12 Things About Brazil the Guidebooks Never Tell You

Photo courtesy of Mark Hillary


  1. Waiting in line is over-rated. Brazilians don’t really do lines. Unless otherwise directed, they tend to form a large, organic crowd and all push forward to the front. Why is this important? Banks, grocery stores, bus stations, they’ll probably have lines that people respect. But if you’re trying to get through a market or a concert or a traffic jam don’t expect a line or turn-taking to take place naturally. You’ve got to ignore any idea of personal space and push forward or you’ll be waiting for months.
  2. There’s a difference between a hotel and a motel. A BIG one. In the USA “motel” and ”hotel” are largely interchangeable words. In Brazil they are very different: hotels are for sleeping, motels are for sex. In a country where the youth often live with their parents well into their 20s or 30s until they marry, having a private place to rendevous with your lover becomes quintessentially important. As a tourist, knowing the difference is equally important if you want to avoid (un)pleasant surprises. (But maybe the names might clue you in: “Yes Motel,” “L’Amour Motel, “Motel Red Love,” and “Alibi Motel” are just a few fun, random examples)
  3. Brazilians stare. A lot. There apparently is no taboo about staring in Brazil. So get ready for curious children and strangers on the street to look at you an embarassing amount. Ladies, the amount of staring you’ll get might even make you feel threatened; it’s not (usually) intended that way.
  4. Requests are often phrased as commands, in a loud voice no less. To this day I still jump out of my skin when someone shouts at me, “Malvina! Drink some coffee!!” However, I have managed to learn how to shout appropriately at my houseguests.
  5. Shop clerks will be all over you like white on rice. Brazilians will get offended if they enter a store and aren’t approached within a certain (short) amount of time. It is considered good customer service to have a clerk there to answer your every question and accompany through your entire purchasing process. Personally, I often find it overwhelming and prefer to make my decisions without a salesperson peering over my shoulder (the fact that half the shopclerks don’t understand my accent doesn’t help), but you should expect it when you enter a store. They’re not stalking you; they’re trying to be helpful.
  6. On the other hand, waiters will not. The opposite is true of restaurants. The expectation is that you should be left to enjoy your meal in peace. If you want help, you can signal to the waiter. Compare that with the American expectation that the waitstaff check on you regularly to see if liked the meal and/or have any additional needs. Also they won’t bring you the check until you ask. Since they’re trying hard not to crowd you, this sometimes makes flagging down a waiter and paying your bill a little complicated.
  7. Not all banks accept all ATM cards. I’m used to walking up to an ATM, any ATM and withdrawing money. Maybe I’ll pay a handsome fee, but I get my cash when needed. In Brasil, some banks only accept their own ATM cards. The two banks I’ve found with essentially universal access are Banco do Brasil and Bradesco. Luckily, they’re in most towns. Silver lining to this inconvenient cloud? Brazil has no ATM fees.
  8. There is no such thing as “unscented.” Brazilians LOVE their perfume. They are one of the world’s top consumers of perfumes, and everything here has a scent. Air fresheners, perfumes for your car, perfumes for your mop water,  perfumed soaps, perfumed detergents, scented fabric softeners, perfumed lotions, and large daily doses of colognes are all standard and even expected. They even sell perfume for babies (because that beloved basic baby smell isn’t good enough?). As someone with skin allergies I try to avoid additives, and I’m hard pressed. I can’t imagine if scents actually made me physically ill. Travelers, be warned, and if necessary pack lots of your own products.
  9. Everything closes on a holiday. Every.thing. No grocery stores. No corner marts. No shopping malls. No restaurants. The only thing maybe you’ll find open is a pharmacy. As a tourist this is important. If your vacation spans a holiday, don’ t assume that you will be able to go visit the usual recreation areas. You might have a hard time just finding a bite to eat. It’s wonderful for the service workers, who actually get to enjoy their holidays with their families like everyone else (unlike in the United States), but if travelling you should be aware of this and plan accordingly.
  10. “Large” coffees are not. Brazilian coffee is served in small shot-glass sized cups. Even the large size is only 6-8 ounces, probably smaller than any small size in the United States. Since they make their coffee incredibly strong and sweet, that little drop will do you. But if you want a large cup of coffee to sip for the next 30 minutes? Good luck.
  11. This is no place for a vegetarian. Isn’t Brazil filled with delicious fresh fruits and vegetables? Sure it is. Doesn’t Brazil have vegetarians? Sure they do. But I’m sure they huddle for safety in the large cities. And all those vegetables? They’re just meat-delivery accomplices, my friend. Tell someone in the interior that you don’t eat meat and they’ll offer you chicken. Everything is cooked with meat. If pieces of meat aren’t actually mixed in with the vegetables, there’s a strong probability the pan was greased with lard. Happy events are celebrated with barbeques with very few side dishes (you might get a grated carrot salad if you’re lucky; it probably will have chicken mixed with it). “Salads” are usually just lettuce and tomato; salad dressing is olive oil and salt. Luckily Brazilians eat beans and rice with every meal so you vegetarians won’t starve, but at the end of your trip your taste buds will want to have serious words with you.
  12. SIM signThere’s no shame in asking for directions. Roads are poorly marked. Maps are rare. In some places asking for directions would mark you as a tourist. Here everyone on a road trip asks for directions–multiple times, even. The technique is simple: identify the landmark(s) close to where you want to go. Ask for directions to that landmark. When you arrive there ask for directions to the next landmark. Continue this way until you reach your destination.

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  1. Being a local I find these reports very entertaining!
    My advice to vegetarians is to not leave without paying some visits to our local street fairs (“feiras”). You can buy all kinds of beautiful, fresh fruits and vegetables there, usually very cheap.

  2. Malvina, I feel like we’re always on the same page! I’m writing about small Brazilian/US differences right now. The tiny coffees.. lord.. it’s become my habit to prepare two cups for myself at a time as I can finish the first in two gulps. There are literally two cups to the right of me as I type. I like to wake early to run around the neighborhood and Monday my cunhada joined me. We had a lengthy discussion about the popularity of salads in the States and my disappointment in the lack of them here. HOWEVER, I am so pleased to tell you that I recently found both Italian AND ranch dressing here!!! At R$7/each they were nothing to sneeze at, but I scooped them up anyway.

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