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Published: September 11th 2017
I've spent over 3 years living in foreign countries and traveling between them to take up new teaching jobs. During that time, I've made some of the errors one needs to make in order to get a bit better at it. I've also figured out a few things that improve my lifestyle, as I'll be traveling for quite a few years yet. So, what am I doing differently now, and why? Luggage. When I arrived in Indonesia, I had an enormous suitcase, a rucksack, and about 15-20 changes of clothes. I did this because I had no idea what I was going to do afterwards, and also because I had a lot of good clothes that I didn't want to throw away. In Colombia, I have 2 pairs of trousers for work, 2 shirts for work, and 5 or 6 changes of practical clothes (shorts, t-shirts, pants, and socks). I've trimmed down for a couple of reasons, the main one being that I plan on traveling for a long time, and so after experimenting a little, I have figured out that this is about the minimum amount that I need. I also had an opportunity to trim down the amount of clothes I carry from place to place; there was severe flooding in Peru during the rainy season and a donation point for food, clothes, and useful items was set up in Bagua Grande, where we had no such troubles. I donated a lot of clothes that I'd slowly been accumulating during the three previous years. The second main reason is that traveling a lot means you spend a lot of time on buses (in South America at any rate) and lugging all of your worldly possessions between buses, hotels, more buses, and living spaces is a bit of a trial if you're overloaded. I don't like taking taxis much either. I now have a big backpack and a small suitcase that has wheels. I can probably trim down a bit further, or buy a bigger backpack to eliminate the need for the suitcase. We'll see. Bus trips! I was nervous about local buses in Indonesia, and was terrible at planning trips. I was also used to buses arriving at the appointed time, plus or minus 15 minutes, due to the relative punctuality of public transport in the UK. I consequently spent more time in taxis than buses out there. After living in Latin America for a year and a half, however, I'm much more relaxed about it all. Buses arrive whenever they like, with the barest resemblance of a timetable, and you could have a 1 or 2-hour wait in a bus terminal (a big muddy carpark with a school desk serving as a ticket office). I finally learned to relax about long bus journeys in Peru; Lima to my little town called Bagua Grande in Amazonas was a 23 or 24-hour bus trip. In hot weather. With a good book, a hangover, and a charged phone for music, this isn't so bad for the most part. I have to admit that the last hour of the journey sees me getting a little restless though! Buses are usually cheaper than planes, and you see more of the country that way, although I prefer to break the trip up into a couple of shorter journeys now! Getting to know a city or town. As I found out in Indonesia, locals mostly knew where things were; a gym, a cheap coffee shop, etc. I would use conversations about the local amenities to practice my Indonesian, as well as to find out where things were. Now, in Latin America, I much prefer walking around or going for a run to get to know my surroundings. I've found a gym (not that I can afford to go at the moment), local market, and loads of coffee places this way. I still have to ask for directions from time to time, but my sense of direction has improved drastically over the last year or two. My best friend can attest to this; "you do names, and I do places, Fluff!" I'm pretty good at remembering names, but places and directions have taken a little longer to cement themselves in my head in the past. The language. In Indonesia, I got very good at speaking the language, but my grammar was abysmal. I didn't study the grammar at all, and as a result, I struggled with more complex conversation. I could sit in a local restaurant and hold a long conversation with someone, but I struggled to understand things a lot, and was unable to express more complex concepts or anything hypothetical. Grammar, and an overall understanding of the language are essential if you want to learn it comprehensively, and to use it like native speakers do. This is my priority in Latin America, as a huge part of my experience here has relied on communicating with people who don't speak any English. Without my relatively comprehensive understanding of Spanish, there are so many conversations I couldn't have had so far. Even today, I was chatting with an older fellow who was describing how he had a heavy night of drinking and slept right through a magnitude 7 earthquake, and woke up to find his friend's house had subsided a bit during the night. Apparently his friends were furious with him, as they'd banged on the door very loudly, with the intention of evacuating everyone in the house, to no response! Conversations like that (however true the story was...) are a massive milestone for me in Spanish. Without a lot of miming, I couldn't have understood that conversation in any other language I've tried to learn; Indonesian or Chinese. Even if they'd drawn me a picture whilst explaining it to me in Chinese, I would probably still have been stuck! I also want to teach Spanish eventually, and teaching a language that isn't your first/native language requires a lot of work. I have a couple of non-native friends who teach English as a foreign language, and I have so much respect for them; knowing the level of concentration required to speak another language to any level, I know that teaching all aspects of it would be twice as difficult as simply chatting or reading. How I get money. This is an interesting one for me, because I've never not earned money in a job. In Indonesia and Taiwan, I was paid handsomely, for example. In both Mexico and Peru, I was paid enough to live on. However, I'm volunteering out here in Colombia. I started teaching online in Peru at a rate of 7.5 euros an hour, after tax. The company is based in Spain, but I teach Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Malaysian, and many other nationalities of students. It's been a plan of mine for a little while, and when I had a bit of visa uncertainty in Peru, I decided to give it a try just in case I had to leave the country early. I get about 200-300 euros a month, which can give me a comfortable life out here, believe it or not! I teach between 8 and 10 hours a week, so that leaves me plenty of leisure time with which to volunteer, exercises, or explore the city I'm currently in! It's much more flexible than teaching in one place for a while, but I'm taking it slowly for now. There's a possibility that I won't have to stay in one place for more than a month at a time, if I want to do that in the future; changing cities every month or two, and subsequently seeing a lot more of a country. Things that are the same! So far, we've only talked about things that I do differently, so what's the same? My approach to meeting people and chatting about anything and everything for practice and to learn about the culture hasn't changed at all. People are naturally curious when someone looks so obviously foreign; ginger hair, lots of tattoos, and quite a bit bigger than the average local... I've had people strike up conversations in all sorts of situations, from a pharmacy in Bali when I was extremely sick and buying anti-nausea tablets to stop myself from vomiting, to any of the more normal situations like bars, cafes, and bus stops/terminals. Whilst a lot of conversations are fairly generic "where are you from?", some are fascinating; hearing a different perspective on something that gives you an insight into the local culture or mentality, or talking to well-traveled locals who want to tell you all about their own experiences in other countries. I get more joy from talking to a group of interesting people than visiting any museum (bar the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, which is first-class), or eating any type of food (except a McDonald's, which is my guilty pleasure)! Also, my love for learning a new language hasn't changed! I learn something new every day, forget it, and then rediscover it a couple of days later. I'm forever looking up words in a dictionary app on my phone and then practicing the pronunciation of them, much to the amusement or bemusement of any locals who happen to be watching me. A little girl walked past me whilst I was practicing the word for "hair removal" (you never know when you'll need it, after all...), and I heard her giggling and explaining what I was doing to her friend when she realised that I was reading the sign outside a hairdresser's. If they see me again, maybe they'll be weirded out that I appear to have all my hair! There we go! That's pretty much that. The journey from Peru to Colombia via bus was fantastic, and the border between Ecuador and Colombia (around Ipiales) is spectacular! Misty mountains of all sorts of different-coloured rocks, waterfalls, and wonderful green expanses that would make an agoraphobe tremble. The trip was about 6 hours, and we spent a good 2 hours bouncing around on rustic roads with a heck of a view to feast the eyes on. Anyway, I will be in Colombia for about another 7 or 8 months, and my plans haven't quite stretched to figuring out whether I'm taking a in-class job anywhere in 2018 yet. We'll see how this current arrangement of earning no money locally goes first!
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