It’s been three weeks since the start of my adventure in South America. I arrived on February 2 in Sao Paulo, Brazil and spent one week there with a good friend I used to work with back in Washington D.C. She’d recently relocated to Sao Paulo from New York and was eagerly learning Portuguese. There were grammar books and dictionaries spread across her dining room table and in my down time, I started reading them. Did it help?
Let’s just say I have learned the basic “survival skills” to get by in Portuguese: 1) Getting a taxi, 2) ordering food and drinks and 3) negotiating prices when shopping or paying for something. That’s pretty much all you need. Or local people from Brazil to translate for you! I spent three days up in Petropolis, a gorgeous small mountain town about an hour north of Rio de Janiero with another friend’s parents. Then I took a nice bus for only BR 17 (10 USD) down to Rio for one week plus Carnival. Amazing experience!! More details on that to come, but in the meantime, here are a few things I have learned from traveling about these so called “language barriers” that prevent a lot of people from getting out there and exploring the world.
1) Sometimes no words are needed. Pointing at things is perfectly acceptable. The intonation in your voice or theirs, gestures, numbers and a nice friendly smile can really go a long way in getting what you need. Start with a basic introduction, “Hi. Good afternoon. I’m sorry, I don’t speak much Portuguese” and then use gesturing. One word of advice – don’t ever show the “OK” hand symbol in Brazil. The thumbs- up or down signs are the only one you ever need. The “OK” symbol is the worst insult you can give someone.
2) A “Gringo” is a foreigner. You meet lots of people traveling around the world. I’ve found that Aussies and Brits are the most travelled bunch no matter the region. In Brazil they have a tour group with t-shirts saying “Don’t be a Gringo. Be a Local.” My new Aussie friend commented as we were getting ready for the big parade, “Oh, haha, you’re a Gringo and I’m not because you’re American, haha!” Actually – a “Gringo” is a foreigner. Anyone who isn’t from the place you are in would be called a Gringo, even in Asia or Australia or Europe. But the term is used more frequently in South America. Also, don’t say you are from “America” here – it’s South America. Say “Estados Unidos” or your state.
3) Culture transcends geography. Even though I speak a little Spanish (which I’m practicing now and came in handy for Portuguese, minus pronunciation) I’ve noticed a few things about different regions of the world. Not speaking a language fluently doesn’t mean you can’t understand what’s going on. Body language, tone of voice, a few words here and there will tell you a lot. In Asia, I’ve notice that people in general usually do what they are told. There is no such thing as questioning authority. People usually go with the flow and it is an incredibly efficient social system, for the most part. In the U.S. people do follow the rules but not without complaint. Americans seem to always have something to complain about, either publicly (politics or that guy at the grocery store) or passive aggressively (Facebook and Twitter posters) but in the end, they tend to follow the rules and back down when they can’t get their way. Brazilians will negotiate EVERYTHING. Every conversation is a debate or a negotiation. There are rules, but they only sometimes apply. And if they don’t apply to a situation, they’ll talk their way around it until it works to benefit them. Inefficiency at its peak! My new phrase now is “Eh, we’re on Brazilian time.” Nothing happens when it is supposed to and it all takes forever, but it’s an easy going place and everyone is genuinely happy to help you get around and welcome you to the lifestyle. Just know that “instant gratification” is not part of the vocabulary!