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!

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.

Not Machu Picchu again!? Here’s three more Peru UNESCO sites you should visit

Peru has a whole lot more going for it than Machu Picchu. Here are three more Peru UNESCO sites you should visit: watch a knitting extravaganza, fly above an astronaut, and see a mummy frozen in time!

1. Textiles on the Island of Taquile, Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca borders both Peru and Bolivia, high in the Peruvian Andes. On the Peruvian side you’ll likely stay on shore in Puno; which can best be described as a handy base.

Tourist and local boats run from Puno to many of the Lake Titicaca islands. For an authentic (if slower and not exactly luxurious) experience, consider the locals’ boat to Taquile island – simply head to the dock to catch it.

Taquile is a picture of serenity, albeit with a growing tourist trade. No roads, no cars, a couple of boat-landing points, and tiny simple houses and farmsteads dotting the slopes of the walkable island. You’ll want decent shoes to do so, but for some here shoes are a luxury – you’ll see kids and adults alike going barefoot, even at this altitude.

Culturally, Taquile is a fascinating place, especially for textile-lovers, and it’s this which has given its status as one of the Peru UNESCO sites. Unlike in Cuzco, locals wear their traditional dress for themselves, not for the tourist dollar. Men knit their own fine hats, and you’ll see boys and men wandering with knitting needles and wool in hand.

Hat dating

The craftsmanship of the knitted hats incredibly intricate, and the boat captain explained to me that the design of the hat signifies the wearers’ marital status – red patterned the whole way means they are married; red patterned part way then plain white means they are not. Mr Captain was very much a confirmed bachelor.

Peru UNESCO sites, World Heritage Sites in Peru - Taquile on Lake Titicaca

Locals on the boat to Taquile, Peru UNESCO site, Lake Titicaca

What to expect on the boat? You’ll be sharing your hard wooden seat with the island’s supplies of toilet paper and rice. Lap it up. However, you’ll also get a flavour of what life here is really like, and that reality-check in itself is worth a bit of a numb bum.

Reality check on the boat to Taquile, Peru UNESCO site

Here we go: the passenger inventory. Me, fellow visitors and a few other locals all dutifully filled out our details and signed our names.

Not for everyone though, as the captain made the rounds of many passengers, interrupting their yarn-spinning to ask their names; before carefully noting them down on the manifesto.

It dawned on me why – not everyone here has had the privilege of an education; and the ability to read and write is one not all islanders are blessed with. A scribbled “x” was the norm in lieu of a signature.

That said, Taquile is becoming more used to tourism; and the positives and negatives that brings. If you’d like more than a couple of hours there, homestays can be arranged. Don’t forget to buy a hat.

Whilst staying in Puno, you can also check out

  • The (very) touristy but worth-a-visit floating Uros islands
  • The Yavari – a boat manufactured in Birmingham (UK) in the 1860s, transported to the South American coast in pieces, and then transported to Lake Titicaca by mules and on foot!
  • The ancient pre-Incan funerary towers of Cutimbo, way out in the altiplano (catch a locals’ combi van to get there)
  • The tranquil Templo de la Fertilidad a few miles from Puno in Chucuito – a lot of phallic objects as an aid (allegedly) to help the local ladies fall pregnant

Top Puno tip: get a room with heating. Even if you’re on a tight budget, splash the cash. Trust me. At a toe-freezing 13,000+ feet above sea level, Puno is decidedly chilly at night.

2. The Nazca Lines

Nazca is a place surrounded by mystery, with miles of desert plains devoted to mammoth geoglyphs dating back 1500 years and more; preserved by the dry climate.

Who decided to make these testimonies to living creatures and plant-life in the harsh desert landscape? Why? And how did their creators make shapes so enormous, accurate and spellbinding without the benefit of aircraft or satellites? No wonder they’re another Peru UNESCO site.

Anywhere in Nazca can book you a flight over the lines, and you’ll depart from the local airfield in a teensy plane at dawn.

Skip breakfast

If you’re of weak stomach, don’t have breakfast if you’re flying over the Nazca lines. Actually, even if you’re not of weak stomach, don’t have breakfast.

As the sun comes up over the horizon, the dawn light gives the murals an even more mysterious air. A monkey, a frog, birds, a tree and even – with some imagination – an astronaut. That question again … why?

I’d love to tell you how I marvelled at the mysteries of the desert as my pilot navigated his way around the desert during the 30-minute flight, determined to give me and my three co-passengers the best photo-opportunities of the lines by banking left and right. Sadly, though, I was too busy being sick.

Fortunately, plastic bags are provided, and friendly local ladies will bring you around upon landing, with smelling salts that helpfully appear – as if from nowhere – under your nose.

Nazca’s museum (“why” theories abound), ancient aquaducts, a lively market and plaza-bingo are other reasons to stick around Nazca for a couple of days. And the climate – welcome warmth after chilly Andean nights.

3. The city of Arequipa

Arequipa is a “mere” 6,000 or so feet above sea level. Surrounded by towering volcanoes, it’s a city famed for its white buildings and its Incan mummies. The former have given Arequipa its Peru UNESCO site status, the latter you can see preserved from ancient rituals by the snow-clad volcanic peaks. I’m not kidding, check out Juanita the mummy in the Santuarios Andinos Museum.

For me though, Arequipa is best remembered for the Monasterio (Convento) de Santa Catalina, a complex of colourful buildings and courtyards; and a paradise for snap-happy visitors that will keep you amused for several hours.

I’ll let the pictures tell the story …

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[box type=”info”]I used the Lonely Planet Guide to Peru and the Lonely Planet Latin American Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary for my trip. Help the site by buying through these links, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

These are just three of the many Peruvian UNESCO World Heritage sites. Pack an open mind and a healthy sense of adventure, and you’ll come away with memories that will last a lifetime.

Which is your favourite of the Peru UNESCO sites? Tell us about it in the comments below.