Cuando en España Hablo Español

The devil may in fact be in the details, but lately I am impressed by how each small moment makes up a vivid memory. How the longest race is divided in a sequence of shorter discreet measurements. And how we as over-burdened, somewhat under-appreciative runners can overlook them. I am trying instead, to appreciate and honor some of the smaller moments. Heaven too is in details. 

“Hi. This is me.” I look down on the wide inquisitive eyes and brown hair of two young girls, perhaps six and seven, looking up at me from the coloring books they’ve pulled from small, shiny pink backpacks. I indicate toward the window seat and smile as they contemplate me.

“Unless one of you wants the window.”

“No, we do not want the window. This is where we want.” The younger girl in the middle pipes up clearly with a Spanish accent, and her older sister reiterates they want the aisle, not the window.

I’m flying from Madrid, Spain to La Palma, Canary Islands for the Transvulcania ultra marathon. The first in the Skyrunning World Series.

“Okay,” I smile amused as I raise an eyebrow and indicate for them to come out to let me in.

As soon as I’m seated the girls to my right study me intently. I look to them and smile, humored by this spectacle I’ve become.

“We live on La Palma but we speak English,” the younger girl states matter-of-factly from my side. She does in fact speak English, much better I acknowledge than I can speak Spanish. “Where are you from?”

“America.” Their brows furrow; they glance at each other. “Los Estados Unidos,” I try again.

“Los Estados Unidos,” they repeat softening the “d” and nearly dropping each “s”. They understand.

They tell me of their travels quickly. I understand there is rain but an unsure of where they saw it. I capture that they live in Los Llanos on La Palma. They try to tell me about their island. But I’m privately embarrassed by my inability to keep up the conversation with these young girls. They politely return to their books and speak quietly between themselves in beautiful rolling Spanish.

La Palma

Upon arrival at the airport, the driver of the transfer I’d arranged speaks no English. I’m stressed because my luggage is still lost after two days of trying to track its whereabouts. The airline personnel assure me it was flown to the islands, but likely a different one: Tazacorte. In my haste to call the airline in Spain, I’d forgotten to exchange my dollars for euros at the airport, and the ATM at the La Palma airport will not work for me. The banks, a lady tells me, are closed on Saturdays. I don’t know how to pay the driver. “Tranquilo,” he tells me with a broad smile and a shrug, “tranquilo.” (Relax.) He indicates to take the front seat and I’m relieved. We ride together in comfortable silence to the apartment I’ve rented in Los Llanos.

Los Llanos is the final destination of the Transvulcania 73k ultra marathon on the island of La Palma in Spain’s Canary Islands. The town is perched about 1200’ above the west coast of La Palma and is made up of the colorful rectangular block-like stucco buildings which line steep and narrow streets. Lines of laundry blow in the wind atop houses. Amongst the homes are rectangular banana plantations of every size, some covered in a white gauze netting. Settling into this place is easy. The bag is no longer a concern; I carried my race kit with me.


Three days later, I sit silent in the office of the apartamentos where I’m staying, while the owner Francisco persistently makes phone call after phone call, trying to track my luggage for me. I listen to him speak and make out words occasionally. I can tell by his tone the personality and gender with whom he is speaking. I suppress a smile considering the kind patience of this man, what a luxury it is for me to receive his help. And I again chastise myself internally for not staying current or at least reviewing the language. He explains I must go to the airport to claim my luggage. For a few moments he looks up a word on Google Translate until he says “customs?” trying to explain. “Si, si, I understand. Esta bien.” When I tell him I will take the bus he seems dissatisfied.

“It is very difficult. You must take bus to Santa Cruz. Then another bus to airport. Takes long time.” I can see him thinking. Quickly he grabs the phone again and I understand he is calling a car rental. I’m worried, as the taxi from the airport costs 40 euros, I doubt I can afford a rental car. He sees my look and explains he has a deal with a company for a cheap car, but they are sold-out. “You have a driver’s license?”

“It’s okay, I can just take the bus,” I assure him.

“We have a car here. An old car. My mothers car. You can take the car. That way it is much easier.”

Esta bien, I can take the bus. No problem.” I’m embarrassed again by his generosity. But he doesn’t relent. I try to leave and he repeats telling me to get my driver’s license.

His mother meets me at my room and walks me to the car explaining in Spanish the situation. I think she is going to drive me in the car, but she ushers me into the passenger seat and says: “Esta mi amigo…buena suerta!” She smiles mischievously and winks at the driver who waves her away laughing, exclaiming to me “No es un problema!”

The driver waiting to take me is older gentleman about the same age as Francisco’s mother. He is tanned from the sun and has a full head of stark white hair, but he doesn’t look Spanish. His accent is a european mixture I can’t quite identify.  “No problema, no problema!” As we leave he excitedly asks in hurried Spanish, “hables espanol?” (do you speak Spanish?)

“No.” I laugh, “muy, muy poco.” (very, very little.)

“Esta bien,” (it’s ok), “Esta bien,” he repeats dissapointed. Then loudly he exclaims: “BA-BA-BAH!” drumming on the steering wheel. “Noooo Españolllll, por que??” He sings in a roar, “Por que, no Españooool?” “Ah, por que?” (why?), “Porque no hables Español?!” He roars loudly and then again starts singing. “zing-zing-zing.”

I laugh and repeat, “No Español!”

“Where are you from?” He asks in Spanish.


“Ah, ah America.” He asks again in Spanish, “You do not speak Spanish?”

“No!” I laugh louder, “No hablo Español!” I try to explain in broken Spanish: “I have traveled to Mexico, and Costa Rica, and South America, but no Español. “Pero, no hablo Español.” He is dissatisfied. He slams on the brakes as we nearly roll through an intersection.

He tells me, repeating words over and over, that he is from Germany, his family is in Germany. But he lives in La Palma. He tells me the word for family in German, then repeats it in Spanish.

He asks about my husband, what he does for work. I tell him my husband is a “bombero” (firefighter). He finds this “muy interesante,” (very interesting) and is quiet for a few moments. He tells me abruptly about how the American military is bad. Rattling off the names of wars, he repeats American military is bad. I’m worried I used the wrong word, and I don’t like discussing politics, even in my own language. Most of my family is from the military. I grow silent. Winding through streets he again slams on the brakes, and stalls the engine, working to start it again on a steep slope. I’m strangely relieved to not be the one driving.

“Por que estas aqui?” (Why are you here?)

In broken monosyllabic, I explain that I am here to run Transvulcania ultramarathon from the southern most point of the island, Fuencaliente, north along the rim of the volcano in the center of the island, to the town of Tazacorte on the west coast, and then back to Los Llanos. It is 73 kilometers, I tell him. “Muy dificil.” (Very difficult).

“Setenta y tres kilometros?!” he roars, emphasizing each syllable. “DING-DING-DING-DING-DING!!” He sings, swinging his arms like a runner, and jabs his finger at me: “Tu! Setenta y tres KILOMETROS?”

I laugh more and more. “Si! Si!” He points up to the rim of the volcano, currently peeking out from behind ephemeral clouds. “Mira! Mira!” (Look! Look!) he says, again emphasizing that I’ll be running up there, high in the mountains. From our vantage the shoulders of the rim are covered heavily in green vegetation. Exposed in parts, the ground is a soft looking baldness of decomposed volcanic rock and ash, dotted occasionally with rough outcroppings of solidified magma. At the base of the wooded slopes are endless terraces built in perfect descending steps and covered neatly in the wide, flat leaves of the banana plant, La Palma’s main export.

I ask him about Roque de los Muchachos, the island’s high point at 2426m (7959’), where runners will ascend to in roughly 50km (31 miles) before dropping back down to the ocean. “Mira, mira!” he exclaims pointing to our left, and just barely visible a gargantuan bald spot hovers on the horizon. Two tiny white astronomical observatories sit on its edges.

“Arriba! Arriba!” (Up! Up!) he pantomimes we are going uphill, through the center of the island, over the mountains to the east, towards the airport. Then “abajo, abajo,” (down, down) to the ocean. “Mira!” he says, (look!), “lluvia!” (rain!). “Ding-ding-ding!” he rings, using his hands to emphasize the rain pinging off our heads and the roof of the car. He explains the center of the island gets much rain, but the coastal towns receive much less.

“Lluvia,” I repeat, like a child, mimicking. “Lluvia,” he says again, slower, annunciating each syllable. Then he tells me the word in German. I repeat the word in German. I tell him “rain” in English. He is pleased with our new game and indicates to the car “coche!” and I repeat. We continue on, with the street, the colors in the landscape, “verde” (green) he tells me pointing to the shrubs and cactus.

I think of the young girl on the plane to La Palma. As I tried to sleep, she laid her head between us, pretending to sleep but peering up at me, her hand on my arm. As I pulled out my book, she retrieved hers, crossed her legs resolutely, and pretended to read.

When the man and I run out of words he repeats my words, singing them over and over. “No se, no se, no se…” (I don’t know, I don’t know…) not to be cruel, but patronizing me nonetheless. I laugh. To this man, I am a child.

“Que es tu nombre?” We’ve been chattering away for 45-minutes and I’m surprised, we haven’t exchanged names.

“Kristina.” I say.

“KRISTINA!” he repeats, then sings my name “Kristina! Kristina!” He tells me he will be at the “meta” (finish line) on “Sabado” (saturday) and will be cheering for me. He holds his hand to his mouth and in a hushed cheer bellows “KRISTINA! KRISTINA! TE AMO KRISTINA!” (I love you Kristina!) He asks if I understand. “Si!” I chuckle. I understand, and laugh more and more. “Sesenta y tres kilometers,” he repeats again, aghast.

He jabs his finger to his chest, “Freddy!” he tells me.


In the airport, already I notice my newfound confidence in trying to interact in Spanish. Freddy accompanies me throughout the airport, exclaiming “no problem!” when I look apologetically at him.

On our way back to Los Llanos, he pulls off to show me an overlook of Santa Cruz. In Spanish he laments, “Why, why, why do we not drive all around the island and see the views? Why, Kristina?!” He tells me that I will run Saturday, and Sunday we will drive around the island. Then our conversation continues as he teaches me the days of the week in Spanish, then German. I realize this is one of the more interesting conversations I’ve ever had, and we don’t even speak the same language.

“SHshshshs…” he quiets me with his hand, then points past me as the car comes to a stop. An elderly lady on foot stops at the corner to place a string of flowers around a cross. She crosses herself slowly and turns to walk away. The moment of reverent silence passes and he continues driving slower. He begins to explain something about the two of us.

“TU y YO,” he says, jabbing his finger in my direction then to his chest,” “TU y YO, completa, no?!” He says, we have a full conversation, speak German, English, Spanish, he says.

He continues, calling me “guapa” in the mix, but I don’t understand. He says something about being old, and me being young. I laugh as he tries to explain. I still don’t understand.

When we arrive back at the apartment, he emphatically pushes me away from the trunk, not allowing me to touch my bag. “NO! Kristina, NO!” He exclaims. I consider times in my life when I’ve struggled to shoulder a heavy load at work, sometimes more than my body weight, while men would look on with disdain, doubtful I could manage my own load. I am very uncomfortable letting this man take my luggage for me. Most of my adult life I spent working towards physical independence, trying to prove myself relentlessly. But his machismo will not back down. Another lady working at the apartments looks on contently as he helps me. He introduces her cheerfully in German but I don’t understand. Then Francisco’s mother greets us happily, and I see Freddy is proud. I follow him sheepishly into the hotel and onto the elevator, he refuses to let go of the bag until we arrive at my room.

“Buena, Buena suerte!” he tells me, grabbing my head in his hands and planting a kiss on each of my cheeks. I feel his scruffy whiskers brush my cheeks and again I laugh.

“Muchas, muchas gracias!” I tell him, shaking his hand with both of mine, and the lady housekeepers in the hallway revere Freddy, pleased by his generous deed.

Inside, I am relieved and happy. Content. The beauty of the land is paralleled only by the kindness and respect of these gentle people. Finally, I feel tranquilo. I think of how Freddy will be cheering for me on race day. How he will be happy and excited for me to finish whether first or last. He knows nothing of the hours upon hours it takes to gain minutes on a course like Transvulcania. But somehow he makes me realize how wonderful it is just to participate and be here on this isla bonita (pretty island).

Later I look up the meaning of guapa, and Google Translate tells me: lovely. Again, Freddy makes me laugh.

Transvulcania 73.3k starts at 6am, Saturday May 8th in La Palma (11pm MST Friday, May 8th). Updates will be available on Twitter. Follow @Transvulcania and @iRunFar.


1 Comment

  1. Such a great post, I lived on the island for a few months and it is full of great characters like Freddy (although I never had the pleasure of meeting him). Many locals offered to drive me around the island too, it really is beautiful. Hope your race went well.


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