My cousin in England writes that her 24-year-old daughter goes on holiday to Rhodes with a group of friends. They do not do much except he by the resort hotel pool by day and party by night. One day, however, one of the girls breaks her glasses and has to go into town to find an optician.
“Can you imagine trying to find an optician in a foreign land and tongue?” asks my cousin.
Hello? Who does my cousin think she is writing to? She knows I’ve always lived overseas. She knows I travel in lots of countries where I do not speak the language. I’ve told her many stories about conversations that are at cross purposes, and many a story of attempts to communicate by sign language.
Deborah needs the facilities when we are in a gas station somewhere in North Africa. She goes to the gas pump attendant and mimes washing her hands. He looks puzzled, then beckons her to follow him. He leads her around the building, and offers her a hose.
Anita and Marilynne are in Spain. A local man comes over to chat, looks at Anita and declares, “You must be Norse.” She is amazed and launches into an explanation of being born in Canada to a Norwegian father and German mother. The man’s eyes glaze over, and turning to Marilynne, he says, “And you must be teacher.”
Sometimes we get confused, even within the same language. The same language, with different accents, that is. Norman is from Glasgow and his speech is almost incomprehensible to many of us non-Scots. He says that when he realizes he isn’t being understood, he gets nervous and tries to speak slowly, but that doesn’t necessarily help.
On this occasion he is making polite conversation with an elderly, slightly deaf Englishman.
“That’s a nice Nelson Mandela shirt you’re wearing,” he says.
“What?” exclaims the old man.
“Shirt. Your Nelson Mandela shirt,” repeats Norman.
An expression of pure horror crosses the old man’s face.
“Shot!” he roars. “Nelson Mandela’s been shot? That’s terrible! When? Who did it?”
Norman almost has to enlist the help of a passer-by to interpret and reassure the old man that Mandela is still of this world.
I am visiting the Ogasawara Islands, a thousand kilometers south of Tokyo. There are no airports here; the ferry takes 30 hours, yet by a quirk of administration these islands are part of greater Tokyo. Telephone calls to Tokyo cost the local rate of ¥10.
I meet Chris on the ferry back to Tokyo. He is English, married to a Japanese woman, and tells a hilarious story that begins from a chance meeting in a small bar on Hahajima. A Japanese man edges close, perches on the next stool, and hisses confidentially, “Show nude-o?”
Chris is understandably intrigued. Do they really have nude shows on tiny Hahajima, an island with a population of 400? Well, why not? He nods, “Okay.”
The man whispers in Japanese, “Do you have a flashlight? Rope?”
Chris whispers back, “No.” Now fully alert, he wonders what kind of nude show requires the audience to bring their own flashlights and ropes.
The man slithers away and returns with a miner’s lamp.
Chris looks from his drink to the man, to the lamp, and back to his drink. Is he hallucinating? Is he being invited to a gynecological nude show?
The man says, “Tomorrow.”
Chris asks, “What time?”
Chris nods, and confirms, “Tomorrow night.”
“No, no,” says his new friend, “Tomorrow morning.”
Morning? Chris is too taken aback to speak again before the man slides away. He doesn’t sleep much that night, wondering just what he has let himself in for. Nevertheless, he is up and out, waiting on the street the next morning. Promptly at 8 the man arrives in a pick-up truck, the open back of which is filled with great lengths of rope. The two men drive in companionable silence for half-an-hour until they reach a forest. Then the local man unloads the ropes and headlamps and beckons Chris forward. They walk in less companionable silence for over an hour. Chris is totally bemused and a tiny bit apprehensive.
They reach a cave with a narrow opening, and the man wraps a rope around Chris, puts a headlamp on him and indicates that he is to descend, feet first. The opening is so narrow that Chris now pictures himself stuck in Winnie the Pooh fashion. Will friendly nudists then pop out of the undergrowth and console him with “Never mind, you’ll be able to get out after a couple of weeks without food.” He admonishes himself; “This is what happens to people who think they’re going to nude shows early in the morning in the great outdoors. They get wedged in cave entrances.”
He does not get stuck. He descends to a grotto full of colorful stalactites and stalagmites. Chris thoroughly enjoys exploring and photographing, concerned though he is at the prospect of climbing back out. Fortunately the two men emerge from a different exit, marginally wider than the entrance.
Shonyudo, by the way, is Japanese for stalactite grotto.