Category Archives: Condition One Survival

Overcoming Language Barriers

One of the most beneficial cultural experiences in my life has been the ability to travel for work across the globe. Military, combat and contracting have all given me the ability to immerse myself into numerous different locations on multiple continents. The largest hurdles that I have faced has been with language barriers. In any number of action movies, the hero navigates throughout Europe and coupled with their vast language and tactical skills, has the ability to mold into the environment while being able to easily communicate in foreign languages and have the skills to use the local dialects in order to blend in without sounding like an American. This can explain the need for many different passports all with aliases that fit in wherever he travels. As for me, I can order food, hail taxis, and maybe ask for directions but my dependency on the English language beams with every attempt. For anyone who travels frequently, having the language skills of where you are traveling can provide an avenue for success in communication with the locals and possibly even provide some cover if you find yourself in harm’s way. I can honestly say, that for the most part, people are good-natured and will help you if you can effectively communicate with them.
There are just a few options you have when planning a trip to a location where your inability to communicate with the indigenous population can hinder your movements.
Language Immersion
Many of our brothers and sisters in specialized military operations are afforded the opportunity to study language skills abroad. Learning in a classroom or with some sort of self-taught programs are adequate, dependent on the study skills and determination of the individual. If your career demands it, determination comes so much easier than for the rest of us who may just resort to hiring an interpreter or “wing it” as I have done over the years. I will be the first to admit that my attempts to learn another language have fallen short when an interpreter costs about ten bucks an hour. Relying on someone else to relay my message is so much easier than learning it in the indigenous tongue, especially in locations that have very primitive cultures whose linguistics are not the world-wide norm of English, French, and Spanish. There are over 1500 to 2000 language dialects spoken in Africa alone, a smartphone language app just isn’t capable. Not to mention, many primitive dialects do not have words for the modern world. The solution may be much more simple than you would think.
“Pointee Talky” Cards
While serving in Iraq, I was given a small, fold-out pamphlet that looked like a section of the funny papers, with various cartoon pictures of just about any situation you could encounter. Medical emergencies, vehicle, and aircraft identification, and even pictures of many different combat scenarios, all printed on the front and back of a folding document that can easily be put in your back pocket. I dug through an old footlocker and dusted these things off, after almost forgetting I had them. After some internet research, I found that there is actually a company that makes these things for not only soldiers but also for civilian use when traveling. This was one of those moments when I realized I had something locked away that I could have used when contracting and working with folks that may not have spoken the most common languages shared by colonists early in world history. For the villages that I had worked in that only spoke in a tongue involving babel and clicks that sounded more like an animal in distress than a language, a “pointee talky” would have made my communication so very much easier. An internet search of “pointee talky” will lead you to where you can get these things in many different configurations for virtually anywhere you go, and more importantly, can give you the tools to show your needs to someone just by pointing to a picture rather than butchering your attempt at verbal communication. Keep in mind that cultural norms can just as important as verbal communication. In one country I worked, it took almost a year before I learned that pointing at someone, or anything in general, was considered a major insult. Even pointing at the cards with my index finger would have been considered insulting, so I would have had to use my thumb or pinky finger to point at a picture on the cards.
For the vast amounts of travel, westerners perform, learning a new language for vacation or work just isn’t practical or even remotely doable in that it takes years to become a fluent speaker in a foreign language, even more so for a primitive one. We must use the tools at hand and find a method to convey needs in a pinch without insulting or demoralizing an indigenous foreigner. Remember that the within the first few seconds of your interaction with someone worlds away from yours, one small mistake can be the difference in a successful friendship to be, or to wake tied up in the trunk of a car.

Eggs benedict á la death

Over the past few years of international travel, I have picked up some pretty valuable foodie lessons that I can honestly say, saved me from certain intestinal discomfort.

Tips like; shying away from street food, eating fruits and veggies raw that have not had the skin cut by locals, stay away from pork, and always remembering that everything in the emerging world is free range, including the people. While working in the arctic, this list of do’s and don’ts expanded to include, “how my food is cooked.”

             I had taken a short gig teaching some helicopter survival courses to a group of Canadian scientist way up in the Canadian Arctic. And I mean, way up. The village population is around 7500 folks, majority being the native Inuit. The Inuit culture is truly an amazing existence of a resilient people that are living in one of the harshest environments on Earth.  Difference in summer and winter temps can swing from highs in the 70 degree (F) range to lows down to minus 50. Winter months mostly dark or with little light and summer months that boast up to 23 hours of daylight.

            Upon landing at the airport in early July, I was greeted by a local driving a big pickup truck that he evidently drove to not only collect me, but also pick up some farm animals and supplies from the southern mainland that flew in on the plane with me.  After we collected our belongings, we were off for a short village tour and drop off at the hotel.

            The hotel was clean, but very much reminded me of being in a mobile home with its thin walls, narrow hallways, simple furnishings and construction materials. The trailer feeling was greatly intensified by the building being anchored to the Earth on stilts and rocking slightly when walking.  The permafrost prevents the building of a foundation as we are so use to in the lower sections of the northern hemisphere.

            After the first night, or night of daylight as it was, I was awakened around 3 am to the sound of whimpering animals under my room. It took me by surprise and the first thing I imagined was walking out to check and find a mom plus cubs of a polar bear family rooting around. I was warned of a bear that was walking through the hotel grounds as a short cut to the landfill, which is above ground of course. That would put a quick end to my trip, being eaten by a bear on the first night, so I stayed in bed. To my relief, the culprits ended up being a litter of husky strays. Stray dogs were everywhere in the village, a problem that has since been addressed by the local government. So, between the dogs, threat of bears, and blinding daylight peeking into my room through every crack in the curtains, I got little to no sleep.

            The next morning, I made my way down the long, dark hallways to find the restaurant on property. After sitting and ordering an espresso, my French Canadian waiter gave me a rundown of the menu. Seemed no different than any other location in North America I have been except of one item, eggs benedict char.  (Full disclosure, I imagined bellying up to a plate of raw whale meat or maybe some baby seal that had been bludgeoned to death, and was pretty excited for the prospect of trying native foods that were such taboo in the south.) As the coffee and food arrived, a perfectly poached egg, toasted English muffin, and a big slab of smoked Arctic char, a cold water fish in the salmon family. My goodness, it was glorious. I ordered it every morning for the following week. On Friday afternoon, the class was done and I had an early afternoon flight so I ran down and asked the restaurant if they would prepare me one last order of what became my favorite meal of the day. I was crushed to find out that they were in fact, out of smoked arctic char. Out? How does this happen? I even, for just a moment, imagined myself moving the family there to become the village char smoker. It was that good. Next morning, I headed off to the airport with my trusty local driver. While we were on the way, I expressed my disappointment that the hotel ran out of arctic char topped eggs benedict and what we could have done to remedy this situation. First world problems. My driver, Ted, informed me that the only guy who smoked char for sale had died unexpectedly just a week earlier and that the village was really saddened by his loss. For some reason, I had this immediate thought that hit me like a hammer in the head. We were in the arctic, nearest tree was maybe 1000 miles away, how did he smoke fish? His response was akin to the crux of a horror film. “He burns the pallets that come in from sea shipments.” It was like being being punched in the gut.  A small amount of internet searching can share a wealth of information on sea faring pallets that use methyl bromide for preservation. None of it is good. Methyl bromide is a powerful chemical fumigant that is very effective in killing pests. Unfortunately, it has been proven to adversely affect the ozone layer. It is also highly toxic to humans and is corrosive to both skin and eyes. Yummy.

            I would have never thought, but here it was. I had just learned a very valuable lesson. Sometimes, its not just what you eat but also, how it was prepared. As a send off, before heading home, we spent an evening fishing for char and I was able to get to eat fresh char, straight from the water, that I caught and prepared. If you ever have an opportunity to travel to Nunavut, I highly recommend it. What a beautiful place with warm, wonderful people. You may just want to steer clear of smoked foods.