There’s nothing like a long car ride to get to know a person better, especially when you hardly speak the same language and you're heading up to the Sierra Nevada mountains to stay in a log cabin at 7000 feet with no cell service and only the moths and the moonlight for company.
When I first started planning a tour with Venezuelan cuatrista Jorge Glem, I knew I wanted to give him an authentic taste of California. Over the past year we’d gotten to know each other mostly through music and limited conversation; so I felt a responsibility to give Jorge a more flavorful experience of my home state than what was possible with my pre-school Spanish vocabulary. When the opportunity came up to play a potluck concert in Bear Valley and stay overnight at Uncle Phil’s cabin in the woods, it seemed like an appropriately adventurous way to introduce Jorge to the Golden State and kick off our weeklong tour.
Uncle Phil—for those of you who don’t know the “Powder Bear”—is the de facto roadie for young folk bands visiting California. He’ll pick you up at the airport in his giant, prehistoric camper van (license plate says "rnt-a-rdy") and drive you wherever you need to go. He loves to say, "all I need is some level ground to park my van at night, so I can sleep out on the mattress in the back." Phil has been a mainstay of the Bear Valley ski community for some forty odd years and has developed a reputation for his love of good music, his thorough directions, and his big heart.
Right before I picked up Jorge at the airport, I nervously brainstormed a list of conversation starters for our car ride into the mountains. How do you get a good rapport going when you’re mostly limited to three verbs in the present tense?
I needn’t have worried. With the frequent aid of Google translate and wikipedia, we quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm of conversation on the same topics musicians always talk about on long journeys: food, music, food, politics, food. Winding around the horseshoe bends of Highway 4—from the parched Gold Rush country up through the towering Jefferson pines—we munched on our chocolate pastries, listened to old Joropo and Merengue recordings, and equipped each other with an arsenal of delicious colloquialism in Spanish and English: ¡Arrechissimo! Hella- ¡Coño! Hyphy!
A marvelous creativity is unlocked when your normal fluency of language becomes limited. Metaphor reigns supreme. Complex statements are reduced to absurdist haiku. Understanding becomes contingent on long chains of synonyms, and all attempts at explanation only raise troubling questions. Why is a knock knock joke funny? Is a "sea lion” best described by a lion in the sea or an aquatic dog with small wings? Is "feel full" the true inverse of “fulfill?"
Anyone who has ever travelled to a foreign country knows the feeling of trying to convey a simple concept while lacking the vocabulary or syntax to do so. It can be frustrating and exhausting. (I can only imagine what it’s like to live full time in a country that requires constant translation.) But if you are able to establish the right type of trust with another person, then there are hilarious, profane, and profound nuggets of gold at the top of every lexical ladder. “Mocha” in California means the chocolate espresso drink that Jorge loves; “mocha” (pronounced "mo-tcha”) in Cumana, Venezuela apparently means a girl with no arms or legs.
That first glimmer of comprehension between two people struggling to communicate is like a ray of sunshine breaking through the dreary San Francisco fog. It turns out Mark Twain may never have actually said, “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” but that doesn’t make the aphorism any less true, or any easier to translate when you’re trying to explain to someone from Venezuela why they should bring a down jacket to San Francisco in the middle of July.
Up in the mountains the weather was hot and dry. We pulled off the highway onto a dirt road and followed Uncle Phil’s extra-thorough directions (no GPS) around to the back of a picturesque, alpine meadow lined with trees. A small stage was set up with twinkly lights, and a crowd of about sixteen locals and weekenders had gathered to watch us perform—more than enough, considering we had had no prior time to rehearse. Jorge picked up his cuatro, strummed a chord and I watched people’s jaws drop. We grinned at each other and I knew then we were going to have a hell of a week.
It was very dark when we finally headed back to the log cabin. We missed our turnoff the first time because we were too busy joking about how bad it would be to get lost in the woods. After realizing our mistake, we hastily turned around and drove in nervous silence for a short eternity, until we miraculously found Uncle Phil’s van waiting for us by the side of the road. A sigh of relief is universal.
It was already late but we sat up for a long while in the kitchen with Phil, trading videos of folk musicians on our phones, eating cold Round Table pizza and talking about home.