Learning Spanish in South America

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November 20th 2008
Published: November 20th 2008
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We clacked and clanged our way across the Peruvian border on an ancient one-carriage train. We set off from Arica (Chile) clearing immigration at the tiny station and arrived into Tacna (Peru) where the train proceeded through the centre of town, behaving more like a bus than a train, navigating a roundabout and braking for a truck that wasn't planning on stopping. The train seemed ill-equipped to have 'international' status and that's because it was. It only became international by chance, when Chile claimed Arica and all of a sudden that little train was a big deal. The new responsibility didn't go to its head though and a ticket costs just 1200 Pesos (around US$3). With one tiny carriage and ticket price cheaper than a completo it might just be the smallest, cheapest international train in the world.

Tacna itself didn't seem to have a lot going for it so we continued on to Arequipa. A city of volcanoes and buildings built out of volcanic rock, it’s got an impressively grand central plaza and snow-capped mountains towering behind an imposing cathedral. The streets are full of mini yellow taxis zooming around the challengingly narrow streets with all the confidence of a car advertisement. Arequipa's star attraction is Monasterio Santa Catalina. The nunnery is more like a nun-city within a city. Behind the high walls are winding flower-lined streets, courtyards and dozens of austere rooms and personal kitchens. The nuns weren’t allowed to venture outside of the nunnery and there are revolving hatches in the outer wall, which the women used to trade with the world outside. It's a scary place (for a modern girl who equates high walls with prisons) and the nuns apparently took centuries to be 'subdued' after arriving from wealthy Spanish families and treating it all as a great laugh. Surely there's a film to be made out of that.

We'd heard good things about the nearby Colca Canyon, the second deepest Canyon in the world (beaten by just 163m by a not-very-accessible neighbour). We were eager to go but struggled to find out how we could do it independently. There are lots of places that offer 'tourist information' but only the kind of tourist information that results in you booking a tour. In fact, this is a favoured tactic in Peru. It's also in evidence in Chile and is perhaps wheeled out across the whole of South America. It involves a tour booking office whacking up a great big whopping sign saying 'tourist information' and trying to 'inform' you into parting with your money. Some places really go for it with serious looking signs with the right style of font and even a little 'i'. Our one and only experience of trying to get information in one of these places was in a bus station in Chile where they had even gone to the effort of printing 'Tourist Information' t-shirts. A lady solemnly informed us that the best way of getting from the bus station into town was by booking a one-day tour. The majority of these places are a little more half-hearted and some are even just shops who hope that by sticking up a sign they might manage to sell a confused tourist an alpaca jumper when what they really want is the location of the train station. It really is far more entertaining than normal tourist information. Thankfully normal tourist information does exist too, in the bigger towns there are 'i-Peru´ centres where the people aren't so creative with the information, but it does have the bonus of actually being true.

After finding some information on the internet Maps and Info (useful if you’re looking to do the same) and getting a bit more from i-Peru, we got on Cabanaconde-bound bus. The bus appeared to be providing the one and only service for all the small towns and villages on the 6hr journey between Arequipa and Cabanaconde. When it wasn't surprisingly full it was ridiculously so, and all the standing passengers would groan and giggle as every turn sent the mass of people crushing into each other. It was a Sunday and everyone seemed to be going to a fiesta somewhere or other. At one point a dance-troop of teenagers crushed on with costumes and headdresses, heading off to a dance competition in a nearby town. We felt the effects of the altitude as the bus travelled at over 4800m, occasionally feeling like we'd accidently been holding our breath and having to make up for it with a few gulps. When we arrived in Cabanaconde, the town was in full fiesta swing with a band and costume-clad locals. There was a group of old-boys in a side street off the plaza having their own private jamming session, aided by an unidentified indigenous instrument and a few bottles of Arequipena beers.

We were directed by smiley locals out of the sign-less town and followed a dirt road flanked by agricultural terraces and the view of distant mountains until we reached the edge of the canyon and struggled to believe the view and understand how Colca isn't better known (go there, really!). We could see right down into the canyon and along the length of it with a 180 degree view. The zigzag of a barely-visible donkey track on the other side of the steep canyon wall marked out our path. We could see clusters of speckles on some of the ridges; the villages we would walk through. The view stayed with us as the path turned into a donkey track hugging the edge of the canyon. It was undoubtedly the most stunning trek I've done and I think it will be pretty hard to beat for the constant view, the isolation and the tiny villages you encounter along the way. The fact that you can do it on your own, without the aid of a tour guide, is the icing on the cake. We passed men with laden donkeys and women
extreme close-upextreme close-upextreme close-up

llamas always have cool facial expressions
with full skirts walking between the villages. We saw more donkeys than people and passed the remnants of abandoned villages; the locals having given up on living somewhere so physically challenging with no ready employment. After a steep climb we made it to San Juan de Chuccha and a small group of huts (called ‘Roy’s Place’), which turned out to be a great place to stay with stunning views and private huts with thatched roofs in a small garden. Lack of electricity meant a meal by candlelight and after gazing up at the starry night sky an early night under piles of blankets.

The next day the son of the family showed us the path to take to reach the bottom of the canyon (admittedly, the canyon can be pretty hard to navigate at times, with paths frequently branching). After an hour or so, we could see some waterfalls and a big patch of green at the bottom of the canyon with thatched roof huts and a couple of swimming pools(!) We were tempted to stay there the night but the cost and effort of transporting food and water to the bottom of the canyon meant meals and even just a bottle of water was more than the price of a bed for the night. We met some people down there who had bought a water filtration device and enough food for a few days. We really wished we had done the same! After a swim in the icy-cold pool and some food we laced up the hiking boots to begin the killer walk to the top. We hiked a couple of thousand metres in around two and half hours with plenty of rests to get our breath and for me to try and regain some feeling in my legs (which were rapidly turning to lead). We made it to the top and I felt pretty proud to have done it and not resorted to a donkey which the locals predictably tried to tempt us with (in return for a modest payment).

We travelled on to the town of Puno, on the edge of Lake Titicaca where we went out on a boat trip to Las Islas Flotantes and Isla Taquille. After talking to other travellers who had already been, we were well prepared for an extremely touristy experience. Unfortunately, there is no real choice other than to book on a tour with countless other tourists and the Uros people seem to have given up more traditional pursuits to focus on tourism. It was still very interesting (although by the end of it we had information overload, with our tour guide talking almost non-stop).
The Islas Flotantes are floating islands handmade out of woven reeds with ropes to anchor them in place. The Uros decided to live in such an unusual way when they got sick of war-mongering types on the mainland. Making themselves islands of reeds and 'sailing' off onto the lake was a very effective - if not slightly extreme - way of getting some peace and quiet. They still live on the lake in communities of closely-moored islands, with up to a couple of families per island. If a family decides they've had enough of their neighbours it's very easy to just lift anchor and float away - all in all a pretty good idea.

We also visited the island of Taquille, a three hour chug from the mainland. It's a beautiful island of farmed terraces and stunning lake views. The people still dress traditionally with the single men wearing different coloured
Guinea Pigs....Guinea Pigs....Guinea Pigs....

...yum yum! (apparently)
hats to the married men and the women swapping their brightly coloured clothes for more subdued ones upon marriage. Divorce is unheard of, but couples can co-habit before taking the plunge and swapping their singles-garb for the duller get-up of marriage. The tour went a bit crazy after lunch with the tour guide declaring 'now the Uros people will dance for you!' as if they were a pack of performing monkeys. It was quite an uncomfortable experience especially when we have been 100%!s(MISSING)uccessful in avoiding such 'cultural' experiences so far. Then the tour guide took it up another notch by declaring 'and now you will dance with the Uros people!' and like some horrific Saturday night at Butlins the unlucky chosen ones were led off to join the fun. Actually it was pretty fun (for me) because Paul was among the chosen ones and was led off by a tiny woman who came up to his mid-chest area and grinned up at him in awe - from the colour of her clothes I could tell I was safe.

Our travel in Peru was impeded by strikes and blockades. Our first experience with Peruvian People Power was when we were ready to leave Puno and the road out had been blocked by farmers. It's not considered news to the locals and a google search in an attempt to glean any information just brings up blogs describing past strikes/blockades (of which there are many). Asking locals is not much better, they shrug their shoulders and smile sympathetically; it could be an hour, a week, or a month before the roads re-open. Asking travellers about the situation out of Puno we heard stories of having to give up on the bus and walk past boulders blocking the roads, hoping to find a taxi to take them to the next set of road blocks and having to dodge the occasional stone being thrown (the preferred way to speed up the slow government response to the stand-off). We decided to avoid the boulders and flying stones and found a bus company that was taking an alternative, longer but calmer route. Unfortunately the route involved going off-road on dirt tracks not designed for a bus. Our driver pulled off a number of dubious manoeuvres, having to complete a 3-point turn on a cliff edge. His nerves turned it into a 9-point turn and his visible shaking did little to inspire confidence. At one point, he signalled for a bus coming from the opposite direction to pull over and he hurried over to ask them about what lay ahead. He paced out the width of their bus and measured it against ours shaking his head and gesturing frantically. Later on, we stopped behind a line of lorries, it appeared we weren't the only ones determined to get to Puno. The driver turned off the engine and we sat and waited until the news travelled back that a bridge was the cause of the problem. Sometime later we started to proceed along the way again until we reached the bridge, which certainly looked wide enough but was somewhat doubtfully strong enough. We were all told to get off and walk across which we did gladly, not envying the bus driver’s job of finding out whether the bridge was up to the task. It made it across and we boarded again on the other side, driving past a truck piled high with logs - its driver having an unenviable decision to make. It was with some relief that we arrived into Cusco.

Unfortunately though, we found Cusco to be having its own problems, with transport workers striking and demonstrations in town. It seems that strikes and blockades are the preferred way of getting the government to listen in Peru (although it appears to have very little success). Luckily Cusco is a beautiful place and we were kept busy there. On our first day we searched the internet to find a good school for studying Spanish. It seems everyone has jumped on the bandwagon and there are lots of dodgy or just plain bad schools trying to cash in. Luckily a lot of the websites are almost identical and look like a child was heading the graphic design team so it is easy to discount dozens of the imposters with one click. We decided to go with Acupari, which as it turned out, was one of the two original schools in Cusco and possibly one of the best. We turned up, signed up and started that afternoon. We both decided to make the most of the cheap prices in Peru and have individual lessons. I spent months in Korea studying Spanish (much to the confusion of my Korean work colleagues) so a group class wouldn't have been possible with the unusual gap between my comprehension and ability to speak. The individual classes aren't even all that much more expensive and no matter whether you decide to do a group class or individual classes, Peru is one the cheapest places in South America to learn.

The first class started with a level test which I did sufficiently well in for them to expect a higher level of proficiency when I actually opened my mouth. We spent the next few days trying to bridge the gap between what I knew and what I could say (and the painfully long amount of time it took me to say it). We had four hours a day, split into two-hour sessions. We talked for the first hour and I was pleased that I managed to talk about anything that came up with reasonable success. The classes were fantastic, largely because the teachers are so experienced in talking to learners and make you feel more than capable of conversing on any subject. They also correct you, which most people don't like to do, meaning you make the same mistakes again and again.

Unfortunately, after four hours of discussing anything from Peruvian politics to the sinking of the Titanic, it's a shame you have to re-enter the real world of day-to-day Spanish speakers where you don't even understand a simple question from a waiter. Context and guesswork will get you so far but you will be tripped up time and time again by awkwardly-phrased overly-polite language, local colloquialisms, the unexpected, unnecessary questions and people who fashion their speaking style on a ventriloquist’s dummy.

We decided that the only way to learn 'real' Spanish was to live with a family whilst we were having the lessons. I've never been a fan of B&Bs and found the idea of sitting around the breakfast table with my new family a little bit disconcerting - especially the idea of being expected to converse in Spanish whilst still half-asleep and trying to eat breakfast. Luckily the family acted like it was the most normal thing in the world (which I suppose it was for them) and we managed to bumble along, our Spanish proficiency a mere shadow of what it was in the classroom. The family slowed down to include us but the topics flew by and just when a response was being formed the moment had passed. The husband of the family, Mario, spoke very slowly but for some strange reason it was still almost impossible to fathom a word of it. His brother-in-law had an extremely clear way of speaking and loved to tell a story, one of which seemed to involve a jungle tribe who slowly gave way to western materialism, which eventually led to the downfall of their civilisation... or maybe it was about some guys who lived out in the sticks and bought a radio off some other guys.

'oh how terrible/wonderful!! (please delete as applicable)' Was pretty much my response at the end of most of his lengthy monologues.

We were lucky that they were so nice and made the effort to make us feel comfortable, despite the fact we must have seemed like utter morons. They also managed not to give us the look. I'm sure anyone who has spoken in a foreign language is familiar with it. The look which starts as soon as you utter the first syllable of your question/comment, with the listener’s eyebrows drawing together and a I'm-trying-my-damn-hardest-to-make-something-out-of-all-of-this-near-gibberish-you're-spouting’ look. It's fairly annoying when you're asking a simple question and they stare back at you with a concentration-crumpled face. As if looking like they're in pain is going to make it any easier for them to understand you anyway. And the majority of the time, it turns out that you're not really that hard to understand after all, because as soon as you're finished speaking, their face relaxes and they answer you right back. I swear some people put on the look as soon as it appears you're about to say something, it's the oh-my-god-the-foreigner’s-about-to-speak look - mercifully the majority of people don't feel the need to sport it.

Not quite satisfied with the amount of immersion we were getting we also opted for 'tandem partners.' The tandem scheme is a brilliant language learning idea where you meet up with a native speaker of the language you are learning, who wants to learn your language. You talk in one language for an hour and the other for the next hour, or however you want to work it.

My tandem partner was a girl called Yerno, we spoke in Spanish first and she told me in no uncertain terms she would be correcting all my mistakes and expected me to return the favour. The fact that you are both in exactly the same position (with each other’s languages) and really want to learn to speak without sounding like a complete idiot makes it natural and fun. As well as the language learning it was really nice to wander around the city with a local of my age and to find out about her life, Cusco, Peru and anything else that came up. The sudden switch to English after an hour felt like I'd just removed the cotton wool from my head and I switched into the corrector’s role.

Paul met up with a guy called Carlos for his tandem and got on with him really well. The next time they met up, I joined them after a while and we went to a bar for live music, along with Carlos' friend and girlfriend. We had a great night, (the band was amazing!) and got to speak a good mix of English and Spanish. More than that it was just really fun to have a night out with locals.

In between strikes we managed to get to Machu Picchu. We didn't do the Inca Trail due to having to book it months in advance, the cost (about US$350) and the trail being full of people. Instead we thought we'd stick to free treks and take the train to save money. We handed over our 100-and-something Soles only to receive the reply of: no, no, it's 100-and-something in US dollars. In Soles it's a horrifying amount I'll probably have to repeat several times for you to believe. Or words/facial expressions to that effect. We were suitably horrified that we were having to pay over 300 soles for a relatively short train ride. We had to resort to plastic because that kind of money doesn't frequent our wallets. Normally we pay 30-40 Soles for a room, 3-15 Soles for a meal - a figure with two zeros has no place on our Soles scale. It turned out that the train-ticket shock was just training for the Machu Picchu experience where everything (accommodation, food, transport) is more expensive than we ever thought possible. It seems that the new wonder of the world wants you to wonder at the expense too. Good job it really is an incredible sight.
We arrived at 6am and saw the fog slowly lift, swirling across the ruined city, hiding and revealing different parts until finally we could see the whole city and Wayna Picchu towering over it. We spent hours there and luckily found the tour groups to be minimal (although displaying the typical tour-group mentality where the only brain operating is that of the tour guide and the group are physically incapable of controlling themselves independently.) You are pretty much free to walk anywhere and it becomes labyrinth-like at points, where you hit a dead end or find an archway blocked by a stubborn llama (the local grass-cutters).
We climbed up Wayna Picchu for an aerial view of Machu. It was quite an easy climb (I think most climbs are going to seem easy after Colca Canyon): steep but straightforward and the view from the top was very impressive with a perfect view of Machu below. It was well worth all the money in the end (and we did have some serious doubts that it would be)...

... some photos!

Additional photos below
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20th November 2008

Great post and awesome photos!
Hello, Browsing other people's travel stories...just had to pop in and say I loved your post on Peru. Nice writing, and great pictures! We visited Peru in April and loved it. Laryssa PS-I don't think I could stand on a crowded bus for 6 hours. You deserve a medal for that one.
23rd November 2008

I love Paul's hat!
He looks fantastic. Mike calls it facial hair extravaganza.
25th November 2008

Hi Cat! Great to hear you are now in Peru! An other amazing blog and what an experience...feel like I barely touched Peru when I read your blog and make me want to go back there again!! Love the "look" part ... indeed, guess we have all been in that situation! (let you imagine in China how it went at the beginning!) What's next for you two?
11th February 2009

just came across your blog.........
I'm so happy to have found, and read your blogs. The ones on your South American adventures will serve me well as I have always planned on getting there sometime. I just hope I'd have the same happy and exciting adventures ...... though I doubt I can write about it as well as you do. You're good.
18th January 2010

Blog of the year 2009, for the c and s America/photography category
Check this out :) http://www.travelblog.org/Forum/Threads/22180-1.html

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