A week before our trip to Brazil, my girlfriend turned to one of our friends – a Brazilian – and asked what he thought that others would think when they saw me in Brazil. He smiled, and replied ‘a target’. The word ‘gringo’ literally means ‘foreigner’ and while it can be used in a negative way, mostly in Brazil it’s used in a positive, or light way. In December 2018 I was fortunate enough to travel around the largest country of South America for 5 weeks. My partner was born in Rio, so I was able to experience this paradise in a way that a lot of gringo’s don’t have the opportunity to, however, I can promise you that the culture shock that I experienced would have been similar to others who have travelled there for the first time.
Unsurprisingly, Brazil is unique. You might think of beaches, of teeny tiny bikinis, of football, the Amazon, or even a certain waxing technique when thinking of Brazil. And while you might not be wrong, Brazil is SO much more than all of these. I wanted to write about my first impressions of this unique country, and while this is not meant to be a guide, there might be some information in here worth checking out before heading over!
Is it safe?
The first thing that almost everyone asks about Brazil – is it safe? My answer? It depends! Look, there was never a moment where I felt unsafe in Brazil, but that doesn’t mean that it’s safe. One morning in Rio we woke to the sound of gunfire in the distance but didn’t think anything of it. We were later told by the hotel reception that one of the Favelas in Rio was reasonably close, and so you could hear a lot of what happened up there in the mountains.
A few times we were waiting outside our hotel for an Uber, and on different occasions we had people come up to us and tell us it’s not safe to have our phones out and to put them away. This was in broad daylight. Another time, walking back to the Hotel during the day, my partner told me that someone was following us (me being the oblivious gringo, I was walking around not noticing anything). I told her she was probably just imagining it, so we pulled over to the side of the walkway and pretended to get something out of our bag. A man walked past us, and peered in our direction, and continued to talk on. We watched this man walk another 20 meters or so, stop, turn around to look where we were standing, smile, and then walk back in the direction he had been coming from!
We also visited Morro Santa Teresa, an area in Rio with favelas (although we had been told this is one of the safer areas), and while we didn’t have any problems, there were signs warning that gringos get killed up there. They also offer tours to visit different favelas around Rio, and being the gringo that I am, I wanted to go on one of these, but my girlfriend said no 🙁
All in all, I think how safe Brazil is really depends on you. If you go places by yourself at night, or ask a stranger to take a photo for you, chances are you’re going to have an unhappy time. Yes, there is crime and violence in Brazil and some people are going to get robbed, but you can greatly reduce your chance of that by being smart and making yourself less of a target.
There’s so much to cover here, and I wasn’t even exposed to the North or North Eastern food, which is more on the spicier or ‘exotic’ side of things. Here are a few of my observations:
A lot of Brazilian restaurants go the ‘per kilo‘ route, which is essentially a big smorgasbord of foods, and you pay ‘per kilo’ of food on your plate. These restaurants typically have foods from different cuisines – pasta or sushi – to go along with the standard staples of Brazil like rice, salads, beans, meat, and farofa (a strange breadcrumb-like side that’s awesome on everything!). It’s a great way to be able to try lots of different dishes without going to heaps of different restaurants.
I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t really try this! I was vegetarian when I went over to Brazil, and while I tried a few of the meat dishes here and there, I didn’t go to a specific Brazilian BBQ restaurant. But they sound awesome, as they bring out lots of different meats that have been BBQ’ed, and cut it off of a big skewer straight on to your plate. They only stop once you tell them you’ve had enough, too!
Brazilians love their cheese – they put up to 4x the amount of cheese on pizza than what is normal. They sell fried cheese at the beach (usually carrying a portable grill, dressed up as Spiderman in the 35 degree heat!) and put it in their bread (cheese bread, or pao de queijo). Cheese really is life over there, so I pray for you if you’re lactose intolerant ?
Another issue for anyone lactose intolerant, this seems to be in everything too. Sometimes it’s in your Acai bowl, sometimes its a dipping sauce for your cheese bread, other times its literally a dessert made entirely of condensed milk. My tipping point is when I noticed the sweet sweet taste of condensed milk in a fruit tea. In tea! I had to go cold turkey. But when it comes to condensed milk, Brazil, you need help. Or maybe as a gringo, I just don’t get it!
Public service announcement – Cashews are not just nuts, and have a big fruit attached to them. You can then make juice out of this, and it is amaaaaazing! I thought that my palette had tasted pretty much all flavours there was to taste, however, I was happily proved wrong. The different fruits that they have, and what they taste like, is eye-opening. A visit to the Mercado Municipal fruit market in Sao Paulo was a highlight I wasn’t expecting, as the vendors have set everything up in a way that is so visually impressive, it’s hard to put in words. The best part? They let you try a lot of the fruits. The worst part? They actually have a fruit that tastes like condensed milk. (Okay, so that’s not the worst part, I was just pretty anti condensed milk at that point)
Caipirinhas! The national drink of Brazil is a mix of lime, sugar, and Cachaha – a liqueur made from sugar cane and they’re T-H-E-B-E-S-T.
In Rio, people will set up little ‘temporary’ kiosks where they will make cocktails for you on the side of the road. I say temporary because these people aren’t licenced, so when the Police come around they will pack up and run away! Still, these guys make a pretty great cocktail so I would recommend buying one when you get the chance.
Also, fresh coconuts are sold up and down most beaches in Brazil. In Rio, the further you walk down Copacabana or Ipanema beach, the cheaper they get! Why pay 5 reais when a few hundred meters you can pay 3? What a bargain!
Copacabana and Ipanema are some of the most iconic beaches in the world, and it’s pretty easy to see why. Now, I was thinking I was going to be walking into a Snoop Dogg video when I entered on to a beach in Brazil, but it’s not like that at all. Yes, there are women in small bikinis, but the whole deal is far less glamourous than you would imagine. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean that these places are ordinary beaches, with ordinary people having a great time. There’s often volleyball nets set up, or people kicking around a football.
Brazilian beaches are set up really well, where you can hire a chair and/or an umbrella for a small fee, and then these people will have beverages and food available for you to purchase, so you don’t have to roam too far from the water. Coming from New Zealand, I think this is genius and something that we could definitely take on board.
Also, something that’s absolutely bizarre, but shows the ingenuity of the Brazilian people is that you can pretty much purchase anything on the Brazilian beaches. People are walking around in the 35 degree heat selling hats, sarongs, chocolates, drinks, and EVEN soup. Who wants soup on a beach?! I couldn’t help but feel sorry for some of them though, as they would carry a portable grill around with BBQ’ed cheeses and meats on a stick. Even worse, is that some of them were dressed up to try and get your attention. Talk about going the extra mile!
Without a doubt, Brazilians are some of the most genuine, down to earth and kind people that you will meet in this world. I was astounded at how warm these people are to strangers or people they have just met. On more than one occasion my girlfriend has stopped and started talking to someone, and I have assumed that they know each other or had been friends previously, only to find out that they’ve just met 25 seconds ago.
One of my favourite moments in Brazil was when I was at my girlfriend’s friend’s house, and everyone was speaking and trying to get to know me, however their English was very limited. Someone pulled out a phone with Google translate on it, and we spent the next hour sharing a conversation, taking turns going backwards and forwards translating things in English and Portuguese. It was loads of fun, but the thing is, you don’t need Google translate for everything, as body language and tone of voice made it more than clear how welcoming and warm these people were.
On one occasion in Paraty, a little boy about 8 years old has come over to me as he has heard me speaking English, and has tried to me in Portuguese, only for me to (poorly) tell him that I don’t speak his language. This boy was in awe – he had no idea that there are people who can’t speak Portuguese, and called over for his mum to come and meet me too!
At the same time, there are those who will try and take advantage of a situation to make some fast money. On more than one occasion I was asked by my girlfriend not to speak while we were in a taxi, as the taxi driver would likely see us as gringos, and try to take us ‘the long way’ round. On once occasion I had someone try to avoid giving me my change (until I politely asked for it). I’ve heard some horror stories of people being taken advantage of, but luckily, my girlfriend was able to protect me from 99% of these issues.
You’re not going to be disappointed in Brazil, it’s got everything! Beaches? Check! Incredible sights? Check! Jungles and Forests? Check! Mountains and waterfalls? Check! Brazil really does have everything and anything that you might be looking for.
We also went to the state of Minas Gerais, and had the most amazing time. The scenery there is unlike anywhere else I saw in Brazil – the rock formations are out of this world. We were lucky enough to take part in an excursion here, and jump in a boat and head upstream. We climbed the mountainside to get some amazing views (seen below) and then had a chance to have a swim and enjoy the waterfalls.
Did you know that Brazil even gets snow? We drove down to the south of Brazil and I was surprised to see that they had a very European kinda feel. I was told that a lot of Germans settled in the south of Brazil and as a result, some of the cities wouldn’t look out of place in Europe, even having a similar Christmassy vibe there.
Learn to Speak the Language!
No, it’s not Spanish! It’s also not Brazilian! It’s Portuguese. Now, most people are going to agree that the Brazilian accent is exotic, or even attractive. And you would be correct in thinking that, but the most fun is listening out for some of the literal translations that Brazilians will make when speaking in English, here’s a few of my favourites:
- Foot thumbs – Toes
- Bed clothes – Sheets
- Suck this mango – In your face!
- Papaya with sugar – this is easy/a piece of cake
Also, if you want mega brownie points with a Brazilian and look like less of a gringo, casually throw in one of the below:
- De boa na lagoa (all good in the lake) – similar to ‘all good’ or ‘no worries’ ?
- Susse no mousse (it means to be tranquil like a mousse) – It means the same thing as above! ?♂️
- Suave na nave (it means smooth in the spaceship) – again, it means ‘everything’s all good’ ?
- Uma Cerveja, por favor – one beer, please!
- Calma Mulher – Calm down, woman (probably don’t say this one)
So, there’s a quick highlight reel with some of my pictures and a few thoughts on my time in Brazil. If I’m honest, very rarely did anyone REALLY make me feel like a gringo while I was away. I’ll make a few more posts in the coming months about specific parts of our trip, as we went to 5 different states, and there was so much to see and do! All I know is one thing, if you go to Brazil, you won’t be disappointed!
Who want’s to hear a terrible joke courtesy of my fiance?
“What so you call a green dot, lost at the airport?”– A greengo ? ? ?