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May 2003

What Brazil Taught Me

Don't try to change Brazil, let Brazil change itself. Shine a little
light in the right direction, focus on the positive aspects of
Brazil culture, people. Don't let the shit get you down. Draw
inspiration from the good things and enjoy life with
the same passion with which Brazilians enjoy life.

John Miller

John Fitzpatrick's well written article on job seekers in Brazil ("For Job Seekers Brazil Is No Eldorado" - www.brazzil.com/p108may03.htm) contains good essential advice. You do see so many people who come to Brazil that are unprepared and try to make a go of it. If I may indulge, I would like to relay my experience as an Australian, who migrated to Brazil in early 1996 without the benefit or security of an ex-pat package, but with a Brazilian Carioca wife who had a great deal of appreciation of what challenges I was to face.

1) I was fortunate enough to have worked in a profession of IT/Telecommunications for most of my adult life, and arriving in Brazil in 1996 could not have been more fortuitous in terms of the Brazilian economy and its privatization process. (Telco's etc).

But being the numskull that I am, I decided that it was time to try my hand at selling "Aussie wine" in a country which at the time had a per capita consumption of 2.2 liters per annum (John Miller's thinking here was he can change Brazil and at least there was plenty of upside growth potential with average per capita consumption of wine in Oz at 20-25 liters per annum by comparison). I won't go into the details & difficulties of working downstream from the exporter/importer/winery, but suffice to say, everyone was eating at the table before me, so I was left with the crumbs.

Lesson learned: Don't embark on too much changes at once, changing language, culture and country should have been enough.

2) Anyway, I sold Aussie wine in Rio for about 2 - 2.5years, all on the black, "amigos direct", web site, lots of wine tasting parties in my apartment, degustation in restaurants and Associação Brasileira de Sommeliers, etc. but gees, certainly not making much money, and draining the Aussie bank account. And it was hard work. I was even delivering wine on my bicycle in Zona Sul.

But, I was having fun and making friends! (Turning Point).

3) So after about 2-2½ years of this, I had a circle of about 40-50 hard clients who would buy from me each 2-3 months (one of them was a king bicheiro who was murdered after he had ramped up to purchasing 5 cases a month, I always enjoyed reading the names on the cheques he passed me as payment). I also had the usual one timers who wanted to try Aussie wine ("Can I buy 1x bottle of your cheapest Aussie wine and deliver for free to my family fazenda in Mato Grosso?"), and a few other side deals going in a B&B, tourism, the odd jeitinho here and there. But I still had not stopped the slide in the Oz or Brazil bank accounts, and as you know, there is no such thing as a soft landing in Brazil. But I was having fun, and very much in love with my wife, and learning about life in Brazil.

4) Finally one of my clients invites me to play golf at Gávea G & CC. He is a delightfully English gentleman, very genuine, intelligent and quick-witted, who was the local Latin American president of a British private investment bank with major wineries in France and Chile. The bank has been operating in Brazil since Dom Pedro II times, etc. So we went off to play golf at Gávea one Saturday, and as I had previously had a handicap of 12 at my club in Sydney, we proceeded to form a handy 4 Ball team and picked up a number of winnings against our opponents in the coming months. (At this stage I was looking forward to golf each week as it was proving to be a handy earn!!).

5) Finally he invites me into his office to look at their IT systems, which are a dog's breakfast, a combination of OS/2 servers, Macintoshes and Windows 95 PC's, none of which worked together and as virus ridden as a province in South China. He asks me if I can fix the mess, and I say "Well, I can do better than that, I can project manage getting this fixed which is better than you can do, as you don't have the skills or the time for this. So let me Project Manage this for you". Six months later, the project is completed on time and budget, and I now had a very prestigious client I could reference.

Lesson: Make friends, they really count! So even while I was not making any great money with the wine thing, it made me a lot of friends along the way. I think that translates into: "If you can't sell yourself in your own country, don't expect to be able to sell yourself in another country".

6) Since then, I have worked on contract for AT&T, and then Ernst and Young, Computer Associates, and a few other nameless places. It was hard at times, I worked for scummy salaries or contract rates at times, but I was always enjoying the learning experience here, even if I was the slowest student in Portuguese you ever saw (I teach lessons in "How NOT to learn Portuguese") . The experiences took me to several countries in Latin America, and many cities in Brazil. I have very fond memories of working in Lima, Peru for 9 months with 200 Ernst and Young people from all around Latin & North America, and discovering the Argentineans did not understand what the Mexicans were saying in Spanish, especially if they had imbibed 2-3 pisco sours.

Generally (and that's problem with generalizations, there are exceptions of course) I find Brazilians incredibly hard working people (OK, not from Christmas to Carnaval, but neither are Aussies during January-February), wonderful office temperaments, and very good at improvising when they have to. Brazilian management on the other hand, I find stifling. Managers are incredible control freaks, lacking in vision and skills, and not willing to trust/empower their staff. (I sense this is a hangover from the military, especially in places that were run by the military like Petrobras and CSN).

7). Taxes. I really don't think Brazilian personal income taxes are very high at all. Certainly the top personal income tax is very low compared to Australia and the USA. Sure lots of indirect taxes, and that nasty CPMF tax eats a lot of your bank money very sneakily. But gees, I lose less than 30 percent of my tax packet to Imposto Renda, that ain't that bad, and I support Lula's plan to increase tax rates on those earning above R$ 3500 a month.

By way of example, I used to earn something like 8-10 times the minimum wage in Australia, in Brazil I earn something like 80-90 times minimum wage, and that is more a reflection on the poor state of minimum wage in Brazil rather than my earnings. So obviously I ain't complaining. But as you know, job security worldwide is very tenuous these days, so I am expecting retrenchment in the coming months, which then lands me in the proverbial rescission package goldmine, thank you so much. (These labor laws in Brazil are a joke).

As Pete Garrett of Midnight Oil sang:

"The rich get richer, the poor get the picture
The bombs never hit you when you're down so low
Some got pollution, some revolution
There must be some solution but I just don't know
The bosses want decisions, the workers need ambitions
There won't be no collisions when they move so slow
Nothing ever happens, nothing really matters
No one ever tells me so what am I to know"

8) Getting the RNE and CPF and Carteira de Trabalho was not that bad for me. My wife knew how to work the system, certainly if I had tried to do this on my own I would have gone nuts. And yes it did take time, I had that same scrappy piece of paper you had in your passport for 2 years as an interim RNE. Brazil has taught me to be patient, and I sense this is one of your great frustrations.

Lesson for you: Go with the flow, relax and enjoy the journey, and come and have a beer with me on Ipanema beach one day!! (I hope you are smiling reading this).

9) I sometimes want to scream and yell at the queues in banks, the lack of money in ATM's, the bureaucracy in places like the INSS, Caixa Econômica, Federal Police Department, the Call Centers/Help desks run by morons, the electricity going off when you get in an elevator, the gas company using jack hammers in the street on a Sunday morning at 7:00 am etc. But then I think back to some of my Brazilian friend's experiences in Oz with immigration and customs, and really it ain't that much different, maybe 20-30 percent worse. Same shit all over the world.

9) The downsides. No doubt about it, violence in Brazil is the one thing that really pisses me off. I used to think São Paulo was more dangerous than Rio, not any more. I am very careful, and went for seven years without being robbed here, until January this year when I got assaulted and had my leg broken (this is a novela in its own right, and definitely a 3 Bohemia lata de cerveja story).

The other downsides of course are pollution, corruption, social and criminal injustice, but by far the biggest downside for me is the lack of decent Asian food, which I work around by cooking my own Thai curries. (More tongue in cheek, although I think the so-called Chinese food in Brazil redefines the description of a "Chef cooking with his brain and taste buds turned off". ).

So yeah, in summary, Brazil has worked out for me OK. Financially I am about where I would be in Australia after a 2-3 year backward slide, but I am a lot richer in terms of experience, friendships, and the lifestyle of the Carioca, very pleasant in deed. And a wonderful wife Marta who stood by me through thick and thin. ( I still remember my wife saying to me one day when I had very little money in 1998, "John learn to go to the beach and enjoy life when you have no money, then when you have money, you will appreciate the beach even more"). And that's the truth.

10) I have met my share of ex-pats and travelers here in Brazil. Some have made it, most not, overwhelmingly so. Some think that something that works in their country will work here (You know how Brazilians wash the floors with a rag wrapped around a T-shaped pole with a bit of rubber on the end for washing windows, fucked if I know why they will not buy a decent squeegee or mop!). Some just don't come here with a decent plan and or do not have a lot of skills to offer Brazil (I have seen some appalling quality of ex-pat English teachers here).      Others just are not prepared to change, and keep trying to change Brazil.

There is a common pattern I have observed to the emotional roller coaster that gringos/ex-pats come here experience. The first 6-12 months euphoria of discovering something new, tropical and lush. The next 6-12 months getting angry and frustrated at how things take so long or do not work like they do in your own country, the language barrier, etc. And then comes the fork in the road; money starts to run out, the Brazilian girlfriend pisses off because she can't stand the gringo's bad behavior any more, the frustration builds to a crescendo, and the gringo goes home. OR the gringo learns to adapt to life in Brazil and relax and take it easy, and stop trying the change Brazil, and let Brazil get on with change at its rate of change.

Lesson: Don't try to change Brazil, let Brazil change itself. Shine a little light in the right direction, focus on the positive aspects of Brazil culture, people. Don't let the shit get you down. Draw inspiration from the good things that happen around you, and your family and friends. And enjoy life with the same passion with which Brazilians enjoy life.

Whew, that just sort of oozed out of my fingertips over the last hour. Must have been bottling that up for while. Thanks for the inspiration, John.

John Miller is an Australian, living in Rio de Janeiro. He can be contacted at millerj@gbl.com.br


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