Florianópolis, the island where I live off the southern coast of Brazil, is made up of a network of nature trails that connect the beaches, mountains, and lakes. They are different, though, from the trails found in any state park because of the villages that quite suddenly pop up along them. There are no signs reading "Smallville 100m" warning of their existence. So you're walking along a rocky path under your feet and the chatter of monkeys in the trees when suddenly you hear the clatter of a cue ball making the first break shot. You've stubmbled upon a pool hall. Soon roosters are crossing your path, a horse, a cow. Then there's a string of houses, modest of size and construction materials while outspoken in color. There's a grocerette, a church, a first-aid post, a video store. On the door of a dance hall is a poster that invites "the community" to a dance that night.
These villages are referred to as "communities," and it's not surprising that the poster advertising the dance doesn't necessarily say outsiders aren't welcome, but it certainly doesn't encourage their attendance. While it's clear how to reach these communities on foot, how does one reach the people who compromise them?
The reason I travel - the reason I hike these trails - is not to hear the chatter of the monkeys in the trees; it's to hear the chatter of the villagers, to chatter with them, and, eventually, to be accepted as one of them.
I live on the coast of a lake that sits in the middle of this island. The asphalt ends about a hundred yards beyond my street, and what remains is two more hours of walk-able trail that runs through forest and villages or "communities," only accessible by foot, mule, or water taxi.
On the water taxi, I've seen ladies from The Commmunity share their supermarket purchases with everyone on the boat but me. I am not sad that they don't offer their bag of Ruffles for me to dig my hands into; I am just a little embarrassed that when trying to pass for a local, the only one I seem to fool is myself.
Language has always been my way of reaching out to people in the hope that they would take my extended hand and pull me in - whether it's a Southern accent in my native Georgia, though mine faded long ago, or Portuguese in Brazil. When I am the outsider, I try to express through language that I embrace and respect the local people and culture in the hope they will embrace me, too. As one of their own.
As a result, my insistence on learning Portuguese and not speaking a word, a syllable, or an utterance of English with any Brazilian person became such a point of pride with me the first time I lived in Brazil, at age 23 in 1999, that it threatened to grow into a monster that might have scared off even the toughest, most stoic villager.
When I lived in Brazil for the first time, I adhered to a stric rule that I myself had invented: No English outside of the English schools where I taught. For this reason, I didn't socialize with the other English teachers, who, coming from all over the world, might have been really interesting and worth knowing. And when students invited me to do things outside of class, I answered, "I'd love to, but, just so you know, we won't be speaking English." What an abrasive response to an earnest invitation! It's no wonder some of those invitations never evolved past the stage of offhand suggestion.
Once my Portuguese had reached a level that allowed me to build relationships in the language, it was offensive to me when Brazilian strangers would approach and immediately, presumptuously, start speaking English. The sound of my mother tongue inspired real anger in me, and, on many occasions, my response certainly showed it.
Once, in a bar, a very cute local sat next to me and asked my friend and me where we were from. The girl with me said, "I'm from Curitiba, and she's from the US." Mr. Cute turned to me and said in English, "Oh? What's your name?" My response? "Eu falo Portugues." He politely excused himself from our table and I, the cold gringo who was too proud to even say her name if it wasn't solicited in Portuguese, sat alone for the rest of the night. As we say in Portuguese, Bem fieto. It served me right!
Was it so hard for me to imagine that maybe these friendly Brazilians who had reached out to me, who had worked just as hard to learn English as I had to learn Portuguese, were just as proud that they, too, spoke another language?
At the time, I figured I was offended by Brazilians' assumption that someone who looks like me must not know how to speak Portuguese - devastating to a white girl from Georgia who wants so badly to pass for a local in Latin America. Their words said, "Hi! What's your name? Do you want to be friends?" but my ears heard, "I assume you don't speak Portuguese, so I will stoop to your level and speak English with you, the dumb American."
But now I wonder if there wasn't more to it than that. Was it that the stranger, with his use of my mother tongue, had gotten too close? Instead of a handshake, he had caressed the small of my back. Maybe he was just trying to embrace me.
I wonder now how many doors I closed with my refusal to bend - thinking I was bending so much - my refusal to speak my own language, always insisting on speaking "theirs."
I love language like a prized object. I have favorite words like someone may have a favorite sweater, words that remind me of a fond memory the way photographs trigger such memories for others. As a baby, when I cried, my father didn't shake my favorite toys before my eyes; he repeated my favorite words. Bunny. Turtle. Puppy.
For someone who has such a sensual relationship with her mother tongue, why was I so resistant to it? Sure, I don't wnat to be the ugly American who wanders into every store in Rio de Janeiro, expects the staff to speak English, and just picks up something and says, "How much?" But why, in intimate situations, with people who wanted to be my friend, was I so resistant to the language that was most intimately connected to me? Maybe I wanted to connect with them. Maybe I believed I was connecting with them. But couldn't Portuguese just as easily have been a wall I was building around myself, an armor I wore when among those who were foreign to me, a way of not revealing my true self? A way of shielding my ultimately English-speaking heart?
I started to think about all this because, several months ago, I had the opportunity to hike a trail I had never hiked before with two people I had never spent time with before. One was my roommate's brother, André, and the other, Daniel, a friend of a friend of a friend visiting Floripa for the weekend. A group of us had gathered on the beach - mostly my roommate's family - when Daniel decided to hike the nearby trail. I didn't know him, but I volunteered to go to escape a Sunday afternoon with someone else's family.
I was telling the two guys some story as we walked in single file along the narrow trail. André and I had gotten a little ahead of Daniel, so Daniel yelled in English, although no one had been speaking English, "Wait! What did you say?" I felt that old anger creep in, stiffen my shoulders, and heat the back of my neck and the tips of my ears. The guy had also been flirting with me shamelessly, and I thought about giving him a helpful hint that Portuguese was a lot more attractive to me than English, but instead I just repeated myself, as he had requested, and I did so in Portuguese.
Dear Daniel is apparently as stubborn as I am because although I didn't give him much encouragement on the trail that day, he pressed on. And almost always in English. Over some weeks, as our conversations ventured beyond the banal "What did you do today?" my defenses began to weaken. Finally I just asked him, "I speak Portuguese, you know. Why do you insist on speaking English with me?"
He didn't hesitate. He said, "To reach you." And that was when he did. Just as I was about to build a wall around me again, he slid a note through a crack. I don't know what changed, what made me read it, but fortunately, it was written in a language that I was beginning to understand. And maybe now I would finally learn how to make a real connection in Brazil.
Sonya Collins is a writer, translator and teacher. She has just returned to the States after living a year in Florianópolis, an island off the southern coast of Brazil, where she wrote a collection of travel essays. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and currently teaches as the University of Georgia.