being taken for a local is always the best moment in any trip. my moment was last night, when a guy stopped us on the street and asked how to get to bonpland and soler. the second i opened my mouth, of course, he realized his mistake. still, he stood gamely by while i worked my mouth around the phrase for "seven blocks this way" (the "this way" indicated with gestures, not words) and "four blocks this way." mo was impressed that i knew "cuadra" (block), so my dignity was saved from otherwise certain doom.
i'm okay with spanish as long as people don't depart from the script. when i ask, "donde es el bano?," i want economy of words: "alli, a la izquierda," maybe with some helpful pointing. i do not want to hear that it's around the bar, up the stairs, through another room of tables at the back of the building. i cannot cope with that, and i simply have to move on to the next person/establishment until i get actionable information.
sometimes the issue is not language at all, but culture, experience, or good old-fashioned ignorance. last night, buying a bottle of wine, i asked, "es seco o dolce?," meaning is it dry or is it sweet. it didn't translate, so i tried again, managing to say something like 'the man, does he drink it with the dessert or with the food?' when the clerk still had to ask someone else in the store, i realized she was probably about 16 years old and knew nothing of wine. similarly, the other day i asked for "un capuccino, pero con espresso doble." the server looked confused, so i tried again. "uno capo, dos espresso," counting it out on my fingers. no go. she says to me in english (everybody of course speaks english), "you want one capuccino but with extra espresso?" "si, por favor. es possible?" (which does not exactly mean "is that possible" but more like, "could it be so?" i was not going for sarcasm.) she held off answering. "more coffee," she said, "but with the same milk?" exactly. the thing is, it's not a coffee town. the problem wasn't linguistic but conceptual.
what people do drink: mate. and this ain't your usual steeps-type "hmmmm, should i go with madras spice or yerba mate" drink. it's a full-on experience. you take your gourd and fill it with herb, then pour in 80-degree water to fill. the water must be at 80 degrees or you start again. you take the three sips of tea from the gourd (which is so full of yerba paste that's all there is, allah be praised), refill with water and pass it to the next person. not so much in the capital, but everywhere else you see people of all ages -- from 3 to 83 -- with a thermos slung over their shoulder and a mate gourd in their hand, sipping away all day. gas stations have a hot water station with the water set at precisely 80 degrees, from which you can refill your thermos for free, and several apartments set their hot water tanks to mate level, too. i find that yerba mate smells and tastes just like henna. or, as we say in spanish, no me gusto.