Thursday, December 01, 2022

It's the hat.

I've been at this Spanish thing now for a month. I speak a little, somehow. I've never taken a proper course in it or even studied it in high school, but there is a kind of facility between the Romance languages, and French I have studied. My good mate Kayo and I fumbled our way through Cuba and Mexico some years ago, leaning on each other's piecemeal comprehension, but this time I'm on my own. I even brought a grammar book with me to study but, as always when I travel, I pack books I don't read.

When I was in Costa Rica a few weeks ago I hired a driver to get me from San Jose to Arenal to climb the volcano. I manage to say roughly what I mean in my clumsy Spanish but my comprehension is poor, so he would answer me in his competent English. After an hour of this I asked him how are my Spanish skills. "Bueno!" he replied, but I'm not entirely sure he wasn't simply being polite. I did tip him.

Today in Medellín, Colombia, I was stopped in the street and asked right off the bat by an elderly gentleman carrying a cane where I was from. You know, I really try not to look like a tourist but it's hard to know what gives me away. Okay, I'm a gringo, but I'm not the only one in Medellín. Some live here, and some Colombians look like gringos. Carrying a knapsack usually adds to the tourist stereotype, but plenty of Colombians carry one themselves, and anyway, I've intentionally left mine back at the flat where I'm staying. 

Is it the fashion difference? Between my clothes and what you generally see on the street? It's not that I'm dressed up—again, I try to blend in—but the colloquial style of a people is often intangible, ineffable, and tricky to replicate. 

After first being stopped by a mohawked bracelet hawker in Poblado, Medellín's upmarket touristic quarter, with "Hey, Kangaroo Jack!" (yes, I bought a bracelet from him—his name was Daniel, he was friendly and amusing, and it cost $3), then later at a residential Laureles intersection receiving a thumbs up and verbal appreciation from a squeegee-wielding windscreen cleaner, I realised with some strike to the head by the bleeding obvious that it's the hat. My signature Jacaru Swagman. It's kind of a stupid conceit when I'm always trying to blend in, but this hat is as well-travelled as I am, and guys get attached to their hats, don't they? Baseball caps, for example. It becomes an expression of themselves. 

If hats worn here aren't baseball caps they're Panama hats, and indeed the elderly gentleman with the cane who stopped me in the street was wearing one. I answered him where I'm from (Australia and Canada) and tell him in Spanish that my command of the language is weak. And yet we then commence chitchat in Spanish, and he helps out with his passable but heavily accented English. Granted, many of my small talk answers are practised but, nonetheless, I always amaze myself that I can manage rudimentary conversations. 

He's a friendly, old-school Colombian gentleman of 75 whose brother-in-law emigrated here from England as an engineer of some kind. He asks what I think of the women in Colombia, the beauty of whom I think Colombian men take pride in, given that this isn't the first time I've been asked. He asks if I'm married and says he is sorry to hear I'm divorced. Colombians are strong Catholics. It's too complicated to explain that this was 30 years ago and that marriage/divorce is not much relevant in my culture. "Maybe you will marry a Colombian girl," he says. "But be careful—they can be dangerous!"

After our amusing little chat ends and we wish each other well and part ways, I stop for some groceries and walk back to my flat. En route a woman stops me and begins asking in Spanish for directions. I'm all ready to open with No soy de aquí—I'm not from here—but while she's speaking she shows me the handwritten address of the supermarket on the piece of paper in her hand, apparently spying by my bags that I've just come from there, and I realise I can answer her. Pausing for a moment, I then point and steer with my hand the direction of the curving road I've just walked up and say, "al fondo!"—at the bottom, the end of the road. She smiles as effusively as I do, she pleased that she has her answer and I that I'm capable of delivering it.

Though it will soon be something of a relief to be able to express myself in a land of spoken English, I walk back to my room sure now of one thing: to blend in, ditch the hat, carry groceries and learn the bloody language.

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