Lava, lingo, literature and light – “experiences before I die” progress

The first few months of 2015 have been pretty eventful. I spent two months travelling in Nicaragua, lapping up its spirit and diversity. I negotiated countless chicken buses, and fended off several questions about my solo travel status. I found new contract and freelance work back in the UK. And I met someone I thought I’d connected with, only to see fate have other ideas.

Overall, 2015 has given me a tonne of happy memories.

Many are because I’ve achieved some of my 25 (more) things I’m going to experience before I die. I committed these to paper back in December, and – woo, yay and woo again – progress has been made!

A lava lava action – I climbed a volcano

Nicaragua is home to 19 (count ‘em) volcanoes, so it would have been quite hard NOT to see any whilst I was there. Whilst visiting Volcán Masaya can be done pretty much by driving up to the crater – health and safety laws are a tad different in this part of the world; Volcán Telica near León gave me the chance to hike to the summit and peer into the bubbling lava in the crater below.

Plus, those volcanoes make for some pretty dramatic sunsets. Sigh.

experiences before I did: Volcan Telica crater - volcano Nicaragua

Yup, that is the smoking crater. At Volcan Telica in Nicaragua.

For more, read my post on visiting Nicaragua’s volcanoes without breaking (too much) of a sweat.

Learning the lingo – I became (more) fluent in another language

Ok, so fluent would be a huuuuuugely stretching description of my Spanish language “talents”, but two weeks in language school, followed by independent travel in Nicaragua, helped enormously. At least I can now make a passable attempt at the past tense.

Plus I had a drunken conversation in Spanish at 3am the other Sunday morning after a loooooot of vodka. That counts, right?

For the rest of 2015, going to Spanish Meetup groups will continue. Plus I’m aiming for a trip somewhere Latin America-esque later in the year. There’s still work to do on this one, folks, still work to do…

Classic literature – I read Hemingway on the Florida Keys

Hemingway passed me by at school, so as part of my occasional, “I must read some modern classics” phase (DH Lawrence was a step too far), I decided Hemingway was a must.

And what better place to buy a Hemingway novel than at his former home in Key West, on the Florida Keys?

I read the compelling and descriptively narrated, “The Old Man and the Sea” whilst watching the sunset over the Keys with a glass of wine. A general feeling of “this is the life” ensued.

Letting in the light – I learnt to take photos of moving water

Turns out you use the camera’s “TV” setting and turn the number down a notch. Who knew? I’m gonna pretend this has something to do with “light” (no clue!), cos that’s the only “l” word I could think of for this post title 🙂

The “TV” tip, from a photographer guru, worked a treat on a trip to beautiful Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire, and I’ve been putting in into practice since.

I’ve since joined a couple of photography groups on Meetup, so more opportunities to practice (and learn more from other guru types) should ensue…

More experiences before I die

Lava, lingo, literature and light – achieving these four things from my “25 experiences” list has meant I’ve seen incredible sights, embraced a style of learning I usually shy away from, read something I wouldn’t usually have picked up (and loved it), and met some unforgettable people along the way.

Embracing the “do-er” in me has not only given me those wonderful memories, but reinforced in me my famed sense of pride.

And, with several more of my 25 experiences yet to achieve, I know there’ll be many more proud moments and happy memories to follow …

What are you most proud of so far in 2015? Why did it make you feel that way?

Is Spanish language school worth it?

To try and communicate better with local people when travelling, I enrolled in two weeks of Spanish language school in Nicaragua. Was it worth the effort?

Seven years after first mastering enough Spanish to be able to order food, work out which bus I needed to be on, and make small talk about how cold it was in my country, I felt the time had come to step it up a gear.

Why? Because I wanted to be able to communicate better with local people when I travel.

Like in November 2013, when I’d wanted to explain Bonfire Night to my Guatemalan taxi driver. My best shot in Spanish: “we have large fires in every town!” Cue: confused look.

I’ve tried to practice. A bit. Meetup groups have been a boon, as have my trusted teach-myself Michel Thomas CDs. In all honesty though, I’ve previously shied away from classroom learning – the prospect reminded me of my school days, where I had:

  • a very competent but incredibly narcissistic French teacher (I quit French);
  • an extremely good and personable German teacher who was unfortunately bound by the not-updated-since-the-1960s Cold War-era National Curriculum of late 1980s Britain. Consequently we learnt a lot of vocab about moon landings. And the German for “three stage rocket.” Not helpful.

And so to Spanish language school in Nicaragua …

And so it was with some trepidation I booked two weeks of Spanish language school in Nicaragua, at the La Mariposa school. My mission:

  • Firstly, to learn more words. “Fireworks” would be a good start.
  • Second, to be able to use a better version of the past tense. After all, “I visited” sounds soooooo much more natural than, “I have visited”. Verdad?
La Mariposa Spanish language school in Nicaragua

Mariposa = butterfly 🙂

My first Spanish language school class

It was grammar. Eek.

The thought of reciting verbs, parrot fashion, filled me with dread.

However, as I was seated in a garden full of actual parrots, I was in good company. Maybe they could help me?

parrots in the garden of La Mariposa Spanish language school Nicaragua

Could this guy help me with my Spanish verbs?

In the first lesson, we whizzed through a present tense recap, and I learnt some more irregular verbs. Who knew there were so many?

Next up, it was conversation.

In my first conversation class, we went for a walk. Learning the words for what we saw along the way. Trees, runners, birds. Nicaragua has a lot of birds. All good.

Types of Spanish language school lessons

Lessons didn’t follow a set script. My tuition was one-on-one (which was the norm in my Nicaraguan Spanish language school), so the teachers could adapt best to the students’ needs and learning styles. As a “learn by doing” type, that suited me down to the ground.

And so, over the course of the next two weeks, I:

  • played Scrabble in Spanish (I think I was cheated by a complete lack of vowels);

    library at La Mariposa Spanish language school Nicaragua

    For all my children’s books needs – the library at my Spanish language school

  • read children’s books, which were surprisingly brilliant for learning new – and sometimes surreal – vocabulary. “Bruja” is “witch.” Just in case you need it …
  • learnt commonly used phrases. I enjoyed reciprocating here; my teacher now knows how to say, “it’s raining cats and dogs”;
  • discovered I have the potential to be witty in another language. Either that or my teachers were just being polite when they laughed.

It was also surprisingly helpful to have teachers who didn’t speak English. I HAD to learn, one way or another!

The learning environment

I didn’t feel cooped up in a classroom.

is Spanish language school worth it?

Classes outdoors suited me down to the ground.

In the gardens that were the school’s classrooms I finally got to grips with the past tense in a non-scary way, and was able to say I’d “seen the bird”, “visited the volcano”, “bought something at the market”. Yay!

That’s not to say my head wasn’t fried at the end of each morning’s lessons, though. Four hours of learning a day was quite enough. Plus homework. Which I actually quite enjoyed doing – I could FEEL the progress.

Was Spanish language school worth it?

Yes, absolutely. For an investment of a few hundred dollars for one-on-one tuition, attending Spanish language school in Nicaragua was definitely “vale la pena” (worth the effort).

My newly improved language skills are now being unleashed on the good people of Nicaragua, as I travel around this beguiling country.

My vocab is slowly improving, and – after a week of confusing my past tense grammar types, I finally had a lightbulb moment and it all made sense. Now, if only I knew the word for lightbulb

[box type=”info”]I went to Spanish language school in Nicaragua, a country I’d highly recommend. I used the Lonely Planet Guide to Nicaragua for my trip. Help the site by buying the guide through this link, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

What have you found to be the best / most achievable ways of improving your language skills? Would you consider going to a language school?

Hopes and fears for long-term travel: Miami, Nicaragua and Colombia

[quote]“I must be more nervous about this trip than I thought.”[/quote]

That’s what’s going through my mind at 3am this morning. I’m wide awake, random thoughts churning through my head. I only do this when I’m worried about something. Normally me and sleep are very happy bedtime buddies.

Tomorrow I travel to Miami, the start of a two-month journey that will also see me take in the Florida Keys (albeit briefly, as I’m on a budget), Nicaragua, and Colombia.

Hopes and fears for long-term travel: Miami, Nicaragua and Colombia

Why wouldn’t this be anything other than exciting? Seriously?

I should be super-excited.

I am.

But I’m also a little bit freaked out. I must be. I resorted to checking my phone for text messages. At 3am. Cos obviously someone’s gonna be texting me at that time!

On the grand scheme of things my fears are pretty minor. I know this, as I couldn’t pin point any one of them in my sleep-deprived state.

My fears for long-term travel

I won’t be able to find (enough) work when I return in early March. This one’s probably at the core, no matter how many times I myself have sat opposite friends over a coffee/glass of wine and reassured them about their own job/work searches. For all the usual reasons – they’ve got the right attitude, connections, willingness to work, skills, experience. Ditto for me. I need to have a word with myself on this one. I have a plan, but that’s one for a blog post in a couple of months’ time!

It’ll be weird travelling alone for so long. The last multi-month trip I did was with my ex, back in 2007. No matter that since I’ve travelled alone to places like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Guatemala and had a month-long trip in South-Eastern Europe too. Something inside me is saying “eeeeeeeeeeek”. That little mouse needs to be quiet. Or to be eaten by a cat. Sometimes it would just be nice to have a familiar friendly face around, that’s all I’m saying. I’m gonna miss my friends!

That every worse case scenario detailed on the travel advisory of the UK foreign office website is going to happen to me, and I’ll get expressed kidnapped in Colombia. Maybe I shouldn’t have read the travel advisories two days before travelling? The Colombia advisory was – how can I put it – gritty. Then I took a deep breath and reminded myself to get a grip, as I have no intention of going to any of the “gritty” places mentioned. I did, however, find myself reading a story about the latest FARC peace negotiations on the BBC website at 2am. In Spanish. I was – as we say in Yorkshire – “well chuffed” I got the gist of most of it, so every cloud has a silver lining!

This reminds me of the core of who I am – an eternal optimist. The girl who sees the glass half full rather than half empty. And if it’s not half full, godamn it, I’ll go and buy myself another one so it is!

My hopes for long-term travel

Finally improving my Spanish. Yay! This has been a biiiiig objective of mine over the last 6 months or so. I’m biting the bullet and moving from practice (which I’ve been doing in recent months) to improvement. Two weeks in Spanish language school in Nicaragua are booked, and I can’t wait.

Interacting with local people. Hopefully more easily with my improved Spanish. I find this a major advantage of travelling alone; it makes for far more opportunities to interact with local people. Even if it’s only ‘cos there’s no-one else to ask about your chicken bus connection for you!

Hopes and fears for long-term travel: Miami, Nicaragua and Colombia

Which bus? If you’re on your own, you need to do the asking. This pic’s from Antigua, Guatemala.

Hopes and fears for long-term travel: Miami, Nicaragua and Colombia

postcards help me interact with local people

I like to take postcards of my home city of York with me when I travel, so I can show local people where I live. Talking with local people and their hopes and dreams makes me feel very humble. I’ve met drivers / farmers who are studying English at night school, and tuk tuk riders who are studying accountancy. People seem to seek out and grasp opportunity at every turn. It makes me sad that so many in our home (far wealthier) countries don’t have the same incredible attitude.

Good coffee. I was in java heaven in Guatemala when I visited in November 2013, and I’m sure I will be in Nicaragua and Colombia too. A trip to a coffee plantation or two will definitely be in order.

Volcanoes. I’m going to climb a volcano. Technically I climbed one in Guatemala last year, but it was so cloudy I could barely see my hand in front of my face, so quite frankly I could’ve been anywhere. Nicaragua’s volcanoes are out there, and I’ll be conquering (at least) one of ‘em.

Sun, sun, sun. As anyone who knows me knows, I am not a fan of cold weather. And the UK at the moment? It’s cold (not in an Arctic sense, in a Julie sense). I like to feel the warmth. Me and my factor 30 sunscreen say, “bring it on!”

Overcoming my long-term travel fears

Those around me may see me as confident, but we all have fears. I know that by facing some of mine, I’ll gain far more: in memories, moments, the people I meet, the things I’ll learn, the places I’ll experience, the journeys I’ll take. Knowing this helps me cast off those niggling doubts and strap on my backpack.

Miami, Nicaragua, Colombia? I’m coming at ya!

What are your hopes and fears when you travel? What helps you overcome your fears? I’d love to hear your tips!

Greek, long division, packing, and my mum’s email needs: Budapest to Athens here I come!

Budapest to Athens: It’s only five days and counting until I shake off my Eastern Europe /Balkans virginity on my month-long solo trip.

Several practical questions – beyond the emotional ones around the excitement of it all – are whizzing around my head as I count down the days to my departure.

Why hadn’t a trip through Eastern Europe and the Balkans occurred to me before?

Bosnia and other parts of the Balkans have long staved off their mid 90s no-go status. I heard tales of majestic cities, captivating coastlines and historical fascination. “Right,” I thought, “it’s time to put a temporary pause on my long-haul obsession.” Duly decided, I booked myself a short hop flight of a mere 2hrs 20 minutes from Manchester to Budapest.

How do I choose which places to go to en-route from Budapest to Athens?

My next thought, after a brief sojourn through a couple of travel guide books and more than a couple of websites: How the hell am I going to try and see everywhere I want to see?

Simple answer to this one, I can’t. Boo! I’m going to have to pick and choose. For example: I’ve reluctantly decided Dubrovnik and Split can wait, as I can easily fly there direct from my local airport (Leeds/Bradford) in the future.

My route is still only a vague plan, but I do know I’ll be catching up with an old school friend in Budapest, and a former work colleague in Zagreb, Croatia.

Beyond that, I’m torn. Ljubljana? A little detour to my wish-list destination of Bologna? Lake Ohrid? Mostar? Meteora? Delphi? Sarajevo? The Bay of Kotor?

Hmmm, maybe I need to book another trip!

How will I manage with the Greek alphabet? And getting by in Albanian?

As I continue to struggle with improving my Spanish, is there any chance whatsoever I’ll remember the bits of Greek alphabet I learnt in A Level Maths (aged 17), and from preparing a book design layout for Homer’s The Iliad (aged 19) in my first desk-top publishing job? Alpha, beta, kappa, delta, epsilon err … err … *googles frantically*

And what about all those other languages I’m going to need – pretty much a different one for every country from Budapest to Athens. Albanian, anyone?

Money matters: Will I be able to divide by 368 in Budapest?

Budapest to Athens

5000 Forints = £13.59 or about $20. Apparently.

Apparently there are 368 Hungarian Forints to the British Pound. Who knew? Best get practicing my times tables. And long division.

Which countries are even in the Euro? (Yup, showing my “we love the pound” British-ness there!) I’ll be learning to love Lek, Kuna and Forints on my trip.

I’m going to try out a Travel Worldwide Debit Card – one of those cards you pre-load before your trip. I’ve not used one before, but so far the company I’ve used have been super-efficient. I’ll report back after my trip, but I’m hoping it will save big-style on those pesky ATM charges and foreign transaction fees.


I’m planning on staying mostly in AirBnB places, so I should be able to get clothes washing done pretty easily. Needless to say, that means my major concern is shoes. Obviously. Can I narrow my packing choices down to two pairs? Tricky.

Keeping in touch

Will I be able to meet my mum’s strict instructions of sending her and dad an email ready for her to read every Tuesday morning? “Tuesday, Julie, Tuesday. That’s when I’m going to go to the library to read my email”. OK, Tuesday is it then!

Mum and dad won’t get internet at home, in case it gives them a virus. There are no words.

I’d love to hear your tips and experiences about travel in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Places to go from Budapest to Athens, those I should give a miss, getting from A to B, and more. The comments box below is ready and waiting … ☺

Top 3 tips for language learning, without going to class

How do you go about learning a new language, when you have the kind of job that doesn’t allow you to get to night school every Tuesday at 6pm?

That’s the question I asked myself when preparing for my first ever career break trip to South America.

Here I share my top three tips for language learning: how I’ve gathered enough Spanish words and grammar to organise food, accommodation, transport, bargain, and make small-talk conversation. All without ever setting foot in a classroom.

My six-word starting point

I suspected that knowing the Spanish for “b+++h” and being able to count to five – vocab picked up during a summer as a US Summer Camp Counsellor – weren’t going to be particularly helpful to me for three months of travel in Mexico, Peru and northern Chile.

Language-learning tip 1: Listen while you drive

I acquainted myself with Michel Thomas, a talented polyglot linguist who sadly passed away in 2005.

Michel produced a range of audio CDs that will have you constructing basic sentences in no time, without have to study any books or chant any grammar rules (if you learnt a language at school in the UK, you know what I’m talking about!)

I listened to his Spanish CDs whilst driving to work. Friends used the French equivalents and were equally impressed. They’re also good company when ironing, although admittedly less entertaining than Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”

Language-learning tip 2: Practice at home

I’m currently using the free Duolingo app to help with my vocab. It’s simple but effective, with words and phrases categorised by topic. You can even test your pronunciation using your device’s microphone. Clever.

Another way to get some real-time practice is through Meetup. Even in a small city like York has two Spanish language exchange groups.

Meetup is multinational, so check it out for a group near you. You help someone improve their English in return for them helping you with your language of choice. The most it’ll cost you is a nominal admin fee (say, £1) and the price of a beer / coffee.

Language-learning tip 3: Practice when you’re travelling

Carry a dictionary / smartphone app around with you to look up words you keep seeing and have no idea what they mean.

Read museum exhibit labels. It’ll give you loads of new vocab.

Converse with local people, not just fellow visitors. Shop and market stall holders (you’ll also get a better price in markets if you bargain in the local language), taxi drivers, people you meet at festivals / events / museums, locals on public transport.

top 3 tips for language learning

With a few words of the local lingo you can easily negotiate super-cheap transport on buses like these … adventure beckons!

Some locals will be learning English, so you can have the BEST half ‘n’ half language conversations to help each other out.

One of my endearing memories from a Guatemala trip last year was chatting to a local girl who was learning English whilst we were squished together in the back of a combi van.

The next level

Am I fluent? Not by any means. But I can get by, although I find that understanding some locals’ lightning-fast responses is harder than making myself understood.

It’s important to know your own learning style. Some people will be able to work their way methodically through a textbook. Others will favour listening to CDs or to native speakers. Some will do their best when immersed; trying it out and sometimes getting it wrong.

Whether it’s full-on country immersion, online newspapers, films, Skype lessons or other conversational practice, text books, or a classroom environment; find the way or ways that suits you – and give it a go.

What are your best tips for language learning? Have you tried an online course? Or used Skype with a native speaker? What’s worked, and what hasn’t? Share your experiences below.