I’m hiking around the Bolivian shoreline of Lake Titicaca, down a dusty road past potato fields and water as blue as the high-altitude sky.
A boy, dressed for school in sweater and blue plant, walks up and grabs my trekking pole. “What do you think of Iraq?” he asks in Spanish, squinting.
Traveling through Latin America, I’ve learned enough Spanish to get by pretty well. I can read a menu, bargain for a llama--even chat, after a drink or two, at about a fifth-grade level.
But standing there in the sun I find I’m speechless. My vocabulary vanishes; my grammar is gone. What is the word for “disillusionment”? How do you conjugate “mislead”? Imperialismo is probably masculine, but I’m not sure.
I stammer something about war being bad, about losing trust--I think I get that right--and off he goes, shaking his head.
You can’t be subtle in a second language. Every word has to replace a dozen others, and sometimes you can’t find any, no matter how patient your audience is.
It happens again a few days later, on the crowded ferry back from the Island of the Sun. Up on deck I meet Juan, who’s heading to the mainland to buy oatmeal and rebar. He has only been to La Paz, the capital, once in his life.
We talk about tourists, Bolivian soccer, and why a landlocked country needs a navy.
Inevitably he brings up the war. I do a little better this time--I’ve learned the words for “doubt” and “argue”--but I still feel like I’m floundering.
In the end I say I’m just not sure. I have un sentido mal, a bad feeling, and I know I’m not alone. He nods gravely, and wishes me well as we reach the dock.
On the way up to the bus station, I pull my Spanish dictionary from my bag. I want to have it in hand for the long ride ahead.
The first time I lost my Spanish was two years before in a hotel lobby in Havana. Watching CNN on a sweltering September morning, I learned terrible new words. Sequestrador, hijacker. Derrumbar, to collapse. Terrorismo.
There are no subtleties when you’re speaking a second language. Every word has to stand in for a dozen others, and often you can’t find any, no matter how patient your listener is.