Other than their safety, the other big fear that people commonly share with us is the difficulty in communicating. Ok, they’re convinced it’s safe – but how will we tell people what we want? Our answer is that you’d be amazed how easy it is! Charades, much like Coke and McDonald’s seem to be a world-wide phenomenon. You don’t need to be able to say, “I’d like two tickets to…”. All you need is two fingers, the name of the place you want to go and to write down or point to the date if it’s not a same-day ticket. Done. Want a sleeper car? Put both hands together and tuck them under your side-leaning head while closing your eyes. We GUARANTEE you that the person selling tickets will figure it out. Rubbing our fingers against our thumb has never failed to mean “how much?” and really, what else could you want to know when you’re looking at something in a store? No need to learn how to say, “I don’t speak….”, or “I don’t understand” – it’s obvious – trust us!
Ok, you’re thinking, that’s great for the easy stuff, but surely you sometimes need to communicate with people something that can’t be conveyed with charades? Well, yes. Now, luckily, you’re reading this – which means that you speak English. A great choice for travel, since it’s THE most widely spoken language on Earth. There are many more second-language speakers of English than those who speak it as their native tongue. All that adds up to the chances that there’s someone who can translate for you being very good. But what if there isn’t? Some countries surely have very few people who speak English, right?
Well, yes. We found very few English speakers in China. Which led to one of the most interesting experiences we had there. Wendy wanted to buy a necklace. So we were in a big department store, and after quite a bit of charades, finally managed to figure out that we were to carry the sales slip over to the cash, pay for the necklace, and then come back and pick it up. Okay, we worked that one out (with the incredible patience of the sales lady). But then she kept trying to tell us something else. She was pointing to some sign that was hanging from the ceiling. It looked like some kind of temporary announcement, like a sign announcing a sale, but obviously we had no idea what it said. We couldn’t figure it out. We’d paid. We had the necklace. What more could there be? Finally, she motioned for us to stay still, and she ran around the counter. She motioned again for us to follow her, and then lead us down some back staircase.
At this point we were beyond confused. This was a big, modern, beautiful department store, and here we are, following some sales lady down a back staircase? Um, why? We got to the bottom of the staircase and found ourselves in the atrium of the department store. There was some huge display set up, and people lining up – for something. We still couldn’t figure out what on Earth was going on. The sales lady left us in line, and motioned for us to stay. She ran off and came back with some green tea and some snack cakes which looked like the Wagon Wheels we’d eaten as kids. (Wagon Wheels are a snack food in Canada and some other countries which have a marshmallow centre and are covered in a chocolate flavoured coating.) She seemed to be suggesting we could have two green teas, or two of the snack cakes. She kept pointing at our sales receipt, and then back at the snacks. At this point it somehow dawned on us what was going on. From what we understood, there was some sort of sales promotion going on. Buy so much worth of goods, get a free iced tea or other prize. In the end, we chose one of each, and thanked the sales lady profusely, who seemed embarrassed but also pleased that we seemed happy with our prize.
While we obviously enjoyed our snacks the bigger prize was the whole experience. Here we were, half a world away from home, totally oblivious to any promotion, and basically confused most of the time. There was no reason for this lady to take the time to try to explain it to us, much less lead us downstairs and help us select our winnings! We would obviously never have known, much less complained, had she just ignored it and let us go without them. But, she took the time to make sure we got our prize and in so doing summed up beautifully what we’ve learned about people while traveling.
Most of us, despite what you see on the news, are really incredibly nice and helpful. Sure, we’ve run into some people while traveling we’d rather not have met. But the amazing thing has always been just how many more people are like that lovely sales lady in Xian, rather than what you might imagine is waiting for you. So get out there! Go explore! For all you know, your Wagon Wheels are waiting!