were plentiful. My host, a food blogger #win, made a few suggestions and the closest one (within budget) was Merotoro – No 25 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurant: Latin America.
I was greeted at the door. “Uno, por favor.” To which the maitre de responded with likely a standard follow on statement…in Spanish. Cue freak out by yours truly. “No hablo Español. Habla, Ingles?” “No. Uno momento.”
I stood awkwardly at the door as the maitre de shuffled around the restaurant. A few moments later, another charming staff member came over. “Hello. Would you like a table?” Alleluia! Seating me at the bar (top tip solo travellers!) he passed me the drinks and the food menu. And left.
Politely I perused the menu. I had absolutely no idea what it said beyond a few translatable words: Queso. Pollo. Pescado. The barman with his zero English and my limited (?) Spanish surprised me with an amazing Mezcal y Jamaica before the ever lovely English speaker returned and upon request of his recommendation, translated the entire menu for me.
I started with ceviche con cangrejo de aguacate de concha blanda (plus a main of rabbit ragu – sorry Cuddle Pie!). It was the best dish I ate on my whole trip.
There are few things that make tourists stand out anywhere – even Brisbane. Hats. Backpacks. Cameras. In MXCD, shorts. And everywhere, paper maps. The less conspicuous Google Maps has saved me many a time travelling in new cities. However, getting between said places on public transport and taxis are an added challenge when you don’t speak or read the native language. Friends, that’s where Uber is only the most amazing startup ever. I typed “Frida Khalo Museum” and the app translated that to “Museo Frida Khalo” and sent me a driver with an epic moustache my way. It saved me thrusting phones + paper directions at my driver and comprehending how much it will all cost. Hello 28 degrees credit card. Even better, it came with a bottle (or 2) of water saving me a few pesos!
If only 45 minute/10km Uber rides were only $7.80 in Australia!
A day and a half in, I had settled in to MXCD. I came to enjoy the chaotic roads with policemen coordinating traffic despite traffic lights, the amazing street food and cute dogs everywhere. But with an impending flight to Cuba I needed to get myself together. There would be no Uber, no corner 7/11’s with naranja juice and no Airbnb hosts. And like the start of all good holidays, I had burnt myself to a crisp on day 1 in Mexico. The non-greasy, face sunscreen didn’t cut in humid Mexico. I was in need of some heavy duty, sweat-proof sunscreen.
Another easy translation: farmacias were fairly common around town. I walked into a few smaller shopfronts and browsed the shelves without luck. Eventually I found a sizeable farmacia and I was feeling confident.
“Hola, bienvenido, señorita.”
The middle aged Mexican woman kept talking but I kept walking. My Spanish comprehension had max-ed out. I wandered the aisles and she approached and said something else. I smiled. I again had absolutely no clue and declared “no hablo Español” in a panic. I decided it was time for a round of charades.
I motioned applying a cream to my arms and face. “Ah hidratante, sie!” the woman guessed. Again, a word that is close enough to English to work out. “No. Ahhh,” and indicated a sun coming down from above before repeating application of cream. I even slapped on a hat like a good Aussie. It wasn’t helping. I remembered I’d seen a 50+ on a bottle of something and pointed at the SPF rating. “Ahh sí.” She grabbed my arm and led me to a floor to roof wall of what may aswell have been Dr LeWinn’s. My halve and then halve again currency conversion (AU$1 = MXD$14) priced her recommendation at around $60. “No,” and I motioned a head cut and rubbed my thumb and forefingers. Too expensive. By this stage I now had 5-6 Mexican women suggesting products. It was amusing but overwhelming.
Cue knight in shining armour. Out of nowhere came a sweet, attractive, 20/30-odd guy and in American English asked “What are you after?” I laughed. “Sunscreen. But these look expensive.” He turned back to the women “Protector solar, por favor.”
Somewhat disappointed they pointed to a shelf some mere metres away. And there, in all it’s bright blue, orange and yellow glory was my precious white girl skin saving magic.
“Thank you!” He smiled.
Upon reflection, I really should have known sun in Spanish. There is sol beer and sols are days in Mars (thanks Martian!) and even a cafe down the road with a sun logo called ‘Sol breads.’ Alas.
And after all the above, there are just some words that you don’t need to translate. Churrería El Moro.
And after the sunscreen episode, I devoured my cinch (5) churros with Canjeta o leche condensed (i did have to Google that…) at a bargain price of $1.40.
Mexico City was the shortest leg of my trip – a total of 49.5 hours. It wasn’t even on the original list. I had to pass through on my way to Cuba, so I figured I’d stop. But after 26 days away, ask me my favourite part of my trip, and I’ll say the most surprising was Mexico City.
Would I go back? Tomorrow… for a month!
Pero capaz de hablar mucho más Español! (But able to speak much more Spanish!)