Wednesday, November 16, 2011


In June 2010 I left to do exchange in San Francisco and travel around Mexico with Giulia, my girlfriend, while M remained in Sydney. The idea stayed in it’s embryonic form as unrealised potential - to have it’s nuts and bolts woked through once I returned. While I was away the lease on M's palce was up. He proposed that we begin a new sharehouse with James, another good friend. I had a vision of a “war-room” a big desk surrounded by maps of the world, each one annotated with pins and post-it notes - detailing every border crossing, necessary stopping points, potential risks and all other details that had yet to materialise.

When I finally got back from America in March 2011 things had to be done quickly. If established correctly, over the next six months, skills could be attained and improved in a way only a steady routine can provide. I got my motorbike license before I had been back for more than a few weeks, got a job and moved out into the new sharehouse.

Before I travelled around Mexico I had made an attempt to learn Spanish. Giulia and I had sat down for an hour every day and had gone through the Rosetta Stone language program. For those who don’t know it, Rosetta Stone is a computer aided language learning. You match words with pictures, written text with spoken words and even speak to the program during each lesson, it corrects your pronunciation. We had worked quite hard, in the weeks before we went to Mexico, and were ruthless with our self-assessments - anything under 90% meant we had to repeat the lesson. Driving our van up to the Mexico-US border at Tecate, I was quite confident that I had a natural affinity for learning languages. It was only moments later, in the customs office, a Mexcian guard sitting, his feet on the desk watching hysterical Mexican soaps, that everything I had learned seemed completely inadequate or irrelevant. I resorted to the practice that I considered a ghastly idiocy, adding an O on the end of a English words to Spanishify them. I was lucky that passporto was actually a word.

During my two months in Mexico my Spanish improved then stagnated then began to deteriorate when the finish line was in sight. The thing that I had learnt, obvious as it seems for anyone that has travelled outside Europe is that not everyone speaks English.

With this in mind I decided that I absolutely needed to learn a language. I had read that Russian would be the best - for everywhere but China and Western Europe - most places would have been part of the USSR and thus, the older generation, at least, would be able to speak Russian. Learning Russian in under a year was a big ask. The Foreign Service Institute says that learning Russian to an intermediate level takes 1095 hours - that’s more than an hour a day for three years. I had to work to eat and so didn’t have the luxury, that I, quite honestly, thought I deserved, which was sitting around all day learning foreign languages. I limited myself to a class in the excellent continuing education courses at the University of Sydney, done once a week for a few hours, and the Pimsleur Language course, done as a half hour audio lesson every day for 90 days. This two pronged attack would be my best shot at learning something usable whilst travelling around. Almost every phrase I learnt, I recited with the picture in my head of using it to communicate some vital piece of information with a Azeri service station owner in a flyblown corner of Baku on the Caspian.

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