How to Handle Tree Frogs

(Recently I have been looking through files of rough drafts written in the jungle. This post is based on events of 2017).

It was a peaceful night in the jungle. The generator had been turned off for almost an hour and all of the village’s human inhabitants had gone to bed. Thousands of insects and birds filled the sultry air with their voices, however, composing a lullaby that somehow seemed soothing despite the almost startling blend of exotic tones, rhythms and melodies.

I was almost asleep, in that delightful zone where the last contemplations of the day begin to merge with the first dreams of the night.

As suddenly as a teacup breaks when dropped on the floor, all sense of calm was shattered by a splat on my cheek. I cried out and jerked upright, knowing immediately that such a slimy sensation could only be one thing…a tree frog!

Now, you need to know that I am normally a very tolerant and welcoming human being. During the first months in my little house in the jungle, I thought tree frogs were rather cute. Their sticky toes, skillfully and wonderfully made by our Creator, enable them to perform impressive athletic feats.

This is the only brightly-colored tree frog I have seen in the Amazon. His uniqueness is the reason he was photographed by my sister. Normal tree frogs in our village are grayish-green, with very similar coloring to an average backyard frog. Sadly, it seems I never took pictures of any of them. 

I felt absolutely horrible the morning I found a bloated frog, belly up in the pot of water which I had thoughtlessly left uncovered, while it was still at boiling point, right before bed the previous night.

But jumping out of the darkness onto my face was clearly a declaration of war. Tree frogs against human. All feelings of acceptance and empathy towards tree frogs disappeared as fast as fish and manioc root at a village gathering. What options were there?

  1. Leave the jungle and let the tree frogs have my house, hoping they would learn the language and teach my friends about Jesus.
  2. Live in fear, always wondering what the frogs’ next devious plan would be.
  3. Let the frogs know that since they had declared war, I was ready to fight!

Option #3 seemed like the best choice.

Defensive strategy: sleep with a mosquito net every single night, 12 months of the year, even during seasons when there were no mosquitos.

Offensive strategy: every time a tree frog was seen jumping around, locate and grab it.

Trying not to cringe at the slimy sensation in my hand, I would then throw it as far as possible out the back door. The problem was, although I became an expert frog-grabber, I can’t throw very far. To all future missionaries out there, here is a pro tip. Play baseball every chance you get, endeavoring to become a great pitcher so you will be able to throw frogs so far from your house that they can’t find it again.

With my substandard pitching skills, however, I could imagine the frogs gleefully hopping back, entering the house through the thatch roof, and jumping around inside with huge froggie grins, their chirps declaring, “I’m back! You can’t throw far enough to keep me out!” And each time I caught one of those little guys, I wondered, somewhat disheartened, how many times I had caught him before.

One morning, I came back to the desk after grabbing a drink of water, because one needs to be well hydrated to practice complex parts of speech such as dynamic auxiliaries.  Picking up my pencil to attempt to write a grammatically correct sentence expressing my desire for my mom and family to be well, my pinkie smushed onto something slimy.  Sniffing the brown streak on the paper and my finger confirmed that it was tree frog poop…the enemy was attacking on another front.

So I left the desk to wash my hands, without having written even one word.  Then I had to recopy the four previously-written sentences onto a new page, so that I could throw out the smelly one.  See how annoying tree frogs can be?

Earlier that same week, I tasted something really strange in one bite of my granola…a sharp pungent taste that does not match any of the ingredients in my recipe.  Even though I only left the bowl unattended and uncovered for one minute, is it possible that something dropped in?  Yuck.  I’ll never know for sure, but am still wondering if that was a sneak assault by the enemy.

The most frustrating part of dealing with tree frogs is that it never ends. Although there are never as many frogs in the jungle as there were in Egypt during the second plague, there are a lot of them there, especially during rainy season. Countless times, I have heard the unwelcome sound of froggie feet sticking to one surface, then another, then another, causing me to to stop studying or reading, or even get out of bed to go deal with the intruder.

It is an ongoing battle, one little frog at a time, one interrupted task after another, day after day.

Are you getting the point?  In the jungle, days can start with tree frogs.  Days can end with tree frogs.  Small chunks of time can be wasted by dealing with tree frogs, decreasing productivity and happiness (mine, not theirs). Tree frogs are smelly and unsanitary. They can trigger feelings of grumpiness or frustration or helplessness.

It’s the same frog in all three photos. 



There are “tree frogs” in life, as well. These aren’t major crises or real enemies, but small ongoing problems. Sometimes we allow these  annoyances to distract us, decrease our productivity and steal our joy. We may end up wasting more time or emotional energy than necessary in dealing with these “tree frogs”, diminishing our focus on what is truly important in life.

Are you plagued by any “tree frogs” right now? How should we handle the “tree frogs” in our lives?

This is entirely dependent on what form the “tree frogs” take in your specific situation, but here are a few ideas. Hopefully one of these strategies works for you. Please take these suggestions with a grain of salt and use your own common sense.

  • Scream.
  • Breathe deeply. Pray.
  • Throw salt on them.
  • Take pictures.
  • Adopt them as pets.
  • Sing to them.
  • Laugh and continue with business as usual.
  • Watch them jump around, or just jump around with them.
  • Ignore them and stay on task.
  • Ask them to stop distracting you and help you work toward your goals.
  • Sing to them.
  • Swallow them whole and regurgitate them as a “magic trick” to entertain your friends.
  • Wash your hands (with soap) after touching them.

13 Reasons I Probably Should Never Be Allowed to Visit the USA Again

Becoming…The Journey to Lose Myself in an Amazon Village

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Learning to see the world through new eyes, with new face paint, compliments of a teenage friend.  This paint is made from red seeds called “dough-cop”, and comes off after just one washing.

After a little more than 1 ½ years of living in a new culture with new friends, it is evident that I am becoming more like them.  I’m not just learning the language, after all, but living the language.  I am learning how to view the world through the eyes of my friends instead of the eyes of my birth culture.  While here, these changes are fantastic.  One goal of ACL is to become one of the people, to the point where I understand them and can relate to them in culturally appropriate ways.

The downside is that my behavior might not be considered…umm…normal in places outside of this Amazon village.

Honestly, I have picked up some habits that would be unacceptable at the very least (if not obnoxious) in the good ‘ol USA, and might even shock you a bit.  The list below is not intended to be derogatory or make fun of my host culture and their ways.  The fact that I actually DO all of these things here shows that I don’t have a problem with their culture and am adapting to it quite well.

My intention is simply to share more about becoming part of a new culture by comparing the differences in a humorous way.

To be completely candid, it would be just as easy to write a post…Why North Americans Should Probably Not be Allowed to Visit Our Village.  Some culturally normal behavior from the USA or Canada would be viewed as very strange or downright offensive here.  In the interest of relating to others in love, avoiding offense and living at peace with my new friends, I have learned to suppress certain habits and customs learned from North American and Brasilian culture.

All of these differences are not indicators of better or worse.  They are mere reflections of diversity.  God made all of us different, thankfully.  Wouldn’t it be boring if we all acted and thought and behaved exactly the same?  It is important to appreciate and value diversity.  And why not enjoy the funny side of it as well?

Besides, I need something to laugh at other than all the language mistakes I make.  Although those are quite amusing.  For instance, during my language evaluation last week, I told my friend, twice, very confidently, that yes, my entire family speaks Portuguese and only Portuguese.  We had a good laugh over that one.  For variety’s sake, though, sometimes I enjoy laughing at my new “normal” behavior, imagining what it would be like to bring such customs back to North America in my suitcase. 

Before you resolve to never invite me to your home or church, let me assure you that I intend to leave my new habits here in the jungle, suppressing any random third-culture urges.  So please do invite me over next time I’m back in North America!  I’ll be good (and as culturally normal as possible), I promise!  What would it look like if I did fail in this intention, however?

Well, I might…

  1. spit on your kitchen floor.
  2. fling small amounts of water, left in a cup or pot, onto the floor. Imagine my surprise when the wood or linoleum doesn’t immediately absorb the water like our lovely hard-packed dirt floor do.
  3. throw chicken bones or other undesirable scraps of food on your floor.
  4. practice the fine art of culturally appropriate nosiness. “Where are you going?”  “What did she say to you?”  “When are you going to town?”  “What are you doing?”  It probably wouldn’t take long for you inform me that in American culture, such things are none of my business.
  5. casually ask if your child (or you) have lice. You mean that’s not a good conversation starter?
  6. treat meat and potatoes like finger food.
  7. Carry a notebook around and write down phrases from every conversation, sometimes asking you to repeat yourself to make sure I record your statements word for word. (This isn’t actually part of the culture here, but it is something that a language learner is expected to do which has become part of my daily life.  I have even mastered the impressive skill of writing words in a notebook while walking on jungle trails, without falling down.  Usually the words are even decipherable).
  8. Ask to go along when you nonchalantly mention that you are going grocery shopping, hunting, or to visit your in-laws. Can’t miss a good cultural event, after all.
  9. Stand up in the middle of a church service (even the sermon) to go rearrange something that doesn’t look “just right” to me.
  10. Speak tonally.
  11. Make strange comments such as, “will there be electricity tonight?”, “I love refrigerators!”, “It’s morning, and the lights work!” (This also has nothing to do with the culture, but is a direct result of living in a place with only 2 or 3 hours of generator-provided electricity each day…okay, most days).
  12. Ignore compliments, as if I didn’t even hear you.
  13. Ask, “Did you wake up?” instead of saying good morning.
Not included in the list is habitual posture which is extremely unladylike, although not nearly as uncomfortable as it looks.  It does tend to make one’s feet fall asleep unless weight is shifted frequently, however.

So, if some random person did happen to engage in such behavior, which number above would be the biggest irritation to you, personally?  Seriously, I’d love to know, so please answer!

Don’t worry though, your jungle-dwelling missionary friend will not annoy you in any of the ways listed above!  Except speaking tonally and making comments about loving refrigerators and the novelty of turning lights on in the morning…those might happen occasionally.

Are there any items on the list that you actually wish could be part of your culture and normal behavior? 

Which number would you most strongly advise that I never ever EVER do as a guest in someone’s home or church?

8 Fun Things to Do With Your Neighbors…if you live in an Amazon village. [ Becoming – Part 8 – PARTICIPATE ]

Becoming…The Journey to Lose Myself in an Amazon Village

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Sugar cane, ready to be hacked in shorter pieces for planting.  See # 7 in list below.

Participate!  In my book, the second P of the ACL learning cycle is the most fun and exciting of the four.  My sister must have agreed, because she was always up for participating in a culture event, especially if it involved walking deep into the jungle.

Do you want to know the best advice I was ever given when learning Portuguese?

Don’t learn the language.  Live the language.   – Antonio and Gustavo –

Credit goes to my Brasilian brothers for sharing that unforgettable pearl of wisdom, which captures the essence of Participate with inspiring words that continue to stir enthusiasm in this language learner’s heart.

What could be more motivating than doing life with neighbors and friends, after all?  At least for someone who genuinely loves people and enjoys social interaction (despite being an introvert) this job/ministry sometimes seems light on the work and heavy on the delight.  Just consider my daily work routine as intentional, purposeful “hanging out”.  Some might prefer to call this “chilling” but in the scorching temperatures we face here, that word would be incongruous, if not absurd.

Participation, or “living the language” is the best way to begin relationships, deepen friendships, attain fluency in the language, understand who the people in this community are, and how they view the world.  Participation provides diverse opportunities to enter the daily routines of my friends in a way that textbook learning could never imitate.

During Participation in a Culture Event, an ACL learner is expected to:

  • Observe.  (Watch, listen, and learn.  My friends are the experts).
  • Record.  (Take notes, record audio or video, take photos).
  • Elicit language and culture. (Figure out what can be learned from the event).
  • Join in. (As invited or allowed, without taking away from the natural flow of the event).

Essential tools for Participation:

  • teachable spirit
  • paying-attention skills
  • sense of adventure
  • flexibility
  • patience
  • camera
  • notebook and pen
  • voice recorder
  • (additional tools vary according to the event)

So, are you ready for my surefire, foolproof, satisfaction-guaranteed-or-your-money-back list of fun things to do with your neighbors if you ever happen to live in an Amazon village?  Here we go!

  1. Eat wild pig’s head. Nothing like a community gathering around the supper table for great food and time together.  Only this meal often takes place between 8 and 10 AM.  And instead of sitting around a table, try squatting around huge metal basins which contain the pig’s head and manioc or another root vegetable.  Make sure you grab fast, ripping off chunks with your fingers, no matter how hot the meat and manioc is.  At village “potlucks”, if you snooze, you lose…literally.  So if you like meat (and wild pig is way yummier than boring old grocery store pork), head to the pig feed as soon as you hear the shrill call, “Come and eat pig, ya’all!”  It doesn’t last long.
  2. Dance all night. You don’t know how to dance?  No worries.  Neither do I, in the technical sense of the term.  Here, dancing is just walking/marching/step-stepping around in a circle.  Very little skill and coordination required.  All you need is a friend, energy, extra coffee, and willingness to deal with a headache the following day.
  3. Swim in the river. This is a great way to pass time, learn vocabulary, test your memory (since you can’t write new words down while you’re in the water), and cool off on days where the tropical sun threatens to burn you up.  If your swimming buddies are children, you may end up spending hours laughing and swimming and playing their version of tag, called “Jaguar!”  There aren’t any real jaguars in the river, thankfully; just watch out for anacondas, which have been seen there on rare occasions.
  4. Burying a dead pet monkey. This doesn’t happen often, but just goes to show that anything that happens in my neighbors’ lives counts as a culture event, and is a learning opportunity.  How do they bury the monkey?  What do they say?  How does the monkey’s owner (a little girl) act?  Perhaps the conversation will turn to deeper topics such as their feelings about death in general, or belief in the afterlife.
  5. Weave baskets. A great opportunity to observe carefully and then try your hand at a new skill, probably amidst much laughter.  I did successfully make a basket last year, with help, although it turned out a bit lopsided.  Hopefully there will soon be an opportunity to try again.  Basket-weaving is a “girls-only” Culture Event however, so the men in my reading audience will have to find their own activity.  Making arrows or feather headresses are a couple of “boys-only” alternatives.
  6. Make manioc root drink.  This sugar-sweetened beverage is called “ee”, in a high tone, not to be confused with “ee” in a low tone, which means river.  The women spend a lot of time making this.  After all, if you don’t have “ee” available for your family at all times, you’re probably not a very good wife and mom.   I’ve watched the ee-making process countless times, but it is still a learning opportunity.  We often have wonderful conversations in my friends’ kitchens as they peel, cut, cook, strain, and mix.
  7. Plant sugar cane. Shortly after my arrival in the village I had the chance to participate in this event, and my teacher, Werrig, made a big deal of how well the sugar cane grew, and invited me to help again last year.  Although I sweat more that morning than any other morning in my life, planting sugar cane isn’t difficult.   Werrig’s encouragement and plan to take me again next planting season had me thinking I must be a natural sugar cane planter, or at least a pretty good helper or a hard worker.  Well, come to find out, just last week, that Werrig is convinced that the reason her sugar cane grew nice and thick is because I have fat arms.    Just what every girl wants to hear.
  8. Eat honey. Okay, this one does sound a bit boring.  But how will you and your neighbors eat honey unless you have honey?  And how will you have honey unless you harvest honey?  And how will you harvest honey unless you avoid the beestings?  And how will you avoid the beestings unless you light a fire next to the tree you chopped down?  And how will you chop down that tree without going deep into the rainforest where you will get lots of ticks?  See?  That wasn’t so boring after all.  And wild Amazon honey is finger-licking delicious.

Well, this list could easily contain 58 Culture Events instead of 8, but it’s a start.  Guaranteed to provide fun and laughter with friends, and enough new words to keep your brain working hard as you become part of a new community.

Let’s face it though; you might never actually live in an Amazon village.  Yet God designed us human beings to engage with each other in meaningful relationships, no matter where we live, what the culture is or what activity options are available.

So how can you participate in the lives of your neighbors?  Maybe God wants to use you to make a difference in the community where you live, or reach out to a specific person or family in need of a new friend. Have you ever made a list of ways to spend time with your neighbors?  How might you intentionally begin relationships, deepen current friendships, understand who your neighbors are and how they view the world?

Language-learning Laughs, take 2

(July 2017)

One evening, I was up at the school for a social event, and one of the 6th graders asked me a question.  I didn’t understand every word, but thought that I was able to fill in the gaps enough to deduce that she was asking, “Are you learning to weave baskets?”

It was basket-making season after all, and I can usually be found in the middle of as many cultural events as possible, observing, taking pictures, and participating.  Also, this traditional skill had been the focus of their Art classes the last couple weeks, so it made sense that this would be on her mind.

So I replied, “Yes!  I’m still learning.”

The confused look on her face clued me in to the fact that I had probably misunderstood the question and thus answered in a way that didn’t make sense.  But when I asked her to say it again, it still sounded like she was talking about baskets.  Poor girl.  She stuck with me, though, repeating the question three times, despite the slight embarassment this seemed to cause her in the presence of other adolescents, until the meaning of all the words finally sunk through my thick skull into whatever part of the brain processes new languages.

Her actual question had been, “Are you getting used to the heat?”  Unfortunately, the answer to that is “not really.”  Occasionally I think I am getting used to it, but then comes another even hotter day that seems to drain the energy and vigor right out of my veins.

Apart from my tendency to misunderstand, there are apparently some words that I habitually pronounce wrong, which is normal at this stage of language learning.  People from the school have been correcting my pronunciation.  In and of itself, this is terrific, because I obviously need lots of help with pronunciation of the Neno language, especially considering the tonal factor.

The problem is that when people at the school, who live in other villages, correct me, they also comment that people from our village are teaching me wrong!

And I don’t have the vocabulary or grammar skills to explain that my friends and neighbors are terrific teachers, and are probably teaching me exactly right (not that I would actually know, haha), and the whole problem lies in the fact that I am learning wrong!

Or, as I prefer to think, I am still only partway through the journey of learning, and welcome all corrections.  Just please blame my mistakes on me, not on my friends and teachers.  There is already enough pressure to pronounce words correctly for the simple desire to communicate clearly.  Add to that the goal of reaching the language level required for Bible teaching as soon as God will enable me to do so, and you may understand the inescapable sense of urgency.

I don’t need the added pressure of thinking, “Okay, any mistakes I make are going to reflect badly on my Neno friends who do so much for me and teach me so patiently day after day.  No messing up!”

Good thing I love this language learning adventure, isn’t it?  Moreover, what a relief it is to know that God loves me no matter how much I mess up, and He certainly won’t blame anyone for my poor pronunciation.  In between cheering me on and supplying the emotional and mental stamina to continue, God probably laughs even harder than my Neno friends and I do at my funny mistakes.  I can even imagine Him winking, knowing that the funnier the mistake, the less likely I am to repeat it.

(Note to self:  Baskets and heat are not to be confused in the future).


This may not be a landmark in my journey deeper into the Neno culture, but at least it helps me relate to my friends and some of the daily inconvenciences of their lives.  I got my first “num” (pronounced a bit like “gnome”, quickly, forcefully, low tone).   Or if you prefer the Portuguese, it would be “bisho de pe”.  Literally translated into English, that would be “foot bug”, but I have no idea what their true name in English is.*  We don’t have these little creepy-crawlies in Upstate New York).  Thinking through my options, I decided to go to my friend and language helper who has 4 young children.  Figured she is probably one of the most experienced at removing the little critters.  I took my own pre-sanitized safety pin along (couldn’t find a needle) for hygiene reasons.

Within about 10 minutes, Mariana had expertly removed my little parasite, saying that it was huge, and had probably been there for over a week.  Yuck.  We had an audience of about ten people watching.  Like a good language learner, I had pen and notebook in hand to record phrases related to this semi-cultural event.  Removing “nuwej”** is cultural; it was just in the missionary’s foot this time.

As a child, I remember reading dozens of missionary stories borrowed from our church.  Eagerly checking one out each Sunday, I would devour it voraciously, hoping that the other children would read and return their books so that I could get a new one the very next week.  In one of these books, written from the perspective of an MK (missionary kid) the family dealt with burrowing “foot bugs” which would leave egg sacs in between their toes.

It grossed me out so much to read about these bugs that laid eggs in people’s feet and had to be dug out with needles.  And now, guess what?  I live in a jungle where these gross bugs (or their similar cousins) live.  Hooray.  Strangely enough, “foot bugs” are not nearly as bad in real life as in missionary books.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to dig them out myself.  Needles are my friends when their purpose is sewing, cross-stitch, or plastic canvas.  But when they are being inserted into my flesh for any reason, they are not friends at all, often creating sensations of dizziness or faintness.

Not sure how I managed to donate blood on several occasions.  Of course the last time, the poor Red Cross workers had to keep me in the “blood donation center” for almost an hour afterwards, because each time I tried to stand up I nearly passed out.  The worst part was, I was the last donor of the day, and they were trying to clear out of the “blood donation center”, which was actually the gym at the local school.  An entire girls’ volleyball team sat on the floor outside the gym, watching my delayed recovery.  Most of those girls probably made heartfelt pledges on the spot…to never donate blood in their lives.

Back to our little “num” friends, though.  A couple weeks later I found one in my left foot.  This one was even bigger, and already “had babies”, as my other Neno friend said, when she finally was able to dig it out.

The strange thing is, in other people’s feet, they supposedly itch like crazy, or hurt, yet I don’t even notice them.  The second one I didn’t feel at all, even after it was huge.  I only found it because that toe was dirty so I washed it.  Yes, I do wash my feet in the shower, including my toes, each day, but without glasses, I would never see a footbug.

(Note added in September:  If I am remembering correctly, I have now had 6 “nuwej”  in all.  However, dry season is the time they are more common, so that number will probably go up soon.  Also, in case you are wondering, these critters are often carried by dogs, so the more dogs there are around, the more likely people are to get “nuwej” also).

*Research back in the city revealed that in English “num” is chigoe flea.

**plural of num – the M changes into a W and then EJ gets added.

Language-learning Laughs, take 1

Here is the debut post of a newly-invented feature on this blog.  Just think of it as the ongoing “blooper reel” of my Neno ACL* adventure.  Based on previous experience with Portuguese, you can expect numerous editions of “Language Learning Laughs” in months to come.  

*Aquisition of Culture and Language

Capybaras at the side of the road, near the village.  They really wanted to be photographed for  this blog.

One morning in July, as I kneaded a batch of pizza crust, a friend who was outdoors sweeping the cleared dirt area in front of her house called to me,

“Does your mother have any sisters?”  (Well, that’s what I thought the question was).

So I replied, “No, only brothers,” in a slightly sad tone, knowing that in the Neno culture, the relationship between a woman and her mom’s sister is a very special type bond, which I will never have.

My friend stopped sweeping and looked at me in a way that made it obvious that “No, only brothers,” was not the correct answer.

She repeated the question and I realized she was asking if I had another propane tank!  We use those for our gas stoves and someone else in the village had run out of propane.  Nothing to do with my mom’s siblings at all.

In my defense, the literal way she asked the question was, “Does your propane tank have a sibling of the same gender?”

And the words for propane and mom are very similar.  So it was an understandable mistake, yet I laughed off and on the rest of the day, just thinking about it.

If it doesn’t make you laugh, try to imagine yourself in the place of my friend.

You ask someone, “Do you have another propane tank?”

“No, only brothers.”

Uhh…say what?  Not sure how this would be interpreted…

  1. ”I don’t have another propane tank, but I have brothers.”
  2. “I don’t have another propane tank, but my brothers do.”

Neither of those facts would be especially helpful or relevant.  But at least they’re good for laughs.

Abi in my Bonnet

If you heard any of my presentations in churches or other settings before coming to the field, you may remember a brief explanation of the challenges that a tonal language presents, in that it facilitates errors created by saying what a foreign speaker considers the “right word” in the wrong tone.  The words I used in the imaginary scenario were dog, brother, and banana, in case that jogs your memory.

Well, there is no more need for ridiculous invented examples; I have discovered several real ways to say the wrong word simply by using the incorrect tone (let alone the times I say the wrong word by getting syllables in the wrong order or leaving out a sound or putting the wrong sound at the end of the word).  This tonal thing makes getting garlic oil in my eye seem like child’s play.  (Garlic = alho.  Oil = óleo.  Eye = olho.  The similarity of those words gave me trouble back in the early days of Portuguese learning). While there are certainly many more challenges to come, how would you like to hear the most confusing Neno example I’ve come across so far?

Enter “abi”  *buzz buzz*  (pronounce this word sort of like “a bee”)

abi 1 – bangs (as in hair)

abi 2 – on top of

abi 3 – killed (in hunting)

The tones are different, very subtly, so a friend kindly recorded sentences with each usage, so I can listen several dozen hundred times until the slight differences will sink in, hopefully.  In addition to the actual tones (high, middle, low, ascending and descending), sometimes a syllable is drawn out to change the meaning as well.

The fact that these words sound the same to gringo ears, is a new thought to my Neno teachers.  Remember that in their language, these are completely different words, and would never be confused by a native speaker, or even by someone who speaks another tonal language.

Imagine hearing your favorite song, by a different performer.  He sings most of it right, but every so often, he sings a different note, still in the same key.  Even though the word is the same, with the wrong note, it messes up the tune and drives you crazy.  Since you have known the melody for years, the mistakes would be obvious to you, even though someone who had never heard the song probably wouldn’t know the difference.

That illustrates the intricacy of the Neno language.  To non-tonal language speakers, many of the words sound the same, because we are not accustomed to thinking about pitch while we talk.  But to the Neno, if I use the wrong pitch, it either sounds completely wrong, doesn’t sound like a word at all, or sounds like a different word altogether.

Considering that, it is a mark of their kindness and graciousness that the Neno do not react with an attitude of, “Wow, this missionary is dumb, how can she possibly get those words mixed up when it’s obvious they are different.”  Instead, they act amazed, with an attitude of, “Wow she’s right.  We never stopped to think about it, but those words are pretty similar, or are they exactly the same?”  Then they repeat the words over and over to themselves, figuring out exactly what the those subconscious and subtle differences are.  It’s as if they think it is terrific that I am making connections (or realizing when there are no connections), exploring and asking questions.  Talk about encouraging.  Oh, wait.  I don’t know how to talk about encouraging in the Neno language yet, but someday I will thank these dear friends for the big encouragement they have been in the early months of language learning.

(Note made in mid-April:  I drafted this post the second week of February.  Well, just tonight, a fourth “abi” joined the other three already buzzing around in my bonnet.

abi 4 – fight

I’m toast, I’m toast, I’m toast!  This tonal thing is going to “abi” me (see 3rd usage above).  Don’t worry though; ACL is still loads of fun, and a truly delightful challenge.  Brain is only about half as fried as the delicious freshwater fish that was the main course of my lunch today.  However, here’s to hoping that no one exposes another “abi” anytime soon, because my ears and tongue are not ready to learn them yet, until I master these four, thank-you-very-much.

From the Mouths of Little Friends


Here in Brasil, when someone sneezes, the polite thing to say to them is “Saude!”, which is the word for health.

When you think about it, that makes a lot more sense than our English, “Bless you!” It is, of course, perfectly appropriate to desire and pray for God’s blessing on each other at any time, because we need His blessing constantly, whether we are sick or healthy, rich or poor, happy or grieving.  Yet I always thought it was a bit strange to automatically wish blessing on someone when they sneeze, because a cold or other sickness is no indication of a lack of God’s blessings.

The “bless you” custom actually originated in the Dark Ages, when people blamed sneezing and sickness on evil spirit.  According to this superstition, the sick person really did need God’s blessing in a deeper way than normal.  As we now know, bacteria and viruses, not spirits, cause sickness.  When someone sneezes, they probably are lacking a bit in the health department (unless they inhaled pepper or looked right at the sun, of course).  So wishing health for them in that moment, as Brasilians do, is quite logical.

However, in the mind of a Brasilian three-year-old, it may not really make sense, as I learned from Isadora.

During a bout with a major cold, Isadora was clearly not her normal optimistic, happy-go-lucky, energetic self.  Moping around the house, she sneezed loudly.

I said, “Saude!” (Health!)

To which Isadora replied dejectedly, looking up at me with her stuffy little nose and swollen red eyes, “It’s not health.  It’s sickness.”


Another day, Isadora informed me, “The butterfly died a little bit.”  After thinking for about two seconds, she changed the diagnosis to, “No, it died a LOT!”


The day before field conference started, I was taking care of a friend’s 3-year-old and 11-month-old, trying to tire them out on the soccer field.  We were “racing” to the goal, and since the 11-month-old was already tired, and held up her arms so sweetly, wanting to be held, I ended up running with her on my hip.

After the 3-year-old, Elisa, won the race, I told her, “You run really fast!  Who taught you how to run so fast?”

“My mommy and daddy,” she replied.

“That’s great.  So who runs faster – your mommy or your daddy?”

Without missing a beat, Elisa said, “Jesus runs faster.”

From the Mouths of Little Friends

Christmas Cookie Making Night!


One day in the village, while I was still living with my coworkers, the girls were planning an imaginary play session.  Sidenote: their imaginations are so active, that it is often hard to keep up with which character they are impersonating, resulting in protests such as, “I’m not Isadora!  I’m Maria!” (or Ana or Elsa or John or Abbi or Jubilee or some other movie or book or real-life personality).  Obviously their identities should be obvious to everyone, right?  They know who they are pretending to be, after all.  My own character-guessing skills are improving, slowly but surely.  At least I can list off the top four imaginary roles of choice for each girl and always know when Lorena is Mahi, her favorite cat character.

On this occasion, however, Isadora was casting herself in the new role of Julia, a two-year-old daughter of missionary friends who had visited us the previous week.  Lorena wanted to be another little girl, so they needed someone else to be Misa, Julia’s mommy.

Lorena suggested that I be Misa, to which Isadora immediately argued,

“But Tia Paulette can’t be Misa!  She doesn’t have a husband!” As I tried not to laugh out loud, Lorena acquiesced to Isadora, realized the watertight logic in her firm objection.

What a letdown.  Never realized my single status could be so limiting, even affecting which roles are available to me when playing with three-year-olds.

Those cookies do look yummy!


As I made lunch, Isadora wandered into the kitchen to see if she could coax me into giving her bits of something to eat before the meal was served.  As she has learned from previous experience, that isn’t very hard to do, as long as she asks politely, instead of demanding.

So I offered her a big fat cucumber stick, telling her “In English, this is a cucumber.  Can you say cucumber?”

“Cucumber!” she repeated, a big grin showing her delight in learning a new word.

“Good job!  You said that just right,” as I handed her the desired pre-lunch snack.

“Yup!  And that means…that I know how to speak English!”

After further reflection on my own language learning endeavors, and a thorough testing of current skills, according to the above standards, I am pleased to announce to all of you that…I already know how to speak Neno!  Our language consultant may not agree with Isadora’s evaluation methods, however, so I intend to keep studying and practicing, just in case.

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Lorena, the beet lover.                               Isadora, the brownie batter licker.

How to Become an Airplane Pilot in Less than Seven Minutes

Written on November 20, 2016

Flying airplanes was never a personal aspiration.  However, today, I almost became a pilot, quite by accident.  Today’s story starts where many of my days start – Mariana’s house.  She is not only a friend, but one of my best teachers.

Our morning lesson was on the topic of transportation.  I already knew how to say boat, airplane, motorcycle, car, and bicycle, but didn’t know which verbs to use for each one.  Drive, ride, fly, etcetera.  So I started asking questions and learning how to use the verbs in sentences.  As Mariana and I conversed, I asked some questions that were ridiculous, just to test the verbs and verify their correct use.  ”

“Did she go to the city by bicycle?”  That would be a long trip, unless you are my sister, so the obvious answer was no, but Mariana understood that I was just experimenting with the language.

Then she asked me if I have ridden an airplane.  She already knows that I have, so I assumed she was just testing my understanding of the language, and replied affirmatively.  I could tell by the look on her face that she was quite impressed.  Which sort of makes sense, considering that she has probably never gone farther than Ji-Pa, which is neither large nor famous.  Traveling anywhere by airplane is probably an incredible thought, especially to and from the United States!  Although one of her sisters has traveled to São Paulo and a couple other Brasilian cities by plane, so the degree of her reaction was a bit surprising.

So the linguistic wheels in my brain started turning, slowly rolling over the phrase she had used.  Uh-oh!  Did she ask whether I have TRAVELed by plane or whether I know how to FLY a plane?  Big difference.

So I reverted to Portuguese to clarify this doubt, and sure enough, Mariana had asked if I know how to FLY a plane.  And I had said yes.  Obviously.

Good thing I realized this mistake and was able to clarify the truth quickly.  Or else soon all the Neno people would have heard and spread the news that an American missionary undercover PILOT had arrived in their midst.  I can just imagine the conversations.

Yesiree folks.  We’ve got ourselves a real missionary here.  She’s from far, far away, from the United States.  She is very, extremely, exceedingly white, because there is lots of snow and cold where she comes from.  She has already learned quite a lot of words and phrases in our language and sometimes she even gets the tones right.  She makes delicious cake and bread.  She is so intelligent that she already learned how to weave our traditional mats.  She knows how to drive cars, ride bicycles, and get this – fly airplanes.  Definitely a keeper.