Crashed airplanes and aviation accidents. They’re something we all hate to see, but at the see time also find deeply fascinating. They toy with our fears and with the small part of our reptilian brain that still can’t accept that mankind has managed to depart our terrestrial existence. They are also often an even bigger and more extreme version of the old cars we periodically find and photograph – entranced by how such resilient and seemingly permanent creations can so quickly be reclaimed by nature.…
Whoof. Woof. Wolf? Our ears were bombarded by a chorus of dog sounds as we stepped out of our vehicle and onto pristine white snow at the Wapusk Dog sledding headquarters. The dogs knew we were there, they had heard us arrive and could no doubt smell our scent on the air. It excited them, energized them, and they weren’t afraid to show it. A run was coming – and like a typical house dog enmeshed in the intoxicating excitement over a walk or the chance to take a drive, these dogs were beside themselves with anticipation.
As we made our way from our small bus into the small, warm two room structure that serves as office, gathering and de-thaw point I silently took stalk of our good luck. Not only had the brutal wind from the day before subsided, but the low hanging clouds had dumped their snowy burden and given way to partially blue skies. On the horizon, just over the trees we were able to spot an unusual northern phenomena – a sun dog – visible on clear and particularly cold days, these phenomena create what appear to be fake suns, with a halo effect as light is reflected off of the ice in the air. After stopping to enjoy the view, I chuckled to myself. What better omen to dog sled under than a sun dog? Right?
Smiling we piled into the small room and took our seats on the benches that lined two of the four sides. The other two served as home to a wonderful wood stove, and a table full of hot tea, coco and biscuits. Our host, veteran dog sledder Dave Daley, dove straight into a fascinating introduction to dog sledding, how it works, some of the commands, and regional competitions. He elaborated on a musher’s relationship with his dogs, about some of the long trails which he had done, and which were available in the area. He also talked a bit about the Hudson Bay Quest, a race he had founded and which is a brutally difficult 200 mile long dog sled race through some of Manitoba’s most rural regions. It quickly became obvious that not only did Dave enjoy dog sledding, he lived it and breathed it.
When it comes to sports involving animals, I’m always a bit cautious. Far too often the animals aren’t treated properly and are used, abused and disrespected. I remember with particular distaste my first, and last trip to the horse tracks several years ago. The winning rider pushed his horse to hard, and failed to allow it to cool down. The end result? The horse collapsed dead of a heart attack. It was despicable. After hearing Dave talk about his dogs, and watching him interact with them it quickly became clear that these animals are part of his family. He cares for them, watches out for them, respects them, and goes out of his way to treat them well. While I’m sure there are dog sledders who mistreat their animals, Dave’s dogs were well fed, well cared for and well treated. He and his team even went so far as to use dog slippers – small booties to protect the dog’s paws from sharp ice and the cold during a run. Dave and his team were about as opposite as possible from the heartless and irresponsible horse jockey I saw years ago. So, for those eager to try dog sledding, but who might have ethical concerns – Wapusk Adventures and Dave are a great option.
After our intro to dog sledding we were introduced to the dogs and the kennel. The first thing that surprised me was just how different the dogs were. These were not your picture perfect made-for-Hollywood pure bred huskies. These were real sled dogs – a wonderful mixture of different mixes, most of which were obviously part huskie, but how much huskie was in each dog varied significantly. Some looked like they had the subtle influence of wolf lineage, while others looked like they might have hints of Lab or German shepherd. Perhaps I’m easily impressed, but once again I found myself nodding in appreciation. The dog’s diversity seemed to further re-affirm Dave’s relationship with his animals. This wasn’t an exercise in glamour or showman ship. It was about the animals, about his relationship with them, and about the sport.
As Dave’s team prepared two sleds, he introduced us to a number of puppies he was training. Though still only a few months old, it was clear that they were already forming a tight relationship with Dave. As he crouched in their kennel and discussed how important the bond between musher and dog was, they overwhelmed him. Licking him, nuzzling him, and flopping on their bellies in the hope of a quick scratch. Even at their young age, it was impressive how open they were to his touch. He could check their paws, their teeth, and their ears without the slightest sign of annoyance or resistance from the dogs.
Then, when it was feeding time they went into an excited frenzy. Dave explained the importance of teaching them to eat quickly, and cooperatively before lowering the sawed off bottom of a bucket into the center of the kennel. On his command the dogs pounced on the bucket full of broth, 5-6 noses per bucket eagerly slurping down the food. The dogs didn’t growl, snap, or jostle each other. Instead as they ate they all rotated simultaneously in a clockwise motion. The end result was 5 dog butts moving in formation – not unlike synchronized swimmers putting on a show. Then, less than a minute later it was over. The dogs licked their chops, and we moved closer to our sleds. It was almost time.
To our delight we learned that we were one of the first visits of the year who would get the chancel to sled on fresh snow. The previous day’s bitter cold had been worth it – instead of a wheeled sled, we’d be on a traditional sled. Dave and his fellow mushers introduced us once again to the commands, and then talked a bit about the dog’s hierarchy. Though it makes sense in retrospect, I was surprised to learn that the dogs are placed based on their behavior, training, experience, and place in the pack. An experienced musher knows his dogs, and knows where they best operate. At the front you have your lead dogs, followed in some cases by swing dogs, then your team dogs make up the majority of the pack, with two wheel dogs at the back. The heavier the weight of the sled, the more team dogs you add. All of which makes perfect sense in retrospect, but still managed to elicit a bit of surprise at the time.
It’s hard to convey just how excited the dogs were at the prospect of going sledding. Their excitement was such that it was almost all the mushers could do to keep them still long enough to get tied into their harnesses. Tails were a blur of fluffy flurry as they swept side to side, damp noses darting sharply left and right as the dogs socialized, interacted, and then alternatively tried to pull the sled forward by themselves.
The sleds could handle two of us at at time, plus a driver. Unfortunately (and quite understandably), we’d be helping stop and control the sled, but wouldn’t be doing any driving. We teamed up, and then watched in breathless anticipation as the first two sleds silently slipped forward. The only real sounds to be heard; the excited squeaks and giggles of our fellow group members and the light sound of bootied paws digging into the snow. As we waited for them to make their mile-long loop we danced around trying to keep warm. As a fun added bit of entertainment we would pause periodically to scoop up a hand full of dog food while raising our palms into the sky. Ever vigilant small birds were watching and would swoop down to perch on our extended hands while they timidly gobbled down the dry dog food.
Then, my time arrived. I’m not really sure what I expected; It to be uneven perhaps? To bounce along over the snow, to be loud and for the pull of each dog’s forward motion to bring with it a fresh jerk and lurch lugging the sled across the snow? The experience was nothing of the sort. At our musher’s command, I stepped up and off of the drag plate, used as a brake and to hold the sled still. One foot on either ski, hands on the rail in front of me – the dogs sprung forward into action. We didn’t lurch, so much as we slipped forward. The sled creaking ever so slightly as we glided atop the snow-turned ice. The dogs themselves loped along casually seemingly almost oblivious to the three bodies and large wooden cart they were lugging behind them.
Within moments we were up to speed, the freezing cold wind crashing against our bodies desperately trying to freeze our noses and eyes on contact. Slight tears slipped from the sides of my eyes in response – an involuntary bodily reaction to the wind and cold. I was amazed at just how casual and in control the dogs were. It reminded me of my ballroom dancing – at first it is overwhelming and there is no time between steps. Each new move is all consuming but then, when you grow accustomed to the pace and the speed you discover that you have luls and gaps in the flow where you can relax or style. It was the same for the dogs, who would periodically dart slightly to the side to scoop up a mouthful of snow, or in the case of one of our wheel dogs, play the role of Casanova pausing to flirt and sniff the dog beside him.
It is easy to see how one could quickly become addicted to dog sledding. The peace and tranquility of it was intoxicating and we were only on a brief loop on a rural road. Threading through a forest, surrounded by the Canadian wilds, I can only image is a truly magical experience. As our sled slid back into camp and we disembarked, I found myself itching for another loop or two. I’ll definitely do it again in the future when the opportunity presents itself. We rounded our the afternoon defrosting in front of the wood fire and listening to Dave’s stories. A wonderful conclusion to a great experience.
Part Three of this series features my time out on the Tundra with wild Polar Bears. Make sure to stay tuned and to read Part I which talks about Churchill, logistics, and pricing.
While most of a polar bear’s existence is spent in relative isolation, there are times – often during their great migrations – when they find themselves cued up and provided with the opportunity for casual social interaction. Bear tea time if you will. It is in these rare moments as the bears wait for Hudson Bay’s ice to freeze over that what start as tense encounters casually transition into relaxing play time and socialization.
This photograph shows two bears engaged in the early stages of one such meeting. We were incredibly lucky in that at various points in the day as many as four bears could be found in the immediate area of the Tundra Buggy Lodge where we were staying. Watching the bears go through their social rituals, establish a power hierarchy and make friends was a fascinating insight into these otherwise solitary, but highly intelligent creatures.
2012 was one of my best travel years to date. In it I added two new continents, four brand new countries and scratched some pretty major destinations off my bucket list. In addition to completing my first year in Copenhagen I made it to the United Arab Emirates, Scotland, England, Germany, Sweden, Zambia, Botswana, Italy, Turkey, Canada and the Czech Republic. Experiences ranged from my first time back in North America in 15 months where I came nose to nose with wild polar bears to an incredibly awkward Turkish Hamam experience to a week spent cooking over a charcoal brazier in rural Zambian villages. 2012 also saw me upgrade from my trusty Canon G11 to a Canon 600D, my first ever dSLR.
I feel like you have all been there with me throughout my many adventures. Your readership, support, comments, feedback and advice really means a lot and is part of what makes the hours, money, blood sweat and tears I put into this blog worth it. So, thank you.
Without further delay, I give you 42 of my favorite photos from 2012 in no particular order.
Lion cubs relaxing – South Luangwa, Zambia
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) – Istanbul, Turkey
A Lilac-Breasted Roller – Chobe, Botswana
Full moon setting as the sun rises – Churchill, Canada
A large leopard in the grass – South Luangwa, Zambia
One of many beautiful streets – Stockholm, Sweden
The last of my big three – Victoria Falls, Zambia
A young male pausing to stare us down in South Luangwa, Zambia
Spices at a traditional souk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Children clowning for the camera in a small village in Luapula Province, Zambia
A Zebra relaxing just before sunset in South Luangwa, Zambia
One of my favorite marble statues – Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany
A mosque at sunset during Istanbul’s worst storm in 25 years – Istanbul, Turkey
Children showcasing their zeal for life – Luapula Province, Zambia
A particularly beautiful street – Perugia, Italy
Hamish the world famous Highland Coo (Cow) – Kilmahog, Scotland
Fishing boats in Antalya harbor – Antalya, Turkey
This beautiful male leopard has survived with only one eye – South Luangwa, Zamiba
Dancing or fighting? Perhaps a bit of both – Churchill, Canada
Dubai from the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building – Dubai, United Arab Emirates
A large leopard warning a nearby hyena not to come closer – South Luangwa, Zambia
The famous rock chimneys that decorate and define the Cappadocia region – Goreme, Turkey
A moment of love and companionship – Orvieto, Italy
The historic streets of Gamla Stan – Stockholm, Sweden
Elephants posturing near a watering hole – South Luangwa, Zambia
Fishermen at sunset – Samfya Lake, Zambia
An elephant convoy walking single file – Chobe National Park, Botswana
Polar Bears play fighting while waiting for the ice to freeze – Churchill, Canada
View out over the Quirang – Isle of Skye, Scotland
A lioness chewing on a baby hippo’s head – South Luangwa, Zambia
A Swedish bike with a traditional twist – Stockholm, Sweden
The night sky over the village of Chisunka – Luapula Province, Zambia
A lion casually stalking alert Impala – Chobe National Park, Botswana
An abandoned boat – Isle of Skye, Scotland
Looking down on Perugia’s beautiful rooftops – Perugia, Italy
Polar Bear tears – Churchill, Canada
A baby Baboon preparing for launch – Chobe National Park, Botswana
A mother and her babies resting – Stockholm, Sweden
Hard at work preparing and seperating corn kernels for sale – Chisunka, Zambia
A close up of a beautiful piece of art in the Antalya Archaeological Museum – Antalya, Turkey
A very alert Impala – South Luangwa, Zambia
d’Artagnan, my brother’s cat – Luapula Province, Zambia
It was nearly impossible to select 42 of my favorite shots from the last year. There are a lot which I absolutely love that didn’t make this post. If you enjoyed these shots, please head over to my flickr albums and continue browsing. You may have noticed that this post only includes one photo from Berlin, and does not include any shots from England, the Czech Republic or Denmark. I wasn’t doing much shooting in England or Germany and I have not edited my photos from the Czech Republic yet so you’ll have to stay tuned for those! I chose to exclude Denmark because it is my current place of residence. I’ll be doing a special post featuring 10-20 shots from the past year dedicated specifically to my life here in Copenhagen.
The photo at the start of the post (technically #43) is from the traditional spice markets in Dubai, UAE.
Most of the photos in this post were shot on a Canon T3i (600D) while using either a 18-135mm lens, 55-250mm lens, or a 50mm f1.4 lens.
I would LOVE to know which of these shots is your favorite, or if you have other photos I’ve taken over the past year which you think should have made the list but did not.
Thank you again so, so much for all of your support. Your comments mean a lot to me! I cannot wait to see what adventures 2013 brings!
The chance to go on safari is a fun and exciting opportunity. It tugs at our heart strings, teases us with adventure, and can bring to mind visions of early explorers and naturalists cutting their way through lush jungle in the pursuit of new and exotic animals. While the realities of modern day safari going have changed significantly, there should be no doubt in your mind that most of the adventure is still there. After all, you’re essentially taking the concept of a zoo and inverting it. In place of locking the animals in small enclosures and then parading a procession of wild and savage humans past, you’re tossing a small group of humans into a vehicle while encouraging some of the world’s most powerful and majestic animals to take a closer look.
With three safaris under my belt I dare not claim to be an expert. Luckily those three safaris have been diverse, action-packed, and have provided the following insights which I’m eager to share with you. These experiences converted me from a safari skeptic to a safari addict and were quite honestly some of the most magical travel experiences I’ve ever had. The suggestions in this post are based on observations and conversations taken from my six day South Luangwa luxury safari, three day Chobe National Park camping safari, and three day wild polar bear safari in Churchill Manitoba. For the sake of this post, I’m excluding various day trips that I’ve done which might be considered casual safaris (eg: A penguin excursion in Tierra del Fuego) as I don’t think they qualify as the type of safari relevant to this post.
Pick Your Destination
While all three safaris were wonderful experiences the South Luangwa Safari and the Churchill Safari offered a much richer and more appealing experience. Exploring all comes down to one fundamental factor: location. This seems straight forward enough but it’s actually more complicated than you might initially assume. It is essential that you pick a safari with the overall location in mind. When we ultimately chose South Luangwa for our safari, there were a lot of factors that influenced us. These included time of year, location in the park, the animals that are present in the park; and the size of the park. What we also learned to look at were the types of regulations in place for the safari operators. These include things like the hours that are available for safari (we were allowed early evening drives in South Luangwa but in Chobe had to be back in camp by 6:30 sharp), existing facilities, and the number of safari operators/vehicles licensed in the park.
Go For Immersion
On a more localized level it is important to understand that not all safari operators have equal access. The operator I used in South Luangwa was Shenton Safaris. The operator I was with in Churchill was Frontiers North/Tundra Buggy. In both instances these operators had their camp/lodge situated deep within the park. Shenton’s Kaingo camp is one of the most rural in South Luangwa, while Frontiers North has a special (exclusive) concession that allows them to operate their mobile Tundra Buggy Lodge in Wapusk National Park.
While not guaranteed this translates to less competition and better access. It’s important to understand that the typical safari usually only covers a few square miles. So, while I initially expected that a six day safari would lead to six days of new terrain and new roads, I learned that it meant six days covering the same few square miles. This makes sense as the parks that safaris are in are only so big, there’s usually only so much “prime” real estate, and because the animals themselves tend to be quite mobile. This also means that the more safari vehicles you have in a set area the more disruption, competition and…well…traffic you’re going to have. Nothing kills the feel of a safari like a line of 8 or more land-cruisers jockeying for position around two annoyed lions. Interestingly, this held true for both my African and my Canadian safaris. In both cases the best moments occurred within a mile of our central base – something that attests to the value of being situated in the right location.
Location, Location, Location
In the case of my Canadian safari, being based out of the Tundra Buggy Lodge provided incredible opportunities that all of the others missed. Despite spending the entire day on the tundra for three days in a row, the best viewing typically occurred in the first two hours and within a quarter mile of our starting location. Which is significant because all of the safari goers using other companies or doing day trips had to spend nearly an hour and a half in commute time each way to get in/out of the park. In short, most of the best action was over by the time they started their day. It also meant that we got to enjoy the sunrise out on the Tundra every morning which was ideal for photography and made for magical moments. In the case of our South Laungwa Safari, the structure was slightly different but the same was true with easy access in the early morning hours and the opportunity to enjoy the sunset before engaging in a brief nighttime safari each evening.
Less Is More
Remember: Fewer people per vehicle is always better. In a safari experience the animals will likely appear all around the vehicle. This means that you’ll want to be able to see them no matter where they are. If you’re sandwiched into a bus sitting between two people you’re not going to be able to see the animals properly or to get the photos you want. The more people on a vehicle, the more motion and the more noise. Unfortunately the concept of not scaring the animals seems to be overly complex for some people. Fewer people makes for much more valuable and enjoyable experiences when it comes to safaris so look at vehicle size and for safaris with caps on the number of people per group.
Do As The Wise Do
My final suggestion is to chase the experts. A good guide is every bit as important as your location. Good guides that are photographers and/or have worked with professionals from organizations like National Geographic are worth their weight in gold. The trips, guides, and safari companies they use tend to cost a little more. Better guides and fewer people are worth it. Even if you can’t book with one of the companies that National Geographic, professional photographers, and professional cinematographers use or have worked with in the past it’s a great way to figure out where to book your next safari. In the lead up to my recent trips I never imagined I’d be seeing first-hand, up close and personal, the type of amazing moments that make National Geographic and specials like Planet Earth so staggeringly beautiful.
There Are Great Budget Safaris Out There
If you find yourself on a tight budget, don’t despair. While I’ve focused on how to select the best safari experience, that doesn’t mean that more backpacker friendly options (like my Chobe safari) won’t be wonderful! While the immersion and quality of experience of the Chobe safari was not the same as the other two, the price was much more practical. I was able to see a number of amazing animals and was extremely happy with each of my safari experiences. I’ve been told I have great safari karma, but more importantly it all comes down to doing your research, having a laid-back/flexible approach, and enjoying each moment and each surprise as it comes. Don’t be afraid of being bored while on your safari. If you’ve got a good guide and are are in a great location you can easily spend days chasing the animals without feeling bored or tired.
As a final thought, make sure you take a powerful camera lens with you on your safari. While we were able to get extremely close to the animals, having my Canon 55-250mm lens made a significant difference in the quality of the photos I was able to take. The photos in this post were taken during safari on my Canon T3i (600D).
Have a safari tip of your own? I’d love to hear it!
**The Safari company I used in Chobe was Kalahari Tours which was booked through Jollyboy’s Hostel. My trip with Shenton Safaris was a paid family trip. My trip with Frontiers North was provided as a gift prize through a partnership with the Canadian Tourism Commission and Travel Bloggers Unite.
I’m a massive polar bear fan. It’s hard to give just one reason why. Perhaps it is their massive size or the exotic nature of their native regions. It may be their pension for making ridiculous looking faces. Or perhaps it’s because they serve as a powerful reminder of the cost and danger of climate change. Likely it’s all of the above. Regardless of the specific reason, seeing polar bears in their natural habitat has been on my list for a long, long time. When I made the decision to accept the University of Copenhagen’s invitation for my masters, I harbored the not-so-secret hope that I’d be able to partner with one of the Svalbard/Greenland tour groups based out of Denmark and leaving from Scandinavia to see the bears. Somehow that seemed like a more realistic way of seeing the bears than making the voyage from Arizona up to north/central Canada and into the heart of polar bear country. Which is odd, because the heart of Canada has been near the top of my travel list for a long time and makes far more sense for US-based travelers. Of course, with most cold and exotic climates the key challenge has been how to explore it on my limited budget and as a solo-traveler.
So imagine my excitement when I arrived at the Travel Bloggers Unite conference in Umbria, Italy and discovered that one of the sponsors – the Canadian Tourism Commission – was running a contest for two iPad 3s with the winner receiving an expense paid trip to Churchill, Manitoba along Hudson Bay to see the polar bears out on the ice and in their natural habitat. While rarely one to win a competition or prize I was, as you might imagine, pretty excited about the opportunity. It offered me the opportunity to knock out two birds with one incredible stone – a chance to see what I suspect to be some of the most beautiful natural beauty on earth while coming nose to nose with the great white bears of the north.
The rules were simple. We were all given a small bear and encouraged to tweet compelling photos of our bear with the hashtag #bearwatch. At the end of the second day a representative from the Canada team would review the bear shots and choose two favorites. The grand prize winner would then be invited to Canada to watch the bears.
My approach was to take a variety of shots as I went about my regular conference business. The shots covered a wide range of activities and moods – from fun and slightly inappropriate to classy and elegant. Ultimately, I’m not sure which bear shot sealed the deal (though it sounded like it was the sum effect of the series of shots) but I’m thrilled to say I won the grand prize. Which is to say that later this year (October or November depending on scheduling) I’ll be partnering with the Canadian Tourism Commission for a trip deep into the heart of Canada to explore some of the world’s most amazing territory while watching one of nature’s greatest predators amble across the frozen waters of Hudson Bay. An experience that I cannot wait to share with you all, and which I’ll be documenting (in part) via the brand new iPad 3 that came as a secondary prize.
There were a ton of great entries, and I encourage you all to head over to the Pinterest board that showcases them all. Canada has a lot to offer and has really made a strong effort over the last year or two to get the word out. Fellow TBU attendee and travel blogger Cherina of Quiet Wanderings recently did the same trip and took amazing shots. You can head over and check out her post here. I can’t wait to see more of the country and am counting the days until this fall when I’ll have the chance to explore a region I’ve previously only read and dreamed about.
Anyone have any exciting or odd facts about polar bears to share?
Each time we interact with a stranger there’s a significant amount of uncertainty. When that interaction occurs between people from different backgrounds, cultures, and languages that level of unknown is magnified significantly. To convey our background and express ourselves while reducing that uncertainty we dress a certain way, talk a certain way, and when it comes to travel, we present ourselves a certain way.
It’s a common desire among travelers to fit in. This has significant advantages in the form of increased safety, added opportunity for cultural immersion, and the chance for increased experiential engagement. However, it also makes it significantly harder for you to communicate basic information about yourself to the strangers you have an active desire to communicate with.
While we will almost always be readily identifiable as a visitor to locals due to the brands we wear, the camera slung around our shoulder, or the day-backpack we’ve got strapped to our backs it is fairly easy to start to blend in, should you desire it. At which point you’ll notice your interactions begin to change, both with locals and other travelers.
So, where does “Howdy” come into this?
The moment you open your mouth and utter a word the people you’re interacting with will know that you’re an outsider. Often, what they’ll have trouble identifying is where you are from, and how to engage with you. Unless, that is, you decide to help them. As an American from the southwest, that’s where the word howdy enters my equation.
With one word, I can share a wealth of information with the person I’m striking up a conversation with. It tells them I’m probably from the USA, that I’m a native English speaker, that I’m ok with a slightly more casual interaction, and that I’m likely friendly. One word used at the very onset of the conversation creates and establishes a baseline of common information upon which we can build a more comfortable interaction and less awkward conversation.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you always use a cultural identifier, only that you consciously add one to your vocabulary.
A Few Examples
The first time I realized the benefit of using a cultural identifier, howdy in this case, was during an off-season trip to the Greek island of Crete. I’d been on the road for 2+ months already, and was apparently dressing more like a European than an American. When combined with my international features I could have been from almost anywhere. Time and time again in stores, or when interacting with street vendors they would approach me and begin to work through a variety of languages. Most started with German, then switched to French, then often Italian before eventually growing slightly frustrated and defaulting to English. These were individuals I wanted to communicate with (otherwise a simple smile and shake of the head would have been sufficient), but with whom I was accidentally making communication significantly more difficult. The moment I started responding to their inquiry with the same smile, and a howdy we immediately began communicating more effectively.
Hostel common areas provide another excellent example. In these spaces there’s really only one well grounded assumption to be made – that the people you’re about to interact with could be from anywhere in the world. In these spaces the level of social uncertainty is magnified. While almost everyone is eager to socialize and interact, there’s a high level of uncertainty in the initial interaction. In these types of situations everyone is hungry for any hint that helps them relate and connect with the other people. Once again, this is a perfect chance to use a cultural identifier to help reduce uncertainty and build common ground.
A third is when locals or other tourists approach you with questions, which I find happens surprisingly often. These instances can be somewhat awkward, as you may or may not have a decent familiarity with the area or subject they’re asking about. They’ve approached you, a perfect stranger, with the assumption that you’re probably a local, and have already taken a social “risk”. One made more awkward if you don’t understand their inquiry, or if you have to ask them to re-state it. A process which can be accelerated, or avoided all together with a word or two right off the bat. The added benefit is that words like bonjour and howdy can be spoken immediately, even if the other person has already started to talk without being impolite.
Subtle Language Requests
To be fair, when you use a cultural identifier like howdy, you’re doing more than just expressing information about yourself. You’re also subtly inviting the other person to have the conversation in your native language. If you’d prefer to try and remain in the other person’s native language it may be worth considering what regional salute is suited to that language, or opening with your own cultural identifier and then adding a brief phrase in the local language. This tells them your native language, but then also indicates that you’re interested in continuing in their language.
Think about your interactions both while abroad, and with visitors in your home region. Where are you from? What words might you use to identify yourself? Can you think of a time when you used a cultural identifier, or perhaps did not and should have?
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Good Morning! Buon Giorno! Καλημέρα! Have you caught yourself dreaming about an international trip only to have that nagging voice in your head remind you that you don’t speak the local language? If you’re like many aspiring travelers I’ve talked to, you might eliminate destinations or entire trips because of language barriers. It causes uncertainty, especially in novice travelers, or those considering their first solo trip. It also can lead to the cancellation or re-direction of what would otherwise be incredible adventures.
Let me be blunt – it doesn’t matter. Knowing the language in (most) destinations is a nicety, one which will enrich your experience, but is anything but a necessity. Especially for a shorter, more casual trip, where you expect to travel for a week or two. I’ve traveled to 31 countries so far and spent more than 6 months on the road over the last 5 years. Even with all of that travel I’ve yet to have any major issues despite the fact that I only speak one and a half languages and use Google Translate on a regular basis to convert booking and information websites to English.
My native tongue is English which I supplement with terrible Spanish. I’m not talking, “Oh I’m fluent but I can’t write in Spanish”, I’m talking the leftover scraps of memory from Spanish classes my Freshman, Sophomore and Junior year of High School. I’m guessing that most of you have at least a tiny bit of Spanish or French under your belt. If not, don’t despair. There’s still hope.
The biggest roadblock to communicating internationally isn’t language…it’s fear. Fear of being lost and helpless, fear of being embarrassed and fear of making mistakes. The truth is everybody makes mistakes and nobody cares, heck the vast majority of people are just happy you tried. Lost and helpless? You’re more likely to get stepped on by an elephant.
When we are nervous our bodies start to mis-communicate. We become less expressive and more likely to avoid physical illustrations and gestures. Some 85% of communication is non-verbal. If you relax, accept that you’ll have a few confusing/awkward situations, put a warm smile on your face, and invest a little effort, you’re going to be able to communicate no matter where you are. Sure, you won’t be able to stop and ask to borrow some sugar, but you’ll still be able to engage, communicate and get around.
For good measure, make sure you always carry a small notepad and pen to write things down (eg: directions and the cost of items) or draw a picture of something you need. Also, don’t rule out continuing to talk and explain in English even after it has been established that you don’t understand the local tongue. While counter-intuitive, I observed this trick employed by locals while on the road. It recognizes that the essence of communication flows much more naturally when talking comfortably and leverages it. It gives people the opportunity to pick out words they may recognize, judge flow, tone, and makes it easier for you to gesture and engage. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating being an ‘ugly tourist’. Don’t be an individual who is exploring a country and assumes everyone should and must speak English.
There’s a huge difference in personal interactions when you are actively trying to communicate. While exploring a country without a knowledge of the local tongue make the added effort to learn ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, and ‘I’m sorry I don’t understand’. It’s always important to remember that it’s their country, their language, and, that YOU are a visitor in their home. Above all, if you follow a simple rule (don’t be a dick), you’ll find that the sky is the limit on human openness and hospitality.
Lastly, do your research and use your common sense. Do you need to know Italian for a trip to Rome and Florence in Italy? Probably not. Should you establish a more advanced understanding of the local language when preparing for a multi-month hiking trek across rural Brazil? Probably.
If you can practice a foreign language before (or during) your trip, jump on it! While the local language isn’t a requirement for travel, it is a huge factor in the richness. Basic communication will give you the warmth of a culture but it’s only through speaking the language that you can begin to truly understand and appreciate the depth.
Adventure and amazing people await. Don’t let baseless excuses hold you back. Get out there, meet amazing people, and learn about yourself as you discover new and amazing places. Who knows, you might even learn a fun word or two in the process!
Still not satisfied? Everyone I know speaks highly of Rosetta Stone’s line of language learning software.
*This post was originally published on GenJuice.com