Communicating is always a problem for the independent traveller. It is not that the lack of language skills stops the traveller getting fed or finding a bed. Far from it, most of the basic things in life are simple transactions. If you walk into a hotel it is reasonably obvious that you are after a room, a fact that you can confirm with a single word: room, zimmer, camere or whatever. After that, it is just a matter of confirming that the room is liveable by looking at it and sorting the price by writing a few numbers on a scrap of paper. The rest is just the detail.
Nor have we lost weight because of our lack of language skills. Apart from boasting that we can order a cold beer in 20 languages, there are many forms of communication other than speech that can get you fed. On several occasions we have been in restaurants and, being short of language and a menu, have used some hand signals to indicate that we needed feeding. Food and drink have always appeared, often a better selection than we would have made had we been able, and often more enjoyable for the mystery.
No, the problem of language is not domestic. Rather, it goes to the heart of our reasons to journey independently in the first place. Without language a culture seems impenetrable. Without language, we can observe, note, question and infer, but we cannot really understand. Language and culture are entwined, each so fundamental to the other that at the end of our time in each country, when we have filled pages of our journals with observations, historical rationale and explanations, much remains a mystery.
None of this dents our enthusiasm to go on and to learn what we can. There is a simple joy in being adrift in an exotic sea of humanity, washing along in its day to day tides. We may never understand the forces at work below the surface but, soon enough, we understand the routine and the rhythm of daily life.
Besides, it seems to us that culture is only one layer of understanding and that people are more similar than many would like to admit. The mothers speak to their babies the same way in every language, the fathers lift their children onto their shoulders with the same simple joy everywhere. The young men pose and the young girls flirt with a thousand cultural variations but basically the same message and purpose. The old men walk around the mighty Elephant with the same misty look, remembering the sheer joy of their youthful strength and passion and wondering, like the old Ulysses, if life will hold one more adventure.
And above it all, people are kind to strangers, and this propels us on. Each time we tell the story of our journey in return for a favour done, we carry forward the expectations of yet another soul. For it seems that the idea of the journey transcends culture and that there is a universal belief that to journey among strangers is an honourable thing, worth doing for its own sake.
In late January 2008 on a rainy Tuesday, we stopped at a busy, muddy intersection at a small market town in the south of the Riff Mountains of Morocco. The policeman on duty saw us stop and check the road in both directions obviously considering which way to go. He left his post and walked over to us and signalled the question “can I help”. We confirmed the direction we needed to take. He then indicated the broader question, “where are you going”. We told him our story in a few mixed words of English, French and Arabic and a lot of sign language. A huge smile came over his face and he said to us in a few words.
“So, you and your wife go on your bike. You go to all the world’s countries and see all the world’s peoples. Good luck! Good luck!”
Perhaps that night he went home and said to his little daughter, “you will never guess what happened today. A man and a woman came to our town. They were wearing space suits and riding on a puny elephant. They told me they were going to see all of the world’s peoples and all of their places. I gave them a gift. I gave them a smile and a wish, and they said that they would carry it over the Riff, over the high mountains, across the endless wheat plains and through the forest of the bear. And they said that they would take it to the warm Pacific and cast it into the air and it would float back to me”.
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