São Paulo Letter: Emergency averted after iPhone family meeting and a visit to local hospital

There is so little English spoken here, that even a trip to a local bakery has its complications

A view of the São Paulo skyline. Photograph: Keiny Andrade/Getty Images

A view of the São Paulo skyline. Photograph: Keiny Andrade/Getty Images

Mon, Jun 16, 2014, 11:00

First get a sim chip: this will make us all feel better. What could be easier? The three mobile phones and I decide to make a day of it. After breakfast (table for four) we head in the opposite direction to what the woman at the Ibis said, up Avenida Paulista. “Vivo? Vivo?” – this is how we ask people for their help to find the Vivo store. I make the international sign for a phone receiver with my thumb and little finger.

Some hours later at Vivo on the other side of the avenue a voice calls out the number on our ticket. Numbers are all we recognise. C’mon boys! We approach the bench. The guy has a pained expression that says not only does he not speak English, but that any transaction would be pointless in the circumstances, so don’t even go there. He is right: mobile phones are complicated.

I hope the boys don’t hear me thinking this.

He borrows a phone and types into a translation programme: “Come back 15 hours.” 15 hours?! I look at the clock. It’s hard to work out.

“You mean . . . tomorrow?”

He means three o’clock.

We take a cab. The driver is keen to talk and we have sat in the front so the boys can see out. In heavy traffic over the next 45 minutes – is it that time already? – the good-natured driver shares every little thought that comes into his Portuguese-speaking head. First try looking helpless – this doesn’t work – then pretend you understand. The dynamic feels quite like a taxi ride in Dublin.

Numbered discs

To the bakery. How hard can it be? There’s a machine by the door popping out retro numbered discs with a barcode on one side. We take one and wave it at the big security man. He points in a friendly way over at the other side of the room, as if to say it’ll all become clear then.

We see what is either a big sausage roll or a cake that looks just bad enough to qualify as an impulse purchase. The misjudgement becomes clear as the woman heaves a “baguette” weighing nearly a kilo over the counter. We don’t know whether to eat it or defend ourselves with it in Rio.

At the checkout we hand over the disc. The woman hands it back. Maybe it’s a loyalty card? We go to walk out. People start screaming, reaching for their pistols. In the machine, stupid! The language barrier is exhausting us – especially little Samsung Galaxy, who has always been a sensitive communicator. If there is so little English spoken here, what will it be like in the north? We are just glad there has been no medical emergency.

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