Japan – initial experiences

I am in transit from London to Auckland, with an 8-hour layover in Tokyo, so I thought that I might as well explore the city a bit. (As of the last 10 years or so, as US citizens we no longer need a special visa to enter Japan.)

Japan is unlike any of my recent (within the last 5 – 6 years) travel experiences. For one, I cannot speak or read even a little of the language. This has led to some unexpected things. For one, I withdrew about 10 times what I wanted from the ATM (about $600 instead of $60). No worries, I can change it back at the end of the day.

Also, after waiting about 10 minutes to use the Citibank ATM, I walk just around the corner (as in, like a 10 seconds walk around the corner) and spot an HSBC ATM (which is the card I use). Could have saved another couple of bucks had I known about it.

Note that I will get screwed on the exchange rate when I change back my remaining 50000 or so Yen at the end of the day… still, you live & learn. And since I am learning from these experiences, I don’t consider it as money lost. It’s an investment in my education.

But mostly it’s a strange experience for me being in a foreign country and not knowing anything about the language or really how to communicate with people other than in English. I just have to hope that the Japanese with whom I speak have some knowledge of English. I guess this is how it feels to be a foreigner in a completely foreign land. Not a bad feeling, just different. On the plus side, it kind of forces me to rely on other people and to communicate with them (asking questions, etc), which is good because I love interacting with people.

And for me, that’s what travel is really about, anyway. Not the sights, museums, architecture or even the landscapes in a certain place. It’s about the people.

I still need to get out & explore Tokyo a bit. And learn the Japanese characters for “milk”, “egg”, etc so I know what foods to avoid. I’m right now sitting in a Starbucks at the Tokyo Narita airport.

Language Skills

Chicks dig dudes with mad skills

Chicks dig dudes with mad skills. Today I’ll cover one of the most important types of skills to have this day & age: language skills. Language skills are some of the most valuable skills in existence, and their value ranks just a little bit below ninja skills and right around technical skills.

The ability to speak another language or several is one of the most beneficial and rewarding talents available to us today. Especially today, in this increasingly connected world. It’s much easier to travel than ever before, and also much easier to learn a new language. Of course, the best way to learn a new language is to travel to a place which speaks that language, hands down. If someone really wants to learn a language, I believe he/she can do so, and learn that language fluently, in a matter of months. Not years, months.

Note: If you equate “fluent” ability with “native” ability, you need to go back and check your etymology. “Fluent” comes from the word “fluid”, as in “to flow”. To be able to speak without having to stop for breaks to think of words and phrases, where the conversation just flows, this is what I mean by speaking “fluently”.

Anyone who really wants to learn a language can do it, and it’s not that hard these days. Here’s my simple 2-step method for learning a new language.

  1. Do some pre-country prep work.
  2. Go to your country of choice and start speaking.

That’s it.

I’ll break it down:

Pre-Country Prep Work

a) studying the country you want to visit
-> This is easy. Skim the Wikipedia article for that country. Also check out the WikiVoyage article for the same. This will give you a better feel for the country & people.

b) Studying the language. Learning the absolute basic phrases that you need to get around.
-> Here’s where the work comes in. Get some help. There are tons of free resources out there. LiveMocha.com, Coffee Break French and Coffee Break Spanish are all free. Pimsleur is probably the best for short-term and to learn the accent, but it’s expensive. Rosetta Stone will teach you both audio and also how to read/write/spell (very important). If you don’t have the cash for those, you might be able to get them from our friends in Sweden*. Also, Benny has some great tips at Fluent in 3 Months. Jennifer has a great site with a lot of info on several languages, which really helped me a lot when I was learning Spanish. How to Learn Any Language is another good one, both inspirational and has resources. Point is, there’s a lot out there, and it’s not hard to find if you really want it.

In-Country Actual Work

This is where the magic happens. Go to the country. Start speaking. You will be embarrassed to start speaking at first, that’s normal. Just get over it. Just start speaking {in that language}. You will learn so much in your first 2-3 weeks of speaking that language, and by the end of a couple of weeks, people will start to tell you that your {French, Spanish, whatever} has improved so much since you first came. This will give you a huge boost of inspiration you to keep speaking and learning more & more.

You’re halfway to fluency already! No joke, it really is that simple. Note that I didn’t say easy, just simple. Most people make it way more complicated, and make a lot of excuses as to why they just can’t learn a language. I don’t even like the word “can’t“. (Also, I find that people who make frequent use of that word tend to lead boring and unexceptional lives. Stay away from those people.)

Practice your language every opportunity you get. Hostel reception staff, bartenders, store clerks, waiters, people at the bus stop, baristas at the café, etc. I’m serious, try to think of ways to ask questions to people and such. You won’t always understand their responses, but that’s ok. You can sort of figure it out just with body language and gestures.

Within 3 – 4 weeks in-country, if you have been diligent about this, you will be doing all these things in your target language. You will be able to get around with ease. Maybe you will need to ask for directions somewhere, but that’s ok. You are confident that you now have the skills to ask for directions and many more things because you’ve been doing it for the last few weeks. You will be able to go to any country that speaks your target language and get around. This is a huge confidence booster.

You Will Be Fluent

I am 100% serious, the only thing stopping you from becoming fluent in a langauge once you’re in-country is your own fear of looking stupid. Don’t expect the world to speak English, and in fact, avoid English when you can and you will be fluent in your new language within a few months. I promise. Or your money back (unless you actually paid me money, in which case you won’t be getting any of that back).

You know, I might be able to package this info into an e-book and sell it for $37! Not really. But Benny has one you can buy, and it’s pretty good from what I hear.

* I am just suggesting options for language learning. I don’t advocate piracy in any way, shape or form. Except this one.

How to Find Cheap Airline Tickets

I hear a lot of people complaining about high ticket prices these days, especially with regard to international flights. Cheap airfare isn’t as hard to find as many think it is, if you know where to look. I can usually find a price lower than most people find by following some basic guidelines.

Basic Stuff

Go to Mobissimo.com & enter your departure/destination airports (or city/country). This site is my 1st stop when checking ticket prices and I haven’t been able to find less expensive tickets anywhere else.

Pick a date that is a Tuesday or Wednesday. It will be more expensive if it’s around Christmas or Thanksgiving. If you have to fly around Christmastime, after the New Year is better.

That’s it. Not that hard, really. You might be surprised at how low some ticket prices can be.

Advanced Techniques

Try putting in different departure airports that are close by (e.g. Los Angeles instead of Las Vegas). Also try flying to a (large) city that’s close to your destination (e.g. Brussels instead of Amsterdam). This can sometimes save hundreds of dollars. Do this with different websites as well. Research all the different options and then choose the best combination of convenience & price. Also, combine this with the next technique.

Technical Stuff (Here Be Dragons)

This one involves cookies. Not the kind you eat, the kind you delete. Clear. Whatever.

Clear your cookies periodically when using the mobissimo site. Why? Because you’ll notice after a day or so that the price for the exact same flight will start to creep up.

I believe the psychology of doing this is to get the person to purchase the ticket soon, because if they don’t the price will continue to rise.

This is what happened to me when I was researching the cheapest flight to Madrid last year. My price rose a good $50 or so (maybe more, can’t remember exactly) after about a day.

I ran a new search with the same parameters (same date of departure, one-way, economy class), found the same flight and the price displayed was still the higher price.

Then I cleared my cookies and re-ran (again… re-re-ran?) the query, and the initial low price was displayed. So yeah, they get tricksy with cookies and get more of your monies that way. I don’t think it’s just mobissimo, I’m sure all sites do it. Sorry if this last paragraph didn’t make sense, it did to me.

So… that’s it. Go save a lot of money on airline tickets.

photo credit

Things every internet café should do to improve service

Internet and Tacos
Internet and Tacos

This was originally posted on my old blog, ngmarleyDOTnet, on Jul 21, 2009 @ 17:28 CDT. That blog is now defunct and the content is slowly being absorbed into this one. This is one of a few posts I wrote when traveling Latin America during the summer of 2k9. I distinctly remember writing this one in an internet café in Buenos Aires.

(hint for proprietors: Better service means more customers. Which means more cash flow. For you.)

You’re probably already using some kind of virus scanner, anti-malware and a porn filter and it’s likely your computers were all built within the last 5 years. Great job. Your customers are probably still frustrated as crap because you can’t take a few minutes to think about how you can improve their internet experience. Because at the most basic level, they’re the ones paying the bills.

A “business consultant” might charge you $200/hr for this info.

  1. Get new keyboards. Swap out your crappy keyboards with keys that stick and change them for new ones. It doesn’t matter if they were new 2 years ago or even last year. It makes a world of difference.
  2. Install Mozilla Firefox on every bloody machine. Damn, people. Get a clue. (hint: Logon to the machine as an admin, go to getfirefox.com and follow the instructions.)
  3. Note pads and pens in every kiosk. They can be cheap, as long as people can write down an address and/or phone # or two.
  4. Get real mouse pads. Not a piece of white or black paper and NOT a brown paper sack. If the people have to shake/wiggle the mouse and have a hard time getting the cursor to move, it’s not good. Also, if you are using mice with balls, change them out for optical mice.
  5. This is the most important: USE YOUR OWN PRODUCT. Sit down at a CUSTOMER kiosk (not your desk at the front of the shop), and browse the net for 5-10 minutes. Besides, for you, it’s free, and you get to see what your customers have to deal with, and what would make the experience better. I think this advice would actually work with any business model.

You’re welcome. That’ll be $200.

photo credit


Stilt House in Bocas del Toro, Isla Colon, Panama
Stilt House in Bocas del Toro, Isla Colon, Panama

This was originally posted on my old blog, ngmarleyDOTnet, on Jun 30, 2009 @ 09:45 CST. That blog is now defunct and the content is slowly being absorbed into this one. This is one of a few posts I wrote when traveling Latin America during the summer of 2k9.

Rudi Gunn: What’s a Panama?
Al Giordino: It’s a Navy thing.
Rudi Gunn: I didn’t know you were in Panama.
Al Giordino: We weren’t in Panama, we were in Nicaragua.
Rudi Gunn: So why do you call it a Panama?
Al Giordino: Because we thought we were in Panama!

I’ve noticed several main differences between Panama and Costa Rica. I’m really only comparing my experiences between the capital city of San José, Costa Rica and David, Panamá, which is Panama’s 2nd largest city.

  1. Costa Rican drivers will run you over. Panama drivers will stop for you in the road.
  2. The infrastructure here in Panama is generally a bit better than that of Costa Rica. Roads, electricity, internet, etc.
  3. In David, Panamá, it’s safe to walk the streets, and even safer on the sidewalks. Even at night. Not so much in San José, Costa Rica.
  4. They have a lot of air conditioning in Panama, and it’s actually cool/cold. In Costa Rica, when there is air conditioning, it’s not that great. And it’s not often that you’ll find it there at all.
  5. The supermarkets here (the big ones) in Pamana are like home. I stayed in one for 1/2 hour just looking around and being reminded of all the American products. They have Latin-American branded products too, but also quite a lot of the same stuff that the local Bentonville Wal-Mart sells (American labels and all). I don’t recall seeing that in Costa Rica. Also, in Panama, they are air-conditioned.

photo credit

Costa Rica

Sunset in Guanacaste
Sunset in Guanacaste

This was originally posted on my old blog, ngmarleyDOTnet, on Jun 22, 2009 @ 09:37 CST. That blog is now defunct and the content is slowly being absorbed into this one. This is one of a few posts I wrote when traveling Latin America during the summer of 2k9.

So, I’ve been in Costa Rica for almost a month now and not posted anything here yet. I hope to break that trend soon.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve:

  • Lived in 2 different houses in 2 different suburbs of San José, the capital of Costa Rica.
  • Attended the Costa Rica-USA football (soccer) match.
  • Done volunteer work at the Food for the Hungry office in Costa Rica (computer stuff).
  • Met several people from all over the world, most of whom are not Ticos (people from Costa Rica call themselves Ticos).

I’ve not:

  • Gone to any of the beaches.
  • Seen an active volcano.

My travel partner is Joel, an Englishman from a village south of London. We will be taking a bus to Panama this Thursday (25 Jun 2009). It’s been good to get to know the capital city of this country, but I’m ready to get out of Costa Rica for awhile. Or maybe forever.

photo credit