Hand Gestures in Brazil

When travelling in Brazil, you will no doubt notice that hand gestures are different. There is a distinct lack of the North American “OK” gesture, and this is not without reason. The OK gesture commonly used in North America, is very similar to an offensive gesture in Brazil (and other places), as it technically means “asshole” in Brazil, but carries a stronger connotation. It is best thought of as the equivalent of giving the middle finger – essentially, the opposite of a North American’s intention. While the Brazilian may realize your intentions – either by realizing that you are from abroad, or from their own consumption of American Media, it is still best to avoid the potential conflict.

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Instead, Brazilians use another popular North American Gesture, the standard “thumbs up”. It is used in a multitude of situations, far more than any other hand gesture. When I first arrived in Brazil, I noticed it immediately, and it really leaves a person with a feeling of friendliness. Generally speaking, I try to follow Brazilian culture when I visit, and so I try to integrate the thumbs up regularly. I use it instead of waving thank you, alongside anytime I say “obrigado” (thank you), and anytime I want to show a kind gesture. But, this is not the only reason I do this. I also know that I talk with my hands more than I should, and it would be very easy for me to accidentally use the okay gesture without thinking about it. By consciously using one gesture, it prevents me from absent-mindlessly using the inappropriately using the other.

I would note that Brazilians still will understand if you were to use The Finger, but I would highly recommend against using it in anger – my experience is that Brazil has a bit of an Honour Culture, and it is not a good idea to attempt to offend someone. Tempers can easily flare in Brazil, people do not back down as easily, and situations can develop quickly into a level of conflict that was not initially sought. It is better to avoid confrontation – luckily, Canadians are generally less confrontational than other cultures, so this should not be a significant issue.

Restaurants in Brazil

While your hotel will often include breakfast, you are most likely going to eat the majority of your meals at restaurants when vacationing, and there are some important things you will want to know about doing so.

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Beach front restaurants tend to have a building, but everyone sits on the beach under the parasols

At many restaurants in Brazil, they will have entrees for two, three, or even four people. While there will also be meals for one, I have found the norm to be at least two. There should be some sort of indication of the number of people each meal serves. You may have to scan the menu to find where it indicates though, as, like in Canada, menu designs vary wildly from restaurants to restaurant. If you don’t know, it is always best to ask. Most restaurants, in my experience, will have someone working that speaks English at all times, or if you have prepared your phone properly, you’ll be able to translate what you need – but worst case scenario, you can always pantomime for a question like that. Personally, I find the serving sizes are a bit small in Brazil, and I once basically ate a meal for three people by myself, but I think that’s more of a personal thing, than Brazil vs. Canada.

One thing that it always takes me a bit to remember at Brazilian restaurants, is that the servers do not come to the table unless called over. There is no checking if your food came out right, there is no asking if you need anything else. Instead, the server stays at the back of the restaurant and watches the tables from afar. You simply raise your hand and wave them over if you need anything. This is extremely convenient, as your table will not be interrupted in the middle of a story, nor do you have a server come by just as you’ve taken a bite to ask about the food, and generally the server will come by faster. As a Canadian, it feels rude to wave at the servers like that, but it really is a better system.

Taxes are included in the menu price, but the tip is not. A 10% tip is added to the end of the bill automatically, so the total of the bill will be the total you should pay – you do not need to tip anything above the amount they add. I find that I already calculate an additional amount in my head, because of the crazy Canadian system of adding taxes after the advertised price, and so I never really experience any sticker shock when the bill arrives like I assume most Europeans would. The automatic tip amount is also simpler than trying to decide if the waiter brought your drink out fast enough to warrant an extra percentage, although I still think it would be best to just pay servers a proper wage. You can ask to remove the tip if you choose, but that is just as awkward as you imagine it to be.

Driving in Brazil – Don’t.

I highly discourage Canadians visiting Brazil from renting a car, or driving locally.

Some people when visiting another country like to rent a car to see the sights. In fact, I have heard anecdotes of Canadians (or even Americans) taking day trips in foreign countries that to the locals would take the better part of a week.   It is easy to get lulled into a sense of confidence in Brazil, because their road signs are strongly based on the US Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices Standard, which is used in the USA and is very similar to Canada’s own version. The major difference being that their signs are in Portuguese.

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Other than the Portuguese, this sign wouldn’t seem out of place in Canada

However, this is not a good idea to do in Brazil.  There are multiple reasons for this.

Brazilians are extremely aggressive drivers compared to Canadians. You may regularly find them running red lights, and disobeying other traffic laws. As much as you may occasionally see a motorcycle in Canada weave through traffic, this is something we experience at almost every stop when I am out with Minha Namorada (My Girlfriend) – and they will squeeze through the smallest of gaps. Additionally, cars will often drive  erratically, seemingly without regard to the other vehicles on the road. If you grew up with this, then you’d be fine.  But for a Canadian that is accustomed to having a lot more space, it is extremely disconcerting.

Additionally, directions can be difficult. Google Maps may send you through the Favelas rather than taking you the longer, but safer route. This happens much less if you have internet on your phone, but it is always better to be with an experienced driver who can recognize the signs before you enter into the wrong part of town – I know I’m not good at noticing.  Distracting driving laws also mean you can’t use your phone while behind the wheel, making it that much harder to get where you want to go.

Finally, road quality can be an issue. This is not to say that Canadian roads are always better – about 60% of Canada’s roads are unpaved, but you don’t want to hit a pothole and get stuck in the middle of nowhere, hoping that the next person to come your way will stop and help you.  This would be especially worrisome if you don’t speak Portuguese.

The better options are to arrange travel between cities with your travel agent ahead of time, and to use Uber or have your hotel arrange a taxi for you. Uber is generally safer, as you can quickly look at the driver’s history (rating, number of rides, etc.), but I also understand that many people will not feel comfortable getting into an unknown person’s car. So, note the Canadian Government’s suggestions on taxi travel in Brazil:

  • Local law requires the use of the taxi meter to determine the legal fare. Adding surcharges to a fare is illegal.

    Should taxi rates change and their taxi meters have not been adjusted, drivers may indicate these changes by showing an authorized paper with the new fares.

    Many tourists hire “radio taxis”, also known as “commun taxis.” These taxis operate at a fixed price irrespective of the time of the day and the time it takes to arrive at your destination.

    • Only use official taxis
    • Upon arrival to Brazil, purchase your fare from licensed taxi offices in the airport arrival hall or near the taxi queues
    • During your stay, use licensed taxis from taxi stands

https://travel.gc.ca/destinations/brazil

Do not use the buses, or any form of public transit at night.

If you do insist on driving, Brazil allows Canadians to drive for up to 180 days with a Canadian Drivers’ License, although its recommended you get an international drivers’ permit, and have a translation of your license.  Brazil has a zero tolerance for drinking and driving (0.00%), with heavy fines or jail time should you be caught.

Stray animals in Brazil

Unfortunately, Brazil has a problem with many stray animals. It is likely you will see stray dogs and cats scrounging for food, or lounging in the shade during the heat of the day. Like in Canada, you should not feed these animals. You don’t know where they have been, you don’t know if they might bite, or if they have diseases.

It is an unfortunate situation to be sure, but the animals are actually fairly well socialized. Generally speaking while dogs might look at you to see if you will feed them, they largely don’t get too close. They are equally wary of humans (probably a lot have been abused). Lots of people do throw scraps and other food to the animals, so don’t be fearful that they won’t be eating.

I find cats are actually more willing to come to the table and beg for food directly. At one restaurant, I was sitting outside (as I usually do in Brazil) and I repeatedly had to shoo away a cat who wanted to jump up on my lap and share my dinner. It broke my heart to say no, but I didn’t know if the cat was healthy. I did realize the reason the cat was so intrusive, the owner of the restaurant regularly fed this cat. He even let it into his house (attached to the restaurant), although very obviously had taken measures to prevent it entering into his kitchen.

It is very hard to see these animals and not want to take them home with you. But, it definitely reinforced the importance of Bob Barker’s classic sign-offs, “don’t forget to spay and neuter your pets”.

Don’t think for a second that Brazilians don’t like animals though. Lots of people do have dogs and cats as pets though. And just like anywhere else these pet owners clearly spoil their pets. I do wonder how the animals stay cool enough with their thick coats of fur, but anytime of day you’ll see lots of pets taking a walk with their humans, exploring every interesting smell along the way, happy as can be.

Exercising in Brazil

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Now, I understand that many people don’t exercise, or work out when on vacation. But, just as many like actually enjoy their workout, and so keep to their routine when travelling. However, there are some important things to consider when doing your workout in Brazil.

While Minha Namorada (my girlfriend) will sometimes mention that Toronto, on its hottest summer days, is worse than Brazil, she still considers Toronto to be very dry. So, the mix of the (low 30’s) heat in Brazil, and the high humidity makes working out that much harder. Perspiration doesn’t have the same ability to cool you down in humid weather so you will definitely overheat when in Brazil that much more.

Please note the below are my experience, and you really should talk to a medical professional before doing any sort of workout to ensure that you are healthy enough to partake. Talk to your doctor about what precautions you should take for the Brazilian climate.

Because of this increased heat, you have to take your workout slow. On the first day, I would do a maximum of 75% of my normal workout. While I might not get that same “runner’s high”, just as often I find myself “hitting the wall” much faster than normal. I never want to overdo it and ruin my ability to workout the next day, or, even worse, find myself too exhausted to enjoy the rest of your day. I never feel bad if I’m more exhausted than usual, as this is normal. I always remind myself, I’m basically running in a sauna compared to Canada. Sometimes, I actually need to lower my workout even further. By pacing my workout on the first day, I’m able to see how my body is reacting to the increased temperature without falling out of routine.

When working out indoors, I always make sure to turn on the air conditioner. While it will probably be off unless someone else is already using the gym, even turning it on over the length of a short workout can really help. Air conditioners control not only the heat, but also the humidity. By having one run, it will not only cool down the room, but also allow my body’s natural sweat to work better. It is also a wonderful after-workout treat to stand next to the air conditioning unit and just cool off. I think that’s better than any runner’s high.

It is also best to work out indoors. While the wind in many parts of Brazil may seem inviting, I never want to get lost in a city in which I’m not familiar. Most people seeking cardio want at least thirty minutes a day, and at light-jogging pace of eight kilometres per hour that’s about four kilometres, which is plenty of space to get lost. As well, it is safest in Brazil to stay in the crowded areas, which can be some of the most annoying places to jog, as that requires weaving through unpredictable crowds.

Finally, I always make sure to stay hydrated. While in Canada, I often don’t drink water before my workout – I know this isn’t the best idea, but I don’t like the sloshing feeling of the water in my belly as I run because it sometimes makes me feel nauseous. However, in Brazil this is a bad idea. I basically always feel thirsty in Brazil, and it is very easy to forget to drink water. That can easily lead to real problems, which is the opposite of what I want from a workout. For example, Heat Stroke is a real possibility in Brazil, and drinking sufficient fluids is a good preventative measure. I drink a fair amount of water before my workout, and I bring a water bottle with me when working out. Even without anything serious happening, failure to stay hydrated can increase recovery time exponentially, and that can ruin one a whole day in paradise.