Luckily, his English is excellent also. And his Spanish, and his French. Awkward American, I wait for him to return to the only language I speak worth a damn, and I do my waiting in poor grace. I slurp my coffee rudely and rattle the saucer putting the cup down. I tap my toes in my damp leather sandals and I sigh.
“Michael,” Paolo says, smoothing the fur on his forehead with a delicate paw, “the people here do not hurry unless something is on fire or a baby is coming. All the people in this town are my friends and customers. If I hurry them, I am rude. If I am rude, they stop buying my food. If they stop buying my food, I have no money to chase my dreams. So, relax. I will answer all your questions—but not on New York time.”
I have enough grace to apologize and mostly mean it. I’ve come to Brazil to apologize to a monkey.
After he graciously nods his acceptance, I continue, “may I ask how you came to be so much more intelligent than others of your species?” It’s a poor try at tact, I think, but some questions just don’t lend themselves to it. I’m not sure what I’m expecting; a secret origin story as in a comic book? Perhaps he was bitten by a radioactive speechwriter. Happily, he takes no offense to my question. He seems to have expected it. It is, after all, an obvious one.
“That is easy to answer,” he says. “I do not know. Most of my birth troop are the same, and a very few in neighboring troops as well. I won’t be discussing their location,” he adds, “for obvious reasons. My wife and I are the only ones I know of who have left the rainforest behind.”
“And how did you come to speak four languages so fluently?”
“Seven, actually. I also speak three native tongues that you’re not likely to have heard of unless you are an anthropologist. Portuguese I learned from listening to loggers at work, and the others from listening to their shortwave radio while they slept. Since then, I have taken advantage of a shortwave of my own to continue improving. It is one of the first things I bought for myself when I began to make a little money.”
“Did you learn to make plantain fritters from the loggers too?” I ask, referring to his family’s business.