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Language ability - a double-edged sword?
The love of foreign languages and the absolute belief that in a language lies the magic key to a country’s culture, will almost certainly lead to great adventures, sometimes dangerous ones, where the ability to speak the language may get you into a tight spot, but it will almost certainly get you out of it as well! You too may have had some scrapes because of your language ability (or lack of it) and I’d love you to share your own experiences, but firstly, allow me to illustrate what I mean with an example of my own.
Years ago, in my backpacker days (way before mobile phones or even emails, for those of you from a somewhat younger generation) I found myself in Lima. I had just been trekking across South America with a group of fellow travellers, which had been tiresome to say the least, not that the journey had been hard work – far from it. If anything, it had all been made too easy. I had been travelling with a group of people supposedly keen to travel “rough” but several of them had whinged incessantly with the result that the whole group was mollycoddled to a ridiculous degree. Anyway, that part of my journey was over. I now had a few days on my own in Lima and I was resolved to make the most of it all before I flew home the next day.
There was no question I was vulnerable – fair-haired, white-skinned, very much a “gringa”, I rather stood out amongst the locals, since Peru’s terrorists had all but put a stop to what had been a blossoming tourist trade. I was aware of the potential dangers, but I so wanted adventure, to explore and to connect with new exciting people by conversing with them in Spanish. By the time this story began I only had one day left of my holiday and disappointingly I still hadn’t had the chance to really converse with many locals. I decided to venture forth, put some money and other essentials in my pocket and, slinging my well-travelled purple karrimor jacket over my arm, I left the hotel and sauntered down the cobbled street. I was aware of several pairs of eyes on me, which left me feeling a little uneasy, but my determination to enjoy my freedom as a traveller now that I was truly on my own overruled any desire to return to the safety of my hotel. I turned into Calle de Mercado and studied the leather wares on the pavement.
“Yoo cum fom Ingeland?” The voice came from a young woman and quite took me by surprise. “No, vengo de Escocia,” I replied, delighted to have the chance to make contact with a native at long last and to practise my Spanish. “Ah sí, Scotland. There lives my …..mi abuela” “Grandmother? Your grandmother lives there “ I volunteered helpfully. “Sí, I visit her soon. I want to practees my Ingilish” and with that she brought out a picture of her grandmother who she explained was paying for her to go and visit her next year. Her face quite lit up when she mentioned it – obviously the thrill of travelling to a new culture was just as exciting to her as it was to me and with there being so few foreigners in Lima she wouldn’t ordinarily get much opportunity to speak with native English speakers.
The girl introduced herself as Silvia Baldasano, a student of politics at the university. She seemed really lively and interesting to talk to and being desperate to get to know a real “local” and to speak in Spanish, I agreed to have a drink in a café with her. It was late in the afternoon but still light and there were plenty of people about. I followed her for several blocks to get to a particular café Silvia had in mind and as we went, we talked about life in Lima and how tough the economic situation was. Silvia explained she’d already had several run-ins with the police. “Drogas” she said matter-of-factedly. I stared dumbstruck. “Drugs?” “No, not really”, Silvia laughed, “but that does not stop the problemas con la policía.” She explained that she and her friends were often suspected just because they were liberal students and had views of their own. Wow! I was so intrigued by such tales from Silvia that we sat there for a good couple of hours. We exchanged addresses and it was all arranged for Silvia to contact me when she visited her grandmother in a few months’ time. I took out my cheap disposable camera (I’d been warned not to carry around expensive equipment), and asked the waiter to take a picture of the two of us together, promising to send a copy to my new-found friend. Finally realising I ought to get back to my hotel before it got too late, I got up to go and Silvia kindly offered to accompany me. The streets were very quiet now and I was relieved I wasn’t on her own. Besides, the way back didn’t seem so clear to me now. She told me she felt cold and so I lent her my jacket.
As we turned the next corner we were confronted by a couple of men who declared themselves to be plain-clothed policemen. I had been warned this could happen and that they’d only want to see my passport. Problem was I’d left that back at the hotel. Silvia told me not to worry, gave a very knowing look and showed her ID card to one of the officers. There was obviously a problem with it and she was asked to get into the 2-door car parked by the kerb. They then turned to me. I explained in my best Spanish where my passport was and suggested they accompany me to the hotel. Without being allowed to think, I too was ushered into the back of the car. I started trying to explain where the hotel was and then realised they were going in the opposite direction. What was happening? I had been warned about fake policemen using this kind of ploy but Silvia had accepted their IDs as being valid so surely they were genuine?
There was no time to think things through. There was a constant heated argument going on between Silvia and the policeman in the passenger seat and in between words were slaps to her face and shouted instructions to me. “Tu amiga! ….. Drogas! Dame lo que tienes en tus bolsillos” .
I understood he wanted me to empty my pockets, which apart from the cheap camera, amounted to one biro pen, 2 postcards and stamps, chewing gum and a rather tattered mini phrase book. They wanted to see what else I had on me and the particularly sinister-looking “policeman” started pulling at my top. I wasn’t sure if they were after drugs on me too, or intent on something even worse, but to stop him molesting me any further I lifted my top sufficiently to reveal my by-now-empty bum-bag.
At that point the two men seemed to lose interest in me, being too occupied with the main drug candidate Silvie. The car stopped suddenly and I was allowed to get out. I put my head back in the window to try to get my jacket back from Silvie, but she just looked at me, with a strange look on her face. And as the car sped away I was still shouting after them “Esta chica tiene mi chaqueta” “That girl’s got my jacket”. There was no response, though I did see Silvia glancing over her shoulder through the back window, looking altogether calmer now.
I didn't have time to interpret Silvia's behaviour. On the one hand, I’d escaped unharmed. But on the other, it was now dark and I had been abandoned goodness knows where in the rougher part of town on a dimly-lit street. Apart from the sentimental attachment to my purple karrimor jacket (I had after all travelled round the world in it) the one thing of immense value still in its pockets was a map of Lima. Without knowing which direction to turn, fear for my life took a grip and I ran and ran, without stopping for breath. My sense of direction is anything but natural but maybe luck was with me on this occasion, because the direction I chose to run in led eventually to a road I recognised as being near my hotel.
I ran in to the reception and only then did I allow myself to break down and confide in the manager what had happened. He was very sympathetic, but he told me this sort of thing happened all the time.
The next day I was going home. And after the thrill of adventure, dawn couldn’t come quickly enough. I’d had enough excitement to last me for some time so I wasn’t exactly sorry to be saying goodbye to Peru as I walked towards the plane which would take me home. The slight chill in the air made me shiver and made me think of my lovely warm jacket. And as I did so, I thought of another likely conversation being struck up on Calle de Mercado by a young woman with an eager face, wearing a somewhat oversized purple karrimor jacket. “Yoo cum fom Ingeland?”
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