Friday 14 August 2009

La pluma di mia tia esta en la tabla

It's like the Tower of Babel in here. Up the front there are two language assistants teaching Japanese: Watashi wa, ohayoo gozai masu, sayonara Sugiyama sensei... Alongside me there are girls chatting in Korean, Mandarin and English; and here am I in the corner of the classroom, officially supervising but actually struggling to revise some basic Spanish: Permiso, puedo sacar una foto?

Before I went to Peru last year, I went to night school, did Linguaphone and other courses at home, worked through a textbook the Spanish teacher here at school gave me, and swotted up the Lonely Planet phrase book that told me how to say I'm high, and Easy, tiger! So when I got there, I could read all the signs, understand when the guide's friend was being disparaging about us (Are they trekkers or just tourists?) and even have some simple conversations with local people. It was great, I felt connected to my surroundings, and I couldn't understand why no-one else on the tour had bothered to learn even the most elementary things.

But now I know: I've been busy lately, and my trip to Ecuador is suddenly next week, and what Spanish I knew seems to have evaporated. So here I am, scrabbling to revise, at the same time (right now) as learning to write a post here on my new iPhone, so that when I'm away this can be the proper Travel Blog I intended it to be. I don't know which is harder.

>>> It was when I passed a pair of policemen patrolling the footpath in leather boots laced to the knee and double gun holsters, each with a Rottweiler on the end of a chain, and they looked surprised to see me, that I seriously rethought my plan. I had already begun to wonder how far it really was to Lima’s famous Gold Museum: on paper it hadn’t seemed a great distance, but then again, it’s a city of nine million, and hotel tourist maps are not always as particular as they should be about boring things like scale.

This was certainly a lived-in area — lived-out might be a better description, to judge by all the eating, working, sleeping, playing, laughing and shouting going on around me. I had noticed the increase in volume as soon as I crossed over the expressway from the neat tourist precinct of Miraflores: lots more noise, plus more litter, more traffic and many more people, all of them looking so much more at home on the footpath than I was currently feeling.

I cursed once again the false economy that had made me leave my trusty — but heavy — Lonely Planet guide at home. I did, however, remember its advice not to flap open a map in public in case I made myself conspicuous to predators. Apparently, a fair-haired, fair-skinned woman, on her own, wearing sensible shoes and an anxious expression would be completely invisible in a crowd of Peruvians right up to the moment that she unfolded her Globetrotter. Yeah, as they say, right.

One person who had already noticed me was a private security guard on duty outside a shop. In my best night-school Spanish, I asked him how far it was to the museum, and could I walk there. It was well-practised tourist vocabulary, and came out so fluently that Miguel responded with several rapid paragraphs in which only “no, no, muy peligroso” were recognisable. Never mind the ‘very’, at this stage just ‘dangerous’ was all I needed to hear, and I decided to turn back — but Miguel had some questions of his own. Once he had established that my husband was back in New Zealand I had just enough time, while he scribbled out his phone number, to remember the name of a different hotel from mine to tell him when he asked. Which he did, naturally: not for nothing is machismo a Spanish word...

[Pub NZ Herald 19/5/09]

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