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I have to admit, when I came away I had several ideas about how I wanted to travel, and what I could be doing to make it less conventionally easy. I didn’t want easy. After having lived with these principles for a few months, do I still believe in them all?
The short answer is mostly yes.
1. No phones or laptops – I’m still really, really glad that I didn’t bring a phone, let alone a smartphone. I’ve been surprised with how many people here have, but I still think it’s a stupid idea. The pressure of losing it/having it stolen, along with the fact that you’re in a wonderful new place and all you want to do is check Facebook? Not for me. I can appreciate more how useful a laptop would be for planning purposes, but I’m still pretty glad I don’t have one. There is internet to be had everywhere, but at least this way I can choose when and for how long I want to use it. It’s been refreshing.
2. No fancy clothes – Still upholding this, although my wardrobe has expanded to include two more t-shirts. I’m living the fashion dream. But seriously, it’s just more stuff to weigh you down and is completely unecessary.
3. Speak Spanish – Sounds obvious, but so many people don’t make any effort at all. This is one thing I’m maybe most proud of, that I can now be understood in Spanish.
4. It’s not a country-wide pub crawl – I didn’t plan to drink much while I was away (expensive, unecessary, not what I came here to do) and although I have been out to bars, and even clubs, I still think it’s a complete waste to lurch from place to place, constantly smashed.
5. You don’t need a guidebook – When I arrived in South America, I found myself in places on the basis of recommendations, pages stolen from other people’s guidebooks, or pure chance. It was fun! It was also a whole lot less touristy. Now I’ve travelled with one as well, I can say that it does make things easier and especially finding accomodation is probably better. So maybe I would stick with ‘you don’t need one’, but that it can be nice to do so anyway.
I had anticipated difficulty making myself understood in Brazil, and certainly outside of Rio it was hard to find anyone who spoke any English at all. But it‘s surprising how well you can get by on place names, a few key phrases and constant gesturing. Google Translate did also play a role, I have to admit it.
Since moving into Latin America, speaking Spanish has been more fun and fulfilling – most of the time I have at least some idea of what people are trying to say.
There are sometimes when you will simply have to pretend you understand, and sometimes when you both have to give up. That‘s okay.
The rest of the time, slowly, I feel like I‘m learning. I‘m trying to speak as much as possible, especially to locals. The best tips I‘ve heard: speak slowly, and say what you can, not exactly what you want to say.
One thing I won‘t be doing is that old protest: “No, I don‘t know any of the language at all!” and then go on to have a five minute conversation. I hear so many people say this and I find it frustrating on a number of levels.
Firstly, it‘s almost always a lie. False modesty renders any effort you‘ve put into learning the language worthless, and it also invites the following kind of reply, “Oh, no you‘re really good!” – whether you are or aren‘t. Forcing people to comfort you in this way is actually pretty selfish. There must be some kind of continuum between complete ignorance and fluency; let‘s start using that.
I’ve been reading Historias de Mexico (Stories from Mexico) for a while now. It’s split up into 16 short stories, with Spanish on one side and the English translation on the other. It’s the perfect set-up for learning, as you can read as much as possible in Spanish before checking your understanding.
The stories themselves are also really funny. They’re traditional legends, so there’s a lot of Gods and Goddesses, talking animals, and magic. I’m certainly learning some interesting vocab – I can say ‘dwarf’ and ‘witch’ and even ‘torture’, but not how to get my tenses right, or ask someone for help.
I was speaking to a friend recently in Spanish (She’s much, much better than me!) and she mentioned someone’s boyfriend. Novio. I jumped up, recognising the word. “Sweetheart!” I cried, triumphant. Well, yes, she said. Or just ‘boyfriend’ if you’re living in 2014. I’d read a story from the book a few nights before about two young people who are nicknamed los novios – sweethearts. In the story, after they die (nothing if not cheery), a God turns them into volcanoes so they can be together forever.
There’s some other highlights; another princess is lying on the beach when a group of soldiers walks by. She sees the most handsome one, promptly falls in love, and then faints. They don’t waste time in Mexico.
It’s also really interesting to see how these legends compare to other myths from around the world. There’s one which is basically the story behind Chinese New Year, and another which is a form of Sleeping Beauty.
If anyone is trying to learn Spanish, or any other language, try and find some bilingual stories to read. The shorter and weirder, the better.