Sheila had barely tiptoed outside the borders of the United States, having only ventured on a couple of short jaunts into Mexico and Canada. So, when she saw an opportunity for exciting travel, she made a bold move – she volunteered to represent her team at an industry conference in Brazil.
Little did she know at the time what she’d be getting herself into.
“It sounds exciting,” she thought to herself with a smile, “I can do this. No big deal.”
First, she needed to sort out getting a visa. Luckily her company used an agency to help with international travel and securing visas. “Piece of cake,” she thought to herself when her visa arrived in her mailbox just a week later.
Then she realized there was a possibility she might require vaccinations. She did some quick research, determined what she needed, and scheduled an appointment with her doctor’s travel clinic. “Also, a piece of cake,” she said to herself after leaving the clinic with a bandage on her arm.
Next, she headed to her bank to get Brazilian currency so she could make a few purchases in Brazil and pay for cab rides if they didn’t accept credit cards. “Always travel prepared,” was her mantra.
“This international travel thing isn’t going to be so hard,” she said out loud while driving back to work, “I don’t know why everyone complains about it so much.”
When the day of her flight arrived, Sheila’s bags were loaded up with all the right adapters she’d need to keep her phone and laptop charged up, along with an extra external battery if things got dire when she wasn’t in her hotel room. She had her full itinerary, her boarding passes, her hotel information, and the conference details all printed out and ready to go. She jumped into a cab with her neck pillow secured around her neck and a lightweight blanket packed into her carryon bag so she could sleep comfortably on the long flight.
“I’m READY!” she declared to herself, and to the cab driver, who clearly wasn’t interested in anything she had to say. She shrugged and broke into a self-satisfied smile.
All was fine when Sheila took off from San Francisco for her connecting flight in Dallas. She popped her headphones in and listened to the new playlist she’d created the night before full of all of her favorite, most energizing songs.
Unfortunately, what Sheila discovered in short order was that all of her very detailed preparation did not remotely prepare her for what she was about to encounter. Not even a little bit.
Sheila disembarked from the plane in Dallas and found her gate at the international terminal. She was in the middle of the pack waiting to board the plane and suddenly realized that everyone around her was speaking what she’d learned through her research was the native language of Brazil – Portuguese.
“Well that can’t be right,” she mumbled. She looked up and down the line of people and realized she was the only Caucasian waiting to board the plane. But a lot of people boarded ahead of her, so there had to be a few Americans also headed to Brazil, right? She was in DALLAS for crying out loud.
But as Sheila walked down the aisle toward her seat, all she heard was Portuguese – not a word of English.
“Well, surely, they also speak English,” she thought and plopped down, grabbing her blanket and an extra sweater out of her carry-on bag so she’d be cozy when she tried to sleep on the overnight flight.
Then the stewardess started making all manner of announcements…in Portuguese.
“Fascinating. I thought everyone spoke English on airplanes IN AMERICA,” she muttered with an audible sigh.
Just before the plane left the gate, a stewardess made a special trip down the aisle to tell Sheila, what she needed to know…in English, broken English, but English just the same…while also sharing that she was, in fact, the only English-speaking passenger on board.
“Dear God. I hope we don’t have any type of crisis on the plane or it’s going to be the Brazilians leading the oblivious…the oblivious being ME,” she also muttered to herself.
Oh well, once I get to Brazil, I’ll be fine, she thought. Surely people at airports and hotels all speak English.
Sheila started watching movies on her tiny seatback screen until she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer and finally passed out over the Atlantic Ocean, hoping the flight wouldn’t go down into the ocean. It was a pragmatic thought for a very OCD and anxious person such as herself. But still, her eyes managed to close for several hours until the morning sun started streaming into the plane.
Suddenly the stewardesses were handing out trays of food with Portuguese words all over the various packages. It was the most delicious airplane food Sheila had ever tasted. Now that could have been attributable to the fact that it was “foreign” and therefore “exotic” in her mind. But Sheila was immediately convinced that Brazilians simply live their best lives when they travel from Dallas to Brazil, consuming many delicious fruity beverages and snacks.
After landing, Sheila made her way off the plane and through customs in short order. Yup, her visa was all in line and proper.
Then she headed to the taxi stand and tried to converse with the attendant, who clearly spoke not a word of English. She tried saying “taxi” and “hotel” and the name of the hotel, but the attendant just kept staring at her and shrugging.
“Good grief, it’s going to be a VERY long week if it’s going to be like this at the AIRPORT,” she thought.
She finally pulled her well-prepared stack of papers out of her briefcase and pointed to the name of the hotel.
“Ahhhh,” the attendant said, and signaled a taxi to take her to her hotel, speaking a lot of unrecognizable words.
What followed was a very long and quiet hour-long ride in a cab with a driver who clearly also spoke no English. And Sheila noted the extensive graffiti and favelas along the hillsides on the way to her hotel.
“I’m such an idiot,” Sheila said out loud, wishing she’d invested in a book of Portuguese phrases to bring on her trip with her and that she’d done a little more research on the location of both the airport and her hotel. It was with more than a little trepidation that she wondered if she was going to be taken out to the countryside and murdered, never to be heard from again.
Her heart started racing at warp speed until eventually, she arrived at her hotel in the very upscale and beautiful Sao Paulo business district. She quickly discovered that the hotel reception staff, mercifully, spoke exceptional English. She headed to her room to dispose of her luggage, then headed back down to speak to the concierge and learn what was within walking distance of the hotel so she could spend her Sunday afternoon exploring.
“Well,” he stated, “There’s a little indoor shopping mall right down the street, then if you take a right and walk about 3-4 blocks, there are lots of other shops and restaurants to explore.”
“Excellent. Are they both safe areas for me to walk alone in?” Sheila asked, with more than a little concern for her safety. She had read about crime in Sao Paulo and didn’t want her first big foray into international travel to land her in the middle of some horrific crime to her person.
“Oh yes, ma’am, both areas are very safe,” the concierge reported with a smile.
Sheila checked out the little shopping mall first. She wandered from one end to another only to discover it was mostly furniture and carpet stores, which was disappointing, but no matter. She felt very self-satisfied for simply getting out and exploring in a country where most people didn’t even speak her language.
But eventually, Sheila realized she was very thirsty and headed to the mall’s food court, to purchase a bottle of water. She pointed to the water bottles behind the counter and said, “A bottle of water, please?”
The cashier just stared at her.
Sheila leaned in and pointed harder at the water bottles.
Finally, the cashier started pointing at each item in her glass case until she got an affirmation from Sheila after she had pointed to the water.
The cashier rang it up and Sheila handed her 100 reals, having no idea how Brazilian currency actually worked.
“Ugh, another thing I forgot to prepare myself for,” she thought as she shoved the change she was given back into her wallet, hoping she wasn’t paying $10 or more for that bottle of water.
She left the shopping mall and headed toward the shopping district; but after walking just a couple of blocks, she started to feel extremely uneasy. She was the only woman walking down a very deserted street with just a couple of men wandering aimlessly amongst boarded up and graffitied buildings.
“Oh, no. No, no, no, no,” she thought and promptly turned around to head back to the hotel. "That concierge does NOT know what he's talking about!"
Once safely ensconced back in her hotel room, she turned on the TV to discover that all the shows were in Portuguese.
“I can do this,” she said, figuring out how to turn on English subtitles. In no time, she was picking up Portuguese words while watching “Big Bang Theory” in Portuguese, which amused her to no end.
Now that she was finally relaxed, she realized she was starving and ran down to the lobby coffee bar to pick up something to eat. And that was when she discovered that bacon pizza is a thing in Brazil. And not just little shredded up bacon bits…full slices of bacon laid all across the pizza, its entirety which she consumed in less than 20 minutes because…bacon…pizza.
Monday morning rolled around and Sheila headed to the conference, only to have the keynote speaker, followed by all the other speakers presenting all the content in Portuguese, without English subtitles.
“Phew boy, I really need to learn to ask the right questions before I EVER leave the country again,” she muttered after returning to her hotel room.
The next day, she ran into a couple of colleagues she’d met a couple of times before, one of whom actually spoke Portuguese at home with his Brazilian wife, and they made a plan to go to dinner at…obviously…an authentic Brazilian steak house.
At the restaurant, her colleague carried on detailed conversations with the waiters about exactly what meats they wanted and what they wanted to be served with them.
Uncharacteristic of her normal very buttoned-up personality, Sheila just laughed, exclaiming, “Hey, I’m along for the ride. Feel free to impress me!”
They headed to the gigantic salad bar, and the three of them sauntered around it to determine what choices they’d make.
Kevin looked at her and whispered, “There’s nothing I love more than a salad bar made ENTIRELY of MEAT!”
They both laughed a little too loudly and the other patrons began to stare. Sheila came to the realization that she didn’t have a care in the world about what people she’ll never see again in a foreign country thought of her and continued laughing as she piled meat and seafood high onto her plate.
The next day, when Sheila had some free time before heading to the airport for her flight, she went and sat down in the hotel coffee bar and drank what was clearly the best espresso she’d ever had in her entire life.
She pulled out her laptop and started writing the article that was due to her boss by the end of the day when the barista came over and started chatting with her in broken English. Before long Sheila and the barista were teaching each other words from their respective languages, sharing a laugh when they each improperly pronounced the other’s words.
When Sheila finished drafting her article, she got up, packed up her bag, waved to the barista, smiled, and said, “Obrigado!”
As she walked back to her room, she ran across the housekeepers busily stocking their carts in the hallway. “Bom dia,” she said with a smile as she shuffled past.
She jumped in a cab back to the airport, using up her Brazilian reals on souvenirs for her son at the airport, then boarded the plane and sat down, letting out a deep sigh.
“Well that wasn’t so bad,” she thought to herself, as she silently plotted in her head what country, with very few English speakers, she wanted to travel to next.