“What do you know about Peru?” asks the driver who picked me up from the airport. “Not much apart from the fact that Ghana lifted the Under-17th FIFA World Cup here,” I said.
Before his next question, I told him about the 1996 hostage incident in the Japanese embassy where the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) seized the compound and locked the many foreign diplomats celebrating Emperor Akihito’s 63rd birthday. After 126 days, the siege came to an end when Peruvian Armed Forces commandos raided the place. The driver looked at the mirror in the car just to take a close look at me, as I continued with my narration of the event.
“How do you know this story?” he asked with a heavy Spanish accent, before adding, “You’ve been to Peru before?
“No, never been anywhere close to Latin America but I read that incident in the news,” I said. Just then the radio in the car was playing “Kiss Me” by the American rock band Sixpence Non The Richer and I began to sing along.
He interrupted my singing, asking was what I did for a living.
“Oh, so you are a journalist, I see,” he said as he honked his horn for a car in front of us to drive on.
“Were you thinking I was kinda a revolutionary coming into your country for another drama?” I said with a weary smile.
He smiled before asking the next question; “Do you speak Spanish?” No, I said
The drive from the airport lasted 30 minutes. He dropped me off at the hotel, we hugged each other and said goodbye. I went over to the reception, signed in, took my key and made my way to my room. I was very tired.
The flight from the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo had lasted a little over five hours and though I slept throughout the period, it was not enough. Two little girls sitting next to me decided to play on the flight. Their parents had long gone to bed and yet they will not let me sleep.
“Uncle Anny, can you please look at this cartoon?” ventured one of them who gave her name as Esther. I love children but certainly not at a time when I could barely keep my eyes opened.
It was too late for dinner so I headed into the bathroom for a warm shower. I jumped into bed and after only four hours of sleep, my eyes opened. I could not sleep anymore. Where did the sleep go? I kept asking myself. And to keep myself useful, I logged onto my computer and went straight to Google Translate, to educate myself on some basic Spanish expressions. Afterall, I may need that just for my rounds. I intend going to the arts market to pick up some items and to get that I must be armed with basic language skills so I don’t end up being cheated.
I started with the greetings. And to do that, I typed “Good morning” and then record. I did it for the rest and then other basic ones like ‘where is the bus stop”, “how much is this item”, “why don’t you reduce the price”, “where can I get batteries for my recorder,” etc. Simple basic language expressions to ensure I don’t appear too green in a country thousands of miles away from home.
I played each of the expressions and recorded them in the order I wanted them. I connected my Ipod to my laptop and then transferred the files onto it. I was ready to go. I quietly rehearsed each line in my head for many hours. The accent is important but at this stage it is not my priority. Mine is just to be in a position to communicate.
After nearly an hour, I decided to try it on an official from the Peruvian Environment Ministry, who I wanted to interview about a campaign to get people to cut back on the use of paper for their work (unsurprisingly, it is something my office or newsroom adopted a little over a year ago).
The first greeting went well. Obviously thinking I speak Spanish, she expected the next question to follow in Spanish but it was in English. “You don’t speak Spanish? “No I don’t,” I said. “I know only the greetings and basic other ones like ‘how are you doing?’, ‘reduce the price because it’s expensive’ etc.”
We both had a good laugh before she handed me a small manual containing Spanish phrases translated into English.
“Call me if you are struggling with anything, I will be here,” she said in Spanish.
I quickly flipped the page and then said in Spanish “Por qué no,” before melting into a waiting crowd of painted faces indigenous Peruvians interacting with guests at one of the many foyers at the conference venue.