I’m not completely at fault here. I had registered for a Portuguese class at Pima Community College and made it through a week before dropping. I was in an accelerated one year M.Ed. program at the time, as well as having quite a few large changes in my personal life and housing old friends at my apartment. And I was running a charity mostly by myself. With all of this going on I don’t feel at all guilty that I didn’t finish the class or study more Portuguese before heading to Brasil, but knowing the language beyond letters and numbers wouldn’t have killed me either. Ditto Spanish upon arrival in Ecuador.
The first two weeks in Brasil were quite easy. I was with hundreds of other Americans so speaking Portuguese would have been a luxury instead of a necessity. The only real issue was buying mineral water instead of normal toilet water to drink, but I survived. The part where I regret not knowing Portuguese began once the World Cup group stage ended and the other Americans went home. It was suddenly like I was in a foreign country or something. I stayed with a friend and her roomie for two weeks and things were generally pretty simple.
Then I left to go to Arambepe to work at a holistic retreat and I no longer had her teet to depend on for survival. I was alone.
Arambepe was a small town so I would bus an hour up the road to big, crazy, loud Salvador for the weekends. One Sunday night I went to the bus station and I asked for a ticket to Arambepe. I assumed that since I bought a ticket specifically for Arambepe that the bus would stop in Arambepe. The ticket salesman probably explained that the bus does the exact opposite of that, but after around fifteen seconds of not understanding much I tend to tune out. An hour into the bus ride one of the workers on the bus came checking tickets and looked like I had personally insulted him when he saw mine. At that point we were no more than two kilometers past Arambepe. I tried to tell the bus conductor that I could get out and walk and it would be easy, but he kept panicking and demanding from me a lot of things I didn’t understand. This led to a handful of other people on the bus angrily saying “o gringo” and pointing in random directions. After five minutes of being lectured in panicked voices he wrote me a note with directions to go to the oncoming highway, flag down a bus, and show the note to the driver. The note said something along the lines of “He’s lost, get him to Arambepe safely,” the same type of thing that you would write for a lost child.
I valued my dignity and did not show the note to the next bus driver, I just explained in broken Portuguese that I was hitchhiking to Arambepe. I got back fine after that, but the ordeal ended up taking quite a while.
Spanish was much easier for me, but I still had a couple incidents. When I arrived in Ecuador, I was living with the family I was working for. The son spoke some English but the rest of the family didn’t speak a word. I was on my own during the day as the son worked most nights. I spoke a bit of conversational Spanish, but not enough to talk in detail about anything. This made for some very stupid situations, such as me trying to explain that it wasn’t a good idea to paint a wall without using masking tape for the trim or floor, then spending the entire next day scraping paint off of the tile with an old razor. Another classic was trying to explain that using rotted wood pulled from a wall to patch rotted wood on another wall using rusty nails was a stupendously bad idea. Integrating with the family after work was nearly as difficult. I didn’t end up working there very long.
The language barrier also resulted in my getting multiple exorcisms, but that’s another story for another time. I could fill another two pages with anecdotes of getting yelled at on the bus and not understanding clear directions, but we both have better things to do with our time.