Connecting without words

By Donna Judd
This item appears on page 25 of the March 2021 issue.

Waves of 110-degree heat rolled off the barren, dusty alley I’d taken as a shortcut. A teacher on sabbatical in Egypt in 1990, I was heading toward a mosque whose white minaret rose above all the other buildings. I was alone, and the alley was eerily empty — no cars, no people, not even a chicken.

Suddenly, three women totally covered in black appeared from a side street and turned toward me, framed by the white mosque behind them. Wow! My photographer’s heart thumped.

Upon seeing me lift my camera, however, the women quickly pulled their head scarves across their faces and lowered their eyes. Inwardly sighing, I pushed my large camera around behind my back and held it there so they understood I would not take their picture.

As we crossed paths, the woman closest to me surprised me by making eye contact. She let her scarf drop slightly, giving me a shy smile and the barest hint of a nod. I’m not sure her friends even knew it happened, but her gestures meant a lot to me.

I love this type of serendipitous encounter with strangers, where we make connections without words. How can we increase the odds of this happening?

ITN travelers probably already know the answer to this: go before your destination is saturated with tourists (as I did when visiting China in 1980 and Myanmar in 2006), travel independently — and slowly — and look for opportunities to connect.

In Myanmar, in the ticket room of Shwedagon Pagoda, I started to sit on a chair just as a tiny nun was about to sit there. We took turns gesturing for each other to sit, until the other nuns starting laughing and, with gestures, invited my sister and me to join them for a group photo. We did and ended up touring the grounds with them, sampling their dough-like snacks and gaining an inside look at nuns with pink robes and shaved heads plus cell phones, cameras and backpacks.

In remote Poshina, India, in 2014, the hotel servant boy and I played hide-and-seek, since no one else was around. Back at my room door, he proudly opened the huge padlock I couldn’t figure out. Impulsively, I pulled a pink necklace from my luggage and draped it around his neck. His face beamed with pure happiness, and after a few pictures he ran off.

When he returned with a friend, I produced another necklace, and soon the boys were hanging from the second-story gargoyles, showing off and loving how I pretended to be afraid they would fall.

Simple things can increase your odds, like focusing on off-the-beaten-track locations, taking small gifts to share, and learning basic phrases in the local language.

I had a Hong Kong T-shirt vendor paint my name on a shirt in large Chinese characters. The shirt was a great hit in the China of 1980, as people stopped, stared and said, “Doo…na.” I would smile and point to myself, say “Donna,” then point to them. Often the person would smile, and their name would follow, along with their stroking my mom’s fingernail polish and patting her dyed blonde hair.

I once slipped out of a museum in Shanghai ahead of my tour group and spotted an employee on break fanning herself with a broken fan. I realized with a start that she was the only pregnant woman I could remember seeing since arriving in China.

As I approached, she quickly dropped the tattered fan behind the bench. We conversed with smiles, gestures and numbers (it was to be her first child), and I showed her pictures of my children.

When our tour guide and group arrived, I asked him to please tell her I wanted to give her my sandalwood fan from Japan. He looked worried and said she was not supposed to accept gifts. “Perhaps it could be for her child,” I suggested.

That worked, and she accepted with tears in her eyes. The guide translated: “She says all her life she will tell her child of the kindness of the lady from America.”

Fullerton, CA