Traveling in a country where you don't speak the language means experiencing all the spontaneity and clarity of functional illiteracy.
In Pucon, Chile, I saw a sign that said 'Volcano Tours' and I signed up.
There was a brochure and a sign with all kinds of words on them, but I figured 'how much info do I really need? It's a tour!'
We'll drive there in a van, take a chairlift up, snap some photos and be back by lunch.
Even when issued a helmet, pickaxe and backpack, I still thought they were just for safety regulations and photo ops.
Chairlift! That outta do it.
'This is the last civilization you will see for the next 8 hours,' our guide said at the top of the lift.
'We will climb to the top step by step,' he said. 'It takes about five hours to get up, and two to get down.'
In spite of this explicit instruction, I retained the thought that this was all some sort of misunderstanding. Where's the next chairlift?
Notice the crampons. Shit just got real.
'Has anyone ever died up here?' I asked the guide at one point.
'Yes, 20,' he said.
'You mean 20 percent, right? Like, someone sprained their ankle, or ...?'
'20 people have died here,' he said. 'The wind is very strong, and there are deep crevices in the glacier.'
'So ... I guess some of the information in the Volcano Tour brochure was kinda crucial, huh?' I said. 'Si,' he said.
I was smearing sunscreen every hour the whole way up, but I forgot my ears. The next three days I looked permanently embarrassed.
'I think we're almost there!' I told some Argentinian girls who were having a rough time.
Only to find we weren't even halfway. 'The gringo lies,' one told the other.
This was the point where I realized there probably wouldn't be anywhere along our route to buy lunch.
Apparently this volcano erupted in 1971 and 1984.
It still spits up smoke and ash most days. The air raid siren in Pucon warns you when it's about to belch.
That rock down there is where we stopped for lunch. I ate snow and pondered whether sunscreen was chemically similar to mayonnaise.
'That volcano is twice as tall as this one,' our guide said at the top, proving the international truth that nothing makes you feel proud of an achievement like pointing out the greater one nearby.
The crater smelled almost as bad as we did.
We all peered in, wondering when it would erupt again.
'Now what?' we asked. 'Put on all the clothes in your backpack and slide back down on your ass.'
'After the snow gives way, take the same path the lava did in '71 and '84.'
So we did, and got back down so fast I almost wondered why it took us so long to get up.
For the rest of the week, I looked at the horizon from Pucon and saw something I climbed and descended.
It turns out we spoke the same language after all.