15 Things That Surprised Me About Brazil

You can learn a lot about a country and its culture just by visiting. But you really learn about a place after living there.

After the honeymoon phase is over, you start to see both the good and the bad. You see what really lies beneath the surface, as opposed to just the fantasy sold in guidebooks and the like.

I definitely had my preconceptions about Brazil before moving here…but there were some things that surprised me in the end. Here are 15 of them.

1) People rarely ever text. They (almost exclusively) whatsapp.

Whatsapp is basically the only way that people communicate here via cell phones. Which is funny because in the US and France, Whatsapp isn’t used all that much (except to talk to people who are in another country). I’m pretty sure that Brazilians are the primary reason why Whatsapp was sold to Facebook for $19 billion…

Before moving to Brazil, I never used Whatsapp. Now, I can’t imagine communicating with anything else. It’s much more user-friendly than normal texting or iMessage. Once you start using Whatsapp, you’ll never go back. Guaranteed.

2) How insanely expensive (almost) everything is.

I was warned about this before coming, but I still didn’t think that Brazil would be that expensive compared to the US.  This is a developing country after all, so how is that possible for things to cost that much more when the salaries are so much lower? But it is.

All imported products are absurdly overpriced, due to the high import taxes. So overpriced that I refuse to buy clothes, cosmetics, books, electronics…I pretty much only buy what I actually need here!

Just to give you an idea, I went to Sephora the other day and saw that a NARS lipstick that runs $26 USD back home costs R$100 here (about $45 USD).  A Lancome cream that costs $190 USD in the U.S. (still crazy expensive) costs a mind-boggling $1,029 reais here (like 450 USD).

The price of electronics is generally two to three times the cost that it is in the US. A Nikon camera that costs about 500 dollars in the US will set you back about 2,100 reais here (approximately 1,000 dollars).

I was shocked when I saw the price of this simple calculator (equivalent to about 70 USD  - would not cost more than 5 USD at home!)
I was appalled when I saw the price of this simple calculator (equivalent to about 70 USD – would not cost more than 5 USD at home!)

It makes me honestly wonder how people can afford to live here long-term. I have heard that many Brazilians travel to the US just to buy things and then resell them here–And they are able to pay for their flight (and more) with the money they make.

3) The horrible customer service 

People who work in low-level service positions (like at grocery stores, big department stores etc) all generally seem very unhappy (probably due to their low wages) and often project that unhappiness onto the customer.

They do not care to help you and are often even downright rude. I was actually shocked when, last month during Carnaval, some woman behind the counter at Lojas Americanas (a “cheap” department store) initiated a conversation with me. That had never happened before (and hasn’t happened since)!

And if you buy something and want to return it, the salesperson will make it very difficult for you to return that item (if you are able to return it at all). Yet another reason why I don’t buy things here!

This all goes back to the mentality. In Brazil, it’s all about short-term gain–making as much money as possible in that moment.

Whereas in the US, people tend to think more long-term–which is why, for instance, if the customer has to wait longer than usual for the food, they will likely get something in return, like food or drinks on the house. And if the meal doesn’t live up the customer’s standards, it will be free. The restaurant owners want to keep their customers happy, because they know that doing so will prove most beneficial and lucrative for their businesses in the long run.

4) How much I like the Brazilian bikini

When I first came here, I was so timid about wearing the Brazilian bikini on the beach.  Now, I can’t imagine wearing anything else!

Personally, I find the Brazilian cut FAR more flattering than the American/European bikini bottoms– which Brazilians jokingly refer to as “fraldas” (diapers).

And now, I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s safe to say that I am forever converted to the Brazilian style…

My Brazilian bikini next to my
My Brazilian bikini compared to my American bikini
My Brazilian bikini on top of a bikini I bought in France...
And…another Brazilian bikini bottom on top of  bottoms I bought in France…

5) How I always feel like I’m being ripped off

Just to go to a bar in Rio (not a boteco, which is a casual Brazilian bar), you generally have to pay a cover of at least 15 reais. And that’s if there is no live music playing. It makes bar-hopping pretty much out of the question and going out a very expensive excursion.

In comparison, even in a big city like New York, you rarely have to pay to get into a bar. You will likely have to pay a small cover if there is live music, otherwise, the only places that you have to pay are at the high-end clubs. But even then, you won’t pay more than 20 dollars (with a free drink included). In Rio, you can pretty much expect to pay a cover everywhere…and you can forget about that free drink!

There are also many times when the waiter will short you of change or overcharge on a bill. You have to be extra diligent about checking change and bills here.

Here’s another example: If I order sushi and want extra wasabi, I will have to pay 4 reais for that extra wasabi. In the US, you would never be charged for something like that! But I’ve found that nothing is ever free in Brazil.

6) The inefficiency 

Let’s just say that Brazil’s strong point is not exactly efficiency.

Take this for example: As I mentioned above, if you go to a bar in Rio, you are normally charged an entry fee. But instead of paying at the door when you arrive, you have to pay it when you leave. You’re given a piece of paper, where food/drinks are written down as you buy them, and then at the end of the night, you have to pay.

This process sometimes leads to extremely long lines at the end of the night–and caused major issues when there was a fire at a nightclub in Brazil last year.  Tragically, many people actually died because the bouncer would not let people leave without paying their tabs first.

A much more efficient system would be to have customers pay for the cover charge immediately when they arrive and then have them pay for their drinks as they order them–or just allow customers to start a tab and leave the credit card with the bartender, as is done in the US.

It works similarly in stores, where customers have to go to one cashier to get a slip with the price of what they have to pay, and then proceed to another cashier to actually pay.  I never understood this. Why can’t I just pay at one cashier? Why is it so darn difficult just to make a purchase?! Whatever the reasoning is for this (probably to avoid theft), there has got to be a more efficient way.

If I go to the grocery store, there can be three people in front of me and I will be waiting for half an hour just to buy a mango.

So…yeah. You learn to be patient living in Brazil.

7) How necessary it is to speak Portuguese

I had heard that not many people speak English before coming here, but I was still fairly surprised by this.

I witnessed this when my friend Mallory came to visit and, not speaking a word of Portuguese, tried to get by solely on English. Oftentimes, people just did not understand. As can probably be expected, taxi drivers, bus drivers and other people in low-level service positions generally do not speak much (if any) English, while educated and wealthier people tend to speak quite well (but this is of course a very small portion of the population). Personally, I prefer it this way. It means I get to speak Portuguese almost all the time! 🙂

But if you are traveling to Brazil and expecting to get by on just English…you may have your work cut out for you.  I would at least advise buying a phrasebook and learning some key phrases–a little Portuguese will go a long way! And will be much appreciated.

8) Everyone flaunts their bodies proudly 

I honestly have never seen so many ripped male bodies in my life than I have seen in Rio…and luckily for females, many guys elect to go shirtless, even just walking down the street. Definitely makes for some nice eye candy on a day-to-day basis!

But what I love is that no matter one’s size (or age), everyone seems to be proud of their body. In the US, women tend to stop wearing bikinis past a certain age or if they are over a certain size. In Brazil, all women wear bikinis (and not those “diapers” that people wear back home!). Suffice it to say that the beach culture is a refreshing change from the US.

9) How hard it is to eat healthy

Salgados, popular Brazilian fried snacks made up of meat and/or cheese (photo courtesy of pixabay.com)

In a country that has more types of fruit than I have ever seen in my entire life (which I LOVE by the way), it’s surprising to me how difficult it’s been to have a healthy, well-rounded diet here. I have found myself eating much worse here than I do back home. The grocery store selection is limited and the majority of restaurants do not cater to healthy-eaters.

I’ve found that most Brazilians love to add tons of sugar to almost everything–even things that (at least in my opinion) don’t need any added sugar! Like fruit juice, for instance. Unfortunately, this could be a reason why obesity is on the rise in Brazil.

Eating out centers around mainly fried food (salgados), meat and sugar and very little organic food.  The healthy food is few and far between. If you do seek it out (healthier restaurants can be found in Ipanema and Leblon, the wealthier neighborhoods of Rio), you can expect to pay an arm and a leg for it.

10) The fact that everybody seems to live with their parents.

Most Brazilians live with their parents until they get married, unless their parents live in a different city. It is pretty strange for me, coming from a culture where people generally move out at the age of 18. But here, living with the ‘rents is simply the norm!

I live with an English guy and anytime I tell a Brazilian that I live with a guy who is not my boyfriend and that yes, we have a purely platonic relationship, their jaws practically drop in surprise. I asked one Brazilian about it and he explained that it is not normal for a guy and a girl to live together here, unless they are coupled up or married.

11) The fact that I generally feel quite safe here

This also came as a surprise to me. Sure, I live in a very safe neighborhood and spend most of my time in the Zona Sul (the safer part of Rio), but I do feel a lot safer in Rio than I had anticipated, even riding the bus (I had always heard that there were a lot of robberies on busses, but I have never had a bad experience).

Perhaps this is a false sense of security. I know that I need to always have my guard up here and should not walk alone at night…And I have certainly heard my fair share of stories. But I think if you stick to the safe areas and do not walk alone on empty streets at night, chances are, you will be fine.

But regardless, if you’re traveling to Brazil, be sure to check out these safety tips.

12) The fact that cariocas tend to be a bit closed-off

I had always heard that cariocas (people from Rio) and Brazilians were super friendly, so when I came here, I was a bit surprised to find that this wasn’t exactly the case.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Cariocas aren’t anything like frigid Parisians. But they tend to have their group of friends (from high school, college, work…) and don’t seem to care that much to branch out and make new ones. I have heard from many people that it is very hard to break into a circle of Carioca friends–so it’s not just me that thinks this!

I was out the other night with my awesome Carioca friend, Claudia, and my (equally as awesome) American friend, Iyin. Some Brazilian guy asked us how we all became friends. He thought it was estranho (weird) that a Carioca girl would befriend us, since generally Cariocas have their friends and stick to them.

While people in Rio may not be as overly friendly and warm as I had anticipated, many people are friendly and strangers will often go out of their way to help you if you need help. And in other parts of Brazil, like Minas Girais, people are incredibly friendly and approachable.

13) How women are often seen as sex objects 

How sad is it that I just google imaged “Brazil beauty” and “Brasil beleza” (the Portuguese version of that) and hoping to see pictures of the beautiful country, I instead see (in both languages), pictures of beauty pageant contestants, dolled-up women and their behinds. Such gender objectification is obviously a global issue, but I notice that it is much more blatantly obvious in Brazil.

I’ve been shocked by some of the things that I see on TV here. Watching a normal talk show, for instance, this is what I see on the screen: one male presenter holding a microphone, surrounded by his “assistants”, a line of women in skimpy costumes, just standing there next to him, posing and smiling. As a woman, I find it to be downright offensive! Yet this type of thing is completely normal in Brazil–nobody bats an eyelid.

14) The fact that nearly all of the men have tattoos 

I was quite surprised when I moved to Brazil to find that almost everyone and their mother has at least one tattoo. I have rarely seen a guy without one. Although it is something that seems to be fairly regional. I noticed that tattoos weren’t as prevalent with Mineiros (people from Minas Gerais), for instance. Must be a beach thing!

The Portuguese term for a full arm tattoo is “braço fechado” (photo courtesy of pixabay.com)

15) That despite it all, I still love it here

OK, that’s a lie–I knew that I would love Brazil before coming here. While some of the things on this list do make me miss home at times, at the end of the day, the positives outweigh the negatives.

The other day, I was riding the bus and the bus driver told me to sit in the front and he would let me out through the front later. He told me that he didn’t speak a word of English–that the only thing he knew how to say was “I love you”. Surprise, surprise!

Then at my stop, he directed me where to get off and how to get home, and when I got off the bus, he shouted out “I love you!” Only in Brazil…

It’s those little interactions that make me love this country so much. It’s the kind, warm people…the infectious energy…the laid-back attitude…

It’s walking down the street and seeing this…

You see? Try not falling in love with Brazil. I dare you.

Published by maryb1986

I am a 26 year old blogger and graduate student of Global Communications living in Paris. As someone with an unbridled passion for Brazil and Brazilian Portuguese, I recently started teaching myself this beautiful language. This blog documents my journey as I learn Portuguese and all things Brazilian! If you have any comments, questions or would like to share some ideas, feel free to e-mail me at mbizzle19@gmail.com. And you can also follow my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/apaixonadapelobrasil

4 thoughts on “15 Things That Surprised Me About Brazil

  1. The only thing I would disagree with you is the number 11. After living in US, I came back to Rio and realized how here is so dangerous. You were just luck. When I was in NYC, I was always surprised how people feel safe there, once I saw a guy taping in his MAC at 2 am in the subway. First our subway doesn’t open at 2 am. And second you would never see someone showing even a cheap notebook in the metro. Last week, I took my car in the middle of the night to buy something to eat and I had to outwit 4 guys in another car that were following me. The worst thing in that moment was that I couldn’t go to the police because I don’t know if the policemen would drive me back to the bandits (the police in Brazil is very corrupt and Rio’s policemen are the most corrupted in the country). Please come to Brazil again, but never think you are safe.
    Se voce sai a pé, as piores coisas podem acontecer. Se vocÊ sai de carro, podem roubá-lo ou te sequestrar. Se você sai de carro, pode ser roubado, estuprado, ou sequestrado. Claro que a zona sul é uma área mais segura, mas os numeros são maqueados pelo governo do estado para que os turistas se sintam melhor.


  2. My husband is from Sao Paulo, Brazil (the city). A lot of what you say here is what offends him as a stereotype… Just as Americans are offended that other countries think all American women are “fast” or that we are all ignorant.


    1. I’m sorry that this offended your husband, Jennifer. This blog post was not based on any stereotypes or preconceived notions I had, but rather my own observations of living in Brazil.


  3. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! I got here randomly and I loved your text even it being very old. Well I’m brazilian and did never understand why you “gringos” only tell the good things about Brazil ever. Well you told the truth. Brazil is bad but it worth a ride. You may come and visit but I never suggest living here. Just a little correction about fact 12: that is “south zone”. In the north, tijuca and “baixada” that’s very different and ppl are more open mind for new friends although I never suggest you to stay there ’cause is more violent than usual 😉


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