*Sometimes stories are better heard than read. So sit back and relax while I read, if you prefer.
This is the one about the time I accidentally read a children’s book to an entire indigenous community about a dolphin’s vagina. Oh, the consequences of mispronouncing one single ‘h’.
It was roughly 3 months after I had moved down to Costa Rica, which meant that it was time to renew my tourist visa by crossing the border and getting a fresh stamp that would award me another 90 days. Hoping to hitch a free ride and avoid the awful bus ride, I asked the programming department if there were any courses scheduled to head down to Panama, a common destination for many of our groups. Bingo. It turned out there was.
A couple days later, I found myself in a van with six high school seniors en route to a small indigenous community in Bocas del Toro. Buena Esperanza it was called, on the island known as Bastimentos. We were there to install a safe drinking water tank, teach some basic English lessons to the kids, and witness cultural appropriation at its finest (even in a place as remote as Buena Esperanza the presence of cell phones and hair gel is overwhelming).
Although there are a handful of noteworthy events that took place in between, let’s skip ahead to lunchtime on the third day. At this point, the group’s initial shock of being in such a foreign place had worn off and we were settling into a nice routine: breakfast and counting new bug bites in the morning, installing the tank, and hanging out with the adorable school children in the afternoon. Mostly out of boredom but also as a way of injecting a little bit of energy into the hot, lazy afternoon I decided to read a book I had found…out loud. It was a rare book in the sense that it was clearly intended for the people in the community – it incorporated words in Guaymi, their native language, and featured illustrations of the local geography. I mentioned that the name of the village was Buena Esperanza, right? Well it’s on an island overlooking Dolphin’s Bay, a name whose importance will be made abundantly clear soon.
As my audience grew, so did my enthusiasm. My reading became much more animated as I added different voices for each character. The crab who lived in the mangroves sounded like some curmudgeonly old man, the magnificent frigate bird like a noble king, and so on. At one point, I pulled my eyes from the pages to find that no fewer than 25 people had gathered around, all listening intently. Even the elders found it entertaining to hear a gringo’s rendition of the silly story. Imagine an animated Chinese man reading the Bernstein’s Bears at a family picnic and you’ve probably got a pretty accurate picture.
The book ends with a sentence that is something like, “and all the animals lived happily ever after in Dolphin’s Bay.” There it is again – the name Dolphin’s Bay. In Spanish, the word for bay is “bahia”. Again, let me emphasize that the ‘h’ is silent. Sometimes, however, even as a bilingual gringo who holds his language skills in high esteem, English tendencies can still cause minor slipups. Bahia, read with no regard for Spanish pronunciation, sounds a whole lot like the word for vagina.
Before I could even finish the sentence, the entire community completely lost it, laughing hysterically. To be huddled around and hear an ending like “all the animals lived happily ever after in Dolphin’s Vagina” is pretty goddamn hilarious, especially when most days your only concern is where to plant the yucca and how many eggs the chickens laid.
*Don’t miss an equally embarrassing story in yet another small indigenous community in Bocas del Toro, Panama…womp womp.