I would first like to say there is a load of negativity in the start of this entry. I read it over and over to figure out whether I’m saying it due to the pique of anger or if I over-expressed it. Ultimately, I decided to keep it the way it is because it shows a great progression of my experience from the feeling of uncertainty to the point of trust. This style is something that I have not used for a long long time. It reminds me the early days when I was blogging on V1 of my personal blog where I unconditionally express my thoughts.
Now let’s get the ball running…
Summer is always an exciting and daunting time for me. There is always some uncertainty around how I will spend the three months that school is out. During my first Summer in the US, I was in Boston and last year I went back to Malaysia for a couple weeks and came back to complete a summer course. And this year, I went to Brazil.
To be honest I’m still a little starstruck that I am actually in Brazil. Who would’ve known. It’s really one of those times where life gives me lemons and I accept it.
But, putting that aside. I came to Brazil to participate in CESAR’s Summer Job program. It was a great eye opening internship experience. I did a comprehensive writeup of my experience working there on LinkedIn. This entry is designed to be the other part of the story that I specifically left out as I believe it should be on my personal blog.
Getting mentally prepared
I was notified in early April that I got accepted for the CESAR Summer Job program and at that point, I was still applying for other internships while also interviewing with a couple of companies. I saw the offer from CESAR as a last resort as it was out of the country.
In late May, I made the decision to lock down on the offer with CESAR. And that was actually the start of the hardships of getting mentally prepared to travel and work in another country. I did a lot of reading about Brazil and watched a handful of videos on YouTube. The general consensus that the internet had of Brazil is that the country is unsafe and dangerous.
Every other article/video that I found online had a negative vibe for the country. The articles/videos that try to highlight the good parts of Brazil inevitably ended with a note to be wary of personal safety while in Brazil. Adding to that, some answers by Brazilians on travel forums were pretty negative also. Some even bluntly saying that even they as Brazilians fear for their safety in their own country.
I remembered one evening where I spent my time watching videos of how tourists were being pick-pocketed and robbed in the streets of Brazil in broad daylight. Watching those videos sent a surge of shock in my mind. At that point, I said to myself “what did I just sign myself up for“. I was legitimately afraid for my safety (and life). And I’m not even exaggerating here.
After that evening, I started my strategically planning for the trip. I looked back at the videos that showcased petty-crime in Brazil and tried to reverse engineer / find patterns in the various events so that I can fend myself against such attacks.
The most common one I found was pick-pocketing. A lot of countries face the risk of pick-pocketing so I followed some guides on how to prevent being a victim of pickpockets. My solution was to not have anything in my pockets. But then you ask, where would I put my phone and money?
Well, I first thought of wearing double pants but that would be fairly uncomfortable given it is humid and hot here in Recife. Then I came across this video where a guy sewed a zipper pocket in the inside of his shorts. I thought it was a great idea and ordered a set of zippered pockets and sewed them to the interior of shorts.
After that, I was more relieved than ever. But then another problem came up. I don’t speak Portuguese. At that point, I had about 30 days before my flight to Brazil so I tried out both Duolingo and Memrise to help me learn the language.
My flying experience
I flew from Phoenix to Recife (pronounced as he-ci-fee) through Los Angeles and São Paulo with American Airlines. The flight was ok. There was a 3 hour delay at LAX due to a delay from from a previous destination. I read online that American Airlines still has issues properly scheduling their Dreamliner (787) flights.
As a result, the flight from LAX to GRU is consistently delayed but the GRU to LAX flight is not because the planes are already parked on the tarmac. If you’re interested in learning why that is, Wendover Productions has a video on why American carriers universally decides to park their planes for long periods of time in South America. Watch the video here.
Moving back to the topic, I had a somewhat long layover in São Paulo but it was cut short because my outbound flight from LAX arrived late. With some time to kill, I wanted to get a SIM card in the airport but I couldn’t find one. The airport just didn’t have it. At that point, I felt very anxious because I didn’t have mobile data and If I left the premise of the airport I might get lost (slight exaggeration). Adding to the fact that I have limited knowledge of Portuguese made it more daunting.
The most important thing for me was to get from the airport to my airbnb. I had two ridesharing apps installed on my phone (Uber and 99) and I was unable to hail a ride on either apps because for some reason, the driver just didn’t show up. I hailed three cars and waited for a total of 40 minutes.
The thing is that the airport Wi-Fi was only good inside the terminal and once I stepped out of the terminal, I’m basically out of the connection zone. At the end, I caved in and got an airport taxi. The person tried to take advantage of me as a foreigner and charged me R$60 for a 7 minute ride. I managed to haggle my way down to R$35. Trying to charge R$60 literally felt like daylight robbery.
I’m in Brazil, now what?
The taxi ride was great. There was some traffic as it was raining that night. When I arrived at the airbnb apartment, I saw both of my hosts there standing at the roadside with an umbrella. At that point, I felt emotional and grateful that they waited for me at the sidewalk for nearly an hour while it was raining outside. I was literally speechless and I gave them a good smile and they said some words in Portuguese that I never quite understood.
From that point onwards, I put down a lot of my insecurities that I had about Brazil. I thought to myself, even if I feel lost and unknown in this country, I have someone to watch over my back. I think that is the essence of what Airbnb is all about. Its about creating a community where you put yourself in the life of a local and also to feel the warmth of home.
Not to be swayed off topic, the first thing I did after that was to get a SIM card. My airbnb hosts graciously accompanied me to the nearby shopping mall to get one. It took an hour to get a SIM card. I honestly didn’t know why because I was conversing with the person through Google Translate.
After getting the SIM card, the person gave me a couple of options for data plans. The cheapest was R$ 60 for 5GB of data. I felt that was too much and asked for a lower tier plan and the person said this was the best they can do for me. But little did the person know that I had Google and I looked up on their website that they had a 1GB data plan.
At that point, I showed the 1GB plan to the person and they acknowledged the existence of the plan. I am not sure if there was a miscommunication somewhere during the conversation but I felt the person was very unethical in trying to sell me the higher tiered plan and not properly informing me about the full range of plans.
But with that aside, I got my SIM card and I was pretty happy after that. At least I have some connection to the internet in case of an emergency.
My food journey
The next morning, I went to work and it was nice to finally meet people that spoke English. It was a breath of fresh air as I hadn’t had the chance to speak English since landing in São Paulo in the previous day. Work was great and that evening, I decided to eat out at a restaurant just across my apartment.
I went in the restaurant not knowing what to expect. I stood at the entrance for a couple of minutes and people were giving me looks. Then I saw another person come in and just picked up a menu and randomly sat down on a table. I followed suit by picking up a menu and grabbing a seat.
I didn’t know much about the restaurant as Google didn’t provide a good description of the food items available. Adding to that, the menu was in Portuguese made my ordering experience 10x longer. I had to google translate all the menu items to figure out what exactly the item is. Some menu items translated well but the majority didn’t make any sense at all when translated to English.
So, I ended up choosing the one that had a good translation. I called up the waiter and put in my order. As I was pointing at the menu, the guy tried to explain to me that the thing I was trying to order was meant for 2 people. I didn’t quite understand it so he brought over the plate to help me visualize.
Then, he swiftly flipped the menu to the page that lists meals for one person. I just randomly pointed at the one with the Portuguese word that I knew. I picked Frango which is chicken in Portuguese. And when my meal arrived, the guy took the time to ‘try’ and explain to me the sides that came with the chicken.
I honestly didn’t know for sure what he was saying but I can kinda guess that he was describing what was on my plate. At the end of the meal, I asked for the bill and I was reminded that I was not in America and that tipping is no necessary. Given the service I was provided, I would have given him a good tip in a heartbeat.
This experience resonated with a lot of my restaurant experiences in Brazil. Everyone was very willing to help me throughout the ordering experience. One thing I also found out is that the menu in a lot of restaurants don’t have pictures.
As I began to explore more restaurants, I did do some googling to find the menu but not a lot of restaurants have their menu listed online. It was mostly just reviews on sites like Tripadvisor and their Facebook page. I found that Instagram and google images was useful in looking up on what kind of food is available in any given restaurant.
As the weeks progressed. I started picking up Portuguese food terms and at this point, I can ‘kinda’ read menus at restaurants. But one thing that I enjoyed about the experience was the element of surprise. There are times where I just straight up order something with one expectation and I get something completely different. Like there was once when I thought I ordered salad but instead I got slices of tomatoes and cucumbers.
In terms of the restaurants in Brazil, there are two types of places that I like mainly because they doesn’t require interacting with anyone or involve reading a menu. These two restaurant types are ‘Self-serve’ and ‘Rodízio’.
The Self-serve type is also known as the Kilo restaurant because the price of the meal is determined by its weight. Minus the weight of the food of course. This type of restaurant was good because it was buffet style and helps combat food wastage. This is because everyone only takes whatever they want to eat as taking extra involves paying extra.
The style is fairly similar with Malaysia’s economy rice stalls but the big differences is that there is a lot more food options to choose from and the price is more justifiable as it is based on weight per kilo and not by estimation from the cashier.
The Rodízio type is also a buffet style restaurant but it is all-you-can-eat. You basically pay a set price and eat to your hearts content. You might be asking, why not just call it a buffet then, well the Brazilian twist here is that they cut the meat on your table. Basically, the bring a giant skewer of meat and carve it right in front of you.
This ensures that the meat is perfectly cooked. All the meats were tender and juicy. And each person receives a two sided circular card that is printed on both sides. This card will help the meat servers to determine if you want to be served meat or not. I learnt that you should not be greedy and have a lot of meat on your plate as they tend to go cold and end up going from medium rare to fully cooked.
Overall, I really liked the rodízio concept and it definitely brings the idea of a buffet to the next level.
At this point, it might sound like I was carried away with all the food. That is somewhat true but I see food as a way for me to connect with the local culture. I have tasted a lot of different food items in Brazil. Some of which I don’t even know the name because I either ate it at the self-serve restaurant or randomly ordered at a restaurant.
Redemption for Brazil
The point I am trying to make here is that through the experience I had with Brazilian food and interaction with everyday people here in Brazil is proving that the reality depicted on the internet is not the actual reality. Forbes can say all they want about Brazil being the ‘muder capital’ of the world (Recife being one of the cities) but the true fact is that as a tourist, I am far from the places where serious crime is taking place.
I admit, even after being in the Brazil for well over a month, I still feel a slight bit insecure walking on the streets. I still dare not use my phone on the streets without being paranoid about my surroundings. And I still keep my hands in my pockets to prevent people from robbing me.
These are all valid worries but at the end of the day, the trust and friendship from the Brazilians I met here help balance my mental mindset. I feel confident because of them. And in some ways, they are more welcoming than some Americans that I have met during my time in the US.
Was it worth it?
I’m ending this entry by answering the question that I had since the start of all of this. The question is, ‘Is this the first and last time I’ll come to Brazil’.
My answer to that question is a firm NO. That’s not something I would have said when I first passed the Brazilian immigration at São Paulo airport. But this experience managed to convince me to look beyond the surface and just embrace something (or some place).
Brazil allowed me to experience what it feels like to have culture shock. Going to a place where you know nobody and not speak or understand the language is a hard experience to go through. At the start, I was really counting the days till I fly back home. Culture shock is something that I never really experienced when I first came to the US because I had a good command of English and I was well aware of the American culture.
Thank you for everything Brazil (Recife), I don’t know when I will come back but it has been a joy ride for me.