The Gringo Fail


Baños - not a toilet

Of all the things I expect to happen when I ask for a bus ticket, the ticket attendant collapsing in a mock suicide is not one of them. While I stood there utterly bewildered, nervously glancing from side to side while trying to work our what the hell is going on, the previously stricken girl behind the counter has now stopped pretending to stab herself in the stomach and is now rolling around in fits of laughter. Eventually, and we’re talking some time here, it transpires that my pronunciation when asking for a ticket to the Peruvian city of Trujillo sounded more like ‘chuchillo’ which is Spanish for ‘knife’, and well, absolute hilarity ensued as you can see.

Welcome to another day in the precarious world of Spanish speaking Latin America, where almost an entire continent (except for Brazil, those difficult gits) speak one language in a ridiculous amount of dialects, and several thousand tourists pass through on the Gringo Trail pretending to have a clue of what everyone is saying. With a Spanish education gained from Manuel in Fawlty Towers, several weeks of Beginners Spanish classes prior to our departure, and a phrase book containing such useful gems as ‘Soy más joven de lo que parezco’ (I’m younger than I look), it’s safe to say our first few months here have been an eye opener. What follows is not a guide on the complexities of Spanish grammar or their use of the formal and informal, the masculine and feminine and god knows what else, and nor is it a guide on how to S-P-E-A-K  V-E-R-Y  S-L-O-W-L-Y  A-N-D  L-O-U-D-L-Y in English while pointing. This is more on how to make the best of your limited Spanish and basically, how to wing it. Vamos.

1. Pronunciation

I’d been warned about this before coming out here by a friend back home, that South Americans are a stickler for pronunciation. He had told me of the time he’d got on a bus close to Iguazu Falls, one of the worlds largest and most famous waterfalls and pretty much the only reason you’d be in the area, and asked for a ticket to “Cascadas de Iguazu”. A blank stare was his response. Waterfall gestures followed, while trying every possible connotation – “Iguazu! Agua, Agua, Cascadas!” – all with the same, baffled lack of response. Eventually, an impatient local got up, leant toward the bus driver and said “IguaSu”. “Aaah, IguaSu! Si, Señor!” You get my point?

Time and time again we’ve encountered the same across the continent – stagger out of a hostel under the weight of all your bags and ask a taxi driver to take you to the ‘Bus Terminal’? You’re going nowhere, pal. Amend it slightly to the ‘Boos Terminal’, and off we go. As well as a rolling of the ‘R’s’, which I’m physically unable to do, the key seems to be in the vowels. ‘A’ is ‘ah’, ‘E’ is ‘eh’ like in ‘bed’, ‘I’ is confusingly ‘ee’, ‘O’ drops into a shortened ‘or’ and ‘U’ becomes ‘oo’. Confusing? It is.


Cuenca - careful how you pronounce it

2. Know what you’re saying

While there’s often a certain amount of guesswork in learning or speaking a new language, it also pays to actually know what you’re saying. Take Baños for example. Having spent the last few months asking for ‘el Baños’ when we needed a wee, we were a bit confused about this magical Ecuadorian town that everyone was saying we had to visit, which was also called Baños, literally translating as ‘toilets’. After a few weeks of making this joke to people who’d then look at us like we were absolute idiots (which in hindsight was quite accurate), it was while we were sat in the steaming natural thermal baths that Baños is famous for that it clicked – it probably actually means ‘bath’ or ‘bathrooms’, doesn’t it?

There are other words too – don’t assume that you’re ’embarazada’ if you’re embarrassed about something for instance, as that actually means you’re pregnant you see, which would probably make the embarrassing situation even more so.

This rule also applies to knowing what people are saying to you, or more importantly, what you’re agreeing to. All to often I’ll sit there nodding with a disgracefully misplaced confidence when being asked questions, only to be presented minutes later with a bowl of soup containing a cow’s hoof or a bag of 15mm crosshead screws.

3. Find a way to learn the words

‘Deniro’ = ‘money’. Robert De Niro often plays mobster characters with loads of money, get it?

‘Caro’ = ‘expensive’. West Ham Utd striker Andy Carroll was bloody expensive, so there was our link. Amazingly, this one was suggested by Jamie, who proved that she has been listening all these years after all!

Plenty of words help themselves due to their links to our own language, making them stick in the memory. ‘Circa’ which we use in English for estimated historical dates, means ‘near’. ‘Speed’ is ‘velocidad’, a glass from which to drink from is ‘vaso’, ‘libro’ is ‘book’ and ‘solo’ means ‘alone’ or ‘only’. It’s actually been one of the joys of trying to grasp a new language, recognising where words have clearly been borrowed or carried across countries and continents.

4. Learn the important stuff

Wherever you are in the world, there are some key words that you need to know as a backpacker. ‘Cuanto?’ (how much?), ‘Barata’ (cheaper), ‘Discuenta’ (discount) – and in assistance to those three, ‘Tienes unos ojos preciosos’ (You have beautiful eyes) – all go without saying, as do the normalities of everyday greetings and good manners. Swear words, while fun to know, are less crucial due to the fact that “sod off”, or variants of that, are pretty universal in any language when screamed at a villainous looking taxi driver who is incessantly tugging on your shirt after a 16 hour overnight bus journey.

By far the best Spanish word to learn however, is ‘Tambien’. Meaning ‘the same’ or ‘also’, you’ll be amazed at the amount of situations in which you can use this, meaning minimal effort is required from yours truly. Like the look of someone’s lunch but don’t know what it is? “Tambien” with a jabbed finger at some strangers plate will do the trick. Overheard the gringos in front of you going to the same place as you? Simply let them exasperatingly explain where they’re going to the ticket attendant for 10 minutes before getting their tickets, before nodding your head at them and smugly uttering “Tambien”. Sorted in seconds. I’m in no way encouraging laziness here, but….well, actually I am. Learn this word and let everyone else speak Spanish for you, easy.

5. If in doubt, add an ‘O’

Aside from those infuriatingly well practiced individuals and the weirdos who walk around squinting at phrase books, the rest of us will more often that not be stumped for what word to say. In situations like this, simply take the English version and add an ‘O’ – ‘plastico’, ‘teléfono’ and ‘plato’ all testify to this – while occasionally if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can change the ending vowel – ‘diferente’, ‘florista’ – or even throw one in at the start as well – ‘estudiante’. It’s impressive how often this works. ‘Perfecto!’

So there you have it, that’s my five point guide on how to speak Spanish without actually knowing how to speak Spanish. It’s got us through well enough so far, but if all else fails, then always revert to the internationally recognised back up plan of smiling and nodding. It’ll make your travels a lot more interesting, if nothing else.



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