Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Found in Translation

It was the first time in years that my travels didn’t include a Mountain Equipment backpack, moldy shower curtains and sleeping on the couches of friends or near strangers. No, this trip would be in style. It would be all-inclusive, first-class and luggage with wheels. It would be a pair of white high heels instead of cement-covered shoes, and chartered buses instead of hitchhiking. There would be hot compresses on the plane, and magazines in my carry-on instead of burdensome travel guides. I was headed to the Dominican Republic for a weeklong Thanksgiving vacation with my cousin and two friends.

Apart from nearly getting hit by Hurricane Omar, the week was amazing. We were one of the few groups of Canadians at the resort, but that didn’t prevent us from making friends. On our second night in Punta Cana, we were walking to the club when an energetic girl ran up behind us to tag along. Sveta was on vacation alone, so we were more than happy to let her join our entourage for the night.

In turn, she introduced us to two fellow Russians she has also befriended at the resort. Both were in their mid-twenties and police officers back in Russian. The only problem? Unlike Sveta, neither Dima nor Anton spoke a word of English.

But for our group, it was a non-issue. A napkin was unfolded across the table, and pens were pulled out. Maps were drawn and names were written. It was hands-down the best game of pictionary that I’ve played in years. In the end, we spent three days hanging out with Dima and Anton. When a pen and paper weren’t handy, we’d draw in the sand or play pseudo games of charades. We’d search for common words and teach each other the names of basic nouns. “песок,” Anton said, pouring sand from his hand back to the ground. (And yes, as it turns out, vodka sounds roughly the same in both languages.)

I couldn’t help but think of my early days in Vanuatu, when I didn’t know the language and struggled to make myself understood, and to understand. I knew the language would come in time, but in the meantime I had to find a way to connect with people that didn’t involve words.

The skills of cross-cultural communication are the kind that you never lose, although they definitely need to be adapted to the context and the culture. It takes patience and perseverance, but most importantly, it takes a sense of openness. My own volunteer experience with Youth Challenge International definitely equipped me with these skills. I may not have packed carabineers, tarps or a medical kit for my latest trip, but I still brought along a sense of adventure and the desire to learn.

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