As yet another example of the glorious failure of foreign language education in the United States, I have a less-than-stellar ability to speak Spanish. In fact, my Spanish is complete shit.
Nevertheless, armed with the willful blindness toward reality typical to all gringos of the U.S. variety, I figured moving to Colombia with poor Spanish ain’t no thang. Language barrier? Nothing to fret about – I can unilaterally push through it like an invading army rolling through some unlucky Middle Eastern country. I’m an American goddammit.
Well, I was wrong.
With the hope of helping my fellow monolinguals avoid my mistakes and enjoy the wonders of this country (without the pesky task of learning the native tongue), I’ve prepared the following Monolingual Survival Guide®. Hopefully, this small collection of hints and tips will help keep you from starving to death or being completely bored during your visit.
Before getting started, there are a few skills that every monolingual tourist needs to master.
First, and especially if you are travelling alone, you must learn to embrace total and utter confusion. Get used to having little to no idea of what’s going on around you.
Secondly, find a mirror and practice what I call the ‘Well-Intentioned Foreigner Look.’ Most human communication is non-verbal, if you have a face that says ‘I have no idea what you are saying but I’m a nice person’ you’ll find that the locals will be much more willing to help your poor ass out.
Finally, have a self-deprecating phrase in Spanish in your back pocket to help break the ice with people you encounter. Something like ‘No entiendo, soy un gringo estupido’ meaning ‘I don’t understand, I’m a stupid gringo’ will be sure to get some laughs and endear you to strangers (and let’s be honest, if you are travelling in Latin America without any Spanish it’s probably true.)
These three skills basically reflect and communicate your understanding that ‘I’m the asshole who decided to visit a country without speaking the language but am here with a sense of respect and humility. Please don’t rob me.’
Now that you’ve got the soft skills down, chances are you’ll need to eat food.
For the monolingual traveler, the great thing about restaurants is that they have menus, meaning at the very least you can always just point at something, smile, and hope for the best. And in fact, many typical restaurants have a daily lunch menu called corrientazo, which encourage you to do just that.
Most of these include three courses and a beverage for less than 10,000 pesos. Common items: carne (beef), pollo (chicken), cerdo (pork), arroz (rice), patacónes (fried plantains), papas (potatoes), frijoles (beans), sopa (soup), ensalada (salad), chicharron (don’t ask), and of course cerveza. Gratuity is almost always included.
Another great (and cheap) alternative, especially if you have access to a kitchen, is going to the nearest supermarket. Not only will you avoid making a fool out of yourself by trying to speak Spanish, but you’ll also have the opportunity to try out Colombia’s fabulous selection of fresh produce, including many fruits and veggies not available outside of the tropics.
Make sure to always keep your eye on the register, so you see how much you have to pay without having to learn numbers.
Of course, you may need help figuring out the proper way to eat some of the stuff you bought – things can get complicated really fast (‘Do I eat the frog-egg-looking things inside the granadilla or will they kill me?’).
But generally speaking, nothing bought in Colombian supermarkets is likely to kill you.
Author Jim Merrell has his own weblog, Gringo in Colombia