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The Globe and Mail

Music is a perfect way to break the ice when you're travelling

Children with their new harmonicas in Caucus, Georgia.

Margie Goldsmith

Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.

How many camels do you have?" a ruddy-faced fourth-grade Mongolian boy asked me. My guide translated his question.

"None," I answered. The students shook their heads in disbelief and I understood why. Driving through Mongolia's Gobi Desert to get to this village school, every ger (yurt-like dwelling) we passed was surrounded by thick herds of camels, horses and goats.

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Another kid raised his hand. "How many horses do you have? When I said none they were equally shocked because these kids learn to ride before they learn to walk.

I was stumped and was beginning to regret asking to visit a school. I was in Mongolia on assignment. I believe that when we Americans visit a far away place, we are ambassadors for our country, and maybe we can change any preconceived ideas the people have of our culture and us; but my culture made no sense to these kids: I had no animals and I lived in a ger stacked on top of other gers that reached high into the sky.

A boy asked, "Does that mean you're close to the sun?" Well not exactly, I explained. My city, Manhattan, was like the bottom of a valley and because the gers were stacked so high they often blocked out the sun.

The class looked puzzled, and why not? They lived in a land of wide-open spaces.

I hated leaving on such a sour note so I decided to teach the class a song; maybe one about animals would be a way to connect. I asked my guide to write the words to Old MacDonald Had a Farm in Mongolian on the chalkboard. When it came to: "With an oink oink here, an oink oink there, here an oink, there an oink, everywhere an oink oink," all the kids screamed oink oink and giggled. It had taken over an hour, but we finally made the connection.

Then I thought, maybe music is the answer. But how? I don't always have the luxury of time to teach a song. But why not take up a small instrument? The harmonica would be perfect – easy to play and small enough to tuck into my pocket. When I returned to the States, I bought a harmonica and fell in love with playing it.

On my next trip to Tibet, I packed the harmonica. One morning in Shigatse, I got up early to photograph the sunrise. Walking back to my hotel, a group of teenaged boys blocked my trail. I don't know if it was because I snapped a photo, but whatever the reason, the boys began kicking pebbles at me. There was no room on the dirt path to pass. Afraid and uncertain, I whipped out my harmonica and began to play a song. The boys stopped and listened, then smiled. The smallest musical instrument in the world had saved me from what might have been a cultural disaster. It also made me realize that music is a perfect way to break the ice.

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On an assignment in Papua New Guinea, I was playing my harmonica on a rain-forest trail when a young boy ran up and reached for my instrument. I tried to explain that a harmonica is like a toothbrush, you don't share it; but he didn't understand and sulked off. That gave me a new idea. On my next trip to the Republic of Georgia, I brought 30 shiny Hohner Blues Band harmonicas.

My guide took me to a classroom of third graders in the Caucasus Mountains. I played a song and they looked spellbound. Then I took the harmonicas from my backpack and passed them out to the children. Using hand signals I explained that to make music, they needed to blow in and out of the instrument. Together, we inhaled and exhaled, filling the room with chordal sound. When I tried to leave, the kids wouldn't let me go until I'd posed with them for a photo. I had made a new group of friends.

When we travel, we represent our country, but too often, because we cannot communicate with words, we never have a chance to explain who we are. But music breaks down barriers in a way that little else can because it is the language of the soul. So it doesn't matter if I have fancy clothes but no camels, no horses and no goats. It doesn't matter that my ger has no fields and little sunshine. I have something much more valuable to share: I have music.

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