Travel Diary : Interview with Martin Dale-Hench and Leala Holcomb, two hitchhikers deaf-mute
There are those people you meet that are surprising and inspiring you. In the south of Argentina, I met this American couple that was deaf and mute. They went all the way from Mexico to Argentina by hitchhiking… Without being able to speak or listen…
Together, we sat in front of a computer opened on a wordpad program and I decided to ask them questions about their absolutely unbelievable Endeavour.
Me , Martin and Leala when we met in Argentina
-Can you introduce yourself? What are your names, ages? Where are you coming from? What are you doing in life?
Our names are Martin Dale-Hench and Leala Holcomb. We come from Detroit, Michigan and San Francisco, California, respectively. We just graduated from a university in Washington, DC. We saved up some money from jobs and selling things and started off on an adventure. Basically we wanted to know the world before “getting chained down” by the “real life.”
-You are actually touch by a handicap, can you tell us about this?
We both are profoundly deaf, and we both are mutes (although we do not use the word to describe ourselves). Lip-reading is out of the question and we cannot speak a peep, so we always communicate by paper and pen or gestures. Of course, it throws a curveball to the idea of hitchhiking because often drivers pick a hitcher to have a conversation. Indeed, most of them don’t expect deaf hitchhikers, and we often laugh about that. However, to us, we don’t view our deafness as a handicap or a disability. It is simply a different way of living and seeing the world. The world interacts with us differently and vice versa.
-You have traveled from North America to South America by hitchhiking, can you explain us about your journey? Where did you pass by exactly?
We started in Cancun, Mexico, because that was the cheapest flight out of U.S. to Latin America, on December 21st, 2009. Went through the 7 southernmost states of Mexico, then all 7 countries of Central America, and with the exception of Venezuela and the Guyanas, we will eventually touch all of South America (still Uruguay, Paraguay and Brasil left at the time of writing). We just go wandering southward to Ushuaia, and go back north to visit Brasil.
Martin and Leala in Colombia
-Can you explain how you are technically doing for hitchhiking?
Hitchhiking is a giant adventure of opening your mind. Every stereotype maintained by media or general consensus has been smashed to pieces. That’s what it does to us. We also volunteer at deaf schools, giving presentations to the kids and their parents. The deaf peoples all over the world are struggling against oppressive ideology that looks upon them like hopeless idiots, and the problematic deaf education system isn’t helping. They are stuck in a vicious circle of not receiving education equal to the hearing peers and appearing stupid, incapable of representing themselves to fight for their rights, and the circle endures for the next generation of deaf children. We have seen deaf children with enormous potential ignored by their own parents, only to grow up illiterate. By seeing this in different countries, it has inspired us to do something about it.
-How do you do for communicating? Do you find any difficulties to be understood?
We use paper and pen to communicate with people. We always write down the name of the destination and show it to the driver before getting in. After getting in, we have a script for every driver that picks us up, “Thank you so much. We are Deaf from the United States, traveling from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego. Where are you going?” We use gestures often to tell people basic things, for example, hungry, eat, stop, thumbs up, thumbs down, kids, sleep. Some people refused to try to comprehend basic gestures or they were incapable, standing there, staring and grinning like an idiot. Some people were illiterate and were not able to converse with us, we were limited to gestures or silence. These are a few examples of when communication became an issue. Generally, we rarely have problems. Often, we use people´s cell phone and converse with each other through text. We have an easier time talking to people when there are two people in the front seats, one can write to us while the other can focus on driving. It is more difficult writing to the driver when s/he is alone, s/he usually have to stop or slow down the car to write their responses, which requires a lot of patience on both sides and prolongs our driving time.
Martin in front of a sign « Respect the signals »
-What is the reaction of the people when they see that you can´t hear or talk to them? And you, how do you react to their reaction? That must be something that you are used to?
In most countries in Latin America, it is obvious that we are gringos. Most people assumed that we did not know Spanish and were prepared for some difficulty in communicating with us without realizing that we were Deaf. After writing to them in Spanish explaining that we are Deaf, most of them were glad we could understand Spanish. The common reaction is for them to point their ears and shake their heads “no,” and gesture “talk,” and we would reaffirm them by gesturing “no hear, no talk.” Most people enjoy meeting unique people like us and hearing about our trip but not the truck drivers. They pick up hitchhikers mainly for their company and the worst company they can get is people who cannot talk or hear.
-Do you have any special way to approach people? Do you work as a team? Is it easier to travel at two?
Writing to people requires a lot of time, patience, and effort, it can get tiring at times. We meet new people every day, often every hour, trying to keep up with conversations in writing requires a lot of effort, we are blessed to have each other to share this duty. We naturally take turns with the responsibility of talking with people. As one of us converse with people, the other can relax and not worry about writing back and forth.
Leala waiting on the side of the road
Most of times, Leala gets to approach the drivers or people who we ask for favors because she is a female and people receive her better than the serious-looking Martin. Drivers pick us up quickly because they feel more comfortable with a female present. This is an advantage for Martin. Martin´s presence ensures the safety of Leala. In Central America, a lot of guys stared at Leala, made vulgar expressions, and approached her when she is alone. She feels fortunate to have Martin around. We share a lot of fun times together, watching sunsets together, keeping each other warm during cold nights, being goofy while waiting for cars, our love for each other and for traveling makes the experience even more special.
Martin and Leala united
Most times we are surrounded by hearing people, we feel at home with each other, being able to communicate through our native language – sign language. If it we traveled alone, we probably would never use sign language unless we meet other deaf people, which is not too many.
-Did you learn Spanish? If yes, did you know it before? If not, how did you do it?
Martin learned Spanish in Elementary, Middle School, and High School but he did not remember much. He had some practice when he went to Spain two years prior to this trip. Leala took some Spanish classes in the university and had basic knowledge of the language. We write with people in Spanish all the time while traveling, 24/7, fully immersed in the Latin American community, culture, and life. We always carry a English-Spanish dictionary with us and use it to learn new words every day. In addition, a lot of people correct our grammar or spelling as we write to each other. We learned a whole lot about the language than we ever did in the classroom.
-You are really on a budget (5 dollars for two people per day), what do you do with that?
We never pay for sleeping accommodations. Every day we do not know where we will be that night. Wherever we arrive after dark, we always camp out or ask people where we can sleep and allow them to host us. In big cities or touristy places, we couchsurf. When we end up in small unknown towns without any place to stay, we go to the police station and ask them where we can camp legally. Often times they allow us to sleep inside their building or camp in their backyard. For sleeping arrangement, it is always free. For transportation, we hitchhike, which is also free too.
Martin and Leala are often camping, here in Bocas del Toro in Panama
The only thing that costs money is food. We never eat out and people give us free food often. Sometimes we go to bakery shops and ask them for free old breads to go with our peanut butter. In Central America, $5 was plenty, we averaged $4 a day instead. Even with $4 a day budget, we ate a lot of fried food from street vendors, ice cream, empanadas, tortillas with beans, tamales. In Chile and Argentina, it is a bit of challenge because their cheapest food like empanadas still cost $3-$5. We volunteered in two places where we got free food and lodging in return. We couchsurf and cook at people´s houses more often, this helps our budget a lot.
Our $5 a day budget was easy and we were able to get pleasure from food in each country, having never missed a meal. We never went hungry for more than a few hours. We often talk about how we could live with under $1 a day if we did not indulge ourselves with food, however, this is not something we want to give up.
Our $5 budget does not include entry taxes, scuba diving in Belize, plane ticket from Panama to Colombia, boat trip to the glaciers in El Calafate.
Because of our low budget, we were able to enjoy these things.
-How was the welcome of the people you met? Did you find any countries where the people were the friendliest with you?
Mexico had the friendliest people, despite, paradoxically, being the most depressive and alcoholic. Chile was very hospitable as well. In reality, there are hospitable people in every country, going great distances to make us feel welcome. One couple in Colombia paid a hostel room for us when we couldn’t find a place to camp. Being deaf seemed not to affect their hospitality, although a few times we did feel that they treated us better because of it (pity).
-What did you learn on this journey? Did it change the way you are seeing the world?
There are more good than bad in this world, perhaps 99% good and 1% bad. Media distorts, fools us into believing that it is the other way around, 99% bad, 1% good.
Every country thinks their neighboring countries are dangerous and they are always wrong.
The difference between a tourist and a traveler (huge difference!)
Hitchhiking and couchsurfing should be encouraged and used more often, they bring strangers together and eradicate fear and distrust. These projects improve the society significantly.
Traveling is the best education. We´ve learned more about government, art, environment, cultures, languages, cooking, history, science, geography (you name it, it is on the list!) in a year than we ever did in our 22 years of schooling.
Nationality and borders are bullshit. Humans should not know any borders, or choose one´s people over another. We all have same battles, we all have same things to go through, and we want and need love, acceptance, and understanding from others. I am not any much different from the person next to me or from the opposite side of the world.
It is easy to get wrapped up in a job you do not enjoy, to be stuck with house payments, hampered by what society expects you to do. Through this trip, we get the opportunity to see how hundreds of people live, the choices they made, and the consequences of their choices. We´ve met a lot of beautiful people who had taught us to step back take a good look at life. Do we want to be part of a capitalistic society that values money and numbers over happiness and equality for everybody? An exile from Germany came to Patagonia twenty years ago with no money, cut down trees and traded wood for building materials, built himself a beautiful house and grows his own vegetables, told us… ¨today people do not know how to use their hands but they do not realize that computers will not feed them.¨ Self-reliance, reaping what you sow, growing your own food, trading and sharing with the community, leading a simple but more meaningful life. We have learned a lot about gardening and sustainability through working in an eco-farm in Mexico and an eco-camping site in Argentina
-A special message? Anything you want to add?
We have visited Deaf Associations and met Deaf leaders in almost every country in Latin America. We also volunteered in four different Deaf schools. The plight of the Deaf in Latin America is a tragedy, at home, in school, and in the community. Many deaf people are uneducated, unable to read or write Spanish, and oppressed.
Martin and Leala visiting different associations and schools on their
Most parents of the Deaf are ashamed, refusing to learn sign language, and their communication with their deaf child is limited to basic gestures or none. There is no training on how to teach deaf children (bilingual education: teaching deaf children how to read and write through their primary native language, sign language). The teachers are trained through special education programs, which focus on kids with mental problems, motor incapacities, and speech therapy. There are no interpreting services available. Sign language interpreters make communication easier between hearing people and deaf people at work, in hospitals or doctor offices, and court rooms. Also, deaf people cannot participate in community events if the government does not provide interpreters; this causes the deaf community to be isolated from the majority society. Nobody wants to hire deaf people, many of them peddle by selling ABC sign language cards or ask for donations because of their deafness on the streets or in buses.
While in the United States, a Harvard research has shown that if a baby learns sign language during its first years, it will have a higher IQ. Such a shame deaf people are denied the opportunity to lead a good and meaningful life with education and dignity just because hearing people have a fixed idea of what it means to be human, and the beauty of the sign language, deaf culture, and visual world are not part of this image.