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.

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.

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.

Journal Day 10

 

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Our Hotel in Pipa, the Recanto De Sophie.

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.

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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.

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Red cliffs just outside of Pipa Beach

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.

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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.

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 “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.

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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.