Living Abroad in Brazil: The Land of Samba
You Get What You Give
At the Sao Luis
Festas Juninas in Brazil.
I had already visited Brazil 13 or 14 times before moving here in 2008. You would assume that I genuinely knew the country and its people. I certainly thought so.
But I was decidedly mistaken.
Arriving in Rio de Janeiro at the end of 2008, I was immediately confronted that my Portuguese could have been better. 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 stayed with English-speaking friends. Now, I was on my own and struggling a bit.
Finding Permanent Lodging in Brazil
My first challenge was to find lodging. I found permanent quarters sharing an apartment in Ipanema with a Brazilian who'd lived in the U.S. for years and spoke excellent English. Cristiano was quite easygoing. He also became 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 arrived on October 31st. Had I come just a couple of weeks later, finding a room would 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 in Brazil
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 settled than Christmas and New Year's arrived, followed 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. I exercised a lot because I had plenty of free time in my schedule. Unable to afford a gym membership in pricey Ipanema, I ran along the beach and used the rustic outdoor gym near 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.
and "The Flintstones’ Gym."
On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, there was (still is) a farmers' market across the street from the apartment at Praça General Osório. I loaded up on enough vegetables for mere pocket change to last days. Chris and I worked out hard and ate well, sautéing vegetables and chicken. I got very lean and healthy.
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.
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 several 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 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 return 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 led me to teach English classes online and 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 in Brazil
I am now closing in on 6½ years
here in Brazil. As a long-term expat, what advice could
I offer someone 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 either came with no real idea of what they would do here, 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 arrive in Rio in February or France in August, you are likely to have difficulty finding a place to stay.
Have a financial cushion
saved up. I recommend having enough for two months unless you have a firm job lined up in advance or are pre-paying, as you might for a volunteer or study program. You don't have to take all your savings with you; you 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 reimburses you for any service charges incurred at month-end.
Estimate your expenses.
How? First, list out the basics (rent, food, transportation, pocket money, etc.). Then, use articles from Transitions Abroad and websites like 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 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 at 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. A young government clerk, obviously not pleased with having to be on duty so early when she should have been sleeping off the night before, greeted me perfunctory and quoted the fee.
Opening my wallet, I was dismayed that I did not have enough 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 at the airport? Yes, over there.
A quick trip 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. But that was after my flight was scheduled to depart.
I returned to the clerk, who greeted me quizzically 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; from experience, I know that I must: Please remember that being in a host country means 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 statements 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 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 waste basket 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 most significant liability. The choice is yours. You'll fare much better if you can see each day or challenge as a mini-adventure. And remember: What is genuinely 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 not only 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 the country awhile, can often understand better your frustration that you're missing the NCAA tournament because the website blocked you due to 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 occasionally (as negative as it might 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 a while 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 will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of all around you. (I actually witnessed such an outburst once.)
Extending a little kindness, doing more than you need to, can 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 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. Even if you are not ultimately successful, just making a bit of an effort will be appreciated.
The Story of Guilherme
This leads me to one of the
most cherished stories from my tenure in Brazil,
the Story of Guilherme:
After I'd been in Rio for 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 sought a spot in an inter-American study program at George Washington University. I prefer to work with students who 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 crucial to him. Couldn't we meet?
We met, and Guilherme proved so sincere and persuasive that I couldn't refuse. We squeezed in classes as our schedules allowed for the next two weeks, 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.
All too soon, the day of the
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 with a clear and pressing objective looming. I demanded a lot from Guilherme, and he responded. 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
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 them all, including 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 virtually everything in Brazil, this required submitting sheaves of papers and visiting several governmental agencies. Not only did Guilherme shepherd me about it, but virtually all of my students offered assistance, and many were of great help. They helped me write letters in Portuguese, directed me to the correct 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 potent force in Brazil.
Without my students' help, I would not have a 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 particularly religious, but I like to believe in karma, or, as my Grandma Burnett from South Carolina said, "What goes around, comes around." It's something to remember 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 tiny country can be diverse. Make weekend forays, or take time to explore at the beginning or end of your stay. I can't tell you how often 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 this: Have faith in yourself. You can do this. Tens of thousands travel, study, work, and live abroad yearly. You can be one of them. Will you face difficulties? Almost certainly. Isn't that one of the reasons to go overseas? 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
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."
— spread your wings.
Useful Resources for Living in Brazil
CraigsList is an excellent site to advertise things you wish to sell before going abroad. Nonetheless, it is also a place to look for lodging (primarily for short-term) in larger cities worldwide, including many in Brazil.
You can find information for more permanent lodging by joining expat communities and posting inquiries on Internations Brazil and Just Landed Brazil.
Couchsurfing.com hosts meetups in many cities. Attendees are primarily in their twenties. I highly recommend Internations for those in their late twenties and up; local 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 an excellent place to look for local folks with similar interests and requires a sign-up.
To get an idea of the costs
of living in your intended destination, check
out country-specific articles on Transitions
Abroad, and for the cost of living in many countries and cities around the world, check out the crowd-sourced information at Numbeo.
You should 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 entirely free. Mobile versions are available. Zoom and Google Meet, as well as WhatsApp, are also excellent free tools for communication.
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.
He recently published a book, entitled Live
Well in Rio de Janeiro: The Untourist Guide, which
is available on Amazon. In his free time, he enjoys photography
John started teaching online in 2012, and now teaches exclusively online, as it provides him great freedom to pick up and go when the urge overtakes him.
For readers who are interested in following in John's footsteps, he has created a comprehensive online course, “The Ultimate Guide to Teaching English Online!”