One of the main reasons that I wanted to move abroad was to immerse myself in a Spanish speaking country to truly gain fluency in the language. I had no idea, at the time, however, that I would run into so many situations that had the potential to become much more difficult and problematic had I not spoken Spanish. I am still surprised when I see expats who have lived abroad for many years and don’t speak their adopted country’s language. I often wonder how they get by on a daily basis. And I know they are definitely missing out on the opportunity to really assimilate themselves into a foreign culture and enjoys all the benefits of that experience.
We already know the common reasons for someone to have a basic grasp of a language when traveling or living abroad, like avoiding tourist traps, making new friends, negotiating lower prices, etc. Instead of listing the obvious, I’d like to share scary 5 experiences that I have had personally, which may have gone very wrong if I wasn’t able to communicate in Spanish.
- Avoid Overpaying (the time the landlord tried to rip me off)
This has happened every time that I move apartments or homes, but this one time was particularly terrible. Upon telling my landlord in Mexico City that I was moving, she produced over a year’s worth of electric bills for the entire property. Then, she told me that I owed her $4000 pesos for electricity. This is a common tactic that landlords try when you are leaving, in an attempt to get more money from you. I was moving my things out, with the help of friends, when the landlord sat on my suitcase and refused to move. One of my friends offered to call the police and I accepted. They quickly came and I explained my side of the situation, in Spanish of course. We did not have a written lease for the room so the police officers ordered the woman to let me leave with my things and told her that I had no obligation to pay the electric bill.
- Medical Emergencies (the time I got a UTI)
Like many women, I suffer from periodic urinary tract infections (UTIs) which tend to creep up every 2 years or so. I felt one coming on in the middle of the night while I lived in Veracruz. I quickly hailed a taxi to the local Red Cross emergency room. Of course, none of the doctors spoke English, but luckily I had previously worked in healthcare recruiting Spanish-speaking patients, so I was able to explain my symptoms and that I had a history of UTIs. Within a few minutes, they gave me an injection of antibiotics, another for pain and a few prescriptions to continue the treatment at home. The total cost of the visit and medication was under $15, which would have been much more expensive in a private hospital if I needed an English speaking doctor.
- Dealing with the Police (the time I pressed charges on my fiancée)
During my time in Veracruz, I became involved with an amazing man and we had a wonderful 3-year relationship. He eventually proposed to me and we were ready to live our happily ever after until…. Carnaval… (think the Latin American version of Mardi Gras). With enough alcohol in his system, I came home to find my apartment trashed for an unknown reason. He then physically assaulted me. I ran to our balcony as he blocked the front door. I asked the Mexican tourists walking in the streets below to call the police and they did. They showed up and arrested him on the spot and I was able to press charges against him. This required me to give a detailed statement in Spanish at the police station.
- Unexpected Issues (the time I lost my debit card)
Out of the blue one day, I received my United Mileage Plus statement by e-mail and realized I had enough miles for a free ticket to South America. I quickly booked a round-trip ticket to Colombia. It had 2 connections, which was fine because it was free. After going through 3 airports, I arrived in Colombia and went to withdraw money from the ATM. Unfortunately, my debit card was nowhere to be found and I didn’t have any backup credit card with me. I had $10 USD in cash and ended up begging a taxi driver to take me to a 24-hour currency exchange to be able to get some Colombian pesos. He then dropped me off at my Couchsurfing host’s apartment. He was nice enough to give me an extremely discounted fare in light of the situation.
- Immigration (the time my 3-month-old crossed her first border)
My daughter Sofia was born in El Salvador. When she was 3 months old we traveled for the first time. We took a bus to neighboring Guatemala to be able to get better airfare from that airport. At the El Salvador/Guatemala border, we were taken off the bus and the immigration officer explained that he could not stamp an entry stamp into her passport because she didn’t have an exit stamp from El Salvador (El Salvador does not stamp passports when traveling by land). I was arguing this point back and forth with the immigration officer and finally, he said that she would be allowed into the country but upon leaving we would have to pay a fine of about $30 USD. I had no problem with that and we got back on the bus. We were able to enter the country. I was later told that is a common ploy done at the border in order to solicit a bribe from traveling foreigners to get the passport stamp.
These are just 5 examples of many. So, as you can see, anything and everything can happen when you are traveling or living abroad. Gaining even a basic knowledge of the language in the country you are traveling will go a long way if you find yourself in one of these situations. Whether it’s the police, immigration officers, healthcare workers or locals, if you are in a foreign country it’s not a guarantee that people will speak your language. We are guests in their country and the burden is on us to learn and adapt, not them.
Have you had a similar issue in a foreign country? If so, share your experience in the comments.
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