Before I took this trip to Puerto Vallarta, I wondered how much time I would actually spend at the conference. Since I had not seen the program agenda in advance, it was not possible for me to pick out talks of interest I would want to attend. In fact, even when I attend a conference with few interesting scheduled topics, I typically just wander around and talk to colleagues about challenges we face in the pharmaceutical industry or catch up on each other’s families. With a conference program now in hand but completely in Spanish and with very few if anyone able to speak English; it appeared that neither could I attend the talks or converse with colleagues. In fact, I did not recognize a soul. I felt completely out of place, a foreigner with no way to communicate. It made me miss the ease of my frequent Amsterdam trips where it seems that everyone can speak both Dutch and English.
Figuring I had about a half day left to do some sight seeing, I checked on line to see what was close by—nothing it turned out.
So I decided to do the next best thing and walk down the street from the hotel to see what was close by.
The view of the mountains opposite the ocean was spectacular but as the time was approaching noon, it was already quite hot. Soon I came across a shopping mall and went in, not because I am an avid shopper but rather because it was air-conditioned inside. I browsed through some of the stores and was amazed at the prices until I later checked the exchange rate and found that a peso was about 1/20 of a dollar. So the blue jeans I saw priced at $795 were actually less than 40 US dollars, about the price I would normally pay.
I wandered through the mall for about 40 minutes but never once saw any sign in English or overheard anyone speaking English. Nothing caught my eye and soon I felt even more alone, almost invisible.
I decided to go back to my hotel and have lunch. Over lunch, I decided that since I didn’t have time for a tour and there was not much close by, I would just take advantage of the oceanfront resort I was staying at. Besides, it was already paid for.
In the afternoon, I put on my swim trunks and walked along the beach to get my feet wet in the Pacific. I figured I had never set foot in the Pacific Ocean in Mexican waters. Here was my chance.
It was nice to feel the warm waves lapping at my feet and the suction of the water retreating, at least until a rogue wave surprised me coming up almost to my waste and nearly knocking me down. Probably recognizing me as a dumb tourist, a local hurried down to me and tried to sell me some jewelry or ninja patches while I furiously tried to dry off my iPhone. At least I didn’t drop it.
I decided to relocate to a less hazardous place, the hotel pool. There was one lounge chair on a little island in the middle of the pool and here I enjoyed reading for a while and people watching. But seeing the wait staffs continuously bring drinks around made me thirsty for a beer and so I decided to go have a seat at the pool bar, another pleasure I had never had.
All in all it was a very nice way to spend the afternoon and that evening had another nice dinner at one of the hotel’s other four restaurants.
The next morning, I had a great view as I ate my breakfast. When it was time for the conference to begin, I went to the hall I was supposed to speak in but did not see the moderator for my session. After sitting through just a few minutes of Spanish, I decided to go back to my room until it got closer time to my talk.
My 1-hour presentation was scheduled for 12:15 in a session that lasted from 10:45 to 1:15. The first presentation was on Analytical Method Transfer, a topic we include in our course, and so even though the talk was in Spanish, I could follow along. Then the same speaker started a second presentation on Technology transfer of the manufacturing process. When she had the participants work on a task in small groups, the moderator of that session came over and explained things to me. She was the first person I had spoken to in two days that I could really understand. It comforted me somewhat before my talk.
The speaker actually ran over her time, which given that we started the session 10 minutes late was not surprising. Then the person moderating my session came up and said we were taking a 15-minute break. Must have been impromptu since it was not on the schedule but it gave us a chance to talk. The room basically cleared out.
I explained I would only be speaking in English and hoped it would be understood. Her expression did not convince me that it would but offered to translate any questions for me.
When I turned around, I found the room filling back up. Whether or not they could understand me, I was going to be speaking to a group of 50 or 60, the largest I had seen in any session.
I started off by saying buenos días and following their same response, added muchas gracias. I then explained that that was my extent of the Spanish language and launched into my talk in English.
It went great and I had some very good questions at the end, which told me they had understood my talk. Also, throughout the talk, people were taking photos of my slides with their phones, which told me the topic was of relevance to them. I received two rounds of applause when I finished and was given a very nice copy of their book of traditional herbal medicines, dating from 1552, which their organization had republished, also in Spanish.
I spoke to my moderator after the talk and graciously thanked her for the invitation to come. Although the person who had originally asked me to come could not attend, I asked my moderator to thank her as well.
As we said our goodbyes, I realized that the time before, during and after my talk was the most English conversation I had had over the previous three days. In spite of being an introvert, there were several times when I missed having a dialogue with a fellow English speaker. This felt good and seemed a good way to close my trip. I felt less alone but ready for my return home.
After lunch, I spent my afternoon relaxing on the beach while a cabana boy brought me beers. My trip home the next day was by contrast, uneventful and in fact pleasant as I was upgraded on two of my three flights, the two longest ones.
When I reflected back over my short 4-day trip, 2 days of which were just travel days, I realized this was definitely a different kind of trip. Although it had the look of many pharmaceutical conferences I had been to before, it wasn’t like any other since I did not know a single person in attendance and could not even speak their language to interact.
There were a number of young college and university students in attendance at the conference who were studying to enter the pharmaceutical industry and many of them attended my talk. I can only hope that my brief interaction with them will help them after they graduate and embark on their careers. I guess that will be a true measure of whether or not it was worth it for the Congress to pay my expenses to participate. I guess I will find that out one day if we meet again in my three-day course on this topic, where we will have a much more lengthy discussion—in English! Only time will tell.