Tales from the road: Finding Tranquilo

February 25, 2013 § 1 Comment


© Leah Hoelscher 2013


{Tales from the Road is a new series I’m starting here at Little Arrow. To make up for terribly lazy travel blogging over the past year and half, I’ll finally be telling some of the better stories and reflections from my travels in Asia, Europe, and South America.}

TRANQUILO (adj.): quiet, peaceful, calm, gentle, relaxed, untroubled, laid-back; ex: (tú) tranquilo, -a! -> don’t you worry!

This is my favorite word in the Spanish language. Over the course of the three months I spent traveling in South America, it came to embody the total attitude makeover long-term backpackers find necessary to adjust to all the little bumps along the way. Did it take your bus ten hours longer than expected to get to La Paz? Are you somehow stranded in an Andean village, crashing with a family that only speaks Quechua? Have you spent four hours begging every bank teller, Western Union outlet operator, and travel agent in some godforsaken border town to exchange your Peruvian Soles for Bolivianos? ¡Tranquilo!

I got told to tranquilo a lot. By cab drivers. By shop owners. By my Peruvian friend who thinks I walk too fast. One time, by a Bolivian border agent, who lazily checked my documents, filled me in on the nation-wide transit strike, and assured me I could find a boyfriend in Bolivia. I got told to tranquilo so much that it got me thinking – we really don’t have this word in English. Sometimes you’ll hear people get told to “relax” or “chill” or “calm down” but really, it’s not the same. Those are all ways of telling people to be quiet and get in control of themselves. Tranquilo is more like, hey, why don’t you stop worrying and be happy?

And really, it makes sense that the people of South America have embraced this word – by and large, the kind of problems you encounter there cannot be solved by a little old fashioned hand wringing. This is a world of poverty, massive labor strikes, imposing mountains, extreme weather, and bad roads. Who has time to worry? It strikes me as ironic that for all the advances the US has made in sanitation, education, technology, etc. that we spend WAY more time and energy obsessing over details and complaining about (mostly) insignificant problems. Kind of like that “first world problem” internet meme.

There’s a bigger lesson here for me though – well, two, really. 1.) My world is full of things that I previously took for granted – reliable transit, public works, dental care, trash cans – and never will again. Thank you, South America. 2.) Even if my problems grow beyond the “first world” category into the “basic things necessary for life” category, it still doesn’t make sense to sacrifice happy moments for worried moments. Worry itself is no use to me.



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