Traveling without Subtitles

I speak English pretty well. And after a few glasses of wine, I speak a pretty passable French. Pretty much every other language is a black hole for me. I’m not particularly good picking up new languages, and I don’t use them that often, so the idea of learning Italian for my once every 5 years trip to Italy or learning Thai for my three day visit in Bangkok was not particularly appealing. Yet I seem to manage pretty well in my travels. I’ve made it back to the airport or train station every time, and some of those times I probably couldn’t find my way around even in English.

The key to traveling without subtitles is to know going in to the situation that everything will not be perfect. Actually it will likely be far from perfect in some situations. But that’s just part of the adventure. Our recent trip to Ecuador highlighted this in a few ways.

Upon landing at Quito’s Sucre International Airport we were met by a driver with our name on a placard. This is the first major suggestion I have. Assuming that the price is reasonable, have the hotel you’re staying at arrange for the initial transportation. I know that I could have negotiated the cab line (and we did successfully later in the trip), but getting to the hotel to start off the trip takes that initial shock out of the arrival. Plus, even though most cabbies around the world are reasonable it does help protect you against the not so reasonable ones. Back to our driver – he spoke about 3 words of English. I speak about 50 words of Spanish, and I can’t conjugate verbs to save my life, but we managed to get by. We established that it was our first trip to Ecuador, that we were married, and that the waterfalls and flowers on the scenic ride were beautiful. Not too shabby.

The staff at our hotel spoke English, so that eased the trouble there, but the drive to the next location was basically a repeat of the first driver. This one spoke a few more words of English, plus he had some pictures on his cell phone, so we were able to talk about his kids and various other topics. Note: I recommend not having the driver playing with their cell phone and trying to show you pictures, but that was one that I had trouble relating to him due to my limited Spanish.

Our second stop in Ecuador was in Otavalo. While still a very tourist-focused section of the country, this is where my skills were truly tested, and we survived (relatively) intact. The Otavalo market is pretty famous, and though I am not a fan, we still had to experience it to figure that out. One of the common phrases in all the travel guides is something to the effect that the merchants expect to bargain with the customers. That is very, very difficult when not speaking the language. I know that one friend used a calculator to negotiate numbers back and forth in China, and that worked pretty well for him. The other option is to just not negotiate. With the prices that we were faced with the numbers were well within our budget range for souvenirs. We paid too much, but I’m OK with that. I consider it part of the cost of not speaking the language, and it was only a couple dollars.

In Quito we were faced with the taxi situation that I alluded to above. After arriving in the bus station coming in from Otavolo (which is a whole different story), we hopped in the cab at the front of the taxi line and I stated the name of our hotel (a pretty up-scale hotel in the old city). The driver just said no and looked at me quizzically. I tried the name of the road that the hotel is on and got the same response. At this point I reverted to Plan C: a local landmark that can’t be missed. Our hotel happened to be a block off the Plaza de la Independencia. Surely the driver had to know how to get us there, right? And he did. Conveniently the route from the bus station to the Plaza passed in front of our hotel, so we managed to get where we were going anyway.

As a last resort, point (at menus or translations in books, not at people), or just nod your head and smile. What’s the worst that could happen?

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.