Most Americans who’ve never been to South America believe Spanish is the language spoken there. It IS spoken in most countries but it is not the predominant language on that continent. Portuguese is.
That’s because Brazilians speak Portuguese and there are more people in Brazil – over a hundred and seventy two million – than in all the other countries of South America combined, where Spanish is the native tongue.
The two languages are similar in that the spelling and definitions of words are often the same. But pronunciations can be very different. The first time I ever heard Portuguese spoken – by a flight attendant making an announcement on an airliner as we flew over Brazil en route from Spanish-speaking Montevideo to Miami – I thought it was German (which I don't know either but I'd seen lots of Hollywood war films).
Even with more than a dozen visits to South America, I’ve never learned enough Spanish or Portuguese to carry on a conversation, although I have picked up a pretty fair vocabulary. As a result, I’ve had to hire interpreters.
Most of them were quite good. They usually first learned English in high school and then polished it as exchange students in the United States or England.
One interpreter, though, was unique. His name was Nelson Miranda, and he lived in Santiago, Chile. I found him by looking for English-language schools in the yellow pages of the Santiago phone book. I phoned a school and a moment later he came on the line. We made arrangements and he came to my hotel to seal the deal.
Nelson spoke a fascinating blend of English, every word of which he learned by watching foreign movies in English with Spanish subtitles. His English was excellent but was a wild combination of accents from all over the world, words he picked up from movies made in various countries.
And he said the first words he ever learned were from a cowboy movie made in America: “BANG! You’re dead!”
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AND EXACTLY WHY ARE YOU HERE?
My only visit to Santiago was in 1979 while Chile was still ruled by the military dictator Augusto Pinochet. I flew there from Lima, Peru, and it took a while to go through customs.
My passport identified me as a journalist, and foreign journalists were very suspect in those days. Why are you here? What publication do you work for? Other questions.
The customs officer disappeared with my passport. About twenty minutes later he returned and said I could enter the country. Apparently he had verified that I worked for a harmless magazine and not the New York Times, Washington Post or some other subversive paper.
Most Chileans were careful who they talked to and what they talked about. One informant told me about a UFO incident but only after we left his place of employment and then only in hushed tones. He didn’t know how the government felt about UFOs and he was afraid of being overheard.
One morning I was standing on the sidewalk in front of my hotel in downtown Santiago, waiting for Nelson Miranda to show up. A slender, gray-haired woman in a print dress spotted me, turned and walked straight up to me – and began giving me hell.
In clear English and shaking a finger in my face, she said: “Jimmy Carter and Teddy Kennedy should mind their own damned business!” Then she stalked off before I could answer. I couldn’t think of anything to say anyway.
Other than that, Santiago was quite pleasant. One afternoon I passed through a park in the center of the city and came upon a band of musicians in a pavilion giving an open-air concert. They were playing rousing marches. I don’t know what the occasion was. It was a weekday, not a holiday, and a big crowd was sitting around them, enjoying the music.
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HERE HE COMES, FOLKS
I must stick out like a sore thumb in any foreign country. Once in Buenos Aires I walked down Avenida Florida one evening. This is a popular, very busy pedestrian-only street in the central part of the city. It is lined with shops of all kinds and was always crowded whenever I was there.
On this particular night as I walked along, a woman shop owner called out in English: “Hey, American! Come here and buy something.”
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DANG THOSE POTHOLES!
One young interpreter in Brazil used his own car to drive us to a number of small towns in his state. Sometimes we went far off the beaten path, where some roads were in bad shape.
We hit so many potholes one day that he lost his temper. And until we got back on the main highways every time the car smacked a pothole, he’d angrily scream: “PUTA! PUTA!”
I’d never heard the word before but his meaning was clear. Just to make sure, I looked it up in my dictionary when I got back to my hotel. It was a curse word, slang for whore.
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YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN, BUDDY
On a four-week trip to the Philippines, Singapore and Japan, I wound up in Tokyo, where my interpreter was a middle-aged woman who must have been on the government payroll.
I’d gone there to check on a newspaper report that Japanese military jets had chased a UFO over the northern island of Hokkaido. Right from the start she tried to discourage me from pursuing the story.
I insisted and she finally took me to the government agency that had been cited in the newspaper story. Officials there, though, claimed to know nothing about the UFO chase and they too tried to get me to give up on the story.
Finally, they relented and said that if I wanted to, I could go to Haikkaido and try to find the pilots who were involved. The pilots, of course, had never been identified, and I could see that I would probably get the same kind of runaround and would never get close to the real story. I phoned my boss back in Florida. He agreed it would be a waste of time and to forget it.
Tokyo was a new experience. It was big, busy, expensive and baffling. Finding anything – an office building, a business, whatever – was difficult because the house-numbering system was chaotic.
I did find the offices of a UFO magazine, and someone there told me why things were so chaotic. He said that in the city’s early days, the first building on a block was given the number one, the second building number two and so on – no matter where on the block the buildings were located. Thus, building two could be on the opposite side of the block from where number one was, number three far away from both, and so on.
To get anywhere, I had to ask desk clerks at my hotel to spell out in Japanese on a sheet of paper exactly where to go and how to get there – and usually how to get further directions when I got there. This worked fairly well, but one time it didn’t.
A taxi driver taking me to a government agency once let me off on the wrong side of an enormous public park and drove off. Since none of the street signs were in English, I was totally lost. It took an hour to find my way back to my hotel and start all over.
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HE HAD IT ALL
The smoothest interpreter I ever had was a young Brazilian named Wladimir. Mr. Cool. Mr. Charm. Mr. Charisma. He was so handsome he could be called pretty. I didn’t realize how attractive he was until we stopped at a little beach resort along the Atlantic coast southeast of Fortaleza.
This was in 1993. We’d driven to the state of Rio Grande do Norte in northeastern Brazil, spent a couple of days interviewing people and then headed back toward Fortaleza, where he lived and where I had rented the car.
It was a long drive after having a late lunch in Mossoró. We could have reached Fortaleza if we wanted to continue far into the night, but Wladimir had a better idea. He convinced me we should spend the night at a little beach town called Canoa Quebrada about a hundred thirty kilometers southeast of Fortaleza where life seems to be one unending party.
It was only a few kilometers off the main highway. We found a hotel, checked in and then strolled down the one and only street in town.
It was amazing. People were partying everywhere and as we walked, the girls spotted Wladimir and lost interest in their boyfriends.
Wladimir and I went into a bar, sat at a table on the verandah overlooking the street and began chatting with the owners. They were a couple in their thirties from Argentina. It took only a few minutes for some of the bolder young women at another open-air bar across the street to come and lure Vladimir away to other parties.
I spent the rest of the evening chatting with the Argentinean couple. Somehow we were able to carry on a long discussion about UFOs, using what little we knew of each other’s languages and Portuguese.
I never saw Wladimir again until the next morning when I was ready to check out and continue driving to Fortaleza. I went to his room and knocked on his door. He opened the door after only a couple of seconds... and introduced me to the pretty girl he ended up with. Only then did Wladimir’s party end.
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A BIT OF JOURNALISM TRIVIA
On my first visit to Pinheiro, Brazil while investigating the first Crab Island case, I met a man who owned the weekly newspaper. He was in the mayor’s office as I was interviewing the mayor, and the publisher offered to check some dates for me.
So we went to his newspaper to see back issues of his newspaper, and I was astonished to learn that type was still set by hand, one letter at a time. He and his two helpers used tweezers to select the individual letters and put them into what’s called a stick, a form that would hold a single line of type.
This was in 1978, not long before computers did everything, but long after linotype machines using molten lead to set type were abandoned. I don’t remember what his press looked like or whether it was operated by electricity or by powered by hand. But he had been putting out his weekly paper this way for many years. It might have been the only newspaper left in the world that was still set by hand.