Suitcases

Not long before I was visiting Brazil for the first time, I ran across a video called “Signs You’re Brazilian.” When I pressed play, I expected the usual explanation of different concepts of time and being touchy-feely. There was one last point that was unexpected: packing.

The first time Gustavo came to visit me, he asked me well in advance, “Hey, can I have your address to ship some stuff to your house?” Sure, I said, no big deal. A couple packages arrived. Then a couple more. In fact, enough mail started arriving that my old landlord seemed to have assumed he moved in with me and added his name to the mailbox.

One such package included about five pairs of headphones. “For my friends” is the vague explanation that I remember. I also remember a few last minute runs to Best Buy because our cousin wanted to get a mouse or computer part but we didn’t have enough time to order it online and have it shipped.

“Why did he ask now and not order it earlier?” I asked. The answer Gustavo gave me, and still gives me, is something along the lines of because. 

For the first year of us being together, I was blissfully excluded from these requests to bring stuff back from lá fora. Because the taxes are so high in Brazil, it is extremely common to ask friends or family traveling to bring back goods that are much lower cost in places like the US or Canada. Items generally range from anything like clothing, sneakers, make up, hair products, and so on to computer parts, phones, cameras, laptops, and more.

My mom often asks me if it really makes that much of a difference. It does. My friend asked if she could order some hair products while I was here and I estimate it to be about half the price of what they cost in Brazil. I have space in my suitcase and, hand delivered, she doesn’t have to deal with a markup that is about two to three times the original cost.

Nevertheless, it’s still an adjustment for me because of how common it is. Now that I’ve developed my own relationships in Brazil, I’m starting to get my fair share of requests. Because Brazilians are really hesitant to straight up ask for what they want, I end up in these really comical conversations that go something like:

Hi Erica, how are you?

I’m good, what’s up?

Not much. Are you enjoying the US? I did [random activity] the other day. It was really nice.

Ah, that’s cool.

When are you coming back to Brazil?

In a couple of weeks! We should do something.

We should! Hey, how much does an iPad cost in the US?

Then it clicks.

Gustavo laughs at me because, in general, I struggle with Brazilian chit chat. Brazilians will literally chat about nothing. I overheard someone talking about rice on the street one day, as in “I bought rice at the supermarket.” It was so random and seemingly irrelevant that it made me pause to wonder what the hell conversation they could be having that involved talking about buying rice, one of the most common foods in Brazil, in the exact place you would expect to buy rice.

So pair my impatience for small talk with a request and suddenly I’m mad. All that just to ask me to bring you something? Just ask! Closely followed by, why do people keep asking?!

As I get closer to coming back, and with most friends knowing the rough timeline of when I’m supposed to arrive, I’ve begun to brace myself every time I see a message. Before answering, I’m already calculating shipping time and the amount of space I have left in my suitcase. My mother could build an additional room on her apartment with the sheer number of Amazon Prime boxes we have.

It’s a small ask, though. I tend to struggle because it feels like more intimate of a request than most of the friendships I’ve developed, but I’m trying to understand that it’s not perceived that way within the culture.

Instead, it’s more like a secondary market. Anyone who goes outside of Brazil handles the list of requests from friends and family, calculating who gets prioritized space in their bag. Because the economy within Brazil is what it is, there’s no way around it. It’s a small piece of resistance to the dominant economy of corruption.

So maybe instead of feeling overwhelmed, I should feel rebellious. One lipstick request at a time.

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