15 Things that Surprised Me About Brazil

I am so grateful for having been able to live abroad, because not only has it broadened my perspective of the world, but it has also allowed me to appreciate some things about my home country more.

If I could take the history, architecture, culture, education and healthcare systems (plus the cheese, wine and bread of course) from France, the lifestyle, language and natural beauty from Brazil and combine it with the efficiency, customer service and go-getter/capitalistic mentality of the states, I would have my ideal country.  But of course, there is no perfect country.

You can certainly learn a lot about a country and its culture just by visiting.  But you really learn about a place after living there – after the honeymoon phase is over, you start to see both the good and the bad and what really lies beneath the surface, as opposed to just the fantasy sold in guidebooks and the like.

Here are some things that I did not know about Brazil before moving here – perhaps it takes living here to find these things out…

1) People rarely ever text. They (almost exclusively) whatsapp.

Whatsapp is basically the only way that people communicate here via cell phones.  Which is funny because in the US and France, it is not used all that much (except to talk to people who are in another country).  I think that Brazilians are the primary reason why Whatsapp was sold to Facebook for $19 billion…

I never used to use Whatsapp before moving to Brazil. Now I can’t imagine communicating without it! I have found it to be much more user-friendly than normal texting.  Once you whatsapp, you never go back.

2) How insanely expensive (almost) everything is.

I was warned about this before coming to Rio, but I still didn’t think that it would be that expensive in comparison to the US.  This is a developing country after all, so how is that possible for things to cost that much more when the minimum wage is so much lower? But it is – even using my US dollars. All imported products are absurdly overpriced, due to the high import taxes.  So much that I refuse to buy clothes, beauty products, books,  electronics…I pretty much only buy the essentials here!

Just to give you an idea, a Nars lipstick that costs me $26 USD at a Sephora back home costs R$100 here (about $45 USD).  A Lancome cream that costs $190 USD back home (still crazily expensive) costs a mind-boggling $1,029 reais here (like 450 USD).

It makes me honestly wonder how people can afford to live here long-term.  I have heard that many people go to the US just to buy things and then sell them here and they are able to pay for their flight (and more) with the money they make. Now I understand why so many Brazilians go to the US to “fazer as compras” (do their shopping)…

The price of electronics is generally two to three times the cost that it is in the US.  A Nikon camera that costs about 500 dollars in the US costs around 2,100 reais here-approximately 1,000 dollars…for me…but for Brazilians, that camera is a lot more than 1000 dollars  – because their minimum wage is so much lower than it is in the US, 2,100 reais is worth much more to them than it is to say, Americans or Europeans. Through my occasional teaching hours here, I have experienced that firsthand!

I was shocked when I saw the price of this simple calculator (equivalent to about 70 USD  - would not cost more than 5 USD at home!)
I was appalled when I saw the price of this simple calculator (equivalent to about 70 USD – would not cost more than 5 USD at home!)

3) The horrible customer service and unfriendliness.  

People who work in low-level service positions (like at grocery stores, big department stores etc) all generally seem very unhappy and often project that unhappiness onto the customer.  They do not care to help you and are often even downright rude. I was actually shocked when, last month during Carnaval, some woman behind the counter at Lojas Americanas (a “cheap” department store) initiated a conversation with me.  That had never happened before (and hasn’t happened since)!

The doormen in my building for instance, barely even mutter a hello as I walk past. They look absolutely miserable which makes me sad for them. They are obviously miserable in their jobs and probably compensated very little.

While many bus drivers generally have the same attitude, I have encountered some very kind, talkative bus drivers, as well.  From my experience, it seems to be one of two extremes – either people are super friendly here or super unfriendly. There isn’t much in-between.

The other day, I was riding the bus and the bus driver told me to sit in the front and he would let me out through the front later.  He started talking to me and told me that he didn’t speak a word of English – the only thing that he knew how to say was “I love you” – of course!  At my stop, he directed me where to get off and how to get home and when I got off the bus, he shouted out “I love you!” Only in Brazil…

4) How much I like the Brazilian bikini.

When I first came here, I was so timid about wearing the Brazilian bikini on the beach – now, I cannot imagine wearing anything else.  I find it FAR more flattering than the American/European bikini bottom – which Brazilians jokingly refer to as a “fralda” (diaper).  Now, I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s safe to say that I am forever converted to the Brazilian style…

My Brazilian bikini next to my
My Brazilian bikini compared to my American bikini
My Brazilian bikini on top of a bikini I bought in France...
And…another Brazilian bikini bottom on top of  bottoms I bought in France…

5) How I always feel like I’m being ripped off

Just to go to a bar (not a boteco, which is a casual Brazilian bar), for instance, you generally have to pay a cover of at least 15 reais.  There is an Irish pub in Ipanema (called Shenanigans) and I remember paying at least 30 reais just to get in! It makes bar-hopping pretty much out of the question and going out a very expensive excursion.  In comparison, even in a big city like New York, you rarely have to pay to get in somewhere – you will likely have to pay a small cover if there is live music/a band playing.  Otherwise, the only places that you have to pay are the high-end clubs – but even then, no more than 20 dollars with a free drink included.  In Brazil, you can pretty much expect to pay a cover everywhere…and you can forget about that free drink!

There are also many times when someone will short you of change or overcharge a bill.  You have to be extra diligent about checking change and bills here.

If I order sushi and want extra wasabi, I will have to pay 4 reais for that wasabi – in the US, you would never be charged for something like that.  Nothing is ever free in Brazil.

Another example: I have heard that if you buy something and want to return it, the salesperson will generally make it very difficult for you to return that item (if you are able to return it at all). Yet another reason why I don’t buy things here!

This all goes back to the customer service mentality – in Brazil, it is all about short-term gain – getting as much money as possible in that moment.  Whereas in the US, it is more about long-term – which is why, for instance, if the customer has to wait a while for the food in the US, they will likely get something in return – food or drinks on the house.  And if the meal doesn’t live up the customer’s standards, it will be free.  The restaurant wants you to come back so the money lost from that one meal will prove more beneficial for the restaurant in the long run.

6) Brazil makes France look efficient.

In other words, Brazil’s strong point is not exactly efficiency.  Take this for example: if you go to a bar, you are normally charged an entry fee – but instead of paying it at the door, you have to pay it when you leave.  At a self-service restaurant or bar, you are given a piece of paper, where food/drinks are written down as you buy them – then at the end of the night, you have to pay.  This sometimes leads to extremely long lines at the end of the night – and caused issues when there was a fire at a nightclub in Brazil last year.  Tragically, many people actually died because the bouncer would not let people leave without paying their tabs first.  A much more efficient system would be to have customers pay for the cover charge immediately at the door and then have them pay for their drinks as they order them – or just allow customers to start a tab and leave the credit card with the bartender – as is done in the US.

It works similarly in stores, where one has to go to one cashier to get a slip with the price of what they have to pay, and then proceed to another cashier to actually pay.  I never understood this.  Why can’t I just pay at one cashier? Whatever the reasoning is for this (perhaps to avoid theft), there must be a more efficient way.

So you learn to be patient living in Brazil.  If I go to the grocery store, even the “express” line takes ages – even with so few people in line!  There can be three people in front of me and I will be waiting for half an hour just to buy a mango.

7) How necessary it is to speak Portuguese

I had heard that not many people speak English before coming here, but I was still fairly surprised by this.  I witnessed this when my friend Mallory came to visit and, not speaking a word of Portuguese, tried to get by solely on English. Oftentimes, people just did not understand.  Taxi drivers, bus drivers and other people in low-level service positions generally do not speak much (if any) English.  As is probably expected, educated and wealthier people tend to speak quite well, but this is of course a very small portion of the population.  Personally, I prefer it this way. It means I get to speak Portuguese almost all the time! 🙂

But if you are traveling to Brazil and expecting to get by on just English….you may have your work cut out for you.  I would at least advise buying a phrasebook and learning some key phrases – a little Portuguese will go a long way! And don’t try to speak to Brazilians in Spanish – they will either laugh at you or be quite offended.  It also makes you look quite ignorant.

8) Not everyone is super fit

One stereotype of Rio in particular is that everyone has perfect beach bodies – contrary to popular belief, this is simply not the case.

What is I love is that no matter one’s size (or age), all women wear bikinis on the beach.  In the US, people tend to not wear a bikini past a certain age or if they are over a certain size – here, everyone wears a bikini (and not those “diapers” that people wear back home!).  The beach culture is a refreshing change from the US.

In Brazil, whatever your size or age, the only acceptable beach swimwear is the bikini.
In Brazil, whatever your size or age, the only acceptable beach swimwear is the bikini.

Ironically enough, while there is a wide range of body types in Rio, I have seen a lot of men with amazing bodies.  I honestly have never seen so many ripped bodies in my life than I have seen in Rio…and luckily for females, many guys elect to go shirtless, even just walking down the street.  Definitely makes for some nice eye candy on a day-to-day basis!

9) How hard it is to eat healthy

Salgados, a popular Brazilian fried snack made up of meat and/or cheese (photo courtesy of pixabay.com)

In a country that has more types of fruit than I have ever seen in my entire life (which I LOVE by the way), it’s surprising to me how difficult it’s been to have a healthy, well-rounded diet here.  I have found myself eating much worse here than I do back home.  The grocery store selection is limited and the majority of restaurants do not cater to healthy -eaters.

I’ve found that most Brazilians love to add tons of sugar to almost everything – even things that (at least in my opinion) don’t need any added sugar! Like fruit juice, for instance.  Unfortunately, this could be a reason why obesity is on the rise in Brazil.

Eating out centers around mainly fried food (salgados), meat and sugar and very little organic food.  The healthy food is few and far between – if you do seek it out (healthier restaurants can be found in Ipanema and Leblon, the wealthier neighborhoods of Rio), you can expect to pay a lot for it.

10) The fact that everybody seems to live with their parents.

Most Brazilians live with their parents until they get married, unless their parents live in a different city.  It is pretty strange for me, coming from a culture where people generally move out at the age of 18.  But here, living with the ‘rents is simply the norm!

I live with an English guy and anytime I tell a Brazilian that I live with a guy who is not my boyfriend and that yes, we have a purely platonic relationship, they practically gasp in surprise.  I asked one Brazilian about it and he explained that it was not normal for a guy and a girl to live together here, unless they are coupled up or married.  This is definitely a Brazilian thing — in France, for instance, it is totally normal for a guy and a girl to live together.

11) The fact that I generally feel quite safe here

This came as a surprise to me.  Sure, I live in a very safe neighborhood and spend most of my time in the Zona Sul (the safer part of Rio)- but I do feel a lot safer in Rio than I had anticipated, even riding the bus (I had always heard that there were a lot of robberies on busses, but I have never had a bad experience).

Perhaps this is a false sense of security — I know that I need to have my guard up here and should not walk alone at night.  And I have certainly heard my fair share of stories – but I think if you stick to the safe areas and do not walk alone on empty streets at night, chances are, you will be fine.

Tip: I have heard that you need to really careful with taxi drivers -I’ve been told to always call a taxi or use an app on your phone to order one, because hailing a taxi off the street can be very dangerous.  There are many fake taxi drivers out there who have been known to do horrible things to their passengers.

Also, if you do take the bus in Rio (unless you plan to take taxis everywhere, you will likely have to take the bus to get around) — do not take it after 11PM or so (I have done this, but it’s not really recommended), since this is when most crime happens.  And especially if you are riding on the bus at night, sit at the front of the bus, as close to the driver as possible. The video cameras are by the front, as well, in case anything happens.

Here are some more safety tips.

12) The fact that cariocas tend to be a bit closed-off

I had always heard that cariocas and Brazilians were super friendly, so when I came here, I was a bit surprised to find that this wasn’t exactly the case.  Now, I’m not saying that cariocas (people from Rio) are anything like the frigid Parisians.  But, like the majority of the French, Cariocas tend to have their group of friends (from high school, college, work…) and don’t seem to care that much to make new ones and branch out.  I have heard from many people that it is very hard to break into a circle of Carioca friends – and that perhaps explains why I don’t have many Brazilian friends here! And why gringos seem to all stick together in Rio (the gringo community is super small here and you are always running into the same people).

I was out the other night with my awesome Carioca friend, Claudia (one of my only Carioca friends !) and my (equally as awesome) American friend, Iyin – some Brazilian guy asked us how we all became friends.  He thought it was “estranho” (weird) that a Carioca girl would befriend us, since generally Cariocas have their friends and stick to them.

But why is this? I agree that it is nice to have a group of friends – but isn’t it also nice to branch out and meet people, to have friends from different circles and different cultures?

While people in Rio may not be as overly friendly and warm as I had anticipated, many people are friendly and strangers will often go out of their way to help you if you need help – and in other parts of Brazil, like Minas Girais and Bahia, people tend to be incredibly friendly and approachable.  Perhaps less so in Rio because it’s a big city, somewhat cheio de turistas (full of tourists).

I will say that I love how appreciative Brazilians are of gringos speaking Portuguese – they are all super complementary, as well (even though my Portuguese is far from perfect).  Brazilians all tend to be very interested in knowing why I came to Brazil.  I can’t tell you how many times I have answered that question.  Whereas when living in France, for instance, I never got that question from a French person – and even when I meet French people here and try to speak French, they mostly seem to be pretty indifferent to the fact that I speak French. I guess there are a lot more foreigners learning French than there are learning Portuguese – but it’s still nice that Brazilians are appreciative of it.

13) How women are often seen as sex objects 

How sad is it that I just google imaged “Brazil beauty” and “Brasil beleza” (the Portuguese version of that) and hoping to see pictures of the beautiful country, I instead see (in both languages), pictures of beauty pageant contestants, dolled-up women and their behinds. Such gender objectification is obviously a global issue, but I notice that it is much more blatantly obvious in Brazil.

I have been shocked by some of the things that I see on TV here.  Watching a normal talk show, for instance, this is what I see:  one male presenter holding a microphone and his “assistants”, a line of women in skimpy costumes, just posing and smiling.  As a woman, I find it to be downright offensive.  Yet this type of thing is completely normal in Brazil – nobody bats an eyelid!


14) The fact that nearly all of the men have tattoos 

I was quite surprised when I moved to Brazil to find that almost everyone and their mother has at least one tattoo.  I have rarely seen a guy without one.  Funnily enough, it also seems to be semi-regional – I noticed that tattoos weren’t as prevalent with Mineiros (people from Minas Gerais), for instance.  Perhaps they are more of a Carioca trend (just as tattoos are far more common on the West Coast of the U.S.).

The Portuguese term for a full arm tattoo is “braço fechado” (photo courtesy of pixabay.com)

15) That despite it all, I still love it here.

OK, that’s a lie – I knew that I would love Brazil before coming here (hence the name of my other blog, Apaixonada Pelo Brasil).  While some of the things on this list do make me miss home at times, at the end of the day, Brazil is still an incredible place.

In the end, the positive seems to outweigh the negative.  Because you walk down the street and see things like this…



One thought on “15 Things that Surprised Me About Brazil

  1. The only thing I would disagree with you is the number 11. After living in US, I came back to Rio and realized how here is so dangerous. You were just luck. When I was in NYC, I was always surprised how people feel safe there, once I saw a guy taping in his MAC at 2 am in the subway. First our subway doesn’t open at 2 am. And second you would never see someone showing even a cheap notebook in the metro. Last week, I took my car in the middle of the night to buy something to eat and I had to outwit 4 guys in another car that were following me. The worst thing in that moment was that I couldn’t go to the police because I don’t know if the policemen would drive me back to the bandits (the police in Brazil is very corrupt and Rio’s policemen are the most corrupted in the country). Please come to Brazil again, but never think you are safe.
    Se voce sai a pé, as piores coisas podem acontecer. Se vocÊ sai de carro, podem roubá-lo ou te sequestrar. Se você sai de carro, pode ser roubado, estuprado, ou sequestrado. Claro que a zona sul é uma área mais segura, mas os numeros são maqueados pelo governo do estado para que os turistas se sintam melhor.


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