As my biggest getaway of 2016, I spent plenty of time meticulously planning my six week trip to Brazil. And yet for all my research and reading, nothing can actually prepare you for the culture shock of completely immersing yourself in a new country, new language, and new lifestyle.
So many aspects of Brazil took me completely by surprise — both good and bad! While I’ve sprinkled in plenty of stray observations throughout my coverage, here are a few final thoughts on the biggest bombshells of my trip. Of course, in the end these are just the musings of a tourist — my experience was shaded heavily by my luck and by my mood. Others might have a different take. Brazilians, feel free to set me straight if I’ve misinterpreted your culture in any way.
How safe we felt
One of our pleasant surprises of the trip was how comfortable Heather and I felt as two women traveling alone through what is often considered a very dangerous county. I should note that we had very low expectations in this regard. Stories of theft in Brazil are so rampant that I literally considered buying a backup iPhone before this trip, because that’s how much I had pre-accepted that I was going to be robbed blind. My first day in São Paulo was a hilarious wake up call that I really needed to chill.
While we were constantly — like literally, constantly — warned by everyone we encountered to be careful with our cameras (to which we were like, yeah, duh), we were vigilant and cautious and had zero issues and really felt surprisingly safe and secure throughout our time in Brazil, with a few uneasy but brief exceptions. Of course many travelers do experience crime in this country, hence the constant warnings, but our experience was a reminder that there are plenty of travelers who move through the country grief-free, too.
How no one gave a flip about Zika
Our trip was at the HEIGHT of Zika mania. My dad, a busy CEO who probably isn’t really sure what country I am in the vast majority of the time, called me specifically to ask if I might consider postponing or canceling my trip — Heather’s parents did the same.
So I arrived half-expecting some sort of Hazmat-covered country under quarantine. And seriously? No one cared. No. one. cared. The first few times Heather or I casually brought up Zika to Brazilians, they looked at us like we were paranoid nutjobs. When we told them that Zika was still headline news every night in the US, they were baffled. “Oh yes, Zika. I had it last year. Dengue is much worse,” a doctor we met at Tomorrowland told us flippantly before casually ordering up another caipirinha. As someone who is kind of the opposite of a hypochondriac, I found the whole attitude very refreshing.
Also? We literally did not see one mosquito. Anywhere. Ironically, our two biggest fears before arriving in Brazil could not have been less of an issue.
How hard it was to communicate
Yet the thing I didn’t think to fear left me so frustrated I nearly flew home early. Living in Thailand, a country where I speak no more than a pitiful few throwaway phrases in the country’s notoriously difficult and tonal language, I have done plenty of pantomiming and getting by with little-to-no shared vocabulary. I’ve traveled to 37 countries now and before Brazil, communication has never been an issue beyond a passing flicker of frustration — I certainly never imagined that a language barrier would negatively influence one of my trips.
It started with a very misplaced sense of confidence. I like to classify myself as a “blissfully barely-competent Spanish speaker.” Which is a winking way of saying that while I’m far from fluent, I love speaking Spanish and embrace the challenge with gusto, never letting an improperly conjugated verb get in the way of a productive conversation in Latin America. And I thought, how different can Spanish and Portuguese be?
Ha! That false sense of security was only heightened by the planning stage of our trip, in which I was able to fairly easily understand several all-Portuguese websites. Oh, how naive I was! I’d soon learn that written Portuguese and spoken Portuguese are two entirely different beasts. While the former is quite similar to its Spanish cousin, the ladder was unlike anything I’d ever heard. “When we first boarded our plan to Brazil for Argentina, we wondered why they were giving the announcements in Russian,” confessed my Israeli travel companions in Jericoacoara. At the risk of offending my Portuguese-speaking readers, the primary adjective I’d use to describe Brazilian Portuguese was mushy. Without the sharp clarifying corners I’d grown to love in the Spanish language, I couldn’t even pick up the different words when spoken to in Brazilian Portuguese. And again, I greatly hesitate to write this and offend any Portuguese speaking readers, but the truth is the language didn’t agree with my ears. In the same way that some people’s taste buds are predisposed to certain foods, the sound of different languages appeal to different people. Portuguese just isn’t my jam.
Of course, I accept full responsibility for not knowing more than the basic guidebook phrases when I arrived in Brazil. Translation apps can only go so far, and I should have been better prepared.
But regardless, you must be thinking, surely there are plenty of Brazilians who speak English? Nao muitos! Studies claim only 3% of Brazilians speak English as a second language. And I found that those who might were extremely reluctant to speak it.
In Southeast Asia, for comparison, my experience has been that there is no expectation among locals that foreigners will speak Thai, Khmer, or Laotian. Fluency in English is also a rare trait in this region, though communication between traveler and local is generally light-hearted and earnest. There’s a sense of, we’re in this together, and neither of us is leaving until we figure out how many papayas I want to buy and how much you’re going to charge me for them, gosh darn it.
But I found that in Brazil, it was harder to get anyone to even attempt to communicate — my apologetic English or hapless attempts at Portuguese were frequently met with terror, blank stares, and the person I was speaking to simply walking away from me. At Tomorrowland Brazil, I was unable to hear an employee at the information booth’s hesitant reply to me in English due to the loud music playing; when I asked her to repeat herself, she shook her head over and over again in mortified horror until I finally gave up and walked away. In Duty Free at São Paulo’s international airport, multiple employees practically sprinted from me in fear when I, again, always apologetically, requested assistance in English. When I wrote emails to hostels with English websites, they went unanswered. And more than once, I called a business and was told harshly, in perfect English, “we don’t speak any English,” before being hung up on. Needless to say my attempts to politely ask, “puedo hablar in Español?” were, with a few exceptions, also a giant flop.
I don’t think any of the people — just a few random examples plucked from six weeks of exasperation — were trying to be rude or unhelpful (in fact, the Brazilians we met who were comfortable speaking English were overwhelmingly warm and bubbly.) It was explained to me that many Brazilians are simply embarrassed by their lack of English abilities. In fact, one Brazilian I met explained that the reason we’d encountered so many domestic travelers at the hostels we stayed at was that Brazilians are often hesitant to travel to other countries, given their limited English abilities. It affects not just travel but business, too. And while many articles I’ve read in researching the lack of English speaking in Brazil assured me that locals would go out of their way to help me despite our lack of shared languages, I unfortunately did not find that to be the case. Maybe we just had bad luck.
Heather and I spent a lot of time reflecting on why we personally found the language barrier in Brazil so upsetting. We met quite a few men on the road (women traveling without male companions in Brazil were rare from our observation) who were basically like, “ha ha yeah we don’t understand anything! Who cares!”
Is it that as women we have to be more concerned about our physical safety? Is it that we are highly attuned to being talked over and brushed off? Do we just find communication to be more important? Whatever it was, I found myself very on edge knowing that I was unable to express myself in the local language, and that if I were to try to use body language or, heaven forbid, my mother tongue, I’d clear the room. I felt invisible and vulnerable in a way I never have before while traveling.
The champagne campaign
On a lighter note, I couldn’t believe how much Brazilians LOVE bubbly. I was extremely onboard with this. Tomorrowland Brasil had more champagne tents than beer ones, our brunch restaurant in Rio de Janeiro had a DIY Bubbles Bar for creative mimosas, and at three out of the five hotels I stayed at on the trip, sparkling wine was handed to us at check-in — at in some cases, again at check-out!
How diverse it is
One thing that struck me immediately is how many nationalities Brazil encompasses, especially coming from uber-homogonous Thailand. Brazil is enormous and incredibly ethnically diverse, and there is no one way to look Brazilian.
From the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, German-descended Brazilians of the south to the Afro-Caribbean Brazilians of the northeast to the indigenous tribes of the Amazon and everyone inbetween, Brazil is a really beautiful mosaic of different faces.
What novelties we were
I mean hello — this is the country that has hosted the World Cup and the Olympics in just a few short years! Surely a few blonde gringas wandering around would be no big deal? Yet even in one of the most famous cities in the world, we were blessed with some very authentic little interactions that reminded us that we were a fairly exotic sight to some, and provided a sweet and refreshing counter-point to the frustrating anecdotes I outlined above.
It started with the dozens of Brazilians whose eyes lit up with excitement when they saw the American flag I was waving at Tomorrowland and came over to give me a high five — a refreshing reaction, as a citizen of a country that tends to take a lot of international flack.
And it continued with the hilarious National Park Ranger at Christo Redentor who whipped out a notebook and solemnly quizzed us on random English slang and insults after hearing us chatting; furrowing his brow and taking detailed notes at each of our replies. The employees at the pet supply shop it Botafogo who were very indiscreetly taking photos of us with their cell phone until we started chatting in broken Spanish and showing them pictures of our dogs, at which point they dropped the secrecy and each took turns taking photos with us and shyly gifting each of us a special free dog toy to bring home to our pups. The man in the favela who waved us over and insisted I try his BBQ meat straight off the grill, wanting only a smile in return. The salesgirl who sold me a $12 dress and gave me a huge, heart-felt hug before I left the store.
The Uber driver who saved us from disaster and drove us all the way from Rio to Buzios, calling everyone in his phonebook and excitedly repeating the same story — we got the gist of it when we heard “Americanos!” sprinkled in over and over again. Though he didn’t speak a single word of English, he chivalrously tried to be of assistance when we stopped at a rest area for snacks, hugged and kissed us when we got to Buzios, and looked back at his star fares with pride as he started the long three-hour drive back to Rio.
How much I loved São Paulo
While planning this trip I kind of considered São Paulo a necessary evil; a place we had to fly into and out of and stop in on the way to and from Tomorrowland. And yet it literally turned out to be one of my top two favorite destinations of the trip (alongside Jericoacoara, its polar opposite).However, while São Paulo might have been the greatest surprise, all the destinations I visited were great in their own ways. There’s not one stop on our trip that was a disappointment in and of itself, though some were somewhat marred by terrible weather and other circumstances.
I originally only planned four nights in São Paulo, but it was long enough to have lingering moments of wondering what it might be like to move there. (And also to my great surprise, I never once had that “if I lived here…” daydream in Rio.) I loved South America’s largest city so much, however, that I ended up stopping there for three more nights on my way back out of the country.
I spent most of it chilling out and reflecting on the six weeks behind me and little else (hence the lack of a blog post on this time), and what a better place to do so than Hotel Unique, where I wildly splurged on one last night of luxury. One of the most architecturally distinctive hotels I’ve ever stayed in, Hotel Unique summed up the cutting edge art, stylish design and bold style that made me fall for São Paulo in the first place — what a perfect note to say goodbye to the city, and the country, on.
The crazy kissing culture
Heather and I didn’t go out much for the first five weeks we were traveling together (my final week, when I was itinerary-less in Jericoacoara, I let loose a bit more.) However, we had one big night out in Rio and one big night out in Buzios, and both of them had one common theme — we were fending off random liplocks left and right!
In Buzios, we actually ended up chatting to a group of guys away on a bachelor weekend who spoke great English, and playfully confronted them about the apparent Brazilian preference for kissing first, asking names second. They conceded with a laugh that it was true, but countered with a scandalized observation of their own. “But American women… it’s crazy… they dance like they want to [redacted term for intimate activities]!”
The finer nuances of twerking, it seems, have not reached the shores of Brazil. We couldn’t stop laughing. But it’s true — in the US, it’s fairly common sight in nightclubs for people to wordlessly approach each other and dance pretty intimately, which we were learning was as shocking to Brazilians as their saying-hi-with-a-snog was to us.
That Brazil is not a year-round tropical paradise
Perhaps some of you will read this and say “duh.” But Heather and I were ridiculously unprepared for the weather we encountered throughout April and May in Brazil, which is their autumn. Our first week was glorious (residents of São Paulo complained of a heatwave but it felt great to us!), our second was a disaster (it downpoured in Paraty non-stop for days), and the two weeks that followed were mostly nice with a few full days of rain tossed in to keep us on our toes. We had to cancel a bunch of activities as a result, which was a bummer.
However, the larger issue is that we were just completely unprepared for the evening temperatures. During the day, these two Southeast-Asia expats were happy and smiling in sleeveless tops and sundresses. But as soon as the sun went down at 5:30pm, the temperature would drop down to the fifties — omg! — and we would literally be sent into a frenzied cold panic. Neither of us had anything more substantial than jeans and a cardigan, and I kid you not when I say there were multiple people in Paraty wearing puffy coats and winter hats to keep warm. There were many days where we’d make big plans to go out for a few drinks in the evening and as soon as we felt that chill in the air we would freak out, run back to our rooms, put on as many layers and possible, make ourselves into bedding burritos and wish for for the warmth of the sun until morning. Dramatic? Abso-freaking-lutely. But there is very little that I loathe more than being cold — I’ve literally designed my entire life around avoiding it. And I didn’t do a very good job in Brazil.
Don’t let the pictures of palm trees fool you. Brazil is an enormous country with four seasons and a major range of eco-systems. Do your research and pack accordingly!
How carefully you need to pack
In addition to the weather wake-up call above, we also discovered a few other surprises that make packing well essential for a happy trip to Brazil. First of all? Laundry is surprisingly tough to do. Hostels don’t offer per-kilo laundry service like travelers might be used to in Southeast Asia or other parts of Latin America, and laundromats are few and far between.
Second? Electronics are insanely taxed and tough to track down. For long trips, bring extra camera batteries, a spare laptop chargers, the works. I got the shock of my life when my MacBook charger fried and it was going to cost a cool $17oUSD to replace it. No joke! I heard at least one Brazilian explain that Apple products in particular are harshly marked up by both authorized and off-the-books retailers — one of the reasons iPhones are one of the prime targets for street snatchings.
How few backpackers we met
I’ve touched on this before, but in our weeks of traveling through Brazil, I was absolutely blown away by the lack of English-speaking travelers we encountered (which meant, compounded with our issues communicating with locals, Heather and I got to have a lot of deep and meaningful conversations with each other. I’m pretty sure she was ready to never, ever hear the sound of my voice again by the time she headed home.)
Having experienced the Gringo Trail full blast in Peru and Ecuador and throughout Central America, I found it baffling at first. Hello… where are all the battered-passport, backpack-toting Europeans, Australians, and North Americans on long haul trips around the continent?! Where are the retirees in zip-off pants? Where are the honeymooners? I didn’t find a heavy concentration of any of them, or any sort of traditional backpacker scene, until I hit Jericoacoara.
Why? Brazil has more visa restrictions than its neighboring countries, it is bigger and more expensive and thus a bit more intimidating to travel. Plus, six of the seven hostels I stayed in throughout my six weeks in Brazil were overwhelmingly populated by domestic Brazilian travelers. The cool thing is that the Brazilians staying in hostels are more likely than the rest of the population to speak a bit of English, and getting to bond with locals who are also traveling is pretty unique and fun — I went to the beach and to dinner with Brazilians in Jeri, we partied with Brazilians at Tomorrowland and I had some awesome chats over breakfast with Brazilians in São Paulo. However, those were kind of the exceptions and for the most part, everyone in the hostels spoke Portuguese and it was hard to break into that clique as an English speaker. Speaking Spanish does help, as many non-domestic travelers hail from neighboring Spanish-speaking countries, specifically Argentina.
Typically I love traveling alone, however in this case I was incredibly grateful to be on the road with Heather for the majority of my trip, lest I feel totally linguistically isolated from the world for six weeks straight.
How unique the beach culture was
As a certified beach girl, I thought I knew a think or two about spending a day on the sand. Nah. Brazilians have the most unique beach culture I’ve encountered anywhere in the world — I wrote a whole post about it! People always talk about how Brazilians can teach the world a thing or two about how to party. I think they can also show us how to go to the beach!
How tough it was to get a visa
Seriously, hats off to those of you who have to go through the difficult process of procuring a visa for every country you travel to. As a US citizen, most of the visas I’ve applied for in my life have been because I have desired to stay in a specific country longer than the standard visa-waiver would allow. And while they’ve often been a headache to procure, Brazil was the biggest eye opener by far.
First, I had to travel in-person to Bangkok to apply, and by that point I’d already gone back and forth with the embassy multiple times with questions about the application questions and procedure and other logistical issues. The amount of information I had to procure was astounding and I felt like I had assembled approximately twenty-seven documents by the time I was finished. My appointment was stressful, with my interviewer grilling me on minute details of my trip, cross checking my application with Heather’s (who had gone in separately) and berated me for not photocopying my passport ahead of time to the point that I broke down after my appointment worried that my application was going to be denied.
And it was expensive! The whole shebang set me back about $230, not including the cost of a trip to Bangkok, where thankfully I was going to be anyway. I was definitely left with a newfound respect for my fellow travelers who have to cut through this much red tape and more for every trip.
Have you been to Brazil? If so, what surprised you about your trip? If not, which of these would catch you off guard?