I’m about half a block away from the shop where I need to recharge my bus pass. Every step I get closer I’m going over in my head the Spanish vocab, conjugations and sentence structure.
With five meters to go my brain panics. Is it ‘puedo recarcar’ or ‘puedes recargar?’ Wait, do I need to conjugate the other word? Who’s the subject in this sentence? In that confusion I find myself outside the shop but, in the state I’m in, something fundamentally basic slips out of my head.
Shit, what’s Spanish for 10?
I walk on by, past the shop, and do another lap around the block, rehearsing a simple phrase and hoping that the guy behind the counter doesn’t ask a follow up question, to which the answer will be ‘yes’ (I don’t want to break character) and what I’ll get is not what I want.
I arrived in Colombia with quite a limited vocabulary. It only took a day in Bogota to realise that both of those words that were lurking in the back of my head from various family holidays wouldn’t get my far now that I wasn’t on Spain’s Costa del Sol. It’s not just for practical reasons, either. After almost a year back in the English speaking world, I realised just how important communication is to the travel experience. Luckily, this city caters for foreigners in my situation and on my third day I signed up to 4 weeks of Spanish class and found a place on Air BNB to call home.
Over the next four weeks, in between the hours spent staring conjugation tables, I’ve had more flashbacks to life in China than ever before. It seems that no matter what country you wind up in, no matter what differences in culture, there are some universal trends to the challenges that face you when you decide to call someplace home for a while, and that these challenges are always found within the mundane.
Starting life in a country that speaks a completely unfamiliar language is like being reborn, in the sense that the world around you is unbelievable confusing, you cant understand anything written on signs, and there’s no way to express yourself what you want; you’re reborn into a toddler except as an adult you have to internalise the tantrums and frustration of not getting your point across. When you’re in this situation, any task, especially the most average, unprofound daily task, like recharging a bus pass, becomes some Herculean feat, the challenge of the day. I have spent days putting off something just because I cannot be bothered or the anxiety of screwing it up and having to walk away. Overcoming the fear of mistakes is one of the biggest challenges of learning a language; as a bit of an introvert, I’d rather be given a grammar table to conjugate any day.
Over the last couple of weeks, the world around me has slowly started to be deciphered. Letters on the signs slowly become unscrambled and I pick up on the occasional phrase from people’s conversations on the street. Things slowly start making sense. Eavesdropping has become a great way to learn a language and learning a language has become a great excuse to eavesdrop. Confidence in a language slowly increases and I start thinking less before I open my mouth, and suddenly words are passing out that I never knew that I really knew. Mistakes happen, and I am starting to shrug them off instead of wanting to fall through the floorboards.
After a week without any credit on my phone and putting off what I think will be the inevitably awkward interaction I assumed topping up my account would be, I did it yesterday in the space of about 2 minutes without needing a block’s worth of rehearsals beforehand. Sure, I didn’t get exactly what I wanted, but when you turn up to a country speaking another language and you successfully complete the most boring daily interaction in the local lingo, even if you don’t entirely get what you were after, you feel like an absolute genius.
My lessons are coming to an end this week and I’ll be leaving having learnt a lot more about a language than just the set phrases you can repeat, like some drawstring doll, without really understanding how to put together a sentence. Alongside some semblance of competency in the local language, the road that heads south from Bogota seems like it goes on forever. Ushuaia seems a lifetime away and between here and there lies a hell of a lot of potential for some two-wheeled adventures.