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


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.

Sunday morning. Is that . . . pain? A sharp feeling has established itself in a region of the body so sensitive that even Edward Snowden wouldn’t talk about it. There are lunch plans with a stranger, who is a little late. We cling to a wall across the road, trying to convince ourselves it is just a passing phase. The iPhone 4s looks especially distressed.

Over the next three days we treat the symptoms with a traditional Irish cocktail of alcohol and painkillers. By sheer coincidence, this is exactly the concoction to take if you are due to attend an England press conference.

There comes a time – and screaming through the night is that time – when you understand a visit to a medical professional will be necessary. We have a family meeting, agree that Sírio-Libanês hospital, where presidents get their parts checked in São Paulo, is the place to go. The iPhone 5 will stay at home.

Health insurance

The people at Sírio-Libanês are lovely. An English-speaking gentleman is assigned to the case, so he can first of all correctly extract the health insurance details. An ultrasound is taken of an area somewhere between the bellybutton and the knees. The technician mentions “surgery”. The World Cup is about to begin.

Five hours later the emergency is over. Only antibiotics are required. We skip with the prescription towards the 24-hour pharmacy in the neighbourhood near the hotel. It is nearly midnight, and we are so exhausted that both of the boys’ batteries are in the red zone.

The staff smile and take the prescription. They confer and hand it back, explaining something in Portuguese. Say wha? One of the women has a brainwave and calls up an English-speaking friend, who tries to explain down the phone. He’s not too sure himself, only that I need a different kind of prescription. You have to go back to the hospital, he says. I look pleadingly at the staff. The iPhone 4s beeps aggressively.

Back to Sírio-Libanês the next day. They sort it out quickly and we return to the hotel with a bag of pills. But what’s this? Four antibiotics? The prescription contained a typo – two days instead of seven. We despair. The boys want to go home to Ireland.

Across from the hotel there is different pharmacy. We chance it. The guy speaks no English. I show him the prescription, write the number “7” on a piece of paper, and “2 + 5”. He gets it, takes pity, sells me the drugs. Everyone smiles. It’ll be okay.

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