Being a Traveling Kiwi and Learning Spanish
How New Zealanders are perceived in the world is something that many Kiwis are aware of, (We are a nomadic bunch) but it has to be learned first hand. After travelling for a month or so I have found that typically the first question I’m asked is “where are you from?”
So far in South America this has been met with a relatively similar response every time I have answered “New Zealand!”. Our beauty, unspoilt nature, friendly locals, distance from South America and a famous film or three are often on the list; but one thing is for certain, NZ is always on everyone’s list of places they’d love to visit. It makes me proud and glad. Proud that New Zealand has such a positive reputation, and glad that our global ambassadors travelling every corner of the world have left positive impressions on so many in the past.
Living in San Francisco for the past 5 years has given me a healthy balance of maintaining my heritage as a Kiwi and moulding myself to a different world in the States. Being foreign and novel is something I’ve gotten accustomed to while living there for an extended period – I just didn’t expect that to continue while travelling.
Getting acquainted with a new language
An antipode is the polar opposite point on the world from another point – the furthest possible place you can be from home without heading into space. From my home in Auckland, NZ that was Spain. Needless to say, I didn’t know anyone from Spain growing up and was never exposed to the language either. My experience with Spanish in its entirety, consisted of watching movies with Antonio Banderas and reading the back of Corona bottles.
Cue moving to California and living with Michelle. My first experience with Spanish was trying to impress her with my amazingly mushy declarations of love. (n00b) And for this task, my eloquent English offering was placed squarely in the hands of the Internet and Google translate… which I swear has someone staffed full-time to mess up anyone inputting anything remotely sentimental. Alas, the silver lining was the thicker skin I got after being lashed with Michelle’s bouts of well deserved laughter.
Not to be deterred, my first meaningful Spanish took the form of delicious grilled meat with beans and guac, wrapped in a tortilla loveliness that is The Burrito. I would try to practice ordering one from our local hole-in-the-wall joint when I didn’t wimp out. I’d have my order all ready to go in my head, then the guy at the counter would ask something crazy and outlandish like “do you want a flour or a whole wheat tortilla?” to which I would promptly answer “Si” or “Yes.”(n00b x2) It was all part of the process though, and learning a new language is not easy. (I definitely don’t envy anyone trying to learn English – that’s for sure.)
Before this trip, I had only been to a Spanish speaking country twice – both times to Mexico – and each time I learned something different. The first trip was a wedding in Puerto Vallarta where I soon realised the powerful secret weapon I could unleash by saying ….uhhhh Michelle?And looking helplessly in her direction. Having studied abroad in Spain during Uni, her level of comfort with the language was definitely able to tow me out of any predicament my preschool Spanish could get me into.
The second trip to Mexico was a surf trip with the Lads, and this proved that you can, in fact survive, and the world will not end without the ability to fully explain yourself. As well as leaning on the others to speak, using hand gestures, grunting and nodding got me through the week and I slowly started understanding more which was great.
There’s an app for that! One great thing about the age we live in is the accessibility of information through apps like Duolingo. In preparing for the big trip, I loved reading, writing, speaking and sometimes guessing my way through this app to wrap my head around the Spanish language. It is fantastic and I highly recommend.
Having almost six weeks of Spanish immersion under my belt, I can say with confidence that my Spanish is improving. Notice how I didn’t say, “is good” – – yea, that was on purpose. As I say to Michelle, I often feel like a 7 year old when I speak, using only short, simple sentences with basic vocabulary.
…Very quickly I defer to English when speaking to someone other than Michelle in Spanish, and if they don’t speak English then I just smile and do my best. Speaking in groups is also tricky, because when I have something profound to add like “yea, I like that too” and then I figure out exactly how I’m gunna say it… I open my mouth and realise it was 2 topics ago. Again, cue nodding and smiling.
I have what I like to call “survival Spanish”: I can feed myself, find a room or where to go, get directions and ask questions. But I’ve also found that the type of English I speak is very difficult to translate easily into Spanish. I tend to ponder and wonder a lot of things, if they “might” or “may not” happen. If we “should” do something, or the possible outcomes. In Spanish, this drags you over the hot coals of different tenses like subjunctive and pluperfect and conjugations that add all manner of suffixes to verbs you barely know in the first place. This is something that even native Spanish speakers try to avoid. So one of my biggest insights has been to try and simplify my thoughts – not necessarily seven year old simple, but simple enough to get my point across.
Learning more every day
I’ve loved learning Spanish, and the experiences to be had even one layer deeper by understanding the language in South America are huge: talking to people, hearing about their lives and who they are, getting recommendations, and being able to decipher statue declarations, all help to round out the feeling of knowing a place beyond the superficial. We have a lot more time in Spanish speaking countries so maybe I’ll be able to give an update when we get to actual Spain in August on my progress. But for now, I’ll leave you with our favourite toast (we always toast every day in Spanish) ¡A bueno suerte… y mas dias como hoy!
Michelle and Shaun, best friends and married for 4 years, are taking a break from professional life in San Francisco to follow their dream of traveling the world for a year with backpacks. Drawn to understand other cultures and get off the beaten track, they are spending anywhere from a few weeks to several months in each major region of the world, sometimes working and/or volunteering in the community; other times simply being open to new adventures that each culture and natural setting has to offer. To follow them and their journey and even suggest where they head next, head on over to AllBonVoyage.
More from Michelle + Shuan: HIKING THE O CIRCUIT: TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK | PATAGONIA, CHILE