Foreign Language Folly


Despite having taken Spanish classes for three years in high school and two years in college, it is my everlasting regret that I do not speak a foreign language. Don’t get me wrong, I did manage to retain a smattering of words and can somewhat communicate in Spanish. However, I’m restricted to speaking only in present tense (conjugation-wha?) Apparently, nothing ever happened or will be happening to me in Spanish- it’s all RIGHT NOW!

Luckily, I’m not a shy person, and I’m usually pretty open to trying new things, even if that means making a fool of myself. Which, when dealing with a partially known language and a foreign country can be a recipe for mass embarrassment! Yet, isn’t that half the fun? Traveling is all about opening yourself up to new experiences and perspectives. What’s always amazed me is how varied and unique humans can be, and at the same time, we’re SO similar.

My husband, Terry, and I went to Peru for our honeymoon. Peru is a beautiful country and the people there are warm and lovely. It was a whirlwind trip. We flew into Lima, Peru and then spent two weeks hopscotching from the Nazca lines, to Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and to the Amazon Rainforest. Each time we would come back to Lima before going out to the next destination. Most of the time, we would have transportation already planned to pick us up from the Lima airport and take us back to our hotel. However, our flight from the Nazca lines ended up being delayed by several hours. Unsurprisingly, by the time we arrived, our car was no longer there.

No matter, Terry and I decided we’d just procure our own taxi. Terry hasn’t had any Spanish classes, so it’s basically up to me to communicate and figure out a way to get to the place we’re staying. I’d been walking around the country speaking my pidgin Spanish for about a week at that point, and we’d managed to do fairly well, so I wasn’t too worried.

The taxi situation at the Lima airport is pretty chaotic. Instead of having all the taxis lined up in a queue, they stand in a mass crowd around the exits from the airport and all jockey with one another to try and attract a customer. With our slightly rumpled appearances, carry-on bags in tow and tired, slumped shoulders, we must have seemed like the easy pickings type of tourists that generally means good business. As we exited the building, there was a swarm of about thirty-five men all calling out prices for rides.

“Qurante-cinco soles!” A Nuevo Sol is the currency denomination of Peru. In plural form, most people just called them soles, pronounced “so-lays.” This man was offering us a ride for forty-five soles.

“Quarante soles!” (Forty soles)

“No, Treinta Soles!” (Thirty Soles)

Terry and I looked around in amazement as the men tried to outbid each other. I love haggling and am really getting into the feel of the moment, enjoying the energy that suffuses the air. Lower and lower the price goes…until someone cries out, “Veinte Soles!”

Wow, twenty soles. That’s the best price we’ve heard so far. All the men step back and look at the guy who has cried out the lowest number. Now, anybody who has ever had experience with haggling knows that there is an art form to it. It’s not just an exercise to try and pay a lower price. It’s an exchange that should leave both parties feeling happy and satisfied. When you’re traveling, it’s also one of the few honest ways you can initiate an exchange with the locals. It should be done with humor, grace, goodwill and in the manner that is befitting of the culture.

For instance, haggling in Thailand has a completely different attitude than haggling in Peru. Maybe it has something to do with all that fire, passion and machismo that is found in Peru. Or, it could just be that we were surrounded by a group of taxi men. Whatever the case, I knew that haggling would require a certain amount of audacity and flair.

I step forward, give a flourishing wave of my hand, and say, “No! Cinquenta Soles!”

Ugh! The moment it came out of my mouth, I KNEW that I had messed up. Instead of bidding fifteen soles, or “quince,” I had bid FIFTY soles! In essence, what one guy was willing to accept twenty soles for, I had offered him over twice as much.

There was an uproar as thirty five men all simultaneously burst into laughter – at me. My face turned beet red as my new husband was looking on in confusion. He knew something had happened, but couldn’t figure out what, exactly.

So, what can you do in a moment like that? All you can do is shrug and join in laughing at yourself. Everybody who has ever traveled has experienced a moment where you realize you are out of your element. I lowered my head, looked right at the lowest bidder and said, “Ok, ok…veinta soles.” As far as I figured, I had lost the right to haggle him down any further.

At least I got a good story out of it!

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2 comments on “Foreign Language Folly

  1. kerri says:

    i have also taken 5 years of spanish in school and retained almost none of it, but remember some key words and phrases (a few of them strange and useless). luckily, when my hubby and i went on our honeymoon in mexico, most of the hotel employees spoke english. props to you for trying!

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