March 11, 2010

How I learned Spanish the Easy Way … and Had a Whole Lot of Fun Doing It

As I mentioned in my last post, I learned Portuguese living and working in Lisbon, Portugal. Many people who hear me speaking Spanish think that I grew up speaking Spanish or that I studied it for a long time. The truth is that I grew up hearing quite a bit of Spanish, but not speaking it. And, I studied it for a total of one year in high school and one semester in college.

After my escapade in Portugal, I returned to the US in November 1998, and decided that it was time to get back into the “real world.” So, I applied for grad schools and got another job as a waitress and a bartender. To give you an idea of how much I was not in the real world, applying for grad school was the first time I had used the Internet!

Back in DC, I had a blast working nights in a Brazilian bar called Tom-Tom in Adams Morgan, and lunches at Jaleo in downtown DC. I picked up some Spanish in my years working in restaurants, but it was pretty rudimentary.

In February 1999, I decided I would take one last trip before beginning grad school, just in case I got accepted. I still had no travel partners, but figured I was ready to go to South America. While working in Portugal, I had met Fabio, who also worked at the restaurant Zeno with me. He said I could stay at his place in Rio de Janeiro, and that he would get me a job in a restaurant or hotel in Rio. So, I called Fabio up and told him I was on my way to Brazil.

Fabio met me at the airport and put me up at his father’s house in Rio. It happened that, at the time, his house was under renovation. But, his father was kind enough to take me in.

(I know this story is about learning Spanish, and, again, I am in the wrong country, but, trust me, I will get there….)

After I got settled in, Fabio took me around to a few places where he thought I might be able to get a job. I got a glimpse into life of the rich and famous in Rio at many of the places we went to. That was enough to let me know I was not really in my element.

Fabio lived in Copacabana, so I often spent my afternoons walking up and down the beaches. One afternoon, I met a young man, Beto, who was selling earrings. I wasn’t interested in buying any, but he told me that he and some friends get together in the evenings to play music, and that I should stop by. He said they often play by the “Hotel Othon” in Copacabana. I agreed to stop by later.

With nothing to do at 7pm, I made my way over to the Hotel Othon. Just as I got there, there was a black out. All of the street lights went out and it began to rain. I sought out cover beneath a patio. As luck would have it, some friends of Beto’s were also under the same patio, and began to cheer up the crowd with their music. From there, I began to hang out with these musicians – Gaucho and Abel – nearly every afternoon. Gaucho is Brazilian and Abel is from Peru.

One evening, a couple of weeks later, Normalito, a friend of Gaucho and Abel’s showed up while Abel and Gaucho were playing music. He had been away in Buzios and hadn’t been around. He and I hit it off and chatted a lot about our travels. I told him about my escapades in France, England, Portugal, Morocco and Nigeria. He told me about his in India, Thailand, Ireland, Switzerland, and Spain. We hung out for a couple of days. Then, he told me he was going back to his native Peru and invited me to come with him – to travel by land from Brazil to Peru.

The very next day, Fabio called me with some good news. He had found a job for me at one of the best hotels in Rio.

I had to make a choice – travel across all of Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru with this man I barely knew or go to work in a hotel in Rio. I thought about it, and decided to travel down the unknown path. Two days later, Normalito and I had our bags packed, and left Rio de Janeiro.

It took us about a month to get across Brazil – traveling from town to town playing music and selling jewelry and another month to get across Bolivia. I learned to make bead necklaces from a French woman, Sophie, and even managed to sell a few. The month we spent in Bolivia hanging out with Bolivian, Chilean, Argentine, Peruvian, and Colombian artesanos was enough time for me to make the transition from Portuguese to Spanish. By the time we got to Peru, I was speaking Spanish pretty well.

To backtrack a bit, though, while we were in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, I decided to check my email at an Internet café. I got the news that I had been accepted, with a full ride, to the Sociology program at the University of North Carolina. Again, I had to make a choice: keep on this amazing journey across Latin America, making jewelry, hanging out with fabulous artists, and singing around campfires, or go back to school.

It wasn’t easy, but I decided that it was time to go back to school. I had been on the road – on and off – since August 1995, so in August 1999, I went back to the US and began graduate school. I am very glad I did that with four years of travel and three languages – French, Spanish, and Portuguese – under my belt.

Fortunately, traveling didn’t end with graduate school. But, it is a different sort of traveling, a sort with less abandon and more purpose.

1 comment:

  1. You know my own country better than me. The most far away place I went is a city named as Nova Ponte, MG. hehe