I am on a flight to the island of Santa Cruz on the Galapagos archipelago, and somehow I’ve landed a seat wedged in amongst a lively group of school kids at the back of the plane. Their teacher throws me an apologetic smile before returning to her itinerary in an earnest attempt to ignore flying objects and playful punches. And in amongst the excitement and chaos and chatter I can’t help but smile to myself. Why? Because I can understand a good chunk of what these hyperites are saying. (Oh, and the fact that I am winging my way to one of the world’s most awesome places for nature and wildlife. It’s definitely another good reason for my optimistic mood).
The desire to speak and understand Spanish had been a big decider in my choice to travel in South America. Back in September 2011 I landed in Ecuador and gave Spanish a good go, but realistically it was a half-hearted effort that all too often resulted in a Spanglish language mish-mash coloured with a splash of German and Dutch and Hebrew.
I got by, don’t get me wrong, but during this second trip to South America I wanted to immerse myself further in the language and culture of the place and not the language and culture of my fellow travellers (as interesting as it might be).
After my visit to Brazil (with its added confusion of Brazilian Portuguese), I had decided to head back into Spanish-speaking South America, roughing it out for over twenty-eight hours on two buses through Paraguay into Bolivia.
It had been over three months since I’d spoken Spanish yet once I arrived into Asunción in Paraguay I was easily able to sort out tickets and taxis and day stays in a hostel whilst the two English girls in tow stood tongue-tied.
I could suddenly speak Spanish! It came flooding back to me with renewed energy and confidence. Could I really have improved? People understood me! Oh happy day!
Because being able to speak the language, I’ve found, enables one to connect better with locals, to feel closer to a country, to understand its nuances a little better.
For example during the day-long bus journey into Bolivia, I chatted away with the guy who had taken my window seat. I found out he was Colombian with four kids aged between four and twenty-six. Through body language and Spanish we talked on and off for hours about religion and family and everything in between.
In Pucara I found myself eating lunch with a family from Santa Cruz discussing Bolivian and European politics and economies. I understood pretty much everything. Sure, their language was probably dumbed down in order to give me a chance, and of course I couldn’t babble away in too much detail and depth, but it was a conversation nonetheless. In Spanish!
When I returned to Ecuador in April 2012, I taxied to a hostel in Guyaquil. ‘Your Spanish is good’, noted the driver. We chatted away. And once at the hostel I went through the whole check-in question and answer process in easy Spanish. ‘Your Spanish is good’, they complimented. I glowed. It was a day for ego-boosts.
But, for the amount of time I’ve spent in South America I really should be a lot better. I didn’t do daily homework like the good girl I wanted to be. I hung out with other travellers and spoke English far more than I ever intended.
And I got over my shyness and embarked on conversations a lot too late.
But shoulda-woulda-coulda. I partially achieved my South America goal to have a conversation in Spanish. So long as it’s not too in-depth, tick. I can get by.
Not that I’ll stop now, oh no.
So here I am, on my way to Galapagos with only a week or so to go before I leave South America once again, and I’m starting to think of ways to keep my language dreams alive. Anyone want to be my Spanish speaking buddy when I’m back in Australia? Weekly food and chatter at mine, no English allowed. Bon appetit. Oh no. I mean buen provercho. Si.