Upon my arrival in Chile, I was blown away by the beauty of the countryside. The Andes mountains sit majestic, hovering so close it feels that you could reach out and touch them. Our campsite, nestled into the Astorga family’s rafting resort and tourist paradise in the Maipo Valley, sits on the banks of the Maipo river. The Astorga family themselves have been incredibly generous and helpful, and I find myself wanting to say so many things to them, as well as ask so many questions. So I open my mouth and…… I freeze. Why? Because my Spanish is pathetic. Non-existant. “No hablas Espanol.”
As a French major in college, I have spent my fair share of time in foreign countries. I studied in France as an 18 year old college freshman, where I lived with a wonderful family that I still speak to today. They were hugely patient and instrumental in progressing my french speaking skills, to the point where I sometimes forgot, or was able to bypass the language barrier that existed between us.
Me and Pierre, my French host father
I spent part of my junior year in College in Cameroon, West Africa. A bi-lingual country, Cameroon speaks French and English, as well as more that 150 local languages. During my time there we learned not only French, but Fulbe (Fufulde), one of the more popularly spoken local languages in the north of the country. Of everything I learned, I can still say ” A yidi birgi na”. Losely translated, this means, I want peanuts. Terribly useful for the next time I find myself stranded with out peanuts in northern Cameroon, if nothing else.
cooking in my Cameroonian kitchen
After college, I lived in Uganda, where the majority of the people speak some form of english. Around the Bujagali Falls area, the river right side speaks Lusoga, the river left, Luganda, with a healthy dose of Swahili thrown in. During my time volunteering at the Soft Power Health Clinic, I ran around with questionnaires, asking locals if they slept under a mosquito net, how often the slept under a moquito net, and helped teach family planning to villagers through out the country. I say “helped” because I relied heavily on the many translators we had with us at the time. ” Osezotia Nyabo. Mwaybale Nyabo. Burungi.” While I had my meet and greet skills down, try learning to say : ” If you use a condom properly, it can help prevent pregnancy and AIDS.”
Teaching sex education in Uganda
Working with a translator is a challenge in itself. While teaching Family Planning, it was not unusual to say a short, simple phrase, then that then required a full 5 minute translation. One of the largest learning experiences I had was hearing the elaborate translation for the phrase “…and then the woman gets her period.” Culturally, this is not an idea that exists, nor is considered appropriate to talk about in public, forcing our translator to find creative euphemisms to effectively educate Ugandans on the science behind why women get pregnant.
In the 10 weeks I spent in Nepal, while English was very useful when in the larger cities, anywhere else, life became one elaborate game of charades. So, even though I knew I would be in Chile for the next 5 months, the fact that I spoke little to no spanish, lingered in the back of my mind, losing priority behind the hundreds of other small things I needed to accomplish before flying out.
Charades aside, I had forgotten how challenging not speaking even the most basic phrases can be. Being in Chile, and not being able to speak spanish leads to the feeling of being incredibly limited, isolated, and lost. Worse, I have found myself increasingly dependent on those in our group that do speak Spanish, relying on them to translate, or to order for me in restaurants, or explain when/if I happen to find myself in semi-sticky situations.
How can one fully experience the trials and tribulations of being in a new place, embrace a new environment, if you must constantly rely on someone else to speak your words? Watching the students progress their spanish in class with Carla, or experiment as they ask to purchase pants, sweets and souvenirs, reminded me how easy it can be to learn, if you only make the effort.
My goal: learn to speak (even the most basic) spanish that I will need to survive. My personal challenge: Find the courage to do so!
While in the Maipo valley, we are camping at the Cascadas de las Animas. It is truly a tourist paradise, and set up to accommodate large groups of Chileans on holiday. Our campsites are covered platforms, and we share the camping facilities, including the bathrooms. The bathrooms and showers are separate, one shower and one banos for each mujeres e hombros. The bathrooms here have also provided Chilean Cultural Revelation Numero Uno: Instead of flushing your used toilet paper down into the septic system, here at Cascada, they ask that you put all used toilet paper into bins next to the toilets, which will later be collected and burned. This means that instead of having a roll of toilet paper in each stall, there is only one roll, located next to the sinks, for all three stalls.
Banos - Bathrooms
After a busy weekend, our one roll of toilet paper was not replaced very quickly. With several ladies using the restrooms, this leads to a conundrum. After 2 days of no toilet paper, I went into survival mode, did some research, and thus, my first spanish sentence was spoken. ”necessito mas papel por el banos por favor.”
Ladies toilets. Can you see the single roll of toilet paper?
Grammatically, is this sentence correct? No. Was my pronunciation anywhere near the proper pronunciation? Absolutely not. Did they still understand me? YES! And by the end of dinner, we had more toilet paper in the bathrooms, allowing me to feel stupidly proud. All the more encouragement to continue starting not only to learn spanish, but to try and speak it.