We are often asked the same questions by different people any time we mention an upcoming trip. Usually, it goes something like this:
Q: Oh, wow! That country! Do you have relatives or friends there?
Q: Do you speak the local language?
A: No, not at all. Not unless it’s English, Russian, or slowly spoken Spanish.
Q: Why that country?
A: Because we haven’t been there before.
Q: Oh, so are you taking a tour?
A: No, we always plan our itinerary and travel on our own.
Q: But… how are you going to get around?
There is never a simple answer to that question. The reality is, we fumble around a lot until we figure it out. We get lost in cities, towns, villages, fields, and jungles. We ended up at the wrong airport in Tokyo, missed a train in Germany, chased an Uber in Mexico, and bought tickets for the wrong train car in Spain… The amount of times we were left dazed and confused at a train station/bus depot/airport is too many to count. In Thailand, we showed a local man a map and pointed to where we wanted to go. Confused, he stared at the map, suddenly flashed us a relieved smile, said the name of the place out loud, and walked away. We still had no idea which way to go, but at least now we knew how to pronounce the destination correctly.
We do our best to make ourselves understood. In Spain, I mimed washing my face and drying it off to a
hotel night attendant until she realized I needed a towel. I shivered in the most exaggerated manner and clattered my teeth until our Cambodian taxi driver turned off the AC. In China, I tried to purchase tooth floss in a pharmacy by imitating flossing. It didn’t go over too well. The pharmacist had no idea what the hell I was doing, and Victor broke into hysterical laughter, watching me perform a weird mouth-open dance.
A short list of things I was able to purchase at non-English speaking pharmacies – allergy nose spray in China (by pointing at my nose and sneezing), motion sickness pills in Thailand (by showing waves with my hand and then pretending to be dizzy and feigning throwing up), cough drops in Korean airport (by, well, coughing. Didn’t even have to pretend). Sometimes it’s English-speaking pharmacies that really throw you in for a loop. In India, Victor went to a pharmacy to get me something for food poisoning. He was immediately offered antibiotics, antidiarrheal medicine, packets of electrolytes to rehydrate, and … Viagra. When Victor purchased everything except Viagra, he was again offered Viagra. He told me this story as I was choking down a handful of pills and I had to stop myself to clarify that Viagra was, in fact, not in the mix.
Whenever our linguistical skills fail us, we stare at incomprehensible menus and end up ordering by pointing at other patrons’ plates. Half of the time, we don’t know what we are ordering or how to eat it. In Japan, at a local Izakaya, we randomly pointed at arbitrary symbols on the wall menu and were very happy to receive fried chicken. In a Brazilian supermarket, I purchased juice that needed to be diluted by seven parts of water to one part drink, tried chugging it straight out of the bottle, got confused, attempted to read the Portuguese label, and convinced myself that I possibly drank a cleaning solution instead of juice. I then, of course, demanded that Victor should try the concoction to credibly judge whether it’s edible or a floor cleaner. A few days later, we weren’t too hungry and decided to split one dish in an Italian restaurant and accidentally ordered a family-size dish meant to feed at least 6 people. In Cambodia, we almost bought a duck fetus egg, having mistaken it for a regular boiled egg. A kindly Cambodian woman explained “Baby!” while pointing at the egg and making a disgusted face. We profusely thanked her and backed away.
Despite all the misunderstandings and getting lost, we prefer traveling on our own. The availability of the Internet in foreign countries in the last few years has certainly made it easier with GPS maps and Google translate. We like to get away from the crowds and take the sights at our own pace without being rushed back to the tourist bus. But there are two times in the last fifteen years when we decided to get an individual tour instead of wandering around on our own, once in Egypt and once in India. Both times, we hired a private car and a driver/translator/guide and pre-planned our personalized itineraries with them. India was not safe to travel using public transportation at the time we visited, and Egypt’s public transportation was slow/non-existent in places, and having an English-speaking guide who was also a certified historian was a huge advantage. A great thing about having a guide, besides never getting lost or ordering a wrong thing, is being able to ask questions about local life and culture, food and politics, family life, and a million other banal questions one thinks of during a five-hour car ride between cities.