Irish teacher in Brazil: ‘Miss, there’s a poisonous snake’

‘Living in Brazil is an adventure. The laws change hourly and nothing is done in a rush’

"But … Brazil is so dangerous?" was the most common response I received when I announced I would be moving to the capital city of the carnival country. Yes, we've had moments in Rio de Janeiro where gangs of people storm the beach and raid as many tourists as they can but on the whole, I feel safer here than when I lived in Glasgow, Qatar or Barcelona.

I moved to Brazil to develop my career and to travel South America. I've taken on management roles within teaching and travelled to beautiful areas of the continent. It is my third and final year living in Brazil. It's been incredible, but I have had many a "Gringa Fail" along the way.

I have never let my lack of Portuguese stop me from trying to communicate, which has led to some sticky moments. I once continued to repeat the phrase “I don’t speak Portuguese” in Portuguese louder and louder at an Uber driver. I didn’t realise the driver was deaf, and that he was only trying to tell me that he can’t hear me because of his disability. I felt incredibly embarrassed and tried to apologise with Google translate. It was awkward.

Another time I have repeated the words “cake, please” at cash registers when trying to ask for a bag. My most unfortunate incident in getting the language wrong was my attempt to tell a child’s mother that he had been very tired that day but instead I told her that he was castrated that day. Luckily, a nearby mother was able to explain that I was just new to Portuguese and we didn’t in fact have that strict a behaviour management policy at school.


Living in the capital city of Brasilia, there was a surprisingly low level of spoken English. Navigating doctor surgeries, hairdressers and gyms have brought an equal amount of hilarity and frustration, but you learn quickly to Google translate your symptoms, ask for “white hair” at the hairdressers (you have to ask for grey or white to get any decent blonde colour) and check what others are doing on the pilates bouncy ball before rolling over on to the floor.

Living in Brazil is an adventure. The laws change hourly, nothing is done in a rush and most things are done with a caipiroska or a beer in hand – although not teaching, unfortunately. Brazilians love to celebrate and will celebrate anything from housewarmings to gender reveals of babies, and even the birthdays of pets,

But carnival is a whole different level of celebration. I have spent the last two years at Carnival in Rio and there is something magical about buying cheap cans of beer and dancing to samba music along the streets beside a nun in a bikini and a giant bugs bunny. Anything goes during that week. Salvador in the Bahia region is also a fantastic spot for music and dance lovers. The street comes alive every day with huge groups of drummers putting every drop of energy into their music. Another must see in Brazil is the Amazon rainforest. We shared our jungle lodge with a snake, some giant lizards and woke up to parrots in the trees. We tried piranha fishing, swam with pink dolphins and looking for sloths and monkeys. Night times were spent by the river, star gazing and spotting caymans. My initial reaction looking at the sloth was "how could anyone burn down your home". The Amazon is home to such a vast range of wonderful creatures and being amongst the noises and colours just makes the current fire situation all the more devastating.

As this is my seventh year away from the Emerald Isle, Ireland is now calling me home. I am not going to miss hearing 30 kids shout "Miss, there's a poisonous snake" while on a school trip, frantically counting heads or lathering up my shampooed hair when the water gets cut off, but I will definitely miss the vibrant people, the sugary desserts and the sunshine. Brazil will always have a place in my heart.

Emma Cahill is an Irish primary school teacher and author of the Children's Mental Health Book Under the Mask available now on and . She has spent her life teaching children of all ages in countries across Europe, Asia and South America and is looking forward to making the move back to Ireland next year.