6 things to know before traveling to brazil

After my recent 2.5 months in Brazil, I can now proudly say that it is my FAVORITE country of those I’ve visited thus far — a title I don’t easily dole out, especially considering my love affair with Italy.

However, Brazil isn’t always easy. It’s not like traveling through Europe where people generally speak English, the cities are as safe as cities can be, and the plumbing system is familiar and reliable. There are things that one should be aware of before going, and as I know a lot of people are planning trips there for the World Cup or Olympics, I figured I’d write a post on the matter. Thus, here’s a nifty list of 6 things to keep in mind before traveling to the great nation of Brazil.

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1. Brazilians don’t speak English.

Yes, that is a broad statement, but most Brazilians really don’t. Not waiters, not taxi drivers, not bus station attendants, not even the people who work at the tourism agency. The people I met from Sao Paolo or Rio were much more likely to know at least some English, though they were still in the minority. In general, Brazilians (like Americans) only know one language.

Which complicates things a bit.

Buying a bus ticket or asking for directions is infinitely more difficult when you don’t speak the language fluently, because though you may be able to ask the question, there’s a fair chance you won’t understand the answer. It can also be extremely isolating. Sitting in a restaurant surrounded by people laughing and having a jolly time, and simultaneously knowing that you’re the only one who doesn’t understand a word can make you feel lonely in a way I’ve never experienced before.

The language barrier is challenging, though it makes Brazil feel more “authentic” — a notion of which I’ve decided is just a psychological construct and not so much the reality. Defining what is culturally “authentic” in any touristic place (like Hawaii, for example) is seemingly impossible as it’s a rather vague and evolving concept.

End rant.

A benefit of meeting few English speaking Brazilians is that I learned twice as much Portuguese during my 2 months there as I did Spanish during my time in Spain. No thanks to Webster-like-the-dictionary, the useless prick. Our Portuguese teacher, who I initially spoke so highly of way back when, quickly got the ax when he nicknamed Mia and I Linda and Bella (both of which mean beautiful) and took to flaunting us around town like little dolls. Even sat us down for a chit chat about how women should behave in the presence of men. Gag me. If there’s one thing I don’t miss about Brazil, it’s the Brazilian machismo.

Long story short, bring a Brazilian Portuguese phrasebook (NOT a Portugal Portuguese phrasebook — the two are very different!). I used the Lonely Planet phrasebook, and found it very helpful. Especially their section on Food Vocabulary. Girl’s gotta eat.

2. Nothing happens on time.

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Warm climate cultures tend to have a more relaxed concept of time — and Brazil is no exception. Don’t be surprised when a bus, scheduled to arrive at 3pm, shows up at half past 4pm. These things happen. To the European or North American mindset, these delays may seem intolerable. However, getting angry or frustrated will not change the system and it will not ease your sense of mind. Rather than fight the system, accept it. No, better yet, indulge in it. Enjoy the laid back atmosphere. Stop worrying about cramming your schedule full of activities or always being on time. The beauty of being in a place that is lax on deadlines, is that, if you’re late, no one will mind.

Quick Aside: The bus system in Brazil is infinitely better than in Europe or North America. If catching a public bus, get ready for a wild ride (a la the Knight Bus in Harry Potter). However, if taking a long distance bus, expect luxury. And cold! They put the AC on full blast during those long drives, so don’t forget a jacket!

**These are my views on the coastal region of Brazil stretching from Rio to Fortaleza. I never went further south so I’m not sure if that region also fits the bill, though I’m certain that Sao Paolo can not be categorized as such — from what I’ve read and heard, that city is anything but laid back.

3. Don’t expect perfect plumbing.

This really should be a given for anyone traveling to South America. Plumbing in Rio de Janeiro is not the same as plumbing in Washington, DC. The toilets may look the same, but this is a trick. Do. Not. Be. Fooled. No matter how pretty the porcelain may appear, you must not throw your toilet paper down the toilet. That shit will get clogged real quick, and I mean that in the most literal way possible.

ALWAYS put toilet paper in the bin, be weary of blockage, and expect more cold showers than hot ones — although to be totally fair, that last bullet point is much more the result of me staying in low-budget (but totally awesome!) hostels for the entire 2.5 months rather than a universal reality of Brazilian water temperatures.

**Oh! And if you didn’t already know. . . DON’T DRINK THE TAP WATER!

4. Be prepared to yell at your waiter.

Not because the service is bad in Brazil, but because the culture requires it. When I go out for a fine meal in the USA, I sit and wait for the waiter or waitress to approach me. Occasionally, if they are busy or aloof, I will politely twinkle my fingers at them and make eye contact. I’m also pretty soft spoken, so it’s not in my nature to holler across the room even when confronted with the rudest of servers.

However, all that changed when I went to Brazil. The food and service industry has a completely different take on waitstaff and client relations. Rather than the server taking all the initiative — asking to take your order, approaching to clear the plates — the customer does. Suddenly, the ball is in your court.

At first, I hated this. I felt awkward having to yell at the waiter to come and take my order. Surrounded by Brazilians who were both accustomed to this and who actually spoke the language, my table was often the last to be served as I just couldn’t compete for the attention.

But then things got better. I learned some key Portuguese phrases, built up a bit of confidence, and soon I was roarin’ like the rest of them.

And you know what? This method of the customer being responsible for initiating everything makes so much more sense! No more awkward, hovering busboy. No more pushy, pretentious servers. There are certainly instances of bad service — that’s unavoidable — but at least you’re now in charge!

Helpful Portuguese words to know when ordering:

a. Garçom (pronounced “gar-sohn”) – Waiter.

b. Com licença (pronounced “con lee-sin-sah”) – Excuse me. Perhaps the nicest way to holla’ at your garçom.

c. Oi – Hey. You will hear this all the time. My personal favorite. Mostly because the pronunciation is easy so there’s a greater chance of me looking like a local …and then I remember that I’m blonde.

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Mia showing off some successfully ordered Carne do Sol.

5. Safety is an issue to be taken seriously.

First, I should say that safety is an issue that should be taken seriously in every city, regardless of its location or history of crime. However, it’s important to pay particular attention to cities in which you are unfamiliar with the culture and the language. I’m emphasizing safety awareness in Brazil, not because I think it’s particularly dangerous, but because it does require an elevated sense of alertness.

Most precautions I would suggest are just universal common sense: don’t walk alone at night, don’t leave your bag unattended, don’t go flashing expensive jewelry or gadgets in public, etc. However, I’d also advice against taking public transportation at night, especially if carrying your backpack/luggage. Do some research; be at least somewhat aware of the social and political climate of the place you are visiting. Don’t walk around with earphones in, listening to your iPhone.

Brazil is a massive country, so obviously the threat of danger varies immensely between states and cities, but my general rule of thumb was to never leave home with valuables until having a walk around the city first. I came to be comfortable bringing my iPhone (which is my sole camera while traveling) in almost every city I visited, except Salvador, but only after I had spent a day familiarizing myself with the place. However, I always carried it in my money pouch (tip number 3 — bring and USE a money belt! I don’t care how dorky and touristy it may seem…Brazilians use them too!) and never brought it out at night (especially not in Rio). Another sad reality is that many thieves can be children. Often these kids live in favelas (Brazilian slums) and resort to mugging tourist as a means of getting by. They are dangerous, and many times more reckless than adults — as children often are — so be very cautious despite their age.

There are countless favelas in Salvador and Rio, which is something to also be aware of. A fair number have been pacified, and are deemed safe to enter. However, I opted against a visit. Partly because I was intimidated and partly because a trip to a favela felt far too voyeuristic.

(Quick aside: the pacification of favelas is a recent process that has caused a lot of controversy as it seems that it was only after being awarded rights to the World Cup and Olympics that the government took interest in helping these favelas, and even then the concern has only been with favelas in touristic areas. Interested in learning more about favelas in Brazil? Check out Elite Squad and its wildly popular sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within).

With all that being said, please do not let any of what I have written discourage you from going to Brazil. It is an amazing country and you should GO RIGHT NOW! Just be sure to prioritize your safety over anything else — as always.

6. The people are the nicest in the world.

Warning: there is a fair chance that you will fall in love with Brazil and never want to leave again. Not just because of the beautiful beaches, unparalleled forests, or immense wildlife. No, if you never left Brazil again, I’d be quick to bet that it was because of the people. Despite any language barriers or cultural difference, Brazilians have an uncanny ability to communicate kindness and inclusion. They are happy people who really know how to have a good time — and encourage you to do the same. Meals are usually a shared, family affair; dances are very intimate and sensual; body language and gestures involve a lot of physical contact. All these cultural idiosyncrasies result in a society that is founded on congeniality and togetherness. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you when you go to Brazil and never come back.

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13 thoughts on “6 things to know before traveling to brazil

  1. Hi Kara, I have enjoyed your travel blogs, especially this last one on Brazil! Anyone who likes to travel will pick up some great tips from you! I wish we could of had time for a visit while you were in Spokane, I guess I will just have to come to DC. Hugs to you, Aunt Carol

  2. Fell in love with this country 7 years ago and since then I never miss a carnaval and have loads of friend there, I’m thinking of going work sometimes there… It’s nice to see I’m not alone and that you loved that country too !! Take care…

  3. Great post, and so helpful. Thanks, Kara! I’m planning a long trip to South America that will take place during the World Cup, and really hope to make it to Brazil.

    It’s so funny to think that though Brazil was colonized by Portugal, the difference between the people is like night and day. During my time in Portugal I found the culture to be quite dark, a lot of negativity, pessimism and dark humor. I’m so glad that Brazil got the heck away from that so long ago to become the people you’ve described :)

    • Thank you! I spent a few days in Porto, and though I thought the city beautiful, the people were no where near as nice as Brazilians.

      Your trip sounds very exciting! I’m also planning a trip down there during the World Cup. Definitely put Brazil on your list. I’ve heard it’s VERY different from the rest of South America and can sometimes be a bit of a culture shock in comparison, but it is too amazing to be missed!

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