Navigating São Paulo Airport (GRU)

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São Paulo/Guarulhos–Governador André Franco Montoro International Airport, courtesy of Andomenda [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D
The vast majority of flights through Brazil will at least have a stop over in São Paulo. São Paulo/Guarulhos–Governador André Franco Montoro International Airport (GRU) is basically the international hub for Brazil. This has many advantages and disadvantages because while you will almost always find staff who speak fluent English, it can be very overwhelming due to the size.

As I’m sure many of you do when checking in, I always like to double check when I need to pick up my bags. I am almost always told that they are checked all the way through to my final destination, but that is incorrect when travelling to Brazil (they do tend to be checked through when leaving Brazil). When going there, I have always had to pick up my bags in São Paulo. That makes sense when connecting, because they wouldn’t know to do a customs check when you arrive on your domestic connection (note: I have been to countries where a domestic connection somehow means you don’t actually go through customs). The airport staff in São Paulo will know for sure, but I am confident telling you that you will pick up your bags in São Paulo.

After picking up your bags in São Paulo, you have to go through customs. It is only a line, and you just walk through the door/aisle that applies to you – Red Sign/Items to declare, or Green Sign/No items to declare. They have border guards there who make random selections as well. It is important that you are not on your cell phone, and remove your hat/sunglasses when going through this section – they will stop you and make you remove them otherwise. In addition, when entering Brazil, you actually go through Duty Free Upon landing. I believe the current amount you can buy is $500 USD (~$650 Canadian), and the prices are very good. Just remember, you’ll be limited by Canada upon your return.

If you have a connection, you will have to check in again. The first time I flew through São Paulo, I almost missed my connection because of the check-in lines. What I did not realize, and is important to note, is that connection check-ins have their own dedicated lines. Generally I find I enter into the airport at the opposite end of the connection check-in, but follow the signs all the way to the front – don’t assume the line for check-in is the connections check-in until the sign specifically says so. The regular check-in lines sometimes appear to be hours-long, the connection line is usually five minutes.

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Airport Shuttle Bus

Since it is such a big airport, São Paulo actually has three terminals. The first number in your Gate (101, 207, 319) tells you from which terminal you are departing. While terminals 2 and 3 are connected, the walkway is very long, and it may be faster to take the shuttle bus (you will definitely need to take it to Terminal 1). There is signage, but I did find it a bit worrisome, because the shuttle bus is actually outside the front doors of the airport. I did not like having to leave the airport, but it is basically across the first street outside the door and there will be many other people also connecting – there is definitely comfort in numbers.

Terminal 3 has a bunch of nice restaurants and food, although at inflated airport prices (which makes them approximately normal Canadian prices). I find the best deal for food is the Pizza Hut Buffet (which also makes it very fast), although the beer there is more overpriced than most. Down the hall a little bit is a beer and snacks pub that has better prices for beer. Terminal 1 is very limited in restaurants post-security. There is a pizza place, a Pão de Queijo store, a Subway, and a couple minor food carts. There was a new place slated to open last time I went, but I don’t recall what it was. I have spent very limited time in Terminal 2, so I can’t speak to their restaurants.

Children’s Day

This weekend, as my Canadian Readers know, we celebrated Thanksgiving. A day to spend with friends or family, and remember what we are all thankful for. While this is not exclusively a Canadian/American holiday, it is not celebrated in most places around the world. And, especially given its association with the fall harvest, which isn’t the same “end of season” event in the land of eternal summer, it makes sense it is not celebrated in Brazil (although oddly, it is celebrated in some hot climates).

Even so, this weekend was a holiday weekend in Brazil – Children’s Day.

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Children’s Day, which actually exists around the world, is a fairly significant holiday in Brazil (unlike Canada), and by tradition is a gift-giving holiday, where parents buy toys for their children. Of greater significance, is that the more well-off people tend to buy gifts for children of the poor, and even host parties so that the kids can enjoy the day just like everyone else. Personally, I think sharing like this is a better way of showing thanks than most Canadian/American traditions. Donating money, and, more importantly, time gives back to the community, and definitely gives each person more perspective on what things for which we ought to be thankful.

Children’s Day falls on October 12th. And while most people remember it as Children’s day, like most Brazilian Holidays, it actually is associated with a religious holiday. It is Our Lady of Aparecida’s Day, being a Christian Feast Day in honour of the Patron Saint of Brazil, the Virgin Mary. Most people probably associate it with Children’s Day, simply because that’s how it was first introduced to them as a child – and any holiday that you get gifts as a child is a memorable one.

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The small terracotta Virgin Mary, representing Our Lady of Aparecida, to which many miracles have been attributed 

There are some less than proper motivations for the holiday as well, the history of the day actually comes from a marketing campaign to increase sales for toy companies, in part by Johnson & Johnson, in the 1960s. The day was initially celebrated in March (and was similar to Canada in that there was very little acknowledgement), but the marketing campaign was extremely successful and created the now well-known celebration. But this is true of many holidays, Santa Clause is significantly associated with Coca Cola, but Christmas is still special. In fact, some might argue the commercialization of Santa has helped spread the Christmas Spirit.

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It is an urban legend that Santa’s depiction comes from Coca-Cola because of very successful 1930s commercials.  Santa had already been depicted as such, and had even sold other soft drinks like Whit Rock Beverages

Journal Day 11

Day eleven in Brazil was spent exploring Pipa’s wonderful beaches. I had learned my lesson from the first day, and this time I wore more comfortable shoes that I could switch out of once I got to the beach so that my legs did not hurt walking traversing the hills to get to the beach.

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If you can believe it, the sky was even more blue than in this picture

 

Crab, along with other seafood, is inexpensive along the beach, but some restaurants try to trick tourists and have it surprisingly high in their menu. Doing a little bit of comparison between the adjacent restaurants can save you a bunch of money. I would also highly recommend you only eat at places that have the menu printed with the prices – some might try to overcharge you because you are a gringo, or, more innocently, there is far more opportunity for confusion without printed prices.

 

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Seafood in Northeastern Brazil is amazing!

Minha Namorada (my girlfriend) and I did notice that some of the prices for items from the various beach vendors would change if they heard me speaking. At least once they tried to change the price even after we’d already agreed to pay, but Minha Namorada pushed back and got the price we previously agreed – but you might not be travelling with a local like I was. That being said, the beach vendors do have products that work well – selfie sticks, underwater camera bags, beer, various types of food. Check out the stores as you are heading down to the beach, and you should know enough about local prices in order to haggle successfully. I would not recommend you buy sunglasses from any of the beach vendors though, as you can’t be sure about the UV protection, and sunglasses with no protection can actually be worse than none at all. So, it is important you buy proper sunglasses.

This day I had one of my favourite experiences to date, which was riding on a boat to see the dolphins. The dolphins were wild and just chose to swim near the people because they were as excited to see us as we were to see them. They even let you off the boat to swim in the same area, although the dolphins tended to keep their distance at that point. It was still well worth the money though, as there is something so much more majestic about seeing animals because they choose to see us, rather than seeing them in a zoo where they have no choice.

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Sadly, I didn’t get the dolphins on video, but I wouldn’t recommend you try – its too hard to capture, and you’ll end up missing opportunities to see them with your own eyes
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We found Aventureiro Pipa to be the best company for the boat tour, and they offered a money back guarantee if we didn’t see any dolphins.

We ended the day back downtown enjoying the nightlife. We stopped into a pizza place, because neither of us could decide what we wanted, and pizza is a good default food choice. What I did not expect is how lovely the local twist on pizza tastes. We had carne de sol pizza, which was absolutely wonderful, and I still find my mouth watering when I think about it. Foods like that are the reason I have to diet before I go. I think most people say they put on a pound a day when on a cruise ship, and I’m sure I’m the same when I visit Brazil.

Getting Married in Brazil

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As I have alluded to in earlier articles, I am actually engaged to Minha Namorada (my girlfriend), which is why in a few articles I have referred to her as Minha Noiva (my fiancee/bride).   I’m just not yet to that point in my Journal articles. In fact, we already did a beautiful small civil ceremony in Canada, as I elaborate on the need for which below, so I should probably even call her Minha Esposa (my wife). But, we are planning a religious ceremony for Brazil, because that is where her family is, and in planning this wedding, we have come to realize how much cheaper, and better, we can have a wedding there than a local Canadian wedding.

Now, to get started, there are some complications to get married in Brazil. Brazil used to be a Military Dictatorship, and so treated their military very well. This included an inheritance of the father’s pension for sons until they turned eighteen, and daughters until they got married. As you can imagine, this lead to some abuse of the system, where a daughter would get married in a Church, but not conduct a civil marriage. The daughter would then remain unmarried in the government’s eyes, and continue to the collect the pension, while being married in a religious sense to avoid any social taboos. The government’s solution to this was simple – they worked with the churches to require a civil marriage before one can get married in a church. Unlike most places in Canada, the marriage licenses in Brazil have a waiting time, so you could end up having to go down a month before your wedding to apply for the license. The easier way to handle this is to get married civilly in Canada, and then you can bring the paperwork to a church in Canada to have them contact their Brazilian equivalent, and certify that the marriage can proceed. If you don’t want a religious marriage, it is even easier – just do a quick trip to city hall before you go to do the paperwork.

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Toronto City Hall actually has a beautiful little ceremony room, with seating for about 15 guests

While there are many options to choose from, we elected to go with this lovely venue called Porto Pinheiro for the reception. They are located right on the beach, with a lovely outdoor area for the ceremony (should you choose), and a large air conditioned inside (which is important for people who plan to dance the night away).

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The outside of Porto Pinheiro is lovely for wedding ceremonies

The inside is just as beautiful!

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And the glass walls allow the view to be appreciated from the comfort of the air conditioned interior.

They do a set package for weddings on Sunday – Thursdays, which includes food, desserts (read: brigadeiro), cake, decorations, music, and lights. Drinks, except water/coconut water/ice, are usually not included, but can be bought easily – Duty free also allows you to buy up to $500 USD on landing in Brazil, which will allow you to supply your own alcohol should you choose. While prices for someone else might change, we are currently budgeting less than $10,000 Canadian to do the entire wedding in Brazil, which includes the the set package for 80 people, including an open bar, and a church ceremony. Compared with the cost of what Canadians usually pay for weddings, this option is a steal. Additionally, in terms of cost passed on to guests of a destination wedding, João Pessoa is extremely budget friendly – the flight is the only expensive part, and will probably be three quarters or more of the all-in cost. Depending on time of year, the costs can be comparable to that of an all-inclusive resort.

 

Bathrooms in Brazil

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I know bathrooms are a bit of taboo subject, but there are definitely some things you will want to know before you go.

As to terminology, bathrooms are known as “Os Banheiros” or “Os Sanitarios”.   While the former is more commonly used (and found on signs), with my horrible Portuguese accent, I find people are more likely to understand me if I say the latter.  You don’t need to actually ask “where is the bathroom?” (Onde é o banheiro?), like in English, just raise your voice at the end of the word to convey that you are asking a question.

However, you probably won’t want to use the public bathrooms for anything besides urinating.  Brazilian plumbing is not the same as Canadian.  This means that bathroom tissue does not go in the toilet.  There is a small garbage in the toilet, and that is where you are supposed to dispose of the soiled paper.   The garbage is changed frequently, but it still smells.  Also, it is a somewhat small, so you have to use paper sparingly.    Airport bathrooms are the worst though, so I would definitely recommend against those.   Go during your layover in the USA (assuming you don’t fly direct), and then you should be good until the hotel.

At people’s homes, or in hotel rooms, you are more likely to find a bidet. If it doesn’t work, check the hose for a handle, not everyone uses the bidet, and some people turn it off without realizing. Bidets, however, are the wave of the future. Read the reviews of bidets on Amazon, and the only complaint you’ll find about them is that people get addicted – once you get used to a mini shower for you tushy, it’s hard to feel clean without it. I don’t understand why these things aren’t common in Canada. There is the occasional time you will find one in a public bathroom, but those are far and few between.

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Handheld units are by far the most common, use it like you would use a showerhead.   The pressure can be a bit strong before you get used to it, so start slowly.   Paper is used to dry, otherwise your bottom will be wet just like when you step out of the shower (which, you butt basically will have).

Otherwise, the washrooms are fairly normal. You may occasionally see an open air urinal behind the back of some bars. Brazil generally has signs that ask you limit your paper towel use to two sheets, to help with the environment. Note, that while hand dryers are usually even more environmental, they largely undermine washing your hands at all, and that doesn’t even consider the issues of pull doors.

Flights to Brazil – the basics.

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One of the biggest impediments to travel is, of course, the cost. Flying will likely be your highest expense on the trip, as prices in Brazil are very low after the exchange rate (currently, the Brazilian Real is trading just under 3:1 with the Canadian dollar).

However, finding the right flights can be a very difficult proposition. Luckily (unluckily), Canadians are used to searching for cheap flights because local travel is so expensive as well, and most of the same tricks work well for booking travel to Brazil. I, myself, am still finding new methods for securing the best flight, but here are some basic tricks I’ve found so far:

1. Clear your browser history before starting your search – travel websites can significantly increase the prices if you have searched for flights before, or if their algorithms think you have. I actually have a dedicated browser that I use just for booking travel.

2. Check out yyzdeals.com or yycdeals.com or any of the cheap flight websites from Chris Myden – Chris keeps a blog of pricing mistakes by airlines, and sends out alerts. His websites are great for finding deals when you don’t care where/when you are flying, and Brazil is sometimes one of the destinations he finds – three days ago he posted flights for $561 (taxes included) Round-trip from Toronto to Rio de Janeiro, so it is well worth your time to check out his website.

3. Create travel alerts using Google Flights – Google flights has tended to be the cheapest way to find flights for me when I book travel. It will also show you the prices for days surrounding your specific flight date, and you can set it up to email you when prices change. Even once you find a good price this way, still search around, as the prices across various websites tend to drop at the same time. Statistics generally show that flights will be cheapest six weeks before your trip, but you’ll want to create a travel alert ahead of time, just in case.

4. When selecting a flight, make sure that the layover is long enough to get through customs. If you are travelling through Pearson airport in Toronto, then there is pre-clearance in Canada for any US layover, but coming back a layover of 90 minutes isn’t very long to get through customs, security, and to your next flight. Airlines are rarely forgiving of missed connections. This is even more true if you book the tickets separately (which is sometimes recommended by Google as the cheapest option). If you do end up with a long customs line and a short connection, flag down airport staff to help you.

5. Make sure you don’t have to change airports in a foreign city. Changing just the terminal in an airport can sometimes be a worrisome experience involving shuttle-bus travel, unclear instructions in another language, and feeling like you have left the airport. But in those cases at least airport staff are generally recognizable, are the most likely to speak English, and will almost always be available throughout your trip between terminals to help. However, some flights suggested by google might include changing airports, which can be expensive, and lead to lengthy delays, and create unexpected headaches. I would never recommend those.

São João – the unknown Brazilian Festival

Brazil is well known in Canada (and North America generally) for Carnival, even to the point that some stereotypes of Brazil tend to focus on some traditional samba dance wear due to its association with some Carnival celebrations.

However, one of the other big Brazilian celebrations is nearly unknown outside of Brazil, that festival is called São João, also called Festas Juninas.

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Sao Joao is a festival mainly held in the North and Northeast, but can also be found in the interior of São Paulo and other large urban centers. It started as a tradition imported from Portugal associated with St. John the Baptist, whose has a Feast day in June, leading to celebrations throughout the month, and sometimes even into July.

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One major part of the tradition is the lighting of a fogueira (a bonfire) on Saint John’s Eve (June 23rd), which is symbolic of the fire lit to tell Mary of the birth of St. John.

This holiday has now become a celebration of the rural life of farmers  (called Caipira – this word has similar associations to the redneck or yokel though, so they can use it to refer to themselves, you cannot), with boys dressing up in straw hats and plaid shirts, while girls dress in country dresses and pigtails.

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They dance in “Quadrinhas” (think square dances – even the music is surprisingly similar), and the festival celebrates the fertility of the land by hosting a mock wedding as the centre of the Quadrinhas.

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A mock wedding from São João, called a casamento matuto

Common midway games from North America are also found at the festivals, including mock “fishing” for prizes, ring/dart toss, and three-legged races. One-legged races are also popular stemming from their association with the Brazilian folklore surrounding Saci – a Brazilian prankster genie, who grants wishes to those who trap him or manage to steal his cap.

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Saci by André Koehne [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D
Essentially, when trying to imagine Sao Joao, think of the Calgary Stampede, with a less rodeo, and a lot more emphasis on country dancing, and you’ll get the gist of it.