Written by Amy Yvorchuk
“this blue blob of rusted ancient metal (well, it’s about 60 years old) clunk-clunk-clunks through centuries of resource and decades of revolution. it’s careening over rocky roads and stumbling through the sunshine, searing like scrambling eggs on summer pavement (well, it’s the middle of spring).
we doze off on top of suitcase armrests – i’m the last to fall asleep, because i’m distracted by the wind behind me. i try to stay conscious through this travel through time and time again.
the speedbumps aren’t just for show here; they’re our unwarranted alarms, but we’re never in harm’s way despite this steel juggernaut’s jerking over years of winding and unwinding history interlaced with intersections and precarious infrastructure. we’re davids within this goliath, but in this edition of the story we’re not here to conquer – we’re collaborating with compassion with newfound companions.”
These were the first words I jotted down to remember this experience as we drove through the Cuban countryside from Varadero to Sancti Spiritus on May 16th, 2017, the day our unforgettable journey began. When I look back, my stream of consciousness seems just as shaky as my writing was, just as the bus ride was: I don’t think I’ll be able to translate perfectly through either words or pictures, but I can always try. After all, these GCELE opportunities encourage us as students and global citizens to work towards dismantling barriers – and we do that through communicating with each other on our trip, with our new Cuban friends, and with you, the person on the other side of the screen reading this and wondering, “what do you even do on a GCELE?”
As someone who spoke Spanish really well in high school, but graduated high school five years ago, I’ll admit that I overestimated how fluent I was. “I speak Spanish at a conversational level” is easy to say in Canada, when you’re introducing yourself at the GCELE pre-departure orientation to your new Canadian friends, some of whom do speak Spanish but most of whom know “hola”, “adiós”, and “despacito”. It’s even easy to live up to that statement at the airport, when you’re going through customs or asking your bus drivers their names. But in a country where Spanish is the official language, especially in a city like Sancti Spiritus that isn’t overrun with tourists, the locals don’t sound like the slow, articulated, overpronounced audios from your classroom. They grew up with this language, of course, and so you feel like a child relearning how to speak – but you’re also translating for others at the same time that you’re trying to keep up. Challenge accepted, but maybe I dove in too quickly?
But nine days in Sancti Spiritus taught me much, much more than some of the words and phrases I’d forgotten. Sure, I felt anxious about not being a perfect translator: one event comes to mind in which I forgot the Spanish word for “box” when some of my friends wanted to take some pizza they’d ordered back to the casa particular where we were staying, and I internally panicked. But what I quickly learned from so many new friends is that it’s okay not to be perfect: it’s better to make the effort to communicate and get to know the people around you than to be completely grammatically correct. Enthusiasm, positivity, and curiosity about new environments go a long, long way.
I became inspired by my fellow Centennial students to stop letting my fear of being perfect get in the way of communicating. When I stopped overthinking about the exact words or grammatically correct phrases to say, I actually felt so much more comfortable speaking with volunteers, families, and permaculture enthusiasts in Sancti Spiritus. Whether it was finding a common love for YouTube makeup tutorials with Lorrettys, listening to entertaining stories about motorcycle mishaps from Sandy, or comparing tattoos with Felix, I found that there was so much that unified us Canadians and Cubans that the language barrier wasn’t an obstacle, but a springboard. And as we all laughed and chattered with excitement in basic English, basic Spanish, and wild hand gestures, I realized that this is what makes new experiences so rewarding: you don’t need to be fluent to build friendships.
That said, I would highly recommend all of you to learn how to say “the toilet’s broken” in the language of the country where you happen to be traveling next, because it’s best to be prepared too.