I’m sitting at the window of my apartment in Medellin, my eyeballs aching from the strain of staring at the computer screen. As the last bit of sunlight threatens to slip off my desk, I watch a youth soccer team, starting to gather on the sidewalk outside my window. Moms are dropping them off, securing massive water bottles to their little hands before driving away.
A vendor is pushing a cart full of avocados on the other side of the street, yelling “Aguacate!” in the booming repetition he performs past my window each and every evening. I heard his shouting for days before I finally caught a glimpse of his merchandise and understood what he was saying.
Before embarking on my trip to South America, I was frequently asked if I knew any Spanish.
I’d respond with the fact that I took three years of it in high school but hadn’t held on to much. I had hoped all those hours of classes would come flooding back to me as soon as I stepped foot on Espanol soil.
I was wrong. I can usually find some combination of words that loosely communicate what I need to say but all goes to Hell when I receive the rapid fire answer — my crumpled face immediately reading, “Hopeless Gringa!”
I’ve been in Medellin for almost a month and I’ve yet to sense my role in the scenes that play around me. I’m an onlooker, a one-woman audience to a culture that looks and sounds and smells just lovely, but of which I can’t truly experience because I don’t speak the language.
I live in an apartment building that is designed for international travelers. Its inhabitants are mostly long-term Medellin visitors — English teachers or retirees who more or less call the city home. Many of them are fluent in Spanish. So when we had a BBQ on our roof deck one Saturday night, I had the opportunity to meet Colombian friends of theirs and practice.
They were all wonderfully friendly, especially a couple who were taking a class taught by one of my roommates. They were excited to practice their English and focused hard on having a conversation with me. I offered them some Spanish responses to get a little practice myself — my words strung together in exhausting combinations of stops and starts and “come se dice?” ‘s. We all laughed at each other’s mistakes and for awhile, really enjoyed the challenge.
Then eventually, as the party wore on, I began to feel like a roadblock in an otherwise relaxed atmosphere Others had more to offer than elementary questions and answers. My new friends were done with their homework for the evening and although still impeccably sweet, I could sense their creeping resistance to chatting with the English speaker as other conversations grew livelier and more enticing.
Soccer practice is now well under way, as I’ve been switching back and forth between writing this and reading Kundera — two conversations that flow with a comfort I crave. The sun has gone down, and my laptop is aglow. I’ve switched from coffee to wine, and I’m considering the possibility of getting dressed and heading to the bustling tourist district of El Poblado — “Gringo central” as one roommate refers to it with a scoff. “Gringo Central” is usually made up of about 80% Spanish speaking Colombians, but it’s my best shot at a conversation with an English speaker so I’ve ignored the “tourist” stamp and made it my stomping ground with only the mildest bit of shame.
Its not the adventurous travel I’d like to brag about — sitting at a bar called “O’Connelly’s” by myself with giant Guinness signs lit up on the walls and not a Guinness drought in sight. But sometimes my soul just craves the abrasive bar talk of fellow ‘Mericans. Sometimes I need to use the words I want, not just the words I know.
It’s frustrating to feel a wall between myself and the culture I came here to experience, but I’m holding tight to the travel philosophy that favors obstacles over ease, in hopes that this challenge will serve to enhance my experience in the long run. I know that to truly understand more and more of Colombia, rather than become more and more reliant on the well-worn footprints of fellow travelers, I have to expand my narrative by shrinking the language barrier. Its simple — I need to improve my Spanish.
I’ve decided to forgo the Irish pub in Poblado tonight. My newest roommate and I are each at our laptops in the living room as I work on my writing and he wades through an online Spanish course. At some point, he asks me what a word means and I’m able to offer him the correct answer.
“Gracias,” he offers.
He’s given me the website he’s using to practice and I’m getting to work.
Have you traveled to a location where you didn’t know the language? Were you able to learn it? I’d love to hear your stories!