Right, you got your passport and bought a ticket. You also got yourself a phrasebook of the expected language(s) and/or downloaded the Google Translator to your phone. You're all set and ready to go! When the big day finally arrives, you get up all exited, grab your bag and get on a train, boat or plane. It's travel time!
The great unknown is fascinating and scary at the same time.
You might have spent some time learning about the different customs and may even have attempted to learn a few handy phrases before setting off.
So there you are in a strange place, facing strange people and try to rent a room using the phrases you studied and all you get are blank looks. So out comes your phone and you show the displayed translation only to listen to people repeating the same sentence you just uttered. You are sure it sounds the same as when you said it only a couple of seconds before, but if one of the natives pronounces it everybody understands. It's all very frustrating.
I spent a few years in the south of Thailand and started to learn the language to a point where I could do small talk with the locals, haggle for good prices and flirt with the girls. I felt confident enough to go exploring the north of the country.
On the bus to Loei I met a teacher and we had a nice little conversation in Thai which boosted my confidence. Eventually I got off the bus and started looking for a place to stay. This was in the days of Nokia phones i.e. no translator and no Google Maps. I had to ask people for directions.
A young man was sitting on a log by the side of the road so I went over to talk to him. As I approached his eyes widened, his face turned red and he started to scream. His terror was obvious. I smiled, showed my open empty hands, indicating I was no threat and came in peace, then I asked him politely if he knew of any guest-houses in the vicinity. He wouldn't stop screaming and of course didn't listen to a word I said. A woman appeared, took one look at me and said 'No English'. I repeated my question (in Thai) but she kept saying 'No English'. Then a little boy joined us. Again I asked for a place to stay and he understood me immediately (innocence is open-minded), repeated my question to the grown ups and they supplied the desired info.
In the north of Peru I had similar communication problems.
Asking for directions or just being polite never really seemed to work. I was a bit confused by that because in Bolivia it was really easy to talk to people. They all speak Spanish so what's the problem? I could understand them but they didn't seem to understand me. I thought it must be my accent. Then I met a couple from Argentina. He was and still is an actor and she studied anthropology. They apparently had no issue understanding me. I told them of my communication problems and asked if I sound really weird.
They laughed and said, 'We have the same problem!- It's not you, it's them!'
I came to the conclusion, it has to do with the way one looks. You may sound right but you don't look right.
The following, sort of proves my point.
In Brazil everybody assumed I speak Portuguese, but I don't.
When waiting for a bus or standing in line in a shop people just started chatting to me and were surprised and disappointed when I didn't respond.
I talked to my friend Graham (from insideotherplaces) who was travelling with me at the time, about this phenomenon and how frustrating it was and he confirmed, it was happening to him, as well. He said, 'There is no Brazilian look!'
He was right of course. Brazilians can be any colour and any size, they don't have a typical look. Therefore we didn't look strange or foreign to them.
Unlike in Thailand where I stick out like a sore thumb or in Peru where the majority of the population seems to be indigenous or indigenous related.
I don't think it's intentional or racist, just basic, simple-minded prejudice of people who have been conditioned by their surroundings and never really experienced anything different. Therefore their approach is quite basic, 'He looks weird I won't understand him!'