So we’re currently most of the way through a 5 week stay in Sucre, Bolivia, doing our level headed best to nut out Español. We’ve been wandering through South America for over two and a half months now, and my lack of Spanish is giving me a firm rogering. English speakers are, by and large, lazy fuckers. And we are because we can be. Between Europeans, North Americans, Kiwis and Aussies, the backpacker set is almost entirely made up of fluent English speakers. If you don’t have to bother, why would you?
But Aussies are bigger lingual xenophobes than most. We come from a country that is as Anglo-Saxon as they come. To hear another language in Adelaide you need to step particularly hard on an old Greek fella’s foot. We have to fly 5+ hours to get out of our country and to somewhere that isn’t English speaking, and even then we end up on a beach where the locals are speaking our slang trying to flog off disco biscuits. I did 10 years of German in school, and I came out the other end with the ability to sing a mint rendition of Happy Birthday and count to 8, because my teenage, Australian, dickwit head thought ‘when the hell am I going to speak German?’.
So all this left me in a bit of a pickle when I realised I loved travel, and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. I’ve learnt the hard way that cookie means ‘small penis’ in Hungarian, and, as it turns out, slut is just Swedish for ‘end’. I have wild stabs at restaurant menus then die a little inside when it comes out as a boiled duck’s scrotum or some such. I’ve put sugar in my dinner and salt in my dessert, glue on my Johnson and lube on my decoupage. Pre-Google Translate something as simple as asking for some sweet toilet relief could turn into a 5 minute game of quite literally shitty charades.
Early on in this trip I thought the best way to tackle the language barrier was to say English words in the local accent. I guess my thought process was ‘if I say it the way they’d say it, maybe they’ll understand’. Then Siz quickly pointed out the ‘Vote For Pedro’ Mexican accent I was using sounded RACIST AS HELL. I then had a period in which I threw in a word from any language if the English word wasn’t understood. ‘Look at that dog-hund-PERRO’ I’d say to a Korean. FUN FACT: The sympathetic look people give Tourette’s sufferers is disconcerting.
It’s not to say that being locally illiterate is all bad. I feel like when you’re in a non-English speaking country your ability to read body language comes along in leaps and bounds. It’s presumably similar to being deaf – the loss of one sense aids another. And there are certain types who seem to really liven up when they have a speechless foreigner on their hands. I was once stuck in a little Spanish speaking town and wandered into a seedy bar. It was just me and two locals behind the counter. I didn’t speak Spanish, they didn’t speak English, but with the help of a couple of beers and some power-ballad karaoke, I had 8 hours of the deepest mime conversation I think anyone has ever had.
We’ve found the beer/language bell curve to be yuck close to the beer/pool playing bell curve. Zero beers is your talent base camp. SURE, you get by, but you’re not relaxed enough to play your A-game. Four beers in and you’ve hit the summit. You’re playing at your peak, loosened up enough to go for your shots without worrying about missing. Eight beers down and you’re rolling down the other side of the hill covered in your own body fluids.
As a very general rule, people are nice. If someone sees you trying your darndest to speak their language, however shittily, they’ll be more patient and kind with you. Our local veg lady here in Sucre even takes some time out of her day to go around her stall each visit and teach us some sweet new food names. And it’s with that sitting in the back of my mind that I find myself here, in the guts of South America, with less Spanish under my belt than would get me through an episode of Dora the Explorer, ready to learn or linguistically die trying.
Like Year 3 sports day, I’m just gunna try my best. I may never be fluent, I may only ever be able to ask how the weather is, but I’ll try. Culture is language. Language is culture. And to go without one is to go without the other. Travel should be more than following tourist trails and taking pretty pictures. If I can get the story of the people from the mouths of the people, I’ll get a far richer slice of the experience cake.