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 there’s no reason why I should be that bad at the language. Humility is an important lesson. I don’t want to have a billion and one excuses for why I’m not as good as I could or should be which has always been the case for Chinese and since then I’ve been actively speaking with taxi drivers or just reading a bit more of the papers.

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 country, 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 by the cops because of the perception that 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 (blame math) and I picked up 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 – I can read ‘PECTOPAH’ (restaurant) and ‘супермаркет’ (supermarket) and those are super important words, obviously.

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. Well, there’s only this many ways to express love and longing and cheating. Take Enrique Iglesias (which I’ve been listening to a LOT in buses in the Balkans for whatever reason) for instance. He teaches you really good lines to tell your girlfriends and wives.

Anyway. 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 and get better at Japanese grammar. 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. If all else fails, I hope I’ve brushed my teeth enough for a smile to work.