How You Say ‘Where’s the Best Place to Get a Taco Around Here?’

Tacos in Mexico City

It’s easy to order at a street stall that serves only one item!

We slid into the taxi outside the Guadalajara bus station and showed the driver the printed slip of paper with the address and directions (in Spanish, provided by our host) to our airbnb rental. The driver said something to me. I wrinkled my brow, the international symbol for ‘huh?’

“Repeat,” he said. Rolling his R and making the G a guttural H, he intoned the address where we were headed: “Rrrrro-blays Hhheeel, cuatro siete tres.” I attempted to repeat it, but not to his satisfaction. “No! Rrrrrrro-blays Hhhhhhhheeel.” We played this game until I nailed it (a handy ability to have for our few days in the city!). He was a chatty driver, señor Manuel, and very curious as to why were staying not in a hotel, but in a house, and not one belonging to amigos. I speak almost no Spanish, and my limited grasp of French combined with several weeks’ worth of stays in Italy combine to actually make things worse as I reach for français , or toss Spanish words out there with an Italian accent. I couldn’t begin explain to Manuel en español, as he insisted, why were staying with strangers.

In fact, I couldn’t converse much at all with him in his language. My phrase book, I’d learned, served almost no purpose. Not only did the “menu decoder” contain at best a tenth of the the dishes I encountered, but the phrases were stilted and awkward, and not conducive to real world travel or conversation. Throughout our nine day trip to Mexico, my husband Brian and I played “what the phrasebook should say,” as I scribbled the phrases and words I needed in the front of the book.

“What local specialty do you recommend?” – far too formal, we felt, for chit-chat with a driver or the many people we talked with that we wanted to ask for suggestions – ought to instead be, “what’s good to eat here?” After an immensely tasty taco from a street vendor we’re not going to use the book’s translation of “my compliments to the chef.” I would like to say, however, “this is the best taco I’ve had in Mexico!” Grasping helplessly at the farmacia for how to ask in Spanish for a rehydration solution for Brian – who succumbed to the change in diet and altitude in Mexico City and was now reeling with dehyration – I gave up and went to the convenience store for a Coke. In France, I thought to myself wistfully, my very elementary level skills at least enable me to make myself understood, even if I’m not conjugating correctly.

On our ride to Tequila from Guadalajara when we found we couldn’t converse at all with the driver, the idea was born. We need a new kind of phrase book for travelers. This books acknowledges that we’re not going to learn the finer points of a language. It recognizes that most of us are not born linguists and it’s more important to convey an idea than to be grammatically correct; it uses the shortest possible phrases, because you’re more likely to attempt to speak a three word sentence than 10. (Do you really need to say “I would like to buy two tickets for [city] please” at the bus station? No. Context provides the bulk of what we need. If you’re talking to a ticket agent at the bus station, it’s suffice to say “Two for [city] please.” This book employs polite and respectful language, while still using a real-world, conversational tone. It’s short, because the more pages, the more frustrating it is flipping through looking for the word you need. And it’s centered on scenarios most often encountered by travelers.

The book is broken into sections like “talking to drivers,” “accommodations,” “restaurants,” “medical needs,” “getting around,” and maybe a section for emergencies. It’ll have numbers, directions, and the most essential of needs (where’s the bathroom, what’s the wifi code?). And that’s it.

Inspired by Mad Libs, it’ll be a fill in the blank style that lets a travel mix and match as needed. To wit: In the “talking to drivers” chapter, you’ll find the following phrases.

  • Can we stop ______ please? (For a bathroom/for food/at that shop/to take a photo/at the ATM/at the pharmacy)
  • Where can I get a good ____ around here? (taco/drink/massage)
  • Can we listen to _____ (the radio/Something besides your mix tape for the 10th time?)
  • Will you ____ please? (Roll the window down/roll it up/slow down/hurry up/put out the cigarette/give me a light)
  • Go back please; I left my ____ in the ____. (phone in the bathroom/bag on the counter/umbrella in the restaurant/camera at the winery)

Under accommodation you’ll have phrases like:

  • Can I have ____ please? (more toilet paper/an umbrella/a map/a fan)
  • The _____ isn’t working. (hot water/wi-fi/lock/toilet)

The eating section might employ images to allow you to point to a menu item, then to the picture of a cow and its parts, for instance, to inquire as to the provenance of the dish. If you prefer to not eat the cow eye taco, for instance, you can point to that part of the diagram and shake your head.

The basic phrases – those I scrawled on the first page of my book as I got friendly locals to translate for me – include:

  • Yes/No/Please/Thank You/Hello/Goodbye
  • How do you say [this] in [language]?
  • What is this?
  • Do you have? And do you have something for ___ ?
  • I would like ___ please
  • Where is the bathroom?
  • How much is this?
  • Another one please.
  • It’s very good, but I’m full!
  • Can I have the bill please?
  • Where can I get the best taco (or fill-in-the-blank) around here?
  • It’s nice to meet you.

Not knowing the language, and relying on the assistance of strangers kind enough to speak your own language is a humbling experience – especially for someone who makes their living with words. Traveling outside my comfort zone is a good ego check, and a brain-building exercise. But like all travelers, I’m seeking connection when I venture out. I want to show respect, and I want to make my needs known, whether I’m buying a bus ticket or ordering food. I don’t need a lesson on the history of the language, or pages of fluff. With the most essential phrases from some dozen languages jangling around in my head from the last 13 years of roaming the globe, I have, in fact, convinced myself that I should tackle this project. Maybe I’ll start with French. Madame Koepplinger (my high school French instructor) watch out – I’ll be calling you.

So señor Manuel, when I next hop in your taxi, I hope I can have more of a conversation with you. I just still might not be able to explain to you why I’m staying with strangers.

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