A Little Vignette…Finding the Cultural Norms in Jordan

Culture shock doesn’t have to be, well shocking, sometimes it’s more of a gentle adjustment. My recent trajectory took me from Thailand, where I lived for several months, to Jordan, a country I had never visited in a region I had also never visited.

A read through Jordan’s Wikipedia entry before I left Thailand yielded some new perspective and political understanding, as did a look at the internal Jordanian news sites and a read through the blogosphere. In short, I knew what to expect, but still had some fun encounters and adjustments I’d like to share – these moments, or vignettes if you would rather, were my firsts introductions into the Jordanian culture and I’d love for them to be yours too!

A Little Difficulty…Can I Please Live in the Matrix?

Monk in Thailand
Thai monks takes a break from his sunset sweeping

So, I’ve started taking Thai lessons – just one class so far, and yet I’ve come to this ripe conclusion: I may have been a little crazy in thinking I could learn Thai.

Thai is hard. (And I swear, I wasn’t saying that in a whiny voice…) I’m living in Thailand for four months and that should technically be enough to learn a passing fair bit of Thai, especially if you ask Benny the Irish Polygot (who claims three months is enough for conversational mastery of any language).

The thing is, as far as the tonal languages go, Thai is fairly easy from a grammar point of view. But for a non-tonal language speaker, this is a whole new ballgame and a far cry different from the romance languages I’ve already mastered (Spanish and English), my Italian comes and goes relative to my proximity to Italy, and American Sign Language really isn’t coming in too handy yet on my world travels.

A Word about Tones…

Tonal languages may use the exact same word itself to signify different words and the word meaning changes depending on the tone you use. There are five tones in Thai: low tone, mid tone, high tone, a rising tone and a falling tone.

Take the word “mai” (written in Roman English…obviously…not Thai script :) This means anything from “not” to “wood” and then “silk,” “burn,” and “new” and is a question indicator to boot!

Confused yet? I Am.

The one thing I have going for me is the fact that I love learning new languages.

Or any new skill for that matter.

I like knowledge as whole.

I also like sharing new knowledge, a slightly obnoxious quality if you’re a friend of mine who listens to me prattle on about my latest issue of National Geographic. It sounds corny, but I do believe those “knowledge is power,” all knowledge is worth having,” lines (the mysterious) they feed you.

So, with all of this in mind, the Thai language is high on my list over the next four months, and photography comes in as a close second. I won’t go so far as to pretend I’m going to master either skill in four months, but I’m in a perfect spot for learning both right now and they’re both things on my life list that I can then check off.

Street food in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Gratuitous street food photo in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A shout-out is in order to Daniel from Canvas of Light, he’s my photography tutor; he’s swell. And in addition to drawing me a lovely little triangle of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed for my first lesson, the markets, wats, and people of Chiang Mai are shaping up as perfect backdrops for future photography trails!

That rounds out two of my own personal learning goals for the coming few months, what skills, knowledge, languages are you working on right now? Any fun classes or things you can cross off your own bucket list before summer?

A Little Perspective…Lessons from my Broken Computer in Bali

Frangipani arrangement - a Balinese favorite flowerAbout time I posted an update from Bali! I actually broke my laptop my first day in here- and by first day I mean within hours of landing in Bali after 36 hours flying from US my laptop simply would not turn on – so with some initial tears and “holy crap, I’m screwed” thoughts rolling through my head I was forced to hunt down a local computer repair center recommended by the locals (details at the bottom).

Telephone Conversation with my Computer Technicians

I’m going to jump right into my side of a telephone conversation I had on day two with the technicians fixing my broken laptop – I thought it was an absolute hoot – it’s only my side of the conversation because the other half was in Indonesian…and I don’t speak Indonesian…yet.

– Yes, hello? Hi, English please?

– Do you speak English?

– Um, the person who speaks English please. (side note: I left my computer with a technician fluent in English)

– Could you please get the person who speaks English?

Tons of animated voices and at least six people laughing really hard on the other line.

– Oh ok. No one English?

– My computer, you have, broken yes?

– Laptop fix, yes?

– Yesterday-there-were several-people-who-spoke-English-and-they-told-me-to-call-today-so-I-was-really-hoping-that-you-could-let-me-know-if-my-computer-was-broken-or-if-you-were-able-to-fix-it?

Guffaws. Flat out belly laughing and the same amount of rapid Indonesian spit right back at me. In fact, they were laughing so hard I could all but hear the droplets of tears forming at the edges of their eyes.

– Hmm…Dell yesterday. English person. You fix?

– Ok Yes! DELL! Me Dell! Yay, you remember. Fix, yes?

– Fix? Good? All better?

– Turns on?

– Works now?

– Good or Bad?

– I come and pick up?

– Um, ok, thanks, guess I’ll see you tomorrow!

So why is this so funny…because I hung up not knowing anything knew about my laptop but man were they cracking up on the other side of the phone. I guess it would be like picking up the phone and only hearing someone jabbering gibberish on the other side of the line!

My Takeaways from Fixing My Laptop in Bali

beer bintang bali

Relax Sans Technology: With my laptop in the shop for at least two days I truly had no choice but to sit back and relax with my book and a cold beer. It was actually an entirely different experience to not process my day through technology by sorting pictures, writing a blog, and working.

Perspective: Best piece of advice I got was “hey, at least you still have pen and paper!” Simplistic, but you know, it hadn’t even occurred to me. Because 75 percent of what I do is internet based, I just plum forgot that I could still jot down ideas and be a bit productive without my IV-line of technology pumping into my system.

Flexibility: Time is elastic in Bali…and pretty much most places outside of the West. This is one of those patience building lessons – if they say to come pick it up in two days…that really meant three.

Negotiate, It’s a Fact of Life:  The price I paid was seven times what we agreed. What to do? Negotiate. Since I don’t know what they added to the computer I just paid, but I went into this knowing that as a foreigner I was never going to get the cheapest price.

Learn Some Language!: Maybe the most important was learning just five phrases in Indonesian. In Bali, a smile goes a long way and an attempt at the language can only help, so by the third day, when I went to pick up my laptop I went in knowing just a few words that made all the difference: “good,” “bad” and “thank you very much.”  From just those three phrases I pieced together that one of my boards was jelek, or rather bad.

Just Accept and Move On: I really have barely any idea what they did to fix my laptop. And I probably never will. They couldn’t tell me and the English speaking technician never showed back up on the scene. But it works now. Yes, I want to know. It’s frustrating that I don’t know what beyond my “board” was jelek but oh well. What can I do but accept and move on?

I got my computer back completely working yesterday so expect a more some more regular updates as I explore Ubud, Bali…my home for the next few months!

Quick Tips: Computer Repair in Denpasar, Bali

Where: Cyberlink Computer on the fourth floor of the Rimo Computer Center in Denpasar, Bali
How to Get There: Tell your driver Rimo in front of the Ramayana shopping mall.
Tips: Check your receipt and make sure each piece/part you hand them is itemized out and labeled so that you get it back!

A Little Argument…And the Ultimate Compliment

It a moment that pretty much fully resembled the temper-tantrum two year olds throw, I stamped my foot, emphatically shaking my head at the taxi-driver attempting to charge me fully double the fare I know my ride should cost.

“No, no, no. Ridículo. Yo sé que este precio es absolutamente ridículo!”, I rapidly spit out.

And in English that would be “Ridiculous.  I know this price is absolutely ridiculous.”

Then, with a good-natured grin the taxi driver assures me that this is the standard price. The locals price. Everyone gets charged this price.

Oh, yeah, sure.

I was standing in that exact spot last week and the price was half of his quote.

So I tell him that. And we rapidly trade one-liners back and forth until he lets out a hearty chuckle, gives a thudding slap on the back to the other taxi driver who had fallen all over himself in his haste to run over and witness the gringa argue (that’s me by the way). Then, not even a hint begrudgingly, my taxi driver smiles big and expansively agrees to the correct fare.

With a relieved sigh I switch out of bartering mode and begin chattering away with the two men. Minutes later the man asked me (in Spanish), “So, how many years have you been living in Central America?”

And that’s my moment.Guatemalan woman

I was pretty proud right then – they thought through my Spanish and my bartering skills that I’d been here for ages! Now I won’t lie and say I’m fluent in Spanish, but these past few months have brought back a good deal of my previous six years of study, and a week of one-on-one study in Xela, Guatemala fine-tuned a bit of the long-lost grammar. Improving my Spanish was also a really key goal while I was here, so to know that with just three weeks left in Central America that I can hold my own in Spanish, that makes me happy :-)

It’s funny though, backpackers here in Central America have either loved or hated traveling with me – and nearly fully based on if they spoke Spanish. Some of the more clueless backpackers were appalled by how much I bartered over the prices – they were readily willing to accept prices with just a wee bit of price haggling, or none at all! The ones with working Spanish though jumped right in and played often played good-cop to my oh-so-awesome bad-cop.

My philosophy: it’s a part of the culture here and the locals are never ever going to sell you something if they’re truly losing money (oh if only I had a nickel for how many times I heard that gem), so why not try on the new culture and dive in!

I’ll be even more honest and admit that I do love a good debate too, so the bartering, though it can get tiring, is mostly good fun. I’ve fully found here in Central America that a good knowledge of Spanish drastically drops the prices of everything from taxi rides to souvenirs. I’m ok with paying a modestly more expensive gringo price for things – everyone’s entitled to a profit, right?! – but it’s getting fully ripped off that just grates.

And many times, once I get a fair price I’ll bump it back up to the last amount as a tip because sometimes it’s just about knowing that they’re willing to not totally rip you off. Such was the case with the cabbie; for his good humor in the situation he got a decent tip and my gratitude. And for the comment about my Spanish? Well he got a hug for that one!

A Little Language…Learning Spanish in Xela, Guatemala

Try saying those names 10 times fast!
Try saying those 10 times fast!

One of the stories that is most often “wow-ed” at from my round the world trip is my time volunteering teaching English at a monastery in Nepal. It’s really quite fortunate that people are so interested in stories of my young monks, because I love talking about them!

Volunteering in both Cambodia and Nepal are two of the most memorable and rewarding parts of my past travels and I was really eager to find similar volunteer opportunities in Guatemala.

So with the percolating and warm memories of all of the kids I’ve bonded with all over the world  (and knowing that I couldn’t stay in fantasyland of Antigua’s pretty little streets indefinitely), I sought out a two week volunteer program. After asking around a good bit, essentially everyone recommended Xela as a perfect place to not only volunteer but to also take intensive language courses. I pointed my compass north toward Guatemala’s second largest city and prepped for a bit of a grittier experience. Just exactly as much as Antigua has developed for tourists, Xela is a town inhabited by locals and built for the locals, something actually weird to find after so long in Antigua.

The Parque Central in Xela (actually nickname for the Quetzaltenango – thank the heavens for the nickname right?!) was my first clue that this is a unique town with a completely different  identity from the other Guatemalan cities. Xela’s central park nixes the young children walking around selling scarfs and the ice cream vendors lazily rolling out a murmured “helado, he-laaaa-do” as they pass and trades in these park regulars for your average fare of loafing high-schoolers sneaking cigarettes and Guatemalan couples necking on the benches.

And as I hunted down a nearby comedor for lunch there was not a single lick of English spoken to me, a marked change to not only Antigua, but Flores and the other touristy Guatemalan towns as well. So I settled into my veggie plato tipco and hunkered down with my Lonely Planet in search of a good Spanish language school.Xela's Parque Central

The description of Pop Wuj struck me right off because the school really focus on immersing students into the local culture through several (free) volunteer opportunities so that students can without any reservations or specific or long-term time commitment.

After visiting the school I was sold, they had two fantastic volunteer projects for me – one at a guarderia, an after-school care center, and another far outside of Xela building stoves in rural villages. (Their third volunteer project is a free clinic run by the foreign medical students taking the specialized track of medical Spanish classes). The company’s strong focus on giving back to the community sold me on Pop Wuj so in addition to the volunteering programs I signed up for a week of one-on-one instruction for five hours each day – which sounds insanely long for Spanish lessons but is actually incredibly efficient for learning the language, and the teachers do break up the time with games for beginners.

This time in Xela marks a change in my traditional backpacker routine of visiting a place, seeing the sites and then moving on – and I think I like it.  Setting up shop for a few weeks will allow me to really dig in, teach some kids and fine-tune my Spanish. The only real drawback to these three weeks is the fact that Xela just feels a bit grittier and not quite as safe…the city just has a different vibe that kept me on guard as I was walking around, especially walking home at night alone.

So Why Xela and Not Antigua or the Lake or Other Touristy Spots?

I loved my classes at Pop Wuj and my teacher was stellar. One of the best reasons to learn Spanish in Xela instead of other cities in Guatemala is the attitude here. No one in Xela will voluntarily speak English to you. It’s all Spanish.

And at Pop Wuj, although every teacher understands English and can speak it, I only head English spoken once by the teachers the entire time I was there, and that was to me, by request, as I sobbed out my story of my stolen money and canceled debit card, and how I couldn’t pay them for classes yet and won’t they please let me stay anyway.

They did let me stay, by the way.  :-)

A Little Lesson… I Surrender to the Mas o Menos

Ok Central America, you win. I lay prostrate at your feet and am willing to surrender to your charm, your eccentricities, and even the downright annoyingly ridiculous phrase mas o menos which, in translation means “more or less,” but in Mexico (and Cuba) actually means “I-can-tell-you-whatever-I-want-even-if-I-know-I’m-wrong-as-long-as-I-slap-on-a-mas-o-menos.

I fought Central America for the longest time…and that’s just not like me. I’m an “experienced” traveler right? I love new cultures, I know not to judge new places solely through the eyes of my Western upbringing, but yet, sometimes, there’s just something in me that rebels.

Fixing the old cars

Like the fact that I wear a watch. I like things to run on time. Call me anal, call me what you will, if you say 20 minutes, I’ll be there waiting in 20 minutes. And so, if that estimation of a two hour cab ride is really just a product of an fantastically imaginative guess…five and a half hours later…I’m justified in being frustrated right?

Not necessarily.

At least not here.

I think I went a bit soft on my several months home in the US over the holidays, because somehow I forgot the pivotal lesson that India taught me: just surrender to the experience. Other travelers are often fascinated by the fact that I’ve traveled to India…for those who haven’t been yet, I tell them they’ll hate the country if they’re not willing to just let go of control and preconceived notions and just surrender to the country, the people, and the total experience.

Each new country I encounter has its own little quirk – and it’s often this quirk, be it a phrase, a food, or a mentality that I most love and remember once I leave.

And for me, Mexico (and Cuba, although obviously I never went there ;-) it’s the mas o menos phrase that I’ve actually come to love.

In fact, I really love it, and here’s why – precision is not important, rather it’s the quality of the tale, the gist of the conversation, or your best guess that’s perfectly acceptable. Now, when telling a story here I have the freedom to either grossly exaggerate or massively deadpan my tale. And as long as I end it with a big grin and a mas o menos, it’s really not a lie right? Because I’m telling the truth…more or less ;-)