Words and photos: Beth Puliti
Originally published in Issue #39
We cross the border into Cambodia on a Tuesday in December. It’s the “coolest” time of year to visit—in quotes because we’ve arrived after spending two months in the Himalayas. Where early morning frost formed on teahouse windows. Where snow crunched under our tires. Where every piece of clothing I layered on wasn’t enough. Where it was actually “cool.”
At this moment, 100 degrees Fahrenheit feels like I’m pedaling on the surface of the sun. My skin stings in protest to being so near to the equator. Beads of sweat mixed with sunscreen blur my vision and my saturated wool T-shirt is now twice its weight. I’m a literal hot mess.
I’m also irrationally hungry. Hot and hungry is a bad combination in any situation, but it’s truly the worst bike touring duet ever. With each turn of the pedals my stomach rumbles audibly. Scouring the side of the rural road for any sign of sustenance, I spot a food cart at long last and beeline for the steaming pots of, um…
“Do you have any food that’s vegetarian?” I ask timidly, looking at the unrecognizable options before me. The woman running the roadside restaurant looks at me blankly. “Um, vegetables?” I try again. “Anything without meat?” Her lips curl upward into a bemused smile and she can’t hold back her laughter—not at me, but at the words coming out of my mouth. It’s as if they are the funniest thing she’s heard in her life.
I know better. I’ve been at this for 17 months. But after spending the last two months in Nepal, a country that speaks English surprisingly well, my foreign communication skills regressed. Waiting until I was can’t-think-straight hungry didn’t help things. Several weeks back, a group of middle school students asked me what it’s like to be in a country that doesn’t speak my language. It brought back memories of a talk I attended where the bike tourer admitted this exact fear paralyzed him to the point he had spent years bike touring in every English-speaking country before working up the courage to tour someplace where the only shared language was a smile.
Don’t let fear get in the way of your travels abroad. Be it Cambodia or Kyrgyzstan, these tried-and-true methods of communication can help on your next international excursion:
First and foremost, attempt to learn a little bit of the language.
While Singapore remains the only country I’ve shared a language with, English is widely spoken in many of the places I’ve visited. That said, I don’t rely on it and I don’t expect natives to speak it. So I try to learn a bit of the local language in each country. It sounds daunting, but you don’t have to hold a meaningful conversation, you just need to know what you can eat bez myasa, spasibo (without meat, thank you). Natives will be impressed with your efforts and in turn make more of an effort to help you.
Speak through gestures.
It’s probably no surprise that sometimes the easiest language to communicate in is mime. Using visual clues, I’ve “asked” where to eat food, where to sleep, how far away the next town is, etc.
Carry pictorial flashcards.
As a traveler with a unique diet, I need to communicate more than others when eating out at a restaurant or buying food at a market. In these situations, I have a handful of laminated flashcards that I show to the wait staff or store employee to indicate what I am in search of. A simple Google image or clip art search before you set out on an international bike tour can provide you with myriad images to convey what you might commonly need to seek out on the road, whether it’s specific food or a place to pitch your tent. It’s not fail safe, but it works most of the time.
In every country I’ve visited on this bike tour, people have been receptive, understanding and helpful—even if my native language is so foreign-sounding, it’s laughable. That Khmer-speaking Cambodian woman eventually opened up each steaming pot lid to reveal its contents to me so I could choose something that looked appropriate. Don’t get discouraged; get creative. The world is full of good people who are happy you’re visiting their foreign land.