5: Flight of Faith

5: Flight of Faith

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Flight of Faith

The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.

~St. Augustine

When my plane touches down in Guadalajara, Mexico, I disembark with a plastic-bound conversational Spanish guide and a small rolling suitcase. The agency arranging the homestay for my college-level study abroad hadn’t been able to give me any details about the woman I will be living with for the next few months. So I search the crowd looking for my mysterious hostess.

For the first time, it enters my mind to question whether she will be able to speak English. Uncertainty creeps in as I realize how difficult this airport, this city, this country, will be for me to navigate alone.

I scan the crowd. I am surrounded by tall, white cowboy hats and fellow travelers bearing cardboard boxes bound with string.

Then, I see her. Short, chestnut-colored hair. Cold eyes the faint blue of glacier ice. Polyester skirt past the knees. Orthopedic shoes. She looks to be nearly sixty, with stout fingers gripping a white piece of paper with my name scrawled across it in black ink. She looks more intimidating than I could have imagined, and I have a wildly active imagination.

I move toward the unsmiling woman, my stomach tightening at the impossible sharpness of her eyes. She points to the sign, “League Aun?” she questions in a pronunciation that’s new to me.

Si, Leigh Ann.”

She nods and lets the sign drop to her side. She looks relieved, and I feel relieved that she suddenly has shown some warmth. She is, after all, the only person in Mexico who knows, well, at least how to spell my name.

Mi nombre Leigh Ann. Soy de los montañas de Carolina Del Norte.” My name is Leigh Ann. I am from the mountains of North Carolina. This is the extent of my Spanish.

She nods again. My name is the extent of her English.

She begins to speak Spanish, her words flowing faster than river rapids. I can tell that she is not chitchatting; she’s trying to give me the information I need to adjust to life in Guadalajara, but I can’t even remember how to say I don’t understand.

The airport traffic moves around us. We are their obstacle, language is ours. She touches my arm, and I notice that her eyes have softened a bit more. She walks to a kiosk and after a completely indiscernible conversation with the attendant, she presents me with a bottle of juice. Then we sit surrounded by a nervous silence before taking a taxi into the city.

The first few days I live with Señora Montañas, it is impossible to communicate even the simplest things. Another American student boarder who has just arrived, Katie, becomes my translator and helps me get to and from the university where I am to take Spanish classes.

When we return after hours of scribbling in vocabulary books and sitting in on Sociology classes, Señora asks about our days. First, she addresses Katie, who always carries on a language-class-worthy conversation, then me. I simply smile, my only surefire form of communication. But still she asks every day, as if she already knows that soon I will be able to answer.

Every afternoon, an hour before mealtime, Señora plops lumps of gritty dough in my hand and demonstrates the making of gorditas — thick corn tortillas made through a process not unlike tossing a baseball hand to hand. As the dough takes shape, day after day, so does my voice. Over time, our conversations grow to fill the kitchen. Then come the mariachi songs, “Aye, aye, aye, aye,” she belts with gusto, watching my enthusiastic repetition with delight.

When Señora has her extended family members over for dinner, she invites me to sing or read or speak to them in Spanish, proud of my progress, however slow. Often, I pause for comically long periods of time, trying to find the right Spanish words, and the group laughs. But Señora tells them to hush, and reminds them in Spanish, “When she came she couldn’t say anything. Now at least she can talk!” I am touched by the pride in the blue eyes that had, not so very long ago, been those of a stranger.

When you travel abroad for any amount of time you must have faith that you will find your way, communicate, and learn something worth more than the frequent flyer miles. More often than not, you do. And more often than not, it is because someone with local knowledge takes you into their life and teaches you.

Whenever I become nervous about traveling to an unfamiliar part of the world, I will think of Señora Montañas. As I board my plane, take my chance, and rack up more frequent flyer miles, I will find solace in knowing that there are ambassadors of goodwill like her at work in the world. As I leap across cultural divides, I will remain ever faithful that, at each destination, I will find a place to call home in a language other than my own.

~Leigh Ann Henion

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