2017 Blogging Recap: Running Away From My Problems

A year ago — well, a year and one month, to be exact — I told myself that enough was enough. I had been flirting with the idea of starting a blog for years now, but the technical side to things really threw me off. I’m not a complete numpty when it comes to technology, but words such as RSS and permalink could have been part of a foreign language for all I was concerned.

In the end, it was a trip to Southeast Asia in late 2016 that really pushed me to throw the Ginger Passports together. I saw it as an ideal opportunity to generate content and launch my brand. Gritting my teeth, I went the budget route and signed up to wordpress.com (I would later swap over to the more professional wordpress.org), recruited a talented friend to speak code — and here we are: thirteen months later with a blog I couldn’t be more proud of.

2017 was one hell of a year. I mean that in both the best and worst possible sense of that word, but for the purposes of positivity, I am going to focus on the best.

2017 began with a bang – quite literally. I spent my favourite New Years Eve yet in a high rise in the Auckland, curled up with a bottle of Shiraz and watching King Kong (adrenaline-pinching, amiright?). When the clock struck midnight, I ran out to the balcony and watched fireworks cartwheel over the luminescent city.

I began the year how I intended to finish it: with a map in one hand and a suitcase in the other. For the first week of January, we road tripped across the North Island of New Zealand. Beginning in Auckland, we zig-zagged our way down south, making pit stops in iconic places such as Hobbiton. We concluded the journey in Wellington, where we filled several action-packed days making the most of the capital’s cultural scene.

Trying to be all creative and such at Hobbiton in Mata Mata

Stumbling across a painted piano on the waterfront… just your average Wellington shenanigans

Feeling nosy? Get your business all up in my travel vlog of the North Island road trip 🎬

February was a milestone month for me in that it was the first time I published a piece of work on an independent platform.

I had been a follower of the feminist travel blog – Travelettes – for some time by this point, and was eager to try my hand at submitting a guest post. Not expecting much, I wrote an article on navigating the turbulent landscape of homesickness, and voila! How to Get Comfortable with Traveling was published a few weeks later.

This was also a time that I began to realise the value of my home. Foreshadowings of change in the coming months were beginning to creep into my life, and I began to feel a need to explore and appreciate my own city before the opportunity escaped me.

On the hottest day of the summer, I launched my beach review series at Saint Kilda Beach in Dunedin. On what was likely the windiest day, I made the trek up to Lover’s Leap to take in the jaw-dropping views of the Otago Peninsula.

Totally not posing at Saint Kilda Beach

Channeling my inner Tolkien at Lover’s Leap

If you ask me what my favourite part of New Zealand is, my answer will irrevocably by Central Otago.

For some reason or another, I decided in March that a Central Otago escape was in order. Drawn by the temptation of vineyards and gourmet cheese, I packed my bags and left the coast behind.

Quite by chance, my trip synchronised with a spontaneous roadie of my friend Becky (check out this interview with her), and one Saturday morning, we decided to go on an adventure up the Remarkables mountain range in Queenstown (the tourist capital of New Zealand). A bottle of mulled wine later, and we decided that skinny dipping in glacial lakes seemed like a good idea.

Becky being the badass that she is

The stunning Lake Dunstan in Cromwell

Central Otago is the most beautiful place on Earth, and no one can convince me otherwise

(Let’s just pretend I didn’t just skip two months, okay?)

If anyone ever tells you that running away from your problems never solves anything…. well, they’re wrong.

Okay, so that’s probably not the best advice to be giving you. But in this particular case, it worked wonders.

Midway through 2017, I was not a happy chappy. As special as my home country of New Zealand was to me, I just wasn’t prepared to invest in a short-term future there. I was nearing the last semester of my degree, and needed to be thinking about what I was going to do once I walked out of that exam room for the final time. During June, I really worked myself into a state over this, and — against the wishes and logic of nearly everyone I knew — I resolved that unhappiness by buying a one-way ticket to Spain. You could say I was quite literally running — flying? — away from my problems.

I landed in Madrid a week later and I never looked back. I fell in love with Spain in the same way you might fall in love with someone who saves your life. The language, the culture, the people… I was starving for change, and took everything in my stride.

Palacio de Cibales in Madrid

As chance had it, I arrived in the Spanish capital the same weekend of World Pride, and had the unmissable opportunity to march down Puerta del Sol with three million other supporters. 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of the first LGBTIQ pride parade in Spain, so it was a particularly special event indeed.

There’s nothing like a bit of ELO

After falling for Madrid, I bought a train ticket south to the Mediterranean paradise of Andalusia. I delighted in tastes of Málaga, Granada and Seville before bidding a short adiós to Spain and flying to the City of Love.

Just east of Málaga… those beautiful moments before I was reduced to a sun-burnt lobster

As I wrote on the blog, Paris is… well, Paris. And as Anne Rice said, “Paris was a universe whole and entire unto herself, hollowed and fashioned by history… as vast and indestructible as nature itself”. One of us definitely nailed it.

To me, Paris was always one of those places where the idea surmounted the reality. To elaborate, I never actually thought I would make it there. Not in any macabre way or anything – it was just that Paris always seemed so far away and distant, as though belonging to someone else’s dream. To stand in her very midst was a surreal experience.

Because nothing screams Paris like the same photo taken by every tourist ever

I didn’t think it possible to consider any part of France to prevail over Paris, but that was before I stumbled upon Nice. Nice – the Mediterranean heel of France – drew me for reasons I cannot fathom. Perhaps it was the landscape reminiscent of Andalusia, or the local culture that made it so effortless to feel not on holiday, but at home. All I knew was that when I left – with my pockets full of truffle oil and lavender sweets – I almost felt homesick for a place I barely knew.

A local food tour with the French Way

August was punctuated with one last nod to Spain; I flew to the Catalan capital of Barcelona to immerse myself in Gaudí’s dreamscapes for a couple of weeks.

Blown away by Gaudí’s Park Güell

If you had asked me at the beginning of the year where 2017 would take me, I would not have said Egypt. Not because it didn’t intrigue me – quite the opposite – but because it existed in a completely different world that was incompatible with all safe intentions of the independent, female traveler. And yet – much to the joys of my mother and father – I found myself spontaneously stepping off the plane at Cairo airport in the early days of September.

Cairo was all I wanted it to be and more. I ticked the touristic activities off my bucket list – think Pyramids and Citadel – but I also had the opportunity to explore a more authentic side to things such as markets. Staying with locals certainly didn’t hurt, either. I was also treated to some classic street harassment, which was neither appreciated nor altogether surprising. If travel has taught me one thing, it’s that you can’t pick and choose the positive aspects of a culture.

Making friends in the desert

Taking in views from the Citadel

After over three months of living out of a suitcase, I eventually made it to my final destination: the United Kingdom. There, I began my final semester as an undergraduate on exchange in England.

It was relaxing to be able to focus on my studies for a wee while without another trip looming on the horizon. As invigorating as I find travel, it does mean sacrificing the little things. Like routine. And gym memberships. And a proper bed.

It is now mid-December, and I have itchy feet again. My restlessness has me trawling through budget flight search engines, keeping an eye out for deals. My camera has sunk into the depths of my wardrobe, and the Ginger Passports feels naked without fresh content three times a week.

The last two and a half months haven’t produced the same content as when I first left New Zealand, but I’ve still managed to be productive; just last week, I had a second piece published on the Travelettes called Barcelona vs. Madrid: Which Spanish City Is For You?

I’m not choosing to think of 2018 as the beginning of something new. I’ve learnt that seeing starts and ends to things isn’t always healthy, and can pre-empt failure if intended plans don’t exactly take shape. Rather, January 1st will just be another day. I won’t set goals for the next twelve months, nor will I foster expectation. My blog – and myself – will grow at our own pace, and enjoy what life has to offer on this side of the world 🌍

P.S. Hello from January! 👋 For a more audiovisual recap, check out this little flick

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4 Reasons Why Travel is Rewarding for Everyone

People travel for lots of different reasons. Whether you’re setting off on your dream holiday, taking the opportunity to go traveling in between studying, or getting some much-needed time away from the everyday grind, visiting another country (or countries) is on a lot of people’s to-do lists.

No matter what your motivations are, it’s an experience you’ll never forget — for all the right reasons. But in case you need convincing, here are four reasons why travel is rewarding for everyone…

You’ll learn about different cultures

Staying in a place which has different traditions, a different way of living, and a different way of thinking to what you’re accustomed to can be a bit of a shock to start with. But over time, you’ll become more open-minded and learn to see and understand life from the locals’ perspective (even if you don’t always share the same opinions).

A particularly vivid memory of mine is when I spent several weeks in Vietnam and had the opportunity to learn the process of growing rice and experience riding a water buffalo. At the time, I wasn’t convinced by the prospect of getting my hands dirty (literally), but afterwards, I had a newfound appreciation for rural Vietnamese life and agriculture.

In addition to locals, you’ll meet new people from all over the world; some of whom may become friends you will stay in touch with long after your trip is over.

You’ll have new experiences and give your brain a workout

Travel can be the perfect way to mix things up if you’re stuck in a rut. New places, new food, better weather (sometimes!)… all of these combine to create something fresh, which is ideal when you need a break. You could even take a class — why not try learning traditional dancing in India or cooking in Thailand?

Furthermore – just like any other muscle – your brain needs exercise. Being thrown into a new situation is an excellent way of making it work hard. The pathways in the brain that are used most often stay strong, whilst those that aren’t are more likely to become weaker. Having a break from your usual routine will force the lesser-used parts of the brain to become active, so the more you travel and try new things, the stronger your brain becomes.

You can tailor the trip to suit you

Whether you’re a student on a gap year, a family of four, a traveller with a medical condition or an office worker taking a break, the flexibility of modern travel means your plans can be shaped around your needs. This means that it’s worth doing some research to find deals that suit you.

There are lots of options available. A quick internet search will take you to the most thrifty budget options if you’re cautious about spending too much money or need to book family-friendly accommodation.

Don’t forget; travel doesn’t have to be exclusive. There’s plenty of information online about the best destinations for disabled travellers. Any attraction worth its salt will have taken accessibility into account, with many providing designated tours, guides, and mobility aids such as wheelchairs.

You’ll overcome challenges

Unexpected hiccups happen. It’s part of life, and it’s part of travelling. But don’t let that put you off — you’ll get a confidence boost after you deal with them and you’ll be better equipped for the future.

The day I had planned to visit Ha Long Bay (because apparently everything happens in Vietnam), I was struck with ceaseless bad luck: first I woke up terribly ill. Then my friend and I were given the wrong itinerary and nearly missed the bus. Then I left half of my luggage in the hotel room. Then I had hot coffee spilt all over me. And then – just to top it off – our boat was cancelled and replaced with one not nearly as thrilling as the one we had booked and paid for.

Things weren’t exactly what you would call smooth-sailing (pun intended). Nevertheless, I was left with two options: either let a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity fly by, or chug on. As I wrote in my blog post, despite all of the misfortunes, three shining positives came out of what was set to be a very negative experience. 1) I saw the unforgettable grandeur of Ha Long Bay 2) I gained the confidence that I can take ownership in a sticky situation 3) I unearthed the ability to put a dreadful incident behind me and see it, not as a waste of money, but as a learning curve.

You’d be surprised at what you can do when you need to solve a problem, and there are few things more rewarding than successfully tackling any obstacles in your path.

This article was co-written with Matthew

Matthew has always been a weekend traveller. He is currently finishing his Master’s degree in Forestry and Environmental Studies, and works as a freelance writer for a few travel and pro-environment websites. He has traveled to Europe and North America, and he’s planning to tour around Asia once he’s completed his studies.

Photographs courtesy of Unsplash

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Airline Inequality: A Social Microcosm of Class

When you think of situations in which class is highly visible, the chances are that the example of air travel will not immediately come to mind. Yet this is one of the most relevant environments where we can see the mechanisms of inequality come into play.

“… the modern airplane is a social microcosm of class-based society… the increasing incidence of ‘air rage’ can be understood through the lens of inequality.”
DeCelles and Norton (2016)

When you buy airplane tickets, you have the option to select from a range of different classes. Depending on your chosen airline, these can include economy, premium economy, business or first class. The higher the class, the more your travel experience will be improved. Advantages of upper classes include: more spacious seating areas, gourmet dining, a queue-skipping feature worthy enough to rival Disneyland and much more. The appeal of these factors is only magnified when you consider the cramped, claustrophobic and dingy environment economy passengers must endure for up to eighteen hours at a time.

However – as may seem ludicrously obvious – these upper classes come with a hefty price tag. Even to upgrade from economy to premium economy – a section still far removed from first class – can be at least double the price. I learnt this when I flew premium economy on Cathay Pacific from New Zealand to Spain. Considering the already sky-high (pun intended) prices of airplane tickets, this is no trivial fact.

Air rage is a common byproduct of this visibility of class. A study by DeCelles and Norton support how maddening it is to board a long-haul flight knowing your seat is located right at the back, and that you must sidle your way past the ‘prioritised’ classes to get there. I always find myself gazing longingly at the luxurious fold-out beds and passengers sipping on complementary cocktails, yearning for a spontaneous and unannounced upgrade. The researchers reported how – on a psychological scale – this air rage is the equivalent to a nine and a half hour flight delay. If that isn’t shocking enough, then you might be surprised to learn that this anger is in fact greater in first class passengers who are burdened with those from economy invading their exclusive, personal space (if you are curious regarding my opinion on that matter, you just have to pay attention to my tone).

“… it’s not often you see such a clear visual representation of our collective acceptance of the right of a small fraction of people to consume a very disproportionate percentage of resources”
Elizabeth Berman

The price tag is exactly what prevents a majority of people from the opportunity to upgrade from the discomfort of economy class. I expect most would argue that if you pay for something, then you are entitled to receive it; but the point is that it’s not a fair playing ground to begin with. The income gap is only increasing, and airline stratification systems reflect this. I am no economics expert (I smell maths), so you do not need to worry about me launching into a lecture on societal inequality. But this article framed it in a simple way when it said, “(this) ‘calculated misery’… involves degrading basic service to a level so low that non-masochistic passengers will pay up to avoid the pain. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to pay these ancillary fees. Those who can’t or won’t fork over more are made to suffer for it”.

Given the consequences of this classist visibility on airplanes, I believe that airlines should be taking measures to try and improve the system. Of course, this outcome would only come to fruition in an ideal world – and unfortunately, we live in the real world, where companies are driven by profit and not morals. Therefore, in light of the fact that I’m not about to change the world anytime soon, I hope this post has at the very least educated you on an issue that all travellers have encountered (whether they realise it or not).

The next time you take to the skies – whichever cabin you are seated in – take a moment or two to reflect on the stark difference of quality between economy and the upper classes. Take a moment or two to reflect on the justness of the situation, and – considering the psychological and physical repercussions – ask yourself whether you think it’s really worth it.

While you’re here, be sure to check out my experience flying premium economy with Cathay Pacific, and my guide to surviving long-haul flights… if you’re in economy class, you’re going to need it ✈

All photographs courtesy of Unsplash

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The Ginger’s Guide to New Zealand Coffee (WTF is a Long Black?!)

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, or how you feel… there’s always peace in a strong cup of coffee.”
Gabriel Bá

Consistent with my tendency as a Kiwi to regard my country with vague deprecation, I never considered New Zealand to have a noteworthy coffee culture. But from the moment I walked into a Spanish café and tried to order a mochaccino, I realised I had well undermined our efforts.

If you’re not from down under and have ever found yourself in a New Zealand cafe, you’ve probably found yourself wondering: what on earth is a long black? Is that the opposite of a flat white? Is a fluffy even a thing?

If so, you’re not alone. Overseas, drinks such as Americanos, viennas and ristrettos dominate the cafés. Much like Australia, New Zealand does it’s own thing when it comes to coffee. So without further ado, here is a crash course on how to order a coffee in the land of the long white cloud…

Long Black

A long black is the most basic kind of coffee you can order in a Kiwi’s eyes. It’s basically two shots of espresso in hot water – very similar to the Americano (which you are unlikely to find advertised here). Long blacks are very strong, and not for the faint of heart.

Flat White

A Kiwi/Aussie creation – and my personal favourite – the flat white has creamy, steamed milk poured over a single shot of espresso. If you ask me, it’s a bit kinder than the long black first thing in the morning.

Latte

Although I have deep affection for coffee, I would by no means consider myself a connoisseur. And that is why I can say that I don’t really see the difference between a latte and a flat white. Apparently the only difference is that a latte has a little blanket of foam on the top, but essentially, it’s the same drink.

Cappuccino

Although the cappuccino is traditionally Italian, it is also very popular in New Zealand. The easiest way to conceptualise a cappuccino is as comprising of three different layers; the bottom layer is a shot of espresso, the middle layer is a shot of steamed milk, and the final layer is frothed milk. It is also common to sprinkle chocolate or cinnamon shavings over the top 😋

Mochaccino

Here, we return to the rule of thirds as with the cappuccino. This time, we have a third of espresso, a third of steamed milk, and a third of cocoa. A mochaccino is a convenient way to develop an appreciation for coffee without jumping in the deep end and scaring your tastebuds. I mean, let’s be realistic; it’s just a bitter hot chocolate.

Macchiato

Yeah… I still don’t really understand the difference between a macchiato and a long black (except for the fact that a macchiato sounds pretty damn fancy). From what I’ve gathered, a macchiato is ‘stained’ with frothed milk.

Fluffy

We can’t forget the fluffy! A fluffy is essentially a minuscule cup of foamed milk. I loved them when I was a little girl. They’re what small children get from cafés to feel adult-y and sophisticated when their caregiver stops off for a caffeine hit. If you’re lucky, they might come with a marshmallow or chocolate fish on the side.

If you’re a long-time reader of the Ginger Passports, you might remember that I published a post way back in March called You Can’t Buy Happiness… But You Can Buy Vietnamese Coffee. To this day, this remains one of my favourite all-time posts, and I highly recommend that you check it out to learn just what makes Vietnamese coffee special, and to discover a life-changing iced coffee recipe.

Alternatively, you might like to read some reviews I wrote about two of my favourite coffee haunts in my home town of Dunedin. The first is for Starfish Café and Bar, a seaside joint that I used to hit up on a near-daily basis when I was back in the motherland. The second is Nectar Espresso Bar and Café, which is slightly more urban and located closer to the middle of town.

P.S. I apologise on behalf of all Kiwis for the price of our coffee 🙈

All photographs courtesy of Unsplash.

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10 Things that Surprised Me About Cairo

The more you get to know a place, the more you get to learn its many quirks. As a city I only held pigeonholed ideas about – think camels, mummy’s and sexual harassment (*cue dry laughter*) – Cairo was just waiting to surprise me.

Road lanes? What road lanes?

The very first thing I discovered was that Egyptians have absolutely no concept of road lanes (or road rules, for that matter).

When I was picked up from the airport at 2am and driven across the city to Giza, I genuinely feared for my life. People were treating the highway like they would Gran Turismo, and the blatant disregard for the law – and common sense – was mind-blowing. If you’re not quite grasping the sheer terror of driving amongst people like this, bear in mind that highways in Cairo can have up to eight lanes. And a donkey or two.

Pass the mango

I’m no stranger to mangoes. They’re one of my favourite fruits, and I have had the pleasure to try them from many different corners of the globe such as Thailand and the south of Spain.

But the embarrassing truth is that, prior to Egypt, I had never eaten a fresh mango on its own. I know, I know. Such the traveller. I’ve only ever had mango if it was in the form of a smoothie or dollop of sorbet. Even in Southeast Asia, I didn’t think to buy some from one of the countless street food stalls.

On my very first day in Cairo, I tried a real mango. Woah. It was like all of the taste palates on my tongue had just been reborn. It was so juicy, so sweet… I don’t think I can ever return to preserved, tinned mango every again. It turns out that Egypt is actually known for it’s mangoes, which – according to Fruit Link Co. – are “a tropical delicacy with no equal”.

Tip

If you’re a mango fanatic like me, make sure you visit Egypt during mango season (July to November).

The City of Unfinished Buildings

Cairo may be known as the City of a Thousand Minarets, but perhaps a more appropriate nickname is the City of Unfinished Buildings.

One of the things I noticed every time I drove into the centre was the myriad of unfinished apartment buildings. I’m not just talking about one or two of these, either. There were long stretches where I couldn’t spot a single completed building. From a practical point of view, they’re unsafe. From an aesthetic point of view, they’re just plain ugly.

When I inquired into the reasoning behind this, I was informed that there exists something of a legal loophole in that owners in Cairo do not have to pay taxes until a building is structurally finished. Given this, there is little motivation to achieve completion.

Representation

If the nickname of the City of Unfinished Buildings doesn’t catch on, then maybe the City of a Thousand Billboards will.

Cruising down the 26th of July Corridor, you are treated to advertisement after advertisement. Airbrushed models smile down on you with their photoshopped, white smiles, marketing everything from Coca Cola to Vodafone to KFC. The oddity? None of the female models are veiled.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be strange if it weren’t for the fact that up to 80% of Egyptian women are believed to wear headscarves. That’s no minority. Presuming that these advertisements are targeting Egyptian citizens, this lack of representation seems a little unusual.

Paris along the Nile

When I first heard this next fact, I burst out laughing. Did you know that Cairo was architecturally modelled after Paris?

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Downtown Cairo was transformed into what was at the time called the ‘Paris of the East’. This was because the then-ruler was raised in France and wanted Egypt’s capital to reflect European modernity. This meant that the Downtown area was to be characterised by linear, gridded streets, geometric harmony, and reflect Parisian architecture.

Let there be light… please 🙏

If the lack of consideration for road lanes doesn’t already make driving a near-death experience for you, then the lack of street lamps will. There are so many stretches of highway where there is just no lighting. When you’re zooming along at 100km/h with half of Cairo on your tail, that’s the last thing you want.

I have no idea how you would navigate anywhere if it weren’t for the head and tail lights of surrounding cars – and even then, it’s near impossible to spot potholes or barriers that suddenly jump up out of the concrete. I’m surprised there aren’t more accidents. But on that note…

Desensitisation

If you travel to Cairo, you will probably see a dead body.

I’m not talking about roadkill. I wish I was talking about roadkill. Rather, I’m referring to the 12,000 human lives that are lost due to crashes every year in this country.

I remember driving down one of the more remote highways and passing an ambulance. Upon further inspection, I realised that two paramedics were tending to an unmoving body that had been flung from an also unmoving motorcycle. I didn’t have to look too closely to fathom their fate.

It was the juxtaposition between how Egypt deals with this sort of thing compared to the response from my home country of New Zealand that really shocked me. Back home, a crash – even one that leaves no fatalities – will halt traffic, block roads and make national news. Here, it was as though nothing had even happened. If I hadn’t had my eyes peeled, there is a good chance I wouldn’t have even noticed it.

Death has been normalised.

Green

On a lighter note, one thing that pleasantly surprised me about Cairo was the amount of greenery present. For a desert city, this wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Cruising down the Nile along Downtown’s Promenade especially draws attention to this welcome inhabitance of vegetation, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to temporarily forget that I was in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

The haze

Coming from a small town in an environmentally-friendly country, air pollution had always been something of an abstract problem. But for Cairo – the city ranked as having the worst air pollution in the world – this is an unavoidable issue.

The effect this has on the landscape is striking. Standing beneath the Mosque of Mohammed Ali in the Citadel and beholding Cairo’s skyline gave me the impression that I was looking over a civilisation on some distant planet. The horizon is a thick gray as a consequence of the fumes. As it ascends, the sky gradually fades into a dull blue. There are no clouds. There is no sun. There is only the haze.

Egypt is very… Egyptian

What amused me the most about Egypt was just how Egyptian it is.

If that sounds to you like an obvious statement, then allow me to elaborate. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, there are certain icons of Egypt that thoroughly tie into the stereotypes and conventions that the tourism industry thrives off. You know what I’m talking about.

But when I arrived, I didn’t actually expect these cultural symbols to manifest in absolutely everything. Everywhere you look is Egyptian iconography. Sphinx Bakery, Pyramid Gardens, Pharaoh Towers… walking in Cairo is like stepping into a three-dimensional postcard. I found it entertaining, to say the least.

I don’t intend for this blog post to deter anyone from visiting Cairo. In fact, I would go as far as to say that all these little quirks – good and bad – are instrumental in the formation of it’s character.

I highly recommend that you read about my experience at the Great Pyramids of Giza. Furthermore, if you want to learn about what it’s like to be a ginger in Egypt, then this post might be your cup of tea ☕

Last but not least, stay tuned for my Egypt vlog that is currently in the works! Show some love and subscribe to my YouTube channel so you don’t miss out on any exciting updates.

All photographs courtesy of the talented photographers at Unsplash

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Open Season: Being a Ginger in Egypt

I arrived in Egypt with little expectations about how I would be treated as a white, unveiled and ‘exotic’ (I use that word liberally) female.

As a student of gender studies – and someone who has an active interest in global politics – I was well aware that the Middle East’s relationship with woman is far removed from what I am familiar with in the west. It was to be the first time in my life that I represented the minority, and that thought both excited and scared me.

The next two weeks would expose me to a side of humanity that very few things could have prepared me for. It disgusted me; not disgust in the sense that I grew reluctant to venture out of the house without completely covering myself – which, FYI, isn’t even enough to stop men who feel entitled to make women uncomfortable in the public sphere – but disgust in the sense that I couldn’t believe people think that this kind of behaviour is actually okay. The argument from relativity suddenly lost its shine that trip.

Over those two weeks, I was subjected to people stopping in the middle of the street and pointing at me, cars honking as I walked down the side of the road, and the making of rude and unnecessary comments in Arabic as I walked past. At one point, I was in the middle of a marketplace when a man riding a motorcycle zoomed past, shouldered me and nearly knocked me off my feet. When I visited the iconic Great Pyramids, I was surrounded by local tourists more interested in taking pictures with me than the actual wonders. It was flattering until they started grabbing me.

Making friends… us gingers gotta stick together.

All of this was just by existing in Cairo and minding my own business. Whilst I did not veil my head, I was dressed conservatively and respected the culture. None of the behaviour was provoked in any meaningful or justified way.

From my observation, about 85-90% of the women I saw in the streets were veiled. It is also worth mentioning that – compared to their male counterparts – very few women even venture into the public sphere. I counted the occasions I saw people who represented tourists, and the number might amaze you: seven. Just seven – over two whole weeks. Egypt’s tourist economy has plunged from 14.7 million to 5.4 million per year, and it is noticeable. Tourists have become something of a commodity, only fueling the attitude towards them.

The irony of the whole trip was that the occasion on which I felt most comfortable in public was when I visited a nightclub. I remember thinking that there is definitely something wrong with a culture where you receive more unwanted attention on the streets than in a freakin’ bar.

I’m not comfortable arguing that it is easier being an unveiled woman than a veiled woman in Egypt, as other travel bloggers have. There are cultural forces at work there that someone like me can’t even imagine, and it isn’t a competition of oppression. I’m also aware that my experience was far more benign than that suffered by other females. I’m just writing this blog post to share my personal experience so that if you are a woman with intentions of visiting this incredible country, at least you’re not walking in blind.

I never once felt unsafe or threatened whilst I was in Egypt. I think a large part of that is because I mentally prepared myself for the attention and was always in good company. But I can wholeheartedly understand why the experience would be enough to deter someone from the Middle East altogether. It’s a shame, because the two countries I have traveled to in this region so far – Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – left me with rich knowledge and positive memories that surpassed my wildest expectations.

You don’t have to lose all sense of identity in Egypt to avoid harassment. Even if you were wearing a niqāb, the chances are, you would still receive some form of it. After all, studies reveal that 99% of Egyptian women have been subjected to misogynist behaviour on the streets of Cairo (what is being called a ‘moral epidemic’).

But what you can do to prepare is educate yourself on the culture and understand that there is nothing you are doing to deserve this treatment. There is nothing morally justifiable about it. It it simply the result of a lack of education, public safety, poverty and dangerous cultural ideas. The only way it can be challenged is by standing up to it and raising awareness about the injustices served.

 All of the photographs in this post were taken at the Mosque of Mohammed Ali in the Citadel of Cairo.
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In Defence of Cultural Appropriation

About a month ago, I wrote a blog post called Cultural Appropriation (Or Why that Bindi is Racist). Without rewriting the original article, allow me to briefly summarise my key points.

Cultural appropriation is defined as when “people from a dominant culture take cultural elements from a marginalised group without knowing or caring about how their actions affect marginalised people.” I later stumbled upon a slightly more detailed definition that I think also fits the bill: “Cultural appropriation… is a form of oppression for members of an identifiably dominant social or ethnic group to make use of the history, personages and/or habits of another, for the purposes of literature, music, art, entertainment, fashion. In short, for culture.”

Since publishing my blog post, I have shared a number of thought-provoking conversations with friends that have challenged my perspective on the issue. Dissatisfied, I decided to update my opinion — a part two, if you will — and to argue against what I originally wrote.

To begin, I am going to explore the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. There is a tendency to conflate the two, a misunderstanding which is arguably as dangerous as cultural appropriation itself. Whilst cultural appropriation tends to concern the power dynamics between two unequal groups, cultural exchange refers more so to the sharing of practices between two different yet balanced groups. In many — I’d even go as far as to say most — cases, cultural exchange is criticised for being cultural appropriation. Whilst I myself am persuaded that cultural exchange is justified, cultural appropriation is still something of a delicate matter.

Should we amend cultural appropriation to cultural misappropriation? Maybe it is possible that this whole discourse hinges around semantic specificity. From henceforth, I shall use cultural appropriation as somewhat interchangeable with cultural exchange, and refer to the detrimental kind as cultural misappropriation.

One of the central arguments for cultural appropriation is that it offers an opportunity for people to be educated about the rich diversity of human culture. After all, isn’t a more connected and compassionate society an objective goal? The topic of cultural appropriation also opens the door to what it truly means to own something. In my previous article, I discussed how it’s dangerous because it is as though a dominant group has ‘stolen’ a practice that belongs to a marginalised group. But do practices really belong to someone? Cultural practices are meaningful because of the ideas attached to them — can someone really claim ownership over an idea?

“Cultures are not intrinsically valuable, nor should they be preserved by virtue of their uniqueness. Cultures emerge from different groups of people trying to best navigate the world.”

The author of the above quote also put into words my exact thoughts: “… cultural ‘pride’ is absurd… there’s nothing to be proud of. (Cultures) aren’t superior or inferior to any other. You have nothing to preserve.” This message ties into the flaws of group identity. If you consider major conflicts between different groups of people, you’ll observe that that main source of conflict is the (often symbolic) trespassing of identity politics. We cannot abolish this discord without challenging our relationship with cultural pride.

By maintaining the mentality that cultural appropriation is in and of itself a ‘bad thing’, we are only causing further destruction. Through reinforcing exclusivism, some would even go as far as to say that it is as racist as cultural appropriation itself claims to be. If we cannot explore other cultures through participation, how are we — as a collective civilisation — expected to evolve and develop?

Perhaps cultural appropriation is indeed a positive thing, and participation in diverse cultural practices ought to be encouraged throughout society. Perhaps it’s the most constructive path to a more global, shared culture. “It is not an evil but rather a public good when different cultures are assimilated into the mainstream”, writes J. Wilson.

I have expressed why I believe cultural exchange should be condoned, and (hopefully) no one needs reminding that this should always be done respectfully. We know that malicious intent – whether that be through racism or whatever have you – is never acceptable. We know that there’s nothing respectful about dressing up as a ‘slutty Indian’ for Halloween in a costume you bought from Walmart, and we know that there’s nothing respectful about mockery. The key therefore is to strike a balance whereby different cultures are accessible and celebrated whilst still bearing courtesy and consideration for their history.

To what end does maintaining divisions between people serve? Cultural misappropriation can be harmful and leave devastating effects on persecuted peoples by reducing them to an idea. But cultural appropriation might be the answer to societal segregation rooted in identity politics.

Photographs sourced from Unsplash.

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Cultural Appropriation (Or Why That Bindi is Racist)

As I have mentioned before in previous posts, I do not want my travel blog to simply be about Insta-worthy pictures and food porn. My goal from the very beginning was to use this blog as a resource and vehicle by which to educate myself and others on issues entrenched in the tourism industry (and society in general). The issues I have discussed in the past – see feminism and why tourism is political – are prime examples of how travel and politics are not mutually exclusive. This latest article is one I have been wanting to write since the inception of this blog.

Culture not costume. Artwork courtesy of the Odyssey Online.

If you’re a follower of pop culture – or you use the internet – the chances are that the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ would have emerged once or twice in the context of someone such as Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry.

In short, cultural appropriation can be defined as when “people from a dominant culture take cultural elements from a marginalised group without knowing or caring about how their actions affect marginalised people”.

Cultural appropriation is largely misunderstood owing to a lack of critical discussion and the fact that you won’t actually find the term in a dictionary. (I also think it isn’t given the time of the day because lots of people deep down know they are guilty of it – and ignorance is bliss, amiright?).

Everyday Feminism summed it up quite nicely by saying that it is often taken to mean, “the policing of what white people can or can’t wear and enjoy”. Whilst there exists a rather objective definition (as written above), people can also take C.A. to extremes. Some people believe that everything is cultural appropriation, whilst some believe that nothing is at all. Whilst I certainly think that some critics of C.A. can get a bit carried away, I also believe that it is a complex idea that plays a different role in different scenarios. I believe that the issue becomes about learning and educating ourselves about it so that we can identify instances where it is not okay.

Model Gigi Hadid was criticised for wearing dreadlocks on the runway. Photograph courtesy of the Daily Beast.

Some Examples of Cultural Appropriation…

  • Bindis
  • Cornrows
  • Dreadlocks
  • Indian headdresses (I’m looking at you, Coachella)
  • Pretty much 99% of all cultural Halloween costumes
  • Basically Rachel Dolezal’s entire existence

Photograph courtesy of Marion Cameleon.

A common defence people employ when confronted about appropriating behaviours is that they’re simply celebrating another culture. After all, if they can’t participate in a tradition belonging to someone else, then how are we meant to share cultures? Isn’t that the very foundation of a more equal and humanitarian world? And then there are the people who get straight up offended.

The reality is that cultural appropriation plays a significant yet dismissed role in all of the inequalities people face today. To understand C.A. demands a comprehension of intersecting frameworks of oppression (shout out to intersectional feminism) and power dynamics. The key idea is that C.A. simply doesn’t go both ways; if it did, then it wouldn’t be a problem. But instead, the nature of a more privileged group of people borrowing cultural elements from a less privileged group is a one way street.

Amandla Sternberg delivers a crash course on cultural appropriation in ‘Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows’

This next part can sometimes be a little more complicated to get your head around. I know it was for me. Take the example of white girls braiding their hair into cornrows. That’s not inappropriate, you might respond. Black girls straighten their hair all the time! But what needs to be discussed here is that historical context is incredibly relevant. Consider the history of the United States; black people were discriminated against whilst white people reaped the rewards of a white supremacist society. As Everyday Feminism accounts, “when people of colour… conform to what the U.S. society considers ‘normal’, they’re often doing it for the sake of survival”.

“Assimilation doesn’t have the same impact as appropriation.”

Expressions of cultural appropriation. Photograph courtesy of Sikh Philosophy.

Cultural appropriation isn’t about memorising an infinite list of things that could offend people. There’s no value to that. Instead, it’s about “taking responsibility for your own actions that can cause other people harm“. I myself took responsibility after a phase where I insisted on wearing part of my hair braided into cornrows. At the time, I wasn’t aware that I was inadvertently participating in a culture that had historically – and even still today – been marginalised beneath mine (I’m talking about the participation part, not the historical part). But after taking a gender studies course at university and reading about these systems of social oppression, I realised that my behaviour had been less about how I looked and more so about taking what had never belonged to me in the first place.

The key message I’m trying to get across here, is that you don’t have to own something to appreciate it.

Even with well-meaning, good intentions, cultural appropriation is not something we should take lightly. We’re not just talking about fashion; we’re talking about the lived experiences of human beings. Identity is one of the most central facets of our lives, and for someone more privileged to take that away from us with little regard for who we are is plain discrimination.

“You only like me for my Sari.” Artwork courtesy of Zaiba Khan.

Traveling is a fantastic opportunity to expose yourself to the practices and traditions of different cultures whilst finding the fine balance between appreciating and appropriating. When you are engaging in ethnic activities or find yourself at the counter of a souvenir shop, ask yourself these three questions: does my privilege allow me to participate in this? Will buying this make anyone from this group feel uncomfortable? Am I committing harm to anyone by doing this?

I like to think that most of us are contributing towards a society where all people and cultures are valued and respected. We have made great progress in the last half century, but that doesn’t disguise the fact that we are still a long, long way away from achieving that ultimate goal. To punctuate with the words of the 35th president of the United States…

“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Artist Katy Perry is slammed for dressing up as a Geisha in a performance. Photography courtesy of Reaxxion.

If you’re interested in learning more about social issues, then I highly recommend you check out the primary resource for this blog post: Everyday Feminism. Everyday Feminism is an amazing tool for educating yourself on topics such as gender and racial equality, and presents information in an understandable and thought-provoking manner. Find them on Facebook and Twitter.

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Face-Off: Couchsurfing vs. Airbnb

My first couchsurfing experience was in Madrid. 12,350 miles from home, I hopped off the plane, caught the metro to a train station in the middle of the suburbs, and waited without a phone for a stranger who was supposed to come and pick me up. Probably not what my mother wants to hear, but nevertheless, it was the case.

Photograph courtesy of Couchsurfing

It was only in January of this year that I finally ventured onto the Airbnb scene. My boyfriend and I were celebrating New Years with a road trip around the North Island of New Zealand, and we wanted somewhere to stay in Auckland – the capital – that was homely and central yet met the demands of our budget.

Photograph courtesy of Airbnb

Both of these experiences were great. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. But I can also sympathise if you’re an Airbnb and Couchsurfing virgin and have no idea where to start when it comes to accommodation. I procrastinated using Airbnb for a long time simply because I didn’t really understand how it worked, and Couchsurfing was a repellent to my social anxiety. But fear not, because I am about to walk you through everything you need to know about these two online platforms so that you can tailor future travel to your individual needs.

Let’s start with the basics.

What the hell are Airbnb and Couchsurfing?!

An Airbnb is kind of like a budget hotel. As an online hospitality service, you make an account and then browse the thousands of listings available from all corners of the globe. You can either pay for a shared room, private room or an entire home, and compared to a hotel, let’s just say your bank account is going to be thanking you.

If Airbnb is like a budget hotel, then Couchsurfing is like a budget Airbnb. The good news? You don’t have to pay a dime. The bad news? Yeah… you’re most likely going to be roughing it. With couchsurfing, you set up an online profile and reach out to hosts in your chosen area. There is no formal process to it; all you need is for someone to agree to let you crash for a few nights, and voilà! Your accommodation is sorted.

I’m going to be rating these two services on price, comfort, reliability, sociality, locality and safety. Let’s get down to it 👊

Like I said in the introduction before, the major difference between these two services is that Airbnb charges and Couchsurfing doesn’t. Assuming that you are traveling on a budget, it’s pretty clear who prevails here.

For some, this difference is the deciding factor. But for others, there is still lingering doubt. If you have the money to spare, then it is completely understandable that you might like to explore different options for accommodation if you are receiving more comfort in return.

Not unlike hotels, Airbnb’s are generally priced according to quality (emphasis on the generally). As the quality increases, so does the cost. It’s immensely difficult to throw some average figures at you, but as a general rule, you’ll be saving your pennies by opting for the latter.

It is also worth noting that although you don’t pay a fee to stay at someone’s house with Couchsurfing, it is always polite to thank them in some way. After all, they are going out of their way to host you. Some couchsurfers like to show their appreciation through shouting their host dinner or buying them a bottle of wine. Although this is not obligatory, it’s a pretty basic courtesy to show gratitude. Your host will certainly respect and remember that.

The Winner: Couchsurfing

Trullo Edera in Ostuni, Brindisi, Italy 

The excuse many people employ to justify their splurging on more expensive accommodation is that it is more comfortable. Comfort can refer to many things – most significantly degrees of luxuriance – but for the purposes of this article, I am going to refer to it in a more social light. In other words: how much does the presence of a stranger impact the ease and enjoyment of your stay?

Of course, if you are renting out an entire home on Airbnb, then you don’t have to worry about this. You’ve got the place to yourself! There’s no need to concern yourself with the whereabouts or judgements of another person. Five stars, Airbnb 👍

But… if you’re renting a private room or couchsurfing, then this factor might be of interest to you.

I’m not even going to be subtle about it: Couchsurfing takes the cake here. I just can’t help but feel uncomfortable when I’m renting a private room through Airbnb; you’re always running into your host but are so unsure of your relationship. Are you obligated to spend time with them? Invite them out for a drink?

At the end of the day, you can do whatever the hell you want. After all, you’re paying them and are entitled to use the space and time as you wish (respectfully, of course). But I still inevitably feel rude when our contact is limited solely to inaudible grunts in the hallway and waiting on each other to finish using the bathroom.

With Couchsurfing, the expectations are clear. It is considered ill-mannered to exploit someone’s generosity in exchange for a free bed. It is anticipated that you will spend time together and (ideally) make friends. If your host ventures to your home country, then perhaps you will even return the favour of opening your doors for them. If this implicit agreement isn’t your cup of tea, then maybe you should be punching Airbnb into Google instead.

The Winner: Couchsurfing

Romantic Suite in Valparaiso, Chile

Reliability refers to two different things in this context: whether the accommodation is actually that which is advertised online, and the likelihood of a host bailing on you.

This first applies more predominantly to Airbnb. I have stayed in a number of houses (thankfully a minority) where what I paid for wasn’t what was advertised online. A common occurrence is staying in a room different to that which is photographed. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the same facilities were present, but unfortunately that is not always the case. One time, I even stayed somewhere where the entire house had been stripped after the photos were taken, leaving nothing but the bed upon which I was to sleep. But possibly the most frustrating thing to happen when arriving at the listing is to discover that – contrary to what is advertised – there is actually no Wi-Fi 😡 *cue millennial tantrum*

With Couchsurfing, you consider places for the merits of the host, not the house. This means that the quality of their home isn’t going to be of such a huge priority. Furthermore, with Couchsurfing, you learn to roll with the punches anyway. No one is going to be too upset if the bed you were promised turns out in fact to be an air mattress. What matters is that you have a place to sleep.

However, regarding the likelihood of a host bailing on you, it’s Airbnb’s time to shine. Because money is not changing hands with Couchsurfing, hosts are under no obligation to remain available to you. It is not uncommon for hosts to bail the very day you are expected to arrive – hours before, even. Yet with Airbnb, cancellations on behalf of the host get very muddly indeed and are to be avoided if at all possible. You have to organise refunds and then find somewhere else to stay, sometimes at very short notice. Luckily, it doesn’t happen often.

The Winner: Airbnb (just)

Balian Treehouse in Bali, Indonesia

When it comes to social matters, Airbnb and Couchsurfing are polar opposites.

As I discussed under the comfort heading, Couchsurfing exceeds all expectations. The very nature of the service is to put yourself out there and make friends with people whom you probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to meet under ordinary circumstances. By living under the same roof, you can develop quite an intimate bond – especially if you are staying longer than a couple of nights. This is especially desirable if you are a solo traveler and looking to meet people on the road. After all, one of the most efficient and reliable ways to make friends is to stay with them.

Whilst Couchsurfing reigns supreme in the social tiers, Airbnb is somewhat appalling. Some of the loneliest times I have ever felt on the road are those nights spent in private Airbnbs with only myself for company. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing; lots of travellers – especially those in a pair or group – are simply looking for somewhere to retreat for the night to rest up. The last thing they may want is to be thrown into yet another social situation where they are pressured to slap a smile on their face and make uncomfortable small talk.

But one of the objectives of travel is to meet people, and therefore the ultimate goal with sociality is to make lasting friends. In saying that, we have a champion.

The Winner: Couchsurfing

White Space in Brooklyn, New York

It may sound somewhat picky, but when you’re in a foreign city and relying on public transport, prime location becomes something of a priority.

When you are using the Airbnb search engine, you can filter listings by location. This is a particularly handy tool if you know exactly what part of town you want to be in. Although you don’t receive the actual address until you have confirmed your payment, you do have knowledge of the street where you will be staying. Good enough, I reckon.

Yet with Couchsurfing, all you have to go on is the city. Occasionally you might strike gold and find that the host has written the suburb in their profile, but it’s relatively rare. The mentality behind this is that you’re lucky to get a bed at all, let alone start getting choosy. Although a distant location can be inconvenient at times, I don’t contest this.

I encountered poor location with couchsurfers in Madrid and Paris. In each place, I found myself hosted on the very outskirts of the city. It certainly made for a challenge finding my way there on the metro from the airports with a 30kg suitcase in tow. I won’t lie; Airbnb certainly looked a lot more appealing at that stage of the game.

The Winner: Airbnb

Luxury in Rivo, Lombardy, Italy

Last but certainly not least, we have something that cannot be emphasised enough: safety.

Perhaps Airbnb can afford to be neglected in this part. Statistically, you are far more likely to stumble upon a poor-quality listing than one where your personal safety is under threat. But as soon as you enter the domain of Couchsurfing, it’s a whole new ball game.

To be a couchsurfer – especially a solo female couchsurfer – you need to find the balance between trust and suspicion. On one hand, you need to be able to let a complete stranger welcome you into their home and share your company when you are at your most vulnerable. But on the other, you also need to have developed some good old fashioned common sense, and always keep an eye out for questionable behaviour from your host. Couchsurfing horror stories have not fallen upon deaf ears.

In my blog post, 5 Practical Gifts for Female Backpackers on their Bon Voyage, I briefly discussed some measures you might take to up the stakes of a safe and enjoyable couchsurfing experience. These include…

  • Never staying with anyone who doesn’t have (positive) references
  • Going with your gut instinct; if you are messaging someone and something feels a bit dodgy, listen to that. A lot of people use Couchsurfing as they would Tinder, so take everything with a grain of salt
  • Prioritising opting for verified hosts for better piece of mind

Long story short? Don’t be stupid. When you enter a stranger’s home, you are largely on your own (ooh, that rhymed). Couchsurfing has the potential to make or break a trip. Let’s do everything we can to avoid the latter.

The Winner: Airbnb

Bamboo House in Bali, Indonesia

Drum roll please!

And the verdict is… it completely depends on what you are looking for.

I know, I know. This is that blog post all over again where I refuse to play by the rules and give a black or white answer. But hear me out, okay?

Let’s typecast for a moment and imagine Airbnb and Couchsurfing as representational of two very different travellers. Airbnb is traveling with their partner on a short trip where they can afford to splurge a little on accommodation. They want to be able to spend their evenings exactly how they want, and to not have to bother about the stressful possibility of having to find somewhere to sleep last minute if it falls through. Alternatively, Couchsurfing is a solo traveler who is trying to stretch their budget as far as it will go so that they can see more over a longer period of time. They concern themselves with meeting new people and treasuring those new relationships, and they are flexible about the quality of their lodgings. Given the nature of their trip, they are prepared to accept the risk of unpredictable hosts and bizarre locations, because at the end of the day, it’s all about the experience.

Do you see what I’m getting at here?

I personally prefer Couchsurfing over Airbnb.

But like I just said, that is because I am someone who falls into the second category. I also find that you can predict what service someone will prefer given their age. The older people are, the more they generally opt for something reliable like Airbnb. It also helps that the older you are, the more savings you tend to have.

So, there you have it: the pros and cons of both Airbnb and Couchsurfing. I would love to hear your thoughts on whether one or the other reigns supreme, or any anecdotes you are willing to share on the subject. Comment below!

Photograph courtesy of Unsplash

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6 Ways to Learn a New Language Without Picking Up a Book

When I was thirteen, I studied a mandatory year of French.

hated it.

My reason was simple and would have done my father proud: it just wasn’t practical enough. As a homegrown Kiwi who hadn’t yet developed an appreciation for travel and culture, I couldn’t fathom why students were forced to learn French of all languages. Logic suggested that Mandarin or Spanish – two of the most widely spoken languages in the world – might actually be worthwhile. Or even Maori, the native tongue of New Zealand. It was fair to say that I didn’t take to my lessons.

Seven years later, and my only regret from school was not properly studying a language. I both admire the cognitive capacity of multilingual people and yearn for the opportunities they earn from such an skill. I dabbled in languages here and there, but I always lacked the motivation to put in the hours. It wasn’t until I decided to travel to Spain in 2017 that I found a reason to commit.

My only previous exposure to Spanish had been from the sassy Hispanic women on Orange is the New Black (I’m cultured, I know). I also hadn’t really heard of anyone who successfully taught themselves a second (or third… or fourth…) language without enrolling in an expensive course. But I was determined that I wouldn’t fail this time around, and that when I arrived in Madrid, I would be able to order a damn paella.

Whilst I’m far from fluent, two months later I can confidently read and write basic Español. My listening and speaking skills still need some brushing up, but I no longer helplessly flail when I try to read a menu or ask someone for directions. The following six activities played significant roles in my self-tuition, and none involve picking up a language book. Most importantly, they are fun. To me, learning Spanish is a game rather than a chore, and as someone who maintains a love-hate relationship with linguistics, that is one of the most important things I could get out of such an exercise.

1. Download a Language App

When I first embarked on my journey to learn Spanish, I opted for Duolingo. I spent a couple of intensive weeks on this platform, but whilst I made considerable progress through the chapters, I struggled to retain words longer term. Around this time, a friend recommended I give Memrise a go… and I’ve never looked back.

Memrise is fantastic because it takes management over making you practice the old content till you nail it before moving on to the new. It also exposes you to new material in a logical and easy way so that even as a beginner, you still have the important areas covered. By introducing personal stats to the mix, you are able to compete against and challenge yourself 💪

2. Change Your Phone Language

Admittedly, this is a bit of a risky one. But, if you can stick it out, you will reap the rewards.

By going into your settings and swapping your native language for your new one, words that you have come to be familiarised with through social media or apps will be replaced with others. This helps you to make connections between the known and the unknown in a habitual context. For example, most everyone is used to seeing that ‘Like’ button when they log into Facebook. When I changed my phone language to Spanish, I soon grasped that the equivalent was ‘Me Gusta’.

Tip: Make sure you know exactly where to change the language back to English (or whatever be your mother tongue) so that in emergencies, you can still operate your device. It’s all fun and games until warnings start flashing on your screen and you have no idea what your phone is trying to tell you.

3. Find a Language Buddy

The thing about learning a foreign language is that simply being able to read and write is a whole different ball game to actually listening, speaking and interacting in general. If you are teaching yourself, then the chances are that there are not many people in your social circles who also speak that language.

Well, it’s time to make friends! My Spanish exponentially improved once I began conversing with native speakers. I made these connections by using Couchsurfing, the social travel website I mentioned in this and this blog post. I stayed with hosts in Madrid who were more than happy to invest time in going through exercises with me and helping me understand and correct my errors. It was a win-win situation; these people were also bushing up on their English, so we were both getting something out of the interaction.

4. Immerse Yourself in the Place

Granted, this is easier said than done. Depending on where you are based, access to a country where your chosen language is widely spoken may require large financial sacrifices. For me, it was no painless manoeuvre to get to Spain all the way from the antipodes of New Zealand, but this only motivated me all the more to commit to my Spanish once I did arrive.

By physically being somewhere where the locals speak what you are trying to learn, the level of absorption compared to that from a book is incomparable. You soak in so much raw linguistic information; it feels like all the synapses in your brain are dancing frenetically. From the road signs to the shop windows to the supermarkets – everything just makes so much more sense. Context is key to this process, and language apps inevitably fall short in this area. Put it this way: are you more likely to remember that watermelon is sandia in Spanish through looking at a picture of the fruit on your screen, or by ordering watermelon soup in a Spanish café? (Yes, that is a thing. And yes, it is the best thing I have ever eaten).

5. Embrace Subtitles

Most – if not every – paid streaming service provides access to subtitles. I like to think of subtitles as the lazy person’s approach to learning a language; although it’s not an altogether passive activity, you can still afford to kick back, relax and enjoy the show.

Subtitles are especially effective if you are watching something you are already familiar with. I enjoy searching for clips of my favourite stand up comedy acts on YouTube and locating the Spanish versions. I know the jokes off by heart, so instead of trying to both process the original content and then link it to the words scribbled below, I can focus my energy on simply the latter. It’s fun. Try it.

6. Collect Children’s Picture Books

Okay, I lied. The title of this blog post promised that I would offer six ways to learn a language without picking up a book, and yet my final method includes just that. But bear with me.

When I was staying in Madrid, I went to the most amazing bookstore in the world: La Centrale. There, I purchased a beautifully illustrated children’s picture book depicting the life of Frida Kahlo. The catch? It was written in Español.

I find resources like this are really indispensable tools to practicing a new language, especially if you are already familiar with the content in the book. The visuals make it a really attractive way to study, and they’re always entertaining to read to someone who is well versed in that language so you can laugh and try again when you f*ck up. Similarly, if you are at more of an advanced level, you can find translations of your favourite novels online. I myself downloaded Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal – you can find a link to the PDF here.

Photos taken at Plaza de España in Seville, Spain.

I’d love to hear your tips and tricks for learning a new language without chasing a traditional path. Moreover, if you’re like me and fascinated by language and culture, you might find yourself poring over these blog posts from the archives: the Pocket Guide to Kiwi Slang and 8 Untranslatable Words to Bring You Joy.

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