While brushing my teeth a week before we went to El Salvador, a filling broke off a back tooth. I won’t pretend it was the brushing that did it, as it was more likely the JuJuBes candy I had eaten a day or two before. Though I wasn’t happy, we had planned on going to a dentist in El Salvador anyway, so at least it was good timing.
The original plan had been to go to a dentist in Carlos’s neighborhood, but after all the drama that happened the first day, we decided we would have to find a different dentist somewhere else in San Salvador.
That may seem like an inconvenience but the good thing about El Salvador is that whatever you need, a random stranger will have connections to get it for you. In this case, our favorite taxi driver’s son turned out to be a dentist. He was too busy to schedule us in, but he referred us to a colleague of his.
So we went to the office that was recommended by the son of our taxi driver. The office we went to was clean and modern. Of course, clean and modern are very important when choosing a dentist. We knew it would cost a little more than maybe some other offices in El Salvador, but this is one thing you really don’t want to get the best deal on, ya sabes.
The receptionist, dental hygienist, and the dentist himself, were all very nice. The first day they only cleaned our teeth and said we should come back another day due to excessive bleeding and the need for the swelling to go down in our gums. This sounded very logical and professional, so although I wanted to get it all done, I was pleased that this guy definitely knew what he was doing. Two days later we would have to return a second time to have my filling repaired, take care of a new small cavity I didn’t even know I had – and as it turned out, Carlos had a broken crown which was very close to becoming a root canal which he needed fixed too.
After our first appointment, the dentist actually closed up shop and gave us a ride back to our hotel. How’s that for full service?
The second appointment was a little less fun and a little more painful – but nothing out of the ordinary. Towards the end of my time in the dental chair, I was feeling pretty proud of myself.
I went to a dentist appointment in El Salvador! I said to myself. I understood everything and the dentist understood me! I learned new words like “Enjuaguese” for “Rinse” and “Relleno” for “Filling” … I’m so clever! I smiled to myself as the dentist finished brushing some terrible tasting “flúor” (flouride) on my teeth and then started to walk away. My mouth was full of saliva but he hadn’t told me “Enjuaguese.” I wanted to spit it out! This stuff was nasty, it seemed like a dangerous idea to swallow it and I was ready to drool on myself.
“Doctor!” I managed to get out.
He turned and looked at me expectantly.
“Puedo… puedo…” My mind went blank.
The dentist cocked his head and waited patiently.
I pointed a finger from my mouth to the little sink.
“Puedo…” Argh! What was the word for spit?!
The dentist looked amused and perplexed, as he took off his gloves and smiled at me. Obviously he didn’t speak Spanglish.
Carlos sat in a chair in the next room through an open doorway. I called to him for help but by now I was definitely drooling.
“CARLOS!” I gurgled, “How you say spit?”
“Um… Tirar saliva?”
Maybe “tirar saliva” was perfectly fine to use, but my mind translated it literally to “throw saliva” and it seemed too rude and reckless so I rejected it immediately.
“No – that’s weird! I want a real verb!”
The dentist looked back forth between us.
“Escupir?” Carlos said.
“YES! Escupir! Doctor, puedo escupir?”
The dentist smiled kindly and said “No” – explaining that I needed to be patient and try to hang in there for a few more minutes. All that panic and drooling on my shirt for nothing. I closed my mouth full of spit until he gave me the okay.
After Carlos’s cleaning I went downstairs to wait with the boys in the other waiting room. While I waited, I noticed that several people who seemed to be friends of the receptionist, came in and sat down. I figured they were just waiting for her to get off work so they could go out together but lost interest in figuring it out when Carlos came downstairs.
We went to the counter to pay. For two cleanings, fluoride for both, one filling replaced, one new cavity filled, and one crown replaced, our total was less than $300.
I said something like “Wow! It would have been more than a thousand in the United States” and Carlos gave me ‘the look’ which means I said something I shouldn’t have. “Do you want them to charge us double next time?” he whispered.
So, we paid, called our ride to come pick us up, and went to wait outside the clinic because from what we understood, we were the last appointment of the day and we didn’t want to hold up the staff if they wanted to close up and go home.
We waited under the narrow awning as it rained but our ride didn’t arrive right away. The receptionist kept opening the door and begging us to come back in and wait comfortably inside. We turned her down twice. The third time, the dentist himself insisted we come back in and “enjoy the movie.”
As we followed him back into the clinic, I whispered to Carlos, “Did he say movie?”
Back in the waiting room, the office staff and friends of the receptionist had rearranged the chairs movie theater-style to face a TV in the corner of the room. We obediently sat down and waited as the dentist started the DVD and sat down to watch with us.
The boys kept looking at me but I avoided eye contact precisely because I knew they wanted to laugh and that they would make me laugh. It isn’t every day you get to watch a movie in the dentist’s office.
The movie was called, “Bosco: La historia de mi secuestro.” It seemed to be a documentary about a real life kidnapping that took place – in other words – very serious subject matter – Which is why I was horrified when I realized Carlos and the boys were shaking silently with laughter, trying to hold it in. Carlos literally had a hand clapped over our younger son’s mouth to keep him quiet. They weren’t laughing at the film, but at the fact that we were watching a movie at the dentist’s office. It was all very surreal and I wanted to laugh too. I needed to get out of there, because if Carlos was laughing, I definitely wasn’t going to be able to hold it in much longer. Thankfully I saw our ride pull up outside just in time and we excused ourselves.
On our ride back to the hotel I smiled at the irony of the situation. Here I had been lamenting the loss of a day at a dentist’s office – disappointed that we would be losing time in which we could have been experiencing something more uniquely Salvadoran. As it turns out, doing the most mundane tasks in El Salvador is always educational and culturally authentic – even going to the dentist.