Mind Your Language – Bolivia

Mind Your Language

As meetings go, this one was pretty crucial. Easter week, Latin America and lunch with my Bolivian girlfriend’s mother – a potential future mother-in-law no less.

Fortunately I’d been brushing up on my language skills since my return to Bolivia. When I first arrived here, I knew little but a few essential phrases: ‘two beers, please’; ‘where are the toilets’ and ‘please don’t mug me, I’m a British citizen’ – that kinda thing.

But I put myself through a language school during my first month and, after four hours of intensive Spanish tuition each morning, I was soon conjugating verbs in the subjunctive and discussing the finer points of Senor Mesa’s legislative plans for sale of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves. It was, if I say so myself, fast-track progress from learning the names of animals in the zoo.

I’d learnt the hard way, though, that language and travel are not mutually exclusive. We like to think English is the lingua franca of international travel, which all nations should grasp. When they don’t, we simply talk in a louder and more patronising fashion as if to hammer home our crass arrogance. But try explaining that to a bus driver in Montevideo when he has a 14-hour bus journey ahead of him, a brace of live pigs for passengers and a gringo who doesn’t know the Spanish for ‘ticket’.

Spending time in Asia I soon realised that a few words of the local lingo can really get you a long way. Just learning to count from one to ten in Vietnamese meant that, while other backpackers were reaching for dollar bills to pay Hanoi’s legion of greenback-extracting xe om drivers, I was negotiating prices at local rates (that’s 5,000 dong a ride, since you ask).

The trickiest place was China, where I resorted to getting people to write down in kanji the name of the next place I wanted to go to, so as to present the taxi diver with a piece of paper that read ‘please take me here.’ Fine, until you want to go somewhere off the tourist map.

It’s not just at a practical level, however, that a sprinkling of language skills can save your butt in a crisis, or ensure you get an extra serving of wasabi at dinner. Making the effort to communicate in another language truly adds to your travel experience – people open up to you more, you understand more of what happens around you and you get to enjoy the impunity of swearing like a Marseilles docker without it ever really sounding that rude.

Back at lunch in La Paz, we were tucking into a couple of llama steaks, knocking back the cervezas and chatting – en espanol – as if the language barrier had never existed.

“I think it went well,” I said, after mami had left us alone for coffee.

“Yes,” agreed my other half. “Apart, that is, from when you tried describing the size of the Easter egg you’d just bought me.”

Seems my grasp of colloquial latino Spanish wasn’t quite as hot as I’d thought.

“I think mami was a little surprised,” she said, “when you told her you had exceptionally large testicles.”

For more of David’s stories, visit Intrepid Travel online.

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