My time in Central America is nearly complete, and I feel the pangs of urgency and hint of sadness I always experience as the end of a trip draws near. I fantasize about delaying my flight, and even go so far as to call the airline, but in the inexplicable logic of ticket pricing algorithms, it will cost double the original fare to spend an extra week here. If there were a Rosetta Stone TOTALe that could help me communicate with airline reservation agents, I’d order it.
Just the same, I have a week left and I intend to make the most of it. I’ve bused south out of El Salvador and through Honduras to return to León, Nicaragua. I have to keep a promise I made to Noortje, a Dutch volunteer at a girls’ orphanage here, to help her start a website for the organization.
I meet Noortje in the afternoon at the entrance to Iglesia La Recolección, a colonial church painted marigold yellow, and she shows me in to a courtyard playground in the adjacent building where the girls play after school. I expect them to be shy and withdrawn, but it takes them only seconds to warm up to me. They’re particularly interested in my camera and take turns playing professional photographer as their friends hurl sticks at green mangoes in the trees overhead, loosening them from the branches.
At eight to twelve years old, the girls’ English instruction has left them with little more than “Hello, how are you?” and we quickly exhaust the possibilities for practicing before the conversation continues in Spanish. They want to know where I’m from and whether I have brothers and sisters or a girlfriend. There’s a heartbreaking addition to the usual questions: I’m asked by several of the girls if my parents are still alive. I realize it must be a common topic of conversation here.
A few of the girls are precocious and patient when occasionally I don’t understand their rapid Spanish. They ask their questions again slowly and the words come into focus. I’m glad to be able to speak with them. It’s these little glimpses of everyday life made possible by speaking the local language that make a trip memorable—interactions driven by honest curiosity rather than commerce or utility.
When it’s time to leave, the girls ask if I’ll be coming back tomorrow. I want to say yes, but I only have a few days remaining and there’s another important stop on my agenda, the tiny town of El Manzano Uno in the northwest corner of the country. There, a group of Americans has recently started a surf hostel, El Coco Loco, and an associated community development project called Waves of Hope.
El Coco Loco is new to the tourist track and not too easy to find, so I have to seriously exercise my vocabulary to bus and hitch my way there the following day. When I arrive at the hostel, the owners, volunteers, and guests are headed down to the beach to play softball with kids from the town and they invite me along.
Spending the next few days with the owners and staff, I realize that El Coco Loco is a rare find—a hostel that does far more than merely capitalize on the popularity of responsible tourism. It holds the ideals of community development and ecological responsibility at its very core. In a short time the group has already helped several families in need, improved education opportunities for local children, created after-school programs, helped the local clinic acquire medical supplies, and much more.
I’ve seen many establishments in Central and South America that pay lip service to these ideas, but few are so dedicated. Many expat business owners never even attempt to learn the language of their host country, and I’ve witnessed this lack of communication leaving both parties feeling alienated or taken advantage of.
Here at El Coco Loco, Rob Orton heads up Waves of Hope and is the primary liaison to the community. After two years in the Peace Corps in Central America his Spanish is excellent, and he knows how to interact with even the more skeptical members of the community. The others are still learning. A few have been using Rosetta Stone software to improve their Spanish.
For me, the past several months of using TOTALe has made communication not only possible, but easier and more fun than ever while I’ve been traveling. Writing a blog about learning and communicating has taken it a step further: as I’ve analyzed interactions through the lens of communication, my experiences have deepened.
While there’s something to be said for a relaxing, all-inclusive vacation, popular tourism is undergoing a paradigm shift. Those of us lucky enough to have the means to travel abroad are starting to realize that minimizing the negative impact we have on our destinations is not enough; we can actually leave a place better than we found it, and maybe even improve ourselves in the process.
The first step is facilitating communication by learning the language spoken at our destination. Not only does it make deeper, more fulfilling interactions possible, the connections made inevitably provide continued opportunities to travel and interact in the future. It becomes a part of us, a way of life.
At times, I’ve heard language learning with Rosetta Stone dismissed in favor of in-country immersion. My experience learning with TOTALe was nothing if not immersive—more so in some ways than the seven-week immersion course I attended in Guatemala. There are no English translations or explicit explanations of grammar in the world of Rosetta Stone.
When I hear the two compared, I have to wonder where it is that this full language immersion is truly happening, or whether true immersion is so easily attainable for English speakers in today’s world. I spent much of my time outside of “immersion” Spanish class, even in the remote city of Xela, speaking in English to other travelers from all over the world. To fully immerse myself I would’ve had to make a conscious decision to cut myself off from all the interesting, like-minded English-speaking travelers around me.
TOTALe has provided me with a temptation-free immersive environment in which to study Spanish, even while abroad. It’s enabled me to study consistently while changing destinations every few days, and given me a gradually increasing level of comfort with Spanish. I haven’t had to cope with the fear and loneliness of being fully immersed in a new environment in which I couldn’t communicate—and for that I’m grateful.