When I first came to South America, my level of Spanish pretty much followed this pattern:
Me: Donde está el supermercado?
Helpful Peruvian/Bolivian/Ecuadorian stranger: Si quiere ir la mejor ruta, necesita tomar la primera izquierda, y caminar dos bloques más hasta el letrero que dice ‘supermercado’.
What I heard: mumble blah di blah izquierda, something something whatnow flibbertigibbet supermercado.
Me: [nodding vaguely] Sí. ¡Gracias!
Then I would walk vaguely in the direction they’d pointed until they were out of sight, and then ask the next person.
(Disclaimer: I have no idea if that Spanish is even right but you take my point).
I knew how to ask basic questions, but not how to understand the answers. I knew words, but few sentences.
Now, it’s five years on from my first trip to this part of the world, and I can now proudly say that I would definitely understand the above sentence – as long as it was enunciated clearly and spoken slowly, in the manner of a person talking to a particularly slow child.
But for me, that wasn’t quite good enough. Duolingo has been my great Spanish-learning companion over the years, but I decided that it’s time to move onwards and upwards – to learning Spanish from a real life teacher.
And so began my time here in Casco Viejo, Panama City.
I studied Spanish at a little school in the heart of the old town, called Casco Antiguo Spanish School. And honestly, I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. I spent four hours a day actually using my brain (a bit of a rarity for travellers), tackling conjugations and grammatical sentence construction – and yep, that really is my idea of fun.
It’s not a bad thing, either, that Casco Viejo is crammed full of pretty colonial buildings, cute cafes, markets, shops… all the good things.
Studying Spanish at Casco Antiguo Spanish School
I’ve wanted to learn Spanish basically forever. In school, I studied French and German, neither of which I liked much, and certainly neither of which I can speak to this day.
(Except that I can say the phrase ‘a little bit’ in both languages in response to the question ‘Do you speak French/German?’)
But two weeks at Casco Antiguo Spanish School, and I’ve actually found myself actually being able to chat with taxi drivers, rather than just nodding and smiling at their questions, perhaps laughing where it seemed appropriate. I can also now speak using more than one tense: instead of saying ‘yesterday I write an article’ or ‘tomorrow I buy a new shirt’, I can now proudly say that ‘I wrote’ or ‘I will buy’. It’s very satisfying. Even if I still can’t for the life of me work out how I’m supposed to roll my R’s.
There are a lot of great things about this Spanish school. The groups are small, so you get a lot of individual attention (though that’s not always a good thing when you’ve had all of four hours sleep and can barely remember how to speak English let alone Spanish). The classes also vary a lot depending on which teacher you have for that week. I had two different teachers and both were great, but very different in terms of their teaching methods. And one of my favourite (and also least favourite) things was the fact that we’d often go out into the city during class, to practice something we’d just learnt with people in the street.
OK that was kind of stressful, but realistically gaining the ability to strangers in the street is why I want to learn Spanish, sooooo.
They also had after school activities most days, and being the keen bean that I am I obviously signed up to all of them immediately. A highlight was definitely happy hour drinks – I find that my Spanish slips out a lot more easily after two $4 mojitos. But actually, my favourite was Friday afternoon volleyball, not just because I am hella competitive, but because we played in a totally non-touristy area, surrounded by people walking along the sea and chatting with their friends, and kids playing football next door. And both weeks we were joined by some local Panamanians (who were inevitably the best players on the court).
After two weeks there I can confidently recommend that you sign up to classes with them if you’re in Panama City for any length of time. Or if you’re not, change your plans. It’s worth it.
Accidentally becoming a digital nomad in Panama City
Then, in the afternoons after class – well, I worked. That’s right: I somehow found myself in a position where I had to dedicate myself to meeting deadlines, writing hundreds of words a day, and setting aside time to complete tasks that people are paying me for. Crazy, right?
I don’t know how, and I don’t know if it will last, but I think I’m accidentally becoming a digital nomad.
Now, I don’t know if it’s my English sensibility, but the phrase ‘digital nomad’ kind of makes me want to throw the nearest smashable item, hard, at a wall. For me, it provokes same kind of visceral reaction I get when people use tired phrases like ‘hidden gem’ in travel writing, when people refer to Africa as though it is a country, or when travellers express disgust at being ‘ripped off’ when they have to pay an extra 50p for a bus in a foreign country because they aren’t a local. The phrase ‘digital nomad’ is just as vomit-inducing, to my mind, as the buzzwords ‘influencer’ and ‘millennial’ and all those other nebulous, overloaded words that the media loves.
But it also fittingly describes what it actually is: a person with no particular fixed home, who works online. Digital, because of the internet; nomad because of the travelling.
And, much to my surprise, I seem to have accidentally found myself on a path to becoming one of these irritating types. Much as I hate to say it… maybe I am one?
Of course, in conversation, out loud, in real life, I would never voice this opinion.
I’m English; we do not excel at self-praise. I struggle enough with even describing myself as a freelance writer – which is in fact what I am – let alone being sure enough of myself to self-identify as a so-called ‘digital nomad’. Every time people ask me what I do, I tell them that I’m ‘more or less’ a writer, I’m ‘kind of’ a writer, I’m ‘trying to be’ a writer. I expend so much breath and effort telling people that I’m not really a writer that they probably wonder what question they actually asked: did they ask me what I did, or what I don’t do?
I have a tendency to hedge things; to qualify them. I can’t help it.
But despite all this hedging – and all the hedging I have just done – I am, tentatively, going to say that I am now (sort of, ish) a digital nomad. Because I earn all my money online, right now, and I’m travelling full time as I work.
It’s not that I earn a lot of money – not even enough that I need to pay taxes on it – but it’s enough to top up my bank balance, enough to pay for (a few nights in) cheap hostels and minimal groceries in Latin America, enough to cover the occasional flight. I’m still using my savings to travel, of course – thank God for the incredibly good wage I earned when I was in Australia – but I’m working as I go, too.
It’s all happened bit by bit – first I started writing for the Metro, then I had a few articles published on Matador Network, and all of a sudden I’ve found myself with three copywriting jobs on top of the freelance writing work, and hey, I’ve almost got enough work to keep me busy.
But the most exciting development of late has been my blog. And here’s the big reveal: I’m currently working on my first collaboration!
Now, I’m never going to be one of those bloggers who gets fancy hotel stays in exchange for blog coverage (nor do I want to be; I’m not the fancy hotel type), but those Spanish classes that I’m currently taking are being paid for by my writing. I’m writing content, improving website SEO, promoting the brand, and it is probably the best thing to happen since I started blogging, more than five years ago.
And I get to learn a language in return, so that’s pretty great. And the teaching has been excellent, and the classes are challenging, and the school outings to rooftop cocktail bars aren’t bad either. I’m a bit giddy with it all, honestly. Even though I am also working my arse off.
But unfortunate side effect of this sudden glut of work is that I’ve been neglecting my little old blog. I haven’t written anything for a whole month, despite there being a lot (a LOT) of great stuff in the pipeline: more general travel advice, more specific useful destination guides, and a little something extra that I’ve got up my sleeve.
I can’t wait to see where the next few months lead.