I came to Brazil for the first time alone in 2014. I love to learn languages and I had made several attempts at Spanish that never furnished the skills I had hoped for. So, I filled a backpack and headed to South America for a six-month trip. I had a rough idea of where I wanted to go, but the overall idea was to be alone so that I could be immersed in Spanish and return home with the capability of being charming at a dinner party in Mexico City (if that occasion every arose). At the last minute, I added Brazil to my route because I felt I should check that box. I thought, let’s get it over with, I mean I am down there anyways. A week to São Paulo to visit an old friend I knew during the London years, turn into a month that included Bahia, Florianopolis and Rio de Janeiro.
I often compare Rio to India. They are nothing alike and have everything in common. What I am referring to here, is the feeling you get when you step off that plane. You get hit in the face by a thick hot air, that doesn’t smell very good and there is a lot of noise and people everywhere. You head to customs, where the agents are more interested in talking to you about what you will be doing tonight then where you are going or what you are running from. You proceed through the airport- an important government structure of any major city and there are loose live wires, holes in the walls, florescent lighting, happy music playing, paint done by someone who doesn’t stay in the lines and a lot, I mean a lot of tacky marble. And for some reason, you have never felt so happy in your life. You experience a joy so pure and so simple, it is as if you stepped off that airplane and an energy entered your toes. You know you aren’t home, but you feel like you want to stay.
I was apprehensive to travel Brazil alone. I thought that my basic Spanish skills would get me further than they did. But they didn’t….at all. But the lack of a common language ended up being the best gift of all. It was on a two-hour boat trip from Salvador, the capital of Bahia, to Morro de São Paulo that I let Brazil in. I was sitting alone on the small commuter boat, listening to music, drinking a Brahma. A smiley woman approached me and began to speak. I responded in Spanish and she looked perplexed, but she didn’t stop speaking to me. In fact she started talking faster. She spoke to me as if I understood all that she was saying. I felt her good energy and was enjoying our interaction despite the lack of comprehension. Somehow I figured out she wanted me to have a drink with her and her friends later that night. I nodded ‘sure’ and figured we would never run into each other. Obviously on a car-less island, we did and ended up spending the next 3 days straight together. There was no Google Translate, there was no dictionary, there was nothing but laughter! We had such a beautiful time together that when it came time for me to leave the island, everyone had misty eyes.
On the commuter boat back to the shores of Salvador that afternoon, I knew something had changed. I went on to travel to the Galapagos islands, Machu Picchu, even the Amazon….but nothing was Brazil. I returned to my home at the time in San Francisco and gave myself six months. If I still felt so strongly at the end of my given timescale, then I would just return with the intentions to build a new life. If I only knew then what I know now…wink wink!
When I speak of Brazil, I am speaking mostly form experience in Rio de Janeiro. The country is so large and so diverse it might as well be many different countries and not just a single place. Every neighborhood, city, and state has its own culture, slang ‘giria’, even different fruits. But this article will generalize about common threads of Brazilian culture. And it needs to be added, that there are 2 sides to every coin and the picture I am about to paint also has many other sub stories. But the focus is the answer to… Why Brazil?
Brazil has an enormous army, but has never been to battle (ok, very rarely). It has nearly no enemies, except for the Argentinians in futebol, but that is all in jest. So why prepare for warfare? The government does not support nor protect the common folk. So when you have nothing to count on, you look to those around you for support. The typical Brazilian family rallies together to the end. I have met families that even physically fought each other and then scrubbed the kitchen floor side by side that same afternoon. Because of this the Brazilian family is tight and strong. If you aren’t getting a pension to take care of you when you are older, or health services when you have dengue fever, or a good local school to send your kindergartner to, you turn to those who can provide instant hep and support. My best friend earns about 500Reais a month, which at the time I wrote this is a bit less than $200 US dollars. She is the sole bread winner for a family of six, cleans the house all on her own and still goes out dancing till dawn. She is not bitter, nor expects any help or pity. I once asked her why, and she replied simply, because it is my family.
There is a common dialogue in Brazil about "positive thinking." The idea is that if you put out positive energy, you will then attract it. Of course, things will not always go the way you want, but when that happens ‘acceptance hurts less’. This is the vernacular wheel that propels Brazilians to smile every time you see them and constantly give thanks out loud for what they do have good. This could be one of the most sad countries on the planet. They have enough natural resources to be a first world nation, few natural disasters and wonderful weather, yet their poverty and crime rate is unbelievable high. Everyone I know has at least one tragic death in the family and no one I know earns more than a few hundred US dollars a week. But you swim in happiness in Brazil. There is little time wasted, because every day is a reason to celebrate. Life is good, even when it isn’t.
What the majority of the "developed world" strives for through yoga classes, plans for retirement, and conclusions we make on holiday is what Brazilians have been doing for generations. In fact it is so engrained, that they don’t even realize they are doing it. Their definition of what brings them happiness is the enjoyment of life’s little pleasures. It is the importance of a unexpected moment with an old friend or a beer with a new friend, the importance of empathy, celebration of your family, dinners with your cousins, cleaning your aunt’s home, being late to work because you were making love to your wife, helping your neighbor til midnight because they are good people, staying up extra late because the music you have heard a thousand times is still ever so beautiful or enjoying an extra helping of your mother’s pipping hot, garlicky beans that you have eaten everyday for 40 years and will eat every day for 40 more if you could. None of this is defined as embracing life’s greatest pleasures, in Brazil, this is just life. I had a client tell me recently that he went to a samba and had so much fun he stayed out tim dawn. I smiled to myself on the inside and thought, here this is just called "I met a few friends on Saturday." Brazilians are limitless.