Tongue Tied – Overcoming The Language Barrier in Brazil


When my husband James and I  got an opportunity to move to Brazil for several months with his company we decided to make a major change in our lives, selling everything we owned to be free to travel for years to come. All of a sudden my days consisted of packing, selling and donating our belongings until all we had left was a mattress on our living room floor and a small storage unit full of keepsakes. We were ready to go.

The city we were moving to was called Recife and is the fifth largest in Brazil. When researching our soon-to-be home I would get lost for hours reading about the culture and looking at pictures. I’d imagine my days full of exploring the markets and lazing on the beach.

When I told people that I was moving to Brazil for a couple of months they all asked the same question, “Do you speak the language?” My response was always the same, “I don’t speak Brazilian Portuguese but I’ve been to many countries where I didn’t know the language and have gotten along fine.”

After my first day in Recife, I quickly realized just how cocky and unprepared I was. Sure, I’ve been to plenty of countries where English isn’t the primary language but those places are also huge tourist destinations and very accommodating towards Americans.

What I didn’t take into consideration was that Recife is not a tourist hotspot. It receives visitors from other areas of South America but unlike Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, most Americans have never heard of Recife, Brazil.

We landed on a Saturday afternoon and hit the ground running, ready to explore this new land. However, by Sunday night I laid in bed thinking, What have I gotten myself into?, and fighting the rising anxiety in my chest. My vision of how life would be here was fading fast.

Besides my husband, I hadn’t heard one word of English the entire weekend and I quickly learned that it was a rarity altogether. People stared with a mixture of awe and confusion when they’d overhear our conversations. The looks from children were especially amusing as they’d tug on their parents clothing and point to us as with wide eyes looking for confirmation that what they were hearing was not normal.

I had never experienced such a disconnect before. My usual confidence was replaced with fear and self-consciousness. Each night I’d study phrases but panic and freeze when it was time to use them. The vision I had of myself as this suave, well-traveled adventurer now seemed like an illusion. Instead, I felt like a coward for avoiding situations where I would have to speak.

I knew I’d regret not exploring Recife while I had the chance so I challenged myself each day to get out of my comfort zone and take risks.

First, I began to really study  basic words and phrases that allowed me to exchange pleasantries, order food and ask questions. When I was out I made a point to not begin conversations with “Do you speak English?” Instead, I’d try to see how far I could communicate in Portuguese. Many times I’d surprise myself but most importantly people appreciated my attempts.

Sometimes people wouldn’t understand me or even snicker at my pronunciation but I powered on, setting my insecurities aside. I slowly became more confident in my abilities and actually looked forward to leaving my apartment each day. The thought of hailing a taxi or asking my waiter for a menu no longer made me panic.

When it was time to leave Brazil I was proud of how far I had come in such a short time. I learned that travel is about stepping away from what you know to make room for something new. I look forward to taking many more unfamiliar roads in the future and am now confident in my ability to do so. (See How To Get Around When You Don’t Speak The Language)


Note: This piece was originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of Eidé Magazine.

Olinda, Brazil – The Sights and Sounds of the Beautiful

The city of Olinda.
The city of Olinda.

It has been said that when explorer Duarte Coelho Pereira first laid eyes on a small area of land situated on a hill in the Northeast of Brazil his first words were, “Oh, Linda,” meaning “Oh, Beautiful” in Portuguese. That was just the beginning of how the town of Olinda became the first European settlement of Pernambuco in 1535 and its allure is as strong today as it was back then.

Just a short drive north from the state’s capital of Recife, Olinda is a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of the city. Here there are no skyscrapers or throngs of people waiting for the bus. Instead, you’ll find a quaint town overlooking the Atlantic ocean. Colorful homes line one cobblestoned street after another and whichever direction you turn it’s likely that you’ll run into a church dating back to the 1500’s.

For many American tourists, the draw of bigger cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo seem to overshadow this small village. However, a visit to Olinda is an opportunity to experience one of the oldest and best preserved colonial cities in Brazil.

For those who decide to explore this colorful city basic Portuguese is a must as most locals do not speak English. Despite the language barrier the people here are welcoming and friendly. A new appreciation for hand gestures and other non-verbal cues will surely be acquired as you navigate your way through the curvy streets.

Olinda is known for its many churches and exploring any of the one’s dotted throughout the city is a great way to begin the day. The Church of São Salvador do Mundo is as good a place as any to begin as it sits atop the highest hill in the city. It began as a small chapel erected by the city’s founder and has been rebuilt and renovated many times since making it the beautiful, ornate site that it is today.

Not far from this church is Oficina do Sabor (Rua Amparo, 335) , a must for lunch. Perhaps most famous for their pumpkins filled with various meat and curries, this is one of the best-known restaurants in the area. My favorite dish is the Camarão Tamarineira, shrimp served in a tamarind sauce accompanied by a banana puree and coconut rice. Enjoy your meal with a caipifruta, a traditional Brazilian drink made with Cachaça (sugar cane rum) and a variety of fruits. Not only is it delicious but with its colorful blend of fruits, it may also be one of the most beautiful drinks I’ve ever had the fortune of drinking.

You won’t find shopping malls in Olinda but who needs price scanners and food courts when the Brazilian breeze is calling your name? Here, you’ll stumble upon many small markets and shops throughout the day where vendors sell everything from homemade crafts and clothing to traditional street food.

If you really want to live like the locals order Tapioca ,savory or sweet depending on your mood, and wash it down with fresh coconut water.

For a more adult beverage head to Licoteria (Rua Santa Tereza, 1190) where the proprietor makes his own liquors using his grandmother’s recipes. The flavors are interesting and include coffee, rose and lime. I recommend trying the Leite (milk) liquor. While it sounds odd, the flavor is sweet and smooth, reminiscent of a butterscotch candy.

Like any true South American city, the magic happens at night. That’s when the locals come out and start to fill the air with the sounds of Brazil. No need to spend money on a show as music is heard from every direction with impromptu band practices and street performers. Just sit back and appreciate the unique rhythms as you look back on your day in this small gem on the sea.

Note: This piece was originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Eidé Magazine.

Tim’s Walking Tour of Porto Alegre, Brazil

There’s no better way to spend your first day in a new city than by foot.
Lucky for James and I, Thoughtworker Tim Cochran was familiar with our current city of Porto Alegre and offered to show a small group of us  around via a walking tour.


The public market in Porto Alegre, Brazil.


We met at Mercado Publico Central around 1:30 for lunch. This massive public market opened in 1869 and boasts over 110 outlets ranging from meat markets to restaurants. It’s obvious that this is the heart of downtown Porto Alegre. Everything seems to branch out from this historic area.


Enjoying lunch at the public market in Porto Alegre, Brazil.


We enjoyed a lunch upstairs at Taberna 32 as shoppers hustled about their business. Here you will find a variety of meat, lamb and seafood usually accompanied by rice and salad. If you’re in a hurry you may want to grab a quick pastel from one of the many vendors as the service here was very slow.

From the market we headed west towards Praça da Alfândega (Customs Square) which is surrounded by several attractions. One being the Santander Cultural Museum now featuring the photography of Brazilian artist Miguel rio Branco in an installment titled “Blind Spot”. Here you can admire the art as well as the architecture of this magnificent building with its giant columns and stained glass ceiling.


Guests enjoy the work of artist Miguel Rio Branco at the Santander Cultural Museum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.


Nearby is the Memorial do Rio Grande Sul which chronicles the history of Porto Alegre. Everything is in Portuguese so you may not learn much but it’s worth popping in for a look inside this historic building.

Next store is the Museau do Arte do Grande do Sul. This modern gallery has several floors featuring a variety of artwork. The most interesting for me was the collection of homemade weapons confiscated from prisoners as early as 2002. Helpful hint, don’t end up in a Brazilian prison if your weapon making skills are sub par. You’ll be at a disadvantage for sure.

For a more peaceful experience we checked out the Metropolitan Cathedral of Porto Alegre. Erected by Pope Pius IX on May 7, 1848 this classic church has a simplistic beauty about it and offers a peaceful place to retreat from the outside world.


The Metropolitan Cathedral of Porto Alegre.


We briefly ducked into Casa de Cultura Mario Quintana. This cultural center was once a popular hotel and is named after Mário Quintana, one of tBrazil’s greatest poets who lived there between 1968 and 1982. The building now houses theaters, bookstores and exhibits. Café Santo de Casa is located on the top floor and has a terrace overlooking Guaiba River, our final destination.

On our way to the river we passed by Igreja Nossa Senhora das Dores (Our Lady of Sorrows Church). With its origins dating back to 1807 this is the oldest existing church in the city. With its massive staircase leading to an ornate, stark white facade this church is a must see.


The oldest existing church in Porto Alegre, Brazil.


Our walking tour ended on the banks of the Guaiba River where we settled in to witness the sunset near Usina do Gasômetro, an old power plant built in 1928 which now hosts movie theaters and art expositions. This is a popular place to see the sun go down. As vendors sell popcorn and churros, hundreds nestle along the rivers edge to see the sun dip below the brush.


Resting and waiting for the sun to set.


Tim’s walking tour was a great way to get a feel for this new city. Perhaps the best part was that everything was free. Aside from our lunch, we didn’t pay a dime yet learned so much about this southern city. Thanks Tim!


The famous sunset along the Guaiba River in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Lunch in a Brazilian Favela


My first glimpse of Bar do Cabo in the favela town of Pina.

Any good traveler knows that whatever city you may be visiting, if a local  invites you to a meal at their favorite establishment you don’t ask questions. Just assume that they know what they’re talking about and enjoy the insider knowledge.

That’s exactly what I did when an offer to eat lunch with some Brazilians from Recife presented itself. The fact that it was in a nearby favela (a Brazilian shantytown) called Pina only piqued my interest further.

While I’ve lived several miles from Pina for the past  three months, I have never entered the narrow dirt roads of rundown buildings and small alleyways. I’ve only looked with interest as my taxi passes by the entrance each morning.

Known as one of the poorest areas of Recife, Pina doesn’t see many visitors.  This is apparent as we begin to follow a local through the streets who turns to us and says, “Please, don’t be scared.”

As I walked with my friends down Rua Nanuque, a road so small the only way to reach it is by foot, I wasn’t in fear for my safety at all. Instead, my mind was wondering about the condition of the place I’d be eating. Back home, I’m the type of person who is always on the lookout for the health department grade posted at the entrance of a restaurant. I knew that where I was about to break bread would be a pretty big leap out of my comfort zone.

The entrance to Bar do Cabo.

As I entered the small building of Bar do Cabo, the many awards hanging from the shabby walls offered some peace of mind. Surely, no one has died or gotten violently ill at a place voted “Best Beach Bar” several years in a row.

In keeping with true hole-in-the-wall fashion, this restaurant has no menu. Whatever is being cooked in the kitchen is what you get, served family-style, of course.  If you’re lucky that will include octopus rice. Reminiscent of the Spanish dish, Paella this seemed to be the most popular entree with the locals.

Seafood risotto with octopus and shrimp.

In addition, we enjoyed shrimp in a coconut sauce and a lobster stew with potatoes and other vegetables. The food was so delicious and plentiful that I quickly forgot about my qualms and simply sat back and enjoyed both the atmosphere and the flavors.

At the end of our meal a bowl of sweet, gummy guava candy was placed in the middle of the table. One of our hosts joked that he loved eating with foreigners because of the special treatment. Apparently, he’d never been given candy to end a meal.

My instincts upon arriving to this tiny restaurant were to politely nibble a few small bites but I’m glad I didn’t. The food was great and I’ll never forget the meal that I enjoyed with great people on a small road in a Brazilian favela.

The lesson is to take advantage of being in a new place by stepping out of your comfort zone. By doing this you have so little to lose and so much to gain. You never now what once-in-a-lifetime opportunities you may miss.

Waving bye to the guests at Bar do Cabo.


You Can Find It At The Beach in Boa Viagem

Boa Viagem Beach in Recife, Brazil

Perhaps the most popular tourist destination in Recife, Brazil is the beach in Boa Viagem.  Known for having one of the most visited “urban beaches” in northeastern Brazil, there are miles of sand and ocean on one side and skyscrapers as far as the eye can see on the other.

The upkeep along Avenida Boa Viagem is considerably better than the rest of Recife with well-kept, clean sidewalks and small kiosks dotted up and down offering drinks and snacks.

The many caution signs warning of shark danger do not deter many from enjoying the cool waters, especially in areas where reefs form natural pools and protection from unwanted sea creatures.

The best thing about this beach is that anything you may ever need, want or imagine can be found on its shores.

Lay your towel on the sand or rent rent chairs from a vendor. After you’re settled, sit back and relax as an array of treats are continuously paraded in front of you.

Sunscreen, sunglasses, beach toys, dresses and even bikinis are sold by vendors. Very rarely are they pesky. A simple shake of the head and “não obrigado” sends them on their way.

The sun is making your parched? No worries. You can buy coconut water, mixed adult beverages, beer and soda without leaving your spot and all at reasonably – if not ridiculously cheap – prices. For instance, fresh coconut water is R2.50 – that’s $1.25!

It doesn’t get any fresher than this! Enjoying coconut water at the beach in Recife, Brazil.

The best items offered on the beach have got to be the food.  You can choose a fresh fish from one of the many beach vendors. Once you’ve chosen a winner, they’ll fry it and bring to you – usually accompanied with potatoes and salad.

Carts continuously move past you offering queijo na brasa (grilled cheese) with either honey or oregano, boiled shrimp, oysters, caldinho ( black bean soup with different meats), cashews, boiled peanuts, and the list goes on.

Grilled cheese with oregano.

The biggest effort you need to make for a beach day here is where to place your beach bag. After that, just sit back and relax. Everything is taken care of.

Boiled shrimp on the beach.


A Weekend at Chicken Harbour – Porto de Galinhas, Brazil

This past weekend was spent in Porto de Galinhas which is translated as Chicken Harbour. It’s name is derived from it’s history as a harbor for incoming slaves. During the end of the 19th century the city of Recife began restrictions on the commerce of slaves so nearby ports were used instead. It was prohibited to use the word “slave” so when ships would arrive the phrase “there are new chickens in the port” was said.

Boats anchored near the shore of Porto de Galinhas.

Today, Porto de Galinhas is one of the most visited beaches for domestic travelers and has been awarded Best Beach in Brazil year after year by the Brazilian Magazine ‘Voyage and Tourism’. Located just an hour north of Recife this beach town is a must visit with it’s small village of streets lined with restaurants, shops and an array of decorated chickens.

One of the many chickens found in Porto de Galinhas.

Perhaps the most popular activity in Porto de Galinhas is the natural pools that are formed by the reefs located close to shore. There are two ways to visit the pools. First, you can stand in line to watch a brief video about the environmental importance of the pools and how not to disturb the habitat. Afterwards, you are given a bracelet and are led to the pools in groups where you can visit for 45 minutes. This is free to do.

When the tide is low you can see the reefs from shore.

The next option is to pay 15 Reals (about $7.50) for a boat ride to the reef with a personal guide. Once there the guide gives you food to feed the fish as well as points out all the different creatures found on the reef. In the deeper pools, you can join the fish for a swim.

The natural pools found among the reefs.

Porto de Galinhas is a nice day trip from Recife with buses that run frequently between the two cities. If you’d rather spend the night then there were many pousadas to choose from. With 10 people in our group, we rented a house for the weekend at a very reasonable price.

The village of Porto de Galinhas.

The best thing about Porto de Galinhas is its laid back atmosphere. Like any other good beach town the best things to do here is stroll the village streets, lay on the beach and enjoy the great food. Not a bad way to spend a weekend in Brazil.

Click here to all of the photos from my weekend in Porto de Galinhas


A Weekend In Natal, Brazil

The view of the city of Natal from the top of a sand dune in Jeni Pabu.

During our first full weekend in Brazil James and I, along with several of James’ coworkers, took a road trip to the nearby town of Natal. Just four hours North of Recife, this popular beach town was founded on December 25, 1599 and therefore appropriately named Natal, which means Nativity or Christmas in Portuguese.

Rain threatened our first morning but quickly passed leaving us to laze happily on the beach.

Selling Crepe’s on Ponta Negra Beach in Natal, Brazil.

As the hours passed I quickly discovered why Natal is a popular destination. With local shops and restaurants dotting one side of a small yet busy street and miles of sandy beach on the other it is the definition of a great beach town.

There isn’t anything you can’t find on the main beach of Ponta Negra. With vendors selling food, drinks, CD’s and an array of souvenirs you’d be hard-pressed to leave but a nearby area called Jeni Pabu lured us in with promises of giant sand dunes.

After several wrong turns and the threat of being swept down a small, flooded road we arrived to Jeni Pabu with high hopes and hungry bellies.

Jeni Pabu Beach in Natal, Brazil.

After a lunch of fried shrimp, fish, rice and beans we were ready to tackle the mountain of sand before us. When you stare up at a huge wall of sand the task of climbing up it seems daunting and for me it was. I ended us taking a much easier route while James and his friends ran up like a couple of schoolboys.

Nothing prepares you for what you find once you’re atop the dunes. There are miles of sand with Natal’s skyline as the backdrop. If one didn’t know any better you’d think you were in the Arabian desert not a Brazilian beach. This is especially true when you spot the Camels that will take you for a ride across the top of the dune.

While I did not partake in the Camel rides (I feel weird using animals for sport when you don’t have background on how they are treated or their living conditions) I did have a blast “sand surfing”. This is where you ride a board down the slope of the dune either sitting down or standing up. The boards are waxed on the bottom for maximum speed and if you’re lucky you’ll reach the bottom without wiping out and getting a mouth full of sand. I swore I’d try it once but before I knew it I had zoomed down several times, never quite making it to the bottom.

Forget the waves and surf on the sand in Jeni Pabu.


On our last day in Natal we decided to check out a nearby fort that we had passed several times over the weekend. While I couldn’t fully appreciate the history during the visit (everything was written in Portuguese) the view of the ocean as you lay on the wall of the fort was breathtaking. I could have easily stretched out and listened to the waves crash against the ancient building for hours.

Inside Forte de Feis Magos in Natal, Brazil.

As I researched the area later, I learned that the fort is named Forte de Feis Magos or Three Wise Men Fort and it stands at the mouth of the Potengi River. Construction began in January of 1598. In 1633, the fort was taken by the Dutch who had invaded northeastern, Brazil and was later recovered by the Portuguese in 1654. Knowing the he history only added to the beauty of an already majestic visit.

After a weekend of sun-bathing, people-watching, eating great food and lodging sand in every crevice of my body it was time to head back to Recife. My first road trip in Brazil was a success and I look forward to many more to come.


To see all of my pictures from my trip to Natal check out my Flickr set here.


Ponta Negra Beach in Natal, Brazil.