Speaking Spanish in Latin America

Speaking Spanish in Latin America

Latin America is incredibly easy, I must admit. Talking to people is fairly easy too. With a few exceptions that only confirm the rule, people are truly friendly. At times shy, yet friendly and ready to help if you need a hand. A lady followed me around in Ipiales, Colombia, after she realised I did not understand her directions. Yet, at times they confuse me. It is not just a matter of understanding the language, which in theory I do. They speak Spanish all over, but words change between countries so each time I cross the border I have to switch my listening mode, pay more attention, learn new words and get to understand the accent. I have been learning ways of saying “cool”. In Colombia and Ecuador, they say “chevere”. In Costa Rica they say “pura vida” and the equivalent in Colombia is “buena onda”.  Words for “parking” change, and so words for “rent” – some say “alquilar”, in other countries “arrendar”.

San Jose, Costa Rica

Imagine having to ask directions in Spanish, in Costa Rica – photo courtesy of Alquiler de Caches (flickr)

The hardest Spanish to understand was by far that spoken by Nicaraguans – could be because they are very reserved and hardly talked to us or because they speak so very fast? Easiest were the Costa Ricans. In Colombia, accent varies greatly from place to place, but this is normal, the country is simply huge; and at times I have to ask them to speak more slowly! But when they do, you will manage to listen to all sort of wonderful stories. I was sitting in a square in Getsemani, one of the oldest “barrios” in Cartagena. It is a gathering place at night, for children who play football, residents who want to have a chat and enjoy the fresh breeze coming from the sea, and travellers who want to enjoy local action. I remember just asking the man sitting on a bench whether he minded if I sat next to him. He did not, and in fact he told me he used to be the mayor of the barrio, and started recollecting the history of it, explaining about its secrets, its renovation, and telling me a bit about the culture and way of life of the inhabitants. I have thus learned that Cartagena was built specifically to allow the breeze from the sea, and that at around 2 pm all locals sit on chairs outside of their homes to cool down a bit, and sometimes they rent those chairs to passers by (or so I understood). How funny!

Turtles in Tortuguero

Turtles won’t talk!

However, imagine getting lost in Central or South America. Any time I ask for directions, I get confused. In all Central America, whenever they mean to say “go straight”, they use the expression “todo recto”. In Colombia, they say “derecho” which I automatically confuse with “derecha” (right). Add to this the fact that at times they speak incredibly fast, that they start stopping and asking other people and get talking even faster, each with a different opinion and each eager to help, and here you have me, getting even more lost but having a great time seeing how people are so nice!

Surely, something that all Latin America shares is a sense of timing and distance that to Europeans is hardly understandable. You may ask the same question, ie “how far is…?” to ten different persons within 2 minutes and they would give you all different estimates. Somebody would tell you “ohhhh it is very far” and when you ask “ok, how far” they reply “very far!”. If you ask for an estimate in chilometers (“far” to Europeans means almost nothing!), they would just as easily give you different views. The same distance, to some would be 5 km, to others 10 or even 15! And surely they never recommend walking there, “porque està lejo!” – because it is far (even though it may be no more than 15 minutes walk). Estimates of timing are not different. The person selling you a bus ticket may tell you that travelling to your destination is only 2 hours, then the bus driver would tell you 3, and surely, you will get there in possibly 4.

Lesson learned: always allow plenty of time to travel even the shortest distances and enjoy the ride.

Check my other posts on communication.