Thursday, June 30, 2011

On Speaking Spanish

Jason has been doing a spectacular job with his Spanish on this trip. He learned Spanish while he was on an extended trip in Guatemala a few years ago (a trip that has also proven immensely useful for this trip in his knowing how to navigate things like transportation and Lonely Planet guidebooks), and he's retained enough of it to be able to converse with a cab driver about Inca monuments, the Latino populations in the US, and the driver's son who went to Colorado last year. There is the occasional "Oui, si, si," which I love, since I'm constantly defaulting here to either French or Russian, but overall we've had a much easier time getting around thanks to him despite his frustrated "Jeez! Why can't everyone just speak French?!" exclamation a few days ago.

This is, of course, in contrast to my own Spanish skills, which come from one half-credit of Spanish for Teachers I took two years ago and whatever I picked up from Sesame Street.

I can actually understand about 70% of what's being said, but I'm just not there yet to respond outside of the very basic "Si" or "Non, gracias". Jason keeps catching me talking to myself, reading signs out loud and repeating phrases under my breath as I try to get the sound of Spanish into my mouth. Despite studying so many different languages and traveling in so many different places, I'm still held back by the fear of making too many mistakes, of not getting the accent right, and of just not being as good as Jason. Which is ridiculous of me, since I know very well that a) just diving in and talking is how you learn and b) the vast majority of people in this world are patient and kind when someone at least tries to speak their language.

Over our incredibly slow breakfast before going to Machu Picchu we sat across from an older couple. The man was quite friendly and struck up a conversation almost immediately after we sat down. He is from Peru but now lives in Florida; and he and his wife had come back to visit Machu Picchu. Jason asked if they had hiked up there or taken the bus. "Oh, the bus," the man replied, "Me, I would have loved to hike but my wife..." he trailed off, indicating his wife who shook her head emphatically and said, "No, no hiking for me."

It was the only thing she said in the entire conversation. She listened and smiled and nodded her head and obviously understood what we were talking about, but she was obviously just as shy about her English as I am with my Spanish. Which, combined with the husband's restricted yearning to climb that mountain made me turn to Jason after the other couple left and say, "It's another version of us!"

We laughed about it, and even found another parallel couple at Machu Picchu. We hired a guide to take us on a two-hour tour of the site, joining up with a young couple from India, Yessica and Sujoy, to get a cheaper per person rate. As Ciro showed us the sites and the best places for photos, Yessica and Jason would unhesitatingly go out on the edge of the rocks to look down at the 8000 foot drop while Sujoy and I stayed as far away from the edge as possible, keeping near constant contact with the rock wall behind us to make sure it was still there, we were still stable.

At one point Ciro hopped up on a rock to tell us about... something. I honestly can't remember what he was talking about because all I could think was "The edge! The edge! Your foot is right there, your shoe is a millimeter over! A breeze could knock you off! For Pete's sake, get away from the edge!" Which is why I was so relieved when Sujoy interrupted Ciro mid-sentence to say desperately, "Please, please step back." He did, chuckling, and I could suddenly pay attention to what he was saying again, as, I'm sure, could Sujoy.

I can't help it. Heights like that terrify me - If there isn't a solid wall or at least a railing of some kind between me and the drop-off, I look over the edge and the whole world tilts and I have to look away and grab onto something solid until the dizziness passes. Between that and my absolute lack of athleticism, I knew I was holding Jason back. So when we got to the other side of the site and Ciro pointed out the ticket gate for the trail up Waynu Picchu, I knew there would be a gleam in Jason's eyes before I even looked at him. Ciro called over to one of the guards, and the guard reported that there were still some passes left (they only allow 400 people per day on the trail). Ciro passed the news on to us, then resumed talking about the types of animals the Incas domesticated.

I kept watching Jason while Ciro talked, and I could tell that this time it was Jason who couldn't hear a word Ciro was saying. He was positively twitching at the thought of doing that hike. Finally, when Ciro paused for a moment, Jason jumped in and announced that he was going to go on the hike.

"You are?" Ciro looked pleased, Yessica looked jealous, and Sujoy looked mystified.

"Yup!' Jason announced, already backing away from the group and towards the gate.

"Are you going?" Sujoy asked me.

"Nope," I said cheerfully. Jason and I quickly negotiated the return meeting point and time and he bid the group good-bye. As we left the area, Ciro asked me anxiously, "He will be okay? He has his Machu Picchu ticket?"

"Oh, he's fine," I said. "No worries."

"And you two will go off alone like this?" Sujoy asked, incredulous.

"Sure, why not?" I replied.

We continued the tour through the residences and the Temple of the Condor. Ciro wrapped up the tour on a ledge between the terraces and the temple, giving me a big hug (we had bonded over my iPhone, but that's another story). Yessica asked for one last picture and she handed her camera to Ciro and beckoned me to join them.

"Oh, me too?" I asked.

"Of course!" Sujoy exclaimed, putting his arm around my waist when I joined them.

After they left I people-watched for a while, eavesdropping on different tour groups in different languages, then walked through some of the places we hadn't visited on the tour, exploring empty rooms and corridors. I got back to our rendezvous point just before 1:00 and had barely pulled out my phone to send some pictures out when Jason came through the gate, pink-cheeked and beaming.

"You're early!" I exclaimed, since the hike was supposed to take two hours.

"Yup!" he said, "30 minutes up, 30 minutes to look around, 30 minutes back!"

He told me all about the hike - the practically vertical climb, the tunnel you had to crawl through on your stomach, the view from the top. As we walked back towards the Temple of the Sun and I recapped the rest of Ciro's tour for him, we ran into Sujoy and Yessica. lounging on a terrace.

"How was the hike?" they asked, and as Jason told them about his speed and the type of climbing required, Sujoy remarked, "Wow, you must be in really great shape!"

I told Jason later about their comments when he took off, Yessica's thinly-veiled longing to go with him and Sujoy's relief to not have to. Jason laughed and said that maybe we should pair off differently, that Sujoy and me and Yessica and him would make more sense.

I laughed too. It probably would make more sense that way. But then again, without Jason as a traveling companion I wouldn't have hiked up the Ollantaytambo ruins or seen the view and the awesome rocks at Sacsaywaman today or ridden in a collectivo or even attempted to negotiate in Spanish with cab drivers and guides for good deals. So while my accent may be horrible and my hiking may be slow, I am going to keep trying, and I am certainly not going to be so afraid of what I can't do that I won't let my amazingly patient friend run up a mountain when he can.

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