Having now lived in Brazil on two separate occasions, the first for two months and the second for five, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what it was like living in South America’s largest and only Portuguese-speaking country. Although I had some travel experience, I had never lived anywhere besides the US, and Brazil definitely requires some getting used to. So, here are my reflections on life in Brazil and 7 things I wish I had known before visiting Brazil (the first time—the second time required remarkably less adjustment, naturally).
I had studied Portuguese for over a year before living in Brazil for the first time. However, I wasn’t expecting just how hard it is to find English in Brazil. Menus in English are pretty rare and if you choose to use Uber to get around in the big cities (which is definitely the cheapest, safest and quickest option), you’ll want to at least know a few common phrases. Plus, I think it’s just generally a good idea to try and speak some of the local language when traveling.
And no, they don’t speak Spanish in Brazil, so please, when thanking anyone, say obrigado and not gracias. The good thing is, Brazilians are some of the most friendly and tolerant people in the world, so they’ll compliment you on your Portuguese even if you only know three or four phrases!
When talking about visiting Brazil, everyone seems to gravitate to either Rio de Janeiro, Iguaçu Falls or the Amazon. Many forget about São Paulo, and those that mention it consider it a city to pass through. However, after living in São Paulo on two separate occasions, I can say that São Paulo is actually an amazing place to visit, and is, in fact, my favorite city in the entire world. Naturally, as the largest city in South America, São Paulo always has something to do, from free concerts on Sundays on Avenida Paulista to a massive churro festival at the Memorial da América Latina.
It’s also unbelievably diverse—as host to the largest Japanese, Lebanese and Italian populations outside of Japan, Lebanon and Italy, São Paulo is a melting pot featuring incredible food and multi-cultural experiences! It’s one of the best museum cities I’ve ever been to and is a great place for architecture and street art lovers. São Paulo has something for everyone and is definitely worth visiting, despite its somewhat negative preconceptions. It’s the underrated city that will take your Brazilian experience to the next level!
On one of my first nights out in Brazil, I remember seeing tons of people holding beer and liquor bottles drinking on the streets, as well as street vendors selling every drink imaginable. Coming from the US, this seemed very strange and unnatural to me, but I quickly realized that it’s an important part of the culture in Brazil, especially during festivals like Carnaval. So don’t be afraid to grab a Skol or Catuaba from one of the street vendors and drink in the streets with the locals—it’s completely normal and will help you feel more Brazilian, too!
Yes, I knew Brazil was massive before visiting—it takes just a quick glance at a map to figure this out. However, I didn’t realize just how huge it is. In fact, Brazil is the size of the United States without Alaska! This means two things: there is a seemingly unlimited number of places for you to visit, but (unfortunately) it can be difficult to get from place to place. There are long-distance buses which are very safe, comfortable and generally affordable, but they take a lot of time out of your trip (to give you an idea, it takes around 6 hours by bus to travel between Rio and São Paulo, two of the closest major cities).
Besides that, flying is really your only option. However, if you book in advance and check promotions (GOL and Azul always have weekly sales), you can usually find reasonable flights. And there are so many places for you to fly! Beyond the most well-known destinations (Rio, Iguaçu Falls, the Amazon), you can visit the Northeast’s pristine beaches, the Pantanal to see incredible nature and wildlife, Minas Gerais and its colonial mining towns, and much more.
Compared to many other Latin American countries, you won’t see as much street food as you explore Brazil’s streets. However, just because it’s not as prevalent doesn’t mean it isn’t as good! Being the two largest cities, Rio and São Paulo are fantastic places to find some of the country’s best street food. Two of my favorite São Paulo staples are the pastel de feira and hot dog (pronounced hot-chee dog-ee in Portuguese). Each neighborhood in São Paulo has its weekly feira, a farmer’s market that closes down streets one day per week (the day varies by neighborhood) where vendors sell fresh produce, meat, fish and other items.
However, there are always pastel stands selling pastéis, fried dough pockets with savory fillings from calabresa e catupiry (an Italian-style sausage with a Brazilian cream cheese) to frango e milho (chicken and corn). They’re usually 5 reais each (US$1.50 in July 2017) and massive—grab a glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice (caldo de cana) for 3 reais and you have the best street lunch in São Paulo!
Another awesome street food found all over the country but especially popular in São Paulo are hot dogs, but these are not like any hot dogs you’ve ever had in your life. Many hot dog trucks pop up around popular bars and clubs for a post-drinking snack, and they’re actually multiple sausages served in a sliced-open roll with tons of toppings (seriously, there’s a list of toppings from different cheeses to fried potato strings to corn and you just choose the toppings you don’t want)—this is a knife and fork type hot dog. The best one I tried was at Dog do Betão, a truck which appears after 9 or 10 pm Thursday-Saturday at the corner of Rua Ministro Godói and Avenida Sumaré in Perdizes—it’s slightly out of the way, but so worth it. For 14 reais you get one with all the toppings, and it’s honestly big enough to split among four people!
This might only be applicable if you’re staying in Brazil for a longer period of time, but given the current political situation and Brazilians’ overwhelming disapproval and disappointment with most politicians and their corruption, national strikes (known as greve geral) and protests (manifestações) are common, not just in big cities but also in smaller towns around the country.
During my last greve geral, I was lucky to be at Inhotim, a massive modern art/botanical garden park in the middle of nowhere (which happens to also be one of the coolest places I’ve ever been), so it didn’t affect me, but usually you’ll find many businesses closed, public transportation stopped, and even flights cancelled. Protests, while great ways for the Brazilian population to voice their concerns and anger with the government, can sometimes become violent, so it’s best to avoid them (in São Paulo, most occur on Avenida Paulista, and in Rio, they’re commonly in Centro near Cinelândia).
Saudade is one of those words that doesn’t really have a good translation in English, but it can be described as the feeling of longing or nostalgia for something you once had but no longer have. They say that visiting Brazil gives you so much saudade that you want to come back before you even leave—that’s exactly how I felt, and every day since leaving Brazil, I seriously can’t stop thinking about returning to Brazil. Brazil infected me with saudade, and all I can say is that no place seems as incredible to me after having visited and lived in Brazil. Now, it’s just a question of when I’ll be back, and I’m going to make sure it’s assim que for possível—as soon as possible.
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