What They Don’t Teach You In Spanish Lessons — Remote Encounters Diary, Part 1

My boyfriend and I were ready for something new in life, but what? How about a six-month bike tour from Patagonia to Peru? Wait a second, I can barely speak Spanish… what have I gotten myself into?

Our plan to tour South America by bicycle has become a reality! Our plane touched down in Argentina a week ago, and we’ve been on the road ever since. Just 4,700km to go! Maybe that sounds crazy, but once we had the inspiration to put our normal lives on hold and embark on an adventure, we couldn’t get the idea out of our heads. It took a year to save and prepare for the journey — plenty of time to plan the trip and start learning Spanish.

There was no doubt about it: I was seriously throwing myself in the deep end. I could only count to three in Spanish and had never taken a bike-trip longer than a weekend — whereas my boyfriend Jimmy has already spent a year of his life bicycle touring and knows some Spanish from school and spending time in Spain. I wasn’t about to let him change my flat tires AND speak for me, so I signed up for weekly Spanish lessons.

Recognizing the progress I was making was great motivation. It was fun to learn something new every day. It didn’t take long to get to a point where I could understand simple texts and write sentences, but, when I was put on the spot, I couldn’t string a sentence together! I was too scared to speak aloud and make mistakes! And I realized this just in time for our hasty departure. Oh great…

When we arrived in Argentina, I couldn’t understand a thing. Maybe it was the weeks of chaotic preparation, the two days of travel, jet lag or the shocking reality of pitching a tent in a new location every night. I don’t know because the first week was such a blur. Sure, I could read signs and newspaper headlines, but understanding Argentinians was a world apart from my Spanish teacher back home.

Thankfully, after a few days of fine tuning my ears, I began to recognize words I had learned amidst the indiscernible babble. I was beginning to follow Jimmy’s conversations with the people we met. It was really encouraging to realize that I was learning Spanish after all — I just had to learn how to listen.

Now, speaking was another story altogether! Whenever someone asked me a question, my immediate reaction would be to look to Jimmy. It’s not that I didn’t understand the question, but that I was afraid I’d jumble my words when I tried to respond.

I’ve not overcome this fear yet, but Jimmy is pushing me to speak more. He achieved his level of Spanish by not caring whether or not his sentences came out perfectly. He just gets on with it and communicates with whatever words he knows. I suppose there is no way around it. Speaking and reading/writing are completely different things, and if I want to learn to speak Spanish I will have to embrace the fact that everything is going to come out a bit jumbled and mixed up for a while!

Meeting Marcedonio was such a treat and couldn’t have come at a better time. We made a pit stop at his store on our way through a sparsely populated part of the Andes. Jimmy and I were immediately taken in by his big smile and shining eyes, and we knew that we wanted to get to know him better. In his presence, that initial fear of jumbling my words ran out the door. I relaxed, and we ended up having some great laughs together as he showed us how to bake bread. Looking back on that encounter, I’m surprised how well we understood each other (considering the level of my Spanish). By relying on gestures and body language to fill in the gaps — and by wanting to understand each other — Marcedonio and I had a proper conversation.

Communicating with body language is not something that you learn in Spanish lessons. Talking to Marcedonio made me realize how much it can help to get your point across. Plus, it’s really fun and makes people laugh.

Thanks Marcedonio!

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