When Spanish Hit Me – My Heartfelt Tale Of Learning Spanish in South America

I went to Chile in July 2016 to teach English in a state school. All my friends, family, relatives, acquaintances, and social connections asked if I could speak Spanish; I replied that I would learn Spanish in South America.

I went to Chile in July 2016 to teach English in a state school. All my friends, family, relatives, acquaintances, and social connections asked what made me go to Chile; I said I didn’t think too much. They asked me if I could speak Spanish; I replied that I would learn Spanish in South America.

My family concluded that going to Chile was an immature escape as at the end I would be alone and financially unstable. I was sucked down into the whirlpool of emotional hurdles that my family stirred in my career and personal life while asserting that they cared.

I had been fired. I had just ended a two-year live-in relationship which I believed would turn into the long-lasting love of my life. The Titanic sank. I was going to be twenty-nine soon. Friends were getting married. Babies were being born. I did not know anyone in Chile. I did not speak Spanish.

Before I left, an uneasy feeling of forgetting something lingered. Like the one that makes you shuffle through your pockets every time you walk out of your home. I understood later that I was scared: of being alone, of unknowns, and of not knowing Spanish.

I did not know then that in a couple of months I would be able to speak the language fluently. (Based on my Spanish learning experience, I also shared my 25 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language here.)

My first encounter with Spanish in South America

As I was nervous about arriving alone at night in the daunting metropolitan Santiago, I booked a thirty-five dollar transfer with a private company while packing my bags in the suffocating tension and heat of the North Indian summer. Its driver contacted me on Whatsapp where my profile photo was a cute, two-braided version of mine with my sister’s orange-green-yellow parrot on my shoulder. He recognised me in the swarm of heads coming out of the international arrival and walked towards me holding a signboard of my name. He was a medium-built, fair man in a white shirt and black trousers with a soft smile, receding hairline, and no English.

It struck me that even a private cab company with an online presence, which specifically targeted foreigners, had hired chauffeurs with zero English speaking skills. Maybe, I was being prepared for the oncoming roller-coaster. The cab driver, who introduced himself as Pablo, enquired if I knew Spanish, and with a negative nod of the head, I barely conveyed that I spoke a little Spanish. He said poco-poco (little-little). During the entire ride, he steered with his left hand and talked into the Google Translate Speech of the cell phone which he held with his right.

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Pablo wanted to know why was I visiting Chile from a far away ‘Hindu’ land, India. I conveyed my wish to explore South America and teach English. He asked me about the language spoken in India, and I explained how we talk in thousands of languages and dialects. Wide-eyed, he looked at me in the rear-view mirror. I was a mystery now. Not only did I come from a far-away country but I also brought another big conundrum: people of the same country speaking thousands of languages.

When Pablo enquired about the duration of my stay, I said at least four months, not wholly believing myself. Would I be able to do that? He confirmed if I was a Hindu, and I obliged, explaining that my parents were Hindu although to convey that I did not believe in religion or a god was impossible. I thank myself for not attempting. Later, I came to know that it is considered rude to blatantly express your disbelief in God as people are very religious, similar to India.

His questions had started me on the correct note as later on, almost everyone asked me the same queries. Chileans’ knowledge of India was limited to what the television news and documentaries showed, which was mostly criminal acts along with the abundance of snakes, rats, tigers, Hinduism, dowry, and yoga in India.

While conversing with me freely, Pablo complimented me that I was pretty and had big beautiful eyes. I smiled ear to ear as he had complimented me with absolute admiration. As we drove into the quiet city full of fat, furry street dogs, running after each other while some other were spread out on the pavements or streets, my eyes scanned the graffiti on the walls in the dimly lit night. A scary blue face with a big nose and curious eyes stared at me. In the interiors with narrower streets, I saw many men wandering in the dark alleys with beer bottles in their hands and tattooed arms. The lady with the weird English accent who spoke through his smart Lenovo phone warned me to be careful in Santiago: to keep my belongings close and to not trust anyone, even during the day. I settled into a state of fear. I wondered if everyone would be as compassionate as Pablo.

Another journey came to an end as Pablo parked to drop me at the hostel. He insisted on carrying my backpack inside the hostel and kissed on the cheek wishing me a pleasant stay. A Chilean friend, with whom I had traveled in Southeast Asia, had told me that Chileans greet by kissing the right cheek. They don’t care if you are familiar with the concept or it might make you uncomfortable — this instead convinced me of their innocence.

I wished that Pablo could have accompanied me until I felt safe and not-so-lost. Loaded with the warmth of his hug, I checked-in the hostel. Exhausted with the thirty-six-hour long journey, I quickly snugged in the bunk bed under seven soft blankets. It was time for jet-lag, but my deep slumbers on the plane had transferred me to the new time zone, soundly.

When Spanish hit me – And I realized that understanding and learning Spanish in South America would be tough.

And the Chilean culture made it an even bigger challenge.

As I started settling down, Chileans and other English speaking foreigners or ‘gringos’ apprised me that few people spoke English in South America and that Chile was the worst country to start learning Spanish. The Chilean dialect is fast-paced and has a distinct pronunciation from the rest of South America. Chileans drop some of the alphabets, such as s, from the end of the word and even on your lucky day, would bombard you with idioms. Couldn’t they have sent a note before?

For a few weeks, I blankly watched the moving lips of the Chileans with whom I interacted daily and tried to untangle the jumble of words while referring to my naive mental Spanish dictionary.

Suddenly, I was the toothpaste cover girl: silent and vacuously smiling. Like the referee in a tennis match, I turned my head from one speaker to another to understand the expressions. I was the excluded newcomer of the class; rarely asked for advice or answer unless directly involved. Avoiding conversations was a new skill that I was assimilating. The quick cat who used to jump at everyone (literally with words) was out of breath and was watching silently from under the bed.

Spanish was not the only villain. Chileans love to talk about personal things, such as weight, age, complexion, romantic relationships, number of children you bore or are planning to bear, and even the sex positions you like or dislike. And they rarely care if you understand their super fast Spanish or not. Once, I was in the house of my English head teacher’s friend when all the ladies — the head teacher, her friend, and head teacher’s sworn mother — started laughing. The big-bellied lawyer son of the friend, who sat next to me on the dining table, caught my disoriented expressions and explained that they were talking about us having sex. I gasped at the oddity of the place and people for such a conversation. Not to mention the strangeness of the man involved.

In the teacher’s staff room, my head teacher along with other teachers freely joked about sex and everything had a double meaning. I was so far away from the literal sense that grasping the double meaning was like trying to pluck a coconut by jumping on my feet. Ironically, I was the double-meaning-queen back home. The Physics professor always greeted me multiple times so that he could kiss me. His big belly shook as he approached me pouting. I was afraid of the kiss landing on my lips and also, of his thick beard. As I started understanding the relevant words, I was mostly collapsing into myself with vivid details.

Cecilia, my host mother, who only spoke Spanish, patiently repeated words so that I could remember them. I can’t recall how many times she served a full second helping of pasta or rice as I could not convey that I did not want more. Cecilia was a short, energetic, fun, sixty-year-old lady. One Friday night as we all drank beer, she said something about the juicy mangoes of another English teacher from the US, who also stayed with us, and I turned around hoping not to hear about my juicy mangoes ever. I had to. Later, a Chilean nurse, our housemate, complimented my breasts in her own slang, while a Chilean Psychologist, a male housemate, translated. People stared unwaveringly and complemented my brown complexion. I can never turn red, but Chile had started putting colour in my cheeks.

I survived on translations. We all know that interpretations can be compromised and are at the mercy of the translators.

I spoke within the limits of my infant, two-page, ink-smudged vocabulary. It was enough to cover routine activities but any new event — feeling like having a coffee instead of tea or the hot water heater not turning on at seven in the cold morning as two other people lined outside to take a shower — sucked me into the vacuum of words.

I longed to ask the students if they liked my classes. One line was easy to memorize, but what about the conversation that would have followed? “Catalina, Francisco, Francisca … Jesus,” I called out students names to take to class. An auditorium crowded with students, teachers, and coordinators laughed as I sank into the floor. Jesus was to be pronounced as hesoos as in Spanish J sounds as H. English window of Google Translate generally spat out the same word as it was incorrectly spelled. Thanks to the clear Chilean pronunciation.

A Chilean man Eduardo, whom I met through a common friend, told me he liked me. I smiled while mentally translating the words to a language I am used to being admired in. I was perpetually watching a foreign language movie without subtitles. Moreover, I was part of it and was required to act. The uneasiness pestered me like a constant toothache.

Imagine, if Madonna could not sing. Michael Jackson could not dance. Suddenly, my magic wand — my words — had been taken away. That’s when I decided to break the shell.

The craving to speak – When I embraced embarrassment to be able to speak Spanish in South America

Abandoning the embarrassment of incorrect speech and hopeless pronunciation, I jumped at every opportunity of conversation. I taught myself grammar from a book; the grammatical concepts wiped off the doubts that had surfaced with Chilean Spanish. Minor mistakes never mattered to Chileans; I was being an idealistic Virgo. I watched the news with subtitles. Waited for the sterile soap operas that I would not deign to watch back home.

I rehearsed all possible scenarios of the future conversations like a programmer thinks of all possible inputs to a program. But even the ‘Hello World’ window did not pop up sometimes. Discussions at a party were most difficult as the drunken Chilean-Spanish is a steeper mountain to climb. Some days, I felt prepared, but suddenly people started using new words.

Hand gestures concluded what words could not. A hand wave to the left meant past; right meant future. Instead of Spanish, I was mastering sign language.

I was so exhausted sometimes that instead of processing the words my brain just queued them up. Understanding and speaking Spanish involved constant unnatural brain work. I nodded along; everyone believed I concurred a lot.

Ruined conversations — courtesy my broken Spanish — revisited, like a nagging partner.

Once, I went to the pharmacy to buy sanitary napkins. As I stood at the counter, I realized that I did not know the Spanish words for a sanitary napkin. I gazed at the pharmacist. As if I was trying to recall a chemical equation for mixing chemicals in a test tube, while the lab assistant observed. The pharmacist finally said something about women sanitary needs, and I shouted, si (yes). I could not avoid visiting a dentist when my molar, with a cavity as huge as my fist, ached. The dentist explained the problem to my host mother, and both the ladies knitted their eyebrows together while my host mother occasionally peeped into my mouth and kept repeating muy mal (very bad). I wondered, with an open mouth and drooling saliva, if I was dying. My brain rushed to my assistance and convinced me that a dentist would not know that. Once, in a jewelry shop, I asked the material of the ring by giving reference to the Olympics. Of course, gold and silver can be only referred by Olympics standings. I used to go to a top-floor, ocean-view coffee shop in the shopping mall. I ordered so many cups of coffee and tea, but only once or twice I got what I wanted.

Luckily, none of these conversations dumped me into an unpleasant place.

The auto-correct bubble was filled by Latin Americans. They are helpful; don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. As I backpacked solo across Chile, Bolivia, and Peru for five months, I realized that their conventions change with the country: like the variety of mango changes across Indian states. Though throughout South America people are friendly, like the mangoes are sweet, juicy, and delicious all over India.

From picking me up, to barbecuing pork or chicken, because I did not eat beef, preparing piscos, teaching me Spanish, listening patiently when all I did was mumble and cry, waiting for me to finish phone calls back home to eat together, baking cakes for my birthday and inviting to their houses, and persuading me to eat with hands when the pork was bony — Latinos did it all.

They even watched me with welled-up eyes when I stood up on my Spanish feet in their continent. As I bought groceries or took a cab for the first time, I dashed through the door to narrate my success story, while the housemates and the host mother watched me proudly.

With basic conversations, a bridge started getting built between the Latin American people and I. As I comprehended more, it grew longer and stronger. South Americans also cemented the bricks in the bridge from their end by enunciating and repeating the words, by rewording, and by being patient even when they were unsure if I understood.

Some nights, I hit the bed joyfully; other nights, I tossed around wondering if we would ever understand each other completely. I dreaded a vacuum of relationships that I thought I could never form: with people such as my host mother, professors and my students at the school, friends of people I knew, and men whom I liked.

My fears never materialised.

When the hard work finally paid-off – The goodbyes in Spanish in South America.

In my farewell speech, the director of my school said that my evergreen smile reminded her of the sole purpose of life: being happy. My host mother was in tears when I left as she was not sure if she will ever get a daughter again who always cared. When I visited my students for the last time before returning back to India, they told me that they wanted me back as they had gotten used to me and missed my classes. Some of the boys wanted to marry me.

I made a lot of friends. Cooked Indian food in their closest gatherings. Danced on Bollywood songs with them. They wished if I could marry their sons. They said they will cry when I leave, and they did.

And apart from my social nature and goodness of the people of Chile, my colloquial Spanish played a big role in forming all these connections.

But how did I learn the day-to-day conversational, heart-winning style?

Conversing in a language colloquially is an art: like baking bread. You need the perfect flour-to-water ratio, activated, frothy yeast, some sugar, the right temperature, and the impeccable rise along with kneading: a demanding skill, and punching of the dough. You miss any one of these, and the bread will lack the crackling crust or the soft crumb. Recipes and Youtube videos help, but you will only nail the preparation once you have made it a few times with love and care.

Similarly, you have to practice colloquial conversations by talking to native speakers. If you are attentive, you grasp the accent, appropriate words, modifications, speed, and idioms. As I have been a talker all my life, I noticed all these little nuances, practiced them, and these amalgamated me with the people.

I have seen truck drivers, who let me hitchhike, light up as I referred to them as Caballero (gentlemen). Or women gleaming with pride as I complimented their cheese empanadas with idioms.

As I started speaking Spanish, even conversations back home and English writing simmered in Spanish pots.

Didn’t I feel scared when I was alone in South America without being able to speak Spanish?

Traveling solo, especially as a woman, without knowing the language, is like driving at night on a mountain road without street lights and under heavy fog. There are hairpin bends, and you can’t see beyond fifty meters. There are infinite possibilities for accidents.

But I had started this solo drive around the world five years ago and had my fair share of doubts.

I was sure that the cab driver who asked if he could sleep in my room in Munnar would break in. Or that the man who brushed by in New Delhi definitely took my purse. Or the motorbike taxi drivers who came to drive me in Goa were going to abduct me. Or the old, creepy, twisted-teeth man cycling in Bangkok who turned around when I smiled would not leave me alone. Or the young tattooed guy who followed me in the streets of Paris would force himself on me in a dark alley. Or the guides and the helpers on the Amazon tour in Peru would grab and kiss me as they always pursued me.

Once, I was attending a birthday party with a friend at his friend’s place, near my home in Chile. We drank, sang, barbecued, danced, and discussed Shiva and Yoga until 4 am. My friend was so high that he got dropped by his friends. I decided to walk as I lived nearby. Google Maps never worked in that small town, and my sense of direction is my most-trusted asset. So, I balanced my trust in the fact that everything works out.

As I got lost and crossed the friend’s house twice, embarrassingly hoping that no one saw me, I walked into a street full of dogs: around seven to eight in varied sizes who all looked barbarous. They yapped and growled as they saw me approaching closer. They started closing up on me. I was sure that I was their late dinner. Or that they would bite me and leave me to die. Their barks echoed in the late dark hours. I walked with baby steps and tried to hush them off in Spanish. I managed to cross that street without any wrestling. After taking a few turns as I got a glimpse of the main road, I saw a man walking towards me. Newspaper headlines from back home flashed in front of my eyes, “An eighteen-year-old girl dragged off the street and raped in broad daylight” and many more. Rivulets of sweat trickled down my temple. We merely crossed each other.

My mental GPS had activated; I was still two streets away from my home. Then, I heard a car engine and loud screeching of tires. Someone was driving rash, close by. I paced up. In a few minutes, I could spot the red car at a distance. It reminded me of Maruti Omni, the kidnapping vehicle of India. I imagined the door sliding and being pulled inside by three bulky, cold Chilean men. I imagined my friends searching for me and being found at the beach the next day. As the car and I closed on from opposite directions, my throat parched and breath grew heavier. The driver slowed down to have a look at me and then drove away. Finally, I arrived home, and as I unchained the main gate, I sighed with relief.

South America is notorious as a dangerous place for female travelers or women, but I did not feel more insecure than any other place I have been to. My cell phone was snatched from my hands in a bus, but that could have happened to anyone who wasn’t careful in the hustle and bustle of Santiago.

Also Read: My Worst Travel Experience – When Two Teenage Boys Snatched my Phone and Ran Away in the Delinquent Santiago

Even all the solo male travelers that I have met have been scared at some point: of malaria in Amazon, of getting knocked out and robbed in some dark street in La Paz, of being stopped on a motorbike by corrupt police in Chiang Mai, of the stoned hostel receptionist in Sucre, or of going into a Brazilian City when the tour agency warned them of kidney thefts.

I have been able to drive down the mountain road without any casualties while appreciating the silence of the drive.

Do I miss speaking Spanish in South America?

As I dwell on these memories, thousands of kilometers away from my second home at the end of the world, I miss the wine and the Spanish conversations around the fire. I miss learning new words every day and coming up with discussions to be able to practice them. I long for the kiss on the cheek in the morning and the one every time I left home.

South America stripped off my husk. I care less about minor junk. I wear beautiful dresses and walk fearlessly in the Indian streets with a red lip color on. I enjoy the stares. I believe anything is possible. I hug, pat, and kiss people whenever. I laugh freely. My family has finally started accepting who I am. I have discovered new liberalism. I am myself more than ever.

I have not had enough of South America, and I will go back one day. To find what is left behind.


spanish in south america

Are you planning to go to South America? Let me know if you are excited or nervous about speaking Spanish in South America after reading this essay.

Buen Viaje!

All images belong to the author. 

First published at author’s blog

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About the Author

Priyanka Gupta

Priyanka Gupta is an itinerant writer, a travel blogger, and a poet at heart. She travels often and long and tells the stories of people she meets on the road. Read more of her writing read more...

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