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Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

First words

On the mid-morning of our fourth day of trek, Sandy posed a challenge to us: speak only Spanish for the rest of the day. We were paused right at the transition from the high, dry alpine landscape and the florid, humid, buggy Yungas, and as we stood up from our break Sandy delivered her message: Firstly- welcome to her territory! and secondly- we were to do our best to speak only Spanish for the rest of the day. Another transition- not only in geographical territory, but the territory of language, from the familiar pastures of English, a place I´m eloquent and surefooted in, to Spanish, a rocky, forested terrain I feel lost in–however, this sense of not knowing my way allows for gratitude when I discover phrases I do know my way around, and wonder at how much more there is to discover. As well as plenty of humor–for example, confidently walking around saying the word¨mierda¨¨, thinking it meant ¨to be fearful¨, when in reality ¨miedo¨means to be fearful, and mierda means sh-t. Much to my embarrassment, thinking of all the times I must have inadvertently sworn in front of my homestay family in Tiquipaya, and much to the amusement of my companions.
Thus the two transitions began. Trees began appearing- trees! Miracle of miracles. The day before, upon seeing our first tree in awhile in someone´s yard, Sideny and I went up to touch a branch, to be with the tree, to feel its realness, its presence. At breaks bugs began to swarm around us, the brush and other vegetation multiplied and diversified. Beautiful, colorful flowers began appearing, clouds crept upward from the valley to the mountains, the humid tropical air meeting the cool alpine temperatures and condensing. Life was springing up all around us, verdant and lush and vividly present, every breath we took was easy now—no longer the thin dry air of the mountains, which had our breathing labored and unnatural. However, the unnaturalness of breathing at altitude-me trying my best to be conscious of breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, exhaling through as small an aperture as I could make with my mouth to, as Jeff suggested, ¨create a high-pressure, low altitude environment in your lungs¨- aka pilot breathing–this unnaturalness made me more conscious, mindful, if you will, of my breathing. Though now I breathed with unthinking ease, now language no longer came as easy as breathing- making me more conscious of what I said, of the privilege and fortune to be able to speak and express myself unthinkingly through words. I struggled through conversations with Jhasmany and Sandy about what I was interested in studying, my family, life in my father´s Taiwan, musicals, etc. etc. I had two choices: either to engage in hard conversation, or remain silent and reflect in silence. This marked a third transition- not only of land and language, but also of mindset. At first I was honestly resentful of having to speak Spanish–I find it harder to have the deeper emotional and intellectual conversations I wish to have in Spanish, and can´t express that level of depth or reach a conversation level of the depth I wish to in Spanish–so I´d rather just speak English. However, the only way to get to that level is to up my Spanish, and speaking with other students and Sandy, I found how fun and almost playful navigating my way through a thorny language could be. It´s helped me release my tight grip on perfectionism, which I´ve allowed to run rampant through various parts of my life, and forge through, mistakes or no. Jhasmany also reminded us of the justice of language, which I found immensely interesting–the privilege of speaking a language that is most peoples second language, of being able to almost always express yourself, and of other voices being silenced. By choosing to learn English, Jhasmany pointed out, he and others had made the choice or expressed though that choice that North Americans, Australians, and Western Europeans were a group of people more worth interacting with, whether economicaly, intellectually, or by default, interpersonally, more so than other groups. The privileged mindset of coming to a Spanish speaking country and expecting our instructors to have English as a first language, when Jhasmany, when travelling in the US, did not expect his instructors or hosts to speak Spanish as their first language, or at all. And by speaking English in Spanish-speaking countries, we limited ourselves to interacting with that educated elite privileged enough to learn and become fluent in English, a group whose life circumstances would not differ as dramatically from ours as only Spanish speaking (or Aymara or Quechua speaking) peoples would. By mainly speaking English, we cut ourselves off from learning from those people and their rich experiences. That´s why now, Jhasmany told us, he´s focusing on learning Quechua- because to him, it´s an important group of people to interact with. What we speak speaks of what we value, of who we value interacting with. And it shamed me to realize by speaking English, I was creating not only a language but an emotional barrier, whether intentionally or no, between myself and the communities we travelled among. Such was Sandy´s wisdom in encouraging us that day, and the next, more so than ever, to please speak Spanish, so that we could have as full of an experience in the Yungas as possible in such a short time. We talk of intellectual vs emotional learning on Dragons courses, and it did we good not only to speak intellectually of the implications of using or not using certain languages, but to feel the pain of misunderstanding and not being able to express myself, of being conscious of what I had taken for granted, of being truly able to empathize with Sandy and other community members that us students had forced into discomfort by speaking only English. Also, in those moments of silent reflection, breaking from the struggle (yet an enjoyable challenge) of speaking Spanish, I found my thoughts returning to my father, to Taiwan. He immigrated from Taiwan to Argentina as a teenager, and these Spanish only days helped me feel more what he must have been feeling–but doesn´t reach there, because he was not even coming from a romantic language, while I can recognize correlates. And I can better imagine then his struggle to then learn English once he went from Argentina to America- the emotional isolation that comes from literally not being able to express how you feel, your happiness, your pain, and so on, to share and connect with others. It made me think twice about my anger with my dad and his family when they speak Taiwanese all together and leave me, my mom, and my sister out of the conversation-first of all, that´s only a taste of the bitter medicine he must have been drinking all these years, and secondly, what sweet relief and recognition it is to speak one´s own language, dialect with your people, and how rare it is nowadays for peoples whose language is not that of the dominator, the colonizer. I speak English, Mandarin, and now am learning Spanish. Why not Quechua, Aymara, Taiwanese? Language more connected to local history, people, place?
Despite these difficulties of language, the wondrous rich diversity and authenticity and unique understanding afforded by each one that must not be allowed to die out, Besides- we already have a universal language. When words fail us, then the body can be allowed to speak, without the mind and its words dominating our idea of language. We talk here of decolonizing the body, and not having the language in words allows for the body to fill in the gaps, the body to speak what everyone, from Taiwan to America to Bolivia, can understand.

Thus despite my frustrations with Spanish, I learned so much from those Spanish only days, provoking such interesting lines of thought and moments of serentipitous intuition and lighthearted playfulness and sweet miraculous breakthough and understanding that perhaps are only accessible elsewhere in life when a mother hears her child speak their first words. On trek, the most beautiful and rewarding moments can never be replicated on mere day hikes. As with Spanish. a difficult and beautiful terrain, whose cascades and mountain peaks and expanses of life-brimming forests can only be accessed by journeying inward, for longer and longer stretches of time. Gracias Sandy y mi companeros por undertaking the journey with me, I´m grateful for their graceful and patience and playful companionship through literal and metaphorical lands.