Diving into another culture is an exercise of patience, curiosity and common sense. If you plan to spend some time in another country, there is a certain attitude that will benefit you – and several no-nos that might cause you embarrassment or trouble. Certain rules are, of course, universal and would be wise no matter what country you visit. Others are very specific to the Brazilian reality.
So, these are a few tips that might help you have a smoother stay – be it for one week or the rest of your life:
- Forget the cliches – Americans don’t chew gum all the time. French are not smelly. Swiss people are not boring. Of course, sometimes the cliches apply, but fight against the temptation of expecting all Brazilians to be cheerful sexy soccer-lovers. The country’s huge dimensions favor lots of diversity both in landscape/climate/food/music and human types.
- “Non falar portugues” – Most Brazilians speak no English, although many will find miraculous ways of communicating with you. In good hotels and restaurants you will probably find people fluent in this and other foreign languages, but you will have trouble in other environments and will certainly miss good opportunities if you don’t prepare yourself. If you are lucky enough to be fluent in any Latin language, especially Spanish, spend a few days with a good phrase book. Don’t be afraid of speaking your meager Portuguese. Brazilians are very forgiving. And I know from personal experience that those who dare speak poorly end up speaking well.
- Sign language – A few gestures can go a long way if you cannot speak Portuguese. The basics: To refuse something, wag your index like a puppy tail. To accept, move your chin towards your chest a couple of times. To ask for the check, make eye contact with the waiter and pretend you are writing on the palm of your hand. But, alert: don’t join the tip of your thumb and your index finger as in “OK”. It looks a lot like the gesture for f…you. Learn a few additional gestures with British daily The Guardian.
- Don’t be shy – Interact as much as you can. My husband Lenny is a big fan of riding taxis in Brazil, because they give him the opportunity of having one-in-one interaction with drivers, who can be very entertaining. He always comes back to me with new vocabulary. Also, go to padarias and sit by the counter. I always meet friendly people this away. Another big social venue is the seaside. Bikinis and speedos seem to reduce social distance and enhance cheerfulness.
- Golden rule – Leave all the rings, bracelets, necklaces, voluminous earrings and, maybe, even your wedding ring, if too visible, at home. If it is gold or looks like gold, it doesn’t belong in a Brazilian street.
- Blend, always – Brazilians come in almost all shapes and sizes. Unless you look Indian or Indonesian, you will probably meet people that look like you in the main cities. Use this in your favor – you probably don’t want to call attention to your foreignness. So, be discreet in public. Avoid the “lost puppy look” that seems to magnetize thieves and street paddlers. Don’t open maps wide in the middle of the sidewalk, don’t carry a big and sophisticated camera around your neck. You might make undesirable acquaintances.
- Eyes wide open – If you read the British and American foreign offices reports about the country, you will believe your chances of surviving a trip to Brazil are minimal. Relax. Brazil is not as dangerous as many foreigners think, but you should definitely be alert. Keep your eyes wide open, specially if you are out in the evening, even more if you are a woman, and even more if you are into having too many drinks. Find out what is considered safe in the neighborhoods you visit. Always keep an eye on your belongings. Your bag should be crossed over your chest or strapped to your waist. Don’t leave your stuff unattended in a restaurant, shop or nightclub. Also, if you see lots of policemen on the street, move in the opposite direction, just in case. Finally, resist the impulse of fighting with a thug. Better safe than sorry.
- Penny pinching – For security reasons, carry just a minimum amount of cash. Credit cards are widely accepted in big and middle-sized cities. If you have a local bank account, carry a couple of blank checks (not your whole checkbook). You might also want to draw two parallel bars on the angle of these checks (cheques cruzados). In case somebody steals them, he/she will be obliged to deposit its value in a bank account, which can be traced by you. Unless, of course, the thief uses it to pay for a taxi driver or another service. One more thing: make a notarized photocopy of your passport in a notary office (cartório) and carry it on your wallet. Leave the original at your hotel.
- Dress code – It is always advisable to follow the local dress code – both in Saudi Arabia and Bahia. First because, as said before, you don’t want to have a neon sign over your head: “Here, easy dollars!”. Second because the warm and humid weather that you will find by the coast and the Amazon, or the warmth and dryness of the interior lands demand light cotton outfits. Prefer long sleeves if you are out in the jungle, be it the Pantanal, the Amazon or other rainforest areas. Last time I was in Acre, in the Amazon, for a book I was writing, I disrespected this rule for exact 20 minutes. In fact, I was all covered, but forgot to tuck my shirt in my pants. Big mistake. I was so heavily bitten by some ridiculously small mosquitoes that I needed some serious body creams to be able to stop itching and go back home. And have no doubts about this one: locals will definitely make fun of you (on your back) if you wear socks with sandals and one of those flowery Hawaiian shirts.
- Let the sun shine – Don’t even bother checking the weather outside – always use sunscreen SPF 30 or over wherever your skin is exposed. You might have sunburns even if the sky is hidden by clouds. It is what we call mormaço, the sun is not shinning but it still finds a way of burning you. And wear a hat if you are fair skinned like myself (even if this contradicts my previous rule – I find that most Brazilians, specially women, never wear hats)
- Time is honey – Be flexible. If your group agrees to go to the beach at 9, it is quite likely they will be still sleeping by 10. Appointments, dates, parties – the scheduled suggested is merely a suggestion. Unless, of course, there is business involved.
- Relax – Follow the flow. Brazilians may hug and kiss you on the face. In a crowded alley of a drugstore, I might touch someone on the shoulder or waist to let him/her know I need to pass by. No big deal. Nobody will call the police complaining of harassment.
- Be streetwise – Remember your mom and look two times in each direction before crossing a Brazilian street. Be specially careful if you decide to cross the street slaloming between vehicles that stopped in a traffic jam. Be careful even when you are on the crosswalk and street lights are red. You will frequently see motorcycles passing fast between two car lines. If you are going to rent or buy a Brazilian home, try to find a building within walking distance from your work, the supermarket, your kid’s school. This will avoid you the stress of driving or taking a bus – big time stress. Also, read my post with advices on how to cruise a Brazilian city.
- Small towns – Leave the beaten paths and explore smaller towns and touristic spots. It will be cheaper, more colorful, less crowded and more peaceful. Even better: you will have a taste of what the country was before globalization made all the restaurants serve the same dishes, all the nightclubs the same music, all the shops the same type of clothing.
- Nature – Don’t miss the opportunity of exploring the huge diversity of Brazilian natural environments (with responsibility). Birdwatching, hiking, diving – whatever turns you on. This is possible even within the limits of big cities. In Rio, for instance, go see the Tijuca Forest. In São Paulo, check for Cantareira.
- Read – There is lots of good literature out there for those who want to understand the country. First, read the great post by Jim Shattuck – Getting to Know Brazil – a Reading Tour. Also, check for my Culture, Society and Travel pages, that lists great sources on the web. Finally, I organized a list of books about Brazil or by Brazilian authors available on Amazon.com. Hope this might be useful.
- Patiencewith bureaucracy – Portal Gringoes.com has a series of interviews with foreigners that either moved to Brazil or spent some time in the country. When asked what frustrates them more, most of them will say it is the Brazilian bureaucracy. The process of obtaining documents can be very fastidious. Some of Gringoes’ interviewees recommend, for instance, applying for your permanent visa while you are still at your home country, because it will be quicker than doing it after you arrived in Brazil and have to obtain it at Polícia Federal, the federal police force. Another expat recommends that you should acquire your CPF (Cadastro de Pessoa Física) – an individual tax identification number – as soon as you set foot in the country, once it is essential for certain purchases (house, car, i.e.)
- Food – The many Brazilian cuisines are definitely fascinating, but keep in mind some dishes might be difficult to digest. Take the famous trivial mineiro – a collection of dishes from the state of Minas Gerais. Tons of pork, black beans and fried cassava – this can be a feast, but should you drive after this meal? I am not so sure. The same with the cuisine from Bahia. Floating in palm oil and chile, it is absolutely phenomenal. But take it slow. It is not for amateurs. For a little appetizer, check my post 10 Unforgettable Brazilian Dishes.
- Plugged in – Bring your own computer, electronics and adapters. In Brazil, they can be twice or three times more expensive than their equivalent in the Northern Hemisphere. Read more about this here: The (high) cost of things in Brazil.
- Mementos from home -Even if you might find international markets and bookstores in the main Brazilian metropolis, you will certainly miss a huge variety of products that are unavailable in the country. This is specially true if you come from smaller countries or from places with which Brazil has few connections. So, bring whatever is essential for your well being. If you are Chinese, Japanese, German, Italian or Portuguese – nationalities massively represented in the country – your chances of finding other expats or descendants of immigrants with the same urges as yours is bigger.
Please, do send me your feedback. I am sure many among you have fun or interesting stories to share about your cross-cultural experiences and what helped you adapt to the Brazilian way of life.
And, if you liked this post, read also Practical tips for driving in Brazil.