On the first day of my college Spanish class, I remember my professor’s curly dark hair sprinkled with white as he smiled and began rapidly talking to us, phrase after phrase without stopping. “Preguntas?” he asked us. The class stopped, staring at him, wondering the meaning of this unfamiliar word. It was proof that all you need is a word to silence everyone, no need for lengthy explanations. Eventually he spoke in English, explaining the structure of Spanish and reassuring us that if we could begin with writing and reading Spanish, speaking would easier, although it would be the last step of learning a new language. But we didn’t get off that easily. We still had to present our writings in class as he questioned us afterwards. Attempting to speak in Peru I am brought back to those moments of standing in front of my Spanish class, awkwardly stumbling through the answers to my professor’s questions. Ordering at Starbucks I think through any possible questions, ready to answer with “caliente” or “grande,” not 100 percent certain if these are the correct descriptions until I get my drink. I patiently wait at the counter, until the barista looks at the cup with the same blank stare of my classmates in Spanish 101 and quietly announces, “Bru?” Turns out I’m not the only one who is nervous about pronunciations.
Despite my nervousness, I make small attempts to practice any Spanish I can recall. In my head I know numbers, months, colors, how old I am, my birthday, and other random tidbits, but it makes no difference when I open my mouth. Marcus, my host family’s son, asks me to say numbers. I get to about twenty five (veinte cinco), feeling confident until Marcus stops me. My pronunciation is off. He lowers and shakes his head. This can’t be a good sign. Most of the times I speak Spanish, I think of kids I saw on a plane to Lima who stuck a deflated balloon under the dial that releases the air conditioning vents. The orange oval of rubber would grow to the size of a mango and then shrivel up as a parent intervenes. I can answer basic questions with short phrases and understand specific words, but I shrivel up anytime a translation needs to intervene with an interpretation. Before leaving for Peru, my family and friends are encouraging, certain I will learn more Spanish with immersion and my sister eagerly predicts I will meet a Peruvian blanket salesman who can teach me the ways of this foreign language. I’m not sure what I’ll discuss with this possible blanket salesman, so it’s a good thing there’s a “Dating and Relationships” section in my Lonely Planet Spanish Phrasebook.
To my sister’s disappointment I find no blankets at the Catacaos market stands, but there’s a huge plethora of pottery, purses, hats, and jewelry. This market in Catacaos becomes more familiar as we continue to visit La Campina to consult with a group of local stitchers about sewing woven samples of paja toquilla into clutches. The first time my co-worker, Fiorella, and I visit Enrique and his brother, the local stitchers near La Campina, they ask, “Tu entiendes?” Fiorella explains my knowledge is limited, they laugh and instruct me to say, “Ayuda,” if I need help. I already know “Ayudar” means “To help,” but smile and nod, too shy to say more in case my response yields more sentences I don’t understand. After sewing a few minutes, the machine needle breaks. “Ayuda,” I announce. Enrique heads over to replace the needle. Success. When we return, our collaboration begins with Enrique laying out the fabric and angling the scissors in his hands as he begins cutting. Fiorella begins to explain why he’s doing this, but she doesn’t need to translate this time. I understand what he’s making bias, even if we don’t speak the same language.
This connection inspires me to try Spanish again. Most of my attempts in person or on Instagram revolve around ordering or describing food, but it’s a start. My last few days in Piura I am more eager to speak, even if I don’t understand every response given to me. I travel to work sites on moto taxis on my own and maneuver the traffic speeding through Piura, certain I will reach my destination. Enrique’s genuine nature and affinity for Disneyland encourage me to speak more to him in Spanish; I’m convinced he only means well. I have to re-tell to him a few times that I was taught Spanish in college and some French in elementary school since my explanations confuse him into thinking I went to school in France or that I’m fluent in French. I ask, “Cuantos anos tu coses?” hoping he’ll understand that I want to know how long he’s been sewing. Enrique tells me he’s twenty-five. I have to ask Fiorella to translate this one. I remain resilient, however, and on my last day find myself alone in a copy and print shop doing my best to get necessary papers printed and arranged for information packets. With a few conjugations of “Necesitar” and “Querer” phrases and my hands gesturing and pointing for objects, I have manila envelopes of tech packs, patterns, and natural dyeing instructions ready for the artisans. Success.
Before I know it, my fellowship in Piura comes to an end and I arrive in Lima to meet my family. Despite my practice with Duolingo and short answers to my host mother, Mary Carmen, I don’t notice any improvements in my Spanish. My family, however, feels my Spanish is sufficient as I do my best to ask for directions and order food. I hardly feel any different about my speaking capabilities, but without someone to lean on for translation or look over my shoulder to listen for my mistakes and provide assistance, I don’t have the same fear I used to. Together my family and I attempt to learn and understand Spanish as we make our way through Peru, it’s a different pace to my previous experiences. My last time in Starbucks, I congratulate myself. I can order more than green tea, I know how to ask for a specific muffin and a coffee with soy milk, iced if desired. I anxiously wait to hear “Bru” to see if I ordered correctly. The hot beverage reaches my hands and I take a small sip. It’s just what I wanted. Success. My Spanish 101 professor would be proud.