The great Brazilian composer and musician Tom Jobin famously said, “Brazil is not for beginners.” To be fair, I’m not sure exactly how many countries really are appropriate for beginners, but Brazil can leave a first-time visitor feeling pretty disoriented and overwhelmed.
I made up my mind I’d be spending the (northern) summer of 2016 interning in Rio more than a year before I actually landed here, so I had months to prepare myself for the challenge. Yet as the weeks crept toward my departure date, new things kept piling up: mass panic about Zika, frantic last-minute preparations for the Olympics, massive corruption scandals, a tough recession, and a spiraling political crisis.
I felt like I spent half my time just trying to keep up with the political soap opera and the other half reassuring everyone: no, I wasn’t going to die, get sick, or fall into the bay. I was going to be fine.
I’ve lived abroad and traveled enough in my life that moving to a new city doesn’t faze me, and I’ve gone to and loved enough places with iffy PR that I know better than to blindly accept all the negative coverage as fact. Though I chose a strange time to be here, between the political upheaval and the Olympics, it’s been absolutely worth living in and learning about this beautiful, complex city and country. Still, there are a few things I definitely wish I’d known before exiting customs at Galeão.
I’ve spent almost all of my time in Rio, so, unfortunately, I can only speak to my experience here, and I imagine some of these things may be quite different in other regions. However, here are some of the universal things I wish I’d known before moving to the land of breakfast cake, beautiful views, and delicious cheesy bread:
1. Spanish Will NOT Get You By (Most of the Time)
I objectively knew this well before getting here. I started studying Portuguese about two years ago and learned enough to realize that my Spanish was really only going to apply to grammar rules and some vocabulary. I didn’t end up improving my Portuguese as much as I’d hoped before June came, and I arrived here slightly terrified that I’d be able to read everything perfectly, but wouldn’t actually be able to talk to anyone.
Fortunately, that’s not what happened. While Spanish and Portuguese are structurally quite similar, there are significant enough differences between the two (especially depending on where your Spanish is from) that you can’t just magically understand Brazilians if you speak Spanish. However, once you get the hang of the accent and learn a few simple tricks, Portuguese starts to get a lot easier. (For example, replace the “-ión” ending of a Spanish noun with “-ão” and boom, you’ve got the Portuguese word!)
Having Spanish as a foundation can make learning and improving your Portuguese much easier, as long as you constantly remind yourself that they are different — and until you start getting so used to Portuguese that you start speaking Portuñol instead!
2. I Didn’t Need to Bring Heels
Going out in cities like Bogotá and Buenos Aires is a big deal. You get dressed up, you do your hair, put on makeup, and you definitely wear heels — at least if you’re going out to dance. I didn’t always love the strict expectations about the way women are supposed to look in Colombia, but I definitely internalized some of the rules about acceptable going-out attire. For the record, it is easier to dance salsa in heels! So when I was packing for this summer, I made sure to pack a pair of heels so I wouldn’t look like the one underdressed person in this big international city.
I had no idea how wrong I was. Yes, Rio is a city, but it’s a city on the beach, and people dress much more casually. Of course, there are fancy neighborhoods and clubs that probably expect everyone to show up in dress shoes, and it may be very different in a city like São Paulo, but most of the places I’ve been are fine with sandals, even for dancing. Enjoy the casual dress codes that fit with Rio’s more laid-back vibe.
3. Familiarizing Yourself with Popular Music is a Must
Learning new music is one of my favorite parts of traveling. Brazilian music is so incredibly varied that even experts can’t possibly know all of it — and yet I’ve been amazed at the fact that everyone somehow does seem to know it all.
Whenever I go out and a popular song comes on, every single other person there is singing along to all the words — so much for trying to hide my gringa status! I still haven’t figured out if there are only like 25 songs that ever get played in public or if people really do just have a fantastic memory for lyrics, but either way, I wish I’d spent a bit more time brushing up on my popular Brazilian music so I wouldn’t look like such a lost foreigner.
4. Airplanes Are a Surprisingly Touchy Subject
Did you know that the Wright Brothers actually didn’t invent the airplane? At least, not according to plenty of Brazilians.
In Brazil, the credit for the miracle of modern flight goes to Alberto Santos Dumont, the scion of a wealthy family of coffee growers, who won a competition in France in 1906 by flying his aircraft about 200 feet and more recently made an appearance in the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Games. Brazilians say the Wright Brothers’ use of a catapult was technically cheating, and point to their man as the real pioneer of the plane.
Historians have agreed to disagree on this one, but be careful before bringing up the subject of planes in Brazil unless you’re ready for a lecture on historical inaccuracy.
5. There’s No Such Thing as Too Much History
I had been reading the news pretty carefully before arriving, but the news isn’t really designed to give a full century of context for what’s happening now. Brazil has a fascinatingly complex history from pre-colonization through the end of the military dictatorship. Learning more about the evolution of the country has really helped me start to understand why some things work the way they do (or don’t).
I picked up a book on Brazilian history in my second week here and felt so much more prepared for my work after reading it — I just wish I’d done it a few months earlier!
6. There’s No Right Number of Cheek Kisses
The protocol for cheek kisses is a never-ending source of anxiety for travelers — just when you think you get the hang of it, you go to another country that does it differently. As a cold, emotionless North American, I had just gotten comfortable with the idea of touching a stranger’s cheek after a few years abroad and thought I’d figured out how to avoid being accidentally rude.
But then Brazil had to take things a step further by not even having mathematical consistency within the country. Here in Rio, it’s two kisses — one on each cheek. In São Paulo and other parts of the country, though, it’s only one, while Minas Gerais can’t make up its mind if it’s one or three. So if I meet someone in Rio, it’s supposed to be two kisses — but if they’re from São Paulo, they might only go for one.
This leads to a lot of weird head-bobbing moments when one person is going for the other side while the other person has already moved away and then has to quickly redirect. At this point, I’ve just resigned myself to the fact that I’m going to be accidentally rude once a while until I learn to read minds.
7. The Thumbs-Up Solves Everything
Every country, region, and culture has their own unique gestures and body language. In Colombia, I learned to point with my lips; growing up in the US taught me the power of the high-five. Here, the thumbs-up is the most versatile gesture, appropriate for every occasion, from posing for photos in front of a stadium to getting off a bus. I don’t think my thumbs have gotten this much exercise since back in the day when I had a Blackberry with actual keyboard buttons.
8. Everyone Is a Gringo
In the Spanish-speaking world, “gringo” is usually used to refer to someone from the US or sometimes just someone from an English-speaking country. Some people understandably don’t like the word, but I’ve always felt that the implication really depends on the speaker’s intention — it can definitely be meant as an insult, but can also be affectionate. More often than not, it’s just because “estadounidense” takes forever to say.
I’ve gotten quite used to calling myself a gringa but was surprised to learn that, here in Brazil, I’ve got plenty of company. To Brazilians, a gringo is, well, pretty much anyone who isn’t Brazilian. The term is essentially interchangeable with “foreigner,” so people from places as different as Canada, the Czech Republic, and China could all be considered gringos. I’d imagine it might come as a shock for someone from Mexico to learn that, for the first time in his life, he’s a gringo, too.
9. Expect More Jokes About Argentina
Okay, so anyone who’s ever lived anywhere else in South America knows that Argentines — more specifically, porteños from Buenos Aires — are popular targets for jokes. In the Spanish-speaking world, this makes sense: they have a different accent and way of speaking, plus a reputation for, shall we say, an inflated sense of confidence. In Brazil, though, the language issues don’t apply, so why all the hate for Argentina?
Oh right: soccer. The two superpowers share a decades-long rivalry that has spilled over into plenty of other parts of life, including humor. Most fan songs find a way to bash Argentina — on the metro before Brazil’s gold medal match against Germany, I heard fans loudly singing about Argentine legend Diego Maradona.
You’ll find that people happily share jokes at the expense of Argentines. It’s kind of comforting, in a way, to discover that a simple language barrier hasn’t stopped Brazil from joining in on the continental pastime of mocking their southern neighbors. And speaking of jokes…
10. Nobody Will Judge You for Taking Selfies (But They Might Shove You Out of the Way)
One of the easiest ways to spot tourists in any given location is usually to look for people taking photos of buildings, rocks, and other mundane objects. Not in Brazil.
I’ve seen Brazilians taking selfies in train stations, on beaches, on buses, and in front of buildings that have no visibly exciting characteristics whatsoever. Of course, selfies are a global epidemic, and I’m not suggesting that people in Brazil are necessarily any more into them than people anywhere else in the world — it’s just reassuring to know I’m not the only person Snapchatting my own face in public.
11. Brazilians Are Really, Really Funny
It’s not that this came as a surprise to me, but I hadn’t really spent enough time delving into Brazilian social media to get a sense of just how brutally sarcastic and self-deprecating Brazilians can be. Whether it’s my neighbor cheerfully singing about Brazil’s traumatic 7-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup, or people designing floor rugs featuring the face of an unpopular politician, Brazilian humor is sharp and ruthless, especially when it comes to the two major pastimes of sports and politics.
I’ve been enjoying the jokes when I understand them, but I’ve also learned that I never want to find myself on Brazil’s bad side, like a certain Olympic swimmer recently did.
12. Leave the Extra Gallons of Bug Spray at Home
I’m not generally into the whole blame-the-media game, mostly because I often am the media. But I’m going to place responsibility for this one squarely on all the people who wrote, published, and shared all of those “WE’RE ALL GOING TO GET ZIKA AND DIE!!!!” articles over the last year or so, because that couldn’t be farther from the reality here.
I’m not dismissing the impact of Zika, especially in northeastern Brazil, where the effects have been devastating for many families. I recognize that I’m fortunate enough to live in an area with good sewage treatment, which isn’t the case for many people in Rio and across the country. That being said, winter in a massive city in southeastern Brazil is not exactly peak mosquito territory.
It’s important to take health and safety concerns seriously, but not to the point of letting unfounded fear ruin your travels. I’ve used bug spray probably half a dozen times in two months here, and I haven’t seen any other locals stressing about mosquitos at all. I wish I’d know to leave all that extra Off at home and save the space in my suitcase for something that would actually be useful.
Most of these lessons can apply to many other countries and regions, so hopefully we can all learn from my mistakes and be a little better prepared for the next time we set off, no matter where we’re going.