An Illiterate Traveler

For the first time in my life I have experienced what it must be like to be illiterate. Until I started my world journey I hadn’t really considered what it would be like to not be able to read street signs, product labels in stores, advertising, books, magazines… but I now understand.

In many countries, like those in Asia, you see foreign words in both the native alphabet and the English Latin based alphabet, so you’re able to kind of figure out what it means. This is especially true in restaurants and with street signs. India uses the Hindi Devanāgarī alphabet while Cambodia has its’ Khmer alphabet, but both countries usually have bilingual signage that contains the native alphabetic characters and the words again in English.

It seems English has become the universale language that tourists everywhere use to get by in foreign countries and retailers use to help them make a sale. When I was in Vietnam I often watched as a German, French, Italian or Russian tourist order from a Vietnamese restaurant server in English.

For me, it wasn’t until I reached the Middle East that I really started to feel dazed and confused. In Israel I stayed with a friend in an east Tel Aviv neighbourhood. I found very few people in shops and on the street who could speak English and since I don’t speak Hebrew we had to get by with a game of charades. It usually had us both laughing although sometimes the clerk didn’t have the time or patience and those times were frustrating for both of us.  I also couldn’t ask a store clerk to help me decipher everything. The first real experience that hit home and made me realize what it’s like to be illiterate is when I went to wash up. There were two bottles of liquid soap in the shower, one soap and one shampoo. I stared at the bottles, looking at the pictures of different fruits and flowers to see if that could give me a clue as to what was inside. No such luck.  I looked at the words but they were all just a bunch of squiggly lines and curves. I opened the bottles and sniffed… but that wasn’t much help either.  So I took a chance and was pretty confident in my decision… but I was wrong. Not a big deal, so I used liquid soap on my hair and shampoo on my body, but it was plain that I would need help.

When I attended a book fair in Tel Aviv I expected to find a small section of English books but I guess there’s not much of a market for them in Israel, because I couldn’t find any… oh wait I did see one magazine in English. It was a teen magazine with Justin Bieber on the cover (I’m sorry to his fans but I wasn’t that hard up for something to read).  The rest of the books and displays were all in Hebrew but I persevered gazing at thousands of different selections. Since I couldn’t read any of the words I began judging the books by their covers. Those with great graphics, or interesting artwork or even unique paper caught my eye but I had no idea about the words inside… and that’s really the essence of a book, it’s what’s between the covers that count.

Sitting in a hospital waiting room in a foreign country can be a challenge as well. It’s always a good idea to bring along someone local who can help translate for you; otherwise you will be the lost tourist struggling in a foreign world. You can’t follow the procedures, you can’t read the signage (and the warnings), you can’t fill out the forms, you are simply communicating at the level of a young child. You have to pay attention to body language and listen closely to the words to make sure you don’t miss something. You also have to become adept at charades and speaking in a broken staccato form of English to communicate what is wrong. I was lucky in Sri Lanka. When a bout of strep throat meant a trip to the doctor, the hotel manager took me with his car and driver to make sure it was a smooth and easy procedure.

This has all been very humbling for a man who considers himself educated and intelligent with a successful career in journalism (which translates to being literate). I can now empathize with those who can’t read or write, either because of a learning disability, lack of access or new immigrants who come from a country where now, not only are the words strange but the alphabet is also totally foreign to them.

If you want to see what I’m talking about just click on the ‘translate’ button at the top of this page and translate my post into Hebrew, Hindi, Cambodian or Chinese. Try to decipher even one word and you’ll be able to better understand what I’m talking about and what millions of people live with every day.

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