It is unquestionably extremely useful – often even indispensable – to be able to communicate, at least a little, in Spanish when traveling in Latin America.
Only in the most touristic sites was it possible to get around with any degree of ease without this ability. And even then, your experience is much richer with Spanish than without. Not only will you be able to find your way more easily and learn more about your surroundings, but the welcome you experience will be quite different – warmer and far more inclusive.
My favorite disclaimer when I was stumbling around searching for words or for verb conjugations – “Mi español es muy malo!” This always got a smile, and a response which ranged from a quiet nod of patient agreement to “No, no su español es muy bueno!” Well, yeah, I knew better.
And often it depended on where I was – in the really heavily touristed areas, my Spanish really was perceived as good. In such places as Tulum or Cancun, so few visitors spoke any Spanish at all that my lame skills seemed quite competent by comparison.
In general, I was always able to find a way to ask the questions. What was eternally in doubt was my ability to understand the answers! This was especially true in Cuba where the language is spit out rapid fire, without many of the letters (forget any and all terminal ‘s’s) and in a jargon all its own.
But one also really does need to ask the right questions to have any hope at all of getting the needed response.
Wellll – - in Cuba, as I have mentioned elsewhere, monuments and memorials to the most revered figures in its tumultuous history are everywhere. This includes plazas and parks named for these national heroes. Which brings me to the day in Santa Clara when I was visiting the Mausoleo del Che Guevara.
The site occupies a broad hilltop overlooking Santa Clara. Though I am usually quite good with directions and with retracing my steps, this site is so open and wide, and so raised above its surroundings that I found myself quite lost when it came time to walk back into town. The actual mausoleum for Che (which I had immediately headed for without carefully checking my position) is around behind the statuary shown in the above photo and across the road is another set of memorials. And to further mess with my usual ways of keeping track, before entering the Mausoleum and adjacent Museum one had to turn over virtually everything to a check station. Because this included cameras, I had no visual record of where I had been.
And so, once done and ready to leave, seeing four possible exit roads, all looking pretty much the same, I asked of one of the guards directions to town. Or so I thought. The right answer to the wrong question. For I had asked for directions to Parque José Martí. And these he readily gave me after only the most brief hesitation.
And so off I went, thinking all the while that every direction looked the same from up here, and yet my compass was leaving me very confused. I didn’t really think I had come from this side. So I walked awhile, then asked again, of a boy on a skateboard, how to find Parque José Martí. I went onward another ten minutes or so in the direction he had sent me, which agreed entirely with what I had been told earlier.
Still nothing looked right to me. Time to return to a known point and to take a proper look at a map. Back at the hilltop, I pulled out my book and finally bothered to look carefully to see where I should be going. Hmmm, Parque Vidal.
Parque José Martí was the main square in the last city I had visited, but of course Santa Clara also had a park named for Martí. As does probably every single city in Cuba.
So be careful of the question you ask. You may get the right answer, but be asking the completely wrong question!