18 Jan, Tuesday
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Speaking English in Brazil and Using Pets as People Magnets

Speaking English in Brazil and Using Pets as People MagnetsIt’s amazing how many people who go abroad and end up in a country where they don’t understand a single word of the local language, feel lost and angry. This is exactly what has happened to my Filipino friend Marvin who came with me to Brazil last November.

In Brazil, unlike in Saudi Arabia or the UAE, hardly any one speaks English, something that has frustrated Marvin no end. “How much is this?” Marvin has been insisting on asking salespeople in an accusatory tone whenever we are in a store looking at things.

“Don’t talk English to them!” I say. “They don’t understand what you’re saying.”

It’s true that I have the unfair advantage of speaking Portuguese fluently, so I don’t feel frustrated while trying to communicate with people. And I must admit that I too have emulated the “Ugly American” stereotype on more than one occasion when I’ve insisted on speaking English to people whose language I do not understand, even raising my voice a few octaves in a desperate attempt to miraculously be understood. Of course, shouting in English does not get one understood better by foreigners, but there is always that natural urge to try and do so even if we know that it is all futile!

Marvin has also been asking me to take pictures of him with Brazilians whenever we go to a touristy site. Just a few days ago we walked to the new National Museum on the Esplanada dos Ministerios after having lunch with my Brazilian friend Alisson. On the way there, we saw a group of young Brazilian women office workers in high heels and streaked blond hair. They looked they were going back to work after having lunch.

“Excuse me,” Marvin called out to them. “Can I take your picture?”

Not understanding English, the girls gave him blank looks of incomprehension and ran off.

Seeing him dejected, I told him, “Don’t worry, they weren’t friendly anyway. We’ll find other people.”

Designed by Oscar Niemayer, the 101-year-old architect who designed Brasilia from scratch in 1960, and who is still busy churning out designs for more public monuments in the Brazilian capital, the museum looks like a flying saucer from a 1950s UFO movie. A giant curved pathway leads up to the white, half-orb, which does not have a very good display of art inside of it. On our way down the curving ramp, Marvin called out to another visitor, a chubby Brazilian man, who gamely posed with him as I took their picture.

Niemayer has already designed a daring new project for the same Esplanada dos Ministérios called “A Praça do Povo” which will consist of a huge white arch pointing up into the air, with parking for 3,000 cars underground. The idea is to have a monument that awes the public and to help link the central bus station (which is really ugly) to the long row of ministries that lead up to the Congress. It’s due to be ready for Brasilia’s 50th anniversary in April 2010.


Men and women have long known that taking their pet dogs for walks in the park or on the street is a good way of meeting new people. Most normal people love dogs and will usually stop and “oh and ah” at one’s pet.

This Saturday was the first time for that to happen to me, when we took my dog Nog-Nog with us to visit our other house on the other side of the Lago Sul. When we got there we saw a huge infestation of caterpillars happily munching away at the leaves of an entire tree outside the house. They were huge, fat and colorful. Their black bodies had yellow stripes and their heads were red. And they were everywhere: wiggling from a branch hanging upside down, on the upper branches, on the lower branches on and the tree’s trunk. It was both horrific and fascinating in a sort of pornographic way.

Deciding that we had to spray them with insecticide that very same day, in order to stop them from devouring the whole tree, we went off to a nearby shopping center in search of a spray bottle and the appropriate chemicals to kill them. Marvin had taken several photos of them with his digital camera, which came in handy when we had to show a salesman what the critters looked like.

Nog-Nog, tagging along with us on his leash as we went in and out of several stores, got his fair share of attention from passersby, including one Brazilian woman whose overweight dog insisted on sniffing his behind while she asked me “Does he bite?”

“No he doesn’t,” I said.

Most people who see Nog-Nog exclaim at how young he seems, asking me “How many months is he?”

The truth is that he’s a small lap dog, around 8 kilos in total, and well into his ninth year of life. When I tell the questioners that they seem disappointed but accepting at the same time.

When we finally found the right spray can and insecticide, we drove back to the house and our driver Lucio sprayed the caterpillars, which continued to hang on for dear life to our tree.

“It will take a few hours to affect them,” said Lucio, in response to my disappointment that they weren’t instantly falling off the tree in spasms of pain and death.

“Spray them every 15 days, three times,” the salesman with a country accent had told us. “That way you’ll kill any of their eggs that they leave behind.”