"Spanish words, Spanish, Spanish?" That’s basically how one of the interns interpreted the typical conversation we had on the way to Peru and several times during the trip. I’m no stranger to being in places where I don’t speak the language.
I’ve lived in Korea, visited Cambodia, Greece, and Turkey, all with little or no knowledge of the language. I learned Korean while I was there. I didn’t spend that long in Cambodia, Greece, or Turkey, so besides learning ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ I never really got much chance to learn.
In Peru, though, it was like my brain was an awesome Spanish sponge. On the airplane and the first day or so I felt like I was hearing for the first time. Nothing made any sense. It was overwhelming. My brain fried and sizzled, overloaded with trying to compute. Then, all of a sudden, I could tell where words started and ended. It wasn’t just a random jumble of sounds. I could hear the intonation and guess at the intention. My teeny, tiny knowledge of Spanish kicked in. I could start using the basic grammar I’d tried to learn and I could put two and two together to figure out the English equivalents. Catacumbas and catacombs? No problem! Autobus and bus? Easy!
And, finally, the words I didn’t know became easier to learn. I picked up some here and some there. Our Peruvian coworker usually spoke English to us, but as the weeks wore on, we could understand a lot of what she said to us when she slipped into Spanish.
Now, if I can continue to practice, maybe next time I won’t feel so lost!
I love international flights. Well, actually, I’ve almost only every flown internationally, but still. It’s excited to know that you will land in a new place and see new things. You find yourself surrounded by a plane full of people from who knows where, speaking languages that you don’t understand, all on their own journeys.
The flight in is almost like a way to psych yourself up. It’s a liminal stage, where you have already left home but are still encased in a protective bubble. That is, unless you are flying on a Latin American airline, apparently.
Usually on international flights all of the announcements that I’ve heard have been bilingual. English, Korea, Chinese, Portuguese, French, Japanese, Greek. I guess the difference this time was that I wasn’t that identifiable as a non-Spanish speaker. I’m pale, but there are pale Latinos and Spaniards are European. You never can tell.
What that meant was that I didn’t get a lot of English. Even when I looked confused, it took some people a moment to realize it was a language barrier. The announcements in the airports and on the planes were in Spanish and then English, but the English was (at times) absent or so heavy that it was hard to understand.
It was a great way to get ready for a trip to a place where you don’t speak, being surrounded by the language in a place where most of the staff are bilingual. I just had to get over the awkward feeling of, I don’t know, inadequacy that I felt whenever someone talked to me and I couldn’t respond. On the way back, I had learned enough Spanish that I could figure out their questions and respond…”agua” ”pollo” “gracias” “si” “no”
I need to learn some more Spanish before I go back down.
If you’ve been reading my posts, you’ve probably noticed that I like to post a ‘word of the post’ at the bottom of the page.
I’ve done Korean in Korea, Chinese in China, and Khmer in Cambodia. I’m not sure what I’ll do now, but I guess I’ll have to figure out something…
Whenever you visit a new place, you get grouped in with the tourists. Not only might you not no directions, but you don’t even know the language or the local customs. But, there are a few things that worked for me in Cambodia to get more of a local look.
Many people want to go on vacation and feel relaxed and comfortable. Not me. I want to have my limited pushed, learn new things, and grow. I can go to a sit on a beach or eat American food at home. You need to travel with an open mind, and who knows what you’ll find.
One of the first things is to talk to the locals. I made friends with my tuk tuk driver and met a couple more drivers along the way. Working with tourists, they spoke English well and were eager to practice. A couple times I ate dinner with them instead of going back to the hostel and eating with the rest of the travelers. I learned a lot from them about Cambodia, and answered their questions about America and Korea.
You have to be open. When I went out to eat with them I asked them to suggest good food. I didn’t care about going to the best American or Korean or Chinese food. I didn’t care about making sure I got back to the hostel to go drinking with the other tourists. I wanted some good Khmer food. And every time, we went into a restaurant with no foreigners. Maybe it was luck of the draw, but my guess is that the real best Khmer food was there in the places that hadn’t tried to adapt to attract outsiders. I got a few strange looks, but it was more of something to remember than if I had gone to the Mexican place down the street for food and margaritas.
Learning a few words of the language helps. In Cambodia most people know a decent amount of English, especially the ones who work with foreigners in tourism, transportation, or trying to sell things at the temples. Even though they understand us, I like to meet them partway. There was no way I could learn Khmer in a week, but I could learn to count. I could learn hello, thank you, and goodbye. Plus food names. People are more likely to open up to you if you try to adapt. (And on top of that, I really enjoy languages. Which is probably obvious…)
I guess one thing that’s easy for me is to just sort of go with the flow. I didn’t know the culture, so I followed their lead. I let them show me how things were done instead of just doing it the way I did at home. At first I was quiet and let my new Cambodian friends take control. Once I’d learned a bit, I could follow some of their etiquette without a problem.
I’ve seen the people who come and vist without learning anything about the local culture. Maybe next I’ll say something about my two classes of tourists.
Korean word of the post:내국인 (nae-guk-in) a local
Chinese word of the post: 本地人 (ben3 di4 ren2) a local
Khmer word of the post: រជ្ជវាសី (raccea’viesey) a local