Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Mid-term Report

I've now been in South America for a little over six months, so it's time for the mid-term report. Before going away, I set myself some goals. This was kind of mandatory - spending a year sampling local beverages and chasing female fellow travellers might be acceptable at age 22 or 23, but at 30+ it's necessary to set down some kind of life-improving, career-advancing or at least time-justifying Strategic Framework with Terms of Reference. Here's how I've done on the Key Performance Objectives so far:

Improving my Spanish: 8/10

This is one area where I give myself pretty good marks. The best things for improving your language skills are: staying in one place and getting to know people, getting a job, and involving yourself with local people of the opposite sex. I've done all of those things rather avidly, at the expense of other objectives. And my Spanish has improved: I feel relaxed and comfortable in most situations now, and in Arequipa often forget that I'm speaking my second language. Of course, there are still moments when I find something incomprehensible, or struggle to get words out...but then, that happens to me in English as well.

I've been quite good with books - have read once piece of serious literature from Chile, one from Peru, and am half way through another Peruvian one (how many pieces of serious literature do you read per year anyway??). Think I will read some thing Argentinian next. Bit more slack with movies - have watched far too many in English with subtitles. But there's really not that many Spanish-language movies at the cinema, and when I'm watching cable TV in my apartment in Arequipa I'm normally really tired.

The one area I haven't really challenged myself and am still lacking in confidence is speaking on the telephone. I really only ever call people I already know, and even then reluctantly. This is perhaps forgiveable, since I've always disliked the telephone. Nevertheless, this is an important area to work on.

Travel Writing: 7/10

This gets reasonable marks, if only for sheer volume. I've been quite good with the blog, after a slow start - I think it takes you a while to get the feeling for what to write, how much, and about what. Since I put the hit counter on my blog I've also noticed that regularly posting seems to have a big impact on the number of visits I get, which is obviously motivational - one must satisfy one's public...

I also wanted to put together some punchy travel stories that I can sell to magazines or newspapers. This is proving to be much more of a struggle for two reasons. One is that I haven't put quite enough effort into it - I keep getting distracted by other things. The other is that I just write too much. Whereas the ideal length for travel stories is around 1200 words, what I put together always seems to drift on to 2500-3000....well, I've always been verbose. I don't think I've got the style quite right either, and my research isn't as in-depth as it could be. There's a lack of experience there. I'm going to put in a significant effort on this one in the coming weeks.

Having Crazy Adventures and Seeing Exotic Places: 5.5/10

I scrape a bare pass mark here. I'm not being too down on myself, since some of the objectives are incompatible, and this one has been sacrificed for some of the goals listed above. In six months, I have ticked off the bare minmum of "must dos" in the countries I've visited: Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, the Colca Canyon, San Pedro de Atacama and the Salar de Uyuni, the La Paz-Coroico road, Lake Titicaca. People on tight schedules, of course, sometimes do all these things in a month. I also get some extra ticks for the mountain climbing - Chachani and Misti might not be "technical" mountains, but how many people get above 6,000 metres at all?

However, I really haven't properly got off the Gringo Trail; almost all the places I've visisted are well-known tourist destinations. Sure, in Arequipa I've got away from doing purely gringo things (I get marks for that elsewhere). But it's still comfortable and touristic. I haven't taken the slow route from small town to small town in any country, soaking up the authentic culture and exploring little-known places. I haven't gone to any of the more impressive-sounding countries (Colombia, for reputation; Paraguay, for obscurity; Venezuela, for a bit of both).

I haven't ridden on the back of a truck for twelve hours across some obscure part of the Andes or into the jungle. Hell, I haven't been to the jungle at all (it's a rather curious fact that I've managed to pass now about a year of my life in Latin America without going to the jungle at all; in fact I've only spent a few days in a truly tropical climate - in Puerto Escondido in Mexico). I haven't done any real independent tramps, carrying all my gear and food, pitching my own tent etc. I haven't been on a trip down the Amazon on a riverboat sleeping in a hammock. I haven't really taken many risks....

So, there's a significant amount to work on there.

Meeting People, Getting Work & Understanding the Culture: 7/10

On the surface, this is what I've done best. I've settled down in Arequipa and made lots of friends. I think I've picked up quite a lot about what makes Peru tick (which is a whole lot of incomprehensible things that nobody really understands). I fond that I've been involved in doing things which really interest me and use my skills (no English teaching or bar work thank god).

However, in some ways my experiences have been rather superficial. It's not only that my friends are all middle-class, but also that I've noticed that I really don't know many people who aren't involved in some way in the tourist industry. I often don't make the effort to get to know people or find out about their lives (only a couple of times have I talked to people on buses). In my experiences with "ordinary people", especially from the countryside, I recognise that I tend to focus on how dirty and rude they are, and forget to consider or ask about the circumstances of their lives, which often in Peru are incredibly difficult. I've on several occasions discovered things about everyday life in Arequipa through reading the paper, to which I'd previously been completely oblivious.

This lack of effort has to an extent limited the kind of material I have for my stories and articles - I could make *much more effort* here.

I also find myself being pretty judgmental about people ("why don't they get off their asses and stop bothering me or sending their kids to sell sweets") when I'm a fundamentally lazy and lacking in initiative myself, being fortunate enough to come from a country where there are cosy and well-paying bureaucratic jobs in which people who are occasionally rude to their superiors and often late to meetings are not only tolerated, but given pay rises.

Physically & Financially Staying in One Piece: 7.5/10

It's hard to know how to mark this, since it's largely about avoidance of disaster. By and large, I have (avoided disaster), though of course it can strike at any time and I' m probably tempting fate. Money-wise, well, I've spent about $8,000 NZD in seven months - that might sound impressive, but I could easily have spent less. It's difficult to overstate how cheap the cost of living can be, at least in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Anyway, it's far more important *what* you spend money on, than how much you send (see "having crazy adventures, etc") I haven't lost any of the trip-destroying things - air tickets, wallet, passport - and have managed to keep hold of the things of secondary value - camera, electric shaver and trekking boots. Heck, I even have most of the clothes that I left NZ with.

Physically, my teeth and eyesight are still fine, which were the things I was most worried about. I got really sick once - the mandatory Lake Titicaca food poisoning case, which drifted on for a week or so and had a violent aftershock the night of my birthday in Arequipa. I regret to report that my cigarette intake has steadily increased since I've been in South America, but to counter that I think my alcohol intake is significantly lower than back home - which is not to say that there hasn't been the odd day spent in a dazed hangover. At times I've found myself a bit unfit and out of shape - while paradoxically at other times I've been in more or less the best shape of my life - after doing the Inca Trail, for example. This is an ongoing one.

So, I get pass marks in all areas, but there's quite a lot of "could do better", Mr Bidwell!!

Key Objectives and Milestones for the Rest of My Time Here

>>Work on telephone Spanish and speaking confidently to people I don't already know; seek out more Spanish-lanuguage movies

>>Get some of those punchy 1200-word stories out!>>Take the slow route through some more obscure places (North Peru??), take a riverboat trip in the jungle (to Iquitos??) and tick off one more impressive-sounding country (Colombia??)

>>Pitch my own tent at least once

>>Be more patient and interested in the campesinos and their somewhat miserable lives

>>Don't lose anything major (my passport, a limb)



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