Anti-Travel Post #1: Communication Breakdown

This is only the first of my “anti-travel” posts in which I will attempt to explain what I consider to be one of the biggest marketing schemes to have been foisted on the developed world since the automobile and commercial television. I realize that many people, and especially young people, think of world travel as almost a religion, and no one likes for his or her religious beliefs to be called into question. I expect some negative responses (if indeed anyone ever actually reads these posts). However, I hope that anyone who does read them will stop for a moment before condemning me and ask themselves why they really “like” to travel, or feel that “travel is SO broadening.”

After living in Taiwan for a decade (as well as after suffering some hearing loss from playing in a band for ten years), I’m used to not catching what people say, but I also developed a sort-of Taiwan-specific sense of peoples’ meanings even when I don’t actually understand the words they used. This does not carry over well to other places, particularly ones where the speech patterns are completely different from Mandarin Chinese. I also developed the habit of avoiding the necessity of communicating with people as much as possible. This works okay when you live in a place for an extended period of time. Just think about your daily life and how you can get through most things with simple pointing and grunts—for example going to the grocery store: you put your stuff on the little conveyor belt, the cashier rings you up, tells you the total, you pay, say thank you, and that’s it. On a weekend day that might be the extent of your interaction with other people if you live alone (as I have done for much of my adult life). This habit doesn’t work well while traveling, however, as you are continuously having to make reservations, arrange transportation, check in and out of lodgings, order meals, and so on.

While staying in Langkawi, communication has been a problem in general, which is to be expected when visiting a foreign country. Some examples: we were eating at a nice and fairly expensive restaurant (Sunset Boulevard) the other night. After ordering, I realized that I was short on cash, so I went up to the counter and asked the fellow if they accepted Visa. He said yes, and then gestured toward our table and said something I didn’t quite catch.

After we had a nice meal, I went to pay, but when I took out my credit card the same fellow I’d asked about the Visa earlier apologetically said that they only took cash. It turns out that he thought I had said something about a pizza, rather than Visa. He was very embarrassed, and I was rather annoyed but remained gracious and told him that it was at least as much my fault as his, and I suppose it was since I didn’t ask for clarification. I then had to scurry out and down to the nearest bank (luckily not too far away) and withdraw money, then scurry back to the restaurant.

Another example was when Lucy and I stopped at the place next to the defunct internet café (with all of its “open” signs still in place) and asked if they had WiFi. The young man who greeted us said yes, so we decided to eat there. No sooner had we sat down and Lucy opened her iPad than we found out that, no, they didn’t have WiFi. We were tired and hot, so we decided to stay anyway. We ordered some beverages and I ordered fried noodles, but the noodles never came, so apparently the young man didn’t understand when I pointed to the noodles in the menu and said I wanted them, even though he repeated my order and nodded his head in understanding.

Some misunderstandings seem more intentional, such as when we hired a taxi to take us to the Langkawi Wildlife Park (actually just a sad zoo—sadder than most zoos I’ve been to, but not the saddest). The posted price was thirty Ringits (all destinations have posted prices to prevent drivers from gouging tourists). However, it is always a good idea to confirm with the driver before you leave. Our driver said “Thirty-five,” to which we replied in unison, “Thirty.” He repeated thirty-five, and I told him that we checked the posted price and it was supposed to be thirty. He said, “Okay,” but didn’t actually confirm that he agreed to that price. I wanted to hear him say “thirty,” but he wouldn’t do it. Then he offered to take us there and back for seventy, which (if I’m doing the math correctly) is twice thirty-five. He said that there were no taxis there to take us back, but there were actually a half dozen cabs sitting right there in the driveway of the zoo. We said that wouldn’t be necessary and as we bailed out of the cab I jabbed thirty Ringits at him and quickly scampered into the zoo. When we came out, there he was waiting for us and all the other drivers gave him first shot at us as we were clearly “his” passengers. He then proceeded to overcharge us to take us to the main town, Kuah. Unfortunately there were no taxi prices posted at the zoo, so we couldn’t check. In the end, he got his extra and I felt cheap and foolish for troubling over about four U.S. dollars.

I hate to complain about people not understanding me when I’m the one that is the foreigner (except when the misunderstanding is intentional, in which case I feel fully justified), but this is a one hundred percent tourist location, so I don’t think it is too much to expect the people in restaurants and shops to understand very basic questions and requests. Or if they’re not sure they understand, to follow up and confirm meaning. On the other hand, this is just one more inconvenience that goes along with travel. It could just as easily happen if I was visiting some place in Mississippi or Maine instead of Malaysia, as the accents of people in those places, as well as the subtleties of their cultures, are different enough from mine to obscure meaning.

In my way of thinking, this is just one more of the unnecessary inconveniences that people put themselves through in the pursuit of what is really just a marketing scheme called “world travel.”

The moral of the story? Stay home and misunderstand the people in your own hometown.