Since I wrote my last article over two years ago I have received over two hundred replies: some asking for information about Fortaleza, some wanting to know about Brazil, people wanting me to give them advice on how to buy property, men wanting me to find them wives, as well as questions about the economy and many other things. I’ve tried to answer each and every letter and give sound advice though, sometimes I don’t say what some people would like to hear. I’ll try to address a few more things in this article.
At present I’m sitting on the balcony of my apartment on the corner of Ana Bilhar and Desembargador Moreira in Fortaleza; it’s in the center of Meireles, a middle-class neighborhood where most of the Gringo’s live and hang out. It’s ten o’clock in the evening; the clouds are beginning to drift over land from the sea; the temperature is in the high seventies, there’s a gentle breeze blowing onshore and it’s a beautiful night. In some ways it’s strange; the full moon is directly overhead instead of at an angle, the stars don’t look familiar, there are some strange smells of food unfamiliar to the American nose. I’m listening to my very favorite song, “Rio de Janeiro Blues” being performed by Randy Crawford and Joe Sample; I feel the very essence of Brasil surrounding me. I’ve been trying all day to think what I wanted to write about; there’s so much to tell about this paradise three and a half degrees below the Equator.
Once you arrive in Fortaleza there are five ways of getting around; renting a car, taking a taxi, taking a bus, moto-taxi or walking.
Since walking is the most common form of transportation, I’ll talk about it first. You might ask what is so unusual about walking…you do it all the time…but not in Brasil! First, the pedestrian has absolutely no rights in this city. Cars DO NOT have to stop for you crossing the street in Brasil; pedestrian beware! I have seen drivers speed up from three blocks away to try to hit me crossing the street; when one missed he stuck his fist out of the window and swore at me.
Each building owner is responsible for maintaining the sidewalk in front of his property. Some buildings, especially the newer condos take pride in keeping up the sidewalk; others don’t care and in some cases where there is no building it might be gravel or even nothing but dirt. When you walk in Fortaleza you don’t look out, you look down! It isn’t uncommon to have the utility company working on a piece of equipment buried in the ground take the protective cover off and decide that they’ll finish the job later, leaving it uncovered all weekend. There might be a part of the sidewalk breaking up and big hunks of concrete in the middle; no one cares or moves them.
The sidewalks are shared…by people, by vendors, sometimes by parked cars. You have to weave yourself around to get from point “A” to point “B”. Sometimes this will entail using a part of the street; you’re the intruder there and cars, buses and trucks will not move to avoid you. It’s your responsibility to miss them.
There are five hundred and ten thousand cars in a metropolitan area of over three point seven million people. If you decide to rent a car the first thing you have to remember is that some of the greatest race car drivers come from Brasil; they learned how to drive on the streets of Rio, Sao Paulo, Salvador, Fortaleza and other Brasilian cities. First rule of the Brasilian driver; NO ONE GETS AHEAD OF ME! Second rule: LET’S SEE WHO FLINCHES FIRST! That’s how they drive; courtesy is an almost unheard of commodity. The Brasilians say that Fortaleza is the worst city in all of Brasil to drive in…so now you know what to expect.
If that isn’t bad enough, I don’t believe anyone has figured out yet how the Fortalezans do their streets. A street can be one-way one direction, two blocks later, one-way the opposite direction.
Left turns are only allowed at certain intersections, but many times they aren’t marked…you have to know which ones you can turn left at and which ones you can’t. Boulevards will have four or five streets intersecting them; however the concrete divider will not allow you to cross the boulevards. There are several traffic circles in the city; merging on and off is an art within itself. At times drivers will hog the right turn lane and you can’t make your turn until the last minute. Sometimes the street is only wide enough for one car; invariably another driver will try to “share” that piece of asphalt with you, figuring that you’ll “flinch” first. Also, almost all the roads are rough and torn up; unlike gravel that the United States uses for a base, Fortaleza uses large granite rocks before putting a thin layer of asphalt on top; it wears down in little time causing a really rough ride.
I talked to a woman from California here several years ago; she said that she had lived in Fortaleza for many years, but it was necessary for her to return to California for a while to take care of her mother. While she was there, she realized that her California Driver’s license had expired. She went to the DMV and, because it had expired she had to take the driving test again. She and the examiner got into the car and she took off; after driving for about five minutes the scared, pale examiner told her to pull over. When she did, he told her HE would drive back to the DMV. He asked her where she had learned to drive; she of course said California but that she had been driving in Fortaleza, Brasil for the past several years. He failed her and told her she had to learn to drive again in the United States before he would give her back her license. (She continued to drive on her Brasilian International driver’s license but never tried to get her California license again.)
There are over four thousand taxi cabs in Fortaleza; supposedly there are three thousand on the road at any time. You can walk two or three blocks from almost anywhere to find one on a corner. They run all day and night, are relatively inexpensive and will take you anywhere. Remember, however that the drivers are Brasilian and drive like all Brasilians; if you aren’t used to them, be prepared for the ride of a life-time. The second ride I took in a taxi was enough to take ten years off of my life, however, after that I learned to relax and leave the driving…and worrying to them.
The bus system in Fortaleza is excellent! Buses are the main mode of transportation for most people living in and around the city; they will take you anywhere in the greater metropolitan area that you wish. They are very inexpensive; about a dollar a ride and you can traverse the whole city on them. While they do run twenty-four hours a day, expect reduced service after midnight and on the weekends and holidays. (I believe they run extra buses to Praia de Futura on the weekends, however.)
Moto-taxis are fast little motorcycles that a rider gets on and the driver takes you to your destination. I’ve never ridden on one; I don’t have nerves of steel. However, almost everyone in Fortaleza has used them at one time or another and finds them reliable transportation. They are more expensive than the bus but cheaper than a taxi-cab and they will get you where you want to go quickly.
For those of you who think Brasil is cheap, rethink your opinion. The only thing that makes Brasil inexpensive is the exchange rate between the dollar and the Real. Thinking in terms of Reals, Brasil can be VERY expensive. Items such food, clothing, utilities and rent can be quite high. While we tend to think of things in terms of the cost in dollars, if you think in terms of Reals you can see that most things cost more in Brasil than in the US.
Gasoline is sold in liters; one gallon equals 3.75 liters. The price of a liter of gas is R$2.55 ($1.16); this is equivalent to $4.35 a gallon. We hear a lot about biofuel being used in Brasil.
Actually less than ten percent of the vehicles are equipped for biofuel; most use gasoline. Primarily biofuel is used by trucks transporting goods.
Automobiles, especially imports are very expensive. Because of the high import tax (around 65% of the assessed value) new vehicles sell for almost one third more than they sell for in the United States. Dealers don’t “bargain” like they do in the United States. While you’re better off buying a used car, you run into other expenses. Speeds and distance are measured in kilometers instead of miles; a car with 100,000 kilometers (62,000 miles) will most likely need some major repairs; driving is much rougher in Brasil than the US.
The most expensive items are any kind of electronics. I have a friend who was looking at a portable CD/MP3 player. The store was asking R$200 ($114) for an item that I found at Walgreen’s for $30! Computers that were selling in the US for $600 are $1500 in Brasil. I brought a camera down on my last trip; cost: US $149.99, Brasil: $318 (R$699)! Radios, stereos, cameras, printers, speakers…anything electronic is unbelievably expensive. If you think you will need any electronic items, buy them in the US and bring them with you. (You can buy transformers that will convert your power in the house/apartment from 220 to 110.) Be sure to (1) have it either in an opened box or no box at all and (2) keep the receipt on it; otherwise you might be taxed an import tax of 65% of the accessed value, Brasilian rates.
You can cut down in many places depending on what you want to do…living away from the city is always cheaper, both in rent and other expenses; however, many of the things you take for granted in the city you can’t find in the smaller towns. If you are willing to live more like the natives and not try to live like an American abroad it will be cheaper; if you take buses and taxis and walk a lot it’s a whole lot cheaper than owning a car.
Making the decision to move
I’d give three pieces of advice on retiring somewhere overseas: (1) try it out first, (2) have enough money and (3) always have an “escape plan”.
(1) I recommend that people visit a place a few times before settling down there; the first for a couple of weeks strictly as a tourist, the second for one or two months getting to know the lay of the land and the third time living there for a minimum of six months experiencing what it would be like to actually live there full-time.
(2) One of the big problems that I see right now with Brasil (as well as other places) is that people have gone there on a fixed income expecting their buying power to allow them to live a certain way but they haven’t thought about (1) inflation and (2) the exchange rate. Once people (mainly Europeans and North Americans) “discover” a place, the price of everything, especially housing goes up. If you’re renting a condo and not in on the bottom floor, you’ll end up spending quite a bit more money than originally anticipated. Your dollar’s value is tied to the exchange rate; if the rate is good you have good buying power, if not, your buying power is less. (When I went to Fortaleza in early 2005 the rate was $1.00 = R$2, 72; now it’s been holding around $1.00 = R$2.30) Keep your money in an American bank and draw off it (I use the ATM) to the area currency; the American dollar is a stable currency…most currencies, particularly Central and South American currencies may not be as stable as the American dollar.
(3) You never know what will happen down the line. Keep enough money IN TRAVELERS CHECKS to buy you a ticket out of town ASAP; I carry $2500 in traveler’s checks with me all the time. Rotate your ticket so that you always have a current return ticket. Fly established airlines that you know won’t shut down at short notice.
Take the cost of your current living expenses and divide it by the exchange rate and add 20%; that should give you a rough idea of what it would cost to live in another place. For instance, my living expenses in Oklahoma City (where I currently am employed) are about $2800 a month.
($2800 divided by 2.30 equals around $1220 plus $280 (20%) equals $1460 (this equals around R$3360 a month.) Remember that this rate changes hourly.
I’m being a little conservative; I made it on about $1300 and lived pretty well, however, I didn’t have a car and I watched what I spent at times; also the exchange rate was considerably different. You definitely have to figure the exchange rate because you will really feel the difference in buying power as it fluctuates. Also, this year the inflation rate for Brasil was up to 6.75%; much higher than the Government wanted to hold it to. Because of this, the Government is thinking of raising the interest rates…which will cause the Real to become even stronger and the dollar to become weaker.
Fortaleza, as well as many other parts of Brasil holds many contrasts against the United States. Brasilians are minimalists; things like toilet paper, shampoo, q-tips and other things are smaller than found in the United States. Cloths that are “Medium” in the US are “Large” in Brasil; toilet paper is smaller and more course, apartments and living space is usually smaller. Many goods found in the US can’t be found in Brasil; some examples are peanut butter, licorice, asparagus, etc.
Where to live
If you are visiting for a short period you will probably want a hotel or a posada; do not rent a motel. In Brasil, a motel is a place where lovers escape for privacy and sexual rendezvous; they are geared for sexual encounters (mirrors, waterbeds, satin sheets, etc.) and usually rented by the hour.
There are more than one thousand hotels and posadas in Fortaleza; this equates to over one hundred thousand rooms. Most of the upscale hotels are found in Praia de Iracema, Beira Mar, Praia de Futura, or Beach Park. The most popular areas are Praia de Iracema and Beira Mar. There is much more to do in those areas ; you can find many, many restaurants and clubs within walking distance, a beach, major shopping as well as good movies, museums and other things.
Praia de Futura and Beach Park are further from the heart of the city and require a taxi to take you any place outside of the immediate area. While many of the hotels are excellent you are pretty confined if you want to experience much of Fortaleza.
If you are going to stay for longer than a couple of weeks it is cheaper to rent an apartment. Most of the Gringos stay either in Praia de Iracema, Aldeota or Meireles; it is safer and has good access to things that Gringos are used to. Of course, because of this everything, including rent is more expensive than other places.
If you choose to rent a villa or house it can be as expensive as the United States, depending on where you choose to live. Many are big and expensive, some have access to the beach, etc. However, if you see a house that is real inexpensive, expect a different type of living. You have to provide your own stove, refrigerator, cabinetry, wardrobes and other things. There usually aren’t many windows, little parking and all the rooms are tiny by American standards.
In my last article I went into great detail about the women; because of that I received a few negative letters from women. So, ladies, if you want to skip this part, that will be fine; I still need to cover it.
There are over one hundred thousand MORE women in Fortaleza than men; most are between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. (There are nine million more women in Brasil than men.) The reasons vary but primarily the difference is because (1) the violence of Brasilian men, (2) many men leave the Northeast to go south to find jobs, (3) the infant mortality rate of males is almost twice that of females, and (4) women live longer than men.
Because of the shortage of men, the women treat men differently than in North America. Women are more attentive and demonstrative than American women. They show, and usually initiate affections; they are much more protective and possessive and are less demanding than American women. Many are overly jealous; a woman might check up on her man ten, twenty times a day.
Women are extremely competitive; if there is any indication that a relationship might be on the brink of disaster, the women start circling like vultures. The women will do just about anything to have a man including taking one away from their best friend, cousin or even their sister. And they are RUTHLESS! While not all men have a mistress or lover, more than half the Brasilian men do, whether she’s young or in some cases has been with him for many years.
Seldom do you see a Brasilian woman who has no make-up on or who doesn’t look as though she took the time to look good. Before she goes out, whether it’s to work, to the store or to something more entertaining, Brasilian women try to look attractive. Even the maid or baby-sitter travels from home in one set of clothes, then changes to something more casual once she has arrived at work. She changes from her work clothes back to her public clothes before leaving for home later.
Brasilian men are very macho! Unlike the United States, Brasilian men many times will reject another man’s child, especially if it is a male. If a woman takes up with a man there is a strong possibility that her child or children might be sent to live with her mother or sister…or on the street! Because of this, many times Gringos, especially North Americans find themselves in a desirable position. Many older Gringo men marry younger, beautiful Brasilian women; the assumption is that the woman is after the man’s money. In many cases that is not so; she is looking for a father who will accept and love her children. I have met several single mothers who told me that if I would take care of them and their family now, when I got old they would take care of me. And they are very serious about that.
Are the women beautiful? That depends on your tastes. I personally think they are beautiful. The women from Fortaleza are different that the Southeast (Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, etc.) or South. They have darker features, tend to be smaller and much more compact, many have either African or Indian features, many are less busty and are thinner and appear to be more delicate. I find one of the hardest things is to tell the age of the women; women that I thought were teenagers are in their mid to late twenties! This can really be a problem because a man might approach a woman he thinks is in her twenties only to have her be underage.
There are heavier women – after eight trips and living in Fortaleza for six months I have seen some obese women; but nothing like the United States or Canada. Many have the typical Latin rear; rounder, fuller and shapelier than some American men like. If you like Jennifer Lopez you will like Brasilian women. However, you seldom see sloppy-fat women there; they walk and exercise too much, either at the Academia (gym) or just walking.
Brasilians have a different approach to sex than North Americans…they actually like it! It isn’t the dirty, behind close doors subject that Puritan America has…condemn on one side while secretly pursue. When I came back from Fortaleza one time a friend asked me what was the biggest difference between Brasilian and American women. My immediate answer was that Brasilian women don’t get headaches! I have never heard a man who had been married to a Brasilian woman say that he preferred American women over Brasilian women! The usual comment is just the opposite.
Divorces are still relatively uncommon in Brasil though the divorce rate is growing. Up until a few years ago, if a man found his wife in bed with another man he could kill her. Of course, the laws have changed but there still has to be a better reason that, “I’ve fallen out of love with him” for a divorce to occur. It usually is because he ran off with another woman, was caught cheating in the marriage bed, beat her excessively or something major like that. Most of the time, having a drinking problem, not working, a certain amount of womanizing (discreetly), gambling, occasionally beating the wife or the dozens of other reasons why North Americans divorce occur aren’t enough; it takes something “serious”.
The lack of status a divorced woman has, especially if she has children probably plays into the reasons why divorce is less common in Brasil. A divorced women with children can almost always realize that she’s not ever going to get married again…especially to a Brasilian man. She can assume that she will raise the children by herself and unless she comes from a rich family who accepts the divorce, she will most like live in poverty the rest of her life. Even a prostitute has a higher ring on the ladder than a divorced woman with children. (Remember that prostitution is legal in Brasil.)
For those ladies who read this, I apologize for not being able to write about Brasilian men…I really don’t pay much attention to them when it comes to their desirability. You would have to talk more to the women for that perspective.
When people think of Brasilian music they think of Bossa Nova, Samba, or MPB (Popular Music of Brasil). To Brasilians, those types of music are for the Intellectuals; most Brasilians, especially in the Northeast don’t care that much for that music. The popular types of music of the Northeast of Brazil are Forro (foo-hoo) Axe (a-she) or Brasilian Calypso. The myth of forro is very interesting; when the Americans used the Northeast if Brazil as a jumping off place to send aircraft to Europe and North Africa, they built several air bases along the coast of Brazil, especially in Natal, Fortaleza, Joao Passos and some other places. Each Saturday night they would have dances; these dances would be open to everybody including the natives. They would be “FOR ALL”. Since the “R” has an “H” sound in Portuguese and the double “L” is silent, the dances became “Foo-hoo”…for all. You can see the foundation of the dances of the early forties in they way the dance is executed; there is a lot of holding then swinging the partner out, then in, etc. like the swing dancing of that period.
Brasilian Calypso and Axe came up from Salvador in Bahia. They are almost stage productions; lots of drums, costumes, large crowds, and energy at every turn. They remind me a lot of some of the tours of Madonna or Cher in the United States. Thousands of people will pack the stadiums and dance to the music as it’s being performed. Axe was invented, primarily by Daniele Mercury who still is one of the greatest performers in Brasil.
There are places where you can still hear the quiet tones of the Bossa Nova or Samba; usually at nice restaurants or bars. Some people like that music but the energy of Fortaleza is found in the Forro, Brazilian Calypso and Axe. There are a few clubs in Iracema that are divided into several areas; one area will play Forro, another, Rock and Roll, another MPB. On a Saturday night it is not unusual to see several thousand people flocking to the clubs for a night out. Interestingly, the nightlife on Friday and Saturday nights begins around 11:00 PM and will go on until the sun comes up. Then everybody goes home and sleeps for a few hours before going to the beach! There are several barraca’s to visit, especially on Sunday with wonderful resorts, music and enjoyment.
Fortaleza is a wonderful place to visit or live. The weather is tropical; there are only two seasons, the rainy season and the dry season. The rainy season begins around the middle of January and goes until around the middle of June. The Trade-winds determine the rainy season in the Coastal Northeast of Brasil. If you look at a weather map of the South Atlantic you can see the rain spewing across from the far West Coast of Africa to the Northeast of South America during that time. The rest of the time the weather is dry and warm. Because of a gentle onshore breeze, the humidity isn’t as bad in Fortaleza or along the coast as it is in parts of the United States. Since Fortaleza is only three and a half degrees below the Equator, the sun is quite intense and you have to be careful not to be out during the heat of the day.
I feel that Fortaleza is a Paradise; every time I return I fall more and more in love with it. However, there are pitfalls there just as there are anywhere. If you decide to move there, be sure to investigate before you do; visit a few times and stay a while before making that final move. I know of very few Gringos that do not think that it is a wonderful place to visit or stay.
See information on buying property in Brazil in the Real Estate Section