People ask me all the time how I can travel around so much and get by without knowing any of the local languages. The answer is that I actually do know a bit of every local language. We all do. There is a universal language that everyone understands called pantomime. Asking how to get to the Roman Colosseum or if a restaurant has a bathroom with only hand gestures can be tricky and takes creativity. You don't always have WiFi available to save you. The results are often times hilarious. These are my favorite items I've had to ask for from locals in foreign countries using just my hands.
I was once sent on a mission to buy a pregnancy test for someone in Brazil (don't ask why!). I saw many pregnancy test shaped boxes with Portuguese writing on them but couldn't even tell them apart from toothpaste. I actually had to walk up to the pharmacist, hold a pretend stick below my crotch to fake pee on it like a girl, and rub my hands on a growing giant invisible belly.
Communication accuracy: 100%! Worked like a charm.
I had to do this one a few times in Asia because of the mosquitos and will now have to do it often in South America especially because of the Zika virus currently going around (I'm in Brazil right now on the beach and a mosquito literally just landed on my face). This one is simple. Pinch your fingers together tightly, move them around the air while making a buzzing sound and land your fingers on your wrist, slap your wrist, pretend to itch it, spray invisible bug spray, and always end it with a thumbs up.
Communication accuracy: 100%. This stuff is pretty common in every pharmacy.
Food doesn't always agree with you in foreign countries, and often times their toilets aren't even designed to handle paper (you have to throw dirty paper in the garbage instead). I once clogged a South American toilet in an Airbnb apartment I was staying in. It was a good bet that the guard at the front gate of the apartment could find a plunger for me. I actually cheated on this one and just showed him a picture of a plunger on my phone, but realized later this would have made a much more entertaining situation if I fake pooped, messed with an invisible flush handle, and used both hands to pretend shove a plunger into the ground.
Communication accuracy: TBA.
Condoms aren't always right behind the counter in foreign countries. One time in Thailand, I had to ask the cashier where they were by giving the ol' pointer finger through a circle "sex" hand gesture, ripping open a fake wrapper with my teeth, and pretending to put it on.
Communication accuracy: 50%. The first clerk didn't understand but her coworker did.
Rashes are pretty common while traveling abroad long term (mainly sun rashes). This one is simple enough: go to a pharmacist, point to your rash, fake itch it, rub invisible lotion on it, and give a nice sigh of relief. This one can be pretty embarrassing if the rash isn't on your arms or legs though! If you don't want to take your shirt or pants off in a pharmacy, just pretend there is a rash on your wrist and do the same as above and it should work out fine.
Communication accuracy: 100%. Everyone can emphasize with this one.
Traveling can be difficult for me because I'm deathly allergic to peanuts. A meal in an Asian country could put an end to all my travels permanently. Asian languages can be tough and have various dialects. I've tried learning the word for peanut in Thai and Cambodian but it was useless as no one could really understand me. To solve this, I usually have to point at peanuts on the menu/buffet/saved phone picture/or even another person's plate, move my hands across each other back and forth while shaking my head no, grasping my throat, and pretending to die.
Communication accuracy: 25%. Peanut allergies are pretty much nonexistent in many foreign countries. If the waiter doesn't understand me and I feel unsafe, I usually have to find another place to eat.
This comes up because I travel long term with a girlfriend. The difficulty is pretty high so we usually just show phone pictures. In Vietnam, we visited around 5 shops and tried to point at her abdomen and put in an invisible tampon up her crotch. It's pretty hard to do without laughing! Some shop owners were too shy and embarrassed and turned away while smiling.
Communication accuracy: 0%. We actually could never get anyone to understand what we were asking for.