A U.S passport is often associated with a monolingual, English speaking tourist, unashamed to visit a foreign country, not knowing a lick of the national language, while still expecting to be understood. This is likely due to English being the globally accepted language based on its preferred use in business, and as a widely taught second language in many countries. The idea of English being a global language has negative impacts on multiculturalism, and the linguistic complacency of native English speakers. This is one reason travel is so important.
Travelers are often seeking cultural understanding, adventure, and exploration of a new terrain. But all of these things are granted so much more meaning when you attach the experience of interaction with locals in a foreign language. For me, that language was Spanish. Learning Spanish broadened my experience throughout Central and South America. Landing in Mexico, over a year ago, was an adventure I could never have imagined.
As my travel of the Yucatan region progressed South, the language barrier became more of an issue. I was moving further away from the more touristic route, and having to depend more heavily on the extremely basic Spanish I’d learned, in addition to the minimal words I’d picked up in my three weeks. Luckily, I have a pretty good ear, and so with the help of body language, facial expressions, tone, and repetition, I began to understand a lot more than I had previously.
A run in at the Guatemalan border caused some anxiety as I wasn’t sure what the officer wanted or needed from me besides my passport. They rummaged through my belongings before stamping me through. I was left confused before I realized it was a routine, random stopping. That’s when I decided to officially enroll in language courses to further me along. I spent three months studying Spanish in Guatemala until I reached an Intermediate II level. At that point, I felt comfortable enough to start traveling again, and fully immersing myself in the Latin culture.
I stopped depending on my hostel mates to go out with and began heading out alone. I took day trips on public transportation, and booked excursions lead by Spanish speaking guides (to be honest, I didn’t understand 100% but it was a cheaper option and put me in a group with Spanish speaking travelers). I went out to bars alone and struck up as much conversation as I could muster with the bartenders. I began asking the locals about their favorite places to eat, and visit, and began creating my own guide based on their tips. After a total of five months in Guatemala–studying Spanish, and then roaming about locals–I felt confident in crossing another border.
This time, crossing the border was less nerve racking, as I was more confident in my ability to communicate. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to impress with my newly developed skills because the agent took one grumpy look at my gringa face, stamped my passport, and handed it back to me. I yelped a way-too-eager “gracias!” as he shooed me away. I’ve never held more mixed emotions than in that moment.
My first stop was the Copan ruins, where again I opted for a Spanish speaking guide. I participated in a small group with four others. Three from Mexico, and one from Argentina. I was familiar with the Mexican accent and was able to speak with these travelers about my previous experience in their country, but the Argentinian broke my confidence completely! Speaking with him felt as if I didn’t speak a word of Spanish, yet the Mexican travelers carried on conversation effortlessly. I felt like I was back at square one, so in an attempt merge this divide, I invited everyone out for beers that night.
Our guide pointed us to a German brewery not far from the ruins, so we took his advice and headed that way. We grabbed a table, and then I immediately focused in on the Argentinian. He spoke slowly and clearly so that I better understood his accent, but grammar was still odd and pronunciation made it almost impossible for me to understand some words. Through it all, we managed to laugh a bit, and eventually got some English going between the group since Spanish was once again giving me anxiety. We exchanged contact information and my new friend, Andres, invited me to stay at his home whenever I made it down to Argentina. He teased that he’d make sure all his friends used the most slang and Argentine pronunciation possible. We laughed, but I’m not sure he wasn’t actually serious.
Today I write from Chile, with my next stop being Argentina. Andres will host me for the first week, and then I’ll continue on my journey, but it will be nice to see a familiar face again. My travels have brought me unimaginable friendships, adventures, and growth in a number of ways. Throughout every country, I learned more Spanish and was sometimes perplexed by new accents and jargon from one border to the next. I was able to better understand the differences between each unique culture, and still relate it to the whole of Latin America.
I never expected to travel for this long, or this far out, but learning Spanish definitely encouraged me to continue. Developing this skill has been an adventure all its own, and I’m grateful to have begun this unending journey.