When I went to China I had to communicate mostly with my hands, pointing, pictures, and carrying around the business cards of my hostel so I can take a taxi back. In Latin America, I can just hop into a taxi cab and tell him or her to take me where the party is at. Two completely different experiences.
I can speak spanish because half of my family is from Argentina so I was raised bilingual. I went to Argentina several times as a child and in the last few years traveled extensively around South America. It’s an amazing continent and luckily for me, knowing spanish in South America can drastically change ones experience of this place.
What makes things so different is the fact that I can talk to the locals.
I feel confident traveling in Latin America. I’m very rarely in uncomfortable situations where I don’t know what’s going on and I can easily go wherever I need to go.
I was in Bolivia once on a train ride to Oruro. I sat in the dining car with a beer and behind me was a guy by himself. I don’t remember how it happened but we ended up talking for hours. Conversations about Bolivian culture, what to eat, what to drink, where to go, and I started talking about the US too. I had a similar experience in Thailand on my train ride but it was so difficult to have a conversation that we stuck to the basics and it was often so tiring to understand and talk to each other that there was sometimes an awkward silence.
The biggest different between traveling here and let’s say Asia is that at least in Asia no one expects me to know the local language. One quick look at me and they won’t even bother trying to have an intense conversation with me. Instead, they slow things down and try to be as helpful as they can be without talking much or use the limited amount of words they know in English. In Latin America however, everyone expects me to know spanish (especially if I don’t shave for a week). This must be tough for those that don’t know spanish.
It’s pretty great for me. I can go to any local restaurant and ask them what they recommend. I can joke around with the locals and get to know them. I’m great at bargaining. I can ask anyone on the street for directions. I’m more aware of my surroundings because I can understand everything happening around me. I can go easily go off the beaten path. And best of all, I’m experiencing everything as local as they can be.
As a child, I didn’t appreciate the fact that I knew spanish and sometimes even avoided it. Now I’m grateful to have been raised bilingual. Huge thank you to my family for that.