All You Learned in School about Brazil Is Actually (Gasp!) True

Vila Madalena bar in São PauloI’ve been thinking about my Brazilian experience a lot lately because for two months I’ve been inundated by negative thoughts. That was until I seriously sought out their source and discovered a big pile of expectations about marriage, about São Paulo, about myself. And I’m beginning to realize one of the most important raisons d’être of writing about São Paulo is other people’s expectations.

Over the last month I’ve watched myself become a serious bitch. Not just with my husband but with bus drivers, cashiers, doormen, and anyone else in my way. I blamed it on the rain, on the heat, on the pollution, on the noise, on my own mysteriously unhappy self.

Why am I unhappy? I kept asking myself as I stuffed another chocolate bar down my throat, stewing in my apartment without teaching work everyone promised I would have in abundance. Who is this angry person stuffing her face, slamming doors and yelling?

What was I expecting before I came here? Well I was told I could buy cheap rip-offs in almost any category from pharmaceuticals to software to movies and clothes and that is absolutely true! 

I was told to expect lots of work, hot weather, all-night burger joints, cheap service, beautiful people, posh shopping centers, a rich cultural history, free kisses, balmy nights, building security, swimming pools, nice butts, clean streets, great parties, meaty BBQs, friendly people, samba, fruit and fruit juice, caipirinhas and love and celebration…

I have found every single one of those things and much more! I have family, friends, great bosses and fond memories. So my life must be perfect, right?

I’ll be really honest: São Paulo is not for the light of heart. If you’ve grown up here your whole life, the intense energy of the city will be second nature, and if you’ve spent a significant amount of time here, then you’ll get used to it.

If you’re the type of person who likes the really fast lane, its pace will make sense. If you’re the type of person who has the will and energy to really get out and find your own piece of happiness, you and São Paulo will get along great. If you already have a network here, you’ll be supported and that is crucial.

If you fall into any other category my best piece of advice is “be prepared”. Be prepared for your patience to be tested. Be prepared to be challenged. Be prepared for violence. Be prepared for long periods of time without English teaching work and busy students who frequently cancel. Be prepared for the best and worst of what humanity creates when 20,000,000 beings gather.

If you’re expecting a city with fluid public transportation, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. Buses here work just fine and go most places, but they’re hot as hell in peak times (no A/C), and the drivers speed over the moon-like roads with an aggression that easily rivals Formula One and there’s no such thing as a “schedule”.

However, the buses run and if that’s all you need, then they’re perfect. I don’t take the metro very often, but as far as I understand, they’re cramped and can be dangerous. But they also work and if working is all you’re expecting, then great.

If you can afford a car, wonderful! You’ll be able to search out different parts of the city that offer incredible restaurants, museums and shops and hit up some nice parks with a high concentration of oxygen and even better, you’ll be able to escape the metropolis and lay on one of Brazil’s famous beaches or admire its lush countryside.

But if you plan to drive at rush hour (or even on a Monday night at 9) be prepared for a shitload of other drivers to have the exact same idea as you and prepare to see only one person per vehicle, all of them moaning and looking despondent about the sorry state of traffic.

And expect to pay taxes on that car, plus extra fees the government lobs on for “inspections” or whatever, and most importantly, expect unreliable policy-makers who can introduce a new bureaucratic hurdle or a fee anytime they please.

If you’re used to a despotic African regime then you’ll find Brazil’s government a breath of fresh air! If you’re from, say, Mexico or Honduras, you’ll have a grasp of how corruption works and you probably won’t be surprised about how flagrantly officials dip their hands in the public honeypot.

If you’re from a northern European country, you’ll realize that all of those things you learned in your social science classes about Brazil are actually (gasp!) true. If you liked Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and totally “got” what George Orwell was trying to tell us about the misuse of power, then you’ll have a vague idea of how politics and class work in this country.

And here’s the really honest part: none of those negative things I just listed matter one tiny, little bit when I’m in a good mood, when I choose to feel positive. None.

Expectations and projections play a big part in our experience anywhere in the world. We create our experiences for better or worse. Some of the happiest people I know live in relative squalor and the unhappiest live in a big house with two cars.

No matter what I write here about São Paulo, or what advice I give you, your experience will be different than mine. The only piece of advice I can truly offer is to forget everything I just said.

Forget everything I’ve ever written about Brazil or São Paulo. Forget the good and bad. Yes, clear away all those expectations. Be open, be positive, and most importantly, just please be prepared.

Carmen Joy King is a freelance writer and Canadian expat living in São Paulo. You can read more by her here:


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