Learning the language

I’m a souvenir snob. “I Heart” wherever t-shirts aren’t my thing, but I’ll happily spend days searching for the perfect mementos.  Clothes are good because they’re practical and when I wear them in public I get to show off.  I eagerly wait for people to compliment my boots so I can say “These?  Oh, I got them at the black market in Ulaanbaatar”.  I’m just like people who buy Gucci t-shirts (thank you Macklemore and Ryan Lewis), but I pay even more than they do, once you factor in airfares and accommodation.

St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

Cheers, St Basil’s Cathedral!

Bits of the local language make good souvenirs too.  We try to learn a few basic phrases for each country we visit because it’s useful, polite and it’s a memento with the added bonus of making me feel smart because I can now count to three in over four languages. That’s practically a European level of multilingualism.

I’ve learnt, through experience, that there are a few things to keep in mind when trying to learn a new language, even if it’s just a couple of words, if you want to save yourself embarrassment.

Firstly, it’s best done sober.  While alcohol can lower any natural inhibitions that might prevent you from enthusiastically mangling somebody else’s language, it also gets in the way of the brain actually remembering any of it the next day. I drove my Russian speaking tour guide up the wall by insisting that he re-teach me how to say Za vashe zdorovie each and every day of our three week tour.

San Cristobal de las Casas

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico.

Lack of sleep also gets in the way of meaningful learning.  While staying in San Cristobal de las Casas I saw a similar frustration in my Spanish tutor’s eyes as we went through the flash cards once again and discovered that, in a week of exclusive, one on one lessons I’d learnt how to say “apple” and that was it.  Late nights playing cards at the hostel, combined with the kind of quality sleep you can only get on a lumpy mattress when sharing a room with five other snoring girls, had completely killed my ability to memorise anything.  “Tell me what you did yesterday, in Spanish,” the long suffering Jorge would ask, and I’d stare at him blankly.  The seconds would drag out as I realised I couldn’t remember yesterday, let alone how to say it in Spanish, and “no recuerdo” just wasn’t cutting it.

No recuerdo” didn’t cut it with the lady at the laundry across from the hostel but that’s mostly because I was actually trying to say “I don’t understand”, and had forgotten the word for that too.  She patted me on the arm, gave me back my clean laundry and sent me on my confused way.

Pronunciation is important.  I remember watching a Mexican woman laughing hysterically at the subtle but important difference between “anos” and “años” (one means “years” and one really, really doesn’t). In Mongolia we practiced the standard “hello” and “thank you”, or in this case “Сайн байна уу” and “Баярлалаа”.  Our Mongolian tour guide sternly told us to stop trying because English speaking adults could never pronounce Mongolian. Even if we’d been children with malleable brains and jaws, the chances of us getting the hang of it was 50/50.  We then spent the rest of the trip trying to roll all the r’s in “tractor”, which is some kind of strange initiation test for newly arrived 5 year olds.

So I can order a can of coke in Russia, participate in drinking toasts in Vietnam, roll all the r’s in tractor, and mime really, really well in Spanish speaking countries.  Maybe they’re not the kind of skills that will advance my career or make me a better person, but they make great souvenirs.

Traveling with a time budget – five tips

I’d love to be the kind of person who gives away all their belongings and buys a one way ticket to Istanbul.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) I have a husband, two dogs and a mortgage.  So instead, I hoard all our spare cash and “surprise” my husband with the news that we’ve saved enough money for a week in Thailand. Or Mongolia.  Or the bed and breakfast in the town next to ours.

We fit traveling around full time jobs, volunteer work and family commitments, which means we try to make the most of the time we have.  I’m an avid reader of the travel section in newspapers and am always looking for interesting, affordable and short holidays that will hold me over until the next trip.

These are my tips for maximising limited leave while still getting to see as much of world as possible:

  1. Fly direct
    When it comes to flights I’m always looking for a bargain.  And if you’re in Australia, there’s almost always a flight to be considered.  But if the airfare is unbelievably cheap, it normally means you’re taking the long way around.  Spending six hours in Changi Airport isn’t a good use of my annual leave, and I’m normally worn out by the time I get to my destination.  So it’s worth finding out which airlines fly direct to your destination.
  2. Fly domestic
    This may sound obvious if you’re holidaying in your own country, but it’s worth considering if you’re holidaying internationally as well.  Out of three weeks in Vietnam, we managed to spend one whole week on buses.  Sure, it’s great to try out local transport, but there’s no need to spend the entire holiday riding hip to hip with bored locals, drunken backpackers or chickens (yes we really did, but they were in a cage.  The chickens, not the backpackers).  Domestic flights can often be surprisingly cheap and can save days.
  3. Close doesn’t mean close
    Not all the time, anyway.  I love reading the travel section of newspapers.  Sometimes it feels like the journalists are competing with each other to find the most obscure and unusual locations to rave about.  Kingdom of Lo, anyone?  Or tropical islands that nobody else knows about and only have one bar that’s really just a tin shed in someone’s backyard.  And when I read about them, my immediate response is “I want to go there!”  And then I google map the location and find out that it’s much closer than half the destinations I’ve been considering, which is fantastic.  And no one goes there so it’s cheap and unspoilt (read uncrowded) and that’s even more fantastic.  Except that, because no one goes there, none of the airlines fly there.  Except one, every second Wednesday.  And the fare costs a month’s salary.  And you have to change flights in Dallas, even though you’re departing from Melbourne.  Australia Melbourne, not Florida Melbourne.  So, sadly, popular and further away sometimes means close, while geographically nearby and unpopular means further away than the north pole.  For Australians, that is.
  4. Centralise your sleeping
    There are some amazing hotels in the outskirts of every city.  We found some memorable ones in Hong Kong, Mexico and Guatemala.  However, if you’ve got limited time, stay somewhere central.  Not spending time on transport gives you a lot more time to do the stuff you came to do.  Speaking of which;
  5. Stop trying to do too much
    This point is mostly aimed at me.  If I’ve only got two days in a city, I decide that I have to see every sight and do every activity the city is famous for.  So I spend weeks research and considering my options.  I write notes on each activity and then rate them.  I investigate transport from one location to the next.  And then I start timetabling.  So we rush through the botanical gardens, eat a hurried lunch at the best dumpling place in town after spending an hour and a half queuing to get in, get anxious when we can’t find a taxi in the ten minutes I’d allowed, miss the panoramic view and stew about it instead of enjoying the shopping.  By the end of the two days I’m grumpy, my husband is grumpy with me, and neither of us ever want to return to the city.  I try to remind myself that it doesn’t matter if you don’t see absolutely everything, what’s really important is enjoying what you do see.  There’s always next time.