Lingo.

A year and a half ago, I left my job to travel the world and work on some personal projects. Well, that was the aim anyway. I did some of the latter with varying degrees of achievement but I’ve learnt much through that so I wouldn’t call it wasted time. I’ll write about the travelling though.

I’ve always been very intrigued by languages – except for Chinese mostly because we didn’t have the best learning experience in school but I do regret not being more proficient in the language I grew up speaking and still do with family. In my early 20s, I did my first – and only – phone interview for a job in mandarin, blew it completely because I was too shellshocked to speak up and had the realization that I really needed to up my game to be the type of person I want to be. Humility is an important lesson. I want to be someone who’s always open to learning and not have a billion and one excuses for why I’m not as good as I could or should be. It’s idealistic sure and I’m really not quite there yet but I try.

Languages. I tried learning Spanish when I was 13, mostly because it was accessible. Ricky Martin was all the rage and any idiot can understand the lyrics to his songs if you put in enough effort to look in a dictionary (Internet was in its infancy when I was a teen. I’m that old). I had the opportunity to take up French as a 3rd language a year earlier but because I was lazy and too confident in being able to learn something on my own rather than have to go through formal tests, I gave it up. Two decades on, I still can’t speak either French or Spanish though I can understand enough of both to make my way around the streets. I consider that a mild success.

South America has always been on my list of places to visit. It’s exotic for ALL Asians, I’m sure and it sounds like a good adventure to undertake as a solo traveler. I had picked up a bit of Spanish through stupid friends and a short jaunt to Spain and it sounded like a perfect excuse to pick up more vocabulary. I had intended to take 6-12 months off to travel but ended up spending the time I did, wandering 20 countries including

  • Japan (Tokyo, Okinawa)
  • Brazil (Sao Paulo)
  • Chile (Santiago, Easter Island, Valdivia, Puerto Montt, Chiloe Islands, Huilo Huilo, Puerto Natales)
  • Argentina (Buenos Aires, Jujuy, Salta, El Calafate, Ushuaia)
  • Uruguay (Montevideo, Colonia del Sacremento)
  • Bolivia (Uyuni, Sucre, Potosi, La Paz, Copacabana)
  • Peru (Puno, Cusco)
  • South Africa (Johannesburg)
  • Zimbabwe (Bulawayo)
  • Botswana (Hwange National Park)
  • Zambia (Victoria Falls)
  • Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur)
  • Vietnam (Da Nang)
  • Taiwan (Taipei)
  • Thailand (Phuket, Bangkok)
  • Greece (Thessaloniki, Athens)
  • Albania (Sarande, Gjirokaster, Berat)
  • Macedonia (Ohrid, Skopje, Bitola)
  • Kosovo (Prizen, Prishtina)
  • Bulgaria (Sofia)

I’ll elaborate on the countries in separate posts but what I really want to talk about is languages. I spent 3 months in South America, bumbling my way through the different Spanish accents. Argentinian Spanish sounds the most suave and it was most difficult paying for things because I’d be going through the process of interpreting numbers >> translating to english >> converting to my currency >> thinking if it’s of value >> (optional) bargaining >> digging out appropriate change

All of that in a short time before anyone realizes I’m very new at this. Also, how currency changes from country to country and I kept messing up 15 and 50 in Spanish. Also, accent. There’s like a zillion different words for spicy and avocado and from day to day I’d be interchanging them. In Chile, no one pronounces the ‘s’ at the end of words and in Argentina, an ‘ll’ is a ‘sh’ sound while in other countries, it’s a ‘y’. 3 months is a pretty short time to venture all around South America and every time I step into a new continent, it’d take 30 seconds to register in my head what anyone is saying and there’s the intellectual (so I think) side of me that really enjoys having to keep up to the pace of things.

At the start of my trip in Chile, I had a bit of a hard time making conversation with a shoemaker and his wife who drove me to his house so he can stitch up my soles. He had a leg amputated cos it was blown up by mines and ran a small stall by the roads of Ancud in the Chiloe Islands. Since we had a mutual interest in mechanical stuff and wheels, I brought my unicycle back to his shop later that day because I don’t think he understood that I was serious about backpacking sudamerica con mi monociclio. By the end of my trip, I would have conversations about unicycling on the death road, argue about the extra visa fees for Bolivia or what that sheep head is doing in the markets.

There’s a very liberal dose of chill in South America. Most people understand I’m Asian but can’t be bothered figure how they can make money off me which I appreciate a lot. I don’t know if it’s because there’s not a lot of Asians travelling over but regardless, I really like the hospitality. In Africa, we were hounded understandably because Chinese people love their ivory.

In my teens, I had a phase where I thought Greek was a great language to learn. It made sense. It was phonetic and like many other languages, a lot of words were borrowed from the English language. I’d like to think I still have a decent sense of Greek alphabets and some Cyrillic where I had picked it up in a brief stint in Mongolia years back. I apparently don’t know as much Cyrillic alphabets as I thought I did but I did still make my way through town. Somewhat.

The Balkans is an interesting place. Albania and its surroundings felt a little more somber because they were rocky and the grays and rocks made for a more solemn atmosphere. Possibly because it wasn’t peak tourist season, I had pick of the crop for most hostels I stayed in which meant 5-10 Euros a day for a room to myself. The most expensive place I was in was a very VERY decent hotel for ~15 Euros where I giggled myself crazy for the opportunity to watch local TV. Which was some Spanish soap opera if you must know. AND I DID UNDERSTAND THE DIALOGUE.

I got lazy in the Balkans and got away with sign language, English and some rough understanding of key terms like σουβλάκι (souvlaki) and the like. Because it isn’t horribly touristy yet, you’ll sometimes wander into town and have a chat with some locals who speak some English and are interested enough in where you come from to talk to you. I really like non-touristy places for the fact that most people don’t need more from you than to find out how life is like in Japan and then find out you’re from Singapore which they don’t know of and is more interesting because where the f*** is that???

If there’s anything I’d like to excel at before my next hiatus, wherever that may be, it would be to pick up a little more language. Since most languages are phonetic (with the exception of wtf chinese), I usually memorize the alphabets on the plane ride over and start reading all the street signs from the airport to the city. I’ve been saying that I can read food menus in a dozen languages and that might actually be true but it would be tons more interesting if I could pick up a conversation with the person in the next seat. Language should be such a small part to life than it is and I do hope I’ve gotten over the social awkwardness to be able to relay that friendly greeting to the next person beside me.

My next destination (to somewhere where I can’t fluently speak the language) should be to somewhere where French or Spanish is the main language and I do hope I can be diligent enough to pick up the basics. If all else fails, I hope I’ve brushed my teeth enough for a smile to work.

 

 

 

Theme Song for My South American Experience

So, all through Argentina and Chile, this is what I’ve been hearing and watching people get very excited over (apart from songs about Maradona). I’ve never managed to figure out the title until… I’M HERE IN BULGARIA.

It’s been quite random here in the Balkans.

The other day, I asked for directions to a bus station and the following happened-

Guy: Parlez francais?

Me: Uh… un peut….

<silence>

Me: Et vous?

Guy: Non. Hehehe

No, I don’t quite understand either.

Today, I got on a bus with a couple of Spanish people and it seems the driver speaks Spanish but not a lot of English which is fine because all I needed was time and directions. The other day on the bus from Skopje, I spent half of the 5h ride listening to Enrique Iglesias. I now have enough pickup lines for Spanish-speaking college girls.

Anyway back to the song. So I got back to my hostel and surprise, they’re playing the song that’s been played so often through my South American hiatus it’s in my head for the last half a year. It seems to be the go-to song when drinking and when partying.

I do like the album though and I hope you do too.

 

How to Pack Light, Very Light

One of my earlier trips involving unicycles (ie. heavy metal objects) was to New Zealand. I still have no idea how I managed it but I guess that’s what youth does. I travelled with a trolley luggage to Wellington via Auckland with not just one but TWO unicycles – a 20″ trials and a 29″ cross-terrain uni – and I wiped most of the details of how I got from point A to B from memory. It was an amazingly fun trip and to make it more challenging (cos, youth), one of my pals managed to convince me that the key to surviving a 20h flight back is to get drunk and sleep through your flight. It’s not a bad idea EXCEPT the part where you have to make your way, drunk, from your hostel with all the above crap you’re lugging around to the airport. I can assure you I’ve never been more sober in a shorter time as when I was chasing down the bus.

Never again.

I got myself a 35 liter backpack on my next trip and have used that since. It’s been almost a decade so I can safely say it’s the best sized bag for backpacking. It’s just small enough to fit as a carry-on to avoid excess baggage charges and large enough to compartmentalise your clothes from your scruffy necessities like toiletries and flipflops. If there’s any fault I can find about it – and that’s what my next backpack will have – is that it lacks enough side pockets and straps to tie down sleeping mats or to hang bulky (but light) pots and wet clothes from if you ever decide you like to camp.

Ok now back to the topic. With every trip, I try to streamline a little bit more of what I should bring around. I travel mostly solo and I’m not attending any fashion shows so I don’t really care if I look ugly – I make an effort to look clean and presentable though which really should be a basic requirement because have you smelled some backpackers???

For a short trip (ie 1 week-ish), I would go with something like this:

  • 2 tees
  • Night-time shorts
  • Underwear
  • 1 pair socks
  • Toothbrush
  • Small toothpaste
  • Shampoo and soap in a travel bottle
  • Laptop
  • Travel adapter and cables
  • 1 hanger
  • Camping towel

On my back I’d be wearing

  • Jacket (if necessary)
  • Tee
  • Jeans
  • Socks + comfy shoes

That’s it. I wouldn’t bring facial foam because a week of using soap on your face probably wouldn’t kill you. Likewise with other facial products. I’d even skip the flip flops because it’s not enough time abroad to be feeling the inconvenience. If I DID have check in though, I’d be bringing all of that.

Now to the more complicated bit – longer term travel. For anything over 2 weeks, my backpack would contain

  • flip flops
  • 1 extra pair of socks
  • 2 tees, 1 long-sleeved if it’s likely to be cold
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 pair of pants (if you’re likely to be in some rundown place that might have bedbugs)
  • Underwear
  • Toothbrush
  • Facial wash
  • 1 foldable and light day bag
  • Laptop
  • Travel adapter + cables
  • Extra shoes (if it’s likely to be wet)
  • Powder (optional)
  • Nail clipper
  • Carabiner / paracord bracelet
  • 2 hangers
  • Camping towel

And on my back I’d have

  • Jacket
  • Tee
  • Jeans

That’s it. My backpack was sub 15kg including my unicycle when backpacking South America and my recent Balkans trip (3 weeks) weighed sub-5. The idea is in utility – you don’t want to be lugging around weight that you won’t use through your trip because it’s not very fun to trot around with extra weight on your back and you’ll end up having to do extra laundry or packing when home on those same stuff you never used.

I don’t bring around toiletries mostly because there’s a liquids restriction on a lot of budget flights or I prefer to not have to check in on arrival at a destination so I can be the first out to see the country. You can buy everything you need on arrival anyway. On that note, I’ve also recently learnt that bar soap is a godsend for travelling. Instead of carrying around liquid soap that can burst during transit, you have a quick drying, lightweight, cheap bar of soap that you can use forever.

Another thing I do appreciate a lot of and that not a lot of people seem to do is to invest in a camping towel. These are microfiber towels that fold into palm-sized units and that dry in an hour. Why would anyone not buy these things to travel with???

I do travel with relatively little clothes. I’m a little fastidious with regards to laundry and I tend to wash my stuff on a daily basis so that I don’t end up with the risk of having nothing to wear if it’s rainy and my clothes don’t dry fast enough. On that regard, I may carry around a bit of powdered detergent although, depending on where I’m going I might also buy that on arrival together with the rest of my toiletries. For heavier clothes like jeans or jackets, they usually do fine with 2-3 weeks on the run since you have a base layer and it’s not like you’ll sweat and stink up your jacket in days anyway. When they start feeling icky, I’d run by an actual washing machine.

From all of this, what I’ve really learnt about travelling light is this – it’s not difficult. The only obstacle is how willing you are to put aside 5-10 minutes a day to scrub your daily wear and hang them out to dry.

Okinawa and the Joys of Cleaning Poop

I might be the only person who goes on a beach holiday and worked on a farm without getting a tan. Perhaps October isn’t the best season to visit but I thought it’d be less crowded that way.

beach

On the days I went to the beach, the skies looked like that. It’s not terrible though – the showers are sporadic and clears up every half hour. It’s also a nice tropical climate so it’s not like you’d suffer hypothermia.

Speaking of seas, they are completely gorgeous. The pictures don’t do it justice because in real life, they’re turquoise clear and you can snorkel off the shore and swim with a whole bunch of fish.

beach2

Most of the popular beaches have an equipment rental stand nearby and some offer boat rides further out too. I headed to this island called Tokashiki along with a boatload of tourists. It was pouring when we arrived and while I waited in the shelter, it was quite funny to see very enthusiastic people running in the rain to the waters. When the skies finally cleared, they started waddling out too so it was quite a sight.

Transport in Okinawa is pretty expensive and sporadic and it makes sense to rent a car if you’re heading to more than one area even as a solo traveller. Buses to further north on the main island cost roughly 2000yen one way and not all places are connected by the same bus.

On the day I did rent a car, I drove to American Village because it sounded like reverse-Chinatown. Apparently since there’s a military presence on the island, there’re lots of influences all around. There’s an A&W which has root beer and charcoal burgers and Taco Rice, which is exactly what you’d imagine, is a local norm.

In American Village, you’d obviously find traditional American sights like this ferris wheel.

wheel

There’re lots of shops selling military iron-on patches and fatigues as well as jeans and uh Taco Rice. Very American.

Anyway, the highlight of this excursion is to spend a couple of days WWOOFing at a farm on the main island. I had intended for a two-week stint but my schedule didn’t work out. The idea is to work at a farm in exchange for lodging and food and I wish I had more time to do this.

I was at Kiyuna Farm which is mostly an animal farm with some crop farming on the side. The farm is run by a sweet elderly couple who speak enough English for all the international travellers to understand. For everything else, we learnt Japanese.

We were housed in very basic sheds beside the chicken coop so you’d wake at 430am naturally. Honestly, it’s pretty ridiculous how clean and well-kept the place is considering it IS an animal farm. In the day, we’d do cool stuff like shovel shit and feed cows and in the evenings, we’d gather for a cosy communal dinner before checking our emails or taking a stroll or whatever strikes your fancy in a rural farm. I got to pilot the Shit Gundam which by far is the best thing I’ve done in Okinawa.

shit

Some days, we’d be invited on short trips to nearby attractions or the beach or to some family friends’ places. It’s completely idyllic and if anything I feel bad for not staying as long to work.

Work. That’s a subjective term too because there’s the most awesome of chores lined up. I’d feed rabbits any day.

rabbit

There’s a whole cluster of cats that live on the farm and here’s the crowd watching in on the milking process, hoping to get a taste.

cats

If there is any leftover milk, they’d get it in their saucer and they’re very smart about this so they’d gather at the door quietly waiting for their turn. The prettiest cat is a little on the arrogant side though.

cat

There’s also a dog on the farm who’s BFF with the cats and for some reason, more than once I’ve chanced upon said dog and this cat strolling alone on the roads. Every time they see me, they’d freeze with a completely guilty look on their faces.

I’m still not too sure what to make of that…

Blast from the Past – Steampunk Unicycle

I’m going to jumpstart the ‘Making Stuff’ part of this blog by talking about a project I really loved from a couple of years ago. It’s a steampunk unicycle mod!

Since this was some years back, I haven’t many pics of the work in progress but I’ll show what I can.

I used a Qu-Ax Profi unicycle for this because I wanted a chunkier flat-crown frame and also it comes with a perfect white tyre… well mine is brown-ish from age and use but hey, it adds to the theme! The restrictions of designing for a unicycle is that your legs are going to be in the way of the frame so that limits the type of mods you can have around the frame. I wanted features that were practical and not merely ornamental and settled on tail lights and a horn.

Here’s how a stock Profi looks.

profi

This is a cheap $2 plastic horn from Daiso that is spray-painted bronze, then dry-brushed with black and dark brown. I started with the horn so I can work with a smaller object to get a feel of the colors before moving onto the frame.

daiso

Before

unisteampunk4

After

I wanted a mechanical-looking way of attaching the lights and thought first of a single light jar hung from the back. However, that would mean that I can’t really make sharp turns as much as I’d like and I’d imagine it to be not quite resistant against drops. I then saw these at Daiso and figured they would work better since they would come ready with attachments.

light

These are supposed to fit on the handlebars, encasing your bike light to make it function as a torchlight (I think). Since unicycles don’t come with handlebars, I improvised a little. I got a BMX stem for cheap and clamped it to a short plastic pole.

unisteampunk3

The completed lighting unit consists of

  • The aforementioned parts
  • Battery-powered Christmas LED lights
  • Bubble tea straw to slot the lights in and to diffuse the light through the unit
  • The bendable portion of a fish tank water pump to hide the light connection between the units.
  • Velcro tape to attach the battery unit to the side for easy removal

Steampunk Unicycle

Here’s the same unicycle with lights on.

unisteampunk2