Brazil is South America’s economic powerhouse, fueled by immense agricultural, mining, energy, and human resources and driven by muscular manufacturing and service sectors. It was one of the first emerging markets to begin its recovery from the global financial crisis of 2008, due to strong commodity exports and sound macroeconomic planning. Now, Brazil has become a very attractive destination for experienced professionals in areas such as finance and engineering, with the government soliciting skilled information technology professionals from around the globe. In the first half of 2010, the Brazilian labor ministry administered more than 4300 work visas to US citizens.
The three largest cities in Brazil are Belo Horizonte (a metropolitan area of 5.4 million inhabitants), Rio de Janeiro (11.5 mil), and the super megacity, São Paulo, (20 million!). Like the fabulous foods of Brazil, each has its distinctive flavors. And to get a taste of these flavors, expats currently living in each of these vivacious cities have generously shared some thoughts about how they have learned to join in the celebration of life that is Brazil.
Belo Horizonte means “beautiful horizon,” and the surrounding mountains and pleasant weather join with the holistic urban planning to create a progressive city with an optimistic atmosphere in the interior of southeastern Brazil. Belo Horizonte serves as the distribution center for the region’s rich mining and agriculture sectors, has developed its own industrial specialties, and is making its mark as an IT and biotechnology hub.
Shelley, from Arizona
When my husband told me in December 2009 that he wanted to take an audition for an Orchestra in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, I had to get out the map. Belo Horizonte is the 3rd largest city in Brazil, the capital of the state Minas Gerais—the biggest city in Brazil that no one has heard of! We were living in Tempe, Arizona at the time, and had put down some roots. But both my husband and I had always dreamed of living abroad. I studied Spanish in college, with the hopes of moving to a Spanish-speaking country, but marriage, different career opportunities and then our three children kept us in the United States. I have to admit that when my husband won the audition, I was really scared. I had never imagined living in Brazil. I spoke Spanish, not Portuguese. And I really knew nothing about Brazilian culture and history. But a friend of mine asked me, “If you turn this opportunity down, will you regret it?” And my immediate answer was, “yes.” Then I knew, we had to go for it.
The first 6 months was a whirlwind of adjustments and culture shock. The Orchestra is fairly young, and we were the first family to move internationally to join. They provided some help, like offering to serve as our fiador to get an apartment (in Brazil you have to have someone or a group of people that will serve to pay your rent if something bad happens, kind of like rental insurance) and provided a discounted cell phone plan. But for the most part, we were on our own. We had to find schools for the kids that met our needs and our budgets. We had to figure out how to communicate in Portuguese. We had to figure out whom to call when the gas wouldn’t work and we couldn’t boil water to make coffee (a true crisis in Brazil!). We had to set up our own bank account. All these things were very challenging. But thankfully Brazilians can commiserate. They know how difficult it is to navigate the systems here. They know how long you have to wait to get certain things accomplished. And they know that sometimes you just have to use jeito (a little magic, or “the way”) to get through it all. Plus they are so talkative and usually so friendly, you can count on the fact that you will make friends in the process of trying to get these kinds of things done.
What do I love about living here? I love the blue sky. I love hearing my children speak Portuguese. I love the relationships that we’ve made: my husband has made friends from all over the world in the Orchestra, I’ve formed friendships with some fascinating people as I’ve taught private English classes, and I love talking to the parents at my children’s school. I love the adventures we have in trying new food, and I love that my children don’t consider lunch complete without beans and rice. I love that I haven’t had to clean my bathroom in over a year (domestic help is still pretty affordable and the norm for middle class families). I love how I’ve grown and changed, how I’ve overcome certain fears. I love how much more time we have together as a family, since 40 hour work weeks are not the norm, and there is a high value for vacation and enjoying time together as a family. I love how child-friendly it is here, and how children are always welcome, always hugged, and are never an inconvenience.
It’s great, but it’s not perfect. No place is perfect. It’s hard to not feel like I’m understood, and to always stand out. Even though Belo Horizonte is the 3rd largest city in Brazil, it has a significantly smaller population of foreigners. We have decided to continue to speak English together as a family, so we draw a lot of stares when we go out in public. Not only are we speaking English, but we have 3 children (because of the high cost of living, many Brazilian families only have one child, sometimes two), and our youngest is a redhead. A loud redheaded 4 year old. It’s hard to be so far away from our families, and missing holidays and special events with them. It’s difficult to figure out how to navigate the cultural norms in Minas Gerais. “Mineiros” tend to be very conflict-avoidant and want everything to stay “tudo bem, beleza.” This means they are notorious for saying whatever it takes to make you feel good, but with no intention on following through. And the cost of living has been challenging. It really is expensive to live in Brazil. It costs money to send children to school. A lot of money. Shoes and clothing are expensive. The price of food has risen dramatically in the last year due to inflation.
But despite all the challenges and frustrations, the benefits continue to outweigh the costs for us. We are enjoying ourselves, and learning how to relax and take pleasure in the day to day. Brazilians have an amazing ability to enjoy life. Even in the midst of hardships and pain, they have a way of finding joy. On my difficult days, I recall the image I have of the crippled man walking on his hands down the street, singing at the top of his lungs. That to me is Brazil. It’s the reality of being in a horrible situation, of having been totally screwed over by God, by the government, by the bank or by the pirated DVD salesman, and yet still being able to sing. It’s realizing that you’ve been dealt a bad hand, and yet choosing to be thankful for life. It’s knowing that times are tough, but you can still get together with friends and eat churrasco.
Read more of Shelley’s heartfelt writing at her blog, Give us this day our daily mango.
Rio de Janeiro is the most visited city in the southern hemisphere. It is no wonder, with its spectacular setting, gorgeous beaches, classic luxury, represented by such icons as the Copacabana Palace, and the famed carnival celebrations that are the heart and soul of life for the locals, who are known as cariocas.
Rio de Janeiro became an important port when gold was discovered in the southeastern region of Brazil. It holds the unique distinction of having been the seat of a European as well as New World royalty. Now, it is Vale and Petrobras, Brazil’s giant mining and oil companies, that hold court in Rio, along with the colossal Latin American media conglomeration, Globo Organizations and many other industry leaders.
Pam from New York
I grew up in Providence RI, then after attending college in Washington DC and Florence Italy moved to New York. After 6 years, I consider myself a New Yorker.
My fiancé, who happens to be Brazilian, was relocated for work. He has always wanted to move back to Rio and the timing worked out for both of us since I am able to work remotely. My parents were extremely nervous about our move to Brazil, which is how I started www.ny2rio.com. Being able to document my experiences helped put my family at ease.
Living in Rio has been a very exciting experience so far. It is incredibly beautiful, gorgeous beaches surrounded by mountains; living only a few blocks from the beach is priceless.
The food is phenomenal. Whether you are looking for a nice dinner or a delicious snack the variety of good, fresh food available is surprising. I was never a ‘juice’ person till I arrived and now I am hooked; the juices and acai have become my favorite morning ritual.
The places you can visit nearby offer something I have never experienced before, one breath-taking beach paradise after another. Living in Europe I was able to easily explore neighboring countries; since Brazil is so big and each area is influenced by different settlers, it feels like living in a tropical/beach version of Europe, with each place offering something different: waterfalls in Paraty, surfing in Praihina, Buzios or Saquarema, zip-lining in Morro de São Paulo, exploring on Ilha Grande…
Learning how to deal with the slow pace is something I am still struggling with. As a typical New Yorker, I like being able to get things done, walk at a brisk pace down the street and have people follow up with me in a timely manner…. Rio is quite the opposite; extremely laid back. People tend to walk very slowly in larger groups or stop in the middle of the sidewalk to have a conversation so if you are in a rush, it can be a difficult ‘weaving’ process. In general, it takes much longer to get things done.
In Rio, people have a different idea of what personal space is; they don’t mind crowding into places or standing too close to one another. Personally, I find the gym to be the most difficult place to achieve any sort of personal space which can make working out a little stressful and uncomfortable.
I moved to Rio without speaking the language and it was a rude awakening! Cariocas don’t speak (or choose not to speak) English. I took intense courses when I arrived and am still finding it challenging. If you don’t speak Portuguese and are planning on moving to Rio, I recommend doing intense courses before arriving.
The Brazilian bureaucracy is absurd. If there is a way to make something difficult, the Brazilian government specializes in it, as everything you encounter is a ‘catch-22’. You need a CPF (similar to a social security number in America) in order to do anything- including renting an apartment, a movie or even getting a SIM card for your cell phone. The problem is that in order for you to attain a CPF you need proof that you have residency here. If you do not have a bank account here, payments are made at the actual bank, be prepared to take a number, wait a while and pay in person.
São Paulo began as an isolated Jesuit mission. Today, with the São Paulo Stock Exchange, the Futures Markets, and the Cereal Market Stock Exchanges, the second largest stock exchange in the Americas, São Paulo serves as the financial center of gravity for all of South America. This huge metropolis is noted for its idiosyncratic neighborhoods, multicultural vibrancy, and invigorating energy. It is vast, dirty, chaotic, and expensive. Extravagant wealth exists side by side with brutal poverty. But its inhabitants, the paulistanos, thrive in this concrete jungle climate.
James from Canada
My name is William James Woodward. I was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. In 1978 I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia where I lived until coming to Brazil on January 10, 2002.
In the summer of 2001 I started learning the Portuguese language, purely out of curiosity. Shortly after starting the course I asked my (Brazilian) teacher, Armindo Fontana, if there was a church in Vancouver that had a Brazilian congregation and services in Portuguese. I wanted to meet Brazilians, learn about their culture, day-to-day life and to practice my new language.
From that moment on I was accepted into the Brazilian community – like a native son. Through the church I became involved in a project to help poor kids in Brazil. I decided to take a great leap of faith and left behind my life in Canada, coming to Brazil by myself with the intention to stay. At first I kept asking myself if I was brave or just insane. However I soon fell in love with the country and the Brazilian people and I knew that I had made the right choice, whatever the reason had been.
What I love most about Brazil, without a shadow of a doubt, is the Brazilian people. They are warm and friendly by nature and they are prone to accept foreigners with open arms. Another of the things that I love is the food here. There is such a wide variety of regional dishes that it’s amazing. Brazilian barbecue (churrasco) doesn’t have an equal anywhere in the world. That and a cold bottle of Skol beer, and my Sunday is perfect.
When I arrived here I already knew a great deal about the culture and spoke the language fluently. What I was, however, totally unprepared for was that the fact of the seasons being opposite those in the northern hemisphere would be so difficult to adapt to. I still have problems with the fact that Christmas is right in the midst of summer. It somehow just doesn’t seem right.
Like all other foreigners, I cannot abide the oppressive bureaucracy in everything you have to do. It’s not just for foreigners, but it suffocates native Brazilians as well. Every level of government, the banks, utilities, public transportation… just everything is super-saturated with absurd bureaucracy that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Don’t miss James’ very informative two-part series, A Gringo’s Survival Guide to Brazil: Safety and Brazilian Bureaucracy
April, from Minnesota
My husband and I were born and raised in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota called Edina.
When we bumped into each other after graduating from college, I had just returned from traveling in Europe and was on my way to volunteer at an orphanage in Mexico. Once my husband (then boyfriend) visited me, we concluded to do something of the traveling sort together. Long story short, it was a long time coming. We entertained locations all over the world, but finally settled on Brazil. There happened to be an opportunity with his work in São Paulo… so we ran with it.
We come from crazy weather… over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, often below zero in the winter. Minnesotans crave the ability to be comfortable outdoors. Not a day has gone by that we don’t appreciate the temperatures here. We take advantage of it by walking everywhere and opting to eat meals on the patio.
The food has been delicious. São Paulo is a culturally diverse city, which is reflected in its restaurants. We have a hundred dinner options within a stone’s throw of our apartment.
The people are more than kind. Our Portuguese is far from perfect, but those we’ve encountered have been patient and accommodating.
Living in such a large city there is always something to do. My sister lives in Chicago, and I was always jealous of the events & festivals they attend on a regular basis. We are slowly accumulating resources (websites/magazines) that point us in the right direction on the weekend.
I’m happiest when busy. This has proven difficult here in Brazil… without a work visa, I have few options for jobs. I feel retired, and have not quite accepted this yet.
I have a love/hate relationship with not owning a car. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time, but there are so many more options on the weekends when you own a vehicle. It is something we are still considering purchasing. Which leads me to my next qualm…
The prices! Honestly, I don’t buy anything I don’t absolutely need. I’m not sure how to describe it, but the prices are simply ridiculous and hard to stomach. I don’t think I will ever come to terms with this.
Of course being so far from family and friends has been difficult. I miss our support system back home. While our new life here is forcing us out of our shells, I crave meeting good friends for coffee and spending time with family. I have no problem talking to (and making friends with) complete strangers… but am feeling so restrained by my lack of Portuguese. I look forward to the day when I have made new friends AND can communicate with them! :)
What has surprised me about Brazil are the prices, how potent the coffee is, the fact that Brazilians put sugar in everything, how common owning a dog is, how European São Paulo feels, UFC fights being free on television, the popularity of patterned leggings, and the deliciousness of acai na tigela.
April’s blog, Que Saudades ! is filled with humor and lot’s of photos.
About the author: Julie R Butler is a traveler, blogger, writer, and editor who has authored several books, self-published as eBooks, including Nine Months In Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). Julie presently lives in the sunny wine country of Argentina, where she edits and writes for Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.
Other links and resources for Living in Brazil
Medical Tourism in Brazil
Self Service Shipping to Brazil