When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah
I’m at the “just basic phrases here and there” part of this quote. I know enough to survive. Barely. And maybe not even barely. Maybe just hopefully.
But reading this quote really encouraged me. It’s easy to feel like there’s no hope in learning Spanish — really learning it, that is, which is what I’d like to do. I remind myself, though, to simply keep trying. One basic phrase at a time. Take it day by day.
And maybe start listening to audiobooks en Español. My latest idea is to get the free trial of Audible for a month and listen to as many books in Spanish as possible. I thought I’d start with The Hunger Games. I’ve read it before, it’s easy reading, and it’s fun.
One phrase at a time.
Yesterday, we went on a life-changing trip to Quilotoa, a dormant volcano and crater lake. This 820-foot-deep lake is not your typical blue-gray color. Because of dissolved minerals, the water is greenish in color and absolutely gorgeous. But to get to the water, you have to hike down the side of the volcano. It is steep and sandy and at times treacherous — both from the sheer drop-offs and the piles of donkey poop. Standing at the very top looking down, I didn’t really think that my boys (ages 8, 5, and 1) would be able to go all the way down . . . because once we got down, we’d have to climb back up. I should clarify here that the one-year-old would have an easy go of it riding on Daddy’s back in the baby carrier. But the 8- and 5-year-olds? I had serious doubts.
But my husband said that we rode in a bus for three hours to get there, and we were going to hike all the way down that volcano and touch that water.
And then climb all the way back up.
Going down was easy. Well, not so easy on the ol’ knees, but we managed to get down quickly and without slipping and without stepping in poop. (I did almost get trampled by a donkey on its way up, but I survived.)
We dipped our hands in the water, soaked in the nature, and took a family pic. It really was a glorious sight. Looking out over the water, I couldn’t help but think there must be design and intentionality at work here.
And then we turned around to go back up. Let me tell you, holding the hand of a complainy-pants 5-year-old, staring at a trail that goes straight up for 919 feet is not the same tranquil, peaceful feeling as gazing out onto the waters of the crater lake. Bless him, my son Shade started complaining while we were still on the fairly flat part of the trail close to the water.
I knew he wasn’t going to make it.
So when we made our way up the trail just a bit more and came across a man leading a couple of donkeys, I decided we’d pay him and ride up. We were told at the top of the volcano that a donkey ride up was $5. Doable, I thought. I had just a ten in my wallet — perfect! But he informed me that it was actually $10 per person. And he wasn’t going to budge, even when I snagged another $5 from Steve. So on we walked.
And then it started raining.
I kept telling Shade, “One foot in front of the other. We can do this.”
One foot in front of the other.
We took lots of breaks. We hydrated and ate green apple slices for energy. It was tough going, no doubt about it. Shade was very verbal about how much he was not enjoying the experience. I reminded him that each step was a step closer to the top.
On our way, several people from our group passed us on donkeys. I can only imagine how that must have felt to a five-year-old. Here he is, doing something incredibly difficult, watching as people he knows pass him by. He felt demoralized.
He wanted to stop.
I tried my best to keep a positive attitude, even though I was definitely having a tough time, too. But I have something in higher quantity than my son: mental fortitude. Thank you, Los Angeles Marathon and my three natural-birthed babies, for helping with that. One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. The mantra of our hike up.
At one point, we came upon a young lady slumped against the side of the trail who had just passed out. Steve was there, arm on her shoulder to prevent her from rolling down the trail, while her friends gave her water and fumbled around to find a granola bar.
We kept moving, slowly but surely. Steve and Asher and Memphis (that lucky
brat sweet boy in the baby backpack) caught back up to us and passed us.
At several points Shade said he simply couldn’t do it. I gently reminded him that if he stopped, we wouldn’t get to the top, where hot chocolate was waiting for him at the restaurant.
Then we heard a shout. It was Steve. He and the other boys were standing at the highest lookout, waving and yelling, “Muy bien, Shade” and “Fantastico!” It took him a few seconds, but Shade saw them, and I think it gave him the wherewithal to keep going.
And you know what? Eventually, putting one foot in front of the other led us all the way up that trail to the very top.
I am so proud of my Shade.
I can’t help but comparing hiking up that trail to learning a new language. One phrase at a time, one phrase at a time, one phrase at a time. What once seems insurmountable can eventually be overcome with perseverance, positive attitudes, and apple slices. And when people pass me by, riding on their just-went-to-language-school donkeys, I wish them well and keep trudging on. And remember whatever the heck I can remember from four years of high school Spanish I took two decades ago. Shout-out to Señora Morris from Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California.
For all our fumble-bumbling with phrases and vocabulary and conjugations, the people here see that Steve and I are trying. We could pretty easily get away with finding people who speak English and coast through our time here. But we don’t want that.
We want to connect to a culture and identity that exists beyond us. We want to see people as human beings, not as strangers with a foreign language barrier between us. In his book, Noah references a poignant quote from Nelson Mandela:
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Well here we are, close to the bottom of the mountain, looking up, recognizing the steep climb ahead of us, but acknowledging that it will be worth it. Because we want to connect to people’s hearts.
One phrase at a time.
This post is dedicated to my good friend Cameron. She made magic happen and got us on this trip. I don’t even really know how. But I thank her for it. It’s a memory I will cherish. It’s a reminder that we can do things, even when we’re five, even when we don’t know a language very well.