Coming back from Otavalo last Friday, I convinced my family that I had bought an alpaca. It began as an off-hand remark. I was sitting on the concrete step in front of our house, having dropped my stuff on the bed. As usual, I was drinking from a large bottle of water and looking uncomfortable sitting under the relentless sun. My host-brother, Jonathan, sat down and asked me how it went in Otavalo and whether I had purchased anything. I said that it went really well, and that I had bought some toilet paper, rubber boots, sandals, deodorant, a large animal and shampoo. There was a long pause.
“Did you say you bought an animal?”, he asked.
“Oh yeah,” I responded, “It’s around here somewhere.”
I didn’t think anything of it, other than that it was kind of funny. I was proud of myself for saying something funny in Spanish, since humor is one of the hardest aspects of a language to convey. Humor and navigating a difficult break-up. If you can do both of those things in a second language, then you’re fluent in my book. But I digress.
So some time passed and then Gisela, who’s about 10 years old, approached and asked what kind of animal it was. I told her that I had bought an alpaca and last I saw, it was in Jonathan’s bed. Her eyes went wide.
“There’s no way,” she exclaimed.
“See for yourself,” I confidently told her. She left and came back.
“There’s nothing there.”
“Yeah, it probably escaped out back. I forgot to tie it up,” I responded.
Gisela left, and then to my embarrassment, returned with the mother and the rest of the family. They stood around me. They asked if I had really bought an alpaca. I think my deadpan response went something like,
“Yeah it was really cheap so I brought it back with me on the bus.”
There was a long silence. They didn’t seem to know how to respond. On the one hand, they must have known I was kidding. Why, how or where would I have bought an alpaca? Alpacas are pretty big animals and it’s inconceivable that I could have snuck one into the house in broad daylight. Plus, it wasn’t even market day.
On the other hand, and this comes from personal experience, the things we gringos do seem to constantly mystify people here. We put sunblock on our skin and still get terrible sun burns. We wear funny nylon hiking pants, as if at any moment we’d drop whatever we were doing to climb the nearest mountain. If male, we usually don’t bother to shave. We certainly can’t dance. And we wear shorts for God’s sake! Nobody wears shorts in Latin America. So maybe buying an alpaca seemed just within the realm of possibility. I broke the silence.
“I’m just kidding, es una chiste nomás.”
They laughed. I laughed harder, but I’ll probably think twice before pulling that again. Humor is so culturally specific that many times it really does get lost in translation. Most jokes play with the language and make us notice idiosyncracies in the way we speak. I’ve found that deadpan humor goes over especially poorly here. I can’t tell if it’s my delivery, or simply because I’m not yet fluent, but most of my jokes usually bomb.
Two years ago I studied abroad in Ecuador, and right after meeting my host-family for the first time, we went shopping at Super Maxi, which is the Ecuadorian equivalent of Wal-Mart or Target. Some time passed as we passed though the aisles and I felt pretty comfortable joking around with my two host brothers, who were both in high school. We passed a row of pink backpacks, decorated with beads, tassels and Power Puff Girl decals. I jokingly asked Andrés (16), if he was going to buy one for school. He looked at me for a long second before responding in all seriousness,
“No, those are for girls.”
“Oh,” I said, “you’re right.”