I was really excited about getting to spend five months speaking Spanish. I knew I wouldn’t become fluent, but I hoped that I’d at least get comfortable being conversational in Spanish.
By the middle of my trip, I could easily survive without English, though definitely because Chileans would slow down and speak clearly with me. By the end of the trip I had to ask people to slow down because after hearing my Spanish, they assumed I was near-fluent, and would start talking faster than I could follow.
Along the way, there were a few ‘challenging’ conversations. Note that a few of these have already appeared in my other blogs so don’t get precious if you’ve already read them.
1. One of us does not speak Spanish
I had arrived, full of jet lag, in the Santiago youth hostel I was staying at for my first night in South America. I was sitting in the open air lobby, and needed to figure out if I was going to eat in the hostel that night out of convenience.
There was a guy sitting in the chair next to me in the lobby, and I thought I should be bold and start using my Spanish whenever possible. So, I turned to him and asked (in Spanish), “Have you eaten the food here?”
He looked over at me, clearly confused and not understanding. I realised I might have chosen someone who didn’t speak Spanish amongst the many internationals staying in the hostel! I asked him, “Hablas español?” He smiled and said, with a quite friendly but sarcastic tone, “Siiiiiiii.” He was clearly a native speaker. Whatever had first come out of my mouth did not sound anything like Spanish to him. Disaster.
I tried again with a simpler sentence (“Is the food at this hostel good?”) and he understood, and answered in a slightly unhelpful fashion.
Clearly, I had some work to do.
2. My Spanish personality
A Dutch friend I used to work with once talked about how her personality in English is very different than her personality in Dutch. She’s much more comfortable in Dutch, so she’s more daring with humour and in general slightly more bold.
Half way through my trip, I realised that I think my Spanish personality is, well, kind of a jerk.
I had done two tours with Tierra del Fuego Adventuras, and both were bad. As the end of the second tour wrapped up, the tour guide was coming to each person on the bus and talking to them. She approached me and, in Spanish, wanted to make sure I had all my questions answered, and then asked me if I wanted to come to a Tango dance class that evening. Given that would be the least likely activity I’d want to do, I said in Spanish, trying to be funny, “I would prefer to put a knife in my eye.”
However, in making sure I got the words and the verb tense correct, the expression on my face was one of intense concentration and apparently not one of innocent humour.
The tour guide paled, abruptly turned away from me and moved to the next passenger.
3. Spreading LGBTQI* love in South America
I had been in South America for about a month when I had the chance to summit Volcan / Cerro Toco in the Atacama desert. At the top, we were congratulating each other, and getting to know each other a little better. Our guide asked me if I was married. I told him the same thing I’d been telling everyone:
“No, pero tengo dos ex-maridos.”
Translation: No, I’m not married, but I have two ex-wives. I’d say it with a smile on my face, and laugh a bit.
Our guide looked at me quizzically, the same expression most people had given me over the last month. I had concluded that being that open about divorce isn’t common in the heavily Catholic South America. Our guide asked (in Spanish), “Men?”
“No, no,” I said (in Spanish). “Both women.”
He laughed, and informed me that I’d been telling everyone I had two ex-husbands. Ex-exposas would be the correct term.
Ooops. But, hopefully I am spreading a little open mindedness and LGBTQI* love as I go throughout South America.
4. Please don’t molest me
I checked into my hotel in La Serena, along the Northern beaches of Chile. By this point I was operating 100% in Spanish and did not like speaking English unless it was an emergency.
The Spanish of the person behind the desk was not formal Spanish, and I struggled to understand him, but managed to get through the check-in, until the very end. I thought he was explaining something about a door, and that there was something behind the door that I should not bother in my room. I didn’t really understand, but it sounded important, so I asked him to repeat it more slowly. He did, though he still blurred words together, shortened several to slang, and his accent really confused me. I shook my head.
There was another couple next to me checking in, and the man turned to me and said, “There is a sign you can put on the door if you don’t want to be molested.”
Now, molestar is the Spanish verb for to bother, so it’s a natural mistake to make. But it made me giggle.
First, who tells you about that sign on check-in? That’s not usually part of the check-in ritual. It’s like getting instructions on how to operate the faucet or brush your teeth.
Second, I supposed if I wanted to be molested, I’d better leave that sign off the door.
I looked at the group of three desk clerks behind the counter and the couple who had helped me, and I said (in Spanish), “Ah, of course. Just like every other hotel in the world.” Dead silence. Uncomfortable looks, as if I had offended the entire group.The desk clerk showed me to my room and made a special point of showing me the sign: “No molesta”.
A friend does have a theory that all of this is because, in the previous town, I had answered the door in my boxers and the cleaning woman seemed a little put off by that. Maybe she had broadcast my photo to all hotels in Santiago telling people to be on the lookout for someone who needed to learn how to use the anti-molestation sign?
5. Happy New Ano
I arrived in Chaiten on Christmas Eve. I often get saddle sores cycling, and usually they go away after a day or two, but here I’m riding every day, and they’ve been getting slowly worse. The main concern is if they get infected, then you’re in serious trouble. So I stopped by a tiny market-store. It looks like the inside of a shack, and food is pilled in wood and cardboard boxes. Fruits, vegetables, packets of cookies, laundry detergent. It looks more like a garage sale than a store (which is pretty common in South America).
On a lark, I ask if they have antibiotic cream (in Spanish), and the man behind the counter hollers into the back. A morbidly obese woman emerges, holding a tube of just what I need. She asks me what it’s for. In my limited Spanish medical vocabulary, I explain that “I have some pain in my skin from the my bicycle seat, and this can help.”
She nods and asks, “Is the pain in your anus?”
Now, I happen to know the word for anus (ano) in Spanish, because if you don’t use the ‘tilde’ mark on año, you go from asking someone how old they are (“How many years do you have?”) to asking them how many butt-holes they have (common answer: one). I’ve always felt that the introductory Spanish text should be renamed from Churros y Chocolate to Años y Anos. The publishers have not responded to my suggestions.
She goes on to tell me that if then pain is in my anus, I need to go see a doctor. At this point, I am fighting two different emotions: The first is pure shock, that the woman selling me antibiotic cream out of the back of the shack-market is doling out relatively sensitive medical advice (with the rest of her family listening in). The second is hysteria, where I am worried I will explode into gut wrenching laughter at this conversation and risk losing the difficult-to-acquire salve.
I compose myself, and in my best Spanish accent, say, “No, it’s not in my anus. It’s on the skin,” and I point to the side of my hip (no where near the sore, but I figured I should stay as far away from her area of concern as possible).
After the transaction, she invited me to a dance party at her house that night, for Christmas Eve. I politely explained that I was so tired from the ride today that I could barely walk, much less dance. A part of me (no, not that part) will always regret not going. I will save any possible dancing for Año Nuevo (New Year, not a new you-know-what).
6. A Wild Gringo and a Tired Marriage
I went kayaking around Los Catedrales de Marmol (Marble Cathedrals), an incredible formation of marble that the wind and water have eroded.
The couple who went with me were great, helping me a ton with my Spanish. They were on their honeymoon and driving along the Carretera Austral. We talked about climate change, about the devastating impacts of palm oil, about the amazing forests of Torres del Paine, and a lot of much less serious topics.
As I learned that they were on their honeymoon, I said ‘Congratulations on your marriage!” – and they informed me that I had congratulated them on being tired (casado y cansado are very similar) instead of being married. We all agreed that they two words were closely related…
During the kayaking, I warned them that they might spot a Gringo in the water, and a very dangerous one from Alaska by way of Australia. They nicknamed me “Wild Gringo,” or Gringo Salvaje, in Spanish, and kept shrieking in fear any time they noticed the “Wild Gringo” and his kayak approaching.
7. The language of coloured lines
While it is more about customs than language, I had serious trouble with the lines that divide lanes in Chile. In most countries I have been in, a while line separates lanes all going the same direction, and a yellow line, solid or dotted, separates lines of traffic going in the opposite direction.
Not so in Chile. Whether in an effort to save on paint colours or not wanting to include a national colour of Columbia, all the lines in many places in Chile are white. This caused two issues for me:
In several cities, I ended up in an urban area, driving on the wrong side of the road, waving and smiling to people as the swerved out of the way until I could find a way to get back into the correct lane of traffic.
On highways, I would never quite trust that I could be in the second lane. Maybe this was a four lane highway. Maybe it was a two lane highway. How could I tell?
I think the Chileans use one line versus two (two is divided traffic, one is unidirectional) but often the paint is old and I wasn’t going to trust being on the wrong side at 120kph. Of course, being on the wrong side in a crowded city, that’s totally cool. Especially because I was friendly and waved.
8. La Reina
The title of my favourite Pablo Neruda poem, “La Reina”, means “The Queen.” When I arrived at what I thought was a concert in the town of Vicuña, the title on the projected display said, “Coronation de La Reina 2019.”
I asked the older gentlemen what this meant – i.e. who was this queen that we were going to crown? Maybe the woman who carried on the tradition of poetry in the area of Gabriela Mistral’s birth and upbringing? Maybe a descendant of the royal family from the indigenous people from pre-Spanish times?
The gentleman looked at me and said, nervously, “The Queen of Vicuña.” I said, yes, that I understood that, but what significance did this queen have? Symbolic? Line-item veto of local council resolutions? The ability to enforce or remove the death penalty?
He looked at me without comprehension, as if I was asking why a cow produces beef.
A few moments later, a beauty pageant began. It was not a concert, the whole thing was a beauty pageant, and I had been asking about the jurisdiction and significance of the 19 year old bikini-contest winner’s authority.
9. Golden Berries are grown somewhere
In a local market in Cusco, Peru, I had seen a woman selling golden berries (“Aguaymanto” in Spanish) during a walking tour, so I told her I would see her the next day to buy some. I returned as promised, and asked for a half-kilo of them. She was in her 60s at least, and from her stool leaned over to pick up a set of berries with her hand and weigh them on her scale. As she was weighing them, out of curiosity I asked, “What part of Peru are these from?”
She replied, “They are grown in Peru.”
My Spanish must not have come across correctly, so I said, “Yes, from Peru. Put what part of Peru?”
She looked at me and said, rather gruffly and impatiently, “PERU.”
I had resolved on this trip to not give up when either I didn’t understand or the other person didn’t understand. So, I said, in a slower cadence, and as clear as possible, “I’m sorry, I wanted to know what part, what zone, what area of Peru these are grown in.”
She looked at me and said, even more frustrated, “I just buy these.”
So, I guess she understood me the first time.
10. Old What?
This final story is not about Spanish, but about Quechua, the language that was spoken by the Incas and is still spoken as a first language by a large number of Peruvians. In Peru, at the very end of the journey along the Inca Trail, our guide informed us that the pronunciation of Machu Picchu is tricky because the “cc” in Picchu is actually different from the standard Spanish approach to the letters in the word.
There is a sound in the middle of Picchu that is more like a ‘t’, so that the correct pronunciation is more like “Machu Pictchu”. This means “Old Mountain” in Quechua.
And that if you pronounce it as “Mah-choo Pee-choo”, you are saying something else. You are saying, “Old dick.”
So, over the past week, we had told our porters:
“I am excited about seeing Machu Picchu.”
“Thanks for carrying our gear to Machu Picchu.”
“I can’t wait until I am on top of Machu Picchu.” (Okay, maybe I made this one up.)
And so much more. All with the wrong pronunciation.