Feb 06

Bicycle Spanish – Part One

Bicycle Spanish is a continuing series charting Zack’s adventures with Spanish in Latin America.  One of Zack’s goals for his adventures in Latin America is to become fluent in the spanish language.  Fluency is defined here as being able to do the following: Reading non-intellectual books and the news in spanish, Watching movies in spanish with spanish subtitles, Conversing freely with spanish speakers (with reasonable accents) without butchering the language, and being able to write spanish at the level of a 12 year old.  It is a goal that has eluded Zack for years, and Zack has been waiting patiently for the right opportunity to pursue it.  That opportunity is now. 

In part one of Bicycle Spanish, Zack looks at his command of the language 1-month in.  (If you would like to read Part 2: Drowning in Mexicanismos click here)


I was surprised when I first met the two germans that neither of them spoke Spanish, not even the basics.  Most of the Pan-Americana touring cyclists I have met have had at least one spanish speaker on the ¨team¨ – a useful skill as on average a person cycling from Alaska to Argentina will spend at least 10 months in spanish speaking countries.  Considering how much energy and time Felix spent researching his equipment and saving up to buy “only the best available”, not learning any Spanish seemed to me a major oversight on his part.

In any case, I quickly became the interpreter for the group and over the next two weeks, it would prove to do wonders for my spanish.  When talking for three people, you tend to do three times as much talking, and as a result my spanish has finally awoken from its long slumber.  Words that I learned and forgot long ago are now once again perched on the tip of my tongue; once again I am automatically adhering to nuances of grammar before I speak incorrectly.  Most importantly though, I’m back at that threshold level of ability such that I can have a conversation with somebody at a level and pace that is not too frustrating for them, and the conversation is therefore self-sustaining.

This has been incredibly exciting for me because it is the first time I am traveling in a foreign country and able to communicate freely in the local tongue.  Sure, in China I had enough Chinese to get by on – and I could even have conversations within limited subject areas – but I never had the vocabulary range and the ease of pronunciation that I do in Spanish.  Now, here in Mexico it is incredibly fun to use my long-dormant Spanish; it’s like stretching after a long sleep, and it feels very natural.

Clearly this makes traveling a lot easier.  If you need some information, you just ask.  From enquiring the price of avocado and locating the cheapest taco stand, to learning about road conditions and finding the town’s bike mechanic, Spanish gives you easy, instant access to this information.

It also adds tremendous value to your traveling experience.  You can talk to people, you can interact, you can ask questions, you can share stories, and you can make friends.  There was the group from Tijuana who are traveling across Mexico in a big van to all the best mountain biking spots in the country.  The man in charge of the group, Marco, is probably the greatest single source of information for cyclists, and we have been fortunate to bump into to him many times along the road.  There was the young man washing windscreens in front of the supermarket to raise money for an organisation that helps kids with drug abuse problems.  I was able to talk to him about the drug problems in Mexico,  learned that he was from La Paz, and exchange numbers for when I am there.  There was the old lady running a road-side market.  I got to ask her about her home-baked goods, and see which one she liked the most.  And finally, no travel experience would be complete without the drunken bar conversations (always entertaining), the last of which I talked to a guy from Sinaloa who assured me, swore to me, that the prettiest girls in Mexico are in Sinaloa and that these Baja California girls are too ugly.  He went into greater physiological detail on this topic, but I don’t think I need to repeat that conversation verbatim.  In all these cases, spanish was the key to getting more from each experience, it was the enriching agent.

The german boys may have helped me leap forward in my abilities, but I have once again reached a plateau.  Now, I must study some more and make an effort to interact as much as possible with the people I meet.  I know my grammar is horrendous, but most of it I have studied in the past, so a little review should go a long way.   Also, soon I will be done with my last English fun-book and from then on I will be reading in spanish only.

The next goal in this journey towards fluency is to get to a level where even the english-speaking latinos will be happy to converse with me in their native tongue.  It’s going to take some work.

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