The Brazilian system of politics is very polarized. Now, I know some Canadians may look to our southern neighbors and think we understand polarization, but there is really no comparison. Americans are just more polarized than Canadians, but they can’t really hold a candle to Brazil.
In Brazil, there really is no longer any semblance of a center. To understand their political parties, imagine one political extremist scaremongering describing their opponent. Unfortunately, that’s actually a fairly good description of each of the major political sides in Brazil. Minha Esposa (my wife) even lost some very close friends after the last election, simply because she said that there were good people and bad people that voted for both, and could everyone agree that they hoped Brazil would prosper. That should be an incredibly innocuous statement, hoping that the leaders do a good job, and that one’s country prospers, but she was hated by both sides – how dare she suggest that anyone with any good in them could vote for the “other side”? And the vitrol with which they hate the other side’s leader, you aren’t even allowed to hope they do a good job. The best you are allowed to say is that you hope they don’t screw up too much. Meanwhile, the supporters of a candidate celebrate a win with fireworks and giant parties in the street; cheering so loud it seems like Brazil just won the World Cup.
You should also consider that it is unlikely you will get an unbiased political source in Canada. It is hard enough to get those on our own politicians, and we see our government every day. I’ve seen massively cherry picked articles in Canada about Brazil, and when I ask Minha Esposa about the context, I find out there is significantly more to the story, which sometimes changes the entire situation.
Corruption is also very common in the government in Brazil. Even the Brazilians who champion fighting against corruption are tarred and feathered with allegations of corruption against them, sometimes as scare tactics, and sadly, sometimes because its true.
I have only once been asked by a stranger (a single-serving friend) about my political opinion in Brazil, and that was because I was there during the election. I did not shy away from the discussion because I did not know better, but I lucked out because I agreed with him. Since that time, I’ve learned more about the tense political climate, and nowadays, I would simply say “being Canadian, it is hard to follow politics in Brazil. I just hope the candidate who is best for the country wins.”
In Canada, we almost have a two-stage greeting whenever chatting with someone. First we exchange some form of “Hello”, and then we exchange some form of “how are you?” This is fairly standard, and even repeated phone calls in a short period of time tend to start with this exchange. No one really cares what the answer to “how are you?” is, and any answer other than “good” is viewed as odd. If you want an actual answer, you have to ask a second time – usually varying the wording slightly.
However, in Brazil this is not done. A person does not ask “how are you” (Portuguese, “Tudo Bom?”) without actually meaning it. So, you don’t have the same exchange of pleasantries before getting into a conversation. For Canadians hearing this, it may seem abrupt, or even rude. But it should not be taken that way. In fact, it is actually a little odd that Canadians do this weird exchange, as it makes no sense to ask questions for which we don’t want an actual answer. I explained to Minha Esposa (my wife) that I even tend to do this when I go to the doctor, when I am notably not “good”, as that’s why I am at the doctor.
This is also something that Minha Esposa is having trouble with in Canada. She does not understand this exchange, or why people do it – she assumes people who ask her how she is doing actually want an answer, and she does not ask unless she is genuinely interested in how others are doing. And, really, that is how it should be. After spending some time thinking about this, the best explanation I can come up to as to why Canadians do this, is that we are essentially offering to let the other person speak first if they have something important to discuss. The “how are you?” essentially means “I would like to discuss something with you, but if you have something urgent, I am offering you a chance to speak first.” So, it is actually part of the stereotype of Canadian Politeness. While I have offered this explanation to Minha Esposa, she makes a good point that it is not actually all that polite to ask a question and not care about the answer. Since Canadians do this almost by instinct, it isn’t something I’d really thought about before. But, I love that learning about Brazilian Culture, it also gives me a chance to learn about my own.
However, in Brazil, it is not uncommon for women to kiss on the cheek when meeting, and men often exchange a pat on the back when greeting one another. Physical contact is important in Brazil for warm greetings. Due to the multicultural nature of Canada, this happens sometimes here, but not nearly as often as you’ll see in Brazil. So, I still find it odd and have difficulty getting used to it. But, it does make me feel extremely welcome.
Brazilians don’t generally celebrate Valentine’s Day like we do in Canada. St. Valentine is still associated with couples and romance and love, but oddly, his feast day is not celebrated nearly as much in Brazil. Instead, they celebrate Dia Dos Namorados (kind of “couples day”) on June 12th. This celebration is still associated with a patron saint of couples, Saint Anthony, whose feast day is June 13th (so the holiday is essentially “St. Anthony’s Eve”, like “All Hallow’s Eve” is Halloween. He is supposed to bless young couples for a happy and properous marriage.
The holiday is very similar to the Valentine’s day in Canada, exchanging tokens of love such as letters, flowers, or chocolate. However, it is not viewed as simply a day for the woman – both people in the relationship are to be celebrated. Women are expected to do things for their men as well, and often actually do more (traditional gender roles being stronger in Brazil, its not unusual for women to be more sentimental). This is a gift-giving holiday, so presents are also generally expected by the couples. Many restaurants also do special meals, and packages associated with this special day.
Personally, I do like the nature of the Brazilian Holiday better than the Canadian, as Valentines in Canada has, unfortunately, lost some of the mutual celebration aspects. It is supposed to be a celebration of the relationship, I don’t understand how that can ever only include just half of the couple – although much of our media might make you think otherwise.
Oddly, there is very little influence from North America in Brazil for this holiday. I was in Brazil for Valentine’s Day in February, and there was nothing special in most stores, almost no mention of it anywhere, except by the other Canadians I was with. So, if you are visiting in February, make sure to bring any Valentine’s Day cards with you, because last minute purchases will not be an option.
As for me, I have to plan four months in advance, or I’m stuck trying to find Valentine’s day cards in June for Minha Namorada…
Like in Canada, Brazilian Mother’s day falls on the second Sunday in May. Oddly for Brazil, this is not a holiday widely linked to a Catholic celebration, despite there being many countries around the world that do so.
Also similar to Canada, everyone celebrates it somewhat differently. Meu Cunhado (my brother-in-law) sent Minha Sogra a ready-made breakfast, whereas the distance makes it hard for Minha Namorada and me to do anything more than call. However, a big distinction with Mother’s Day in Brazil rather than Canada, is that in Brazil you celebrate all mothers. If you have friends/family that are mothers, you wish them a happy Mother’s day too. I am of two minds when it comes to this.
I really like the sense of community that the collective celebration entails. It reminds everyone of the important role that mothers play in our society. Canadians, of course, realize this, but I still like the idea of having everyone together taking a day to recognize that importance. It also makes it into a bigger celebration, since everyone is taking part with everyone else in celebrating all mothers. There also tend to be lunch or dinner with the extended family, as all the mothers are feted together, and I always find the holidays with big family meals are better. They also keep the whole family close. Finally, it would be much harder to forget the day in Brazil than in Canada, which is always useful for us forgetful types.
However, on the other hand, I like that we celebrate our specific mother on Mother’s Day. It seems more special that way, and I would feel almost like I was betraying my mom by wishing someone else a Happy Mother’s Day (grandmothers excepted). Especially, since Mother’s always make birthdays all about the child, when really she’s the one that did more work that day. Other than the first couple of birthdays when babies don’t really understand what is going on, and so the husband does make it about the wife, there is very little done to celebrate one’s mom on the day she became a mom. So, I like that there is a specific day set aside when everyone is expected to celebrate their specific mom. Ideally, having a small intimate dinner with just the immediate family, where everyone is there to celebrate just that important woman in their life. It is the same as that I don’t want Valentines Day to be about celebrating all couples. for me, I want it to be celebrating just Minha Namorada. So, why would Mother’s Day be for celebrating all mothers, and not just mine?
Shrimp – 400 grams
Garlic – 5 cloves
Onion – one large
Green Pepper – Half of one
Cilantro – 1/2 cup
Tomato – one large
Tomato sauce – two spoons
Coconut milk – 1 can
In a pan, add the shrimp, two cloves of garlic (grated or pressed), half of the onion (grated), a splash of olive oil, and a small amount of water. Cook until the shrimp becomes pink – the actual cooking time can vary, but it should be fairly quick.
Strain the water into another bowl and set aside the water and the shrimp for later.
In another pan, add 3 cloves of garlic (grated or pressed), the other half of the onion (grated), another splash of olive oil, and cook until slightly browned.
Chop up the Cilantro, Green Pepper, and Tomato, then add to a pot.
Combine with the browned garlic and onion, and heat until warm. Then add the water from the shrimp, two spoons of tomato sauce, 1 can of cocounut milk, and 1/4 cup of additional water.
Once all ingredients are warm (not hot), pour into blender and blend briefly until there are no large chunks.
Return to a pot, add the shrimp, and heat until hot. Your Ensopado is ready.
When I was visiting Minha Namorada over Christmas, Meu Sogro (my Father-in-law) invited us to visit his hometown, Picuí, as he was excited to show me where he grew up.
Getting there was an adventure on its own. Driving in Brazil is already a scary concept for a Canadian, but the drive between Joao Pessoa and Picuí has its own special set of fears. As we had to drive uphill, there were fifty-six button hook turns on the highway. The roads in this area were well-maintained, but the numerous monuments to loved ones on the roadside attested to the danger that drove the need for well-maintained roads – we would hardly pass 50 feet between the roadside crosses. However, this does not slow down the Brazilian drivers. Every car I saw was travelling well above the speed limit, and cutting the corners, lightly honking the horn to tell any driver on the other side of the turn that they were coming. I have rarely feared for my life while driving, but this was definitely an exception. Later I was told there is another, slightly slower, route that has no such turns, and we took that way home.
When Minha Namorada and I went to step outside, she asked me if I was “ready for hell”, because of the heat. And, while I do admit it was hot (definitely above 30 Celsius), I told Minha Namorada that it wasn’t nearly as bad as Joao Pessoa. It was hot, but much of the Brazilian Interior is extremely dry, and Picuí is one of the driest of those. As people will often attest, its the heat, not the humidity, and a little bit of shade went a long way in Picuí. Picuí is located in a place called the Polígono das secas (Drought Polygon). It has droughts unrelated to Climate Change (although that doesn’t help), and, when I visited, they had gone five years without rain – the former river beds had become football fields, and most farms in the area raised goats, which can eat cacti. It actually rained above two weeks after we left Picuí, and Meu Sogro sent me a video of the people outside cheering and watching the giant storm. It warmed my heart to see their prayers for water had finally been answered.
No rain for years
A former farmhouse
Still a beautiful farm
Clouds don’t always mean rain
Still a beautiful landscape
Now, Picuí is a small town, and small town Brazil is a lot different than the big cities. They are very reminiscent of small town North America, and while there are still a few more walls and gates than you might normally see here, there isn’t the need. Crime levels are generally less, because everybody knows everybody, and watches out for one another. There is also not the same level of distinction between rich areas and favelas. Very nice houses can be close to poor ones, and so you never know until you get somewhere what the place will look like. The Priest for the small town is one of the most important people in the city, and things tend to move at a slow pace.
Inside the Cruzeta Church
Inside the Cruzeta Church
The Church in Cruzeta
Prices in restaurants are very cheap – Minha Namorada and I had a large stuffed crust pizza, with four beers and a pop for less than 30 Reals (about $10 Canadian at the time) – including a cover charge for the band. I don’t necessarily recommend travelling to these towns for the average traveler, as there is a lower chance people will speak English. Accents also differ significantly, as they do anywhere, but I can never really guess who I will understand when speaking Portuguese. Trained politicians are sometimes harder for me to understand than an average joe off the street. But, I will say that everyone there is extremely welcoming, even compared to the warm greetings I have always found in the rest of Brazil.
The big event of the year in Picuí, as it is for all the small towns in the region, is their Carne De Sol festival. The centre of many small towns we drove through were clearly built with this in mind, as I couldn’t imagine many gatherings that would require so much space in any small town otherwise. During these events, all the surrounding towns visit, and the places are packed to the brim. These events appear to happen regularly, but varying from town to town, and create a wonderful sense of comraderie and good natured rivalry between the cities.
I can’t say for certain if Picuí is a good representative of small towns in general in Brazil, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Easter, or Pascoa in Brazil, is a time for celebration. Of course, coming before it is Good Friday, a quiet day for reflection in Brazil. Religion is part of everyday life in Brazil (nearly 90% are christian), and so Good Friday has many norms. Drinking and partying are both inappropriate to do on the Friday, and you’ll probably get weird looks for doing so. Many families actually eat fish the entire weekend. But Holy Saturday can be treated much more like a normal Saturday, and there aren’t the prohibitions that exist for Good Friday. Many families do keep at least Easter Sunday to be like the sabbath commonly was followed in Canada. No television, no internet, and the time should be spent visiting with relatives. But, no matter the family, Easter is a big day for celebration.
Churches, that have the Crucifixes covered for Lent, reveal the imagery of Jesus. The chocolate eggs are often elaborate, and filled with brigadeiro and other chocolate – they cost a pretty penny to boot. The Easter Bunny, however, is not a common character associated with the holiday in Brazil – probably, because by keeping closer to the religious aspects, there isn’t as much room for secular aspects that exist in Canada.
I can’t say that Easter is much different in Brazil than Canada, I think its because Easter in Brazil just seems bigger than in Canada. But, given that the holiday is a defining part of Christianity, you would find very similar celebrations in any christian church or family in Canada. And, most of the differences are just in the degree of commitment to the holiday. The cultural aspects tend to drift away, because so many religious traditions are the same across the continents.
If you are in Brazil and feeling homesick, the holidays can sometimes still feel just like home.
When travelling to Brazil, you’ll probably at some point consider the fact that you’ll have to charge your electrical devices, and you’ll wonder about the outlets – will you be able to plug everything in? Unfortunately, this is not an easy answer. Because, in Brazil, they have three different types of outlets (not counting the large-device plugs for fridges, air conditioners, etc.).
The second type are probably the least common, but could be easily made backwards adaptable so that new devices could use prior plugs with minor modifications – this way people didn’t need adapters for their day-to-do.
The third type are no doubt the safest – they are the only properly grounded outlets, and the outlets themselves are slightly recessed so as to avoid that short period when both the metal is exposed and the electricity is still flowing. It also helps reduce the chance of sparks when plugging/unplugging a device, as the spark is better contained in the plastic cover.
However, this is only half of the battle – you also need to check your device, because the Brazilian power system is generally on 220v. While this has some benefits for devices that run on both (my cellphone charges so incredibly quickly), this does mean that some electrical devices can be damaged if you use them without a transformer. Most devices will be fine, but its still best to check.
So, if you are wondering what adapter to buy before travelling to Brazil, the answer is “don’t.” Buy an adapter after checking into your hotel and determining which type of outlet you need – it varies too much right now, and even Minha Namorada carries an adapter with her so that she can use outlets wherever she goes. This also has the added benefit of being cheaper, since there isn’t enough demand in Canada to make Brazilian Adapters profitable, you’d have to buy a high-end universal adapter here to ensure it covers Brazil, whereas you can get them cheap at the hotel in Brazil, or even cheaper at a local mall.
I sincerely hope you don’t get sick when on vacation. Brazil has some great doctors and clinics, but being sick during the holidays is just not fun. But, should you get sick, you should be assured that you will be in well-trained hands.
Should you have to go to the doctor for an emergency, remember that most travel insurance providers require you to call them prior to receiving treatment, or at least at your first opportunity – this can often be done by someone on your behalf if you are in a life-threatening situation. It is for this reason you should keep a copy of your insurance in your wallet, and a digital copy should be sent to one of your travelling companions before you go. That way, you can access it, and your friend can access it, should you need. Most travel insurers will help you find the right care, and from someone who speaks English, which is a lot more useful in an emergency.
However, you might get slightly sick in the country, but not so much that you consider it an emergency – what if you just catch a cold, or have a bad cough. Your travel insurance isn’t designed for this, but if you want to make sure it isn’t something more serious/get some advice on the correct over-the-counter remedy, you’ll want to talk with a doctor. Now, Canadians are scared about going to see doctors in foreign countries for good reason – getting a band aid from a hospital in the United States can cost over $600, but you needn’t be as concerned in Brazil. Brazil has a mixed private-public system (as a Canadian, you’ll have to pay either way), but their system is not nearly as expensive as in Canada. If you have an illness you just want checked out while vacationing, try a policlinica. These are essentially walk-in clinics like in Canada. During one visit, I had a bad cough that worried Minha Namorada, so she insisted I go. After less than a fifteen minute wait, and about $30, I had visited a General Practitioner, and he’d suggested some medicines that I could take – of note, I could have chosen to see a specialist in the office, although those were a bit more expensive. Unlike in Canada, GP’s aren’t gatekeepers in Brazil, so you don’t need a referral. Your only issue then is the language barrier, but time isn’t of the essence in a non-emergency situation – so either call ahead and find out if they speak English, or you can use your phone in a pinch.
When going to the pharmacist to fill any prescription, I generally ask for the generic brand of the medicine. Like in Canada, it is essentially the same product, and getting the brand name is paying for the trademark.