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Random Traveller Stories: Brazil Through Foreign Eyes Pt 1

Brazil Through Foreign Eyes
August 24, 2007

Meet Adrian Woods, from the USA, who has travelled to Brazil and the rest of Central and South America several times. Read the following interview where he tells us about some of his most memorable experiences from Brazil and gives some useful advice to newcomers.

1. Tell us a little about yourself, where are you from, what do you do etc.?

I'm originally from Berkeley, California, USA. I've just returned to California after spending almost two years living in Rio de Janeiro teaching English.

2. When did you arrive in Brazil and what brought you here?

This last trip was my third to Brazil. I first came to Brazil back in April, 1995. I was traveling all over Central and South America and stayed in Salvador, Bahia for 5 months and Sao Paulo for one month.

What originally attracted me to Brazil and Brazilian culture was going to

the Brazil-Cameroon soccer match at Stanford stadium during the 1994 World Cup and thinking how much more fun it was to be around the Brazilian fans than fans from other countries. The singing, the dancing, the drum playing, the beautiful women, etc. I thought to myself "what unique people". I was planning to travel all around Central and South America and decided I definitely needed to add Brazil to my itinerary.

3. What were you first impressions of Brazil?

I was struck by all the beauty and positive energy. Beautiful beaches and forests, beautiful art and architecture, and exotic, freakishly well proportioned people. I was also really impressed by the positive vibes everywhere. When you walk down the street on a hot afternoon in Rio or Salvador, you see lots of happy faces and people engaged in conversation and laughing. In the US by contrast, the streets are full of sad faces and disconnected people living in their own lonely little world.

4. What do you miss most about home?

When I was in Brazil I missed a nice, southern style breakfast - pancakes, sausages, fried eggs, biscuits, grits, etc., order, organization, honest, straightforward people, state of the art technology, American sports, American television, having my own car, and just how relatively easy it is to live and get things done in the US.

5. What has been your most frustrating experience in Brazil?

As much as I love Brazil and Brazilian people, a lot of things about Brazilian culture frustrate me. I find many Brazilians to be reckless, thoughtless, inconsiderate, and disrespectful when it comes to other peoples right to peace and quiet. A lot of Brazilians seem to maneuver through life as if they're the only person on the planet.

When they're driving or riding a bike, it's "coming through, get out of my way". Absolutely zero respect for pedestrians. If they want to talk or play music loud, their attitude is screw everyone else. It also drives me crazy that staying to the right isn't practiced in Brazil. It makes walking on an escalator or on a crowded street difficult. The racism I experienced in Brazil was irritating to say the least, but I won't go into that.

6. What has been your most memorable experience in Brazil (specific

Difficult question. I'd have to say being at an Afro Brazilian cultural center in Ilheus, Bahia in 2003. They had great pagode, lots of drum music, beautiful girls dancing and phenomenal capoeira guys who did these suspended, midair kicks and flips like Neo in the matrix. Seeing so many happy black people enjoying themselves warmed my heart. It made me wonder how African Americans would be had our ancestors not had their drums taken away and not allowed to practice West African cultural traditions.

7. What do you most like about Brazil (in general)?

The happiness and alta astral (good vibes). I haven't been everywhere, but Brazil has to be one of the happiest countries on Earth. I think the beautiful nature and good weather just brings out the best in people. There are so many people in Brazil, particularly in Rio and the Northeast that are consistently in an upbeat mood. I'm also constantly amazed by how relaxed, comfortable in their skin and unselfconscious so many Brazilians are. They know how to have a good time, live in the moment in an almost childlike way, and not stress over little things. They're just blessed that way.

8. What is your favorite restaurant/place to hang out here?

I'm embarrassed to say, but I'm pretty much a quilo/lanchonete guy and I rarely go to restaurants. The best quilo place I've eaten at in Rio was the "Siqueira Grill" on the corner of Siquiera Campos and Avenida Atlantica in Copacabana. It's expensive but the food is super fresh and tasty. My favorite place to hang out during the daytime in Rio is Posto 2, Barra da Tijuca beach. Nighttime - Lapa. There is something for everyone and the mix of people and energy makes people feel welcome. It's a surreal place.

9. Do you have any funny stories/incidents to tell about your time in Brazil?

Well, way back in 1995 when I first came to Brazil, I was staying with a family in Salvador, Bahia. One of my housemates took me to a micareta (off season carnival) in a small city about 75 kilometers outside of town. We stayed at the house of an uncle of his. We were having dinner with his uncle and family and food was being passed around the table. Naturally rice and beans were part of the meal and when the rice bowl came, I started putting rice on my plate. My housemate's uncle was a typical loud baiano and started yelling at me.

I couldn't speak a lick of Portuguese at the time and I could only guess what he was saying. Since the rice bowl was almost empty and not everyone had taken rice, I thought he was yelling at me and telling me not to be greedy and take all the rice. I misinterpreted his loud voice for yelling, got a little scared and started putting some of the rice from my plate back into the bowl. When I did this, the entire table erupted into laughter. Some people at the table laughed so hard they literally fell on the floor. Some even went into other rooms to laugh. Brazilians are like that. If you do something stupid, they have no qualms about laughing right in your face.

Anyway, Brazilians are also extremely generous with food and will do anything to please a guest. Evidently he was telling me to take more, not less rice. The laughter at my expense went on for another five minutes and all I could do was sit at the table looking and feeling like a complete idiot. Needless to say, that experience gave me plenty of motivation to learn the lingua portuguesa.

10. What difference between your homeland and Brazil do you find most striking?

How comfortable people of different races and classes are around each other. I don't think Brazilians are any less racist than any other people, and classicism in Brazil is horrendous, but because of the fact that if you live in Rio, or anywhere north of Rio, it is almost impossible to avoid people of other ethnic groups and classes, people learn to coexist and deal with each other. Plus because integration in many parts of Brazil is so thorough, people share a common culture regardless of class or race. This is why in office buildings in Rio, it's possible to see a black cleaning lady and a white executive having a chat or sharing a joke in the hallway or elevator. This doesn't happen in the US where janitors, security guards, and receptionists are invisible and ignored.

11. How is your Portuguese coming along? What words do you find most difficult to pronounce/remember or are there any words that you regularly confuse?

Well, I have a pretty good sized vocabulary, I can read the newspaper comfortably, understand movies, television, and people in one on one conversations, but I have trouble following a group of Brazilians talking to each other in a restaurant or bar. My brain just can't process everything they're saying fast enough. Since I was in Rio over the last two years, I was determined to learn the Carioca accent which I found to be muito puxado, extremely tough. Learning to pronounce an S at the end of a word like SH wasn't easy, but I eventually got the hang of it. The hardest thing for me is pronouncing an R like an H at the middle or end of a word like "Parque" or "Melhor". Nobody carves out the letter R like we Americans, so it takes a lot of effort not to sound like a fresh off the jet gringo or some hick from the interior of São Paulo. Pronouncing an M like a soft NG and an L like a U also takes concentration and effort.

12. What advice do you have for newcomers to Brazil?

Do whatever you can to blend in and not broadcast your gringoness. This can save you the hassle of being harassed by street peddlers or thieves. When I first got to Rio, I was constantly approached by people trying to sell me stuff and was occasionally messed with by street kids and thugs. This is because I walked around Copacabana looking like your typical dorky gringo with a towel in my hand, wearing a baseball hat, carrying a big bottle of water, and wearing sandals with straps on them. Just asking for it. So, I got smart, bought a beach chair (Brazilian men don't take towels to the beach), some Havaiana sandals, and learned to walk slow like I didn't have a care in the world the way Brazilians do. I stopped being approached after that. If you can't speak Portuguese, learn Brazilian sign language. It's easy. "Check please" - get the waiter's attention and pretend you're writing something on your palm. "No thanks" or "I don't want anything", wag your pointing finger like Dikembe Mutumbo. When purchasing something in an informal setting, always agree on a price before accepting service. For example, if you want a shoeshine boy to shine your shoes, ask how much it is, he'll tell you 2 Reais and charge you that. If you let him shine your shoes without first agreeing on a price, he might charge you up to 30 Reais and if you refuse to pay, he'll go get his friends and they'll give you a surra (beating) in broad daylight in front of everyone. Finally, don't walk around with money or things you're not prepared to lose, and if you're accosted by a mugger, DO NOT RESIST. Brazilians are clever, skillful fighters. You might think you can take the skinny, 5-5 guy that's demanding your money, but if you take a swing at him, before you know it, the guy has jumped up in the air, kicked you in your face, and you wake up 5 minutes later with all your belongings gone wondering what happened. Thieves also sometimes work in groups, so even if you are capable of handling the guy, he might have a partner behind you waiting to take you out. Earlier this year, a tall, 20 year old Portuguese man resisted handing over his backpack on a hot, crowded day on Copacabana beach and was stabbed to death by a guy half his size.

13. What are some things that you would recommend for a visitor to do in São Paulo (or anywhere else in Brazil)?

I don't care too much for São Paulo, but if you're in Rio, for God's sake do not just hang out in the Zona Sul - Copacabana/Ipanema. There is so much more to see. Check out the beaches in Barra da Tijuca, Prainha and Grumari further west. Head up into Tijuca National Park and climb Bico do Papagaio where you'll see an incredible 360 degree view of Rio. Climb Pedra da Gavea, but do it early in the morning or you'll be roasted like an ant under a sadist's magnifying glass since the trail going up and coming down faces straight west. I would highly recommend Praia do Farol beach in Arraial do Cabo near Cabo Frio. You won't find clearer water or whiter sand. I would also recommend Ilha Grande and Ilha Paqueta in Angra dos Reis. Go out at night in Tijuca or Vila Isabel where you won't find as many stuck up Cariocas and other gringos. Hang out in downtown Rio early in the evening on Friday. Check out a soccer game at Maracana and root for any team but Flamengo, the evil empire and the team of sheep. Vamos ganhar Fogo! After the game, head up to "Praca Varnhargem" in Tijuca where hundreds of people gather in outdoor seats, eat pizza, drink beer and people watch. If you like living on the edge, go to a Vasco game at Sao Januario, but leave the game early and take a cab.

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