Do you speak a language other than the one you grew up with? Did you learn it in school--maybe high school or college--or as an adult? Did you learn, or attempt to learn, another language in order to travel?
It's hard. No joke, it's really hard to learn a foreign language when you're not a child.
I often joke about my "shitty California public school education." But, one area of learning that was handled well when I was in high school--meaning, I was challenged, much was expected of me, therefor I stepped up--was my Spanish classes. My teacher was named Mrs. Sands, and should you pass her on the street, you would not assume she could speak Spanish fluently.
Mrs. Sands was kind of a hard-ass in her first-year Spanish class. She'd stride across the class room a short, somewhat round fireball of a woman, fluffing the back of her short, curly hair as she conjugated verbs, or asked a student what something meant. As one of her students, you didn't screw around, you didn't not do your homework, and you didn't fail to participate. She would not hesitate to call you out on that shit. If you did what she expected of you, she recognized it quietly.
If you didn't fail her class, or melt under her expectations, her second year of class lightened up a bit. She expected just as much, but she was quicker with her smiles, and even cracked jokes on occasion. Suddenly, you thought, "Hey, this Spanish stuff is kind of fun. And what the hell, I might actually use it one day, unlike, say trigonometry...."
Very few took a third year of class from her. The first two years satisfied a curriculum requirement, and most parents' expectations. But, the third year of class was basically a Spanish Lit. class. Reading literature and continuing with Spanish? Yes, please. Especially if I could take that instead of a fourth year of science classes....
So, here I am, twenty-five years after graduating from high school, and drawing on everything I can remember from those years. About a month before we left on this trip, I started Duolingo for a little bit every night, just to refresh the basics. Josh had started doing it a couple of months before that, and I whizzed past him in no time. I highly recommend this fun app.
So, let's talk about Josh. He took a French class ages ago. That's about it.
A couple of years before we were to leave on this trip, his parents bought him the Rosetta Stone Spanish learning kit. It is supposed to be the best, and the easiest, way to learn a foreign language. He tried, and I mean he tried hard. He'd spend an hour to an hour and a half, several times a week, sitting at the computer, head phones on, learning as best as he could.
But, just like not everyone is made to learn trigonometry, not everyone is made to learn languages. It just didn't sink in.
Now, here we are, on a trip to a whole bunch of different countries, all of which use Spanish as a common language. And only one of us speaks--and I'm using that term quite liberally--this language.
And the super shitty kicker--I don't want to talk to anyone because I'm an introvert! It's not that I don't like people, (although, sometimes I just don't like people...) it just takes a phenomenal amount of energy and a quick pep talk to my confidence to engage someone in a conversation when I don't know them. And other than Josh, I don't know anyone.
Also, I "learned" this language more than 25 years ago! I don't remember that much. I have very little confidence in my performance capabilities.
At the beginning of the trip, we would be riding somewhere in Mexico and Josh would see a word, or a whole sign full of words, and ask me what they meant. I pretty much knew anything like that. I mean, it's not that hard to figure shit out when you can take a moment to read it and put it in to context. One day he asked me what something meant and I told him, and he said, "Wow, you know a lot of words." The funny thing was that I had just been congratulating myself on things I remembered, that I hadn't thought of in so long. I knew so many words!
But, there were SO MANY MORE I didn't know, and conversations were a whole different matter. Thankfully, one thing I am really good at asking someone is to repeat what they said, but more slowly. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.
And then there is the situation where someone says something to me, I unsderstand and answer back, and that person thinks, "Oh good, she speaks Spanish!" And continues on at a rapid-fire speed. Then, I just stand there, eyes like a deer in the headlights, mouth slightly agape, mentally grabbing at any word that sounds familiar, and trying to make sense of what they're saying.
Sometimes, it's not so bad. At the Guatemala/Honduras border, a young man directed us where to park, asked a couple of questions, and directed us where to go, what to do, and in what order. He was very friendly and also asked a few questions about the trip. I sailed through that conversation with little trouble--smiling the whole time--then thanked him for speaking slowly enough for me to understand. He smiled hugely, then said that he also spoke clearly, unlike a lot of other people we would meet. He wasn't wrong.
There was that one time. At that one cigar factory.
So, this is how a lot of things go. Josh decides he wants to do something or go somewhere, gets things set up or gets us somewhere, then says, "Okay, go talk to that guy and ask him...."
All the time. This happens all the time.
But, more specifically, it happened when we were in southern Honduras. Josh emailed a guy he had met at a cigar convention, and said we would be in Danli, was there any chance we could get a tour. He said absolutely and put Josh in touch with Maritza who was then public face for that kind of thing, at that specific factory. She and Josh corresponded, and set up a date and time, and when that date and time came, we showed up that the factory gates.
Twenty minutes, 15 kilometers, and three sets of gates later, I walk up to a guard, explain why we're there, and am met with a long string of words of which I understood exactly zero. I explained that I know little Spanish, could he please repeat what he said, only more slowly. Then he did, and I still didn't understand a single word. But, this time I understood why didn't understand anything.
Oh gawd, that just about did me in. But, he was patient and kind, and I worked really hard, and we got it all figured out.
By the way, if you're wondering, Maritza had decided to go home an hour earlier than our scheduled appointment that day. The bitch stood us up, and I had to TAX THE SHIT out of my brain for nothing!
Aside from speaking really quickly or not clearly, there is one other thing that seriously trips me up. Every country has its own dialect. It's not too difficult, and people can usually understand what I say. It just sometimes takes me a bit to figure out what word I need to use when I ask for something, and they look at me like I have two heads.
Seriously. I get this look a lot...
Of course, I think, "I know what I said is correct! I just used that word for two weeks in the last place!"
Peru has been the worst. It's been so hard because Every. Effing. Word. Is different. So, once I get a conversation figured out with someone, I usually turn on a bright smile, tilt my head to the side, and say something like, "So, you used the word -----? In other countries they use -----. There are so many different words used in different places, I have to learn new ones all the time!"
And, I say all that in Spanish because I'm a badass.
So, if you're traveling this way, here are different words for different things--things we need a lot!
The first you should know, if you are traveling over land south of the United States (of Norteamerica, as they will tell you in South America) is...
SPEED BUMP. They are known as topes, tumulos, resaltos, muros, gibas, and who knows how many other words my iPad would like to autocorrect. Oh, of course, my most favorite: in Panama, I asked our cab driver what they were called there, and he answered "policía muerto." I laughed so hard, and then he told me they called the big ones "General Muerto." That made me laugh even harder, which just tickled him.
Anyway, why are these words important to know? How about driving/riding over more than 180 of them in ONE DAY? You might round a bend at 90 Km/h, and find a pueblo (poblada, ciudad), with speed bump after speed bump in your way, and nothing of warning they're coming, but a sign with that word on it. Also, if you're a non-Spanish speaker riding with a Spanish speaker, and trying to warn her one (or 14...) are coming up, you should learn to pronounce them correctly. Otherwise, you'll be likely to have a conversation like this.
Him: Slow down, tamale.
Her: shaking her head, slowing down.
Him: More tamales.
Her: STOP CALLING THEM TAMALES!!! They're *TUMULOS* not tamales! Tamales are warm and delicious and would squish if you rode over one. Tumulos are NONE of those things!
But seriously, I counted them one day as we rode. It was not a very long day of riding. In fact, it was fairly short mileage-wise, but I lost count at 183 that day. I do not hesitate to say we rode over more than 1000 topes in Mexico.
Here are a few more. I highly recommend the app SpanishDict, as you can type most of the below words in to figure out what they mean. You cannot necessarily type in the English word and get all the translations, but if you're confused about a Spanish word in front of you, it is a very comprehensive dictionary. Do not use the EnglishSpanish Translator app. It blows.
STORE: abarrote, tienda, pulpería, mercado, bodega,
RESTAURANT: lonchería, restaurante, comedor, fonda, soda, cafetería, parillada, parador, paradero
HOTEL: hotel, hostel, hostal, hospedaje, hostería, posada, alojamiento
PASS (as in passing a car on the road): pasar, rebasar, adelantar--these are good to know. There are often signs telling you where you are not allowed to pass another car. You know, like over a double yellow line directly in front of a cop... Also, please note that no one, in any of these countries, really pays attention to this rule.
PARKING (good to know when asking if a hospedaje has secure parking for your motorbike): estacionamiento, parqueo, cochera (though I'm pretty sure only Peru uses cochera, and it's just so they can make you feel stupid when you ask for parqueo)
These are just a few examples. There really are SO MANY WORDS. I used to get absolutely sick to my stomach when we were coming up to a military/police checkpoint, or on days when we had to do border crossings. Now, at three months and something like ten countries in, it's much less of a big deal. Having fun conversations with strangers, and sometimes other travelers, becomes a bit easier everyday. Each time I come away from one smiling, feeling a big boost to my confidence.
I think about Mrs. Sands just about everyday of this trip. She was pretty great--¡Genial!--and I'm grateful to her for making those classes fun.