Six years back, I was in for a rude shock when I landed in Sao Paolo, with my arrogant assumption that I can communicate with anyone anywhere. India does that to you - with English, Hindi, your mother tongue and sign language, making yourself understood is never impossible, even if it could be difficult at times.
That feeling of helplessness started at the airport itself, when the immigration official found something wrong with my passport. It took a shippie from Mozambique (where they speak Portugese) who had sailed with Indians to bale me out of that mess.
But things were only to get worse. The hotel I was booked into had reception staff that spoke English, but once in the room, everything was in Portugese. I wanted a drink of water, but could not find it anywhere. Went to bed thirsty, and at breakfast asked the waiter to get me a glass of water. He could not understand what I meant, and called someone else, who seemed equally inept at understanding my needs.
After being offered marmalade, toast and ham, in turn, I turned to sign language. After a lot of miming, I started making headway - was offered milk, orange juice and tea bags, but no water. By then I was almost desperate. Something made me try out hydro and aqua. The latter did it. "Agua", "agua", they nodded, and got me a bottle of mineral water.
Never before, or since have I felt as helpless as I did those few minutes.
Was reminded of it yesterday, when my father-in-law hosted a French tourist who did not speak a word of English. The interpreter who was accompanying him, unfortunately left, before we knew the appropriate questions to ask, and dinner was weird affair where we tried to communicate using a phase book that told you how to ask for that green dress that you wanted to try on, but not how to ask a guest if he was comfortable and if he needed anything.
Then the hubby had the brilliant idea of getting google to translate for us. Our guest had landed in India without his passport, and had to stay back in Delhi till duplicate papers were issued to him. He wanted to know when breakfast would be served, and when he told him, he informed us that he did not have time. If it was not bad enough to be stuck in a strange country where he could not freely communicate with anyone, without papers and not knowing when he would get them, he had even lost his watch and did not have any concept of time. I could not even start to think of anything worse than that!
We lent him a watch, and told him he could use google translate to communicate with us, before bidding him good night.
The next day, after breakfast, he felt so much at home, he plonked himself on the veranda with his chess board and book, and proceeded to sun himself while doing what he seemed to enjoy doing. He even unbent enough to try and ask me what I was doing when I was trying to break open a coconut by banging it on a stone slab.
It was nice to be able to make one person feel a little less hopeless.