a sign from heaven in lama hell!
While I believe it's perfectly possible to travel and get to know locals without a lot of words, I think speaking - or at least trying to speak a foreign languages is a big plus for any traveller. I don't think you should try to learn every language of every country you visit, but if a place is close to your heart or you have a special interest in a country, you should make an effort to learn the language, at least a little.

Maybe it's because I'm a languistic nerd, but I know most of my awesome travel experiences can be credited to language skills.

Two weeks ago, I found myself in Cusco, centre of the gringo trail, feeling horribly alone (yes, I'm not suggesting long time travel is all rainbows) among all the 19 year old drunk kids who had come here to wear pyjama pants and pay $800 for a trek to Macchu Picchu. Sitting at the Plaza de Armas, pondering my next move and calculating how many days I'd have left in South America, I overheard two Japanese girls talking about "the amazing restaurant", "real Japanese food" on "Plateros street". I was polite enough not to interrupt their conversation, but later that day I started looking for the place.

I know, when you are somewhere you should try the local food, but the Peruvian food in Cusco is bad and overpriced and I was missing Japanese food (my comfort food), so I started looking around Plateros, a street with many restaurants just off the main Plaza.

In a small alley full of stands with all the usual lama hats and alpaca jumpers, I noticed the sign in hiragana "きんたろう - Japanese Vegetarian Food" - in that moment, it could have had a big halo around it, having found a place that promised more than mediocre sushi after months. I made my way up the stairs and was immediately transported - to Japan. The owners obviously had done everything possible to make this old wooden building feel like you were in Kyoto instead of in the middle of the Andes.

With prompt Japanese service, the waitress came up (well, I was the only guest...) and handed me the menu. 15 soles for the lunch deal - that's $5 for a salad or miso soup, side dish, main and tea. She speaks to me in Spanish, although the menu is in English, and I ask her if I can also get a pineapple juice (not very Japanese, but I love pinapple juice).

She blushes and says "今日は、任意のジュースを持っていません" - "Sorry, we're out of juice today..." - then blushes again, realising she said this to me in Japanese. I make a waving gesture and tell her "いいですよ" - "That's ok..."

A moment of silence passes where we both realise what just happened.

We both burst out in laughter.

She switches back to Spanish, asks me why I speak Japanese. I start explaining and we switch to a mixture of English and Japanese, talk about where we came from, why I am traveling, about Tokyo and how Osaka is more fun, how we both couldn't go back to the safe boredom that both our home countries offer.

Sometimes, I lack words, sometimes she does, but we get the message across. We're alike, very much.

Lunch is delicious, and instead of my juice, she comes out and gives me a beautiful pair of chopsticks which I instinctively refuse with lots of bows and embarrassed laughter (great, I'm that well adapted to Japanese culture), then accept with even more laughter and bowing. I leave, confused if I should leave a tip (custom in Peru, but no-go in Japan), and I do leave one, although I would have liked to leave something else.
wakame udon, homemade udon - good look buying them in Peru! sorry about the half-eaten spinach ;)
In that moment, I made a connection I never had with any of the hundreds of backpackers I met in hostels, and there's no need to "digitalify" this connection on Facebook or anything else, because it was so much more than a "Like" button or even email exchange ever can or will be.


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