The Spanish Exam

by | Jun 23, 2014

Already today I’ve dropped my bike twice and ridden out of the mountains in a tropical rainstorm. A bird has hit my shoulder at highway speed. Because of the rain earlier, I am wearing a heavy leather jacket. But it’s 28 degrees and sunny now, and I just realized that the cute Jinotegan boy who rode on the pillion two days ago, broke the sunglasses that were in my jacket pocket.

And at the Uno gas station in Tipitapa, my motorcycle won’t start.

I push it into a parking space at the front of the little shop. A flock of teenage boys has appeared from nowhere, and they hover around poking my carburetor and ordering me to try starting it again so they can see how it doesn’t work.

I wave them away and pull out the toolkit that the German gave me before I left his motorcycle rental agency. Damn, if this isn’t the most useless toolkit I’ve ever had. There are no tire irons, only one crescent wrench, no Allen keys at all, and relevant to the current situation – a Phillips head screwdriver that is too short and stubby to reach the carburetor drain screw.

Masaya, later that day.

Masaya, later that day.

It’s time to put my two weeks of Spanish experience to the test. To the crowd of teenage boys, I announce, “La moto es romper.” (The motorbike is broken.) They stare blankly, a common expression amongst teenage boys.

“Yo necessito un mecanico. Donde es un mechanico proximo?” (I need a mechanic. Where is the nearest mechanic?) Their eyes glazed, several of them wander off. Typical. Show a teenage boy someone having a problem, he’s all up in your business getting in the way. Ask him to be useful, he’s gone like the wind.

I bought some sunglasses from a 12 year old kid. His much older competitor, with another board covered in glasses, approaches, outraged that I bought from the kid instead of him. “Fuck off,” I say, smiling politely.

Eventually a man appears. He says, probably, “Sigues!” (follow) and makes c’mere gestures at me. He is a skinny fellow with a wide smile, wearing dark jeans and a crisp white t-shirt. I can’t tell how old he is, but he looks better than the time wasting teenagers. Perhaps one of them summoned him while I wasn’t looking.

Honda 250 Tornado


“Sabes tu un mecanico?” (Do you know a mechanic?) I ask. He says something, I have no idea what. Speaking Spanish is one thing, understanding what they tell you is a whole other deal. He begins to walk off, still making follow-me gestures. I sigh, and push the bike off its kickstand. He takes my helmet, and we set out through the muddy unpaved lanes, him pushing his bicycle, me pushing my much larger Honda Tornado 250, with steam rising off the shoulders of my heavy black jacket.

Sweat beads on my upper lip, drains down my chest and across my belly. The crappy sunglasses aren’t helping at all. Small children are running beside me in the lane, laughing and throwing rocks at each other. I put my head down and continue pushing. After enough twists and turns that I shall never be able to find my own way back to the gas station, we arrive at a family home with a high iron gate. The man pushes it open and bows me inside.

I’m in a dirt courtyard. There is a huge, ancient GMC dump truck parked near the back. There is a corrugated iron shed with chickens sitting in its shade. There are two very young girls chasing a ball around. They pause to stare at me, then go back to shouting at each other. There is blessed shade at this house, banana trees blocking out the vicious sun and keeping the muddy earth damp and pleasant.

The man who brought me, I have decided, is the mechanic’s apprentice. He has brought the mechanic out of the house. A fat man looking like Super Mario in a wifebeater.

“Que?” (What?) he asks me, probably. I demonstrate how the bike will start, but as soon as I open the throttle, it dies. I do this twice for his benefit.

“Es fango en la carburador, ” (There is  mud in the carburetor) I announce. “Es agua en el tanque. La gasolina es, es…” (There is water in the tank.) I’ve run out of words. “Es mal.” (The gas is bad.)

After a couple of repetitions they seem to understand this. The mechanic grunts and points at his inspection area, a concrete pad with a corrugated steel roof, and I obligingly push the bike up onto the block. He makes me take my luggage off, then I step back.

The apprentice brings a chair for me to sit on, and I sit biting my nails in the shade while the mechanic, his apprentice, and the mechanic’s teenage son buzz around my broken machine.

They seem to be doing what I would do, given tools and space, so I don’t interrupt. The carburetor is drained, then the bottom of the gas tank. “Filthy!” exclaims the mechanic. I peek at the milk jug full of pink liquid. The separation of water and gas is easy to see – there are at least 2 cups of water and not a lot of gas in there. He laughs. I also laugh. “Si, yo veo.” (Yes, I see.)

The fuel filter comes off. The mechanic shakes it vigorously and holds it up to the light. “Filthy!” and presents it for inspection. Sure enough, the fluid in there is the colour of Christmas gravy and totally opaque.

Fuel filter

This pic was taken before he shook all the dirt loose.

“Filthy” is the only English he knows, I believe. I guess it’s enough. To the apprentice I say “La Puma gasolina, y la Uno gasolina…” (The gas at the Puma station, and the Uno station…)


“La Uno es muy bueno?” (The Uno is good?)


“Y, la Puma es no bueno?” (And the Puma is no good?)

“Si!” he nods.

I filled it last at the Puma in Matagalpa. It isn’t the first time I’ve had to push my bike to a mechanic this week.

The filter is flushed with fresh gas and reinstalled. The tank is drained a bit more. There’s some fussing and fidgeting, while his daughters invent a game that involves chasing one another around my chair. The mechanic’s wife comes out and yells at him briefly. He grunts back. A gentle breeze brings the smell of eucalyptus and cooking fire, and the apprentice, now and then, glances at me with a blinding white grin.

I am presented with the bike for inspection. With great care not to upend it in the mud (nearly failed), I ride over some impossibly bright red flower petals scattered in the ruts, to the end of the lane, turn left, pass through a herd of cows, and turn back before I can get too lost.

A Nicaraguan traffic jam

A Nicaraguan traffic jam

“Es bien”, I say, upon returning. Or possibly “Es bueno.” (It’s good.) The mechanic laughs some more and says something in Spanish, points at the carb, then the filter, then twists the throttle, then shrugs expansively. Ok, now for the fun part.

“Gracias por trabajes en Domingo.” I say. (Thank you for working on Sunday).


“Ah! Por blllbbt en Domingo!” The apprentice translates, I guess. They laugh some more.

“Cuanto cuesta?” (How much?) Hmmm, deep frowns. Oh come on man, I’m just trying to give you some money. He pokes the side panel, blips the throttle, stares into the sky for a few moments.

“Donde eres tu?” (Where are you from?)

“Yo rento la moto en Leon” I say haltingly. “Y, yo soy Canadiense.” (I rented the bike in Leon, and I’m Canadian.)

“Hmph.” I know being Canadian is better than being American in this country, but god knows if he believes me. I bet all the damn Yankees claim to be Canadian when they’re travelling.

“C..cuanto cuesta?” I ask again, a bit hesitantly now.

He adopts an aggressive stance and sets his chin firmly. “Ciente.” “Ciente cordoba?” “Si, ciente.”

So, 100 cordobas.

I breathe the eucalyptus trees, listen to his daughters playing, see his trim, perfectly manicured son and apprentice, his own healthy paunch and relaxed self assurance in his own domain. I know I’m supposed to barter. They charge me quadruple, because I’m white, female, and don’t speak the language. I know they’ll respect me more if I talk them down.

The man has repaired my motorcycle and is charging me $4 USD.
I pay him.

I wonder if asking for a nacatamale would be pushing my luck. I can see them in the kitchen. Better get out of here though.

To the apprentice, I ask, “Yo voy a Masaya, cual camino?” (I’m going to Masaya, which road?). “Mumble mumble something whatever,” he burbles enthusiastically in reply. I understand him perfectly – “I’ll show you.” He sets out on his bicycle. I wave to the fat mechanic and his family, and follow slowly on the Tornado. Children again run around my wheels, in a contest to see who can come the closest to getting run over. Chickens saunter arrogantly in front of me. The ground is almost completely dry now, and the cilantro scent of Sunday nacatamales is filling the lanes.

The apprentice stops at the edge of the Pan-American highway and says “Masaya?”


“Masaya!” He points grandly to the south.

“Gracias, senor!”

On the road again.

On the road again.


My route that day: