Thursday, April 10, 2008

Learning a Language While Travelling

I've got a hot tip for anybody who wishes they could converse a bit with the locals when abroad. I am particularly ungifted at learning languages, yet this has worked even for me.

You'll need an iPod or some other MP3 player, and about US$30

The tip is to buy and use Pimsleur Conversational language courses. They are excellent and so well made that they are almost fun to use. Each course is 16 lessons, each 30 minutes long. No grammar, real phrases, and stuff you can use from day 1. You can get them on the web, for example Amazon.

I first tried Pimsleur's Spanish lessons while in South America. Each evening I lay on my bed in my hotel room doing the lesson. Then I would immediately go out and use a few of the words I learned with my hotel clerk or in a restaurant, or with whoever I happened to meet. After a few days I tried the phrase with a local in Colombia, "I want to eat something". I was flabbergasted when she understood perfectly what I said and then responded with an exact phrase I had also learned that day - which I could also answer. A week later I was able to go into a Colombia travel agency and buy tickets, while only speaking Spanish.

After 4 weeks of such lessons my girlfriend joined me and I felt pleased - and maybe a little smug - as her jaw drop when I got into an easy conversations in Spanish, even if they were only basic conversations.

I've since used this same technique to learn a little Swahili in Kenya and Tanzania, a spattering of Hebrew in Israel, and enough French to understand hotel and restaurant staff. It's a great feeling to achieve this, doubly so for me because I always got terrible grades in languages at school.

Particularly fun was Swahili. As a tourist in Zanzibar, for example, I was a magnet for people trying to hawk things. But when I would say in Swahili "No thank you, I am not interested", the whole interaction would change for the better. And other tourists would wonder how I got to know such a language.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Great Travel Destinations for Vegetarians

Since I became a vegetarian I've travelled to some 70+ countries. Some particularly stood out for the quality of the vegie food, as well as the range and ease to find.

So here's my top 3 of countries that are highly interesting AND vegetarian-friendly:

#3: Thailand. Fresh, tasty, healthy, cheap. Just about every menu has a sizable vegie section. But I found that if I wanted something else, I could simply ask for a meat dish to be made with tofu instead of meat. The restaurants were always willing to do it.

#2: India. A high percentage of Indians are vegetarian, which makes vegie restaurants easy to find. There are just as many "veg" restaurants as there are "non-veg", and they proclaim it boldly on their outdoor signs. So many vegetarian restaurants that I thought I had died and gone to vegetarian heaven. Common is the "veg thali", a sort of sampler plate with three or four different dishes, rice, bread and salad. Away from the tourist-oriented shops I was paying less than 1 Euro for as much as I could eat, and a drink too.

#1: Israel. Probably a big surprise for most people - it certainly was for me. Any kosher restaurant or cafe will do. Part of kosher cooking is not to mix dairy products and meat products. So when you walk into a restaurant in Jerusalem, a waiter usually asks "meat or dairy". I would simply say "dairy" and I would be show to the part of the restaurant where the food has no meat - and furthermore is guaranteed to have been prepared with utensils and kitchen equipment that is never used with meat.

So why is Israel my top choice? The sheer range of cooking styles you get in a cosmopolitan land.