January 01, 2010

Arabic by osmosis

If I don't already speak the native language of a place to which I'm planning to travel -- I speak passable French, German and Spanish and can cover a lot of territory with those -- I try to learn some key words and phrases in the destination's language before I go.

Knowing a few words and making an attempt at communication in your hosts' native tongue is not only practical, it's polite. Greeting or thanking someone in his own language shows respect and breaks barriers.

A simple namaste in Kathmandu, merhaba in Istanbul or spasiba in St. Petersburg instantly advances the cause of international relations. That I don't understand the torrent of speech that often spills from whomever I've just greeted or thanked doesn't matter at all. I do understand the grins and smiley head-nodding. I've made a friend -- by uttering a single word in a language other than English.

I have seven months to learn some Arabic. Dana and I are going on a low-budget Intrepid Travel tour to Egypt in July. We'll be gone three weeks and will see a lot of the country. (I'd originally signed us up for a month-long overland tour of Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso, but the State Department recently put Mali on its travel advisory list due to Al Qaeda sympaticos operating in the Timbuktu area. Intrepid changed its itinerary in response and eliminated Timbuktu, but Mali without Timbuktu is like Peru without Macchu Pichu, so switching trips seemed a good move.)

Learning Arabic means tackling the Arabic alphabet. I can learn words by studying phonetic transliterations, but it's nice to be able to decipher something of the print -- road signs, transport timetables, menus, billboards, newspapers, placards on restrooms that tell you what sex should enter which door -- that you encounter as soon as you land in a country.

Like I did pre-trip with the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets, I'll tape the Arabic alphabet to my fridge, the mirror over the bathroom sink, the dashboard of my car and other oft-stared at places around my home so I can take advantage of seven months of osmosis.

Right now, those elegant curves, curls and lines all look the same to me. I have seven months to learn their unique identities.