I was taught to speak Portuguese by a girl named Danda, who was a few years older than I. Short, with a huge smile, long frizzy black hair in a perpetual ponytail, and skin the colour of chocolate, she wandered around the house wearing nothing but a sports bra and baggy pants. I ended up with her while in language training, and though I went to class for three hours each morning, the real lesson started over the lunch table, when Danda would talk, and talk, and talk. I’d immediately put whatever grammar I’d learned that morning into practice and my vocabulary would grow exponentially. Danda was relentless; I couldn’t get away with using anything less than the proper word, and she hammered that language into me till it transformed from some bizarre Chinese-Italian mix to the spectacularly nasal, musical language that Brazilian Portuguese is for me now.
The NGO I was working for had placed me in her home thinking that it was a complete family. Upon arriving, though, I discovered that Danda lived alone with her brother Daniel, a construction worker who also removed his shirt instantly upon entering the house. Their mother had recently gone to live with her sister in a nearby neighbourhood. My director expressed some concern at this arrangement; I guess I was supposed to live in a better-chaperoned environment, but when he saw the quick linguistic progress I was making under Danda’s tutelage, he let me stay.
We slept together in the single bedroom, Daniel in the living room, of course. Danda insisted on giving me the bed and slept on an air mattress. To be honest, I was fine with that, because sometimes there were two-inch-long cockroaches that found their way into the room and pinged off the bedsheets at night. Being raised off the floor gave me the illusion of protection. Breakfast consisted of salty scrambled eggs, sugary coffee, and more papaya than I’d ever imagined. I’d have the first of my six daily cold showers in the minuscule bathroom, separated from the kitchen by a sliding plastic screen. Every other day the public water supply was turned on and I could wash under the tap. When that wasn’t the case, I hauled in a bucket from the cistern and used a cup to douse myself. Danda would turn up the Daddy Yankee reggaeton CD I’d brought to absolute full volume and we’d bop around the house for most of the day. I’m sure the entire street knew that album by heart within a few days.
I’ll never forget the first night I arrived. Standing on the uneven cobblestone street, I waved goodbye to my director as his car disappeared from sight. Within two seconds, Danda was asking me if I wanted to go to a party. I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her correctly. “Festa? Quer ir para uma festa?” she asked. I’m sure that word is pretty unmistakeable. Jet-lagged, exhausted, slightly homesick – what did I have to lose?
We hopped on a bus and rode forever in the darkness. We got off at the bottom of the biggest hill I’ve ever seen in my life and proceeded to climb up, up, up. It was one of those hills where the cars parked along the side looked as if they defied gravity. One house stood near the top, lights and music flooding from the open windows. That’s where we were headed – straight for the hottest party on the street, which, I quickly discovered, was her aunt’s house which doubled as a bakery, and it was her elderly aunt’s birthday.
Before I knew what was happening, I was spun out onto a makeshift dance floor and handed a plastic cup full of orange Fanta and cachaça (sugarcane liquor). The forró was blasting – wonderful music for which the northeast of Brazil is famous. The numerous guests sat on those ubiquitous white plastic chairs, squeezed in among giant bags of flour. Danda’s aunt was a terribly energetic tiny woman who never stopped dancing, except to serve the cake. Her uncle was a tremendously overweight guy who also danced shirtless, swaying with his eyes closed as he let the music float right into his bone marrow.
I don’t know how late it was before Danda took me home, but the party was still in full swing as we made our way down the tremendous hill. I was in a state of gleeful culture shock. It’s absolutely wonderful when a place truly lives up to the mental image one has, and I’d always known Brazil was a place where people know how to enjoy life to the fullest. My adventure on that very first evening of all proved it was true.