Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Making the Grade: Travel Report Card #1

Amazingly enough, the two-month anniversary of our trip to South America has come and gone, meaning that our time here is one-third finished. To mark the occasion, I have decided to give us a report card grading our progress in the first trimester of our journey. [Editor's note: While I am quite confident the word "trimester" does not apply solely to pregnancies, even if I am wrong, I feel that we have experienced enough intermittent nausea, bloating and moodiness in the first two months that the maternal terminology is justifiable.]

Language Skills: C-

Analysis: While our Spanish skills have improved (I now know that in my first days here I was explaining to locals that I didn't understand what they were saying because "you don't speak Spanish"), they simply have not progressed as well as we would have hoped before we set off. I think the quality of the classes we took were partly to blame, but ultimately I think that we are our own worst enemy in that we travel together and exist primarily in a happy, English-speaking bubble, have never really studied our materials in earnest (it seems to take away from valuable and more enjoyable exploration/eating time) and probably do not step outside our comfort zone as often as we should.

Illustrative example(s): The low point in our bungling of the Spanish language likely came about three weeks ago when it took me about 45 seconds for a lady at a convenience store to understand that I was asking for a bag to put our goods in. The Spanish word for bag is five letters and it is one that I know, but, apparently, my pronunciation is so atrocious that it required me repeating the term fifteen times and looking for outside intervention to make the connection. Arguably, our most natural Spanish skill was revealed last week when the owner of our current hostal told us that we should always pay the same amount (about 90 cents) for taxis in Cusco regardless of what quote we receive from the driver. If the driver tries to ask for more (because we are tourists), we were told that we should just act like we don't understand what they are saying and walk away. With some pride, I assured the owner that no "acting" would be required on our part.

Imaginary Teacher says: "I am very disappointed with the KLongs' speaking and comprehension skills. This is an area that I would like to see vast improvement in during the next reporting period."

Social Skills: B+

Analysis: I can't give us full marks here because our language shortcomings are keeping us from more rewarding contact with locals, though that doesn't mean they are not enjoying our presence here (see "Illustrative example(s)", below). That said, in the past two months, Kristin and I have been absolutely amazed by the quality of the people that we are getting to know. We have an expanding network of friends from different parts of the globe that I have no doubt we will keep in touch with and hopefully see again during or after our trip. Heck, we might need another six-month trip just to visit them all once we are done in South America.... [Editor's note: If that doesn't get a comment on the blog from my Mother-in-Law, nothing will.]

Illustrative example(s): I think the traveller/friend section, above, speaks for itself. As alluded to earlier, even though we don’t speak with the locals as often as we would like, they seem to be having some fun at our expense. On a couple of occasions, a group of kids has run up to us, said something in Spanish much too quickly for us to comprehend and then broke out laughing in unison afterwards. This may not be flattering. Additionally, I noticed for the first time in Huaraz that one of the locals, much to his delight, was making fun of the way I walk (... as many of you know, it may be the case that I walk with a slight spring in my step). So, in some ways, going to South America feels a lot like returning to junior high school. Thank god I have a girlfriend this time around.

Imaginary Teacher says: "Kristin and Kevin appear to be getting along very well with their fellow travellers. The locals think they are funny looking."

Bargaining: B

Analysis: From the time we reached the coast of Colombia, it has become very apparent that haggling over the price of goods and services is going to be a constant reality in South America. Some people are very good at bartering; some people really enjoy it. We are doing reasonably well, but we find that arguing over the price of a banana, and then wondering how we did afterwards, can be exhausting and sometimes it would just be nice if there was a price that was THE price. I also don't particularly enjoy the feeling that "successful" bargaining on our part usually means that we have gotten more from, or given less to, people who generally do not have as much as we do.

Illustrative example(s): Early on, we found that we were having our bluffs called by the local, more experienced merchants. After slowly and loudly walking away, we often found ourselves returning with our heads hung low and paying the price we swore was too much in the negotiation. As Kristin can attest to, admitting defeat is not my strong suit. Lately, however, we seem to be getting much better deals and, after much debate, I was pleasantly surprised to get back money that appeared lost after our dunebuggy ride in Huacachina ended an hour earlier than scheduled. While we are convinced that we are still getting a gringo rate in a significant number of our transactions, it is comforting to think that the premium is gradually being reduced.

Imaginary Teacher says: "Kristin and Kevin have shown some aptitude for bargaining, but sometimes appear to lack a killer instinct. Buy low, sell high - that's what I always say!"

Budgeting: A

Analysis: This grade depends on how you define the metric. We have stuck fairly closely to the loose budget we set for ourselves, so I’m giving us a high grade. Our goal is to try and not cut out or skimp on activities that will make our trip memorable, while looking for economical ways to eat some of our meals and for places that offer simple, clean accommodation. Could we do the trip for less money? Certainly. But we're not sorry if we take buses that don't have reputations for falling apart on windy, mountain roads, and I can't help it if the biggest bottles of beer on the menu are so tasty and fun to drink.

Illustrative example(s): We're doing the normal, budget food things to save money - cooking some of our meals, buying from grocery stores and eating street food. Though, given the number of breaded, meat snacks needed to satisfy my daily appetite, we probably don't save near as much from buying from street vendors as the average travelling couple would. We've also learned that worst thing that can happen from simply asking for a discount, even in situations where it might seem slightly absurd, is a little embarrassment, and the potential savings can be meaningful to one's budget. Finally, because we're not scraping the bottom of the barrel at every opportunity and have enjoyed most every place we've visited, we've also been able to get by to this point without any real splurges or other treats that many travellers use to avoid long-term travel burn out. [Editor's note: Yes, we travellers get burned out too. I'm sure you all feel terrible for us.]

Imaginary Teacher says: "Keep spending! That modelling contract is bound to come in at any moment and then money won't be a concern."

Adding it all up, it looks like we finished with a first trimester travelling GPA of 3.0. While I’ll admit that we are not the Rhodes Scholars of travelling yet, I thought the imaginary teacher was a bit harsh at times. Hopefully the next report card is more favourable.

Check back soon for our next post – our Inca Trail experience.


  1. Boy KLong - best blog yet. Great great overall travel update! I can't believe it's been two months. Kristin - oddly the pic of you with the frying pan made me miss you a little more. It looked super "Kristin" (despite the fact you were in the kitchen). I look forward to the Inca Trail update!! xo

  2. Thanks, Halesy! You'll be glad to hear that Kristin is still very much Kristin. When I was negotiating the return of our money for the dunebuggy ride, they tried to buy us off with free drinks. Kristin almost jumped over the counter in acceptance, but I held her back. She'll be more than ready for wine and pizza dates with you come January.