Once in Algeria, I ended up with an unusual number of guns pointed at my head.
I was just relaxing in an airport lounge, chatting to some NGO workers, when some guy from airport security came in. He appeared to be looking for someone. He started by making a weird gagging noise. After a few moments, I realised he was desperately trying to pronounce my ridiculously long name. I helped him out, sounding each syllable generously.
“Ah! Oi, oi. Merci!” He seemed grateful for a moment, then turned stern.
Seconds later I found myself being dragged into yet another small, featureless room. My rucksack was sitting on a table, ringed by soldiers. One of them started yelling at me in Arabic. Guessing they wanted me to open the bag, I reached for a zip and yanked.
This was the part where I found myself staring down half a dozen rifle barrels. My hands shot up. More yelling ensued.
The best thing I could think of saying was, “ok dudes, just like, chill”. Gently, I resumed opening the bag. I kept it slow, and tried hard to avoid making sudden movements.
Once unzipped, one of them pointed to a small black sack containing my camp stove. The penny dropped, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The rest of the room tensed when I opened the sack, but when I showed them the stove, everyone just looked confused. It was suddenly obvious that the stove was the exact same size and shape of large anti-personnel mine. The head honcho didn’t seem impressed. He gave me a quizzical look. To reassure him, I set up the stove. I whipped out a plastic fork and mimed cooking, grinning stupidly and making eating noises. A round of groans, sighs and chuckles followed.
If there’s anything I learned from this, it’s the importance of a half decent grasp of local language. I know I’m not the only moron who spends too much time wandering around countries where I can barely have more than a two minute conversation. Not only can it be isolating, but it can also be pretty dangerous. If I had simply known the word ‘stove’ from the start, I could have avoided more than one tense moment. I’ve had crises over all sorts of seemingly simple situations, ranging from recharging mobile phone credit to seeking treatment for birdflu.
Plus, it’s just arrogant- especially for English speakers. Just about everyone else has our language shoved down their throats.