First Impressions of Brasil (yes, that’s Brasil with an “s”)

Oba!!! (that’s Portuguese for “yay”). Why all the excitement? Well, I just arrived in Rio last Wednesday and so far, it is every bit as amazing as I had expected it to be. I am staying in an apartment in the Zona Sul (southern part) of Rio, in a neighborhood called Botafogo.

My neighborhood

I like that I’m not living in a super touristy (and more expensive) district, like Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon – this means that, except for two times at the nearby mall, I have not heard anything but Portuguese spoken around me.  At the same time, I am still pretty central to everything – and best of all…close to the beach! I feel much safer than I had predicted I would – even walking through the tunnel to Copacabana feels quite safe. But just in case someone wants to mess with me, I’ve still got my pepper spray on hand…

The morning after I arrived, I had this amazing fruit called marancujá (passion fruit). I have never eaten passion fruit alone (I’ve never seen an actual passion fruit sold in the grocery stores back home or in Europe).  So this was a pretty sweet welcome…it’s quite sour and generally you are supposed to mix it with other foods to add flavor, but I love it alone. It definitely makes for a refreshing breakfast!

Marancujá fruit...delicious!
Marancujá fruit…delicious!

Fruit aside, I can already feel myself falling in love with this city.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that it has been sunny (and warm!) every day since I have been here –  it’s only the beginning of spring and it already feels like the middle of summer.

And of course…Rio has some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery that I have ever seen. Not convinced? See below.

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Praia Vermelha, the closest beach to my apartment

Walking around, the vibe is incredibly laid-back  – for instance, people walk down the street, onto busses or into grocery stores with nothing but sungas (the male Brazilian swimsuit, like a looser version of the speedo) or bikinis and havaianas.  Pretty sure you would get arrested for that in the US…!

I went to the beach in Ipanema on Sunday and the entire street running parallel to the beach was closed off to just pedestrians and bikers – apparently every Sunday is like this. Then you have the beautiful beach and mountains in the background…it’s pretty much paradise.

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Ipanema on Sunday

People are also always very helpful and friendly.  In the taxi from the airport into the city, I had a long conversation with the taxi driver, who was asking me questions and giving me tips about the city.  I had a moment of pride: he asked me where I was from and when I said I was American, he said that he thought I was Argentine and was surprised to hear that I was from the US. He said to me, “How do you speak Portuguese so well if you are American?? You have good pronunciation.”  That of course made me happy to hear – all those hours studying Portuguese paid off!

Today, I took the wrong bus and ended up in some favela (don’t worry – it’s not as scary as it sounds!).  I told the bus driver where I wanted to go and he took my under his wing – he kindly escorted me across the street (literally took my arm in his) and instructed me where to wait for the next bus. When the next bus finally arrived, he explained to the other driver the situation, so that I would not have to pay again.  While of course not everyone is this nice, strangers around me have generally been kind and helpful whenever I am lost or have a question.

One thing that I’ve found quite surprising is how expensive things are – I had heard that Rio was very expensive before arriving, so it doesn’t come as a huge surprise….but when I see the price of electronics, for instance, I am flabbergasted.  For instance, a new Macbook Pro (with retina display) costs a whopping R $6000 (the equivalent to about $2600 or $1000 more than the going price in the US.)  When looking for an apartment, I found that most apartments in the south of Rio (the most desirable place to live, since it’s by the beach) were very expensive for not very high quality.  The good news is that there are reasonably priced places out there, you just have to hunt harder for them.

And not everything is expensive – caipirinhas, for one, are definitely much cheaper than you would find anywhere else!

I went out to Lapa, a neighborhood in the center of Rio famous for its nightlife, the other night and ordered a humongous caipirinha from one of the stands set up on the street.  I kid you not, the drink was literally about three times the size of your normal cocktail, with massive amounts of cacacha (the Brazilian rum) – all for just R $10 (or about $4.50 USD)! And that one drink lasted me just about the entire night.

Delicious caipirinhas
The delicious (and enormous) caipirinhas of Lapa (warning: object is larger than it appears)

For an authentically Brazilian experience, Lapa is the place to go on weekend nights. Boasting a playful ambiance, the streets are streaming with young people and full of stands set up selling food and drinks.  I went there on one of my first nights out in Rio and didn’t even set foot into a bar, yet had a great time strolling through the populated, music-filled streets until the wee hours of the morning.

Many people hang out on Lapa’s famous steps, Escadaria Selarón, which were created by a Chilean-born artist and were only recently completed at the artist’s death in January of 2013 (they were started in 1990).  The steps are made up of tiles (mostly of yellow and green, Brazilian’s national colors) from over 60 countries and have become a symbol of Rio.

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Me at the Lapa steps on my first night out in Rio
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A few of the unique tiles that make up the steps

On weekend nights, the steps are usually filled with socializing Brazilians and the occasional gringo like myself…

The steps of Lapa on a Friday night
The steps of Lapa on a Friday night

Small adjustments 

Some things will take a bit of getting used to, such as the flaky internet and poor cell phone service.  The internet sometimes just cuts out for no reason at all.  I was supposed to have a Skype phone call with someone and I was barely even able to e-mail him to tell him that I couldn’t Skype. When I was finally able to reach him to explain to him my situation, he said “Welcome to Brazil! Internet blackouts are a common occurrence here.” I have heard this from many people, which makes me seriously wonder how people get things done.

As for my phone service, I rarely am able to access internet (even though I have paid for it).  The silver lining to poor internet service is that people are forced to look away from their screens and get outside – which perhaps partially explains why Brazilians are such a social bunch!

Another funny thing that I noticed is the multiple different types of outlets that Brazil has; in my apartment, there are two different plug types – US and European. I bought a hair dryer last week, which was European, and I have to use a European-US converter because there are no European outlets in the bathroom or in my room.  Who would have thought that I would have to use a converter when I haven’t even left the country? Brazil, you crack me up !

Yesterday, I had to go to the bank to pay for an apartment fee; my card didn’t work so the banker told me to use their ATM and if that didn’t work, then the Banco do Brasil ATM definitely would. Well, I went and none of the ATMs worked – not even at Banco do Brasil – with both my French and American card.  I even tried the HSBC ATM in the mall and that wouldn’t work either.  This was after I had been using my cards throughout the day to purchase various things – so I knew they were not blocked or anything.  Frustrated, I told my roommate about the situation and he had an explanation (sort of): he said that oftentimes, the actual banks will not accept foreign cards and HSBC doesn’t work with foreign cards either. So he recommended that I try the Banco do Brasil ATM at the mall.  Surely enough, that worked! Mystery solved – sort of.  I’m still not quite sure why the banks themselves do not accept foreign cards but the independent ATMs do…but at least now I know where I can retrieve money!

Also, in Rio, there is a metro system, but you pretty much have to take the bus everywhere to get around- and it can be very confusing! I have already ended up on the wrong bus at least three times since being here – which is practically every time I have gotten on the bus.  The bus says it’s going somewhere and then it ends up somewhere else…I truly do not understand it – yet, at least! It’s safe to say that in Rio, getting somewhere is always an adventure (especially with the bus drivers, who speed and whip around corners like there is no tomorrow!).

But these small little frustrations really do not bother me at the end of the day. Time just runs slower in Rio and it’s actually pretty refreshing. While things may not be as efficient as they are in the US, people still live life with smiles on their faces and approach everything with a relaxed demeanor.  They live in the moment. They live like this…

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