4/15/10: Mendoza, Argentina
Pretty much everywhere we go it seems as if people are speaking in a foreign language. Yesterday on the bus, for example, the guy in the row in front of us did a half-turn in his chair to where the tip of his nose just barely sniffed the top of the head rest. Then, as if he was Dick Tracy minus the hat, he whispered, “de donde eres?” It didn’t sound English to me, so I ignored it. Two seconds later I heard it again. The tone reminded me of the guys in Nepal offering me drugs, only they actually spoke English. I looked up and caught the man’s eye. (Nuts!) “De donde eres?”
I staggered an “uhhh” and then turned to Zhou. (This has become my coping mechanism in all situations where I can’t understand what’s going on.) Usually Zhou bails me out, and this time was no different. “Estados Unidos.” He proceeded then to speak enough Spanish to completely baffle even grad student Zhou. After a bit of an awkward back-and-forth where we were telling him in English that we didn’t speak Spanish while he was speaking more Spanish back to us anyway, his wife finally turned to him and hit him in the arm. “Come on Tom [name made up to protect his reputation], just talk in English!” The guy was from Utah! He’s lived in the States all his life! He overheard us talking about American things and decided to quiz us in Spanish for no other reason than we were in Argentina. Look at what traveling does to people…
On the topic of foreign conversations though, I’ve noticed a few things during our first 217 days on the road.
(1) English really lends itself to awkward conversations. I used to think that awkward banter between two people who are afraid of silence was a universal thing. I can’t count how many times I’ve talked to someone because farting the alphabet with my armpits is no longer considered mature (that and I never was good at armpit farting). I’m sure all of you English readers feel the same way. I’ll let you in on a little secret though: there is no such thing as an awkward conversation in any language but English! We’ve now heard countless conversations in all sorts of languages, but every single time it appears that the parties involved are fully invested in what they’re talking about. I don’t know how they do it.
(2) THIS… IS… NOT… AN… INSULT. Isn’t it considered offensive in the States to talk loud and slow to someone who doesn’t speak English? Like in Rush Hour where Chris Tucker meets Jackie Chan at the airport and shouts “DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE WORDS THAT ARE COMING OUT OF MY MOUTH?!” I got the feeling that he wasn’t doing it to be helpful. After 25 years I can finally understand what it feels like to be Jackie Chan, and if I were him I’d be quite thankful for Chris Tucker’s big, slow mouth. People down here talk so incredibly quickly that even when I know what they’re saying, I can’t even finish processing the first word before they’re looking for a response. I think that this may be the first time in the history of man that anyone’s ever said this, but why can’t everyone be like Chris Tucker?
(3) I’m beginning to dread backpacker banter. It’s always the exact same. “Where are you from?” “How long are you traveling for?” “What’s been your favorite place?” “I love LeBron James.” “Oh, you’re not going there??” “Yeah, but my tour only cost x dollars.”
Well maybe I made one of those up, but the rest are constants in every travel conversation. (One conspicuous absence? Names. We’ve talked to some people for several days without ever learning their names.) I actually fell a bit guilty about this, but the repetition has gotten to the point where a couple of days ago Zhou and I and another girl chose to sit through an awkwardly silent breakfast instead of engaging in the stereotypical small talk. (Harkening back to point #1, if we all spoke Spanish then we would have had an amazing, jovial conversation.) Don’t get me wrong – we still love meeting new people, but if we can tell we’re going on separate ways in 30 minutes the silence option is beginning to look decent.
(4) Thank you.
Dhan ya bad (Nepali, only no one ever says it)
Kap khun kap (Thai)
A kun (Cambodia)
Cam on (Vietnamese)
Xie xie (Chinese)
I actually thought the list was going to be much more impressive when I started it. But that’s all Zhou and I can remember…
Picture of the Day: Yes, this is the best I could do for today…