Category Archives: Brazil

Dangerous Words

My language tutors here warned me about a particularly dangerous problem with Spanish and Portuguese.

Apparently there is a word in Portuguese for “embarrass” that means “pregnant” in Spanish. Now, I can understand that in the past the one could lead to the other. However, one needs to be very careful when traveling around that one does not become cockily sure of one’s language skills and cause personal (and professional) embarrassment by basically saying that one is a promiscuous cross-dresser in a business context.

There is another problem though.

Don’t always trust the locals. The other morning I went to breakfast and saw the milk standing there with the following tag: leite quente. I knew from other places that leite means milk and asked the waiter what quente means. He, with confidence like Albert Einstein describing relativity, said “cold”. I try to make mental associations between words so I’ll remember them and associated quente with quench (to make cold).

A little later, I was on my way to get vinte cervejas and thought I’d toss in a little flair to show my host how far I’d come with the language. I put the quente at the end – vinte cerevejas quente I boldly told the waiter.

The effect was not what was anticipated. There was a stunned look on everyone’s face and that look of bewilderment that could be associated with finding out that one’s dog can actually speak.

I did notice this and asked what was wrong, only to be told that quente means “hot”. So now I make sure I ask two people the meaning of a word before making my mental maps.

Eye Test

What is it about understanding (or rather, a lack of understanding) that forces us to use more – more volume for conversational misunderstanding, or in my case, more font size for the written form of misunderstanding?

I’ve caught myself on a number of occasions doing it and am now consciously trying to stop it.

I studied in the days before CAD was the only way to draw. Long, long ago there were things that dispensed ink, and “lead” (actually graphite) onto big pieces of paper. One used rulers and other things called French curves and made projections and arrows by hand. One, of course, moved one’s hand in strange movements to write dimensions using said ink. I hated sloppy drawings and forced myself to change my handwriting until it looked like it was printed by a machine – the Queen Bee has on a couple of occasions told the kids to get me to write something for them because my handwriting is like a Word document print out.

Back to the other day. I was writing down the sequence of something that I needed done. About 10 letters into point 1 I realised that I was doing it: using the size 40 font because the guy I needed to run the tests couldn’t speak English well. Realising my mistake, I slowly reduced the font over the next couple of lines until it was down to normal size for me. Imagine an eye test chart in the optometrists room.

I was thoroughly brought down to earth about the error of my assumption a little later when the same chap was trying to explain the difference between two Portuguese words and wrote that the one word was a “substantive verb” while another was like a “past participle”, all written in a beautiful (small and evenly sized) cursive script.

Officers of the Law

I grew up in South Africa during the pre-”end of Apartheid”. That’s not the current ANC version, it’s the previous one. Police officers were downright scary and were respected, even feared.

I now live in the US, where police officers are downright scary and are respected, even feared.

This is very different from the current South African ANC Apartheid police officers who, when I see them (which is very infrequently), are an object of mirth. To explain to people not familiar with the breed: normally an individual with a godzillian butt (100m dash in infinity time because no one can run 100m with a butt like that), wrapped in some form of cotton cling-wrap, with a bright reflective vest, sunglasses that have a gold frame that is so enormous it obscures the entire mid half of the face (like welding goggles, only bigger), and eyes constantly on the prowl for someone to elicit a bribe from, or for a fellow police officer of the opposite sex with whom to have sex. Honestly a pathetic bunch of losers.

Anyway, the point is that I’ve experienced both sides of the police officer respect thing – none and full.

So, when I travel around, I am always befuddled when I see a police officer. Do I bow my head and sneak-a-peak, to make sure they’re not eyeing me? Do I look bold and confident, stare them in the eye with a “I’ve got nothing to hide. Buddy” look? Or do I just turn and walk the other way? Perhaps even the South African “you fucking immoral, incompetent, loser” look?

I think the world has become so paranoid that one is paranoid about not becoming an object of attention. People who get noticed end up on military aircraft on the way to a quiz-show where the prize is retention of testicles.

In China it is easy. One basically falls to the ground and grovels. That’s easy.

In Germany, I just glance. I’m sure somewhere there is a specification for the duration a South African, with American residency, is allowed to stare at a police officer. I have better things to read, so I just give a cursory glance.

In the US, one uses the “I’ve got nothing to hide” but without the “Buddy” look. One then looks away and continues on one’s path. But don’t stare at tall buildings while the officer can still see you.

So in Brazil this morning, I’m standing outside having a smoke and two police officers come around the corner on their motorbikes. These are the first two specimens I’ve seen. I’m curious. I think the safe way to stare is to first look at the motorbike (what brand, engine size, colour, etc) and then move up to look at the officer. This should be respectful enough to be classed as a thumbs-up type of stare. Well, when I finally got to the officer’s head, he was glowering at me as if he was Arnold Schwarzenegger and I was some male hairdresser with a high pitched voice asking him for a date. He was so focused on giving me the “I see you. Arsehole” look that his head had rotated through more than ninety degrees as he drove past and his colleague on the other bike had to tap his shoulder for him to see that he had to brake before becoming lodged in the back of a car that had stopped in front of him.

I guess in Brazil I’ll try the supplication strategy next.

Double Translators = Zero Understanding

One of the great things about American Hotels is that everything one needs for business travel is always available. There is, for example, always ice available, day or night.

In the rest of the world, this is not so.

This is not good for me. I like to have cold water available during the night. Normally the mini-bar provides for my nightly needs, but on a couple of occasions, the single bottle provided has not been enough. I therefore, always, make sure of the availability of ice before going to my room for the night.

This almost led to an incident the other night.

I believe it is a common courtesy (and not to mention a necessity) to learn a couple of words of the language of the country one finds oneself in. The most important word in any traveller’s infantile vocabulary should be “beer”. One should be able to pronounce the word without accent and spontaneously, which usually requires a lot of practice. The best way, I’ve found, is to find some waiter and use the word frequently. One knows one is successful when the waiter doesn’t give the wide-eyed stare, restating the word with different accents, and just rushes off to the bar. In Brazil this is “cerveja”.

The second most important words are numbers – like 1, 2, 3 etc. In Brazil, one of the first words I learnt was 20 (vinte: pronounced like Vinci – like Leonardo da). This is pretty handy because phrases like “vinte cerveja” save so much ordering trouble.

But there can be problems.

Another thing one should be extremely careful of is hand signals. We (should) all know that nodding is not universally accepted to mean “yes”; sometimes it means “no”. I scuba dive. It is a common courtesy, if not downright safety critical, to frequently ask one’s “buddy” if they’re “ok” – the hand gesture for this is thumb and forefinger closed in a circle and the other three fingers splayed like feathers on a wing – mimicking the letter O. I use this symbol frequently. I also use it to indicate “zero”. In Brazil this hand gesture means, to be precise, “fuck you”. Or, depending on the context, “I want to fuck you”.

On my way out of the hotel the other evening I asked the waiter if he could please arrange some ice for my room. The waiter asked me for my room number, and not having mastered the number 7 yet, I thought that I would just use finger gestures for my room number, 207. I should have realised there was trouble brewing when he started using words that were beyond my Brazilian vocabulary and the raised eyebrows that had dropped and become like a funnel between his now almost closed, scowling, eyes. At this point my host appeared and calmed the waiter down. He kindly listened to the waiter and then correctly explained my order.

When I got outside, I asked what the reason was for the aggression. Well, the waiter had “heard” me say “eyes”, which he thought to mean that whatever he’d seen me drink, I wanted more in my room. When he asked my room number, he “saw” me say “2?, no fuck you, 7″. At this point my host arrived and listened to the waiter. He then kindly explained that I did not know the “fuck you” meaning and that I really only wanted 7 beers in my room when I got back from dinner.

So that evening when I got back from dinner: I had seven beers in the mini-bar. And no ice.