I went to South America knowing enough Spanish to order a chalupa at Taco Bell. I came back knowing a lot more, including not to order a chalupa when you can find a cuy or lapingachas instead.
It's a little embarrassing, really, not knowing more Spanish. I live in Los Angeles, arguably home of the most diverse Latino population in the world: Mexicans, Argentineans, Spaniards, Nicaraguans, every country represented by a neighborhood in the L.A. megalopolis. I'd traveled fairly extensively in Costa Rica, Mexico and Spain before, bumbling my way around Castillian gracias and Tico holas. But because my Spanish was survival-level only, I never took the time to really learn the beautiful lilt of the language.
That's why I went to Ecuador. Sure, some of my friends think I went in order to kayak whitewater rivers in the Amazon, or dance all night at salsathequas or swim with sea lions in the Galapagos but my real reason was to learn Spanish. Not the half-assed order-taco-Spanish I attempted before, but honest to goodness understanding and conversation. Honestly, it was about as hard as running Class III rapids on the Misahualli River, and twice as rewarding.
Immersion cures all ills
I contacted Language Studies Abroad, a U.S. based organization that arranges for short and long term language study experiences all over the globe. They have partnerships with private language schools in sixteen countries, and personally vouch for the quality of each program. An LSA expert helped me define what I was looking for in a school (short term, home stay, small, intensive), and then helped me narrow my choices from places like Madrid and Puerto Vallarta to finally settling on Estudio Internacional Sampere in Cuenca, Ecuador.
Probably the most important aspect of studying any language is first to get out of the classroom and into the country. Immersion cures all ills, or at least helps cover up your fluency deficiencies by overdose of local dialect. Studying Spanish or any other language in a classroom in the States simply is too narrow an experience. Language skills cannot be amputated from the culture, the life, and the country of origin. That said, your language experience is only as rich as your understanding and there's no way street slang will get you to the highest level. Only real instruction, and yes, homework, can do that.
Estudio Internacional Sampere is part of a network of Spanish schools in Madrid, Alicante, El Puerto, and Salamanca, Spain and Cuenca, Ecuador. Because Cuenca is hands-down the most charming Ecuadorian city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and central for exploration of Ecuador's diverse riches, Sampere is just one of at least a half dozen Spanish language schools in the quiet colonial town. They are however, by stint of their satellite schools and many years of language instruction, one of the most professional, organized, and effective language schools in the country with thick workbooks, homework every night, extended cultural activities, dedicated profesors and profesoras.
Classes are serious at Sampere. I was in the Elementary, Intensive two-week course that began every morning at 7:45 a.m. and lasted until noon. I had a small class, as most are, and we worked through Grammar, Conversation, and Exercise classes with our respective profesoras each day. The students at Sampere were incredibly varied: from Tanja and the crazy Swiss-Germans who'd been there for months to Rachel, the Scottish lass, and Gilles, French world traveler and veteran of several international Spanish schools, to Anne, the Colorado retiree studying between trips to the Galapagos and the Amazon. Several were students on a break from University; others had just quit the rat race and were enjoying la vida Ecaudoriana for a while before finding a new job. Often, we'd meet in the evenings on the steps of the school that lead down to the Rio Tomebamba and head out for salsa dancing, or to El Cafecito for a drink and some more Spanish practice. (Quieres bailar, chica?)
La vida es dura
In the afternoons, a second group of students would take courses while us early-risers wandered the city, did homework, or spent time with our home stay families. One of the greatest aspects of any language school is the chance to live with a host family, and my adopted familia was the highlight of my entire school experience.
At a typical meal Edgar, the bearded, laughing patriarch and Augusta, my perfect Ecuadorian madre, would smoothly dance a little merengue in the kitchen while the grandmother, Blanca, would shake her hips and stew up some lamb with naranjillas. Pedro, their 22 year old son would come upstairs carrying Daniela, the granddaughter who lived next door. Family would continue to pour in at any given meal, all seated around the table with Edgar at the head. The spread of soups (with popcorn, a traditional Ecuadorian flair I learned to love), potatoes, crisp vegetables, fresh juices (the perfect tomate de arbole), meats and rice spread out before him. He always made me sit on his left. The blur of Spanish conversation and jokes kept me spinning but always involved. Every verb, noun, conjugation or cultural fact I learned in the school was tested at the table, every night. Edgar usually made sure with his clear Spanish that I'd gotten the punchline, or helped me translate a phrase I was struggling with. Then he'd lean back, survey the scene, and proclaim, "Ah, la vida es dura. Eh Jeff? La vida es dura," with a huge grin on his face.
After two weeks of wonderful, intensive language instruction at Sampere, and nightly practice sessions with the family or out with other students, I was feeling a bit more confident with my skills. I felt like I was climbing up that ladder of fluency. For most people, the goal of learning Spanish is not to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the original. They just want to improve, but of course, everyone is at different levels. Some people on the bottom rung pass through conversations with a clueless smile and nodding head, happy to catch a stray "hola" or "gracias". Others know how to ask someone to dance salsa with them, or to buy treasures at a market. Others are advanced enough to actually bargain at the market and not get ripped off. In the broadest terms, language students fall into three levels:
1. Enough to stay out of trouble.
2. Enough to get into trouble.
3. Enough to get out of trouble.
I arrived at Sampere able to nod, smile, and stay out of trouble. Thankfully, I improved. And so I headed for the Amazon basin.
Macas is a tiny jungle town ten shaking, rattling hours by bus from Cuenca. There is not much to recommend it other than as a jumping off point for organized treks into the jungle. Nonetheless, I was fairly relaxed and in the rhythm of travel. I ate dinner and chatted with some Argentineans planning a trek into the jungle. I headed to the central park, and rode the popular and disturbingly strange thirty-foot caterpilla-shaped Disney-train ride that whisked kids around the empty shanty streets in a blare of techno-cumbia, diesel roar, and children's screams. I talked with the ticket counter at the Circus Rex, a one-tent, Barnum and Bailey throwback circus. Finally I wandered into the pool hall.
The pool hall was on the corner and open on two sides, throwing hot fluorescent light on people walking by in the dark. I sauntered in, checked out the tables, and did the obligatory "Que pasa" to those seated on stools and leaning against tables watching me. I like to play pool, and on occasion, have been known to run a table all night. But, as the old saying goes, overconfidence is the killer of all pool players and language students. It wasn't long before we struck up a conversation and I thought I was invited to play a game. Of course, Ecuadorian pool somehow follows rules I didn't know, and my opponent's explanations were unintelligible, though at the time I thought I understood. Scratch, foul, miss, I repeatedly sank the wrong ball somehow. Good-natured laughs and rapid-fire Spanish that zipped right past me while I tried to translate if he said "good try" or "sucker." After getting pounded by the best pool shark there for over an hour, I tried to pay the $1 per hour fee to the proprietor, sure that I had understood the cost for playing.
Unfortunately, I had only understood just enough Spanish to accept the invitation to play, but not enough to realize I had been wagering on each shot. I paid out the equivalent of a week's salary in that backwater outpost. I walked home a lot more humble, and inspired to keep studying my Spanish so that one day I'll be able to get into trouble, and talk my way out of it.
Photos by Jeff Booth