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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Minha Namorada (My Girlfriend) and I had finally arrived in Praia de Pipa. This city had one of the largest nightlife I have seen in Brazil – the streets actually are probably the quietest betwen 7-10 p.m., as everyone is inside getting food before they go out for the night. The street fills with giant crowds and become one large party every night. Given the relaxed drinking rules in Brazil, they don’t mind if you buy a beer from one bar, but then go wandering with the drink in hand (making sure to pay first). This is where I encountered the most amount of tourists during all of the my times to Brazil – our neighbors in the adjoining chalet were British, I overheard German a few times, and it was not out of place to overhear people speaking English in any bar. I really liked the city because it still felt like authentic Brazil, but my Portuguese was not what it is now (although I’m still far from fluent), so I did enjoy the tourist-nature of the city, so that menus were available in English, with most servers understanding me.
Pipa is gorgeous, with pure white sand beaches, and gorgeous red sand beaches adjoining each other. There is a big cliff face to get down to the beaches though, with natural stairs built into the hillsides, so you need to be careful when walking – bars are mostly located on the beach (of course), but that means you eventually have to ascend the cliff at the end of the day when you might be slightly inebriated. This also means you should bring everything you need with you for the beach, as you probably won’t want to walk up and down those stairs just to grab your Sunscreen or a bottle of water.
Minha Namorada and I spent the day at the beach, and then went to this beautiful bar that is only open in the evening to watch the sunset – Mirante Sunset Bar. There is a small cover charge to just be there, and the food is nothing to write home about, but the view is absolutely stunning. I took some pictures, but even they don’t do it justice. I highly recommend you visit to see for yourself. The bar doesn’t let too many people in, so that everyone can enjoy their time there, so I’d recommend getting there right as it opens, but every seat is designed to allow you to take in the breathtaking view.
It rained briefly while we were there, but luckily the rain never tends to stay for long (it tends to be short, intense bursts), and even then the sun still shines while its raining. Sun Showers are actually my favourite type of weather – rain doesn’t really bother me when its 25 and I can still feel sun on the back of my neck.
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.
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.
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.
They dance in “Quadrilhas” (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 Quadrilhas.
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.
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.
Everyone knows keeping hydrated is important, but it is easily missed in Brazil (and other tropical areas). This can easily ruin a day or two of your trip, and given the low amount of vacation days Canadians get, you don’t want to lose any of them to easily avoidable situations.
On the left is what you think of when you order water at a restaurant, but on the right is what you get.
Now, to be clear, tap water in Brazil (in most places) is perfectly safe to drink. I know a lot of Canadians think all tropical places have unsafe drinking water, but this isn’t true. In addition, not everywhere in the USA has safe drinking water (for example – Flint, Michigan). Brazil actually has great water purification systems in place in urban areas, and you don’t need to worry. That said, everywhere you drink water, you’ll find it comes in bottles. Tap water is never drank, even in homes, partly because of prior times when it was not as healthy, and partly because their method for purification leaves an odd taste that some people don’t like. Always stop at a grocery or convenience store to buy water if you are staying in a hotel – the hotel will charge more than double the price for half the water, and there is no point in wasting money on water. Feel free to brush your teeth or rinse with the tap water, but the taste is bad enough that you won’t want to drink it straight.
The main problem with tap water not being served is that, like in Canada, restaurants and bars always charge for bottled water. This, combined with the cheap beer/drinks makes it easy to forget to drink water. I have often caught myself dismissing ordering water, because I think “well, if have to pay either way, I might as well buy beer”, and this is even easier do when sometimes (although rare) the beer is cheaper than the water. However, you’d be wrong to do this. As everyone who has ever had a hangover will tell you, drink water is essential. This is even more true in hot tropical climates where you will spend all day sweating. Drink water, and drink it often. I try to make sure to drink water at least one in four drinks, if not more.
Also, it isn’t expensive to buy water even at bars, as the exchange rate works heavily in your favour, but the price is close enough to Canadian prices it will trick you – three Brazilian Reals for Water sounds expensive, until you remember that is only one Canadian dollar. If I told you you could get a beer and a glass of water for four dollars Canadian at a bar, people would be lined up out the door. You need to view the price of buying the occasional water as part of the price of the beer you drink. But if you really can’t get yourself over the knee-jerk reaction of refusing to pay for water, buy it at a grocery store earlier in the day. Water at a grocery store isn’t even expensive in Canada, and it’s much cheaper in Brazil. For a dollar, you can get a large bottle of water to take on your travels. Drinking from it regularly throughout your day will go a long way to keeping you hydrated. Ideally, if you really want to avoid a hangover, you would do both.
That being said, if you do get a bad hangover, or fear one coming, I personally find a water and a Gatorade right before you go to sleep, and another right after you wake up is a good home remedy to keep the hangover to a minimum.
When I dress for travel, I throw aesthetics out the window right away – no matter how good you look at the beginning of your trip, you will never look good after 24 hours of transiting, so I don’t waste effort on that.* Your loved ones will be happy to see you no matter what, and you’ll have a better trip, and be ready to go faster, if you traveled comfortably. So, keeping that in mind, here are my travel suggestions on what to wear:
1. A baggy T-shirt
Think the type of T-shirt that you would wear as pajamas. You want a T-shirt that doesn’t have buttons that can dig into you. You don’t want to wear anything lighter than a T- shirt, because they don’t exactly have a long time between passengers on planes, and you never know who/what was there before you – thus, its best to minimize contact with the plane seat as much as possible. But, since you can’t control the plane temperature, you may need to strip down to just the shirt to avoid excessive sweating. The T-Shirt being a little bit big also helps it breath.
2. A hoodie with a zipper front
Again, since you can’t control the temperature it may get a bit cold – the hoodie helps with that. While I try to avoid zippers as much as possible while flying, you won’t know if your plane is too hot or too cold until you are a little bit into your flight, and its awkward to get up, disturbing your seat-mates to remove a pullover, but the T-shirt underneath should help protect the zipper from digging into you in any event. Ideally, the the hoodie will have pockets to hold onto those items you need immediate access to (that you don’t keep in your backpack), and can double as a pillow/blanket if you want to sleep. The pillow they give you on the plane is meant for your lower back to make the seat more comfortable, not for your face.
3. Running tights and compression socks.
For long flights, there can be a risk of blood clots or other issues when you sit too long. If you are young/not diabetic, you likely don’t need to be too concerned, but running tights and compression socks still help avoid the muscle ache in your legs that comes from sitting for too long – I’m not saying there will be none, just less. The tights and, especially the compression socks, are specifically designed to encourage blood flow. If you are diabetic, these are a must, since circulation becomes more of an issue, and flying halfway around the world can test anyone’s limits.
Tights look a bit too revealing without anything to cover them, but jeans/slacks have strong zippers, and buttons that can dig into you when you sit in a cramped seat for long flights. Sweat pants breath and help regulate your body temperature, but most importantly are designed with comfort in mind. Ideally, you’ll want ones with pockets again (like your hoodie), but it is not necessary, because your backpack is for items needed on the plane. Storing items in your pockets just makes your clothing less comfortable, hoodie pockets are better for that anyways.
5. Wear a hat
A hat is useful in case you want to sleep and its still bright out. Even if you have a window, there is a good chance someone else’s window will be open and the light will keep you awake. Or, what if your seatmate isn’t able to sleep, so decides to read a book, and turns on the overhead light. Your best solution is to have a hat that will at least dim things for you.
6. Don’t bring a coat
Depending on your dropoff/pickup you can just have someone bring your coat (that is how Minha Namorada and I handle it). With trains/taxis/ubers you will probably only have a couple minutes of extra cold weather in the worst scenarios. Coats take up lots of luggage space, and believe me, you’ll regret wearing it on the plane, especially once you get anywhere south of Canada.
7. Comfortable shoes don’t matter
You won’t be standing, you won’t be walking. So, it doesn’t matter if they are your most comfortable shoes. Save space in your luggage by wearing the shoes that take up the most amount of space – for me, that’s usually my dress shoes.
8. Use your backpack unless you immediately need an item
When you are waiting in line at the airport, then it makes sense to use the pockets (to hold your wallet, tickets, passport etc.) but after the transaction, return the item to your backpack. It helps you remember not to lose things (since you put them away immediately), but it also avoids you getting jabbed by something in your pocket. Otherwise, follow good backpack practice.
* Minha Namorada (my girlfriend) thinks you can look good and travel, but I would rather the extra 1% of comfort.
Fast forward seven months, and its my next trip to Brazil. In the meantime, Minha Namorada (My Girlfriend) and I had grown much closer, we spoke every day on WhatsApp (video calling is a godsend to long distance relationships), and she had spent a large part of the summer with me in Canada.
This time, I felt much more comfortable walking into her home after a long flight, smelling terrible after 24 hours of travel, and craving a shower – this was a big sign of how welcome her family had made me feel from day one of my first trip. We didn’t hang out too much at her home though, as Minha Namorada wanted me to see the Sunset from downtown and so whisked me away after just enough time to stretch my legs and say hi to her family.
While I did get some beautiful views, we missed the sunset by about five minutes. Downtown João Pessoa is beautiful though, as I’ve mentioned. It used to be the richest neighborhood in João Pessoa, and the architecture reflects that, but large swaths of downtown are now abandoned. The rich having moved to the coast to be right next to the ocean. Being unable to resell these properties for their values, they have now been long abandoned, and an uneasiness has settled around the downtown core.
This is not a safe place to be at night, although during the day there are still many tourist attractions worth checking out – just start early, and leave after sunset. That being said, there are still busy bars downtown, so its not all parts that are unsafe. The basic rule is of safety in numbers still applies. If you want to go at night, make sure to check with your hotel if its a night where one of the downtown bars is having a large gathering, and then Uber directly there and back.
Downtown even has a thriving Chinatown community, where everything seemed incredibly similar to a China Town in Canada that, if not for the language. My first trip, I had barely seen any foreigners other than myself, and there are definitely less in Brazil than in Canada (for example, Japanese and Chinese restaurants tend to be staffed by ethnic Brazilians), but there are still lots of expats in Brazil. This trip, my suitcase had broken a wheel, and we went downtown to get it fixed – that is another lesson I liked from Brazil, there is a much stronger emphasis on fixing things that are broken, rather than just throwing them out and buying new. For 45 Reals (about 20 dollars) my suitcase was as good as new.
I also insisted that first night that we have one thing I had been craving since I got back to Canada from my previous trip – hot temaki. Brazil has taken the wonderful taste of sushi, and they deep fry it in batter similar to chicken-strip batter, and it is one of the best tasting (and horrible for my waistline) foods that exists.