By Joanne O’Connor
You’ve never really tasted true misery unless you’ve had to scoop out your bath water with the lid of a shampoo bottle and throw it down the sink because you can’t work out how to get the bath plug out and you are 13 and staying with a French family and are too scared to ask.
I still have bad dreams about my school French exchange. The plate of cold leeks, which I was given as an hors d’oeuvre every night; the attic full of antelope body parts I had to walk through to get to my bedroom (the father was a taxidermist); Martine the teenage tearaway climbing out of her bedroom window so she didn’t have to hang out with her swotty English penpal; the cringe-making family rows, which usually ended with the mother shouting at Martine: ‘Why can’t you be more like Joanne? She stays in every night and does her homework.’ It was the longest two weeks of my life.
Far from fostering a deeper understanding of our Francophone cousins, those two weeks in Bar-sur-Seine gave me a queasy feeling about la belle France that has never really gone away. And when I decided in later life that it might actually be quite nice to master another language, rather than dusting off the schoolgirl French, I opted for a clean break: Spanish.
Three years of half-finished evening classes later, I could order in a restaurant and ask directions, but my conversational skills were limited to asking everybody how many brothers and sisters they had.
The only true way to master a language is to live and breathe it for a period of time. I toyed with the idea of taking a language ‘immersion’ course abroad, but two little words always stopped me: home stay. Then I saw that tour operator Journey Latin America had started offering Spanish courses in Peru, among other places. The opportunity to realise two long-held ambitions in one holiday – to improve my Spanish and to see Machu Picchu – proved irresistible.
My misgivings evaporate the moment I am met by my ‘surrogate’ family, the Rojas, at Cusco airport. They greet me warmly, like an old friend. Carlos is an optician and Carmucha owns a restaurant, and they live in a comfortable house right in the centre of town. They have four children, ranging in age from 18 to nine years old.
On arrival at the house I’m given coca tea to counteract the effects of Cusco’s high altitude and shown to my bedroom. From my window I can see the city’s sprawling red-roofed suburbs, and carved into the green mountains beyond in huge letters the words Viva Peru Glorioso. Carmucha gives me a set of keys and the youngest child, Roberto, solemnly lends me his Mickey Mouse keyring to use for the week.
I am whisked off to a family friend’s birthday party, where I understand no one and nothing apart from the bit where they sing Happy Birthday. By the end of the evening my face aches from holding an expression of polite, but uncomprehending interest for six hours, and I fall into bed wondering what I’ve let myself in for.
The following morning, I am woken by Carmucha, who announces that she is going to take me to school. Not only does she walk me to school, but she also insists on waiting outside the classroom and waving at me as I sit my placement test. I feel 13 years old again.
While waiting to be assigned a teacher, I get to know my new school chums. We are from England, America, New Zealand, Holland and Sweden. We are aged between 19 and 48, and spending an average of two weeks to a month studying Spanish here in Cusco before spending some time travelling around Peru, and maybe Bolivia and Ecuador.
We all like our new families, though one of us is a bit alarmed at the blue flame that jumps out of the shower switch in the morning, one of us has a long bus ride in to the school, and one of us is disconcerted to find that his ‘Mum’ is actually six years younger than he is. The director of the Academia Lationamericana de Espanol, the un feasibly nice Carol LaMastra from Philadelphia, gives us an introductory briefing. From flights to Inca Trail tours, to extra blankets at night, it seems there is nothing the school cannot fix for us, and if we are too embarrassed to ask our family how to work the bath plug, Carol will do it for us.
After sitting the placement test, we are assigned a teacher for the week and, as it is not yet high season and the school is not too busy, we are all impressed/alarmed to learn that tuition will be one-on-one. This is a pretty impressive ratio, though even in high season the maximum class size swells to only four pupils.
The school has a plum location right on Cusco’s main drag, the Avenida del Sol, and my classroom window looks out onto the Qoricancha – the former Inca temple of the sun- not that gazing out of the classroom is much of an option when you are the only student in the class. Using the results of the placement test, my teacher, Wilfredo, is able to pinpoint exactly which areas I need to work on and without further ado, we get down to work.
As the week unfolds, I slip into a routine. Four hours of classes in the morning (broken up by Peruvian pop songs, video clips, a generous coffee break and lots of conversational practice), back home for a huge lunch with the family (fat avocados, jumbo corn on the cob served with cheese, pumpkin soup and then a rice and meat dish), and afternoons free for sightseeing or to join in one of the excellent extracurricular activities laid on by the school. One evening we join a Peruvian cookery class in the school kitchen, on another afternoon there’s a tour of the Qoricancha.
It’s only fair to warn you that Cusco will do everything it can to lure the feckless student away from his or her homework. It’s all too easy to swap verb conjugations for a swift Cusqueña beer in a bar overlooking the Plaza de Armas, although it’s at least three days before anybody plucks up the courage to suggest that maybe we don’t have to go back to our respective families for dinner every night. Once the seed of rebellion has been planted we queue up like nervous teenagers outside the phone box plucking up the courage to ring our ‘Mums’ and ask if we can stay out late – all the more strange when you consider that our average age is probably 33. But my Big Night Out turns out to be strangely unsatisfying.
We negotiate our way past the restaurant touts on Gringo Alley and are lured into a pizza restaurant by the promise of a free pisco sour. Somebody grumbles that pizza is not very authentic. But then neither is eating guinea pig while a Peruvian group plays ‘El Condor Pasa’ on the panpipes. True authenticity is back home at the dinner table with Carmucha bemoaning the fact that the new chef failed to turn up for work today, Roberto being told off for falling asleep at the table, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch dubbed badly into Spanish playing in the background.
I decide that I can go out and get drunk with a group of Brits every night back home in London, but it’s not every night you get to be thrashed at Digimon by a nine-year-old Peruvian Nintendo wizard.
As the week wears on, a strange thing starts to happen: the dinner-table chatter, which at first was so much ‘white noise’, starts to have some meaning and, miraculously, I can follow the thread of the conversation. I may not be able to make a profound and interesting contribution, but at least I know when to laugh now.
The end of the week comes too quickly, and I have not seen all of the sights I wanted to see, but I have started to dream in Spanish. As Carlos drives me to the airport, I pick out familiar sights and realise that my mental map of the city is very different than if I had stayed here as a tourist. That’s Roberto’s school, there’s the church were Carmucha and Carlos got married, there’s Carmucha’s new restaurant, and there’s the college where Gabriela, the eldest daughter, studies.
Carlos tells me I will have to come back next year, and we will all walk the Inca Trail together. I don’t know if he is serious or not, but it’s a nice thought.
Joanne O’Connor travelled and booked her Spanish course with Journey Latin America (020 8747 3108). A two-week Spanish course in Cusco, including full-board accommodation with a family and airport pick-up, is £441. Return flights from the UK to Lima are £578. The onward flight from Lima to Cusco is £75 (one way).
JLA – Journey Latin America offers 18 locations throughout South and Central America. Courses range from one to four weeks in duration, and cater for all levels – from beginner to advanced.
Other good starting points for backpackers planning to spend a few months travelling in South or Central America are: Quito, Ecuador, where a four-week Spanish course, including half-board family accommodation and airport pick-up, costs £755.