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20 best tips if you are visiting or moving to Brazil


Photo by Carol Garcia, Government of Bahia/ Flickr
Photo by Carol Garcia, Government of Bahia/ Flickr

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:

  1. 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.
  2. “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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. Continue reading 20 best tips if you are visiting or moving to Brazil

Is “gringo” an insult?

Mural in NYC by rollingrck/ Flickr

One thing you should know before answering this question: Brazilians tend to call any foreigner gringo, not only Americans, especially if they have fair skin. Sometimes, even Indonesians or Thais are called that way, but generally gringoness is a package that includes blue eyes and blond hair.
Personally, I have always used the word freely without perceiving there any political incorrectness. I don’t think many Brazilians think of the word gringo as an insult – unless you are in some very specific niche that might use “Gringoes, go home!” as a call to arms.
Nevertheless, a couple of times, while abroad, I employed the word and the recipient end of the nickname seemed unconfortable. In one specific case, I called my then boyfriend, a blond Mexican born in Argentina, “mi gringuito”. He denied me his love for a few hours.

More recently, discussing Bebel Gilberto’s music with an American friend, I said that, despite its qualities, this is Brazilian music for export, produced for gringos and it didn’t work that well for me. She didn’t seem particularly pleased either.

Did I commit a faux-pas? What is your opinion? This question is particularly directed to those among you that are foreign expatriates in Brazil. Can I call you gringos?

My own conclusion – from now on, I will use it only while I am in Brazil. Just in case.

If you liked this post, you might also like 20 best tips if you are visiting or moving to Brazil and 5 faux-pas in the land of laissez-faire.

The best caipirinha ever

cropped caipirinha
Photo by Jon Rawlinson/Flickr

What makes caipirinha, Brazilian national drink, unique? A mix of lime, sugar, cachaça and ice – you will answer.  Not so fast, my friend.

The same way you cannot make a bacteria by putting together a bunch of proteins and carbs, you won’t be able to produce caipirinha by simply mixing its ingredients.

But first, a little History. Nobody knows, for sure, who conceived the first caipirinha. Some believe it was invented by slaves, who might have mixed garapa (sugar cane juice), lime and cachaça (which, you know, is distilled from sugar cane). Others believe it was originally meant for medicinal purposes – honey, garlic and lime were mixed to cachaça to cure colds, a prescription popular to these days. But my favorite version is told by Ernesto Britto, from Caipirinha Club. “In old times, people used to put cloths damped in alcohol on the forehead to reduce the fever and suck limes to improve the immunity. According to the legend, a feverish guy was sucking a lime and the alcohol dripped from his forehead to his mouth. Because it was bitter, he ate a spoon of sugar and, this way, came up with the idea for the drink”, he tells.

Also, nobody knows for sure why it was named that way – caipira is the native of rural parts of the state of São Paulo. Caipirinha might be his young daughter (the suffix inha indicates somebody young or small). Go figure.

All I know is it evolved to its present composition, which was made official by a 2003 federal decree (so the country can keep the intellectual property and the trade mark).

So, back to the secrets. Here are 10 tips to make your caipirinha experience unforgettable.  They were collected from interviews with barmen from all over the country:

Continue reading The best caipirinha ever

10 extraordinary Brazilian musicians you should listen to

by Eloisa Aquino*

If you’ve had your share of Bossa Nova, if you feel that you already know all the Tropicália big shots well, if you’re tired of samba, if you already listened all that matter from Clube da Esquina, or if funk ball is not your cup of tea, but you still want Brazilian sounds to rock your life, here are some picks of great musicians who deserve your attention. Not famous outside of Brazil, from different genres and generations, these guys made my life happier many a time. Enjoy.

Secos e Molhados – They are a band from the 1970s, a mix of glam rock and prog, inevitably and proudly gay, in a time that being all those things could land you in jail or worse, dead in the hands of the extreme right vigilantes. The band leader and singer, Ney Matogrosso, went to become a big star in a solo career, with a huge following of middle aged women. One of those Brazilian mysteries that is hard to explain: how a flaming gay singer becomes a hero in a openly homophobic environment? Now he makes (well) more traditional Brazilian music, and still has that incredible voice. Recommended album:Secos e Molhados” (1973).

Continue reading 10 extraordinary Brazilian musicians you should listen to

Scary Brazilian lullabies

Photo by Alan L/Flickr
Photo by Alan L/Flickr

Most Brazilian lullabies and children songs are scary like hell. Some of them are not exactly child-appropriate. Or human-appropriate.

Check this hit parade:

  • The big classic “Atirei o Pau no Gato”, that says: I hit a cat with a stick, but he didn’t die. Mrs. Chica was surprised by the cat’s cry.
  • What about the morbid “A Canoa Virou“: the canoe turned down, because someone let it happen: [name of the kid] didn’t know how to row. If I were a little fish and knew how to swim, I would rescue [the kid] from the bottom of the sea. Continue reading Scary Brazilian lullabies

10 Brazilian drinks as cool as caipirinha

Cachaças that are worth a meal

Caipirinha – a mix of sugar cane spirit (cachaça), crushed lime, white sugar and ice – is a big hit among foreigners that visit Brazil. It is pretty much everywhere in the country and many Brazilian families own the special wooden mortar used to prepare the beverage. Caipirinha and its variations, such as caipiroska (with vodka) or saquerinha (with sake), are just a tiny sample of popular Brazilian drinks.

Follow me in the discovery of other national specialties. Most of them carry cachaça (also known as pinga, aguardente de cana, caninha or “a brava“/”the nasty one”):

  1. Batidas – This mix of cachaça, fruit, ice and lots of sugar is a favorite in the kiosks that line the Brazilian coast. You name the fruit – maracujá (passion fruit), coco (coconut), morango (strawberry). In fact, caipirinha is just one more type of batida.
  2. Meia de seda (probably named after pantyhose because it is a girlie drink) – Those with a really sweet tooth can try this mix of 1/3 of gin, 1/3 cacao liqueur (made with the fruit, not cocoa), 1 spoon of sugar and cinnamon (some recipes abolish the gin or substitute it by rum). Sort of old-fashioned, a souvenir of the golden fifties. Continue reading 10 Brazilian drinks as cool as caipirinha

Being gay in Rio

Jim (right) and Luiz
Jim (right) and Luiz

Boy meets boy in San Francisco. They live happily ever after (11 years and counting) and at some point, two years ago, decide to move to Niterói, next door to Rio de Janeiro.

This is the story of American Jim and Brazilian Luiz, a globetrotter couple that  is particularly well-positioned to evaluate Brazil’s gay friendliness. “We have always been “out” as individuals and as a couple”, says Jim.  “Living in San Francisco afforded us a tremendous amount of personal freedom to be ourselves and to express our affection for each other in the street and other public places. Throughout our travels (Thailand, Greece, Turkey) we have had to adapt our conscious and unconscious habits around each other to fit the local scene/custom.  Although we generally get spotted as a gay couple because we simply do not edit our every gesture – we are often guilty of looking into each others’ eyes for longer than a brief moment at restaurants and we wear matching wedding bands, for example. We have never had a problem and we have never had to defend ourselves – ever”.

In this interview, Jim Shattuck describes the joys and challenges of his gay experience in Brazil.

Deep Brazil – Rio is considered one of the gay-friendlier cities in the country. Right?

Jim Shattuck – We have found Rio and Niterói to be very gay friendly.  Never a problem.  There are gay people everywhere and everyone else seems to be quite at ease with it all.  Although it could be said that as an older couple we do not attract the attention a younger and flashier couple might. Continue reading Being gay in Rio

The day I saw Mengele

Mengele (left) and colleagues relax between torture sessions

It was the mid-seventies and the military rule was beginning to decline in Brazil. I was nine, traveling with my parents from Rio to São Paulo. We stopped for lunch at Itatiaia, a beautiful national park with a very European climate. There, on the top of a mountain, you can still find a German restaurant that is popular among those who visit the region. We chose a table and I went by myself to the bathroom, in the back of the house. I was walking through a hallway when I noticed, to my right,  a meeting room with a long table surrounded by old men discussing in passionate German. It looked like some sort of reunion. I continued towards the bathroom and, on my way, I bumped into a classy wood cupboard displaying a collection of swastikas. Embroidered, painted, carved, in iron, in wood. I returned to our table livid. I knew that symbol very well.

When I was a kid, I had nightmares with the Holocaust, that killed several great-uncles and half of  my grand-grand-parents. I also received this anonymous phone call from someone menacing me for being a Jew. Living in a dictatorship helped to build up the terror. My family told me not to discuss this subject in public – we knew the government accepted, and probably stimulated, the presence of Nazis in hiding. And let´s not forget that Brazil almost sided with the Germans during World War II and only supported the Allies in the end of the conflict.

Many years later, in 1985, it was revealed that Joseph Mengele, the doctor that performed all sorts of horrendous medical experiments in Auschwitz, lived in Brazil since 1969  and died of drowning in the ocean, in 1979. He spent that last decade in the surroundings of São Paulo, my hometown. It was also revealed that he attended frequent Nazi meetings at the restaurant in Itatiaia.

A picture taken in one of these meetings – one celebrating Hitler´s birthday – helped Nazi hunters to identify Gustav Wagner, an Austrian SS official that was the sub-commandant of the concentration camp of Sobibor, in Poland. Wagner was condemned to the death penalty by the Nuremberg court but fled to Brazil with another official, Franz Stangl. Wagner was arrested in Brazil in 1978 but the country refused to extradite him and he committed suicide.

The memories of that day in Itatiaia still give me chills.

10 wonders of Brazilian cuisine

Brazilian food - tacacá
Selling tacacá in Belém. Photo by Paratur/Wikipedia

You most certainly heard of, or even tasted, churrasco (barbecue) and feijoada (a complex meal that includes a stew of black beans with pork and several side dishes, including rice, collard greans, pealed orange, cassava flour, red pepper sauce and our national distilled beverage, cachaça).

Now, can you tell me what a buchada de bode is? Or pato no tucupi?

Here I list 10 classics, not necessarily easy to digest, but amazing windows to Brazilian culture. The links lead to recipes, whenever possible in English:

  1. Cuscuz – Despite having the same origin as the Moroccan couscous, it looks and tastes way different. In São Paulo, where I come from, it is made with corn flour, olives, tomatoes, eggs, peas, sardines and has the look of a decorated cake.
  2. Barreado – Typical of the coast of the southern state of Paraná, it probably originates from the Portuguese Azores islands. This meat stew served with rice is  prepared in a very peculiar way. It is cooked in a clay pot for around 20 hours – the time needed for the meat fibers to be dissolved in a thick sauce. The pot is layered with banana leaves and its outside is covered with hardened manioc flour paste, in order to avoid the heat to escape. Continue reading 10 wonders of Brazilian cuisine