Someone once said, “Spanish is the language of the angels.” Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s
not. Either way it doesn’t change the fact that I had a devil of a time learning it! Even now, after
successful completion of the State Department’s language training program and three years
living in Quito, Ecuador, I still have trouble with verb tenses.

However, as I love to talk and hate being silenced by the fear of messing up some
complicated configuration of a word, I figured out a workaround. What I do is politely explain
my Spanish is horrible, beg forgiveness, and preface whatever I have to say with either, “En el
futoro” (in the future) or “En el passado” ( in the past) and continue in the present tense. It may
make an angel or two cringe, but even my Spanish teacher said, “Whatever works! You’ll be
fine. Just keep speaking Spanish.”

My adventure in Spanish began the day I saw a couple standing on the curb at Pentagon
South Parking in Arlington, Virginia. Bill and I had taken half a day of family leave to attend a
school function and returned to work after a rare, leisurely lunch. In the pre-9/11 era, I could
pull up to the curb closest to the entrance to Bill’s office in Test and Evaluation at the Pentagon.
I looked to my right, blinked, and snapped one of those moment-in-time photos you can still
see in HD years later.

The couple stood by themselves side-by-side in a disoriented daze. The man, perfect in
posture and handsome in the dress blues of a naval officer, held a cardboard box with a
philodendron, plaque, and coffee mug visible among its contents. She, lovely in a blue suit with
pink scarf and glittering broach, held a bouquet and a mylar balloon with “Happy Retirement”
written on it that bumped against her head.

Bill pulled his brief case from the floor of the passenger seat grazed my cheek with a kiss
and walked toward the entrance. As I eased from the curb to begin my trek across the 14 th
Street Bridge and the rest of my day administratively assisting the VP of investments at Dean
Witter Reynolds, I caught sight of the couple in my side view mirror with “Objects in mirror are
closer than they appear” captioned below them.

“And just like that—it’s over.”
After dinner that night I had the opportunity to ask Bill if he’d given any thought to what his
final tour of duty would be.
“A bit,” he said.
“Me too, especially after talking with another wife whose husband was a naval attaché
in South America. Do you know anything about how those positions are filled?”
“Why? What are you thinking?”
“Well, since you didn’t make admiral and the chances are slim to none that you will now,
I was thinking about how it might be fun to go out blazing instead of with a stilted round
of applause and a piece of cake.
“What do you mean?”
“After all the fabulous changes of command you’ve had during your career, I think your
final change of command to civilian life should be more exciting and dramatic than a simple
“Thank you from an admiral we’ll probably never see again followed by a solo walk to the car.”
“Don’t worry. It will be nicer than that. I’ll have a retirement ceremony at the Naval
Academy with my classmates.”
“That’ll be nice. But what about exploring a tour as an attaché as your final hoorah
instead of staying at the Pentagon?”
“That’s something to think about. I’ll let you know what I can find out about it.”

A couple of weeks later, Bill asked me what I thought about living in Ecuador, and
shortly after that, the wheels began turning. We both enrolled in classes at the Defense
Intelligence College. That is where I learned attaches are overt, not covert, information
collectors in foreign countries. Pop the James Bond bubble and attend “fork and knife” school
so I’d know what to do with a fish knife and where to place it in a table setting.

Then, the language training began, along with a physical that revealed a “growth” in my
abdomen. The “growth” was removed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in
Bethesda, Maryland, and I resumed language training at the State Department in Washington,
DC, with a row of metal staples still holding my inners together.

My post-surgical classes were a disaster and when I asked the nurse if I could nap in her
office during lunch, and she said, “No. I have to keep the bed ready for emergencies.” She
didn’t budge, even when I told her this was an emergency, at least for me. I wandered around
until I found an empty classroom with a clean carpet to rest my aching body.

It never occurred to me that every classroom had a camera. When the nurse informed
my instructor about my request, he dismissed me from class and told me I could attend
immersion training in Guatemala with my husband once I felt better.

Antigua, Guatemala, was a dream come true. We moved into Dona Alicia’s home and, under her care, attended day-long classes in Spanish with private tutors. Ben and Susan, an American missionary couple who also stayed with Dona Alicia, ate dinner with us every night. It was such a relief to speak English after a long day of nothing but Spanish. That was until the night Bill put his foot down. 

“Penny. You’re here to learn Spanish. Speaking English at dinner is not helping either you or Susan. I don’t want you speaking English anymore at dinner.”

“What?” Susan said. “Penny can’t talk to me anymore?”

“Not in English,” her husband said. 

“But that’s not fair.”

“You heard what Bill said, Susan, and we have to honor his wishes for his wife.” 

The two men had hatched this apparent conspiracy, and I was not a happy camper. 

I spoke not a word in either language and turned my back on Bill in the teenincy twin bed we shared.

That went on for several miserable nights with limited, pouting Spanish at dinner and nothing at bedtime. Then, one brilliant morning, I awoke to birds cooing outside our window. A large flock of stunning white doves perched in a nearby tree, and the sight of them thrilled me into telling Bill, in naturally spoken, perfect Spanish. “Mira Guillermo, palomas blancas!” I was over the hump.

I’m still not good at verb tenses, but no one sells me rotten tomatoes at the market, and I can hold my own at a wedding. I actually do better after a glass or two of champagne. Bill and I were sent to Quito, Ecuador, to represent the United States Navy and spent three memorable years there. 

Our sendoff was a week-long celebration complete with everything but a mylar balloon. 

One of my favorite meals at Dona Alicia’s was a bowl of delicious Hilachas, a traditional Guatemalan dish that is also enjoyed in Ecuador. This flavorful beef stew, simmered with potatoes and carrots in a velvety tomato-based sauce, took hours to prepare according to Dona Alicia’s recipe. However, it’s easy to make in an Instant Pot or slow cooker.

Easy Hilachas de Guatemala (Beef Stew)


  • 1 lb. of boneless beef:  flank steak, brisket, or chuck.
  • 3 medium white potatoes peeled and cut in large chunks
  • 4 medium carrots – peeled and cut in large chunks
  • 1 teaspoon Beef flavor Better Than Bouillion
  • 2 Cloves garlic
  • 1 Cup water
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Optional – A dash of cayenne red pepper if you want a bit of spiciness  

On the side: Sour cream and hot sauce

For The Recado (Sauce):

  • 10 peeled Tomatoes 
  • 2 Red bell peppers
  • 10 peeled and rinsed Tomatillos with stems removed cut in half. 
  • 2 Onions
  • 4 Garlic cloves
  • ½ teaspoon of sugar


  1. Place the beef in an instant pot with water, two garlic cloves, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook for 90 minutes at high pressure and when pressure is released remove to a plate to cool.
  2. Save one cup of the stew’s water. 
  3. Shred the beef into strips using a pair of forks. The meat will be tender enough to fall apart. 

Make The Recado (Sauce):

  1. While the meat is cooking, in a large pot, pour enough water to cover the tomatoes, tomatillos red peppers, onion, and two garlic cloves. Add the sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and cook until soft. 
  2. Put everything in a blender. Blend until smooth (it should look like a thin sauce), adding a little of the stew water. 
  3. Return the Recado (sauce) to the same large pot and check the seasoning. Add the optional dash of cayenne red pepper here for spiciness. 
  4. Add the shredded beef, potatoes, carrots and beef Better Than Bouillon to the Recado sauce. Cook on low heat for about 10 to 15 minutes. Check the potatoes and carrots for doneness – don’t overcook them.

Ladle the Hilachas into bowls and serve with white rice and corn tortillas.
Put sour cream and hot sauce on the side.
A fresh green salad with vinaigrette dressing goes well with this dish.

Click the link below to watch a video about Hilachas

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