Random Facts You Don’t Know About Brazil… Until You’re In Brazil

I’ve implied before (and will do so again) that in the US we don’t really know much about Brazil except that it exists. Maybe they speak Spanish, and the capital is possibly Buenos Aires. There’s a big statue of Christ down there, but it’s pretty dangerous. Right?

I like to think I was much more educated than that about Brazil before the first time I came — and, for the most part, I was — but I did not understand how much of a culture unto its own Brazil has. We live in a global world, so it’s easy to see influences from a variety of countries and places no matter where you are. After all, as an American, it’s nearly impossible to avoid Starbucks’ green mermaid.

Brazil’s influence on America is a little bit harder to see. Immigration culture in Brazil — or, more specifically, Rio — is much, much more about adapting to the larger culture, rather than maintaining your culture of origin, a fact I struggle with deeply. From that perspective, my hunch is that many of the Brazilians who move to the US do the same thing, but in reverse. In other words, they adapt very quickly to American culture and while, of course, they bring beautiful bits of their culture with them, it’s not as easy for us to see.

Nevertheless, Brazil is huge. 8.516 million km² as compared to the US’s 9.834 million km² (thanks Wikipedia). With all that space, and all the people inside it, there’s so much to Brazil that I did not get until I actually spent time here and saw it in action.

Like what? you say. Here’s just a few.

When I think funk, my mind goes more to Parliament-Funkadelic than the Brazilian equivalent to hip hop. Funk carioca, much like hip hop, started in Rio’s poorest neighborhoods in the 1980s. While it has transformed much since its earliest incarnations, it’s one of the most popular types of music here. In my experience, any party in Rio may start with hip hop or pop music, but it will invariably end with a beloved funk soundtrack.

Boletos, because why pay online when you could go wait in line in person at the bank? I’ll be honest, I still don’t fully understand boletos and I’ve had nothing but irritating experiences with them. Essentially, if you buy something online, you can ask for a boleto, which is like a direct transfer from your bank account to the vendor. If you have a Brazilian bank account, it’s possible to do this online. However, if you’re like me or in the generation that hates to use computers for anything, you have to print out your boleto and wait in line at the bank to pay it. Oh, and to make things more fun? They expire, usually within two days or so.

Yes, soccer is called futbol, but there’s also futvolei. What’s that? Imagine you’re drinking a beer, playing soccer with your friends on the beach, and then someone is like, “Wouldn’t volleyball be more fun?” Not all of you agree, though, because some people want to play soccer and some want to play volleyball and then someone says, “Let’s do both!” That’s futvolei. It’s hard! It’s essentially playing volleyball with your feet, so it requires a lot of coordination and acrobatics that most American soccer players never quite get the hang of.

Tapioca isn’t just a pudding. No. Instead, tapioca is actually a magical flour, the qualities of which I still haven’t fully comprehended. I’m already a huge fan of bubble tea which, somehow, is not something you can find in Rio de Janeiro. Nevertheless, in Brazil, tapioca is more of a crepe with a variety of fillings, both savory and sweet. The tapioqueira sprinkles tapioca flour into a warm pan, fully coating the bottom until it, basically, just starts to melt together into a solid dough. Once the dough melts, they put your filling of choice in and voila, you have a beautiful, gluten-free crepe to eat on the go. It’s amazing.

That white crepe? Tapioca.

Beauty standards are a thing. Like, more than the thing they are in America. Make up is expensive, often three to four times the price of what it costs in America and, yet, women still wear it or obsessively ask their friends when they’re traveling la fora to bring some back with them. Any time I ask about any kind of treatment, i.e. cupping for muscle tightness, the first response I get is, “É para a estética?” or “Is it an esthetic thing?” Manicures are done weekly, hair treatments abound, outnumbered only by the number of cellulite treatments. Going out is a production that involves layers of primer, make up, hair treatments, and dresses that are more complicated than an calculus textbook. As a foreign woman, it’s overwhelming.

If the beauty standards are intense, so is plastic surgery. Brazil is second to the US in the number of plastic surgeries per year, a statistic that I think would change drastically should the income gap ever decrease here. There’s even a clinic for low-income residents to receive plastic surgery free of charge to which I dearly want to say “To each his own!” but I just can’t. Until I arrived here, I’d often see pictures of friends of friends and think, “Wow, she looks amazing!” but couldn’t figure out how so many women had such an ideal body shape that always seemed impossible to me. Well, turns out, it is impossible. What isn’t impossible to is the cost of breast augmentation or liposuction and the pride of having enough resources to show off the surgery. It’s a very, very different approach.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Semi-related to the focus on appearance, selfies are more of a thing than you could ever imagine. I always find it funny to compare American women taking a picture versus Brazilian women. Americans tend to focus on what they’re doing, so there’s not as much concern about how they look. Instead, it’s always a little awkward, facing the camera straight on, laughing, and someone is invariably making a weird face but no one wants to stop again to take another picture. Brazilian women have a full on photo shoot and it’s an implicit agreement amongst all friends. There’s the immediate hip pop and head tilt, along with bending the arm backwards to make it appear smaller. The girls turn slightly away from the camera to get a better angle and lean in towards each other to make their waists look smaller. It takes at least ten minutes each time, I swear, until someone gets a photo they like. I’ve been involved in these photo shoots a handful of times and I’m always invariably standing half a food away from everyone else, chin far too high, eyes half closed, asking “Seriously, how many?”

On the flip side, no one is joking when they talk about the taxes. In fact, one of the first words I learned in Portuguese was impostos and taxas, which are two different words for, well, taxes. Taxes are more common than flip flops in Brazil. And, crazily enough, taxes aren’t cumulative here, meaning that at each stage of production, more taxes can be added on, so something like a computer is 110% of the original price after manufacturing, importing, and shipping. Prior to coming, people had told me the taxes were high, but it’s not until you walk into an Apple store here and see the price of a Macbook Pro (about $3,000 for a basic model, as opposed to $1,200 in the US) that you really get it.

Last but not least, one of the most random facts I learned is that Halls aren’t just to get through the season. Nope. The cold medicine is actually a candy here, so it’s not uncommon to see street vendors selling them outside of parties or other events, along with mints, gum, and cigarettes. Who knew?

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