From the Field: The Language Barrier

Posted by KristenM on February 25th, 2013

by Katrina Lohan

We were able to find a final location for Ostrea sp. in Bocas del Toro, which wrapped up our sampling there. So it was time to return to Panama City to complete our sampling on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal.

Now I have been trying to learn and remember some Spanish phrases. There were times when my lack of fluency was awkward, and other times when it is more problematic. Our return trip to Panama City was one of the problematic occasions!

Kristy and I were on one flight, while Carmen, the laboratory manager from Mark Torchin’s lab at STRI who had joined us in Bocas to assist with our sampling, was on a second flight that was supposed to leave about 15 minutes after ours. Due to our back-to-back sampling in multiple locations, there were quite a few items that we had to take with us on the airplane to and from Bocas, which meant that we had a number of additional and overweight luggage pieces.

When Kristy and I arrived in Panama City, we realized that all the bags, including Carmen’s bag, had been put on the first plane with us. This wouldn’t have been a problem except that you need a ticket to claim your suitcase in baggage claim and Carmen had the ticket for my suitcase. A gentleman from the airport was helping Kristy with the large action packers, which are large plastic containers that we filled with scientific equipment, so I told her I would stay behind to wait for Carmen and watch my suitcase. It quickly became obvious that I was the only person standing behind and there was only suitcase left, so the men working at baggage claim attempted to question me about whether or not the last suitcase belonged to me. Language barrier incident #1: It took me a while to explain, in what was nothing less than broken Spanish combined with English words, that it was my bag, but my friend on the other flight had the ticket. Apparently I managed to convene my message as I was eventually allowed to take my bag.

Incident #2 came as I exited the baggage claim area and made my way to the front of the airport. Kristy was trying to communicate with the wife of the shuttle driver, who had been sent from the hotel to pick us up. Unfortunately, neither she nor her husband spoke any English. Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem, except that we had to wait for the next flight to come in so that we could give Carmen her luggage. Neither Kristy nor I were able to successfully communicate to the woman why we were refusing to get into the van or why we wouldn’t hand over one of the bags to be put into the van. So, we headed back into the airport to find someone who could help breach the language barrier. A young woman just inside the airport was nice enough to act as our translator and cleared up the entire issue for us. Just as she finished explaining our predicament, the second flight landed. The gentleman who had helped Kristy with the bags had overhead why we were waiting and had me follow him back inside the baggage claim so that I could wave down Carmen as soon as she arrived. We were able to exchange bags with Carmen and apologize profusely to the shuttle driver and his wife. The incident pushed me to spend some time with Google Translate!


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