Living Abroad in Brazil: The Land of Samba
You Get What You Give
Article and photos by John
At the Sao Luis
Festas Juninas in Brazil.
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
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.
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.
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 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
- 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 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. 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
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 at 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,
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
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
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 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 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 the
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
- 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
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
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, 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 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 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.
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.
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!”