My parents love to travel and my family will often go on vacations during school breaks. These vacations often involve countries in which English is not the first language, and can lead us to encounter language barriers and cultural differences. My Mom speaks a little Spanish and my dad has always claimed to speak French, as he grew up in Canada and took it in school, this is important, because when I was in middle school, we went on a big vacation to Tahiti. Where, if you didn’t know, they mostly speak French. My Dad was happy to be able to put his French to work. And we were all ready to have him help navigate us through the various airports, markets and activities that we were going to do.
For me, the worst part of any trip is getting there. I do not like to fly and I especially do not like to fly over water, adding to that you have to get to the airport, which takes an hour and a half on a good day, then there are the long security lines at LAX, all the screenings, making sure you don’t have the long list of banned objects on your person or in your bag. Then you wait to board, then you wait to take off, then you sit and wait on the plane for hours on end. Did I mention I don’t like to fly? On this particular trip, because we were going to a French speaking country, on a French airline, they began all the take off instructions and warnings in French and talked for what felt like two minutes. Then they switched to English and literally just said “we are going to take off now”. My mom and I just looked at each other, shrugged and laughed. We decided to just go with it because we were about to spend three weeks surrounded by people we couldn’t understand, so why not start before we even left the ground.
We saw our first real difference upon arrival in Papeete, which is the main airport for Tahiti. The runway led right out into the ocean and looked like we would just fly into the sea if we didn’t quite make it. The terminal was so small, that they used a little tractor like we use in our gardens at home to bring the bags in from the plane, and the actual airport consisted of a little straw covered hut, and a fold out table for luggage. Since we had planned to stay in a hotel near the airport because we had gotten in late, my mom started looking around for signs for shuttle busses. She soon realized that we would not need a bus, as the hotel was directly across the street from the “airport” and we just got our bags and walked there, unlike at home there was no long lines, no traffic, just a flight of stairs up to our hotel. Our plan for the trip was to visit multiple islands and stay a few days at each. Some of the islands can be reached by boat, but others we did fly into on very small planes from very small airports, some little more than what seemed like grass huts. One particular difference in the security I will never forget. In America we have “no weapons”, “no gas canisters”, “no knives” etc., on the signs. Well, in the airport on Raiatea, the sign said “no cakes”. Yes, “no cakes”, with a picture of a little pink birthday cake on it. I took a photo of it at the time, however I later jumped into the ocean with my phone in my pocket and lost that photo. We thought at the time that because people flew between islands so much maybe they took cakes for birthdays and there had been some mishaps, but mostly I just look back on it and I get a few laughs from it.
I didn’t entirely understand everything that happened on these islands, yet you didn’t really need to. My mom can attest to this. We had planned a day on a little boat to just snorkel and be on the water. So, we went into town to get some baguettes and cheese for some sandwiches to eat on the boat. My dad parked near the dock, since it was really the only parking lot in the tiny little town, and we walked into town for some food. We’d left the car for about half an hour and were walking back when we noticed this gigantic cruise ship, it completely dwarfed all the little huts around it, and was parked right in front of the dock. A line of 10 big tour busses had also decided to park there to wait for the tourists unloading to take them around the island. However, they had completely blocked in our car, there was nowhere for us to go. We turned to my dad and were like why don’t you use all your French to get them to move. But he didn’t quite know how to do anything about it. My mom however knew exactly how to fix the situation and decided to go talk to them. At this point you should know that she knows absolutely no French and no idea how to communicate with the bus drivers. But she decides to give it a try, she walks over as we all sit in the car, we could just see my short mother and her bright blond hair standing next to these huge Polynesian men trying to point and gesture and their busses. Neither her nor them could understand a word of what each other were saying, yet she still managed to communicate that she needed them to move. And surprisingly it worked.
When we stay in our community and never venture beyond our comfort zones, we can forget that the rest of the world is a very different place than our little corner of it. People with different values, cultures, religions and languages are living happy fulfilled lives, just like me. They are just doing it in a different way. I enjoy seeing the differences in how people live their lives, and I can also appreciate that we can all still get along and make ourselves understood. The simple act of being friendly and open with strangers can go a long way to help communication and foster a good experience with others around the globe that we may one day encounter.