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Brazzil - Language - June 2003

If Only I Knew a Little Portuguese!

I was starting to get really frustrated. I needed someone who spoke
. My five or six words of Spanish were getting me nowhere fast.
I began to feel delirious. They swirled around me, these hordes of
non-English speakers. I was a lonely ant lost in a sea of Cariocas.

John Daniel


I relish the thought of someday being a speaker at a gathering of language teachers and/or students. Maybe I'll give the keynote address at some banquet. I would joyously tell about an experience of cross-cultural adventure such as that of the following—that experience of temporarily having no way to communicate with people. As someone interested in teaching language, I consider it a rite of passage; and it was an experience I had first and foremost in the country of Brazil.

The roots of my attraction to Brazil date back as far as 1980. In that year, living with my sister in the Mojave desert of California, we used to go every weekend to Long Beach, south of Los Angeles. She would visit her boyfriend and I would visit a buddy. Once while I was at the residence of her boyfriend there was a young Brazilian woman, who was dating the brother of my sister's boyfriend. "There's many beautiful women in Brazil, " she told me, "you should go there." That couldn't help but stick in my mind for future use.

Then around 1986 there was Dennis, my best friend from high school. Being born in the early 50's as I was, Dennis had had a bout with polio as a child and as a result had a crippled leg. Dennis told me how he had gone to Rio de Janeiro the year before and had a good time. He told me he had gotten a whole big plate of "tacos" for less than two dollars. Not only that, but the beer was very good.

Furthermore, he had had an adventure in Rio with a "gang of three girls," having been mugged and robbed by them. They ran and he chased after them. He got his money back. To this day, a smile comes to my face when I think of Dennis hobbling along at high speed like some mechanical man-apple cart with an oblong wheel. Also I formed an impression in my mind that any country kind enough to refund money to the handicapped, deserved to get some tourist dollars from me.

In 1984 I got a good job. In 1986 I received a moderately nice inheritance. And so, after coming into some money for the first time in my life, I began to plan a trip to Brazil. There were no plans to learn any Portuguese, although I was aware that it was the language of Brazil. I was learning Spanish. Or at least I had written my own adapted lyrics to "La Cucaracha," and gone to Ensenada a couple of times.

The few words of Spanish that I had were to serve me very poorly in Brazil, as I would soon learn. My bad (or good, remembering that "rite of passage" thing) experience was to teach me that regardless of whatever your expectations, in regards to translation support at your destination, it's always better to learn more of the language than what you think you will need. Yes.

I went to the library to get a book about Brazil. Was that preparation for the trip? No, not really. That was mostly daydream indulgence. I should've been soaking up some Portuguese.

Flying Down South

What an adventure it was going to be. I remembered from grade school the pictures in the book, of the Christ The Redeemer (pronounced in Portuguese, CREE-STOW REDENTOR) statue, and the Sugarloaf mountain (POWN- JAY-A-SOOKER). I had thought those were in Argentina and Uruguay. No, son, they were in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the place you were going to.

Even though I was going to be traveling alone, something that made me even more complacent in regards to language difference was the fact that I had a bilingual contact in Brazil.

If you're from the Los Angeles area you might remember the international ads of The Recycler. Although such ads have now been made obsolete by the Internet, in 1986 they helped me find Roberto and Cidinha (SEE-JEAN-YA). This young married couple were living in Campinas, São Paulo state. They wanted to immigrate to either the U.S. or Britain, and were studying English rather intently. I began correspondence with them, and we planned to meet after I arrived in the country.

I bought my ticket two months in advance. Always one to prefer adventure over extravagance, I had not purchased any tour package, but just airfare only. My ticket would fly me in through the "gateway" city of Rio. Since I was logically cautious about everything,…er,…that is,…almost everything, I wanted to go to Campinas first, and then towards the end of my two and a half weeks I would move back to Rio. This way I would be closer to my flight home, near the end, just in case something bad happened. But Roberto and Cidinha would be my guides. Everything would be fine. In their letters there were minor notations in Portuguese. What a cute language!! A little bit like the French of high school. Very quaint and somewhat interesting. Maybe I'll study it in my old age, during retirement.

Roberto drew out a map of the part of Campinas he was in, and sort of how to get to his house from the Campinas bus station, known as a rodoviária, (HODOH-VEE-AR- EEAH). He must've also told me how to get to Rio's bus station from the airport, and then from there to Campinas. But as I would find out, there would be something missing.

It was July 7, 1987, when I boarded the wonderful Japan Airlines jumbo jet, to fly non-stop to Rio de Janeiro. JAL was really great with those steaming hot water washcloths. They were given out when you woke up in the early-arrived early morning of the next day. You saw sunlight coming in through the windows on the left side of the aircraft. Somewhere, not too far from the extremely distant horizon, was the mouth of the Amazon. But you probably didn't know that much yet. With more travel experience you would become better oriented. You still had lots of learning ahead of you, son. Both good and bad experiences would come, and they would all teach you something.

The plane touched down in Rio, and everything was wonderful. I had no problems with the usual procedures getting me out of the airport. There were people at information kiosks who spoke English. I took either a taxi or a bus—I forget which—to get me to the rodoviária. When I arrived at this bus station, there were a lot of people (Cariocas they are called in this city).

Maybe a wacky spy satellite with a fogged lens would think it had spotted a giant teeming anthill. I can poke some more twisted humor at Latinos in general by pointing out the fact that they are all almost deaf, or trying to become so, when they listen to music. It's not only Cariocas, but all Latinos who think they have to blast you to Kingdom Come or shatter glass. Anyway, that day in Rio's bus station, that's what they were trying to do over the P.A. system. It was loud. And as I said, there were a lot of people there.

Lost in Brazil

I began asking about the bus to Campinas, and soon found that I wasn't getting anywhere. Surely I was using whatever instruction Roberto had given me, but was not connecting somehow. With the noise and crowding I was starting to get really frustrated. I needed someone who spoke English. I kept trying to find someone. My five or six words of Spanish were getting me nowhere fast. I began to feel delirious. And like a sailor lost at sea in a raft, there were millions of gallons of water, but nary a drop I could drink. They swirled around me, these hordes of non-English speakers.

Let's get surreal: In the middle of the bus station there's a merry-go-round. You arrive and you're on it. Suddenly it stops. SUDDENLY the realization. Infants thrown to the ground, blood spurting. The loud music becomes screams. Then the merry-go-round starts up again, but now turning in the opposite direction. Spinning ever faster; faster and faster. When in South America water spins down a drain IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION,YOU FOOL!!

You're spinning round and round. Down and down, going to Hell. Getting very sick now. You were so smart; look at you now. You're going to vomit and die. The music screams ever louder as you get more and more nauseated. Now that spy camera above your head zooms out, up as it were, losing sight of you, a lonely ant lost in a sea of Cariocas.

As I recall, it was about one and a half hours when I, teary-eyed, almost weeping, finally found someone who spoke English. I asked them. And they were finally able to tell me how to catch the bus for Campinas. I succeeded in buying the ticket and getting on the bus. The nightmare was over. In fact, it was over for the entire remainder of the trip since contacts in Campinas and later back in Rio were all bilingual with English.

But what was the problem at Rio's bus station? Well, other than the obvious, as Roberto explained to me that night, was the fact that it was a Friday and everyone in Brazil gets out of town on Friday afternoon. There had been a period that day when buses were simply not available unless you had purchased your ticket in advance, which I had not done. If I had been able to catch on to this fact sooner, it would have saved me a lot of frustration and misery.

We will now make a small alteration to our model of the ill-prepared traveler and explore what can happen with the language barrier under slightly different circumstances.

About two months after I returned from my Brazil trip I went on a similarly arranged trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The different circumstances were as follows: The language was Spanish which was more familiar to me, my vocabulary having grown from five or six words to about twelve, and on the other hand, for the worse, I had absolutely no person in the entire country with whom I would have a prearranged contact. The result was similar to that of the Rio bus station but not quite as bad since I was apparently toughening up slightly.

I wandered the streets of Buenos Aires looking for someone who spoke English, and it took about the same length of time, one and one half hours. Although I avoided the weeping stage, I approached it, and strongly considered hunting for the U.S. Embassy. I know today that that was the expected pathology: A fool—except when incapacitated with nausea—will usually look for some place where they can feel smarter.

I can summarize and conclude with this advice: Learn the language before you go unless you're certain you'll be continuously with someone bilingual. Even then it's still a good option to at least have a good start on the language. Doing otherwise, the pain and frustration can be not only a bummer, but possibly dangerous as well.


John Daniel taught himself Spanish to the advanced level. He currently continues a less than stellar career in the electrical construction industry using his periods of unemployment to perfect his Portuguese toward total fluency and write an EFL textbook for Brazilians. He can be reached at P.O. Box 10401, Glendale, CA 91209





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