First Impressions: What to Expect Upon Arrival to Brazil

November 30, 2010

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Note: This post was written seven months before being published here.

LOCATION: Outside Campo Grande, the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil

Brazil is new to me in every way. I have limited knowledge of it’s history, economy, gastronomy, geography, people, culture, and language—and it shows. Though my first week has been filled with non-stop hospitality and memorable moments ranging from sun-soaked swampscapes to my first real samba bar, it’s also been a wreck of miscommunications, jumbled Portañol (like Spanglish, but Portuguese and Español), and general awe at how different this South American country can be from all the rest. Below are some of my first impressions of the land that has proven to be everything and nothing like I expected.

Cold is Never Cold Enough: Brazilians are temperature sensitive. The following restaurant scene is common: when a patron orders a drink he asks with great concern if it’s cold (bem gelada). The waiter, now used to this dance, responds with equally great concern that the drink is indeed cold, perhaps even points to refrigerator temperature gauge that announces its Antarctic inside to the outside world. Later, like a doctor introducing a mother to her new-born infant, the waiter holds out said drink so said patron can approve of its coldness with a touch, setting it on the table only if its near frozen state is fully approved. This happens with every drink. After Peru and Bolivia’s shade-cooled drinks I appreciate this quirky Brazilian game and will incorporate it into all my drinking endeavors.

Portuguese is NOT Spanish: I’ve taken for granted that my many years of language study have allowed me to float effortlessly through Spanish-speaking South America. This is not the case in Portuguese-speaking Brazil. Though Portuguese and Spanish are linguistically 89 percent the same, my brain is currently stuck on the 11 percent that is different. For lack of vocabulary my conversations are basic, my words to the point, without poetry, without extra fat. Thankfully though Brazilians are patient with Portuguese learners and generally speak slower when they see my face scrunch up like a shar-pe. I realize too that I’m very self-critical. Six days into Brazil my skills have improved dramatically. I’ve gone from miming orders in restaurants to explaining movie plots to Couchsurfing hosts, though not as fluidly as I’d like. With practice I feel fluency is just around the corner.

Brazilians Look Like You: Are you Asian? Middle Eastern? Black? Indian? White? A freckled red-head? If you’re human, chances are you have a twin walking the somewhere streets of Brazil. This enormous country that covers 50 percent of South America and contains over 50 percent of the continent’s population is a melting pot of immigrants that have mixed over generations to produce a uniquely multi-ethnic and tolerant society. Though racism exists the same as it does in every country, societal problems tend to be rooted more in the growing gap between the rich and poor than who has more or less melatonin in their skin. If I’m not with Bob & Surly—who are a dead give-away of my foreigness; few Brazilians would bike a continent—, I’m perceived as just another brasileiro until I open my mouth.

Brazil is Expensive: Cyclists steer clear of Brazil for many reasons—a dangerous reputation cultivated by movies like The City of God, the modern highway system that encourages drivers to bullet by at excessive speeds, the overwhelming size of the country itself—but mostly because you get less bang for your buck. Food prices are similar to those in the United States. Basic lodging costs are ten times more than in Bolivia. The odd bus ride sets you back the equivalent of two weeks of bike travel in Peru. Brazil’s shopping malls and fancy cars are a shiny world away from even Bolivia’s wealthiest areas. Thanks to Brazil’s economic successes I’m on a strict camping and cook-stove regiment outside the cities, but plan to splurge a bit with urban Couchsurfers. My first samba night was expensive, but it’s samba, and this is Brazil for Surlysake. I plan to balance the bike life with all that this culturally-rich country has to offer, no matter the cost.

Brazilians are Nice: My first day in Brazil went like this: pedaled across border, bought onions at market, was gifted a bag of tomatoes and several bananas; pedal, stop, bought one popsicle, was gifted seven (!); pedal, stop, asked for water at a country home, was gifted fresh-squeezed orange juice with ice; pedal, stop, talked to country boys, was gifted cold beer and many oranges; pedal, stop, asked for a place to put my tent, was given dinner (and later breakfast) and a bed in which to rest. Brazilians are killing me with kindness. No matter how much I tell them I’m not homeless, broke, or mentally-ill they insist in giving me free food/housing. Not only are they generous, they’re happy like no other population I’ve come across. The clinically-depressed should be sent here—the Brazilian joy for life is contagious. Men enter a room and shake everyone’s hand before going about their business. They look you in the eye when speaking and wait for to finish your thought before adding theirs. They have impeccable table manners. They cover their mouths when they cough. They never leave the house without checking their hair. They keep their shoes spotless. You get the idea. In conclusion, Brazilians are nice.

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