As interpreters sometimes we can temporarily lose sight of just how much we impact visitor perception of our site, state, region, or even our country. My most recent trip to Nicaragua spawned reflections regarding this importance. Some of the most memorable “interpreters” I have met while traveling probably wouldn’t consider themselves more than educational guides having never heard of the concept, let alone our holy book of Tilden’s guiding principles.
Here are some of my thoughts and experiences with education and interpretation in two very different countries:
South Africa: I spent a total of 4 months in South Africa. In 2014 I volunteered on a nature reserve for 3 months, then in 2015 returned for a few weeks to celebrate my friend’s marriage and explore places that I couldn’t afford as a volunteer. In both years I visited iMfolozi-Hluhluwe (“hl” together form a sort of shlurping sound) Game Reserves. A summary- there are trail guides, and then there are phenomenally outstanding interpretive trail guides. I took this message home after my second visit. My first visit to the game reserve was through the Wilderness Leadership School’s trails program. Visitors are guided into the wilderness areas of the reserve by foot, camping and taking turns to keep watch for sneaky, curious lions at night.
We spent 3 nights, 4 days in the South African wilderness and it was an experience that forever has connected me to the rhythmic beats of the African bush and its wildlife. Falling in love with the wilderness does not take much more than a sight of a journey of giraffe at dusk, or rhino wallowing in mud just across the river. The connection, where it deepened for me, was in the interpretive quality from my guides (both named Mandla). Mandla M. was quieter. Not able to speak English fluently he kept watch for wildlife as Mandla B. used charisma, theatrical animal impressions, and passion to guide us through everything from rhino dung and courtship to conservation issues of Africa. Their personalities were polar and where most participants I imagine connect with Mandla B. and his love for riddles around the campfire, I found enjoyment in Mandla M.’s company and introspective feelings for life in the wilderness. Never would I have imagined squatting in the middle of a river scrubbing dirty pans with elephant dung while having life altering conversations with Mandla M. Even before I had learned about interpretation myself, I looked up to the way these men connected with us and shared their universal love for conservation.
Fast forward one year and 3 months.
With a rental car and solo freedom I drove into Hluhluwe near dusk. I signed into my rondavel just after dark, and scheduled for a guide to take me on an early morning walk through the bush. Excited, I barely slept and promptly woke up earlier than my 3:30am alarm. I drove to meet my guide, who was an hour late. No mind, it’s South African time. He answered my questions very simply and would listen for bird calls to promptly identify the voice’s owner. He barely spoke, which was okay, I allowed by mind to wander in keen observation of each dung beetle, flower and slight movements, with the safety of someone holding a rifle for those “just in case” instances. We hardly connected, and I felt that I could have been replaced with any other group and the walk would have been identical. We sat for a break (actually, we were hiding downwind from an agitated rhino) and listened to the birds. My guide, with me sitting between him and his rifle 20 feet away, fell asleep and began snoring. (Just imagine Tilden’s horror!) Whether his knowledge was competent or not, I stifled further questions and simply reconnected emotionally with the bush after my year’s absence. I no longer trusted my safety to this man nor any info he could offer me.
Fast forward one more year to western Nicaragua.
Language barriers often are hurdles in education. An exceptional interpreter I find somehow manages to reach beyond that barrier. Their intuitive observation tells them your interests and they do what they can to adhere to that. Take 20-year old Kevin for example.
While in Esteli, Nicarauga I signed up for a one night homestay in Miraflor Nature Reserve. In addition to the homestay their son, Kevin, offered guided walks. Kevin spoke almost solely Spanish and although I studied the language I am by no means fluent and maintain a mediocre vocabulary. Kevin and I immediately established a connection over reptiles and amphibians, and he quickly attuned to my love of plants. (Granted, I’m fairly easy to read due to the fact that I kept falling behind to crouch to the ground and admire a plethora of tiny plants.)
Kevin has lived in Miraflor his entire life and since he knew I love snakes he shared many stories of personal encounters. The memories he shared of boyhood in Miraflor and the ways he connected with the forest pulled at my heartstrings and reminded me of the connections we individually and as a society have with our forests. Kevin and I do not share the same culture, the same traditions, the same upbringing. But we both shared our love of the wild places we grew up and live in. That evening Kevin took me to a nearby pond where as a boy he would catch frogs. We spent a couple of hours on the water’s edge discovering invertebrates excitingly new to both of us. Through the light from my headlamp I watched a hummingbird get attacked by a bat and found some of the largest toads! Nature play is the universal language.
No matter the certifications we gain or the classes and workshops we attend, the real driving forces for a successful interpreter is passion and an ability to look beyond another’s culture, beliefs, language, or status. The Mandlas and Kevin made me feel equal in a country that wasn’t my own and afforded the opportunity to see the natural world through their eyes. To reach a shared interest, whatever that may be, is up to us as interpreters. These lessons are things I am continually reminded of at the Cradle of Forestry in America. In a single day I may speak with children, young married couples, retired foresters, or international travelers. And in this next year I aim to ask myself more, “Is my language (body, actions, words, etc.) universal?”