There were five men sitting in the boat, deeply bronzed and sinewy from a life of balancing on small boat decks and hauling up fishing nets. We were two pale girls standing at the end of the dock. I was 30 at the time, but felt young and small, and wished for a hand to hold. The men started talking to us in Portuguese. Talking quickly and excitedly, pointing down the bay. We had no idea what they were saying. We laughed and said in English, “We don’t understand!” They laughed and carried on in Portuguese. If I had been by myself, there is no question I would have turned around and left, feeling overwhelmed and not knowing what else to do. But Nanci gave me confidence, and I her. So we stayed, standing shoulder to shoulder, and tried to understand.

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Finally, Nanci turned to me with a light bulb above her head and said, “I think they are offering to take us for a ride down the bay to that island over there.” We looked at each other, took in a breath, and said, “What the hell!” We stepped toward the boat and the men cheered. The captain held out his hand to help each of us aboard. I couldn’t believe I was doing this.

“Do you think we’ll be safe?” Nanci asked me in a sudden regress to doubtfulness. I didn’t know.
“Probably,” I replied.

brazil_boat02Before we could discuss our trepidations further, the men had rummaged through the boat’s cabin and produced two yellow plastic cups covered in dirty fingerprints, the inside coated with rings of dried beer foam from days past and days aplenty. They gleefully poured in a bottle of beer for me and Nanci. I stood on the bow as everyone raised their beers in cheers, the wind curling my hair around my face.

This was my first visit to a location where neither was English prevalent nor did I know the language. Here in a small fishing village on the coast of Brazil, nobody spoke English. I came here on a volunteer vacation to help conduct an anthropological survey on how the introduction of television was changing the nature of social relationships and the level of trust among villagers. (This trip also turned me onto volunteer vacations, but that’s another story.)  The volunteers were English-speaking and we had translators. However, when not conducting the surveys, the volunteers were on their own.

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Sure enough, as Nanci had surmised, we landed at a narrow, sandy island. The boat docked in knee-deep water. The men immediately jumped down and held out their arms for me and Nanci to carry us to shore. With virtually no mutually intelligible words between us, we romped around the island together like little kids. Nanci and I had cameras, and soon the men were throwing their arms around us and posing as if we were best buddies. One of the men picked a flower for me and I stuck it behind my ear. These physical gestures in which my body was rendered with some intimacy against these men’s, the floral gestures suggestive of romanticism, made me a tad nervous. But there was no going back now.

After awhile the captain, Iki, indicated he needed to get home. The men lifted me and Nanci onto the boat’s deck. We chugged back across the bay, laughing the whole way, trying to learn about each other through crude sign language gestures. We docked; Nanci and I left with cheers and smiles and one Portuguese word we knew, “Obrigada.” Thank you.

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I walked back to our home in the village elated. I couldn’t believe that I’d just had such an adventure. That I’d stepped onto a boat with strangers whose language I didn’t speak, whose culture I didn’t know, and yet connected with them so thoroughly, so enjoyably. A couple days later as I sat in a small café, one of the boatman walked past and yelled out to me, “Shara! Shara!” waving and smiling. The day after that, we attended a village festa. Iki asked me to dance. He put his arm around my waist, planted my hand on his shoulder, took my other hand in his, and practically before I could blink I was whirling around the dance floor. I was miserable at dancing, and it wasn’t long before we exited the floor and he introduced me to his wife who hugged me, rattling my bones with her laughter.

In retrospect, maybe that boat ride wasn’t exactly the smartest thing to do, but everything in life has its own risk. And that’s how I learned I didn’t have to speak the native language, I didn’t have to blend in – I stuck out like a sore thumb on that dance floor, nevermind the fact that I was a white girl in a Brazilian village – I didn’t have to be cool and smooth, expertly-versed on the culture, in order to make genuine friends and to be accepted. Since then I have made the effort when I travel to learn some language basics, know some history and culture, follow local dress code, etc. But this experience taught me that even if I don’t know all that, the most important thing is to put myself out there – be genuine, be open, be bold and not frightened, and the world will unfold before me and allow me to cross boundaries I might not have thought possible.

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I gained a whole new level of confidence, both in myself and in the rest of humanity. During that trip, I realized “the language barrier” is a myth, and this spawned a passion for the more exotic – places I really wished to travel to but previously had thought I didn’t have the nerve to. This was crucial, because now my life revolves around this kind of travel. Now I know: just take a deep breath, step forward and say hello.

Shara Johnson is a professional dreamer. She dreams big and incessantly about gathering experiences from around the globe. Her side job is trying to turn these dreams into reality. She writes literary nonfiction about her travels abroad and exhibits her travel photography. You can read her travel blog at skjtravel.net, view photography samples at skjphotography.net, read writing samples at sharasinor.com, or be her friend on Facebook.

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9 Comments

    1. Shara

      Thanks, Milena. As I traveled more around the world, it was only proven again and again how marginal a common language is to making friends and connections.

  1. Al Duggan

    What a great way to gain confidence, and it’s a story you’ll always have! I really enjoyed the way you and Nanci drew on each other’s confidence as well. I spent a year traveling away from home and I’m sure that I couldn’t have done it without my fiancee and travel partner. Thanks for the story!

    1. Shara

      Thanks, Al. Definitely having a pal with you is a confidence booster, and it’s just nice to have someone to laugh with you when you flub up! But I also try to remember this experience even when traveling on my own. Glad you enjoyed.

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