Hitting the language barrier

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Why travelling in South America has given me a newfound respect for my parents

I check the clock for the third time in five minutes. It is now 11.40am, a good forty minutes past the time we were expecting our transfer to Cartagena’s bus station. I flex my shoulders and try to relax. Peter always tells me I worry too much; that I get too uptight about loose schedules and tardy transfers.

A few minutes later, our Airbnb host Nadia sticks her head in the door. She says some words. I catch enough to understand that she’s saying our bus leaves in 20 minutes. I know that already. She ushers us out the door and says she’ll call a taxi instead. Downstairs, we wait. Instead of hailing a taxi, she speaks to two lads on motorbikes and then gestures for us to get on.

My eyes are wide. “En esto?” I ask unsurely.
“Si,” she replies. She takes my small backpack and gives it to the first guy. Catching my concern, she says “tranquilo, tranquilo” and gently pushes me towards the bike.
“Pero es seguro?” I ask, questioning if it’s safe as she ushers me onto the bike with my 13kg bag on my back, a helmet that won’t strap shut and a stranger that’s about to zip off with me through the streets of Colombia.
“Tranquilo,” replies Nadia.
“Pero–” my voice trails off, unsure of what more to say.

And then we’re off, Peter riding pillion on one bike, me on the other. This is everything our mothers warned us against when we said we were visiting Colombia. What if we got robbed, kidnapped, killed in a crash?

“So many of us equate intelligence with eloquence. I’ve had a hard time sounding and feeling stupid”

We weave through the streets and for a while it seems we are double backing on ourselves and then triple backing. Were they doing it to disorient us? Twenty minutes later, we arrive at the station with just enough time to run onto the bus. It’s all fine in the end but as I take my seat, I chide myself for being foolhardy.

Why didn’t I insist on a taxi instead? Why had I got on the back of a stranger’s motorbike without a proper helmet and with 13kg of weight on my back? The answer is that when you don’t have the words to protest, acquiescence is easier; you just smile and say okay.

My level of Spanish is enough to get us by in most tourist situations – ordering food, booking a room and buying tickets albeit with pauses and errors – but there have been occasions where it’s left me lacking: when a company cancelled our dive last-minute and I couldn’t express how unprofessional they were, or when we bought a camera in Panamericana and couldn’t figure out their convoluted collection process.

Everything is so much harder here because of the language barrier. Every sentence has to be digested, broken down and translated to English in my head. My response then has to be translated into Spanish and then relayed out loud. When I don’t understand something, it becomes a long and arduous process to get something done.

We were expecting South America – real backpacker country – to be far easier than the South Pacific but in reality it’s been harder. So many of us equate intelligence with eloquence; of being able to clearly express thoughts, ideas and arguments. I’ve had a hard time sounding and feeling stupid. To the credit of the South Americans, they have always been gracious with my broken Spanish and always encouraging of my efforts.

These past two months have given me a newfound respect for my parents. They came to England when there wasn’t a stronghold of Bengali stallholders selling goods on Whitechapel road, no string of Indian restaurants on Brick Lane, no interpreters and translators to explain medical care or school enrolment or bank accounting or bill paying.

They did each and every one of those things with virtually no English. They bore the weight of feeling ignorant for years, not months, and they survived. They survived the rise of the National Front, of skinheads and riots, of the fear and disilusionment of the Thatcher years; of never being able to articulately inform the ‘other side’ of their feelings about any of it.

I’ve had only a mere glimpse of how hard it was, but it has given me a newfound respect not only for my parents, but immigrants everywhere that move to a country in which they don’t speak the language.

If you’re one of them, I salute you. You’re a braver person than I.

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