Part of the appeal of traveling to other places is broadened horizons, right? New languages, new people: all part and parcel of the spice of a new country. As a deaf traveler, negotiating my way through a new culture in complete silence was doubly difficult in comparison to attempting in my own. Language barriers are challenging enough as a deaf person working between my own language, English, and the UK’s national sign language, British Sign Language. For me and many other deaf people understanding a foreign person speaking can be a struggle – finally, attempting to lip-read in a foreign language is a different art.
I’ve always been fascinated by other languages and new cultures. These form the colourful background music to the hills and seascape vistas of Rio de Janeiro, or landscapes of lost world table-top mountains in the north. I found the ability to sign, to work outside spoken languages and to navigate linguistic barriers through guesswork a strong asset.
On the other hand there’s no doubt, I often transcend language barriers with ease in comparison to speakers of the spoken language. I am already used to communication apprehended through a filter of visual cues, body language and guesswork. Everything from bus timetables to trying to buy vegetarian food, is a convoluted and confusing process anyway for an English speaker traveling in Brazil – as a deaf person, I encountered endless oddities moving through the craziness of Latin America.
In Brazil, I learned:
- Crossing roads by looking at the traffic lights (and not being able to hear the cars) is NOT a good idea. Here traffic follows
no rules and drivers in Rio De Janeiro are pretty terrifying. Cue many of my friends saving me from my pancaked demise.
- I found shared dorm rooms in hostels can be pretty peaceful and probably perfect for the majority of deaf people who don’t need to worry about earplugs – although you might want to ask a friend to worry about the morning’s alarm. On several occasions I slept right through mine and woke to several irritated fellow travelers.
- Having addresses and other critical information prewritten is helpful with taxi drivers. It also prevents that old trick of your journey doubling in length as the taxi driver takes his sweet old time to work out where you are going.
- If you wear hearing aids or a cochlea implant like me, this is critical advice for Latin American beaches. I suggest keeping it on your person or leaving them with friends at all times! Stuff does get stolen. It’s not fun spending a day trying to find audiologists who speak English in addition to Portuguese, plus paying half your holiday fund to buy new ones! (Side note: I advise deaf travelers to check the small print of their travel insurance as there is often small text in international travel insurance advising they will not cover lost hearing aids, implants or other auditory devices.)
- Friendly tip for Copacabana Beach: Do as I did and use the gesture from British Sign Language when asking for a drink or wine, you might end up with a tasty bright green Caparainha for free!
- When I didn’t understand Portuguese and had to gesture – be warned. some signs that are standard in English should never be used in Brazil.
- Gesturing ‘are you okay?’ to drunk people in a bar here; don’t do it. In Brazil, it’s an insult. I’d being going around calling people ‘a**holes’.
- If there’s one thing Latin Americans know how to do, it’s dance! Even deaf people here can swing their hips to a perfect salsa rhythm in time with everyone else! There’s ways to follow the intricate steps of cueca or salsa even if you don’t hear the music. As for my terrible dancing, looks like I’m finally out of excuses …
So what’s so mesmerizing about Brazil? Even though many of the countries largest cities are crazy concrete jungles, traffic-packed, polluted and vastly unequal, the Brazilian people are incredibly vivacious. As a friend from Rio de Janeiro told me, it’s the imperfections of Brazil that make it so beautiful.
It’s this that will keep drawing me back.
Written by: Eilidh Rose
Eilidh Rose is a mountaineering fanatic, keen
distance runner and rock climber. She can often
be found in the mountains or reading novels in
English and Spanish.