Portuguese for beginners

Anja talks about her nearly 15 years of travel experience and knowing a few key phrases when abroad.

Anja from backpacking blog happybackpacker.de has been travelling the world for almost 15 years, writing about her travels and her two great passions, surfing and diving. She recently spent several months on the road in South America and was reminded how important it is to have a few phrases of the local lingo up your sleeve.


As I sat in the dreary Florianópolis bus station in south-eastern Brazil, I tried to remember why I had been so keen on booking the bus to Montevideo. The ticket was definitely cheap and the 24-hour trip must have seemed an insignificant detail at the time.
Two hours after the scheduled departure time I was still sitting in the terminal building, starting to wonder when the bus would actually leave. Sure I was in South America and by now I was used to hearing the phrase “Relax, it’s no problem”. But I already had plans – the next day I wanted to head out from Montevideo to a little coastal area in Uruguay to do a Spanish course. Unfortunately nobody seemed to speak any English and when I stuttered around with broken Portuguese (“Quando é que o ônibus?”) I was reassured, rather unreassuringly, that the bus would come soon.
I wedged myself back into the narrow seat and watched the goings-on around me. Nearby there was a young couple that had been tearfully farewelling each other for several hours, an old man with a giant suitcase and a few elderly ladies scattered around the place. Perhaps the bus company had decided there weren’t enough people and left us sitting in the terminal until a few more unfortunate souls showed up.

Who needs rules anyway

Suddenly a big double-decker bus drove in and our lifeless group stirred into action. Finally we would be off, I thought, dashing into the courtyard. I wanted to be right next to the bus to make sure I wasn’t left behind. Satisfied, I looked around, only to wonder why the others had stayed in the terminal and were forming a long queue. Why weren’t they lining up behind me?
The bus door popped open and the driver sparked up a cigarette. Eventually I asked him if I should give him my ticket. My first attempt, in English, was met with an uncomprehending silence, so I tried with a mongrel mix of Spanish and Portuguese. He looked at me and gestured wordlessly to the queue in the waiting room of the terminal hall.
One garbled conversation later, I finally figured out that the illuminated letters on the large sign in front of the ticket counter – which I had missed – indicated that all immigration documentation had to be checked before boarding the bus. At the counter. After all rules are rules, even in Brazil.
You really had to speak some Portuguese.
Exposed as illiterate, I felt myself blushing furiously. I trotted back and joined the end of the queue. My eagerness really hadn’t done me any favours. I waited patiently for what felt like a couple of hours until I reached the counter. After a quick look at my passport and some small talk which sounded awfully sexy even if I couldn’t understand any of it, the man at the counter waved me through with a look of sympathy.
As the last passenger on the bus I took the only available seat, up the top in the back row next to the kitchen and the toilets. There I bobbled up and down all the way to our destination, where I would finally learn a few words of broken Spanish after failing so spectacularly in Portuguese.
My tip for travelling in Brazil? It’s a hell of a lot easier and more relaxed if you can speak and understand just a little of the language. And it’s a lot more fun and satisfying when you can communicate with the locals, even if you don’t understand most of it.
And if you don’t speak the language, just smile and relax. Nothing ever goes according to plan anyway.

Useful vocabulary for travelling in Brazil

Olá! or Oi! = Hello!
Bom dia! = Good morning!
Boa noite! = Good evening! or goodnight!
Beleza? = Everything alright? (colloquial)
Onde está..? = Where is…?
Eu me chamo… = My name is…
Eu sou da… = I’m from…
Eu sou casado/casada. = I’m married.
Socorro! = Help!
Quanto custa isso? = How much is this?
Não entendi. = (I) don’t understand.
Estou com fome. = I’m hungry.

Translated from German by James Lane.