I was traveling with my French friend Brice for a while, and he still has little vestiges of European chivalry, which I found to be quite amusing. He once offered to carry something for me, and I meant to say, ¨Thank you, gentleman.--Gracias, caballero.¨ Instead, I said, ¨Gracias, CABALLO.¨ or ¨Thank you, horse.¨Despite the mistranslation, it made a strange sort of sense. What's the difference between a European gentleman and a pack mule?
We took a tour of an ancient Peruvian cemetery in the desert near Nasca. My German friend Gesa and I understand Spanish, but the three other folks we were with didn't. I offered to translate, for practice, even though Gesa's Spanish is better than mine. I was trying to ask if there was a full body under the mummy's clothes. I asked if the ¨juevos¨ were complete. Eggs. How many mummies do you know with complete juevos? Is that something like nuggets on a chicken? The word is ¨huesos¨--bones.
Gesa and I stopped in a place with a menu on the wall, with tables and chairs, at dinner hour. ¨Can we eat here?¨ was only responded with a laugh. ¨This is a bar.¨ Of course! Silly me. OK. We go to the tables sitting in the middle of the street. ¨Can we eat here?¨ ¨Obviously.¨ Right. ¨Can I get a beer?¨ ¨This isn't a bar, young lady.¨ One of these days I'll figure out where I'm allowed to eat in this country.
While American education surely leaves much to be desired, I am quite concerned about the availability and completeness (is that a word? See, American education does suck) of Peruvian education. As gringas, Gesa and I are often asked where we are from. She is always quick to correct anyone that thinks we are both from the states--god forbid she be mistaken for an American. But unfortunately, what most people know about Germany is World War II. More than once after, ¨Soy de Alemania¨ (I'm from Germany) she gets a hardy laugh and, ¨Oh! Hitler! Are you a Nazi?¨ We laugh about it, but I know it sticks in her gut. I have a friend in South Africa right now (hi Sarah Yun!) and she wrote in her blog about race relations between blacks and whites at her university, and how raw the wounds of apartheid still are. She spoke of the civil rights movement in the states, and how much time its taken for those wounds to heal, and how they are obviously still healing. What does it mean for the wounds of racism, of past wrongs, to heal over time? A Jew and a German are having a blast together traveling for over a month through South America with not a trace of animosity, more than 60 years after the Holocaust. But when she still gets called Hitler, and she admits the reality of ¨German guilt,¨ it appears the scars have not completely faded.
Spanish is a constant battle for me. I've been studying it for years, and been living in South America for six months, and I still don't quite have it. I have good days and bad, and it can be so much fun, but damn is it frustrating. It seems, though, that language barriers are about so much more than different words. Cultural differences, while fascinating and mind-opening, are really the biggest hurdle.