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Living in Brazil, the Land of Samba

You Get What You Give

Living in Brazil: At the Carnival
At the Sao Luis Festas Juninas.

I had already visited Brazil 13 or 14 times before finally moving here in 2008. One might assume that I truly knew the country and its people. I certainly did.

But I was decidedly mistaken.

Arriving in Rio de Janeiro at the end of 2008, I was immediately confronted by the fact that my Portuguese wasn’t as good as I had thought. The carioca accent of Rio, peppered liberally with slang and an overabundance of sh sounds, was initially daunting. I’d visited Rio for brief stretches before, but I’d stayed with English-speaking friends. Now I was on my own, and struggling a bit.

Finding Permanent Lodging

My first challenge was to find lodging. I found permanent quarters sharing an apartment in Ipanema with a Brazilian who’d lived several years in the U.S. and who spoke excellent English. Cristiano was quite easygoing. He also turned out to be the author of a guidebook called Rio for Partiers, and knew Rio inside and out. An American named Chris soon joined us in the apartment. We three got along very well.

But I’d been lucky. I’d arrived on October 31st. Had I arrived just a couple of weeks later, finding a room would be have been much more problematic, as Rio’s high season was fast approaching. I’d slipped in just in time.

Finding a Job and Getting Settled

Though I conquered the matter of finding living quarters, I encountered some difficulties getting started teaching English, which I’d chosen as my new career. Oh, I found students, teaching my first class my second week in Rio. But no sooner had I become a bit settled than Christmas and New Years arrived, followed soon thereafter by Carnaval. My teaching schedule was light, and I struggled financially until March, when, I soon learned, the year actually begins in Brazil.

Despite the initial financial struggles, I managed, and really began to enjoy my new home. As I had plenty of free time in my schedule, I exercised a lot. Unable to afford a gym membership in pricey Ipanema, I ran along the beach and used the rustic outdoor gym at nearby Arpoador Beach, which Chris nicknamed “The Flintstones’ Gym.” Barbells sported blocks of concrete on either end rather than iron plates. It was Spartan, but functional. Chris and I improved our Portuguese chatting with the locals, who soon accepted us into their group.

Arpoador beach and "Flintstones’ Gym"
Arpoador Beach and "The Flintstones’ Gym."

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings there was (still is) a farmers’ market literally across the street from the apartment at Praça General Osório. For mere pocket chain, I loaded up on enough vegetables to last days. Chris and I worked out hard and ate well, sautéing vegetables and chicken. I leaned up.

The farmer’s market in Rio, Brazil
The farmer’s market in Rio.

Things were going well socially, too. Cristiano seemed to know everyone. He introduced me to an American woman named Taylor who had a comfortable job as a liaison between the U.S. and Brazilian navies. She also had an apartment strategically located right on Ipanema Beach. Every Tuesday night was Pizza Night at Taylor’s. I met some locals there, and several other expats. It was an eclectic and fun group.

Ipanema beach in Rio, Brazil
Ipanema Beach from Taylor's apartment.

After Carnaval I quickly built up my student base, improving my financial situation. I was introduced to a Brazilian woman who quickly became my girlfriend. I hadn’t really suffered much from culture shock. All seemed to be going well.

Coping When Times Were Tough

But at about the 8-month mark, I was hit from a number of directions. My stepfather, whom I was very close to, passed away, and I was unable to return to the U.S. in time for the service. My girlfriend revealed that she really just wanted to leave Brazil, and as I planned to stay, she was moving on. Chris took a job in Brasilia, and a series of random roommates followed. Then Taylor was called back to the U.S. Pizza Night was no more, and the group drifted apart.

That was the nadir of my time here in Brazil. It would have been easy to say, “Well, I tried,” and go back to the U.S. But I’d come to Brazil intending to make a go of it, and refused to quit. Perhaps it’s the Scottish blood from my mother’s side, but I can be decidedly stubborn.

And I’m glad that I persisted. Fast-forwarding through the years, I obtained provisional residency. I tried living in a small town, and while overall I can’t say that year was a success, it did lead me to teaching English classes online, and to writing, which are my primary sources of income today. I was granted permanent residency. I moved to a lovely little town in the South of Brazil. Things are going well. I have no regrets.

Advice from an Expat

I am now closing in on 6½ years here in Brazil. As a long-term expat, what advice could I offer someone who is considering a stint in another country? Here are some lessons learned in the School of Hard Knocks:

  • If you aren’t sure whether to go abroad, I ask you: Why not give it a shot? You can always go back home. You don’t have to make a long-term commitment as I have done. Even a summer abroad can teach you a lot. Learn a language. Grow in self-confidence. Add an interesting bullet point to your resume.

  • Have a plan. I know that must sound inane, because it’s just so basic. But you’d be surprised how many foreigners I’ve met here in Brazil who either came with no real idea of what they would do here, or who came as tourists, liked it, and just stayed on, doing whatever presented itself. I’m not saying this approach can’t work out, but most of us operate better when prepared.

  • Give some serious thought as to what time of year you arrive — which I neglected to do. We tend to be overly focused on our own situations: “Well,” you think, “I’ll go once I’ve sold the car and saved $3,000.” We may forget that our destination country is humming along, oblivious to our planned arrival. If, for example, you happen to arrive in Rio in February, or France in August, you are likely to have extreme difficulty finding a place to stay.

  • Have a financial cushion saved up. I’d recommend having enough for two months if possible, unless you have a firm job lined up in advance or are pre-paying, as you might for a volunteer program or study program. You don’t have to take all of your savings with you; you just need access to it. These days, that’s generally easy via ATMs, though you may be charged a service fee for each withdrawal. Look into the Schwab High-Yield Investor Account, which allows you to withdraw money from any bank’s ATM, and at month-end reimburses you for any service charges incurred.

  • Estimate your expenses. How? Well, first list out the basics  (rent, food, transportation, pocket money, etc.). Then use articles from Transitions Abroad and websites such as Numbeo and TEFL.com to estimate monthly amounts for each line item. Be sure to add 15% or so for contingency.

  • Dive in and learn the language! And there is absolutely no reason to wait until you arrive in your new country to begin. Today there is a range of options available to you. Go to your local bookstore, or to Amazon.com. Find someone in your hometown who can teach you. Are you really strapped for cash, saving up that financial cushion I recommended? Then search for online forums where you can find someone with whom to practice. An excellent strategy is to swap English lessons for lessons in the language of your destination. You can of course also use this strategy once you arrive in your host country.
Benefits of Knowing the Local Language — An Example

Knowing the local language can prove helpful in ways you would never anticipate.

On one of my first visits to Brazil I found myself in the airport in Salvador. It was early in the morning, the day after Carnaval. I went to the check-in counter, but was informed that I first needed to pay the airport departure tax, which (of course) necessitated going to another counter. There a young government clerk, obviously not pleased with having to be on duty so early when she should be sleeping off the night before, greeted me in a perfunctory manner and quoted the fee.

Opening my wallet, I was dismayed to find that I did not have enough of the local currency to pay the tax. Could I pay in dollars? No, only in reais. Could I pay by credit card? No, cash only. Hmm. Was there an ATM in the airport? Yes, over there.

A quick jaunt to the ATM revealed it to be emptied of cash. I wasn’t entirely surprised. This was, after all, Salvador during Carnaval. The bank would not open for another two hours, well after my flight was scheduled to depart.

I returned to the clerk, who greeted me with a quizzical look, as if to say, “OK, now what?”

I looked at her, shrugged with my palms upward, and said in my best carioca accent, “Num dá pra dá um jeitinho?” which is Brazilian slang for “Isn’t there some little way around this?”

She almost fell off her stool upon hearing such a quintessentially Brazilian expression fall from the lips of an obvious gringo.

After recovering, she put a little sign at her station indicating that she’d be back shortly. She escorted me to a store that happened to be open. The owner gladly exchanged $20 for me. The clerk and I walked back to her station, she stamped my boarding pass, gave me my change, and bid me a safe journey with a big smile.

All because I knew one simple expression in her language.

  • Ah, that word “host.” I shouldn’t have to say this, and yet from experience I know that I must: Please remember that being in a host country necessarily means that you are a guest there. Making disparaging remarks, however innocent or offhand they may seem to you, can be hurtful in a couple of ways. First, such remarks tend to encourage negative, elitist thinking on your part. And such comments aren’t likely to win you any friends. So avoid saying things like, “Well, let me tell you how we do it back in the U.S.” Reverse the roles and you’ll immediately see just how offensive such comments are.

    This doesn't mean that you won’t want to make such comments sometimes. Even today I still hate that I can’t flush toilet paper. (It goes into a little wastebasket beside the toilet.) I just don’t complain about it. After all, when in Rome…

  • In general, try to roll with the punches. Your attitude can be either your greatest asset, or your greatest liability. The choice is yours. If you can see each day or challenge as a mini-adventure, you’ll fare much better. And remember: What is truly frustrating or aggravating today will make a great story to tell tomorrow.

  • The longer you are abroad, the more likely you are to hit a rough patch. Simply knowing this may help you somewhat to absorb what comes. It’s also helpful to have a support network. I recommend cultivating both local friends, but also other foreigners. Locals can help you learn the language and navigate the vagaries of the local culture and bureaucracy. Expats, particularly those who’ve been in country awhile, can often understand better your frustration that you’re missing the NCAA tournament because the website blocked you for being outside the U.S.

  • Stay in touch with home. I’m middle-aged now but I still call Mom frequently. It’s partly for me. But it’s also for her. Your family will worry. That’s the nature of family. Staying in touch also means checking the news back home once in awhile (negative as it may be). You might also maintain ties to home by hunting down a way to watch the NCAAs online by disguising your IP address, or by splurging once in awhile on a ridiculously priced jar of peanut butter.

  • I reminded you that you would be a guest in your host country previously. You’ll be more than that. You’ll be a representative of your home country, and of foreigners in general. So if you scream loudly in a hotel lobby, “Doesn’t anyone here speak English?!”, obviously you are going to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of all around you. (I actually witnessed such an outburst once.)

  • Extending a little kindness, doing a little more than you need to, can truly work wonders. Sometimes it’s a little thing: Could you offer some advice about English immersion programs in the U.S.? Do you have a real estate contact in South Florida? When you next visit the U.S., could you perhaps bring back some Victoria’s Secret Fantasies® hydrating lotion? Sometimes the requests will be easy to field. Sometimes they’ll be more involved. Sometimes you won’t be able to resolve the matter. But do TRY. Just making a bit of an effort, even if you are not ultimately successful, will be appreciated.
The Story of Guilherme

This leads me to one of my most cherished stories from my tenure in Brazil, the Story of Guilherme:

After I’d been in Rio several months and my teaching practice was moving along, I received a call from a Brazilian who wanted me to coach him for an interview to be conducted in English. He was trying for a spot in an inter-American study program at George Washington University. I prefer to work with students who already speak at an intermediate level or above. Guilherme’s English was, to put it charitably, not intermediate.

And when would he have his interview? In two weeks?!

I tried to beg off, but Guilherme pleaded. Someone (I never discovered just whom) had recommended me highly, and the interview was extremely important to him, and couldn’t we just meet?

We met, and Guilherme proved so sincere and persuasive that I couldn’t refuse. For the next two weeks we squeezed in classes as our schedules allowed, including on weekends. We studied the program’s website together. We wrote out likely interview questions. We did mock interviews.

All too soon, the day of the interview arrived.

Guilherme was not accepted.

He had one chance to reapply, in six months, before he exceeded the age limit for the program. We began to study twice a week. I was still relatively new as a teacher, and this was my first experience working with a student who had a clear and pressing objective looming. I demanded a lot from Guilherme, and he responded. I can tell you, it’s a gratifying experience as a teacher when a student rises to your challenge.

In six months, Guilherme faced his second interview.

He passed. I was the first person he notified. He called me before he called his wife!

I was of course proud and pleased. But let me tell you what had transpired in the preceding six months…

Even though Guilherme had not passed his first interview, he appreciated my efforts. He recommended me to his boss, Jorge. I also began to teach two of his co-workers, Telda and Denise, then two more, Fernando and Vanice. Denise recommended me to her friend Aida, who called Vera, who told her co-worker Georgea. I began teaching all of them, plus Aida’s father and her eldest daughter. All these students could be traced back to Guilherme.

During this period, I applied for provisional residency in Brazil. As with, well, virtually everything in Brazil, this required submitting sheaves of papers and visiting a number of governmental agencies. Not only did Guilherme shepherd me about, but also virtually all of my students offered assistance, and many were in fact of great help. They helped me write letters in Portuguese, directed me to the right governmental offices, and called friends on my behalf.

During this trial, it surprised me how many of my students had heard of my efforts to help Guilherme pass his interview. Boca a boca (literally “mouth to mouth”) is an extremely powerful force in Brazil.

There is every chance that without my students’ help, I would not have residency here today.

And this all happened because one afternoon a man asked for my help and I gave it, because I was in a position to do so and because he seemed so sincere.
I am not a particularly religious man, but I like to believe in karma, or, as my Grandma Burnett from South Carolina used to say, “What goes around, comes around.” It’s something to keep in mind when you are asked a favor in your host country—and you almost certainly will be.

To end my reflections, please allow me to offer you just a few more bits of advice:

  • Try to explore your host country if time and money allow. Even a small country can be quite diverse. Make weekend forays, or take time at the beginning or end of your stay to explore a bit. I can’t tell you how many times in Rio I heard expats preparing to return home say things like, “I wish I’d seen Iguaçu Falls,” or “I really wanted to visit Fernando de Noronha.” Don’t return home full of regrets. Make the most of your time abroad.

  • My final piece of advice is simply this: Have faith in yourself. You can do this. Every year, tens of thousands of people travel, study, work, and live abroad. You can be one of them. Will you face difficulties? Almost certainly. Isn’t that one of the reasons to go abroad? To encounter and surmount challenges? To grow? If it helps, when facing a significant problem, I like to ask myself a couple of things:
    1) What have I faced in the past that was worse?
    2) What would Marty (my stepfather) do? Just insert the name of someone you admire and respect.
You may find these two little questions helpful as well.

One of my favorite authors is Mark Twain. He left us with many memorable quotes, and I leave you now with my favorite:

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
Hanggliding in Brazil
Hang gliding — spread your wings.

Helpful Websites

CraigsList is a good site on which to advertise things you wish to sell before going abroad, but it is also a place to look for lodging (primarily for short term) in larger cities around the world. For short-term lodging, also check Couchsurfing.

For more permanent lodging, try EasyRoommate; I recommend paying for a short-term membership, as you will be able to contact renters more easily. You can also post inquiries on Internations and Expat-Blog.

Couchsurfing hosts meet-ups in many cities. Attendees are mostly in their twenties. I highly recommend Internations for those in their late twenties and up; locals Internations groups sponsor events from bar mixers to hikes to workshops. Both of these groups draw a mix of locals and expats. Meetup.com is a good place to look for folks with similar interests.

To get an idea of the costs of living in your intended destination, check out country-specific articles on Transitions Abroad. Also visit Numbeo and TEFL.com.

To learn more about the Schwab High-Yield Investor Checking Account, visit Schwab.com or visit a local branch.

You should without question get Skype if you don’t already have it. Skype allows you to call anywhere in the world via the Internet and is dirt-cheap. Calls to others on Skype are completely free. Mobile versions are available.

John Clites is a U.S. citizen who first visited Brazil in 1993. He immediately fell in love with the country’s incredible natural beauty and its warm, welcoming people. John traveled Brazil extensively before finally giving up his career in software to move to Rio de Janeiro in 2008. John now has permanent resident status.

John divides his time between teaching English, writing about Brazil. His first e-book, Teaching English in Brazil, is available at www.ComeTeachEnglishInBrazil.com. He recently published a second book, entitled Live Well in Rio de Janeiro: The Untourist Guide, which is available on Amazon. In his free time, he enjoys photography and hiking.

Related Topics
Living in Brazil: Expatriate Articles and Resources
More by John Clites
Teaching English and Living in Brazil
Latin America Issue
 
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