Why I Have Not Yet Been To Australia (And The Beauty Of Not Speaking The Local Language)
A friend ran a race in Australia few months ago, and ended up staying for months. When I mentioned that I have not yet been, he cautioned me against going.
“You may never come back!”, he smiled. I mumbled something (lame) about the cost of flights, and how my knees do not fit between the aeroplane seats. His plan? To go back as soon as he can.
I’d love to travel to Australia and New Zealand one day.
Over the years, my social network has grown to include many Aussies whose faces I’d love to see. The deserts, the mountains, the (almost) jungle.
The delicious accent where you can’t help but stare at the lips of the speaker.
The lazy, or perhaps, just efficient, habit of swallowing letters, and word endings. While Americans, eternally in a hurry, shortened “Yes” to decisive “Yeah” or a clipped “Yep”, Australians say “Yee”. The last “e” sound drags on for a bit, before dissipating into the air. Slowly.
When in doubt, abbreviate. Sunglasses turn into “sunnies”, and chewing gum into “chewie”. The whole thing is either really cute, or annoying as hell, I can’t quite decide.
In few days, I will cross the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, my 25th country. I have plans to visit Russia, Nepal, Iceland and Italy – all within the next few years. And Australia is still not on the list.
The real reason is, of course, not the price of the flights. It is less tangible, more subjective, and is also the reason I have not yet visited UK, or New Zealand.
Going to a country where English (however, quirky) is spoken, seems like… cheating. That can’t be “real” travel, can it?
[English speakers who think along the same lines may want to avoid Netherlands and Sweden – not only every barista and bartender speak English, but they also switch to it, as soon as they realize you are not from Netherlands – excited to practice their language skills.]
I realize how ridiculous that sounds, however, growing up, travel came to mean “outside the country”, and “different language + different currency”. This is also why I am always momentarily confused when Americans refer to their Toronto visit as “travel”.
Lessons learned from having to navigate a country where you do not speak the language cannot be beat. Some find this incredibly stress-inducing. Hence, organized tours and English speaking guides.
Me, I find it exhilarating, humbling and pathetically hilarious. All at the same time.
After a 5-hour flight, you can go from a grown-ass adult to a babbling toddler.
You figure out what is truly important. Real fast.
Hello, please, sorry.
I’ll have a beer.
Where is the bathroom.
You have to use facial expressions, vocal inflections, with plenty of gestures and body movements thrown in. Hell, it’s a workout.
Try explaining to a local in Nicaragua that does not speak English that you are participating in an extreme endurance event called Survival Run, without using your whole body.
Sarcasm does not work if you do not speak the language, so you have to find other creative ways of being funny. See above – try explaining Survival Run to a Nicaraguan.
You can no longer have prolonged discussions on the topics of your expertise (be it psychology or computer programming). Instead, you talk about food, kids, dogs, and weather.
On the other hand, you will be surprised to learn how much can be discussed with only few words, and lots of mutual desire to understand and be understood.
Nohelia is the woman who owns the little homestay in Nicaragua, where I spent some time both last year and this year. She is 34, and rents out rooms as well as space for tents and hammocks to tourists.
Her and I managed to discuss love, marriage and relationships, our respective family trees, as well as the impact of birth control on birth rates in Nicaragua. [According to Nohelia, before birth control, most women started having children as early as 15, and had 10-18 children – often one every year. With the introduction of condoms and birth control (you can imagine appropriate gestures here), the number of children per woman fell to 3-4, and most women are starting to have children around the age of 20].
Below is how we got around not knowing words for “sibling”, “sister” and “brother”. Start with “mother” and “father”, and draw family trees. Nohelia has seven siblings. I have one.
And then I was explaining that sometimes “c” is prounced as a “k” sound – “practice” with a “k” in the middle, just like “cat” has a “k” sound in the beginning.
You also have to be nice. In order to be motivated to try and understand you, and your full body theatrics, people have to like you.
It is much harder to be an asshole in a country where you do not speak the language.
Now… you ponder the above, and I’m going to try and figure out how to get to my next destination in Nicaragua without speaking Spanish.
So far, a woman at a coffeeshop overheard where I was going, and not only explained exactly how to get where I was trying to get to, but also rattled off the prices I should be paying for the bus/taxi/bike combo commute (and not a penny more, she insisted).