There are few times I have traveled somewhere I was unable to speak the language. Usually, major cities or tourist sites in almost every country know a word or three of English, and locals are typically very accommodating to tourists who aren't familiar with the native tongue.
The first time I felt like a real fish out of water was definitely when I visited Hong Kong more than 30 years ago. Despite the fact that Hong Kong was at the time a possession of the United Kingdom, and English was supposed to be the predominant language, once you got out into the city, Chinese was clearly the main language of choice. And I couldn't speak a word of it.
Not only that, but if you dressed differently (like I did), looked out of place (like I did), or hesitated too long before crossing a street (again, like I did), it was definitely clear that you didn't belong. And locals would call you out on it.
Yet one insufferably hot, lazy summer afternoon, I wandered into a noodle shop alone, looking for a place to eat a quick lunch before heading back to my friend's flat from a brief exploratory walk up Victoria Peak. The slowly swirling fans on the ceiling offered a cool respite from the sweltering summer heat. Steam rose from the long strands of noodles the woman lifted up from her pot of boiling water.
I approached the counter awkwardly, unsure of how to best go about ordering without my Chinese-speaking friends with me. I opened my mouth to speak, and then closed it abruptly. I figured it would be best to just wait until she looked up. The woman glanced at me, but didn't say a word. Instead, she only offered a curt nod and a pointed her chin in the direction of an empty table nearby. Unsure of what she meant, I walked over to sit down.
Seconds later, she brought over a bowl of freshly cooked noodles, topped with a heaping of savory meat sauce and garnished with thinly sliced green onions. A smile lit up my face, and I gestured to the noodles, shrugging up my shoulders to ask, "How did you know?"
She smiled back, put her hand on her belly as if to indicate she knew I was hungry, and handed me a pair of chopsticks before walking back to her station behind the counter.
After that moment, I realized that all my fears about communicating were so silly. We all have the power to understand and be understood--with or without words. If we choose to do so, there's no reason we can never perfectly say what we want to everyone.