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Speaking Portañol, Latin America’s Universal Language

To Peru and Back Again


Saturday, August 21, 2010

You know about Spanglish—that beautiful phenomenon that spontaneously occurs in conversation when some parts just come out in Spanish, others in English? Portañol is kind of like that, only for most North Americans, including myself, it combines none of our first languages. Yet it’s the relatively intelligible universal tongue of Latin America, and the way I survived the last month.

After spending a solid six months studying in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I finished up exams and headed for Peru. By hopping on a plane and back off again, I transferred myself from the land of oi and e aí? to the land of hola and que pasa? Suddenly there were no more obrigados, desculpas, and tchaus. Only graciases, lo sientos, and adioses. Suddenly “r”s were rolling around all over the place, and the strong “ch” sound, which is a distinct quality of Rio’s Portuguese accent, were nowhere to be found. People were calling each other Mami and Papi to be polite, and everybody was at least two feet shorter than I.

My first stop was Cuzco, the 3,400-meter high heart of ancient Incan civilization and super-touristy launching pad for hundreds of thousands of Machu Picchu-bound tourists annually. With the trip organized around this primary destination, I was continually pleasantly surprised to find more and more incredible Peruvian destinations: from high in the Andes mountains and Lake Titicaca, to epic northern surfing beaches and desert, to deep in the jungle down the Amazon River inland from there I traveled. All the while I implemented more and more Spanish into my Portañol. But I never lost my Brazilian frame of reference.

Leaving Brazil was, at first, an enormous relief. For the first time in half a year, I didn’t feel like sidewalks were simply stages for women to stand upon and receive stares, howls, and hisses. Nor were sidewalks runways meant for people to strut their chic clothing and shoes. Rio’s intense machismo presence (which many a Brazilian will insist is a “Latin thing,” not a “Brazilian thing”) and obsession with superficial wealth are seriously toned down in Peru.

On a more positive note, Peru gave me a perspective on Brazil in a Latin American context that I’m not learning about in my International Relations classes. And I found that speaking Portañol (rather than Spanglish or simply English) puts one at a significant advantage. It’s a variation on the fact that it’s more comfortable to say “I come from Canada” than to admit you’re from the States when traveling in, say, France. (This was much more true before 2008; these days the honest American admission not uncommonly elicits “OBAMA” chants. Even so, it’s never a good idea to boast too flamboyantly that your passport was issued by the strongest, richest country in the world.)

Brazilians don’t have that problem. Peruvians and other tourists alike are delighted to hear Portañol. “Brassssiiil!! Futeboool!! Saaammmba!! Daaança!!” they lovingly growl. They dig deep in their multilingual brains and pull out “Obrigado!” (“Thanks!”), “Fique à vontade!” (roughly “Feel free!” or “Make yourself at home!”) and anything else they’ve picked up.

Brazilian tourists were everywhere in Peru. Within hours of arrival in Cuzco, I heard the loud conversation of a group of traveling Paulistas (people from São Paulo) booming through the hallways of my hostel. I ran into them at the ATM, in bars, in plazas. I sat atop Huayna Picchu (the tall mountain behind Machu Picchu’s ruins in all the pictures) surrounded by loud Paulistas. I visited floating villages on Lake Titicaca with two Bahian couples. I chatted with Carioca surfers in Trujillo, and sat behind a family from Brasília (Brazil’s capital city) on a bus from Lima to Pucallpa. I even shared a canoe with a girl from Manaus on the Amazon, near Iquitos, right down the river from her hometown in Brazil.

Brazilian tourists I encountered in my travels, from quiet couples to groups of loud bachelors, were always received with eager hugs and kisses in hostels, on buses and boats, and in bars.

The icing on my Peruvian-Brazilian cake was my flight back to Rio. As if the constant presence of Brazilian tourists weren’t enough, Brazil’s national women’s volleyball team happened to have been in Lima playing the Peruvian team in a series of matches through my final days of traveling. The games were broadcast on televisions in every bar and restaurant. Over ceviche and pisco sours, I watched Brazilian women bump, set, and spike their way to a slight victory over Peru. Then, on my layover in Lima on the way home, I found myself surrounded by bright green and yellow warm up suits.

Yes, the Brazilian national women’s volleyball team was on my flight, with a big, shiny, first-place trophy as their carry-on luggage. They celebrated their victory in the airport like true Brazilians, with loud ceremonial toasts to players, gladly soaking up every bit of attention. And despite their triumph over Peru, the general attitude in the airport that evening in Lima was one of admiration. Even before going to our terminal, where the team would be surrounded by fellow Rio-bound Brazilians, Peruvian travelers and airport workers alike seemed to feel privileged to be in their presence.

Finally at the terminal, I tried to buy a bottle of water. When I realized I had insufficient funds (ashamed, I had handed over the rest of my cash when I couldn’t find my customs forms), the Carioca boy in line behind me paid for my water. “Relaxa! Foi nada!” he insisted. Surrounded for the first time in a month by the Portuguese language and super-friendly, generous, nosy, curious folk, not to mention the powerful volleyball players, I almost exploded with anticipation for my return to Rio.

Gracia—I mean, Obrigada!” I exclaimed to the boy who bought me the water. I immediately cursed my Portañol. I’d have no trouble ridding myself of the confused Latin American linguistic hybrid in no time, however. I stepped on the plane, and reentered the Brazilian world.

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