A Russian Who Spoke Fluent Spanish
I remember like it was yesterday. It was probably 8-10 years ago (circa 2002-2003), and I was in a friend’s house with a bunch of my (mostly Russian) friends. I don’t remember what the conversation was about specifically but one friend mentioned how he enjoyed last Thursday’s poker game, how it was a great crowd, and how he enjoyed meeting Vlad, a Russian guy who spoke fluent Spanish after living in Mexico for 5 years. That last part about speaking fluent Spanish and living abroad really got me curious.
I immediately pictured a young Russian guy living in Mexico City, having tons of cool Mexican friends, going out, partying, shooting the shit, maybe even having a hot Fresa (a snobby mid-upper class Mexican female) girlfriend. In another words someone who is completely immersed in the culture and not merely someone who came to Cancun for a weekend. Had the language been German and the country Germany, I’d probably not given it another thought, but if you’re cool and fluent in Spanish, you’d have no problem integrating into Mexican culture (which I consider my favorite Latin American country, and Mexicans some of the friendliest people).
It took me a while, but around 8 years later, I’ve finally done it. Between random back and forth trips to Tijuana and Ensenada, I’ve finally booked a one way ticket to Mexico City, a city I’ve been dying to go to for a long time. I didn’t live there for 5 years, but managed to do a solid year.
After that I flew to Bogota, Colombia. My plan was to spend 1 week in Bogota, and 1 week on the Caribbean coast.
I checked into my hostel, and made friends with everyone. The next day, during a typical Colombian tropical rainstorm, all of us sat in the living room and exchanged travel stories. A quiet guy in his mid 20s mentioned how he was going to spend the next 6 months in Bogota writing his master’s thesis, and thus was looking for an apartment.
I surely found him different than the typical of “backpacker” crowd. Unlike a typical backpacker, who wouldn’t stay more than 3 days in this city, here’s a guy who would made this rainy and cold city his home for the next 6 months, and above all, without knowing anyone in advance.
We talked a bit more and he mentioned how he also lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for 6 months. Obviously I was genuinely curious about everything from the language to the girls to the security of the city.
Unknowing to him, a seed was planted in my head and made me wonder if perhaps one day I’d be able to to just go to somewhere and stay for minimum of 6 months, without knowing anyone and not even speaking the language before hand.
I was right and wrong. In less than a year, I was on a flight to Rio, but I ended up staying about 2 years.
And that’s the way I’ve been traveling ever since.
It’s All An Investment
I pick a country that I feel is worth my investment (time, money, but mostly time) come here and stay put for minimum of 3-6 months, if not more. I learn the language, the culture, traditions, understand the country on levels that backpackers and other passerby’s merely scratch the surface. I view time as the most scarce resource that we all have, and the best way to take advantage of that resource is by making investments — investments in yourself by learning and growing, and not just sleepwalking through life.
Basically I want to know every city I live in as good as the city I grew up in: Brooklyn, NY.
Why spent your whole life in one city, when you can get to know 10+ world class cities equally, solidly, expertly as good?
They say that people in New York walk a certain way, so that it becomes easy to see who is from New York or who is not. But how do they walk in Caracas, Venezuela or Rio de Janeiro, Brazil?
So the next time someone asks me, “Hey, what’s Rio like? Is it dangerous?” I can tell them the REAL story from the ground. Not how Rio is dangerous but how it’s a complicated city and that you’ll have no problem if you don’t do stupid shit that most Western tourists do (and subsequently pay for).
I’ve met and read about people who’ve been to over 90 countries. Great! But anybody can do that. I can buy a round-the-world ticket and see a ton of countries. But, what value did they gain from hopping on a flight after flight? How can you learn anything about the place if you spent a week or even two there? I want to tell people from the point of view of a local, but a week’s worth of travel is anything but.
Obviously it varies from place to place. I personally like to seek “developing/southern” cities since they have a much more interesting story to tell. I’d take Palermo, Italy over Berlin, Germany any day. And a city like Los Angeles, with it’s man-made, mass-produced synthetic culture is definitely not for me. On the other hand, culture-rich cities like Rio de Janeiro-Brazil, Istanbul-Turkey and Odessa-Ukraine are just teeming with things beneath the surface waiting to be discovered, and understood.
It also varies in the amount of time. Brazil is a huge country and warranted my extraordinary time. As I’m losing my interest in all things Spanish, any further travel to a Spanish city, like Barcelona or Santiago, would be quick.
As I get older and (hopefully) more travel savvy, I begin to view my 3-6+ months as a solid investment. When it’s time to board my flight out of the country, I better have something to show for. I better have accumulated something that made be a better, wiser person. It’s like I’m an onion that’s adding layers every time I live abroad. I better be fluent in something.
If I lived in a country and barely picked up anything, then I’d wonder what was the point? If I wanted sunny weather, I could’ve just stayed in Miami.
And that Russian who spoke fluent Spanish? I’m him now, except not only does he speak fluent Spanish but also fluent Portuguese as well.