Neither Zach or I had ever studied Spanish before embarking on this adventure. Our language learning journey has definitely been quite a process. I started studying before we left the United States, using the awesome book Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish (thanks Alex!). So I knew basic grammar and a lot of vocabulary before leaving, and Zach knew a little bit less. Despite our preparation though, studying a language is always so different from actually speaking it. In the first country we went to, Colombia, we struggled because everyone speaks SO FAST. We could say our basic phrases and understand signs and things, but understanding anyone was nearly impossible without asking them multiple times to slooooooow down.
While Couchsurfing in Medellin, our host spoke perfect English but no one else in his family did. His sweet mother cooked us delicious meals every day but then told us adamantly “You must study Spanish!” We spent a lot of time with notebook in hand, questioning our host and writing down new words and phrases.
We studied and studied and studied in Colombia. And we talked to a lot of people. Our week of WWOOFing with a family that spoke zero English helped immensely. But still, there were lots of frustrating moments. Not being able to understand or make ourselves understood, having people look at us like we’re really dumb, and feeling constantly impatient with the slow-seeming pace of progress were all daily facts of life.
And then came Ecuador. As soon as we crossed the border we were amazed. “People here speak slower!” we exclaimed in jubilation. We understood people much better in Ecuador. We went to a Spanish-English language exchange in Otavalo and realized that we were just as good, if not better, than some people who had been taking the weeks-long Spanish classes we couldn’t afford. Still, this didn’t mean we had it made. We tried to keep studying independently. A few weeks later in Montañita, we sat in hammocks and shot the breeze with the friendly campground owner for a few minutes. We were starting to be able to hold slightly-more-intellectual conversations. Zach felt this conversation was a huge milestone for him. “That’s the first time I’ve sat through a conversation and understood everything being talked about!” he said.
The problem is, that with progress comes complacency. Once we got the point of being able to function in basic necessary conversation (in hostels, restaurants, bus stations, all those essential travel topics), the urge to study decreased. After all, we still spent most of our time with each other, speaking English. We kind of started slacking. Plus, we couldn’t find another volunteer opportunity since we had to rush through Perú to make our Inca Trail departure. All of a sudden, everybody spoke English. Our Couchsurfing hosts, hostel owners, new friends. Stepping into Loki Hostel in Cuzco, you would never know you’re in Perú. EVERYONE there spoke English. Hardly anyone else in our Inca Trail group spoke a word of Spanish. It didn’t exactly encourage us to improve. We kept trying to study our book and our millions of flashcards, but we didn’t really have much opportunity to really practice for over a month. I was worried. I wanted to become near-fluent by the end of this trip but at this rate, there was no way that was going to happen. I felt discouraged and like my Spanish level was stagnating and never going to improve. I kept trying to study but due to our recent fast pace of travel, it was hard to find opportunities for meaningful conversation.
And then…BOOM! One night last week in Coroico, Bolivia, we were sitting on an outdoor bench enjoying a delicious bottle of Bolivian Vino Tinto. A couple young Bolivian guys sat down nearby, playing music from a small set of speakers and mixing themselves Cuba Libres. And what else would happen in the laid-back, slightly boring town of Coroico in the early evening? The guys started talking to us, the “obviously-foreign-so-they-must-be-interesting” people. They wanted to know what we thought of Bolivian music and started playing us a bunch of different types. We talked about where we were from and what we did for work. We found out one of them had lived in Cuba for seven years so we grilled him with questions, since we really want to go. We asked them how they felt about Evo Morales, the controversial Bolivian president. One of them said “We don’t want to talk politics, we want to teach you how to dance!” Then the other one said, “But wait, just three minutes, I’ll give you my opinion,” and launched off on a big political diatribe. Before we knew it, two hours had gone by. And we had been speaking ONLY IN SPANISH. Communicating and understanding. And we had made friends! And they told us that we were good at Spanish, to which of course we said, “No, no, we’re really not! But we’re trying.”
It was exactly the confidence-booster that I needed. I thought I wasn’t getting any better, but I guess I just hadn’t been tested. We still have a long way to go. It’s a process. But I’m finally starting to realize that we’ve only been in South America for 3 1/2 months. And the conversation that we had in Coroico, that’s something to be proud of.