“Get off the beaten track and experience the real deal!” the travel guide begins. “Tired of all the tourist-traps? Let One World Guidebook show you how to experience Peru like a native!” Then comes the inevitable list of five “funky”, “intense”, or “authentic” places — places that no other tourist would ever conceivably visit — except, of course, the 50,000 other tourists who have bought the same guide.
In essence, the entire idea of an “authentic” experience is ridiculous — who exactly is to judge one person’s experience as less real than anyone else’s? Why, then, are some of us not content to simply jump on the plane, swipe our credit card at the hotel, and eat at restaurants we recognize from home? It’s certainly more predictable. I think it’s the adventurer in us — the restless part that wants to get out into the world and truly develop a feel for life in a different place — that will not be satisfied by a pre-packaged experience, however “authentic” it purports to be. We smell a rat because we know it is being sold to others with the same reasons. Heeding this part of ourselves means a different kind of travel: more uncertain, but more rewarding. It requires effort, and is built on using your own inner resources to actively navigate whatever crazy situation the world has thrown you into.
Language is the first of these inner resources for travelers, a key that unlocks doors to worlds you could not have imagined. I began traveling through Central and South America with only a basic command of Spanish, and learned much of what I know through conversation (and watching telenovelas, but more about that next time). However basic, my knowledge of Spanish has made my trips more enjoyable, meaningful, and exciting. It has set me off into the unknown, whether that unknown is a new friendship, finding out about a good local bar, or — ideally — a ride into town on a tractor!
For example, a number of years ago a friend and I traveled to Bolivia to work on a documentary film. At the time, my Spanish was anemic, optimistically speaking. We were at the Sunday vegetable market in La Paz, Bolivia, and things were not looking good.
“My friend and I are working on a documentary film, do you think we could possibly please, if it’s no bother, film for 10 minutes?” I managed to say in my most polite Spanish to the papaya vendor. “1000 bolivianos,” the vendor replied distractedly (about $150, way out of our budget and much more than the going rate).
“Es un poco caro…” (It’s a little expensive) I began, then faltered as the woman shrugged and turned towards another customer. “Pero por favor…” I said a little louder — no dice. I stood there dumbly, lost amidst the cries of the children and the bustle of traffic, when I remembered a short phrase that a Bolivian friend had taught me before leaving. “If you get stuck negotiating,” she said, just try “rebajame pues” (which loosely translates as “cut me some slack”). What did I have to lose?
“Señora por favor, rebajame pues,” I began, waving my hand. Suddenly, I had the woman’s attention — and everyone else at the papaya stand for that matter. She broke into a grin.
“How does a gringo like you know a phrase like that? Only Bolivians say that.” I explained that I came from Rhode Island, which has a large Bolivian population. I bought a papaya and we spoke for another couple minutes about the city, about the weather, about life in the U.S. We paused, looking out onto the winding, impossibly steep streets of the city.
“So,” I said, sensing the moment. “What do you think about filming with some gringos for a couple minutes?”
“That depends,” she replied with that same grin, “on how many papayas you think you can eat.”
Thirty minutes later, we walked away with considerably more fruit than we wanted — it had cost us about $10 all told — and all of the market footage that we could dream of.
“¿Qué explosivos tienen?”
Years later I had a similar, if a little more hairy, experience while traveling through Ecuador. I had dallied too long at the street festival, and I was late for the last bus to the capital until 3 pm the following day. Scrambling through the maze of traffic and vendors, I arrived just in time to see my bus disappear, its taillights winking at me through an evil cloud of smoke. Stranded. Worse still, the few hotels in town were out of the question, filled up for the festival. Dazed by the prospect of spending the next 18 hours on the streets, I drifted back into the festival, full of dark thoughts and feeling highly sorry for myself. I landed at a small cafe and ordered a beer. Down the road someone was lighting off fireworks. Behind me, a small group of student-looking people were talking excitedly in Spanish, “When José gets back we should set some off ourselves.” Looking back on it, I attribute it to two things: my love of fireworks, and the fact that I had nothing better to do.
“¿Qué explosivos tienen?” I asked them, feigning indifference.
“Excuse me?” One of them asked, incredulously.
“What kind of fireworks do you have?” I repeated, unnerved by the response.
The expressions on their faces made it seem like they thought I was either a street preacher or insurance salesman. I made as convincing a gesture of lighting a firework as I could. Uncertain glances back and forth, then a look of realization, then broad smiles. A word to the wise: explosivos refers to something much, much more powerful than fireworks.
“You mean fireworks (fuegos artificiales)!” they said laughing, “I took you for some kind of cop. It was a little funny for a gringo to be asking for dynamite.”
By this point, however, my mistake had broken the ice and we were off to the races. When José finally came back they invited me up to their rooftop, where it turns out they did indeed have fireworks, and they were in fact planning to shoot them off. Amidst new friends and feeling increasingly inspired by the wine, I spent the night under the crazy Ecuadorian sky, which has more stars than heaven has windows, shooting off bottle rockets and listening to the brass band thundering off the walls. It was a euphoric experience — a mixture of giddiness and plain relief that I wasn’t on the streets. They insisted that I stay with them when they found out about my missed bus, and left me the next day with a hearty llama steak and bowl of quinoa soup.
These examples do not require a high degree of fluency or a love of danger. Even if your idea of an adventure is a conversation with the bus driver, learning another language will open up your world to that possibility. Language lets you slip into a foreign current, to encounter life in a different place from the inside out. Fortunately for those of us who are not fluent, language is not a zero-sum game; you don’t have to study Spanish for three years before you are “ready” to travel. Most bus drivers will not care if you mess up the subjunctive — they will be happy for the Spanish that you do speak, for the effort you have made and the opportunity it allows them. Certainly, someone who is fluent may get a better deal, but if you don’t speak the language at all, how can you expect to negotiate in the first place? Whether you are going for a short stay or planning a long trip, learn the language! Even for a short while! It will come back to you in more ways than you can bargain for.