¿Quiere’ fre’co?

¿Quiere’ fre’co?”

¿Como?”

¿Quiere’ fre’co?” she repeated.

“Sí” – I think that’s what I want.

The friendly Cuban woman was confirming my order of a ‘refresco’, or soft drink. Except now I wasn’t sure what I’d just ordered.

This was my first prolonged exposure to Cuban Spanish. It was at a busy street stall amid honking traffic and other thirsty customers, and the vendor had no time to coddle this foreigner through his language learning journey. I was a bit worried because I’d planned to stay in the country for a month, and already I was struggling just to buy a soft drink.

I was actually quite confident of my Spanish as I’d flown directly from Mexico where I’d been living for the past 12 months.

I eventually got what I asked for and walked off into the sultry streets of La Habana with a welcome sugar hit. It wasn’t Coca Cola of course, because products and imports from the United States are strictly forbidden in Castro’s communist utopia. I wasn’t bothered, the sugar hit was what I craved.

Cuban Spanish was to challenge me for the rest of my trip. Despite having already travelled through South America, Central America and Mexico, I was having some trouble adjusting to the broad accent. I found that Cubans chop off various sounds and syllables, pepper their language with slang, and run many of their words together.

Have Cubans done to Spanish what Australians have done to English?

Even a word as simple as ‘vamos’ sounds more like ‘wamo’ in Cuba.

The Cuban dialect was very different to the Spanish I’d used in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, and my only previous interaction with Caribbean Spanish was through Calle 13, Daddy Yankee and fellow Reggaetón stars.

I eventually trained my ear to the local dialect by staying with local families in Casas Particulares. Cubans rented out rooms in their houses to travellers and were happy to chat over a meal or a cup of coffee. Few of the families that I stayed with spoke English, so it forced me to adapt to the local lingo.

Cuban Spanish was more difficult to understand than the language I’d been using in Colima, Mexico. Colimenses dispensed with many of the more complicated grammatical features of standard Spanish, such as ‘vos’ and ‘vosotros’ and had a flowing, almost musical accent. Chilangos, or residents of Mexico City, spoke more quickly and with their own parochial slang, and the young Chilangos in particular finished their sentences with sharp inclination. This habit alone signalled their origins, and was a source of great amusement for every other Mexican.

Ironically, I encountered more linguistic challenges in Cuba than in Peru and Bolivia, where I first started using Spanish. I arrived into Peru with nothing more than ‘hola’, ‘gracias’, and a translation dictionary, but was soon able to negotiate traveller’s fundamentals like food, accommodation and transport. Travellers hypothesise that Andean Spanish is easier to understand for a foreigner because it simplified and stripped down by people from Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, who speak it as a second or third language.

In contrast, Chileans speak it rapidly and proudly as their first language. Santiago was fast-paced and sharp, and demanded powers of concentration. Costa Rica, meanwhile, was a language of two halves. The language of the centre and the capital was distinct from the Spanish of the Caribeños on the Atlantic coast.

How is my Spanish now?

It’s fading. I don’t use it much, especially after moving to Asia after finishing my time in Mexico.

Maybe it’s time to return to Cuba.

Wamo’!

Direct Marketing.

Why is there a clown on a bus?

The clown is working. Earning his daily bread. Putting food on the table. He is a mobile busker of sorts. He is taking his product straight to his audience. Advertisers would call it direct marketing, and the passengers on the bus are a captive audience.

The clown performed his 3 piece set for the passengers before we set off for our intended destination, and asked for ‘propinas’, or tips, in return for the few moments of entertainment. He livened up a very boring and monotonous aspect of travel and distracted his audience from the chaotic, smelly, noisy and ugly bus terminal in which they sat.

The clown is just one of the many salespeople who ply their trade on inter-city buses throughout Latin America in an attempt to earn a living in a region in which employment is precarious.

Comida y bebidas

Salespeople will board buses at terminals and offer their products or services to passengers who can choose to make a small payment. Some people will sell staples such as food and drink at a standard price and will rush up and down the crowded aisles trying to entice every passenger in to making a purchase before scurrying on to the next bus and the next one.

Some vendors might stay on the bus. Their sales require more time. They might be said to invest more with their audience. Thus, they will remain on the bus as it pulls out of the terminal and continue their journey until the bus stops at the pick up point on the outskirts of town. At this point, they will thank the driver, alight, and connect with another bus heading back to the terminal and attempt to market their products directly to a new audience.

A Blessing

Other salespeople are not selling a specific product. They instead offer items to passengers. Many of them will place in the hands of each passenger a card with a blessing, a positive affirmation or a religious image imprinted upon it. Once they have given every passenger a blessing, they will walk back down the aisle and collect the cards from those who don’t wish to keep them, or accept money from those who wish to hold on to the blessing.

How much do they earn?

It depends. They usually earn a few coins per card. It might also depend on whether the food and beverage vendor is also prowling the aisle at the same time – it can get quite crowded.

Capitalists call this competition. The free market.

The Pen Salesman

The best sales pitch I ever encountered during my many bus journeys was the pen salesman in Guatemala. He gave the most impressive spiel about pens that I have ever heard. He awarded his pens a value more precious than gold and more vital than water.

What did he say?

I can’t repeat his pitch here. It would be a breach of copyright. At least, I hope he has copyright on his pitch. He should.

Did I need a pen?

No

Did I already have a pen?

Yes

Did I want a pen?

No

Did I buy a pen?

Yes

Advertising gurus will tell you that the best marketing convinces people that they need something that they don’t actually need. I didn’t need a pen, but I bought a handful because the salesman convinced me that I needed a pen.

Not just any pen.

Not just one pen.

I needed a handful of his pens.