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.

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.