Saturday, April 28, 2007

Brazil 101

Almost Like Spanish?

I know a little bit of Spanish, mostly from previous South American visits. I can't have any meaningful conversation but I can definitely order "cafe" con my "pan y mantequia" (bread and butter) in the morning. Actually maybe that IS meaningful conversation. And so going to Brazil I figured that Portuguese is very similar and I won't have much trouble picking it up.

Reviewing the language section of my trusty Lonely Planet guide to Brazil I noticed that its "so-you've-got-the-shits" section lists five commonly used phrases for the sick traveler:
  • I'm Ill
  • I need a doctor (who speaks English)
  • It hurts here
  • I've been vomiting

And the always useful:

  • (I think) I'm pregnant

Now I've had the top 4 before. I guess if you consider the whole phrase, I can probably have the last one as well though it would be a very different kind of sickness in my case. I just didn't realize that Brazil was so notorious for people getting knocked up. I definitely only drank bottled water on this trip - who knows how things work here.

My next long trip will be to Brazil. But since that's not planned yet, I've jumped at the opportunity to go there on business for a few days.

The City

My first and only planned stop was Sao Paulo, 3rd largest city in the world from a population perspective. It's a strange mix of rich and poor living very close together. The city itself has very few sights, it's not a tourist attraction. Certain neighborhoods, called favelas, are collections of shacks covering local hills. The residents are extremely poor. If you go in, you're not likely to come out. Even walking around them is not recommended.

Crime is a major issue in Sao Paulo. There are weird and fantastic things that could happen to you. For example, my taxi driver explained how he had an old Volkswagen beetle that was hijacked from him when he stopped at red light one day. In fact there's a law that says that at night you don't have to stop at a red light. Just slow down to check for traffic. You could also be mugged or pick-pocketed or the ever-inventive being kidnapped for an hour or so while you use your credit cards to take out as much money as you can, at which time you're released. Business models are improving the world round!

The Beach

In order to see some of Brazil's fabled beaches, we took a taxi to a nearby coastal town called Guaruja. A beautiful ride down the mountains over bridges and through tunnels brought us to a small town on an island near the coast. It was the middle of the week and off season (as much as you can get off season when it's 22c degrees (72F) and sunny.

We had lunch at a beach-side restaurant where I found "Cervesa Rosa" or red beer. The waiter tried to dissuade me from getting it but I persevered. Afterwards we asked how it's made and found out they take good beer and mix it with some concentrated juice. Maybe it's a kids beverage.

"F#@ off, I'm full!"
(Vegeterians might want to skip ahead to the next section)

Sao Paulo has great areas where you can shop to your heart's content, drink coffee while looking at the passers-by or have great meals. My colleagues and I checked out the various food options. You can find anything from Sushi to pasta, but the most famous restaurant style in Brazil is the churrascaria, the Brazilian grill.

The churrascaria is a magical place. As you come in and sit down, the waiter brings a plate with bread and some fried things. This is distraction #1 - avoid it. Next, there's a huge salad bar with very little salady things about it. I went looking for vegetables and came back with some sliced tomatoes. The salad bar is where you get fish, some rice and cheese. This is distraction #2 - avoid it.

Behind the scenes is a kitchen with a large grill. Huge skewers hang on the grill, slowly cooking chunks of cows, pigs and lambs larger than your hand. Every once in a while, a waiter comes by, picks up one of the skewers and walks around the restaurant with it, stopping by your table and offering you pieces that he cuts off right into your plate.

We even got a little map of the cow so that we'd know what we were eating.

Strangely enough, tongue (thanks Roger!) is not on the menu.

Your only defense against the waiters is a small cardboard token with a red side and a green side. While green is up, any waiter coming by will offer you a something and instead of being able to eat in peace you'll be fending them off. Turn the token upside down and voila! they magically still keep stopping by your table and offering you portions.

They only really stop when you're lying back in your chair barely able to breath with your belt undone to let some blood circulate.

Then, they try to re-enact Monty Python's "And finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint" by bringing over the desert truck for you to choose from.


Having been through a number of passover dinners where similar tactics are used, I paced myself and was able to survive dinner. As punishment I was banished the next day to a small town (only 2 mil. people) on the north shore of Brazil. I was a guest speaker at a Java User's Group (ceJUG), a very active group of Java aficionados. Since my Portuguese is only good enough to order food in Spanish, there was a simultaneous translator there to help me communicate with the crowd.

The day before, I had a chance to listen to a simultaneous translator work. While a presenter spoke in Portuguese, us foreigners had earphones on to hear the English version. The scene had something of the Japanese movies where their lips move for a long time and then someone in badly accented English says "OK". Here, as the presenter grew more and more passionate, waxing lyrical about Java in sing-song Portuguese, the translator would say "you are right" in a very even, dry tone.

And so there I was with my own personal translator and 250 people wearing headphones so that they could understand me and I just had to test the new system. So i lifted my hand up and said "anyone who can understand me lift your hands up". And some did while others quickly fumbled with their headphones. Then it dawned on me that raising my hand up gave everyone a hint of what I was saying. My next test was much better devised - I lowered my hand down explicitly while telling everyone who heard to raise their hand. They passed :)

And so I spoke for a couple of hours while the translator, Salmito, talked much more passionately than I did about the subject. He was at the back of the room in a glass box and I was the only one who was really looking at him. It was interesting to see him standing up and gesturing with his hands as he translated my words.

I find it amazing that someone can listen to what I'm saying in English, translate to Portuguese and do this at my rate of speech. There had to have been multiple threads running in his head.

In the evening, my host (Tales) took me and Fernando, the guest speaker from Rio, to have dinner. A section of the shoreline promenade was dedicated to fish sellers. A number of them were still open despite the late hour with trays of shrimp stacked on their counters. We bought half a kilo then went to a small "restaurant" right next to it where we gave our raw shrimp and got french fries, beer and garlic shrimp back. A very nice setup. We sat outside looking at the people and enjoying the meal.

Touring Fortaleza

Fortaleza has many beaches, stretching out a number kilometers. My hotel was on the promenade roughly in the middle of town. I woke up the next morning noon and decided to go tour the beaches. Wearing my tourist clothes with my tourist backpack and my very tourist camera hanging from my neck I got out and started walking along the sand line. Within 5 minutes I came upon a couple of cops walking the beach. They called me over and explained in sigh language that someone will come by and snatch my camera if I walk around like that. Once I put it in the bag, they requested in broken English some money for coffee. I thought about saying no but decided only bad things will follow. If they were nice enough to ask, I might as well comply.

Instead of walking that stretch, I found a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the better beach in the area - Foturo beach. He made the shape of a gun with his fingers and said something about someone taking my "bolsa". Not knowing the word, I tried to find a similar one in languages I understood. Bolsa is close to bolsito in Spanish which means plastic bag. Did he mean they'll mug me and take my bag? I tried to find a close word to bolsa in English and found that option even scarier.

I decided instead to go see the local market:

Album with more pics at:

Brazil April 07

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