Monday, May 19, 2014

More Random Advice for Brazil Visitors - São Paulo

With just three weeks to go before the start of the World Cup, I began to think about how people who have never been here before are going to react to various places and occurrences.

I still remember setting foot here in Brazil for the first time—back in 1995 when I was working for Visa risk management. We visited Rio and São Paulo on a tour of banks that were facing large amounts of credit card fraud.  I don’t much remember the banks except for Bradesco and its so-called City of God, the enormous bank campus in Osasco.  It seemed bigger than my American college campus, and BH just told me that it is still growing. It was my first introduction to Brazilian coffee in its tiny cups. I didn’t realize how dangerous it was and every time the uniformed coffee lady came by the meeting room, I accepted another tiny shot. I ended up with blurred vision, a wildly-palpitating heart and a room full of very amused Brazilians.

I also remember moving here in 1998 just at the beginning of the telecom privatization. It is hard to believe but people here used to pay thousands of dollars for a phone line—they were listed as household assets.  I would not call cell phones cheap here now but they don’t cost more than cars either.  I fell in love with Brazil and my Brazilian and look where that’s got me (just kidding, BH!!)

During my first tour of duty here (1998-2001), my artist uncle visited me. He is the closest brother to my mom, though not in distance. He is the closest my family has to crazy-wonderful – he makes art out of found objects, out of Styrofoam, out of paint and mylar and whatever. I am fortunate to own a number of his pieces.  James had been invited here for an art show in Brasilia and stopped in for a few days in São Paulo. I will never forget his visit because of the beauty he saw and the beauty he shared. 

This is as close as you need to get to a favela. From wikipedia

What? Beauty in São Paulo, the mess of concrete, polluted rivers and pothole-marked roads? Yes. Beauty. As I drove him from the airport, my uncle exclaimed at the geometry of the brick, metal and laundry-hung favela shacks. He marveled at the hives of electric wires, the boxy 70s buildings, and the trees popping out of piles of rubbish, growing against all odds. And his comments made me feel good about where I lived, and made me look at it with new eyes. Eyes I forget to look out of sometimes when I am annoyed by the daily life of a big city.

Based on James’ lesson to me about how to see Brazil, here is how I would do Brazil if I were seeing it for the first time:

1.     Expect the unexpected. Or don’t expect it--just enjoy it happening.  Say you get stuck in a two-hour traffic jam. Look around. Don’t get on facebook and complain. Look around at the geometry of that favela, the lady in the next car fixing her hair and ignoring the kids climbing over the back seat. Watch the water rush out of the many creeks and into the river. When the unexpected happens, take advantage, not offense. And if someone starts talking to you at the local bakery, participate. Be part of the country, don’t just visit it.

2.     Be positive. Brazilians will complain about their country. A lot.  My  recommendation is to not jump on that band wagon. It turns out that this will cause offense: while people from here may say “the river is filled with garbage”, they don’t necessarily want the tourists to agree with them. They want someone to say back “well, the trees on the edge seem to like it—I noticed how many flowering trees were there.”  Trust me, this is true. I have been here 6 years and I still sometimes step in the wrong place and people say “if you don’t like it, why don’t you leave?” 

    And please be careful of politics if you are American—the US, at the very least, does not have a sweet-smelling past here.  You may think they want you to agree with their complaints about corruption, or Dilma or whatever, but then you might find yourself on the receiving end of what the CIA did here during the military dictatorship. My advice: smile and say “s*** happens everywhere.”  Especially if you don't know what kind of democracy Brazil has or how justice works here. Listen, smile, and ask questions rather than say statements. Keep those ears open and learn. 

3.     Brazil is more expensive than you think. The pervasive thought about the developing world is that it is cheap. Yes, your dollar and euro is valuable right now but it still will be fighting against an immensely overpriced restaurant industry (São Paulo and Rio), the tax structure of imported goods, and of course the inflation that accompanies the mega event. I suggest keeping it to yourself if you find something very expensive…or very cheap. Unless you are negotiating for a US$500 hammock. Then that is VERY EXPENSIVE and you should complain.  PS You are not necessarily being taken advantage of at every moment. Brazilians pay for stuff through the teeth.

4.     Tip everyone. Okay, maybe not your friends you are visiting. I remember talking about this with a Brazilian friend a couple of years ago. Someone asked if you are supposed to tip the gas station guy for checking the tires or the oil. My Brazilian friend was almost offended—‘of course not! That is part of the service!’ But I always tip. I always go to the same gas station where I have known the attendants for 6 years and I always give them a $2 or a $5 for those services. And I get great service, usually a fun conversation and people who know my car.  I also tip at the grocery store (not necessary), the taxi cab (not necessary and not always—just if the guy has put up with evil twins on a bad day), the waiter who has made my day. It works for me. And it’s not exactly breaking the bank.

5.     If you are going to use your high school Spanish to get by here, make sure you let people know that you realize that Brazil speaks Portuguese not Spanish. Also our capital is Brasilia not Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro. Personally I would highly recommend a quick peruse of Wikipedia to know our population, our president’s name, the size of the economy, and the name of our most famous soccer player (it is not Maradona). Hint: the latter played for the NY Cosmos but is not in fact American as I thought when I was 7 years old.

6.     Skip the favela tour. I hate the favela tour. Why in the world would you do it? They are not animals in cages.

7.     Laugh. As much as you can. Smile at people in the street and say “bom dia” or “boa tarde.” Shrug and let things rolls off you. Let Brazil into your heart.

My two cents. Call it my tip to you.


  1. Do I need to say how much I love this post?
    This is what I am talking about when I say people should use their platforms (blogs, newspapers, magazines) for useful advice.
    Great awesome inteligent and positive post!
    Good job! !!!!!



  2. I really love your advice, especially points 1 and 2.

    I usually tell people not to expect anything. Don't expect that you'll arrive on time. don't expect that anyone will arrive on time. Don't expect things to work. Don't expect things to be as advertised. With no expectations things can only improve from there!

    1. I completely agree on setting also allows people up to feel that surprise of "wow, I loved it!"

  3. I will share this post in my timeline. I always like your point of view living here. And you "discovered" Guaecá, so you are really smart! (lol)

    1. Hah! If I had really "discovered" Guaeca, I would have bought it all up and locked it down for no one else to share ;)

  4. You're great. And you do understand Brazilians!
    Maybe more than ourselves...

    1. There are days where I think I understand Brazil and Brazilians, and there are other days when I am back at square one. :) I think I've got a pretty good handle on São Paulo...but outside is still much a mystery....thanks for the kind words!

  5. I have to add one more comment on the favela tours. I have been historically opposed to this because the bigger tourist ones seem to be people staring at the less fortunate like they are zoo animals (just watch Porta dos Fundos "Pobre" to see what I mean). This started off a long discussion on a Brazil Bloggers page and one of my fellow bloggers (Brazilian Gringo--highly recommended page) ended by passing on to me the site of a favela tour that seems pretty legit. I still don't know how I feel about it personally but if you are going to do it, do it with a group which is owned and run by a favela resident. There you have the best chance of the money going back to the folks who need it.

    Here is the link to Favela Adventures:

    1. I agree with you about the tours. It gives me the impression of a human safari. "Let's go look at the natives in their natural habitat", kind of thing. On the other hand, if it brings more money to the community, by having lunch at a local "prato feito" for example, that must be a good thing, right? So, I'm not entirely sure how to feel about them.

      As for the cost of imported goods, I'm not sure how much that affects people just visiting the country for a couple of weeks. I mean, for many imported items do you *need* to buy when you're on holiday?

    2. Unless they need to replace their Frenchie moisturizer or buy a Sam Adams, they should be okay ;)

  6. "smile and let Brazil into your heart" I absolutely love this quote.

  7. Do you have a Twitter profile? I'd like to share this post as "best of the week" but I'm struggling to find properly identification of yours.

  8. Hi, yes, my twitter profile is at @BrazilinMyEyes.


  9. How wise you view of the brazilians is! I was born in southern Brazil (near the border with Uruguay) and have spent part of my life in the US. There is just one remark I´d like to make: Notwithstanding the fact that Brazil is a 100% single language country, it is culturally VERY diverse. If you go from the north tip of Brazil to the far south you will see regions culturally as different as Belgium and India. So knowing Sao Paulo and Rio does not give you the whole picture.