The language of travel.


In South America we picked up Spanish quickly. In Mexico we started with our basics : “where hotel?” “what cost?” “when, where bus?”. In Columbia we were chatting about our travels, where we had been and what we’d seen, where we wanted to go. We had just started getting in to more complicated topics like careers and work, the state of the city, hopes for the future. By Ecuador we were chatting with cabbies – when we rarely took them – and haggling like pros at the market. We had our grade-school Spanish classes and California locale helping us with this, but that’s the general progression. What, when, where. Then, we will and we want. Then came past tense – we went, we saw, we did. And finally the complicated stuff – hopes, dreams, cares. Nuances that flew far above our initial survival struggles.


Now comes Indonesia. The fluency that we had struggled to build up in Spanish was gone once we hit the tarmac. On Java, there is very little English. Sure, in Bali with the nice resorts and overpriced taxis everything caters to foreigners, but Java is not that. Here the only English we really spoke was with the blessedly helpful hostel staff, other tourists, and the occasional ticket seller, hotel clerk, or police officer. Outside of those cases, we were suddenly and almost completely stripped of our language capabilities. This was a first for me. Never had I been in a position where my number one form of communication was rendered so utterly useless.


My initial reaction was frustration and annoyance. It didn’t help that our first real experience with this was ordering lunch on a sweltering day. Hunger, heat, and complete lack of communication. Natalie fared much better – she’d had this experience before and was enjoying it thoroughly. Pointing at things, holding up fingers, pointing at more things, watching her navigate was great. I sat and ate my noodles and tried to imagine how the rest of this trip was going to go.


As it turned out, it was going to go great. But not without the huge learning curve at the beginning. We started very, very slow. Numbers and “how much does it cost?” (“Harganya berapa?”) is roughly the first week of Indonesian, and that’s about where mine stopped. Natalie picked up : what’s this?, what’s that?, a little, up, down, what’s up?. We both got thank you – terima kasi, and you’re welcome – sama sama. And thanks to the consistent voice on the bus – matsuki halte – “next stop”. Neither of us reached any real fluency outside of haggling.


That didn’t stop us from interacting at all though. Natalie was a master of pointing and using her hands to make intentions clear. Food was acquired that way most of the time. She also had some interesting and in depth conversation using thumbs up and thumbs down alone. For finding where we needed to go, we got a long way with just stating place names repeatedly. If we needed something special – like and umbrella for example – we learned the word for it (“payun”) and wielded it like a magic spell. We once set four employees of a mini mart running around looking for an umbrella just by walking in, waving and smiling, and asking “payun?”. It was chaos.


We learned to rely on google translate a whole lot. It’s a huge change from how travelers even five years ago must have had it, but the phrase book is basically extinct. We used the translate app to learn why we we had to pay a fine – spoilers, because we lost one of our tickets mid-train route back from Bogor, and apparently this means we’re fare jumpers. We used it to translate warning signs – hati hati! – and lists of rules and ticket prices. We used it to figure out how to get up and around and over all sorts of mountains, and along the way we used it to talk with anyone who started a conversation. Halfway up the path to Bromo, we chatted with three teenagers, both parties typing and exchanging phones, laughing and making funny faces and waving hands. The translation technology is not perfect, especially in Indonesian, but the meaning usually came through enough to be understood and keep us on the right trail.

The hopeless and helpless feelings of that first day were entirely a product of shock. They faded rapidly and in their place was the experience of exploring a totally different culture in ways I had never thought or needed to try. I can’t say it’s better than speaking the language. I don’t think anything quite matches that. Interestingly, I have come to believe that being perfectly fluent is the worst situation in terms of spending time and getting to know a place and people.


There is a level of very primal human to human interaction that is covered up and hidden by the fluency of language. A limited word-set forces you to slow down and really work at connecting with someone else. To find other ways of explaining yourself and understanding others. It forces you to double check what you just heard, and to be especially grateful to the people around you who took the time and were patient with you. Being fluent removes much of that. Yes, the conversations can be deeper when they happen and that’s great, but it also gives you an easy out. It’s easy to glide on the strength of your language skills and get in, get what you need, and get out. Things function much more smoothly and normally, and in that is lost an interesting perspective and experience.


We got along very well in Indonesia, occasionally asking hostel staff to carry through a transaction but mostly on our own as described above. It’s not for everyone and it does eventually get tiring, but going through the experience once opens up a lot of opportunities later and makes anywhere you have a tiny grasp on the language seem totally fine.

Adjusting to a new continent

Stoytcho and I eat breakfast at home, part of our adjustment to the costs of Oceania (the beer isn’t ours, but leftover from our Airbnb host last night).

Travelling around the world in a year means that you’re moving between cultures and countries fast, but with few exceptions most neighboring countries don’t differ that much from each other and the gap isn’t that huge. Jumping the continental divide between South America and Oceania takes you between two vastly different cultures and economic realities, though, so we’ve had to do some work adjusting. Here are the three places where we’ve had the biggest culture shock and how we dealt with them:

A totally new economic scale

We’re poor here. After three months of living mostly under USD $20 a day per person, the prices in New Zealand come with sticker shock. A single cheap meal here costs more than a full day of meals in most of South America, and a bed in a hostel costs more than a private room for two. To reign in our costs, we eat out for only one or two meals a day and cook the rest. An Airbnb has kept our accommodations budget from getting wildly out of hand, but it’s still over our daily budget of USD $30. Thankfully, we’ve brought a camping kit, so we’ll be camping wherever possible in the rest of New Zealand to bring accommodation costs down. We still afford ourselves the little luxuries of buying and trying some things on a whim, but that budget now covers only one whimsy purchase per day instead of three or four. The upside/downside is that whoaaa there are tons of options in stores.

Drinks at a local warehouse supermarket. Hundreds of options, but so little spending power.

Speaking English again

Being fluent in the local language is simultaneously a huge relief and a huge bore. It takes less time and pantomiming to get chores done, from buying medications at a pharmacy to getting directions, but some of the sense of adventure also disappears. It also takes some time to adjust our brains to English and the New Zealand accent. We find ourselves missing Spanish so we speak it to each other while we’re out, much to the confusion of locals (Spanish speakers are nearly nonexistent here). And hey, at least that keeps it fresh in our heads. (Update from the future: we totally didn’t keep this up and our Spanish fluency has cratered. We’ll have to think of new strategies to stay fluent in the future).

Whoaaa, this newspaper is in English! And I get the witticisms!

Less public transit

I feel bad saying this, because New Zealand’s public transit is still leagues better than those you would encounter in several other cities around the world, but it still just doesn’t compare to the coverage and affordability of metro systems in South America. The primary cause is simply scale of use: in South America a high percentage of a city’s population uses the metro system. Here in Auckland, where more people own, a smaller percentage of the city uses the metro system. The result is it’s more expensive, the stops are further apart, and the metro takes longer. And outside of Auckland, there are even fewer options. Seeing many of the country’s sights requires renting a car, which is a huge chunk of our budget here in New Zealand.

A car drives through an intersection in Auckland’s downtown. The metro system here is less extensive and convenient than in South America simply because a smaller percentage of the city uses it.

A totally different culture

After living for three months in South America, New Zealand is a bit of a culture shock as well. People are more polite, although they also seem colder and more reserved. In some places, there are undertones of ethnic and social tension that we haven’t experienced in a while: on the way to the Chinese Lantern Festival, we watched some older white people who sat on their porches glaring furiously at the stream of people walking by (who were mostly Asian). While there are definitely socioeconomic tensions in South America, it took the form of protests instead of diffusing into daily life. When the haves and have nots look racially distinct, this is what happens instead. Despite this, much of the city seems happy, optimistic, and less worried about their economic future than many places we’ve been to. We feel like we have to watch our backs less here for theft, and that’s a relief.

A farmer’s market in the morning, with zero security, people leaving their phones unattended, and general lack of concern about theft. That’s nice, at least.