Lingua Incognita

So here’s a thing I need to get off my chest: Back in grad school I heard a joke: “If someone speaks two languages, they’re bilingual. If someone speaks three languages, they’re trilingual. If someone speaks one language, they’re American.” The implication being, of course, that Americans are isolationist country bumpkins who never get out in the world or make the effort to converse with other cultures.

I’ve come to two conclusions about this attitude toward my countrymen. First, since I was exposed to it in academia, it probably filtered down from snotty Europeans who were schooled in five different languages before puberty or the invention of Google Translate. Second, the definition of “American” needs to be expanded to include everyone living in the western hemisphere.

The Municipal Cathedral of Porto Alegre

All the way counter-clockwise from Ecuador to Uruguay, the vast majority of the people we interacted with only spoke Spanish and that was cool. We were in their country, so we learned and adjusted. When we crossed into Brazil this week, we had no expectation that suddenly we’d be surrounded by English speakers (although the few Brazilians we met earlier on our travels spoke English very well). What we did think, though, was that since Brazil shares a continent with so many Spanish-speaking countries, Spanish would not be uncommon and that it could serve us as a decent “intermediary” language to communicate.

Boy. Were. We. Wrong.

So far Brazil seems to be just as monolingual a society as the United States, and more so than other Latin American countries we’ve visited. Granted, we haven’t yet been to Rio or Foz do Iguaçu or any other big tourist hub. As in Peru we snuck in through the back door, coming up the coast to Porto Alegre – a harbor city that, while the largest in the South, isn’t anything like a tourist destination.

The… *ahem* …majestic views of the harbor.

But come on. First, it’s an international port so presumably you’ve got sailors from all over the world arriving at the docks. Second, Porto Alegre is the gateway from Brazil to Uruguay and Argentina, so you’d think someone would speak Spanish. But nope. Everywhere we went – restaurants, grocery stores, laundries, what have you – we would tell people “No Portuguese. Inglés o español?” and they would look at us dumbfounded, as if learning for the first time that other languages exist. Then they would carry right along in Portuguese, often talking louder just like a stereotypical tourist from the United States.

Ah well. We didn’t come to Porto Alegre to see the sights – good thing too, since there aren’t many – but just as a stopover between hellacious bus rides and to give ourselves time to adapt to a new country. We expected a bigger cultural shift coming into Brazil than when crossing other borders, especially with our new linguistic handicap, and wanted a few days to adjust without adding on other travel pressures.

Riding around town is exciting and roller-coastery.

Here are a few things we’ve learned.

Food and lodging in Brazil are cheap, at least relative to the last three countries we’ve visited. Transportation and laundry, however, are not. My god, the laundry. We have four outfits each that we wear two days in a row, so every time we do laundry we’re washing six outfits and a week’s worth of socks and undies. Everywhere else it’s cost us $10 – $15 USD to get everything washed. In Porto Alegre, it cost over $40! We hoped was a fluke, but in Florianopolis (skipping ahead to next week’s article) the same amount of laundry cost $50. (!!!)

Who knew that of all the expenses on this trip, it was going to be the laundry that was going to force us to cut back on other things. Hopefully there are self-serve laundromats in this country (there haven’t been elsewhere) because we’re not really willing to spend hours and hours doing laundry in the bathroom sink and stringing it across a tiny room to dry.

Maybe this tree could suck the moisture out of our laundry with its roots.

Back to the food: Thank the Gods that Brazilians eat dinner earlier than Argentinians. This whole business of restaurants not opening until 8:30 at night was driving me batty. In Brazil, restaurants open for dinner between 6:00 and 7:00, but even better – there are lancherias that are open all afternoon.

We kept seeing the word “lanche” in restaurant descriptions and at first thought it was some specific Brazilian dish. But no, “lanche” simply means “snack” and in Brazil “snack” usually means “hamburger.” (Side note: Brazilian burgers are huge, pressed somewhat like oversize paninis, and come with lettuce, tomato, corn, and peas. Lea doesn’t like the corn and peas, but I have to say I do.) Our favorite lancheria, though, was “Mr. Batata.”


Right down the block from our Porto Alegre apartment, Mr. Batata serves french fries in containers shaped like a giant waffle cones and your choice of up to twenty or so different toppings. And a plastic fork, ‘cause you’re going to need it. The ability to find a meal whenever we want and not having to wait until the dead of night to eat if we don’t have a kitchen is such a relief. Thank you, Brazil. Thank you.

So far, air conditioning units in Brazil work far better than those in Argentina and Uruguay. (The west coast didn’t have them at all, so no point of comparison.) Our hosts in Porto Alegre also had Netflix, so I’m sorry to say we eschewed “immersing ourselves in a new culture” for a couple afternoons of watching movies in English. When we did go out for things besides laundry and french fries, we spent some time walking in the shade in the city’s botanical garden, took a boat tour of the river/lake/bay where Porto Alegre sits, and found Porto Alegre’s small museum of contemporary art.

Porto Alegre’s Cultural Center.

Our time in Porto Alegre at an end, we headed north to start exploring Brazil’s natural wonders. (Because at this point we’re sick of colonial architecture and centuries-old churches and I’m honestly looking forward to some forest.) Our first target was Cânion Itaimbezinho in the Aparados da Serra National Park, which was recommended to us by an online friend from São Paulo. You get to the park from the tiny town of Cambará do Sul, but apparently there is only one bus into and out of town each day. Maybe.

Having learned our lesson in Argentina, we rented a car (a mini-SUV because of possible bad road conditions in the park) and made our own way. The weather reports weren’t good, but with fingers crossed we got to Cambará, stayed the night, and went to the park the next morning. The rain gods smiled and the weather held off, though the wind was pretty fierce and we could watch the clouds rolling in. We hiked two trails at the top of the canyon, getting great views of the valley and its amazing waterfalls.

Logistically it would have made sense for us to drive our rental north to our next port of call, but just like in the States car companies hate when you do that and charge quadruple for one-way trips. So after enjoying the park and a delicious lunch in Cambará, we drove three hours south in the rain back to Porto Alegre to catch the night bus north to Florianapólis, the first stop on our Brazilian Beach Tour. And since we’re near the beach…

Is your proboscis ready for this?

Welcome to The Escape Hatch In Brazil Drinking Game©!

How to play: Have your adult beverage of choice near at hand. If possible it should be a caipirinha, the national drink of Brazil. Or, if not, a shot glass and a bottle of vodka or rum will do.

Now, read back through the article and take a drink every time you see an alphabetic character with some kind of silly non-English šymbõl âttáçhėd. If it’s only an áccent, just take a sip. If it’s anything else, you have to do a shöt. If I do the same while I write, it should make these reports from the eastern hump of South America more exciting. It may also improve my Portuguese.


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