Dec. 12th, 2015

unallersimple: (hectopus)
I was chatting to a friend on Skpye the other day who told me that she doesn't feel able to visit a country where she doesn't speak the language. She wondered how I did it and that got me thinking about how I get by. I've come up with four reasons.

The first is privilege. I was born in a country where my mother tongue is one of the most dominant languages in the world. The only country I've been to where I couldn't use English to get by was Lithuania!

The second is research. I read and plan as much as possible beforehand. I print off maps, find out bus times, learn a few basic words of the language if I can't speak it already etc. etc.

The third is the international language of mime! Walk into a cafe and don't know whether it does food as well as drinks? Mine eating. Looking for a broom to sweep the floor at the guesthouse? Mime sweeping. Man at the ticket office holds two fingers up to tell me entry costs 200 rupees. It's amazing how much information gestures can convey!

The final and most important reason is the kindness of strangeness. I feel this is especially true for a young looking woman like myself; people see me and instinctively want to make sure I'm ok.

Today I was reminded, as I am every day, of how much I rely on the kindness of others to get by when I'm traveling.

I was taking a bus from Dambulla to Kandy. I walked to the bus stop and began the usual process of taking a bus in Sri Lanka; pointing at the nearest bus and saying the destination I want to get to out loud. "Kandy?" I ask. The conductor shakes his hand from side to side to mean no. I walk off to the next bus but am tapped on the arm. He points to a spot on the pavement a few meters away and says something I don't understand. So I wait where he points and sure enough, within ten minutes a bus has come. This one happens to have Kandy written on the front so I'm know I'm good, but half the buses I've caught haven't had any English on the destination sign. I jump on board and am the last person who can fit on from the front entrance as the bus is jammed full. With one large rucksack on my back and a small one on my front I hold on tight as the bus goes rocketing off down the road at breakneck speed, doors still open. I'm the only foreign person on the bus.

Within minutes people are gesturing and pointing for me to put my large sack next to the driver. I hesitate as it doesn't look like anywhere I should be putting luggage, but a man lifts my bag off my back and puts it down there. An elderly lady several rows down is calling out to me. Several women next to me push me down the aisle past those who are standing. The elderly woman sits me down in her seat. I hope she is getting off at the next stop because I always give up my seat for my elders, not the other way round!! Thankfully she does. I'm grateful as I can't balance on these buses standing up no matter how hard I try. I think the locals know foreigners are not used to this! Some time later the conductor reaches me, and I ask how much to Kandy. He gestures for me to open my wallet and takes 100 rupees (about 45p), then gives a handful of change.

The journey progress as normal for the next few hours. At each stop people get on and people get off, there's an orderly chaos to these cramped conditions somehow.

At one point the bus is so full a young woman puts her bag on my lap without asking, then leans on my shoulder to keep her balance whilst we are flung from side to side!

Once we reach Kandy I pull out the map showing the location of the train station where I need to buy my ticket onwards to Ella in four days time. I'm peering out the windows, craning my neck to try a spot a landmark or a steet sign I can recognise. The conductor taps me on the arm, nodding and smiling at me, reassuring me that it's not time to get off yet. Eventually we reach the station and he helps me off the bus with my large backpack. (The two steps come to waist hight and I'm only little!)

Train ticket bought I am now able to follow the map to my hostel to check in which is a 15-20 minute walk away. However I get lost so stop to ask for directions. The man I chose doesn't speak English, so calls over someone else who works at the garage. He can't work out where I want to go from my map, so calls over someone else! That man doesn't know either, but I know my sense of direction is good so I can't be far out. The second man makes a phone call and reads the address on my hostel booking to someone. Phone call finished, he offers to walk me to the hostel. I thank him for the offer but tell him I'll walk. He points me the right way to go and I'm there in two minutes.

Upstairs in my hostel I meet a couple from Australia. They have travelled round the island south to north which is the opposite direction to me. So we swap travel tips and answer each other's questions and they give me recommendations for good places to eat in Ella.

This is why if I see people stood looking confused in my own country I always ask if I can help them. This is why I lent my adapter to someone who forgot theirs, and why I took a young British women who was upset and alone on a day trip to the beach last week and gave her loads of travel advice. Because when you go somewhere new, the kindness of strangers is what gets you through.

I will never forget the woman who drove me to safety at 4am last week. Or the person who gave me an expensive travel card in Sydney. Or the time a group of young Japanese people saw me reading on the beach alone and took me out for dinner. These are just a few examples but there are, of course, many more.


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