On Language and Translations, Part Two

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The deaf man exiting the water after snorkeling

The first day on the ship, I saw a passenger using gestures to express himself. He was deaf, and had gone on the cruise alone. My first thought: if I was him, would I be brave enough to travel without a friend I could talk to?

Then I thought… is there really a difference between what he’s doing and any traveler who goes to a country where they don’t speak the language?

Did anyone else on the cruise know sign language? To my knowledge, the answer was no.

On Wednesday, I was out on the Horizon Deck taking photographs. This guy came out (also taking photographs) and so I went over to him and used sign language to say, “Hello, my name is Bart.”

He looked at me blankly.

I signed my name again. But he was looking at my face, not my hand signing letters. He shook his head no, pulled out his phone and handed it to me. He had opened a translation app. He moved his fingers in the air above the keys, indicating I should type. So I did. I wrote that my name was Bart and that I lived in Northern California.

He clicked a button, read what I had written, then started typing. He clicked the button, and gave it to me.

I could see the last part of what he had been reading — he was Israeli.

“Yes, I understand” in Hebrew: “כן אני מבין”

He’s from Tel Aviv and his name is Shmuel. No wonder he didn’t understand the English letters I signed.

He grew up in Tel Aviv, and has worked at a hotel for 15 years. He enjoys traveling, and has been going to see… and this is where we weren’t able to communicate. I didn’t recognize what he was signing (theater? some kind of performed music? He was making the signs for “acting” and “performance” but that’s where things fell apart.) Spotty internet access on the islands interfered with the translation software. Though I couldn’t use finger-spelling, he understood some of the American Sign Language I knew.

Though he interacted with the other passengers, he tended to keep to himself. Often, he lagged behind the group and took selfies — he must have taken hundreds of them. (If I looked like him, I’d take selfies nonstop, too…) He told me he loves to travel whenever he can save up enough money to do so.

The more I watched Shmuel genuinely enjoying himself, the more I thought about my own fears regarding traveling solo in the future, and the countries I’d like to visit (Namibia and Mozambique, Africa, for example) where I vacillate in my “travel bravery.”

Shmuel will never know it but he gave me that last bit of strength and resolve to travel wherever I wish to go, no matter how far it might be from my experience.

Travel is a tool for exploring our emotions and developing the ability to question the limitations we place on ourselves. All my life I believed that travel was about Going To — and it is, of course — but I’m discovering it’s about Going Within and finding out what I’m made of. Travel challenges us to strengthen and grow in ways we can’t anticipate or foresee.

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