Brazil spelled out in color

Culture Shock and Thrilling adventure in Brazil

What’s it Like in Brazil? Here’s my perspective from Rio Claro.

  • Culture: Vibrant, Portuguese-speaking Latin America
  • Economics: Dental and medical are cheaper, cost of living is not so cheap
  • Tourism: Extreme driving, Spectacular landscape

Contents:

Understanding Brazil

Geography from American Perspective

Regions

Social Backdrop

Rio Claro in Particular

Rio Claro – September 27 ,2022

Culture Shock

City Life

Outings

The House Maintenance Challenge

Driving in Brazil

Service Stations Experience

A Good Car

Weather

Religion

Politics

Money

Shopping

Gluten-Free Heaven

Dining out

Muses

I want my WIFI!

On-Boarding

We Become Foodies

Talking Native

Adventures

Working Out

Astrology

Batten down the Hatches

About Rio Claro

 

Understanding Brazil

Before I talk about my experience, I’d like to give you the skinny version of the country. You heard about celebrities from the US visiting Brazil turning nearly fatal. Theodore Roosevelt and Elon Musk with their brush with malaria and Matthew McConaughey‘s run-in with the natives. So maybe a little preparation is in order?

Geography from American Perspective

Brazil sits further out in the Atlantic than the US. Being down under the equator, Brazil’s seasons are the opposite.

When the South American continent split from the African continent, the plate tectonics pushed up the earth’s crust into steep and rocky terrain.  The subtropical climate blanketed this terrain with vegetation, making a spectacular landscape.  

Regions

Brazil is vast and has five regions, each with its climates, economics, and politics. The South Eastern region has the richest state of Sao Paulo. The state of Rio Janeiro in the region has some oil wealth but is notorious for crime. The city of Sao Paulo has over 20 million people and is by far the richest, and most educated.

Let’s just say the government has had growing pains.3 Imagine if the US did not have a civil war and the rich plantation owners in the south had a huge say in what happens in the government. You have many poor people subject to the whims of the few rich. Mix in a multiparty system where you have to play to the drum beat of whichever party has the most influence at the moment. Dig into the system and you find out how complicated and somewhat flawed it is. The weak spots in this flawed system allow hot spots to fester.

Social Backdrop

During the recent 50-year history of government turmoil, folks have had to endure the economic crisis, civil unrest, crime, and injustices. Imagine the current hyperinflation in the States multiplied by three- imagine the panic. Folks have had to work hard and fight through trials and tribulations. So kinship is uber important and asking for help is no problem.

In Sao Paulo, folks don’t take lightly the demeaning “third world” moniker because the city is more like Paris. Sao Paulo is the exception though and in most other places is laid-back Latin America.

Government bureaucracy is a lot of work. Dot all your I’s, cross all your T’s and have all your paperwork done far in advance. Make sure to have all your documentation with you when you make an official visit to a government station. If you forget a document, your visit may be in vain.

In Latin America, gender has meaning. Femininity is still a thing. The way women talk is different with a feminine flair. Man’s talk is not gruff but male. In Brazil, there is respect for gender without the wife-beater machismo attitude. Perhaps language has some influence since words have gender. The Latin influence was prevalent in England until around the 13th century for some reason someone said “hey man, a spoon does not have gender, okay?” 4

In Sao Paulo, the class system has bearing on the culture. People like to be around their kind. It’s like, no offense, you’re okay, but I’d rather be with my people, okay man?

Somehow, American music sounds better here. In the States, the same music and songs exist but you have to wade through oodles and oodles of junk that pollutes the airwaves. They pick out the good ones and leave it at that. Brazilian music has various influences, so depending on your preference, the sound may or may not please your particular senses. There is tons of musical talent in this country.

Brazil has taken to social media in a big way. YouTube is huge. Instagram, Tic Tok, FaceBook all huge. WhatsApp – forget about it.

The stores here are amazing. The bigger shops have an unbelievable selection. In the States, you get blasé cookie-cutter products. In Brazil, you get the flavor of the day products. It’s like someone says, “hey man, we need this” and then some engineer says “okay man” and then some fabricator makes it, just like that.

Business is handled on a more personal level in Brazil. Personal connection takes precedence over credentials and status, so foreigners generally find doing business here difficult.

Despite built-in inefficiencies, this country’s outlook is good. With strong commodity, energy, industrial, and agricultural bases, Brazil is in a substantial global position.

The more you know about Brazil, the more comfortable you are venturing out to discover the country. Learning Portuguese and adapting to the culture go a long way. As the old saying goes- “When in Rome, do as the Romans.”

You might explain the feeling you get in Brazil with two expressions, “Hope springs eternal” and “Three steps forward and Two steps backward.”

Time is not the commodity you are used to and so why is that? Well, for such an expansive country with so much potential, you have inefficiencies built into the system that holds you back. An oppressive amount of paperwork to officiate anything and a clumsy banking system to name a few.

They say a meeting time is a suggestion. The other party might think it rude if you show up on time.

But even carrying the yoke of an ineffective system, there is national pride knowing that someday it will all come together. There is the hope that there will be changes in governing bodies allowing a way to reach the potential that exists in this spectacular country.

Rio Claro in Particular

My story comes from the interior of the state of Sao Paulo. The wealth of the country is centered in the city proper and is world-class. As you drift away from the center however life becomes more what you expect- laid back wear shorts, t-shirts, and flip flops are the dress code.

Here in Rio Claro, there are still some of the flavors of the big city mixed with the more common class.

 

Rio Claro – September 27 ,2022

Two days before Hurricane Ian hit Fort Myers Beach, we left for Fort Lauderdale Airport. Tired and rumpled after the 22 hours of travel we finally make it to the suburb of University Park, Rio Claro, Sao Paulo, Brazil. We make a quick stop at Plataforma Restaurant and crash at our small two-bedroom, two-bath rowhouse.

Culture Shock

The difference between the states and here is a shock. I’m immediately appalled at the conditions. Then to my surprise, I acclimate to life here, eventually.

It’s unusually cold for Spring weather here so after chores, we go buy pajamas. Due to climate change, the weather has changed to be more English-like- overcast, and chilly.

The city surroundings are made up of terracotta stucco buildings, sparsely painted, many cracked or crumbling. This style of architecture is high maintenance, so work on the structures is ongoing.

Sometimes the city rations water and shuts off the secondary supply, which is connected to showers and outside faucets. The other faucets work so you can sponge bath instead. A sponge bath, for those unfamiliar, is performed standing in front of the sink, with a washcloth, and some soap.

Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays are trash pickups. The trash gets placed in a heap in the street, then the city takes it away. Okay, so we live in a dump.

City Life

Instead of a hot water tank, the shower water is heated by electricity. The water never freezes so tap water is okay.

We are too cheap for installing an air conditioner. There is a fan and open windows. Breeze is limited due to the sandwiched housing. Make-shift window screens are made from baby netting and magnets.

There is no heat. You dress in layers, stay active, or drink hot tea when it’s chilly. The type of construction works well in a subtropical climate, however, the climate is changing.

There is limited privacy. You can hear your neighbors and of course, they can hear you.

Lights flicker as the power gets jostled in rain and gusts.

Doors stay locked. For security, the house is fitted with razor wire all around. Doors and windows have steel frames and bars. This little house is practically impenetrable. I check on the news back home then consider my Stalag XIII conditions here.

Laundry is performed in the utility tank located outside the kitchen in the corridor. The laundry is then air-dried on clotheslines or inside in the shower if the weather is bad.

On the plus side, the electric garage door works fine. It flips up and shuts like magic, you’re inside your abode safe from the dubious outsiders. You park in your shiny tiled garage and shut the living room door behind you.

Cooking is done on an ancient two-burner propane stove. It’s a device Americans might consider for a camping trip. You light the fire with a sparking clicker device. There is a propane delivery service and so this is a normal way of life.

Wall outlets are different but functional nonetheless. Outlet adapters are easy to find.

Toilets are not aspirated so they glug-glug-glug after pushing the flush handle. Fixtures can be a little leaky- you get what you pay for.

Outings

We make regular trips to the roadside stand for freshly made coconut juice. The English weather is driving the customers away though, and the owner is a little bummed.

It’s Sunday so we go to the school house at Ipeuna to vote. Later, a nice visit with friends. Next, a side trip to scope out a nice little town Charqueada, Sao Paulo. We have lunch near the pond then call it a day.

To me, the amazing thing is, even small towns have a governing body, city hall, and town center. There is usually a park in the town square and often a pond. It breeds a nice familiarity when you go from town to town. There are no secrets and everything works the same way. It’s no wonder folks are content here.

The House Maintenance Challenge

The local expert shows up to paint the garage door and do stucco work. The walls have succumbed to the heavy truck passage. The steel garage door has rust. They don’t mess around and do good work.

We use acrylic, what I call “schmear”, paint to go over the stucco walls that need it. The paint is a thick goop that behaves differently, but you get used to applying it after a while.

In Brazil, skilled tradesmen can fix nearly anything. These guys have uncommon skills and deep knowledge about their trade. If you have something broke, no problem, they fix it.

Driving in Brazil

Driving in the cities of Sao Paulo, Brazil is not for the faint of heart. Your everyday wild toad ride includes speed bumps, potholes, water slipways, motorcycles zipping around, narrow streets, angular intersections, steep inclines, and dips.

Be aware that there are radar cameras out to catch you speeding, and they will send you the bill.

When traveling, bring plenty of loose cash for highway tolls.

Driving has its upsides as well. My favorite is the light signals with a time countdown for how long it’s red and how much time is left on green. I wished we had that in the States.

I like the roundabouts, where stop signs mean yield if and only if someone is coming your way, otherwise keep on trucking.

Service Stations Experience

Driving on the roads, you might see miles and miles of sugar cane fields that end up as fuel. So, at the station, don’t ask for “gasoline”, instead say “Ethanol.” It’s almost unpatriotic to buy gasoline. Brazil practically invented alternative fuels, and all cars handle flex fuel.

You will be met by an attendant that will fill your tank. You say something that sounds like “eh-ten-all com-plett-o”, we’d say “fill-er-up with ethanol.” You don’t have to tip but a tip of a couple of reais is a welcome gesture.

Since the road conditions are rough, service areas are plentiful and workers are happy to service your car.

In general, the populace is savvy about automobile mechanics too. Used cars tend to stay in good shape here.

A Good Car

The Jeep rental was a good idea for this trip. First, the Jeep’s optional gear shifting allows better control of the vehicle in extreme conditions. Secondly, it dings-a-lings when it senses speed radar. Third, the Lane Assist tugs at the steering wheel when it senses a swerve. Four, it races and stops on a dime. Finally, it is an offroad champion that cleans up nicely.

Weather

November on this side of the equator is springtime. Just like that, the gloomy English weather gets all Brazilian subtropic on us. Jackets off, shorts on. The coconut and sugar cane juice vendors are booming. Occasionally, cold weather returns just to see if we are paying attention.

Religion

Like the USA, the further out you go, the churchier it gets. You are met with Jesus or Mary statues at many town entrances. The history of Catholicism settling in the area is evident most everywhere.

Politics

Folks are very demonstrative about their politics. Motorcades are formed with flags a furling in a brilliant show of support.

October

43 percent of the voting population here are sad because their favorite candidate did not win. The candidates go to round two.

November

Lula wins- 51% celebrate quietly. Bolsonaro voters- the other 49% are depressed. The sound of the sighs is deafening.

Money

As of today, the exchange rate favors the dollar over the Real, pronounced “ray-all”. We hit up the ATM, like tourists, because banks favor the natives and because of a remnant fear of card cloning. At the ATM there is a 15% surcharge, yet we get about 4.4 Real to the dollar which gives us some cushion against inflation.

Using cash, pronounced “deen-yer-o,” you end up with wads of cash and you need it because the cost of living is high. Change is pronounced “cam-bee-yah” and coin is pronounced, “mow-aida.” Coins have their uses occasionally.

Denominations in paper money are easily distinguishable. Money comes in different colors and sizes.

Shopping

Shopping is a more personal experience, probably like in the states back before it got over-commercialized. In contrast, in the states, you might get a quip like “do you have google?”

Attitudes are slowly being Americanized. After all, it’s a small world now with social media.

Folks in retail are mostly attentive and knowledgeable. They don’t mind providing information and going about it kindly. When you thank them, they have the odd expression “imagine that” meaning “oh it’s nothing.” In most of Latin America, our politeness is not understood. But saying “thanks” is okay.

Don’t expect to return items. Examine the product thoroughly before you buy it, caveat emptor, buyer beware.

Are you a fan of coconut products? They have that in spades. The stores have everything imaginable you can make from coconuts. You might say they are coo-coo for coconuts.

Stores can be shopping malls, centralized shops, or can pop up in unexpected places. Keep your eye out, you never know what treasure you might uncover. Rio Claro has a quarter million people and is full of surprises.

Gluten-Free Heaven

Yay, I found my gluten-free paradise. There’s gluten-free beer, gluten-free bread, gluten-free goodies, and spelled out in plain Portuguese “Sem Gluten” on ALL packaging.

Dining out

Eating out is more casual and practical in Brazil.

Self-serve is a thing here. Buffets have an array of wholesome food. You take your plate or carry-out box to get weighed and pay the ticket on the way out, easy-peasy.

The sit-down restaurants are nice too. They are flexible and accommodate your needs.

Muses

I muse about driving a motorcycle here. The cyclists seem so cool. I google how to get a license, and oh-by-the-way, how much do these little cars that the locals drive cost?

I’d like to do some touring, in my dreams at least. They haven’t heard about natural selection. I come to my senses.

I want my WIFI!

I go without WIFI for a few weeks. My T-Mobile hotspot runs out, and YouTube and Amazon Prime block it. Rats!

I add a TIM chip to a cell phone to get a Brazil phone number and WIFI. Then go pay for some gigabytes, knowing that the gigabytes will disappear fast. The Brazil phone’s hotspot provides adequate WIFI. I do my happy dance.

On-Boarding

I need a CPF id to buy grownup things. CPF, which translates to “registration personal physical”, is a federal identification number for tax purposes. I take my translated birth certificate, passport, the electric bill, and R$7 to the post office and get the CPF ball rolling, so to speak. They give me a Receipt.

Later that week, I go to the Federal building to get the email address and instructions on how to construct the email correctly. I follow instructions and get a response that they are working on it. Then a follow-up email about wanting more. I go back to the office for help. They give me an appointment and I get the CPF.

We Become Foodies

Nutritionists found what people over 100 years of age had in common was they ate beans2. Heck, Roman gladiators ate beans. All those Latinos constructing houses in America eat beans.

The best beans are the black beans, made correctly with spices instead of American sugar. They are packaged in boxes or space-age packets here.

We like to be healthy so we become regulars at the self-serve restaurant.

Fortunately, packaged food has excellent labels with the allergen, ingredients, and nutritional information. Sometimes this vital information is tiny so a cell phone picture can be expanded to make it readable. This is a big deal when doing the “my body is my temple” mantra.

Talking Native

I’m forced into doing transactions by speaking Portuguese to the natives. I muddle through at first and become a little more succinct with each iteration.

Portuguese is like Spanish except the consonants are mushy instead of sharp rat-a-tat-tat. Conjugation is similar and a lot of words are like in Spanish. So, if you are familiar with Spanish, the transition is less cumbersome.

Brazilians have common body language that comes up a lot too. Gringos don’t have anything like it so best learn the meaning behind the sign language they use.

Unless you are buying something, there isn’t a lot of patience for google translate. Americans have a different way of expressing ideas so a literal translation does not convey the intended meaning very well. Making gestures and saying them in Spanglish is usually good enough.

I’m okay with most purchases but social chatting is a stretch. To help with that, I have an awesome book by Astro-physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson written in Portuguese that I read and try to understand. It helps a little.

 

Adventures

At the end of two weeks, we venture out like tourists.

The first stop is Itirapina Municipal Resort which has a lakeside beach and dwellings. We get the beach grunge feel and not having this muddy mess.

The second stop is the overlooks at Marcelo Golinelli Park near Sao Pedro. Now this leaves an impression. The various decks are built on the cornice of the mountainside and the view is spectacular- a real natural wonder. The tiny sheep in the pasture below are specs.

Sunday, October 30, 2022, we go for President runoff voting at Ipeuna. Afterward, we go blazing trails.

We head to Corumbatai because we heard there are sites and especially waterfalls. We drive straight through town up into the hills to see what there is. Nothing but Brazilian farms, dirt roads, an amazing backdrop, a pedestrian cow, and a horse-drawn flatbed. We wave at the workers and head back.

We research sites and come up with Morro do Cuscuzeiro. It was where we should have made a left instead of a right. We park under a shade tree at the park and go to the restaurant to gaze at the chimney-like rock with its surrounding wonderland. We have lunch while resisting the rock climb.

We discover Corumbatai waterfalls by the statue of Jesus at the town entry. It has lots of people frolicking at the fall’s base pool. We came, we saw, we go. Let’s come back when it’s quiet.

Next up, Rio Claro outback. Just behind the town’s shopping mall is a grand subtropic forest for hikers, bikers, and off-roaders- Horto Florestal Edmundo De Andrade. We trek through miles of rugged terrain keeping Jeep wheels in the grooves. We plow through the overgrowth.

On another day we find some amazing sites on the outskirts of Sao Pedro. We discover two amazing resorts.

Hotel Fazenda Sao Joao is an awesome ranch resort that caters to families. I can’t remember having wanted to check into a resort so much before. It’s a kick-off-your-shoes and set-a-spell kind of place. But we head off to another destination.

Hotel Fazenda Cachoeira da Furna is an exquisite resort plunked in the canyon of a panoramic semicircle rock edifice that hosts waterfalls within hiking distance. The dirt road to the destination is well-marked but is rugged and rocky. There is a narrow ramp up the embankment to the hotel. Going up this embankment with two cement strips for your tires is like a mountain goat experience. But once you get up the elevation, the sites and what they built in this rocky canyon are a marvel.

Working Out

There is a gym across the street. I decide to do something about my wretched ways and work on being a better me. It cost R$130 per month. After a couple of sessions of weight training and jogging on another occasion, I feel a new lease on life may be on the horizon, with some caution. I’m a Gemini with the attention span of a three-year-old. So, we’ll see.

Astrology

Sage advice is to get behind Brasileira’s belief system. I do a numerology chart against my name. The chart shows an 11 on the dominant side and a two on the submissive side. Plus, I’m an all-around eight. I’m a force to be reckoned with. Turns out the wife has the same numbers and unfortunately, Taurus trumps Gemini. So, I’m doomed but I knew that anyway. But I keep my lucky eight note tucked away in my wallet, burn some incense, and I’m safe for now.

Batten down the Hatches

Our sugar rush is about to come crashing down. The dental bills, gym, cell phone, cold weather gear, tourism, and eating out have put a dent in our wallets. So, we put the pencil to the numbers.

On the bright side, we discover a Quality market nearby equivalent to our Whole Foods market back home. We don’t feel so deprived now.

About Rio Claro

Rio Claro had the first electric power plant1. In 1885. It was coal-fueled and financed by the profits of coffee growers. These early power plants were a blight on the landscape. Eventually, much cleaner hydroelectric power plants became the norm. By 1895, Rio Claro had a hydroelectric plant, Corumbatai, which is now preserved as a museum.

Today, Rio Claro is a hub for agricultural, household, and commercial goods distribution, and is an industrial base. Most of the products are transported to the city, Sao Paulo, in trucks, some by train or air.

This bustling town grew with the help of foreigners since originally most local skills were in agriculture. Eventually, the foreigners wore out their welcome and industry became nationalized.

Footnote:

There are modern conveniences and services not mentioned here, but that’s just us living on the cheap.

References:

  1. Strength and light: Fapesp Research Magazine
  2. Pritikin, “Eating Right”
  3. BTI 2022 Brazil Country Report
  4. Gender in English

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