Friday, June 19, 2015

5 top tips for newbie language learners

Learning a new language is no easy feat.

And as much as an obvious statement it sounds, I absolutely hate it when people underestimate the difficulties of learning a foreign language.

Because learning Spanish is "so easy" or everyone speaks English anyway, blah blah blah. 

Sure, there are technically 'easier' and 'harder' languages to learn as a native English speaker, but regardless of whatever language you decide to pick up, it will be a challenge.

A very fun, fascinating challenge at that, but it's not always rainbows and unicorns.

Learning a foreign language is hard, you will more than likely have a massive slight language-related breakdown and there will be times when you want to throw in the towel.

Especially for the first-time language learner, learning a foreign language can feel like a daunting challenge. It's, for want of a better cliché, pushing you out of your comfort zone and you, in certain respects, can feel vulnerable when you can't quite communicate what you're trying to say.

But as they say, the expert in anything was once the beginner. 

I cringe at this awful, cheesy quote, but it's true.

And whilst I don't profess to be an expert in any way, shape or form, I've been there, done that, got
the newbie linguist t-shirt.

Right here in Medellín in fact.

And I feel your pain.

So in line with my new weekly linguistic feature, I thought I would give some helpful tips for those who are starting out learning a new language.

So without further ado, here are my 5 tips for new language learners:

Find your learning style

This is something that I think a lot of learning resources fail at.

There is no "one size fits all" strategy when it comes to learning a language. Most languages focus on a grammar and vocabulary led approach, which whilst it has its reasons, does not cater to everyone.

After a lot of trial and error, I know my learning style is speaking (SHOCK), I learn from repetition, interacting with others and hearing how native speakers communicate.

To further enhance my learning, I have the radio on when I'm working. I listen to Spanish music - I am very well-versed in South American artists now - and this fine tunes my listening passively whilst I am busy at work, a lot of the time I'm unaware I'm taking it in, until I realise I understand the lyrics or what the presenter is talking about.

Your learning style may be flash cards, or writing stuff down, or creating actions or gestures to remember the word. Experiment with different learning styles and techniques and find the one you're comfortable with.

That being said...

Be disciplined learning grammar

Whilst learning grammar is probably not the most exciting prospect for most language learners, it's an unavoidable reality.

Be disciplined, do not slack off learning grammar and you'll avoid getting into any bad habits.

Grammar is the foundation of any language and if you don't build yourself a strong foundation - you'll find it soon goes to sh*t and you'll have to go back to the beginning and revise something you've already learnt.

Use every opportunity to practise

Feel cultured and watch a film in your target language with subtitles, find yourself your new favourite band or singer (hello, J Balvin) and go get yourself a language partner.

I've talked until the cows come home about how great language exchanges are - you get in contact with native speakers, who are learning other languages, so they know the challenges and difficulties of learning a language. You'll normally meet some cool people as well, and there are all sorts of great and interesting language exchange concepts - my fave was a language exchange pub quiz in Paris. You can find all sorts of language exchanges at MeetUp.

If you can't get to a language exchange, fear not - you could even find yourself a language exchange partner online, all thanks to WeSpeke. It's essentially a language exchange on Skype and you fill in a questionnaire, talking about your interests and hobbies. The programme then suggest potential language partners with mutual interests. It's a great concept.

It's all about putting into practise what you've learnt and doing some simple revision. Learning a language is very much a process of learn, repetition, revision and repeat.

Give yourself a motivation

We hear it all throughout school (how much talk did we hear of SMART goals?), university, in our professional life, in our personal life - every goal needs a target.

To keep yourself motivated, you need something to aim for. Maybe book yourself a cheeky holiday so you can put your newly acquired language skills into practise, learn the lyrics of 5 songs, go to a language exchange event and only speak in your target language. Heck, maybe pluck up the courage and ask that sexy señor(ita) out on a date - after all, they say you learn a language in two ways - in the crib or in the bed (Mam, please forget you've every read this).

Give yourself a goal you want to achieve and you'll find yourself picking up the grammar books and giving verb conjugations hell, even when motivation is running low.

And finally...

Make mistakes again and again and again

Obviously don't make them on purpose, but do not be afraid to make mistakes.

This is probably the biggest fear which cripples language learners. To be honest, it still gets me at times now. But you have got to be prepared to make a t*t out of yourself. Confidence is a huge part of language learning and the old adage rings true in this case - you've got to fake it until you make it.

Consider every single, excruciating mistake to be a lesson. Say you're horny instead of hot, stutter and stumble your way through a conversation and say yes to everything, even when it's not a open question.

The emotional memory of embarrassing yourself will be a good deterrent to ensure you never make that mistake again.

Be unashamedly keen to learn a language and your progress will rocket in no time.

Oh and if someone is critical about your language skills?

If it's a constructive criticism, take it on board, learn from the point and make a note to focus on it.

If it's a straight out, your *insert language or accent here* is *insert negative adjective here* then here's my mature advice - haterz gon' hate.

The ones who tend to be overly critical are the ones who:

A. can't speak another foreign language
B. have an overinflated opinion of their own language skills
C. don't know what it's like to be in another country, dealing with another language and culture

Make a mental note to keep at it, improve your language skills and go back to them when your language skills are unreal and throw them a few V signs in their direction. People who try to bring your confidence down aren't worth your time.

Learning a language is quite possibly one of the most amazing things you can do, in my opinion, and it's one of those incredible things when you learn something new each day.

It is, however, no walk in the park and there will inevitably be obstacles and challenges getting in the way. But with every challenge accomplished and every obstacle overcome, you will realise how great learning a foreign language is - and it will make you want to learn more and more each time.

What are your top tips for new language learners? Which language(s) are you learning at the minute?

Friday, June 12, 2015

5 ways learning a language has enhanced my travels

As much as I may have already banged on numerous times about HOW BLOODY FANTASTIC LEARNING A LANGUAGE, I feel I have not covered it enough on the blog.

And whilst I was mid-way through doing my usual procrastination, thinking about blogging, I had that light bulb moment everyone has and realised I should change that.

So I've only gone and decided to do a weekly linguistic feature because as much as I could talk until the cows come home about how great languages are, I have barely scratched the surface with it right here on the blog.

So this week I thought I would start off easy and talk about my experience of learning a language abroad and how I've used languages to get even more out of my travels.

Travelling in its own right is of course an incredible experience. But combine it with learning a language, getting a deeper insight into a country's culture, bonding with the locals etc. etc. and you've hit the jackpot.

I cannot stress enough how useful learning a foreign language is, especially if you're planning to travel in the near (or even faraway) future.

So here it is, here's the many ways how learning a language has enhanced my travels.

1. It's made travelling so, so, so much easier

OK, sure you may find yourself making a fool of yourself on many the odd occasion but knowing you can ask for directions, order food, get advice or simply read signs will make your life on the road a walk in the park in comparison to having to lug the phrase book out or find someone who can speak English.

2. I've saved money thanks to my language skills

Numbers will be easier to understand, you'll have an idea as to whether that's expensive or not (or you can ask around and find out) and the best bit of all - you can haggle, barter and negotiate to your heart's content. Surely you want to have as much money as possible to enjoy all the finer things in life on the road rather than waste them on taxi rides which cost double the amount they should?

3. I've bonded with the locals

I don't know why but I hate saying 'locals', it's one of those of travel clichés which drive me mad. But it's that the best way to describe my point. Anyhoo, my languages have helped me have chats with people I otherwise wouldn't have. And as we all know grannies and grandads are the best fountains of knowledge (and banter) I have ever come across and you get to learn so much about where you're going.

Plus if you've got a granny on your side, hell hath no fury like an abuelita scorned so she's got your back.

4. I'm more aware of my surroundings and 'street-smart'

Another travel cliché I hate but having knowledge of the local language has helped me be more aware of what's going on around me and in some cases prevented me from getting into some sketchy situations. What's even better is thanks to my decidedly gringa looks, people assume I can't speak Spanish and I can act blissfully ignorant whilst know exactly what's going on.

Having language skills can be your secret and a very powerful one at that.

5. I've learned more about the country's culture and it's added to my travel experience

That's not saying that without learning the language, you have no comprehension of the culture whatsoever.

But what I am saying, from my personal experience, is that once you try to get into their language's mindset, you start to understand a little bit why certain things are the way they are. Especially once you start learning the slang and idioms, you have a little window in their culture which you wouldn't have otherwise. Plus, you understand music lyrics, can read their newspapers and watch their TV (hello telenovelas, if you're a big fan of trash TV like) and it just adds to your travel experience.

Obviously there are many, many more than 5 ways that learning a language has enhanced how I travel, however I didn't want to waffle on too long and I think these are enough to convince you to dust off the ol' Rosetta Stone (other language learning resources are available) and brush up your French, Spanish, Mandarin or whatever language it may be.

Plus, your travelling buddies will absolutely love having a translator in the group so it's one way to make new friends on the road too (obviously your dazzling personality and charisma will shine through too).

How has learning a language enhanced your travels? Which language would you like to learn?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Solo travel advice for those fresh out of high school

Travel advice for 18 year olds who want to travel solo
Image via Luis Barreto (check his stuff out, it's amazing!)

Recently, I got an email from a lovely reader asking me about solo travel at the young age of 18.

It really got me thinking about the advice I would give as advice is usually not my strong point. I sadly lack the sensitivity usually required to be great agony aunt material and because I'm possibly one of the most stubborn mules around, I was always going to have a gap year before I toddled off to uni, it was never an option to even doubt it for one second.

But obviously convincing mam and dad that I was mature enough, wise enough and responsible enough to have a cheeky wander around the world on my bill was not an easy task.

But like I said, I'm stubborn and I eventually talked them around to the idea.

And I did it, albeit I made a more than my fair share of mistakes along the way, but I did it. And what's more is that most 18 year olds can do it too.

Because if I can do it (anyone who knows me will know I'm quite possibly the biggest calamity around), you almost certainly can travel around by yourself too.

So when someone asks me, "Can I travel by myself at 18?" the short answer is usually, "Yes, you can."

Whilst the short answer may answer the question, it's not going to answer any of your worries, concerns nor questions. So this gave me a light bulb moment to compile an advice article for you young'uns who are considering venturing off into the big, bad world.

Because as great and amazing an adventure it is, it is possibly one of the most sh*t scary experiences in your life and you probably need some assurance that this is a good idea (short answer - it is).

And you can learn from my foolish mistakes, so you don't make them either.

1. Plan

Being 18 is a young time to travel solo but you can do it.

As unexciting as it is, you are going to have to plan. 

First of, think about where you want to go, the timeframe and the itinerary. Once you have a rough idea of what you want to do, you need to work out how much money you're going to need to do so. Don't despair if it's a lot more money than you currently have, there are ways around (more of which will be covered later) but having an idea of how much money you're going to need will help you plan your travels.

When you're thinking of budget, you need to factor in every single cost - you might be booking a single flight but you will need to remember that you'll need to buy a return flight and that will need to be considered. 

Insurance is often forgotten about but it is essential you buy it, do not forget to buy it. And check on the NHS's Fit for Travel website to see if you need any immunisations or antimalarials to make sure you are in good health for the duration of your stay.

Then once you've worked out where you're going and how you're going to do it, it's time to have the chat with the parents. They will be understandably worried, concerned and potentially against your travel plans so you need to get them on your side. Show them you've extensively considered what you want to do and how you're going to do it and this could get them on your side.

2. Save

Now you've done the maths, you know your budget and you need to save up.

Take a look at your spending habits - is there anywhere where you could cut down or completely cut out? Expenditures such as buying lunch, going out or clothes tot up so by making small changes, you can make big savings.

If you've got a part time job, you can put a bit aside every pay packet to go towards your travels. Put it in a savings account so you don't have easy access and watch your travel budget grow. 

If you're having trouble finding a part time job, have a look online. More and more remote jobs are being offered on online marketplace websites such as Elance, UpWork and PeoplePerHour and the great bit about them is that you can fit them in your studies. Make sure it doesn't take over however and ensure your studies come first.

Once you've finished your studies, you're free to find a full time job to do some serious earning for your travels. Most jobs on offer are in restaurants or bars and although the hours are anti-social, this means you can double the saving as you won't be going out as often as usual.

If you really can't wait to go travelling, have a look at working holiday visas or workstays. It's a good work/travel compromise and if you budget wisely, you could save a good amount of money to do some travelling during or at the end of your trip.

One big piece of advice when it comes to saving - don't save the bare minimum. A back up is a good cushion to have just in case and if you don't spend it on your travels, you can spend it to your heart's content when you're safe and sound back home.

3. Safety Precautions

18 may be a young age to travel by yourself but it's possible.

So you've convinced mam and dad, booked the tickets and saved up enough money - now is time to have a look at how you're going to keep safe whilst on the road.

Most of the safety precautions you will take will be the same as usual - don't walk alone at night or in areas where you are advised not to, take licensed taxis from taxi ranks, let people know where you are going and DON'T TALK TO STRANGERS.

OK, maybe not quite don't talk to strangers ever but exercise a bit of caution and if your gut tells you it's not a comfortable situation, it's fine to be rude. In fact, more than fine, be blunt, rude, do anything to get yourself out of the situation.

Use your finely acquired planning skills and make sure you know where you're going every time you go to a new destination. Reserve a hostel in advance, have an idea of how you'll get from A to B and if you can, try to arrive in the daytime. Once you've got there, you can change hostel but knowing you have a bed reserved will ease any initial anxiety and save you from flapping when you're on the lookout for a bed for the night.

When out and about or travelling, keep several stashes of money. Have some in your bag, your purse or wallet and ladies, your bra is your best friend in this case.

The same goes for cards - get yourself a Caxton FX card if you can, they give you good exchange rates and low charges (they say there's no transaction charge but there is a little one) - and have a back up card elsewhere, just in case.

As old school and outdated this is going to sound, have some traveller's cheques as a back up back up so say you lose all of your cards and money, you still have some. Even if they're stolen, if you have the cheque numbers, you can get them back.

Obviously keep a low profile with your valuables and yourself - don't be the obnoxious, loud tourist because that generally lands you in trouble you don't want to be in. Dress appropriately too, I know it may be blisteringly hot outside but if you're in shorts and flip flops whilst everyone else is wearing long dresses or trousers, you are going to get yourself some serious hacky stares (definition of hacky for non North-Eastern speakers) or unwanted attention.

As briefly touched upon, listen to your gut. If you feel like a situation is not one you want to be in, GET OUT. Your gut usually serves you well and it's worth using your instincts to keep your fine self safe.

I'm sure most of you know all of this already, especially as it's logical instinct that we want to keep ourselves safe, but I thought it was worth going over, just in case. The usual cause of people getting themselves in danger is the fact that staying safe usually costs a little bit more financially or is more hassle than going for the easier or cheaper option but seriously lads and lasses, just cough it up, your safety and well-being is worth way, way more.

4. Making travel friends and socialising

When it's your first time travelling, you're anxious about making friends - don't worry, you'll make friends on the road in no time.

I know this was a big social anxiety for me.

When I was 18, whilst I was a gobby little so-and-so amongst my friends, once I met new people, I was rendered mute. I didn't want to reveal my weird quirks and I was worried they would judge me. Once I started travelling, however, I realised I was going to have to put myself out there and say hi every so often.

You just have to put yourself out there. Start the conversation, say a few awkward questions and more usually than not, the conversation will be flowing in no time. If you have nothing else to say, just fall back on the usual "Where are you from? How long you've been travelling? Where have you been? Where are you going?" As clichéd as it is, you'll usually find some common ground.

Choosing hostels wise, go for hostels which have dedicated social spaces - you're in luck if it has a swimming pool, a bar or a chilling area. These are prime meeting places and you'll find yourself included in the conversation in no time. Even better, if they offer tours or events there, social hostels are where you want to be to make friends.

If you're going to be somewhere for an extended amount of time. try attending meet ups, language exchanges, playing for a sports team or keeping up or taking up a hobby. You can find loads of groups or events on MeetUp, Couchsurfing, at hostels or on Facebook.

Push yourself to say yes if you get invited to anything. 9 times out of 10, you'll kick yourself for saying no and you'll have a serious case of FOMO. If you get bored or it's not your thing, you can always go home.

5. What if I don't like travelling?

This could be what's in store if you go travelling by yourself at the age of 18

Maybe it's not right for you now, maybe it's not your thing ever, maybe where you've gone is not where you want to be. Sometimes travelling isn't exactly what you envisioned it would be and expectations may be disappointed.

If it's during the initial stages of travelling, give it time. Busy yourself doing excursions, working and making new friends - it may be that you're missing home and you've got a case of culture shock.

If after giving it a real go and you still aren't enjoying yourself, ask yourself why and once again, go with your gut. If you want to go home, go home. You may be able to change your ticket with a relatively small fee. If you need a change of scenery, go elsewhere. And if you don't like where you are staying, change accommodation. There is no one size fits all when it comes to travelling and you just need to be honest with yourself.

For the vast majority, however, travelling is one of the most enhancing experiences you can, especially at the young age of 18. Now is the time to take advantage of your responsibility-free youth and fulfil your wishes. I know I'm probably sounding like the biggest walking cliché around but if you don't do it now, you will kick yourself when you're older and have a job, bills to pay and kids in tow - although travelling is still possible, even with all of these responsibilities - it just requires even more organisation, planning and budgeting than now.

But the biggest risk of all is that you may even find you like travelling by yourself so much, you will find you'll want to do it again and again and again (guilty).

Are you 18 and planning to travel? What advice would you give to young travellers?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Panamá City, what to make of you?

I warmed to Panamá City but I still didn't completely love it.

In addition to the beautiful landscapes, crazy partying and unfortunate bouts of food poisoning, one thing that I particularly remember about my gap year travelling in Central America is the fact that cities generally range from a rather mediocre meh to a full on fastest escape route needed.

The only exceptions to the rule were Leon and Granada in Nicaragua, which I absolutely loved, adored and cherished.

I had already been to Panamá City before, albeit for one disastrous day just before getting my flight back to Blighty when I was young(er) and (more) naive and stupid(er) and I had discovered I had no money in my bank.

I was very lucky to have a lovely, although very evangelical Christian lady called Damaris take pity on me and let me sleep on her floor.

It didn't leave the best first impression, although it just goes to show the good in people, especially when the idiot backpacker probably deserved sleep on the streets that night.

One of Panamá's main beers is Balboa

So when I finally touched ground in Panamá City this time round after an amazing, incredible and unforgettable 4 days in the so-gorgeous-you-forever-be-spoilt-afterwards San Blas Islands, other than getting back in touch with civilisation, having running water and showers and wi-fi (sad but true) along with other mod cons and meeting up with my Korean friend Lucas, I wasn't particularly bothered, nor had any intentions of properly exploring the city.

I was so unbothered, it was bordering on ignorant and as per, I had got myself a typical case of post-trip blues, which was thanks to me being knackered, stressed out due to the impending mountain of work and feeling very sorry for myself because I was hungover.

I was moping around, being a little pathetic and I just needed to pull myself together.

So after encountering some less than warm and welcoming Panamanian taxi drivers, who guilt-tripped me into paying more, despite friends and the lovely staff at Kame House Hostel telling me otherwise, I was 'done' with Panamá City.

I mean, if you don't gamble, aren't really bothered about the canal, what is there to do?

I'm glad after venturing off to Bocas del Toro, I gave it another chance, because I found myself warming to the city.

Clearly, all I needed was some beach relaxation (because that was clearly in short supply in the San Blas Islands) a bit of rest and a disastrous but fun surf lesson and I was ready to give Panamá City a second crack of the whip.

First off, there were of course, the people. Being able to crash at Lucas' house and meet all of his lovely and interesting friends made me pining for a friendship circle like that in Medellín. Don't get me wrong, I have friends here but they're scattered about, all belonging to different friendship groups so I've not managed to have my own, yet,

With my second Panamá City round kicking off with a night out in Casco Viejo, hanging outside called Mojitos sin Mojitos I started questioning my initial indifference to the city.

Casco Viejo has some gorgeous architecture in la ciudad de Panamá
The beauty was in the detail in Casco Viejo
Panama's flag flying proudly in Casco Viejo, Panamá City.
Just one example of the beautiful colonial architecture in Casco Viejo in Panamá

It still wasn't love, especially as I constantly compared it to Medellín, which we all know is a bad move as COMPARISON IS THE THIEF OF JOY PEOPLE, but I found myself being more than a little bit nostalgic when I had to leave and go back to Colombia.

Particularly as I rounded off the trip fully exploring Casco Viejo in the daytime, which is just gorgeous and rightly, the number one tourist destination in Panamá City.

I was also surprised to find a little bit of  street art going, which is always a sure-fire way to get my good books.

Panamá city street art
"I'm a panther not a princess." Gan on lass.

Panamá City street art
"What's sweeter than honey? Dreaming."

Panamá City Street Art
Panamá City street art

I simply got lost, had a little bit of a mish and stopped every now and then and looked up, because the beauty really is in the detail in Casco Viejo. 

My change in tune even had me considering if I could live in Panamá City. But I think it is a little bit too Americanised for me. If I'm in Latin America, I want to feel like I'm there and as stupid and no doubt pretentious as it sounds, there were too many gringo comforts there for my liking.

But, Panamá City, we've got unfinished business and I'm pretty sure I'll be making a return sometime soon.

Have you been to Panamá City? Where in the world have you had mixed feelings about?

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Welcome to Paradise - Guna Yala (San Blas) Islands

Welcome to Paradise - Guna Yala (San Blas) Islands.

I may be partial to exaggerating every now and then some, but in all seriousness, I have found paradise.

And it can be found in the form of the Guna Yala, or the San Blas, Islands on the South Caribbean coast of Panamá.

I'm a big advocate of superlatives anyway, but all throughout the four days we had the luxury, pleasure and fortune of spending there, I could not stop using them.

The beautiful Kuna Yala Islands in Panama.
The beautiful San Bals Islands in Panamá | Todd's Travels Travel Blog - Amateur Traveller, Professional at Getting Lost.

Your eyes aren't deceiving you, the sea really is that blue, you think someone has quickly added an extra pot of paint to the batch, or someone has photoshopped the colour and is messing around, maybe had a cheeky fiddle with their Instagram filter, but oh no, every single shade of blue you can think of - aquamarine, turquoise, royal blue, baby blue, somehow manages to naturally feature in the sea all around the San Blas islands.

Beautiful beaches and clear blue sea can be found at the Kuna Yala Islands in Panama.
The Kuna Yala Islands in Panama have you feeling like you're a pirate especially when X marks the spot.
Look at these beautiful, unspoilt coves at the San Blas Islands in Panama.

Then there's the beaches and islands - you're practically an extra on Lost, without any of the freaky goings-on.

Or if you prefer, you can act like Captain Jack Sparrow - especially when you take into consideration the amount of rum you may or may not be consuming - on a sidenote, I was 100% responsible mam, just may have slightly overindulged in campfire marshmallows instead (fo' realz).

You're free to fully explore the island, leave no nook or cranny unturned, heck, if there's one nearby, you can even swim to another.

I have been well and truly spoilt.

But the biggest joy of island life is being able to fully take advantage of slowing down, going back to basics, maybe read a book, play a game of cards and cut off all ties with the internet. It's sad, it's a sign of our times and I know it's ironic and hypocritical considering my line of work and the fact that I'm writing this blog right now, but being away from social media and the like for a good 5 days, left me feeling refreshed.

Kuna kids in the Kuna Yala Islands in Panama.
Indigenous hut in the Kuna Yala Islands, Panamá
A Kuna hut in the Kuna Yala Islands, Panamá | Todd's Travels Travel Blog - Amateur traveller, Professional at Getting lost.
Arte Kuna, Islas Guna Yala, Panamá

Let's not forget the fact we were in someone else's stomping ground. The Guna Yala Islands is a semi-autonomous and home to the Kuna, an indigenous tribe. Whilst we very much had an outsider's and slightly superficial perspective, it was fascinating to have an insight into the culture. It did sometimes have me wondering if we were intruding, although many told us they supported the tourism.

We were particularly surprised to find out that it's the la-la-ladies who have the say on who they marry and they were accepting of transgender members of the community - to say the least, it appears the Kuna are more progressive on certain issues than supposed, dare I say it and sound super-duper patronising, 'developed' countries.

Coconuts are also a huge part of their income, so much so that when trade ships come into the region, they can pay with coconut credit, using them as a currency in their own right. So if you innocently chance upon a coconut on one of the islands and want to take a sip out of it - you're going to have to pay for it.

I have a penchant for a good ol' cliché so I'm going to say it, I still pinch myself now when I look over the photos of the San Blas islands. They really don't do the place, the region, the sea, the beaches nor the Kuna culture any justice and you just have to see if with your very own eyes.

I don't like dictating where people should go, but if you really are on the lookout for paradise - the Kuna Yala Islands in Panamá may be exactly what you're looking for.

It definitely was for me.

I went on a 4 day tour with San Blas Adventures. I highly, highly recommend it as it's A: less journey time (read: little to no sea-sick time) B. more island time C. it's a great itinerary. You either leave from Panamá City or Capurganá (Colombia) and it is worth every single dollar (saved up all my hard-earned cash for this trip and I'm so glad I did), check it ouuuut.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How travelling has changed my perspective on voting

It's the general election tomorrow and today's blog is about how travelling has changed my perspective on voting.

I have to say – I’m pretty glad I’ve been out of the UK whilst the election campaign media circus has been raging on.

The constant one-upmanship, the egos, the fact that things completely unrelated to politics are pointed out to make politicians look bad or good and the fact that all we can talk about for the last month or so is what’s happening with the election.

Although, I have missed the satire that comes with it. Such as this absolute beauty and my goodness, whichever bright spark put Ed Miliband’s campaign video together with 8 Mile is genius.

The election does however bring up some interesting comparisons, especially when travelling and I have to say, as well as finding myself, becoming a better, more well-rounded person and the usual gap yah shebang, my eyes have been opened to the concept of voting, democratic process and the like.

All throughout school, I was – for want of a better word – a bit of a gobshite. I was never someone who got themself into huge trouble at school, but I didn’t make things easy for myself because I was a cheeky so-and-so and didn’t choose my timing wisely - I probably still am. My overly opinionated and domineering self meant I found myself spending school breaks indoors to “reflect on what I said and how I could have better dealt with the situation”.

Despite the fact I wanted everyone to know my opinion on everything to do with politics - honestly, from healthcare, immigration, foreign policy, you name it, I would give my (misinformed) opinion about it. I even got accused of being a communist by an equally opinionated person (I'm not a communist, just a bit more left-wing than he was).

And somehow, already, at the ripe old age of thirteen or fourteen, I was disillusioned with the system and didn’t see the point in voting. Why bother – because politicians are just going to do the opposite thing to what they say they’re going to do anyway, right?

The previous statement has some truth in it (Mr Clegg, looking at you) and I can understand why people don’t bother – politics is often made out to be an unattainable subject which only those who are ‘informed’ will understand.

But politics derives from the Greek word for many citizens and it boils to us, the people - despite the lack of diversity in parliament - and politics affects our everyday lives – getting the right healthcare, having access to high quality but affordable education or training, being able to get a job, we are all affected by these daily goings-on. But when conversations turn to political debates, a commonly used tactic to dissuade a person is to say they don’t know anything about politics.

OK, we may not know the exact ins-and-outs of NHS administration, we may not know the exact immigration statistics or we may not fully understand how Parliament works, but at some point in our lives, all of the aspects which the political leaders are fighting over have affected each and every one of us.

Especially when I've been travelling, I have come to realise that we have it lucky in the UK. It's obviously isn't a flawless example of democracy but on the whole, we have a fair representation and whilst politicians may not always play fair nor be upstanding examples of society, in comparison to some politicians worldwide, we do not have to deal with the same amount of corruption as many others do.

Then the voting process in itself is relatively simple, in comparison to other countries. 

In Colombia, in order to vote, you have to go to the city where you registered your cédula. This could be miles away from your current place of residence and it may not be possible to have your say in the country's political process because you're simply too far away. 

In Australia, you get fined if you do not vote. Whilst it's in many ways quite a good idea, I can imagine it's a bit of a pain in the arse, when you have to vote in every single election. But then again, it would be a fair representation of what Australians actually want - or is it, any Australians care to chip in?

A single vote won't make a difference and this is the argument I frequently hear from people who don't vote. I get it, I really do, especially when time and time again, the same old, same old seems to happen

But, in 2010, more people didn't vote than for any single party. That can make a huge difference and all it takes is a mere cross in a box at your local election station, which is probably not that far away. Heck, if you really want to shake up the political system, spoil your vote. Just don't not vote, many right npw are fighting for something we take for granted.

So, dear people of Britain, Thursday 7th May, you can make a big difference. 

I'm not going to tell you who to vote for - because who am I to tell you who to vote for - but if you're unsure as to who would represent your views best, check out Vote for Policies. It takes away all the personality drivel and boils down the parties' different policies for the main voting points.

If you've registered to vote, get your fine self down to the election station, even though I'm currently writing this with sand in my hair (and just about everywhere else, because I bring the entire beach back with me) in Panamá - hard life - my dear mam will be voting in proxy for me.

I'm having my say, it's time to have yours. As clichéd and sappy as it sounds, together we can make a difference and decide how we want our country to be run.

How has travelling changed your perspective? Do you see your home country in a different light?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mercado Campesino in Medellín - Basically an Excuse to Eat

Last Sunday, I finally popped into the farmer's market held every Sunday in Parque de la Presidenta, which I had always been meaning to go to anyway, because it's one of the closest places to feel like you've almost left the city, but I had never got round to going.

Thanks to a bit of gastronomic motivation, I was finally lured to Parque de la Presidenta and surprise, surprise, I loved the Mercado Campesino. I had come with a very empty stomach but I was practically rolling back, having eaten enough good, local food to last a life time. Wholewheat, baked vegetarian empanadas, various different ají sauces (I was in heaven) including one with chinese gooesberries, lots of fried food and probably one of the biggest patacones (plantain fritter) layered with hogao (tomato and onion sauce), guacamole and mushroom ceviche. I was stuffed, but very satisfied.

If you're on the lookout for the perfect foodie present, you've come to the right place, I practically had to stop myself buying so much jams and sauces because I knew I would probably end up eating them all before they reached the intended recipients. If you're around in El Poblado on a Sunday, you could work up an appetite, taking part in Ciclovía -  a city wide initiative which shuts down main roads so people can run, bike, walk, roller blade etc., it's one of my favourite things to do in Medellín - or one of the outdoor yoga classes, before coming to the Mercado Campesino in Parque de la Presidenta to make up for the previous saintly behaviour. It's pretty much a perfect chilled Sunday plan, which you could then finish off by relaxing in Parque de la Ciudad del Rio.

Quite a lovely way to round off the week.

Info: Mercado Campesino runs every Sunday 8am-2pm in Parque de la Presidenta in El Poblado (just a few blocks away from Parque del Poblado). For more information about the Farmer's Markets, check out the link to their Facebook page.