Navigating the language barrier: Getting around Chile when you don't really speak the language

View from a passenger bus driving through the high Andes
Source: kwest/Shutterstock
View from a passenger bus driving through the high Andes
Source: kwest/Shutterstock
opinion
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When it is your second night in Chile and you are 56 miles away from your homestay, alone in a department store, desperately searching for Wi-Fi and surrounded by a language you don't speak, it causes you to reevaluate the decisions that led you there. For instance: "Perhaps I should have stayed home tonight," or "I could have, I don't know, learned more Spanish" — I'm just brainstorming here.

I have done a fair amount of traveling in my life, but I had a realization while I was stranded in that department store: Any time I had been immersed in a foreign language before, I had had some sort of English-speaking guide keeping me afloat. But on that day, in this department store, I had no such guide.

The streets of Santiago, Chile, in 2009
Source: kemdim/Shutterstock

So how did I wind up there? I had met Ignacio, a local Chilean, the day before at the Santiago International Airport, on my first day of a months-long stay in Chile. At the time, I had another Americano with me who spoke decent Spanish, helping me stay above water.

We all spent the previous day together and had an efficient three-way translation system going on. Ignacio had invited us to go with some friends of his to a festival in Viña del Mar, a coastal city about 79 miles from where I was staying in Santiago. My fellow English-speaker and de-facto translator couldn't make the trip, but, feeling adventurous, I agreed to tag along with Ignacio anyway.

To get to Viña del Mar, I needed to get from my homestay to Estación Central, the train station in Santiago, and from there catch a bus to Melipilla, Ignacio's hometown, where he would pick me up from a bus stop and we would drive to Viña. Simple.

City buses in Santiago, Chile, in 2016
Source: Tateyama/Shutterstock

But first, some context: I grew up in the suburbs of Southeast Michigan. The only buses I'd ever taken were school buses that picked me up 100 feet from my front door. I was about as fluent in public transportation as I was in Spanish.

I had taken three semesters of entry-level Spanish in college. But upon arriving in Chile earlier this year, I realized that those semesters served to prepare me for grammar exams, but not how to actually speak comfortably with people — and definitely not how to get off at the right bus stop.

The journey started out fine: I got an Uber from my house in Santiago to Estación Central, which was the easy part. At Estación Central, I walked from booth to booth and found a sign that said Melipilla, so I bought a ticket and got on the correct bus. Everything was going according to plan and my confidence was high.

I had a phone, but I didn't have a Chilean phone number, so I was restricted to texting on Snapchat wherever I could connect to Wi-Fi, which is elusive in many places. Before I lost my internet connection in Santiago, I told Ignacio, in my very basic Spanish, that I would meet him at the bus stop in Melipilla.  

After a 90-minute bus ride through the mountains and into the Chilean sunset, I arrived in Melipilla. Expecting a big, central bus station where Ignacio would be smiling and waiting for me, I began to panic when the bus started dropping off passengers on basically every other corner of the Melipilla streets.

Santiago's train station
Source: Pamela Loreto Perez/Shutterstock

With nightfall upon me, I was scared that I would be stranded somewhere in the city without internet connection. I made a snap decision to get off the bus when I saw a large, illuminated storefront. I thought, "they have to have Wi-Fi."

Inside the department store, I went straight to the nearest clerk and begged for Wi-Fi. She looked at me quizzically, but took my phone and put in the password.

I frantically texted Ignacio in my broken Spanish trying to explain where I was, but there was no response. So I just stayed there, pretending like I was checking out bathing suits and stereo systems for over an hour while I weighed out my options: I could aimlessly wander the streets looking for a bus station that I wasn't sure existed, I could get an expensive Uber back to Santiago or I could try to find somewhere to sleep. I was quickly sinking.

But then, after much anxious waiting, Ignacio finally texted me back. "Sorry amigo, perdí mis llaves." He had lost his keys and didn't check his phone while he was looking for them. But amazingly, he knew exactly where I was. I was saved. He picked me up at the store and drove us to Viña del Mar where we partied until sunrise in the coastal town.

A view of the Pacific near Viña del Mar in Chile
Source: Alexander Chaikin/Shutterstock

I woke up after two-and-a-half hours of sleep on a couch in Viña, and somehow caught a bus to the nearest station in the next town over. From there I bought a ticket back to Santiago — and immediately missed that bus because I had told the clerk I understood her directions when in fact I barely got any of what she said. I had to go back to the same clerk and buy a second ticket to Santiago.

As I was waiting for the second bus, I saw an older couple wearing floral Hawaiian shirts that screamed "tourist." I asked them where they were from.

"Canadian!" the woman exclaimed. Chatting with them, I could relieve my brain for a moment and have a conversation completely in English for the first time in two days. They had been staying in Viña del Mar over the weekend. They may have seen a very different side of the city than I had, but we both existed on the same side of the language barrier and were therefore immediately connected.

Her husband kept walking up and down the rows of buses, anxiously making sure that they didn't blunder their ride, just like I had 20 minutes before.

"He always worries so much on travel days. It's not like it's the end of the world if we miss a bus!" That, I had learned, was true.

About the Author: Bennett Slavsky is currently working and writing in Chile. He has worked throughout Michigan as a freelance writer and has been featured in such publications as the Grand Haven Tribune and the Detroit Free Press. He has a background in sustainability and is now working on writing and digital marketing at Keteka.

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