Category Archives: Travel

High Stakes Dominoes

I’ve learned the past few weeks in Natal how much the role of curiosity plays in what we pay attention to. Almost every morning, very early, I sit on our third floor balcony overlooking a busy city street with a median between the lanes of traffic. The median includes palm trees, much trash, old abandoned tires, and a small amount of space that is a tiny park with seats embedded in the concrete floor.

What draws my attention to the middle section of the street is an elderly man who comes to the same spot on the median and stands observing traffic and people.

He follows the same pattern each day. He will cross the street to his spot in the park-like area of the median, stand, and turn completely around to observe the people and the traffic. He looks down at the ground and searches for a weed to pull, pitches it away from his space, rubs his hands together, and sits on the same stool with one foot on the seat of a nearby stool, and watches. He wears flip-flops, a net tank top, and short pants. The clothes always match colors and his hair is carefully combed.

After he finishes these rituals, he will greet anyone who comes near his spot.

The gentleman usually stays an hour and then leaves—probably to go home for breakfast.

Most days I will see him a little later from our building with 4-5 other “retirees” sitting on the stools playing dominoes. The many cars and motorcycles that pass by on each side do not distract them. About noon they disperse and the same routine is repeated most days.

Since I do not speak Portuguese, I can only speculate on their conversation. Do they discuss the rainy season, the amount of traffic, complain about the government? And how about the dominoes game? Do they lay money on the table and the winner gets the pot? Or is this a game just to while the time away?

I can’t resist watching each morning the rituals that unfold and the discussion over dominoes that ensues. I’m simply curious and that alone keeps my attention. Dominoes anyone? What kinds of things are you curious about? What holds your attention?

Musings of a Temporary Resident of Natal

I know no Portuguese and many Brazilians know very little English. This is challenging for me. For example, buying groceries in a large grocery can be intimidating. Today I got in line to check out, not realizing that there was a big sign that said a maximum of 20 items for that lane. I had already placed my 40+ items of groceries on the conveyor belt. Trying to explain was not successful at all. However, I guess the check-out person could see how confused I was because she went ahead and processed my groceries.Hiper

Having experienced several communication problems over the past three weeks, here are some lessons I have learned.

Review your skills at charades. I have found that if you do enough describing with your hands and arms, you have a good chance of getting your message across. One of my students brings to our sessions an artist’s sketchbook which he uses to visually help me understand what he means. This usually works well. Nodding my head and smiling when I understand the drawing will seal the completion of his message.

Another way to communicate in a language you do not understand is a booklet like Point It: The Traveler’s Language Kit . This resource has hundreds of photos of everything from “toothbrush” to “snow chains.” Just point to what you are looking for and the picture book approach has completed the communication.

If all else fails, seek out a person nearby who speaks English and ask him or her to interpret. For example, in the grocery store episode, a man overheard us and, since he spoke English, was kind enough to come to our rescue. After the explanation about our ignorance, the woman checking us out understood and smiled as we left. Better to be ignorant than rude!

One of the benefits of learning to deal with language barriers is that after I get back to the United States, I hope to be more sensitive to the nuances of English and more aware of the person’s reaction as I speak. I certainly will be more aware of visitors who may not speak English and will welcome the opportunity to help them.

So one way to improve your interpersonal communication here at home is to visit a country such as Brazil where English is not common; you will learn a new culture as well as becoming a more compassionate and aware communicator.

A Promise Not to Complain

My wife says I constantly complain about the orange barrels and traffic cones when driving the streets and highways in the Cincinnati area. But I promise not to complain again.

I have only been a passenger in cars, not a driver, since I arrived in Natal, Brazil, three weeks ago. As a result I have spent a lot of time watching traffic flow and all that goes with it. As I am told often, “This is just the Brazilian way.”

Let me explain. There is no speed lane on the highways; all lanes are speed lanes! Cars dart in and out of traffic at will. Motorcycles weave in and out of traffic stopped at traffic lights. They also pass cars on the curb side.

Donkey & cart

In addition to bicycles, men and women pushing wheelbarrows are on the busy highways as they look through trash left on the medians of many streets. Occasionally, a donkey and cart whose driver is also picking from the trash ambles down the street. When they spot something they want, they stop in the lane of traffic and put the item in their cart or wheelbarrow. Cars maneuver around these and seem to think nothing about it.

Speed limit signs are posted haphazardly on city streets so you are not sure how fast to go in some areas. Not only are speed limit signs rare, but often intersections have no stop signs. So drivers ease into the intersection and hope for the best.

When there is a hard rain, streets flood quickly and a car can easily get stuck unless the driver is very careful.

Traffic weaves around large potholes and even then it is hard to avoid a particularly rough spot in the road.

What impresses me most is that no one seems to complain like I do about roads in the United States. They simply shrug their shoulders and say, “This is the Brazilian way.” I hope I can keep my promise that I will never complain again about the highways in the United States. If I forget, I’m sure my wife will remind me.

Different and Delightful

Life is different in Natal, Brazil. We must adjust to several actions we are not accustomed to in the United States. Here are some examples.

Security is a very high priority everywhere. The church building is behind a security wall that has barbed wire or sharp ends of metal lining the top of the wall with a padlocked gate. Two padlocks are on the barred exterior door to the building, and another door must be unlocked to get into the building. In addition, a security system must be activated when anyone leaves and turned off when they return. This is typical of all middle class homes and businesses.

Now I am much more aware of locking things and being more cautious when walking on city streets. When I return to the States, I know I will be more sensitive about locking my doors and being more consistent with security systems. I am committed to being more aware of people around me on the city streets. I’m delighted about that continual reminder here.

No left turns are allowed at intersections of the city streets in Natal, and many intersections do not have stop signs. Drivers just assume the other person will stop (or not).

I have not driven a car in 15 days; we depend on others to transport us or we find a cab. When I am home, I typically drive everywhere we go. This change gives me an opportunity to see the sights along the way and to give attention to the architecture and unusual arrangements of home and businesses. This is enjoyable and rarely available to me in the States.

Church services are in Portuguese, both songs and speaking. It is delightful to hear the voices of Brazilians sing these songs and to guess at the meanings and pronunciations of the words on the screen at the front of the auditorium. I listen more to how words sound when sung in Portuguese and am much more aware of the melody of the songs.

I feel out of place at times in malls and on the streets because I do not know the language and look different from most around me. I find that a smile and a nod of the head always seems to guarantee a smile and a nod in return from the people I pass. I will be better about having the pleasant look when I return to Kentucky.

Although many things are different here, I am delighted to learn about the language, the culture, and the people. Brazilians are hospitable, helpful, and encouraging. We are making many new friends and our temporary church family is a pleasure to worship and work with.

A Contrast in Readers

In the first two days of sessions with readers, I have quite a contrast in my readers’ interests and language skills. For example, Alex is a very talented, bright 22-year-old. His English is excellent, although his search for the right word in English is sometimes challenging. He reads the Luke stories well and has excellent questions. His pronunciation skills are way above average among most of my readers. His questions are frequent and challenging. For example, one question he asked today was, “Is the devil one person or several?” after reading the story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. This led to a stimulating conversation about places in the Bible where the devil is mentioned.

In addition, he comes from a very stable family where both parents have successful careers and who give him much moral support. He comes to our sessions with a smile on his face and a look of anticipation as we begin the session.

In contrast is Edmonson, a middle-aged gentleman, whose English is very limited. Often I will have to repeat a sentence several times before he understands, and even then I have confused him. As you know, I speak very rapidly and that makes it even more difficult for us to have a conversation even when I slow down. In addition, he is broken-hearted about his family problems.

One of my most challenging words to explain to him was the word, “careful.” I tried several times to give an example of the word and also provided what I thought were appropriate definitions. Nothing worked. Finally, we both agreed just to move on.

Edmilson is really earnest about his desire to learn better English skills and he also is very concerned about his faith. Because of his family problems, he stopped attending worship services at his church. He says, however, that he believes in God and believes what the Bible teaches. There is definitely an opportunity to help him regain his faith in organized religion. I was exhausted at the end of the session and somewhat discouraged. As I walked him to the door, he shook my hand and said, “I really enjoyed our conversation tonight.”

I was reminded of the LST motto, “God’s Word is the teacher and you are the illustration.” Even though I feel inadequate about sharing the good news, God will find a way through us.

When a Tree is Not Just a Tree

A few weeks ago in a sermon at Central I told about a small tree that we saw growing in a large pothole in Natal, Brazil. I made the point that the infrastructure in Brazil is very different from that of the United States. Basically, I was saying that potholes go so long without repair that trees start to sprout.

I found out how wrong I was! When I was talking to prospective readers at our information meeting Tuesday night, one of the readers asked me what I thought of Natal. I retold the tree story.

One of the people said, “Oh, that is not why the little tree was there. When a pothole gets that huge, someone will put a tree [or, as we observed, an umbrella] in the hole so people won’t hit the pothole. The hole is so deep and dangerous that you can ruin your car if you hit it directly.” He said further, “That is not uncommon at all in our country.”

This conversation reminded me of how we view things differently in cultures not our own. Other customs that are different in Natal include the rudeness of eating any food with your fingers. In a restaurant yesterday I chose a chicken leg to eat, as did Lanita. Then she realized and reminded me that it is very rude to eat any food with my fingers. You use a fork or, in the case of sandwich or hamburger, a napkin to put the food into your mouth.

The Apostle Paul dealt with different customs in writing to the church at Rome in Romans 14:1-15. He was concerned that we should respect each other in our different customs about eating and special days.

We should respect other nationalities’ customs and traditions as long as they don’t contradict God’s Word. We can even apply this, I think, to other regions of the country where we live. Be willing to eat foods of a region that might not specifically appeal to you. I learned this lesson in adjusting to Lanita’s Southern cooking and especially in eating in the homes of her relatives when we first started dating. I’m still working on eating cooked turnip greens, however.

So I am trying hard here in Natal to avoid insulting any of my readers or hosts in my actions and deeds.  As Paul said, “…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (I Corinthians 9:22.)

Remember, a tree is not always just a tree. It may be another country’s orange barrels.