Guest column: Lake Tahoe Community College Spanish institute features ‘the difficult trip’ |

Guest column: Lake Tahoe Community College Spanish institute features ‘the difficult trip’

Pat Reilly Harbo
Guest Column

At the Intensive Summer Spanish Institute, at Lake Tahoe Community College, the fourth night is called “The Difficult Trip.”

My husband and I attended, and I must tell you, I was nervous, since I was in the “lower beginning” class. He was in the “intermediate ll” class, and very much more at ease with the language.

All of the students had to go to a list of places in the lobby, which had been transformed into the Aeropuerto (airport). I first went to el banco, where we stood in line to change our fake travelers checks into play pesos. Then I was sent off to fend for myself.

I chose to go to customs next. The first thing I’m asked is my name.

I can handle that.

“Why are you traveling? How much money do you have?”

I’m nervous, can’t figure out how many pesos I’ve cashed my fake traveler’s checks in for … after all, I’ve just learned the word for a hundred (cien) this morning. I start to perspire. My face is flushed.

There is a commotion behind me. I turn to find my husband arguing with a fake policeman and the customs agent. He’s saying something about not needing a passport, and would the cop take some dinero?

I’m thinking that perhaps he’s having too much fun and I’m too worked up and serious.

I move over to baggage check. As I’m finishing up my encounter, I hear my husband telling the “baggage” person that she “should lift my bag very carefully because it has grenades and rifles in it. But don’t worry. It’s for my work.” The woman looks over at me and says, “Su esposo?”

I say, “No, I’ve never seen him.”

She looks at a note that has been passed to her from customs about this man. She flips a coin, making a decision. He’s a lucky guy. It was heads. He doesn’t have to go to fake jail.

I next went to the pharmacia to get pretend pills (Skittles) for a headache (tengo un dolor de la cabeza). Doug told the pharmacist that his headache was from too much tequila, and he needs opiates for it. He asked to have it without a prescription, and finally, the amused pharmacist gives it to him literally, “under the table.” (More Skittles, of course.)

We meet again at the makeshift restaurante, where we are handed a menu that had everything on it as if it were a real Mexican restaurante. You can order anything you want, but all you’ll really get is a dish of chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Doug spoke to the waiter in his best Spanish and ordered half the menu. I just ordered chiles rellenos.

”Chocolate, por favor.” The waiter smiled.

The evening was coming to an end, but we hadn’t gone to the mercados upstairs. We each went our separate ways and I learned to negotiate and barter with my play money with the merchants. Then they signed my card to say I had gone through this exercise.

When my card was all signed, I met Doug in the lobby. “I bought you a gift,” he said, as he dashingly pulled a fancy fan from his pocket and opened it.” Aww,” I thought, but “How did you do that? Nothing was really for sale.”

“I paid for it with my play money,” he said.

“But you weren’t supposed to keep it! We were just learning to barter and then they would sign us off! You have to return it. It belongs to one of the real vendors.”

Doug looked disappointed, but said he would do it in the morning.

The next day, the last day of classes, I told my conversation teacher, Maria, about Doug’s antics. She paid me a nice favor by reaching into her briefcase and bringing out a lovely black fan to replace the one I had made him return. Then she had me repeat my story to the class.

Later, Doug and I met for lunch, and on our way we met “mi profesora.” I winked at her and presented “mi esposo.” She said, “You! He causes me problems all the time!” It turns out that professora Maria was Doug’s homeroom teacher, and she knew him too well!

Inspired to continue immersing ourselves in Spanish, a pilgrimage was planned to visit the Camino de Santiago, in Spain. Imagine some bad squid and a near death experience. A really difficult trip … but that’s another story.

Pat Reilly Harbo is part-time South Lake Tahoe resident and writer. You can find her blog at

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