One of the cool things about traveling is meeting other travelers. I have met people from so many different countries, each with their own itinerary, their own purpose of traveling, their own way of traveling, and their unique perspective on the people and places they are seeing.
Many people have some artistic and/or social goal as their vessel carrying them through their travels and guiding them along the way, like me and my blog-writing project.
Like Lucas, the photographer from Denver who was trying to capture photos of people who still maintain some practices from their indigenous ancestors and who hopes to be able to portray their culture in cool ways so that it is enticing to youth to learn and preserve their culture. (He was just the second other American I have met so far traveling!)
And like Noel from Switzerland who is traveling volunteering. She hasn’t seen all the tourist sites in Peru but rather has spent more than a month in two sites, volunteering and getting to know the place and the people on a deeper level. First she did a volunteer program in Trujillo that she paid quite a bit for but didn’t actually receive much help from the organization she paid, and finally towards the end of her 5-week stay she started to get a feel for how she could actually be of service to the community. Here in Iquitos she did a 19-day boat ride with 9th wave along the Napo river border with Ecuador where they stopped at communities along the way. There she connected with one community and decided to stay for about 5 weeks to teach English, now that she would be able to use what she learned from her first experience to make this one more impactful.
Then there are the parapenters. This couple from France worked on a farm in California to raise money to be able to travel and with that money has been traveling for about 8 months. They are traveling with an extra backpack that has their parapenting gear because everywhere they go, they look for spots to go paragliding. Since there’s a whole community of people who paraglide, It’s also a great way that they are able to meet locals in each place they go as well as meeting other travelers from around the world who paraglide.
And recently I met a 26-year-old Swiss woman who looked suspiciously Latina… and it turns out that she was born in Colombia and adopted by a Swiss family when she was 6 years old. She doesn’t remember her life before adoption, including didn’t remember any Spanish, so she had come to Colombia to attend a Spanish school in Cartegena. Having finished classes, I met her when she was speaking Spanish quite well! She is a nurse and had taken a month off to volunteer at a clinic in Peru and then travel a little around Colombia to know her homeland a little more.
These are only a few snapshots of some of the different people I have met along the way and the motives that drive them in their journeys.
La Isla del Sol is the biggest Lake Titicaca island, and it is also the most visited by tourists, due to its convenient location just a 2-hour boat ride from Copacabana, the popular tourist stop between Bolivia and Peru.
It is apparent that the island has developed around tourism – there is an abundance of lodging (hospedajes) and restaurant options, and even signs pointing the way to tourist points of interest like overlook points.
You know international tourists come through a place in Bolivia if you find a pizza restaurant, and there are a ton of pizza restaurants on Isla del Sol.
I was really struck by the beautiful architecture and especially the facades of many of the hospedajes, most of which incorporated rock or pebble to adorn traditional adobe construction.
It is also close enough to the mainland peninsula (with a tiny tree-covered island in between), that it is connected to the electric grid of the mainland, unlike Isla de la Luna, which relies on solar panels.
Isla del Sol has three different communities and is less densely populated than Amantaní, with approximately the same population but spread throughout the 14-square-kilometer island (compared to Amantaní’s 9-square-km). (But both much larger than the tiny 1-square kilometer Isla de la Luna with just one community of 27 families).
Just like the other two islands I visited, the geography is that of a mountain rising out of the sea…er, lake. (It is very easy to forget that I am on a lake and not the sea!)
The point is that everything is uphill from the shore. And even walking around from place to place on the island is like hiking in the mountains – a lot of up and down (which always feels like there’s more up than down) at 3,800 meters of altitude.
The boat I came in arrived at the port Pilko Kaina with Incan ruins to explore.
From there to the rest of the island was a surprisingly long climb up.
I really wondered if I was going the right way and if all this climbing was going to be worth it in the end. But I persevered, meeting some friends and some awesome views along the way.
I eventually wandered upon two other lost tourists and soon we came to a house which turned out to also be a fancy restaurant on the edge of Yumani, the community most frequented in Isla del Sol and full of restaurants and hospedajes.
They stayed to enjoy some gourmet food while I continued along in search of a place to stay the night and a cheaper lunch since I was on a really tight budget, and running low on cash at this point.
The site where I did eat lunch was indescribably beautiful. The view of the lake was breathtaking (literally and figuratively at 4000 meters above sea level)… so blue, and so immense, stretching as far as the eye could see. The only sounds were a few birds and a distant conversation in Aymará, with the light sea, er, lake breeze whispering past my ears. Ultimate peace.
And it was the best meal I’d had since Amantaní – fresh trout from the lake with some fresh veggies.
Later, heading to the lookout point to catch the sunset I met and chatted with a local woman selling souvenirs who appeared slightly younger than me and who had curious and rowdy 2- and 4-year-olds. She had lived in São Paulo, Brazil and so not only spoke Aymará (the local language on the island) and Spanish, but also Portugués from her time in Brazil. She had returned to Bolivia because she said they had been treated like second class citizens, her husband robbed at gunpoint a few times, and other Bolivian migrant friends injured or killed…she said her experience was that there was no justice as the government didn’t really value their lives, safety, and rights as immigrant workers. (USA, can we please not be like that???? Pretty please.)
After doing yoga and watching the sunset with her and her kids, I headed to another overlook point.
There I met a super sweet couple – a Spanish woman and an Argentine who ended up staying two extra nights and exploring the whole island (even the northern part which we had been told could be dangerous because of an inter-community conflict that started two years ago), and they said it was incredibly beautiful!
Unfortunately I was running low on cash and had to return to Copacabana the next morning to change money and continue my journey. So, after a delicious dinner of trout from the lake (yes, again!) I headed to my hospedaje and had my last peaceful, Lake Titicaca island sleep.
The next morning, after watching the sunrise and eating breakfast, I headed down to the dock, past the Fuente del Inca and saw the grand island entrance to the Yumani community.
I had the pleasure of chatting with a few local women while waiting for my boat. This might have been one of the highlights of my stay here. Using my handy language chart, I practiced my Aymará with them, and we were all highly entertained (even if they were laughing AT me not WITH me at times!) Similar to Isla de la Luna, most people have their farms where they grow the typical sierra (highland) crops- quinoa, wheat, corn, and a variety of potatoes, and animals (mostly sheep), while the income from tourism helps provide something extra.
With a farewell photo, I said “juspara” (thank you) “jakisiñkama” (goodbye)! and boarded the boat for my last ride across the majestic Lake Titicaca.
As much as I would have loved to stay longer in the paradise of Amantaní, my visa had expired and I had to flee the country (Peru charges a fee for every day you overstay your visa.)
While not unsurprising, crossing the border between Peru and Bolivia was not a smooth process for me because of my expired visa, my very flexible backpackers itinerary, and my US citizenship.
At Peruvian immigration I had to had to jump through a whole series of hoops (including taking a taxi to the bank in a nearby town to pay the fee for overstaying my visa). But they didn’t put me in a detention center or deport me back to the US, so instead of complaining about the inconveniences I’m just thankful that Peru Immigrations is more humane than the US when it comes to visas and immigration.
Bolivian immigrations also gave me a hard time, but that was kind of expected. As a fellow traveler pointed out to me, the American passport is one of the most powerful , or widely accepted, passports in the world. Almost all countries will let us visit with few problems. Meanwhile, if you happen to be born in a North African country, like my traveler friend, she was only able to travel to a handful of countries with her passport (until she moved to France and got a French passport).
Whole US citizens enjoy this travel freedom, the US is one of the countries that restricts entry simply for a person’s country of origin.
Bolivia is one of the countries in the world that has a reciprocity policy for US citizens – since the US makes Bolivians (and most South Americans) pay a high visa application fee and puts strict (and sometimes arbitrarily interpreted) requirements that many people don’t meet so they end up not getting the visa and losing the application fee, without obtaining a visa to travel to the US…Bolivia puts a high fee for US citizens wanting to enter Bolivia. (Unfortunate because many US travelers disagree with the US immigration policy and they are the ones that bear the cost, but I would do the same if I was Bolivia.)
So after paying my fee, changing money, and finally passing Peruvian immigration, I walked down the road to Bolivian immigration, thinking I had my paperwork in order but finding out I was wrong. They hassled me about my itinerary and made me retype it, mostly because I didn’t have hotels reserved in advance since I was on a backpackers plan where I would find a hostal in each place I went. Actually, the real real reason was that they were just following policy…the US hassles Bolivians about entering the US, looking for any reason not to let them in, so they were doing the same.
Interestingly, their attitude towards me changed when I heard them speaking Aymará so I tried to joke with them and throw in some words in Aymará from the cheat sheet that Romulo (my host from Amantaní) had given me.
Maybe it’s that when I tried to connect with them and their culture they realized I wasn’t a stuck up and racist American. Or, maybe an American trying to pronounce words in Aymará was more entertaining than a frustrated and tired American being hassled about being let into the country. Either way, they loosened up, joked with me, accepted my paperwork without further hassle, and let me in the country.
This was a perfect example of how my travels have been like a video game – something I picked up along the way helped me pass to the next level.
When I was staying in the island Amantaní, I enjoyed great conversations with the couple with whom I stayed, including conversations about politics. From Romulo (the husband), I learned about the divide in culture and language between the different sides of the lake Titicaca – the part north of Puno is Quechua-speaking, and south of Puno and into Bolivia is Aymará-speaking.
The day that I had planned to leave the island Amantaní, we got word from a teacher who lives in Puno and travels to the island for the weekdays to teach, that there was going to be a huge protest that would block the main roads between Puno and Bolivia.
The regional governor for the whole region of Puno had just been charged and put in jail for leading protests that destroyed state property a few years back. As the region of Puno is culturally divided between people who speak Quechua and those who speak Aymará, this was the first regional governor that was from the Aymará culture (almost always a Quechua-speaking governor had been elected).
Because of this, many Aymará people were upset with the ruling, believing that it was a political move to oust their leader, and so they would be protesting by blocking the roads hoping to release the governor. (This type of protest, in which the roads are blocked is somewhat common in Peru, and the good thing is that it is usually planned a few days in advance so that people get word and know not to travel those days.)
So along with this history and culture lesson about the Puno region, Romulo showed me a chart that translated a few basic words between Quechua, Aymará, Spanish, and even English, and he told me me take a photo of it.
Little did I know, he was the wizard giving me the magic wand that I would later need to open the door to taking me to the next level of my video game Odyssey – from Peru to Bolivia.
Bonus Round: After finally arriving to the plaza in Copacabana, I was struggling with google maps trying to find my airbnb because there were no street signs. Suddenly, someone calls my name, and it’s one of the guys who worked in the immigration office. A little creepy, yes. I asked myself if he was following me, and I was kind of cautious answering him. But it turned out that he happened to live nearby (it’s a really small town), and he was just being nice and helpful. When we found the place, he wished me a safe journey and left me feeling like that magic wand of connecting with people through their own language had turned obstacles into friends helping me along the way.
Bienvenida a Bolivia! The Bolivian adventure begins! 🇧🇴
The other day I needed to buy 100 bananas to give out as a breakfast snack at a huge training for water committees. So I went to my friend who is a water committee president and sells fruit in the feria (farmers market), and she said she’d help me get them at a good price. We went and found a few bunches of good-looking bananas and she got me a great price!
When I got home my family asked me about all the bananas I had brought home, and I explained what I was going to use them for. They asked me if I was going to fry all those bananas, and I said: “No way! I’m just going to hand them out for people to peel and eat as a morning breakfast snack.”
“But those are for frying or boiling,” they told me.
My jaw dropped. Face palm.
I had just bought 100 PLANTAINS.
You see, most people in Peru just call any type of banana “plátano”, whether it’s a peel-and-eat banana or a plantain for frying or boiling (yes, you can boil bananas and they’re actually pretty delicious!) Also, it is more common to eat fried plantains for breakfast here than to peel and eat a banana for breakfast, which had added to the confusion of everything.
So even after 3 years, I’m still making cultural and language snafus! And I apparently still haven’t figured out my bananas.
When I lived in the US and I went to add bananas to my cart in the grocery store, the only decision I had to make was between organic and non-organic bananas. While there are plantains in most grocery stores (and every now and then I would buy plantains to fry), they are much bigger and fatter than bananas and it’s kind of hard to confuse them.
HOWEVER, in the feria in Oxapampa, there are at least SEVEN different types of peel-and-eat bananas and two different types of plantains…and there are probably more that I haven’t heard of! (Now, that is nothing compared to the thousands of different types of potatoes in Peru, but that’s a whole different article, right now we’re talking bananas.)
For my own vindication and for your reading and viewing pleasure, let me introduce you to the NINE different types of bananas I have heard of or encountered in Peru.
Let’s start with the EIGHT different (peel-and-eat) “baNAnas”…
The banana that most Americans are familiar with is the “plátano seda”. That’s the one that Chiquita has taken and made the super banana crop. They taste differently (sweeter) when you buy them from the feria (farmer’s markets) here because they aren’t artificially gas ripened, and they’re just a lot fresher. However, if you buy them in a supermarket in Lima or a big city, they taste pretty much the same as in the US because I think they are processed the same way.
The next peel-and-eat banana is the “plátano isla”. Fatter than the plátano seda, a little orangish color on the inside, this banana is delicious. I actually didn’t like it at first, but it grew on me and now I usually prefer it over the plátano seda.
Similar to the plátano isla is the “plátano palillo” or “plátano Guyaquil”, which is just a little bit fatter than the plátano isla. I admit that I haven’t tried this one yet, so I’ll have to test drive (test eat?) it before I leave.
Now you might have actually come across some miniature bananas in a grocery store in the US… here in Oxapampa those are called “canelito“ or “biscocho”, or “calbito”. Who knows what other names they might have in other parts… They are deliciously sweet and bite-sized.
Slightly larger than the canelitos are the “plátano manazana”. Yes, that translates to “the apple banana”. Supposedly this banana tastes like an apple. To me it still tastes like banana, but I’m still refining my banana taste…(remember I went from just one banana variety to nine, so I need some time to adjust.)
There’s also a redish-pinkish-purplish colored banana called the “platano morado”. (Translated as “purple banana”). I’m not a huge fan of this banana because for me it’s way too sweet, but then again I’ve only tried it once, so it could have just been the batch I was eating was excessively ripe. I will have to give it another try before I leave.
Finally, the plátano brasil, which I have heard of but have not tried. It is supposedly similar to the plátano seda, so your challenge when you visit South America is to find the plátano Brasil and try it.
Finally, the two type of plantains I have encountered are those that are for frying (plátano frito), boiling (plátano sancochado), or making banana chips (chifles).
The most common (and many claim is the most delicious), is the “plátano largo”. Most commonly, it is boiled or fried. This is the one that I mistook for plátano seda because we happened to come across some particularly small ones that highly resembled plátano seda (at least to my untrained eye.)
And finally, the plátano bellaco is also for frying and also commonly used to make banana chips, or also to prepare tacacho – a typical plate in the selva (jungle) region of a thick smashed plantain ball combined with pieces of pork and fried.
Now for the quiz. Can you identify each type of plátano in this photo? (Now you’re not laughing at my banana confusion, are you???)
Now that you know your plátanos, you are ready to come explore Peru! And I hear there’s an even greater variety of bananas in Ecuador, so I guess I will have to go investigate…and I’ll let you know!
And, here are the answers, for those curious minds:
*This post was updated to clarify that here the plátano Guyaquil is the same as the palillo.
I hadn’t stepped foot in the US for almost three years, and I was not sure what to expect. A lot had changed since I left. I felt very lucky to even be entering the US; as I stood in the customs line at 3am with my US passport, I couldn’t help thinking about the unfortunate situation for refugees seeking asylum, those people trying to escape dangerous living situations in their homeland or inflation where they can’t even buy the basics to live.
I was also incredibly thirsty but annoyed at the thought that I would need to buy overpriced (and Earth un-friendly) bottled water to quench my thirst. And then I saw something magical…
A public water fountain with potable water! Something I hadn’t seen in 3 years!!!
“Welcome to the US! Let me satisfy your thirst! Don’t you miss the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, and well-monitored public water systems?” The public water fountain said to me. (Don’t judge, I had just gotten off a red-eye flight; I might have been a little delirious).
“Oh yes I do! You have no idea!!” I responded, as a WASH volunteer that has spent the last 3 years living in a place where I have to boil water before drinking it and where I spend all my days trying so hard to figure out how to make rural water systems just come close to providing potable water.
My honeymoon phase of being back in the US was soon brought down to Earth when I learned that the bus from the Baltimore airport to the city (DC) had actually decreased its frequency of service, (a real disappointment after having experienced such great public transportation in Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador).
But I was quickly enamored again with my homeland after being able to get around the city (Washington, DC) on a bike share, (and later learning about the car-share service Turo).
My amazement escalated as I was introduced to tide pods (dissolvable and non-toxic polyvinyl alcohol film was really intriguing for this chemical engineer), but then my fascination was interrupted as I learned of the trend of eating tide pods. (Facepalm.)
Eating delicious vegetarian plates of locally-grown food at my favorite restaurants and seeing wonderful friends and family made me feel right at home, and again very pleased by and proud of my homeland…
Until… I realized that people were actually buying and eating jellybeans that taste like vomit and rotten eggs.
Between tide pods and rotten fish, I was thinking I might have avoided great disaster by staying out of the country for the last three years…(Or maybe my country really needed me these last three years?)
I was surprised that in my short stay in the suburbs of Denver, I found two different opportunities to keep my language skills sharp, talking with native Mexican-speakers. (Yes, that is a reference to the misleadingly-named entertainment channel Fox “News”.)
Tongue-in-cheek aside, I really surprised at how cheap I felt during my visit. Having lived on a tight budget, pinching my centavos for the last three years, I suddenly felt that while visiting friends and family, they (and me, prior to Peace Corps service) lived very comfortable lives of abundance, spending relatively freely, compared to how I (and those around me) have been living for the last three years.
This ability to pay for certain things is something I think we don’t even notice, especially if all the people around us have a similar ability to pay for certain things. It also really stood out to me how this then leads to certain expectations of neighbors and others around us to also pay for certain things, almost as an obligation. An obvious example is the HOA where everyone has to make sure their house and yard look a certain way (which implies a certain investment).
When I went out to eat, I had serious sticker shock with prices of food, and really had to make an effort to change my penny-pinching mindset, and it made me realize why it would be hard for people of different economic situations to be friends – it’s a real social barrier and cause of anxiety if you can’t afford the same social activities of your friends or family.
While I was in the US, busy being amazed by how things had changed since I had been gone, and how things felt different since I had been living in a different context for a few years, meanwhile, back in Oxapampa, the region was experiencing rains like never before – and landslides and floods like never before.
I received photos of entire roads and bridges completely wiped out. A friend returning to Oxapampa from Lima had to walk a total of seven hours to cross the places where roads had been wiped out to be able to arrive home. I wondered if I would be able to get back and was thankful that I still had a few weeks before I was due home.
The government of Peru has always been amazingly good at cleaning up the road after a landslide within the same day, so that traffic can pass. But they had not had a disaster of this scale before. However, they impressed me and had it the bridge repaired and the road to a passable state within a few weeks, and I was able to arrive home without any problems, and in record time.
I also learned that in my district alone, 4 different water capture points were destroyed because of landslides, leaving communities without water for a few days. Luckily, the government has policies and plans in place for emergencies and are often good at improvising. The local government (the team that I work with) was able to locate new, temporary water sources for the communities to have running water, in the interim. And upon my return, I learned they are able to access emergency funds to rebuild those affected sites.
While I was in Colorado, I had hoped to hike a 14-er to complement my hiking adventures in the Andes mountains of Peru (which I’ll be sharing in blog post coming soon), but ironically, Colorado was having an unusually high incidence of avalanches, with their own stories of blocked roads. Turns out both of my “homes”, the US and Peru, are being affected by climate change, (which isn’t a real thing if you have a lot of money and investments in petroleum and think that having a lot of money can save you from anything.)
It’s not easy living in two different cultures, two different worlds, two different languages, having a home and also not having a home in two different countries. But it is an incredible and enriching experience, and I feel wealthier than I ever have, (despite what my bank account may say), thanks to the amazing people I have in my life, the beauty that surrounds me, memories I carry, and the wonderful experiences and opportunities that have shaped who I am. And despite vomit jelly beans and non-potable water, I love both of these places and I am inspired by and thankful for of all the people in both cultures that have taught me so much and made me who I am today.
*** Geek-out reflection on the scale of the disasters in the region where I live in Peru…
There are usually a complex variety of forces that come together that make disasters worse or not as bad as they could have been. In this case, deforestation is the biggest human controlled factor that led to the extreme scale of landslides in our region. Unfortunately, the ecosystem service provided by forests of holding the soil together does not have monetary value for the landowners in this global economy, but planting food for our growing population does bring income to someone trying to feed their family.
There is a clear need for an economic incentive sufficient to make it worth it to land owners to preserve key areas. The good news is that there are organizations working on reforestation and forest protection in the area. A local non-profit that I work with, Instituto del Bien Común, is working to provide small incentives and free native trees to property owners who sign agreements with the local government to preserve the forests on their land or to reforest on their land. Additionally, the national forest agency recently awarded a grant to the local government to do reforestation efforts in the zone. Unfortunately, the efforts are not enough to make a significant enough impact to prevent the escalating rates of deforestation, but we can only hope that the funding and programs grow and become more effective so they can make it more economically viable to conserve the forests.
If you are an American familiar with Tex Mex food, I would like to share a few vocabulary tips for eating in Peru…
In the US, Mexico, and some Central American countries…
A tortilla is a flat, round, flour or corn-based “masa”, great for wrapping delicious food to make tacos or burritos. (More on tacos and burritos in a minute.)
Also flat and round, but a tortilla is an omelet, usually made with vegetables like spinach, red peppers and sometimes even broccoli if you’re lucky!
In the US, Mexico, and some Central American countries…
Tacos are a dish made from a tortilla, filled with yummy things like beans, tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, and meat if you’re into that.
…you put tacos on your feet when you’re going out, going to work, (or anytime really because I feel like lots of people dress up to look good all the time here). So, in case you didn’t catch that, taco are high heels.
In the US, Mexico, and some Central American countries…
A burrito is like a taco, but completely wrapped up in a big tortilla, and one of my favorite foods.
The first thing someone here thinks of when you say “burrito”, is small donkey.
Burritos, and Tex-Mex food in general, are only recently becoming a thing here, and really only in Lima (though two days ago in Huancayo we had delicious burritos at a new taco restaurant!)
In the Texas (or at least in my family)…
A chalupa is a quickly-ready dinner: a flat and round corn-based hard shell with beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato (and avocado if you’re lucky) on top.
I’ve only heard this out in the rural areas, but a chalupa could be a skiff or canoe, or if you are on a farm where the crops are planted on a steep hill or mountain, a chalupa is a wooden ladder that is used to drag the harvest from high up in the hills, down to the main road.
In the US, a quick snack or meal made by melting cheese over tortilla chips, often with refried beans or ground beef, topped with lettuce and tomato, and maybe olives and sour cream, if you’re into that.
Nacho is a guy’s name, well a common nickname really. (Thank you Nacho for being the photo example.)
Ok, this a little different because it’s just a translation thing, but since I ate a tuna popsicle yesterday, I thought I would share:
Tuna in English is this very cool fish…
It’s that fruit that grows on cactus, and if you have enough patience to peel the skin that has hundreds of tiny spines, and deal with the million seeds inside, it’s a delicious fruit!
They say the best way to learn another language is immersion…go live in a society where no one speaks your first language. Yes, I can attest that it is as exciting, terrifying, difficult, and crazy as it sounds. And for me, it was actually a much longer process than I expected to really become fluent. Overall, language has been the most challenging, frustrating, and enlightening part of my job.
Take this example of when I had been in my new home for just 3 months, living in Peru for a total of 6 months:
Six months in Castellano: A 5-year-old professional
First of all, trying to be a professional in a language that I’ve been speaking only for about 6 months is ridiculous. I can’t think of a better word because it is a mix of hilarious, frustrating, challenging, exciting, and…just ridiculous. I know I have good ideas to share, but when I share them I sound like a 7-year-old. And half the time I don’t understand what other people are saying so I have this really weird look on my face because I’m concentrating so hard to try to understand what they are saying. They are probably thinking “what’s wrong with her?”, but they actually say, “She doesn’t understand what I just said.” And the funny thing is that I do understand that part. And usually I understand the topic, but can’t pick up the details.
It’s a really weird world to live in. A little bit frustrating when I’m trying to gain respect as a professional and when I really want to be a part of the team and help out but have to ask people to repeat themselves when they are already pretty busy and pressed for time. But people are typically pretty awesome at being patient, speaking slowly, and explaining things. And it’s really cool when I am able to share knowledge and help solve problems, and have more fluid conversations with people. It is definitely worth it (“vale la pena”).
If you wear glasses or contacts, maybe you have experienced that moment when you put on a pair of glasses with the correct prescription and suddenly the world is so much clearer! Without your glasses (or the right prescription), you were living fine, getting around, but with the right glasses…wow! A whole new world! A sharper image! Fine edges, more brilliant colors, more detail! The world suddenly seems so much richer!
“I am speaking and living in my second language, and sometimes it feels a little bit like a handicap, something that impedes my ability to understand and communicate with people at the same level that the average person communicates with others.”
Every few months I have that experience, not with my vision, but with language. As my vocabulary grows, I begin to understand the world around me on a deeper level…even still at 2.5 years living here. It’s amazing how the dinner table conversations with family have changed from a blurry 70% of understanding the conversation to 99%.
The same has happened in my conversations with friends – suddenly in addition to just catching the drift of the conversation, I can also pick up on how their word choice adds humor or certain sentiments to the conversation that I just wasn’t able to pick up on before. Those blurry edges are becoming sharper, and I can now see the different tones of the colors! (And I realize every day how much patience everyone has had with me, considering my lack of understanding before!)
Maybe you have experienced something similar when reading a book, with a dictionary at your side. Sometimes you come across words that you don’t know, but you can guess from context clues what the word means, so you continue reading. But then when you take time to look up the word, you realize its full meaning and it actually gives the sentence – and sometimes the story – a richer meaning that you would have missed out on if you hadn’t understood the full meaning of that one word. (Or every now and then you find you were completely wrong about the word’s meaning in the first place!)
This adequately describes my verbal life as well. I usually don’t realize it when it happens, but sometimes I don’t understand every single word that someone says, but because I understand 95% of the words, I can continue with the conversation not even realizing I didn’t hear or understand one word. (This isn’t unique to speaking in a second language; the human brain is wired to fill in the blanks of what we don’t see or don’t hear, and that’s why optical illusions exist.) Usually it works out perfectly and helps the conversation flow, but every now and then it leads to a misunderstanding when that missed word was important in the communication.
It’s easy to get frustrated when someone doesn’t understand us when we’re both speaking our first language, but I’m reminded that we still come from different contexts and even the same words can have different meanings and connotations for different people. (More on this in the next part.)
I am speaking and living in my second language, and sometimes it feels a little bit like a handicap, something that impedes my ability to understand and communicate with people at the same level that the average person communicates with others.
It makes me extra grateful for the people that have a little extra patience with me. And it reminds me that we all do have different levels of understanding, communication abilities, and contexts, and it really is worth being patient with one another to try to achieve successful communication – to more fully understand each other and appreciate where each person is coming from.
Part II. Language is more than words; it’s concepts
One thing that I have learned (and now I see daily examples of this in action) is that communication is based not only in language but in what we already know, our schemas, our preconceived notions, past experiences, etc.
For example, one day, 6-months into service (and craving vegetables having been practically vegetarian before moving here), I decided I would try to order a vegetarian version of what was on the menu (knowing full well that the odds of success were low…but wanting to give it a try anyway.)
First I ask if I can have the “cau cau” without the meat part (cow’s stomach lining) because it comes with carrots and peas and potatoes, which sounded good to me. She looked at me confused and said no that was not an option.
So then I explained that I would like to eat a dish with just vegetables, so she nods in understanding and excitedly says “we can make a salad with lettuce and tomato and cucumber”. While that sounded good, I needed some sustenance in my life too, so I tried to explain that I’d like cooked vegetables with some rice maybe. I ask if they can make me a plate of vegetables like onion, carrots, and peppers, like “lomo saltado” without the beef.
Confused again, she shakes her head no and says “like beans and rice with vegetables?” For a split second I think she has finally got it, but having already experienced that many people’s idea of vegetables is lettuce and tomato and cucumber, I knew I needed to clarify before I get my hopes up. So I asked, “Will the beans be made with onions, carrots and peas?”.And like I expected, she says, “No, it comes with lettuce, tomato, and cucumber”. Realizing we are speaking the same language but not speaking the same language (and to her I’m probably being a difficult customer), I agree and ask for the beans and salad.
This same concept misunderstanding has happened to me too. I work in the municipality office and so paperwork is pretty much everyone’s life. And the mother of paperwork is the “cargo”, which is the copy of the document you keep for yourself and have everyone sign to verify they’ve received their copy. When I first arrived, I had 3 different people at three different times explain this concept to me, and I understood the words they were saying, but I just couldn’t get the concept. Since I didn’t have experience with the process and for some reason couldn’t imagine the concept (I guess I was just too used to the world of e-mail and digital documents), I couldn’t understand the meaning of what everyone was telling me.
Then there is the water system operator that I work with that is really hard for me to understand; I rarely catch 75% of his words and am always subconsciously filling in the blanks to carry a conversation. (And this is still, after 2 years of being here!) However, I have about 10 years of experience in engineering and rural water systems, so when the operator was explaining some technical issues about his water system, with the 75% of the words I caught, I understood him more quickly and thoroughly than my team members, who are native Spanish speakers but are much younger and just have fewer years of experience in water systems. In this interesting case, I understood something better than my native-speaking companions simply because I was more familiar with the concept.
These are just a few examples of daily occurrences where communication across cultures is made more difficult because we have different schemas – different experiences, memories, priorities, things we’ve thought of before and things we haven’t ever thought of.
I think this is so important to realize for a few reasons…
“sometimes other people are explaining something that I just have not experienced before”
It takes a different mindset to understand something that you haven’t experienced before or haven’t learned before. To understand something new, I’ve noticed my mind has to be open, like I’m sitting in a classroom trying to understand something completely new, trying to connect it to my past experiences and sometimes just taking in some new information on faith, with an open mind. Usually, my mind is not in this mode – it is in the mode of trying to understand things based on my past experiences, as quickly as possible.
When I hear something new, I try to relate it to something I’ve experienced so I can understand what is happening, how someone else might be feeling, or how I should react. But this method of understanding isn’t always the best or most appropriate way to approach communication, because sometimes other people are explaining something that I just have not experienced before. Or maybe I have experienced something similar so I immediately relate their experience to an experience I’ve had before and I am sure I understand them… but actually I end up misunderstanding and maybe offending them because their experience actually had differences from mine and I didn’t take time to try to understand that difference because I was sure I already understood them.
This happens all the time in our relationships, both on an interpersonal level, and on a larger political level. I think this is a component to the problems the US is having right now when discussing race relations, immigration, and police brutality. While we can try, the reality is that white people don’t know exactly what it is like to be a person of color, especially a black man, and those of us whose ancestors migrated to the US many decades ago don’t actually understand what it’s like to be an immigrant. If you have never experienced life as a person of color or a minority, it’s likely you haven’t experienced the blatant or the subtle racist comments and attitudes that exist in society, directed at you and who you are. If we are too quick to say that we understand the situation of racism in the US, we most likely are not even close to understanding the reality.
However, if we take a lot of time, through many conversations with many people of color and minorities, in many different scenarios, and with a very open mind every time – with that mentality open to trying to understand an experience we have never have had – we might be able to come closer to understanding what racism really is, and what forms it takes, and then we can start to create ways to live together better, to create a more peaceful and more just society.
(Header image from http://jacksonvillevisionclinic.com/lenses/4115670)