When I finished university I immediately boarded a plane to South America. The plan was to fly into Argentina in June, and fly back from Ecuador in December.
As I sat on the plane I had no idea what to expect. I had studied Spanish… a little. After 18 hours and a thorough interrogation halfway at US border control, I arrived bleary eyed at Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires…
And realised I knew nothing.
“You’ll be met at the airport,” I was told by the travel company. I looked around at the congregation of taxi drivers holding name cards. Mine wasn’t there.
Other people around me were embracing friends and family, exchanging sharp excited “holas!” I felt decidedly alone.
I put my bags down in a corner and rustled through my paperwork, eventually locating the emergency phone number I had been given. I switched my phone on, and nothing happened. No service, no bars.
I glanced over at the public pay phones where people were excitedly talking in rapid-fire Spanish, hands flying. I had no Argentinian pesos, and no real willingness to decode the instructions on the telephone.
I wanted to sleep, not problem-solve. “No tengo las ganas,” I complained in my head. It was one of the few phrases I had memorised, and roughly translates as ‘I don’t have the gusto’. I still love the word ganas; we don’t really have an equivalent word in English.
I puffed out my chest, and summoned the courage to approach one of the taxi companies. The man behind the desk spoke no English, but I gave him the address I had been given. “Cincuenta dolares,” he told me with a smile. “Okay,” I said, recognising the number. Get me out of here.
As I sat in the taxi we passed through the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Billboards at the side of the road advertised different political candidates. The outsides of some buildings were painted blue and yellow; the colours of the Boca Juniors football team. Clothes hung from anywhere and everywhere.
I was welcomed by Gustavo, my host for the next two weeks. Gustavo worked from home as a music teacher, and spoke a little English. His living room contained at least a thousand books, cassettes and records. While I slept he made us some empanadas; small pastries filled with meat and onions. I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful.
The next day I started language school in the centre of Buenos Aires. Gustavo lived in a suburb called Caballito, which I later learned was pronounced ‘Cabashito’. I had to board the metro to the Cinco de Mayo stop.
When you arrive in a new country where you don’t speak the language, everything is an ordeal. Gustavo had told me to ask for “diez viajes” – ten journeys. At the moment it came to buy my tickets, the word ‘viajes’ evaporated from my brain. I stood at the counter gawping for a few moments, while people queued up behind me.
At Caballito the train wouldn’t be too busy. By a few stops down the line, you were rammed in like sardines. Many people clutched a gourd of Yerba Mate, which they would sip through a metal bombilla and top up from a plastic thermos. A few had face masks on – this was the time of the SARS epidemic.
I fell off the train at Cinco de Mayo, and emerged onto the street. I tried to remember Gustavo’s instructions. Where the hell was I supposed to go? I was already slightly late. I hate being late.
After wandering around for ten minutes, I plucked up the courage to ask for directions. I lodged the question in my head, and stopped a man in a suit. He understood the question okay, and responded in Spanish, pointing. The trouble with asking for directions in Spanish was I had to ask three times as many people, because I only understood one third of the responses.
The guy I had stopped walked with me for a few blocks, and continued to question me. “De que pais?” he asked.
I stared back at him, dumbfounded. ‘De que pais… I should know what that means,’ I thought, hesitating. It was the first of about a thousand times I would be asked where I was from over the next six months.
Things didn’t get easier once I made it to language school. I was put in the bottom class, with two other students. Our teacher was a patient young lady, who would only speak to us in English as an absolute last resort.
Each day we would study grammar for two hours, followed by ‘conversation’ for two hours. Which a lot of the time meant fumbling for words you had been told, but couldn’t recall. After class we would go for lunch, which meant no let up. You had to carry on speaking Spanish.
When I tell people about my South America trip, I often hear “oh wow, that must have been life changing.” And it was life changing, but really because of the never-ending struggle to get around and be understood.
Suddenly nothing was straightforward; whether that was catching the metro or going to the laundrette.
I went with the learned belief that I wasn’t a ‘language person’. I quickly realised that I could learn a language with sufficient practice and motivation to do so.
There are all sorts of segues I could use with this story, for example being understood; or speaking your customer’s language. For me the key lesson was that learning the fundamentals of grammar really, really helped.
I did four weeks of language class in total, and it propped up the rest of my trip. Travelling alone means you HAVE to talk to people all the time, however introverted you feel, whether you like it or not.
I’ve since reflected that nothing forces you to grow as a person more than independent travel. More on this next week.