Category Archives: That’s Odd

I Was Fluent in About a Week

Ok, so one week later and I don’t feel any closer to being able to have a conversation in Portuguese. It’s interesting though. I feel like I made a small dent. Well, a really small dent. Ok, now the more I think about it, it’s barely noticable. But at the time it felt like I was making a real impact. At the time I felt like I was getting into a groove. I felt like I could totally run with a conversation in Brazilian Portuguese if I needed to.Fluency-means what you think it means

It reminds me of an incredibly common conversation I’ll have with travelers who are just starting out on their journey with Spanish, or have done a few trips into Spanish speaking countries in the past. They’ll describe a week at a resort or a hotel, and they’ll say, “Well yeah, by the end of it I was fluent!”

In reality, I can only imagine what it was like for the native Spanish speaker and the amount of effort they had to put forth to understand the individual and help them out. Probably the conversation was mostly Spanglish with a few Spanish-like words sprinkled in. They say in communication that it doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what was understood. So to borrow the meme from Inigo Montoya of the 1987 film Princess Bride, “Fluency. I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

What I think happens is that during the process, or during the experience, our senses get activated to a new world, and with every step of success we feel energized and motivated. We feel like we are really picking up momentum, really connecting with the individual, and with every affirmative nod of the head, every smile, and every confirmation to a question, we float a little higher into the language atmosphere. It’s so easy to float in it, because learning a language is a social experience and when we share this new learning initiative with another, we naturally are spurred on.

What’s interesting for me is that I feel like I really now know what it takes to become fluent, and for me the meaning of that word had taken on a whole new meaning after a few years. I remember thinking I was “fluent” after three months in Guatemala, only to arrive in the Dominican Republic stumbling for a simple flow of conversation, heck even common words, and conjugations. Dominican Spanish (which I believe is much different than textbook Spanish), is very difficult to understand as it contains an incredible amount of stylistic shortcuts and slang that is native to the country. As is often the case with Spanish accents from the Carribean, it really takes an ear for it, and requires many months, ok to be fair, a couple of years to feel comfortable.
Learning a language takes a lot of work and it’s a sizable commitment. It’s almost like someone asking you to carry something for them as you’re headed out the house. The load is heavy at first, gets easier after awhile, then it changes shape, you get really tired, you lose hope, but somehow you get motivated again. You get some rest, and start out again, but its even heavier this time, but strangely it’s lighter than ever before. Many people come join you on the journey, and then people come along and show you how to carry it. They take some stuff out, show you how to distribute the weight, tell you to put some things on, and after awhile, you don’t even know you’re carrying it, you somehow just wear it, and don’t even have to think about having to put it on.

Then it’s a part of you, it’s a part of your life, and then you really can’t imagine living without it. I think then and only then, you start to understand fluency.

Foreshadowing of a Carribean Challenge

In movies or books, foreshadowing is a plot device used to introduce or hint at  something early in the story that will become much more important later on. It hit me recently, this was exactly what happened to me 13 years ago. I was on a Carribean just East of here, but under  much different circumstances.

I had just finished my freshman year of high school and Spanish 101 (for beginners). At that time, I was not really equipped to speak Spanish, nor at the speed of the Puerto Ricans (currently, this is still a pending question). A group of youth from my church, Linville Creek, went to Castaner, Puerto Rico to do a two week workcamp with the local Church of the Brethren congregation. That trip was the longest and I had ever been gone from home, and certainly it was the farthest.

I remember a lot of things from that two week adventure. Puerto Rico was a beautiful island, with lush jungles, windy mountain roads, and breathtaking views. Too much of that viewing got me car-sick on a 5 hour trip to the city of Arecibo. Luckily, we made a stop on the side of the road to purchase fresh mangoes. Someone had just picked them from the tree. Before that, I had never liked the taste of mango, now I’m slightly in love with it. This was much like my experience a few days prior to the mango when a guy showed us how to open a coconut, because before that, I had never liked coconut. Continuing on in the gastrointestinal journey, I ate too many delicious desserts from a local panaderia and got incredibly sick later on that evening. There’s nothing quite like being 15 and feel like you’re knocking on death’s door a few thousand miles from home. Of course, It probably wasn’t grave, and true to common traveler’s wisdom, I didn’t buy anything else from that panaderia.

As a teenager, I remember that every young woman I met was probably the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I was pretty shy though, so I’m pretty sure had I been able to speak Spanish, I wouldn’t have talked too much. However, if you were the girl that wanted to talk to me by translating through your semi-bilingual friend from the Castaner Church Youth Group, buscame en facebook, por favor. Ya, sabemos que ha sido demasiado tiempo sin vernos y me encantaria tomar un cafecito contigo.

Besides the random musings of a teenager on his first trip outside the states, one experience did stand out to me during that time, and I can still remember it vividly. Our last few days in country we spent in and around the capital, San Juan. We spent some time in a Brethren Volunteer Service community located in a rough neighborhood called Caimito. I distinctly remember feeling uneasy walking around the community, where they said unemployment was just above 50%. Yet the 20-somethings had no problem walking around feeling at ease, and clearly had made friends with the locals. These young adults seemed to wield a rugged and versatile maturity in a new culture and weren’t jarred or shocked by the dangerous ghetto that they lived in.

I was desperately home sick and had just taken a nap from a long day. I awoke to the sounds of a nearby corner store playing a song, “She’s All I Ever Had,”  which was popular in the States at the same time. Nostalgia flooded my mind. I just wanted safety, clean water, country roads, and to look out of window that didn’t have iron bars. I remember feeling incredibly alone, and being the farthest from home I’d ever been; the solitude was crushing.

Just then, I heard a knock on the door, one of the 20-somethings invited all the young guys along with them to dinner at a local restaurant. Instantly, the solitude vanished, and I was connected again to people I knew. I felt like I’d been released from that emotional prison. But, the question still remained for me, “How can you live in such a strange, unfamiliar place, where you don’t speak the language, it’s dangerous, and you have constant reminders from home trying to pull you back.”

So I asked one of the older volunteers how they did it, “. . . Believe me man, once you get some time on the ground and know a little more Spanish, you get used to it, and you start to like it. That’s just how it works.”

And here I am, 13 years later, I’ve got some time on the ground, I know a little (a lot) more Spanish, I’ve got friends, I’ve got a community, and I’m used to it. I guess that’s just how it works.

The Reality of Something to Write Home About

It’s late in the afternoon on a hot and humid Saturday, and we are hanging out in the patio on the second floor of a tough neighborhood in East Santo Domingo called Villa Duarte. As always, it’s great to see the family I lived with and to wrestle with my Dominican brothers, Josias now five, and Railyn who just turned eight. I can tell the boys are growing up even in the year that I’ve known them. I tell the boys that we should go up to the roof to enjoy the breeze that is making its way through the barrio and as I lean on the iron fence that surrounds the roof and I see a young woman transporting buckets and large bottles of water up to her third floor home, and I know that this is something to write home about.

I suppose that when you recognize something that doesn’t normally appear in your day to day life, this is a pretty good signal that some people back home would be equally interested in what you’re experiencing. However, something was different this time, being in this neighborhood and seeing people labor to carry water up three flights of stairs wasn’t all that unusual anymore, so why exactly was I compelled to describe a situation that had become commonplace to me?

Since I moved back to the DR in early February, I’ve tried to go see this family every couple of weeks and one thing that always sticks out to me when I go back to visit them is that when I pass through the main street entrance sometimes there are small rivers running through the gutters in the neighborhood. I say sometimes, because it’s not always that there are rivers that run when it’s sunny and hot outside.

River gutters mean that the neighborhood has water again, that the government temporarily fixed the problem of water supply, and that the neighborhood can enjoy running water for a few days, or sometimes, just for a day. People are out in the streets filling up buckets, or operating the water pumps to send water up to the roof where they keep large storage tanks filled with water. You can sense the excitement that the water has returned, and well, you can see it as the kids dance in the water in the street. I’ve written about this a bit in a previous post (The four-year-old Gene Kelly), and water in the barrio has been something wild and strange to me, certainly fitting for a blog post to write home about, but now it wasn’t exactly from the angle of a someone who just got off the plane.

Something has changed, the DR feels like home, and every time I sit down to write I feel like I’m writing about something less unusual to the people back home. My day to day reality has certainly shifted, and many of the strange quirky elements of the foreign culture have become real and normal to me. It’s not unusual to see young woman labor up three flights of stairs, it’s not strange, no, this is the reality of life here.

I’m struck by this point in my realization that my processing of information, of sights and sounds and experiences has changed. It’s not as new, and it’s certainly not as jarring and shaking to the senses as the arrival and accustomization period when you move somewhere new.

So as I’m standing there looking out into the barrio, I’ve realized that the “newness” has faded when I see her struggle to get the last bottle of water up the stairs. I lived in this barrio, I know what it’s like, I’ve been without water for a few days, and I’ve lived like the locals lived. I think I’ve recognized that when I chose to write home about things in the past year and a half, it has been with a sense of a badge of achievement, an accomplishment, a wild and new thing conquered and realized in the pursuit of adventure. But now, the novelty has worn off, and a question lingers, was their compassion in my initial observation? Or just something interesting to write home about?

Now, the reality sinks in. I’m starting to see the reality for what it is. The terrible infrastructure that prevents thousands of families from receiving the most basic necessity on a daily basis is a daily struggle, a daily, exhausting labor, a painful reality for this neighborhood and hundreds of thousands throughout the island. No one here writes home about this with the perspective of a traveler or “seeing how the indigenous people live.” It’s not strange for them, no, it’s just a harsh reality; it’s simply a consistent frustration that only occasionally water runs through the gutters signaling the arrival of the opportunity to bring water home to the family. And when it finally arrives, you have to carry it up three flights of stairs for your family, because that’s just what you have to do. It’s nothing special, it just is.

I started carrying my 5 gallon water bottle up the stairs to my apartment to see what it felt like. Three flights is hard, but certainly not something to write home about.

Get More Connected in a (dis)Connected World

My uncle told me that I should pack a suitcase half-full when I left for Latin America for the first time. “It’s not for the souvenirs,” he said, “it’s so that you’re ready to receive something that you want to carry with you where you continue traveling.” That piece of advice has stuck with me for quite some time, and indeed I think I’ve found something I want to continue traveling with.

I think I’ve distilled it down into a simple word, “connection” and I know it’s something that I felt in Richmond from time to time, but now I’ve realized that it is a mainstay of the Latin American culture. I’ll speak about it as it relates to the basics of human relationships and in contrast to what that I had experienced back in America.

I believe that we were all designed to be connected to one another, and indeed, we’re built with a desire to spend time with each other on a regular basis, even if you’re not an introvert. But what has happened in the Western world, at least from my perspective, is that we’ve found so many ways to mediate our “connection” to one another that we’ve lost the fundamental touch points. Or in other words, “we’re not getting any closer to what we really wanted to get close to.”

We’ve got facebook, twitter, gchat, and an ever increasing technological platform for profiles and user accounts for instant messaging. It could seem like with more routes to a relationship, we’d have a stronger one. But for most of us, we’re so ultra-connected that we’ve become disconnected.

You could even say that with the increase of tactile technology for smart-phone applications, there is a proportional decrease in the actual touching between individuals. Take for example, an average dinner or coffee break with your average 20 and 30 somethings, and you’ll see most everyone seated about 2-3 feet apart, at an arm’s length, staring at the small digital screen in their hands, scrolling, tapping, sliding, typing  – but rarely hugging, jokingly punching, consoling, or any form of amiable touch outside of formal introductions or goodbyes.

Maybe it’s the limitation of technology or lack of personal finances to buy the things that divert attention from relationships that enables a lot of Latin America to really spend time with each other, and know one another deeply without the use of technology. Or maybe, it’s that there’s less space in the living areas, or the need to economically rely on one another until the individual is married, but I’d like to think it’s something more. I’d like to think that they “are getting closer to what they really want to be close to.”

I’d like to think it’s a belief that you don’t need to call to stop by and see someone, you don’t need a profile to know what activities someone’s involved with, you should touch someone to let them know you care, (for guys this means a lot more wrestling, poking, and punching) and fundamentally, that food is always a group activity.

I love technology and shiny screens, but to me, the fundamental question becomes “Will this really help me get connected to the people, places or things I really want to be connected with?”

[All these pictures are from a birthday party for Railyn, mi hermano Dominicano. Gracias a ML por las fotos 😉 ]

Traveling is the Excavation of Character

Near the office of Esperanza (HOPE’s office here in the DR), a construction crew is finishing the exit ramp of highway overpass. I walk past the crew every day and see the progress they are making. In one area, they are digging heavily into the ground exposing every good and bad thing found below the surface.

I think that’s what traveling is like.

A group of dedicated laborers goes to work unearthing everything you thought you knew about yourself and things you’d prefer to keep hidden. The heavy machinery crew labors throughout the day and late into the night. At times, the sheer force of the demolition leaves you shocked and speechless. You have to call in your advisors (via Skype) and ask them what the heck is going on. Sometimes you feel like the job site changes, even though you know this is the same place being worked on every day. Other times, usually at night, some specialists wake you up with probing questions about which pipes need servicing. Usually, you have to answer them immediately, they can’t wait until tomorrow. (I’ve tried arguing to postpone the meeting, it just doesn’t work.)

All this demolition and excavation is for a good purpose. Everyday you can see things a little more clearly in the sunshine. It’s amazing to hold mysterious, yet familiar objects in your hands and flip them around and see all their facets. Some things you know you need to clean up if you’re going to continue carrying it around on the journey, and other things you know are meant for the junk pile. You realize your pockets are only so big and your back is only so strong, so you must be judicious in what you continue to carry. Airlines at most, only allow two bags, which is never enough space. You’ve really have to decide what baggage you’re going to transport back home.

If you talk with the foreman on the jobsite you’ll get a better understanding of what the new structure is going to look like. I’ve found that I need to check in daily to have a better idea of what’s yet to come. Sometimes it seems like there’s a new set of blueprints every week, but you trust that whatever is going to be built is a whole lot better than what existed before. As far as time and money is concerned, it’s going to take a lot longer than you thought, and cost way more than you anticipated, but it’s all going to be worth it.

Know that someday in the future, you’ll invite your family and friends over, and you’ll sit and have lunch in the plaza in front of the building. You’ll tell them about the hilarious and insightful construction crew made up of international workers who excavated nearly everything underneath, but nevertheless helped you build and improve this marvelous structure that you enjoy today.

And for that, I am grateful for traveling.

(Currently though, I’m in the middle of a construction zone and I’m trying to reduce my velocity. No sense in getting fined for excessive speed, but really, I just want to be able to see what’s being dug up.)

The Monster of Lake Atitlan

[This was a post I wrote in Guatemala on November 2nd. I’m finally publishing it because I have the picture.]

I’ve always liked the kind of small talk that leads to a better conversation. As my Spanish skills have been improving, I’ve been trying to joke a little more with my friends and with some of the locals, and I usually start out with that I live in the States, near Washington D.C. People never know where that is, so I say, “You know President Obama?” and they answer that they do, then I add: “We are neighbors.”

They usually laugh, and then I have to clear it up that we are not exactly neighbors, and nobody can be neighbors with the president because the White House really doesn’t exist in a normal neighborhood. Of course, this expanded explanation is much more difficult to convey in Spanish, so I simply leave it that “We aren’t really neighbors, but close enough.”

After my lead in with the “I’m neighbors with the President” I usually struggle with where I should go next, so when someone told me recently that there was a monster that lived at the bottom of Lake Atitlan, I thought this would be a perfect topic to adopt into my small talk repertoire. There are many legends in the small Mayan community near where I’ve been studying Spanish, and my favorite is now the Monster of the Lake. Some people believe that there’s an enormous dinosaur-like reptile that inhabits the lake, much like the Loch Ness Monster that supposedly lives in Loch Ness Scotland.

But people don’t like to talk about it. Not because I’m a gringo, it’s because some people believe that the more you talk about it, the more energy you give to the monster, and the more likely it will be to strike again. Strike again? Has it struck before?

Apparently, it has. It’s gotten the blame for many injuries and casualties that have occurred in the Lake. But then again, it depends on who you talk to. After I asked the 2nd and 3rd person about the Monster of Lake Atitlan, I realized that I possessed three different stories or interpretations from this legend, and my new “go to small talk topic” was borne.

So for the past three weeks, when conversation is lagging or I have no idea what to say, I ask about the Monster. Now, when I ask, I ask like I’ve never asked the question before. It’s not “Tell me what your personal experience has been surrounding the supposed legend of this so-called “Lake Monster.” Instead it’s “Is there a monster in the Lake???”

The current tally is 14 yays, and nine nays. But look at these various interpretations:

  • The monster lives in an underground cave.
  • The monster has been seen by over 300 people.
  • There is an underground network of tunnels that it travels in.
  • It’s just a legend, gringo.
  • It’s not true, but no one knows for sure . . .
  • There used to be a town at the bottom of the lake.
  • Satellites cannot map the terrain of the lake, so it’s impossible to know.
  • When the water came, it destroyed the town, and the people.
  • The monster ate the people.

So this year for Halloween, when I was considering what costume I was going to do, the answer was obvious.

A friend told me that there was a guy doing face painting near the Panachel Dock. I thought that might be a good asset for my costume. I made my way in and talked to the guy about getting my face painted. Standing there and as the heavy stage makeup was being applied, I knew that if I was really going to do this, I’d have to dive in completely. I immediately thought about all the materials I could don myself with to complete the costume. As he was starting to draw on my face he said, “You know it’s just a legend, right?” I said, “Probably, but people say different things . . . What do you think it looks like?”

He responded, “I dunno, maybe a serpent or a dragon?”

I said, “Well, do what you want, you’re the 23rd person I’ve asked, so it’s up to you to draw what you think’s best.”

And here we have the result:

Yes, everyone knew who I was at the party, and they wondered where I got the greenery for the costume. I responded that I got most of it on the walk to the party, from various trees, bushes, and branches and my real aim was to look like I just emerged from the lake. A lot of people wanted to take pictures of me, and I was able to collect a few more stories about the Lake Monster for the road home.

DELE Exam vs. A Dominican Barbershop Conversation about Baseball

The following is a series of events and thoughts that began with the intention of reading a newspaper as a means to study for an internationally recognized Spanish certification (the DELE) and serves to illustrate the random connectedness that a life of traveling provides. All within a half day.

I headed out to find a public car to go into the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo. Public cars are like taxis; actually more like buses in that they travel specific routes, and usually you’ll get to ride in a 20 year old car with at least 4 other Dominicans (not including the driver). I came to the junction in front of my barrio and a public car had just dropped off someone on the other street, he yelled to me and I said “Parque Independencia” which is a general endpoint – you can get out of the car anywhere from here to there for $0.50. He did a U-turn in the middle of a busy road.

At a good cross street to walk South to the Colonial Zone the driver asked me more specifically where I wanted to go. I said “toward Parque Independenica” and he responded “that’s far” to which I thought, “True I should just get out here.” I set out on foot South toward Colonial Zone and passed by some Colonial homes where I could feel the air conditioning flow out of an open window into the street. Air conditioning and gas street lights, and old men sitting, drinking coffee outside small “colmados” (cafe/diner/store).

I sat down at a cafe in front of the oldest Cathedral in America (Cathedral of Santa María la Menor) and started reading yesterday’s news. I chuckled to myself that “yesterday’s news” gets such a bad rap, yet to me, it holds immense value. First of all, it’s usually free, and for the purposes of learning Spanish, it’s an excellent tool. I read an article about how insurance companies in the United States are starting to use the online records of people’s lifestyles, habits, activities, diets, magazine subscriptions, gym memberships to calculate premiums. Just think if Google sold our information to an insurance company . . . despite the disutopian consequences, some of us would enjoy better premiums I suspect.

A guy sitting at the next table was speaking English, so I asked him where he was from. He told me that he’s from England, but he’s working in Haiti with the World Bank, but he’s not there now, because it’s not safe. I pointed to the front page of my (yesterday’s) newspaper and said “because of the Cholera and the Elections?” “Absolutely,” he responded. He was reading a technical article about the efficacy of Microfinance’s long term positive effects, and he encouraged me to read up on the information provided by the Center for Global Development before my trip with HOPE International this week.

I took a break from reading the newspaper. Actually, I took a walk and threw it away. I considered buying today’s news, but I’ll wait until tomorrow – when it’s free. I settled on sitting in Columbus Park (Cathedral of Santa María la Menor) and read about Screenwriting. I realized that most movies try to grab your attention in the first 10 minutes, and statistically, this is the point when the audience will stay attuned to the story, or let their mind drift.

A pigeon crapped in my book.

I suppose that further illustrates the page I was reading about “inciting” incidents. It’s the tool in movies where the story suddenly surges forward. I realized that if I was to keep the rest of these pages “pigeon free” I really should head back to get my haircut.

I picked up another public car. Only 3 of us in there this time. We were driving up over the bridge and I saw another public car waving some bills out the window. It was immediately clear to me that this other public car driver wanted some change from his friend, my driver, and what they were going to attempt to do was to make change while driving on this bridge. The bridge has two lanes, and the SUV behind us did not appreciate the slowed speed so he passed us on the left. Yes, with only two lanes. The cars got close and the driver reached into my window; I grabbed the big bill, and my driver gave him the change. Transaction complete. My driver said “thanks.”

(I realize that my mother reads this blog, and while she would prefer that I not take part in such activities, it certainly makes for a good story doesn’t it?)

I saw a small sticker on the interior of the dashboard: “D’Reyes Peliquleria” – the name of a barbershop. I get out of the public car and start walking home, and lo and behold there is “D’Reyes Peliquleria” to my right. “Sure, why not, I’ll go in. I think the mid-traffic transaction was fairly positive, and this guy is associated with the driver.”

Listening to the conversation in the barbershop, I realized, then and there that while the DELE is the internationally recognized foreign language exam for Spanish, participating in a conversation about the barber’s brother’s baseball team in a Dominican Barbership could signify the highest accreditation.  See, the only part of the conversation I understood was when he pointed at the poster on the wall and said that they have a game tomorrow night at 7:30.

I walked back to the house, only 3:00 in the afternoon, and I decided to take the DELE within the year, and possibly take up the invitation to watch the barber’s brother’s baseball team sometime this week.

What a half-day.