After almost 7 months of travelling in Latin America, my Spanish has gotten pretty good. It's been a long time since I stepped off the plane in Mexico City (seems like a lifetime ago!), and I found myself all alone in a foreign country, and unable to speak or to understand a word of what anyone said. Ever since, I've been getting more and more comfortable with Spanish, and the language barrier has become so small as to be easily stepped over. But today, for my first day in Brazil, I received a rude shock: I'm back to square one! "Eu não falo o português" (lit: "I don't speak Portuguese"), and it's a problem. Despite what people have told me, Portuguese sounds nothing like Spanish (although reading it is easy enough), and talking to Brazilians in Spanish has very limited results.
It's incredibly frustrating, not being able to say even the most basic things in the local language, and being able to understand even less. I've started studying my Portuguese phrasebook a bit, but it doesn't help much: it's very hard to remember stuff from a phrasebook; and the pronunication is so weird in Portuguese, that just reading things doesn't equate to being able to say them (unlike with Spanish, where I know all the pronunciation rules inside-out). Anyway, I guess this is good preparation for Europe, where I'll be getting a "rude shock" like this, almost every time I cross a border. Plus, once I get to Rio, I'm pretty sure that most people will speak English.
My first little venture into the big bad world of Brazil began this morning, when I went into town with Annemie and Hendrik. We caught the two buses that take you into Foz: the first being a free bus from the hostel to the main road; and the second being a R$2 bus down the main road. The local buses here in Foz are quite good: they're reasonably regular, and they go almost everywhere. Once we got into town, my first and most urgent business was to change all my Argentinean pesos for Brazilian reais (pronounced "he-als"), since I didn't have any Brazilian money at all. Luckily, I managed to find a money exchange, and to change all my pesos by speaking in Spanglish.
Foz is a funny town, and quite a different one to Puerto Iguazú: it's much bigger than its sister town in Argentina, and a lot uglier as well. There are more than a couple of grey-concrete, high-rise apartment blocks and hotels, which do nothing for the town's charm. Also, unlike Puerto Iguazú, Foz is closer to — and directly linked to — Ciudad del Este, the big city across the river in Paraguay: and you can tell, because a fair bit of that city's third-world lack-of-appeal has rubbed off over here. Foz also has a substantial Arab population, which is evident from the numerous kebab shops in town, the several large mosques that are around, and the odd chador-clad woman strolling the streets. I didn't see anything to indicate it, but I've heard that the Arabs are supposedly involved in a lot of dodgy stuff that goes on around here (e.g. drug trafficking, fake merchandise smuggling). The US government also claims that a terrorist cell is in operation here — I find that hard to believe; but I guess that on the border of Brazil and Paraguay, pretty much anything is possible.
Annemie, Hendrik and I managed to find ourselves a nice little café on the main street of town, where we grabbed some big baguette sandwiches and some great fruit juices for lunch (yay — back in a fresh tropical juice country!), before heading over to the Itaipu dam, in time to catch the afternoon tour of the place. Once again, the language barrier came into play at the restaurant: the waitress spoke a little bit of English, but not very much; and I could barely understand a single item on the menu. Lucky they had some pictures of sandwiches on the walls :P.