I’m about to hit 6 months since my solo nomadic journey began. Crazy right?! Since that time I have traveled and spent time in many non-English speaking countries—Thailand, Singapore, Mexico, Colombia, Peru. English is a valuable language to know and is often a second language in many countries. Traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Europe is almost spoiling on some levels. You almost always find people who speak English. In Central and South America, however, that is not as widely the case. I know very little Spanish, and the tiny bit I do know includes ‘habla Ingles‘ (speak English?) or ‘mi espanol es no bueno’ (my spanish is no good).
I have run into some interesting occurrences throughout this journey. And Google Translate is not always my friend. It botches translations and is not always accurate. But it does help me more than if I did not have it.
Colombia placed me in challenging situations of being lost and not knowing how to find my way, to dealing with the frustration of not being able to connect with people I meet—simply because we do not speak each other’s language.
Even without knowing another person’s language, you can still find the common language of kindness, laughter, and appreciation.
When I first arrived in Colombia, I connected with a taxi driver to take me to my guest house. He was super nice. He waited for me to get money out of the ATM and carried my bags to the car for me. On the way to the city, he could see me taking pictures out of the window. I’m sure he could tell this was my first time in Medellin. He pulled over on the side of the road so that I could get some better shots. When I arrived at my destination, he wrote down his name and WhatsApp number. In botched English he invited me to remember him for any rides I would need during my time there. I did contact Andres again. He picked me up to take me back to the airport when it was time to leave Medellin. He gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek when he dropped me off at the airport. He was very happy that I remembered him. I then shared his contact information with other friends to use him.
I had a similar instance happen while in Cartagena. I got in an Uber, and once again, the driver and I did not speak the same language. He helped me to repeat a few Spanish words, and was very eager to help. Two days later, I arranged for another Uber, and it was the same driver! I’ve never had this happen before. He got so excited when he saw me and gave me a big hug when I got in the car.
For these drivers, even though we didn’t speak each other’s language, we could still share the language of smiling and laughter.
Even when you do not know the language, people are eager to help you learn.
I took a weekend trip to Taganga after leaving Cartagena. It is a small fishing village on the Caribbean. Although it is a popular tourist destination, many of the locals do not speak English. Taganga is near Tayrona National Park which includes many private, preserved beaches. I arranged for a day trip to one of the beaches. I am often too attached to my phone; I rely on it to communicate, stay up to date, get me around, and take pictures. I decided that day to leave it behind. I wouldn’t need a phone where I was going and it would be a good exercise to disconnect. I did bring my GoPro so was still able to capture some pictures. When I returned back to Taganga after a long day on the beach, I realized that I did not know how to get to my Airbnb. I had arrived at dark the night before so was not yet familiar with the area. And to add to that, I am very directionally challenged (even with a map). Since I had left my phone behind, I had to go old-school and navigate my way and ask. I walked around for nearly an hour trying to find my Airbnb. I would ask everyone I passed in botched Spanish “Where is Casa Mandala?” I would either get blank stares of given hand gestures to directions to Villa Mandala (not the same place). Finally when I felt that all was lost (literally), I was yelled at by a man sitting on his porch. He started speaking to me in Spanish, and I told him my Spanish was not good. He knew very little English, and could tell I was lost. I stood on the street for about 10 minutes learning Spanish from him. He wasn’t going to let me off the hook. He would say a word or phrase and then have me repeat it back to him. After my Spanish lesson, he pointed me in the direction where I needed to go. Manuel was very kind and patient with me. Such a rewarding experience.
Hand gestures are a form of language, and can be very powerful.
While staying at my Airbnb in Taganga, I met a really nice young man. My host told me that he is deaf and has been since birth. Since it is a poorer area, the resources are not available to help educate people with disabilities. He has never learned to read or write, nor learn sign language. Despite never learning any of that, he has persevered. He is a bright young man who has created his own construction business. He was putting a new roof up at my host’s house. He communicates to her and his workers through grunting sounds and hand gestures. My host explained to me that he has learned much of his trade either through in-person observation or via YouTube videos. I was absolutely amazed at all that he has created. And humbled by his work ethic and ability to not let his disability hold him back.
A friendly or common face can be of support in times of desperation.
After leaving Taganga, I bid farewell to Colombia and flew to Cusco, Peru. On my flight, I sat next to a younger girl likely in her early 20s. We didn’t talk on the plane, only exchanged a smile here and there. When we arrived at the airport, I learned that my bag did not make it. It was still in Bogota. I spent a while with Customer Service working out the details of getting my bag back. Once that was complete, I walked out of the terminal to try and find a taxi. I stopped at one point and felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and it was the girl who sat next to me on the plane. She started speaking to me in fast Spanish. I told her that I didn’t speak Spanish. She then gestured to my phone. I opened Google translate and she began to type a message. I learned that she had a 6 am flight out the next morning and had nowhere to stay. She was asking for my help. I paused a moment, and thought of offering up my airbnb space. I messaged my host and she was okay with me adding someone else. Then I learned of the time of her flight and we decided it would be too far of a commute that early in the morning. I then spent the next 2 hours with Breece. We grabbed a coffee and searched several options. I called and messaged several places. I finally found her a hostel only 10 min from the airport with airport transportation. I accompanied her to the hostel to ensure she got checked in okay. I sensed that she was not a seasoned travel and nervous about doing this on her own. She was from Venezuela, and it was her first time in Peru. She gave me a big hug in the end. And later messaged me how grateful she was for my help. As my sister put it, I was her angel for the day.
Travel introduces you to so many challenges, obstacles, and unforgettable moments.
If you do not travel much, you may read this and wonder why put yourself through all of this?
Travel boosts your confidence. With each challenge or obstacle, my level of confidence increases more. I feel more empowered and more confident to try new experiences. It shows me that I am capable and can make it.
You learn survival skills and other ways to navigate. I love problem solving and a good challenge. Travel opens me up to a whole world of that. It teaches me how to make it on my own and how to rely on others when I need help. It shows me there is more than one way to get somewhere or even communicate.
You meet people you likely may not meet otherwise. With each story I shared, and each memory I have, I am grateful for all of the people I meet. I may not know who they are, and I may never see them again. Meeting people from all over the world living many different ways is very humbling and eye-opening. I am grateful for each person I encounter, because I walk away with a new lesson learned or story to share.
I do hope to learn Spanish one day. I know I miss out on connecting with people on deeper levels by not knowing the language of the countries where I travel. And even without that knowledge, I still am able to communicate and learn something new.