Tag Archives: Travel

How to become semi-fluent in Spanish in 5 months

I’m not going to make outrageous statements, like “Learn Spanish in a Month!” But I do think you can get to the level of having simple conversations with a local in 5 months, feel completely comfortable in particular travel situations, such as hotel checkins, renting a car and ordering a meal, and even having some in-depth conversations regarding subjects such as politics, film reviews and other conversational topics.

I caught myself having a conversation with a local in line for Machu Picchu, talking about where we were both from, what was the best thing to do early in Machu Picchu, and what we were going to travel to next. I kind of had this Satori moment where I realized as I was talking that I was able to understand, and was able to be understood while speaking in Spanish. It blew me away, frankly! This type of conversation would have been impossible for me 5 months ago, and I realized that maybe I had a method that worked for me that could work for others.

I am not a natural language learner, in fact I started learning Spanish in my 40’s. I tried Spanish classes – getting lost in tenses and vocabulary, even hired a tutor at one point, but I had a turning point when I got serious about language learning, and figured out a process.

Motivation

I think this video has a point, and that in order to make changes in your life – like learning a language, takes more than motivation.  It comes down to making a decision, even in the moments of hesitation. That being said, I think having a motivation is the spark that makes you continue towards success – and for me that motivation is connected to running away from pain.

I was volunteering in Chile, and if you haven’t already heard, Chilean Spanish is known to be one of the most difficult to understand versions of Spanish that is out there. Much of it is because of the way they speak Spanish. A Chilean friend explained how Chileans “inhale” the “s” sounds, so “Gracias” becomes “Graia”. Chilean Spanish is also full of slang, and the words are also spoken faster with fewer changes in intonation.

For me it sounded as if the person speaking was gargling with marbles.

But working as a volunteer, I had to understand what was being said – especially in the midst of a breakfast rush when the words became commands, and you only had a half-second to understand what was being said, and take action – to fill breakfast bowls, to refill napkins, make coffee, take orders.

The cook in charge, a short stout Chilean woman, grabbed me by the shirt, pulling me down eye to eye saying, “Escuchame! Escuchame!…” then said some other things I didn’t understand.

In that moment, the pain of not understanding, and the pain of not being understood was the singular motivation that pushed me to become more fluent in Spanish.

If you don’t have this sort of motivation, motivation that came for me from actually living and working in a foreign country – it becomes difficult to create the spark that drives the machinery towards fluency.

Find your motivation.

The Material

I had previously casually used an audio program I liked called the Pimsleur Method – I just needed to programatize it in a way that would lead to fluency.

The Pimsleur Spanish Program takes advantage of a method called “Spaced Repetition” or “Graduated-Interval Recall.” Basically, introducing new words, then reintroducing them later in gradually increasing spaced out intervals. It’s a method of memorizing massive amounts of information, and given that complete fluency involves 3,000 words, this type of method is perfect for learning Spanish.

The entire CD series is in 5 parts, with 30 lessons each. 1-5 CD sets can be purchased as CDs, with #5 can also be downloaded using Amazon’s Audible audio program.

The lessons are meant to be listened to one per day, with the next lesson in the series to be listened to the following day. The lessons are only around 30 minutes long, which means you learn and memorize small chunks of the language per day, which is also known as a better method than cramming a bunch of learning in a single go.

In conjunction with Pimsleur, I also knew that fluency is a numbers game, and that casual conversation, or semi-fluency required at least 1,000 words. Apps seemed to be a decent way to learn additional vocabulary in a way that would be fun and interesting. After using apps like Babbel and Lingo Arcade, I winnowed the list down to DuoLingo and Memrise.  Those 2 seemed to be the best of the bunch in terms of an app that could help me learn Spanish.

The Process

Once you have your motivation, or the spark that will drive you to do the things to learn Spanish, and gathered the material you will use to learn the language, the next step is to define a process, or schedule which will automatically give you success.

For me, I was trying to figure out something I could do to help me learn Spanish on a daily basis for 1-2 hours a day.

The method I used is:

  • Go to a cafe, order a cup of coffee, and listen to a Pimsleur lesson.
  • Allow myself to stop and start, rewind and replay the first time around.
  • I would take a break – walk around, order breakfast – whatever.
  • I would listen to the lesson a second time – this time at regular speed, with no pauses, rewinds or replays.
  • Follow up with doing the daily Duolingo and Memrise lesson.

All-in-all this took me around 2 hrs/day.

Why This Worked for Me

The initial motivation was enough to drive me to study 2 hours/day for 6 months. Without a solid reason you may not have enough of a push to make the effort to learn a language. For me it was the pain of not being understood.

Having proven learning materials at hand gave me a blueprint towards fluency.

And setting up a schedule (and working the plan) automates the process that leads to fluency (or semi-fluency).

I think it also works because using an audio program is similar to the experience of actually having a conversation – looking at the other person, and conjuring the words in your head – in real time!

What didn’t work for me

Frankly, I hated Rosetta Stone. Sitting in front of a computer while trying to learn Spanish was just maddening to me. Maybe because my profession involves computers, adding another task on top just seemed like work for me. I also felt they stressed rote repetition, which I didn’t like. That being said, Rosetta also has a track record of success, and it might work for you – I just knew it wouldn’t work for me.

Language classes also were not very good for me. I think mainly because of the breaks between classes where I would subsequently lose most of what I had learned from the previous class. Also, teachers methods and abilities changed – some I responded to, while others I found just horrible. I knew I needed a consistent method that I responded to applied consistently over time. Pimsleur, plus a couple of language apps were the ticket for me!

Other Ways to Improve Language Learning

The above method of studying 2 hrs a day using the Pimsleur CDs, and the two apps Memrise and Duolingo is the main things I did consistently to improve my Spanish. Some other things I did also helped:

  • Listening and trying to understand Spanish lyrics in popular songs (Despocito, Bailando, Deja Vu, etc)
  • Watching Popular Movies in Spanish with Spanish subtitles turned on (Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Pt II, etc)
  • Watching 5 minutes of Spanish language television/day. This was a tip given to me by a Spanish teacher. You get to hear different pronunciations of words in conversations at real speeds. Just 5 minutes – be it news, or telenovellas – or whatever is on!
  • Being in a country that speaks Spanish.

This last was a great boon to my learning, and admittedly not one available to everyone. But actually having to use the language everyday in everyday situations really cements the usage in a way nothing else can compare with. Traveling through Chile, and then Peru expanded my vocabulary, and made me more comfortable in using the language daily.

But, if you can’t get to a foreign country, you can create your own immersive environment by always listening to Spanish music, only watching Spanish language movies, and trying to interact with native speakers in restaurants, Meetups and other situations where you get to practice with a native.

Conclusion

This is the exact way I learned to be semi-fluent: using the Pimsleur CDs, and mobile apps of DuoLingo and Memrise, then working my plan of studying 2 hours a day. Of course this leads to semi-fluency, why wouldn’t it!

I also had the advantage of traveling through South America, but that is kind of beside the point. I met several folks who didn’t know a lick of Spanish while traveling through South America, and exited with only the barest understanding of a few words of tourist Spanish. Travel by itself is not the key to learning another language.

Programatized effort over time is the way to learn to be semi-fluent.

If you are interested in becoming at least semi-fluent, know that it takes time and dedication – and a plan of action. If you decide to give my method a try, let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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Machu Picchu for under $350 USD

Machu Picchu for under $350 USD

Okay, so it’s not the cheapest. I think that record goes to this guy at 37 soles. It also doesn’t cost $2,000 USD as a Brit told me it cost him, over a game of cards and cervezas at a restaurant at the bottom Colca Canyon.

No major hikes, such as the Inca Trail is involved. I also include the train, which if you aren’t shelling out for the Inca Trail is a must – just a classy way to travel. The big windows on the Peru Rail help you see the dramatic mountains on either side.

How I did it is also a more leisurely way of doing things, spending a night here and a night there to break up the travel and rest and relax a tad. I’ll also include the price of the train, busses with some options you could consider that would adjust the cost and be either more or less comfortable. I won’t include price of meals, as they can range from $3-100+.

DESCRIPTION of TRAVEL

I started my travels, as many who go to Machu Picchu, in Cusco. Cusco is where I bought my entrance ticket to Machu Picchu. After spending a night there I went by Collectivo to Ollantaytambo where I spent another night in a dorm of a cheap hostel there. At Ollantaytambo I purchased my roundtrip tickets to Machu Picchu and back.

The next day I took the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, otherwise known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. I spent another night in a hostel dorm room with 2 bunk beds before departing at 3am to stand in line for the busses that go through the narrow winding steep road to Machu Picchu

 

OPTIONS

I happened to stay in cheap dorm rooms, so different accommodations can change the cost dramatically. I would go to Booking.com, and sort on price from low to high, then select based on Rating and Reviews.

Also, additional nights in either Aguas or Ollantaytambo would drive up the cost. I kind of wished I stayed overnight in Aguas, rather than take the train back to Ollantaytambo, but it worked out okay.

This way I was able to leave my Pacsafe roller bag in Ollantaytambo overnight while I went to Aguas. At Aguas, I was also able to leave my extra Pacsafe backpack of stuff at the hostel there, taking only the essentials (coats, snacks, water, etc) to Machu Picchu. I collected my bag from the hostel prior to my departure to Ollantaytambo.

This turned out great as I just took my extra Outdoor Research daypack (lightweight, waterproof, collapsible, light) while wandering around Machu Picchu.

Bare Bones Method

There are also some low cost tours in Ollantaytambo or Cusco. Look for signs for “Hydroelectrica” where they take care of the car transport, meals, entrance fee, and even a guide for less than $150. Or, you can do like this person did for $116 where she did everything herself. But, frankly, I think if you wanted to go barebones, a few extra dollars to have a tour agency take care of everything for you would be the less stress way of doing it.

Here’s the breakdown (in US Dollars):

– $11 Hostel single room in Cusco.
– $3.24 Colectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo.
– $9 Ollantaytambo dorm room
– $61 Train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes
– $22.22 – RT bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu and back.
– $152 Entrance fee to Machu Picchu
– $65 Train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo.
– $9 Hostel in Ollantaytambo

TOTAL: $332.46 (Valid August 2017)

Oh yeah, Photos:

 

 

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Why you NEED a VPN while Traveling

Unbeknownst to most people, there are restrictions on what websites you are allowed to see depending on your location. This may come as a surprise, especially for the folks from the US, who are accustomed to being able to view most websites without restrictions. A simple click of the “Are you 21 years old or older” button being the most severe barriers to entry.

This changes once you go to, say, South America, and find that some YouTube Videos, some Netflix movies, and the bank website you are desperately trying to reach to transfer some cash into are all unavailable!

A solution to all of this is to get a VPN. I can only recommend, which is the one I use while I travelled through Chile and Peru: Private Internet Access.

I originally got this not for travel, but for protection while using public wifi at the cafe’s I frequent. A VPN is a first line of defense against the open protocols that reveal your laptop to the thieving public. Just for that reason alone is good enough to get a VPN.

But, when I found myself blocked from accessing certain websites I was used to accessing – like my bank’s website, or where I pay my mortgage, watch my movies, or listen to music, luckily I remembered that I had a VPN.

Once you sign up for Private Internet Access, and activate the software, an icon appear above your browser on the upper right side. It looks like a greyed out robot until you activate it:

 

Click on the icon to select which state you want to appear to be from:

I’m in California – really!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I typically choose “California” as my state, although you can always just select “”Connect Auto”.

The icon turns black to indicate that it is now “On”:

 

 

And now, when I go to pay my mortgage, I now see the correct page:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think you can see how useful this can be.

VPNs have a long history of helping dissidents in various countries get access to the outside world. But, they are also useful for ordinary tasks you are used to, especially for travel. Things like: accessing your bank account, transferring money….being able to watch a music video that is restricted from showing in Chile – that sort of thing.

Conclusion

There are many reasons for getting a VPN – security, access to the open web, etc. But for travel, a VPN becomes essential – for mundane financial tasks, access to films and videos – but also for security. Because the most access to the internet you are going to find are the wifi’s in cafe’s and restaurants. Access and security – big reasons to get a VPN!

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Why I’m staying at a 7 star Hostal…and you should too!

I do what every other backpacker who stays at a hostel does: I go to either Booking.com, or Hostelworld.com (or TripAdvisor, etc) and filter on 8.5 stars and above, and then sort on  price.

The problem is that everyone does that, and suddenly you’re faced with a completely full dorm room, and companions the like of which you may neither approve nor deny.

The last 8.8 hostel I stayed at had all 4 beds full, one of which had a very loud snorer. The second was next to a busy street with honking taxis cruising by till 2 in the morning.

So, despite their many amenities: “free” breakfast, luggage storage, pool table, foosball, laundry service, etc, all I really want is a clean, quiet, secure place with nice front desk people – all at an affordable price.

Sites such as Tripadvisor, and Yelp attempt to fulfill the Dream of Social Media, (no more crappy products) – the truth of the matter is that once a person exits a reviewable locale, the burning of the bridges commences.

Just don’t go there! Everything is a mess!! (etcetera)…

Here’s the thing: you kind of have to read between the lines and figure out what you can and can’t live with. Also, after a place has had a few bad reviews, many attempt to salvage whatever stars they have by fixing their place up. The gift in that is you may, like myself, have a 4 bed dorm room all to yourself.

This place is quieter than my last hostel, and except for 2 nights where I had to share the room, I’ve had the place entirely to myself. It’s like having a private room without paying the private room price (about 3 times as much as a dorm).

At the moment, I’m paying less than $7 USD/night (gotta love Peru!), and while I could afford the private room – like the proverb says: why buy the cow when I get the milk for free? So what that there’s no lock on the bathroom door – I’m the only one here! And so what there’s a drip from the shower – I just close the bathroom door, and I don’t notice it.

Because of the price I felt able to stay longer in Arequipa. I find myself exploring, and spending more at new restaurants because of the money I’m saving by staying at a cheap hostel. And hey, I only go to my hostel to sleep – only occasionally to socialize.

But what I like is a bit of quiet. Access to a kitchen to boil water for my tea. A comfortable bed – and an empty room is icing on the cake.

I did a bit of hostel-visitations, just to see what I was possibly missing out on for that extra star or two. What I found were nicely appointed rooms, cool common areas with ping pong table, shuffle board, etc – and invariably full dorm rooms. Everyone comes for the 8.8 starred cheap hostels, and I mean everyone. So, if that’s what you are looking for – be prepared.

Oftentimes a highly rated place is full, when down the street there may be a 7 star up-and-comer – that is clean, quiet, nice staff, with no pool table, nor foosball – and completely empty!

Read between the lines

Now, you do have to read the reviews carefully. One key is to see if bad reviews were in the past, and newer reviews are more positive. Look at what the people complaining are complaining about – if it has to do with either bedbugs or loud honking in the wee hours of the night – maybe you should look elsewhere. But maybe it’s because the place doesn’t have a kitchen, or church bells rang on Sunday, or no laundry service – or whatever. Consider whether those are things you actually need. If not – why not check it out and see what it’s like.

Tips and Tricks

What I like to do is only book a room for my first 2 nights in a city. In those first couple of days, I go visit a few other hostals that look interesting on Booking.com, or one of the other review sites, but I don’t limit it to just the 8.5 starred and above – I throw in a couple 7 star hostels as well. Some I find to deserve their lower stars, but once in awhile I’ll find a gem in the rough that fits my criteria with the added bonus of not breaking the bank. I’ll book it for a couple night just to see if the reality meets my expectations – and if it does then I will likely complete my stay there. The bonus is that for longer stays, you get to know the staff, and you tend to get treated a bit better – free luggage storage, cheaper laundry service – or something.

Anyway, give it a try and let me know in the comments if this worked for you.

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How I use Maps.me and Kindle Travel Guide books together

Maps.me could have made my life easier when I found myself lost in a bad part of Santiago. Ahh well, that experience is far behind me now, like 2 months ago, if you can believe it (I hardly can). And, I have also been using maps.me to help me get around parts unknown for awhile now.

Maps.me, if you don’t already know, is a mapping app, much like Google maps, but unlike Google Maps, it has a great offline feature. Using some unexplainable magic, the app pings nearby cell towers to establish your position and provide you with maps of the area. You do have to download an area map prior to use, which requires a wifi connection, so if you are planning a future trip, then I suggest searching for the new location, such as a city, where you will be prompted to download an area map if you do not already have it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once downloaded, I use Maps.me in conjunction with one of my online Travel Guides to make the map more interactive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I do is find a site I am interested in, a museum, or restaurant, or other local attraction, and once I find that location I bookmark that location by placing a colored star on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I then click “Edit this bookmark” and copy relevant details from the travel book for that location. This way I don’t have to flip back and forth from the travel guide to the location, the starred location already has the detail in one place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On those long bus rides from city to city this is what I do to prepare and preplan what I want to visit once I arrive.

Typically, the first thing I do will be to locate the bus terminal, and the hostel I will need to travel to. This helps me figure out if I can either walk there, or if it is better to take a taxi.

 

From there, I add museums, restaurants and other local sites.

I use Kindle versions of travel guides such as Lonely Planet, and copy and paste their descriptions onto the starred locations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, what I basically have is a localized map with detailed descriptions. It’s really helpful to have in this format, and I wish there was a service that already does this. Lonely Planet, if you are listening, can you team up with Maps.me – okaygreatthxbye!

Overall Route planning

I also pre-plan my big destinations by starring the major cities I plan on traveling to by bus. If I do not have a map for that portion of the globe I get a prompt to download the location from Maps.me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But once I land, the once empty map starts to take on colored stars as I add places I either want to visit, or have visited:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving certain colors to certain landmarks makes finding them so much easier. You can use Red for major landmarks, for example, green for restaurants, blue for museums – whatever makes sense to you. All of sudden, your map is customized to your travels. You can not only add travel guiedbook information – you can travel notes, memories of the place, what you’ve experienced – whatever comes to mind. All of a sudden the map becomes not just a tool for orientating – it becomes a way to memorialize your travels.

Buen viajes!

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Things I left behind

When I first set off to travel, I brought what I thought were essentials, and most were selected because they were what I thought the absolute best thing to bring to travel the world. This meant I had to have items that would help me be effective no matter what environment I found myself in, be that cold weather, tropical, high altitude or low. Items for jumping into the ocean, flying through the sky, or just to keep writing a blog. No cost was spared, if the absolute best backpack was a backpack that had wire mesh throughout it’s fabric to fend off slash thieves I bought it. If I thought I needed a universal power adaptor, then by golly, I would research and purchase what I thought would be the most lightweight and versatile universal power adaptor (with surge control) that I could find.

But some things, through the test of travel, were left behind, the jetsam and flotsam of a life lived at the extremes of forced minimalism.

I actually don’t really call myself a minimalist. Because any label confines you to certain rules and definitions. I have, in comparison to others, a minimal amount of stuff I bring. But what I have I maximize what the item itself can do for me. I can’t just have a backpack, I need a backpack with security features built in. I don’t just have a hat, I have a hat that can be worn 3 different ways in 3 different styles, is waterproof, lightweight, extra strong, and stylish.

But again, some things that I thought would be useful have really not been, and so were left behind – mostly left at the last hostel I found myself in.

Things I left behind:

Super Dry Travel Towel. Super light, super absorbent…but felt like rubbing a bed sheet over my body. Sometimes you want a tad more comfort, and for me a towel is one of them.

Collapsible plate. Thought I’d use it, never did. Ironically, I am in a place that doesn’t have a kitchen I can use, and this might have been used today. But I am moving out because of the lack of a kitchen, and will only stay in hostels that have one – so no plate needed.

Travel Chess. Small, lightweight – yet never used. I like chess, but not enough to harass fellow travelers to play. Cities often have dedicated tables to play – and while I used to do that, I find myself without the desire to match myself against others in a game. Out!

Windsock for the boom microphone for my iPhone. It’s a tad bulky for it’s size – and I just never used it. Never found myself in windy enough conditions to justify it’s use. Out!

I actually did use this a couple of times, but what I’ve found is that hostels typically have a place to hang clothes, and if they don’t I also have a security cable that can double as a clothesline in a pinch. I used it in this manner a few hostels ago to both secure my luggage to a bedpost, and also to lay wet socks and underwear to dry. Since I have an item that I use for the same purpose/multiple purposes, I let this one go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also got rid of my BrosTrend 1200Mbps Long Range USB Wireless Internet Adapter – found out through additional testing that my Macbook Pro fared about as well as the BrosTrend. No additional extender necessary.

Some items, I just lost, like my beloved Outdoor Research Helium II jacket. Probably left somewhere in Arica, Chile. Still looking for a replacement. Also, my beloved Sea to Summit Ultra Sil daypack. I lost this in San Pedro de Atacama. I know exactly where I lost it, as I was sunning myself after dipping into a hot mineral spring fed river. I was actually using it as a pillow. Then, the tour van was leaving, I just got up – and left my bag. Luckily, there was nothing of value in it – except my toiletry bag. The only thing I miss is my compact sonic toothbrush.

New items

As a replacement to my old N-Rit Super Light Towel, I got the slightly larger N-Rit Super Dry Towel in Xtra large upgrade version. Made by the same company, this one is just more like a towel – has a softer, slightly thicker cloth, but still bundles up to nearly the same size. Since getting rid of my other towel (and other items) this made room for something a little more deluxe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel toothbrush that folds into itself. Not a sonic, but also doesn’t use batteries. Plusses and minuses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

Here’s the thing: If I don’t use an item, (or use it infrequently) in a period of 2 months – then I discard it. Other items that get lost is kind of the price you pay for traveling. A fellow traveler after hearing my tale of a lost coat said: ‘I’ve lost 2 coats so far. That happens, don’t worry too much about it. You can always find something suitable.’

And, he’s right.

I’m still looking for a replacement for my Helium II jacket – but I am holding off for now. Arequipa is sunny and really dry. The store here that has Camping Gear has a North Face waterproof jacket, but it’s a tad heavy for my tastes – but may work if necessary. Right now, I have all that I need – and that’s enough.

As I’ve said before, expertise is not just expressed in knowing how and when to use things, it’s also knowing how to do without.

 

 

 

 

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Best Damn Hostal in Antofagasta!

The address was right, but it looked like it was an apartment dwelling,with 6 buttons to ring the residents. I didn’t see any sign for a hostal anywhere.

After rolling my roller luggage in circles trying to find anything that looked like a hostal, I decided to ask these 2 older gentlemen in front of a used furniture shop. They said something about going down the street and taking a right blah blah blah.

I decided to use maps.me and find a hostal on my own.

Apparently, a typical thing in Antofagasta is to list apartments for rent on Booking.com. Not official hostals. About the 3rd hostal, I finally find a sign: “Hostal D’Milan.

The door is opened by a huge Chilean guy named Juan Carlos. I managed to express in my rough spanish that I needed a room. He shows me a room with three beds, and after some miscommunication I gather that I would be the only one in the room. I say, “Fine,” tired of going in circles. After that, he drops it:

There are no locks on the door to my room, or any interior room, for that matter.

At any other time I would have bolted. But my gut said he was true to his word when he said he would watch closely, and that I shouldn’t worry. That, and my cable lock decided it for me.

Turns out, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Juan Carlos and his wife Merlida took quite good care of me. Juan even took me around in his car, showing me his beachside home, and trucked me to one of the sights: La Portada, a dramatic beach with huge waves, cliffs and even Condors circling. That night, we drank jote (Red wine and Coca cola) cervezas including a Michelada (beer+salt+lemon juice), and ate boiled oysters and clams till I could hold no more.

He even took me in his car to get bus tickets out to San Pedro a couple days prior to my trip, and said he would take me on my bus out in the morning of the trip.

Hostal owners aren’t so charitable, but these two were. Don’t let the unlocked doors fool you – this is the place to stay in Antofagasta!

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Kicked out of the hostel!

‘Can I have a word with you outside?’ she said, eyes hardening. By her language, I knew I was in trouble somehow. The way she used ‘…have a word, ‘ instead of ‘can I talk with you…’

I followed Alejandra, a slim Chilena woman in her 30’s, long back hair swaying and her riding boots making a hard crack-crack sound on the cement.

I sat across from her at the metal patio table. It was chilly, and I felt my body shiver.

‘We have received complaints about you,’ she said. I was thinking, ‘Whaaat?’ I thought I was very nice with the guest, social without being overly personal. I thought it must be a miscommunication, and told her so.

‘A couple arrived and said you wouldn’t let them stay. They said you told them it was full, but I checked and you still had many beds available.

I remembered them, a couple, huge backpacks, asking for a habitacion privada (private room) with it’s own bathroom. We didn’t have one, so I suggested they go to the other hostel a 15 minute walk away. I told her this.

This seemed to soften her a bit, but she stopped and started asking about what I knew about the recepcion role: am I friendly with the guests (yes), did I turn on the music? (No, no one told me to) Did I take out the trash? (Of course). She asked if I told guests about the town using the small tourist map? Before I could answer, she said, ‘I showed you this before, but perhaps you forgot,’ throwing a glare at me, before explaining all the things one could do.

‘Do you tell them about the tours?’ No, she never told me I should. ‘If you are working in reception you must enjoy being a receptionist, otherwise I will have to replace you,’ she said, giving me a hard look.

I was thinking, so what? I didn’t want to be a receptionist in the first place. ‘You have time here, so you should be looking up things to do and the attractions La Serena has to offer,’ she said. I thought, I am a volunteer working for free, and am here temporarily, if you wanted a higher level of service and knowledge perhaps you should hire someone.

I let her repeat all the things I already knew. I remember Pedro, one of the longtime volunteers saying to me at their other beach hostel prior to my leaving for the hostal downtown: ‘Oh, you are working downtown?’ he said, eyebrows raised. Pedro was a 70 year old guy from Portugal who looked a couple decades younger. He had been there a month and a half, traveling on his rented house money – like me. He said, looking down, face going dark, ‘I wish you luck, my friend. The owner is over there, and…well, I just wish you luck.’

I considered that a warning, but I really didn’t want to know. I figured so many things are due to personality conflicts, or some other individual thing that wouldn’t apply to me.

I should have asked.

I liked being a receptionist, but I had a lightning bolt of terror whenever the phone rang. That meant I had to use my meager espanol skills to communicate. I even wrote down the greeting, so I wouldn’t forget, ‘Buenas tardes, Hostal — —–!’

The other thing was that they only gave me a 30 minute training with a staff person who didn’t speak english well. So, she demonstrated the job using a combination of Spanish and English, and I responded in bad Spanish. Nothing was written down, no checklist to follow, no price list, just 30 minutes and ‘here’s the phone!’

The only thing I could think of was that it was some sort of weird miscommunication with the couple, and said as much, ‘I don’t remember exactly, but for whatever reason we couldn’t accommodate them. But instead of sending them into the night, I got on the phone and made sure there was a room for them at the other hostal.’

Part of me was wondering if this was just a way to tighten up the work. Some sick workplace S&M. But, one thing I’ve learned is to always know you have self-worth, and to stand up for yourself, use your words, and state the facts. If I have done my job, and have nothing to be ashamed about, well then: I have nothing to be ashamed about.

Well, maybe I did something unintentional. ‘I’m sorry if there was something I didn’t understand. But we were communicating in English. But that wasn’t their first language, so maybe that’s it.’ She seemed to accept this, and said, ‘I’m going to Santiago tonight, so I won’t be back for a couple days.’

The next day, I received a whatsapp text from her, ‘We received another complaint, we cannot have you working recepcion anymore. You can stay and do hard garden work for the rest of your time here, or you can leave. Please let me know.’

W The actual F? I thought back on my work time there: There was one time I asked if a guest could help me with a call in Spanish. Another time I stopped checking in a mother-daughter to deal with a couple Chilenos deciding they didn’t want to stay, making the mother-daughter folks wait. Could that be it?

I decided it didn’t matter, and that I didn’t want to stay at a place that didn’t want me there.

Also, I thought back on Pedro’s warning, and that this was probably something that happened repeatedly. Their training sucked, and the owner was a bitch. That’s what I was thinking at that moment. They expected a volunteer, who is only there 2 weeks, to know all the details about their city and all the tours, plus all the small details of opening and closing the hostal, and were pissed off when things went wrong. I didn’t want anything to do with all that.

I just had one ameliorating thought: At least I can get a blog post out of this.

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La Serena & Coquimbo – Day 1

“I counted how many countries I’ve been to, and it added up to 33,” she said. She turned to the young frenchman named Sebastian, and said, “I bet you’ve been to a bunch more.”

He said, “I dunno. 36?”

Let’s see, I’ve been to Thailand, various parts of Mexico, Panama, and various states in the United States, of course. Oh yeah, Scotland, England, and a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. And now, Chile. Eight? Really?

You think you are well travelled just because in comparison to your fellow Americans you’ve visited one country in Southeast Asia, a couple trips to Europe and a couple trips to a country in Central and South America, whereas they just visit Cancun.

And then, you encounter real travelers.

Bus Technical Difficulties…

“We tried to contact you with a phone call, but were unable to connect…” started the (translated) message from recorrido.cl, the online website to purchase bus tickets.

So, the ticket I purchased was no longer valid. Just a roadbump in travels one has to deal with. A visit to BusBud with another ticket, and I was sorted, perhaps minus another $15 USD.

This bus was not as comfortable as the last one I took, didn’t recline as much, so I found myself in the morning sorta scrunched up in a ball, nearly upside down.

In La Serena around 5:30 I told the taxi guy, a grizelled Chileno around 60 years old I guessed the name of the Hostal. He rumbled something in a low rough voice in reply that I didn’t understand. I replied, ‘No se.’ I don’t know. He rumbled something else. ‘No entiendo,’ I responded. He motioned to the trunk, and I tossed my luggage in.

Frankly, I didn’t really understand what he was asking until I sorted the individual words out later. ‘El Arbol? Al Centro o cerca la playa?’ he said. I found out later that they had TWO hostals with the same name in town, one near the beach and one in town. But at the time I was just riding in the car, hoping I didn’t get carjacked. It was a company car, though, metered, so less issues than the unmarked ones.

We rolled into a suburban neighborhood in front of a large 2 story house, and stopped. I waited a second, ‘El Arbol?’ I asked. ‘He pointed to the sign, ‘El Arbol.’

I got out and stood with my bags outside the locked gates, and pushed the button.

Nothing.

It was still dark, and a bit cold. Luckily I was wearing my puffy and my running pants (in lieu of long johns). I debated whether it was better to wait in the light of the streetlights, or in the shadows of the facing fence across the street.

I opted for the shadows. I sat on my suitcase thinking, ‘This must be a little bit what’s it’s like being homeless.’ Not really, but I was feeling a tad homeless at the moment. After awhile I walked around a bit in the neighborhood, towards the distant lights of the Chucky Cheese nearby. Yeah, THAT Chucky Cheese, alive and well in La Serena. After passing a couple guys in the park, and in the street, looking over my shoulder as they passed I thought it might be safer heading back.

Luckily, an older lady was at the gate. She motioned to me, saying something like, ‘Quieres ver adentro la Hostal?’ Eh, something like that: ‘You want to go inside the hostal?’

I followed her in and she motioned to the couch, placing two white pillows, and motioning to the blankets, saying something like, ‘You can sleep here.’ So, I did.

Thar be pirates!

Vegetable Market at Coquimbo

After awhile, guests started coming down for breakfast. Once the receptionist arrived, I found out I went to the wrong hostal, and had to walk to the other one near the beach.

The older lady who let me in, who I found out later was the breakfast cook, cleaning help, insisted that I have breakfast. She kept touching my shoulder as she served me eggs, toast, coffee, and oatmeal. She reminded me of my mother, and I hugged her before I left. She said (translated) ‘A full belly makes for a full mind,’ gesturing to her belly and her head.

I forgot to ask her name.

El Arbol – Beachside

The El Arbol hostal near the beach was a well-kept hostal, single story, that at capacity could house up to 40 guests. Low season now, so only 13 or so. Alejandra, the owner, a Chilean woman in her 30’s I guessed showed me to the voluntario housing, a converted shed. A guy from Portugal, named Pedro greeted me in English while lying in his bed, and we talked of the sights I should see. He told me to go to Coquimbo, to visit the fish and vegetable mercados, eat a cheap lunch, and see the sea lions.

“The sea lions come right up onto the street, where they are fed at this fence,” he said.

Ride an inauthentic Pirate Ship, matey!

He told me I could take any bus heading east for 600 pesos.

Apparently, he was wrong. After going around in a spaghetti-like route in the neighborhoods, the bus driver turned around, surprised I was still there. He said something I didn’t understand. I just said in response, “Coquimbo, al centro?’ Coquimbo, town center?

He shook his head and motioned outside the door, saying something about another bus. I got out and after awhile, took another bus with a sign saying Coquimbo.

 

Hmm, some racist imagery on a restaurant wall in Coquimbo.

It’s funny being in a country looking a bit like the locals, but by my clothing and manner, completely different. And language can be as solid a barrier as anything else. So, one becomes like an observer, only occasionally interacting, mostly to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” The language of commerce is easier: How much is it? I would like to have…, the check, por favor…

Some sort of fig treat, $300 pesos

 

 

Coquimbo

Eventually, I found myself at the fish market – like La Vega in Santiago, rivaled, and in some ways surpassed the fish market in Seattle. They had seafood cocktails of various varieties: fish, shrimp, octopus and clams in a single ceviche looking plastic container.

Vegetable Market at Coquimbo

Yo matey

Later I strolled a huge covered vegetable market, looking at the colorful vegetables and fruits. A visit to the bathroom, and I exeited, but a lady yelled something like, “Oye!” Apparently, I failed to pay the 200 pesos to use the bano.

 

I followed the board walk, and then heard a weird prehistoric sound, like a film dinosaur, or something from National Geographic: A sea lion.

See Sea Lions?

Actually, not just one, but several. Just beyond a wire fence with the remnants of fish scraps drying on the wire edges. They were huge, and close enough to touch. Seeing one close up, with their huge heads, and their prehistoric sounds, they looked to me to have heads of a lion, and the smooth body and flippers of a, well, sea lion. Heh.

I wondered what it would be like to see one close up while scuba diving. I heard they have diving in the area. I guess one of the things they do is “mouth” you. If you don’t know this, you might think they are trying to eat you, and as much as I would try to fight the urge to freak out, encountering anything underwater that is bigger than you are is a tad freaky anyway, not to mention something opening their mouths and clamping down on you!

Here, they looked fat dumb and happy, if a tad overfed and gluttonous. Fish bits hung off their maws, and dripped down their chest. Occasionally, they would rear up and become statues, absorbing the bright sun.

I feel you, I thought, myself basking in the sun. I think I will enjoy La Serena.

 

 

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Leaving Santiago

I leave Santiago, the capital city of Chile in a couple days. I’ve been in Santiago since the 9th of May, and will leave on the 31st for La Serena, a smaller coastal city. So around 3 weeks, 1 month total in Chile.

Today, I met 2 groups of people from Los Estados Unidos (USA). One group from Philadelphia, and one from Chicago. Interestingly, a local here told me that Americans don’t say what country they are from, they only say what city, assuming everyone knows where that is. Both told me that they were here just for 2 days.

‘Where were you before Santiago?’ I asked, assuming a longer trip.

‘Chicago,’ he said.

‘Oh, this is your first stop. Where are you going after Santiago?’

‘Chicago.’

Wow. 2 days, probably at least 10 hrs flight not to mention any layovers. For only two days.

It blows my mind how people only stay for a couple days. It’s not even long enough to get rid of jetlag, get drunk and recover the next day. How do you do that? I just smiled, and said, ‘Wow, nice!’

And here I am, leaving Santiago for my 3rd Chilean city.

When I was returning on a bus from Valparaiso, the woman next to me asked, ‘Do you know where we are?’ I looked out the window. I knew we were in Santiago, but besides that I couldn’t make out any specific landmarks. ‘It all looks the same to me,’ she said with a sneer. ‘I thought Buenos Aires was a prettier city.’ I looked out the window. I could see what she meant, mostly 2-3 story buildings that were mixed use of storefronts and dwellings.

‘I think that there’s a lot to Santiago. I think, like Denver, it’s a city with a lot of heart,’ I said. I could tell she was just sick of traveling in a bus all day, but I really didn’t want to hear the typical tourist slagging the city they were vacationing in. I’ve come to love this city, and a part of me is sad to leave.

Admittedly, another part of me is sick of the city, and when that happens, when I feel the sickness that is a sort of hatred for the little things – crowded metros, ugly graffitti, rainy weather – what have you –   I know that it’s also a good time to leave.

Leave while you still love it, but a small part hates it.

Then you can feel hopeful for the change rather than fully despairing for something lost.

The two places I have been to in Chile, Frutillar and Santiago, a part of me wanted to stay. And it’s not even the things you are told to go see that I miss, not the museums, or monuments or architecture. It’s the little things.

It’s the desire for the familiar. I had my routine, I know where my favorite pie de limon is, my favorite cafe, a few restaurants that are good, how to ride the metro and where my favorite park is. I know some good places for a nice view of the city, and where to get good fish and sushi. I’ll miss the tree lined boulevards and street food stalls.  Yes, I will miss this familiarity. And familiarity is a comfort, like a warm blanket, that you do not want to shed.

But, if you don’t, you may miss out on another place that is just as great, and in some ways may be even better.

That is my barometer then: Un poco enfermedad, con mucho amor.

 

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