Picuí, and other small towns of Brazil

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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.

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.

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The Churches in small towns are some of the most beautiful buildings.  I didn’t actually make it inside this one, as Meu Sogro knows the Father of the church in a nearby city, 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.

aCanadianInBrazil does Venice

Venice, or Venezia in Italian, is probably the most beautiful cities Minha Namorada and I have ever seen. Wherever we walked, we couldn’t help but stare at all the beautiful buildings nearby.

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The canals in Venice were wonderful, we just took the bus (read: public transport boat) and looked at all the beautiful architecture

One important thing to know about Venice before visiting is that there are no cars, or motorized vehicles of any type. In fact, it was only on one island where we even saw bicycles, and those were owned by little kids. So, if you aren’t into walking, including many stairs, then Venice isn’t for you. Minha Namorada and I didn’t know this when we first arrived, and so we had some confusing times searching for a taxi stand; there are taxis, but only water taxis, which are expensive, and they can’t even take you everywhere. Generally speaking, you’ll do better to buy a water bus pass for however long you are there – Venice isn’t big, so you can easily walk lots of places, but if you need to get to the other side of the canal, a short distance can still be a long walk if you need to find a bridge. Minha Namorada also found it was wonderful to ride the water bus and see the sites.

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In the center you can see the Water Bus, with outdoor seating in the front and back, and indoor seating in the middle.

Minha Namorada and I probably chose one of the best times to visit Venice, as we arrived when there was the Covid-19 scare, but nothing was shut down yet. That started about 36 hours after we left. So, we had a city that was nearly empty, but all the stores were still open. We got discounts at every store we went to, and never had to wait in line once. The only place we weren’t able to visit was St. Mark’s Basilica, which was only open for prayer – we still went and prayed, but there was obviously much more inside that we couldn’t explore. If you could be guaranteed to not get sick, I’d highly recommend you visit a place right before a plague hits.

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Venice was empty enough, but we managed to get other inhabitants to pose for our pictures.

When in Venice, you’ll see all these things that look like tables stacked near buildings. Minha Namorada and I couldn’t figure out why until out last day, when we saw first-hand an obvious fact about Venice; it floods a lot. The tables are actually mobile elevated walkways that they move so that you can get around the City even when the water level is high. Some stores get flooded, but they just discount that merchandise, and continue about their day. Flooding is just a part of life in Venice. As much as you might save money on the discounted merchandise, you don’t want it. The water in the Venice canals is not very clean at all.

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This is inside Piazza San Marco on a normal day.  It was so devoid of tourists that the birds were actually land on people en masse trying to get food.
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And here it is just a couple days later, as Minha Namorada and I passed through on our way to the airport.

Venice is a very expensive city. Even meeting other tourists, they complained about the prices. The cheapest places we found to drink were actually Irish Pubs. And, it is always interesting to see one culture’s take on another culture. McDonald’s was the same, as always, though. Even so, Minha Namorada and I spoke extensively about how nice it would be to move there.

The airport in Venice takes quite a long time to get to. It is over an hour from the grand canal to the airport (again, by boat – not included in your normal water-bus pass), and then probably a fifteen minute walk to get from one side of the airport to the ticket counter.

aCanadianInBrazil does Florence

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Florence (Firenze in Italian) was a very beautiful city, but I found it very small. Minha Namorada and I were there for three nights, and with the exception of a couple museums, we saw basically everything. Now, our timing has to be taken with a grain of salt, as we did travel shortly before the COVID-19 outbreak, and the tourist crowds were significantly reduced, but there just wasn’t that much to do in the City. I think a week there would be far too long.

One significant drawback of the small crowds was the lack of taxis when we arrived. We ended up waiting at the train station for over half an hour, even after calling one. Note: do not expect anyone to help you find a taxi – I found the people at the train station were too busy to be willing to help. Finally, one older gentleman agreed to help us, despite his poor English. After that, we learned to call ahead to arrange for a taxi.

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Michaelangelo’s David, at 5.17 meters tall, it was much bigger than I ever imagined.
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It was weird to view Michaelangelo’s David from angles not normally photographed

The best part of our trip was probably seeing Michelangelo’s David. Now, I had known for a long time of the name, but it was only when there that I realized it was a sculpture of King David from the Bible. As well, David is much larger than I ever would have guessed. Sadly, it has been damaged over the years, including by some saboteurs, but it still is a wondrous site to see. Looking upon it, one gets the impression that this marble man could move at any moment.

As well of interest, is the fact that many famous artists from history are buried in Florence. Viewed as a high honour to be buried in the churches, the Basilica di Santa Croce is the burial place of Michelangelo, Bartolini, Galileo, Machiavelli, and many others. The reason for the burials in Florence, is that it has a long and storied history as a center of wealth and intellect. It is known as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, and even served at the capital of the Kingdom of Italy from 1865-1871.

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Some of the artwork of the Basilica di Santa Croce, the burial place of Michaelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and others

Florence is also extremely walkable, and is viewed as one of the most walkable cities in the world. Other than when you have to carry your luggage to and from the train station, I don’t see any need for taxis/transit. We booked our tour of the Florence Duomo online ahead of time, which included skip-the-line passes, but you should be aware that there are also free tours offered in the Duomo. So, check those times, and if you don’t mind a wait in line, you may be able to save your money.

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The inside of the Florence Duomo, built by Filippo Brunelleschi. He refused to tell anyone how he built it, to protect his work and prevent others from copying it. Entire theses have been written by architecture PhDs trying to replicate this fifteenth century work
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The Florence Duomo is also known as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, and remains a fully functioning church

One thing to be aware of, depending on where you stay, when hotels offer an “Italian Breakfast” in the room, it will be basically a croissant and a coffee. Even ordering additional food for breakfast, Minha Namorada and I were often left hungry in the morning. I felt like a Hobbit always wondering what I wanted for “Second Breakfast.”

Travel with us! Gallery update

Given the recent COVID-19 issues around the world, I thought my readers might appreciate an updated gallery, so you can travel with me and Minha Namorada (my girlfriend… I guess I should say Wife actually).

We took our honeymoon in one of the hardest hit countries for Coronavirus, so you may not be able to visit there anytime soon. To see it with us, please visit the Gallery for aCanadianInBrazil does Italy!

Outlets in Brazil

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 first outlets are actually the North American standard – these are more common in older areas, but Brazil changed outlet type a couple times.

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Type B Outlet

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.

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Type C Outlet

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.

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Type N Outlet – Fasouzafreitas [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
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.

Christmas In Brazil

This year Minha Namorada and I spent Christmas (called Natal) in Brazil. There were both a lot of similarities, and a lot of differences. Of course, the main difference, was the weather. They don’t exactly have White Christmases in Brazil. I found it initially hard to get into the Christmas Spirit because of this – Christmas is so associated with winter in Canada that once the hot sun hit me, it suddenly felt like it was no longer December. Brazil is the land of eternal summer after all. I did somewhat miss the feeling when you come in from a bitterly cold winter day and tear off the winter gear as the warmth from inside slowly soaks into your frozen limbs. The feeling of slowly warming up is very much associated with Christmas to me, but I’m also one of those crazy Canadians who loves winter. But, watching fireworks by the beach for Christmas is pretty good too.

Brazilians, like many French Canadians, traditionally have their Christmas Dinner at midnight on Christmas Eve. Many families don’t actually stay awake that late nowadays, but it has led to many more people having “Christmas Eve Dinner” rather than “Christmas Dinner” – Christmas being a day for relaxation and spending time with family. Christmas Eve, though, has many parties and outings, which start and end late, due to family commitments that run well into the evening. For example, we were out until about 3 a.m. drinking with one of Minha Namorada’s cousins, and some other cousins were at a party until 7 a.m. Christmas morning itself, is usually spent sleeping as a result.

Santa, or Papai Noel, as he is known in Brazil, is still just as prevalent, although his clothing doesn’t make as much sense when its not cold. I’m not sure the extent to which kids believe in Santa. Minha Namorada said it wasn’t that common, but when I showed my sobrinha (niece – actually one of Minha Namorada’s cousin’s daughter) the NORAD Santa Tracker, she was fascinated and constantly asking me to update her as to where Santa was and where he was going next.

The food is actually extremely similar to food in Canada. I would not have been surprised at all to have had that exact same meal in Canada.

While Christmas gifts are common in Brazil, neither myself nor Minha Namorada come from families that are big on buying presents for Christmas. We’d both rather just spend the time together, and maybe do a little bit nicer meals around the holidays.

I don’t have all the pictures we took, as we mostly used Minha Namorada’s phone.  check out the gallery in a future update for them.

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.

Exercising in Brazil

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Now, I understand that many people don’t exercise, or work out when on vacation. But, just as many like actually enjoy their workout, and so keep to their routine when travelling. However, there are some important things to consider when doing your workout in Brazil.

While Minha Namorada (my girlfriend) will sometimes mention that Toronto, on its hottest summer days, is worse than Brazil, she still considers Toronto to be very dry. So, the mix of the (low 30’s) heat in Brazil, and the high humidity makes working out that much harder. Perspiration doesn’t have the same ability to cool you down in humid weather so you will definitely overheat when in Brazil that much more.

Please note the below are my experience, and you really should talk to a medical professional before doing any sort of workout to ensure that you are healthy enough to partake. Talk to your doctor about what precautions you should take for the Brazilian climate.

Because of this increased heat, you have to take your workout slow. On the first day, I would do a maximum of 75% of my normal workout. While I might not get that same “runner’s high”, just as often I find myself “hitting the wall” much faster than normal. I never want to overdo it and ruin my ability to workout the next day, or, even worse, find myself too exhausted to enjoy the rest of your day. I never feel bad if I’m more exhausted than usual, as this is normal. I always remind myself, I’m basically running in a sauna compared to Canada. Sometimes, I actually need to lower my workout even further. By pacing my workout on the first day, I’m able to see how my body is reacting to the increased temperature without falling out of routine.

When working out indoors, I always make sure to turn on the air conditioner. While it will probably be off unless someone else is already using the gym, even turning it on over the length of a short workout can really help. Air conditioners control not only the heat, but also the humidity. By having one run, it will not only cool down the room, but also allow my body’s natural sweat to work better. It is also a wonderful after-workout treat to stand next to the air conditioning unit and just cool off. I think that’s better than any runner’s high.

It is also best to work out indoors. While the wind in many parts of Brazil may seem inviting, I never want to get lost in a city in which I’m not familiar. Most people seeking cardio want at least thirty minutes a day, and at light-jogging pace of eight kilometres per hour that’s about four kilometres, which is plenty of space to get lost. As well, it is safest in Brazil to stay in the crowded areas, which can be some of the most annoying places to jog, as that requires weaving through unpredictable crowds.

Finally, I always make sure to stay hydrated. While in Canada, I often don’t drink water before my workout – I know this isn’t the best idea, but I don’t like the sloshing feeling of the water in my belly as I run because it sometimes makes me feel nauseous. However, in Brazil this is a bad idea. I basically always feel thirsty in Brazil, and it is very easy to forget to drink water. That can easily lead to real problems, which is the opposite of what I want from a workout. For example, Heat Stroke is a real possibility in Brazil, and drinking sufficient fluids is a good preventative measure. I drink a fair amount of water before my workout, and I bring a water bottle with me when working out. Even without anything serious happening, failure to stay hydrated can increase recovery time exponentially, and that can ruin one a whole day in paradise.

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.