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Close Encounters of the Word Kind

Mark Twain believed that travel was fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. I’m not sure that’s universally true, but it does gives you an almost inexhaustible fund of anecdotes. I can sit for hours in the communal areas of the hostels, telling and listening to amusing, instructive, or favourite travel tales, something I generally can’t do back at home with non-travellers.

I have dozens of stories about encounters with locals or other travellers, some of which are linguistic in nature. Because it makes a considerable difference to the reception you get from people you meet. Other travellers are grateful when you use your skills to help them in places where little English is spoken. It can also help you to avoid being ripped off. But the greatest reward comes from encounters with the native speakers in any country. They are always pleased if you’ve picked up the usual pleasantries, but they warm to you even more if you’ve made an effort to learn how to hold a proper conversation.

The first language I mastered with any fluency while travelling was Indonesian. In the tourist centres like Bali, many people speak some English. But when I explored other, less visited parts, my studies proved invaluable.

On one trip, I spent a month paragliding around Lake Maninjau on Sumatra. The views from above the lake are breathtaking. But there are high-voltage power lines between the take-off and the landing field, and if you don’t get high enough to cross them, you have to ‘land out’ on the rice terraces. I’d been warned that if I came down on growing crops, there was a ‘fine’ imposed by locals – about ten English pounds, which is a huge amount in Indonesia. One afternoon, in very light conditions, I had to land behind the lines, and I’d already picked out some likely spots on previous flights. One very small field had been cleared so I aimed for the far edge, then turned and carefully collapsed the paraglider so that it ended up completely within the cut area. Two women, working in an adjoining field, came over to talk to me. Neither spoke any English. One, on learning that I was single, asked if I would marry her and take her to England to have her teeth fixed! There was a huge gap where her two front teeth used to be. While we were talking, two men arrived, bearing machetes. They started to tell me about the ‘fine’ in halting English, when one of the women told them I spoke Indonesian. So they explained that any damage to the crops had to be paid for. I replied in the same language that I was perfectly willing to pay for any damage I had caused, then pointed to my paraglider and said with a big smile, “which is none whatsoever!” They looked at each other, a little uncertain, then smiled back, sat down and joined our conversation.

Later, exploring around the lake, I stopped for lunch at a small restaurant. There were already two patrons present, both French, who didn’t speak any Indonesian. The owner didn’t speak any English. I found out what the two visitors wanted, and explained to the owner. Then I spent a very pleasant hour with the visitors comparing notes over our meal.

I went to Kelimutu on Flores to see the volcanic lakes. One afternoon, a group of us took a minibus to a nearby village where all the women made ‘ikat’, a traditional local textile in deep earthy colours. The moment we arrived, everyone stopped working and laid out their blankets on the hedges either side of the narrow main street. I was disappointed, since I’d come to get some photos of the old looms in use. So, after a brief conversation with one lady, she posed for me and I got the shots. Of course, she now felt that I was obliged to buy something. I explained, rather cheekily, that I had brought my friends with me, and that they were the ones looking for souvenirs. Fortunately for me, one of the other tourists did buy something from her. But she was persistent, telling me I should buy one for my wife. I told her I didn’t have one. Later, as we were leaving the village, she came up to me with her daughter, who was eighteen, and explained that her daughter was single as well. Her intentions were not in any doubt, so I made my apologies and left hastily...

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