The land of samba: insights from my recent trip to Brazil

A few blog posts ago, I wrote a quick note from Brazil as I was on a business trip on behalf of the company I work for in San Francisco. I kept in mind a few things about Sao Paulo that really caught my attention on this trip because I realized that despite various trips I had taken previously to the country, there were just some that completely escaped my all-too-analytical eye. I thought about why this could be and it occurred to me that perhaps I never gave Sao Paulo much mind (aside from the agonizing traffic and congestion) because I always looked at it from the eyes of someone who grew up in San Francisco. After all, what could be better? Picturesque city where the liberals and conservatives alike have seen it all.

After living in Santiago for a little over a year, I landed in Sao Paulo only to realize a fraction of a second later that I LOVE IT THERE! Obviously this outrageous claim comes from someone who lives here, not there and it’s coming from someone who didn’t have to partake in any of the bad things about the city (namely the traffic and the crime.) Furthermore, I was living in a hotel. Ease and plush included. Adding in the fact that I ate out at every dining chance and that my dinners were initiated by a caipirinha each time, you’ve got to ask yourself, what’s not to love about that country?

Here are some reasons why Brazil has a gold star next to it in my book, despite having taken this long (about eight trips) to appreciate it for all it’s worth:

Have you met happier people? It’s true that one of the first things I learned to appreciate about Brazilians is how happy they always seem. They could have been sitting in traffic, NOT MOVING AT ALL, for a complete hour and still, they arrive at their destination with a smile. And even if they’re upset about something, a lighter view on the topic is never far behind (“Aw, it will be all right. Probably just my turn in the day to sit in it. When I head home it won’t be the same.”) Whereas, in the same situation, I’ve been known to throw down a few f-bombs, laced with a little shiz-nat here and a d*mmit there. They’re always smiling, always cracking jokes, always finding the lighter side of the coin. It’s amazing and inspiring. Why can’t I be like that? Why do I take a sour situation and turn it into the worst, life-altering, apocalyptic situation that could have possibly befallen anyone? Whereas they take the same sour situation and turn it into Spanish Fly, offer it around and start a party! I’ve decided I needed a little more of them and a little less of me in said situations.

By far, they’re the most diverse group in the entire region. True story. It turns out that they’re history brought people from far and wide to their ginormously large country and as a result, one sees people that are dark, or light brown, or pale and blonde or … aisan! Specifically, Japanese or Japanese descent. The point being that they aren’t a homogeneous crowd, at least not in Sao Paulo which is an EXTREME 180 to the reality you find in Santiago, where pretty much everyone has dark brown hair (or regular brown hair), stands at about 5 foot 3 and shops at Falabella. Oh and Chileans only wear black, brown or gray AND they wear boots until about October. Open-toed shoes are unheard of before then, as is going sockless. Because of this diversity, they too are the kind of people who have seen it all – kind of how I equate San Franciscans. What does that translate to? Brazilians DON’T STARE!! They probably don’t stare because they have either seen someone 1) prettier than you, 2) uglier than you 3) fatter than you 4) just overall better/worse than you. Do you know what a relief that is for someone who comes from California to live in a foreign country? The fact that not one person stared at me – not at my shoes, clothes, hair, make up, bag, iPhone, etc – seriously had me as a happy as a clam! I could just blend in the way I always remember blending in. Sure that might sound boring and sad, but it’s not. In fact, after a year of living in Santiago, I find it boring and sad that EVERYTHING seems to catch their attention and everything is “novedoso” (or newsworthy) either because it’s weird or because it’s cool. I miss the anonymity the States grant you and appreciate the anonymity Sao Paolo lent me while I was visiting that week. Upon returning to Chile, since I’ve been trying to enforce observation #1 listed above, I’ve tried to conquer the overwhelming feeling I get to b*tch slap obnoxious starers. So far, it’s going ok. No one’s been hit this week.

So here’s another theory: because Brazilians have it all and have, as a result, seen it all, what else does that translate to? Brazilian fashion is, in a word, awesome. Whether awesomely atrocious and weird or awesomely fabulous, it definitely makes its mark and it invites you to view colors, lines and styles in a way that might blow the minds of the average Chilean. It blows my mind and I lived in California all those years – of course I’ve seen weird stuff! But really, the fashion and the designers themselves, speak quite a lot to the country’s diversity and it’s a shame that Chile can’t make a home for local designers in the same manner. Raise your hand if you’re sick of including Saville Row as the one-true Chilean designer? Word.

But here’s what I find most attractive about Brazil: the confidence that exudes from the majority of the Brazilian women. A confidence, that from what I can tell, isn’t laced with envy towards anyone else. This observation actually struck a chord with me some time ago – about 5 years ago actually. I went to Rio de Janeiro on business with my boss and since we had an afternoon free, we went to Copacabana Beach. I remember seeing the quintessential itsy-bitsy bikinis that have become infamous and synonymous with Copacabana and Ipanema beaches… except I saw these bikinis on women who were … “entraditas en carne” or as we say in English “big-boned” (in short, a nice way to say that someone was slightly overweight, to say the least.) My first reaction is one that I’m now ashamed of since it slaps me across the face as quite typical – something I hate. My first reaction was a snotty, obnoxious “Ew. WHAT is she wearing? She shouldn’t be wearing that.” That reaction lasted all of five minutes and here’s why: as I watched these women, one in particular, move gracefully from their towels, to the ocean, speaking casually to their neighbor, laughing and soaking in the sun, I realized how completely, wonderfully, 100% relaxed they were in their own skin. That is something that I’ve seen very few women pull off, no matter how thin they are or how great their boobs look in a bikini top. In fact, TO THIS DAY, I conjure up images of this one particular woman just to remind myself that confidence doesn’t come from six pack abs (which I don’t have), sculpted legs and perky breasts (which, sadly actually, I don’t have either). It comes from somewhere else … somewhere called Brazil…

Of course, it’s not like I’m packing my bags and about to hop a plane to Sao Paulo hoping to start my life anew yet again (Egads, no! I’m just now getting accustomed to living in Chile.) But the few things I pointed out above really make Brazil stand out in a way that Chile can’t possibly aspire to achieve. Not that Chile is worse in comparison. It’s like I told my professor the other day when he asked me about my Finance final … I told him “Hey, I have many strengths. Numbers happen to fall way below the top three.” (He vehemently agreed, much to my disappointment.) But this blog isn’t about Chile’s strengths, as some of the top things about living in Chile were well documented back in May. This is about my newly-found appreciation for Brazil and my hope to highlight some of what makes that country and its people so refreshing.

But you know me … a little dark, a little pessimistic, a little rebellious …Here’s what’s super weird about Brazil (again, just some minor points.)

  • Avocados don’t make the list of what they would consider top foods in their diet. In fact, most Brazilians have eaten avocados with SUGAR! Yes, as in a dessert. That, or their mothers used to mix the avocado with MILK and serve it in a smoothie. Coming from a country and a culture where avocados (“paltas”) are like the Emperor’s Child and we all form circles around it to show our gratitude and awe, this to me is really, really weird. The “churrascarias” (Brazilian steakhouses) have amazing salad buffets … yet are missing one, crucial element. The palta. Nope, Brazilians just don’t do their salads (or their salty’s in general) with avocado. Homey’s don’t play that. I wonder how the Chileans who live there adapt?? (Seriously I can’t begin to emphasize how much of this fruit Chileans eat.)
  • Pedestrians REALLY don’t have the right of way. Ever. I used to think that it was just Latin Americans, or specifically Chileans, who were so rude about pedestrians, but now in comparison I really believe that Chileans are quite courteous to the two-footed beast crossing the street. In the U.S. our noses are rubbed into the notion that pedestrians always have the right of way, whether we like it or not. Yeah in Brazil this never holds true, EVEN IF, you have a green light. For instance, I was crossing the street, green light in my favor, as cars begin to turn left and of course, I almost got hit. Not once, but twice. That was my first day in Sao Paulo. By the last day I took to watching the locals who only crossed the street when NO CARS were coming. Screw the light. This little morsel might save your life in Brazil so, seriously, I advise you to take heed. Watch the locals and do as they do!! Don’t go thinking that just because you have a green light means you’re entitled to walk. Or live, for that matter.
  • Personal space doesn’t exist in the world of the Brazilians. This is huge for Americans. We like our personal space. And since I’m kind of Latin, even I used to cross comfort zones when merely talking to someone else… however Brazilians take it to a whole other level and this, on many occasions, gets awkward. They speak much closer than I’m used to, use hand gestures that invade “my” space and generally tend to be all up in my grill (really close to my face.) I’m not saying that Chileans are keen on respecting the space of others, but in comparison to the general experience I’ve had in Brazil, I have enough space to set up camp for a night or two here in Chile. Brazil’s notion of personal space only allows for tenement camps.

I feel like Brazil is a must-do regardless of the good and the bad. Actually BECAUSE the good and the bad combined make it such a unique place and because I feel (and again, my own humble opinion) it offers more diversity than I’ve seen since the Meatpacking District circa 1990s (during it’s peak transition period.) Or perhaps I’m just once again projecting what I’d want on to others. In fact, I guess if you’re coming from a pretty diverse area, seeing only Chileans or only Argentinians or only Peruvians is just what one might want. Maybe that’s why I never really regarded Brazil as diverse as I see it now when I lived in California and worked in San Francisco. But man, oh man. Try living in the most homogeneous of societies and watch how quickly you begin to miss people who look different than you, act different than you, are extreme and weird or sophisticated and priceless.

Hmmm. Extreme might just be the word here. The idea that something is so far beyond the norm, it stands out to infinity and beyond (Buzz Light Year style).

Yeah … I miss that feeling of seeing the extreme and not batting an eyelash.

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My anti-Chile moments

Earlier I tweeted the following: “Totally disgruntled today. Am completely anti-Chile and it’s dumb bureaucracy. Today.”

I’ve been living here since July 18th and in a few more days, it will officially be five months since I’ve moved here. I lived through the freezing cold weather that July embraced me with upon setting foot here and I’ve learned to do the every day things that are part of living in Chile (i.e. weighing your produce BEFORE the checkout counter in the supermarket.) I’ve branched out and met some great people and dare I say I have a social life. In short, I’ve done well enough in my five months here that I feel like my fights with Chile are becoming minimal.

Oh, but sometimes … SOMETIMES Chile and I still have it out.

Back in October, a fellow gringa friend and blogger wrote about three things she’ll never get used to in Chile. I am completely on board with ALL THREE of those points because from a gringa perspective, those three are one of the hardest adjustments to living here. Usually the banks closing at 2 isn’t a big deal for me because I work from home and as such I do have the luxury to stand in line at the bank on any given day without my boss breathing down my neck as to where I’ve been for the past two hours (in line at the bank!)

In lieu of the bank bit, I’d like to add the following points. For whatever reason, today, I was thoroughly annoyed and DISGRUNTLED over these Chilean idiosyncrasies.

1) There are just way too many people in too small a space. Namely Jumbo (the GINORMOUS supermarket chain owned by Cencosud in Lat Am.) My Jumbo (everyone here has “their own” supermarket, meaning, where we generally shop) is like a Costco – most Jumbos are, hence the name. Imagine Safeway, but five times bigger, and with about 40-50 checkout stands. Yet, PRAY TELL, how on Earth do they cram – oh, 250,000 people – in one store?? There is no such thing as maximum capacity in Chile. It’s like what I’ve been told the subways are like in Tokyo. They actually have people on the platforms who CRAM the commuters into the trains. Yes, this is someone’s JOB! That’s what shopping at Jumbo is like, sans the person paid to cram people into the store. Except unlike most commuters on a packed train, I’m actually wielding a cart, my “green” supermarket totes (save the Earth!) AND trying to find food that’s remotely familiar to me! And this is when I’m not having to take a number for the deli, the bread or the sweets OR having to weigh my produce. I’m just saying there’s a lot to consider once I get myself into the Jumbo and it doesn’t help that there are TOO many people with once cart each, leaving them here or there, and stopping to argue over a kilo of tomatoes!! Grrrrrr!!!!

2) Customer service here is the equivalent of going into a store and having each experience be JUST LIKE your visit to the DMV. It doesn’t matter really where you go (ok, MOST of the time, not always) or how much you’re paying. More likely than not, the person helping you doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t like you, thinks your question is dumb, or some combination of all of the above. Now, that’s just a normal circumstance for any given Chilean. Add the element of being a foreigner and speaking with an accent (because apparently I have an accent I’ve been told. Who knew?) AND not knowing how things work half the time and viola – I’m everyone’s favorite customer! Needless to say, my shopping/customer service encounters are never truly stellar.
Just last week I went to a wedding dress boutique to try on dresses, and the owner proceeded to point to my stomach and tell me that “that” (the fat, I guess??) was the result of “too much rice and too many sweets.” Then, when she helped me put on a dress, she pinched my back fat and told me to get rid of it. Oh, and THEN she told me that each dress cost over $1 million pesos (USD$2,000). See? Mo’money doesn’t mean better service. Bottom line is that you just CAN’T expect service that’s above and beyond and no amount of money can make that happen for you. This is a hard pill in good ol’ She-lay.

3) The aforementioned blog from October touched on this but I have to include it in this post because it’s a constant source of grief for me here: the staring. Apparently Chileans (man, woman and child) NEVER GOT THE MEMO THAT IT’S IMPOLITE TO STARE. A couple of weeks ago I was going to a fellow gringa friend’s apt and as I got to the corner, about to cross the intersection, the light turned red so I stopped. Next to me, an older woman in her mid-to-late 60s pulls up (mind you, IN my personal space, but whatevs) and proceeds to blatantly stare at me. I wasn’t wearing anything “weird” and I wasn’t even walking about with no make up on or anything that might remotely cause alarm. I was just standing there, minding my own business, listening to my iPod and waiting for the light to turn green so I could continue on my merry way. And she just stared. And stared. First up to my face (profile since I didn’t actually LOOK at her though I should have), then down to my toes. She stayed with my toes for a while because they’re bright red and here in Chile it’s not a widespread custom to have your toes painted. In fact she stayed with my toes so long that I finally concluded that she was trying to peg me as a prostitute. Not one that was prostituting there on that corner that very second (in her mind) but one who most likely did so at night and that I was just going about my day “normally” during the hours the sun was out. The reason I concluded this is because after the toes, she once again stared at my profile, but then, scrutinizing. Trying to understand what kind of person I was and why I was on that corner next to her. How dare I be there?? ….Well, at least I’d like to think she was doing all that thinking about me. She stared far too much and for far too long for me to feel comfortable knowing she just stared for the simple act of staring. The staring is so obvious and so frequent and so rude, that each time I just have to look the person in the eye and either ask “what” or “Can I help you?” And every time, the person gets nervous, fumbles about and says something lame. In the U.S. we’re taught that it’s rude to stare and if we do stare, knowing that it’s rude to do so, it has to be something PRETTY MAJOR or REALLY different for us to justify the staring bit. Here apparently something as simple as being taller (which is easy in a country where a woman’s average height is between 5′ and 5’2″) or wearing red nail polish on your toes, gives people free reign to stare at you for at least three minutes straight.

I could go on with several more points (i.e. I made a dentist appointment for a teeth cleaning only to be called in for two minutes while the dentist KIND of reviewed my teeth and then proceeded to tell me to come back for two-part cleaning at later dates. Even Gonzalo thought this was dumb) but the thing is, Chile really isn’t a bad country to call home. I don’t want to give the idea that I hate living here, either. I don’t. I have a great life here and I would recommend that most people try living down here if they have the option to do so. But yeah it’s annoying sometimes and yeah, the culture differences repeatedly hit you like one brick after another smashing around you. From my point of view, considering how and where I grew up, sometimes Chileans have really weird and backwards ways of doing things. Sometimes they have forward thinking ways of doing things.
But the purpose of my blog is to highlight what it’s like to LIVE here and my adjustment to life here. And trust me, the backwards highlights always make for a more colorful entry. But once I’m done with that said entry, I’m neutral again, and my anti-Chile stance just melts away until I’m back to being Andrea in Chile.

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