Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

13 Nov 2013

Travelling with a personalised picture book

Posted by Will

I am often asked about how I navigate the language barrier when cycling through so many different countries where there’s no realistic chance of learning the language. It’s a good question with many different answers. Here, I want to focus on a specific technique: the personalised picture book. This simple self-made creation sits at the top of my front-left pannier and is essential to overcome the ever-present reality that most of a country’s population and I share less than 20 words in common. It p1060811-800shouldn’t be used as a substitute for learning the most important words of every language: ‘hello’,'thank you’, ‘goodbye’, ‘no’, ‘yes’ and ’1-10′. But it should be brought out at every possible occasion, be that while eating at a street-side restaurant, wandering through the market or even asking for directions. It works wonders for receiving friendly invitations.

What do I have in mind when I speak of a ‘personalised picture book’? I mean a few sheets of paper stuck together with useful and interesting pictures concerning the traveller in question. By ‘useful’ I mean pictures of objects or ideas that commonly need to be referred to by the traveller. By ‘interesting’ I mean pictures interesting to a local person.

Take my personalised picture book as an example. It contains 5 sheets. The first is a large map of the world showing the route I’ve taken and a few core statistics in the top-right corner (I update this page every time I enter a new country). The second is a large map of the UK with city names and a scale. Third is a full-page picture of my family. My fourth page is a collage of me in action on my trip, like images of where I’ve camped, the tough conditions in which I’ve cycled and the famous landmarks I’ve visited. The final page displays pictures of the various foods I’ve tasted around the world. Let’s look more closely at each of these pages in turn.

The first page answers the all important question: what’s my trip about? My trip is fairly unique and to some extent impressive, so I want to let the locals know, and not just for vanity’s sake but because it warms them up to me, gains their respect and encourages them to introduce me around. On the world map, I can point to the relative distances between the UK and their country, point out comparative country sizes, count how many countries I’ve visited and point to famous world cities. I make clear by annotations the number of kilometres I’ve cycled and the length of time I’ve been travelling, both of which are very common questions. Don’t forget also that a map of the world is often the object of much curiosity as many locals have their first proper glimpse of other countries’ shapes and sizes.

The second page allows me to point out where I’m from, where London is and where the famous football teams are located. This page isn’t as popular as the others but nonetheless I find it important to include something about where I’m from.

p1060813-800The third page garners the most popularity by far and is the one I can always guarantee will lead to excited and amusing questioning (my sister is often confused as my wife). I have never met anyone disinterested by the picture of my family and often even find groups squabbling over the right to hold it. People love to see the similarities and differences between a ‘Western’ family and the ones they’re used to. Vitally, the family picture makes a connection between myself and my roots in local people’s minds. In many countries the concept of family is particularly strong, where an individual’s first priority is to care for his or her family, and so a pictorial representation becomes important evidence to show trustworthiness. I have received many invitations off the back of this photograph.

The fourth and fifth pages are less popular but still attract a relatively large amount of interest, particularly amongst young students with wanderlust. It took some time to get the formula for these pictures right. I quickly realized that landmarks like the Aya Sofia in Istanbul are far less engaging than my tiny tent covered in snow. The formula changes from country to country. Russians are understandably more captivated by pictures riding a camel than Iranians are, and likewise an image of sheep-skull soup goes down better in Vietnam than Tajikistan. The food page is particularly useful as an excuse to get my camera out to snap dishes and the women are always delighted when I tell them I will be including the photo in future additions of my picture book.

I have focused mainly on the ‘interesting’ aspect of the pictures because that’s how I choose to design mine, but it’s easy to see how the ‘useful’ aspect could be incorporated. In the same vein as the popular ‘Point IT!’ books, travellers could add clip-art or internet images which they can point to when sign language fails. A cyclist might add pictures of various tools to point to when visiting a repair-man, a hitch-hiker might add his symbols to indicate a preference for slower driving etc… Queries drawing blank stares most often can be supplemented with useful pictures.

p1060816-800A personalised picture book is easy and cheap and easy to make too and can sometimes be a lot of fun too. Create the images, complete with annotations, by using an image-editing computer programme like Paint or Photoshop, put them on a USB/flash drive and walk down to the local printing shop (which in Asia is never more than a few hundred metres away). It shouldn’t cost more than a few Dollars for five sheets. Preferably laminate the sheets in protective plastic so they’re resistant against rainy weather, table-top spills and the over-excited salivation of local people. If asked nicely, friendly printing people normally lend their hole-punch machine and a piece of string to attach the pages together.

The possibilities are endless. Have a blank sheet for locals to sign, print off many to hand out to people or include a page of image-based puzzles to solve together (Iranians particularly love puzzles). I’m sure imaginative travellers can come up with a whole host of great, innovative ideas. My personalised picture book does all the talking for me, allowing a welcome break from incessant questioning. It is so much better than the ‘Point It!’ equivalent which completely skips over the important person element of any trip. Creating a personalised picture book is one of the top travel tips I have.

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