Expat Insider: Life in Brazil Vs. USA
| Teaching House Nomads Blog
This month Fran gives us the expat insider take on living in Brazil. You know what to post her now, sneakers stuffed with chocolates!
Living in Brazil for three years has taught me a lot. I’ve learned to not sweat the small stuff and had a crash course in patience. I’ve come to realize that a “set” time for something is really a suggestion, that a small gathering means no less than 30 people, and the phrase “It’s complicated” is just another way of saying “let’s change the subject” or “I don’t know how to answer.” Like any location, Brazil has positive and negative attributes, beyond what you might be reading in the news about the impeached President, polluted Olympic waters or Zika. Hence, a few of my favorite – and not-so-adored – things about Brazil:
One of things I hated most about cubicle life in New York was the lack of fresh air. My only access to a beautiful day was the 15 minutes I spent getting the lunch that I would then eat at my desk. Here in Uberaba, my windows are always open to the fresh air and chattering of parrots. There is just something magical to me about letting the outside in – even on the steamiest days. It also reminds me of my college job at WalMart; originally placed at the customer service desk, by springtime I had maneuvered my way into the Lawn and Garden department. While I knew next to nothing about mulch, and constantly mixed up perennials and annuals, I didn’t let that stop me from working outside in the fresh air. In addition, I usually have my mornings free, which I use to work on other projects from my home balcony. I find it extremely motivating to sit outside, nurse my coffee, and read, write, pay bills or address whatever else is on my To-Do list.
Never-Ending Wildlife Sightings
I never tire of seeing toucans. I average one sighting a month, each one with the same level of glee. The locals find my excitement confusing and amusing, while I am equally perplexed as to why they don’t enjoy seeing these comical birds up close. To see these cartoon-like animals calmly perched in a tree in the city center, people-watching and clacking to themselves, is just beyond cool. I also love the neon-green parrots. Brazilians feel about them the way New Yorkers feel about pigeons, and it’s true that come sundown, a flock of them often drown out my classroom conversation. While I have to raise my voice to be heard by my students, I find their chatter charming rather than irritating.
Less seen are small monkeys and capivaras. The former frequent the outskirts of town and the many fazendas (farms) that surround Uberaba. Capivaras also exist in these places, I’m told, but I’ve only seen them in one of the city’s park. Just like toucans, they are funny-looking beasts that I haven’t grown tired of looking at. As a city-bred gal, I don’t think I will ever tire of seeing animals – especially tropical ones – out and about in Uberaba.
The family unit in Brazil is a living, breathing entity all its own. Brothers, sisters, real cousins and “cousins” who aren’t related to anyone, but are treated with the same love and inclusion as a blood-relation. There’s no such thing, really, as a step-brother or half-sister in Brazil – you’re siblings or you’re not. The result is that you’re never really alone here, and there’s always someone to help with a project. Family here help each other without the necessary cajoling or trade-offs I’ve sometimes observed in the U.S.. Perhaps that’s because in the U.S., it’s easy to hire someone at an affordable rate to help you with whatever project you’re into at the moment – where as in Brazil, that’s less common. Still, it’s really nice to know that if you need assistance with something, you’re guaranteed to have someone show up, no strings or complaints attached.
You haven’t had meat until you’ve had it in this part of Brazil. Sadly, the closest most foreigners come to a Brazilian BBQ is at an overpriced, average restaurant in the U.S. or at a tourist area in Brazil. But if you want REAL Brazilian churrasco (BBQ), make your way to the state of Minas Gerais, specifically the “Triangulo Mineiro” area, for some life-changing, mouth-watering meat. And carne shares the spotlight with some other Brazilian delights, such as pão de alho, which translates into “garlic bread,” but is so much more. Also, grilled pineapple with cinnamon. I was never one to consider fruit a proper dessert, but the way this sweet dream melts in your mouth is not to be missed.
A word on sweets: Most Brazilians gravitate towards creamy-milky type confections. That’s not my thing – I’m a chocolate girl. Which is why I think brigadeiro are sincerely Brazil’s gift to the world. They are made with just 3-4 ingredients and are heavenly. Cheese is also a bit of a religion in Brazil – and our part of Brazil has some of the best. This is not false bravado; ask any Brazilian and they will confirm that the meat and cheese in Minas is among the best in Brazil. Incidentally, if you have the opportunity to by cheese from a fazenda, do it. You won’t regret it. Lastly, as someone who was NOT raised on rice and beans, I don’t care about them one way or the other; I could go a whole year without eating either one. But the rice and beans here are pretty tasty – so if that’s your thing, don’t miss it.
Brazilians are some of the most welcoming people I’ve met in my global travels. However, the country does come with its host of challenges that aren’t represented on a brief visit, but usually emerge after a lengthier stay:
Man, Do I Miss Customer Service:
This ubiquitous phrase means “I don’t know” in Portuguese, and has been a response to almost all questions I have asked salespeople, bank tellers, police men, and other supposedly helpful people.
On countless occasions, I have gotten turned around on the twisty streets of Uberaba, and had to ask someone for directions from a lady sweeping in front of her house or a shop owner. “Não sei” would be their response to the location that turned out to literally be around the corner or across the street. Any time I have had to call a Brazilian airline or car rental company, their “customer service” people have been the opposite of helpful. At a department store, I once tried to buy a toaster – in cash – and the salesman wouldn’t sell it to me because I didn’t have a CPF (a Brazilian ID number) at the time. (Just as an aside, it’s interesting that, in the U.S., you can easily buy a gun, but in Brazil, you can barely buy a toaster. But that’s for another post.) I could amuse you with more ridiculous examples, but I think you get the point. Customer service is sorely lacking in Brazil. In the U.S., we often complain about “outsourced” customer service people who “can’t speak English;” I assure you that these people are at least trying, and would never, ever respond “Não sei.”
Conviction vs. Reality
At least one a month, I find myself in a conversation with a Brazilian that goes something like this:
Brazilian: “Oh, you’re going to XYZ? It’s beautiful/dangerous/ugly/amazing.”
Me: “Oh you’ve been there? Great. Do you have some suggestions?”
B: “Oh no, I’ve never been.”
Me: “Uh, then how do you know what it’s like?”
B: “I’ve heard.”
Me: “Cool. From your friend/brother/family member – they’ve been there?”
B: “No. I’ve just heard”
Brazilians that I’ve spoken to seem to be very ardent in their opinions about places they’ve never been. Word-of-mouth is still king here, especially in smaller cities far from Rio and Sao Paulo. This is a great thing for say, work, or spreading news about an event. It’s less helpful when one person forms a negative opinion about a place for some reason, and passes that opinion on, and before you know it, a telephone-style rumor is taken as gospel. This is especially true when it comes to safety. Brazil is definitely not the safest place in the world, but the entire country is also not full of flavelas and gangs, despite what you might believe from CNN. Still, Brazilians are extremely cautious when it comes to safety, and will warn foreigners to such an extent that they often scare people unnecessarily. It’s true that you shouldn’t wave your iPhone6 around, or wear your most expensive jewelry. But Brazil isn’t quite the war-zone western media would have you believe. So when a Brazilian waxes poetic about a location, or sternly warns you off a city, ask if they – or anyone they know – has been there, before taking their advice to heart.
Think about a time when you were on line at your local supermarket, and the check-out person was so slow that you found yourself mildly irritated. Now, multiply that by ten, and it doesn’t even some close to how slow things move here. When I go to the supermarket, I listen to a podcast or read a book while I wait online. The concept of “running in to get a few things” doesn’t exist here. Every single time I have been on line to pay somewhere, and another person starts to speaking my cashier, they stop what they are doing (to have a conversation), before returning to their work. There could be 15 people on line – no matter. Multitasking is also not a thing here. I suppose there is something to be said for giving your full attention to a given task. However, I still haven’t gotten used to people not being able to at least do two things at once.
Prices in Brazil just make no sense. The country places a massive import tax on all foreign items, so Nikes are almost US$400, and the same computer that was made in China and costs $300 in the U.S. will cost four times that here. During high season, the tourist industry also jacks up prices to a ridiculous level. Of course, this happens elsewhere, but usually at two or maybe three times the normal rate. Here in Brazil, prices for hotels and such soar to five or six times the normal rate. In fact, it’s often cheaper for Brazilians to travel outside of their own country – even fly to the U.S. – then take their vacations at their own beautiful location. Inflation is also a big problem here, and you notice it in the most random of things. Bread, for example. In the short time I have been living here, I have watched the price of rolls increase from US$0.15 to $2.00. That seems excessive, doesn’t it? Or ice cream, which went from US$0.50 during my first year here to US$3.00 in just three years. Brazil’s political corruption is global news these days, so this probably doesn’t come as any big surprise. Still, I miss the seemingly logical way most things are priced in the U.S. (minus apartment rentals in places like New York City!).
Yes, Brazilian food is yummy. However, my New York City palate sometimes craves a little Pad Thai or Daal Puri. Brazilians aren’t very adventurous when it comes to food, and outside of Sao Paulo and small pockets in Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte and other large cities, it’s very difficult to find authentic, affordable ethnic food. Two years ago, an “Arabic” restaurant opened in my city, leaving me giddy with joy. However, my bubble was soon burst when I was served “falafel” that was really just the Brazilian “Kibbe” in disguise. This is very common in many areas in Brazil: A restaurant touts one type of food, but the actual meal that arrives at your table is just Brazilian food with a “special” sauce or extra ingredient. When I used to travel to other countries, I would meticulously research dining options. I have long stopped trying to do that in Brazil, either because the “ethnic” restaurant is really just Brazilian food in drag, or because there just isn’t any variety. My recent trip to a beach resort area revealed no less than 50 restaurants in the very tiny main village. Yet, while all the restaurants looked different, their menus were literally replicas of each other, both in options and price. Plus, the majority of sushi in Brazil is served with cheese; need I say more? As a short-term traveler here, you will be gorging on meat and cheese, so you will leave Brazil satiated. As an expat living someplace other than big cities like Sao Paulo, it’s best to manage your dining expectations, or learn to cook it yourself.
All in all, I love living in Uberaba. No place is perfect, but setting up residence in this city of 350,000 has given me an authentic experience that I never would have understood living in a larger Brazilian city.