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.

Food differences in Brazil

As I’ve written about before, one of the best ways to experience a culture is through their food. So much history and modern society go into meal preparation that no two places are similar. However, many people when travelling will find themselves still reverting to their old favourites – be it a type of food or drink. Often this is because we all get a little bit homesick, and whether it is just part of your normal morning routine, a quick bit to eat in the afternoon, or a late night midnight snack, food is one one of the best ways to feel at home. However, certain foods either don’t exist in Brazil, or exist in a form uncommon in Canada.

1. Diet Coke is rare. Diet coke is the second highest selling soda product (behind only classic) in America, but finding it in Brazil would be rare indeed. While places still sell Coca Cola, Coke Zero is the drink of choice for those trying to keep their calories down. If you are like me, and simply prefer the taste of Diet Coke (I find regular too sweet), you are simply out of luck to find this. If they don’t have Coke Zero, and you don’t want water, your most likely calorie free alternative to water is Guaraná Zero, which kind of tastes like ginger ale.

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This is a picture of the regular (full calorie) type.  The can even reminds me of ginger ale.  Salvarequejo [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

2. Corn is saltier in Brazil. While “sweet corn” is grown in both Canada and Brazil, Brazilians tend to use a one known as maíz elote. It is more white than the corn more commonly found in Canada, and is saltier than normally found here. If you have ever had corn from Chipotle, this is more similar to what you will find in Brazil.

3. Coffee is almost always espresso only. Due to the heat in Brazil, people generally don’t want something warm to drink for awhile. While they want the caffeine effects, and (for some) the flavour, they aren’t going to want a large cup to drink over the next ten to fifteen minutes. So, most places you find will only have espresso – even getting an americcano can be hard, although it is sometimes possible to get them to dilute the espresso in a glass of hot water. You might get some odd looks, but they can easily do it.

4. Pancakes and maple syrup don’t really exist. Pancakes are more commonly found as crepes, but tend to be served with savoury foods rather than sweet. Maple Syrup truly is a Canadian thing, and even finding normal american table syrup in restaurants is uncommon.

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Meu Cunhado (my brother-in-law), after trying some Maple Syrup I brought, described it as very similar to honey – which I thought was a very apt comparison.

When feeling homesick, the best way is to stick to brand name snack foods, or foods like fries, pizza, and chicken strips. As well, there is something reassuring, and yet mildly unnerving, that McDonald’s will be the same nearly anywhere you go in the world.

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.