A few years back, while wandering around Central Asia, I got it in my head that I should cross between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on foot via the Denau-Tursunzade checkpoint. A speck on the desolate road between Uzbekistan’s Badkhiz-Karabil wastes and a Tajikistani aluminum smelting plant (to wit: between nowhere and post-industrial nowhere), the crossing was far less accessible than the smooth and popular Oybek crossing to the north — especially for foreigners. But this path less traveled, I convinced myself, would give me a better sense of Central Asia beyond the tourist hotspots. And besides, I said to myself, it was closer to my previous location.
Somehow, it slipped my mind that a border crossing used mainly by locals might not have immigration forms in English. That proved to be a problem, given I only spoke two or three words in Russian and Tajik, the local tongues of choice. This little predicament led me through a long series of troubleshooting shenanigans. But the tale ends with me, having ticked the exact wrong box on the form, standing like a doe in the headlights before my dismantled backpack as two irate Uzbek guards brandished a roll of Tums antacids in my face, yelling narkotiki! over and over — a word whose meaning I could incredibly parse even without Russian language skills.
From the outside, my whole trip through Central Asia, sans language skills, probably sounds like a terrible idea. The border crossing was not my first or last linguistic hiccup between Ulaanbaatar and Bukhara, but I managed to clear the checkpoint without causing an international incident. I still travel to places where I have no language skills today. I don’t do this because I’m an idiot or a glutton for pain. I just have faith in the human ability to make ourselves understood.
Fluency in and patience with physical language are, I now believe, the only prerequisite for most global travel.
By make ourselves understood, I don’t mean that hackneyed trope whereby ugly tourists repeat the same gibberish ever slower and louder in their own tongue until an obliging local stops by to interpret their desires. I mean the often-underutilized power of non-verbal communications.
Growing up the shy child of a taciturn and anti-social parent, I spent my childhood learning the emotional registers of nods, glances, and grunts. When I did speak, I was a hand talker, drawing shapes and miming actions in the air. Over the years, I learned to exude verbiage when needed, but I often prefer the simplicity of a throaty vocalization and a gentle swivel of the neck.
It’s understandable that those who know me might accept my grunts and nods at home. Given the way we show numbers on our hands or vocalize surprise changes radically across cultures, though, you might think my near-silent patois wouldn’t work abroad. The thing is, silent communications continue to serve me well worldwide, and I think I understand why:
We like to think that language is vital to all communications, but its main uses are narrative and nuance. We use it to weave an explanatory path from points A to B and to provide the rationale for our acts. That’s important for being known as a human being, but it’s not essential if your only goal is stating your desires, compliance, urgency, and so on.
Whether at Denau-Tursunzade, or when I was briefly detained at an airport in Yekaterinburg, Russia, or when I took an inopportune photo of a government installation in Chengdu, China, the physical language of emotions and dispositions, occasionally mixed with crude stick figure renderings, has always been enough to get me out of trouble. It serves even better when asking for directions, negotiating prices, or ordering sausages at a restaurant. Fluency in and patience with physical language are, I now believe, the only perquisite for most global travel.
Physical communication is lonely. A gesture can communicate need, but it cannot communicate what’s behind need.
One caveat: Physical communication is lonely. A gesture can communicate need, but it cannot communicate what’s behind need. Bursting with the experiences and challenges of the new, for most people that inability to communicate beyond our core desires becomes intolerable.
That’s the trade-off we make. We can travel the world and learn much without knowing all the tongues of Babel. But to use that gift, we need both a deep understanding of our own emotions as they manifest physically, and a deep comfort living in our own heads, with only those emotions for company. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, there are still avenues of travel open to you. I just wouldn’t recommend wantonly pissing off border guards in a foreign desert.